Russell Kirk on War for Oil (and more)

A week or two back I was asked if I knew where to find an on-line copy of Russell Kirk’s 1991 Heritage Foundation talk in which he more or less directly called the first Gulf War a war for oil. Well, it turns out that Wes McDonald has put it up here. It’s worth quoting at length, since Kirk’s criticisms apply even more strongly to our latest Mesopotamian misadventure:

Mr. Bush, out of mixed motives, has embarked upon a radical course of intervention in the region of the Persian Gulf. After carpet-bombing the Cradle of Civilization as no country ever had been bombed before, Mr. Bush sent in hundreds of thousands of soldiers to overrun the Iraqi bunkers — that were garrisoned by dead men, asphyxiated.

And for what reason? The Bush Administration found it difficult to answer that question clearly. In the beginning it was implied that the American national interest required low petroleum prices: therefore, if need be, smite and spare not!

That excuse reminds me of Burke’s rebuke to the Pitt ministry in 1795, when it appeared that the British government was about to go to war with France over the question of the navigation of the River Scheldt, in the Netherlands. “A war for the Scheldt? A war for a chamber-pot!” Burke exclaimed. Now one may say, “A war for Kuwait? A war for an oilcan!”

“The blood of a man should never be shed but to redeem the blood of man,” Burke wrote in his first Letter on a Regicide Peace. “It is well shed for our family, for our friends, for our God, for our country, for our kind. The rest is vanity; the rest is crime.” Burke was eager that England declare war against France because of the menace of the French revolutionaries to the civilized order of Europe, and because of their systematic crimes. But he set his face against war for mere commercial advantage. So should Republicans. “The rest is vanity; the rest is crime.”

War for Righteousness. A war for an oilcan not turning out to be popular, however, President Bush turned moralist; he professed to be engaged in redeeming the blood of man; and his breaking of Iraq is to be the commencement of his beneficent New World Order. Mr. Bush has waged what Sir Herbert Butterfield, in his little book Christianity, Diplomacy, and War, calls “The War for Righteousness.” As Butterfield begins the third chapter of that book, “It has been held by technicians of politics in recent times that democracies can only be keyed up to modern war — only brought to the necessary degree of fervor — provided they are whipped into moral indignation and heated to fanaticism by the thought that they are engaged in a ‘war for righteousness’.”

Now indubitably Saddam Hussein is unrighteous; but so are nearly all the masters of the “emergent” African states (with the Ivory Coast as a rare exception), and so are the grim ideologues who rule China, and the hard men in the Kremlin, and a great many other public figures in various quarters of the world. Why, I fancy that there are some few unrighteous men, conceivably, in the domestic politics of the United States. Are we to saturation-bomb most of Africa and Asia into righteousness, freedom, and democracy? And, having accomplished that, however would we ensure persons yet more unrighteous might not rise up instead of the ogres we had swept away? Just that is what happened in the Congo, remember, three decades ago; and nowadays in Zaire, once called the Belgian Congo, we zealously uphold with American funds the dictator Mobutu, more blood-stained than Saddam. And have we forgotten Castro in Cuba?

Momentum of Its Own. I doubt whether much good is going to come out of the slaughter of perhaps a hundred thousand people in Iraq. “For one of the troubles of war,” Butterfield writes, “is that it acquires its own momentum and plants its own ideals on our shoulders, so that we are carried far away from the purposes with which we began — carried indeed sometimes to greater acts of spoilation than the ones which had provoked our original entry into the war. Before the war of 1914 had lasted a year, its own workings had generated such a mood that we had promised Russia Constantinople and had bought the alliance of Italy with offers of booty, some of which had later to be disavowed by President Wilson. And it is a remarkable fact that in wars which purport to be so ethical that the states attached to neutrality are sometimes regarded as guilty of a dereliction of duty, the great powers primarily concerned may have required an iniquitous degree of bribery to bring them into the conflict, or to maintain their fidelity. The whole ideal of moderate peace aims, and the whole policy of making war the servant (instead of the master) of negotiation, is impossible — and the whole technique of the ‘war for righteousness’ has a particularly sinister application — when even in the ostensibly ‘defending’ party there is a latent and concealed aggressiveness of colossal scope, as there certainly was in 1914.”

You may perceive some parallels between Butterfield’s description of the course of the Allies during World War I and the course, so far, of the coalition against Iraq. Already there is talk of what shall be done with the “remains of Iraq.” Mr. James Baker talks of rebuilding Iraq; others talk of dismantling Iraq altogether, by way of spoilation. And what promises and bribes were provided by the government of the United States, in recent months, to secure the assent of such murderous governments as that of Ethiopia to strong measures against Iraq; to secure, indeed, by holding out prospects of massive economic aid, the cooperation of the Soviet Union, Iraq’s former patron?

Was not Egypt’s cooperation obtained by forgiving the Egyptian government’s indebtedness of several billion dollars? Was not Syria’s assent gained by America’s ignoring of the Syrian conquest of the Lebanon, with a massacre of General Aoun’s Christian army? What began as determination to restore a legitimate (if somewhat arbitrary) government in Kuwait may result in the overturn of several governments in the Levant. As for regarding neutral states as guilty of dereliction of duty — why, the United States has done just that to Jordan, by cutting off economic aid at the very time when Jordan is crammed with destitute refugees from Iraq.

Disagreeable Consequences. In short, deliberate entry into war commonly brings on consequences disagreeable even to the seeming victors. Prudent statesmen long have known that armed conflict, for all involved, ought to be the last desperate resort, to be entered upon only when all means of diplomacy, conciliation, and compromise have been exhausted. In Iraq, we have crushed an insect with the club of Hercules. Temporarily, Mr. Bush’s stroke is popular. When a democracy goes to war, at first there occurs a wave of enthusiasm: “Bop the Wop; sap the Jap; get the Hun on the run!” But afterward, when troubles arise….

True, we did not suffer a long war in the deserts of Kuwait and Iraq. But we must expect to suffer during a very long period of widespread hostility toward the United States — even, or perhaps especially, from the people of certain states that America bribed or bullied into combining against Iraq.

In Egypt, in Syria, in Pakistan, in Algeria, in Morocco, in all of the world of Islam, the masses now regard the United States as their arrogant adversary; while the Soviet Union, by virtue of its endeavors to mediate the quarrel in its later stages, may pose again as the friend of Moslem lands. Nor is this all: for now, in every continent, the United States is resented increasingly as the last and most formidable of imperial systems.

In this century, great empires have collapsed: the Austrian, the German, the British, the French, the Dutch, the Portuguese, the Spanish, the Italian, and the Japanese. The Soviet empire now languishes in the process of dissolution. “Imperialism” has become a term of bitter reproach and complaint; all this within my own lifetime.

American Empire. But there remains an American Empire, still growing — though expanding through the acquisition of client states, rather than through settlement of American populations abroad. Among the client states directly dependent upon American military power are Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Israel, and El Salvador; and until the withdrawal of American divisions from Germany for service in Arabia, Germany, too, was a military client. Dependent upon American assistance of one kind or another, and in some degree upon American military protection, are the Philippines, the Dominican Republic, and Panama; and also, in the Levant, Egypt and Jordan, and formerly Lebanon. Now Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are added to the roster of clients. I hardly need mention America’s earlier acquisitions: Hawaii, Puerto Rico, the Virgins, and lesser islands. I refrain from mentioning America’s economic ascendancy, through foreign aid or merely trade, over a great deal more of the world. In short, although we never talk about our empire, a tremendous American Empire has come into existence — if, like the Roman Empire, in a kind of fit of absence of mind. No powerful counterpoise to the American hegemony seems to remain, what with the enfeebling of the U.S.S.R.

…presidents of the United States must not be encouraged to make Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, nor to fancy that they can establish a New World Order through eliminating dissenters. In the second century before Christ, the Romans generously liberated the Greek city-states from the yoke of Macedonia. But it was not long before the Romans felt it necessary to impose upon those quarrelsome Greeks a domination more stifling to Hellenic freedom and culture than ever Macedon had been. It is a duty of the Congress of the United States to see that great American Caesars do not act likewise.

Echo of 1984. If that duty is forgotten, before many years are out we may receive such television communications as follows.

The voice from the telescreen paused. A trumpet call, clear and beautiful, floated into the stagnant air. The voice continued raspingly: “Attention! Your attention please! A newsflash has this moment arrived from the Malabar front. Our forces in South India have won a glorious victory. I am authorized to say that the action we are now reporting may well bring the war within a measurable distance of its end. Here is the newsflash — ”

Bad news coming, thought Winston. And sure enough, following a gory description of the annihilation of a Eurasian army, with stupendous figures of killed and prisoners, came the announcement that, as of next week, the chocolate ration would be reduced from thirty grams to twenty.

Perhaps you have already recognized the preceding passage from Orwell’s 1984. Orwell describes our world of 1991, too. Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace comes to pass in an era of Righteousness — that is, national or ideological self-righteousness in which the public is persuaded that “God is on our side,” and that those who disagree should be brought here before the bar as war criminals.

I shall have more to say about such concerns in my Third Heritage lecture this year. Just now I conclude my thoughts on Republican errors by suggesting that it would be ruinous for the Republicans to convert themselves into a party of high deeds in distant lands and higher taxes on the home front. Such a New World Order, like the Pax Romana, might create a wilderness and call it peace; at best, it would reduce the chocolate ration from thirty grams to twenty. And in the fullness of time, the angry peoples of the world would pull down the American Empire, despite its military ingenuity and its protestations of kindness and gentleness — even as the Soviet Empire is being pulled down today, thanks be to God.


3 thoughts on “Russell Kirk on War for Oil (and more)

  1. Tim December 16, 2006 / 5:22 am

    The ultimate absurdity of “war for oil” is it’s economic.

    Economist Donald Losman. professor of economics at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, National Defense University, wrote this in October 2001, note the date.

    “It has probably cost $30-$60 billion a year to safeguard Middle East oil supplies. That is outrageously high relative to the total value ($54 billion in 1999) of imported crude, of which only $15 billion came from the Persian Gulf. It is also a huge burden for the Pentagon, aggravating problems of high operations tempos, readiness, and retention.”

    “Clearly, we must re-think the insertion of economic goals into our national security strategy. Economic security is best addressed by the market….”

    Nobel prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz has recently argued that the Iraq war could cost the USA in excess of $2 Trillion dollars. (See here).

    So the cost of the war is in excess of 133 years worth of US Persian Gulf oil imports. It would seem to me that’s it’s either not about oil or America’s leaders can’t count.

  2. Tim December 16, 2006 / 5:23 am

    By the way, the quote from Donald Losman was sourced here.

  3. Joe Populist December 18, 2006 / 5:34 pm

    Thanks for finding the Kirk essay…it’s a glorious rebuke of the “New World Order”, or as Kirk pointed out, Orwell’s 1984 “Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace”. What I supposed most modern or younger conservatives might dispute is that this “perpetual war for perpetual peace” is a necessary consequense of globalization. What the war is ultimately about the protection of the “New World Order” of world government and international finance capitalism. “Free Markets” indeed…the US Military must make the world “safe” for international finance capitalism, for American Corporate investments abroad…for Alan Greenspan “export inflation” economic policy, and Milton Friedman’s monetary economic theories. Ironically the AHI and CATO are doing is just proving that Lenin was right all along, that capitalism breeds imperialism and imperialism breeds contant war.

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