Crude Motives for War (1990)

Crude Motives for War

from The People, August 25, 1990 as reprinted in The People, April 6, 1991, pages 16, 19

Iraq's invasion and occupation of Kuwait, and the response to that occupation by the United States and Western capitalist nations, provides a textbook illustration of the socialist contention that the causes of war are material -- not ideological, cultural, or the irrational product of "human nature." In the modern world, the primary causes of war lie in the capitalist system's inherent need to maximize profits by capturing new markets and supplies of cheaper resources and wage labor. In this case, the key word is "resources," specifically, oil.

In the current conflict, there were no serious pretenses made by Iraq that it had invaded Kuwait for some noble cause. President Bush did try to justify the U.S. response by sanctimoniously declaring that "there is no place for this kind of aggression in today's world." But coming 7-1/2 months after the U.S. invasion of Panama, those words rang a bit hollow. And, in coming to the defense of the monarchy in Saudi Arabia and the deposed monarchy in Kuwait, Bush hasn't even tried to use the standard line about defending "freedom and democracy," at least not as of this writing.

No, this conflict is about oil -- more precisely, the profits affected by oil and the power that comes with controlling it -- and everybody knows it.

In the case of Iraq, we have a ruling class and its political leader facing growing worries at home from the economic burdens and debts incurred from eight years of war with Iran. This in turn had spurred growing political opposition to Saddam Hussein's rule. Invading Kuwait was Hussein's answer to both problems.

For the last decade or so, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) has not operated very effectively as a cartel. The ruling classes of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, in particular, have strong ties to Western capitalist interests that have made them reluctant to hold down the supply of oil and drive up the price, as OPEC had done in the 1970s. Iraq wanted the price of oil bid up to $25 a barrel; Kuwait favored, and helped bring about, a price that dropped to about $14 a barrel.

By invading Kuwait, Hussein got the price up where he wanted it, immediately vanquished a $20 billion war-incurred debt to Kuwait and gained new sources of revenue in the process. He is now in control of 20 percent of OPEC's output. And by going to war and rallying Iraqis with nationalistic fervor, he temporarily quelled his political opposition at home.

Of course, the economic gains Hussein hoped to reap may now quickly turn to dust in the face of the global embargo and threatened naval blockade directed at Iraq. But the fact that Hussein miscalculated doesn't alter the fact that his motives were clearly material.

Hussein's ability to wage war is also connected to the profit motive -- the broader strategic interests of the Western imperialist nations and the particular profit interests of arms suppliers and chemical manufacturers. In previous efforts to manipulate Hussein and bring him under the influence of U.S. imperialism, the U.S. government extended massive food and export subsidies to Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war. In 1988, Iraq was able to purchase $100 million worth of U.S. goods that had military applications.

Iraq bought much of its aircraft and missile forces from France. And while fears are being expressed about the prospect of U.S. forces facing Iraq's chemical weapons, a U.S. firm -- Phillips Petroleum Co. -- sold Iraq an essential ingredient for mustard gas, while West German firms sold Iraq the ingredients for even deadlier nerve gas. Caution about supplying deadly material to a volatile dictator took second place to profits. The capitalistic economic motives underlying the U.S. government's bellicose response to the invasion and its vow to defend Saudi Arabia are also transparent. Although the embargo of Iraq entails some economic sacrifices in the short run, U.S. capitalism benefits in the long run if Kuwait's previous rulers are restored to power and the oil market is glutted once again. This is especially so at a time when the United States is importing a record 50 percent of its oil from OPEC nations.

Although there are some conflicts of interest between the U.S. oil companies and the capitalist class as a whole, regarding the current profiteering of the former, they are as one with respect to the protection of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia has helped keep the price of oil down for capitalist industry generally, and it has long had "sweetheart deals" with U.S. oil companies, allowing them to purchase crude at below-market prices.

Thus, there is no hiding the fact that the ruling-class motives on both sides of the current standoff are materialistic. But it is important for U.S. workers to recogrize that they have no stake in fighting for or supporting their exploiters' material interests. There is understandably a strong tendency among U.S. workers to view this issue through the ruling class's eyes. "Well, we do need the oil," is a familiar refrain. "If the United States didn't defend Saudi Arabia," continues this reasoning, "we will all end up paying through the nose for gasoline. Besides, we shouldn't allow a dictator like Hussein to just bully his way through the Middle East."

These arguments all sound very reasonable, but they are all flawed. The United States does not need Middle East oil. The U.S. capitalist class wants Middle East oil because it is usually cheaper and more profitable to use than using other sources, or making investments in greater industrial energy efficiency, mass transit and alternative sources of energy.

If the capitalist system did not keep us so dependent on the automobile; if the oil oligopoly in this country did not have the power to create "energy crises" at the gas pumps out of a mere rise in the price of crude oil, to strengthen its own profits; and, above all, if the working class in this country was not exploited in the first place, there would be no worry about "paying through the nose for gasoline."

As for dealing with Hussein, the solution to his bullying does not lie with the country that has been the number one bully in the Third World for the last 40 years. It is for the workers of Iraq to solve the Hussein problem. Making the United States a target for a "holy war" will only strengthen Hussein and delay that solution.

The U.S. working class has no stake in seeing over 100,000 of its sons being put on the firing line in Saudi Arabia -- perhaps to be killed by weapons sold by the very capitalists whose interests they are defending! Workers have no stake in fighting a war for lower oil prices and higher profits for our exploiters.

No, our "war" is the class struggle, and the enemy we must face is right here at home.