Largely About Oil

The White House got it right when they initially gave their immoral incursion the acronym OIL (for Operation Iraqi Liberation), rapidly dropped for OIF (Operation Iraqi Freedom) because it too accurately captured petro-imperialist realities. 

“Oil” is the main reason that a rapid and thorough U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and true Iraqi freedom and independence are unimaginable, as far as the U.S. foreign policy establishment and broader bipartisan political and policymaking elite is concerned. Anyone who doubts that oil was a significant factor in the invasion should recall the behavior of U.S. forces in Baghdad at the beginning of the invasion. The U.S. military was indifferent to the looting of Iraq’s treasured national archives, library, and museum but effectively secured the Iraqi Ministry of Oil. 

The broader Middle East’s status as the world’s critical oil hub is the obvious reason that the region figures so prominently in U.S. military action and planning. Former Federal Reserve chief Alan Greenspan admits as much in his recent memoir The Age of Turbulence           (2007). Green- span’s retrospective observation that OIF was “largely about oil” offers a telling rebuke to the Bush administration. More than simply denying that petroleum might have had anything to do with the occupation, the White House has said that it is “irresponsible,” “partisan,” “dishonest,” and damn-near treasonous to “claim we acted in Iraq because of oil.” 

Too bad the “opposition” Democratic Party can’t be as candid as Alan Greenspan. Clinging to the fairy tale that an inherently good and benevolent United States invaded with democratic intentions (Barack Obama’s claim in his deeply conservative 2006 book The Audacity of Hope), the Democrats’ failure to acknowledge U.S. motives behind the invasion helps make them vulnerable to dangerous right-wing “stab in the back” charges that they have failed to fully support a supposedly noble mission in Iraq. 

Many in their party’s rank and file base know better. Working- and middle-class Democrats, and more than a few disgruntled Republicans and independents, regularly say “that damn war is about oil.” It is, but enemies of the occupation should chant “no blood for oil” with three critical qualifications in mind. The first caveat is that we need to be clear on exactly what it is about “oil” that led to the invasion and makes it impossible for U.S. policymakers to end the occupation. “All” or “largely about oil” can and does mean very different things to different people. 

The second caveat is that the “oil” invasion should not be seen in primitive and reductionist terms. Political and imperial considerations have created a wider context for oil’s significance in producing the invasion and continuing occupation. 

The third limitation is that Cheney-Bush launched OIF because they could do so without meaningful deterrence at home or abroad, regardless of the real reasons for their mass-murderous action. 

Blood for Imperial Control 

According to “mainstream” U.S. commentator Ted Koppel on the op-ed page of the New York Times in February 2006, “There’s no reason to be coy about why the U.S. is in Iraq…. The reason for America’s rapt attention to the security of the Persian Gulf is what it has always been. It’s about the oil.” 

But what about the oil? For Koppel, OIF was about U.S. and world “addiction” to overseas petroleum, something that has long required “an uninterrupted flow of Persian Gulf oil.” Koppel dedicated the bulk of his column to a review of great historical moments when Uncle Sam moved to guarantee regular “oil flows out of the Persian Gulf”: British and U.S. collaboration in the illegal but understandable (as far as Koppel was concerned) overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected head of state (Mohammed Mossadegh) in 1953; America’s sponsorship of the brutal dictatorship of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi; the enunciation of the U.S. “Carter Doctrine,” proclaiming that “an[y] attempt by an outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force”; the establishment of U.S. military bases in Saudi Arabia; and the launching of Operation Desert Storm. 

In Koppel’s view, all of these developments were legitimate expressions of “America’s” obvious and logical interest in protecting its own and the world’s economy by “defending the free flow of Middle East oil.” Cheney got it right when (as George Bush I’s defense secretary) he said, on the eve of the first U.S. invasion of Iran, “We’re there because the fact of the matter is that part of the world controls the world supply of oil, and whoever controls the supply of oil, especially if it were a man like Saddam Hussein, with a large army and sophisticated weapons, would have a stranglehold on the American economy— indeed on the world economy.” 

This was the same basic perspective underlying Greenspan’s recent statement of regret that political considerations discourage honest discussion of the fact that the invasion of Iraq was “largely about oil.” 

But Koppel, Cheney, and Greenspan left something out—the imperial nature of the U.S. policy elite’s longstanding “rapt attention” to Middle Eastern oil and that elite’s desire to maintain a hegemonic “stranglehold” over the world capitalist system. Koppel’s purported taste for history did not lead him to reflect on this interesting statement of how the U.S. State Department viewed the Middle East’s unmatched oil reserves in 1945: “a stupendous source of strategic power, and one of the greatest material prizes in history.” That “prize” has long been understood by U.S. planners to be what leading U.S. policy critic Noam Chomsky calls “a lever of ‘unilateral world domination,’” giving its controller de facto “veto power” over other industrial states and “funneling enormous wealth to the U.S. in numerous ways.” 

“If the U.S. succeeds in controlling Iraq,” Chomsky told the World Social Forum more than a month before the invasion, “it extends enormously its strategic power, what Zbigniew Brzezinski calls its ‘critical leverage’ over Europe and Asia. That’s a major reason for controlling the oil resources—it gives you strategic power” (Chomsky, “Confronting the Empire,” February 2, 2003). 

The United States’ remarkable planet-warming demand for fossil fuels in a period approaching “peak oil” makes it increasingly reliant on foreign oil. But even if the U.S. overcame its gasoline “addiction” and became fully energy self-reliant (it currently receives just 20 percent of its oil from the Middle East), something else would still make U.S. foreign policy and military strategy heavily preoccupied with Middle Eastern petroleum: the ongoing and ever-worsening loss of the United States’ one-time economic supremacy and the related emergence of China as a new competitor. As David Harvey has argued in Spaces of Capital: Toward a Critical Geography(2001), the United States’ basic decline, reflecting predictable (and predicted) shifts in the spatial patterns of capitalist investment and social infrastructure, gives special urgency to the United States’ longstanding “national interest” in controlling the critical oil resources located in the heart of the world’s energy system. 

U.S. policymakers hope to exploit those resources for something more fundamental than filling up gas tanks. They want to use Middle Eastern oil as a bargaining chip with more oil-dependent regions like Western Europe and East Asia, homes to the leading challengers to U.S. economic power. 

OIF was an effort to use America’s last unchallenged form of world dominance—its near monopoly over globally projectable state violence—“to establish U.S. control over the global oil spigot, and thus over the global economy, for another fifty years” (Giovanni Arrighi, “Hegemony Unraveling-I,” New Left Review, 2005). 

In a context where the U.S. had good reason to feel that its dominant position within world capitalism was seriously threatened, Harvey writes that the Bush administration was “looking to flex military muscle as the only clear absolute power it has left” and to “hide the exaction of tribute from the rest of the world under a rhetoric of delivering peace and freedom for all.” Unable to maintain economic hegemony through the “normal” and “invisible hand” mechanisms of corporate-neoliberal “free market” globalization, Uncle Sam bared the “hidden fist” (Thomas Friedman) of coercive militarism to boost its economic power through military control of the world system’s greatest material prize—strategically significant Middle Eastern oil. 

At the same time, U.S. planners know very well that modern armies and navies depend heavily on petroleum and that controlling Middle Eastern oil is a way of limiting energy access for potential global military rivals—the Chinese, above all. 

As James Cipher argued last June in Monthly Review, “U.S. intervention in the Persian Gulf should not be seen as all about oil but also, and more importantly, about capitalism and geopolitical domination—that is, [capital] accumulation, militarism, and (informal) empire. Oil is a ‘strategic resource’—the single most important energy resource—and its control has long been central to U.S. strategic policy.” 

A Better Use for Iraqi Oil—Not Drilling It 

Another and much less impressive version of the “blood for oil” thesis holds that Cheney-Bush invaded Iraq to bust Saudi Arabia’s ability to control world oil markets through the Organization of Petroleum-Export States (OPEC). According to this theory, the White House and Pentagon were driven by fantastic neoconservative schemes to break OPEC’s power by radically privatizing Iraq’s petroleum fields to bring billions of barrels of Iraqi oil onto the world market. 

Not likely. As Greg Palast shows in Armed Madhouse, Cheney-Bush are less captive to messianic neocon- servatives than to the leading oil corporations (the “oil majors”) and their many highly placed friends in the James Baker Institute, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the State Department. And the oil major’s primary interest is in suppressing oil production to boost petroleum prices and profits. “The oil majors had a better use for Iraqi oil than drilling it,” Palast notes: “not drilling it.” Consistent with their longstanding profit-protecting policy of restricting production, “big oil has done its best to keep Iraqi oil buried in the ground to keep prices in the air.” 

The invasion and the resistance it predictably engendered has dramatically stifled Iraq’s oil flow, contributing to a tripling of the profits of the five leading U.S. oil corporations between 2002 and 2005. Not surprisingly, the oil majors have shown no particular interest in the full blown privatization and ramping up of Iraq’s oil fields. They prefer to agitate for profitable production sharing agreements (PSAs) that leave ultimate ownership of Iraqi oil (though not the profits) in the hands of the Iraqi occupation state.

In Palast’s view the U.S. deposed Saddam because he was destabilizing the international oil market by shifting from oil underproduction to oil overproduction. “It’s not about getting the oil,” Lewis Lapham told Palast: “it’s about controlling oil’s price.” 

Electoral Calculations 

The invasion certainly reflected Republican and White House electoral calculations. Beyond seeking to distract the U.S. citizenry, the “war” (one-sided imperial aggression) was launched to more directly advance the top down class warfare that the White House, Republicans, and their Democratic enablers were determined to wage against their “homeland” populace. As Frances Fox Piven notes in her 2004 book The War At Home, war is “a domestic as well as global power strategy”—one that is designed to “pave the political way for policies that are plundering Americans” in the interests of the rich. Besides directly lining the pockets of leading investors and managers in the giant “defense” firms like Boeing, Raytheon, and Lockheed Martin, war provides a useful cover of mass fear and illusory national unity for “implementing the domestic business agenda”: tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, deregulation, union-busing, environmental pillage, pension-raiding, and the like. 

As Gabriel Kolko reminds us, “the profit lust of these ever-lurking high-tech Masters of War is a ubiquitous underlying x factor” behind all U.S military policies. “It must be taken into account,” Kolko notes, “that the arms manufacturers have power, strategic lobbies in Washington, contribute heavily to politicians who need campaign funding, and gain financially whether America wins or loses its wars” (Kolko, “Mechanistic Destruction: American Foreign Policy at Zero Point,”, 2007). 

Today, as always in the age of the Pentagon system, “war” supplies the useful state-capitalist function of diverting government priorities away from social needs and towards the selfish interests of the privileged few. Beneath disingenuous “free market” rhetoric disseminated to delegitimize an undesirable direction of public resources to the broad populace, the “business community” has long (since at least the Great Depression) understood that government must play a central role in sustaining the system of private profit. It makes a critical distinction, however, between left-handed government service to social needs and right-handed government investment in the wasteful and destructive missions of militarism. The first form of government activity interferes with the authoritarian prerogatives of investors and managers and is therefore eliminated as a functional policy option by the super-influential business elite. 

The second form is welcomed by the domestic power elite because it provides no challenge to business rule while diverting public resources to dominant private interests. It offers added “benefits” to the American ruling class. It encourages the manufacture of mass fear and mindless nationalistic conformity while legitimizing the use of coercion against those who dare to criticize existing social hierarchies and doctrines at home and abroad (Deterring Democracy          by Noam Chomsky, 1991). And it underpins a global empire whose costs are generally distributed over the entirety of American society, but whose profits “revert to a few within.” 

A Wal-Mart Could Take Over the Whole Country 

Also worth noting, the Cheney-Bush economic agenda in Iraq was not limited to oil and its strategic significance. U.S. imperial viceroy Paul Bremer rapidly tried to turn Iraq into a poster state for corporate neoliberalism and global class war from the top down. Under the distinctive corporate-globalizationist “shock therapy” of invasion, practically all of the nation’s vital economic resources and institutions except oil were made available for international purchase and subjected to the glorious laws of the “free market.” As Jeff Faux notes (The Global Class War,          2006): “Bremer took the opportunity to impose on the Iraqis an unadulterated NAFTA template that even [former Mexican president] Carlos Salinas could not have allowed. He fired half a million government workers, slashed business taxes, gave investors extraordinary new rights, eliminated all import restrictions, allowed 100 percent foreign ownership of all business except the oil industry—the future of which had not yet been decided. He even privatized the process of privatizing Iraq’s 200 state enterprises to a private contractor, Bearing Point, a subsidiary of the transnational consulting giant KPMG. 

“As with NAFTA, the country’s labor laws were left at the mercies of the local elite. Saddam Hussein’s restrictions against forming unions and collective bargaining were just about the only economic policies that were not changed. Moreover, the Coalition Provisional Authority took away workers’ bonuses, profit sharing, and food and housing subsidies, leaving them with Saddam Hussein’s average basic salary of $80 per month, which meant a drop in real wages—as well as labor costs for foreign investors. 

“The international industry of consultants, brokers, and advisers to transnational corporations that had flowered since the end of the Cold War poured into Iraq. ‘Getting the rights to distribute Proctor & Gamble products can be a gold mine,’ said one. ‘One well-stocked 7-11 could knock out 30 Iraq stores; a Wal-Mart could take over the country’.” 

The Absence of Deterrence 

The third qualification to the “blood [largely] for oil” thesis is that the point is not merely to understand history, but also and above all, to change it. From an activist perspective, the “why” of the invasion matters a great deal in terms of framing resistance and understanding the nature and tendencies of the imperial beast headquartered in Washington. But the most relevant issues remain the “what” of the terrible U.S. assault and the appalling fact that Cheney-Bush have been permitted to execute their criminal imperial aggression from within—and in the name of—an ostensibly “democratic” nation where opinion polls regularly register majority opposition to the use of war and unilateral militarism as instruments of policy—both in general and in the specific case of Iraq. With an Iraqi death toll likely exceeding one million by now and nearly 4,000 U.S. soldiers killed, OIF would be no less reprehensible if it had (as is thoroughly impossible) nothing to do with oil. 

As is well known, the post-Cold War era is one in which there is little credible military deterrent to the United States’ quest for global dominance. Along with numerous provocative U.S. actions (e.g., recent efforts to position “defensive” missiles and radar in Poland and Czechoslovakia and to supply India with nuclear materials), the invasion and occupation of Iraq would have been unimaginable in the days of the Soviet Empire. 

But what about popular deterrence inside the U.S., where citizens are left to guess why the leaders of their supposedly democratic nation commit colossal crimes like the occupation of Iraq? The Cheney-Bush administration’s ability to conduct and continue its largely oil-motivated state-terrorist war of colonial aggression against Iraq is in part a tribute to the powerful role of corporate media in framing current events for the U.S. populace. After selling the initial and subsequently discredited justifications (“weapons of mass destruction,” links between Saddam Hussein, al Qaeda, and 9/11), leading “mainstream” news and commentary still purveys the preposterous default and doctrinal notion that the occupation was launched and has been fought with good and democratic (not imperial and selfish) U.S. intentions and the idea that rapid withdrawal would be “irresponsible” and “only make things worse” in Iraq. Ruling communications authorities disseminate the notion that Bush’s “surge” is or may be “working” and pay no serious attention to credible international peace-keeping solutions or to the option of shifting U.S. intervention (“responsibility”) in Iraq from right-handed military assault and coercion to left-handed reparations and healing. 

Even without rampant top-down misinformation, ideology, and thought-control, the shocking absence of consequential democratic institutions for connecting ordinary Americans to the enactment of policy means that most U.S. citizens see no relevant way to change “their” nation’s conduct on the global stage. The building, restoration, and expansion of such institutions—and of alternative centers of power more generally—within the U.S. is a task of no small urgency in a world that is ever more dangerously captive to the supreme authoritarian peril of permanent military and top down class war within and beyond the imperial “homeland.” It is a matter of life and death for masses of people at home and abroad. 

It doesn’t help that much of the American working-class majority is back on its heels, pushed to the margins of the polity by the ongoing top-down class “war at home.” The broad populace is facing numerous and interrelated crises of job insecurity, rising health premiums, skyrocketing gas and food (and other) prices, real estate implosion, pension collapse, chronic consumer debt, extensive family fragility, and deteriorating physical and mental health. It also suffers from the longest working hours in the industrialized world, a critical problem of neglected significance for the functioning of democracy. Democratic participation and informed citizenship strike untold millions of Americans as elite luxuries beyond their practical means. Impoverished popular governance in “the world’s greatest democracy” reinforces mass public retreat into the icy waters of cultural neoliberalism, where “life” is experienced, conceptualized, and acted upon in purely private and personal (“Oprah-fied”) terms and critical matters of public policy and politics are surrendered to privileged elites. 


Paul Street is a writer, speaker, and activist based in Iowa City, Iowa and Chicago, Illinois. He is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11; Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis; and Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in Post-Civil Rights America.