Commentary

It’s Not About Oil?

By Charles V. Peña
This article was published in the Chicago Tribune, Sept. 20, 2002.

In a recent op-ed, Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.) wrote, “Forgive my bluntness, but these folks [my constituents] also want to hear the president and the vice president say that this war is not about oil.” That’s an especially pointed concern given President Bush and Vice President Cheney’s long-standing ties to the U.S. oil industry. And, unfortunately, the United States continues to cling to the myth of needing to defend Persian Gulf oil (hence the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia). Yet economists from across the political spectrum (including two Nobel laureates - the liberal James Tobin and the free marketer Milton Friedman) agree that going to war for oil is unneeded.

So while no one is really talking about it, the issue of oil as it relates to military action against Iraq is a nagging question.

Senior officials claim that the administration is preoccupied with military planning, not with oil. But this is not the same thing as the administration not understanding the perceived importance of oil in its decision-making about Iraq. After all, U.S. relations with West African nations — which comprise about a 15 percent share of the United States oil import market — have warmed considerably since Sept. 11. Indeed, last week Bush met with the leaders of 11 African nations, in the face of looming war against Iraq and concerns over the security of oil supplies from the Persian Gulf. And the United States is even considering building a naval base on the tiny island nation of Sao Tome and Principe, a former Portuguese colony believed to be sitting on massive and largely untapped oil reserves.

It’s also hard to ignore the fact that Iraq has proven reserves of 112 billion barrels of crude oil, the second largest in the world after Saudi Arabia. This is certainly not lost on American oil companies that — having been banished from direct involvement in Iraq since the late 1980s — could profit enormously from a post-Hussein government friendly to the United States. According to one oil industry analyst, “There’s not an oil company out there that wouldn’t be interested in Iraq.”

Even if American oil interests are keeping largely silent on the issue, the Iraqi opposition that hopes to succeed Hussein isn’t. According to one Iraqi National Congress leader who favors the creation of a U.S.-led consortium to develop Iraq’s oil fields, “American companies will have a big shot at Iraqi oil.”

None of this has gone unnoticed by non-American companies from more than a dozen nations - including France, Russia, China, India, Italy, Vietnam, and Algeria - who have oil interests in Iraq. Nervous that a pro-American government in Baghdad might exclude them, representatives of those companies have met with leaders of the Iraqi opposition to make their case for a future stake in a post-Hussein Iraq. Although many of these foreign oil concerns have existing agreements (or have sought to reach agreements in principle) to develop and expand Iraq’s oil industry, Iraqi opposition officials have made it clear that they will not be bound by any existing deals.

The most blunt statement comes from former CIA Director Jim Woolsey, a leading advocate of U.S. military action against Iraq: “France and Russia have oil companies and interests in Iraq. They should be told that if they are of assistance in moving Iraq toward decent government, we’ll do the best we can to ensure that the new government and American companies work closely with them.” Woolsey also said, “If they throw their lot with Saddam, it will be difficult to the point of impossible to persuade the new Iraqi government to work with them.”

Even if going to war against Iraq is not completely about oil (weapons of mass destruction are much scarier), it’s impossible to ignore and even more foolish to think it’s not an important factor: Would this debate be taking place if the country in question was in sub-Saharan Africa? After all, the Defense Department claims 12 nations with nuclear weapons programs, 13 with biological weapons, 16 with chemical weapons, and 28 with ballistic missiles as existing and emerging threats to the United States. But only one of those countries sits atop the second largest oil reserves in the world. Just remember the adage: Follow the money … or in this case, the oil.

Charles V. Peña is senior defense policy analyst at the Cato Institute.