Fri, 14 Feb 2003

From U.S. hegemony to makings of an empire

Meidyatama Suryodiningrat, Journalist, Jakarta

Many Americans question it, most of their traditional allies don't support it, and practically the whole world is against it. So why is the United States, supported by a few of its lackey allies -- namely Britain and Australia -- so dead set on attacking Iraq?

Despite Washington's claims that it is motivated by a desire to put a check on the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, fight terrorism and manifest democracy, the bottom line is oil.

Oil, literally, fuels industry. And industry in this modern age stimulates growth which in turn yields influence, technology which culminates in global dominance. The significance of oil, and in this case Middle Eastern oil, cannot be understated enough. Since World War II, the strategic significance of the Middle East's oil has been a consistent and fundamentally important strategy for any aspiring global power, whether it be Britain, Nazi Germany or the United States.

Presently, over 40 percent of the United States' energy requirements are dependent on oil. Despite being one of the world's biggest oil producers, such is the domestic demand that the United States imports more than half of its oil needs. The main source of oil for the U.S. is the Persian Gulf, where two- thirds of the world's oil reserves are located.

The concern for the preservation of oil security has been a consistent theme in U.S. post-World War II policy. But it came into permanence following the Arab oil embargo in the early 1970s and became even more pronounced following the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. In the aftermath of the invasion, U.S. president Jimmy Carter in January 1980 warned that any "attempt by an outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force".

Two months after the announcement of the "Carter Doctrine", the U.S. established a combat rapid deployment joint task force focused exclusively for deployment to the Middle Eastern area.

Consequently for the past two decades the U.S. has consistently projected its "influence" in the region, culminating in the Gulf War of 1990. Whether through force, diplomatic coaxing or the lure of material wants, most of the major oil producing countries have connubially allied themselves with Washington. That is all except two: Iraq and Iran.

Previously the U.S. objective in the Middle East was to counterweight Soviet presence and ensure continued oil supply. But since the demise of the Soviet Union, the preoccupation of the U.S. has been the preservation of its global dominance, as expressed in Bush administration's National Security Strategy issued last year.

The strategy, precipitated by the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, calls for a strategy that would dissuade the growth of potential superpowers to rival the U.S.

In a word, perpetuation of a unipolar world with the United States as the sole superpower.

Since any major superpower would be as heavily dependent on its industry as much as its military, what better way to suppress budding powers, namely China, than to monopolize oil reserves. This policy would keep nascent superpowers to prostrate within regional confines, and quench the U.S.'s own growing thirst for oil.

It is under this context that a regime change in Baghdad becomes imperative. Saddam Hussein has become the most significant irritant to U.S. control of the Gulf region and remains a direct threat to both Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, which combined have over 25 percent of world oil reserves. Furthermore, Iraq probably is the second largest source of oil after Saudi Arabia, with over 110 billion barrels in proven reserves (Saudi Arabia has an estimated 250 billion barrels of reserves).

Militarily, the occupation of Iraq would also confine the other "recalcitrant" Gulf state: Iran. Already, U.S. military strategists are predicting that after Hussein is replaced, a major U.S. military base can be set up close to the Iranian border somewhere in the Basra oil fields in southeast of Iraq.

One can only imagine the potentially destabilizing impact to Tehran of having one of its fiercest, oldest rivals camped at its doorstep.

Moving away from the Gulf region, it would not be hard to list other states that could potentially challenge Washington's dominance. The most obvious is China. As long as the U.S. maintains its monopoly over Gulf oil resources and Beijing remains welcome to the entry of U.S. corporations to the mainland, a delicate balance is preserved.

But within three decades, China's thirst for new energy resources will become as insatiable as the United States. And with a rapidly modernizing military, it is not unreasonable to consider that Beijing too will be able to match Washington's projection capability.

Another key consideration is the success of exploration in the South China Sea. Should economically extractable reserves be found on the seabed, then China will have freed itself from future dependence on U.S. controlled Gulf oil sources.

North Korea could also become Washington's next target. While it does not have the same potential challenge to U.S. supremacy as China, North Korea persists in being the U.S.'s most immediate military threat.

While an invasion scenario like Iraq is out of the question, given its proximity to China, the challenge would be to at least bring Pyongyang under Washington's sphere of influence.

Pressure, on what Washington describes as a "rogue state", can be applied through the same pretext as Iraq: preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

This is where the irony is striking. Militarily, Pyongyang is truly more of a threat to the U.S. than Iraq. But it is Iraq, due to the political considerations explained above that have been tagged as the immediate "danger".

An assessment of intelligence reports over the past 10 years clearly shows that Iraq has no nuclear weapons, with no ability to produce any. The most imminent threat is its limited chemical weapons. But even UNMOVIC chief Hans Blix has said that his inspection team has found no evidence of mobile biological weapons labs. Iraq's projection capability is also limited, with barely a dozen leftover SCUD missiles from the 1991 Gulf War.

North Korea, on the other hand, has an advanced range of ballistic missiles and an even larger stockpile of chemical weapons. It has also indicated intent to develop nuclear weapons capabilities and believed to already own adequate amounts of plutonium.

Every century gives birth to a new hegemony. Some say that with the diffusion of McDonald's and Hollywood pop culture, we are already living in an American empire. Only time will tell the bearing of this one. For unlike any other century, political empires of this day face a challenge tougher than any bullet or sword -- the egalitarian sway of its people's voting opinion. And so the powers that be may not always be there tomorrow.

Encouraging though the antiwar protest may be, the ominous words of Joseph Chamberlain nearly a century ago still linger in the background: "The day of small nations has long passed away. The day of Empires has come".