When President Obama explained America's involvement in Libya's civil war, he didn't mention oil once. Instead, he used euphemisms like "national interest" and "strategic interest." Yet it's hard to imagine that the United States or its European allies would be mounting airstrikes in Libya if the African nation weren't one of the world's top 20 oil producers.
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The other conditions Obama cited to justify airstrikes are valid: It was obvious that Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi was massacring civilians and intent on murdering many more. Some form of meaningful opposition was forming. Airstrikes by coalition jets could accomplish something tangible, by holding off or driving back Qaddafi forces. Yet the same conditions exist in other nations, and the West doesn't intervene there.
Oil is obviously what tipped the balance. No U.S. president has ever admitted it, but oil has clearly been the biggest factor in America's activist role in the Middle East over the last 20 years. It's the reason we've fought two wars in Iraq, stationed American troops throughout the Persian Gulf region, and formed alliances with authoritarian regimes in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Yemen, Bahrain, Qatar, and most other countries in the Middle East. Europe, just as dependent on imported oil as we are, is more or less in lockstep with the United States.
So with Libyan-style unrest still percolating throughout the Middle East and North Africa, it's worth asking an obvious question: How much oil does a nation need to tip the balance in favor of intervention?
My unscientific answer: The tipping point lies somewhere between 500,000 barrels and 1.8 million barrels of daily oil production. And that may help indicate where America and its oil-thirsty allies are likely to get involved next.
Libya's oil-producing capacity is 1.8 million barrels per day, which was obviously enough to trigger Western intervention. At the lower end, daily production of 500,000 barrels or so seems not to be enough. That's how much oil Sudan produces, for example, and Western nations have carefully avoided any direct involvement there despite rebellion, famine, and other kinds of turmoil that have killed millions and destabilized parts of neighboring countries. So by this cold logic, it takes more than 500,000 barrels of daily oil production, but less than 1.8 million, to get on the West's strategic-interest list.
It's not quite that simple, of course, so here's some additional handicapping on several important nations that are drawing the West's attention these days:
Libya: Its 1.8 million barrels of daily oil production accounts for just over 2 percent of the world's total output, which has been enough to push oil prices up by $5 to $10 per barrel, as Libyan production has generally halted. It's worth pointing out that little of Libya's oil ends up in the United States. Most of it goes to Europe, which might help explain why Britain, France, Italy, and other European nations have been so eager to participate in the Libyan no-fly operation. But any oil taken off the market will raise prices everywhere, since oil is a global good and any lost capacity raises the demand for oil produced everywhere else. With Americans concerned about rising gas prices, any situation that pushes oil prices up by $5 or more apparently qualifies as a matter of U.S. strategic interest.
Bahrain: Daily oil production: 49,000 barrels, according to the CIA World Factbook. That's a tiny amount, way below my informal threshold for intervention, which is why the West has shaken its fist, but little else, as Bahrain's government has brutally dispatched protesters. Bahrain also hosts the headquarters for the U.S. Navy's Persian Gulf fleet, but that could be moved someplace else.
Syria: 400,000 barrels of oil per day. Syria's hard-line regime faces mounting protests that could become a full-blown challenge to its hold on power. But oil alone won't bring in Western bombers. It would probably take a threat to neighboring Israel or unmistakable signs that Iran is exploiting Syrian unrest for its own purposes.
Yemen: 288,000 barrels of oil per day. Yemen has some similarities to Libya: An aging dictator is facing open revolt, with some of his own military commanders even turning on him. But Yemen has only about one-sixth as much oil as Libya. The presence of terrorist groups linked to al Qaeda raises the stakes, but they've already been facing covert attacks by the U.S. military. That makes the case for overt intervention in Yemen weak.
Algeria: 2.1 million barrels of oil per day. Protests have wracked Algeria for years, though they've become more potent lately. With more oil capacity than Libya, Algeria could become an important hotspot if unrest intensifies or threatens oil output.
Oman: 816,000 barrels of oil per day. Modest protests seem to have calmed, and with oil production on the low end, Oman isn't that much of a worry for the West, anyway. More important than oil is its strategic location, on the southern side of the Straits of Hormuz, directly across from Iran.
Egypt: 681,000 barrels of oil per day. Egyptian protestors got rid of Hosni Mubarak on their own, and there was never serious talk of Western involvement. That suggests Egypt's modest oil production falls below the strategic-interest threshold.
Qatar: 1.2 million barrels of oil per day. Significant energy production and a tiny population make Qatar one of the world's wealthiest nations, with per-capita GDP of about $145,000—three times the U.S. level. The wealth is spread around widely enough that there's no unrest to speak of. But if there ever were, Qatar could very well meet the intervention threshold.
Kuwait: 2.5 million barrels of oil per day. Murmurs of protest seem to have been quieted by fatter bribes—er, enhanced subsidies—to Kuwaiti citizens. As in Qatar, nothing's brewing here. But the 1991 Persian Gulf War, whose primary purpose was to eject Saddam Hussein's forces from Kuwait, indicates the importance of the tiny, oil-rich kingdom.
Iraq. 2.4 million barrels of oil per day. Iraq is a major oil producer, worth two U.S. wars, $700 billion in spending since 2003, and more than 4,750 American casualties. It's clearly within the threshold for intervention.
Iran: 4.2 million barrels of oil per day. That's 75 percent more oil than Iraq, which suggests that Iran ranks high on the strategic-interest index. Plus, Iran sponsors terrorists, seeks the annihilation of Israel, and is close to possessing nuclear weapons.
Saudi Arabia: 9.8 million barrels of oil per day. Russia produces more, but Saudi Arabia is the top Persian Gulf oil importer to the United States, and its stability is vital to world oil markets. Does anybody doubt that the Western world would throw all its resources into battle if that's what it took to keep Saudi oil flowing?
So by my crude reasoning, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Oman, and Egypt are probably safe from Western intervention—for better or worse—unless Osama bin Laden himself shows up and declares he's in charge. Qatar and Kuwait are blissed out on oil money, with little likelihood of upheaval. Algeria is a wild card that could end up like Libya, if its dictator loses control. Iraq and Saudi Arabia are both governed by regimes friendly to the United States, though it would be vital to keep their oil flowing no matter who's in charge. And Iran is the most problematic big oil producer, but it's also the riskiest to tangle with. Wherever the next bombs fly, one safe bet is that the ultimate target will be oil.