By James A. PaulGlobal Policy Forum
The United States and the United Kingdom did not wage war on Iraq for the officially stated reasons. That much is obvious. The world's superpower and its key ally were not acting because they feared the Iraqi government's weapons of mass destruction or its ties with the terrorist group al-Qaeda. Nor were they fighting to bring democracy to the Middle East, a region where the two governments had long supported reactionary monarchs and odious dictators, including Iraqi president Saddam Hussein himself.
It is time, then, to set aside the sterile discussions about "intelligence failures" and to consider a deeper reason for the conflict. This paper will argue that the war was primarily a "war for oil" in which large, multinational oil companies and their host governments acted in secret concert to gain control of Iraq's fabulous oil reserves and to gain leverage over other national oil producers. In arguing for the primacy of oil, we do not imply that other factors were not at play. The imperial dreams of the neo-con advisors in Washington contributed to the final outcome, as did the re-election strategies of the political operatives in the White House. But the Iraq war did not emerge solely from the Bush administration. As we shall see, it involved both London and Washington, through the course of many governments. And it emerged from a decades-long effort by the world's largest companies to appropriate the planet's most lucrative natural resource deposits.
Several elements contribute to make the case for an oil war: the enormous, long-term political influence of the oil companies, the close personal ties between the companies and their host governments, the long history of prior conflicts and wars over Iraqi oil, and the enormous potential profitability of the Iraqi fields. To consider the evidence, and answer the questions of skeptics, we must begin by reviewing the companies' power and influence over a period of many decades. Later, we will turn to the immediate events leading up to the 2003 war itself.
Companies' Great Size & Global Presence
By the early 20th Century, when most business firms were relatively small by modern standards and purely national in scope, Standard Oil and Royal Dutch Shell were already global companies that controlled a worldwide network of production and distribution. By 1911, they held rich production fields in the Dutch East Indies (today's Indonesia), Romania, Russia, the United States, Venezuela and Mexico, as well as refineries, pipelines, rail cars, tankers, storage depots and other facilities in dozens of countries. Standard Oil alone had a fleet of nearly 100 ships.1
Large as they were a century ago, the oil companies have since grown mightily, due to worldwide collusion in production and pricing and to fierce backing by their host governments. For decades, the so-called "Seven Sisters," all of them firms based in the US or the UK, dominated the industry and ruled the global oil market through a tightly-knit cartel. Though nationalizations by producer countries in the 1970s dealt a serious blow to these firms, they continued to dominate the oil industry through control over the"downstream" end of the business -- transport, refining, petrochemicals, and marketing -- while building new production facilities in more friendly locations.2
Today, a wave of mergers has given the successor companies a new and unprecedented scale, reducing the major firms to just five. In 2003, annual revenues of the leader, ExxonMobil, were an astonishing $247 billion.3 By way of comparison, Exxon's revenue is vastly greater than such well-known international companies as Walt Disney ($25 billion) and Coca Cola ($19 billion) and it is larger than the revenues of 185 national governments, including Brazil, Canada, Spain, Sweden and the Netherlands. Only the world's six richest countries – the US, Japan, Germany, France, Italy and the UK – had revenues above this level. 4
Among the world's fifteen largest corporations listed in the 2002 "Fortune Global 500," five were oil companies. After US-based Exxon came the UK giants Shell and British Petroleum (BP), the mammoth French firm Total, and the huge US-based Chevron. Compared to the large automakers, with their anemic profits, the oil companies stand out among the world's biggest corporations for their high profitability. In 2001 (and again in 2003), Exxon earned the world's highest profits. In 2003, its earnings reached a record $22 billion, more than General Motors, Ford, DaimlerChrysler and Toyota taken together.5
Oil, Economy & Warfare
To understand the special "national security" status enjoyed by the oil companies, we must first consider oil's economic importance and then its central role in war. Oil provides nearly all the energy for transportation (cars, trucks, buses airplanes, and many railroad engines). Oil also has an important share of other energy inputs – it