A War for Oil? So What?

John Moser

December 1, 2002

We’ve all heard it before. Every time the possibility arises that the United States might intervene in the Middle East, out come the old slogans. “No blood for OIL!” “Stop the OIL war!” “Don’t fight for Exxon!” We heard it during the Cold War. We heard it during the Gulf War. And of course there has been no shortage of such expressions in recent weeks, as the chances of war against Iraq seem to increase daily.

As one who thinks war with Iraq would be justified, and might even be necessary, I’ve given some thought to how to respond to this argument. On a certain level it doesn’t even rise to the level of an argument; it is simply an assertion, most appropriate for bumper stickers, but uttered as if it were self-evident. For example, the author of a recent letter to The Collegian, Ashland University’s student newspaper, simply lists a few facts—American consume “more 25 percent of the world’s oil output”, Iraq has “the world’s second-largest proven reserves of oil in the world,” and American oil companies “currently have no stake in the Iraqi oil market”—then connects the dots to conclude that any war against Iraq would have nothing to do with liberating Iraqis from a brutal tyrant, but everything to do with “liberating oil.”

At its heart this is nothing more than what even sophisticated leftists refer to as “vulgar Marxism.” There is no need to prove that the Bush administration has oil in mind. One must merely show that there is a possibility that a material interest might be involved, then sit back with a knowing smirk, confident that the true motive has been uncovered. Further evidence—indeed, any further argument—is unnecessary. The rhetoric coming from the White House and the Pentagon might fool the hoi polloi, but not the jaded mind of the economic determinist.

If one wanted to engage in a game of a corsair, corsair et demi, the defender of the administration could counter that the economic argument cuts both ways. France and Russia have major oil interests in Iraq, and—surprise, surprise—have taken the lead in the United Nations Security Council in expressing reservations about a possible war. However, this sort of argument leads nowhere, as it is no more possible at this stage to find hard evidence in favor of this view than it is to prove that oil is the motivating factor for the administration.

A colleague of mine has advocated a more forthright response. “Sure, it’s about oil,” one might respond. “What’s wrong with that?” It was British and American oil companies that created the oil industry in Iraq, and their facilities were illegally expropriated decades ago. A war for oil is no less justifiable than any other conflict to take back what is rightfully ours. Yet this is somehow unsatisfying. It smacks of old-fashioned imperialism, the kind that has always rankled Americans, even as they themselves have engaged in it. Moreover, if the United States were to intervene abroad every time the interests of an American corporation were threatened, our military would be very busy, indeed.

What, then, is my preferred response to those who chant, “No Blood for Oil”? Simply this—”Who knows?” Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t; perhaps it will have to be left to the next generation of historians to determine. But why should we bother so much about the motives for an action, so long as the results it produces is beneficial? When pressed, even most antiwar protestors admit that Saddam Hussein is an evil dictator, and that the world would probably be a better place if he were removed from power. Why, then, should the purity of the motives for doing so matter?

Suppose I give five dollars to a homeless person, but my reason for doing so is to convince the young woman who is with me that I am a generous, compassionate soul. Morally speaking, there is every reason to call my motives into question. However, would it have been morally better for me not to give the five dollars? Suppose that one day historians determine that Franklin D. Roosevelt entered World War II to divert the attention of Americans away from the failure of his domestic policy (and there are some who argue just that). Would that imply that it would have been better for the United States to remain neutral, even if that meant that Germany and Japan would have won the war? According to the logic of those who oppose war with Iraq on the grounds that it would be “about oil,” the answer to both of these questions would seem to be yes.

Most people would argue that if one is considering going to war, it is better to fight for noble principles such as liberty, democracy, and security, than for strictly economic interests. However, such considerations ultimately have to be dealt with when policymakers stand at the Pearly Gates. In the real world it is consequences that matter. If it is true that President Bush and his advisors want to fight a war for oil—and in the absence of real evidence we must not assume that this is the case—they may one day have to explain themselves to the Almighty. However, if in the process they succeed in overthrowing a vicious despot armed with biological, chemical, and perhaps nuclear weapons, they need not explain themselves to me. Nor, I suspect, will they have to explain themselves to the people of Iraq.

The old cliché claims that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. Is it so unreasonable to believe that occasionally the road to Heaven might be paved with bad ones?

John Moser is an assistant professor of history at Ashland University and an Adjunct Fellow of the John M. Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs.