Why Syriana Is Frighteningly Close to the Truth





Mr. Briley is Assistant Headmaster, Sandia Preparatory School.

Banner ad for History Posters. History Posters. click to see 400+ selections.

The Bush administration is in the midst of a major Christmas (to use the language insisted upon by the administration’s Fox media news outlet) offensive against critics of the President’s foreign policy. Vice-President Cheney visited both Iraq and Afghanistan, while the President in a series of addresses defended the war in Iraq and his authorization of National Security Agency spying upon American citizens. The President’s poll numbers have risen slightly, leading some observers to believe that his use of the “bully pulpit” is winning over the American people and gaining popular support for the war. On the other hand, a more likely explanation for an improvement in the Bush approval ratings is the reduction in gasoline prices which make holiday traveling easier for Americans. A majority of Americans now believe the invasion of Iraq was a mistake, but the public appears as confused as the Democrats in Congress regarding a clear exit strategy. In a similar fashion, Americans appear to have few alternatives to our dependence upon oil and the automobile. Seeking to link support for the troops and expanding oil reserves, Republicans in Congress have attached a provision for drilling in the Artic wilderness preserve to military appropriations.

Our dependence upon foreign oil, especially in the Middle East and the Eurasian nations of the former Soviet Union, is the focus of the holiday Hollywood film release Syriana. This film which takes a somewhat radical approach to the politics of oil should not be construed as proof that the film industry is some type of left wing cabal, despite some hand wringing among the religious right regarding the male lovers of Brokeback Mountain. The holiday season’s major releases primarily focus upon family comedies and biographical pictures of individuals triumphing over adversity, while the current box office champion remains a giant ape from the 1930s.

Syriana is directed and written by Stephen Gaghan, who won an Oscar for his Traffic screenplay; a film suggesting that the American consumption of illegal drugs contributes to the instability of the Mexican government and economy. In Syriana, Gaghan argues that the American appetite for oil is responsible for the political discontent in the Middle East and fueling terrorism. Although loosely based upon the memoir See No Evil by CIA operative Robert Baer in Beirut, Gaghan focuses his critique well beyond the shadowy manipulations of American corporate and governmental figures.

At first glance the film comes off as a somewhat traditional leftist condemnation of capitalism and the relationship between big oil and politics. The oil companies Connex and Killen are merging due to the fact that Killen signed a deal to exploit the oil fields of Kazakhstan, while a Gulf state approved an oil agreement with China and expelled Killen. To reassert the American oil presence in the Middle East, there is a CIA-authorized assassination of the emir’s eldest son who is opposed to concessions for the American companies and wants to use oil revenues for the benefit of his people. In addition, there is concern in Congress regarding the record profits earned by the Connex-Killen merger. In the final analysis, the merger is approved, although a few executives are scapegoats and sentenced to relatively short jail terms for antitrust violations.

A scary byproduct of this maneuvering is corporate support for a shadowy group known as the Committee for the Liberation of Iran. This smacks of the Neo-Conservative intervention in Iraq and the assumption that the people are awaiting American liberation. The reality of the situation in Iraq is that Bush’s invasion provided a base in Iraq for Al Qaeda where no such support existed prior to the administration’s intervention. The Sunni insurgency cannot really win unless there is a widening of the conflict, for they only constitute 20 percent of the population in Iraq. On the other hand, the current Shiite government in Iraq may reflect the majority will, but democracy is often difficult to control (consider the decision to cancel Vietnamese elections in 1956 due to fears of an electoral victory by the communists and Ho Chi Minh). Participation in the Iraqi electoral process may be viewed as a means through which to drive the invading Americans from the country. And a Shiite government in Baghdad is the goal Iran failed to achieve in the bloody 1980s conflict between Iran and the United States-backed regime of Saddam Hussein. Of course, the “liberation” of Iran might be the means to prevent an anti-American alliance between Iran and Iraq. Such a course of action would, nevertheless, risk a broader Middle Eastern conflict and swell the ranks of terrorism.

This is the world with which we are left in Syriana. Unfortunately, the film’s scenario has some horrifying parallels with Middle Eastern politics. The film suggests a radical answer to the question of why oil mergers and profits are allowed to happen, along with Middle Eastern interventions which enhance recruitment for Al Qaeda. It is not simply the greed of oil company executives and their allies in the government. It is because this is what affluent American consumers want—cheaper oil and continuing dependence upon the automobile. The government and oil executives in Syriana remain in power because they cater to the desire of consumers for lower oil prices. Meanwhile, despite growing discontent with the war in Iraq, Brush’s approval numbers improve with declining oil prices. In his epic work The Prize, Daniel Yergin well documents the role played by oil in World Wars I and II along with the Cold War. Unless, we can shake our dependence on oil and produce leaders who are willing to challenge some of our fundamental assumptions, we may reap the whirlwind in the twenty-first century.


comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:


Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007


1. There are more efficient ways of defending American skyscrapers against suicider-hijacked planes than invading and blowing Fallujah every six months or so at a cost of billions. Putting sky marshalls on planes with the minimal ability to distinguish terrorists from manic depressives who forget to take their pills, for example.

2. It is hard to get inside the mind of an Al Qaeda leader. But it is also hard to see how, from such a vantage point, fighting Americans in Iraqi alongside growing numbers of angry people whose families were blown up by Americans is somewhat a setback from hiding in caves in the rugged mountains of Northwest Pakistan.

P.S. I have not seen the movie. But still hope to. With my usual very low expectations for historical accuracy.


Patrick M. Ebbitt - 9/25/2006

Mr. Briley,

You offer no new content. Mostly a rehash of common knowledge and talking points mixed within the context of a movie review that could have been culled from Roger Ebert's website.

Moving through the essay a reader in great anticipation for a payoff of reasonable solutions and suggestions on averting possible Armageddon between the US, Israel and Iran was left hanging with...

"Unless, we can shake our dependence on oil and produce leaders who are willing to challenge some of our fundamental assumptions, we may reap the whirlwind in the twenty-first century."

Not being an English major is this even a complete sentence? Is Toto able to predict if it will be a good whirlwind or bad whirlwind? Tell me why I should send my kids to Sandia Preparatory School?

President Brush 'er a Bush, is an oil man owned and indebted to oil men as are many in Congress. We live in a world were almost everything is made of; or from; or processed with petroleum or petroleum based products... plastics, fabrics, coatings, adhesives, roofing, films, food, pharmaceuticals... not just gasoline for automobiles. There are geopolitical pressures far beyond oil... religious/tribal/political, land control/use/attainment, historical relations/issues... To simply attribute all ills to oil and America's craving for cheap petrol is so thoroughly flawed as to be more sad than laughable especially, when American's have proved willing to pay more at the pump with limited complaint.

Watching a Hollywood movie, that may or may not mirror current events, then spinning it off as basis to a premise of an essay more suited for Entertainment Weekly does not serve readers at HNN with the information and discussion topics many seek.


William J. Stepp - 12/30/2005

Oil executives are no more greedy than the owner of your corner dry cleaner. In fact, the oil industry's
long-run profitability is quite middling, when all industries are ranked together.
Exxon's return on invested capital the last four years (during an oil bull market) has averaged about 13%, roughly half of Microsoft's.
There are at least 500 publicly-owned companies with returns on capital higher than Exxon's, only a handful of which are oil firms.

Exxon is currently undergoing difficult negotiations with the Venezuelan government, which is seeking to increase the royalties it extracts from Exxon's production.
(Note the word "extracts"--it does nothing to actually earn money from Exxon's production, and doesn't invest in Exxon's capital projects. For the Chavez junta, it's all gravy, with no risk, which is shouldered exclusively by Exxon's shareholders.)

As for the affluent American consumers, who want cheaper oil and "dependency" on automobiles,
the poor benefit even more from cheaper oil, as their standard of living is greatly enhanced by firms such as Wal-Mart, which runs a big logistics and supply chain operation. This business, and thousands like it, require transportation of goods via trucks, trains, planes, and ships. Transportation, which accounts for 10-12% of U.S. GDP, requires fuel to operate, which is a derivative of oil.

Syrianna is just another left-wing Hollywood screed that's devoid of any real understanding of economics or business, and the real risks that capitalists undertake everyday to deliver the goods that improve the lives of everyone, not just the affluent.
















Bill Holzapfel - 12/29/2005

Mr. Thomas:

What we know about the inner workings of the Cheney task force is not from George Soros but rather from Freedom of Information Act requests from Judicial Watch, a decidedly right-wing group. Assuming that everyone on my side of the aisle takes their orders from Hollywood elites certainly lets you off the hook for dealing with the substance of our arguments.

The planning that was done leading up to the war was summarily ignored by Rumsfeld et. al, a fact that has been well documented by James Fallows in the Atlantic Monthly, David Phillips' Losing Iraq (he was a senior advisor to the State Department, not some leftie malcontent) to name a few. It's clear that they had no conception of the ethnic divisions they were about to unleash (remember Paul Wolfowitz testifying that there was no history of ethnic conflict in Iraq?!!) The fact that they didn't have enough troops on the ground to stabilize the country makes it clear that whatever plan there was, it was almost criminally faulty.

Where does your basis for believing that the Saudis are there in large numbers come from? Our own Pentagon officials put the number of foreigners at between 5 - 10 % of the insurgents. I'm not sure what you mean by your assertion that the Sunnis aren't good soldiers. Many of the people we are fighting against are former Iraqi military, people who might be helping us keep the peace right now if they hadn't been summarily dismissed by the CPA without pay or pension (and before being disarmed, mind you!)Besides, how skilled do you need to be to set off a roadside bomb? You really think they need outsiders to teach them how to make an IED?


Frederick Thomas - 12/28/2005


Mr. Holzapfel:

Thanks again. A few comments, in sequence:

1. If Cheney's meetings were secret, how do you know what maps they went over? Actually, that kind of Soros-Tinseltown thought is what I find most objectionable in the article.

2. Military planning was done about as perfactly for Iraq as is possible, including thoughts on an interim leader. No one thought that Chalaby would part the waters for Iraqis and they would follow him. That is a very unrealistic assertion.

3. I believe that the foreigners (mainly Saudis) are there, and their only remaining field officer is running the show. That would surely not be the case if they were not the bulk of the effort. As you see, the Sunnis were not very skilled at soldiering, and tha Al Q'aida people are much better trained. Based upon Sunni turnout, it does not look to me as if they are against their new government. Al Q'aida is against it.

Happy New Year. Good discussing this with you!


Bill Holzapfel - 12/28/2005

I appreciate your thoughtful comments as well, but must take issue with a few point:

1. I'll agree that any notion that the invasion of Iraq was done strictly at the behest of big oil is farfetched. But access to oil has to be seen as part of the rationale lurking in the background. If it wasn't then how do you account for Vice President Cheney's secretive energy task force poring over maps of Iraqi oil fields months before 9/11 gave them a rationale for invasion? It's no secret that relations between Washington and Riyadh have soured and many in the industry want to find a more stable friend in that part of the world.

2. Why would they want to spend $ 300 billion? They didn't think they would have to. The people who got us into this mess were so convinced by the dubious Mr. Chalabi that we'd be welcomed with sweets and flowers that they assumed that we could have a friendly regime in Baghdad at very little cost. As for it being cheaper to buy it on the open market, our oil companies are desperate to get new sources before the Chinese cut even more deals to get them in order to meet their staggering demand (a point which Syriana ably points out.) Increasingly, our motivations in that part of the world are as much strategic as they are purely economic.

3. The notion that terrorists are in Iraq "in spades" is questionable. Only a small percentage of the insurgency are foreign jihadists descending on Iraq. I also think that it's tough to say that we're "dealing with them decisively" in Iraq when the very tactics we use inspires more animosity. To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld's memo of October 2003, are they creating terrorists faster than we're able to kill them?


Bill Holzapfel - 12/28/2005

I appreciate your thoughtful comments as well, but must take issue with a few point:

1. I'll agree that any notion that the invasion of Iraq was done strictly at the behest of big oil is farfetched. But access to oil has to be seen as part of the rationale lurking in the background. If it wasn't then how do you account for Vice President Cheney's secretive energy task force poring over maps of Iraqi oil fields months before 9/11 gave them a rationale for invasion? It's no secret that relations between Washington and Riyadh have soured and many in the industry want to find a more stable friend in that part of the world.

2. Why would they want to spend $ 300 billion? They didn't think they would have to. The people who got us into this mess were so convinced by the dubious Mr. Chalabi that we'd be welcomed with sweets and flowers that they assumed that we could have a friendly regime in Baghdad at very little cost. As for it being cheaper to buy it on the open market, our oil companies are desperate to get new sources before the Chinese cut even more deals to get them in order to meet their staggering demand (a point which Syriana ably points out.) Increasingly, our motivations in that part of the world are as much strategic as they are purely economic.

3. The notion that terrorists are in Iraq "in spades" is questionable. Only a small percentage of the insurgency are foreign jihadists descending on Iraq. I also think that it's tough to say that we're "dealing with them decisively" in Iraq when the very tactics we use inspires more animosity. To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld's memo of October 2003, are they creating terrorists faster than we're able to kill them?


Frederick Thomas - 12/28/2005


..deserve a response.

My problems with this article do not alone concern the hushed whisper with which the author describes the "evil corporations" skulking behind the scenes, controlling everyone, etc.

Rather I am concerned that impressionable students are listening to someone whose limited education and experience allows him to think that way.

Not that some corporations were not a secondary factor in Vietnam, the Civil War, etc., but there was absolutely no reason they would want to spend 300 billion to get Iraqi oil. All they had to do was to buy it on the world market for far less. They are businesspeople, and do things that make sense economically.

Then there is this one, right out of George Soros' propaganda guide:

"The reality of the situation in Iraq is that Bush’s invasion provided a base in Iraq for Al Qaeda where no such support existed prior to the administration’s intervention."

The point is more that they are indeed there now, in spades, gathered from the four corners, where they can be dealt with decisively, and not in New York, flying into buildings.


Bill Holzapfel - 12/28/2005

...who found this film quite thought provoking. As for why it made only 30 million, surely you're not suggesting that we look to box office grosses to gauge the worthiness of a film. If so, our culture is in deep trouble.

As for historical accuracy, I think Syriana was meant to be fiction based clearly plausible reality. All one needs to do is look at the history of our involvement in the region (the overthrow of Mossadegh, the coddling of House of Saud) to see that America's consumption of oil has led us to do some unsavory things, ones which could easily be avoided if we were to alter our lifestyle. As someone who would not like to see his children sent there as soldiers someday, I vote we do what we can to lessen our dependence on this part of the world.


Frederick Thomas - 12/27/2005


...determines the quality and value of one's opinions. In this case the Headmaster goes to Hollywood for his historical perspective, a remarkable admission of shallowness and ahistoricity.

Mr. Headmaster, I suggest that you continue keeping your head in Das Kapital or in front of the boob tube. It simply makes it easier for the those involved in real life to get done what they must.

By the way, it is no surprise that this doggie movie with its miserable 30 million box office was such an unprofitable flop. It may be that you are the only one who liked it.