War for Oil

This map is getting some play around the blogosphere:

World Oil Map

Andrew Sullivan linked it under the headline “One Reason We’re Not Leaving Iraq” and comments “Kuwait was worth rescuing, wasn’t it?”

Ezra Klein chimes in with, “Helps explain, for one thing, why the Middle East always dominates the foreign policy agenda.”

Matt Yglesias figures it works both ways, noting, “It’s true that we might well not have been so eager to save Kuwait had it not had the oil, but it’s also unlikely that anyone would have wanted to conquer Kuwait had it not had the oil.”

It’s undeniably true that the Middle East is considered a strategic interest mostly because of oil (there’s also Israel). But the map doesn’t exactly explain everything. Or much of anything, really.

If the thesis is that the United States will go to war to protect countries in direct proportion to the amount of oil reserves they have, Desert Storm rather makes sense: Saudi Arabia is number one and Kuwait is number four.

Then again, Iran and Iraq are numbers two and three, respectively.

We’ve been in a state of cold war with Iran since 1979 and actively supported Iraq against them during their war in the 1980s. We’ve been quite aggressive in working against their nuclearization. Shouldn’t we be trying to appease them, if oil is our main concern?

And what about Iraq? One can explain Desert Storm, since it was #3 versus #1 and #4. But what about Provide Comfort, Southern Watch, and the myriad interventions from 1991 to 2003? Why on earth would humanitarian considerations for the Kurds and Shiites trump oil? Indeed, we supported sanctions against Saddam’s regime that at first prevented Iraq from selling us any oil and later severely curtailed it. That drove up the price of our oil! Then, we invaded to overthrow Saddam and are spending hundreds of billions trying to establish democratic government. That simply makes no sense if cheap oil is our objective.

For that matter, why don’t we invade Venezuela? They’re #6 on the list, in the neighborhood, and that Chavez guy is annoying.

And why aren’t we drilling in Alaska? Why can’t the oil barons use their awesome powers to beat back the environmentalists? Surely, a few felled trees and displaced caribou are easier to sacrifice than American blood and treasure?

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. And not just Alaska, but offshore as well. There is a large oilfield off the coast of Florida we are ignoring because there is sufficient political opposition to drilling.

    Also: isn’t Canada going to “grow” on that map because of the pending ability to get petroleum out of their vast oilsand reserves?

  2. Tlaloc says:

    If the thesis is that the United States will go to war to protect countries in direct proportion to the amount of oil reserves they have, Desert Storm rather makes sense: Saudi Arabia is number one and Kuwait is number four

    I don’t think that is the thesis. The thesis would seem to be: one factor that determines the level of US interest/interference is the presence of oil. The amount of oil is proportionate to the strength of this interest.

    Under this thesis US actions with regards to SA, Kuwait, Iraq, Iran, and Venezuela all make sense.

    Of course oil is not the only factor by any means. There are also matters of geopolitical position (why we cared about Afghanistan in the 80s), for instance. The Middle East occupies some prime geopolitical position and yet we only seem to really care about the the countries that have oil.

    It’s undeniably true that the Middle East is considered a strategic interest mostly because of oil (there’s also Israel).

    Israel isn’t a strategic interest so much as a strategic detriment. Perhaps even the word “disaster” would be more appropriate.

  3. Moonage says:

    this map is horribly dated. Mexico has found huge reserves and is tapping into it now. In addition, I think Brazil has hit on a huge reserve as well rumored to rival anything Saudi Arabia has.

    Besides, the problem is not the reserves in the first place, it’s the refining process.

  4. anjin-san says:

    Its too bad that the President is far more committed to oil company profits than to freeing America from dependence on middle eastern oil. It sure would be nice to tell tell the oil sheiks to kiss our a___

  5. James Joyner says:

    Its too bad that the President is far more committed to oil company profits than to freeing America from dependence on middle eastern oil

    If so, it’s a bipartisan dereliction. It’s not as if Clinton or Carter or LBJ or JFK or Truman did anything different.

  6. Tlaloc says:

    It’s not as if Clinton or Carter or LBJ or JFK or Truman did anything different.

    Carter tried to get the ball rolling on alternative energy sources. Reagan put an immediate halt to that. Solar panels on the white house and all that…

  7. Tlaloc says:

    this map is horribly dated. Mexico has found huge reserves and is tapping into it now. In addition, I think Brazil has hit on a huge reserve as well rumored to rival anything Saudi Arabia has.

    Oil companies are pretty notorious for falsifying how large their reserves are. That having been said here are the official numbers as of 2006:

    here

    Saudi Arabia is #1. Mexico is #14 and Brazil is #16. The US is #11 by the way. The scary thing is that we are not an oil poor country by any stretch of the imagination. We are oil rich. but we are so insanely oil gluttonous that it doesn’t matter.

    Maybe someday somebody will stop and realize that that isn’t such a great plan.

  8. Bob says:

    At best only half of any oil field right now has been extracted. As the price continues to climb then more “old oil fields” will continue to be harvested.

    And most oil production is now concentrated in control of a few governments (Saudi’s, Iran, Iraq, Mexico, etc). That doesn’t bode well for managing, especially where a country such as Mexico has a very large young population. Domestic political agendas, rather than economics, will drive extraction.

  9. Hal says:

    One other thing here that seems a bit out of whack. Note that the highest profits of any corporation in history happened during the highest oil prices – speaking of course of the record breaking years big oil corporations have had.

    So it’s not clearly the case that the “oil barons”, as James puts it, want the price of oil to go down.

    It’s a bit more complex.

  10. Bob says:

    Hal, the oil companies in a market with rising prices and steady demand basically can’t lose money. They book the raw prices of product as say $20/barrel and charge at say $80/barrel. Watch over next 2 or 3 quarters and record profits will moderate as low cost oil is worked thru supply chain. And its the countries that control the price by controlling supply. They have NO incentive to reduce prices.

    Only thing that will move US towards more energy independence is exactly what voters hate – higher prices!

  11. Tlaloc says:

    At best only half of any oil field right now has been extracted. As the price continues to climb then more “old oil fields” will continue to be harvested.

    Sure, but since the infrastructure was built upon an assumption of cheap energy it can only flew with the oil prices so much before it breaks. It’s not like if oil is 5x as expensive you’ll just pay more at the pump. The entire economy would crash.

  12. Hal says:

    Also, money isn’t the limiting factor with old oil fields. Any barrel of oil it takes more than a barrel of oil to extract isn’t going to make anyone any money.

  13. anjin-san says:

    If so, it’s a bipartisan dereliction. It’s not as if Clinton or Carter or LBJ or JFK or Truman did anything different.

    Really? Are you privy to the discussions of Cheney’s secret meetings with the oil companies in the White House? You know, the ones they had before they started raking in the record profits they are now making…

  14. Christopher says:

    anjin-san & Tlaloc:

    why don’t you guys go back to whatever socialist/communist country you guys came from and leave us real Americans alone?

  15. Hal says:

    Yea, because America is all about making people leave who don’t agree with us or make us uncomfortable in any way with the points they bring up.

  16. glasnost says:

    A very superficial analysis, James. The presence of oil doesn’t demand that we appease a given state, it just demands that we try to control them. That can be done through tight, friendly relationships – or through militant confrontation and threats.

    The real comparison is comparing Kuwait, SA, Iran, Iraq and our levels of intervention to … Africa.

    While we haven’t invaded Venezuela, there’s a reason why it gets the kind of attention it gets in the media.

  17. Stephan says:

    Why isn’t Canada massive?

    Considering “known” reserves aren’t really known at all I find the map a little off. Working in the oil industry, I can say that Iraq may have that much oil but it can only produce enough to barely sustain the exploration.