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Tuesday, February 10, 2004  
Iraq, Year Zero

This astonishing passage comes from Said K. Aburish's virulent book The Rise, Corruption and Coming Fall of The House of Saud, published in 1994. It details an account of a meeting between the US and the Saudis on the eve of America's declaration of war on Iraq in 1990. According to Aburish, this story is recounted and verified by four separate and reliable sources. If true, it sheds light on America's reasons for starting both Gulf Wars. DO NOT SKIP THIS:

Dick Cheney went to Saudi Arabia accompanied by General Norman Schwarzkopf, two intelligence personnel and one middle east expert, and the Saudi Ambassador to the United States Prince Bandar, the son of the Saudi Minister of Defence and a favorite of his uncle, Fahd. The American ambassador to Saudi Arabia Charles Freeman joined the American group. The King (Fahd) met Cheney and his group accompanied by Crown Prince Abdullah, Defence Minister Sultan (the father of Bandar) and several members of the royal family.

There was no discussion of any initiative to solve the problem short of war, nor were the Americans, or Fahd, interested in the results of the efforts of Arab intermediaries. Using satellite maps, Dick Cheney showed King Fahd that 200, 000 Iraqi troops were poised to attack Saudi Arabia. Cheney said nothing about the extremely important facts of the small withdrawal of Iraqi troops and the pull-back of other Iraqi units from the Saudi border. Cheney asked Fahd to invite US troops to Saudi Arabia, 'to protect our friends', and the king nodded agreement, but the Crown Prince Abdullah wanted to hear more about the disposition of Iraqi troops, the intended use of American troops after they arrived and the conditions under which they would leave the country.

Cheney's answer to the points raised by Prince Abdullah was vague. Instead of answering them directly, he is reported to have addressed himself to Fahd and told him that there was a strong possibility that the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait was part of an Iraqi-Yemeni-PLO plot to destabilize the Arabian Peninsula and divide it among themselves. He added that, at that moment, there was nothing to stop the Iraqi army from marching to Riyadh. Cheney added that it was difficult to determine whether King Hussein (of Jordan) was part of this sinister partition plan.

This unbelievable story was told to me by two former American ambassadors to Saudi Arabia, a former member of the National Security Council and a disaffected member of the House of Saud. At this point, there are no documents to confirm it and it is impossible to establish whether the official US record of the meeting alludes to it, but there is little doubt that Cheney's total presentation reflected America's intentions to destroy Saddam [...T]he American attitude amounted to capitalizing on a situation they had created and forces the question of whether or not Saddam had been set up and the whole war was nothing more than a plan to eliminate the only Middle East power capable of challenging America's hegemony over the Arab world.

This may make more sense if you remember that, in the run-up to Saddam's invasion, Kuwait was not exactly the innocent bystander and victim as is often portrayed (the impression you would get, for example, by reading David Halberstam's War In a Time of Peace). On the contrary, Kuwaiti intransigence did not simply provoke Iraq - it forced Hussein to implement the one viable option left to him. In fact, Kuwaiti actions made confrontation with Iraq inevitable. After the Iran-Iraq war Kuwait started to pump oil from Rumailla, an oilfield barred from production because of a territorial dispute with Iraq. Consequently, the price of oil tumbled, which adversely affected the Iraqi economy, dependent on oil profits to rebuild its war-shattered infrastructure. Kuwait's actions reduced Iraq's gross income by $4 billion a year. On top of this, Kuwait demanded the immediate repayment of $8 billion lent to Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war, a lump sum Iraq could not afford, and Kuwait did not even need (with reserves of over $90 billion, and a profitable OPEC-endorsed oil economy). When Iraq admitted that it could not pay, Kuwait contacted Lloyds with the intention of selling Iraqi debt notes at a large discount: a potentially ruinous move for the Iraq economy. In a series of meetings running up to Saddam's order to invade, Kuwait refused to concede anything, despite Iraq's abject position in the negotiations.

Why did Kuwait behave like this? More importantly, why were they allowed to?

This is Aburish's account of the final, fateful meeting between Kuwait and Iraq, adjudicated with disastrous results by the idle Saudi King, Fahd:

The Iraqis demanded billions of dollars worth of compensation for the oil from the Rumailla field proceeds and a permanent border adjustment. The Kuwaitis would not give on either point and Fahd, behaving oddly, spent half an hour with the delegations and left his brother, the gentle but incompetent Prince Abdallah, to mediate. When news reached Fahd that the Kuwaiti and Iraqi positions appeared irreconcilable, all he did to settle the issue was to make a gesture the Iraqis were sure to refuse: he offered Iraq $1 billion in aid. The Iraqis, now angrier with Kuwait and smarting over Fahd's unattentiveness and the deliberately insulting offer, left without accepting it. War was 36 hours away.


Early last year, I went through all the options, tried to work out what was pushing the US war plan to its logical conclusion. I came up with a strange answer, after discarding many arguments proffered by the Anti-War mob as, if not actually irrelevant, then only part of a wider story. Or should I say instinct rather than "story"; a drive that was an energy, an objective with a self-propelling velocity, an objectile. Whatever it was, I decided it was more obtusely psychological than it was do with geopolitical ambition or national security. And then there's what I said here: do not "underestimate the strange dynamic that pulses between the White House and the Pentagon right now, the mysterious schisms and alliances and almost occult ferment of ideals and agendas at the heart of the administration, like an allegiance of evangelism and freemasonry." And there's what I said here: "this almost somnolent, stupid obsession with one regime at a time that’s a bit like a calm psychopathology that finally, inevitably, leads into barbaric violence" and "you have more respect for the worst Pentagon strategists (Rumsfeld, Wolfowtiz, the military chiefs) than the best Whitehouse diplomats and appeasers (Powell, Rice) because you can trust these blunt, dead-eyed bastards more than the oily politico sharks whose concern it is to disguise and obscure the naked and distinct workings of power for the further advantage of this very power (and its tentacles, reaching into the everyday, the psychological, the fiscal, the cultural…all forms of capital, all types of investment, financial and libidinal…)." (No, this isn't Oliver Craner: The Greatest Hits or The Final Chapter: How I Became a Hawk BUT...)

I still concur with most of that too, but it's easier to clarify now. Let's pretend, for a moment, that I don't know what's going on, that I don't have my own direct line to the White House and No. 10, that I don't have special dispensation in Riyadh, that I didn't spend the whole of last summer trekking mountains on the Afghan/Pakistan border with a mountain goat and the mujahedin. I mean, suspend belief just for a second...then how might I attempt to explicate motive...

<<< December, say, 2001.

You have Afghanistan, and between your position and the frontline of power in Pakistan (at least to the extent that you can control it) you have al-Qaeda, Taliban and mujahideen fighters jammed in the Islamist heartlands. You have the Saudis in your paw, but, on the other hand, they look increasingly vulnerable to internal dissidence, Islamist opposition, and anti-House of Saud terrorism; they are, therefore, unpredictable. Their obscene power, exerted through the exploitation of cheap oil prices, is increasingly untenable and resented. Because of links and schisms with Wahhabism and Islamist terrorism, Saudi Arabia is a prinicipality about to be torn apart by its own contradictions. Furthermore, the royal family is as stupid, ignorant, corrupt and lazy as ever. Certainly, no longer a stable Middle East base for US interests. Iran, also, looks vulnerable to internal disruption, a call for democracy and greater freedom the mullahs are increasingly unable to contain. What happens if that edifice topples? Meanwhile, Iraq remains stuck in the middle - oil-rich, crippled by sanctions, reverting to gangsterism: from Ba'ath despotism to Hussein mafia rule. On the horizon looms the rule of Uday and Quasay: two psychopaths for the price of one. Needless waste of desperately needed fuel reserves. More internal suppression and oppression. More hawking for weapons on the black market (North Korea), more covert supplies (Syria) and more shady sanctions-busting trade arrangements (France, Russia). On the other hand, the state and its army remains ineffectual, still paralysed after the first Gulf War (the same reason why saudi Arabia is debt-ridden and continues to default like crazy). And, more to the point, while Saddam remains in power - toying with international weapons inspectors, thumbing his nose at the West and, in partcular, the Bush Dynasty - it's a humiliation and exposes an essential position of impotence, the trap of bloodless, disproportionate checks and balances. And above even that, exists as an incitement, an example, erroneously, to Islamist jihadists, who may not admire the man and his secular state politics of yore, but recognise a fellow anti-American warrior, enough to dispel difference for the time being (remember bin Laden on a tape smuggled to Al-jazeera sometime in 2001; no fan of Hussein before, but managing to include Iraq on his jihad list).

And so, there you go, a rational case for war in Iraq - easily slotted into the working frame of the War on Terror (because, in fact, in the end, it fed it).

This, of course, seems a particularly urgent argument today, with that bomb blast in Iskandariya as well as the discovery of this supposed al-Qaeda-related plot to incite Shia-Sunni conflict. The latter, if true, is an appalling plan and illustrates the utterly debased tactics the Islamist cells are prepared to deploy in their misguided and pernicious jihad. Planning to ignite civil and religious conflict and deliberately targeting civilians is, I say, in a rather different league to launching smart bombs and laser-guided missiles (at State targets) which, in design at least, aim at 100% accuracy and limited collateral. Islamist jihad tactics have more in common with the covert tactics of Nixon and Reagan's outlaw foreign policies: that is, the creation of maximum chaos and conflict at the expense of the civilian population, who inevitably suffer the worst of it (e.g. Cambodia, Chile, Nicaragua, etc etc.) Whatever you think about the current American occupation of Iraq - and there are plenty of objections, for example: the already corrupt distribution of business contracts, the elections fudge, incidents of military brutality, etc. - the fact is, it is absolutely in American as well as Iraqi interest to regain civil order, a working economy, and implement some kind of semi-self-sufficient democratic process as soon as possible. And there's nothing more stupid than, at this time, rejecting the whole process because of supposed US manipulation, e.g. "it'll just be an American puppet regime because they would never allow real democracy" - well fine, of course, but isn't democracy easier to reform once it actually exists, in whatever form? What are you objecting to - a future potentiality that may not come to pass anyway? Because these arguments, weirdly, underestimate the extreme dangers that Iraq (and, by extension, the Middle East) faces as the country emerges from decades of Ba'ath rule. The "al-Qaeda" document seized admits that "the resistance against US occupation is struggling to recruit Iraqis," and the plan to radicalize Sunnis - by attacking Shia targets and provoking a Shia backlash against Sunnis (note that Iskandariya is a Shia town) - smacks of desperation. Which is excellent news, and reveals the very opposite of what today's bomb suggests: rather than consolidating forces and picking up momentum, the Iraqi resistance is, in fact, on its last legs, a dwindling coalition desperate to retain its presence by importing any willing jihadi fighters. They may not have done their worst as yet, but they cannot hope to gain any more than they already have (a couple of scalps and a lot of dead Iraqis).

2:20 PM

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