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Published in: AGENDA Magazine, Dec. '02

Why Bush Jr. Wants War on Iraq -
A Crisis Really About Saudi Arabia

Tom O'Donnell, September 17, 2002


The people are rightly concerned that the government must effectively carry out its duty to protect them from terrorism -- this is a universal human-rights responsibility incumbent on any and all governments. Yet the public is highly skeptical of the motivations for a preemptive invasion of Iraq, and well they should be. The question of why one section of the US elite says an Iraqi invasion is just and necessary, and another section -- split through the Republican Party and various other ways -- was initially against war, is important to analyze. Even Henry Kissinger, of all people, spoke aginst preemptive attacks: "The notion of justified preemption runs counter to modern international law, which sanctions the use of force in self-defense only against actual -- not potential -- threats."

Without understanding WHY the establishment wants a war -- and also doesn't want a war -- it is impossible to effectively oppose this war from a progressive viewpoint, in a way which educates the people in the true character of our ruling class, and not in a manner which just repeats general slogans.

Invading Iraq to Maintain Hegemony over Saudi and Kuwaiti Oil

This is really about Saudi Arabia. The 'debate' in ruling circles is over whether or not to continue to rely on the regime in Saudi Arabia as the linchpin of US 'post-neo-colonial' hegemony over the world's access to Mideast oil, or to radically change the paradigm. The Bush Jr, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz et al faction urgently wants a new US-backed Shah-like regime in Iraq to quarantee US interests in the region (albeit a somewhat more democratic regime than that one, if possible), and is afraid of what might come in the near future in Saudi Arabia when the king finally dies -- perhaps even civil war (e.g., Wm. Safire, NYT Op. Ed, 12Sep02). The growing instability of the SA regime, which the US has defended and relied on for decades, presents an enormous crisis for the US elite in maintaining its all-important hegemony over middle eastern oil resources. The fruits of their longtime propping up of the Saudi royals could very well be not only disruption of Saudi and Kuwaiti oil, but, for them, the REAL catastrophe would be the loss of US control over the world's access to this oil.

Recall that the US went to war with Saddam the last time, 11 years ago, NOT merely because Saddam took Kuwait's oil fields. After all, as Saddam protested, and European governments echoed, he was more than willing to continue selling it as had the Kuwaitis. The US didn't go to war to "protect" Middle Eastern oil reserves, but to reestablish its hegemony over global access to this oil. Saddam wanted to cut out the middle man, and the middle man struck back, reasserting itself as the one "really indispensable" (read: "hegemonic") nation.

The "anti-war" faction of Scowcroft, Baker et al, is anti-war only in that they have interests and assessments which tend to make them advocate continued US reliance on the present Saudi regime. Still other politicans and officials, who have raised objections to Bush's war plans, seem to be mostly concerned about the character of the new US-installed Iraqi regime. They simply want guarantees of sufficient resources and international allies so that it will be a reliable, civilian, democratic-looking regime (Powell, Kissinger, etc.)

Neither faction is in principle "anti-war" (preemptive or otherwise). Neither really believes Iraq is involved with Bin Laden. In fact 15 of the 19 murderous hijackers of 9/11 came from Saudi Arabia! And neither is immediately worried about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction being used against the US (though, indeed they are afraid of an ability to, at some future date, launch effective missiles or a 'WoMD' against oil fields in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, or, especially, of Saddam intervening in troubled waters in Saudi Arabia, etc.).

It is also not a disagreement about whether the US can 'take out' the Iraqi regime. It seems they very well could do it if the 'benefit' is to get what they originally thought they had, after assisting Saddam to push back Iran. When they helped him end the Iran-Iraq war which he had initiated, they believed they now had a reliable lackey regime in Iraq to help maintain their hegemony in the wake of the earlier loss of the Shah. Don't forget: the US has done "regime changes" before in the region, such as installing the Shah of Iran. It is important to remember, when considering such issues, that the size of the economies of all the Arab countries combined is less that that of Spain. In any case, principled opposition to this war should not rest on whether they "can" or "cannot" pull it off, Ease of execution of a preemptive "regime change" should not be confused with the issue of its being an unjustified act.

This war also has nothing whatsoever to do with manipulation of present oil resources; there is plenty of oil now available cheaply on the market even without Iraq's production and reserves, which are exceeded only by Saudi Arabia and Kuwait's (e.g., NYT, 25aug02, Daniel Yergin, "Oil Prices Won't Depend on Iraq, but on Its Neighbors").

The EU and Japan have been woefully unable to escape their heavy reliance on oil from the region and to develop alternatives, especially as oil and gas has been so cheap in recent years. And, the expectation is that, in a couple decades, China will reach a level of domestic oil consumption equal to that of the US (e.g., see NYT, 3sep02, Keith Bradsher, "China Struggles To Cut Reliance On Mideast Oil") -- with Indian demand growing as well. And the whole lot of these developed and rapidly developing capitalist economies will continue to rely primarily on Middle Eastern oil. This reality explains the continued single-minded focus of the US on control of the Middle East and it's world-strategic oil in a more reliable manner than having to depend on the stability of the fat-bellied, semi-feudal capitalist Saudi royals.

More than Oil Profits -- Hegemony

This is not merely about profits and the narrow interests of US oil corporations. In today's world, oil-supply hegemony means world hegemony-in-general. US 'allies' in the developed world recall vividly the potential such hegemony has given the US historically: Under Eisenhower both France and Great Britain were denied the Suez Canal by enforcing a sustained US oil embargo on them, and FDR (not unjustifiably) denied Imperial Japan oil shipments from Indonesia before Pearl Harbor, which severely constrained their war machine.

Such implicit power is crucial to continued US world hegemony-in-general, but of little or no importance for the US home market with its generous domestic and nearby western-hemisphere sources. As Lenin pointed out in his "Imperialism" a century ago: capitalist hegemony aims at controlling precisely ALL sources of a given resource, as capitalist imperialism is NOT primarily about acquisition of resources for the home market, but the CONTROL over and DENIAL of resources and markets of rival developed-capitalist nations. Hegemony is power, it brings extra-ordinary monopolist profits generally, and it drives big US capital to control EVERY possible source of energy everywhere. Oil is still the energy base of all developed capitalist economies in the Information Society just as it was in the 20th-century Mass-Production era. Sustainable economies would mean economic and political independence from US hegemony and therefore the US INSTINCTIVELY opposes sustainable economies everywhere, including within developed rivals such as the EU and Japan -- even especially so in developed countries, precisely because they are developed.

It is an indication of the level of the US elite's urgent concern over Saudi Arabia's instability that it propels Bush Jr's very risky and radical preemptive war plan. A recent commentary article by Mo Mowlan, former member of Tony Blair's cabinet from 1997-2001, accused the US of precisely this motive for attacking Iraq (Comment, The Guardian. 05sep02). Her assessment is worth quoting in some detail:

"Since September 11, however, it has become increasingly apparent to the US administration that the Saudi regime is vulnerable. Both on the streets and in the leading families, including the royal family, there are increasingly anti-western voices. Osama bin Laden is just one prominent example. The love affair with America is ending. Reports of the removal of billions of dollars of Saudi investment from the United States may be difficult to quantify, but they are true. The possibility of the world's largest oil reserves falling into the hands of an anti-American, militant Islamist government is becoming ever more likely - and this is unacceptable.

"The Americans know they cannot stop such a revolution. They must therefore hope that they can control the Saudi oil fields, if not the government. And what better way to do that than to have a large military force in the field at the time of such disruption. In the name of saving the west, these vital assets could be seized and controlled. No longer would the US have to depend on a corrupt and unpopular royal family to keep it supplied with cheap oil. If there is chaos in the region, the US armed forces could be seen as a global saviour. Under cover of the war on terrorism, the war to secure oil supplies could be waged."

Oil, Mecca and How a New Iraqi Regime Would be Used

However, I think Mowlan's reasoning that the main intent is to get the American (and British) Army into Iraq for DIRECT use against Saudi Arabia, is not their preferred scenario. Recall how easy it was for Saddam to take Kuwait? A pro-US regime in Iraq, if established without too much internal devastation, could easily take BOTH Kuwait and SA when US interests required it. (Note: In the most favorable circumstance for the Bush Jr. war scenarios, the Iraqi Army command betrays Saddam early enough in the conflict so that this large force remains intact and could soon be put to use by the new, pro-US regime to both hold Iraq together, AND for use against its neighbors.)

The fact that the holy city of Mecca is inside Saudi Arabia is a very major obstacle to the US (and Britain) intervening directly in SA themselves. Worldwide Islamic sensibilities concerning Mecca should not be underestimated. But, a new, US-backed Iraqi Arab regime would be able to provide an 'Islamic Army' which, while seizing the oil fields in the interests of US hegemony, could ALSO present itself as the new 'protectors' of the holy city of Mecca. After all, if the pro-US SA regime could 'protect' Mecca for decades, why not a pro-US Iraqi regime? In addition, if the US could establish a semblance of a democratic regime AND be relatively kind to the Kurds (regional autonomy, etc.), they might even win some popular approval in the region over the long run. But, clearly, any such US "democracy movement" would be merely a face for a rebirth of US hegemony in the region. (It's not for nothing that it's long been called 'bourgeois' democracy!)

Similarity to Bush Sr's Regime Change in Panama

This is quite reminiscent of the campaign against Panama, where a suddenly convenient demonization of former CIA-supported Noriega by Geo. Bush Sr. was followed by the forcible installation of a fairly reliable, US-educated, democratic regime there. Only after that transformation was the US willing to fully turn the canal over to Panama and trust that its interests would be guaranteed. This Iraqi invasion would have much the same character. Paradoxically, since Saddam has largely suppressed the Islamic fundamentalists in Iraq, a secular and somewhat democratic regime in his place might even be facilitated. However, a US-backed democratic regime, hollow, hypocritical and manipulated though it will be, could be seen by the Iraqi people as a welcomed relief from the Saddam autocracy. But, democratic slogans aside, a new Iraqi "Shah" would work just fine for the interests of the Bush Jr. faction too, unless the Iraqi people objected strenuously. In fact, much of the US intra-elite opposition to the Bush Jr. war plans boils down to be about what the post-Saddam regime should be like. The Bush Jr., Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld et al cabal may really not care to expend the effort to establish a democratic regime while Powell, Kissinger et al have said it is necessary to do so "if" Saddam is removed.

Either way, an Iraqi invasion will be the US doorway to taking control of an ever-more worrisome SA, and it could initiate a new paradigm for US domination not requiring the Royals at the center. But, in the interim, they dare not criticize Saudi Arabia publicly because of the present great importance of the royal family's stability to US hegemony in the region, and the fact such open US hostility to the Saudis would only arouse the Bin-Laden-like and other fundamentalist opposition elements within Saudi Arabia even more.

Just like with Bush Sr. and Noriega --- where Bush Sr., as CIA head, knew for years about Noriega's dark side, and had used it for US interests in controlling the Canal and Central America, so too Bush Jr.'s sudden concern about Saddam's gassing and murdering of his own people and for starting the Iran-Iraq war (which cost perhaps a million lives), his raising of these crimes NOW is solely to do with maintenance of US hegemony in oil. This has nothing to do with a fight against terrorism. A really democratic regime in Saudi Arabia would really be something to fight terrorism but Bush and co. refuse to tackle forthrightly and honestly that issue because oil hegemony trumps the fight against terrorists. Can you imagine how long Saddam would have lasted if 15 of the 19 hijackers had come from  his country and not Saudi Arabia?!. Such hypocrisy!


So, rather than a generous Marshall-like economic aid plan for the Middle East and a new Palestinian state so as to undermine injustices which fuel terrorism, Bush gives us this war. Rather than abandonment of reactionary pro-US terrorist-breeding regimes in favor of democracy and secular education in the Middle East, Bush and his rich cronies give us this war. The sort of "fight for democracy" which is really needed in Saudi Arabia (and Kuwait and Iraq) would dictate an end to US oil hegemony -- and oil hegemony is the supreme "national interest" of the US elite -- the most reactionary section of which now sits in the White House. Their "national interests" are a betrayal the people's legitimate national interests which require an intelligent, progressive and really democratic fight against terrorism and its roots.

By: Tom O'Donnell - 17sep02

Tom O'Donnell, Ph.D.                         twod@umich.edu
The University of Michigan     www-personal.umich.edu/~twod