The “Oil War” in Iraq: a mild-mannered mistake meets a monstrous moment of misinformation

What’s worse? One fudged footnote in a 300+ page book, or a sustained public castigation of the U.S. Intelligence Community?

2017 is upon us and there is no longer any dispute that the desire to take control of Iraqi oil resources was a fundamental rationale underlying George W. Bush’s decision to invade that country in 2003. Nor is there much debate over how the Bush White House, in its urgent push to start a war in Iraq, overstated the limited findings of the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate prepared by the U.S. Intelligence Community.

Here I examine how a renowned scholar and a billionaire businessman made different types of mistakes in their comments regarding how we got into the Iraq war mess in 2003, and what the consequences of those mistakes were and can be.

In 2004, when Chalmers Johnson’s Sorrows of Empire was published, there was significant, widespread disagreement on the causes of that war.

Perhaps this is why Mr. Johnson, in a chapter from Sorrows entitled “Iraq Wars,” mistakenly attributes a couple of phrases (e.g., “oil war”) to the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon. Here is the key excerpt from page 226 of the 2004 softcover edition of Sorrows:

“In the late 1990s, during the second Clinton administration, the Pentagon began seriously to prepare for a renewed war with Iraq. The Joint Chiefs of Staff’s Strategic Assessment 1999 specifically said that an ‘oil war’ in the Persian Gulf was a serious contingency and that ‘U.S. forces might be used to ensure adequate supplies’.”

To support these points and quotations, Johnson does not cite to the Assessment but cites instead to an article by Ritt Goldstein published in May, 2003 in the Sydney Morning Herald (See Oil wars Pentagon’s policy since 1999). Here are some of the problems that resulted from this mistake:

  1. YOU HAVE THE WRONG MAN: Johnson wrongly attributes the quotations to the Joint Chiefs of Staff by stating that they came from the Joint Chief’s report. The quotations are in fact those that Mr. Goldstein made in his own article. They are not found in the Strategic Assessment 1999.
  2. JOINT CHIEFS DIDN’T WRITE THE ASSESSMENT: The Joint Chiefs of Staff did not write the Assessment, which states in its preface that it “is not a statement of official policy” and does not “represent the views of the Department of Defense or the Joint Chiefs of Staff.” The Assessment was published by the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University for the purpose of stimulating discussion of U.S. global interests and the strategic security concerns associated therewith.
  3. REDUNDANCY: The quotations are not necessary because the Assessment makes the same points as are made by the quotations: “Oil and gas supplies seem adequate to meet the world’s growing demands in the future, but up to two-thirds of these supplies will come from the turbulent regions of the Persian Gulf and the Caspian basin.” Assessment, p. xii;The Western community is vulnerable to these events, because it depends heavily upon Persian Gulf oil and its adversaries there are stronger than its friends.” Assessment, p. xiii; “U.S. policies will need to focus on protecting access to Persian Gulf oil.” Assessment, p. xviii. If Johnson had quoted or paraphrased these snippets from the Assessment, he could have made his point without the misattribution.
  4. RISK OF CREDIBILITY REDUCTION: Erroneous or unclear citations create the impression that a scholar is putting words in someone’s mouth. Johnson makes some excellent points about the Iraq wars in Sorrows, and he did not need to use those mistaken quotations to make a strong point. The Assessment itself showed that an oil war was clearly contemplated as an action purportedly in the best interests of U.S. national interests. The use of the quotations seems to connote that Johnson stretched the truth, and this is not the impression a scholar wants to leave when trying to making a persuasive argument that is balanced and scholarly.
  5. BLIND LEADING THE BLIND: Other scholars and commentators mistakenly relied on the erroneous attribution as evidence in support of their own arguments. Take for example the book Focus on Terrorism: Volume 9 (Edward Linden, ed., 2007) in which the Joint Chiefs of Staff are wrongly said to have authored the “oil war” comment. This is not the only book to have repeated Johnson’s mistake by repeating it.
“Even as late as 1999 the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the United States armed forces revealed in its strategic assessment by saying that an ‘oil war’s in the Persian Gulf was a serious contingency and that U.S. forces might be used to ensure adequate supplies of oil for the United States.” (Sola Foremekum, chapter entitled The 9/11 Incident and its Aftermath: Implications for Nigeria-U.S. Relations, p.148)

While it is always important not to squeeze too much from a source, the lesson here is to double check your sources to make sure you’re not mistakenly (or perhaps quasi-intentionally) attributing specific quotations to the wrong individuals or groups.

One person whose frequent public statements are hard not to quote properly is Donald J. Trump.

And yet, according to the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, weapons of mass destruction (chemical weapons) were found to exist in Saddam Hussein’s arsenal in Iraq. This should not have been a surprise to anyone because the U.S. had knowledge of Iraqi use of chemical weapons against Iranians in the Iran-Iraq that raged from 1980 to 1988. At the time, the overwhelming focus of the search for WMDs in Iraq centered on Iraqi efforts to develop a nuclear weapon, and the fear that was being promoted by the pro-war forces was that such a weapon might be used against the United States or its allies. The Nigerian document purporting to memorialize an authorized sale of uranium to Saddam Hussein turned out to be a forgery originating in Italy, but early advocacy for this document by the British Government and an (unreliable, as it turned out) Iraqi defector code named “Curveball” seemed to be more than enough “intel” for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, President George Bush, and V.P. Richard Cheney to make what they advertised as a strong case for war, even though the CIA repeatedly questioned the veracity of the document despite frequently repeated attempts by the White House to persuade or strong-arm the CIA into making claims of veracity that the CIA was unwilling to make.

Fast forward to December, 2016 and Trump resumed his blistering attack on the U.S. Intelligence Community with a comment questioning the veracity of the claims of Russian hacking into U.S. political parties. As Trump put it, you can’t trust the Intelligence Community because “These are the same people who said Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction.” And yet there is clear evidence that the White House and the Pentagon to some extent (through stovepiping) trumped up the meager evidence of WMDs presented in the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, all in an attempt to fool the people into believing our leaders were acting on known, undisputed facts. Congress met and decided that the Bush White House had “overstated” its dire warnings about the Iraqi threat. Congress also stated that the administration’s claims about Iraq’s WMD program were “not supported by the underlying intelligence reporting.” These facts were all out on the table for Trump to know about.

Despite all this, and despite the opportunity Trump has always had (and still has) to hit the books, open his mind, and do some research and learn some facts, he went ahead and sent a bombshell of a tweet on January 11, 2017 critical of one of the appendices to the secret Russian hacking intelligence report: the appendix that referenced some potentially damaging allegations about Trump’s private life and business dealings. “Intelligence agencies should never have allowed this fake news to ‘leak’ into the public. One last shot at me. Are we living in Nazi Germany?” That is an unexpected comment coming from a guy who has fallen head over heels in love with the power of propaganda (e.g., Steve Bannon, hate-fueled rallies, Twitter storms). Classification of secrets should be narrowly drawn to shield information that could reasonably cause harm to national security. But Trump in his tweet signaled that anything potentially embarrassing must be kept secret, even if it is unsubstantiated. Which is odd because if being unsubstantiated means being patently unbelievable, why should there be even a shred of reason for concealing such a patently unbelievable document?

And, no Mr. Trump, we’re not living in Nazi Germany. Nor do I (and hopefully the bulk of my readers are in agreement with me on this score) plan to live in such a wicked and twisted prison where love and progressive community have no place. The warnings of Chalmers Johnson confirm that our nation’s Constitutional institutions are imperiled by the harsh demands of Empire-building and Empire-maintenance. A man who owns a global business empire and refuses to separate himself from it enough to prove he has an undying commitment to serve the American people is a man too blinded by the wrong idea of success to manage the American Empire in a way that guarantees its strength and continuity.