Tuesday 18 November 2014

The Iraq war was not about oil

How many times have you been told that the Iraq war was all about oil? Perhaps an article you have read on the subject also contained extracts from ‘leaked’ State Department documents setting out in detail post-war plans for the Iraqi oil industry? The number of otherwise well-informed people who have regurgitated this line since 2003 is worrying. People in the US and UK distrust their governments: they are uncomfortable about the extent of government surveillance and interference, and they feel that the Iraq war should never really have happened. The suggestion that the Iraq war was all about oil fits conveniently into this narrative. Yet such an interpretation is symptomatic of what is wrong with political engagement in our times: we all have our opinions, but we often form them on the basis of sentiment alone. Saying ‘all politicians are corrupt and in the pockets of big oil companies' is a way to justify our disinterest, our apathy.

This misinterpretation is of course not helped by apparently definitive statements from several establishment figures: "of course it's about oil; we can't really deny that," said Gen. John Abizaid, former head of US Central Command and Military Operations in Iraq, in 2007. According to then Senator and now Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in 2007, "People say we're not fighting for oil. Of course we are." Convenient as both of those statements are, neither of those two appear to have had any involvement in the decision to invade.

The argument that Iraq was all about oil is still in need of correction years on from the invasion. The media, at those moments (such as anniversaries) when it remembers its disgust at the event, shows little appetite for revisionism – correspondents have continued with the same interpretation (see Guardian articles by Glenn Greenwald and Nafeez Ahmed for example). I hope that at the very least this post will convince you to consider the strength of whatever stance you hold.

The argument that oil was the main reason for the Iraq war is based on: anecdotes from figures involved; heavy suppositions about geopolitical power; and interpretations of the unfortunately small cache of declassified documents on the subject. The argument goes something like this - Bush, or in particular Vice President Dick Cheney, sought to invade Iraq because:

1. The US imported over 10 million barrels/day ("b/d") of oil in 2003 and both demand and prices were set to rise;

2. The Gulf supplied a quarter of the world’s oil and Saddam’s Iraq had become an erratic producer and a threat to the safe passage of oil through the Gulf;

3. With production constrained in Russia and in Africa, Iraq – the Gulf was believed in 2003 to hold 60% of global oil reserves – was a good place to look to ramp up production whilst also undermining the OPEC cartel and the Saudis; and

4. The installation of Western oil majors in Iraq and the lifting of UN imposed quotas would dramatically increase Iraqi oil output.

It all sounds very plausible. I cannot absolutely discount this argument, in the absence of comprehensive proof either way, but consider an alternative arrangement of the facts:

1. Every petroleum price spike in the post-WW2 era has been caused by war or geopolitical instability in the Middle East (e.g. the 1973 Arab OPEC embargo following the Yom Kippur war or in 1979 following the Iranian Revolution) and so politicians were aware that a war would raise prices;

2. Any attempt to invade Iraq would reduce Iraqi oil output from its 2002 average of 1.5 million b/d and it would take years to increase it (Iraq only reached 3 million b/d in 2012);

3. Even before the US became a net oil exporter in 2013, in the post-war period China has been the main purchaser of Iraqi oil, importing about 600,000 b/d so far this year; and

4. The Iraq war has cost the US $1.7 trillion so far (although the Bush administration couldn’t have known that at the time) as against annual oil import costs (to the economy as a whole) of approximately $120 billion in 2003.

In sum, no one in possession of the facts could have thought that invading Iraq would lower prices or that it was a cost-efficient way of increasing the supply of oil. The key drivers of price drops in oil in the post-Iraq war era have, unsurprisingly, been the massive falls in global demand in 2008 and in recent months. One can point to meetings between Cheney’s energy taskforce and the heads of US oil companies before the war, or post-war contracts that went to Haliburton (of which Cheney was formerly CEO), but that is not conclusive proof. Until clear evidence emerges, the Iraq war will continue to defy simplistic analysis. Its causes were multi-faceted: neo-conservative ideology; the importance of war to the post-WW2 US economy; the climate of fear following 9/11; and a genuinely held, if somewhat bizarre, analysis of threats to the West (think "axis of evil"). Over a decade on from the event, the fact that there isn't an accepted explanation suggests that the Iraq war will remain an event that defies simplistic explanation.

People are right in thinking that powerful interests wield a great deal of influence in the US and elsewhere, and that the interaction between government and corporate donors is opaque and occasionally shady. However that doesn’t mean that the directors of JP Morgan, Exxon Mobil, Lockheed Martin and Goldman Sachs meet with the President in Benedictine robes to determine the future direction of world affairs. Intelligent people are rightly disillusioned by the fact that they have little hope of influencing such processes or penetrating the halls of power, but that doesn’t make it all one big conspiracy. Often events have a momentum of their own

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