In the shadow of permanent war

Print edition : October 11, 2002

The real danger lies in the extensive U.S. commitment to unilateral action, the solidity and sweeping scale of U.S. strategic designs, and the propensity of the other major powers eventually to accept U.S. unilateralism in some purported larger interest.

EVEN to ask ourselves whether or not the United States shall invade Iraq in the near future is an obscenity. The Anglo-American bombardment of Iraq has now lasted longer than did the American invasion of Vietnam longer than the combined duration of the two World Wars. Four years ago, in 1998, the United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq, Dennis Halliday, resigned his post in disgust, claiming that the blockade alone, aside from the direct bombardment, had caused upwards of a million deaths. Asked whether the death of half a million children was worth the price of throttling Saddam Hussein's regime, Madeleine Albright, the then U.S. Secretary of State, did not deny the deaths and merely said that "the price was worth it".

Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri addressing the United Nations General Assembly on September 19.-MATT CAMPBELL/ AFP

Iraqi society has been under siege during this whole period militarily, economically and politically. Per capita income has been cut to about a fifth of what it was a decade ago, more than a quarter of the population suffers from malnutrition, schools and hospitals have decayed and 60 per cent or more of the population has no more access to clean water this, in a country that had the most developed welfare state among the more populous of the Arab countries. Large parts of northern Iraq have been put outside the sovereign jurisdiction of the Iraqi government, to the extent that even its aircraft are not allowed in those zones while American and British planes patrol the whole area freely. There are reports of foreign as well as mercenary troops having already arrived in the region around Mosul. The question, therefore, is not whether Iraq shall be invaded or not it is already under prolonged invasion but the likely timing, scale and consequences of the vastly escalated destruction that the U.S. is intent on inflicting on the suffering people of that country.

The speech of President Bush to the U.N. General Assembly on September 12, which was hailed in the Western media as a deft invitation for multilateralism, was in fact a virtual ultimatum of war, threatening, yet again, a "regime change" and putting forth nine conditions that Iraq must meet in order to avoid an invasion in a manner remarkably similar to the way the U.S. had couched its ultimatum to the Taliban on the eve of the invasion. "Regime change" is of course the euphemism the U.S. uses for its plan to replace an existing government with a client outfit, as it did in the case of Afghanistan, forcing out the Taliban and foisting the Karzai dispensation. There is obviously nothing Saddam can offer in return. Even the other conditions total disarmament, for example far exceed the U.N. focus on weapons inspectors to ensure that no facilities for production of weapons of mass destruction are in operation. In short, Bush was deliberately going far beyond the Security Council Resolutions, demanding from Saddam what the latter cannot give and saying to the world, in effect, that the U.S. would act with others if others accept the U.S. policy, or it would act alone.

When the combined diplomatic efforts of the Arab League and some European states succeeded in getting Iraq to agree unconditionally to the re-entry of the weapons inspectors in a peace initiative that was hailed by everyone from Kofi Annan to Nelson Mandela, the swift rejection of the initiative by the U.S. was hardly surprising, since the larger U.S. design could hardly be deflected by resolving the issue that has been foremost for everyone else. Indeed, the past few weeks have witnessed an extraordinary effort by a wide variety of forces in the world to stave off what appears to be inevitable. President Jacques Chirac of France and Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder of Germany have openly opposed the idea of a full-scale invasion, going out of their way to say so in the most prestigious sections of the U.S. press. Russia has said that it would veto any such resolution if one is presented to the Security Council. Kofi Annan has expressed horror at the idea of a war of that kind. Mandela, perhaps the most revered world leader alive today, has declared that the current U.S. policies are "a threat to world peace" and has described U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney, the current leader of the war lobby, as a "dinosaur" harsh language indeed from a man whose soft-spoken manner is legendary. From Qatar and Saudi Arabia to Turkey, most of Iraq's neighbours have demurred at the idea of permitting the U.S. the use of military bases on their territory for the contemplated invasion. All this has been done in the most visible way possible, precisely because the U.S. move seemed imminent. Financial Times has even reported the withdrawal of as much as $200 billion of Saudi Arabian investments from U.S. banks. At the very height of these tensions, a high-level Saudi delegation visited Baghdad to discuss expanded economic ties, perhaps even a free trade zone with Iraq, in the future.

The intentions of the U.S. have actually been an open secret for some time. A typical story, in The Observer of August 4, began thus:

President George W. Bush will announce within weeks that he intends to depose Iraq's ruler, Saddam Hussein, by force, setting the stage for a war in the Gulf this winter... "The expectation is that President Bush will make a final decision on the timing of a war over the course of August. That would be followed by British-led efforts to get a mandate for action at the U.N., either under existing resolutions or a new U.N. resolution," said one senior source. The disclosure came as U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell dismissed an offer by Iraq to talk to the chief weapons inspector of the United Nations. "Inspection is not the issue, disarmament is, making sure that the Iraqis have no weapons of mass destruction," said Powell during a visit to Manila.

John Bolton, the U.S. Undersecretary for Arms Control, was quoted in the same story as saying: "Let there be no mistake while we also insist on the reintroduction of the weapons inspectors, our policy at the same time insists on regime change in Baghdad and that policy will not be altered, whether inspectors go in or not." The story then went on to say: "In a further indication of preparations for war on both sides of the Atlantic, Tony Blair is expected to begin a campaign of softening up public opinion for war in the autumn."

An analysis of troop deployments in the region that this author saw just about that time in early August estimated that "the U.S. already has well over 100,000 military personnel in as many as 11 countries around Iraq. Additional analysis shows that another 100,000 or more crack assault and support personnel have just completed a major training exercise for a hypothetical conflict that bears a strong resemblance to Iraq. These troops can be ready to fight in the region on 96-hour notice. `Stealth' mobilisations of Reserve and National Guard units, begun after September 11, also indicate that as many as another 150,000 military personnel can be deployed within days or weeks of an initial surprise attack... All told, including foreign troops, there are potentially 400,000 military personnel that are either in the theatre of operations, ready to go, or deployable on very short notice. There are many other units that have gone into stealth mode and cannot be located."

Similar predictions had come some 10 days earlier in a public speech by Scott Ritter, former U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq for seven years, who had been part of the U.S. Marine Corps for 12 years, had fought against Iraq during the Gulf war and introduced himself on the occasion of the speech as "a card-carrying Republican in the conservative-moderate range who voted for George W. Bush for President". At the time when he had served as a weapons inspector in Iraq, he was widely known to fly frequently to Tel Aviv and coordinate his policies closely with Israeli military intelligence. Over time, however, he had come to believe, and to say openly, that every single facility in Iraq that could possibly be used for production of chemical and biological weapons or for nuclear weapons had been destroyed so thoroughly that continuation of the blockade made no sense. He was dismissed from the U.N. team under pressure from his own government for holding such views. On the occasion of the Boston speech, this is what he had to say:

The Third Marine Expeditionary Force in California is preparing to have 20,000 Marines deployed in the region for ground combat operations by mid-October... The Air Force used the vast majority of its precision-guided munitions blowing up caves in Afghanistan. Congress just passed emergency appropriations money and told Boeing company to accelerate their production of the GPS satellite kits... by September 30, 2002. Why? Because the Air Force has been told to have three air expeditionary wings ready for combat operations in Iraq by mid-October... You got 20,000 Marines forward deployed in October, you better expect war in October.

Ritter also had an explanation for all this war-mongering: "The national security of the United States of America has been hijacked by a handful of neo-conservatives who are using their position of authority to pursue their own ideologically-driven political ambitions." Not bad for a Republican and a former Marine officer. Elsewhere Ritter has testified that Iraq was justified in complaining that the U.S. had sought to use the inspectors in the U.N. Special Commission (UNSCOM) for spying purposes and for gathering information unrelated to any nuclear facilities or to any plants for production of weapons of mass destruction.

An oil refinery in Basrah, Iraq.-GAMMA

Ritter offered those remarks in Boston on July 24. Five days later, on July 29, Financial Times reported on an interview that the distinguished Swedish diplomat Rolf Ekeus, who had headed UNSCOM for seven years, had told Swedish radio that there was no doubt that countries, especially the U.S., attempted to increase their influence over the inspections to favour their own interests. "As time went on, some countries, especially the U.S., wanted to learn more about other parts of Iraq's capacity." According to Financial Times, Ekeus said the U.S. had tried to find information about the whereabouts of Saddam Hussein, Iraq's President, and that the U.S. and other members of the Security Council pressed the teams to inspect sensitive areas, such as Iraq's Ministry of Defence, when it was politically favourable for them to create a crisis situation. In an interview with Svenska Dagbladet, the Swedish newspaper, Ekeus also said that after he left his position he had learnt that the U.S. had placed two of its own agents in the group of inspectors.

That Iraq has offered to let such inspectors return without any preconditions certainly shows that it is trying to avoid a war at all costs. Considering that the U.S. has committed itself unilaterally to toppling him ("regime change"), the move is obviously meant to address other Arab regimes, the European Union, the U.N. and world opinion at large so that the world does not rally behind the U.S. as has happened in the case of Afghanistan. The hopeful sign here is that both France and Germany have said that no new U.N. resolution is needed for the speedy despatch of inspectors to Iraq, for which preparations have begun, and that public opinion across Europe, including Britain, is overwhelmingly against the U.S. design for full-scale invasion even as opinion across the Arab world is solidly against such a move. The European mood is well reflected in the remark that Germany's current Justice Minister, Herta Daeubler-Gmelin, is reported to have made to a gathering of trade union leaders in which she said that Bush was comparable to Hitler in that both used war to deflect attention from domestic problems (International Herald Tribune, September 20, 2002).

The real danger lies in the extensive U.S. commitment to unilateral action, the solidity and sweeping scale of the U.S. strategic design, and the propensity of the other major powers, including Russia and China, eventually to accept U.S. unilateralism, in some purported larger interest. What, then, is that inflexible strategic design which the events of September 11, 2001 have allowed the U.S. to pursue with dramatic vigour? And where does Iraq fit into it? We shall take up these two questions in sequence.

AS for the strategic design, we could begin with a commentary that appeared in Pravda on September 19 last year, eight days after the attack on the World Trade Centre, but several days before Bush made his famous speech announcing a "global war against terrorism". The commentary was significantly titled "America to Wage War for USSR Inheritance", and it said, in part:

The ruling Republican Party is going to correct America's domestic and foreign policies due to the grand terrorist attack. The Democrats' remnants are going to be completely removed from the military and reconnaissance structures and the control over the private and public life of the American people is going to be toughened... The U.S. will shift its emphasis from hi-tech constituents over to the raw materials companies the ones which deal with oil and gas fuel first and foremost... and the national ABM programme will certainly be launched... The USA will use those priority procedures when fortifying the armed forces in the Persian Gulf area, modernising the bases there, and delivering additional arms and defence technology... America will increase its military presence along the entire 40th parallel, which is what we can see now in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Macedonia; soon we will also see it in the republics of Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenia, and Uzbekistan.

The Injirlik military base, which is deployed in Turkey, will surely be modernised, and this base will become one of the key points of the American presence. The establishment of reserve points on the territory of several countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) will be performed under different forms. However, the mid-Caspian area and Turkmenia's deposits will be taken under the control of the United States. It should be mentioned that the authorities of Azerbaijan and Georgia republics are in willing contact with NATO and the United States... The USA will make the republics of Middle Asia to reconsider the Collective Security Treaty of the CIS and Russian troops will be called back to Russian territory. The United States will gain total control over Central Asia, over the Indian Ocean, and the country will be able to efficiently control the processes in Indo-China and Indonesia. This will actually bring about the total control of the United States of America over the Islamic world, since the moves of Iran, Pakistan, and Iraq will depend upon the military presence of the United States.

What the U.S. has done over the past one year, in the name of "war against terrorism," is very close to what this remarkably prescient commentary had predicted, in virtually every detail. By January this year, barely four months after the September 11 events of last year, U.S. military tent cities had sprung up in 13 new bases around Afghanistan and in the proximity of Iraq, including all five of the Central Asian countries that have arisen out of the territorial collapse of the former USSR. From Bulgaria to Uzbekistan and Kuwait to Turkey, some 60,000 U.S. troops were living in these forward bases. And what had formerly been tiny bases were quickly expanded and modernised, as for example the one at Al Adid in Qatar, where some modest expansion had begun in April 2000, but which has now received a billion-dollar investment and built a 15,000-foot runway to take the largest of U.S. planes in good numbers. A large contingent of U.S. troops is due to arrive in Georgia and the U.S. is expected soon to push for international (that is, U.S.-dominated) military presence in Chechnya. As regards Afghanistan, The Washington Post of August 27 quoted General Tommy R. Franks, commander of the U.S. Central Command, as saying that American soldiers shall be there for "a long, long time," somewhat on the model of Korea, where there are still a good number of troops roughly half a century after the end of the war.

These more recent developments can also be seen in terms of long-term strategic perspectives that have been developing over some years, as illustrated by two documents reported recently, one from an American think tank and the other from an Israeli one. Thus, The Guardian of September 3 this year referred to a paper published in 1996 by an Israeli think tank, the Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies, written for the former Israeli Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, and entitled "A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm". It advocates that the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians be scrapped and that Israel refuse to vacate any of the occupied territories, concentrating instead on reshaping the region. This reshaping is supposed to start with the toppling of Saddam and establishing a Hashemite monarchy there, in conjunction with Jordan, which would also be supported in managing the Palestininan problem. Together with Turkey, this revamped Israeli-Jordanian-Iraqi axis would then roll back Syria and reorganise Lebanon by linking the Shia population there with that of the newly re-monarchised Iraq.

The most striking feature of this amazing document was that its chief author was Richard Perle, now chairman of the Defence Policy Board at the Pentagon, assisted by a team of seven others, which included such luminaries as Douglas Feith, Washington lawyer who now holds one of the four top posts at the Pentagon as Undersecretary of Policy. Several of these authors are connected, in one way or another, with Vice-President Dick Cheney. No wonder that some of the anti-Zionist Israeli critics of Ariel Sharon and Cheney refer to the current U.S. strategic design as in fact a U.S.-Israeli design.

The other such document was reported in the Sunday Herald of September 15, 2002. Entitled "Rebuilding America's Defences: Strategies, Forces and Resources for a New Century," it was written before Bush was elected, in September 2000, by the neo-conservative think tank, Project for the New American Century (PNAC), for Dick Cheney (now Vice-President), Rumsfeld (now Defence Secretary), Paul Wolfowitz (Rumsfeld's deputy), Lewis Libby (Cheney's Chief of Staff) and Bush's brother Jeb. It says, among other things, that "while the unresolved conflict with Iraq provides the immediate justification, the need for a substantial American force presence in the Gulf transcends the issue of the regime of Saddam Hussein". It calls upon the U.S. to "fight and decisively win multiple, simultaneous major theatre wars" as a "core mission". The document warns against the growing strength and potential for rivalry from Europe and designates China as a country where "regime change" would be desirable, while also saying that countries such as North Korea, Libya, Syria and Iran pose a threat that requires the creation of a "world-wide command-and-control system". It advocates the creation of `US Space Forces" and even recommends "biological warfare" as a "politically useful tool".

Documents of this kind abound in the U.S., but the argument here is illustrated with these particular ones because (a) they state in blunt and extreme terms what has roughly been U.S. policy at any rate, especially since the break-up of the Soviet Union; (b) because these two reports were actually drafted by, and for, the key policy-making group in the current administration; and (c) they also show the U.S.-Israeli nexus in sharp outline. One may write a report for an Israeli think tank one day and occupy a key position in the Pentagon the next day. On this point, Uri Avnery, the Israeli writer, has emphasised that what the Bush administration envisions today is something Sharon has been advocating since the 1980s.

WHY does Iraq occupy such a central position in the current designs? For one thing, the U.S. has been at loggerheads with Iraq since the late 1960s, except during the Iraq-Iran war, when Iraq suddenly became a U.S. ally against Iran. Of the three major Arab oil-producing countries along with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait Iraq has been the only defiant one. It overthrew the kind of monarchy that survived in the other two countries as well as Jordan and the Emirates all abject clients of the U.S. Then Iraq was, along with Egypt and Syria, among the three Arab countries that sided with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. With the passing of Gamel Abdul Nasser, and Anwar Sadat's reconciliation with both U.S. and Israel, Iraq staked its claim to secular Arab nationalism, in whatever distorted form, and fancied itself to be relatively independent, thanks to its oil resources. Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait was unforgivable because Kuwait was a secure U.S. client whereas a successful Iraqi push into Kuwait a principality that had often been administered from Baghdad or Basra until the British bestowed upon it a monarchy of its own would have united a fifth of the world's known oil resources under a government that saw itself as an adversary of Israel and defied the U.S. whenever it could. That was the political side of why, since the Gulf war, Iraq has been the singular country where exemplary punishment had to be administered for defying America's will.

The economic side has been, if anything, even more compelling. The National Energy Policy Report, done by Dick Cheney and known as the "Cheney Report", which was released by the U.S. administration in May 2001, showed that half of the U.S. oil consumption already came from imports and that the share of imports could rise to two-thirds by 2020. The war over Afghanistan was, in an important sense, a war for the oil of the Caspian Basin, aside from "a war over Soviet inheritance", as Pravda put it, and the build-up of U.S. military presence in South-East Asia, notably the Philippines, is designed as much for control over the Malacca Straits and sea-routes to east Asia as it is about stationing troops close to Indonesian oil. However, with its proven reserves of 112 billion barrels, Iraq is in quite a different league than, say, the Caspian Basin where the proven reserves still stand at barely 15 billion barrels and even speculative estimates of 95 billion still fall short of what Iraq is known to have. As for estimates, some suggest that Iraq may have the largest amount of hydrocarbon deposits in the world. It is on the strength of these expectations that Saddam Hussein has been awarding exploration rights to European, Russian and Chinese companies not to speak of the much lesser ones from India, Vietnam or Algeria while seeking their political support in curbing the U.S. threat. The flip side of course is that the U.S. itself is luring those same countries with promises of a share in the loot after the war if they would support the U.S. in installing its clients there.

Bush and Cheney have both worked in the oil business and have close ties with the major corporations in the field. They have already installed Hamid Karzai, formerly an employee of the Unocal Corporation, in Afghanistan. Plans are afoot for the formation of a consortium of U.S. corporations to manage Iraqi oil after the war, in coordination with the Iraqi National Congress (INC), an umbrella organisation of groups floated and kept afloat by the U.S. The group is headed by Ahmed Chalabi, a scion of a family very prominent in the monarchist period, who merrily says that "American companies will have a big shot at Iraqi oil". For one thing, a revival of Iraq's petroleum production to its full potential under U.S. control could pave the way for the break-up of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries and a steep fall in the prices of oil from Russia, Venezuela or Iran. All this could also put to rest the growing nervousness in Washington about Saudi Arabia.

A majority of those who plotted and carried out the September 11 actions were middle class Saudi youth. Key members of Al Qaeda came from wealthy Saudi families, including Osama bin Laden, who came not from the royal family but a very prominent one close to it. Osama was so popular among Saudi youth that the kingdom refused to freeze his assets despite U.S. pressure, fearing a rebellion. It is said that he was even financed by some elements of the royal family which feel that unquestioned Saudi loyalty to the U.S. is harmful to their own interests. The international channels of Osama's finances were so deeply connected with those of many a prominent Saudi financier that the U.S. could not isolate his accounts. It was starting to think of freezing a good number of Saudi accounts in U.S. banks, which is said to have precipitated a surge of Saudi withdrawals, which in turn is said to have contributed to the recent fall in the value of the dollar. Meanwhile, the royal family has warned that Sharon's policies in Palestine are creating such distress among Arabs that it cannot forever support all U.S. policies. Experts believe that Saudi Arabia is on the brink of an anti-monarchist revolution.

IN other words, the situation is unstable. Grabbing Iraqi oil is important for the U.S. both as an alternative source in case of a possible Saudi collapse but also as a point of pressure upon the Saudis in case they have some rebellious thoughts in their head. With the Caspian Basin already captured, the fall of Iraq could give the U.S. unprecedented superiority in the resource war against not only Russia or China but also its friendly rivals in Western Europe and Japan, especially since the U.S. could then control not only the production but also the directions of flow of most of the oil in the world; pipelines would go in one direction rather than another.

The case in favour of a full conquest of Iraq is thus overwhelming. That virtually the whole world is ranged against such a move, especially now that Iraq has agreed to give the inspectors full and unconditional access, is certainly a deterrent but by no means an insurmountable one if the U.S. so decided.

However, there are obstacles. The kind of occupation which may yield the desired results will require a much larger land army than was necessary in Afghanistan, considerable loss of life and a much longer presence for a considerable number of Americans even after victory of some sort is obtained. It is not at all clear that the U.S. public, pliant and ever-so-patriotic as it is, would be ready for that kind of a situation of prolonged war for its own boys.

And if the U.S. simply comes in, destroys and leaves, the outcome is even less clear. Will Iraq break up into three entities Kurdish, Shia and Sunni while all sorts of gangs fight one another to grab slices of resources? That is the most likely outcome, but that kind of chaos is hardly conducive to long-term exploitation of resources. Sharon has been killing Palestinians with unspeakable savagery and complete impunity, and yet there has been no perceptible convulsion in the Arab world. Will the same calm prevail even after the destruction and occupation of Iraq? One cannot predict with any precision. Yet, we may be sliding into a situation where the U.S. may have gone too far to now retreat, and the Iraqis may yet give them more trouble than they have prepared for. What then?

When will the war come, if it does come? Probably not before the mid-term U.S. elections in early November this year, but not very much later either, since Bush will then have about 18 months in which to finish his campaign for the capture of Iraq before his own re-election campaign begins. But, then, who knows?

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