President Barack Obama last week launched a humanitarian intervention in northern Iraq, but some have argued that the airstrikes are something else entirely. The operation isn't about protecting the massacred Yezidi minority, loyal Kurdish allies, or even American personnel, these critics say; it's about protecting oil fields.
This thesis is farfetched. Multiple news sources have detailed accounts of the deliberations that went into the president’s choice, and they all look pretty similar: A president extremely reluctant to use force, strong lobbying from U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power, growing information on the butchering and enslavement of minorities, reliable reports of starving and besieged Yezidi refugees on Mount Sinjar, an alarming conversation where Joint Chiefs Chairman General Martin Dempsey assessed that Kurdish forces were buckling, and the use of the word “genocide” in the Situation Room. Nowhere, of course, does the word “oil” appear.
Even the circumstantial context is pretty weak. Recent American policy toward the Kurds has quite clearly flown in the face of our oil interests. As the Kurds have increasingly separated themselves from the central government in Baghdad, the U.S. government has pressured allies not to buy Kurdish oil and U.S. courts have even sought to prevent such sales through seizure orders. Furthermore, the United States is far less dependent on Middle Eastern oil than it’s been in the past. We’ve relaxed decades-old restrictions on oil exports, and the United States has overtaken Saudi Arabia for as the world’s top oil producer.
All of this doesn’t mean that oil is entirely irrelevant. One could plausibly argue that oil has so shaped our view of the Middle East, that even the way we think about humanitarianism is affected. Indeed, the U.S. isn't known for humanitarian interventions in other parts of the world. And it makes sense to ask what factors have made the Obama administration more inclined to act here and now, when previous administrations have failed to do so in other circumstances. There may be something beyond lessons of history and the influence of people like Samantha Power motivating today’s sympathy with ISIS’s victims.
It seems likely that the decades of U.S. involvement and the vast web of American relationships in the region—both of which have a great deal to do with oil—play a role in making Americans more viscerally concerned with the region and its people. In that sense, our humanitarian impulse in this conflict is quite likely connected to oil, albeit in a distant and complex way. But that is a long chain and a nuanced argument, to which the “Obama is worried about the world’s oil supply” thesis bears very little resemblance.
So where does this conviction come from? Perhaps it’s cynicism borne of past experience: Oil has played a major role in Western interventions in the Middle East, often with disastrous results. But we shouldn't assume that every statesman is Henry Kissinger or every action is a new Suez operation. The colonialist paradigm is a useful lens for historians, but when it becomes an ideological commitment for the political commenter, it’s simply another set of blinders.
But there is also a deeper, more worrisome pathology at play here. Benghazi fever took hold of a sizeable swath of the GOP for the same reason people still don’t believe Lee Harvey Oswald shot John F. Kennedy. Humans love intrigue—Americans more than most, it seems. But governments are usually mundane things, and statesmen are usually mundane people. Susan Rice was not lying about violence in Benghazi to ensure the president’s reelection, and Obama is not crying crocodile tears for the Yezidi as he plots to maintain global oil prices. These are people, not characters from a Dickens novel. And the left, no less than the right, would do well to remember that.