The Truth, Mainly - 07/16/2007

Why Are We Still In Iraq? Oil?
by Leon Satterfield

A naive and recurring question that wakes me up at 2 a.m. in a cold sweat: Why are we still fighting in Iraq?

The first answer I usually come up with is the one that once seemed most obvious: We're fighting in Iraq because of the horrendous 9/11 attack on us. But then I remember: the guy we're told was responsible for 9/11 isn't an Iraqi. He was—and still is, we believe—a resident of Afghanistan.

You remember him: Osama bin Laden.

He doesn't much like Iraqis and they don't much like him. And how long's it been since our administration mentioned him? He's become the invisible man and we don't seem much alarmed about it.

So if Osama bin Laden isn't the reason we're fighting in Iraq, it must be the Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein. He not only tried to kill the first President Bush, he killed thousands of his fellow Iraqis.

But then I remember. Saddam isn't with us anymore, having left last year via the hangman's noose.

So if Saddam is dead and Osama bin Laden is hiding out somewhere in Afghanistan, the question comes up again: Why are we still fighting in Iraq?

Are we having a hard time reading a map or what?

But if you're a serious cynic like me, you've got a sneaking suspicion that we're still fighting in Iraq at least in part because of—you guessed it—oil. Say it loud and there's music playing; say it soft and it's almost like praying.

Iraq and Iran sit atop lots and lots of high grade oil. And if various factions in the two countries would stop killing one another, the oil would be relatively easy to get at, and it would appease those of us who consider war a seriously expensive price to pay for filling our tanks.

How expensive? Pretty damned if you consider how it causes us to lose support of several political groups in Iraq, including one called the Sadrists who object to a proposal before the Iraqi parliament. They object, according to an A.P. story last Tuesday, because the proposal is being "pushed by the United States because it would allow foreign investment in the oil industry, which they say is a plot to give American companies control of Iraqi oil."

Picky, picky, picky.

And another A.P. story on Tuesday rubbed our noses in this bit of our wild spending:

"The boost in troop levels in Iraq has increased [our] cost of war there and in Afghanistan to $12 billion a month, with the overall tally for Iraq alone nearing a half-trillion dollars, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, which provides research and analysis to lawmakers."

How many zeros in "a half-trillion dollars"? As an English major, I always thought that "trillion" was a number like "gazillion," and that it meant "a whole helluva lot more than you can imagine."

But hold on. There's some good news out there, news that offers some hope that we might some day be able to reduce our gargantuan reliance on foreign oil.

Most of that reliance, you already know, is tied up in our love affairs with our cars. And often the cars that titillate the most are those that burn the most gasoline.

But last Monday, I was reading the Denver Post and on page 3B came upon a news story that has kept me titillated for seven days now. That's a titillation longevity record for me.

Here’s what set me off:

Eleven undergraduates from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire went to Colorado to show off to the state legislature what they'd done to drive oil companies crazy: they had messed around with two vehicles—a bus named Big Green Bus, and a Volkswagen Jetta— so they'd run on used (and filtered) vegetable oil that they got free from "greasy spoon restaurants that normally have to pay to have the oil taken away."

One Colorado state legislator, Rep. Debbie Bedfield, said that cars that can run on used vegetable oil constitute "a great hope."

It's the kind of automotive great leap forward that might help set us free from our dependence on big oil, no matter the country of origin.

An indelicate question: If undergraduates can come up with vehicles propelled by used vegetable oil, why can't car company engineers come up with something better than we've got now?

I'm not going to end this by saying naively that the more cars that can run on vegetable oil, the less we would need oil from Iraq and Iran and the earlier we could bring our troops home.

But to a befuddled old English major who likes to lift lines from Hemingway, it's awfully pretty to think so.


Retired English Professor Leon Satterfield writes to salvage clarity from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays. His e-mail address is:

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