The hot, noisy deck of an aircraft carrier during flight operations is a dangerous inferno of a place: deafeningly loud in the blast of jet exhaust, the wash of rotor blades and the stench of jet fuel. But every catapult launch that sends a Super Hornet out over the Persian Gulf projects the power of American might.
It has been some years since I was on board a carrier like the USS George H. W. Bush in the gulf and it would be nice to think that those aviators are launching to protect innocent Iraqis. It would also be incredibly naive. Iraq is descending into its dissolution as a unified country not over a terrorist invasion or the sharing of political power – but over oil money. And American air power is being used in defense of that oil.
Yes, there are civilian victims of the Islamic State’s atrocities. It is also nearly incidental; there have been atrocities before, during and after the American occupation. The truth is Iraq is back pumping more oil than anytime since the 1970s, earning $80 billion a year and climbing. Iraq’s elite aren’t debating what kind of democracy to have; they are squabbling and killing over money, untold amounts of which are being stolen by the regime America put in place.
For seven years, the al-Maliki regime never followed through with a 7-year-old plan to divide up the only wealth Iraq has: the dollars and dinars that come from oil. In 2007, a proposed law that would permanently divide oil revenues among the provinces of the three main groups – the Shiite majority as well as the Kurdish and Sunni minorities – was never enacted. Instead, the government in Baghdad declared that it owned the oil. The law was shelved.
In the intervening years, Iraq regained its place as a major oil producer and billions upon billions of dollars flowed into the Iraqi treasury in Baghdad – but mysteriously didn’t come out. An independent investigation of government corruption found billions missing – until the chief investigator, a respected jurist, quit after a bomb blew up his house. Corruption inside the government and outside, with its Shiite allies mainly, grew to epidemic proportions.
However, the Sunni minority which once ruled under Saddam Hussein continued to be fired from government jobs – one of the few kinds that exist in Iraq – and none of the money found its way to their home province of Al Anbar. The Iraqi army, despite $26 billion in American training and equipment, proved adept at one thing: suppressing Sunni political opponents by killing them.
Unsurprisingly, Sunni leaders elected to fight. Surprisingly, they invited the Islamic State’s fighters to enter the province from Syria, as Reuters has thoroughly documented, and fight alongside the Iraqi Sunnis with admittedly horrific ruthlessness. The Islamic State was not just a revived version of al-Qaida but reportedly a creature of Saudi intelligence, which funded it to fight in Syria.
The initial offensive of the Islamic State basically helped take Al Anbar back from the government in Baghdad. But then the offensive threatened oil fields in the north, Kurdish territory. (Most of Iraq’s oil is in the Kurdish north and the Shiite southeast, though a new field has been discovered in Al Anbar.) And that is when American fighter jets suddenly reappeared in Iraqi skies.
Such is the unvarnished kleptocracy of the Iraqi government that at the same time it is losing control of its own territory, it continues to hoard oil money: The regime in Baghdad owes the Kurds alone $7 billion. Unable to pay its workers for two straight months, the Kurdish government is striking its own deals with foreign companies and trucking oil overland to Turkey to fill tankers.
As if to illustrate its unrestrained greed, Baghdad is attempting to block these sales. Right now, a tanker full of Kurdish crude is anchored off the coast of Texas as the Maliki government uses U.S. courts to block oil from being sold. To top it off, so to speak, Baghdad is considering cutting the Kurds’ share of oil revenues from 17 percent to 12 percent – and essentially pocketing the difference.
After over a decade, it seems unlikely that Iraq will survive as a unified state in anything more than name. The Shiite elites have proven they will share neither power nor wealth. The Sunni elites have proven they will resort to extreme violence; whether their alliance with the Islamic State proves lasting is questionable. There are no permanent alliances in the Middle East. But even if it is asked to leave, the Islamic State may figure there is enough oil money to stick around. The Kurds can calculate the obvious: They are better off on their own.
After the loss of nearly 5,000 American lives, as many as 200,000 Iraqi lives and the cost of more than $1 trillion in Iraq, America is using 500-pound laser-guided bombs in the service of protecting and dividing that nation’s oil wealth. It is unfortunate that President Obama dressed up this latest military intervention in noble humanitarian terms; it is equally unfortunate that American politicians of both parties engage in doublespeak about Iraq.
Oil is the tragic organizing principle of the Middle East today just as it has been for nearly a century; that is simply reality. But the so-called leaders of post-occupation Iraq are no debating society of founding fathers in a Philadelphia tavern, arguing the finer points of federalism. Many are princes, tribal chiefs, warlords and thugs who have little compunction about killing – over money. Unfortunately, our admittedly skilled and brave aviators are merely helping.
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