From Feigned To Actual Reasons

Political Economy of US War Plan

Peter Custers

Once more people witness worldwide consternation and outrage over US preparations for a war of aggression in the Middle East. Once again, the representatives of the US's Military Industrial Complex (MIC) have gone on the offensive to justify war strikes with arguments that to all accounts are false. Even as President Obama and his deputy John Kerry are shopping for support in the US Congress so as to gather a majority behind their war plans, using video clips to arouse humanitarian sentiments, scepticism reigns all over the planet. For the charge that the Syrian government is behind the August 21 disaster in a Damascus neighbourhood in which hundreds of civilians have perished from exposure to deadly chemicals stands unproven. In fact the evidence gathered first by the UN's rapporteur Carla Del Ponte, and more recently, i.e. subsequent to August 21, by a critical journalist interviewing rebel commanders, points in opposite direction. The ghastly event likely was either the result of a provocation, or the outcome of an accident. Perhaps the consequence of accidental firing, of rockets with deadly gas supplied by Saudi intelligence chief Bandar bin Sultan to Syrian rebels.

Once again peace activists are staging protests worldwide, knowing that the reasons cited to justify another imperialist war are false, and aware that the war would once again be illegal from the point of view of international law. Once again one is struck by the utter hypocrisy of the US, seeking to exploit the plight of Syrian war victims, but without any historical or critical self-reflection, or regard for consistency. Yet moving beyond fake reasons—what to say about the US's actual reasons to prepare for deadly strikes? Is the issue simply one of preventing Syria's dictatorial government from winning the war? Is the war's target going to be as proposed by Israel, i.e. cynically prolonging the Syrian war at the expense of a political solution to the conflict? What are the hegemonic issues, i.e. relating to the West's world dominance, that are at stake? And is there a political economy of the war preparations that needs to be grasped?

Are oil resources going to be an issue in the proposed war in Syria? The answer, as everybody will see, seems to be both 'no' and a qualified 'yes'. The issue of oil was of course central to the US's war against Iraq staged in 2003, in view of the vast oil reserves available below the Iraqi soil. It also was central to the first Gulf war staged in 1991. Yet the same is not true in case of war strikes against Syria, as a short glance at the place of oil in the Syrian economy easily brings out. Previous to the start of the country's civil war, oil reportedly accounted for 25 percentage of state revenue, amounting to 379 thousand barrels p/d—which is substantial, yet modest in comparative terms. Further, the major share of the country's oil exports went to European buyers, notably to Germany and Italy. European oil giants (Shell, Total) took the lead in oil extraction, along with Syria's state owned company (SPC). Yet Europe's oil corporations quickly fell in line, when a European oil embargo was imposed on Syria in September of 2011. Given the fact that Syria's oil production is relatively small when compared with other oil producers—control over Syrian oil clearly won't be the US's overriding war objective.

Still, it would be simplistic to dismiss oil as a war issue, for indirectly it does figure in the war calculations made by leaders of the MIC. This becomes apparent when one looks at the wider context of potential US war strikes. For years the US, Israel and other Western allies have targeted Iran, that is closely allied to the Syrian government, in spite of major ideological differences. In the past, as is well known, American and Israeli hawks have repeatedly played with the idea of hitting Iran via war strikes in which nuclear-tipped bunker busters would likely be employed (sic). Yet conservative US think tanks, notably the Heritage Foundation, have cautioned against staging this type of aggression, fearing it would negatively affect the US economy. Iran would likely attack oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz, through which a quarter of internationally traded crude oil transgresses, and this could result in an added rise in world oil prices that squarely is unsustainable for the West. Hence, attacking Iran directly is not an easy option, waging war against Syria is a facile substitute—no matter the terrible costs for the Syrian people. It would be an indirect way of re-asserting the US's slipping dominance over extraction of Middle Eastern oil.

This, of course, will be disputed by the proponents of war, as it was at the time of the 2003 war against Iraq. The more so as US policymakers have set their mind on extraction of domestic tar sands oil and shale oil. For isn't the US today on the way towards complete self-sufficiency in gas and oil, one may ask? Isn't dependence on the importation of natural gas and crude anyway soon going to be an issue of the past—with US self-sufficiency in natural gas, 'thanks to' extraction of shale gas going to be reached in a few years' time, and with US self-sufficiency in oil scheduled for 2035? Since last year's annual report of the International Energy Agency (IEA), the hype has precisely been voiced in these terms—over-shouting all environmental and climate change concerns. Yet the hype already seems to be fizzling out, at least that over shale oil. Thus, experts have warned that shale oil extraction is going to be increasingly expensive. Meanwhile, data cited in leading Western media indicate that US imports of oil from the Middle East for 2013 are on the increase, and that US dependence on Saudi oil remains steady. Moreover, even if the US's dependence on imports of liquid fuels is slowly decreasing—one can be assured that the US wants to maintain strategic dominance over oil via its armed might, so as to counter any ambitious future contenders for world hegemony might have. Hence, oil is an issue in the current preparation for war, though more of a background issue.

Armament Exports
Could expanded exports of US armament systems, and demonstrating the superiority of Western weaponry perhaps be a war aim? This may sound overly cynical, yet it is good to recall the widespread speculation in the Western press towards the end of the first Gulf war staged in 1991, stating that the US had abused the controversy over Iraq's occupation of Kuwait, so as to demonstrate the technically superior quality of Patriot missiles. This surely was not the single or predominant US war aim. And yet it is pertinent to recall that the desire to expand the exportation of weaponry produced by US corporations was uppermost in the minds of President Bush sr and other US officials right then, when they launched their ground offensive against Saddam Hussein's Iraq. As the US economy underwent a brief recession, the US government believed the economy needed to transit from primary reliance on military production as macro-economic stimulus—towards secondary reliance on domestic arms' production. In this context, they considered expanded external military keynesianism, i.e. the expanded supply of armaments to foreign armies, an ideal tool.

It is not that the US or the West are necessarily unhappy over the fact that Syria's government relies entirely on Russian weaponry to sustain its gruesome civil war. True, Putin's government has been Syria's exclusive supplier for many years. Coincidentally, in the years just preceding and since the start of the civil war, Russia's commitment to Syria has been strengthened. In 2008 Syria agreed to purchase a whole series of Russian armaments, from Mig-29 fighter planes to Pantsir air defence systems and Amur submarines. According to Sipri's data, the value of Syria's arms contracts with Russia in 2011 stood at an estimated 4 Billion US Dollars. These figures do reflect a significant commitment of President Putin to President Assad, but they are probably equalled or even exceeded by the Gulf states' eagerness to supply weapons and provide other support to Syria's fundamentalist rebels. More importantly the US along with other Western states—the UK, France and Germany—holds a portfolio of weaponry sold to Middle Eastern states that is immensely much larger in size than Russia's. Agreements between the US and the Wahhabi government of Saudi Arabia over supply of American fighter planes and other weaponry alone are stated to be worth 90 Billion US Dollars! And it may well be true, as rumoured, that the Saudis are trying to woo Russia away from Syria, through offers to buy Russian arms.

Given the fact that Russia has re-emerged on the world scene as a key arms exporter—competition for markets in murder machines is an aspect to be kept in mind. Yet the West's interests in selling armaments to the oil-rich Middle East and to countries of the Global South should be understood in much broader terms than in terms of localized competition with Russia. No, the whole question of armament exports is writ in much larger letters. Fact is that the Pentagon's annual reports to US Congress, entitled 'Annual Industrial Capabilities Reports' (AICRs), have repeatedly stressed the point that exports are vital to the 'health' of US armament corporations: they are stated to on average cover a quarter of their yearly sales. Fact also is that ever since the decade of the nineties, when the US government used military keynesianism as secondary leverage for macro-economic policymaking, arms exports have been used as an additional means towards maintaining the US's MIC. Hence, the vital and continuous need to generate war tensions—in the Middle East, and eventually in the Asia-Pacific. Deeply saddening as it is—war strikes against Syria would be 'helpful' towards promotion of US weapons sales all over the globe.

A Dangerous Drive
In the eyes of leading spokespersons of the MIC turned transatlantic the two have for long been interlinked. It thus does not suffice to pinpoint the fact that both control over oil and maximum scope for arms exports are central to the US's foreign policy objective. Those are truisms, and have been for long. No, it needs to be emphasized against the grain—since it tends to be overlooked by establishment oil- and energy-experts—that the US and its key European allies ever since the oil crisis of the 1970s lifted the international price of crude, have used the parallel exchange of oil and arms to facilitate the enrichment of both Western oil and Western armament corporations. None of the horrendous wars that have beset the Middle Eastern region in the last thirty years—from the war between Iran and Iraq of the 1980s up to and including NATO's war for the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi—can be fully understood without reference to this nexus, the nexus of 'disparate exchange'. Thus, even as NATO's war planes were bombing Gaddafi's forces, critical sections of the European press pointed out that the most fanatic European warmongers, France and Italy, up until the beginning of the war had been both prime consumers of Libyan oil, and Gaddafi's key arms suppliers!

Sure, the world is evolving, and new, 'emerging' world powers, such as China and India, are entering the scene. Sure, the presence of these Southern giants will have a profound effect on world economic relations, including on the functioning of the trading mechanism of disparate exchange. The new heavyweights have for instance entered the market for the sale of international crude, with India becoming a major buyer of Iranian oil and China an important customer of Saudi Arabia. And the Pentagon is not unaware of these facts. Its 2013 report (AICR) to Congress on China for instance notes that Saudi Arabia furnishes China with 20% of its imported crude oil, while Iran is responsible for 11% of the total. Yet make no mistake in assessing the implications, don't presume that changing geo-political realities will soon herald an end to Western-dominated disparate exchange. The merchants of death will simply reshuffle, will partly redirect their sales. US armament corporations will quickly learn to live with the fact that the weapons they sell to Saudi Arabia are paid for with money the fundamentalist state earns from selling oil to China. On the other hand, Western arms traders will aggressively seek to expand their sales to countries of East, South-East and South Asia. Whereas historically, through the 1970s and 1980s, the Middle Eastern oil giants Saudi Arabia and Iran consistently headed the list of Southern arms importers—by 2011—Sipri reported that all the world's five top-listed arms importers had become Asian! And whereas most Asian importers won't be paying their bills from oil income as states of the Middle East do—they will nonetheless have to draw on tax money from foreign sales of raw materials, or of other commodities bearing social value.

Rests to briefly discuss what is perhaps the single most important drive behind Obama's and Kerry's bellicosity: their desire to maintain global hegemony for the transatlantic MIC at all costs. Many peace activists would be familiar with the fact that ever since World War Two very close connections have existed between the US Pentagon and the US's top armament corporations. Others would argue that the mode of operation of an MIC was defined much earlier, at the begining of the era of monopoly capitalism, i.e. in the late 19th century. For that was when Great Britain brought military research under the aegis of the state, and privatized formerly state-owned arsenals where arms manufacturing took place. And whereas mainstream politicians in Western parliamentary democracies have long ago dropped any references to the term MIC originally coined by US President Eisenhower—most spokespersons of the anti-war movement will likely agree that the US's dangerous war drive cannot be understood without reference to the need of the MIC for ever bigger wars. John Kerry and Barrack Obama in spreading their war lies undoubtedly voice the interests of army generals and of captains of the arms industries. Yet does this state the full extent of the danger the world is up against?

It may not be superfluous to recall that initially the warmongering over Syria did not start from the White House, but from European capitals. The UK's Prime Minister Cameron was defeated in a historic debate that occurred in the British Parliament (August 29), and France's war thirsty President Francois Hollande was also forced to backtrack after having given his second call for war. Further, the European Union on September 2 is reported to have given public support to the war propaganda blaming Assad for the use of chemical arms. These examples call for reflection, they indicate that the MIC to a large extent at least, has become a transatlantic phenomenon. True, the European Union has instituted some programs that express its desire to build a European MIC—notably the European Security Research Program (ESRP—launched from 2003) which aims at integrating military research at the European level, and the European Defence Agency (EDA—set up in 2004) aimed at breaking down national procurement barriers and at creating a European 'market' for the sale of arms. Yet these facts are overshadowed by the reality that the US's five largest armament corporations, i.e. Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, General Dynamics and Northrop Grumman, all have built close links of commercial cooperation with their European counterparts, starting from Britain's BAEs up to and including Europe's joint missile manufacturer MBDA. The foundation stone of this second form of transatlanticism besides NATO was laid by none other than Obama's Democratic precursor Bill Clinton, and it expresses the stiff determination of US policymakers to maintain world dominance.

Lastly, the reasons why the US is preparing a new aggression, are of course not only economic in kind. Yet in opposing the threat of war strikes against Syria, the world's peace movement would do well to keep in mind the three issues spelled out above, meaning: the US's lasting desire to keep control over Middle Eastern oil; the Western drive to globalize their sales of armament systems; and the overwhelming threat posed by an MIC which over the last 15 years has gone transatlantic.

Vol. 46, No. 17, Nov 3 -9, 2013

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