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 competition.

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 Middle East."

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 Saud.

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 happening.

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 military aid.

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 through terrorism."

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}.

September 11 and U.S. War

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