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Oil, arms and the man
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 14 - 08 - 2003

American foreign policy cannot simply be reduced to the war on terror, writes Galal Nassar
Since 11 September 2001, it sometimes appears that the war against terrorism is the Bush administration's only declared foreign policy objective. The war against terrorism, however, is not the only priority of the US administration, and it may not be its top priority either. On coming to power, Bush outlined two other strategic goals: upgrading US military capacities and securing additional oil reserves from foreign sources. Although these priorities may have been driven by distinct interests and motives of their own, they have since merged with the war against terrorism to form a coherent overall foreign policy strategy.
Not that this strategy has been given concrete form as a declaration of principles; nor does Washington seem to have clearly thought through its consequences. Nevertheless, the three priorities combined have worked to radically alter US military behaviour, as an analysis of some of the initiatives taken by the current administration will demonstrate.
The most obvious initiative is the invasion of Iraq, the declared aims of which were to topple the regime of Saddam Hussein and to destroy Iraq's purported arsenal of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons along with its alleged capacity to produce such weapons. As has become increasingly apparent, Washington was motivated not so much by the need to get rid of WMDs as by the desire to eliminate any potential threat to the production and transport of oil from this region. Simultaneously, it wanted to ensure that the huge Iraqi oil reserves did not fall into the hands of Russian, Chinese or European companies.
Much earlier, shortly after 11 September, the US deployed its forces in Central Asia and the Caucasus, ostensibly in order to support military operations against the Taliban in Afghanistan. That mission has now been completed, and yet the forces remain in place. Perhaps US strategic planners also had another mission in mind: to secure the huge energy reserves in the Caspian Sea basin and protect the pipelines transporting that oil and natural gas to Western markets. This hypothesis is supported by two US decisions: to send military trainers to Georgia, the main pipeline juncture between the Caspian and Black Seas, and to bring back into operation a military base in Kazakhstan on the Caspian Sea.
In Colombia, the declared aim of US military intervention was to combat narcotics trafficking. Recently, however, the White House has added a number of further objectives: combating political violence and "terrorism", and protecting the pipelines that take oil from the wells in the interior to the refineries on the coast. Accordingly, Bush has asked Congress to approve an increase in military aid allocations to Bogotà, and the new package will include $100 million specifically to protect the pipelines.
These examples, to which many others could be added, are indicative of the combined effect of the three priorities mentioned above. It is impossible to understand the current direction of US foreign policy without taking into account the implicit amalgamation of these priorities into a single strategy. But to understand the true nature of the combined policy that results, we must first consider each of the priorities separately.
In an important campaign address given in 1999 at Citadel (a highly reputed military academy in Charleston, South Carolina), Bush outlined the way he intended to "transform" America's military doctrine. After charging that the Clinton administration had failed to adjust America's military programme to the new post-Cold War realities, the Republican presidential candidate pledged to undertake a full revision of national strategy so as to build "the army of the coming century".
The Arab peoples, who aspire to freedom, democracy, pluralism and civil liberties, must not ride the bandwagon drawn by the American tank
This overhaul of the armed forces, he said, would seek to accomplish two primary objectives. The first -- to ensure the safety of American territory -- would be achieved by creating a massive anti- ballistic missile shield and by ensuring American superiority in high-tech weaponry was maintained. The second was to augment the ability of US forces to invade hostile regions such as Iran, Iraq or North Korea, which in turn would entail enhancing the US's capacity to "land its forces" -- that is, to deploy its forces overseas in a manner that could ensure rapid victory. Achieving this dual programme would require not just the most up-to-date electronics equipment and aerospace technology, but also reducing the size of military units so as to minimise the need for logistical support. Bush said: "We must be able to send our forces as far as possible in a matter of days or weeks, not months... On the ground, our heavy units must be more manoeuvrable and our lighter units more lethal, and all must have a rapid deployment facility." In saying this, Bush defined the tactics that were later deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq.
As soon as he assumed office in January 2001, Bush instructed the Pentagon to begin work on this overhaul. Earlier that year, he had announced that Donald Rumsfeld had embarked on a thorough study of the state of the armed forces and that he had given his secretary of defence full freedom to devise a new and innovative structure for the defence of the US and its allies. Reiterating the points he made in the Citadel address, Bush said that he envisioned that American land forces would become "more manoeuvrable and more lethal", that its air force would be "capable of striking distant targets with consummate precision", and that the navy would have a greater capacity "to land our forces on the ground in remote areas".
Such were the considerations that determined the administration's budgetary policy. When Rumsfeld submitted his defence budget request for 2003 of $379 billion -- up $45 billion from the previous year -- he stated that the US needed armed forces capable of deploying rapidly in remote battle theatres and integrating with the air and naval forces in order to strike America's enemies as quickly, precisely and destructively as possible. The implication was that, whatever means were made available to the anti-ballistics shield and the fight against terrorism, rapid deployment efficiency would be the major determinant of how allocations would be spent and how the armed forces would be organised over the coming years.
Following 11 September, the White House pushed for and got congressional approval for the notion of the preemptive use of force, entitling US forces to wage an offensive attack against so-called "renegade" states or terrorist groups that are held to constitute a direct threat to American citizens. This was clearly a radical shift in US strategy, but it was also perfectly in tune with the administration's two other strategic objectives: safeguarding US territory and developing the armed forces' ability to invade and subdue hostile forces.
The Bush administration's second priority -- obtaining control over new overseas oil resources -- was first explicitly stated in the 17 May 2001 report of the National Energy Policy Development Group (NEPDG). This report, compiled by Vice President Dick Cheney, proposes a strategy to meet the US's increasing oil needs over the next 25 years. Although it discusses a number of measures for reducing energy consumption, the thrust of many of its recommendations is to increase the US's energy reserves. The report triggered heated controversy, firstly because of its references to planting drilling stations in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve, and, secondly, because of Cheney's former relations with the now bankrupt Enron Company. This controversy, in turn, helped divert attention away from other important aspects of the report, notably the NEPDG's call for proactive international intervention, with the aim of facilitating the increased oil imports needed to offset the US's growing consumption needs. This subject was dealt with explicitly in the last chapter entitled "Strengthening International Alliances".
According to the report, US dependence on external sources of oil will rise from 52 per cent in 2001 to 66 per cent in 2020. That is, in order to meet rising consumption needs, oil imports will have to rise from their present level of 10.4 million barrels a day to 16.7 billion. The only way to achieve this, the report states, is to convince overseas exporters to increase their production levels and to sell more of their production to the US.
However, the report continues, most oil- exporting countries do not possess the financial resources they need to develop their oil-producing infrastructure, and, even if they did, they do not want their American clients to control their production levels. The report therefore advises the White House to make increasing oil imports "a priority in our commercial and foreign policies". In order to realise this priority, it recommends that the White House should first focus on increasing imports from the Persian Gulf, which is home to approximately two-thirds of global oil reserves. Since no other oil-producing area in the world is capable of lifting its production to the desired levels, the report advises an intensive diplomatic drive aimed at persuading Riyadh and neighbouring capitals to allow US companies to take charge of the upgrading of their oil-producing infrastructures.
Simultaneously, the report advises diversifying sources of oil imports, in the interests of offsetting the economic repercussions of sudden upheavals in endemically unstable regions. In this respect, the report cautions: "Concentrating on the oil production in a single area of the globe may contribute to the instability of the market. Therefore, diversifying sources of oil supply is of the utmost importance." Towards this end, the report recommends that the government work closely with US energy companies in order to increase imports from the Caspian Sea basin (specifically Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan), western Africa (Angola and Nigeria) and Latin America (Colombia, Mexico and Venezuela).
It hardly takes a very discerning reader to realise that all the areas Cheney mentions in his report are either unstable, or harbour strong anti- American sentiments. While a segment of the political and economic elites in these countries may favour closer economic ties with the US, a larger segment of the population is opposed to any such move for a variety of economic and ideological reasons. US bids to buy larger quantities of oil from these countries are, therefore, certain to encounter strong resistance that could extend to various forms of political violence or terrorism.
It is precisely here that Washington's military and energy strategies intersect. An energy policy which seeks to improve US access to oil reserves in permanently unstable areas is possible to the extent that America possesses the power of rapid military intervention in those areas. Political officials may have been slow to reach this conclusion, but the top military brass has long recognised it to be true. In the Quadrennial Defence Review (QDR) of September 2001, the Pentagon admitted that "the US and its allies will remain dependent on the Middle East for its energy sources," and that these sources could be interrupted by various military means. The periodical goes on to describe the types of weapons and forces the US would need to counter a potential threat -- the specifications for which happened to coincide with the vision Bush had outlined for America's army of the 21st century -- before concluding that American military strategy "is dependent upon our ability to send our forces to all parts of the world".
Bush declared his administration's third priority before Congress on 20 September 2001, nine days after the terrorist strikes against New York and Washington. The war against terrorism, he said, would not be limited to a series of punitive strikes or a single decisive battle. It would be an ongoing campaign waged in diverse theatres "until we expose every terrorist group with a global dimension, stop its activities and destroy it." Not long afterwards, the US president expanded his war objectives to include Iran and Iraq, which ostensibly posed a threat because of their determination to develop their WMD capacities.
A war on terrorism inherently demands a two- pronged approach. Firstly, a huge intelligence network must be put in place in order to identify and infiltrate terrorist groups; secondly, the military techniques must be developed to penetrate and destroy terrorist rings and to punish the nations that protect them. If these two processes are both vital and complementary, it appears that it is above all the military dimension which has captured the attention of the Bush administration, since it happens to mesh nicely with its two other priorities.
Thus, Afghanistan and Iraq provided excellent testing grounds for America's enhanced ability to "land forces", just as Bush had called for in his Citadel speech in 1999. Just before the Afghanistan operation, for example, the US air-freighted huge quantities of arms and equipment to its allies in the vicinity and moved its fleets into the Arab Gulf. The land offensive, when it began, brought into action a relatively small infantry force, supported by long- range bombers equipped with highly accurate remote-controlled guidance systems. Throughout, the emphasis was on manoeuvrability and the use of advanced tracking devices capable of pinpointing enemy positions day or night.
A similar scenario was meant to unfold in the war against Iraq. Thousands of troops were deployed to strategic areas in tandem with intensive aerial bombardment. As a senior US officer told the New York Times before the war began, "Unlike 1991, we won't have to take land in order to protect our flanks. Instead, our forces will have higher manoeuvrability and concentrate on specific targets." He added that, as was the case in Afghanistan, there would be a heavy reliance on Special Forces units fighting alongside the expected Iraqi insurrectionaries.
The war against terrorism has clearly merged with US efforts to secure access to sources of oil, especially in the Gulf and the Caspian Sea. In a sense, then, the war in Afghanistan was an extension of the covert war that is ongoing in Saudi Arabia between the US-supported ruling royal family and its opponents. When, following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, King Fahd gave Washington permission to use his territory as a base for a counter-attack against Iraq, a group of Saudi extremists headed by Osama Bin Laden mounted an underground war to overthrow the regime and expel the Americans. A major objective of the American campaign against Bin Laden's Al-Qa'eda organisation in Afghanistan was to protect the Saudi ruling family and, hence, America's access to Saudi oil.
The same connection can be seen in the Caspian Sea region. Under Clinton, the Pentagon began to establish relations with the armed forces of Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, offering them training and arms facilities. In the wake of 11 September, Washington began to push for yet closer military ties. What were once temporary bases in Uzbekistan are on their way to becoming at least semi-permanent, and a "strategic air base" in Kazakhstan is being rehabilitated with US aid. The Pentagon itself has taken no pains to conceal the purpose of this latter initiative. Its aim is to "promote cooperation between the US and Kazakhstan, in addition to establishing a military base in this oil-rich region". The US also intends to help Azerbaijan build a military naval fleet to patrol the Caspian Sea, in which there have been confrontations between Azerbaijani drilling vessels and Iranian military craft. While Washington's military and diplomatic efforts in the region may be intended to facilitate these countries' participation in the war against terrorism, one cannot help noticing how neatly it also fits with America's energy priorities.
Why did the US invade Iraq, and not Mexico, for example? This question has recently been posed by several Arab intellectuals, in an attempt to rebut the assertion that Washington has set in motion a latter-day colonialist enterprise. Yet the answer is staring us in the face.
America is becoming increasingly dependent on its overseas suppliers of oil. In 1972, oil imports represented 30 per cent of the oil consumed in the US; they now account for 60 per cent of domestic consumption and will remain at least at this level until 2020. In addition, America's domestic oil production has dropped by 36.8 per cent over the past 30 years. To complicate matters, America's number one oil supplier, Saudi Arabia, no longer appears as reliable now that investigations have turned up the fact that of the 19 perpetrators of the 11 September attack, 15 were Saudis -- not to mention Al-Qa'eda mastermind Osama Bin Laden himself.
Meanwhile, Iraq is sitting on the world's second largest oil reserves, estimated at 112 billion barrels and with a possibility, according to some experts, of an additional 88 billion barrels. Moreover, the cost of producing Iraqi oil is among the lowest in the world: $5 per barrel as opposed to $7 per barrel for Venezuelan and Mexican oil.
Waiting behind the scenes to get their hands on that vast sea of oil are America's mammoth oil companies, such as Exxon Mobil with $19 billion in capital assets and Chevron Texaco, which is worth a hefty $99.6 billion. Today, these companies are enjoying a golden age in Washington, where George Bush, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Don Evans, Jill Norton and Kathleen Cooper are all connected in one way or another to the oil industry. No wonder that the American oil lobby was one of the major funders of Bush's electoral campaign two years ago (Exxon Mobile donated $2 million and the American Petroleum Board chipped in an extra million). For nearly two decades, these companies had been deprived of their access to Iraqi oil due to deteriorating relations between Washington and Baghdad. For them, it was high time for Iraq to acquire a more amenable government. Only days before the war against Iraq, Leader of the opposition Iraqi National Council Ahmed Chalabi declared: "We are working on behalf of a group of petroleum companies led by the US. These American institutions can now set their sights on Iraqi oil."
Regardless of the intentions of the US leadership, its three international security priorities -- upgrading the armed forces, oil and the war against terrorism -- have merged into a single strategy so that it is now impossible to consider any one of these strands without taking the others into account also. Perhaps Washington's overriding foreign policy goal can best be summed up as the war to impose US hegemony. Although it is too early to assess how this policy will impact on each of its component objectives in the long run, we can nevertheless already make several observations.
Above all, the simple fact of combining these priorities produces a dynamic that is far more powerful than any of them could generate by itself. It is difficult to criticise a national security strategy that has achieved such self-sustaining momentum. For example, taken by themselves, increases in military allocations might have been quashed by Congress, while the American public might have objected to the constant deployment of their troops in oil-rich areas. But, when blended with the call to fight terrorism, such restrictions become impossible to contemplate.
That very dynamism, however, also carries the seed of protracted involvement in a series of military operations that risk embroiling the US in ever more complex and intractable situations and in escalating commitments of troops and resources. Bush had warned against such an open-ended strategy before the elections in 2000, but it would seem he has since chosen to ignore his own advice.
If Central Asia, Columbia and the Gulf bear this out in their different ways, the most telling example of the downside of this dynamic blend is provided by post-war Iraq. In spite of warnings from Arab and western nations that the longer the US remains in Iraq the greater the perils of expanding chaos and violence in the Middle East, Bush has clearly decided to stay. And, in spite of reservations aired by Pentagon officials over the costs and dangers of sustaining a significant American presence in Iraq, the White House appears determined to see its strategy through to the end, regardless of the costs.
The question remains as to whether the Arabs are capable of responding to this strategy as it is playing itself out in the Middle East. Whatever options they adopt -- be they a counter-strategy, or policies that intersect with or coincide with US interests -- reality and duty demand the display of certain abilities. There can be no justification for foreign occupation, no alternative to the will of the people. The Arab peoples, who aspire to freedom, democracy, pluralism and civil liberties, must not ride the bandwagon drawn by the American tank. Long, dark decades of colonial occupation have taught us many lessons, perhaps the most important of which is that no nation has ever been able to build a true democracy, an effective civil society and a strong national economy under an occupation that strips it of so many of the prerequisites of sovereign statehood.


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