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Beyond Regime Change

The administration doesn't simply want to oust Saddam Hussein. It wants to redraw the Mideast map.

December 01, 2002|Sandy Tolan | Sandy Tolan, an I.F. Stone Fellow at the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley, reports frequently on the Middle East. Jason Felch, a student in Tolan's "Politics and Petroleum" class, contributed to this article.

BERKELEY — If you want to know what the administration has in mind for Iraq, here's a hint: It has less to do with weapons of mass destruction than with implementing an ambitious U.S. vision to redraw the map of the Middle East.

The new map would be drawn with an eye to two main objectives: controlling the flow of oil and ensuring Israel's continued regional military superiority. The plan is, in its way, as ambitious as the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement between the empires of Britain and France, which carved up the region at the fall of the Ottoman Empire. The neo-imperial vision, which can be ascertained from the writings of key administration figures and their co-visionaries in influential conservative think tanks, includes not only regime change in Iraq but control of Iraqi oil, a possible end to the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and newly compliant governments in Syria and Iran -- either by force or internal rebellion.

For the first step -- the end of Saddam Hussein -- Sept. 11 provided the rationale. But the seeds of regime change came far earlier. "Removing Saddam from power," according to a 1996 report from an Israeli think tank to then-incoming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was "an important Israeli strategic objective." Now this has become official U.S. policy, after several of the report's authors took up key strategic and advisory roles within the Bush administration. They include Richard Perle, now chair of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board; Douglas Feith, undersecretary of defense; and David Wurmser, special assistant in the State Department. In 1998, these men, joined by Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz (now the top two officials in the Pentagon), Elliott Abrams (a senior National Security Council director), John Bolton (undersecretary of State) and 21 others called for "a determined program to change the regime in Baghdad."

After removing Hussein, U.S. forces are planning for an open-ended occupation of Iraq, according to senior administration officials who spoke to the New York Times. The invasion, said Iraqi dissident Kanan Makiya, would be "a historic opportunity that is as large as anything that has happened in the Middle East since the fall of the Ottoman Empire." Makiya spoke at an October "Post-Saddam Iraq" conference attended by Perle and sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute.

Any occupation would certainly include protecting petroleum installations. Control of the country's vast oil reserves, the second largest in the world and worth nearly $3 trillion at current prices, would be a huge strategic prize. Some analysts believe that additional production in Iraq could drive world prices down to as low as $10 a barrel and precipitate Iraq's departure from OPEC, possibly undermining the cartel. This, together with Russia's new willingness to become a major U.S. oil supplier, could establish a long-sought counterweight to Saudi Arabia, still the biggest influence by far on global oil prices. It would be consistent with the plan released by Vice President Dick Cheney's team in June, which underscored "energy security" as central to U.S. foreign policy. "The Gulf will be a primary focus of U.S. international energy policy," the report states.

Some analysts prefer to downplay the drive to control Iraqi oil. "It is fashionable among anti-American circles ... to assume that U.S. foreign policy is driven by commercial considerations," said Patrick Clawson, an oil and policy analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, in an October talk. Rather, Clawson said, oil "has barely been on the administration's horizon in considering Iraq policy.... U.S. foreign policy is not driven by concern for promoting the interests of specific U.S. firms."

Yet Clawson, whose institute enjoys close ties with the Bush administration, was more candid during a Capitol Hill forum on a post-Hussein Iraq in 1999: "U.S. oil companies would have an opportunity to make significant profits," he said. "We should not be embarrassed about the commercial advantages that would come from a re-integration of Iraq into the world economy. Iraq, post-Saddam, is highly likely to be interested in inviting international oil companies to invest in Iraq. This would be very useful for U.S. oil companies, which are well positioned to compete there, and very useful for the world's energy-security situation."

Indeed, Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmad Chalabi, whose close ties with Perle, Wurmser, Rumsfeld and Cheney predate the current Bush administration, met recently with U.S. oil executives. Afterward, Chalabi, the would-be "Iraqi Karzai" and the hawks' long-standing choice to lead a post-Hussein Iraq, made it clear he would give preference to an American-led oil consortium. He also suggested that previous deals -- totaling tens of billions of dollars for Russia's Lukoil and France's TotalFinaElf -- could be voided.

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