Because it’s the U.S. Army’s Energy Awareness Month, it may be a good time to remind President Obama of oil’s importance to economic security, and the role that wartime leadership and image play in getting your hands on it post-victory. He can’t just quietly outsource and downplay war because it’s icky, then call dibs on victory, as he has just done with Libya. Something has to give.
When Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi was killed in the fog of war this week, President Obama was quick to praise the “strength of American leadership around the world,” while simultaneously bragging: “Without putting a single U.S. service member on the ground, we achieved our objectives, and our NATO mission will soon come to an end.” How magical.
Let’s cut through the spin: By “American service members,” Obama means soldiers in American uniforms deployed by the U.S. military. He didn’t choose those words by accident. Americans working for private security firms contracted by the U.S. government are currently present in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, but conveniently don’t technically count as U.S. soldiers.
There’s nothing wrong in itself with government outsourcing of military efforts to arms-length entities—many talented Special Forces and intelligence personnel have joined these private firms for the higher pay and greater freedom in mission choice. Not all of them are mall security guard types looking to play Lawrence of Arabia. The free-market applies to their performance, with competent firms ultimately getting more and renewed opportunities. But outsourcing cannot be a substitute for strong, top-down, visible leadership.
The flip side of outsourcing is that when the commander-in-chief of the American Armed Forces can say, as with the Libyan mission, that America had no troops in American uniform officially on the ground, while the French were sending both hardware and hundreds of uniformed military ground personnel, it’s then difficult to lay equal claim to the spoils of victory. In contrast to Obama, French President Nicolas Sarkozy appointed himself CEO of this war, made a trip to the region with Britain’s David Cameron, and his secretary of state for foreign trade, Pierre Lellouche, is already making repeated visits to ensure payback.
As much as select ignoramuses will whine that the Libyan mission was about oil, the truth is that Libya wasn’t even on the radar until Gaddafi started getting twitchy during the Arab Spring and clamping down on dissidents. This provided an opening for military action so firmly under the guise of humanitarianism that French leftists expressed the highest-level support for the war among all possible ideological groups in both the United States and France. If oil contracts are now in play, that’s just an perk rather than a cause of war in itself. Libya has to sell it to someone, and it may as well be to countries that share our Western values.
In trying to hard to project a lack of direct leadership and control in military action, as Obama has been doing—particularly in contrast to his predecessor, George W. Bush, who took a strong top-down leadership approach and claimed ownership and responsibility for all military action overseas—he risks putting America in a less competitive position to claim energy contracts.
Power is synonymous with energy and oil. Russia’s Vladimir Putin figured this out a long time ago, and has figured out how to use oil hegemony to build a transnational empire including Japan, Europe, South America, China and the Middle East. It’s also why he’s so obsessed with the Arctic at the moment. Russia’s state-owned Gazprom’s Libyan oil presence is now in jeopardy in the wake of Russia’s opposition to Libyan military action. This window of opportunity should have been a perfect, fumble-free pass straight into Obama’s arms.
Ali Tarhouni, the Libyan National Transition Council’s oil and finance minister, has already said that priority will be given to countries that helped them. Visibly, this includes France and Britain. Less visibly, it also hopefully includes America. Under George W. Bush, it would have clearly and in no uncertain or ambiguous terms included America. That’s the problem with outsourcing leadership, responsibility and involvement. Rewards might end up being equally uncertain.
Image matters, and America can’t afford Obama’s backseat-driving approach to wartime leadership—particularly when oil is at stake.