Christopher Meyer

Show us the money

Was our involvement in Libya all about the oil? It should have been

In 2002, a few months before the invasion of Iraq, I was invited to speak at the James Baker III Institute for Public Policy in Houston, Texas. I had a meeting with Baker, one of America’s best post-1945 secretaries of state, who served under his friend George H.W. Bush. Together, they drove Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait in 1991.

Jim Baker is an unsentimental politician from the realist school of American foreign policy. Like most of Bush Snr’s entourage, he clearly had doubts about invading Iraq. He recalled Douglas Hurd, then foreign secretary, complaining after the liberation of Kuwait that Britain was not getting a fair share of the reconstruction contracts. They had been hogged by American companies. I could bear witness to this. In 1991, I was at our embassy in Washington, on the commercial side. One of my jobs was to go to the Kuwait reconstruction office in downtown DC to press for contracts to be given to British companies. It was a thankless task: I felt more like a mendicant than the representative of the second most important military power in a war which had freed Kuwait.

Baker gave me some advice. If there were another war against Saddam, reconstruction and oil contracts would follow. ‘Douglas left it too late. Get in there now,’ he urged. ‘Don’t wait until the war is over and then ask politely for contracts. Go straight to the top in the White House and insist on a fair share of the business.’ I reported this to Downing Street and the Foreign Office, adding my own urgings. I do not recall to what extent, if at all, Blair’s government acted on my report.

Today, the coalition, especially its Tory component, has made a great song and dance about giving British diplomacy a much more commercial focus, with the emphasis on the promotion of trade and investment.

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