18 July 2006

The Persian Gulf War as Economic Imperialism

There were many justifications and rationalizations for the United States–led action against Iraq in 1991, including the moral imperative not to allow aggression. However, I would like to argue that it was essentially an act of economic imperialism. Imperialism is the acquisition of territory and suppression of its inhabitants(23 Oct), generally for economic purposes. Decolonization after World War II has ended this direct control, but there are still indirect means of exploitation. A theoretical assessment of the period following decolonization defines Neo–Imperialism as any relationship of effective domination or control, political or economic, direct or indirect, of one state over another(26 Oct). The fundamental issue here is power: the ability of one state to make another do what the first wills it to(26 Oct). In this case, oil can be equated with power, as the forming of OPEC in 1973 demonstrated. If Iraq had been successful in annexing Kuwait, it would have controlled approximately one fifth of the world's available oil resources. This would give Iraq an enormous amount of economic power; a petro–chemically dependant world would, eventually, have to meet any demands Iraq might make.

One of the assumptions Neo–Imperialists make is that the interests of business and government are closely related in Neo–Imperialistic states. If it is true in this case that both have an interest in a secure oil supply, both would also apparently have an interest in the stability of the Middle–East. While the Middle–East has traditionally been a hotbed of conflict, until 1990 the power seemed to be relatively balanced. Had the Iraqi annexation of Kuwait been successful, however, it would have greatly increased Saddam Hussein's standing, both economically and politically. His successful occupation would have not only demonstrated his willingness and his ability to do as he pleased in the region, but would also have given Arabs a leader to rally under in their conflict with Israel. These factors would have greatly increased Hussein's power in the region, perhaps enough to not only change the balance of power but even to create an Iraqi hegemony. This hegemony could have, in turn, been detrimental to the oil supply: it might have decreased the region's stability, and thus it's oil-producing capabilities, or it could have given Iraq virtual control of the entire region and allowed them to control production, however and for whatever reasons it chose.

I will begin my analysis at some point before Iraq actually moves to annex Kuwait, while this hegemony is still only a possibility. Yet this possibility would be threatening to the interests of oil–dependant first world states, which need a steady supply of inexpensive petroleum. Since Iraq, before the invasion, had the forth largest standing army in the world while Kuwait was poorly defended, if Iraq chose to make such a move it was sure to be successful. There was also a somewhat legitimate border dispute between the two countries, which increased the likelihood of an Iraqi invasion. If a Neo–Imperialist society sees such a threat, it seems reasonable that it will take steps to avoid losing control of its resources. The problem, then, becomes one of logistics: how can the Neo–Imperialists achieve the secure oil supply they need without making their intentions of interference obvious? It seems possible that the United States, acting in Neo–Imperialist fashion, saw this possibility and took steps to protect its interests by setting Iraq up to invade Kuwait, so it could be knocked down and eliminated as a threat. The border dispute provided an opportunity: the infamous state department communication that, "We don't get involved in border disputes", seemed to give Iraq a green light for their invasion. Once Iraq took that action, however, the United States led an international outcry against the violation of Kuwaiti sovereignty. This violation, which had occurred with what seems like not only full knowledge, but the blessing, of the United States, was then used as justification for United Nations sanctions and the United Nations–approved use of force against Iraq.

To call this an economically motivated act of Neo–Imperialism is to say that the United States was re–establishing its dominance in its relationship with Iraq, for the purpose of securing economic interests. That the United States proved itself dominant in this relationship is obvious from the conflict's result; that the economic goals were achieved can be surmised from the fall in gasoline prices since the conflict's end. Yet to call it an act of Neo–Imperialism, the connection between business and government interests should be made. This is a fundamental assumption of the Neo–Imperialist framework, and if it does not hold true, it is inappropriate to apply that framework. That George Bush's personal fortune was made in oil may or may not be relevant here; that United States automakers have successfully lobbied against increased mileage requirements; that the government has been unenthusiastic at best about exploring other energy options, such as hemp, corn, solar, wind, and hydro-electric power––these factors seem relevant. They seem to fit Lenin's economic perspective of Imperialism(23 Oct), which focuses on monopoly capitalism. The petro–chemical energy system, while not monopolized itself, has a monopoly on the energy market. To keep this monopoly intact, they need access to petroleum. Thus they would have a great interest in maintaining the security of Mid–Eastern resources.

This war may have occurred without such capitalistic influences, but it seems likely that if the United States had adopted Jimmy Carter's energy program, thus reducing its dependence on petroleum, they would not have developed such a close relationship, presumably designed to protect petroleum interests, with Iraq in the first place. Instead, they built its military base during other conflicts and gave Hussein the strength to become a threat. Realizing too late what it had done, the United States had no choice but to destroy that threat, or lose its power over the oil supply. Losing that power would not only hurt the United States economically, it would bring into question its political power and thus its international standing.


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