From Stealing to Robbing:
A Post-Script to "No Blood for Oil!"


a talk given by George Caffentzis
at Stony Brook University on March 27, 2003



After the great international day of protest on February 15, there was hope that these "No Blood for Oil!" protests (along with a clear division on the nation state level between the US and UK and France, China and Russia within the UN Security Council) would stop the drive to war.

Unfortunately, though not surprisingly, this did not happen. In order to better understand the present situation we are in it is useful to see the differences between the present invasion and the one perpetrated by the UK, France and Israel in late October and early November 1956 against Egypt. I will not go into the details concerning the 1956 invasion, but it was "triggered" by Gamal Abdel Nasser's decision to nationalize the Suez Canal. This meant the British and French Consortium that ran the canal was expropriated. After making formal protests, the British and French governments began to plan an invasion to physically take back the canal. They were preempted by the Israelis who were also anxious about the growing power of Nasser's form of Pan-Arab ideology. The Israeli Army invaded the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza (which was then under Egyptian control) on October 29, 1956. Within a few days the Israelis thoroughly
defeated the Egyptian defenders and were on the eastern bank of the canal. The British and French forces followed with an invasion from the sea on Port Said on Nov. 6. They too rapidly destroyed the military opposition and were ready to take hold of the canal from Port Said (in the north of canal) to Suez (on the south end of the canal) in a few days. Of course, there were tremendous protests in the streets of the Middle East, in the Third World (the Bandung conference has just take place) and in the socialist world. It all is reminiscent of the present situation, with this difference. Both the US and the USSR governments intervened barely a day after the UK/French assault. Eisenhower and Krushchev separately called the British, French and Israeli governments and made it clear that they would not allow this invasion to pass. The Soviets said that this invasion was the cause of war and were threatening to send 250,000 troops to Egypt while the US government threatened to cut the funding for all three countries (a threat which had a special resonance with the Israelis who were totally dependent on US aid). No such intervention on a nation state level is possible now even though four of the most powerful economic and military states on the planet (France, Russia, Germany and China) officially oppose the invasion and are members of the Security Council. It is hardly likely, for example, that the Russians will threaten to send in a quarter of a million troops into Iraq this time. None of these nations can separately threaten the economic fate of the US. Consequently, one is hardly likely to see the kind of institutional response to the invasion of Iraq that was seen almost fifty years ago with the invasion of Egypt. Fifty years ago, the invasion meant to destroy Nasser turned out to revitalize his power for more than a decade, this is hardly going to be the fate of Saddam Hussein.

Therefore, it is only a supranational force that can have an impact powerful enough to stop the US/UK aggression against the Iraqi people. And that force is, like it or not, the world-wide antiwar movement. Our demonstrations are already beginning to have their impact on the battlefield which is Iraq given the fact that electricity is still on in Baghdad (and that means that water purification continues). But the victories are very fragile and they cannot be relied upon unless the movement continues protesting with an ever increasing intensity and effectiveness. We must be prepared, however, for many surprises and rouses, especially now that the struggle against capitalist globalization is moving into a new terrain. One of the most important aspects of this terrain is that the armed robbery aspect of the war is becoming as important as its mass murder aspect. We have been concentrating our outrage (quite properly) on the immediate and long-term civilian casualties of the war, but now the fate of Iraqi oil will have to receive fuller attention from the antiwar movement. Our movement's argument has been that this invasion is part of a war for oil on many levels. This has been verified by the behavior of the US troops whose first mission was to occupy the oil fields of southern Iraq and to begin a similar effort in the north, even before the major military sites have been confronted. The US/UK spokespeople proudly claim that their troops now control more than 50% of the Iraqi oil production facilities as if to say they have already won the war. But these spokespeople know that the problem with the control of oil is that it is useless for the US government unless it can be sold on the world market. The question of the legality of US/UK control of Iraqi oil is now coming to haunt these two powerful states. For in the days of the early oil nationalizations one of the most potent tactics they used was to seize oil that was nationalized in foreign ports. A perfect example of this tactic occurred after the most dramatic nationalization of oil resources in Iran in 1951 when Dr. Mossedegh, the Prime Minister, was voted into power. In response to the Mossedegh nationalization of British interests in Iran, London now gradually organized a total boycott of Iranian oil. Armed with the judgement of the International Court, the British authorities systematically seized all cargoes of Iranian crude on arrival at their ports of destination, in Europe and Japan, under the pretext that they legally belonged to the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, and that the Iranian government had no right to sell them. The infant National Iranian Oil Company did manage to deliver a few thousand tons of crude, but one by one, all the ports were closed to its oil, stigmatized as "red" by Britain, to whose side the United States soon rallied (Terzian, Pierre, OPEC: The Inside Story. London: Zed Books, 1985, p.13)

If tomorrow the US or UK attempt to sell Iraqi oil to which they have no right, they are open to the same treatment they meted out to Iran a half century ago. Individual countries might seize oil that was illegally expropriated by the US and UK and keep the funds of purchase in escrow or pay it to the legitimate government of Iraq, which at the moment is Saddam Hussein's, but tomorrow might be another one that is equally hostile to the US/UK's policies and plans. The major problem that the UN Security Council's lack of support for the invasion caused the US and UK is not on a military level, but on an economic and legal one. In fact, the first conflict around the Iraq invasion in the Security Council was not about the military aspect of the war, but around the question of oil and who has the right to it. This issue is vital to the Bush and Blair Administration's survival. Since there was so little support for the invasion among the European and Middle Eastern governments, it is unlikely that the US and UK can make them pay for it. That means that the Bush and Blair Administration must find a way for the Iraqi people to pay for the US/UK military's invasion, destruction and occupation of their own country or else the US/UK budget deficits will be dangerously large. To manage this scheme, the US government is claiming the right to market Iraqi oil immediately and use the proceeds to purchase "humanitarian aid" for the Iraqi people, especially since the northern Iraqi fields are still pumping oil into Ceyhan in Turkey. However, the oil merchants in Turkey are not willing to trade Iraqi oil until its legal status is resolved, because bankers are not providing letters of credit to them and the bankers want to know: Is this oil the US's, the UN's or the Iraqi government's property? But without the UN giving the US/UK governments the right to intervene, these governments have no right to expropriate (i.e., rob) Iraqi oil. In such circumstances there is a need for a "fence" to market the ill-gotten gains. It appears that, in the eyes of the Bush Administration, the main role the UN is destined to play in Iraq will be that of a "fence,"
and Kofi Annan is perfectly happy to have the UN play such a "vital" role. For right after the invasion Annan drafted a resolution that would make it possible for the US to have access to as much as $8 billion in the UN-Iraq "oil for food" escrow account and to the proceeds of future oil sales.

The Russian response to Annan's attempt to use the UN as a fence for the robbed Iraqi oil is instructive. Although the Russians of 2003 are much more tamed than their ancestors in 1956, they still suspect that the US can be stopped from profiting from their robbery even though they cannot (or are unwilling to) stop the robbery itself. According to the New York Times (March 26, 2003), the Russian envoy to the UN, Sergey Lavrov, said: "The legal consequences and political consequences" of [Annan's] resolution could be to circumvent international law, which requires "occupying belligerents" to make reparations in the damages caused in the conflict. To use funds generated by Iraqi oil for relief after an American-led war...is equivalent to making Iraqis pay for their own humanitarian aid.'(p. B15) This suspicion should tell us that this is a weak spot for the Bush and Blair administrations, since both are deeply involved in the energy markets of the planet. They are concerned about the legitimacy of their dealing on these markets. Their attempt to sell Iraqi oil illegally might very well undermine it, if they do not manage to get the right to sell the Iraqi oil from the UN Security Council and if our world-wide movement refuses to yield to its demands, which will undoubtedly by justified by claiming that the oil sales money will be used for "rebuilding Iraq" (after they destroyed it!) This is a battle that the antiwar movement is intervening on in order to be sure that the US and UK governments do not give legitimacy to their armed robbery.

The world-wide boycott of US owned goods now includes the robbed Iraqi oil. Legal and political pressure from the growing boycott movement will undoubtedly be put on the oil companies on a national level to force them to refuse to deal in contraband oil. Whatever the fate of this boycott movement, it is important to recognize that this invasion marks a major change in the form of political economy of the last two decades called neoliberal globalization. Its modus operandi has recently changed from stealing to robbing. Stealing and robbing differ, of course. Stealing is unlawfully appropriating another's property secretly or surreptitiously while robbing is unlawfully appropriating another's property by using or threatening to use force and violence. The first phase of globalization was the stealing phase. The combined effect of the IMF, the World Bank, the WTO and the structural adjustment programs imposed under the guise of the debt crisis erased the reparations the colonial powers owed their former colonies and put the latter into the debtor's position. A tremendous quantity of value was surreptitiously taken from the Third World countries in the period between 1982 and 2001. This was stealing, but in a grand, trillion dollar way. The Iraq invasion opens up the phase of the globalization of robbery. In other words, instead of simply using the sophisticated tools of high finance to appropriate wealth illegally, we are entering a phase when the US government and its allies are using the sophisticated tools of the modern military to appropriate wealth illegally. We might ask "why did the US and the UK go from the stealing phase of capitalism to its robbing phase?" This is an important question in the newly developing discipline of national-government criminology.

Certainly, it is often very hard to answer the question--"why did s/he stop simply stealing and turned to armed robbery?"--on an individual level in every-day criminology. The answer is not simple on a national-government one either, but I believe that an outline of it can be found in my "No Blood for Oil!" piece. In a nutshell, the invasion of Iraq is a desperate act by the Bush Administration because capitalism's old sly and surreptitious stealing ways no longer work. The crisis of the older form was clearly seen in the Russian default of 1998 where secret and surreptitious expropriation was countered by a belligerent refusal on the nation state level to pay and by the Argentinean crisis of debt payments of 2001/2002 that came on in an equally secret and surreptitious way and was met by an open mass refusal to pay. The IMF's and World Bank's veiled financial threats to exile countries from credit sources is increasingly not working, since the impoverishment of their people has increased to a level that their social reproductive systems are collapsing. If stealing can no longer work to appropriate another's wealth, is robbery far behind?