Wars of plunder?

In an uncharacteristically silly post, Erik asserts that all wars are either defensive or driven by “plunder.” He also suggests that the United States’ invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were somehow motivated by a nefarious cabal bent on self-enrichment. I find this line of analysis wildly unpersuasive.

A quick survey of human history reveals innumerable wars that were started for reasons other than plunder or protection. A freak assassination and a series of strategic miscalculations by the Great Powers set off World War I. One of Erik’s own examples – the Crusades – was in many respects more of a religious revival than a military campaign. Pope Urban himself was caught off guard by the overwhelming popular response to his call to action, and contemporary accounts of the French nobility spontaneously taking the cross and selling off their worldly possessions belie the notion that this was some crude colonial venture. Godfrey of Bouillon, the first Frankish King of Jerusalem, actually gave up his estates to equip retainers for the journey East.

As for Afghanistan, I’m at a loss to explain how occupying one of the most impoverished countries in the world – an occupation that isn’t cheap, by the way – constitutes a war of plunder. I’m happy to debate the merits of our approach to Afghanistan (I’ve laid out the case for staying here and here, among other places), but I think it’s obvious that there are serious, sober-minded reasons to stay that go beyond pillaging the countryside.

Now we come to Iraq. In retrospect, it seems reasonably clear that Bush’s decision to invade was informed by some combination of strategic miscalculations and a genuine belief that the Middle East could be transformed through democracy promotion. I don’t doubt that some military contractors were enriched by the invasion, but one of my great frustrations with the antiwar movement is its frequent lapses into wild-eyed conspiracism, a tendency that does a great disservice to serious arguments against irresponsible wars. Ranting on about “no blood for oil” is the exact thing pundits across the political spectrum seized upon to discredit the anti-war movement in 2003, and I’d hate to see the debate over Afghanistan – or any other issue – muddled by similarly irresponsible claims.

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30 thoughts on “Wars of plunder?

  1. Though it’s indisputable that Perle, Wolfowitz, and the usual suspects had wanted to invade Iraq for some time and jumped on 9/11 as a way of making it happen. That’s enough bad faith for me.

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      • @Will, It doesn’t mean some of them weren’t either, though as our veteran guest below points out, they failed miserably in the task. I think clearly some of them saw Iraq as a place where the use of American force was far more justified by real “interests” than they saw Afghanistan to be. I think it is unrealistic to deny this. It is also basically impossible to isolate the “real” reasons the invasion happened. Whose intentions are really the relevant ones? Which people truly drove the decision making? The case that “plunder” was present in the thinking of some of the key architects of that war is far greater than for the Afghan war, though ultimately, as you say, to say it was a “War of Plunder” is just too reductive to have real meaning. It was (is) a war of many things.

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            • @Will, Hard not to see it as implying that maybe we wouldn’t stop at breaking even. After all, for the U.S. treasury to recoup the costs of a war, American industry would have to reap quite a bonanza that they could tax back part of. Whatever the formal limitations on that statement, it’s a rather clear indication of the kind of economic thinking that was well established among the partisans of that particular war (a party that was incorporated more than half a decade by the time the justifications for the impending invasion were being given in 2003). How often does it need to have been argued by PNAC-types well before 9/11 that Saddam’s controlling the world’s second-largest petroleum reserve constituted a threat to America’s energy security before it could be taken as axiomatic that a war to overthrow him absent a direct threat or Kuwait-like action from him would have a economic component? Plundering is a pretty silly word, but it’s pretty much what that is.

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            • @Will,

              It would also have been trivially easy to make the Iraq War pay for itself. Just have the U.S. government steal (err, manage, or maybe “appropriate”) everything it can — oil, gas, ancient artworks while we’re at it (for safe keeping, of course).

              Who’d have stopped us? And why’d we leave all that yummy loot to freelancers? You’re definitely right, they didn’t even try to make the war pay for itself. That’s because the taxpayers footed the bill.

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  2. As an Iraq war veteran, I believe the invasion and subsequent nation building were ill advised.

    But I do take exception to the much propagated idea that the war was about securing Iraq’s oil. Oil companies based in the United States were largely shut out of oil rights negotiations, and obtained less than 10 percent of the contracts.

    The only “plundering” was that of the U.S. taxpayer.

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  3. As an Iraq war veteran, I believe the invasion and subsequent nation building were ill advised.

    But I do take exception to the much propagated idea that the war was about securing Iraq’s oil. Oil companies based in the United States were largely shut out of oil rights negotiations, and obtained less than 10 percent of the contracts.

    The only “plundering” was that of the U.S. taxpayer.

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  4. From Dictionary.com:
    plun·der
    ? ?/?pl?nd?r/
    –verb (used with object)
    1. to rob of goods or valuables by open force, as in war, hostile raids, brigandage, etc.: to plunder a town.
    2. to rob, despoil, or fleece: to plunder the public treasury.
    3. to take wrongfully, as by pillage, robbery, or fraud: to plunder a piece of property.

    How are Iraq and Afghanistan not wars of “plunder”? The US had the right to despoil these countries and rob people of their lives?

    OH, wars of “protection”, you might say. I would say, “bullshit”. If we are that scared, we have lost all perspective.

    George Carlin said it best. We like war. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sDkhzHQO7jY

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