'It's all about oil." Those four words are often used to denounce the planned attack on Iraq. For many in the antiwar movement, the idea that the "Bushies" plan to invade the Gulf to get their greasy hands on more oil has become an article of faith, an unquestionable truth repeated like a mantra.
But how true is it? Iraq is certainly oil-rich, and the question of what will happen to its resources après la guerre is no doubt of concern to Bush & Co. But the antiwar movement's obsession with oil is less the result of a deep economic understanding of the coming conflict than an attempt to reduce war to a black-and-white clash between good and evil - making it all the easier to oppose, but doing no favor for the movement.
The "war for oil" theory has become a pat explanation for every Western intervention of recent years. According to influential antiwar writer John Pilger, the Afghan war - launched after the Sept. 11 attacks - was about installing "a regime that will oversee an American-owned pipeline bringing oil and gas from the Caspian basin."
Before that, the international intervention in Kosovo in 1999 was said to be "about oil and nothing but oil."
Even the 1993 US invasion of Somalia was seen by some as a profit-making oil mission. One journalist claimed that somewhere under Somalia, there could be "significant amounts of oil and natural gas," ripe for the taking "if the US-led military intervention could restore peace."
The "blood for oil" argument was downright surreal when applied to Somalia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan. These were very different wars, with their own dynamics and goals. But instead of coming to terms with the forces driving Western intervention in each case, sections of the antiwar movement opted for a one-size-fits-all explanation, superimposing the "war for oil" script on often complex conflicts.
The well-rehearsed oil argument attempts to make war a simple issue of good versus evil, with oil-greedy imperialists on one side and defenseless civilians on the other. This presents the world as we might prefer it to be, where it's easy to know whom we should oppose, rather than as the world really is - where wars are weird, confusing, and often fought for no obvious material or economic gain.
The trend to shout "oil!" to simplify conflicts was most apparent in the war in Afghanistan. Antiwar protesters applied the oil theory seriously only after that conflict had dragged on for months. The more confusing it became - with ill-defined goals, botched operations, and no sign of Osama bin Laden - the more the antiwar movement was tempted to wheel out the simplistic oil argument.
The oil theory may provide comfort to protesters. But it causes big problems for those of us interested in challenging Western intervention on grounds that it most often exacerbates tensions rather than resolves them. The politics of oil certainly plays its part in international affairs, but the "war for oil" theory misunderstands modern wars. And it also renders much of today's opposition to war ineffective.
Many antiwar protesters want to blame corporate America as the driving force behind war. They argue that faceless profit-makin' businessmen pull the strings of oil-lovin' politicians.
But this sounds more like a conspiracy theory than a considered political opposition to war. What about other, genuine reasons for opposing military intervention - the fact that it overrides nation states' sovereignty, that it often disregards peoples' democratic rights, that it can destabilize regions further?
"War for oil" antiwar protests often look like an expression of powerlessness in the face of "evil corporate interests," rather than a defiant stand against war. After all, if international affairs really are determined by a hidden, all-powerful force of oil interests, there isn't much chance of standing up to them and changing things for the better.
It's high time the antiwar movement put aside the lazy rhetoric and took a grown-up approach to opposing war. The oil arguments are a slippery slope to nowhere.
• Brendan O'Neill is assistant editor of spiked-online.com.