The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 is quite possibly the worst ‘man-made humanitarian disaster‘ in recent memory. But even after twelve years – including eight years of Iraq under direct American occupation – what do we really know about the motivations of the Bush administration for going to war? Were weapons of mass destruction, democracy and freedom at the center of the rationale, as Bush and friends would like us to think? Or is the conventional anti-imperialist, anti-war movement argument of “war for oil” a more accurate explanation? In short, why did the U.S. invade Iraq?
These are the questions Jeet Heer, senior editor of The New Republic, considered and attempted to answer in array of tweets last month and, let me say, I did not find his conclusion at all convincing even though it did carry a curious intuition. The reason why I find Heer’s argument unpersuasive is because I disagree with his three basic premises, and they are: (i) that oil was not the primary motivation for the decision to go to war; (ii) that Iraq was an “idee fixe” – an obsession – for members of the Bush administration following the unfinished business of the 1991 Gulf War [leaving Saddam Hussein in power]; and (iii) that the United States needed a state actor to showcase its military strength in the wake of 9/11 since a shadow war against non-state actors like al-Qaeda wouldn’t adequately avenge the humiliation felt by the country. The U.S. needed a visible target to strike and the “idee fixe” with Iraq made it an ideal target.
Put simply, according to Heer and to paraphrase Murtaza Hussain, the invasion of Iraq was blind vengeance for the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.
Heer discounts the oil argument because if the U.S. wanted access to Iraqi oil, it simply could have made a deal with Saddam.* But it is precisely this line of reasoning that makes the question ‘why did the U.S. invade Iraq?’ a difficult one to answer since U.S. oil interests are often presented in an antiquated manner by both analysts and the anti-imperialist left. That is, we still view Western oil interests through a neo-colonialist lens where Western powers simply want to gain access to or establish foreign ownership of natural resources. But, as O’Donnell (2009) affirms, we have exited the old, neo-colonial oil system and entered a new globalized order where market protection underlies the logic of U.S. strategy with respect to the Middle Eastern oil.
The logic of defending the integrity of international oil markets is exemplified by the U.S. decision to expel Iraq out of Kuwait in 1991. The concern was very straightforward: Saddam appropriated Kuwait’s reserves and threatened to do the same to Saudi Arabia. If he succeeded in the latter, Saddam would have a high concentration (close to half) of the world’s oil reserves in his possession. This meant that markets would cease to follow the fundamentals of supply-and-demand and oil pricing would be dictated by the whim of a single person, an unacceptable scenario considering how dependent the U.S. economy is on energy consumption. This was confirmed by Dick Cheney in his September 1990 testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee (Morris and Earp, 2008).
The 2003 Iraq War followed the same market-centered logic. However, the concern this time was not the concentration of energy supplies in the hands of one individual, instead the source of anxiety was that future global demand for oil would outstrip supply causing prices to skyrocket. Muttitt (2012: 23-39) documents how think-tanks prior to the invasion produced reports calling for the need for investment to offset any possible scarcity in energy supplies and identified Iraq as a swing producer capable of flooding the market with oil.
Here we can begin to see how oil was the main factor in the decision to go to war. Iraqi production needed to be expanded (through foreign investment provided by international oil companies) in order to ease any potential pressure placed on markets. But here we can also see how the logic of “idee fixe” does have some legitimacy because increasing Iraqi oil production meant re-empowering Saddam, which to the United States was impermissible since past behavior demonstrated that he had no qualms with threatening the integrity of oil markets. There was only one option open to the Bush administration then, that was to topple Saddam Hussein, and world events, unfortunately, contrived to assist the administration.
Richard Clarke (2004: 30) details how meetings in the West Wing of the White House immediately after 9/11 centered on Iraq:
“I realized with almost a sharp physical pain that [Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld and [Deputy Paul] Wolfowitz were going to try to take advantage of this national tragedy to promote their agenda about Iraq. Since the beginning of the administration, indeed well before, they had been pressing for a war with Iraq.”
The Iraq War was not out of blind vengeance for 9/11. As a matter of fact, the war had nothing to do with it. 9/11 simply functioned as a pretext to justify the invasion for the purpose of increasing Iraqi oil production. As Muttitt (2012: 25) correctly observed, the United States had no desire to establish foreign ownership of Iraqi resources (as the anti-imperialists would argue) nor did they necessarily care if American corporations won the contracts to develop Iraq’s energy sector though the U.S. would prefer if American oil companies did win the contracts. What mattered was that the expansion of the global supply of oil for the purpose of preserving a relatively low or reasonable price for the resource.
Of course, oil was not the only factor for the war as there were other considerations. There was an ideological component of the neoconservatives who felt it was the responsibility of the United States to manipulate and preserve the international order in favor of U.S. interests. And then there was an additional material incentive from the arms industry, who also pushed for war since the potential for large profits were there. Lockheed Martin and Halliburton both hit earned billions of dollars in contracts and were the main beneficiaries of the war (Feinstein, 2012: 397).
If anything, the fact that a clear motive for why the U.S. invaded Iraq has yet to be established is a scathing indictment on U.S. journalism.
* It should be noted that this highlights a contradiction in Heer’s initial argument. If Iraq was an “idee fixe,” and it was to a certain degree, then buying oil from Saddam was out of the question, and it was. He later attempted to square this circle by stating that the U.S. only wants servile regimes to sell it oil.
Clarke, Richard A. (2004). Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror. New York: Free Press.
Feinstein, Andrew. (2012). The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade. London: Penguin Books.
Morris, Scott (Producer), & Earp, Jeremy (Director). (2008). Blood and Oil [Documentary]. United States: Media Education Foundation.
Also accessible here: https://youtu.be/YuOQ4KgTkAI?t=42m09s
Muttitt, Greg. (2012). Fuel on the Fire: Oil and Politics in Occupied Iraq. New York: The New Press.
O’Donnell, Thomas W. (2009). “The Political Economy of Oil in the U.S.-Iran Crisis: U.S. Globalized Oil Interests vs. Iranian Regional Interests.” Presented at the New School Study Group on the Economics of Security, co-sponsored by the Graduate Program in International Affairs, The New School and the New American Foundation on October 2009.