In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2002-2003, oil was seldom mentioned. Yes, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz did describe the country as afloat "on a sea of oil" (which might fund any American war and reconstruction program there); and, yes, on rare occasions, the President did speak reverentially of preserving "the patrimony of the people of Iraq" — by which he meant not cuneiform tablets or ancient statues in the National Museum in Baghdad, but the country’s vast oil reserves, known and suspected. And yes, oil did make it prominently onto the signs of war protestors at home and abroad.

Everybody who was anybody in Washington and the media, not to speak of the punditocracy and think-tank-ocracy of our nation knew, however, that those bobbing signs among the millions of antiwar demonstrators that said "No Blood for Oil" were just so simplistic, if not utterly simpleminded. Oil news, as was only proper, was generally relegated to the business pages of our papers, or even more properly — since it was at best but one modest factor among so very many in Bush administration calculations — roundly ignored. Admittedly, the first "reconstruction" contract the administration issued was to Halliburton to rescue that country’s "patrimony," its oil fields, from potential self-destruction during the invasion, and the key instructions — possibly just about the only instructions — issued to U.S. troops after taking Baghdad were to guard the Oil Ministry. Then again, everyone knew this crew had their idiosyncrasies.

Ever since, oil has played a remarkably small part in the consideration of, coverage of, or retrospective assessments of the invasion, occupation, and war in Iraq (unless you lived on the Internet). To give but a single example, the index to Thomas E. Ricks’ almost 500-page bestseller, Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, has but a single relevant entry: "oil exports and postwar reconstruction, Wolfowitz on, 98." Yet today, every leading politician of either party is strangely convinced that the key "benchmark" the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki must pass to prove its mettle is the onerous oil law, now stalled in Parliament, that has been forced upon it by the Bush administration.

Recently, regular Michael Schwartz followed the oil slicks deep into the Gulf of Catastrophe in Iraq. Offering a sweeping view of the role oil, the prize of prizes in Iraq, has played in Bush administration considerations since 2001, he concludes on the Mother of All Benchmarks: "Like so many American initiatives in Iraq, the oil law, even if passed, might never be worth more than the paper it will be printed on. The likelihood that any future Iraqi government which takes on a nationalist mantel will consider such an agreement in any way binding is nil. One day in perhaps the not so distant future, that ‘law,’ even if briefly the law of the land, is likely to find itself in the dustbin of history, along with Saddam’s various oil deals. As a result, the Bush administration’s ‘capture of new and existing oil and gas fields’ is likely to end as a predictable fiasco."