A Battleground for the Foreseeable Future
Bitter Lemons International
Bob Woodward’s four books chronicling the wars of President George W. Bush are sensitive barometers of conventional wisdom in Washington. Whereas the first volume, published in 2002 at the height of the self-righteous nationalism gripping the capital after the September 11, 2001 attacks, hailed Bush’s self-confidence in acting to protect the homeland, the 2008 installment depicts the same man as cocksure and incurious. This much is not news. More educational are Woodward’s hints about the worldviews that will outlast this unpopular administration, embedded in the organs of the national security state.
Consider the words of retired Gen. Jack Keane, reported by Woodward to have been spoken to Gen. David Petraeus in Baghdad in March: “We’re going to be here for 50 years minimum, most of the time hopefully preventing wars, and on occasion having to fight one, dealing with radical Islam, our economic interests in the region and trying to achieve stability…. We’re going to do it anyway because we don’t have a choice.”
“Here,” in Keane’s formulation, was not Iraq, but the sprawling theater of operations for US Central Command, or CENTCOM, of which Petraeus will assume control when his tour in Iraq is over. Keane’s message to Petraeus was clear: CENTCOM, whose borders happen to coincide roughly with those of the Islamic world, is where the action is, now and as far as the eye can see.
While Keane is known as the architect of Bush’s “surge” in Iraq, and is a favorite of neo-conservatives and other hawks, his ideas about US grand strategy are common across the ideological spectrum that matters in Washington. Hardly anyone of political weight has learned from the Iraq debacle, or the disaster in Somalia, or the September 11 attacks for that matter, that the United States is too heavily deployed or too bent on having its way in CENTCOM’s domain. John McCain and Barack Obama both speak of sending more troops to Afghanistan, though Obama would remove them from Iraq first. No one in a position to work in the next White House has advocated that the US give up its role, inherited from Britain, as praetorian guard of Persian Gulf oil or its more expansive mission to stamp out fires throughout what Carter-era National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski called the “arc of crisis.” The arguments are about how this hegemonic stance can be maintained to maximum advantage and at minimum cost.
This is not to suggest, in crude fashion, that the existence of CENTCOM caused the September 11 attacks and will inevitably provoke a reprise. It is rather to say that the American strategic and political classes are acutely aware, as never before 2001, of the importance of a "forward-leaning posture" in the Middle East to the overall health of US superpower status. The threats they perceive to the free flow of the region’s oil, two thirds of the world’s proven reserves (as cannot be repeated often enough), come not just from radical Islam and failed states, but also from the grasping, and growing, giants Russia and China. The prospects of relative US decline are to be confronted, not managed. The Washington mandarins, of both parties, care little for international cooperation: They believe in power, and they trust no one but themselves to wield it.
Of course, both parties prattle, as they do every electoral season, about weaning America off “Middle Eastern oil.” But even assuming a series of presidents with the political will and capital to make the necessary policy changes, the task will outlive all of their terms. Denmark, which has so many wind turbines it exports 90 percent of the electricity, still consumes vastly more oil than renewable energy, in large part because of the automobile. The US, with its wide open spaces and exurban subdivisions, will continue to need more and more oil to sustain living standards at home, even as domestic production slips and competition for control of foreign fields toughens. More to the point, the strategic stakes in the Persian Gulf will only heighten. Whosoever polices the Gulf safeguards the single most important commodity for the world economy.
The peoples of the lands under CENTCOM’s umbrella can hope for a smarter, more inquisitive, less bellicose American president than the boy-king whose bungling Woodward reveals. Such a chief executive might have the skill to forestall the wars that Keane foresees. But, barring the advent of a foreign policy establishment in Washington with genuine vision and appropriate humility, the fundamentals of political economy dictate that, in some shape or form, the greater Middle East will remain a battleground for several Septembers to come.