Why couldn’t the U.S. have bought petroleum from Iraq after they took control over Kuwait’s oil supply?

  • The title mentions the first Iraq War, but the body of your question mentions the second Iraq War. Can you specify which one you're asking about? If it's the second one, then there's already a question that answers that.
    – F1Krazy
    Commented May 17, 2021 at 21:32
  • @F1Krazy Primarily the first Iraq war Commented May 17, 2021 at 21:33
  • 3
    Let's say you have a favorite taco truck. You buy tacos from that truck often on your lunch break, at least once or twice a week. You're friendly with the taco merchant, they recognize you, you exchange pleasantries. One week, employees of a nearby Taco Bell violently expel the taco merchant from their truck, leaving them bloody on the pavement, and these employees carry on selling tacos from the truck. Why can't you keep buying tacos from the truck? Commented May 17, 2021 at 21:48
  • 1
    Last sentence puts oil as the only alternative motivation to the WMD pretext. You don't consider in your question that there may be many other reasons for the war. Strategical control over the wider region? Big money for the defence sector? The intention to destabilise countries not directly control? We don't know what was their plan, but assuming either or is too simplistic.
    – FluidCode
    Commented May 17, 2021 at 21:57
  • @FluidCode Maybe using "or" was admittedly poor word choice. Do you have another theory though? Commented May 17, 2021 at 22:04

4 Answers 4


Why couldn’t the U.S. have bought petroleum from Iraq after they took control over Kuwait’s oil supply?

Part of the reason for the quick international action on Kuwait during Gulf War 1 was that the West was worried that Iraq could then menace the Saudi oil fields as well, which would have given them a huge leverage over the global oil markets (by controlling their own, Kuwait's and Saudi Arabia's). And would also have made staging the Kuwait liberation force much harder.


The American troops and planes being sent to Saudi Arabia tonight are intended to be part of a broad international force designed to deter an Iraqi attack on Saudi oilfields and to intimidate President Saddam Hussein of Iraq.

The first United States contingent is not large enough to take on the million-member Iraqi Army. More than 100,000 Iraqi troops are in Kuwait. But Pentagon officials said the force could be considerably augmented if the need should arise.

The move ordered by President Bush is plainly intended to demonstrate that any Iraqi attack on Saudi Arabia would mean a direct confrontation with the United States, a confrontation that would bring the full weight of American military force against Iraq from bases around the world and aircraft carriers deployed in the region.

So, no, "business as usual" wouldn't be very applicable here. And there is also a big difference between buying oil from an "unfriendly" government that took over its own country (Iran, Venezuela) and rewarding one that stole that oil from another (Iraq).

  • Unfortunately I don't have any source, just my memory, but I well remember that after invading Kuwait Saddam asked to open peace talks implying that he was ready to withdraw in exchange for something. But the then president, Bush senior flatly denied any possibility to talk.
    – FluidCode
    Commented May 17, 2021 at 22:16

I don't think capturing the oil was a motivation for the US at all, but the oil markets played a big part in many of the events surrounding the war.

  • After the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq took place in Jul 1990, oil prices spiked, reaching a peak in Sep 1990. Historical price chart - note, it is adjusted for inflation. Nominal prices were in the $10/barrel range prior to the Kuwait invasion.

  • The pre-invasion oil price was not considered remarkable, but after the invasion people in the US became concerned (vague personal recollection, was a child). News programs would make references to the 1970s oil crisis.

  • Whether by coincidence or not, the US economy went into a recession at exactly the same time, beginning August 1990. It would eventually cost GHW Bush his re-election -- Clinton's unofficial re-election slogan was "It's the economy, stupid" two years later. This put pressure on the White House to "do something".

  • Yet another oil angle was OPEC and how the US-OPEC relationship fit into the cold war. The power of OPEC had waned in the 1980s. The same oil chart above shows a big fall in the oil price in 1986, which put pressure on the USSR. However, in 1990 it was not yet suspected that the cold war would end the following summer. The connection to Iraq and Kuwait was the possibility of consolidating the power of OPEC, i.e. by controlling Iraq and Kuwait, and the mere possibility of intimidating Saudi Arabia. This may have been one of the factors in the price spike, although fears of the shooting in the oilfields were probably also in play. I found it interesting that the price chart actually comes down during Desert Shield and the peak already clearly passed when Desert Storm begins.

  • Last but not least, the US had a high priority relationship with Saudi Arabia, as the most important individual oil producer. While Kuwait may or may not have been expendable, as the OP question suggested in early edits, I suspect threatening the desert kingdom was a serious transgression, despite by the loose standards of behavior that were applied to countries then receiving US support. (Recall Iraq was supported by Reagan-Bush during the Iraq-Iran war in the 1980s)


I suspect that oil was pretext more than context in the first Gulf War. Had Iraq successfully annexed Kuwait, it would have had minimal impact on global oil markets, and the regional power balance would have shifted only slightly. Kuwait has always been a fairly minor player, and Hussein's regime was a major one; the other oil producing states would have complained, but it likely wouldn't have gone past sanctions and diplomatic snubs.

As I see it, the real motivating factor behind the first Gulf War was more geopolitical. The Soviet Union had collapsed two years prior, and the HW Bush administration was facing an existential question of how to justify the exorbitant US military industrial investments without another super-power as an opponent. One idea was to turn the US military into a kind of global police force that could unilaterally intervene in regional conflicts. The Gulf War and the invasion of Panama were (arguably) test cases for the policy. There's some evidence, in fact, that the Bush I administration indicated that the US had no interest in Iraq/Kuwaiti disagreements — ostensibly prompting Hussein to undertake the invasion — before turning around and beginning the war.

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    Please cite sources on your first assertion, that it was to justify the military industrial complex and not for oil. Re. the ambassador, it would help if you remembered, or at least mentioned, the context: Iraq had been accusing Kuwait of side-tapping wells into Iraqi oil fields. The ambassador was widely assumed later to have indicated a lack of US interest in arbitrating that dispute, not giving the green light for an invasion. No one, in the West - the Kurds & Iranians would have differed - really expected Saddam to be that loony at the time. Commented May 18, 2021 at 0:29

In addition to what Italian Philosophers 4 Monica said, there is also the matter of the Petrodollar. With control of Kuwait's oil fields, and especially if they can threaten Saudi oil production, Iraq could start selling oil for currencies other than USD. The American economy is heavily-reliant on USD being the reserve currency of the world; demand for USD staying high allows the issuance of Federal bonds at much lower interest rates than other countries with other currencies can. Further, a strong dollar keeps imports cheap, and a massive percentage of consumer goods are imported. If any country is allowed to sell oil for anything besides USD, the bottom falls out of the US economy. Inflation will go through the roof as all those dollars that used to be needed to buy oil are suddenly not so necessary.

Basically, its not just the oil itself at stake, but also the entire US monetary system. Even if Iraq was not planning to do this, the risk that they could was just too great.

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    That didn't happen until the current century. The 1991 war predated the main plausible alternative currency, as far as I know. Prior to the Kuwait invasion, Iraq was a US ally, most notably in the Iraq-Iran war, and there wasn't any long standing antagonism that was widely publicized.
    – Pete W
    Commented May 17, 2021 at 22:04
  • @PeteW Oil had been pegged to USD since 1975. Iraq would not need to sell oil for another currency, they could trade it directly for gold if they wanted.
    – Ryan_L
    Commented May 17, 2021 at 22:11
  • Perhaps, but I don't believe avoiding dollar markets was on Iraq's agenda at all in 1989-1990, when the tensions with Kuwait were building up.
    – Pete W
    Commented May 17, 2021 at 22:20

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