The real role of oil in imperialist strategy

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The looming war against Iraq, coming after the wars in ex-Yugoslavia and Afghanistan is causing great concern, particularly in the working class. Young men and women, dragooned into the armed forces by economic conscription, are being sent to the Gulf, while the rest of the working class pays the cost of the war through increased taxes and exploitation. Much of the concern and unease is focused on the aims of the war, particularly the idea that the US is going to war in order to gain control of Iraq's oil supplies. This is an idea encouraged by the Left, particularly in the Daily Mirror, which has consistently linked the war to oil: through TV advertisements, on its front pages etc. Left-wing groups such as the Socialist Workers Party, also say the same thing, in more 'radical' language.

The Daily Mirror (25/1/03) report that Exxon Mobil was to have pole position for control of the Iraq oilfields after the war, and it's report that the British army is to 'take' the oilfields to mask the fact that the US will control them, certainly suggest this. We heard the same arguments during the 1991 Gulf war. That war saw the destruction of the Kuwaiti oil fields, and Iraqi oil production being curtailed by sanctions. This time the US will certainly occupy Iraq and gain control over its oil production, and US oil companies will certainly cream off a nice profit. But this short term profit is overshadowed by the overall cost to US capitalism of the war, its preparation - which includes billions of dollars in 'aid'/bribes to countries in the region to either stay out of the war or support the US - the billions used to reduce Iraq to rubble, and the hundreds of billions that the US spends on armaments each year.

Oil is certainly an important element in this war, but not because of the involvement of US oil companies. Its importance lies in geopolitical strategic significance. Oil is "a strategic material the lack of which is a fatal blow to an economy, or leaves it incapable of waging war" (Why Wars? Jeremy Black, 1996). Whoever controls the world's oil supplies will have a major strategic advantage over its imperialist rivals. US imperialism's occupation of Iraq will not only give it direct control over its oil supplies but will enable it to apply direct military pressure on all the major producers in the region, as well as control the supply of oil to the rest of the world from this region. For example, Japan depends on the Middle East for 95% of its oil, Asia as a whole has a 75% dependency, and Europe though less dependent still gets 25% from there. The US, in contrast, meets 82% of its own energy needs.

This would appear to back up the 'war for oil' arguments, because the US will control oil production, supply and reserves. Iraq has 11% (15 billion tons) of the world oil reserves. This begs the question of why the US didn't capture Iraq in 1991, when it had much more international support than now. In fact oil was only part of the wider strategic game that was being played out in the Gulf. As the ICC said at the time: "By flaunting its military might, the US demonstrates the others' relative weakness. Right from the start, the US sent troops without waiting for its 'allies'' agreement; the latter were forced to rally round under pressure rather than out of conviction. As long as the action against Iraq takes the form of an embargo or diplomatic isolation they can pretend to play minor roles, and so insist on their own minor individual interests. By contrast, a military offensive can only emphasize the enormous superiority of the US, and its allies' impotence" (International Review 64, 1991).

The 1991 war enabled the US to strengthen its military presence in the region under the justification of 'containing' Saddam. This also increased their control over oil supplies, while it imposed a physical barrier to its major rivals. Not only could the US shut off the oil supplies needed for the German, French, British, Russian and Japanese economies (and war machines), but it also exposed their military puniness compared to the US, and severely limited others' access to this vital strategic region (along with its markets).

In the 12 years since, these rivals have not meekly submitted to the Pax Americana but have increasingly opposed the US - in ex-Yugoslavia, Africa, the Middle East and throughout the rest of the world. German, French and Russian imperialisms have all established commercial links with Iraq in defiance of the US. These links include access to Iraqi oil and markets. Faced with this undermining of their global leadership the US has had to resort to increasing use of military power to slap down its rivals: 1999 in Kosovo, 2001/2 in Afghanistan and now the prospect of the occupation of Iraq, followed by who knows where next. Iran?

The Mirror, the SWP and the array of 'intellectuals' such as Gore Vidal and George Monbiot, that put forward the 'war for oil' argument, all hide the depth of the imperialist conflict between the great powers. They all present US policy as being due to Bush and his administration's links to the oil industry. They say that the imperialist policy of the US, the world's superpower, is determined by the needs of one industry. Underlying this argument is the idea that Bush is somehow more of a hawk than Clinton ever was.

The fact that Bush and his team have strong links to the oil industry does give US imperialism's rivals something to attack them with. But the Bush administration's imperialist policy is fundamentally no different from that pursued by the Clinton administration or, indeed that of Bush Senior. In the 1992 Defence Planning Guidance, written by Donald Rumsfeld when he was in the State Department, there is a stark statement of US imperialist strategy. "To prevent the re-emergence of a new rival, either on the territory of the former Soviet Union or elsewhere, that poses a threat of the order of that posed formerly by the Soviet Union�These regions include Western Europe, East Asia, the territory of the former Soviet Union, and Southwest Asia � the U.S. must show the leadership necessary to establish and protect a new order that holds the promise of convincing potential competitors that they need not aspire to a greater role or pursue a more aggressive posture to protect their legitimate interests � in the non- defense areas, we must account sufficiently for the interests of the advanced industrial nations to discourage them from challenging our leadership or seeking to overturn the established political and economic order�we must maintain the mechanisms for deterring potential competitors from even aspiring to a larger regional or global role". The same strategy was defended by the Clinton administration in the 1997 National Military Strategy. "The United States will remain the world's only global power for the near-term, but will operate in a strategic environment characterized by rising regional powers, asymmetric challenges including WMD, transnational dangers, and the likelihood of wild cards that cannot be specifically predicted". This has been continued by the Bush administration "Our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States" (National Security Strategy, 2002). Bush is thus not defending the oil industry but the continuity of US imperialist strategy.

Strategic role of oil

During World War Two Britain and America fought a bitter diplomatic and commercial struggle over control of the Middle East oil fields. The US plan to control the oilfields deprived British imperialism of an essential part of its war machine. As Churchill complained to Roosevelt (in 1944) "There is apprehension here in some quarters that the United States has a desire to deprive us of our oil assets in the Middle East on which among other things, the whole supply of our navy depends" (quoted in The Politics of War, Gabriel Kolko 1968). Despite the 'special relationship' of the time the US used oil to help reduce British imperialism to a secondary power.

The occupation of Iraq is part of a similar strategy. According to Zbigniew Brzezinski, elder statesmen of US imperialism, "A power that dominates Eurasia would control two of the world's three most advanced and economically productive regions. A mere glance at the map also suggests that control over Eurasia would almost automatically entail Africa's subordination, rendering the Western Hemisphere and Oceania geopolitically peripheral to the world's central continent" (The Great Chess Board, 1997). Thus, through controlling Iraq the US can tighten the belt that is encircling its major rivals, especially the European powers. It has already established a military presence in the Central Asian republics, in Afghanistan, in the Caucasus, the Far East and the Balkans, in the 1990s through such interventions as the war in ex-Yugoslavia and, more recently, through the 'war on terrorism'. This encirclement by the US is placing great obstacles in the way of the other major powers. It is preventing their exploitation of the oil supplies and other raw materials and markets in many of these regions, as well as hindering the access to oil supplies that are vital to the war machines they are trying to develop in competition with the US. But above all, this encirclement is undermining the capacity of the US's rivals to pursue their overall imperialist ambitions in vital strategic regions of the globe, driving them behind their own frontiers. This is just what the US did to the British Empire and to the USSR.

Confronted with the US's offensive the other major powers will not meekly submit, but will be forced to do all they can to stop or undermine the assertion of US dominance. This resistance can only further destabilise the world. The US bourgeoisie recognises this. The National Defense University's Strategic Assessment 1997 warned that the use of military power to maintain US world leadership "may lead others to believe that their interests are at risk, in which case they may decide they have no choice other than the use of force" (quoted in Foreign Policy in Focus Vol. 4, No. 3, January 1999).

The Left's presentation of the war on Iraq as being for the profits of the US oil industry acts as a smokescreen to hide the real depth of imperialist tensions. This lie is used to push pacifist illusion that capitalism would be peaceful if it was not for the nasty Americans and their oil companies. This lie disarms the working class when it is faced with a worsening spiral into military barbarism.

Phil, 30/01/03.

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