Opinion

Open-ended Iraq pledge hurting U.S.

It's getting harder and harder to remain deluded. With each day comes new facts to drag our heads out of the sand.

Two weeks ago, The New York Times reported that four Western oil giants were on the verge of signing no-bid contracts that would return them to Iraq, the third-most bountiful petroleum playground on the planet. It was the kind of news that big oil lives for.

We also learned this week that a group of American advisers, led by a team from the State Department, played a key role in drawing up the contracts between the companies and the Iraqi government. Chevron and several smaller oil companies also got contracts.

President Bush and Vice President Cheney, both former oil-company executives, have long tried to tell us this war was about terrorism, about weapons of mass destruction, about bringing freedom and democracy to the Iraqi people, about anything but oil.

One of the starkest examples of U.S. priorities came during the eruption of looting that followed the fall of Baghdad. With violence and chaos all about, U.S. troops were ordered to protect one particularly treasured target – the Iraqi Oil Ministry. As David Rieff wrote in The New York Times Magazine in November 2003:

“This decision to protect only the Oil Ministry – not the National Museum, …not the Health Ministry – probably did more than anything else to convince Iraqis uneasy with the occupation that the United States was in Iraq only for the oil.”

Oil companies get prize

The no-bid oil contracts themselves are not huge. They are like the keys on a coveted ring that will begin opening the doors to Iraq's vast oil reserves. As The Times reported Monday, “At a time of spiraling oil prices, the no-bid contracts, in a country with some of the world's largest untapped fields and potential for vast profits, are a rare prize to the industry.”

In addition to the toll of Americans and Iraqis killed and wounded, the Iraq war has diverted attention and resources from critical problems in the United States, where the housing market has been crippled, the stock market has tanked, gasoline has soared past $4 per gallon, unemployment is up and an extraordinary number of debt-ridden working families are staring into a financial abyss.

Even as oil companies are enjoying staggering profits, many Americans – in July! – are already worried sick about the potentially ruinous cost of heating their homes next winter.

Then there's the so-called war on terror. The latest news is that al-Qaida, the terror network that actually did attack the U.S., has successfully regrouped in the tribal areas of Pakistan and has reconstituted its ability to institute terror attacks from the region.

For an administration joined at the hip to the oil industry, the lure of Iraq's enormous reserves was stronger even than the impulse to conquer an enemy that murdered more than 2,700 civilians on Sept. 11, a toll greater than the number of Americans killed by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor.

Referring to Qaida members who regrouped in Pakistan, The Times reported: “Current and former military and intelligence officials said that the war in Iraq consistently diverted resources and high-level attention from the tribal areas.”

Who knows how long it will be before the United States disengages in any significant way from Iraq. What you can take to the bank is that this country will not make any major advances in energy policy, in health coverage, in rebuilding its infrastructure, in improving its public schools or in curtailing runaway public and private debt until our open-ended commitment to this catastrophic multi-trillion-dollar war comes to an end.

How long will it take before that finally sinks in?

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