Now that I am finally back to near full strength (even though I am still not eating solid food), it’s past time for a substantive post. We don’t do partisan or electoral politics on this blog, but we do do energy geopolitics, and there have been some momentous events in the past week that could impact EnerGeoPolitics in the broadest sense, so let’s go.
When I heard through a Vicodin haze last weekend that Obama had named Joe Biden as his VP, I thought I must be halucinating. Biden, the entrenched insider, seems to be the antithesis of everything the Obama campaign had been preaching about bringing Change to the old Washington ways. Further, Obama had used his early opposition to the war in Iraq as the raison d’être of his campaign, and had used it as a sledgehammer against opponents who were not as pure in their opposition. Now, here he was, selecting as his #2 man someone who, in his (paraphrased) words “had gotten wrong the most important foreign policy question of our generation.”
Of course, Obama is on the cusp of actual leadership, where lobbing critiques from the peanut gallery is a luxury he can no longer afford. He has to deal with the reality that we are in Iraq, which necessitates moving beyond harping about how we got there and figuring out how to go forward. His own “immediate withdrawal plan” which he submitted as a Senator was all for show – another peanut gallery grenade that was ultimately unloaded. His advisors have spoken throughout the campaign of leaving residual forces of 40,000 or 50,000 or 80,000 troops for an unspecified period of time. Behind the sloganeering, in reality, there is no Obama Plan for leaving Iraq.
But, there is a Biden Plan (actually, there isn’t – it is actually Peter Galbraith’s plan, but in yet another case of the intellectual pilfering for which he is known, Biden has appropriated as his own). Joe Biden has been a consistent voice calling for the partition of Iraq into three separate federal units based on ethno-religious identity – roughly, a Kurdish north, a Shiite east, and a Sunni west. Outside of a paniced bug-out from the region, I think this is the worst idea of all that I have heard.
Iraq sits in the center of the Strategic Energy Ellipse. It is the most under-explored country in that crucial region, meaning the actual size of its immense oil and gas holdings are probably vastly under-reported. The most important stratetgic objective for the United States in the next half century is to keep the flow of energy resources from this region as unrestricted as possible. That means preventing the domination of the region by any state or group of states.
The current strength of the US in the region lies in the network of alliances and relationships with other like-minded nations. Saudi Arabia and the GCC states all fear domination by an Iranian hegemon. The Central Asian states fear domination by Russia. The Turks have history with both Russian and Persian imperialism. Versus Persian and Russian designs, the United States sits as the balancing power. However, at the moment we begin to show weakness or inability to fulfill our role, all these nations will have incentive to begin making accomodations with one of the other players. This would have dire consequences for the stability of energy supply and, consequently, to the stability of the global economy. This is the basic fact underlying US military presence in the region – we have to be there, in one way or another.
The Biden Plan has the potential to seriously damage, if not destroy, many of the alliances the US has in the region. To begin with, the Turks would be strongly opposed to the independent Kurdistan that the Biden Plan lays the groundwork for. Next, the Shiite East would likely become a de facto puppet state of Greater Iran, and would probably renege on any oil revenue sharing deals with the other two states. That would the leave the Sunnis in the west abandoned to a pile of worthless sand. Our closest and most important allies in the region – the Egyptians, the Saudis, the various states of the GCC – are also primarily Sunni, and would see this as a profound betrayal. They would also see how much it strengthens Iran and weakens the US – especially if we were to be punished by the Turks by being denied use of our bases there. The advantages of allying with the US would be fundamentally weakened.
The tripartite separation of Iraq is a monumentally unthoughtful idea. It begins with the premise of “let’s get out,” and seeks to find a pseudo-intellectual justification or cover for that act. Leaving aside for now the fact that it would be an exercise in US sanctioned ethnic cleansing, it fails to examine the strategic necessities of the situation first, and to find a way forward from them. It is ironic that Peter Galbraith said the biggest failure of US strategy in Iraq was “wishful thinking,” and then he went on to put forward this fantasy.
Maybe this is all meaningless, maybe the selection of Joe Biden does not mean an Obama Administration would endorse the Biden Plan. For certain, realities on the ground have changed much of the tenuous rationale for the plan in the first place, but as of two weeks ago, Biden’s office told Mother Jones that he still fully supported it. But it is clear that Obama himself does not have a plan for leaving Iraq, and his plan, such as it is, is one of the very few things that Biden really seems to bring to the electoral table.