The Second World War is seen as the worst disaster in history; what is barely understood is that after the war the United States was the only nation with significant economic and military power and that, tragically, the stage had been set for an immeasurably worse chain of disasters—of which the Iraqi war is neither the last nor the worst, unless “We the People” make this our country.
As the Second World War ended, there was a moment when it seemed that we might forge a very different path; that because the “land of the free and home of the brave” could it also would initiate policies to assure that the most devastating war ever would also have been the last war—that we could then, finally, begin to realize the “American dream” here at home while helping the imperialized societies to move toward their own independence and on their own terms.
Instead, even before the war ended we began to spawn the policies that became the Cold War (and, soon after, its soul mate McCarthyism) in a U.S. dominated global economy. Lurch by lurch, the Cold War crushed the hopes for enhancing freedom, democracy, and well-being at home and abroad, by putting in their place repression, violence, and ever more cunning spin. Iraq is simply the latest manifestation of that sordid and tragic set of historical developments.
The presumed but not real threat of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq follows the presumed but not real military threat of the Soviet Union (and, almost as an afterthought, China); anything will be used to keep us fearful and trembling and acquiescent. No WMD have been or will be found; when the Cold War was born, and for many years after there was no military—as distinct from political—threat from the war-flattened Communist world. If and when either the Soviet Union and/or China became a military threat, it was in consequence of, not a basis for, the Cold War—as is the case now for terrorism, always rising in step with (or faster than) our belligerence. Then, and again now, we have made the world a more dangerous place.
From its inception the Cold War contributed to or brought about socioeconomic, political, and military tragedies for dozens of societies, corrupting their governments, ruining their economies, causing millions of deaths, and rendering stillborn whatever hopes for the future there may have been—paving the way for today’s “preemptions.”
Highlighting the deep roots of the Cold War helps situate Everest’s powerful book, Oil, Power and Empire, which is concerned specifically with the Middle East and the past half-century’s turmoil there, with contemporary Iraq as its main focus. Everest is an experienced journalist and has spent considerable time as a reporter in the Middle East and elsewhere in Asia over the past quarter century. In this book he provides a superb analysis and reportage of the war in Iraq and, just as important, a historical account of the past and present role of the United States in fomenting the turmoil and horrors of the larger Middle Eastern context.
Everest’s main aim is to expose the arrogance, ignorance, and systematic deceit that propelled Washington to invade Iraq—and which, left to itself, will go on from there to more wars. As I write this, the Iraqis seem likely not to leave the United States to itself; but they need the help of the likes of us if they are to be left to themselves—instead of being subjected to the mass high-tech slaughter to which this government habitually descends with our weapons of mass destruction.
One would like to believe that a large percentage of our own people are not as arrogant or as inclined to violence as Bush, et al. Even so, as a people, including the otherwise well-informed, we are basically ignorant of what we should know about Iraq and its people. Everest’s book goes far to fill in the gaps, making clear the complex history of the entire region. He presents a stark account of U.S. interventions into the early and ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the U.S.-provided dictatorship of the Shah of Iran and subsequent upheavals, the Iran-Iraq war, the first Gulf War and, of course, the evolution of the present war in Iraq.
Marx was right about many things, including that “history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” But he may be forgiven for being wrong about Iraq: There is nothing funny about this war, past or present. Everest situates this history:
In 1914 British forces landed there [in Mesopotamia] as part of the campaign against the Ottoman Empire [allied to the Germans]….When the British entered Baghdad in 1917, their commanding officer…told the city’s residents, “Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators….The Arab race may rise once more to greatness!” (p. 40)
Then, in 1921, the British held the Cairo Conference, chaired by Winston Churchill. They changed the name from Mesopotamia to Iraq and set up their administration and, along with two pro-British Iraqis, wrote Iraq’s first constitution. Sound familiar?
That done, “In 1925, the British forced the new King Faisal to sign a 75-year concession granting the foreign-owned Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC) all rights to Iraq’s oil” (p. 45). It was soon pumping oil from the major fields at Kirkuk—including what should be part of Kurdistan but was to become part of Iraq. The Kurds had long had their freedom and lands usurped by Syrians, Persians, and Turks, but with the discovery of oil they attracted the attention of the “western democracies”—setting in motion the same process that happened in Persia (now Iran) in 1901 when its oil was discovered; and the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (now BP) came to control oil production and its profits.
Given the twentieth century conjunction of oil, autos, modern industry, and imperialism, the peoples of the Middle East were trapped in the oil curse, doomed to economic exploitation, repressed politically, and tormented culturally. In response to this exploitation up through the Second World War, the Shah of Persia, angry with Britain, became sympathetic to the Nazis and changed Persia’s name to Iran (to be read: “Aryan”).
Already in 1944 the United States made a major move regarding oil and strategy for the Persian Gulf. In a 1944 meeting with Britain’s Lord Halifax, Franklin Delano Roosevelt informed Halifax: “Persian oil is yours. We share the oil of Iraq and Kuwait. As for Saudi Arabian oil, it’s ours” (p. 59).
What were among the consequences of that deal? It provided great wealth for the Saudi dynasty, lots of oil for us, and the opposite of freedom and democracy for the Saudi people—and the bitterness of Osama bin Laden. You get what you pay for; or, in this case, you pay for what you get.
A decade or so later, after Iran’s first approximation of a free election,
Prime Minister Mossadegh attempted to nationalize [the] Anglo-Iranian [oil company]. In response, the CIA organized a coup overthrowing his government and restoring the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlevi to the throne. The Shah [who had been a Nazi sympathizer] would rule Iran for the next 25 years as an absolute monarch, imprisoning, torturing, and murdering many of his opponents, while loyally working for U.S. interests in the region. (p. 60)
That U.S. action also voided the Halifax-Roosevelt agreement and allowed the United States to go from getting zero to 40 percent of Iran’s oil, with the other 60 percent shared by the British, French and Dutch. More pertinent to our focus on Iraq, the Shah’s rule led to the Ayatollah Khomeini revolution of 1979—a major step among the processes creating today’s widespread “jihad.” Soon after, the Soviet-Afghan and the Iran-Iraq wars erupted.
The United States was involved in one arrogant, stupid, covert, and overt step after another; the consequences gave shape to contemporary U.S. policy in the Middle East and Central Asia. Within the United States little attention was paid to what we were doing in that enormous region from the 1950s on; we were riveted on our wars in Korea and Vietnam. As those wars thundered on—killing a total of 3–4 million in Korea and another 3 million in Indochina—we had gotten in up to our ankles in the Middle East; from 1979 on we began to get up to our neck. Everest sets the stage:
[The 1980s were] ushered in by three seismic jolts to U.S. power which occurred in rapid succession in 1979: the February revolution that toppled the pro-U.S. Shah of Iran; the November seizure of the American Embassy [and staff] in Tehran; and the Soviet invasion of neighboring Afghanistan in December. (p. 87)
We begin with Afghanistan; it is in Central Asia rather than the Middle East; however, given that 9/11 was the official basis for sending our troops into Afghanistan and, even more, allowed “terrorism” to become the hot center of our foreign policy and the domestic politics that greased us into Iraq, it is apt to begin there. Everest remarks that it is here where Carter’s National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski helped orchestrate the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan:
In July 1979, some five months before the Soviet invasion [of Afghanistan], the U.S. had initiated a covert campaign to destabilize Afghanistan’s pro-Soviet government by arming and funding the Islamist opposition. The goal, according to Brzezinski, was “to induce a Soviet military intervention.” When the Soviets did intervene in December, Brzezinski wrote Carter: “We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam war.” (p. 89)
He was right; but our grand success also birthed those whom we had armed, the Taliban, the main force that fought against the Soviet Union. Le Nouvel Observateur interviewed Brzezinski almost twenty years later (1–15, 21–98). When asked if he regretted “having supported Islamic fundamentalism…and given arms and advice to future terrorists” his reply was “What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire?” For Cold War freaks like Brzezinski the question is trivial, but the scale of destruction in Afghanistan argues otherwise, as Everest reports:
When the Soviets finally pulled out of Afghanistan in 1989, more than a million Afghans (along with 15,000 Soviet soldiers) had been killed and one-third of the population driven into refugee camps. (p. 90)
The legacy of Osama bin Laden was off and running.
We might guess that such political strategy would be condemned. Fiddlesticks, said the Nobel Committee that awarded Carter a peace prize—as they did to Kissinger. Maybe they need a dictionary?
Carter got his comeuppance when he lost the election of 1980 to Reagan, who proved to be even trickier than either Tricky Dick (on everything) or Carter (on Afghanistan). Everest describes the course of events in this struggle for political power within the global hegemon:
During the summer of 1980…Reagan’s campaign feared that Carter was about to pull off an “October surprise” release of the hostages….So Reagan’s top advisors made a secret agreement with the Islamic Republic: if Iran continued to hold the hostages through November’s election and Reagan won, he would lift the economic sanctions imposed by Carter and allow Israel to ship arms to Iran. (p. 99)
And that’s what happened. The U.S. hostages were kept; Israel sent (doubtless U.S.-financed) arms to Iran; and Reagan won the election and became what the establishment likes to present as our most popular president ever. The following decades, perhaps the most devious decades of foreign relations, saw the United States seesawing back and forth in its international relations—hating Iran because of the hostages, then arming them; then shunning them and arming Iraq; thence to war against Iraq over Kuwait and, having defeated them in a trice, sanctioning the country, bombing them for over a decade, starving its children, and so on up to invading them again.
Perhaps the most vivid example of deviousness and stupidity became known as Iran-Contra. It was revealed in 1986 that we had been selling arms to Iran and “using the proceeds from weapon sales to Iran to illegally fund the counter-revolutionary [U.S.-trained] Contras” to aid our attempts to overthrow the democratically elected Nicaraguan government (p. 111). This scandal inspired President Reagan to make his classic statement which only Bush II could surpass:
I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intention still tell me that is true, but the facts and evidence tell me it is not.
So it went, financing and arming Israel against Palestine, to arming what became the Taliban in Afghanistan and both sides of the Iran/Iraq war, all four of which were different situations but had overlapping motivations. And in their different ways, each of these cases made life much shorter and harder for the peoples within these countries. Taking 1979 as the starting point, the processes we thus aided and abetted resulted in millions of deaths and vast destruction.
While all of this might have caused much self-congratulation in the White House, it should cause a riot among our own armed forces and a revolt by our taxpayers, especially if they knew what they have really been fighting and paying for. And just what was that? Oil? Yes and no. Everest presents the various reasons given by analysts:
The “real” reason for the U.S. war on Iraq includ[ed] grabbing Iraq’s oil, preventing the Hussein regime from acquiring weapons of mass destruction, stabilizing the dollar, strengthening Israel, or retaliating for Sept. 11.
If understood as threads in the fabric of global empire, all these objectives and more are part of the U.S. agenda, although none by itself accounts for this war. Instead, it is the convergence of such necessities and ambitions of empire—in the Middle East and globally. (p. 29)
Everest examines all of these elements in great detail. We learn, or relearn, that Hussein did indeed have weapons of mass destruction, almost entirely provided by the United States for use against Iran—which, as reported by the UN inspection teams, were either destroyed or rendered useless during and after the first Gulf War—which, having ended, led to processes that meant malnutrition and premature death for at least 500,000 Iraqi children. And we learn of the double dealing of the United States in regards to the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Kurds, during and after the Iran-Iraq and Gulf wars.
What we learn most about, however, is what led up to the ongoing war against Iraq. Everest unearths the early planning to create that war, with any rationale that might seem to turn the trick: WMD, al-Qaeda, freedom and democracy, whatever. The only thing that has held up has been “whatever.”
It is worthwhile and infuriating to delve into the various reasons that have been used to sell war to the public. What about WMD? In over a year, we have found one deteriorating shell with—perhaps—sarin in it. On this particular issue, Everest quotes UN inspector Scott Ritter, who stated that “the UN never once found evidence that Iraq had either retained biological weapons or associated production equipment, or was continuing work in the field” (p. 191). What about al-Qaeda? They and Hussein have been known to hate each other. All in the Middle East know this fact. The only conclusion after much analysis is that “there was no Al Qaeda connection—except possibly the one created in the wake of the U.S. overthrow of Iraq’s government—and no proof has emerged that Hussein was connected to Sept. 11” (p. 287).
What about freedom and democracy? Who’s kidding whom? The White House group running this war has never shown any interest in either freedom or democracy, unless that means “free markets” and “plutocracy.” The loss of human lives is of no consequence compared to the importance of imperialist objectives. Brzezinski saw the rise of the Taliban as “worth it,” and when Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeline Albright was questioned on 60 Minutes about the sanctions that caused the deaths of a half-million Iraqi children she answered “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price—we think the price is worth it” (p. 185).
To gain the courage of one’s convictions and to immunize oneself from ever being taken in again, a book such as this is needed. It provides us with much of what we need to know. It also tells us that there is much more that we should seek out, if only to show us in painful detail why it is that if we don’t do everything we can to make this country ours—instead of theirs—we too have a lot to answer for.