Category Archives: foreign policy

Libya’s Exports to Europe: Oil and Immigrants

Muammar Qaddafi and Silvio Berlusconi have more in common than their   tastes for lavish parties and sexy young women, or even their notorious 2009 “friendship pact.” Despite being the buffoons of their respective regions, each wields considerable power. And they share a common destiny that revolves around two types of Libyan exports: fossil fuels, which Italy desperately wants, and migrants, which it decidedly doesn’t.

Franco Frattini, the Italian foreign minister, warned on Wednesday that the Libyan uprising could result in 350,000 unwanted immigrants landing on the Eur0pean continent. According to the Italian news site Adnkronos, Italy asked the EU for support in stopping the migrants, who most often enter through Italian shores.

”We ask that Europe do its duty,” he said during a Wednesday address to parliament in Rome. We want Europe to do more managing the flow of migrants because countries cannot be left alone.”

Italy in May 2009 agreed to begin controversial joint patrols with Libya, turning back thousands of illegal immigrants aboard boats in the Mediterranean.

Libyan leader Muammer Gaddafi hinted that he may unilaterally scrap cooperation, warning that he would allow thousands of migrants to pass through his country on the way to Europe if the EU sided with opponents of his embattled rule.

Qaddafi knows all too well how to frigthen European leaders–especially Berlusconi–who have right-wing, nationalist, anti-immigrant movements at their backs. And in normal times, this sort of scare tactic might have been enough to push Europe into aquiescence as differences were papered over in some sort of “reform.” But it is too late for that. Qaddafi totters, and no one can predict what will happen in the region. Emerging politics might at best result in some version of an Indian-style democracy, at worst chaotic Somali-style warfare with faction pitted against faction.

What may be even more frightening to Italy–and to much of Europe as well–is the prospect of losing Libya’s supply of oil and natural gas. Italy gets one third of its oil from Libya by way of the big oil company ENI. The company has already pulled out most of its employees and cut back the flow of natural gas through the pipeline that connects Libya and Italy.

ENI is the sixth largest oil company in the world. It is 30 percent owned by theItalian government, which has special rights to block mergers and sharply limit holdings of other investors. About 11 percent of the company securities are held by institutions including such big American mutual funds as Vanguard and Fidelity, along with Wellington Management, the big Boston investment management concern. The top 10 institutional holders control about 8 percent of the stock. Unlike the other majors, it has most of its reserves in politically volatile North Africa, which as the oil industry goes, remains relatively underdeveloped.

In turn, as Al Jazeera reports, several other international energy giants have stakes in Libyan oil and gas. Following the 2003 rapproachment with Qaddafi,

 European energy firms were quick to invest in the holder of Africa’s largest proven oil reserves, the eighth-largest in the world, while many others signed lucrative arms and construction deals.

Tony Blair, Britain’s former prime minister, signed a so-called “Deal in the Desert” in March 2004, which paved the way for oil contracts worth billions, leading to a close relationship that has come under increasing criticism.

It included Anglo-Dutch company Shell signing an agreement worth up to $1bn and three years later BP agreeing its largest exploration commitment to date, in a deal worth at least $900m in Libya.

A historical footnote: Both Libya and Italy have been important but little-known players in the evolution of Middle East oil. In March 1951 the nationalist government of Mohammad Mossadeq in Iran took over the oil industry from the Anglo Iranian Oil Company, which became BP. The CIA conpired to overthrow Mossadeq and installed the Shah. Then the U.S. stepped in with Herbert  Hoover, Jr., dispatched by President Eisenhower to reinstate the international cartel of big companies that for years had dominated the industry. Iran’s oil reserves were carved up amongst British, Dutch, French and for the first time, American interests. But it did not include Italy, which was entirely dependent on imported oil.

Angered at being cut out of the competition, Enrico Mattei, head of the Italian state company now known as ENI, went to war against the cartel, and after Suez in 1956 he persuaded the Iranian parliament to rewrite the country’s petroleum law to make way for a new sort of production system known as joint ventures. Under this arrangement the company and country became partners, and they replaced the old concessions. In short order, the joint venture opened the way for direct nationalization and the birth of OPEC.

Libyan Wild Card: The Qaddafi-Berlusconi Pact Against Migrants

By Sunday evening, the fighting in Libya was spreading to Tripoli, and the nation’s second largest city, Benghazi, appeared to be in the hands of the protestors. Over 200 people had been killed and hundreds more wounded by security forces, and Muammar Qaddafi’s son, Sayf al-Islam, was warning of civil war, and pledging that the government would ‘fight to the last bullet’ to stay in office.’’

The Libyan protests have been inspired by the wave of uprisings across North Africa, but they grow out of deep-seated poverty, unemployment, and political repression at the hands of yet another entrenched despot. Whether they will result in Libya achieving the sort of change experienced by Tunisia and Egypt is impossible to say, but early signs indicate that whatever the outcome, a high price is likely to be paid in human life.

Complicating matters is Libya’s unusual position in world affairs. Not long ago it was a pariah nation. But since 9/11 it has wormed its way back into favor with the US and Europe because Qaddafi joined the war on terror, cooperating in the Lockerbie bomb investigation, coming down hard on Al Qaeda, and kicking out terrorists he had once sheltered. At the same time, he has steered the country into an increasingly powerful position in world politics because of the nation’s vast oil reserves. Libya has an especially close relationship with its former colonial master, Italy. It now provides about 20 percent of all Italy’s oil imports and has invested in sizeable amounts in that country’s energy infrastructure including the transnational energy giant ENI.

Along with their energy deals, Berlusconi and Qaddafi have agreed to work together to stem the increasing numbers of migrants seeking a better life in Europe. In addition to those from North Africa itself are thousands more moving  up the Red Sea from Eritrea, Sudan, Somalia and other countries. Their point of entry is Italy–specifically, the small Italian island of Lampedusa, which lies in the Mediterranean at a midpoint midway between Libya, Tunisia, and Sicily. 

In 2009, Qaddafi and Berlusconi made an agreement that became part of an open and often vicious campaign against migrants: Libya would try to keep them from leaving in the first place; if they got out, Italy would send them back to Libya without giving them a chance to make asylum claims.

Human Rights Watch has documented the attacks on migrants in a detailed report called Pushed Back, Pushed Around:  Italy’s Forced Return of Boat Migrants and Asylum Seekers, Libya’s Mistreatment of Migrants and Asylum Seekers. Here is but a brief account of the two nation’s in action:

Many of the worst abuses reported to Human Rights Watch occurred after failed attempts to leave Libya. One of the migrants, “Pastor Paul” (all names have been changed), a 32-year-old Nigerian, told Human Rights Watch how Libyan authorities brutally treated him when the Libyans stopped his boat shortly after it left Libya on October 20, 2008:

“We were in a wooden boat, and Libyans in a [motorized inflatable] Zodiac started shooting at us. They told us to return to shore. They kept shooting until they hit our engine. One person was shot and killed. I don’t know the men who did the shooting, but they were civilians, not in uniforms. Then a Libyan navy boat came and got us and started beating us. They collected our money and cell phones. I think the Zodiac boat was working with the Libyan navy. The Libyan navy took us back in their big ship and sent us to Bin Gashir deportation camp. When we arrived there, they immediately started beating me and the others. They beat some of the boys until they could not walk.”

Even without the violence now being seen in Libya, the unrest in Tunisia launched a wave of 4,000 new migrants to Lampedusa from that country. They are being held in Italian refugee camps; but if similar numbers arrive from Libya, they will be summarily–and brutally–shipped home.

In the past, Qadaffi has patched up internal unrest and smoothed over human rights abuses by distributing more money from  energy profits, meanwhile calling on Europe and the U.S. to go easy on their new “ally.” Those on the right, in particular, are inclined to do so because he is a stalwart in the war on terror and an effective force in blocking immigration, a key political issue advanced by the right wing parties across the continent.

Pay Back Time for Mubarak

The details of Mubarak’s fortune are a bit muddy, but according to various press reports, the family’s total wealth runs well into the tens of billions of dollars.

In Asia Times Online, Pepe Escobar reports:

According to a mix of United States, Syrian and Algerian sources his personal fortune amounts to no less than US$40 billion – stolen from the public treasury in the form of “commissions”, on weapons sales, for instance. The Pharaoh controls loads of real estate, especially in the US; accounts in US, German, British and Swiss banks; and has “links” with corporations such as MacDonald’s, Vodafone, Hyundai and Hermes. Suzanne, the British-Irish Pharaoh’s wife, is worth at least $5 billion. And son Gamal – the one that may have fled to London, now stripped of his role as dynastic heir – also boasts a personal fortune of $17 billion. Or some $60 billion. Some speculate the fortune is around $70 billion.’

Should Mubarak skip the country, as Corey Pein points out in War Is Business, he might well do it in a  business jet provided free of charge by the US taxpayers. “Pentagon contracts show that the US government has spent at least $111,160,328 to purchase and maintain Mubarak’s fleet of nine Gulfstream business jets. (For those keeping score, Gulfstream is a subsidiary of General Dynamics.)” War Is Busines provides copies of the actual contracts. Here is one of them:

Gulfstream Aerospace Corp., Savannah, Ga., is being awarded a $19,825,221 firm fixed price contract modification to provide for the Foreign Military Sales Program in support of FMS Case Egyptian. The Air Force provides follow-on maintenance support for the Egyptian Government’s Presidential fleet of Gulfstream aircraft. The program will provide depot maintenance support, parts and material repair, and supply, field team, and Aircraft on Ground or urgent situation support. At this time, $14,825,221 of the funds has been obligated. Further funds will be obligated as individual delivery orders are issued. This work will be complete by November 2005. Solicitation began October 2003 and Negotiations were completed October 2003. The Headquarters Oklahoma City Air Logistics Center, Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., is the contracting activity (FA8106-04-C-0001).

It’s tit for tat with Egypt. Pein again:

When the two military leaders met in May 2009 to discuss “a wide range of security issues,” Egyptian Defence Minister Hussein Tantawi presented US Defense Secretary Robert Gates with a set of gifts. They included a shotgun (with five bullets), a decorative rug and a gilded photo album.With a confidence that, in retrospect, seems dubious, Gates said “he looks forward to expanding the two countries’ military-to-military relationships in ways that promote regional stability.’Five months after that meeting, the Pentagon announced it would sell a new batch of two dozen F-16 fighter aircraft to Egypt—a $3.2 billion deal that is among the most recent of a long string of arms deliveries from America to its North African ally. These F-16s, according to the Pentagon announcement (pdf) would support “Egypt’s legitimate need for its own self-defense.”

In her blog, Sibel Edmonds,the former FBI translator who exposed corruption and incompetence at the Bureau, writes:

This is where our government takes our dollars, gives it to dictator allies, and then asks them to turn around, give that money (minus the personal share for personal wealth) to our military industrial complex corporations. Then, we have those CEO’s with $$$$$$$ salaries, and $$$$$$$ to the lobbyists and $$$$$$ to our elected representatives, who then in turn, sanction giving more money, aid, tax payers’ dollars, to these dictators; and the cycle repeats, repeats, repeats…well, it’s been repeating nonstop for more than half a century.’

Republican Right Offers Reagan Redux

The Republican right’s Pledge to America is widely being compared with Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America. But for those of us with long enough memories, it more clearly harkens back a decade further, to the early days of the Reagan Administration. Now, as then, the Republican agenda has two major political thrusts.

First, the Republicans are advancing a Reaganesque program based around defense Keynesianism, an economic pump-prime through military spending. It signals a victory for the Pentagon generals who have been fighting Obama to further expand what certainly appears to be a futile war in Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan–one that can go on and on indefinitely. Moreover, the Republicans want to fund an expensive missile defense system. Just as with Reagan, once this kind of spending gets going, they will be congratulating themselves on new jobs making armaments. At the same time, they can talk of shrinking the deficit by reducing or eliminating domestic programs.

That’s the nub of the pledge, with one adroit addition. This document makes no mention of reducing or eliminating Social Security. This is good politics before the election, and it’s bound to undercut the Obama administration, which has created the fiscal commission to reduce deficits, and is widely assumed to have Medicare and Social Security in its sights. Reagan did his best to cut domestic programs of the New Deal sort. But in the end, he could never have entirely eliminated them because he always swore to maintain a basic safety net for the old and the poor–and such public pronouncements helped to undermine Democratic challenges.

The pledge provides a focus for Republican ambitions, but most importantly it removes any thought that the Tea Party people have or could ever have any real sway in Republican policy matters. During Reagan’s early forays into the countryside, there were plenty of what now would pass for Tea Party types, but they were largely excluded from the party’s overall direction. Gingrich and his New Right colleagues in Congress occupied the back benches of the House at the time, and they moved within the overall Republican party apparatus. There was–and is–no chance of a popular takeover from the fringes of the party. Instead, Reagan claimed the center, and then pushed that center further and further to the right, where it remains to this day.

Supreme Court on Pfizer’s Pharmaceutical Colonialism

Victims and families protest outside the courthouse in Kano, Nigeria, in 2008. Photo: AFP.

While the media was chewing over the Supreme Court’s gun decision earlier in the week, another significant action passed with little comment. That was the court’s refusal to throw out a case brought under the Alien Tort Statute on behalf of Nigerians whose children died or suffered terrible damage in a Pfizer drug experiment.

The case is of considerable importance, because so many drug companies have conducted tests of new medicine’s abroad in poor countries, using the residents as lab rats in what some have dubbed “pharmaceutical colonialism.” The BBC reports:

The US Supreme Court on Tuesday declined to take up a case examining whether drug giant Pfizer could be sued in an American court for allegedly conducting nonconsensual drug tests on 200 Nigerian children in 1996. The action allows the case to move toward a trial. Eleven of the children died, and many others were left blind, deaf, paralyzed, or brain-damaged, according to court documents.

At issue in the Supreme Court appeal was whether the surviving children and relatives of the children were entitled to file a lawsuit in New York seeking to hold Pfizer responsible. Usually, such a suit would be filed in Nigeria. Lawyers for the children complained that Nigerian judges are corrupt and that the US court system holds the only promise of justice.

The suit was filed under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), which empowers federal judges to hear civil lawsuits filed by non-US citizens for violations of the “law of nations.” Lawyers for Pfizer denied that the Nigeria experiments were conducted without the consent and knowledge of the children and their guardians. In addition, the lawyers argued that the children’s case should be thrown out of court because the alleged drug experiments are not the precise type of international law violation covered under the ATS. What made the high court appeal potentially significant is that the Supreme Court has declared that foreign plaintiffs may rely on the ATS to file lawsuits, but only in a few limited circumstances. The high court has not yet identified precisely which few cases may be brought and which may not.

For those interested in reading more on this grim subject, this long piece that appeared in Der Spiegel back in 2007 provides details on the Pfizer case. Sonia Shah’s 2006 book The Body Hunters uncovers other unethical drug trials throughout the developing world. And if you’re looking for some timely summer reading, John Le Carre’s 2001 book The Constant Gardener reimagines the story as a thriller, with Big Pharma cast as one of the leading villains of the post-Cold War world–which, of course, they are.

Obama’s Oil Decision: Opening up the Arctic

In all probability the underlying import of Obama’s decision to open new stretches of the outercontinental shelf along the East coast and off Alaska  will be to support the race for natural gas in the Arctic. I began writing about the Arctic back in the 1970s, but its import has only gradually come to the fore. Experts think we’re running out of oil and gas, in which case the big deposits in the Arctic are among our last.

Estimates are that below the Beaufort Sea lie 8 billion barrels of oil and 30 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Even if these estimates turn out to be wildly inflated, the lure is sufficient to set off a complex set of conflicts–between the big oil corporations to see who gets what, and among nations–particularly Canada, the U.S., and Russia.

More Arctic gas will require an immense undertaking to build a pipeline down into the lower 48–either straight down into the Northwest and/or through the Mackenzie Delta to the Midwest. Up to now the cost of a gas pipeline has been prohibitive; the Canadian energy industry had planned to use the gas coming up the Mackenzie Delta to turn that country’s plentiful deposits of tar sands  into oil, which could be shipped to refineries around Chicago. But environmental problems have raised questions about this project, and driven by concerns for a clean fuel and overall climate control, the pipeline may now begin to seem more feasible.

There are other reasons Obama’s announcement is important: The rapid melting of Arctic ice has introduced an entirely new factor into this play. To the north and east of the Beaufort Sea, the fabled Northwest Passage hits the North Pacific. At the eastern most end, it meets the North Atlantic, passing between Greenland and Iceland. For centuries this passage has been frozen over for all but a short time during the summer. Now there is renewed speculation the passage will be open and navigable within a decade for big tankers and container ships. This ought to bring a boom in shipping because the passage cuts by one-third the distance from Europe to Asia. Commercial fishing boats will be able to get at vast schools of fish hitherto unreachable because of the ice. The world’s stock of fish has long been predicted to decline due to overharvesting.

In a Vancouver speech in 2006 discussing the Northwest Passage, Michael Byers, an expert in international law at the University of British Columbia, warned of future dangers for Canada:

Canadians should be alarmed. An international shipping route along Canada’s third coast could facilitate the entry of drugs, guns, illegal immigrants and perhaps even terrorists into this country, as well as providing an alternative route for illicit shipments of weapons of mass destruction or missile components by rogue states. And any shipping involves the risk of accidents, particularly in remote and icy waters. An oil spill would cause catastrophic damage to fragile Arctic ecosystems; a cruise ship in distress would require an expensive and possibly dangerous rescue mission. Any new fishery will be highly susceptible to over-exploitation, particularly because of the difficult-to-police location, rapid declines in fish stocks elsewhere and the consequent, excess fishing capacity that now exists worldwide.’

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The World According to Howard Zinn

In his 2002 autobiography You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, Howard Zinn wrote:

To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.

What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places–and there are so many–where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.

And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.

There was nothing naive or sentimental about Zinn’s positions. He had seen firsthand the worst that humanity was capable of, and simply chose to confront it as a challenge rather than accept it as our final destiny. 

In this excerpt from the 2004 documentary also called Howard Zinn: You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, Zinn describes his experiences as an Air Force bombadier in World War II, which helped inspire his life’s work. The “great question of our time,” he later wrote, is “how to achieve justice with struggle, but without war.”

Howard Zinn’s legacy is the millions of people he has educated–and will continue to educate–through his personal example, his writings, and myriad projects based on his work.  Here’s one of my recent favorites, an illustrated video on American empire.