It’s hard to imagine a week more filled with delusion about Iraq than the one just concluded. But, Iraq never ceases to surprise, so one must hold out the possibility that the delusion could grow even grander.
First, there was the notion that a soon-to-be-adopted Iraqi law designed to open the country’s oilfields to foreign companies will somehow lead to a flood of foreign investment. A more measured evaluation of the prospects for such investment was published in The Independent. In fact, it’s hard to see how anyone could currently operate an oil exploration program inside Iraq safely.
Even after the Iraq civil war ends–and it will end someday though that day is probably many years away–the government which controls Iraq may not be the one now in charge or may, in fact, turn out to be three governments controlling a partitioned Iraq. Even if a unified Iraq survives, what would prevent it from changing the laws governing oil production, revoking existing contracts or simply renationalizing the oil industry? An Iraq at peace may find itself capable of doing any of these with the broad support of its people. Certainly, some will say that a continued U. S. military presence in Iraq would cow the country into honoring any agreements made under the law. But who now believes, given emerging political and ongoing fiscal realities in the United States, that the U. S. military will remain in Iraq to the conclusion of the civil war and for many years after that?
To top it off there is the specious claim that Iraq has 115 billion barrels of oil waiting to be drained from the ground. Only a few people have bothered to look beneath the surface of this claim to find the reality. In the 1980s OPEC, of which Iraq was a member, was contemplating linking production quotas to reserves. Some OPEC members reported miraculous reserve increases without any equally miraculous exploration efforts. Between 1987 and 1988 Iraq’s reserves jumped from 47 billion barrels to 100 billion barrels. Such reserves are now euphemistically referred to as “political reserves.”
The second delusion of the week was that President Bush’s plan to add 20,000 U. S. soldiers to forces already in Iraq would somehow bring stability to the country. Not many people were buying this delusion including many U. S. senators of both parties. When then army chief Gen. Eric Shinseki predicted before the war that several hundred thousand soldiers would be needed to pacify Iraq, he was pilloried by the Bush Administration. But, that number is probably closer to what it would take to do the job. Even if the American public and the Congress had the stomach for such a huge new deployment, as a practical matter it is impossible. The U. S. military is having trouble maintaining the force levels it has already deployed.
The third delusion of the week comes in the form of an article in the January 15 edition of The New Yorker about Democratic presidential candidates and their foreign policy positions. The word “oil” appears exactly once and that’s inside a quote from the mouth of former North Carolina senator and presidential candidate John Edwards talking about our addiction to oil.
The varied views of Democratic frontrunners–Edwards, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama–on America’s national security are detailed in the piece with discussion of Iraq and Iran featured prominently. But, the author, Jeffrey Goldberg, who seems to be an intelligent and well-connected reporter, never once mentions oil while analyzing the U. S. relationship with either country. Perhaps none of the people he interviewed except Edwards mentioned the issue. But, one would think that Goldberg would have asked about oil, especially if the candidates appeared to be avoiding the issue and especially since Iraq and Iran are such large oil exporters.
Understanding the delusions under which America’s leaders and media suffer allows us to see why the most obvious solution to America’s predicament in Iraq goes unmentioned, namely, a vast crash program to free America from fossil fuels, especially oil, in favor of renewable, low-carbon sources of energy. This should be combined with an emergency effort in energy conservation and efficiency.
As long as Americans and their leaders believe that there is plenty of oil to be had; that getting access to it is really only a matter of applying military force and market principles; and that national security isn’t inextricably bound up with the way we think about and use energy, the country will fall further and further behind in making an energy transition that is being forced upon us by the limits of fossil fuels themselves.