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A Crude Case For War?
There is no single conspiracy theory about why the Bush administration allegedly waged this "war for oil." Here are two.
Version one: Bush, former Texas oilman, and Vice President Cheney, former chief executive of the contracting and oil-services firm Halliburton, wanted to help their friends in the oil world. They sought to install a pro-Western government that would invite the major oil companies back into Iraq. "Exxon was in the kitchen with Dick Cheney when the Iraq war was being cooked up," says the Web site of a group called Consumers for Peace.
Version two: As laid out in an April 2003 article in Le Monde Diplomatique, "The war against Saddam is about guaranteeing American hegemony rather than about increasing the profits of Exxon." Yahya Sadowski, an associate professor at the American University of Beirut, argues that "the neo-conservative cabal" had a "grand plan" to ramp up Iraqi production, "flood the world market with Iraqi oil" and drive the price down to $15 a barrel. That would stimulate the U.S. economy, "finally destroy" OPEC, wreck the economies of "rogue states" such as Iran and Venezuela, and "create more opportunities for 'regime change.' "
There are historical roots for all this suspicion. After World War I, the Western powers carved up oil-producing interests in the Middle East. In Iraq, the French were given about a quarter of the national consortium, and the U.S. government pressured its allies to turn over an equal share to a handful of American companies.
Even now, the fate of Iraq's concessions is laden with politics. Russia's Lukoil hopes to regain access to a giant field. China is seeking new fields. The big U.S. firms are angling to return to fields they ran before sanctions barred them during the 1990s. Smaller U.S., Turkish, European and Korean firms are gambling on new exploration deals with the autonomous Kurdish regional authority despite threats from Baghdad.
"One can imagine Iraq's oil fields as a pimple waiting to be pricked," says Antonia Juhasz, author of "The Bush Agenda: Invading the World, One Economy at a Time." She notes that the Bush administration put former oil executives on the reconstruction team, hired the Virginia consulting firm BearingPoint to write a framework for Iraq's oil industry, picked the Iraqis who took key oil ministry posts and has pressured Iraq to adopt a petroleum law favorable to international companies.
The petroleum law has become a rallying point for critics who say that the war was about oil. It would allow long-term production-sharing agreements, which Juhasz says are only used in 12 percent of the world "and only where the country needs to entice the companies to come." Defenders of the law, including exiled Iraqi oil experts, say that it provides for different types of contracts; how generous they are will depend on how well they are negotiated, but the law sets minimum conditions.
Greg Muttitt, another widely quoted war critic, who works for Platform London, a group of British environmentalists, human rights campaigners, artists and activists, says that an occupied country can't negotiate freely. What ended up in the proposed petroleum law, he says, was "pretty close" to what was in papers drafted by the State Department before the invasion. "Perhaps not surprising," he adds, given lobbying by U.S. officials and the role of former oil company executives in the reconstruction hierarchy.
That's the theory. The problem is: The petroleum law has not been adopted.
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The idea that the Bush administration was in the tank for the oil industry glosses over a story of conflicting views before the U.S. invasion and the bungled execution of plans afterwards. There were two rival interagency policy groups before the war, one led by the Pentagon and one by the State Department. Some key differences were never resolved. Some Pentagon planners wanted Iraq to maximize oil output, while State worried that a flood of Iraqi oil could threaten Saudi interests and market share.
The notion of an oil war also conjures up an image of a swashbuckling, string-pulling oil industry that no longer reflects a business that in many ways has become cautious and fearful of political turmoil. Western oil interests did encourage the overthrow of Iranian leader Mohammed Mossadegh in the early 1950s and the war in Suez in 1956. But generally oil companies are content to forge alliances of convenience with leaders as diverse as Saudi kings, Angolan communists and Indonesia's late, long-time autocrat Suharto as long as they're predictable. On those leaders' politics, human rights record, ethnicity or religion, oil giants are agnostic.