What Oil War?

One argument I’ve seen peddled by supporters of energy independence is that the USA’s recent military adventurism is entirely the result of its needing oil and putting it above people’s lives; on this blog, commenters who’ve said that include Yoram and Lindsay.

But as attractive as it makes energy self-sufficiency from a humanitarian viewpoint, it’s not true. The US was a net oil exporter until 1948, which didn’t prevent it from treating Latin America as its backyard, invading it continually and installing puppet regimes in it with surprising regularity. While a few of the Cold War’s incursions, like the coup in Iran, were resource-motivated, the rest were a standard exercise in sphere of influence building. Vietnam had no natural resources the US needed.

This is true both in history and in the present. Up until 9/11, American neoconservatism was dominated by fears of China, not of Islam. Even in the last five years, some American foreign policy exercises have been clearly pointed at China; the sphere of influence building in East, Southeast, and Central Asia has nothing to do with energy and everything to do with encircling China.

Although Bush himself wanted to attack Iraq all along, his motivation was likely personal rather than corporate. The broader neoconservative establishment only went along with it after 9/11, which shifted the location of The Enemy westward. And even then, the number one priority was securing pro-American regimes for the purpose of securing pro-American regimes, rather than securing oil flows.

This trend is also true for other belligerent countries. Ahmadinejad’s main concern isn’t oil, which his country is a net exporter of, or any other natural resource. It’s his demented ideology, and the need to make sure the Iranian people don’t  see through that ideology and overthrow the entire regime. India’s jabs at Pakistan aren’t about any natural resource, but about historical grudges and another demented ideology.

This establishes that autarky does not prevent belligerence. But in fact, there’s more: autarky spares a country the need to be concerned with the rest of the world. It doesn’t prevent it from starting wars of aggression – the US was perfectly content to keep intervening in Latin America in the interwar period – but does prevent it from participating in just wars and programs of economic development.

I can’t think of a single war in the modern era that took place between two countries that freely traded with each other. It’s partly due to the fact that countries only sign free trade agreements if their relationships are good enough that they’ll not go to war with each other, but it goes both wars: world powers have always needed to secure resource flows before going to war with other powers. Japan’s invasion of Southeast Asia, which was intended to ensure food self-sufficiency, was a glaring exception to the general rule, examples of which include post-1949 China, the entire history of the United States, Nazi Germany, the old European empires, and even the modern Middle East.

8 Responses to What Oil War?

  1. SLC says:

    Mr. Levys’ analysis is not entirely accurate. One of the main future causes of friction with China is the demand for Middle East oil. With the rapid expansion of industrialization in China, her demand for oil has outpaced her internal production capability (as recently as 15 years ago, China was a net exporter of oil). As the peak oil moment approaches, this source of friction will become more acute, as China energetically moves to expand its influence in Middle East affairs, in order to insure its own oil supplies, crucial to its increasing status as a great power. This is why the Bush administration considered it to be in the national interest to insure that Iraqi oil (Iraq has the second largest oil reserves in the world) would be controlled by a pro-American regime, which Saddam clearly was not.

  2. Alon Levy says:

    It’s one of the causes, but not the only one. Overall, the confrontation between the US and China seems very much like the one between Britain and Germany a hundred years ago – one rising power is challenging an established one for dominance. Natural resources are part of the equation, but so are standard sphere of influence building and a good old-fashioned economic cold war.

  3. SLC says:

    Re Levy

    I did not mean to imply that it was the only cause. However, it is probably the most important cause because lack of oil means that China can not achieve great power status.

  4. When people say that the US invaded Iraq because of oil, that doesn’t necessarily mean we invaded Iraq in order to steal that oil. It is about spheres of influence.

    One of the prerequisites of a healthy modern economy is a steady and affordable supply of petroleum. It so happens that most desirable oil in the world is underneath some very nasty, unstable regimes. This is a very real problem for the whole world. We didn’t want Saddam Hussein seizing Kuwait’s oil supplies. We don’t want the House of Saud falling to Islamic radicals. Ordinarily, we wouldn’t care that much about the internal affairs of tiny countries on the other side of the world. It so happens that they have something that we care about: Oil.

    The neocons had a naive faith that they could bring democracy to the Middle East. The cynics were hoping for an American puppet government. The idealists were hoping that the Iraqi electorate would elect leaders who would make Iraq a peaceful and cooperative member of the community of nations. The further myth was that once Iraq became a democracy, all the other nations in the region would want to be democracies, too. Wouldn’t it be convenient if Iraq and Iran suddenly had stable pro-Western governments beholden to the US for military assistance, etc.? That’s what they were hoping for.

  5. rod. says:

    Congratulations for a rather insightful, intelligent and balanced text. Too bad that mainstream media seem to have lost such qualities…

  6. To add to what Lindsay has said, one of the rarely stated facts of American foreign policy is that we do not get that much of our oil from the middle-east. About 80-85% of our oil supply actually comes from Latin America, the middle-east is the primary supplier of East Asia and Europe.

    Our obsession with mid-east oil is not about keeping oil fungible, as the command economies of the middle-east survive on little more than their oil-supplies. What is about is the strength of the American dollar, which is the source of our economic hegemony. The dominance of the American dollar has been sitting on rather thin-ice for a while, with any event set to instantiate a “snowball effect” of inflation and, some would predict, hyper-inflation. One of those events would be a major supplier of mid-east oil switching from USD to Euros.

    In the end America is in the same position as Britain was in the early 20th. century, and especially the years immediately following WWII. Our sphere of influence is declining, and we are desperately trying to hold on. History doesn’t bode well for a nation in such a predicament.

  7. KH says:

    Up until 9/11, American neoconservatism was dominated by fears of China, not of Islam. … Although Bush himself wanted to attack Iraq all along, his motivation was likely personal rather than corporate. The broader neoconservative establishment only went along with it after 9/11, which shifted the location of The Enemy westward. (Emphasis added.)

    This is, of course, precisely the self-exculpating narrative being promulgated by neoconservatives themselves. (I assume you’re relying on something you read. Where?) They, like their opponents within the US political class, certainly were concerned about China. But they were able to hold more than one idea in their heads at one time, & were distinguished from other trends of opinion on foreign military-political policy by their aggressiveness toward, inter alia, Iraq. Is there any more nakedly apologist way of describing things than to say that they merely “went along” with somebody else’s desire to conquer Iraq? The decision for war, like any important decision in a complex system, had more than one father, but neoconservatives actively worked for it, even before 9/11. & bear full moral responsibility for the vast suffering they’ve helped cause. Why would any serious person seek to trivialize it?

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