March 10, 2003

One last time: It's about the oil

By: Jerry Brito

As U.S. troops get ready to “shock and awe” Iraq, it’s important to take one last look at the Bush Administration’s motivations for a preemptive war. Oil is still high on the list.

In informed circles, saying that the coming war is about oil is taboo. That seems right because the confrontation with Iraq is about many things, including the misguided idea that a WMD-equipped Saddam Hussein poses a threat to America, and the neo-conservative, neo-imperialist vision of Pax Americana imposed on the Middle East.

It’s also the case that this war will not be fought to secure American access to oil, or to bring the U.S. closer to that fabled state of bliss known as energy independence. If anything, a war might disrupt access to oil in the short term. Oil is a fungible commodity sold on a world market. As long as there’s oil in the ground somewhere in the world, the U.S. will have access to it and at market prices (cartels don’t work). However ruthless or despicable the regime above the oil is, it will want to sell it.

So, although it’s quite right to frown on naïve arguments that claim the coming war is a trade of “blood for [access to] oil,” it would be equally naïve to deny that this conflict is, if only a little bit, about the control and development of Iraq’s oil resources. At the very least, it seems that’s what the opposition to the war is largely about.

Many opposed to war have been quick to embrace France’s anti-war leadership. But perhaps the French are better perceived as “duplicitous cowards”–The Economist’s words. Sure, anti-war rhetoric plays great with the electorate in Europe–as evinced by Gerhard Schröder’s meager re-election–but the French government’s opposition to war isn’t principled. It’s about staying relevant, counterbalancing U.S. hyperpower with, well, French greatness, and it’s about oil.

France is currently Iraq’s most favored trading partner, and French companies have multibillion-dollar oil contracts with the current Iraqi regime. Another country that has billionaire oil development contracts with Saddam’s regime is–surprise–Russia. It’s unlikely those contracts would be honored by a post-Saddam Iraqi regime; Kurdish leadership and the exiled Iraqi opposition have already said as much.

But it’s an American occupying force that will really call all the shots after the war, and it’s just as unlikely that anyone but British and American (and maybe Spanish) petroleum companies will get the coveted job of pulling the black stuff out of the ground. Sure, this is speculation, but speculation based on the Administration’s actions so far.

USAid, the U.S.’s foreign development agency, has begun the process of doling out $900 million in contracts to rebuild Iraq. According to press reports, it discreetly sent out requests for offers to at least five companies involved in infrastructure and engineering–all American. USAid says the companies were chosen because of their proven ability, and because it’s U.S. policy to use American companies for projects funded by taxpayers. That works great for Haliburton–the company where Dick Cheney served as CEO before becoming vice-president–which just got hired by the Pentagon to do all the post-war oil well firefighting.

No one is saying that powerful men sat down in a smoky room to plan a war in order to take over Iraq’s oil fields. Rather, it’s a convergence of different interests that has led to the coming war. Control of the petroleum development concession in Iraq is certainly one of those interests. At the very least it’s one of the main reasons for French and Russian opposition. It’s silly to say this war is decidedly not about oil.

Jerry Brito is editor of Brainwash and a student at George Mason University School of Law. His Web site is