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Saturday, January 27, 2007

The Things We Do For Oil

by Justin Podur

ZNet Commentary (January 08 2007)

Review of Garry Leech, Crude Interventions: The United States, Oil and the New World Disorder (Zed Books, 2006).

Garry Leech's book is not a book about oil so much as what the United States does in the world in order to control it. Using oil as a window, Leech explores US foreign policy since 2001 in five regions: Iraq, Central Asia, West Africa, Colombia, and Venezuela. In doing so, Leech provides a useful basic primer on US military, economic, and corporate interventions in the world. His book, like his previous work, Killing Peace: Colombia's Conflict and the Failure of US Intervention (Information Network of Americas, 2002), and his online journal - - are clearly written and very useful in getting up to speed. He also provides detailed references and footnotes for those who want to pursue matters further.

On Iraq, Leech provides background necessary to understanding what is happening now, as the US presents an image of ancient hatreds tearing the place apart. He starts with the rise of Saddam, US support for him through the period of the Iran-Iraq war, the first destruction of Iraq in Gulf War I, through the sanctions and the re-destruction and ongoing occupation. Using oil as the unifying theme through the book leads Leech to emphasize some aspects of the Iraq occupation that are common to US interventions throughout the world: the neoliberal restructuring of Iraq's economy, the looting of Iraq's resources to provide profits for the US government's friends, the cynical use of propaganda, and the flouting of international law and human rights.

The emphasis on oil also makes elements of US foreign policy clearer. The seeming inconsistency, for example, between supporting Saddam against Iran in the 1980-1988 war, and destroying Iraq when Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990, disappears when oil enters the picture: "In actuality, the United States did respond in much the same way it had when Iraq invaded Iran: it defended its oil interests. In 1990, Saudi Arabia was exporting 1.3 billion barrels of oil a day to the United States, almost three times as much as Iraq. As it had done a decade earlier, the United States sided with its most important oil supplier." (page 23)

On Central Asia, Leech provides useful background on a part of the world where the US has been moving very fast without much attention. The Central Asian republics, Leech reminds us, had their borders drawn at the behest of Stalin, who "created the five republics (Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan) based on the demographics of different ethnic groups with the objective of making people self-identify with their particular ethnicity rather than as Muslims". (page 57) But in the 1990s, after the end of the USSR and as the republics became independent, control passed into the hands of authoritarian governments who repressed dissent, gave basing rights to the US military and resource rights to US corporations.

Leech tells the story of Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan's dictator, Karimov, is one of the world's worst human rights violators - and a valued ally in the US Terror War. Azerbaijan suffered a long civil war between the majority Azeri and minority Armenian community. Kazakhstan's officials gave oil contracts to US corporations, making personal fortunes that became bribery scandals, conducting IMF restructuring, and imposing poverty and deprivation on the population. In all three of these cases, the beneficiaries - of repression, civil war, and restructuring - are the US and its oil interests, who end up with the resources and the basing rights in spite of (or more aptly because of) these violations. Turkmenistan refused to open its economy, freezing the US out, which has led to slower economic decline - though political freedom fares no better than in US-allied states.

Leech visits another under-reported region in his chapter on West Africa. He tells the story of Shell and Chevron in Nigeria, and how that country's military has repressed minority communities like the Ogoni and the Ijaw in the service of the oil companies. He provides a succinct discussion of Angola's convoluted civil war and the even more convoluted role of foreign powers, including Cuba, South Africa, France, and the United States, in it. Here too, war and repression have facilitated lucrative contracts by the likes of ExxonMobil, ChevronTexaco, BP-Amoco, Shell and Total.

Leech's book is at its strongest in his final chapters on Colombia and Venezuela, places where he has extensive experience. Here he demonstrates his knowledge and skill in explaining Colombia's civil war and the US interest in it. Because he has already discussed Iraq, Central Asia, and West Africa in the context of oil, much of the fog preventing a sober understanding of the real logic of Colombia's war has already been dispelled by the time the discussion of Colombia arises. Colombia's war, like so many others Leech discusses, has the effect of displacing people from resource-rich territories and destroying social opposition to the seizure of the country's resources by multinational corporations. The drug war, the terror war, function as cover stories for this basic logic: "In order to secure the flow of Colombian oil to the United States, Washington has used the wars on drugs and terror to justify providing vast amounts of aid to a military apparatus closely linked to right-wing paramilitaries on the State Department's foreign terrorist list". (page 166)

Venezuela, meanwhile, provides an alternative to the oil-fueled nightmares suffered by the populations of the regions Leech has discussed in previous chapters. Here, a democratic regime uses revenues from oil to fund social programs and a foreign policy of international solidarity. As with the other regions, Leech provides necessary background and recent political history: with Venezuela, a history of events leading up to the election of Venezuela's current president Hugo Chavez, the repeated attempts by US-backed opposition movements to oust him from power, and the popular redistributive policies Chavez's government has been able to pass in recent years.

Leech's clear and succinct style could have been brought to bear on a number of other, important, and oil-related conflicts and regions where the US is involved and that badly need some clear explanation. Iran, the Sudan, Egypt, North Africa, the Arabian peninsula, and Southeast Asia all come to mind. Also interesting are questions of oil policy in the North itself: Alberta, Texas, and Norway all come to mind. Leech's global approach starts to tempt the reader to make global connections and see oil in the big picture, but leaves so many connections for the reader to follow up. While he alludes to climate change in his conclusion (noting on page 220 that "continued burning of fossil fuels is proving increasingly devastating to the environment"), more discussion of the consequences, and potential consequences, of US oil policy for the people of the planet would have been highly appropriate in a book on this subject coming at this time. Still, one can always fault the author of a short book for leaving the reader wanting more. In truth the important task Leech takes on, he does well: opens the door to seeing one of the world's most urgent issues in context, and from the point of view of some of those who suffer the most.


Justin Podur is a Toronto based writer. He can be reached at


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