The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

What’s Erbil Got to do With It?

David Brooks:

We are now living in what we might as well admit is the Age of Iraq. The last four presidents have found themselves drawn into that nation because it epitomizes the core problem at the center of so many crises: the interaction between failing secular governance and radical Islam.

While Lawrence of Arabia said “on to Aqaba”, President Obama says, “on to Erbil”.

From the 2-time Pulitzer Prize-winning Steve Coll, writing in The New Yorker:

To the defense of Erbil: this was the main cause that drew President Obama back to combat in Iraq last week, two and a half years after he fulfilled a campaign pledge and pulled the last troops out.

More from Coll:

Erbil is the capital of the oil-endowed Kurdish Regional Government, in northern Iraq. There the US built political alliances and equipped Kurdish Peshmerga militias long before the Bush Administration’s invasion of Iraq, in 2003.

Erbil was the most stable place in Iraq until ISIS got near there. That caused Mr. Obama to draw a Red Line he has been thus far, unwilling to draw elsewhere in the Middle East, despite the urgings from politicians to his right. Mr. Obama, speaking with Tom Friedman in an interview last Friday:

The Kurdish region is functional in the way we would like to see…It is tolerant of other sects and other religions in a way that we would like to see elsewhere. So we do think it is important to make sure that that space is protected.

Kurdistan’s economy has boomed, attracting investors from all over. But, Kurdistan has one notable deficit as the model Middle East US ally: it isn’t a state. Nor is it a happy partner in the Iraqi national unity government. So, given that, Mr. Obama’s explanation of his rationale for war seems incomplete.

Did we say there are American oil companies on the ground there? Or, that there are American oil workers on the ground there? ExxonMobil and Chevron are among the oil and gas firms drilling in Kurdistan under contracts that compensate the companies for their political risk-taking with unusually favorable terms. Along with them came the usual sub-contractors, the oilfield service companies, the accountants, the construction firms, and logistics firms.

More from Steve Coll: (emphasis by the Wrongologist)

It’s not about oil. After you’ve written that on the blackboard five hundred times, watch Rachel Maddow’s documentary “Why We Did It” for a highly sophisticated yet pointed journalistic take on how the world oil economy has figured from the start as a silent partner in the Iraq fiasco.

Mr. Obama has a duty to defend American lives and interests in Erbil and elsewhere, oil or no. But, rather than evacuating US citizens, he has ordered a months-long aerial campaign to defend Kurdistan’s status quo. Why?

The DC Spin Doctors will say that it is essential to help a unified Iraq become capable of containing and defeating ISIS. But the status quo in Kurdistan also continues oil production by the international firms. We hear no mention of that, or how badly an evacuation would play for Democrats in the November elections. So, back in Iraq we are.

A little history: ExxonMobil cut its deal in Erbil in 2011. The GW Bush administration did not force Exxon’s predecessor American oil companies such as the Dallas-based Hunt Oil, to divest from Kurdistan. Bush’s team allowed the wildcatters on the ground to stay there, while insisting that Erbil’s politicians negotiate an oil-revenue sharing and political unity deal with Baghdad.

The Kurds in Erbil didn’t see the point in a final compromise with Baghdad’s Shiite politicians, so as each year passed, and the Kurds got richer, they attracted more credible and deep-pocketed oil companies as partners, and they looked more and more like a de-facto state. Steve Coll concludes:

And so, in Erbil in the weeks to come, American pilots will defend from the air a capital whose growing independence and wealth has loosened Iraq’s seams, even while, in Baghdad, American diplomats will persist in an effort to stitch that same country together to confront ISIS.

So we have another case of “Privatizing the Profits and Socializing the Losses”. The oil companies may or may not pay US taxes on the profits from their operations in Kurdistan, but Americans will surely pay the costs of Obama’s defense of Erbil.

We are defending an undeclared Kurdish oil state whose geopolitical appeal is as a long-term non-Russian supplier of oil and gas to Europe. We don’t hear that spoken about in polite or naïve company.

Or in our main stream media, which is neither polite or naïve.

So, American forces are now using weapons (mostly air power) to destroy other American weapons captured by ISIS forces in Iraq, which the ISIS combatants have been using to capture even more US armaments, which Americans, in turn, will have to destroy at some point in the future.

Steve Coll reminds us that the historical Al Swearengen, Mayor of Deadwood, SD was a character in the HBO Series Deadwood. On the show, he once said that life is made up of:

“one vile task after another”


And so is American policy in Iraq.



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