Few issues have generated as intense a debate in the post Vietnam War era as that of Iraq. Images of the country’s suffering are a constant feature of the daily news to the extent that the atrocities often merge and blur in people’s minds, with only the most avid observers of the situation being able to distinguish between the countless massacres. The incessant human suffering has intensified calls to re-examine the motives for the American-led occupation of Iraq, an occupation that was opposed by many millions of people before it even existed.
Addressing Alan Greenspan’s assertion that oil was the true raison d’être for war requires us first to untangle and examine the often interlinked-web of rhetoric released by a plethora of pressure-groups and administrations; pre-9/11 discourse centred around the need to stop Saddam’s alleged pursuit of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), this story later gave way to the pervasive fear-inducing topic of the time – with allegations of the brutal Ba’ath regime being involved in the terrorist attacks of September 2001, an allegation pushed by Dick Cheney in his assertion in 2001 that one of the master-minds of 9/11, Mohammed Atta, had met with Iraqi intelligence officers in Prague before the attacks, and later by Donald Rumsfeld who candidly stated “there are now al-Qaeda in Iraq” (NBC news, August 2002). These justifications were later abandoned when the truth-exposing nature of time proved their falsehood and they could no longer be muttered without immediate ridicule, and were replaced by far more egalitarian, noble arguments such as the need to liberate Iraqis from Saddam’s terrible tyranny, and the benefits of a utopian, free, liberal democracy in Iraq that would serve as a beacon of light for the region to follow.
Official discourse aside, arguments around the darker hidden agendas involved have raged; the powerful pro-Israel lobby’s fear of a strong Iraq independent of US-hegemony is a particularly popular alternative to the aforementioned, particularly on the “Arab street”. Alternatively, US imperial design and claims of following the instructions of a non-specific deity all play a part in trying to understand the true motive of the war. Perhaps the most prevalent theme- often dismissed as the cognitive construct of delusional conspiracy theorists- is that the United States of America led a war against Iraq primarily to get control of its oil. This argument is no longer confined to the radicalised periphery, but has entered mainstream discussion thanks to the oft-undeniable evidence in its support.
The many reasons and justifications for the occupation of Iraq will be scrutinised and discussed in the following essay, with the aim of shedding light on why control of Iraqi oil is the likely truest grounds for what is now turning into an epochal folly of epic proportions.
Weapons of Mass Destruction
“Right now, Iraq is expanding and improving facilities that were used for the production of biological weapons… Should Iraq acquire fissile material, it would be able to build a nuclear weapon within a year.”
(George Bush, 12/9/2002)
The earliest argument favored by those pushing for a war with Iraq centered on the perceived threats posed by Saddam’s alleged weapons of mass destruction. Claims that “Saddam possesses the most deadly arms of our age” (G.Bush, 2002) resonated amongst the already jittery American public, in whose minds the horrors of 9/11 were still fresh. Saddam certainly did possess weapons of mass destruction at one time, he used them on the 16th of March 1988 against Kurdish civilians in Halabja, after which Donald Rumsfeld travelled to Iraq to stress US condemnation was “strictly in principle”, and that Washington “wished to improve bi-lateral relations, at a pace of Iraq’s choosing.” (Independent, 2003).
Post-first Gulf War discourse on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction is far removed from the initial American reaction to their use against civilians. One has to question the sudden US interest in the rights of those innocent Kurds in Halabja, a point continually raised in the run-up to the 2003 war, particularly when considering the country’s initial response to the mass murders was “we cannot say with any certainty that Iraqi chemical weapons killed the Kurds” (C. Pelletiere, 1989) despite continued reports handed to George Shultz as early as 1983 reporting “almost daily use of chemical weapons against Iranian troops” (US State Department, 1983).
The argument that Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction were the real reason behind the war is further weakened by the outstanding amount of evidence suggesting not only that Saddam did not possess these weapons by the start of the war, but that the US administration knew that this was the case. Scott Ritter’s testimony was unequivocal in stressing this: “I bear personal witness through seven years as a chief weapons inspector in Iraq for the United Nations to both the scope of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programs and the effectiveness of U.N. weapons inspectors in ultimately eliminating them.” Furthermore, the fact that the intelligence community continually overstated Iraq’s capabilities and administration officials “systematically misrepresented” the threat posed by Iraqi weapons (Lopez. G and Cortright. D, 2004) suggests that this was but a convenient premise used to shield an unspoken truth, one that it linked to an objective published in 2000 by the neo-conservative Project for a New American Century: “the need for a substantial American force presence in the Gulf transcends the issue of the regime of Saddam Hussein” (PNAC, 2000). If this is so then the insinuation is that the weapons of mass destruction are an irrelevant but convenient excuse for America’s interest in Iraq.
“Iraq's government openly praised the attacks of 11 September. And al-Qaeda terrorists escaped from Afghanistan and are known to be in Iraq.”
(George Bush, 12/9/2002)
Despite being taken off the Department of State’s annual Patterns of Global Terrorism publication in 2001, Iraq was almost instantly linked with the attacks of 9/11, leading Donald Rumsfeld to declare that Iraq should be a “principal target of the first round of the war against terror” even before it became apparent that Al-Qaeda was involved. This irrational insistence of Iraq’s guilt can be better understood when put in the context of the neo-conservative backdrop. Rumsfeld was one of 18 signatories of a 1998 letter to then-President Clinton urging “the removal of Saddam Hussain from power” (PNAC, 1998). 11 out of these 18, including Zamlay Khalilzaad, later ambassador to Iraq, played important roles in the Bush administration. Donald Rumsfeld’s persistence in arguing to “attack Iraq first” (Achcar. G, 2007) should come as no surprise then, particularly given that the blueprint for such an attack was clearly stated 3 years before the invasion, outlining the need for a “catastrophic and catalyzing event- like a new Pearl Harbor” (PNAC, 2000) to put the plans into action, 9/11 may well have been this catastrophic and catalyzing event, in which case the argument that Iraq’s harboring of terrorists was the raison d’être for war is a non-sequitur. The case against this reasoning is further strengthened by the testimony of the former CIA director, “We could never verify that there was any Iraqi authority, direction and control, complicity with al-Qaeda for 9/11 or any operational act against America, period” (Tenet.G , 2007). George Bush’s statement regarding Al-Qaeda’s presence in Iraq, misleading as it was, served a purpose- to exploit public sentiment on the eve of the first anniversary of the worst attacks on US soil and to profit from the international community’s unwillingness to publically reign in the American backlash that was being marketed as being a direct response to terrorist aggressions. There must be an underlying objective that links PNAC’s 1998 letter to Clinton, along with its “Rebuilding America’s Defenses” document, published in 2000 to the almost compulsively obsessive pursuit of regime change in Iraq, an objective that relegates the destruction of Saddam’s WMDs to being a means to an ends, rather than an ends itself.
“Tens of thousands of political opponents and ordinary citizens have been subjected to arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, summary execution and torture by beating and burning, electric shock, starvation, mutilation and rape.”
(George Bush, 2002)
The insinuation that America orchestrated a war that is estimated to have cost $3 trillion (Stiglitz. J, 2008) is a travesty to the intelligent mind, particularly when considering that this country’s closest Arab ally is an absolute monarchy in which there are absolutely no direct elections and where women are forbidden from driving or travelling without being chaperoned by a related male. This suggestion is particularly insulting to many Iraqis, who remember all too well the way in which the US allowed Iraq’s General Sultan Hashim the unrestricted use of helicopters to subdue the March 1991 uprising, despite George Bush Senior’s plea to the Iraqi military and people to rise against the tyrant on the 15th of February that year (Bush.G, 1991). The credibility of this assertion is further sullied in the continued admission by State Department officials that the best case scenario for them would be an “iron-fisted military junta ruling Iraq much the same way as Saddam Hussain did, but not him, because he is an embarrassment” (Chomsky. N, 2007).
The Control of Oil
“Energy and resource issues will continue to shape international security…[if an oil problem arises] US forces might be used to ensure adequate supplies”
(Joint Chief of Staff Strategic Assessment, 1999)
The world’s ever increasing thirst for oil is a major determinant of the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East. The then CEO of Halliburton, Dick Cheney summed up the predicament in 1999, stating that an additional 50 million barrels of oil a day would be needed by 2010, and that this oil would likely come from the Middle East, where the “prize ultimately lies” (Cheney. D, 1999). The Center for Strategic and International Studies expands on this, citing that global demand would increase by over 50% by 2020, and that while the Persian Gulf would remain a key supplier, it would need to increase its production by 80% in the first two decades of the 21st century in order to meet demand. This would necessitate the unhindered participation of Iraq and Iran, who are “expected to play an increasingly important role in meeting growing global demand” (2000).
Iraq has the third largest proven oil reserves in the world, accounting for 10% of the world’s total, as well as the largest unexplored potential that may take its reserves up to a total of 315 billion barrels, far greater than those of Saudi Arabia and Iran (Platform, 2005). Put into context, Iraq could potentially dwarf what was previously regarded a “stupendous source of strategic power and one of the greatest material prizes in world history” (Curtis. M, 1995). Control of Middle Eastern oil supplies has long been a coveted objective; control of what may become the largest producer in this region would be a “vital prize for any power interested in world influence or domination” (ibid)
Suggestions that oil was the primary raison d’être for war with Iraq are by no means without historical pretext, the US has a 70 year history of “petrochemical intervention” in the region (Jhaveri. N, 2004). Control can be enforced under a plethora of guises, not least through pressing for neoliberalizing restructuring- opening the market to the “oil majors”. This however was an impossible endeavor in Saddam’s Iraq given that the regime was completely ostracized from the international community. Thus, armed conflict was necessary to “sweep aside the obstructions to easy resource access for ensuring geoeconomic goals” (Klare. M, 2001).
One may legitimately ask the questions “Why War?” and “Why now?” As with almost every matter related to the Iraq war and the Middle East in general, there is a multi-faceted array of potentially correct answers. Firstly, America’s closest Arab ally, Saudi Arabia has traditionally played the role of the buffer, increasing oil production when global demand puts an upward pressure on prices, or when supply shocks mean this is necessary. Saudi Arabia is a “swing producer”, and can extract “political oil” when needed due to its status of being the only country in the world with excess production capacity (Petroleum Intelligence Weekly, 2003). Iraq however, encroached on this sanctity when it too acted as a “swing producer”, increasing its production by 140,000 barrels a day to compensate for the supply shortages during Venezuelan oil strikes in 2002. This set the alarm bells ringing at the Council of Foreign Relations, which concluded that the “growing role of Iraq as a new kind of swing producer posed difficulties for the US administration” (ibid).
The PNAC letter to Clinton in 1998 outlining the need for intervention unashamedly states that “…if Saddam does acquire the capability to deliver weapons of mass destruction…a significant portion of the world’s supply of oil will be put at hazard”. It is clear that Western oil interests closely influence military and diplomatic policies, “it is no accident that while American companies are competing for access to oil in Central Asia, the U.S. is building up military bases across the region” (Sampson. A, 1975). However this military intervention would require a powerful mandate, for this was lacking in Bush Senior’s war, leaving him hamstrung and unable to overthrow Saddam’s regime (Bush. G.H., 1998). The terrorist attacks of 9/11 provided George W Bush with the domestic mandate to occupy Iraq. The overthrow of Saddam and the occupation of the country would provide the only set of circumstances in which the sanctions could be lifted. Saddam had signed contracts with French and Russian oil companies in return for their support in opposing the embargo, relaxing the sanctions without regime change would effectively mean these two countries accruing massive benefits from potential oil and reconstruction deals at the expense of the US and their British allies (Achcar, 2007). Thus the scene was set, overthrowing Saddam was the only way to stave off the threat from Moscow and Paris.
The war created almost ideal conditions for the world’s major oil companies to negotiate deals with the often desperate post-war Iraqi government, resulting in estimated rates of return on investments ranging from 42%-162%, compared to the industry standard of 12% (Platform, 2005). These abnormal potential profits are a result of the “Production Sharing Agreements” (PSAs) that the Iraqi government is being nudged towards. These agreements are essentially re-packaged concession contracts, except the exploitation they induce is marketed in a politically sensitive manner, allowing the state to legally own the oil, while compensating the oil companies handsomely for their investment. These agreements are not found in any other country with reserves comparable to those of Iraq, and could potentially cost the country $194 billion in lost revenues (ibid). Negotiating these contracts while Iraq is in turmoil effectively reduces the bargaining power the state has; they are often based on 40 year terms and are immune from ratification resulting from political change, and so any agreements the oil majors could make may give these companies unbridled access to at least 64% of Iraq’s current reserves1 (ibid). Oil revenues constitute 95% of Iraq’s government revenues (Abd al Mahdi. A, 2004); allowing foreign companies, who are often closely associated with their respective governments, control of a large proportion of Iraq’s oil effectively hands over control of a disproportionately large portion of the entire economy to external players.
Control of Iraqi oil is thus a key requisite to exercising control over Iraq as a whole. Thanks to PSAs, this control could potentially be more far-reaching than at any point after concession agreements fell from grace. The US understood this before the war, and were being enticed towards this greatest of prizes through promises that “US companies will have a big shot at Iraqi oil” (Chalabi. A, 2002).
'I am driven with a mission from God. God would tell me, ‘George go and fight these terrorists in Afghanistan'. And I did. And then God would tell me 'George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq'. And I did."
It has become abundantly clear that war against Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussain were being planned long before any post- 9/11 “smoking gun” was ever fabricated. The designs were clearly laid out by the Project for a New American Century in 1998 in their letter to then President Clinton, and the fact that so many of those that signed the document came to play prominent roles in the Bush administration is by no means coincidental.
Arguments that Iraq was occupied due to its links to al-Qaeda do not hold water. They do not explain why Afghanistan was occupied by a force 1/10th the size of that in Iraq (Achcar. G, 2008), this could only be explained by the true objective of the war- control. These assertions were made on trumped up charges that were, in time, exposed as being so. They did however serve a purpose, to induce the sort of fear amongst the panicked American public that would give George W Bush the sort of mandate his father lacked a decade before, allowing once and for all an entry into Baghdad and the overthrow of Saddam’s Ba’ath.
But why the insistence on overthrowing Saddam? Was it for fear that he would come to possess weapons of mass destruction? This is unlikely given that U.N. weapons inspectors had reiterated time and again that there was no evidence that Iraq was in possession of these weapons, and testimony made later that this assertion was “systematically misrepresented” in order to make the case for war.
Once again, why the insistence on war? Was it a selfless endeavor to bring democracy to the long-suffering Iraqi people? Given America’s track record of supporting despotic dictatorship throughout the region, this is unlikely. Democracy in Iraq was the price America had to pay for a presence there, rather than the desired end itself. In fact, it has done much to undermine Iraq’s nascent democracy, particularly during the key constitution-writing period, during which the occupying powers pushed for a handpicked group of “representatives” to write this most essential of documents, rather than allowing free, direct elections.
Far more probable a raison d’être than God’s conversation with George Bush is the far more believable objective of gaining control of Iraq’s massive oil reserves. These could only be controlled through Saddam’s ouster and Iraq’s occupation. These reserves were identified as being vitally important to fuel hegemony by Dick Cheney after he was appointed Vice President:
By any estimation, Middle East oil producers will remain central to world oil security. The Gulf will be a primary focus of U.S. international energy policy”
Abd Al Mahdi (2004), remarks at the National Press Club, Washington DC, December 21st 2004
Achcar, G. (2004), ‘US Imperial Strategy in the Middle East’, Eastern Cauldron: Islam, Afghanistan, Palestine and Iraq in a Marxist Mirror, London: Pluto Press, pp. 9-45
Allawi, A. (2007), ‘The Rise of the Opposition’, The Occupation of Iraq- Winning the War, Losing the Peace, Ch 2, Yale University Press, pp 17-36
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Chomsky,N. and Achcar, G. (2007), ‘Wars in the “Greater Middle East”, Perilous Power: The Middle East
and US Foreign Policy, Ch 4, London: Hamish Hamilton, pp.71-142
Council on Foreign Relations and the James A Baker III Institute for Public Policy (2002) Guiding Principles for US Post-Conflict Policy in Iraq. Report of an Independent Taskforce. Distributed by Washington, DC: Brookings Institute Press
Jhaveri, N (2004), ‘Petroimperialism: US Oil Interests and the Iraq War’, Antipode
Johnson, C. (2004), ‘Iraq Wars’, The Sorrows of Empire, Ch 8, London: Verso, pp.217-253
Klare, M (2001), Resource Wars. New York: Metropolitan Books
Lopez. G and Cortright. D (2004), Containing Iraq: Sanctions Worked. Foreign Affairs, Jul/Aug 2004
MacAskill, E. (2005), ‘God Told me to end Tyranny in Iraq’, The Guardian, (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2005/oct/07/iraq.usa)
Morgan, D. and Ottaway, B. (2002), ‘In Iraqi War Scenario, Oil is Key Issue’, Washington Post, 15th September 2002.
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Pelletiere, C (1989) quoted in: Reality Checks Needed During War (http://www.ffrd.org/terrorism-war/4.20.03.3.htm)
Petroleum Intelligence Weekly (2003) US Pushing for Privatized Iraq Oil Sector, 16 April. New York: Energy Intelligence Group, Inc
Platform, ‘Crude Designs: The rip-off of Iraq’s Oil Wealth, (2005)
Project for a New American Century, Letter to President Clinton (1998) (http://newamericancentury.org/iraqclintonletter.htm)
Project for a New American Century (2000), Rebuilding America’s Defenses- Strategies, Forces and Resources for a New Century (http://www.newamericancentury.org/RebuildingAmericasDefenses.pdf)