LOS ANGELES, Dec. 3 (UPI) -- Many American pundits and politicians have called for expanding the war on terrorism beyond Afghanistan, to include conquering other Islamic regimes and remaking them into modern capitalist democracies. Yet, few have detailed what would be required to make feasible long-term American hegemony over the Middle East.
Imperialism is a serious business requiring a serious foundation. If these plans to conquer and rebuild Iraq and states Washington regards as rogues do not to prove wholly quixotic, the United States would have to first lay the groundwork by seizing control of Saudi Arabia and its oil wealth.
If America is not willing to take that step, then it should reassess just how committed it is in the
long run to overseeing the region.
Although there seems to be a fair amount of work left to do in Afghanistan, many from the right and the center have called for invading other Middle Eastern countries as well. On Sept. 13, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz spoke of "ending states who sponsor terrorism."
The Wall Street Journal editorial page has repeatedly beaten the drums for expanding the war. In its Oct. 6 edition, British historian Paul Johnson came up with a half-dozen countries that might need some conquering.
"America and its allies may find themselves, temporarily at least, not just occupying with troops but administering obdurate terrorist states. These may eventually include not only Afghanistan but Iraq, Sudan, Libya, Iran and Syria."
The focus of the hawks, however, has largely narrowed to Saddam Hussein's Iraq. For example, Sen. Joe Lieberman wrote an op-ed in the Oct. 29 WSJ called "Target No. 2: Saddam."
Unfortunately, there has been little realistic discussion of the necessary preliminary steps for conquering Iraq.
That country, so flat and empty in the South, is of course ideal for a high-speed attack by what's left of America's main battle tank divisions. Yet, while Iraq's army has never fully recovered from its defeat in the Gulf War, the task of laying siege to Saddam's capital, Baghdad, is hardly a
Leading war historian John Keegan has said, "Capital cities, with their maze of streets, dense complexes of stoutly constructed public buildings, labyrinths of sewers, tunnels and underground communications, storehouses of fuel and food, are military positions as strong as any an army can construct for the defense of frontiers."
The most fundamental requirement for the assault would be securing a base in a neighboring country from which to launch an invasion of Iraq. There is an old saying in military circles: "Armchair generals study strategy and tactics, real generals study logistics."
Air power alone is no more likely to bring Iraq to unconditional surrender than it did during Desert Storm. Ground forces are necessary to root out enemy troops and occupy their land.
How would the United States get into Iraq today? Iraq's coastline is tiny (less than 40 miles long) and thus easy to fortify. The United States considered a Marine landing in 1991, but rejected it as too risky.
Helicopters could move lightly armed troops into Iraq, but not the kind of heavy armored divisions that cut the Iraqi frontline troops to shreds in 1991.
So, that leaves a land invasion.
While Hussein is hated by most of his neighbors, few are terribly trusting friends of the United States.
Both Iran and Syria have long seen themselves as enemies of America. Their regimes would almost certainly assume that to allow the United States to marshal an enormous army on their territories would be to sign their own death warrants.
Jordan, which has a short border with Iraq, has long been something of an American ally (though it sided with Saddam during the Gulf War), but the United States has been careful to not ask all that much of it.
Kuwait is, by Arab standards, relatively friendly toward the nation that liberated it a decade ago. But it has only 150 miles of border with Iraq, providing little room for the war of maneuver that America's armored divisions would want to fight. Further, it clearly prefers its lucrative status quo to another war.
Then there is Turkey, which has a little over 200 miles of border with Iraq, but all in the mountainous north. Tanks are much more vulnerable on mountain roads that can be mined or defended by small units with anti-tank weapons. In contrast, M1A1 tanks have little to fear in the open desert where they can simply roar around defenders at 50 mph, as they did during Desert Storm's famous "left hook" around Iraqi troops dug-in on the featureless wasteland that is Iraq's border with Saudi Arabia.
Turkey is formally an U.S. ally, committed by Article Five of the North Atlantic Charter to come to America's aid in the fight against Osama bin Laden. Indeed, it has publicly announced it will be sending a few score troops to Afghanistan. During Desert Storm, the United States was allowed to use its Incirlik airbase within Turkey.
The diplomatic questions involving Turkey, however, are inordinately complex.
Many Turks believe they were cheated out of the Northern Iraqi oil-producing region of Mosul in the carving up of the Turkish-ruled Ottoman Empire after World War I. The Turkish prime minister briefly raised the question of taking back northern Iraq in 1995.
Would Turkey go along with an American invasion of Iraq? Possibly, but its price might be high. For example, it might want the whole of northern Iraq. What Turkey did not want in 1991 and does not want in 2001 is self-determination within Iraq.
That's because, besides the Iraqi Arabs and the Turks, there is one more nation that believes itself entitled to the mountains and oil fields of Northern Iraq: the stateless Kurds. There are some 22 million Kurds, most living in the mountains near Turkey's borders with Iraq, Iran and Syria.
They are often said to be the largest ethnic group in the world without their own state, though that seems debatable. (African-Americans, for example, are more numerous, and India is full of larger ethnic groups.)
Turkey definitely does not want an oil-rich Kurdish state with its own army on Turkey's southeastern border. The Kurdish rebellion against Turkey in the last decade cost 37,000 lives, according to the Turkish government.
Would the Kurds, who have known an uncertain and shifting degree of autonomy within Iraq since the Gulf War, welcome or attack invaders coming from Turkey? It's hard to say. Kurdish politics is volatile, with Kurdish factions occasionally aligning with Iraq, Turkey or Iran in order to wage war against other Kurdish parties.
Still, it could well be that to bring Turkey into the war, the United States would have to betray the Kurds. America has largely been untouched by Kurdish violence, but selling out the Kurds could make another dangerous enemy.
So, there is only one ideal launching pad for an invasion of Iraq. It's the same one as in 1991: Saudi Arabia.
To protect that kingdom from Iraq, we keep 5,000 troops there. Plus, we have pre-established bases in Saudi Arabia ready to accommodate far more soldiers.
There is only one little problem. Saudi Arabia would almost certainly refuse America permission to use its soil to launch an invasion, just as the royal family has not allowed the U.S. Air Force to attack Afghanistan from U.S. airfields in the kingdom. (The Saudis were one of only three countries to recognize the Taliban regime.)
The Gulf Arabs have many reasons to prefer the current accommodation to war with Iraq. When Hussein grabbed Kuwait in 1990, the Saud family initially assumed it would pay off Hussein rather than fight.
Further, the Saudis and other Sunni Muslim Gulf Arabs still fear that the collapse of central government in Iraq could unleash chaos that could sweep them away, too. Just as the Turks dread an independent Kurdistan growing out of the ruins of Iraq, the Sunnis fear a Shiite state aligned with Iran emerging in the oilfields of Southern Iraq.
Muhammad Bin-Rashid al-Maktum, the defense minister of the United Arab Emirates, warned in 2000, "The brothers in Kuwait should understand that they would be facing very serious issues if Iraq is partitioned, for this situation would lead to instability in the region, especially in Kuwait."
He added, "All of us in the Gulf region should reject such a trend. It is in the interest of Kuwait and in our interest to keep Iraq united."
Besides, Crown Prince Abdullah, the effective ruler of the kingdom since King Fahd's stroke, simply does not like America very much. Despite, or because of, his being dependent on America's military might to defend his vast oil riches, he has been distancing his regime from Washington. He seems to fear Hussein less than his own subjects, whose Islamic fervor has grown as their per capita income has plummeted.
Finally, the Saudis likely consider it a bad precedent for America to seize and govern an Arab oil state. After all, Iraq is more difficult to conquer, harder to rule (it endured 22 revolutions or coups from 1920 to 1979), and less endowed with oil than Saudi Arabia itself.
If the United States truly wants to rebuild the Middle East along more satisfactory lines, the key is not Iraq, but Saudi Arabia, and its attendant principalities such as the Emirates, Qatar and Kuwait.
Since Saudi Arabia is highly unlikely to volunteer itself as the base for the invasion of Iraq, for America to conquer Iraq without profligate loss of lives, the United States must first reduce Saudi Arabia to a puppet regime, either through credible threats of war or through actual conquest.
A coup attempt against the Saud family or a terrorist attack on the Saudi oil fields would provide America ample pretext for seizing the oil fields to secure them from threats. And then, why leave them?
A puppet ruler for the oil regions might be found internally, such as Prince Bandar, the wily and genial Saudi ambassador to Washington. Or a reliable friend could be imported, such as the sultan of Oman. The holy cities of Mecca and Medina, far from the oil, could be left to the Saud family, or handed back to Jordan's Hashemite dynasty, which ruled Mecca before being driven out by Ibn Saud.
At $25 per barrel, the value of oil reserves in the Arab Gulf states (not even including Iraq) is, speaking very roughly, at least $10 trillion. That would take something like a century to extract, providing a steady 11- or 12-digit cash flow.
The vast oil wealth of the Gulf is currently a nuisance to the United States that could be turned into an asset. The Saudis use their petrodollars to fund mullahs around the world who preach the puritanical Wahabbi Islamic sect.
They provide the religious basis for Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, and are helping to spread Islamic fundamentalism among Muslims everywhere.
Finally, the extravagant wealth and lurid corruption of the Gulf Arab elites inflame resentment throughout the mostly impoverished Arab world. Because the Gulf Arab rulers are too enfeebled by luxury to inculcate in their sons the martial virtues necessary to defend themselves, the United States has had to take on the job of providing them with police protection from stick-up artists like
Hussein. Illogical as it may be, poor Arabs blame America for the sins of their own rulers.
Without oil money to invest in religious and political extremism and waste on European chateaus, however, the Middle East would be little more than another violent and dysfunctional backwater like sub-Saharan Africa, which the West finds easy to ignore.
Few of the grandiose plans for conquest and revitalization envisioned by new American imperialists are likely to come to fruition, however, if Middle Easterners can plausibly assume that U.S. voters will quickly tire of taking up the Americans' burden. Empires quickly fall when the ruled sense that the rulers are going to pack up and go home.
The key to preserving American hegemony in the Arab lands would be to make it a paying proposition. That's how the British held on to their Indian empire for two centuries. They forced their Indian subjects to pay out of their own pockets for the upkeep of the Indian army that held them in subjugation.
Similarly, Arab oil money could pay, say, $50 billion annually for American military expenses in Arab lands. A similar amount would be left over for the United States to dole out to Arabs each year. Some could go to productive investments to lift poor Arabs out of misery. Money could also go to revamp and modernize Islamic culture (such as by educating women), just as the Saudis had subsidized their Wahabbi brand of Islam.
Finally, some funds would go as outright bribes to preserve the peace.
The average Arab might well be better off under this scheme than the current one in which Saddam, the multitudinous descendents of Ibn Saud, miscellaneous Gulf princelings, and various cronies spend tens of billions on palaces and the like.
By ruling the Gulf, the United States could also play a significant role in manipulating the world price of oil, acting as a sort of Federal Reserve for the global economy. When a major recession threatened, such as now, it could jumpstart the world economy by cutting the price of oil to $10 per gallon.
When it needed to make money to fund Middle Eastern ventures, it could raise the price during booms to, say, $30 per barrel.
Obviously, there are problems with such an audacious yet morally dubious scheme. Would the U.S. voters want America to do what it blocked Hussein from doing a decade ago?
If the United States isn't willing to be ruthless enough to rule an empire, then perhaps it should restrict itself to rooting out bin Laden and the Taliban rather than planning an empire for which it doesn't have the stomach.
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