Imperialists Out of the Middle East!
Endgame in Iraq
A month before retiring as United Nations Secretary General, Kofi Annan observed: The US is in a way trapped in Iraq, trapped in the sense that it cannot stay and it cannot leave (BBC News, 21 November 2006). The conquest of Iraq was supposed to be the dramatic opening move in a bold strategy to secure permanent U.S. global supremacy. Instead, it has considerably accelerated the decline of the American empire. The insertion of the U.S. military into the Middle East under the guise of combating terrorism and spreading freedom and democracy was designed to ensure that the lions share of the profits from exploiting the regions strategically vital petroleum resources would go to American corporations, while also providing Washington with powerful leverage over its rivals.
Victory in Iraq was to serve as an Agincourt on the banks of the Euphrates, in the words of John Lewis Gaddis of Yale University (Foreign Policy, November/December 2002)a display of overwhelming military power that would shock and awe friend and foe alike. The construction of a chain of military bases in Iraq was to provide full spectrum dominance and guarantee a string of low-intensity democratic American client regimes in the region. The remade Middle East was to be run from an enormous 104-acre embassy in Baghdad, which USA Today (19 April 2006) described as the only major U.S. building project in Iraq [that] is on schedule and within budget. With a projected staff of 3,000 and its own power generation and water-treatment facilities, the embassy was designed to be Americas largest diplomatic installation in the world. Despite growing talk of drawing down U.S. forces, both Democrats and Republicans remain committed to maintaining a sizable military presence in Iraq, although it is by no means certain that this will be feasible.
Sowing Dragons Teeth
The rout of the Afghan Taliban in November 2001 produced visions of a cakewalk in Iraq, with a compliant and easily manipulated democratic regime replacing the brutal Baathist dictatorship of former U.S. client Saddam Hussein. While the American army captured Baghdad in less than a month, in four years it has been unable to put together a functional quisling government. Rather than attempting to co-opt key members of the old Baathist state apparatus, the U.S. occupation authorities decided to build a new one from scratch, leaving the core cadres of Saddams regime, who have a popular base among Iraqs Sunni minority, to launch a sophisticated and remarkably resilient insurgency.
Lacking significant support from any sector of Iraqi society, the occupation authority sought to exercise control by manipulating sectarian divisions, a technique employed by the British with considerably greater skill in the period between the two world wars. Having deposed the Sunni elite, which had ruled Iraq since its creation in the 1920s, the U.S. tilted toward the oppressed Kurds and Shiites. Though willing to take advantage of the opportunities created by the end of the Baathist dictatorship, no authoritative figures among either Kurds or Shiites have shown interest in acting simply as Americas puppets.
The Kurdish leaders have maintained cordial relations with the occupation authorities in order to keep Turkey at bay as they consolidate and expand the quasi-independent statelet they have operated in northern Iraq since 1991. The Shiites, though not actively supporting the Sunni insurgents, have no loyalty to the foreign occupiers and look forward to their departure. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraqs senior Shiite cleric, wanted to avoid open conflict with the Americans, while using the elections they promised as a means of establishing the predominance of the Shiite majority. To this end, he managed to enlist all the major Shiite parties in a common electoral bloc, the United Iraqi Alliance.
In November 2004, the U.S. military attempted to break the back of the increasingly potent Sunni insurgency by laying waste to Fallujah, one of the chief centers of the revolt. U.S. forces destroyed most of the city and killed hundreds of civilians. This vicious assault only succeeded in further inflaming hatred of the U.S. throughout the Muslim world.
After the failure in Fallujah, the Pentagon sought to gain the upper hand through the use of ethnically- and religiously-based death squads modeled on those employed by the U.S. in El Salvador in the early 1980s:
The use of Shiite and Kurdish militias to raise the cost to the Sunni civilian population did not blunt the insurgency, and instead fueled a cycle of communalist bloodletting that undermined any possibility of cobbling together a stable government with the legitimacy and coercive power necessary to control events:
[I]t is worth recounting the US policies that sowed the dragons teeth: dissolving the Iraqi army; allying with the sectarian Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq; bandying about the term Sunni triangle to describe areas of strong anti-occupation sentiment; divvying up seats on the Iraqi Governing Council and interim ministries by sect and ethnicity; allowing ministries to become communal party fiefdoms; describing anti-occupation guerrillas as anti-Iraqi forces; pushing a schedule of elections and constitution writing driven by US rather than Iraqi politics; and training clandestine counter-terrorism units that are now government death squads. As US Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad put it in March, We have opened Pandoras box.
The February 2006 bombing by persons unknown of the revered Shiite Askariya Mosque in Samarra produced a significant leap in sectarian killings that the U.S. military has been completely unable to tamp down. Initially, the victims were disproportionately Shiite. These murders were ascribed to fanatical Sunni jihadists motivated by a combination of sectarian animus and a desire to make Iraq ungovernable. But soon the Shiite militias, often operating through the puppet police, were among the main perpetrators of the escalating violence that is killing thousands every month. Toward the end of 2006, according to the United Nations, citizens were fleeing the country at a pace of 100,000 each month, and at least 1.6 million Iraqis have left since the war began in March 2003 (Associated Press, 23 November 2006).
Democracy & Imperialist Control
For the first few years of the occupation, U.S. military and political leaders periodically proclaimed that a decisive watershed had finally been reached and that the situation would soon improve. Yet every milestoneincluding the installation of a sham sovereign government under ex-Baathist thug Allawi in June 2004 and the fraudulent January 2005 election of an interim governmentfailed to make any appreciable difference in the lives of ordinary Iraqis, and, as a result, the political leverage of the occupation authorities and their lackeys has steadily declined. After months of torturous maneuvering, a constitution was accepted in a (rather dubious) October 2005 national vote. Two months later new national elections were conducted. The White House heralded both as important turning points, but the attempt to disguise the recolonization of Iraq behind a democratic façade has fooled no one.
On paper, the December 2005 elections united representatives of Iraqs Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis in a national unity government. The U.S. hoped that Sunni participation in the political process would result in splitting the base of the resistance. But the government headed by Shiite prime minister Nouri al-Maliki has never been more than a semantic fiction. It governs nothing and has failed to control the accelerating sectarian slaughter or impose even a semblance of order in the capital, much less make inroads on the insurgency.
Each component of Iraqs so-called government is intent on pursuing its own interests at the expense of its partners. The Kurdistan Alliance only agreed to the October 2005 constitution after obtaining recognition of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Its chief concern is to secure control of the oil resources in the north. The Sunni and Shiite parliamentary blocs, which are prepared to countenance Kurdish autonomy, at least for the moment, are flatly opposed to the KRGs ambition to extend its authority over oil-rich Kirkuk, a city with sizable Kurdish, Arab and Turkmen populations. To avoid an open split, the government has agreed to delay a decision on the disputed city until a referendum is held, perhaps in late 2007. Whether or not a vote eventually takes place, this bitter dispute seems likely to touch off armed conflict and a wave of bloody ethnic cleansing which could spill over into a major regional conflict, as Turkey has repeatedly threatened to intervene militarily to prevent a Kurdish takeover.
The U.S. favors democracy for its neo-colonies as a flexible and low-cost mechanism of imperial control through the manipulation of competing indigenous parties. The difficulty with implementing this model in Iraq arose with the reluctance of any wing of the Sunnis to get involved in the U.S.-initiated political process. While some Sunni leaders participated in the negotiations for a new constitution, they were reluctant to endorse the resulting draft in the October 2005 referendum because they felt it opened the door for regional, rather than central, control of Iraqs petroleum resources, and their territory contains no significant known oil deposits. In last minute maneuvering, the U.S. pressured the Kurds and Shiites to agree that the new parliament would revisit the constitutional provisions governing the division of powers, including the question of control of oil resources. As a result, the Sunnis participated in the December 2005 national elections.
Once the elections were over, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRIa party closely aligned with Iran and supported by the wealthier layers of Iraqs Shiites) declared that it was unwilling to make any substantial concessions to mollify the Sunnis. The New York Times (12 January 2006) described this as a prescription for a national breakup and an endless civil war. It is also a provocative challenge to Washington, which helped broker the original promise of significant constitutional changes.
But it is not only the Sunnis who want centralized control of Iraqs oil. The Shiites are deeply split over this question. Supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr, who unlike the semi-collaborators of the SCIRI have opposed the occupation from the outset, are also in favor of central control. Sadrs Mahdi Army fought two major engagements with occupation forces in 2004, and his posture as an intransigent opponent of the Americans has made him the most influential political figure among the Shiites, even in the south, where the SCIRI is based. While framed in theological terms, Sadrs opposition to decentralization derives from the fact that his movement is rooted in the plebeian Shiite masses of Baghdad, an area without significant petroleum deposits. In September 2006, the Iraqi parliament opted to paper over the whole question by postponing a decision for 18 months, by which time everyone expects that the status quo will have been blown to bits.
In August 2006, relentless pressure from Shiite militias forced 1,000 British soldiers to abandon their base outside the city of Amara:
As soon as the British were gone, a violent turf war erupted between the SCIRIs Badr Brigade and Sadrs Mahdi Army:
American influence in the Middle East is waning, and Washingtons Arab allies are growing increasingly unsettled. Yet despite the steady deterioration of the situation, the U.S. commander in chief, seemingly oblivious to reality, has continued to talk of eventual victory, and to insist that the fate of his Iraq venture would be decided by future presidents.
Communalist Conflict Spins Out of Control
The strategy of obtaining a reliable puppet through manipulating the military balance of power among Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds in order to force them to come to a durable compromise, as Stephen Biddle recommended in Foreign Affairs (March/April 2006), presumes that the underlying interests of all local parties would be far better served by a constitutional compromise than by an all-out war. This may look plausible enough on paper, but with the situation on the ground spinning out of control, it would require bridling the Shiite militias, which have considerable influence in both the Interior Ministry and local police forces. It seems unlikely that the U.S. will want to take on the Shiites, particularly as the Sunni insurgency, whose fighters are blamed for many of the attacks on Shiite civilians, is still gaining ground.
By August 2006, as the American military was unsuccessfully attempting to suppress the upsurge of murderous sectarianism in Baghdad, a U.S. Defense Department official admitted that the insurgency has gotten worse by almost all measures, with insurgent attacks at historically high levels, and has more public support and is demonstrably more capable in numbers of people active and in its ability to direct violence than at any point in time (New York Times, 17 August 2006). Large areas of the country, particularly in Anbar province, which contains the cities of Haditha, Fallujah and Ramadi, have become virtual no-go areas for U.S. forces and their allies. The Washington Post (28 November 2006) reported that a classified military report by Peter Devlin, a Marine colonel, concluded: The U.S. military is no longer able to defeat a bloody insurgency in western Iraq .
For all the talk of pulling U.S. forces back from combat, it is clear that there is a bi-partisan consensus in the American ruling class in favor of attempting to maintain a permanent military presence in the region. The hope is that U.S. troops can be withdrawn from areas where resistance is intense into bases outside the main urban centers, or perhaps outside Iraq altogether, but close enough to intervene as necessary. However, the inability of the U.S. military to suppress either the insurgents or the communalist militias suggests that this may turn out to be little more than defeat on the installment plan. With the partial exception of the Kurds, who have their own agenda, the U.S. has no militarily significant Iraqi alliesthe Iraqi army and police will disintegrate as soon as the Americans begin to pull out. If 150,000 imperialist troops have spent four years in a futile attempt to contain an insurgency that seems to grow deadlier every month, it is hard to see how anyone could think that withdrawing into a few fortified bunkers in the hinterland, while permitting the insurgents to consolidate power in the towns and cities and to control the terrain through which the oil pipelines run, is likely to produce a better result.
The Pentagon hoped to substitute airpower for U.S. boots on the ground in Iraq, as it had attempted in Vietnam in the 1970s. In theory, close air support could enable even a mediocre army to prevail over highly-motivated, battle-hardened opponents. But Washington does not want to entrust Iraqi commanders, many of whom are loyal to the Sunni insurgency or Shiite militias, with the power to call in air strikes. One alternative is to embed U.S. trainers or advisers in every Iraqi unit, and give them the authority to select targets for destruction. But this risks having American officers fragged or taken hostage by members of the units to which they are attached.
The failure of the U.S. military to suppress the Sunni insurgency has turned the occupation into an unmitigated, and very expensive, disaster. Harvard Magazine (May-June 2006) reported that a study by Nobel laureate Joseph E. Stiglitz and Harvards Linda Bilmes estimated that the Iraq war will eventually cost Americans in excess of $2 trillion. In 2003, prior to the invasion, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld projected a total cost of between $50 and $60 billion, while Paul Wolfowitz, his deputy, confidently asserted that Iraqi oil revenues would cover almost everything. The much touted reconstruction of Iraq proved lucrative for a handful of well-connected Bush/Cheney cronies, but failed to restore Iraqs electrical and water treatment facilities, as well as its schools, hospitals and other public services, to the levels that existed under Saddam.
A study of fatalities in Iraq conducted by a team from Baltimores Johns Hopkins University, published in the October 2006 issue of the prestigious British medical journal The Lancet, estimated that a total of 655,000 excess deaths have occurred in Iraq since 2003. It estimated that 31 percent of violent deaths are directly attributable to coalition forces and that more than 45,000 Iraqis have been killed by coalition air strikes alone since the 2003 invasion.
The reckless massacre of non-combatants that has taken place throughout the Sunni Triangle is typical of situations when an occupation army, seeking to crush a popular resistance movement, comes to view the civilian population as indistinguishable from the active insurgents. In a handful of particularly well-documented cases which have been picked up by the media, charges have been leveled against U.S. soldiers, but, as in the case of the Abu Ghraib torture scandal, all responsibility is assigned to a few of the lower ranks.
Bourgeois Defeatism Rising
The openly defeatist mood in Britain, Americas only significant ally in Iraq, was highlighted when General Richard Dannatt, chief of the British general staff, publicly stated that his troops should get ourselves out [of Iraq] sometime soon because our presence exacerbates the security problems (Guardian [London], 13 October 2006). Similar views have also been expressed, less directly, by an increasing number of U.S. military and political officials who have concluded that the war cannot be won. In November 2005 John Murtha, the senior Democrat on the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee who has long served as the unofficial representative of the Pentagons top brass, caused a sensation when he called for pulling out American troops by May 2006. This infuriated Bush, who responded a few days later in a 19 November speech in South Korea:
Bush apparently fancies himself an instrument of god:
After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the former official said, he was told that Bush felt that God put me here to deal with the war on terror. The Presidents belief was fortified by the Republican sweep in the 2002 congressional elections; Bush saw the victory as a purposeful message from God that hes the man, the former official said. Publicly, Bush depicted his reelection as a referendum on the war; privately, he spoke of it as another manifestation of divine purpose.
If he saw the 2002 mid-term elections as an endorsement, one can only wonder how he interpreted the 2006 results. Residents of Baghdads fortified Green Zone apparently sense that things are going very badly:
Throughout 2006 the situation for the U.S. and its allies deteriorated considerably:
A bloody communalist civil war in Iraq could draw in Iran and Turkey as well as neighboring Sunni Arab regimes, and turn the entire region into an inferno. The U.S. bourgeoisie, acutely aware of the implications of failure in Iraq, is torn between a desire to extricate themselves (cut and run) with as little damage as possible, and the wish to somehow find a formula to stabilize the situation.
The inability of the U.S. to control events on the ground is reflected in attempts by the sovereign government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to display some independence from its master with denunciations of the occupiers tendency to use excessive force. In May 2006, Maliki proposed that coalition troops should withdraw from 16 of Iraqs 18 provinces by January 2007 (BBC News, 23 May 2006). In July 2006, after it was revealed that several months earlier U.S. soldiers in the town of Mahmudiyah had raped and murdered a 14-year-old girl and killed her parents and sister, the Iraqi parliament unanimously denounced this as a violation of the honor of all Iraqis. Maliki suggested that those responsible should be tried under Iraqi law. The U.S. command rejected this out of hand as a violation of Order 17 passed in 2004 by the Coalition Provisional Authority under U.S. pro-consul Paul Bremmer granting foreign military personnel and contractors immunity from Iraqi courts.
A few weeks after condemning the hideous crime in Mahmudiyah, the Iraqi parliament unanimously characterized Israels attack on Lebanon as criminal aggression. Meanwhile, Americas Jordanian, Egyptian and Saudi clients were denouncing Hezbollah for adventurism. When Malikis chief ally, Muqtada al-Sadr, organized a demonstration of 100,000 in Baghdad to protest the Zionist assault, the New York Times (20 July 2006) observed:
The resentment of the Iraqi government toward Israel calls into question one of the rationales among some conservatives for the American invasion of Iraqthat an American-backed democratic state here would inevitably become an ally of Israel and, by doing so, catalyze a change of attitude across the rest of the Arab world.
U.S. in Iraq: No Good Options
Juan Cole, the leading American expert on Iraqi Shiites, commented that the current U.S. impasse results from a failure to define realistic and achievable goals:
Its original political goal of establishing a unified Iraq with a pro-US government that would let oil contracts on a favorable basis for Houston, would ally with Israel, and would form a springboard for further US pressure on Iran and Syria, is completely unrealistic. [U.S. Vice President] Cheneys inability to let go of those objectives is the biggest problem we have in Iraq.
On 24 October 2006, in a major editorial statement on the Iraq Disaster, the New York Times commented that all plans to avoid disaster involve the equivalent of a Hail Mary pass, i.e., a nearly hopeless long shot:
The editorial proposed:
The president should also make it clear, once and for all, that the United States will not keep permanent bases in Iraq. The people in Iraq and across the Middle East need a strong sign that the troops are not there to further any American imperial agenda.
Of course, that is the only reason the U.S. military ever intervenes anywhere, and furthering an American imperial agenda is why there is a bi-partisan consensus on indefinitely maintaining U.S. bases in the region. The Times editorialists are merely suggesting that it is better to spin them as temporary, rather than permanent, fixtures.
Ultimately, the U.S. ruling class has three broad, and unpalatable, options in Iraq. The first is to admit defeat and pull its troops out. This would be an immense historic setback for U.S. imperialism, at least comparable to Vietnam. U.S. withdrawal would be followed by a maelstrom of intercommunal violence, which could easily spill over into a broader conflict involving Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia and perhaps also Jordan and Egypt.
Even if a regional war could be averted, Americas Middle East vassals would have to reach some sort of accommodation with Iran, the new regional power. Regimes closely identified with the U.S., particularly Jordan and Saudi Arabia, could easily implode. Losing Iraq would mark the definitive end of U.S. hegemony over the international system it established at the conclusion of World War Two. This is an outcome the U.S. ruling class is understandably reluctant to accept.
A second option for Washington is to make a deal with Tehranto recognize its primacy in the Persian Gulf, while negotiating some sort of special status for the U.S. and its dependencies, and working out an arrangement for American oil majors to get some access to Iraqs petroleum resources. This would cement Irans status as the champion of the Islamic world, reduce U.S. influence in the region and weaken the regimes most closely associated with it. A comprehensive deal with Iran would probably involve Tel Avivwith terms that might include withdrawing from most of the Occupied Territories, dismantling the apartheid wall and recognizing a bifurcated Palestinian statelet with a great deal more sovereignty than proposed in either the 1993 Oslo Accords or the 2002 Road Map.
A third broad alternative would be for the U.S. to demand that Tehran use its influence to stabilize Iraq on terms acceptable to Washington, or face military attack. Preparations for such an assault are well advanced, and the cover story about Irans supposed quest for nuclear weapons has been widely publicized. Under Bush Jr., the U.S. repudiated an earlier (worthless) pledge never to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear powers, and has openly advertised its willingness to employ tactical nuclear weapons against underground bunkers, troop concentrations and similar targets. While giving no political support to the reactionary theocrats in Tehran, revolutionaries defend Iran against imperialist bullying, and uphold its right to possess effective means of self-defense, up to and including nuclear weapons.
Even prior to Hezbollahs demonstration in July and August 2006 that bunkers designed by Iranian engineers can withstand the biggest and smartest conventional bombs in the U.S. arsenal, Seymour Hersh was reporting that the top echelon of the American officer corps was resisting White House pressure for an attack on Iran:
Inside the Pentagon, senior commanders have increasingly challenged the Presidents plans, according to active-duty and retired officers and officials. The generals and admirals have told the Administration that the bombing campaign will probably not succeed in destroying Irans nuclear program. They have also warned that an attack could lead to serious economic, political, and military consequences for the United States.
The U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff are concerned that Tehran might stiffen Iraqs Shiite militias with tens of thousands of Iranian fighters, and launch an all-out assault on the already overstretched coalition forces. An attack on Iran would further inflame the Middle East and could well touch off massive popular upheavals that would result in American clients being replaced by Islamist regimes.
Only Workers Revolution Can Uproot Imperialism!
A decade and a half of imperialist sanctions and military aggression have transformed Iraqonce the most secular and economically advanced country in the Muslim worldinto a madhouse of murderous sectarianism and reaction. Communalism and religious fanaticism are not permanent features of Iraqi societythey are the direct product of imperialist intervention in the Middle East. Marxists take no side in the vicious cycle of sectarian violence engulfing Iraq, nor in squabbles between the contending bourgeois factions. But revolutionaries militarily support blows struck against imperialist occupation by neo-colonial forces regardless of their political character, from the 1983 truck-bombing of the American Marines and French paratroopers in Beirut; to the 1993 downing of a couple of U.S. Ranger Black Hawk helicopters in Mogadishu; to attacks on occupation forces in Iraq by Baathist or Islamic insurgents today.
The efforts of the many thousands of Iraqi fighters who have participated in the struggle to drive out the invaders have, in the short space of a few years, brought the worlds most powerful military machine face to face with defeat. And that is a good thing, because imperialism is the biggest obstacle to the liberation of working people and the oppressed in every country, and the main bulwark of all forms of reaction. History will record Americas misadventure in Iraq as a critical episode in the irreversible decline of what was, briefly, known as the worlds only superpower.
The looming U.S. defeat in Iraq and the resurgence of the Afghan Taliban, whose removal in 2001 was held up as the model for effortless regime change from the sky, has reminded the world that technological supremacy and sheer military might cannot always guarantee victory. The Israel Defense Forces learned a similar lesson from Hezbollahs guerrillas in southern Lebanon in 2006.
The revival of the Vietnam syndrome in the U.S. makes new military adventures less likely in the near future. Yet warincluding neo-colonial wars of choiceare an inevitable and necessary feature of capitalism in the imperialist epoch. The fundamental factor that generated Washingtons failing gamble in the Middle Eastits declining economic standing vis-à-vis its chief rivalshas been exacerbated by its recent setbacks. Conversely, the position of the European and Japanese imperialists, who had no interest in seeing Iraq turned into an American oil colony, has improved. As U.S. influence wanes and its ability to get its way with its erstwhile allies shrinks, the stage is being set for future conflicts. Over 90 years ago, the great Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin noted:
inter-imperialist or ultra-imperialist alliances, no matter what form they may assume, whether of one imperialist coalition against another, or of a general alliance embracing all the imperialist powers, are inevitably nothing more than a truce in periods between wars. Peaceful alliances prepare the ground for wars, and in their turn grow out of wars; the one conditions the other, producing alternating forms of peaceful and non-peaceful struggle on one and the same basis of imperialist connections and relations within world economics and world politics.
The logic of capitalist competition finds expression on a global scale in inter-imperialist rivalry, which, taken to its ultimate conclusion, can only mean catastrophic war and nuclear holocaust. Capitalism is an irrational social system with intrinsic contradictions that cannot be resolved. It cannot be transformed into a system that serves the interests of humanity. It must be completely uprooted and replaced by a planned economy, organized on a global scale, which is guided by the principle of meeting human need rather than maximizing private profit. The working class in the advanced capitalist countries, not least the United States, has a vital role to play, alongside the workers and oppressed peoples of the neo-colonies, in the creation of an egalitarian socialist world order.
The international proletariat has both the social power and objective interest to wage a revolutionary struggle to free humanity from the nightmare of predatory imperialist rule. But to harness the massive dissatisfaction with the capitalist world order and direct it toward revolutionary objectives, the working class must be politically mobilized, and this can only be accomplished through the agency of a revolutionary organization. The International Bolshevik Tendency is committed to the struggle to forge such an instrumenta world party of socialist revolution. This is the most crucial task that confronts humanity today.
Published: 1917 No.29 (January 2007)