This article is © 2014 by Stephen J. Sniegoski. All rights reserved by author.
This version was posted March 3, 2014 by WTM Enterprises.


“War for oil” — the notion that will not die
Iraqi oil and the Cheney Energy Task Force


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Those who claim that the United States went to war for oil seem to assume that since Iraq has huge reserves of oil, gaining control of that resource must have been the reason that the United States invaded the country. As the most prominent intellectual exponent of that view, Noam Chomsky, has put it:

Of course it was Iraq's energy resources. It's not even a question. Iraq's one of the major oil producers in the world. It has the second largest reserves and it's right in the heart of the Gulf's oil-producing region, which U.S. intelligence predicts is going to be two thirds of world resources in coming years. [1]
Operating from that assumption, the proponents of the war-for-oil thesis have endeavored to produce evidence that proves it, at least in their eyes. I have offered counter-evidence in my book, The Transparent Cabal: The Neoconservative Agenda, War in the Middle East, and the National Interest of Israel, and elsewhere to show that the existing arguments in support of the oil-war thesis just do not provide anything close to compelling proof. [2] The fact that Iraq has a large amount of oil does not mean that the oil companies would necessarily push for war; instead, they could seek to exploit that oil in peaceful ways. Indeed, the companies were pushing for an end to sanctions against Iraq. A Business Week article in May 2001, for example, reported that the easing of sanctions on "rogue" states "pits powerful interests such as the pro-Israeli lobby and the U.S. oil industry against each other. And it is sure to preoccupy the Bush Administration and Congress." [3]

In short, an easing of sanctions supported by the oil companies, which would enable them to have access to Iraq's oil, would serve to strengthen Saddam and make it more difficult to overthrow his regime, which was the goal of the neocons, a leading element of the Israel lobby.

Moreover, the oil companies were quite fearful of the impact of war on oil production. According to oil analyst Anthony Sampson in December 2002, "Oil companies have had little influence on U.S. policy-making. Most big American companies, including oil companies, do not see a war as good for business, as falling share prices indicate." [4]

Fareed Mohamedi of PFC Energy, a consulting firm based in Washington, D.C., that advised petroleum firms, stated that "[t]he big oil companies were not enthusiastic about the Iraqi war," maintaining that "[c]orporations like Exxon-Mobile and Chevron-Texaco want stability, and this is not what Bush is providing in Iraq and the Gulf region." [5]

Despite the lack of solid evidence, and the existence of contrary evidence, the war-for-oil argument just will not die, for various political, psychological, social, and economic reasons. It fits the prevalent belief in the rapacious nature of capitalist companies, and it is also a safe view to hold — it is doubtful that anyone ever lost a job or a friend for blaming the oil interests, unless one were actually employed by an oil company. In contrast, the explanation involving the neoconservatives and Israel represents a dangerous taboo.

Given the strong attraction of the oil argument, therefore, it is appropriate to examine a prominent piece of purported evidence used by its adherents. Thus, this article will look at the role of the National Energy Policy Development Group, which President George W. Bush created in his second week in office. The group had as its purpose the creation of a national energy policy for the United States. Chaired by Vice President Dick Cheney — who in the war-for-oil scenario is assumed to be an archetypal oil man — it would be dubbed the Cheney Energy Task Force.

As Cheney's biographer Baron Gellman points out, the task force became, in many respects, a "creature of Cheney's worldview." [6] De-emphasizing conservation and environmental protection, Cheney believed that the United States needed a "near-term boost in domestic energy production," which had suffered from over-regulation. [7] In short, Cheney's view on energy production coincided with that of the producers of fossil fuels. And in developing the energy policy, he would consult closely with leading figures in the fossil-fuels industry while giving short shrift to the opinions of environmentalists, with whom he rarely met.

Perhaps because of the biased nature of the sources of his information, but also in line with his expansive view of the executive branch's prerogatives, Cheney kept the meetings secret, and only as a result of legal efforts was any information about them revealed to the public; and even then it was far from everything. It was that secrecy that the war-for-oil theorists fell upon in order to substantiate their claim that the oil interest played the leading role in bringing about the U.S. attack on Iraq.

To the adherents of the thesis, it seemed apparent that the secrecy meant that something very ominous had been discussed in those meetings that could not be made known to the public, and the most ominous development in the early Bush administration was assumed to be the planning for the attack on Iraq.

Now, there is plenty of evidence that such planning was underway, and in fact had already been made, by the neoconservatives, with whom Cheney was certainly in league and whom he had actually brought into the Bush administration. However, there is no evidence that an attack on Iraq garnered substantial support from the oil industry. Far from pushing for war, industry representatives publicly supported the elimination of sanctions on Iraq (and elsewhere) so that they could have access to oil. Moreover, they were concerned about any form of instability in the Middle East, fearing that war would disrupt the extraction and transportation of oil. Thus, ex-President George H.W. Bush and his cronies, who according to the oil-war scenario are associated with the war on Iraq, were at least cool to the war. Brent Scowcroft, for one, was actively opposed. Scowcroft had been the elder Bush's national security advisor and during the run-up to the 2003 war sat on the board of Pennzoil-Quaker State. [8]

As an aside, let me deal with the implication that the oil companies were advocating war only in secret meetings with high Bush administration officials, with their pro-war views unknown to the media. That invisible approach is highly unlikely. Any contention that the oil interests primarily work behind the scenes is belied by the fact that they have been quite visible indeed in their public advocacy on many issues: fracking regulations; the termination of restrictions on the export of American-produced crude oil; the Keystone XL pipeline; regulations on refineries; and opposition to limitations on the use of fossil fuels because of "climate change" (anthropogenic global warming). And as mentioned, the oil companies were visible in their public opposition to the existing oil sanctions in 2001. The oil companies have been not only quite vocal in those matters but also far from successful in getting their way.

The war-for-oil theorists' suggestion that the oil interests could be more successful taking an invisible approach instead of a public one does not seem plausible. The neocons had developed and publicized their Middle East war agenda before 2001; once George W. Bush took office, they openly promoted an attack on Iraq, both in the media and from their key positions in the administration. All of that being so, it is reasonable to believe that it was their efforts that accounted for the U.S. attack. There is no need to posit any undocumented, invisible support from the oil lobby; by the standards of proof in argumentation, the neocon explanation fits the simplicity principle of Occam's razor. In an example of reverse logic, proponents of the oil thesis deny, ignore, or at least downplay the role of the neocons in bringing about the war on Iraq.

Despite counter-evidence, proponents of the war-for-oil thesis claim to find solid evidence for the coming invasion in the documents produced by the Cheney Energy Task Force. Some war-for-oil proponents, for example, have cited the maps of Iraqi oil fields used by the task force as evidence of plans for how those fields would be divvied up among U.S. companies. As the result of a court order, Judicial Watch, a conservative legal group, obtained a batch of task force-related U.S. Commerce Department papers that included a detailed map of oil fields, terminals, and pipelines, as well as a list titled "Foreign Suitors of Iraqi Oilfield Contracts." But the papers obtained also included a detailed map of oil fields and pipelines in Saudi Arabia and in the United Arab Emirates, as well as a list of oil and gas development projects in those two countries. The U.S. secretary of commerce said there were also maps of other key oil-producing regions of the world, including Russia, North America, the Middle East, and the Caspian Sea region. It seems quite reasonable that a task force on energy would seek clear knowledge about the key global locations of oil production. [9]

Iraq is barely mentioned in the final report from the Cheney task force, but it is given more, though still quite limited, attention in a report, "Strategic Energy Policy: Challenges for the 21st Century," by an Independent Task Force sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations and the James A. Baker III Institute of Public Policy. According to the Baker Institute, that task force was "comprised [of] 52 prominent Americans from government, industry, and academia ... [and] offered 110 recommendations to the Cheney task force and U.S. Congress regarding steps to build a comprehensive energy policy and national consensus." The chairman of the task force was Edward L. Morse, an energy economist and at the time an advisor at Hess Energy Trading Co. During the Carter administration he served as deputy assistant secretary of state for international energy policy, from 1979 to 1981. [10] Adherents of the oil-war argument have connected the Baker report to the Cheney task force and have interpreted its few references to Iraq as indications of the forthcoming American invasion. [11]

The Baker group urged four "immediate steps"; one such step, labeled "Deter and Manage International Supply Shortfalls," was in five parts; the Iraq issue was merely one of those five parts. The "immediate steps" were "to be considered in the very short term to assure that appropriate mechanisms are in place to deal with potential supply disruptions and to buffer the economy from adverse impacts of price volatility." [12]

The recommendation pertaining to Iraq read: "Review policies toward Iraq with the aim to lowering anti-Americanism in the Middle East and elsewhere, and set the groundwork to eventually ease Iraqi oil-field investment restrictions." The report acknowledged that "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." [13]

The report stated that "[t]he United States should conduct an immediate policy review toward Iraq, including military, energy, economic, and political/diplomatic assessments." [14] The emphasis, however, was not on military action against Iraq but on a sanctions policy toward Iraq that was better-coordinated with other countries, the existing sanctions being perceived as harming the Iraqi people without effectively weakening Saddam's power and ability to acquire weaponry.

"The United States," the report thus maintained, "should then develop an integrated strategy with key allies in Europe and Asia and with key countries in the Middle East to restate the goals with respect to Iraqi policy and to restore a cohesive coalition of key allies.... Actions and policies to promote these goals should endeavor to enhance the well-being of the Iraqi people. Sanctions that are not effective should be phased out and replaced with highly focused and enforced sanctions that target the regime's ability to maintain and acquire weapons of mass destruction. A new plan of action should be developed to use diplomatic and other means to support U.N. Security Council efforts to build a strong arms-control regime to stem the flow of arms and controlled substances into Iraq." [15]

The Baker report continued: "Once an arms-control program is in place, the United States could consider reducing restrictions on oil investments inside Iraq. Like it or not, Iraqi reserves represent a major asset that can quickly add capacity to world oil markets and inject a more competitive tenor to oil trade." [16]

The report acknowledged that if a diminution of the sanctions led to an increase in Saddam's oil revenues, he "could be a greater security threat to U.S. allies in the region if weapons of mass destruction (WMD) sanctions, weapons regimes, and the coalition against him are not strengthened." Nonetheless, it supported making a change since the continuation of the "oil sanctions is becoming increasingly difficult to implement" and "Saddam Hussein has many means of gaining revenues, and the sanctions regime helps perpetuate his lock on the country's economy." [17] A one-sided reading of that passage alone might seem to include war as one alternative to the existing sanctions, but, in fact, the report explicitly prescribed narrowing the scope of sanctions.

The Baker Institute report's fundamental concern that "energy disruptions could have a potentially enormous impact on the U.S. and world economy, and ... affect U.S. national security and foreign policy in dramatic ways" [18] would suggest that the United States not engage in military adventures that could destabilize the region. The U.S. invasion of Iraq certainly did cause such destabilization and explains why the oil interests and the traditional American foreign-policy establishment in general were cool or opposed to the attack on Iraq. [19]

Now, once it had become clear that the United States would attack Iraq, and certainly after it actually had invaded, one may assume that the oil companies would want to take advantage of the situation and jockey for a favored position in postwar Iraq. But that does not somehow prove by itself that the oil interests pushed the country into war. And as it happened, the U.S. government did little to guarantee a favorable position for American oil companies after the war. As I pointed out in The Transparent Cabal, the U.S. government never made plans (much less implemented such plans) to dominate Iraq, to the extent of being able to control Iraq's oil for its own benefit and that of its oil companies at the expense of the Iraq government and people. To exercise any permanent control of Iraq's oil reserves, Washington would have had to turn the country into a virtual colony (which would have been very difficult, if not impossible). [20] It was inevitable that an Iraqi government with any type of autonomy would sell oil leases to the highest bidder.

Under the oil argument, the violence and political resistance that sprang up in Iraq during the occupation thwarted the U.S. plan to control oil. The likelihood of such internal violence, however, was fully recognized in a number of pre-invasion government studies. [21] About the only ostensibly knowledgeable group that claimed otherwise was the neocons, and if their expressed view here is accepted as a candid account, it seems necessary to accept also their public pronouncements about establishing democracy and ridding Iraq of WMDs as reasons for the war.

When Iraq began to sell oil leases to foreign companies in 2009, only a very few went to American companies while a disproportionate number went to America's major rivals, China and Russia. That could hardly be a goal of American foreign policy. One reason given for those countries' success has been that their companies were government-owned or government-supported, and thus could better afford to incur risk and accept low profits than their American counterparts, which were strictly private. [22] Of course, if the U.S. government really fought a multi-trillion-dollar war for the purpose of gaining control of Iraqi oil for its companies, one would expect it to subsidize any oil leases in Iraq by American companies, the cost of which would pale beside the overall war costs.

In sum, there does not seem to be any real evidence that Washington went to war against Iraq to enhance the profits of the oil industry, or control oil for the United States, nor is there any logical reason to think that would be the case. Nevertheless, as I indicated at the beginning, there are strong political, psychological, social, and economic motivations for maintaining that belief, especially as opposed to the non-P.C. and rather dangerous alternative view to which I adhere — focusing on the role of the pro-Israel neocons. In most cases, those concerns are far more important in determining the prevalence of any view in modern America than logic and evidence, even for that very small minority of the population with high intellectual ability who are actually knowledgeable about the issues.

In fact, such people are often far more affected by concerns involving employment and social status than average Americans, and are thus less open-minded and less willing to alter their views in light of the facts. Whatever their actual personal views, the oil argument provides a safe position for those who want to oppose America's war policies in the Middle East without endangering themselves by expressing a view that could bring on lethal accusations of anti-Semitism.

However, a false view of reality will not serve to effectively solve problems. If we focus on a false culprit, the neocons and the overall Israel lobby are apt to flourish, and American military adventures are apt to continue in the Middle East.  Ω

March 3, 2014

Published in 2014 by WTM Enterprises.
© 2014 by Stephen J. Sniegoski. All rights reserved by author.

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1. Noam Chomsky, interview with Dubai's Business Channel, "'Of course, it was all about Iraq's resources,'" December 2, 2003.

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2. Stephen J. Sniegoski, The Transparent Cabal: The Neoconservative Agenda, War in the Middle East, and the National Interest of Israel (Norfolk, Va.: Enigma Editions, 2008), pp. 333-50; Sniegoski, "War on Iraq: Not oil but Israel," The Last Ditch, October 22, 2004.

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3. "Rogue States: Why Washington May Ease Sanctions," Business Week, May 6, 2001. Quoted in Transparent Cabal, p. 336; quoted in "War on Iraq: Not oil but Israel."

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4. Anthony Sampson, "Oilmen don't want another Suez," The Observer, December 21, 2002. Sampson is author of The Seven Sisters (New York: Bantam Books, 1976), which deals with oil companies and the Middle East; quoted in Transparent Cabal, p. 336; quoted in "War on Iraq: Not oil but Israel."

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5. Quoted in Roger Burbach, "The Bush Ideologues vs. Big Oil in Iraq," CounterPunch, October 3-5, 2003.

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6. Barton Gellman, Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency (New York: Penguin Press, 2008), p. 90.

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7. Ibid., p. 91.

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8. Transparent Cabal; "War on Iraq: Not oil but Israel," The Last Ditch, October 22, 2004; "Brent Scowcroft," Sourcewatch.

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9. "Cheney Energy Task Force Documents Detail Iraqi Oil Industry," Fox News, July 18, 2003; "Cheney Energy Task Force Documents Feature Map of Iraqi Oil Fields," Judicial Watch, July 17, 2003.

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10. James A. Baker III Institute of Public Policy, Energy Forum Policy Research.

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11. Ritt Goldstein, "'Oil War' Questions Surround Cheney Energy Group"; Michael T. Klare, "The Bush/Cheney Energy Strategy: Implications for U.S. Foreign and Military Policy," a paper prepared for the second annual meeting of the Association for Study of Peak Oil, Paris, France, May 26-27, 2003; Carol Brightman, Total Insecurity: The Myth of American Omnipotence, London: Verso, 2004, p. 190; Jason Leopold, "Eager to Tap Iraq's Vast Oil Reserves, Industry Execs Suggested Invasion," The Public Record, July 1, 2009.

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12. "Strategic Energy Policy," p. 42.

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13. Ibid., p. 46.

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14. Ibid., p. 46.

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15. Ibid., p. 46-47.

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16. Ibid., p. 47.

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17. Ibid., p. 47.

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18. Ibid., p. 2.

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19. The traditional foreign-policy establishment's opposition to the neocon position is brought out throughout The Transparent Cabal, but especially see: pp. 59, 270-73, 291-297, 343-350; Sniegoski, "War on Iraq: Not oil but Israel."

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20. Transparent Cabal, pp. 340-42; "War on Iraq: Not oil but Israel," The Last Ditch, October 22, 2004.

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21. Transparent Cabal, pp. 336-38.

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22. Mohammed Abbas, "No boon for U.S. firms in Iraq oil deal auction," Reuters, August 12, 2009.

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