In an article
first published before the onset of the Iraq War, Shimshon Bichler and
Jonathan Nitzan argue that this war is being fought not to reduce the
price of oil, but to raise it.
If there is any agreement among the pundits, this surely
must be it: the coming war on Iraq will be fought largely over oil. The
gist of the argument is simple enough, and can be summarized as
· In order to continue growing, the world economy needs
plenty of cheap oil;
· The OPEC cartel stands in the way of that
goal. For years, its members have manipulated output to keep prices
· Now, there is finally an opportunity to change the rules of
the game, perhaps even to make the oil cartel irrelevant;
entry point is Iraq. The country, says George Bush Jr., has become a
'global threat.' It supports terrorism, it has weapons of mass
destruction, and it has a ruler unscrupulous enough to use them. In the
age of 'preventive strikes,' these are sufficient reasons to invade thy
· Once victorious, the invading armies will install a
new, more friendly leader. This ruler will adopt a new energy policy,
hostile to OPEC and friendly to the United States and the West. And since
Iraq has 11 per cent of the world's crude oil reserves and the ability to
pump out plenty of it, the days of high oil prices will soon be
The Economist of London expresses this logic as follows:
'America's chief interest in going after Iraq's president, Saddam Hussein,
is doubtless to save the world from his actual or potential weapons of
mass destruction. Another large consideration, secondary as it may be, has
attracted less attention than it should have: the effects that would
follow from the opening up of the country's enormous reserves of oil....
It might seem, then, that knocking out Mr Hussein would kill two birds
with one stone: a dangerous dictator would be gone, and with him would go
the cartel that for years has manipulated prices, engineered embargoes and
otherwise harmed consumers.'
The Middle East presently accounts for
65 per cent of the world's proven oil reserves and 30 per cent of its day
to day production - and the figures are only expected to grow in the
coming decades. According to Professor Anthony Cordesman of the Washington
Center for Strategic and International Studies, these facts lead to a
simple conclusion. Given that US prosperity depends on global prosperity,
he says, and since global prosperity depends on free access to Middle East
oil reserves, it follows that the Gulf region, where most of this oil
comes from, must be treated as 'a truly vital American strategic
interest.' The United States, he continues, is the only country with the
political, economic and military power to secure this global (read
national) interest, and it should therefore take direct responsibility
through direct involvement in the region.
Radical writers generally
agree that the United States is after oil, although many of them add that
the pursuit of energy is part of a larger game-plan whose aim is not
economic prosperity per se, but power. 'What the world is now facing,'
write the editors of Monthly Review, 'is the prospect of a major new
development in the history of imperialism.' 'Direct US access to oil and
the profits of US oil corporations,' they maintain, 'are not enough by
themselves to explain overriding US interests in the Middle East. Rather
the United States sees the whole region as a crucial part of its strategy
of global power.'
These views all ring
true. Without oil, the world economy will certainly come to a halt;
capitalism will fall into a serious crisis; and US hegemony would be dealt
a serious, perhaps mortal blow. That much is obvious.
these same arguments could have been made - and were made - in the 1960s,
in the 1970s and in the 1980s. So why the sudden return to old-style
Indeed, the whole situation seems paradoxical.
During the 1970s, when the Middle East accounted for nearly 40 per cent of
global output (compared with only 30 per cent today), the United States
and Europe actually moved in the opposite direction, allowing local rulers
to nationalise their oil resources and to kick out Western oil companies.
In other words, these governments tolerated a blatant attack on 'private
property' - and tolerate it they did despite the fact that the property in
question belonged to the world's most powerful firms, and that OPEC's
obvious intention was to raise the price of oil.
By comparison, the
current situation seems far less menacing. Judging by the real price of
oil, which kept falling for the past twenty years, OPEC has been rather
ineffective. In 1999, when the price of oil plunged to $10 a barrel, The
Economist confidently stated that 'the world is awash with oil, and it is
likely to remain so.'
Under these circumstances, and assuming it is
indeed 'all about oil,' shouldn't the cartel be left alone to pursue its
futile manoeuvres? Or perhaps OPEC's ineffectiveness is precisely the
Much of the confusion stems from two mistaken assumptions:
first, that OPEC had 'expropriated' the oil companies and that these
companies now want to 'reclaim' their lost concessions, and second, that
Western governments want nothing more than low oil prices. As it turns
out, the situation is a bit more complicated.
Politics of Oil
Start with OPEC and the companies. In the
1970s, the latter indeed lost their drilling concessions to the former.
But oil companies aren't interested in drilling concessions, they are
interested in profit. And here OPEC gave them something really precious: a
10-fold increase in the real price of oil between 1970 and 1980. The oil
companies could never have achieved this pricing feat on their own. And
what a feat it was: it made their profits rise 5-fold in just ten
The converging interests of OPEC and the oil companies are
illustrated in Figure 1. The chart shows the profits of the world's 'Petro
Core' consisting of the six largest private oil companies: British
Petroleum, Chevron, Exxon, Mobil, Royal/Dutch Shell and Texaco. It also
shows the oil revenues earned by OPEC governments. The positive
correlation is obvious and needs no further elaboration. What was good for
OPEC was also good for the oil companies, and vice versa.
indeed, the oil companies quickly realized they had no reason to fuss over
oil fields and drilling rights. On the contrary, it was much better to
have the cartel manage output and take on the criticism for the 'energy
Naturally, the oil companies insisted they had nothing to
do with the ploy. They were merely 'interested bystanders,' as one famous
analyst put it. They simply happened to be in the right place at the right
time. Their profits were huge, sure, but they were 'windfall profits,' the
result of an accidental bliss.
As experts would later show, this
picture was a bit distorted, to put it mildly. There was in fact vast
technical, business and political cooperation between OPEC and the
companies. But then, since this type of research rarely made it to the
popular media, most people, although often suspecting the oil companies,
never really knew why.
Of course, whether or not they knew about
it, ordinary people suffered greatly from this mischievous arrangement.
During the 1970s and early 1980s, higher oil prices have thrown the world
into a stagflationary spiral of rising prices together with contracting
output and soaring unemployment. But then, suffering doesn't give you a
say in the global political economy of oil. Power does.
Crisis to Prices
As noted earlier, there is a popular belief
that Western governments, representing the 'national interest,' are keen
on having low oil prices. The problem with this view is that those who
articulate the 'national interest' often tailor it to their own ends. Or
better still, they articulate it in words, but ignore it in
During the 1970s and 1980s, the 'national interest' of the
United States was dominated by a 'Weapondollar-Petrodollar Coalition' made
of large armament, oil and financial companies. The long tentacles of this
coalition have become difficult to disentangle from the various
apparatuses of the state. Their representatives sat in White House; they
had their envoys in various branches of the government and the army to
whom they supplied weapons; they paid taxes and received subsidies (with
the latter often exceeding the former); they financed political campaigns;
they influenced and often determined policy; they owned various media
outlets. The list goes on.
This coalition had an interest in high
oil prices. It couldn't admit it openly, of course, and the US government
never tired of reiterating its 'commitment' to cheap energy. But when it
came to the United States' actual foreign policies, particularly in the
Middle East, the effect was generally to raise prices, not lower
After the end of the Vietnam Conflict, the main 'hot spot' of
the Cold War shifted to the Middle East. The United States and the Soviet
Union, aided by numerous other countries, supplied massive amounts of
weapons to the region (invariably in the interest of 'stabilization'). The
regional arms race made the US military contractors rich, and with a
succession of hawkish presidents in office - from Richard Nixon, to Gerald
Ford, to Ronald Reagan - the contractors found it easy to keep that race
going. Even the conciliatory Jimmy Carter, whose 1976-80 term in office
briefly broke the bellicosity chain, couldn't buck the
Conflict and war in the region had a profound impact on oil.
It is important to note that during the 1970s and 1980s, there was never
any real 'shortage' of oil in the world. Indeed, from a purely 'economic'
perspective, the price of oil should have tumbled. But the region was 'in
flames,' with cyclical hostilities nourished by Western and Eastern
weapons and hyped up relentlessly by the media. Oil, although plentiful
throughout the period, was made to look 'scarce' and 'vulnerable.' The
price of oil was raised and kept high, OPECs oil revenues soared and the
oil companies grew fabulously rich.
By the mid 1980s, the tide finally began to turn.
Communism was on its last leg; developing countries had become 'emerging
markets' open to western investment; the high-tech mania started to gather
momentum; and the winds of neoliberalism began blowing stronger and
The Weapondollar-Petrodollar Coalition was increasingly
challenged by a new 'Technodollar-Mergerdollar Coalition' geared toward
high-tech, global expansion and corporate mergers. For this new coalition,
high energy prices were a threat. They spoiled business confidence and
growth in 'emerging markets,' they upset capital mobility, and they
interfered with the hyping up of the stock market.
strength of the new coalition became evident as early as 1991. George Bush
Sr., a Weapondollar-Petrodollar loyalist who had just orchestrated a major
international war, was more or less forced to announce the dawn of a 'new
world order' of peace. His successor, Bill Clinton, was already a declared
'peacenick' who moved swiftly toward resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The shift from war profits to peace dividends was now in full
The effect of this shift on the armament and oil interests
was devastating. During the 1990s, world military budgets fell by over
1/3rd in real terms, arms exports went into a tail spin, and the large
armament contractors were reduced to a mere shadow of their past
The oil companies suffered a similar fate. Figure 2 shows
the relationship between their net profit and the price of oil. During the
early 1980s, crude prices expressed in today's dollars exceeded $80 a
barrel. For the world, this was the height of the 'energy crisis.' For the
oil companies, it was the peak of the 'energy boom': their earnings
reached nearly 20 per cent of all global corporate profit.
then on, it was all downhill. The lingering Iraq-Iran War of 1980-88, the
1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the 1986 bombing of Libya, the mid 1980s
'tanker war' in the Persian Gulf and the 1990/91 Gulf War, all helped to
slow down the slide, but they didn't stop it. And as prices fell so did
profits. The abyss was reached at the end of Clinton's presidency. In
2000, oil prices tumbled to $14 a barrel in today's dollars, and the share
of oil companies in global profit fell to less than 3 per cent - their
Toward a New War
Something had to be
done, and quickly. The Weapondollar-Petrodollar Coalition assailed the
White House with all its guns blazing. They spared no effort. Massive
financial support, legal pressures, electoral manoeuvres, deceit and
outright forgery were all brought to bear. In the end the coalition
managed to have George Bush Jr. put in office.
The Bush family ties
to the US business elite, including the Harrimans, Morgans and
Rockefellers among others, go back to Bert Walker, George Bush Jr.'s
great-grandfather. Over the years, the family has come to occupy, through
ownership and managerial posts, various strategic positions in railroads,
finance, oil and armament. It also placed itself well in the seats of
government, state security and military procurement. In addition to God
and the mighty dollar, the family has retained a strong belief in white
supremacy, especially the supremacy of the Eastern seaboard elites. It has
also entertained close links to far-right and neo-Nazi groups within the
Republican party. With this background, George Bush Jr., although not the
brightest of the lot, was certainly fit for the task of reinstating the
The main excuse was September
11. The US immediately started beating the war drums, and within a month
invaded Afghanistan in search for the ghostly Bin Laden. It didn't find
him there, but the price of oil kept rising. In parallel, and in sharp
contrast to his White House predecessor, Bush Jr. gave Ariel Sharon a
carte blanche to deal with the Palestinians as he saw fit. The resulting
escalation contributed further to the feeling that the region was again in
flames, and that oil was once more likely to become 'scarce.' These
developments, together with a timely oil strike in Venezuela and the
prospect for an imminent attack on Iraq, helped send the price of oil
soaring to over $30 a barrel and raise oil profit to nearly 7 per cent of
the world total (see Figure 2).
It's All About
Now let's think about the meaning of all of this. As we
have seen, the oil companies have just begun climbing from the abyss. To
continue their ascent, they need higher oil prices, and the most effective
way of raising these prices is to have another Middle East conflict.
Similarly for the armament companies. If they are to remain viable in a
uni-polar world, they will need new wars, and quickly. Luck has it, and
these two groups now have their most friendly president ever in the White
House. And this friendly president is ready, in fact eager, to send his
army to fight Iraq, with or without UN approval.
Weapodollar-Petrodollar Coalition, the new war is indeed about oil, but
not in the way most people think. The interest of this coalition lies not
in stabilizing the region and making oil plentiful and cheap, but on the
contrary, in maintaining instability, in making oil look scarce and in
raising its price higher.
Interestingly, large firms outside the
Weapondollar-Petrodollar Coalition - that is, companies with no direct
connection to armament and oil - haven't voiced any real opposition to the
war. This silence is rather strange, to say the least. Don't the
Microsofts, General Motors and Vivendis of the world stand to lose from
higher energy cost and the global stagnation which is almost sure to
follow? Furthermore, if oil prices and oil profits were to rise, wouldn't
these companies lose their primacy relative to the Exxons and Lockheed
Martins? Perhaps, but this relative reordering may be a cheap price to pay
for the benefits to be had.
As it turns out, the biggest threat
facing large firms at the moment is deflation. The global debt burden is
the highest ever in history - roughly twice what it was on the eve of the
Great Depression. Corporate pricing power, on the other hand, is perhaps
the weakest since the Depression. Under these circumstances, if
disinflation were to give way to falling prices, the specter of chain
bankruptcies and debt deflation could make the Great Depression look like
child's play. Given this risk, any move toward higher inflation - even if
accompanied by stagnation - is to be warmly welcomed.
the late 1960s, higher oil prices have always triggered higher inflation.
And the 'mechanism' continues to operate like clockwork: since 1999, world
inflation trailed the gyrations of oil prices with almost religious
devotion. Thus, if oil prices continue to rise, inflation will most likely
follow; this would in turn remove the specter of deflation, and the large
companies could sound a big sigh of relief. For these companies there
would also be an icing on the cake. Inflation usually works to
redistribute income from labour to capital and from small firms to larger
ones. It will therefore make the leading companies better off relatively,
if not absolutely.
The most ambivalent of the lot are probably the
OPEC governments. The explicit shift toward interventionism on part of the
United States and its Western allies must be worrying for them. Theirs is
the only international cartel which managed to obtain some degree of
autonomy from Western influence, and this autonomy is now in great danger.
On the other hand, part of the cartel's weakness stems precisely from its
inability to keep prices high, something which a new conflict managed by
direct US intervention may help rectify.
The only ones for whom
there seems to be no ambiguity are the rest of us. The new wars, fought in
the name of security and prosperity, are likely to bring neither.
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