25 May 2011

Arab Spring, Part 3: America's Long-Term Plans for the Middle East

When the Bush administration engaged in a year long marketing to sell the Iraq war on WMD grounds, most war opponents assumed that it was a typical neo-colonial grab for oil.

Personally, I never found that argument convincing. Iraq has reasonably large reserves but they are not important enough to warrant the kind of large scale occupation required to control those resources. If the US had neo-colonial urges, and I'll admit that they frequently do, it would be far easier to trigger a coup d'etat in Venezuela and put in charge a friendly despot to enjoy a secure supply of oil for decades.

The issue is not secure supply of oil for the US economy. Between Canada, Venezuela and their local production, they would be fine for decades to come. NAFTA engages the Canadian government to sell to all North American buyers without discrimination (as opposed to being obliged to sell to the US as some people claim) and that should be enough to ease any shortage worries Americans might have.

What the US really wanted was to control the distribution of a significant portion of the world's oil production. That would mean setting up a large military presence in the middle of Central Asian and Middle Eastern supply lines. Hence the often quoted line of a Wall Street oil analyst "“Think of Iraq as a military base with a very large oil reserve underneath. You can’t ask for better than that.”

The control of the distribution of oil is critically important because it would enable the US to check the ascendancy of China (and eventually of India). In the next fifty years or so, depending on which Peak Oil theorist you read, it is claimed that oil consumption will out-pace oil production. As China is the self-declared factory of the world, oil is very important for its economic performance and stability both as a source of energy and as the raw material of everything plastic.

Given the rising economic power of China, the huge US debt it is collecting and the manufacturing dependence of US companies on China, Americans will find it increasingly difficult to limit China's super power ambitions. Controlling a large portion of global oil distribution would enable the US to contain China, to use a quaint Cold War term.

In that scenario, the US needed to establish a permanent presence in the Middle East, settle certain disputes, remove certain problem spots and stabilize pipeline regions. Some of these goals might entail a significant re-arrangement of the map of the region. Since the Middle East is made up recent countries largely created on the whims of former colonial powers (Britain and France), the US might have said to itself, why not try to re-do it it for such an important objective?

Permanent Presence

Despite reassurances that the US will eventually withdraw from IRAQ, everyone knows that this is not the case. There are at least four super-bases, initially capable of holding 55,000 troops and they have been further enlarged and expanded since 2007. What the US asked of Iraqi government was as follows:
At least 58 permanent military bases across Iraq. (In comparison, the United States maintains 36 military bases in South Korea.) 
Control over Iraqi air space up to 30,000 feet, including the right to refuel in mid-air. American and British air forces have been used to controlling vast swaths of Iraqi air space going back to the first Gulf War, following which they established two “no-fly” zones for Iraqi planes in the northern and southern parts of the country. Since the 2003 American-led invasion and occupation of the country, the U.S. Air Force has had free rein over Iraq.
They also asked full immunity for American soldiers and contractors and the agreement has no expiry date.

They are not going anywhere.

Settling Disputes

The mother of all disputes in the region is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Until very recently it looked like this issue was never going to go away. Even though everyone talks about a two-state solution, the reality on the ground is that there is no contiguous area on which a state of Palestine can be built.

Here is what the map looks like:

The biggest obstacles were the staunchly nationalistic positions of Likud-Kadima and Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu parties. They seemed oblivious to the fact that within a few decades, Arab populations under Israeli control would demographically surpass Jews, forcing Israel to either treat them as second class citizens or to allow them to become the governing group. They are equally unpalatable and self-destructive possibilities.

Yet anytime anyone suggested a change to status quo they were shot down not only by this right wing coalition but also by the very short-sighted AIPAC in the US. The 50 million evangelicals who make up the core of the modern Republican party believe that Israel is the land of the return of Christ and unless Israel and Jerusalem remains Jewish (and Al Aqsa Mosque or the Dome of the Rock is taken over) the Lord will not return and there will be no rapture. Under normal circumstances, they and AIPAC constitute a formidable force against change.

Hence in the last decades, the US policy has been to side unwaveringly with Israel, protect it within the UN through its Security Council veto and accept everything Israeli governments did and said as constructive and legitimate. It also made sure that, Egypt, as the largest Arab country in the region, did not join the surrounding anti-Israeli coalition and kept the Rafah border (with Gaza) closed. The so called Cold Peace between Egypt and Israel enabled the latter to maintain a blockade on Gaza and to control all aspects of daily life there.

But the events surrounding the Arab Spring dramatically changed this stagnant situation. With Mubarak gone the next Egyptian government, whether it is a coalition with Muslim Brotherhood or with liberal pro-West Al Baradei, will have to open the Rafah crossing.

This is the reason why I felt that most commentators missed the main point of the US not asking the Egyptian army and Tantawi to protect Mubarak. Considering the implications of a regime change in Egypt, the US would not allow a few hundred thousand protesters to create a dangerous situation for Israel. If nothing was done, it means that they knew where this was going.

To support that contrarian thesis, I have three more pieces of evidence:

Within a couple of weeks of Mubarak's departure about 40 prominent figures in Israel, among whom former heads of Mossad, Shin Bet and army generals, submitted a peace plan to Netanyahu. The plan called for a two state solution with Israel going back to 1967 borders:
Group who created the plan, which includes ex-IDF chief Amnon Lipkin-Shahak and ex-general Amram Mitzna, hopes to use it to pressure Netanyahu to renew talks with the Palestinians. 
Former Israeli security chiefs have drafted a new peace plan they hope to use as a platform to pressure Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to renew deadlocked talks with the Palestinians. 
A spokesman confirmed the outline of the plan on Tuesday, saying it was based on a 2002 Arab initiative which Israel has avoided adopting because of its call to repatriate refugees and fully withdraw from land captured in a 1967 war. 
About 40 prominent Israelis backed the project, among them dovish former political leaders as well as former heads of the Mossad, Shin Bet and Israeli military, who say they will publicize their ideas fully on Wednesday. 
The plan has been devised "in light of the dramatic events in the Middle East" -- an allusion to popular uprisings against autocratic rulers in the Arab world flaring since January -- and was meant to urge the government to "immediately renew peace talks," a statement issued by the group said.
The second piece of evidence is that within days of that plan being submitted (and possibly dismissed by Netanyahu) the two warring Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, one controlling West Bank, the other Gaza, announced their sudden and highly surprising reconciliation.

It is hard to overstate their differences and given these differences, it was nothing short of miraculous that they would put aside years of mutual hatred and radically different outlooks and kiss and make up almost spontaneously. My only explanation is that someone approached them with a bag of carrots and sticks: serious arm twisting and promises of very important changes.

The third piece of evidence is that Obama unexpectedly gave a strongly worded speech which called for immediate action for peace and offered as its building blocs exactly what the Group of 40 suggested (see above quote). US presidents (for reasons explained above) rarely direct Israel to do something. Moreover, at the time, the main topics of political conversation were Paul Ryan Medicare phaseout plan, Tea party histrionics, lousy economy, repeal of health care law etc. No one was expecting such a major foreign policy initiative and he did it.

As can be expected, wingnuts in the US threw a temper tantrum. I only read Ha'aretz and not Likud papers, so I only know second hand that the Israeli right wing had a similar reaction. In fact, Netanyahu lost his cool to such an extent that his tone got him a rebuke from one of the staunchest supporters of Israel, Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic.

But AIPAC did not express any open hostility to Obama when he gave them a speech subsequently to explain his position. I suspect, they now know that the situation on the ground has changed dramatically and whatever pressure they place on Obama, they would not be able to bring back Mubarak and change back the clock. It is even possible that they are beginning to realize that a negotiated peace settlement is the best thing for the security and survival of Israel.

The main point is that none of these initiatives and changes would have been possible without the Arab Spring. And without a US plan to change things, Arab Spring would have ended the way all previous uprisings ended: in bloody suppression.

But changing things around to pressure Israel to come to negotiation table is just one element of the plan. There are few other items that will need to unfold in the coming weeks, months and years. Syria, Iran and Kurdistan are the other elements of the puzzle.

To explain that part of the picture, let's take a look at Turkey which has played a very important role in all that and will continue to play an even greater role.


Update: I wrote these words two days ago and today Egypt has just announced the opening of Rafah border crossing

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