Iraq: Are we ever gonna get the oil?

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Next month, Iraq is going in for round two to sell its oil field development contracts at a meeting in Istanbul. Round one wasn’t successful–the government only managed to find a developer for one of its eight fields. (The Ramallah oilfield, which will be developed into the world’s second largest by BP, in a joint venture with China’s CNPC company.) American companies didn’t get any contracts, either. As the informative Al-Jazeera English story above points out, “the foreign companies have been put off” by the terms of the Iraqi government.

For years, we’ve heard that the Iraq War was all about oil. (No blood for oil, as the saying went.) Anti-war folks believed it, Iraqis believed it: that the Americans were coming to grab the petroleum. In a broad sense, this was true–the only reason we care about the Middle East, in general, is for our “strategic interest.” “Strategic interest” really means “oil.” But blaming the war on oil has never been a fully satisfying explanation, at least not for me. Like blaming the war on the “neocons,” it’s a comforting, causal line of thinking that allows us to ignore our country’s habitual and massively expensive militaristic behavior from Post-WWII to 9-11 and beyond, a subject that’s generally ignored in mainstream political debate.  

We also don’t like the fact that history is just as likely to be written by the forces of jackassery and incompetence as it is by intelligence and foresight. That sentiment has no place in polite discourse. So it’s more comforting to believe that there was some kind of coherent, even nefarious, plan for war (a cabal in the White House to steal oil!) rather than to see it as a result our nation’s fundamental structural problems, supported by the spastic cowardice of political leaders, the media, and the American public at large. 

I digress.

Let’s say it is all about oil. Here are couple of thoughts to chew on.  

1) American oil companies are better off dealing with a dictatorship than a democracy when it comes to getting oil. (See: Arabia, Saudi.) Stablity is the mantra of big oil, not elections.  

2)The American invasion and occupation of Iraq doesn’t seem to be helping U.S. companies get much of an inside track. Note that it’s China and BP that seem to have the lead so far in the bidding.   

3) So if this was a war about oil for American companies, it looks like it’s another area where we really messed up. ‘Cause we ain’t really getting any.

4) If we spent a trillion dollars to get at the oil, doesn’t it suck for us that our rival China is already moving in without having to spend a dime?

5) Will it ever be politically possible for the Iraqi government to cut favorable deals with the big American oil companies? Isn’t it always going to be politically easier for the Iraqis to make deals with the Chinese, the Europeans, the Russians, the Iranians etc?


About michaelhastings

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5 Responses to Iraq: Are we ever gonna get the oil?

  1. Mr. Hastings,

    Things have not gone as planned. The goal of the Iraq war was to install a pro-western (i.e. pro-US) secular, secular government which would allow permanent US military bases from which military power may be projected over the entire middle east. This would result in a much greater supply of oil in the world market, driving down prices dramatically. That US based oil companies might get a great deal was only a collateral benefit (Halliburton made out well enough).

    Given the current glut of crude on world market, there is actually not a a lot of short term incentive to invest in a lot of production. Perhaps more to the point, the government in Baghdad is not exactly pro-western. It is much more aligned with Iran which is seeking to build business relations with other non-western nations. Iran, the big winner in the Iraq war without firing a shot, will certain encourage its new found ally to follow the strategy that they have been following.

    BTW, there is plenty of Iraqi crude making its way to the US, southern California in particular where the local refineries are set up for the “sour” crude that comes out of Iraq. It is just not being pumped out of the ground by US based oil companies.

  2. Michael Hastings says:

    David, thanks for the comment.

    I guess the idea that we needed Iraq to set up bases and protect the oil(or put more oil on the world market) doesn’t really make sense to me. We had(have) bases in Saudi, in Doha, in Kuwait, in Turkey. We could just as easily project our power from those places in the region. And I’m not entirely convinced that the actual goal of the Bush administration was to invade Iraq to secure oil access. Bush and Co. wanted to get in Iraq then get out of Iraq–long term occupation (amazingly) caught them by surprise.

    I think part of the problem, from the beginning, with Iraq is that our motives have been so confused and contradictory. To get WMD’s, to defeat radical Islam, to kill terrorists, to get revenge for 9-11, to spread democracy, to intimdate Iran, to protect our energy interests. These goals don’t jibe well together. (Take democracy: elections bring in Islamists; democracy makes it difficult for us to get oil; democracy in a majority Shiite country almost ensures a healthier relationship with Iran than the U.S.) It’s been our utter confusion and fear that has driven much of U.S. policy in Iraq.

    • Mr. Hastings,

      You lack vision. Oil is far too narrow a lens to view the issue. It would have been about establishing a new world order. It would have been about placing major military bases right next to both Syria and Iran. It is supposed to be about sending a message to the world, there is only one super power.

      Please don’t take my word for it, consider the thinking of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC). This was a neo-conservative think tank with such luminary members as Paul Wolfowitz, William Kristol and Robert Kagan. In September of 2000, this group published their report “Rebuilding America’s Defenses: Strategies, Forces, and Resources For a New Century.” They spell out exactly how overthrowing an unpopular dictator and replacing him with a pro-US government is vital to the new American Century.

      A reply to a blog is too small a venue for a detailed discussion but consider what is written on page 14-15. “In the Persian Gulf region, the presence of American forces, along with British and French units, has become a semi-permanent fact of life. Though the immediate mission of those forces is to enforce the no-fly zones over northern and southern Iraq, they represent the long-term commitment of the United States and its major allies to a region of vital importance.Indeed, the United States has for decades sought to play a more permanent role in Gulf regional security. While the unresolved conflict with Iraq provides the immediate justification, theneed for a substantial American force presence in the Gulf transcends the issue of the regime of Saddam Hussein?…The placement of U.S. bases has yet to reflect these realities – if anything, the worldwide archipelago of U.S. military installations has contracted as the perimeter of U.S. security interests has expanded.American armed forces far from ideally positioned to respond to the needs of the times, but the Pentagon remains tied to levels of forward-deployed forces that bear little relationship to military capabilities or realities.”

      Consider also what Paul Wolfowitz’s friends wrote on page 54, “Projecting conventional military forces or simply asserting political influence abroad, particularly in times of crisis, will be far more complex and constrained when the American homeland or the territory of our allies is subject to attac kby otherwise weak rogue regimes capable of cobbling together a miniscule ballistic missile force. Building an effective, robust,layered, global system of missile defenses is a prerequisite for maintaining American preeminence.”

      The argument that the invasion of Iraq was to be part of some vast geo-political move to secure and expand US preeminence is not some left-wing projection onto the events after the fact but was laid out in detail by neo-conservatives less than two years before the war.

      • Michael Hastings says:

        Hi David–I’m not disagreeing that going to Iraq might have fit into the neocon worldview, or that it followed the plan they layed out in PNAC. I just think that that is only one factor that got us to Iraq, and blaming it on the neocons misses the fact that the war was essentially a bipartisan adventure, supported by the American establishment and public. Were we all duped by the necons? I don’t think so–I think there are bigger issues at play here, other forces at work, including the ever increasing size of the defense budget, a military that felt pressured to prove its relevance, weak political leadership, a cowardly media, revenge for 9-11 etc etc. Blaming the neocons lets everybody else off the hook–it’s an over-simplification. It’s the Oliver Stone ‘W.’ version of history, and I’m a little skeptical of it.

      • Mr. Hastings,

        The question your original posting basically asks is “what was the war about”? The neocons spelled out quite clearly why they thought the US should invade Iraq and how it should be done, well before the war began. Oil was but one part. The Bush administration actually implemented what the neocons proposed. Why would we not take them at their own word?

        However, what you have done is create a straw-man argument – “it was all about oil and the neo-cons dupped everyone” – and then set about debunking it. It is actually the same straw man that the neo-cons used – “Those anti-war people just crazy conspiracy theorists (if not also cowards and traitors)”.

        While I am sure that there is somebody, somewhere who thinks “it was all about oil” but it is not a serious position, I have not met them and they are not here. In my response I specifically stated “oil is too narrow a lens to examine this issue”. If you want to have a discussion about the causes of the war, caricaturing the other positions of others is not an effective way to do it.

        Who is to blame for the war is an entirely different question which was not part of your original blog. However, if we are to discuss that then, fine. The neo-cons came up with an idea, “Let’s rob the bank”. Dick Cheney said “I have the guns and a car, let’s roll.” The Democrats, the press, &c all said “Well, they are going to get away with it anyway, we might as well at least not get shot and maybe we can get a tip” so they held the car door open. Is there plenty of blame to go around, sure. Is it hardly equally distributed though. The plotters and executers of the crime have much larger share than the useless by-standers and hand-wringing enablers.

        Finally, you seem to have forgotten that the American people were quite opposed to the war, at least until the bullets started flying. There were millions of people in the streets marching against the war. They weren’t duped (although later, their family members in the military were taken hostage).

        No is arguing it was “all about oil” so there is no point in knocking down that strawman.

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