Fighting Words


People who prefer Saddam Hussein to Halliburton.

In the waning days of the argument over whether to intervene in Iraq, I came to think that I could, with a 99 percent chance of being bang! on target and inflicting no collateral damage, spot an obvious phony. At the meeting or the debate, someone would get up and announce that of course we’d all be better off without the “bad guy” Saddam Hussein. Having cleared his or her throat in this manner, the phony would go on to say what the real problem was (East Timor sometimes, or the imminent obliteration of tens of thousands of Baghdadi civilians, or Ariel Sharon’s plan to expel all the inhabitants of the West Bank under cover of an American imperialist war).

None of these hysterical predictions came true, but now I can’t open a bulletin from the reactionary right or the anti-war left without being told that Iraq is already worse off without Saddam Hussein. And how can we tell that Iraq is worse off? Because contracts for its reconstruction are being awarded to American corporations. Of the three feasible alternatives (that the contracts go to American capitalists, or to some unspecified non-American capitalists, or that Iraqi oil production stays as it was), the supposed radicals appear to prefer the last of the three.

This view, which admittedly expresses a wider concern, can stand some examination. The Iraqi oil industry was until March 2003 a fiefdom of the Baath Party. Its revenues were mysteriously apportioned but went to the upkeep of a militaristic and dictatorial regime. Its physical plant was much decayed, as a consequence of U.N. sanctions. The oil-for-food program was exploited in the most cynical manner by members and clients of the palatial Saddam regime, who used the semilegal trade to enrich themselves while starving and neglecting the population. (By the way, now that sanctions can be properly lifted, let us remember that their very imposition was opposed by the anti-war spokesmen, who would have scrapped them without conditions even though they had been imposed by the sacrosanct majority of the United Nations.) Meanwhile, vast contracts were awarded, on the basis of political favoritism, to Russian and French consortia. At moments when the Baathist authorities felt themselves insecure, they would threaten to set fire to the oil wells or—as in late March—would actually do so.

In front of me is a copy of the Arab Times, published in Kuwait City and picked up during my recent trip to the region. It gives a matter-of-fact account of the state of affairs in the Rumaila field, as of March 29. About 10 oil wells were ablaze, many fewer than had been feared. (A great number of bombs and charges had been laid, but either the local officers did not obey the order, or the order never came, or the fields were secured by British and American special forces too swiftly to allow the planned sabotage to occur.)

At any rate, a burning well is a tough proposition and an uncapped well—permitting a wholesale discharge—an even tougher one. The situation was being handled by Boots and Coots, a fire-control company with an almost parodically American name, which is based in Houston. Boots and Coots, which also worked in Kurdistan and Kuwait after the much worse conflagrations of 1991, is subcontracted for the task by Kellogg, Brown, and Root (another name Harold Pinter might have coined for an American oil company), which is in turn a subdivision of Halliburton. And “Halliburton,” which admittedly sounds more British and toney than Boots and Coots, was once headed by—cue mood music of sinister corporate skyscraper as the camera pans up in the pretitle sequence—Vice President Dick Cheney.

Well, if that doesn’t give away the true motive for the war, I don’t know what does. But unless the anti-war forces believe Saddam’s fires should be allowed to burn out of control indefinitely, they must presumably have an idea of which outfit should have got the contract instead of Boots and Coots. I think we can be sure that the contract would not have gone to some windmill-power concern run by Naomi Klein or the anti-Starbucks Seattle coalition, in the hope of just blowing out the flames or of extinguishing them with Buddhist mantras. The number of companies able to deliver such expertise is very limited. The chief one is American and was personified for years by “Red” Adair—the movie version of his exploits (played by John Wayne himself!) was titled Hellfighters. The other main potential bidder, according to a recent letter in the London Times, is French. But would it not also be “blood for oil” to award the contract in that direction? After all, didn’t the French habitually put profits in Iraq ahead of human rights and human life? More to the point, don’t they still?

I want to be the first to agree that transparency in the administration and allocation of oil revenues is of the highest importance. For example, there is a gigantic amount of money involved in the U.N.-administered oil-for-food program. Vast quantities of this surplus are still unspent and are backed up somewhere within a complex bureaucracy. The Kurdish people, for example, are still waiting to see how much of their hard-won cash will be released for the rebuilding of their desolated homeland. Escrow isn’t enough. All we know is that many U.N. officials are sitting contentedly on the transfers and that the great undisclosed balance is held in a French bank. Here’s a good cause for the humanitarians to take up, if they are willing to do some work and some digging instead of mouthing a few easy slogans.

If you are as persuaded of the materialist conception of history as, say, I am, then you owe it to yourself to study the dialectic and to avoid tautology. A theory that seems to explain everything is just as good at explaining nothing. In Guatemala in 1954, and in Iran at about the same time, and later in Chile in 1973, it is true that the United Fruit Co., and the Anglo-Iranian oil corporation, and Pepsi, and ITT all influenced regime change too much. Sometimes, politics really was like a Bertolt Brecht script where the fat man in a top hat pays the bills and pulls all the strings.

But in Iraq this proposed scenario is believed in only by the puerile. It’s the baby-oil theory. It was for the sake of real oil and for the grim-faced Saudis that Saddam Hussein was kept as a favorite by Washington during the 1980s and saved from overthrow in 1991. It was not for the sake of oil that the risky decision to cease this corrupt coexistence was made. But at least now the Iraqi people have a chance of controlling their own main resource, and it will be our task to ensure that the funding and revenue are transparent instead of opaque. This couldn’t have been left to the oil interests who ran the place until recently, and it couldn’t even have been attempted if we’d listened to the peaceniks, who strike me now more than ever as … oleaginous.