|Oil Not the Motive for U.S. in Iraq, Author Says|
Oil Not the Motive for U.S. in Iraq, Author Says
This op-ed article by Max Boot first appeared in The New York Times, February 13, 2003 is.distributed by the Office of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State Website (EUR420). Permission has been granted for distribution and further republication, in English and in translation abroad and in the local press outside the United States. (begin byliner)
A War for Oil ? Not This Time
By Max Boot (*)
The New York Times
Munich — When Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld visited "Old Europe" last week, the placards and protesters lining his path were a visceral reminder of what the Bush administration already knew: Solid majorities in key European countries think that greed is our motive for wanting to depose Saddam Hussein. In fact, in a recent Pew Research Center poll 75 percent of respondents in France, 54 percent in Germany and 76 percent in Russia said that America wants to invade Iraq because "the U.S. wants to control Iraqi oil."
Although Americans are divided on the wisdom of an invasion, only 22 percent of us subscribe to the cynical view that it's just about oil. Even Jimmy Carter, hardly a hawk, rebutted the accusation at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony: "I know my country, I know my people, and I can assure you that's not the policy of my government."
What accounts for this trans-Atlantic disconnect? To answer that question, start by considering the accusation on the merits: Is America going into Iraq in search of "black gold"?
The charge has a surface plausibility because Iraq does have the second-largest known reserves in the world. But we certainly don't need to send 250,000 soldiers to get at it. Saddam Hussein would gladly sell us all the oil we wanted. The only thing preventing unlimited sales are the United States-enforced sanctions, which Baghdad (and the big oil companies) would love to see lifted. Washington has refused to go along because Saddam Hussein flouts United Nations resolutions. This suggests that our primary focus is the threat he poses, not the oil he possesses.
It's true that overthrowing Saddam Hussein would lead to the lifting of sanctions and a possible increase in oil exports. But it would take a lot of time and money to rebuild Iraq's dilapidated oil industry, even if the regime didn't torch everything on the way out. A study from the Council on Foreign Relations and the James A. Baker III Institute at Rice University estimated that it would take three years and $5 billion to restore Iraqi production just to its pre-1990 level of 3.5 million barrels a day. That would increase total world production by only 1.3 percent, and might not reduce prices at all if other countries cut output or banded together to keep prices stable.
Some optimists think a postwar Iraq would stiff OPEC and slash prices radically. This seems unlikely, if the experience of Kuwait is anything to go by. While oil prices spiked before the Persian Gulf war and plummeted afterward, the long-term impact has been close to nil. Kuwait hasn't exactly been offering to fill up American sport utility vehicles free out of gratitude for being liberated. It hasn't even carried out its pledge to allow direct foreign investment in state-owned oil fields.
As with Kuwait, a liberated Iraq would likely remain an enthusiastic member of OPEC because it would need to establish its nationalist credentials and maintain amicable relations with its oil-cartel neighbors.
For that matter, would our government really want a steep drop in prices? The domestic oil patch -- including President Bush's home state, Texas -- was devastated in the 1980's when prices fell as low as $10 a barrel. Washington is generally happy with a range of $18 to $25 a barrel, about where oil was before the strikes in Venezuela and jitters about Iraq helped push prices over $34 a barrel. If we were really concerned about cheap oil above all, we'd be sending troops to Caracas, not Baghdad.
The other possible economic advantage in Iraq would be for American companies to win contracts to put out fires, repair refineries and help operate the oil industry, as they did in Kuwait. What's the total value of such work? It's impossible to say, but last year Iraq signed a deal with Russian companies (since canceled by Saddam Hussein) to rebuild oil and other industries, valued at $40 billion over five years.
Yet the White House estimates the military operation alone would cost $50 billion to $60 billion. (Others suggest the figure would be far higher.) And rebuilding of the country's cities, roads and public facilities would cost $20 billion to $100 billion more, with much of that money in the initial years coming from the "international community" (read: Uncle Sam).
Thus, if a capitalist cabal were running the war, it would have to conclude it wasn't a paying proposition.
This doesn't mean that oil is entirely irrelevant to the subject of Iraq. It does matter in one very important way: Oil revenues make Saddam Hussein much more dangerous than your run-of-the-mill dictator, because they give him the ability to build not only palaces but also top-of-the-line weapons of mass destruction.
Americans recognize this. Europeans don't. Why not? Here's my theory: Europeans are projecting their own behavior onto us. They know that their own foreign policies have in the past often been driven by avarice -- all those imperialists after East Indian spices or African diamonds. (This tradition is going strong today in Russia and France, whose Iraq policies seem driven at least in part by oil companies that were granted lucrative concessions by Saddam Hussein.)
Nobody would claim that America's global intentions have always been entirely pure. Still, our foreign policy -- from the Barbary war to Kosovo -- has usually had a strain of idealism at which the cynical Europeans have scoffed. In the case of Iraq, they just can't seem to accept that we might be acting for, say, the general safety and security of the world. After more than 200 years, Europe still hasn't figured out what makes America tick.
(*) Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of "The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power."