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The Nation | A Nation Waits

War Debated in the Heart of Bush Country

Editor's Note: This is one in an occasional series of columns from across America as it prepares for a possible war in Iraq.

November 24, 2002|PETER H. KING

MIDLAND, Texas — As they do most days, the oilmen met in the Petroleum Club for coffee at 9:30 a.m. -- not exactly dawn's earliest light, but then, as the official from the Permian Basin Petroleum Assn. put it, "These aren't the guys who get their boots muddy. These are the guys who pay the guys who get their boots muddy."

Eight or nine of these heavy hitters -- producers, drilling contractors, consultants -- were seated around an octagonal poker table in the private club. Most wore windbreakers, slacks and no neckties. Two sported cowboy boots. One chewed an unlit cigar.

"They'll tell you more than they know about anything," Morris Burns, executive vice president of the association, said with a chuckle as he led the way to the table.

The daily conversation, it was explained to a visitor, tends to be freewheeling, with topics bouncing from football coaches to school board politics to memories of old Texas, from the weather (dry) to the Permian Basin oil business (slow).

But on this morning -- after first making it clear they didn't want their names in the newspaper, no sir -- the assembled agreed to address the possible war with Iraq. Since the most cynical critics contend that the war, if it comes, will be waged more than anything for oil, it seemed sensible to see what the sages of the Texas oil patch made of the situation.

Burns had predicted unqualified support. "I think you'll find there's a pretty strong consensus around here that it has to happen," he said on the short walk over to the club, in a squat, sand-colored building on the edge of downtown.

Midland, after all, is Bush country, the place where the president spent a good chunk of his boyhood, where he cut his teeth in the oil business. This wood-paneled sanctuary had been one of his hangouts. The fellows at this green felt table all knew Bush in one way or another.

Given all this, the conversation took a surprising turn right out of the gate. Across the table sat a balding bear of a man, arms folded over his chest. He was the first to speak. It seemed, he said, "that we might ultimately have to go." But he had doubts.

"What bothers me," he said, speaking slowly with a West Texas twang, "is that it's a never-ending situation in the Middle East. It's kind of like stirring up those damn fire ants. They go underground for a while and then they come back and eat you up.

"And I've got a lot of mixed feelings about where we might be at the end of it. Who will be next after Iraq? How much will it cost to rebuild the country? And how will we pay for that?"

So Bush hadn't made the case?

"As far as I'm concerned, the case has not been made. It's probably been made to the people in charge. I don't know all what they know. I can only go by what's on the table."

A silver-haired man in an Indian print sweater cleared his throat. He'd served in Korea -- "they called it a 'police action,' but it seemed like a war to me" -- and a half-century later, he pointed out, U.S. troops remain there, enforcing the peace.

"I'd just hate to suck up a lot of young people," he said, "send them into something where we're not sure what's at the end of it."

Before anyone began singing "Kumbaya," however, others jumped into the fray. They spoke of weapons of mass destruction -- "the bad stuff," one called it -- and a rogue leader willing to "gas his own people," and the implications of Sept. 11.

"I think the administration knows exactly what it's doing," said a slight, older gentleman in a bright red windbreaker. "It's a dangerous situation. And if we don't do something now, we are going to suffer the consequences later."

"We are dealing with a blooming idiot," said another, "and he is not going to go away on his own."

They seemed to regard the late diplomatic moves, the advent of inspections and so forth, as prelude to the inevitable: "We are going to take him out," one said grimly, "one way or another."

Hope was expressed that the conflict might not be all that big and bloody. Hadn't a few well-aimed missiles done the trick with [Libya's Moammar] Kadafi back in 1986? At the same time, Burns said, it's tough fighting people who are more than willing to die for their beliefs.

"It's kind of like trying to buy location from somebody who doesn't need any money," the man in the sweater agreed. "It takes away all your arguments."

As for what war might mean for their business, the consensus was expressed by the man chewing the cigar: "Probably not much." The Permian Basin, which produces about 70% of the oil flow from Texas, is considered a "mature" region, meaning it costs more and more to coax oil out of the ground. A consultant at the table said a client just spent $27 million exploring the basin, "and he didn't get enough oil to grease a shotgun."

If a conflict started in Iraq, prices might climb a bit at first, but these oilmen weren't expecting any long-term windfalls.

Yet, should the war engulf the entire Middle East region ...

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