News Flash: Iraq War Was About Oil

Afghanistan may be the graveyard of empires, but Iraq is home to a graveyard sense of humor. Iraqis wonder aloud whether the U.S. and Britain would have invaded Iraq if its main export had been cabbages instead of oil.

However obvious the answer, a remarkable array of American pundits and pseudo-savants have resisted giving the oil factor any pride of place among the motives behind the U.S./U.K. decision to invade Iraq in 2003. 

To this day, the Fawning Corporate Media (FCM) continues to play its accustomed role as government accomplice suppressing unwelcome news.

So, if you don’t tune in to Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now or read the British press, you would have missed the latest documentary evidence showing that Great Britain’s Lords and Ladies lied about how big oil companies, like BP, lusted after Iraqi oil in the months leading up to the attack on Iraq.

Oil researcher Greg Muttitt’s new book Fuel on Fire: Oil and Politics in Occupied Iraq presents that evidence, since Muttitt had better luck than his American counterparts in getting responses to his Freedom of Information requests.

After a five-year struggle, he obtained more than 1,000 official documents which — how to say this — do not reflect well on the peerage, the captains of the oil industry, and the government of Tony Blair. 

On April 19, the British Independent published a major story about these disclosures, which America’s FCM has avoided like the plague.

Quoting the released British documents, the Independent showed BP salivating over an expected windfall of Iraqi oil, with the saliva politely sponged up by Foreign Office functionaries. From the Independent:

"The Foreign Office invited BP in on 6 November 2002 to talk about opportunities in Iraq ‘post regime change.’  Its minutes state: ‘Iraq is the big oil prospect. BP is desperate to get in there.’ …

"Whereas BP was insisting in public that it had ‘no strategic interest’ in Iraq, in private it told the Foreign Office that Iraq was ‘more important than anything we’ve seen for a long time’ …  it [BP] was willing to take ‘big risks’ to get a share of the Iraqi reserves, the second largest in the world."

Of course, BP was singing a different tune for the average folks. Lord Browne, then-BP chief executive, insisted on March 12, 2003, a week before the invasion of Iraq: "It is not in my or BP’s opinion, a war about oil."

The official documents, however, offer a contradictory account. Gosh, would BP officials lie? 

The minutes of a similar meeting with BP and Shell on Oct. 31, 2002, reinforce the point. They show then-British Trade Minister, Lady Symons, agreeing that British oil companies must not lose out in competing for Iraqi oil, particularly "if the U.K. had itself been a conspicuous supporter of the U.S. government throughout the crisis."

Prime Minister Tony Blair had been equally disingenuous in his public remarks.

On April 19, Democracy Now ran a brief clip in which British author Muttitt called to mind Blair’s assurances to a TV audience on Feb. 6, 2003, six weeks before the war: "The idea that we’re interested in Iraq’s oil is absurd, it’s one of the most absurd conspiracy theories you can imagine."

Muttitt pointed out that, as Blair was saying this, a secret (until now) Foreign Office document setting out British strategy toward Iraqi oil asserted, "Britain has an absolutely vital interest in Iraq’s oil."

The London Mail Online summed up the contradictions on April 20 with classic English understatement. It noted that the flurry of meetings between oil executives and the Labour government in late 2002 "appear to be at odds with their insistence Iraq’s vast oil reserves were not a consideration ahead of the March 2003 invasion."

Back in Washington

America’s FCM has yet to acknowledge this latest embarrassment of how fully its prominent members were wrong about this oil issue as they queued up behind the Bush/Blair invasion in 2002-2003. Top pundits echoed Blair’s dismissal of the oil motive as a "conspiracy theory."

Instead the FCM agreed that the "preemptive war" was needed to protect Americans from Iraq’s WMD and stop Saddam Hussein’s collaboration with Osama bin Laden – even if there were no WMD stockpiles and there was no alliance.

The war’s defenders also sprinkled in some noble sentiments about advancing human rights and spreading democracy.

If the "no blood for oil" argument was mentioned, it was put on a tee so it could be easily swatted away by the Bush administration.

For instance, on Dec. 15, 2002, "60 Minutes" correspondent Steve Croft asked then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, "What do you say to people who think this [the coming invasion of Iraq] is about oil?" Rumsfeld replied:

"Nonsense. It just isn’t. There — there — are certain … things like that, myths that are floating around. I’m glad you asked it. I — it has nothing to do with oil, literally nothing to do with oil."

Gee, what kind of person would suggest that President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney might take the country to war with so much as a thought in their heads about locking down control of Iraq’s vast oil reserves?

Cheney, of course, understood the geopolitical importance of oil before he joined Bush in running for the White House. As CEO of Halliburton in autumn 1999, Cheney had observed that:

"Oil companies are expected to keep developing enough oil to offset oil depletion and also to meet new demand. So where is the oil going to come from?

"Governments and the national oil companies are obviously in control of 90 percent of the assets. Oil remains fundamentally a government business. The Middle East, with two-thirds of the world’s oil and the lowest cost, is still where the prize ultimately lies."

Since the Iraq invasion, several Washington insiders have blurted out the suppressed Realpolitik about the strategic value of oil.

As early as May 2003, (in the heady days of "Mission Accomplished"), then Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz nonchalantly responded to a question about why Bush attacked Iraq, but not North Korea, by noting that Iraq "floats on a sea of oil."

At that early stage, Wolfowitz apparently still thought the Iraq war would be the "cakewalk" predicted by his neoconservative ally Kenneth Adelman. With the war supposedly won – and with Americans famously tolerant of the behavior of winners – Wolfowitz might have thought some candor wouldn’t raise many eyebrows.

At that point, the Bush team still harbored hope that convicted felon/conman extraordinaire Ahmed Chalabi could be put in power in Baghdad, open the door to Western oil companies, and — not incidentally — recognize Israel.

Wolfowitz, Adelman, and the neoconservative crowd would have been wiser to temper their hubris with a smidgeon of common sense. The notion that Chalabi had, or could garner, a significant following in Iraq was a pipe dream.

The State Department conducted a poll of Iraqis in 2003, finding Chalabi to be the only listed political leader whose unfavorable ratings exceeded his favorable ones. And small wonder. Chalabi and his wealthy family had left Iraq in 1956. 

(As a benchmark for those who might remember, 1956 was two years before the New York Giants baseball team broke my heart by leaving the Polo Grounds and moving to San Francisco.)

Despite Chalabi’s lack of Iraqi roots, the neoconservative movers and shakers in Washington and Baghdad still helped get him appointed in 2005 as Deputy Prime Minister and Chair of the Iraq Energy Council, which directed Iraqi oil policy. Chalabi was also in and out as acting Oil Minister.

Insiders Reveal Oil Role

Bush’s first Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, who was fired in late 2002 after disagreeing with Bush on tax cuts and Iraq, was one of the first insiders to detail the administration’s Iraqi oil obsession, tracing it back to the days after Bush’s inauguration as Bush’s advisers planned how to divvy up Iraq’s oil wealth. 

O’Neill told author Ron Suskind for his 2004 book, The Price of Loyalty, that Bush’s first National Security Council meeting just days into his presidency included a discussion of invading Iraq. O’Neill said even at that early date, the message from Bush was "find a way to do this."

Subsequent disclosures have corroborated O’Neill’s account about the importance of oil in Bush’s calculation. Though Freedom of Information requests in the United States have been nowhere near as successful as those in London, one did hit pay dirt.

A FOIA lawsuit forced the Commerce Department to fork over some documents of Cheney’s Energy Task Force documents from March 2001, including a map of Iraqi oilfield, pipelines, refineries, terminals, and potential areas for exploration.

There also was a Pentagon chart titled "Foreign Suitors for Iraqi Oilfield Contracts," and one chart detailing Iraqi oil and gas projects.

Al Qaeda’s Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks gave Bush and Cheney the political opening they needed to turn their designs on Iraqi oil into reality. Bush and Cheney began linking Saddam Hussein and his fictional stockpiles of WMD to al Qaeda.

Suskind wrote, "Documents were being prepared by the Defense Intelligence Agency, Rumsfeld’s intelligence arm, mapping Iraq’s oil fields and exploration areas and listing companies that might be interested in leveraging the precious asset."

"The desire to ‘dissuade’ countries from engaging in ‘asymmetrical challenges’ to the United States … matched with plans for how the world’s second largest oil reserve might be divided among the world’s contractors made for an irresistible combination, O’Neill later said," according to Suskind.

One oil executive confided to a New York Times reporter a month before the war on Iraq, "For any oil company, being in Iraq is like being a kid in F.A.O. Schwarz."

As the years wore on and the Bush administration struggled to control the violent resistance to the U.S. occupation of Iraq, other prominent Americans began acknowledging the obvious importance of oil in the U.S. calculation for war.

Former Chairman of the Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan in his 2007 book The Age of Turbulence wrote: "I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil."

In a talk at Stanford on Oct. 13, 2007, former CENTCOM commander Gen. John Abizaid seconded Greenspan. "Of course it [Iraq] is all about oil," Abizaid said.

Not Exclusively Oil

But the motivation to attack Iraq was not solely oil. Nor was it solely to acquire permanent or "enduring" military bases. Nor was it only to make the Middle East safer for Israel.

In my view it was an amalgam of ALL OF THE ABOVE plus a few others like vengeance and what the Chinese used to call "great-power chauvinism." I am always surprised by those who take the position that just one of these motives was operative and insist on excluding others. Neither life, nor policy making, is like that.

A few months after the war started, I coined the "acronym" OIL to address U.S./U.K. motives. I must put my "acronym" in quotation marks, because Jon Stewart has rightly accused me of "violating the rules for acronyms" because O was for oil; I for Israel; and L for logistics (the military bases), but Stewart said "oil" couldn’t be both the acronym and one of the elements in the acronym.

Nevertheless, I think the acronym remains a useful mnemonic.

Hopefully, we have already taken care of the oil motive. Israel? Well, candor requires acknowledgment that the neoconservatives running Bush/Cheney policies had great difficulty distinguishing between the strategic interests of Israel on the one hand, and those of the U.S. on the other.

While this was clear from the outset of the Bush administration, specific evidence emerged in London at the Chilcot hearings on Iraq in January 2010.

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair spoke publicly about Israel’s input into the all-important Bush-Blair deliberations on Iraq in Crawford, Texas, in April 2002.
Inexplicably, Blair forgot his propensity for hiding important facts from the public and told some truth, though his indiscretion escaped the attention of America’s FCM. Blair said:

"As I recall that [April 2002] discussion, it was less to do with specifics about what we were going to do on Iraq or, indeed, the Middle East, because the Israel issue was a big, big issue at the time. I think, in fact, I remember, actually, there may have been conversations that we had even with Israelis, the two of us [Bush and Blair], whilst we were there. So that was a major part of all this."

Blair’s remarks buttressed earlier ones by Philip Zelikow, a former member of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, executive director of the 9/11 Commission, and later counselor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Zelikow told an audience at the University of Virginia in September 2002 that the "real threat" from Iraq was not to the United States. Rather, the "unstated threat" from Iraq was the "threat against Israel." He added, "The American government doesn’t want to lean too hard on it rhetorically, because it is not a popular sell."

‘Enduring’ Military Bases

Then there are the "enduring" military bases, which used to be called "permanent" bases. Today, Defense Secretary Robert Gates is engaging in not-so-subtle pleading with the Iraqi government to permit some American forces to remain at some large bases beyond the agreed end-of-2011 withdrawal date. 

[Tom Engelhardt has an excellent commentary on these "enduring" bases in the introduction to an essay by Noam Chomsky at]

To refresh memories of the Bush/Cheney approach to the base and oil issues, it might be helpful to recall one of President Bush’s more significant "signing statements." In early 2008, Bush wrote that he did not feel bound by the Defense Authorization Act’s following specific prohibitions:

"To establish any military installation or base for the purpose of providing permanent stationing of United States Armed Forces in Iraq, " or

"To exercise United States control of the oil resources of Iraq."

I was reminded of Bush’s signing statement as I watched Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Feb. 18 wordsmith a similar Obama administration approach to Afghanistan. Clinton said:

"In no way should our enduring commitment be misunderstood as a desire by America or our allies to occupy Afghanistan against the will of its people … we do not seek any permanent American military bases in their country."

But who are we to believe? Just ten days before (on Feb. 8) Afghan President Hamid Karzai openly confirmed that the Obama administration has been in secret talks with him to formalize a system of permanent (or maybe "enduring"?) military bases in Afghanistan.

The Bush signing statement about bases and oil now seems emblematic, inasmuch as it points to the reasoning so many Americans have come to tolerate — and even endorse; that is, the concept that the first resource wars of the 21st Century were simply necessary to ensure that U.S. gas stations don’t run dry.

After all, many of us already are paying more than $4 a gallon at the pump.

One can understand, without condoning it, that many Americans have become comfortable with the notion that we are somehow exceptional, and thus entitled to more than our proportionate share of the world’s natural resources. 

The FCM is a very huge help in persuading so many Americans that it is okay to ignore the suffering and devastation inflicted abroad because we have to protect our "way of life" from those who are just plain "jealous."

Over the past decade, this mode of thinking has found expression in several interesting ways.  Here are three examples that come to mind:

–"I don’t care what the international lawyers say, we’re going to kick some ass!"  (Bush in the White House bunker, evening of 9/11);

–"Kick Their Ass and Take Their Gas!" (prominent placard held by local Texans counter-demonstrating against supporters of Cindy Sheehan, August 2005);

–"We go to war for oil. It’s a good reason to go to war." (Ann Coulter, speech at Carnegie Institute, Washington, DC, April 21, 2011).

And so it goes.

Author: Ray McGovern

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. In the Sixties he served as an infantry/intelligence officer and then became a CIA analyst for the next 27 years. He is on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).