Bush administration officials’ mantra these days is that a war on Iraq will have nothing to do with oil. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has said such a suggestion is “nonsense.”
“It has nothing to do with oil,” Rumsfeld said. “Literally nothing to do with it.”
The problem is — literally — that no one in the world believes that.
It’s not that people around the world don’t acknowledge weapons of mass destruction, terrorism and the human-rights abuses in Iraq as problems. It’s just that people also realize that war is not the solution for those problems, and if not for oil the United States would not be pressing for war.
How much the world understands this was made clear at last month’s World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil. The legendary Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano offered three reasons the United States wants to attack Iraq: “Petr?leo, petr?leo, petr?leo.”
The crowd in the packed arena — 15,000 from around the world — endorsed Galeano’s analysis with thunderous applause.
This focus on the relevance of oil doesn’t mean Galeano, or anyone else, believes that U.S. policymakers want to occupy Iraq and literally steal the oil; it’s hard to imagine even the most arrogant Bush official proposing that.
When President Bush says “We have no territorial ambitions; we don’t seek an empire,” he is telling half a truth. Certainly the United States isn’t looking to make Iraq the 51st state. But that’s not the way of empire today — it’s about control, not about territory.
Rumsfeld, trying to bolster his claim about the innocence of U.S. intentions, said, “Oil is fungible, and people who own it want to sell it and it’ll be available,” implying that the United States need not worry about being shut out from buying on the open market. That’s mostly correct, but irrelevant.
So, if policymakers do not seek to occupy Iraq permanently and take direct possession of its vast oil reserves (at least 112 billion barrels, second to Saudi Arabia), and if U.S. access to oil on the international market is not the issue, then what might be U.S. interests?
Many argue that the close ties between Bush and the oil industry suggest a war will be fought to give U.S. companies the inside track on exploiting oil in a post-Saddam Iraq. U.S. firms no doubt don’t like the privileged position that French and Russian companies have had, but focusing too much on short-term concerns misses a bigger U.S. strategic goal that has been part of policy for a more than half a century, through Republican and Democratic administrations.
The key is not who owns the oil but who controls the flow of oil and oil profits. After World War II, when the United States was one of the world’s leading oil producers and had little need for imported oil, the U.S. government trained attention on the Middle East. In 1945 the State Department explained that the oil constitutes “a stupendous source of strategic power, and one of the greatest material prizes in world history.”
In a world that runs on oil, the nation that controls the flow of oil has that strategic power. U.S. policymakers want leverage over the economies of our biggest competitors — Western Europe, Japan and China — which are more dependent on Middle Eastern oil. From this logic flows the U.S. policy of support for reactionary regimes (Saudi Arabia), dictatorships (Iran under the Shah) and regional military surrogates (Israel), always aimed at maintaining control.
This analysis should not be difficult to accept given the Bush administration’s National Security Strategy report released last fall, which explicitly calls for U.S. forces to be strong enough to deter any nation from challenging American dominance. U.S. policymakers state it explicitly: We will run the world. Or, in the words of the first President Bush after the first U.S. Gulf War, “What we say goes.”
Such a policy requires not only overwhelming military dominance but economic control as well. Mao said power flows from the barrel of a gun, but U.S. policymakers also understand it flows from control over barrels of oil.
ROBERT JENSEN is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, a member of the Nowar Collective, and author of the book Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream and the pamphlet “Citizens of the Empire.” He can be reached at email@example.com.