From chapter 2 (All About Oil) of David Harvey's 'The New Imperialism'

From: Rakesh Bhandari (rakeshb@STANFORD.EDU)
Date: Mon Nov 03 2003 - 17:16:52 EST

in regards to earlier OPE-L discussions about oilism vs. petrodollarism thesis.
yours, rb

 From chapter two (All About Oil) in David Harvey's "The New Imperialism",
Oxford 2003

I briefly review this history here in order to make two basic points. Since
1945 there has been a steady escalation of US involvement in the region,
marked by a significant break after 1980 as the involvement came to depend
more and more on a direct military presence. Secondly, the conflict with
Iraq is of long standing, and planning for some sort of military denouement
was in the works even before the last Gulf War started. The only difference
between the Clinton years and now is that the mask has come off and
bellicosity has displaced a certain reticence, in part because of the
post-9/11 atmosphere within the United States that makes overt and
unilateral military action more politically acceptable. Viewed
geopolitically and in the long term, some confrontation with Iraq appeared
inevitable unless it became a client state of the US, like Saudi Arabia.
But why this geopolitical thrust? Again, the answer has everything to do
with oil.

At any one time, the status of global oil reserves is a matter of
conjecture. Oil companies are notoriously reticent to say what they know
and on occasion deliberately mislead. Estimates of reserves often differ
wildly. Most accounts suggest, however, that the rate of exploitation of
oil reserves has exceeded the rate of discovery since 1980 or so. Oil is
slowly becoming increasingly scarce. We do know that many fields are past
their peak and that within a decade or so many of the world's present
oilfields will be depleted. This is the case for domestic US, North Sea,
Canadian, Russian, and (more ominously) Chinese production. While other
oilfields have a longer life, the only fields that look set to last fifty
years or "more are those in Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab
Emirates, and Kuwait. While new discoveries could change this picture, most
strategic thinkers have to confront the increasing significance of the
Middle East as the key provider of oil over time. On the demand side we see
that the United States is increasingly dependent upon foreign imports, that
the dynamic centres of economic growth in East and South-East Asia are
almost bereft of significant oil reserves (with demand in China now
escalating at a phenomenal rate), and that Europe (with the exception of
Britain and Norway) is likewise totally dependent on imported oil.
Alternatives to oil are being explored, but there is very little chance
that these will be serious contenders (given the barriers erected by the
oil companies and other vested interests) for several decades. Access to
Middle Eastern oil is now, therefore, a crucial security issue for the
United States, as it is for the global economy as a whole.

This immediately poses the problem of US motivation in seeking tighter
military and strategic control, unilaterally if necessary. Thomas Friedman
argues, for example, that 'there is nothing illegitimate or immoral about
the US being concerned that an evil, megalomaniacal dictator might acquire
excessive influence over the natural resource that powers the world's
industrial base'. But we have to be careful to convey to the public and
reassure the world that the intention is 'to protect the world's right to
economic survival' rather than our own right to indulge ourselves, that the
US is 'acting for the benefit of the planet, not simply to fuel American
excesses. ... If we occupy Iraq and simply install a more pro-US autocrat
to run the Iraqi gas station (as we have in other Arab oil states), then
this war partly for oil would be immoral.'16 Is the US, in short,
exercising leadership and seeking to regulate the use of Middle Eastern oil
in everyone's interests through consent? Or is it seeking domination to
realize its own far narrower strategic interests? Friedman wishes to
believe the former. But what if it is the latter?

If the US successfully engineers the overthrow of both Chavez and Saddam,
if it can stabilize or reform an armed-to-the-teeth Saudi regime that is
currently based on the shifting sands of authoritarian rule (and in
imminent danger of falling into the hands of radicalized Islam), if it can
move on (as seems it will likely seek to do) from Iraq to Iran and
consolidate a strategic military presence in the central Asian republics
and so dominate Caspian Basin oil reserves, then it might, through firm
control of the global oil spigot, hope to keep effective control over the
global economy for the next fifty years. Europe and Japan, as well as East
and South-East Asia (now crucially including China) are heavily dependent
on Gulf oil, and these are regional configurations of political-economic
power that now pose a challenge to US global hegemony in the worlds of
production and finance. What better way for the United States to ward off
that competition and secure its own hegemonic position than to control the
price, conditions, and distribution of the key economic resource upon which
those competitors rely? And what better way to do that than to use the one
line of force where the US still remains all-powerful-military might? There
is also a military aspect to this argument. The military runs on oil. North
Korea may have a sophisticated air-force, but it cannot use it much for
lack of fuel. Not only does the US need to ensure its own military
supplies, but any future military conflict with, say, China will be
lopsided if the US has the power to cut off the oil flow to its opponent.
But such lines of argument only make sense if the US has reason to fear
that its dominant position within global capitalism is somehow threatened.
It is to the economic rather than the military dimension to this question
that I turn in Chapter 2 of this enquiry.

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