The following is abridged from the August 3 edition of US Socialist Worker.
Scrambling to overcome the impact of the US debacle in Iraq, US President George Bush is moving to prop up assorted dictators and monarchs across the Middle East and south Asia with money, guns and fulsome political support.
So much for Bush's rhetoric about "transforming" the Middle East through promoting "democracy". From bribes and threats against the Musharraf military regime in Pakistan to multibillion-dollar arms deals for Israel and conservative Arab states, the White House is attempting to shore up US dominance in the Persian Gulf as the Iraq catastrophe drags on.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and defence secretary Robert Gates began a joint trip to the Middle East just as Bush announced a major arms package for the region. Israel will get US$30 billion over the next decade — an increase of one-quarter over the Clinton administration's 1998 aid package.
Another $13 billion will go to Egypt and up to $20 billion to Saudi Arabia and small Gulf states. Saudi Arabia will, for the first time, be given access to more advanced missiles and naval equipment.
The not-so-secret goal of this military largess is the development of an alliance against Iran. As Rice put it at the outset of her trip, "There isn't a doubt, I think, that Iran constitutes the single most important, single-country challenge to ... US interests in the Middle East and to the kind of Middle East that we want to see".
If Iran is on the rise, it's thanks in large part to Bush's failures. "The United States made possible an emergent Iran by eliminating its Taliban rivals to the east [in Afghanistan] and its Baathist rivals to the west [in Iraq] and then installing a Shia government in Baghdad for the first time in history", wrote Iran expert and former National Security Council staff member Gary Sick.
"Having inadvertently created a set of circumstances that insured an increase in Iranian strength and bargaining power that seriously frightened U.S. erstwhile Sunni allies in the region and that undermined U.S. strength and credibility, the U.S. now proposes a new and improved regional political relationship to deal with the problem, and, incidentally, to distract attention from America's plight in Iraq while reviving America's position as the ultimate power in the region."
Despite the debate on Iraq in Washington, the Democratic Congress shares Bush's goal of maintaining the US as the "ultimate power" in the Middle East. The only opposition to Bush's plans will come from a handful of pro-Israel members of the house who are opposed to building up Saudi Arabia's military capacity.
Nor is there any Democratic challenge to the US effort to build up the government of Lebanon economically and militarily as a counterweight to Hezbollah. There's also bipartisan support for Washington's effort to back the Palestinian Fatah faction in the West Bank as a rival to the elected Hamas government.
"But there is a potentially huge flaw in this brilliant policy legerdemain", Sick observes. "Iraq will just not go away, and the government of Nuri al-Maliki, a Shia partisan, is proving to be an intractable obstacle to sweeping the Iraqi debacle under the rug."
Bush's effort to shore up US clients and dictators in the Middle East and Asia constitute the "Plan B" of US imperialism. While debate in Washington will continue over the Iraq occupation, a consensus is already emerging on the need to build a firewall against a further loss of US imperial power. The anti-war movement will need to develop a perspective that can meet this challenge.