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Iraq War: Worth It Or Not? 

Politics / Iraq War Mar 21, 2013 - 03:23 PM GMT

By: Andrew_McKillop


Writing for Bloomberg (19 March), Meghan O'Sullivan who is a professor of international affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government avoids any real answer and bows out by saying "we need more time". Nice answer!

She claims this is the "frustrating reality" and, anyway, as she says, talking about Iraq is emotional for many Americans and even for some Brits, given that the 2003 war was a co-production of George W. Bush and Tony Blair, both of them heavily guarded today in sumptuous retirement hideaways, but with problems concerning which countries they could visit without being indicted: for war crime. Costs of the war, as well as the number of deaths are instantly controversial, as well as hard to estimate.  Joseph Stiglitz guesses $1 trillion, which could be compared with the number of years of average US oil import spending this equals: given that US imports are on an increasingly steep downtrend, due to rapid shale oil output growth and very slow demand growth, the number of years stretches onward and upward. To be sure, this would imagine the US took all Iraq's oil exports and received it gratis!

Facts need to be considered, and the claim that "the war was not about oil" is essentially only a political argument and opinion.  Let’s consider a few facts that we can say are unimportant or important - but are nonetheless facts, not opinions.

Iraq is now the second-biggest crude oil exporter in the OPEC group, after Saudi Arabia and in front of Iran and Venezuela. To this fact we can add that Iraq's net exports, after serving its domestic oil demand could go on growing quite fast, and might achieve or exceed 4 million barrels-a-day before 2020. So far, this concerns facts - but "the war was not about oil". Given the number of years of Iraq's total exports needed to be taken, gratis, by the US to cover war costs of maybe $1 trillion, this constant one-liner from the Bush administration is turning out to not be a lie!

The single fact of Iraq's fast growing oil export capability is however already not friendly to Saudi Arabia, and "the Kingdom" is making this known, more and more. The reason is simple: Iraq, which for the moment is not bound by the OPEC quota system is exporting into a nearly flat global oil market, like a rising number of new suppliers. Most of these are non-OPEC and are hungry for revenues. Oil prices will fall: the Wahabite Kingdom has recently let it be known that $100 a barrel is the right price - but ex cathedra pronouncements may be fine for the Papal balcony, but not oil markets. The simple fact that KSA says it feels comfortable with hundred-dollar oil means that it fears oil prices will fall. Iraq is the single biggest supply-side cause of this royal fear, outstripping Russia as a menace to the easy and massive revenues for "the Kingdom".

Another oil fact driving regional politics, is that  "Iraqi" oil export numbers usually include Kurdistan's oil exports, which are also growing: but Kurdistan considers itself independent from and unrelated to Iraq and lets this be known in ways that hurt. To date it has signed more than 50 major oil exploration, production and trading contracts with global firms, like the USA's Exxon Mobil Corp. Iraq's unstable Shia-dominated government in Baghdad does not like this, and makes its anger known, but Iraqi military action to bring Kurdistan "back into the fold", and into line with Baghdad's oil politics is simply out of the question.

O'Sullivan's Bloomberg essay is lively and well-informed. She starts with the high ground US and British goal: get rid of Saddam Hussein. But this can be instantly linked with why Baghdad's fragile Shia-dominated government of Prime minister Nouri al-Maliki will certainly not use military force to rein-in the Kurds. Two reasons lie very close to Iraq's borders: Turkey and Syria. Kurdistan is also a major, or the major Turkish security concern - and a Syrian concern. Turkey actively enables and provides Kurdistan's main oil export route, a vast fleet of tanker trucks making Kurdistan entirely free of Iraq-owned and controlled pipelines, but Turkey in no way wants Kurdistan to achieve full, total, UN member status - just enough independence to go on exporting oil through Turkey! Unknown to many, Syria's el Assad regime has suppressed its Kurd minority's political aspirations with at least as much brutality and ferocity as Turkey still does today, or the Old Iraq of Hussein did for decades.

For all 3 states, but especially Syria and Iraq, the existence of Kurds, and even worse a Kurdistan is a mortal threat to their existence. The American and British war against Hussein released the Kurdish djinn from the bottle it had been trapped in since 1923 - when a fully independent Kurdistan, member of the UN-forerunner League of Nations, existed with a parliament, flag and national money. Today it has oil - and increasing self assurance. Bad news for Syria and Turkey, and for Iraq, Old or New.

To be sure, Hussein is no longer in power. Although a significant minority of Iraqis would embrace his return if it were possible, most have "turned the page" and hope for a more meaningful life with him gone. O'Sullivan tells us that "although violence continues", most Iraqis are now free from arbitrary arrests, disappearances and killings, visited on them by the militias and secret police of Hussein's Baath regime. This is rather false accounting, and blandly disregards daily reality in New Iraq: nighttime in Iraq, you go to ground and stay there, hoping the electric power will hold through the night, this time. Arbitrary killings, especially by massive car bombs, are a tragic ongoing almost weekly reality. Iraq is most surely the world leader, by far, in car bomb killings - but neither Bush nor Blair ever mentioned that as one of their war aims for the New Iraq after Hussein.

Uncannily like Afghanistan, fatally like Afghanistan, Iraqis in the new "national security" forces die in large numbers on a frequent basis because these forces are not national - but sectarian. They are riven by every kind of internal division, but especially Shia fight Sunni. Al-Qaeda is of course present, called "al-Qaeda in Iraq", and is now a brand name or marketing tool for every kind of business, from car theft, kidnapping, oil racketing and prostitution, to credit card fraud, slavery and extortion - of course with violence. Iraq's divided military, militias and security forces are also, for sure and certain, unable to ever repeat the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war against neighboring Shia Iran - because this would degenerate almost instantly into civil war. Once again Kurdistan would rapidly benefit.

Saying that Saddam's "constant menace to neighboring countries" is now lifted, although war against Iran is a longstanding Israeli and US Republican "must have it" policy goal, avoids saying why: the fragile country would shatter in weeks, if Iraq ever tried to run a regional war again. In addition, Saddam's menace to fellow-Sunni dominated countries - run by the oil exporting princes and kings of the Gulf - was totally absent: Saddam was the big dangerous fellow-Sunni protector shielding their easy unearned oil wealth from massive and frightening, Shia-dominated Iran, too close across the Gulf.

Iraq is certainly a growingly powerful supplier of global oil markets, but for how long KSA and other major OPEC suppliers accept its "special non-quota status" is unknown. Claiming as O'Sullivan does, that rising Iraqi exports allow the US to pursue a sanctions-based strategy against Iran and its nuclear programme is disingenuous and cuts several ways. Iran's oil continues to be pumped and exported, but is now a major "grey trade" for all Gulf seaboard states, from the supposedly clean princely states like Kuwait, UAE and Oman, to further flung and powerful sanctions busters, including Pakistan and India. Only because global oil demand is so weak, we can suggest, is it possible to maintain the playact of theoretically "excluding Iranian oil" from the market.

O'Sullivan gives plenty of attention, like other modern historians to regional nuclear arms-acquiring attempts, sugesting that if he had been left in place, Saddam Hussein would have wriggled free from sanctions, used the windfalls from high oil prices since 2005, and continued the pursuit of nuclear weapons that still eluded him in 2003. She says: "It is at least possible that (this hypothetical) Hussein would now have nuclear weapons".

Like North Korea, Israel, Pakistan, and India to cite four countries with declared (or undeclared), real and operational nuclear weapons - acquired or developed totally outside the NPT. Why would a nuclear armed Iraq, yesterday, or nuclear armed Iran, tomorrow, be so especially dangerous for world and regional security? In all likelihood and on balance, acquisition of nuclear weapons by New Iraq, although it is totally unlikely, would be the most dangerous.

O'Sullivan surmises that a non-nuclear Iraq, today, post-Saddam, creates a greater risk of Iran continuing its nuclear weapons programme until it meets success - or until Iran receives carpet bombing of its nuclear facilities. Without the weakened "semi democratic" Iraq of today, she suggests, Iran would probably be more quiescent in the region. Ignoring the exact reason why Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and UAE are all engaged in a petrodollar-fuelled rush to develop "civil" nuclear power - possibly because of their anguish concerning carbon emissions and global warming? - she also claims that with Hussein out the way, Iran has taken its foot off the nuclear weapons accelerator. But nevertheless is such a menace that president Obama tells us, today, that Iran will have the bomb by March 2014.

How long it takes the "good Arabs" of KSA, Kuwait and UAE to get a bomb is not discussed by O'Sullivan. To be sure, their Ministries of Information tell us that nuclear power is not only vital to combat climate change, but is also precious to them because they want an "oil free future". With oil almost useless for the economy, it can be priced accordingly - by them - at its production price and nothing but its production price.

One place where nuclear proliferation is rather unlikely, but was an earlier and linked focus of the USA's strggle against global terror, is Afghanistan. O'Sullivan tells us that it is false to believe that the war in Iraq came at the expense of success in Afghanistan: in fact many observers argue the US lost both wars, and spent up to $2 trillion of taxpayers money (and borrowed funds), killing at least 250 000 persons and forcing well over 2.5 million people to flee their homes, to do it. According to O'Sullivan, the "considerable resources" devoted to war in Iraq would not likely have been allocated to Afghanistan, even in the absence of the Iraq War. She suggests that the Afghan War proves that more resources should have been used, which might have prevented the security and governance vacuum which seeded the re-emergence of the Taliban. Exactly the same argument applies to post-surge Iraq, where armed sectarian conflict has replaced attacks on US troops - the only difference being that attacks on US troops, around 10 000 kilometres from US soil is called "the war on terror".

One thing is certain, New Iraq presently cannot dream of using "civil" nuclear power and giving it "two further turns of the screwdriver" to get a bomb, A. Q. Khan style, which could or may be what the Gulf Arab states want a lot more than "fighting" climate change. This is because Iraq's industrial, technical and scientific capabilities were shredded by the war. Today's Iraq was returned to the status of a 1950's Oil Republic, like the Iran of 1956 whose civilian government was overthrown by the CIA. Everybody knows what happened as sequel to this gross interference in the government of another country.

O'Sullivan gives coverage to what happened following the war of 2003, in the way of institutions for the New Iraq. The country has built a set of institutions on paper, for example its finely crafted Constitution, but these paper promises are light years away from providing a modern, developed, democratic and secure state. It is for example completely impossible to have non-sectarian political parties with any credibility or voter appeal. Coming back briefly to the American bugaboo of regional nuclear proliferation, today's Iraq has nothing to show other highly divided societies in the region. If (Allah forbid) the New Iraq was ever capable of developing nuclear weapons - like nearby Iran is capable - its completely divided, sectarian based, incompetent and heavily corrupt government would be a vast proliferation danger for everybody, not just its neighbors.

Our modern American professor of international affairs makes the predictable whine that Iraq "has not demonstrated itself to be a useful ally to the US". After spending 1 trillion dollars and losing 5000 combat troops, the US might expect more from Iraq in the way of helping resolve regional disputes and conflicts. This again is dreamworld stuff: O'Sullivan notably talks about Iraq's "emerging role in OPEC (which) could bring significant indirect benefits to the US and global economy". We can instantly interpret this as meaning Iraq should act to take down the entire OPEC quota system, resulting in oil traders losing no time talking down oil prices to the more reasonable and sustainable price level of about $70 a barrel. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and its fellow easy riders Qatar, UAE and Kuwait would scream at that hypothetical "America-friendly action" by the New Iraq. In addition of course, Iraq Quota Busting becoming OPEC-wide is almost totally impossible, but that is only a "detail".

O'Sullivan mentions the "problematic" stance and behavior of New Iraq regarding Syria, but this completely ignores the vastly dangerous, sectarian-based crosscutting alliances that operate, on the ground in Iraq and across the region. Iraq, to be sure, enables or permits al-Qaeda djihadists, armed and paid by KSA and Qatar, as well as UAE and Kuwait to cross its desert territory and penetrate Syria. This is already recognized by the Western press, if not Western political deciders as much more of a threat - than a promise of freedom and democracy in postwar Syria. More important for the security and integrity of New Iraq, which is already being whittled away by the de facto New Kurdistan, any higher level of belligerance by Iraq against Syria would surely and certainly result in massive and widespread economic damage - and bloodshed - as the Baath regime and ex-Baath regime slugged it out..

Its all well and good for O'Sullivan to opine that "the contours of the Iraqi state are far from being fully formed", but at least she admits that things could deteriorate badly. Firstly, Kurdistan can easily move up to a full and formal declaration of total independance - in fact only Turkey is preventing that, not Iraq. This would trigger the Nightmare Scenario of the so-called "Shia Anschluss", where Iraq's very large and geographically concentrated Shia communities "simply" form a Greater Iran. New Iraq would become a small rump state - with not much oil. All these, and other geopolitical dangers are recognized, if not talked about by Iraq's fragile and divided government, over which Prime minister al-Maliki tries, every day, with increasing desperation to consolidate power.

Making the outlook even less certain for New Iraq holding together in one piece, as it arguably might have been able to do under Saddam Hussein, the "Arab street revolutions" or Arab Spring of the past two years must quite soon move east to the Arabian peninsula, whatever "the Kingdom" and its lookalike autocratic princely states of the Arab Gulf might want, or fear. To be sure it was and is mainly domestic grievances which drove change in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen but the Iraq War was a probable key "upstream trigger event" in the chain of causality.

As even a cursory glance of news coming out of Iraq shows, it is grotesquely undemocratic and the oil wealth is siphoned off by a crony capitalist elite, playacting "democratic" with their purchased politicians and Western expats hurrying to grub the oil out of the ground and ship it away. This "democracy show" now fools few Iraqis, but having suffered massive bombardment and military occupation by the US and its allies, they are biding their time - which in no way means they accept the status quo. A possible "follow-up war", this time to remove Bashr el Assad and his Baath party's hold on Syria, is likely going to be operated by proxy allies and is not going to be Iraq-style: this at least has been learned by the US and its Western allies.

Should America have invaded Iraq? The probable answer is No, but asking the question today is 10 years too late.

By Andrew McKillop


Former chief policy analyst, Division A Policy, DG XVII Energy, European Commission. Andrew McKillop Biographic Highlights

Co-author 'The Doomsday Machine', Palgrave Macmillan USA, 2012

Andrew McKillop has more than 30 years experience in the energy, economic and finance domains. Trained at London UK’s University College, he has had specially long experience of energy policy, project administration and the development and financing of alternate energy. This included his role of in-house Expert on Policy and Programming at the DG XVII-Energy of the European Commission, Director of Information of the OAPEC technology transfer subsidiary, AREC and researcher for UN agencies including the ILO.

© 2013 Copyright Andrew McKillop - All Rights Reserved Disclaimer: The above is a matter of opinion provided for general information purposes only and is not intended as investment advice. Information and analysis above are derived from sources and utilising methods believed to be reliable, but we cannot accept responsibility for any losses you may incur as a result of this analysis. Individuals should consult with their personal financial advisor.

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