Fuel on the Fire, by Greg Muttitt

Review published on August 31, 2012. Reviewed by John Redfearn

Lack of trust is a scary thing. It leads to speculation, rumour, re-interpretation of facts and, most fundamentally, conspiracy theory. On the whole I don’t believe in conspiracy theory. Not because people don’t conspire, but because few are clever enough conspire effectively and none can keep secrets for very long. On the whole I go with cock-up theory over conspiracy theory every time. G Dubbya and Tony’s Iraq was one almighty cock-up.

Greg Muttitt does seem to believe in conspiracy theory. Single issue politics and conspiracy.  He has a point, a bigger bunch of ‘we know best’, ‘trust us, we’re political’, ‘we know you don’t know what we know and we’re not going to tell you what we know because you’re not clever enough to understand it’, ‘they are your enemies you know’, ‘they’ve got WD-40, no, what was that?’ arrogant politicians than the bunch who promoted and led the second Gulf war would be hard to find anywhere in history.

The supposed conspiracy was the desire to gain full control for the west of the Iraqi oil fields. The war to oust the regime was for that purpose, future oil revenue would pay for it, the creation of mechanisms whereby western oil companies would get more-or-less unrestricted access to the oil afterwards was the imperative. Postwar Iraqi militia and politicians similarly wanted to get and keep control of the oil and the money derived from it. Enlightened Iraqi unions selflessly worked to prevent foreign long-term investment and retain full control of the oil for themselves. That’s Muttitt’s theory of what Iraq was all about and he’s carefully and diligently extracted a serious selection of facts and anecdotes that supports it. He’s woven a story to support the idea that the war was about oil, the whole war was about oil, the war was about nothing but the oil. He’s been ably and skillfully helped in that by the astounding nonsense and loud echoing silences uttered by the bafflingly implausible politicians involved. It’s as if they were trying to cover something up by letting the oil theory run and run. Whoops, that’s a different conspiracy.

Muttitt undoubtedly does have a point. Clearly, control of Iraq’s oil was a big factor in the war, as was the very valid concern of what would happen if Hussein’s Iraq had used that oil in economic warfare or if it had expanded its influence to control more oil in the surrounding territories. And clearly too, no oil major would commit billions to a country like post-war Iraq without a tough legal framework to protect future revenues, so such internationally binding laws would be essential to encourage their investment. I find it hard to believe, however, that oil was the only factor. Human responsibilities, regional security, religious freedom, restriction of pure evil might have played at least some part.

Muttitt reminds me of an astronomer I once knew. He took the raw data from the telescope and then eliminated a big chunk of it as irrelevant ‘background noise’. Then he took another chunk and ruled it out as ‘instrumental artifacts’. The he analyzed what was left and low and behold, after another couple of noise and artifact elimination rounds, the data he published matched his theory perfectly. Muttitt seems to do the same thing, ignoring anything which can’t be made to look as though oil was the motive and interpreting everything left through the lens of corporate and political greed and avarice.

An interesting book, heavily researched, worth a good read for the facts and a skeptical read for their interpretation, but, IM not so HO, deeply simplistic in its presentation of the Iraq war and its aftermath as a single issue event where every fact must be interpreted as oily conspiracy rather than well-meaning failure of planning, social and especially political naivety and ignorance, and cock-up.

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