U.S. Intervention in the Middle
East: Blood for Oil
by Paul D'Amato
International Socialist Review,
December 2000-January 2001
Lawrence Korb, assistant defense secretary
under Reagan, as the U.S. prepared its massive military assault
on Iraq in 1991.
"If Kuwait grew carrots, we wouldn't
give a damn."
Since the Second World War, the United
States has been the dominant world power in the Middle East. Every
U.S. policy shift, every military intervention, every CIA plot
has been carried out to secure one main aim: to ensure the cheap
and plentiful flow of the world's most important energy resource--oil.
Despite new discoveries of oil reserves in Central Asia, the Middle
East still has two-thirds of the world's proven oil reserves,
and its oil is still the cheapest to pump and produce. As Lawrence
Korb's statement about Kuwait and carrots makes clear, nothing
that takes place in the Middle East today can be understood without
first understanding the strategic and economic importance of "black
The U.S. has relied on brutal, repressive
regimes--Iran under the Shah, Saudi Arabia, Israel--to do its
dirty work. It has used the CIA to foment coups against "unfriendly"
regimes. When necessary, it has intervened directly to punish
regimes that have challenged its dominance in the region--as it
did to Iraq in 1991. To this day, the U.S. spends billions annually
to maintain a large military presence in the region. It provides
billions in military hardware to client states, in particular
to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Israel--which the U.S. carefully maintains
as the region's most formidable military power.
After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire,
Britain and France drew the boundaries of the new states in the
Middle East with absolutely no input from the people of the region.
All promises of Arab independence the British had made to various
local leaders during the First World War were scrapped. At the
1919 peace conference, when the victorious powers sat down to
divvy up the spoils, foremost in their minds was the need to keep
the region divided and thereby easier to control:
Private oil concerns pushed their governments
(in the national interest, of course) to renounce all wartime
promises to the Arabs. For the oilmen saw only too well that oil
concessions and royalties would be easier to negotiate with a
series of rival Arab states lacking any sense of unity, than with
a powerful independent Arab state in the Middle East.
Britain took the areas that became Iraq,
Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. France took Syria and Lebanon. Each
state was then handed to local kings and sheiks who owed their
position to British tutelage. Kuwait was handed to the al-Sabah
family. After he was promised a united Arab republic, the Hashemite
King Hussein was awarded Jordan. Britain gave Ibn Saud Saudi Arabia--the
only country in the world named after its ruling family. France
put Lebanon in the hands of the Christian minority.
Journalist Glenn Frankel describes how
British High Commissioner Sir Percy Cox settled boundaries between
Iraq, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia at a 1922 conference in Baghdad:
"The meeting had gone on for five
grueling days with no compromise in sight. So one night in late
November 1922, Cox, Britain's representative in Baghdad, summoned
to his tent Sheik Abdul-Aziz ibn Saud, soon to become ruler of
Saudi Arabia, to explain the facts of life as the British carved
up the remnants of the defeated Ottoman empire."
"It was astonishing to see [ibn Saud]
being reprimanded like a naughty schoolboy by His Majesty's High
Commissioner and being told sharply that he, Sir Percy Cox, would
himself decide the type and general line of the frontier,"
recalled Harold Dickson, the British military attaché to
the region, in his memoirs.
"This ended the impasse. Ibn Saud
almost broke down and pathetically remarked that Sir Percy was
his father and mother who made him and raised him from nothing
to the position he held and that he would surrender half his kingdom,
nay the whole, if Sir Percy ordered."
Within two days, the deal was done. The
modern borders of Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait were established
by British Imperial fiat at what became known as the Uqauir Conference.2
There was one unique exception to this
arrangement. The 1917 Balfour Declaration had committed Britain
to supporting the formation of a "national home for the Jewish
people" in Palestine. When the postwar settlement made the
country a British protectorate, Britain backed Jewish immigration
to Palestine, hoping to create a "secure strategic outpost
in an Arab world." Though Lord Arthur Balfour was an anti-Semite,
he and other members of the British ruling class could see the
value of creating a colonial-settler outpost that, dependent on
British support, could become a loyal protector of British interests
in the area. The full significance of the role of such an outpost
would not become apparent, or fully taken advantage of by the
U.S., until several years after the formation of the state of
Israel in 1948.
U.S. steps in
In the aftermath of the Second World
War, the U.S. moved in quickly to establish itself as the number-one
power in the Middle East.
American policy in this period was chiefly
concerned that countries in the region did not come under the
control of nationalist regimes. They had their first taste of
that threat in Iran, when the democratically elected president
Mohammed Mossadeq, with mass popular support, nationalized the
British-owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. In a coup engineered
by CIA operative Kermit Roosevelt, Mossadeq was toppled and replaced
by the Shah. The Shah's power was underwritten by massive infusions
of American aid and upheld by the notoriously savage secret police,
The U.S. worried that Egypt, under Gamal
Abdel Nasser--a nationalist military officer who had come to power,
ironically, with the CIA's blessing after a 1952 coup--might become
a pole of attraction for pan-Arab movements.
U.S. interests in the region were couched
in the Cold War terms of preventing Soviet domination, though
it was clear that any regime attempting to leave the orbit of
the U.S., whether it had ties to Russia or not, was considered
a threat. Under the first of what would become a series of "doctrines"
outlining U.S. policy in the Middle East, the 1957 Eisenhower
Doctrine declared that the United States was "prepared to
use armed forces to assist" any Middle Eastern country "requesting
assistance against armed aggression from any country controlled
by international communism."
The Eisenhower Doctrine reflected Washington's
anger over Nasser's turn to the Eastern Bloc for weapons. The
U.S. refused to arm Egypt unless it agreed to join the U.S.-sponsored
Baghdad Pact, a regional security agreement under U.S. auspices.
The doctrine was quickly put to the test as a series of developments
in the region seemed to augur a wave of nationalism. In Jordan,
King Hussein was threatened by a newly elected pro-Nasser parliament.
In 1958, Egypt and Syria joined together to form the United Arab
Republic. In Lebanon, Muslim Arab nationalists led a struggle
against the minority Christian regime led by Camille Chamoun.
More importantly to the U.S., a nationalist military coup in Iraq
that same year overthrew pro-British dictator Nuri Said. This
event was perceived as a severe blow to U.S. prestige in the region
and as a threat to American oil interests.
U.S. officials feared that the new Iraqi
regime might reassert its historical claim on Kuwait, a tiny country
created by British fiat in order to prevent any larger state from
controlling what was then the biggest oil-producing area in the
Gulf. A memorandum based on an emergency meeting between Secretary
of State John Foster Dulles, Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
Nathan Twining, and CIA director Allen Dulles asserted that unless
the United States intervened, "the U.S. would lose influence,"
its "bases" would be "threatened," and U.S.
credibility would be "brought into question throughout the
world."5 The U.S. was also concerned about the nationalist
threat to what were very profitable oil concessions in Kuwait
Fearing that he was on the brink of losing
power, Lebanon's Chamoun asked the U.S. for assistance under the
Eisenhower Doctrine. With its eye on Iraq, the U.S. seized this
opportunity and declared a nuclear alert, mobilized a massive
strike force ready to intervene when called on, and invaded Lebanon
with 14,000 marines. When the new Iraqi regime announced its commitment
to "respect its obligations," the U.S. withdrew its
forces. "Thus what followed the coup in Iraq and the landing
of troops in Beirut was a new understanding of the rules of the
Middle East game," writes Micah Sifry. "Political changes
were possible as long as economic interests were safeguarded."
The "special relationship" with
Since the late 1960s, Israel has been
the single most important ally of the U.S. in the Middle East,
fulfilling the role laid out for it by the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz
as America's "watchdog" in the region. For this reason,
Israel receives more economic and military aid from the U.S. than
any other country in the world. "The U.S. relationship with
Israel is singular," writes Stephen Zunes.
Israel represents only one one-thousandth
of the world's population and has the 16th highest per capita
income in the world, yet it receives 40 percent of all U.S. foreign
aid. In terms of U.S. aid to the Middle East, Israel received
54 percent in 1999, Egypt 38 percent and all other Middle East
countries only about 8 percent. Direct aid to Israel in recent
years has exceeded $3.5 billion annually and has been supported
almost unanimously in Congress, even by liberal Democrats who
normally insist on linking aid to human rights and international
The basis on which Israel was formed--the
mass expulsion of the local Arab population and the establishment
of an exclusively Jewish state--makes Israel both the most reliable
ally and a source of instability in the Middle East. The U.S.
can rely on Israel's superior military might to help police the
region because Israel's unique history makes the majority of its
citizens zealous defenders of the Israeli state. In addition,
Israel's dependence on American imperialism to pay for its massive
military superiority over its neighbors makes Israel solidly pro-West.
On the other hand, the forced expulsion of Palestinians by Israel
has created a constant source of friction in the region that threatens
to upset U.S. relations with Arab states.
In the early years following the Second
World War, as the U.S. endeavored to extend its dominance over
the Gulf states, Washington viewed Israel as an ally, but only
as one among many. However, as the threat of Arab nationalism
rose after Mossadeq's and Nasser's rise to power in the early
1950s, U.S. aid to Israel began to increase. Whereas in 1951 the
U.S. gave Israel only $100,000 in grants, the coup in Egypt the
following year prompted the U.S. to give Israel $86.4 million.
But the U.S. was still wary that stronger
ties with Israel could sour relations with the other Arab states.
This was one of the reasons that the U.S. opposed Britain, France,
and Israel's invasion of Egypt in 1956 over Nasser's nationalization
of the Suez Canal. Yet the continuing growth of Arab nationalism
and the fear of possible growing Soviet influence in the region
prompted the U.S. to rely more closely on Israel's "watchdog"
capabilities. "By 1958," writes Mark Curtis, "the
U.S. National Security Council concluded that the 'logical corollary'
of opposition to radical Arab nationalism 'would be to support
Israel as the only strong pro-Western power left in the Middle
East.'" He continues:
"During the "crisis" in
the Middle East of 1958, when Britain landed troops in Jordan
and the United States did likewise in Lebanon, President Eisenhower
on several occasions considered the merits of "unleashing"
Israel (along with Turkey) against Egypt. The Chairman of the
Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Nathan Twining, proposed that Israel
should seize the West Bank of Jordan as part of a regional offensive
that would include British intervention in Iraq and Turkish intervention
in Syria. In all, it has been little wonder that the building
under British auspices of a national home in the region for Jews
was regarded by Arabs as a "permanent imperialist bridgehead.""
By the 1960s, as aid to Israel increased,
U.S. officials realized that Israel could be counted on to work,
mostly covertly, to curb the expansion of Arab nationalism in
the region. But it was with Israel's role in the June 1967 Six
Day War, when the Israeli army proved itself superior to the combined
forces of several other states and expanded its territory into
the West Bank, the Golan Heights, and the Sinai peninsula, that
the U.S. cemented its special relationship with Israel. In fact,
99 percent of U.S. aid to Israel has come in the years since the
Six Day War. That aid has been, in the eyes of U.S. imperialism,
a very good investment. Stephen Zunes recounts the importance
of Israel to the United States:
Israel has helped suppress victories
by radical nationalist movements in Lebanon, Jordan, and Yemen,
as well as in Palestine. The Israeli military has kept Syria,
for many years an ally of the Soviet Union, in check, and its
air force is predominant throughout the region. Israel's frequent
wars have provided battlefield testing for American arms. Israel
has also served as a conduit for U.S. arms to regimes and movements--such
as apartheid-era South Africa, Iran, Guatemala, and the Nicaraguan
contras--too unpopular in the United States for overt and direct
military assistance. Israel's military advisors have assisted
the contras, the Salvadoran Junta, and other governments allied
with the United States; its secret service has assisted the United
States in intelligence gathering and covert operations. Israel
has hundreds of intermediate-range ballistic missiles and has
cooperated with the U.S. military-industrial complex regarding
research and development for new jet fighters, antimissile defense
systems, and even the Strategic Defense Initiative. No U.S. administration
wants to jeopardize such an important relationship.
Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi makes a similar
An American military expert--Major General
George Keegan, a former air-force intelligence officer--has been
quoted as saying that it would cost U.S. taxpayers $125 billion
to maintain an armed force equal to Israel's in the Middle East,
and that the U.S.-Israel military relationship was worth "five
CIAs." There can be no doubt that from the U.S. point of
view, the investment in Israel is a bargain, and the money well
Of course, the interests of Israel and
the U.S. do not always exactly coincide. Sometimes, in fact, Israel's
aggressive posture toward the Arab states must be curbed in order
to foster closer relationships with the Arab ruling classes. George
Bush, for example, during the 1991 Gulf War, had to restrain Israel
from attacking Iraq for fear of upsetting Egypt and Saudi Arabia,
two crucial regional anti-Iraq coalition members.
But it was Israel's military muscle in
the Six Day War, and again in the 1973 war that pitted Israel
against Egypt and Syria, that helped to bring Egypt into the U.S.
fold. Under President Anwar Sadat, Egypt became the first country
to recognize the state of Israel. Ever since, Egypt has become
the second largest recipient of U.S. aid after Israel.
In that sense, Israel is a watchdog, but
like a watchdog, it must sometimes be kept on a short leash and
sometimes tries to slip that leash. This has been a constant tension
in U.S. policy toward the Middle East, and thus explains Clinton's
eagerness for the "peace process." The peace process
is not aimed at securing justice for the Palestinians, but at
bringing Palestinian Authority head Yassir Arafat under control,
eliminating the "Palestinian problem," and thereby facilitating
further cooperation between Israel and its Arab neighbors. As
it stands, the resilience of the Palestinian movement continually
upsets these calculations.
The U.S. debacle in Vietnam convinced
U.S. planners in the late 1960s of the importance of securing
control in the Middle East without direct military intervention.
The new "Nixon Doctrine" looked to local powers to be
America's regional police force. In the Middle East, Iran, Israel,
and Saudi Arabia became the three "pillars" on which
U.S. power rested in the region. Former U.S. Defense Secretary
Melvin Laird explained, "America will no longer play policeman
to the world. Instead we will expect other nations to provide
more cops on the beat in their own neighborhood." In addition:
U.S. Senator and oil expert Henry Jackson
noted in 1973 that Israel and Iran under the Shah were "reliable
friends of the United States" who, along with Saudi Arabia,
"have served to inhibit and contain those irresponsible and
radical elements in certain Arab states...who, were they free
to do so, would pose a grave threat indeed to our principal source
of petroleum in the Persian Gulf."
The U.S. sold $8.3 billion worth of arms
to the Shah between 1970 and 1979 and sent more than 50,000 U.S.
advisers to train the Shah's army and secret police.
Saudi Arabia has long been considered
the most important Arab ally of the U.S. in the Gulf. Economically,
it is the lynchpin of Gulf oil production. If 65 percent of the
world's proven oil reserves are in the Gulf region, 38 percent
of that is in Saudi Arabia. When oil was discovered there in 1938,
U.S. oil companies like Socal, Texaco, Mobil, and Standard Oil
of New Jersey quickly gained lucrative concessions by forming
the Arabian-American Oil Company (ARAMCO). A draft state department
memorandum in 1945 described Saudi Arabia's oil resources as "a
stupendous source of strategic power, and one of the greatest
material prizes in world history."
To secure what was initially an impoverished
and weak state, the U.S. gave Marshall Plan funds to Ibn Saud.
Until the 1950s, when regional rulers began to assert more control
over oil revenues, Ibn Saud and other local sheiks sustained themselves
from royalties handed to them by the oil companies. To give some
sense of how this tremendous oil wealth was spent, while Ibn Saud
spent $2 million in 1946 to maintain his garages, Saudi spending
on education in the same year amounted to $150,000.15 Today, the
ruling Saud family, for whom Saudi Arabia is a piece of family
real estate, consists of several thousand members. Of them, more
than 50 are billionaires. The king's palace alone is estimated
to be worth $17 billion, and the royal family's budget is $6 to
Protecting the Saudi Arabian "prize"
became a chief aim of U.S. policy in the Gulf. President Truman
wrote a letter to King Saud in 1950 in which he said, "No
threat to your kingdom could occur which would not be a matter
of immediate concern to the United States."16 After the oil-producing
states, eager to gain a greater share of revenue from their oil,
formed the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC)
in 1960, keeping Saudi Arabia in America's corner became even
more important. As the world's largest single oil producer, Saudi
Arabia can be relied upon to use its leverage to ensure, among
other things, that enough oil flows to keep prices down.
The U.S. has sold billions of dollars
in military hardware to Saudi Arabia throughout its history, not
only to protect the Saudi "prize" from outside intervention,
but also from internal dissent. The fact that Saudi Arabia is
one of the most repressive societies in the world has not concerned
U.S. officials one iota. Writes Said Aburish:
" Amnesty International, Middle East
Watch, the Minnesota International Lawyers Association and other
human rights organizations have documented endless cases of imprisonment,
torture and elimination within the kingdom. Solitary confinement
for years on end is a regular happening..., kidnappings and disappearances
are common..., political executions without proper trial are frequent...and
even women are not spared torture and humiliation.... In February
1996 a ten-year-old child was left in the sun tied to a rope in
front of a police station. In six hours he was dead, the victim
of the merciless desert sun. The boy had criticized the House
Saudi Arabia's abysmal human rights record
doesn't even appear on U.S. public radar, reflecting a long-standing
double standard whereby enemies are demonized and friends are
whitewashed. U.S. military assistance helps to keep this reactionary,
repressive monarchy in power.
Though the U.S. now views Islam as a grave
threat to its interests in the Middle East and the U.S. press
regularly pumps out racist anti-Islamic stereotypes, Islamic Saudi
Arabia remains completely unscathed. Ironically, at one time the
U.S. actively promoted Islamic fundamentalism as a counterweight
to Arab nationalism. The CIA, for example, cooperated with the
Muslim Brotherhood in Nasser's Egypt and provided Muslim movements
with operating bases in Pakistan. Osama bin Laden is a former
U.S. ally, the product of U.S. efforts to arm and train Islamic
fundamentalist forces fighting the Russians in Afghanistan in
the 1980s. Even Israel once funded the Muslim Brotherhood and
Hamas in Palestine as a way of undermining the Palestine Liberation
Organization's (PLO's) strength. Islam, now considered one of
the most formidable threats to U.S. interests in the region, was
once promoted by those same interests. What is consistent in U.S.
policy is its need to strengthen its strategic, economic, and
military control over the flow of oil. How it does this changes
with the times.
When the Shah of Iran was overthrown
in 1979, U.S. policy in the Middle East faced a severe crisis.
It had lost one of its key pillars in the Middle East. Joe Stork
and Martha Wenger describe the problem:
"The revolution which overthrew
the Shah in 1979 radically changed the strategic equation in the
region. Sparsely populated Saudi Arabia was never a serious candidate
to play a role comparable to Iran. The real "second pillar"
of U.S. strategy in the Middle East was Israel, but Israel's political
liabilities severely limited its usefulness in the Gulf."
The "Nixon Doctrine" was now
replaced by the "Carter Doctrine," which placed emphasis
on the need to use direct military force if U.S. interests were
threatened in the region. Accordingly, President Jimmy Carter
promoted the idea of a U.S. "rapid deployment force"
that could intervene quickly in the region. Such a strategy required
the U.S. to line up local regimes to allow U.S. military bases
on their territory. Saudi Arabia became the lynchpin of this strategy.
Unable to openly declare support for the U.S. and Israel for fear
of alienating their own populations, Gulf rulers were forced to
act discreetly, allowing U.S. air and naval forces limited use
of military facilities in the region. This forced the U.S. to
depend heavily on more remote bases in Kenya and Diego Garcia
in the Indian Ocean, as well as on deployment of aircraft carriers.
The outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War in 1980
provided the U.S. with the perfect opportunity to bring Saudi
Arabia into even closer military collaboration. As Stork and Wenger
Saudi fears of an expanded war gave the
U.S. leverage to extract more intimate Saudi collaboration with
U.S. military plans. The centerpiece of this effort was the sale
of five AWACS planes and a system of bases with stocks of fuel,
parts, and munitions. "No conceivable improvements in U.S.
airlift or USAF rapid deployment and 'bare-basing' capability
could come close to giving the U.S. this rapid and effective reinforcement
capability," wrote military analyst Anthony Cordesman. An
added advantage was that the Saudis paid for it all.
Over the course of the decade, Saudi Arabia
poured nearly $50 billion into building a Gulf-wide air defense
system to U.S. and NATO specifications, ready for U.S. forces
to use in a crisis. By 1988, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
had designed and constructed a $14 billion network of military
facilities across Saudi Arabia.
U.S. policy during much of the eight-year
Iran-Iraq War, which cost a million lives on both sides, was to
encourage it as a means to weaken both Iran and Iraq. Western
powers and Russia each sold arms to both sides. But when in 1987
it appeared that Iran might win the war, the U.S. tilted toward
Iraq, seeing an Iranian victory as the greater evil. The U.S.
gave Iraq military aid, agricultural credits, and crucial intelligence
information, and used the pretext of "freedom of navigation"
in the Gulf to mobilize a massive armada to attack Iran's navy.
After Iran's defeat in 1988, U.S. support
for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein increased. "Between 1985
and 1990," writes Lance Selfa,
"U.S. firms sold almost $800 million
in "dual use" aircraft--ostensibly to be used for civilian
purposes, but easily convertible to military use. In 1988 and
1989 alone, the U.S. government approved licenses to U.S. firms
to sell biological products to the Iraqi Atomic Energy Agency
and the electronics equipment to Iraqi missile-producing plants.
In July 1988--two months after Saddam used chemical weapons to
wipe out the Kurdish village of Halabja--the California-based
Bechtel Corp. won a contract to build a petrochemicals plant.
Iraq planned to produce mustard gas and fuel-air explosives in
the plant. The Bush administration doubled agricultural credits
to Iraq to $1 billion a year.... U.S. business created a virtual
"Saddam lobby" to press for greater ties with Iraq."
The 1991 Gulf War
The 1991 Gulf War marked the first time
since 1958 that the U.S. launched a full-scale invasion of the
Middle East in order to protect its interests. Up to the day that
Iraq invaded Kuwait, Saddam Hussein was under the impression that
his actions would be acceptable to Washington. Bled dry by the
war with Iran, Iraq was angry over Kuwait's insistence on dumping
oil on the world market when Iraq needed better oil revenues to
pay for the war. When Iraq began threatening Kuwait, U.S. ambassador
April Glaspie told Saddam, "We have no opinion on Arab-Arab
conflicts like your border disagreement with Kuwait." But
when Iraq invaded Kuwait soon after, the U.S. completely reversed
its position. The U.S. could not allow Saddam Hussein to upset
the balance of power by taking control of a quarter of the Gulf's
oil. Saddam Hussein was a brutal military dictator long before
he tried to get control of Kuwaiti oil. The only difference is
that pre-invasion, he was a friend of the United States, whereas
post-invasion, he had suddenly become the "new Hitler."
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the
end of the Cold War created the unique conditions that allowed
the U.S. to assert its dominance in the region more directly than
it had in the past. Bush took the opportunity to cobble together
a military coalition--under United Nations (UN) auspices--that
included not only European powers such as Britain, France, and
Germany, but also Middle Eastern states such as Saudi Arabia,
Egypt, and Syria.
The U.S. freely used bribery and intimidation
to create the anti-Iraq coalition. The U.S. pushed the Gulf states
to give $4 billion to Russia; China, whose brutal suppression
of the democracy movement in Tiananmen Square had left it isolated
internationally, was now offered a place at the table; Egypt was
forgiven $14 billion in debt; and Syria was given the green light
to invade Lebanon. When Yemen voted against the UN resolution
authorizing the use of force against Iraq, the U.S. cut off millions
of dollars in aid, and Saudi Arabia promptly expelled 800,000
Yemeni "guest" workers.
Yet for all of the fanfare about the war
pitting Iraq against the "international community,"
the war was overwhelmingly fought by U.S. forces, for U.S. aims,
with some backup from Britain and Saudi Arabia. U.S. pilots flew
ninety percent of all combat sorties. The UN was used purely as
a fig leaf to cover what was an American-led and American-fought
The Bush administration deliberately sabotaged
every effort made by European and Arab countries to work out a
peace settlement--vetoing, for example, a four-point peace proposal
put forward by the French in the UN Security Council. The U.S.
was itching to teach its former client a lesson. The month-long
air war devastated Iraq's infrastructure. More than 90,000 sorties
dropped 88,500 tons of cluster bombs, fuel-air explosives, and
other ordnance, destroying Iraq's bridges, roads, power grid,
and water processing capabilities, and killing tens of thousands
Even though Saddam Hussein, after more
than a month of bombing, agreed to accept the UN resolution calling
for Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait, the U.S. dismissed this gesture.
Lance Selfa describes Bush's brutal ground war that followed:
Saddam had essentially cried "uncle,"
but the U.S. wanted to mount a ground offensive anyway. In six
days, U.S. and coalition ground troops swept across Kuwait and
southern Iraq, forcing Iraqi troops into a full-scale retreat.
In the last 40 hours of the war, before Bush called a cease-fire
on February 28, U.S. and British forces mounted a relentless assault
against retreating and defenseless Iraqi soldiers. The road leading
from Kuwait to Basra became known as the "Highway of Death."
Iraqi soldiers fled Kuwait in every possible vehicle they could
get their hands on. Allied tank units cut the Iraqis off. U.S.
warplanes bombed, strafed and firebombed the stranded columns
for hours without resistance. In a slaughter that a U.S. pilot
described as "like shooting fish in a barrel," thousands
of Iraqi conscripts were killed on a 50-mile stretch of highway.
So many planes filled the skies over southern Iraq that military
air traffic controllers maneuvered to prevent mid-air collisions.
The endgame to then-President George Bush's
war was ironic. After calling on the Iraqi people to overthrow
Saddam Hussein, U.S. forces stood by as Iraqi troops put down
an uprising of Kurds in the North and Shiites in the South. General
Norman Schwartzkopf gave Saddam's generals permission to violate
the "no-fly" rule and use armed helicopters to put down
the rebellion. Brent Scowcroft, who was national security adviser
at the time, told Peter Jennings in 1998 that the U.S. wanted
a military coup to oust Hussein, not a popular uprising: "I
envisioned a postwar government being a military government."
In the years following the war, the UN-imposed
sanctions on Iraq have not only prevented Iraq from rebuilding
its infrastructure, but have resulted in the deaths of thousands
of children every month who suffer from diseases related to malnutrition.
Thousands of others suffer from various cancers caused by depleted
uranium shells used by U.S. tanks in the ground invasion during
the Gulf War. Whereas the war killed upwards of 200,000 Iraqis,
the sanctions regime has resulted in the deaths of more than one
million Iraqis. In addition, the U.S. has engaged in ongoing bombings
of Iraq, which have rarely been considered newsworthy in the U.S.
The U.S. secured a bloody victory in the
Gulf War. At the cost of a few hundred American soldiers, the
U.S. demonstrated that it will stop at nothing to exercise its
imperial prerogatives and strengthen its hold over the Middle
East. With Russia out of the picture, the sole remaining superpower
seemed set to impose its "Pax Americana" over the region.
U.S. policy since the Gulf War
The U.S. emerged victorious after the
Gulf War, with its dominance over the region more firm than it
had ever been. Iraq was destroyed and kept permanently weak, and
the coalition allowed the U.S. to cement stronger ties with many
of the Arab states. The success of the United States in the Gulf
War sent the message, in George Bush's words, that "what
we say goes." As Michael Hudson, professor of international
relations at Georgetown University wrote in Middle East Journal:
"Even critics, such as the author,
of U.S. Middle East policy must agree that the United States today
stands astride this unhappy region like a colossus. A half century
of regional involvement in every conceivable way--through diplomacy,
aid, culture, education, espionage, subversion and (not least)
the projection of military power--has secured the "holy trinity"
of American interests: Israel, oil and anti-communism. Those who
said it could not be done underestimated the U.S. ability to achieve
contradictory goals. Today, the American president can summon
the leaders of most Middle Eastern governments to endorse his
regional (and domestic) political agenda. American financial officials
can write the domestic economic policy for most governments in
the region. The U.S. military enjoys unprecedented access and
acceptance from North Africa to the Gulf."
But the U.S. suffers from two Achilles'
heels in its role as regional superpower. One, it has been unable
to solve the Palestinian question, which again threatens to explode
the delicate balance in the region. And two, its own massive military
intervention has rendered the Gulf monarchies even more unpopular
and--with the crisis of declining oil revenues over the last decade
as oil prices have plummeted--more unstable.
The policy of "dual containment"
of Iraq and Iran pursued by the U.S. after the 1991 Gulf War has
been more or less abandoned, but no policy has replaced it. The
sanctions regime against Iraq has eroded, and Arab states' support
for sanctions has weakened, while the changes in Iran have created
an ambivalent relationship between it and the United States. The
U.S. cannot decide whether to maintain a policy of sanctions against
Iran or to shift to a policy of opening toward the country ("engagement").
Outside of the U.S. lapdog Britain, other European states are
no longer interested in maintaining the sanctions against Iraq.
Eager to make oil deals, Russia has recently expressed its intention
to work to bring an end to the bombing and sanctions against Iraq.
The increasing suffering of the Iraqi
people has weakened the ability of the U.S. to justify the sanctions,
particularly within the Middle East. Arab regimes have begun to
resume political and economic relations with Baghdad. Taking advantage
of resumed civilian flights to Baghdad by several states, dozens
of Middle Eastern officials and celebrities have broken the "no-fly"
rule to fly to Baghdad. For all intents and purposes, it seems
that the new UN inspection team will never even set foot on Iraqi
The problem that the United States faces,
even after its success in the Gulf War, is that, outside of Israel,
it has no reliable "surrogates" in the Middle East,
and Israel, as the Gulf War demonstrates, must sometimes be held
at bay. Since the death of Nasser in 1970, the U.S. has successfully
pulled Egypt into its orbit and neutralized it as a threat to
Israel. But the U.S. cannot rely upon Egypt to discipline its
Arab neighbors. The popularity of the Palestinian cause in Egypt
has even compelled President Hosni Mubarak to withdraw Egypt's
ambassador from Israel.
The U.S. has, it is true, armed Saudi
Arabia to the teeth, but Saudi Arabia is in no position to successfully
project its military power beyond its borders. That is why Saudi
Arabia has pursued a policy of détente with Iran. The United
States must spend massive amounts of money to arm what are undemocratic,
illegitimate Gulf monarchies. Even so, it cannot rely on them
to police the region in U.S. interests. These regimes are armed
to cement them as allies and to create the military conditions
in those countries to allow rapid deployment of U.S. troops.
The U.S. must keep an expensive military
presence in and around the region in order to maintain its interests.
This not only leaves American troops open to military attacks,
like the one recently in a Yemeni port against the U.S.S. Cole,
but it also puts tremendous political strain on local rulers,
whose own populations increasingly resent the U.S. imperial presence.
Hypocrisy has always permeated U.S. policy
in the Middle East. While some regimes, such as those in Iraq,
Iran, and Libya, are dubbed "rogue states," this has
absolutely nothing to do with whether these regimes are repressive
or invade their neighbors. When Israel--the only nuclear power
in the region--invaded Lebanon in 1982 and killed 40,000 people
in its efforts to smash the PLO, it had the backing of Washington.
Though lip service is paid to helping the oppressed Kurds in Iraq,
U.S. ally Turkey is given weapons to attack its own Kurdish minority.
While Saddam Hussein is certainly a tyrant, he was every bit as
much of a tyrant when he was Washington's friend. While his invasion
of Kuwait was condemned, the U.S. supports Israel's occupation
of Palestinian land. The coalition lined up against Iraq in 1991
consisted of countries such as Kuwait, a monarchy that still does
not grant women the right to vote; Saudi Arabia, which publicly
executes its critics; and Egypt, which outlaws opposition parties,
and sometimes murders them when they protest.
U.S. imperialism in the Middle East has
always been naked and brutal. It is primarily responsible for
upholding backward, dictatorial regimes that, without its help,
would have been overthrown long ago. Middle East specialist Dilip
Hiro spelled it out: "It is much simpler to manipulate a
few ruling families (and to secure fat orders for arms and ensure
that oil prices remain low) than a wide variety of personalities
and policies bound to be thrown up by a democratic system."
But such brutality always provokes a reaction--as the new Intifada
shows. "If history is any guide," writes Michael Hudson,
"hegemony by the United States or any other party in the
Middle East tends to produce resistance." That resistance
is back--not just in the Intifada in Palestine, but in the large
sympathy demonstrations throughout the region. The struggle against
U.S. imperialism in the Middle East is intimately tied up with
the aspirations of the mass of Arab workers and peasants in that
region, not only against the American "colossus," but
against their own ruling classes.
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