Why the U.S. will not be going it
alone against Iraq
LOS ANGELES - Contrary to what George W. Bush's most vocal
critics will tell you, there's no such thing as a unilateral
Troops need overseed overseas bases to stage manoeuvres from,
bombers need airspace to fly through, generals need
neighbouring countries' borders locked down, and the United
States public usually requires the burden of post-war
peacekeeping be shared by friendly non-American countries,
such as Canada. Each one of these logistical tasks requires
multiple bilateral deals, purchased at varying prices,
depending on urgency and diplomatic heft. Assessing those
costs is an under-examined line of argument in the U.S. debate
To prosecute the war in Afghanistan, for example, the
United States reversed its longstanding policy toward
Pakistan, lifting sanctions that were imposed because of the
country's nuclear weapons program, dropping most public
concern about Pervez Musharraf's military quasi-dictatorship,
softening support for India in the Kashmir dispute, and
offering all kinds of goodies -- military aid and
co-operation, the promise of tariff reductions, the trial
balloon of insurance for any oil-price hike, and more. All
this for a country that, until Sept. 11, was the Taliban's
biggest supporter. Times change and war creates the need for
new alliances of realpolitik convenience.
The horse-trading is not limited to military expedience.
For, despite every Kyoto Protocol and International Criminal
Court, and regardless of stern government barking about U.S.
willingness to act "alone if necessary," the truth is that
Washington is extremely reluctant to launch any military
adventure without at least the grudging support of Paris,
Moscow and even Beijing.
U.S. governments, as blundering and unpolished as they
inevitably seem to outsiders, have all been trained to court
public opinion and peg any major foreign-policy initiative to
the crowd-pleasing fight for global freedom. We always want to
woo. Bush, at the same time, has shown a mischievous fondness
for using his cowboy bluffing to push the centre of debate
much closer to his zone of comfort -- witness how the
international community now demands that weapons inspectors be
allowed unlimited access in Iraq, whereas five months ago, few
diplomats were suggesting any such thing.
So when Bush lashed his Iraq project to the United Nations
mast on Sept. 12 -- a move, incidentally, that most elite U.S.
newspapers mistakenly described as a "surprise," given the
administration's "unilateralist" tendencies -- the initial
shock quickly gave way to the permanent members of the UN
Security Council, excluding Britain, lining up to announce
terms for having their arms twisted.
Russian President Vladimir Putin immediately started
lobbying intensively for licence to attack renegade Chechens
hiding out in the unstable Pankisi Gorge pocket of the former
Soviet republic of Georgia.
What does this have to do with restraining Saddam Hussein's
The Economist magazine attempted to connect Putin's dots in
a Sept. 23 editorial:
"Like America in Iraq, his officials claim, Russia is
insisting on its right to take military action, alone if
necessary, against a nation which it deems to be in breach of
international law; like America in Afghanistan, Russia
justifies itself by recalling that failed states can be a
source of festering security threats. Like George Bush, Mr.
Putin is merely proposing to act pre-emptively, in extremis,
against a state that poses a deadly and increasing danger.
Indeed, regime change cannot be ruled out."
The problem, as the British weekly went on to point out, is
that "the Georgian state functions less than perfectly ... in
large part because Russia itself has consistently undermined
it." Russia has been a bullying and unpleasant force in its
"Near Abroad" -- the republics once within Moscow's control --
since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. Using oil,
economic pressure and military support for ethnic insurgents,
Russia was actively contributing to the destabilization of
such countries as Moldova and Belarus long before Putin came
to power in 1999 on a wave of nationalist support for Russia's
side in the separatist Chechen war.
Putin's administration is well stocked with Chechnya
veterans bent on keeping order on Russia's fringe. "Because
Putin sees Chechnya as the continuation of the disastrous
collapse of the Soviet Union," Boston University lecturer
Chandler Rosenberger wrote in a 2001 paper, "he seems to view
veterans of the war as the kind of men he [can] count on to
prevent Russia's further collapse."
By throwing his weight unambiguously behind Bush's
Afghanistan policy last fall, Putin gained crucial leverage in
the war he obsesses about. Since last September, Washington
has been mostly silent about Russian atrocities in Grozny, and
has basically accepted Putin's linkage of the Chechen
separatists to al-Qaeda terrorists. Flushed with this success,
the Russian President now wants the ability to venture
militarily into sovereign countries, not just breakaway
Because the British are on-board with Bush's Iraq policy,
while the French remain persuadable and the Chinese stand
ready to abstain, Russia's threat to veto any new UN
resolution on weapons inspections carries significant weight.
Still, despite repeated public expressions of "concern" over
Chechen rebels using Pankisi as a safe haven, the U.S.
government appears to be holding firm -- 150 U.S. military
advisors have been dispatched to Georgia, and Bush has warned
Putin not to interpret this "pre-emptive self-defence" stuff
"The view from Washington is that giving in to Moscow's
demands will not only inflame the Chechen war, but also be a
very bad omen for the entire region," wrote Jonathan Eyal,
director of studies for the Royal United Services Institute,
this week in a comment for The Straits Times of Singapore. "A
new division into spheres of influence will alarm neighbouring
Turkey and Ukraine, and it will give the Russians an even
stronger hand further afield in Central Asia."
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher drove the point
home to reporters late last month: "There's no quid pro
Short of having its way in the Caucasus region, Russia may
instead settle for assurances that its $7-billion in
long-overdue loans to Iraq may finally be paid back, and that
its extensive investments in the oil industry there will be
protected. "The Russians will get a pledge that their debts
will be repaid and a tacit promise of lucrative contracts in
Iraq after Mr. Saddam's departure," Eyal predicted. "And the
U.S. will be able to get on with its war."
But not without some serious logistical support from
several other countries in the Middle East. The U.S. military
is finishing construction of a new forward command post in
Qatar, where more than 3,000 troops are stationed. Kuwait has
9,000 Americans on three military bases and enough hardware to
support two heavy armoured brigades, The Associated Press
reported last month. Bahrain is now home of the Navy's 5th
Fleet, with more than 4,000 troops. Special operations types
have created a new base in Djibouti. Oman and the United Arab
Emirates have contributed space.
Given the dubious popularity of the United States in the
Arab world, these offerings could not have come without a
price, though the details do not even add up to a footnote on
the current debate over Iraq. As in the Afghanistan war, which
created unexpected temporary relationships with such
unpleasant countries as Uzbekistan, Americans are not busting
Bush's chops for sacrificing principle for practicality.
But the focus on Iraq, and the buildup toward war there --
even if it were only a threat intended to bully Saddam into
readmitting inspectors -- creates an urgency to twist arms and
trade horses immediately, until all the relevant countries get
on board. Which means delaying the inevitable reckoning with
To cite the familiar statistic, Saudi Arabia outnumbered
Iraq in the number of Sept. 11 hijackers by a score of 15 to
0. Osama bin Laden, a Saudi, and his Saudi-heavy sect,
practises a virulent strain of Wahhabist Islam that originates
in Mecca and is exported worldwide with billions in Saudi oil
money. Saddam's bankrupt regime is secular and exports no
discernible ideology. By any reasonable measure, the events of
Sept. 11 were more closely linked to Saudi Arabia than to any
other country except Afghanistan. Many of Bush's criticisms of
the Taliban, the Palestinian Authority and Saddam are equally
applicable to the House of Saud.
If the administration has any master plan toward Saudi
Arabia, it hasn't been leaked. If decades worth of U.S.
diplomacy and Bush family relations are anything to go by, the
country that produced the key ingredients for Sept. 11 will
continue being praised, in the words of Bush to Crown Prince
Abdullah in late August, for its "eternal friendship" with the
United States. Meanwhile, because the eternal friend borders
Iraq and contains key air bases, the United States will be
cutting even more deals to secure its co-operation in the
Like most diplomatic negotiations between the two
countries, the details will remain secret. Which is a shame,
because it would be interesting to find out what caused the
desert kingdom to suddenly reverse itself last month by
announcing it may allow Saudi-based U.S. planes to target Iraq
If it's true that the devil you know (or, in this case, the
devil you pal around with at your Texas ranch) is better than
the devil you don't know, it's also true that attacking the
one requires cutting deals with the other, if they share a
common border. Targeting secular Iraq, no matter how
justified, means soliciting Wahhabist Saudi Arabia. The devil
will be in the details.
Matt Welch is a freelance writer living in Los
Angeles. His work is archived at www.mattwelch.com