Oil, the Iraq War, and the Geopolitical & Capitalist Dynamics Underlying World Order

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Andreas Bieler is Professor of Political Economy and Fellow of the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice in the School of Politics and International Relations at Nottingham University. His general expertise is in the area of International Relations/International Political Economy theories and the analysis of European integration as well as resistance to neo-liberal globalisation with a particular emphasis on the possible role of trade unions. His latest book is Chinese Labour in the Global Economy: Capitalist Exploitation and Strategies of Resistance. On his blog, he provides “analytical commentary on formal and informal labour organisations and their attempts to resist ever more brutal forms of exploitation in today’s neo-liberal, global capitalism.” You can also find Andreas on Twitter or at his website.

In 2015, Bieler wrote an article with Adam David Morton entitled “Axis of Evil or Access to Diesel? Spaces of New Imperialism and the Iraq War” which appeared in a Marxist journal, Historical Materialism: Research in Critical Marxist Theory. The article examined “how the Iraq War was a space in the ongoing geographical extension of global capitalism linked to US foreign policy. Was it simply the decision by a unitary, hegemonic actor in the inter-state system overriding concerns from other states? Was it an imperialist move to secure the ‘global oil spigot’? Alternatively, did the use of military force reflect the interests and emergence of a transnational state apparatus?” Bieler and Morton argued that “the US imperium needs to be conceptualised as a specific form of state, within which and through which fractions of national and transnational capital operate. In so doing, the Iraq War is assessed as a moment in the extension of global capitalism in which the interests of a national fraction of capital within the US state form was dominant, thereby placing processes of class struggle and their relation to wider spaces of imperialism at the centre of analysis.”

Bieler and Morton concluded that “neither an approach focusing on inter-imperialist rivalry nor an approach emphasising multilateral cooperation under the leadership of the US can adequately examine the internal relations between the geopolitical and capitalist dynamics underlying world order. Unsurprisingly, both sets of approaches produce rather state-centric accounts of the reasons behind the invasion of Iraq in 2003.” Other subjects that were covered: an assessment of the transnational state (TNS) thesis, how contracts were distributed for the reconstruction of Iraq after the war, The Project for the New American Century, organic intellectuals as the architects of war, oil and armament groups, and the MIC and Military-Industrial-Academic-Complex.

Interview with Andreas Bieler

Newsbud: Does the U.S. now have more access to diesel than it did before the Iraq War?

AB: As we tried to argue in the article, access to diesel is always essential in the global economy, but it wasn’t the core motive when we look at the reasons underlying the war in Iraq. We need to get the ways of how the interests of transnational capital have been internalized within the U.S. form of state or not, and we would argue that at that point in the early 2000s, it was more a fraction of nationally oriented class forces of capital which had the dominant position within the United States. It was more arms manufacturers, it was more construction companies such as Bechtel which were in the driving seat, whereas a lot of more transnational oriented parts of the capitalist fraction - they were opposed to going to war on their own before United Nations backing. So I think the access to oil today is as much secured as it was before the war.

Newsbud: Was the invasion of Iraq about maintaining an open market for oil?

AB: Violence, in a way, is a part of capitalism, and to some extent, at times, outward expansion carried out through violence also brings with it new investment opportunities, and especially at the moment where some people argue such as David Harvey, that there’s a crisis of overaccumulation, in which you have much more private capital circulating in the system than actually profitable investment opportunities. In such a situation - you can see that especially in the post-war period in Iraq -  that created new investment opportunities, and how certain U.S. companies were privileged when awarding contracts - part of the initial defeat of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

Newsbud: How do those business transactions play out between statesmen and businessmen before a war breaks out?

AB: I don’t think we should see that in kind of a conspiracy theory understanding. It’s not a situation where the CEO of Bechtel calls up a former associate in the government, and says “Oh, look, if you invade them, would that not be a fantastic profit opportunity for our company and you would get your share in it?” I don’t think it works like that. We have all kinds of powerful foreign policy think tanks in the U.S., there are different kinds of discourses, projects of what should the U.S. foreign policy look like, and how is that related to also the wealth of U.S. companies. In this kind of different discourses you get rival interpretations of what’s important, and you have certain transnational corporations who would say, “Well, we need to have close cooperation with partners in Europe. If there’s no support for the war, we’d better not cause damage there, because we want to keep the trade links open.”

On the other hand, you will have discourses around national security coming first. “Saddam Hussain is a threat to our national security,” and that’s often funded and sponsored by, for example, big arms manufacturers, but not in the sense that they say, “Look, let me fund you so that you can organize a war fast, where we can then make an all-around profit,” because, of course, every war you can see the arms manufacturers’ shares go up in value. So it’s not so directly, but it’s much more wide in scope, the visions of how the world should be organized, which come to play here, and what we argue is that visions of how security policy should be constructed are always also linked back to material interests.

Newsbud: You describe the Military-Industrial-Academic-Complex as being key to understanding some of the dynamics of U.S. geopolitics.

AB: The way of how foreign policy would be developed, I would argue, especially in our democratic societies, is that it’s not simply that you have a group of people within a room behind closed doors making decisions over how the next steps are organized, but it’s very much also precisely the creation of these wider projects. What has U.S. security looked like post-9/11 where academics would play a close role for certain material interests? Certain corporations would have some kind of general interest and be willing to fund certain undertakings by think tanks, and of course there’s always the close relationship between business and government anyway. Sometimes you even have people going to and fro, in the Bush Administration for instance the vice president came from Bechtel, if I recall that correctly, so there’s always a very direct link. Again I don’t think it’s in the sense of conspiracy theory, but there’s a kind of a direct link in the formation of a common understanding of how one should move forward. At this point in time with a new administration coming in, it will be quite interesting to look at what are the policies via free trade and I could imagine some different arguments are at the moment being discussed.

Newsbud: What do you remember about the Iraq War shock and awe campaign?

AB: It was quite flashy, quite bombastic, triumphalist, I think at the beginning, and it was not long after this that Bush then declared the war as won and over, and of course if you look back from today’s perspective, one can only conclude what a massive disaster it had been. The emergence of ISIS can be linked to the kind of way of how Iraq has been unsettled at that time. Now we know that there were no weapons of mass destruction. In the UK, the reputation of Tony Blair was completely destroyed. I think I could contrast the shock and awe with today’s assessment and the kind of problems that we have created.

Newsbud: Was there anything notable you recall about the Gulf War?

AB: What’s notable were all the discussions in the run-up to the Gulf War, and this idea of, could the United Nations endorse the war collectively, which had been done in the early 1990s, or would the U.S. really go with the coalition of the willing, on its own, against the United Nations? I remember the very big demonstration against the Iraq War in February 2003 comprised of almost 2 million people in London alone - it was a worldwide event that I think was a historic moment, so it’s those things which come back to my mind.

Newsbud: Does the capitalist accumulation strategy of bomb and build have a predecessor?

AB: I would argue those people who look at outward expansion, if we accept that capitalism emerged first in Europe, and  then expanded outward, I think I would argue that capitalist outward expansion was always also carried out through violence. For example, in the early 19th century, the British opened up the Chinese by force to the Opium Wars. When there was outward expansion in Asia, in general that was often carried out by brutal force. Violence has always been part and parcel of capitalist outward expansion. Some people more recently would actually argue we had a global recession in the early 20th century, and it was really overcome only after WW2, when suddenly, so many European countries had to be rebuilt, and so huge profitable investment opportunities were offered at that time.

Newsbud: What are the inner workings of an imperialist intervention?

AB: From a capitalist point of view you look for either new markets for your products in times of crisis or you attempt to bring new labor into the economy. For example, Rosa Luxemburg analysed the way of how in Egypt, the whole production was shifted towards cotton to be exported to Britain, but in the process, the Egyptian government basically took out huge loans in order to buy certain machinery from Britain in the first place, in order to start the cotton planting and process, so Egypt was heavily indebted. Egypt planted loads of cotton in order to pay back, but ultimately, grew more and more in debt, and more and more loans were extended which were used again to pay back debt, and to buy more British machinery. So in a way, Britain not only secured its access to cotton at that time, but Britain also actually secured Egypt as a customer of British products, the British loans were basically money given to Egypt to buy more British products. The debt level rose ever higher.

Newsbud: Why is capitalist development different from other forms of development?

AB: Historically, there were other forms of accumulation which were equally violent, so the slaveholder society is also violent. Feudalist society and the exploitation of peasants was also based on violence, directly and politically enforced. I think capitalism is perhaps different because of this enormous inner dynamic. Within capitalist relations, it’s not just workers who compete for jobs with each other, but also companies compete with each other for market share, and so you could say you have to be one step ahead of your competitors. Take Nokia for instance, they dominated the mobile phone market 10 years ago. Today it’s as good as disappeared, and it’s this constantly having to be ahead which makes it so dynamic which also applies when there’s systemic pressure of constantly expanding outward, and it’s this kind of pressure which then is also a dynamic, which can involve violence if necessary.

Newsbud: What is the origin of transnational corporations?

AB: Some people argued before that we always had transnational corporations, let’s say the English East India Company organizing during the 18th-19th century, some kind of economic production, across borders between India and the UK. I think, however, we need to look at the early 70s as a much more distinctive point of time. That was when suddenly during the post war period in industrialized countries, we had a declining rate of profit, and it was that at that situation, a lot of big Western companies decided to shift labor intensive production to the global South. It was at that moment you had a grand scale production organized across borders, so you retained the more research intensive design of some of these, but all the assembling, the textile industry, the sewing together of garments required extensive labor, you had that shifted to countries in the global South.

Today, people speak about global value chains, which is where transnational corporations control this production across borders but they don’t own directly all the various factories in the countries, yet they control them. Pressure on producers in Bangladesh can then be applied along the following lines, for example: “We still give you orders but we need it now at a 10 percent lower price, and if you can’t do it, we will switch to Honduras”, perhaps. So they control these global value chains but they don’t own them all along.

Newsbud: What’s next after globalisation, or is that the final form, so to speak?

AB: That’s tricky to say because I think many people have before announced the imminent death of capitalism as the main system, and I think that capitalism is very flexible in how to adjust to the kind of internal contradictions and massive crises. At the moment we have this kind of more right-wing, xenophobic backlash in the UK, certainly with the Brexit situation. In the U.S. perhaps with Trump, we have to see how that plays out. But that raises of course questions of what comes next? So far, the response to the crisis has been just more globalization, more neoliberal restructuring. Opposition forces haven’t really been able to change this.

Newsbud: What is the most urgent issue in historical-materialist geopolitics?

AB: From a historical-materialist analysis of globalisation at this point in time we would try to focus on the contradictions within capitalism, and the kind of potential for alternatives which come out from these contradictions. The purpose is not just to look at how capitalism unfolds at this point and time but also the kinds of resistance movements you will find and especially the kinds of resistance movements which go across different kinds of groups. Very often you will see resistance toward privatization, for example cooperation between trade unions and user groups. It’s interesting how with Standing Rock in the U.S., you have cooperation between indigenous people and other social movements. There are cracks in capitalism, and within these cracks you can see alternative developments and the focus on this potential for alternative developments that will become part of the historical-materialist analysis.

Newsbud: How do governments use ‘free trade’ to pursue their national interests?

AB: With free trade, you have the huge Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, this kind of free trade agreements, and if you look at free trade, what it means in practice, is that very generally those countries which are more advanced, they benefit disproportionately vis a vis those countries which are less developed. In a way, if you are an advanced country with a free trade agreement, be it the U.S., be it Latin America, be it Europe, be it African countries, then that directly implies you’re strengthening that economic position of your own country or region. And some people also refer to this kind as ‘free trade imperialism’, so capitalist outer expansion is not just through war, although it can play a part.

Newbud: In your paper, you mentioned that the United States is shaped by the intertwining of both financial and military vectors. What are your thoughts on the military-industrial complex?

AB: What’s important is that you can’t just talk about capitalist society like it’s just a kind of homogenous, internally contradiction-free kind of system. There are always different fractions, and the military industrial complex is a particular fraction because it is so closely linked to national security and foreign policy. It’s normally, one would say, more of a nationalist kind of fraction of capital. When it comes to military manufacturing, because of the sensitivity of the area, that’s not something where you just have companies buying each other up. The U.S. would not accept one of the big U.S. arms manufacturers being taken over by a company from the Gulf states, for example, and so in that sense, I think that particular class fraction is a more national class fraction. When you analyze concrete political developments to see what kind of different class fractions are involved in the policymaking process, that’s where the argument goes, that there was a more nationalist class fraction of capital which had the upper hand in the decision to go to war with Iraq, despite a lack of public support by the UN.

Newsbud: Here are some other relevant sources:

Axis of Evil or Access to Diesel? Spaces of New Imperialism and the Iraq War

Petroimperialism: US Oil Interests and the Iraq War

Dreaming War: Blood for Oil and the Cheney-Bush Junta

Blood and Oil: The Dangers and Consequences of America's Growing Dependency on Imported Petroleum

Bush-Cheney Energy Strategy: Procuring the Rest of the World’s Oil

The $3 Trillion War

Tell me lies : propaganda and media distortion in the attack on Iraq

Petrodollar Warfare: Oil, Iraq and the Future of the Dollar

How Big Oil Conquered the World

Why Oil Was a Prime Motivator For the Iraq War

Why the war in Iraq was fought for Big Oil

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Erik Moshe, Newsbud Analyst, lives in Northern Virginia and is currently studying writing and rhetoric at George Mason University. He served in the U.S. Air Force from 2009-2013.

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Comments

  1. Question: I have done some [amateur] research on the IMPORT price per barrel of crude, and as I can calculate, it looks like the US have been able to IMPORT oil at a mean price, which is $12 below the average cost per barrel, seen across all other countries I found on the Oil Price website. Am I totally in the blank or is there any merit to this assumption/calculation?

    Thanks,
    Peter

    • Hi Peter,

      I’m afraid I’m unqualified to give you a well informed answer on this, but this might help: “The United States imports half of its oil from OPEC countries: 40.2% of total imports came from OPEC; only 20.4% of total imports came from Persian Gulf countries. (Source: American Petroleum Institute, Jan.-Sept. 2012 average)” Perhaps the U.S. is able to exercise leverage when negotiating oil prices with OPEC countries given the U.S.’ relationship with some OPEC member countries. In terms of the oil markets, I would recommend asking Professor Bieler about this. You can contact him on Twitter. I might also consider asking Pye Ian, Newbud’s resident economist who currently has an article about oil featured on the front page. Thanks for commenting and sorry I can’t be more helpful.

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