Beyond Regime Change

Sandy Tolan, an I.F. Stone Fellow at the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley, reports frequently on the Middle East. Jason Felch, a student in Tolan's "Politics and Petroleum" class, contributed to this article.

If you want to know what the administration has in mind for Iraq, here’s a hint: It has less to do with weapons of mass destruction than with implementing an ambitious U.S. vision to redraw the map of the Middle East.

The new map would be drawn with an eye to two main objectives: controlling the flow of oil and ensuring Israel’s continued regional military superiority. The plan is, in its way, as ambitious as the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement between the empires of Britain and France, which carved up the region at the fall of the Ottoman Empire. The neo-imperial vision, which can be ascertained from the writings of key administration figures and their co-visionaries in influential conservative think tanks, includes not only regime change in Iraq but control of Iraqi oil, a possible end to the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and newly compliant governments in Syria and Iran -- either by force or internal rebellion.

For the first step -- the end of Saddam Hussein -- Sept. 11 provided the rationale. But the seeds of regime change came far earlier. “Removing Saddam from power,” according to a 1996 report from an Israeli think tank to then-incoming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was “an important Israeli strategic objective.” Now this has become official U.S. policy, after several of the report’s authors took up key strategic and advisory roles within the Bush administration. They include Richard Perle, now chair of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board; Douglas Feith, undersecretary of defense; and David Wurmser, special assistant in the State Department. In 1998, these men, joined by Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz (now the top two officials in the Pentagon), Elliott Abrams (a senior National Security Council director), John Bolton (undersecretary of State) and 21 others called for “a determined program to change the regime in Baghdad.”


After removing Hussein, U.S. forces are planning for an open-ended occupation of Iraq, according to senior administration officials who spoke to the New York Times. The invasion, said Iraqi dissident Kanan Makiya, would be “a historic opportunity that is as large as anything that has happened in the Middle East since the fall of the Ottoman Empire.” Makiya spoke at an October “Post-Saddam Iraq” conference attended by Perle and sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute.

Any occupation would certainly include protecting petroleum installations. Control of the country’s vast oil reserves, the second largest in the world and worth nearly $3 trillion at current prices, would be a huge strategic prize. Some analysts believe that additional production in Iraq could drive world prices down to as low as $10 a barrel and precipitate Iraq’s departure from OPEC, possibly undermining the cartel. This, together with Russia’s new willingness to become a major U.S. oil supplier, could establish a long-sought counterweight to Saudi Arabia, still the biggest influence by far on global oil prices. It would be consistent with the plan released by Vice President Dick Cheney’s team in June, which underscored “energy security” as central to U.S. foreign policy. “The Gulf will be a primary focus of U.S. international energy policy,” the report states.

Some analysts prefer to downplay the drive to control Iraqi oil. “It is fashionable among anti-American circles ... to assume that U.S. foreign policy is driven by commercial considerations,” said Patrick Clawson, an oil and policy analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, in an October talk. Rather, Clawson said, oil “has barely been on the administration’s horizon in considering Iraq policy.... U.S. foreign policy is not driven by concern for promoting the interests of specific U.S. firms.”

Yet Clawson, whose institute enjoys close ties with the Bush administration, was more candid during a Capitol Hill forum on a post-Hussein Iraq in 1999: “U.S. oil companies would have an opportunity to make significant profits,” he said. “We should not be embarrassed about the commercial advantages that would come from a re-integration of Iraq into the world economy. Iraq, post-Saddam, is highly likely to be interested in inviting international oil companies to invest in Iraq. This would be very useful for U.S. oil companies, which are well positioned to compete there, and very useful for the world’s energy-security situation.”

Indeed, Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmad Chalabi, whose close ties with Perle, Wurmser, Rumsfeld and Cheney predate the current Bush administration, met recently with U.S. oil executives. Afterward, Chalabi, the would-be “Iraqi Karzai” and the hawks’ long-standing choice to lead a post-Hussein Iraq, made it clear he would give preference to an American-led oil consortium. He also suggested that previous deals -- totaling tens of billions of dollars for Russia’s Lukoil and France’s TotalFinaElf -- could be voided.

Next month, key Iraqi exiles will meet with oil executives at an English country retreat to discuss the future of Iraqi petroleum. The conference, sponsored by the Center for Global Energy Studies and chaired by Sheik Zaki Yamani, the former Saudi oil minister, will feature Maj. Gen. Wafiq Samarrai, the former head of Iraqi military intelligence, and former Iraqi Oil Minister Fadhil Chalabi, now executive director of the center.


Fadhil Chalabi estimates that total oil reserves in Iraq could exceed Saudi Arabia’s and that daily production one day could reach 10 million barrels, making it the world’s largest producer. Hence, on the center’s conference agenda is a discussion of Iraq as a “second Saudi Arabia,” and the prospect of a world without OPEC. Oil executives and analysts heading to the country retreat will also be able to purchase the center’s 800-page analysis of the prospects for exploration in Iraq. The cost: $52,500.

But taking over Iraq and remaking the global oil market is not necessarily the endgame. The next steps, favored by hard-liners determined to elevate Israeli security above all other U.S. foreign policy goals, would be to destroy any remaining perceived threat to the Jewish state: namely, the regimes in Syria and Iran.

“The War Won’t End in Baghdad,” wrote the American Enterprise Institute’s Michael Ledeen in the Wall Street Journal. In 1985, as a consultant to the National Security Council and Oliver North, Ledeen helped broker the illegal arms-for-hostages deal with Iran by setting up meetings between weapons dealers and Israel. In the current war, he argues, “we must also topple terror states in Tehran and Damascus.”

In urging the expansion of the war on terror to Syria and Iran, Ledeen does not mention Israel. Yet Israel is a crucial strategic reason for the hard-line vision to “roll back” Syria and Iran -- and another reason why control of Iraq is seen as crucial. In 1998, Wurmser, now in the State Department, told the Jewish newspaper Forward that if Ahmad Chalabi were in power and extended a no-fly, no-drive zone in northern Iraq, it would provide the crucial piece for an anti-Syria, anti-Iran bloc. “It puts Scuds out of the range of Israel and provides the geographic beachhead between Turkey, Jordan and Israel,” he said. “This should anchor the Middle East pro-Western coalition.”

Perle, in the same 1998 article, told Forward that a coalition of pro-Israeli groups was “at the forefront with the legislation with regard to Iran. One can only speculate what it might accomplish if it decided to focus its attention on Saddam Hussein.” And Perle, Wurmser and Feith (now in the Pentagon), in their 1996 Israeli think tank report to Netanyahu, argued for abandoning efforts for a comprehensive peace in favor of a policy of “rolling back” Syria to protect Israel’s interests.

Now, however, Israel is given a lower profile by those who would argue for rollback. Rather, writes Ledeen, U.S. troops would be put at risk in order to “liberate all the peoples of the Middle East.” And this, he argues, would be virtually pain-free: “If we come to Baghdad, Damascus and Tehran as liberators, we can expect overwhelming popular support.”


Perle concurs on Iraq -- “The Arab World ... will consider honor and dignity has been restored” -- as well as Iran: “It is the beginning of the end for the Iranian regime.”

Now, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has joined the call against Tehran, arguing in a November interview with the Times of London that the U.S. should shift its focus to Iran “the day after” the Iraq war ends.

The vast ambition of such changes to the Middle Eastern map would seem an inherent deterrent. But it is precisely this historical sweep, reminiscent of Sykes-Picot and the British arrival in Iraq in 1917, that many close to the administration seek. Publicly, Perle and Ledeen cling to the fantasy that American troops would be welcomed in Baghdad, Tehran and Damascus with garlands of flowers. Yet they are too smart to ignore the rage across the Arab and Muslim worlds that would surely erupt in the wake of war on multiple Middle Eastern fronts.

Indeed, the foreshadowing is already with us: in Bali, in Moscow, in Yemen and on the streets of Amman. It’s clear that even in Jordan, a close ally of the U.S., the anger at a U.S. attack on Iraq could be hard to contain.

Indeed, the hard-liners in and around the administration seem to know in their hearts that the battle to carve up the Middle East would not be won without the blood of Americans and their allies. “One can only hope that we turn the region into a caldron, and faster, please,” Ledeen preached to the choir at National Review Online last August. “That’s our mission in the war against terror.”