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Oil's role in the Libyan conflict

Commentator David Frum.

Kai Ryssdal: You can't say the word "oil" these days without thinking about Libya and the Middle East. It's not so much that Libya was such a huge producer, it's more the uncertainty over what's going to happen.

Commentator David Frum is certain of one thing.


David Frum: We're never supposed to say this, but look, obviously the conflict in Libya is also about oil.

Without oil, Gaddafi could not have become the kind of dictator he is.

Without oil, Gaddafi could not afford a mercenary army to suppress his population.

Without oil, a Libyan civil war would not look so frightening to the rest of the world.

With oil, we have to worry whether the next government of Libya might revert to using its oil wealth to finance terrorism -- as Gaddafi did in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. With oil, countries that have contracted to buy Libyan energy have to worry about security of supply and the safety of their investments.

Countries do not fight wars for oil. That never makes economic sense. You can buy a lot of oil for the cost of even a small war. But countries do care intensely about security of supply. The possibility that oil-producing Libya might collapse into chaos deeply concerned Britain, France and Italy. Especially Italy. More than one-fifth of all Italian oil imports come from Libya.

History has shown that countries will fight to protect their access to oil. In the mid 1980s, Iran fired missiles at Kuwaiti oil tankers. The United States allowed Kuwaiti ships to fly the American flag and fought a quiet naval war in the Persian Gulf to protect the tankers. The United States fought a full-scale land war to liberate Kuwait and defend Saudi Arabia after Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion and annexation.

If a civil war erupted in Saudi Arabia today, it's hard to imagine how the rest of the world could avoid getting involved. That's good reason to hasten efforts to move off oil. Good reason to welcome the development of oil reserves in stable countries like Canada, now America's top source of oil imports.

But it's also an inescapable part of the answer to the question why some conflicts matter more to us than others. Inevitably, countries care first about their own security -- and energy security is crucial to national security.


Ryssdal: David Frum was a speechwriter for President George W. Bush. Today he's the editor of FrumForum. Next week: Robert Reich. Your views anytime. Click on this contact link.

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