Syriana and Iraq

War for Oil? George Clooney’s new movie hits uncomfortably close to home.

Critics have been hailing “Syriana,” George Clooney’s latest film to take on the policies of the Bush administration, as a cinematic tour de force that has “compelling real-world relevance” and is “unsettlingly close to the truth.” But what is the truth “Syriana” supposedly approaches? Put briefly, the plot traces the ramifications of a bungled assassination, authorized by the CIA, of a Middle Eastern leader who decided to sign a major oil deal with China instead of an American oil company with close ties to the US Government.

Given the increasing numbers of Americans who believe the Bush administration deliberately misled the country to justify the Iraqi invasion, many film-goers will no doubt be willing to accept the film’s argument that America’s thirst for oil—not the threat of terrorism, and certainly not a concern for human rights—drives the country’s policies in the Middle East, even when those policies violate our core ideals. But is the movie really a case of art imitating life, or does “Syriana” veer towards the kind of hyperbole and exaggeration that marred Oliver Stone’s “JFK”? The evidence would seem to speak for itself. It includes:

  • Newly discovered documents, reported in the Washington Post, revealing that as early as February 2001 senior executives of at least four of the country’s biggest oil companies, ExxonMobil, Conoco, Shell and BP America, met with Vice President Cheney’s Energy Task Force.
  • Documents from these meetings obtained by the conservative watchdog Judicial Watch—including a map of Iraq and an accompanying list of “Iraq oil foreign suitors” revealing Iraq to have been a major topic of discussion. This is not so surprising, as that country has perhaps the world’s second largest oil deposits. Indeed, the map erased all features of the country save the location of said deposits, while the list of suitors revealed that dozens of foreign companies were either in discussions over, or in direct negotiations for, rights to them.
  • As important as what was discussed was when the meeting occurred: at precisely the moment when scientists and industry leaders began increasingly to worry that the “age of peak oil production”—when it will no longer be possible to extract enough oil from the earth to replace what we consume—was approaching faster than previously assumed, portending a potentially explosive competition for the world’s remaining supplies.
  • In such a scenario, ensuring American access to—and, where possible, leverage or even control over—the world’s major oil deposits would be a natural concern for an administration umbilically tied to Big Oil, especially in the context of escalating competition with an aggressive, energy-hungry China.
  • A 2002 report by Deutsche Bank explained the major US companies would lose if Saddam made a deal with the UN, whereas the Europeans, Russians and Chinese would come out ahead. But in a post-Saddam Iraq, the report argued, the US oil majors—specifically, according to the report, ExxonMobil and ChevronTexaco, the very companies involved in the disputed meetings—could manage the country’s resources.
  • At the very moment the first Energy Task Force meetings with industry officials were held, in February 2001, the National Security Council issued a directive telling staff to cooperate with the Energy Task Force in the “melding” of new “operational policies towards rogue states” with “actions regarding the capture of new and existing oil and gas fields.” No place on earth was more amenable to such melding than Iraq.

Two and a half years after the US-led invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration continues to resist calls for a major troop withdrawal, despite the fact that most intelligence reports, and most Iraqi politicians, confirm the presence of those troops to be the main motivation for the insurgency.

With American losses and expenditures mounting daily, the threat of WMD disproved, the promise of peace and democracy seeming increasingly pollyannish, it’s hard to think of many good reasons for the US to maintain a long-term presence in Iraq. Two that come to mind, however, are oil and military bases—subjects that remain largely unbroachable in polite discourse in Washington or Baghdad.

What else would constitute the “core interests” that both the Bush administration and leading democrats (most recently Sen. Joseph Biden) argue will be threatened by an American withdrawal from Iraq any time soon.

It took roughly fifty years for the CIA to admit that it organized the overthrow of Iranian President Mossadeqh when he dared to nationalize his country’s oil industry. Our government also helped organize coups that put the Baath Party in power in Iraq twice, in 1963 and 1968. There’s no doubt who was behind the toppling of Saddam. The question that remains, however, is: What was the real reason we invaded Iraq? On that score, “Syriana” hits closer to home than most politicians either side of the aisle would care to admit.


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