January 08, 2004

Reader Reaction

"Re: Your post on Juan Cole, WMD and Oil

I agree with you that the U.S. government - and indeed, every sensible, well-informed observer - had a rational and sincere fear about WMD in Iraq prior to the war. But it surely verges on comic understatement to claim that the "intelligence may have been too aggressively analyzed by some in the administration". "may"? "too aggressively"? And in a post taking Cole to task for careless language?

It was obvious even at the time - for example, when the President made the infamous uranium and aluminum tubes claims in the SOTU speech - that the administration was selling the war dishonestly, something which always carries a cost, even when the ends are presumed to justify the means. I recall Wolfowitz publicly refusing to stand up for the aluminum tube theory five days before the SOTU speech - not a very reassuring sign of the administration's faith in the theory.

Comment: I think this reader goes too far in saying that it is "obvious" that the Bushies sold the war "dishonestly." My views today, despite Bart Gellman's WaPo piece of yesterday and other information that has come out since, remain per this analysis.

As for oil, I wonder if you oversimplify a bit. Obviously the war wasn't fought to enrich Haliburton (though surely Cheney finds the enrichment of Haliburton less worrying than I). But there are other ways in which oil might figure into a foreign policy. The U.S. has long maintained an interest in the region precisely because it contains oil. No historian denies that U.S. policymakers noticed the significance of oil to victory in WWII and resolved to ensure continuing access to it. No one thinks that the close alignment with Saudi Arabia for so many years was due entirely to a dispassionate admiration for its culture. No one can deny that the oil embargo of the early 70s was a severe shock to the U.S. economy, which only strengthened policymakers' appreciation for the importance of oil. With the recent release of official British papers, no one can deny any longer that the U.S. seriously considered seizing oil fields in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait during the crisis. So why should it be controversial to claim that oil might figure importantly in current policy decisions about the Middle East, even if the sillier versions of the claim are obviously false?

The WMD were relevant of course, but the most important reason they were relevant is that they threatened the U.S.'s long term access to oil. As Kenneth Pollack pointed out prior to the war in his book, a single well-placed nuclear missile would permanently irradiate most of Saudi Arabia's oil and send the world into a prolonged depression. But more plausibly, Iraqi dominance in the region might have undermined the U.S.'s standing in Saudi Arabia or put unwanted pressure on crucial OPEC countries. And WMD would have been an essential part of Iraq's ability to punch above its weight. I suppose this is why I find it so mystifying to see concern about WMD contrasted with concerns about oil, when so much of the concern about WMD is motivated by long-term concerns about how Iraq might have leveraged WMD to threaten U.S. access to oil.

In the current debate about oil the two loudest sides claim, respectively, that oil is irrelevant, or that it is all-motivating. Many problems with that, of course, but one serious worry is that it prevents us from having a debate about exactly what is and is not legitimate for a country to do in order to defend vital resources. As Hitchens never tires of pointing out, it would be deeply irresponsible for U.S. leaders not to worry about such a crucial resource. But it doesn't follow from that that anything at all is justified. So what are we to do?"

Chris Young
Graduate Student
Philosophy Department
Cornell University

More comment:

The fact that Iraq is smack dab in the Middle of the oil rich Persian Gulf, of course, has an impact on geopolitical decision-making. I take the readers point about Ken Pollack's concerns about, for instance, a strike on Saudi oil supplies or such.

But to suggest, as Juan Cole did, that we went in for oil remains highly disingenuous.

History, as much as its murky currents can be accurately gauged, is a multicausal phenomenon--and historians will spend much time many years hence apportioning the reasons/rationale we went to war in Iraq.

But here is my rough cut (percentages are a tad ridiculous, yes, but they get the point across)

1) 9/11 related factors related to the intersection of rogue regimes, transnational terror groups, and WMD (particularly given that Iraq, unlike NoKo and Iran, had used WMD against its own people and started two regional wars): 70%

Note: Wolfowitz, for one, separates WMD and terrorism and considers them separate variables (well, he also connects them, click through the link for more).

2) Iraq's strategic location in the Persian Gulf: 20%

3) Bush family animus against Saddam: 5%

4) Humanitarian considerations: 5%

Bottom line, it was, in very large part, the WMD/terror/rogue state post 9/11 risk posture folks.

A relevant aside: As I've blogged before, I was always less concerned about Saddam's nuclear capabilities (where our intelligence was weakest). It was the biological and chemical capability (and his potential willingness to transfer it to, if not al-Qaeda, another terror group) that worried me (particularly post 9/11). On this, even the Powell's and Tenet's of the Administration were pretty confident of Saddam's capabilities.

Did they lie to us too? Did everyone in official Washington lie to the American public? Was it that damn horrid a mega-hoodwink job?

Meanwhile, Juan Cole responds to "blogistan" critics. It's well worth reading and I empathize with Cole--particularly in terms of his Shi'a friends slaughtered during Saddam's reign.

Still, I don't believe his disingenuous suggestion about the U.S. perhaps having gone to war in Iraq for oil quite jives with his evocation of Isaiah Berlin.

A final note: I can't stress how much I enjoy getting quality reader feedback like that posted here today. I enjoy the back and forth of debate immensely.

I would have a comments section--but have too little time to blog generally so can't add to the temporal burdens with a need to monitor comments.

That said, I urge readers to write in and take me to task when they find my arguments too polemical, not well reasoned, partisan, illogical, or, you know, just generally hack-like.

So thanks to readers for keeping me on my toes and intellectually honest.

Posted by Gregory at January 8, 2004 01:54 PM
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