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Return of Rall: Oil conspiracy redux

By Bryan Keefer(bryan@spinsanity.org)
April 12, 2002

Ted Rall knows something you and I don't: the war in Afghanistan is all about oil, not terrorism. At least, that's what he tries to argue in his latest column, written in response to a critique of a previous piece by my co-editor Brendan Nyhan. As one of the most elaborate and prominent expositions of the war-for-oil theory, which has been repeated by some liberal pundits, Rall's conspiracy theory is worth a detailed look. Not surprisingly, his argument breaks down under scrutiny into little more than a few wisps of circumstantial evidence held together by anti-Bush vitriol and emotionally charged rhetoric.

Rall first began arguing that military action in Afghanistan was about oil rather than terrorism in a syndicated column published in October. Examining the oil politics of Central Asia, he took note of American oil giant Unocal's mid-1990s plan to build a pipeline through Afghanistan to transport the large oil reserves of land-locked Kazakhstan (and other newly-independent Soviet republics) to the Pakistani port of Karachi. The Clinton administration's decision to harden its line against the Taliban in 1998 (in the wake of the terrorist attacks of that year) prompted Unocal to abandon the plan as politically impossible.

Rall suggested that the September 11 attacks provided a pretext to bomb Afghanistan in order to get the Unocal deal back on track, claiming that "[f]inally the Bushies have the perfect excuse to do what the U.S. has wanted all along-invade and/or install an old-school puppet regime in Kabul."

Nyhan noted that there had been little consideration of the politics of oil in Central Asia, but also thoroughly debunked Rall's conspiracy theory. He demonstrated how Rall had misread the recent history of Afghanistan according to his own source, as well as numerous other factual errors. Most importantly, Nyhan argued that Rall trivialized the importance of the publicly-declared motivations of the Bush administration for the actions in Afghanistan: going after Osama bin Laden, his network, and the regime that was sheltering both.

Rall's newest column attempts to refute Nyhan and shore up his earlier theory. In it, he claims his argument is supported by "three painfully obvious truths": That the Bush administration was planning to attack Afghanistan even before September 11; that the war on terror really isn't a war on terror at all; and that the White House doesn't care about the victims of the terrorist tragedies. Each is built on faulty logic and distorted evidence.

As proof that the Bush administration intended to attack Afghanistan even before September 11, Rall provides exactly no evidence - perhaps he thinks the claim is so "painfully obvious" that it needs no justification. Regardless, it is likely that his source is Bin Laden: The Forbidden Truth, a French book published a month after the terrorist attacks by two investigative journalists. Currently not available in translation, the book charges in part (as summarized by United Press International) that the Bush administration was negotiating with the Taliban over the proposed pipeline last year, and threatened to use force against it to push the project through. The authors claim their source for this information was former FBI agent John O'Neill, who was killed in the September 11 attacks in New York City. A spokesman for the National Security Council, however, flatly denied the report, saying "There's just absolutely nothing to it; it's just not correct," and the State Department has also denied that such negotiations took place. Moreover, the truth of the claim is irrelevant: even if the administration threatened the Taliban before September 11 over oil interests, it does not necessarily follow that those same interests motivated military action after September 11.

His next contention is that "the ersatz 'war on terror' has little to do with reducing, much less preventing, terrorist acts by Islamic extremists." Rall suggests that the White House should have "targeted groups in the countries that carried out the 9-11 attacks - Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan." While it is true that the US could have targeted those countries, its decision to bomb Afghanistan instead - which evidence suggested was harboring bin Laden - does not prove that the war is not about terrorism.

He continues with the suggestion that "Ninety-nine percent of the estimated 5,000 to 15,000 Afghans killed by US bombs had absolutely nothing to do with 9-11. That's an atrocity, it's even worse than 9-11, and Arabs know it." Once again, Rall fails to source his claims, which don't stand up to close scrutiny. The Associated Press estimated in February that the campaign had directly caused the deaths of 500 to 600 civilians based on hospital records, interviews, and examinations of bomb sites. Even University of New Hampshire economist Marc Herald, who has been criticized for duplicate sourcing of the casualties, estimated only between 3,100 and 3,800 civilian deaths caused by US forces. None of this, of course, minimizes the tragedy of such deaths. Yet neither do civilian casualty estimates support the claim that the war on terrorism is about oil. This is simply an inflammatory attempt to rile readers' emotions in support of Rall's outlandish theory.

Rall's final contention is that the Bush administration does not care about the victims of September 11, their families, or about women in Afghanistan. Rall notes that "for the first seven and a half months of his presidency, Bush never issued a single statement criticizing the Taliban's treatment of women." Once again, this is irrelevant -- such a lack of direct criticism from Bush does not necessarily contradict the administration's stated motive of going after terrorism by attacking the Taliban. Nor does this have anything to do with oil. It's simply a way of appealing to readers' preconceptions of Bush as hostile to women in order to score emotional points.

Attempting to prove that the White House doesn't care about the victims of 9-11, Rall claims that "the Bushies rushed through legislation depriving survivors of their right to sue the government or airlines. When push came to shove, Bush sold out the victims for a few millionare airline CEOs." Once again, he's just making things up. The airline bailout package included a provision that a person must surrender their right to sue the airlines in order to receive survivor's benefits from the federal government - otherwise they are free to do so, as several already have. Moreover, the financial bailout of the airline industry proves nothing about Bush's motives in the bombings - it's just another example of how Rall's theory is built on circumstantial evidence twisted into inflammatory emotional appeals.

Rall closes his column with a chronology of negotiations that may revive the pipeline project. He writes, "Unocal-related discussions began while the bombs were still falling last October and picked up steam after Bush appointed an ex-Unocal consultant, Zalmay Khalilzad, as his special envoy to Afghanistan." Here he is intentionally confusing one result of the bombings (discussions of reviving the pipeline project) with the purpose of the bombings. By such logic, any outcome - intentional or not - becomes the reason for the military actions: the rise in Bush's approval rating, the resumption of opium production or the pipeline project all become equally valid causes. Rall, as he does throughout his column, fails to give us any reason other than our preconceptions about Bush to believe his elaborate theories.

Like all good conspiracy theories, Rall's is impossible to prove or disprove without access to information that is not available - in this case, internal deliberations or even thoughts in Bush's mind. However, there is a tremendous amount of evidence that the war in Afghanistan is overwhelmingly motivated by a desire to fight terrorism, and only secondarily about other issues such as oil. Rall's flimsy evidence and cheap debating tactics all suggest his conspiracy theory is just that - a theory, and nothing more.

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