Government lies about oil’s importance in war

AScott Laderman A strange current is emerging within the pro-war movement. Apparently it is no longer sufficient to simply chant the George W. Bush administration’s mantra about the “liberation” of Iraq. Following Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s lead, countless “patriots” have instead found it necessary to start denouncing the position of many antiwar activists that oil has been a principal consideration in the White House’s thinking.

To most of the world, oil’s centrality to the conflict is self-evident, which makes the recent stream of denials all the more perplexing. So is everyone else wrong, or do Americans know something other people do not?

Not only is dismissing material motivations not historical, but it often relies on an antiwar straw man and fails utterly to appreciate the complexity of the more articulate antiwar position. Is Washington taking orders from ExxonMobil, Chevron and Texaco? No. In fact, as Robert Dreyfuss recently noted in an excellent article in Mother Jones, the executives of many of the largest American oil corporations have mixed feelings about the current campaign and the potential threat it poses to their presence in the Middle East. But is the war grounded in the administration’s geopolitical vision for the Persian Gulf, Central Asia and beyond? Absolutely.

The ongoing invasion must be placed within the context of decades of U.S. policy. One could start at many points during the last fifty years, but the 1970s should suffice. Following the oil price spikes of 1973, 1974 and 1979, Jimmy Carter reminded the world that the Persian Gulf was to be considered a crucial element in the American sphere of influence. “Let our position be absolutely clear,” the president announced in January 1980. “An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”

It was hardly a new policy – the U.S. overthrow of the Mossadeq government in Iran in 1953 demonstrates a variant of its earlier origins – but it does express the imperial hubris of the United States, which views Middle Eastern oil as somehow American.

Yet to fully understand Persian Gulf oil’s place in the war in Iraq, we must appreciate why the resource is of such critical import to U.S. planners. It is not, as is sometimes believed, because Iraq is a major supplier to the United States. It is not. Although Iraq contains the world’s second largest reserves, Venezuela, Mexico and Canada are presently more important in this respect. Rather, the control of Persian Gulf oil is fundamental because it allows Washington to dictate the pace of global economic development, particularly that of its largest competitors. In other words, “(c)ontrol over the Persian Gulf translates into control over Europe, Japan and China,” Michael Klare explained. “It’s having our hand on the spigot.”

Until recent events necessitated the start of their unceasing propaganda blitz, U.S. officials did little to hide their sweeping plans. The Boston Globe, for example, published an insightful report last year on how the most hawkish members of the administration hoped to reshape the entire Middle East, viewing a “U.S.-allied Iraq” as an important means of “diminish(ing) the influence of OPEC, long dominated by Saudi Arabia, over oil supplies and prices.” As such, the current war for the control of Iraq, Klare cogently noted, must be understood as “about oil as power rather than oil as fuel.”

This vision of the United States as a global hegemony can be a tough sell to the American public, however. To support such dominance, massive military expenditures are required – at present, approximately $400 billion per year – and this translates into less funding for health care, housing, schools, parks, public transportation, child care and other programs designed to promote social well-being. The administration has thus, like its predecessors, employed two effective strategies in pursuing its agenda.

The first draws on the example of Arthur Vandenberg, the U.S. senator who once counseled Harry Truman that it would be necessary to, “scare the hell out of the American people” to fund the Cold War doctrine of containment. In this vein, we have been treated to a consistent stream of allegations – sans credible evidence – concerning Saddam Hussein’s links to al-Qaida or his arsenal of weapons of mass destruction.

But fear is most effective when conjoined with hope, so the administration has tossed the idealists a bone. Thus has emerged the “liberation” of Iraq. To be sure, there is nothing particularly new in policymakers framing their intentions as strictly beneficent. In the late 19th century, Congress claimed to be inspired by the noblest of principles in ordering the cultural extermination of American Indians. Less than 80 years later, the United States found itself – at least according to the public pronouncements of its leadership – trying to “save” the Republic of Vietnam, not prop up a succession of brutal military dictators. And, of course, in the early 1990s President George H.W. Bush declared that the world could not stand by in the face of Iraq’s “naked aggression” in Kuwait – although, it seems, Indonesia’s “naked aggression” in East Timor, supported throughout by Washington, was perfectly acceptable.

So far as I can tell, the evidentiary basis for those who believe the United States is seeking to “liberate” the Iraqi people boils down to the following: Americans must simply trust that the same Reaganites who supported Saddam Hussein during the years of his greatest atrocities, such as the genocidal Anfal campaign of the 1980s, are now seeking to atone for the error of their ways. When I have requested evidence from pro-war partisans for the administration’s enlightened intentions, almost invariably they have cited a speech or press conference of the president or a member of his cabinet. And what about oil? Officials have assured us it will belong to Iraq.

What a shame. There was a time when most Americans knew better than to take government officials at their word. The Pentagon Papers, the Watergate scandal, the Iran-Contra affair, “sexual relations” with Monica Lewinsky: All seem to have been excised from our collective memory.

In moments like the present it is incumbent that we recall one of the most important lessons of the past: Policymakers lie. A lot.

Scott Laderman’s biweekly column appears alternate Tuesdays. Send letters to the editor to [email protected]