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The Thirty-Year Itch

Three decades ago, in the throes of the energy crisis, Washington's hawks conceived of a strategy for US control of the Persian Gulf's oil. Now, with the same strategists firmly in control of the White House, the Bush administration is playing out their script for global dominance.

If you were to spin the globe and look for real estate critical to building an American empire, your first stop would have to be the Persian Gulf. The desert sands of this region hold two of every three barrels of oil in the world -- Iraq's reserves alone are equal, by some estimates, to those of Russia, the United States, China, and Mexico combined. For the past 30 years, the Gulf has been in the crosshairs of an influential group of Washington foreign-policy strategists, who believe that in order to ensure its global dominance, the United States must seize control of the region and its oil. Born during the energy crisis of the 1970s and refined since then by a generation of policymakers, this approach is finding its boldest expression yet in the Bush administration -- which, with its plan to invade Iraq and install a regime beholden to Washington, has moved closer than any of its predecessors to transforming the Gulf into an American protectorate.

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In the geopolitical vision driving current U.S. policy toward Iraq, the key to national security is global hegemony -- dominance over any and all potential rivals. To that end, the United States must not only be able to project its military forces anywhere, at any time. It must also control key resources, chief among them oil -- and especially Gulf oil. To the hawks who now set the tone at the White House and the Pentagon, the region is crucial not simply for its share of the U.S. oil supply (other sources have become more important over the years), but because it would allow the United States to maintain a lock on the world's energy lifeline and potentially deny access to its global competitors. The administration "believes you have to control resources in order to have access to them," says Chas Freeman, who served as U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia under the first President Bush. "They are taken with the idea that the end of the Cold War left the United States able to impose its will globally -- and that those who have the ability to shape events with power have the duty to do so. It's ideology."

Iraq, in this view, is a strategic prize of unparalleled importance. Unlike the oil beneath Alaska's frozen tundra, locked away in the steppes of central Asia, or buried under stormy seas, Iraq's crude is readily accessible and, at less than $1.50 a barrel, some of the cheapest in the world to produce. Already, over the past several months, Western companies have been meeting with Iraqi exiles to try to stake a claim to that bonanza.

But while the companies hope to cash in on an American-controlled Iraq, the push to remove Saddam Hussein hasn't been driven by oil executives, many of whom are worried about the consequences of war. Nor are Vice President Cheney and President Bush, both former oilmen, looking at the Gulf simply for the profits that can be earned there. The administration is thinking bigger, much bigger, than that.

"Controlling Iraq is about oil as power, rather than oil as fuel," says Michael Klare, professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and author of Resource Wars. "Control over the Persian Gulf translates into control over Europe, Japan, and China. It's having our hand on the spigot."

Ever since the oil shocks of the 1970s, the United States has steadily been accumulating military muscle in the Gulf by building bases, selling weaponry, and forging military partnerships. Now, it is poised to consolidate its might in a place that will be a fulcrum of the world's balance of power for decades to come. At a stroke, by taking control of Iraq, the Bush administration can solidify a long-running strategic design. "It's the Kissinger plan," says James Akins, a former U.S. diplomat. "I thought it had been killed, but it's back."

Akins learned a hard lesson about the politics of oil when he served as a U.S. envoy in Kuwait and Iraq, and ultimately as ambassador to Saudi Arabia during the oil crisis of 1973 and '74. At his home in Washington, D.C., shelves filled with Middle Eastern pottery and other memorabilia cover the walls, souvenirs of his years in the Foreign Service. Nearly three decades later, he still gets worked up while recalling his first encounter with the idea that the United States should be prepared to occupy Arab oil-producing countries.

In 1975, while Akins was ambassador in Saudi Arabia, an article headlined "Seizing Arab Oil" appeared in Harper's. The author, who used the pseudonym Miles Ignotus, was identified as "a Washington-based professor and defense consultant with intimate links to high-level U.S. policymakers." The article outlined, as Akins puts it, "how we could solve all our economic and political problems by taking over the Arab oil fields [and] bringing in Texans and Oklahomans to operate them." Simultaneously, a rash of similar stories appeared in other magazines and newspapers. "I knew that it had to have been the result of a deep background briefing," Akins says. "You don't have eight people coming up with the same screwy idea at the same time, independently.

"Then I made a fatal mistake," Akins continues. "I said on television that anyone who would propose that is either a madman, a criminal, or an agent of the Soviet Union." Soon afterward, he says, he learned that the background briefing had been conducted by his boss, then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Akins was fired later that year.

Kissinger has never acknowledged having planted the seeds for the article. But in an interview with Business Week that same year, he delivered a thinly veiled threat to the Saudis, musing about bringing oil prices down through "massive political warfare against countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran to make them risk their political stability and maybe their security if they did not cooperate."

In the 1970s, America's military presence in the Gulf was virtually nil, so the idea of seizing control of its oil was a pipe dream. Still, starting with the Miles Ignotus article, and a parallel one by conservative strategist and Johns Hopkins University professor Robert W. Tucker in Commentary, the idea began to gain favor among a feisty group of hardline, pro-Israeli thinkers, especially the hawkish circle aligned with Democratic senators Henry Jackson of Washington and Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York.

Eventually, this amalgam of strategists came to be known as "neoconservatives," and they played important roles in President Reagan's Defense Department and at think tanks and academic policy centers in the 1980s. Led by Richard Perle, chairman of the Pentagon's influential Defense Policy Board, and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, they now occupy several dozen key posts in the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department. At the top, they are closest to Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who have been closely aligned since both men served in the White House under President Ford in the mid-1970s. They also clustered around Cheney when he served as secretary of defense during the Gulf War in 1991.

Throughout those years, and especially after the Gulf War, U.S. forces have steadily encroached on the Gulf and the surrounding region, from the Horn of Africa to Central Asia. In preparing for an invasion and occupation of Iraq, the administration has been building on the steps taken by military and policy planners over the past quarter century.

Step one: The Rapid Deployment Force
In 1973 and '74, and again in 1979, political upheavals in the Middle East led to huge spikes in oil prices, which rose fifteenfold over the decade and focused new attention on the Persian Gulf. In January 1980, President Carter effectively declared the Gulf a zone of U.S. influence, especially against encroachment from the Soviet Union. "Let our position be absolutely clear," he said, announcing what came to be known as the Carter Doctrine. "An attempt by any 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." To back up this doctrine, Carter created the Rapid Deployment Force, an "over-the-horizon" military unit capable of rushing several thousand U.S. troops to the Gulf in a crisis.

Step two: The Central Command
In the 1980s, under President Reagan, the United States began pressing countries in the Gulf for access to bases and support facilities. The Rapid Deployment Force was transformed into the Central Command, a new U.S. military command authority with responsibility for the Gulf and the surrounding region from eastern Africa to Afghanistan. Reagan tried to organize a "strategic consensus" of anti-Soviet allies, including Turkey, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. The United States sold billions of dollars' worth of arms to the Saudis in the early '80s, from AWACS surveillance aircraft to F-15 fighters. And in 1987, at the height of the war between Iraq and Iran, the U.S. Navy created the Joint Task Force-Middle East to protect oil tankers plying the waters of the Gulf, thus expanding a U.S. naval presence of just three or four warships into a flotilla of 40-plus aircraft carriers, battleships, and cruisers.

Step three: The Gulf War
Until 1991, the United States was unable to persuade the Arab Gulf states to allow a permanent American presence on their soil. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia, while maintaining its close relationship with the United States, began to diversify its commercial and military ties; by the time U.S. Ambassador Chas Freeman arrived there in the late Ô80s, the United States had fallen to fourth place among arms suppliers to the kingdom. "The United States was being supplanted even in commercial terms by the British, the French, even the Chinese," Freeman notes.

All that changed with the Gulf War. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states no longer opposed a direct U.S. military presence, and American troops, construction squads, arms salesmen, and military assistance teams rushed in. "The Gulf War put Saudi Arabia back on the map and revived a relationship that had been severely attrited," says Freeman.

In the decade after the war, the United States sold more than $43 billion worth of weapons, equipment, and military construction projects to Saudi Arabia, and $16 billion more to Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates, according to data compiled by the Federation of American Scientists. Before Operation Desert Storm, the U.S. military enjoyed the right to stockpile, or "pre-position," military supplies only in the comparatively remote Gulf state of Oman on the Indian Ocean. After the war, nearly every country in the region began conducting joint military exercises, hosting U.S. naval units and Air Force squadrons, and granting the United States pre-positioning rights. "Our military presence in the Middle East has increased dramatically," then-Defense Secretary William Cohen boasted in 1995.

Another boost to the U.S. presence was the unilateral imposition, in 1991, of no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq, enforced mostly by U.S. aircraft from bases in Turkey and Saudi Arabia. "There was a massive buildup, especially around Incirlik in Turkey, to police the northern no-fly zone, and around [the Saudi capital of] Riyadh, to police the southern no-fly zone," says Colin Robinson of the Center for Defense Information, a Washington think tank. A billion-dollar, high-tech command center was built by Saudi Arabia near Riyadh, and over the past two years the United States has secretly been completing another one in Qatar. The Saudi facilities "were built with capacities far beyond the ability of Saudi Arabia to use them," Robinson says. "And that's exactly what Qatar is doing now."

Step four: Afghanistan
The war in Afghanistan -- and the open-ended war on terrorism, which has led to U.S strikes in Yemen, Pakistan, and elsewhere -- further boosted America's strength in the region. The administration has won large increases in the defense budget -- which now stands at about $400 billion, up from just over $300 billion in 2000 -- and a huge chunk of that budget, perhaps as much as $60 billion, is slated to support U.S. forces in and around the Persian Gulf. Military facilities on the perimeter of the Gulf, from Djibouti in the Horn of Africa to the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, have been expanded, and a web of bases and training missions has extended the U.S. presence deep into central Asia. From Afghanistan to the landlocked former Soviet republics of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, U.S. forces have established themselves in an area that had long been in Russia's sphere of influence. Oil-rich in its own right, and strategically vital, central Asia is now the eastern link in a nearly continuous chain of U.S. bases, facilities, and allies stretching from the Mediterranean and the Red Sea far into the Asian hinterland.

Step five: Iraq
Removing Saddam Hussein could be the final piece of the puzzle, cementing an American imperial presence. It is "highly possible" that the United States will maintain military bases in Iraq, Robert Kagan, a leading neoconservative strategist, recently told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "We will probably need a major concentration of forces in the Middle East over a long period of time," he said. "When we have economic problems, it's been caused by disruptions in our oil supply. If we have a force in Iraq, there will be no disruption in oil supplies."

Kagan, along with William Kristol of the Weekly Standard, is a founder of the think tank Project for the New American Century, an assembly of foreign-policy hawks whose supporters include the Pentagon's Perle, New Republic publisher Martin Peretz, and former Central Intelligence Agency director James Woolsey. Among the group's affiliates in the Bush administration are Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz; I. Lewis Libby, the vice president's chief of staff; Elliott Abrams, the Middle East director at the National Security Council; and Zalmay Khalilzad, the White House liaison to the Iraqi opposition groups. Kagan's group, tied to a web of similar neoconservative, pro-Israeli organizations, represents the constellation of thinkers whose ideological affinity was forged in the Nixon and Ford administrations.

To Akins, who has just returned from Saudi Arabia, it's a team that looks all too familiar, seeking to implement the plan first outlined back in 1975. "It'll be easier once we have Iraq," he says. "Kuwait, we already have. Qatar and Bahrain, too. So it's only Saudi Arabia we're talking about, and the United Arab Emirates falls into place."

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