Friday, December 15, 2006

Thinking about the Middle East

It looks like we may be trying to play both ends of the table. While the Bush Administration appears to be leaning towards stepping up support for Shia political factions at the expense of the Sunni insurgency and moving away from a policy of evenhandedness, it has also recently sent top representatives including Secretary of State Rice and VP Dick Cheney to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan to petition for their help in Iraq. All three of these Sunni states do not want to see Iranian influence spread into nearby Iraq and are naturally going to favor the Sunni minority in Iraq's center.

Saudi Arabia, with a significant Shia population in its oil-rich east along the Persian Gulf, is especially anxious about the growing militia might of Iranian-backed Shia militias in Iraq. Nawaf Obaid, a senior Saudi security advisor, has publicly stated that as the US begins to pull back in Iraq, Saudi Arabia will step in to fill the vacuum on behalf of Iraq's Sunni minority. He highlighted three options the kingdom is considering (and probably already doing to some extent) to realize that pledge:
• providing Sunni military leaders (ex-Iraqi officer corps, now the backbone of the insurgency) with funding and arms.
• establishing new Sunni brigades to combat the Iranian-backed Shiite militias.
• choking off Iran's ability to fund the militias by flooding the oil market.
Conspiratorially, the Administration's tactics might be consistent. Ostensibly, top officials went to leaders of the Sunni world to ask for help stabilizing Iraq. But is it conceivable that they might have actually been trying to dissuade said leaders from getting involved in Iraq on behalf of the Sunni fighters?

With Rumsfeld's resignation, the Iraq Study Commission's findings that have been trumpeted in the media, and the bipartisan confirmation of Robert Gates (who as CIA director in the early nineties has had experience dealing with both non-Arab Shia and Sunni fighters in Afghanistan and may even have a few contacts in Baathist Iraq, having allegedly passed intel to Saddam's regime during the Iraq-Iran War), perhaps the idea of effectively throwing in with the Shia has fallen out of favor. In just the last couple of days the Administration has warmed to a Pentagon plan to up troop levels by as much as 40,000 and confront the Sunni insurgency in al Anbar while simultaneously hammering Sadr's militia (and its offshoots).

Bush's approval rating has sunk to a numbing 34%. Congress and the country have turned on him in his war. With things so dismal, any alleviation in the situation will look successful by comparison. Pathetically, things can't get any worse politically, so the Administration may finally be ready to try something new with little political downside. An uptick in troop levels, something Democrats (and many Republicans) have voiced support for in their criticism of the war, will be more acceptable to Bush than the Iraq Study Group's suggestions since it pushes in the direction of 'victory' (whatever that, if somehow achievable, would even look like) instead of disengagement. The Administration might be genuinely trying to keep the Saudis and Jordanians out of Iraq while continuing to try and keep Iran and Syria out as well.

Even if the ostensible call to bring more Middle Eastern states into Iraq is just a prestidigitation, would Saudi Arabia have faith in the US' ability to break the Mahdi Army and quell Iranian influence? The Saudis don't have anything in the way of firepower to challenge the Persians militarily even if the US pulled out. But the sharp rise in global oil prices over the last few years has been a propitious godsend for the kingdom, which is now running an annual budget surplus of nearly $100 billion after facing shortfalls at the beginning of the decade. Using less than one percent of that surplus during the eighties the Saudis were crucial in knocking the Soviets out of Afghanistan. The kingdom might also reverse course and up oil production (DOE estimates show that Saudi Arabia has the capacity to put between another 1 and 1.5 million barrels into the market, potentially setting Iran back around $20 million a day).

In the nineties, the Saudis (along with Pakistan's ISI) funded the Taliban as they brutally expanded out of Afghanistan's southwest and into Kabul, pushing Massoud's Northern Alliance into the mountainous northeast of the country. That the 'progressive' (by Middle Eastern standards) Prince Turki would butter the Taliban's bread even as it became increasingly close to a bin Laden who'd called for the toppling of the House of Sa'ad (all of this taking place after the terrorist's Saudi citizenship had been revoked and he'd been expelled from the country) leads me to believe that the Saudis are not above funnelling resources to Sunnis in Iraq. Much of that money might end up in the hands of Al Qaeda types that aren't keen on the royal family, but we're talking about the Muslim world, where the enemy of an enemy ethos prevails.

For its part, Iran is trying to stoke support in the Sunni world with an absurd conference on the Holocaust and by sending millions in aid to the teetering Hamas-led government in the Palestinian territories. To become Islam's global epicenter, it'll have to win the support of the Sunni street. Bare in mind that Sunnis represent between 85%-90% of Muslims worldwide.

Saudi Arabia and company have also taken the first steps toward their own nuclear armarment:
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates, Dec. 10 — Arab leaders, meeting in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, on Sunday, said they intended to start a joint nuclear energy development program, a move certain to heighten concerns over a possible race for nuclear power in the oil-rich Persian Gulf.

Leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council concluded a two-day summit meeting in Riyadh on Sunday, agreeing to study how to proceed with development of such capacity.
In Riyadh a gallon of gas costs less than a dollar. The Sunni world is trying to let the West know that if we don't do the dirty work to keep Iranian nuclear and regional ambitions in check, they're going to respond by making non-proliferation a (greater) nightmare. Relatedly, last week Israeli Prime Minister Olmert 'gaffed' an admittance that wasn't really news to the rest of the world--his nation has nuclear weapons.

What a mess we've made in Iraq. Welcome to the new Great Game (with most players coming from dull, inbred countries made relevant by the black gold they happen to be sitting on).


RoseCovered Glasses said...

There are good points in your article. I would like to supplement them with some information:

I am a 2 tour Vietnam Veteran who recently retired after 36 years of working in the Defense Industrial Complex on many of the weapons systems being used by our forces as we speak.

If you are interested in a view of the inside of the Pentagon procurement process from Vietnam to Iraq please check the posting at my blog entitled, “Odyssey of Armaments”

The Pentagon is a giant, incredibly complex establishment, budgeted in excess of $500B per year. The Rumsfelds, the Administrations and the Congressmen come and go but the real machinery of policy and procurement keeps grinding away, presenting the politicos who arrive with detail and alternatives slanted to perpetuate itself.

How can any newcomer, be he a President, a Congressman or even the Sec. Def. to be - Mr. Gates- understand such complexity, particularly if heretofore he has not had the clearance to get the full details?

Answer- he can’t. Therefore he accepts the alternatives provided by the career establishment that never goes away and he hopes he makes the right choices. Or he is influenced by a lobbyist or two representing companies in his district or special interest groups.

From a practical standpoint, policy and war decisions are made far below the levels of the talking heads who take the heat or the credit for the results.

This situation is unfortunate but it is absolute fact. Take it from one who has been to war and worked in the establishment.

This giant policy making and war machine will eventually come apart and have to be put back together to operate smaller, leaner and on less fuel. But that won’t happen until it hits a brick wall at high speed.

We will then have to run a Volkswagen instead of a Caddy and get along somehow. We better start practicing now and get off our high horse. Our golden aura in the world is beginning to dull from arrogance.

crush41 said...

Thanks for the comments.

I've not had the firsthand experience you have, but reading Steve Cole's Ghost Wars I've been struck with the same things you bring up, namely how mid-level officials often shape policy outside of what's officially proscribed, and without protest from the figureheads above that are too busy to take notice.

crush41 said...

That author is Steve Coll, not Cole.