Why Iraq?

A few days ago, I mentioned I would publish my thoughts on the real reasons for the Bush administration’s drive to attack Iraq. My apologies for the delay. I’m a one-man operation here and sometimes I have to do other stuff, like sleep.

There are several theories floating around about the need to attack Iraq, some coming from the White House and others coming from various sources. The most common argument for attacking Iraq, that given by the administration, is a mish-mash of worries about weapons of mass destruction, disregard for U.N. Security Council resolutions, ties to al Qa’ida and Saddam’s wickedness. Of these reasons, the WMD rationale seems to have gained the most traction in the minds of many Americans. This is hardly surprising, as the White House has been relentlessly on message regarding Saddam’s weapons programs until recently when Osama bin Laden (remember him?) conveniently popped up to exhort Muslims to defend their Iraqi brothers through martydom operations against Western interests worldwide if the United States assaults Baghdad.

Despite bin Laden’s sneering references to Saddam as a “socialist” and an “apostate,” the White House lept upon the tape as proof that Saddam and bin Laden were playing footsie when the West wasn’t looking. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said bin Laden’s reference to “our mujahideen brothers” inside Iraq and his appeal to Muslims to prepare for jihad suggested a “strong statement of alliance” between Iraq and al Qa’ida.

“If that is not an unholy partnership, I have not heard of one,” he said. “This is the nightmare that people have warned about, the linking up of Iraq with al Qaeda.”

Officials refuse to see the tape for what it is — an attempt by bin Laden to use war against Iraq to bolster his leadership, just as most Arab leaders have cynically used the Palestinians to bolster themselves against Israel. In other words, the tape is a trap that Washington is about to blunder into. To the White House, the bin Laden tape shows not an attempt by bin Laden to tap into world-wide Muslim anger against the United States, but a bona fide announcement of an active, strategic partnership that has existed for years.

Anyway, back in the real world, other theories have abounded, with the anti-war left and the Arab world invoking the siamese-twin specters of imperialism and colonialism as the main reasons for war. “No blood for oil!” is the classic retort from the left, simplifying a complex array of domestic politics, international relations and geopolitical goals into a four-word slogan that doesn’t do justice to what I believe are the real reasons. Yes, this war is about oil, but it’s not just about oil. And yes, it’s about imperialism, but not in the way that the leftists believe. The real reasons are to secure a continuous supply of oil for Europe and Japan, pressuring Saudi Arabia into cutting off funding to the conservative clergy and thus fueling the worst of the terror networks, securing a stable environment for regional ally Israel and encircling Iran in the hope of sweeping the ayatollahs from power.

Back on Nov. 14, I wrote the following:

I’m convinced that the reason given by the left for the U.S.’s drive to topple Saddam — mainly control of Iraq’s oil fields — is much too simplistic to give the whole picture. And I don’t trust the Bush Administration that Iraq poses a clear and present danger, with Saddam being thisclose to fielding nukes on magic unmanned drones that could take out American cities. And the Butcher of Baghdad isn’t so stupid that he would give weapons of mass destruction to an element that he couldn’t control, such as al Qa’ida. So what gives? Why the push on Iraq when al Qa’ida poses a clear and present threat and Pakistan has been helping North Korea with its nuke program. (The implication is that if Pakistan has elements that would help the North Koreans, there are likely elements in the government that would help al Qa’ida in a similar manner.)

This report from the Institute for National Strategic Studies’ National Defense University might offer some clues. The main thrust of the report is that America has long realized the strategic value of the Persian Gulf, and fully intends to keep a military presence there regardless of any outcome in Iraq. “The United States will need to diversify its dependence on regional basing and forward presence, as well as reduce the visibility and predictability of its forward-deployed forces,” reads the report.

Why is this necessary? Because way back in 1990, the Bush White House, part first, announced a defense posture that called for “adult supervision” of the world. And the most recent iteration of the National Security Strategy of the United States calls for the globe’s sole superpower to suffer no rivals militarily or economically, imposing a pax Americana. So the United States is in the Gulf to guarantee the supply of oil not for itself, but for Europe and Japan, which get most of their oil from the Middle East. (Surprisingly, the United States gets most of its oil from Canada, Venezuela and Mexico; Persian Gulf sources supplied only 11 percent of America’s oil in 2000, according to the Department of Energy.) The United States Marines safeguard the Persian Gulf because Europe and Japan might re-arm and secure the oil sources for themselves if we didn’t. And as I said, the United States does not intend to suffer rivals gladly.

So we are going to be in the Gulf for a long time. As the INSS report says, “There is no escaping the U.S. role as a guarantor of Gulf stability. Thus, the United States needs a viable concept for its future forward presence that can be sustained over the long haul.” Saudi Arabia is not the secure base that we need for such a presence, as the presence of infidel troops so close to the holy sites of Mecca and Medina directly undermines the legitimacy of the House of Saud, which came to power in the 1920s as the family that would protect Islam’s holiest shrines. The presence of the troops inflames the faithful, such as bin Ladin, and leads the Saudi royal family to pay off the radical clerics that wield much influence in the kingdom. In essence this is the reason radical Islamists with possible access to nukes are “funded” by Saudi Arabia — the Saudis are buying them off and pointing a loaded gun away from their own head and toward someone else’s. If the House of Saud falls, which it could do at anytime, a big reason will be resentment over its invitation of American GIs.

The solution is to get the 5,000 or so Americans off the Arabian peninsula. But the United States can’t pull out with Saddam in power; the troops are there to contain Saddam. So the solution to the solution is to remove Saddam from power, in the process diversifying the distribution of American troops in the region and removing a provocation to radicals. (Once they get over being pissed at the subjugation of Iraq, that is.)

Some would argue that this will just preserve Saudi legitimacy. Others may argue that a friendly regime in Iraq would undercut the Saudis and bring oil prices down as the two countries (which control the largest and second-largest known reserves of oil on the planet) compete for markets. There is evidence that the Saudis are hewing to the second view, doing everything in their power to impede the United States’ war planning, including a massive loan to Russiainterest free! — if the Bear had only vetoed UNSCR 1441. Alas for the Saudis, this didn’t happen, and they are caught between Iraq and a hard place.

So the goal of the United States is to maintain a presence in the Persian Gulf so that Europe and Japan don’t re-arm. In order to maintain a presence and decrease dependency on an unreliable ally, Saudi Arabia, Washington has to lighten the military footprint in the region by removing the cause for the heavy footprint — Saddam Hussein. Once that is accomplished, the forward forces can be distributed out of Saudi Arabia and a friendly Iraq can help pressure the Saudis to keep oil prices low. As a bonus, Washington would no longer have to go easy on the Saudis in its war against al Qa’ida since Iraq would be the bulwark in the Gulf.

Since I wrote that, several other writers have come to the same conclusions. Anthony Lane at the New Yorker, analyzises “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm,” co-authored by Richard Perle and David Wurmser in 1996. The document, from the Institute for Advanced International Stuidies, instructs the United States to actively work to secure a stable supply of oil and make the Middle East safe for Israel. Wurmser, also the author of “Tyranny’s Ally: America’s Failure to Defeat Saddam Hussein,” (1999) sees the main enemy as the ideology of Pan-Arabism, which for Wurmser is a form of Middle Eastern totalitarianism. He places Saddam and the Assad family of Syria squarely in the Pan-Arab nationalist camp, so bringing down Saddam would undermine the Ba’athist regime in neighboring Syria. And a post-Saddam Iraq with “meaningful participation” of the Shi’ite majority would undermine the claims of Iran’s mullahs that they represent the only legitimate power center for the region’s Shi’ia.

By deligtimizing the Syrian regime and putting pressure on Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and other terror groups, would lose their source of support. As a bonus, as Syrian becomes more pro-American, so, too, would Lebanon, ending the base of operations for Hezbollah. The Palestinian Authority, with no allies remaining in the region, would be forced to renounce terrorism (for real, this time) and sue for peace on Israel’s terms. Perle’s document makes references to the Hashemite monarchy controlling Iraq again, and there have been sinsiter whispers that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is just looking for an opportunity to expel not just Yassir Arafat, but all Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza into Jordan. As ambitious as Perle and Wurmser are in their chessboard thinking, it’s not inconceivable that they could be envisioning Jordan as the new Palestine with Iraq given to Jordan’s King Abdullah Hussein in compensation for the loss of his kingdom.

Other theories have been put forward and there’s no simple answer to any of this. The United States’ invasion and occupation of Iraq is not just about oil, colonialism or empire building. But nor is it not about those things either. I’ve tried to map out what I believe is the administration’s thinking based on reports, research and balance-of-power analysis (which I do from a gut level rather than game theory) and others have echoed similar thoughts. Warblogging has a good entry today on John Bolton, U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, and the Administration’s plans to “deal with” Iran, Syria and North Korea, apres Iraq. Do these plans include military action or do they echo the thoughts of Perle and Wolfowitz that an occupied Iraq would pressure Iran and Syria to change their ways if not their regimes? We don’t yet know.

7 Comments on “Why Iraq?”

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