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Musings on the US in Iraq: `Enduring’ Presence/Permanent Bases (2)

July 13, 2007

The great momentum to build a vast network U.S. military bases in the Middle East is a recent phenomenon. Although US military bases have existed in or near the Middle East for a very long time, it is only within the past 15 years that their number and concentration has grown dramatically, and continues to grow. With the global supply of oil and gas not keeping up with global demand – the tightening of global oil markets – the strategic value of the region – important since oil became the main energy basis for the global economy – soared. The strategic importance of the region soared with it. Beyond the need for oil to run industry and commerce, is the oft forgotten fact that oil remains one of the most profitable sectors of the world economy, both from the sale of oil and gas products, but also, from the financial boom that has resulted from recycling oil profits into the financial sector of the global economy. Put another way, it is not only oil that is profitable, but the money extracted from oil production that fuels a good part of global financial market growth.

While U.S. need for Middle East oil is modest – we import far more from Canada, Mexico and Venezuela than we do from Middle East producers – all predictions are that US oil needs will grow in the decades to come while, at least at present, supplies are stagnating. Control of Middle East oil and gas becomes more essential. Beyond that is the oft missed point that the country/countries that control the Middle East oil flow have a powerful lever over the development of other countries – the Europeans, E. Asia in particular – that is the rest of the core of the global economy to say nothing of the semi periphery and periphery. If one considers oil dependency an addiction, the country/countries that can ration out the drug to the addict has considerable clout. If we can’t compete with the Japanese to make efficient cars, we can hold the oil weapon over their heads all the same.

The security arrangements of dominating Middle East oil production and transport has involved a series of political and security arrangements. The main political arrangement was crafted after the October 1973 War by then Secretary of State (and indicted war criminal) Henry Kissinger. The main outlines of the arrangement have been known for a long time but were described in detail by John Perkins in his now-popular book Confessions of an Economic Hitman. Perkins claims (and I have no reason to doubt him) that he was one of the key people in crafting an arrangement in which the Saudis would keep world oil supplies as stable as possible and would reinvest the profits for oil in construction projects with Western (largely US) firms, buy western military equipment and invest in the Western financial sector. In exchange the US would accept an increase in the price of oil (since most of the increased profits would be recycled anyway back to the west) and, what is not often stated, that the U.S. would refrain from invading Saudi Arabia military – an option which was seriously considered at the time.

Evolution of US Military Presence in the Middle East

The US approach towards constructing military bases in the region has evolved.:
• In the early post war period (1945-1967) the physical military presence was modest. It consisted of important US bases in Turkey, Greece – and until Khadaffi came to power – and Libya combined with attempts to craft military alliances (the Bagdad Pact) and a strong naval presence. When necessary, CIA operations were employed to overthrow unfriendly governments (unfriendly= nationalist governments who would give priority tot their needs for oil use, not the US’s) as in Iran in 1953, a rather scurrilous action which even today the CIA carts out (when targeted by criticism) as example of one of its political successes. Another successful, and often neglected tale of CIA `success’ was its support of an opportunistic and power hungry Iraqi skunk named Saddam Hussein.
• Between 1967-1979, a policy emerged which depended upon two regional powers, Iran and Israel – in conjunction with the already existing US military network and undercover operations. The US was especially impressed with Israel’s dramatic military victory over its Arab nationalist opponents in the June 1967 War, after which began the now famous relationship. Iran played a similar role further east as `policeman of the Gulf’ under the Shah. The combined role was help the U.S. in its effort to `police’ what it feared most: an Arab nationalism independent of US economic and political influence. Among other things, Iran in that period intervened to crush a rebellion in the Dhofar province of Oman. Israel kept its neighbors in check although it suffered what might be considered a minor set back as a result of the October, 1973 War. Both were involved in supporting US efforts elsewhere in the world including considerable Israeli aid to Latin American dictatorships in Guatemala, Argentina, Chile. During this period, the Saudis also played an important role in supporting U.S. regional plans, but it was more of a political and financial role – funding Islamic movements to counter a growing secular left influence, arming conservative forces (which would soon after take on a much larger aspect in Afghanistan) but it was not considered or treated as the kind of security pillar as was Iran and Israel.
• In 1979, with the Iranian Revolution that brought the Ayatollah Khomeini to power the policy of US regional partnership with Israel and Iran was essentially blown to hell. As the Shah’s regime collapsed like a house of cards, the Carter Administration, which neither saw the revolution coming nor knew how to divert it once erupted, panicked. On January 16, 1979, the Shah left Iran permanently and his regime collapsed. Less than 10 months later, on October 1, 1979, President Jimmy Carter announce the formation of what was called The Rapid Deployment Force, a mobile mostly floating US strike force. Although its scope included a global reach, its actual mission was almost entirely focused on the Persian Gulf to replace the US security vacuum created by the Shah’s demise. A few months later, on January 23, 1980, the mission of the Rapid Deployment Force was spelt out in a major policy statement which is now referred to as The Carter Doctrine. The doctrine represented an openly bold face warning: The US would use military force to defend its interests in the Persian Gulf region which were now viewed as deteriorating by the double whammy: the already mentioned Iranian Revolution and in its wake, although only vaguely related, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
• From 1991 (First Gulf War) until today the US strategy shifted once again, this time to an even greater physical military presence throughout the region with the establishment of a string of permanent military bases, some known, others secret. A number of factors were involved in this shift to more permanent regional bases, among them:
1. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the ensuing security vacuum in Central Asia, a region rich in oil and gas at a time when a tightening of energy supplies was already predicted
2. Certain questions concerning Israel’s role in protecting US interests in the region which have more or less erupted into public debate with the Walt-Mearsheimer paper and Jimmy Carter’s book Palestine or Apartheid? But a more fundamental debate over Israel’s value as a security partner in the region began long before with the collapse of the USSR.
3. During the 1990s a number of strategies were tried and then changed. For example in the mid 1990s there was a considerable US military base build up in Saudi Arabia. That build up is one of the reasons, Osama Bin Laden told the world, for the September 11, 2002 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Opposition to US bases in Saudi Arabia proved so contentious – and dangerous for the House of Saud, that, despite the enormous expense incurred in building the Saudi bases, they were (mostly) closed with new regional headquarters set up in nearby and seemingly safer (we’ll see) Qatar.
• The events of September 11, 2002 – despite many assertions to the contrary – did not represent any fundamental change in this strategic plan for a U.S. permanent military presence on the ground throughout the region. It simply speeded up a process that had been underway, as I have remarked above, since at least 1979. 9-11 provided the excuse for the Bush Administration to escalate what are essentially bi-partisan plans for a permanent military presence both in Afghanistan and Iraq. In a certain way the events in Afghanistan are a model for Iraq. In both cases not only has the United States failed to put down local insurgencies and restore order necessary for economic development. Besides resulting in untold (and untellable) damage on a human and infra-structural scale, the US military presence has largely aggravated the situations in both places, situations which continue to deteriorate. The US has built in both places the modern version of Crusader fortresses – extraordinary armed cities within all this instability from which they can strike throughout the region at will. Iraq is perhaps going to hell in a hand basket. It matters little, the bases will be built.

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