#13 - JRL 7070
February 18, 2003
The Blind Debating the Deaf
By Nikolai Zlobin
Director of Russian and Asian Programs, Center for Defense Information Washington D.C.
The debate on Iraq is increasingly sounding like a conversation between the blind and the deaf. It seems like neither side wants to see or hear what the other side has to say, and each keeps talking past the other.
In 1992, Bill Clinton's election headquarters had a makeshift poster that said "It's the economy, stupid!" The poster was to remind Clinton and his advisors that the economy was the major issue of concern for American voters, and that he could win only by making it the center of his campaign. That is exactly what happened. Today, politicians could safely put up a different slogan on their wall: "It's the security, stupid!" National security has become the main priority for Americans. It is this factor, not the economy, by which the majority of Americans judge the effectiveness of their president and their government.
This is a fundamental shift in American priorities. That's why to say that the White House is guided by economic interests or a desire to control Iraqi oil supply is to completely misunderstand American politics, and to judge them by pre-September 11 standards. And yet, it seems, this is the approach prevalent among Russian political leaders. Recently, this sentiment was once again given voice by the first depute chairman of the Council of Federation Valery Goregliad in "Nezavisimaya Gazeta" and deputy chairman of the State Duma committee on foreign affairs Leonid Sloutsky in an on-line forum of "Izvestiya".
First, if the US were interested only in Iraqi oil, they wouldn't need to send a quarter of a million soldiers into the region, some of whom will inevitably die, or spend money on a military operation that will cost, according to various estimates, up to 100 billion dollars and another 100 billion on post-war reconstruction. They could simply buy the oil from Saddam, who would be more than happy to become a supplier for the US and crowd out Saudi Arabia. The billions that America will spend in Iraq would be enough to allow it unfettered access to its oil fields.
Second, the restoration of Iraq's oil industry to the pre-1990 level of 3.5 billion barrels a day will require at least three years and several billion dollars, and will only increase the world production of oil by 4%. It would be naïve to think that this would stabilize the price of oil, especially since nothing stands in the way of OPEC members decreasing their own production. The American economy is comfortable with prices ranging from 22 to 25 dollars per barrel, and Iraq will never be able to guarantee these prices. Even the US-liberated Kuwait does not sell oil to the US at favored prices, and Washington is unable to force Kuwait's authorities to carry out a promise to allow direct foreign investment into the oil industry, which is currently owned by the government. Of course, Iraqi oil is important because it allows Saddam to maintain a large army, ignore the UN Security Council resolutions, and blackmail its neighbors. But if Washington put its oil priorities first, it would have long ago negotiated a deal with Saddam, lifted the sanctions, and sent the soldiers not to Iraq but into Venezuela, to bomb Caracas.
Can the US government be blamed for trying to effectively carry out its main function and ensure the safety of its citizens and interests? In today's world, this is not an easy task. America has different opinions regarding the best way to achieve this goal, and whether the administration is reaching that goal. Many think the war in Iraq will be a big mistake. The White House, in turn, is convinced that the existing world order is unable to ensure America's safety. Washington refuses international cooperation on this issue and behaves itself according to the principle of maintaining a free hand. In a recent speech, Bush directly stated that he would act alone and not take the opinion of others into account.
There are a number of reasons for this approach. First, by possessing colossal military and economic advantages, the US can act however it pleases. It is one thing to be a superpower and pay a hefty price for it, as during the Cold War, but it is another to be the world's single "hyperpower" without spending a dollar on maintaining this status - this is a staggering advantage of the US over any potential competitors.
Second, the US always safeguarded its safety and territorial integrity without any alliances. The idea of other countries influencing its discussion of national security is incompatible with the American military tradition. For any head of the White House, a unilateral approach to international relations is less dangerous than a situation in which other countries could effectively influence its position. America never hesitated to use military force as a way of defending itself, as well as the countries crucial for its safety. In this sense the US has always acted as an empire, though the majority of Americans would disagree with that assessment.
Third, US foreign policy was never fully rational. Unlike old cynical Europe, America is always under the spell of some idealistic principles and a missionary spirit, with a functioning understanding of good and evil. Of course, these principles change over time. The idea of the "Axis of Evil" is not only a political concept to Bush, but a moral one as well. Today's administration, as no other in the post-Reagan period, uses its own moral criteria in developing the country's policies, as well as in judging the policies of others. Just as Ronald Reagan believed that the USSR was an "Empire of Evil", George Bush considers Saddam to be one of the major evils of the modern world, and will do everything in his power to destroy it.
Of course, US policies are not built solely on morals and ideals, and Colin Powell is no Don Quixote. To paraphrase an American saying, the business of America is business, and its leaders' goal is to get the maximum advantages for its own country, which is, of course, the goal of any country's foreign policy. But the content of these advantages may vary. For today's America, the major business at hand is the provision of its own safety. For this goal both international traditions and economic profits are being sacrificed. It would be dangerous for Russia not to see this motivation behind US policies, because failing to do so will lead to a loss of the small but important influence Moscow has on affecting American policies for a peaceful solution to the Iraq problem.
Translated by Seva Gunitsky, Washington Profile