Iraq: Can we play all ends vs. the middle?
As the Bush Administration ponders a shift in strategy with regard to Iraq, let us hope those deliberations are informed by of some of history’s great strategic thinkers.
But let’s be frank about why the U.S. and, indeed, the entire, oil-dependent industrialized world have an abiding interest in the Middle East, in general, and in the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula, in particular. Our interest is first, last and always about the affordable oil we can obtain from that region.
As former British Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, famously said, Nations have no permanent friends, no permanent enemies, just permanent interests.” Let’s examine the interests of the nations of the Middle East:
Saudi Arabia’s ruling House of Saud has five interests: To remain in power, to have a weak and divided Iraq as a neighbor, to sell its own oil, to use some of the money to meet the rising material expectation of its largely backward people while, at the same time, meeting the repressive strictures of Sunni/Wahhabi Islam. For the al-Sauds, this is a dangerous and delicate balancing act. Bear in mind that Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda despise the House of Saud about as much as they despise the infidel West.
The interests of the Shiite/Mullah rulers of Iran are similar to Saudi Arabia in that they need to sell their oil; however, their larger interests are in assuming the leadership of the entire Muslim world from Pakistan to Egypt and in the destruction of Israel. Their larger interests drive Iran to become a nuclear power – something the United Nations is powerless to prevent. Iran also has permanent interests in the suppression of its Kurdish minority and in a weak and divided Iraq.
Syria and Lebanon suffer from the Versailles Treaty Mandate that made them, for decades, colonies of bureaucratic France. Neither produces oil to sell and they rely on their geographic location that allows them to be the crafty “middlemen” of the Middle East. Syria has a permanent interest in having a weak Iraq as a neighbor.
Israel’s permanent interests are simply to exist, to farm the little land it has and to export its leading-edge technology to the West in exchange for additional food, goods and services. Israel’s existence depends on a strong Israeli Defense Force, its own defensive nuclear weapons and on preventing Iran from obtaining an offensive nuclear capability.
Turkey benefits from the oil pipelines coming from Iraq and Iran. The Turks have a permanent interest in the suppression of its Kurdish minority and the prevention of a Kurdistan.
While preserving our permanent interest in oil, the U.S. could punish duplicitous Turkey and distract Iran by supporting the creation of a Kurdistan. We and the U.K. should focus on maintaining Iraq oil production, leaving the Sunnis and the Shia to kill each other in the urban alleys of Iraq.
The Bush Administration should align itself more with the teachings of Lord Palmerston and Nicollo Machiavelli and realize that Jeffersonian Democracy is unlikely to thrive among peoples long accustomed to the dogmatic dictates of Islam. If the Bush Administration thought it would win points with American feminists by liberating the women of Afghanistan and Iraq, it was sadly mistaken. Meanwhile, the idea of women’s liberation, not our protection of our oil interests in the Middle East, is what inflames the Muslim street.
Strategically, our submarines, surface fleet and air power control the virtual “island” that holds the oil treasures of the Middle East. Of that, Admiral Mahan, Sir Halford John Mackinder and Sir Winston Churchill would approve. Ergo: We hold the strategic cards with regard to our continued access to the affordable oil of the Middle East. Unfortunately, a strong and united Iraq is not in the interest of its neighbors and is not likely to happen.
But if we play the interests of Iraq’s neighbors off against each other and focus on oil -- our permanent interest -- we can prevail. Of that, Machiavelli, Metternich, Talleyrand and Bismarck would approve. But Woodrow Wilson and Jimmy Carter would be horrified.
Retired Army officer and syndicated columnist, William Hamilton, was named a Distinguished Graduate of the U.S. Naval War College and is a former Research Fellow at the U.S. Army War College. Writing as William Penn, he is the co-author of two novels about terrorist attacks against the United States.
©2006. William Hamilton.