On Jan. 5, President Obama made a major speech about a coming shift in U.S. military strategy, a strategy that has been described as more “lean” and more “mean.” The fact that the speech coincided with the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraq led mainstream commentators to characterize the change primarily as a move from employing large occupation forces in “nation-building” missions to the employment of drone warfare and special operations of the type that killed Osama Bin Laden.
While it is true that the United States, a nation deep in financial crisis and politically weakened by its failure to establish stable and effective client regimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, hopes to do more damage with fewer troops and more Orwellian technology, the new strategy is hardly a decision by the U.S. elite to implement a substantial military drawdown. As The New York Times noted in an editorial on Jan. 5, even with the $500 billion in proposed cuts to the military budget over the next 10 years, the budget will continue to grow to be larger than in the past.
The Times editors also reflected ruling-class impatience with Obama’s election-year emphasis on the reduced deployment of ground forces, and reduction of the Army to 490,000 soldiers. “That sounds reasonable,” they said, “but there must be a clear plan on how to build it up again quickly as needed.”
It is also worth noting that the strategy review that Obama recently reported had come out was commissioned last year, well before the U.S. request to maintain a substantial combat force in Iraq had been squelched by the insecure Maliki client regime. In fact, the “shift” should be more properly understood as a geographic expansion of the number of arenas in which the White House hopes to flex its yet unchallenged military weight.
The direct link between the deepening of the U.S. economic crisis and the expanding geographic spread of projected military deployments is clearer than in the past. While the White House has to deal with a real deficit in funds available for war, they are at the same time driven by conditions of extreme economic competition to use their military might to gain an edge. In the Middle East, Central Asia, the Asian Pacific, and Africa, the U.S. is determined to meet longstanding objectives having to do with the ability to manipulate oil and gas supplies needed by its main economic competitors.
Iran and “the return to Asia”
Reporting of the Pentagon’s strategy shift, for example, focused on the U.S. decision to pay more attention on pressuring Iran and a new threat to intervene in the China Sea. The new sanctions on Iran, which make it more difficult for China and Japan to buy Iranian oil in the normal way, has stirred outrage in the East.
An amendment to the recently signed National Defense Authorization Act actually imposes additional sanctions on any countries or companies that buy Iranian oil and pay for it through Iran’s Central Bank. While this measure will probably not stop many sales in the long run (many such sales will likely be re-routed through new private banks), it is part of the new belligerency aimed directly at China.
U.S. intentions in the Pacific have been in the news since Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in November 2011, took the side of the Philippines and Vietnam in a dispute with China over claims to the China Sea. Oil reserves in the South China Sea may total as much as 213 billion barrels. China has proposed joint development of the reserves by Asian powers, but the Philippines and Vietnam have rejected this proposal, with U.S. backing, and have awarded contracts to Exxon Mobil and other firms.
Chinese vessels, including at least one military ship, have been testing the maritime boundaries declared by the Philippines. It is understood that the Pentagon’s decision not to reduce its number of aircraft carriers has to do with the perceived need to boost naval presence in the Straits of Hormuz and the Pacific simultaneously.
The “War on Terror” in Africa
The U.S. government’s desire to use its military might to have leverage over energy flows is now also manifesting itself in a more visible way on the African continent. Obama’s declaration that he was sending combat troops to Central Africa alerted the antiwar movement that the U.S. efforts to secure Somalia, which is strategically located on the shipping lanes adjacent to the Horn of Africa, was beginning again in earnest. The proxy war there, which has recently involved the invasion of Somalia by Uganda, Kenya, and Ethiopia, is being disguised as part of a so-called War on Terror in Africa.
The U.S. is training Nigerian troops with the supposed goal of subduing a fundamentalist Islamist group called Boko Haram. A December report by a subcommittee of the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security claims that Boko Haram is a link between a group called Al Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb in Niger and the group called Al Shabaab in Somalia and, naturally, an “emerging threat” to the U.S.
In truth, progressive scholars of African studies have been casting doubt on the U.S. characterizations of these groups for years. Jeremy Keenan, a professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, has documented the way in which the U.S. colluded with the Algerian secret military intelligence services to actually orchestrate a series of hostage takings and terrorist attacks that, over time, connected Algeria, the Sahel, and Nigeria as nations in need of an imperialist military presence.
According to Keenan, northern Nigeria lies on a path that will carry the central section of a proposed Trans-Saharan gas pipeline from Nigeria to Algeria. In addition to Nigeria’s high quality crude oil, the region contains oil, bauxite, uranium, and other strategic resources important to the U.S., the EU, and China.
Imperialist intervention has spurred corruption and the increasing impoverishment of the majority, with the highest inequality manifested in the Muslim north of Nigeria. The youth that today make up Boko Haram, according to Caroline Ifeka of the Department of Anthropology of University College London, began organizing as part of an anti-corruption movement that demanded more of the patronage pie for those at the bottom.
Iraq and oil
The desire of the U.S. to throw its military weight around in Asia and Africa, and against Iran, has not in fact translated to a lack of attention to securing gains made in Iraq and Afghanistan. While U.S. has, at least temporarily, withdrawn combat troops to the borders of Iraq and abandoned the five large military bases in Iraq that it once characterized as “enduring,” it has left behind both a central client regime and regional client regimes whose political futures are based on the successful foreign exploitation of Iraqi oil.
In 2011, according to USA Today, U.S. companies reached deals worth $8.1 billion, and spokespeople compared Iraq, sectarian bombings notwithstanding, as an oasis of stability compared to Egypt and other neighboring countries. The failure of the coalition government to reach agreement on an oil law—i.e., an agreement among Iraqi elites about the division of the spoils of this war—has not really inhibited U.S. companies from profiting and from rewarding regional collaborators.
The New York Times reported in 2011 that U.S. firms like Halliburton and Baker Hughes were awarded at least $150 billion in oil services contracts. In December, Exxon was in the news because the Iraqi central government was threatening to revoke its substantial oil service contracts in the south of the country since the oil company had gone around Baghdad to sign six major deals with the regional government of Kurdistan.
It is unclear if the immediate upswing in bombings that occurred as soon as U.S. troops crossed into Kuwait will substantially change the fortunes of foreign oil profiteers. Observers from afar cannot yet even know how the U.S. intends to play the Shia/Sunni/Kurd divisions that they have carefully nurtured since the early days of the occupation. It is clear that they are prepared to patrol the Kurdistan oil fields, however.
The news of the U.S. withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq was accompanied by reports of a new U.S.–Turkey deal that would allow the U.S. military to fly drones out of the Incirlik air base on the Turkish-Iraqi border. That the Maliki regime has also agreed to these incursions indicates that there are also special agreements on U.S. special operations inside Iraq as well.
Drones and special ops, along with the 16,000 State Department “personnel” (one half of whom are mercenaries) attached to the embassy—with a five-year budget of $30 billion—and the continuing displacement and immiseration of the Iraqi people by the U.S. client regime suggest that the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops, however welcome, is not likely to open up political space for the working people of Iraq. Instead, they are facing, at best, life under a regime dedicated to the enrichment of foreign oil firms and their local enablers, and one that is more fearful of and brutal toward the masses of Iraqis than ever before.
The withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraq, seen in context, provides no rest for the antiwar movement. While the U.S. has been forced to shift course in its search for military solutions to its economic problems, it has not thrown in the towel in the Middle East or Asia. Instead, it plans more bases, more drone flights, more targeted assassinations, more indefinite detentions.
To effectively build a movement against such a geographically disparate series of U.S. interventions, those dedicated to ending U.S. military interventions need to come together to share analysis and practical experience. There will be such an opportunity from March 23-25 in Stamford, Conn., at the conference of the United National Antiwar Coalition.
The UNAC conference will provide nearly 40 workshops on topics ranging from updates on the struggles of the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street to the obstacles created for movement building by the government’s policy of mass incarceration in the Black and Latino communities. Plenary sessions will allow participants to vote on a list of important activities to follow the major spring antiwar mobilization that will occur at the site of the NATO/G8 summits in Chicago on May 19. To register for the conference and to find out how to help build the event in your area, visit www.unacpeace.org.
> The article above was written by Christine Marie, and first appeared in the January 2012 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.