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Thesis & Antithesis

A critical perspective on energy, international politics & current affairs

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Location: Washington, D.C.

greekdefaultwatch@gmail.com Natural gas consultant by day, blogger on the Greek economy by night. Trained as an economist and political scientist. I believe in common sense and in data, and my aim is to offer insight written in language that is clear and convincing.

27 April 2006

Fighting for oil?

“Why does America fight?” asks John B. Judis of The New Republic. Simple answer: “Oil.” The bookends to his article should highlight his thinking:

“It’s not fashionable to say this, but the Iraq war was about oil. Not entirely, but certainly more than it was about weapons of mass destruction or a link to Al Qaeda. The 1991 war with Iraq was also about oil, and if the United States goes to war in the future with Iran or with China, it will likely be about oil.

The United States could follow a different strategy, combining drastic conservation at home with an attempt to work a new international oil agreement that would prevent competition over supplies giving rise to war. Call it green internationalism. But don't expect the Bush administration to undertake either of these steps. And don't, unfortunately, expect a cautious Democratic administration to do so either.”

Put aside the pretentiousness of the article: “it’s not fashionable to say this, but the Iraq war was about oil,” writes Judis, as if offering going out on the limb or a profound truth that is obvious and elusive to us lesser readers. Put aside still the ridiculousness of “green internationalism,” an idea that is vague as it is non-useful. The problem is that Judis explains world through the lens of oil, rather than placing oil within the context of politics.

America’s beef with China, he writes, will be about oil. So is the dispute with Iran; and the nuclear deal with India. But taking oil as the cause for conflict is misguided: why do we think America will fight with China over oil, but not with Japan or Western Europe? This a ridiculous question, you may think, but it goes to show that oil alone is the not the cause of conflict. Would America feel as threatened by Iran if it were ruled by different people? The oil would still be there, but would America fight? Regimes matter and it is more useful to ask under what conditions and against whom a country would fight over oil.

What about the objectives of war? In the worst case, Judis writes, America “can seek privileged access to the world oil supplies and prevent other countries from gaining similar access.” Interesting point, but where is the link to war? And what is privileged access? America’s military posture in the Middle East increased when American corporations, and hence American profits, were expelled from the Middle East. The fear was the Soviet Union and later Iraq. For America, “similar access” has been rather different than taking over or controlling states, much as Judis thinks about the Iraq war.

The idea that America fights for oil is not wrong; just incomplete. And so it deserves a deeper understanding that Judis has given us in this article.

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