Who Created the Persian Gulf Tinderbox?

Joe Biden’s statement that “President Trump just tossed a stick of dynamite into a tinderbox” by assassinating Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani was not inaccurate. But it skirts an all-important question: who created the tinderbox in the first place?

The answer, of course, is the United States.

In the long history of imperial folly and recklessness, nothing compares to U.S. policy in the Persian Gulf. Yes, the British shouldn’t have invaded Afghanistan in 1838, and, yes, JFK shouldn’t have backed the overthrow of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem in November 1963. If they had thought things through more carefully, one wouldn’t have lost an entire army in the retreat from Kabul while the other wouldn’t have stumbled into a dozen-year-long quagmire that would leave the US military depleted and demoralized – not to mention killing more than a million or more Vietnamese.

But those were momentary miscalculations compared to the slow-motion disaster in the gulf. For nearly half a century, every US president – liberal, conservative, or whatever – has pumped up a regional arms race that has set the stage for ever more destructive wars. The death and destruction have been incalculable. Yet not once throughout the long sorry saga have Americans paused for even a moment to consider where it was all going.

The process began in 1973 when Arab oil exporters quadrupled prices after Richard Nixon provided Israel with $2.2 billion in emergency aid in the midst of the nineteen-day Yom Kippur War. America considered seizing Saudi oil fields in retaliation. But once passions cooled, it opted for a pragmatic policy of mutual accommodation in which Arab oil producers and western consumers would accept Israeli victory and higher energy prices alike as faits accomplis and forge a workable settlement out of the rubble.

The result from a US point of view was a win-win situation if ever there was one. At a stroke, it acquired a powerful military ally in the Jewish state, a valuable export market in the gulf, and a much-needed conservative Muslim ally at a time when secular Arab radicalism was shooting through the roof. The big payoff came in 1989 when a US-backed Saudi-organized jihad drove the Soviets out of Afghanistan, causing the entire Soviet bloc to unravel just two years later.

Washington was dizzy with success. “What is more important in world history,” exulted Zbigniew Brzezinski, the architect of the Afghanistan plan, in 1998. “The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some agitated Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?” A top CIA strategist named Graham Fuller added a year later:

“The policy of guiding the evolution of Islam and of helping them against our adversaries worked marvelously well in Afghanistan against the Red Army. The same doctrines can still be used to destabilize what remains of Russian power and especially to counter the Chinese influence in Central Asia.”

What could go wrong? Plenty, as it turned out: the emergence of jihad as a global phenomenon, the birth of hyper-sectarian Sunni terrorists like Al Qaeda and ISIS, and a cycle of violence that has since proved unstoppable. Since Carter declared unilateral US military jurisdiction over the Persian Gulf in January 1980, the region has seen no fewer than seven major wars:

  • The Afghan jihad (1979-89).
  • The Iran-Iraq war (1980-88).
  • The gulf war (1990-91).
  • The US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq (2001-03).
  • The US-Saudi assault on Syria (starting in late 2011).
  • And the US-backed Saudi war on Yemen (beginning in March 2015 and still ongoing).

Toss in such “minor” incidents as the Saudi-UAE invasion of Bahrain in order to crush democratic protests in March 2011 or the Saudi economic blockade of Qatar in June 2017, and the list grows to nine, surely a record for American “peacekeepers.”

Yet the United States, the world’s leading military exporter, has piled up the tinder ever higher by accelerating military exports to absolutist states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar that, as even Hillary Clinton has admitted, “are providing clandestine financial and logical support to ISIL [i.e. Islamic State] and other radical Sunni groups in the region.”

Never has imperialism been more nihilistic. Yet Donald Trump has dialed up the craziness even more by abrogating the 2015 Iran nuclear accord and imposing a trade embargo that has brought the Iranian economy to its knees. Not content with economic warfare, he’s now advancing to physical warfare by “droning” Soleimani and threatening massive retaliation against both military and cultural targets if Iran dares raise a hand in response.

The effect is to propel himself into the front ranks of international war criminals. But Trump could never have done it on his own if a long line of American militarists hadn’t paved the way.

Daniel Lazare is the author of The Frozen Republic: How the Constitution Is Paralyzing Democracy (Harcourt Brace, 1996) and other books about American politics. He has written for a wide variety of publications from The Nation to Le Monde Diplomatique and blogs about the Constitution and related matters at Daniellazare.com. Reprined with permission of the author from Strategic Culture.