Oil myth still haunts the invasion of Iraq

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 September, 2007, 12:00am

Australia's defence minister, Brendan Nelson, is not the sharpest tool in the box, so people were not really surprised in July when he blurted out that the real motive for invading Iraq was oil. 'Obviously the Middle East itself, not only Iraq but the entire region, is an important supplier of energy, oil in particular, to the rest of the world,' he said. 'Australians and all of us need to think what would happen if there was a premature withdrawal from Iraq.'

Fast-forward two months, and a rather sharper tool has just offered the same analysis. Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the US Federal Reserve, puts it quite brutally in his new book, The Age of Turbulence.

'Whatever their publicised angst over Saddam Hussein's 'weapons of mass destruction',' Mr Greenspan wrote, 'American and British authorities were also concerned about violence in the area that harbours a resource indispensable for the functioning of the world economy. I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil.'

'What everyone knows'? No, what everyone has been encouraged to believe, by protesters and manipulators alike. And Mr Greenspan fell for it, too.

In recent interviews, he explained that Hussein had wanted to seize the Strait of Hormuz, and so control oil shipments through the only sea route out of the Gulf. It would have been 'devastating for the west', he said.

Hussein was a bad man, but he had about as much chance of controlling the Strait of Hormuz as he did of controlling the English Channel, and anybody with access to a map should have known it.

Iraq lies at the northwestern end of the Gulf, 1,000km from the Strait of Hormuz. It has only 50km of coastline, and most of its naval and air assets were destroyed in the Gulf war of 1991. It had no strategic ability to reach that far east.

The only country in the region with the military ability to shut the strait is Iran. As it depends on oil income to support its domestic economy and feed its population, it won't do that unless it is attacked. It has sold oil at the world market price every year since the 1979 revolution; it can't afford to care where the oil ends up. That is true of all the major oil exporters, whatever their political convictions. They have to sell their oil, so it doesn't matter much to the west who rules them (although it obviously matters greatly to the locals). You don't need to invade countries to get oil from them; just send a cheque.

Mr Greenspan doubtless believed what he said, but it doesn't make sense. So why was Iraq invaded? One motive was the desire for permanent US military bases in the Gulf, from which Washington could, at need, stop oil flowing to China. But this is not a big enough reason to explain what happened.

I have written tens of thousands of words on the Bush administration's motives for invading Iraq, but in the end I do not know why America did it. I suspect that the officials don't, either.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries