Blood for Oil

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Alfred Mendes looks at the historical roots of the ongoing crisis in the Gulf

The recurring stand-offs between Iraq, on the one hand, and the US and Britain on the other, demands a second, closer look at the events that triggered this more recent crisis: the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 which resulted in the Gulf War some months later.

If there was one undeniable, salient fact in that 1990 crisis, it was that the US played the leading, principal role in the anti-Iraq Alliance, acting, ostensibly, under the umbrella of the UN (though it should be recalled that Perez de Cuellar in January 1991 emphasised that the ongoing military action was not under UN command). The fact that other countries in the Alliance also played a part is incidental here and only helps to confuse the issue, inasmuch as it was the US which had taken the initial, crucial steps on “behalf of the Alliance” at every stage of the crisis. This is on record. Furthermore, the US having been one of the two main protagonists (the other being Iraq) we are therefore entitled to examine its (America’s) particular role in the matter if we are to reach a rational understanding of it.

Let us, therefore , first examine the declared motives of the Americans over that earlier period. We were told, repeatedly, that that war on Iraq would be a “just” war, a “moral” war, a war to reinstate the legitimate government of Kuwait under the aegis of “democracy”. Putting aside that it is, at the very least, an act of political dubiousness to associate democracy with what was - and still is - a family fiefdom, let us turn to the morality of the matter.

To begin with, did not the Americans have equally sound moral reasons for opposing the Soviet Union militarily when the latter invaded Afghanistan in December 1979? Or Israel, when it invaded Lebanon in June 1982? Or, indeed, Iraq itself, when it invaded Iran in September 1980? (It is pertinent to note here that the UN responded to that last-named invasion by passing Resolution 479, which neither condemned Iraq nor demanded a withdrawal of their troops from Iran). That the US did not in any of these instances intervene openly with military force can only be explained by the fact that its motives in these events were pragmatic - not moralistic. Surely, we are therefore justified in doubting its avowedly moralistic motives in 1990/91? Our doubt may even swing towards disbelief when we recall that not only did the US not adopt a moral stance towards Iraq when the latter invaded Iran - it subsequently assisted Iraq in the war that followed, turning one blind eye when the latter killed some 37 American sailors on the USS Stark in May 1987, and turning the other blind eye when Iraq gassed thousands of Kurds in Halabja in March 1988. This was not morality - this was pragmatism. Pragmatism thus established, why then did the US intervene militarily in the Gulf, and not in other previous similar events?

At this point, it is incumbent upon us to lay a basis of facts of an historical, political nature concerning the region in particular, and the Arab world in general before continuing with our scrutiny of more recent contemporary events. It is essential to recall that the political geography of the region had been for centuries an amorphous mix of borderless tribal Sheikdoms interspersed with nomadic Bedu tribes. It was primarily as a result of gerrymandering by the British and French in the immediate post-World War One period that the Arab states, as we now know them, were formed - much of it by the British High Commissioner , Sir Percy Cox. Another, and more critical fact to note, is the presence in the region of vast reserves of oil, a product which, because it is the largest dollar-earning, power-wielding industry on this earth, frequently leads to it being the cause of politically motivated events that reflect the potentially explosive nature of the product itself - as a brief re-cap of the region’s history illustrates. Two events that were to have far-reaching, destabilising effects occurred in WW 1:  the defeat of the Turkish Ottoman Empire; and the Balfour Declaration of December 1917, which pledged the establishment of a homeland for Jews in British-controlled Palestine (though this would not take effect until 1948).

In the case of the defeat of the Ottomans: as a result of the leading role that Britain had played in that, it was inevitable that it, Britain, would be the dominant power in that region - perhaps most poignantly exemplified by just two of the military actions taken by the British against recalcitrant groups in what was subsequently to become the State of Iraq: first, the mustard-gassing of Shia rebels by the army in 1920; second, the bombing of the Kurds in the north-east by the RAF (it is relevant to note here that Churchill, then Secretary of State for War, urged the RAF to use mustard gas - but this proved impractical for technical reasons). Thereafter, British oil interests prevailed in the region, particularly in Iran and Iraq. Later, in the forties, British influence declined due to the entry of American oil interests into the region, and in the post WW 2 period American hegemony was significantly strengthened by the simultaneous development of the vast Saudi reserves - the largest in the region. As for the Balfour declaration: what had been formulated in 1917 in line with the classic British colonial ploy of divide and rule, evolved in 1948 into The Great Divide - the State of Israel. The  destabilisation that this engendered in the Arab world can be more readily appreciated when it is recalled that, until then, Arab and Sephardim Jew had over the centuries achieved a modus vivendi in their social relationship. It would, for instance, not have been unduly surprising to have found a Tunisian-born Jew who, until 1948, had served as a police officer in the Libyan police force. It is a sad fact of history that a similar claim cannot be made by many countries of Christian orientation.

Ironically, this contemporary overall Arab/Jew division is now mirrored by the Ashkenazi/ Sephardim split among Jews in Israel itself. It was against this background that the US, with its newly-acquired influence in the Gulf, found itself on the horns of a dilemma:  on the one hand it needed to foster a well-armed, technically advanced Israel which would serve the triple purpose of acting as a foil against the Arabs ; satisfying its politically-influential domestic Jewish lobby; and in view of the burgeoning friendship between Ben Gurion and the Soviet Union, would ensure that the latter would not gain a foothold in the area.  On the other hand, it had to support the Arab hosts of its oil companies in situ, particularly Saudi Arabia. It resolved this problem by delegating many of its diplomatic functions to the executives of those same oil companies, thus creating a semi-autonomous - and thus non-attributable - arm of its foreign service in the Gulf. This resolution of its problem carried enormous risk, the effects of which reverberate today, as exemplified by the fact that, over the last few years, the US has had to use its considerable economic and political clout (as well as its veto) in the UN to ensure that Iraq adheres to the resolutions passed against it - while allowing Israel to side-step UN resolutions passed against it. As any banker would confirm, a customer heavily in debt (as the US is to the UN) carries clout. It must be presumed that this noted risk was outweighed by the high dollar-earning potential within the situation - particularly in the trade in arms.

The emergence of OPEC in the sixties exacerbated these risks. After all, this implied an erosion of the oil companies’ control - but to a lesser degree than is commonly believed, due to the strict contractual agreements between the companies and their hosts, which meant effective control of the market by the former - nonetheless, an erosion. This inevitably led to friction, as exemplified by America’s bellicose response to the Arab embargo when, in 1974, James Schlesinger, Defense Secretary, threatened to use force if the embargo was not lifted - a threat used more than once in the following months. Due to its physical size, and the size of its oil reserves (resulting in the accumulation of vast wealth), Saudi Arabia would emerge as a key player on the stage of Gulf politics - but the nature, the direction of its politics would inexorably be influenced by the oil company that operated on its territory: the Arabian American Oil Company (ARAMCO). Formed in the late forties by the most prestigious oil companies (Exxon, Texaco, Socal and Mobil), and run by executives of those same companies under contracts of secondment, it is no exaggeration to say that ARAMCO was - and is - Saudi Arabia. As the country’s sole source of wealth, it could hardly be otherwise. Thus, the basis for a close political relationship was laid. One simple manifestation of this was the fact that ARAMCO’s expatriates, most of whom were American, were issued with manuals instructing them in the proper, safe method of making their own alcohol stills - and this in the heart of Islam! More significantly, This relationship led to a number of joint deals of a very dubious, secretive nature. This was both a reflection of the non-attributable nature of American foreign policy as practised in the area (see above), and confirmation of the intimacy of the relationship - exemplified by the following joint secret deals made without the knowledge of Congress (though subsequently publicly disclosed): (1) As part of the Irangate conspiracy, Saudi Arabia financed the Contras to the tune of 8 million dollars in exchange for 400 Stinger missiles; (2) the Saudis financed the failed CIA assassination attempt of Sheikh Fadlallah of the Hizbollah - then paid off the Sheikh!; and (3) over a period of years, they jointly financed covert arms supplies to the Afghan Mujahadeen.

In such a clonal relationship between the strongest contemporary nation on this earth and a feudalistic Arab family (set up by the British after WW1), it is surely obvious which partner calls the tune. This last point is particularly relevant to an understanding of America’s actions vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, when the US claimed that the Saudis had asked for the deployment of American forces in the Gulf. This was a patently specious claim.

Certain events in the short history of Iraq fall within the constraints of an article of this length, and are relevant enough to be noted, starting with the birth of the State in 1921, when the British installed the Bedouin Feisal as monarch - but under British mandate. The High Commissioner Sir Percy Cox (see above) was subsequently to play an important role in delineating national boundaries that had not previously existed. These boundaries - or “lines in the sand” - ill-defined as they were, would become a bone of contention between Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia in years to come. The Iraqi threat to absorb Kuwait in the crisis of 1961 was one such. A very similar crisis was to be repeated in 1990, but with one significant difference: in the 1961 crisis Britain, still at the time a power-broker in the region, had made it clear to Iraq that its plan to invade Kuwait would be countered by a strong military force backed by the “Red Beard” nuclear free-fall bomb (carried by HMS Victorious at that time. The invasion was abandoned.

Two factors that were to have a bearing on America’s actions in the post-WW 2 period in the region were:  its increasing involvement in oil development there; and the fast-rising influence of the Communist Party of Iraq, from its formation in the mid-30s to its association with the populist, reformist government of General Qasim during his tenure from 1958 to 1963. The backdrop was set for what was to become another crucial event (though only the latest in a long line of coup and counter-coup that had marked Iraq’s early, short history).

In February 1963 Qasim was overthrown - and assassinated - by a Ba’athist Party coup, with the direct connivance of the CIA. This resulted in the return to Iraq of young fellow-Ba’athist Saddam Hussein who had fled the country (to Egypt) after his earlier abortive attempt to assassinate Qasim. Saddam was immediately assigned to the job of Head of the Al-Jihaz al-Khas (more popularly known as Jihaz Haneen), the clandestine Ba’athist Intelligence organisation - and, as such, he was soon after involved in the killing of some five thousand communists. Saddam’s rise to power had, ironically, begun on the back of a CIA-engineered coup!

The build-up of the Iraqi military machine throughout much of the 1980's (including its bio-chemical weaponry) would not, of course, have been possible without considerable assistance from more technically advanced countries such as Germany, France, Britain, the USSR, America - and others. Much of this is now in the public domain (such as the Scott Report in Britain). Again, it is surely reasonable that there is a considerable degree of causal linkage between the above fact and the frequent explosive confrontations that marred the issue of “weapons inspection” in Iraq. Indeed, this begs some very commonsensical questions: is it not logical to assume that the above countries, who supplied Iraq with just about all its military know-how and infrastructure must be aware - in detail - of what they supplied, and its potential usage? And, armed with this detailed knowledge, why has the UN Inspection Team UNSCOM still not completed its mission after more than seven years? To pass the entire blame for this extraordinarily prolonged delay on to the tactics of the Iraqis smacks, at the very least, of sophistry. It is also common knowledge that the US supplied Iraq with strategic information gleaned from its satellites during the Iran\Iraq War of 1980 to 1988. Less well publicized was the substantial American aid brokered by such as:  the US\Iraq Business Forum, set up in May 1985 with many top US corporations as members;  the Kissinger Associates consulting firm, boasting such alumni as Brent Scowcroft, Lawrence Eagleburger and Lord Carrington; and the Bechtel Group, boasting such alumni as George Shultz and Caspar Weinberger. (Bechtel, it should be noted, won the contract to build the Iraqi PC-2 Complex near Al-Musaiyib for the production of gas precursors and ethyline oxide).This close relationship would account for the turning-of-the-blind-eye incidents noted above, and was perhaps most clearly spelt out by Geoffrey Kemp, Head of the Mid-East Section of the National Security Council under Reagan (then President), when he stated that “It wasn’t that we wanted Iraq to win the war, we didn’t want Iraq to lose. We really weren’t that naive. We knew that he (Saddam Hussein), was a son-of-a-bitch - but he was our son-of-a-bitch”. However, such an ostensibly 'close' US-Iraqi relationship during the Iran-Iraq war should not blind us to the even closer US-Israel relationship that had led to the latter's substantial sales of armaments to Iran during that same period - the Iran-Contra deal playing a key role in this.

Such, then, was the situation as we entered 1990. On the larger canvas of world events, détente leads, inevitably, to planned defence cuts - and the US is no exception. A proposal to cut defence expenditure will be put to Congress in September and almost certain to be passed by a Democrat majority mindful of its enormous deficit. After 8 years of war, Iraq is heavily in debt but acutely aware that an increase in oil price could restore its credit , and to determine this requisite price rise, it commissions a study from the Washington Center for Strategic and International Studies. As a result of this study, and with the tacit understanding of the US Government, a figure of $25 a barrel is advised.

With that figure in mind, Iraq tries, by means of cajolery and military threats, to persuade its OPEC partners to accede to this figure - without success. Its principal opponent in this matter is its neighbour, Kuwait, and in view of the fact that by now Iraq has massed its troops on their common border and is once more laying claim to its “Province” of Kuwait, it would seem that the latter’s defiant rejection of the proposed price rise impolitic and illogical - and, as such, very puzzling.. But so it is. Iraq now decides to kill two birds with one stone: it will invade Kuwait under the banner of “righteous reclamation”, and thus be in a position to impose its price rise. However, it must first obtain clearance for its planned action from the area’s power-broker, America, and in view of its recent friendly relations with that country (perhaps best exemplified by Assistant Secretary John Kelly’s report to Congress in February 1990, when, on his return from talks in Baghdad, he described Saddam Hussein as a “force for moderation” in the region), it foresees no obstacle from that quarter. And so it transpires: in the last week of July 1990, Iraq is, in effect, given the green light by the US Ambassador in Baghdad, April Glaspie. On the 2nd of August, Iraq invades Kuwait. In view of America’s well-known proclivity to the use of military force in situations such as this (Korea, Vietnam, Lebanon, Grenada and Panama), and in view of the effectiveness of Britain’s previous threat in 1961 to use military force in precisely similar circumstances to those that now faced the US, it is surely logical to deduce from America’s apparently aberrant reaction in this instance that it wanted Iraq to invade?

This poses the question: why should the US have wanted this? Which, in turn, begs an answer, the key to which surely lies in CENTCOM (central Command), a military strike force that had evolved in the mid-1980s from the earlier Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force formed by Carter in 1979 to cope with the situation in Iran. This new force, CENTCOM, was to implement the Pentagon’s new-found strategy of striking rapidly with air, sea and land forces at a targeted area such as, in this case, the crucial Gulf region. This called for bases where the logistic needs for such a strike would be readily accessible - ideally in the targeted area itself, of course. However, the volatile situation in the Gulf determined that the inadequate number and efficacy of such bases as were already there (Saudi, Oman and Bahrain) could not be built upon. They would therefore be augmented by:  bases where the US was already ensconced - such as Turkey and Diego Garcia (in the Indian Ocean); and  further supplemented by “over the horizon” bases for “contingency access” and staffed by “caretaker personnel”.

These were set up in Kenya, Somalia and Egypt. However, the Pentagon was acutely aware that these bases were no valid substitutes for bases closer to the targeted area - for obvious logistic reasons.

The invasion of Kuwait supplied the US with an excuse for concentrating their forces in the targeted area, the Gulf, and together with its allies in the Gulf Alliance, deployed a substantial military force there in the immediate aftermath of the invasion. The planned defence cuts were, naturally, set aside by Congress - much to the joy of the arms industry - and war broke out some months later.  Under the command of CENTCOM General Schwarzkopf, the Alliance drove the Iraqis out of Kuwait - but no further. To have invaded Iraq with the intention of destroying its military structure would not only have carried great risk of casualties, it would, more pertinently, have deprived the US of a reason persuasive enough to convince the Arab States that it was necessary for a strong US military force to remain in the area to “protect” them from an Iraq that still posed a threat.

That the Americans were, at the very least, playing a double-game in the lead-up to the invasion was confirmed by the release to the UN in October 1990 of a confidential letter written by Brigadier al-Fahd, Director of the Kuwaiti State Security Department, in November 1989 to his Minister of the Interior concerning a secret week-long meeting in Langley, Virginia, that he had attended with William Webster (Director of the CIA), during which they had agreed in general to co-operate. The letter continued.. “We agreed with the American side that it was important to take advantage of the deteriorating situation in Iraq in order to put pressure on that country’s government to delineate our common border. The CIA gave us its view of appropriate means of pressure, saying that broad co-operation should be initiated between us, on condition that such activities are co-ordinated at a high level”. (This at a time when American companies were concluding a number of deals with Iraq!). From this, it is now clear why Kuwait adopted their somewhat puzzling stance towards Iraq prior to the invasion - and to claim, as the Americans did immediately after the invasion that they had been caught unawares, can only be described as duplicitous when seen in the above context - to say nothing of the frequent involvement of their diplomatic and Intelligence services in the Mid-East in the post-WW 2 period.

Any rational synthesis of the facts and events that led to this crisis - as laid out above - leads, inescapably, to two main conclusions:  that the US was - and still is - in the Gulf, in force in order to reassert the hegemony of its oil interests there; and America not only used the invasion of Kuwait as a pretext to achieve that aim, but also effectively manipulated the circumstances surrounding the Iraq\Kuwait confrontation - thus ensuring the inevitability of the invasion. In other words: a “sting”. As is well known, this is a mode of operation that plays a significant role within US government agencies - agencies, moreover, which function under the authority of an executive President, a post then held by George Bush, who, as founder of the well-known drilling contractor, Zapata, was therefore both an oilman and ex-Director of the CIA.

Whatever doubts we may harbour over various aspects of the crisis, one fact brooks no argument: the oil and arms industries were the main beneficiaries of that war. The evidence is there. In the case of oil, for instance, Bechtel, the prestigious petro-chemical construction corporation co-founded by Stephen Davison Bechtel Snr. and John McCone (subsequently CIA Director under JFK and LBJ), and embellished by such potent executives as George Schultz and Caspar Weinberger (respectively Sec. of State and Sec, of Defence during the Gulf Crisis), secured lucrative contracts for the reconstruction of Kuwait before the war had even finished! Perhaps not so surprising when it is recalled that Bechtel, with the co-operation of US intelligence services (notably in the form of one C.Stribling Snodgrass), had played a crucial role in ensuring American hegemony in the oil-rich Gulf during the WW 2 period. It is also pertinent to add here that in the late 1970s, in order to win the lucrative Saudi contracts to build both the industrial town of Jubail ($30 billion) and the Riyadh International Airport ($3.4 billion), Bechtel had to cut Prince Mohammad ibn-Fahd-al-Saud in on the deal - to the tune of a 10% interest in the Arabian Bechtel Co. Ltd.

As for arms: if nothing else, these attacks on Iraq have proven to be the most ubiquitous, persuasive sales pitch for hi-tech weapons ever seen by the world’s public (though it transpired later that most of these hi-tech, surgical weapons dropped during the 1991 war fell far short of what had been claimed for them!). Nevertheless, if this means that, as the custodians of such omnipotent weapons, the Americans may now be perceived as unchallengeable on the conventional battlefield, then the angry resentment and frustration of the Arab fellaheen - exacerbated by the Gulf War - will both enhance the isolation of their Sheikhs and Emirs, and foment Khomeini-like revolts against those same Sheikhs and Emirs. Is not frustration the bed-fellow of “terrorism”? In such a situation, mercenary forces such as the South Korean soldiers hired, under the guise of “construction workers”, by the Saudis in the mid-Õ70Õs to protect oil installations and the Saud family (a contract brokered by the CIA-front company, Vinnell), would prove inadequate. Herein lies the main reason the US is keen to maintain a military strike force in the Gulf, using Iraq’s non-adherence to the UN’s resolutions as an excuse: the oil corporations are closely intertwined with, and dependent upon the political stability enshrined within the rule of those same Sheikhs and Emirs, and until such time as oil reserves of similar magnitude can be developed elsewhere (as in the Falklands area) to replace those in the Gulf, then it is in America’s interest to ensure that it maintains a high-profile military presence, CENTCOM, in the region with the primary aim of acting as a deterrent to any potential political threat to their surrogates. As the recent early 1998 crisis revealed, much of the US military hardware is still in situ in the Gulf - seven years after its deployment there. Indeed, there are many similarities between the role of CENTCOM in the Middle-East and the role of NATO in Europe. This is hardly surprising .

The subservient role played by Britain in the latest Anglo-American bombing of Iraq (Dec 1998) is not surprising when viewed in the context of statistical data covering cross-investment between the two countries. These reveal overwhelming American dominance - the so-called “special relationship”. This subservience is further emphasised when it is recalled that in 1965, Britain (under Harold Wilson) defied the UN, banished the Ilois inhabitants of Diego Garcia to poverty in Mauritius, and sanctioned the installation of an American military airbase on that strategically-placed island - whence they (the Americans) subsequently launched attacks on Iraq. Indeed, it can now be claimed, with justification, that “New Labour” under Blair is even more securely in the pocket of Corporate America than was the “Old Labour” of Wilson.

Within this crisis lies a tragic irony worthy of note: here is a city, Baghdad, that had played a leading role in the very early days of the Ottoman Empire in bringing to the then innumerate western countries the Indo-Arabian concept of mathematics, which was to play a crucial role in subsequent scientific advances culminating in modern weaponry (such as cruise missiles) now aimed at that very city!

In conclusion: out of the myriad of words on this subject that have either been spoken or written by politicians, journalists and correspondents over the past years since the Gulf War, one depressing feature stands out - namely, the all-too-frequent omission of the one word that concisely defines the crux of the matter --OIL.

Recommended further reading:

Andrew & Leslie Cockburn Dangerous Liasion (Bodley Head 1992)

Adel Darwish & Gregory Alexander Unholy Babylon (Victor Gollanz 1991)

David Ewing Duncan The Calendar  (Fourth Estate 1998)

Laton McCartney Friends in High Places by (Ballantine Books 1989)

John Pilger Hidden Agendas (Vintage 1998)

Anthony Sampson The Seven Sisters (Hodder & Stoughton 1975)

Kenneth R. Timmerman The Death Lobby (Bantam Books 1992)

Pierre Salinger with Eric Laurent Secret Dossier (Penguin 1991)

Bob Woodward Veil  (Headline 1988)