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The legendary doyenne of the White House press corps minced no words when she finally got her chance in March 2006 to put a question to the President: "Every reason given [for invading Iraq] has turned out not to be true . . . why did you really want to go to war?" asked Helen Thomas. "You have said it wasn’t oil . . . or anything else. What was it?"
George W. Bush sidestepped Thomas’ question about his true motive for war, insisting instead that he didn’t really want to go to war, that "no President wants war."
The little dust-up between the President and the feisty octogenarian attracted a brief flurry of media attention. But there was no accompanying media attention to Thomas' compelling question, which simply went unanswered, as it has for years.
Fresh evidence keeps coming to light – including revelations from top-secret British memos – about the intensity of the Bush administration’s determination to invade Iraq, whether or not Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Yet we don’t insist on knowing "why?"
Any suggestion of a possible oil motive in the war is still routinely dismissed as the terrain of conspiracy theorists.
The fact that Iraq is the last easily-harvested oil bonanza left on earth – a vast, virtually untouched reservoir of the world’s most valuable resource – is largely ignored, as pundits focus instead on the administration’s professed concern about building democracy in Iraq.
The refusal to take seriously the possibility of an oil motive is bizarre, given oil’s obvious geopolitical significance and the intense focus on oil exhibited by U.S. administrations, particularly the current one. George W. Bush himself highlighted the problem of America’s dependence on foreign oil in his 2006 State of the Union address.
And in a surprisingly frank comment in October 2005, Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Colin Powell, told a policy forum of the New America Foundation: "We had a discussion in policy planning about actually mounting an operation to take the oilfields in the Middle East, internationalize them, put them under some sort of UN trusteeship and administer the revenues and the oil accordingly. That's how serious we thought about it."
Even this intriguing comment, from a high-level administration insider, failed to provoke media questioning about a possible oil motive.
The centrality of oil to the modern world is well known. Oil is integrally related to virtually every aspect of our way of life from transportation, communication and the mass production of goods, to food, heat, light and military power. Access to oil is therefore essential to modern living, as well as being crucial to maintaining military dominance – as was amply demonstrated in both World Wars. If we separate the reality of oil’s importance from the politically sensitive issue of Iraq, we can easily appreciate why getting control of oil reserves has for decades been an important goal of powerful nations. This is particularly true of the United States, which is keen to protect its position as the dominant global power with the world’s most advanced standard of living.
The problem the U.S. faces is that while its appetite for oil is virtually unlimited, its reserves are quite limited. It consumes roughly 25 percent of all the oil produced in the world each year, but has only 3 percent of the world’s crude reserves. To make up for the shortfall, the U.S. relies heavily on oil from outside its borders, leaving it vulnerable if key reserves are under the control of hostile nations. Overcoming this vulnerability has been a central goal of U.S. policymakers, particularly since Arab nations dramatically cut back their oil exports for a brief period in the early 1970s.
With roughly two thirds of the world’s oil located in the Middle East, a major thrust of U.S. policy has long been gaining control over the region and its reserves.
Thus, for the past sixty years, Washington has provided crucial backing for the dictatorship in Saudi Arabia, protecting the royal family against threats from inside and outside the country. In exchange, Washington (along with U.S. oil companies) has enjoyed extraordinary leverage over Saudi oil policy, which effectively amounts to leverage over world oil policy.
Washington’s intervention in Iran has been even more direct. After a popular nationalist leader was elected there in the early 1950s, Tehran nationalized its foreign-owned oil industry. The big British and American oil companies were so incensed that they organized a worldwide boycott of nationalized Iranian oil. When the boycott failed to bring Tehran to its knees, Washington orchestrated a coup in 1953 that toppled the fledgling Iranian democracy and replaced it with a brutal, pro-U.S. dictatorship led by the Shah.
This background is routinely omitted from mainstream public debate, making it harder for the public to see the current U.S. intervention in Iraq as part of a larger historical pattern of the U.S. quest to control Middle Eastern oil. (Also left out of public debate is the role that U.S. interventions have inadvertently played in sparking the rise of a deeply anti-American Islamic fundamentalist movement in that part of the world.)
The possibility of an oil motive in the Iraq war is often dismissed on the grounds that it would be cheaper to simply buy the oil. Why bother invading, when you can get all the oil you want by just writing a cheque?
But the cheque-book solution was also available – and rejected by Washington – when Iran nationalized its oil a half-century ago. Tehran had every intention of continuing to sell oil to the U.S., and indeed was offering it at a very low price. Americans could have simply bought the nationalized oil.
But Washington wasn’t interested in a cheque-book solution. The issue for Washington wasn’t access to oil, it was control of oil. Without control, there is no guarantee of access. This point was driven home dramatically in 1973, when the Arab countries slashed their oil exports to punish Washington for purely political reasons. Thus, no cheque-book solution was even available. That Arab oil embargo left an indelible impression on U.S. strategic planners, who have since focused on ensuring America is never vulnerable like that again.
So spending $270 billion invading and occupying Iraq wasn’t a calculated plan to get oil at a good price. Rather it seems to have been, at least in part, a calculated plan to secure Washington’s crucial control over oil.