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War on Iraq:
Not oil but Israel



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The most popular argument of the critics of the Iraq war has been that the United States went to war for oil — that is, that the war had nothing to do with combating terrorism. Writing in the Christian Science Monitor before the war, Brendan O'Neill reported that "for many in the antiwar movement, the idea that the Bushies' plan to invade the Gulf to get their greasy hands on more oil has become an article of faith, an unquestionable truth repeated like a mantra." [1] Among those believers is America's preeminent left-wing war critic, Noam Chomsky: "Of course it was Iraq's energy resources. It's not even a question. Iraq's one of the major oil producers in the world. It has the second largest reserves and it's right in the heart of the Gulf's oil-producing region, which U.S. intelligence predicts is going to be two thirds of world resources in coming years." [2]

That goes against what I regard as the fundamental reason for the war: the war was led by neoconservatives and fought in the interests of Israel, at least as Likudniks envision Israel's interests. It is all well-documented, though the neocons imply that Israeli interests coincide with those of the United States. But as I point out in my article on the subject — and this fact is on the public record, too — the original idea for the war was conceived in Israel. Moreover, the war achieved the goal hoped for by the Likudniks — destabilization of the Middle East.

Although the neoconservative/Israel theory is not without its adherents, a number of factors explain the much greater popularity of the war-for-oil idea among critics of the war. For critics on the Left, the idea fits in with their notion of rapacious capitalism. Perhaps more importantly, their emphasis on the monetary motives of oil companies placed the war in a simple, good-bad framework. "The well-rehearsed oil argument," O'Neill observes, "attempts to make war a simple issue of good versus evil, with oil-greedy imperialists on one side and defenseless civilians on the other." [3]

In other words, the idea that the war was fought to profit the oil companies, complete with the propagandistically effective "No blood for oil" sound bite, provided a perfect counterpole to the Bush administration's presentation of an apocalyptic conflict of good versus evil. Even the neocon supporters of the war lent some credence to its validity with their talk about privatizing Iraqi oil.

Of course, that some oil companies might derive benefits from the U.S. takeover of Iraq does not mean they were the driving force. In short, the neoconservatives certainly sought allies for their war agenda, and the promise of oil riches was one way they saw of possibly drawing support from the oil companies.

An additional reason for the popularity of the war-for-oil argument is that any reference to Israel and the neoconservatives moves into the taboo area of Jewish power and invites the lethal charge of anti-Semitism. It is obviously far safer to demonize the oil industry than to make anything approaching a critical comment regarding individual Jews or Jewish interests, even if it is not a criticism of Jews as a group.

What precisely does the war-for-oil thesis entail? Two motives for such a war suggest themselves, and they are fundamentally different from each other: one is to benefit the American oil industry, and the other is to enhance the hegemonic power of the United States by giving it control of the oil spigot of the world.

Let's begin by distinguishing between the oil argument and the current war profiteering. Undoubtedly, the reconstruction of Iraq is a veritable gold mine for some American firms, especially those with close connections to the Bush administration. In fact, the war-profiteering gravy train began while the war was still on. [4] Some of these firms, such as Halliburton, are in the oil-equipment business. And a significant part of the rebuilding naturally involves the oil infrastructure. Thus, the rebuilding of Iraq means profits for those in the oil-equipment business.

But that special sector is not the same thing as what is implied by "the oil industry" — i.e., those firms that actually profit by extracting and selling oil. Halliburton would benefit financially if all the pipelines and oil wells were blown up, so that it could rebuild them. Such a scenario would hardly profit oil producers or the U.S. government. It obviously wouldn't increase the overall oil supply. Nor, certainly, would rebuilding the Iraqi oil industry profit the United States as a whole, since American taxpayers would be funding it. Undoubtedly, there are war profiteers in any war. But as a class they would have had no reason to press specifically for a war on Iraq.

Second, it should be acknowledged that the United States would have preferred to gain control of the Iraqi oil. The first locations that U.S. and U.K. forces secured during the war were the oilfields of southern Iraq, with the aim of preventing Saddam from destroying them. Clearly, any occupier would prefer to exploit rather than destroy a country's assets. Keeping the Iraqi oil industry functioning would certainly alleviate the financial burden of American occupation and help fund Iraq's postwar reconstruction. The United States also sought to prevent Saddam from setting fire to the oil wells and causing an environmental catastrophe, as he had done in Kuwait during the first Gulf War. Environmental considerations aside, such fires could have slowed American troop movements northward to Baghdad. [5] But while the United States would have naturally preferred oil over no oil, the American military's concern for the security of the Iraqi oil wells did not in any way demonstrate that seizing oil resources was the motivation for America to launch its invasion.

It is undisputed that Iraq is an oil-rich country. And we may grant that the war party sought to gain support from the oil industry by promising benefits to be derived from that support. War partisans did the same thing when they tried to get international support by implying that countries that did not support the war would be shut out of the Iraqi oil business.

However, instead of speculating about the benefits to be derived by American oil companies from U.S. control of Iraq, it is much more reasonable to actually look at Big Oil's position on the war. Did oil companies push for war? The fact is that representatives of the U.S. oil industry had been solid in opposing the embargo on Iraq, which had kept them out of that country. After George W. Bush assumed the presidency in 2001, they lobbied hard for a repeal of the Iran-Libya sanctions act and other embargoes that curbed their expansion of holdings in the Middle East. That put them at loggerheads with the neoconservatives, who for years had been calling for regime change in Iraq.

In a May 2001 Business Week article, Rose Brady reported that the easing of sanctions on rogue states "pits powerful interests such as the pro-Israeli lobby and the U.S. oil industry against each other. And it is sure to preoccupy the Bush Administration and Congress." [6] Fareed Mohamedi of PFC Energy, a consulting firm based in Washington, D.C., that advises petroleum firms, asserted that the large oil companies had sought a more peaceful approach to securing their interests in the Gulf region and the Arab world: "Big oil told the Cheney Task Force on Energy Policy in 2001 that they wanted the U.S. sanctions lifted on Libya and Iran so they could gain access to their oil supplies. As far back as 1990, they were even arguing that the United States should cut a deal with Saddam because he had given signals he was willing to let U.S. oil companies into Iraq." [7]

Oil-industry representatives did not even move toward a pro-war position in the post-September 11 period. According to oil analyst Anthony Sampson in December 2002, "Oil companies have had little influence on U.S. policy-making. Most big American companies, including oil companies, do not see a war as good for business, as falling share prices indicate." [8]

Oil companies sought stability, and there was a widespread fear that war would bring on a regional conflagration. "War in the Persian Gulf might produce a major upheaval in petroleum markets, either because of physical damage or because political events lead oil producers to restrict production after the war," wrote economist William D. Nordhaus, a member of President Jimmy Carter's Council of Economic Advisers, in late 2002. "A particularly worrisome outcome would be a wholesale destruction of oil facilities in Iraq, and possibly in Kuwait, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. In the first Persian Gulf War, Iraq destroyed much of Kuwait's oil wells and other petroleum infrastructure as it withdrew. The sabotage shut down Kuwaiti oil production for close to a year, and prewar levels of oil production were not reached until 1993 — nearly two years after the end of the war in February 1991." [9]

It was never a realistic possibility that the oil would somehow pay for the costs of the war and benefit the U.S. economy, though that notion was sometimes bandied about in the media. Obviously, far from providing cheap oil for the United States, the war and the occupation of Iraq have proved a serious economic drain. And the difficulties with the occupation were anticipated before the war started. In fact, a yearlong pre-war State Department study, beginning in February 2002, foresaw the chaotic conditions that would exist during an American occupation of Iraq. [10] The CIA also warned the Bush administration of extensive post-war resistance. [11]

Two classified reports prepared for President Bush in January 2003 by the National Intelligence Council, an independent group that advises the director of the CIA, predicted that an American-led invasion of Iraq would increase support for the radical Islamicists and result in a deeply divided Iraqi society prone to violent internal conflict. One of the reports also warned of a possible insurgency against the new Iraqi government or American-led forces by rogue elements from Saddam Hussein's government and existing terrorist groups. In addition, the assessments held that an American attack on Iraq would increase sympathy across the Islamic world for terrorist objectives. Such developments would be hardly be conducive to the stability needed for oil production. [12]

Even more significant was an exhaustive pre-war report conducted in the fall of 2002 by the U.S. Defense Department's Energy Infrastructure Planning Group pointing out that an oil bonanza should not be expected, because of the dilapidated condition of the Iraqi oil infrastructure. After years of decay, that infrastructure would require years of work and billions of dollars in investment before it could provide plentiful oil. [13]

Furthermore, Amy Myers Jaffe, an oil expert who had frequently served as a government consultant, headed an energy group at the James Baker III Policy Institute at Rice University that concluded in 2002 that Iraq oil revenues would not be sufficient to cover reconstruction. [14]

"As a business decision," said Charles A. Kohlhaas, a former professor of petroleum engineering at the Colorado School of Mines and a longtime oil man, "invading Iraq 'for the oil' is a loser, a big loser. Anyone who would propose, in a corporate boardroom, invading Iraq for the oil would probably find his career rather short. No, the slogan 'no war for oil' is a blatant misrepresentation propagated for political reasons." [15]

The other argument involving oil relates not so much to economic gain for the United States or to the interests of Big Oil, but rather to increased power for the United States in world affairs. As one commentator wrote: "Oil appears in Washington's calculations about Iraq as a strategic rather than an economic resource: the war against Saddam is about guaranteeing American hegemony rather than about increasing the profits of Exxon." [16] It was argued that American control of Iraq's oil would give the United States great leverage over Saudi Arabia and other oil-producing nations in the Middle East in setting production levels. Leveraging the oil supplies of Iraq and the Middle East would enable the United States to exercise control over the world, since the industrial nations depend on oil for survival. "Controlling Iraq is about oil as power, rather than oil as fuel," maintains Michael Klare, author of Resource Wars. "Control over the Persian Gulf translates into control over Europe, Japan, and China. It's having our hand on the spigot." [17]

Control of Iraqi oil for American global strategic interests would be a long-term plan and would presuppose a permanent American occupation, making the American-controlled Iraq resemble the World War II-era Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo or Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe. But even those examples may not sufficiently describe the case. In terms of the model of 1940s France, Washington would need not a Vichy Iraq but an Occupied Iraq; not a Marshal Pétain as a client ruler, but a Gen. Stülpnagel as a proconsul. No lesser control would suffice, since there could be no guarantee that even a friendly semi-independent Iraqi government would pursue an oil policy that would sacrifice its own economic interests for American global strategy. Such an extended occupation would require extensive planning and involve colossal expense. There is no evidence that the Bush administration ever considered the requisite long-term occupation, much less planned for it.

Certainly, such an army of occupation was the polar opposite of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's design of a sleek, high-tech military, which would be efficient in defeating Saddam's military but would not be well-suited to control the country. In fact, the existing costly occupation had already started to have a negative impact on Rumsfeld's vision of the American military. Military analyst Loren Thompson pointed out that the cost of keeping U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan would almost certainly damage other Pentagon initiatives. "If the current level of expenditure in Iraq continues," he said, "Donald Rumsfeld is going to have to kiss much of the technology part of his transformation plan goodbye." [18]

The claim that the U.S. invasion of Iraq was predicated on the need to advance American global power is also undercut by the fact that few foreign-policy experts outside the neoconservative orbit saw the war policy as advancing that goal. If American global power were the goal, it is hard to understand why it was primarily neoconservatives who decided that a war on Iraq would achieve it.

Significantly, those cool to the pre-emptive strike on Iraq included luminaries of the Republican foreign-policy establishment such as Brent Scowcroft, who served as national security adviser under Presidents Ford and George H.W. Bush; Lawrence S. Eagleburger, who served as deputy secretary of state and secretary of state under the first Bush; and James A. Baker III, who preceded Eagleburger as the first Bush's secretary of state. [19]

In an op-ed piece in the August 15, 2002, issue of the Wall Street Journal titled "Don't Attack Iraq," Scowcroft contended that Saddam was not connected with terrorists and that his weapons posed no threat to the United States. Scowcroft acknowledged that "given Saddam's aggressive regional ambitions, as well as his ruthlessness and unpredictability, it may at some point be wise to remove him from power." However: "An attack on Iraq at this time would seriously jeopardize, if not destroy, the global counterterrorist campaign we have undertaken." [20]

It should be noted that Scowcroft has been very close to George H.W. Bush, who was said to be privately very much against the war. President Bush implicitly acknowledged his father's opposition when Bob Woodward asked him in an interview whether he had consulted his father on his decision to go to war. "He is the wrong father to appeal to for advice. The wrong father to go to, to appeal to in terms of strength," Bush said. "There's a higher Father that I appeal to." [21]

Also expressing strong opposition to the war on Iraq was Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser in the Carter administration, who is often wrongly identified by hard-line war critics as the central figure in the war cabal. [22] To be sure, Brzezinski explicitly advocated American global dominance in his 1997 work, The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and its Geostrategic Imperatives. [23] However, during the buildup for war, he expressed the concern that a unilateral attack on Iraq would undermine America's global interests. What especially troubled him was the havoc America's unilateral march to war was wreaking on America's alliance with Western Europe, which he considered the central element of American global policy, terming it the "anchor point of America's engagement in world." Brzezinski feared that the "cross-Atlantic vitriol" over the American plan to attack Iraq despite European opposition had left "NATO's unity in real jeopardy."

Moreover, the Bush administration's fixation on Iraq interfered with America's ability to engage in other global hot spots. Brzezinski observed that "there is justifiable concern that the preoccupation with Iraq — which does not pose an imminent threat to global security — obscures the need to deal with the more serious and genuinely imminent threat posed by North Korea." Brzezinski granted that "force may have to be used to enforce the goal of disarmament. But how and when that force is applied should be part of a larger strategy, sensitive to the risk that the termination of Saddam Hussein's regime may be purchased at too high a cost to America's global leadership." [24]

Intriguing, too, is the fact that the war was opposed by international-relations academicians of the "realist" school, consisting of those who emphasize power and national interest in world affairs. One would think that they might be apt to support such an endeavor if it actually promised to augment American power. Leading anti-Iraq war realists in academe included John Meirsheimer, Kenneth Waltz, Alexander George, Robert Jervis, Thomas Schelling, and Stephen Walt. They were among 33 academicians who took out an ad in the September 26, 2002, New York Times titled "War with Iraq Is Not in America's National Interest." Many signatories to that letter would form the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy in 2003. [25]

In fact, the entire foreign-policy establishment tended to be cool to the war policy, as shown by opposition from within the elite Council on Foreign Relations. As columnist Robert Kuttner wrote in September 2003: "It's still a well-kept secret that the vast foreign-policy mainstream — Republican and Democratic ex-public officials, former ambassadors, military and intelligence people, academic experts — consider Bush's whole approach a disaster." [26]

American military experts also were opposed to a U.S. attack on Iraq. Even members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff initially expressed their opposition to the war. [27] Remarkably, opposition also came from three retired chiefs of the U.S. Central Command, which includes the Gulf region: Marine General Anthony Zinni, General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, and Marine General Joseph P. Hoar. [28] Other prominent retired military figures who opposed the war included Colonel Mike Turner, a former policy planner for the Joint Chiefs on the Mideast and East Africa; Marine Colonel Larry Williams; former Navy secretary James Webb; and the most-decorated soldier of the Vietnam war era, Colonel David Hackworth. All opposed the Iraq war on the grounds that an American occupation of that country would be a disaster. [29]

More remarkably still, the Army War College, in a report made public in January 2004, "broadly criticizes the Bush administration's handling of the war on terrorism, accusing it of taking a detour into an 'unnecessary' war in Iraq and pursuing an 'unrealistic' quest against terrorism that may lead to U.S. wars with states that pose no serious threat." [30] That such a report should come out under the auspices of the Army War College signals deep disenchantment in the military with the war on Iraq.


Various converging pieces of evidence militate against the idea that the United States went to war to achieve global domination — a domination that was neither enhanced by the war nor, apparently, planned for. Moreover, the military and the experts closely connected to oil foreign policy, who were not neoconservatives, did not see the benefits to be derived from the war. If American global-power motives really predominated, it is hard to understand why support for the war was not more widespread, but instead was concentrated among neoconservatives. How could neocons see the advantages to be gained for American global power when they were invisible to most of the foreign-policy/national-security elite? As for the oil-profits motive, why would neocons be more interested in those purported profits than Big Oil itself?

We must recognize that the arguments regarding oil and American global power require far more speculation than the neconservative/Likudnik argument. The former arguments deny that terrorism had anything to do with the war, alleging that it was instead predicated on the desire for profit or global power, while the neocon/Likudnik argument assumes that fighting terrorism was the goal — and that fighting terrorism consisted of eliminating Middle East regimes hostile to Israel, which are de facto deemed terrorist. Neoconservatives openly advocated the elimination of these regimes, which included Iraq. Furthermore, neoconservatives explicitly admit that they want to advance Israel's security.

There is no evidence that any group, other than the neoconservatives, had so marked Iraq for attack; the oil interest and the foreign-policy establishment certainly had not. No conspiracy was necessary; rather, the neocons openly advocated such a policy, as did Ariel Sharon's government, and it was in line with long-held Likudnik thinking. Sharon's government not only supported the war but also helped to facilitate it through bogus intelligence.

In surveying the results of the war, we see that there has been no great oil bonanza or expansion of U.S. global power. To the contrary, bogging down in Iraq would seem to make it more difficult for Washington to pursue other global goals. And instead of monopolizing control of Iraq, the United States is now begging for international help to militarily occupy Iraq. In short, those who emphasize the other motives for war must admit that the goals sought were not accomplished. In contrast, the neocon/Likudnik goal of enhancing Israeli security, as the Likudniks perceive it, has been accomplished. Justin Raimondo hits the mark when he writes: "This theme — that an Israeli-centric foreign policy is the real reason for this war — was not looked on with favor when the shooting began. But a year later, by a simple process of elimination, it is the only rational explanation left standing." [31]

Does this mean that the neocons were simply agents of Likudnik Israel, hijacking American foreign policy in the interest of another country? Raimondo sometimes writes, perhaps hyperbolically, that this is the case. For example: "Strip away the ideological pretenses, the sexed-up 'intelligence,' and the 'patriotic' window-dressing, and what you see is the naked reality of Israel's fifth column in America." [32] Being unable to look into the neoconservatives' minds, we need not endorse that harsh judgement. Suffice it to say that the neocons view American foreign policy through the lens of Israel's interests (as Likudniks perceive Israel's interest). Quite likely they truly view Israel's interests as America's interests. It is unlikely that they actually see themselves as sacrificing the United States for the benefit of Israel. Self-deception is not uncommon in ideologically driven individuals.

The idea that some Americans might be motivated by an attachment to a foreign country and that they could be influential in determining American foreign policy is not such an outlandish, unheard-of idea. Historians and other commentators have frequently proposed that German-Americans, Cuban-Americans, Polish-Americans, and other ethnic groups have been influenced in their foreign-policy views by their attachment to a foreign country. Historians have argued that Woodrow Wilson's support for England in World War I resulted in part from his pro-English bias.

Going back to the beginning of the Republic, we recall that Alexander Hamilton tended to be pro-British and Thomas Jefferson pro-French. That some Americans could have a "passionate attachment" to a foreign state and thereby sacrifice American interests for the sake of that state was a cardinal warning in George Washington's famous Farewell Address of 1796. [33] If Israel and Jews were not involved, there would be nothing extraordinary about this thesis; but since they are, the subject is in the realm of the taboo.

Finally, the evidence for the neoconservative and Likudnik positions on war in the Middle East is all out in the open. It is published. There is no dark, hidden conspiracy. But in the realm of politics, as George Orwell observed, "To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle." [34]

October 22, 2004

This version © 2004 Stephen J. Sniegoski.
Posted by permission of the author. All rights reserved.

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