Like him or not, George W. Bush is winning his war in Iraq, at least for now. That's because Bush is moving closer to achieving his two big war aims, even as his disastrous presidency approaches its end.
Of course, those real goals were not the ones he publicly proclaimed: getting rid of Iraq's WMDs, ties to al-Qaida; and, when both proved non-existent, cynically promoting "democracy" at gunpoint, which killed, wounded or exiled hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. And it subjected the rest to repeated indignities from American soldiers, trying to do their jobs, who should never have been sent there in the first place.
From the beginning, Bush's real objectives were (1) to turn Iraq into a client state, a base from which the United States could exert its military, political and diplomatic influence in the Middle East; and (2) to assure the U.S. and its allies control of Iraq's enormous oil reserves, the world's second largest, and safeguard the flow of all Mideast oil. Why the United States, with 11 aircraft carrier strike groups, should have felt that Saddam's tiny navy--or any other--could possibly threaten the transport of Mideast oil is hard to imagine. It all sounds more like old-fashioned, European-style imperialism, the kind we thought went out with World War II or Suez.
Bush is making major progress toward both his goals. Despite his one-time assurances that "we have no interest in occupation," he is now trying desperately to make that occupation permanent. His team is negotiating secret agreements with a weak Iraqi government, in what may well be a successful effort to assure U.S. domination of Iraq for decades.
Bush is also nearing success in the first phase of his hoped-for shift of control of Iraq's own oil from its government to Western companies. He is doing this despite the Iraqi parliament's year-long refusal to pass the proposed U.S.-backed oil law, which would give Western companies control of most of Iraq's reserves.
If Bush's strategy works, Iraq might be a U.S. client state indefinitely. After American-led forces overthrew Saddam, Bush said he was offering Iraqis something very different. "Our agenda," he declared, "is freedom and independence, security and prosperity for the Iraqi people." That was a month before a unanimous U.N. Security Council resolution called for "the end of the occupation" by June 30, 2004, succeeded by "a fully sovereign and independent" interim Iraqi government. A so-called transfer of sovereignty did take place, democratic parliamentary elections were held in January 2005, and Parliament appointed a new president, prime minister and other officials three months later.
But any notion of either a real end to the occupation or a fully sovereign, independent Iraqi government is still as much a fantasy as "The Lord of the Rings." Twelve thousand more American troops occupy Iraq today than did at "the end of the occupation." My dictionary defines "sovereignty" as "supreme and independent power or authority in a state." But the Iraq government's authority is severely limited and regularly superseded by U.S. occupiers. Iraq's army, although less weak than before, is still almost entirely dependent on American forces, including U.S. airpower and logistical support, and its police force remains a disaster. The first prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, was ousted in 2005 after Bush declared he "doesn't want, doesn't support, doesn't accept" al-Jaafari's retention.
The single worst example of Iraqi lack of sovereignty came last September, when guards for the U.S. contractor Blackwater killed 17 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad while providing security for U.S. State Department officials. The Iraqi government denounced the shootings as "deliberate murder" and demanded that Blackwater be punished. American soldiers confirmed that Blackwater guards fired without provocation, and called the shootings "a criminal event." But U.S. contractors are immune from Iraqi law, no one has been charged to date, and the State Department renewed its contract with Blackwater in Iraq for another year.
So much for American respect for Iraqi "sovereignty." Further evidence can be found in the U.S. demands currently being negotiated. U.S. officials won't discuss details. But Iraqi officials got so angry about them that they complained publicly. According to Iraqis, the Americans originally demanded 200 permanent facilities across the country -- including 58 bases -- plus indefinite continuation of other policies, including American rights to arrest and detain Iraqis; U.S. military and civilian contractor immunity from Iraqi prosecution; the U.S. right to take military action without Iraqi approval; and control of most Iraqi airspace and the right of air-to-air refueling, which some Iraqis fear would make their country a base for an attack on Iran. One Iraqi politician told London's Independent: "If it is left to them, they would ask for immunity even for American dogs."
Furthermore, the Iraqis said that if they refused, the U.S. threatened to cancel Bush's order that now protects $20 billion of Iraq's money being held in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York from outstanding court judgments dating back to Saddam's 1990 invasion of Kuwait. American officials emphatically deny that. Moreover, early this month, U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker denied as "flatly untrue" the reports that the U.S. is seeking control of Iraqi airspace or permanent Iraqi bases (although another official admitted the State Department has no definition of "permanent bases"). "There isn't going to be an agreement that infringes on Iraq's sovereignty," Crocker said.
As recently as June 13, Iraq's Prime Minister Maliki pronounced the negotiations "at a dead end." Other Iraqi officials argued it was foolish to make deals with a short-term lame-duck president and urged postponing more talks until the next one takes office, an entirely sensible proposal endorsed by the right-wing London Economist, but one Bush will never agree to unless forced to by the Iraqis. Still other Iraqi politicians took up the cry of "Yankee, Go Home," declaring that the country no longer needs any American military presence.
But days later, everything changed. Iraq's foreign minister said Washington showed a new "flexibility," on issues such as bases, immunity, Iraqi prisoners and unrestricted U.S. military operations. Bush and Maliki talked on the phone, and, suddenly, the talks were "proceeding well," according to the White House. Meantime, Bush's negotiators strove to finesse an Iraqi demand that the U.S. agree to defend their country against foreign aggression, a pledge that might make the agreement a defense treaty, for which congressional approval might be needed -- and never obtained. They discussed changing the wording to pledge only that the Americans would "help Iraqi security forces to defend themselves."
Both governments now express optimism that agreement will be reached by July 31, five months before the U.N. resolution that is the current legal basis for the U.S. presence in Iraq expires. And columnist DeWayne Wickham observed in USA Today: "What the United States wants from countries it occupies, it usually gets..." If so, Bush will have accomplished his biggest Iraq war objective.
His other biggest is about oil. The Bush people all deny that oil is a principal reason for the war. But the general who spent four years in charge of fighting that war, retired former CentCom commander John Abizaid, now says: "Of course it's about oil. We can't really deny that." Former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan, is not in denial either. He writes: "everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil." Not a U.S. oil grab, Greenspan later explained, but that Saddam was determined to control the Strait of Hormuz, threatening the transport of almost 20 million barrels of Mideast oil a day. Ex-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger argues that U.S. forces are needed in Iraq to prevent neighboring Iran from dominating the Mideast. "They are there," Kissinger writes, "to prevent the Iranian combination of imperialism and fundamentalist ideology from dominating a region on which the energy supplies of the industrial democracies depend."
So, a big, never-acknowledged factor in going to war was control of Mideast oil. That includes Iraq's own oil, as former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill found out at the first meetings of Bush's National Security Council in early 2001. O'Neill says Bush was determined to get rid of Saddam Hussein from the day he took office, and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld was already daydreaming out loud about Iraq's oilfields. By early March 2001, Rumsfeld's Defense Intelligence Agency had prepared maps of those oilfields as well as areas to be explored. One document O'Neill saw was headed "Foreign Suiters for Iraqi Oilfield Contracts," and listed companies from thirty countries.
Iraq's government controls the country's oil. But a major Bush aim is to shift much of that control to Western oil companies. Five major corporations - Exxon Mobil, Chevron, Shell, Total and BP -- will take a first step in that direction later this month when they sign contracts with the Iraqi oil ministry to service the largest oilfields. Bush and the companies hope these initial agreements will lead to others which, according to author Antonia Juhasz, would "allow much (if not most) of Iraq's oil revenues to flow out of the country and into the pockets of international oil companies." This month's limited agreements bypass the proposed oil law, long-stalled in Parliament, partly because Iraq's politicians fear it would give away much of Iraq's most precious resource. If passed, that law would give Bush his other big triumph. Even if not, his allies are beginning to learn how to get their way without it.
So Bush is ahead on both fronts right now, but his victory is a long way from a done deal. It will certainly be strengthened if John McCain is elected president, since he's shown willingness to keep U.S. troops in Iraq indefinitely. If Barack Obama is elected, he's promised to begin an almost immediate pullout, and have all American combat brigades home in sixteen months ( he says he'd leave some soldiers behind to support and train Iraqi forces). A President Obama might renounce any agreement Bush signs. But with Americans paying $4-plus a gallon of gasoline, he might feel great pressure to keep Iraq's oil safer by slowing his withdrawal plans.
The other big factor that could turn Bush's potential big win into a loss lies with the Iraqis. If their government concludes the current agreements with Bush, and if Iraq's army and police can secure the country as U.S troop strength is inevitably reduced, and if Parliament passes the oil law, then Bush may win his war. But if the conflict escalates, or the present government fails to reach agreements, or Parliament rejects them, or a future government renounces them and even decides to end the U.S. presence, we could be out of Iraq as we were out of Vietnam. That war ended when the American people finally got fed up with it, and our allies in the country couldn't go it alone. That could happen again.
But with oil at more than $130 a barrel, don't bet the rent on it.