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Are They Really Oil Wars?

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Describing the heavy-handed, imperial U.S. policy toward Russia, Stephen F. Cohen writes: “The real US policy has been very different—a relentless, winner-take-all exploitation of Russia's post-1991 weakness. Accompanied by broken American promises, condescending lectures and demands for unilateral concessions, it has been even more aggressive and uncompromising than was Washington's approach to Soviet Communist Russia” [25].

Bush’s withdrawal from the ABM treaty not merely posed an existential threat to Russia but was almost a betrayal of the trust that Putin had put in him. This led to Putin’s disenchantment with America. “Eventually he seems to have decided that every time America transgressed against Russian interests he would retaliate by stopping another American company from exploiting Russian resources” [26].

During the past few decades, major oil companies have consistently opposed U.S. policies and military threats against countries like Iran, Iraq, and Libya. They have, indeed, time and again, lobbied U.S. foreign policy makers for the establishment of peaceful relations and diplomatic rapprochement with those countries. The Iran-Libya Sanction Act of 1996 (ILSA) is a strong testament to the fact that oil companies nowadays view wars, economic sanctions, and international political tensions as harmful to their long-term business interests and, accordingly, strive for peace, not war, in international relations.

On March 15, 1995 President Clinton issued Executive Order 12957 which banned all U.S. contributions to the development of Iran’s petroleum resources, a crushing blow to the oil industry, especially to the Conoco oil company that had just signed a $1 billion contract to develop fields in Iran. The deal marked a strong indication that Iran was willing to improve its relationship with the United States, only to have President Clinton effectively nullify it. Two months later, sighting “an extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy and economy of the U.S.,” President Clinton issued another order, 1259, that expanded the sanctions to become a total trade and investment embargo against Iran. Then a year later came ILSA which extended the sanctions imposed on Iran to Libya as well.

It is no secret that the major force behind the Iran-Libya Sanction Act was the America Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the main Zionist lobby in Washington. The success of AIPAC in passing ILSA through both the Congress and the White House over the opposition of the major U.S. oil companies is testament to the fact that, in the context of U.S. policy in the Middle East, even the influence of the oil industry pales vis-à-vis the influence of the Zionist lobby [27].

ILSA was originally to be imposed on both U.S. and foreign companies. However, in the end it was the U.S. companies that suffered the most due to waivers that were given to European companies after pressure from the European Union. In 1996 the EU pursued its distaste of ILSA by lodging complaints with the World Trade Organization (WTO) against the U.S. and through adopting “blocking legislation” that would prevent EU companies from complying with ILSA. Meanwhile, the contract that Iran had originally signed with Conoco was awarded to TotalFinaElf of France for $760 million; the deal also left the door open for Total to sign an additional contract with Iran for $2 billion in 1997 with their partners Gazprom and Petronas.

In May of 1997 major U.S. oil companies such as Conoco, Exxon, Atlantic Richfield, and Occidental Petroleum joined other (non-military) U.S. companies to create an anti-sanction coalition. Earlier that same year Conoco’s Chief Executive Archie Dunham publicly took a stance against unilateral U.S. sanctions by stating that “U.S. companies, not rogue regimes, are the ones that suffer when the United States imposes economic sanctions.” Texaco officials have also argued that the U.S. can be more effective in bringing about change in other countries by allowing U.S. companies to do business with those countries instead of imposing economic sanctions that tend to be counterproductive.

Alas, Washington’s perverse, misguided and ineffectual policy of economic sanctions for political purposes—often in compliance with the wishes of some powerful special interests—continues unabated. “Even with the increased pro-trade lobbying efforts of the oil industry and groups like USAEngage, whose membership ranges from farmers and small business owners to Wall Street executives and oilmen, the lack of support from Washington and the Bush administration could not allow them [major oil companies and other non-military transnational companies] to overtake or counteract the already rolling momentum of AIPAC’s influence on Middle East policy or the renewal of ISLA” [28].

Despite the fact that oil companies nowadays view war and political turmoil in the Middle East as detrimental to their long-term interests and, therefore, do not support policies that are conducive to war and militarism, and despite the fact that war is no longer the way to gain access to oil, the widespread perception that every U.S. military engagement in the region, including the current invasion of Iraq, is prompted by oil considerations continues. The question is why?

Behind the Myth of War for Oil

The widely-shared but erroneous view that recent U.S. wars of choice are driven by oil concerns is partly due to precedence: the fact that for a long time military force was key to colonial or imperialist control and exploitation of foreign markets and resources, including oil. It is also partly due to perception: the exaggerated notion that both President Bush and Vice President Cheney were “oil men” before coming to the White House. But, as noted earlier, George W. Bush was never more than an ineffective minor oil prospector and Dick Cheney was never really an oil man; he headed the notorious Halliburton company that sold (and still sells) services to oil companies and the Pentagon.

But the major reason for the persistence of this pervasive myth seems to stem from certain deliberate efforts that are designed to perpetuate the legend in order to camouflage some real economic and geopolitical special interests that drive U.S. military adventures in the Middle East. There is evidence that both the military-industrial complex and hard-line Zionist proponents of “greater Israel” disingenuously use oil (as an issue of national interest) in order to disguise their own nefarious special interests and objectives: justification of continued expansion of military spending, extension of sales markets for military hardware, and recasting the geopolitical map of the Middle East in favor of Israel.

There is also evidence that for every dollar’s worth of oil imported from the Persian Gulf region the Pentagon takes five dollars out of the Federal budget to “secure” the flow of that oil! This is a clear indication that the claim that the U.S. military presence in the Middle East is due to oil consideration is a fraud  [29].

While anecdotal, an example of how partisans of war and militarism use oil as a pretext to cover up the real forces behind war and militarism can be instructive. In the early stages of the invasion of Iraq, when the anti-occupation resistance in Iraq had not yet taken shape and the invasion seemed to be proceeding smoothly, two of the leading champions of the invasion, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz, often boasting of the apparent or pre-mature success of the invasion at those early stages, gave frequent news conferences and press reports. During one of those press reports (at the end of an address to delegates at an Asian security summit in Singapore in early June 2003), Wolfowitz was asked why North Korea was being treated differently from Iraq, where hardly any weapons of mass destruction had been found. Wolfowitz’s response was: "Let's look at it simply. The most important difference between North Korea and Iraq is that economically, we just had no choice in Iraq. The country swims on a sea of oil" [30].

Many opponents of the war jumped on this statement, so to speak, as corroboration of what they had been saying or suspecting all along: that the war on Iraq was prompted by oil interests. Yet, there is strong evidence—some of which presented in the preceding pages—that for the last several decades oil interests have not favored war and turbulence in the Middle East, including the current invasion of Iraq. Nor is war any longer the way to gain access to oil. Major oil companies, along with many other non-military transnational corporations, have lobbied both the Clinton and Bush administrations in support of changing the aggressive, militaristic U.S. policy toward countries like Iran, Iraq and Libya in favor of establishing normal, non-confrontational trade and diplomatic relations. Such efforts at normalization of trade and diplomatic relations, however, have failed time and again precisely because Wolfowitz and his cohorts, working through AIPAC and other war-mongering think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), Project for the New American Century (PNAC), and Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA) oppose them.

These think tanks, in collaboration with a whole host of similar militaristic lobbying entities like Center for Security Affairs (CSA) and National Institute for Public Policy (NIPP), working largely as institutional façades to serve the defacto alliance of the military-industrial complex and the pro-Israel lobby, have repeatedly thwarted efforts at peace and reconciliation in the Middle East—often over the objections and frustrations of major U.S. oil companies. It is a well established fact that Wolfowitz has been a devoted champion of these jingoistic think tanks and their aggressive unilateral policies in the Middle East. In light of his professional record and political loyalties, his claim that he championed the war on Iraq because of oil considerations can be characterized only as demagogic: it contradicts his political record and defies the policies he has been advocating for the last several decades; it is designed to divert attention from the main forces behind the war, the armaments lobby and the pro-Israel lobby.

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Ismael Hossein-zadeh is a professor of economics at Drake University, Des Moines, Iowa. He is the author of the newly published book, The Political Economy of U.S. Militarism His Web page is http://www.cbpa.drake.edu/hossein-zadeh

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