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Back to issue 27

International Socialist Review Issue 27, January–February 2003

IMPERIALISM: Washington's gamble for a new Middle East

by Phil Gasper

DESPITE THE failure of UN arms inspectors to uncover any serious evidence of “weapons of mass destruction,” the U.S. government was moving inexorably towards a massive military attack on Iraq, probably due to begin in mid to late February, as the International Socialist Review went to press. By the middle of January over 60,000 U.S. troops were already deployed in the Persian Gulf region, with another 120,000 on their way and an additional 26,000 from Washington’s only major ally in the current crisis, Britain.

Bush’s single-minded drive to war has continued despite a growing rift with most of Washington’s traditional European allies, and with France and Germany in particular, on the Iraq question. The U.S. war drive also faces opposition from Russia, China, nearly all Middle Eastern governments and most other countries, as well as a vocal and growing antiwar movement in the streets in the U.S. and around the world.

Whatever the risks, the Pentagon hawks who are dictating the Bush administration’s policy, have been itching for a war against Iraq for a long time. Back in 1998, for example, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle and other key members of the current administration were already calling for “a determined program to change the regime in Baghdad”—the position adopted later by the Clinton Administration. That, and not the phony campaign to disarm Iraq, remains the goal and the administration is betting that the potential rewards of regime change followed by a U.S. military occupation are worth the costs.

Colin Powell and other administration members publicly deny it, but the most obvious reward for them is, of course, oil. Others are more honest. “Regardless of whether we say so publicly,” says Anthony H. Cordesman, senior analyst at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies “we will go to war, because Saddam sits at the center of a region with more than 60 percent of all the world’s oil reserves.” Indeed, when the Bush administration came to office it commissioned a study on energy policy from the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Houston’s Rice University—a think-tank run by James Baker III, secretary of state in the first Bush administration and W’s point man in Florida during the 2000 election controversy. The report, titled Strategic Energy Policy Challenges For the 21st Century, was issued in April 2001. Among its advisers were Kenneth Lay (at that time still CEO of Enron), Luis Giusti (a member of Shell’s board of directors), John Manzoni (regional president of British Petroleum), David O’Reilly (CEO of Chevron Texaco) and Sheikh Suad Al Nasser Al Sabah (formerly Kuwait’s oil minister). The Baker report warns that the U.S. faces “unprecedented energy price volatility” and it concludes:

The United States remains a prisoner of its energy dilemma. Iraq remains a destabilizing influence÷ to the flow of oil to international markets from the Middle East. Saddam Hussein has also demonstrated a willingness to threaten to use the oil weapon and to use his own export program to manipulate oil markets. Therefore the U.S. should conduct an immediate policy review toward Iraq including military, energy, economic and political/diplomatic assessments.

The following month, Vice President Cheney issued his own national energy plan, which openly acknowledged that “The [Persian] Gulf will be a primary focus of U.S. international energy policy.” The Cheney plan states that the U.S. is increasingly dependent on imported oil and that it may be necessary to overcome foreign resistance in order to gain access to new supplies. As the political scientist Michael Klare noted last April, this means that
American efforts to obtain increased supplies of foreign oil will require more than trade deals and diplomacy—it will also require the threat of or the use of force to dissuade hostile forces from attempting to obstruct the flow of petroleum to the United States. This, in turn, will require an enhanced U.S. capacity to operate militarily in areas of likely fighting over oil....And while these efforts have been accelerated since September 11, it is important to note that they began well before that date.” (Pacific News Service, April 23, 2002.)
Iraq has the world’s second biggest known oil reserves after Saudi Arabia. There are also many promising oilfields yet to be explored, and Iraqi oil is very easy to extract. While war would certainly initially disrupt production and cause a sharp spike in the price of oil, the Bush administration is betting that this will be a temporary phenomenon. With a U.S. puppet regime installed in Baghdad, the hope is that within a few years there will be an abundant supply of cheap oil on the world market. According to Lawrence Lindsey, Bush’s former economic adviser, “When there is a regime change in Iraq, you could add three to five million barrels [per day] of production to world supply. The successful prosecution of the war would be good for the economy.” Donald Kagan, a member of the neo-conservative Project for the New American Century, another think tank with close ties to the Bush administration, puts it even more bluntly: “When we have economic problems, it’s been caused by disruptions in our oil supply. If we have a force in Iraq, there will be no disruption in oil supplies.” Recent newspaper stories have reported that the Pentagon plans to occupy and protect Iraq’s oilfields from potential damage or sabotage at an early stage in the impending war.

Nor only is it a question of securing oil for the U.S. itself. Europe and Japan are far more dependent on Middle Eastern oil than the U.S. A military occupation of Iraq would thus give Washington increased leverage over its main economic rivals. Moreover, U.S. control of Iraqi oil would undermine the power of the OPEC cartel, long a goal of U.S. foreign policy, and lessen Washington’s dependence on Saudi Arabia, with which U.S. relations have cooled considerably since September 11.

Oil, however, is only part of the picture. Though many liberals are loathe to admit it, the U.S. is not just a superpower, it is the world’s preeminent imperialist nation. Despite Bush’s protestations that “America has no empire to extend or utopia to establish,” a war with Iraq is needed to enforce unquestioned military and economic dominance for the American empire. The New York Times’ Michael Ignatieff explains “the burden” of U.S. imperialism this way:

Being an imperial power, however, is more than being the most powerful nation or just the most hated one. It means enforcing such order as there is in the world and doing so in the American interest. It means laying down the rules America wants (on everything from markets to weapons of mass destruction) while exempting itself from other rules (the Kyoto Protocol on climate change and the International Criminal Court) that go against its interest. (January 5, 2003)

The Bush administration has made it clear that war against Iraq is simply one step in a much bigger plan in which Washington intends to use its military strength to ensure that the U.S. remains the dominant global power for the indefinite future. The attacks of September 11 provided the opportunity to put these plans into action, but this is a strategy that goes back over a decade to the last Bush administration. In early 1992, Paul Wolfowitz, then Dick Cheney’s deputy at the Pentagon, wrote a classified report arguing that in the postŮCold War world, the U.S. “must now refocus on precluding the emergence of any potential future global competitor÷.[W]e must maintain the mechanism for deterring potential competitors from even aspiring to a larger regional or global role.” The same sentiments were publicly expressed by Colin Powell, then chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who told the House Armed Services Committee that the U.S. needed to be “the bully on the block” in order to “deter any challenger from ever dreaming of challenging the U.S. on the world stage.”

When Wolfowitz’s document was leaked to the New York Times in March 1992, however, it created such an uproar that it was quickly withdrawn. But the same ideas were rearticulated in a report from the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) issued in September 2000. Among the report’s contributors were Wolfowitz (now deputy defense secretary), John Bolton (now undersecretary of state for arms control and international security), Lewis Libby (now Dick Cheney’s chief of staff) and several other prominent members of the Bush administration.

The PNAC report calls for the U.S. to use overwhelming military force to take control of the Gulf region: “While the unresolved conflict with Iraq provides the immediate justification, the need for a substantial American force presence in the Gulf transcends the issue of the regime of Saddam Hussein.” War with Iraq, in other words, is seen as little more than an excuse for “maintaining global U.S. preeminence...and shaping the international security order in line with American principles and interests.”

The report is in effect a blueprint for the Bush administration’s foreign policy since September 11, 2001. The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon gave it the perfect opportunity to put into effect plans that it already wanted to pursue. As the PNAC report—with uncanny foresight—had put it a year earlier, what was needed to implement such policies was “some catastrophic and catalyzing event—like a new Pearl Harbor.” Much of the strategy spelled out by the PNAC was repeated in Bush’s September 2002 National Security Strategy document, better known as the Bush Doctrine, with its emphasis on preemptive strikes and unilateral military action. On the basis of these documents, Jay Bookman—an editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution—recently spelled out Bush’s strategy as follows:

This war, should it come, is intended to mark the official emergence of the United States as a full-fledged global empire, seizing sole responsibility and authority as planetary policeman. It would be the culmination of a plan 10 years or more in the making, carried out by those who believe the United States must seize the opportunity for global domination÷.In essence, [the National Security Strategy document] lays out a plan for permanent U.S. military and economic domination of every region on the globe, unfettered by international treaty or concern. And to make that plan a reality, it envisions a stark expansion of our global military presence” (September 29, 2002.)

The U.S. already has military bases in over 60 countries and troops in 130. Since coming to office, the Bush administration has wanted to expand that presence with new permanent military bases in the Middle East, in Southeast Europe, in Latin America and in Southeast Asia. As Bookman points out:
The cost of such a global commitment would be enormous. In 2000, we spent $281 billion on our military, which was more than the next 11 nations combined. By 2003, our expenditures will have risen to $378 billion. In other words, the increase in our defense budget from 1999-2003 will be more than the total amount spent annually by China, our next largest competitor.
According to Gregory Copley, head of the International Strategic Studies Association, “Iraq is a stage on the way to securing U.S. interests, and U.S. credibility will be absolutely lost unless it follows through effectively. The U.S. has got to be perceived to have had its way with the world community. This is the reality of historic power.” (Investor’s Business Daily, September 20.) In other words, the enormous carnage that a war on Iraq will surely mean, with tens of thousands killed, is worth it to enhance U.S. credibility.

What does the White House intend to use that credibility to do? Hawks in and close to the administration have been talking openly for months about redrawing the map of the whole Middle East. They welcome unrest in the region as a prelude to the replacement of regimes that the U.S. dislikes. When Brent Scowcroft, Bush Sr.’s national security adviser, worried that a unilateral U.S. war against Iraq “would turn the whole region into a cauldron,” Michael Ledeen of the American Enterprise Institute responded that “One can only hope that we turn the region into a cauldron, and faster, please. If ever there were a region that richly deserved being cauldronized, it is the Middle East today.” (National Review Online, August 6, 2002.) In an article published the following month in the Wall Street Journal, Ledeen predicted that “The War Won’t End in Baghdad” and called for the overthrow of the governments of Iran, Syria and Lebanon. The Toronto Sun’s foreign editor, Eric Margolis, warns that “Pentagon hardliners are drawing up plans to invade Iran once Iraq and its oil are Žliberated.’ They hope civil war will erupt in Iran, which is riven by bitterly hostile factions, after which a pro-U.S. regime will take power. If this does not occur, then Iraq-based U.S. forces will be ideally positioned to attack Iran. Or, they could just as well move west and invade Syria”.” (November 10, 2002)

The incredible arrogance of these plans is breathtaking, as is the absurd belief of Ledeen and others that “If we come to Baghdad, Damascus and Tehran as liberators, we can expect overwhelming popular support.” The reality is that Washington will be viewed by the vast majority of the people in the region as an imperial conqueror. New York Times’ superhawk Thomas Friedman insists, however, that a war will deliver democracy to the whole Arab world:

It is not unreasonable to believe that if the U.S. removed Saddam and helped Iraqis build not an overnight democracy but a more accountable, progressive and democratizing regime, it would have a positive, transforming effect on the entire Arab world—a region desperately in need of a progressive model that works. (January 22, 2003)
This must appear as an outlandish notion to the Iranians who suffered decades under the U.S.-backed shah, the people of the American allied Gulf states who live to this day under some of the world’s most repressive regimes and Iraqis themselves who remember the years when Saddam was funded and armed by Washington. As historian Said K. Aburish explains it, “To the West”stability means governments which behave in a predictable manner and ones whose systems preclude the emergence of forces that are opposed to the West or wish to deal with it on an equal basis. Stability means dictatorships and an ensuing coercion of the people which eliminates the chances of attaining legitimacy or democracy.” The U.S. can never accept genuine democracies in any of these countries, since this would threaten its control of the region’s resources.

U.S. imperial ambitions extend far beyond the Middle East. While Iraq is the current focus of the U.S. war machine, Washington is also lending its support to the attempt by business leaders to overthrow the populist government of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, escalating its intervention against left-wing guerrillas in Colombia, and provoking a major confrontation with North Korea. Over the longer-term, the neo-conservative hawks in the Bush administration see the key goal as preventing China from emerging as the dominant power in Asia. Iraq for them truly is only the beginning.

But the Bush Doctrine represents a huge gamble for the U.S. ruling class and it will be faced with major problems in the months and years ahead. The outcome of a war against Iraq is far from certain. Even if Washington gains a quick military victory, a prolonged occupation of the country could spark popular resistance in Iraq and throughout the region. U.S. ambitions in Venezuela have been set back for now and the Bush administration is calling for previously unwanted negotiations with North Korea. Domestically, the Bush administration is already facing the first antiwar stirrings in the labor movement, with more than 70 local and regional unions initiating U.S. Labor Against War. The growing anxiety over the recession, crumbling schools and an escalating health care crisis could threaten the Bush administration’s plans further. Even now, the pages of mainstream newspapers and magazines are filled with speculation about the responses to Bush’s “class warfare” tax giveaway to the wealthy.

Whatever the precise course of events, there’s one thing we do know. Bush’s plans for war will mean the slaughter of tens of thousands abroad and continuing attacks on living standards and civil liberties at home. Whether the administration can get away with this will depend on the level of opposition that develops in the Middle East, around the world, and crucially here in the U.S. itself. The antiwar movement of the 1960s and 1970s played a crucial role in defeating U.S. imperialism in Vietnam and demonstrating that the world’s biggest superpower was not invincible. Over the past few months we have seen the impressive growth of a new antiwar movement in this country. The urgent task before U.S. is to build it bigger and stronger to demonstrate that U.S. imperialism is no more invincible today.

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