All about oil
Action in the Supreme Court next month could reveal that Iraq's fate was decided as early as May 2001, writes Larry Everest*
The case Cheney vs US District Court is scheduled to be heard before the Supreme Court next month and could end up revealing more about the Bush administration's motives for the 2003 Iraq war than any conceivable investigation of US intelligence concerning Iraq's purported weapons of mass destruction.
The plaintiffs, the Sierra Club and Judicial Watch (a conservative legal group based in Washington), argue that Vice President Dick Cheney and his staff violated the open- government Federal Advisory Committee Act by meeting behind closed doors with energy industry executives, analysts and lobbyists. The plaintiffs allege these discussions occurred during the formulation of the Bush administration's May 2001 National Energy Policy.
For close to three years, Cheney and the administration have resisted demands that they reveal with whom they met and what they discussed. Last year, a lower court ruled against Cheney and instructed him to turn over documents providing these details. On 15 December, the Supreme Court announced it would hear Cheney's appeal. Three weeks later, Cheney and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia spent a weekend together duck hunting at a private resort in southern Louisiana, giving rise to calls for Scalia to recuse himself. So far, he has refused.
Why has the administration gone to such lengths to avoid disclosing how it developed its new energy policy?
Significant evidence points to the possibility that much more could be revealed than mere corporate cronyism. The national energy policy proceedings could open a window onto the Bush administration's decision-making process and motives for going to war on Iraq.
In July 2003, after two years of legal action through the Freedom of Information Act (and after the end of the war), Judicial Watch was finally able to obtain some documents from the Cheney-led National Energy Policy Development Group. They included maps of Middle East and Iraqi oilfields, pipelines, refineries and terminals, two charts detailing various Iraqi oil and gas projects, and a March 2001 list of "Foreign Suitors for Iraqi Oilfield Contracts", detailing the status of their efforts.
These documents are significant because during the 1990s, US policy-makers were alarmed about oil deals potentially worth billions of dollars being signed between the Iraqi government and foreign competitors of the United States, including France's Total and Russia's LukOil. The New York Times reported the LukOil contracts alone could amount to more than 70 billion barrels of oil, more than half of Iraq's reserves. One oil executive said the volume of these deals was huge -- a "colossal amount".
As early as 17 April 1995, The Wall Street Journal reported that US petroleum giants realised that "Iraq is the biggie" in terms of future oil production, that the US oil companies were "worried about being left out" of Iraq's oil dealings due to the antagonism between Washington and Baghdad, and that they feared that "the companies that win the rights to develop Iraqi fields could be on the road to becoming the most powerful multinationals of the next century."
UN sanctions against Iraq, maintained at the insistence of the United States and Britain, prevented these deals from being consummated. Saddam Hussein's removal in 2003 has left the deals in a state of limbo, but the Bush administration's insistence that only countries supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom are eligible to take part in post-war reconstruction does not bode well for French and Russian concerns.
An April 2001 report by the US Council on Foreign Relations and the Baker Institute for Public Policy -- commissioned by Cheney to help shape the new energy policy -- also devoted serious attention to Iraq. The report, entitled "Strategic Energy Policy Challenges for the 21st Century," complained about Hussein's oil leverage: "Tight markets have increased US and global vulnerability to disruption and provided adversaries undue potential influence over the price of oil. Iraq has become a key 'swing' producer, posing a difficult situation for the US government ... Iraq remains a destabilizing influence 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 programme to manipulate oil markets."
Significantly, the report concluded that the United States should immediately review its Iraq policy, including its military options.
There are many other indications that, despite the Bush administration's repeated and insistent denials, petroleum politics may have played a crucial role in the US invasion of Iraq. For instance, both the State Department and the Pentagon had pre-war planning groups that included a focus on Iraq's oil industry; protecting the idustry was an early US objective in the war.
In October 2002, Oil and Gas International reported that US planning was already under way to reorganise Iraq's oil and business relationships. In January 2003, The Wall Street Journal reported that representatives from Exxon Mobil Corporation, Chevron-Texaco Corporation, Conoco-Phillips and Halliburton, among others, were meeting with Vice President Cheney's staff to plan the post-war revival of Iraq's oil industry.
Cheney is said to have once remarked that the country that controls Middle East oil can exercise a "stranglehold" over the global economy. One-time Bush speech writer David Frum wrote in The Right Man, his 2003 biography of his boss, that the United States' "war on terror" was designed to "bring new freedom and new stability to the most vicious and violent quadrant of the Earth -- and new prosperity to us all, by securing the world's largest pool of oil."
Further records from Cheney's Energy Task Force could shed more light on the inner workings of the Bush administration's march to war in Iraq. The first question, though, is whether the Supreme Court will lift the Bush-Cheney veil of secrecy.
* The author The writer is the author of Oil, Power & Empire: Iraq and the US Global Agenda (Common Courage Press, 2004). This article was first published in The San Francisco Chronicle