A Cold War Legacy of Persian Gulf Conflict: This Means War

By Jennifer Huang | World Power III: Geopolitics

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Cold War Legacies

In 1983, under President Ronald Reagan, the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force became the Central Command, the instrument of American military policy in the region, and capable of drawing up troops from all branches of the armed services.

“Each of the four services provides personnel on an as-needed basis, depending on the requirements of the mission,” explained Central Command spokesman Commander Dan Gage in an email correspondence. “In other words, there is no set number of personnel who are assigned to Central Command.”

The Central Command was never used during the ’80s to directly confront Soviet ambition in Afghanistan, that crucial access route to Persian Gulf and Central Asian oil and natural gas reserves. Such matters were left to the Islamist mujahedeen, who, according to the CIA World Factbook, were trained and armed by the United States, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and others.

According to its website, the Central Command’s activities in the ’80s included helping put down Libyan-sponsored insurgencies in Chad and Sudan.

The agency was given the chance to truly demonstrate its military prowess in 1992 with Operation Desert Storm, and, later, the ongoing enforcement of “no-fly zones” over Iraq throughout the ’90s.

In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, Osama bin Laden became a household name, with CNN.com running an article that linked his new stance against the United States to Operation Desert Storm.

He and his supporters in Afghanistan’s Taliban regime became the new targets of Central Command’s tactical and strategic planners through Operation Enduring Freedom.

The defeat of the Taliban in November and December 2001 was just the first phase in an ongoing conflict with bin Laden’s al Qaeda terror network and the remaining Taliban and sympathetic mujahedeen fighters in the region.

In 2003, the Central Command has been called on again, and Iraq is once more in the crosshairs.

And the Central Command’s mission remains unchanged. Its website states plainly the significance of the energy resources in the territory under its jurisdiction, in words that echo the Carter Doctrine:

“The region contains more than 65 percent of the world’s oil reserves. Its security is vital to the global economy … Ships navigating these waters & carry the petroleum products that fuel the economies of our European and Asian allies.”

General Tommy Franks, in an April 2001 interview with the American Forces Press Service, concurs:

“One of our responsibilities — in fact, one of our objectives — is to maintain access to these energy resources at the same time that we maintain access to markets in the region.”

Supply and Demand

The Bush administration sees dependence on the region’s resources growing in the United States as well, stating in its National Energy Policy in May 2001 that “by 2020, Gulf oil producers are projected to supply between 54 and 67 percent of the world’s oil … This region will remain vital to U.S. interests.”

The policy report, based on the findings of Vice President Dick Cheney’s National Energy Policy Development Group, predicts that U.S. oil consumption will increase 33 percent in the next 20 years and that natural gas demand will rise more than 50 percent.

Domestic petroleum production, it says, will decline.

The document reads: “On our present course, America 20 years from now will import nearly two out of every three barrels of oil — a condition of increased dependency on foreign powers that do not always have America’s best interests at heart.”

Of those foreign powers, Iraq stands out as one of the most problematic.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy website, “Iraq contains 112 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, the second largest in the world (behind Saudi Arabia) along with roughly 220 billion barrels of probable and possible resources. Iraq’s true resource potential may be far greater than this, however, as the country is relatively unexplored due to years of war and sanctions … Iraq’s oil production costs are amongst the lowest in the world, making it a highly attractive oil prospect.”

Despite the sanctions in place in the wake of the first Gulf War, in 2002 the U.S. imported an average of 449,000 barrels of oil per day from Iraq, although the amount dropped precipitously toward the latter half of the year.

That’s about twice as much as the U.S. imports from Kuwait, and a third of the 1.5 million barrels per day from Saudi Arabia.

Total oil imported from the Persian Gulf is 2.24 million barrels of oil per day, almost 24 percent of total US imports.

This Means War?

Michael Klare, a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and the author of “Resource Wars” (Metropolitan Books, May 2001), says all of these numbers add up to war on Iraq.

“This is about dominating the region,” Klare said. “Dominating the region as long as there’s a drop of oil there; then when the oil’s gone, we’ll just pull up and leave.”

Although Iraq is not a major supplier now, its buried riches are especially attractive in the instability brought on by the War on Terror.

With Saudi involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks creating a latent insecurity in that country’s supply, he said, it makes sense to have a friendly regime in Iraq.

“We want Iraq as a backup,” Klare said. “Only one country has the capacity to substantially increase oil production in the event of a Saudi collapse: Iraq.”

Michael Lind, a fellow at the New America Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based policy organization, has a different perspective.

According to Lind, the war isn’t about oil, terrorism or weapons of mass destruction. Rather, “it’s to create U.S. military hegemony both in the Middle East and in the world.”

Lind said that current foreign policy is dominated by Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz, who see the war “as a precedent for the use of American force in preventive wars, to topple not only imminent threats, but speculative threats on the United States.”

In this scenario of military domination, oil is a means to an end, “a weapon, more or less … Oil plays a role in their thinking, but it’s primarily a strategic, military, diplomatic role,” Lind said.

A U.S. victory in Iraq, he said, would conceivably lessen its dependence on Saudi petroleum reserves and send a message to other unfriendly states in the area like Syria, Libya and Iran.

Charles Pena, Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, said that the U.S. drive to “shape the world in its own image” is a factor in the buildup to war, and that the presence of oil deposits is pivotal.

“I don’t think we’d be having this very same conversation if the country in question were in sub-Saharan Africa, sitting on top of nothing but sand and dirt,” he said, noting Bush’s softer stance toward resource-poor North Korea. “You can’t ignore oil as a factor in the region, because oil shapes and colors our entire thinking about why the region is so important to U.S. national security.”

But Pena said that to prioritize oil in foreign policy is “a misplaced concept,” because no regime would refuse American dollars for its oil.

He cited a speech by Rumsfeld at the Hoover Institute (broadcast on CNN on February 25, 2003) wherein the Secretary said, “The reality is that if you own oil, you want to sell it – And it’s going to get purchased by somebody. And the United States will have plenty of oil, as will other Western European countries, in my view.”

Pena said that Bush’s main concern is Iraqi chemical and biological weapons falling into the hands of terrorists, but that that logic is flawed as well.

“[Saddam Hussein] hasn’t given them to Palestinian terrorists to use against Israel, a country he hates as much as the United States,” he said. “Al Qaeda’s been around for that long as well, so he’s had ample opportunity to arm al Qaeda with these weapons.”

Since there’s no evidence of this, Pena said, “there’s not a need for the Central Command to be involved in that region of the world.”

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