Our friend Ziel over at Lying Eyes has thrown down the gauntlet, challenging those of us who have asserted that the war in Iraq is more about oil than preemption or Wilsonian ambition to put up or shut up. The point Ziel makes is that if oil is behind our war in Iraq, why then are we massing support for a war against Iran when we could just normalize relations (or could have done so with Iraq, for that matter) and buy the damned oil, after all. In fact, one could point out that the standing Executive Order prohibiting trade with Iran proves that we are less concerned with oil than with human rights and the security of Israel. One could further draw our attention to the fact that we only import some thirty percent of our oil from the Middle East, after all. A person could structure a pretty sound argument out of all of this, asserting that we have in fact foregone energy expedience in our quest to liberate the world.
But he would still be wrong. Shorn of the rhetoric about freedom and liberation that always accompanies military adventurism, and the mistaking of means for ends, Iraq is most assuredly about the oil, as is Iran. There is a temptation to chalk it up to a confluence of forces: 9/11, oil, Iraqi and Iranian belligerence, neoconservatism. I think this is wrong; it not only is possible to discern a single, clear factor that originates this policy while imbuing the other concurrent forces about it with power they wouldn’t have otherwise, it is necessary and vital that we do so.
The problems begin with the earnest nature of the democracy promotion angle; unlike the specter of an imminent threat from Iraq requiring preemption, this is not a fabrication; but it is a strategy for effecting a durable Middle East hegemony that wouldn’t be pursued in the first place if not for one overwhelming geopolitical consideration that can be summed up in one word: oil.
People point out that we haven't simply seized the oil, but we could never get away with that (though some have suggested we try; as far back as 1975 Henry Kissinger was planting stories in magazines under a psuedonym arguing that we should appropriate the oil fields of the Middle East; this may be where it all began, from a man many neocons love to portray as a defeatist "realist").
We seek to dominate the Middle East not simply to get at the oil but to ensure that we are the preeminent power dictating policy to a world growing more energy dependent on the Middle East every day; a world that is now multi-polar, with various nations colluding to balance American power. We have traded the Soviet threat for a hydra-headed beast that is not yet as formidable but may still prove to be the check on American power that the Soviets couldn't maintain.
We are fighting also to maintain dollar hegemony in the oil industry; as long as oil is traded in dollars, dollars will be the world's reserve currency. This becomes ever more important as the Euro gains strength, and with Europe buying more Middle East oil than us while managing not to bomb anyone there, the challenge from the Continent grows. This might explain a bit the neocon vituperativeness for continental Europe. We also see how badly the Bush gang has misplayed their gambit in Iraq, with oil prices rising and the dollar falling. If this was a case of marital infidelity appropriate would be the old cliche, "it's not the cheating, it's the lying." Since this is geopolitical infidelity perhaps we should say, "it's not the lying, it's the incompetence." Not only was Bush unable to keep it in his pants, once he got it out he had no idea what to do with it.
Take away the oil and there is no Iraq War I, no sanctions regime, no Iraq War II, no plans to attack Iran, no ill-advised, destabilizing push to democratize the region as a whole. Evil isn’t achieved by men rubbing their hands together, twirling their handlebar moustaches and issuing sinister laughs (well, maybe Cheney) as they revel in the damage they cause. It’s achieved by those emboldened by power and hubris who aspire to remake the world, yet fail to see that greed is what motivates the powers that sustain them. Fools, in other words.
After all, to believe that the current war in Iraq has little or nothing to do with oil is to believe that somehow the post-Cold War, post-9/11 reality has rendered meaningless what has been the most exigent feature of our dealings with the Middle East in general and with Iraq in particular since the fall of the Ottoman Empire. One has to ask, why would the importance of oil be any less; Islamic fundamentalist plans to vanquish the West and restore the Caliphate confound and complicate the same old interests. You see, even if you view the war in Iraq as a struggle between the West and radical Islam, it’s still ultimately about oil. I would like to let our leaders off at that but, alas, that wouldn’t be fair. There remains an uncounted toll of dead, the dream of realizing our great republic perhaps finally destroyed, and an American Century scuttled. I therefore propose we bring this thing full into the light, and commence kicking ass and taking names, as they say.
We should judge our leaders by their actions, not their words. If the Iraq debacle has taught us anything, it is that. Let’s retrace our steps (and missteps):
The stirrings of our commitment to use military power to maintain a free and favorable flow of oil begin with the Carter Doctrine (for simplicity’s sake we can start here, though we could certainly go back farther). In response to the Islamic revolution in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan Carter declared, with an honesty now quaint, that the U.S. would view any attempt by another power to control the flow of oil as a hostile act threatening the U.S.
The Carter Doctrine was directed primarily at Iran, and would influence our policy of complicity with Saddam Hussein’s brutal dictatorship just when he was committing many of the atrocities we would later cite as cause for regime change. Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait would change all of that, and while his naked aggression toward a neighbor country would leaven the call to war with the language of liberation, there was still enough honesty left in our leadership that one had to be very naïve indeed not to understand that we were denying Saddam his annexation of Kuwait because it would have made him more powerful than we were willing to allow any regional player to become.
While George Bush the elder may have demonstrated sensible restraint in not invading Iraq the first time, he was far too successful in rallying support for the war with tales of Saddam’s brutality and the lofty language of liberation. Saddam became, in the mind of the public, the second coming of Hitler. This is how his surviving Gulf War I became a failure in the eyes of some; as if by design this would be instrumental in whipping up support for the invasion of 2003. Even now, it is taken for granted that we are all better of without Saddam in power. Says who, I say.
Having made our intentions impressively known to the world with Gulf War I, we then initiated a sanctions regime that managed to keep competing nations out of the bidding for Iraqi oil contracts.
This was the situation when we recieved Paul Wolfowitz’s infamous Defense Policy Guidance of 1992 (enthusiastically taken up by then defense secretary Dick Cheney), wherein he lays out plainly our goal of boxing out any attempt by rivals to challenge U.S. dominance over the resource rich Middle East:
Also we have to place the second Iraq War in its proper perspective, as the culmination of hostilities that began with the first Gulf War, entered a low level phase during the period of sanctions, and was presaged long before 9/11 by the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998. We have been telegraphing this war for over a decade. That it has coalesced with the new Wilsonianism of Wolfowitz et al. that 9/11 set loose shouldn’t distract us.
Our first objective is to prevent the re-emergence of a new rival, either on the territory of the former Soviet Union or elsewhere, that poses a threat on the order of that posed formerly by the Soviet Union. This is a dominant consideration underlying the new regional defense strategy and requires that we endeavor to prevent any hostile power from dominating a region whose resources would, under consolidated control, be sufficient to general global power.
Of course we never intended to seize the oil, and it isn't enough that it keeps flowing; we’re willing to pay for it, but at favorable rates and from the preferred position that comes with our military supremacy. Shortly after the invasion of Iraq we set about working hard to lock in favorable contracts to Iraq’s oil (a process that was likely in the planning stages well before the public knew we were going to war) and establish a permanent military presence in Iraq.
Our now long history of military engagement with Iraq has also been a process by which we’ve increased our military presence in the region from little more than a small base on the tiny and remote island of Diego Garcia (the bane of many a sailor in the eighties, I can attest) and the maintenance of a carrier group in the Indian Ocean (another legendary sailor's lament, the dreaded "IO" cruise) to what we have now; a massive and impressive array of military installations throughout the region. Consider these in conjunction with our growing military presence in Central Asia, clustering forces around sources of natural gas previously locked up by the Soviet Union, and one sees the pattern: energy determines interests, interests that are ensured by military power. Same as it ever was, same as it ever was…
It’s not the post 9/11 reality so much as it’s the post-cold war reality that’s relevant here. In the absence of the old order, U.S. and Soviet power more or less at a standstill, the U.S. has to make a choice: either dominate the region by filling the void left by the Soviet withdrawal, or voluntarily stand down and allow ourselves to become as one among many nations, vying for influence and favor among a new, multipolar international struggle. Remember, it isn’t just the jihadis we have to concern ourselves with, but the EU, China, India, and now a resurgent Russia all clamoring for a seat at the table in the form of favorable contracts to develop and draw from still undeveloped fields in Iraq and Iran. We like being the big hog at the trough. I would find it all much more palatable if our leaders were honest with us.
It’s not enough to point out that we haven’t directly seized the oil fields of Iraq, or that we’ve been content to maintain sanctions on both Iraq and Iran. As Robert Dreyfus points out in this article:
"Controlling Iraq is about oil as power, rather than oil as fuel," saysMichael Klare, professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and author of Resource Wars. "Control over the Persian Gulf translates into control over Europe, Japan, and China. It's having our hand on the spigot."
Current policy in the Middle East is determined more by the absence of the Soviet Union, that once acted as a sort of back-pressure to keep us from overextending ourselves, than by post-9/11 realities.
We are victims of our own power. We don't know how to stand down. It would take a considerable effort to turn policy around, 9/11 or no; especially considering the size and influence of our military and its momentum, created by by the exertions of the Cold War. I submit that there is probably no nation that would voluntarily turn back from the global preeminence we have found thrust upon us; but we should. Our foreign policy should be guided by a respect for the sovereignty of other nations and a healthy commitment to non-intervention. War as a last resort.
We'll survive our new multi-polar world; we'll even thrive in it, if we don't bankrupt ourselves seeking to dominate it at all costs. Coalitions will inevitably form against us; they already have. The more we throw our weight around, the more resistance will be created by alliances opposed to us. We can't expect to remain a colossus forever; nor should we want to. Why have we not asked ourselves: why should we want this? Military might isn't what made us great. Commerce, democracy, individual liberty, industriousness, creativity; these things made us great.
Some suggested reading:
Leon Hadar's Sandstorm: Foreign Policy Failure in the Middle East. Dr. Hadar (find his blog on my links sidebar) makes a case for disengagement from the Middle East. It's amazing that, somehow, this sensible position has been shouldered out of the mainstream debate entirely.
Andrew Bacevich's The New American Militarism, How Americans are Seduced by War details the growth of our military culture and its now tragically outsized influence on policy.
The Sorrows of Empire by Chalmers Johnson.
The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power by Daniel Yergin.