The Geopolitics of War
Many consequences have flowed from all this. The sanctions on Iraq have caused immense suffering for the Iraqi population, while the regular bombing of military facilities produces a mounting toll of Iraqi civilian deaths. Meanwhile, the United States has failed to take any action to curb Israeli violence against the Palestinians. It is these concerns that have prompted many young Muslims to join bin Laden's forces. Bin Laden himself, however, is most concerned about Saudi Arabia. Ever since the end of the Gulf War, he has focused his efforts on achieving two overarching goals: the expulsion of the American "infidels" from Saudi Arabia (the heart of the Muslim holy land) and the overthrow of the current Saudi regime and its replacement with one more attuned to his fundamentalist Islamic beliefs.
Both of these goals put bin Laden in direct conflict with the United States. It is this reality, more than any other, that explains the terrorist strikes on US military personnel and facilities in the Middle East, and key symbols of American power in New York and Washington.
The current war did not begin on September 11. As far as we can tell, it began in 1993 with the first attack on the World Trade Center. This was succeeded in 1995 with an attack on the SANG headquarters in Riyadh, and in 1996 with the explosion at the Khobar Towers outside of Dhahran. Then followed the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and the more recent attack on the USS Cole. All these events, like the World Trade Center/Pentagon assaults, are consistent with a long-term strategy to erode US determination to maintain its alliance with the Saudi regime--and thus, in the final analysis, to destroy the 1945 compact forged by President Roosevelt and King Abd al-Aziz Ibn Saud.
In fighting against these efforts, the United States is acting, in the first instance, to protect itself, its citizens and its military personnel from terrorist violence. At the same time, however, Washington is also shoring up its strategic position in the Persian Gulf. With bin Laden out of the way, Iran suffering from internal political turmoil and Saddam Hussein immobilized by unrelenting American airstrikes, the dominant US position in the gulf will be assured for some time to come. (Washington's one big worry is that the Saudi monarchy will face increasing internal opposition because of its close association with the United States; it is for this reason that the Bush Administration has not leaned too hard on the regime to permit US forces to use Saudi bases for attacks on Afghanistan and to freeze the funds of Saudi charities linked to Osama bin Laden.)
For both sides, then, this conflict has important geopolitical dimensions. A Saudi regime controlled by Osama bin Laden could be expected to sever all ties with US oil companies and to adopt new policies regarding the production of oil and the distribution of the country's oil wealth--moves that would have potentially devastating consequences for the US, and indeed the world, economy. The United States, of course, is fighting to prevent this from happening.
As the conflict unfolds, we are unlikely to hear any of this from the key figures involved. In seeking to mobilize public support for his campaign against the terrorists, President Bush will never acknowledge that conventional geopolitics plays a role in US policy. Osama bin Laden, for his part, is equally reluctant to speak in such terms. But the fact remains that this war, like the Gulf War before it, derives from a powerful geopolitical contest.
It will be very difficult, in the current political environment, to probe too deeply into these matters. Bin Laden and his associates have caused massive injury to the United States, and the prevention of further such attacks is, understandably, the nation's top priority. When conditions permit, however, a serious review of US policy in the Persian Gulf will be in order. Among the many questions that might legitimately be asked at this point is whether long-term US interests would not best be served by encouraging the democratization of Saudi Arabia. Surely, if more Saudi citizens are permitted to participate in open political dialogue, fewer will be attracted to the violent, anti-American dogma of Osama bin Laden.