In 2003, Paul Wolfowitz, then the deputy secretary of defense, claimed that “the notion that the war was ever about oil is a complete piece of nonsense.” His boss, Donald Rumsfeld, agreed. The war “does not relate to oil,” he said. “I mean, it just plain doesn’t.”
Such expansive claims might strike you as absurd. There is a lot of oil in Iraq, after all. But many in Washington – indeed at the Washington Post – seemed to find them credible. Columnist Richard Cohen wrote that the world “must bear in mind that the American and British troops in the desert are not fighting for oil.” The headline over a January 24, 2003 oped by Thomas Lippman proclaimed simply, “It’s Not a War for Oil.” And the Post’s own editorial board was able to make a 1,500-word affirmative case for invading Iraq without once mentioning Iraqi oil.
Opinions change, though, and in his Sunday Outlook piece, “A Crude Case for War?,” Steven Mufson has found a more nuanced approach to understanding the role of oil in our Iraqi adventure.
Mufson locates this new attitude in, among other places, the words of Zaab Sethna, the American who was Ahmed Chalabi’s closest aide in the run-up to the war. Sethna continues to aver that he never heard oil policy discussed at any of the Pentagon or State Department meetings he attended before the war. But he now notes as well that, of course, “Iraq is sitting on a very large portion of oil” and is, therefore, “important for U.S. security interests.”
Similarly, Anthony Cordesman, a former national security assistant to Senator John McCain, continues to reject “the idea that the war was designed on behalf of oil companies.” But he is now also able to at least consider a few “what-if” scenarios. “If we went to war for oil,” for instance, then “we did it as clumsily as anyone could do.”
Such admissions, no matter how grudging or even hypothetical, might strike fans of reality as progress. We may not agree on why the oil in Iraq is important, but we can at least agree that it is important. And from there, we might even be able to have an open and detailed debate about how to advance our interests in Iraq.
Mufson comes away with a different conclusion. “[C]oncern about oil supplies is part of the architecture of U.S. foreign policy,” he writes. And who could disagree? In fact, readers might expect the next thought to be: therefore we ought to consider oil policy in all its considerable and complex detail.
But that is not Mufson’s next thought. Instead, he makes the very surprising claim that “oil needn’t be mentioned.” And why needn’t oil be mentioned? Well, “because it’s self-evident.”
That is a strong claim! Isn’t Mufson even just a little bit curious about the “architecture of U.S. foreign policy”? We never find out, alas, because, perhaps in keeping with his own views about self-evidence, he ends his piece a few words later.
Mufson’s conclusion is disappointing, to say the least. It is depressing to have to say something so obvious, but the claim that our oil policy is “self-evident” and therefore beyond discussion is preposterous. That’s like saying Iowa policy makers don’t need to bother talking about corn anymore, because they already know how integral it is to the Iowa economy. It is not an ideological error. It is an empty set.
You can be a hegemonist or a pacifist, a realist or a neo-con – without oil in the Iraq equation, nothing will add up.
Should Iraq’s new government have strong central authority or cede power to regional officials? Well, if you are in a region with a lot of oil, as the Kurds and the Shia are, then you will favor regional power. If you are in a region with little oil, as the Sunni are, then you will favor central authority.
Why is Basra, which is predominantly Shia, so violent? In large part because warlords there are fighting a mafia war over oil-smuggling profits – profits that, in turn, are fueling the insurgency.
Who will rebuild Iraq’s infrastructure? China, which will have the greatest need for oil in the years to come, would very much like to help out. So would other oil-seeking nations. Yet some Iraqis would prefer that their country pay its own way and, thereby, retain control of its sole source of income.
America’s political leaders used to be capable of discussing oil like adults. Jimmy Carter, for one, had no problem admitting to “the overwhelming dependence of the Western democracies on oil supplies from the Middle East” and asserting a military interest in the Gulf region. In fact, that assertion is now called the Carter Doctrine.
Even Dick Cheney, at the conclusion of the first Gulf War, noted that one motivation for the war was that Saddam Hussein “was clearly in a position to dictate the future of worldwide energy policy.”
And yet today we only have riddles. We are not in Iraq for the oil. It never even came up in the meetings! But of course we would not be in Iraq if it had no oil. That would be silly.
It is possible that no one at the White House discussed oil in the run up to this war. Such a shocking failure of leadership, however, would seem to be a very important news story. Indeed, I hope the Post will be looking into it. ■