Bush's motive: Could it be oil?

Policy made plain.
March 6 2003 3:52 PM

Bush's Ulterior Motive

Could it be oil? Maybe, but what about oil?

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

How has an attack on the United States by a terrorist group based in Afghanistan led us to war against Iraq? Why are nuclear weapons in Iraq worth a war but not nuclear weapons in North Korea? For most skeptics about Gulf War II (including me), the Bush administration's failure to answer these two questions sincerely or even plausibly, let alone convincingly, is central to our doubts.

This isn't entirely reasonable. The battle could be worth joining even though George W. is unable to explain why. The 9/11 pretext may be phony without necessarily invalidating the whole exercise. As for Iraq versus North Korea, following the right policy in one place is better than following the wrong policy in both. There are worse things in this world than logical inconsistency.

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Furthermore, it is hard to dismiss the official reasons for this war as disingenuous without some theory about what the ulterior motive or unspoken war aim might be. George W. Bush is not taking the nation into war to avenge his father or as a "wag the dog" strategy to win re-election, as Bush's more cynical opponents have charged. He deserves more credit than that. Nor is he planning to conquer and occupy Iraq in order to bring human rights to the Iraqi people or start a chain reaction of democracy throughout the Middle East, as he and his supporters have lately augmented the official war aims. He doesn't deserve that much credit.

The one ulterior motive everyone seems to agree on is "oil." But what does it mean? This three-letter word covers a variety of contradictory arguments. Some supporters of the war say that our dependence on oil from the Middle East is what makes the removal of a madman in Baghdad more pressing than the removal of a madman in Pyongyang. Some opponents make essentially the same argument but with a negative spin: Because of America's insatiable appetite for Middle East oil, untold thousands will die so that SUVs can keep sucking gas.

While these two oil variations assume that conquering Iraq serves at least the short-term interests of the United States, another set of conspiracy theories has it that Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, oilmen both, are betraying America's national interest for the benefit of the oil industry. Here, too, the details cover a conflicting variety of sins (or rather, conflicting variations on the single sin of greed).

As a seller, does the oil industry want higher prices for its product? Or as a buyer and importer, does it want lower prices? Does it long for stability, or hunger for new opportunities that might emerge from the chaos? And how will the war affect the price of oil anyhow? That price has been going up in anticipation. But when the war is successfully over, Iraqi oil will probably reduce prices, unless Saddam destroys his own oil fields, which will have the opposite effect. General stability in the Middle East, if it is achieved, will guarantee steady supply and reduce prices even further. But if the war sets off a chain reaction of chaos and instability in the Middle East, that will raise prices even higher. So, what do oilmen want?

You can argue that every which way, and people do. Pick your paranoia. Here's mine. The United States consumes about 20 million barrels of oil a day. Eleven million of those barrels are imported, but 9 million are from domestic oil production. Oil is oil, and when events—a war in the Middle East, or an OPEC ministers meeting in Vienna—affect the price of oil we import from Saudi Arabia and Iraq, it has the same effect on the oil produced in the United States.

In recent months, as America has threatened and prepared for war against Iraq, the price of oil has gone from the low 20s to the high 30s a barrel. American consumers, therefore, are paying an extra $15 a barrel, or $300 million a day, or over $100 billion a year as a "war premium" on the oil they consume. It's like a tax—imposed as a result of government policy—except that the government doesn't get the money. That's before the war even starts, and it is in addition to the $300 billion or so they're saying that prosecuting the war is going to cost directly. Of that $100 billion, $55 billion pays for the oil we import. But $135 million a day—a day—or more than $45 billion a year (minus some taxes) goes into the pockets of domestic oil producers.

"Producer" is a misleading term for people who pull oil out of the ground and sell it. "Oil extractors" would be more accurate. The oil is there, produced from leftover dinosaurs that God or nature has tossed into the recycle bin. This oil costs something to extract, but that something is less than $25, or no one would have been extracting it before the war buildup started. So, the extra $15 is a gift from Saddam Hussein and George W. Bush.

I don't believe that President Bush is prosecuting a war against Iraq in order to enrich, or more accurately further enrich, his oil-patch cronies. But we all are happier when we can make our friends happy. All this happiness among his buddies must at least make a man like Bush, who is not plagued by self-doubt or second thoughts in any event, even more confident as he marches forward.

Michael Kinsley is a columnist for the Washington Post and the founding editor of Slate.