God told me to strike at al-Qaida and I struck them, and then he instructed me to strike at Saddam, which I did, and now I am determined to solve the problem in the Middle East.1
George W. Bush, June 2003
In March 2003, the United States and the ”Coalition of the Willing” invaded Iraq. Five years later, at least one hundred thousand people, but maybe up to a million, had died and many more had been injured.2 Over four million people had become refugees, half of them in Iraq and half outside. Little remains of what was once one of the most prosperous and developed countries of the Middle East. Those parts of Iraq that are not controlled by the US army are run by sectarian gangs.
Today almost everybody understands that the official reasons given for the war – weapons of mass destruction, war against terror, axis of evil, introduction of democracy – do not amount to a row of beans.
9/11 and the rapid “victory” in Afghanistan provided the American government with the opportunity it needed to break Americans deep-seated distrust, which had endured since the Vietnam War, of using ground troops to invade another country. But neither were the real reason.
To say, as has become common, that the real cause of the war was oil is correct. However, at the same time it is not a sufficient explanation. There has always been oil in Iraq, what was it specifically in 2003 that drove the US to invade Iraq?
a. The Saudi royal family was tottering
Growing instability in Saudi Arabia was one of the chief reasons why the US was in such a hurry. 66% of all proven oil reserves recoverable with present technology at current prices are in the Middle East. This compares with 9% in Latin America and 6% in North America.3 The largest reserves are in Saudi Arabia, and the second largest in Iraq.
Predictions have been made that the demand for oil will increase by 40-50% up to 2025. Whether or not this prediction proves accurate, oil is a crucial raw material for the global economy, and Saudi Arabia plays a key role in the oil market. The country has functioned as a ‘tap’ that can be turned on or off to reduce or raise the price of oil.
Saudi Arabia is an out-and-out dictatorship. Political parties are forbidden, the press is censored, and no democratic elections have ever been held there. There are frequent reports of torture, and dissidents are jailed or executed. Thieves risk having their hands chopped off. Women are not allowed to drive cars. But the White House has had no objections. The US regime has long enjoyed excellent relations with the Saudi royal family.
For decades, the Saudi regime had seemed rock solid. Massive amounts of oil revenue had raised living standards for the population as a whole, despite the absurdly large share that the royal family and their intimates had taken for themselves. Education and health-care were free of charge. No tax was levied on private income. There was a social insurance system. Petrol, electricity, gas as well as air tickets were extensively subsidised by the state. The country attracted large numbers of guest workers from poorer countries in Asia.4
However, in 2003 the official unemployment rate was 25% – among men.5 Unemployment among women was not counted: most women are not allowed to work. Native Saudis had to fight for jobs, such as that of receptionist and security guard, that a few years earlier were performed only by immigrant labour. Income calculated as GDP per capita fell from USD 16 650 in 1981 to a record low of USD 6 527 in 1998. This meant that while GDP per capita in Saudi Arabia was on a par with the US earlier, by 1998 it was only a quarter of the American level. In 1999, the national debt amounted to 120% of national income.6
Discontent with the resultant budget cuts led to revolts and even to cases of mutiny in the army. Criticism was so widespread that the regime could no longer silence its ‘troublemakers’ completely. The unrest was openly discussed in a number of royal speeches, exposing a political divide in the royal family. The regime also tried to reduce the number of immigrants by imposing an extra 10% tax on their wages.
The Saudi establishment was split on the question of the royal family. A large faction took the view that the parasitic regime must be removed in order to prevent a grassroots uprising that could lead anywhere. Supporters of the monarchy, on the other hand, argued that a change at the top would open the floodgates, and the resultant drive for improvements would sweep away a great deal more than just the royal family.
In the shadow of this conflict among the elite, the fundamentalist Wahabi movement flourished. The ultra-orthodox sect was no new phenomenon in Saudi Arabia. For 250 years it has been closely allied to the al-Saud royal family.7 The Wahabi movement conferred religious legitimacy on the al-Sauds in exchange for being given a free hand to wage its holy war, or jihad. The movement was also in charge of education, the media, the vice squad and other administrative areas. The Wahabi manifesto, which states that one “must never support the infidels”, is compulsory reading in Saudi schools. Also drummed into young Saudis is the Prophet Mohammed’s message, “I will drive out the Jews and Christians from the Arabian Peninsula and leave none but Muslims”.
As long as the Cold War was under way and the Saudi Islamists were directing their jihad at the Soviet Union and its allies, the US was happy not to interfere. The fundamentalists’ advances in Nasser’s Egypt, Afghanistan, the Balkans and Central Asia had US backing.
When these fundamentalists turned against their former allies, however, it was a different matter. By criticising the corrupt practices of the ruling clique and American interests in the oil fields, and also by stirring up opposition to the US military presence in the ‘Holy Land’, the Wahabi movement exploited deep-rooted popular discontent in Saudi Arabia for its own ends.
In August 2002, excerpts from a report brought before the Pentagon’s Defence Policy Board (a consultative assembly of prominent figures, including Henry Kissinger and former vice president Dan Quayle) were leaked. There, Saudi Arabia is described outright as an enemy of the US and as “the kernel of evil”. The report goes on: “The Saudis are active at every level of the terror chain, from planners to financiers, from cadre to foot-soldier, from ideologist to cheerleader.”8 The report ends with a recommendation that the al-Saud family be given an ultimatum: Stop backing terrorism or face seizure of your oil fields and your financial assets in the US!
Other confidential US government papers claim that a break-up of Saudi Arabia would benefit US interests, and should therefore be encouraged.9 The US was particularly interested to see the oil-rich Shia Muslim provinces in the shore region closest to Iraq break away.
The Saudi regime could have been swept away at any time by internal forces of a less pro-American disposition. A pro-American puppet government in oil-rich Iraq would make it easier for the United States to deal with a crisis in Saudi Arabia.
b. Bush’s unpopular domestic policies
Another reason for invading Iraq as soon as possible was the situation in the US. Opinion surveys in January 2003 showed Bush’s policies to be highly unpopular.10 The budget deficit was substantial and social welfare programs were either being cut back or only keeping pace with inflation.11 Even his drastic tax cuts failed to find favour with the voters. To win the next election, Bush would have to divert the attention of the voters from class divisions, the budget deficit, unemployment, the healthcare crisis and corporate fraud. He needed an external enemy that could unite the American people. When the war began, some critics fell silent (or were refused media exposure) and many people rallied around the Commander-in-Chief.
To win the next election, Bush would have to divert the attention of the voters from class divisions, the budget deficit, unemployment, the healthcare crisis and corporate fraud.
Bush also had other reasons for going ahead with his war plans. He would have been pilloried by his neo-conservative backers if he had opted out. To get some idea of this group’s outlook on the world it is worth looking at a meeting in Virginia attended by 4 000 neo-conservatives. The gathering seethed with hatred of the “liberal establishment”, of professors who indoctrinated the country’s youth with “black Marxism” and taught them “to become faggots”. There were calls for income tax to be totally abolished and that Ariel Sharon, Israeli Prime Minister at the time, should be given a free rein. Arabs and Muslims had taken the Communists’ place as the main enemy, the meeting was told. Posters carried the message “Give war a chance – peace through greater force of arms”. There were badges inscribed “Fight crime – shoot back!”, car stickers declared “No Muslims = No Terrorism”, and T-shirts labeled “Pray for him”. The extreme right had taken Bush to its heart. And one of the speakers at the meeting was Vice President Dick Cheney. 12
c. Scaring others into line
A greater threat to US power-holders than Saddam Hussein’s regime was the revolts, protests and revolutionary movements that spread from country to country in Latin America. Argentina, Venezuela, Brazil, Bolivia and Ecuador all experienced strong leftist currents and open, simmering discontent with capitalism and imperialism. It was impossible for the US to invade these countries. Hitting Iraq would sound a warning to others. “A massive show of strength will help bring about a rapid Iraqi surrender and demonstrate America’s power to all other potential foes”.13
Contrary to the claims of the hawks in Washington, it was precisely the fact that Saddam Hussein’s regime had already been disarmed that caused the US to declare war on Iraq and launch an invasion. Iraq’s military strength had been halved since 1991.14 Bush’s strategists counted on American military superiority to keep the war short. Following an overwhelming American victory in Iraq, they thought, trouble spots around the world would calm down and we would see a Pax Americana, a global peace wholly on American terms.
d. The oil companies and the war industry
Previous American presidents have sought to maintain a reasonable distance to the country’s major corporations. The American people on both right and left have always mistrusted big business. But with the kind of over-confidence that comes from dominating more than half of the world, the Bush administration was the first to be so open in taking the side of big business, and especially the big oil companies and the war industry. For these corporations, the war was about landing lucrative contracts and making billion-dollar profits.
Vice President Cheney and leading representatives of the ExxonMobil, ChevronTexaco and ConocoPhillips oil giants met secretly to discuss the war. Also at the meetings was the world’s largest supplier of services to the oil industry, Halliburton, whose chief executive used to be Dick Cheney himself. Cheney is also involved in Unocal (which has major interests in Afghanistan), ExxonMobil, Shell and ChevronTexaco.15
Other leading figures in the US administration with links to the oil industry included President George W. Bush himself, who is the son of oil magnate George Bush Sr (a former president) and the founder of the Arbusto oil company. (Arbusto is Spanish for ‘bush’). He is also a previous chairman of Spectrum 7 Energy and a former advisor to the Harken Energy Corporation. Ex-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, was a member of the ChevronTexaco board.16
A look at the Carlyle Group, an investment firm that managed almost USD 14 billion and invested enormous sums in the defense industry, exposes the links between the Bush’s government and the war industry. The former board chairman of the Carlyle Group was Frank Carlucci, previously head of the CIA and secretary of defence in Ronald Reagan’s cabinet. Carlucci was chairman emeritus of the Carlyle board and closely connected to Donald Rumsfeld. George Bush Sr worked for the company as a senior advisor, along with former secretary of state James Baker. The Carlyle executive board included a large number of George Bush Sr’s old colleagues, including Richard Darman, a former budget director in the White House. Colin Powell had been engaged as a speaker, and the group’s European activities were led by the former British Prime Minister John Major.17
The war had only been under way for a few days when the battle for reconstruction contracts began. The US leadership took the view that American companies should be given priority. Huge sums were at stake. Estimates of the value of these contracts varied from USD 25 billion to 100 billion. They involved the reconstruction both of the oil industry and of Iraq’s infrastructure. Electricity and water supplies, roads, power transmission, schools, hospitals and communications were to be restored. The more was destroyed in the war, the more would have be to restored afterwards.
In March 2003, the agencies of the US Department of Defence and the Pentagon were already dealing with bids. The bidders included Halliburton, its subsidiary Kellogg Brown & Root (who built the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba), and the giant Bechtel construction company (whose executives included Caspar Weinberger, formerly Reagan’s secretary of defence), as well as Schlumberg, Flour and others. All American.
In Britain, the news that US companies were being given priority aroused considerable anger. As British soldiers were taking part in the war, British companies should also be awarded contracts – this, it was thought, was only logical. The fact that it was not the same Britons that were risking their lives was not mentioned. What infuriated the British in particular was the revelation that under US rules, the American aid agency, USAID, which was to finance the construction of roads, bridges, ports and other infrastructure, was required to award the contracts to American companies first. British aid, on the other hand, went via the UN and the EU, which do not accord British companies special treatment. As a result, the British company, P&O Ports, lost the contract for the reconstruction of the port in Umm Qasr.
Aid agencies were not, of course, supposed to pay the bulk of the costs. The US administration had come up with a much better way of financing Iraq’s reconstruction without burdening the American taxpayer. When Clare Short, the British Secretary of State for International Development, resigned her post in May 2003 in protest at the war, she revealed that the US had demanded that Iraq’s oil revenue should be placed in a fund which the American-led coalition, not the UN, would preside over.18
Strategy for world dominance
As can be seen from the above, the US administration had a number of good reasons for going to war with Iraq precisely when it did, in March 2003. However, there was also a more long-term strategic interest in getting control over Iraq.
Already in 1997, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, President Bush’s brother, Jeb, and others signed a Statement of Principles issued by the neo-conservative think-tank called Project for the New American Century (PNAC).19 Several of its founders were given prominent US government positions when George W. Bush was elected. The PNAC tried to define the path the US should pursue following the demise of the Soviet Union: “As the 20th century draws to a close, the United States stands as the world’s pre-eminent power … [What is now needed is] a foreign policy that boldly and purposefully promotes American principles abroad; and national leadership that accepts the United States’ global responsibilities.”20
The PNAC writes about building up American power more or less everywhere – even in space – and on being prepared to intervene in a range of countries. It also stresses the need to keep US troops in northern and central Europe, despite the stability there. The document expresses concern lest some alternative to the American military presence might evolve and “leave the US without a voice in European security affairs.” 21 In other words, the PNAC presents a “recipe for world dominance”.22
The acquisition of Iraq was an important part of this strategy. “The United States has for decades sought to play a more permanent role in Gulf regional security. While the unresolved conflict with Iraq provides the immediate justification, the need for a substantial American force presence in the Gulf transcends the issue of the regime of Saddam Hussein.” 23 In fact, as far back as during the oil crisis of 1973-74, the idea that the US must dominate Iraq took root among people like Rumsfeld and Cheney. They both worked for the Ford administration, which was ousted as a result of the oil crisis.24