on the Upside: A Tale of Oil, Saddam Hussein, and Rotting
September 7, 2002
Bush and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld yesterday ridiculed
press speculation about war against Iraq, which they dismissed
as a "frenzy," but continued to call for the ouster of Iraqi
President Saddam Hussein."
Times, Aug. 22
Watching Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld chortling alongside
President Bush as he wagged his finger in Crawford at the
"media frenzy" over heated rhetoric on Iraq, one wonders the
depth of pleasure they take in treating mass public concern
like a personal yo-yo.
After the longest politico-military striptease in history
it looks like the "doves" -- or the chickenhawks that pass
for doves -- are convincing Bush that attacking Iraq should
wait. Not be scrapped, just wait for some arbitrary deadline
they have yet to impose. The argument has moved from whether
striking a country first is totalitarian to just hoping Bush
at least consults with Congress before carrying out his "Bush
But disaster for the Bush administration came in the form
of several high-profile defections from friendly camps. For
an administration that puts loyalty above all and admonishes
those who dare publicly stray from the day's talking points
-- the desertion of the likes of Brent Scowcroft, Laurence
Eagleberger and Henry Kissinger must have been brutal.
But then, the ultimate betrayal. It came in the form of the
4-Star General hand-picked by his father's administration
to command U.S. forces during Desert Storm. Stormin' Norman
Schwarzkopf cleared the room when he pleaded for the U.S.
to wait for international support before striking Iraq.
And just how did the Bushies handle this extraordinary double-cross?
These treasonous acts of disloyalty at the highest level unheard
of in his tenure up to this point? Do Rove and Bush summon
the triumvirate to the Oval Office to wreak carnage with a
verbal J-DAM on them? No. They politely grin and bear it.
Furthermore, he spends an entire military summit in Crawford
with the highest military brass (except Colin Powell -- the
only real dove) supposedly not talking about Iraq. Has Bush
undergone an about face on dissension amidst his ranks? Is
this a new day for honest debate within the White House? Hardly.
This isn't about a battle, Saddam or even "weapons of mass
destruction." Surprise. This is about oil.
The rhetoric on Iraq has reached a fevered crescendo in recent
weeks. But what can be gained from giving a planned enemy
target over years' worth of prior warning and time to adapt?
Why on earth would seasoned military minds like Rumsfeld,
Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Armitage allow the U.S. to lose
one of the most important factors in any battle -- the element
One thing the media doesn't give this administration credit
for is its Machiavellian adeptness in using submissive media
for its own sordid ends. Years from now we will be discussing
how Bush shrewdly maneuvered his way through numerous budding
scandals that would have rocked any Clinton White House.
From allegations of inaction on terrorism before September
11, energy task forces, Harken dealings, Enron and his connection
to "that man Mr. Lay" -- Bush's Teflon is worn underneath
his suit (or under his chain-sawing Dungarees in Crawford).
The September 11 attacks are only part of the job approval
Iraq has been an issue for Bush since day one of the presidency
for reasons not discussed by the media. Instead, rationale
ranging from payback for daddy to the necessity of striking
a country first to protect Americans from weapons of mass
destruction are served up nightly for our consumption. That
nightly spin misses the underlying point behind the talk
In the last year, global crude oil prices have risen a whopping
40% on average. International fears of a war in Iraq have
given the market jitters and artificially propped up crude
oil market prices to year-long highs. The ideal situation
for Bush or anyone else with who stands to make substantial
gains in the oil market would be to prop up prices then stabilize
them at the artificial highs.
This practice is known in the business as "stabilizing on
the upside." The idea is to prop up prices, and then find
ways to keep them at unnatural highs for as long as possible
while oil companies amass windfall profits. Who does this
benefit? Crude oil producers, shippers and oil refiners. In
a word: Texas. More specifically, Bush. It's not a new practice.
Except this time, the oil industry has a very effective spokesman
in a very influential position to carry it out on a global
You don't raise and spend the most money in history to get
a president elected and not get something in return. Bush
needs to replace the astronomical amount of money those oil
barons gave to his 2000 campaign if he wants to mount a similar
campaign in 2004. Don't forget, Bush will have to actually
spend money on a campaign jet. It's doubtful he'll be using
Ken Lay's plane for $5,000 a month this time around.
So with Iraq on the brain, West Texas Intermediate Crude
reached its most expensive levels since September 11 last
a few weeks ago, reaching $29.83 a barrel. With a 40% jump
in crude oil and oil future prices, the benefactors read like
a who's who of Bush campaign contributors.
But how can global can oil prices be manipulated to this
extent? An oil industry expert puts it quite simply.
"The only justification for prices rising this high is the
conviction there will be a war," said Sheryl Kaufman,
chief economist at Phillips Petroleum Co., to the Bloomberg
Business News. Not war, not an actual event, but the "conviction"
that there will someday be an event. That's the point. Not
war, just speculation.
Fearing an imminent military invasion, Saddam has understandably
decided to cut Iraq's oil output by 40% to preserve his most
precious economic resource. The large cuts in output made
by Iraq cannot be countered by OPEC (and won't be with a nod
and a wink from the White House). This creates an instant
boost for prices. The "war premium" has added anywhere from
$4 to $6 a barrel. Even OPEC is sending mixed signals to the
market. Algeria and Nigeria want higher quotas to make up
the difference. Kuwait, Qatar and Venezuela want to wait.
Though most are cheating on their quotas anyway.
High oil prices, more demand and less supply helps the Bush
energy policy's pathetically transparent call for more domestic
drilling (though you won't see those rigs off the coast of
Brother Jeb's Florida in an election year). But "stabilizing
on the upside" requires fresh meat: a constant flow of mixed
signals and confusing rhetoric so the market stays jittery.
In this context, the numerous timely leaks of sensitive planning
information on Iraq being leaked by administration officials
to the New York Times make much more sense -- as does
why the White House hasn't yet found the source of those pesky-durn
But an unexpected glitch has materialized in the White House
plan. High oil prices stall economic recoveries. With fears
of a double-dip -- or "W" shaped recession -- and a November
of reckoning for the GOP, Bush can't afford to keep oil prices
too high while the economy is stalling.
Send in the doves.
Then Saddam throws an early September curveball and has his
man Tariq Aziz tell the world he'd consider letting U.N. weapons
inspectors back in. Bastard! Upon hearing the news of the
evil one's dastardly plot, crude oil futures contract dropped
$1.19 to settle at $27.79 a barrel on the New York Mercantile
Exchange. Heating oil and gasoline prices both fell about
4 cents as well. But what is good for us consumers is bad
news for Bush so action was quick to follow.
Immediately Bush convenes with members of Congress and assures
them and the nation that he will consult them before attacking
Iraq. "For the last 11 years, Saddam Hussein has sidestepped,
crawfished and weaveled out of his obligations," Bush said
Wednesday in response to questions about inspectors back in
Iraq. With the tough-talking photo-op, gasoline, heating oil
and crude oil prices all spiked yesterday.
Now, the public is told that an pre-emptive attack on Iraq
may happen during this congressional session. This despite
earlier published reports that Bush promised senior congressional
officials there would be no "October Surprise." Well, maybe
he just meant the surprise.
Back on a dusty road in a small central Texas, Rumsfeld cackles
approvingly Bush declares "I'm a patient man," in response
to queries about Iraq. Rummy sees Bush is learning from his
own wry degradation and humiliation of reporters. Bush goes
on to tell reporters that Iraq wasn't even a topic of discussion
during the military summit. But unable to resist one last
prank on the media, Bush divulges he's supposedly reading
Supreme Command by Eliot Cohen, a book about civilian
military brass dismissing military generals and going to war.
Then, Bush makes it a point to stress his reiterate his disinterest
in Iraq -- admonishing the media for behaving like mindless
sharks around a big sea of chum.
Bush's 'plan' on Iraq isn't a foul, rotten soup of fish guts.
But it sure smells like it.