T. Boone Pickens told a Congressional caucus that US oil companies were entitled to contracts to develop Iraqi oil, thanks to the fact that over 5000 Americans died, 65,000 wounded, and $1.5 trillion spent to liberate Iraq from Saddam Hussein. Pickens is criticizing the fact that Iraq’s oil auctions are based on the best offer and not on rewarding the US for all it has spent in Iraq. Instead, contracts have gone to China and BP so far.
And, of course, there is nothing the US can do to make Iraq comply with such a request. President Bush explicitly denied that it was a war for control of oil, and President Obama has already pledged to withdraw the troops. Most Iraqis realize that the American people don’t want a long term major US commitment.
In Afghanistan President Obama is struggling with the decision of whether or not to send more troops there, and if so, what their task will be. While former Vice President Cheney says Obama is “dithering” (Bush and Cheney dithered on Afghanistan from 2003 to 2008, to be sure), the fact is that this is a very consequential decision, and there is no need to hurry. The President is correctly taking the time to examine the options and not simply make an easy political decision of going with McChrystal’s recommendation. His job is to make the policy call, the general’s job is to figure out how to implement the policy effectively.
Striking about each of these “wars” is how early military victory — the US defeated the Taliban within a month, Saddam fell within weeks of the initial attack — turned into lengthy quagmires with no clear exit strategy or no sense of what victory would look like — or if it were even possible.
The US went into these wars guided by the heady ideology of neo-conservatism, a belief that the US was a “unipolar polar,” uniquely capable of creating a new world order which would expand democracy, reinforce market capitalism, and be good for American business. Their argument seemed powerful. The US economy in 2001 had a budget surplus, and the early Bush tax cuts were designed to rekindle another economic boom, negating the impact of the stock price collapse in 2000. The Soviet Union was dead, there was no other major power on the horizon, so the US seemed at its peak — economically vibrant and the only major superpower. The world was ours if we have the will to use our power and shape reality to fit our ideology and interests.
The thing holding the US back, the neo-conservatives argued, was too much concern with what the rest of the world thought about us, timidness in foreign policy, and a lack of will to do what is necessary to reshape the world. Unipolarity doesn’t last along time, the neo-conservatives warned, we should use the power while we have the chance. It was a heady, bombastic, and extremely confident ideology. It mixed idealism (spread democracy and enforce human rights) with raw self-interest (protect US control of oil reserves, promote US corporate interests). It’s audacious confidence attracted hawks, it’s lack of concern for what others (especially “Old Europe”) thought of us attracted nationalists.
9-11 was the pivotal moment for this group. The attacks would give the American people the will to take the aggressive moves necessary to reshape the world. Most did not doubt success was likely. Afghanistan seemed to fall quickly, as few questioned the move to eliminate a regime as hated by the left as by the right. After 9-11, the quick victory over the Taliban seemed to demonstrate US resolve and power — even if Bin Laden himself slipped away. But, as Donald Rumsfeld noted, Afghanistan doesn’t have many targets. The place to really make their move and assert US dominance was Iraq.
The plan was to take Iraq, install a pro-American government, show that democracy can work in the Mideast, and make sure oil is in the control of pro-American forces. These actions would put Iran, Syria and every other nation in the region on alert that the US is willing and able to use its power. That would also allow the US to achieve peace in Israel by weakening those who support the Palestinians, and geopolitically trump Russia, China and the EU in the quest to secure long term oil supplies. The war wasn’t really about WMD in Iraq, even though that was the way it was sold. Nor was it about how repressive Saddam was — others in the world, including our allies in Saudi Arabia, are just as repressive. It was about a grand vision of reshaping politics in the Middle East, and assuring another “American century.”
“Everyone wants freedom,” the President claimed with confidence. The neo-conservatives boldly predicted that the “modern, secular” Iraqis could not only make democracy work (some said it was ‘racist’ to claim otherwise), but even pay the cost of their “liberation” with oil revenues. Instead, Iraq and Afghanistan have become symbolic of America’s decline. When the US leaves, Iraq will not be a true democracy, not be pro-American, and won’t even give the best oil contracts to US companies. It will have tarnished US moral legitimacy in the eyes of much of the planet, made American military threats less credible (not only didn’t we succeed in Iraq, but the public is sour on war and the world knows it), and fed into an economic crisis which continues to threaten the very status of the US as a major super power.
In Afghanistan the situation is even worse. Because of the size and demographics of the country, an Iraq-like “surge” won’t stabilize things. In Iraq security improved when the US chose to make allies of their former Sunni adversaries. Few expect the US to become allies with the Taliban in Afghanistan. If Obama chooses to continue with an unclear, open-ended mission this risks becoming a conflict that could eat his Presidency alive. Yet to end it inconclusively would at the very least be humiliating to the US.
After 9-11 the US suffered numerous delusions, which together created a self-image of a country second to none, economically vibrant, and with the right approach to politics and economics. In my last post, I outlined the delusional thinking which over thirty years set up the current economic crisis. Senator Fullbright once called this kind of attitude “the arrogance of power.” As a country we — especially the political leaders — got so caught up in the belief that we are something special, we are the best, we’ve found the right way to govern the country and run the economy, that we started to embrace delusions as reality. We saw ourselves as superior to others, yet isolated ourselves in an orgy of consumption, with little regard for trying to understand the rest of the world, or even acknowledging that reality of the suffering that takes place over so much of the planet. The cause of our current woes was delusional thinking.
Unfortunately, it continues. The anti-Obama rhetoric from the right tries to deny reality by blaming everything on Obama, with weird claims that he’s trying to impose socialism or somehow destroy our way of life. The left focuses on health care and the politics of the moment. The President has spread himself thin by tackling numerous issues, but has yet to really focus the country on the challenges ahead with a clear and coherent vision about how to move forward.
I will only be optimistic about the future when most Americans become realistic about the present.