Iraq's Odious Debts

A war for France’s oil – The real reason Chirac backed Saddam

Holman W. Jenkins Jr.
The Wall Street Journal, USA
March 29, 2003

Those who think the Iraq war is about oil ought to consider a different possibility — that the war might have been avoided if France and Russia, lured by the promise of Iraqi petroleum deals, had not steadily fed Saddam Hussein’s belief that he could outlast the U.S. in the sanctions war. Consider a little history and geology to light the way:

Iraq is the least explored, least developed of the Mideast oil states. Not since the 1970s, using now-antiquated techniques, has an inventory of its oil reserves even been taken. Even so, Iraq is reckoned to possess 120 billion barrels in proven reserves, second only to Saudi Arabia’s 250 billion barrels.

Baathist nationalization in the 1970s, Saddam’s destructive wars and the sanctions he brought down on his country’s head have kept Iraq from acquiring technology to exploit these discoveries and to chart new ones, especially in unexplored western Iraq and in deep Jurassic and Triassic layers throughout the country. Had it been otherwise, Iraq today would likely be sitting on proven reserves of 300 billion barrels or more, according to various estimates, including those of the U.S. government.

The irony is that Saddam would have had an economic power, perfectly legitimate in the eyes of the world, far greater than any he gets from terror weapons.

Iraq makes a new exhibit for the argument that natural resources are more a curse than blessing. Since his earliest days, Saddam has channeled the country’s oil revenue through his personal accounts and used it to amass weapons and buy off supporters. Oil has also been the most visible card he has played in a 12-year game with the international community–and was still playing in the weeks before hostilities began.

The latest round saw Russian emissaries traveling back and forth, as the clock was ticking, trying to clinch an on-again, off-again deal to develop Iraq’s giant West Qurna field.

A previous agreement had been revoked in mid-December when word leaked that Russian negotiators were seeking assurances from the U.S. and from Iraqi exiles that any deal would be honored by a successor government. Saddam’s regime turned on a dime again and reactivated the deal when trying to secure Russian opposition to a U.N. war resolution. The minister who had signed the original production-sharing arrangement had been conspicuously removed from his post. Now he was conspicuously reinstated.

In pursuit of such deals, Russia and France persistently undermined sanctions and the effort to disarm Saddam and bring him into compliance with his own commitments by means short of war. “Politics is about interests. Politics is not about morals,” Iraq’s U.N. ambassador explained to the Washington Post a year ago. “If the French and others will take a positive position in the Security Council, certainly they will get a benefit. This is the Iraqi policy.”

Thus the huge Majnoun and Nahr Umr fields were reserved for TotalFinaElf, partly owned by the French government. Not even Jacques Chirac can pretend that such concessions weren’t France’s reward for acquiescing in Iraq’s diligent strategy to escape sanctions and resume its pursuit of exotic weapons.

The drama of recent weeks was a visible coda to the drama of the past 12 years, in which the U.S. and Britain were alone in trying to make Saddam obey the U.N. resolutions and peace terms his regime agreed to. All the while Saddam was encouraged to hold out by countries that made it clear that they would readily support a waiving of sanctions and anything else Saddam wanted in return for oil contracts and other financial benefits.

Saddam was bound to miscalculate, as he continued to miscalculate last week, thinking that it’s the

U. S. and Britain that are “hated and isolated,” that Saddam and the world are allied against George Bush and Tony Blair. For this reason serious people consider it entirely plausible that Saddam might see terrorism, even support of al Qaeda, including support for Sept. 11, as serving his strategy. At home, he uses lavish rewards combined with cruel punishment to control those he wants to control. He wouldn’t be Saddam if he didn’t believe the same logic applies abroad.

In the end, of course, French interests are not U.S. interests. The French aren’t the ones bearing a commitment without end to protect the Kurds in northern Iraq and the Shiites in the south from Saddam’s military. The U.S. and Brits have been stuck maintaining the no-fly zones even as putative “allies” pushed to erode the sanctions that prevent Saddam from developing weapons of mass intimidation to strengthen his hand in a final showdown with America.

The French answer to the U.S.: That’s your problem.

Nor would it be French troops who would be tapped to solve the problem when Saddam finally chose his moment to break out of his box. Again, the French and others say to the U.S.: That’s your problem.

It ought to be a bracing wake-up call to Americans to realize how little collective security means to our allies when it’s not their narrow interests on the line but instead the lives and tax dollars of Americans.

Deutsche Bank recently estimated that Iraq had signed deals with foreign oil companies in recent years covering 50 billion barrels. Iraqi exile nationalists insist it would be compromising to a new government to be seen favoring U.S. and British oil companies. Many others suggest a good way to patch up an illusion of Western comity would be to welcome bidding from French and Russian companies, and where appropriate, even to honor oil contracts signed by Saddam’s oil ministry.

That’s fine. U.S. policy ought to be that all companies will have equal rights to bid for Iraqi oil deals when the fight is over–but only when Mr. Chirac and the likes of Thierry Desmarest, head of TotalFinaElf, are also gone along with the outlaw Iraqi regime they abetted.

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