The Justification for War: It’s the Oil (and the Power, and Israel), Stupid
During the Cold War, occasional resorts to war or threats of war by the United States were justified by the need to keep communism in check. This justification had the advantage of being based on a real threat—notably in Berlin in 1949, in Korea in 1950, and during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. The result was a degree of clarity and honesty: We were going to fight not only because we were virtuous upholders of the law of nations, or defenders of the Free World, but primarily because it was in our geopolitical interest to do so.
The old urge to cloak the use of American military power in missionary righteousness returned after the fall of the Soviet Union. James Baker’s frank statement—that the Gulf War was all about oil—was contradicted by President George H.W. Bush, who preferred to speak of a moral action against Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait. Clinton’s interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo were likewise presented in “humanitarian” terms, but Richard Holbrooke subsequently boasted that the real reason was global hegemony: “We are re-engaged in the world, and Bosnia was the test.”
The attack on Iraq seems imminent some time in 2003, and the gap between the stated reasons for that war and the underlying motives of the decisionmaking community in Washington seems wider than ever. As the Washington Times noted last August, “the Bush administration began by making plans to get rid of Saddam Hussein, and realized only later that it might need to explain why . . . It is still groping for a good excuse.”
That groping has produced a string of unconvincing reasons for attack. The earliest was terrorism. Various stories of contacts between Iraq and Al Qaeda all proved false, however. The “moral case” for war has also been advanced, notably by National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and by the British government. This led some to question whether other regimes whose human-rights abuses are on par with Saddam’s—notably in Saudi Arabia, North Korea, Sudan, Mauritania, as well as any number of sub-Saharan despotisms—would also be targeted.
Uncomfortable with such implications, the proponents of war eventually focused on the claim that Iraq has, or may be acquiring, “weapons of mass destruction.” Vice President Dick Cheney even said that Saddam Hussein poses a “mortal threat” to the United States. The intelligence community came under intense pressure to produce support for such assertions, but the evidence is still missing. Initial U.N. inspections in November and December 2002 did not support the claims. President Bush’s decision in November to seek U.N. approval for his plans drew America even further away from a real debate on the pros and cons of the war. The bottom line is that war with Iraq either is justified on the grounds of this country’s well-being and security or it is not. To make such a determination, the United States has no need of the United Nations or its Security Council. By going through the world body, the Bush team bypasses the crucial issue of U.S. national interests.
Since none of the stated reasons can withstand critical scrutiny, the question of the Bush administration’s likely true motives needs to be addressed. Outside the United States, numerous mainstream commentators maintain that the Iraqi crisis cannot be separated from three factors: the dream of America’s multinational corporations to secure control of Middle Eastern oil reserves, the desire to exercise global hegemony, and the influence of Israel and her friends.
Regarding oil, the Times of London explained on July 11, 2002, that an American victory “would open Iraq’s rich new oilfields to Western bidders and bring the prospect of lessening dependence on Saudi oil. No other country offers such untapped oilfields . . . Iraq’s proven reserves of 112 billion barrels are second only to Saudi Arabia’s 256 billion barrels.” The windfall could be even greater: Oil-industry experts estimate the reserves to be over 200 billion barrels, concentrated primarily in the three huge oil fields in the south—Majnoon, West Kurna, and Nahr Umar—each of which exceeds the reserves of Kuwait. As an expert told the Times, “There is nothing like it anywhere else in the world. It’s the big prize.”
This bonanza for American oil companies long banished from Iraq would have the additional advantage of undermining the strong position of Russia’s Lukoil and France’s Total-Fina-Elf in Iraq’s oil production. Former CIA director James Woolsey bluntly declared last summer that France and Russia “should be told that if they are of assistance in moving Iraq toward decent government, we’ll do the best we can to ensure that the new government and American companies work closely with them.” Otherwise, he warned, “it will be difficult to the point of impossible to persuade the new Iraqi government to work with them.” Since “the new Iraqi government” will be roughly as independent as that of Mr. Kharzai’s in Kabul, Iraq’s oil would become a U.S. asset and quite possibly be used to offset the costs of waging war against her.
Glutting the market with huge quantities of easily extractable Iraqi oil in early 2004 would reduce energy costs and boost economic recovery in the run-up to the presidential election later that year. Paying under a dollar per gallon of unleaded would be a tangible benefit of Mr. Bush’s policy that millions of Americans would remember and appreciate every day. American control of Iraqi oil would also make a mockery of OPEC and very painfully demonstrate to the Saudis that their clout is spent. The ensuing mutual violation of production quotas possibly would destroy the cartel or render it ineffective for years. Last, but by no means least, Russia’s oil revenues would take a hit at a time when modest economic recovery is under way, making planned exploration of new wells in Siberia uneconomical.
The second real reason for the war is the pursuit of a global empire in which the United States would finally be acknowledged as the indisputable planetary sheriff, judge, and jury. A careful reading of President Bush’s National Security Strategy, unveiled last September, presents the specter of open-ended political, military, and economic domination of the globe by the United States. The men and women who form the nucleus of the President’s team formulated all the key elements of this strategy years ago, but September 11 made its execution possible.
The strategy defines two main categories of enemies: “rogue states” and “potentially hostile powers.” Both warrant preemptive strikes “by direct and continuous action using all the elements of national and international power . . . We will not hesitate to act alone, if necessary, to exercise our right of self-defense by acting pre-emptively.” The United States not only will confront “evil and lawless regimes” but will put an end to “destructive national rivalries.” To that end, the administration “intends to keep military strength beyond challenge, thereby making the destabilizing arms races of other eras pointless, and limiting rivalries to trade and other pursuits of peace.” Iraq is the ideal test case of the new doctrine. She has already been named a “rogue state” countless times, and she is weak and friendless.
An attack on Iraq would resolve a key requirement of the National Security Strategy: a drastic expansion of overseas military commitments. “The United States will require bases and stations within and beyond Western Europe and Northeast Asia, as well as temporary access arrangements for the long-distance deployment of U.S. troops.” Conquering Iraq offers the chance to seize those “bases and stations” in an all-important region. Strenuous negotiations in the closing months of 2002 with Saudi Arabia and Turkey about the use of military facilities in those countries (including a substantial bribe promised to the Turks for providing the key air base at Incirlik) must have confirmed to the Bush team that the United States should acquire bases in the Middle East that would be under direct U.S. control, not subject to the political whim of the host government. “The new Iraqi government,” whatever its shape, is bound to be willing to oblige.
With a 99-year lease on the port of Basra and the air base at Mosul, and a string of garrisons guarding the oil fields, the Bush administration would make a giant leap forward in implementing the key requirement of the National Security Strategy. Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia would all be intimidated by the presence of GIs on their borders. At least in Syria’s case, things could easily go beyond intimidation if Damascus does not pull out of Lebanon and allow Israel to settle her scores with Hezbollah. (What will happen to the Palestinians in these proceedings is not too difficult to imagine.) The next cakewalk could be Axis of Evil member Iran, by then surrounded by U.S. power. Be on the lookout for the suggestion that the War on Terror cannot be declared over until Tripoli has been taken, too.
The main long-term benefactor from a series of wars between America and assorted Muslim countries would be Israel, the third real reason for the war against Iraq. Ever since the Six Day War enhanced the special relationship between Israel and the United States, Israeli governments have been trying to coax the United States into war against the Arabs and Iran. This was a perfectly rational strategy from the Israeli point of view: If successful, it would permanently bind the richest and most powerful country in the world to its “only reliable Middle Eastern ally.” It would also deepen the schism between the United States and the Muslim world and make it equally permanent. The War Party is unwilling to acknowledge this motive, but Gen. Wesley Clark, former NATO supreme allied commander, let the cat out of the bag last August: “Those who favor this attack now tell you candidly, and privately, that it is probably true that Saddam Hussein is no threat to the United States. But they are afraid at some point he might decide if he had a nuclear weapon to use it against Israel.”
The friends of Israel in the policymaking community in Washington do not see the fall of Saddam as the end of their assignment. They are contemplating a thorough reconstruction of the Middle Eastern political architecture to take advantage of latent tensions among antagonistic ethnic and religious groups. Balkanization is the word that best describes their intent. A weakened, divided Iraq would greatly enhance the position of Israel vis-à-vis its largely hostile environment. The fact that Iraq is not a monoethnic and monodenominational nation gives rise to interesting possibilities, which may explain the curious absence of public statements from Washington on U.S. intentions following Saddam’s downfall. Regional experts suspect that the United States would be content to see Iraq effectively broken into three areas: the heartland, focused on a Baghdad controlled by Sunni Muslims; the marshlands of the south, where Shiite Muslims are in the majority; and the northern third of the country, where the Kurdish minority already exercises de facto autonomy. (That the oil fields would remain under direct U.S. control hardly needs stating.)
None of these entities would be allowed meaningful self-rule, however. The establishment of a full-fledged Kurdish ministate in northern Iraq would not be allowed, because Turkey, which has had problems with her own restive Kurdish minority for decades, greatly fears that scenario. As the New York Times reported last August, “Turkish officials have warned that they are prepared to go to war to prevent the Iraqi Kurds from declaring a kind of mini-Kurdish state within Iraq.”
On the southern flank, the Shiites, if they were to declare their own autonomous statelet, would naturally gravitate toward their coreligionists in Iran. The friends of Israel inside the Beltway would thus be provided with the pretext to demand a preemptive U.S. strike against Tehran. We would soon be reminded that Iran, too, is part of the Axis of Evil, that she supports terrorism, and that she has weapons of mass destruction.
We are being driven into a potential quagmire, and no real questions are being asked. What started, in October 2001, as a legitimate military response to terrorist attacks has degenerated into an hubristic powerplay that may engage the United States in an open-ended war against a large segment of the Muslim world. To grab Iraq’s oil is no substitute for devising an energy policy that would free the United States from her dependence on Muslim-controlled fossil fuels once and for all. To use the war on Iraq as a stepping-stone on the road to a global American empire is mad, evil, and, ultimately, self-defeating. To wage war in order to pursue the agenda of another country is absurd.
If it can be established beyond all reasonable doubt that the regime in Iraq means ill to the United States and has the wherewithal to pursue its malevolent design, then let us have this war. Anything short of that yardstick is mendacity designed to deceive the American people and to advance the ambitions of certain groups whose interests should not be equated with those of the nation as a whole.
[This article first appeared in the February 2003 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.]