Paris Le Monde | Sadek Boussena | An Oil War for Nothing?
An Oil War for Nothing?
Paris Le Monde | Point of view
In one of its recommendations, the memorandum recently published by the Council on Foreign Relations and the Institute for Public Policy, entitled "Guidelines for US Policy in Iraq After the Conflict", speculates, among other things, on the, "elaboration of a viable and credible campaign of public diplomacy" to counter "the Western anti-war activists, the Arab public, the average Iraqi and the international media which accuse the United States of preparing an attack against Iraq, not to dismantle weapons of mass destruction, but as a camouflage to "steal'' Iraqi oil for the profit of American petroleum interests Personally, I doubt the effectiveness of such a campaign, at least with its intended audience. Even if the majority of public opinion outside the United States admits that oil is not the only reason for the imminent military intervention in Iraq, it continues to feel that oil is at the heart of this crisis. The option of the United States to take the risk of remodeling the map of this region of the world is probably based on several motives. But if one considers the strategic role of oil and the importance of the Gulf region's oil reserves, it seems difficult to deny the determining weight of oil interests in this affair. Finally, the other objectives that are invoked are not incompatible with these oil interests.
Now more than ever, because it is one of the nerves of the world economy and of war, oil is a highly sensitive product. At the international level, control of its main flows gives-on both the economic and the geo-strategic levels- an undeniable comparative advantage to whoever has it. American leaders themselves often range their international oil policies among their "vital interests''. It is, in effect, tempting, for the only world superpower to want to assure its future supply under the best conditions and to control everyone else's. And the United States does not deprive itself. Well before this crisis, they already had an oil project for the Middle East. This American oil policy was launched, at least in its main outline, before Bush's presidency and it will, in my opinion, continue after him.
The initial plan's objectives are known. It is a matter of securing supplies, redistributing the oil domain for the profit of American companies, and finally positioning the U.S. so as to be able to influence the course of oil as a geo-strategic management factor. To assure such a project, the American authorities deem their military presence in the whole region to be absolutely necessary (beginning with the Gulf War in 1991, it will persist no matter what the result of the present crisis).
So urbi et orbi an incontestable leadership will be signaled: the United States will be the sole guarantors of the security of the region and of the flows of oil supplies, vital to the whole world's economy. This strategic position would, of course, be validated under diverse forms. The first, and not the least, would consist of allowing American companies to obtain more oil and gas production permits. European, Russian, or Chinese companies could also participate in the exploitation of some part of these resources, but their participation would take place under an American umbrella.
Middle-East oil, less expensive to produce, already strategic, will become vital in the next three decades. Global consumption of hydrocarbons continues to grow, notably in the emerging economies. Oil remains often the only energy source for the vast majority of these countries, who may not use nuclear energy because of proliferation risks. Given the scale of countries such as China or India, one can imagine the consequences of an increase of their energy needs on global demand. The United States themselves will experience growing demand on foreign oil. More oil and gas will be consumed, while the OECD wells are exhausted and the contribution of unconventional oils remains modest. To satisfy this growing demand without tension, it is imperative to draw on OPEC's hydrocarbons on a greater scale, notably on those of the Gulf countries, which, relative to their reserves, are insufficiently tapped. According to the calculations of the American Department of Energy, oil production in the Middle East must be doubled in the next twenty years. Meanwhile, some-the United States among them- consider that the institutional, legislative, and contractual conditions which obtain in these countries constitute real stranglehold bottlenecks. That's why it seems indispensable to them to change the global framework and eliminate all these constraints and facilitate the expansion of the "free'' production of these resources. Therefore Iraq, and later Saudi Arabia, Iran, Kuwait, and, in a general way, all the other exporting countries completely open their oil reserves.
Ideally this region will apply "true market regulation'' homogenizing the conditions of investment to align them with those of the North Sea or the Gulf of Mexico that is to allow the establishment of those which have the financial and technical resources to produce oil: the international companies, today essentially Anglo-Saxon.
Basically President Bush's team is stick to long-term objectives that had already been defined; it's in their form and application that show his specific stamp. This team has adapted the core project to its own simplistic and binary vision of the world, giving it a willful and therefore more easily legible touch. Apart from the timing, their contribution to remodeling the project has been the choice of Iraq, or more specifically, of the ouster of Saddam Hussein as the point of departure for this whole redistribution of cards in the Middle East. The Bush team considers Iraq, with its geographic placement and immense oil potential, weakened and stuck in the uncomfortable position Saddam Hussein has put it the last twenty years, presents a good profile to serve as the launching pad for this oil project. The geo-political context since September 11, 2001 offers as a bonus the opportunity and a window to accelerate its realization.
After the crisis the Americans are banking on a policy of rapid increase of production which could push Iraq to oppose OPEC and, why not, to withdraw from that organization. Longer term, Iraq would become a free market oil zone, which would spread contagiously to neighboring producing countries, so favoring the expansion of production to the level desired by the balances of the global market. This is to say, an organization that would reduce prices, especially producer prices and which would solve the problem of long term supply without having to negotiate, even indirectly, with OPEC countries.
To believe that such a process could unroll without hitches, betrays at least a certain wishful vision. Iraq and its neighborhood in 2003 are not the Mesopotamian countries at the beginning of the twentieth century, when France and Britain shared zones of influence between themselves. Things have gotten more complicated since then. The Iraqis, even those who will be in power tomorrow, are not necessarily passive partners. It would be a mistake to count upon the irresponsible promises of a few opponents now in exile. Moreover, a foreign administration could eventually manage the security, at the limit assure the development of existing oil infrastructures, but one has trouble imagining it could dispose of the petroleum patrimony and concede long-term contracts for the exploitation of the wells. It would be necessary to have the support of an Iraqi administration. No new Iraqi authority would have any reason to be less demanding than the governments of other oil-producing countries, including those allied with the United States.
Some do not hesitate to think that the occupation of Iraq would be merely the first stage of a vast plan of dismemberment of the large countries in the area. Saudi Arabia and even Iran, reduced to little countries, would be easier to control. This "conspiracy theory'' may be contested, but one may not completely exclude the idea that the United States hope to reduce the chances of keeping regional powers capable of imposing themselves as independent partners.
Even if this war is rapid and victorious, it risks exposing American interests to future confrontations. In this sense it is not a necessary stage in the American oil strategy. It will not eradicate terrorism, it will not bring about a durable peace, and I believe it will not even serve American petroleum interests. What then, is the point of it? Is it strictly of domestic utility, on an electoral level, to profit an ultra-conservative fringe of the American Republican party? Americans would do better to use their power to favor pacific and just solutions to the conflicts in this area of the world, notably the one which opposes Palestinians and Israelis, the urgency of a settlement of which hardly needs to be demonstrated. They could also use their formidable power of influence to promote sustainable development and a democratization of the countries in the region. These are tasks the realization of which would permit the creation of a solid basis to guarantee global oil supplies more surely. The considerable technical and economic resources which the U.S. control would be their strongest trumps in defending their interests in general and their oil interests in particular.
Sadek Boussena, former Algerian Energy Minister, former President of OPEC, is associate professor at the Universite Pierre-Mendes-France in Grenoble, and special energy consultant to Societe Generale.
Translation: TruthOut French language correspondent Leslie Thatcher
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