This Gun's for Hire

Justin Schwartz

IT’S A COMMONPLACE that the Gulf crisis threatens to become “another Vietnam.” Despite the disparities of geography and the changed world situation, for once this platitude is correct on an important dimension which has disturbing implications for U.S. foreign and military policy in the post-Cold War era. This is that, oil notwithstanding. U.S. intervention in the Gulf has no more rational economic or strategic basis than did U.S. involvement in Vietnam, even from a capitalist perspective.

War would certainly be irrational for all parties.(1) But whether or not the Gulf crisis escalates, none of the plausibly cynical rationales for U.S. policy in terms of protecting its economic or military interests will stand up to examination. The main lessons of the crisis so far, then, are these:

1. With the collapse of a Soviet counterweight, the United States has more freedom to intervene in regional conflicts than it has had at any time since the late 1940s. Now as then, it will use this freedom to project military power.

2. History; however, does not simply repeat itself, Today the United States is constrained by economic weakness and has no acceptable substitute for anti-communism to justify intervention. Hence the scramble for international funding and U.N. support.

3. Bush will trade the peace dividend and environmental concerns for maintaining the U.S. role as the (rich) world’s policeman. But the United States is relegated to policing the world at the behest of countries that would rather pay than fight. “This is the era of rent-a-superpower,” says The Economist of London (9/8/90). The United States has applied for the job.

4 This policy is not in the national or business interests of the US. Former Reagan speechwriter Pat Buchanan, speaking for the neo-isolationist right, correctly calls it “globalony.” Rather than any astute promotion of a new lJ.S. imperial role in the emerging world order, the immediate motive of U.S. policy is an irrational consideration of prestige.

5. The policy itself is not a farsighted plan but the unintended outcome of the behavior of competing groups of elite policy makers. It reflects a lowest common denominator among their various goals. This is in general how U.S. foreign and domestic policy is made in an era when the globalization of capitalism disconnects the interests of capital from a national base.

Certain Marxists who think that historical materialism means that there is an economic cause for every social phenomenon will object that this sort of explanation fails to offer a properly materialist account of the crisis. Even many non-Marxists may believe that we haven’t properly explained U.S. policy unless we understand who’s making money from it.

This is a mistake. Materialism means not that the bottom line is at the bottom of politics, but that economic factors (like the globalization of capital) structure the context in which various heterogenous causes (like considerations of prestige) operate.(2)

Iraq’s aggression against Kuwait is the laboratory for the Bush Doctrine of superpower as mercenary. Bush appointed the United States as enforcer of a blockade against Iraq, which was later legitimized as a U.N. embargo. Gathering International support by threats and promises, he has sent over 400,000 troops, unnecessary for the embargo, into Saudi Arabia under “Operation Desert Shield.”

If it comes to war, U.S. forces are configured only for the sort of all-out attack on Iraq threatened by former Air Force Chief of Staff Michael Dugan, sacked in September for announcing that the United States would “decapitate” Iraq, targeting “downtown Baghdad.” The Pentagon is reluctant to fight a limited war like Vietnam where public support might weaken, but a quick victory against the Iraqi Army is unlikely.

“This would [not] be easy,” a Pentagon official warns. “This would be a high intensity war against a modern force with combat experience” (MGW, 8/19190). Up to 30,000 U.S. troops could die in the recapture of Kuwait alone, never mind an attack on Iraq (E, 9490). 55,000 died during fifteen years in Vietnam.

What is it all about? The truth is, it’s not clear Setting aside the propagandistic rationales about stopping aggression, upholding Kuwaiti sovereignty, and opposing the “new Hitler,” there are three explanations worth considering. These are (1) oil, (2) new alliance structures in the Middle East, and (3) economic leverage over capitalist competitors in Europe and Asia. The oil interest is connected to all these concerns.

1. Protecting “Our Oil”?

Congressman Les Aspin says that “by placing several divisions adjacent to half the world’s oil reserves … [Iraq) has placed a knife beside our jugular.” But the theory that the United States needs the oil won’t hold water. Jeane Kirkpatrick, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations under Reagan, notes that unlike Japan, “we have no special dependency on Gulf oil.”

The figures here are crucial. The United States now imports 11.5% of all the oil it consumes from the Middle East. In 1985 it was only 2.7% (NYT 9/4/90). Available conservation measures could eliminate all dependence on Middle East oil. We import it because it’s cheap oil, not because we have to. Former Defense and Energy Secretary James Schlesinger asks:

“Could we survive [even] without Saudi Arabia? Sure … Oil prices would be higher… ; there would be conservation, fuel switching, and a tendency to turn to other sources for oil.” (NYT, 8/13/90)

A slightly more sophisticated version of the resources theory is that what Iraq threatens is cheap oil. It said that this is important to avert or lessen the coming recession in the rich capitalist nations. Saddam Hussein, however, would not raise oil prices to where they forced a search for alternative fuels and oil sources. “Hiking prices would be against [Iraq’s] immediate interests,” The Economist observed in response to the invasion. “If Iraq wants to maximize its earnings it will not hold the world to ransom, but pump on.” (8/4/90)

Higher prices, moreover, wouldn’t affect the U.S. economy that much. Oil at $30 a barrel would mean a 0.2% reduction in the U.S. Gross National Product; less for healthier Europe and Japan. That’s smaller than the effect of the oil crises of the 1970s (E, 8/11/90, NYT 8/13,90). Oil has briefly gone over $40 a barrel—as I write it is back around $30—but economists are still projecting a short, mild recession (E, 1113190). Gas would have to reach $2 a gallon before it matched 1980 prices in real terms, when war for cheap oil was not an issue.

Oil importing third-world countries and Eastern Europe will be badly hurt by high-priced oil, but that’s not why the United States is in the Gulf. Higher prices might even be a boon for the U.S. economy, encouraging energy efficiency. The United States has 4% of the world’s population and uses 25% of its oil, nine times as much oil per person as third world countries, and up to twice as much per person as in some rich capitalist nations. Each American uses twenty-five barrels of gas a year, twice as much as each West German uses (NYT. 9/12/90; 9/27/90).

A crude theory might emphasize Bush’s strong connections with the oil industry to explain resistance to energy alternatives, but Texas benefits by higher oil prices which make its expensive fields competitive.

2. Middle Eastern Alliances?

A more promising rationale turns on the issue of Middle Eastern alliances. Puzzling over the vagueness of U.S. “vital interests” in the conflict, Thomas Friedman suggests that the issue is who will set the price of oil. While having one country set oil prices is not unacceptable to the United States—the Saudis played this role in the early 1980s—Bush would prefer it to be subservient power like Saudi Arabia than a nationalist one like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq (NYT 8/12/90)(3)

This view has some plausibility: While the United States backed Saddam against Iran, the Saudis have more consistently supported U.S. foreign policy. According to the Middle East Report (11/12/88), they spent billions in the 1970s to pull Egypt and Somalia out of the Soviet orbit. In 1981, then Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger announced that Washington wanted to strengthen the Saudis as the main U.S. ally in the Gulf after the fall of the Shah.

In return for $8.5 billion in advanced arms, the Saudis helped finance contras in Nicaragua and Mujahadeen in Afghanistan during the 1980s. In the last two years they and the Kuwaitis pumped an oil surplus to keep prices at the lowest levels, in real terms, that they have been for thirty years (NYT 9/16/90). (This was the immediate excuse for the Iraqi invasion.)

Still, defending Saudi Arabia seems too weak area-son for U.S. deployment on the present scale. Allies can be bought. Even Iraq is for sale. (Bush might have offered them money—or direct passage to the Gulf.) The Saudis are economically expendable, as Schlesinger suggests, and probably were not militarily threatened.(4)

If Saddam Hussein had meant to attack Saudi Arabia he would have done so during his blitz against Kuwait. What Hussein wanted, apart from somewhat higher oil prices, was passage to the Gulf—the rationale for his eight-year war with Iran. He miscalculated, in view of U.S. tolerance for his past predations, that he could take Kuwait at no more cost than a few polite statements of disapproval (NYT 8/13/90). Under other circumstances, he might have been allowed to.

A different concern about alliances is the opportunity Bush now has to break up the fractious Arab League, hitherto united at least in opposing Israel and U.S. involvement in the region. Bush has seized on the chance to divide the Arab states at least on the latter concern. The United States become the leader of an anti-Iraqi alliance, buy in Egyptian cooperation with a promise of$75 billion military debt relief (NYT 9/4/90) and even bringing Syria into a token Arab force.

Washington may obtain long-term basing rights. Defense Secretary Richard Cheney has spoken (to domestic consternation) of an “indefinite” large U.S. presence in the Gulf (MGW, 8/26/90). Secretary of State James Baker has argued for a Middle Eastern “Gulfo” (derisively so labelled by pro-war columnist William Safire), a military alliance on the model of NATO (NYT 9/6,90).

The problem with this explanation of the U.S. involvement is that it fails to reveal the U.S. interest in an expensive, long-term military commitment in the Gulf, something William Safire rightly denies. Nor does the story balance the strategic benefits to the United States of dividing the Arabs against the economic costs of leading a Gulf alliance into the indefinite future. It’s been estimated that the real costs of a barrel of Gulf oil before the crisis were closer to $80 a barrel than to $20, if we factor in the $40-45 billion in U.S. military forces deployed to protect U.S. and allied access to oil (NYT 9/11/90); with the current costs of the intervention running at around $1 billion a month, these costs are far higher.

A long term deployment would cost less, but would still be more expensive than the high pre-crisis costs, which were still burdensome on the U.S. economy. A long war, of course, means all bets are off.

3. The United States Against the West?

The most cynical theory is that the U.S. concern is with gaining a strategic advantage over its former cold war allies and current economic rivals—Japan and a German-dominated post-1992 Europe. Mary Kaldor’s The Disintegrating West (1978) first identified strains in the alliance that have persisted over the subsequent decade because of the greater strength of the German and Japanese economies relative to U.S. performance.

Kaldor’s fear of intercapitalist military conflict—that a Third World War might replay the first two—seems far-fetched. Economic interdependence makes military confrontation irrational, and these nations recognize that their prosperity has much to do with allowing the United States to bear the costs of military hegemony: But they are, unlike the United States, genuinely dependent on Gulf oil. Thus the theory is that we can understand U.S. policy in the Gulf as a means to put Washington in a position to control a resource vital to the economy of its rivals.

I am not aware of any advocate of intervention who defends this rationale. Moreover, the theory is inconsistent with the extensive financial and political support of U.S. intervention by the Western European and Japanese governments ($2 billion from Japan, DM3.3 billion from Germany [NYT 9/11/89; E 9/22/90]). According to an ABC-TV nightly news broadcast shortly into the crisis, Margaret Thatcher may even have directly influenced Bush to take an intransigent military stand.

The theory saves the rationality of Bush’s policy at the cost of the rationality of the rich allies. Why would they support a policy that gave the United States such leverage against them?

The answer is that a permanent U.S. presence in the Gulf would have no such effect. Oil prices are set by the market in the long run. Thus it matters little whether the price leader is Iraq, the Saudis, or the United States. Any attempt to apply crude economic blackmail (“Drop your trade barriers or well hike oil prices”) would be diplomatically costly and would risk a foreign capital strike against a U.S. economy heavily dependent on foreign investment. Military rower does not directly translate into economic power in this matter

4. The Prestige Thing

Why then the current escalation? Economic and strategic considerations aren’t everything. Pro-interventionists are concerned that the showdown “could determine the extent of U.S influence in the post-cold war world,” as hawkish Senator David Boren (D-OK) puts it. Dismissing the economic concerns, Schlesinger worries that if Saddam Hussein appears to face us down, Washington would “lose its position as leader of the world. This would be a serious setback to our prestige.” (NYT 8/13/90). (In his Senate testimony in December, Schlesinger indicated support for the troop mobilization but opposed quick recourse to war.)

As in Vietnam, issues of prestige outrun rational interests. That is why it is so hard to find a persuasive rationale for U.S. policy even in imperial terms. There isn’t one. Those who tried to explain the Vietnam War by appeal to U.S. interest in the protection of trade routes or access to raw materials faced a similar problem. The political and economic costs of the Vietnam War exceeded any plausible economic gains.(5)

The Pentagon Papers reveal that U.S. policy makers were hard put to explain to themselves why we were in Vietnam. See, for example, Assistant Secretary of Defense John McNaughton’s 1964 rationalization, in which U.S. aims are identified as “70%—to avoid a humiliating U.S. defeat … ; 20%—to keep SVN … from Chinese hands; 10%to permit the people of SVN to enjoy a better, freer life.(6) Here, too, prestige defeated rational calculation.

As the Cold War has evaporated, Washington has sought new rationales for intervention. Without the anti-communist rationale, intangibles such as “credibility” and “self-confidence” come to the fore. The conservative Cato Institute’s Ted Galen Carpenter comments: “(T)he Bush administration response demonstrates unmistakable intention to preserve America’s hyperactivist cold war strategy in the post-cold war era. [This is] a blueprint for the indefinite prolongation of expensive military commitments around the world.” (MGW, 8/26/90)

5. “ReaganismS” & Globalization of Capital

Commitment on the present scale, with tremendous risks for dubious gains of prestige, is a result of “Reaganism,” to give a name to the form of government we have had since the later Carter administration. Joshua Cohen and Joel Rogers analyze “Reaganism” as a “lowest common denominator” politics in an environment where:

1) The business community is divided on important issues (e.g., rustbelt industries oppose finance and multinationals on protectionism, while the latter lobby for free trade);

2) Domestic political organization, notably oppositional and labor groups, are weak and fragmented; and

3) Conflicts with the emerging economic superpowers (Japan, Germany) make international coordination hard at the elite level.

In this environment the lowest common denominator was a general U.S. elite agreement on the need to cut business—notably labor—costs and boost the military budget(7) Reagan was the perfect lowest common denominator president—an impressive figurehead who, like Sgt. Schulz in Hogan’s Heroes, “saw nothing, heard nothing, knew nothing,” while competing interests pursued various contradictory goals.(8) The essence of Reaganism is that the lights are on but nobody’s home. Bush’s repudiation of “the vision thing” is the sign of a true Reaganaut.

With the Gulf crisis, Bush seized on an intervention to boost his polls while the oil industry took advantage of windfall profits, the military contractors saved threatened weapons systems, the Pentagon sought a base in the Gulf and a new mission to replace NATO’s, and various other benefits fell to those powerful enough to take them. None of these benefits motivated the intervention nor was it intended to bring them about. They merely made it attractive to various players. If one thing immediately motivated the intervention, it was the urge to “stand tall” and assert U.S. superpower status while boosting Bush’s polls.

Even though there is no rational economic or strategic basis for U.S. policy, in the sense of an interest which it would make sense for an imperial superpower to defend, there is nonetheless an economic structural background factor against which we can understand why a superpower would turn mercenary at its own expense. This is the globalization of capital and the concomitant increasing detachment of international capital from a national base.

U.S.-based firms are increasingly multinational and diversified. IBM is Japan’s largest computer exporter GM produces cars jointly with Toyota; Chrysler owns a large share of Mitsubishi; and Ford produces extensively in Europe. The three biggest Taiwanese exporters to the United States are subsidiaries of Sears, K-Mart, and J.C. Penney.

In 1988, U.S. direct Investment abroad was 6% of total U.S. plant and equipment value, up 400% from 1950 in 1985, the 150 largest U.S. firms earned 34% of pre-tax profits abroad (Dollars and Sense, 10/90). The U.S-based multinationals’ share of world trade has remained constant while the U.S. total share has declined (Cohen and Rogers, 392).

The global interests of these firms are decreasingly linked to U.S. prosperity. They can do well in Europe or Japan. In this situation, the managers and owners of these globalized firms will not oppose having U.S. troops fight and U.S. taxpayers pay for defending their global interests, even at the expense of domestic capital, never mind of the American working and middle classes. They do not order this done, nor could they. But they do not have to. Lowest common denominator polities brings it about as a result of the play of forces I have described.

6. Military Might, Economic Decline

Today, the United States faces economic decline, partly the price of $4 trillion in cold war military spend-mg. Liberal anti-interventionist Paul Kennedy provided the most recent case for the economic costs of military might in his widely discussed The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1987). The United States looks strong compared to the USSR (another victim of military superpowerdom), but poor compared to Western Europe or Japan. Both former cold war antagonists and allies are happy for Washington to be the 911 number, intervening when unruly Third World countries upset the emerging global capitalist order.

The USSR, no longer even a sometime supporter of national liberation, is desperate for acceptance in “the civilized [i.e., the capitalist] world,” including the IMF, GATT, and the OECD. Its alliance with its former antagonist America against its former client Iraq represents a promise of good citizenship in the new order. (As usual, though, the Soviets calculate more rationally than the United States and thus oppose war in the Middle East, in part because their separatist Muslim Republics would resent war against an Arab nation.)

Europe and Japan, unwilling to fight, will pay for police service, as the United States no longer can—having, as Bush says, “more will than wallet? Through three months of the crisis, though, they have rationally opposed war while insisting on squeezing Iraq economically. Mitterrand has said that the “embargo will produce a settlement without war” While the British have refused to rule out force, a Thatcher aide says that “We’re a long way from considering a large-scale military operation” (NYT 9/990).

The need for Arab, Japanese, and European subsidy underscores U.S. economic decline, military superpower though it remains. “Others can still look to America to project force abroad,” The Economist remarks, “but they cannot look to it to pay the bill for an indefinite tour as a world policeman” (9,0). In addition to European and Japanese aid, the Saudis and Kuwaitis have pledged $12 billion in aid, enough to defray the costs of Desert Shield through the new year. (NYT 9/11/90)

The U.S. has become the “rent-a-superpower,” constrained only by the consent of its paymasters. The need for this consent is the import of the U.N. figleaf over the U.S. action in the Gulf. The U.S. role in the new international division of labor is as a specialist provider of military services. “Americans are a new kind of foreign worker here,’ a tactless Saudi remarked. “We have Pakistanis driving taxis and now we have Americans defending us.” (Nation, 10/22/90)

The neo-isolationist right—a motley crew of ex-interventionists like Buchanan, Kirkpatrick, Carpenter, Brzezinski, Robert Novak, Paul Nitze—is correct that the Bush Doctrine is opposed to the interests of domestic capital and of the United States as a nation state.

Socialists, however, can also observe that hiring out as the world enforcer is opposed to the interests of U.S. and foreign workers and to the prospects for a more just and democratic society here and elsewhere. Thus the Gulf crisis—and future conflicts of this sort, which will proliferate—allow for strange coalitions that agree on short term goals of disengagement and nonintervention but diverge sharply on ultimate motivations and long-term purposes.


Abbreviations: “MGW”: Manchester Guardian Weekly (London); “E”: The Economist (London); “NYT”: The New York Times.

  1. Iraq would be destroyed; Kuwait and Saudi Arabia would suffer serious damage (and they are not paying for the U.S. to blow up their oil wells); and Bush’s popularity and the U.S. economy would suffer as a war dragged on. That does not mean war will not occur. Leaders can be irrational. Saddam Hussein dearly miscalculated the risks of his invasion arid, if my analysis is correct. the U.S. policy of intervention is against U.S. interests.
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  2. Those interested in the social theory might see Milton Fisk, “The Concept of Primacy in Historical Explanation,” Analyse & Kritik 4 (1982): 182-96; the view is set out at length in his The Stale and Justice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).
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  3. Friedman’s piece is one of the most astute materialist analyses ever published in the pages of the NYT it is worth study.
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  4. Saddam Hussein doubtless hoped to exert diplomatic-military pressure on the Saudis from bases in Kuwait, to keep oil prices somewhat higher. But while he is capable of miscalculating, he is not foolish, and he knew that an attack on Saudi Arabia would have run a higher risk of war than he could chance.
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  5. If my account (below) of the economic background to the Gulf crisis, in terms of the globalization of capital, is correct, the economic background of the irrational U.S. intervention in Vietnam will be different;, because in the 1960s and early 1970s the process of internationalization was far less advanced. I do not offer such a background explanation of the Vietnam War here. It would be an interesting historical project to develop one.
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  6. John McNaughton, “Draft for MacNamara on ‘Proposed Course of Action,’” March 24, 1964, The Pentagon Papers, ed. James Greenfield (New York: Bantam, 1971), 432.
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  7. Joshua Cohen and Joel Rogers, “’Reaganism’ After Reagan,” Socialist Register 1988: Problems of Socialist Renewal East and West (London: Merlin, 1988):392,95.
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  8. Thus, domestically, the HUD scandals (remember them?) and the S&L crisis, and in foreign policy, the Iran-Contra Affair and the Star Wars boondoggle.
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January-February 1991, ATC 30