Guest Column by Nomi Prins — US Financial Boots on the Ground

Guest Column by Nomi Prins

Gateway Policies: ISIS, Obama and US Financial Boots-on-the-Ground

President Obama’s neo-Cold War is not about ideology or respect for borders. It is about money and global power. The current battle over control of gateway nations – strategic locations in which private firms can establish the equivalent of financial boots-on-the-ground – is being waged in the Middle East and Ukraine under the auspices of freedom and western capitalism (er, “democracy”). In these global gateways, private banks can infiltrate resource-rich locales fortified by political will, public aid and military support to garner lucrative market advantages. ISIS poses a threat to global gateway control that transcends any human casualties. That’s why Congress decided to authorize funds to fight ISIS despite the risk.

The common thread of today’s global gateway nations appears to be oil. But even more valuable are the multitude of financing deals that would accompany building new pipelines, arming allies, and reconstructing civil-war-torn countries. Indeed, hundreds of billions of dollars are at stake in America’s wars of  “principle.”

Middle-East Gateways: ISIS and Money

Obama’s recent public address on fighting ISIS  had a dash of economy sprinkled in. For him, US economic policy is foreign policy. It is also a product of an American political-financial expansionary land-and-resource grab that has been going on for decades. Obama’s execution may be far less authoritative than President Eisenhower’s. But his neo-financial Cold War has similar elements to those initiated by Eisenhower and the American banking elite in the 1950s when they collaborated to project American power into more countries, using the military and a combination of public and private capital, as tools.

The second World Bank President and 1950s Chairman of Chase Bank, John McCloy, and ascending and later Chase Chairman David Rockefeller both had aspirations to financially penetrate the Middle East. So did other major bankers. The US government and its banks first focused on Beirut as a gateway to the Middle East. Eisenhower dispatched military personnel to Beirut in 1958 not because he cared about the Lebanese, but because of the attractiveness of the country’s potential as a gateway to the region. By the 1970s, oil and money relationships between Chase and Saudi Arabia and Egypt grew, as they did with Iran and the Shah.

Rockefeller’s relationship with the Shah, who kept his family money with Chase, ignited the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979. Before that, the US government and its military contractors made billions of dollars from arms deals with Iran. 

Citigroup opened its first Iraq branch in September 2013, ten years after George W. Bush began his Iraq War while facing a recessed American economy. A decade ago, the Bush administration selected JPM Chase to manage billions of dollars of financing for Iraq imports and exports. JPM Chase also opened a branch in Iraq last year to compete with Citigroup for current gains. Billions of dollars in new pipeline funding and other projects are now up for grabs in Iraq. If the US supports the Iraqi government (against ISIS), these banks, as well as oil and infrastructure-building companies are poised to get more of a chunk of that money. Citigroup is already a forerunner for arranging a $2 billion loan for Boeing Jets to Iraq. As Iraq’s Deputy Transport Minister Bangen Rekani said in April, “We need a lot of funds…we’re in a race to complete the maximum number of projects in a short time.” 

Regarding Syria, Obama’s plea for showing strength worked. Congress voted in rare bipartisan fashion to fund the moderate Syrian rebels or “free Syrian army rebels.” According to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, initial assistance would be “small arms, vehicles and basic equipment like communications, as well as tactical and strategic training.” That could just be the beginning. He also said, “as these forces prove their effectiveness on the battlefield, we would be prepared to provide increasingly sophisticated types of assistance.”  We’ve been down this road before, positioning the military to gain financial access to an area relative to our competition. It’s lasted for years and killed thousands of people, while not accomplishing the stated goal of curtailing terrorist threats or activities.

It gets complicated from there. Moderate Syrian rebels have been fighting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom the US would support against ISIS. The US thinks these forces would cease fighting against al-Assad to fight ISIS instead, though the US claims it is not directly cooperating with  al-Assad. 

Despite this, the US financial hope is that once the dust clears from all these regime changes we support militarily, there will be demand for massive reconstruction and resource extraction projects that our private banks can take care of alongside the IMF and World Bank. At a press conference in Beirut in June, World Bank President Jim Yong Kim told the international community that the World Bank would help to rebuild Syria (at a cost of $150 billion after an “internationally recognized government” was put in place) as well as Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq during their ‘recovery’ from years of war. Mega reconstruction profits are at stake for private firms in symbiotic partnerships  with these international entities. So too, are the requirements for austerity and loosely regulated financial markets as the Western “reform” bargains that accompany them. 

“Wars on terror” serve as a distraction in public and media discourse from a bipolar economy. The September releases of the US Census Report and the Federal Reserve Consumer Finance Survey revealed an ongoing trend toward greater income and wealth inequality. We remain 8 million jobs below pre-crisis levels, adjusted for population growth. Real wages have stagnated or declined. Employers have no incentive to provide well-paying jobs amidst ample desperation in the ranks of the unemployed. We are a mess at home.

Rather than deal with this, the US is trying to prevent terrorism from blocking private bank and corporate expansions and profit elsewhere. ISIS has already caused Iraq to delay its first mega project-finance deal. The $18 billion Basra-Aqaba oil pipeline would extend through Jordan to the Red Sea, pumping a million barrels of crude oil per day, as well as 258 million cubic feet of gas.  That’s a hefty financial incentive for which to use public funds.

Truth be told, the game of global gateway finance is a closed one. And there’s still Russia (and China) playing at the same table. In August 2014, Russia’s biggest oil company, Lukoil, estimated construction of the first branch of a pipeline to Iraq’s West Qurna-2 field at a cost of up to $1 billion. Lukoil holds a 75% stake in West Qurna-2 and has invested over $4 billion in the project, which is already producing more than 200,000 barrels of oil per day.

Cold-War Gateways: From Cuba to the Ukraine

The narrative of Russia’s aggression vs. America’s fight for freedom dovetails with the turmoil going on in the Middle East. Both situations deflect attention from our country, which has greater inequality today than before Obama took office, despite a soaring stock market buoyed by the Fed’s stimulus policy of pumping zero-interest rate money into banks providing them capital for all of these international adventures.

After Ukrainian President Poroshenko, a former banker and chocolate mogul, proclaimed the situation with Russia was much improved following his truce with Vladimir Putin, President Obama ratcheted up sanctions against Russia and corralled the rest of the Euro-squad to join him. This action was not about saving Kiev from pro-Russian rebels, but to reinforce the notion that the US is in financial control of the country. Poroshenko is no financial dummy, which is why he threw Putin and any potential Russian economic support under the bus, and high-tailed it to Washington for photo-ops and handouts.

These will come in the form of US government aid, more loans from the IMF and World Bank, plus complex transactions with US banks seeking more areas in which to funnel foreign capital, finance projects, and down the line, maybe securitize the resources of a new corner of the world and sell them to a fresh bunch of hungry speculators. The US has already provided $60 million in aid including food, body armor and communications equipment to the Ukraine to secure its place at this gateway table later.

Stepping back in time, my book, All the Presidents’ Bankers illustrates how President Eisenhower’s 1950s doctrine promoted a combination of US military and economic support to its non-communist allies. Aid from the then-new World Bank and IMF was provided in return for their commitment to provide open trade relationships and adapt policies advantageous to private western banks and corporations. The US government could thus achieve a dual military and financial stronghold. One such country was Cuba, which under Fulgencio Batista became a favorite spot from which to access Latin and South America. National City Bank (now Citigroup) established 11 branches in Havana alone, becoming Cuba’s principle US depository for American companies involved in the sugar industry and other businesses there. That changed with the Cuban revolution and Fidel Castro, who, in 1960, nationalized foreign bank assets. Bankers looked elsewhere to expand, as did the US government.

In Obama’s political-financial strategy, similar gateway strategies are in play. Obama, like all US presidents since Castro came into power, did the communist-bravado thing and extended sanctions. US bankers will reenter Cuba when US policy changes after Castro is truly gone, as they have during several periods before, notably when National City Bank sent an entourage of bankers led by Chairman Charles Mitchell in the 1920s to explore sugar, nickel, and other deals that eventually soured in the 1929 Crash.

The Ukraine is a modern Cuba with more lucrative resources. As with other US financial gateways, Obama supported the Ukraine faction amenable to financial relationships with the US and Europe relative to Russia. Ten years ago, the Bush administration supported Ukrainian leaders sympathizing with the US vs. Russia as well.  None of this was because of any purported interest in dispersing democracy, but because the right leadership offers more capital market, foreign investment and resource control opportunities to private US firms.

The Ukraine signed a $10 billion shale gas deal with US oil giant Chevron to explore its Olesky gas deposit around the time it expressed a desire for closer partnerships with the EU. Its ousted ex-President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to subsequently shun an EU trade agreement in favor of  Putin’s offer of cheaper gas and a $15 billion aid package provoked internal unrest, as did its weak economy. The US denounced Russian-backed President Yanukovych, until he left his post, for he represented a potential loss of money, power and more financial access. Ukraine stands between Russian oil producers and European and Asian consumers, and is poised to profit from any growing energy demands from Western Europe, as could Western private firms.  It also serves as a potential financial out-post for US banks hunting for the next hot resource-saturated capital market.

Ironically, on September 17, 2014, the National Bank of Ukraine did a 180 spin on its economic forecasts and promised positive growth of 1% next year. The government said this economic expansion would come through more favorable corporate and income tax laws that would attract outside investors along the lines of what the US and IMF and World Bank has wanted. (More private relationships of bankers with these entities are in All the Presidents’ Bankers.) The Ukraine received two parts of a $17 billion IMF bailout this year with the IMF saying it may need $19 billion more. This means a greater call on Ukraine’s future revenues in return for austerity measures and deregulated financial markets to private foreign interests.

The real battle between the US and Russia is over the gateway countries in political flux. The real winners will be the private banks and oil companies that will reap the strategic benefits from gateway control over related markets and resources, supported by military and political might, and augmented with speculative capital for years to come. American and global citizens, oblivious to all this, will be the losers in this global shell game.
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