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Ivan Eland: Have 1,000 U.S. Souls Died for Oil?

Have 1,000 U.S. Souls Died for Oil?

By Ivan Eland*
September 13, 2004

The tragic milestone of 1,000 U.S. deaths in the Iraqi quagmire should cause introspection about why the United States really went to war and whether it has been worth it. While the Bush administration’s public justifications never really added up, evidence exists that there was a hidden agenda behind the invasion of Iraq: securing oil.

Saddam never had a collaborative relationship with al Qaeda. Even if Saddam’s nuclear weapons program had made more progress than his crude attempt at a restart-the worst case-it was known to be less advanced than those of North Korea and Iran. As for giving expensive nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons to unpredictable terrorist groups: Iraq was less of a state-sponsor of terrorism than Iran or Syria and didn’t sponsor groups that focused their attacks on the United States. After no “weapons of mass destruction” or Iraqi links with al Qaeda were found, the Bush administration’s fallback rationale for war was liberating oppressed peoples and creating democracy that would spread throughout the Middle East. Of course, this social engineering project also could have been attempted in Syria, Iran, or with U.S. Gulf allies, such as Saudi Arabia, albeit probably no more successfully than in Iraq.

So if the many and shifting stated justifications for the invasion fall apart under scrutiny, the average citizen is left to search for a legitimate secret reason for what has now become a deadly debacle. More evidence exists to support the unspoken theory of securing oil, than other covert motives. Some have alleged the war was a neo-conservative plan to take out a potential enemy of Israel. There may be some truth to this argument. But after making peace with the most menacing Arab nation-Egypt-and purportedly possessing hundreds of nuclear weapons, Israel is now relatively secure from existential threats. Besides, most experts agreed that Iran was closer to being a nuclear threat to Israel than Iraq. Syria was a bigger conventional threat than Saddam’s regime because of its contiguous border with the Jewish state.

Others have speculated that Bush the younger and Vice President Cheney were sensitive to criticism that Bush the elder and Secretary of Defense Cheney didn’t finish off Saddam when they had the chance. There may be some truth to that speculation as well.

Although the “help Israel” or “unfinished business” lines of reasoning may have played a role in the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq, confirming those hypotheses is challenging. More evidence exists to support the thesis that war was conducted to secure oil. Attempting to justify the march to war, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz implicitly argued that a U.S. invasion of Iraq could lower America’s target profile from attacks by Islamist terrorists by allowing the removal of the U.S. military presence from the holy land of Saudi Arabia. Persian Gulf oil could be guarded from new military bases in Iraq, which are now being built.

Bluntly admitting that the Iraq war was to protect oil might make it appear that United States engaged in imperial wars to grab resources, much like the Japanese did prior to World War II. So Wolfowitz was more indirect.

But is the conventional wisdom correct that the United States needs to exchange blood for oil? Many economists don’t think so. Before the first Gulf War, two Nobel laureates in economics-Milton Friedman on the right and James Tobin on the left-stated that no war for oil was needed.

In fact, the Persian Gulf countries need to sell oil more than the United States needs to buy it. Oil accounts for between 65 and 95 percent of the exports of Persian Gulf nations. In contrast, oil makes up only about 7 percent of U.S. imports. Thus, most states, whether their governments are friendly to the United States or not, have a huge incentive to export oil into the world market.

Even when oil prices are periodically high, adverse economic effects are vastly overstated. The economic stagflation of the late 1970s was falsely attributed to rising petroleum prices originating from the 1973 “oil crisis”. Instead bad economic policies of the U.S. government-for example, price controls and excessively lax monetary policy-were more to blame than high oil prices. In fact, economist Douglas Bohi has estimated that the petroleum shocks of the 1970s reduced the U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by only .35 percent. More recently, according to Donald Losman of the National Defense University, although Germany faced a crude oil price increase of 211 percent between the fourth quarter of 1998 and third quarter of 2000, it experienced economic growth with falling unemployment and inflation.

The United States imports roughly 20 percent of its oil from the Persian Gulf. From the Far East, America imports about 80 percent of semiconductors-another product that is crucial for the U.S. economy and national security. Yet Washington never worries about shortages of or high prices for East Asian circuits and does not intervene militarily to make supplies of them secure.

So even oil, the most defensible of the potential unstated reasons for invading Iraq, doesn’t turn out to be very defensible at all. Could 1,000 Americans have died in vain?


*Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute in Oakland, CA., and author of the book, Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy: Rethinking U.S. Security in the Post-Cold War World. For further articles and studies, see the War on Terrorism and

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