The Geopolitics of War
by Michael T. Klare
U.S. Policy On Iran and Southwest Asia
by John Tirman
excerpted from the book
September 11 and the U.S. War
Beyond the Curtain of Smoke
Edited by Roger Burbach and Ben Clarke
City Lights Books, 2002
The Geopolitics of War
by Michael T. Klare
There are many ways to view the conflict between the United
States and Osama bin Laden's terror network: as a contest between
Western liberalism and Eastern fanaticism, as suggested by many
pundits in the United States; as a struggle between the defenders
and the enemies of authentic Islam, as suggested by many in the
Muslim world; and as a predictable backlash against American villainy
abroad, as suggested by some on the left. But while useful in
assessing some dimensions of the conflict, these cultural and
political analyses obscure a fundamental reality: that this war,
like most of the wars that preceded it, is firmly rooted in geopolitical
The geopolitical dimensions of the war are somewhat hard to
discern because the initial fighting is taking place in Afghanistan,
a place of little intrinsic interest to the United States, and
because our principal adversary, bin Laden, has no apparent interest
in material concerns. But this is deceptive, because the true
center of the conflict is Saudi Arabia, not Afghanistan (or Palestine),
and because bin Laden's ultimate objectives include the imposition
of a new Saudi government, which in turn would control the single
most valuable geopolitical prize on the face of the earth: Saudi
Arabia's vast oil deposits, representing one-fourth of the world's
known petroleum reserves.
To fully appreciate the roots of the current conflict, it
is necessary to travel back in time-specifically, to the final
years of World War II, when the U.S. government began to formulate
plans for the world it would dominate in the postwar era. As the
war drew to a close, the State Department was enjoined by President
Roosevelt to devise the policies and institutions that would guarantee
U.S. security and prosperity in the coming epoch. This entailed
the design and formation of the United Nations, the construction
of the Bretton Woods world financial institutions and, most significant
in the current context, the procurement of adequate oil supplies.
American strategists considered access to oil to be especially
important because it was an essential factor in the Allied victory
over the Axis powers. Although the nuclear strikes on Hiroshima
and Nagasaki ended the war, it was oil that fueled the armies
that brought Germany and Japan to their knees. Oil powered the
vast numbers of ships, tanks and aircraft that endowed Allied
forces with a decisive edge over their adversaries, which lacked
access to reliable sources of petroleum. It was widely assumed,
therefore, that access to large supplies of oil would be critical
to U.S. success in any future conflicts.
Where would this oil come from? During World Wars I and II,
the United States was able to obtain sufficient oil for its own
and its allies' needs from deposits in the American Southwest
and from Mexico and Venezuela. But most U.S. analysts believed
that these supplies would be insufficient to meet American and
European requirements in the postwar era. As a result, the State
Department initiated an intensive study to identify other sources
of petroleum. This effort, led by the department's economic adviser,
Herbert Feis, concluded that only one location could provide the
needed petroleum. "In all surveys of the situation,"
Feis noted (in a statement quoted by Daniel Yergin in The Prize),
"the pencil came to an awed pause at one point and place-the
To be more specific, Feis and his associates concluded that
the world's most prolific supply of untapped oil was to be found
in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. But how to get at this oil? At
first, the State Department proposed the formation of a government-owned
oil firm to acquire concessions in Saudi Arabia and extract the
kingdom's reserves. This plan was considered too unwieldy, however,
and instead U.S. officials turned this task over to the Arabian
American Oil Company (ARAMCO), an alliance of major U.S. oil corporations.
But these officials were also worried about the kingdom's long-term
stability, so they concluded that the United States would have
to assume responsibility for the defense of Saudi Arabia. In one
of the most extraordinary occurrences in modern American history,
President Roosevelt met with King Abd al-Aziz Ibn Saud, the founder
of the modern Saudi regime, on a U.S. warship in the Suez Canal
following the February 1945 conference in Yalta. Although details
of the meeting have never been made public, it is widely believed
that Roosevelt gave the King a promise of U.S. protection in return
for privileged American access to Saudi oil-an arrangement that
remains in full effect today and constitutes the essential core
of the U.S.-Saudi relationship.
This relationship has provided enormous benefits to both sides.
The United States has enjoyed preferred access to Saudi petroleum
reserves, obtaining about one-sixth of its crude-oil imports from
the kingdom. ARAMCO and its U.S. partners have reaped immense
profits from their operations in Saudi Arabia and from the distribution
of Saudi oil worldwide. (Although ARAMCO's Saudi holdings were
nationalized by the Saudi government in 1976, the company continues
to manage Saudi oil production and to market its petroleum products
abroad.) Saudi Arabia also buys about $6-10 billion worth of goods
per year from US companies. The Saudi royal family, for its part,
has become immensely wealthy and, because of continued U.S. protection,
has remained safe from external and internal attack.
But this extraordinary partnership has also produced a number
of unintended consequences, and it is these effects that concern
us here. To protect the Saudi regime against its external enemies,
the United States has steadily expanded its military presence
in the region, eventually deploying thousands of troops in the
kingdom. Similarly, to protect the royal family against its internal
enemies, U.S. personnel have become deeply involved in the regime's
internal security apparatus. At the same time, the vast and highly
conspicuous accumulation of wealth by the royal family has alienated
it from the larger Saudi population and led to charges of systemic
corruption. In response, the regime has outlawed all forms of
political debate in the kingdom (there is no parliament, no free
speech, no political party, no right of assembly) and used its
U.S.-trained security forces to quash overt expressions of dissent.
All these effects have generated covert opposition to the regime
and occasional acts of violence-and it is from this underground
milieu that Osama bin Laden has drawn his inspiration and many
of his top lieutenants.
The U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia has steadily increased
over the years. Initially, from 1945 to 1972, Washington delegated
the primary defense responsibility to Britain, long the dominant
power in the region. When Britain withdrew its forces from "East
of Suez" in 1971, the United States assumed a more direct
role, deploying military advisers in the kingdom and providing
Saudi Arabia with a vast arsenal of U.S. weapons. Some of these
arms and advisory programs were aimed at external defense, but
the Defense Department also played a central role in organizing,
equipping, training and managing the Saudi Arabian National Guard
(SANG), the regime's internal security force.
American military involvement in the kingdom reached a new
level in 1979, when three things happened: the Soviet Union invaded
Afghanistan, the Shah of Iran was overthrown by antigovernment
forces and Islamic militants staged a brief rebellion in Mecca.
In response, President Jimmy Carter issued a new formulation of
U.S. policy: any move by a hostile power to gain control of the
Persian Gulf area would be regarded "as an assault on the
vital interests of the United States of America" and would
be resisted "by any means necessary, including military force."
This statement, now known as the "Carter Doctrine,"
has governed U.S. strategy in the gulf ever since.
To implement the new doctrine, Carter established the Rapid
Deployment Force, a collection of combat forces based in the United
States but available for deployment to the Persian Gulf. (The
RDF was later folded into the U.S. Central Command, which now
conducts all U.S. military operations in the region.) Carter also
deployed U.S. warships in the gulf and arranged for the periodic
utilization by American forces of military bases in Bahrain, Diego
Garcia (a British-controlled island in the Indian Ocean), Oman
and Saudi Arabia-all of which were employed during the 1990-91
Gulf War and are again being used today. Believing, moreover,
that the Soviet presence in Afghanistan represented a threat to
U.S. dominance in the gulf, Carter authorized the initiation of
covert operations to undermine the Soviet-backed regime there.
(It is important to note that the Saudi regime was deeply involved
in this effort, providing much of the funding for the anti-Soviet
rebellion and allowing its citizens, including Osama bin Laden,
to participate in the war effort as combatants and fundraisers.)
And to protect the Saudi royal family, Carter increased U.S. involvement
in the kingdom's internal security operations.
President Reagan accelerated Carter's overt military moves
and greatly increased covert U.S. support for the anti-Soviet
mujahideen in Afghanistan. (Eventually, some $3 billion worth
of arms were given to the mujahideen.) Reagan also issued an important
codicil to the Carter Doctrine: the United States would not allow
the Saudi regime to be overthrown by internal dissidents, as occurred
in Iran. "We will not permit [Saudi Arabia] to be an Iran,"
he told reporters in 1981.
Then came the Persian Gulf War. When Iraqi forces invaded
Kuwait on August 2, 1990, President Bush the elder was principally
concerned about the threat to Saudi Arabia, not Kuwait. At a meeting
at Camp David on August 4, he determined that the United States
must take immediate military action to defend the Saudi kingdom
against possible Iraqi attack. To allow for a successful defense
of the kingdom, Bush sent his Secretary of Defense, Dick Cheney,
to Riyadh to persuade the royal family to allow the deployment
of U.S. ground forces on Saudi soil and the use of Saudi bases
for airstrikes against Iraq.
The subsequent unfolding of Operation Desert Storm does not
need to be retold here. What is important to note is that the
large U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia was never fully withdrawn
after the end of the fighting in Kuwait. American aircraft continue
to fly from bases in Saudi Arabia as part of the enforcement mechanism
of the "no-fly zone" over southern Iraq (intended to
prevent the Iraqis from using this airspace to attack Shiite rebels
in the Basra area or to support a new invasion of Kuwait). American
aircraft also participate in the multinational effort to enforce
the continuing economic sanctions on Iraq.
President Clinton further strengthened the U.S. position in
the gulf, expanding American basing facilities there and enhancing
the ability to rapidly move US-based forces to the region. Clinton
also sought to expand U.S. influence in the Caspian Sea basin,
an energy-rich area just to the north of the Persian Gulf.
Many consequences have flowed from all this. The sanctions
on Iraq have caused immense suffering for the Iraqi population,
while the regular bombing of military facilities produces a mounting
toll of Iraqi civilian deaths. Meanwhile, the United States has
failed to take any action to curb Israeli violence against the
Palestinians. It is these concerns that have prompted many young
Muslims to join bin Laden's forces. Bin Laden himself, however,
is most concerned about Saudi Arabia. Ever since the end of the
Gulf War, he has focused his efforts on achieving two overarching
goals: the expulsion of the American "infidels" from
Saudi Arabia (the heart of the Muslim holy land) and the overthrow
of the current Saudi regime and its replacement with one more
attuned to his fundamentalist Islamic beliefs.
Both of these goals put bin Laden in direct conflict with
the United States. It is this reality, more than any other, that
explains the terrorist strikes on U.S. military personnel and
facilities in the Middle East, and key symbols of American power
in New York and Washington.
The current war did not begin on September 11. As far as we
can tell, it began in 1993 with the first attack on the World
Trade Center. This was succeeded in 1995 with an attack on the
SANG headquarters in Riyadh, and in 1996 with the explosion at
the Khobar Towers outside of Dhahran. Then followed the 1998 bombings
of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and the more recent
attack on the USS Cole. All these events, like the World Trade
Center/Pentagon assaults, are consistent with a long-term strategy
to erode U.S. determination to maintain its alliance with the
Saudi regime-and thus, in the final analysis, to destroy the 1945
compact forged by President Roosevelt and King Abd al-Aziz Ibn
In fighting against these efforts, the United States is acting,
in the first instance, to protect itself, its citizens and its
military personnel from terrorist violence. At the same time,
however, Washington is also shoring up its strategic position
in the Persian Gulf. With bin Laden out of the way, Iran suffering
from internal political turmoil and Saddam Hussein immobilized
by unrelenting American airstrikes, the dominant U.S. position
in the gulf will be assured for some time to come. (Washington's
one big worry is that the Saudi monarchy will face increasing
internal opposition because of its close association with the
United States; it is for this reason that the Bush Administration
has not leaned too hard on the regime to permit U.S. forces to
use Saudi bases for attacks on Afghanistan and to freeze the funds
of Saudi charities linked to Osama bin Laden.)
For both sides, then, this conflict has important geopolitical
dimensions. A Saudi regime controlled by Osama bin Laden could
be expected to sever all ties with U.S. oil companies and to adopt
new policies regarding the production of oil and the distribution
of the country's oil wealth- moves that would have potentially
devastating consequences for the U.S., and indeed the world, economy.
The United States, of course, is fighting to prevent this from
As the conflict unfolds, we are unlikely to hear any of this
from the key figures involved. In seeking to mobilize public support
for his campaign against the terrorists, President Bush will never
acknowledge that conventional geopolitics plays a role in U.S.
policy. Osama bin Laden, for his part, is equally reluctant to
speak in such terms. But the fact remains that this war, like
the Gulf War before it, derives from a powerful geopolitical contest.
It will be very difficult, in the current political environment,
to probe too deeply into these matters. Bin Laden and his associates
have caused massive injury to the United States, and the prevention
of further such attacks is, understandably, the nation's top priority.
However, a serious review of U.S. policy in the Persian Gulf is
in order. Among the many questions that might legitimately be
asked at this point is whether long-term U.S. interests would
not best be served by encouraging the democratization of Saudi
Arabia. Surely, if more Saudi citizens are permitted to participate
in open political dialogue, fewer will be attracted to the violent,
anti-American dogma of Osama bin Laden.
Michael T. Klare is a Five College Professor of Peace and
World Security Studies at Hampshire College who writes extensively
on military and conflict issues. His most recent book is Resource
Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict.
U.S. Policy On Iran and Southwest Asia
by John Tirman
All wars have unintended consequences. No matter how cautious
generals and political leaders are, war sets in motion waves of
change that can alter the currents of history. More often, generals
and political leaders are not troubled by long-term side effects;
they are sharply focused on achieving a victory and war's aims.
The result is that the unseen and unintended occur, at times as
a bitter riptide which overwhelms the original rationales for
engaging in armed combat.
This unpredictable cycle of action and reaction has thwarted
U.S. policy in southwestern Asia for 50 years. It began with attempts
to contain the Soviet Union and control the oil-rich fields of
the Persian Gulf, and continues today in the popular assault in
Afghanistan to destroy the al Qaeda terrorist network. In that
half century, nearly every major initiative led to an unexpected
and sometimes catastrophic reaction, for which new military remedies
were devised, only again to stir unforeseen problems. The cycle,
regrettably, may be repeating again.
The half-century history begins with CIA intrigue in Iran.
The original spigot of Middle Eastern oil, Iran was long dominated
by Britain and its oil company, British Petroleum. During World
War II, strongman Reza Kahn, a Nazi sympathizer, was deposed by
the British in favor of his son, Reza Shah, who in turn was shunted
aside by the increasingly assertive parliament, the Majlis. In
1951, the Majlis elected as premier Mohammed Mossedegh, a nationalist
reformer who quickly sought control over Iran's oil wealth. The
British, aghast at seeing 50 percent of BP's stake in Iran nationalized,
sought his ouster, which the CIA provided in 1953. The Shah was
reinstated and ruled with an iron fist, enabled by lavish American
The overthrow of Mossedegh remains a bitter memory for Iranians,
and for Muslims more widely. While he was mainly a secular nationalist,
even Islamic militants bewail his fate as another instance of
Western interference and violence. In the years of the Shah's
rule, many of the beleaguered reformers gravitated toward the
ulama, the clerical class, who were relatively independent of
the regime. So U.S. policy, which targeted the left as possible
Soviet sympathizers or threats to oil interests, had the unintended
effect of strengthening the political power and sophistication
of the ulama.
By the 1970s, the Shah had become a self-styled regional power,
flush with an unfettered flow of weaponry from the United States.
Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy, neither a wallflower when it
came to arming allies against perceived Soviet expansionism, had
bluntly dismissed the Shah's pleas for military supremacy, but
President Nixon embraced the Shah without restraint. Not only
were the newest jet fighters and other advanced weaponry made
available, but endless commercial ties were created, bringing
thousands of Americans to Teheran. In 1971, the Shah's oil minister
launched a cascade of price increases that rocked the American
economy for nearly a decade, but it was American guns and products
that the ever-richer Shah and his cohort really sought. A widely
perceived decadence eroded whatever support the regime maintained,
and by the late 1970s, the Shah was struggling against the now-familiar
Muslim "street" that detested the westernized elite
and resented their fabulous oil riches in the midst of poverty.
In 1979, the Shah abdicated and left Iran in a stew of disarray.
It was only a matter of months before the Islamic Revolution came
to full flower.
The Devastating Aftermath
Apart from the war in Vietnam, where millions died, the U.S.
role in imposing and sustaining the Shah in Iran is perhaps the
most invidious episode in America's foreign policy. The consequences
are colossal, and malignancies continue to appear. Among the first
of these was the change in Soviet policy toward the region, and
specifically in Afghanistan.
The Soviets had meddled in Afghanistan for years, supporting
its on-again, off-again communist party. A mildly pro-Soviet regime
in Kabul was under intense pressure from Islamic radicals in the
late 1970s, however, and Moscow kept a wary eye on the chaotic
events in neighboring Iran. As Islamic militancy gained in the
post-Shah governments in Teheran, the Kabul regime became less
and less tenable. In the Kremlin, the Soviet leadership opposed
intervention until the Afghan regime was in complete turmoil.
A high-level Russian, Georgy Kornienko, notes it was Defense Minister
D.F. Ustinov who finally convinced the others to intervene:
"The push to change his former point of view," he
recalls in a memoir, "came from the stationing of American
military ships in the Persian Gulf in the fall of 1979, and the
incoming information about preparations for a possible American
invasion of Iran, which threatened to cardinally change the military-strategic
situation in the region to the detriment of the interests of the
Soviet Union. If the United States can allow itself such things
tens of thousands of kilometers away from their territory in the
immediate proximity from the USSR borders, why then should we
be afraid to defend our positions in the neighboring Afghanistan?-this
was approximately Ustinov's reasoning."
Politburo minutes from the entire previous year, now available,
make clear the Soviet leaders' view that the Islamic militants
were responsible for major attacks on government forces in Herat
and elsewhere, and posed a threat, particularly with the active
aid of the new Khomeini regime in Iran. The USSR, after all, included
five Central Asia republics that were predominantly Muslim and
bordered both Afghanistan and Iran. So the Shah's decades-long
brutality gave rise to a broad Islamic movement in the region
that, once in power in Teheran, not only alarmed Washington but
also worried the much nearer Moscow.
The U.S. response to the collapse of the Shah, the triumph
of Khomeini, and the December 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan
was to be played out tragically over the coming dozen years. Beginning
with the Carter administration in the summer of 1979-months before
the Soviets invaded-the CIA provided arms and training to the
Afghan opposition, the now infamous mujahideen, first to provoke
the Soviets to ill-considered action (as Carter advisor Zbigniew
Bzrezinski has since revealed), and, after the December 1979 invasion,
to make the Soviet stay in Afghanistan as inhospitable as possible.
The large flow of arms and high-tech weapons like shoulder-launched
anti-aircraft missiles did not come until 1986, by which time
the Soviet leadership was firmly committed to departure. But a
steady supply of Chinese-made AK-47s and Soviet-made weapons sent
via Egypt provided the Islamic rebels with ample firepower to
cripple the Soviets' aims in Afghanistan. It was, at the time,
heralded as the wondrous victory of the "Reagan Doctrine,"
the strategy to arm "freedom fighters" against Soviet-leaning
regimes in places like Angola and Nicaragua.
In all its venues and applications, the Reagan Doctrine had
no qualms about the human costs of fomenting warfare, and most
important for the present predicament, had no post-conflict strategy.
The wages of war were high for all. Angola is still in a civil
war more than 20 years later, with the Reagan-backed Savimbi fueling
a self-aggrandizing conflict. Nicaragua is devastated, impoverished;
the Contras, who battled the Sandinista regime, engaged in a drug
trade that now swamps the region.
So, too, with Afghanistan: the Soviets left in 1989, defeated,
but their departure also left Afghanistan a political minefield
(to go along with the 10 million real land mines left by both
sides in the war). Warlords battled with each other for nearly
a decade until the most extreme faction, the Taliban, gained ascendency
in the late l990s and provided the home to the terrorists the
United States now seeks to rout. In the meantime, the 3 million
AK-47s sent to the mujahideen have been located as far away as
Liberia and Mozambique, the fodder for other wars and misery.
Professor Fred Halliday of the London School of Economics wrote
at the end of the 1980s:
"The most striking feature of the Reagan Doctrine was
the way in which Washington itself came to be a promoter and organizer
of terrorist actions. The mujahideen in Afghanistan, UNITA in
Angola and the Nicaraguan Contras were all responsible for abominable
actions in their pursuit of "freedom"-massacring civilians,
torturing and raping captives, destroying schools, hospitals and
economic installations, killing and mutilating prisoners... Reagan
was responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of people
At about the same time the Afghan resistance was being organized
with U.S. aid, the Iraq regime of Saddam Hussein launched an attack
on Iran to gain the oil fields on the gulf. This unprovoked act
of war followed a period of quiet rapprochement with Washington
(Bzrezinski again), and throughout the ensuing eight years of
carnage-in which one million people died-the U.S. government increasingly
helped Iraq, supplying it with more than $5 billion in financial
credits, intelligence data, heavy equipment and political respectability.
In most estimates, the U.S. "tilt" toward Baghdad was
indispensable in saving Saddam from defeat.
The reason for the "tilt" was to frustrate the Islamic
radicals in Teheran. This counter-Khomeini strategy extended beyond
Iraq to countries like Turkey (where the U.S. approved a military
coup in 1980 and suppression of Kurds, resulting in a civil war
that has taken 30,000 lives) and Saudi Arabia (the keystone of
U.S. oil policy, which led the U.S. to cast a blind eye on Saudi
corruption and human-rights abuses). But Iraq, during the 1980s,
was the centerpiece of this gambit.
After the catastrophic war of 1980-88, the new president,
George Bush, embraced a policy of accommodation with Iraq. Within
a few months of taking office, National Security Directive (NSD)
26 set the policy: "Access to Persian Gulf oil and the security
of key friendly states in the area" were the two rationales
of a strategy that would "pursue, and seek to facilitate,
opportunities for U.S. firms to participate in the reconstruction
of the Iraqi economy... Also, as a means of developing access
and influence with the Iraqi defense establishment, the United
States should consider sales of nonlethal forms of military assistance."
Said a senior official of NSD 26: "The concern over Iranian
fundamentalism was a given." The Reagan-Bush accommodationist
policy toward Iraq meant that Saddam received only a slap on the
wrist for the murder, with chemical weapons, of 5,000 Kurds in
the north at the end of the war with Iran.
But when Iraq occupied Kuwait in August 1990, the tilt fell
over. The anti-Iran strategy, itself a response to the ruinous
policy of supporting the Shah, now had unavoidable consequences:
the long and devastating war in Afghanistan; intensified bloodshed
in the Iran-Iraq war; the Kurdish massacres in Turkey and Iraq;
an acceleration of Islamic militancy in Pakistan and civil war
in Kashmir; and the subjugation of Kuwait and the threat to oil
fields of Saudi Arabia. It has had other corollary effects, such
as a tolerance of Syrian misdeeds, as well as devotion to the
perversely corrupt and fragile House of Saud, as Seymour Hersh
so chillingly reports in the New Yorker (Oct. 22, 2001}.
11 and U.S. War