The strangest aspect of media coverage of our invasion and occupation of Iraq involved that country’s oil. Everyone, including the Bush administration, was well aware that Iraq sat on a sea of it. It was obvious that Middle Eastern oil was a global lifeline and an ever more valuable commodity; and yet, unless you were a faithful reader of the business pages, for days, weeks, even months on end, it was impossible to find serious discussion of Iraqi oil in the mainstream media. Forget the fact that a number of the major players in the Bush administration came out of the energy business; that Condoleezza Rice, the national security advisor, had had an oil tanker named after her (when she was still on Chevron’s board of directors); that the neocons and their supporters evinced a special interest in the oil heartlands of our planet (a.k.a. “the arc of instability”); or that the Pentagon was staking those heartlands out, base by base.
Nonetheless, when it came to the punditocracy just about the only discussion of Iraqi oil was restricted to the dismissal of claims made by the antiwar movement that oil was either the (or a) significant factor in the invasion, a position supposedly too simpleminded to be taken seriously. If Iraq’s main export had been video games, the press would have been flooded with pieces of every sort about our children’s entertainment future; and yet, until the Iraqi resistance began blowing up pipelines, reports on Iraqi oil were as few and far between as oases in a desert. Even today, with pump prices through the ceiling and global energy supplies tight, Iraqi oil — or the lack of it — is not exactly headline material. As Jonathan Schell said recently, speaking of media attitudes, “If the Bush administration is not supposed to be interested in oil in Iraq, why are they so interested in it in Alaska?”
In the prewar period, the President simply swore that we were religiously ready to respect and preserve what he referred to as Iraq’s “patrimony” — and, when it came to serious coverage, that was about that.
On the other hand, you had an antiwar movement, one part of which was focused almost solely on the issue of Iraqi oil. The iconic oil sign of the prewar protest period (sure to be found again at the big demonstration in Washington this Saturday) was: “NO BLOOD FOR OIL.” But, with two years-plus of Iraqi experience under our belts, it should now be clear that this slogan was misconceived in at least one crucial way. It should have read: “BLOOD FOR NO OIL.”
This is perhaps the strangest, most instructive, and least written about aspect of the Iraqi invasion, occupation, and present chaos. We can be assured that, in the next few years, we’re going to be hearing far more about “resource wars,” tight energy supplies, and the need to nail down raw materials militarily. It may not be long before administration officials start telling us that we can’t withdraw from Iraq exactly because of the world energy situation. Already, two days after Katrina hit, there was the President standing in front of the USS Ronald Reagan — this administration’s advance men have never seen an aircraft carrier they didn’t want to turn into a photo op — offering a new explanation for the war in Iraq: “If Zarqawi and bin Laden gain control of Iraq, they would create a new training ground for future terrorist attacks; they’d seize oil fields to fund their ambitions…”
We’re guaranteed to see more Pentagon planning and war gaming based on the control of world energy supplies, not to speak of more and ever better military bases planted in far-flung, oil-rich areas of the world. So it’s important to take stock of what actually happened to Iraqi oil and the dreams of global dominance that went with it.
Energy is a strange thing to control militarily. As Iraq showed and Katrina reminded us recently, its flow is remarkably vulnerable, whether to insurgents, terrorists, or hurricanes. It’s next to impossible to guard hundreds, not to say thousands, of miles of oil or natural gas pipelines. It’s all very well to occupy a country, set up your “enduring camps,” and imagine yourself controlling the key energy spigots of the globe, but doing so is another matter. (As the saying went in a previous military age, you can’t mine coal with bayonets.) In the case of Iraq, one could simply say that the military conquest and occupation of the country essentially drove Iraq’s oil deeper underground and beyond anyone’s grasp. Hence, the signs should indeed say: “BLOOD FOR NO OIL.” It’s the perfect sorry slogan for a sad, brainless war; and even the Pentagon’s resource-war planners might consider it a lesson worthy of further study as they think about our energy future.
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The End of Victory Culture.]