Libya and Bullshit

This post is a response to a comment made in passing on my friend’s blog, Forms of Inquiry.

I believe that everyone has as innate bullshit detector. The stated rationale for invading Libya should be making your bullshit detector go off.

It is certainly morally desirable to prevent the suffering of innocents, and the morality of doing so is not contingent on not having done so in other situations.  However, examining the entire spectrum of possible action assuming these values existed throughout definitively leads to the conclusion that stated rationale for military action can’t be the actual rationale.

The degree of violence imposed on the civilians of Libya is not of an entirely greater degree than in the rest of the Middle East. On the contrary, the populous of Libya actually showed the ability to fight back in armed conflict unlike the violence imposed elsewhere. Nor is the degree of violence greater than elsewhere in the world. It pales in comparison to the atrocities in which we have chosen not to intervene.

The distinguishing factors of Libya relative to other Middle Eastern states in conflict with their government right now are its lack of allegiance to the US and the presence of oil. Our navy is parked right in Bahrain while Saudi tanks roll up on protesters. It would be easy to act, but the welcomed presence of our navy in a body of water where most of our oil supplies pass makes it unlikely that we would do so. Yemen and Jordan are allies and have no oil. Syria has no oil, and action there would kick the Iran hornets’ nest. For the millions of people slaughtered in the DRC, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Sudan, etc., our military superiority would make it relatively easy to prevent suffering compared fighting the Libyian military.

Just as with Iraq, the stated rationales of an oppressive regime and a national threat should have lead to a different conclusion (attack North Korea, the state known to have nuclear weapons and prison camps for a starving populous, or Saudi Arabia, the world’s only remaining hereditary monarchy and the nation of origin of MOST OF THE 9/11 ATTACKERS AND LEADERS), and as such, the rationale must be something else.
That something else is oil. Additionally in the case of Iraq, I’ll be generous to Bush, et al, and grant that they actually thought establishing a democracy in the heart of the Middle East would have beneficial effects in the region. With the benefit of hindsight, Obama cannot harbor such delusions.

So when the actual rationale for a military action is to secure oil supplies for a dead-end energy policy and maintain global hegemony, we need not have moral or ideological qualms about condemning the action.

It’s not about owning the oil necessarily. It’s about protecting the oil infrastructure from sabotage by a dictator headed out the door and maintaining supply of a commodity priced on margin.

A decrease in that supply and a corresponding rise in price could exacerbate an already tenuous economic situation. This is something no first-term president would allow, so we can add getting reelected to the actual rationales. Unless you are a hardcore utilitarian and a believer in Obama, getting reelected probably does not constitute sufficient moral basis for use of violence.

We can also condemn the action as deceitful. With the amount of intellectual gymnastics necessary to get to a remotely coherent doctrine under the stated rationale, the dishonesty is transparent. It doesn’t make it right, but Obama’s hand is forced in this regard. As much as Americans would cry without the benefit of Libya oil entering the world market, I doubt they would accept an outward oil explanation in the midst of two ongoing conflicts. The stated rationale allows Obama to appeal to our sense of moral superiority and not piss off drivers anymore than they already are.

I doubt that on the whole the benefits of this endeavor will exceed the costs. I don’t know what the oil price benefit/military cost ratio is, but I imagine for Obama most of the military costs are sunk. We already had all the ships, planes, and missles lying around, so the marginal cost/benefit analysis strongly favors action when the system doesn’t incentivize you to care about collateral effects past 2012 (or maybe 2016). The costs are in the long-term, incidental impact. It piles on to a sovereign debt problem we have no way to solve absent decreased standards of living. It destabilizes a country that may turn out to be worse for us than the status quo ante. It further robs us of legitimacy in the eyes of the world. The emperor loves to keep strutting all over town without clothes.

This is the reality where we currently find ourselves. Bullshit, myopia, and unjustified use of violence are rewarded. Honesty, foresight, and integrity are disadvantageous.

  • James

    I’m not so sure I buy your argument about protecting resources. The amount of oil Libya provides is tiny and mostly goes to Italy (via a subsidiary of BP). I can see a version of this argument which says we act to stabilize oil production in the region and Libya doesn’t risk much destabilization whether we act or not. So they are an easy target for military intervention.

    I think the real rationale is that Barry wanted to back up his rhetoric about engaging the Muslim world and standing up for the people rather than their leaders – whether they be terrorists like Bin laden or dictators like Qaddafi. We led the bombing campaign to show how serious we were about being there for Muslims. Perhaps we were also signaling other regimes that we wouldn’t accept violence against civilians.

    Now that time has passed we can see that Syria can murder its civilians with impunity and that without American military support, our allies are mostly impotent.

    Again, I’m left feeling confused about what to believe. My sense of things is changing rapidly as the situations change. I don’t think the actions taken have made anything better. Qaddafi is still there. Syria is committing some of the worst violence against its own citizens in years. The Arab Spring has given way to the oppressive heat of a Tyrant Summer. Even Egypt looks likely to slip into a military government without meaningful reforms.

    So what good were our actions? I’m left feeling like the half-war was worse than a full fledged war would have been. So now do I support the military intervention? No, but it seems a lot better than what we did do. I am left without the question, What would have changed had we not acted at all? The answer right now is, nothing.

    • Ryan Michael Murphy

      Its true Libya accounts for only about 2% of oil production and it mostly goes to Italy. These facts don’t matter in setting the price of oil. If Libyan production stopped, Italy would still demand oil, and that demand would be displaced on the remaining commodity suppliers. Supply decreases, demand remains constant, and therefore price must rise to ration a smaller supply. I haven’t seen any modeling to quantify price increase of a potential loss of Libyan supply, but Libya’s production certainly matters.

      The US economy is highly dependent on oil and any increase in price has serious detrimental effects on the economy. The first effect is obvious; households require gasoline, and if gas prices rise, then they have less discretionary income for other purchases. With less discretionary income, aggregate demand drops at a time when all economic policy is aimed at boosting aggregate demand.

      The other side of the equation of rising oil prices is more subtle. Oil prices are embedded throughout our supply chains. Oil brings goods to market. Oil makes the plastic packaging for goods. Oil runs the combines that harvest our grains. Oil is turned into fertilizers for industrial agriculture. Rising oil prices increase more prices than just gas.

      Therefore, rising oil prices create an economic double-whammy of rising prices and decreased discretionary income. In tough economic times, I doubt this effect is lost on the Obama administration. They immediately followed up the Libya intervention by opening the Strategic Petroleum Reserves (SPR). They are releasing a million barrels a day for thirty days. Libya produces 1.6 million barrels a day.

      My inference is that Obama believes having both sources of supply matter. Opening the SPR might just be a populist play, but assuming the oil rationale provides a more coherent interpretive framework. Surely a populist explanation of Libya is less convincing than an oil explanation. Who wants another war at this point?

      Any non-oil rationale is not convincing, including supporting “the Muslims”. Like you said, how do you explain Syria? Yemen? Bahrain? He’s an article I meant to link in the post displaying the flailing rationalizations of when the US acts and doesn’t act. The factors going into the decision to invade Liyba surely go beyond oil, but it doesn’t mean that oil wasn’t the primary motivation.