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“Why Iraq Matters”

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A few days back I posted an essay from an active duty officer, with more than 25 years in uniform, who has extensive experience in the Middle East, including combat experience.He has now written a companion piece to the first essay:

Why Iraq Matters

Does victory in Iraq matter? Why must American fighting forces remain indefinitely in a country that has never known democratic governance and a region that has been at war for what seems centuries? It appears the Iraqis are not interested in domestic tranquility and therefore the United States should not waste another dime or drop of American blood to quell the violence… All of these platitudes are wonderful sound bites for US politicians and graduates of journalism schools but they fall far short of considering the true importance of success in Iraq, or more critically the consequences of US failure either by true defeat or the more likely defeat being engineered by Democrats, craven Republicans and the mainstream media who unwittingly, or perhaps with full knowledge, are doing exactly what the enemy hopes they will do when they react this way. By so doing they vindicate bin Laden’s assessment of America’s endurance for a long war.

A grad school teacher once argued to my class that this region is important for three reasons, religion, geography and oil. Home to the world’s three monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, it represents billions of the world’s believers and therefore is of serious interest to them and hence to the United States with its pluralistic society composed mostly of Christians and Jews but also a growing Islamic population. At the end of the last century, Islam was the world’s fastest growing religion so for that reason alone, it should be of significant policy interest to American leaders.

The Middle East is the strategic geographic gateway between Asia and Europe. The ancient spice route runs right through the heart of the region. Today the Suez Canal is the major marine gateway for shipping moving goods from Europe to Asia and from Asia to Europe. While certainly not the romantic spice route of Marco Polo, it is of critical importance for world commerce and world economic stability.

Finally we come to the issue of oil. The American extreme left (to be distinguished from serious liberals with whom we simply disagree) loves to argue that this war is about oil and oil alone. For them it is about the evil Haliburton (most cannot tell you anything about this company but it’s a wonderful sound bite) and “Bush’s oil friends.” It may seem an obvious point, but the unimpeded transportation of oil from the Arabian/Persian (pick your favorite adjective) Gulf is a vital national interest to the United States. It is one of the few vital national interests publicly identified and it was done so by President Jimmy Carter, not exactly a knee-jerk conservative, in what is now known as the Carter doctrine. It is not about enriching anyone in particular but about maintaining American and world economic security. One need only think back to the approach of $3 per gallon gasoline last summer and what it was doing to the economy. Many economists were predicting $100 a barrel prices and greater. Imagine what this does to consumer prices. Consumption drives the economic engine of America and when Americans stop consuming, others, not just Americans, stop working.

When the price of oil goes up dramatically it sends shock waves throughout the US and world economy and we all suffer and not just at the gasoline pump. Everything that is transported by fossil fuels becomes more expensive as transportation costs climb precipitously. Every item made with or though the use of petrochemicals increases as well. Last summer, many Americans buying or upgrading homes were surprised to find that the cost of new carpets had skyrocketed because they were made with petrochemicals and of course were transported by trains and trucks. Increased prices mean less demand and often surpluses that sit in warehouses. Of course market forces take over and ultimately employers scale back production to meet the new reduced demands and that means a reduced requirement for workers, skilled and unskilled. The costs of transportation don’t merely affect the manufacturers of goods but the providers of services as well. People out of work don’t consume beyond the necessities. People feeling the pinch of high gasoline prices don’t take vacations because the costs of “getting there” are simply too high. Naturally, those who provide tourism goods and services and the labor that supports them all suffer as the necessary cutbacks are made to stay afloat. Hence we see the obvious ripple effects of higher petroleum prices. But what does any of this have to do with the War in Iraq?

Let’s assume that the anti-war left and the American legacy media have their way and America cuts and runs as is it did in Vietnam. Forget about the devastation this will cause the morale of American fighting men and women who will once again have been sold out by politicians. Look at the likely consequences IN Iraq and around the region. What nations in the region have serious interests in Iraq? Turkey, Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. What nations have interests in the region generally? What types of interests are they – survival, vital, major or peripheral?

In the ensuing violence certain to fill a US withdrawal vacuum, the only secure region of Iraq is likely to declare its independence from Iraq. The Kurds to the north have long desired a nation-state of their own and will very likely seize the opportunity to establish a free and independent Kurdistan. They have a cohesive population with a common language and strong sense of national identity. This likelihood is a near certainty and with it comes the near certainty that Turkey will invade northern Iraq in force. The Turks have been battling Kurdish separatists in eastern Anatolia for decades. They have long objected to the establishment of a Kurdish state because it represents a serious security threat to their eastern and southern borders. Kurds in eastern Turkey and northwestern Iran will view the establishment of a Kurdish state as the vindication of their long pursuit of such a state and will be emboldened to press for the annexation of their lands into the new state. The most likely logical outcome of this is invasion by Turkey and perhaps even more Iranian intrigues in Iraq.

Iran has very serious interests in Iraq. With fully two-thirds of the Iraq being followers of Shia Islam, the religious attachment is profound and long-standing. Two of Shia Islam’s holiest shrines are in what is today southern Iraq. The Ali Mosque, which commemorates the martyrdom of Imam Ali Hussein in 680, grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, stands in Karbala. Twice each year Shiites can be seen reenacting the passion play and the death of Ali Hussein. It is a very powerful event and this shrine is precious to Shiites and therefore the Iranians. Imam Ali Hussein’s father, credited with being the father of Shiism, is buried in Najaf. It would seem obvious that the Iranians are likely to recognize and seize the opportunity to annex southern Iraq as the violence associated with an American early withdrawal escalates and jeopardizes Shiites in the south.

Saudi Arabia has already notified the United States that it cannot and will not sit idly by and watch its Sunni brethren be massacred by Shiites. As the violence rapidly deteriorates from localized sectarian violence as we see it today, to general civil war, the entry of Iran, either through increased clandestine operations in the north or overt military aggression in the south, can only guarantee the military entry of Saudi Arabia to protect its interests along its northern border from Iranian intrigue and to defend the followers of its branch of Islam. Now one might be tempted at this point to say, “I told you so! General Powell warned against this.” While that may be a satisfying argument while chatting at the office network printer or the campus club, it simply is not enough in 2007. We are there and the academic and policy lessons learned about why will be useful at a future date, but simply fail to address real consequences from today forward that may shape the 21st century world. For the hard core Realist who argued against going to Baghdad in 1991, the same reasoning NOW applies. A US failure now will usher in the kind of instability that Realists hate! Given the geopolitical realities of this region, torn by wars and stapled together with no regard for culture, language or religion and the hatred this has engendered, what are the likely consequences of a precipitous US withdrawal absent a secure and stable functioning government in Iraq? What we will likely have is the invasion of Iraq by Turkey, Iran and then Saudi Arabia and a general and perhaps nuclear and chemical war at the crossroads of civilization between Europe and Asia because Israel will most like get drawn in amidst the chaos. We have not even considered what the pursuit of Iraq’s oil rich lands will do but it is obvious that Syria and Jordan will be pushed or pulled into the conflict which is yet another reason that Israel and possibly Egypt could be drawn is as well.

The United States cannot ignore a total war in Southwest Asia given its interests as described earlier and given that two of its best (if not its most democratic) allies, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, not to mention Israel, may be at war. Imagine what a general war in this region will do to the price of oil and the global economic shockwaves it will propagate? Global shipping to and from the Persian Gulf as well as the Red Sea will come to a standstill. Oil flows through the Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf of Aden will be reduced to a trickle if not stop altogether and the Asian economies so dependent upon them will crash. If Asian economies crash, the economies in Europe and the United States will suffer terrible losses and a world-wide depression may result. Of course neither the US nor China can or will tolerate this level of economic threat so their participation in a greater Middle-East war is likely, but only after the regional chaos has already inflicted serious pain on the global economy. Hence the fallout from bringing our troops home early, retreating in defeat to fortress America once again, will in all likelihood precipitate a global conflagration that will dwarf WW II in its potential destruction and human misery. It may place the US in the middle of a broader religious war that began in the late 7th century and the devastation attendant to those hatreds. It matters if we win! Moreover, no one BUT the president has offered any calculus of HOW to win.


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