In a recent appearance to Congress, US ambassador to Baghdad, Ryan Cocker, sent a chilling message to lawmakers. The message was simple — leave Iraq and oil prices will stay high or rise, stay in Iraq and oil prices will go down. Though Cocker didn’t state it so plainly, his message is clear. Leaving Iraq would destabilize the Persian Gulf, sending this critical oil region into a state of conflict that would disrupt oil supply when the world is, increasingly, having trouble pumping enough of the stuff. On the other hand, staying in Iraq would result in increasing flows of oil to the world market. Analysts, such as Time Magazine’s Ryan Baer, have even raised the possibility that Iraq could surpass Saudi Arabia in oil production. And while these claims may well be an exaggeration, it does seem possible for a stable Iraq to double production with proper investment and in a time-frame of around five years.
An unhappy reality
The above statements and possibilities underscore how difficult it will be for even a democratic president to withdraw troops from Iraq. As oil prices continue to rise, and supply becomes increasingly thin, pressure will be placed on politicians to provide the oil by any means necessary. Cocker’s visit to Congress is just the first wave and, especially in an election year, we can expect more to follow. But what Cocker’s statements also highlight and clarify are our motivations for being in Iraq in the first place. Those motivations hinge on fear and greed. It is worthwhile, given the critical age we live in, to look deeper down the oil hole and take a good hard look at the reasons and psychology behind our military, political, and geopolitical stance in Iraq.
Oil and the politics of fear
In the case of fear, it is important to note that the US imports more than 10 million barrels per day as crude and more than 1 million barrels per day as product. Since the US produces about 5 million barrels per day of its own oil and 550,000 barrels per day of biofuel, the US must purchase more than double the amount it produces on its own. And while these figures, by themselves, do not entirely describe the problem, they give us a good idea of our starting point. Primarily we need a lot of the oil that other people have and so we are forced to buy it at any cost. Today, without that added oil, our economy would crash as much of our transportation infrastructure, food and chemical production, and other aspects of modern industry fail. The ripple effect of stagflation and shortage would create a vicious system of aftershocks that would be felt in every corner of the US economy. High oil prices and increasing oil scarcity is a slow burn of the above scenario. So we have a lot to fear and our occupation of Iraq is, in large part, driven by that fear. Given the dire situation in world oil markets, can the US amass the political will to overcome an obvious and very real risk of losing a large part of its Middle Eastern oil supply?
Oil and the politics of greed
Moving on to greed, we come to our second major motivation for Iraqi occupation. The value of that oil in the ground, if it could be sold cheap to the US market, would revitalize the US economy and give us a number of years respite from the inevitable depletion of our supply base. Looked through the lens of greed, Iraqi occupation could bring us back to prosperity if we could only stabilize and increase oil production. From the point of view of greed, this increase in production must be possible, otherwise, there’s no reason to be in Iraq in the first place.
Oil addiction, greed, and fear
Yet our greed and fear obsession in Iraq is as poisonous to us culturally as it is dangerous to us economically. The first reason is that our fear delusion leaves us without hope of any alternative to the massive amount of oil we consume. If we believe that oil is the only source of our potential for economic growth, then we will, like a desperate addict, take what we can by any means possible. This reaction, as we have seen in Iraq, Nigeria, and the larger Middle East, leads to more instability than it solves and forces the United States to justify unilateral action in order to secure its oil addiction. The second reason is that our greed delusion leads us to believe that we can benefit economically from the flow of oil from these foreign entities. The sad reality is that the more addicted we are to oil, the deeper our trade deficit becomes, the more we invest in foreign wars, and the less we invest in sustainable, job creating, infrastructure at home. In the case of our oil addiction, not only do we harm foreign countries through constant military action, but we also loot the future of our children by taking from them the sustainable world we now have the power to create.
One wonders, given our way of doing business, if we will retain that power for much longer? But let’s follow the oil hole a little further and see where it leads…
Potential for Iraqi oil uncertain
The US Geological Survey estimates that Iraq has ultimate recoverable oil reserves of around 78 billion barrels of oil. In the current world, this supply would cover all of world consumption for a little more than two years. At its current rate of production, 2.4 million barrels per day, Iraq could continue to supply this oil for around 80 years. If Iraq produces substantially more oil, that length of time shortens as Iraq depletes its oil at a faster rate. Increasing Iraq’s oil production to match Saudi Arabia’s, for example, would deplete Iraqi oil in 20 years. Simply put, in the oil world, faster production means faster depletion. One other fly in the Iraq ointment is the fact that Iraq has been producing its oil for over 70 years, and reserves figures haven’t changed much since the 1970’s. In the 40 years time that has elapsed, Iraq has likely produced over 30 billion barrels of oil. So given the maturity of the Iraqi oil industry, it is likely that producing very large amounts of oil will be challenging if not impossible.
Military presence as a catalyst for instability
Furthermore, as noted above, US military presence in the Persian Gulf continues act as a catalyst for instability in the region. Insurgents or anyone else unhappy with the US occupation supply a population ready to take up arms and fight our forces on the ground as well as disrupt the oil supply. Our presence may also draw aggression from other quarters. With demand growing in India and China for the foreseeable future, and with world supply likely to remain flat or fall into decline, other countries may attempt to exert military influence in the Persian Gulf region. Such projections of power would only increase instability and the likelihood of broader war in the region. It doesn’t take too much imagination to envision a very ugly situation evolving around the oil producing states in the Middle East.
Hope for a future beyond oil
Must we choose this future? Couldn’t we better invest our time and, still considerable resources? How many solar panels, wind mills, and nuclear power plants would our expense to secure oil each year purchase? How much could we advance our battery and electric vehicles technology if we weren’t spending so much money on technology to detect and destroy IEDs? What could we do if we spent our considerable ingenuity and still considerable resource endowment in creating a real future for ourselves and our children?
As for fear, greed, and oil addiction, I have glimpsed the future it brings. That future is a dirty, dangerous, and diminishing place where life is hard and short. But we don’t have to choose that future. Instead, we can build a future that doesn’t have to enforce scarcity or rely on military might to secure wealth and well being. Are we wise enough to make that choice?