If you want to pose as an all-purpose expert on the Middle East, just assume the demeanor of a wise old owl and announce, "It's all about oil." Why did the United States invade Iraq? "Oil." What are the Sunnis and the Shiites battling over? "Oil." What is Iran's motive in its Byzantine power plays? "Oil." Don't try to explain the details of your analysis: Keep it simple, and just blame everything on oil.
The irritating fact is that there is just enough -- barely enough -- truth in this generic accusation to keep it from being laughed out of any room it crops up in. Oil is indeed the central factor in Middle Eastern geopolitics. There exists, under the ground there, a huge percentage of the oil that the world, at this point in its technological development, depends on. Until it was discovered there scarcely a century ago, the residents of the region played a far less important role in world affairs. If technology develops, as it seems likely to, other large sources of energy, the Arabs, who are currently throwing their weight around so brazenly, will have to get back to tending sheep or whatever else they did for money.
Meanwhile, access to the oil resources of the Middle East is absolutely essential to the economic well-being of the rest of the world, and especially Europe's. The United States is far less dependent on it, having alternative sources of oil both within its political borders and in other areas easier to deal with. But the United States could not possibly afford to let Europe be starved of oil, so it cannot ignore the importance of this resource.
On the other hand, there is no serious danger that the oil of the Middle East will suddenly be withheld from the world market. In itself, oil does almost nothing for the nations that sit on top of it. It is useful to them only because, and to the extent that, it can be sold to somebody else. Any interruption in the sale of Middle Eastern oil to Europe would be a terrible blow to Europe, but it would be absolutely catastrophic to the Middle East. The economies of most of the nations there are based almost entirely upon it, and would collapse the moment sales ceased.
So it is nonsense to say or imply that the United States invaded Iraq to insure a continued supply of its oil, or even to get a better price for it. And other Middle Eastern developments are equally independent of any scenario that hinges on the interruption of the oil supply. There are plenty of other reasons for the problems currently bedeviling the region.
William Rusher is a Distinguished Fellow of the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy and author of How to Win Arguments .
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