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Iraq and the New Great Game

In the run-up to the Gulf War, government officials put forth a bewildering array of reasons for the war, culminating with Secretary of State Baker’s fatuous claim that “it’s about jobs.”

In this coming war, perhaps the earliest and most consistently telegraphed since Cato the Elder’s repeated calls for the destruction of Carthage, a similar confusion reigns. The same reflexively secretive administration that didn’t want to disclose which companies it met with and for how long when formulating its energy policy has released at least four different plans for achieving “regime change” — widely-announced “covert” operations, the “Afghan strategy,” “Gulf War lite,” and the “Baghdad/inside out option.” It has also released numerous reports of generals, military strategists, and other insiders who oppose the war, to the point that people seriously wonder what’s going on.

This confusion has reached such heights that many are beginning to call this a “Wag the Dog” war, an attempt to avoid a Republican disaster in the November elections. While the exact timing may be affected by domestic considerations, the claim that they are the reason for the war itself is implausible when you consider that there has been talk about war on Iraq ever since 9/11, at a time when the world was Bush’s oyster. In fact, the war is simply a continuation of the “regime change” policy of over ten years’ standing — except that in the post-9/11 world the government believes that it can get away with anything by invoking terrorism as a threat.

So what is really going on?

Let’s start with what are not the reasons for the war. None of those put forth by the Bush administration hold water.

Shortly after 9/11, there was an attempt to relate Iraq to the attacks. The original claim that Mohammed Atta, one of the hijackers, met with Iraqi intelligence in Prague earlier in the year, quickly fell apart, as Czech officials engaged in an array of recantations and re-recantations. There are also allegations, recently resurrected, that Iraq had a terrorist training camp at Salman Pak, where Islamic fundamentalists were trained in how to hijack planes. It’s hard to argue against any of this simply because there’s so little there there; in fact, for months the administration stopped claiming any connection, unthinkable had there been any concrete evidence. The best current argument for this connection is Donald Rumsfeld’s dictum that “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

The main reason given for the war, of course, is the threat of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.

Scott Ritter, formerly one of the most hawkish of the U.N. weapons inspectors in Iraq, has stated repeatedly that Iraq is “qualitatively disarmed;” although there’s no way to account for every nut and bolt and gallon of biological growth medium in the country, it had (as of December 1998) no functional capacity to develop biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons. The common counter-argument is that Iraq could acquire them and the longer we wait the greater the chances.

Given the widespread credulous acceptance of this argument, it’s worth nothing that even the extremely one-sided pro-war panel on the first day of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s hearings on Iraq was unable to produce any reason why Saddam would jeopardize his position by plotting an attack that would surely invite massive retribution. In fact, although he has used weapons of mass destruction before, most notably against the Kurds (at which time he was aided and abetted by the United States), the most plausible scenario in which he would use them again is under threat of American attack.

Beyond that, successive U.S. administrations have done all they could to sabotage arms control in Iraq and worldwide.

First, in December 1998, President Clinton pulled out the weapons inspectors preparatory to the “Desert Fox” bombing campaign — even though he knew this meant the end of weapons inspections. This is normally reported in the press as the “expulsion” of the weapons inspectors.

Next, in a move that stunned and angered the international community, George W. Bush killed the proposed enforcement and verification mechanism for the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention — in December 2001, after the threat of bioweapons attacks was particularly clear.

Passed in 1972, the convention has over 100 signatories, including Iraq and the United States. Because of the lack of an enforcement mechanism, countries were free to violate it, as did Iraq and the United States — both have attempted to weaponize anthrax, for example, as we found out when <U.S.-developed> anthrax killed six Americans in the fall of 2001.

In 1995, those signatories started negotiations to provide enforcement through mutual, intrusive inspections. For six years, the U.S. government threw up constant roadblocks, finally terminating negotiations. The reason? Biological weapons inspections in the United States might imperil the profits of biotech companies. Of course, had the enforcement mechanism passed, it could have been used to press for inspections in Iraq.

Even worse, in March 2002, the United States removed Jose Bustani, head of the Organization to Prevent Chemical Weapons, from office. According to George Monbiot of the Guardian, it was because Bustani’s efforts to include Iraq in the Chemical Weapons Convention (subjecting it to chemical weapons inspections) would deprive the United States of a casus belli.

There is consensus by arms control experts that weapons inspections in Iraq were extraordinarily effective in finding and dismantling weapons of mass destruction. Clearly, the administration isn’t really concerned about this threat.

Constant protestations in the Senate hearings and elsewhere to the contrary, the administration is also not concerned about democracy in Iraq.

Consider the U.S. reaction to the Iraqi intifada, the mass uprising of Iraqis after the Gulf War, in response to a call by George Bush, Sr., to the Iraqi people to overthrow Saddam. In February and March of 1991, at the peak of that rebellion, Saddam’s regime was seriously imperiled.

In order to save Saddam’s regime, the U.S. military deliberately lifted the existing no-fly zone, allowing Saddam to use his helicopter gunships against the rebels; it seized arms depots so the rebels couldn’t arm themselves; and it even allowed the Republican Guards safe passage through its ranks to put down the uprising.

At the time, Richard Haas of the State Department explained, “What we want is Saddam’s regime without Saddam.” In 1996, on ABC, Brent Scowcroft explained further that the United States did not want a popular democratic movement that overthrew Saddam — it wanted a palace coup.

When all the official justifications collapse, what is left is the same ugly three-letter word that has always been at the core of U.S. Middle East policy — oil. It’s important to clarify, however, that U.S. policy is neither simply about access to oil, which is how mainstream commentators frame it, nor is it completely dictated by oil companies, as some on the left claim.

Access to oil can be obtained by paying for it, as other countries do. The United States has a different attitude because it is an empire, not merely a nation. On any given day, U.S. troops are in 140 countries around the world, with permanent bases in over half of those. After two decades of structural adjustment and one of “free trade,” the United States has more control over the internal policies of other countries than the elected governments of those countries. Although “globalization” was recently the more visible face of this imperial expansion, it always had a military underpinning — and currently the military aspect is dominant.

This empire is predicated, like past empires, on political control for the purpose of economic control and resource and surplus extraction. Oil is the world’s most important resource, and control of the flow and pricing of oil is a potent source of political power, as well as a significant source of profits. Oil companies, arms companies, and general corporate America are all intimately concerned with U.S. Middle East policy.

Iraq nationalized its oil in 1972, taking complete control over its own selling and pricing of oil and over the use of oil revenues. Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait put an end to that.

The sanctions imposed after that and maintained to this day have had many effects. In addition to causing the death of over 500,000 children under the age of five (according to a UNICEF study), sanctions have partially broken Iraqi control of Iraq’s oil. Starting with a complete ban on oil sales, they were gradually modified so that now there are no restrictions on sales. Iraq cannot make its own decisions about oil exploration and investment, nor until recently about repair of existing oil production facilities. Most important, all revenues from oil sales are deposited in a bank account in New York administered by the Security Council. Money is disbursed from that account, only with the permission of the United States, and almost exclusively to foreign corporations.

The sanctions have turned the Iraqi regime permanently against the United States. If they were lifted, the government would make oil exploration deals with French and Russian companies, not American ones. Continuation of the sanctions is a constant political burden for the United States. The Bush administration wants a war to extricate itself from this stalemate, by replacing Saddam with a <U.S.-friendly> dictator who will make deals with American companies and follow American dictates.

The Afghanistan war was the opening move in a potentially far-reaching gambit. It was not particularly about fighting terrorism — it was planned before 9/11, and even U.S. government officials have concluded (in a June 16 New York Times article) that it may have made “rooting out” al-Qaeda more, not less, difficult, because of the geographic dispersion caused by the war. It was also not just about a natural gas pipeline through Afghanistan, although those plans seem to be going forward. It also got the U.S. military into all seven “stans,” including potentially oil-and-gas-rich Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.

If Bush gets his Iraq war, given Russia’s rapprochement with NATO, there will also be a complete military encirclement of Iran, the other part of the “axis of evil” (North Korea was thrown in for ballast). At that point, Iran will find it increasingly difficult not to accede to U.S. wishes.

ExxonMobil, Shell, and other companies are currently negotiating with Saudi Arabia to do natural gas exploration. Although the Saudis say they will never allow foreign corporations to get their hands on crude oil, this is an important beginning.

According to “The New Oil War,” an article in the March/April 2002 issue of Foreign Affairs, OPEC countries have not increased their pumping capacity in over twenty years. This is the natural consequence, though the article doesn’t say it, of the dual U.S. policy of propping up corrupt feudal elites that use the revenues from oil sales to invest in U.S. and European corporations instead of investing them in their own economies and of “containment” (i.e., targeting for destruction) those few countries, like Iraq and Iran, that do try to develop their internal economies. Over the next twenty years, world requirements for Middle East oil are expected to double.

The United States seeks nothing less than the establishment of complete control over all significant sources of oil, especially of the Middle East, which holds roughly two thirds of the world’s proven reserves. The twin requirements of U.S. imperial control and the constant feeding of an industrial system based on ever-increasing levels of fossil fuel consumption dovetail with the systematic attempts of the United States to keep Middle Eastern countries from developing independent economies to set the stage for large-scale re-colonization, through war, “covert” action, and economic coercion.

This war is not about minor domestic squabbles between Democrats and Republicans, but about a very ugly New World Order, in which innocents in the Middle East, Central Asia, and in the United States pay for the imperial dreams of an increasingly detached American elite.

Rahul Mahajan is a member of the Nowar Collective and the Green Party candidate for Governor of Texas. His book, “The New Crusade: America’s War on Terrorism,” (Monthly Review Press, April 2002) has been described as “mandatory reading for anyone who wants to get a handle on the war on terrorism.” He is currently writing a book on Iraq titled “Axis of Lies: Myths and Reality about the U.S. War on Iraq.”

He can be reached at


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