Middle East

After Saddam: Fledgling states, oceans of oil
By Francesco Sisci

BEIJING - The ongoing controversy between the United States and its allies over whether to make war on Iraq is in many respects out of date. The war is already on, and the real issue is not whether to wage it but how to win it.

The war began the moment the United States declared that it was going to overthrow Saddam Hussein. It was already bombing Iraq's two no-fly zones but, most important, it was cordoning off Saddam politically and preparing for his demise.

To stop the war after months of relentless propaganda against Saddam's government would be to lose the war. In fact, Saddam would be emboldened to step up his rearmament campaign. More important, backing off now would give greater sway to the anti-US hardliners in Saudi Arabia and Iran. And in fact the real target of the war on Iraq is not Iraq itself but Saudi Arabia.

By toppling Saddam, the United States will gain control of the Iraqi and Kuwaiti oil reserves, shielding itself from the Saudi threat of raising oil prices and thus choking the already shaky Western economies. As well, with its hands on Kuwaiti and Iraqi oil, Washington will be in a better position to influence the power struggle in Saudi Arabia over the succession, and to make sure the anti-US elements there who armed and supported al-Qaeda's terrorists are eliminated.

Iran would also feel the pinch of the US presence in Iraq, though here it is more difficult to assess whether the moderates would be able to use this new US presence to increase the pace of reforms, or whether the radicals would successfully wave the flag of a US threat.

The unanswered question is: Couldn't Saudi Arabia be pressured into toeing the US line without waging a risky war on Iraq? The United States in effect controls Saudi security; it should have been easier to use existing US clout to force the Saudis' hand than to start a war with Iraq.

The latter course holds a huge number of risks, including the fate of the Kurds in northern Iraq, the Shi'ites in the south and the tribes loyal to Saddam in the center. Even with Saddam gone that picture will remain the same and it is not clear how it will be solved (see War on Iraq: Costs and consequences, September 19).

It is not very clear why the US chose what appears to be the most difficult track of doing in Saddam and thus putting indirect pressure on the Saudis, rather than pressuring the Saudis directly.

The US choice appears to be similar to that made in Afghanistan. The invasion there put pressure on Pakistan, which was, with Saudi Arabia, the greatest supporter of the Taliban regime. Pakistan understood the new tune and, thanks partly to various and diverse demands from China and India, decided to sing along, cutting off its aid to the al-Qaeda fighters. The US strategy on Iraq appears the same: topple Saddam, install a new leader, and force Saudis to follow along.

If it is going to win the ongoing war, the United States must understand that Iraq could be more complicated than Afghanistan, for several reasons. War on Iraq could irk Muslim sensibilities by bringing infidels arguably too close to the holy ground of Mecca. Furthermore, this could give Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon the opportunity to reoccupy the Palestinian territories and prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state. This would further inflame Arab and Muslim sentiments, which have been the hotbed and the fuel of the anti-US terrorist actions.

It might well be that in the short term after the war nothing will happen, because the Arab states will feel subdued. But it is hard to believe that those inflamed sentiments would not burst forth some time in the future with a new wave of terrorism. To prevent this, a Palestinian state must be established.

The Afghans, after the US-led war in their country, have been provided aid and greater hope for peace and development; in other words they now have something to lose, new pressure points the US can use to manage them. The Palestinians must be given something to lose as well, ie, a state and hope for development. If they have nothing they simply can't be managed, other than by eliminating the problem by wiping them out. But this is not possible because of the ethical values shared by the US and the Israelis. Not only that, but while it might be possible to conceive of erasing the Chechens as they have few brethren outside Chechnya, the Palestinians have Arab brethren all over the Middle East and Africa who are already simmering over the plight of the Palestinians.

The creation of a Palestinian state should thus be the cornerstone of the peace settlement after the war on Iraq. This more than anything else would give clout to the new US presence in the Persian Gulf region and could help win over the Saudis and Iranians.

To achieve this end, as many US analysts have already pointed out, the United States must be prepared for a long-term involvement in the region. States are not born out of thin air, and here we are thinking of a whole new geography for the Middle East and Central Asia. This means that the US could be there for decades to bolster the existence of the fledgling states born of the war.

But this US presence in the area won't be without rewards - there is the oil issue. After the war the US can think of controlling directly or indirectly most of the Gulf's oil. Moreover, with its foothold in Central Asia, which is not limited to Afghanistan but also includes a few ex-Soviet republics in Central Asia and the Caucasus, the US will have a big say on oil there too.

Some 30 years after the oil shock that brought the West to its knees, the power of Western oil companies will be vindicated. It could well be the resurrection of the Seven Sisters - the seven mega-corporations that dominate the global oil industry (Exxon, Gulf, Texaco, Mobil, Socal, BP and Shell) - although some of their names and profiles have changed.

The Western hold on oil will be the last straw for the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, which is already weakened by years of division. The West will be able to maintain the price of oil at the level fit for the varying economic needs of development.

This hold can't last forever and the lessons of the past should not be ignored. The lesson of the 1970s was that the best way to control oil prices to decrease dependence on it. The West has to develop different sources of energy that are not dependent on oil, and possibly in the future not even dependent on natural gas. Fuel cells could greatly help, and this technology could be marketable in 20 years, the time frame in which the US could hold full control of the Middle East and Central Asia. The 20-year horizon for control of oil and development of new energy technologies could also provide a long-term safety grid for economic development, now deprived of the bubble dream of the "new economy".

In the short term the toppling of Saddam, the creation of a Palestinian state, the emergence of a new, moderate Iran, a decrease in oil prices, new military spending and a new feeling of safety in the West could help trigger an economic recovery some time in 2004.

Still remaining to be tackled would be the possible widespread resentment among the Arabs, who will have to tolerate a greater US presence in the region, and discontent among the Europeans, who will feel they were forced into joining the United States in another ill-conceived war. These two problems loom very large in the second half of 2003 and early 2004 even if the war itself goes perfectly well.

Moreover, if the US is bogged down for decades in the region, its control of the region's oil will be good for China, but not as good for Russia.

It will be good for China because while the US is preoccupied with the Middle East it will have no desire to get involved in the even messier picture of China, which will carry on with its economic development and reforms without fear of the United States. The US control of oil and parallel development of alternative fuels is fully consistent with the interests of the Chinese, who are net oil importers and therefore keen on a low oil price.

It's a different story for Russia, which is a net oil exporter. Its oil policies will have to be in tune with US decisions, as Washington can always play its Middle East oil card against Russia. The practical choice for Russia, then, will be to toe the US economic line even more closely. The payoff for Moscow for swallowing its pride would be to have its oil companies among the new Seven Sisters, which in a few years could bring about a new isolation of China.

In this scenario, China could find itself out of the energy loop and dependent for oil and technology on the goodwill of the United States and its partners. China has perhaps a couple of years to forestall such a predicament by proving that it does not want to be America's enemy or even its adversary, but a partner. The alternative, counting on some of America's plans to go awry, could lead China down a long and lonely road.

(©2002 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact content@atimes.com for information on our sales and syndication policies.)
Sep 28, 2002

Russia, Iran: Stepping on the gas (Sep 27, '02)

Iran and Kuwait close ranks
(Sep 25, '02)

Iraq: In all but name, the war's on (Aug 17, '02)


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