Luke Mitchell, “The Black Box: Inside Iraq’s Oil Machine,” Harper’s Magazine, December 2007.
I still remember walking to a class at Columbia in the early spring of 2003 and listening to students chant “No blood for oil!” It was a slogan of the anti-war left at the time, and listening, I felt a negative reaction to the cynicism. Didn’t these kids recognize the threat of Saddam’s WMD programs, I wondered? There are of course times when cynicism is just another word for penetrating realism. And now, as we approach the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, with no obvious exit strategy yet to emanate from its authors, I marvel at the fact that those young protesters had deciphered the situation much more ably than I had.
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s plain that the Administration never really thought it had much of an WMD case to pin on Saddam Hussein. That, apparently, was pushed because the real reasons wouldn’t suffice to build public support. Likewise, it’s plain that Saddam’s horrendous human rights record was little more than some window dressing to apply to the operation. Why would an Administration pursue a human rights causerie by sequentially trashing all the major international human rights conventions, starting with the ones that the Americans all but wrote on their own—the Geneva Conventions? Similarly, building democracy in the Middle East was also never a very serious goal. This year, in fact, Washington has been filled with speculation that Bush would authorize a coup d’état to take down the current Iraqi Government and install one which is much closer to (and which likely was fueling its campaign with money from) the CIA.
No, in the end it really was all about the oil. “Strengthening American strategic interests in the Persian Gulf region.”
The evidence of that was present all along, for those willing to look closely enough. Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neil remarked on visiting Dick Cheney and finding him amidst maps of Iraqi oilfields, marked with concessions to be handed out to American oil companies. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz testified that American funding of Iraqi recovery would be minimal, because Iraq would turn a spigot or two and would resume production of oil at enormous levels. The income stream from this would, Wolfowitz reasoned, do the trick. And when looting broke out in Baghdad weeks after the war began, taking their cue from Rumsfeld and not Gen. Garner, soldiers guarded only one building in Baghdad: the oil ministry. The dreams of empire that the Neocons around Cheney and Rumsfeld harbored for Iraq were curiously corporate and had a strong focus on oil: exploration, development and transportation, with a bit of oilfield services thrown in on the side.
In the current issue of Harper’s, senior editor Luke Mitchell gives us a look deep inside the Black Box of Iraq—namely the Iraqi oil industry. His focus is not on the why of the Iraq War, but rather on the how of restoring the production of oil.
I had come to think of Iraq as a kind of black
box. Not the black box engineers analyze after a
plane crash to determine how the disaster
occurred–though such a device would have
some metaphoric relevance to Iraq–but rather
the black box engineers speak of in describing a
mechanism with a known function and an unknown
method. The pig goes in one end, the
sausage comes out the other, and what goes on
in between is no one’s business. More and more
of what happens in the world happens inside
black boxes. It was not very long ago, for instance,
that an interested observer could look
under the hood of a car and determine that,
yes, gas flowed in through this line, and these
ceramic plugs probably sparked that gas, and
these tiny explosions–you could practically
hear the individual pistons!–were probably
what was spinning that shaft. Now, of course,
the inside of an engine compartment is almost
entirely sealed off. Gasoline goes in, motion
comes out, and when that ceases to happen the
engine’s innermost ailments are diagnosable
only by a computer, which of course is another
kind of black box.
The center of this article is Mitchell’s visit to the Rumaila field in the Shi’ia south. It’s one of the region’s best known fields, a source of light, sweet oil—the kind that oil geologists pray for.
Along the way, Luke picks up a lot of very revealing information. Who is out there operating these fields? Earlier studies done by the State Department and others put a strong focus on the large population of professional émigrés from Iraq. If they returned, that would be a strong indicator of success. But in fact, few émigrés returned. The movement was largely in the opposite direction.
a great many of Iraq’s native
oil professionals have fled the country. The Wall
Street Journal in 2006 called this flight a “petroleum
exodus” and reported that about a hundred
oil workers had been murdered since the war
began and that “of the top hundred or so managers
running the Iraqi oil ministry and its
branches in 2003, about two-thirds are no longer
at their jobs.” Now most of the engineers in Iraq
are from Texas and Oklahoma. They earn double
what they would in the United States, but
there is still a shortage of talent in Iraq. The
inevitable result is that the oil flows a little slower.
In Mitchell’s account the refineries take on curiously personal aspects. One, he tells us, produces a constant screech, “like steel cutting steel.” That’s the sound the oil itself makes coursing up out of the ground and through the pipes.
Iraq has since the time of the invasion, been a topic of strong interest for international oil companies. Hopes were high. And the subject drew strong attention at the highest levels—men like Dick Cheney, for instance. But the political process within Iraq has been treacherous. Only in the de facto autonomous Kurdish republic in the North have deals been struck with foreign investors; in the balance of the country the process remains stalled.
With development initiatives stalled, the key question is smuggling.
No one knows how much oil the smugglers
take from the system. The Iraq Study Group reported
that “150,000 to 200,000-and perhaps as
many as 500,000-barrels of oil per day are being
stolen,” and that estimate has since been repeated
in other news reports. It is a very large
claim, and as I was eating lunch at an oil facility
one day I overheard a Navy engineer ridiculing
it. He said moving that much oil out of the
system would require something like a thousand
tank trucks every day to transport their loot to a
refinery or across the border, and that they would
have to do this without being detected in what
is possibly the most heavily surveilled country
on earth. The engineer seemed fairly confident in
his scorn-he suggested that maybe the real culprits
were little green men-but my own sense was
that you could move a lot of trucks around in
Iraq before someone figured out they weren’t part
of someone else’s mission.
But there’s nothing really extraordinary about these numbers. In Iraq today, criminal activity has certainly emerged as the most reliable means of making money for many of the nation’s movers and shakers. This includes kidnappings, bank robberies, innumerable extortion schemes and protection rackets. Oil theft and smuggling is child’s play compared with some of these other activities.
Still, for Mitchell the wonder is not the theft and the myriad political problems, but the fact that the Black Box is producing at all. He credits the engineers.
That the black box works at all is a significant
achievement. Yes, the crude is impeded by
friction and siphoned by thieves and thousands
of barrels fall along the way, victim to leaky
pipes and relentless saboteurs. But the machine,
the vast engine of transformation, continues
for the moment to function. The sparks
ignite and the pistons pump and the desert
crude is transformed into heat and light and
motion, and also into money. All of this is the
work of engineers. They overbuild and create
backups and fail-safes, and after a while it
seems as if their systems could never go awry,
no matter how poorly maintained, no matter
how overburdened, no matter how corruptly
constituted. The engineers have made a machine,
though-not a miracle-and a machine
can always fail, or be made to fail, or simply be
turned to some other purpose.
But one image in Mitchell’s article lingers with me. In fact, I can’t forget it, though I would like to. It involves blood and oil.
As we waited, our discussion, still in the analytical
mode, turned to the strange ways of the
Iraqis. One engineer, a Scotsman, recalled the Iraqi practice of sacrificing an animal anytime a
new plant was opened. It was a hell of thing, he
said. Blood everywhere. Erich nodded and said
he’s seen a ceremony at a plant up north where
the Iraqis had killed four sheep. They had dipped
their hands in the blood and then walked through
the industrial corridors, painting bright red streaks
on the walls. It was all part of the blessing, he said.
The bigger the plant, the more animals you sacrifice.
The notion of the blood-streaked refinery, and the idea of a mass sacrifice, may serve very well as a metaphor for the Bush Administration’s entire misadventure in Iraq.
Some imagined the invasion of Iraq as part of a quest for power and oil. But has it not been a Faustian bargain? Neither yet appears within the grasp of the policymakers who launched this expedition. Indeed, the prospect seems only to be receding.