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Oil, blood and the West’s imperialism

This article is over 19 years, 4 months old
Paul McGarr looks at the history of military intervention in the Middle East
Issue 1817

‘THIS WHOLE affair has nothing to do with a threat from Iraq – there isn’t one. It has nothing to do with the war against terrorism or with morality. Saddam Hussein is obviously an evil man, but when we were selling arms to him to keep the Iranians in check he was the same evil man he is today. In the same way he served Western interests then, he is now the distraction for the sleight of hand to protect the West’s supply of oil. Under the cover of the war on terrorism, the war to secure oil supplies could be waged.’ That was the case argued by Mo Mowlam last week. Mowlam was for four years a New Labour cabinet minister – and the most popular one. Her attack on Bush and Blair’s war plan has drawn a furious response from the warmongers.

The Sun, in an editorial, denounced her and all opponents of the war for ‘hatred of America’. In fact Mo Mowlam was saying something understood by most people across the Middle East.

The US war threat is the latest in a long line of interventions in the region. In the 19th century the world’s then dominant powers, Britain and France, used military power to take over parts of the Middle East, and to install compliant regimes in other areas.

Britain was then mainly interested in the area as a staging post on routes to its empire further east. That is one reason why it seized Egypt in 1882. Until the First World War, however, the rest of the Middle East remained outside direct control by the Western powers.

The areas that now make up Iraq, most of Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan and Palestine remained under the control of the Ottoman Empire, centred in Turkey. With the end of the First World War that empire disintegrated, and Britain and France carved the region up between them.

By the 1920s the sheer extent of the oil reserves across the Middle East was clearer – and oil was becoming the key commodity for global capitalism. Britain’s foreign secretary, Lord Curzon, said that ‘the allies floated to victory on a wave of oil’ in the First World War. Today the region is the source of half the world’s proven oil reserves outside the former USSR.

Saudi Arabia alone possesses a quarter of the world’s reserves. The control of oil drives all the Western powers’ interventions in the Middle East.

The 1991 Gulf War, we were told, was about ‘poor little Kuwait’. A top US general let the truth out when he admitted at the time, ‘If Kuwait grew carrots we wouldn’t give a damn.’

This was an admission of something that has long been the reality. In the 1950s Britain’s foreign secretary, Selwyn Lloyd, put the argument with brutal simplicity: ‘At all costs these oilfields must be kept in Western hands. We need, when things go wrong, to ruthlessly intervene.’

The US replaced Britain and France as the dominant power in the Middle East after the Second World War. It has pursued a twin-track strategy to secure control of the Middle East and its oil.

It has propped up brutal dictatorships from Saudi Arabia to Egypt and for many years Saddam Hussein in Iraq too, without a care about human rights or democracy. But the US always fears that popular resentment in the Arab countries could erupt and push Arab rulers to challenge its interests, or that revolution could topple pro-Western rulers.

Such fears have been underlined when, for a time in the 1950s and 1960s, Egypt’s president Nasser challenged the West, and when revolution toppled a key US ally, the Shah of Iran, in 1979. So the US has had another strand to its strategy. This is backing Israel, a reliable ally which would act as a ‘watchdog’ in the region.

Israel was crucial to breaking the challenge posed to Western interests by Egypt’s Nasser, and remains vital to US interests today.

This is why Israel is by far the biggest recipient of US aid, economically and militarily, in the world. Today the US is becoming more, not less, dependent on Middle East oil, with US domestic oil reserves set to decline sharply in the years ahead. US rulers want to secure control of other areas of the world where there are significant oil reserves.

But the Middle East will remain the linchpin of the oil supplies that US capitalism depends on for the foreseeable future. US rulers are increasingly nervous about the stability and reliability of Saudi Arabia, the key oil supplier in the region, and also want secure control of Iraq’s massive oil supplies.

The US ruling class, especially the gang around George Bush, have additional motives for war. They fear that unless they back up their talk of ‘regime change’ and removing Saddam Hussein with action, it will undermine US power globally. It is not ‘anti-American’ to oppose Bush’s war plans, as the many ordinary people in the US who oppose the war drive would testify. Mo Mowlam is right. The war is about the US ruling class securing its economic, political and military power in the Middle East and globally. It is about US imperialism.

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