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.

Old Thoughts on the Iraq War and Its Aftermath

W.J. Astore

It all seemed so promising in 2003 (Wiki)
It all seemed so promising in 2003 (Wiki)

Note to readers: I wrote these words in November 2008, just after Obama was elected President for the first time.  I’ve decided not to edit them.  Perhaps they capture the thoughts (however flawed) of one American who was trying to understand the mess we had made of Iraq.

Straight Talk on Iraq: Of Revolutions, Surges, and Victories (2008)

As a retired U.S. military man, I’d like to see “victory” in Iraq, not only for Americans, but also for the oft-neglected and oft-misunderstood Iraqi people.  With Saddam deposed and executed and the illusory weapons of mass destruction eliminated from our fevered intelligence guestimates, one could make an argument we’ve already won.  But “winning,” of course, was never supposed to be just about eliminating Saddam or WMD; it was about creating democracy, or at least a simulacrum of democracy, in Iraq.  We aimed to inspire and sustain an Iraqi government, allied with the United States, which would give a voice to the people instead of terrorizing them into compliance and silence.  This new freedom-loving Iraq would then serve as a positive role model to other states in the Middle East.  Or so it was pitched in 2003, among those who subscribed to neo-con dreams of the unqualified benevolence and irresistible potency of American power.

Even before the war in Iraq became an occupation that degenerated into an insurgency and civil war among rival factions, even before the Iraqi people paid a terrible price in lives lost and refugees created, our new president-elect expressed his opposition to the war, calling it a mistake and couching his criticism primarily in strategic terms (as a distraction from the real war on terror in Afghanistan, for example).  Many people in the U.S. and around the world believed the war was not simply a strategic distraction—one that allowed Bin Laden and other senior Al Qaeda leaders to escape from a noose tightening around them—but also an immoral one.  For them, the war was worse than a mistake.  It was a crime.

Those today who view the war as either a mistake, or a crime, or both naturally have little compunction about pulling our troops out immediately, even if it means “losing” the war.  But surely our new president-elect got it right when he said repeatedly on the stump, “We need to be as careful getting out [of Iraq] as we were careless getting in.”

The Iraqi Revolution: Made by America

Before we get out, however, we should understand what we did when we went in.  Basically, by overthrowing Saddam, disbanding the Iraqi army, and criminalizing the Ba’ath party and thus throwing most of Iraq’s professional bureaucracy out of work, we initiated a revolution in Iraq.  And revolutions, as we should know from our own history, are usually bloody, unpredictable, and run to extremes (think Reign of Terror) before they play themselves out (think Thermidorean Reaction), followed often by the emergence of a strong man (think Napoleon or Lenin; the U.S. was very fortunate indeed to produce George Washington).

Moreover, the Iraqi revolution we precipitated and attempted to negotiate was more than political and military: It was social, economic, religious, you name it.  Many of the Iraqi professional and educated elite fled the country as it degenerated into violence; a socialist economy, already weakened by more than a decade of sanctions, collapsed under U.S. bombing, Iraqi looting, and widespread corruption; a Shi’a majority, oppressed under Saddam, suddenly found itself able to settle violently its grievances and grudges against a previously overbearing Sunni minority.  Post-Saddam Iraq was a world that we turned upside down.  And our troops were in the thick of it—no longer victors, increasingly victims, whether of extremist violence or of our own leadership that failed to give them the equipment, both physical and mental, to defend themselves adequately.

Our military has its faults, but offering blunt self-assessments is not one of them.  As one Army field-grade officer put it to me recently, “We deployed an Army [in 2004-05 that was] unsympathetic to local Iraqis, sophomoric even at fairly senior levels in their approach to the fight, refusing to admit there was the potential and then the presence of an insurgency.”  His assessment squares with one made by a friend of mine assigned to the CPA in Baghdad in 2004 that the U.S. approach was “a train wreck waiting to happen, and the [Bush] administration simply refused to acknowledge it, much less do anything about it.”

And the wreck came.  An Army battalion commander told me recently of a conversation he had with a former Iraqi insurgent leader about the “hot time” of 2004-05.  “Everyone,” this Iraqi leader confessed, “had gone just a little crazy killing members of their own tribes, other sects, in addition to fighting the [Iraqi] government forces and us [the U.S. military].”  His is a painful reminder that the Bush Administration started a revolution in Iraq that they chose neither to understand nor adequately control.  More than five years later, we are still picking up the pieces.

Of Simplistic Narratives

When Americans bother about Iraq, they rarely think of the violent top-to-bottom revolution that we precipitated.  Instead, they usually see it in the simplistic and solipsistic terms of the presidential debates.  For John McCain, Iraq was all about staying the course to victory (however defined) and achieving “peace with honor.”  Somehow, achieving victory would redeem the sacrifices of American troops (the sacrifices of Iraqis were rarely if ever mentioned).

For Barack Obama, Iraq was all about pulling out (most) troops as expeditiously as possible, following a seemingly prudent timeline of sixteen months.  Stressing the generous American taxpayer was contributing $10 billion a month to stabilize and rebuild Iraq, while an untrustworthy and seemingly ungrateful Iraqi government continued to pile up scores of billions in unspent oil-related profits, Obama called for shifting the war’s burden to the Iraqis, both militarily and monetarily.

Thus McCain and Obama, perhaps unwittingly, essentially stressed two different sides of the old Nixonian playbook of 1969: “peace with honor” together with an Iraqi version of Vietnamization completed in lockstep with a U.S. withdrawal.  Neither candidate chose to emulate Nixon’s “madman theory”: His idea that the North Vietnamese would negotiate in better faith if he convinced them the president was wildly unpredictable and so fanatically anti-communist that he might do anything, even toss a few nukes.  (Interestingly, the candidate who came closest was Hillary Clinton in her promise to “obliterate” Iran if it ever dared to threaten Israel.)

Complicating the simplistic narratives offered in the presidential debates were certain unpleasant facts on the ground, the most recent one being the Iraqis themselves and their growing assertiveness in affirming their autonomy and sovereignty.  Their resistance to renewing the status of forces agreement (SOFA) is a clear sign of growing weariness with our military occupation.  Other annoying facts include Iranian meddling: Iran’s leaders obviously have little interest in seeing either the U.S. or Iraq succeed, unless the latter is ruled by a Shi’a party closely aligned with them.  And let’s not forget other niggling facts and factions, such as the Sunni Awakening and its disputed role in Iraq’s future; the Kurds and their contested desire for more autonomy and control over Iraq’s oil resources; various extremist factions jostling for power, such as the Shi’a JAM (Sadrist militia) and its related criminal elements; and looming humanitarian and logistical problems such as accommodating millions of returning Iraqi refugees, assuming conditions improve to a point where they want to return.

Surging to Victory of a Sort

It’s undeniable that last year’s surge orchestrated by General Petraeus helped to curb violence in Iraq, providing a glimmer of hope that a comparatively bloodless political reconciliation in Iraq might yet be possible.  Yet most Americans, conditioned by campaign rhetoric, still remain unaware of the fact that the surge was arguably not the most important factor in the decrease in violence.  Petraeus himself has testified that recent gains achieved by Iraqis and American troops are both fragile and reversible.  As one U.S. Army battalion commander recently described it to me, Iraq remains “a Rubik’s cube of cross cutting rivalries and vengeances.”  As someone who never had much luck solving Rubik’s cube, I wasn’t encouraged by his analogy.

Our military has learned the hard way that Iraq eludes simple solutions.  The immense challenge facing us in the immediate future is to build on our limited gains and to make them irreversible.  And the first step for Americans in this process is to recognize that “victory” is ultimately in Iraqi hands, not ours.  Are we finally ready to admit the limits of our military power—and to share these limitations honestly and forthrightly with the American people?  Especially those whose knowledge of the war begins and ends with “Support Our Troops” ribbons?

If, as one U.S. Army commander puts it in plain-speak, a “shit storm” comes to Iraq despite our best efforts to head it off, are we honest enough to admit our culpability and the limits of our own power to remake the world?  Or will we once again play the blame game, and ask, “Who lost Iraq?”  And if we insist on asking, will we remember to look back to the huge blunders committed in 2003-04 by Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld/Bremer before rendering a final verdict?

Just before I retired from the Air Force in 2005, I shared a few words of goodbye with an Iraqi-American officer in my unit.  After consenting to sharing kisses with him (a sign of affection and honor in Iraqi culture, and the first time I’ve kissed a scraggly cheek since I was a kid), he left me with an optimistic message.  I don’t recall his exact words, but the gist of it was that although things in Iraq looked dire, ordinary, decent Iraqis would eventually come to the fore and renew the country of his birth.  His guarded optimism reminded me that there is hope for Iraq, and it resides in the Iraqi people themselves.  And as we slowly withdraw our combat forces, let us do whatever we can to support and preserve the spirit of peace-loving Iraqis.

The Need for Fresh Thinking in National Security Policy

It's impossible for Washington to think outside of the Pentagonal Box
It’s impossible for Washington to think outside of the Pentagonal Box

Andrew Bacevich, a retired U.S. Army colonel and professor of international relations, writing in January 2009 as Barack Obama took office as president, made the following cogent observation about the need for true “change” in Washington:

When it comes to national security, the standard navigational charts used to guide the ship of state are obsolete.  The assumptions, doctrines, habits, and routines falling under the rubric of “national security policy” have outlived their usefulness.  The antidote to the disappointments and failures of the Bush years, illustrated most vividly in the never-ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is not to try harder, but to think differently.  Only then will it become possible to avoid the patently self-destructive behavior that today finds Americans facing the prospect of perpetual conflict that neither our army nor our economy can sustain.

Of course, Obama promised “change,” but with respect to national security policy, the sum total of the last five years of his watch has simply been more of the same.

Admittedly, the war in Iraq finally ended (for U.S. troops, not for the Iraqi people), but that was only because the Iraqis themselves refused to countenance the eternal presence of our troops there (of course, our boondoggle of an embassy in Baghdad survives).  Obama didn’t get us out of Iraq; he acquiesced to a deal Bush had already struck with the Iraqis.

Meanwhile, the U.S. remains ensnared in Afghanistan, squandering lives and resources to the tune of $100 billion a year.  Vague promises are made of an American withdrawal in 2014, but with an “enduring presence” (God help us) for another ten years after that.  Under Obama, drone strikes have expanded and continue; the national security state remains fat as it ever was, garrisoning the globe and spying on the world (including, as we recently learned, American citizens); and various tough-talking “experts” in Congress continue to call for new military interventions in places like Iran and Syria.

Why has this happened?  One reason is that Obama and his team wanted to be reelected in 2012, so they embraced the Bush neo-conservative approach of a hyper-kinetic, interventionist, foreign policy.  Fresh thinking was nowhere to be found, since any downsizing of American military commitments or its national security apparatus would have exposed Obama to charges of being “soft” on (Muslim) terror.

With respect to a bloated national security apparatus and wasteful military interventions, change didn’t come in 2008.  It was a case, as The Who song says, of “Meet the new boss.  Same as the old boss.”  Nor is change coming, seemingly, in the future.  Americans remain wedded to a colossal national security state that neither the president nor the Congress appears willing to challenge, let alone change.

Fresh thinking is the one thing you can’t buy in Washington because it’s priceless.  And for the lack of it, we’re paying a very high price indeed.

Next Article: Some fresh thinking on where we should be headed.

W.J. Astore

Our Disneyland Approach to Empire

Iraqi theme park?Remember in 2011 after SEAL Team 6 killed Osama bin Laden and Disney wanted to trademark the unit’s name for a collection of toys and games and miscellanea?

It’s one of those blips on our collective cultural radar that seems insignificant, yet it points to our tendency to see war and empire as a game, as a form of entertainment, as a product.

This attitude is not confined to corporations like Disney.  Consider this telling passage from Kim Barker’s “The Taliban Shuffle,” which discusses the potential attractions to service in places like Afghanistan:

“It was a place to escape, to run away from marriages and mistakes, a place to forget your age, your responsibilities, your past, a country in which to reinvent yourself.  Not that there was anything wrong with that, but the motives of most people were not likely to help a fragile and corrupt country stuck somewhere between the seventh century and Vegas.”

Our tendency to view foreign lands and peoples as an opportunity for adventure and escape is hardly new, of course.  But it certainly says something about our failure to understand and confront the severity of the challenges once we intervened in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Recall President George W. Bush’s weirdly wistful comment in 2008 about Afghanistan being a sort of Wild West, a romantic adventure, a place of excitement and danger.  Bush said he envied our troops and their opportunity for Afghan romance.

I wonder why as a young buck he didn’t go to Vietnam in the 1960s for romance and danger.  And I gather he’d never heard of Rudyard Kipling’s take on the pleasures awaiting the young British soldier on the Afghan plains:

When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.
Go, go, go like a soldier,
Go, go, go like a soldier,
Go, go, go like a soldier,
So-oldier of the Queen! 

It was said about the British that they acquired an empire in a fit of absentmindedness.  Did we acquire our empire in a fit of pure escapism?

Wanton and wasteful imperial entanglements are only accelerating our national decline.  Yet we continue to treat foreign lands as a sort of Disney theme park.   Troops smile and pose under Saddam Hussein’s crossed swords (at least they used to) or in front of Predator drones and other exotic weaponry.  Everything overseas is a photo op and an opportunity to win a trophy (or a medal).

But even as we seek “romance” and “danger” in foreign lands, a place “to reinvent ourselves,” we paradoxically bring with us all the trappings of consumerist America, hence our steroidal bases with all the conveniences of home (well, in Muslim lands, maybe not liquor, at least openly).

And when we get fed up with the natives and roughing it, we know we can just leave.

But if Iraq and Afghanistan have taught us anything, it’s that the price of admission is far too high.  We should keep our theme parks and our fantasies where they belong: right here in America.

W.J. Astore