Soap Box: So It WAS Really About Oil

Monday, March 17, 2014
MSNBC's Rachel Maddow recently hosted a documentary identifying the primary reason why the United States went to war against Iraq

Those who cannot remember history are condemned to repeat it. -- George Santayana

In our 21st century information-saturated society, it has become much harder for people to keep track of the things happening in their personal lives or the world in general. A 2009 book about building excellent healthcare teams cites research that puts the average adult's maximum attention span at about 20 minutes and can be as short as eight seconds if continuous attention is required. The W.W. Grainger Company is currently airing a radio spot that highlights the marketing concept of effective frequency--the number of times a person needs to hear a message before purchasing but before they start to tune it out. That advertisement, as well as the online puts that number at three and that is, coincidentally, the number of times MSNBC host Rachel Maddow has tried to bring the true story of America's 2003 invasion of Iraq into the nation's collective consciousness after the recent airing of her cable documentary, Why We Did It.

Her first attempt was through the 2012 best-selling book, titled Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power, that the self-described bloviator called "a book about the politics of going to war, the politics of not going to war, and the politics of ending wars that we are in." It introduced the topic of Iraq but kept it at the macro level, only bringing up when discussing trends seen in US military activities of the past 50 years or so (since the Vietnam War). The second undertaking was the 2013 MSNBC film Hubris: Selling the Iraq War which was based on the similarly titled 2007 book by investigative reporter Michael Isakoff and David Corn, Washington editor of The Nation. This documentary highlighted the various rationales the Bush administration provided to the public--and the Congress--to invade a sovereign nation and remove its leader.

Her third--and most recent--undertaking came earlier this month with another hour-long program to focus on the actual reason behind those military operations in the spring of 2003. Succinctly titled Why We Did It, the show begins with video footage of a rogue nation becoming the eighth in human history to attain nuclear weapons capability in late 2006; surprisingly, that nation was North Korea and not the previously targeted Iraq (she openly inquires why we did not act in that case and Lawrence Wilkerson, former aide to Colin Powell, later gives the obvious answer). We are next given a primer on the energy issues--and the ensuing politics--swirling around the end of Bill Clinton's presidency which included why such a "outsider" (and constitutionally questionable) candidate like Richard "Dick" Cheney was able to secure the vice presidential spot on George W. Bush's 2000 election ticket. Moving over to private industry after serving as secretary of defense during the first Persian Gulf war, the 59 year-old triple heart attack survivor Cheney was chosen over more recognized governors, senators and a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs (although many of these "short listers" were later brought into the administration) supposedly for his "experience". We would soon learn that this connections in the petroleum business trumped those he had within the Pentagon or the halls of Congress.

One of the maps of Iraqi oil fields reviewed in national security briefings in the first months of the Bush administration is displayed above.

From very early on in that administration, the topic of Iraq--specifically its untapped and under-performing oil industry--was discussed at its highest levels. In the 2004 book The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O'Neill, Bush's first Treasury secretary stated that invasion planning was discussed at his first National Security Council meeting on January 30, 2001--less than two weeks after taking office. Ron Suskind, the author of that book, said about that session:

O'Neill sort of summed it up, Bush basically saying, "I want to overthrow Saddam, find me a way to do it. Not if, how.

The MSNBC host then walks the viewers through Cheney's Energy Task Force, a secretive group of lobbyists and executives who are chartered to provide the vice president advice on crafting the country's energy policy, to include how to deal with foreign contracting suitors wanting a piece of the yet-to-be-"liberated" Iraq oil fields. Although the Carter Doctrine--a policy stating that the United States would use military force, if necessary, to defend its national interests in the Persian Gulf--had been in place since January 1980 and President George H.W. Bush acted upon that policy to evict Saddam Hussein's forces in 1991, the administration began to seek out opportunities to create an "end" for the "means" they wanted to carry out in a military fashion. Already placed within the "Axis of Evil", Iraq would be accused of trying to acquire weapons of mass destruction not only for their own use but for proliferation to terrorist groups like al Qaeda.

While US Marines guard the Iraqi Ministry of Oil, Iraqis loot a power plant after Marines just cleared a section of Baghdad after their March 2003 invasion. (photos courtesy of and 

Although a campaign about "smoking guns" and "mushroom clouds" was publicly waged, oil-related deliberations continue behind the scenes and the administration brings on industry executives to plan for post-invasion activities that, as we later found out, would take priority over other activities many would consider more vital to that country's citizens. This focus was best illustrated by what we saw on news reports when US troops began rolling into Baghdad in early April 2003. Within the general chaos and the large amount of looting being done to government offices and facilities, one area that was under very strict control by US forces turned out to be the country's oil ministry. The pre-war goal was to quickly revitalize Iraq's oil production and to bring it up to an historic five million barrels per day rate to help finance the military operations and reconstruction efforts; however, poor overall post-invasion planning and an unexpected insurgency campaign delayed delivering levels anywhere close to that until 2013--two years after foreign military forces left the country.

Foreign Policy magazine compiled a list of the 21 publicly provided rationales for going to war with Iraq--oil was never officially cited.

As someone who began following the post-invasion activities with an almost activist-like zeal, none of the revelations made during this documentary were much of a surprise. I read former New York Times columnist Frank Rich's book, The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth in Bush's America, shortly after its 2006 release and that prepared me for the duplicity that Maddow would expose; however, he did not bring up the "war for oil" thesis that was effectively proven by the MSNBC host. In fact, that particular rationale was never offered up in the run-up to the passage of the October 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force legislation by pro-war supporters in the days right before that year's mid-term congressional elections (the above Foreign Policy magazine graphic compiles the reasons and their advocates).

As a vehicle for a lesson in recent history, the airing of this documentary--one that asks for introspection into the use of false rationales for waging war--could not have been more perfectly timed. With the on-going Russia/Ukraine/Crimea situation stirring up memories of the Cold War and the more recent--and mysterious--events surrounding the disappearance of the Malaysian Airlnes plane, we are witnessing two extremes on the catalyst continuum for potential American military action. The former would be framed by the traditional Westphalian sovereignty model of honoring treaties and collective security agreements while a response to the latter could resemble actions taken by US forces after the 9/11 attacks (if evidence of an act of state-sponsored terrorism is proven).

Representing the final "arrow" in our nation's "quiver" of responses to international situations, we would hope that previous experiences would temper and influence our leaders when contemplating present-day military actions. After watching Maddow's most recent presentation, we now know that such reflection was not conducted in almost every aspect of the Iraq war. This third attempt on informing the public about what many historians believe to be our country's biggest foreign affairs blunders completes an informative, albeit incomplete, troika of appeals to objective audiences.

Contemplating such tragic consequences reminds me of a warning given in 1951 by former US diplomat George F. Kennan to democratic "monsters" that might be contemplating military action in response to provocations:

You wonder whether it would not have been wiser for him to have taken a little more interest in what was going on at an earlier date and to have seen whether he could have prevented some of these situations from arising instead of proceeding from an undiscriminating indifference to a holy wrath equally undiscriminating.

While having similar predilections, I will have to stick with my original Santaya quote because, unfortunately, it fits better on a bumper sticker--the longest attention span most modern Americans can muster when discussing  political or historical matters.

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