Why We Fight? Oil

Pay no attention to the "black gold" in Iraq!
Pay no attention to the “black gold” in Iraq!

W.J. Astore

Rachel Maddow at MSNBC aired a new documentary last night on why we went to war against Iraq in 2003.  In a word: oil.  Bush and Cheney were looking to overthrow Saddam Hussein as a prerequisite to controlling and privatizing Iraqi oil production.  Pre-war planning in the U.S. as well as Great Britain focused on identifying, safeguarding, and ultimately privatizing Iraqi oil facilities.  When U.S. forces took Baghdad, the one building they protected was the Iraqi oil ministry (museums containing priceless objects from the dawn of human civilization, left unprotected, were looted).

This is a familiar story, of course, though many Americans continue wrongly to believe that Saddam had WMD or that he was allied to Al Qaeda (or both).  Watching the documentary, I appreciated the honesty of the Polish government, which admitted that it had participated in the invasion of Iraq precisely to gain access to Iraqi oil resources.  Bush and Blair, naturally, denied any such connection, even as Bush was warning Iraqis not to damage oil facilities, even as Blair’s government was negotiating with British Petroleum on how best to divide the spoils.

When it comes to oil, maybe “The Beverly Hillbillies” song had it right: “Black gold.  Texas tea.”  And whether it’s black gold or the yellow variety, the West has always shown a rapacity for it that borders on the insane.  Just ask the Aztecs and the Incas, for example.

Here’s an article I wrote back in 2012 for Huffington Post on the question of why the U.S. invaded Iraq and not, say, North Korea, which as Maddow points out was identified as one head of Bush’s three-headed “Axis of Evil,” but which unlike Iraq and Iran actually was hard at work on building an atomic bomb, efforts that ended in a successful test in 2006.  But North Korea is not floating on a sea of oil, is it?

Why We Fight? Oil  (written in 2012)

I’m old enough to remember the Arab oil embargo of 1973 and long lines for gasoline in the United States. A joke that circulated among my schoolmates caught the spirit of the moment. It involved calculators, which were fairly new back then for the masses. It went like this: 142 Arabs fight 154 Israelis for control of 69 oil wells for five years. Who wins?

Punch the numbers 142, 154, and 69 into your calculator and then multiply by 5 and you get 71077345. Turn the calculator upside down and those numbers spell out “ShELLOIL,” or so we joked. Call it the cynicism of 11-year-olds.

Thirty years later, as an Air Force officer I recall a discussion of what we should name the operation to liberate Iraq from Saddam Hussein. Wags in my office suggested the obvious: Operation IRAQI LIBERATION, with lots of chuckles about the resulting acronym (OIL). Call it the cynicism of 40-somethings.

Fighting for vital resources is nothing new in history, and nothing new in U.S. history either. Smedley Butler, the famous U.S. Marine general who penned War Is a Racket, wrote in the 1930s that “those damned oil companies” should fly their own flag — perhaps one with a gas pump on it — over foreign lands that they viewed as their personal property. Call it the cynicism of a retired major-general who twice was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

But is it cynicism — or just plain honesty? Consider the book by Greg Muttitt on the Iraq war and its fallout, which places oil back where it belongs, front and center, in American motivations and machinations. This is hardly surprising, for recall the words of then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz that Iraq floated on a sea of oil, or the background of then-Vice President Dick Cheney and his overweening ambition to dominate global energy resources.

Our nation’s great thirst for oil should come as no surprise to anyone. Even former President George W. Bush gave a speech in which he declared that the U.S. was addicted to foreign oil. What’s surprising is that we continue to wrap our wars in the rhetoric of “freedom” even as we pursue the fix that our leaders believe they need to thrive: foreign oil, and lots of it.

There’s plenty of oil still in the ground in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East, and at $100 a barrel for oil and $4.00 a gallon for gasoline, you’re talking trillions of dollars for oil companies over the next few decades.

Considering the vast profits involved, you don’t have to be a cynic to recognize that concerns about oil continue to drive our nation’s foreign policy. But you do have to be willing to face that fact; and you do have to be willing, like General Smedley Butler was willing, to ignore the siren song about waging war for freedom and democracy.

As former President Bush said, we’re addicted to oil. And history has shown we’re willing to fight for it, though the biggest winners may well be powerful energy companies.

Don’t believe me? Read Smedley Butler or Greg Muttitt. Or just ask to see an 11-year-old’s calculator.

9 thoughts on “Why We Fight? Oil

  1. We should also add to our military misadventures in seeking to enhance our supply of oil the role of the Obama administration in their readiness to despoil our own country in its desire to enrich the oil companies. This administration has approved and encouraged the most ecologically damaging oil extraction practices, fracking, Arctic drilling, deep water Gulf of Mexico drilling, tar sands and shale extraction. All of these are time bombs waiting to despoil the water supply and the ecology of vast areas of our country.

    And what do we see on the political horizon that might arrest this rush to destruction. Nothing! Hillary Clinton and the Republican nut cases as presidential candidates each with their own great unwashed supporters, but both parties mired in oil rather than alternative energy. Wake up America before the land we love is a big pit of waste petrochemicals.

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  2. A few quick points: 1.) There seems to have been a MSM blackout of coverage of how the US effort to recover Iraq’s crude oil has been going since “official” hostilities concluded. Though I seem to recall a story early on about China moving swiftly to take advantage of the opportunities. Perhaps things aren’t going so swimmingly given the gross instability left in the wake of US intervention; 2.) Mark Twain was way ahead of Gen. Butler: he proposed the stars on the US flag be replaced with pirate skull-and-crossbones!!; 3.) Yes, the energy conglomerates will continue to rape and pillage Mother Earth until every last drop of fossil fuel has been extracted. The only thing that could derail their efforts, and their protectors in government, would be an uprising by an enlightened populace. I recommend we NOT hold our breaths awaiting that development, however. That’s not cynicism, that’s not pessimism…that’s realism.

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  3. I followed the link and tried watching the Rachel Maddow presentation, but I found her breathless “now it can be told” — after eleven years — demeanor not just a little annoying. As my fellow Vietnam veteran Daniel Ellsberg said many yeas ago: “The United States invaded Iraq for three reasons: Oil, Israel, and Domestic Political Advantage.” Former South Carolina Senator Fritz Hollings gave only one reason: “The United States invaded Iraq to secure the state of Israel — and everybody knows it.” Long-time Republican party analyst Kevin Phillips wrote a rather substantial book on this subject in 2006 entitled American Theocracy: the Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century. So in my opinion, Rachel Maddow has come to the party, so to speak, a little past midnight when just about everyone else has long since gone home to bed. Yes, everyone who knew anything worth knowing realized — a decade ago — that oil company profiteers like G. W. Bush and Dick Cheney had Iraqi oil as one of their objectives in toppling the toothless tin-pot dicator Saddam Hussein. But other religious/political and financial goals had just as much influence on U.S. government policy makers, as noted by Kevin Phillips and many others — like Naomi Klein in her book The Shock Doctrine: the Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2007):

    “‘The best time to invest is when there is still blood on the ground,’ [said] a delegate at the ‘Rebuilding Iraq 2’ conference in Washington, D.C.” [quoting Baron Rothschild]

    “The fact that it was hard to find people in Baghdad who were interested in talking about economics was not surprsing. The architects of this invasion were firm believers in the shock doctrine — they knew that while the Iraqis were consumed with daily emergencies, the country could be auctioned off discretely and the results announced as a done deal. As for journalists and activists, we seemed to be exhausting our attention on the spectacular physical attacks, forgetting that the parties with the most to gain never show up on the battlefield. And in Iraq there was plenty to gain: not just the world’s third-largest proven oil reserves but territory that was one of the last remaining holdouts from the drive to build a global market based on [Milton] Friedman’s vision of unfettered capitalism. After the crusade had conquered Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe [especially, Russia] and Asia [meaning, China], the Arab world called out as its last frontier.”

    So, after all, Iraq figured simply as one of the last targets for the Privatize-the-World oligarchs who now consider formerly sovereign national governments little more than wholly owned corporate sub-divisions. Yes, oil figured in the mix. But so did obtaining a stranglehold on political/economic ideology and first access to other natural resources. As well, gaining control of global financial debt leverage figured just as prominently. But most of all, Iraq proved only one bloody sideshow resulting from the “golden opportunity” to exploit 9/11/2001 so as to keep the world’s masses stunned and reeling from disaster — or just the news of it — so that the massive looting could take place unnoticed.

    “When there’s blood in the streets [because we caused it to flow in torrents] then it’s time to buy everything [at fire-sale prices] that we can’t just steal for free.”

    Finally, I found Rachel Maddow’s glib acceptance of the corporate media’s “Putin has invaded Ukraine” party line both currently misinformed and historically inept. Russia has treaty rights to station 25,000 military personnel in the Crimea — the headquartes of its Black Sea fleet — and has had 16,000 of them there for years. So what “invasion” does Ms Maddow think has occurred? And not a word about the neocon Victoria Nuland and her bungled attempt at Nazi-led regime change in Kiev. Not an impressive performance, in my view.

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  4. One more thing that continually amazes me: namely, this whole thing about Weapons of Mass Destruction, when the 9/11 hijackers used ready-to-hand American commercial airplanes full of gasoline and American flight simulator schools to effect their purposes. In short, they had no weapons at all. They didn’t need any weapons. They had America to use against America. So why does the United States go mad and hysterical about what amounts to flying Molotov cocktails that have nothing to do with nuclear weapons?

    OK. I shouldn’t engage in rhetorical questions. Actually, I do understand. You see: the 9/11 airplane attacks featured big explosions and falling buildings and lots of dead people. Nuclear explosions also feature big explosions and falling buildings and lots of dead people. Therefore, as Sheriff Dick and Deputy Dubya helpfully explained, fear of exploding airplane fuel should cause Americans to fear exploding nuclear weapons. Get it? Psychiatrists call this “free association.” Of course, Timothy McVeigh also brought down a building and killed lots of people using a truck full of commercial fertilizer. So why didn’t Condoleeza Rice grimly intone on national television: “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a cloud of dust that smells like cow shit”? I mean, wouldn’t that kind of free association work just as well? But speaking of Timothy McVeigh and fertilizer bombs:

    I once took some graduate classes in Buddhism and Sanskrit from a former Sri Lankan ambassador to France, the United States, and UNESCO (who had also served as his country’s Minister of Education). He told me over lunch one day about a call he once received from one of America’s trade representatives. It seems the lady official wanted to complain because Sri Lanka had embargoed imports of American fertilizer. The ambassador explained that his country currently had a full-blown insurgency going with the Tamil minority and that Sri Lankan scientists had said that Tamil terrorists could make bombs from petroleum-based fertilizer. The lady trade rep then told him: “well, if you had real scientists like ours, you wouldn’t believe such nonsense.” Naturally, about two weeks later, Timothy McVeigh brought down the Federal Building in Oklahoma City using a home-made fertilzer bomb. Whereupon the Sri Lankan ambassador called up the lady trade rep and solicitously inquired — with not a little hint of schadenfreude — “What do you think of our scientists now?”

    Anybody else want to try and analyze the sloppy semantics at work with mixed metaphors like “smoking gun” and “mushroom cloud”?

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    1. Mike: Sloppy semantics often means one of two things: lazy thinking — or dishonest thinking. Condi Rice is not stupid, so I vote for #2 — dishonesty. P.S. Let’s not forget that Condi had an oil supertanker named after her!

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      1. Yes. Point taken. Manufactured Mendacity and Managed Mystification does seem the logical alternative in the case of Ms Rice’s now-infamous mangling of idioms and metaphors. That said, intelligent people can certainly do stupid things and then compound their stupidity with litanies of garbled lies. As Daniel Ellsberg said of such people in high government positions: “They’re not stupid. They’re just intelligent people who’ve lost their minds.” George Orwell, for his part, described the mentality of such party bureaucrats as “controlled insanity,” or doublethink. Condoleeza Rice may have had full control of her mental faculties when she babbled on about “smoking guns” and “mushroom clouds”, but she sounded bat-shit nuts, just the same. Translated from the mealy-mouth gobbledegook, she really meant:

        “We refuse to wait for actual proof of a crime before we execute the potential criminal whom we’ve already marked for elimination for reasons we do not wish to explain at this time.”

        Intelligent or not, Condoleeza Rice simply lied, just to keep in practice; just so she wouldn’t forget how. And she made a historic fool of herself in so doing.

        The science fiction author Phillip K. Dick once wrote a story about this sort of “precrime” punishment called The Minority Report — later made into a movie which you’ve probably seen.

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  5. Michael.. That last vignette of yours on the Sri Lankan ambassador’s experience with our “trade” representative is a gem. I would hazard a guess that the trade rep ended up thinking there were two kinds of fertilizer, one that made plants grow and and a bad lot that blew things up. American bureaucrats are ‘one trick ponies’. Keep it up.

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    1. I really did have the rare good fortune to study with a truly learned man who spoke six languages fluently and had written some 35 books. In another discussion we had once, I asked him why the government of Sri Lanka had refused military assisance from the United States with regard to the Tamil armed insurrection then underway in his country. His trenchant reply:

      “If the Americans come, they will just draw an arbirary line through a temporary problem and make it permanent.”

      I thought about that for a long while, and then found the following lines of verse forming in my head:

      If offered help you’d best refuse
      For if you should relent
      They’ll draw an arbitrary line
      Through problems transient
      And complicate them all so as
      To make them permanent

      From there — and drawing on my own experiences in the Nixon-Kissinger Fig Leaf Contingent (Vietnam 1970-72) — the stanzas just kept coming until I had written Boobie Counter Insurgency.

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