Oil and American Intervention



The United States has recently shown a tendency towards selective intervention in foreign affairs. Looking to cases of international crimes, human rights violations and state terrorism, we see that the United States has taken punitive and rehabilitative action seemingly arbitrarily. The American decisions to intervene in Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011, but not in Syria in 2013 or Saudi Arabia in 2001 illustrate apparent inconsistencies in American logic.

Prior to invasion in 2003, the United States certainly had reason to believe that Iraq presented a danger to the global community. IAEA and UNSCOM reports from 1998 indicated that Iraq was housing chemical weapons and had a functional nuclear weapons program.[1] Further, though Iraq agreed to destroy these “weapons of mass destruction” and nuclear facilities, the expulsion of weapons inspectors in 1998 indicated that the country had something to hide.[2]

However, history shows that these sorts of threats alone are not enough to incite the United States to action. For example, the United States had damning evidence that Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad not only possessed biological and chemical weapons, but actually used them on his own people. Yet in this case, unlike in Iraq, the United States decided not to intervene. Some might critique this comparison, arguing that nonintervention in Syria resulted from Congressional restrictions, America’s unwillingness to get involved in another war, or the lack of a Syrian nuclear threat. However, this argument ignores United States eagerness to intervene in Libya in 2011, without Congressional approval and without the risk of nuclear peril.[3] Further, those who cite a lack of UN approval as an explanation for Syrian nonintervention should consider a history of American disregard for UN decisions, notably in Iraq in 2003.

United States nonintervention in Saudi Arabia following 9/11 further illustrates the selectivity of American action. Fifteen of the nineteen September 11 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia, some with possible links to the royal family.[4][5]This fact certainly indicates a terrorism problem endemic to Saudi Arabian society and even its government. However, the United States took no action to investigate Saudi terrorism and instead targeted Afghanistan and Iraq as sponsors of terrorism. This action seems fundamentally illogical; why would the United States target Iraq, a country with few to no ties to Al Qaeda, rather than Saudi Arabia, whose citizens accounted for more than three quarters of the 9/11 attackers?


The answer to this and many of the other inconsistencies in American intervention decisions may lie in alternative government motivations. The examples of Iraq, Libya, Syria and Saudi Arabia illustrate that the United States does not makes its choices based solely on the gravity of a foreign problem or violation. Yet, these decisions are far from arbitrary; the historical record shows that intervention often occurs when it benefits American oil interests. This certainly does not indicate that the United States makes its choices based solely on oil, but rather implies that oil may factor into the decision making process in some significant way. Looking more closely to the contrast between intervention in Iraq and Libya and nonintervention in Syria and Saudi Arabia, the link between oil and action becomes clear.

Prior to the invasion of Iraq, American oil companies had virtually no access to Iraqi oil, due in part to difficult relations with Hussein’s regime.[6] They were unable to access Iraq’s vast untapped oil wealth, a fact that clearly frustrated one BP executive when he proclaimed “Iraq is the big oil prospect. BP is desperate to get in there and anxious that political deals should not deny them the opportunity to compete.” [7] American invasion gave BP and many American companies this opportunity for competition, eventually leading to American control of many large oil fields. For example, ExxonMobil won the rights to the West Qurna field, producing and exporting significant quantities of oil to the United States. American companies have been able to tap large amounts of the country’s resource wealth, and are hopeful for large-scale expansion in the future. [8]

Similarly, the threat of losing Libyan oil may have motivated the United States to take action. In 2009, then Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi attested that nationalization of Libya’s oil reserves was “being discussed seriously.” [9] Such an action may have cut off American oil companies’ access to Libyan oil, harming the many oil-powered industries in the American economy. Therefore, when in 2011 it was reported that Gaddafi had committed serious human rights violations, the United States may have seen an opportunity to ensure continued Libyan cooperation and a steady influx of oil. By deposing the Libyan leader, the United States protected a significant source of its oil.

On the other hand, because of its dwindling oil reserves, Syria did not present a great oil incentive for United States intervention. Due in part to oil depletion, Syria’s oil production rate has decreased significantly and projections insist that Syria will be a net importer of oil by the end of the decade.[10] These factors mark Syrian oil as an unsound investment, decreasing the benefit of American intervention.

Conversely, favorable oil relations with Saudi Arabia discouraged American action following the September 11 attacks. Saudi Arabia is the third largest source of American crude oil imports, a role that has ensured friendly relations with the United States since 1940, even prompting the United States to build military bases in Saudi Arabia.[11] [12] As a result, though the United States certainly had reason to be concerned over Saudi terrorism after the September 11 attacks, the American government took no action. Close American ties with Saudi Arabia, founded with oil interests in mind, precluded intervention. Further, the United States could not cut off these diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia for fear of losing a major source of oil. Some may argue that, if it had suspended diplomatic ties, the United States could have easily overrun Saudi forces, taking complete control of the oil for itself. However, if the United States had invaded, the Saudi government could have taken its oil hostage, threatening to burn its fields upon American encroachment. Therefore, ending diplomatic relations would have dealt a significant blow to the American oil supply and thus the United States chose nonintervention.

American decisions regarding whether or not to intervene in foreign affairs can have large implications on a foreign country’s welfare. However, neither intervention nor nonintervention is universally beneficial. Many who have observed the Iraqi conflict attest that the hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties and widespread destruction in Iraq outweigh any benefits achieved from the war.[13] Yet on the other hand, the destitute situation in Equatorial Guinea shows the potentially destructive results of nonintervention. In order to ensure continued congenial oil relations with Equatorial Guinea, the United States has systematically ignored corruption and human rights violations within the oil rich country’s government. By allowing Equatorial Guinea’s president to take large portions of the country’s oil profits for himself, the United States has contributed to Equatorial Guinea’s “resource curse,” ensuring widespread poverty and underdevelopment.[14] These situations shows that oil incentives may drive the United States to intervene when it should not, and look the other way when it should take action.

Given the historical link between oil and intervention, what might happen if the United States no longer depended on foreign oil? The IEA—the International Energy Agency– reports that with increased oil production from horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing of rock and shale layers, energy self-sufficiency may be a reality for the United States from 2015-2035.[15] Might this spell a decreased role of the American government as a global police force? Only time will tell, but the historical record certainly indicates that with decreased oil dependence and thus lower oil incentives, the United States may be less likely to take action abroad to stop human rights violations or cure societal maladies.

However, energy self-sufficiency certainly does not imply universal American nonintervention. For one, the United States will still value foreign oil as energy insurance. The period of energy self-sufficiency is only projected to last two decades, and even during this period, the United States may need foreign oil in case it fails to meet projections. Further, not all American intervention has depended on oil or even self-interest. The United States has intervened on ideological and humanitarian grounds, such as in Vietnam or Cuba. Oil, though an important motive for American action, is far from the only motivation.

Energy self-sufficiency will merely free the United States to make decisions less influenced by oil interests. In some cases this may even lead to greater intervention, as the United States could take on human rights issues in some oil exporting countries without fearing the consequences of a significant loss of oil. Thus, an energy self-sufficient United States has mixed implications on global welfare. Greater oil independence will lead to increased humanitarian intervention in some oil-rich countries, but complete ambivalence in others.

[1] “Saddam Hussein’s Weapon’s of Mass Destruction,” PBS Frontline, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/gunning/etc/arsenal.html.

[3] “Obama breaks from precedent in asking Congress for approval to strike Syria,” The Hill, http://thehill.com/homenews/administration/319827-obama-breaks-from-precedent-on-syria.

[4] “Official: 15 of 19 Sept. 11 hijackers were Saudi,” USA Today, http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/world/2002/02/06/saudi.htm.

[5] “Saudi Royal Ties to 9/11 Hijackers Via Florida Saudi Family?,” WhoWhatWhy, http://whowhatwhy.com/2011/09/22/saudi-royal-ties-to-911-hijackers-via-florida-saudi-family-0/.

[6] “Western oil firms remain as US exits Iraq,” Al Jazeera, http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2011/12/2011122813134071641.html.

[7] “Secret memos expose link between oil firms and invasion of Iraq,” The Independent, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/secret-memos-expose-link-between-oil-firms-and-invasion-of-iraq-2269610.html.

[8] “Western oil firms remain as US exits Iraq”

[9] “Gaddafi says looking at oil firm nationalization,” Reuters, http://uk.reuters.com/article/2009/01/21/businessproind-us-libya-gaddafi-oil-idUKTRE50K61F20090121.

[10] “Country Profile: Syria,” p11, Library of Congress- Federal Research Division, http://lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/cs/profiles/Syria.pdf.

[11] “U.S. Relations With Saudi Arabia,” U.S. Department of State, http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/3584.htm.

[12] “Saudi Arabia: Background and U.S. Relations,” p8, Congressional Research Service, http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/mideast/RL33533.pdf.

[15] “U.S. to Be Top Oil Producer by 2015 on Shale, IEA Says,” Bloomberg, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-11-12/u-s-nears-energy-independence-by-2035-on-shale-boom-iea-says.html.

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