In the grand scheme of history, the fall of Muammar al-Gaddafi is a very big deal—and not just because one of the world's most awful tyrants has fallen, as glorious as that may be. It's a big deal because once upon a time, Libya was a big deal—the epicenter of a new vision about how the entire postwar world might work differently, with a newly ascendent, resource rich "Third World" calling the tune. The rise and fall of that idea is one of the major forces shaping the world we live in now.
The idea began in a place called Bandung, in Indonesia, in 1955 when a bloc of mostly African and Asian nations, often former colonies freed in the tumult that followed World War II met and announced to the world that they would be a force to be reckoned with. As late as 1969, that was a laughable notion. The five fingers of the world economy, Richard Nixon liked to say, were "a strong Europe, a strong U.S., Russia, China, and for the future, Japan....The rest do not matter."
And they didn't, more unless, until Colonel Gaddafi's coup that September. That spring, Gaddafi cut the allowable production of the largest oil company operating in the country, Occidental Petroleum, from 800,000 to 500,000 barrels a day. This wasn't supposed to be imaginable. It seemed like McDonald's one day deciding unilaterally to sell 40 percent fewer hamburgers—a deliberate act of self-immiseration.
What it was, though, was a strike—an assertion of power against the forces of capital. "People who have lived without oil for 5,000 years can live without it again for a few years in order to attain their legitimate rights." It was one of the twentieth century's great revolutionary acts.
Nixon had never taken seriously the idea that Arab states could or would use their oil supplies as a weapon. In fact, Nixon had never much taken the oil problem seriously at all, nor Henry Kissinger: "Don't talk to me about barrels of oil," he told economic advisers. "They might as well have been bottles of Coca-Cola. I don't understand!" He said that on the eve of the Arab oil embargo of 1973, when OPEC nations led by Saudi Arabia united to write Colonel Gaddafi's strategy large. On October 16 of that year they unilaterally raised the price of crude oil from $3.00 to $5.11. On Christmas Eve they just about doubled that price.
Henry Kissinger had once bellowed at North Vietnam's intransigence in the face of America's B-52s, "I can't believe that a fourth-rate power like North Vietnam doesn't have a breaking point." This was the revenge of the Fourth-Rate Powers. It was to continue, and grow. "Between 1973 and 1977," writes Judith Stein in Pivotal Decade: How the United States Traded Factories for Finance in the 1970s the earnings of oil-exporting nations grew 600 percent, to $140 billion."
Other nations imitated the oil weapon via their own indispensable commodities: bauxite, tin, copper. By the middle of the decade, about three quarters of the crucial raw materials American corporations needed from Third World Nations had been nationalized. And, Stein writes, "After Vietnam, military action was out of the question." Henry Kissinger visited the UN in the spring of 1974, hat in hand, to beg the "Lesser Developed Nation" for more kind consideration; tiny Jamaica, to beg for bauxite; and, just in time for the Bicentennial, to Africa, for the very first time to propose an international, world-government version of American agricultural policy. David Rockefeller of Chase Manhattan Bank proposed "nothing less than serious economic planning on an international scale." (Imagine what Glenn Beck would do with that!) Ford treasurer secretary William Simon cried "we are in danger of compromising our basic commitment to the free enterprise system."
And it all started because of a ballsy cat named Muumar.
Something else started, too. If you are a student of conservative history, might recognize the name William Simon. He was one of the founders of the Heritage Foundation. Most of you are probably familiar with the ways the culture wars of the 1960s became seedbed for the rise of the conservative movement—the Nixonland stuff. Here was another seedbed. It is well-covered in several books you should think about reading if you're interested in the subject: Judith Stein's book, mentioned above; Kim Phillips-Fein's Invisible Hands: The Making of the Conservative Movement from Roosevelt to Reagan; Thomas Byrne Edsall's 1989 classic The New Politics of Inequality—which all narrate the organizing corporate America did in the wake of the Third World resource strikes to see to it that their "free market" prerogatives were never tampered with again.
The rest, yes, is history...
Rick Pearlstein is the newest contributor to C&L. He's the author of "Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus" and "Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America." To complete the trilogy, he's working on a book about Reagan.