WAR FOR SALE 

The Bush team wants Saddam out, and they want control of Iraq's oil — period.

More importantly, support of the world's governments — especially U.S. allies and other world powers on the U.N. Security Council — also may not have much to do with what Iraq says or offers. A more telling headline came Monday, when a Saudi official hinted on CNN that his country might consider allowing the U.S. military to use Saudi bases as a staging area for an Iraq invasion, should the United Nations approve the war.

That would be a reversal from previous Saudi statements, and while it was more conditional than U.S. coverage made it sound, soon enough, it won't be. Look for more reversals in the coming weeks — lots of them. The sudden decisions by critical governments to sign off on the Dubya Jihad will have nothing to do with either offers or the actual behavior of Iraq. Nor will these reversals relate to any actual threat Baghdad may or may not pose to its neighbors.

Instead, global approval of an Iraq "regime change" will have everything to do with perceived national self-interest, as the world's governments exact as many concessions and bribes as possible from a White House desperate to fight a war — and to tell the American public that the world agrees.

The fire sale is on, just as it was with Bush the First in the six-month runup to the Gulf War in late 1990. This time prices are higher, owing to international public opposition to an American invasion, the recklessness and bellicosity of Bush's statements to date, his wretched history of international non-cooperation, and the noticeable lack of any actual threat. That doesn't mean Bush won't get his way; it just drives up the price.

This is a war Bush wants, which is the only reason we're even talking about it now. But since Bush wants it — badly — and since the administration needs both nearby military bases and the fig leaf of international cooperation to justify its aggression, George W. Bush — like his father — is willing to pay a great deal of money and call in a great many favors to line up "support." Let the auction begin.

Nearly every other major country in the world has declared public opposition to Bush's plans, but every single one of them has its price. In coming weeks, various countries will announce their support for America's war — and we, the American people, the true audience for this charade, will be constantly reminded of it. Then Dubya can have his war. All it will cost is a few hundred thousand Iraqi lives, probably a new, brutal Iraqi regime every bit as authoritarian as the present one, an environmental catastrophe, an enormous wave of worldwide anti-American hatred (and terrorism), destabilization of the Middle East, and lots and lots and lots of money.

The cost of a war against Iraq and then a subsequent occupation — even if the war is quick and "efficient" — will be huge; the mobilization alone is already adding a significant amount to a hemorrhaging federal deficit that didn't exist a year ago. The cost of this war isn't getting much attention, but when (and if) it is totaled, the cost beforehand of bribing the rest of the world into supporting our imperial adventurism won't be counted. It will be a lot.

Here is a partial look at the shopping lists being relayed to Colin Powell and the American U.N. delegation:

Britain: Free. Tony Blair always comes cheap.

France: Wants a cut of the Iraqi oil fields. Last time, the French got largely frozen out of Kuwait, and Paris has been one of the most notable countries agitating for (and quietly purchasing) Iraqi oil over the past few years despite economic sanctions. Once Iraq's massive oil deposits are taken out of Baghdad's hands once and for all (You didn't seriously think that this war was being waged because the most oil-crazed White House in American history cared a whit about weapons of mass destruction, did you?) France wants guaranteed access and partial control in order to not use its U.N. Security Council veto.

France, Germany, and other EU allies also want American concessions on a number of the festering trade issues that have divided the EU and the U.S. in recent years. In this manner, displacing Saddam could directly affect seemingly unrelated matters like farm subsidies and steel tariffs. It might even preserve Europeans' right not to eat genetically modified burgers.

Russia: Russia also has a Security Council veto. And we can't bribe them by promising help for Putin's genocidal war against the Chechens — we already did that, in exchange for Russia's backing our Afghanistan adventure. Iraq doesn't share a border with Russia, but it's nearby and destabilization worries Moscow deeply. The Russians want more money — not just from the U.S., the International Monetary Fund, and World Bank, but guarantees that the $8 billion debt Saddam Hussein owes them will be paid. Additional quiet investment in Caspian oil by American energy companies, lubricated by the State Department, will also help.

China: Like Moscow, Beijing has no real philosophical quarrel with bloody unilateral invasions; heck, it's what all big countries do. Beijing would like to eliminate those annoying Muslim separatists in western Xinjiang province, and to that end, the Bush Administration last week quietly added two of Beijing's problem groups to the official U.S. list of "terrorist" organizations. That makes China eligible for military and financial assistance in the "war on terror." More importantly, though, when Dubya came into power his crew reversed the last decade's American rapprochement with the People's Republic at the expense of Taiwan. Beijing wants the White House to cut its new ties to Taiwan; if it does, China won't veto Bush's war when it comes before the Security Council.

Turkey: Along with Saudi Arabia, this is the country whose land and bases would be most essential to an American ground war. Turkey has a big, big problem, and it's called Kurdistan — the largest unrecognized nation in the world, straddling Iraq, Turkey, and parts of Iran and Syria. All that rhetoric about Saddam's persecution of the Kurds being the reason he's so evil and must be removed doesn't sit well in Ankara, because our NATO ally has a record with its Kurdish minority that's just as abominably bloody; thousands of Kurdish political prisoners now rot in Turkey's jails. Turkey wants assurances that the de facto independent Kurdistan existing in the northern third of Iraq will disappear. Completely. It wants its Kurdish separatists called "terrorists," too, with guarantees the Americans won't object to whatever tactics Turkey's military regime decide to use. How the White House will be able to finesse calling the Kurds terrorists on one side of a random colonial border, and freedom fighters on the other side, will be one of the keys to a successful auction.

Saudi Arabia: The most important of the Muslim states in the Middle East and North Africa in terms of nearby military bases, oil reserves, money, and a resentful underclass — not to mention its status as the Muslim holy land, where the presence of U.S. troops will be seen as a further desecration and outrage. The Saudis' issues apply in almost every other Islamic country. Most of the 9/11 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia because its brutal regime has for years allowed no outlet other than religion for the political frustrations of the vast majority of people frozen out of the royal family's oil-and-nepotism wealth. The Saudis are rightly terrified that an American invasion of Iraq will give its fundamentalist dissidents the public support that just might topple the regime.

Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, every Gulf state, and a host of other countries share to greater or lesser degrees the same concerns. They're all "moderate" regimes that use American money and weapons to steal from their country and keep the rabble in check, and they all want assurances that the U.S. will help, directly or indirectly, if they need assistance keeping a lid on the home front. This is why an invasion of Iraq has the frightening potential to become a massive regional war, a war of governments against citizens. White House commitments to weigh in should any of these regimes be seriously threatened are undoubtedly being made as part of the auction. In Saudi Arabia's case, the royals also want guarantees that Iraqi oil will not undercut their ability to be a swing producer and help determine world oil prices. (Not to worry. It's our oil; they just get a cut.)

Beyond these considerations, there's the usual bribery: money, weapons, more money, weapons, and cash. It's impossible to guess how much this effort will cost taxpayers whether it succeeds or not, as much of it is being — and will be — funneled quietly through back channels. But it's already happening; the only questions are the final price tags and how much diplomatic support the Bush Administration feels it needs. If rhetoric is any guide, the answer is "not much"; a U.N. Security Council resolution and a nearby country offering its bases would probably do it.

That's almost certain to happen, meaning that the only thing that can stop a U.S. invasion of Iraq is if Washington decides not to do it. That could happen only in response to global public opinion, domestic public opinion, and/or domestic political opposition.

The latter is the most dangerous to the White House, and so we, the public, have been set up: Bush and his team have held off in order to allow for global opinion to weigh in, and the auction is quietly lining up a series of announcements whereby we'll be assured that the world is now on our side. (Buttressed by a U.N. resolution, and doubtless by some real or imagined Iraqi outrage; Saddam is dumb enough to provide one, but if not, one can be manufactured.) Almost all of the public doubts voiced in this country by political elites have hinged on the Bush team's threatened unilateralism; with that taken care of, the debate can end and the invasion can begin.

That's the White House plan over the next few months: not as quick an invasion as it would have liked, perhaps, but calculated to effectively undercut most political anti-war opposition. We taxpayers are paying for it, in the form of promises and paychecks to all those currently opposed governments around the world. Just remember, when those pledges of foreign support hit the news: It will have nothing to do with Iraq's behavior, and everything to do with how much we're willing to pay.

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