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libya then and nowThe National Review published an article in the early 70s by an aspiring young writer who advocated the invasion and permanent occupation of Libya. His argument had nothing to do with regime change or the health and welfare of the Libyan people; rather, he wanted to change the balance of power in the middle east permanently in favor of the West, and especially the United States. The young man was driving big trucks at the time, to make a living while trying to make it as a writer, and one night was cut in half by shotgun fire after returning his truck to its southern California dock. I don’t think that a connection between his essay and his profession and his death has been made.

His argument was that such an adventure would be 1) easy, taking few troops and few dollars; 2) profitable, giving us control over untold amounts of oil; and 3) a stroke of strategic genius that would give us, contra USSR, a permanent position (i.e. colony) close to the action that would inevitably continue to develop in the region. Plus, it would, with Israel, give us a pincers on Nasser and the Suez Canal and in effect turn back the debacle of 1956. Middle east solved; go on to the next problem.

Actually, he had a point. It wouldn’t have taken much military effort to pull off, and the benefits of the operation might not only have been economically and strategically great, but, dare we think it? The Libyan bad guy may never have been. No Lockerbie, no Obamawar; maybe even no OPEC or bring-down in Iran or rise of Saddam Hussein and a hundred other things if the US and Israel had just had the right positioning to act quickly in concert with short supply lines and less political resistance.

Ah, what nice thinking occurs in over-the-road trucks at night, or in south Chicago community action centers, or in Ivy League conference rooms. Ignoring entirely the response of Egypt, already in the arms of the Soviet bear, or a thousand other political nuances unknown to Americans about the middle east in the early 70s, there is the basic problem that Libya had no water. And what does that have to do with the Oil Can Wars?

It simply means that invading Libya then, for geopolitical rather than “moral” reasons, would have exposed layers of problems our experts could not have even imagined. It so happens that American ingenuity was applied in Libya to help solve their water problems (how many Americans know this?) in recent years by using technology not available in the early 70s to go deep into the sands of the Sahara and bring up real water. If we had indeed invaded Libya forty years ago we would have had a building job that few Americans had the stomach for.

My friend Steve Masty points out to me the Indian city of Fatehpur Sikri, built to be a capitol of something or other in the 16th century, a place of stunning cross-cultural architecture and awe-inspiring planning. It lasted less than a score of years, because there was no water. There is too little water in the American southwest, as well; but at least cities like San Diego have the potential to get the federal government to force Michigan to send it to them before they die of thirst.

Those who really know the middle east understand that, prior to the oil can, prior to Arab spring democracy, prior to everything but religion is that there is this water thing. When is the last time you heard a politician talking about it? What is the potential good that could come of bringing it up? The Permanent Things are not always ideas.

As was true in, among other places, the Philippines, Cuba, Korea, Vietnam, the Balkans. Iraq, we have no idea what we are getting into in Libya, then or now.

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2 replies to this post
  1. John, despite various experts I am convinced that part of the intractable problems of Kashmir is its placement atop the Himalayan, Indo-Pakistani watersheds, but no pundits delve deeper than religio-nationalist rhetoric.

    In the 1970s, the urbane, Roman, free-market economist Dr Antonio Martino (more recently Mr Berlusconi's Minister of Defense) had a witty and wise lecture on the unintended consequences of government action that became almost a party-piece. It included the Manhattan City Fathers replacing curbstones with ramps for wheel-chair-users while, unable to find the curbs anymore, the blind were run down in droves.

    The unintended consequences of America invading Libya circa 1970 may be seen in the US-UK coup against elected Iranian President Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953. Neo-colonialist arrangements meant that Iran got less than 10% from its own oil while foreign oil companies took the rest. Mossadegh explored nationalising the oil-fields and renegotiating the split for needed foreign extractive technology. His prime allies were the religious scholars (who played no role in politics until then) and the left-leaning Tudeh Party. Churchill, Eisenhower and the Dulles brothers paid for his overthrow and put the (last) Shah on the throne. The brutal, murderous Shah remained until 1979, when the old alliance of the mullahs and the Tudeh Party ousted him whereupon the mullahs got rid of the secular, democratic leftists.

    Had the US/UK been less greedy, meddlesome and treacherous, Iran would have continued to sell them oil for they cannot drink it. Their clergy would not have had 30 years over which to become politicised and damn skilled at it. Iran would neither have had its Khomeini-led revolution, nor would it have had to wait until the 1980s to spread education and economic growth to what is now an admirably large middle class, which required ousting the Shah. America-loving Iranians (even still – go figure) would not likely have been pro-Soviet for the Russians were always 'the other' unliked superpower whom their leaders always played against the British. Today, Iran would most likely be wealthy on a South European standard, America's staunch ally, truly democratic and stable. An American air-base there would have removed any need to develop their own nuclear defenses. Gently, they would have modified America's blind, short-sighted and one-sided support for Israel, at least ensuring the Palestinians (Iranians don't love Arabs much) a homeland of sorts.

    Better-informed people than I, living in America and Iran today, maintain that this single US/UK blunder cost 60 years of peace in the Middle East, cost America a prosperous and educated ally, and wasted hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of lives. So, on to Libya 2011. 'USA – We're Number One.' Feh.

  2. Watching our esteemed President talk about saving the people of Libya reminds me not so much of Charlie McCarthy (that other McCarthy of the 1950s) as of Mortimer Snerd, who looks more like him. JFK became the ventriloquist's dummy for liberal internationalism, but this guy has taken it to a level that the Dulles brothers couldn't even have imagined, them having no sense of humor. Whose hand is on his back?

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