If there is to be a US-led conquest of Iraq, the American public and the world are entitled to know why. Unable to demonstrate that Iraq’s putative weapons of mass destruction pose a “mortal threat” to the United States or to provide evidence implicating Iraq in the September 11 attacks by al-Qaeda, the administration and members of Congress recite the litany of Saddam Hussein’s many crimes as if the world’s greatest military power has no grand strategy, national interests or economic agenda of its own, but only reacts haphazardly to the misdeeds of rogues and pirates.

George W. Bush disappoints even his own neo-conservative base when he spouts platitudes about good and evil instead of addressing the national interest, and he insults Americans by telling them to live in “fear” of a half-occupied, third-rate tyrant. A more honest explanation would point out that Iraq’s size, location, water resources, scientific community and potential for Arab regional leadership, in addition to its oil and its current despotism, make it the ideal place for a long-sought, permanent military installation in the Middle East.

Off-camera but online, the Defense Department, the National Security Council (NSC), the Department of Energy and the White House itself lay out a much more internally coherent, if less media-friendly, case for war. These documents reveal that “regime change” in Iraq is part of a long-term strategy for military dominance of not only the Persian Gulf but the entire arc of crisis stretching from South Asia across Iran and the Arab East to the Horn of Africa.

There is little secrecy or subtlety to the American quest for “forward deployment” centered around the world’s major petroleum deposits. The Carter Doctrine first committed US military prowess to the “protection” of the Persian Gulf. Yet as unabashedly rearticulated by the Bush-Cheney administration, this doctrine has become a prospectus for permanent global military supremacy, starting with pacification of the zone of disquiet known to official Washington as the Central Command.

Since CENTCOM’s creation in the 1970s, acquisition of a regional base from which to police oilfields and key transport lanes has been a major strategic goal. Currently based in Tampa, Florida, CENTCOM operates in its “home” theater only at the whim of the Arab monarchs of the Persian Gulf. But only Saudi Arabia is large enough for a full-scale American base, and Saudi domestic opposition to such an arrangement runs wide and deep. Kuwait and the other tiny, oil-rich emirates share Saudi trepidation about a substantial foreign force on their sands. Occupying Iraq would provide an insurance policy against instability in the petro-princedoms, securing US access to regional resources and markets.

Many people suspect that, if Iraq did not have oil, its weapons of mass destruction program would be of less concern to the White House. Every year, the US uses a quarter of the oil burned worldwide. Having rebounded from a crisis-induced effort at conservation in the late 1970s, US reliance on imported oil is projected to grow for the next 25 to 50 years. Department of Energy reports emphasize the crucial role Saudi Arabia plays in stabilizing oil prices, while the Defense Department acknowledges US dedication to the Kingdom’s own political stability. It was Iraq’s invasion of another pro-American oil monarchy, Kuwait, and its threat to Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf states, that prompted Desert Storm in 1991, the first US war against Iraq.

But it is not only “our oil” that concerns Washington as it stumps for Desert Storm II. The US imports just over half its energy needs, and about half those imports come from the Western Hemisphere (especially Canada, Mexico and Venezuela). A bit less than one quarter of American oil imports come from the Persian Gulf. Estimates of total US energy needs met from the Middle East (especially Saudi Arabia but also Iraq) are in the 12 to 19 percent range. In a short-term emergency, Gulf oil could be replaced from American strategic reserves and alternative foreign and domestic sources. Prices might rise, but gas and heating oil would not run out. Contrast this relative “energy security” with Europe, which gets a third of its imports and over 20 percent of total consumption from the Gulf, and nearly as much again from African nations including Libya and Algeria. Some 30 to 40 percent of the oil consumed in Europe comes from the Middle East. Japan, totally reliant on imported oil, buys some three quarters of all the petroleum it consumes from the Gulf. Western Europe and Japan each import over twice as many barrels of oil each day from the Gulf than the US. As the authors of the National Energy Strategy report, published in May 2001, observed, “US energy and economic security are directly linked not only to our domestic and international energy supplies, but to those of our trading partners as well. A significant disruption in world oil supplies could adversely affect our economy and our ability to promote key foreign and economic policy objectives.”

Nor are interests in the flow of oil limited to the concerns of America’s best trading partners. The Defense and Energy Departments and the NSC are also “attentive to the possible renewal of old patterns of great power competition,” especially from Russia, India and China. Russia is a net exporter, so there the US aims to secure for American oil firms a share of the action. China, which has moved from being a net oil exporter to an importer in the past decade and whose consumption is predicted by Department of Energy analysts to rise as much as eightfold in the next 20 years, buys two thirds of its imports in the Gulf. Caspian Sea suppliers will not make much of a dent in this dependency. Demand is also accelerating in India and some other Asian industrializers. Strategic planners have noted that China, India and other Asian countries are less likely than OECD countries to back American policies in the Middle East generally, especially if their energy lifeblood is at stake. Looking into the future, therefore, strategists see a potential challenge to US hegemony over world oil. From the point of view of grand military planning of the sort that won World War II and the Cold War, the positioning of forces in the oil heartland and along critical sea routes is a no-brainer. The capacity to deprive a potential military rival of fuel for its war machine is one crucial element of what Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz calls “area denial or anti-access strategies.”

“To contend with uncertainty and to meet the many security challenges we face,” Bush told a joint session of Congress on September 20, 2001, “the United States will require bases and stations within and beyond Western Europe and Northeast Asia.” The themes of this speech are reiterated in the goals elaborated by the NSC, which call for American “defense beyond challenge” to “dissuade future military competition; deter threats against US interests, allies and friends; and decisively defeat any adversary if deterrence fails.” The same set of documents stresses “forward military presence” and “access to distant theaters.” The end of Cold War era deterrence requires the expansion, not contraction, of US military capabilities, according to Joint Vision 2020: America’s Military Preparing for Tomorrow. The report is blunt: “The overarching focus of this vision is full-spectrum dominance,” meaning “overseas presence forces and the ability to rapidly project power worldwide.”

Full-spectrum dominance is especially needed in the CENTCOM zone. According to a report on the November 2001 conference of the CIA’s Strategic Assessments Group, “Prominent US observers of the international security environment contend that the United States will continue to encounter challenges along an ‘arc of instability’ in coming years and decades.” This arc refers to a “southern belt of strategic instability” that ranges from the Balkans and West Africa through the Middle East to South and Southeast Asia. “These commentators argue that US military forces overseas and at home are distant from those areas where future turmoil and conflicts are most likely to occur. This will challenge the United States to develop and deploy new forms of overseas presence, power projection and expeditionary operations.”

An NSC document called Twenty-First Century Challenges spells out what this means. The document’s National Military Strategy prioritizes what it calls “Joint Forced Entry.” The US “must be able to introduce military forces into foreign territory in a non-permissive environment.” American forces must “always be able to gain access to seaports, airfields and other critical facilities” overseas and enjoy “unimpeded access, adequate bare-base facilities, tailored pre-positioning and reliable host nation support.” As applied in 2001-2002 to the arc of instability to which CENTCOM requires the capacity for forced entry, this is indeed a formula for full-spectrum dominance. It explicitly extends to the power to open markets and dictate domestic political arrangements.

George W. Bush and the oil barons who staff his administration hardly invented this vision. American ambitions for the new century echo British aims at the start of the last, a mixture of realpolitik and mercantilism cloaked in the moralizing discourse of the white man’s burden. London redrew the map of the Middle East after World War I, then installed pliant regimes in a system of “indirect rule.” Long after relinquishing the empire in Asia and Africa, Britain clung to its one Arab colony in Aden, then a base in Kuwait and finally a presence in Oman. No wonder a British Prime Minister could articulate a rationale for forcible restoration of an English-speaking government in Iraq. The Arab-American Oil Company was the first American move to take Britain’s place as the empire faded.

For Washington, the strategic importance of the Gulf was underscored by the oil wars of the 1970s. Throughout the 1980s, as the Iran-Iraq war raged, CENTCOM cultivated its security arrangements with the oil monarchies, training and equipping their defense establishments. Famously, in 1988, when Iran threatened ships bound for Arab ports, the US “reflagged” Kuwaiti ships to assure nervous insurance companies that transit through the waterway was safe.

The US-led assault on Iraq in 1991 stopped short of overthrowing the Baghdad regime because protecting the Gulf monarchs was a cleaner, cheaper, less risky means of pursuing American interests than occupation. The sanctions regime pursued by both the Bush-Thatcher and Clinton-Blair administrations combined control of Iraq’s international trade with UNSCOM inspections and periodic punitive air strikes against Iraqi targets. The arrangement, under which American and British troops actively policed the Gulf, suited US interests well. Iraq was divided. UNSCOM destroyed more Iraqi weapons through coercive inspections than coalition forces had in the ferocious bombing of 1991, and “incidentally” generated military intelligence useful to Anglo-American forces. Arab Gulf monarchs acquiesced to foreign troops on their soil as long as they believed Iraq was a threat.

“Enhanced containment” of Iraq was the default policy of the Clinton administration, but plans for a larger assault were also on the drawing board. American companies manufactured a new arsenal for the Iraqi theater, comprised of titanium-tipped cruise missiles, bunker-penetrating and satellite-guided bombs, and target-seeking sensors. In December 1998, when 28,000 men and women were deployed to the Gulf in Operation Desert Fox, the Pentagon had ready detailed plans for penetrating underground installations, detonating presidential compounds and neutralizing the Iraqi Republican Guard. Congress passed the Iraq Liberation Act the same year. Clinton’s Secretary of State, Madeline Albright, vowed to punish Iraq as long as Saddam Hussein remained in power.

Coincidentally, 1998 was also the first occasion when US firepower was directed against Iraq and Afghanistan more or less simultaneously. In August of that year, the United States lobbed cruise missiles into Afghanistan and Sudan in retaliation for explosions at American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania plotted by Osama bin Laden. At the time, Clinton and Albright warned that the missile attacks on suspected al-Qaeda targets were but the opening salvos in a long military campaign against an international terrorist network. In other words, the US intended to fire at will in the larger Indian Ocean basin, while pursuing its low-intensity war on Iraq indefinitely.

The changed post-September 11 environment emboldened the White House to launch an aggressive strategic agenda requiring hefty Pentagon budget increases. The administration knows the connection between Saddam Hussein and the string of terror attacks by al-Qaeda is purely spurious: neither is behind the other. Iraq’s stubborn refusal to surrender, on the one hand, and bin Laden’s anarchist strikes against the Saudi government and its American guardians, on the other, are separate instances of convulsive reaction to the assertion of a pax americana. But if Afghanistan and Iraq are distinct problems, the same simple prescription applies to both: occupation and, if possible, installation of a Westernized gentleman from exile. In Iraq, however, the US presence will be nationwide and highly intrusive. The new “democratic” government will be neither Ba’thist nor Islamist, but will abide by oil price stabilization rules and accept disarmament in exchange for American “protection.”

Many, many people in the US and Britain – – libertarians and leftists, realists and pacifists, civilians and officers — doubt that attacking Iraq is either right or necessary, and many fear a resurgent military adventurism. European public opinion is solidly against the war on ethical grounds, but also because a war in the Middle East threatens to disrupt their oil supplies and destabilize their southern flank, while establishing dangerous precedents for international law (which heretofore strictly prohibits landing troops to change another government). The Arab world recalls a long history of occupations and interventions with a mixture of anger, fear and concern for the future. Only Ariel Sharon’s government, engaged in its own aggressive military campaign, champions a preemptive strike. Yet many Israelis regard this alignment with foreboding, because no defeat inflicted upon the Palestinians in the shadow of war is likely to “end” the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or to enhance the long-term security of Israel.

The White House has demanded regime change in Palestine and dropped hints about “going into” Somalia, Yemen and other failed or weak states. Off the record there’s talk of going into Iran, Saudi Arabia and other countries to establish democracy and unveil the women. But even Yemenis or Palestinians or Iranians wishing for their own change of regime refuse to join the Bush administration’s arrogant crusade, whose principal effect is to ignite unprecedented anti-American frustrations throughout the Islamic world. Afghans cheered when the bombing stopped, just as Iraqis may do. But such ceasefire celebrations should not be viewed as welcome parades for foreign occupation. Last year’s “liberation” of Afghanistan from the Taliban, though cause for a great national sigh of relief, now portends more risk of anarchy than promise of democracy, and the ever-present possibility that foreign occupation will inspire an intifada.

How to cite this article:

The Editors "From the Editors (Winter 2002)," Middle East Report 225 (Winter 2002).

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