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US grand strategy and Iraq

Bombing Iraq is probably not just about oil, it is about transforming the Arab world, writes Pramit Pal Chaudhuri in Wonk's World.

india Updated: Dec 31, 2002 18:24 IST

The primitive way to look at the United States war against terrorism is to say it is largely about bashing Muslims. Or that Washington is using 9/11 as a pretext to take out Saddam Hussein and take over Iraq’s oilfields. The corollary is that after the US gets Osama bin Laden the war on terror will also be over. The world will return to tribal wars in Africa, debating bits of the WTO agreement and comparing the navels of Shakira and Britney Spears.

The assumption is that George W Bush’s administration has no grand strategy. That beyond raining missiles and dragging Al-Qaeda suspects off to Cuba, there is no vision thing.

This is important. Great powers who fail to recognize there are limits to kickass military power eventually run aground. Other powers coalesce against them. Their public tire of paying the price, in taxes and corpses, of being globocop. The sustainable way of being a global hegemon is to set up an international system that enshrines economic and political values which serves the interests of both the great powers and all potential rivals.

From World War II to the Cold War’s end the US was quite good at this sort of thing. Ex-enemies like Germany, Japan and Russia all made becoming capitalist democracies with US characteristics their new nation-building agenda. If the US has been able to lead the world, it is in large part because much of the world has been willing to be accept its leadership.

Is there such a liberal vision, a victory of values, imbedded in the war against terrorism?
Most people say no. Washington seemed to shirk rebuilding Afghanistan after the Taliban’s excision. And it seriously muddied the waters when it grafted the overthrow of Hussein to the main trunk of the war against terrorism. The pet peeve of Indians is the US’s alliance with Pakistan — a military dictatorship that sponsors terrorism. But countries all over have similar grumbles about US double-standards.

Hidden priority

Some scholars have argued otherwise. John Lewis Gaddis, probably the most famous scholar of US Cold War foreign policy, recently took a close look at the National Security Strategy released by the White House in June and argued Bush did have a grand strategy.

Whereas Bill Clinton’s three earlier strategy documents assumes a world more or less at peace, Bush stressed that peace needs to be defended, preserved and extended.
Defending the peace, Bush said, meant "fighting terrorists and tyrants". A new, radical strategy of pre-emptive attack was outlined to handle terrorists and states who helped them.

After 9/11, as Bush noted, "We cannot let our enemies strike first."

Preserving the peace meant "building good relations among the great powers". In other words, noted Gaddis, ensuring an anti-American coalition never comes together by associating US power with certain universal principles. As in the Cold War, other governments will at worst turn a blind eye to even unilateral US action because the alternatives — Al-Qaeda or even an Iraq that uses poison gas and attacks its neighbours – are worse.

Finally, Bush said the US would "extend the peace" by "promoting free and open societies".
This is the interesting bit. As Gaddis correctly pointed out, this reflects a general consensus among terrorism experts that the root cause of Osama bin Laden and his ilk is the closed polity of many Islamic countries. If the bulk of the membership and the funding of most jihadi groups worldwide is the Muslim Arab world it’s because this region has been a democratic desert. There is no genuine Arab democracy.

At this point Gaddis wondered. The Bush administration strategy clearly says what it envisions is a clash "inside civilisation, a battle for the future of the Muslim world". This could be construed to mean simply an end to Muslim support for terrorism. But Gaddis asked what if the real game is the democratization of the Arab world. In that case Iraq is the laboratory for an awesome experiment. "We can set in motion a process that could undermine and ultimately remove reactionary regimes elsewhere in the Middle East, thereby eliminating the principal breeding ground for terrorism."

He concluded: "If I’m right about this, then it’s a truly grand strategy." A fuzzy plan "turns out, upon closer examination, to be a plan for transforming the entire Muslim Middle East: for bringing it, once and for all, into the modern world."

Sands of Arabia

There will be plenty of catcalls, but I think Gaddis is more or less right.

There are multiple reasons why Washington is determined to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

Oil is one, but in a more indirect way than most think. Since Jimmy Carter, Washington has made ensuring the free flow of Persian Gulf crude a pillar of its national security. Part of this has meant ensuring no country in the region can match US influence. So revolutionary Iran had to be contained. Hussein could not be allowed to keep Kuwait or possess weapons of mass destruction. Oil underlies it all, but the policy implemented has been a textbook balance of power game.

The argument the US wants to control Iraqi oil falls apart when one looks closely at the nature of the world oil market. Petroleum is big, but it is hardly the core of the US economy – Silicon Valley is more important than Gasoline Alley to present and future American wealth. As industry analysts note, the US interest is long-term oil supply and price stability. Who owns the oilfield is moderately important, but not enough to wage a risky, expensive war over.

Then there’s the bit about Bush junior wanting to clean up a mess left by Bush senior. That plays a role, but George W is not the type to gamble his presidential future on righting a wrong that his father doesn’t seem overly concerned about.

The question is which of the various reasons for the US’s squeezing Iraq is the more important.

In the end, the coming attack on Iraq is actually about 9/11.

Not because of the Al-Qaeda link with Baghdad, which is errant nonsense. But because the goal of US grand strategy is to ensure Islamic terror never threatens American life and limb again. And the ultimate way to stopper the terror flow is to open up the Muslim Arab world.

Why isn’t Washington more explicit about this? Simply because most of the Muslim allies it has in the war against terror are authoritarian regimes. If the US says our ultimate goal is to overthrow you – there goes the alliance.

But a careful trawling of statements by lower level US officials gives some evidence that a grand strategy does float underneath the froth of rhetoric.

First, there are numerous statements linking the spread of democracy to any end to terrorism. The State Department’s undersecretary for political affairs, Marc Grossman, in an outline of US foreign policy priorities in November was clear, "Democracy, security and prosperity are the true antidotes to terrorism."

Second, US officials are also clear in the belief that the Muslim Arab world’s repressed polities are responsible for the growth of radical, violent Islam. The Pentagon number two, Paul Wolfowitz, noted three months ago that the way US could show to the average Muslim that terrorism was a "blind alley" was to "the alternative of liberty and justice".

Foggy Bottom’s head of policy planning, Richard Haass, wrote an article earlier this month laying it all out. He admitted that because of reasons of oil, the Cold War and containing Iran, the US did not encourage democracy in the Arab world. The region has now become the world’s "democratic exception". He went on to say, "It is not in the US interest – or that of Muslims – for America to continue this exception…As we have learned the hard way, such societies can be breeding grounds for extremists and terrorists who target America."

And the security policy person perhaps closest to Bush, Condoleezza Rice, publicly said in October, "We reject the condescending view that freedom will not grow in the soil of the Middle East – or that Muslims somehow do not share in the desire to be free."

When Haass visited India, he made it a point to meet a cross-section of Indian Muslim leaders. Why? Because Indian Muslims are the second largest Muslim population in the world and among the poorest. Yet, he said, none of them is a member of Al-Qaeda or its affiliates.

"I asked the leaders why this was so," Haas said, "And they said we live in a secular democracy. When we have problems we have alternatives to terrorism."

Third, US officials have quietly hinted that they are of the view that Iraq can be the wedge that will open the Arab world – and Iran – to the fresh air of representative government.

Washington wants to make an example and Iraq was a logical choice. It was already in the crosshairs for plenty of other reasons. It didn’t have too many international friends. But it also had a well-educated population, a more or less secular culture and a populace that seems weary of its present ruler. It also had enough oil to fund its own nation-building.

UK journalist Timothy Garton Ash, after meeting various higher-ups in Washington, recently wrote the Bush administration is “plainly committed to the long haul of nation-building in postwar Iraq. And that’s for starters. A new democratic and prosperous Iraq is to be a model for its neighbours” in the way West Germany was during the Cold War. I received a similar argument from a senior US National Security Council member this month: Iraq is to be a laboratory for the Arab world.

This is the White House’s dream scenario: Iraq becomes, after about five years of US military rule, a democratic confederation. Its success then has a cascade effect. The balance of power in Iran shifts towards the elected leadership, away from the mullahs. As crucial, Iraq’s political example and oil muscle serves to open up Saudi Arabia. As Ash noted, “No one in the administration yet says this publicly but there is a logic that leads from the democratization of Iraq to that of Saudi Arabia.”

Whether this scenario will have any resemblance to the reality that will follow when the US military goes for Hussein sometime after January is a different story. But as one US official said, “Worst-case scenarios cannot be an excuse for inaction."

Possibility with Pakistan

It also follows from all this that just like the Cold War, the US will have to make tactical decisions that run counter to the larger strategic goal.

The obvious cases are two unrepentant state sponsors of terrorism: the Saudis and Pakistan. The Saudis can’t be bucked now because they can throw the world economy in chaos. But let Iraq, which some experts believe may have more reserves than Saudi Arabia, come back on stream and let the Russians get back to Soviet-levels of production. At that point, the Saudi oil weapon disappears.

Pakistan is even trickier because it has nuclear weapons in place. Its government can be pressured but not overthrown for fear of Islamic militants seizing both power and warheads. And military action is out of the question. Working out how to bring sustainable modernity to this non-Arab Muslim world which is both non-democratic and a recruiting ground for terror will be a far greater challenge than rebuilding Iraq. No surprise then that Washington seems to be out of its depth when it deals with Islamabad.

New Delhi generally believes it doesn’t have a dog in the fight when it comes to the present Iraq crisis. But it does if the US has a grand strategy. Immunizing the Arab world, especially Saudi Arabia, from terror through the spread of democracy is clearly in India’s interests. But the big hope will be that if the US succeeds in transforming Iraq, it may be then tempted to try the same thing with Pakistan.