The claim is often made that we invaded Iraq in 2003 to secure our access to its oil reserves, or, more cynically, to secure the profits of US energy-related companies. To me this policy made sense, at least in the short term. It was morally reprehensible and would probably hurt us in the long run but at least I could understand it. It made a lot more sense than the reasons the Bush administration announced: non-existent WMDs, non-existent cooperation between Saddam and Osama bin Laden, and fulfilling the non-existent desires of the Iraqi masses to adopt electoral democracy and become close allies of the United States.
If securing access to oil were our real strategy, I would have expected us to cordon off the oil fields, empty the region of its indigenous inhabitants, and pump the place dry. As I said, morally reprehensible but a coherent strategy. We didn’t do that, of course. So perhaps we had a more sophisticated plan to achieve the same results? If so, it didn’t work very well. The average price of a barrel of domestic crude in 2002 in March 2013 dollars was $29.49. For 2012, it was $87.68. So we invested some $3 trillion (up from the original estimate of $80 billion), and what we got for it was a tripling of oil prices. Some bargain.
Now, obviously someone’s making money off all this — people who own the oil in the ground in west Texas, for example, and various defense contractors — so the invasion wasn’t a total loss. But it turns out that it did have the effect of securing energy supplies for years into the future, just not for us. This from a piece in today’s New York Times:
“We lost out,” said Michael Makovsky, a former Defense Department official in the Bush administration who worked on Iraq oil policy. “The Chinese had nothing to do with the war, but from an economic standpoint they are benefiting from it, and our Fifth Fleet and air forces are helping to assure their supply.”
This was clear to a lot of people even as far back as 2010, and it seems to be playing out as I predicted in my chapter in The Pentagon Labyrinth:
As for the economic spoils of the war, most of these appear to be going to countries that sign the best deals with the new regime, most prominently China.
So was the war really fought over oil? Yes, and the Chinese won. This strikes me, by the way, as an excellent example of the ancient strategy known as “shih.” you can read more about it in the three posts I’ve written for this site (search on “shih”) and from the last chapter of my book If We Can Keep It, available from the Articles page in the menu above.