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Is it all about oil?

Cheap oil may not be the prime US motive in confronting Hussein, but it could be the outcome.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 16, 2002


Oil – a commodity synonymous with wealth and power for a century – could be the great prize of a new US war with Iraq.

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Not that you'd know that from listening to most recent Washington rhetoric. President George W. Bush doesn't mention it when making his case for confrontation with Saddam Hussein. Lawmakers debating Iraq in Congress last week talked much more about Mr. Hussein's nuclear program than his vast oil reserves.

Does this amount to a conspiracy of silence over US plans to seize millions of barrels of petroleum? There's scant evidence for that charge, which is heard frequently overseas. It might be easier to gain access to Iraqi oil via seduction than by fighting, in any case. The US could simply lift sanctions and cut sweet deals with Iraq's dictator.

But there's no denying that access to oil has long been the chief US strategic interest in the Gulf region. And Iraq, seen in this context, is immensely interesting. Its millions of barrels of petroleum could fund Iraqi national reconstruction, change the balance of power in the region, and perhaps help stabilize gas prices for a generation.

"If we go to war it's not about oil.... But after Saddam, it becomes all about oil," says Lawrence Goldstein, president of the Petroleum Industry Research Foundation.

That the US push to oust Saddam is really a grab for oil resources has become a staple position of many European critics of the White House, as well as the domestic anti-war left. The president himself was an oilman, as was Vice President Dick Cheney, goes the reasoning. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice served on Chevron's board – she even had an oil tanker named after her, for goodness sake.

These Oilpeople-in-chief know that US dependence on imported petroleum is increasing, say critics, with imported supplies predicted to jump to two-thirds of national consumption by 2010. Instead of pushing conservation, or funding alternate energy sources, they have turned their eyes towards Iraq. Their plan: Foment a crisis about weapons of mass destruction as a pretext for seizing Hussein's pumps.

A female protester who briefly disrupted a congressional appearance by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld this summer put the matter succinctly. "Mr. Rumsfeld ... is this really about oil?" she shouted before guards hustled her out of the room.

There's little but circumstantial evidence to support this Big-Oil-based conspiracy theory, however. And the oil industry is one that in the age of the OPEC operates more by coziness than confrontation. Prior to last Sept. 11, the oil lobby in Washington generally favored the relaxation of US restrictions on doing business with Hussein, not his removal.

Furthermore, the all-about-oil theorists tend to downplay Hussein's past thuggish behavior and his very real weapons programs. Debate on Iraq at the United Nations and in the US Congress has centered on the best way to contain the Iraqi leader – not whether or not he is a nice guy.

Finally, war with Iraq carries real risks that the US would face a worse world oil market throughout George W. Bush's and Dick Cheney's political careers.

One hint of the possibilities: An impending conflict has already added a "war premium" of $3 to $5 a barrel to the cost of oil, according to some analysts. A US invasion would almost certainly take Iraq's current production of about 1.7 million barrels of oil a day off the market, at least for a time. Under a worst-case scenario, Hussein would respond to the onset of hostilities by lashing out at Saudi and Kuwaiti oilfields, lacing them with biological or chemical weapons in an attempt to send the price of oil sky-high for years to come.

About oil? Yes and no