Alexander Cockburn’s comments about the left’s inability to acknowledge US defeat in Iraq and the bogus ‘war for oil’ thesis are perceptive. But in Tariq Ali and Seumas Milne he has chosen the wrong avatars for this odd belief in the empire’s invincibility. Tariq is a good friend and I have had this conversation with him several times. I know for a fact that he rejects the reductionist ‘war for oil’ argument. (He made his position clear in the Q&A after his recent London Review of Books lecture.) Milne sometimes hews to the establishment left line, but has shown far more independence and courage than some other left luminaries. I’d rather Cockburn had directed his criticism at Noam Chomsky, whose defective and predictable analysis of the Middle East continues to mislead many.
“The US isn’t withdrawing from Iraq at all – it’s rebranding the occupation… What is abundantly clear is that the US , whose embassy in Baghdad is now the size of Vatican City , has no intention of letting go of Iraq any time soon.” So declared Seumas Milne of The Guardian on August 4.
Milne is not alone among writers on the left arguing that even though most Americans think it’s all over, They say that Uncle Sam still effectively occupies Iraq, still rules the roost there. They gesture at 50,000 US troops in 94 military bases, “advising” and training the Iraqi army, “providing security” and carrying out “counter-terrorism” missions. Outside US government forces there is what Jeremy Scahill calls the “coming surge” of contractors in Iraq , swelling up from the present 100,000. Hillary Clinton wants to increase the number of military contractors working for the state department alone from 2,700 to 7,000. Of these contractors 11,000 are armed mercenaries, mostly “third country nationals, typically from the developing world. “The advantage of an outsourced occupation,” Milne writes, “ is clearly that someone other than US soldiers can do the dying to maintain control of Iraq.
“Can Iraq now be regarded as a tolerably secure outpost of the American system in the Middle East ?” Tariq Ali asked in the New Left Review earlier this year. He answered himself judiciously,“They have reason to exult, and reason to doubt.”, but the thrust of his analysis depicts Iraq as still the pawn of the American Empire., with a “predominantly Shia army—some 250,000 strong—… trained and armed to the teeth to deal with any resurgence of the resistance,” all this with “ the blessing of the saintly Sistani’s smile”
The bottom line, as drawn by Milne and Ali is oil . Milne gestures to the “dozen 20-year contracts to run Iraq’s biggest oil fields that were handed out last year to foreign companies”.
Is it really true that though the US troop presence has dropped by 120,000 in less than a year, Iraq is as much under Uncle Sam’s imperial jackboot as it was in, say, 2004, even though now no US troops patrol the streets? If Iraq’s political affairs are under US control, how come the U.S. Embassy—deployed in its Vatican City-size compound, (mostly as vacant as a foreclosed subdivision in Riverside, California and planned in the same phase of megalomania) cannot knock Iraqi heads together and bid them form a government? Those 50,000 troops broiling in their costly bases are scarcely a decisive factor in Iraq’s internal affairs; nor are the private contractors.
Is a Shi’a-dominated government really to America’s taste and nothing more than its pawn? It was Sistani who forced the elections of 2005, calling Bush on his pledge of free elections, thus downsizing the excessive representation of the Sunni – who boycotted the election anyway. And if all this was a devious ploy to break “the Iraqi resistance” how come the United States constantly invokes the menace of Iran and decries its influence in Iraq?
The “Iraqi resistance” invoked in worshipful tones by Tariq Ali, as opposed to his ironic “saintly” reserved for Sistani, means, in his perspective, the Sunni. But if the Sunni ever had a strategy beyond a strictly sectarian agenda, it was scarcely advanced by blowing up Shi’a pilgrims and their shrines and setting off bombs in market places. If Moqtada al Sadr has been side-lined by the US and its supposed creature, Sistani, why has he been described as the “kingmaker” since his success in the parliamentary election this past March.?
As for the contractors, those sinister Third World mercenaries should not be oversold, unless the Shiites are supposed to quail before ill-paid Peruvians, Ugandan cops and the like., who will now be supposedly handing down orders to the Iraqi government. This takes a very imperial, and contemptuous attitude towards the capabilities of the Iraqi people.
If this really was a “war for oil,” it scarcely went well for the United States.
Run your eye down the list of contracts the Iraqi government awarded in June and December 2009. Prominent is Russia’s Lukoil, which, in partnership with Norway’s Statoil, won the rights to West Qurna Phase Two, a 12.9 billion–barrel supergiant oilfield. Other successful bidders for fixed-term contracts included Russia’s Gazprom and Malaysia’s Petronas. Only two US-based oil companies came away with contracts: ExxonMobil partnered with Royal Dutch Shell on a contract for West Qurna Phase One (8.7 billion barrels in reserves); and Occidental shares a contract in the Zubair field (4 billion barrels), in company with Italy’s ENI and South Korea’s Kogas. The huge Rumaila field (17 billion barrels) yielded a contract for BP and the China National Petroleum Company, and Royal Dutch Shell split the 12.6 billion–barrel Majnoon field with Petronas, 60-40.
Throughout the two auctions there were frequent bleats from the oil companies at the harsh terms imposed by the auctioneers representing Iraq, as this vignette from Reuters about the bidding on the northern Najmah field suggests: “Sonangol also won the nearby 900-million-barrel Najmah oilfield in Nineveh.… Again, the Angolan firm had to cut its price and accept a fee of $6 per barrel, less than the $8.50 it had sought. ‘We are expecting a little bit higher. Can you go a little bit higher?’ Sonangol’s exploration manager Paulino Jeronimo asked Iraqi Oil Minister Hussain al-Shahristani to spontaneous applause from other oil executives. Shahristani said, ‘No.’”
So either the all powerful US government was unable to fix the auctions to its liking, or the all powerful US-based oil companies mostly decided the profit margins weren’t sufficiently tempting. Either way, “the war for oil” doesn’t look in very good shape.
Milne advances the odd idea that with the (entirely imaginary) US “control” of Iraqi oil “the global oil price could be slashed and the grip of recalcitrant Opec states broken.” In fact, the last thing the majors want is to cut world oil prices.” Ask BP.
Milne and Ali are being naive and credulous in taking at face value US officials declaring that they are not wholly withdrawing and they will still be in business in Iraq for the foreseeable future. The reason for saying this is that they don’t want to see their influence go wholly to zilch. They therefore have to maintain — and are dutifully echoed on the left – that their power in Iraq is only a little affected by reduction of troop numbers from 150,000 to less than a quarter of that number.
The US line on this is in one sense sensible: In Iran many Iranians saw the hidden hand of Britain behind developments long after the Brits’ real power had faded almost to nothing. In the case of the US in Iraq it is easy to sell this when the right and left agree that US too powerful to have suffered a defeat.
The American right tried to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat by claiming that “the surge” – a PR ploy by General David Petraeus to mask US withdrawal – was a military success, rather than the Sunni abandoning “national resistance” and throwing in their lot with the Americans. The left – or the substantial slice of it hewing to the Milne/Ali line – snatches defeat from the jaws of a victory over America’s plans for Iraq by proclaiming that America has successfully established what Milne calls “a new form of outsourced semi-colonial regime to maintain its grip on the country and region.” Iraq is in ruins – always the default consequence of American imperial endeavors. The left should report this, but also hammer home the message that in terms of its proclaimed objectives the US onslaught on Iraq was a strategic and military disaster. That’s the lesson to bring home.