There’s one important thing the new Congress could do that would be really worthwhile, and that would be to revisit the question of the mysterious energy task force, or National Energy Policy Development Group, assembled by Vice-President Dick Cheney back in early 2001. They could do so not just because it would open a can of worms – which it surely will – but it could shed important light on why the United States invaded Iraq.
Conventional wisdom has it that the motivation for the overthrow of dictator Saddam Hussein was a misguided ‘Wilsonian’ attempt to deliver the fruits of democracy to the Iraq people and was based on a strategic premise that planting the seed of said democracy would contribute to peace and prosperity throughout the region. Of course, that wasn’t the main reason given at the time. First, there was all that phony business about weapons of mass destruction, then phantom tales linking Saddam to the September 11 terrorist attack on the U.S. After those myths imploded, spreading democracy became the story line and it became conventional wisdom because it was – and still is – repeated over and over in the media like an article of faith.
Today the bringing-democracy-to-the-Middle-East argument serves a useful purpose for the Bush Administration and the dwindling legions of defenders of the war. They can say: it was all the fault of the neo-conservatives; it was their alleged commitment to democracy that got us involved.
Unquestionably, they did lead the charge to war. They assembled (or concocted) much of the now-discredited evidence for the original excuses. But it is ludicrous to imagine that Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Michael Leeden, and their gloomy band of neo-cons, conned Donald Rumsfeld, George W. Bush and Cheney into a preemptive war for ‘freedom.’ After all, there are a lot of unfree countries in the world. In the 1990-91 Gulf War the U.S. attacked Iraq largely to defend one of the most autocratic of all, Saudi Arabia.
While most of us have convictions about why Iraq was invaded, we still don’t have proof.
But wait. There is another plausible explanation for the origins of the carnage that has so far has claimed the lives of at least 2,860 young women and men from our country and over 650,000 Iraqis. Think back to the wave of mass demonstrations that swept the world following the invasion.
Remember the young people who showed up with their own hand- painted signs that read: ‘No Blood for Oil’? That slogan and the bearers of the signs were widely reviled by people who bought the myth of weapons of mass destruction or an Iraq link to 911.
It would be too facile to think that the U. S. went to war just to capture Iraq’s oil fields but it is quite reasonable to believe that the invasion was part of a strategic outlook that involved changing the power relations in the region and gaining control of the petroleum markets of the world. In one 1999 speech to oil industry strategists, Cheney said, ‘While many regions of the world offer great opportunities, the Middle East, with two thirds of the world’s oil and the lowest cost, is still where the prize ultimately lies.’
Were the kids right? Is the war really about energy supplies?
That brings us back to the Vice-President and his task force.
Was the Middle East a topic of discussion when Cheney gathered together Administration officials and oil company executives?
Was Iraq? Cheney won’t say. He won’t even say who was at the meetings.
Even though they denied it at first, couldn’t remember or simply refused to say, executives from major oil companies met secretly somewhere on the White House grounds with Cheney’s energy task force in 2001. Among them were officials or representatives of Exxon Mobil Corp., Conoco, Shell Oil Co. and BP America Inc. According to the Government Accountability Office, they “gave detailed energy policy recommendations” to the task force. Administration officials defended the shroud of secrecy thrown over the huddle on a ‘constitutional right of the President and Vice President to obtain information in confidentiality.”
A little background on Cheney’s political career is in order.
A former Congressperson from Wyoming, he is the former executive officer of Halliburton Company and has ties to the Carlyle Group, both firms having extensive interests in the arms and oil industries. He was at one time a senior fellow at the rightist American Enterprise Institute. While in the House of Representatives he opposed the Equal Rights Amendment, was one of 21 members opposing a ban on the sale of armor-piercing bullets and was one of only four to oppose the ban on guns that can get through metal detectors. In the 1980s he opposed sanctions against the apartheid South Africa and voted against the House resolution calling for the release of Nelson Mandela. When making Martin Luther King’s birthday a holiday came up in 1979 Cheney voted no but changed his mind in 1983 when it was enacted. He voted in favor of a constitutional amendment to ban school busing; voted against Head Start; and the 1987 extension of the Clean Water Act.
Two years ago, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman observed that Cheney is ‘so deeply enmeshed in the energy industry that it’s hard to know where one ends and the other begins.’
‘Campaign contributions are part of it, but it’s also personal: George Bush and Dick Cheney are only two of the many members of the administration who grew rich by relying on the kindness of energy companies,’ wrote Krugman. ‘Indeed, the day after the executive director of Mr. Cheney’s task force left the government, he went into business as an energy industry lobbyist.’
At least one member of the new Congress says he wants to reopen the question of the task force. The possibility has been raised by others. However, Cheney is clearly in no mood to talk to Congress about it or any other questions related to Iraq. Following this month’s Congressional election, George Stephanopoulos of ABC-TV asked Cheney how he would respond if subpoenaed and the following exchange ensued:
- Cheney: I have no idea that I’m going to be subpoenaed.
Obviously, we’d sit down and look at it at the time. But probably not in the sense that Vice President and President and constitutional officers don’t appear before the Congress.
- Stephanopoulos: That’s your view of executive power? You’re not going to go up and testify.
- Cheney: I think that’s been the tradition. I can’t remember the last time a President did appear before the Congress. Or a Vice President.
- Stephanopoulos: Gerald Ford, I think.
- Cheney: That’s right. But not on a subpoena, he did it on his own.
The new House leadership has yet to say whether they are willing to subpoena Cheney and other Administration officials.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi says only that she would ask them to come voluntarily. If Cheney and the others refuse to come to Capitol Hill for questioning it could provoke a Constitutional crisis (‘tradition’ is not law); if they show up and take the Fifth Amendment and refuse to answer questions it will result in quite a political crisis. As I said, it could be a can of worms. The question is: do the Democrats in Congress have the guts to pry it open?
[BC Editorial Board member Carl Bloice is a writer in San Francisco, a member of the National Coordinating Committee of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism and formerly worked for a healthcare union.]