The world’s attention Wednesday was trained on what Secretary of State Colin Powell said at the United Nations, but far more crucial was what he didn’t say.
Most important was the one word at the core of plans for war but which never crossed Powell’s lips: Oil. That word cannot be spoken by U.S. policymakers, though people everywhere know that if not for oil, the United States would not be pursuing a war.
Because the United States won’t talk openly about plans for the future of Iraq’s oil, most of the world is skeptical of U.S. arguments about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, terrorist ties and human-rights violations. People are concerned about the issues but don’t trust U.S. motives. Powell asked a reasonable question: “Why should any of us give Iraq the benefit of the doubt?” What he fails to appreciate is that others are asking the same question about the United States.
Given the sophisticated U.S. intelligence technology and the fervor with which U.S. policymakers want to indict Iraq, it was striking how weak was the case Powell offered; the charts, maps and phone intercepts were more impressive than the underlying evidence or conclusions. Even if his claims were all true, nothing he said makes the case for war. Instead, Powell presented a good argument for continuing inspections — with serious cooperation on the part of U.S. officials with orders to share all relevant intelligence produced by that sophisticated system.
What was the real aim of Powell’s public-relations show? One likely target was the American public; the administration realizes it must counter the growing antiwar movement. Another was leaders of countries such as France and Turkey, where populations are overwhelmingly against war and politicians need a cover if they are to capitulate to U.S. demands without appearing to be lapdogs.
Powell unwittingly reinforced this reality with a map of the range of Iraqi missiles. With the exception of Israel (which wants war for its own power interests), the people within those concentric circles of the potential reach of missiles reject war. If Iraq’s neighbors — the people who should be most afraid — don’t feel threatened, why does the United States feel compelled to go to war?
Powell claimed that Iraq has engaged in “a policy of evasion and deception,” and certainly a regime like Saddam Hussein’s is capable of such tactics. But the rest of the world also sees “disturbing patterns of behavior” in U.S. actions.
A case in point: The United States has undermined instead of supported international efforts at disarmament. One example was its torpedoing of Jose Bustani, director-general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, in April 2002 when it appeared Bustani’s efforts could create obstacles to the U.S. war plans by initiating chemical weapons inspections in Iraq. And the United States remains the world’s largest arms dealer, hardly a recommendation for its self-proclaimed position of world peacekeeper.
Weapons of mass destruction — in Iraq, throughout the Middle East and the world — are a threat to peace and security. But the issue is pretext for the United States in a cynical ploy to cover strategic goals concerning oil.
No one suggests the United States seeks to permanently take direct possession of Iraqi oil. Instead, policymakers are interested in control over the flow of oil and oil profits. A client state in Iraq would give the United States a more permanent and extensive military presence in the region and could push aside Saudi Arabia as the key player in OPEC. Iraq’s oil reserves, estimated to be the second largest in the world, are particularly attractive because of quality and low extraction costs. U.S. control over Iraq through a compliant regime — beholden for its very existence to the United States — dramatically increases U.S. control over oil, and therefore over the world economy.
U.S. officials have openly expressed their contempt for international law and declared their intention to go to war, with or without U.N. approval. That’s why all the talk of whether Powell would produce a “smoking gun” was irrelevant. There was no need for a smoking gun because the nation with the biggest guns in the world had made it clear that it needs no evidence — smoking, smoldering, or even completely cold — to take the world to war.
Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and author of “Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream.” He can be reached at email@example.com.