Why the War Works

The Pentagon's Path From Osama to Saddam

Even as President Bush strong-armed the UN last week into passing a virtual declaration of war, he left much of the world unconvinced of his reasoning for attacking Iraq. Why are we so eager to take up arms? To protect ourselves against Saddam Hussein, who the commander in chief says is poised to strike with weapons of mass destruction? The imminence of the threat remains unproven. Because, as many on the left aver, we covet Iraq's 0il reserves? That's just a vague cliché.

Perhaps a fuller explanation hinges neither on oil nor on weapons of mass destruction, but on geopolitical necessity. Exactly how this is so is the subject of a very elegant paper released in September by the Institute for National Strategic Studies, part of the Pentagon's National Defense University. Entitled "Beyond Containment: Defending U.S. Interests in the Persian Gulf," it neatly summarizes the historical and strategic factors affecting U.S. decision-making in the region. And though its authors may read these words in horror, their work may be the closest American strategists have yet come to explaining why we're taking out Saddam.

"For the U.S., there is no escaping the role of security guarantor of the Gulf for the foreseeable future," the report states. "But trying to guarantee that security through a large-scale, visible, and permanent-looking U.S. presence will erode security, undermine security relationships with key Gulf States, impede needed political reforms, stir domestic opposition within Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States, and feed anti-American Islamic extremism. . . .

illustration Mirko Ilic

"If the continued survival of the Saddam Husayn regime (or a hostile successor regime) extracts huge costs for regional security, success in removing him and his circle would yield an enormous payoff. It would not eliminate all problems from the region, but it would drastically reduce the requirement for U.S. military forces to deal with the problems that remained."

Though this report has been made public (it's online at www.ndu.edu/inss/press/Spelreprts/SR_03.htm), you won't hear its nuanced conclusions discussed much by the current administration. Instead, the president continues to draw a broad link between an attack on Iraq and Osama bin Laden's attack on us. The act of deposing Saddam has become part of the war on terror, and not without reason. For in truth that is a war Osama declared on us, three years before 9-11, in part over our conduct not only toward Saudi Arabia, but also in Iraq.

illustration by Dave Henderson
In his 1998 call for jihad against "Jews and Crusaders," Osama boldly iterated his complaints against America. "First," the fatwa began, "for more than seven years, the United States has occupied the lands of Islam in the holiest of its territories, Arabia, plundering its riches, overwhelming its rulers, humiliating its people, threatening its neighbors, and using its bases in the peninsula as a spearhead to fight against neighboring Islamic peoples."

This was a reference to U.S. military forces that remained in Saudi Arabia after the Gulf War, at UN behest, on land that had been virtually off-limits to infidel troops. Their mission was and is Operation Southern Watch, which patrols and sometimes bombs Iraq's southern no-fly zone.

"Second," Osama continued, "despite the immense destruction inflicted on the Iraqi people . . . and in spite of the appalling number of dead . . . the Americans nevertheless, in spite of all this, are trying once more to repeat this dreadful slaughter."

That proved a prescient reflection of America's growing frustration with UN sanctions, which were clearly failing to contain Saddam. Eight months after Osama issued his fatwa, President Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act, breaking with UN policy and making regime change the stated aim of the U.S. government. This measure provides the legal basis for President Bush's insistence that, when it comes to war on Iraq, we will go it alone if we have to.

And though the world has been transfixed for more than a year by America's slow-motion rush to battle, it is worth remembering that for decades our interests in Saudi Arabia have shaped our policy toward Iraq, and that for the last 10 years we have been fighting Saddam from Saudi Arabia. The connection between the two powers isn't often made in the media, but it is common enough knowledge among both the followers of Osama and the policy-planners in the Pentagon.

The institute report is clear on the need to lower our Mideast profile without relinquishing our presence. "Regardless of how regime change occurs in Iraq—whether it happens quickly and decisively or is protracted and messy—and whatever type of post-Saddam regime finally emerges," argue the authors, "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."

The U.S. has always considered the Persian Gulf vital to national security. Ten years ago, a document called the Defense Planning Guidance—drafted for then secretary of defense Dick Cheney by then and current assistant secretary Paul Wolfowitz—was the first documentation of America's intention to unilaterally dominate the world, and when parts of it were leaked by The New York Times, it created a firestorm. Referring to the Persian Gulf, it read, "Our overall objective is to remain the predominant outside power in the region, and preserve U.S. and Western access to the region's oil."

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