The USA, power and international order: Foreign policy under Obama
The USA, power and international order: Foreign policy under Obama

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The USA, power and international order: Foreign policy under Obama

6.1 Iraq – exit strategy?

US policy towards Middle East oil has for a long time been driven by a desire to ensure the supply of oil to the world market, a project that has become more pressing as the Middle East has assumed increasing importance in future oil production.

Is US oil policy in the Middle East better characterised as Leninist-style imperialism or the pursuit of collective interests?

Certainly, for many commentators, the US policy towards the region and the invasion of Iraq are expressions of US imperialism in the sense of a policy that benefits the USA at the expense of its rivals. Most forcefully stated by Michael Klare, this view sees ‘Blood for oil’ as the dominant force in US military policy, where ‘the US military is being converted into a global oil protection service’ (Klare, 2003, p.7). Propelled by a steadily increasing dependence on imported oil (from 33 per cent of US domestic use in 1973 up to 60 per cent today), the use of military power to secure a grip on Gulf oil also delivers competitive advantages over emerging rivals, notably China, who are also highly dependent on oil imports.

However, there are two lines of argument that suggest that US oil and Middle East policy should be seen as directed at a much wider set of collective interests among the leading capitalist states. The first and more general of these alternative views focuses on the historical evolution of US oil policy. Many would agree that oil played a central role in the emergence of mass production and mass consumption – Americanism – especially in mass transportation in civilian and military sectors, such that for Prestowitz, ‘the very architecture of the country’ demanded cheap energy (Prestowitz, 2003, p.81). Up until the Second World War, the USA was self-sufficient in oil. However, what is sometimes less noticed is that for US allies after the war, particularly Western Europe and Japan, oil sourced by US companies was crucial to their economic recovery and growth as well as to the transfer of substantial elements of the American economic model to those countries. Oil thus played a key role in the processes by which America became a pole of attraction and imitation for others, lubricating the transformations that they entailed. In the post-war years, Europe’s and Japan’s economies and societies were being reshaped by the more advanced economic order of America, an order that was increasingly dependent on oil supplied by US firms from the Middle East. The terms of trade for that oil depended on US geopolitical commitments to the region.

This geopolitical influence was, following the British withdrawal ‘east of Suez’ after 1967, exercised by alliances with the region’s conservative monarchies. Resting above all on the dual pillar of Iran and Saudi Arabia, it afforded the USA a form of indirect rule over Middle Eastern oil. This arrangement was blown apart by the OPEC oil price increases of 1973–74 and 1979, and above all by the Iranian revolution of 1979, ushering in two decades of crisis management. Increasingly, by the 1990s, US policy came to rest on cooperation with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states where US military protection was exchanged for Gulf cooperation on supply and pricing of oil. Combined with this was a policy of containment of both Iran and Iraq, pursued through military actions (in the case of Iraq) and economic sanctions (on both countries). The increasing military focus of US policy was enabled by the end of the Cold War, which opened the field for US deployments of military force. The first US war with Iraq, in 1991, in response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, exemplified this broader role. Seen in these general terms, then, US oil policy has certainly served its own interests, but by seeking to secure the supply of oil to the world market, it has also served the wider collective interests of the industrialised capitalist states.

The second, more specific argument is an extension of this and focuses on how neo-conservatives in America viewed the opportunity provided by the attacks of 11 September 2001. The prolonged confrontation with Iraq between 1991 and 2003, combining economic sanctions, UN inspections and sporadic military attacks, was viewed by the incoming Bush administration as unsustainable. The war on terror and initial success in routing the Taliban in Afghanistan provided an opening and, spurred by a pessimistic view of the threats to American power and an opportunistic reaction to the temporary domestic support for overseas military action, the neo-conservatives saw a chance to reorder Middle East politics through regime change – creating in Iraq a state that not only held massive oil reserves but also could be reshaped into a long-term American ally. It was an attempt to use the ‘tools of control’ in the form of military power to increase the long-term influence of America in the Middle East. If successful, the policy would also create a more stable basis for America to continue to deliver collective benefits in the shape of oil supplies to the world market.

However, the strategy faltered in two senses. First, by putting the unilateral exercise of coercive military power centre stage, without widespread agreement from America’s major allies, the United States completely failed to convince others that this was anything other than the use of distributive power for US national interests. Second, the Bush strategy rested on the successful reconstruction of the states the US military was then ostensibly in control of, for only then would such transformed states provide the basis for any kind of cooperative future partners for the USA in the region. But this policy had to (and didn’t) recognise that ‘regime change and nation building were not distinct activities’ and that ‘while the United States might be capable of unilateral (or at least UN-less) regime change, it was not capable of nation building on its own’ (Fergusson, 2004, p.165). Even ‘nation-building-lite’, in Michael Ignatieff’s apt phrase, meant that stable and internationally responsive political rule had to be established in those territories (Ignatieff, 2003).

Thus, as with Afghanistan, initial successes (which prompted George Bush in May 2003, six weeks after the war had begun, to declare ‘mission accomplished’) gave way to a drawn-out and enormously destructive engagement. Despite the capture and subsequent execution of Saddam Hussein, the official transfer of sovereignty to an Iraqi government and two national elections in 2005 in which some 8 million Iraqis voted, the period between 2005 and 2006 saw a rapidly rising tide of suicide bombings and sectarian violence. By June 2006 an average of more than 100 civilians a day were being killed – 34,000 in the whole of 2006. A traumatic Republican defeat in the mid-term congressional elections in November 2006 and the realities of the Iraqi occupation prompted a rethink of policy by the Bush administration. One of the architects of the war – Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld – resigned, and a report to the President by the Iraq Study Group warned of the danger of a slide into anarchy. In early 2007 Bush announced a new approach involving a ‘troop surge’ to increase security in Iraq alongside US and Iraqi government initiatives to persuade Sunni Iraqi groups to end their opposition to the occupation. The new policy was slow to have an effect, but gradually, by late 2007, the numbers of violent civilian and military deaths began to fall and increasing numbers of Iraqi provinces were handed over to Iraqi government control.

For the incoming Obama administration, there are some profound lessons. While the Bush policy re-emphasised the long-standing impulse to transform the world in America’s interests, it did so without reckoning on the sheer difficulty of nation-building. Domestic political constraints in the USA and local conditions imply that direct imperial rule is extremely difficult, so local actors know that US forces cannot stay long on the ground (save in heavily fortified bases cut off from the local society), and therefore that the United States cannot find reliable allies capable of establishing domestic legitimacy. In short, while US military capabilities are uniquely powerful, America’s ability to reorder politics on the ground is feeble in an international order that is fundamentally post-colonial, politically speaking. Extricating America from this engagement may well rest on accepting a minimum of political stability in Iraq but without realising the longer-term reordering of the region that initially tempted the Bush administration. This is also a key consideration for Obama in Afghanistan.

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