Swans Commentary » swans.com February 12, 2007  



Oil and War


by Michael Doliner





(Swans - February 12, 2007)   People who oppose the war in Iraq have the habit of pointing out that the excuses the administration gave for going to war were lies. True enough, but in concentrating on their lies we have learned how to not talk about the real reasons for the war. Men do fight for God and Country, but the rich and powerful fight for wealth and power. This does not prevent them from sincerely professing higher motives. American elite education is in large part the study of a rhetoric of elite, high-minded self-delusion. The writings of George Kennan and Milton Friedman are good textbooks. But we all know that sincerity of belief in one's own goodness does not make it so. Nor is it worth our time to burrow into the statements politicians make in order to find some inkling of a deeper motive. Men fight for many things, but that the rich and powerful fight for wealth and power, no matter what they say and even believe, should be taken as a given. It is the rich and powerful who get us into wars.

Those in power treat us like children. They offer us excuses for the war they hope we will accept, but hide from us the real reason for it. They know Americans will not support a war for oil. They also know that Americans are quite happy to use the oil we import and are not particularly worried about what we did to get it. Americans want the oil but not the war, and even those against the war drive to soccer practice and the mall. Americans will not tolerate even the thought that the era of happy motoring will end soon. They would certainly complain if they ran out of gas. The oil shortages of the seventies and Carter's loss of the presidency to Reagan have also taught the powerful, if they didn't know already, that Americans will punish whoever is in power when an oil crisis comes. Indeed, just what will happen when energy really runs short must worry them considerably. Disillusionment with government is already extreme and economic distress will breed social turmoil. For this reason they know that above all else they cannot lose their grip on the oil fields of the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Basin. American opposition to the war cannot become serious until there is public recognition of the coming energy shortage and an open determination of just what is to be done about it. The problems a serious oil shortage will bring will shrink most of what we now think of as problems to insignificance.

The Bush administration fought the war in Iraq and will fight the war in Iran because of looming worldwide oil shortages and China's growing demand for a larger share. Since well before the 1970s and the Carter Doctrine in 1980, the United States has considered control of the Persian Gulf and the oil fields a primary foreign policy objective.

"The Middle East isn't a region to be dominated by Iran. The Gulf isn't a body of water to be controlled by Iran. That's why we've seen the United States station two carrier battle groups in the region," Burns said in an address to the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center, an influential think tank.

In 1953, when British control of Iran slipped and Iran's prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, nationalized the oil, the United States helped engineer a coup that restored the power of the America-friendly Shah. However, the détente of the cold war allowed the various Middle-Eastern kingdoms and sheikdoms to gain more control of their oil than American elites would have liked. Saddam Hussein nationalized Iraq's oil in 1972, and the Iranian Revolution of 1979 further loosened the American grip on Iranian oil and, more importantly, oil revenues. Kuwait took over 100% of KOC, Kuwaiti Oil Company, in 1974 and even Saudi Arabia was able to purchase 100% of ARAMCO, the American Arabian Oil Company, in 1980, leaving American and British Companies with lucrative arrangements, but far less than what they might have had.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, George H. W. Bush hoped to restore the status quo ante. The sudden disappearance of America's great enemy inspired delusions of grandeur. We're number one and there is no number two! Why not take it all back? Nothing seemed to stand in the way. Saddam Hussein had been extremely cooperative with the United States up until the invasion of Kuwait. Even then he carefully inquired of April Glaspie, the American ambassador to Iraq, if the United States would object to that invasion. Her comment was, in part, "but we have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts." Kuwait had been drilling horizontally under Iraq and selling more than its OPEC quota of oil, which depressed prices right after the Iran-Iraq war when Iraq especially needed the oil revenue. When Iraq complained, Kuwait gave a peculiarly dismissive response that was far more arrogant than its puny status warranted. So Saddam invaded Kuwait. By the time we attacked him, Saddam was retreating from Kuwait as fast as he could. We did not attack Iraq to drive Saddam from Kuwait. Iraq was lured into its invasion of Kuwait to justify a large American military presence in the Persian Gulf. Saddam's real crimes, in the eyes of the American elites, were that he nationalized oil and spent oil revenues on Iraqi infrastructure rather than on American high tech military gadgets as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait obediently did. But American sights were always on the entire Persian Gulf oil region and, more recently, the oil rich Caspian Basin.

Clinton continued to pressure Saddam Hussein with the cruel sanctions and periodic bombing, but he knew, as did George H. W. Bush, that Iraq needed a tyrant to hold it together. They were smart enough to know that a strong man has to be strong, and that an Ahmad Chalabi, with no base in the country, just wouldn't do. They hoped a military coup in Iraq would install someone more ready to spend the oil revenues on war toys rather than electricity. However, the long-term plan was still for a permanent American military presence in the Persian Gulf that would keep those governments from giving too much preference to Chinese oil interests. Regime change in Iran, hostile to American interests since the revolution in 1979, was always on the agenda, but Iraq had to be taken first. With a large American military presence and no other counterbalancing force, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, already extremely compliant, could be persuaded to spend even more of their revenue on weapons. There was no need to invade them -- they welcomed American armies with flowers.

After the first Gulf War we stationed forces in new bases in Saudi Arabia, but the presence of American military bases in Saudi Arabia violated the sanctity of the holy places there. Not only Osama bin Laden, but other Saudis found it objectionable, and the Saudi princes could hardly disagree. Also, Saudi Arabia with the weight of many expensive useless princes, one of the fastest growing populations in the world, and an economy dependent on oil revenues, saw its per capita income plunge. The oil income per person fell from $22,589 in 1980 to $4,564 in 2004. The natives were growing restless. The United States did not want to undermine the compliant Saudi government so it thought to move the bases to an Iraq with a newly installed puppet regime. Saddam could put up no resistance. It would be a cakewalk. With control of Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran would be next. 9/11 was a perfect pretext. It didn't turn out that way.

In the early nineties few saw the coming peak in world oil production, but that peak must now weigh upon policymakers' minds. Soon demand will exceed supply and prices will rise rapidly. Although oil is now sold on the open market, the United States will have a hard time competing with China for it. China has over one trillion US dollars of reserves. It would almost certainly spend this to keep its economy growing and its energy needs met. Were oil prices to rise even faster than they have been the American economy would almost certainly fall into recession or worse. Given the economy's present condition this recession would likely be long and deep. There is no doubt that the social turmoil following deep economic trouble would dwarf the present antiwar protests. These likely consequences give new urgency to American elites' need to control the oil fields of the world and particularly those of the Persian Gulf.

As anyone who has been paying attention knows, the war in Iraq is lost. But departure from Iraq will definitely cause the United States to lose control of the Persian Gulf. The Iraqi government will collapse overnight leaving the country in chaos. The United States will no longer present a credible military presence in the neighborhood, and the governments of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the other oil-producing Gulf states, who have been loyal retainers until now, will have no reason to favor the United States over anyone else who will pay a higher price for their oil. China already has oil projects in Saudi Arabia and Iran. With population exploding and per capita income shrinking, Saudi Arabia will be in the most trouble. The Princes' control and Saudi Arabia's economy is shaky. To appease their citizens they will have to keep their own domestic oil prices low. With their exploding population their own consumption will be a larger and larger drain on their production, and they will continue to subsidize this domestic consumption or face social turmoil. What oil they do sell they will want to sell for as much as they can get.

To leave Iraq is to leave the Persian Gulf oil fields. Since Americans will have a tough time obtaining oil at anywhere near the rate they have been in an open market, the American economy will suffer a trauma from this loss. And since those in power know that Americans will not tolerate an end of the era of happy motoring, they plan to attack Iran in the hope of retaining control of the Gulf.

But this can be no ordinary attack. Everything indicates that any conventional attack on Iran will have devastating repercussions for the United States, and will produce an immediate oil drought. Iran has too many ways to retaliate, and too many of them will affect the United States directly. For this reason the United States and Israel are contemplating a nuclear attack to obliterate Iranian power. Anything less would certainly allow Iran to cut off the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow bottleneck at the bottom of the Gulf through which much of the oil from the Persian Gulf passes.

If the United States attacks Iran with nuclear weapons it is unlikely that its oil will flow soon. All that messy left over radiation. Highly trained geologists with many options might not want to bathe in it. If there are people left walking around in Iran they might not be too friendly. The consequences of such an attack are completely unpredictable, and oil companies need political stability to make the mammoth investments needed to extract oil. Judging from the Iraqi opposition the only way the United States might make Iran safe for American oil companies is to wipe out the population entirely. But then Iran would be radioactive for centuries.

So here's the situation as I think they see it. Controlling the Persian Gulf is a prime directive, but we have lost in Iraq. That loss will end American control. One consequence of this loss is that Iran is stronger and the U.S. weaker. Without a US military presence in the Gulf, Iran will dominate it, the United States will not be able to obtain the oil it now uses at prices it can afford, and the American way of life will have to change. Those in power desperately hope to hang on to the Gulf by causing regime change in Iran, or breaking Iran up into statelets and failed states. But war with Iran will leave most of Persian Gulf oil unavailable because we cannot attack Iran without nuclear weapons. Iran's ability to retaliate is too great. But if we attack with nuclear weapons oil flow from the Gulf will drop off drastically or stop and prices will increase sharply, plunging us and the world into oil shortage, recession, and wider war. So to attack Iran might retain American control of the Persian Gulf at the expense of the oil. All we can do is destroy what we can't have, like a spoiled child.

Even if the United States manages, through the use of force, to obtain its oil requirements from what is left, someone else will have to go without. Who will it be? How will the United States prevent China from obtaining oil while continuing the flow to Japan? Or will we jettison Japan in the emergency? What about India? Where will it stop? Social turmoil, desperate measures, and likely wider war will follow oil shortages.

The rich and powerful fight for wealth and power, but it is just possible that they do not fight for the democratic political structure of the United States. Leo Strauss, the godfather of neoconservatism did not favor liberal democracy. It is possible to fight a war with no intention of winning, 1984 style. The goal would be to fight and keep fighting forever. That would allow the transformation of the United States into an oligarchic dictatorship and distract the American public from the loss of the era of happy motoring. All hardship would be borne for the sake of fighting the endless war. And since resource scarcity is partially a population problem, massacre might just be part of the solution.

It is convenient to blame our leaders. George W. Bush is an easy target, but when we aim at him we overlook our own responsibility. Politicians know Americans will punish anyone who presides over a fall into hard times. Our somnambulism and our way of life dictate our need to consume one quarter of the world's oil, and a disproportionate share of most other resources. But we don't want to look at what is required to get all that stuff. The United States is living in a ferocious active ignorance, and that ignorance is as much a cause of the present apocalyptic danger as anything. We cannot have both happy motoring and no war, but that is precisely what we want. Instead we have happy motoring and no real awareness of the war. We have to publicly accept our willingness to use less if we expect our politicians to admit to and act upon the need to power down.

As things stand now Americans seem quite willing to accept massacre over there and totalitarian repression over here just so long as they can pull up to the pump and fill 'er up. Yes, our elites fight for wealth and power, but why shouldn't they? The untrammeled capitalism we have embraced offers wealth and power as rewards. Our elites are the winners in this game. Since we offer no real objections to the ruthless pursuit of wealth and power, but in fact openly admire it, why shouldn't they pursue it? It was their very success that made them the elites in the first place. To object that the Bush administration didn't do a good job on the war, which is, after all, what the polls really tell us, is to tacitly admit that the war, if only swiftly won, would have been a fine thing. Americans are obviously unperturbed by atrocities and the loss of their liberties as long as no one takes away their toys or tells them what is really happening. Cushy oblivion, so we can feel good about ourselves, is the true goal of American life. We don't really object to being lied to, we insist on it.

But that won't work any more. The era of happy motoring will soon end no matter how deeply we stick our heads in the sand. We cannot continue to use oil as we have been. Everything points to a peak within the decade. The only question is how it will end. One way is to decimate the human population in the hope that the remaining elites might be able to live it up on what's left. Given that those in power are obviously sanguine and sanguinary murderers, this might be their plan. If they can massacre them they can massacre us. But the elites are in for a surprise. Warlords, not capitalists, will rule after such carnage. On the other hand, if there is to be a peaceful solution it will have to be a conscious worldwide plan to power down. The whole idea is completely alien to the American way of life, and therefore is extremely unlikely. Indeed, it is unprecedented in human existence. But that is what it will take if we are to have even a remote chance of escaping widespread war, totalitarian repression, and massacre. Athens, the model for our democracy, had to abandon the city to save it during the Persian War. We need to take as bold a step.


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Internal Resources

Lubricating Our Megamachines, by Gilles d'Aymery

Oil, The Elites, And The Commons, by Gilles d'Aymery

Energy Resources And Our Future, by Admiral Hyman G. Rickover

United States' Gargantuan Energy Appetite, by Gilles d'Aymery

Fossil Fuels and Energy Ressources

Middle East & Eurasia

The Rape of Iraq

Patterns which Connect


About the Author

Michael Doliner has taught at Valparaiso University and Ithaca College. He lives with his family in Ithaca, N.Y.



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This Edition's Internal Links

Lubricating Our Megamachines - Gilles d'Aymery

Two Views: Reasonable/Rational and Neocon/Born Again - Milo Clark

A Mess Of Potage - Carol Warner Christen

On Obligation In A Participatory Democracy - Michael DeLang

Attitude - Martin Murie

A Freak Speaks - Troy Headrick

Beware Of Those Desperate Hawks - Philip Greenspan

Pimps and Ponces at War - Film Review by Peter Byrne

"The Producers" In Denmark - Charles Marowitz

Another Chekhov Worth Meeting - Book Review by Peter Byrne

Islamorada - Book Excerpt by William T. Hathaway

Satori - Poem by Guido Monte

Blips #47 - From the Martian Desk - Gilles d'Aymery

Letters to the Editor

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Published February 12, 2007