Friday, February 24, 2006

Blood and Oil

My posting on Iran last week prompted a series of comments about the war in Iraq and how we got there. In an op-ed in today's New York Times (which annoyingly requires a Times Select subscription to read) Ted Koppel neatly addresses the role of oil in that decision. Mr. Koppel places the Iraq War into the context of many decades of US policy concerning access to Persian Gulf oil, by administrations of both parties. He concludes that it was about oil, but not in the sense of controlling Iraq's reserves, as has been suggested by many critics of the war. His account strikes me as balanced and realistic.

In the leadup to the invasion in April 2003, one of the most common protest signs proclaimed, "No Blood for Oil." I found that slogan extremely frustrating, because most of the folks carrying it seemed to believe that we were going into Iraq to seize its oil fields, turn them over to Exxon, and reap the benefits of cheap oil for years. Not only have things not turned out that way, but it was clear to anyone who understood the structure of the international oil industry that such a plan could never have made sense, particularly not to US administration with more oil expertise than any in recent history. The rationale described by Mr. Koppel rightly identifies stability and access, rather than direct control, as the key goals for US oil strategy for the region. Unfortunately, "Yes, but not in the way you mean" makes a poor soundbite. It will be interesting to see how Mr. Koppel's arguments are interpreted and cited by others.

Although he omits a few details that might enhance his case, it's more important for us to ponder what comes next. If we extrapolate from the history he describes, together with the current situation in the region, our future options look quite challenging. In the same way that the basing of US troops in Saudi Arabia--particularly in the Hijaz--provided a convenient rallying cry for al Qaeda, the costs and benefits of a long-term US presence in Iraq, post-insurgency, must be carefully evaluated.

The other question we need to address is the degree to which the regional security function should eventually be managed by a multi-national organization, such as NATO, rather than the US or ad hoc coalitions. The EU, Japan and China consume the bulk of Persian Gulf oil, with only 2.5 million barrels per day of the region's 22 MBD of production coming here. However, as the world's largest oil importer, the US would be affected more than any of these by the market consequences of any interruption in the flow of oil from the PG.

Ultimately, as Mr. Koppel suggests, it's impossible to remove oil entirely from our understanding of our involvement in Iraq, or from consideration of our options for closing this chapter. Nor can it be extricated from our thinking about how to deal with the potential threat posed by Iran's nuclear program. It was and is about oil, just not in the way some might think.

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