Iraq Critics Reject Claim War Was for Oil


In exclusive interviews with the Stanford Review, three of the most prominent critics of the Iraq War—Paul Pillar of Georgetown, Stephen Walt of Harvard, and John Mearsheimer of Chicago—rejected the assertion that acquiring Iraqi oil was America’s motive for invading.

Paul Pillar served as the National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia from 2000 to 2005. Now a visiting professor at Georgetown’s Security Studies Program, he is a veteran of the CIA and a graduate of Dartmouth, Oxford, and Princeton. In 2006, Foreign Affairs published his lengthy critique of the Bush administration’s use of intelligence as it related to the war in Iraq

Despite his vocal criticism of the decision to invade, Pillar disagreed with the “war for oil” claim so often repeated by anti-war protesters.

“The invasion of Iraq was not a war for oil in the sense of some of the cruder accusations made against the United States (i.e., that the U.S. was out to steal the resources of Arabs and Muslims),” he said.

He acknowledged, however, that “Iraq’s oil resources are part of what makes it an important and influential state in the Middle East, and thus one where it was hoped that change would serve as a catalyst for change elsewhere in the region.”

John Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt have been critics of the war in Iraq since before the war began, arguing in 2002 that Saddam Hussein could be contained and that invasion was unnecessary. Professors of political science at the University of Chicago and of international relations at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, respectively, they co-authored in 2007 a controversial book entitled The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy.
Their strident opposition to the Bush administration’s foreign policy notwithstanding, Mearsheimer and Walt rejected the notion that oil was the driving factor behind the decision to invade.

“I have seen little or no convincing evidence suggesting that control of oil was a key motivation for the war,” said Walt. Mearsheimer agreed, stating that “there is hardly any evidence to back up that claim.”

Walt acknowledged that American corporations sought oil contracts with the post-Saddam Iraqi government, but explained that “they were merely hoping to take advantage of a decision made for other reasons.” In fact, he argued, “oil-related companies (including Halliburton) were generally opposed to sanctions, because it cut them off from lucrative opportunities.”

Dr. Walt continued: “Moreover, the days where great powers could waltz in and ‘take control’ of a country’s oil are over: any Iraqi government would want to sell the oil at the world market price, and would bargain to get a fair deal from any external company that was playing a role in the development. If they didn’t like what US firms were offering, they would go with a French, Chinese, Russian, or other firm.”

According to Mearsheimer, “it is clear that 9/11 was a critical factor in making the Iraq war happen and 9/11 and the subsequent policy debates about it had hardly anything to do with oil.” Rather, he argued, Bush administration officials “came to believe in the wake of 9/11 that Saddam Hussein was a mortal threat to the United States and Israel, and that he had to be removed from power.”

“Both Israel and the Israel lobby, especially the neoconservatives within it, played a key role in convincing President Bush and Vice President Cheney that it was necessary to topple Saddam,” Mearsheimer explained. “Although there is abundant evidence of the lobby’s influence, as well as Israel’s, it is politically incorrect to speak about that subject. So, instead, we talk about oil, even though there is little evidence that it was the driving force behind the war.

Lastly, while they rejected the notion that oil was the driving force, Paul Pillar and Stephen Walt acknowledged that it did play a role in the framing of the issue. Pillar pointed out that “some architects of the war mistakenly believed that Iraq’s oil would mean that the war would pay for itself.” This belief was articulated by a diverse range of administration officials, including Richard Perle, Lawrence Lindsey, and Paul Wolfowitz. Walt agreed, stating: “There may have been a few Bushies who had oil on their minds, and certainly a few people invoked Iraq’s oil riches to convince people that the occupation would ‘pay for itself,’ but that hardly means that it was a primary motivation for the invasion.”

Anti-war groups greeted Mearsheimer and Walt’s pronouncements on the Israeli lobby with glee. They similarly welcomed Paul Pillar’s critique of intelligence from the insider’s perspective. Whether or not campus protesters will finally abandon their “No War for Oil” mantra remains to be seen.

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