March 1, 2005

America's New Shia Pet

"Saudi Shiites, Long Kept Down, Look to Iraq and Assert Rights," headlines the NYT.

Ever since America's last experiment in pushing for democratization in the Middle East -- Jimmy Carter's undermining of the Shah of Iran in 1979 -- brought the Ayatollah Khomeini to power, America's fundamental strategy in the Persian Gulf has been modeled on Britain's centuries-old policy toward Europe of opposing any single power dominating the Continent, especially the lowlands where the Rhine River reaches the sea, which, lying opposite the mouth of the Thames, are the natural commercial link between the British Isles and the Continent. That's why the lowlands are divided up into the three small Benelux countries and why the violation of Belgium neutrality by the German invaders in WWI triggered British entry into the Great War.

Similarly, our goal has been to insure that the vast oil reserves of the Persian Gulf remain divided amongst numerous states: Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and various statelets such as the members of the United Arab Emirates. As long as the oil of the Persian Gulf is not monopolized by one state, it is difficult -- not impossible, just difficult -- for OPEC to fully maximize prices due to competition and backstabbing among members. Cartels are not as effective as monopolies.

That's why the civilized world reacted so violently to Saddam's stick-up of Kuwait in 1990. Although it may not have been Saddam's immediate intention, digesting Kuwait would have put him in position to eventually annex Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and then use his vast wealth to re-open his war with Iran and seize its oil regions. (Alternately, he could have simply blackmailed by threat of conquest his surviving neighbors into cooperating.) The prospect of Saddam being able to unilaterally set the price of oil as a profit-maximizing monopolist was intolerable to most of the the world.

Since the Shi'ite takeover of Iran in 1979, however, another major American fear has stemmed from the an unlucky correlation between demography and geology -- living on top of most of the oil fields of the Gulf are Shi'ites. Shi'ites make up the majority of Kuwaitis and the majority of Saudis in the oil-rich Eastern Province. Similarly, Shi'ites live atop most Iraqi and Iranian oil (in Iran, they are typically Arab-speakers).

We long have feared consolidation of power under the Shi'ites in the oil regions of the Gulf and thus supported maintenance of existing borders. Perhaps that was an unreasonable fear, but it is worth asking why the Bush White House decided to junk this policy with almost no debate or reflection and instead push Shia Power in the Middle East via our recent fetishization of democracy.

The President seems increasingly addicted to rolling the geopolitical dice on the assumption that whatever comes up, even snake-eyes, the Republican media machine can spin it as another triumph of our Infallible Leader's Master Plan.

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