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A Useful Canadian Idiot Speaks By: Linda McQuaig
CommonDreams.org | Tuesday, February 18, 2003

The astonishing thing about American power is not that it will soon crush the feeble nation of Iraq, but that it has managed for months to keep world attention riveted on Iraq's "weapons of mass destruction" when Washington's real interest is Iraq's oil.

In saying that, I realize I risk being dismissed as a naive, knee-jerk simpleton.

One is allowed to voice skepticism about the upcoming invasion and still move in sophisticated circles these days. It's quite appropriate at a cocktail party, for instance, to question the timing of the invasion or to wonder whether the U.S. has the stomach to deal with post-war Iraq.

These are serious questions, according to New Yorker magazine editor David Remnick, who at the same time is dismissive of those who think war is being driven by "a conspiracy of oil interests."

Let me redeem myself slightly, by saying that I partially agree with the sophisticates — this war is not just about oil.

It's also, for instance, about eliminating an intransigent foe of Israel and possibly diverting Iraqi water to Israel. And it's about giving George Bush a major military victory, without risking nuclear mayhem too close to an election.

But it's also very much about oil. It's odd there's so much resistance to this notion, since commentators sniff the oil factor quickly enough when analyzing the motivations of countries like France and Russia.

These same commentators also generally subscribe to the view that the ordinary person (or "homo economicus" as the economics textbooks call him) is motivated by material self-interest.

But those who occupy the White House — and who got there courtesy of corporate financial backing — are seen as different, eschewing material concerns for higher ideals like peace and democracy. This, then, would be the "sophisticated" view.

Let's look for a minute at Iraq's oil, even if no one else wants to.

One of the striking things about Iraq's oil reserves — besides their sheer volume — is how undeveloped they are. This isn't just because of the past decade of sanctions. It goes back to the 1920s when the seven major oil companies (American and British) began operating in the Middle East.

The companies functioned as a cartel. With explicit agreements not to compete against each other, they carved up the rich Middle East oil reserves, thereby enabling them to control most of the world's oil supply and keep prices and profits high. (All this was documented by a U.S. Senate investigation in the 1950s.)

The fledgling Arab states, created out of the old Ottoman empire, had little choice but to accept the piddling royalties the companies offered.

Iraq was always more demanding than the others. In the early 1960s, the popular Iraqi leader Abdul Qarim Qasim invited in some independent oil companies as competition for the cartel. The cartel didn't like that and, since it controlled access to world oil markets, the independents stayed away from Iraq. The cartel punished Iraq by pumping less Iraqi oil, thereby reducing the nation's meager revenues.

Instead of knuckling under to the cartel, Iraq tried something bolder in 1972: it nationalized its oil. (Neighboring Iran had attempted a similar nationalization in the 1950s, but the U.S. and Britain stepped in and organized a coup that replaced the nationalistic leader there.)

The West couldn't really intervene to stop the Iraqi nationalization, however, because Iraq invited in the Soviets to develop its oil fields and buy its oil.

The Iraqi deal with the Soviets — regarded as the ultimate treachery by the oil companies, Washington and London — was negotiated by the Number 2 man in the new Baathist regime that had seized power in Iraq. His name was Saddam Hussein.

The companies and Western powers were further incensed the following year with the emergence of OPEC as an aggressive cartel of oil-producing nations determined to win a bigger share of the oil wealth, with Iraq the leading militant.

Now, in the post-Soviet era, Iraq's oil fields remain huge, undeveloped, ripe for exploitation — and essentially unprotected. And the treacherous Saddam remains in power.

But the idea that the U.S. is after oil is seen as simplistic and crass. It suggests the White House is willing to use its immense military superiority to advance the interests of its corporate elite, or to settle old scores. Many people prefer to think of the U.S. as a benign force struggling to make the world safe or, at worst, as a bumbling do-gooder that sometimes gets carried away in its zeal to bring democracy to others.

Given the immensity of U.S. power, one can understand the temptation to believe this. Any other interpretation may just seem too scary.

Linda McQuaig is a political commentator for the Toronto Star.

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