by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
April 25, 2005
LOS ANGELES -- American discussion of the Iraq war consists of little more than sniping about the alleged reasons for the invasion, balanced by a sort of wistful longing for an easy exit. But suppose that the real intent is not an exit, but rather a permanent military presence based on demonstrable economic advantage? Shouldn't political centrists be discussing this developing policy on a rational level?
There are little hints cropping up. Vestkusten, a California-based Swedish-American newspaper, reports:
Former UN chief weapons inspector Hans Blix said that oil was one of the reasons for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, a Swedish news agency reported.
Last week we considered claims that world oil production is at or around its historical peak and will soon begin a slow, inexorable descent. The model, proposed in the 1950s by Dr. M. King Hubbert, suggests that the decline in production will extend over half a century or more, but will reveal its most dramatic effects in the first decades after "peak oil" has occurred.
The only question is when this will happen. Current data suggest that peak oil is going to happen sometime between now and the next five years or so. (A note regarding last week's discussion: Randolph T. Holhut commented on the peak oil phenomenon in his American Reporter article "R.I.P: The Hydrocarbon Economy," a few weeks ago, and I failed to mention that. I regret the oversight.)
The more alarmist essays, books and Websites predict massive economic and social dislocations that would result if fossil fuels become scarce. If their replacement by alternate energy sources is slow and inadequate, or if replacement tools, machines and all the other complexities of modern civilization don't keep pace with declining fuel supplies, we will experience a dramatic loss in the economic output of all industrial civilizations.
It is a horror story that may come true.
The curious thing is the relative paucity of coverage in the mainstream media. We get "up to the minute" coverage of the Michael Jackson trial and enough box scores to fill a ten-page sports section, but there is essentially no mention of peak oil.
Likewise, there is little or no discussion of the fact that we seem to be resuscitating the eighteenth and nineteenth century imperialist tradition. Only this time, if it is indeed happening, it is the U.S. adopting imperialism as its chosen policy.
We might think of the topic as imperialism considered. The conquest and occupation of Iraq has at least some of the hallmarks of the old, European-style imperialism. Whether the Bush presidency has adopted a truly imperial doctrine is not entirely clear as of the moment. What is clear is that the overall shape of the beast is present, and the great newspapers have failed to comment on that fact to any great extent.
There are those who like to argue that America has been an imperialist ogre for a century, but I am not one of them. Being the idealistic liberal that I am, it is hard for me to take such hard-Left cant seriously. I don't buy into arguments that our participation in the world wars was part of some evil conspiracy.
What then is this discussion about current day imperialism?
It's simple, really. If you subtract out all the talk ("He gassed his own people," weapons of mass destruction) and just look at the map, the point becomes clear. Some of the oil-alarmist Websites make it quite explicitly - American policy is to secure oil supplies by commercial activity or diplomacy when possible, but by force if necessary. The stakes are too high to do nothing, and there is no plausible alternative that would lead to energy independence (a fanciful term at best, anyway).
The mass-media fail to discuss such a policy shift on its merits. If we are headed down that road but still have a chance to turn back, shouldn't we be holding a national debate on the topic?
It is quite a taboo even to bring the subject up. But if foreign conquest is going to be our de facto national policy, we should at least be talking and thinking about it seriously.
Imperialism was not always a forbidden concept. In recent memory, there were those who defended it as beneficial to one's country and civilizing to other parts of the world. Winston Churchill famously said, "I have not become the King's First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire." His bravado did not prevent that liquidation, but it represented the views of a leading statesman only a generation or two removed from our own.
George MacDonald Fraser is a journalist, novelist and screenwriter who is best known for his historical-comedy novels such as "Flashman" and screenplays such as "The Three Musketeers." His 2002 autobiographical work, "The Light's On at Signpost," is meant, I think, to represent the views of his generation - that is, the English and Scots born in the 1920s, people who grew up in an age of British power and watched its demise.
He makes no secret of the fact that his views would not generally be considered politically correct. What I find particularly interesting in his book is a discussion of empire:
I write as a convinced Imperialist - which means that I believe that the case for the British Empire as one of the best things that ever happened to an undeserving world is proved, open and shut. Of course it had its faults, grievous ones; there are bad blots on our record - and what country since time began is blameless? We know that history is one long catalogue of theft, slaughter, and conquest, and no one can deny that Britain was better at these things than anyone else. We were, and still are at heart, a nation of pirates, and as a fine historian once said, let the world not reproach us with it, but be thankful.
There's a shade of Rudyard Kipling here ("The White Man's burden") combined with a defensible if not entirely convincing view that providing for roads, sanitation and administration is a worthy enough mission to justify foreign rule. Kipling actually says much the same thing in that poem: "Fill full the mouth of famine/And bid the sickness cease;... .
It's no longer the 19th Century, but we can find the modernized version of these old rationalizations in our current talk about infrastructure repairs and democratization in the nations we occupy.
It's when you put the peak oil concerns together with our observed imperial behavior that the puzzle begins to resolve. Foreseeing a future in which nations will compete furiously for declining petroleum supplies, we are taking out a little insurance. We want to make sure that the oil-rich nations of the Middle East won't make a bad decision somewhere down the line, something contrary to American interests. We want to be able to buy the oil, whether or not China wants it more.
Considered in this way, the occupation and fortification of Iraq makes perfect sense. It has very little to do with Saddam's crimes. It has everything to do with what lies a bit to the south of the American bases, the remaining oil reserves of Saudi Arabia. You might think of that old remark that is attributed to Al Capone, which goes, "You can get more of what you want with a kind word and a gun than you can with just a kind word."
It's when the oil squeeze starts to become severe that the strategy will come to fruition. An American army on the border will be strongly motivating to any Saudi regime to stay in line. It is the allocation of scarce petroleum reserves between the Americans and its economic competitors that is at stake here.
No one thing I have said here should be a surprise. It's just that the national discussion has been concentrated along two or three lines that are patently unproductive. The war on terrorism is a legitimate mission, but it fails to explain the targeting of Iraq. The leftist horror of force, not to mention imperialism, manifests itself as a shrill condemnation of all foreign conquests. The strong majority don't buy into this view, but support some military actions as defensible because they are necessary. Meanwhile, the administration offers explanations for our actions that are so questionable (not to mention various) that they lack credibility.
The simplistic cynical view is that we invaded Iraq to control its oil. There may very well be truth to this assertion, but the wider geopolitical aspects of the situation may be even more compelling to American planners. If this is the case, the prediction is that the U.S. is planning to stay for the long haul, that the view towards the south is the more compelling motive, and that some form of Western occupation may last for the next half-century.
The risks of such a plan are obvious, but our current lack of a better plan is equally apparent.
A few "oil peak" activists have been trying to explain to an uncomprehending public that our newly imperialistic national policy is both coldly rational and fraught with danger, simultaneously logical and semi-suicidal. It is a view that ought to be explored, but so far it has been ignored by the mainstream.