With the absent WMDs no longer an issue, one needs to focus on how the war was sold inside the Bush administration. How exactly did the White House insiders talk themselves into this mess? The secret agenda for this undeclared ‘preemptive’ war of choice may never be fully known. Chances are, each faction of the Bush administration had a unique rationale for promoting the invasion.
For Richard Perle and company, sending young Americans off to kill Arabs was a good enough single item agenda. Especially if it gave Sharon more space to pulverize the Palestinians while the rest of the world was distracted. Still, it is hardly likely that the neo-cons made their case by pleading with Bush to “do Saddam for Sharon, pretty please”. Neo-cons might be a zealous bunch, but you can’t accuse them of being stupid. They were obliged to come up with an ‘American’ agenda, not a Likudnik wish list.
It now appears that appeasing Bin Laden was a major part of the neo-con sales pitch to the White House. Congressman Christopher Shays, appearing with David Kay on the Larry King Show (2/11/2004), made a startling revelation about the war party’s marketing strategy. In an attempt to deflect a question over the non-existent WMDs, Shays gave away part of the neo-con arguments presented to key decision-makers. “We knew we needed to get out of Saudi Arabia, that was one of the contentions of Osama bin Laden. We knew we needed to bring peace between the Palestinians and Israelis. We could not do that as long as Saddam Hussein existed.” None of the other panelists disputed the Congressman’s assertions.
Shays, a well-connected Republican war apologist, must know something the rest of us are about to discover. Consider the fact that two days before Bush declared an end to “major combat operations in Iraq”, Rumsfeld landed in Saudi Arabia to make his own ‘victory’ speech. From a plane hangar, he made a low-key announcement that the Prince Sultan Air Base would be closed. Brushing aside suggestions that the base closure had anything to do with Al-Qaeda, he dismissed Bin laden as ‘irrelevant’. Four months later, on Aug 26th, the US transferred control of the base to Saudi officials. It was probably the fastest major base closure in American military history.
The swift closure indicates that American forces were packed and ready to go as soon as Rummy gave the evacuation order. Conveniently enough, the Air Force had just set up a new state-of-the-art facility right around the corner, at Al-Udeid air base in Qatar, the new home of the Combined Air Command Center (CAOC). Even the Daily Telegraph, a neo-con rag owned by Conrad Black, opined that “there can be little doubt that undercutting a central plank of al-Qa'eda's platform is one of several advantages offered by withdrawal from Saudi Arabia.” To close the Saudi base, you needed a war against Saddam. To justify building an alternative multi-billion dollar garrison in Qatar, you needed the same war.
The closure of the Prince Sultan base took care of Bin Laden’s first contention. The war also allowed the United States to lift the brutal sanctions regime. That took care of Osama’s second contention. As for the Palestinians, the Road Map was road kill from day one, a little PR stunt to make a show of reigning in another Middle Eastern serial war criminal, Ariel Sharon. Taking care of two out of three ‘Osama contentions’ was deemed a good start. In any case, that was the way the war was sold to insiders like Congressman Shays who “knew we had to close the bases”.
The neo-con sales pitch went something like this “The intent of the war is not to reward Bin Laden but to cripple his ability to recruit new followers. Bin Laden might indeed be irrelevant, but Bin Ladenism is a potent movement capable of attracting angry young suicidal men for another generation. So, even if we nailed him in Tora Bora, there is still the need to deal with Osama’s contentions. We need to fry Saddam yesterday.”
For the neo-con cabal, yesterday was always a good day to waste the bearded lady of Tikrit. Over her dead body, they would march on to Damascus. In the days following 9/11, Wolfowitz is on record as having suggested that invading Iraq should have had priority over invading Afghanistan. Why Iraq? He responded that it was ‘doable’. By that criterion, Malta and Costa Rica should have been assaulted long before Baghdad.
Some bright General probably raised a few legitimate questions. “Why make a fuss about WMDs? Is this war necessary? Couldn’t we just build a base in Qatar, close a base in Saudi Arabia, use smart sanctions to ease the pain of the Iraqi people, topple Saddam using proxy forces and impose a solution on the Israelis? Shouldn’t we conserve our military resources for confronting Al Qaeda?” But the neo-cons would have protested that “such a course of action would give the appearance of appeasing Bin Laden. A war to oust Saddam allows us to deal with Osama’s contentions without taking a public bow to terrorism.”
The option of closing the Sultan air base without the cover of toppling Saddam would also have required the political courage to admit that keeping bases in Saudi Arabia after the first Gulf War was a monumental blunder. One that could have been avoided by building a base in Qatar or Kuwait or building no base at all or not showing up for the First Gulf War. Virtually all the countries that participated in the liberation of Kuwait withdrew their forces after the war, except for the United States and Great Britain. It should also be noted that the American naval base in Bahrain, home of the Fifth fleet, was more than adequate for containing Saddam. The decision to maintain a permanent military presence in Saudi Arabia had been made by Bush Daddy and men like Colin Powell. It was hardly likely that the administration of Bush the Second would publicly own up to the catastrophic results.
Although virtually every Saudi was aware of the American military presence, the closure of the Prince Sultan air base was not a front-page story in the Middle East because Riyadh never officially admitted that foreign bases existed. During the fabled nineties, the price per barrel of oil was kept in the low teens, even as the Kingdom became a debtor nation. This led to speculation that American military bases were being used as muscle to fix OPEC prices. The base in Saudi Arabia, funded lavishly by declining oil revenues, was seen as a defacto occupation of that country by many in the region. To Arab eyes, the Gulf region had become a giant American oil plantation with bases is Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain and a brutal siege around Iraq. Many Saudis suspected that the decline in their standard of living throughout the nineties was directly attributed to the expense of financing the American military presence. Rumor had it that the Prince Sultan facility was a cost plus contract that reimbursed the United States even for the cost of condoms. Snap a picture of a Saudi paying the bill for American orgies under the star lit desert skies of his sacred soil. It will give you a clue about why Bin Laden had no problem recruiting young zealots in the kingdom of oil.
Any amateur historian can trace the origins of Al Qaeda to the first Gulf War, the legacy of permanent American bases on Saudi soil, the genocidal sanctions against Iraq and the vicious repression of the Palestinians by America’s most favored client state, Israel. I personally do not recall a single incident of anti-American terrorism involving Saudis prior to Desert Storm. When Saddam invaded Kuwait, Bin Laden was a retired ex-Afghan holy warrior working in his family’s construction business. He offered his services to the Saudi government and only became irate when he realized that the Americans had come to stay. In effect, the First Gulf War was the midwife of Al Qaeda, which was established in 1995.
Long before the September 11th terrorist assault on the WTC, the Clinton and Bush administrations were aware of their Saudi base problem. Arab rage at the sanctions and the repression of the Palestinians were reaching a boiling point. The alarm bells had gone off many times. The Khober towers, the USS Cole, the 1993 attack on the WTC and the attacks on the African embassies. After each attack, the judgment was made to stay the course, keep the Saudi bases, tighten the sanctions and ignore the Palestinians.
After 9/11, the Bush administration could have squared with the American people and let them know the losing score. Americans were as ready as they will ever be for a dose of political reality. Instead, with the able assistance of FOX and CNN, the neo-cons came up with a brilliant campaign to avoid any serious probing of the cause of Arab rage. They launched a 24/7 song and dance routine about how the terrorists hate ‘our freedom, democracy and values’ not our foreign policy. They never quite explained why Canada and Sweden had no quarrels with Bin Laden.
The United States could have made a plausible and public case for taking out Saddam as a necessary requirement for closing the Saudi base, ending sanctions and permanently reducing America’s military foot print in the Middle East. Had the Bush administration also proposed taking aggressive steps to end the land grabbing Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, the whole world would have applauded. And the international coalition that then supported the United States would have been solidified.
But that wasn’t going to happen, because the administration had no intention of removing their military foot print from the oil colonies. The most they were willing to do was to shuffle the offending foot to a less politically contentious part of the Gulf, Qatar. Moreover, seriously dealing with Bin Laden’s third contention would have involved restraining Sharon’s expansionist real estate fantasies. When it comes to the vision of a Greater Israel, the neo-cons are more Catholic than the pope. Focusing on Saddam took the heat away from the Israeli occupation.
The Bush administration knew that Saddam did not have WMDs. Even when Iraq actually possessed them during the First Gulf War, Saddam did not use them for fear of massive retribution. Perhaps the greatest irony of the war is that Iraq was the only major player in the Middle East that did not possess WMDs. Israel has all three varieties with a nuclear arsenal that rivals China. Libya was working on them. Pakistan has nuclear weapons. Syria, Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia probably all have some kind of chemical warfare capabilities. Only Iraq was empty handed.
All the same, as a result of the war, Bin Laden’s followers can no longer gripe about genocidal sanctions or foreign bases on sacred Saudi soil. Neither will they grieve over the departure of the bearded lady of Tikrit. The only contentions they have these days concern the Yankee occupation of sacred Iraqi soil and Sharon’s murderous goon squads shooting up Gaza refugee camps and building an American subsidized apartheid wall. The first installment for this new and improved national security environment amounts to 550 young American lives, uncounted thousands of Iraqi dead, a few hundred billion in devalued greenbacks and a new generation of potential Al Qaeda candidates. The next installment for appeasing Bin Laden has yet to be calculated. Keep that public purse wide open. It is way too early to measure the cost in blood and treasure.
Other Articles by Ahmed Amr
Intelligence Failures for Dummies