Myth II: America Wants War with Saddam because of Oil
For a visitor from across the Atlantic, the most immediately startling thing about British political and media life is this: everybody knows each other.
I was an editor at the Wall Street Journal, America’s most important conservative paper, for three years in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I can count on two hands the number of times I met a politician in an informal setting—that is, something other than an editorial board meeting or an interview.
You can blame distance for some of this sense of remoteness: New York is 225 miles from Washington, only slightly less far than the distance from London to Newcastle.
But even inside Washington, it is very unusual for politicians and journalists to know each other as well as their London counterparts seem to do. The Georgetown dinner party you read about in the novels of the 1950s and 1960s is dead and gone. At 8pm on a weekday evening, Senator Foghorn is much more likely to be drinking sparkling water at a 50-person fund-raiser with the American Smelting Association than to be exchanging wisecracks with a syndicated columnist across a mahogany dinner table. Compared to the fragmentation of American political, media, and intellectual life, there is something wonderfully seductive about London’s intimacy and conviviality.
But if the fragmentation of American political life has many bad effects, it has one good one: it helps to reduce the spread of clichés. A plausible delusion can sweep through London like the Dutch blight through a close-packed forest of elms—and one such delusion is that the West’s war in the Middle East is a “war for oil”.
One Labour MP, Alan Simpson, phrased the accusation pungently in the Commons during the debate after Tony Blair presented the Government’s dossier against Iraq. Saddam Hussein’s “real crime”, Mr Simpson said, “is his threat to negotiate oil contracts with Russia and France, not America”. President George W. Bush was like a drunk “who needs to satisfy his thirst for power and oil”, and it was Mr Blair’s duty “not to pass the bottle”.
For a visitor from Washington, this was all a bit dizzying, for three reasons.
1. Wasn’t it just yesterday that America was being scolded for not buying oil from Iraq and thereby causing (as it was wrongly but loudly alleged) the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians?
2. Isn’t it odd for people who oppose “wars for oil” to rally to the defence of a dictator who launched two of them—one to conquer the oil fields of Iran, the second to annex neighbouring Kuwait?
3. Although it is apparently wrong for hawks to be swayed by oil, it seems to be perfectly OK for doves. Here, for example, is a leader from the anti-war Guardian: “Would Saddam launch missiles against Kuwaiti and Saudi oil fields? Would an attack on Baghdad foment strife in Riyadh? To different degrees, both would be a shock to oil supplies…[During the Iranian revolution,] Iranian oil production fell from six million barrels a day to three million and never recovered. If the same happened in Saudi Arabia, the world would see oil prices spurt upwards. The consequences would be rising inflation and consumers deprived of spending power.” So, while war for oil is condemned, appeasement for oil is quite all right.
Oil is important. America imports half its oil, and its friends and allies import much more. Although America’s own imports mostly come from secure sources in the Western hemisphere and Africa, the shock to the world economy from a crisis in the Middle East would not spare it. And so, ever since 1973, the security of Middle Eastern oil has become one of the top priorities of American foreign policy—as it is for most of America’s European allies.
But here is where the no-war-for-oil crowd make their mistake. Those Americans who worry most about oil tend to oppose action against Saddam, because they worry about the effects an Iraq war would have on Saudi Arabia. Take, for example, former Georgia Senator Wyche Fowler, President Clinton’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Last November, Mr Fowler resigned his post and returned to America to slam President Bush’s Iraq policy.
A war with Iraq “would open wounds in the Arab world that we don’t want to deal with”, he said. Saddam’s “neighbours can’t stand him, but they don’t understand why we won’t leave him alone. They’re also fearful of the break-up of the country into feuding ethnic groups if and when Saddam is ousted.”
The real danger to the Middle East, Fowler added, was undue pressure on Arab states to democratise. “All of us Western democrats believe that the finest expressions of the human mind and spirit happen under democratic governance, but that’s not the experience of most of the world.”
In the Arab world, the human mind and spirit was best expressed under theocracy. “To have a civil government whose highest priority isn’t serving God is beyond their comprehension.” That incomprehension causes the Saudis to despise American liberty. But not to worry: despite their contempt for US principles, Saudi Arabia is a “solid ally” and “uniquely pro-American”.
And America’s highest priority in the region, he concluded, should be to mollify Arab opinion by pressuring Israel to make renewed concessions to the Palestinians.
Fowler’s is the authentic voice of the oil lobby, the people who ran America’s Middle East policy more or less unchallenged until September 11: pro-Palestinian statehood, sceptical of Arab democracy and concerned above all with the “stability” of the Middle East—meaning the preservation of the Saudi royal family.
Many of these people supported Bush in 2000, but they are found in both parties and throughout the American government. Listen to the retired officials and distinguished public servants who have criticised President Bush’s Iraq policy—the Brent Scowcrofts and the James Bakers, the Anthony Zinnis and the Laurence Eagleburgers—and you will hear that word “stability” over and over again. “Stability” means oil.
The remarkable thing about America’s post-September 11 Middle Eastern policy is that, for the first time in a generation, oil has been bumped to second place in the country’s concerns.
Think for a minute about the logic of the claim that America wants to fight for oil. Does that mean “for access to oil”? America can already freely purchase all the oil it wants. There has not been a credible threat to access to oil supplies since the Arab embargo of 1973-74 and there is no credible threat to access today. Saddam wants to sell more oil, not less. And if conquest and occupation were necessary to obtain oil, why wouldn’t America attack an easier target than Iraq—Angola, for example?
So does “for oil” mean “for cheaper oil”? Is it suggested that America will invade Iraq, occupy its oilfields, and then sell oil for, say, $12-$15 a barrel, rather than the $25-$30 barrel it fetches today?
Even though a $12-$15 price would close down the larger part of America’s domestic production and drive the country’s dependence on oil imports up from 50 per cent toward the two thirds or three quarters mark?
Even though America winked when its close allies Mexico, Norway, and Oman co-operated with OPEC in 1998-99 to drive the price of oil back up from $10 to $30? Even though Mr Bush’s own father publicly worried in 1986 about the dangers of an excessively low oil price—at a time when oil prices adjusted for inflation were only slightly lower than today?
If Alan Simpson is right, fighting “for oil” means “for oil contracts”. Last year, for example, Saddam offered Russian companies multi-year contracts that supposedly totalled $40 billion. Perhaps America covets those deals? But why would any government—and especially one as cynical as Mr Simpson believes America’s to be—fight a war widely expected to cost $100 billion to gain contracts worth $40 billion?
And does Mr Simpson understand how small a sum $40 billion really is compared to the US economy? It is, for example, only a little more than half the gross state product of Arkansas. Does he really imagine that any president, no matter how inebriated, would risk the lives of American soldiers—and his own political future—for that?
OK then: perhaps fighting “for oil” means “for an oil market unmenaced by Saddam”, or “for an oil market in which suppliers do not use their wealth to acquire weapons of mass destruction”? That would be true. But that is not a fight “for oil”—it is a fight against a dictator who wants to use oil wealth to threaten the peace of the world and the safety of America and its allies. If Saddam were spending his oil wealth on palaces and roads, America would not worry about him. It is the use he is making of his oil that worries Americans—and should worry the world.
Those who mistrust America’s good faith in the Middle East can accurately point to the country’s long willingness to tolerate local despots, so long as they kept quiet and kept pumping. Shah Reza Pahlavi of Iran was by no means the worst, although he was bad enough. Perhaps America was wrong then; perhaps it was making the best of a difficult situation not originally of its own making.
Either way, the despots of today are much more dangerous than those of 30 years ago. Who seriously believes that Saddam and the mullahs of Iran will keep quiet and keep pumping once they have the nuclear weapons they seek? Surely not even the editorial executives of the Guardian could convince themselves of that.
It is the weapons and ambitions of the regimes and terror groups which make up the axis of evil that fuel American policy in the Middle East today. Not the price of petrol.