I have never been big on chanting, which means I have spent lots of time at anti-war protests shuffling uncomfortably, mouthing words that others are shouting out.
“What do we want?” JUSTICE! (and a quick end to the chanting, please). “When do we want it?” NOW! (or as soon as possible, please).
Part of my discomfort no doubt comes from the fact that I’m tone-deaf with no sense of rhythm (have I mentioned that I’m a white guy from North Dakota?). But there’s also my frustration with condensing a complex analysis into a chantable sentence (have I mentioned that I’m a nerdy professor?).
Still, chants are part of political rallies, and I’m part of political movements that rally. So, I try to use the slogans as a starting point to explore issues in more depth. One of the most important of those chants from anti-war rallies of the past couple of decades is “No blood for oil.” On the 10th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, that slogan remains as important as ever.
Sophisticated and/or respectable people tend to reject the underlying claim as crude and/or unpatriotic. How can anyone believe in such a simplistic explanation, that wars are fought for oil? How could anyone imagine the United States pursuing such a crass and greedy goal?
These more enlightened folk will allow, and even encourage, critique of the invasion of Iraq — maybe the military campaign was ill-conceived and poorly executed, maybe the intelligence about weapons was fraudulent, maybe plans for the so-called democratizing of Iraq were naïve — but they scoff at the idea that the United States would go to war over the most crucial commodity in an industrialized world. Certainly anyone who suggests countries fight over energy resources is out of touch with reality, right?
That’s what conservative commentator Bill Kristol suggested when it was widely circulated that former U.S. senator and new Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel had said in 2007, “People say we’re not fighting for oil. Of course we are.”
Kristol described “this vulgar and disgusting charge” as a “far-left trope” so ludicrous that mainstream opponents of the war had renounced it. Indeed, Hagel didn’t defend that statement during the confirmation process, and the Obama administration wasn’t eager for a debate of this crucial question.
So, conservatives demand ideological allegiance to the idea that the United States is a uniquely benevolent great power that doesn’t go to war for economic reasons, and centrist/liberals play along, sometimes repeating the same “mainstream trope” and other times remaining strategically silent.
Whether some policymakers internalize this mythology so thoroughly that they believe it — and no doubt some do — the rhetoric doesn’t prevent the United States from acting on the long-term goal of maximizing influence over the region.
This control doesn’t follow the old European colonial model; the United States didn’t invade Iraq to rule by force permanently or to take direct possession of its oil industry. Instead, policymakers over the years have patched together a patchwork that changes tactics as necessary. That’s why the United States strongly supports both the fundamentalist Islamic monarchy in Saudi Arabia and the Western-oriented Israeli government that occupies Arab land. We back brutal Middle Eastern dictators as long as they advance our policy goals, and then express horror at their crimes when they get uppity (for example, our quiet alliance with Saddam Hussein when he was attacking Iran in the 1980s ended when he invaded Kuwait in 1990).
But underneath the complex relationships and shifting strategies, the obvious question lingers: If the Middle East were not home to the largest reserves of the most easily accessible oil in the world, would we have gone to war in Iraq? Would so much of U.S. military power in recent decades have been focused on the Middle East if the main export from the region were figs?
I ask ordinary people this question all the time: Why do U.S. policymakers care so much about the Middle East? Whether the audiences are young or old, conservative or liberal, the answer is always the same: Oil, of course.
While it may not be polite to admit this in sophisticated and respectable circles today, U.S. policy in the Middle East since the end of World War II has been about maintaining a flow of oil and — just as important — a flow of oil profits that is advantageous to U.S. economic interests, especially as defined by elites. That doesn’t mean there is a single clear policy in every moment. But scare tactics about weapons of mass destruction and empty rhetoric about promoting democracy are cover stories, used by Republicans and Democrats alike, to justify the U.S. military presence in region.
Whether it’s WMD in Iraq or a nuclear weapons program in Iran, the players change and the script stays the same — to quote former President George H.W. Bush, “What we say goes.” On the heels of military defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States these days has a harder time dictating terms; Obama isn’t pushing new aggression, but neither is he arguing for a significant shift in policy.
Our industrial world runs on oil, and it won’t be easy to reshape that world to wean ourselves off this dirty and dwindling fuel. There’s no guarantee that we can even do it, and there’s no use pretending that the flow of Middle East oil doesn’t matter as we struggle to face these realities.
But to bolster our commitment to the difficult work needed for the transition to a sustainable energy system, we can start the process by acknowledging that the quest to control the flow of oil and oil profits has meant death and destruction in the Middle East, leaving us neither safe nor economically secure.
On moral and practical grounds, future policy should be guided by a simple principle: No blood for oil.