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IT’S NOT ABOUT OIL

John Chuckman

I do get tired of reading claims that oil is the reason why Mr. Bush wants to attack Iraq. Perhaps, commentators pick oil because it seems to give clarity where there is so little, evoking the slightly romantic image of 19th century troops in pith helmets scrambling for colonial resources.

I don’t want to be guilty of discouraging Americans from giving up on their horribly wasteful and polluting SUVs, for there are many important reasons to encourage them to do so, but at least for now, oil supply is not one of them.

Yes, of course, Bush’s light-truck constituency cares about oil, and Iraq’s reserves are second only to Saudi Arabia’s. But the notion that a great power needs physically to control sources of a plentiful raw material is simply outdated. The nationalization of oil reserves, a world-wide phenomenon of a few generations ago, is something not likely to be undone, and, besides, a very comfortable modus vivendi has grown up between producing and consuming governments.

Anything resembling American expropriation of Middle East oil fields would produce tidal waves, not just in the Arab world, but in places like Mexico and Venezuela. I cannot think of a better way of causing al Qaeda recruits to line up in a dozen countries much the way alarmed, idealistic young Britains lined up in 1914 to fight “the damned Bosch.” Even with the hillbilly-crowd running the White House, I think it safe to say this approach is not on.

Iraq’s reserves are of no value to Iraq unless their production is for sale. No matter who runs Iraq, it is a sure bet that its oil will flow for as long as the reserves hold out, at prices worked out under those cozy arrangements of producing and consuming countries. In recent years, it has only been America’s harsh economic restrictions on Iraq that prevented a possible glutting of the oil market.

Iraq’s reserves represent a gigantic future revenue stream, many hundreds of billions of dollars. Bush’s crowd definitely wants this future revenue stream put into hands that are friendlier to American policy.

The uncertainty that Saddam Hussein represents for American policy-makers is not uncertainty over the availability of oil, it is uncertainty over what Hussein may choose to do with the revenue stream over the decade or so possibly left to his rule, and it is the uncertainty of what Israel may do in response.

Hussein’s army is not a serious threat to Israel. Its leadership and equipment make it inferior in almost every respect to the IDF, and it certainly doesn’t have the United States supplying round-the-clock military intelligence, new technical capabilities, a bottomless supply of spare parts, and diplomatic pouches full of cash.

But Hussein with a small nuclear arsenal is quite another matter. Israel is a small country, and just two or three nuclear devices could devastate its highly-urbanized population. And you wouldn’t need missiles to achieve this. School buses, delivery trucks, aircraft, or fishing boats are all more accurate delivery systems than Iraqi Scuds.

That is the reason why Israel not only has nuclear weapons but has more of them than it would at first appear to need as a deterrent. The concept at work here is having a deterrent that compensates for Israel’s small size vis-à-vis a threat from a much larger country or a group of countries.

The United States, it seems almost childishly unnecessary to say, does not care about how wicked or unpleasant Hussein may be. Nor does it care about his record on human rights. The truth is that he is no worse than the many cut-throats the U.S. cozily does business with.

The problem with Hussein is that he won’t play the game under rules the U.S. has laid down. Oh, he has cooperated in the past, and for considerable periods of time he was treated as one of America’s useful clients, receiving many special favors. He was especially useful when he went to war against revolutionary Iran and ground down that nation’s ardor and resources and young people with years of bloody conflict.

America’s role in that conflict was the same utterly amoral one it has so often taken where it saw that the shedding of someone else’s blood might achieve some desired dirty work.

But when it became clear that Hussein was working to arm himself with nuclear weapons, an excuse to flatten him and remove his capacity had to be found. Ergo, America’s secret diplomatic wink at his intention to invade Kuwait, setting him up for Desert Storm. This was a conflict that also had little to do with oil, except that possession of Kuwait’s reserves would swell Hussein’s revenue stream and speed the day when the U.S. would be required always to address him as “sir.”

After killing perhaps a hundred thousand innocent people with its bombing, destroying much of Iraq’s water and sanitation systems (something not widely known in the U.S.), its electricity grid, and much other infrastructure, the U.S. never expected Hussein to survive in power. How much better to let internal pressures do the work rather than U.S. troops, it being certain that the coalition would have collapsed over an invasion of Iraq itself. All the arguments militating against an invasion today were the same then. No-fly zones, intended to irritate and embarrass him, CIA plottings, and, most of all, a murderous embargo were supposed to quicken events.

The policy has miserably failed. Hussein remains firmly in control, and no opposition worth mentioning exists. And talk about evil, more than a million Iraqis have died prematurely since Desert Storm as a result of America’s embargo combined with the devastating effects of bombed water and sewer facilities. The U.S. unquestionably bears a terrible moral responsibility for all that death.

So despite clear evidence that Hussein had nothing to do with al Qaeda, had no nuclear weapons, had no ready prospect of having any, and ignoring the many valid arguments against invasion, the Bush crowd seized the opportunity offered by the angry haze around 9/11 to topple him.

Bush displays classic American impatience and petulance about having a problem cleared away as quickly as possible, even if it is done at the cost of other people’s lives. What Bush is really telling the world is that instead of allowing a patient U.N. regime of inspections continue until the day Hussein departs the scene, he would rather start a war that will kill tens of thousands more innocent Iraqis, infuriate millions of people in other countries, and be done with the matter.

Bush has no reasonable successor to put in Hussein’s place, and, as with almost all the U.S.’s inglorious postwar interventions, the poor people of Iraq will certainly be left afterwards in their smoking, rat-infested ruins to cope. The U.S. has no more patience for long-term assistance and planning than it does for the long-term efforts at diplomacy and international cooperation that could readily maintain the status quo.

Of course, Mr. Bush has a very noisy cheering section in Mr. Sharon and Mr. Netanyahu and their American supporters. It really is not possible for America to damage and cripple Iraq enough to satisfy them.

Were the policy summed up in concise and accurate terms, “Do you favor killing maybe another hundred thousand people (mostly civilians as is always the case in modern war) in order to get Iraq quickly off our diplomatic plate?” I wonder just how many Americans would continue supporting Bush? Of course, Mr. Bush’s teams of hacks and propagandists do not use such terms when addressing Americans, and all Mr. Bush’s words to them are charged with cheap emotions rather than facts.

But many of the world’s leaders have conspired to blunt Mr. Bush’s drive to war. We now hear from Mr. Bush an entirely different argument from what we heard not many months ago. The issue now is clearly weapons, not garbage about terror or evil or the need for democracy in the Middle East. But, of course, if the issue is truly weapons, an efficient inspection regime is all that is required, not a major war. In effect, Mr. Bush’s pathetic arguments have been turned diplomatically on their heads.

This change is thanks to the brave efforts of some genuine statesman. Perhaps, it is most of all is owing to the heroic efforts of Mr. Blix and his team of U.N. inspectors. If Mr. Blix succeeds in stopping Bush’s rush to war, he will be one of the most deserving candidates for the Nobel peace prize on record.
The inspectors work against tremendous odds. Bush has pulled out all the stops in trying to browbeat, coax, or bribe others nations to support his goal. He has forgiven loans, dropped strictures, hinted at reprisals, and thrown around tons of money, and Mr. Blix has worked against a nasty White House campaign to harass and vilify him.

Of course, Bush’s attitudes are inextricably linked to the experience of his father. If you don’t think that such highly personal attitudes often play a role in history, you haven’t studied enough of it.

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