Lies and Oil: A Brief History of the U.S. in Iraq

In “A History of Violence: Facing U.S. Wars of Aggression,” we saw a broad overview of how the American government uses military force to protect its economic interests and global power. Now we will take a closer look at the U.S. wars in Iraq. Sources include those listed at the beginning of the aforementioned article, particularly Hegemony or Survival, Imperial Ambitions, The Untold History of the United States, and A People’s History of the United States.

The story of the United States and Iraq begins with oil.

In 1963, British intelligence and the CIA supported the Ba’ath Party’s overthrow of Iraqi Prime Minister Abdul Karim Qassem, who threatened British and American oil interests. Qassem sought to take ownership of Iraqi oil from private foreign companies like BP, Exxon, and Mobil so the production and distribution of oil, and its profits, would serve Iraq. The Ba’ath coup was successful, and Qassem was publicly executed.

Iraq’s new dictator, Ba’ath party member Saddam Hussein, became a close U.S. ally (the CIA had recruited him to murder Qassem[1]). Though Hussein was not a perfect ally (he ended up nationalizing the Iraqi oil industry in the early 1970s, seizing 75% of Iraq’s oil production[2]), the U.S. had a vested interest in protecting its access to Iraq’s oil, and thus it supported the 1980 Iraqi invasion of Iran (a country that in 1953 also had its uncooperative government overthrown and a brutal dictator installed by the CIA, but had since continued to displease American officials).

Reagan removed Iraq from the list of terrorist states so he could arm Saddam with military equipment—throughout the 1980s, the United States supplied Iraq with war machines and $40 billion worth of loans. The government sold Iraq biological and chemical weaponry, and the CIA instructed in their use. Iraqi nuclear engineers were invited to the U.S. for instruction in weapons manufacturing.[3] The Reagan Administration blocked U.N. resolutions condemning Saddam’s atrocities and use of illegal weapons. The U.S. military even assisted the Iraqis between 1987 and 1988. After 8 years, one million Iranians and Iraqis were dead. After the war was over, a war during which Saddam massacred Kurdish Iraqis and other ethnic minorities with these devices, the U.S. continued to supply him with anthrax, cyanide, and other chemicals. Again, the interests of oil corporations encouraged passivity toward violence and death on a massive scale.

But in 1990, Saddam went too far, greatly displeasing American leaders and quickly devolving into an enemy. Iraq launched an invasion of Kuwait to seize control of the Kuwait oil industry. Tensions escalated between Saudi Arabia and Iraq, and the Bush Administration feared Saddam would also attempt to seize nearby Saudi oil fields—which were enriching U.S. oil companies. President George H.W. Bush amassed over half a million troops in Saudi Arabia and drove Saddam from Kuwait in 1991, utterly destroying his military. Tens of thousands of Iraqis died. With Iraq defeated and defenseless, the U.S. maintained control of Iraqi airspace, and enforced harsh UN sanctions that severely restricted imports to force Saddam to disarm. This economic warfare caused widespread poverty and a huge death toll. Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, when asked her opinion in 1996 on the nearly 600,000 Iraqi children under the age of 5 who died as a result of U.S. sanctions, said, “We think the price is worth it.” An “Oil-for-Food” program introduced by the Clinton Administration sought to alleviate the starvation. Food would be shipped to Iraq if Saddam would sell large amounts of oil on the world market. Foreign nations would get oil, and the profits from the sales would fund food and medicine for Iraqis, war reparations to Kuwait, and U.S.-U.N. operations in Iraq.

Iraq eventually dismantled its biological and chemical weapons program, a process overseen by UN inspectors.

On September 11, 2001, members of the Al-Qaeda terrorist group killed thousands of American civilians in New York and D.C. by hijacking planes and crashing them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The summer before, the CIA and FBI had warned a dismissive President Bush that Al-Qaeda was planning to attack the U.S. by hijacking planes.[4] The U.S. invaded Afghanistan to destroy Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, the brutal Afghani rulers who refused to hand over bin Laden. At the same time, the Bush Administration launched a propaganda campaign attempting to link Saddam with the attack and convince Americans he was a well-armed threat to our existence, despite Iraq’s poverty, extreme military weakness, and documented disarmament. Richard A. Clarke, the National Security Council counterterrorism coordinator at the time, said, “When the 9-11 attacks occurred, Bush cabinet members immediately discussed how that tragedy could be used to justify an invasion [of Iraq]” and “Bush himself asked me to try to pin the blame for 9-11 on Iraq.”[5] The administration was so eager to blame Iraq, Donald Rumsfeld had ordered strike plans against Iraq on September 11, while the ruins of the twin towers still smoldered.[6]

A false case was made for war against Iraq. It reminds one of what one of Hitler’s officials, Hermann Goering, said a generation before: “The people don’t want war…the leaders of the country determine the policy…the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounced the pacifists for lack of patriotism.”

Real evidence that Iraq participated in an attack against the U.S. or was planning to do so never materialized. The “evidence” the government presented—that one of the 9/11 hijackers met with an Iraqi intelligence official, that Iraq was buying uranium from Niger, kept mobile biological weapons labs, and helped train Al-Qaeda—all turned out to be forgeries and lies.[7] Secretary of State Collin Powell presented all this to the United Nations (Bush told him, “Maybe they’ll believe you”), but later called it a low point in his career.[8] Michael Morell, a CIA official who served as Bush’s intelligence briefer, admitted in 2015 that the Bush Administration took the information he provided and distorted it.[9] Later, Bush administration officials like Cheney and Rumsfeld ordered the use of torture in Iraq in an attempt to turn their lie into a truth, to establish a link between Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda operations.[10] As Noam Chomsky documents, an army psychiatrist named Major Charles Burney explained that “a large part of the time we were focused on trying to establish a link between Al Qaeda and Iraq. The more frustrated people got in not being able to establish this link…there was more and more pressure to resort to measures that might produce more immediate results.”[11] The press reported that “the Bush administration applied relentless pressure on interrogators to use harsh methods on detainees in part to find evidence of cooperation between al Qaida and the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein… [Cheney and Rumsfeld] demanded that the interrogators find evidence of al Qaida-Iraq collaboration” and a senior intelligence official said, “There was constant pressure on the intelligence agencies and the interrogators to do whatever it took…”[12]

In truth, the Bush Administration saw an easy opportunity to eliminate a rogue dictator and seize control over the second-largest oil reserves in the world.[13] There was no need to invade Saudi Arabia, the home nation of nearly all the 9/11 terrorists—Saudi Arabia was a close ally and a crucial oil partner. Around the globe, there were other countries suffering under worse dictators, but spreading freedom and democracy was not the real goal (once Iraq was occupied, Washington actually tried to prevent elections, because the Iraqi electorate, strongly opposed to the U.S. invasion and U.S. policies, threatened control over the country).[14] Iraq, one of the richest prizes in the world, was both vulnerable and, with a little dishonesty, could be made into an enemy with weapons of mass destruction that supported the 9/11 attacks. Seizing Iraq would open the door to further interventions and tighter control of the region. “Pentagon officials foresaw a five-year campaign with a total of seven targeted countries, beginning with Iraq, followed by Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and the biggest prize of all, Iran.”[15] In the National Security Strategy of 2002, the Bush administration declared it had the right to launch pre-emptive wars against any nation that it perceived to be a future threat, and that no nation should be allowed to challenge America’s global dominance.[16]

The invasion launched in March 2003, and over the next decade millions of innocent people were displaced, hundreds of thousands of civilians killed (in mid-2015, it was estimated that 1.3 million people had died because of the War on Terror in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan[17]). Thousands of U.S. soldiers died, trillions of taxpayer dollars were wasted, and the country fell into sectarian violence and civil war.

The Bush Administration announced that American companies would rebuild the Iraqi oil industries, and Halliburton, Baker Hughes, and other U.S. drillers raked in hundreds of billions in profits.[18] Bush even had to issue a “signing statement” to the 2008 National Defense Authorization Act that declared he wouldn’t obey parts of the bill that forbade spending taxpayer money to, in Bush’s words, “establish any military installation or base for the purpose of providing for the permanent stationing of United States Armed Forces in Iraq” or “to exercise United States control of the oil resources of Iraq.”[19]

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[3] Chomsky, Who Rules the World?, 164-165

[4] Stone, Concise, 277


[6] Stone, Concise, 282


[8] Stone, Concise, 289


[10] Chomsky, Hopes and Prospects, 259

[11] Chomsky, Who Rules the World?, 31

[12] Chomsky, Who Rules the World?, 31

[13] Hegemony or Survival, Chomsky; Imperial Ambitions, Chomsky

[14] Chomsky, Hopes and Prospects, 236

[15] Stone, Concise, 290

[16] Foner, Giver Me Liberty, 1045


[18] US Companies Get Slice of Iraq’s Oil Pie, Kramer, New York Times.