Iraq – a foreign policy perspective…


11:20 am - January 30th 2010

by Unity    


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Much as I’ve enjoyed Flying Rodent’s wittily insouciant commentary on the Chilcott Inquiry, you’ll see from the comments that it hasn’t persuaded anyone to stop raking over the various theories and conjecture about the whys and wherefores of the Iraq War.

The problem here, as with almost everything else that’s been written on the subject in the last six years, is that the majority of people expressing opinions on this issue don’t really understand how foreign policy actually ‘works’ and how it different it is from domestic politics. What they do, for perfectly understandable reasons, is try their best to make sense what they see in Iraq, and in Afghanistan, Israel/Palestine, Zimbabwe and anywhere else you’d care to mention, by applying their understanding of domestic politics and policy-making to the situation.

This, as you might imagine, often results in them misreading or misinterpreting what actually going on and, more importantly, why?

Take the Vietnam War, for example.

If you ask most people for their view of the Vietnam War, they’d agree with the proposition that it was America’s most significant foreign policy setback of the post-World War II era…

…and they’d be wrong!

Domestically, the Vietnam War a disaster for the US. It spawned civil unrest. It put a severe dent in the American people’s self image for a generation and left behind a legacy of social, medical, economic and political problems, especially in regards to the status of war veterans, some of which still haven’t quite been satisfactorily resolved.

And, of course, America ultimate lost the war and were forced out of Vietnam by what should have been, on paper, a massively inferior military force.

As bad as all that sounds, the Vietnam War was, in terms of US foreign policy, a qualified success – No, really, it was.

Yes, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos did all fall to Communist forces but none of these countries were ever of any great strategic value or importance to the US, anyway.

What made them important at the time was, in part, their symbolic value in terms of the America’s opposition of the spread of communism. More important than that, however, was the dominant position held by Domino Theory in US foreign policy circles from the 1950’s right through to the end of the 1980’s.

American foreign policy was dominated, at the time of the Vietnam, by the sincere belief that if the spread of communism wasn’t halted in Indochina then it would continue to spread outwards across South-East Asia and overtake countries in which the US and its allies, such as the UK, did have a major strategic interest; Malaysia, Indonesia, India, the Philippines and  even Australia.

America may have lost the Vietnam War, but the war did – as far as the US were concerned – stop the spread of communism and confine it to just the three countries that did fall, Vietnam, Lao and Cambodia, and that is why the Vietnam War was, for the US, a qualified foreign policy success.

Putting the Vietnam War into is proper perspective as a foreign policy even not only helps to illustrate the difference between the thinking and assumptions that underpin foreign policy and domestic politics but it is also an essential step on the path towards making sense of the Iraq War and, more generally, US foreign policy in the Middle East.

For starters,  getting the right perspective on Vietnam helps to make it clear that it is, in fact, the Iranian Revolution of 1979 that was, and still is, by far the most serious foreign policy reversal experienced by the US since World War II.

When Iran fell to its present theocratic regime, the US lost one of its two most important allies in a region of critical strategic importance, not just in terms of its oil resource but also because its proximity to what was, at the time, Soviet Central Asia. Iran was one of America’s key windows on a region that played home to the Soviet space programme and almost all of their key weapons development and testing facilities, including their nuclear weapons facilities.

Since 1979, the driving force behind US foreign policy in the Middle East has been that of regaining the strategic influence it lost when Iran fell under theocratic control. With the end of the Cold War, it became the pre-eminent issue for many US foreign policy analysts.

This explains why the US backed Iraq in its war with Iran in the 1980’s and why it supplied weapons and other military equipment to Saddam Hussein, including equipment that Iraq needed to develop its chemical weapons capabilities.

This, together with the fall of communism in Russia and Eastern Europe, almost certainly goes a long way to explaining how and why Saddam Hussein misjudged the intentions of the US in 1991 and launched his attack on Kuwait.

The bien pensant view of Saddam as nothing more than deranged pantomime tyrant has no explanatory power whatsoever nor does it reflect the fact that Saddam’s track record as an oppressor was based almost entirely on political calculations designed to bolster and protect his own power bases. The attacks mounted on the Kurdish population of Northern Iraq during the late 1980s, particularly the chemical weapons attack on Halabja, which are commonly and emotively mislabelled as acts of genocide were, in reality, fairly acts of political violence and nothing more.

Saddam Hussein was nothing if not a banal dictator, after the fashion of Stalin, and his attack on Kurdish population in the North and, later on, the Marsh Arabs in the South, were not motivated by ethnic or religious differences. They were simply a matter of putting down his political opponents.

What does help to explain the attack on Kuwait is both the support given to Iraq, by the US, in its war with Iran and the situation in Eastern Europe and Russia at the time of the attack, a combination of factors that Saddam would have misread, leading his to believe that the US would not actively support or take part in any military action to remove Iraqi forces from Kuwait because it would be preoccupied with Eastern Europe and would interpret the annexation of Kuwait as a necessary precursor to another Iraqi assault on Iran.

As bad judgement calls go, that’s a lulu. Not only did the US lead the charge to remove Iraqi forces from Kuwait but it also handed the US an alternative route to reasserting the strategic influence in the region that it had enjoyed up until 1979.

If the US could not engineer the reversal of the Iranian Revolution then it could at least work towards the next best thing, a stable, US-aligned regime in Iraq.

Once you get to that point, then its clear that the demise of Saddam Hussein was only ever a matter of when and how.

George HW Bush could, in theory, have thrown US forces behind the Marsh Arab revolt that followed the first Iraq War but, ex-CIA man that he is, he correctly calculated that the removal of Saddam by a popular uprising would inevitably lead to the installation of a Shi’a dominated, pro-Iranian regime in Baghdad and the secession of the Kurdish North, kicking up a major shitstorm with the strategically important Turks.

Clinton tried to contain Saddam and effectively starve him out, in the hope that his own military forces might turn on him and create the opportunity to engineer his removal without the risk, again, of populist Shi’a uprising.

And George W Bush, as we all know, took the direct route of invading the country, buoyed no doubt by the prospect of recouping some of the cost of the invasion in revenues from Iraq’s oil reserves and by the need to put on a good show of US military power – after the country had had its nose bloodied by Al Qaeda – of the kind that could not be really be delivered in Afghanistan.

In purely military terms, Iraq was always going to be the better target for a large-scale show of US military power, simply because it offered both an opposing military force and a range of battlefield terrain that suited a US military that had been built up, organised and equipped to fight Soviet military forces on the plains of Eastern Europe. As a matter of horses for courses, any US general would much prefer to fight a head-to-head battle with an opposing [largely] professional army than take on a mixed force of guerillas and other irregulars in the mountainous terrain of Afghanistan.

That’s pretty much it for Iraq, I’m afraid.

Everything else, from appeals to humanitarian concern for the Iraq people and the doctrine of liberal interventionism to conjectures about secret plots to appropriate Iraq’s oil reserves, are not much more than either justifications sold to domestic audiences who can’t help but try to make sense of things in terms of their understanding of domestic politics, or a bit of gravy on top of the real objective, which, for the US, has always been that finding a way to wind back the clock in the Middle East in order to regain the strategic influence it lost in 1979.

At that, I’ll leave you all with a question to chew over in comments – what, if anything, does this analysis also have to tell us about the extent, if any, of Israeli influence over US foreign policy and how and why it operates – if, of course, it operates at all?

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'Unity' is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He also blogs at Ministry of Truth.
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Reader comments


Vietnam was a marked success. Irag, within the above parameters, is also a strategic success. Israeli influence upon US foreign-policy has been crucial and clear, religious and political principles, as well as the geographical importance, all contribute to anti-Arab, anti-UN, “we can be the next empire” type attitudes and actions.

In future years, when we have grown-up a bit, maybe citizens will start to laugh at a time when people killed each other for a philosophy. For economies, for foreign-policy, for strategic advantage, for a pre-occupation with political ideologies. Idealistic, individualistic, utopian (all words never allowed in warring political discourse).

I give liberalism a bad name.

An interesting analysis, but one ultimately based on the notion that politicians think like strategists and act in accordance with grand strategic plans.

US presidents, in particular, don’t. No sooner are they established in office than they have to worry about the mid-terms. Then there’s re-election or the succession.

Far from secretly plotting to restore US imperium in the region, George W. Bush – pre-9/11 – seemed to have no interest in the wider world at all. He was a near-isolationist by temperament.

Sure, the Project for a New American Century crowd were probably thinking along the lines you describe, but Bush would have ignored them, the whole middle east and pretty much everything else if those planes hadn’t flown into the twin towers.

‘As bad as all that sounds, the Vietnam War was, in terms of US foreign policy, a qualified success – No, really, it was.’

Eh?

‘What made them important at the time was, in part, their symbolic value in terms of the America’s opposition of the spread of communism…’

Symbolic to whom? You are teetering on the brink of postmodernism here.

‘…More important than that, however, was the dominant position held by Domino Theory in US foreign policy circles from the 1950’s right through to the end of the 1980’s.’

Ah, symbolic among ‘US foreign policy circles’. So not – as an actual victory against communism would have to be – in international circles.

‘America may have lost the Vietnam War, but the war did – as far as the US were concerned – stop the spread of communism and confine it to just the three countries that did fall, Vietnam, Lao and Cambodia, and that is why the Vietnam War was, for the US, a qualified foreign policy success’

What do you mean by ‘as far as the US is concerned’? ‘Symbolically’ again – and if so, symbolically to whom? Or in actual, measurable, historical terms?

If you are referring to an actual, real-life victory then it sounds like you’ve swallowed the Domino Theory yourself because unless you think communism *was* going to spread from country to country then the US stopped nothing. This is to confuse an imaginary victory against a non-existant international threat with a very real arse-kicking by pyjama-clad peasants.

If you are mean that America simply *thinks* it won an ideological battle against international communism then who among the US population actually *thinks* this? Certainly not those who fought in Vietnam and certainly not those ‘in foreign policy circles’ who took the US to war with Iraq – twice – in order to wipe away the shame of defeat in Vietnam.

And if the Vietnam War was meant to send out a message to other countries not to turn to communism then the protest movement sent out the message that America had no will to launch another war – even on their own doorstep.

@2: “Bush would have ignored them, the whole middle east and pretty much everything else if those planes hadn’t flown into the twin towers.”

C’mon. Try this:

“CRAWFORD, Texas — Paul O’Neill, President Bush’s Treasury secretary in the first two years of his presidency, says the Bush administration was planning to invade Iraq long before the Sept. 11 attacks and used questionable intelligence to justify the war.”
http://www.usatoday.com/news/washington/2004-01-11-oneill-iraq_x.htm

Unity,

Perhaps you are right about foreign policy. It appears to be incomprehensible. A defeat is a victory, South East Asia was saved by losing, attacking Iraq is down to not attacking Iran, oil is, or is not, the motivator (which paragraph is your authorial voice?) :

…buoyed no doubt by the prospect of recouping some of the cost of the invasion in revenues from Iraq’s oil reserves….

or this:

…to conjectures about secret plots to appropriate Iraq’s oil reserves…

?

“George W. Bush – pre-9/11 – seemed to have no interest in the wider world at all. He was a near-isolationist by temperament.”

He never had any interest in other countries, in a literal (not even knowing they existed sense), but his ‘cronies’, for want of a better word, Dick and Don, were part of his dads regime. Hugely pro-Israel , massive military investments (personally and professionally), and a belief in American imperial or to a lesser extent world-regulators (to nations who could be bought off) or invaders (to nations who disagreed).

Dick and Dom have had a strategic plan for years.

Well, if it really all was about “stealing Iraq’s oil” then, um, having won, we’d be stealing Iraq’s oil, wouldn’t we?

Instead we seem to be ponying up the world price for it just as we did before.

I can see other arguments that it was about the oil (bad idea to have oil revenues in hte hands of someone like Saddam, perhaps that the increased development of the fields now will lower the global price etc etc etc) but the direct one of “we want to steal the stuff” doesn’t seem to make sense, given that we’re still buying it off them,.

Unity,

One of the best posts I have read for ages.

Regarding Israel it’s my view they are linked together as closely as Great Britain and Ireland. That’s not to say the US might not tire of the effort required in upholding the relationship. But without Israel the USA’s interests in the midle-east would be vulnerable to the whims of authoritarian leaders and dictatorships which are in themselves prone to radical change.

9. George W Potter

Tim, what I think you’re missing is that, though we’re still paying full price for Iraqi oil, the companies that made money from redeveloping the oil infrastructure (and which still retain profitable interests in Iraqi oil) were US based. Essentially taxpayers paid for the cost of a war which enabled the friends of the Bush administration to make large profits. The US as a country may not have benefited financially but a few important people within it certainly did.

Interesting – but then you coulkd argue that Saddam was the ‘New Noriega’; a former strongman who was no longer useful to US, and had to be got rid of.

What ever the US intentions for the war in Iraq. US big oil have not as yet been the major winners. Chinese and British firms have been the major winners with access to the best reserves and exploration rights. The oil reserves in Iraq should be highly profitable because they are close to the surface and easy to extract. Production costs for Iraqi oil will be around $1-1.50 per barrel, that includes all exploration, oilfield development and production costs. North Sea production costs are $12-16 per barrel. Compare that to the spot prices which seem to be in a range of $70-80 per barrel. What Unity could have mentioned is the wider US geopolitical interests that would be served from the potential of Iraqi oil to break the power of OPEC.

Shatterface is pretty much correct on Vietnam. It could be argued to be percieved as a foreign policy success by many in American foreign policy circles, especially at the time, but since the domino theory was nonsense it wasn’t an actual success in achieving actual foreign policy objectives.

13. Bored of East London

Hmm. Shatterface and Tim make very good points.

Unity starts off by telling people they don’t know about foreign policy, and proposes to dish out a lecture. In which – as the above comnenters note – is heavily flawed.

This would be the same Unity that periodically proposes to dole out equally ignorant lectures on political theory.

And again, it’s several thousand words long.

I must say, Unity’s propensity to dole-out lengthy self-satisfied monologues on subjects he doesn’t have any control over is getting rather tiring.

Wait a minute! What about the “loss” of China in 1949? That was a massive foreign policy bugger for Truman.

While the Domino theory was held by many in the US Defence community, it was not something that LBJ believed in that much. He escalated the war due mainly to two factors as far as I can tell:

1. US international image i.e. how would it look if they just left
2. Political pressure from Republicans like Goldwater

The Gulf of Tonkin incident (now known to have been somewhat distorted by the NSA) provided the opportunity for Johnson to sell the escalation to the American people.

You can listen to some of his phone calls on Vietnam during his presidency in this documentary:

http://video.pbs.org/video/1337874292/

Well worth a watch.

Oh, and why has nobody mentioned Iran–Contra?

Oh, and if you really want to get inside the neoconservative mindset, I suggest checking out Adam Curtis’ blog at the BBC:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/adamcurtis/

Gould @2:

Sure, the Project for a New American Century crowd were probably thinking along the lines you describe, but Bush would have ignored them, the whole middle east and pretty much everything else if those planes hadn’t flown into the twin towers.

I’m fairly sure he wouldn’t have ignored his: Vice President, Defence Secretary, Undersecretary of Defence, and brother if they were all telling him to to the same thing, which would make him look cool. The PNAC crowd makes them sound like fringe players: they were in fact the surviving members of Bush Regime I coupled with the man who oversaw the election his brother came to power in. Bush Regime II was a PNAC project all the way through.

Shatterface @3, also others:

Unity hasn’t mistated or misunderstood foreign policy, but he has been a little unclear.

1. Foreign Policy Objectives

… got truncated by a button press, let’s try that again.

1. Foreign Policy Objectives
o Win
o … Huh. Define “win conditions”

2. Win Conditions for US foreign policy in the sixties and seventies:
o Keep control of oil (for further details, see 1967, 1973)
o Keep an eye on Russia and points Asian, cain’t trust dem gooks.
o Stop the Godless Commies from salami-slicing their way to WORLD DOMINATION!!!

3. War in Vietnam can now be assessed against these win conditions.
o Didn’t do much about oil
o Kept a good eye on Russia and points Asian: concentrated all the intelligence targets in the area into one theatre, which the CIA were in for entrepreneurial reasons anyway.
o The Godless Commies didn’t salami-slice their way to WORLD DOMINATION!!! that decade.

It satisfies the win conditions; it is therefore a qualified foreign policy success, even while being a catastrophic domestic, political, economic and military failure. Now you might well argue that those same win conditions could have been satisfied without a war in Vietnam, but that doesn’t prevent the war having fulfilled those win conditions.

What I’m getting at here is that you’re right the US establishment were deluded about both communism and religion, but that doesn’t matter. The only relevant criteria for assessing a foreign policy success is whether it achieved what the person doing it wanted it to achieve. If what they wanted was bloody stupid, they still succeeded in getting it, they just shouldn’t have bothered.

And Unity’s right about Iraq. The foreign policy objectives held by the USA when the war was launched (oil interests, religious crusading and strategic presence/force projection in the Persian Gulf: basically the PNAC shopping list) have been admirably fulfilled by the war. Yes, some of the money has gone to British, Chinese and Russian companies, but a vast percentage of it has gone to US firms including Halliburton and the mercenary companies like Blackwater [1].

Force projection and, therefrom, strategic influence: they moved a massive force of men and materiel into the Gulf area, and parked them there long enough to make sure absolutely every goddamtowelhead knew that pissing off America would bring down the force of God’s Own Thunder [2]. In the process they got a chance for a run out against forces they could find, in places where, and thus beat, rather than ones that hid and were generally unsporting. It all happening in a nice, flat place with lots of sunlight just meant you could get really good video. Foreign policy objective achieved.

Religious zealotry: foreign policy objective achieved as soon as Bush stepped anywhere near a microphone.

US foreign policy has, I suspect, experienced a doctrinal shift of late, from ‘loony’ towards “Uh, guys, we seem to have spent all our money blowing up your house, could we get a loan repayment holiday please?” Under those circumstances, being committed to two wars you can’t win a long way away, when you can’t extract yourself without losing huge amounts of face, looks like a foreign policy disaster. But assessed against the objectives of the men who got us here, it really does fulfill their requirements.

[1] Heard a rumour they’d rebranded?

[2] They do, indeed, know this now. That’s why there’s so many more radical, sucidally desperate insurgents; they know, now, that there is only one way to avoid becoming subject states. They’re equally deluded to the US foreign policy community; America cannot afford an empire. But both sides know, with the same absolute certainty, that they are hated because they are righteous.

John Q Publican,

I think you and Unity are giving too much a a free pass to foreign policy apologists. On the Vietnam issue, you say that the outcome viz a viz the objective of stopping the goddam commies from salami slicing the world could have been fulfilled either by having the war, or not having the war.

This is, in technical terms, known as ‘having your cake and eating it’.

Family Guy:
Brian: Peter, this is the site of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Peter: Oh, so Saddam Hussein did this?
Brian: No.
Peter: The Iraqi army?
Brian: No.
Peter: Some guys from Iraq?
Brian: No.
Peter: That one lady who visited Iraq that one time?
Brian: No. Peter, Iraq had nothing to do with this. It was a bunch of Saudi Arabians, Lebanese, and Egyptians financed by a Saudi Arabian guy living in Afghanistan and sheltered by Pakistanis.
Peter: So…you’re saying we need to invade Iran?

ukliberty,

Brian: Correct! When can you start in the Foreign Office?

what, if anything, does this analysis also have to tell us about the extent, if any, of Israeli influence over US foreign policy and how and why it operates

Given that the strategic/military relationship between the US and Israel dates back to the same decade in which the Iranian powerbase collapsed, the answer seem to be that clearly, Israel is a subject state being controlled by the US in order to further the latter’s objectives in the region, with no more political agency than the puppet regime in Afghanistan or that in Iran before 1979. Although personally I would trace the same conclusion from American desire to contain the Nasser regime in Egypt in the early seventies, your Iran hypothesis alos has merit (and offers no contradiciton).

MarinaS

Israel is a subject state controlled by the US? I think you’ll find if you did real research rather than latched onto whatever media hype attempts to breach the limits of hyperbole, Israel has often acted without US consent or knowledge. Entebbe was a classic example, as was the raid on Osirek in 1981. How is Israel a puppet of the US when it clearly has a mind of its own when it comes to launching strikes? And if this was the case, wouldn’t the US simply be able to click its fingers and stop settlement growth? Oh, no, wait, they can’t. Israel has a mind of its own. Do you have any idea of Israel’s power on its own, without anyone else. Many cancer treatments, mobile phones and computers would cease to operate as Israeli technology keeps these going, among many other technologies and innovations Israel has pioneered.

Unity,

Nothing quite like starting off a post with an incredibly patronising statement like that.

On Vietnam and the Domino Theory, to say that it worked because only Lao, Cambodia and Vietnam fell to Communism, which is what you appear to be saying, is nonsense. I cannot believe that this was the US government’s intention or expectation when they engaged ground forces. They resolutely did not achieve their primary aims.

Yes – Indonesia, Thailand etc did not fall to communism; but then the chances of that happening were remote in the first place.

Thomas:

I was referring to the general tone of debate in the wider public sphere, where an understanding of the difference between foreign policy and domestic politics is very much the exception rather than the rule.

The audience here is rather atypical, which I had thought most regular readers would appreciate.

Unity,

The problem here, as with almost everything else that’s been written on the subject in the last six years, is that the majority of people expressing opinions on this issue don’t really understand how foreign policy actually ‘works’ and how it different it is from domestic politics. What they do, for perfectly understandable reasons, is try their best to make sense what they see in Iraq, and in Afghanistan, Israel/Palestine, Zimbabwe and anywhere else you’d care to mention, by applying their understanding of domestic politics and policy-making to the situation.

I’m not sure I’m doing that – I’m merely trying to make sense of something that seems senseless. That is, for the reasons given, was going to war justifiable? It seems not*. So why are the people to whom we delegate such great power apparently unable to justify its use? And what can we do about it?

* Last Friday, Blair’s raison du jour was, in essence, that the Bush regime wanted to give someone, anyone, a bloody nose for 9/11, to show that the USA could not be struck without it striking (blindly) back, the Blair regime wanted to be part of it, and Iraq was an expedient target…

Unity – fair enough. On second thoughts I was being a little OTT. Shouldn’t post before 9am!

Surely Vietnam could only be called even a qualified success if it had been established beyond doubt that the Domino Theory was true and that only US invasion of Vietnam prevented Chinese dominance of South East Asia.

Robert MacNamara recently cast some doubt on the former point in The Fog of War when he mentioned meeting up with a North Vietnamese general decades later. The General said that he’d been astonished by the American assumption that they had wanted to ally with the Chinese. He pointed out that the entire history of Vietnam is essentially the struggle against Chinese dominance and the only thing in the world that could possibly have persuaded the Vietnamese to let the Chinese in was a massive invasion by an overwhelmingly technically superior first world army…

Vietnam might actually have been a better bulwark against Chinese dominance if the Americans had made nice instead of feeding a developing nation and a generation of their sons into the mincer.

Maybe that’s true, maybe it isn’t. But even if it isn’t I still don’t see why the American defeat in Vietnam cowed the Chinese into abandoning its ambitions in South East Asia.

Isn’t it at least possible that the Domino Theory was, in fact flawed and that Vietnam was, in foreign policy terms as well as in domestic ones, a fiasco from start to finish.

The lesson to be drawn in respect of Iraq would then have been, if Saddam is a menace, what could we do, short of invading that would embolden the Iraqi people (who hated Saddam) to overthrow him. (Hint, the answer is unlikely to be “starve the country half to death through the oil for food programme”)


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  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    Iraq – a foreign policy perspective… http://bit.ly/aQMaa6

  2. George Allwell

    Liberal Conspiracy » Iraq – a foreign policy perspective… http://bit.ly/aQMaa6

  3. Allan Siegel

    a foreign policy perspective; straight no chaser – Liberal Conspiracy » #Iraq http://bit.ly/aQMaa6

  4. Mike Power

    Yeah, Unity, we know nothing, we are all idiots. YOU the man. You know everything. Yawn. Put a fucking sock in it, man! http://bit.ly/bPlGFf

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