‘Oil wars.’ Is this an accurate summary of US-led interventions in the Middle East of the 21st century?

‘Oil wars.’ Is this an accurate summary of US-led interventions in the Middle East of the 21st century?
Duncan Whitmore

“America is addicted to oil”

So said President George W Bush, echoing a contemporary cover of The Economist, in his State of the Union Address on January 31st 2006.

Although President Bush’s speech was a lament for the fact that the United States is the world’s biggest consumer of oil (reaching 19.4 million barrels per day by 2015[1]), this candid admission by the architect of American interventionism lent support to the notion that his country’s forays into the Middle East have been either wholly or mostly motivated by the desire to have a greater, physical control over oil. In this essay we will, however, conclude that this theory is, at best, incomplete, and, at worst, false and misleading, and that America’s interventionist efforts can be best understood through the explanation of three distinct, yet connected objectives:

  • To maintain the petrodollar system and the global reserve status of the US dollar;
  • To appease and promote the interests of the US’s biggest regional allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia;
  • To serve as proxy wars against Russia and China and to contain and minimise Sino-Russian influence in the region.

All of these objectives are subsumed by the greater, overarching aim of preventing the outbreak of a multi-polar world and maintaining a US hegemonic international order. As we shall see, any part that the physical control of oil has to play in this picture owes itself to aiding the achievement of this final objective and has little to do to with America’s appetite for gas guzzling.

The first issue to address, then, is why oil is not a satisfactory explanation for US interventions in the Middle East – or, at least, why is control of oil not the final objective? The broad reason is that America’s own zest for oil consumption does not explain why it needs to obtain physical control of that oil through military intervention. In the first place, how much America’s oil consumption needs to rely upon Middle Eastern imports is, at least, open to question. As it stands today, the US obtains only 12.9% of its oil from the Persian Gulf, with nearly three quarters of its demand being sourced either domestically or from within other parts of the Western Hemisphere[2]. Indeed, the precise makeup of this composition is designed precisely to avoid US reliance on Middle Eastern oil following the OPEC embargo in 1973 – when a handful of kings sitting on their dusty thrones in the desert managed to bring the world’s biggest superpower to its knees. Granted, the US might be keeping one eye on its future energy security, but the intertwined nature of global oil markets is such that the precise source of oil does not make much difference to the price you pay. Thus, the US could have achieved the same result by invading Canada and Venezuela – the latter of which has the world’s largest, proven oil reserves – rather than Iraq and Libya. This fact leads us onto the second reason which is that physical control of oil (or, indeed, of any resource) serves little purpose if your desire is domestic consumption. In and of itself the US invasion of Iraq, for example, did nothing whatsoever to bring Iraqi oil even an inch closer to the average American at a price that was worth paying. All of the usual costs of oil production – digging the wells, extracting the oil, building pipelines and refineries, shipping, and so on – would still have to have been met on top of the cost of the invasion in the first place. This latter cost has been estimated at more than $2 trillion[3] (not to mention the inestimable cost in human lives and suffering) – a hefty price tag for a country which, in 2016, produced “only” around $71 billion worth of oil[4]. It would have been far cheaper to have left Saddam Hussein to dig that oil out himself and then to buy it from him at global prices – or, better still, to have invested in Iraq rather than to have destroyed what infrastructure was already there. Third, while most of the Middle Eastern countries into which the US has waded are oil rich, not all of them are –Afghanistan and Pakistan, for example, have very little oil, although their proximity to oil rich nations may render them strategically important. Nevertheless, it is clear from this analysis that the need of the US to gain access to oil for consumption purposes does not depend upon a military undertaking – and, indeed, such an undertaking may be the least economically effective method. On the other hand, however, military intervention to gain direct, physical control is extremely beneficial if the aim is to control to whom else the oil flows and/or the terms upon which it is sold. As we shall see this plays an important aspect in the first objective that we listed above – the need to maintain the petrodollar system and the global domination of US finance.

Before we examine this, however, we should take a moment to dispose of all of the official veneers and excuses for American interventionism that are paraded by the US government and the mainstream media. None of these interventions had, as its primary motive, anything to do with humanitarian concerns or the need to “spread democracy” and liberate oppressed peoples from brutal dictators. The US’s major ally in the region, Saudi Arabia, is an absolute monarchy with an appalling human rights record and yet scarcely has an invading American military boot trodden on its sand to liberate its people. America’s post-war foreign policy is a sorry tale of the willing destruction of free societies as and when it suited American interests, from the installation of the Iranian Shah in 1953, the 1954 coup in Guatemala, 1960 in the Congo, 1973 in Chile – not to mention support for dictators or military governments in countries as far flung as Argentina, Brazil, El Salvador, Greece, Honduras, Indonesia, Iraq, and Nicaragua, to name just a few. Even the arch nemesis of the nineties and “naughties”, Saddam Hussein, flip-flopped his status between US friend and foe, shaking hands with Donald Rumsfeld fifteen months after the Dujail massacre for which Hussein was eventually hanged. The US has only sought to spread democracy where the objective has been subjugation rather than liberation, while the so-called “War on Terror” has been a thinly veiled excuse from the start, with the US having been a major state sponsor of terrorism for decades – most recently by fuelling the rise of ISIS (or one of the many other names for it) in Iraq and Syria. Finally, we barely even need to mention the thoroughly discredited “weapons of mass destruction”. In short, to say that America’s official reasons for its interventionism are riddled with inconsistencies would be an understatement.

Let us, then, move on to examining the first objective of the US’s Middle Eastern interventions which is maintenance of the petrodollar system and the preservation of the US dollar as the global reserve currency. The petrodollar system dates from a series of agreements between the US and Saudi Arabia in the 1970s in which the US promised to defend the Saudi monarchy (partly against popular rebellion at home, we should add) in return for Saudi Arabia using its influence within OPEC to enforce the pricing and selling of oil in and for US dollars. As a result everyone has needed to buy and hold US dollars in order to, in turn, buy oil from petroleum exporting countries. As oil is such a heavily traded commodity – even more so today following the huge rise in global demand experienced during the 1980s – the US dollar became the currency of choice in which to conduct the vast majority of international trade. In other words, the US dollar became the global reserve currency. Not only has the resulting domination of US financial networks granted the US government an enormous amount of power over international trade (and for the imposition of sanctions, fines and other trade war tools) but the constant, buoyant demand for the US dollar has meant that America has been able to export much of the inflationary effects of its monetary expansion. Indeed, while it is difficult to dispute the fervour of the American entrepreneurial spirit, much or possibly most of America’s prosperity over the past two generations owes itself to the fact that the US dollar has been able to buy more from abroad than it is really worth. Hence, America’s economy today is driven by consumption and widening trade deficits, while jobs and production have vanished overseas. As if all of that wasn’t enough, many countries, such as China, have reinvested their dollar surpluses in US treasury securities, providing a convenient pool of debt for the US government to continue its profligate spending. Any collapse of the petrodollar system and the consequential drop in demand for the US dollar would, therefore, threaten to choke the global clout of the US government, cause the American standing of living to plunge and cut off a flowing stream of financing for the government’s coffers. It is not difficult to see why the US would be keen – desperate, even – to maintain the integrity of this system.

There would be few prizes for guessing which two oil exporting countries were either brave or foolish enough to attempt to cease selling their oil for US dollars and thus threaten the power of dollar based financial networks. In October 2000 Iraq announced to the world that it would begin pricing and selling its oil in euros. The reaction of the US was relatively swift, with plans for an invasion being drawn up in the aftermath of (and possibly before) the September 11th attacks, and the invasion itself commencing on March 20th 2003. Shortly after, Iraqi oil was being sold for dollars again. Needless to say it didn’t matter much when the “weapons of mass destruction” failed to materialise, nor that Iraq has become a hotbed of terrorism far in excess of what it was prior to the invasion. According to then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s leaked emails the US believed that Muammar Gaddafi would use Libya’s vast gold reserves to create a gold-backed currency which would be used to buy and sell oil[5]. Any mention of humanitarian concerns is curiously absent from the discussion. Libya fell to NATO-led forces in 2011 and the plan for this new currency evaporated. Importantly, what we can see from this is that while maintenance of the petrodollar system concerns the control of oil, the objective is financial domination, rather than domination of resources. The US is happy for Iraq’s biggest export partner, for example, to be China. Maintenance of the petrodollar in the Middle East is part of a wider, global strategy of eliminating currencies, financial facilities and networks that are independent of Western control. For example, by halting the proposed gold dinar, the Libyan invasion also put the kibosh on what could have been the start of financial and monetary independence for much of Africa. Both Iraq and Libya also took their places among other countries to which the US has directed its ire – Afghanistan, Cuba, North Korea, Iran and Syria – all of whom, in the year 2000, were among the few to have a central bank independent of the Rothschild banking empire. This is partly how, in spite of the importance of oil in the saga, “oil wars” fails to accurately encapsulate America’s 21st century interventionism and, moreover, we are beginning to see how the control of global finance via the control of oil fits into the overarching objective of maintaining a uni-polar, US-centric world.

The second objective we outlined above is the appeasement and support of the US’s biggest allies in the Middle East, Israel and Saudi Arabia. While it is understandable that the US will share common enemies and objectives with its allies and would seek allied dominance in the region, it is important to realise precisely how an absolute Islamic monarchy and a parliamentary Jewish republic could possibly have anything in common in a region where religion and form of government is the cause for so much strife and turmoil – and how these commonalities mesh with the interests of the world’s only remaining superpower. In spite of their surface differences, the foreign policy objectives of Israel and the Saudis are, in fact, aligned in one critical respect – that both wish to prevent the emergence of a successful, stable, secular (or moderately Islamic) state in the Middle East, particularly if that country is oil exporting. For Saudi Arabia, the emergence of such a state would be a double blow – not only would it bolster revolutionary fervour at home but the relative weakening of Saudi Arabia’s international clout would undermine the kingdom’s importance to the US, which upholds the Saudi monarchy. For Israel, such a state could not only strengthen the Palestinian cause but also (or, perhaps, as a result) threaten Israel’s entire existence. With the influence of the Israel lobby on the US electoral scene, and the aforementioned strategic importance of the Saudis to the US, it is clear to see how the interests of all three are symbiotic.

Over this pretty picture is cast the long shadow of the Islamic Republic of Iran, a large and powerful semi-democracy with the world’s biggest natural gas supply and fourth biggest proven oil reserves. Iran has displayed unwavering hatred of Israel and the US, and has bitter relations with the Saudis in spite of them both being Muslim-majority nations and ruling through Holy Scripture. Many of the feuds, oppositions and interventions by the US and its allies in the Middle East – i.e. Syria, Hezbollah, and the wading of the Saudis into the Yemeni civil war – can all be partly explained as Iranian proxies, with Iran either supporting and/or funding the opposing side. This thesis is bolstered when we bring into play the third, broad objective of the US outlined above which is that much of its Middle Eastern activity, and most of its Middle Eastern foes, serve, in turn, as proxies for Russia and (more widely) China – and that the final, overarching goal of the United States in its foreign policy is to prevent the outbreak of a multi-polar world, with Russia and China equal to or more powerful than the United States. Indeed, the real reason why the US cannot tolerate a headstrong, independent and powerful nation in the Middle East such as Iran (or Iraq under Hussein) is that Iran can co-operate unilaterally with Russia and the two can agree deals that are beneficial to them rather than to the US, undermining US influence in the region and bolstering that of the Russians. This is at its most obvious in Syria, where the military forces of President Bashar al-Assad are backed by Iran, Hezbollah and Russia, whereas the US has sought to topple the insubordinate Assad government by arming Syrian rebels – resulting in the devastating hot bed of terrorism that Syria has become, plunging the nation to the bottom of the Global Peace Index, and with more than half of its population either internally displaced or fleeing as refugees. Other Middle Eastern countries subject to recent American interventionism – notably, Afghanistan – have a sad, sorry history in service as battlegrounds for US-Russian proxy wars. Within all of this the place of oil and oil power is simply to help the US sift out who, in the Middle East, is of strategic importance and who is not – once again, however, oil itself is not the final objective.

To elaborate on this third and final, overarching aim of the United States requires us to resort to neither conjecture nor conspiracy theory. We can, instead, rely on the authority of some of the powerful figures who have shaped American foreign policy over the last two generations:

“Our first objective is to prevent the re-emergence of a new rival, either on the territory of the former Soviet Union or elsewhere, that poses a threat on the order of that posed formerly by the Soviet Union.

“The U.S. must show the leadership necessary to establish and protect a new order that holds the promise of convincing potential competitors that they need not aspire to a greater role or pursue a more aggressive posture to protect their legitimate interests.”

“Russia will remain the strongest military power in Eurasia and the only power in the world with the capability of destroying the United States.”

– Defence Planning Guidance 1994-99, a.k.a. the “Wolfowitz Doctrine” (1st version). These principles influenced and informed the later “Bush Doctrine”, which underscored the foreign policy of the Bush administration.

“For 350 years, sovereignty – the notion that states are the central actors on the world stage and that governments are essentially free to do what they want within their own territory but not within the territory of other states – has provided the organizing principle of international relations. The time has come to rethink that notion.”

Richard N. Haass, President, Council on Foreign Relations, 2003-present[6]

“Henry Kissinger[…]was quite clear and precise in his overviewing [sic] the issue of the American geopolitical position, national goals and foreign policy. His remarks can be summarized in the following points:


  1. Any domination by any single state from Eurasia(either from the European or the Asian part) is a critical danger for the American geopolitical and geoeconomic aims as well as national interest regardless during or after the time of the Cold War.
  1. A mortal danger for the US is formation of any political-military coalitions between the Euroasian great powers (primarily between the USSR/Russia and China) as such coalition would have a real capacity to outstrip both the US economy and military.


In fact, H. Kissinger recognized two fundamental facts in dealing with global geopolitics […] to have a control over Russia means to have a control over Eurasia and to control Eurasia means to control the rest of the world. For that reason, the US struggle against the communist USSR during the Cold War or Putin’s Russia today is nothing else than a formal pretext for a realization of the basic US geopolitical task from the global perspective: to have control over the Heartland of Eurasia. Subsequently, any kind of independent and/or stronger Russia is not acceptable solution [sic] for the American policymakers.”

          Henry Kissinger, as interpreted by Dr Vladimir B Sotirovic[7]

Nevertheless, in spite of this formidable authority, actions speak louder than words and the full extent of America’s foreign policy objectives can be observed by widening our scope of our enquiry beyond the Middle East to countries within Eurasia as a whole. Observe the following map on which a large number of countries is highlighted:


All of these countries fall into at least one of the following categories:

  • A major US ally;
  • A member of NATO;
  • Contains a significant US military presence;
  • A major US enemy;
  • A subject of post-2000 US military intervention;
  • In the case of India, the Trump administration has sought a stronger US-Indian partnership to act as a counterweight to Chinese influence[8].

All of these countries form a massive, continuous belt around the Southern, warm water side of the Sino-Russian landmass, sealing it off from the rest of the world. Moreover, of the approximately 340,000 US troops either stationed and/or otherwise dedicated to operations aboard, around two thirds of them are concentrated within this belt (by way of comparison there are barely 5,000 stationed in the whole of resource-rich Africa)[9]. Strategies pursued with oil rich nations in the Middle East take their place among strategies pursued with other countries in the rest of the belt in order to contain and diminish Russian and Chinese power and influence – namely the expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe, the turf wars in the South China Sea, the preoccupation with North Korea, and the especially heavy presence of US troops and military activity on the Korean peninsula and in Japan.

In conclusion, therefore, it is clear that “oil wars” is not an accurate description of US-led interventions in the Middle East of the 21st century. Rather, as we have seen, the role of oil can be best summarised as follows:

  • There is no convincing argument that the thirst for domestic oil consumption has driven US-led interventionist wars;
  • Control over the terms of the trade of oil is integral to maintaining US domination of global finance through the petrodollar system;
  • Oil wealth is an important factor in determining which countries may constitute a threat to the US’s regional allies;
  • Oil wealth is an important factor in determining which countries are a threat to US interests should they seek, or threaten to seek, either a significant degree of independence from the US and/or an alignment of their interests with Russia and China;
  • Ultimately, the best summary of US-led interventions in the Middle East is that they are part of a wider, global strategy that seeks to preserve US hegemony and that the possession and/or control of oil are a means to this end, rather than an end in itself.

In closing, we might as well add that America’s aims have met with a questionable degree of success. Much of its belligerence and hostility has, in fact, caused the very transition to multi-polarity that it has struggled to avoid now that enemies, rivals and even allies such as Saudi Arabia have sought closer ties with each other precisely to either reduce or eliminate their reliance on US based trade and financial networks. It remains to be seen just how far this “clash of the titans” will proceed down the path of physical war; given that these are nuclear powers one has to hope that the answer is “not very”.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_oil_consumption.

[2] https://www.npr.org/2012/04/11/150444802/where-does-america-get-oil-you-may-be-surprised

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Financial_cost_of_the_Iraq_War#Indirect_and_delayed_costs

[4] Based on an average price of $43.73 per bbl.

[5] https://wikileaks.org/clinton-emails/emailid/6528

[6] Quoted in the Taipei Times, February 2006.

[7] Vladislav B Sotirovic, US Foreign Policy, Global Hegemony, “Soft Power” and the Geopolitics of Eurasia”, Global Research, June 23 2017 (footnotes omitted).

[8] https://www.cnbc.com/2017/01/27/donald-trump-wants-india-as-ally-to-counterbalance-china.html

[9] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_military_deployments



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