MERIP: Iraq and geostrategy

Michael Pollak mpollak at
Sun Dec 15 16:32:14 PST 2002

In the Shadow of War: Iraq, Israel and Palestine

(Middle East Report 225, Winter 2002)


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


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


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."

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