Revolution #75, January 7, 2007


The High Stakes in Iraq—For Them And For Us

U.S. Rulers' Choice in Iraq: No Good Options, “No Graceful Exit”

This is the third and final part of the series "The High Stakes in Iraq--For Them…And For Us" by Larry Everest. Part one, "The Crossroads in Iraq: Why the U.S. Went to War," appeared in issue #70 (Nov. 26, 2006). Part two, "Quagmire," appeared in issue #72 (Dec. 10).

"So we'll be in Iraq until the job is complete, at the request of a sovereign government elected by the people. I know there's a lot of speculation that these reports in Washington mean there's going to be some kind of graceful exit out of Iraq. We're going to stay in Iraq to get the job done, so long as the government wants us there."

George W. Bush, at a press conference in Amman, Jordan,
Nov. 30, 2006

The U.S. is facing a crisis--and possible defeat--of historic proportions in Iraq. Sharp debate is raging over how to proceed, with Bush himself preparing to announce reshaped plans in a major address after New Years.

Two things stand out in all this.

First, government officials, media pundits, etc. are trying to enlist people in supporting their particular plan--and the war. “What should ‘we’ do in Iraq?” is how the debate is framed, as if “we” are all in it together. In fact, all the plans being debated represent efforts to maintain the domination of the Middle East by the U.S. imperialists. All would likely mean ongoing war, more intolerable suffering for Iraqis, and an intensification of the current horrific dynamic created by the clash between reactionary imperialism on the one side and reactionary Islamic fundamentalism on the other. These plans, as we’ll see, have nothing to do with the interests of the great majority of people, either in Iraq, the Middle East more broadly, or the U.S. itself.

Second, the war will continue--and may very well escalate--unless there’s a “surge” of something sorely missing now: mass opposition to the entire war that is not bound by the terms of the current debate within the government and bourgeois media. Without that, nothing good will come of the current struggle within the ruling class.

Overlapping and Reinforcing Crises--and No Good Options

The current ruling class turmoil reflects the complexity of the contradictions they face--and the tension between their great necessity to succeed in Iraq, and the fact that no course of action guarantees success, while any could backfire.

The Bush administration invaded Iraq to change the trajectory in the Middle East, a region crucial to the functioning and power of U.S. capitalism-imperialism--in particular to stem the rapid and destabilizing growth of anti-U.S. Islamic fundamentalism. Hussein wasn’t a fundamentalist, but the Bush team saw the conquest of Iraq as a way to dramatically assert U.S. power and begin to restructure regional governments to undercut the Islamists.

But the war boomeranged. The U.S. invasion and subsequent collapse of the Iraqi state exacerbated a host of contradictions, including hatred of the U.S. and its ally Israel, and opened the door to anti-U.S. Islamist and nationalist currents among both Sunni and Shia Muslims. The repressive and somewhat incoherent U.S. response intensified these problems. Thus today the Bush regime faces a host of overlapping and rapidly intensifying crises in Iraq: an anti-U.S. insurgency, a civil war between Shia and Sunni, a weak and fragmented state, infiltration by Al Qaeda, and the unraveling of Iraqi society in many areas.

This has spawned what the liberal imperialist New York Times calls a “cacophony of competing plans.” The Baker-Hamilton Study Group, Democratic Congressman John Murtha and Senator Joe Biden, Republican Senator John McCain, and others have proposed different ways to move.

The military options being debated include increasing troops levels, maintaining current troops levels, and withdrawing troops (either immediately or according to a timetable). The Bush team is reportedly considering the so-called “temporary surge” option--adding 20,000 to 50,000 more combat troops to gain control of Baghdad (including possibly by attacking the Shia Mahdi Army militia headed by cleric Muqtada Sadr) and then Anbar province. This plan is favored by Sen. McCain, many neoconservatives, and reportedly Vice President Cheney, who argue that without order and security, political and economic steps, including efforts to consolidate a coherent Iraqi government, will be impossible.

“Surge” is imperialist-speak for escalation. Some in the military are reportedly calling it for what it is--“double down”--raising the stakes or double-or-nothing. Think about what this would mean. A study conducted by Al Mustansiriya University in Baghdad and Johns Hopkins University (published in the British medical journal Lancet ) estimates that 655,000 Iraqis have died as a result of the war, 601,000 of them violently, including an estimated 180,000 at Coalition hands. “Surge” means more of this and worse. As Col. W. Patrick Lang and ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern point out (Counterpunch, 12/25), a “surge” of troops will mean “total war with the likelihood of all the excesses and mass casualties that come with total war. To force such a strategy on our armed forces would be nothing short of immoral, in view of predictable troop losses and the huge number of Iraqis who would meet violent injury and death.”

There is no guarantee such a “surge” would be temporary because it may well fail (as did a U.S. effort this past summer to quell violence in Baghdad by adding 8,000 troops). Having more decisively committed U.S. forces and “credibility,” there would be enormous pressure on the imperialists to escalate once again should it fail.

Others in government have their own reasons for opposing escalation. According to the Washington Post (12/14), some Pentagon officials worry it “will increase the Iraqis' dependency on the United States," fuel anti-American hostility (as it has since the occupation), and impede a political solution that the Pentagon feels is key to bringing stability. The Army's top general warns that Iraq and Afghanistan “will break” the active-duty Army, unless the military is expanded and reserves are called up more often. Attacking Sadr’s forces could also confront the U.S. with a two-front war--Sunni fighters and Sadr’s Shia followers.

Another option under consideration (and recommended by the Baker group) is maintaining the current troops levels (or gradually reducing them), while focusing on forging a credible Iraqi government and shifting the U.S. military mission to training the Iraqi military and going after al Qaeda in Iraq.

In reality, the U.S. has already been training the Iraqi military, and one result has been the empowerment of reactionary Shia and Kurdish militias and the rise of Shia death and torture squads (and there is evidence that the U.S. directly encouraged or organized some of them).

(This effort has so far failed to create a reliable Iraqi government military because the new Iraqi forces have either refused to fight or been loyal to their tribe or political faction, instead of the new government.)

Another permutation of this plan is to train Iraqi forces, set a fixed withdrawal date for U.S. forces, and then be able to blame Iraqis for the general disaster that sets in (thereby attempting to sum up that the debacle wasn’t the U.S.’s fault, and congeal as much ideological and political support as possible for other U.S. interventions).

A third option--championed by Murtha--is to re-deploy U.S. forces from Iraq to neighboring countries (such as Kuwait), and let the Iraqis fight to a finish, then deal with the victor, all the while being poised to intervene if U.S. regional interests are threatened (including if the fighting spilled over into other countries). Right now, this option is not being seriously considered--it is mainly being held and promoted as a “safety valve” for the majority of Americans who actually oppose the war and want withdrawal. But a withdrawal plan like this trains people to think that Iraqi lives are supposedly worth less than American lives (“who cares, let ‘em kill each other” is the almost-openly-stated subtext) and that American military might should be stationed in the Middle East and able to intervene to dominate other nations and peoples.

Question: how are any of these options in the interests of the people? And for those who voted in November, thinking that they would end the war by doing so--how is any of this conscionable?

“80% Solution”--or Coalition of Pro-U.S. “Moderates”

There is also debate over political strategy--both its relation to military strategy and over how to cobble together a government that can exercise authority, restore order, and maintain Iraq’s territorial integrity. A leading candidate at this point, reportedly favored by Cheney, is the so-called “80 percent solution.” This would basically turn Iraq’s government over to the Shias and Kurds who make up roughly 80 percent of Iraq’s population, while scaling back or ending efforts to include elements of the Sunni establishment and co-opt Sunni resisters. It would essentially mean backing the slaughter of the Sunni population.

Establishment opponents of the “80% solution” (reportedly including Secretary of State Rice, elements in the Pentagon, and the Baker group) fear it’s a recipe for ongoing civil war, the break-up of Iraq, and a possible regional war which could undermine, even topple, key U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia and Jordan, while strengthening pro-Iranian factions of the Iraqi government. (Saudi officials are reportedly warning the U.S. that if it leaves Iraq or doesn’t protect the Sunni population, they will arm and fund Sunni fighters to prevent ethnic cleansing, perhaps even send Saudi brigades to join the fight. One Saudi advisor warned in the Washington Post that in the event of an anti-Sunni bloodbath backed by Iran, Saudi Arabia would boost oil production and cut prices in half to bankrupt Iran. “Saudi engagement in Iraq carries great risks--it could spark a regional war,” he wrote. “So be it: The consequences of inaction are far worse.”)

Instead, they propose trying to form a governing coalition of Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds willing to collaborate with the U.S., backed by increased U.S. economic, financial, and political support, while isolating or crushing the militia of the Shia Mukhtada Al-Sadr. If successful, such a plan would mean consolidating a pro-U.S. government in Iraq, isolating and crushing any anti-U.S. forces, and creating a platform for further U.S. aggression in the region. Thus far, however, such efforts have failed--with the dramatic evidence on the streets of Baghdad.

Another plan, favored by Democratic Senator Joe Biden, proposes that Iraq be divided into three separate autonomous areas, with a weak federal government and some means of dividing up oil revenues. Such a plan is a blueprint for increased and intensified U.S. domination in the region by destroying Iraq as a nation, leaving a group of smaller, weaker, and fragmented regions, which could be played off against each other by the U.S. and Israel. So far this plan hasn’t gotten much traction because a unified Iraq is still seen as a potential counterweight to Iran, and because of the fear of regional war as a result of partition.

In sum, all of the above plans involve ongoing war, the ongoing slaughter of Iraqis, and continued U.S. domination of the region and Iraq in particular. None of this is in the interests of anyone other than the imperialists, and the Islamic Fundamentalist trend that has fed off this carnage. What also stands out here is that for all the talk of democracy and “self government,” it is the councils of U.S. imperialism that are debating and dictating the future political arrangements of Iraq.

Talking to Iran and Syria--or Attacking Them

There is also debate over regional strategy. The Baker group and others argue that Iraq can’t be stabilized without help from neighboring states, and so the U.S. should talk to Iran and Syria (as well as other states in the region) to get their help. This is a plan for maintaining U.S. influence in the region, and a very oppressive status quo, while regrouping and possibly preparing for confrontation with Iran and Syria down the road. Even Baker himself has acknowledged that there is not all that much benefit for Iran and Syria in such a move, but has said that part of the point of such a plan is that should Iran and Syria refuse to help, they will isolate themselves--with the unspoken punch line that this would open the door for a possible U.S. assault on either one.

Others--seemingly the dominant elements of the Bush team--argue that Iran and Syria are part of the problem in Iraq and in the region generally, so the U.S. should do nothing to cut against the current state of crisis and hostility, but should instead step up pressure and continue to push for “regime change.”

Iran remains the focus of imperialist concern, in part because it has benefitted from U.S. difficulties in Iraq and increasingly made itself a, if not the, central player in the whole Islamic movement through its support of Hezbollah in Lebanon and its activities within Iraq (and now there are reports that it is trying to increase its influence in Afghanistan).

So the danger of taking the “war on terror” to Iran remains very great, and perhaps is growing. Recently the U.S. has increased its naval patrols near Iran, arrested Iranians in Iraq and accused them of organizing attacks on U.S. forces (even though some were invited by the Iraqi government), and helped pass a UN resolution against Iran’s nuclear program. (According to Time magazine (12/19), it is also working to undermine the Syrian government.) The fact that no Democrat has opposed this aggressive posture--and that some have at other times called for going after Iran--makes this possibility very real indeed. In 2004, speaking about the possibility of the U.S. bombing Iran, Barack Obama said: "In light of the fact that we're now in Iraq, with all the problems in terms of perceptions about America that have been created, us launching some missile strikes into Iran is not the optimal position for us to be in. On the other hand, having a radical Muslim theocracy in possession of nuclear weapons is worse. So I guess my instinct would be to err on not having those weapons in the possession of the ruling clerics of Iran...” (Chicago Tribune, September 25, 2004)

“The Primary Strategic Challenge of Our Time”

As the internal debate proceeds, the core of the Bush team has publicly staked out an approach of staying their strategic course, even as they adjust: Bush is reportedly “weighing whether to make a deeper American commitment in Iraq” and talks of “victory,” not backing off. Rice has stated there would be “no retreat from the administration's push to promote democracy in the Middle East,” which is a “matter of strategic interest,” and has rejected negotiations with Iran and Syria.

"I've heard some ideas that would lead to defeat,” Bush declared shortly after the release of the Baker report. “And I reject those ideas, ideas such as leaving before the job is done.” A few days later, he said, “If we lose our nerve, if we're not steadfast in our determination to help the Iraqi government succeed, we will be handing Iraq over to an enemy that would do us harm.”

This is a rejection of core elements of the Baker report, which never mentioned victory or Middle East democracy. The Baker report warned the cost of Bush’s present course could be astronomical--a broader regional war, Sunni-Shia clashes across the Islamic world, skyrocketing oil prices, growth of Islamic jihadism, weakening of U.S. global standing, defeat in Afghanistan, and greater polarization in America.

The Bush team is not oblivious to these dangers, but they also fear that retreat or defeat could intensify all of these problems, including further emboldening anti-U.S. Islamist forces, strengthening Iran in the region, isolating Israel, weakening pro-U.S. allies, and creating openings for other global powers. And they continue to feel these crises also contain opportunities; the Washington Post (12/15) reported that Rice told them the region “is being rearranged in ways that provide the United States with new opportunities,” which she described as a “new strategic context,” and this was “a ‘clarifying moment’ between extremists and what she called mainstream Arabs.”

Bush’s determination to maintain U.S. hegemony in the Middle East in the face of enormous risks isn’t due to “stupidity” or loss of contact with reality. Rather, it flows from the deep realities of U.S. capitalism, and the structure of the global social order. A handful of rich, imperialist countries feast off the markets, raw materials, and labor of impoverished Third World countries like those of the Middle East--while they also contend with each other for advantage and dominance. This demands the U.S. control key regions and resources--including energy sources--while preventing imperialist rivals like Russia and emerging “wild cards” like China from doing so. This drive isn’t peripheral, it’s foundational.

These necessities are today sharply concentrated in the Middle East/Central Asian region. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the geopolitical “tectonic plates” of this region have been in motion, and its future up for grabs. The stakes there are huge--militarily, politically, economically, and ideologically, including--but not only--because this is home to 80% of the world’s oil and natural gas. And central to this whole mix is the rise of Islamic fundamentalism as a pole of opposition to the regional status quo, including the domination of the U.S. and its allies.

Recently on the Charlie Rose show, imperialist foreign policy guru Henry Kissinger said that due to the wave of Islamic “fervor” sweeping the Middle East and Central Asia, forces were coming together there which threatened the entire global system. He pointed specifically to one “catastrophe” scenario: Iran obtains nuclear weapons, a political vacuum develops in Iraq, then Iran is tempted or compelled to intervene (challenging the regional order), and its possession of nuclear weapons changes the whole U.S. calculus of how to respond in this or other regional crises (and undercuts the longstanding U.S. insistence that Israel be the region’s dominant military force).

For these and other reasons, many U.S. strategists, including the Bush team, feel the Middle East is, as one put it, “The Primary Strategic Challenge of Our Time”– a hinge or focal point that impacts everything else. All this points to why dominance of this region is urgent for the U.S. today, why it’s central to the Bush program, and why there is no easy way out for the U.S. rulers. In fact, to the degree the war has ended up accelerating the negative dynamics they confront in the region, it heightens their sense of urgency to wrench something approaching victory in Iraq. So picking up and leaving is not on the table.

Important: there is no Democrat of any standing who would dispute or deny the “right” of the U.S. to remain the dominant power in that region. Indeed, it was Democrat Jimmy Carter himself who, while President, declared in his 1980 State of the Union address that “any attempt by any outside forces to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States and such an assault would be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”

Also important: Bush remains “the decider.” And because the Democrats share his underlying assumptions, and because they remain loath to really unleash the antiwar millions who are still following their leadership, he retains the initiative in enforcing and carrying through whatever plans he decides on--as long as things remain within the current political framework, terms and dynamics. In fact, Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi has stated, "As long as our troops are in harm's way, we will be there to support them”--in other words there would be no cut-off of funds. And Senate leader Harry Reid has said he would support a troop “surge.”

Needed: a “Surge” of Opposition to the Entire War

Which gets to the last point. Without determined and massive opposition to the war, one or a combination of these plans will be chosen, and U.S. aggression will continue in Iraq and the region, in spite of whatever disastrous consequences this bring to the masses or the real risks this may pose for the imperialists themselves.

The people's interests require a complete U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. Any U.S. “victory” would legitimize an illegal, immoral, and unjust war of imperialist aggression and would guarantee ongoing bloodshed and torture by the U.S. and its Iraqi allies. It would mean forging a pro-U.S. neo-colony and strengthening the oppression of the Iraqi people in many ways, for decades to come. It would turn Iraq into a "model" of U.S. domination in the region and a staging area for further aggression in the region. It would embolden the U.S. rulers to attack others, while driving even more people in the region into the arms of reactionary Islamic fundamentalism.

This is not to say that a U.S. withdrawal would immediately end the bloodshed. By invading and smashing the previous order, the U.S. has unleashed and strengthened reactionary Islamic fundamentalist forces--both Sunni and Shia. While each are complex and somewhat different political mixes, both are guided overall by reactionary religious ideologies and programs (as well as former supporters of Saddam Hussein’s regime in the case of the resistance)--not revolutionary or even nationalist anti-imperialism.

Both have employed the strategy of targeting civilians and have committed massive atrocities against innocent people. These Islamist forces justify military attacks on civilians and blur the distinction between the masses and the forces of imperialism, and decide who’s friend and who’s enemy based on religion--whether one is a believer or an “infidel.” This has fueled a dynamic of revenge killings, and a spiral of ethnic cleansing and civil war. If the U.S. leaves Iraq, this dynamic could continue.

The U.S. ultimately bears primary responsibility for turning Iraq into a waking nightmare, but the Islamist forces--both Sunni and Shia--have also played a big part. Should either take power, that nightmare would continue in Iraq. And if such forces gained power, there is no getting around the fact that there could be increased attacks on U.S. interests and allies in the region, and quite possibly on the U.S. itself.

Today, the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and its war for greater empire overall, is creating a dynamic that is strengthening – not undercutting – such reactionary forces. That dynamic must be reversed – and one crucial way to begin to reverse it is by politically forcing Bush to end the Iraq war and withdraw U.S. forces. We need a powerful mass movement, not only against the war but aimed at driving the Bush regime from power; part of that effort must include repudiating this whole so-called “war on terror.” This will require people taking to the streets in the millions – but if it were done, it could be part of inspiring people all around the globe with the potential for something different – neither the McWorld/McCrusade of imperialism nor the Jihad of reactionary Islamic fundamentalism. Such a resistance could pose the promise of a common cause among people of the world who hate imperialist domination. It could give "air to breathe" to the kind of movements around the world that can really liberate people from the global oppressors—and create societies where poverty, unjust violence, ethnic hatred, and the oppression of women can be eliminated.

Such opposition and resistance is possible and extremely urgent. Major papers editorialize that the “nation is in crisis,” and the potential for this to sharpen will increase if (as is likely), Bush’s actions fly in the face of what millions thought they were casting ballots for (against the war), and what they expected the Democrats mid-term election victory would bring. But it will not happen unless people break out of the killing confines set by the system, where efforts to bring about change are all geared toward and channeled into the elections – including the Democrats.

The millions who oppose the war can become a force--if they dare to face the reality of what their government is doing and what it has already meant for the Iraqi people; if they dare to face the reality of the even greater horrors to come if this force is allowed to continue; if they do not shrink from their responsibility to others on the planet and instead recognize that their actions (or inaction) reverberate powerfully around the world; and if they combine their actions to feed into the movement to drive out this vicious regime, halt its crimes, and reverse the intolerable overall direction of this society.

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