Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

08 October 2004

Why Are we Still in Iraq?

In all the puerile bickering about Iraq, one thing is crystal clear and virtually forgotten. The most compelling reason for invading Iraq was getting rid of Saddam Hussein. His was the face of evil that motivated national approval for the invasion and the heroism of our soldiers in battle.

As 2004 draws to a close, Saddam Hussein is gone. He sits in a prison under U.S. control. His vile sons are dead. Neither he nor they can ever again threaten the Iraqi people, Iraq’s neighbors, or stability in the Mideast. Saddam’s regime is history.

So why are we still there? President Bush, who has never been the brightest bulb in the American political marquee, seems to insist that Saddam’s capture is just one more reason for “staying the course.” Excuse me, but wasn’t getting rid of Saddam our mission in Iraq? If so, then what “course” is left to “stay”? Isn’t it time to declare “mission accomplished” and go home? The President was premature in speaking before a banner bearing those words in May 2003, but they certainly have the ring of truth now.

During the Clinton Administration, we had a term for failing to stick to stated objectives for military action. It was called “mission creep”—political jargon for failing to keep one’s eye on the ball, sometimes with disastrous consequences. We’ve achieved our principal objective, so why are we still there?

President Bush now says the “mission” is making Iraq a democratic society, mainly by force. Let’s leave aside Candidate Bush’s campaign promise in 2000 for a “humbler” foreign policy and an end to “nation building.” Maybe 9/11 did change everything, including Candidate Bush’s entire philosophical approach to foreign policy.

Even so, there are three problems with this new mission. First, it was not how the President sold the war to Congress and to the American people. If he had come to Congress in early 2003 and said, “We are going to invade Iraq to make it into a model Islamic democracy to reform the Mideast and set an example for the world,” he would have been laughed off Capitol Hill. And rightly so.

Second, any student of history, even a “C” student, knows that one does not “impose” democracy by force of arms on societies that have never known it—certainly not a society as bitterly divided on religious, ethnic and political lines as Iraq. The British experience in India and Pakistan teaches that democracy may not arrive until decades after an occupying force leaves the scene, even if the occupying force is as enlightened and disciplined as were the British. And Pakistan still has not achieved real democracy more than half a century after the British left. To our chagrin and the world’s serious risk, President Musharraf’s government, with its nuclear weapons, hangs by the thread of his security forces over an ocean of Islamic extremism.

Contrary to the Neocons’ shallow arguments, the aftermath of World War II was no exception to this general rule. Germany had known democracy well before the Nazis destroyed it, and the German people were deathly tired of war, violence and totalitarianism. Japan had never really been a democracy in the Western sense, but it had been a stable, orderly, law-abiding society having some acquaintance with democracy and absolute obedience to its Emperor. The American occupation brilliantly exploited these unique traits of Japanese culture to instill democracy in a defeated, congenitally orderly people with no tradition of small-scale civil resistance. The situation in Iraq today is far, far from that of either post-War Germany or Japan.

In Iraq today, as in most cases, “imposed democracy” is an oxymoron. If the Iraqis want real democracy, they will have to bargain, struggle and fight for it, just as have all other people that have achieved it on their own. There is little evidence, so far, that the so-called “people” of “Iraq” are willing to do so in general, far less with Americans calling the shots and inadvertently violating local cultural norms every day.

There’s a good reason for this unwillingness: the very notion of the “Iraqi people” is a fiction. Iraq as a nation was an invention of the British Foreign Office, designed to divide and conquer an unruly and difficult population by putting three warring ethic groups (plus a few smaller oppressed minorities) in the same national basket. It was a bad idea when conceived, and it is a worse idea now. That’s the third and final reason why President Bush’s “mission creep” is unfortunate.

If stable self-rule in “Iraq” is really our goal, there is a simple three-state solution to achieve it—a solution that would not demand much more sacrifice of our blood and treasure. First, let the Iraqi Kurds be free. They already have a splendid democracy, and they’ve shown they can fight quite well for their liberty, thank you. In everything but name, they are already a separate small nation, relatively stable and well governed.

Second, let the Shia in the South be free, too. Morally, we owe it to them. To our everlasting national shame, the first Bush Administration betrayed them, allowing Saddam to butcher hundreds of thousands in our collective name. But freedom for the Shia is not just a matter of moral necessity; it is also a matter of practical realpolitik. No mullah more moderate and reasonable than Imam Sistani has appeared in the Mideast since Iran first became a theocracy, and none is likely to do so in the foreseeable future. If we can’t trust him and the remaining secular Shiites to create a moderate, democratic Shiite state (although perhaps a bit more Islamist that we would like), then we really don’t want democracy in the Shiite world after all. Imam Sistani and his followers are the last best hope to avoid an ultimate replay of Iran in Shiite Iraq. We should act before he grows too old or is assassinated.

Finally, we should deal with the fractious and dangerous Sunni heartland as we have done so effectively for the last thirteen years. We should isolate and contain it by means of diplomatic action, air power, and two free and well-armed neighbors, Iraqi Kurdistan and the Iraqi Shiite Republic. We could achieve these objectives by arming and training the Kurds and Shia, using our air power and a new “no-fly zone” (with few casualties) to prevent any large-scale military action, and using diplomatic action and political and economic pressure to minimize any ethnic cleansing that might ensue in the new states. (Would limited, orderly ethnic flight be worse than full-scale civil war, replete with the inevitable ethnic atrocities?) With some cooperation from our new, independent Kurdish and Shiite friends and neighboring states, we might even seal the borders around Sunniland and stem the flow of terrorists in and out.

Is anyone even discussing a three-state solution? Hardly. We are still trying senselessly to glue together three permanently inimical factions with American blood. Sure, the Turks would object to a free Iraqi Kurdistan, but since when have the selfish aims of Turkish foreign policy justified a monumental loss of American blood and treasure? Far better to bully the Turks, perhaps with a NATO guarantee of the territorial integrity of Turkey, if necessary, than to stay mired in what is already a low-level Iraqi civil war for another decade or two.

The three-state solution is hardly risk free. Yet it offers a realistic chance of providing a stable and self-governed “Iraq” (or most of it) in the near term (if “Iraq” has ever been a real nation except under the heel of a dictator.) More important, it gives the Kurds and Shiites real, immediate and tangible stakes in fighting hard for stability (with American arms) on their own. The fact that no one—Republican or Democrat—has so much as proposed such a practical solution can mean only one thing: that local self-rule is not our real objective in Iraq.

So why are we still there? There is only one answer that makes sense: oil. This does not mean, as some have foolishly charged, that we intend to steal the oil, whether by force or guile. Of course not. We have every intention—and every ability—to pay for every drop of oil at market prices. So does the rest of the developed world. More than anything, we are Yankee traders, and we expect to pay for what we get. What we and the rest of the developed world want is a stable and reliable source of supply at market prices. No one really cares who gets the proceeds or how high the price, as long as it’s based on the market.

Yet the economic importance of a stable supply can hardly be exaggerated. Iraq and Saudi Arabia today have nearly one-quarter of the world’s total oil reserves and an even greater share of current production. You don’t have to be an economist to understand that, with the present uneasy balance of worldwide supply and demand, a loss of one-quarter of total supply (or any substantial fraction of one-quarter) would cause oil prices to go through the roof. If Iraqi and Saudi resources were totally disabled, even temporarily, oil prices would probably double or triple.

Whatever one thinks about President Bush, Haliburton, and a national economy stupidly reliant on foreign oil, this is undeniable economic reality today. As the world’s and our own economies are presently configured, a significant disruption in Iraqi and Saudi oil supply would cause massive pain and hardship in developed nations and poverty, panic, and conflict in developing ones. Whether arising from destruction of the oil fields by sabotage, war or revolution or from pricing by an Islamic theocracy rather than market forces (what does the Koran say about oil prices for “infidels”?), the result might be worldwide economic dislocation on a scale not seen since the Great Depression. The risk of this happening is a real, live problem that no prudent policy maker can ignore.

For a whole host of (mostly valid) political, religious and practical reasons, Saudi Arabia does not want our soldiers in its Kingdom. Kuwait is too small, too far from the oil fields, and too riven with terrorists to be of much help. You can’t hide a hundred thousand troops in Dubai or Qatar, and they, too, are too far away. So we have some 140,000 troops in Iraq, within striking distance of the Iraqi and Saudi oil fields, to make sure the oil keeps flowing.

That is the real reason why we are still in Iraq now that Saddam is gone. The plan of both presidential candidates seems to be: let “Iraqi” forces fight their way to a semblance of stability, and keep our forces in relatively safe garrisons in the hinterlands, ready for use if the world’s supply of oil is threatened. (Senator John Kerry promises “no permanent designs” on Iraq, but he would likely see the necessity of these same measures after assuming office.)

Our forces must be close by because, as both Gulf Wars have shown, a massive military buildup from overseas takes about two months at a minimum. If the Saudi/Iraqi oil tap were turned off suddenly, the world’s economy could easily spin into a deep depression in the time it took to move forces into the region. The same rationale motivates our nation’s strategic oil reserve. Without it, and without rationing, private reserves of oil might evaporate so quickly that we might not even have the fuel to supply our armed forces as they tried to secure the threatened oil fields. (Remember, over 50% of our oil supplies come from abroad.)

So why is no one talking about these very real issues? There are several reasons. First, keeping unwanted troops in a foreign country is inconsistent with America’s self-image as a law-abiding, benevolent democracy. Never mind that most of the rest of the world, if it thought deeply enough about it, would thank whatever god they pray to that American troops are there. (This goes especially for China and most of Asia, which depend on foreign oil for the continuation of their “economic miracles.”) We Americans don’t like to think of ourselves as keeping troops in a foreign land, where they’re not wanted, for such mundane purpose as insuring the flow of crude oil to the world. And we certainly don’t like to think of the flower of our youth cut down in their prime for essentially commercial purposes, even if vital to the world’s economy.

More important, open discussion of this purpose would have several unfortunate international effects. First, by confirming radical Islamic suspicions about America’s intentions, it would embolden Islamic terrorists and revolutionaries worldwide, particularly in the Mideast. That effect might lead to the very sabotage, instability and revolution that presence of our troops is designed to deter or prevent. Second, open discussion of how vulnerable the whole world’s economy is to such things as a Wahhabi revolution in Saudi Arabia might cause a “race to the bottom” in diplomacy. States around the world might curry favor with Islamic extremists in the hope of receiving a preferred position in the pecking order as extremist doctrine and opportunistic alliances replaced the market as a basis for allocating oil. Finally, open discussion of just how easy it might be to hold the world’s economy hostage might vastly increase the level of terrorism and sabotage in Saudi Arabia, as well as Iraq.

Yet however rational our “Iraq garrison” plan may seem from the standpoint of abstract realpolitik, it is not a durable solution to Islamic extremism or other threats to the world’s oil supply. As the present war in Iraq so well shows, it is far easier to sabotage the oil infrastructure than to protect it. Guarding the entire Saudi/Iraqi oil infrastructure from the type of concerted campaign of sabotage that we now see in Iraq—let alone from the threat of fundamentalist revolution in which a large fraction of the population enthusiastically participates—would probably take half a million troops. Unless we are ready to make the kind of sacrifice and endure the kind of internal division that we suffered during the War in Vietnam, it is unlikely that we Americans would be able to sustain that sort of effort for more than a year or two, if at all. What the Bush Administration apparently has in mind in Iraq is, at best, no more than a temporary holding action in the ceaseless struggle with the chronic instability that is the Middle East.

So what would a durable solution look like? Should we work to develop a worldwide coalition to occupy and stabilize the Saudi/Iraqi oilfields, operate them as a protectorate of the developed world, and hold the proceeds in trust for whatever legitimate local governments emerge from the inevitable turmoil? The cost in blood and treasure would be great, even if shared worldwide, and the risk of yet another millennial struggle between Muslims and “infidels” would be palpable. The result might be a Hundred Years War justified by economics on the one hand and religion on the other, with increasing risk of nuclear exchanges as technology in the Islamic world inevitably develops. Hardly a pretty picture.

The only viable alternative is for the developed world to wean itself from Saudi/Iraqi oil as quickly, cheaply and permanently as possible. This is the reason for all the fuss about Russian oil and Russian pipelines to the west and east. Happily, Russia’s oil resources may have been grossly underestimated. Yet with world oil demand rapidly rising, oil is a dwindling resource, even in Russia, and we cannot predict what Russia will do or become after Putin.

The only really durable solution for us is alternative sources of energy. France now generates 77% of it electricity from nuclear energy, the United States about 21%. This simple fact helps explain much of the disagreement between France and the United States over the necessity and wisdom of the war in Iraq. France has been more prescient and more wise than we in weaning itself from the highly vulnerable Saudi/Iraqi tit. (Inexplicably, at this very moment in history, France is reconsidering its reliance on nuclear energy, perhaps because of the risk of terrorism.) France is not alone. In Japan, about 35% of electric power comes from splitting atoms. Neither country has had a serious nuclear accident, although each has had minor mishaps.

Besides nuclear energy, there is coal. Current estimates suggest that the United States’ own internal coal reserves could supply the nation’s total energy needs for two centuries. Two centuries is ample time to develop new sources of energy, such as nuclear fusion, the efficient use of solar energy, or practical use of renewable resources.

Whether its source is the atom or coal, electricity can solve the problem of transportation. Oil is simply not essential for our transportation needs, now or in the future. Used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen by electrolysis, electric power can supply unlimited quantities of hydrogen—a clean, nonpolluting fuel to which today’s internal combustion engines can be adapted easily . The technology for doing so is all available today, now, off the shelf. Its only disadvantage is that, at present prices, it is more expensive than refining “cheap” Saudi oil into gasoline. If the Mideast oil fields are overrun, that price comparison may change more rapidly than anyone might have guessed.

So here is the essential problem. We don’t need to invent practicable nuclear fusion, fuel cells, or solar energy. We don’t need to rely solely on existing sources of “green” or renewable power, when doing so would require cutting our energy usage by an order of magnitude. All we need is the leadership and political will to create an electrical-hydrogen energy economy, using presently available nuclear or coal technology (or both), as tested and tried, with suitable safety and environmental precautions.

Converting to such an economy would not be easy, although all the necessary technology is available and tested today. There would be (as there are today) difficult disputes over the disposal of nuclear waste, the level of nuclear safety, and the amount to be spent to avoid or mitigate air and water pollution from burning coal or converting it to oil or gas. Even with a massive, well-led national effort, converting to a hydrogen economy would take at least ten to fifteen years, and the resulting energy would be more expensive than “cheap” foreign oil is today.

But what is the alternative? To remain dependent upon a limited resource, sought by the whole world, of which a significant share comes from the most unstable and dangerous spots on the globe. To expend fruitlessly in blood and conflict what we could invest in our own national, independent energy infrastructure. That is, to remain in Iraq (or somewhere else in the Mideast) for the foreseeable future, at literally incalculable cost and risk. To watch helplessly as we drain the lifeblood of our youth, squander our national prestige and honor, and coarsen our international relations with war and bullying—all to squeeze out what’s left of the oil in a region beset by extremists with thousand-year-old grudges against the West.

So whenever we ask, “Why are we still in Iraq?” the alternative of a hydrogen economy ought to leap to mind. Not only is conversion feasible with present-day off-the-shelf technology. Converting would put the entire nation to work, here at home, without fear of outsourcing. So far, at least, no one has figured out how to build a nuclear or coal-fired power plant—let alone a plant for converting coal to oil or gas—over the Internet, and the prospects for doing so are dim. Whether led by the government or by the private sector, converting our energy economy to atom- or coal-generated hydrogen would put everyone back to work for a long, long time to come.

It’s a real shame that diplomatic prudence prevents anyone from discussing these very real issues. It’s a tragedy that, as a consequence, so many Americans believe that war, or near war, over scarce resources—or “nation building” in impossible places like Iraq—is our destiny for the foreseeable future. Nothing could be further from the truth, and nothing could be a more depressing commentary on the lack of foresight and vision of our national leadership and the intellectual bankruptcy of our presidential debates.

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