America in the Persian Gulf: a choice of futures

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
9 March 2009

The future of the United States's global "war on terror" was a constant, if usually background, drumbeat throughout the long presidential-election campaign in 2007-08. In particular, policy towards Iraq became a clear dividing-line between the two candidates left standing at the end: with John McCain strongly supporting the military "surge" and promoting the Republican narrative of victory, while Barack Obama insisted that an early if phased withdrawal was needed to extricate the US from what at its core was a disastrous enterprise.

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 2001True, Obama's rhetoric was in the campaign's latter months less emphatic and prescriptive than before; a trend that owed something to the issue's partial eclipse by the economy, something to the fluid events on the ground in Iraq itself, and something to the need to keep options open amid an increasing likelihood that Obama would inherit responsibility for managing a difficult transition.

The immense significance of Iraq's and the wider region's oil reserves for the United States and its position in the world economy have always created doubts that it would ever truly withdraw from Iraq. But the plan agreed after a lengthy process of negotiation between Washington and the Baghdad government of Nouri al-Maliki, and ratified by Iraq's parliament in the last weeks of George W Bush's administration, does commit the US to a timetable that will ostensibly result in a total withdrawal from Iraq by the end of 2011. The new president has put his own stamp on the issue, by declaring on 27 February 2009 the intention to pull out the troops (save 35,000-50,000 training and advisory forces) over these three years (see Peter Baker "Obama lays out plan for Iraq pullout", International Herald Tribune, 27 February 2009).

If this does indeed happen, it will amount to an extraordinary change in the US's security posture - possibly on the level of the retreat from Vietnam that culminated in the humiliation of 30 April 1975. But there remain serious questions about what is really intended in the military and political spheres.

A vital resource

A number of earlier columns in this series have focused on the relationship of the Persian Gulf oil reserves to US security policy in the region, although they have emphasised that there were other (geopolitical and ideological) considerations behind the policy (see for example, "The war for Gulf oil" [26 May 2004]; and "It's the oil, stupid" [24 March 2005]). The fact that Iraq has around four times as much oil as the entire United States (including Alaska) underlines the country's importance, but the wider regional context is even more vital.

The precise figures change from year to year, but the overall situation is relatively clear: the countries around the Persian Gulf collectively have around 62% of all the world's oil reserves, while three others (Russia, Kazakhstan and Venezuela) have another 20%. On the other side, the United States was almost self-sufficient as late as the 1960s, but now imports the majority of the oil it uses; China too can no longer come anywhere near meeting its own demands, and has to import half of what it needs. Every western European country (apart from Norway) is a major net oil importer; Britain too, as North Sea production continues its inexorable decline.

Even within the Persian Gulf region, there is a great degree of concentration: Saudi Arabia owns over 20% of world resources, with four other states (Kuwait, Iran, the United Arab Emirates and Iraq itself) each possessing around 10%. Even allowing for questions over the reliability of some statistics and the viability of some oilfields, the Gulf is clearly dominant in global, geopolitical calculations. In addition, the huge offshore natural gasfields found under the Gulf mean that Iran and Qatar now have the world's second and third largest gas reserves after Russia.

The US military has long recognised the strategic importance of Gulf oil. The 1973-74 oil-price shocks provided most of the impetus for establishing the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force (RDJTF) in March 1980; this was expanded into US Central Command by the Ronald Reagan administration in January 1983 (see "Oil and the War on Terror", in Why We're Losing the War on Terror [Polity Press, 2007]). It is important to emphasise that while the US does not import huge amounts of oil from the Gulf at present, its strategy and thinking is predicated on an enduring belief that preserving military dominance in the region is key to its aim of remaining the world's superpower.

Iraq is crucial here. From a Pentagon perspective, a complete withdrawal from Iraq would leave the United States dangerously exposed, especially to an unwelcome growth in Iranian influence. It is often forgotten that all the major US military contingents that were retained in Saudi Arabia after the Iraq war of 1991 have now had to be withdrawn. The US facilities at its last major air installation (the Prince Sultan air base in the desert eighty kilometres south of Riyadh) were put on care and maintenance, and the base returned to Saudi control, in September 2003; 4,500 troops were redeployed to Qatar as the Saudi authorities found it too dangerous to have them remaining in their country. In such circumstances, keeping control of Iraq - and that includes a direct military capability - remains essential.

The Pentagon's shadow

In this light, how does Barack Obama's announcement on 27 February appear? The current plan is to reduce the number of US forces to fewer than 50,000 from the present total of over 130,000, by 31 August 2010. The president's view is that this smaller "transitional" force will not participate in major combat-operations but will concentrate on training Iraqi security forces, protecting US civilians and operating in a counter-terrorism role. Perhaps even more significant than this drawdown is that he confirmed the intention to withdraw all US forces by 31 December 2011. If this target were achieved, it would coincide with the start of Obama's re-election campaign in 2012.

But as so often, the devil is in the detail. It is already clear that there is a tussle going on in which the Pentagon wants to retain a much wider range of options (see Gareth Porter, "A withdrawal of sorts from Iraq", Asia Times, 3 March 2009). It is reported, for example, that discussions have taken place with the Kurdish authorities in northeast Iraq about establishing a permanent US air-base there; and over the next three years the "training and assistance brigades" tasked with aiding the Iraqi security forces will themselves be able to engage in full combat.

Moreover, the air force - including strike aircraft - is one of the most important components of US forces in Iraq; and there has been no indication of any programme for withdrawing these forces between 2009 and the end of 2011. In addition, the world's largest embassy was inaugurated in Baghdad on 5 January 2009, and many substantial facilities (including large new power-plants) are being built at several large military bases.

The conclusion could reasonably be drawn that - whatever the Obama administration would like to see happen - the strategic importance of the region makes it far from certain that US forces will withdraw fully from Iraq for many years to come.

A political fusion

Yet that conclusion might turn out to be wrong. For there are both specific and general indicators that can be cited to support the argument that the Barack Obama administration could be embarking on a path that will lead to a genuine change.

Among the former is the decision to enter serious dialogue with Syria, even to the extent of re-establishing a full embassy in Damascus (see Donald Macintyre, "US envoys to be sent to Damascus as relations with Syria begin to thaw", Independent, 4 March 2009); and a parallel willingness to engage with Tehran.

The Tehran front will present more obstacles to progress than the Damascus, for a host of reasons: among them the bitter history between the two countries, Iran's nuclear plans, the nature of the Iranian regime with its different power-centres, and the political dynamics of a country approaching its own presidential election in June 2009. The pressures on an increasingly unpopular Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from the deteriorating economic situation will encourage his reformist rivals - though they are themselves divided, and the Iranian president is adept at exploiting nationalist and anti-American sentiment. But his counterpart in Washington - who on 23 February appointed the experienced negotiator Dennis Ross as his "special adviser" in the region - is likely to persist in the search for some form of accommodation with an powerful regional player (see Fred Halliday, "Iran's revolution in global history", 2 March 2009).

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 neededThe more general arguments that the Obama administration could launch the US on a genuinely fresh strategic course go far beyond the immediate question of troops in Iraq. They focus on its determination to address seriously the related issues of climate change and the US dependence on imported oil. There is going to be a short-term decline in US oil consumption resulting from the recession, and within three years it is likely that the young administration's evident commitment to energy conservation and renewables - reflected in the choice of respected scientists and other figures to play key roles in shaping environmental policy - will help make that permanent.

This will in turn begin to diminish the importance of Persian Gulf oil reserves - and thus perhaps to undermine the obsession with Gulf security that has for so long influenced the Pentagon.

Nothing is certain - and developments in Iraq, Iran and even Afghanistan and Pakistan could undermine such an analysis. But the scenario outlined here does highlight what is often missed: the overlap between the global necessity of reducing oil and gas consumption to counter climate change, and the specific need for the United States to lose its addiction to controlling the Persian Gulf.

A time to rethink

An earlier column in this series, written in the second week of the first phase of the Iraq war in 2003, spoke of the risk of a thirty-year war. It concluded:

"Gulf oil will be the dominant energy source for the world for upwards of thirty years. If the US neo-conservatives establish a paradigm of clear-cut western control of the region, then the stage is set for a conflict that lasts just as long.

The Iraq war may be over within three months or it may take longer; in either case it has the potential to signal the development of a much more sustained conflict. Whether this occurs depends in turn on a key variable: the endurance and success of the Bush administration's conception of international security, the essential requirement for the New American Century.

If this conception does succeed, a thirty-year war is in prospect. If, by contrast, a saner approach to international security develops, the beginnings of a peaceful order could be shaped. What happens in the next few months may determine which route is taken" (see "A thirty-year war", 4 April 2003).

In the event, the war did intensify; George W Bush won a second term; and six years have passed before even the beginning of a change can be glimpsed. But if the Obama administration proves that it has the capacity to develop a "saner approach" in the middle east and greater west Asia - one that addresses the wider issues of oil dependency and climate change - then the chances of shortening the timescale of war might at last arrive.

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