The Failure of Empire

The United States, Cordesman advises, should narrow its objectives to the creation of a stable government backed up by an adequate Iraqi military force—even if the new political regime is only moderately better than that of Sadaam Hussein and even if openly antagonistic to the United States. If Washington can “succeed” even to this extent, he says, it can declare “victory” and get out within two years with a minimum amount of damage to its credibility as an imperial power. However, in case it should fail to create a stable political solution or to create an adequate Iraqi army within that period—as now appears most likely—the United States needs to start making plans immediately for what it will do in the case of a clear defeat. “Even ‘victory’ in Iraq,” we are told, “will be highly relative, and defeat,” which can occur in any number of ways as Iraq spins out of control, “will force the US to reinforce its position in the entire region.”

Even more important than the formation of a stable regime, from Cordesman’s standpoint, is the replacement of U.S. with Iraqi forces. “‘Iraqiazation,’” he writes, “either has to be made to work, or Iraq will become a mirror image of the failure of ‘Vietnamization’ in Vietnam: Coalition military victories will become increasingly irrelevant.” After a detailed assessment of Iraqi forces and training he concludes: “the Iraq military and security forces are now far too weak to take over the security mission and will almost certainly remain so well into 2005….The US can only ‘play the course’ effectively if it works out goals and plans with the Iraqi Interim Government that go far beyond the 28,000 man [Iraqi] armed forces—and the roughly 40–55,000 man total of military, paramilitary, and National Guard—the US currently says are ‘required.’”

The truth is that the presence of 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, which has stretched available U.S. forces to the limit, has not been enough, even when supplemented by troops from Britain, to bring the country to heel. “The US has already learned that it can win virtually any direct military battle or clash, but it cannot secure the country….As in Vietnam, if the interim Iraqi government cannot win the political battle, U.S. victories in the military battles become irrelevant.” Given the political turmoil in Iraq and the difficulty of creating any political solution, or even avoiding the outbreak of civil war, Cordesman believes that the United States needs to concentrate on how to shore up its position in the remainder of the Middle East in the event of a defeat:

Fighting a counterinsurgency campaign is one thing; the US must not stay if Iraq devolves into civil war….No one can guarantee success in Iraq; or that Iraq will not descend into civil war, come under a strongman, or split along ethnic or confessional lines….[I]t is one thing to play the game and quite another to try to deal with defeat by reinforcing failure or “doubling the bet.” If it is clear by 2006 that the US cannot win with its current level of effort, and/or the situation serious[ly] deteriorates to the point where it is clear there is no new Iraq government and security force to aid, the game is over. There no longer is time to fold; it is time to run.

If forced “to run,” he says, the United States will have to offer reassurances to the rulers of the “friendly Gulf states and other Arab allies.” It will have to prevent any expansion of Islamic jihad in Afghanistan resulting from Islamic declarations of “victory” in Iraq. At the same time the United States will have to keep Iran from intervening in Iraq. More pressure than ever will be placed on the United States to solve the Israeli-Palestinian problem. Finally, the threat to U.S. strategic position with respect to Middle Eastern oil will have to be planned for, requiring that the United States not withdraw from the Middle East but if anything step up its involvement.

No doubt is left in Playing the Course that the major issue for the United States in Iraq as in the Middle East as a whole is oil. Continual attacks on the oil pipelines by the Iraqi resistance have limited the flow of oil from Iraq, undermining one of the principal U.S. objectives, and highlighting the overall U.S. failure. In the event of a clear defeat and a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, the oil situation will become even more critical. “The US,” Cordesman writes “can and must find substitutes for petroleum, but this will take decades. In the interim, the US and the global economy will actually become steadily more dependent on energy imports, and particularly on energy imports from the Gulf.” By the end of 2025 the industrialized countries alone, according to estimates by the U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA) in its International Energy Outlook, 2004, are expected to increase their petroleum imports from OPEC by an additional 11.5 million barrels a day beyond the 16.1 million barrels a day in 2001, with the Persian Gulf supplying more than half of the increase. North American imports from the Persian Gulf are expected to double over the period. Meanwhile, demand for oil from China and other developing countries is expected to increase dramatically. The strategic importance of oil for the world economy will accelerate accordingly.

In order to meet this demand for additional production, the EIA estimated that a further $1.5 trillion would have to be invested in the Middle East between 2003 and 2030. The long-term potential for investment in the expansion of production in Iraq is greater than elsewhere since many oil analysts and institutes (for instance the Baker Institute, Center for Global Energy Studies, the Federation of American Scientists) believe that, in addition to its proven reserves of 115 billion barrels of oil, Iraq may have, in the 90 percent of its territory that remains unexplored, 100 billion barrels or more of additional oil reserves. (Estimates coming from some agencies, like the U.S. Geological Survey, are less optimistic, with median estimates of additional Iraqi reserves at 45 billion barrels.) According to Cordesman it is the enormous level of investment necessary for the expansion of Middle East oil production, which must occur in order to ensure adequate supplies for future consumption, that is the most pressing “practical problem” presented by the Persian Gulf from the standpoint of the global economy. Not only must such investments be made but they must then be protected. In this regard it would not be easy for the United States to pull out completely from Iraq or to refrain from stepping up its involvement elsewhere in the Middle East if compelled to leave that country.

Relative to most analyses emanating from national security circles in the United States, Cordesman’s Playing the Course has the advantage, we think, of being strong on realism. It is therefore reasonable to ask whether the powers that be in the United States can be expected to follow his prescription, beginning by renouncing all imperial objectives in Iraq. We think this is unlikely to happen. The operational phrase remains to “stay the course.” On March 30, 2004, former secretary of defense under Nixon and Ford, James Schlesinger, and former U.S. ambassador to Russia and under secretary for political affairs under Clinton, Thomas Pickering (the two co-chaired the Council on Foreign Relations task force that produced the report Iraq: One Year Later), editorialized in the Los Angeles Times that Iraq should remain “above politics” and that the United States should “stay the course.” The reasons they offered included preventing Iran from influencing Iraq; guaranteeing “long-term stability in the production and supply of oil”; blocking the rise of a new power in Iraq opposed to the United States; and avoiding a perception of American defeat that would serve to destabilize American power and its interests both in the Middle East and globally. In short, the imperial objectives for which the United States intervened in the region must be maintained at all costs.

Nothing coming out of Washington these days suggests that this dominant view has altered in any way. Although it is well understood among those at the top of the social hierarchy that a series of disasters may well await the United States in Iraq if it simply sticks to its guns, to not do so is seen as guaranteeing a still bigger disaster—a confession of defeat that will diminish the future U.S. capacity to make war at will on third world societies and thus to employ force directly as a means to promote its imperial designs. Moreover, there is still the question of Iraqi oil and who will control it. Thus in the ruling class view, even an absolute failure in establishing a stable political regime and the requisite military force to defend it in Iraq does not necessarily mean that the United States should get out. Thomas Friedman, the Op-Ed columnist on foreign affairs at the New York Times, whose views can usually be taken as a good barometer of establishment opinion, concludes a November 18, 2004, report from Iraq with the statement that “Without a secure environment in which its new leadership can be elected and comfortably operate, Iraq will never be able to breathe on its own, and U.S. troops will have to be here forever.” The attitude here is that the U.S. occupation would need to continue endlessly in the case of a failure to realize the goal of a stable political situation in Iraq acceptable to the United States. Given the enormous Iraqi oil reserves Washington could decide that whatever costs it had to pay in Iraq would be amply rewarded in the end.

If the foregoing reading of the U.S. leadership’s current determination to stay the course is right, then the failures to be experienced by U.S. imperialism in Iraq are likely to persist and be all the greater. The continuing presence of U.S. troops will mean that the U.S. military will continue to take its bloody toll (which has already descended to systematic torture and the reintroduction of napalm, outlawed by the United Nations in 1980), and Iraqi opposition to the American “liberators” will only grow. Meanwhile any Iraqi government that is elected under these circumstances will either have to be opposed to the U.S. occupation or lose any claims of legitimacy within Iraqi society. The entire U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq may be creating the conditions for a civil war, lighting a powder keg under the entire Middle East. To get an idea of just how serious this can be one has only to look at present Israeli arming and training of the Kurdish militias, with the object of then setting them—if the need should arise—against the Shiite or Sunni forces in Iraq. Israel’s possession of hundreds of nuclear weapons poses the continual threat of the “Samson option” should that government perceive itself or its occupation of Palestine as seriously threatened.*

Wider speculation at this point would be foolhardy. But there is no doubt that in invading Iraq the United States opened the doors of hell not only for the Iraqis and the Middle East as a whole but also for its own global imperialist order. The full repercussions of the failure of the U.S. empire in Iraq have yet to be seen and will only become evident in the months and years ahead. Posted by


* Michael Klare, “The New Geopolitics,” in John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney, ed., Pox Americana (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2004), 51–56.

* For a critique of this new conservative/military history of the war see Robert Buzanco, Masters of War: Military Dissent and Politics in the Vietnam Era (Cambridge University Press, 1996).

* The Pentagon Papers, vol. 4 (Gravel edition) (Boston: Beacon Press), 668; Noam Chomsky, “Foreword” in Peter Limqueco and Peter Weiss, ed., Prevent the Crime of Silence: Reports from the Sessions of the International War Crimes Tribunal founded by Bertrand Russell (London: Penguin, 1971), 19; Dorothy Fosdick, ed., Staying the Course: Henry M. Jackson and National Security (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1987), 190.

* Seymour M. Hersh, Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib (New York: HarperCollins, 2004), 356–60, and The Samson Option: Israel’s Nuclear Arsenal and American Foreign Policy (New York: Random House, 1991).

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