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 k / o
                                       politics + culture

Monday, September 26, 2005

the United States, Iraq, and the post-oil Middle East

One observation you can make in the ongoing debate on all sides about the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq...questions of if, when, how, where, and in what context...is how far removed from the context of any global, cooperative, far-sighted solution we've come. U.N. Special Envoy Sergio de Mello was killed in this bombing in Baghdad in August of 2003. As a result of which, the U.N. withdrew most of its outside personnel from Iraq for months. Since that time, a time in which the Bush administration spearheaded the nomination of "anti-U.N." ambassador John Bolton to the U.N. and the U.S. Congress has pushed the "oil-for-food" scandal onto the front pages (as if the "real scandal in Iraq" was the U.N. all along), no one has had much of anything constructive to say about U.N. involvement in helping bring an end to the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

The answer, then, to the question of "when" the U.S. will effectively withdraw from Iraq in this context is: not any time soon. At the start of the war the Pentagon was unambiguous about what kind of military presence it intended to build:

"The United States is planning a long-term military relationship with the emerging government of Iraq, one that would grant the Pentagon access to military bases and project American influence into the heart of the unsettled region, senior Bush administration officials say.

American military officials, in interviews this week, spoke of maintaining perhaps four bases in Iraq that could be used in the future: one at the international airport just outside Baghdad; another at Tallil, near Nasiriya in the south; the third at an isolated airstrip called H-1 in the western desert, along the old oil pipeline that runs to Jordan; and the last at the Bashur air field in the Kurdish north. [snip]

Whether that can be arranged depends on relations between Washington and whoever takes control in Baghdad. If the ties are close enough, the military relationship could become one of the most striking developments in a strategic revolution now playing out across the Middle East and Southwest Asia, from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean.
A military foothold in Iraq would be felt across the border in Syria, and, in combination with the continuing United States presence in Afghanistan, it would virtually surround Iran with a new web of American influence.

"There will be some kind of a long-term defense relationship with a new Iraq, similar to Afghanistan," said one senior administration official. "The scope of that has yet to be defined whether it will be full-up operational bases, smaller forward operating bases or just plain access." (NYT, April, 2003, linked above)


Presidential candidate John Kerry made it clear in the first debate that renouncing the intention to build such bases was a lynchpin in navigating an end to the U.S. occupation. That point of view was recently echoed by Larry Diamond, author of Squandered Victory: the American Occupation and the Bungled Effort to bring Democracy to Iraq in an excellent discussion piece at TPM cafe. More importantly, as Juan Cole noted in March of this year, key Iraqi political leaders have expressed no desire to see permanent U.S. bases:

Le Monde reported Monday that Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the cleric who leads the United Iraqi Alliance, rejects a long-term presence for US troops in Iraq:

"Permanent American bases in Iraq? The question seems so incongruous to His Most Austere "Eminence Abdul Aziz Al-Hakim," (as the leader of the Shiite party which won the January 30 elections identifies himself on his visiting card) that he almost bursts out laughing. "Ha! Ha! No. No one in Iraq desires the establishment of permanent foreign bases on our land. The United Nations Security Council resolutions are clear: it will be up to the elected Iraqi government, when the time comes, to give those forces a specific departure date. As soon as possible."


What is the current Bush administration policy? No one really knows. They've seemed to be running on a hope and a prayer in Iraq since the day Baghdad fell. But the construction of "enduring U.S. bases" noted in the Christian Science Monitor last September continues into the present day across the Middle East. In the absence of any clear policy statement, that is the best sign of the Bush Administration's intentions.

Michael Klare, author of Blood and Oil: the Dangers and Consequences of America's Growing Dependency on Imported Petroleum, recently wrote two excellent pieces that appeared on ZNet, More Blood, Less Oil and the Twilight Era of Petroleum. These essays outline how United States energy policy, whether we avow it or not, is increasingly dependent on global competition for oil and natural gas resources from the Persian Gulf and Central Asia. In the face of U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the Bush Administration's "go it alone, anti-U.N." line, not to mention its "pro-consumption" energy policies, the subject of U.S. military engagement in the Middle East and how that engagement ties to "energy security," ie. oil, is really reduced to the age old question:

Who are you going to believe...Bush...or your lying eyes?

Much digital ink has been spilled in the context of the the Cindy Sheehan inspired anti-war protests about how and when the United States might withdraw from Iraq. This debate between Juan Cole and Michael Schwartz represents one end of the spectrum of debate. General Wesley Clark and the above-mentioned discussion started by Larry Diamond represents another. They all make interesting and valid points which I will follow up on in parts two and three of this essay.

My position has been that defining a successful, international, peaceful context for the end of U.S. occupation of Iraq is success in Iraq. That being said, in light of the sources and discussion linked above, especially the reality that the United States and every industrial nation in the world is hopelessly dependent on Middle Eastern petroleum in the near and middle term, the answer is not so simple, and will never be so simple, as a position that simply says, "bring the troops home now." We need to step back and look deep down the road. We need to identify the start points.

Pulling back, these are the major foci of the Iraq debate:

  • The U.S. military presence in Iraq and the Middle East. "Enduring bases" that will be built to endure, let's face it, till the oil and gas are gone.
  • U.S. hegemony in Iraq and Afghanistan and, to varying degrees, other Persian Gulf and Central Asian states
  • The world economy's need for regional stability in the Persian Gulf and Central Asia
  • Increasing global competition for the oil and natural gas resources in the Gulf, competition that will only intensify in the years to come
  • Jihadist resistance to foreign presence in the muslim Middle East, including the use of terrorism outside the region
  • The division of the Middle East into "oil-rich" and "oil-poor" states, none of them particularly democratic or the possessor of a modern economy
  • The continued failure to find an equitable long-term settlement to the Irsael/Palestinian conflict
  • The U.S. / British alliance to "go it alone" in Iraq and cut out both our allies and the United Nations
  • The lack of a plan, on any front, for building a successful "post-oil Middle East" that works for the people of the region
  • The lack of a plan for what a post-oil Global economy would look like, even though that economy is much closer than we think ie. it will arrive within three or four decades

  • The sum of all these factors is what we now see in Iraq. The U.S. and Great Britain have used unilateral military force to create a "facts on the ground" reality in the Middle East that the world cannot walk away from. If anything, there is more terrorism and instability in the region post-invasion. That can, in some ways, only be seen as deliberate. United States policy in invading Iraq was to define itself as the prime mover and shaker in Iraq and the Middle East, whatever the ancillary consequences...because, given our presence in Iraq, the U.S. has also now defined itself as the prime arbiter of political outcomes and access to the region's energy resources, and, most significantly the prime arbiter of peace and stability in the region, which was the intention all along.

    You see, the foundation of Bush's "war on terror" is this fact: The only people who are not, for better or for worse, invested in political and economic stability in the Middle East (and the steady flow of oil and natural gas to economies outside the region) are the insurgents and jihadists opposing the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan and the Saudi regime. Once the U.S. inserted itself into Iraq, we created a perpetual argument to the world for the U.S. staying in Iraq: an inevitable and predictable jihad against U.S. occupation. There never was an exit strategy. This was intended to be a permanent war from the very beginning and the Bush Administration has always acted like it. (Why else would Donald Rumsfeld still have a job unless he had succeeded at what they set out to do?)

    In that context, demanding that we simply "bring the troops home now" is too simple, as Wesley Clark's speech indicates. Bush made this mess in order to have the need to clean up this mess. The war in Iraq has never been about a simple "invasion/occupation/withdrawal" formula, and to use those terms is to play into the administration's semantic trap. In opposition, we need to formulate a new way to engage and invest in the Middle East and to partner with its citizens. We need to envision an international framework for defining a "post-oil Middle East" as part of our vision for a "post-oil global economy" and to build equitable solutions to the Iraq occupation with those end goals in mind. Yes, we must work to end the U.S. occupation, but we must do so in the context of larger questions and realities.

    The context of any proposal for ending the war in Iraq is that the globe is now more dependent on Middle Eastern oil and stability in the Persian Gulf than ever...the Bush administration knew this fact going in.

    Without a doubt, every drop of oil and natural gas in the Persian Gulf will be consumed at a market price over the next decades. What would an equitable reinvestment in the region in return for the use of these resources look like? How can the world at large trade for those resources and at the same time respect the dignity and political autonomy of the region's citizens? What kind of international accord might be reached to build this kind of investment and ensure stability in the region, and even be part of building an autonomous post-oil Middle East? How might international cooperation build just solutions for the citizens of the Middle East and guarantee that they see themselves as much invested in peace and stability in the Gulf and the trade of their energy resources as the citizens who depend on those resources around the globe? These are the questions that the invasion of Iraq deliberately interrupted and preempted.

    The United States and Great Britain knew that the U.S. occupation of Iraq would take these questions, and international efforts to find equitable solutions to them, off the table. And, at the end of the day, that was the entire premise of the invasion of Iraq. Our solutions must take this state of affairs into account. Ending the occupation of Iraq is about more than simply our troops returning home. Only a far-sighted and truly global response will be adequate. Only a partnership for building a sustainable and equitable path to an autonomous post-oil Middle East will permit the construction of a stable post-U.S. Iraq. The global energy crisis is the issue of our times; it cuts through everything else. All roads in 2005 point to the Persian Gulf.

    (This is the first part of a three-part essay. Part Two features an analysis of the situation on the ground in Iraq and three Democratic proposals for an exit strategy. Part three, my version of a progressive proposal might look like was published on Sunday.)

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    9 Comments:

    • winging it on "...a hope and prayer..," indeed. Great essay, Kid.

      But here's my prediction:

      ...the leading Democrats, who are so afraid they'll be painted as "weak on defense" or the "cut and run" crowd, and that this will cost them a win in Congress in '06 or the presidency in '08, are going keep silent while Americans and Iraqis keep dying and Iraq devolves deeper into civil war and we keep disappearing tens of billions into that spiderhole.

      Then, at some propitious time, say Julyish, Bushco is going is to propose a partial withdrawal, with a timetable, outflanking the Democratic leadership. Then we can watch while the Democrats scramble to play catch up, nitpicking the pace of the withdrawal and other details.

      Come November '06 and November '08, fence-straddling Americans will think to themselves, why vote for Democrats if they don't have anything better to propose than Bush? Goodbye, congressional victory. Goodbye, White House.

      Announcing a withdrawal doesn't mean there will be one. Nixon's secret plan, for instance, turned out to be more bombing, fewer troops.

      I respect Wes Clark. I would unhesitatingly work and vote for him if he got the nomination. But his go-slow admonition to the Out of Iraq faction is mistaken.

      If he were president now, or was going to be in three or four months, then his ideas might make sense. But he's not. Democrats need to be saying a helluva lot more than we need to fight the war "competently," and we must use more "diplomacy."

      That made sense, up to a point, last October when we had a chance at the White House. Now, it's just lame.

      By Blogger Meteor Blades, at 3:45 PM  

    • Thanks for the comment. I think you're exactly right.

      We can expect a Nixonian changing ground that doesn't really change a thing. In fact, the Juan Cole Michael Schwartz debate anticipates that "air support" of "local troops" from our enduring bases will be the continuation of the war by other means.

      What was fascinating to me in researching this piece is how invested Condoleeza Rice has been in energy policy.

      Attempting to dissuade India from building a natural gas pipeline with Iran. (failed)
      Discussing the building of a pipeline from Russia to Japan.
      Exerting pressue agains the Chinese purchase of a U.S. oil company.

      I've read that China is negotiating to build a naval port at the southern end of Pakistan at the beginning of the Gulf waters. And Iran is sitting on, in pure energy terms, when you combine oil and natural gas, as much potential energy resources as Saudi Arabia.

      Meanwhile, we've done absolutely nothing to broker a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.

      By Blogger kid oakland, at 4:42 PM  

    • Check out connex between Condi, Cheney, Halliburton, Chevron and Kazakhstan while you're at it. No reason at all to be surprised by Rice's interest in energy.

      By Blogger Meteor Blades, at 5:10 PM  

    • Wow. Great essay, Kid. Looking forward to Part II.

      Aside: This bit really makes me wish I had time to crank up the old blog: "Discussing the building of a pipeline from Russia to Japan."

      The Japanese version of the pipeline--China is also interested in one--has it running out of Nakhodka, in Primorskii Krai. As it happens, I know more than my fair share about this occasionally lawless, often corrupt, and always interesting part of the world. Further, I am bound by Goal Three (which I take seriously) to share what I know with you all.

      I'll get around to it. It will just have to wait another month or so. Thanks for reminding me about the pipeline.

      By Blogger &y, at 8:53 PM  

    • MB, I understand your thinking, but hope your conclusions are a bit off.

      I have more hope that the dem wannabes are sensitive to the political "timing" issue.

      At the moment, anyone who generates any good idea that gains traction will be placed in the cross hairs of the swiftboating GOP machine and their MSM accomplices and quickly render them irrelevent. I'm hoping (and I understand that hope is what it is) that those who are looking to step forward to lead on the dem side are waiting for the right time to drop the right message. It's a two-fold thing.

      That said, the Iraq question is very complex and needs to be seen from a larger perspective. If, Kid, it is as you say, that the UN and the international apsect of the solution is gutted, then the only answer is for new leadership to rebuild the international effort and solve the mid-east Iraq problem in the near term while dedicating ourselves to removing the US from the oil teat in the long term. That seems to be the ONLY solution...one lamely put forth by Kerry last year. Diplomacy is the wrong phrase. A new international paradigm is more like it. A global Apallo-like committment to challenge the international community to respond while challenging the US population here at home to take care of their house. In short, lead by example.

      It will take no less an effort.

      By Blogger NYBri, at 9:17 PM  

    • great stuff, as always.

      the quote about making their own reality as reported by suskind has chilled me from the moment that i first read it. getting out of this will be exceedingly difficult. best to start thinking about how we do that now. a lot in that post to chew on, looking forward to the next part.

      By Anonymous wu ming, at 1:16 AM  

    • hi kid, I'm writting as i read your article. You have ,so far, prefaced my position on demanding withdrawl from Iraq as simple 4 times. I think this is an attempt to SIMPLY eliminate a position without engaging its arguments. I think my position is undoubtably simple but you have linked the article that i find the most sophisticated analyisis available to me--by Michael Schwartz. I think of "Out now" as being the bumper sticker one puts on after reading the analysis.
      I think the idea that "we" (you, me Donald Rumsfield, etc.)can bring democracy to another country by good management of the empire"s military is too simple. I will hold this judgement in abeyance while i hear the analysis

      By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:29 AM  

    • Thanks for you post anonymous.

      Essay three will address Michael Schwartz directly.

      And, it will also be very much influenced by this passage from David Reiff that echoes your views:

      "We have not yet begun to pay the price for this--not because we do it ineptly but rather because it rarely seems possible except on the far fringes of the political right and left, what with the "historic compromise" between the Bush Administration and the human rights movement over humanitarian intervention, if not over torture, rendition, the Patriot Act and myriad other issues, to have a serious conversation about whether the United States has any business trying to create democracies by force of arms. Instead, the consensus not just of these two writers and activists but of the great and the good from the Kennedy School of Government, to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, to the thirty-eighth floor of the UN, to 10 Downing Street seems to be that we--whether the "we" in question proves to be the United States, the UN or that mythical entity, the international community--must learn to do this sort of thing better, more effectively, perhaps more humanely. It is not only L. Paul Bremer who suffers from hubris"

      By Blogger kid oakland, at 11:29 AM  

    • Given your other writings, this is probably a spurious comment, but calling the mideast "post-oil" is a bit misleading, and will remain misleading for a very long time. Peak oil doesn't mean that they're going to suddenly stop extracting or exporting oil; its more like we'll see oil shipments from key exporters (such as Saudi Arabia) decline by something in the realm of 5% or 8% per year, and see higher viscosity higher sulfur oil exported, instead of the low-viscosity low sulfur oil that we've been getting.

      By Anonymous silence, at 6:17 PM  

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