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Axis of Evil or Access to Diesel? Reflections on the Iraq War

by Andreas Bieler on June 22, 2015

Did the Iraq war simply reflect the unitary decision by the U.S. state to assert its interests in the global political economy or was it the result of co-operation by a group of allied capitalist countries to secure access to oil in the Middle East? Alternatively, did the use of military force reflect the interests of an emerging transnational state? My latest article with Adam Morton, entitled ‘Axis of Evil or Access to Diesel? Spaces of New Imperialism and the Iraq War’ is now published in the journal Historical Materialism and attempts to address these questions.

We analyse the relationship between geopolitical and capitalist dynamics underlying the decision to go to war. Importantly, we argue that only through a focus on the internal relation between geopolitical and global capitalist dynamics can we begin to comprehend the way the Iraq War contributed to the continuation of capitalist accumulation through what we refer to as a strategy of bomb & build.

By Simon Rutherford ( [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Simon Rutherford via Wikimedia Commons

We start by developing our argument through a critical engagement with classical and contemporary historical materialist thinkers and their different conceptualisations of geopolitics, noting three distinct positions. First, drawing on the earlier work of Lenin and Bukharin, Alex Callinicos analyses the Iraq war as a case of inter-imperialist rivalry between the U.S. and its ‘coalition of the willing’, on one hand, and France and Germany, but also China on the other hand. What his focus on U.S. imperialism, however, overlooks is the fact that large parts of the internal oil market are highly integrated and completely outside the control of any one particular state.

Second, Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin can be noted for their emphasis on co-operation between capitalist countries under the leadership of the U.S. state in securing access to oil. Rather than highlighting rivalries between the U.S. and other states, these authors emphasise the continuity of inter-state co-operation, whether through collaboration with intelligence services or airspace deals over rendition and torture centres. To some extent this position mirrors the classical ultra-imperialism thesis of Karl Kautsky and his focus on a ‘holy alliance of the imperialists’ in managing the global political economy.

Third, we critically engage with William Robinson and his transnational state thesis, in which he argues that the transnational state exists as a loose network of supranational political and economic institutions combined with national state apparatuses that have become dominated by transnational capitalist classes. The argument is that the transnational state used the U.S. state apparatus in order to impose the interests of a newly dominant transnational capitalist class on the global economy.


Ultimately, what all three approaches have in common is their conceptualisation of the external relationship between geopolitics and global capitalism, or the separation of the political and the economic. These spheres are held as two distinct logics, a geopolitical and a capitalist logic, so that the internal relations between these two dynamics are missed.

Following on from our International Studies Quarterly article and in contrast to the above positions, our main focus is to assert the philosophy of internal relations as the hallmark of historical materialism. Developed by Bertell Ollman, the philosophy of internal relations implies that the character of capital is considered as a social relation in such a way that the internal ties between the means of production, and those who own them, as well as those who work them, as well as the realisation of value within historically specific conditions, are all understood as relations internal to each other. Thus, historical materialist analysis is at its best in understanding the character of capital as a social relation in such a way that the ties between capitalism and geopolitics are understood as interior relations. How does this then help in assessing the agency of state power, or geopolitics, and the structural context of capitalist expansion surrounding the war in Iraq? Transnational capital is not understood as externally related to states, engaged in competition over authority in the global economy. Instead our focus shifts to class struggles over the extent to which the interests of transnational capital have become internalised or not within concrete forms of state and here in particular the U.S. form of state.

Our argument is that protecting and promoting U.S. geopolitics through the use of force has long been a strategy of neo-conservatives who were at the heart of the George W. Bush administration reflecting the interests of a national fraction of capital. With multilateralism at an impasse within the United Nations, the rhetoric of neo-conservative unilateralism gained salience, while the interests of transnational capital were side-lined within the U.S. form of state. A dominant discourse of U.S. unilateralism at that time emerged, linked to the nationalist wing of the U.S. elite rooted within national fractions of capital tied to the arms industry and key construction companies such as Bechtel. This wing retained firm roots within the Military-Industrial-Academic-Complex, key to understanding some of the dynamics of U.S. geopolitics.

21 Mar 2003, Baghdad, Iraq --- The second night of war in Iraq brings heavy bombing in Baghdad and the start of the United States' "Shock and Awe" campaign. --- Image by © Olivier Coret - Antoine Serra/In Visu/Corbis

21 Mar 2003, Baghdad, Iraq — The second night of war in Iraq brings heavy bombing in Baghdad and the start of the United States’ “Shock and Awe” campaign. — Image by © Olivier Coret – Antoine Serra/In Visu/Corbis

Unsurprisingly, companies part of this national capitalist class fraction were also the ones receiving the most contracts from the aftermath of the Iraq War. Halliburton was given a huge contract to run the Green Zone in Baghdad and was hired to help run the ‘living support services’ of the Coalitional Provisional Authority. As reported in The New York Times, it was also given ‘the exclusive United States contract to import fuel into Iraq’ and in March 2003 ‘was awarded a no-competition contract to repair Iraq’s oil industry’, having already received more than $1.4 billion in work. The major U.S. engineering company Bechtel, in turn, was given the first contract awarded by USAID in April 2003, and was awarded a second contract in January 2004, tasked with providing ‘a major program of engineering, procurement, and construction services for a series of new Iraqi infrastructure projects . . . at a total value of up to $1.8 billion’.

Furthermore, in terms of the contractual reconstruction of the built environment in Iraq, the role forged in the early days by the U.S.-led Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance in Iraq involved a main $680 million contract for the reconstruction of electrical, water and sewage systems, which was granted to the Bechtel Group. The senior vice-president of Bechtel, Jack Sheehan, was a member of the Defence Policy Board, a Pentagon advisory group whose members were approved by the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld. George Schultz, the former secretary of state, was also on Bechtel’s board and chaired the advisory board of the pro-war Committee for the Liberation of Iraq. The contract was, at the time, the largest of an initial $1.1 billion reconstruction project headed by the United States Agency for International Development. It also led to further awards to Bechtel to repair airports, dredge and restore ports such as Umm Qasr, rebuild hospitals, schools, government ministries and irrigation systems, and restore transport links, with the Guardian reporting that it gave ‘Bechtel an overwhelmingly important role in virtually every area of Iraqi society.’ A $7 billion contract for controlling oil fires was also awarded to Kellogg, Brown & Root, a division of Halliburton, once run by vice-president Dick Cheney.


060616-N-9712C-007 Fallujah, Iraq (June 16, 2006) - Seabees assigned to Naval Mobile Construction Battalion Four Zero (NMCB-40) were tasked with rebuilding a damaged bridge used heavily by Iraqi citizens. NMCB-40 is currently deployed providing support to Coalition Multi-National Forces throughout Iraq. U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate 3rd Class John P. Curtis (RELEASED)

Fallujah, Iraq (June 16, 2006) – Seabees assigned to Naval Mobile Construction Battalion Four Zero (NMCB-40) were tasked with rebuilding a damaged bridge used heavily by Iraqi citizens. NMCB-40 is currently deployed providing support to Coalition Multi-National Forces throughout Iraq. U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 3rd Class John P. Curtis (RELEASED)

Ultimately, we conclude in the article, that the war on Iraq therefore reflects a capitalist accumulation strategy of bomb & build. Our analysis demonstrates the importance of the creation of the physical infrastructure in the built environment through fixed capital within conditions of global war as one way of providing temporary relief from the problems of overaccumulation and the crisis tendencies of capitalism. The internal relation of geopolitics and global capitalism can therefore be read through the complex internal linkages of bomb & build in relation to the Iraq War.

In other words, through new imperialist interventions in Iraq and, perhaps, elsewhere (Afghanistan, or Libya), we can witness the spatial reordering of the built environment through militarism and other mechanisms of finance linked to specific class fractions within the U.S. state form and thus the policy of bomb & build on a world scale.

Andreas Bieler
Andreas Bieler is Professor of Political Economy at the University of Nottingham and Co-Director of the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice (CSSGJ).
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  • July 3, 2015 at 5:44 pm

    Hi Andreas and Adam and thanks for the interesting article and post. Unfortunately, this sort of argument has always struck me as a classic case of the “post hoc ergo propter hoc” fallacy, i.e. “X happened after Y, therefore X caused Y”. Yes, major US firms got reconstruction, security and oil contracts in Iraq after the invasion. Does that mean the US state invaded Iraq to provide such contracts? In order for that to be even plausible, one would need to show that the invasion was necessary to resolve some fundamental crisis of capital accumulation for firms in this sector. Of this there is simply no evidence.

    The arguments around oil have always made the least possible sense to me, particularly after my studies of Iraq for my forthcoming book on sanctions. Harvey and others’ notion that the US wanted control of the Iraqi “oil spigot” completely forget that the entire Iraqi economy was under extremely tight international control through the most comprehensive sanctions regime ever imposed. If the US/ global capitalist economy was so desperate for oil, the West could have eased that regime more than it had, in order to allow the Iraqi oil industry to recover more quickly from war damage and sanctions, and export more oil. The Iraqi economy has always been completely dependent on oil exports, so any opportunity to increase these would have been immediately taken. Moreover, the oil would have immediately been released onto world markets, regardless of whether the contracts to lift/ export the oil went to French/ Russian or US/ UK firms, because oil majors do not (despite what many people imagine) suck up oil to deliver it to their “home” countries but sell it on a global marketplace where anyone can buy it. I’d add that the Iraqi regime’s first moves under the Oil for Food Programme was to offer oil deals to UK and US firms, who could thus clearly identify an end to the sanctions regime as an opportunity for them. (Furthermore, most of the oil deals in Iraq have subsequently gone to Chinese oil firms.) If the sole purpose of the war was to release oil onto the market, this could easily have been achieved without war; the invasion was not “necessary” from the perspective of perpetuating capitalist accumulation. Yet, war happened; so we need to identify what was necessary about it.

    I think broadly similar arguments apply for the logistics and security firms who got the post-war contracts in Iraq. This is just an extension of the old argument about the military-industrial complex – which is old precisely because some capitalist enterprises have always been associated with the military. But just as Krups did not cause WWI, nor did Bechtel cause the Iraq War. Just because they got some lucrative post-war deals doesn’t mean that the war was necessary for them, that policymakers actually believed that these sectors could only be advanced through a massively costly invasion of a foreign country. That they reaped the benefits says more about the way in which pre-existing power structures tend to determine the division of spoils from any new event. It doesn’t necessarily tell us about what caused the event. Even if we accepted that specific fractions of capital have somehow been able to direct the US state to pursue a “bomb and build” strategy, this would not really explain why Iraq was specifically selected, nor why this “bomb and build” strategy seems to have ended there.

    My own reading of the Iraq war, which is inevitably influenced by my work on sanctions, suggests that geopolitical logics operated at significantly greater remove from capitalist logics, though I entirely accept your view that they are part of the same social whole. The most persuasive reading of US/UK policy on Iraq in the 1990s is that, recognising that Saddam Hussein was not going to be overthrown, they settled for the lesser goal of “containment”, as part of the wider policy of “dual containment” of both Iraq and Iran. You’ll recall that the US had basically backed both sides in the Iran-Iraq war in order to keep the conflict going; they both exited it extremely weakened and that’s how the West wanted it to continue. After the first Gulf War – which I entirely concede was about avoiding Iraq cornering the international oil market (not for direct US benefit but to avoid disruption to Japanese and European markets) – the US sought to prevent Iraq returning to a powerful geopolitical position. This is why they insisted on maintaining the sanctions regime despite extensive evidence that Saddam had disarmed by the early to mid 1990s.

    The problem by the late 1990s, however, was that sanctions were eroding. Growing international and domestic pressure had forced them to concede the Oil for Food Programme, which led to a modest economic recovery and allowed Saddam to start fracturing support for the embargo through offering trade contracts to economic and political entities all over the world. By c.2000, Iraq was poised on the brink of international rehabilitation. The fear among US and UK policymakers was not really that Iraq possessed WMD; there was never any good evidence for this. The fear was that, if Iraq was allowed to revive economically under Saddam Hussein, it would eventually rearm and threaten the security and stability of the region. Their unwillingness to accept this is, in my view, why the unravelling of sanctions ultimately led to war.

    The case was certainly bolstered by prevailing liberal ideology about the peculiar threat posed to global order by what were initially called “backlash states”, and later “rogue states” and the “axis of evil”, i.e. governments resisting globalization and the “inevitable” move towards more liberal political and economic regulation. But this alone can’t suffice to explain why Iraq was singled out. That’s where geopolitics, coupled with “geoeconomics”, has to come in.

    Obviously, as in the first Gulf War, the reason why the prospect of Iraqi rearmament mattered was, ultimately, about oil supplies. But this implies a far more mediated relationship between foreign policy decisionmaking and the global capitalist order than “disaster capitalism” or a “strategy of bomb and build” suggests, where the state acts on behalf of specific fractions of domestic capital in order to boost their profits. It instead implies that hegemonic states see themselves as being in the business of providing global “public goods” focused on “stability” and “security”, necessary for the smooth functioning of “the economy” (i.e. capitalism in general). The strongest geopolitical commitments are those bolstered by this underlying concern.

    Anyway, these are my two cents — I’m sorry this has turned into such a long “comment”!

    • July 6, 2015 at 7:44 pm

      Many thanks, Lee, for your detailed engagement with Adam’s and my article. Similar to your own view, we are also skeptical about the ‘global oil spigot’ argument and outline this position in our engagement Alex Callinicos’ work (see his reply HERE and our rejoinder HERE). Moreover, we agree with you that there is generally no direct causal relationship between a crisis of overaccumulation and the Iraq war. Our emphasis, instead, is on how a set of intellectuals of statecraft, representing interests of national capitalist class fractions in the U.S., won over transnational capital on this occasion in pushing for a unilateral strategy vis-a-vis Iraq, once multilateralism through the UN had become impossible.

      In short, we agree, there is no direct, structural causal relationship between capitalist crisis and the Iraq war. However, through our focus on class struggle we can reveal that national U.S. capital successfully pushed for its specific material interests within the U.S. form of state.

  • Zinc
    August 22, 2016 at 7:55 am

    The Politics of Christian Zionism was the key factor in the war, your article acknowledges only the accommodating factors.

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