Whenever the US takes military action in the Middle East, oil surfaces as the supposed primary rationale. So it is with president Barack Obama’s air war against ISIL, the Islamic militants who threaten Irbil, capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. In the New Yorker, Steve Coll writes that the strikes are “effectively the defense of an undeclared Kurdish oil state.” Robert Fisk comments similarly in the Independent and John Judis in the New Republic.
The argument is seductive. For three years, Kurdistan has parlayed the commercial interest of the world’s largest oil companies into increasingly sovereign status from Baghdad. Take away the oil and the Kurds are merely another rugged people with dreams of statehood.
Yet this simple explanation has problems. The first is that the Obama administration has steadfastly discouraged ExxonMobil, Chevron and the other companies from working in Kurdistan. Until recently, it sought to sabotage the region’s efforts to export its oil. The White House’s rationale has been that, to the degree Kurdistan gains de facto financial independence from Baghdad, the less likely that Iraq will hold together as a country. On Twitter, Middle East energy expert Robin Mills has been among those pushing against the it’s-about-oil theory.
A second problem is Obama himself—he is fixated on renewable energy and opposed to oil. When he has embraced oil, such as shale, Obama has done so reluctantly and often in order to placate the fossil fuels industry and its advocates. There may be rational speculation surrounding the role of oil in former George W. Bush’s original assault on Iraq, but there is little likelihood that it featured on Obama’s list of reasons to bomb ISIL.