This series of five articles is an attempt to theorise the role that oil has played in US intervention in the global South. With Washington’s debacle in Iraq that has, according to Zbigniew Brzezinski, been the graveyard of the neo-conservative dream, the role of oil and its linkage to US intervention has become increasingly common. Indeed, one of the central motivating slogans for critics of the Iraq debacle has been ‘no blood for oil’ with an explicit linkage drawn between US intervention in the Middle East and Washington’s desire to control the areas energy resources.
This series of five articles examines this ‘blood for oil’ thesis that has developed and critiques them as being overly instrumentalist in their conception of the role that US statecraft plays in the development and deepening of capitalist social relations on a global scale. The first three series of articles looks at these sets of theoretical debates whist the final two examine the ways in which Washington’s attempts to diversify energy supplies to non-Middle Eastern oil-rich regions is leading to highly authoritarian state formation and human rights abuses.
I start by arguing that the blood for oil thesis operationalises an overly instrumentalist theorisation of the American state which is in turn economically reductionist and fails to capture the political logic of the American state in producing the necessary conditions for global capitalism through its interventions in oil rich regions. Second, I argue that the dominant inter-imperial rivalry theory of American Empire that sits at the heart of the ‘blood for oil’ thesis is not sufficiently attentive to the largely positive-sum nature of US hegemony and the dense economic and political linkages between alleged rival core powers and regions. Third, I argue that these two areas of weakness lead to a failure to fully understand the wider political and structurally derived power that US primacy in oil rich regions affords the American state vis-Ã -vis other core powers.
After outlining these critiques this series of articles then grounds these theoretical observations with an examination of recent moves by the American state to diversify energy sources away from the Middle East through incorporating non-Middle Eastern oil rich regions as stable circuits within global capitalism. US primacy in these regions serves both to stabilise energy supplies for global capitalism and to maintain US primacy over other core powers. Importantly, counter-insurgency warfare is increasingly being employed as the primary strategic modality for the integration of oil-rich transnationally orientated states into the global political economy which is in turn having profound effects upon global human rights, state formation and international security in the 21st Century.
Blood for oil?
Given the often asserted centrality of oil as a key economic resource for powerful states and the critical view that Western wars are often motivated by oil, it is unsurprising that oil itself was not mentioned as a possible motivating factor for the recent US-led war on oil rich Iraq.
Indeed, US planners not only rarely mentioned oil, but vehemently denied that it factored in any way in relation to the decision to topple Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. For example, the former US Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld argued that it was ‘[n]onsense’ to suggest that the US invasion of Iraq had anything to do with oil. He continued that ‘there are certain things like that, myths that are floating around, it has nothing to do with oil, literally nothing to do with oil’.1 The former Whitehouse Press Secretary, Ari Fleischer, echoed this theme. When asked whether oil was a factor in US decisions to intervene in Iraq, Fleischer argued that oil is ‘not a factor’.2 Similarly, the Prime Minister of the UK, the US’s key coalition partner, stated bluntly that the idea that access to and control of Iraqi oil lay behind the invasion was a ‘conspiracy theory idea’ and that there ‘is no way whatever if oil were the issue that it would not be infinitely simpler to cut a deal with Saddam’.3
Conversely, the centrality of oil and US resource intervention was well captured by the almost intuitive response of critics of the US-led war who argued that the invasion of Iraq and a more militaristic US foreign policy signaled a new form of American Empire after the terrible events of 9/11. As Michael Cox pointedly argued, after 9/11 a number of analysts argued that ‘we should start calling things by their right name, drop the pretence that America is not an Empire, and accept that if the world was going to be a stable place, the US had to act in much the same imperial fashion as the British and Romans had done several centuries before’. 4
This post 9/11 US Empire is said to be predicated on territorial conquest, and in particular is designed to maintain access and control of major oil producing regions so as to guarantee crucial energy supplies for an oil hungry US economy. Oil is thus seen to be the lifeblood that greases the wheels of American capitalism. Michael Klare, one of the most articulate of these critics argued that
[W]hat is undeniable . . . is that President Bush gave top priority to the enhancement of America’s power projection capabilities at exactly the same time that he endorsed an energy strategy that entails increased US dependence on oil derived from areas of recurring crisis and conflict. What we have, therefore, is a two-pronged strategy that effectively governs US policy toward much of the world. Although arising from different sets of concerns – one energy-driven, the other security driven – these two strategic principles have merged into a single, integrated design for American world dominance in the 21st Century.5
Similarly, the editors of the Monthly Review argued that both the American ‘government and the major media’ have assiduously avoided any mention that the US ‘had more crass imperialistic motives for the invasion, such as control of Iraqi oil’ unlike major ‘U.S. corporate interests’ that have ‘never been shy about explaining -at least within business circles- their post-war economic goals for Iraq’. These goals amounted to the investment of ‘tens of billions of dollars in Iraq’ by US corporations to privatize Iraqi oil and to thus maximize profits and to potentially trigger a wave of privatization across the wider Middle East.6
Dilip Hiro, writing in The Nation extended this logic when he argued that it ‘is the prospect of uncontested access to the world’s second-largest oil reserves–leading to the end of America’s growing reliance on petroleum from Saudi Arabia, the homeland of most of the 9/11 hijackers–that excites popular imagination in the United States. And the US hawks, who are determining Iraq policy, know it’.7
This ‘blood for oil’ thesis thus argues that the US is increasingly intervening in the global South both to ensure the market dominance of US oil transnationals and to secure a stable supply of oil for the American economy. This oil conspiracy reaches right into the heart of the Bush administration, with senior US figures such as US Vice President Dick Cheney said to be using American military might to open productive new markets for US oil transnationals.8
Given the centrality of oil to energy-dependent advanced capitalist economies and the importance of the Middle East in supplying western oil needs (for example, approximately sixty-six percent of global oil reserves are in Middle East), it would be naÃ¯ve in the extreme to presume that oil considerations did not factor into the Bush’s administrations decision making processes in relation to the intervention in Iraq.9
The argument of this paper is not to disprove or indeed critique the ‘blood for oil’ thesis in relation to its primary claims (the centrality of energy security to US foreign policy). Whilst it is important to avoid mono-causal explanations, it is both empirically and historically correct that the desire to increase US access to and control over oil rich regions within the global political economy has long been one of a number of central strategic objectives of the American state.10
In a more agentic direction, it is also more than possible that close ties between senior Bush administration figures such as Vice President Richard Cheney and large oil sub-contractors such as Halliburton played a key role in the decision to invade Iraq. The point of this paper is not to seek to provide the answer as to the reasons why the Iraq invasion took place (indeed, this paper is primarily concerned with non-Middle Eastern oil rich states). There are however, three areas of weakness in the ‘blood for oil’ thesis that I wish draw out and examine within these articles so as to widen the sets of debates about the nature of the American state within the global economy and its relationship to oil whilst critiquing the often mono-causal accounts of western intervention.
End article one
1 Author unknown, ‘Rumsfeld: It Would Be A Short War’, CBS News, November 15, 2002. http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2002/11/15/world/main529569.shtml
2 Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer, Excerpts, October 9, 2002. http://www.iraqwatch.org/government/US/WH/wh-fleischer-100902.htm
3 Author Unknown, ‘Blair Denies Oil “Conspiracy Theory” Over Iraq’, The UK Times, January 15, 2003. http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,1-544100,00.html; Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke also deny that oil factored into American decision making. See their America Alone: The Neo-Conservatives and the Global Order (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).
4 Michael Cox, ‘The Empire’s Back in Town: Or America’s Imperial Temptation – Again’ , Millennium, 32:1, 2003. p. 8.
5 Michael Klare, ‘Blood For Oil: The Bush-Cheney Energy Strategy’, Socialist Register, (London, Merlin Press, 2003), p. 180; For an extended version of Klare’s argument see his Blood and Oil: The Dangers and Consequences of America’s Growing Dependence on Imported Petroleum (New York: Henry Holt, 2004).
6 The Editors, Monthly Review, January 10th, 2005. http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=6996
7 Dilip Hiro, ‘Oil, Iraq and America’, The Nation, December 16th, 2002. http://www.thenation.com/doc/20021230/hiro20021216
8 Jim Vallette, ‘Wolfowitz’s Hidden Patron: Dick Cheney’s Oil Change at the World Bank’, CounterPunch, March 22, 2005. http://www.counterpunch.org/vallette03222005.html; See also ‘Blood for Oil? Retort , A Group Of Writers And Activists, Considers Whether Oil Was The Reason For The Invasion Of Iraq’, London Review of Books, April 21, 2005. http://www.lrb.co.uk/v27/n08/reto01_.html.
9 For background see ‘The Future of Oil’, Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, undated. http://www.iags.org/futureofoil.html;
10 On the Middle East see Stephen Kinzer, All the Shah’s Men : An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror (New York: John Wiley, 2004); Simon Bromley, American Hegemony and World Oil: The Industry, the State System and the World Economy (Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1991); Daniel Yergin, The Prize : The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power (New York: Free Press, 1993)