Eqbal Ahmad: "Roots of the Gulf Crisis"

Boston; November 17, 1990

Recorded by David Barsamian for Alternative Radio, from whom a copy can still be ordered. See also "Terrorism: Theirs And Ours".

My first thing that I think of is that we are coming to the end of -- more or less to the end of -- this Century. It has been an extraordinary Century, for many reasons. One of them is that this is the Century during which the Western world started to count its wars. And so, we had World War I, and World War II, and the fears of World War III.

Before the 20th Century, for three-and-a-half centuries, the west made wars upon the "other" without counting them. And a world system came into being (starting in the 17th Century) marked by imperialism, marked by a global market, marked by capitalism, and marked above all by unrecorded and unremembered holocausts. Those were the centuries during which great civilisations -- like those of the Mayas, the Incas, the Aztecs, the great civilised nations of this hemisphere -- were destroyed. Those were also centuries during which other great civilisations -- of Africa and China, and of India, and of the Middle East -- were subjugated.

And those wars were not remembered...or I should say, were remembered only when a garden was besieged, or a Custer was killed. And the point of the 20th Century is that finally the colonial haves and the colonial have-nots began to fight with each other. And the West began to number its wars. It began also to realise fully the price of wars. And thus began a history not only of betrayals of humanity, but also of expressed hopes.

So I should begin by first reminding ourselves of the fact that World War I was probably the last "happy" war that the Western World has fought. Certainly the last war into which the West went joyously: there was dancing in the streets of London and Paris. And songsters sang about this wonderful war. After World War I there was a genuine and massive recoiling from wars, and a yearning for peace. And such works as When Peace Comes became best-sellers. And such things as Woodrow Wilson's fourteen points became...came to be viewed as expressions of humanity's hopes. And the covenant of the League of Nations was widely welcomed.

It also witnessed betrayals of our hopes. Upon those betrayals were founded the premises of World War II. When World War II was over, the repugnance of war was so great that it had become inconceivable that we will accept another -- or third -- World War. It had also become conceivable that the colonised countries will witness de-colonisation, and freedom, and liberation. And the United Nations Charter was welcomed. And once again what we witnessed was disappointment -- betrayals of those hopes which we nourished after World War II.

And now we have reached a third period of hopes and possible betrayal. For World War II, the post-war settlement essentially meant two things. (The Cold War, which essentially was made up of two realities.) The reality of the arms race (the strategic arms race) and massive defense spendings and arms trades, on the one hand. And on the other hand, the continuation of warfare, with the Third World as its battlefield. So we had Greece, and we had Korea, and we had Vietnam, and we had the Cuban missile crisis. And we had those once-every-fifteen-month interventions of the United States in Third World countries, and once-every-six-year interventions by the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe (and finally in Afghanistan).

And now, something else has happened. And that is, one of the two major players in the Cold War game has walked out on the game, leaving the United States alone in front of the chess-board. That's what essentially has happened. And it is called an example of Russian weakness. It expresses the great Russian crisis and defeat that they walked out on the Cold War. So the question arises: what happens now? Is that one player which is left on the chess-board going to try to pick up all the counters, put them in the pocket, and bully everybody on the block? Or would it mean a New World Order? I think that is the question with which I have come to you. I don't (probably) have an answer.

I should perhaps remind us that in the past periods of hope and betrayal, there have been defining events. Not one, sometimes more than one event.

There was that invasion of Abyssinia. And those of you that have been reading history would remember that wispy, thin little man coming to the League of Nations, shaking his little wispy beard, and saying, "If you let it go this time, you will regret it." That was Haile Selassie after the invasion of his country.

After World War II (you would remember), it was, first Iran during the Azerbaijan crisis (in which for the first time after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki the United States used nuclear diplomacy). And soon after that there was the Civil War in Greece, which led to the Truman Doctrine -- whereby the United States promised to intervene anywhere where a government was threatened by external or internal forces (thus laying down the basis for continuous American interventions in the Third World). You would remember also that the next defining war was the Korean War, which followed soon after the National Security Council Memorandum No. 68. These were defining events.

I would submit to you that in this era of Perestroika, the crisis in the Gulf may very well prove to be the defining event that would defeat our hopes, and start us out on a new period of betrayals. I would like to remind us also that both in 1936-37 and in 1945-55, the betrayals that occurred -- and a new order of violence and domination began -- with the complicity of the media, of the Congress, and (forgive me for thinking) of the public also.

For the media never asked what was behind the great crisis. It didn't even feel to ask why its own men -- like George Polk -- were being murdered in Greece (and by whom). It never asked who started -- and how the Korean War -- started. What were the American objectives in the Korean War? You realise that the United States went into the Greek Civil War, and it started -- got into -- the Korean war without public discussion. Without congressional authorisation. Without declarations of war (as they did in Vietnam, too). And that there was one lone voice -- that of I.F. Stone, that wrote The Hidden History of the Korean War. And it is only 40 years later that we are now beginning to learn that the American government actually took the American people and Congress into the Korean War by lying.

And once again the media is doing exactly the same thing. And we must not be complicit this time. The media, the universities, the Congress, have all failed to ask fundamental questions about the crisis in the Gulf. No substantive discussion of this crisis has yet taken place -- into the fourth month of this crisis, and nearly four hundred thousand troops to be dispatched (most already there, a few more to be dispatched).

First, there has been nothing (that I have seen) in the media about what compels Saddam Hussein's extraordinary ambitions. This fellow is being described as Hitler. As a dictator. As a tyrant. As a dangerous guy in that region. And nobody is asking why. Because this dictator has been around for fifteen years. What has suddenly in 1990 compelled his ambition, that requires 350,000 American troops to control? What did it?

No one has named the Camp David Accords. And Saddam Hussein's ambitions are directly attributable to the Camp David Accords. I won't go into details of it -- just in two sentences, remember the following. Since the decline of the Ottoman Empire (in other words, since the beginning of the 19th Century) Egypt has played the role of the regional influential in the Arab World. Politically, culturally, even militarily, Egypt has led the Arab World (and ideologically). The Camp David Accords' supreme achievement was to isolate Egypt from its Arab milieu.

When Anwar Sadat signed that piece of paper, his hope had been that this would lead to the return of Egyptian territory to Egypt. Occupied territories, one (which he did get). And two, a modicum of justice for the Palestinians. So that, over time his isolation will be ameliorated. And that minimum that was promised to Sadat in the Camp David Accords was not honored. In fact, the maximum was dishonored.

To remind you of one reality alone, Carter, and Saunders, and William B. Quandt -- the three American negotiators from top to the bottom (with Carter at the top, Saunders in the middle, and Quandt at the bottom) -- have testified and recorded in their books that in the last three days of the Camp David negotiations, the negotiations had broken down on one issue. And the issue was Sadat's insistence that there should be written in the Camp David Accords that Israel will put up no more settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. And Begin would say, "I am willing to agree on it informally, but won't do it in writing." And Carter weighs in and says, "You must understand Begin's difficult position. I give you guarantee that there will be no settlements."

And then that day they signed the piece of paper in front of the television camera, on prime time television. And Anwar Sadat and Begin and Carter kissed each other. (Sadat was particularly fond of kissing.) And then he went down and kissed his friend, Barbara Walters. And told Barbara Walters that there will be peace -- and comprehensive peace -- in the Middle East. This was confirmed by Carter and Begin. And the next day, around afternoon, Israel announced the setting up of new settlements. And Carter called poppycock.

But much more than that. It is after Camp David that the settlement process escalated. It is after Camp David that 60% of Palestinian lands were expropriated in the West Bank. It is after Camp David that nearly 80% of Palestinian water came under the Israeli occupying authority's control. And it was after Camp David that nearly 18,000 books were banned in the West Bank and Gaza. And it is after Camp David that Palestinian local leaders began to be deported (in violation of the Geneva Conventions).

Have you noticed what I have just said? It is after Camp David that the four elements of life, without which no community can survive, came under organised assault by the Israeli military occupation authorities. Those are: land, water, culture, and leaders. What underlies this extraordinary event called The Intifada is not merely Palestinian heroism, or its will to liberation. It is Palestinian desperation, and its will to survival. Literally, I mean, survival.

Now, obviously, Camp David meant moral, ideological, political isolation of Egypt from its Arab milieu. There would be a political vacuum in the Middle East after Camp David. And smaller players -- like Syria and Iraq -- would love, would aim at, would have the ambition, to fill that vacuum.

Saddam Hussein showed the first sign of wanting to fill that vacuum when he, in an unprovoked aggression, invaded Iran. And far from discouraging him, the United States encouraged him in that aggression. And Saudi Arabia and Kuwait paid his bills for warfare. To the tune of nearly $60 Billion, they paid. He borrowed another $40 Billion from them.

So now that he has invaded Kuwait, everybody is very upset about it. And the most extraordinary thing is, that they are still not talking about what underlay his extraordinary ambition.

Or take the second question: what is the politics of oil, that defines this conflict? How is it that through this inflationary cycle of the last ten years (1980-1990) oil has been the only product whose prices have been going down? You realise that oil prices have come down from about $42-a-barrel to $14-a-barrel. How? Why is it that from 1980-81 to 1990, the price of oil kept coming down? Who brought it down? How could they afford to bring it down? There should have been some discussion about it.

And you would have discovered the following things (quickly, I won't explain it too much). One, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait played the dominant -- the key -- role in keeping it down. Second you discover that Saudi Arabia and Kuwait kept it down for a number of reasons. One was that they are -- like the rest of the Emirates that are attached to them (their client states), they are -- big producers with small populations. Therefore, they can afford to keep prices down. The second reason is that they own offshore refineries. So they make money not from crude only, but from refined oil, and from distributive networks. The Kuwaitis, for example, literally have a monopoly of distribution in Great Britain. And there's a third reason. These big oil producers in small countries (small countries which are big producers) have massive investments in the Western World. Let me give you two figures. Saudi Arabia's state investment in Europe and the United States combined is $225 Billion. Kuwait's state investment...mind, I'm emphasising "state". Kuwait's state investment is $125 Billion. Now, I was emphasising state investments because these states are family states. And we don't know anything about the holdings of the families. I'm talking about Saudi Arabia's holdings, not the Saudi family's holdings. Now, these 2,000 Princes (who own Saudi Arabia) must have their own investments. So look, they're...they have a stake in this economy. They derive profit from it. Oil is not their only source of income.

Or (for that matter) have they asked the simple question of how is it...it's an extraordinary phenomenon, have you all thought about it? Have you looked at the map? You just look at the map, and you see something funny. The area of the Persian Gulf is surround by large countries...not surrounded, consists of large countries. Pakistan: population, 120 million people; Egypt: population, 72 million people; Iran: population, 60 million people; Iraq is one of the smaller ones with a population of 17 to 18 million people. And then you have big oilfields in the small sheikdoms. Massive producer, Kuwait: population 600,000 people...600,000. Not even a million. Abu Dabi: population 550,000; Saudi Arabia: population unknown (the estimates run from 4 million to 8 million).

I mean, Jesus Christ, how is it that the biggest oilfields of the Middle East have been separated from their mainlands and turned into little sheikdoms? What is responsible for that? Could it be that there was imperialism in that region? Could it be that the British had been ruling there, and after World War I and World War II, the British and the Americans and the French got together to do it that way? To make big oilfields/little sheikdoms? No discussion in our newspapers.

Or, take the next question. There is an extraordinary international consensus behind America's interventionary initiative. Actually, this is the first time an American interventionary initiative has the support of all the great powers. Unusual. But it doesn't have the support of eleven -- nearly half -- of the Arab nations. Eleven of them. More importantly, among those who have not supported the UN multilateral force (so-called "UN multi-lateral force", which consists of 380,000 American forces, and 20,000 non-American forces), what is...who are these eleven? They include two of America's oldest Arab friends, and one of America's allies...i.e., they include Jordan. Remember? They call him...still used to call him, until two months ago, three months ago, in the State Department, "Our little spunky King." Our little spunky King. That's Hussein of Jordan. Or, the grand moderate: Tunisia. The paragon of moderation, in the American view. Habib Bourguiba of Tunisia is the only Arab leader who received a popular ticker-tape parade in New York City. All Zionist organisations of New York City joined in that ticker-tape parade. There were full-page ads in the New York Times: "Welcome President Bourguiba". What happened here? Tunisia is refusing to join them. Or take Algeria. That so-called "radical" state has been up-front in helping American diplomacy. They moved very fast to help resolve the hostage crisis in Iran. They ain't joining in.

Did you notice that all they do...is that people like A.M. Rosenthal, and William Safire, and Flora Lewis -- the most they have gone on to do is to say that Hussein...King Hussein is a fool. He has really committed a mistake this time. That's about all we hear. And one of the two articles in three-and-a-half months that the New York Times published with a Muslim name (or an Arab name) was Prince Bundar Bin Sultan, of Saudi Arabia, attacking King Hussein. That's it. That leaves you with one Middle Eastern voice in four months of New York Times coverage. Now, that's quite extraordinary! What they are not noticing about these countries -- these old friends of the United States -- is that they are among the few countries in the area, in the region, which have responded to the democratic trend: allowed elections to be held, have had elected assemblies to which they are responsible (to a degree). And therefore they are sensitive to public opinion. And they feel that joining the American initiative would be very harmful to them, to their future...or even probably to their survival. Should have been discussed.

But why is the public opinion so against the American intervention? Not because Saddam Hussein is popular. Arafat has not supported Saddam Hussein. This is a lie! Arafat has been on record, for example, saying, "We oppose Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, and demand Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait." Hussein is not supporting Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. This is misrepresentation. Why are the Arab people so anti-American intervention? The answer is very simple: they don't believe that the Americans are doing it in Arab interests. They fear this is the beginning of re-colonisation. Why do they fear it is a subject to which I would like to come at some point. But they fear it is the beginning of re-colonisation.

When Bush says, "Acquisition of territory by force is inadmissible," nobody believes it. When the American newspapers welcome the United Nations resolution of sanctions, it creates cynical feelings among the Arab masses, Arab people. The Israelies invaded Lebanon in 1982. No less than 20,000 people were killed. And a very similar resolution before the Security Council was vetoed by the United States. The Israelis are occupying four Arab countries right now, and have annexed two of them. The United States has been sponsoring annexation and occupation. So there can be no trust, on this basis.

Or, has there been any discussion in the press as to why...every day we hear, "This is the UN Resolution...UN has supported these things...American forces are behind the United Nations Resolution..." But for three months the United States government has refused to form an allied UN command. They don't want their troops to be under UN command. The Russians have been pushing and shoving. (Quietly -- they're not capable of doing much more anymore. Or not wanting to.) The Russians have been demanding over and over and over for the last two years that the United Nations Military Commission (which is under the control of the Security Council) should be activated. It's the United States which is refusing to activate the Military Commission. No discussion in the media. Why? Just discuss it.

Or, take another one. Why have oil prices gone up? Every week the State Department issues a communique (I have seen so far three of them) emphasising the fact that there has been no fall-off in oil supplies. Saudi Arabia has been meeting -- by overproduction -- the cuts in oil supplies from Iraq and Kuwait. So when supply has remained stable, why have prices gone up? Why are Third World countries being so badly hurt? They're being hurt very badly by these increases in prices. Who has increased prices? Which corporations are involved? Why hasn't the United States government done anything to regulate these prices -- especially when they're being artificially raised? No discussion.

Next. Where is America's strategic ally in the Middle East? So far, they have spent $57 Billion in military and economic aid to Israel in the last 22 years. Each time that money has been justified on grounds that Israel is our strategic ally in the Middle East. Now, one assumes that if you have a strategic ally in the Middle East, that ally would be coming in handy right now. They had to ask the Israeli Prime Minister, "Please, we beg you: keep quiet, and keep yourself closed in a room. We don't want you to do anything." Some ally. Some strategic consensus.

And they are pushing Turkey -- almost with a prod -- pushing Turkey to open a second front against Iraq. That is, a neighbour (who was not a strategic ally of that kind) is being literally pushed to open a second front. And the Turkish officials...apart from President Özal, who has a compunction to feel tall. You know, for good reasons. And he doesn't feel that he will ever look or feel tall, unless he joins the American government. The Turks are in the business right now of overriding their parliament in order to open a second front. No discussion of this.

Finally, absolutely finally, there has been no discussion in this country -- at universities or in the media -- of what are American objectives in the Persian Gulf. What are the goals of policy? What is it? Now, you will notice that President Bush (and Baker) have done their best, surely, to produce debate. They cannot be blamed. They have tried their best to produce, to provoke, to encourage debate on this issue -- because they have said too many things. They have said, "We are there to oppose aggression. Because that's a matter of principle." Number one. Number two, they say, "We are there because the United Nations asked us to be there," which it never did. The UN came after the Americans did (which has been forgotten). Then they are saying, "We are there because of oil." And most importantly, now they have said that, "We are there to save American jobs." Now, with so many statements of objectives, and reports of total confusion in the American public; one would think that it would be the responsibility of the media, the universities, these scholars, these pundits, to at least start figuring out what the objectives are.

I would have really liked to talk about those objectives. Perhaps during some discussions, we will do that. For now, let me finish we two or three quick thoughts.

One, you will recall that since 1970, the United States has been desperate to insert its military power in the Middle East...to insert its military and political power in the Middle East. You would recall that it was through U.S. choices that the centrality for...world struggle for power shifted in the 1970s...from the Atlantic and the Pacific in the 1950s and the '60s, it shifted in the 1970s to the areas bounded by the Mediterranean and Indian Oceans (i.e., the Middle East and southern Africa). You would recall that the Rapid Deployment force and the new modernised Navy were designed at the Middle East. At the beginning, a 60,000 Rapid Deployment force, which by the Carter Administration had reached 200,000, and by Reagan had reached 350,000. Much of the troops under the Rapid Deployment force are now mobilised for this. You would recall that Saudi Arabia has been requested to provide bases since 1975, and had refused it. You would recall that Iran was built into a major force as part of America's southern strategy on the eastern flank of the Oil Belt (and Israel on the western flank).

I am merely suggesting that it is the great achievement of President Saddam Hussein that he opened the doors wide to American intervention. Those people who somehow think that Saddam Hussein has done something anti-imperialistic are thinking it wrong. Saddam Hussein is not only a tyrant and a dictator, he is also a fool. And that fool has created this situation.

Finally, I'll leave you with one simple suggestion: this is a war about staying number one. And this is a war about control of oil. And staying number one and controlling oil are not directed at the Arabs. It is directed at two large forces: Europe and the Third World. For the United States had exercised two leverages on its Western allies: the leverage of strategic weaponry (the strategic umbrella), and the leverage of economic dominance. It has lost both of them. Since 1970, American policy-makers have been seeking new leverages over old allies -- and control of oil will give that. And, over the Third World the United States would like to both have the leverage of oil, and establish the principle that it remains -- in the age of Perestroika -- the watchman on the walls of world freedom. Shall we let them have it? That's up to you.

Thank you.

How can we go about unity -- in the absence of democracy -- other than the way that Saddam did? Give me any kind of bold-lined map.
Okay. I think you said, "In the absence of democratic rights." I think the first step towards unity is that we have to struggle towards democratic rights. We will not get it by supporting some dictatorships' efforts at doing things which cannot possibly succeed. Look, I really think that one of the real mistakes of the Arab intellectuals had been that we failed to oppose Saddam Hussein when he invaded Iran. The Arab World was silent about it -- including the intellectual class. We failed to oppose Syria when it committed massacres in places. We even...look, there were more demonstrations in Israel during Israel's invasion of Lebanon than there were in the Arab World. We have to assert the rights of civil society. And our problems will not be solved by looking up to some dictatorial initiative which can only bring us defeat and destruction. Therefore, my position is that I am strongly opposed to Saddam Hussein and his invasion of Kuwait, because I think they are un-creative acts, and they're destructive aggressions. I am equally opposed to the aggressiveness of American imperialism. We have to find our own solutions.

I've been aware of articles in the British media...particularly a person named Peregrini Warstorn who's tied to the banking circles, calls the Palestinians and the other people in the Middle East "barbarians", and says the "New Order" has to include a new...he calls it "a benign form of imperialism", in which the West openly (and England openly) comes back into the fore as a Colonial power. That is, that England and the United States, since they're no longer major industrial powers, and they're losing their industrial competitiveness against Germany and Japan...this new era of shortages of resources...it'll be convenient and necessary to have an open imperialism again. And I would like to get a comment on whether you think this kind of a war move by the Bush Administration (and the British backing it) is a significant plan to decrease and wipe out significant numbers of the world population (particularly the non-white population).
I wouldn't go that far, probably, if I'm describing the aims of the Bush Administration. But I think that I like the thrust of the issue that you have raised. Perhaps I was not explicit enough. But I do think that we are facing a very serious moment in history -- and a very dangerous one. I have been trying to think of...what would be the parallel for the current situation. And it has driven me to the last volume of Gibbon, The Rise And Fall of the Roman Empire. Because never before have I seen such an extraordinary combination of economic weakness and military strength. Somebody asked the question here, why did the Soviet Union collapse? Frankly, I don't think the Soviet Union collapsed. It was a very willed collapse. They saw themselves going broke -- bankrupt -- with this arms race. And they decided not to go at it. They found empire very costly, and decided to give it up. It is precisely that decision that the United States has not made. Therefore you have this extraordinary phenomenon of a remarkable military power, whose intervention in the Persian Gulf now reaches 400,000 troops. Massively flexed muscles, combined with falling stocks, falling dollars, and announcements of recession even by the President of the United States. It's going around the world, gun in one hand, and a begging bowl in the other. That's a very dangerous combination.

What could it mean? It could mean that the Arab fears, right now, of re-colonisation, are justifiable. It could mean that the compulsions towards war are compulsions towards war not because they want to stop Saddam Hussein and ensure his withdrawal from Kuwait. But because this would offer the ultimate opportunity and justification for staying there for the next two, three, four, five, six decades.

For, after all, sanctions have worked before. They worked even on South Africa -- brought negotiations in Namibia. And the world had the patience to have sanctions for twelve years. It worked in Rhodesia, Zimbabwe. The world had the patience to have sanctions for nine-and-a-half years. And they want this major crisis to be resolved with sanctions in two-and-a-half months? What is it?

The only good sign here is that the European powers and Soviet Union are not wanting to go into military actions. And the Americans are deriving the legitimacy for their invasion from the United Nations. That consensus which they are so much enjoying will collapse if they move militarily. And that is why we have a very special responsibility to really organise and oppose. I am shocked by the fact that I have given you, now, a list of eight things that the media has been not doing -- and none of us are writing them letters every day, saying, "Look: you have failed here, you have failed here, you have failed here." You have to challenge them. We have to take delegations to the Congress. We have to take demonstrations to the government. We have to really spend more time talking about how to organise to stop this horror. How to organise to make a linkage between Israeli aggression (which has been of a much longer duration), and the Iraqi aggression (which is of a much shorter duration). These linkages have to be found. We have got to do something. Otherwise, we are heading towards this cycle from colonialism to neo-colonialism to re-colonialism. And the effects of it will be disastrous for your lives here. And, we know it will be disastrous for our lives there. So in that sense your question was very good.