In Iraq, Still Pursuing the Prize

History, combined with America’s contemporary contest with China, points to an age-old motivation for warring in the Gulf—the pursuit of oil.

Amid the jockeying to redefine strategy, and expectations, on Iraq, one central question is being largely overlooked: why are we at war there? Given reports of a planned troop surge in the near future, why is America staying the course-at such a cost in prestige, blood, treasure and even power-in Iraq? What is the objective (the topic of a recent symposium in The National Interest)?

Expectations for the Iraq Study Group had fused with optimism in the wake of the midterms to stoke what has proven to be an irrational exuberance regarding the prospects for a meaningful shift in Iraq. And while the president is unwavering in his pursuit of "victory", the casusbelli the Bush Administration has stressed for Iraq has varied: WMDs, democracy, terrorism, a threat to Israeli democracy, and (recently and amorphously) for the "ideology of freedom to overcome an ideology of hate." But given the history of what has prompted military campaigns in the Gulf in the past, and America's geopolitical and energy-related contest with China, it is unlikely any of these rationales reflect the motivation for war in Iraq. As stated recently by President Bush during the midterm elections, U.S. forces remain in Iraq for reasons related to oil. And indeed, those concerns likely prompted the campaign to begin with.

The Quest for Oil

Oil has been the prize for most of the 20th century and has underlined much of Western involvement in the Persian Gulf region. Britain was manipulating Iranian shahs from the early part of the last century to secure Iran's oil, with Britain's revenues from Iranian oil exceeding Iranian revenues from Iranian oil up to the end of World War II. On February 14, 1945, President Roosevelt met Saudi Arabia's King Abdul Aziz aboard the USS Quincy on Egypt's Great Bitter Lake to cement U.S. access to Saudi oil. In 1953, the United States and Britain toppled the constitutionally elected government of Muhammad Mossadeq of Iran to preserve Britain's oil interests and to open a door to U.S. companies. The United States supported the shah to ensure its access to Persian Gulf oil. The Iranian Revolution was not a revolt to bring in the mullahs but was instead a fight for independence from external control of Iran's oil and internal affairs. The mullahs filled the void.

After the revolution, the United States supported Saddam Hussein, who seemingly represented an opportunity to topple the uncooperative and pesky Iranian regime. When the tide of war turned against Iraq, Senate documents demonstrate that the United States and Europeans gave Saddam chemical weapons and battlefield intelligence, with the result that about one million Iranians were killed and injured. Two years after this war was over, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and became a threat to Saudi Arabia and its oil resources; he was no longer useful to the United States and, indeed, became a threat to U.S. interests. The United States amassed massive forces in the Persian Gulf and kicked Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. All indications point to the pursuit of oil interests as the impetus of these policies.

Since World War II, the United States has supported Arab autocratic rulers in the Persian Gulf to secure access to oil and lucrative arms and engineering service contracts. Promoting democracy and democratic institutions has been the articulated, but never the pursued, goal. Indeed the opposite has been the case: U.S. support for autocratic rulers has prevented regime change and thus the emergence of democratic rule.

Mr. Bush continues to support dictators, including the Al-Sauds in Saudi Arabia, while broadcasting his commitment to democracy and human rights-a policy that Al-Qaeda has been able to leverage for recruitment. Even a cursory look into Saudi Arabia shows that it is anything but democratic: no constitution; no elections until recently and then only for a portion of municipal councils; all churches and synagogues are outlawed; women have few rights; freedom of speech is not protected; rulers freely take from the state. Yet the U.S. supports such rulers who sit atop big oil reserves and conveniently labels them as moderates.

Arab citizenry blame the United States for their autocratic rulers and the absence of freedom. The West's historical support for dictatorial regimes has been, and continues to be, the main fuel for anti-Americanism and terrorism around the world-giving birth and strengthening the likes of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. Our need, and greed, for oil has historically taken precedence over democracy, given the prospect of having to deal with uncooperative, elected leaders.