"We can't be holier than the pope!"
Here we go, I thought to myself.
"America doesn't march into a country to rescue people being abused by their own government. If this were in Saudi Arabia it would never happen. The Americans are good friends with the Saudi rulers and wouldn't do a thing to help the people there."
Next came the inevitable: Libya has oil, so clearly that's what America wants because Americans all drive big cars, which leads them to march into every corner of the world and take every drop of oil they can get.
This diatribe was, unfortunately, from an Austrian acquaintance of mine, but it's easy enough to imagine an American arguing along similar lines. In fact, the nationality of the speaker is pretty irrelevant, because the theme is the same: America is not a force for peace, it is just interested in itself and, above all, getting more oil.
Now, I'm a realist and that makes me lean towards cynicism myself much of the time, but this goes above and beyond cynicism. The arguments are muddled and don't really make sense (I'll get to this below), which leads me to think the argument itself is secondary; it is the point that America is doing the wrong thing (again) that matters. When arguments are left out and the conclusion is the same regardless of the facts, we call this prejudice. It comes in many forms: racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, Islamophobia, and, in this case, anti-Americanism.
The anti-American argument in this case, as is usual, uses some good points. Does America put its own interests first? Sure, most of the time it does. Just as any other country, when it comes down to it, does. Is America addicted to oil? You betcha. Is that addiction a bad thing? Sure is. Would America attack Saudi Arabia? It would surely be extremely reluctant to do so, but the full answer to this is more subtle. As I answered at the time "it would depend on who had the upper hand." This is precisely what happened in Libya. (Read on!) Let's address the argument piece by piece.
First is the oil issue. There are a number of reasons why this argument makes no sense. First off: the world was receiving oil from Libya with Gaddafi in charge. If that's all the West had been interested in, surely it would have supported Gaddafi from the outset, rather than rebel protests that looked to destabilize a regime that had become quite friendly to the West. Second, Libya has a lot of reserves, but the shortfall of around 1.4 million b/d of oil from there can be made up for elsewhere. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Nigeria, and the UAE were set to pump an additional 1 million b/d to make up for most of the Libyan short fall on their own.
As an oil producer, Libya ranks behind the traditional oil producers Saudia Arabia, Kuwait, and Russia, but also behind the United States, the EU, and Norway. Has the unrest and supply cut-off in Libya driven oil prices up? Sure, but so has the unrest in the Arab world in general and, more recently, fears that Japan's nuclear disaster will cause a move towards petroleum as a substitute energy source. It is simply not worth getting involved in yet another foreign military mission over 400,000 b/d of oil. Anyone who tells you that this is what America is doing is missing something.
The next point is about America's leadership role in all this. America has actually been keen to give up the leadership of the mission and have NATO take it on. The biggest advocate of action has been France's President Nicolas Sarkozy, not Barack Obama. It was France that first afforded diplomatic recognition to Libya's Interim Government, long before it had become clear that it had effective control over most of the territory and its citizens. (This is a custom in international relations/international law, albeit one that's been broken several times: Croatia and Kosovo spring to mind.) So why was this guy blaming America (again)? Is there a good reason for the no-fly zone and all the fuss?
As I've pointed out, my acquaintance was right that America does not always get involved when a government is mistreating its people. Two things, though. For one, this is not absolute. America's involvement against the genocide occurring in the Balkans was because Bill Clinton believed it was the right thing to do (and was pressured/guilt tripped into doing something). American involvement in Somalia was also meant to keep peace and rebuild the state. The "CNN syndrome" struck in Somalia, however: images went around the world of dead American soldiers being dragged through the streets behind a pickup truck in Somalia. The American public was clear: if those people want to kill each other, then let them -- get our boys out of there. We did.
America will not usually react to human rights violations with force unless there are additional reasons (like national security) to do so or it is under heavy pressure. This may sound selfish, but the other half of the calculation involves whether or not a change is even reasonably achievable. We cannot topple every dictator, and even when we do, we may have a mess afterwards (as Iraq and Afghanistan have clearly shown). Last but certainly not least: American leaders must consider the costs to their own country, both in blood and treasure. America does well to choose its battles wisely.
So why Libya? It's not national security and, as I hope I've shown, it's not oil. So what is it? The Libyan situation is a simple case of having painted oneself into a corner. The US is acting because it feels heavy pressure to do so, from its allies in Europe, but also due to its, and its allies', actions. When it appeared the rebels were going to topple Gaddafi, supporting them was easy. Kind words were almost all that was required. An embargo was put in place. Gaddafi's accounts in America and (embarrassingly not until later) Europe were frozen. Then the tide turned in favor of Gaddafi.
The US, France, and Britain realized there was wet paint on the floor all around them and that the door behind them had just been closed. They had burned their bridges by making an enemy out of Gaddafi and declaring their support for the rebels. Now the rebels might lose. They basically had no choice but to step up their aid to the rebels. This would have occurred even in Saudi Arabia: If it long appeared the House of Saud was doomed to failure, the West would probably support rebels there. This is because that would be the most likely way to bring about longer-term stability and a quick, and therefore cheap, end to hostilities. They could, of course, fall into the same trap in that case if the tide turned there, too. Such are the problems that accompany marriages of convenience!
It helps in this case that the West is acting under the approval not only of the UN Security Council (in which Russia and China surprisingly decided to abstain rather than veto the no-fly-zone resolution), but also of the Arab League (though the latter is now more ambivalent since actual bombings have begun)! The operation has a level of international approval, and therefore legitimacy, not seen since perhaps Operation Desert Storm under Bush Senior.
So to recap: the US has reluctantly stepped in and taken up a (temporary, it hopes) leadership role in implementing a no-fly-zone with air strikes over Libya. It is doing so in support of rebels against a dictator, but probably would not be if it had not painted itself in a corner. It is acting with a great deal of international support and a UN mandate. It is not about oil.
All in all, while room for cynicism remains about the US and the West's final decision to act, the reasons for this mission are pretty darn good. Whether its a good mission in the sense of the likelihood to succeed, whether it will drag on forever, and how bloody it will get, is another discussion entirely. To imply that this is just another optional war waged by America to slake its oil thirst (or perhaps its alleged thirst for violence) is simply wrong and speaks of ignorance -- or just plain old anti-Americanism.