To hear American politicians and the commercial news media tell it, the greatest military power in world history hastily launched an ill-conceived invasion because of intelligence failures and wishful fantasies of sweets and flowers. It is as if, to paraphrase a sentiment heard in White House hallways on September 11, 2001, history really did start on that day, and nothing that happened beforehand mattered. It is as if the United States had never articulated a global vision of “full-spectrum dominance,” acted upon hegemonic ambitions in the Persian Gulf or planned for forcible “regime change” in Iraq.
Even if it seems to accord with the badly bungled aftermath of the invasion, the narrative of the Iraq war as a blunder — summed up in former weapons inspector David Kay’s confession, “we were all wrong” — is a sorry tale for a superpower to tell. The dominant liberal critique of the war as Bush’s misstep is no more satisfying than the White House rejoinder that America acted out of a noble desire to help Iraqis and democratize the Arab world.
Past US foreign policy fiascos, such as the Bay of Pigs and the Gulf of Tonkin, made sense in terms of a grand realpolitik intended to project US power in the Caribbean and Indochina, respectively. So, too, the occupation of Iraq was the rational end point to a trajectory at least three decades long wherein the US openly pursued declared national security goals in the region the Pentagon calls Central Command, or CENTCOM. To appreciate the strategic logic of the Iraq war, there is no need for an obscure conspiracy theory or for White House correspondent Helen Thomas’ insinuation that President George W. Bush had some idiosyncratic personal urge to drop bombs. There is no need for a facile blood-for-oil argument, though the Gulf’s hydrocarbon treasures have indeed been the object of bipartisan desire since at least 1973 and remain essential to the “American way of life.” Rather, an historical view shows the decision to invade Iraq to be the outcome of a long-standing, quite unabashed policy aimed at military supremacy in the oil-rich Persian Gulf — first to ward off Soviet and socialist influence, later to safeguard cheap oil supplies and, finally, to neutralize the challenge to US hegemony posed by “rogue” states or future rivals. September 11 and the conquest of Iraq fit into this history.
The Cold War
There is nothing secret or subtle about the US quest for “forward deployment” in an “arc of instability” centered around the world’s major petroleum deposits. President Jimmy Carter, in his 1980 State of the Union address, stated it clearly: “Any attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States. It will be repelled by the use of any means necessary, including military force.” Though it came in the wake of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, this Carter Doctrine was a product of the Cold War. In striking his pose, Carter was self-consciously emulating a Democratic predecessor, Harry Truman, who once had a speechwriter delete references to how important the “great natural resources” of the Middle East were “for the very existence of our own economy” in favor of generic support for “democracy” in the region. 
From the 1950s through the 1970s, leftist, anti-imperialist and secular-nationalist movements in the Muslim world were often construed as offshoots of an international communist conspiracy, a reading that informed US attitudes toward Mossadeq’s Iran, Lebanon of the late 1950s, Algeria during its war of independence, Egypt under Nasser, Iraq after the monarchy was overthrown, the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, Libya under Qaddafi, Soviet Central Asia, the Sudanese communist movement and Afghanistan in the late 1970s. Cold Warriors could read even the Arab-Israeli conflict in bipolar terms, and nationalizations of oil industries as examples of creeping socialism. In the 1960s and 1970s, US allies were the non-Arab countries encircling the Arab world: Westernized and democratic Israel, NATO member Turkey, the Shah’s Iran, and, until the 1976 Stalinist revolution, Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia. By the early 1980s, a Cold War “arc of crisis” stretched from the Horn of Africa to Afghanistan. 
What the Monroe Doctrine was to Latin America, the Carter Doctrine became for the Middle East. Reacting to the oil boycott and concurrent shortages accompanying the 1973 Arab-Israeli War and the second oil price spike in 1979, the Carter Doctrine warned that the US would intervene to protect its oil interests in and around the Persian Gulf, especially in the event of Communist interference. Simultaneously, to insulate Americans from any future boycotts, Carter pressed the earlier “shuttle diplomacy” of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to convince both Israel and Egypt of the benefits of a peace accord. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 redoubled US fears of Communist expansion, Washington joined in a partnership with Riyadh and Islamabad to fund, arm and train the right-wing Sunni mujahideen insurgency (while Iran aided their Shi‘i counterparts). To preclude an Iranian victory after Iraq attacked the newborn Islamic republic in 1980, Washington tilted toward Baghdad. To compensate for the loss of an important military base in Ethiopia, a new relationship was cultivated with Somalia. All these policies followed the strategic logic of the Cold War and its many proxy wars.
Most importantly, the close, if unofficial alliance with the fabulously wealthy monarchies belonging to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) — Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates — ushered in an age of relatively cheap oil. The Saudis, in particular, upped or cut production to keep supplies and prices relatively level. This alliance was cemented with arms sales (paid for in cash), basing rights and the 1988 “reflagging” of Kuwaiti ships passing through the war-torn Straits of Hormuz.
Until a faction of right-wing zealots seized power after a wider social movement deposed the Shah, Islam never seemed radical. Although in retrospect we can see 1979, the year of the Islamic revolution in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, as the watershed for political Islam, in those days religiosity was regarded as the antidote to the red menace. Thus Washington smiled on Saudi Arabia’s ostentatiously generous donations to mosques, schools, universities and hospitals that were missions of an ultra-conservative, anti-Communist and anti-Shi‘i version of Islam. Also unwittingly, countries as different as Israel, Egypt, Algeria and Yemen, like the Shah before them, repressed leftist political organizing while ignoring, tolerating or even nurturing supposedly apolitical religious charities and associations.
As Arabs and Asians flocked to the booming Gulf economies in search of jobs, they were indoctrinated into ultra-conservative social mores, especially regarding the veiling and seclusion of women, even as those practices were intensified amidst the influx of single, foreign men. Accelerated by sagging oil prices that deflated the Gulf economies and especially their dependencies in the 1980s, and even more so by the creditor-induced privatization of social services in the poorer countries of the Muslim world in the 1990s, these were the international and domestic policies on which the new Islamist movement thrived.
The Afghan Arabs, as the ragtag mujahideen who President Ronald Reagan called “freedom fighters” were known in the Middle East, were much romanticized after they not only drove Soviet forces from Afghanistan but witnessed the Soviet implosion soon thereafter. The demise of Communist governments, together with the ascendancy of neo-liberal structural adjustment packages, accelerated the dramatic swing away from nationalist or progressive politics toward right-wing Islam. From Yemen to Egypt to Algeria, socialists lost their foreign patrons. In many Arab countries, public budgets slashed to repay foreign debt and pressures of globalization left workers, peasants, civil servants, former migrants and their families to the mercies of religious charities. In Algeria and Egypt, the Afghan Arabs recruited small armies to wage bitter war on the state. Back in Afghanistan, having unseated the Communist government in 1992, the mujahideen began battling for control of Kabul. Washington forgot about Afghanistan, but Islamabad and Tehran did not, instead playing factions against one another. In 1995, Pakistan swung its support behind one faction, the Taliban. Aided by Afghan Arab returnees fleeing the bloody repression of their insurgencies at home, the Taliban extended their puritanical writ over most of Afghanistan by 1998. One of those returnees was Osama bin Laden, the erstwhile philanthropist who had turned violently against “the far enemy” he believed was propping up his foremost “near enemy,” the House of Saud.
While Afghanistan was collapsing, hawks in the administration of Bush the Elder were saved from a “peace dividend” drawdown of the military-industrial complex in the post-Cold War era by the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, which offered instead a strong rationale for a US military presence in the oil patch.
Just as Saddam Hussein had seized the year of the Iranian revolution to launch an ill-fated, but not illogical assault, he chose the tumultuous year of 1990, when, amidst a sudden, massive realignment of the global balance of power the attentions of a triumphalist United States were diverted, to strike tiny Kuwait. His long, horrendously bloody war with Iran had left Iraqi state finances mortgaged to GCC creditors. In 1988, the CIA had predicted that, when the war with Iran ended, Saddam might target two Kuwaiti islands in order to expand Iraq’s “narrow access to the Gulf,”  but the full-fledged annexation of Iraq’s southern neighbor caught Washington off guard. The administration was worried, as Kenneth Pollack, then a CIA analyst, later wrote, that if Iraq secured Kuwaiti oilfields, it could rival Saudi Arabia in production capacity and, hence, ability to manipulate oil prices.  Possibly believing that Iraqi tanks would roll across Saudi oilfields as well, President George Bush pronounced that the invasion “would not stand” and ordered preparations for evicting the Iraqi occupiers by force.
In the ensuing 1990–1991 Gulf war, Washington prudently stopped short of overthrowing the Baghdad tyrant because there was a less risky means of pursuing US interests than a messy, expensive occupation. Forces deployed to Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain in the course of the war stayed behind to police the UN-brokered ceasefire and prevent a recrudescence of Iraqi aggression. As the Saudi royal family calls itself the protector of the holy places, the US became the defender of the oily spaces, and a sort of palace guard for all the petro-princedoms. The arrangement, which kept some 18,000 US troops supplemented by British contingents in the Gulf, suited the US and Britain well. Iraq was effectively divided by the two no-fly zones the two allies imposed over most of Iraqi Kurdistan and a vast swathe of the south. The UN inspection team, UNSCOM, destroyed more Iraqi non-conventional weapons than the allied forces had in the war’s ferocious bombing, and “incidentally” generated military intelligence that would later prove useful. Arab Gulf monarchs acquiesced to foreign troops on their soil as long as they believed Iraq was a threat.
Desert Storm seemingly validated the need for continued heavy defense spending. “America,” averred the president at the Aspen Institute on August 2, 1990, the day after the invasion of Kuwait, “must possess forces able to respond to threats in whatever corner of the globe they may occur.” Iraqi aggression gave weight to the case Gen. Colin Powell, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had been building throughout the preceding year that the armed forces should retain three quarters of the 2.1 million active-duty personnel needed in 1989 to contain the Soviet Union to counter prospective threats from “regional” powers. 
Other members of the administration had still more expansive visions, expressed in the 1992 Defense Policy Guidance for the post-Cold War age written by Zalmay Khalilzad for Paul Wolfowitz, then undersecretary of defense for policy, and his top aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby. The document reflected Wolfowitz’s conviction that the American military had downsized precipitously after each of the two World Wars and his determination to make an ironclad case for maintaining full Cold War strength now. Khalilzad wrote that the US was uniquely qualified to be the sole superpower, and must maintain its dominant status by actively blocking the rise of any possible challenger. Specifically regarding the Gulf, Khalilzad was blunt: “In the Middle East and Southwest Asia, our overall objective is to remain the predominant outside power in the region and preserve US and Western access to the region’s oil.” 
The “Rogue State”
The animating ideas of the Defense Policy Guidance lived on inside the Beltway even under the more “liberal internationalist” administration of President Bill Clinton. The now infamous neo-conservatives hectored Clinton from the right even as the Democrat adopted their injunction to use the military to thwart the rise of inimical regional powers and pursued an America-first devotion to free-market economics. Saddam’s Iraq was the quintessential anti-systemic “rogue state” this policy sought to “contain.”
For seven years after the liberation of Kuwait, the US (with Britain) prosecuted a sanctions regime with five components, three of them multilateral and two unilateral: a weapons embargo; a civilian trade embargo, modified under the “Oil for Food” provisions; ongoing UNSCOM inspections and surveillance of Iraqi military facilities; the northern and southern no-fly zones; and periodic, punitive strikes that during many periods averaged one every two or three weeks. Saddam Hussein was kept “in a box,” as Clinton’s secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, liked to say. More importantly, as long as the state of war with Iraq persisted, CENTCOM enjoyed a regional base from which to patrol oilfields and key transport lanes. Oil prices were at their lowest levels in two decades, and it was to the advantage of Arab Gulf states to keep Iraqi oil production low to stave off a glut.
From 1991 through 1998, a series of crises over UN inspections occasioned new deployments to the Gulf and airstrikes on Iraq. By 1998, however, international support for the Iraq sanctions regime had crumbled. Gulf war damage and economic embargoes were gravely implicated in the doubling of infant and under-five mortality rates in southern and central Iraq, much of which resulted from Iraq’s inability to repair and upgrade its water and sanitation systems.  Citing such humanitarian emergencies, and no doubt anxious to do business with Baghdad, France and Russia were lobbying for an end to the embargo. Albright retorted that the US would back sanctions “as long as it takes” to usher in “a successor regime” that would comply with UN resolutions. 
The hawks pushed for action, and Clinton took their dare. In January 1998, Wolfowitz, Libby, Khalilzad, Donald Rumsfeld and several others signed a Project for a New American Century (PNAC) letter to Clinton saying that sanctions could not guarantee that Iraq would not threaten US troops in the region, Israel and the “moderate” Arab states — as well as “a significant portion of the world’s supply of oil.” Clinton dispatched 28,000 men and women to the Gulf in preparation for more bombing raids when UNSCOM inspectors were stymied by Saddam’s bluffs in February. The Pentagon had ready detailed plans for penetrating underground installations, detonating presidential compounds and neutralizing the Iraqi Republican Guard, but UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan persuaded Saddam to resume cooperation with inspections. PNAC dashed off another letter, this time to the Republican-led Congress, and the Iraq Liberation Act making “regime change” official US policy was passed in September.
Soon thereafter, in August 1998, again showing his mettle, Clinton ordered cruise missile strikes on Afghanistan and Sudan in scattershot retaliation for murderous explosions at US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania plotted by bin Laden. He and Albright warned that these 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 continue indefinitely a low-intensity war on Iraq and exercise the option to fire at will in the larger Indian Ocean basin.
The Return of Great Power Competition
By the turn of the millennium, analysts at the Defense and Energy Departments and the National Security Council (NSC) charged with spinning future scenarios plausibly predicted both dwindling supplies of oil and the prospect of old-fashioned great power challenges, especially from Russia, India or China. Strategic planners noted that China, India and other Asian countries rely heavily on Middle Eastern suppliers and are far less likely than Western allies to back US policies in the Middle East, especially if their energy lifeblood is at stake. From the point of view of grand military planning of the sort that won World War II and the Cold War, therefore, the positioning of forces in the oil heartland and along critical sea routes was a no-brainer. The capacity to deprive a potential military rival of fuel for its war machine is part of what Wolfowitz was referring to when he told the Pentagon press corps, on August 17, 2001, that the ability “to project and sustain US forces in distant anti-access or area-denial environments” was high on the list of priorities.
The crashing of airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon — headquarters of global capitalism and the US military, respectively — rocked the intelligence community to its core. The most massive defense establishment in world history, armed beyond challenge by a century of military science, could not protect the sole superpower’s central nervous system from a stunning attack armed with no weapons at all. It was like something out of a science fiction movie, and along with a few other scares like anthrax and the shoe bomber, the wreckage spawned doomsday reveries. Suddenly, the prospect that Iraq would produce even small quantities of a deadly germ or chemical substance to be smuggled by terrorists seemed almost plausible—at least to the traumatized American public.
September 11 shook the status quo ante in another way, by putting at risk the crucial US-Saudi relationship — not because, as the vulgar Arab-bashers contend, Riyadh was complicit in the attack, although its past funding of the extreme right wing of the Islamist movement had come back to haunt it — but because the proximate “cause” of al-Qaeda was to drive US forces from the Arabian Peninsula. The very military presence whose aim was to preserve the stability of the conservative, business-friendly Gulf monarchies now threatened that stability.
The hawks inside the Bush administration rolled out their blueprints for a strategic response. “To contend with uncertainty and to meet the many security challenges we face,” President 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 NSC called for building American “defenses 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 2002 National Security Strategy stressed “forward military presence” and “access to distant theaters.” The end of Cold War era deterrence requires the expansion, not contraction, of US military capabilities in terms of hardware, intelligence and global reach, according to the Pentagon’s Joint Vision 2020: America’s Military Preparing for Tomorrow. The report is forthright: “The overarching focus of this vision is full-spectrum dominance,” it states, meaning “overseas presence forces and the ability to rapidly project power worldwide.”
In particular, full-spectrum dominance was sought 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,” referring to a “southern belt of strategic instability” 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 spelled out a National Military Strategy prioritizing what it called “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 prepositioning and reliable host nation support.” Such facilities could not be negotiated; only a full-scale occupation of a large, well-located country would meet these goals. The Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq under the banner of the post-September 11 war on terrorism had less to do with neo-conservative ideology than the venerable linkage of Pentagon prowess to Persian Gulf oil in high-level strategic thinking.
Domestic politics, allies’ sensibilities and ease of conquest all dictated that Afghanistan be invaded first. Hardly a proper government, the Taliban were rapidly overthrown by the US and the “Northern Alliance” of formerly warring mujahideen, bathing the Bush presidency in a glow of martial invincibility and greatly easing the task of marketing the larger invasion to come. It was, as Carl Conetta wrote already in February 2002, a “strange victory.”  Despite the expenditure of $3.8 billion and 12,000 bombs in three months of conflict, neither Osama bin Laden nor the top Taliban leadership were killed or captured. The reliance on air power, while collaterally killing at least 1,000 Afghan civilians, allowed many of the targeted fighters to escape into the mountainous Pakistani frontier, from whence they have subsequently reconstituted themselves. In Afghanistan, meanwhile, US-sponsored elections have installed a make-believe democracy whose well-dressed and well-spoken president cannot venture outside the capital without a phalanx of American bodyguards. Afghanistan remains an utterly failed state, precisely the sort of place that was so frequently described after September 11 as a “breeding ground for terrorists.” Clearly, US priorities lay elsewhere.
In 2002, Iraq posed no “mortal threat.” Its offensive military capacity had been decimated in 1991, and finished off by a decade of highly effective coercive disarmament by UNSCOM. Even its defenses collapsed quickly under the “shock and awe” campaign. Whether or not they believed their alarmist exaggeration of a fearsome enemy prepared to wreak havoc, the White House, with a helpful assist from the New York Times, convinced Americans to back the war. The Bush team nurtured other pre-war delusions. Iraqis would welcome occupation as liberation. Exiles borne back into their native land atop US tanks would quickly form a stable, US-friendly government. Perhaps such an Iraq, “floating on a sea of oil,” in Wolfowitz’s words, would displace newly suspect Saudi Arabia as the swing producer on the world market. The new, democratic Iraq would become a model for the entire Arab world.
Very little, of course, has gone according to these figments of the imagination. Therein lay the blunders, for little serious planning went into the political or even the economic reconstruction of Iraq. The country is wracked by an anti-occupation insurgency wrapped inside a brutal, if unconventional civil war. The former exiles cannot form a unified government and, as in Afghanistan, their wrangling in the Green Zone is largely irrelevant to the chaos besetting the country. Thus the neo-conservative chimera of remaking the entire Middle East through political engineering of Iraq is an abysmal failure. Without mentioning the mayhem and prisoner torture that attended the “forward march of freedom” in Mesopotamia, it is increasingly clear that slapdash US-sponsored constitutional and electoral democracy there is fomenting anarchy and/or partition, not a model that other Middle Easterners want to emulate.
On the economic front, inter-war sanctions and wartime insecurity and sabotage left Iraq’s oil industry in tatters. With reserves of no less than 112 billion barrels, and possibly as many as 250 billion, Iraq ought to be the second-leading supplier to the global market after Saudi Arabia. But production in 2004 was only 2 million barrels per day, down from 2.25 million in 2002, and fell further in 2005. Refineries have been operating well under capacity, and since June 2003, Iraq has been importing gasoline, kerosene and other fuel products.  Moreover, the constitution passed by referendum in October 2005 made oil a primary vector of sectarian conflict and state failure. Article 110 stipulates that “the federal government will administer oil and gas extracted from current fields,” but leaves open the possibility that the strong regional governments provided for by the constitution will grow oil-rich at the expense of a weak central state. A Kurdish exploration deal with a Norwegian firm in October could be the first of several in that part of the country. Big international oil companies have reaped windfalls from the price hikes that have coincided with the war and the relative decline of Iraqi oil production, but as long as Iraq is so violent and ungoverned, they will be signing no contracts in most of the rest of Iraq. At the same time, record-high oil prices have underlined that oil is a strategic, and probably increasingly scarce, commodity.
To those US grand strategists who take the long view, however, the gargantuan cost of the Iraq invasion has yielded the inestimable benefit of secure, permanent bases in Iraq for such operations as may be deemed necessary in the “arc of instability” in the future — in Iran, for example.
On March 15, 2006, CENTCOM head Gen. John Abizaid told Congress: “Clearly our long-term vision for a military presence in the region requires a robust counter-terrorist capability. No doubt there is a need for some presence in the region over time primarily to help people help themselves through this period of extremists versus moderates.” But Abizaid also pointed to the area’s fossil fuel wealth as another reason to stay: “Ultimately, it comes down to the free flow of goods and resources on which the prosperity of our own nation and everybody else in the world depend.” If the US can retain bases in Iraq, one suspects, the likes of ex-Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith will continue to term the invasion a “catastrophic success.”
The economic and human toll notwithstanding, there are only the faintest calls for a complete “withdrawal” from Iraq in Washington. Congressional Democrats, for the most part, have quibbled about how the occupation was executed without dissenting from its ultimate purpose. While the Pentagon dearly hopes to protect US troops from the violence unleashed by the invasion, the short-term objective now is disengagement from the cities and population centers, not retreat from Iraq altogether. The massive US embassy complex going up on parkland inside the Green Zone and the several bases under construction in the desert are the real assets gained in this war, and they will not soon be relinquished.
 See Joe Stork, “The Carter Doctrine and US Bases in the Middle East,” MERIP Reports 90 (September 1980). The quotes are from Stork’s Middle East Oil and the Energy Crisis (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1975), pp. 39–45.
 Fred Halliday, “The Arc of Crisis and the New Cold War,” MERIP Reports 100/101 (October-December 1981).
 Central Intelligence Agency, “Iraq’s National Security Goals” (December 1988). Quoted in Shiva Balaghi, Saddam Hussein (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2006), p. 87.
 Kenneth Pollack, The Threatening Storm (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 2002), p. 36.
 See Michael Klare, “The Rise and Fall of the ‘Rogue Doctrine’: The Pentagon’s Quest for a Post-Cold War Military Strategy,” Middle East Report 208 (Fall 1998).
 James Mann, Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush’s War Cabinet (New York: Viking, 2004), pp. 198–210.
 See Sarah Graham-Brown, “Sanctioning Iraq: A Failed Policy,” Middle East Report 215 (Summer 2000).
 Associated Press, March 27, 1997.
 Carl Conetta, Strange Victory: A Critical Appraisal of Operation Enduring Freedom (Cambridge, MA: Project for Defense Alternatives, 2002).
 Issam al-Chalabi, “What Is Happening to Iraqi Oil?” Middle East Economic Survey, October 10, 2005.