Bush v. Kerry: The Persian Gulf Empire and Perpetual War
The visions for the American future laid out by George W. Bush and John Kerry differ starkly on matters of war and peace, and the shape of American power in the Middle East.
Bush has put enormous resources into the Iraq war compared to those he has committed to fighting al-Qaeda. Kerry pledges to concentrate on stamping out al-Qaeda. The American public has a clear choice between a continued US push into the Middle East, with bases and very likely further wars, and between a calmer, more patient foreign policy that makes room to address the problem of practically fighting terrorism.
As Barbara Slavin of USA Today noted after the first debate, Kerry differs strongly from Bush on the issue of a long-term US military presence in Iraq:
‘ Kerry charges that the war has further alienated other Muslim countries and diverted the United States from its main target, the al-Qaeda network. In the debate Sept. 30, Kerry said Bush sent the wrong signals to Iraqis and other countries in the region by establishing 14 military bases in Iraq that appear to be permanent.
“I will make a flat statement,” Kerry said. “The United States has no long-term designs on staying in Iraq. Our goal … would be to get all of the troops out of there with the minimal amount you need for training and logistics … to sustain the peace.” ‘
If elected, that is, Kerry might not be able to bring the troops home immediately, in order to avoid chaos. But he is willing to say up front that he will bring them home in relatively short order.
In contrast, if he is reelected, Bush will almost certainly attempt to retain bases in Iraq, and to ensure a long-term US military presence in that country on the analogy of Japan, Korea and Germany. If elections can be held in Iraq and if the political crisis there subsides, he will be in a position to draw down troops eventually to about a division (say 20,000 men). The Pentagon already speaks of 12 enduring bases in Iraq.
Unlike John Kerry, Bush has never even talked about having US forces leave altogether when security returns. The US under Bush will likely be a permanent Persian Gulf Power, succeeding the Portuguese, Safavid, Ottoman, and British Empires in that role. At the moment, the US lacks a big permanent land base in the region, though it has a de facto naval base in Bahrain and an air base in Qatar. These are small countries that can host only small facilities. With 12 enduring bases in Iraq, the US posture in the Gulf becomes dominant for perhaps the entire twenty-first century. Being an Iraq power would bring the US into permanent and active diplomatic and military contact with Iraq’s neighbors, including Syria and Iran. In all likelihood, the Bush path of Iraq bases leads inexorably toward further US military conflict in the region.
The dark cloud over this scenario is that in recent polls the Iraqi public evinces no enthusiasm for a long-term US military presence in their country (between 44% and 56% want the US out now, and 80% are opposed to the US troops remaining in the long term). If Iraqi democracy starts to look incompatible with Bush’s bases, and he has to choose between them, might he not be tempted to send parliament home and put in a strong man?
In the second debate, Bush said,
It is naive and dangerous to take a policy that he suggested the other day, which is to have bilateral relations with North Korea. Remember, he’s the person who’s accusing me of not acting multilaterally. He now wants to take the six-party talks we have — China, North Korea, South Korea, Russia, Japan and the United States — and undermine them by having bilateral talks.
That’s what President Clinton did. He had bilateral talks with the North Koreans. And guess what happened?
He [Kim Jong-Il] didn’t honor the agreement. He was enriching uranium. That is a bad policy. Of course, we’re paying attention to these. It’s a great question about Iran. That’s why in my speech to the Congress I said: There’s an Axis of Evil, Iraq, Iran and North Korea, and we’re paying attention to it. And we’re making progress.
I read this remark as an indication that Bush would continue to address North Korea through multi-lateral diplomacy (essentially acquiescing in its nuclear weapons program, since it is too late to do anything about it except appeal to Pyongyang to be reasonable).
But Bush pairs Iraq and Iran toward the end, suggesting to me that he intends to overthrow the ayatollahs in Tehran just as he overthrew Saddam. Certainly, as Tom Barry argues in In These Times, there are strong voices in the Bush administration that desperately want to go on to Tehran. I disagree with those who say Bush’s military is too overstretched for that option. Given these constraints, they could always attempt to foment a coup, as the US did against the elected Prime Minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh, in 1953. Of course, a coup could go wrong, reqauiring a military follow-up. It is also not impossible that Iraq will go well enough in the medium term to allow a draw-down there, freeing troops for use in Iran.
As Joshua Landis has cogently argued, there are also strong voices in the administration urging military action against Syria. [See also his column on Thursday]. Aside from the threat of more social turmoil, there is no obvious reason for Bush to leave Damascus alone. An attack on Damascus would make both the Turkish and the Israeli hawks happy. Syria’s only patron is Iran, which could do little about it except foment guerrilla resistance. Europe and Russia would complain, but would do nothing. The one brake on such a move might be Egypt and the Arab League, which don’t hate Bashar al-Asad the way they hated Saddam and may finally find ways diplomatically to intervene with Washington to stop the Bush demarche.
Although the Bush administration will frame any aggression against Syria and Iran as a means of removing weapons of mass destruction (neither government has any), and as a way of spreading democracy, in fact it will be aimed at strengthening the US position as the Persian Gulf hegemon.
The Iraq war was never about an attempt to control Iraqi petroleum. Petroleum is fungible or freely exchangeable, and cannot be “controlled.” Once pumped, it goes where the market wants it to go. But a plausible argument could be made that the Iraq war was in part about securing control of the Persian Gulf petroleum infrastructure (security, access to oil exploration and refining rights, distribution, and assurance that local powers could not disrupt supplies). Michael T. Klare at Tomdispatch.com makes a disturbing and extended argument about “Oil Wars and the American Military.”
The likelihood that Bush can accomplish his military goals without a renewed draft seems to me close to zero, despite his protestations to the contrary. Thousands of young people will be involuntarily inducted into his crusade, and the US economy and society will be warped in favor of war industries.
Bush is a risk-taker in the high stakes game of global blackjack. His recklessness and aggressiveness could well turn the eastern marches of the Middle East into an active chain of political volcanoes. The bad news is that the last time we had this sort of adventurer in the White House, it was Ronald Reagan. He and his administration helped create what became al-Qaeda to fight the Soviets, setting up the conditions for the blow-back of September 11. If Bush gets back in, can we really be sure the chickens of his Middle East policy won’t eventually come home to roost?