Iraq - US Imperialism in Disarray

"Web special" article for RP 44

For the US ruling class Iraq has become a quagmire in which it remains firmly stuck. On the one hand it must find a way out of the Mesopotamian quicksands, but on the other any exit must not undermine its position and its strategy in the Middle East as a whole. During the last year the impossibility of achieving both these goals has become increasingly apparent.

Neither the more far-sighted sections of the ruling class, who openly call the war a “disaster”, nor the Neanderthals, grouped round the Neo-conservative standard, have a clear idea about how to escape from this dilemma. While there is an argument between the two camps on shorter-term tactics, both hold fast to the overall US ambition which is the domination of the oil producing regions of the Middle East and Caspian basin. Iraq remains a key part of this overall strategy and a genuine military withdrawal, such as occurred at the end of the Vietnam war, is therefore highly unlikely. The only thing which could precipitate this would be massive military reverses for US forces, and, as the insurgency is not openly supported by imperialist powers opposing the US, this appears unlikely.

The real issue for the US capitalist class is over finding a political arrangement for Iraq which will allow US domination of the region to continue, but will not produce further massive upheavals which it could not control. Two extreme positions appear to be emerging. On the one hand there is that of the Bush team, who still imagine a settlement can be imposed by force of arms and, if necessary, by extending the war to Iran and Syria [ ]. On the other hand certain democrats are now looking to split Iraq into 3 sections in a loose federation, and gamble on being able to control the upheavals in the region which this would cause. Both these positions are fraught with danger and unattractive to the US ruling class. It is clear, however, that the US policy pursued at present is completely contradictory and cannot be continued indefinitely without leading to further disaster and gains for US rivals throughout the region.

The Surge

The “surge” in troop numbers in Iraq was supposed to be the first step in the implementation of the overall strategy of the Bush team. As we have pointed out in previous texts in RP [ ] the implementation of the “surge” illustrated the divisions in the US capitalist class on how to proceed. The cross party Baker/Hamilton report, published a year ago, advised the administration to attempt to negotiate an exit with its local enemies Syria and Iran. The Bush team rejected this advice and chose instead to increase the number of US troops and impose order and a settlement by force. This strategy has been underway since February of this year, and in September the general in charge of its implementation, Petraeus, presented a report to the US congress on its results.” Not surprisingly he painted a picture of overall success. Though he admitted the levels of violence and death amongst civilians were appalling by any standards, they were, he maintained, decreasing. He also pointed to the reduced numbers of US soldiers being killed in the preceding months. The picture he painted was, in fact, a highly selective one with doctored statistics. The truth is that US imperialism has turned Iraq into a hell on earth and the “surge” hasn’t made much difference to this. Almost every statistic from electricity supply, water supply and malnutrition to oil production is significantly worse that it was before the invasion when the country was suffering a regime of international sanctions. Some of the most damning statistics are those of immigration and displacement. It is now estimated that there are 2 million Iraqi refugees who have fled the country and are now scattered around the Middle East [ ]. In addition there are 2.2 million internally displaced people in Iraq as a result of religious cleansing of areas controlled by sectarian militias. [ ] In April the numbers of people fleeing their homes monthly was 50 000, and it is estimated that by 2008 1 in 5 Iraqis, or 20% of the entire Iraqi population, will have become refugees or internally displaced. This is the worst refugee crisis in the Middle East since the expulsion of Palestinians by Israel in 1948 [ ].

While the surge may have decreased the levels of violence in certain areas, the violence has been displaced and its underlying causes have not been addressed. The surge has not led to the political reconciliation which it was supposed to bring about. The weak coalition of prime-minister Malaki has staggered from crisis to crisis with blocks of coalition partners withdrawing from the government in protest at one thing or another and later being coaxed back. Of the so-called political “bench marks” set by the Bush administration, which the Iraqi government was supposed to achieve to complement the surge, only the most trivial have been achieved. Absolutely nothing has been achieved in the way of reconciliation between the warring factions. Without political progress amongst the Iraqis themselves, any peace which the surge achieves can only be temporary. The strategy of the Bush regime appears to be failing in exactly the way its opponents in the US ruling class predicted. At the best it represents a means of buying time for the Bush regime. During the period since the start of the surge the so-called coalition of allies willing to cooperate with US imperialism has also weakened. Recently the new Polish Government has announced it will pull out and the new Australian prime minister has promised to do the same. However the most significant weakening has been the partial withdrawal of British forces in the south of the country.

British Retreat

The British are the US’s only significant ally remaining in the Iraq debacle. Over the last 2 years the position of British forces in the south of Iraq, and notably in Basra, had been undermined to the point where they have become almost irrelevant. Not only did the British not participate in the “surge”, on the contrary, they reduced their troop numbers and withdrew into their bases. In August the British abandoned their last base in Basra and withdrew to the airport. They now plan to reduce troop numbers to levels where they will no longer be able to take on the militias.

The British liked to pretend that their occupation was of an entirely different nature to that of the US. Whereas the US soldiers shot Iraqis like dogs the British, we were told, had won their hearts and minds through a campaign of cooperation and help in rebuilding the war-devastated infrastructure. This, we were told, was possible because of the experience the British army had gained in Ulster. All this was, like most of the information provided by the army, completely untrue and it soon became apparent that the difference between the US occupation and the British one was only one of the degree of brutality. British soldiers tortured and beat civilians to death and undercover operations were conducted to kill opponents. An illustration of what was going on occurred in September 2005 when Iraqi police arrested 2 SAS soldiers, disguised as Arabs, in a car packed with explosives and weapons. The British rescued their soldiers from the police station where they were being held by smashing the walls down with tanks. This indicated that they did not want the men to talk, and no explanation of what they were doing was ever provided. This incident reveals a crucial difference between Basra and Ulster, namely that the British could not rely on the police force. In fact the local police forces were controlled by the Shiite militias who became more resolute enemies of the British as time passed. Towards the end of their occupation of Basra the British base was under daily bombardment, and the British retreat was only made possible by negotiation with the Mahdi Army and by the release of a captured Mahdi Army leader.

The head of the British Army, General Dannat, has complained of poor morale amongst the troops and stated that the British presence in Basra was part of the problem rather than the solution [ ]... It appears the troops would have been withdrawn 6 month earlier had it not been for US pressure. The US feared the city would fall into the hands of Shiite militias and come under Iranian dominance. During the last 6 months another 25 troops were killed and 58 wounded while British control of the city deteriorated. The Iraqi government Human Rights minister, Wijdan Mikha'il Salim, described the British pullout as follows;

I think the British couldn't do the job ... so for that reason they pulled out. They didn't control the situation, they couldn't improve the situation

Since the British pullout the militia have, as predicted, taken over the city. This is a vital region of Iraq since it produces over 90% of government revenues and contains 70 per cent of its proven oil reserves. It could form a base for attacks on the US forces in the future. The withdrawal of the British forces is therefore a serious blow to the US attempts to impose order by force, despite all the statements to the contrary in the press. In the future the US may have to reoccupy Basra themselves.

Importance of Iraq for US ambitions

Marxists have always argued that it is necessary to explain the phenomena of capitalist society in terms of the underlying economic forces. This is necessarily the case with imperialism and imperialist war. As Paul Mattick argued,

the fact that capitalism is nothing but profit production, makes it necessary to explain the driving forces behind imperialist actions in terms of economic categories. [ ]

The Iraq war, as we have consistently argued, is no exception to this. It is the insatiable desire of capitalism for profit which has driven the US to turn Iraq into a living hell. More specifically Iraq’s oil resources and the advantages which will follow from control of these, including protection of the dollar as the currency of world’s commodity markets, lies behind the invasion. Alan Greenspan, ex-chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank, in a published memoir, which is obviously a considered statement, wrote,

I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: that the Iraq war is largely about oil. [ ]

The oil reserves of Iraq are now thought to be double what was estimated at the time of the invasion [ ]. The IHS hydrocarbon consultancy estimates from recent studies that there is at least a further 100 billion barrels of oil under Iraqi soil. In addition the costs of extracting it are amongst the lowest in the world. The HIS study states that the costs of extracting Iraqi oil are less than $2 per barrel [ ]. With an oil price of around $100 per barrel the attraction of getting control of this oil does not need much explanation. The “Hydrocarbon law” which Bush included as one of his benchmarks for the Iraqi government to legislate supposedly because it would allow for the sharing out of the oil revenues between the Iraqi provinces, would also give US and UK oil companies access to something like 80% of all new oil deposits found in Iraq [ ].

Despite all the talk of limiting greenhouse gases and moving from oil to sustainable forms of energy the demand for oil is continually growing. Whereas in 1980 world consumption of oil was 64.8 million barrels per day (bpd), by 2006 this had become 84.7 bpd and by 2030 demand is estimated to be 116bpd [ ]. This represents a 37% increase in demand within the next 20 years. Given that the discovery of significant new oil fields has ended it is estimated that peak oil production will occur at approximately 2020. This is the date given by the optimists, but according to the pessimists the world is now at its peak production. The economic importance of oil and countries containing vast quantities of it, such as Iraq, is increasing with every passing month. However, the importance of these regions is also increasing for the US’ rivals, particularly Russia and China. Far from excluding its rivals from the region, as was the intention of the Neo-conservative project pursued by the Bush team, the failures of the US are strengthening their hands.

Crisis for US Imperialism

US policy in the Middle East is now riddled with contradictions which it appears unable to resolve. The previous cornerstone of US policy in the area was to keep Iran weak and contained within its borders. The Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein was a key force in implementing this strategy, and this is one reason why Saddam was left in control of Iraq after the first Gulf War. One of the unintended consequences of the destruction of the Iraqi regime of Saddam has been the massive strengthening of Iran. In addition the holding of elections in Iraq, which the US tried to avoid but ultimately had to accept, has brought Iran’s allies to power in Baghdad. The US and Iran now have the same allies in Baghdad namely the Shiite Da’wa party and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) whose members make the majority of the government.. While aiding its Shiite clients in government, the US, clearly does not want the Shiites to win the civil war since this would strengthen Iran. Hence the US is also arming the Sunni regions militias. This rearmament of the Sunnis, which is supposedly against Al Qaeda, is regarded with great suspicion by the Shiite government, which fears that these arms will be used against it, and that the US may ultimately back a new Sunni regime. The US is consequently stoking the fires it claims to be trying to put out.

Within the wider region the US is vehemently opposed to Iran and its allies and protégés. Groups sponsored by Iran such as Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in the Lebanon are branded as terrorist organisations. The US is encouraging Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt to enter into an alliance against Iran, an alliance which Israel is to aid. Massive arms exports have been announced for the US allies. Over the next 10 years Egypt is to get an additional $13bn, the Gulf States including Saudi Arabia are to get $20bn, and, to offset these sales to the Arab states, Israel is to get an additional $30bn. This represents a 25% increase in arms sales to Israel. This indicates that the present rulers of the US anticipate a wider war and are busily preparing for it. The US threats against Iran and its attempts to isolate it have pushed it into the arms of Russia and China. This is discussed in the article “Turkey, Pakistan and Iran - Squaring the Circle” in RP 44. We only need to note here that.

  • Russia and China have enormously increased their trade and investment in Iran, including in the case of Russia defence and nuclear sales;
  • Russia has agreed to complete the Bushehr reactor; and, in an apparent reversal of its previous position, supports Tehran’s right to enrich uranium under the Nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty;
  • China and Russia have given Iran observer status in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, an organisation which is clearly trying to counter US attempts to control oil and gas resources of the Middle East and Caspian basin;
  • At the recent Caspian Sea Nations Conference held in Tehran, Russia stated that it would not remain indifferent to an attack on Iran.

All these developments have not gone unnoticed amongst the US ruling class. Brzezinski, President Carter’s national security adviser, writing in the Financial Times clearly expressed the view that the Bush team has betrayed the overall interests of US imperialism.

The war has been a disaster....the longer the American occupation continues, the already declining US influence in the Middle East will give way to regional extremism and instability...The US role in the world is being gravely undermined ... The destructive war (is) setting in motion forces which threaten to push America out of the Middle East. [ ]

The difficulty for the critics of the neo-conservative project is that the clock cannot be turned back, and they need to rescue US imperialism from the position it is in today. One such solution is the Balkanisation of Iraq mentioned above. A Democrat senator Joseph Biden, who was also a one-time presidential candidate, proposed a motion for splitting Iraq into 3 sections. This non-binding motion was passed by the Senate. Biden commented,

Slowly but surely we're building a consensus in the Congress around a way forward in Iraq. [ ]

The problems of splitting Iraq up into its constituent pieces have been discussed in previous editions of RP [ ] and the problem with Kurdistan has been dramatically underlined by the recent events on the Iranian/Turkish border. Turkey has massed 100 000 troops on the Iraqi border to attack PKK guerrillas operating out of Iraqi Kurdistan. Ankara’s real fears are that any future Kurdish state would demand sections of its territory, and is determined to prevent such a state coming into existence, if necessary by military means. The US has been desperately trying to defuse the present crisis with Turkey. This is to prevent the only peaceful area of Iraq being turned into a war zone. Turkey and Turkish support are also vital to the present US war effort since 30% of the fuel for US forces and 70% of all army air freight go through Turkish territory. While the US could perhaps face down the regional problems which balkanisation would bring in its wake, it is to say the least not a very attractive prospect and could well end in disaster.

While US imperialism does not have an obvious way out of its present mess, continuing on the present path is proving very expensive. According to the Congressional Budget Office the costs of the war, which are calculated as being $604bn [ ] are more than either the Korean or Vietnamese wars, and this is after allowing for inflation. A report by democrats in congress estimate the real cost, including interest payments on capital borrowed to finance the war, and lost production, looking after the wounded etc. is double the official figure. When Bush launched the war his estimate of its cost was $50bn. This, he maintained would be rapidly offsets by the benefits of having Iraq as a US oil protectorate. So far the promised benefits of the war have not arrived.

As we noted in Revolutionary Perspectives 41 the present position of the US shows it to be significantly weaker than its own propaganda claimed. It is suffering a relative economic weakening; a hollowing out of its real economic power which has led it to try and achieve by force what it could not gain economically. This weakening is being revealed by the events since 2003.

Anti-imperialist Struggle

The only anti-imperialist opposition to the present carnage in Iraq and the Middle East is the class struggle. This is the struggle of workers against their own bourgeoisie for their own class interests. While it is true that even in the present appalling circumstances there is still class struggle in Iraq it is unfortunately also true that the majority of workers remain tied to bourgeois factions. As we noted in Revolutionary Perspectives 41, the so called anti-imperialist struggle trumpeted by the left factions of capital is the support for one faction of capital rather than another. It distinguishes between,

a good capitalism and a bad capitalism, a capitalism which is an aggressor, and one which has the right to defend itself. Within this schema, they never raise the question of the class struggle and the emancipation of the proletariat, which is the only real response to the barbaric climate created by war. [ ]

There is, of course, no good or bad capitalism. It is capitalism itself whose insatiable demand for profit leads to imperialism. It is capitalism which is quite happy to turn whole countries into wastelands while it kills their people by the hundreds of thousands in its search for profits. The only road to ending the barbarism of today’s world is the anti-capitalist struggle which opposes the capitalist system in all its forms.


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