Oil Wars–The Empire Strikes Back

Against the Current, No. 29, November/December 1990

The Editors

AT THE BEGINNING of the Summer of 1990, the Cold War was over. Global tensions were receding. The “Soviet Menace” was history; peace talks were underway from El Salvador to South Africa; there was talk of a peace dividend, or at least what would be left over after clearing out the savings and loan cesspool.

Before the summer was out, the largest United States military mobilization since Vietnam—and the most rapid in history—was in place in the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula. Public opinion pollsters spoke of an expectation of war and a positive attitude toward it (anticipating a short and victorious conflict).

The peace movement was temporarily stunned, as unprepared as the entire population for the eruption of such a crisis. Saddam Hussein the moderate Arab leader endorsed by the United States throughout the long war with Iran, seemed the least likely candidate for the Officially Most Hated Ruler of 1990. King Hussein of Jordan spoke of “a world gone mad.” The weapons manufacturers licked their lips, delighted at the midnight reprieve from the budget ax. Oil company representatives descended upon Congress to call for opening up Arctic and offshore drilling.

In the buildup to war, paradox ran riot. From Baghdad, the secular regime of Saddam Hussein called for unity of the Muslims to defend the holy places. From Cairo, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, the largest Arab state and the traditional center of the Arab state system, placed his country’s army at the disposal of the United States.

There were hints of how catastrophic a war could be. In Israel, a government of the far right contemplated the possibility of its long-time dream coming true: mass expulsion of Palestinians and the establishment of a puppet state for them, but without consulting them, in Jordan. Aroused by this threat, Palestinians and Jordan’s King Hussein found themselves in the greatest agreement since the king’s military killed thousands of Palestinians in 1970-71: For a Palestinian state in Palestine, not in Jordan!

The one-time Soviet superpower (which only a few years ago could have exercised sufficient influence over Iraq to veto Saddam’s anschluss in Kuwait) was now a third-rank partner in George Bush’s global coalition, seeking little more than a piece of the action through the United Nations Security Council. The U.N. itself, seek-mg to exercise its rarely used power of sanctions against aggression, had little real power except as a cover and legitimating mechanism for George Bush’s war buildup.

The op-ed pages of the U.S. press debated elite strategies. On the “dovish” side, Zbigniew Brzezinski argued that the objective of securing stable oil supplies and prices, and defense of Saudi Arabia, was the only American priority, while “the liberation of Kuwait” was the obligation of the international “community” rather than ours alone. On the other side, Henry Kissinger defined the United States task as the total defeat (and thus, the removal) of Saddam Hussein and the elimination of Iraq as a regional power.

Israeli strategists, ever eager to advise, argued that Bush should go to war quickly, striking before the international and domestic U.S. consensus—especially Americans’ expectation of a Happy Little War—had time to fade. Those U.S. commentators most closely associated with Israel’s leaders—Kissinger, William Safire, the New York Times’ A.M. Rosenthal—argued most vehemently for War Now. But Newsday warned that a war could wreak havoc on a fragile U.S. economy. By the end of August the Pentagon revised the estimated expenses of “Operation Desert Shield” upward to $46 million per day.

It is important to dig below the daily events to find some basic causes and tendencies. Several are at work here. The first is that capitalism remains a system of imperialism and war. This was true before there was an East-West Cold War, and it remains so afterward. There is an inherent logic: Where a capitalist power’s investments and raw materials lie, its army must be prepared to follow; wherever in the world its strategic interests are found, a sphere of influence must be established; where a rival power’s interests intervene or where the people of the area develop the absurd and incomprehensible notion that the resources should benefit themselves, confrontation and war must follow. And so it is in the current crisis: it is not that the United States needs cheap oil, it requires control of prices and supplies so that the entire capitalist world is politically and militarily dependent on U.S. power.

All the states around the Gulf—Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan—are essentially creations of colonial power (historically, mainly British) for purposes of controlling oil, shipping routes and potentially rebellious peoples. Elsewhere in the Middle East, modern Lebanon represents the creation of colonial France, while the State of Israel—particularly in its capacity since 1967 as a military giant and ceaseless expansionist—has evolved to become the monster child of U.S. strategic thinking. Thus we arrive at a second basic reality: The national question in the Middle East (and of course elsewhere in the so-called “periphery”) is inseparable from colonial legacies and continuing imperial power.

The existing states and their boundaries cannot be regarded as sacred. Yet these states, whatever their origins, are political realities that cannot be arbitrarily erased, especially against the wishes of those who live there. Thus Sad-dam Hussein’s ansch!uss in Kuwait was thoroughly reactionary, despite the fact that the latter was an emirate, its parliament dissolved, with a working class made up of non-citizen immigrants.

Those oppressed and exploited in Kuwait never asked Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to solve their problems. They didn’t Iraq’s army to “liberate” them—and for good reason, given the well-known character of the Iraqi regime in relation to its own people. The popular base in the Arab world for Saddam’s invasion lies outside Kuwait Among those Arabs (a majority) who gain little or nothing from the oil wealth, Saddam Hussein appears in a distorted way to be, finally, a leader who will stand up against the humiliation visited on the Arab people by imperialism and its client regimes.

That popular sentiment—far more than Saddam himself—is on collision course with the project of George Bush and U.S. capital in the Middle East The logic of imperialism is that only those are entitled to national independence and statehood who fit into the master’s blueprints for a stable world order.

Thus, according to the noble thinking of America’s ruling class and political elite, Kuwait is deserving of independence for its royal family’s vital role in keeping oil production high and prices low. On the other hand, five million Palestinians have no oil and no role to play in keeping the Middle East safe for U.S. domination. Their claims to an independent state—in less than one-quarter of their original homeland—are therefore easily dismissed and their basic human rights expendable.

THE LAVISH SHOW of military might, the diplomatic successes of the United States at the United Nations, in Europe and in the Arab world have not altered economic realities. Indeed, these realities are highlighted: The world’s remaining lone superpower-by-default is also its biggest beggar. No longer capable of financing its world-class police actions, Washington demands not only that its allies and partners endorse and participate in its insane confrontation in the Gulf, but also that they pay for it.

There’s limited usefulness for Girl Scout cookies in the Persian Gulf,” snarled a State Department official in reference to Japan’s willingness to provide only low-interest loans—but not its own troops—to bolster the effort For a nation like Japan, which imports all of its oil, to fail to pay for services rendered by the United States to keep the price low, is considered an act of world-class ingratitude  matched only by the Germans’ decision to unite without hardly even asking George Bush’s permission. Possibly in future, United States police protection will be provided only on a contract basis, with cash payment required on delivery.

The real price, however, is paid by the peoples of the Middle East and the Gulf. Precious little of the oil wealth finds its way to them. But they reap all the misery that comes with the war to control those riches.

Start with the peoples of Iraq and Iran, well over a million of whom died in a war that impoverished both countries, during which the Western powers led by the United States and France cheerfully backed and financed Iraq, while for its part the United States also conducted secret arms deals with Iran to finance its own crimes against humanity in Central America.

Next, consider the people and the guest workers of Kuwait and the Gulf states, victims of the mined economies, fleeing into Jordanian refugee camps like the Palestinians of 1948 and 1967. Stripped of everything, they await transport back to their homelands of Egypt, the Philippines, Sri Lanka or Bangladesh, where there is no work for them in economies shattered by the burden of repaying the international debt Think of the Palestinians, many of whom have also lost their jobs in the Gulf, but all of whom see the dream of an independent state once again trashed by United States cynicism and opportunism.

Think now of the people of the United States, watching the promise of a peace dividend evaporate in the sands of the Arabian desert in order to protect, if you believe George Bush, “the American way of life.” The cities are dying, the schools are dying, rural America is dying, much of basic industry is already dead—and soon perhaps hundreds or thousands of its soldiers will also be dying. The American way of life, however, is not dead, because soon the offshore and the Arctic maybe open for oil drilling, bringing the experiences of Prince William Sound to millions more.

THIS ISSUE OF Against the Current went to press a few days after the October 8 Israeli police massacre of Palestinians at Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. (The officially admitted death toll stands at 21, with the real figure undoubtedly substantially higher.) Nothing can symbolize more horribly the fate of the peoples of the Middle East if the war planners’ dreams become reality.

As of mid-October, the outbreak of war still hung in the balance. French and Soviet diplomatic initiatives looked for signs of possible compromises in which Iraqi withdrawal might be linked to internationally sponsored resolutions of foreign occupations in Lebanon and the Palestinian West Bank and Gam. U.S. strategists, on the other hand, were said to actually fear the possibility of a partial unilateral Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait, retaining control of two strategic islands and possibly a disputed oil field—and undercutting the legitimacy of the United States’ war preparations and the solidity of the international support for sanctions against Iraq.

If war begins, no one can say where it would end. The evident U.S. strategy would be to attempt to defeat Iraq quickly and massively, with air power that would be calculated to produce enormous Arab casualties and few American ones. If this quick-victory effort fails, land assaults on Iraq through Turkey, Syria and Jordan are probable. The Syrian regime might be rewarded for its participation in the anti-Iraq alliance by getting a free hand to take Lebanon, while Israel might assist the U.S. by moving into Jordan.

The Iraqi and Israeli governments might find a wider war to be in their mutual interests. In a worst-case scenario, several Middle Eastern countries might disappear from the map (Jordan, Lebanon,… ?). What was hailed only weeks ago as the opening of a New World Order of peace might instead see the United States presiding over the beginning of a new hundred years’ war. There are Armageddon-mongers–of assorted religious and secular fanatical denominations—and perhaps weapons manufacturers who would welcome such a perspective. It should fill the rest of us with horror.

There are moments when a movement—even a small one at first—can powerfully influence the course of a nation’s history. The Vietnam War was one such moment. The about-to-explode Gulf War is another. It’s not our oil—but it is ourpeace dividend, and our lives, among those of tens of millions in the Middle East—that are at risk At the moment of the United States’ ascendancy as the one and only global superpower, even the possibility of a peace movement in the streets has the war planners worried. The central question is the fight to bring the troops home.

November-December 1990, ATC 29

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