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SEARCH RESULTS - STORY
Deals with the Devil
Why the U.S. will not be going it alone against Iraq
 
Matt Welch
National Post
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LOS ANGELES - Contrary to what George W. Bush's most vocal critics will tell you, there's no such thing as a unilateral war.

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 over Iraq.

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 weapons program?

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 republics.

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 too broadly.

"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 quo."

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 Saudi Arabia.

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 impending war.

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 after all.

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

 Copyright 2002 National Post
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