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POLITICS: Why Is the United States Going to War Against Iraq?

Analysis - By Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON, Jan 30 2003 (IPS) - Why is the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush preparing to go to war against Iraq?

It has put forward three reasons, none of which is taken particularly seriously by policy veterans. They include eliminating Hussein’s presumed arsenal of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), reducing the threat of international terrorism, and promoting democracy and human rights in Iraq and throughout the Middle East.

As Michael Klare of Hampshire College argued recently in a paper, none of these rings very true. Yes, Iraq undoubtedly has WMD – although not nuclear – but so do many countries in the wider region, including Israel, Pakistan and Iran (not to mention North Korea, whose destructive capabilities not only are far greater than Iraq’s, but also can be delivered at much longer range with much greater accuracy).

As for international terrorism, Washington has been insisting for years that Iran is far more active than Iraq, and, despite extraordinary efforts, administration hawks have yet to come up with any persuasive evidence that Hussein has any ties at all to al-Qaeda or other active terrorist groups.

Indeed, according to the CIA, Hussein is considered most unlikely to use WMD against the United States, let alone hand them over to terrorists for their use, unless he were face-to-face with his own elimination – precisely what the administration is now planning.

As for promoting democracy, critics note that this theme has been pushed by neo-conservatives who rose to power in the Reagan administration by attacking Jimmy Carter’s human rights policies, which they claimed unfairly undermined friendly ”authoritarian” regimes like the Shah of Iran and Somoza’s Nicaragua, and have since argued that Arabs and Muslims respect only power and force.

”There is … something hypocritical about the belief in democratisation when it is propounded by people who also hold the belief in the ‘clash of civilizations’, (and) who were insisting a few months ago that there are regions of the world, particularly the Islamic regions, in which culture makes freedom impossible,” noted The New Republic magazine last fall.

That hypocrisy is compounded by the fact that the administration has shown no reservation about aligning itself since the Sep. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States with some of the broader area’s worst dictatorships, including Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan and Saudi Arabia, among others.

”Already, this has looked too much like a war in search of a justification,” Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne, wrote last August when the democracy-promotion argument first became prominent.

So, if the administration’s public justifications are unpersuasive, what lies behind the drive to war?

On this question, the experts are divided. But most believe there are three possible major explanations: oil, intimidation, and Israel.

To most on the left, oil seems entirely persuasive, particularly when, as British writer Robert Fisk recently noted, you assert the fact that the United States is quickly running out of oil and that Iraq sits on the world’s second largest oil reserves. Combine that with the well-established connections of Bush, Bush’s father, and Vice President Dick Cheney, and you have a very convincing case.

As Klare, who also favours this thesis, points out, the United States since World War II has always considered the Gulf a ”vital interest”, precisely because of its status as the world’s greatest underground sea of petroleum.

But this thesis suffers some weaknesses. First, there is no evidence that U.S. oil companies favour an Iraqi adventure; indeed, some top oil executives have expressed alarm that an invasion may destabilise other key oil-producers, notably Saudi Arabia, which may greatly compromise their access in both the short and long runs.

And if the theory is correct, one would expect Bush’s father and his former top advisers, who are also major figures in the oil industry, to back military action, unilaterally if necessary. Yet, not only has Bush senior been unenthusiastic about the mission, but his former Secretary of State, James Baker, whose oil connections are legion, has gone to the trouble of publishing a report that warned explicitly against any action that would lend credence to the idea that ”imperalist reasons” were behind an invasion, least of all in the oil sector.

Finally, some have argued that Hussein represents no obstacle to U.S. access to Iraqi oil; indeed, U.S. oil companies have been buying Iraqi oil, like everyone else, under the United Nations oil-for-food programme. And, while Hussein’s removal could bring badly needed new investment in Iraq’s oil sector that could then increase the global oil supply, an invasion also risks disrupting those new supplies, either through sabotage or destabilisation of other nearby sources.

”If oil is the question, Iraq is not the answer,” noted oil historian Daniel Yergin recently.

That leaves intimidation and Israel, which, to some analysts, are closely linked.

Intimidation underlies much of the hawks’ rhetoric and comes across very strongly in the administration’s National Security Strategy document published in September, which makes clear that the United States favours a uni-polar world in which its military power is unrivalled. In that respect, invading Iraq is meant above all as a ”demonstration” of what will happen to ”rogue states” with WMD, links to terrorism or anyone else, for that matter, who challenges U.S. supremacy.

”The fastest way to impress one charter member of the ‘axis of evil’,” argued the Wall Street Journal, a major cheerleader for the hawks, earlier this month, ”is to depose another, and sooner rather than later”.

Klare offers an interesting, oil-related variant of this view by citing 1990 remarks by Cheney to the effect that whoever controls Gulf oil enjoys a ”stranglehold” not only on our economy, but also ”on that of most of the other nations of the world as well”. By overwhelming Iraq, he argues, Washington will be sending an unmistakable message to potential future rivals, namely China, whose economy will depend increasingly on Gulf oil.

Significantly, the imperial worldview that underpins the intimidation rationale was first articulated by neo-conservative policy analysts and writers who have long championed the positions of the right-wing Likud Party in Israel and now occupy key positions in the Bush administration, particularly in the offices of Cheney and Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, and the latter’s Defence Policy Board (DPB), chaired by Richard Perle.

Some critics argue that Iraq policy is driven primarily by these individuals, who, like Likud, believe that Hussein’s obsession with obtaining WMD marks the greatest threat to Israel’s regional military dominance and security.

Indeed, the strongest advocates for attacking Iraq both inside and outside the administration – Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, Perle and other DPB members, respectively – have been the neo-conservatives.

”Absent their activities, the United States would be focusing on containing Iraq, which we have done successfully since the Gulf War, but we would not be trying to overthrow Saddam Hussein,” says Stephen Walt, a dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, who also points to Washington’s unexpectedly sharp tilt toward Likudist positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as evidence of the neo-conservatives’ influence.

In their view, the interests of Israel and the United States are virtually identical, or as one of them, former Education Secretary William Bennett, noted last year, ”America’s fate and Israel’s fate are one and the same.”

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