Which came first, the oil business or the war machine that protects it? Who started this madness, the military that consumes so much of the oil or the corporations that distribute and profit from the filthy stuff?
An answer of sorts can be found in Timothy Mitchell’s book, “Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil.”
Western oil corporations were never strong enough, Mitchell finds, to monopolize the flow or stoppage of Middle Eastern oil without major military and financial assistance. So, they began talking about their control of Middle Eastern oil as being an imperial interest. When “imperial” went out of fashion, the phrase shifted to “strategic interest.”
Early in the 20th century, the Anglo Persian Oil Company discovered that its oil stank. It contained high levels of sulfur, and people wouldn’t burn it for illumination. So, the oil company enlisted the British Navy, as a customer. In fact, it pretended the Navy was a major customer for a few years until it actually became one. The British empire thus developed an interest in protecting the company’s control of the oil of what is now Iran, in order to fuel the new ships of the Navy — a navy designed to protect Britain’s imperial interests.
The Royal Navy had another reason for shifting to oil-burning ships, according to Mitchell. Coal miners were developing the annoying habit of going on strike, effectively flicking off the light switch on the empire and all its toys. Coal mining involved more workers than oil drilling, and the movement of the coal, once mined, was more easily blocked en route. Coal, and the ease with which it could be sabotaged, was a driver of democracy, whereas oil would be its enemy.
Mitchell also describes British support for the Zionist settlement of Palestine in the 1920s as motivated by a desire to create a population in need of protection, protection that would involve controlling the flow of oil from Iran to the Mediterranean. Well, … that and a population to serve as protectors of the pipeline. In 1936-1939 the British created a force of armed Jewish settlers to guard the Haifa-Lydda railway line — a force that would form the nucleus of the army that seized control of Palestine in 1948.
Also in 1920 Winston Churchill proposed winning hearts and minds in what is now Iraq by bombing the place, to which the British secretary of state for war objected thus: “If the Arab population realize that the peaceful control of Mesopotamia ultimately depends on our intention of bombing women and children, I am very doubtful if we shall gain the acquiescence of the fathers and husbands.” Such logic would no more stop Winston Churchill than it would Barack Obama.
Come the second world war, and it was the turn of U.S. oil companies to win subsidies from their government to develop production in the Middle East … to meet the needs of the U.S. military, which in turn would end up viewing the bulk of its needs as consisting of wars to control that oil whenever CIA coups wouldn’t do the trick. Immediately after the 1945 talks at Yalta, the United States wanted to move forces from Europe to the Pacific, and to refuel planes in the Middle East. That need motivated President Roosevelt to meet with Ibn Saud. The agreement with Saudi Arabia regarding its oil followed. By the time a U.S. air base was built in Saudi Arabia, the Pacific war was over. But the oil companies had learned that for them every advantage lay in talking about their work as if it were somehow in the “strategic interest” of the United States.
Next came the giving and selling of mountains of weapons to the dictators of the Middle East, also justified as “strategic.” The real explanation for the dramatic rise in such sales in the 1960s, according to Mitchell, was that the oil-rich dictators had more money than they could spend on anything else. They might have invested in improving the lives of the people of their nations, of course, but much of that spending would have flowed to third nations. With weapons, the United States could remain the sole provider, or at least try to. It could also enrich its weapons companies. Oil companies actually opposed selling weapons to Iran and argued for ceasing to back Israeli settlements. But weapons companies won out every time.
To the extent that the oil companies started the cycle of killing people with war in order to kill the planet with oil, they did so through the power of connections (even if fictional) to weapons sales. The British Navy drove the demand for Western dominance of the world’s oil supply, just as the U.S. military today consumes vast quantities of the oil it fights its wars over.
In fact, if we go back before history, and ask the question of which came first, wars or the weapons with which to fight them, the answer is fairly clear. The weapons came first. They were developed for fighting lions and bears. They were turned against humans when the lions and bears had been effectively reduced or eliminated. Intense agriculture, used to feed the warriors who would not feed themselves, and to provide them with their weapons, served the purpose later served by oil extraction.
It was the military that came first. It is always the military that comes first. And it is the military that pushes relentlessly to own the last word as well.