Military intervention in Libya, like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is dividing public opinion. Many critics see all three as part of the same neo-imperialist project – to install puppet governments and assert western domination over oil supplies.The problem with "liberal-left" responses to the civil war in Libya and the NATO intervention is that attempts to explain why the war is happening and why the Western powers are involved always involves looking at the "motivation" of the Great Powers as if its either "all about oil" or a genuine humanitarian response.
That certainly seems to be the view of Tariq Ali and many who post in the Guardian's comment threads. A constant refrain is that the conflict in Libya is "all about oil".
But the dividing lines over Libya are not exactly what they were with Iraq. Significant voices that opposed the invasion of Iraq are more equivocal about intervention in Libya or even support it.
Professor Juan Cole, one of the most prominent American critics of the Iraq war – and who still calls it illegal – takes an entirely different line on Libya. At the end of March, he wrote on his blog:
"The Libya intervention is legal and was necessary to prevent further massacres and to forestall a threat to democratisation in Tunisia and Egypt, and if it succeeds in getting rid of Qaddafi's murderous regime and allowing Libyans to have a normal life, it will be worth the sacrifices in life and treasure. If NATO needs me, I'm there."
In 2002, Hussein Ibish, of the American task force on Palestine, described war in Iraq as unnecessary, dangerous and completely unjustified. Last week, in contrast, he was robustly defending "Obama's limited engagement in Libya".
Intervention in Iraq was also widely opposed by the Arab public (as well as some of their leaders) and there were serious legal questions as to whether the UN security council had actually authorised war.
In Libya, the humanitarian aspect was more clear-cut and less complicated by other factors. The Gaddafi regime had made explict threats against its population and there were reasonable grounds for believing a bloodbath would ensue.
Also, between the outbreak of the conflicts in Iraq and Libya, the UN had adopted the principle of "responsibility to protect" (supported by various humanitarian organisations) and, in effect, Libya was the major first test of its effectiveness.
Another difference in the case of Libya is that the balance of Arab opinion favoured intervention and the security council clearly authorised it (by "all necessary means"), even if there are disagreements as to whether that includes targeting the Gaddafi regime.
Unlike the runup to the war in Iraq, the Libyan crisis blew up suddenly – which weakens the idea that intervention was part of some preconceived western strategy (despite many claims to the contrary). Unlike George Bush, Barack Obama was initially reluctant to get involved.
Chris Doyle of CAABU acknowledges that oil may have been a background factor, but doesn't see it as the main one. "If Libya has no oil there would be very little interest, but I'm not convinced it's about an oil grab," he said.
The truth is that the far left ( that is those who espouse the StWC line such as Galloway, Pilger, Milne, Ali etc ) have reduced the military intervention in Libya on the side of the rebels only to some form of atavistic oil grab, one that will benefit oil corporations, the elites and the politicians. i.e "rapacious power" as Pilger calls it.
Aside from the fact that the Western powers did not directly cause the crisis in Libya, though Blair had decided to re-establish relations with Gaddafi in 2004 with lucrative oil and arms deals negotiated, the far left fail to grasp the fact that if all conflicts are about oil, then what alternatives to oil can be found.
The decision to invade Iraq in 2003 as David Strahan documents in his Last Oil Shock was undertaken mostly due to "geostrategic desperation", the fact North Sea oil production peaked in 1999, the high price of petrol causing the road haulier strike of 2000 and the public backing the oil tank drivers.
The contradiction is clear: most people who might even declare themselves anti-war are in their lifestyles dependent upon diminishing supplies of oil and gas. Seeing only guilty corporations and foolish politicians as the reason for blundering into wars from Iraq to Afghanistan and now Libya is facile.
Paradoxically, the radical criticism that the decision to get "regime change" Libya or Iraq is "all about oil" is not just obvious but it is also re-assuring and comforting. The myth is by getting rid of these corrupt politicians and "warmongers" and challenging corporate power "we" can change the world.
This line of reasoning appeals to infantile consumers of radical theories and evades the obvious fact that in the boring consumer wastelands of lands such as Britain, with its motorway towns, demand for supermarket produce all year round and low petrol prices, cheap oil must flow.
So wars such as Iraq and being drawn further into the Libyan quagmire ( "mission creep" ) are essentially conflicts over the oil needed to preserve the consumer lifestyles even anti-war activists take for granted ( unless as individuals they have stopped driving, never fly EasyJet and refuse to buy out of season fruit ).
The stark fact is that unless the West reduces its dependence upon oil , then there will be more military interventions to secure oil supplies and, the logic of strategists in the West is that if the West does not secure the oil, then China will without even the pretence of trying to promote democracy.
The reason the Western powers have not tried to push "regime change" in Bahrain is that though the regime has murdered protesters demanding democracy, if it is seen to back them too much then the Saudi regime will feel threatened too and this could effect oil supplies.
A large oil price shock would hit the already faltering economic recovery happening in the wake of the global economic crash of 2008 and no Western government, which serves both the powerful and has to take into account democratic popular opinion, is likely to call for regime change in the Arabian Peninsula.
Libya is not a "oil grab" as the invasion of Iraq was if by "grab" there is the sense of trying to get rid of Gaddafi just to control it all, which would be impossible anyway given Russian and Chinese stakes in the oil field blocks. It is an intervention to secure one of the most important oil supplies to Europe.
Partly, this is about energy diversification and the fact that Gaddafi had lost control of Libya and besides his armies seeming set to create bloodshed in Benghazi, the calculation no doubt was prior to intervention that this would in any case lead to a major source of the world best quality low sulphur oil being disrupted.
"Democratic Geopolitics" is formulated according to the idea of enlightened self interest, though whether it is "enlightened" is one that has to be judged according to the facts in each case and the record from Kosovo, to Afghanistan , Iraq and now Libya shows one of consistent failure.
Those on the left need to stop providing rationalisations for being "anti-war" or "pro-liberation", refrain from what Orwell termed being a "cocksure partisan" who believes that they can shift the world their way by espousing the correct line or framing the way world events must be seen.
Facing unpleasant facts is difficult. Yet unless what is really at stake in wars such as that in Afghanistan are understood ( and it is about the geopolitical benefits of the TAPI pipeline and hegemony in Central Asia-the New Great Game ) then the future looks increasingly bleak.
To avoid being necessarily embroiled and dragged into conflicts such as Libya, then alternatives to oil need to be found and where possible democracy promoted in Arab nations tactfully and diplomatically. The problem with Western foreign policy towards the Arab states is contradictory.
On the one hand the need to maintain secure oil supplies leads to the notion of accepting despots and dictators and, in Britain and the USA's case especially, in arming them and on the other to try to promote democracy by force or by intervention when its seems possible.
The reason is that democratic Arab states would actually be better partners for the West as China tends to prefer to reinforce dictatorships in oil and resource rich regions without bothering even hypocritically to raise notions of human rights or not using force to repress dissent.
In that sense, China has a competitive advantage over the West as it does not get a bad press for having double standards because it holds to no standards other than getting the resources it wants and not even pretending to be interested at all in whether the regime will be "open" or "transparent".
The invasion of Iraq was an oil grab intended to outflank China by installing a democracy that would be more amenable to Western interests and to lead to the sort of domino effect toppling Arab dictatorships in the Middle East and to reduce dependence upon a dysfunctional Saudi Arabian regime.
Now that has happened as a result of the Arab peoples rising up against corrupt autocratic regimes without Western backing, apart from Libya, the West is taking a "wait and see" posture. Western governments cannot take risks with the oil supply by backing democrats who might fail.
This would only lead to autocratic regimes in the Middle East being courted by China and Russia. Another paradox of the liberal left or many leftists, no less than staunch neo-imperialists, is the illusion that Europe and the USA is still the centre of global policy making and can determine the future of the world.
The left in the West, indeed all those who want a future without resource wars, emergency states, increased terrorism and global proxy conflicts over oil and gas, even the possibility of global war, need to look at pragmatic measures in the longer term to reduce dependence upon oil.