Revolution #70, November 26, 2006
The High Stakes in Iraq -- For Them...And For Us
Part One: The Crossroads in Iraq: Why the U.S. Went to War
Now that the mid-term elections are over, the first order of business for the Bush Administration, Congress, and the U.S. political establishment is deciding what to do about Iraq. There is a growing consensus in their ranks that the U.S. is at a critical “tipping point.” It could be heading for a major strategic defeat—if not disaster—the implications of which are potentially staggering in terms of U.S. global power (and in reality the functioning and trajectory of U.S. society broadly). And Bush’s “stay the course” posture must change.
It is not clear exactly how the Bush regime will—or won’t—reconfigure its Iraq strategy, and what mix of options it will pursue. What makes the issue particularly vexing for them is the degree to which the disaster is “embedded” in their objectives in Iraq and the region, the ways in which their actions have created new contradictions for them, and how things are threatening to spiral out of their control—or perhaps already have. And there are rumblings that Bush is considering a “last big push” with another 20,000 troops (UK Guardian, 11/16), underscoring what a decisive juncture this is.
So to understand what the actual terms of this debate are—the choices being considered, why they’re being considered, and their implications—it is necessary to start from the overall framework these imperial “deciders” are working in: Why did they invade Iraq in the first place? What necessity drove this invasion and how did they feel the war would address it? What then did the conquest and occupation of Iraq call forth? What is at stake for the U.S. rulers in Iraq and how deep are the strategic difficulties they face? In this light, what options are before them and what choices are they weighing? Part 1 will address the first two of these questions.
The Iraq War: Neither Incidental nor Capricious
Whether Iraq turns out to be a mistake for the imperialists or not, their decision to launch the war was neither incidental nor capricious. The U.S. is an empire rooted in the exigencies of global capitalism or imperialism—a system which demands the worldwide exploitation of markets, resources and labor and the domination of vast stretches of the globe; a system which gives rise to bitter global rivalries between major powers.
Dominating the Middle East has been crucial to the functioning and power of U.S. imperialism since World War 2. The region is both the geopolitical nexus linking Europe, Asia and Africa, and home to 60 percent of the world’s oil and natural gas. Control of oil isn’t mainly an issue of domestic consumption and SUV’s. Petroleum is the lifeblood of modern empire—a source of enormous strategic power. It’s an essential economic input whose price impacts production costs, profits, and competitive advantage. Oil is an instrument of rivalry: controlling oil means exercising leverage over those who depend on it and over the world economy as a whole. And it is impossible to project military power globally without abundant supplies of oil.
In his memoirs, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger called “cheap and plentiful oil” the “basic premise” of post-World War II Western prosperity. (Years of Upheaval, p. 862) Bush himself spoke to this logic when he recently warned right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh that he was “deeply concerned about…the United States leaving the Middle East” because it could leave “extremists…in a position to use oil as a tool to blackmail the West.” (11/10/06, posted at rawstory.com)
Primacy Begets Its Nemesis
By the 1990s the global and regional environments the U.S. confronted had changed radically. The Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 was a global geopolitical earthquake. For decades the Soviet Union had been the U.S.’s main imperialist rival and a major obstacle to many of its larger ambitions, including in the Middle East. When it unraveled, the U.S. no longer faced any power that could pose a serious challenge to its hegemony—the “unipolar moment” as neocon strategists called it. But the shattering of the Cold War order also brought a host of new problems, including rapidly shifting global political and economic trends, rising economic competition, and new challenges to U.S. control of the oppressed countries. And overarching all this was the U.S. rulers’ need to seize the moment before their window of opportunity closed, other power centers coalesced, and the various economic, social and cultural tensions besetting them domestically overtook them.
In the Middle East, the U.S.’s grandest ambitions would no longer be checkmated by the looming presence of the Soviet Union on the region’s northern flank. Yet, the U.S. also faced a tightening knot of problems, which were fueling a growing and potentially destabilizing pole of opposition to U.S. hegemony—Islamic fundamentalism.
Ironically, the 1991 Persian Gulf war, a brutal assertion of U.S. might after Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, exacerbated these tensions. Economically, the war exacted a heavy toll, including in the Gulf states where stagnating oil revenues, $55 billion paid to the U.S. for war costs, and soaring population growth combined to produce budget deficits and a staggering reduction in per capita incomes. The right-wing Johns Hopkins professor Fouad Ajami noted, “Primacy begot its nemesis… distress…settled on the region after Pax Americana’s swift war. All around Iraq, the region was poorer: oil prices had slumped, and the war had been expensive for the oil states that financed it.” (Foreign Affairs, November/December 2001)
Despite its vast petroleum wealth, in 1999 the gross domestic product of the 22 Arab League states was less than Spain’s. The 280 million people living in the Arab world earned on average less than one-seventh what people living in industrialized countries did, and one in five lived on less than $2 a day. 65 million were illiterate—two-thirds of them women. (Arab Human Development Report 2002)
The Gulf War spawned anti-America hatred across the region, hatred amplified over the ensuing decade by U.S.-U.K. sanctions which killed at least 500,000 Iraqi children. Desert Storm emboldened Israel, which expanded its illegal settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, land seizures, area closures, house demolitions, detentions, and a constant diet of violence and humiliation against the Palestinians.
By 2002, French journalist and diplomat Eric Rouleau concluded: “The deterioration of the Arab-Israeli situation has started to threaten the very stability of the Saudi state in a way many Westerners, particularly Americans, had not anticipated…outsiders have underestimated the anger roused in the Saudi population by the suffering of the Palestinian people—and the fact that this suffering is blamed less on Israel than on its American protector. Given the privileged nature of relations between Washington and Riyadh, this anger has also started to focus on the House of Saud itself.” (Foreign Affairs, July/August 2002)
Anger also welled up within other U.S.-backed tyrannies—Egypt, Jordan, Turkey and the Gulf states. Historian William Cleveland concluded that after the 1991 war: “Popular disaffection with the ruling elites spread throughout the region… It is difficult to recall a period prior to the late 1990s when popular discontent was so widespread, when so many authoritarian rulers in key states had held onto power for so long and were simultaneously reaching the age when their rule must end, or when a single outside power—the United States—exercised such exclusive domination and aroused such deep-seated resentment.” (A History of the Modern Middle East, p. 525)
This rage and dislocation are taking place when the region’s traditional opposition forces—Arab nationalists and pro-Soviet communist parties (which were often closely allied) were gravely weakened, had collapsed, or (in the case of the PLO) had capitulated to imperialism. So increasingly this oppositional void—both among the upper classes and among the masses—was filled by Islamic fundamentalist trends. These fundamentalist or Islamist trends were given powerful impetus by their seizure of power in the 1979 Iranian revolution, and then later the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, followed by the Taliban ascendancy. (Although the Taliban and the Iranian rulers had conflicts with each other, taken together their rise strengthened the overall pole of Islamic fundamentalism.) These trends are reactionary representatives of the old order—both feudal and bourgeois. They don’t fundamentally oppose foreign capital, but their interests clash in various ways, and often sharply, with the U.S. and its regional clients.
The growth of Islamic fundamentalism has been stoked by the profound transformations wrought by global capitalism. Millions of former peasants have been left adrift and cut off from their traditional roots in the region’s impoverished and rapidly growing urban shantytowns. Yet they have not been incorporated into a new urban proletariat or middle class. There are also many from more upwardly mobile strata who have been educated but cannot find jobs in their home countries. Rooting itself in traditional social relations, especially religion and the oppression of women, Islamic fundamentalism has a certain backward-looking appeal to masses of different strata who feel cut adrift and angry.
Through the 1990s the Islamic fundamentalist pole gathered momentum and increasingly challenged the U.S. setup, both directly and in challenging the traditional U.S. client governments in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and elsewhere. Within the U.S. ruling class there arose a school of thought that demanded decisive action to both recast the structures of U.S. domination in the region and, as part of doing that, decisively put down the Islamic fundamentalists.
War for Regional Transformation and Global Power
During the 1990s, the U.S. tried to overthrow Saddam Hussein through coups and sanctions, but failed. U.S. “credibility”—the perception of its power—was undermined, while anti-U.S. anger was stoked by its assaults on the Iraqi people. Making matters worse, the imperialist consensus on enforcing sanctions was unraveling. Their collapse would have been a serious political defeat which could have led to Hussein’s re-emergence and opened new opportunities in the region for U.S. rivals (including for Iraqi oil contracts).
Hussein was neither an Islamist himself nor allied with bin Laden or other Islamists. But his survival and refusal to totally kowtow to the U.S. contributed to an overall dynamic of growing furor at the U.S. across the region which nurtured Islamist opposition.
The Bush regime seized upon the attacks of Sept. 11 to consolidate and launch a new global strategy via the so-called “war on terror.” This became the opportunity to do what was spoken to above—use American military power to forcibly recast the region and defeat the Islamic fundamentalists, as part of creating an unchallenged—and unchallengeable—empire.
For a host of intersecting reasons, overthrowing Hussein was viewed as a crucial initial step in this larger agenda. For one, the U.S. rulers felt compelled following the Sept. 11 attacks to demonstrate “resolve.” As Newt Gingrich declared at the time, “bombing a few caves in Afghanistan” wasn’t going to do it, but invading and conquering Iraq would. But it was also seen very much in relation to reversing the growth of Islamic fundamentalism. Henry Kissinger, now reportedly advising Bush, argued before the war that “The overthrow of the Iraq regime… would have potentially beneficent political consequences as well: The so-called Arab street may conclude that the negative consequences of jihad outweigh any potential benefits.” Afterward, former CIA director James Schlesinger declared, “The outcome will alter the strategic—and psychological—map of the Middle East…. Far less credence will now be placed in the preachments of Osama bin Laden regarding America’s weakness, its unwillingness to accept burdens, and the ease of damaging its vulnerable economy.” (“Political Shock and Awe,” Wall Street Journal, 4/17/03)
The Bush regime calculated invading Iraq would weaken and intimidate Iraq’s neighbors, finish off the Palestinian struggle, and strengthen Israel. (In Spring 2003, in the first flush of U.S. victory, Iran reportedly asked for negotiations with the U.S., including on its support for Hezbollah, recognition of Israel, and its nuclear program. Cheney apparently refused.) Occupying Iraq potentially gave the U.S. direct control of the world’s second largest oil reserves while preventing others from doing so, and placed its armed forces in the heart of the Persian Gulf/Central Asia region and on Russia’s southern and China’s western flanks.
Moreover, the invasion would supposedly kick-start a broad regional transformation, opening up closed or restrictive traditional societies to U.S.-led imperialist globalization, building up the middle class and creating some bourgeois democratic institutions. All this would meet the needs of U.S. capital, while stabilizing unsteady and vulnerable clients (like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan) and cutting the ground out from under Islamic fundamentalist movements.
These broad U.S. ambitions reinforced the urgency of suppressing Islamic opposition. Such transformations are potentially destabilizing (as the Shah of Iran found out when such efforts helped trigger the 1979 revolution), and cannot be undertaken at a moment of political instability and widespread opposition. And the changes the U.S. aims for are precisely those most hated by the Islamists.
The New Yorker’s Nicholas Lemann described how Bush officials envisioned the Iraq war crippling the Islamic fundamentalist forces in the region:
“After regime change, the United States would persuade Iran to end its nuclear weapons program and its support for terrorists elsewhere in the Middle East, especially Hezbollah. Syria, now surrounded by the pro-American powers of Turkey, the reconfigured Iraq, Jordan, and Israel, and no longer dependent on Saddam for oil, could be pressured to cooperate with efforts to clean out Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Hezbollah. As Syria moved to a more pro-American stand, so would its client state, Lebanon. That would leave Hezbollah, which has its headquarters in Lebanon, without state support. The Palestinian Authority, with most of its regional allies stripped away, would have no choice but to renounce terrorism categorically. Saudi Arabia would have much less sway over the United States because it would no longer be America’s only major source of oil and base of military operations in the region, and so it might finally be persuaded to stop funding Hamas and Al Qaeda through Islamic charities.” (“After Iraq,” 2/10/03)
Iraq was to be turned into a model of such transformation and a platform for further U.S. initiatives, military and political. Ironically, this was not because Iraq was then a hotbed of Islamist resistance. Quite the contrary; it was one of the most educated, secular countries in the Middle East. This, plus its large middle class and great oil wealth made the country seem like an ideal candidate for the U.S. agenda, and a gateway to the whole region. Zalmay Khalilzad, now U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, called conquering the country, “a key element in a long-term strategy for the transformation of this region as a whole.”
So for the U.S., Islamic fundamentalist forces were no longer useful allies against Arab nationalism and the Soviet Union as had been the case in the 1970s and '80s. Instead they were now one of the main obstacles standing in the way of U.S. needs and ambitions.
This, not primarily fear of attacks on the U.S. itself, is why officials like General John Abizaid, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, state that if the rise of Islamic militancy is not halted, it could lead to a third world war. (Reuters, 11/18/06)
Sweeping Ambitions Give Rise to Enormous Obstacles
The objectives that drove the invasion of Iraq were deeply rooted in the exigencies of U.S. global capitalism and its particular needs and opportunities in the post-Soviet world and the Middle East. It was and is a war undertaken to deal with real and sharp contradictions facing the U.S. in its efforts to maintain and deepen its domination of the Middle East. What makes the choices now facing the U.S. powers so excruciating is that in many ways their enormous difficulties in Iraq are tightly intertwined with and flow from their enormous objectives. Yet their need to achieve these objectives also underscores how difficult, if not impossible, it would be for the U.S. to simply leave Iraq, and why defeat could have such profound reverberations.
If you like this article, subscribe, donate to and sustain Revolution newspaper.