What more fitting way for the Bush Administration to observe the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq than to send its principal architect, Vice President Dick Cheney, to Baghdad to rally dispirited US troops for years more of futile sacrifice? "It's been a difficult, challenging but nonetheless successful endeavor," Cheney opined during a surprise visit on March 17, at the beginning of a ten-day Middle East trip. As he toured Baghdad, bragging of "phenomenal" security improvements, a bomb went off in the heavily guarded Shiite holy city of Karbala, killing fifty and wounding dozens more.
Ostensibly, Cheney's visit is intended to lend muscle to the White House claim that substantial progress is being made in Iraq because of the troop surge--thereby burnishing the Administration's "legacy" and enhancing the election prospects of John McCain (who recently made an Iraq trip of his own with this purpose). Cheney also sought to persuade Iraqi lawmakers to pass a national hydrocarbon law, thus smoothing the way for the exploitation of Iraqi oilfields by US energy firms.
But Iraq is only the first stop on Cheney's itinerary. He is also scheduled to visit Saudi Arabia, Oman, Turkey, Israel and the West Bank. At least some of the objectives of these visits have been signaled by President Bush and other top officials. In Saudi Arabia, for example, Cheney is expected to pressure King Abdullah to increase the kingdom's oil output, thereby bringing down US gas prices. Cheney is also expected to pressure Israeli and Palestinian officials to resume peace negotiations.
Lurking behind all this, however, is the Administration's overriding strategic goal in the region: to contain Iran's growing influence and, if deemed necessary, use military force to destroy its capacity to manufacture nuclear weapons. The containment and eventual emasculation of Iran has always been the Administration's principal post-Iraq objective in the Persian Gulf, and now that Cheney can claim a "successful" outcome to its first war in the region, it can begin laying groundwork for the next.
The chief obstacle standing in the way of war against Iran has been the opposition of senior US military officers, who fear that another major military operation would further burden America's already overstretched combat forces. The most outspoken member of this common-sense faction was, until recently, Adm. William Fallon, commander of the US Central Command, which has jurisdiction over all US forces in the Gulf and Central Asia. When first announced a year ago, Fallon's appointment to Centcom was viewed by many as a sign of impending war with Iran because of his experience in commanding air and naval forces, the sort most usable for such an engagement; once in office, however, he proved a vigorous opponent of rash action. In an interview last fall with Al Jazeera, Fallon indicated that a "constant drumbeat" of belligerent statements from Washington on Iran was "not helpful and not useful." When an article on Fallon appeared in Esquire that highlighted his criticism of the Bush/Cheney approach, he was forced to resign (though he insists he quit voluntarily). Fallon's departure five days before Cheney left for the Middle East clears the path for a US military strike.
Of all those who have advocated the use of force against Iran, Cheney has been the most outspoken. The last time he visited the Persian Gulf, in May 2007, he stood aboard an aircraft carrier during highly provocative naval maneuvers and warned the Iranians of military attack if they continued to pursue nuclear-arms technology or sought to impede oil shipping in the Gulf. "With two carrier strike groups in the Gulf, we're sending clear messages to friends and adversaries alike. We'll keep the sea lanes open.... [And] we'll stand with others to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons and dominating this region."
As suggested by Cheney's remarks, an assault on Iran is likely to entail air and missile strikes on nuclear facilities as well as naval bases and missile emplacements along the Gulf and its narrow exit-way, the Strait of Hormuz. It is in this context that Cheney's visit to Oman acquires particular significance. Neither a major oil producer nor a major power in its own right, Oman plays a critical strategic role because it harbors key US air bases and occupies the southern shore of the strait. Were fighting to break out in the area, Oman's support would be critical.
In fact, every stop on Cheney's itinerary is certain to involve consideration of Iran. This is sure to be a major item of discussion in Cheney's meetings with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and other top Israeli leaders, many of whom have made no secret of their desire for a US (or joint US-Israeli) strike on Iran. Cheney may also seek Turkey's approval for the use of the key US air base at Incirlik for future attacks on Iran.
It has become the common wisdom in Washington that the likelihood of war has dropped to near zero because of the release in December of a National Intelligence Estimate claiming Iran had abandoned its plans to manufacture nuclear weapons in 2003, along with the vigorous resistance put up by senior officers like Admiral Fallon. But Fallon is now out of the picture, and the White House shows no evidence of being influenced by the common wisdom; if anything, Cheney's trip suggests that the military option remains as potent as ever. It is essential, then, that he be questioned closely upon his return from the Middle East and that sane voices in Congress and the military continue to resist any move toward another catastrophic military adventure in the Persian Gulf.