Friday, February 07, 2003

The Third War of the British Succession

In 1968, the British announced that they would withdraw their forces from "east of Suez." The British had long been the stabilizing outside power in the Gulf region but could no longer afford the imperial mission. Stability was still needed after 1971, but the United States, still damaged by the Vietnam War and the Soviet Union's apparent growing strength, was in no position to fill the vacuum. The question of who would succeed Britain in the role of stabilizer was not answered with any certainty for three decades, but may now finally be known. With American-led occupation of Iraq pending, we may see the end of the period of instability that has developed since the British withdrew from the Gulf region. America will succeed Britain. Reluctantly, but with the growing belief that there is no alternative, America is going east of Suez to stay.

During the 1970s, America attempted to fill the vacuum left after British withdrawal by proxy—arming the Shah's Iran to the teeth. As the 1970s closed, an Islamic revolution brought Khomeini to power and sent Iran into chaos and anti-Americanism. The United States announced it would create a Rapid Deployment Force to be able to deter invaders of the region, but that force was merely a notion. With Britain gone and America's proxy dead, there was no stabilizer to enforce the status quo.

Into that vacuum entered Iraq. Eager to end the humiliation of Iran bending Iraq to Tehran's will, Iraq in 1980 initiated the First War of the British Succession. Iraq aimed to humble Iran and seize its Khuzestan oil province leading to domination of the Gulf, the Arab world, and the larger non-aligned movement in the Third World. Yet America backed Iraq with great reluctance, starting with a "tilt" in 1982, viewing Iran as the greater evil and so tried to give Iraq enough assistance to avoid losing. America intervened in the latter part of the war directly, effectively escorting Iraqi-bound traffic to and from Kuwait to protect them from Iranian attacks. From behind this shield, the Iraqis struck Iranian tankers. The war that Iraq initiated against Iran did not end until 1988. By the end of that period, when Iranian battlefield resistance unexpectedly collapsed, Iraq was a power with which to be reckoned.

During that war, with an objectionable state, Iraq, fighting our former client, Iran, America sought to build up Saudi Arabia as our new bulwark of stability. Modern American arms flowed to Riyadh, which ultimately proved to be nothing but expensive status symbols for the Saudis. Our Rapid Deployment Force began to flesh out and our Army began to look beyond the Cold War confrontation lines at the DMZ in Korea and Fulda Gap in Germany.

The Second War of the British Succession began in 1990 with Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. American-led forces, freed from the Cold War battle line in Europe, drove the Iraqis out of Kuwait in an overwhelming display of American military prowess that decimated the Iraqi military in only 100 hours of ground offensive. Yet the time it took us to deploy our military to the Gulf was a sobering reminder of the difficulty of policing the region from a distance, where our only speedy response could be nuclear. Our Rapid Deployment Force had not become rapid enough. Although we hoped Saddam's defeat would lead to his downfall, he managed to fight off his enemies and survive. Over the next dozen years, Saddam thwarted inspections to eliminate his weapons of mass destruction and tightened his grip on power with ever more brutal methods. His quest for glory had been checked but as long as he lived, he could hope he would get his chance to lead Iraqis to their rightful place in history, as he saw it. Although we had hoped to smash Saddam and reverse his invasion of Kuwait, we found we were unable to return our presence to the status quo ante. We were dragged into the Gulf to watch Saddam and prepared to rush troops to the new front should Saddam role south again. There was no end in sight to our military presence, which tried to bring stability to a region with despots who channeled local anger about their homegrown dictators against America. We were in the worst of both worlds. We were unable to withdraw yet unwilling to force real change that would lessen anti-Americanism.

Saddam's brutality, ambition, and lust for nuclear weapons have led the United States to finally believe that enough was enough. September 11 demonstrated how much Islamists hate us and reminded us of the price we might pay should Saddam gain the world's most horrible weapons.

The Third War of the British Succession will begin soon. Perhaps, I believe, by the 14th or 15th of February. Perhaps a little later. But the invasion is coming. After destroying Saddam's war machine, we will settle in to root out the banned weapons programs and eliminate the apparatus of terror that governs Iraq today. We will be entrenched in Central Asia, with forces there and in Afghanistan and Pakistan. We will be present in NATO Turkey and in the Gulf states. We will have a presence in Egypt and Eritrea. Israel will remain an ally and we will of course, temporarily occupy Iraq. Only in Saudi Arabia will we likely reduce our footprint to a level that will end that irritant to Islamists. With our influence established in a ring around the Gulf and in Iraq, we will have the job of creating stability where none has existed for more than three decades. Success is not guaranteed. I don't know if it is even likely. But continuing on with the old status quo is unacceptable. We must try to change the region for the better instead of managing its explosive neuroses.

Mostly, I hope that this Third War of the British Succession will be the last. If the Iranians rise up on their own to depose the thugreocracy that misrules them, we may have hope that this terrible period will end.