Why the War Works

The Pentagon's Path From Osama to Saddam

So if you can't use your main military base to carry out military operations, what good is it? That's a problem. And if those military operations turn the local population against our local allies, in this case the royal family, that's a potential crisis.

The solution, of course, is to remove the troops from the area. But for that to happen prudently—and this is the point argued by the institute's study—the U.S. must first remove Saddam, who is ostensibly the reason we're in Saudi Arabia in the first place.

illustration Mirko Ilic

As the paper explains, "Under present conditions, the U.S. military footprint in the Gulf is determined by the military concept of operations for the region's defense against Iraq."

The document fills an interesting niche in the ongoing debate over the region. While endorsing regime change in Iraq, it does so for the sake of Saudi stability. By insisting on the importance of maintaining the U.S.-Saudi "special relationship," it thereby aligns itself with the traditional priorities of the U.S. military, security, and diplomatic communities. All agree on the urgent need to lighten the military footprint.

But many of the neoconservative hawks who have, over the years, pushed hardest for Saddam's removal have no such regard for the fine points of Saudi legitimacy. Their priority is the U.S. force posture in the region, and politics be damned.

In September 2000, the Project for a New American Century released a 90-page study called "Rebuilding America's Defenses." Many of its recommendations have since become Bush policy, and several of the project's participants—Paul Wolfowitz, I. Lewis Libby—have become major players in the administration. "Although Saudi domestic sensibilities demand that the forces based in the Kingdom nominally remain rotational forces," the report said, "it has become apparent that this is now a semi-permanent mission. From an American perspective, the value of such bases would endure even should Saddam pass from the scene."

A few days after September 11, Wolfowitz and Libby jump-started the campaign against Saddam. In a series of meetings convened by Richard Perle's influential Defense Policy Board and attended by Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, they argued—to the intense consternation of Colin Powell—for an American seizure of oil fields in southern Iraq. The oil would then be sold, they proposed, to finance an Iraqi opposition movement that would topple Saddam.

However cold their feelings might run in private about Saddam Hussein, the Saudi royals have always opposed the current military campaign against him. Their main objection has been that the U.S. has no coherent plan to replace him, and so would only bring chaos to the region. And to the Saudis, the Americans are never less coherent than when they make the case for an Iraqi opposition.

But Saudi caveats count for little in neoconservative circles. For some, the destabilizing effect could even bring advantages. "Removing the regime of Saddam Hussein and helping construct a decent Iraqi society and economy would be a tremendous step toward reducing Saudi leverage," William Kristol, The Weekly Standard's influential editor, said in congressional testimony in May. "Bringing Iraqi oil fully into world markets would improve energy economics. From a military and strategic perspective, Iraq is more important than Saudi Arabia."

This would certainly be in keeping with administration energy policy, which has been skeptical about sanctions and desperate to bring Persian Gulf reserves to the world market. "One possible consequence of a U.S. takeover in Iraq," oil analyst Obaid told the Voice, "could be to undercut Saudi Arabia by boosting Iraqi oil capacity. The idea is to cut back on Saudi influence over crude oil prices."

Other oil experts see a potential Saudi-Iraqi price war as beneficial to both countries, who would drive more expensive producers out of business while increasing market share. There are always many opinions about what could happen in the future.

Likewise, there are many scenarios about what shape U.S. military bases might take in a post-Saddam Persian Gulf. Some analysts hope we will maintain a lowered presence in the kingdom; others propose a return to our pre-Gulf War posture—ready, willing, and "over the horizon." Still others, including Kenneth Pollack, an author of the institute report, urge a long-term military occupation of Iraq, which would become America's new pillar in the Gulf.

So what will happen? Who knows? The future is as hard to fathom as the recent past or, weirdly, the present. Is Osama, through the Saudi people, actually driving U.S. policy? Good heavens, no. The hard line in the administration has always seen September 11 as an opportunity (that's their job), and played it accordingly. Or as Paul Wolfowitz mused a few months before Bush's election, "Just stop for two seconds and think about how we would be viewing the Persian Gulf right now if Iraq were like Egypt . . . "

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