Gulf Stability and the New Iraq


One way to think about U.S. policy toward the Persian Gulf since the beginning of the Iran-Iraq War is that we’ve been struggling to create a situation in which Iraq is strong enough to avoid being dominated by Iran while not being strong enough to dominate Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Basically, right now there are four oil rich countries all very close to each other and we want to make sure that they remain four separate countries so that none of them becomes too strong. The situation is one of enhanced concern because not only are these countries oil rich, but they share important cultural affinities that make successful domination seem more plausible. So when we feared that Iran was going to win the Iran-Iraq War, we backed Iraq. When Iraq invaded Kuwait, we rushed to the defense of Saudi Arabia and pushed Iraq out of Kuwait. We then shifted to a policy of “dual-containment.” But by the end of the Clinton administration, officials such as Kenneth Pollack who’d been charged with implementing the policy became convinced that it was slowly unraveling and that we should take advantage of the political opportunity presented by 9/11 to mount an invasion of Iraq and resolve the issue. As of now, it remains fairly mysterious what exactly George W. Bush was thinking when he invaded Iraq, but this line of thought was evidently influential among Democratic supporters of the war (not just Pollack, but Hillary Clinton and most of the advisers she’s bringing with her to the State Department), so my best guess is that his administration was thinking roughly the same thing.

And whatever else you may say about the war in Iraq, based on my colleague Peter Juul’s informative take on Iraq’s recent weapons-buying spree we may have hit the sweet spot. Peter writes:

By the time these sales are complete (~2011), Iraq will on paper have an army quantitatively and qualitatively equivalent to those of its neighbors. Its 2,250+ U.S.-upgraded T-72 and M1A1M tanks will be quantitatively equal and qualitatively superior to the armor forces fielded by Iran. Its armor forces will be quantitatively superior to those of Saudi Arabia, while being qualitatively equivalent (if slightly smaller than those) of Turkey’s. The Iraqi Army’s biggest handicap in conventional warfare will be its lack of artillery.

By comparison, the Iraqi Air Force will be relatively small compared to those of its neighbors. Should the potential F-16 deal go through, Iraq will have just 36 modern combat aircraft – compared to 254 in Saudi Arabia and 243 in Turkey. Its air force will be comparable to those of smaller regional power such as Kuwait (39 modern fighters) or Bahrain (21 modern fighters). While Iraq will have a greater number of modern combat aircraft than Iran (36 to 25), Iran will have a greater number of obsolete aircraft.

That combination of strong land forces and a weak air force ought, it seems to me, to create the desired outcome. Such an Iraqi military can defend itself against Iran, but would have enormous difficulty mounting offensive operations. But one has to wonder how stable this dynamic is. For one thing, there continues to be a risk that Iraq’s central government will remain hopelessly divided and ineffectual, which would make the possession of tanks essentially useless in preventing Iranian political domination. Alternatively, the Iraqi government could pull itself together in which case it ought to be be able to build up its stockpile of modern aircraft in due time. And the underlying balance of power calculus that Kuwait has lots of oil, few people, and a government with little legitimacy will stay in place.

But even if the new balance stays in place, it’s worth reflecting on the enormous cost that our past 25-30 years worth of fiddling around with this has entailed. We’ve done it, more or less, to prevent any one country from securing monopoly power in the oil markets. That’s not a totally crazy objective. But truly vast sums have been invested in this goal—the approximately $1 trillion in Bush’s latest adventure is just a small part—sums that could, instead, have been spent on the goal of moving the US economy to a place where it’s less impacted by fluctuations in the oil market. For the costs we’ve been willing to incur in the Gulf, it would have been easy to substantially reduce the oil-intensity of our economy. That would have accomplished much the same economic goals, but also entailed significant advantages in terms of public health and the environment. To say nothing of the people killed or maimed by the bullets and explosives.