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It’s not all about the oil

In the lead up to the war on Iraq, two slogans dominated both marches and anti-war rhetoric: ‘Not in our name!’ and ‘No blood for oil!’ The former attacked the undemocratic way the war was being forced on an unwilling population, and the latter proposed to expose the real nature of the sacrifice being demanded by our leaders. Oil remains the most popular reason why the US went to war amongst opponents, and even some supporters, of the campaign.

There was a varying degree of sophistication within the broad scope of this line of argument. Some simply accused America of being nothing better than a common thief, out to steal Iraq’s oil from an Arab leader who wouldn’t play ball. Others pointed out that opening up Iraq’s oil industry to the West would mean that the US would rely less on the Saudis and so could crack down on the state’s Islamist sympathies. Yet another theory was that the invasion was part of a US plot to break up OPEC. All these postulations, however, had one thing in common: in the words of Billy Bragg, it was all about the price of oil.

While making for an easily grasped rallying cry and useful counter-narrative to the regime change pieties and WMD scaremongering, the problem with claiming that Iraq is all about oil is that it isn’t. Denouncing it as such is an inadequate response to American foreign policy and can not convincingly explain all of the behaviour of the architects of war. The financial motivation, however, is often the sole accusation of war critics. In a recent piece in the Guardian, Naomi Klein stated that “the ideology of the Bush White House isn’t neo-conservatism, it’s old-fashioned greed.”

This kind of analysis, not just of Klein’s but the broader anti-war movement, is attributable in part to a Marxist-influenced politics and outlook, where economics is seen to be the driving force behind world events, and ideology, or humanitarian rhetoric, is seen merely as a hypocritical cover. Hence the wealth of literature exposing the post-Cold War phenomenon of ‘humanitarian intervention’ as a sham, an ideological cover for old-fashioned greed centred foreign policy. The view goes, America conducts its foreign policy simply in order to protect its own businesses, ensure its own economic stability and growth, and to prevent alternatives to the free market model emerging.

It is a point of view with much to support it, and undeniably true in numerous interventions throughout the US’ history. When the US multinationals come under threat, whether it’s in Guatemala or Iran, there is a CIA-sponsored coup or invasion not far away. Not only does the economic argument have precedent to back it up, but the Bush administration seems like the perfect embodiment of the connection between capitalism and war. From the vice-President down, the US government is staffed with men and women closely connected with both the oil industry and the military-industrial complex.

The reasons for the oil theories are well-rehearsed and easily justified, but there are limits to their efficacy. Crying thief ignores the foundational ideology behind both the neo-conservatives and the liberal imperial impulse of Blair. It is the neo-conservatives who have grabbed the spotlight since 9/11, as journalists suddenly became interested in think-tanks with rather unexotic names like the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), or the Project for the New American Century (PNAC). Those who are now in power in America did not emerge from a vacuum, but come from a tradition in diplomatic theory and foreign policy ideology that goes back decades. It is deep rooted and well resourced.

Most frequently referred to is the PNAC Statement of Principles document from 1997, in which many now familiar names spell out their strategy for US domination. Phrases like “American global leadership”, “military strength and moral clarity”, “shape a new century”, “sustain American influence”, “responsibilities of global leadership”, and “America’s unique role” litter the document. Neo-con writer Max Boot defined himself and his ideological co-religionists as believing “in using American might to promote American ideals abroad”. This is not the doctrine of money-grabbers or nepotistic opportunists, nor an ideology to dismiss as hypocritical sugar-coating, but rather a belief-system to engage and challenge. It is not enough to simply denounce the Bush administration as rapacious capitalists. Instead, there must be a serious engagement with the ideas embodied in the US administration, and their deeply embedded presence in US society.

Pinning down the ideology is difficult, but there are narratives and myths about US history and her role in the world that can be suggested: ideas to do with manifest destiny, America’s essential goodness, her civilising mission, the benign nature of market economics, the idolatry of liberal democracy. But big themes need to be backed up with evidence, and a recent article in the Washington Post on Paul Wolfowitz provides plenty of interesting material.

On Dec 23rd last year the Post ran a piece on Wolfowitz ‘holding his ground’ despite the critics’ attacks, in which certain core beliefs become apparent. Wolfowitz believes in a real evil in the world that must be destroyed. Note that this is different from the Christian idea of evil since Wolfowitz locates this evil in specific individuals and countries. He also believes, like the PNAC statement which he signed, that the US must export its ‘values’, such as ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’. Neo-con journalist Bill Kristol put it like this: “American power should be used not just in the defence of American interests but for the promotion of American principles.”

Building on these two ideas, is the commitment to a fight for ‘civilization’. In Wolfowitz’ own words, “We’re dealing with a fundamental existential threat to our way of life, to our values.” There is also an ignorance of recent history, and particularly a failure to acknowledge America’s own responsibility for creating al-Qaeda: “The status quo…produced bin Laden and produced thousands of people eager to kill themselves in order to kill Americans.” It was, of course, US attempts to destabilize the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan that produced bin Laden, as well as US policy in the Middle East.

The neo-cons are also passionately convicted of the value of redemptive violence. When challenged after a speaking engagement, Wolfowitz countered by accusing the critic of wishing that Saddam was still in power. In other words, no other method save violence is conceivable. AEI fellow Michael Ledeen wrote that “change – above all violent change – is the essence of human history.” This idea has good pedigree; Woodrow Wilson, speaking in 1918, announced “the righteous and triumphant Force which shall make Right the law of the world”.

Wolfowitz and his ilk also conceive of America as superhero figure who, while essentially law-abiding, is permitted to break the normal community regulations in order to protect everybody from a greater evil. In Captain America and the Crusade against Evil, Jewett & Lawrence identify some of the characteristics of this world view: “super power held in the hands of one person can achieve more justice than the workings of democratic institutions”, “democractic systems of law and order, of constitutional restraint, are fatally flawed when confronted with genuine evil”, and “the community will never suffer from the depredations of such a super leader, whose servanthood is allegedly selfless”.

This idea of being ‘above the law’ in times of civilizational peril was articulated by neo-cons in the run up to the Iraq war in relation to the struggle at the United Nations. Richard Perle articulated the concerns of neo-cons when he urged the President that unless he reshaped the traditions of international relations, “we are going to have our hands tied by an antiquated institution that is not capable of defending us.”

There is also the effect of 9/11 to take into account. Suddenly, the warnings that the neo-cons had been unsuccessfully trying to communicate to Bill Clinton about the need for a ‘gloves-off’ foreign policy seemed terribly prescient. Enemies had struck on US soil and taken almost 3,000 lives. For the American public, 9/11 fundamentally changed how they would see Bush’s military ventures. From that point on, many of the neo-con arguments began to carry a lot more sway.

Taking into account this ideology offers a more coherent explanation for the Iraq war, the nature of the occupation hitherto, and predicting its future. Policies that have since been seen by many to be erroneous, such as small troop numbers, were a result of the neo-con belief that they would be welcomed with open arms by Iraqis as their liberators. Continued resistance did not damage this tunnel vision, but merely produced clichés such as ‘regime remnants’ and ‘Saddam loyalists’ – or, if pushed, ‘Islamic terrorists’. The war itself was partly driven by the idea of the ‘domino effect’; if one dictatorial Arab regime is smashed, then others will soon buck up their ideas.

Importantly, however, business interest does not explain why Tony Blair was, and remains, such an enthusiast for the war. Why Blair went to war, and so wholeheartedly, is a question that remains unconvincingly answered by traditional political rationale. The ‘bridge between Europe and America’ theory works, but means Blair was guilty of horrendous miscalculations. It is more likely that he, just like the neo-cons, believed in the rightness of the cause. That is why the war split the British political establishment; Foreign Office values of containment and realpolitik were cast aside for ideology and vision.

Ideas do still matter. The neo-cons came from the revolutionary left and moved to the radical right, where ideology is central and exporting it is the mission. They are mocked by the conservative right for their misspent Trotskyite youth, and reviled by the left for appropriating revolutionary zeal for the right wing. Wolfowitz commented in the Post that part of the ‘war on terrorism’ is “in the realm of the battle of ideas, not just the battle of guns and bullets.” This equally applies to the clash between those who are seeking to violently remap the Middle East to fit their vision, and those who oppose this utopian militarism.

If this article has hardly dwelt on war profiteering then it is through an attempt to redress the balance rather than a dismissal of greed as a factor. After 9/11 any American President would have attacked Afghanistan and seized the opportunity to establish bases in Central Asia. The difference is more clearly seen in the approach to the Middle East, and specifically Iraq, in policies that intensify latent trends within US foreign policy and inject them with a zeal for violently imposing the US model on all others. The founder of the Methodist church John Wesley once said, “Passion and prejudice govern the world, only under the name of reason.” Critical analysis of current US foreign policy, and support for it in Downing Street, must incorporate an understanding that many of the neo-cons hold their cause to be just and right, an undertaking that will avoid the distortions resulting from bellowing ‘it’s all about the oil’.

Published in Middle East International.

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