(Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own)
By Bernd Debusmann
WASHINGTON, Sept 26 (Reuters) - Alan Greenspan, the anti-war U.S. left, virtually the entire Arab world, and Osama bin Laden have something in common: they think the war in Iraq is mainly about oil.
The former Federal Reserve chairman’s view is expressed with such crystalline clarity, on page 463 of his just-published memoir, that it’s hard to believe it comes from the same man whose convoluted utterances on the U.S. economy drove to the edge of despair market professionals paid to decipher them.
But there’s nothing ambiguous about this: "I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil."
This is remarkable language from a life-long Republican deeply embedded in a Washington establishment whose members, from either party, do not find it convenient to ascribe selfish motives to the U.S. use of force.
Military intervention is acceptable, of course, to remove tyrants, spread democracy, bring freedom to the oppressed, or save the world as we know it from annihilation by weapons of mass destruction.
Among the Washington power elite, publicly using the word "oil" in connection with the war in Iraq is a bit like talking about bodily functions at a formal dinner party.
It is best avoided, which made Greenspan’s statement all the more startling.
Subsequent "clarifications" brought back some of his customary convolution - oil wasn’t the only motive but, yes, oil security is critically important - but no change in the substance. Administration spokesmen shrugged off the remark.
PERCEPTION IS REALITY
Much of the Arab world saw oil as the driving factor of the Bush administration’s Iraq policies even before the 2003 attack.
Those who had doubts lost them in the chaotic first post-invasion days when U.S. troops guarded the Ministry of Oil and the Ministry of Interior and stood by as looters picked bare and torched official buildings all over the city and ransacked Iraq’s national museum.
Perception is reality, as they say on Wall Street, where Greenspan honed his economic expertise. The American tanks that blocked every entrance to the sprawling oil ministry provided an image that stuck.
The millions around the world who had demonstrated against the war, many hoisting placards that said "No Blood For Oil", felt vindicated.
For al Qaeda and the mass murderer who masterminded the attacks on New York and Washington, it was a propaganda windfall.
Osama bin Laden repeatedly asserted, the last time in a video made to mark the sixth anniversary of September 11, that the American design all along had been to replace Saddam Hussein "with a new puppet to assist in the pilfering of Iraq’s oil."
Osama’s campaign to portray America as an oil-hungry aggressor predated the Bush administration: in 1997 he said that "The U.S. is increasing its presence in Arab countries to capture their oil reserves."
Future generations of historians might discover what really prompted George W. Bush to attack Iraq rather than focus the vast resources of the U.S. intelligence and military machines on hunting down bin Laden "dead or alive," as the president promised after the September 11 attacks.
Meanwhile, the "war over oil" perception is one of the reasons why the United States has made no progress in polishing its tarnished image around the world.
"Anti-Americanism is extensive," notes the latest global attitude survey from the Pew Research Center, and the U.S. image "remains abysmal in most Muslim countries."
EMPIRE IN DENIAL
In a string of interviews following the publication of his memoir, The Age of Turbulence, Greenspan didn’t elaborate why he thought it was "politically inconvenient" to talk about oil. My theory: it conflicts with America’s image of itself.
Most Americans tend to see their country as a force for good in the world, holding a special place and offering a shining example of freedom and opportunity. Large parts of the world, in contrast, see the U.S. as an empire driven, like others before it, by self-interest and economic imperatives.
The Scottish historian Niall Ferguson calls the United States an "empire in denial" and says it should act like one, with the patience and perseverance necessary to end what it starts, for example staying in Iraq for 40 years or more.
No such ideas from Greenspan, but a chapter in his book lays out in stark detail just how beholden the United States is to oil, how far it is from the energy independence declared as a goal by a long string of presidents, and how profligate Americans are in burning up oil.
One out of every seven barrels consumed worldwide is burned up on American highways, according to Greenspan, and heavy trucks alone account for as much petroleum as all of Germany.
One fact worth noting: if the war is about oil supplies, success so far is scant. Before the invasion, Iraq pumped 2.5 million barrels a day. Now, it produces 1.9 million bpd. (You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters.com)