Since the start of the Franco-British intervention in Libya, which was turned into a NATO affair on British and American insistence last March, commentaries on the left have usually interpreted the action as Western imperialism.

It was called an effort to seize control of Libya’s enormous oil reserves, in the guise of humanitarian intervention.

Although I am willing — more willing than most — to think the worst of the motivations of states, I find it hard to see why the Western countries would want an expensive war to seize the oil to which they already had ample access through purchase on the international market.

Barack Obama, already taking punishment on other issues from the Republican presidential primary Punch and Judy Show, had the sense to tell NATO that he preferred to lead from behind. That way he was able to take credit for victory (as his flacks and the more gullible sector of the U.S. press have already done), while allowing the French and British to conduct the principal combat operations, without unduly troubling the Pentagon.

Since the late Col. Gadhafi decided in 2003 that re-establishing friendly relations with the Western powers was to his advantage — handing over the Bulgarian nurses and naming the alleged authors of attacks on American and French airliners, even producing a scapegoat for Scottish jailing — the colonel has been the best of friends with Western governments, pitching his tent near the Elysee Palace in Paris, staying as a guest at the White House, and diligently participating in the CIA pursuit of real or fancied Arab terrorists.

The CIA had already paved the way for this friendly cooperation.

For example, the man who led the rebel assault on Tripoli earlier this month was a Libyan dissident and Islamist veteran of the Afghanistan war against the Russians. Back then, he was subsequently handed over to Gadhafi by the CIA and the British, then tortured and imprisoned for seven years. As the Middle East expert Patrick Seale writes, “His attachment to Western interests should not be counted upon.”

The Western intervention this year, initiated by France, was ideological in origin, deriving from the liberal interventionism Westerners espoused after the NATO victory in Kosovo. Subsequent experience has cooled this enthusiasm, one reason Obama has just decided to leave the Iraqis to defend themselves without the help of uniformed U.S. forces, who will be gone from that country by January 2012, and why the Pentagon now is preoccupied with how to get out of Afghanistan and Pakistan without leaving disaster behind.

The 2011 Arab Awakening has put the United States in a situation of extreme difficulty, far from solution. After years of democracy promotion in the Middle East, and two wars and other interventions ostensibly producing it — while actually forced to collaborate with the most reactionary Arab regimes to promote Israeli interests — Washington in the past year has found itself saddled with one dilemma after another.

Democratic reform in Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain? Support for Palestinian freedom and autonomy? Well, actually, no. The United States is for democracy in theory but finds tyranny and obscurantist government easier to deal with in practice. That is why Secretary of State Hillary Clinton looks so wan and distraught these days, flying from one country to the next, trying to parse these dilemmas and assure conservative and pro-American friends that all will be well, while she is intelligent enough to understand that their days may be numbered, and they may not meet again this side of the Styx — or its Islamic equivalent.

She rushes about — when does she sleep? — because the United States simply does not know how to disentangle itself from this menacing situation. She surely understands that Pakistan and Afghanistan may separately, or under changed leaders, cooperatively turn upon the U.S. while its militarily is bogged down in one of the most inaccessible places on Earth. That conflict, with Americans the target, is possible in Iraq/Iran. And Israel may start a war with Iran, which it will expect the United States to finish. Perhaps it is time to come home. That’s what a lot of people seem to be saying.

But the Obama administration doesn’t know how.

Visit William Pfaff’s website for more on his latest book, “The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy” (Walker & Co., $25), at

© 2011 Tribune Media Services, Inc.


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