Our esteemed contributor, Arnold Evans, has written a comment that we think should be featured as a stand-alone piece. Arnold’s piece puts the transformative events that are going on in the Middle East right now in a rich and sharply drawn historical context, and draws out provocative implications regarding the future direction of U.S. policy in the region. As Arnold insightfully argues, U.S. strategy in the Middle East is at crossroads.
By Arnold Evans
The US has to a greater or lesser degree since the foundation of Israel and/or the end of the British colonial empire worked to ensure a balance of power in the region of the Middle East. By balance of power, I mean it has had as a goal preventing one power, for example Iran from being in a position to overrun, for example, Arabia and coordinating the large stock of resources in a way that could directly or in alliance with any rival be harmful or threatening to the US.
This is not unique to the Middle East. Germany and France should, according to US principles, each be unable to impose control over the other, Brazil and Argentina, Japan, Korea and China all should be roughly in balance. Just enough that none of the powers are able to use the resources available as a unit in a way that could potentially harm the US.
What is unique to the Middle East is that there is a tiny country that the US has to a greater or lesser degree since its foundation, felt a responsibility to maintain. This is important because, for example, Arabia has a lot of oil and plenty of resources that it can remain independent of Iran, make sure it is not worth Iran’s while to try to capture – except that an Arabia that is too strong, could and would render Israel non-viable.
So while the US pursues a balance of power strategy, in the Middle East it pursues a strategy of a balance of artificially weak powers. Arabia has to be both immune from domination by Iraq or Iran and also weak enough not to threaten Israel.
Saddam Hussein, for his own reasons that are very interesting but tangential to this discussion was willing to attack Iran after Iran removed itself from the US colonial structure by expelling the Shah. The United States and its remaining regional colonies supported Hussein in this attack as an effort toward “dual containment”.
By the time the war was over Iraq and Iran were both weakened. The US plan for Iraq was that it was to remain weak indefinitely because of service of war debts to the US colonies, low oil prices and lastly Kuwait – at US direction – would actually pump and sell oil from under Iraqi territory.
When the Iran-Iraq war ended, the US did not need an active war in Iraq or Iran. Both were sufficiently weak and could be kept so through various methods of indirect economic warfare – sanctions and oil policies of the more reliable colonies.
Hussein attempted to break out of Iraq’s containment by attacking Kuwait. I’ve read the report of the US ambassador to Iraq who some say encouraged Hussein to attack and I do not get that impression at all. While there were probably warning signs, Hussein’s attack on Kuwait was unexpected and potentially threatening to the balance of powers that are artificially weak enough not to threaten Israel in the region.
The United States responded by directly intervening to remove Iraq from Kuwait and then by imposing sanctions far more brutal than those currently imposed by the US and Israel on Gaza. The United States limited the supply of protein to Iraqi civilians as well as water treatment technology and caused the premature deaths of over one million Iraqis.
Which brings us to 2000.
The reason for the sanctions, indeed for the encouragement by the US and its colonies of the Iran-Iraq war was to maintain a balance of power where countries in the region are too weak to threaten each other or Israel which is a tiny territory with a small concentrated population. The rationale of the sanctions was that Iraq had not complied with demands to remove any “weapons of mass destruction”.
Iraq had complied with those demands. Iraq publicly and unambiguously stated on every possible occasion that it did not have them. Once sanctions were over, Iraq, as every country, would have had the capacity to rebuild its stocks. The United States, as it currently is regarding Iran, deliberately lied and effectively pressured the IAEA to go along with its lies in order to prevent Iraq from reaching a post-sanction state where it would be able to rebuild itself beyond the boundaries required in the US’ balance of artificially weak powers strategy for the region.
It is also very interesting though mostly tangential to this discussion exactly how the US works itself into lying about Iraq’s weapons. It involves shifting definitions, presenting Iraq as a demon unworthy of any defense at all, tying the sanctions effort to anti-Semitism. The United States worked itself into a frenzy and some of the Americans lying about Iraq could have easily passed lie detector tests or comfortably put their hands on stacks of bibles partly because they believed what they were saying, partly because they felt justified in making any possible negative statement about Iraq, just to be sure.
So what the United States faced in 2000 was a situation where the justification of the sanctions was wearing thinner, the effects of the sanctions were disgusting enough that it was becoming increasingly difficult for the United States to get cooperation in maintaining them and Hussein was developing ways to advance state aims despite the sanctions, and these methods would only become more effective over time.
The situation when George W. Bush came to office was actually sustainable from the US/Israel point of view for the most part. Iraq was not going to be a threat to capture Kuwait or Arabia for an extended period of time even if it became better at managing the sanctions against it. The situation though, was not optimal. The US would have preferred Iraq be ruled by someone more like Mubarak, or Iran’s previous Shah or the leaders of the members of the US colonial structure in the region such as Saudi Arabia, UAE, Jordan, Kuwait and others.
Iraq could provide resources for anti-Israel groups and was an irritant but not a strategic threat and the pertinent question would have been would it be worth the cost to remove Hussein? The answer in 1991 was no. The US did not occupy the country. That remained the answer through the Clinton administration and I think may have remained the answer to this day if there had been no 9/11 attack.
The 9/11 attacks unleashed in the United States a desire for vengeance against Muslims and against Arabs that Bush decided could be directed against Iraq. Iraq was not in any conceivable way a threat to the United States and was an irritant but not a strategic threat to Israel.
(As an aside, Iran, in showing how to prepare a group to actually hold its ground in full conflict with Israel, is moving from irritant to actual strategic threat to Israel, though it is not nearly as threatening as it would be if it, or a country anything as close to its people in policy preferences as Iran is was located, say, where Egypt is located.)
However, with the United States in a mood to avenge an attack by Arabs and Muslims and a figure in Ahmed Chalabi who seemed at the time to be willing and able to be for Iraq what Mubarak was for Egypt, an invasion of Iraq became feasible.
Here I also want to talk about the US vision of democracy. Iraq was, by the 2003 US plan, to be a managed democracy, the way Afghanistan is. US approved candidates would run essentially unopposed. Political parties potentially hostile the US and Israel would be banned. Joe Biden said, nearly at the height of the Tahrir Square protests, that Hosni Mubarak is not a dictator. The intention in 2003 was for Chalabi to fill that position for Iraq – which would be, from the US point of view, a tremendous improvement over Hussein.
The WMD had just been a pretext to impose sanctions to savagely punish the Iraqi nation for attempting to break out of the balance of artificially weak powers the US maintains in the Middle East out of necessity for Israel. When the US decided it might as well replace Hussein with Chalabi, the pretext moved over to a justification for an invasion. That pretext had been transparently false ever since the George H.W. Bush administration said to the New York Times that it would not lift the sanctions as long as Hussein remained in power, regardless of removing any WMD.
Iraq’s Shiites, Sistani, and the remnants of Iraq’s military in their insurgency prevented the US from installing Chalabi as a stooge “not a dictator” against all expectations in the US in 2003. How that happened is also an interesting but tangential story.
Which brings us to today.
The 2003 US project to turn Iraq into 2010 Egypt or 1978 Iran failed and the US has no hope of salvaging it. Maintaining a balance of power in the medium term now pretty much means abandoning Israel and letting Arabia really develop an indigenous military capacity to hold its own balance.
Obama expressed hope that this situation could be avoided by reaching a negotiated settlement of the Palestinian conflict that would grant Israel legitimacy in the region so that a developed Arabia and region would not be a threat. That hope, always unrealistic, has now been dashed except in the minds of the most stubborn supporters of Israel.
Obama also hopes that the US can trigger an economic crisis in Iran that can be exploited to remove Iran’s current government and replace it with one that rules in opposition to the values of the Iranian people the way the Shah did or Mubarak did Egypt. Iran has been through externally imposed economic crises before. This hope is also unrealistic – the vigorous efforts of people like George Soros and our own Scott Lucas notwithstanding.
The United States expended a tremendous amount of resources intervening in Iraq and, contrary to its expectations, failed. If the United States was to try again in Iran, Syria and Iraq again, it would not have the expectations it had in 2003 it would just be knowingly throwing resources away. We are not going to see that. We are going to see the United States remove itself over the next 20 years from its balance of artificially weak powers strategy as gracefully as it can given Israel’s position in its domestic political situation, on terms as favorable as it can manage for Israel and for the Jewish people of Israel.
How favorable the most favorable terms the US can manage actually are remains to be seen. But the 1948-2003 US Middle East strategy is over.