|February 24, 2006/NY TIMES
Will Fight for Oil
By TED KOPPEL
The American people ... know the difference between honest critics who
question the way the war is being prosecuted and partisan critics who
claim that we acted in Iraq because of oil, or because of Israel, or
because we misled the American people.
— President Bush, Jan. 10
Let us, as lawyers say, stipulate that the Bush administration was
genuinely concerned that weapons of mass destruction, which they
firmly believed to be in Saddam Hussein's arsenal, might be shared
with the same Qaeda leadership that planned the horrific events of
9/11. That would have been a reasonable motive for invading Iraq; but
surely now, three years later, when the existence of those weapons is
no longer an issue, it would be insufficient reason for the United
States to remain there.
Let us further acknowledge that continuing to put American lives at
risk in Iraq purely for the protection of Israel would arouse, in some
quarters, anti-Semitic murmurs, if not growls.
But the Bush administration's touchiness about charges that we acted —
and are still acting — in Iraq "because of oil"? Now that's curious.
Keeping oil flowing out of the Persian Gulf and through the Strait of
Hormuz has been bedrock American foreign policy for more than a
Fifty-three years ago, British and American intelligence officers
conspired to help bring about the overthrow of Iran's prime minister,
Mohammed Mossadegh. Mossadegh's shortcomings, in the eyes of Whitehall
and the State Department, were an unseemly affinity for the Tudeh
Party (the Iranian Communists) and his plans to nationalize the
Iranian oil industry. The prospect of the British oil industry being
forced to give way to Soviet influence over the Iranian oil spigot
called for drastic action. Following a military coup, Mossadegh was
arrested, imprisoned for three years and then held under house arrest
until his death in 1967. Power was then effectively concentrated in
the hands of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi.
The shah's unswerving commitment to the free flow and marketing of
Iranian oil would, by the end of the 1960's, become a central pillar
of the so-called Nixon Doctrine, in which American allies were tapped
to be regional surrogates to maintain peace and security. The sales of
sophisticated American weapons to Iran served the twin purposes of
sopping up billions of what came to be known as "petro-dollars," while
equipping (in particular) the shah's air force.
That reliance on Iran to maintain stability in the Persian Gulf
enjoyed bipartisan support. On New Year's Eve in 1977, President Jimmy
Carter, visiting the shah in Tehran, toasted his great leadership,
which he said had made Iran "an island of stability in one of the more
troubled areas in the world." By January 1980, after Ayatollah
Ruhollah Khomeini had driven the shah from the Peacock Throne,
President Carter made absolutely clear in his final State of the Union
address that one aspect of our foreign policy remained unchanged:
"An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf
region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the
United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any
means necessary, including military force."
The Reagan administration announced its intention to continue
defending the free flow of Middle East oil, by whatever means
necessary. In March 1981, Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger clearly
signaled that the United States was seeking a new base of operations
in the Persian Gulf:
"We need some facilities and additional men and materiel there or
nearby, to act as a deterrent to any Soviet hopes of seizing the oil
fields or interdicting the line."
Subsequently, the United States began establishing military bases in
Saudi Arabia and, to much criticism, selling Awacs aircraft to the
Saudi government. In 1990, when Saddam Hussein appeared likely to
follow his invasion of Kuwait by crossing into Saudi Arabia, the
defense secretary at the time, Dick Cheney, laid out Washington's
"We're there because the fact of the matter is that part of the world
controls the world supply of oil, and whoever controls the supply of
oil, especially if it were a man like Saddam Hussein, with a large
army and sophisticated weapons, would have a stranglehold on the
American economy and on — indeed on the world economy."
What Mr. Cheney said was correct then and remains correct now. The
world's oil producers pump approximately 80 million barrels a day. The
world's oil consumers, joined today by an increasingly oil-hungry
India and China, purchase 80 million barrels a day. Were production
from the Persian Gulf to be disrupted because of civil war in Iraq,
the freezing of Iranian sales or political instability in Saudi
Arabia, the global supply would be diminished. The impact on the
American economy and, indeed, on the world economy would be as
devastating today as in 1990.
If those considerations did not enter into the Bush administration's
calculations when the president ordered the invasion of Iraq in 2003,
it would have been the first time in more than 50 years that the
uninterrupted flow of Persian Gulf oil was not a central element of
American foreign policy.
That is not to say that the United States invaded Iraq to take over
its oil supply. But the construction of American military bases inside
Iraq, bases that can be maintained long after the bulk of our military
forces are ultimately withdrawn, will serve to replace the bases that
the United States has lost in Saudi Arabia. There may be other
national security reasons that the United States cannot now
precipitously withdraw its forces from Iraq, including the danger that
the country would become a regional terrorist base; but none is
greater than forestalling the ensuing power vacuum and regional
instability, and the impact this would have on oil production.
H. L. Mencken is said to have noted that "when someone says it's not
about the money — it's about the money." Arguing in support of his
fellow Arkansan during Bill Clinton's impeachment trial, former
Senator Dale Bumpers offered a variation on that theme: "When someone
says it's not about the sex — it's about the sex."
Perhaps the day will come when the United States is no longer addicted
to imported oil; but that day is still many years off. For now, the
reason for America's rapt attention to the security of the Persian
Gulf is what it has always been. It's about the oil.
Ted Koppel, who retired as anchor and managing editor of the ABC
program "Nightline" in November, is a contributing columnist for The
Times and managing editor of the Discovery Channel.