The U.S. Global Footprint

Why Bush Wants to Attack Iraq

Iraq oil
At work in Basra, Iraq, Dec. 11, 2001 (Photo: AFP).

Strategy is about where to compete and how to compete. So where does Iraq fit into the Bush administration’s strategy for fighting the war against terrorism? What is the value of a head-on military conflict with Saddam Hussein, a tyrant despotic enough to use chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons? Can doing this help end Islamist terrorism?

Playing the situation out, it becomes apparent how eliminating Saddam is just one part of the Bush administration’s long-term strategy for fighting the war against terrorism.

If the Americans occupy Iraq, they will undoubtedly control how much oil Iraq produces. As a result of the United Nations sanctions, Iraq today pumps around two-thirds of its pre-Gulf War capacity of 3 million barrels per day (MBPD). The U.S. control of Iraq’s current potential production, which is roughly 11 percent of OPEC’s current production of 27.5 MBPD, will deny OPEC and the Saudi leaders the ability to dictate marginal changes in world oil supply. Developing Iraq’s vast potential in the medium term can only increase the American leverage over world oil prices.

So here is the link: Islamist terrorism is financed and spread by revenue earned from petroleum exports. So the Bush strategy is to control Iraq, break OPEC’s stranglehold on oil markets, force oil prices down, and thus deny Islamist terrorism access to petroleum financing. The Bush administration is not just going after Saddam and his weapons of mass destruction. It is going after OPEC and the global financial infrastructure that supports terrorism. 

So what happens after the United States occupies Iraq? It is not so much what may happen as much as what surrounding countries such as Iran and Syria think could happen. The two countries, high on the State Department’s list of supporters of terrorism, would have just seen the United States whip the meanest thug in the neighborhood. Bush rattled Iran with his “axis of evil” comment, and Iranian strategists already talk of “feeling encircled” by American troops in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and a Russia that is no longer a reliable ally. The presence of thousands of American troops in Iraq would only heighten Iranian anxiety about what Bush could do—say, destabilize the Iranian government or even invade outright. But for now, Bush does not need to do anything. Just being the 800-pound gorilla next door could be enough to force the changes he wants.

Syria, another cradle of terrorism, would face a similar challenge. Encircled by American troops in Iraq and Turkey, and of course by Israel, it will be compelled to end support for such terrorist groups as Hezbollah. Israel may also force Syria into a tight negotiating corner over the Golan Heights.

Such moves have the power to significantly alter the balance of power in West Asia. And in the long run, permanent guarantees of cheap oil will put the world economy on a sound footing. But such one-dimensional military planning presents a host of problems. First, if Saddam Hussein feared that he actually would be killed, he might use weapons of mass destruction as a last-ditch effort—an absolutely terrifying thought, which should give everyone a pause.

Second, bankrupting Islamist terrorism could destroy the “large-scale infrastructure” of terrorism—training camps, the network of communication systems, recruiting and paying jihad fighters—and, most important, terrorists’ ability to purchase weapons of mass destruction on the black market. But the Sept. 11 hijackers cruelly showed that low budget and low-tech can be deadly enough. Destroying the finance infrastructure of terrorism can strike a mortal blow at the network of terrorism but cannot prevent every individual terrorist act.

Third, this military strategy does nothing to solve the simmering conflict between the ordinary Arab people and their repressive governments. Many informed observers argue that ordinary Arabs view U.S. support for their governments’ repressive policies as the cause of their suffering. But weakened and impoverished Arab autocrats are likely to resort to more totalitarian means of controlling their populations. If the United States is seen as the cause of this, it will only engender more hatred. If wealthy but politically disenfranchised young Arab men were such willing foot soldiers for terrorism, then poorer, more demoralized, and further re-pressed Arab youth can only be far more volatile. Impov-erishing Arab youth cannot possibly end terror. Whether or not this is Bush’s intent, the very presence of U.S. troops will force this to become the strategy the day they control Iraq.

The temptation to break OPEC, control oil supplies, and destroy the Islamist terror infrastructure would be too much, even for a U.S. president who was not a former oil executive. And there is little that the United States can do to control Syrian and Iranian perceptions. Once in Iraq, the very presence of U.S. troops will seem like a threat, and that may be enough to either spark changes or cause sparks to fly.