How the U.S. Lost the Gulf
There is some good economic news: oil production finally is above pre-March 2003 levels – and has shown a small but steady increase in each of the last four months.
Next door in Iran, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khameini and his inner circle have grown weary of what it sees as U.S. stalling tactics on ending sanctions against Tehran (the quid pro quo for Tehran’s full cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency). Moreover, even though the coalition troops are half-way through their final six month UN-endorsed “stability operation” in Iraq, the U.S. still not announced whether it will ask the Iraq government for permanent basing rights.
Sensing a possible change in the balance of power in the Gulf as the coalition military forces leave Iraq, the Iranians secretly approach Saudi Arabia with a proposal to stabilize the political-economic conditions in the Persian Gulf – Caspian Sea oil fields. The core of the proposal calls for Riyadh and Tehran to pressure Baghdad diplomatically (with the sectarian militias always in the background) to reject any form of a residual U.S. military presence in Iraq. In return, both Iran and Saudi Arabia would assist the re-development of Iraq’s oil sector, enabling the three countries to form a powerful sub-OPEC triumvirate.
Such a scenario might seem far-fetched given the history of ethnic and religious sectarianism that Westerners ascribe to the Gulf and the Greater Middle East. However, the revival of widespread violence associated with the historical Shi’a – Sunni sectarianism is largely the result of an inexcusable misreading of the region’s history and the subsequent mishandling of the post-March 2003 occupation by the U.S.-led coalition. Given its origin, this violence should decline in parallel with the departure of the western coalition. Equally, the departure of foreign forces will elevate the Iraqi military from its present regional (and thus essentially tribal) security focus to the broader national horizon, both in terms of its operations and its national symbolism. And in this latter role, it would re-affirm the self-identity of Iraq and Iraqis.
Given the abject mess the U.S. intervention has created in the Gulf, Washington may well find that its “help” will be rejected by more nations more often than in the past – more so in areas such as the Persian Gulf that have resources on which the U.S. economy depends just to function. While the U.S. cannot be excluded from any area where international waters or airspace exists, its freedom of action could be curtailed if a majority of nations in a region objected.
Such a stance seems improbable, but until a few months ago, many foreign policy “experts” thought it just as improbable that the Iranians and Saudis would open high-level discussions and exchange high-level visits. Somehow, despite a huge presence in the Gulf for years, it is evident that the U.S. still does not understand that part of the world. One can hope that those vying to succeed George Bush as president take time to study both the “catastrophic success” of the last six years in Iraq and the history of the broader Middle East which has been the crossroads where competing cultures have met and intertwined – and still do today.
The next president will have the opportunity to shape the history of the Middle East by the simple act of pulling all U.S. military forces from Iraq, Such action, which he or she could order to begin immediately after taking the oath of office if Pentagon planners have done their job, could be completed by the end of 2009.
Were this to happen (it seems improbable that Bush will change course in the time remaining in his presidency), historians of the 21st century may look back on the mayhem in the Gulf in the first 10 years of the century as an ending, not a beginning. That is, the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the subsequent warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq – while resting on only a quasi-religious rationale – are the Islamic equivalent of the 30 Years’ War which redrew the religious boundaries between the Protestant and Catholic realms in Europe and ended the Holy Roman Empire.
Thereafter, Europe focused its energies more on political-economic rather than political-religious concerns. Once the western armies leave Iraq, it will also be able to put sectarianism aside and, along with the wider Middle East, rebuild its political-economic sectors and rejoin the community of nations as a fully functioning nation-state.