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…
“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, 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.”
Yet today, the U.S. has almost no access to Iranian or Iraqi oil, and our very efforts to gain that access are threatening our traditional ties to the Saudi mother lode. By getting rid of Saddam, the U.S. not only puts Iraqi oil in play but gains leverage over Iran. We could stop bombing Saddam from the bases in Saudi Arabia, and thus lighten if not erase our military presence in the kingdom. Further, we get a more open field in Iraq, with the possibility of remaking not only that country but the region in our image.
“If the U.S. has to leave Saudi Arabia, the plan is to encircle it,” explained Nawaf Obaid, a bright young oil and political analyst based in Geneva. “That’s what the war on terror is for. Any place with a terrorist presence will also have a military base: It’s tied in to a master plan to put bases throughout the region.”
Indeed, dozens of military bases have sprung up in the region since the Gulf War. The command-and-control center of the network is Prince Sultan Air Base, 50 miles southeast of the Saudi capital of Riyadh, and home of Operation Southern Watch. Other bases are in Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, and the far-off Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia. Still others are being developed from Yemen to the Caucasus to Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.
Among them, Prince Sultan Air Base stands alone, distinguished not just by the undisclosed number of aircraft operating out of there, nor by its billion-dollar electronic infrastructure (which was able to direct the details of the air war over Afghanistan, 1400 miles away). Rather, as Osama noted and as its name implies, it’s set apart by the fact that it is a Saudi, not an American, base. The $112 million in construction costs, like much of the expense of Operation Southern Watch, was borne by the Saudi government, which is thus in the position of containing us as we contain Saddam. And since the killing of 19 Americans in the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing, British, French, and American air force personnel have been quarantined at the base, protected by security upgrades from the Bin Laden Group, the local construction conglomerate.
Through the 1990s, Saudi Arabia became a less and less comfortable place for American servicemen. Slumping oil prices from the mid ’80s to the late ’90s caused a drastic fall in average personal Saudi income, from $19,000 in 1981 to $7300 in 1997. At the same time, a phenomenal 4.4 percent annual increase in the population made Saudi Arabia one of the youngest countries in the world, with 43 percent of its people under 15 years old. Unemployment is pandemic among its youth, who live in a newly mediatized world that feeds them nonstop imagery of Israeli atrocities against the Palestinians and miseries wreaked on Iraq through sanctions and bombing.
In 1995, the very pro-American King Fahd suffered a stroke, which put his half-brother, Crown Prince Abdullah, in charge of the kingdom. There were significant differences between the two. Abdullah had a reputation as a reformer who had long been disgusted by the corruption saturating the royal family. He was also more sensitive to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Abdullah is considered to be more pious than his predecessor, and therefore more respectful of the conservative Wahhabi clergy, whose cultural influence has only grown since the Islamic victory in Afghanistan.
In the ’90s, buoyed by proxy military victories over the Iranians in the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988, the Soviets in 1989, and the Iraqis in 1991, Saudi Arabia assumed a central position in the Muslim world. At the same time, mired in a cruel and pointless policy of “dual containment” toward Iran and Iraq, and especially by an outrageous partiality toward Israel, America has watched as its influence in the kingdom steadily wanes.
The Saudi royal family derives its legitimacy from its stewardship of the holy land of Arabia, and especially of Mecca and Medina, the two most sacred sites in Islam. So an infidel presence is not lightly tolerated. Before the Gulf War, the admission of over half a million U.S. troops into the kingdom involved some pretty heavy wrangling with the ulema, the local clergy whose support is critical for the royal family.
That some of these troops still remain in the kingdom 11 years later — there are about 5000 Americans at Prince Sultan — casts doubt on the royal family’s ability to protect the holy land, and therefore on the legitimacy of the house of Saud. But that the royal family might allow Americans to make war on Muslim countries — Iraq, Afghanistan — that had not attacked America (let alone Saudi Arabia) would be, to population and ulema alike, unimaginable, unacceptable, and ultimately, anathema.
It hasn’t worked out for anyone. In 1994, when U.S. satellite imagery found Saddam massing troops near the Kuwaiti border, the royal family forbade any military countermeasure. In 1996, when Iraq mounted incursions against Irbil, a Kurdish town in the northern no-fly zone, the Saudis refused us the use of their bases. In 1998, during Operation Desert Fox (begun after the UN withdrew its weapons inspectors), no strikes were mounted from Saudi territory. And throughout the campaign in Afghanistan, U.S. planes flying from Prince Sultan were limited to providing support and surveillance functions.
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.
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…”