The most frequently repeated slogans often turn out to be the most inane when subjected to sustained scrutiny. Case in point: the mantra “No war for oil,” which has been plastered across placards, bulletin boards and editorial pages for the last several weeks.
The slogan represents a theory of Bush’s true motivations for going to war against Iraq. Since Iraq has immense petroleum reserves, Bush and his colleagues in the oil industry are dying to take over the country. Iraq, the theory goes, will then become a de facto colony for rapacious American industrialists eager to prey on its natural resources.
Bush, in this view, is cynically exploiting humanitarian claims while setting up American soldiers and innocent Iraqis in furtherance of corporate greed. Hence the chant of “No war for oil,” or the older “No, no we won’t go! We won’t fight for Texaco.”
There are two problems with denouncing the war as a conspiracy of oil barons.
The first, and less significant issue, is that it simply isn’t true. If Bush really wants access to Iraq’s oil, all he needs to do is remove American forces from the region and put an end to the U.N. embargo. Saddam Hussein would be only too happy to sell us his oil and save America the expenses involved in waging war.
Rather than being a motive for war, the desire to obtain Iraqi oil is a strong argument for adopting a hands-off policy, letting Hussein do whatever he likes as long as the oil keeps flowing. Any confrontation with Iraq hurts American industry; it doesn’t line corporate pockets.
But the main problem with the slogan isn’t that it implies an implausible conspiracy theory. Far worse is that it unreflectively declares that oil isn’t worth fighting for. Oil, the slogan suggests, is something only Texas plutocrats should be concerned about, ignoring the fact that control of oil reserves and oil revenues has life and death ramifications for people all over the world.
The fact that so much of the world’s oil is under the control of Saddam Hussein ought to be of concern to everyone. What harm can he do with that oil? Try these scenarios:
a) He can spill it into the ocean or burn it, using the environment as a hostage for his demands.
b) He can sell it and use the revenues to pay for chemical weapons.
c) He can use the revenue to fund terrorist activity elsewhere in the world.
In the last decade Saddam Hussein has done all of the above. He ordered the torching of countless oil wells during the Gulf War, and then proceeded to spill even more oil into the sea.
The United States has led the efforts to curtail Iraqi oil exports for the last decade, but even so, Saddam is still able to make enough money from oil revenue to invest in chemical and biological weapons, as the previous round of U.N. inspectors have attested. Saddam still has the money to pay $20,000 to the family of each Palestinian suicide bomber. It’s a standing offer, even though thousands of Iraqis are dying of malnutrition.
Oil has allowed Saddam to induce environmental disaster, amass lethal weaponry, and fuel a bloody conflict hundreds of miles from his own borders.
According to the London-based Centre for Global Energy Studies, Iraq is “illegally” exporting around 150,000 barrels of oil to Syria ever day. Syria has benefited considerably from this black market trade.
The Syrian angle is particularly serious because Syria funds and supplies Hezbollah, a Shiite fundamentalist guerilla movement bent on the destruction of Israel. According to Jeffrey Goldberg in last week’s New Yorker, intelligence experts consider Hezbollah even more dangerous than al-Qaida. Even worse, Goldberg reports, Hezbollah may very well trigger the next middle Eat war, along Israel’s Lebanese border.
But Saddam Hussein and his allies are not the only beneficiary of the status quo. With Iraqi oil shipments curtailed, Saudi Arabia has held an effective oil monopoly that has enriched the ruling oligarchy immensely. According to many economists, in the absence of oil, Saudi Arabia’s per capita income would be lower than in many areas of sub-Saharan Africa.
Here’s where the control of oil supplies begins to have global ramifications. With their oil revenues, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states have contributed enormous sums of money to extremist Islamic groups around the world. Private donors and nongovernmental organizations in these countries have founded the establishment of Islamic academies or madrasas, dedicated to promulgating the radical Wahabi doctrine.
Through direct donations and establishing such institutions, the oil wealth of Saudi Arabia and the gulf states efforts has been crucial in the development of al-Qaida and the Taliban. The oil monopoly created by the conflict with Saddam has aided the proliferation of fanaticism, intolerance and terror from Gaza to Afghanistan.
But the greatest risk to global security comes from the madrasas that the Saudis and others fund in Pakistan, which are the source of the terrorist attacks against India. Terrorism on the border between India and Pakistan creates a serious risk of nuclear war.
If Iraq were ruled by a government not bent on acquiring weapons of mass destruction, the oil embargo could be lifted. World oil supply would rise and prices would fall significantly — as would the discretionary income that the Saudis and others lavish on the world’s most destructive causes.
The cynic’s version of the golden rule holds that he who has the gold makes the rules. In today’s world, oil buys even more than a disproportionate ability to remake that world as they see fit.
If you think about it that way, oil just might be something worth fighting for.
Eli Muller is a senior in Silliman College. His column appears regularly on alternate Thursdays.