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Friday, November 23, 2007

Oil: the third rail of the Iraq debate

Only the "loony left" thinks the invasion of Iraq was about oil, right? Recall what press secretary Ari Fleischer said in February 2003:
if this had anything to do with oil, the position of the United States would be to lift the sanctions so the oil could flow. This is not about that.
Then-Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld said something very similar at the time:
"We don't take our forces and go around the world and try to take other people's real estate or other people's resources, their oil. That's just not what the United States does," he said. "We never have, and we never will.
November 2002, Rumsfeld told CBS News that the confrontation with Iraq: "has nothing to do with oil, literally nothing to do with oil."***

However, in the November 2007 American Prospect, journalist John Judis admits that the neocons and other Bush officials were privately talking about oil interests back in fall 2002. Those discussions were off-the-record, however, so the norms of journalism apparently prevented him from revealing their motives when it might have prevented war.
In the buildup to the war, and during the invasion and occupation, Bush officials, who were eager to advertise Iraq's nuclear threat, were reluctant to talk about oil, but in off-the-record interviews I conducted in December 2002, neo-conservatives waxed poetic about using Iraq's oil wealth to undermine OPEC.
Judis also notes that some former high ranking Republicans have now publicly acknowledged that oil was a driving factor for Iraq policy even before 9/11:
After he left office, former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill recounted National Security Council discussions about Iraqi oil. And in his recently published memoir, Alan Greenspan wrote, "I'm saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows -- the Iraq war is largely about oil."
President Bush, October 25, 2006, put his own spin on the oil angle:
If we do not defeat the terrorists or extremists in Iraq, they will gain access to vast oil reserves...And I know it's incumbent upon our government and others who enjoy the blessings of liberty to help those moderates succeed because, otherwise, we're looking at the potential of this kind of world: a world in which radical forms of Islam compete for power; a world in which moderate governments get toppled by people willing to murder the innocent; a world in which oil reserves are controlled by radicals in order to extract blackmail from the West...
Even prior to the war, however, it should have been obvious that much of the Arab world would see the situation as "war for oil."

Indeed, realist academic war critics like John Mearsheimer argued before the war began that the U.S. would be perceived as establishing a "giant gas station" in Iraq.
The second point I would make about occupation is we have a massive public relations problem in the Arab and Muslim world. People there really hate us. The idea that we're going to come in, conquer that place, bring in a pro council (sic) ... right? ... turn it into a giant gas station, and that's not going to further enrage people in the Arab and Muslim world against us, escapes me. I just don't see how that's going to happen. So I think it's going to make our terrorism problem worse, not better.
In a debate sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations in February 2003, Mearsheimer's frequent coauthor (and debate colleague) Steve Walt of Harvard elaborated:
the point was not about whether or not we were going to war for that reason, it's how our occupation will be perceived in the region, and what its regional consequences will be. And it is I think very, very likely that after we occupy Iraq and after we are there for five or ten years, we will be seen as a quasi colonial power. We will be pumping oil out of it ... not immediately, but after a number of years ... and this will be seen as exploitation, perhaps illegitimately.
It is frequently argued -- even by President Bush -- that the violence in Iraq will not end without a political resolution that includes some kind of plan to divide Iraq's oil wealth. In the latest twist, the Iraqi central government says it is going to punish oil companies that have signed separate deals with the Kurds.

The stakes are very high.

Since 2002, oil-producing Arab countries have seen their revenues triple -- "the number you usually hear is $700 billion of profit."

Somewhat perversely, these revenues provide Iraq's neighbors with very little incentive to push for peace. After all, peace and stability might bring reduced oil prices...

*** In this same interview, Rumsfeld was asked about the potential length of the Iaq war: ""Five days or five weeks or five months, but it certainly isn't going to last any longer than that."

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