Winter Books
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Issue Date:  October 7, 2005

By Stephen Pelletière
Praeger, 192 pages, $34.95
By Stanley Hoffmann, with Frédéric Bozo
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 153 pages, $19.95
Authors offer different views of what led the U.S. to invade Iraq


In America’s Oil Wars, former CIA analyst and U.S. Army War College professor Stephen Pelletière analyzes the United States’ recent wars in Iraq in the context of U.S. policy in the Middle East since the 1950s. Dr. Pelletière begins by chronicling how U.S. oil companies gradually broke the British hold on Middle Eastern oil. They pushed President Eisenhower into overthrowing Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosadeq, who had nationalized the oil industry, in favor of the more pliable Shah Mohammad Reza. Playing expertly on the United States’ fear of communism during the Cold War, the latter then started an arms buildup using the oil revenue windfall brought on by the foundation in 1960 of the OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) cartel. The shah’s convenient foil was Iraqi President Abdul Karim Qasim, the Arab nationalist who had overthrown King Faisal, nationalized the Iraq Petroleum Co. and instigated OPEC.

Ultimately, weighed down by his corrupt, inflated military and debt-financed modernization schemes, the shah was ousted by the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran. Out of spite against the new regime in Iran, the Reagan administration supported Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s new strongman, in his war with Iran. In 1991, however, President George H.W. Bush went to war with Iraq over Kuwait because he feared that Saddam Hussein -- who, according to Dr. Pelletière, won the Iran-Iraq War -- was about to gain control of OPEC and turn it into an effective cartel again.

Previously, the economic recession of the 1980s had severely reduced oil demand and with it the power of OPEC. With belligerents Iran and Iraq unable to produce at the normal output, U.S. allies Saudi Arabia and the other Arab Gulf monarchies were more than ever in the driver’s seat. Both Iraq and Iran needed time to ramp up oil production after the cessation of hostilities in 1988. Iraq had incurred debts of up to $80 billion, $37 billion of which was owed its Arab allies. Iraq considered the enormous financial assistance provided by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates as support for its defense of the “eastern flank of the Arab world” -- in other words, the Sunni orthodox Arab establishment, against the revolutionary Shiite Iranians.

With the war over, Kuwait, however, insisted publicly that this support had been a loan after all and not a grant, while at the same time it cheated on its OPEC quotas, further depressing the oil price that Iraq depended on for its recovery. When Saddam Hussein asked the United States to intercede, he was disingenuously told the United States could not do anything. Mr. Hussein gambled and invaded Kuwait in 1990. The administration of George H.W. Bush assembled an international coalition and militarily restored the status quo. An uneasy standoff with Mr. Hussein, complete with no-fly zones and an embargo, lasted for the rest of the decade.

Then came the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, which were quickly exploited by George W. Bush’s administration to try to solve all outstanding Persian Gulf issues at once. If the war in Afghanistan was necessary to go after Osama bin Laden, the war in Iraq was meant to put an end to the standoff with Saddam Hussein and to obviate the need for a U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia. U.S. troops posted there furnished a continuing source of resentment not only to Mr. bin Laden but to many others in the region.

The strategy backfired. “Effectively today, the whole of the Gulf (not to mention the wider Muslim world) is inflamed against America,” Dr. Pelletière writes.

Whereas America’s Oil Wars focuses on the role of oil in the recent Gulf wars, in Gulliver Unbound, Franco-American Harvard University Professor Stanley Hoffman explicitly discards oil as a decisive factor in the Iraq war launched in 2003. The root cause for the war, as Dr. Hoffman sees it, was a rupture in U.S. foreign policy. The latter had always been based on a sense of mission: defense of the national interest coupled with making the world safe for democracy. Dr. Hoffman writes that the George W. Bush administration destroyed the balance between the “realism of might” and the authority derived from idealism.

The shift to a unilateralist foreign policy had been incubated in the Reagan administration but only transpired under the George W. Bush administration, when such neoconservative hawks as Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz assumed control of the levers of executive power.

Gulliver comprises a series of interviews with Dr. Hoffman by his French colleague Frédéric Bozo. The book was originally published in French in 2003; two essays were added for this new American edition to bring matters up to date. Ironically, Dr. Bozo is more understanding of the policies of the Bush administration and more critical of European and especially French political leadership than Dr. Hoffman is.

Dr. Hoffman believes that the budding foreign policy of American exceptionalism was “a doctrine seeking a cause.” Sept. 11, 2001, provided the cause: the global war against terrorism. Iraq seemed like an easy target and its invasion an easy sell to the American public, as Iraq was weakened by previous wars and governed by a widely despised regime. Contrary to public statements, the decision to go to war against Iraq was made by July 2002, Dr. Hoffman asserts. (The recently released Downing Street memos have confirmed this.)

Where do we go from here?

“Nothing wholly good can come out of a war that resulted from a mix of self-deception and deliberate deception, waged in a part of the world in which alien control has for a long time fostered turmoil and tragedy. The presence of terrorism is not an invitation to empire, but an incentive for finding policies that reduce its appeal, and for pursuing the terrorists in ways that do not help them multiply,” Dr. Hoffman writes.

Gulliver Unbound reads easily, as it is presented in a conversational style and has few footnotes. Dr. Pelletière’s Oil Wars is a longer and more academic book with detailed footnotes. It is marred by annoying spelling mistakes and inconsistencies, for example, “Trans-Caucases” (on Page 1!), “affect” throughout instead of “effect,” “the primativeness of the early Ba’thsits,” “1,7173” and so on. Moreover, Pelletière’s style is often needlessly complicated and unfocused. Oil Wars needs a good editor in more ways than one.

For instance, Dr. Pelletière states that the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) was won by Iraq, contrary to the common opinion that both countries totally exhausted themselves, realized neither could deliver the decisive blow and hence settled for the status quo. It is hard to fathom how Iraq, having started the war by attacking Iran only to be repelled and forced to fight most of the war on its own soil, could be called the winner. Dr. Pelletière doesn’t tell; he only refers to his 1992 book The Iran-Iraq War: Chaos in a Vacuum. Maybe he wishes to entice the reader to purchase his earlier book too? No matter, a lack of explanation of this anything but trivial point is inexcusable.

Dr. Pelletière also fails to clarify, for instance, how the Clinton administration was able to convince Saudi Arabia that Iraq and Iran were more than ever a threat after the attrition of their eight years of brutal slaughter. The same lack of precision characterizes Dr. Pelletière’s evaluation of the 1988 poison gassing of the Kurdish villagers of Halabja in northern Iraq: He claims this specific attack was perpetrated by the Iranians instead of the Iraqi army. It seems that a U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency investigation came to that conclusion, in contradiction to a U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee report. While conflicting political agendas could have been at play in the reporting, again, this deserves more elaboration than a referral to yet another of his books.

Both Dr. Pelletière and Dr. Hoffman see the Iraq war and George W. Bush’s foreign policy in general as dangerous follies that have reduced America’s standing in the world and wasted resources as if there were no tomorrow while enriching a very select club of people. Unfortunately, since the publication of their books, even more evidence has come to light to underscore this trend.

Francis Deblauwe is a Middle Eastern scholar who is the director of The Iraq War & Archaeology Project at

National Catholic Reporter, October 7, 2005

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