The "American moment" in the Middle East

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Quotes of the day in honor of “the American moment”:

“Washington,” said an Arab envoy, “needs to wipe that pre-emptive smirk
off its face, in a hurry.”
(Quoted in R.W. Apple, Jr., “A New Way of Warfare Leaves Behind an Abundance of Loose Ends, the New York Times)

“In what was the clearest hint so far of US intentions towards the countries which had failed to support the war, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said the post-war policy should be: ‘Punish France, ignore Germany and forgive Russia.'” (From Tensions Rise as Victors Survey the Spoils in the Glasgow Sunday Herald, which also has some interesting bits on oil policy and its problems in occupied Iraq. )

Yes, the future is truly a mystery and predicting it a ridiculously dicey activity, as I’ve learned from my own ventures where no one can really go. But we do know now that the looting of the National Museum of Antiquities in Baghdad was as predictable — for experts — as any future event might be (on which an update tomorrow). One other matter was utterly predictable. I even predicted it myself in the pre-war period — and it only took a postwar week to get there. For an added benefit, you don’t have to search out the news in the Asia Times or the Sydney Morning Herald or Alternet or Al-Jazeera or (though you can find it there). It’s the New York Times‘ lead front page piece today — Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt’s “Pentagon Expects Long-Term Access to Four Key Bases in Iraq.”

Ho-hum, what’s new? But for those of you who don’t get the Times, check the story out below. It might as well have been written by New Left Review. Our imperial string of bases, a vast arc of military control, now stretches from the Rumania, Bulgaria, and the former Yugoslavia to China’s doorstep, taking in the most crucial oil lands of our globe. As the Times’ reporters write, it’s “a swath of Western influence not seen for generations.”

If you combine that piece with what might be considered a companion story in the Los Angeles Times, Esther Schrader’s Retreat is Part of U.S. Strategy, it’s possible to see that the planning that did not go into an occupation of Baghdad, has gone into a military reconfiguration of the region. We are, in a pungent phrase from the New York Times, “modulating our footprint” — Godzilla calling — in Saudi Arabia and the region as a whole.

“Last week’s quiet removal of 30 of the 80 fighter jets and almost half the 4,500 personnel from Incirlik Air Base in Turkey is just the beginning, officials said. Within months, the Pentagon plans to close down most of its operations at Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia, leaving only a skeleton crew, and to move most of its aircraft and troops out of Qatar and Oman.

“Last week’s quiet removal of 30 of the 80 fighter jets and almost half the 4,500 personnel from Incirlik Air Base in Turkey is just the beginning, officials said. Within months, the Pentagon plans to close down most of its operations at Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia, leaving only a skeleton crew, and to move most of its aircraft and troops out of Qatar and Oman.

“The plans, which are preliminary and subject to review, are a response to pressure from Arab governments incensed by the U.S. military buildup in the region over the last 12 years, the financial burden of maintaining vast numbers of troops overseas and the strain it has caused for families and military readiness.

“The decision to shrink what the Pentagon calls its footprint in the Middle East does not, for now, affect the more than 160,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.”

This is, in part, our long-delayed response to Osama Bin Laden’s demands (and will certainly be seen that way in the region). Now, that we have Iraq, the pivotal spot in the neocon plan to grasp and remake the region, we’ll lower our profile in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar — or so the initial planning goes. As the “new Rome,” however, we — and I’m really referring to the Pentagon here since that seems to be where the real planning takes place, the planning that matters, the planning that adds up to much of American foreign policy “on the ground” these days — are something like the famed guest who came to dinner. Once we have a base in place, whatever the immediate explanation, we just never quite leave the feast.

With that in mind and given that some striking assumptions about success are buried in our planning for a long-term military presence in Iraq, let me add below two thoughtful, strong warnings from men who know something about history. Paul Kennedy, the creator of the term “imperial overstretch,” whose book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers is already something of a classic, examines this “American moment in the Middle East” from the grim perspective of recent imperial history in the region in the Washington Post‘s Sunday Outlook section. It’s an essay that should (but won’t) give pause even to the most gung ho neocon. As Kennedy says, “To be sure, history never repeats itself exactly, but it often deals hard blows to those who ignore it entirely.”

On the Los Angeles Times Sunday opinion page, Jon Weiner, contributing editor to the Nation magazine, considers “regime change” in Iraq within the context of three previous American moments of “regime change,” in Guatemala, Vietnam, and Iran, all of which were initially remarkably easy and from two of which the “unintended consequences” were devastating for us and extend to this moment. (For Guatemala, the consequences of “regime change” American-style were horrific indeed, but its experience is also a reminder that not all imperial deeds, however despicable, “blow back” to the “homeland.”) Both pieces should remind us as well in the rush of the moment that the verdict of history, such as it is, can take decades to arrive. Tom

Pentagon Expects Long-Term Access to Four Key Bases in Iraq
By Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt
The New York Times
April 20, 2003

The United States is planning a long-term military relationship with the emerging government of Iraq, one that would grant the Pentagon access to military bases and project American influence into the heart of the unsettled region, senior Bush administration officials say.

American military officials, in interviews this week, spoke of maintaining perhaps four bases in Iraq that could be used in the future: one at the international airport just outside Baghdad; another at Tallil, near Nasiriya in the south; the third at an isolated airstrip called H-1 in the western desert, along the old oil pipeline that runs to Jordan; and the last at the Bashur air field in the Kurdish north.

To read more Shanker and Schmitt click here

The Perils Of Empire
This Looks Like America’s Moment. History Should Give Us Pause
By Paul Kennedy
The Washington Post
April 20, 2003

Eighty-six years ago, another powerful invading army had just entered Baghdad. At the same time, other divisions driving north-eastwards from Egypt were occupying Palestine. Urged on by their own strategists and intellectuals, these forces would soon advance upon Damascus. They would exercise great influence upon Iran and the Persian Gulf states. Donning the mantle of liberators, they would encourage regime change in Saudi Arabia and Jordan. They would send out messages of hope that “the entire Arab world may rise once more to greatness and renown” now that its oppressors were defeated. These were folks determined to make the entire Middle East secure and stable — a blessing to the world, no doubt, but a particular blessing to their own hegemonic nation, and that nation was Great Britain.

Paul Kennedy is a professor of history and the director of International Security Studies at Yale University and the author or editor of 16 books, including “The Rise And Fall of the Great Powers” (Random House)

To read more Kennedy click here

Overthrow Now, Pay Later
By Jon Wiener
The Los Angeles Times
April 20, 2003

What conclusions will the White House draw from its quick and relatively easy victory in Iraq?

An undersecretary of State told Israeli officials in February that the U.S. will “deal with” Iran, North Korea and Syria next. The U.S. certainly has the power to do that, and it would not be the first time Washington forced a series of regime changes around the world.

In the 1950s, the Eisenhower administration decided to “deal with” objectionable governments in Iran, Guatemala and Vietnam. The histories of these adventures should haunt the Bush administration as it contemplates its next moves.

In 1953, the U.S. had its first success at regime change in the Middle East

Jon Wiener is professor of history at UC Irvine and a contributing editor to the Nation magazine

To read more Wiener click here