At the dawn of the 20th century, America was feeling brash and bold. Having just defeated Spain in a war that ranged from Cuba to the Philippines, it was clear that we were an emerging power. But what was that going to mean?
The 19th century idea of “Manifest Destiny,” which required that, by some sort of divine right, we should rule the Western Hemisphere had faded, but — as the Philippines showed — the temptation of American colonialism was strong.
In that context, John Hay wrote a letter to a friend. Hay began his government career as private secretary to Abraham Lincoln and at the time he wrote the letter was U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom. The friend Hay wrote to was Teddy Roosevelt, under whom Hay would soon serve as secretary of State. In that letter, Hay famously wrote that the Spanish-American conflict was a “splendid little war.”
Judging from our comfortable distance, the ongoing war between Russia and Turkey in Libya is a splendid little war for two reasons. First, no Americans are fighting and dying in it. Second, the war in Libya is a colonial war much like those fought by Britain and France in the 19th century.
Let’s be blunt: There’s nothing worth fighting for in Libya except its oil and regional power, which both belligerents seek.
Libya’s oil reserves of nearly 50 billion barrels are the ninth largest in the world. The country only produces about a half-million barrels a day, and half of that is consumed domestically. A colonizing power such as Russia could increase Libya’s production enormously.
In 2003, Libya’s longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi — seeking to avoid the fate of Saddam Hussein — renounced weapons of mass destruction. American and other nations’ inspectors supervised the dismantling of his nascent nuclear program and his longest-range ballistic missiles.
Gadhafi was quieted, but France wanted Libya’s oil. In 2011, at France’s urging, NATO undertook a war to overthrow Gadhafi on the basis of his past record of supporting terrorism. President Obama, despite the fact that no U.S. national security interest was at stake, ordered U.S. aircraft into the conflict.
Gadhafi was killed by rebels and a factional war erupted. That conflict has been turned into a regional war as well as a war between would-be colonial powers, Turkey and Russia, both of which are directly engaged and are also employing proxies in the fighting.
On one side is the “Government of National Accord” supported by Turkey and the U.N. On the other side, Russia, UAE, Syria and Egypt are supporting the “Libyan National Army” led by warlord Khalifa Haftar. Mr. Haftar has forced a temporary cessation of Libya’s oil exports.
Thousands of Russian mercenaries from the “Wagner Group” — Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “little green men” who conquered Crimea and are still at war to conquer Ukraine — are fighting against forces comprised of Turkish troops and about 15,000 Syrian mercenaries. Russian combat aircraft, armored vehicles and a lot of Russian money are all involved. In July, Egypt’s parliament authorized troop deployments to Libya in support of the Russians. Egyptian combat aircraft have also reportedly joined in the fight.
Turkey’s economy is very weak, so it is seeking oil wealth. Its ships are drilling in waters it claims as do both Greece and Cyprus. That oil dispute is heating up considerably. Cyprus, Greece, Italy and France are holding naval drills in the area as is Turkey. Turkey’s answer is competing drills and bluster. Turkey’s interest isn’t only Libya’s oil: Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants regional power and the possible conquest of Libya tantalizes him.
Russia’s ambitions are almost identical. Mr. Putin has built a relatively weak economy that is highly dependent on oil and gas sales. Taking over Libya’s oil reserves would strengthen Russia’s economy for decades. Russia, having established military bases in Syria, seeks both oil and a strategic extension of power into Africa.
Because both Turkey and Russia are our adversaries, the best outcome of the Libya war would be it dragged on indefinitely. As an Israeli friend reminds me, across the Arab-speaking world, my enemy’s enemy is still usually my enemy.
The worst result would be a Russian-Turkish peace to share Libya’s resources. Consistent with the rest of this miserable year, that appears most likely. In 2016 Messrs. Putin and Erdogan signed a treaty with Iran pledging to keep Syria’s Bashar Assad in power. That alliance wasn’t broken by Turkish forces entering and occupying parts of Syria. The Libya war isn’t enough to break it either.
On about Aug. 20, shortly after Messrs. Putin and Erdogan spoke, the two proxy governments of Libya agreed to a cease-fire. It should be easy for Russia and Turkey to reach a long-term agreement to divide Libya’s oil and territory between them, bolstering both nations’ weak economies. Whether or not they do, the European Union must be very worried because Turkey controls the flow of refugees into the EU. If Russia gains part of that control, Mr. Putin would increase his power over the EU, which is growing steadily through increased EU dependence on Russian gas supplies.
The EU nations are militarily impotent, which makes their intervention in Libya impossible. If they reach a long-term peace agreement, Russia and Turkey will colonize Libya without interference.
Jed Babbin, a deputy undersecretary of Defense in the George H.W. Bush administration, is the author of In the Words of Our Enemies.