The American public has soured on the Iraq War. Yet the leadership of both parties is neither promising nor providing a quick or even visible end to this long war.
According to the U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, U.S. forces will be in Iraq for many years to come, even 10 years. He said: "Just about everybody out there recognizes that a situation like this, with the many, many challenges that Iraq is contending with, is not one that’s going to be resolved in a year or even two years. In fact, typically, I think historically, counterinsurgency operations have gone at least nine or ten years. The question is, of course, at what level."
The U.S. is involved in the Middle East mainly because that’s where the oil is. If there were no oil there, the U.S. would not be there. We are still in Iraq mainly because of its geopolitical relations to the Middle East and Middle Eastern oil. But there is more to it, as I shall suggest.
The concept that Middle Eastern oil is of direct concern to our government, an issue of great national security, is the central idea that has been guiding U.S. policy in the Middle East for decades.
This central idea is fundamentally mistaken. Far from improving national security, U.S. attempts to increase its oil security by interfering in Middle Eastern politics and economics have created greater oil insecurity and fueled political instability.
How is it that the U.S. has pursued counterproductive policies for so long? How is it that, far from altering course, the U.S. has recently become even more entangled?
The background of two world wars
During World War II, President Roosevelt appointed his Secretary of the Interior, Harold L. Ickes, as Petroleum Coordinator for Defense. In turn, Ickes established a Petroleum Industry War Council. In 1946, President Truman created the National Petroleum Council as its successor. War and then a continuing wartime mentality after World War II caused oil to become a matter of national security in the minds of American leaders.
Two world wars taught America’s leaders the wrong lessons. The wars did not bring peace or a return to a peaceful outlook. They did not return America to its continental concerns. They taught our leaders to view the entire world as crucial to America’s well-being and rightfully within America’s scope of action. Two wars taught America’s leaders to be proactive. Our leaders now sought to control situations before undesired events could occur. They were not again going to wait to respond to events after they had occurred. Even though our leaders may have wanted peace, they prudently (in their eyes) planned for future war. An atmosphere of fear took over. They intended to control what they deemed to be critical events anywhere in the world. America would lead the free world. America would become the world’s policeman. America would guarantee world peace. Our leaders saw this as America’s responsibility. America’s global success in both world wars convinced our leaders that America had the power to accomplish this grand role.
American leaders thought they had found the way to world peace. Its elements were continual preparation for war, readiness to interfere globally, alliances, and the making of occasional war. Wars are directed by states; and states use power. They use markets to accomplish their aims only if they regulate and control them. It was natural for American leaders to emphasize power and control. It was natural for them to emphasize and rely on state-to-state relations and state institutions. It was natural for them to de-emphasize building peace through peaceful exchange and free markets.
But was it natural for America unilaterally to assume the position of world policeman? Wasn’t this tantamount to becoming an empire? Could such an effort even succeed? Could any single country have the wisdom to rule the world benevolently? Wouldn’t such an effort invariably make mistakes and run aground on the shoals of national interests and situations that it did not understand and could not control? Wouldn’t such an effort, even if noble, be subject to its own corruption by interest groups ready to take advantage of it? Could any single country have the resources to control the world? A single guerilla war might require hundreds of thousands of troops on the ground, cost many billions of dollars, and require a decade to fight.
More fundamentally, how could a large-scale state-inspired and state-led endeavor using the means of power bring peace when peace requires the polar opposite, namely, a lack of power relations?
Time passed. America and the world recovered from World War II. A degree of peace and prosperity returned. This was quite natural and spontaneous. Continual warfare is not the human norm. Furthermore, in an age of science and technology, far more progress can be made peacefully than in fighting. Yet the American state and its leaders remained in the grip of wartime thinking, fears, and action. From 1945 to 1991, the Cold War provided the backdrop for innumerable global confrontations and actions. Major, open and long wars occurred in Korea (1950—1953), in Vietnam (1956—1975), in Iraq (1991—present), and in Afghanistan (2001—present). Further U.S. military actions occurred in Libya, Lebanon, Somalia, Bosnia, the Persian Gulf, and Kosovo. Direct Western Hemisphere military actions included Grenada, Panama, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic.
It is evident that these wars were not peace. It is evident that they destroyed lives. It is evident that they were very costly. It is evident that they diminished prosperity. It is evident that these wars caused mounting debt and a debased currency. At the same time, it is not evident that these wars purchased the security of either the world or America. They seemed only to create perpetual war in the name of perpetual peace.
This is the background to Middle East interventions.
Oil price instability
U.S. involvement in the Middle East dates back to the 1927—1932 era. The U.S. Secretary of the Treasury and subsequently ambassador to Great Britain, Andrew W. Mellon, was a member of the family that controlled Gulf Oil Company (named for the Gulf of Mexico). After reluctantly taking an interest in Middle East oil, Gulf began competing with British oil interests. Mellon played a role in the negotiations. See here.
U.S. oil companies began relations with Saudi Arabia in 1931. Because the world is divided into states, foreign business relations frequently lead to government involvement. The U.S. government became particularly involved with Saudi Arabia, which is the prime U.S. oil interest in the Middle East.
In these early events, there is no hidden conspiracy on the part of the oil industry to gain profits or the government to gain power. Events surely occur in the light of these standard incentives. Steps are also taken and measures adopted in response to external events. Actions in retrospect seem to be guided by fallible men of limited understanding whose long-term vision is clouded. The events seem almost innocent, subject to the usual human motives, noble and base, but free from excessive guile.
The Yom Kippur War (Oct. 6 to 26, 1973) might seem to be a key event, because it led to the Arab Oil Embargo on Oct. 17, 1973 in which OPEC (the oil cartel) raised oil prices and imposed an oil embargo on the U.S. However, the economic effect of the embargo was nil compared to the effects of Nixonian price controls introduced on August 15, 1971 and the complex distorting effects of the Emergency Petroleum Allocation Act that Nixon signed on November 27, 1973.
The fundamental event that affected oil prices was U.S. inflation and the loss in value of the dollar. Nixon ended the gold standard on August 15, 1971, in reflection of that inflation and allowing it to accelerate even further. Prior to that, OPEC on Dec. 9, 1970 had already decided to post prices that took changes in foreign exchange rates into account. The oil sellers were seeking to maintain their income in real terms as U.S. inflation cut the value of the dollar. On Sept. 22, 1971, "OPEC directs members to negotiate price increases to offset the devaluation of the U.S. dollar." Again, on January 20, 1972, six countries agree "to raise the posted price of crude by 8.49 percent to offset the loss in value of oil concessions attributable to the decline in value of the U.S. dollar." The same considerations led to OPEC price increases in April and June of 1973. On September 15, 1973, further price increases were discussed. See here for a chronology.
One thing leads to another. The U.S. war in Vietnam brought inflation and devaluation of the U.S. dollar. It brought price controls, introducing distortions and instability into the U.S. economy. It led to a stronger OPEC and increases in the price of oil. The U.S. policy of world policeman and empire was having destabilizing consequences that American leaders never envisaged.
Iran and Iraq
Oil shenanigans soured the cordial relations that the U.S. once enjoyed with Iran. When Iran’s elected prime minister Mohammed Mossadeq nationalized the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, the U.S. responded with CIA operations that led to Mossadeq’s imprisonment and the Shah of Iran’s dictatorship. By 1963 Ayatollah Khomeini was opposing American-supported measures introduced by the Shah. Sixteen years later, the Shah was deposed and Khomeini established an Islamic Republic in Iran. The U.S. and Iran have been at odds ever since.
The U.S. aided Iraq (and at times Iran) during the Iran-Iraq War (1980—1988), but it tilted heavily toward Iraq. The U.S. knew of Iraq’s use of mustard gas and condoned it. On August 18, 2002, the New York Times reported interviews with "senior military officers with direct knowledge of the program." The article quoted one former official of the Defense Intelligence Agency who said: "if Iraq had gone down it would have had a catastrophic effect on Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and the whole region might have gone down. That was the backdrop of the policy."
Col. Walter P. Lang, retired, was the senior defense intelligence officer at the time. The Times article reads: "He added that both D.I.A. and C.I.A. officials u2018were desperate to make sure that Iraq did not lose’ to Iran. u2018The use of gas on the battlefield by the Iraqis was not a matter of deep strategic concern,’ he said. What Mr. Reagan’s aides were concerned about, he said, was that Iran not break through to the Fao Peninsula and spread the Islamic revolution to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia."
"Colonel Lang asserted that the Defense Intelligence Agency u2018would have never accepted the use of chemical weapons against civilians, but the use against military objectives was seen as inevitable in the Iraqi struggle for survival.’"
The increased U.S. involvement in world affairs had led to a loss of innocence and a loss of moral compass. The U.S. could not run the world without being coercive and amoral. Realpolitik took over. Habits of power took over. U.S. leaders lost the capacity to think in peaceful terms. They developed the insecurities of those who wield power and do not trust others. They feared that unfriendly Islamic regimes would control the oil. They feared the whole region going down, out of the American orbit. They imagined dire consequences. They have the same fear today, that fear being centered both on Iran and on al-Qaeda, which are in part creatures of their own making.
Why are we still in Iraq, and why are we projected to remain there for a long time? U.S. leaders do not want Middle Eastern countries to be run by Islamic Republics that they deem unfriendly. They fear this. They want them to be run by pliant regimes allied to the U.S. The reason for this is to maintain a degree of American control over Middle Eastern oil. They fear loss of control.
This policy is unnecessary because the oil-producing countries have no other use for oil than to sell it. This policy is counterproductive because its destructive effects and costs far outweigh the benefits. Here is a policy that makes oil less secure and lowers national security while aimed at the opposite effects. Why then does it go on? It goes on because policies of control are what Washington is geared to do ever since learning the wrong lessons of the two world wars that brought Washington into the position of being the number one world power.
The same explanation holds for the U.S. military entry into Iraq in 2003. Any sensible analysis before the event would have shown, and some did, that such an insertion of American forces and such a removal of Saddam Hussein would end badly. Why then did the President and the Congress initiate this war? None of the explanations made at the time or later explains this: not weapons of mass destruction, not the evils of Saddam Hussein’s regime, not his mistreatment of his people, not a war on terror, not Saddam Hussein harboring terrorists, not Saddam Hussein posing a threat to his neighbors, not faulty intelligence, and not a campaign to bring democracy to Middle Eastern countries. These explanations are all either superficial, false rationales, deceptions and self-deceptions, or outright lies.
Invading Iraq was an outright blunder by leaders who thought it would be easy to remake the country and feared a series of imagined consequences if they did not. However, their basic policies and their basic rationales were the same as those of prior American leaders. And these policies of proactive control and playing world policeman were and are equally mistaken.
This was a blunder aided and abetted by the unusual influence of ignorant neocon supporters of Israel, by AIPAC, and by defense company lobbyists and toadies in Congress and the Executive. Nor can one overlook the amazing connections of Vice President Cheney to the Halliburton Company and President Bush to the Carlisle Group, both of which are major beneficiaries of the Iraq War.
In the end, the war in Iraq traces to the following important roots: (1) the mistaken and excessive control and power-oriented ideology of fearful American leaders that revolves around national and world security, this ideology having been reinforced by successes in several world wars, and (2) the corresponding mistaken notion that the U.S. must secure its oil supplies by political means such as by maintaining regimes in power that it deems friendly. The U.S. would not be in Iraq if these conditions were not present. Removing them removes the basic rationales for the U.S. presence in Iraq. These are the necessary conditions for the war.
They are not sufficient conditions, however. More was required to produce this war. This involved a variety of interest groups conjoined with the personal interests and war-making blunders of America’s powerful figures of state.
Michael S. Rozeff [send him mail] is a retired Professor of Finance living in East Amherst, New York.