The True Cost of War for Oil


"We have to decide, as a nation, whether our need for Middle Eastern oil is more important to our future than our conduct as a moral and ethical people." Which brave presidential candidate would lay it on the line so clearly? None yet. And that’s the problem with the national debate on the war in Iraq, and possibly, our foray into Iran as well.

Alan Greenspan, former chair of the Federal Reserve, has declared that "…the Iraq war is largely about oil" in his recently released memoirs. "People say we’re not fighting for oil. Of course we are," said the Republican Senator from Nebraska Chuck Hagel to law students of Catholic University last September. "They talk about America’s national interest. What the hell do you think they’re talking about? We’re not there for figs."

Yet, although anti-war activists decried the "blood for oil" connection from the beginning of the war, no honest conversations have occurred in the public to involve Americans in this discussion.

This is the debate that Americans should be having: on the one hand, America’s economy is fueled by our use of energy to run our lives–fueling our cars and SUVs, our industry, our homes. The United States uses 25% of the world’s oil and but we’re only 4% of the world’s population.

We like to be cool in the summer and warm in the winter, and we love the freedom of choosing to use as much energy as we want. We also don’t like anyone telling us that we have to change our ways. If we keep using energy the way we always have, we’re going to need a dependable source of it to ensure that our children and grandchildren have access to the same way of life. But we have competitors for oil in the world marketplace–China, especially–and many argue that if we don’t lock up Middle Eastern oil for ourselves now, we won’t have it for our use in the very near future. That will mean paying even more for energy and allowing other nations to rev up their economic engines at our expense.

On the other hand, the cost of ensuring this oil supply is a hefty one. Americans are losing lives. A generation of veterans will be suffering through the vast wounds of this war. Our actions in Iraq have led to as many as a million Iraqi deaths and many more wounded, and displaced 4.4 million Iraqis. We have, in the name of "The War on Terror", created so many U.S. enemies around the world, that our college-age students sew Canadian flags on their backpacks when abroad in the hopes of disguising their American identities.

As a result of this war, many Americans have come to accept that U.S. policy will include the moral and ethical disruptions of war–even when we have not been attacked by the people we invade, but rather are invading a weakened nation for the resource we desire.

Americans deserve this discussion so we can decide who we are and how we wish to solve this problem. Is it feasible or naïve to think we can use alternative energy sources instead of oil to address our needs?

Is it possible to change our habits and our lives to accommodate lower energy needs–or will too many Americans reject any change in habit?

And finally, are we really the noble Americans we like to think that we are, if we allow death and destruction of this magnitude to occur in our name?

We’re still waiting to hear the honest debate from our presidential candidates, from our media, and even with our friends and neighbors.

Bonnie Bricker is a teacher and contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus, where this essay originally appeared.

Adil E. Shamoo, born and raised in Baghdad, is a professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. He writes on ethics and public policy. He is an analyst for Foreign Policy In Focus. Both authors can be reached at: ashamoo@umaryland.edu.


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