Banking on Baghdad
Edwin Black’s new book, Banking on Baghdad (Wiley, $27.95) is a must read for anyone who wants to understand what is really behind the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Working with a team of 30 researchers, Black provides a detailed history of the region once known as Mesopotamia. Black’s central thesis – an accepted truth for any serious student of history but somehow missing from the corporate news narrative – is that wars are fought for selfish, largely economic reasons, and America’s recent expedition into Iraq is no different.
Black is best known for his inflammatory book IBM and the Holocaust, in which he documents how the IBM provided highly specialized machines that enabled the Nazis to carry out genocide (GNN collaborated with Black for a NewsVideo of the same name). The documentation in Banking on Baghdad is equally as exhaustive. He uncovers for the first time a secret 1928 agreement in which western powers and their oil conglomerate proxies carved up most of the Middle East for their own use, with little or no thought for the people whose oil lay under their land.
Former terror czar Richard A. Clarke writes, “Banking on Baghdad underlines Iraq’s long history of exploitation by Western powers and powerful corporations struggling for advantage and domination. His impressive analysis, which included looking at more than 50,000 original documents and hundreds of scholarly books and articles, provides a comprehensive history of Iraq that explains why the West’s record in the region so complicates nation-building there today.”
Recently, Black talked with GNN’s editor Anthony Lappłę about Iraq’s bloody history, the secret Red Line agreement and why the U.S. project is doomed:
GNN: When we were in Iraq we met a tank commander in Samarra who told us that the reasons for war haven’t changed in 10,000 years, it’s always been about opening up new markets and securing trade routes. Isn’t that what your new book Banking on Baghdad is about?
Black: I only have one correction. It’s been about 7,000 years. He’s right about the rest.
GNN: You challenge a lot of the conventional thinking about Iraq, including the notion that Iraq was the “Cradle of Civilization.”
Black: Iraq is not the Cradle of Civilization. In point of fact, Jericho had a thriving civilization some 9,000 to 11,000 years ago. There was a civilized and spiritual community in the south of France painting animals on the cave walls 15,000 to 30,000 years ago, paintings that still captivate us millennia later. Some 60,000 years ago, we see civilized family and tribal relationships in among Southern African cave dwellers.
What made Iraq – or ancient Mesopotamia – the “Cradle of Civilization” was a comment by a British imperialist, Sir Henry Rawlinson, on April 8, 1867, during a discussion at the Royal Geographical Society in London. He was speaking about how much of a prize Mesopotamia would be. Mesopotamia – that V-shaped region between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers – has been sought after by numerous imperial powers.
Looking back, Mesopotamia developed many ancient codes, such as the so-called Code of Hammarubi. Many people refer to this as the first code of justice. But it was really a code for commerce: how much are you compensated when your slave loses a tooth, how much would you have pay the boatman to take you across the river, what is a fair price to store grain. So these commercial values became social and justice values, hence the thought that this was the mergence of civilization.
Because the land attained a level of commercial activity previously unknown, Mesopotamia became regarded as the “Cradle of Civilization,” but it should really be known as the “Cradle of Commerce.”
GNN: There was a time under the Ottoman Empire in which Mesopotamia became a sort of imperial backwater until the advent of the age of oil.
Black: Yes. There were only two attractions for the western world in this region: geography and geology. During the Ottoman regime, it was a midpoint between India and Europe, so Britain exercised a sphere of influence over Basra and the entire Gulf. The Ottoman’s in far-off Istanbul found the three provinces of Mesopotamia—mostly Kurdish Mosul, mostly Sunni Arab Baghdad and mostly Shiite Arab Basra—to be ungovernable, lawless and unprofitable. Hence, these provinces were only nominally under Turkish rule.
Remember, Mesopotamia was not always an Arab or Islamic land. There were hundreds of thousands of Jews in that land going back 2600 years—a thousand years before the Arabs or Islam came to the country. There were Assyrians, Armenians, Chaldeans, Yazidis. But as a result of the Islamic Conquest in the 7th century AD, the majority was subsumed by a new people and a new dominant religion.
Moving forward, after commercial petroleum was discovered in Titusville Pennsylvania in 1859, oil became the most important commodity in the world. Here was have the second attraction—and it was a fatal attraction.
GNN: One the most memorable parts of your book is all the creative ways you describe how people in this region found to massacre each other.
Black: They had centuries of genocide, between Sunni and Shi’a, Mongol and Arabs, against Assyrians, Armenians. I have not found a generation going back 7,000 years that was not visited by extraordinary violence and vengeance. There has never been a destructive event so severe to convince people to stop victimizing their neighbors. The people of Iraq are experts at victimizing their perceived victimizers. We haven’t learned that yet.
Perhaps our biggest single mistake has been our attempt to remake that land in our image. These people do not want democracy. They are an intolerant people that oppresses half their community—women. Yes, since Iraq was invented in 1920, the western nations have attempted to create a pluralistic and democratic nation where one has never existed to have some ruler sign on the dotted line to legitimize their oil concessions and to create an atmosphere of democracy to promote the unimpeded flow of oil. I assure you, when the people of this region hear the word “democracy” they hear a code word for “you people want to take our oil.”
GNN: What was the Red Line agreement?
Black: The Red Line Agreement was the secret agreement between the U.S France and England to divide up Mideast oil. Because western oil companies had invented these countries, they weren’t even able to name the map marks, and so they simply a red line around a map of the larger Middle East, saying everything within this line shall be under our control. It became the biggest monopoly of all time. That map appears for first time in my book on the inside front cover.
Now to specifics. The Red Line Agreement was in truth the dissection and ingestion of the Turkish Petroleum Company, which was seized from German interests and surrogates. The four companies that took over were the Anglo Person Oil Company, now known as British Petroleum; British Shell, that is an anglicized and London-controllable Royal Dutch Shell; French CFP, which is now Total; and the U.S. designated an regulated cartel, the Near-East Development Corporation which was owned by Standard Oil and several other American companies.
The genesis of the Red Line Agreement and its aftermath constitute the saga of Europe and America’s involvement with Iraq and its consequence.
GNN: It’s amazing that people don’t know this history. They can still buy the WMD claims or that we’re there to liberate the Iraqi people.
Black: We don’t understand it. In the last century alone it was a huge history, going back 90 years. We are so focused on a single tree, and we can’t see the forest. Now we’re stuck in these woods and the thickets—it will be nearly impossible to extricate ourselves. It’s not taught. If I had to blame someone, I would blame the media. I’m just reminded of the Roman Empire, having our vicarious gladiator shows, and our cultural orgies, while the empire is crumbling. We are distracted. All empires fall when the people are distracted.
For 90 years, we’ve been using our best corporate surrogates, our best diplomats and best armies to retain our access to the oil. In 1917, the American Petroleum Institute told the Wilson administration that we have only forty more years of oil in the states and that we’d need to go to Iraq. In 1918, when the British seized the first two thirds of Iraq, the British General stood at the gates of Baghdad and said, “Our army has come not as conquerors but as liberators.” We haven’t even changed the vocabulary.
GNN: In our book True Lies, Stephen Marshall and I make a similar point about the true nature of the rationale for war, without, of course, the incredible historical detail you have in your book. We also raise the question of whether deep down inside Americans actually do know what it’s all about, but are in denial about it because they want to continue to live the lifestyle they are used to and they know controlling the oil is the key.
Black: Though now I think Americans are thirsting for this information. A lot of people are reading my book and listening to what I have to say because it’s coming from someone devoid of a political agenda in which I clarify the dim prospects for democracy in Iraq, and because I was also in favor of Saddam Hussein being removed from office.
Perhaps if we had gone in Monday and left on Thursday it would have been a different story. But we stayed.
If only there was a Polish person in the White House to give advice. The Russians liberated Poland from the most heinous monsters in history, but became the most hated people in Poland’s history because they stayed.