February 25, 2004.

Neo-conservatives not the problem

By Stephen Gowans

A little noticed February 19th LA Times report [1] should lay to rest any question that the US is in Iraq for the bucks.

It seems Bush administration officials are antsy about France and Germany musing openly that a new UN Security Council resolution on the UN role in Iraq may be needed.

A new UN resolution could undo a lot of fat reconstruction and oil field development contracts lined up for US corporations, opening them to the same French, German and Russian firms that had the inside track on investment opportunities in Iraq before the war.

An anonymous Bush administration official told the LA Times that France and Germany "might want to stop projects that we're about to get underway. They might want to undo ones that are already going" [2].

That, the official added, "could have really major effects" [3]. He didn't say as much, but it was clear where the major effects would be felt: On the bottom lines of the US firms in line for reconstruction and oil-development contracts.

You don't have to be an Einstein to see that the US take-over of Iraq is driven by economic self-interest, or that the opposition of France, Germany and Russia is motivated by the same material considerations. You just have to pay attention.

Former treasury secretary Paul O'Neil, who revealed the Bush administration began planning an invasion of Iraq from its very first days, said documents bearing the titles "Plan for Post-Saddam Iraq" and "Foreign Suitors for Iraqi Oil Field Contracts," were discussed at National Security Council meetings [4].

Significantly, the discussion at those early meetings wasn't about whether Saddam had banned weapons and how to get rid of them, but how to put the US more firmly in charge of the Middle East economically.

But then anyone who's leafed through the President's September 20, 2002 National Security Strategy, with its elevation of opening the world to US trade and investment to a moral principle (and a desideratum of national security to boot), won't be surprised that discussions at NSC meetings ring with the sounds of debate over how to pry open foreign markets, secure control of critical raw materials, and, oh yes, who the foreign suitors for Iraqi oil field contracts are, and what to do about them.

Midway through 2000, sanctions against Iraq started to breakdown. Few countries supported them anymore. And French, German and Russian firms were gearing up to do business with the oil-rich country.
Saddam Hussein was leaning toward Europe.

It was obvious US and British firms were going to be frozen out of a post-sanctions Iraq. Their governments had been the major force behind a devastating blockade that had ruined the country, and claimed over one million lives. Saddam would hardly welcome Anglo-American trade and investment with open arms.

On top of that, the British-American alliance had regularly flown sorties over illegally-imposed no-fly zones, waging an unremitting low intensity war. Strike two.

Once the sanctions regime was lifted, or collapsed through non-compliance, French, German and Russian firms were going to secure handsome deals at the expense of their American and British competitors [5].

What's more, the Iraqi government started to sell oil in Euros. Oil sales are denominated in US dollars, a practice that props up the greenback, offsetting the downward effects on the currency of the massive US trade deficit. If the practice spread, the economic impact on the US would have far-reaching implications.

Finally, Washington wanted to protect access of US firms to the critical resource of Middle Eastern oil. But it needed a solid military presence in the region, beyond Kuwait and Qatar, to do so. While it had bases in Saudi Arabia, the Saudis wanted the Americans out. Iraq was the perfect compromise.

All three problems could be solved by replacing the Euro-friendly Baathist regime with an American military, economic and political presence.

First, German, French and Russian firms -- whose governments predictably opposed the US plan to oust Saddam -- would be cut out of the action.

It's very simple," explained Bush. "Our people risk their lives...and, therefore, the contracting is going to reflect that" [6].

This is called expanding a protected market at the expense of foreign rivals.

It's also called pressing the lives of poorly paid grunts into service to fatten the bottom lines of Bechtel, Halliburton and other American firms that hope to expand their capital by rebuilding what the beneficiaries of the Pentagon system have had a hand in knocking down.

Second, in May, President Bush ordered Iraq's oil be sold in US dollars, not Euros.

And third, the US now has a solid military presence in Iraq, and is likely to maintain a large one  indefinitely.

A disaster? A mistake? From the perspective of corporate America, it couldn't have worked out better. For old Europe and its corporations, the outcome isn't so pleasing.

Karen Kwiatkowski, a recently retired US Air Force Lieutenant Colonel, who worked in the US Defense Department's Office of Special Plans -- it's responsible for developing Pentagon policy vis-a-vis Iraq -- agrees these are the reasons the US went to war [7].

But she says the US government has been hijacked by a neo-conservative cabal.

This is a pleasing fiction moderate Republicans, and equally Democrats and progressives, use to insulate themselves from reality, for it says the invasion of Iraq was an aberration, not a manifestation of a deep-seated tendency in US foreign policy that spans liberal Democrat to neo-conservative Republican administrations.

It's a comforting idea, from which springs forth an illusion: if you want US war-making to stop, all you have to do is vote the neo-conservatives out. Forget about radical change. There's nothing wrong with the system. It's just that the American people occasionally vote for the wrong people.

But the reasons Kwiatkowski cites for the war hardly seem to have a unique affinity with the neo-conservative ideology of the people in power, and seems to have more to do with the imperatives of competition between corporate America and corporate Europe.

Consider again what lay at the base of the US decision to invade Iraq to seize control of the country from the Baathists.

1. The need to establish military bases that, Kwiatkowski says, "we had been searching for since the days of Carter to secure energy lines of communication in the region" [my emphasis].

2. The need to ensure US firms would get a "financial benefit" once sanctions were lifted.

3. The need to ensure oil sales were denominated in US dollars, not Euros.

Since administrations back to the days of Carter have been seeking to establish US bases in the Middle East, we can hardly count this motivation as being uniquely neo-conservative.

And it would be ludicrous to say that denominating oil sales in US dollars is a neo-conservative shibboleth. Wouldn't Democrat and moderate Republican administrations want to preserve this standard, as much as neo-conservatives?

Finally, both the Bush I and Clinton administrations insisted that sanctions wouldn't be lifted so long as Saddam remained in power. Indeed, as US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld correctly pointed out, the policy of regime change in Iraq became official US policy under the Clinton administration, not the Bush II regime.

With support for sanctions breaking down, and European firms poised to secure lucrative contracts in Iraq at the expense of corporate America, it's almost certain a Gore administration would have pursued the accustomed US government role of guardian of US corporate interests abroad by following through on the Clinton administration policy of regime change in Iraq.

Perhaps the tactics would have differed, but there's no doubt the state would have been used to secure access to critical raw materials and to expand the markets of its corporations at the expense of foreign rivals.

That's what the governments of imperialist powers do.

Democrats, and Republicans aghast at Bush's brazenness, offer three alternatives to the course Bush pursued:

This would have meant corporate America would have lost out to its European competitors. Since corporate America is not only the principal campaign contributor to both major parties, but is the lobbyist par excellence, and holds all the strategic positions in US society, it is all but certain that corporate America's interests would have been pursued zealously, and not sacrificed to those of European rivals by allowing the sanctions to be lifted prior to the US asserting complete control over the country, its resources, its politics, and its economy.

Corporate America would still have lost out to its European competitors as the sanctions regime slowly crumbled through lack of compliance by France, Germany and Russia. Not a scenario any government committed to promoting US corporate interests (i.e., any US government) would tolerate.

If secured, the spoils of conquest would have had to have been shared with European competitors. This, from the perspective of corporate America, would be an unnecessary concession. Why share the spoils when you don't have to? The US was perfectly capable of toppling the Saddam regime and asserting control over Iraq without the assistance of France, Germany and Russia.

And there was no guarantee European rivals could be drawn into a coalition, or, at the very least, be cajoled into giving the invasion their blessing. If efforts at securing European support failed, what then -- a unilateral war? But that's no different than the course the Bush administration pursued. And sitting tight would have meant a crumbling of the sanctions regime and corporate Europe beating corporate America to the punch in Iraq -- an outcome no US government would willingly accept.

All this may seem to be a defense of the actions Bush officials took vis-a-vis Iraq. And it is, but only in the sense that what the Bush administration did in the context of the social and economic forces they were constrained by, made sense.

A different administration, free from neo-conservatives, would have been subjected to the same social and economic forces, a point made clear by the fact that analyses of why the Bush administration went to war (even by exponents of the Washington has been hijacked by neo-cons thesis, like Kwiatkowski) have nothing to do with a uniquely neo-conservative ideology, but with safeguarding and promoting the interests of corporate America relative to those of its French, German and Russian competitors.

A victory by the non-neo-conservative Gore in 2000 wouldn't have made the competition among US and European firms any less acute, or the means of ensuring US corporate interests prevailed any less brutal. Nor would it have attenuated corporate influence over the US state.

The same can be said of a victory by anyone but Bush in 2004.


[1] "France, Germany want a UN resolution on Iraq" Los Angeles Times, February 19, 2004.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] "Iraq war plan predates 9/11, O'Neill says," Globe and Mail, January 12, 2004.

[5] Tom Jackson, "Iraq Was Surviving the Sanctions: Why They Wouldn't Wait," www.counterpunch.com, February 20-22.

[6] "Bush Defends Barring Nations From Iraq Deals," The New York Times, December 12, 2003.

[7] "Soldier for the Truth: Exposing Bush's talking-points war," LA Weekly, February 20-26, 2004.


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Stephen Gowans