Iraq: The Debacle of US Imperialism

Iraq occupation backfires

In the last few months, the US ruling class has finally come to realise that its adventure in Iraq is facing defeat. The mid-term elections in October reduced the pro-war camp to a minority in both the US Congress and Senate, while the cross-party Baker/Hamilton report on the war is basically an attempt to prepare the ground for the least damaging method of retreat.

The new phase of US imperialism which gradually took shape after the collapse of the Russian bloc and the emergence of the US as the sole superpower is giving way to a more complicated scenario. The US aim of remaining unchallenged as the global superpower by the blatant use of direct military force was articulated most clearly by the US neo-conservatives. This power should then be used to dominate all key areas of the world and thereby ensure the interests of US capital. For the Middle East, the US ambition was to create a constellation of US-dominated states stretching from the Red to the Caspian Seas. US hegemony in this area would create a Pax Americana, similar to the peace imposed by the Roman Empire and similarly policed by military means. From this constellation of states, the US would extract tribute in its modern form through such things as oil concessions, control of oil distribution and thereby help to secure the continuance of the role of the US currency as medium for international trade, without which grotesquely indebted US capital would be in no position to dominate the world. Since the Russian adversary no longer existed, the US considered military means were less risky than in the period of the two superpowers and defeats such as Vietnam were no longer a possibility. Consequently, the use of military means, as well as economic ones, could be employed to achieve these goals. It was the Bush regime which first started to carry out these plans and the wars launched in Afghanistan and Iraq were the first bold moves in the implementation of this strategy.

The Bush Plan

A minority of the US ruling class, with Bush and Cheney at their head, do not accept that their plans are being permanently reversed in Iraq. For them the present difficulties can be overcome by the use of more military force and threatening those, such as Iran and Syria, whom they see as the cause of all their difficulties. Bush therefore plans to achieve victory by extending the war and possibly widening its scope. This is the complete opposite of what was recommended in the Baker/Hamilton report, a report which Bush is reported to have dismissed as a “flaming turd.” There appears to be almost general agreement amongst the military that this plan will not work and politicians are falling over each other trying to distance themselves from it. The recent non-binding resolution of the Congress condemning it is an attempt to ensure that Bush takes the entire blame when things go wrong. For the first time since the invasion the UK government is not supporting the US strategy, and the UK Foreign Secretary stated that rather than support the proposed US surge in troop numbers, the UK was still planning to reduce troop numbers. (1) The Bush plan appears like a last desperate throw of the dice by a gambler before he leaves the table.

Bush and his henchmen are, however, trying to generate support for their plans, and one of the cards they are playing is that of Iran. It is now acknowledged, even in the Bush coterie, that one of the unintended results of the invasion has been the massive strengthening of Iranian influence throughout the Middle East. Whereas in the period before the invasion, Iranian ambitions were checked by Iraq, indeed, this was the main reason why the US supported and armed Saddam in the 1980’s, now Iranian allies hold power in Baghdad. The invasion has also precipitated an alliance of Iran and Syria (2), and the strengthening of links between Iran and Hezbollah and Hamas in Lebanon and Palestine. The Bush team is now presenting its difficulties in Iraq as caused by the machinations of Tehran. Condoleeza Rice has been sent round the Middle East raising the spectre of rampant Iranian power stirring up the forces of Shia Islam in the region. She visited the principal US allies, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and, of course, Israel to gather support for Bush’s plans. At the same time, Iranian diplomats have been arrested in Iraq and the ground prepared for military action of some sort. Israel has again said it will not tolerate a nuclear Iran and that it could launch pre-emptive military strikes against Iran, either on its own or in combination with the US. (3) It is ironic that, at the time of the Iraq invasion, the solution to the Palestinian problem lay in Baghdad. Once the new Hitler had been removed from Baghdad, we were assured, the Middle East would be happy and peaceful. Now that Baghdad has been conquered and occupied, we are told that the solution to the Baghdad problem lies in Tehran.

An attack on Iran by the US is unlikely at present, given the disarray amongst the US ruling class over the war, but the material forces and imperialist manoeuvring which underlie the spectre of Iran for the US will not go away. Apart from Iran’s ‘own’ oil reserves which are a focus for imperialist rivalry, Iran itself is strengthening its hand by joining forces with Russia in the quest to out-manoeuvre the USA in the control and supply of oil and gas routes. One proposal by the Iranians is to build a pipeline from Iran through Pakistan to India (IPI). The project has become more than an oil pipedream now that Russia - ironically flush with money from the US-inspired oil price hike (4) - is showing an interest and Gazprom has offered to help finance its construction. Russia, of course, is pursuing its own interests and has seen the opportunity to revive an old project of the 1990’s to get a pipeline right from Kazakhstan to the Persian Gulf. Combine this with the fact that China has only recently signed an agreement with the Kazakh government for the construction of an oil pipeline from the Tengiz zone as far as the China Sea, then the IPI plan is even more of a threat to US interests:

It would not only make Iran a pivot in the control and export of Asiatic energy resources, but also a fundamental ally of Russia and China. Further, it would completely exclude American imperialism from the game and - not unimportantly - Iran, along with its Asiatic partners, would be trading in euros, not dollars, thus threatening the foundations of Washington’s parasitism. (5)

So, no matter how much the ideological pretexts for the US invasion have been undermined by the reality of the “facts on the ground” in Iraq, no matter the wish of US capital to extricate itself from another Vietnam, the basic urge of US imperialism to protect its position in the world obliges it to extend its presence in central Asia.

Social breakdown in Iraq

Meanwhile the dire social situation in Iraq cannot be hidden any longer. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), 1.8 million people have now fled the country and 1.6 million are internally displaced by religious cleansing. The population of Iraq before the war was 25 million; hence, this means about 13% of the population have fled. (6)

Religious cleansing is rife in most parts of the country where mixed Shia and Sunni communities live side by side. People have to move out of their homes in mixed denomination areas or face death. Even mixed marriages between Shia and Sunni, which in the Saddam period accounted for one in every five, are now being dissolved and couples forced to separate. All the economic indicators from oil production to food production, are lower than before the invasion. Malnutrition amongst children is now worse than under the regime of sanctions before the war. In addition, there is the daily carnage which the sectarian strife is bringing. The estimates of civilian deaths in the war range from a low figure of 60 000 to a high of 665 000. (7)

The ability of the US to take control of the situation is undercut by its previous concession that the government be democratically elected. The US imagined they would be able to control whoever the elections brought to power, as they have done in Afghanistan with Kazai. However, their chosen leaders, such as Chalabi and Alawi, failed miserably and, instead, the elections brought the political forces of Shia Islam to power. These forces are allied to Iran. This government cooperates half-heartedly with the US whom it now suspects of transferring its support back to the Sunni minority. The government, for example, is unwilling to move against the Shia militias. Also, when the US acts against its interests, it opposes the US. For example, when the US blockaded Sadr city to try and recover a kidnapped soldier the government forced the US to lift the siege. When the US arrested Iranian diplomats in Baghdad in December, it forced the US to release them.

The famous democratic government, which was so lauded by Bush and Blair six months ago, is not providing the US with the type of political cover it requires for a free hand in the country. On the other hand, this government is extremely weak and its writ hardly runs beyond the borders of the Green Zone in central Baghdad. The Brussels-based “International Crisis Group” report, released in December, predicted Iraq was facing:

Complete disintegration into failed state chaos. (8)

At present, the state is under Shia control with Kurdish help. The Kurds, however, would be happy to have the central government weakened even further. (9) The Sunni Muslims, meanwhile, are being pushed out of the mixed Shia/Sunni areas and it is only the US army which prevents them being completely pushed into Anbar province. This is a prelude to the fracturing of Iraq into three sections. The break-up of Iraq along sectarian and religious fault lines is something the British, from the days of the mandate to the present, and the US since the 1950’s, have been trying to avoid. Such a break-up is likely to open a Pandora’s box in this region. The formation of a new Shia state in southern Iraq will lead to its domination by Iran and the prospect of upheaval in Kuwait and other Gulf kingdoms which have Shia majorities but Sunni rulers. Saudi Arabia, which has a large Shia minority, has threatened to intervene directly on the side of the Sunnis if this looks like happening. Turkey has threatened to intervene against an independent Kurdistan. All this is a recipe for wider conflagration which the US would find impossible to control. It is, however, the direction in which Iraq is drifting.

Weakening of US imperialism

As we have stated in previous texts, the invasion of Iraq was not an accident or a mistake. (10) It arose from the needs of US capitalism, and was intended to give the US control of the country with the world’s second largest oil resources and shore up the role of the US dollar as the currency of oil trading and global trade. Why is this strategy in such difficulties?

It can be argued that the present catastrophic situation results from the incompetence of the Bush team. Their arrogance (11) was matched only by their ignorance. They failed, for example, to make any real attempt to involve the Iraqi bourgeoisie in their plans for the country; they simply assumed that they would accept US dictates relayed by chosen exiles. This was exemplified in the dissolution of the army and the removal of any Baath Party members from public office. Despite these mistakes, the overwhelming military and economic power of the US should have been able to carry US plans to fruition. The insurgency is only supported by third- and fourth-rate powers such as Iran and Syria. It is not directly supported by any of the US’s major rivals such as Russia, China and the EU. It is not, therefore, sufficient to ascribe this failure simply to the incompetence of US ruling personnel.

What the present debacle shows, is that the US to be significantly weaker than its own propaganda claimed. From the start it was trying to gain by force of arms what it could no longer gain by its economic strength. This points to a relative weakening of its economic base, a hollowing out of its real power. In addition, the Bush junta seriously underestimated the ability of its rivals to outmanoeuvre it politically. If US plans for Iraq had been realised they would, of course, have significantly disadvantaged Russia, China and the EU, and it is hardly surprising that these powers have found ways to frustrate them.

It is clear that the familiar games of the Cold War era are once again afoot, but not with only two players as in the Cold War period. New alliances and blocs are being formed and, as the US has discovered to its cost, it has taken too little account of them. However, the US is certainly not going to quietly relinquish its position: the more the United States feels threatened, the more dangerous will be its response.

The imperialist forces causing such devastation across the Middle East and elsewhere spring from the workings of capitalism. The changes at the end of the Cold War which we were assured would usher in a new world order have, in fact, ushered in a mutation of the old world order. This is because capitalism remains the global system of production and the drive to imperialism remains unaltered. The wars in the Middle East are the products of the system and new wars are clearly going to follow. A new world order can only arise with the demise of capitalism as a system of global production. Only then can these barbaric wars become relics of the past.


(1) Margaret Beckett stated that she was confident of handing Basra over to the Iraqis in the Spring of this year. The US ambassador to Iraq, Khalilzad, said the US wanted UK forces to stay longer. “We would like the British to co-ordinate and for us to have a joint plan”.

(2) Donald Rumsfeld, the ex-US Defence secretary famously informed Syria and Iran that the message of the invasion for them was “you’re next”.

(3) Reported in The Independent, 25th January 2004. The Israeli prime minister also said that the experience of the Holocaust gave Israel the right to attack Iran.

(4) For the English translation of “The Recovery of Russian Imperialism”, by Celso Beltrami from Prometeo 14, December 2006, go to

(5) From Fabio Damen, “The Second Invasion of Lebanon”, Prometeo, op. cit., p6. See this issue for the full translation of this article.

(6) Quoted in The Independent, 28th November 2006.

(7) The figure of 60 000 is from the Iraq body count. The 665 000 is from a study by American and Iraqi epidemiologists published in The Lancet in October 2006.

(8) Quoted in The Independent, 20th December 2006.

(9) The unresolved question of oil concessions is evidence of this. The government has passed legislation allowing for Iraq’s oil resources to be privatised, as required by the US. The Kurds, however, wish the lucrative process of awarding fresh contracts to be in the hands of the local authorities. The Shias, who control the central government, demand this remains the prerogative of the central government.

(10) See Revolutionary Perspectives 39, “Shipwreck of US ambitions”, Revolutionary Perspectives 34, “War elections and class struggle”.

(11) Even now, the US embassy in Baghdad, which has a staff of 1000, has only six Arabic speakers.

Revolutionary Perspectives

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