Still a war for oil and empire

November 25, 2014

Ashley Smith looks behind the stated motives for the U.S. government's war on ISIS.

ALL EMPIRES cloak their wars in the mantle of humanitarianism.

They don't admit that they are intervening to enlarge their spheres of influence against imperial rivals, find cheap labor, extract resources and open new markets. Instead, they claim they are defending a subject population from tyranny.

Vladimir Putin, for example, justified Russia's seizure of Crimea in Ukraine by claiming that ethnic Russians there faced a "rampage of reactionary forces, nationalist and anti-Semitic forces." He declared that the Russian state retained "the right to use all available means to protect those people."

Just as cynically, U.S. President Barack Obama legitimized his new war on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in almost exactly the same terms.

He called ISIS a "psychopathic, murderous, brutal" organization committed to "pure evil," with "murderous plans to expand its borders well beyond Iraq and Syria and to carry out terrorist atrocities right across the world." The new U.S. war in the Middle East is to save people in the region and the world from a "network of death."

Iraqis in front of buildings demolished during U.S. attacks on Sadr City
Iraqis in front of buildings demolished during U.S. attacks on Sadr City (Wissam Al-Okaili | AFP)

Obama needs this disguise to win over a public and military grown tired of supporting, killing and dying for American imperialism's actual motive in the Middle East--imperial control of the oil spigot.

He wants to defeat ISIS, not in order to liberate Syrians and Iraqis from ISIS's tyranny, but to restore the previous reactionary status quo--the region's system of authoritarian and repressive states that students, workers and peasants rose up against during the Arab Spring rebellions in 2011.

A GLANCE at the coalition of countries that the U.S. put together to attack ISIS demolishes the cover story.

The anti-ISIS alliance includes old imperial powers like Britain and France, whose track record of colonialism from Vietnam to India to Algeria and Africa, make ISIS's brutality pale by comparison. In the Middle East, they artificially divided up the Ottoman Empire into separate nation states, exploited tribal and religious divisions to ensure their rule, and in the process laid the foundations for the current fratricidal splits in the region.

Obama's allies among the Arab regimes are likewise forces of counterrevolution and reaction. Saudi Arabia is a case in point. It proselytizes its Sunni fundamentalism throughout the region; it collaborated with the U.S. and Pakistan in supporting forces that would give rise to al-Qaeda itself in Afghanistan during the 1980s; and it enforces the rule of its monarchy through beheadings at the infamous "Chop-Chop Square" in the capital of Riyadh.

On top of that, Saudi Arabia regularly uses state terrorism, either directly or through proxies, to maintain its regional power. Most recently, it invaded Bahrain to drown a predominantly Shia pro-democracy uprising during the Arab Spring. Scores of people were massacred, and Shia mosques destroyed in a rage of sectarianism.

While not a member of anti-ISIS coalition, Israel remains the U.S.'s pivotal ally in the Middle East. It maintains its rule in historic Palestine through the utmost violence and systematic oppression, as the sadistic war on Gaza this summer proved. Israel's Operation Protective Edge killed more than 2,000 people and laid further waste to the Gaza's infrastructure, blowing up schools and hospitals.

As the leader of this gang of oppressors, the U.S. state--despite Obama's sermonizing against ISIS violence--is the worst perpetrator of state terror. In opening a third war in Iraq and expanding it into Syria, the U.S. is returning to the scene of one of the worst crimes in its imperial history--the "socio-cide" it committed during two wars, an invasion and genocidal sanctions.

America's neocolonial rule from 2003 through 2011 caused the deaths of over a million Iraqis, according to the British medical journal The Lancet. It precipitated a civil war between the country's Sunni and Shia, which led to 4 million fleeing their homes. And in a bitterly ironic twist, it was the U.S. occupation that led to the formation of al-Qaeda in Iraq, the forerunner of today's ISIS.

Expecting the U.S. and its fellow gangsters to provide a solution to the spreading crisis in the Middle East is like expecting Dr. Jekyll to stop Mr. Hyde.

THE U.S. is intent on controlling the Middle East's strategic energy reserves, no matter what the cost in human lives. This has been the driving motive of all imperialist powers since the discovery of oil in the region in the early 20th century.

British and French colonialism blazed the deadly trail that U.S. imperialism is following. Throughout the First World War, these two colonial powers thirsted for the overthrow of the old Ottoman Empire based in modern-day Turkey. Britain hoped to ensure its colonial dominion over the region--especially Egypt, with its Suez Canal so it could protect the passage to India, the jewel in its colonial crown. France's motives were likewise devoted to securing sites for investment and markets in the Middle East.

With the discovery of oil in Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, the imperial powers went into overdrive. Britain, which at this point lacked a domestic supply of oil, wanted to seize control of the newly discovered reserves. As one British admiral declared, "This control must be absolute, and there must be no foreign interests involved in it of any sort."

Both Britain and France hoped to hijack the emerging Arab struggle for liberation from Ottoman rule during the First World War, in order set up colonial mandates that would guarantee their access to the oil. That goal required both powers to deny Arabs their right to self-determination.

The British and French were blunt about their motives. The French diplomat, François Georges-Picot, admitted that the two imperial powers were lying when they promised the Arab resistance the right to national self-determination. "To promise the Arabs a large state is to throw dust in their eyes," he said. "Such a state will never materialize. You cannot transform a myriad of tribes into a viable whole."

After the war, the British and French divided up the old empire, established colonial mandates, installed handpicked potentates against the wishes of the Arab nationalist leadership and subject masses, and successfully secured control over extraction of the region's oil.

The deceit of these old imperial powers should be cautionary lessons for those who might believe Obama's public pronouncements today. No doubt the administration's internal communications are no less blunt about their true intentions--and their cynical willingness to manipulate concerns about the plight of those suffering under ISIS.

In reality, since its ascension to the world's leading superpower after the Second World War, U.S. imperialism has been just as committed as Britain and France to subjugating the Middle East in order to control its oil reserves.

Unlike its predecessors, the U.S. aim wasn't to use those reserves for its own consumption, but to control the rest of the world, which depended on Middle Eastern oil. Thus, during the Second World War, the State Department described Saudi Arabia's oil as "a stupendous source of strategic power, and one of the greatest material prizes in world history."

To ensure that the U.S. and no other power controlled those reserves, Washington has backed dictatorial Arab, Iranian and Turkish regimes, not to mention Israel, in order to prevent rivals like Russia from gaining a foothold in the Middle East during the Cold War. The U.S. also used these regimes to stop secular nationalists and the region's working class from establishing a democratic political system and seizing control of the oil wealth.

Like Britain and France, the U.S. rarely admitted its actual motives in public pronouncements--but there have been other candid moments. Thus, while George Bush Sr. claimed the 1991 Gulf War would be waged to liberate Kuwait after Saddam Hussein's Iraq invaded it, one Republican apparatchik of the time, Lawrence Korb, admitted, "If Kuwait grew carrots, we wouldn't give a damn."

Similarly, George Bush Jr. justified his invasion and occupation of Iraq a decade later with rhetoric about fighting terrorism and liberating the Iraqi people from Saddam Hussein's tyranny. But Bush's Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan, confessed to the truth in his memoir The Age of Turbulence: "I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil."

OBAMA'S MOTIVES in his new war in Iraq and Syria are no less about imperial control over oil. Like Bush, he has disguised the truth with the language of liberation and counter-terrorism. But after a century of documented lies in the service of empire, there is no basis to believe anything a U.S. president says about wars overseas.

The Obama administration had hoped to stabilize the region by supporting the existing state system--allowing the U.S. to make a "pivot to Asia" to confront America's strongest adversaries, China and then Russia.

The Arab Spring revolutions and now instability and violence stopped this imperial reorientation. Obama was compelled to refocus his attention on the Middle East in order to prevent the disruption of the flow of oil to the world economy.

As Reese Erlich, author of Inside Syria: The Backstory of Their Civil War and What the World Can Expect, wrote:

Syria and Iraq have faced massive humanitarian crises for the past three years. Yet the U.S. directly intervened militarily only when the oil-rich Kurdish region of Iraq was threatened. Kurdistan contains the world's ninth-largest reserves of oil and could eventually replace Russia as a major supplier of oil and gas to Europe. Over 50 foreign oil companies now have offices in Kurdistan, many cutting highly profitable oil production deals with Kurdish officials.

According to some reports, Obama may have even abandoned his stated ambition to topple sometime-ally and sometime-opponent Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Al-Monitor reported from the G20 summit in Australia that when "[a]sked pointedly if he was actively discussing ways to remove Assad in the context of plans for a political transition in Syria, Obama responded with a simple 'no'."

The U.S. has conducted more than 500 air strikes over the last few months in an attempt to crush ISIS. But instead of defeating it, Obama's war has actually fueled ISIS's growth, according to journalist Patrick Cockburn. He wrote in the Independent:

The Islamic State has recruited an army hundreds of thousands strong, far larger than previous estimates by the CIA, according to a senior Kurdish leader. He said the ability of ISIS to attack on many widely separated fronts in Iraq and Syria at the same time shows that the number of militant fighters is at least 200,000, seven or eight times bigger than foreign intelligence estimates of up to 31,500 men.

Faced with the failure of its air power to curtail ISIS and realizing that its proxy forces on the ground are too weak to counter ISIS, Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has floated the idea of escalating the deployment of ground forces.

In reality, American intervention--whether through air power, ground forces or diplomacy and political pressure--won't liberate Kurds nor Arab Iraqis and Syrians from ISIS. It will only make things worse--and already has.

Plus, any U.S. intervention will come with strings attached--or, perhaps more accurately, manacles. As the great socialist journalist John Reed said, "Uncle Sam never gives something for nothing. He comes along with a sack stuffed with hay in one hand and a whip in the other. Anyone who accepts Uncle Sam's promises at face value will find that they must be paid for in sweat and blood."

Only the mass uprisings from below by the exploited and oppressed--from Kurdistan, to Iraq and Syria, to the rest of the Middle East--can free the region from imperial oppression, the counterrevolutionary states that dominate it locally, and the violence of ISIS.

In the U.S., we need to raise our voices--to educate, agitate and organize around the slogan: No blood for oil and empire.

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