Way back then, the signs out on the streets read: "No Blood for Oil," "How did USA's oil get under Iraq's sand?" and "Don't trade lives for oil!" Such homemade placards, carried by deluded antiwar protesters in enormous demonstrations before the Bush administration launched its invasion of Iraq in March 2003, were typical -- and typically dismissible. Oil? Don't be silly!
True, Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz spoke admiringly about Iraq “floating on a sea of oil,” but that was just a slip of the tongue. President Bush was so much more cautious. Despite his years in the energy business and those of his vice-president (not to speak of the double-hulled tanker that had been named after his national security advisor while she was on the board of Chevron), he almost never even mentioned oil. When he did, he didn't call it "oil," but Iraq’s “patrimony.”
Back then, of course, everyone who mattered knew that whatever the invasion of Iraq was about -- freedom, possible mushroom clouds rising over U.S. cities or biological and chemical attacks on them, the felling of a monster dictator -- it certainly wasn’t about oil. An oil war? How crude (so to speak), even if Iraq, by utter coincidence, happened to be located in the oil heartlands of the planet.
And it wasn’t just the Bush administration. You wouldn’t have found the New York Times speaking about oil wars either. Not much has changed, actually. As in last weekend's eight-year-late modified mea culpa for the Iraq war that former liberal war hawks conducted in that paper’s magazine section, you could find some breast-beating, testosterone-dissing, and even regret for past positions, but not a mention of oil. And -- who would expect anything else -- never a mention either of the ignorant hoi polloi who carried such oily signs, demonstrated against war, and are best forgotten, or any stray experts who genuinely opposed Bush’s wars before they were launched. (Here’s a little tip for those who want to make it into the Rolodexes of high-powered Washington reporters: being wrong is helpful, and wisdom is a platonic ideal not to be dented by evidence or the lack of it.)
As for our most recent (definitely not oil) war in Libya where American and NATO planes are still bombing the you-know-what out of the remnants of Muammar Gaddafi’s forces, the explanations in the news pages have generally focused on preventing massacres, “humanitarian intervention,” and the felling of evil dictators. For oil, you have to head for section D (the business pages) where, under the headline “The Scramble for Access to Libya’s Oil Wealth Begins,” you could indeed finally read a comment like this: “The resumption of Libyan production would help drive down oil prices in Europe, and indirectly, gasoline prices on the East Coast of the United States. Western nations -- especially the NATO countries that provided crucial air support to the rebels -- want to make sure their companies are in prime position to pump the Libyan crude.”
Of course, despite the best attempts of Bush’s men in Baghdad, we never did get Iraq’s oil. But that’s the lumps you take when, as an imperial power, you don’t actually win your oil war. And there are more lumps when you can’t win any war, oil or otherwise. Michael Klare, author of Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet, is an expert on both war and oil. In his latest piece, “America and Oil, Declining Together?,” he suggests that, on and off the battlefield, both the United States and oil are now on the downhill slope.