Oil Wars and Destruction of Development

“I do not understand this sqeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favour of using poison gas against uncivilised tribes.”

-Winston Churchill Feb 19th, 1920

On Wednesday, November 9th, Abbas Alnasrawi, Professor Emeritus of Economics at UVM recounted in brief the history of “Iraq: One Hundred Years of Oil Wars,” drawing his material from a book he recently published called The Economy of Iraq: Oil, Wars, Destruction of Development and Prospects, 1950-2010.

His lecture was very well attended, which I suppose shouldn’t be that surprising considering that UVM students show widespread interest in the current war in Iraq, fuel prices, rising heating costs, and other related issues.

Prof. Alnasrawi is particularly qualified to speak about oil wars not just because of his impressive academic background, but also because he was born in Iraq and graduated from the University of Baghdad. The vast majority of Prof. Alnasrawi’s speech simply recounted the history of the Middle East beginning in 1903 with a concession by the Shah of Iran to the Anglo-Iranian Oil company which essentially cemented western interests in the region by guaranteeing the British company twenty-four cents per barrel of oil extracted from the country. In his account of the 1917 British invasion of Iraq, Alnasrawi emphasized the fact that the soldiers came as “liberators” under much the same guise as the recent American soldiers.

Although this article is no place for a full recount of the last 100 years in Iraq, it is worth mentioning Alnasrawi’s conclusion. The overall thread to his historical account was that as early as 1917 Churchill already rationalized the use of poison gas and air strikes against the “uncivilized people” in the strategic region and still today a power struggle between the militarily superior west and Iraq continues to be fought by wolves in sheeps’ clothing.

After the US army 100-hour campaign to expel Saddam from Iraq in 1991, the UN put sanctions against Iraq, which we now know were unfortunately wholly ineffective, corruptly managed, and extremely detrimental to the average Iraqi’s livelihood. One million people died as a direct result of UN sanctions, Iraqi social services were cut to zero, citizens lost all access to medical care and nearly all infrastructure was destroyed.

Certainly, maintaining the status quo in Iraq was not good for the Iraqi people, but Iraq posed no military threat to the US. There were no WMD and the US was unable to get a UN mandate for its 2003 invasion of Iraq based on internal conventions.

However, over the years the US economy has become increasingly dependent on oil and also the occupation of Iraq. Alnasrawi argues that invading Iraq was viewed by the Bush Administration as a means to acquire a foothold in the Middle East. Iraq would ideally become a platform from which the US could control the surrounding oil producing nations-this coupled with the Bush Doctrine for pre-emptive attacks, and an apocryphal belief that oil revenues would finance our military campaign, encouraged the US to attempt a second invasion in Iraq.

As Paul Wolfowitz put it, “North Korea has no oil.” This mostly clearly illustrates the point that, although on humanitarian or self defense grounds you might expect the US to invade North Korea or Zimbabwe where Mugabe declared himself the next Hitler, the US has operated with surprising patience toward dictatorships-even those surreptitiously developing an atomic bomb and simultaneously starving its native populations.

For better or for worse, the US chooses its battles primarily in regard to US interests. Alnasrawi’s summary is more or less a classical application of real politik: in this view we have every reason to expect that oil will continue to be a destabilizing factor in Iraq and the Middle East in general.