Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Why not fight for Oil?

While visiting National Review Online, I read a review of the current film Jarhead--and the cliche argument pops up: "We shouldn't fight a war for oil!"

To which I respond: why not?

Now, I'd rather not have war for any reason. But wars come. Why is it so awful to fight for oil?

Let us consider: what would happen if a head of state withheld a big chunk of the world's oil from the market? Answer? A lot of human suffering. A lot of awful things would happen.

In the old (American) West, water was often a scare resource, and people fought over control and/or access to it. Rationally -- in such a situation -- if people are going to fight over anything, fighting over having water makes a lot of sense. Put it another way: if someone stands between you and water, your choices are fight . . . or die.

Oil, like it or not, has a similar role to play in the world economy. If someone actually threatens the supply of oil, the choices are nearly the same: fight -- or die.

Now -- it happens to be rather unlikely that anyone, sitting on a lot of oil, would refuse to sell it. My point was that oil matters. A great deal.

Yet, following upon that last thought, let us recall the world situation in 1990. Saddam Hussein seized control of Kuwait, and was in a position -- if he chose -- to seize the Saudi oil fields. In a stroke, Saddam could have controlled something like 60% of the world's oil sources.

Yes, he would have sold his oil. We would have had oil to buy. But consider: what would the next chapter have been? If a U.S.-led coalition had not ejected Saddam from Kuwait, and he did invade Saudi Arabia, would that coalition have ejected him from there? Or acquisced? How do you suppose this plays out? Do you get a good feeling contemplating that alternate history? (He was pursuing biological and nuclear weapons; and he used chemical weapons freely.)

None of us knows what that alternate reality would be. But is it really so unreasonable for us to think it would have been significantly worse than what did happen? If the thought of that alternate reality chills you, then why is fighting to prevent that so unthinkable?


Anonymous said...

I think you are on thin ice. I can use this arguement in many ways. And what it all boils down to is that it is better for ME to be in control than someone else, that I be the one who decides to whom and for what price I will sell whatever for. And it certainly justifies any pre-emptive attack on the basis of what might happen if THEY get control. And as a terrorist I could certainly justify my actions on the basis of needing to fight for whatever "neccessity" that I want.

Certainly medicine is important as oil is to life, so why should countries honor patents for flu medications or any other medication. How about for food, if one country is having a famine, whould that not be a justification for attacking another country and taking its food?

Or how about religion? Perhaps Mexico could justify attacking The US taking some of our surplus of priests (the number of priests per thousand people is much lower there) there to serve in saving their souls.

While we don't see too much of it in history books, I have read that the Japanese justified their entry into WWII as needing the freedom to trade in the South Pacific, and that certainly agrees with your arguement. Germany had the same problem with the restrictions laid on her at the end of WW I. I suspect that Saddam used the same arguement with Kuwait, etc., etc., etc.

I think we have enough reasons to justify starting wars, what we really seem to lack are good justifications for NOT having wars.

Mike L

PS I sign on as anonymous because I haven't found any other way. If you want to contact me personally my email is gonesailing@mindspring.com, and I check my blocked spam often to see if it caught something that it should not have.

Mark Anthony said...

IF the oil-producers of the world decided collectively to deny oil to us, then a legitimate argument could be made to seize adequate supplies. Oil is vital to more than gasoline. Without it, our systems of food distribution, industry, overall energy production would halt. Such a decision, so harmful to the producers' economic self-interest, could only happen as an act of aggression.

Such a situation did not occur during the embargo of the 70's and was not likely to happen in the early 90's. Father's argument posits an intriguing alternate history, but is no more connected to reality than the "Saddam takes Mecca" scenario.

I supported the first Gulf War, and still do, for reasons utterly seperate from oil. If there is one rule of conduct every nation should be bound by, it is that invading your neighbor for fun and profit is forbidden. Pre-emptive action, unless to prevent imminent attack, violates all criteria for just war. The nations of the world should band together and repel any aggressor that violates this basic rule. Further, it should be understood that any regime which takes such unacceptable steps is to be removed, by force if necessary. Obviously, all peaceful means of preventing war ought to be taken first.

The world was right to force Saddam out of Kuwait. It should have removed him from power then, and placed Iraq under some kind of international control as a new government was groomed. The same efforts need to occur even if Saudi Arabia doesn't sit next door.

Father's scenario is valid, but only in the most limited and unlikely of cases. It is much like the "exception" to the Church's prohibition of capital punishment. Is it possible to imaagine a time when the choice might be necessary? Yes. Is it even likely to occur? No. Does it exist now? No.

Fr Martin Fox said...


Yes, it does matter who controls various sources of power in the world: natural resources, nuclear weaponry.

For example, the question is raised, why is it okay for the U.S. and other nations to have nukes, but not Iraq, Iran, North Korea, etc.?

Part of the answer is, would that no one has them, but as that's not a choice, fewer having them is better than more.

But that's only part of the answer. It's reasonable to believe that nukes are safer in the hands of the U.S. (and we could say the same of other nuclear powers, though perhaps not all), than they would be--or are--in the hands of North Korea, or Iran. For several reasons, which I will elaborate if you wish.

Now, as to oil; of course, that's a horse of a different color. And I agree almost entirely with what Mark said.

Mark, if I understood you right, you think "Saddam takes Mecca" wasn't all that realistic, or meaningful, as a possible outcome. If you were to explicate why you think that, I'd be grateful.

Mark Anthony said...

"Horse of a different color?" You are Oz-ified, aren't you?

As to the idea of Iraqi occupation of Saudi Arabia, I don't doubt that Saddam must have wet himself with joy when he contemplated the possibility, but consider:

1) The Arab world knew, especially in the early 1990's, that Saddam was an irreligious tyrant who gleefully suppressed any Islamic movement not under his direct control. They might not have said so in public, but Muslim leaders would never have supported this functional infidel to control the home of the holiest sites. The House of Saud might not be models of Islam either, but they bought, and still buy, protection by bankrolling fanatical Islamic factions. Saddam never did that in Iraq, and so would most likely not have done so in Saudi Arabia.

2) At that time, Saddam's war with Iran was still recent history. Their war had ended in mutual exhaustion, but a sudden shift in Saddam's favor by moving into Arabia, with the great influx of money it would bring Iraq, would have all but necessitated an Iranian counterstrike. Iran laid low in real time because we did the work for them.

3) The House of Saud tottering before an invading army? A Bush in the White House? Hell, these guys hold hands! It's clobbering time!

4) It would have been his march on Moscow. Overextended and with his security forces needed to occupy two countries, the center could not hold. Resistance, outside pressure, rebellion at home from the Kurds and Shia -- all spell disaster for Saddam.

By the way, check out the books of Harry Turtledove, who writes great alternate history novels. He has a whole series, still in progress, tracing history after a Confederate win in the Civil War. He's up to the 1940's now.

Fr Martin Fox said...


I count on you for sound analysis, and you did not disappoint! Thanks.

I have read a lot of Turtledove novels; I think they're fascinating, although I think he's got a big, anti-Catholic streak in him. Have you noticed his alternate histories mostly end up being worse outcomes than what actually happened? The only exception I know of was "The Two Georges," in which he imagines a British North America -- the American Revolution ends in reconciliation, not secession.

The result is no French Revolution, a more peaceful 19th century, and a 20th century without world wars, genocide, totalitarianism, nuclear weapons, Islamo-terrorism -- and all the technology that resulted from all that conflict.

A fascinating, wistful portrait.