Iraq wasn't a war for oil, but the oil fields are the nation's best hope for recovery.

A wartime lexicon.
Dec. 14 2009 10:02 AM

Iraq Was Not a War for Oil

But the oil fields are the nation's best hope for recovery.

Iraqi Oil Minister Hussein al-Shahristani.
Iraqi Oil Minister Hussein al-Shahristani

If the intervention in Iraq was indeed "a war for oil," then some of that war's more positive consequences were to be seen in Baghdad last week. The country's oil minister, Hussain al-Shahristani, presided over an auction at which development rights for seven major oil fields were awarded in competitive bidding among several international consortia. Three features of the outcome were worthy of note. The auction was to award service contracts rather than the production-sharing agreements that the major corporations prefer. The price was set at between $1.15 and $1.90 per barrel, as opposed to the $4 that the bidders originally proposed. And American corporations were generally not the winners in an auction where consortia identified with Malaysia, Russia, and even Angola did best. (ExxonMobil and Occidental have, in previous negotiations, been awarded contacts in other Iraqi oil fields.)

Christopher Hitchens Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.

Thus, the vulgar and hysterical part of the "war for oil" interpretation has been discredited: Iraq retains its autonomy, the share awarded to outsiders in development is far from exorbitant, and there is no real correlation between U.S. interests and the outcome. Except that we do have a very genuine interest in the success of this endeavor as it unfolds. If the recuperation of Iraq's oil fields persists, and if production levels continue to rise, the country will begin to reacquire what it lost under the insane regime of Saddam Hussein, which debased the oil infrastructure and then squandered its proceeds. Current production is about 2.5 million barrels a day, which, on current projections, could rise to 7 million barrels in a relatively short time and which Shahristani, perhaps optimistically, believes could rise to 12 million barrels a day in 2016. The potential for this recovery certainly exists. Iraq has the third-largest proven reserves in the world at 115 billion barrels, and new explorations undertaken since the removal of Saddam Hussein and the lifting of sanctions suggest that even that figure could be on the low side.

What this means is that Iraq could quite soon be in a position to rival the output of Saudi Arabia and Iran. This is precisely what many of us in the regime-change camp used to point out: the huge, glittering prize of a democratic and federal Iraq situated between two parasitic theocracies and capable of challenging their oil duopoly.

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If you bear this in mind, two further things also become somewhat easier to understand. The unbelievable cruelty and viciousness of the so-called "insurgency," which daily continues to murder Iraqis in areas of the country that are not patrolled by Americans, is to a considerable extent a mercenary and reactionary movement financed from outside the country. The Sunni killers of al-Qaida in Mesopotamia draw on sources of support within Saudi Arabia, while the Shiite gangs are part of a shadow thrown by the so-called Revolutionary Guards and other paramilitary elements of the Iranian dictatorship. It is they who are shedding blood for oil and trying to prevent the recovery of a country that could challenge their patrons in more ways than one. The Syrian regime, for reasons equally obvious, gives arms and money and a hinterland to the gangsters, perhaps showing special sympathy for the former Baathist ones.

I would say it was far more important to help Iraq defeat these religious and political criminals in a country of the most salient importance to the health of the global economy than it is to pretend that Pakistan is our friend in an area dominated by rocks, ravines, and poppy fields. But perhaps the lessons learned in Iraq will help Gens. Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus on their new mission—in which case the experience of counterterrorism in Iraq will also prove to have been extremely valuable.

The oleaginous dimension of the situation has real relevance to the internal state of Iraq as well. If you remember, two years ago the media consensus was that Iraq was doomed to civil war, if it wasn't already undergoing one. Well, in spite of some appalling provocations and reprisals, such a state of affairs has still not come about. One possible reason is the incentive to cooperate on jointly reviving the national prosperity. The last time I was in Baghdad, I stayed in the house of a Kurdish member of the government—a man who had spent hard years of his life fighting for, at minimum, an autonomous Kurdistan within Iraq. "But now I sit on the budget committee," he told me, "and I see how incredibly wealthy this country could be. I tell my friends back home in the north: Don't walk out on your share of this."

A version of the same observation may well apply in Anbar province, where important new discoveries of oil and natural gas have been made since the liberation. There are fields in the immediate neighborhood of Baghdad and stretching across the west of the country almost all the way to the Syrian border. To phrase matters in the sectarian terms in common use, this means major deposits located in Sunni Arab territory. (For more on this topic, see James Glanz's report in the New York Times of Feb. 19, 2007.) In the barbaric days of dictatorship and aggression, Saddam Hussein's Sunni minority of a minority in Tikrit had to exert despotism over the Shiite and Kurdish majority because it was mainly under their soil that the country's chief resource was located. Now, in bold contrast, there is a petrochemical basis for federalism, a federalism not defined by religion or ethnicity but by province and region. (For an excellent guide to the constitutional implications of this, see Brendan O'Leary's book How To Get Out of Iraq With Integrity.)

The arguments over regime change in Iraq still get themselves bogged down in recrimination over weapons of mass destruction and other disputes. But the essential and overarching choice is, and always was, this: Iraqis can have a future of tribalism in which their children skip school to stand guard over barricades made of burning tires and all is resolved by the militia system and malign cross-border interference. Or Iraqi nationhood can be slowly rebuilt by a federal order that allows for extensive decentralization and the solution of differences by elections and the courts, with a reviving economy that could ultimately make all citizens as rich as their Kuwaiti neighbors and former victims. Win or lose, this is the best offer that Iraqis could have been made, and it is rightly feared by the decrepit but still-dangerous oligarchies next door. Here, surely, is something still worth arguing about—and worth fighting for.

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