The vice president's fantasy of world domination via control of oil stems
from his formative years in the shadow Cold War.
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By James K. Galbraith
Oct. 5, 2004 | History's final verdict on George W. Bush may well be to
dismiss him as a frontman who was not quite up to his job. But nothing like
that will be said of Dick Cheney. Cheney is undeniably intelligent,
powerful and shrewd -- a force to be reckoned with, even though he has
operated mainly in the shadows.
The key to understanding Cheney is that he is a throwback -- to a brand of
strategic thinking that bedeviled the Cold War. He is part of the legacy
that runs back to Generals Curtis LeMay and Thomas Power of the Strategic
Air Command in the late 1950s. The two tenets of this legacy are absolutely
consistent: 1) Overestimate the enemy and govern through fear, and 2) hit
the enemy before it can hit you. In four words: "missile gap" and "first
That school never quite seized control of American strategic policy while
the Soviet Union existed, though it came close on several occasions,
including the Cuban missile crisis. It often won budget and political
battles through trickery, such as the CIA Team B exercise of the early
1980s, which led to the "Star Wars" missile defense program. But the first
strike never happened. In the end cooler and wiser heads, from Eisenhower,
Kennedy and Johnson through Nixon and Reagan, always saw the advantages of
working with Soviet leaders to prevent war.
Economic competition with the Soviet bloc followed the logic of warfare.
The Soviet Union represented an alternative industrial system, capable of
absorbing the world's oil, gold, uranium and other strategic resources.
Denying it access to key supplies -- oil in the Middle East, gold in South
Africa, uranium in Zaire -- was the cornerstone of covert strategy in those
years, dictating many ugly political choices. This too formed Cheney. It
helps explain why, as late as 1986, he opposed a congressional resolution
pressing for the release of Nelson Mandela from his South African prison.
The larger economic balance of the Cold War was a third element in Cheney's
upbringing. With the non-Communist industrial countries, the United States
cut a simple bargain. We provided security -- including naval control of
the oceans and a nuclear umbrella over Europe and Japan. They in turn
tolerated a dollar-based world financial system, permitting the United
States to live far above its productive powers. America's perpetual trade
deficits were balanced, in simple terms, by the bomb and the fleet.
Ten years after the Soviet Union collapsed, the shadowy hard men of the
Cold War finally came into uncontested power in the United States. And to
our tragic cost, they brought unchanged thinking to a radically different
world. The puzzle was how to force the new reality into the old frame.
Their solution? To re-create in the minds of the public a world that would
resemble, as much as possible, the dangerous but politically familiar one
in which they had been formed.
Before Sept. 11, 2001, Bush and Cheney were searching for an enemy that
could generate an appropriate level of fear. North Korea was an early
candidate. Bush in his first days refused to support South Korea's
"sunshine initiative" for improving relations with North Korea and used the
supposed North Korean missile threat as the prime lever behind Cheney's key
military priority at that time, missile defense. Reality, however,
intruded: Kim Jong-Il could not fill Stalin's shoes. So China got a tryout
too, with much tub-thumping about a supposedly growing threat to Taiwan.
But then came the EP-3 incident, when a U.S. Navy spy plane was forced to
land on Hainan Island, and the Chinese interned the crew and dissected the
aircraft. This seems to have persuaded Team Cheney that Team China was apt
to make them look like fools.
Sept. 11 put all of this into the background.
Although the "global war on terror" was rooted in a real event, it was
conducted in a way fundamentally oriented to the political opportunities
this event created rather than the actual dangers it revealed. Thus the
administration's neglect of port security, the squeeze on first responders,
the negligence at Tora Bora in Afghanistan, the flippant attitude toward
the nuclear risks in Russian stockpiles and Pakistani labs. Thus the
pathetic system of colored alerts and the roundup and detention of
irrelevant people, not a single one of whom has been convicted of a
terrorism-related offense in the three years since.
Rule through fear remains an essential part of Cheney's message; he
reiterates it every day on the stump. But three years after Sept. 11, the
message no longer resonates. It has come to sound, to most Americans, like
an excuse for failure in every other sphere. And overseas, the clash of
civilizations has never worked as a cry for the mobilization of the West.
The major European states are not conned, and neither is Japan. They have
much more experience of political terror than we do -- and they realize
that the job of rolling up the terror networks belongs, for the most part,
to the national and international police. For this reason, the global
bargain that held up the dollar through the Cold War is imperiled. You can
be sure that Cheney has no idea how to restore it.
Cheney's actual conduct in Iraq recaptures almost exactly the two
operational doctrines of the shadow Cold War. It is now obvious that his
strategic vision centers on physical control of the world's oil. And his
justification for the attack on Iraq, delivered on Aug. 26, 2002, was a
pure statement of the hidden doctrine of the first strike.
Maps of Iraq's oil fields and lists of foreign companies doing business
there were found in the archives of Cheney's Energy Task Force. What does
this prove? First, that the task force was not solely concerned with
domestic energy policy and regulation, as it was said to be. It was, at
least in part, a forum for considering the control of global oil. At worst,
the maps and lists constitute prima facie evidence that the conquest of
Iraq was on the corporate agenda from the beginning of the Bush years.
But why? What advantage would the United States get from boots on the
ground in the oil fields? It may seem a naive question, but it is not.
It is theoretically possible that Cheney supported an invasion of Iraq
purely for corporate gain -- to secure reserves for Big Oil and services
contracts for Halliburton and Bechtel. I don't believe this. At least, I
don't believe the evidence is yet sufficient to convict. But it will be
interesting to get to the moment -- early in the next administration, let's
presume -- when the Energy Task Force archives can be fully examined and we
can know for sure.
It's more likely, though, that Cheney simply applied the doctrine of
resource control with which he grew up to the world that exists today --
without asking what it means in the new global economy.
Today, there is only one major Communist country -- the People's Republic
of China. But 25 years after it began economic reforms, China is thoroughly
integrated into the dollar world. Does China have a problem getting oil?
Not at all. Nor will it so long as Chinese goods sell on American markets
and oil can be bought with dollars.
So who is benefiting from our expenditure of blood and treasure on Iraq's
oil fields? So long as the strategy works, anyone with whom we do business.
Including China, of course, even though not a single People's Liberation
Army soldier need ever set foot away from Chinese soil.
The problem is, the strategy is failing. The effort to control the oil
fields is leading, very rapidly, to increasing oil prices, a permanent
volatility of supply and an inflationary slowdown in economic activity both
in the United States and abroad.
The implications are simple. We can live with any security system that
permits oil to come to market in an orderly way. Even though none of the
Middle East oil regimes is security safe, the West can, and does, buy oil
from Iran. It could, and did, buy oil from Saddam Hussein. It buys oil from
the Saudis, despite their misuse of some of the revenues to finance a
global network of terror. Security issues are raised by each of these
cases. But the security risks can't be dealt with by physical occupation of
Obviously, Cheney doesn't get this at all.
So let's return to that Aug. 26, 2002, speech, in which Cheney sought to
justify a military invasion of Iraq on grounds of America's national
security. His speech emphasized the threat posed by Saddam to the United
States stemming from his pursuit of chemical, biological and nuclear
weapons; his concealment of that pursuit; his persistent plotting to foil
and frustrate U.N. inspectors; and his appalling record past record of
regional aggression, against Iran and then against Kuwait. Cheney wrapped
these factors into a frightening bundle of conclusions:
"Should all of Saddam Hussein's aggressive ambitions be realized, the
implications would be enormous, for the Middle East, for the United States,
and for the peace of the world. The whole range of weapons of mass
destruction then would rest in the hands of a dictator who has already
shown his willingness to use such weapons, and has done so, both in his war
with Iran and against his own people. Armed with an arsenal of these
weapons of terror, and seated atop 10 percent of the world's oil reserves,
Saddam Hussein could then be expected to seek domination of the entire
Middle East, take control of a great portion of the world's energy
supplies, directly threaten America's friends throughout the region, and
subject the United States or any other nation to nuclear blackmail."
According to Cheney, Saddam was an ambitious, aggressive, dangerous man
with access to vast wealth and technical capacities, including WMD. There
was the threat that he would someday soon choke off our access -- and that
of our friends and allies -- to the oil on which we rely, defending his
position with "nuclear blackmail." Therefore, Cheney concluded, the United
States must act, lest by waiting it find itself helpless against the man
and the weapons he might soon control.
The threat to our supply of oil was, on the surface, an impressive argument
-- by far the leading edge of the Bush administration's case for war. But
Cheney and others did not ask the obvious question: To whom would Saddam
sell his oil, if not on the world market? The alternative customer -- the
Soviet empire -- was no longer in existence! Would he hold it in the ground
As we now know, the supposed facts that Cheney advanced were not true, and
should have been suspect at the time. But the underlying principle did not
depend on whether his combination of psychological inference, history and
current information was correct, for Cheney believed we were entitled to
act on presumption and inference. Cheney held -- and holds today -- that
America's responsibility is to assume the worst, and to act today to
prevent the worst, on the off-chance that the assumption might be correct.
This is the meaning of the declaration -- at the outset of the Aug. 26
speech, at West Point and elsewhere by Bush -- that the "old doctrines of
security do not apply." Cheney clarified:
"In the days of the Cold War, we were able to manage the threat with
strategies of deterrence and containment. But it's a lot tougher to deter
enemies who have no country to defend. And containment is not possible when
dictators obtain weapons of mass destruction, and are prepared to share
them with terrorists who intend to inflict catastrophic casualties on the
The claim that "containment is not possible when dictators obtain weapons
of mass destruction" was false on its face. What about the Soviet Union?
That country, governed by dictators, had many such weapons. And yet it was
contained with great success for four decades. The Soviet Union collapsed
in the end without inflicting so much as a single external casualty from
any of these weapons. Nor did the Soviets ever contemplate sharing agents
of mass destruction with terrorists, despite manifold Western fantasies
(and James Bond movies) to that effect.
But Cheney's assertion, though nonsensical as stated, was not inconsistent
with his core beliefs. He had always rejected the doctrines of deterrence
and containment -- even as they applied to the Soviet Union. His position
in 2002 was not a new one, crafted by strategists thinking afresh about the
world after the Cold War. It was, instead, a direct return to the fantasy
of world domination, powered by the atomic monopoly, that took hold in
American military minds in the immediate aftermath of World War II, and
that threatened the security and survival of the world for 20 years after
Preventive self-defense is nothing else than the most dangerous
subterranean tendency of Cold War bombardiers LeMay and Power, who favored
an unprovoked first strike against the Soviet Union. It is the doctrine
rightly ridiculed in "Dr. Strangelove," resurrected and brought to you live
in the nightmare we call Iraq.
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About the writer
James K. Galbraith is Salon's economics correspondent. He teaches at the
Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at