Schwarzkopf (RIP) and How the United States got Bogged Down in the Middle East

Gen. Norman H. Schwarzkopf is dead at 78. He died of pneumonia.

Schwarzkopf was among the military leaders who repositioned the United States as a Middle Eastern hegemon.

The US had interests in the Middle East from World War II forward, but the region was frankly on the back burner. The central American military and diplomatic commitments were dictated 1945-1991 by the Cold War. Thus, American tanks were assembled in Germany to face down the Red Army’s armored division. US interest in Lebanon and Iran were all about the possible spread of Communism and Soviet influence in the area. The US of course also wanted to keep the Middle East’s petroleum out of Moscow’s hands and freely flowing to capitalist allies such as France, Britain and Japan.

When he was Israeli ambassador to Washington in the early 1970s, Yitzhak Rabin complained that he had difficulty getting appointments in the American capital. US officials were preoccupied with Vietnam, and just not that interested in the Middle East.

It was the Gulf War of 1991 that changed everything and brought the US into the Middle East as a Great Power. In 1990, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had invaded and annexed Kuwait, in part over disputes on oil policy.

Iraq’s action underlined how vulnerable the small oil emirates of the Persian Gulf were. In Europe, smaller principalities had been absorbed by larger nations through the nineteenth century, through war or diplomacy. Bismarck crafted German unification, incorporating many small polities into the new country.

But in the Gulf, British naval power advanced by a series of treaties with the small principalities along its Arab littoral, turning them into protectorates. They were thus called trucial states.

Britain withdrew from the Gulf gradually through the 1960s, and pulled out altogether in 1971, as part of decolonization. In the meantime, many of the former trucial states had discovered petroleum and were getting rich just as their Great Power patron was departing.

Rich, tiny countries with no armies of their own to speak of were vulnerable to being annexed by the larger states in the region. Iraq claimed Kuwait, Iran claimed Bahrain, and even the somewhat larger Saudi Arabia was not secure from annexation.

It was not inevitable that the US should fill the power vacuum left behind by the British. President Richard M. Nixon and his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, attempted to arrange for the king of Iran, Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, to replace Britain. The Shah sent forces to Oman to put down an allegedly Communist tribal insurgency. But then he was overthrown by Imam Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979, and the Iran proxy plan crashed and burned.

Then from about 1983, President Ronald Reagan attempted to replace Iran as guardian of the Gulf with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

But Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait made him unsuitable to the task from the point of view of Washington.

In deciding to push Iraq back out of Kuwait and guarantee the status quo ante in the Gulf, George H. W. Bush and his Centcom commander Gen. Schwarzkopf took the fateful step that would lead to the US replacing Britain as the Great Power in the Gulf. Schwarzkopf is said to have helped convince Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd to allow the pre-positioning of hundreds of thousands of US and allied troops on Saudi soil in advance of the 1991 invasion of Kuwait.

Once the US pushed Iraq out of Kuwait, it established a no-fly zone in the south of Iraq, and ultimately another one in the north. The Shiites and Kurds had rebelled against a humiliated Saddam Hussein in spring of 1991, and the regime used helicopter gunships to crush the protesters. In the aftermath of that PR embarrassment, the US had little choice but to put in the no-fly zones to prevent the Baath regime in Baghdad from further massacring the Shiites and the Kurds. Washington leased the Prince Sultan airbase from Saudi Arabia, and did the overflights over Iraq from there. The US was stuck

The US also had leased a naval facility at Manama, Bahrain, taking over from the British in 1971. But from 1997, the US presence at the base was much expanded.

The US thus become the guarantor of Gulf security, finally replacing the British.

Usama Bin Laden and his al-Qaeda fighters, who had been allied with Ronald Reagan in the quest to evict the Soviets from Afghanistan, really, really minded Gen. Schwarzkopf and his troops being in the Muslim Holy Land (i.e. Saudi Arabia, the site of the holy cities Mecca and Medina). That outrage against the Americans led, along with other causes, to the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Tower.

President George W. Bush took advantage of public anger in the US over the September 11 attacks to launch a war of choice against Iraq, which had had nothing to do with September 11.

Schwarzkopf made it clear that he disapproved of the invasion of Iraq and that he thought the Bush team was under-estimating how difficult the task would be.

The Obama administration says it wants to ‘rebalance’ toward East Asia, which makes a lot of sense. But because of oil, Israel and naval routes, the US is likely to be a hegemon in the Middle East for some time to come.

The turning point was the Gulf War, and the late Gen. Schwarzkopf was among the architects of the new American military role in the Gulf.

By 2018 or so, by which time solar panels will likely be cheaper than petroleum and gas, the importance of the oil in the Gulf will decline rapidly. Perhaps a Green America can finally come home and leave the Middle East alone.

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31 Responses

  1. Hope your prediction proves accurate. 2018 is a long time to wait for the USA to wake up from its oil induced energy dependancy.

      • And, due to ‘baked in’ global warming (we needed to get off of fossil fuels in the 2000s), a lot of people will die even afterwards.

  2. Let’s not forget the paterfamilias, the Big Daddy who started things on the road to ruin, MG Herbert Norman Schwarzkopf, who took out Dr. Mohammad Mosaddegh, who “[as] prime minister, Mosaddegh became enormously popular in Iran after he nationalized Iran’s petroleum industry and oil reserves. In response, the British government, headed by Winston Churchill, embargoed Iranian oil and successfully enlisted the United States to join in a plot to depose the democratically elected government of Mosaddegh. In 1953 US President Dwight D. Eisenhower authorized Operation Ajax. The operation was successful, and Mosaddegh was arrested on 19 August 1953. The coup was the first time the US had openly overthrown an elected, civilian government.”*

    “Before retiring from the Army in 1953 with the rank of major general, Schwarzkopf was sent by the Central Intelligence Agency as part of Operation Ajax (correct name TPAjax, TP meaning Soviet backed Tudeh Party of Iran), to convince the self-exiled Iranian monarch, Mohammad Reza Shah, to return and seize power. Schwarzkopf went so far as to organize the security forces he had trained to support the Shah, and in so doing he helped to train what would become later known as the SAVAK.”**

    I can think of the various things that “RIP” could mean (but I don’t want to be mean).

    * link to

  3. Dear Professor Cole

    The shift to the Pacific seems to overlook the key role of the Indian Ocean.

    Kaplan explains here.

    link to

    The key objective seems to be to contain or slow down the growth of China. Doing this requires restricting Chinese access to hydrocarbons from the Persian Gulf and restriction of their access to the raw materiels of Africa.

    The 21st Century thus becomes a new “Scramble for Africa” between the US and the Chinese with the Europeans wishing “a plague on both your houses”. The abandonment of Admiral Zeng He’s voyages is spoken of wistfully in China as a mistake.

    Retaining a Carrier and Fleet base in Manama is probably not a long term option so I would expect something like a move to Djibouti to get the fleet out of the constricted waters of the Persian Gulf. Fighting warships there would be like shooting fish in a barrel.

    The image of a burning nuclear powered aircraft carrier, carrying thermonuclear weapons (??) out of command in those waters is not a pleasant one.

    Domination of the Indian Ocean then becomes a contest for submarine capability. Submarines become the launch platforms for supersonic anti ship missiles with very substantial ranges.

    There are rather a lot of tiny islands becoming Chinese submarine bases.

  4. Thanks for bringing a little rationality and realism in the midst of all the tributes happening out there in Fantasyland.

  5. Something huge took place in Saudi Arabia two months after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 — but nobody in the U.S. media noticed. All our troops were completely withdrawn from Saudi Arabia, where, because they were a rallying point for those who opposed the monarchy, they were a threat to the royal family. I often wonder if Prince Bandar “Bush”wasn’t financing bin Laden, hoping a terrorist attack would precipitate another U.S. war in the Middle East, under cover of which U.S. troops could be removed from his country with no risk of conservative criticism of his buddies in the Bush administration. And that’s exactly what happened. Maybe Bandar was doing more than hoping and the Bushies were, too.

    • Osama Bin Laden received a royal audience with King Fahd and was a national hero in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia after the defeat of Marxist forces in Afghanistan but was rebuffed with his offer to defend the kingdom against Iraq in 1990.

      U.S. troops were removed and re-headquartered in Qatar; this was covered in the media, but not to any great extent as a major story.

      Ron Paul pointed out that Bin Laden expressly based the 9/11 attacks in retaliation for the U.S. troops stationed in Saudi Arabia, which he considered “holy ground”. This cause-and-effect link was, likewise, given little notice in the U.S. press. Just like the 1983 bombing of the baseU.S. Marines in Beirut was in direct response to U.S. Navy shelling of Shi’ite areas of Beirut at the direction of U.S. National Security Council leader Robert McFarlane – over the dissent and warnings of other military and foreign policy experts. The media often ignores the underlying motives of these terrorist incidents.

      • Bin Laden really has accomplished most of his goals, with the aid and assistance of G W Bush & co. (Apart from the goal of a new Caliphate, which is not going to happen.)

        The push to get rid of US bases is an interesting transnational project; it’s been kind of back-burner for a while, but I expect it will come back strong in the next couple of decades. Korea doesn’t want us, Germany doesn’t want us, Japan doesn’t want us, the people of Qatar and Bahrain don’t want us (even if the monarchies do), etc.

      • Everything you said is wrong. By the way I was one of those Marines in Beirut.
        There has never been a “Marxist” government in Afghanistan other than the puppet Soviet Government that was hardly of any political or economic persuasion.
        US forces in Saudi was one reason Bin Laden gave but far from the only one. He was not widely known in Saudi and was hardly a national hero for his minor role in Afghanistan.
        We were bombed in Beirut by the Syrians who wanted us out so they could regain control over the region after the Israelis pulled out.
        Your comments seem more inspired by personal political beliefs than any actual knowledge.

        • @Darwin:

          The source of my statements was “From Beirut to Jerusalem”, an award-winning book by Thomas Friedman.

          Friedman indicated that the Marines in Beirut, before the bombing, were unhappy about Friedman’s analysis that the U.S. Navy shelling would likely be interpreted by Shi’ites as being in support of the Christian-controlled Lebanese Army that were the foes of the Shi’ites and the Syrians.

          It was a Lebanese Christian, Habib Chartouny, that was convicted of the bombing at the Phalangist Party HQ in Bikfaya that killed Lebanese Christian President-elect Bashir Gemayel in September of 1982; Gemayel had the backing of the U.S. That assassination was widely believed to be organized by Syrian intelligence. So there is certainly some reason to believe that the Syrians played some type of support role, as you contend, in the bombing of U.S. Marine base in Beirut in 1983.

          Afghanistan was under Soviet-influenced Marxist control from the late 1970s until 1992.

    • I remember reading in National Review magazine, prior to the Iraq War, about the benefit of being able to end the “provocative” American military bases in “the land of the two holy places.”

      I found it very odd that such a hawkish, Islamophobic source as post-9/11 National Review would worry about that.

      • Consider that Dick Cheney, head of PNAC and previously of the American Enterprise Institute, and the other neocons were looking for an excuse to move US troops into Iraq and Iran, which was more central to the region where oil development was taking place (up into central Asia). The argument that they could take pressure off the Saud dynasty by relocating from Desert One to Iraq might have been appealing to more cautious conservatives, like Dick’s oil industry friends.

  6. As long as “we” continue to think and act according to the large-scale constraints of an idiot game of RISK!(tm), in which personified/reified/hypostatizationalized “nations” and “extra-national world conspiratorial groups” like “al Quaeda” are presumed and therefore become the “actors and players,” there will be more impetus for more of the metastasis of unstable, constantly growing, resource eating, all-too-human Great Gamery. Complete with “services” that eat a quarter and more of the world’s wealth, re-define the planet into nothing but one huge Battlespace subdivided into “Areas of Responsibility” (formerly “Areas of Operation,” until the ugliness of that kind of claim caused a change in the dictionary) and burn huge amounts of combustible fuels (while seeking PR cover and enhanced loiter time in places like Notagainistan by adopting and co-opting “green” technology) and sowing dragons’ teeth all over the landscape.

    For those who want “us” to pretend that “(You name the mideast or South American or Central American or African post-colonial nation)” is “not Vietnam,” might one refer them to the nice recitation of how “we” involved “ourselves” in Vietnam and the rest of Southeast Asia given by Barbara Tuchman in the last piece of her “The March of Folly.” The parallels to subsequent huge-scale idiocies are unarguable — same players, same earnest or more often faux sentiments and collations of “fears and threats,” same insatiable appetite for “enemies” and promotions and profit and private jets and other perks for the Battlespace Managers and their symbiotic “contractors.”

    Apologists will say that she was “re-writing history.” Given that the history written by the “winners,” the Pentagram and the MIC and the “right,” is so far from what sure seems to be the real world as it happened, re-writing is pretty much mandated, for one seeking honestly for the roots and failings of “policy” that lead “us” from one wasteful and self-propagating idiocy to another.

    US replaces departing or departed colonial power, claims “interests” for itself in the new Battlespace, bureaucratic timidity and dishonesty and mini-empire-building undergird self-fulfilling or propaganda-generated “prophecies.” Our team creates “enemies,” and goes to war to try to thwart changes in other nations’ history. Without benefit of a declaration of war, a commitment by OUR nation, a clear statement of “our” interests, other than some looming miasmic “threat” made of propagandic Lycra ™, elastic enough to cover a whole hemisphere’s volume of BS and profitable self-interest and behaviors and “policy” that have not a damn thing to do with anything like real “interests” of the nation at large, particularly the mass of people who end up paying for Schwartzkopf and McChrystal and Petraeus’ Game-playing and comfortable post-military “retirements,” free of consequences for failed “policies,” falsehoods propagated, and a whole lot of death and the furtherance of behaviors and “systems” and “force structures” that inevitably lead to more of the same.

    Too bad “we” are by far less committed to the “general welfare” than to the “welfare of the generals.”

  7. I don’t think cheaper PV panels will end the importance of oil. Oil derived liquid fuels are still indispensible to transportation, and look to remain so. If anything, those few nations with surplus production could be more rather than less importaant relative to today.

    • Nah. Even a minor improvement in battery technology will eliminate the use of fuel-burning vehicles for all but specialty purposes, and there are major improvements in battery technology coming down the pike.

      Probably not as early as 2018 though. 2025 I’d guess.

    • He said the importance of oil will decline rapidly not that it would end it. This is correct.

    • If we really wanted to, we could electrify much of our transportation, but it’s too much of a disruption to our narcotized consumer sleepwalk. Like the New Deal or WW2, the sort of mass action that corporations fear could give the peasants ideas. It would not cost a lot of money to electrify all our freight railroads, yet that went nowhere. We could convert all non-hybrid city buses to natural gas, and actually save money. If we could even imagine making sacrifices, we could just levy a military services tax on our petroleum products, and then let the market force us all to move closer to our country’s excellent network of waterways, like our forefathers did. Or pay the real energy cost for meat, or live without airlines perpetually bankrupted by fuel costs, or stop moving further from our jobs to flee from minorities and their supposed criminality.

      The sacrifices themselves aren’t the problem, it’s that the economy can’t function unless consumption keeps increasing geometrically.

  8. Prof. Cole, you provide an excellent summary of recent events concerning the Persian Gulf region. However, I believe you are mistaken to see the early 1990s as a major turning point for the U.S. It seems clear that U.S. policy has not essentially changed since WWII. Only the tactical means of pursing its strategy have evolved.

    WWII taught the U.S. how crucial it was to deny an enemy (e.g. Germany) oil in order to achieve victory. Accordingly, the U.S. has ensured that it largely controls who gains access to the Middle East’s vast energy resources. Thus, in the specific case of Iran, we see how the U.S. viewed both the independence of a secular democrat (Mossadeq) and the independence of a theocratic autocrat (Khomenei)as equal threats to its control. The case of Iran also demonstrates how the Cold War was largely irrelevant: U.S. policy remained identical both before and after the disintegration of the USSR.

    It is true that the U.S. has devoted more military resources to the Gulf region since the UK left. But who doubts that an imperialist power like the U.S. exploits various tools to maintain its dominance.

    To continue with Iran, the conflict the US and Israel has with her “springs from the exigencies of geopolitics rather than ideology: Iran’s age-old ambition to be recognized as a–or the–regional hegemon versus the determination of the U.S. and Israel to foil its ambition and preserve their regional preeminence. Many informed Israelis freely acknowledge” this reality. For example, according to Eliezer Tsafrir, former head of Israeli intelligence in Iran and Iraq: “However ideological and Islamic, everything Iran was doing was nationalistic, and even similar to the Shah”. link to

    • “To continue with Iran, the conflict the US and Israel has with her “springs from the exigencies of geopolitics rather than ideology: Iran’s age-old ambition to be recognized as a–or the–regional hegemon versus the determination of the U.S. and Israel to foil its ambition and preserve their regional preeminence.”

      Your statement above cannot be accepted as immutable U.S. policy. It is contingent upon who rules Iran. For instance, under President Nixon, the U.S. wanted Iran, under the Shah, to become the regional hegemon, in order that the U.S. would not have to bear that burden.

      • Gee, and who installed and supported the Shah, by arranging the coup that blew out a democratically elected “liberal?” Who built the SAVAK, the Shah’s secret police, which disappeared and tortured and all that stuff? Who armed the Iranian military under the Shah? Who sent Khomeini a Bible and a bunch of missiles and other stuff in exchange for those hostages that became such because of US pot-stirring and “support” of yet another repressive dictatorial convenient REGIME?

        I’ll give you that the statement you cavil at “cannot be accepted as immutable US policy.” About the only clear “policy” that’s “immutable” is that “our” militopolitical apparatus will act against what I would characterize as “the national interest” by fomenting trouble, arming the planet, filling the air with way more than our share of noxious gas and trouble, resisting any effort to prolong the life of the species and the planet, stealing or trying to steal any resource “our” corporatocracy takes a fancy to, being so clumsy and stupid as to repeat stupid behaviors and to earn the name “Uncle Sucker” for being minimally competent in the Great Game and supporting, for ideological and monetary reasons, one more skillful set of players after another. And stumbling along the same path as all the other Empires have gone down.

        With folks like you, consciously or out of other motivations, to provide text and “context” (emphasis on ‘con’) and smoke and cover and excuses and deniability for each little bit of the stupidity and idiocy that taken together constitute, I guess, what is called “policy.” Which I take to mean “whatever we happen to do, want to do, are stupid enough to do, can get away with doing, or can (or try to) keep others from doing.” Which ipso facto, thereby, Q.E.D., is “right” and “good.” And of course Exceptional, never exceptionable.

        Cancer cells, and many parasites, live “successfully,” live very comfortably, live “large” very often, creating a nice environment for themselves and their co-infectors and spawn, in a declining and dying host critter.

    • The US is so behind the times. Worrying about oil?

      The first solar-powered military will wipe the floor with every other military in the world, including the US, and the US military won’t know what hit it.

  9. You say that the US was not overly interested in the ME in the 1970s and that it only acquired hegemonic status in the early 90s.

    I would argue that since the Suez crisis, the US demonstrated an active interest in the region. By its very actions in Suez, it was the closest thing to a hegemon that the region had and whatever followed that was merely a consolidation of that power.

    • The U.S. role in the Suez crisis of 1956 was to put pressure on Britain, France, and Israel to withdraw from Egypt after their joint invasion, which was designed to counter Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal. If anyone was a Middle East hegemon at the time, it was Britain. The U.S. certainly was not.

      • But Britain folded under our pressure.

        Certainly, Britain was the big dog on the block before the crisis, but there is a very good argument to be made that the Suez Crisis marked the end of that era, and the ascension of the US.

        • “there is a very good argument to be made that the Suez Crisis marked the end of that era, and the ascension of the US”

          The better argument to be made is that Britain, of all the Western powers, retained the most influence in the Near East during the period 1956 to 1971, when it pulled out all of its forces East of Suez (i.e., from the Trucial States to Singapore). The U.S. interest in the Near East remained fairly static, focused on Israel and Saudi Arabia (and our interests in Aramco). We were not much of a strategic player during that period, the 1958 Lebanon crisis notwithstanding.

          The ascension of the outside power that was to have great strategic significance in the Near East during that time-frame was that of the Soviet Union. The Soviets gained great influence in Egypt (the Aswan Dam), Syria, and Iraq. The British remained paramount in the Trucial States (the Gulf), and the U.S. contented itself, for the most part, with Israel and Saudi Arabia. It was really only in 1971, with the pullout of the British, that the U.S. took on a significant strategic role in the Near East.

          In a way, the U.S. assumption of strategic responsibilities in the Near East in 1971, after the departure of the British, mirrored that of President Truman in 1947, after the British announced they would no longer be able to fulfill their responsibilities to protect Greece and Turkey from communist subversion. That, of course, led to the Truman Doctrine.

      • Not for lack of trying, just for lack of time to play out the “policies” of our right-wing Cold Warriors and their sick world views.

        In Egypt, the British had become so resented for their racist, arrogant ways that by the early 1950s even Winston Churchill, the grand old imperialist who had returned as prime minister in 1951, felt he could resist the tide of nationalism no more. After 1951 the British were confined to the Suez canal zone, harassed by Egyptian irregulars who wanted them out altogether. By June 1956 the last British soldiers had left even the canal zone.

        Yet Anglo-Egyptian relations did not improve. Nasser was enraged by America’s withdrawal of its offer of loans to help pay for the building of a dam on the Nile at Aswan. This project was central to his ambitions to modernise Egypt. But John Foster Dulles, the American secretary of state, thought the dam would place too much strain on the resources of newly independent Egypt.

        For their part, the British, mistrustful of Nasser and feeling the pinch, were also ready to withdraw their loan offer. So, thought Dulles, best to let the Russians take on the dam, as he knew they would if the West backed out. He did not, however, bargain for Nasser’s immediate response—the nationalisation of the Suez canal, whose revenues, Nasser argued, Egypt now needed to replace the loans promised by Britain and America for the dam.

        See, it’s all so complicated, isn’t it, as even the rest of this little linked article hints at. All the many stratagems and machinations of the putters-forth of notions of “interest,” almost uniformly their own at the expense of the larger world, uninformed by any notion of survival and sustainability, driven by the “values” that always drive Empire, all add up to a bleeding, wailing mess for the most of us, on the other side of that wall of privilege and power that insulates the Experienced Players from those consequences, a “mess” that just “requires intervention” to “rectify.”

    • But recall that we took Egypt’s side in that crisis precisely because we knew Nasser had no ideological compunctions preventing him from becoming a Soviet ally, and we were sort of in a bidding war for his services. The 1973 crisis also showed the US acting as though it was competing with the USSR for hegemony while not letting their proxies go too far.

      I think the deeper change was the indoctrination of the public – and perhaps the next generation of policymakers – to believe that it was worth getting a lot of Americans killed to control the Middle East. The blaming of the rotten economy of the ’70s on OPEC prepared the way, and the rise of Islamism added that necessary spice of fear. Once they’d gone that far, people suddenly all acted as though the US was entitled to control all that happened there, with no basis in history.

      Whereas, few Americans now would sacrifice their sons in a major conflict in east Asia, despite it being economically far more important to the world than it was when we did it in both Korea and Vietnam.

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