IN AN ESSAY from March, 2003, precisely the month and year when the second Gulf War began, John Judis writes the following: “Oil wealth actually hinders, rather than helps, a country’s transition to democracy.” He continues by explaining that “If [several journalists] and the academics are correct, American postwar planners are naive in thinking that oil will facilitate democracy in Iraq. Rather, [these same planners] will have to figure out how to avoid the authoritarian fate that has befallen almost every other nation that has become dependent on oil.”
Judis and the authors he cites were prescient about the fate of post-war Iraq. Rather than directing piles of loot generated by a miraculously refurbished petroleum sector to build essential components of civil society like roads, schools, cell phone networks, and politically independent courts of law, the citizens and government of post-war Iraq have struggled with internecine war, terrorism, inconsistent investment in the oil industry, and a metastasizing cleptocracy. The American military presence in the country, running from 2003 until December 2011, was certainly checkered in its effectiveness as a fighting and stabilizing force [for a look at just how dark things got in the dark days of 2005, I suggest Jim Frederick’s Black Hearts: One Platoon’s Descent into Madness in Iraq’s Triangle of Death]. My prediction is that the end of America’s military operations in Iraq will not bring unity or peace to the country, nor will it precipitate a descent into chaos. Iraq is in a terrible fix politically, socially, and economically. The Second Gulf War was, in my opinion, a dreadful mistake, but I do not believe the mistake has somehow made Saddam Hussein a more sympathetic character nor his tyranny any less abhorrent. The question to ask about the Iraqi past and future is why has the situation in that country been so persistently bad for so long?
The answer takes us right back to Judis’ insights about oil. The problem that the nation of Iraq faces is quite simple: it sits atop one of the largest proven petroleum reserves in the world. This oil is at the heart of modern Iraq’s history—the country was invented by the British after WWI as a tool to insure a safe haven for military bases in the region and access to the oil—and promises to act as a barrier to reasoned, just, and humane growth in the country for the foreseeable future. The essence of the problem with oil is money. At the moment, the still antiquated oil sector in Iraq is producing approximately 3 million barrels of oil a day; the current price of oil is $100 a barrel. What that means is that everyday Iraq is producing a product with a raw value of $300,000,000. Every day! Multiply that number by 365 and you get a whopping total of more than 100 billion dollars. I am not suggesting that this entire mountain of money is rising in Iraq right now causing trouble, but imagine the enticements contained in just the small pebbles rolling off this thing. Imagine the potential for corruption, for desperation, for violent competition contained in such massive amounts of money. No country with sizable natural oil reserves has managed to transition successfully to democracy. The only countries with large oil reserves and functioning democracies, like Norway, had the good fortune to be democratic long before the discovery of oil. If Iraq is going to follow in the footsteps of history, its political future will surely rest with some form of tyranny, not so different, in fact, from the tyranny the country just shed with the help of the American military.
There is one last issue particular to Iraq’s ethnic and religious composition that is going to continue to make even the move to tyranny problematic. Naturally, the ethnic and cultural issue is complicated by oil. Iraq is comprised of three main groups (do not even get started on the tribal subgroups within these major divisions): Sunni Arabs (20% of the total population) mostly in the west, Shi’ite Arabs (60%) in the south, and Kurds (20%) in the north. Iraq’s oil reserves are divided unequally among this population. Sixty percent of the oil is in the Shi’ite south and forty percent is in the Kurdish north, leaving nearly zero percent for the Sunnis. Add to these numbers the historic fact that Saddam Hussein and his cronies were all Sunni Arabs and that his regime had a penchant for oppressing and massacring Kurds and Shi’ites and you can see that there is no good recipe for peaceful coexistence in this country. Nor is there much hope for peaceful fragmentation. The Kurds in the north have their own functioning government and formal constitution and would love to break away from Iraq completely, funding their new nation with petrodollars (such a country would likely develop a tyrannical government). However, Turkey is very resistant to any independent Kurdish nation, fearing that such an entity will cause increased secessionist energy within its own, large Kurdish minority. Every government in Europe, Japan, and the US is strongly resistant to the idea of secession by the Shi’ite south, for fear that this new, small nation would immediately merge with Shi’ite Iran, thus putting even more oil reserves into the hands of an unfriendly government. Iraq’s Sunni Arabs hate the idea of either the Kurds or Shi’ites taking the oil and running, for the obvious reason that there would be none of that massive mountain of money left for them to climb.
Our military is out of Iraq, but our national interest remains powerfully intertwined with the oil under the sand. As one of the world’s number one customers for Iraq’s oil (it is not easy to determine whether the US, EU, or China is buying the most Iraqi oil at any time), we will continue to remain actively involved in the country and the region. In one of those sad twists of global economics, our reliance on Iraqi oil will continue to inject destabilizing dollars into the country. There has been so much death and destruction designed to secure access to a resource the exploitation of which only promises more death and destruction. If any of my readers have wondered why I drive a funny old car that smells of potato chips, now you know. Using fuel made from recycled vegetable oil is a trivial way of keeping a few dollars out of the toxic petroleum brew.
PAUL SCOTT teaches Western and Eastern History at the Head-Royce School in Oakland, California. In addition to his other courses, he leads an annual seminar exploring the political, religious, and social history of the Islamic World.