“The Iraq war is largely about oil,” wrote Alan Greenspan in his memoir The Age of Turbulence (2007). “I’m saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows.” It may indeed be self-evident that the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, as the former Federal Reserve chairman says, because of oil. But what does this proposition mean? The answer is not so obvious.
Part of the plan may have been that regime change in Iraq would open the country’s oilfields to exploitation by Western energy conglomerates. The ensuing insurgency and civil war forced Big Oil to wait for years before cutting deals, but today such “super-majors” as BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil and Total have contracts to search underground for Iraq’s petroleum potential. Relations between Big Oil and Baghdad are not devoid of tension. The central government, furious that the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government struck its own bargains with companies like ExxonMobil to prospect for oil in the north, has threatened to revoke those firms’ deals in the center and south of the country. ExxonMobil is considering a partnership with PetroChina as a way to keep both its northern concessions and its $50 billion stake in the West Qurna field near Basra. Eventually, though, Big Oil will reap rich rewards from the invasion. In 2011, Iraqi oil output finally exceeded pre-war levels, and geologists believe much of Iraq’s hydrocarbon wealth is still untapped. While it may be wishful thinking, some say that Iraq’s oil production could one day rival that of Saudi Arabia.
Greenspan, however, seemed to have something else in mind when he maintained that “it was essential” for the US to “take out” Saddam Hussein’s regime. The Persian Gulf, he noted, is “an area that harbors a resource indispensable for the functioning of the world economy.”
Here the veteran banker replicates an argument well known to US policy planners (and to readers of this magazine): Oil is a strategic commodity as well as a commercial one. Some two thirds of the world’s proven oil reserves are located in the Persian Gulf. Any power that influences and shapes the flow of fossil fuels from the Gulf will have outsize influence in global affairs. Indeed, since the early 1970s, when Britain withdrew from its Gulf protectorates, the US has sought to guard the oil patch and control the adjacent shipping lanes, first with proxy militaries and then its own, as part of its claim to superpower status. It has striven to thwart the ambitions of other aspirants to regional hegemony — whether the Soviet Union during the Cold War or Saddam’s Iraq and the Islamic Republic of Iran in later decades. Grand strategy and grabbing oil revenue, aims that blur the distinction between geopolitical and corporate prerogatives, are central to the “national interest” in the Gulf. There is discord within the foreign policy establishment about how to pursue these goals, but not about the goals themselves.
But there is more. As Tim Mitchell argues in Carbon Democracy (2012), fossil fuels are integral to the conduct of a modern economy. The discovery of “buried sunshine” — first coal, then oil, then natural gas — powered the Industrial Revolution and the consequent accumulation of capital on a far vaster scale than previously imagined. Others have noted that coal fired the development of democracy, as well, because the miners could occupy and shut down the point of production. Port and railroad workers, similarly, could halt the transport of coal to the blast furnaces of industry. Strikes at these facilities, Mitchell writes, became a “means of making egalitarian claims” upon the owning class and, eventually, upon the state. Mitchell’s key contribution is to spell out how the transition from coal to oil transformed the political economy of energy and the relation of fossil fuels to democracy.
Unlike coal, oil is easily extracted by machine, and the labor requirements are correspondingly smaller. Even in a major oil-producing country like Iraq, the petroleum industry employs only 1 percent of the work force. As a lightweight liquid, oil can be transported mechanically as well, through pipelines. Pipelines can be sabotaged, of course, but together with trucks and tankers, they make up an oil supply network that is much less vulnerable to disruption than was that of coal. The shift to oil corroded the power of workers to cut off energy flows and thus their socio-political power as well.
At the outset of the oil age, the resource was largely in the hands of private American companies, which were naturally concerned with maximizing profit by achieving monopolies. As Mitchell demonstrates, Big Oil quickly realized that the smoothest road to riches was to “produce scarcity.” In Cleveland, John D. Rockefeller of Standard Oil pioneered techniques of inserting various bottlenecks into the distribution system that kept the supply artificially low. The US government also came to see benefits in claims of shortage: Via the Marshall Plan, the US was in prime position to reorient the post-World War II European economy away from domestic coal production toward import of foreign oil, a commodity traded in dollars. When Big Oil went international, it conspired with Washington in adapting the old Rockefeller tricks for the world stage. The clout of American oil companies eroded in the 1970s with the nationalization of oil production and the rise of OPEC, but oil-producing states like Saudi Arabia and its partners followed in their predecessors’ footsteps, manufacturing scarcity. They likewise promoted the spread of profligate lifestyles and consumption patterns — an eight-cylinder combustion engine in every suburban carport — thereby increasing demand.
Scarcity, once overlooked, surfaced as a source of anxiety in the late twentieth century. Conventional wisdom says the spur was the 1973 embargo imposed by greedy Arab sheikhs. But as Mitchell and Joe Stork before him have shown, there was no significant deficit of oil. The long lines at gas stations were a wound inflicted more by the Nixon administration’s poor decision making. Nonetheless, officials fabricated explanations making sense of the moment in purely economic terms and casting oil supply as imperiled. Following that “crisis” and the rise of revolutionary politics later that decade, scarcity was sold to the American public under the new rubric of “energy security,” made synonymous with “national security,” terms that turned reality on its head, rebranding the restrictions on oil supply as measures allowing it to flow freely. And the “security” phrasing was elastic: It could be invoked to justify ever more intrusive expeditions to the Persian Gulf oilfields, from the reflagging of Kuwaiti tankers in the late 1980s to the regime-changing invasion of 2003.
Other mantras of US policy in the Persian Gulf were also topsy-turvy, flipping upside down the familiar assumptions about their meaning. Consider “stability,” the goal in whose name Washington befriended the Houses of Saud and Khalifa, and now the government of Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq. The Gulf can hardly be called a stable region, having suffered the effects of almost continuous war since 1980 and dreading today the prospect of more. Rather than seek ways of defusing conflict, however, the US has encouraged its Gulf clients to lavish their petrodollars on American arms manufacturers. The trend gathered steam with the “twin pillars” doctrine of the Nixon administration and chugged right along to the present. In 2011, the Obama administration authorized $12 billion in sales to Iraq, including F-16 fighter jets and top-of-the-line tanks for the army, but also body armor and sport utility vehicles for Maliki’s formidable internal security services. The previous year, the Pentagon told Congress of $60 billion worth of weaponry to be sent to Saudi Arabia by 2016. If the kingdom does in fact purchase everything on offer, it will be the biggest single transfer of military ordnance in US history. Already, the year 2012 witnessed the greatest-ever quantity of US arms sales, about $66 billion, with nearly half going to the Gulf states. It seems that “stability” really means “keeping our friends in power at any cost,” ideally in a position of some dependency, even if the outcome is something like a permanent war economy in the Gulf.
“Democracy promotion,” to take another of Washington’s incantations, translates into indulgence of the pliant regimes that cooperate in producing scarcity, whether the Shah in the 1970s or the Saudis today, and which are not just non-democratic but devotedly authoritarian. The Obama administration has little to say about Maliki’s emergence as a new strongman in Baghdad or about the numerous reports of repression of union and worker activity. Tellingly, despite its ardor for “debaathification,” the Maliki government has retained the 1987 labor law that reclassified most workers as civil servants and prohibited them from taking independent initiatives in collective bargaining. This measure applies, of course, to the oil sector, which (though a small employer) is a historical site of labor militancy. Though mouthing all the right pieties about reconciliation, meanwhile, the US super-embassy in Baghdad quietly backs Maliki in his marked refusal to form a more inclusive or representative governing coalition. This stance is fanning the flames of reinvigorated insurgency. Car bombs, which never ceased despite the mainstream media narrative of calm, grew more frequent as the ten-year marker of the 2003 invasion approached. The recurrent violence, however, probably strengthens Maliki by keeping the Iraqi national debate focused on security as opposed to pluralism or social justice.
As for the US discourse, Iraq has vanished from it because, from the point of view of the strategic class, the crisis there is manageable, one that both redounds to the political benefit of the local satraps and sustains the supranational petrochemical profits underpinned by US power. The once common fretting that the invasion was a strategic error — because it exposed the limits of US military might, because it alienated allies, because it diminished US prestige in the eyes of the world, because it empowered Iran — is now largely an academic pastime. The opinion makers reassure themselves that the mistake has been remedied, whether because “the surge worked” or because President Barack Obama extricated the troops and the region went about its business. Iraq may not be a democracy, and its leaders may be too chummy with Iran, but at least it did not become a failed state. A more cynical but compelling reading still would be that the Iraq war was structurally necessary, as “crisis” preserves the geopolitical and economic logics at play in the Gulf. With the question of Iraq “settled,” for now, a new crisis is needed to propel the Gulf and US engagement there forward.
Elites may also take comfort in another side of scarcity — the recyclable petrodollars made more plentiful still by the higher oil prices of the post-2003 decade. Earlier associated with weapons buys, petrodollars presented a new face in the 1990s when several Gulf states created sovereign wealth funds. These funds invested an estimated $1 trillion or more in American and European firms, providing a timely cushion in the aftermath of the 2008–2009 financial meltdown and global recession.
The Iraq war is poised to disappear as well from American popular consciousness, once the present flurry of retrospectives has blown over. President Barack Obama took the lid off the memory hole with his injunction to “look forward, not backward.” No official from the administration of George W. Bush has paid the smallest price — not for dispatching US soldiers to their deaths for nothing, not for squandering billions of taxpayer dollars, not for terrifying the public into supporting the war with ghost stories about mushroom clouds and unmanned aerial vehicles spraying anthrax. And not for dealing a shattering blow to Iraq itself — the untold hundreds of thousands killed, the millions uprooted from their homes, the thousands tortured by the US or its Iraqi vassals, the enshrinement of sectarian logic in the institutions of the Iraqi state. Almost without exception, the rush of ten-year reflections ignored that the war happened mostly for Iraqis and that millions of them live with its traumas still. The war’s violence persists, and war-driven sectarianism afflicts not only Iraq but also the greater Middle East. Most of the displaced are unable to return. And then there is the haunting environmental damage: The US military dropped an unknown number of depleted uranium and other toxic munitions upon Falluja and elsewhere, leading to cancer clusters and an epidemic of birth defects. For Iraqis, the war is hardly over. Yet, these facts notwithstanding, Bush administration officials receive invitations to speak at prestigious institutions, where they have the gall to assert that the invasion was “worth it” or that only time will tell.
With such rot at the top, it is no wonder that history is being forgotten or rewritten further down the ranks. On March 18, Bill Bigelow, a long-time high-school teacher from Oregon now with Rethinking Schools, wrote an editorial in which he quoted from the Iraq war chapter in Modern World History, a widely adopted textbook published by Holt McDougal. The textbook offers a bowdlerized reading of the war’s origins and what Bigelow calls a “bloodless” account of the “major combat.” Of the Coalition Provisional Authority era, the 14 months in 2003-2004 when L. Paul Bremer directly misruled Iraq, the text says, “Despite the coalition victory, much work remained in Iraq. With the help of US officials, Iraqis began rebuilding their nation.” But the final indignity to history comes at the end, in what the textbook authors call a “critical writing” exercise for the students: “Imagine you are a speechwriter for President Bush. Write the introductory paragraph of a speech to coalition forces after their victory in Iraq.” When a politician’s tribute to the troops is conceived as a model for “critical writing,” the real lessons of the Iraq war are in danger of utter evaporation.
So here is an alternative question and a suggested answer: Is Alan Greenspan right? Was it “essential” for the preservation of US superpower status to invade Iraq in 2003? No. Though sanctions were weakening, and the international consensus behind them crumbling, the Iraqi military was dilapidated and posed no threat to the oil patch outside Iraqi borders. Iraqi oil could have been brought back to market by other means. The immediate cause of the war was a nasty historical accident: The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 gave free rein to the neo-conservatives and their masters to enact their distinct vision for perpetuating US hegemony, a project for which the ouster of Saddam Hussein was to be a test run. But the Iraq war was indeed “largely about oil,” in that oil created the conditions of the war’s possibility. Understanding the relationship between oil and war is crucial for all who seek to prevent a repeat of the 2003 invasion, which, much more than a blunder, was and remains a huge and heinous crime.