In his press conference last week, President Obama announced that he would be sending 300 “non-combat” military advisors to Iraq to help the Iraqi military quell the incursion of the Sunni insurgency. Calling the group a terrorist cell, Mr. Obama identified American interest in the maintenance of Iraq’s “democratic government.”
All reports indicate that ISIL (the Islamic State of Levant, aka ISIS) is creating havoc in Iraq. With a fighting force of only several thousand, it has taken over large cities like Mosul in the northwestern part of the country and may constitute a threat to Baghdad itself, especially if the Iraqi fighting forces continue to lay down their arms and flee into the general populace. The group is said to be more ruthless and violent even than al Qaeda, from which it was reportedly expelled, if Western news reports are to be credited.
President Obama said in his press conference that the threat ISIL presents is to Iraq, the region, and to “U.S. interests.” He was, typically, less than candid. A more honest statement would have been something along these lines:
“The United States cannot let the oil-rich territory in Iraq and elsewhere in the region fall into the hands of an extremist organization because that entity might then deny the oil to the United States, and the United States needs the oil. Therefore, I’m taking a limited step toward re-militarizing the region in the hope that it will be enough to thwart the threat ISIL presents. If that step isn’t enough, I’ll do whatever else I need to do to make sure the oil in Iraq and throughout the region remains available to the United States. In this regard, I am following the same policy approach that every U.S. president since Dwight Eisenhower has followed. We cannot allow our economic security to be threatened by political and military actions that jeopardize our access to the considerable energy supplies that exist in that part of the world.”
That degree of candor would be courageous to be sure, but it would also be edifying for the American people, as it would then require all of us to contemplate the claimed need (for the oil) and the trade-off the policy suggests to secure it. I doubt that most Americans understand the claim, let alone analyze its real implications. Let’s take those one at a time.
The claim: that the United States needs to maintain access to the oil in the region. In fact, the U.S. doesn’t get all that much of its oil from the Middle East. The most recent records indicate that less than ten percent of America’s oil supplies come from that region. What is important is U.S. dependence on oil from any country, even our own. In a free market system, oil will be priced, irrespective of its source, based on demand. If the U.S. is reliant on oil as a principal energy source, then the world-wide price of oil will have an impact on America’s economy.
In other words, it isn’t having Middle East oil available that is important for U.S. interests; it’s whether the U.S. is needful of oil from any country. So, as to the claim itself, it is simplistic and bogus. Yes, we need the flow of oil from the Middle East to be available on the world market, but, no, we don’t need it for our domestic economy.
The real implications: that if Middle East oil is no longer available to the United States, the U.S. economy will suffer. In fact, whatever impact a cut-off of Middle East oil would have on the U.S. would be secondary to the impact it would have to the region where the oil comes from. Sellers only make money when they sell their product. If a business entity refuses to sell its product, it only hurts itself. Thus a cut-off of Middle East oil would directly and immediately affect the economy of the region, which means no more fancy yachts and lavish castles for the monarchs and much more political unrest for them as their populaces grow restive with increased impoverishment.
In other words, the U.S. and the oil-dependent industrialized nations really have much more leverage than they realize. But to use that leverage, they must free themselves from being oil-dependent. Hence the push for alternative energy sources should be a foreign and domestic policy focus, rather than contemplating yet another military incursion into sovereign territory to create ten more terrorists for every one we kill.
So why is President Obama, who otherwise appears to be an intelligent man, so unwilling or unable to free himself from the failed policies of his predecessors? The answer is endemic to our democracy: he’s afraid of losing elections. In this case, they wouldn’t be his own, of course, because we all assume he won’t be running for anything ever again after he completes his current term. (Only John Quincy Adams and Andrew Johnson ever re-entered the political arena after completing a presidential term: Adams ran for and served in the House of Representatives from 1830 to 1848; Johnson served in the Senate briefly before his death in 1875.) But Obama’s fear is that Democrats would lose future elections, thereby putting his legacy (Obamacare and whatever else he ends up accomplishing) at risk were he to reverse course on a foreign policy that has always sold itself easily to the American electorate.
Think about it: Isn’t that how we got into Iraq in the first place? Yes, Bush and Cheney took us there, but didn’t they scare us into it with the kind of demagogic claptrap that started with “U.S. interests,” magnified by 9/11 and the “war on terrorism”? And isn’t the Obama doctrine, such as it is, just a slightly milder form of the same claptrap, to wit: “U.S. interests in all events must be protected.”
Obama tries to sound restrained in his speeches, but speeches aren’t policy. He’d rather not, but if that oil is at risk, he’ll find a way to commit whatever military steps are needed. They all will, until we tell them not to.