A number of earlier columns in this series have focused on the relationship of the Persian Gulf oil reserves to US security policy in the region, although they have emphasised that there were other (geopolitical and ideological) considerations behind the policy (see for example, "The war for Gulf oil" [26 May 2004]; and "It's the oil, stupid" [24 March 2005]). The fact that Iraq has around four times as much oil as the entire United States (including Alaska) underlines the country's importance, but the wider regional context is even more vital.
The US military has long recognised the strategic importance of Gulf oil. The 1973-74 oil-price shocks provided most of the impetus for establishing the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force (RDJTF) in March 1980; this was expanded into US Central Command by the Ronald Reagan administration in January 1983 (see "Oil and the War on Terror", in Why We're Losing the War on Terror [Polity Press, 2007]). It is important to emphasise that while the US does not import huge amounts of oil from the Gulf at present, its strategy and thinking is predicated on an enduring belief that preserving military dominance in the region is key to its aim of remaining the world's superpower.
Iraq is crucial here. From a Pentagon perspective, a complete withdrawal from Iraq would leave the United States dangerously exposed, especially to an unwelcome growth in Iranian influence. It is often forgotten that all the major US military contingents that were retained in Saudi Arabia after the Iraq war of 1991 have now had to be withdrawn. The US facilities at its last major air installation (the Prince Sultan air base in the desert eighty kilometres south of Riyadh) were put on care and maintenance, and the base returned to Saudi control, in September 2003; 4,500 troops were redeployed to Qatar as the Saudi authorities found it too dangerous to have them remaining in their country. In such circumstances, keeping control of Iraq - and that includes a direct military capability - remains essential.
An earlier column in this series, written in the second week of the first phase of the Iraq war in 2003, spoke of the risk of a thirty-year war. It concluded:
"Gulf oil will be the dominant energy source for the world for upwards of thirty years. If the US neo-conservatives establish a paradigm of clear-cut western control of the region, then the stage is set for a conflict that lasts just as long.
The Iraq war may be over within three months or it may take longer; in either case it has the potential to signal the development of a much more sustained conflict. Whether this occurs depends in turn on a key variable: the endurance and success of the Bush administration's conception of international security, the essential requirement for the New American Century.
If this conception does succeed, a thirty-year war is in prospect. If, by contrast, a saner approach to international security develops, the beginnings of a peaceful order could be shaped. What happens in the next few months may determine which route is taken" (see "A thirty-year war", 4 April 2003).
In the event, the war did intensify; George W Bush won a second term; and six years have passed before even the beginning of a change can be glimpsed. But if the Obama administration proves that it has the capacity to develop a "saner approach" in the middle east and greater west Asia - one that addresses the wider issues of oil dependency and climate change - then the chances of shortening the timescale of war might at last arrive.
...[I]t is striking that defence industries are being largely shielded from the global financial crisis that is affecting almost everyone else. Frida Berrigan, an arms and security expert at the New America Foundation, comments: "The only winners from increases in global military spending are [US-based] weapons manufacturers like Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and Northrop Grumman". Almost every other sector of the economy is affected by the recession, but "thanks to the fact that nations around the world are putting more and more of their precious (and ever more scarce) resources into the coffers of their militaries, the weapons industry continues to report regular profit" (see Thalif Deen, U.N. Big Powers World's Top Military Spenders, IPS/Terra Viva, 9 June 2009).
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