The architects of the "war on terror" in the George W Bush administration will soon be leaving office. But the four months until the United States presidential election on 4 November 2008 could be momentous. In Iraq and Iran, what happens in the next four months - or does not happen - will shape events in the next four years and even beyond (see "Washington's choice: subdue Iran, secure Iraq", 12 June 2008).
The current level of conflict in Iraq is lower than for most of the period since the start of the war in March-April 2003, but it continues at a substantial level. The United States military's losses have also been on a declining trend, but it still lost twenty-nine people in June 2008, an increase from nineteen in May. But this is far from the only index of the fragility of the current security environment, as two recent incidents and one longer-term factor show.
The first incident is a US military raid on 27 June 2008 on the town of Janaja in southern Iraq that killed a civilian reported to be a relative of Iraq's prime minister Nouri al-Maliki. The operation involved sixty US soldiers as well as Apache helicopter-gunships; did not include Iraqi units; and was apparently conducted without the knowledge of the provincial authorities, even though Karbala province was supposed to have been under Iraqi control. The response of the Iraqis was, not surprisingly, sharp (see Hannah Allam & Sahar Issa, "U.S. Raid Angers Iraq", Miami Herald, 28 June 2008).
The second is a suicide-bombing attack in Anbar province on 28 June that killed twenty-three people including three US marines, which an al-Qaida insurgent group said that it had perpetrated (see Alissa J Rubin, "Group Claims Responsibility for Iraq Attack", New York Times, 29 June 2008). The attack was targeted against local Sunni leaders who were supporters of the anti-al-Qaida "awakening movement", and the militant responsible had been a member of the movement. It was, in short, an "inside job".
Paul Rogers is professor of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since 26 September 2001.
The trend is the construction right across Baghdad of a network of walls designed to separate armed factions and communities. These have contributed to the decrease in violence, but have also produced a prison-like environment that is resented by many citizens (see Hamza Hendawi, "Iraqis Say Walls Protect But Feel Like Prison", Associated Press, 28 June 2008).
The Iraq outlook
Beyond the immediate security environment, two large developments are a signal of Washington's current strategic thinking in relation to Iraq. The first is the opening up of Iraqi oil reserves to thirty-five companies in a bidding competition to increase oil production. At the outset the process involves six oilfields, though five short-term contracts are also being offered to American and European companies (see Sudarsan Raghavan & Steven Mufson, "Iraq Opens Oil Fields to Global Bidding", Washington Post, 1 July 2008).
The opening of the Iraqi oil industry to private companies represents a major departure from the nationalised industry of the Saddam Hussein era. Such a process was an early aim of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) established in the wake of the US invasion as the key instrument of US political control in the post-Saddam flux. Many believed and more hoped that a partially functioning Iraqi government has been able to take an independent line on this issue, though it now appears that the process of privatisation has been closely overseen by a group of American advisers. This group itself, moreover, was led by a team from the US state department, thus giving the George W Bush administration a direct role in the process (see Andrew E Kramer, "U.S. helped Iraqis on oil contracts", International Herald Tribune, 1 July 2008).
This series of columns has consistently argued that the primary purpose of the termination of the Saddam Hussein regime was less to gain control of Iraq's oil reserves, even if they were around four times the size of US domestic reserves; rather, it was the location of Iraq in a region containing nearly two-thirds of all of the world's oil that was more significant (see, for example, "Iraq's danger signals", 13 December 2007). Nonetheless, the manner in which Iraq's oil is coming under external control does begin to give some credence to those who claim a more direct connection between Iraq's oil and the decision to go to war.
In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here.
Paul Rogers's most recent book is Why We're Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007) - an analysis of the strategic misjudgments of the post-9/11 era and why a new security paradigm is needed.
The plan to expand Iraqi oil production carries a real concern for its designers: that the pipelines and processing plants will be vulnerable to the kind of insurgent activity that inflicted such enormous economic damage in 2004-05. This fear may be connected with the second large development - the plan to maintain US military forces at current levels for at least until mid-2009. The last of the five additional combat-brigades that formed the year-long US "surge" is now departing the country, but plans are already underway to bring 30,000 fresh troops into the country early in 2009 (see Lolita C Baldor, "U.S. To Send 30,000 Troops To Iraq", Associated Press, 28 June 2008). These will replace existing contingents in a routine fashion, but what is less remarked is their effect on overall US deployment; namely, that that 142,000 troops will remain in Iraq, a number actually 7,000 more than were present before the surge began in February 2007.
It is always possible that violence will decrease to the extent that further withdrawals can take place, but the Pentagon is not currently planning for this. Its calculation is most likely based on a real fear that many of the insurgents are lying low and will return to the conflict in the coming months. If this proves correct, then a likely target will be Iraq's oil installations just as foreign companies are moving in. This too will become clear by November 2008.
The Iran prospect
The Pentagon's current preparation for a major long-term military presence in Iraq is accompanied by a sharpening of rhetoric over the putative threat posed by Iran's nuclear plans. Most of this is at present emanating from some Israeli commentators and some of the Washington-based think-tanks and policy groups that identify themselves with what they imagine Israel's national interest to be.
Most analysts are aware of the capacity of the Iranians to respond to any military attack by the United States or Israel in numerous ways, by (for example) escalating tension in Iraq or engineering a massive spike in crude oil prices. This often leads them as a result to discount the risk of an attack on Iran. Against this, some circles in Washington argue that Iran's capacity to react has been much overplayed; in this view, Iran is actually far weaker than is commonly appreciated (see Seymour M Hersh, "Preparing the Battlefield", New Yorker, 7 July 2008). The conclusion is that now may be a good time to demonstrate resolve by targeting Tehran's nuclear facilities, however limited they might currently be (see Gareth Porter, "'Weak' Iran ripe to be attacked", Asia Times, 1 July 2008).
What has always to be remembered in weighing the effect of these nuances is that there is a bottom-line for Israel: namely, there must never be another country in the region that has nuclear weapons - deterrence must work only one way if Israel is to be secure. In addition, a strong thread within hardline Israeli political thinking in the present political conjuncture (though opinion on the matter is not uniform) is that a Barack Obama presidency would be bad news. He may have sounded hardline over Iran in his speech to Aipac on 4 June 2008, but Obama is seen as a highly intelligent politician with a worrying streak of independence in him (see "Iran and the American election", 5 June 2008).
It is troubling, then - a matter of concern to those in Israel and Washington who seek to resolve the Iran issue by force - that Obama is ahead of John McCain in the opinion polls. Perhaps, in such uncertain and unpredictable circumstances, now is the time to pre-empt Iranian nuclear developments - whatever the costs - rather than wait for an Obama victory and the nightmare prospect of talking to the enemy?
These, then, are the four months that will determine the future of the region and much of the world - not least the long-term security of the state of Israel - for years ahead. Iran and Iraq at the heart of present concern, though the security deterioration in other areas deserves to be noted: Afghanistan and Pakistan (see Julian E Barnes & Peter Spiegel, "Afghanistan Attacks Rise, U.S. Says", Los Angeles Times, 25 June 2008), and parts of north Africa (see Michael Moss, "Algerian militants win new lease on life as Al Qaeda affiliate", International Herald Tribune, 1 July 2008). Whether the incoming White House tenant faces the ashes of a new landscape of war or merely the fallout of the old one, the world is in for a long and bumpy ride.