Ibn Saud - King of Saudi Arabia 1902 - 1953 by Public Domain
In the great debate over what we should or should not be doing in regard to involvement in the affairs of various middle east nations we are failing to recognize one huge truth. We ALL became inextricably involved on that fateful day when we purchased that first barrel of oil from an autocratic Arab nation. The cheap oil that fueled the second half of the Industrial Revolution and enabled free market economies to act as an athlete on steroids has served as more of a curse, not only to us, but to the Arab people as well.
A century ago no one cared. The nations of Persia, Arabia and North Africa were dismissed as being tribal populations of countries whose main economic activity was limited to the cotton, spice and textlile trades. None were taken seriously as important components of the world community. None even had a seat at Versailles in 1919. The post-WW1 treaty divided them up as "protectorates" mostly between Britian and France. They were an afterthought.
Oil changed all that. The foreign policies, political and economic alignments, military alliances, and corporate behaviors since that first gusher have all mastesized into an overwhelmingly complex set of problems that one could only describe as being a "conundrum". Regardless of the pundits screaming at each other over what we should or should not be doing in Libya or elsewhere, there are serious consequences no matter what policy we pursue. The notion that we even NEED a policy speaks volumes about us and our past complicity in the events leading up to the current middle east situation.
Anyone who believes this is not about oil needs to consider the following larger view: On the one hand, at least as of today, the global economic system CANNOT survive without oil from the mideast. It shouldn't be any surprise that France, who gets a large portion of their oil from Libya, is leading the charge against Gaddafi. On the other hand, the autocratic leaders of the Arab nations know that if the oil can't be gotten out of the ground and shipped it is worth absolulely ZERO, and without oil income their regimes are finished. As is the case in countries like Saudi Arabia, if they lose the ability to "buy off" their people, more populist revolts are inevitable. You don't need to be an economics graduate to understand the strains a situation like this puts on any political solution.
What we are seeing is the possible systemic failure of the global oil-based economy. Add to that the tribal and religious conflicts, the Israeli -Palestinian issue, and the threats of terrorism. The complexity of problems grows to staggering proportions, making the argument over the Libyan "no-fly zone" almost a silly elementary excercise. I'm quite sure we'll be spending the next few months, if not years, debating details of policy and military response in the region, all the while ignoring the underlying larger problem.
We entered the middle east conflict when we purchased that first barrel of oil. We had no "end game" then and we still don't. After decades of intervention in their affairs we want to wash our hands of all of it. It has all become a moot argument. We can debate the constitutional legality of our presidents' military actions, question the loyalties of the rebel forces, espouse our moral and humanitarian obligations, and argue who should be in charge of enforcing U.N. resolutions. We can conduct our polls, square off in our usual partisan entrenchments, and muse about "political risk". We can blame whoever we want. In the end I fear none of this maneuvering will be of any substantial consequence. There are still no substantive discussions or movement towards a world-wide non-oil energy solution. Nor are there any global efforts to insure that policies toward the middle east have at their core a concern for the people of those nations or of their need for transition to a non-oil based economy. We need to recognize that the citizens in the streets of countries like Libya are possibly the biggest victims of the oil debacle.
Whether or not we and our allies pursue a policy of action or of inaction the reality is upon us. It's too late to take our ball and go home. The oil juggernaut does not care if we are conservative or liberal, isolationists or nation builders, hawks or doves. We ARE involved in the Middle East. We just are.