Thursday, June 09, 2011

Gulf International Relations

Gregory Gause's The International Relations of the Persian Gulf provides an excellent overview of its subject over the past 40 years since the British withdrawal, while providing both interesting unifying themes and well-supported arguments about several controversial issues. Gause views the states bordering the Gulf as forming a "regional security complex," meaning that the bulk of their foreign policy energy is dedicated to their relations with each other. Between 1971 and at least 2003, the Persian Gulf saw a tripolar system based around Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. Politics among them was often characterized by concern with transnational identities, such as Arab ethnicity or Shi'ism, and a critical factor shaping interstate relations, including the major wars, was states' fears that these identities could be manipulated so as to undermine their own internal security. This is especially true when discussing Iraq.

An early case of a Gulf regime entering a conflict was Saddam Hussein's decision to attack Iran in 1980. While acknowledging that the Iraqi government saw an opportunity to advance territorial claims at the head of the Gulf, Gause argues based on the timing of events that the actual decision to go to war was motivated by a fear of revolutionary Shi'ism spreading to Iraq, a fear which also motivated support for Iraq by Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf states. Gause adduces a similar motivation behind Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, producing a great deal of evidence that Saddam Hussein, with a certain amount of paranoia, believed Israel, the United States, and the smaller Gulf monarchies were conspiring with internal dissidents to undermine his regime in the wake of the unsuccessful Iran-Iraq War. A belief that danger was imminent led him to attack Kuwait in August 1990, instead of trying to wait until he had nuclear weapons. In this context, Saddam saw Kuwait's over-pumping of oil as in part an attempt to undermine his own economy and patronage capacity by driving down prices.

Gause devotes an entire chapter to the American decision to attack Iraq in 2003, which he argues undid the tripolar system leading to a current situation in which it is unclear how power and influence will ultimately be distributed. His argument here is that while some within the Bush administration were in favor of an attack on Iraq from the get-go, Bush himself only came to support the idea after September 11, and this support was based primarily on the belief that Iraq had chemical and biological weapons programs and could provide such weapons to terrorists. Once this decision was made, confirmation bias and internal administration politics led to exaggerations of the intelligence in areas such as nuclear weapons and al-Qaeda links that served to make the case for war to the American public.

As someone who follows these issues closely, I felt like I'd heard almost everything in this book before at some point or another, but it was still invaluable to have it all in one place as part of a common narrative and analysis. Looking at the region today, one can see the continued foreign policy salience of regimes' concerns for their international security in Saudi Arabia's decision to help suppress demonstrations in Bahrain. At the same time, I'm not as convinced as Gause is that Iraq is now primarily a playing field for outsiders as opposed to a power in its own right. While there are definite internal tensions to be resolved, Iraq currently has a stable government with a steadily increasing capacity, and I'm dubious that any of its neighbors want to see it collapse back into civil war. The key issue to watch there is what kind of path it charts amidst the Saudi-Iranian rivalry.

In summary, Gause's book is a highly effective introduction to key regional issues, as well as a useful resource for those with some background in the area, which will continue as a flashpoint in world affairs for the foreseeable future.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)

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