Saturday, 10 October 2009

The Iraq War, oil and the Nobel Peace Prize

Yesterday, a service was held in St Paul’s Cathedral, London, to mark the end of combat operations in Iraq, which was attended by the Queen, Prime Minister Gordon Brown, his wife Sarah, and former Prime Minister Tony Blair, as well other members of the military and government. The event was an opportunity to honour the dead British servicemen and reflect on a highly controversial war, with questions on whether it was worth it resurfacing once again. The cost of the war, in both human and financial terms, was huge. It is arguable whether the war has made Iraq and the rest of the world a safer place, which was allegedly the aim of the intervention.

The father of one dead British soldier, Lance-Corporal Shaun Brierley, refused to shake hands with former Prime Minister Tony Blair. Later Peter Brierley said, "I believe Tony Blair is a war criminal. I can't bear to be in the same room as him. I can't believe he has been allowed to come to this reception. I believe he has got the blood of my son and all of the other men and women who died out there on his hand.” Tony Blair, who took this country to war, investing his allegiance with former President George W Bush, a failed oil man with a “tendency to concoct favourable facts” (Dilip Hiro), believed the world had changed irrevocably after 9/11 and pre-emptive action was necessary to make it a safer place.

The main reason given for the war was to find weapons of mass destruction (WMD) which Saddam Hussein was allegedly concealing from the rest of the world. We all know that was hype now. Other reasons for the war were to “liberate” Iraqis from a genocidal dictator; to bring democracy to the country and the wider Middle East; and punish Saddam Hussein who, together with Al Qaeda, was responsible for 9/11. Many people succumbed to the anti-Iraq hype, but many others protested against it, believing that force was not the best solution. Despite the protests, Bush and Blair went ahead with their invasion.

As the dust settles, it becomes increasingly obvious that oil was the main reason behind the war. Even life-long Republican and former chairman of the US Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, said so. The US was becoming increasingly dependent on Irqai oil after the Clinton administration introduced the Iran and Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA) in 1996, which banned trade with Iran; and realising his growing clout, Saddam Hussein threatened to postpone plans to raise Iraq’s output if the US held up Iraq’s contracts for food, medicine and economic infrastructure before the UN Sanctions Committee. This pushed up oil prices and forced Clinton to take the unprecedented step of releasing 1 million barrels per day for thirty days from the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve during peacetime.

After George W Bush took office in January 2001, at the first meeting of National Security Council (NSC) at the White House, the number one item on the agenda was Iraq, and the next NSC meeting was devoted exclusively to Iraq. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld advocated “going after Saddam,” and said, “Imagine what Iraq will look like without Saddam and with a regime that’s aligned with US interests. It would change everything in the region and beyond. It would demonstrate what US policy is all about.” Among the documents later sent to NSC members, was one prepared by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), which had mapped Iraq’s oil fields and exploration areas, and listed American companies likely to be interested in participating in Iraq’s oil industry.

According to a BBC Newsnight report, the Pentagon planners, influenced by neoconservatives, devised a super secret plan, which involved the sale of all Iraqi oil fields to private companies with a view to increasing output well above the normal OPEC quota for Iraq in order to destroy OPEC. Ahmed Chalabi, an Iraqi exile and a front runner to replace Saddam, told The Washington Post in 2002, "American companies will have a big shot at Iraqi oil." In public, however, the justification for the war was Iraq’s WMD and Saddam’s alleged connections with Al Qaeda.

The plan to exploit Iraq’s plentiful oil resources, however, didn’t go as smoothly as planned. The Bush administration realized it would violate the Geneva Convention on War, which bars an occupying power from altering the fundamental structure of the occupied territory’s economy, by denationalizing Iraq’s oil industry; and the highly revered Shiite leader Grand Ayatollah Sistani, as well as other Shiite clerics, held that minerals belong to the “community,” meaning the state. The subsequent insurgency reduced Iraq’s oil output due to frequent attacks on oil pipelines and facilities, and Bush had to approach the US Congress for $2.1 billion to safeguard Iraq’s oil infrastructure. The new Iraqi constitution, endorsed by referendum in October 2005, finally dimmed the prospect of oil privatisation, stating that hydrocarbons are “national Iraqi property.” An auction for Iraq's new oil contracts was held last June, but many major Western companies withdrew their bids at the last minute because of controversial legislation setting terms for foreign investment in the country's oil sector, and for distributing its revenues.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, who has always been critical about the war, delivered a stinging attack from the pulpit yesterday, even mentioning the evil hand of Satan: "The invisible enemy may be hiding in the temptation to look for shortcuts in the search for justice – letting ends justify means, letting others rather than oneself carry the cost, denying the difficulties or the failures so as to present a good public face." He said it is better if world leaders be patient and be guided by truth: "St Paul tells us to wrap ourselves around with the truth, to be defended by justice and to be impatient only for peace. These are not remote ideals for a religious minority. They are essential advice for those caught up in the anxious, fast-changing world of modern military operations, with the intense, even harsh, scrutiny they get from observers and commentators worldwide." For a man who has often been criticised for his indecisiveness, these were firm words indeed and I admire his courage for such a firm stand.

I was very surprised yesterday that President Barack Obama, who has not been in office for even a year, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Despite his rhetoric about nuclear non-proliferation the prize seemed premature as he has achieved so little. But the Nobel Peace Prize is more than a prize - it is also a statement, and this one is a damning indictment of the policies of the previous Bush administration, which involved the use of unilateral, pre-emptive action with little regard for diplomacy, human rights and ground reality. It remains to be seen if Obama can live to the expectations of the Nobel Peace Prize committee. So far he has made a number of corrective changes to US foreign policy, many of which are welcome, but I think even he will struggle to completely change US foreign policy.