by Andrew Gumbel
The last time the United States went to war against Iraq, Dick Cheney did very nicely from it.
Having served as Defence Secretary, and basked in the reflected glory of the US military's surprisingly rapid advance across the desert sands to end the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, he then managed to reap benefits of a very different kind once the war was over and he left government to become chief executive of Halliburton, the Texas-based oil services company.
When the United Nations relaxed its sanctions regime in 1998 and permitted Iraq to buy spare parts for its oil fields, it was Halliburton, under Mr Cheney's leadership, that cleaned up on the contract to repair war damage and get Saddam Hussein's oil pipes flowing at full capacity again. Two Halliburton subsidiaries did business worth almost $24m (£15m) with the man whom these days Mr Cheney calls a "murderous dictator" and "the world's worst leader".
Since taking over as George Bush's vice-president, Mr Cheney has severed all formal ties with his former employer, notably when he cashed in $36m in stock options and other benefits at the height of the market in August 2000. But Halliburton - currently struggling with a corporate accounting scandal that may or may not implicate Mr Cheney - could profit all over again if the much-threatened new war against Iraq comes to pass.
We can certainly expect more air strikes against the oil fields, possibly combined with a ground invasion. Then, when it is all over, someone is going to have to mop up the damage once again. Halliburton, with its previous experience and unparalleled political connections (not limited to Mr Cheney), would be in pole position for the job.
Nobody could justifiably accuse the Bush administration of wanting to wage war on Iraq solely as a favour to its friends in the oil business and the military-industrial complex. But many of the companies that stand to gain most from a war enjoy remarkably close ties to senior figures in the administration. And some of the President's closest confidants have shown extraordinary elasticity down the years in their attitudes to President Saddam, America's on-again, off-again public enemy number one.
Mr Cheney, who has gone from warmonger to dealmaker and back to warmonger, is just one example. Donald Rumsfeld, the current Defence Secretary, has repeatedly raised the spectre of Iraq's arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. But in 1983, when Mr Rumsfeld was President Reagan's special envoy to Iraq, he turned a blind eye to Iraqi use of nerve and mustard gas in its war with Iran, concentrating instead on forging a personal relationship with the Iraqi leader, then considered a valuable US ally.
Mr Rumsfeld was actually in Baghdad on the day the United Nations first reported Iraqi use of chemical weapons, but chose to remain silent, as did the rest of the US establishment. Five years later, he cited his ability to make friends with Saddam Hussein as one of his qualifications for a possible run at the presidency.
This Bush administration has been much more upfront about the role of oil in its deliberations on Iraq than the last Bush administration. That is partly a matter of circumstance: since the 11 September attacks, the stability of Middle Eastern oil states has been a big policy consideration. But it also reflects the fact that much of the Bush inner circle, including the President himself, is made up of former oilmen. The oil and gas industry has pumped about $50m to political candidates since the 2000 election.
There are also uncomfortably cosy ties between the government and the defence industry. Mr Rumsfeld's oldest friend, Frank Carlucci, a former defence secretary himself, now heads the Carlyle Group, an investment consortium which has a big interest in the contracting firm United Defense.
Carlyle's board includes George Bush Sr and James Baker, the former secretary of state. One programme alone - the Crusader artillery system - has earned Carlyle more than $2bn in advance government contracts. Carlyle's European chairman is John Major, who may have played a role in the Ministry of Defence's controversial recent decision to declare Carlyle the "preferred bidder" for a stake in its scientific research division.
None of these links is illegal, but that does not mean there is no conflict of interest. Messrs Bush, Cheney and friends have either sold their stock holdings or put them in a blind trust, meaning personal gain is off the agenda. But gain for their friends and family may well be a by-product of the looming war against Iraq.