Sunday, December 11, 2005

Iraq: playing it long

There was an interesting letter in The Economist this week (Dec 10-16 2005).

Robert Dujarric from New York noted that the Iraqi war aims of the US were:

  1. keep out al-Qaeda
  2. contain Iran
  3. prevent Shia clerical power
  4. restrain the Kurds
  5. maintain a united nation.

He then noted these were the same aims as Saddam Hussein's. Cue irony.

My elder son pointed out that the one aim Mr. Dujarric had omitted, the one not shared with Mr. Hussein, but the most important one from the US point of view was:

... 6. ensure security of oil supply from the Middle-East.

Samuel Brittan, in his book 'Against the Flow' , argued against military invasion to secure oil, noting that dictators have at least as much need to sell oil as America has to buy it. So there is no harm on relying upon global markets to ensure the supply.

However, there has to be an element of doubt. When American planners looked at the Middle-East, they would have seen a rogue Saddam Hussein, a destabilising Saudi Arabia (wahhabism), and an unfriendly Iran. Suppose, in an evolution of this situation, one of these decided to stop their own production and/or permit sabotage of the oil production of neighbours. Under the influence of militant Islam, perhaps they wouldn't care about the lost revenues. You can see America's point.

It is unwise to criticise states for acting in their perceived interests. The complaint about the US leadership's incompetence in not understanding the specifics of Iraqi society (or any society other than their own), by contrast, is an easy one to make. But despite everything, the game is not yet lost.

Recall that no section of Iraqi society today has armed forces worth anything. The best they can muster are small arms and jeeps. They have no tanks, artillery or air power. Those unobtrusive and well-fortified US bases will be there for a while yet, and once the new Iraqi Government is up, it will be severely circumscribed by American power.

Playing it long, the Americans may yet emulate the Roman tactic of letting a local administration apparently run the show, while keeping the legions garrisoned just around the corner.

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