All about oil? They wish

Friday, 6 July 2007 

It used to be a comfort to the left to believe the Iraq invasion was all about oil.

There now appears to be some in the government who think it will be of comfort to them.

To recall what the Iraq war really was about: the end of the Cold War in 1989 meant the US had lost a framework for asserting its interests not just in the third world, but also over other western powers. George Bush senior used Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait as a way of bringing the major powers behind its leadership once again but the benefit was limited. Most major powers followed for a while but then fell away once the war was over. The following decade saw Clinton try a “humanitarian interventionism” solution but with limited success and US leadership over international affairs began to drift.

9/11 was rightly acknowledged by Bush junior as an opportunity to reassert that leadership with once again using Iraq as the means. However, relations between the major powers had drifted apart enough in the meantime that Iraq only made them worse, compounded by the fiasco of the actual occupation. Despite that, anti-terrorism had at least provided some framework for international relations and firmed up US ties with the UK and a few minor powers like Australia.

That framework is now unravelling to the extent that the alternative agenda on climate change from Europe and Japan is gaining ground. This has had a clear impact on Australian politics and is the ultimate reason why the Howard government is in trouble. Right now US presidential candidates are arguing how to restore US global leadership after the failure of the Iraq strategy.

To claim the Iraq war was mainly about oil is to deny nearly two decades of geopolitical reality. However, there is a reason why it may be tempting for some to do so. What was unusual about both Iraq wars was that there was little role for the left. The collapse of the Soviet Union and third world allies had effectively removed the left from international affairs. Even the most virulently anti-US protester would struggle to align with Saddam, a CIA stooge originally put in to deal with left-wing pan-Arab nationalism, like they did with, say, the Vietcong. Vietnam has oilfields, but the left would have seen the Vietnam war as one of national liberation. With nothing to identify with in the Iraq war, there was no other stance for the left than to try and reduce the whole thing to nothing more than oil.

If the oil argument gives comfort to a left excluded from the international agenda, it is highly surprising the Howard government thinks it will give comfort to them. It would have been extraordinary if Howard had given the speech he was reported to be about to make (the fact that Brendan Nelsen seems to have got the message mixed up indicates that Howard must have been thinking of it). By claiming it was about oil, he would have effectively given up on an anti-terrorism agenda, but more than that, would have abandoned Australia’s global pretences, both of which have propped up this policy bereft government well past its shelf life. It is likely they were thinking of it as a pragmatic regional response to the growing vacuum created by the failure of Bush’s War on Terror. As for the left, the government looks as though they were toying with the oil argument as comfort for a failed international agenda.

The vacuum is likely to create a brief return to regionalism in Australian foreign policy but this is not a comfortable position for the Australian political class that has always benefited from pretending it is a global player, and especially not for a government reliant on it. Rudd’s speech claims that Labor is prepared for it by focussing on the “Arc of Instability” just off Australian shores, which might do while the global warming agenda takes shape. For Howard, however, for whom his backdowns are seen as political genius rather than the signs of political weakness they really are, this is probably one compromise too far.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Friday, 6 July 2007.

Filed under International relations

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