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Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2007

U.S.-Iraq: an 'enduring' relationship


LONDON — The word "enduring" crops up a lot in connection with the U.S. adventure in Iraq. As soon as the U.S. Army occupied the country in 2003, it began work on 14 "enduring" (i.e. permanent) military bases to turn it into an American bastion at the head of the Gulf. And now U.S. President George W. Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki have signed an agreement to forge an "enduring" U.S.-Iraqi relationship once the United Nations mandate that currently authorizes the U.S. presence in the country expires at the end of next year.

The U.N. mandate that provides a legal justification for the current "multinational" force in Iraq was a desperate attempt to paper over the fact that the organization's most powerful member had launched an unprovoked invasion of another country. The Security Council could not defy or condemn the United States — Britain and the U.S. would both have vetoed such a move — so it chose to give it some diplomatic cover instead. But the next extension of the U.N. mandate, to the end of 2008, will be the last.

The "coalition" of other countries that contributed troops to the occupation of Iraq is melting away: the new Australian government is going to bring its troops home, the Japanese Parliament has ended the country's naval support for the Afghanistan mission (ground soldiers had already left Iraq), and Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown is searching for a tactful way to pull all the British troops out.

Soon it will just be the Americans and the Iraqis, alone together, and the Bush administration, encouraged by the temporary improvement that the "surge" has wrought in the security situation in Iraq, is pushing on with its original plans for the country. Over the next year, the U.S. will negotiate the military, political and economic terms of the "enduring" relationship with Iraq that was always intended to follow the invasion of the country.

We need not dwell on the unequal status of the American and Iraqi participants in this negotiation, with 160,000 American troops in Iraq and Prime Minister al-Maliki unable, as he put it last year, to "move even a battalion without American consent." We may assume that the agreement will ratify the permanent presence of American armed forces in Iraq and grant preferential treatment to U.S. investments in the country. But we might ask, just once more, why the U.S. did all this.

There were no terrorists in Iraq before the U.S. invasion, nor had there been any contact between Saddam Hussein and the plotters of the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. There were no "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq, either. Indeed, a number of former U.S. officials have confirmed that the invasion of Iraq was high on the Bush administration's agenda from the moment it took office, eight months before 9/11. But there is no consensus on why it wanted to invade Iraq.

As a colleague once remarked, "I can give you a dozen possible reasons why the Bush administration invaded Iraq, but I can't give you just one."

The need to find a new base for the American troops that were causing embarrassment to the Saudi Arabian regime, a desire by the younger Bush to do what his father had failed to do and capture Baghdad, fear that Saddam Hussein was going to start demanding payment for his oil in euros rather than dollars — every sort of petty or preposterous motive has been proposed.

As a rule of thumb, it's best to assume that U.S. leaders are guided by strategic rather than personal considerations. It is also wise to be suspicious of the simpler oil-related explanations: Saddam Hussein lacked the standing to lead the other oil-exporting states in a switch from the dollar to the euro, for example, even if he was toying with such an idea.

There is no need to invade countries in order to get oil from them. There could, however, be a requirement for large, permanent American military bases somewhere in the Gulf if the goal was to be able to stop oil from the region from reaching some other country. Which country?

The only challenger to America's status as sole superpower is China, and the Bush administration has spent the last seven years in tireless pursuit of alliances or less formal military arrangements with countries all around China's borders. ("Containment," they call it.) China is heavily dependent on imported oil, and the bulk of its imports come from the Gulf. An American hand on China's oil tap could be a major strategic asset. Maybe that's what Iraq was about.

Even this explanation doesn't make complete sense. The U.S. Navy owns half the major warships on the planet, and is perfectly capable of starving China of oil without any land bases in the Gulf. On the other hand, strategy is rarely fully rational, and the lavish funding of the Pentagon does encourage it to go in for belt-and-suspenders solutions. (Consider the famous "triad" of long-range bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine-launched missiles, all designed to deliver the same nuclear weapons on the same targets.)

It's only of concern to historians now, of course, because the "enduring bases" are just part of the larger fantasy of U.S. victory in Iraq. The "surge" will end, the insurgents will come back out of their holes, and the attrition of U.S. forces in Iraq will resume its usual pace. They will all go home eventually.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.


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