Back to TIMELINE HOME


War for Oil: The connections between policy and practice
by Charlie Christensen


It's been a familiar sight on the evening news, throngs of people weaving serpent-like through city streets, or individuals standing in small groups on lonely rural highways, holding homemade signs, waving banners, chanting "No Blood for Oil."

Derided by the right as "unpatriotic", and viewed by others as simplistic for not grasping the full nuances of modern global realities, the "No Blood for Oil" protesters see the war in Iraq as an extension of a growingly aggressive US energy policy. Like all blanket indictments, the idea that the foreign policy of the world's most powerful nation could be written in the boardrooms of Exxon-Mobile or Chevron-Texaco sounds far fetched to many, to say the least. But like all popular myths, the notion is based on a kernel of truth. Future historians will no doubt write volumes on the motivations that led this nation to war—a quest for empire and global economic hegemony, misguided altruism, self defense, fear, revenge—and the need to secure oil for an increasingly energy dependent nation will likely be included on the list.

The idea that nations wage war to secure natural resources should not be shocking to anyone, and there are plenty of examples of such wars throughout history. At the time, it is usually difficult to discern the true motivations for war. Patriotic fervor and war-time propaganda can prevent rational analysis. Most people believe that a peaceful nation would never go to war for sugar, bananas, rubber, cotton, coal or animal hides, yet history shows us that people have fought wars for all those reasons.

Few would argue that the first Gulf War was about anything but oil. Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait and was poised to do the same to Saudi Arabia, threatening to destabilize world oil supplies. In response to that threat, a global effort was organized in order to thwart his expansion. The current situation in Iraq does not appear to be quite as clear-cut. The weaving of a popular narrative involving 9/11, weapons of mass destruction, and an evil dictator have clouded and obscured the facts. To see how oil has affected our current foreign policy, we need only look at the events that led up to the invasion of Iraq.

As early as September of 2000 presidential candidate George Bush was beginning to discuss the need to revise US policy vis-à-vis Saddam Hussein and oil. In his "A Vision for America" Bush discussed Iraq and oil.

As U.S. influence in the Gulf has waned, Iraq's relative influence as an oil supplier to U.S. and world markets has increased. & Iraq is now the fastest growing oil supplier to the United States... as spare production capacity becomes tighter, Iraq is moving into a position to become an important "swing producer," with an ability to single handedly impact and manipulate global markets... Perhaps most ominously, Saddam Hussein is threatening to cut back production.

Within ten days of taking office, Bush set up a presidential task force under the direction of Vice President Dick Cheney to look into the energy situation. The exact details of who participated in the meetings and what was discussed have been shrouded in mystery. The White House fought a protracted legal battle to keep the information secret, but we know that representatives of major energy and oil interests participated, and we know that Iraq was a chief topic of conversation. Cheney's Energy Task Force authored a variety of documents, many relating to the oil industries of Iraq, United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia.

In documents acquired through the FOIA, it is obvious that a post-Saddam Iraq was considered a forgone conclusion by the Cheney Task Force. One entitled "Foreign Suitors for Iraqi Oilfield Contracts," dated March 5, 2001, includes a table listing 30 countries which have interests in Iraq's oil industry, including the names of companies, the oil fields with which they are associated, as well as the status of those interests. Another titled "Map of Iraq's oil fields" shows markings for "supergiant" oil fields of 5 billion barrels or more, other smaller oilfields, fields "earmarked for production sharing," oil pipelines, operational refineries, and tanker terminals.

Due to the secrecy surrounding the Cheney Task Force, perhaps a more revealing view of the group's work can be found in a report written by an independent task force cosponsored by the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy of Rice University and the Council on Foreign Relations entitled; Strategic Energy Policy Challenges for the 21st Century.

Members of this task force included:

  • Ken Lay, CEO Enron
  • John Manzoni, Regional President BP
  • Steven Miller, CEO Shell Oil
  • David Reilly, CEO Chevron/Texaco
  • Chuck Watson, CEO Dynegy
  • Edward Morse, Exec. Advisor Hess
  • Eric Melby, Scowcroft Group
  • Thomas McLarty, Kissinger McLarty Associates
The group included numerous other Energy and foreign policy experts, and their findings were forwarded to Cheney s Energy Task Force. Many found their way into its list of recommendations:

It is vital for the United States to assure stable and transparent international energy markets that provide prices which foster economic growth. It is also in the strategic interest of the United States to assure that appropriate national and international mechanisms are in place to prevent disruptions in energy supplies &.

Iraq remains a destabilizing influence to U.S. allies in the Middle East, as well as to regional and global order, and to the flow of oil to international markets from the Middle East. Saddam Hussein has also demonstrated a willingness to threaten to use the oil weapon and to use his own export program to manipulate oil markets. This would display his personal power, enhance his image as a "Pan Arab" leader supporting the Palestinians against Israel, and pressure others for a lifting of economic sanctions against his regime.

The United States should conduct an immediate policy review toward Iraq, including military, energy, economic, and political/diplomatic assessments.

Around the same time, the military began to anticipate an expanded role in protecting the nation's energy interests. Tommy Franks, testifying before the House Armed Services Committee in April 2001, said the military stood ready to protect America's vital interests throughout the Central Command area of responsibility.

"The key to the Central Command area is to maintain uninterrupted access to energy resources. The Persian Gulf region contains roughly 68 percent of the world's known oil and natural gas reserves -more than 40 percent of which pass through the Strait of Hormuz," Franks said.

"And so, one of our responsibilities - in fact, one of our objectives - is to maintain access to these energy resources at the same time that we maintain access to markets in the region," he remarked. "Iraq, of course, is the main disturber of the peace in the region."

After 9/11 and the ensuing war fever, the rhetoric was turned up and the propaganda machine went into full swing. It was not long before the majority of the American people supported military action to remove Saddam Hussein from power. In order to offset any disruption in the flow of oil from the region, the Bush administration began to stockpile American oil reserves in anticipation that global supplies would be disrupted and oil prices would rise due to possible upcoming hostilities. According to the Times of London, "oil shipments into America's strategic reserve... reached record levels (by July of 2002), adding some 150,000 barrels a day. The White House aim[ed] to add more than 100 million barrels to the reserve, which would bring it close to its 700 million barrels capacity."

By the early fall of 2002, regime change seemed inevitable and rival factions within the energy industry began to vie for the spoils from Saddam's impending demise. In September, Ariel Cohen of the Heritage Foundation published, "The Road to Economic Prosperity for a Post-Saddam Iraq" in which he proposed that Iraq's oil industry be split up into three large, privately owned companies along the lines of ethnic separation, with one company in the largely Shia south, another in the Sunni region, and the last in the Kurdish north. He also recommended that a post Saddam Iraq should shun membership in OPEC and not abide by their price controls.

According to the Guardian, Ahmed Chalabi of the US-supported Iraqi National Congress met in October of 2002 with executives from three US oil multinationals "to negotiate the carve-up of Iraq's massive oil reserves. Although Russia, France and China had existing deals with Iraq, Chalabi made clear that he would reward the US for removing Saddam with lucrative oil contracts, telling the Washington Post that: 'American companies will have a big shot at Iraqi oil.'"

Upon hearing about the meetings, Lord Browne, the head of BP, "warned that British oil companies would soon be squeezed out of post-war Iraq even before the first shot had been fired in any US-led land invasion."

In November, a meeting of oil executives gathered at an English country retreat to discuss Iraq and it's future role in the world oil market. The conference was hosted by the former Oil Minister of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Yamani. Also in attendance were a former head of Iraqi military intelligence, an ex-Government Minister and numerous investors. According to the Guardian report, "topics for discussion include[d] the country's oil potential, whether it could become as big a supplier as Saudi Arabia, and whether a post-Saddam Iraq might have the economic power to destroy the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries."

A new Iraq, with a privatized oil industry and the power to break OPEC's stranglehold on worldwide oil markets was seen by many to be a major benefit of military action in Iraq. Larry Lindsey, President Bush's economic adviser, claimed in September 2002 that "when there is a regime change in Iraq, you could add three to five million barrels [per day] of production to world supply. The successful prosecution of the war would be good for the economy."

Twenty months into the Bush administration's tenure it became obvious that the recommendations made in the administration's first months in office were going to be implemented.

Over time, the administration's claims about the reasons we went to war have varied. There was 9/11, weapons of mass destruction, to "fight the terrorists there, and not here", to spread democracy, to free an oppressed people—the list goes on. But behind all the excuses and fabrications made during the run-up and execution of the war, there was always oil. Time may eventually reveal the relationship between the Bush administration's energy and foreign policies, but no matter what the ultimate rationale for war turns out to be, it is fair to say that the wheels of war were greased by oil.

Go to top of page link

  Back to TIMELINE HOME

Send email to a friend about this page:


About the DowningStreetMemo.com team