March 19, 2003

A Cold War Legacy of Persian Gulf Conflict: Central Command assures “unimpeded flow of oil”

By Jennifer Huang | World Power III: Geopolitics

Ground troops in the desert and aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf, Kurdish alliances and leafleting campaigns, oil field protection and one slippery despot: War in Iraq is a strategic and logistical behemoth.

Legions of American soldiers have shipped out to the Persian Gulf region from the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard. An estimated 250,000 troops are in place — add another 40,000 from Britain and Australia and the number approaches 300,000.

The modern military needs a small battalion just to orchestrate its own bureaucracy. That battalion is the Central Command, headed by General Tommy Franks.

A thousand soldiers strong, the Central Command coordinates U.S. military activities in 25 countries, from Kenya to Kazakhstan, including Afghanistan and Persian Gulf nations like Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, with their vast petroleum reserves.

Modern struggles in the Persian Gulf are inseparable from the region’s oil, so crucial to the economic interests of the world’s great powers.

The Central Command itself was formed 20 years ago as both a consequence of and a solution to those struggles.

In the latest Persian Gulf conflict, weapons of mass destruction and the crimes of Saddam Hussein are cited in newspapers, U.N. resolutions and the Oval Office as the prime motives of war.

But it is the Cold War legacy of the Central Command that makes war possible at all.

One Sentence

By January 1980, Hendrik Hertzberg had been writing speeches for President Jimmy Carter for three years. He’d grown familiar with the routine of drafts and revisions, recommendations and more rewrites; now he and his colleagues were sharpening their pencils for the State of the Union Address.

But this time, Hertzberg received an unprecedented order. One key sentence was to be inserted into the speech, and it could not be altered.

Write what you will to introduce this sentence, he was told, but this language could not be touched.

“That was the only part that came delivered in a sealed envelope, almost,” Hertzberg recalled.

The orders came directly from National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, author of the pivotal clause that would later be known as “the Carter Doctrine”:

“Let our position be absolutely clear: An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”

“I did write that phrase and insisted that it be incorporated in the speech,” Brzezinski wrote in an email to Newsdesk.org. “It was designed to make it very clear that the Soviets should stay away from the Persian Gulf.”

The Soviet Union had sent troops into Afghanistan a month earlier, and the country was reeling from an oil shortage brought on by the hostage crisis in Iran.

Carter’s speech, presented to Congress on January 21, 1980, detailed the strategic importance of the Persian Gulf region and its petroleum resources to the U.S. economy.

“The region which is now threatened by Soviet troops in Afghanistan is of great strategic importance: It contains more than two-thirds of the world’s exportable oil. The Soviet effort to dominate Afghanistan has brought Soviet military forces to within 300 miles of the Indian Ocean and close to the Straits of Hormuz, a waterway through which most of the world’s oil must flow.”

Carter was drawing a line in the sand, but lacked the military force to back it up.

“We knew that we didn’t really have the teeth to back up the Carter Doctrine,” said Hertzberg. “We had nuclear weapons, but not the conventional forces to make it stick if the Soviets chose to challenge it.”

At the time, Persian Gulf countries were reluctant to accept U.S. military bases, so the U.S. needed a plan to get stateside troops deployed to the region quickly. Brzezinski decided to develop a rapid deployment force.

According to Brzezinski, “the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force was the product of a series of NSC (National Security Council) meetings initiated by me and organized by then Col. (now Gen.) William Odom to give some muscle to the Carter Doctrine.”

The idea of a military unit that could be sent anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice was not new, but with the Carter Doctrine, the project took on a new urgency.

Originally conceived of as a global force, the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force evolved into a unified command for the Persian Gulf, Central Asia and North Africa.

Petroleum continued to play a large role in the strategic milieu.

In 1982, the Washington Quarterly quoted the commanding officer, General Robert Kingston, saying that the task force’s basic mission was to “to assure the unimpeded flow of oil from the Arabian Gulf.”

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