It’s the Crude, Dude, Linda McQuaig

Doubleday Canada, 2004, 346 pages, C$35.95 hc, ISBN 0-385-66010-3

As the Bush years recede in the back-mirror like a feverish nightmare, much of the activist non-fiction of the time is starting to date.  Or is it?  Because the factors that allowed the Bush administration to overreach still exist.  Society hasn’t changed all that much; the same people are still active in other roles; and it’s not as if the new US administration has made spectacular changes to correct many systemic excesses.  The United States is still an imperial economic power (a soft one, but still…) no matter the party in the White House.

So when Linda McQuaig, from the vantage point of 2004, asks whether oil was the reason the United States invaded Iraq, it’s not a provocative question that somehow stopped being relevant the moment Obama took office; it’s a prism through which we can look at the global oil industry, how it reached its position of political prominence and whether there’s anything to be done before the oil runs out.

(The answer to the original question, to just about any non-Republican, is: Of course it was about the oil.  Just as the invasion was about power projection, about shock capitalism, about ideological proof-of-concept, about showing off military capabilities, about daddy issues, about pure domination after the humiliation of 9/11: All of those reasons are true (including “bringing democracy to the Middle-East”)… and there’s no reason that only one of them would be valid.)

The title of the book gives away McQuaig’s answer, and her demonstration runs through the book along three lines of argument.  The first and strongest thread details public evidence that oil was very much on the White House’s mind when it planned the invasion of Iraq.  A map, showing Iraq’s oil fields in great detail, in unearthed from the documents prepared by the task force on energy formed during the summer of 2001 –a task force headed by none other than Dick Cheney, perhaps pointing the way to a quick and easy way for the US to assert direct control over vast reserves of oil.  Few non-Americans ever really believed the official reasons for going to war; McQuaig’s book (published in the US two years after first appearing in Canada) may be preaching to the converted, but it does so with evidence.

The second line of argument demonstrates the western world’s complete reliance on oil.  A chapter dedicated to the SUV may seem like an odd digression, but it, too, is a way to study the way North-American political interests have been subservient to the oil lobby.  The SUV, born out of a regulatory loophole allowing those vehicles to avoid the energy-efficiency standards set for cars, is a symbol not only of the excesses of its host society, but also the way the oil industry usually gets what it wants in preserving its sources of profit.  Nothing new here for those who have paid attention (McQuaig’s mention of Canada having passed the Kyoto accord echoes sourly considering what happened since 2004), but still well-argued.

Finally, the third strand of the book is a historical overview of how oil has been used politically since its rise as an energy source.  From the takeover of Middle-Eastern energy reserves by parochial western interests to the rise of OPEC, McQuaig describes in detail the kind of nasty realpolitik that happens once you strip away all pretence at kindness from diplomacy: When oil becomes essential to the survival of a nation, it will do whatever it takes to control it.  In this light, the invasion of a country for its oil reserves seems like a continuation of foreign energy policy by other means.

From the viewpoint of 2011, not much has invalidated McQuaig’s conclusions.  Numerous oil shocks and a steady rise in the price of gas have shown the western world’s overreliance on the stuff.  At long last, however, we’re finally seeing the first glimmers of hope.  Kyoto may be dead, but the electric-powered Chevrolet Volt won “Car of the Year” awards.  The results of America’s adventure in Iraq may not have been a success for US oil interest after other countries snapped up Iraqi oil contracts in 2009… but this would be the first time US efforts in Iraq didn’t quite turn out like first intended.

If this sounds preachy, well, it is.  But you can guess from the irreverent title that It’s the Crude, Dude is not dry nor too pretentious for a book of its kind.  Both the first and the last page of the book contain well-chosen profanity, and McQuaig, a journalist/columnist with six previous books to her credit, knows how to write entertainingly.  Sure, it’s a book for left-leaning readers… but as such, it does its job.

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