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Restoring Balance in the Gulf By: William R. Hawkins
FrontPageMagazine.com | Sunday, March 05, 2006

The problem in the Persian Gulf has always been that the countries with the bulk of the oil in the south do not have the population bases to be the region's major military powers. The military potential resides in the north with Iran and Iraq. Security has depended on having at least one of the northern powers as an American ally. Iran, the inherently stronger of the two, was long such an ally during the Cold War, when Iraq was aligned with the Soviet Union. The U.S. supported a coup against leftist Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq in 1953, but the regime of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi was allowed to fall in 1979. The failure of President Jimmy Carter to support the Shah is arguably the worst strategic disaster the United States has suffered since the end of World War II. The pro-Western Shah was replaced by the virulently anti-Western regime of  the Ayatollah Khomeini and his successors, which now include the rabid President Mahmoud Ahamdinejad who wants to wipe entire societies off the map.

The 1979 regime change in Tehran altered the fundamental security balance in the region. When both major Gulf powers are hostile to the West, only the active intervention of a U.S.-ed coalition of military forces can protect the region. The situation was saved in the 1980s because Saddam Hussein sought to exploit the turmoil in Iran and invaded his neighbor. It was advantageous for Western (U.S. and European) and Arab states to support Iraq against the Persian militants. When Iran attacked Kuwaiti oil shipments that were financing the Iraqi war effort, Washington sent warships to escort the tankers; but did not otherwise have to commit forces to the conflict. By the end of the long war of attrition, both countries were exhausted, but the oil fields to the south had been kept safe for nearly a decade.

Unfortunately, Baghdad was ruled by the megalomanic Saddam Hussein. After the Iran-Iraq War, he tried to seize Kuwait's oil fields claiming the land as a "lost province."American-led forces liberated Kuwait, but did not march on Baghdad. With three times as many troops deployed in 1991 as in 2003, the U.S. decision not to overthrow Hussein had to be based on more than fear of criticism at the UN.

In his memoirs, former Secretary of State James Baker wrote, "fear of Iranian expansionism" was a "significant factor in our postwar decision making." Iraq needed to be maintained as a counter to Iran. Baker worried that "Iraq might fragment in unpredictable ways that would play into the hands of the mullahs in Iran, who could export their brand of Islamic fundamentalism with the help of Iraq's Shiites and quickly transform themselves into the dominant regional power." This is the perilous situation in which the U.S. now finds itself.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee February 15 indicated how much the U.S. posture in the Middle East has deteriorated since Baghdad fell to American troops in 2003. When facing the "strategic challenge" of Iran, Secretary Rice could only offer the unlikely hope for UN sanctions, and financial aid for those working for "democracy and freedom" in Tehran. The next day, after a meeting in Cairo with Arab League Secretary General Amr Mousa, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Security Affairs Steven Rademaker said, "we discussed the Iranian nuclear issue and the need to give a chance for diplomacy because military options will not be discussed at the time being." He stressed that Washington wants to give additional time for peaceful efforts and diplomacy to settle the conflict with Iran over its nuclear program. But with turmoil in Iraq denying the U.S. with a firm place to stand in the region, what other options are there?

After the 1991 Gulf War, realism should have led to reconciliation between Washington and Baghdad against Tehran. But Hussein lived in a world of delusion and hatred. His attempt to assassinate former President George H. W. Bush in 1993, his threat to invade Kuwait again in 1994, and his increasing support for terrorism sustained tensions during the Clinton administration. Though chemical weapons had been essential for Iraq's war effort against Iran's larger forces, it was clear that Saddam could not be allowed any new WMD programs, as he was still fixated on war with the United States. And when hopes faded that Hussein could be overthrown from within, a regime change imposed by forceful intervention seemed the only way to turn Iraq into a stable and trustworthy power in the Gulf.

The conquest of Iraq sent a warning message to other rogue states seeking weapons of mass destruction. Libya abandoned its programs, and both Iran and North Korea returned to negotiations. But the "shock and awe" of America's swift victory quickly faded in the post-invasion muddle that saw Iraq's military disbanded and U.S. forces overstretched. An insurgency, which both Iran and Syria aid so as to disrupt Iraq's recovery, seemed to be an unexpected development in Washington. And rising partisanship in American politics gave the dictators faith that they were better suited to the ruthless international environment than was a democracy.

The Bush administration, however, has posited the spread of democracy as a basic tenet of its foreign policy. It thus had to respect liberal values when creating a new Baghdad government. But its idealism has hobbled its ability to finish the job it started. Saddam Hussein is still disrupting a ponderous trial two years after his capture, rather than having met swift justice in a show trial orchestrated to establish a credible new authority in Iraq within a year of the invasion. Democratic idealism has also left the Iraqi political process open to others who seek its destruction.

The largest single faction in the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance (32 seats out of 130) is that of  Muqtada al-Sadr, a cleric-warlord who fought against U.S. troops in two bloody uprising in 2004. He was also accused of killing the moderate Shiite Grand Ayatollah Abd al-Majid al-Khoi in 2003. He maintains a militia that is armed and funded by Iran. In a January meeting Ali Larijani, Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council and Iran's top nuclear negotiator, al-Sadr vowed his Iraqi militia would defend Iran from attack. He proclaimed his "Mahdi Army is beyond the Iraqi army. It was established to defend Islam." His version of Islam, however, is that of the Shiite faith shared by his troops and the Iranian regime.

In August 2004, U.S. troops had al-Sadr on the ropes. His militia was mailed by U.S. Marines and armor, with heavy casualties. But al-Sadr was allowed to survive. To save himself,  he eventually accepted Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari's invitation to participate in electoral politics, an offer that had American backing as a way to end the fighting. Victory was mistakenly defined as al-Sadr's participation in democracy rather than his elimination. 

On February 12, 2006, al-Sadr's bloc cast the deciding votes in the newly elected parliament to keep the weak al-Jaafari in office. Al-Sadr did not vote to help build a stable Iraq that would be an ally of the United States. His hatred for America runs deep. He hopes that continued confusion in Baghdad will allow him to build his movement and do exactly what Secretary Baker warned against: convert Iraq's Shiites into an auxiliary arm of the Tehran theocracy and transform Iran into the dominant regional power.

A nuclear-armed, militant Islamic state, that uses its great oil wealth to support global terrorism, is America's worst nightmare. Only the reestablishment of a balance of power in the Gulf can contain Iran without imposing unsustainable burdens on the United States if it must act alone. Rebuilding Iraq's military is only part of that process. Ensuring there is a government in Baghdad willing to cooperate with Washington is the absolutely necessary condition. That was the proper objective of regime change, for which so much blood and treasure has been expended.

Recent elections, not only in the Middle East but elsewhere, have further discredited the left-wing notion, popular in the 1990s, of a "democratic peace" that would see an end to armed conflict via the voting booth. Too many countries have parties and factions with very different ideas as to what their proper alignments and foreign policies should be based on ties of ethnicity, religion or ideology. Elections are thus part of the struggle, not an alternative to it. Merely championing democracy in the abstract is not enough. Statesman must prepare to wage political warfare as they would a military campaign, and, indeed, integrate the two. The American military is without equal when fighting battles, but the broader institutions of American government have not been as adept at waging war in its full dimensions.

The current rampage of sectarian violence following the attack on the Golden Dome Mosque at Samarra should be seen as an opportunity to unite all those in Iraq who rightly fear the outbreak of a civil war that would destroy the country to the advantage of Iran. In is among such people that a national state and security force must be built, to the exclusion and defeat of insurgents of all stripes. Any move to "cut and run" from Iraq would mean not only a U.S. defeat in that country, but a larger victory for Iran that could change the balance of power in the region in ways far more dangerous than anything al-Qaeda has ever imagined.

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William Hawkins is a consultant on international economics and national security issues.

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