Oilcraft
The Myths of Scarcity and Security That Haunt U.S. Energy Policy
Robert Vitalis

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OPENING

There is no reason we should end up going to war over resources, but that insight really becomes helpful only when the public, opinion leaders, and policymakers understand it.
—John P. Holdren, foreword to Ronnie Lipschutz, When Nations Clash

IN THE RUN-UP to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, antiwar demonstrators marched under many different banners. “No War” and “Not in My Name” were prominent. But so were “No War for Oil” and its twin, “No Blood for Oil.” The George W. Bush administration and its supporters in the major media, the academy, and think tanks tried hard to disabuse opponents of the idea that the United States was focused on Iraq’s energy resources. “It has nothing to do with oil, literally nothing to do with oil,” insisted Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.1 He and others emphasized that the war aimed to prevent Iraq’s dictator from using (it turns out nonexistent) weapons of mass destruction, free Iraqis from tyranny, and permit democracy to bloom on the Euphrates.

Opponents weren’t buying it. Hadn’t the government lied or at least cooked the intelligence about Iraq’s chemical weapons capability? Democracy promotion was just a facade, since Bush and his advisers appeared to care little about freedom a few hundred miles away in Saudi Arabia. The actual conduct of the war only increased the doubts. Why had the “liberators” ignored the wholesale looting of Baghdad’s museums and ministries while defending the petroleum infrastructure (although looting had occurred there, too)? Future investigative reporting would reveal that, predictably, once ensconced in the Green Zone, some free market zealots in the Coalition Provisional Authority, the Defense Department’s postinvasion government, had set their sights on selling off the publicly owned refineries, wells, and pipelines to private investors. Others dreamed of reopening an old pipeline to Haifa. Equally predictably, these plans never gained traction.2

Various journalists and bloggers could crow “we told you so” a few years later, when Alan Greenspan, the acolyte of Ayn Rand who headed the U.S. Federal Reserve between 1987 and 2006, came out with a memoir. Newspaper and television reports all led with the same one line from a book of more than five hundred pages: “I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil.”3 Unfortunately, there is considerably less in that quotation than meets the eye, or so the country’s most famous investigative reporter, Bob Woodward, would reveal in a follow-up interview. Greenspan said he wasn’t explaining the president’s thinking when Bush took the country to war in 2003 but merely his own belief: getting rid of Saddam Hussein would reduce the prospects for the disruption of oil supplies by someone who in Greenspan’s mind was unconstrained by the market in which his country’s and all other oil firms operate. Saddam in Baghdad ultimately meant higher prices for refiners in the future, although, with Saddam gone, the price of oil continued to rise, regardless, until the 2008 recession.4

The fact is that proof of the kind that Greenspan was thought to be providing—insight into the true but unstated objective of the president and his closest advisers—has never really mattered. Certainly not to all those convinced beyond a doubt that somehow the world economy benefits or that the government enhances the security of its citizens or that a capitalist class preserves its domination over the globe through increasing projection of military might in the vicinity of the oil fields of the Persian Gulf. These beliefs, or in the case of the professors who espouse them, “theories,” vary from the crude to the complex and at times arcane. For some, the United States seeks to keep oil “cheap.”5 For others, it is to restrict supply and so keep prices high.6 Most commonly, it is presumed that the U.S. military assures the country’s continued access to those energy flows, which otherwise would be in jeopardy. A subset of thinkers, though, purports to know better and insists that the military secures the flow of oil not to the refineries on U.S. soil, since imported oil has always come mainly from the Western Hemisphere, but to its allies. Most public intellectuals who think in these terms consider it the beneficent supply of a global public good, while a fringe see it as the armor of coercion that underpins the consent that Europe and Japan grant to American domination.7 The point of this book is to demonstrate how such seemingly unshakeable beliefs are nonetheless false.

First, and simply, there is the idea that the Bush administration launched a war to get or steal Iraqi oil, but nothing remotely like that ever happened. On the day after his inauguration, at the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency, President Donald J. Trump declared that “we should have” taken the oil and that “maybe we’ll have another chance.”8 Yet here are just a few reasons why this idea makes no sense.9 It presumes that the United States needed to overthrow Saddam Hussein and install someone else in power to secure or maintain its access to oil from Basra or Kirkuk, but U.S. firms, through a little subterfuge, were already the single largest beneficiaries of the Iraqi oil that Hussein’s government sold under United Nations auspices in the decade before the war.10

Assume that something different is meant by stealing the oil: that the output of Iraqi fields would come under direct ownership of the U.S. government, which would be unprecedented, to say the least. The U.S. government does not produce and refine oil on its own, and the last time such a plan was floated (and quickly defeated) was more than seventy-five years ago, during World War II. All civilian and military agencies purchase what they require on the market like any private business or trader. Then perhaps “steal the oil” is shorthand for the idea that the Bush administration wanted U.S. multinationals (“big oil”) to enter the Iraqi oil business directly or was acting as the companies’ surrogate. If so, then there was again no need to go to war. The government merely had to lift the sanctions that prevented U.S. companies from contracting with the Iraqi oil ministry, as is conventional in other oil-producing countries around the world, and as they do now in Iraq. Keep one more thing in mind, however. The putative national identity of the large integrated companies that sell their advanced technology expertise to and buy oil from Iraqi agencies—Exxon Mobil and its rivals—tells us little about where the oil is destined once it leaves the ground. That is, the U.S., Chinese, Indian, and European firms, whether privately held or government owned, all sell their refined products to many different buyers across the globe.

It’s important to hold on to this last fact while turning to a more sophisticated contemporary geopolitics, from which vantage point the 2003 Iraq War appeared to confirm that the United States was locked in struggle with China and other powers for control of the dwindling world supply of natural resources, oil chief among them. The longtime Nation magazine defense correspondent Michael Klare wrote four books and produced one documentary between 2001 and 2011 on the topic—a windfall of sorts. Take Blood and Oil (2004). Klare argued there that America’s dependency on—or to give it added moral muscle, addiction to—the stuff would lead to more and worse wars in the years to come.11 Why? For three, to his mind, indisputable and covarying reasons: The United States was rapidly running out of oil, imports from the Middle East would have to grow, and prices would continue to skyrocket. The only sane alternative to “paying for our oil with blood,” Klare warned, was an alternative energy policy that ended the country’s dependency on fossil fuels.12

Well-known intellectual entrepreneurs shared the moral high ground with him, including the sustainable development champion Jeffrey Sachs, soft energy path pioneer Amory Lovins, and environmental activist Bill McKibben. Alongside them, one found a host of critics of the American empire, convinced that oil is the prize over which states have fought numerous wars in the past, with more likely to follow.13 I also consider myself a critic of empire, and one who shares the environmental movement’s alarm about climate change, with the caveat that, as Joshua Goldstein and Steven Pinker show, Western activists who seek to overthrow the fossil fuel regime would do so even if many billions of people in the global South would have to bear the costs—a variant of an old story.14 But it is junk social science that Klare and others were selling. After the explosive rise in the production of oil from hydraulic fracturing that the high prices of the 2000s incentivized, the United States is today the world’s largest producer and growing oil exporter. Imports from the Middle East hover around 18 percent, not 60 percent, as Klare feared. Prices also did not rise; they fell dramatically, as industry analysts had foreseen.15 As is well known, however, there are no real costs when professors and other public intellectuals get their forecasts wrong.16

A veneer of references, footnotes, and quotations mask what is in essence an ideological construction, a set of deeply held, pervasive beliefs about the world, together with the actions these vivid truths license—op-eds and classified memorandums, documentaries, classroom lectures, naval patrols and calls at port, journal articles, podcasts, press conferences, and protests, to name a few. Call it “oilcraft,” the close kin not of statecraft, or the art of diplomacy, but witchcraft, a modern-day form of magical realism on the part of many, diplomats included, about a commodity bought and sold on the New York Mercantile Exchange and elsewhere. The same as copper, coal, rubber, palm oil, tin, and so on, all of which were once imagined as vital, too. Oilcraft is about the reasoning that makes notions of oil-as-power unquestionably true, taken for granted, and my own claim suspect.17 If you are unhappy with the witchcraft analogy, then think instead in terms of “doctrinal verities,” to borrow a phrase from the linguist Noam Chomsky, who insists it is the United States’ need to “control” Iraqi oil resources that led to war in 2003.18

A key feature of the mental terrain of oilcraft is what the environmental engineer turned historian Roger Stern calls “oil scarcity ideology.”19 Stern argues that moments of perceived decline in the world’s known oil reserves—a false conclusion for which the only real evidence is that prices are rising—have repeatedly led to aggressive action. Some fear that rival powers are conspiring to gain exclusive control of foreign sources of supply, others that producing countries such as Iraq under Saddam Hussein or a less friendly Saudi monarchy will choose not to sell their oil. I am more cautious than he is in relying on the many histories that take for granted that states have repeatedly acted on these grounds. At times policy makers may have; at times not. The problem is that the historians, as believers themselves in the truth of the proposition that oil is power, often fail their discipline’s norm of due diligence in judging evidence and questioning assumptions. Many examples are in the chapters to follow.

Alan Greenspan thinks in terms of scarcity, clearly. Thus, his advocating the removal of Saddam Hussein. I’ve met military officers and other intellectuals on the right who think like Greenspan. Michael Klare and many others on the left think in these terms, too, only they oppose these same, often imagined, aggressive policies to “secure continued access to” or “control” Iraqi and other Middle East sources of supply because they portend ecological catastrophe or because the costs are borne by Arab and other peoples of the region. But is it true? Do the oil resources of the Persian Gulf really “constitute a stupendous source of strategic power,” as one State Department official put it in a 1945 memo that many treat as a kind of prime directive of U.S. foreign policy now, seventy-some years later?20 Have successive U.S. administrations, from Woodrow Wilson to Donald Trump, acted (or are ready to act) on this belief, occupied countries, coddled dictators, threatened allies, overthrown governments, and even gone to war for oil?

For all the professors, investigative journalists, and best-selling historians turned entrepreneurs who have been telling versions of the oil-is-power story since the so-called energy crisis of the 1970s, the facts seem too obvious to question. Oil answers the need of those looking for the real or material objectives behind the government’s rhetoric and what professors of international relations refer to as “strategic rationales.” It is why documents unearthed from the archives are taken at face value rather than interrogated, treated as the equivalent of actual policy decisions or, worse, as previously stated, the prime directive followed by every post-1945 administration.21 The common denominator among otherwise antagonistic perspectives—from right-wing grand strategists to left-wing critics of capitalist imperialism—is a belief that oil as lifeblood or weapon or prize is different or unique or exceptional in comparison to the myriad other raw materials that are mined or harvested and traded on the world market. But they’re wrong.

NOTES

1. John Esterbrook, “Rumsfeld: It Would Be a Short War,” CBS News, November 15, 2002, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/rumsfeld-it-would-be-a-short-war.

2. Greg Palast filed a number of valuable stories in the London Guardian and elsewhere, which are reworked in his Armed Madhouse (New York: Penguin, 2006). The radical activist Greg Muttitt dissected and dissented from what most believed about the oil business in Fuel on the Fire: Oil and Politics in Occupied Iraq (New York: New Press, 2012). And New Yorker writer Steve Coll followed up on some of these issues in Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power (New York: Penguin, 2012). On the dream of getting Iraqi oil to Israel, see Gary Vogler, Iraq and the Politics of Oil: An Insider’s Perspective (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas), 2017.

3. Alan Greenspan, The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World (New York: Penguin, 2007), 463.

4. Bob Woodward, “Ouster of Hussein Crucial for Oil Security,” Washington Post, September 17, 2007, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/09/16/AR2007091601287.html.

5. Rashid Khalidi, Sowing Crisis: The Cold War and American Dominance in the Middle East (Boston: Beacon Press, 2009), 15.

6. Matthew Huber, Lifeblood: Oil, Freedom, and the Forces of Capital (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), 150.

7. Stephen Brooks and William Wohlforth, America Abroad: The United States’ Global Role in the 21st Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017); G. John Ikenberry, Liberal Leviathan: The Origins, Crisis, and Transformation of the American World Order (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011); David Harvey, The New Imperialism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003); Doug Stokes and Sam Raphael, Global Energy Security and American Hegemony (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010).

8. Robin Wright, “Donald Trump, Pirate-in-Chief,” New Yorker, January 30, 2017, http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/donald-trump-pirate-in-chief.

9. Patrick Porter makes a similar claim in his critical account of the Blair government’s decision-making in Blunder: Britain’s War in Iraq (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 5–18.

10. See Paul A. Volcker, Richard J. Goldstone, and Mark Pieth, “Manipulation of the Oil-For-Food Programme by the Iraqi Regime,” October 27, 2005, https://www.foxnews.com/projects/pdf/final_off_report.pdf.

11. Michael Klare, Blood and Oil: The Dangers and Consequences of America’s Growing Dependency on Imported Petroleum (New York: Henry Holt, 2004), 10, 193.

12. American Empire Project, “Blood and Oil,” http://americanempireproject.com/blood-and-oil (accessed October 19, 2019).

13. Even higher up the ladder of geopolitical thought we find formulations such as “fossil capital,” “petrocapitalism,” or the “military-petroleum complex,” but the underlying idea is the same. For statistical and archival analyses that demonstrate why this commonly held view is wrong, see Jeff Colgan, Petro-Aggression: When Oil Causes War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 3n4.

14. See Joshua S. Goldstein and Steven Pinker, “Inconvenient Truths for the Environmental Movement,” Boston Globe, November 23, 2015, https://www.bostonglobe.com/opinion/2015/11/23/inconvenient-truths-for-environmental-movement/esDloe97894keW16Ywa9MP/story.html.

15. See for one Michael Lynch, The “Peak Oil” Scare and the Coming Oil Flood (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2016). The book collects Lynch’s technical papers and popular commentaries on the topic.

16. Richard Posner, Public Intellectuals (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003).

17. The title pays homage to Karen E. Fields and Barbara J. Fields, Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life (London: Verso, 2012).

18. Noam Chomsky, letter to the editor, London Review of Books, August 17, 2017, p. 4.

19. Roger Stern, “Oil Scarcity Ideology in U.S. Foreign Policy, 1908–97,” Security Studies 25, no. 2 (2016): 214–257.

20. Gordon Merriam, “Draft Memorandum to President Truman,” enclosed with “Memorandum by the Under Secretary of State (Acheson) to the Secretary of State,” October 9, 1945, https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1945v08/d20. Klare’s documentary leads with the quotation. Noam Chomsky has used it in interviews and writings since the 1970s.

21. See Robert Vitalis, America’s Kingdom: Mythmaking on the Saudi Oil Frontier (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005), for many examples of diplomats and oil executives engaging in what professors call “threat inflation” as a means to move policies in ways favorable to their interests.