by Victor Davis Hanson
Tribune Media Services
Even in the face of spreading reform in the Middle East, Americans remain divided over the wisdom of removing Saddam Hussein and then staying on to foster democracy in Iraq. But petroleum should not be part of that controversy. Nevertheless, the most persistent smear of this war has been this idea of “blood for oil”—whether the so-called Afghanistan pipeline or Halliburton “grab” for concessions and profits.
True, our foreign policies, like those of all industrial powers, are in part guided by strategic considerations. Cheap gas, however, is not the supreme driving force behind American intervention. The lack of oil may explain our wrong decision to ignore Rwanda, but not our right choice to stop the dying in the Balkans, Somalia and Indonesia. In fact, China, not America, is already the world player most guided by Oilpolitik.
Whatever George Bush is, he is certainly no longer a realist oilman content with the status quo of propping up dictatorial Middle East regimes. Pulling troops out of Saudi Arabia and toppling Saddam—while putting Iran on notice—sent shivers up an oilman’s spine. After the Americans invaded Baghdad, the price of petroleum skyrocketed, enraging voters back home. America currently pours billions into oil-rich Iraq, rather than siphoning Arab petroleum out. That is why the same critics who once claimed that we were thieves now deride us as dupes.
Invading Iraq was not to loot its oil treasure, but more likely to cease the recycling of its petrodollars that went to terrorists and weapons procurement. Oil revenue allowed Saddam to attack four countries. His oil money subsidized terrorists like Abu Nidal and Abu Abbas. He sent cash bounties to suicide murderers on the West Bank and helped al-Qaidists in Kurdistan. Petrodollars empowered him to butcher his own people, and thus indirectly led to endless Western patrolling of two-thirds of his airspace.
In contrast, Iraqi oil revenue is now transparent and under the control of an elected government. Reserves are no longer pledged by a dictator to France and Russia in sweetheart deals and at extortionist rates. Nor is petroleum diverted by greedy insiders of the U.N. Oil-for-Food program.
Oil, remember, is also not just an American interest. Japan, Europe, India and China depend on imported fossil fuels far more than does the United States. Impoverished Third World states need moderately priced petroleum to salvage their chronically weak economies. For all the pampered terrorists’ bluster about “stealing our resources,” the real moral onus is more often on the opulent oil producer like a Saudi Arabia, Iran or Kuwait rather than a destitute consumer like Bangladesh or Peru.
Oil is pumped out of the ground in the Middle East at costs of between $5 and $8 a barrel. Through the power of a cartel, it is then sold to the world for $50. The Saudis, Gulf States and Iranians—who sit atop it but neither developed it nor can pump it without foreign expertise—have exclusive rights of possession protected by international protocols and ultimately the U.S. Navy.
As thanks, the oil producers have formed a monopoly—every bit as ruthless as any 19th century creation of a John D. Rockefeller—in unison to cut production and jack up the world price. This price-fixing harms millions from rural Brazil to Albania. OPEC, not the United States, is the real cutthroat petroleum profiteer.
Every gambling spree by a Saudi sheik in Monaco or outlandish $1,000 a night hotel in the Gulf comes in part from the income of a peasant in Bolivia or Chad. The money for mustard gas in Iraq, a nuclear reactor in Iran and hate-filled propaganda of the Saudi madrassas all derived from rigged oil prices and went to regimes that were neither elected nor capable of creating real wealth through the participation of a middle class.
Such an easy slur like “blood for oil” persists because the alternative explanation is apparently unpalatable. After Sept. 11, Bush abandoned the realist policies of his past and the Cold War calculus of a half-century, by zeroing in on the old pathology of the Middle East: dictators paying off theocrats and terrorists to redirect popular anger at their failures onto the United States.
If Bush’s democratic gambit succeeds, the world will be a far better place. But until then as we work on reform in Iraq, let us also conserve, develop new sources and wean ourselves from foreign oil. Promoting democracy also means keeping astronomical profits out of the hands of both failed autocrats and killers. By reducing world demand to weaken the cartel, we will both help poorer nations and restore the financial integrity of the United States.
Those who scream “no blood for oil” would do better to chant “no oil money for bloody terrorists and dictators.”
©2005 Victor Davis Hanson