It must have seemed puzzling to many when the Bush administration put a full court press on former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan recently after the release of his memoir. In it Greenspan wrote that the administration had gone to war in Iraq over oil. That's hardly a blockbuster. The search for weapons of mass destruction (WMD) had ended in failure. The connection between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda had long since been debunked. And, any hope of establishing a stable democracy in Iraq had already been dashed by the wildly incompetent execution of the war.
WMD, the al Qaeda connection and the introduction of democracy in Iraq had all been at various times justifications for the war. One would think that under such circumstances a competent public relations adviser would have counseled the administration to just let Alan Greenspan's assertion pass. After all, the former central banker would soon be completing his book tour, and then he would fade from the news. Why respond, when doing so would only fan the flames?
But the counterattack came quickly on the Sunday morning talk shows and in the White House press room. Under bombardment from the administration Greenspan quickly "elaborated" on his views in order to deflect the return fire.
All of this could be seen as a relatively minor dustup over what is now broadly believed by the American public to be at least one of the major reasons for going to war. But, the assertion that the military mission in Iraq is primarily a raiding party for oil is more than just an embarrassment to the administration. Naturally, the collapse of the other justifications for the war led to a more widespread acceptance of this assertion. But, even more important, this assertion has implications which, if discussed and properly understood, would thunder through the public mind.
Admitting that the invasion of Iraq was about oil opens the door to a very troubling conversation. If the invasion was about oil, then it must mean that the supply of imported oil was somehow threatened. The supply could be threatened, of course, for two reasons: 1) Someone was threatening it, in this case Saddam Hussein, or 2) something was threatening it, possibly depletion. Delving further into both reasons demonstrates that both are plausible explanations. Of course, Saddam had already tried more than a decade earlier to seize the oil fields of Kuwait. If we examine the oil depletion argument, we find that depletion was starting to take its toll on world oil supplies. Today, we have confirmation of the administration's prescience on this point. So-called total liquids--which include even ethanol--remain down more than a million barrels a day from the high reached in July 2006. Therefore, it is of more than passing interest to Americans whether Middle Eastern governments, which control more than 60 percent of the world's remaining oil supply, are willing to pump it out more rapidly to keep the world economy afloat. If those governments won't do so voluntarily, perhaps the U. S. military can provide them with the proper incentive. (For a discussion of this interpretation, see my earlier piece from March 2005, Global Resource Wars: The Rosetta Stone.)
But, wait a minute? I thought we had ethanol, biodiesel and pretty soon hydrogen to power our cars. If the Iraq war is really about dwindling oil supplies, then that would call into question whether proposed oil substitutes will work as advertised. (Remember when hydrogen cars were just around the corner?) If these substitutes are going to work so splendidly, then why would we need to fight a war for oil at all?
Many inconvenient questions come tumbling out of the assertion that the Iraq War is about oil. This is the reason I believe that the Bush administration spends so much effort refuting such assertions. The simple fact is that if the Iraq War is really about oil (and I believe that it is), then this means that the current official story, namely, that a smooth, seamless transition to a post-oil economy is underway, is something that even the administration itself does not believe.
I am fairly certain that if the public understood this, it would be a lot more panicked about our energy future than it is.