12 December 2007

Underground wealth

Having been on the Intelligence Squared mailing list for donkey's years, it was about time I actually attended one of their debates. If my first experience in London's Central Methodist Hall on December 11 is a fair barometer, then I have been missing out. As I've been generally anti-war as regards the debacle that was and is Iraq, I've read a lot and watched many a debate on the intellectual spaghetti junction that this western foreign policy project comprises. What I didn't expect, then, was such an invigorating discussion about quite possibly one of the most heavily debated international affairs in all time.

My own anti-invasion stance was not born of ignorant, intransigent, I'll-die-for-the-party nonsense. I'm a very strong believer in that your opinions must constantly be updated (and therefore occasionally reversed) when you recieve new and validated information; the alternative being synonymous with religious dogma (Nassim Nicholas Taleb has a lot to say about this in his popular Fooled By Randomness).

Back in the run-up to Gulf War II let's say I was not exactly convinced by the PR case for invasion, sold as the now historically infamous weapons of mass distraction super-lie. Oderint dum metuant. At the time it wasn't a lonely position. Then something happened that quick-dry cemented my position and taught me a saddening but valuable lesson about the flavour of democracy that we are actually living in. I went along to the early 2003 Stop the War megamarch in central London. Despite the fair-ish evaluation of the event by that linked article, it was with a heart-chilling horror that I watched the coverage on the BBC TV news of that evening. I can't find it on the internet unfortunately, but let's say 'gloss-over', 'play-down', and 'trivialise' don't even get close to how that report boiled me in outrage. Irrespective of the fact that the UK was witnessing possibly one of it's largest and most significant demonstrations ever, at the time the Beeb was only able to portray it with the significance of a W.I. Tea Party. It dawned on lil' ole naïve me that the PR machine behind this one was a leviathan and that the free BBC was just a dream.

Fast-forwarding to the IQ^2 debate (now somewhere between one hundred thousand and one million deaths later, depending on who you read, e.g.), the event was structured around 3 (artificially) competing positions on what the coallition should do now:
- stay until 'we win',
- leave after a negotiated settlement,
- leave immediately.

The organisers had done a faultless job of selecting the characters to represent these motions, including the excellent and well-placed ex regional interim Iraq Governer Rory Stewart. Another representative, Tony Benn, naturally represented the anti-war-leave-now party. Whether you like him or not, he often speaks a lot of sense when it comes to Iraq and UK foreign policy in general. However he got himself in quite a pickle at one point when, equating terrorist and military action via a moral relativity argument, he outraged the 'don't condemn our boys in the army' set. But, when people sit back and really think about it, it is generally true; there is not necessarily a moral difference between a soldier and a suicide bomber. The identification of the moral higher ground is not independent of perspective. This will be one of the previously unthinkable yet universally accepted moral truths of the future.

Anyway, my one problem with that evening's event is equivalent to the problem that is now the impasse of Iraq. The 3 postions contructed to engage a lively debate are far from mutually exclusive policies. To 'win' surely implies reaching a 'negotiated' settlement so I was left unconviced about the opposing polarity of these 2 motions. Then the middle ground settlement-first camp conceded that if no agreement could be reached then a quick exit would be inevitable, so kind of like the 'get out now' team really. Confused? I was. It is.

The reports, comments and analysis of the panel and the contributing audience served well to illustrate the horrible complexity that is the reality of Iraq today. So much time was spent arguing, for instance, on whether the recent thankful reduction in sectarian violence is explained by the recent troop 'surge' or other important factors such as the truce with Muqtada al Sadr. Most probably both, obviously, and measuring the effectiveness of either in isolation would be an unthinkable experiment so stop bickering. Nevertheless, amongst the myriad factors important in the equation that is Iraq, one important one was and is neglected in this debate; the black stuff, oil, of course.

There was some discussion on whether Iraq was about oil, inevitably, but it was seriously underweighted. Personally, I don't think Iraq is entirely explicable in terms of oil; America's political and popular need for aggression post September 11, notwithstanding Afganistan, is an equally considerable factor, at least as a significant trigger. But look it is this way: remove the variable and do you get the same result? Would we now be 5 years and $1.2 trillion and £5 billion into this operation if Iraq did not sit on top of one of world's largest and most accessible reservoirs of oil? Over 100 billion barrels apparently. In other words approximately $10 trillion at today's prices.

Of course the arguments can be extended here. The baathists would possibly not have succeeded in their ignoble tyranny without oil revenue either (being a minority who inhabited oil-starved regions then tyranny was surely the only option), so possibly fighting the baath and securing oil is actually the same thing.

The one crucial relationship markedly lacking from the whole debate was the one between oil, settlement and 'winning'. Whether the perceived need to secure the oil supply to the 'West' or just secure the lion's share of its revenue explains the invasion or not, there is no way the US government will now leave without having a very favorable arrangement in place regarding its access and exploitation of that resource. The devil is in the detail. The detail of the contracts. Just as in all contracts, the small print.

The coalition's attempts to set up a valid, representative government in Iraq have so far been deemed disasterous. Are the demands for oil revenue too high to enable a successful settlement for a self-governing Iraq? The ever-stalling negotiations are often attributed to interregional arguments withing Iraq, but is this really the true picture? There is an extremely expensive military operation to pay for after all.

The sectarian violence control argument, as terrible as the sectarian violence actually can be, is a distraction when used in relation to the coalition's exit strategy policy. We (the US?) will not leave until a deal is reached on the control and revenue of Iraq's existing and to be discovered oilfields. This is the debate that now needs to take place in the public consciousness and it is sadly lacking.

Economic arguments help explain all conflict, because economics is nothing more than the study of people and their motives. Yet there is always a reluctance to acknowledge this in popular debate and the media combined. It's like when no-one mentions access to water when discussing the Israeli-Palestinian problem. On one hand, distraction, smokescreens and decoys are often encouraged. On the other, emotion, tribalism and violence - all acting as a proxies for the economic struggle to secure resources - sells a lot more newspapers. Talking economics dirties a war. But wars are economic in origin. And wars are always dirty.


eyal cohen said...

Good piece really. However I wish to point that to my mind, the water control issue isn’t the main problem between Palestine and Israel. If anything, the annexed Golan Heights (Occupied from Syria in 1967) water and the other sources of the Lake of Galilee, found in Syria & Lebanon, are of far higher importance to Israel water policy. The mountain aquifer, mostly found in pre-1967 territories usage is under developed. I do not belittle the will to control this source, but it does serve both sides regarless of ‘ownership’. Actually, if water was the main problem, an agreed solution could have been more easily achieved (as was with the peace agreement with Jordan which covers such sharing agreement). Unfortunately the bigger aspect of the conflict is further dark, exploitable, at times un-logical, self destructive & emotionally driven by identity confusion. For this reasons it won’t disappear so fast.

bomon said...

Hello, thanks for that Eyal. I agree that water is most probably not a principal factor in the Isreali-Palestine issue. However, given that it forms part of the Oslo accord it must have some importance. My point is more that media debate and news do not give sufficient weight to resource economics when discussing conflict, because it seems 'tasteless' to do so.