“America does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is well wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own."
— John Quincy Adams
A century ago, the British economist John Hobson wrote an essay that debunked the conventional wisdom that England’s imperial project was a profitable venture. Using facts and figures from officially published government statistics, he basically went about proving his thesis by using a cost-benefit analysis approach to determine the aggregate cost of maintaining British colonies. He then compared them to the aggregate profits that accrued to the British people and to certain sectors of the English economy. While certain colonies were profit centers, most of them generated losses. His conclusion was that, as a national project, the colonies were a financial drain on the government’s coffers and had a negative impact on the British economy. In strictly financial terms, Britain’s imperial project was a losing proposition that bled the nation’s coffers even if did benefit certain domestic financial interests and industries.
If Hobson was still around, he might have done us the favor of undertaking a similar review of America’s imperial venture in the Gulf. Is it a profitable enterprise? More precisely, was it a profitable venture that has now turned sour? Unfortunately Hobson is no longer with us, so all we can do is apply his techniques and perform our own cost-benefit analysis.
Exaggerating America’s dependence on Saudi oil
One of the enduring myths about America’s imperial adventures in the Gulf is that they serve to secure energy supplies that are vital to our national security and the health of the economy. Yet, a review of the Department of Energy’s own figures for 2004 reveals that the United States imports more oil from Canada than from Saudi Arabia. Mexico is our second major supplier and Saudi Arabia and Venezuela tie for third place. In fact, 37% of the twenty million barrels of oil we consume every day comes from domestic oil production. In comparison, petroleum from the Gulf – including Saudi crude -” accounted for only 12% of our total oil consumption in 2004 and less than 5% of our total energy requirements.
In terms of total energy use, the figures are startling. In all, the United States consumed 99,000 trillion Btu of energy in 2004 -” with oil contributing 40,000 trillion of total consumption. For 60% of all energy requirements, we depend on nuclear energy, natural gas, coal and hydroelectric power. In contrast, the 1.5 million barrels of oil we import from Saudi Arabia every day satisfies only 3% of our daily energy fix and Saudi crude accounts for just 7% of America’s oil requirements. Again -” all these figures are calculated using the statistics provided by the Department of Energy.
This might come as a surprise, but America produces 70% of the energy we use right here in the United States of America. In fact, domestic energy supplies give the United States a comparative trade advantage against many industrialized countries like Japan, China, Italy, South Korea, Germany and India -” which are almost entirely dependent on imported oil and natural gas. If our per capita use of energy was equal to that of German consumers, the United States would have surplus energy supplies available to export to less fortunately endowed countries.
Another important point to keep in mind is that even if America didn’t purchase a single barrel of Gulf crude – additional oil can be readily purchased from alternative producers. During the Arab oil embargo in 1973, the oil giants simply diverted non-Arab oil tankers to American ports. Since then, The United States has instituted a defensive policy of diversifying the sources of oil imports. Over half of our oil imports come from the Western Hemisphere. Combined with domestic oil production -” two out of every three barrels of oil consumed by the American market come from North and South America. Moreover, America’s strategic oil reserves act as an insurance policy to handle any temporary disruption of Middle Eastern oil.
In the event that the United States is ever excluded from having equal access to Gulf oil reserves, the region’s petroleum products would still make it to international markets. A case in point is Iranian oil and pre-invasion Iraqi oil. Officially, we didn’t buy oil from either country -” but they still exported their crude. It really doesn’t matter where oil supplies come from -” the only real factor that counts in oil pricing is aggregate global supply from all sources and aggregate global demand. One of the reasons for the recent spike in oil prices has nothing to do with access to supplies -” which continue to grow even though our invasion of Iraq has actually reduced the amount of oil coming out of Mesopotamian oil fields. As any oil trader will tell you, it is the demand for oil from emerging economic giants like China and India that has driven this market. In the case of China, imports rose 16% in 2004. Which begs the question: should we blockade oil to the Chinese market to alleviate pressures on aggregate supplies?
With the exception of oil exporters like Canada and Great Britain, the United States is far less dependent on Gulf oil than the vast majority of industrialized nations. Europe, Japan, China and India are infinitely more vulnerable to any disruption in the flow from the Gulf region. How then is one to explain the aversion of these economic giants to invading Middle Eastern countries? Is it likely that America’s bloody exploits in the region are altruistic missions to guarantee an uninterrupted flow of oil supplies to competitors like China, Japan, France and Germany?
If one could pour all of America’s annual energy consumption into twenty bottles and line them up against a wall, only one of those bottles would contain the oil we import from the Gulf. It should also be noted that we don’t get that bottle for free -” we pay the same market price as everybody else. So, why spend so much in American blood and treasure for that one single bottle -” instead of trying to get by on the energy content of the other nineteen bottles?
In terms of securing access to vital energy resources – there is no compelling argument to justify America’s military adventures in the Gulf. A total disruption of Middle Eastern oil would only have marginal and temporary consequences for consumers. A national conservation program to improve energy efficiencies by five or six per cent would eliminate any potential damage to the economic health of the nation. Such an effort would not even require any technological breakthroughs. Using hybrid technology -” cars that run on a combination of oil and batteries are already on the market and they get around 50 miles per gallon. A successful energy independence program doesn’t depend on rocket science. It just requires a national will to do without one of the twenty bottles of energy we devour every day -” the bottle that comes from the Gulf region.
So, if direct military intervention in the Gulf isn’t about securing ‘vital’ energy supplies, how exactly does the United States expect to benefit from this increasingly costly intervention in the region?
When America’s role in the Gulf was strictly business
At this point, it helps to review a little history about the birth and origin of the American imperial project in the Gulf. To begin with, it didn’t start out as quest for empire. It began as a business venture and only evolved into an imperial project at the hands of policy makers in Washington.
Until the early fifties, American policy in the region had one single objective -” to assure equitable treatment of American oil companies against their British, Dutch and French rivals. Because the whole region was under British hegemony, the basic mission of the State Department -” which didn’t even bother to set up diplomatic missions in the Gulf countries – was to twist arms in London. The only beneficiaries of all the arm-twisting were the American oil majors that were vying for oil concessions in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait and Bahrain. (Iranian oil was firmly locked up by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company until the CIA restored the Shah to power in 1953).
In ‘The Prize’ -” a must read for those interested in the history of the oil industry –” Daniel Yergin recounts the exploits of Andrew Mellon, who served as American Ambassador to Britain in the early thirties. Ambassador Mellon vigorously intervened with the British government to press the case of Gulf Oil and to help close a deal on a major oil concession with the Emir of Kuwait. At the time, the tiny emirate was a British protectorate. British oil interests resisted the Gulf Oil project because they wanted to reserve for themselves the exclusive right to explore and develop Kuwaiti oil fields. But the British government finally relented and caved in to American pressure. Gulf Oil was given a green light to wrap up the deal. The consummation of the deal can be credited to the tireless efforts of Andrew Mellon. His enthusiasm might have had something to do with the fact that his family owned and managed Gulf Oil. Back then, in the early thirties, the business of America was only business -” especially in the Middle East. It was quite acceptable behavior for an American oil tycoon to press the case of his own family’s company while he was acting as our nation’s envoy to Great Britain.
So, until the fifties, United States involvement in the region was pretty much confined to supporting American oil majors in their business quarrels with the British government and the Anglo-Persian Oil Company. But the strategic value of oil in the military campaigns of World War II did not escape the notice of the Pentagon. Although the newly discovered oil fields in the Gulf had been capped during the war years and played no role in the war effort, their strategic value in the post war era became a focus of policy makers in Washington.
Gulf oil and the Cold War
When the United States emerged triumphant from World II, American oil fields were still pumping two thirds of all international oil supplies. American crude had played a decisive role in winning the war against the oil starved Axis powers. The United States remained a net exporter of oil and petroleum products until the late forties. But the lessons of the war and the emergence of the Soviet Union as a strategic rival compelled the American government to take a new look at Gulf oil reserves. Although American oil production satisfied domestic oil demand, the United States now had a strategic interest in denying Gulf oil to the Russians and insuring a cheap and reliable supply of crude to its European and Asian allies.
As the sun set on the British Empire, the United States maneuvered to establish itself as the dominant power in the Gulf. Roosevelt and Truman initiated the ‘special relationship’ with Saudi Arabia. Even before the war ended, Roosevelt had already informed the British that Saudi oil was ‘ours’. By 1950, Truman was promising King Ibn Saud that “No threat to your Kingdom could occur which would not be a matter of immediate concern to the United States”.
A diminished role for the oil industry
The sheer size of Gulf oil reserves was also cause for active, if indirect, American intervention in the region. Geologists considered oil fields in the region to be “the greatest single prize in all history”. One of the major concerns of American policy makers in the fifties and sixties was the extremely low cost of producing a barrel of Gulf crude. There was genuine alarm that cheap oil from the region would swamp international markets to the detriment of domestic American production.
At the time, American and British oil monopolies determined the level of Gulf oil production -” and they were, of course, the very same companies that controlled the flow of Texas crude. So, the problem of rationing production quotas was initially left to the oil giants. When that didn’t work, the independent oil companies who had no stake in the Middle East forced the government to impose import tariffs and then voluntary quotas. Finally in 1959, the Eisenhower administration was compelled to declare mandatory quotas. Imports were initially limited to 9% of total consumption and most of the quota was satisfied by imports from the Western Hemisphere.
The companies that made up the American ‘oil lobby’ were not monolithic. In fact they were not a single lobby. In one corner, there were the oil majors who had foreign concessions. But there was also a very strong lobby of independent oil companies that only produced oil in Texas or Louisiana. This second lobby was very resistant to any competition from ‘foreign oil.’
The Oil giants had an even bigger headache in the Gulf region. With new restrictions to selling their product in the American market, they were obliged to limit the amount of oil being produced in the Gulf. Which meant they also had to ration production between Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iran. The three countries were always bickering for a bigger slice of the production quotas enforced by American oil companies.
On the one hand, in the fifties and sixties, the oil majors were actually powerful enough to have their own foreign policy and impose production quotas and even sanctions against Gulf oil producers. When Mossadegh’s government nationalized the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in 1951 -” American and British oil monopolies embargoed Iranian oil and increased production in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. The embargo was successful enough to topple Mossadegh and restore the Shah to his throne.
The oil industry’s foreign policy often clashed with the national interest priorities of the United States, which was to support anti-Soviet regimes, no matter how odious. The United States spared no effort to prop up the absolute monarchies in the region -” especially the Shah and the Al Saud clans. They were considered an integral part of the ‘free world’ and stalwart anti-Communist allies. Cold War logic dictated the government’s policy of insuring an interrupted flow of cheap oil to the ‘free world’ -” especially its European allies.
American foreign policy in the region was no longer specifically tailored to align with their oil industry’s agenda. When the governments in the region flexed their sovereign muscles to get a bigger slice of the oil pie, Washington took a fairly neutral stand. As a consequence, the terms of the oil concessions were regularly re-negotiated in favor of the region’s governments.
By the mid-seventies, it was OPEC that determined the level of production -” not the oil majors. The oil majors were reduced to playing a strictly professional role in the discovery, development, transportation, processing and marketing of Gulf crude. And their contractual arrangements with the Gulf monarchs were very similar to the agreements they reached with Venezuela, Indonesia and other oil-exporting companies.
From the end of the war till the fall of the Shah, American policy in the region was to reconcile the cold war agenda, corporate oil interests and the increasing leverage of the oil producing nations -” which gradually gained sovereign control over their oil resources. While the powerful oil lobby in Washington continued to retain considerable influence with American policy makers, their corporate concerns where no longer the only factor that determined the shape of American foreign policy in the region. The oil majors chief concern was to protect their oil concessions. But the US government was more concerned with taking full strategic advantage of “the greatest prize in all history”. It expanded its influence in the region with an eye to preventing the oil plantations from falling in the hands of native leftists and nationalists who might be prone to make alliances with the Soviet Union.
American oil majors became very adroit at rolling with the punches and accommodating political realities in the Gulf. From the early thirties to 1991, they managed to survive British hegemony, the Cold War, revolutions, four Arab-Israeli wars, the unpredictable twists and turns of Pan-Arab nationalism, embargoes and OPEC. They had adapted to the changing terms of their oil concession agreements, which were constantly being amended in favor of the oil producing nations. The oil majors, known as the seven sisters, made it through periods of excess supply and ruinous price wars and other periods of volatile prices driven by excess demand. The secret to their endurance was that they had real competitive advantages in terms of technology, management, marketing, transportation, distribution channels and processing. The Gulf region needed them as much as they needed access to Gulf oil reserves. Throughout this six-decade odyssey, the oil giants never once had cause to call in the Marines.
From proxy wars to direct military intervention
Even after the Iranian revolution, the United States refrained from direct military intervention in the region. To contain Soviet ambitions and prop up the absolute monarchies that controlled the oil plantations, the United States had come to depend on regional allies. The Shah of Iran was supplied with a state of the art arsenal to ward off Soviet threats, challenge Pan-Arab nationalists and confront his own domestic leftist and fundamentalist foes. Throughout the sixties, he allowed secessionist Iraqi Kurds to establish camps in Iran and provided them with arms to fight a civil war against the Baathist regime in Baghdad. He also dispatched his army to Oman to do battle with leftist insurgents. He was the designated regional cop. True enough, he was a despot and depended on the notorious Savak to torture and torment his domestic adversaries – but he was our SOB.
Once Khomeini came into power, America went searching for another regional proxy. Saddam Hussein was nominated to replace the Shah as America’s bouncer in the region. It wasn’t long before he invaded Iran with active encouragement from Washington. During that eight-year conflict -” which resulted in a million fatalities – Saddam developed and used chemical weapons against both Iranians and Kurds. At the time he deployed these illegal weapons -” American military advisers were stationed in Iraq to provide battlefield intelligence to Iraqi forces. The dispatch of American advisers to assist Saddam’s war effort can be considered the first episode of direct American military intervention in the Gulf region.
By the time the Iran-Iraq war ended, Khomeini was effectively contained and the Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse. The cold war rationale of confronting Soviet mischief in the Gulf had disappeared. But there was one problem. Due to American and European arms sales, Saddam emerged from the war with a strong and battle-tested army. The only thing that restrained his ambitions was the 300 billion-dollar debt that Iraq had piled up during the war. A considerable portion of that money was borrowed from his Gulf Arab ‘brothers’. He wanted the loans forgiven or rescheduled on more favorable terms. But the United States, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia wanted to leverage his ruinous debt to contain his adventurous spirit. When they refused to reschedule the loans, Saddam went off the wall and invaded Kuwait.
The United States responded to this alarming development by embarking on its first major direct military intervention in the region. They destroyed the Iraqi Army and evicted it from Kuwait, restoring the emir to his throne as the absolute monarch of his realm. After the war, they forced Saddam Hussein to give up his chemical arsenal and imposed genocidal sanctions that cost the lives of another 500,000 Iraqis. No fly zones were imposed on Iraq, the Kurds were allowed to set up their own state within a state and permanent American bases were built in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain.
The war to ‘liberate Kuwait’ was virtually cost free in terms of dollars and cents. The Al Sabah and Al Saudi ruling clans were more than happy to pick up the $ 60 billion tab. The permanent American bases established in the region were also financed by the Gulf monarchies.
By 1991, America had neutralized the threats from both Iraq and Iran. With the fall of the Berlin wall, there was no longer any concern about Soviet adventurism in the region. The United States had gained direct strategic control of all Gulf oil resources at very minimal cost. Washington policy makers were delighted at how efficiently their forces had managed to conduct their first mission. Skeptics had warned of ‘another Vietnam’ and unpredictable reactions from the long dormant ‘Arab Street’. But nothing happened -” at least on the surface. The majority of Arab countries -” including Egypt and Syria -” had no qualms about sending military forces to help oust Saddam from Kuwait. Sure, there were a few angry student demonstrations in Cairo, Amman and Beirut. Other than that, all was quiet on the eastern front.
Justifying direct military intervention in Kuwait
When James Baker was asked to rationalize the war effort he gave a one-word answer “jobs” -” which in American parlance translates into ‘money’. If he mentioned anything about “spreading our democratic values” -” it was inaudible. The war to ‘liberate Kuwait’ was marketed as a venture to uphold international law and set an example to other nations who might be tempted to conquering their neighbors.
But America’s record in the region did not demonstrate any particular aversion to one neighbor invading another. In 1967, the United States gave the green light for the Israeli invasion of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, the Syrian Golan Heights, Jerusalem and the West Bank of Jordan. When Israel proceeded to illegally settle the occupied territories -” the United States provided generous aid to finance a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing aimed at dispossessing the Palestinians from their native lands.
In 1976, The United States gave its blessing to Syria’s intervention in Lebanon. As a reward for participating in the Gulf war, Damascus was allowed to consolidate its position in Lebanon. Greece and Turkey invaded and then partitioned Cyprus in 1974. In 1978 and again in 1982, Israel was given more green lights to invade Lebanon. Outside the region, America turned a blind eye to Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor in 1975. When Iraq invaded Iran in 1980, it was with American blessing and guidance. In a recent interview, Hosny Mubarak revealed that Reagan dispatched Admiral Poindexter to Cairo to prod the Egyptian leader to invade Libya. Mubarak declined the offer.
So, it is safe to conclude that America has never been a consistent fan of the United Nations or international law. The power brokers in Washington never had any allergies against one little country invading another little country. When the United States ‘liberated Kuwait’, Bush the Elder waxed eloquent about the sanctity of UN resolutions and the need to create a ‘New World Order’. A decade later, his son invaded Iraq even after the UN Security Council refused to uphold the legitimacy of the venture. The American attitude towards international law is that it can be convenient or inconvenient but it should never be binding.
Faulty Risk Analysis leads to the 9/11 catastrophe
The policy makers in Washington were aware that America’s direct military intervention in the region would involve a certain amount of risk. The decision to establish permanent bases in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait after the war was especially provocative. In the decade that followed the ‘liberation’ of Kuwait, American troops were attacked in El Khobar and the Cole was nearly sunk. There were devastating suicide bomb attacks against American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Aside from generating a little media sensation, the attacks were considered within the bounds of the initial cost-benefit analysis for the American imperial project in the Gulf.
A decade after the first Gulf war, Al Qaeda terrorists assaulted the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The devastation and mayhem went way beyond the worst case scenario contemplated by the policy wizards in Washington. In their darkest nightmares, they never dreamed they were taking a risk of this magnitude. They later attributed their miscalculations to ‘a failure of the imagination’.
Traumatized Americans wanted answers as to why we were so viciously attacked. In the first few days after the 9/11 terrorist attack, many individuals and a few journalists focused in on the American bases in Saudi Arabia, the genocidal sanctions against Iraq and the repression of the Palestinians. After all, fifteen of the suicidal assailants were Saudi nationals.
Within a week, the Bush administration came up with a much simpler answer. Our hegemony over the region and the Saudi bases had nothing to do with provoking the fanatics who attacked New York and Washington. We had apparently been attacked because of “our way of life and our values”. We were targeted because of who we were – not as a result of our provocative foreign policy. The mainstream mass media -” notably CNN and FOX – led the charge against those who sought to make sense of the assault. The fourth estate got considerable assistance from the fifth estate -” a new force in American politics made up of a handful of self-appointed ‘experts’ who operate the neo-con ‘think tanks’ -” which are nothing more than fronts for the Israeli lobby.
The days and weeks after 9/11 were a lost opportunity to square with the American people. Maybe direct and massive military intervention in the region was more costly than we had originally anticipated. Building permanent bases in Saudi Arabia after liberating Kuwait was not only provocative and arrogant, but also unnecessary. When asked about the cruelty of the genocidal sanctions against Iraq, Madeline Albright had insisted that they were ‘worth it’. Bush’s new policy towards the Israeli/Palestinian conflict was to ‘let them bleed’. Maybe our foreign policy architects had made a big mistake and we should rethink our strategy towards the region.
Against a backdrop of stupefying human and material losses, the time had come for some adults to stand up and take responsibility for a disastrous foreign policy. Instead, we were exposed to the first barrage of a propaganda campaign to convince us that we were attacked because of our ‘values’. The lies and evasions that poured out of Washington after 9/11 were just the beginning of what has to be the most successful propaganda campaign in American history. The media giants and the Bush administration joined forces in a massive assault on our collective common sense. Dissident voices were silenced, maligned and accused of treason. An angry traumatized nation was deprived of an opportunity to take a closer look at our imperial project in the Gulf and assess the real cost of our disastrous intervention in the region.
Responding to 9/11 by invading Iraq
After invading Afghanistan to dismantle Bin Laden’s bases -” the Bush administration turned its attention to Saddam Hussein. He was a secular Baathist and a vicious dictator. But he was also a contained threat who had been denuded of his chemical and biological arsenals. His losses in Kuwait and a decade of sanctions had greatly diminished his army’s conventional capabilities. Anybody remotely familiar with the Middle East knew that Saddam’s alleged ties to the 9/11 atrocity was sophomoric hype.
Islamic fundamentalists disdained Saddam and his Baath party. Moreover, The United Nations had assured the administration that Iraq no longer possessed WMDs. But none of that mattered because Wolfowitz, the architect of the war, determined that “Iraq was doable”. He had actually recommended that Iraq be invaded before Afghanistan. In a rare moment of honesty, he later revealed that the WMD scam was used because it was a “bureaucratic reason everybody could agree on.”
Before long, intelligence was manufactured to back up the case for war against Iraq. There was no intelligence failure. An outfit called the Office of Special Plans was set up in the Pentagon to manufacture and disseminate any story that would rally the public behind the war effort. We can all thank CNN, FOX and their print cousins for collaborating with the government in giving credence to this neo-con engineered farce. The media giants were not only driven by jingoism. Many of them salivated at the prospect of cheaply produced real time footage from the battlefront. Imbedded journalists had discovered a new media frontier – war as reality TV -” a great circus act to draw in the crowds.
Invading Iraq to close the Saudi bases
A year after the war, Republican Congressman Christopher Shays, gave away the real reason for the war in a CNN interview. In an attempt to deflect a question over the non-existent WMDs, Shays gave the answer. " We knew we needed to get out of Saudi Arabia. That was one of the contentions of Osama bin Laden.” The Iraq war was also an excellent way to remove the sanctions -” another Bin Laden grievance and another by-product of the war to ‘Liberate Kuwait’. In effect, we had ignited a second Gulf war to remove the Saudi bases that we established after our first major military intervention in the region. One Gulf war had given birth to another more deadly encounter.
Congressman Shays, a strong advocate of the war and a favorite with the Bush administration, was right on the money. Two days before Bush declared an end to "major combat operations in Iraq"; Rumsfeld landed in Saudi Arabia to make a low-key announcement that the Prince Sultan Air Base would be closed. It wasn’t long before the sanctions were removed. Moreover, the build-up to the war had allowed the United States to build a new base in Qatar to replace the Saudi facility.
Manufacturing demons abroad
Terrorism is very much a political phenomenon. Much like tsunamis, it doesn’t rise out of thin air. The recent natural disaster in Asia was caused by friction between the India and Burma Tectonic plates. Likewise, Al Qaeda’s rank and file originated from a part of the world where the United States has engaged in aggressive military intervention on a massive scale.
The Al Qaeda phenomenon is a particularly lethal and extremist kind of terrorism. Gone are the days when hijackers would divert a plane to Algiers or Havana, issue a list of demands, negotiate and then set the passengers free. The 19 suicidal terrorists who attacked the WTC and the Pentagon let it be known that they had certain grievances. The presence of American bases in Saudi Arabia, the genocidal sanctions and the brutal repression of the Palestinians enraged them. But unlike an earlier generation of hijackers, they had no intention of negotiating or even landing their planes. They were just hell bent on taking vengeance against innocent Americans.
One can argue about whether American foreign policy in the region is principled. Some might take the position that even if our policies were unprincipled, they served the national interest. But it is ingenuous to take the position that our adventures in the Gulf region did not enrage the assailants. Condemning the slaughter of innocents who had nothing to do with authoring our foreign policy does not preclude taking a rational look at the origins of Al Qaeda.
Al Qaeda never had cause to attack Germany -” where the 9/11 conspiracy was hatched. The notion that we were assaulted because of ‘our way of life’ does not square with the cultural reality that the citizens of Munich and Berlin enjoy a way of life very similar to our own. Canada and Sweden were not attacked. But we were -” because Al Qaeda had grievances against our foreign policy and our military presence in their countries.
Despite the attempts to divert attention from the foreign policy environment that manufactures demons abroad, Washington decision-makers knew they had to address the grievances of Al Qaeda after 9/11. They began by dismantling the Saudi bases because, as Congressman Shays explained, “We knew we needed to get out of Saudi Arabia.”
In a way, Tsunamis are more terrifying than Al Qaeda because there is precious little that can be done to prevent them. But terrorism is a man made disaster. In Afghanistan, the ‘war on terrorism’ diminished the power of Bin Laden to cause havoc. But it has given birth to a new outbreak of terror attacks by suicide bombers -” who shed blood on the streets of Baghdad almost every day. True enough, the victims are not usually Americans -” but they are still victims of the same kind of individuals who attacked New York and Washington on 9/11. Worldwide terrorist attacks have actually increased since the invasion of Iraq.
The establishment of Saudi bases and the enforcement of the murderous sanctions were policies designed to implement our imperial project in the Gulf. Until 9/11, they appeared to be ‘low cost -” high reward’ elements of a strategy to insure American hegemony in the oil rich region. After all, the Saudis and Kuwaitis were picking up the tab for the American garrisons that enforced the sanctions and contained Saddam Hussein.
After 9/11, the Bush administration could have come clean with the American people and admitted that the Saudi bases should be closed and the sanctions had to be lifted. Even before the terror attacks, Colin Powell was actively looking for a formula to enforce ‘intelligent sanctions’ to alleviate the suffering caused by the genocidal sanctions.
George Bush could have explained to the public that the invasion of Iraq was motivated by the need to take ‘corrective measures’ to salvage an imperial project gone sour. But the power brokers in Washington had no intention of giving up on American hegemony in the Gulf. Neither were they inclined to conduct a public audit of the real costs of our direct intervention in the region. A cost-benefit analysis of our real or imagined ‘national interests’ in the region might have caused most Americans to tar and feather the authors of our foreign policy. So, we ended up invading Iraq on false pretexts and dug a deeper hole that has only increased the cost of our unnecessary and unprofitable presence in the region.
Debunking the ‘New New Lie’ for invading Iraq
The Bush administration never anticipated Iraqi resistance -” much less a full-blown insurgency. The neo-con architects of the war had promised a ‘cake-walk’. They expected a replay of the Kuwaiti project in 1991. When things turned sour, they went into denial. With no WMDs and no Iraqi links to the 9/11 attacks, new questions arose about the cause of the war. Again, Bush had a simple answer. We fought the war to spread the blessings of liberty and democracy to the Middle East. These days, Bush apologists have been raving about how democracy is spreading like wild fire in the Middle East as a direct result of our intervention.
Bush’s ‘new new lie’ for invading Iraq to spread democracy came from an unlikely source. By his own admission, the president was inspired by his pal Natan Sharansky, a radical right wing extremist and a passionate advocate of the Israeli settler movement. Sharansky just resigned his cabinet seat to protest Sharon’s plan to finally withdraw from Gaza. Apparently extending freedom and liberty to the Palestinians – on 2% of their ancestral lands and on Sharon’s miserly terms -” was too much for the real author of the ‘Bush Sharansky’ doctrine. So much for the ‘moral clarity’ of Bush’s highest guru.
I was recently in Lebanon and had an opportunity to discuss this notion with a group of young Lebanese intellectuals. One of them, a lecturer at the American University of Beirut, volunteered that when the Iraq came up in the nightly news, he would simply flip the channel. He just wasn’t interested. His companions, all members of the opposition, agreed that they had more pressing strictly Lebanese issues on their minds. It wasn’t that they were indifferent to the suffering of the Iraqi people -” but they hardly needed the invasion to teach them ‘democratic values’.
Iraqi democracy has a long way to go before it rises to the level of Lebanon’s long if imperfect democratic tradition. In fact, many Lebanese -” who took great personal risk in joining the protests in Beirut – resent Bush for taking credit for their historic and heroic uprising. The hundreds of thousands of Lebanese who took to the streets of Beirut did so out of outrage at the assassination of Rafiq El Hariri. For Bush, Lebanon was a gravy train he could hop to escape the quagmire in the Gulf. If there is foreign leader who deserves partial credit for restoring Lebanese sovereignty and independence -” it is Chirac of France -” not Bush of Baghdad.
Watching mainstream journalists ape the ‘Bush Sharansky’ doctrine is at once revolting and amusing. Take Egypt, where Mubarak is entertaining the idea of doing away with rubber stamp referendums in favor of direct elections with multiple candidates. It’s still only a proposal to amend the constitution and the country continues to be ruled under draconian emergency laws. Security forces regularly disband demonstrators and arrest their leaders.
As for the mockery of the recent municipal elections staged in Saudi Arabia -” only males were allowed to vote for half the seats. The royal family will appoint the remaining council seats. So, even when it comes to picking up garbage and issuing building permits -” the Saudi ruling family is not about to relinquish any significant amount of power.
If we had wanted to promote democracy in the ‘Greater Middle East’, we had fifteen years to convince the Al Sabah clan in Kuwait to get with the program. The rubber stamp Kuwaiti assembly just voted to continue denying women the right to vote in sham elections. Three months after Iraqi elections, the results are still not clear and an ‘interim’ cabinet -” charged mainly with writing a constitution – has just been formed. But it seems clear that Iranian backed fundamentalists will shape the future of post-Saddam Iraq.
Invading Iraq for the war party
Pro-Israeli lobbies and think tanks and their many allies in the media clearly factor prominently in shaping American policies in the Middle East. Any chaos in the region allows Israel to proceed with its expansionist plans and diverts attention from the systematic repression of the Palestinians.
But the Israeli lobby’s main leverage comes from its ability to sway public opinion with mass media campaigns to market foreign policy agendas that favor Israel. While it helps to have the Israeli lobby and the neo-con operatives on your side in any policy argument -” the lobby’s legendary political clout in Washington is not enough to launch a war in the Gulf. Israel’s ‘amen corner’ played a major role in marketing the war and manufacturing deliberately misleading intelligence. But the United States did not invade Iraq simply to fulfill Ariel Sharon’s real estate fantasies. When it comes to the big picture, many American officials are completely indifferent as to who should gain possession of a few hundred square miles in the Holy Land.
Much has also been made of the right wing bigots of the Judeo-Christian identity movement and their agenda to hasten the coming of Armageddon by igniting the already volatile Middle East. The Christian Right is definitely a powerful constituency but when it comes to their foreign policy clout -” they are just useful idiots easily manipulated by cynical policy makers. Their role in this farce is to drum up a chorus to engage in a well orchestrated “culture clash” with the Islamic fundamentalists in the region. Sure enough, paranoids in the Arab world are convinced that the United States has embarked on a program to destroy Islam -” as if Islam was some fragile belief system. Al Arabia and El Jezzira, both financed by Gulf royal families, have spent the last three years discussing nothing but cultural imperialism and the ‘sinister’ American initiative to spread democracy to the region. In the process, six decades of American intrigue in the Gulf has been reduced to some bizarre inter-clerical dispute.
This whole ‘culture clash’ frenzy is a very convenient diversionary tactic to avoid a serious debate on a very simple question. Why do we even have an American imperial project in the Gulf?