Sunday, February 17, 2002


Will they or won't they? Go into Iraq that is. Never mind that Iraq doesn't seem to be hiding Bin Laden (the reason they started it all in the first place). By the way, where is he? Any way despite our conspicuous lack of success we are moving on to the "next stage". Next stage of what we are not let into, but an axis of evil has been pronounced - and we may go into Iraq.

Now this is primarily an American jolly, and I try not to comment on the wisdom or prospects for these adventures, but as we will be loyally panting in behind I do, as a British subject, have the right to comment on this. Now some have said that this is a cake walk because America is stronger and Iraq is weaker and it was easy last time. Sadly this ignores a big elephant in the sitting room, the A-rabs no longer care about Saddam. You see he's weak, his brand of secular nationalism is past its sell by date, he doesn't destabilise and their populations are a bit more restless than last time.

That last time was when Syria and Saudi Arabia were willing to allow large scale millitary facilities to use their territory, and in the case of Saudi Arabia to actually allow themselves to be used as a forward base. Now is this going to be allowed a second time. In Syria's case no way, but Syria doesn't really matter here, it would make things easier but it's refusal wouldn't change the way in which the whole thing's done. Now the Saudis are a different matter. Would they allow it? To be honest we can't tell, and we shouldn't pretend that we can.

What is clear is that the population would be hostile, and this would find echoes in sections of the royal family and the religious establishment. But then again this was the case in Pakistan when the Americans went into Afghanistan and the regime has not yet collapsed (not with the royal family of course, but you know what I'm saying). Why should this be different?

Apart from the obvious answer that things will be different because things are different, there are a couple of elephants tramping around the living room. Firstly, a war in the Middle East may be good for the ruling classes with their interest in high oil prices - all depending on whether they can get the same volume of oil out of the Red Sea as they did when they had access to both coasts. The Saudi ruling classes also don't have anything invested in Saddam as the Pakistanis had in the Taliban, although with their large Shia minority they've got more to fear from a neighbouring Shia regime than the Pakistanis have to fear from a chaotic Tajik/Uzbeck kleptocracy.

So what is the fly in the ointment here? Apart from the aforementioned Shias, there's also the fact that Saudi Arabia is more Islamicised than Pakistan. The raison d'etre of Pakistan may be that they were Muslims and not Hindus, but the ruling and middle classes are not nearly as Islamicised as the Saudis. For example, two thirds of higher degrees awarded by Saudi univerisities are in Islamic theology. Two thirds. This, in my opinion, points to a more exciteable crowd than the Pakistanis (at least those outside the North West frontier).

However, America may be allowed to base troops in Saudi and the place may not erupt. To be fair both these outcomes are highly plausible, but not certain. What if this is not the case? Would the Americans occupy the necesary parts of Saudi? This could have a few, ahem, interesting repercussions, making the rest of the Iraq into less of a cake walk. This is unlikely as they will have access to the Persian Gulf (Iran is not likely to actively block the dismemberment of Iraq) and probably to Kuwaiti bases. A force coming solely from the south -with maybe a force through Turkey and the Kurdish areas- is perfectly plausible, but it is far less easy.

However what happens when the US-UK force wins, which it will in fairly short order, what does it do then. Why occupy it. Iraq does not have the alternative governments that the Northern Alliance and the Pashtun robber bands provided. Nation building will be in order. And what nation? Arab or Kurd? Sunni or Shiite? Unless borders are withdrawn the national question will be tricky in Iraq. And redrawing the borders? Sounds great fun from the armchair, but maybe a bit more risky on the ground.

And that big question that self-styled realists aren't asking, how does all this serve our interests?


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