We Need the Oil, Right? So What’s the Problem?

February 16, 2005

Such openness is rare; it set me back on my heels. The question came last Monday as I finished a lecture in Pewaukee, Wisconsin–the first of a handful of talks I gave for “Great Decisions 2005,” a program of the Institute of World Affairs, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

    With the “weapons of mass destruction” of recent memory having evaporated as casus belli for the invasion and occupation of Iraq, I had decided to experiment with a tutorial on what I believe to be the real reasons behind the war—first and foremost, oil. Passing by a phalanx of late-model gas-guzzlers on my way in, I found myself wondering how my observations on the oil factor would be received. In the end, I was more than a little surprised that none of the 250 folks in that very conservative audience seemed to have much of a problem.

    The Most Recent Death

    I had thought I was in for a much more difficult time. Among other things, the news had just broken that 22 year-old Lance Cpl. Travis M. Wichlacz of the Milwaukee-based Fox Company had become the fifth from that company, and the 33rd from Wisconsin overall, to be killed in action in Iraq. His stepmother told a reporter, “Travis was kicking down doors. They were going into houses and finding weapons caches and dismantling bombs.” Cpl. Wichlacz died in a roadside bombing southwest of Baghdad on February 5.

    We began with a moment of silence in his memory, and then imagined ourselves into the scene with the newspaper reporter who had spoken with Wichlacz’ father, Dennis. We tried to anticipate questions Mr. Wichlacz might ask us:

    Q. “How could our country have had such bad intelligence that President Bush was misled into starting this war?”

    A. “I’m afraid it’s not that simple, Dennis. The Bush administration decided to attack Iraq many months before any ‘intelligence’ was adduced to ‘justify’ such an attack. Yes, the intelligence conjured up was bad. But its target was Congress; even Colin Powell has admitted that. And the aim was to deceive our lawmakers into forfeiting to the Executive Congress’ constitutional prerogative to authorize war.”

    Q. “But what about my son?… and the others who died? Why?”

    A. “Oil.”


    Canadian writer Linda McQuaig, author of “It’s the Crude, Dude”, has noted that decades from now it will all seem a no-brainer. Historians will calmly discuss the war in Iraq and identify oil as one of the key factors in the decision to launch it. They will point to growing US dependence on foreign oil, the competition with China, India, and others for a world oil supply with terminal illness, and the fact that (as Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz has put it) Iraq “swims on a sea of oil.” It will all seem so obvious as to provoke little more than a yawn.

    But that will be then. Now is now. How best to explain the abrupt transition from early-nineties prudence to the present day recklessness of this administration? How to fathom the continued cynicism that trades throwaway soldiers for the chimera of controlling Middle East oil?

    The Earlier Cheney on Our Soldiers

    In August 1992, Dick Cheney, then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney under a very different President Bush, was asked to explain why US tanks did not roll into Baghdad and depose Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War. Cheney said:

“I don’t think you could have done that without significant casualties… And the question in my mind is how many additional casualties is Saddam worth? And the answer is not that damned many… And we’re not going to get bogged down in the problems of trying to take over and govern Iraq.”

    “Where the Prize Ultimately Lies”

    Later, then-CEO Dick Cheney of Halliburton found himself focusing on different priorities. In the fall of 1999 he complained:

“Oil companies are expected to keep developing enough oil to offset oil depletion and also to meet new demand…So where is this oil going to come from? Governments and national oil companies are obviously in control of 90 percent of the assets… The Middle East with two-thirds of the world’s oil and the lowest cost is still where the prize ultimately lies.”

    What had changed in the seven years between Cheney’s two statements?

  • The US kept importing more and more oil to meet its energy needs.
  • Energy shortages drove home the need to ensure/increase energy supply.
  • Oil specialists concluded that “peak oil” production was but a decade away, while demand would continue to zoom skyward.
  • The men now running US policy on the Middle East appealed to President Clinton in January 1998 to overthrow Saddam Hussein or “a significant portion of the world’s supply of oil will be put at hazard.”
  • In October 1998 Congress passed and Clinton signed a bill declaring it the sense of Congress that “it should be the policy of the United States to support efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein.”
  • International sanctions left a debilitated Iraq with greatly weakened armed forces headed by an “evil dictator.”

    Shortly after George W. Bush entered the White House in January 2001, Vice President Cheney’s energy task force dragged out the maps of Iraq’s oil fields. (We now have some of the relevant documents, courtesy of a bitterly contested Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. But the courts have upheld the White House decision to keep the task force proceedings, and even the names of its members, secret.)

    To be fair, taking over Middle East oil fields was not a new idea. In 1975 Henry Kissinger, using a pseudonym, wrote an article for Harpers titled “Seizing Arab Oil,” outlining plans to do just that, preventing Arab countries from having absolute control over the modern world’s most vital commodity. But in those days there was a USSR to put the brakes on such adventurism.

    Prize Lies

    Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has claimed that the conflict with Iraq “has nothing to do with oil,” but those who do not limit their news intake to FOX are aware that his credibility is somewhat tarnished. After all, it was Rumsfeld who assured us, among other things, that he knew where Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction” were located. And for a war supposedly not about oil, US military planners certainly gave extremely high priority to securing the oil fields—and even the Oil Ministry in Baghdad.

    It will bring no consolation to young widow Angela Coakley, whom Cpl. Wichlacz married last May just before shipping out to Iraq, or to his parents to know that they are not the first to suffer immeasurable loss on false pretenses.

If any question why we died,
Tell them because our fathers lied.
    Rudyard Kipling

    No Static

    In Pewaukee I fully expected such observations to cause some static, at least during the formal post-lecture Q&A session before most of the audience drifted off into a light snow. I was later advised not to misread the lack of demurral as concurrence, but rather to chalk it up to Mid-West reticence.

    Some twenty folks did linger in a small circle that was dominated by a persistent, well dressed man (let’s call him Joe), who just would not let go:

“Surely you agree that we need the oil. Then what’s your problem? Some 1,450 killed thus far are far fewer than the toll in Vietnam where we lost 58,000; it’s a small price to pay… a sustainable rate to bear. What IS your problem?”

    I asked Joe if he would feel differently were it to have been his son that was killed, rather than Cpl. Wichlacz, but the suggestion seemed so farfetched as to be beyond Joe’s ken. (And therein lies yet another important story). So I resorted to a utilitarian approach. “Joe, we’re just not going to be able to control the oil in Iraq. The war is unwinnable. There are 1.3 billion Muslims, and they are very upset with us; they will not let us prevail.”

    But this too made little impact on Joe.

    How about Because It’s Wrong

    I sized Joe up as one who would press for having the Ten Commandments prominently displayed in the courthouses of America. So I took a new tack, asking him, “Isn’t one of those commandments about stealing… and one about killing… one about lying… and even one about coveting your neighbor’s possessions? Would you think we might lop off those four and whittle the tablets down to the remaining six so as to spare ourselves potential embarrassment?”

    Joe walked off to drive his gas-guzzler home.

    Ray McGovern is on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity. His 27-year career as a CIA analyst spanned administrations from John F. Kennedy to George H. W. Bush.

Tags: Fossil Fuels, Geopolitics & Military, Oil