Humanitarian crisis vs. ulterior motives

| March 4, 2011 | 8 Replies

Indonesia invaded East Timor in 1975, after which followed decades of brutal repression and violence directed at the Timorese people.   Hundreds of thousands of Timorese have died as a result of the conflict, whether killed outright or as a result of disease and hunger.  In one incident alone, known as the Dili Massacre, hundreds of people agitating for independence for East Timor were massacred as Indonesian soldiers opened fire.   There was no intervention by the United States, and in fact, we continued to sell weapons and train the Indonesian military.   There are no known oil reserves credited to East Timor, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA).    Whatever resources do exist are mired in competing claims with Australia.

Some of the victims of the Rwandan genocide. Image via Wikipedia (commons)

In 1994, an estimated 800,000 people were massacred in Rwanda, or as much as 20% of the entire population (source).  A 2001 National Security Archive report faulted the U.S. in five distinct ways for contributing to the crisis:

  1. The U.S. lobbied the U.N. for a total withdrawal of U.N. (UNAMIR) forces in Rwanda in April 1994;
  2. Secretary of State Warren Christopher did not authorize officials to use the term “genocide” until May 21, and even then, U.S. officials waited another three weeks before using the term in public;
  3. Bureaucratic infighting slowed the U.S. response to the genocide in general;
  4. The U.S. refused to jam extremist radio broadcasts inciting the killing, citing costs and concern with international law;
  5. U.S. officials knew exactly who was leading the genocide, and actually spoke with those leaders to urge an end to the violence but did not follow up with concrete action.

According to the EIA, Rwanda has no known oil resources.

A civil war has been raging for years in Sudan.  Wikipedia notes the horrific casualties:

There are various estimates on the number of human casualties, ranging from under twenty thousand to several hundred thousand dead, from either direct combat or starvation and disease inflicted by the conflict. There have also been mass displacements and coercive migrations, forcing millions into refugee camps or over the border and creating a large humanitarian crisis.

Sign from a "Save Darfur" rally in 2006. Image via Wikipedia (commons).

The United States did not intervene in the Sudan, then or now, other than famously bombing a pharmaceutical factory in 1998.  Before taking office, President Obama said “I will make ending the genocide in Darfur a priority from day one. ”  And yet, hundreds of Sudanese are dying to this day, and yet there is no sign of U.S. intervention.  There are allegations that the U.S. has provided arms and training to some of the rebel groups in a bid to destabilize the region and prevent China, one of the few world powers challenging U.S. hegemony, from increasing their engagement in the area. (See here also). The Sudan contains between 3 and 5 billion barrels of oil, enough to supply the U.S. for between 150 and 250 days.  Or it would be if China hadn’t already made arrangements for that oil.

But perhaps the clearest case where U.S. hypocrisy is evident is the near-unequivocal support for Israel offered by the U.S in the decade-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  The 2008 escalation of the conflict included Israel’s version of “shock and awe”, in which Israel strategically wanted to appear to “go crazy” and cause large numbers of civilian deaths in order to influence the civilian population to abandon their support of Hamas.  Subsequently, Israel enforced a blockade of Gaza, withholding much-needed food and medicine from the occupied territory.  There have been multiple allegations of war crimes against Israel.  Their use of white phosphorus, an incendiary which sticks to the skin and causes horrific burns, was widely condemned . Two Israeli soldiers were convicted last year of forcing a 9-year old Palestinian boy to serve as a human shield while searching for explosives and booby traps during the conflict.  In 2010, an attempt to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza and deliver humanitarian aid was attacked by the Israeli special forces.  Nine  activists attempting to break the blockade were killed and dozens more were wounded.  Six of those were the victims of “summary executions” according to a report from the United Nations Human Rights Council.

In addition to being one of the U.S.’s most important allies in the Middle East, Israel has substantial quantities of oil and gas.  Our unwavering support for Israel has not gone unnoticed in the Arab world.  Suhail Khalilieh explains:

What is happening in Libya today, and the way the world is reacting to it, brings to mind the US and the international community’s stance on Israel’s 2008-2009 war on Gaza.

The term war did not even apply to that offensive as there was no remote equality of power between Gaza and the Israeli army. The shameful attitude of the international community resulted in the massacre of more than 1,500 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, more than 5,000 casualties and the destruction of thousands of homes.

On the other hand, US President Barack Obama was swift to sign sanctions on Libya over the unrest there. Meanwhile the EU slapped Libya with a package of economic sanctions, mindful that 85 percent of the country’s oil production goes to Europe.

The puzzling standpoint of the US — giving Gadhafi an “ultimatum” to surrender his power “without delay,” using words of intimidation in a session for the U.N. Human Rights Council in Switzerland — reveals a lot about the US foreign policy toward injustice in the world: a clear cut case of schizophrenia.

“Nothing is off the table as the Libyan government continues to kill Libyan civilians,” said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The EU is no different, instantaneously imposing an arms embargo among other restrictions. Clinton and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton were furious with Gadhafi’s crackdown on the protestors and did not hesitate to take tangible actions against it.


None of the atrocities committed by the Israeli army have been put under serious investigation since 2000 when Israeli F16 fighter jets were used to suppress Palestinians. The most infamous atrocities since then include the Jenin massacre, the incursions of Palestinian towns in 2002 known as Operation Defensive Shield, and the 2008-2009 Operation Cast Lead when Israel bombarded the Gaza Strip with the internationally-banned white phosphorus bombs.

However, it seems that according to Clinton, only Gadhafi’s regime should be held accountable for human rights abuses, or maybe it will just pave the way for the US and the EU to command a bigger share of Libya’s oil market.

African oil reserves. Data from Oil and Gas Journal, image via EIA.

Speaking of the Libyan oil market, with 40-45 billion barrels Libya has the largest oil reserves in Africa, and the ninth-largest in the world.  The next time you hear about the U.S. about to intervene on “humanitarian” grounds, ask– what else is in it for us?  Humanitarian grounds alone have rarely been enough to induce us to intervene.

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Category: Current Events, History, Military, The Middle East

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is a full-time wage slave and part-time philosopher, writing and living just outside Omaha with his lovely wife and two feline roommates.

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  1. Brynn Jacobs says:

    Congressman Ed Markey (D-MA) says that the reason we're in Libya is for the oil.

    "We're in Libya because of oil… I think it is going to be limited in scope, I think it is consistent with siding with the aspirations of young, more educated people who are seeking a new direction for Libya in the 21st Century, but it all goes back to the 5 million barrels that we import from OPEC on a daily basis…"

  2. Pete Vander Meulen says:

    Congress doesn't seem capable of quick analysis on many fronts so a weekend's worth of action isn't one that endears comments like Congressman Markey's to me. If by "we" the congressman is referring to a coalition of countries, it's a more believable comment than if he's referring to the guzzling states of America since more than 80% of Libya's oil is exported to Europe.

    Still, oil is such a simple excuse / reason. It's one that can mask many another agenda. I have a fifty year theory that I considered valid a decade ago in Iraq, one that has little basis in facts but one that fits demographics and geography (for me).

    I would offer that a militaristic strategy is at play. In Iraq, Saudi Arabia was the key player in the strategy; In Libya, Egypt.

    The United States needs long term land-based terminals for logistics related to supplying its global armed forces. With Saudi Arabia and Egypt each precariously perched to move to unknown ruling parties, the United States needs airbases from which to conduct Rapid Deployment / Deterrent operations toward the East. The two continents on the planet that have the heaviest concentrations of likely opposition to us are Africa and Asia, two continents that offer little opportunity for stable bases to be developed. Our Saudi presence isn't nearly as solid as it was a decade ago; neither can we count on Turkey in the long term. Fifty years from now, the Chinese (and Indian) century will be well on the road to domination, with each country possessing billions of people whose thirst for all things assumed till now to be our Manifest Destiny. Natural resource limitations and avenues for channeling them in the "proper" direction will be each country's mantra. Without bases, the US is at a strategic disadvantage in mid-century so making "a play" at opportune times (now) in key countries positions us to manage coalitions, promote democratization, offer assistance and develop a subtle suite of presence capabilities that serve as defensive measures against interests in the Far East. The United States needs options for its land based activities. Libya offers that: it can serve as a key gateway to the South, the East and a safe channel for shipping, air space and access to natural resources that can serve as strategic reserves for us in the latter half of the century.

    Again, I have no proof, no real studied facts but each time I hear "simple simon" reasons for doing things in the powder keg of middle eastern countries, I wonder if a generational strategy is at play. If nothing else, it allows one to consider the impact of another 2 to 3 billion people on our planet as we humans rush like a Tomahawk missile toward unknown targets.

  3. Brynn Jacobs says:

    Pete, thanks for your comments.

    I'm intrigued at your ideas, but I'm unclear on a few things. I think you are correct in the broad strokes: it seems indisputable to me that Chinese and Indian power is ascendant, while the American empire is declining. However, neither China nor Africa has much (military) power projection ability at this time, and are mostly proceeding through commercial deals with the relevant parties. China has been rapidly securing the rights to African farmland and oil.

    You're correct that Libya is not a major supplier of oil to the U.S. market currently, but that can change as other countries go into decline. Another point to consider is that oil producers are now split between the big 5 oil companies and state-owned oil resources. American oil is not American oil: it's BP's, Shell's, Chevron's, etc… oil. Libya's oil is Libya's, and in an era where the big companies are scrambling to replace their reserve base, opening up these state-owned resources is one of the few viable options left.

    You seem to be indicating that we are in the Middle East for power projection purposes, which seems to be true, but I don't think that you are giving enough credit to the importance of oil in that scenario. For example, a 2007 study found that the costs of keeping U.S. aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf (explicitly to protect oil shipments) at $7.3 Trillion since 1976. That does not include the costs of any military actions in Iraq or elsewhere, that's just the cost of the carrier patrols.

    Further, we now know that under the Bush administration, military action in the Middle East was very closely linked to the countries which have oil reserves:

    You may have heard that the Energy Task Force chaired by Dick Cheney prior to 9/11 collected maps of Iraqi oil, Saudi and United Arab Emerates fields and potential suitors for that oil. And you might have heard that the oil bigs attended the Task Force meetings.

    But you probably haven't heard that – according to the New Yorker – a secret document written by the National Security Council (NSC) on February 3, 2001 directed NSC staff to cooperate fully with the Energy Task Force as it considered the “melding” of two seemingly unrelated areas of policy:

    "The review of operational policies towards rogue states,” such as Iraq, and “actions regarding the capture of new and existing oil and gas fields”.

    It is difficult to brush off Cheney's Energy Task Force's examination of arab oil maps as a harmless comparison of American energy policy with known oil reserves because the NSC explicitly linked the Task Force, oil, and regime change.

    See <a href="http://www.zerohedge.com/article/dick-cheneys-oily-dream?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+zerohedge%2Ffeed+%28zero+hedge+-+on+a+long+enough+timeline%2C+the+survival+rate+for+everyone+drops+to+zero%29&quot; rel="nofollow">here also.

    It also seems to me that if we simply wanted to have a presence in Africa, Somalia might offer a more attractive target than Libya (were it not for oil). Somalia has nearly no defensive capabilities, is wracked with unrest and piracy, and would be strategically valuable to Africa, the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden (and from there, the Red Sea).

    I think you're right in that the scenario planning is based on a "generational strategy", but I think it's clear that oil and other energy resources are a key part of that calculus.

  4. Brynn Jacobs says:

    The Telegraph carries an Op-ed titled "A global energy war looms" which puts it better than I did:

    HSBC has calculated what would happen to energy consumption by 2050 given plausible forecasts for economic growth and assuming no constraint on resources…

    The big picture is that with an additional one billion cars on the road, demand for oil would grow 110pc to more than 190 million barrels per day. Total demand for energy would rise by a similar order of magnitude, doubling the amount of carbon in the atmosphere to more than three and a half times the amount climate change scientists think would keep temperatures at safe levels.

    It scarcely needs saying that regardless of the environmental consequences, energy industries would struggle to cope, and more likely would find it impossible. We may or may not already be perilously close to peak oil – or maximum productive capacity – but nobody believes the industry could produce double what it does at the moment, however clever it becomes in tapping previously uncommercial or inaccessible reserves.

    A rising energy price will of itself naturally lead to greater efficiency and slower growth, but it may well require something altogether more traumatic to bring nations to their senses and galvanise the necessary collective change in behaviour. We are fast approaching an era when energy will have to be rationed. This can either be done in a peaceful manner, or we can carry on as we are, in which case it is all too likely to end up being settled down the barrel of a gun.

  5. Dave Jenkins says:

    A few thoughts:

    – The Chinese economy is certainly ascendant, and it is also in the midst of a growing bubble. The "tell" is the wild thing that rich Chinese are buying, the 2nd and 3rd condominiums bought solely for the purpose of flipping them, and the number of golf courses under construction. I've seen this movie several times before: Japan in the 80s, Korea in the 90s, US in the 00s…

    – That Chinese bubble is going to pop in about 5-6 years. How can I predict that? 1. All bubbles pop at a certain point mathematically, and the China one is no different, when viewed as percentage of YoY growth, and 2) China's population will begin to drop (thanks to the 1 child policy back in the 1970s). This means that the "ever expanding market" in real estate suddenly becomes a game of musical chairs.

    – China certainly does want to "project power" while it can, but that projection is out to a certain limit: the South China Sea, the Yellow Sea, and some of the Eastern Indian Ocean. Put things relatively: China butts up against the 7th Fleet right outside their 200km limit zone, and it pisses them off. They would be happy with getting just the local waters under their dominance– nevermind Africa or Western Indian Ocean.

    - China's investments in Africa are likely driven by three factors: 1. somewhere cheap to convert all that extra cash from the bubble into commodities, 2. Colonial capitalism requires that the investing country puts its capital "down market", and the only place below China is Africa, and 3. China's CCP still enjoys the weight it gets in the UN by lining up all those votes from African tinpot dictators. That all adds up to China investing in Africa, but the US hasn't ever seen this as a 'competition' for Africa because 1. We don't have that kind of surplus cash, 2. US capital investments are further up the chain in products and services not commodities, 3. We have plenty of weight in the UN with or without Africa.

    – As for projecting power: I think we're covered without Libya (fun fact: Qaddafi came to power by kicking us out the first time back in the 1960s). We have a massive base in Djibouti, friendly bases in Crete, Sicily, and Morocco. We have Qatar and Iraq. We rent the entire island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. I'm not denying the military's desires to pick up friendly bases if it can, but I think that would be more of a "reward" after the fact, rather than a driving force.

    In the end, I honestly think this was about being on the right side of history. Sarkozy went first, if anything to show that he can drive Europe into doing something, and that there was no downside: He wins domestic support for showing he cares about "democracy", he protects civilians, and we get to ditch a tinpot crazy dictator that was running a kleptocracy. Look at the way the decisions were made: a slaughter was about to happen in Benghazi, and the leaders realized that doing nothing would put them in a worse position than scrambling the fighter jets (which needed exercise anyway).

  6. Brynn Jacobs says:

    Dave-

    Thanks for your comments, and I mostly agree with everything you said with few exceptions.

    1. The bubble in China is already showing signs of stress, I would be surprised if it lasted another 5-6 years. No telling when it pops though, I never thought this stock market rally would have lasted as long as it has either.

    2. You say, "In the end, I honestly think this was about being on the right side of history." Do you mean for Sarkozy, for Obama, or both?

    I can't accept that this is solely motivated by our altruistic and humanitarian concerns for civilian deaths. If it were, perhaps we would also be intervening in Bahrain, Syria, or Yemen? Why, as I asked in the post, have we been so selective in the cases in which we intervene?

  7. Jim Razinha says:

    I set aside a few weeks ago a piece on China I was working on while I deal with some real life issues, but I'll tease a bit…I don't think the bubble will burst. Or if it does, it will be a small controlled effect and it won't break them. Opinion, of course. But I lived in Korea in the post burst days of 2000-2007 and they didn't collapse near as much as Japan did when theirs broke. Some Western pundits were thinking it was still looming. Korea, like the other Asian nations just got caught up in the Western economic collapse of 2008-present.

    Dave touches on several of the economic points I was exploring, so I'll have to make sure I check the threads here before I resume. I got bogged down trying to validate some numbers (on China FDI in Africa) I found.

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