What explains the never-ending justifications for U.S. involvement in Middle Eastern conflicts? In a word: oil.

Sure, President Barack Obama may have dropped food and water on that desolate Iraqi mountaintop out of humanitarian concern for the persecuted Yazidi minority. But he didn’t drop any bombs until Islamic State fighters began to threaten Kurdish oil supplies.

Dipping Finger in Oil


No wonder. Thousands of Americans have settled in Erbil, Kurdistan’s capital. They’re helping the Kurds maximize their output and making sure that ExxonMobil, Chevron, and other U.S. oil companies get their fair share, or more. No president could stand to let that booming business run dry.

Oil can also heal longstanding rifts. For decades, the United States and Europe agreed with Turkey in its view that the Kurdistan Worker’s Party movement, known by the Kurdish abbreviation PKK, amounted to a pack of terrorists. Now, the PKK fighters are leading allies in the fight to stop the Islamic State in its tracks.

Well, oil and awkwardness. It’s embarrassing that Islamic State fighters keep nabbing howitzers, Humvees, and other U.S. military weapons and gear when Iraqi forces surrender to them.

Hence it was suddenly vital in early August for the United States to ferry heavier weapons to the Kurds. Our leaders also needed to help protect struggling oil-heavy Baghdad and whoever ends up in charge there.

As hapless as Iraq’s leaders have proven to be in these 11 long years since George W. Bush flashed a clueless grin in his unfortunate “Mission Accomplished” photo-op, it will surely be easier to deal with that crowd than the Islamic State’s caliphate-builders. The Islamic State extremists now control a Jordan-sized chunk of Syria and Iraq.

If Syria had more of the slick stuff, maybe Washington wouldn’t have found the willpower to stay largely on the sidelines in that brutal conflict.

Instead, this transformation of ISIS from an anti-Assad force to the aspiring propagator of a massive Muslim empire has created a new headache. The White House wanted to help Syria rid itself of Assad’s megalomaniac and brutal rule. It won’t be easy to fight that dictator and the Islamic State’s apocalyptic forces opposed to his rule at the same time.

Assad’s leadership longevity seemed much bleaker a few months back. But odd things can happen when the footage of an American journalist’s beheading gets zapped around the world. It has already given al-Qaeda an unusual opportunity to cast itself as more reasonable than its terrorist offshoot by freeing its own hostage U.S. reporter, freelancer Peter Theo Curtis.

With so many Middle East conflicts flaring at once, it’s nearly impossible to keep up. What could be next? How about easing the sanctions that have strangled Iran’s economy for years?

International talks regarding Iran’s nuclear program are inching along better than usual and Tehran has expressed some willingness to work with U.S. efforts to bring more stability to Iraq. As prospects have brightened, the flow of foreign executives to Iran has grown from a trickle to a river.

“Approximately every week, we have meetings with the delegations” from foreign oil companies companies, Iranian Petroleum Ministry spokesman Akbar Nematollahi told Bloomberg. “There have even been negotiations with some American companies. They are ready too.”

U.S. presidents have tirelessly tried since the 1979 revolution to isolate Iran, weaken it, and get our collective hands on its oil and gas. When the Eisenhower administration overthrew Iran’s elected government in 1953 it was all about “our” access to their oil too.

If Washington can suddenly get friendly with the PKK Kurds, why can’t it achieve a breakthrough with Iran, the world’s fourth-largest oil exporter?

After all, it will be much easier to tap Iran’s oil by waging peace than sticking with a stale economic war against that country.

In the meantime, someone better tell Secretary of State John Kerry to drop the PKK from his department’s terrorist list.

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Emily Schwartz GrecoWilliam A. Collins,

Emily Schwartz Greco is the managing editor of OtherWords, a non-profit national editorial service run by the Institute for Policy StudiesOtherWords columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk, Connecticut. OtherWords.org

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