Join 3,513 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Does oil justify war?
March 23, 2011 4:36 PM   Subscribe

Is the latest Libyan intervention really about oil?

The reason I ask is that I hear the same "ITS ABOUT THE OIL!!!!!" argument each time America and its allies does anything, but I think (and I admit this is on a napkin planning) that actually, the net gain has always been less than the expenditure involved. E.g, 3,000+ Americans dead in Iraq and god knows how much spent on contractors let alone the war itself, did America really make a profit?

So the question is... has there been any independent and objective study done on the net gain/loss of American interventionism since 2000?
posted by dougrayrankin to Science & Nature (21 answers total)
 
A nontrivial amount of the gain and loss, no matter whose 'side' you're on here, is in intangibles: People killed or saved from slaughter or liberated from tyrrany; safety of the US from the threat of attack; safety of our allies from threat of attack; increased risk of additional conflict in the future...

There's really no objective way to do this that makes any sense. Obviously we can calculate that the Iraq war was, is, and continues to be very expensive when it was promised that it was going to be cheap - but is it worth it? That's not a question we can really answer in an objective way. You can't assign value to most of these things without making a subjective judgement. For example, how much is it worth to us that we've removed from power a guy (Saddam) who has a history of shooting missiles at our friends (Israel)?
posted by Tomorrowful at 4:47 PM on March 23, 2011


Which is your question? Is it about the oil in Libya? No. Was it about the oil in Iraq? We're not exactly making out like bandits on that deal. It was about W wanting to get back at Saddam, and wanting to assert himself and his Doctrine, with some falsified claims about "WMDs" and their involvement in various acts of terrorism, which, sadly, were dramatically overblown and wildly inaccurate.

Worse, the count of coalition deaths is over 4,700 now, with 32,000+ wounded. Total deaths number in the 40,000-80,000 range on the insurgent side, but total deaths range from anywhere from 110,000 to 600,000 violent, excess deaths attributed to the war [source].

If anything, a large chunk of the motivation was probably from sources like Cheney, former CEO of Halliburton, a war-profiteering contractor that made billions of dollars in no-bid contracts to help build out the infrastructure. Good use of taxpayer dollars, that. Estimated at nearly $1 Trillion directly to the US and a total estimated cost to the US economy of $3 Trillion, I'd venture to say that any "savings" in oil aren't coming anytime soon.

Fuck that shit.

The military-industrial complex is nearly unique in its capacity to spend money faster than almost any other organization. The intervention in Libya, over just 4 days, has already cost over $85 MILLION in Tomahawk missiles alone. Priorities, I suppose.
posted by disillusioned at 4:49 PM on March 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


Iraq was almost certainly about oil and resources first and a humanitarian mission second. It turned out to be obscenely expensive. Libya, I think, is about regional stability first but we get the bonus of securing a friendly oil supplier in the process.

Remember that wars "about oil" are also about global stability- Like it or not, the global economy and all the comforts of your life are dependent on oil. So while some dudes will probably walk away with a few extra zeroes on their paycheck, wars "for oil" are also "for global stability/comfort". The extended argument here is, of course, hairy, but remember how complicit anyone with an internet connection and electricity to run it is.
posted by GilloD at 4:53 PM on March 23, 2011


What if you tried to construct motivations for the Libya intervention that ignored oil. How likely would they sound?
posted by telstar at 5:07 PM on March 23, 2011 [3 favorites]


Back when America was in an uproar about Iraq, hearing someone claim "this is all about oil" immediately caused me to discount that person as someone who had no idea what they were talking about.

Oil companies didn't want the war. Oil companies are perfectly happy dealing with dictators; they've done it for decades. They were making billions of dollars off the status quo. Such international conglomerates prize one thing above all others -- *stability*. War is the antithesis of stability; it is chaos theory in action. War might have interrupted their steady flow of profits. Indeed, if the oil companies wanted anything, it was the international sanctions lifted.

And I think history has borne this out nicely. I always wondered where all those "no blood for oil!" types went, so I could ask them: OK, so where was the massive U.S. takeover of the Iraqi oil fields that you predicted?

Don't get me wrong, there were plenty of good reasons one could have opposed the war. But the idea that Bush was waging war just to enrich all his good-ol'-boy Texas oil cronies was idiocy.

- aj
posted by Alaska Jack at 5:16 PM on March 23, 2011 [3 favorites]


You have two widely divergent questions here: 1) is the operation in Libya about oil and 2) what has been the actual gain in oil commodity controls, etc. by America since our invasion into the middle east began.

The second question has been widely addressed and the consensus seems to be: no one is sure. There are too many variables (what is the value of human life, what are the modalities, etc...).

Libya, however, is probably not about oil. They produce 2% of the world's oil reserves, and outside of pricing speculation, there's been no real, tangible effect on the oil industry. In fact, most of America's operation in Libya is the result of the UN resolution passed last week that stated that measures should be taken to ensure the safety of civilians.

Oil is a big deal; but it is not as if the CEO's of major oil companies are in some actual huge conspiracy with the government. It's much more complex and chaotic than that, even if the result seems the same.
posted by Lutoslawski at 5:16 PM on March 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


With Libya, it's oil, Europe wants that light sweet crude. They are using the U.S. as cover and firepower.

did America really make a profit? No, we as a country, are deeper in debt because of the Iraq debacle, but some Americans made huge profits.
posted by Max Power at 5:17 PM on March 23, 2011


According to Chomsky, the US only goes to war if three conditions are met:
1. The target is virtually defenseless.
2. The target is important enough to be worth the trouble.
3. The target can be portrayed as an ultimate evil and an imminent threat to global stability.

Libya meets all three of these conditions, hence the war is on.

As to your question, Libya only meets the 2nd criteria because of its importance in the world oil market. If Libya was an insignificant country (like Kosovo, Sudan, or Congo), then there is no way that we would be involved.
posted by Flood at 5:24 PM on March 23, 2011 [4 favorites]


[OK folks, time for a mid-course correction. Question is pretty specifically "has there been any independent and objective study done on the net gain/loss of American interventionism since 2000?" Not "Hey let's talk about Libya. Please stick to the question or just email the OP.]
posted by jessamyn at 6:02 PM on March 23, 2011


The reason I ask is that I hear the same "ITS ABOUT THE OIL!!!!!" argument each time America and its allies does anything, but I think (and I admit this is on a napkin planning) that actually, the net gain has always been less than the expenditure involved. E.g, 3,000+ Americans dead in Iraq and god knows how much spent on contractors let alone the war itself, did America really make a profit?

I think therein lies the mistake you are making. Your assumption is wrong. The calculation is not about total expenditure of war vs oil profits. It is about who gets to profit never mind the total cost. For example, if a hypothetical Cheney (using him as a symbol, not actual person), determined that he and his buddies could make $1 billion profit off the oil of Iraq, they may not care one whit about the total cost to the American taxpayer. As long as Cheney and buddies make a profit, that's profit, even if it's at great cost to the American taxpayer and not in the least profitable to America overall, but a huge dead loss. That's the very definition of war-profiteering. Private gain, public loss. So that calculus does not enter into it as you imagine. For illustration purposes: one billion for Cheney and buddies is enough reason to go to war that will ultimately cost the American taxpayer 5 trillion, if you will (hypothetically only).

Therefore, you cannot calculate how much "America" makes or does not make from oil or anything else in calculating "is it about oil". If it's profitable to select parties (war profiteers), then that's enough motivation. Now, I'm not saying it was anything as straightforward as that in the case of Iraq, I'm merely describing why it doesn't make sense to tote up the total cost vs the total gain for the American taxpayer, because that's not what necessarily drives the war.

The question of Libya as "is it about oil" is hard to answer straightforwardly. It is, insofar as it is in the U.S. geopolitical interest to have stability in a major oil producing nation, and having that nation be friendly to U.S. interests, vs the loose cannon of Ghadaffi. But it is unlikely to be as straightforward as "U.S. oil interests pushing for war in Libya" - and even if that were so, which I don't believe, there is no way to know, unless you were plugged into the decision-making process at the highest levels. It is clear that oil plays some role here - we easily ignore human rights violations and civilian massacres in non-oil producing nations - but it is unlikely to be the only factor - there may be also an even broader geopolitical objective (specifically in the context of Israel).
posted by VikingSword at 6:43 PM on March 23, 2011 [7 favorites]


did America really make a profit?

The MO is to privatize the profits and socialize the costs.
posted by mokuba at 8:38 PM on March 23, 2011 [3 favorites]


Back when America was in an uproar about Iraq, hearing someone claim "this is all about oil" immediately caused me to discount that person as someone who had no idea what they were talking about.


This, is largely incorrect.

Saddam owed billions to the French and Russians and once the sanctions regime was lifted was going to bring in their national oil companies to revitalize Iraq's oil industry.

This is why France and Russia were against us going in in 2003.
posted by mokuba at 8:42 PM on March 23, 2011


As an economist, I'd love to be able to measure/study something like what you're asking. Problem is, measuring gains and losses from a war is 1-hugely subjective (one person may think it's a great achievement to have brought a version of democracy to Iraq, another may not care a whit) and 2-even the objective parts are very difficult to measure (an obvious objective cost is the ~37,000 US casualties in Iraq, but it's almost inconceivable to think of measuring this against an objective benefit, like having military bases in a volatile and difficult region).

My suspicion is the answer to your question of whether or not there is a good study measuring the costs vs benefits from US foreign policy is no, there isn't. If you look long enough, you may well find something approximating what you're asking about, but I'm a priore deeply suspicious of any study that claims to do what you're asking. Something claiming to use data and statistical analysis to measure the effect of a war is almost certainly agenda-driven and/or horribly flawed.

You might have more luck finding a study on the effect of the Iraq war on oil markets in isolation, although it's never been clear to me exactly what the path is through which the US could profit from attacking a country with oil.
posted by deadweightloss at 9:49 PM on March 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


What if you tried to construct motivations for the Libya intervention that ignored oil. How likely would they sound?
It makes no sense, Libya produces less than 2% of the world's oil?
posted by dougrayrankin at 11:15 PM on March 23, 2011


It makes no sense, Libya produces less than 2% of the world's oil?

Yes, but they have plenty to keep both sides of a civil war running for a long time. Which means a cash-rich market for innovations in tools for conducting a guerrilla war. Think a silicon valley of war, ignoring for a moment that silicon valley was originally catering to the military-industrial complex. This is more of an environment to foster innovation in low-cost war, not invent the internet and stealth bombers.

It doesn't have to be about the oil because someone wants the oil. It can be about keeping the oil away from others.
posted by b1tr0t at 11:46 PM on March 23, 2011


For FRANCE it seems to be very much about oil. ELF and Total are quite dependent on Libyan crude.

Remember refineries cannot accept crude from anywhere. Each oil field is different and refineries are built - at enormous expense - to refine a specific chemical composition. 2% of the world's oil might be 100% of the supply for a particular refinery.

It is not either easy to change the tooling because you can for the moment buy crude more cheaply from somewhere else.
posted by three blind mice at 3:13 AM on March 24, 2011


It's not about oil. Qaddafi was selling the world all the oil he could. Whoever replaces him will sell the world all the oil they can.

The First Gulf War was about not letting Saddam Hussein grab the oil reserves of Kuwait, so in that sense it was "about" oil. But generally any war involving taking down a dictator is not "about" oil, for the simple reason that dictators are very good about selling oil.

If it was all about oil, we would never fight any dictator.
posted by musofire at 6:19 AM on March 24, 2011


Why is it so hard to imagine that the West would go to war to prevent the wholesale massacre of several Mediterranean cities that have thrown off the shackles of dictatorship? Skepticism is good, but knee-jerk cynicism is just as foolish as blind trust.
posted by musofire at 6:24 AM on March 24, 2011


It is also over-simplifying (and seems to be human nature) to assign a singular motivation. It might be ALSO about the oil but it is also about helping our allies (isn't this a UN action?), trying to make Libya an ally in the future, promoting stability in the mid-east, promoting democracy everywhere, helping people be free, creating business opportunities for the military-industrial complex, and probably a bunch more.
posted by VTX at 6:42 AM on March 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


Is it about oil? Well, how many oil-less states with awful dictators embroiled in civil war have we intervened in lately? Ivory Coast, anyone? Congo? Whether or not the conflict is "about" oil, pretty clearly we weight the importance of oil-rich states and peoples quite differently.

Sure Gaddafi was selling to anyone, and so was Saddam, and oil is a commodity anyway, so ... in a sense it doesn't matter and hasn't ever mattered to us who is running a petrostate. But when they are profiting handsomely and making themselves inimical to other interests of ours, they can become a problem. It isn't even necessarily a matter of them acting overtly against us. Just providing moral and rhetorical cover for others can make the appearance of a viable opposition, the David vs. the Goliath, and make it seem like it's possible, even lucrative, to dispute the US and/or international order.

I'd love it if we'd invade every country with a 7 and 7 score at Freedom House, but that just ain't gonna happen -- not the least because we know that creating viable democratic institutions in a country where they don't exist is a decades-long process. (See the Pottery Barn rule.) But mainly because there's nothing in it for us. Somalia has been utterly forgotten -- by pretty much the entire world -- because there's nothing there for anyone. The only power to take an extensive interest, really, has been neighboring Ethiopia, and they've accomplished very little for their efforts.

Libya, though, has oil. Not much else. Fish? Dates? Dunno. But it does have oil. The multinationals who operate there are keen for stability. A country with a dictator at odds with his people and prone to blaming foreigners is dicey, but they can deal with that -- it's not that different from many other places, even ostensibly democratic ones. But a country that's fallen into civil war of an uncertain duration is definitely a problem. Even if the provisional government promises to honor contracts, it's not at all clear that they have any legal authority to do so without international recognition. (Look at the legal limbos of Kosovo or Kurdish Iraq. Or the barely-functional part of Somalia, for that matter, dubbed Puntland.) So the corporate, monied interest here is for a swift resolution that results in the least interruption to their operations. And yes, they'll take an interruption if it means a settled endpoint in the future.

Are there studies? Well, there are a few studies of the costs of the Iraq War, but those chiefly look at things like direct and indirect logistical costs. As for determining economic costs, it's a matter of modeling, and therefore conjecture. Anyway, even 8 years on, we can't be certain about the "worth" of the war, because when we engage in this sort of thing it's for national interests that are stable on the order of decades.

By any measure, the cost of World War II has been more than offset by the economic integration and growth of the US-European-Japanese "West", and as people look at things this way, the victory in the Cold War. Can any of that be measured in dollars? Certainly not all of it.

I submit, then, that even casual use of the word "profit" (as you did) indicates a very narrow scope of evaluation is in use. I really don't know of any academics who would seriously undertake that sort of evaluation. Perhaps the RAND Corporation might, but they're hardly independent and objective.

If it was all about oil, we would never fight any dictator.

Alas, many of our historical interventions have not been against dictators at all. In fact, it's a fairly recent development. For a long time, the people power revolutions were all pretty much against dictators that we supported.
posted by dhartung at 12:41 PM on March 24, 2011


This is why France and Russia were against us going in in 2003.

Russia appears split on Libya _ Putin against intervention, Medvedev for. What's up with that? Hedging bets against either outcome? Seems unlikely. What, then?
posted by IndigoJones at 4:37 PM on March 24, 2011


« Older How to tie a knot in a cord wh...   |  Lost my iPhone (3GS, 16GB, ref... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.