Fort Knox Guarded by a Chihuahua
“You give us the money. We give you the truck.
Nobody gets hurt.”
—Advertisement for the 2003 Hummer SUV
The Hummer SUV pictured along with this snappy ad copy is a massive fortress-like vehicle—something suitable for, say, taking the whole family for a spin through downtown Baghdad. With the playful, whimsical look of a Brink’s truck, the Hummer practically sings out: “Out of my way, motherfucker.” There’s no mistaking you’ll feel safe inside. But, of course, the joke in the ad turns on the old bank robbery line: if everybody just co-operates, “nobody gets hurt.” That’s where the fine line between sassy advertising copy and outright lying is crossed. In fact, huge gas-guzzling SUVs like the Hummer are one of the fastest-growing causes of global warming, with its potentially catastrophic impacts for human life on the planet.
Here then is how the ad should read: “You give us the money. We give you the truck. Everybody gets hurt.”
If nothing else, Washington’s saber-rattling against Iran in the spring of 2005 should have evoked a sense of déjà vu. The Middle Eastern country was said to be run by very bad men who oppress their own citizens and who are determined to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Even the name of the country is strikingly similar: Iran, so like Iraq. Both roll off the tongue with ease, both are well endowed with the world’s most valuable commodity, and both conjure up frightening images of men who prefer weird Biblical outfits to proper business attire. So it turned out to be an easy transition. Without a blush of awkwardness, media commentators began preparing the public for a new reality: Washington might have to intervene in Iran in order to protect the American people and bring peace to the world.
If so, it wouldn’t be the first time. Washington intervened in Iran back in 1953, after Iran nationalized its oil industry. The U.S. orchestrated a coup that overthrew Iran’s democratically elected government, and installed a pro-U.S. dictatorship. This led to the rise of a fiercely anti-American Islamic fundamentalist movement that eventually took control of Iran and spread throughout the Middle East and beyond.
This background rarely makes its way into the current debate over Iran, nor is consideration given to the possibility that Washington might be motivated in part by a desire to regain control over Iran—along with its considerable oil reserves.
Instead, the media keeps its focus on Washington’s allegations that Iran plans to develop nuclear weapons—just as it kept its focus on Washington’s allegations that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
(Ironically, it was Washington that first supplied Iran with nuclear technology back in the days when it was a U.S. ally. And it has been Washington’s unceasing hostility to Iran’s Islamic revolution that has encouraged the country’s Islamic rulers to think of developing a nuclear deterrent. The International Atomic Energy Agency has not, however, found Iran to be in contravention of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.)
The media learned a bitter lesson when CBS anchor Dan Rather blindly trusted the credibility of a source discrediting President George W. Bush. But as for trusting the Bush administration—which has already gone to war over weapons that didn’t exist—no lesson has apparently been learned.
Meanwhile, Washington’s ongoing intervention in Iraq was now said to be on the right track.
With the turn-out of millions of Iraqis in the elections of January 2005, there was a giddiness among Washington war planners not seen since jubilant Iraqis had toppled the statue of Saddam Hussein, with the help of an American tank that happened to be on hand. After almost two years of unrelentingly bad images from the Iraqi war front, here finally were some good-news images to feast on—Iraqis dancing with joy in the streets, celebrating their dramatic experience with a ballot box. For supporters of the U.S. invasion, long pushed onto the defensive, this was indeed a moment to savour, a moment to celebrate how justified the invasion had been all along. This point was made repeatedly. Anyone who had opposed the war was now pretty much exposed as an enemy of democracy, and as an unrepentant Saddam-lover.
To listen to the giddy media commentary, one could easily have concluded that Iraqis had voted to show their support for America. Yet, the one platform common to all parties that took part in the Iraqi election had been the need to end the U.S. occupation. “Many of the voters came out to cast their ballots in the belief that it was the only way to regain enough sovereignty to get American troops back out of their country,” noted Juan Cole, a professor of Modern Middle Eastern History at the University of Michigan. Some voters may have had simpler motivations; there were reports that proof of voting was necessary for access to food rations. Certainly it was a stretch to interpret the electoral results as encouraging for America. Ibrahim al-Jaafari, who emerged as prime minister after several months of post-election wrangling, was affiliated with the Dawa Party, a fiercely anti-American group believed to be implicated in the 1983 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Kuwait.
Besides, if there was a “hero” of the emerging Iraqi democratic process, it wasn’t U.S. President George W. Bush, but rather Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the moderate, influential Shi’ite leader who had doggedly pushed for elections right from the start, and sent hundreds of thousands of his supporters out onto the streets to back up his demands. Bush, on the other hand, had doggedly resisted elections right from the start, preferring that Iraq be run by a U.S. proconsul, with a new constitution to be drawn up by a few hand-picked exiles. “If it had been up to Bush, Iraq would have been a soft dictatorship,” according to Cole.
When Washington finally agreed to elections, Sistani, seeing an opportunity for his long-oppressed Shi’ites to gain political clout, issued a fatwa making it a religious duty to vote. So chalk up the big turn-out on election day to enthusiasm for democracy—and loyalty to the ayatollah.
Next time Bush wants to “liberate” a country, we’ll no doubt be shown post-election footage of Iraqis dancing in the streets, without any acknowledgement that those joyous Iraqis were probably celebrating the first step in pushing foreign occupiers out of their land.
The media’s portrayal of the Iraqi elections as a triumph of democracy was yet another step in the ongoing presentation of U.S. actions in Iraq as a tale of good intentions. Keeping to this narrative has been challenging at times—particularly back in March 2003, when Washington launched its invasion.
The invasion brought to an abrupt end the United Nations weapons inspection that had been proceeding methodically for months. Suddenly, the whole orderly process had to be forcibly shut down so that Washington could begin dropping bombs on Baghdad, a city of five million people—an attack that U.S. Defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld promised would be “of a force and scope and scale that is beyond what has been seen before.” Without a trace of irony, George W. Bush had explained in a televised address that he was dropping these bombs “to make the world more peaceful.” (One can only imagine what he might do if he were trying to make the world more violent.) So, instead of nightly footage of Iraq destroying its Al-Samoud missiles under the watchful eye of the UN inspectors, our TV screens were suddenly filled with images of explosions and buildings burning in Baghdad.
But these seemingly hostile actions somehow appeared rather benign on U.S. television, which covered the war in a curiously upbeat manner. Every TV station had its own in-house military experts, equipped with coloured pens to trace troop movements—like weathermen showing an approaching cold front or sportscasters sketching a particularly good play in the backfield. And every station had its own war logo (“Target Iraq,” “Attack on Iraq,” “Strike against Iraq.”) A more appropriate logo for CNN would have been: “The Joy of War” or “Kicking Ass.” With a CNN reporter describing an American tank rushing towards Baghdad as “the most lethal killing machine on earth,” anchor Aaron Brown could hardly conceal his excitement. “Are you dazzled by what you see?” he asked, turning to CNN in-house general (and later Democratic presidential candidate) Wesley Clark. Together the two men marvelled at the American killing machines speeding across the sand.
As a massive phalanx of U.S. troops moved into Iraq, Rumsfeld publicly warned Iraqis that setting oil fields on fire would be punished as a “war crime.” Clearly, it’s one thing to drop mega-bombs on a densely populated city, quite another to do something really evil—like destroy a perfectly good oil well.
Rumsfeld’s comment might have been seen as a clue that oil was a key concern of those who had ordered the invasion. But such a notion was vehemently denied, including by Rumsfeld himself, who declared: “An Iraq war has absolutely nothing to do with oil.” The denial was also, curiously, insisted upon by most commentators in the mainstream media, who were quick to roll their eyes at the very suggestion.
The media barely mentioned the fact that Iraq was bountifully endowed with oil, ranking second only to Saudi Arabia in terms of the sheer size of its reserves. But, unlike Saudi Arabia, Iraq’s oil is largely untouched. This makes it uniquely tantalizing to the major international oil companies, which in recent years have been desperately searching for new reserves to develop. “There’s no question all these companies are licking their chops waiting for an opportunity to jump in,” notes Fadel Gheit, senior oil analyst at the Wall Street firm Oppenheimer & Co. As Washington prepared for war, there was almost none of this sort of commentary in the mainstream media.
Indeed, as the Iraq saga unfolded in the months that followed—moving seamlessly from a tale of the disarming of a dangerous dictator to a battle to bring democracy to the Middle East—oil remained strangely offstage, hidden in plain sight.
The future of Hugo Chavez, president of oil-rich Venezuela, started to look significantly more precarious in January 2005. It was then that announcers on CNN began referring to Chavez as a “Latin American strongman.”
CNN announcers wield no actual power. But they are a barometer of accepted political wisdom in Washington, of which notions can be stated as fact without causing controversy. Calling Chavez a “strongman” is a case in point. In the popular parlance, the word suggests a dictator, someone who maintains power through force, not through the ballot box. So when CNN announcer Kitty Pilgrim referred to Chavez as a Latin American “strongman,” she was positioning him in a long line of repressive South American dictators. This is a significant distortion. In fact, Chavez’s democratic credentials are impressive; he’s won two nationwide Venezuelan elections, and in the summer of 2004 he handily won a national referendum on his leadership—a referendum that was given the stamp of approval by the Carter Center, the human rights organization established by former U.S. president Jimmy Carter.
But the “strongman” label went unchallenged. To millions of CNN viewers he was presented as simply a dictator, a mini-Saddam. And as such, he is unlikely to be missed by those viewers if they learn at some point he’s been overthrown—a fate that Chavez is convinced the Bush administration has in mind for him. This isn’t such a far-fetched notion. Chavez was briefly overthrown in a coup in April 2002, and Washington was at least supportive of the coup leaders, if not actively involved. And if the Bush administration had been interested in ridding themselves of Chavez back in 2002, it is even keener to see him ousted now. Chavez has long offended Washington with his close relations with Cuba, his open defiance of American hegemony in Latin America and his redirecting of Venezuelan oil revenues from American oil companies to Venezuelan social programs. But in December 2004, the flamboyant Venezuelan leader really stepped over the line: he made some far-reaching deals with China to develop Venezuela’s considerable oil reserves.
Oil is the lifeblood of the global economy. Certainly any country wanting to maintain its superpower status must be assured of access to oil—the fuel that for the past century (and for the foreseeable future) has been indispensable for both economic growth and military power, as well as essential to support the self-indulgent western lifestyle. So oil is clearly vital to the United States. But there’s a problem: while America is the biggest consumer of oil in the world, it has relatively little oil of its own, and what it has is rapidly dwindling.
While Americans consume roughly 25 percent of all the oil produced in the world each year, the U.S. has only 3 percent of the world’s oil reserves. There’s an enormous gap, then, between what Americans use (and what their government intends for them to keep on using), and what they need (or are determined to have). This leaves the U.S. highly dependent on foreign oil imports—a dependency which grows with each passing year. The U.S. now imports more than half its oil; by 2020, it is expected to import more than 65 percent. This makes America vulnerable, in danger of running short of the commodity it most needs to remain the world’s dominant superpower. And vulnerability is not something Washington accepts lightly.
In America’s quest for global dominance, no power looms more ominously on the horizon than China, with its tumultuous economic growth and massive scale. That growth is made possible by China’s voracious and ever-rising consumption of energy. In the last few years, China has accounted for roughly 40 percent of the growth in global oil demand; it now ranks second in the world in oil consumption, after the U.S. And, like the U.S., China is highly dependent on foreign oil. With the oil consumption of these two superpowers continuing to grow rapidly, an increasingly fierce competition is shaping up between them over the world’s most valuable resource. And then there’s India—another country with an enormous population and an exploding appetite for energy.
Only one thing needs to be added to fill out this thumbnail sketch of the coming struggle over oil: the world is much closer to running out of oil than most government or industry officials are willing to admit—a subject we’ll return to shortly. The earth’s dwindling reserves will inevitably make the competition to gain control of the world’s oil all the fiercer. As Edmonton-based energy economist Mark Anielski bluntly puts it: “There’s not enough oil to feed two superpowers.”
Which brings us back to Chavez. Venezuela has the largest oil reserves outside the Middle East, and is one of America’s chief suppliers. Until Chavez’s rise to power in the late 1990s, Venezuela’s oil was largely under the control of U.S. oil companies and the U.S. government. Venezuela has traditionally been regarded in Washington as a relatively stable and secure source of oil, compared to the more volatile Middle Eastern sources. But that close U.S.-Venezuelan relationship has changed under Chavez, and his recent deals with China signalled a particularly bold—and unwelcome—independence on the oil front.
Chavez had made no secret of his desire to look beyond the U.S. for markets for his oil, and the Chinese quickly stepped forward to offer themselves as customers. The co-operation agreements signed by China and Venezuela reflect China’s keen interest in developing a close long-term relationship with the world’s fifth-largest oil exporter. Many of the agreements actually involve marginal, declining oilfields, but they also open the door to China taking a future role in developing new areas with enormous potential, such as the Orinoco oil belt in central Venezuela and offshore natural gas deposits.
In fact, China is only one of Chavez’s controversial new energy partners. Perhaps even more provocative from Washington’s viewpoint, Chavez signed a series of oil and gas co-operation deals in March 2005 with Iran, a full-fledged member of Bush’s “Axis of Evil.” After meeting with Iranian President Mohammad Khatami in Caracas, Chavez waded right into the conflict between Iran and the U.S., openly siding with Iran. The flambouyant Venezuelan leader insisted that Iran “has every right” to develop a nuclear energy program, despite U.S. objections that Iran’s interest in nuclear energy is merely a cover for its intention to develop nuclear weapons. Chavez also offered to support Iran should it become the target of U.S. aggression. “Before the threats of the government of the United States against the brother country of Iran, the Iranians can count on our support, our affection, and our solidarity.”
All this has contributed to the antagonism between Chavez and the White House, which has intensified since Bush’s re-election. The administration has stepped up its public criticism of Chavez, accusing him of supporting leftist guerillas in Colombia and of suppressing press freedom at home (even though the fiercely anti-Chavez media operates freely in Venezuela). The White House has also urged Venezuela’s neighbours to distance themselves from him, and is pondering measures to distance itself further from his regime, including greater support for Venezuelan opposition forces—the same forces that overthrew Chavez in 2002. The administration’s animosity was perhaps most palpable when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, during her Senate confirmation hearings, mentioned that she had “nothing good to say” about the Venezuelan leader.
Only a month after signing the oil deals with China, Chavez appeared at the World Social Forum, the worldwide gathering of social justice activists held every year in Porto Alegre, Brazil as a counterpoint to the annual celebration of capitalism at the World Economic Forum in Geneva. The sprawling crowd of activists in Porto Alegre was just the sort of event Chavez warms to. He loves the stage; he knows how to pump up a crowd. In Venezuela, he can hold an audience enthralled, speaking passionately and without notes for hours about the need to strip power from corporations, to redistribute the oil wealth, and to break Washington’s stranglehold over Latin America. In his exuberance, he often breaks out singing, urged on by requests from the audience for popular love songs. He readily obliges, prompting the crowd to call for more. A Chavez performance is part speech, part song, part love affair.
To the 15,000 activists in Porto Alegre, Chavez is probably the closest thing to a hero, an increasingly loud and aggressive champion of social justice on the international stage. His reforms in Venezuela have been radical and far-reaching, and his willingness to take on Washington and the corporate world has been unusual, to say the least, among world leaders. The oil deals with China and Iran are just further evidence that Chavez is not afraid to go his own way, even at the risk of provoking the Bush administration. As he took to the stage in a packed sports stadium in Porto Alegre, the crowd went wild, greeting him like a rock star and chanting “Here comes the boss!”
So there he was: the boss, sitting on top of one of the world’s biggest oil reserves, thumbing his nose at the U.S—all right in America’s backyard.
Maybe to some he’s the “the boss.” But in the eyes of Washington and millions of Americans who watch CNN, Chavez is nothing more than “a Latin American strongman.” And the world can surely do with one less of those.
Copyright © 2004, 2006 by Linda McQuaig