Sunday, November 11, 2007

None dare say it was for oil

It must have seemed puzzling to many when the Bush administration put a full court press on former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan recently after the release of his memoir. In it Greenspan wrote that the administration had gone to war in Iraq over oil. That's hardly a blockbuster. The search for weapons of mass destruction (WMD) had ended in failure. The connection between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda had long since been debunked. And, any hope of establishing a stable democracy in Iraq had already been dashed by the wildly incompetent execution of the war.

WMD, the al Qaeda connection and the introduction of democracy in Iraq had all been at various times justifications for the war. One would think that under such circumstances a competent public relations adviser would have counseled the administration to just let Alan Greenspan's assertion pass. After all, the former central banker would soon be completing his book tour, and then he would fade from the news. Why respond, when doing so would only fan the flames?

But the counterattack came quickly on the Sunday morning talk shows and in the White House press room. Under bombardment from the administration Greenspan quickly "elaborated" on his views in order to deflect the return fire.

All of this could be seen as a relatively minor dustup over what is now broadly believed by the American public to be at least one of the major reasons for going to war. But, the assertion that the military mission in Iraq is primarily a raiding party for oil is more than just an embarrassment to the administration. Naturally, the collapse of the other justifications for the war led to a more widespread acceptance of this assertion. But, even more important, this assertion has implications which, if discussed and properly understood, would thunder through the public mind.

Admitting that the invasion of Iraq was about oil opens the door to a very troubling conversation. If the invasion was about oil, then it must mean that the supply of imported oil was somehow threatened. The supply could be threatened, of course, for two reasons: 1) Someone was threatening it, in this case Saddam Hussein, or 2) something was threatening it, possibly depletion. Delving further into both reasons demonstrates that both are plausible explanations. Of course, Saddam had already tried more than a decade earlier to seize the oil fields of Kuwait. If we examine the oil depletion argument, we find that depletion was starting to take its toll on world oil supplies. Today, we have confirmation of the administration's prescience on this point. So-called total liquids--which include even ethanol--remain down more than a million barrels a day from the high reached in July 2006. Therefore, it is of more than passing interest to Americans whether Middle Eastern governments, which control more than 60 percent of the world's remaining oil supply, are willing to pump it out more rapidly to keep the world economy afloat. If those governments won't do so voluntarily, perhaps the U. S. military can provide them with the proper incentive. (For a discussion of this interpretation, see my earlier piece from March 2005, Global Resource Wars: The Rosetta Stone.)

But, wait a minute? I thought we had ethanol, biodiesel and pretty soon hydrogen to power our cars. If the Iraq war is really about dwindling oil supplies, then that would call into question whether proposed oil substitutes will work as advertised. (Remember when hydrogen cars were just around the corner?) If these substitutes are going to work so splendidly, then why would we need to fight a war for oil at all?

Many inconvenient questions come tumbling out of the assertion that the Iraq War is about oil. This is the reason I believe that the Bush administration spends so much effort refuting such assertions. The simple fact is that if the Iraq War is really about oil (and I believe that it is), then this means that the current official story, namely, that a smooth, seamless transition to a post-oil economy is underway, is something that even the administration itself does not believe.

I am fairly certain that if the public understood this, it would be a lot more panicked about our energy future than it is.


Anonymous said...

I'm more in line with you on this one Kurt. I think oil is more of a cause than the nation is willing to admit.

In fact, I think people block themselves from thinking about it. They don't want to be the kind of nation that goes to war for oil, and so they avert their eyes.

(The problem in getting them to accept it is that you are asking them to accept responsibility.)

Anonymous said...

You make an interesting point linking denials regarding the oil motive for the war, and conscious or unconscious recognition that the publicly favored responses are most unequal to the challenge.

I do think those in the power circles are more worried than they're letting on.

You may be right. However, the denials aren't always so strong. Maybe some of them don't actually outright say that this was the U.S. motive, but the prominent individuals who have identified the problem as one of international competition over dwindling energy supplies include Senator Lugar, Condoleezza Rice, British Ambassador Sir David Manning and Henry Kissinger. And people like General Petreus have commented on the "fact" that Iraq has the second or third largest reserves, and many others (e.g. Senator McCain), speak of the US "vital interests" in the region.

Incidentally, Greenspan's first congressional testimony after leaving his position as Fed Chairman, was to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on June 7, 2006, on the topic of the energy situation. As usual he's none too clear about his actual beliefs, though near the end of his testimony he halfheartedly suggested that Peak Oil might be around 2040. But particularly the way he came right up to the edge of saying that North American natural gas is in decline, but then leapfrogged over it - rightly assuming that his audience would understand without saying - and the general thrust of his testimony over energy problems that are occurring now, make Senator Biden's comment that he seemed to be talking about an oil peak in the present seem eminently reasonable.
Also I recall Senator Voinovitch's comment somewhere, that the witness seemed to be suggesting that the problems may be more amenable to solutions than many on the Committee (privately) think. And several of them are on record as anticipating extremely serious consequences, described in terms like "cataclysmic" (Senator Coleman) - admittedly, those are far from their standard public performances on the issue, usually couched in comparatively moderate terms.

For those interested, the other day I posted on The Oil Drum site a chronology of public evidence regarding the Bush administration's deep concerns over adequacy of energy supplies. It's in the comments part of Drumbeat for November 9, 2007, most of the way toward the bottom. The final link provided is one to Greenspan's testimony.

Steve Athearn

Mike K Flagstaff AZ said...

Nice analysis Kurt, I think the Bush admin. does not believe in the post-oil energy sources ---- but then again, neither do the Dems. Notice how all of the Dems' fire-breathing about getting out of Iraq (coincident with the 2006 midterm elections) is now silenced, and ALL of the Dem candidates get hinky and weasely when asked if we will be outa there by 2013. Iraq is now a permanent bipartisan strategy -- we will be there for a long, long time. The real question is if we can get in there solidly enough to get the oil flowing to the SUV's and McHouses back home; if so, it might just make up for the depletion of the North Sea and Cantarell.

Rice Farmer said...

I've no doubt the war is for oil, though my take is slightly different. But let me preface my remarks by saying that I agree that nothing can replace oil, so claims that biofuels, hydrogen, and the like are going to maintain what oil has built are pie in the sky.

However, I think that reason for trying to steal Iraq's oil is of secondary importance to US elites. Of primary importance is the huge geopolitical advantage that would be won by gaining control of the oil and denying it to competitors like China and Russia. This dovetails perfectly with the PNAC plan for world domination. Iraq's oil is high-quality and largely untapped. Its control would provide a significant energy advantage over countries forced to make do with low-quality or deep-water oil. And as you can see, the race is on all over the world (including deep waters) to lay claim to whatever hydrocarbon resources can be found. The geopolitical advantage of controlling Iraq's oil is more than apparent.

Anonymous said...

While i agree with your point of view im afraid i cant agree with your last comment. I dont think the american public has the capacity to panic. Thye have been fed ever shorter sound and video bites and ever more banal "entertainment" that their conscious and conscience have both been lobotomized. If it cant be said and understood in 5 minutes and isnt affecting them in the next 24 hours then it just isnt real.

Ken said...

Iraq's oil is one of the great fortunes of our time; whilst the estimates of how much are largely guesswork, more than US$1trillion and as much as $10trillion seems reasonable. In an era of insatiable demand and declining supply it's not unreasonable to expect that value to rise sharply. Anyone who thinks that it's not a major, if not the major consideration in taking military action isn't looking at those numbers.

It seems to me there's been a shift in US policy as to what's a legitimate grounds for military intervention - from defence and security of the nation and it's citizens to defence and security of global markets and the corporate players in it. After all, the Iraqi oil is to be put in the hands of the major oil companies to see it made available to The Market, not specifically US companies, or for US consumption. Of course being a wealthy nation means it will flow that direction, but a precedent of sorts has been set; the right of nations to make war to access resources of other nations, because they need them (and haven't acted sufficiently to reduce their dependence).

As the flow of oil slows, the strategic/economic importance of this commodity will be heightened. The temptation for nations with military might to "secure" supply for their own nation rather than secure it for The Market will rise - and for fear other nations will do that, tempt them to act pre-emtively.

At a time when strong international rules of law are most needed, the most powerful of nations has been undermining them in order to put their short term interests first. Down the line this will only make major resource wars more likely.