Thursday, 14 July 2016

Britain and Iraq 2003: Blair's War for Energy Security

We would need to handle this carefully and ensure it was confidential to avoid charges of oil motivations"-UK diplomat in a declassified memo February 2003.

"...the oil conspiracy theory is honestly one of the most absurd when you analyse it"- Prime Minister Tony Blair, TV interview February 2003.

 '....human kind / Cannot bear very much reality- T S Eliot, Four Quartet.

One of the problems that arises whenever the causes of the Iraq War of 2003 are discussed as a war for oil is the way some anti-war activists describe it as being ‘all about oil’. This is usually taken to mean that Blair lied about there being higher motives or defence reasons for overthrowing Saddam Hussein.

According to this view, peddled by crowd pleasing populists from the film maker Michael Moore to many in the useless British Stop the War Coalition leadership, it was all about enriching corporations, Dick Cheney and Halliburton, the oilmen and oily spinmasters such as Blair. This then, in turn, is used as 'proof' it is a 'conspiracy theory'.

When the Iraq War is-and was in 2003-depicted as 'all about oil' in such a manner, as though there were sinister vampire-like evil capitalists drooling over carving up Iraq to make profits, it becomes easier for those like Blair to discredit and dismiss the very real role oil played as part of the determination to go to war.

The first thing that requires understanding, as far as Britain was concerned, is that the Bush administration was intent on invading Iraq after 9/11. Al Qaida in the Middle East was feared to provide a potential threat to oil infrastructure and the ‘strategic chokepoints', the sea lanes around the Arab Peninsula through which oil tankers move.

This was way Blair could, in 'good faith', link together the threat of Islamist terrorism and Saddam Hussein into one geopolitical threat by techniques of propaganda conflation. The most recurring one was the supposed threat that Al Qaida could acquire chemical, biological and nuclear material to make a 'dirty bomb'.

Hence because of the threat posed to oil traffic routes, a real one off the Horn of Africa, both the US and Britain were seeking access to Iraqi oil to offset the danger to the stability of Saudi oil supplies posed by Al Qaida. At the time, the security of the Saudi kingdom was not entirely clear with its internal threats.

Blair must have known-and in fact did know-that protection of oil supplies was a vital British interest primarily in order to keep oil prices low and head off the possibility of price volatility or a sudden oil price spike. This threat, in Blair’s thinking, could have been caused either by Al Qaida or by Saddam Hussein-or by instability in Saudi Arabia.

The Chilcot Report declassified a February 2003 memo in which a U.K. diplomat claimed the British government should "start preliminary work to ensure U.K. companies are well-placed to pick up contracts in the aftermath" of the war. But that only confirms that there had been high level talks to control Iraq’s oil for reasons left unstated.

As early as December 2001, Mark Allen of MI6 wrote a top secret memo with a section entitled Why Move ? It advocated Saddam had best go. Allen, who also brokered Blair's deal with Colonel Gaddafi in 2004, and later became a special adviser for BP, claimed 'The removal of Saddam Hussein is a prize because it could give new security to oil supplies'.

Yet Blair’s decision to join the US invasion of Iraq was not so much about him serving the interests of BP or Shell. He no doubt 'believed' by involving British oil corporations in the reconstruction of Iraq, he could fulfil the primary goal that the US neoconservatives had also sought-the breaking of the power of OPEC.

Fears of Saudi Instability.

Increased production from Iraq would also mean falling oil prices for the entitled consumer in the West. After the defeat of the Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War and the defeat of Saddam in the First Gulf War in 1990, the US became very much more clearly the hegemonic power in the Middle East with a role in protecting oil supplies.

Economic globalisation and the huge surge in demand, with ever greater economic growth and the benefits of the US-China relationship bearing results, led to an age of profligate fuel use as symbolised in the popularity of the 'gas guzzling' American SUV Hummers ( these had originally been military vehicles in the 1990 conflict ).

However, this entire model of Western led globalisation came under attack with the upsurge of Islamist radicalism and terrorism in the Middle East. This was a consequence of the failure of unaccountable autocratic states to guarantee previous levels of economic well-being from oil profits and the pressure of huge levels of population growth.

The Saudi oil fortunes of the 1970s was diminished by the need to maintain the extravagant lifestyles of fifteen thousand royal prices as well as buy off discontent by spending huge amounts of cash both on state-of-the-art Western weaponry ( primarily American and British ) in order to keep them occupied and loyal to the regime.

The second looming concern for the US was that China was becoming not only an emerging economic superpower in partnership with the US but translating that into military power in ways that could threaten America's global hegemony. This was clear in 2000 before Al Qaida's attack on the WTC in New York 'changed everything'.

Apart from 9/11 2001 and the threat of Al Qaida, in the period between 1997 and 2003, Saudi Arabia had attempted to reassert its leadership over OPEC against overproducing Venezuela by flooding the market with oil so as to lower prices. Unfortunately, this coincided with the decline in demand from Asia following the financial crisis of 1998.

Tony Blair Fears Oil Price Volatility in the Run Up to the Outbreak of War.

By 2000 Saudi attempts to cut production and increase the price overshot the mark and drove prices up to thirty dollars a barrel. In Britain one consequence of that was the fuel protests of that year when road hauliers went on strike and threatened to tarnish New Labour’s pledge there would be no return to the economic instability of the 1970s.

One of the documents declassified by the Chilcot Report shows how Blair in March 2002 was also concerned at oil price stability if the US embarked on military action. "Oil prices. This is my big domestic worry. We must concert with the U.S. to get action from others to push the price back down. Higher petrol prices really might put the public off".

Hence Blair made the pledge that ‘ We will be with you’ whatever'. It is still not known what exactly Blair said to Bush at the Crawford Meeting in Texas in the following month in April 2002. The Chilcot Report omitted this. What is a fact is they initiated the US-UK Energy Dialogue which stressed increased oil supply from the Gulf as vital.

The idea the Iraq War was ‘all about oil’ only to benefit corporations taps into populist economic globalisation. Yet it explains everything and nothing. Blair himself had serious doubts about whether a war could ensure stability of oil prices. The Chilcot papers reveal he had started to panic by 2004 when reconstruction was delayed.

It is clear Blair regarded himself primarily as an advocate. For him, presentation was all because, even if oil was bound to be an important part of Iraq's 'nation-building' as a democratic model state, what mattered was success alone. He claimed he 'did not have a reverse gear'. Once 'delivered' from Saddam, things could only get better.

In this respect, Blair's ideology was crudely utilitarian as well as implicitly authoritarian. Embittered by the failure of Labour Party among voters in the 1980s and of his youthful ideals, 'the people', whether in Britain or Baghdad were to be less interested in politics but in consumerism, material goods and in being given 'what they really want'.

Blair's mediocrity and his being utterly out of his depth on foreign policy, indeed as a statesman, is shown by the fact that when he suspected the occupation was going badly he knew “If it falls apart, everything falls apart in the region.” Warned before March 2003 on this, Blair had no idea what to do when it did.

In fact, the private correspondence with Washington revealed by the Chilcot Papers shows Blair putting forward 'three point plans' that called for speeding up rebuilding work, ramping up security in Baghdad and, bizarrely ( but true to his banal character ), “putting on TV things people want to watch – local soaps, football etc”.

Blair could have stayed out of Iraq. But it was a war of choice because in the run up to March 2003 he had decided he really 'believed' that if the US was sure it could make the war 'work' to short order, then they had to be 'right'. But whether it is liked or not, the chilling reality is that energy security was a crucial consideration for him.

The Chilcot Report has very much downplayed the role of oil because ultimately, unless there is a movement away from the dependence upon Middle Eastern oil to power the global economy, wars to secure access to oil and gas, as well as protect pipeline routes, are going to become a recurrent feature of Anglo-American foreign policy.

David Cameron, in response to the Chilcot Report, made plain that Blair's 'mistakes' should not mean Britain would not be prepared to launch military interventions in future, not least as he himself- as"heir to Blair"-spearheaded another disastrous one in Libya in 2011. And again a main ambition was the geopolitics connected with energy.

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