Tuesday, August 16, 2005

The Standard Oil Song

The whole is, at most, the sum of its parts; but figuring out the anthill by tracking individual ants is very hard work. For example, the Iraq War was undertaken through the efforts of a host of individuals with multiple and changing motives so it has become an on-line industry to figure out how we brought ourselves to strip off our clothes and jump in this particular cactus patch in the first place: Oedipal one-upmanship, routine miscalculation, hubris, the search for a political distraction, the urge to play tin soldiers with real soldiers, indirect support for Likud, Wilsonian idealism, American exceptionalism, profiteering by well-connected contractors, the Monroe Doctrine as applied by people with an uncertain grasp of geography. Or maybe what we’re experiencing is the strategic version of the disassociative effect of computer games. For ex officio statesmen personally unfamiliar with the blood and shit of real war, blowing people to bits from high altitude is like playing Doom. The electronic mediation makes it all rather flat and unreal. Or it could be argued, in the alternative, that action in this instance resulted from a case of Presidential nerves. Making an irrevocable decision wasn’t evidence of resolution: it was a substitute for resolution. Cortez burned his boats in order to commit his men to a desperate mission. Bush burned our boats to commit himself. And then there’s the oil.

It is customary at this point to remind everybody of every reason that oil wasn’t really at the root of the thing even though it is obvious, and usually admitted, that we certainly wouldn’t be so deeply involved in the Middle East if it weren’t for the petroleum. It is argued that actually occupying Iraq doesn’t increase the world’s oil resources at all or even secure them for the United States at a lower price. Since oil is fungible stuff whose cost is determined by the global market, what matters is overall production, not who sells which oil to whom. If a regime decided not to sell to us, the overall effect would be nil so long as they sold to somebody. Of course a fanatical government could decide not to sell its oil to anybody, but no nation could afford such a course for long. During the sanction years, even Saddam, who certainly hated us, sold as much oil as we’d let him. What else was he going to do with it? So who physically controls the oil fields is not crucial. Only people naïve about economics think otherwise. However.

The problem is that there is an important group of influential people who are naïve about economics and many of them play key roles in developing our foreign policy. Practitioners of realpolitik are often addicted to a crude mercantilism, in the current instance to a mercantilism that assumes that what matters is who possesses the crude. Looking at foreign policy as a huge map exercise, one can imagine them thinking to themselves that putting a marker in Mosul was part of a solution, though we surely know by now that they had no clue what the men and women represented by the marker were going to do once they got there or how that was supposed to keep the price of oil under $50 a barrel. Bear in mind that these are the same guys who occasionally float the idea that we may eventually have to seize the Saudi oil fields by military force, evict the Arabs, and run the plants ourselves.

It may be true that oil was not a rational motive for invading Iraq, but that doesn’t mean that oil wasn’t a large part of why we went there.

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