What the Iraq War Can Teach the Climate Movement

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A giant black cloud of burning oil rises behind a U.S. Army soldier in August 2003.

A giant black cloud of burning oil rises behind a U.S. Army soldier in August 2003.Photo: Scott Nelson (Getty Images)

I was in middle school when the George W. Bush administration began stoking the flames of war with Iraq in 2003. I watched as TV newscasters and government officials shouted about the need to restore order in the country, alleging that the Iraqi government had weapons of mass destruction and claiming violent intervention was the only solution.

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Around this time, my brother scrawled “NO BLOOD FOR OIL” on a white undershirt and staged a walkout at his high school. He spent weeks frantically informing everyone who would listen, including his bewildered 11-year-old sister, that the whole narrative was merely a cover for the U.S. politicians trying to gain control of Iraq’s vast petroleum reserves.

Now, I’m reliving all that and more again as an adult. Blowback, a new podcast hosted by journalist Noah Kulwin and former Chapo Trap House producer Brendan James, details the lurid history of Iraq War. It’s a gripping, thorough account of what Kulwin and James call “the greatest crime of the 21st century.” The show also puts the 2003 invasion in historical context and how the war shaped the U.S. oil industry and politics more broadly.

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In reliving 2003, it’s also clear that Blowback is unfortunately all too relevant today. As a climate reporter, I write about the U.S. government’s allegiance to the oil industry all the time. I’ve seethed about how fossil fuel executives knowingly continue to fuel the deadly climate crisis, how their operations massively harm poor communities around the U.S. and world, and how our elected leaders prioritize oil, gas, and coal profits over the interests of the majority of people across the U.S.

But of course, oil companies’ plunder isn’t limited to its massive contributions to the climate crisis and pollution. The industry, and the U.S’s continued quest for energy domination, is also built on a history of violence of which the Iraq War is one chapter. Earther spoke with Kulwin and James about the new show, corporate conquest, and what lessons it holds for the climate movement at this pivotal moment, one that’s still haunted by 2003. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.


Earther: What are the biggest things you’ve learned from making this podcast?

Noah Kulwin: What was that Epstein tweet that said, “some of our faves may be implicated?” [Editor’s note: here’s the tweet from Christine Pelosi, the Calfornia Democratic Party chair] If you’re somebody who has anything invested in American culture or politicians, prepare to be extremely disappointed about what they will do in a moment of crisis. People we think of as mainstream Democrats, including the nominee for president, were strong supporters of the war.

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Brendan James: I guess one lesson would be, when it comes to war, when it comes to controlling natural resources, don’t give them an inch or they’ll take a mile. They’re always building cases for why this is a good idea. There will always be a reasonable seeming argument, a soft-toned argument, about why we need to intervene in Venezuela [which is one of the world’s largest exporters of oil] to stop a dictatorship that’s threatening stability in the region or something. We need to see through that kind of thing. We need a radical break with those kinds of American politics.

Earther: Just two weeks ago, temperatures in Iraq shot up to 127 degrees Fahrenheit in parts of the country. Because of ongoing electricity grid issues, a lot of people were forced to bear that heat with limited or no access to air conditioning. When people held protests in the street, two were killed by security forces. Blowback explains that U.S. intervention had a massive role in destabilizing Iraq’s electricity, even before the 2003 invasion. Could you talk about that? Who gained from that destabilization?

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Kulwin: Yeah, the recent heat wave has brought thousands of people across the country into the streets. And a lot of the people worst affected by the heat wave were in the marshlands in the southern part of Iraq. Well, people in the marshlands were persecuted by Saddam Hussein. The marshlands were drained to punish marsh Arabs who resisted Hussein’s rule in the ‘90s. That basically created climate refugees. Hot conditions have persisted in that region, and obviously now with climate change, that is becoming much more severe.

With heat, a country’s ability to manage and respond and keep people cool rests on its ability for its electrical system to function. But as part of the Gulf War, the U.S. basically destroyed and bombed the Iraqi electrical system back into the Stone Age. The purpose of that was ultimately to give the U.S. more leverage over Iraq in the sanctions that would impose over the course of the ‘90s to try essentially beat Saddam Hussein into submission.

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When the U.S. invaded back in 2003, Iraq’s electricity grid and the quality of the system and its infrastructure, had improved from where it was in 1991 when it was blown out by the Americans, but it still was not 100%, and the Americans totally brought it back even further into the past. Even today, it’s not like power is regularly supplied to everybody in the country. A lot of that is a function of American policy that goes back 20 years.

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James: As we quote in the show, there are Washington Post quotes from Pentagon officials and Air Force guys who said, “our job is not to help rebuild Iraq after the war. Our job is to bring the country to its knees.” They wanted the maximum amount of leverage to extract whatever they wanted from this country just lost a war to them. They wanted the most difficult possible conditions for regular people in Iraq after Iraq messed with the U.S.

Then they also tied lifting sanctions needed to repair that infrastructure with Saddam stepping down, obliterating any reason for him to cooperate with the U.S. over sanctions at all. He was never going to voluntarily kick himself out of his own country.

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In the beginning of the 2003 war, we knocked out the electricity grid pretty early. And then, in this kind of repulsive irony, the Americans took over Iraq’s electricity grid. After intentionally battering the infrastructure of this country, now we were in charge of putting it back up. During the first few years of the occupation, America struggled to get it to even pre-war conditions. People on the streets of Baghdad and elsewhere would say, “Saddam was a bit of a prick, but at least he got the electricity running again.”

Kulwin: And of course, in civil society, all things rest on the electricity grid and water system, both of which were destroyed. Without good electricity, Iraq sees everything from more infant mortality to high general population death rates. Chronic electricity shortages take a substantial toll.

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James: This is a story about what was once a hypermodern country in the region. Before intervention, Iraq was by no means perfect, but it was quite modern and progressive comparatively. Americans worked, first sometimes with Saddam and eventually of course against Saddam, to undo all that progress. So now, when we see headlines about Baghdad’s heat wave and electricity, we should remember that these problems didn’t come out of Iraqis’ inability to manage their affairs or run their state. It came from all of these war crimes and policies that were very deliberate by America.

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Earther: Despite the insistence from officials, Blowback makes clear these war crimes weren’t about promoting democracy. What were they for? And to what extent was this a war waged for oil?

James: The short answer and the one that you saw with the protest signs that said “no blood for oil” is that American invaded Iraq because it had the second largest oil reserves in the region.

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But to what extent the war was to profit off of a newly acquired Iraqi oil industry is a more of an interesting question. It certainly was the main reason why we targeted Iraq, not even just with the Iraq War in 2003 but in 1991. The reason that Iraq could even be in the position to piss America off was because we had made friends with it due to its status as a strong oil producer and its strategic position against Iran, another very strong oil producer.

But then if you look at what actually happened, the Bush administration and its allies failed to privatize the Iraqi oil sector. It was an ambition to basically turn it into a fully open and revitalized industry for the highest bidders in the international market. That did not happen. Iraq’s oil industry to this very day is still state-owned. That’s not for lack of trying. But Iraqi politicians were not about to hand over the thing that made up 99% of Iraq’s economy. That was their only bargaining chip.

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But what the Iraqi state oil sector did do is enter into multibillion dollar contracts around with giants like Exxon Mobil, Total Oil, Chevron in order to develop the state sector Iraq’s oil reserves. That’s still an incredibly profitable payday for friends of oil like George W Bush, Dick Cheney, and Condoleeza Rice.

It’s a neo-colonial process where the U.S. can say Iraq has sovereignty and it has its own political institutions, when in fact, all of that is guided by a very heavy American hand that leads them to do business with the big American firms.

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Earther: In addition to the push to privatize the oil reserves, Blowback details the push to privatize war itself—to bring far more private contractors into the military sector. How did the fight to privatize war intersect with the fight to privatize natural resources? And how did those same kinds of conflicts of interest play into that?

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Kulwin: The privatization of the U.S. army during this time was a change in the labor structure of federal contracting. Previously, a role that would have gone to the Army or federal institutions went to private institutions. This didn’t save the U.S. money; in fact it was more costly. But this was part of an effort that Donald Rumsfeld spun when he was Secretary of Defense, he said he wanted to make the Defense Department more nimble.

Of course, one obvious conflict of interest was Dick Cheney and Halliburton. Cheney had previously been the chairman and CEO of Halliburton. Between 2000 and 2003, Halliburton went from being the 22nd largest government contractor to the seventh largest government contractor. Cheney was paid almost $2 million during this period. It’s not that all of this was done quid pro quo, but you can see how Bush administration officials were pretty simpatico with this general shift.

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James: In a sense, this was an act of self-looting. We were at a point when the U.S. empire was declining. That was an unstated premise. So for people in charge, with oil, with war, I think they thought, “why not make a bit of money off of this slipping position of America as the undisputed hegemon?” So with Rumsfeld, when he said let’s make things more efficient, he really meant let’s charge our own government to hire pirates like Blackwater and give money to Halliburton.

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Not to extoll the U.S. government before this, but we used to do this as a state. To paraphrase that Warren Beatty line from Network, there are no countries there is no America, there’s just giant companies like Exxon and Total Oil and Gilead.

We think of Rumsfeld now as the king bureaucrat, but in fact, when he came in, it was very much like Rex Tillerson and the Trump administration. He was the CEO guy, he was the business guy who was gonna turn America into a corporation. I don’t mean to belittle how corrupt the Trump administration can be, or say the Bush administration was so much worse, but there’s a continuity between the two.

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Earther: Looking back to that period shows how the Trump administration isn’t just an aberration, but the continuation of this government relationship to corporations. So for the climate movement, for movements fighting corporations and their friends in government, what lessons should we take from that period to now, when we have former coal lobbyists heading the Environmental Protection Agency, former oil lobbyists in the Department of Interior?

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James: On the show, we interviewed longtime anti-war activist Kathy Kelly, who was active in opposing not only the war in 2003 but also the sanctions in the ‘90s. She said that in 2003, that was the closest an anti-war movement had come in America to actually stopping war before it started. There was a pressure point where in Britain, which was an essential ally for the U.S. carrying out this war, then-Prime Minister Tony Blair was nervous about coming on board. As a Labour Party politician, he was still dependent on the legitimacy of the United Nations. and was begging the Bush administration to get the UN to pass a second resolution to put a rubber stamp on it.

People all over the world linked arms and took to the streets in Turkey, Britain, Paris, Italy, Morocco, the U.S. It looked like there was potentially going to be a delay in going to war.

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There was a report that came out by Hans Blix [a UN weapons inspector] that said there were no weapons of mass destruction, but Tony Blair had just a couple weeks before bit the bullet and signed on without the resolution. It makes you wonder what would have happened if that report had come out just a little sooner when that mass movement was happening.

It shows that all too much is contingent upon the whims and mistakes of the ruling class, of inter-ruling class pressures. We definitely learned that marches are not enough. But that was still a rather inspiring moment to learn about how powerful international movements can be.

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Earther: There’s been a recent push, especially from a lot of folks who did oppose the Iraq War like Rep. Barbara Lee and Sen. Bernie Sanders, and also from likely incoming officials like Jamal Bowman, to cut the military budget as part of the Green New Deal. That’s not just because the military contributes to severe environmental damage but also because the military is the world’s largest institutional consumer of fossil fuels and biggest institutional polluter. 
What effects do you all think cutting the Pentagon budget could have?

Kulwin: It would straightforwardly, substantially reduce or minimize a lot of ecological damage. But looking back to Iraq, we can also see that the more resources these people have the liberty to control, the more leverage they have to continue getting more resources. Budgets don’t just mean resources, but they also decide who has power.

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