In February 2003, millions of people around the world marched against the invasion of Iraq, raising the slogan “No war, no blood for oil.” It summed up a near-universal perception that the Bush administration, with Tony Blair in tow, was going to war because of Iraq’s massive energy reserves.
We have known for a long time that senior figures in the Bush administration were pressing for war against Iraq as soon as the 9/11 attacks happened. Although they eventually decided to march on Baghdad via Kabul, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and others worked tirelessly to convince the US public that Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11 — with stunning, if temporary, success.
George Bush and Tony Blair did not lean so heavily on the purported link between Iraq and Al Qaeda when addressing world opinion. In their presentations to the UN, they claimed that war was necessary because of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. The WMD narrative crumbled as dramatically as the story about Saddam Hussein’s alliance with Osama bin Laden.
Which brings us back to the oil. The architects of the war and their supporters in the Anglo-American media scornfully dismissed the idea that they were motivated by such concerns. For the antiwar marchers, on the other hand, it was plain common sense.
The more simplistic (or caricatural) versions of the “war for oil” thesis may not stand up to scrutiny. But there is no question that the marchers were much closer to the truth than the official rationalizers of the war.
From Churchill to Blair
I sometimes wonder whether Tony Blair had an eye on Winston Churchill when he said of the Iraq War in 2003: “The oil conspiracy theory is honestly one of the most absurd.” Back in 1920, Churchill had told the British parliament that the idea of an oil motive behind Britain’s Mesopotamia Campaign during the First World War was “too absurd for acceptance.”
Six years earlier, as first lord of the Admiralty, Churchill had championed the half-nationalization of Anglo-Persian Oil Company (later renamed BP), which had recently found oil in Persia (now Iran) and was looking to expand into neighboring Mesopotamia (Iraq). His goal was to secure fuel for the Royal Navy’s battleship fleet. Just eleven days after the British state acquired 51 percent of Anglo-Persian, archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo.
It’s a little more complicated these days. Oil no longer flows through closed supply chains from a BP well to a BP forecourt, or from a British colony to the British military. Since the 1980s, oil has been mostly traded on open markets, between any buyer and any seller.
Nor is access to oil any more such a decisive factor in warfare, as any other army can buy it too. The result is that Western strategists are not so much trying to get oil into their own hands (or the hands of their companies), but rather to maintain plentiful and cheap global supplies — as expensive oil can cripple their economies.
To that end, they aim to maximize foreign investment in oilfields so as to boost the flow. At the time of the Iraq War, three-quarters of the world’s oil was off-limits to the fossil-fuel companies, as governments preferred to run their oil industries in-house, and their economies were not generally best served by pumping as fast as possible.
To me, fighting a war to break open a country’s oil industry to foreign investment sounds no more justified than fighting one to seize the oil as loot. I still get asked, “So was it a war for oil?” I find it a surprising question, as it’s no secret that Iraq has nearly a tenth of the world’s remaining oil, nor is it that the Persian Gulf region as a whole contains nearly half of the total (at the time of the war, it was more like two-thirds).
It’s only because our politicians denied any role for oil so insistently that it became a question at all. And perhaps those very denials stimulated suspicions of a bigger conspiracy than it was.
No, it was not some Cheneyesque master plan that played out over the years. In fact, the approach to oil favored by US government officials changed several times, from outright privatization, to contracting by a US authority, to contacting by an Iraqi authority. Different people in the US and British governments disagreed on the details, such as whether to treat their own companies more favorably or whether to concentrate on breaking OPEC.
But the strategic interests were certainly there. They were acknowledged in public documents — most famously Dick Cheney’s 2001 energy task force report:
By any estimation, Middle East oil producers will remain central to world oil security. The Gulf will be a primary focus of US international energy policy.
Private government documents spelled the interests out even more explicitly. In the course of writing my book Fuel on the Fire, I obtained the UK’s strategy for Iraqi oil, dated May 2003, which baldly stated:
The future shape of the Iraqi industry will affect oil markets, and the functioning of OPEC, in both of which we have a vital interest.
Another strategy document from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, published in 2004, contained the following passage:
Our wider energy policy objectives for Iraq need to be dovetailed with commercial goals to ensure the best result for the UK national interest. The two sets of goals are mutually enforcing given the need for foreign investment. Iraq’s energy sector will provide considerable market opportunities for UK firms.
In the ninth volume of his 2016 report, British civil servant Sir John Chilcot refers to numerous government documents that explicitly state the oil objective and outline how the United Kingdom pursued it throughout the occupation. Nonetheless, Chilcot still took at face value the Blair government’s claim that its main motive was to address Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.
The UK and US governments certainly formulated plans to secure those interests. In the months leading up to the war, the State Department’s Future of Iraq Project and the Pentagon’s Energy Infrastructure Planning Group both worked out the details of a future Iraqi oil industry with foreign multinationals in charge.
In late 2002 and early 2003, BP and Shell held at least five meetings with the British government on the subject of Iraq. The minutes of one such meeting in the Foreign Office, in October 2002, began as follows: “Iraq is the big oil prospect. BP are desperate to get in there.”
In another meeting, Blair’s trade minister, Baroness Symons, said she believed that if Britain fought in the war, British oil companies deserved to get a share of the spoils, and she promised to lobby the US government to that effect. At the time, the companies and government denied that any such meetings happened — it took me a five-year struggle under the Freedom of Information Act to get hold of the minutes.
Then, once the war had taken place, the United States and UK worked hard throughout the occupation to turn Iraq over to Big Oil. This began with the task of ensuring the right Iraqis were running the Oil Ministry and writing the blueprint for the industry’s future. The British even hired a former BP executive to draft Iraq’s contracts to be signed with companies like BP — although that initiative failed in the end.
In 2007, President Bush announced a surge of thirty thousand troop reinforcements to be sent to Iraq. The surge is generally remembered — albeit wrongly — as what turned things around in Iraq, ending the sectarian bloodshed and marking the first example of sensible US policymaking. At the time, even critics accepted at face value the claimed noble aims, and simply argued that it would not work in achieving them.
They neglected the surge’s real political purposes: firstly, to shore up the US allies in the Iraqi government, many of whom were implicated in sectarian violence, and secondly, to pressure them to deliver political “benchmarks” — most importantly, to pass a law restructuring the Iraqi oil industry in favor of foreign oil companies. Throughout 2007, during surprise visits to Baghdad by members of Bush’s national security team, it was the oil law that dominated discussions.
In the course of biweekly video conferences with Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, Bush repeatedly warned that US patience had grown thin and pressed Maliki on the oil law. The US made threats to cut off aid and reconstruction funds if the Iraqi government did not pass the law, and even to remove Maliki from office.
No War for Sand
In this approach, like many others, the US failed. The oil law was not passed, largely because of a popular Iraqi campaign against it. In the end, the authorities decided to sign long-term contracts even without any legal basis for doing so, and companies like BP, Shell, and ExxonMobil now almost entirely run Iraq’s oil industry. I have told these stories — the hidden stories of the war — in Fuel on the Fire.
So the US and the UK governments had a motive for handing Iraq’s oil to multinational companies, and a series of plans for doing so. They then consistently acted so as to achieve that end. Isn’t that enough to answer the question about whether it was a war for oil?
Apparently not for some. The occupiers largely dressed up these initiatives to bring in the oil companies as being for the benefit of Iraqis, since, of course, they would need a modern oil industry, with the advantages of investment and technology from the likes of ExxonMobil.
In the run-up to the war, a popular cliché among policymakers held that while the war was not about oil, the day after the war it would become all about it. It was as if the war hawks hadn’t noticed that Iraq possessed all this oil, but once the war had taken place, they conveniently discovered it would be a good idea to bring in Big Oil.
Perhaps they even believed it. After all, human beings are perfectly capable of believing what is in their interests to believe. Psychologists use the term “confirmation bias” to describe people accumulating and interpreting information such as to reinforce their preexisting beliefs.
Tony Blair once even suggested that his belief in the rightness of the war was sufficient justification, regardless of whether there was any solid basis for that belief. Once again, even if he did genuinely believe in what he was doing, that does not justify it.
So let’s not get hung up on whether the governments consciously drew the link between oil motive, oil plans, and the decision to go to war — on whether they ever actually said, “Let’s go to war for oil.” In fact, the issue is quite simple.
A few years ago, I put the war-for-oil question to Robert Ebel, the State Department’s senior prewar adviser on Iraqi oil. He replied very simply:
What was it that the Iraqis had that we would like to have? It wasn’t the sand.