So Iraq Was About the Oil
By Robert Parry
November 8, 2005
When Colin Powell’s former chief of staff Lawrence Wilkerson publicly decried the Bush administration’s bungling of U.S. foreign policy, the focus of the press coverage was on Wilkerson’s depiction of a “cabal” headed by Vice President Dick Cheney that had hijacked the decision-making process.
Largely overlooked were Wilkerson’s frank admissions about the importance of oil in justifying a long-term U.S. military intervention in Iraq. “The other thing that no one ever likes to talk about is SUVs and oil and consumption,” the retired Army colonel said in a speech on Oct. 19.
While bemoaning the administration’s incompetence in implementing the war strategy, Wilkerson said the U.S. government now had no choice but to succeed in Iraq or face the necessity of conquering the Middle East within the next 10 years to ensure access to the region’s oil supplies.
“We had a discussion in (the State Department’s Office of) Policy Planning about actually mounting an operation to take the oilfields of the Middle East, internationalize them, put them under some sort of U.N. trusteeship and administer the revenues and the oil accordingly,” Wilkerson said. “That’s how serious we thought about it.”
The centrality of Iraq’s oil in Wilkerson’s blunt comments contrasted with three years of assurances from the Bush administration that the war had almost nothing to do with oil.
When critics have called the Iraq War a case of “blood for oil,” George W. Bush’s defenders have dismissed them as “conspiracy theorists.” The Bush defenders insisted the president went to war out of concern about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein’s links to al-Qaeda, neither of which turned out to be true. Later, Bush cited humanitarian concerns and the desire to spread democracy.
Always left out of the administration’s war equation – or referenced only obliquely – was the fact that Iraq sits atop one of the world’s largest known oil reserves at a time when international competition is intensifying to secure reliable oil supplies.
But Wilkerson is not the first senior Bush administration official to cite the importance of oil in the U.S. calculus toward Iraq. Former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill made similar assertions in 2004.
O’Neill, who was fired in late 2002 after disagreeing with Bush on tax cuts and Iraq, told author Ron Suskind 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.”
Oil and Iraq were soon mixing in the administration’s thinking about energy and politics.
On Feb. 3, 2001 – only two weeks after Bush took office – an NSC document instructed NSC officials to cooperate with Cheney’s Energy Task Force because it was “melding” two previously unrelated areas of policy: “the review of operational policies towards rogue states” and “actions regarding the capture of new and existing oil and gas fields.”
Before this disclosure, which appeared in The New Yorker three years later, it was believed that Cheney’s secretive task force was focusing on ways to reduce environmental regulations and fend off the Kyoto protocol on global warming.
But the NSC document suggested that the Bush administration from its first days recognized the linkage between ousting unreliable leaders like Saddam Hussein and securing oil reserves for future U.S. consumption. In other words, the Cheney task force appears to have had a military component to “capture” oil fields in “rogue states.” [For more on the NSC document, see The New Yorker, Feb. 16, 2004.]
After al-Qaeda’s Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, Bush had the political opening he needed to turn his designs on Iraq into reality. Though there was no credible evidence connecting Hussein to al-Qaeda and Sept. 11, Bush and Cheney made the linkage anyway.
Active preparations for war with Iraq were soon underway. Behind the scenes, O’Neill said he watched as the administration refined its plans for how to divvy up Iraq’s oil reserves after the invasion.
“Documents were being prepared by the Defense Intelligence Agency, (Defense Secretary Donald) Rumsfeld’s intelligence arm, mapping Iraq’s oil fields and exploration areas and listing companies that might be interested in leveraging the precious asset,” Suskind wrote in The Price of Loyalty.
Beyond giving U.S. firms access to Iraq’s oil, the Bush administration recognized how the oil could help induce both allies and rivals to back broader U.S. policies.
“One document, headed ‘Foreign Suitors for Iraqi Oilfield Contracts,’ lists companies from 30 countries – including France, Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom – their specialties, bidding histories, and in some cases their particular areas of interest,” Suskind wrote in recounting O’Neill’s observations.
“An attached document maps Iraq with markings for ‘supergiant oilfield,’ ‘other oilfield,’ and ‘earmarked for production sharing,’ while demarking the largely undeveloped southwest of the country into nine ‘blocks’ to designate areas for future exploration.
“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.”
In pronouncements to the American people, however, Bush and other administration officials denied that oil was a reason for the Iraq invasion. Instead they stressed the danger posed by Iraq’s supposed WMD, then the humanitarian interest in removing Hussein, then encouraging democracy to flourish in the region, and finally preventing the spread of Islamic extremism.
Air Force Lt. Col. Karen Kwiatkowski, who was among the career military officers pulled into the war planning, said she and her fellow officers were troubled by how the American people were manipulated.
“Many of us in the Pentagon, conservatives and liberals alike, felt that this (Iraq) agenda, whatever its flaws or merits, had never been openly presented to the American people,” she wrote. “Instead, the public story line was a fear-peddling and confusing set of messages, designed to take Congress and the country into a war of executive choice, a war based on false pretenses.” [See Salon.com’s “The New Pentagon Papers.”]
By contrast, Wilkerson openly acknowledged the oil factor both in explaining the U.S. invasion and in justifying the need to remain in Iraq to ensure that any new government is not hostile to American interests.
Despite his earlier doubts about the wisdom of invading, the former chief of staff to Secretary of State Powell said the Middle East’s oil reserves makes withdrawal from Iraq more dangerous than leaving Vietnam three decades ago.
“We can’t leave Iraq; we simply can’t,” Wilkerson said in his Oct. 19 speech to the New America Foundation in Washington.
“I’m not evaluating the decision to go to war. That’s a different matter. But we’re there, we’ve done it, and we cannot leave. I would submit to you that if we leave precipitously or we leave in a way that doesn’t leave something there we can trust, if we do that, we will mobilize the nation, put five million men and women under arms and go back and take the Middle East within a decade. That’s what we’ll have to do.”
Wilkerson made clear that what made Iraq such a strategic concern was the oil.
“We consume 60 percent of the world’s resources,” he said. “We have an economy and we have a society that is built on the consumption of those resources. We better get fast at work changing the foundation – and I don’t see us fast at work on that, by the way, another failure of this administration, in my mind – or we better be ready to take those assets (in the Middle East).
“If you want those resources and you want (Middle Eastern) governments that aren’t inimical to your interests with regard to those resources, then you better pay attention to the area and you better not leave it in a mess.”
So, it appears those Iraq “blood-for-oil” accusations were right all along, at least in identifying one of the real reasons for invading Iraq. The present danger, however, is that U.S. policy-makers have no better solution to the quagmire in Iraq than continuing indefinitely to barter more blood for a continued supply of oil.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'