Middle East Morass
Drive Out the Imperialists!
A growing section of America’s traditional foreign policy establishment is beginning to fear that the decline of U.S. imperialism may be irreversible. Richard Haas, president of the Council on Foreign Relations (Washington’s imperial brain trust), has suggested that “the American era in the Middle East is over” (Economist, 30 June 2007). Hass told the German weekly Der Spiegel:
“During the Cold War, the United States faced a single challenge that was greater than any we face now. But I can’t think of a time when the United States has faced so many difficult challenges at once. What makes it worse is we are facing them at a time when we are increasingly stretched militarily. We are divided politically. We are stretched also economically, and there is a good deal of anti-Americanism in the world. It’s a very bad combination.”
—Spiegel Online International [English], 13 November 2006
Zbigniew Brzezinski, the architect of Washington’s successful anti-Soviet campaign in Afghanistan in the 1980s, complains in his recent book, Second Chance, that America’s rulers foolishly squandered their post-Soviet dividend, and warns darkly that, if the next president does not carry out a radical overhaul of foreign policy, “[t]he crisis of American superpower would then become terminal.”
Brzezinski and Haas, as leading figures in the so-called “realist” camp of imperial strategists, were always skeptical about the Bush/Cheney regime’s plans for remaking the Middle East through the conquest of Iraq. But the results of that failed gamble have produced consternation across a broad spectrum of the ruling class. Robert Kaplan, an avowed proponent of U.S. “empire” and an influential Washington journalist, frets that “if we do not find a way to agree on basic precepts, Iraq may indeed turn out to have been the event that signaled our military decline” (New York Times, 21 September 2007).
The glib neo-conservative assurances that “liberating” Iraq would be a cakewalk were given credence by what appeared to be a quick and painless victory in Afghanistan in 2001. The initial success against the Taliban deluded American policy makers into thinking that sheer military might could solve all problems. Not all proponents of invading Iraq predicted easy success, but none expected that, five years after “victory,” 160,000 U.S. troops would still be bogged down there, with vast swathes of territory remaining “no-go” areas and no prospect of consolidating a viable puppet regime.
The U.S. adventure in Iraq is now widely regretted, but it was not foisted upon Washington by a small clique of conniving neo-cons, as liberals allege, nor by an “unpatriotic” Israel Lobby, as some “realists” suggest. The neo-conservatives and “Christian Zionists” energetically promoted the idea of a modern crusade against the Arab infidels, but “regime change” in Iraq was a bipartisan policy from the start, embraced by liberals and conservatives alike. Bill Clinton signed the 1998 “Iraq Liberation Act” which made “regime change” in Baghdad official policy. It was Clinton’s Democratic administration, acting in concert with the United Nations, which imposed years of starvation sanctions estimated to have caused the deaths of over one million Iraqis. In 2002, a majority of Congressional Democrats gave Bush the green light to launch his war. The Democrats have consistently authorized funding for the war, and promise to keep occupation forces in Iraq indefinitely.
Washington’s plan to maintain a unified Iraq, administered by a consortium of pliable Kurdish, Shiite and Sunni quislings, is unachievable. Leading Shiites viewed U.S. occupation as a means of gaining the upper hand over their Sunni rivals. But they are clearly opposed to U.S. overlordship in the long term, and are seeking closer ties with Iran. American attempts to bring the Sunnis back into the fold are a case of too little, too late. In the north, a low-grade border war between the Iraqi Kurds and the Turks is underway. Meanwhile significant insurgencies in Afghanistan and Pakistan are gaining ground. The sclerotic autocracies of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, long Washington’s most dependable Arab allies, are increasingly unstable. And Tehran, America’s regional nemesis, has massively increased its influence by successfully defying U.S. threats.
In short, American control is slipping, and the possibility of devastating regional conflicts is growing more likely. Yet the “debate” between Democrats and Republicans amounts to little more than haggling over technicalities. For them, the question is not if the U.S. should remain in Iraq, but how occupation forces should be deployed; not if Iran should be threatened, but what mix of diplomacy, sanctions, conventional or nuclear weaponry will provide the most effective level of intimidation; not if military funding should be increased for the Saudis, Egyptians and Israelis, but what form the “aid” should take.
The similarity in policy prescriptions between Democrats and Republicans reflects an identity of class interests. Imperialism is not a policy option, but a global system of exploitation and oppression based on the division of the world into spheres of influence for a handful of predatory advanced capitalist powers. Control of the fantastic oil wealth of the Middle East is crucial to the maintenance of American global hegemony. U.S. leaders in the White House, Congress, State Department and Pentagon are painfully aware that loosening their grip on the region will accelerate America’s decline.
The “War on Terror” was a strategy designed to consolidate U.S. supremacy in the Middle East through the creation of permanent American military installations, elimination of recalcitrant regimes and stabilization of regional clients. These measures were intended to ensure U.S. control of a huge chunk of global petroleum resources, which would translate directly into influence over rivals. The spectacular failure of Washington’s Mid-East gambit to date has had the opposite effect: endangering American clients, emboldening opposition and providing enemies with unexpected leverage.
In an attempt to hedge its position, Washington is now taking an active interest in every conflict underway from the Horn of Africa to Central Asia, providing arms, intelligence and other support to favored factions and governments. While still deeply involved in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. is positioning itself for future interventions.
Oil, the Middle East and U.S. Imperialism
When former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan’s autobiography was published in September 2007, the American media honed in on his comment that: “I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil.” Greenspan is the most important Washington policymaker to acknowledge the obvious about U.S. Middle East policy:
“The intense attention of the developed world to Middle Eastern political affairs has always been critically tied to oil security. The reaction to, and reversal of, [Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed] Mossadeq’s nationalization of Anglo-Iranian Oil in 1951 and the aborted effort of Britain and France to reverse [Egyptian President Gamal Abdel] Nasser’s takeover of the key Suez Canal link for oil flows to Europe in 1956 are but two prominent examples. And whatever their publicized angst over Saddam Hussein’s ‘weapons of mass destruction,’ American and British authorities were also concerned about violence in an area that harbors a resource indispensable for the functioning of the world economy….
“[P]rojections of world oil supply and demand that do not note the highly precarious environment of the Middle East are avoiding the eight hundred pound gorilla that could bring world economic growth to a halt.”
—The Age of Turbulence
The suggestion that “liberal democracies” (as the imperialist powers advertise themselves) engage in war and conquest in order to secure sources of raw materials has long been anathema to liberals and reformists. Why go through the bother and expense of seizing territories and installing satrapies when the same raw materials can be much more easily obtained on the “free market”? A variant of this argument is commonly employed to rebut the Marxist proposition that the Iraq war was a classic case of imperialist plunder. After all, argue imperialism’s liberal apologists, if Washington was truly motivated by a desire to access oil, why not simply make a commercial arrangement with Saddam Hussein? Vladimir Lenin, co-leader with Leon Trotsky of the Russian Revolution, addressed this question directly in 1916:
“Of course, the bourgeois reformists, and among them particularly the present-day adherents of Kautsky, try to belittle the importance of facts of this kind by arguing the raw materials ‘could be’ obtained in the open market without a ‘costly and dangerous’ colonial policy; and that the supply of raw materials ‘could be’ increased enormously by ‘simply’ improving conditions in agriculture in general. But such arguments become an apology for imperialism, an attempt to embellish it, because they ignore the principal feature of the latest stage of capitalism: monoplies….
“Finance capital is interested not only in the already discovered sources of raw materials but also in potential sources, because present-day technical development is extremely rapid, and land which is useless today may be made fertile tomorrow if new methods are devised (to this end a big bank can equip a special expedition of engineers, agricultural experts, etc.), and if large amounts of capital are invested. This also applies to prospecting for minerals, to new methods of working up and utilizing raw materials, etc., etc. Hence, the inevitable striving of finance capital to enlarge its economic territory and even its territory in general. In the same way that the trusts capitalize their property at two or three times its value, taking into account its ‘potential’ (and not present) profits, and the further results of monopoly, so finance capital in general strives to seize the largest possible amount of land of all kinds in all places, and by every means, taking into account potential sources of raw materials and fearing to be left behind in the fierce struggle for the last scraps of undivided territory, or for the repartition of those that have been already divided.”
—Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism
The power of monopolies, which rests on their ability to command privileged access to markets and to control existing and potential sources of raw materials, imparts a vicious territorial imperative to capitalist competition. In search of exclusive “spheres of influence” for their respective monopolists, the major capitalist powers brutally parceled the globe at the dawn of the twentieth century. It was at this time—the birth of the “petroleum age”—that the oil of the Middle East became an immensely valuable prize. In June 1920, Walter Hume Long, Britain’s First Lord of the Admiralty, candidly observed: “If we secure the supplies of oil now available in the world we can do what we like” (New York Times, 27 June 1920). The subsequent history of the Middle East has been decisively shaped by the struggle of rival imperialists to subjugate the region’s indigenous peoples and control their territory.
The United States remained largely aloof from the original scramble for Africa and the Middle East. While liberal ideologues attribute this to America’s “anti-colonial” principles, in fact Washington was already successfully colonizing its Latin American “backyard” and had brutally ravaged the Philippines. As Paris and London haggled over the division of the territories of the Ottoman Empire in the wake of World War I, Washington piously espoused an “open door” policy of free trade—in reality an attempt to gain access to the colonies of the older imperialist powers. At the same time, the U.S. sought to keep the Latin American “door” firmly shut to European interference.
One of the first fruits of the “open door” was obtained in 1928, when two American companies, Jersey Standard and Socony (later known as Exxon and Mobil), wrangled a 24 percent stake in the Turkish Petroleum Company (which had a massive oil concession in British-administered Iraq). Until then the oil fields of the region had been the preserve of British, French and Dutch interests. What ultimately proved much more important for America’s regional and global standing, however, was the signing of a deal with King Saud in 1933 opening up Saudi oil fields to Standard Oil of California—and subsequently to Texaco, Exxon and Mobil. These four firms comprised the Arabian-American Oil Company (Aramco).
In the midst of World War II, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt told Lord Halifax, the British ambassador, that “Persian oil…is yours. We share the oil of Iraq and Kuwait. As for Saudi Arabian oil, it’s ours” (Daniel Yergin, The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power). At the outset of the Cold War, the U.S. State Department identified the Middle East as “a stupendous source of strategic power, and one of the greatest material prizes in world history” (cited in Melvyn Leffler, A Preponderance of Power). Washington was prepared to temporarily support British colonial authority in the Middle East so long as London remained cooperative. In the medium term, however, the U.S. worked to displace the British in the most lucrative oil-producing countries. American policy in the region aimed at forging anti-Soviet alliances and actively repressing left-nationalist or pro-socialist movements. To this end, Washington aided a variety of reactionary Islamist formations.
The pursuit of these objectives sometimes created confusion. The U.S. initially welcomed Mossadeq’s regime in Iran as a means of breaking the British monopoly on Persian oil. When Mossadeq nationalized Anglo-Iranian Oil (later British Petroleum—BP) in 1951, U.S. President Harry Truman opposed British plans to invade Iran. Only when Mossadeq refused to permit U.S. oil majors to move in did Washington discover that he was some type of “communist,” and began a sophisticated covert campaign in cooperation with the British to terminate Iran’s fledgling bourgeois democracy and restore the ersatz Pahlavi monarchy. One key U.S. ally was Ayatollah Seyyed Abolqassem Kashani, the great godfather of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and founder of the Devotees of Islam (an Islamist terrorist organization modeled on the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood). John Waller, who ran America’s covert campaign, recalled that the CIA provided “money both to Kashani and to his chosen instruments, money to finance his communication channels, pamphleteering, and so on to the people in south Teheran” (quoted in Robert Dreyfuss, Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam, 2005).
Kashani, who had a popular base among the residents of Tehran’s slums, organized mass mobilizations against Mossadeq and the Moscow-line Stalinists of the Tudeh Party. The CIA and MI6 did their bit by paying thugs to pose as Tudeh members and attack Shiite religious symbols. In his history of the MI6, Stephen Dorril writes:
“A key aspect of the plot was to portray the mobs as supporters of the Tudeh Party in order to provide a suitable pretext for the coup and the resumption of control by the Shah….[MI6 agents] hired a fake Tudeh crowd, comprising an unusual mixture of pan-Iranians and Tudeh members, paid for with fifty thousand dollars given to them by a CIA officer. Richard Cottam [a CIA officer] observed that agents working on behalf of the British ‘saw the opportunity and sent the people we had under our control into the streets to act as if they were Tudeh. They were more than just provocateurs, they were shock troops, who acted as if they were Tudeh people throwing rocks at mosques and [mullahs].’ ‘The purpose’ [another writer said], ‘was to frighten a majority of Iranians into believing that a victory for Mossadeq would be a victory for the Tudeh, the Soviet Union and irreligion.’”
Under the Shah, Mossadeq’s nationalizations were annulled and a 40 percent share in the new oil consortium was given to five big American companies. While BP retained a stake, the British monopoly on Persian oil was broken. The Tudeh Party was driven underground, and any perceived threat of social revolution was vanquished. The coup immensely strengthened the political hand of the clergy and provided practical training for those who were eventually to lead the Islamic Revolution. It was during this period that Ayatollah Khomeini, inspired by his mentor Kashani, was busy working alongside the Devotees of Islam to fuse Shiite religious reaction with political activism.
The U.S. applied similar tactics elsewhere in the Middle East. A decade after Mossadeq was deposed, the CIA helped Baathist Party members and elements of the military take power in Iraq, toppling the left-bourgeois government that had nationalized Iraq’s oil industry. The new regime jailed and executed hundreds of members of the Iraqi Communist Party (see 1917 No. 26).
Washington tended to favor the Islamist opponents of secular nationalism and socialism. During the 1950s and 1960s, the Saudis, America’s foremost regional ally, funneled millions of dollars to Muslim Brotherhood sections throughout the region, targeting in particular Nasser’s left-nationalist regime in Egypt. A “former senior CIA official” summed up U.S. policy for journalist Robert Dreyfuss as follows:
“The Cold War was the defining clarity of the time. We saw Nasser as socialist, anti-Western, anti-Baghdad Pact, and we were looking for some sort of counterfoil. Saudi efforts to Islamicize the region were seen as powerful and effective and likely to be successful. We loved that. We had an ally against communism.”
This policy reached its height in the 1980s, when Washington worked in tandem with Riyadh and Islamabad to fund and arm the mujahedin against the Soviets and their allies in Afghanistan.
The Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 appeared to usher in an era of unrestricted American domination in the region far surpassing anything dreamed of in 1945. The Soviet “threat” was no more, and in any case, Moscow had never exerted the same control over its Syrian and Egyptian clients that Washington had over its Persian Gulf dependencies. The prospect of social revolution was posed on several occasions, most potently during the 1958 Iraqi Revolution and during the revolt against the Shah in the 1978-79 Iranian Revolution, but in both cases was fatally undermined by the lack of effective working-class leadership. In 1958 the Iraqi Communist Party supported the “progressive” wing of the bourgeoisie led by Abdel Karim Qasim, while in Iran the Stalinists in the Tudeh Party bowed before “anti-imperialist” Khomeini and the mullahs.
Iran’s Islamic Revolution represented a major setback for Washington. It removed America’s most important client in the region and led to the expropriation of U.S. oil interests in the country. But a socialist revolution in Iran could have touched off a series of struggles to expropriate imperialist property throughout the region, with reverberations far beyond the Middle East. In one sense, therefore, the victory of the ayatollahs was a blessing for Washington: by crushing the Iranian workers’ movement, the Islamic “revolutionaries” suppressed the only social force that could have fundamentally challenged imperialist domination and capitalist exploitation.
By the end of the 1970s, the U.S. had control over most of the region’s petroleum resources. The Gulf sheikhdoms had “nationalized” their oil holdings, thereby asserting formal ownership over the mineral resources in the ground, while maintaining an important role for U.S. multinationals in production. Washington and the oil companies accepted these moves as a necessary evil, so long as the ruling regimes remained aligned with the imperial metropole and American corporate property was safeguarded. The Gulf oil producers carry out all transactions in U.S. dollars, underpining the greenback as an international reserve currency.
The triumph of counterrevolution in the Soviet bloc meant that Washington, Bonn, Paris, London and Tokyo no longer had a common enemy to keep their mutual antagonisms in check. The U.S. Department of Defense responded with a strategic review, entitled Defense Planning Guidance, which declared: “Our strategy must refocus on precluding the emergence of any future global competitor.” The authors of the review, Zalmay Khalilzad and Paul Wolfowitz (both of whom came to prominence in the administration of George W. Bush) proposed: “In the Middle East and Southwest Asia, our overall objective is to remain the predominant outside power in the region and preserve US and Western access to the region’s oil” (cited in Middle East Report, Summer 2006). Under George Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton these objectives were pursued through brutal “humanitarian” neo-colonial wars in Iraq, Somalia and Yugoslavia, with U.S. military toeholds being established in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and Eastern Europe. (The American military pulled out of Somalia in 1993 after 18 U.S. Rangers were killed in a fire-fight in Mogadishu.)
Iraq has the second largest proven oil reserves in the world, estimated at 115 billion barrels, and perhaps twice that. This is an alluring prize for U.S. imperialism. As the UN’s murderous sanction regime groaned on, Washington’s rivals—particularly France and Russia—quietly pushed for ending the embargo, and signed tentative oil deals with the Baathists. When it became clear that the sanctions had failed to generate enough internal opposition to topple Saddam Hussein, the American bourgeoisie closed ranks behind a policy of “regime change” from without. America’s economic decline, manifested in a depreciating dollar and a ballooning current account deficit, was to be reversed by using its unrivalled military power to gain control of Iraq’s oil and establish a permanent presence in the heart of the Arab world. The plan was to cement Washington’s “full spectrum dominance” over its imperial rivals while reducing its reliance upon the increasingly unstable Saudi monarchy.
The failure of this high-stakes gamble has greatly increased political and military instability in the region and pushed up the price of oil (and with it, the cost of producing and distributing most commodities). Clay Sell, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Energy, observed:
“We know that the world is not running out of energy resources, but nonetheless, above-ground risks like resource nationalism, limited access and infrastructure constraints may make it feel like peak oil just the same, by limiting production to something far less than what is required.”
—Wall Street Journal, 19 November 2007
“Resource nationalism,” Washington’s euphemism for attempts by oil producers to exert some control over their resources, is on the rise. But the U.S. is at least as worried about the flight from the dollar, as Iran is now demanding payment in euros or yen and Russia and Venezuela have taken steps in the same direction. This reduces demand for dollars, which in turn increases the incentive for other oil exporters to follow suit. Kuwait no longer pegs its currency to the dollar, but rather to a “basket” of currencies, including the euro. Other members of the U.S.-aligned “Gulf Co-operation Council”—Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain—are reported to be contemplating similar moves (Economist, 24 November 2007). In his syndicated column, Gwynne Dyer summed up the situation:
“The downward pressure on the dollar will continue, because the United States is borrowing 6 percent of its Gross Domestic Product from foreigners each year to cover its trade deficit.
“Foreign banks were happy to go on lending so long as they had faith in the integrity of U.S. financial institutions, but that has been hit hard by the sub-prime mortgage crisis….
“Above all, there are now alternatives to the U.S. dollar. The last time it faced a comparable crisis was in 1971, when a different Republican president was trying to run another unpopular war without raising taxes.
“Richard Nixon devalued the U.S. dollar and demolished the Bretton Woods system that had fixed all other currencies in relation to the dollar, inaugurating the current era of floating exchange rates.
“There was no other candidate then for the role of global reserve currency, so the dollar stayed at the center of the system despite all the turbulence.
“This time, by contrast, there is the euro, the currency of an economic zone just as big as the United States….
“But nothing is likely to happen very fast.”
—Cincinnati Post, 27 November 2007
Washington’s dollar hegemony has provided the U.S. with crucial economic (and political) leverage, as Benn Steil, Director of International Economics at the Council on Foreign Relations, noted:
“The US is extraordinarily fortunate in that its currency is also the international standard of value—if that would disappear, US leverage in many dimensions would also go.
“What countries need in a financial crisis is dollars and that gives the US enormous leverage.”
—Financial Times [London], 28 December 2007
By denominating oil contracts in dollars, the Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia, help maintain the dollar’s international role; in exchange, the oil sheikhs get security guarantees. As Washington’s military position in the region deteriorates, the value of these guarantees falls, and pressure builds to abandon the dollar.
Iraq: Operation Enduring Fiasco
After five years of fighting, the manifest inability of the mighty U.S. military to subdue Iraqi resistance has further weakened the “world’s only superpower.” Yet the American bourgeoisie, both Democratic and Republican, see no option but to remain in Iraq indefinitely, hoping that somehow their position will improve.
The Bush administration’s “surge” of 30,000 more U.S. troops to join the 130,000 already in Iraq was supposed to create “breathing space” for Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish politicians to establish a stable client regime. But the “surge” failed for the same reason that previous attempts have—there is no significant element of Iraqi society that supports a long-term U.S. occupation. This is why, after five years of “training,” the puppet army is still of no use in policing the American occupation:
“Militia infiltration of Iraq’s security forces is so bad in some places that American soldiers sometimes do not know whether to trust their Iraqi counterparts. ‘We don’t trust ‘em,’ said 1st Lt. Steve Taylor, serving at a joint Iraqi-American security station in Sulakh. ‘There’s no way to know who’s good and who’s bad, so we have to assume they’re all bad, unfortunately.’ In the Ameel neighborhood of Baghdad, the local commander of Iraqi national police has been replaced three times since March because of ties to militias or insurgent groups. In some instances, American soldiers have been killed by Iraqi security forces that they were actually training.”
—Brian Katulis, Center for American Progress, 11 June 2007
In October 2007, Ricardo Sanchez, the former top “coalition” commander in Iraq, summed up the U.S. position as “a nightmare with no end in sight,” and bemoaned the fact that “[a]fter more than four years of fighting, America continues its desperate struggle in Iraq without any concerted effort to devise a strategy that will achieve victory in that war-torn country or in the greater conflict against extremism” (New York Times, 13 October 2007).
The UN estimates that of a population of 27 million, some 2.5 million have fled the country and another 2.2 million are internally displaced, largely as a result of “ethnic cleansing.” This is by far the largest refugee crisis in the Middle East since the Palestinians were driven from their homes by Zionist terror during the creation of the state of Israel.
The Bush administration credits its “surge” with reducing the daily death toll in Baghdad. In fact, however, this is largely attributable to a decision by Moqtada al-Sadr, the populist Shiite cleric, to order his Mahdi Army (which exercises de facto power in the city’s vast Shiite slums) to suspend operations. The fact that this occurred shortly after Iraq’s nominal prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, met with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in August 2007, led to speculation that Ahmadinejad had asked Sadr to rein in his militia to strengthen Iran’s diplomatic position vis-à-vis the United States.
Sadr expects to wait out the Americans in Baghdad just as his forces waited out the British in Basra, Iraq’s second city. In September 2007, British forces declared victory and withdrew from the city center to an airport several kilometers outside (Guardian Weekly, 7 September 2007). While the withdrawal supposedly showed that local army and police units could handle things, according to Toby Dodge of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, the British were “driven out by Islamic radicals with nothing more than rocket-propelled grenades and mortars” (New York Times, 9 October 2007).
The Americans are pressing the British to remain in the south to secure the supply route from Kuwait, to hold the puppet army together and patrol the border with Iran, but British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is looking for a way out. Washington’s only significant partner in the “coalition of the willing” may be gone by 2009.
One cleric with the Mahdi Army, which has filled the vacuum of power in Basra, told the London Guardian: “Now is not the time to escalate the situation with the British. They retreated to the airport and that’s fine, for now. Our goal is to get rid of the governor of Basra, consolidate our control over the city, and finish with the collaborators” (Guardian Weekly, 23 November 2007). Like its Islamist counterparts in Palestine and Lebanon, the Mahdi Army has assumed many of the functions of state power. Today in Basra, sharia-based tribunals, with Mahdi Army goons acting as bailiffs, provide Islamist “justice.”
Awakening Councils—U.S. Hires Sunni ‘Allies’
In Iraq’s predominantly Sunni regions, particularly Anbar province and west Baghdad, the U.S. military has hired Sunni tribal leaders, former insurgents and warlords as allies in its struggle against “Al Qaeda in Iraq.” Previously, these same Sunni leaders welcomed the jihadists as allies against the U.S. military, but the relationship soured as a result of indiscriminant attacks on civilians and a lack of obeisance to the tribal leadership. The final straw seems to have been Al Qaeda’s declaration of an “Islamic State of Iraq” and its attempts to levy a 25 percent tax on the earnings of other insurgent groups in west Baghdad.
A senior Sunni sheikh described the marriage of convenience with the U.S. in the following terms:
“It’s just a way to get arms, and to be a legalised security force to be able to stand against Shia militias and to prevent the Iraqi army and police from entering their areas. The Americans lost hope with an Iraqi government that is sectarian and dominated by [Shiite] militias, so they are paying for locals to fight al-Qaida. It will create a series of warlords. It’s like someone who brought cats to fight rats, found himself with too many cats and brought dogs to fight the cats. Now they need elephants.”
—Guardian Weekly, 16 November 2007
The Sunni members of the “awakening councils” want jobs in the security forces, but the Shiite-dominated “government” does not want to put rivals on the payroll. Vali Nasr, an expert on Iran and Shiism, told Seymour Hersh: “The American policy of supporting the Sunnis in western Iraq is making the Shia leadership very nervous.” He continued:
“The White House makes it seem as if the Shia were afraid only of Al Qaeda—but they are afraid of the Sunni tribesmen we are arming. The Shia attitude is ‘So what if you’re getting rid of Al Qaeda?’ The problem of the Sunni resistance is still there. The Americans believe they can distinguish between good and bad insurgents, but the Shia don’t share that distinction. For the Shia, they are all one adversary.”
—New Yorker, 8 October 2007
Washington’s new Sunni “allies” have hardly made a secret of their intentions. Abu Abed, a member of the insurgent Islamic Army, who now leads the “Ameriya Knights” and gets an allowance from the U.S. of $400 a month for each fighter he commands, has an ambitious agenda:
“Ameriya [a neighborhood of Baghdad] is just the beginning. After we finish with al-Qaida here, we will turn toward our main enemy, the Shia militias. I will liberate Jihad [a Sunni area taken over by the Mahdi army], then Saidiya and the whole of west Baghdad.”
—Guardian Weekly, 16 November 2007
Washington’s alliance with Sunni insurgents pushed Maliki and other “moderate” Shiites closer to Tehran. Maliki has warned his American patrons that Iraqi Shiites “can find friends elsewhere” (Asia Times Online, 26 October 2007). Since 2005, the Maliki government has concluded a variety of bilateral agreements with Iran, covering military assistance and the construction of an oil pipeline from southern Iraq to Iran. In October 2007, a few months after the largest Sunni political bloc, the Accordance Front, withdrew its six ministers from his cabinet, Maliki awarded contracts for $1.1 billion to Iran and China for the construction of power plants in Baghdad’s Shiite Sadr City and between the two Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala.
Imperialist Resource Grab & the Elusive Oil Law
A critical step in fashioning a pliable “national unity” puppet government is for the Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish leaderships to come to some agreement on sharing petroleum revenue. The Sunnis, whose territories in western and central Iraq have no significant oil deposits, insist on central government control, while the Kurds, concentrated in the oil-rich north, want “autonomy” in deciding what happens to oil pumped on their territory. The Shiites are divided on the question—some favor autonomy for the oil-rich Shiite south, while others (including Maliki) are fearful of handing too much leverage to the Kurds. Washington, which has thus far opposed proposals for balkanizing Iraq, would prefer to see control in the hands of a malleable federal government. Of course, the occupation authorities are concerned that foreign, particularly American, oil companies end up with control of Iraq’s petroleum.
When an agreement seemed imminent in early 2007, an Economist (3 March 2007) report headlined: “That long-awaited share-out.” The deal was all that the multinational oil barons could have hoped for, as Naomi Klein observed:
“The law that was finally adopted by Iraq’s cabinet in February 2007 was even worse than anticipated; it placed no limits on the amount of profits that foreign companies can take from the country and placed no specific requirements about how much or little foreign investors would partner with Iraqi companies or hire Iraqis to work in the oil fields. Most brazenly, it excluded Iraq’s elected parliamentarians from having any say in the terms for future oil contracts. Instead, it created a new body, the Federal Oil and Gas Council, which, according to the New York Times, would be advised by ‘a panel of oil experts from inside and outside Iraq.’ This unelected body, advised by unspecified foreigners, would have ultimate decision-making power on all oil matters, with the full authority to decide which contracts Iraq did and did not sign. In effect, the law called for Iraq’s publicly owned oil reserves, the country’s main source of revenues, to be exempted from democratic control and run instead by a powerful, wealthy oil dictatorship, which would exist alongside Iraq’s broken and ineffective government.”
—The Shock Doctrine
The “production sharing agreements” (PSAs) envisioned by the draft law—30-year contracts worth tens or even hundreds of billions of dollars to foreign oil companies—would mean a return to the sort of arrangements that predominated in the Middle East prior to the nationalizations of the 1970s.
However, the draft law turned out to be another casualty of the ethnic hostilities tearing Iraq apart. The Kurds insisted that the Federal Oil and Gas Council not be given the right to “approve” contracts, and the draft was amended to permit only the rejection of contracts that do not meet certain criteria. When the proposed legislation arrived in parliament, the Kurds complained that it was unbalanced, and the Kurdish government in the north began unilaterally signing deals with international oil companies. The main Sunni party, Tawafiq, responded by insisting that the legislation make it clear that the federal government retained sole ownership of oil fields and had the exclusive right to sign contracts. There seems little prospect that Iraq’s fractured parliament is going to pass an oil law any time soon. The U.S. is trying to make the best of the situation by pressing the Iraqis to reverse Saddam-era oil contacts, thus opening future possibilities for American companies. In October 2007 it was revealed that the Iraqi government had canceled an old contract with the Russian company Lukoil for the development of a massive oil field in the Iraqi south.
Iraq’s trade unions played a significant role in the fight over the oil legislation. The Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions (IFOU), with 26,000 members in southern Iraq, struck for several days in opposition to privatization plans. Maliki’s government responded by sending the military into the oil fields with arrest warrants for strike leaders accused of “sabotaging the economy” (United Press International, 7 June 2007). A month later the oil minister used legislation passed by Saddam Hussein’s regime to declare the union illegal (“IFOU Statement on Attack by Minister of Oil,” 20 August 2007).
This was the third time since the U.S. invasion that the oil workers shut down production. Over 90 percent of Iraq’s federal budget is derived from oil revenues, and the petroleum industry provides most of the country’s fuel for transport, cooking and heating. Iraqi oil workers have the social power to spearhead a formidable movement against the occupiers. A revolutionary workers’ party would seek to use the struggle against Washington’s resource grab as a springboard for a fight for genuine national and social liberation. Such a party, armed with the program of permanent revolution, would mobilize the proletariat in support of the daily struggles for survival by Iraq’s impoverished masses and would also actively defend religious and ethnic minorities, women, gays, lesbians and all those victimized by the imperialists, their puppets and the reactionary militias.
Occupation With, or Without, Balkanization
While official U.S. policy remains committed to a unified Iraq, important elements of the American ruling class are planning for the day when the country breaks into three: Iraqi Kurdistan in the north, the Sunni Arab west and the Shiite Arab south. The Hunt Oil Company of Dallas, Texas, run by Ray Hunt, a close political ally of Bush and a member of the president’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, has already signed a contract with the Kurds. Liberal economist Paul Krugman noted:
“[W]hat’s interesting about this deal is the fact that Mr. Hunt, thanks to his policy position, is presumably as well-informed about the actual state of affairs in Iraq as anyone in the business world can be. By putting his money into a deal with the Kurds, despite Baghdad’s disapproval, he’s essentially betting that the Iraqi government—which hasn’t met a single one of the major benchmarks Mr. Bush laid out in January—won’t get its act together. Indeed, he’s effectively betting against the survival of Iraq as a nation in any meaningful sense of the term.”
—New York Times, 14 September 2007
In October 2007, the U.S. Senate overwhelmingly approved a non-binding resolution supporting the creation of a loose Iraqi confederation with three effectively independent ethno-religious regions.
Dismembering Iraq is likely to create more problems than it would solve. Even assuming compliant regimes in all three semi-states—a very big assumption—there are many triggers for massive conflicts, including the division of Baghdad and the question of who gets Kirkuk, the oil-rich province claimed by both Kurds and Sunni Arabs. Turkey, a key regional ally of the U.S. with its own hideously oppressed Kurdish minority, has made it clear that it has no intention of tolerating an independent Iraqi Kurdistan.
While there is a widespread recognition that the Iraq adventure has been a disaster, no significant element of the U.S. bourgeoisie is prepared to advocate outright withdrawal:
“[T]he building of US military bases in Iraq continues apace, at a cost of over $1bn a year. Shortly after the invasion, the US established 110 bases in Iraq. The present plan appears to consolidate these into 14 ‘enduring bases’ in Iraqi Kurdistan, at Baghdad airport, in Anbar province, and in the southern approaches to Baghdad. This does not point to an early US disengagement. And nor does the construction of a US embassy able to house 1,000 staff on a 100-acre site on the banks of the Tigris—the biggest US embassy in the world.”
—Guardian, 9 June 2007
Some ruling-class strategists, groping for a way out, have proposed a “Korea model” for Iraq—i.e., a permanent U.S. military presence that is accepted domestically. Meanwhile, Iranian influence is rising, as Vali Nasr observed:
“In the political vacuum that followed Saddam’s fall, Iranian influence quickly spread into southern Iraq on the back of commercial connections—driven by a growing volume of trade and a massive flow of Iranian pilgrims into shrine cities of Iraq—and burgeoning intelligence and political ties. Iran’s influence quickly extended to every level of Iraq’s bureaucracy, Shiite cleric and tribal establishments, and security and political apparatuses. The war turned a large part of Iraq into an Iranian sphere of influence, and equally important, paved the way for Iranian hegemony in the Persian Gulf. With the Iraqi Army gone, there is no military bulwark in the Persian Gulf to contain Iran’s expansionist ambitions.”
—Foreign Policy, March/April 2007
Many of Iraq’s Shiite leaders have spent substantial amounts of time in Iran, and some—including the leadership of the Iraqi Islamic Supreme Council—sided with Tehran during the Iran-Iraq war. Maliki’s regime, which owes its existence to the American military, has used its Iranian connection to increase its room for maneuver. Tehran wields real clout in Iraq, both in the halls of government and in the streets. But there are many obstacles to a close alliance between Iraq’s Arab Shiite leaders and the Persian-chauvinist fundamentalists who rule Iran.
The expansion of Tehran’s influence is counterposed to Washington’s bid for hegemony in the region. America’s imperialist rulers have therefore sought to manufacture the appearance of an Iranian nuclear threat because, ultimately, military pressure is the only tool they have to counter Tehran’s political challenge. The imperialist media, which raises a clamor whenever a Western journalist or academic is detained in Iran, has been virtually silent about the U.S. seizure of hundreds of Iranians in Iraq. One “former senior intelligence official” told journalist Seymour Hersh that American forces “had five hundred [Iranians] locked up at one time. We’re working these guys and getting information from them” (New Yorker, 5 March 2007).
Almost half the warships of the U.S. Navy, including two aircraft carrier groups, are stationed close to Iran. American and Israeli commandos have reportedly been operating in Iranian territory since 2004, spying on military installations and identifying potential targets for future air strikes (Financial Times, 5 March 2007). The U.S. is also quietly aiding anti-Tehran rebels on Iran’s borders. Hundreds of Iranians have been killed in guerrilla strikes by the Iraq-based Party for Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK—an offshoot of the Kurdish Workers Party [PKK] which is active against the Turks). While the U.S. considers the PKK a “terrorist” organization and tacitly approves Turkish military actions against it, Washington views the PJAK entirely differently, feting its leader and holding discussions with its commanders (New York Times, 23 October 2007).
Tehran alleges that separatist guerrillas in Khuzestan and Baluchistan provinces are supported by British and U.S. intelligence respectively. The U.S. has continued Saddam Hussein’s policy of supporting the guerrillas of the Mujahedin e-Khalq (MEK)—which Washington officially designates a “terrorist” group—as a tool for undermining the Islamic Republic.
Washington’s dark warnings of Iranian nuclear “ambitions” reflect the strategic imperatives of American imperialism rather than any imminent Iranian “threat.” Unlike Israel, India and Pakistan—three nuclear-armed American allies—Tehran is a signatory to the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) which restricts access to nuclear technology by neo-colonies. The treaty is supposed to guarantee Western support for civilian nuclear energy programs for countries which renounce nuclear weapons and acquiesce to inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Years of inspections by the IAEA have failed to uncover anything remotely “suspicious” in Iran, yet Washington (backed by Paris and London) absurdly insists that the only possible reason for oil-rich Iran to want a nuclear program is to develop weapons.
In the 1970s, when the Shah held power, the U.S. actively promoted the development of an Iranian nuclear energy program. At that time, Henry Kissinger, then U.S. secretary of state, asserted that the “introduction of nuclear power will both provide for the growing needs of Iran’s economy and free remaining oil reserves for export or conversion to petrochemicals.” Today, Kissinger dismisses such arguments on the grounds that the Shah’s Iran was “an allied country, and this was a commercial transaction” (Washington Post, 27 March 2005).
An Iranian nuclear arsenal would present problems for American imperialism. Tehran’s influence would be significantly enhanced by breaking Tel Aviv’s regional nuclear monopoly, and the potential cost of an attack on Iran would be raised considerably. But there is no evidence that the mullahs are seeking to obtain a nuclear deterrent, and even if they were, it would take years to create. Washington’s consternation over Tehran’s nuclear “ambitions” provides a cover for pressuring Iran, as Seymour Hersh observed:
“‘This is much more than a nuclear issue,’ one high-ranking diplomat told me in Vienna. ‘That’s just a rallying point, and there is still time to fix it. But the Administration believes it cannot be fixed unless they control the hearts and minds of Iran. The real issue is who is going to control the Middle East and its oil in the next ten years.’”
—New Yorker, 17 April 2006
Washington’s antipathy for the ayatollahs has not prevented it from working quietly with them on occasion, and the “anti-imperialist” regime in Tehran has often shown its willingness to make a deal. In 2001, Iran cooperated with the U.S.-led assault on Afghanistan, and the following year signaled its openness to adopting a “Malaysian profile” vis-à-vis Israel—i.e., withholding formal recognition while staying out of Israel’s sphere of influence, if Tel Aviv were prepared to do the same. Following the 2003 conquest of Iraq, Tehran offered a “grand bargain” to Washington, as Scott Ritter, once a top UN weapons inspector, reported:
“Iran had been trying to get the United States to engage in direct one-on-one talks…even going so far as to propose, via a two-page letter sent through a Swiss intermediary, peace with Israel (indirectly stated in the form of acceptance of the principle of land-for-peace, which builds on a March 2002 declaration in Beirut, supported by such staunch American allies as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which seeks a comprehensive peace with Israel in return for Israel’s withdrawal to the territory it had controlled before the 1967 war). The Iranians also proposed to cut off funding to Hamas and the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization], and to seek a halt to terrorist attacks against civilians within the 1967 borders. And, from the nuclear point of view, Iran agreed to abide by the 93+2 formulation of safeguard inspections, which included signing an Additional Protocol [which would institute further reporting obligations to the IAEA]. In return, Iran sought an end to all sanctions, and security assurances from the United States, including the re-establishment of relations.”
Iran’s offer was ignored, and Washington has consistently refused any security guarantees to the Islamic Republic. Flynt Leverett, a former member of Bush’s National Security Council, acknowledged: “The dirty secret is the administration has never put on the table an offer to negotiate with Iran the issues that would really matter: their own security, the legitimacy of the Islamic republic and Iran’s place in the regional order” (New York Times, 5 December 2007).
In 1996, Bill Clinton issued an executive order forbidding U.S. companies from engaging in business with Iran or financing the development of the country’s oil and gas industries (Z Magazine, June 2006). The 1996 “U.S. Iran-Libya Sanctions Act” also mandated penalties for non-American companies that invested more than $20 million in Iran’s oil and natural gas sectors.
Washington’s hope that sanctions would seriously undermine the regime has not been fulfilled. The mullahs remain firmly in control in Iran, but the sanctions have hurt the country’s oil industry, which produces only two-thirds of what it did in 1974. Limited domestic refining capacity has forced Tehran to import millions of liters of gasoline daily, and when rationing began in June 2007 widespread rioting ensued. But the overall political effect of the imperialist sanctions has been to reinforce popular support for the development of nuclear energy. While there is significant disaffection and unrest in Iran, the mullahs have thus far successfully defused potential challenges with a mixture of concessions and repression.
The European imperialists share Washington’s desire to see “stability” in the Middle East and to reverse Tehran’s growing influence, but they have no interest in turning Iran, with its massive petroleum reserves, into an American protectorate as it was under the Shah. Paris and Berlin are trying to coordinate their policy toward Tehran with Washington’s because they want a place at the negotiating table to advance their own interests. Germany is one of Iran’s largest trading partners, and more than 1,700 German companies are active in the country. Under American pressure German and French firms have recently scaled back their activities—German government export credit guarantees for trade with Iran were cut from $3.3 billion in 2004 to $1.2 billion in 2006 (New York Times, 21 September 2007). In October 2007, the Bush administration imposed a new list of sanctions and provocatively designated Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, as well as four state-owned banks, “supporters of terrorism.” Germany’s three biggest banks (Deutsche, Commerzbank and Dresdner) and Siemens, the giant engineering firm, decided that doing business in Iran had become too costly and closed their operations. Many French companies have also pulled out.
The pro-American “hawkishness” of French President Nicolas Sarkozy reflects the thinking of France’s ruling class, which feels it could benefit from involvement in Iraq. In August 2007 Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner became the first member of the French government to visit Iraq since the invasion. That same week, reports surfaced that Total, a major French oil company, was interested in acquiring a stake in Iraq’s oil fields (New York Times, 22 August 2007).
Britain, unlike France and Germany, participated in the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 with the expectation that its “special relationship” with Washington would pay dividends. But there have been none. The British military, badly burned by its defeat in Basra, still has more than 7,000 troops tied up in a losing war against the Afghan Taliban, and Gordon Brown does not seem anxious to sign up for another potential fiasco in Iran. In March 2007, when a handful of British military personnel were apprehended in Iranian waters, London quietly rejected American proposals for “aggressive” air patrols over Iranian Revolutionary Guard positions (Guardian, 7 April 2007). Vincent Cannistraro, a retired CIA officer, told Seymour Hersh that when British forces intercepted a truckload of Iranian weapons in Afghanistan, “The Brits told me that they were afraid at first to tell us about the incident—in fear that Cheney would use it as a reason to attack Iran” (New Yorker, 8 October 2007).
The New York Times (29 October 2007) opined that a military assault on Iran would make no sense in the short term, even without “calculating the international fury or the additional mayhem Tehran could wreak in Iraq or what would happen to world oil prices.” In Washington, newly-minted “realists” like Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates have also been urging caution. The December 2007 National Intelligence Estimate produced by America’s 16 spy agencies, which suggested that Iran had ended its nuclear weapons program in 2003, was a preemptive strike against any attempt by the lame duck Cheney/Bush gang to attack Iran.
There seems to be a consensus, for now, within the American ruling class that it is best to pursue a diplomatic path in attempting to bring Tehran to heel, with what the New York Times calls “clear rewards and security guarantees” in exchange for Iran scrapping its nuclear program. Such “guarantees” would be entirely worthless, as Tehran’s theocrats are undoubtedly aware.
The threat of imperialist aggression in the short or medium term remains acute, as is evident from the fact that during the presidential primaries every major candidate, both Republican and Democrat, made it clear that they would keep the option of an aggressive military strike against Iran “on the table.” Barack Obama, who criticized Hillary Clinton for endorsing Bush’s war threats, had himself introduced the “Iran Sanctions Enabling Act” in May 2007 to tighten enforcement of the 1996 sanctions against non-American companies investing in Iran.
One obvious lesson of “regime change” in Iraq is that a nuclear deterrent is a critical factor in defense of national sovereignty. John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org observed: “Any country in the region that was not at least learning what it would take to develop a nuclear program is asleep at the switch” (New York Times, 22 September 2007). The Islamic Republic is a fundamentalist hell-hole in which ethnic and religious minorities, women and homosexuals are brutally repressed, and workers are denied the most elementary democratic rights. Despite this, Marxists defend Iran’s right to possess nuclear weapons and oppose all imperialist sanctions, which are, in effect, acts of war, and frequently presage military attacks, as they did in both Iraq and Serbia.
Defend Iran Against Imperialist Aggression!
In the event of an attack on Iran by the United States (or Israel acting as an American proxy), revolutionaries would side militarily with Iran against imperialist aggression. A policy of military defense, however, does not imply any political support to the reactionary Iranian regime.
Some ostensibly revolutionary organizations spout anti-imperialist rhetoric, but refuse to take sides when imperialist powers attack neo-colonies. The Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) slogan, “No to imperialist war, no to Iran’s Islamic regime,” effectively equates Iran with the imperialists. A leading CPGB theorist, Mike Macnair, who openly advocates the creation of a “third military camp,” confuses the issue by making an analogy to the Bolsheviks’ policy in the First World War:
“[D]efeatism in the imperial countries directly involved in a colonial war no more needs to imply ‘defencism of the other side’ than, for example, defeatism for Russian workers in 1914-18 meant ‘victory to the kaiser’….
“Communists in the imperialist country or countries involved should be defeatist—that is, fight against the war—including by agitation as far as possible in the armed forces: ie, in the same way that Lenin urged ‘defeatism’ in relation to the 1914-18 war. In relation to what should happen ‘on the other side’, their primary approach should be one of solidarity with the workers’ movement and communists in the ‘target’ country.”
—Weekly Worker, 8 November 2007
Russian Marxists were not defensist toward Germany in 1914-18 because World War I was an inter-imperialist war—i.e., both sides were imperialist. In colonial wars, by contrast, revolutionaries want to see the victims militarily defeat the imperialist aggressors.
Macnair’s second, supplementary, rationalization for the CPGB’s shameful neutrality in the case of the imperialist invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan is the claim that to take the side of the oppressed in such conflicts is to reject the political independence of the working class from the bourgeoisie:
“[T]he idea of an anti-imperialist bloc or front of the working class with the ‘national bourgeoisie’ or ‘patriotic forces’ is a strategic illusion. We have seen the results of this illusion repeatedly since the 1940s: in the fate of the Indonesian, Iraqi, Chilean and relatively recently the Iranian workers’ movements. The class contradictions are paramount and the national contradictions, though real, subordinate, in the behaviour of the colonial bourgeoisies and state apparatuses.”
Defending oppressed nations against imperialist predators does not mean political alliance with the bourgeoisie, nor does it imply a renunciation of the fight for socialist revolution. In defending the heroic 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin, Lenin brusquely dismissed those who “treated the national movements of small nations with disdain,” and wrote that “to imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies…is to repudiate social revolution” (“The Discussion on Self-Determination Summed Up,” July 1916). The issue of military support for colonial revolts against imperialist rule was a key line of demarcation between the revolutionary Communist International of Lenin and Trotsky and the corrupted social-imperialists of the Second International.
A Region in Flames
The rise of Iranian influence has significant implications for the Middle East as a whole. With the exception of tiny Bahrain, which is predominently Shiite, Washington’s regional Arab allies—Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Egypt—all have sizable Sunni majorities. Their rulers view with trepidation the rise of a so-called “Shiite crescent” arcing from eastern Saudi Arabia through Iran and Iraq (with Shiite majorities), Syria (governed by Alawites, a Shiite sect) and into Lebanon (with a Shiite plurality). The Saudis are not only threatened by Iran militarily—Riyadh has a standing army of 75,000 troops, compared to Tehran’s 450,000—but also by the possibility that its persecuted Shiite minority, concentrated in the oil-rich Eastern Province, might look to Tehran to support a bid for autonomy or even outright independence.
When Dick Cheney visited Saudi Arabia in November 2006, King Abdullah warned him that the Saudis were prepared to intervene in support of Sunni insurgents in Iraq if the U.S. pulled out (New Yorker, 5 March 2007). The Saudis, like the Turks and Egyptians, have recently signaled their intention to build nuclear reactors—ostensibly for civilian energy programs, but almost certainly for weapons research as well (Times [London], 7 February 2007).
Seeking to promote a regional anti-Tehran bloc of “moderate” Sunni states and Israel, the U.S. signed a massive $20 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, with another $30 billion for Israel (New York Times, 16 August 2007). When the Israelis bombed a Syrian military installation in September 2007—an outrageous provocation widely interpreted as an expression of U.S. disapproval of an Iranian-Syrian entente—none of the Sunni “moderates” made a peep, despite the furious anger of their populations.
During the Cold War, Washington actively promoted Islamic fundamentalism as a counterweight to secular left-nationalism and socialism. Zbigniew Brzezinski asked: “What is more important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?” (cited in Richard Dreyfuss, Devil’s Game). But in arming and training the first generation of jihadist cadres, America’s rulers fashioned a creature they can no longer control.
Today, Washington is encouraging the Saudis to bankroll a new generation of jihadists, this time to counter the growth of Iranian-Shiite influence. The Saudi princes have long played a dangerous game, gambling that they will not be overthrown by the Islamist formations they have sponsored, like the Muslim Brotherhood and various Salafist groups. A U.S. government consultant told Seymour Hersh that the Saudis have assured the White House:
“[T]hey will keep a very close eye on the religious fundamentalists. Their message to us was ‘We’ve created this movement, and we can control it.’ It’s not that we don’t want the Salafis to throw bombs; it’s who they throw them at—Hezbollah, Moqtada al-Sadr, Iran and at the Syrians, if they continue to work with Hezbollah and Iran.”
—New Yorker, 5 March 2007
Hersh also reported a conversation with a “former intelligence official” who told him that American attempts to bolster the Lebanese government against Hezbollah had created a problem:
“[W]e’re financing a lot of bad guys with some serious potential unintended consequences. We don’t have the ability to determine and get pay vouchers signed by the people we like and avoid the people we don’t like. It’s a very high-risk venture.”
Some of the money is thought to have immediately gone to radical Sunnis. Alastair Crooke, a former British MI6 agent, told Hersh that Fatah al-Islam “were being offered weapons and money by people presenting themselves as representatives of the Lebanese government’s interests—presumably to take on Hezbollah” (Ibid.). A few months later, the Lebanese government, claiming that Fatah al-Islam was linked to Al Qaeda, sent the army on a 15-week campaign to dislodge it from its base in a Palestinian refugee camp.
The U.S. is also reported to be funding the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood—an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, nemesis of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, one of Washington’s most important allies in the region.
Pakistan: U.S. Ally & Failing State
U.S. policy in Pakistan is similarly schizophrenic. Pakistan, which connects the Middle East to the South Asian subcontinent, has long been one of Washington’s most valuable clients in the Muslim world. Its “stability” is therefore of considerable strategic importance for the U.S. During the Cold War, Pakistan’s deeply reactionary ruling class, which has governed through a succession of murderous military and “civilian” regimes, was a reliable ally in the crusade against “atheistic” Communism. In the 1980s, the CIA relied on Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to channel funding, arms and logistical support to the anti-Soviet mujahedin in Afghanistan. When the Soviets pulled out in 1989, the jihadists were deeply rooted on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border:
“The Islamic Group of Pakistan was rich and powerful, and well connected with the Muslim Brotherhood’s world-wide networks. Most of the top ISI officials were now confirmed Islamists with Muslim Brotherhood links. The Islamic Group and the Brotherhood, in turn, maintained strong ties to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the other militant Islamists in Afghanistan, and to the burgeoning mujahideen network from dozens of countries who came and went freely through the madrassa system….
“‘Where I was, nobody was looking ahead at what would happen to these unemployed freedom fighters,’ says Walter Cutler, who was U.S. ambassador in Saudi Arabia during most of the 1980s. ‘I don’t recall any discussion about, “Gee, I wonder if these guys are going to pose any threat?” We didn’t really focus that much on political Islam. It was the Cold War. The fact that you had these zealots, trained and armed with Stingers, didn’t come up.’”
—Robert Dreyfuss, Devil’s Game
Today these “zealots” and their offspring are battling NATO forces in Afghanistan and threatening the stability of Washington’s client to the east. In 2001, when Pakistan’s military dictator Pervez Musharraf was dragged into Washington’s war against the Taliban, he set off an Islamist insurgency in Pakistan’s semi-autonomous “tribal areas” bordering Afghanistan that has since spread to adjoining provinces. Farouk Adam Khan, a prominent Musharraf ally, blames the Islamists’ popularity on “pro-American policies, particularly the Musharraf-Bush axis,” (New York Times, 2 November 2007) but resentment of endemic corruption, extortionate taxation and high interest rates for farmers are also factors.
In the Swat region of the North-West Frontier Province, a group calling itself the Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Laws has burned television sets, shut down music and video shops, bombed girls’ schools and called for banning polio vaccinations which, they claim, make men impotent. A March 2007 report by the province’s Home Department warned that “[m]orale of law enforcement agents and the people supportive of government [are] on the decline. Talibanization, lawlessness and terrorism [are] on the rise” (Ibid.).
Hoping to stabilize the situation by lending “democratic” legitimacy to Musharraf’s military regime, Washington engineered the return of Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) leader Benazir Bhutto (who had been living in Britain to evade corruption charges) to participate in a projected presidential election. In what Tariq Ali aptly characterized as an “arranged marriage,” Musharraf agreed to drop the charges against Bhutto and resign from the military in order to contest the presidency as a civilian.
Bhutto’s main qualification for high office was her name. William Darlymple, a prominent historian of South Asia, described the PPP as the “political wing” of the Bhutto family (Guardian Weekly, 7 September 2007). She was an uncritical supporter of U.S. policy who initially won the office of prime minister in 1988 after the Reagan administration brought intense pressure to bear on Pakistani President Gulam Ishaq Khan.
Bhutto’s tenure was marked by extrajudicial killings, torture, corruption and nepotism, with her husband, Asif Zaradari (aka “Mr. Ten Percent”) installed as minister of investment. During her second term as prime minister, the ISI groomed the Afghan Taliban for power. It is unclear if it was Taliban/Al Qaeda Islamists, agents of Pakistani state security or a collaborative effort of the two which dispatched Bhutto at a PPP rally in Rawalpindi in December 2007. Most of the PPP’s plebeian members who engaged in violent protests after her assassination were convinced that it was a state-sanctioned operation.
The death of Bhutto removed the most prominent political figure capable of bringing the current regime a measure of popular legitimacy and damping down the various religious, ethnic and class conflicts that threaten Pakistan’s “stability.” The U.S. Special Operations Command is hoping to farm out the job of combating the Islamist insurrection by providing equipment and training to the militias of anti-Taliban tribal leaders on Washington’s payroll. This plan seems unlikely to succeed, as even Pakistan’s Frontier Corps, the state agency charged with securing the border regions, is widely suspected of aiding and abetting Taliban insurgents.
Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute and Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution recently discussed the possibility of direct U.S. military intervention:
“So, if we got a large number of troops into the country, what would they do? The most likely directive would be to help Pakistan’s military and security forces hold the country’s center—primarily the region around the capital, Islamabad, and the populous areas like Punjab Province to its south.
“We would also have to be wary of the internecine warfare within the Pakistani security forces. Pro-American moderates could well win a fight against extremist sympathizers on their own. But they might need help if splinter forces or radical Islamists took control of parts of the country containing nuclear materials. The task of retaking any such regions and reclaiming custody of any nuclear weapons would be a priority for our troops….
“Beyond propping up the state, this would benefit American efforts in Afghanistan by depriving terrorists of the sanctuaries they have long enjoyed in Pakistan’s tribal and frontier regions.”
—New York Times, 18 November 2007
The international workers’ movement must vigorously resist any attempt by the U.S. or NATO to expand the “War on Terror” from Afghanistan to Pakistan. Any imperialist intervention against the Islamists in the frontier regions would also threaten Pakistan’s large and cosmopolitan proletariat, which has the social power to sweep away the military autocrats, Islamic theocrats, landlords and big capitalists alike.
Pakistan’s tiny and immensely wealthy ruling class sits atop a population that is hideously exploited and oppressed. In this country of 160 million, barely 50 percent of girls ever attend school, half the population is illiterate and a third are chronically hungry. The “neo-liberal” reforms introduced under Musharraf made life much harder for workers and poor people, as many state-owned enterprises, employing thousands and providing subsidized public services, were privatized. In the private sector, real wages, working conditions and job security are all declining.
Yet in the face of continuing political, economic and social assaults, the Pakistani working class remains relatively quiescent. Aasim Sajjad Akhtar, an activist with the People’s Rights Movement (which bills itself as a “left-wing political confederation of working-class struggles committed to structural changes in the Pakistani state”) notes:
“The Pakistani left has…become progressively less and less influential amongst the organized working class since it reached its peak as a political force in the early 1970s. Private sector trade unions are almost nonexistent due to the severe fragmentation of production processes that has been the dominant feature of the manufacturing sector over the past two decades. Trade unions still exist in some shape or form in the public sector which includes the vast industrial powerhouses of railways, telecommunications, airlines, and public utilities such as water, electricity, and gas. Sadly, the vast majority of these public sector unions are severely co-opted by the state, a trend that can be traced back directly to the state’s efforts to dismember a militant and politicized trade union movement in the 1970s.”
—Monthly Review, October 2005
A series of military and “civilian” autocrats have done what they can to atomize the proletariat and destroy its organizations through sheer repression. But the most important factor is the allegiance of Pakistan’s left and labor leaders to the PPP, which they view as the most viable alternative to Islamist reaction and military dictatorship. This has channeled working-class struggles into the dead end of bourgeois electoral politics.
The International Marxist Tendency (IMT), an ostensibly Trotskyist organization led by Alan Woods, which has supporters in Pakistan, recently pointed out:
“The one element missing in this movement against the Musharraf dictatorship is the entrance of the Pakistani proletariat onto the scene as an organised force. If the movement continues for any length of time, achieves a greater rhythm and higher momentum, the workers, who are not unaffected by the rapidly changing situation, could join in. Then the floodgates would open.”
—Marxist.com, 16 November 2007
The “jewel in the crown” of the IMT, its Pakistani section, known as The Struggle, has done its bit to keep the floodgates of proletarian struggle shut by its decades-long submergence in the PPP. At election time, The Struggle calls on Pakistani workers to vote for the PPP candidates. Some IMT supporters have even run as PPP candidates and been elected to the National Assembly.
The PPP is not a bourgeois workers’ party, like Britain’s Labour Party, but a bourgeois party pure and simple, with a program reflecting the interests of the Pakistani bourgeoisie and a leadership largely composed of members of the country’s traditional ruling class. On the occasion of the Bhutto assassination, Alan Woods offered the following alibi for the IMT’s slavish loyalty to this corrupt capitalist political machine:
“Some so-called ‘lefts’ will say: But Benazir’s programme could not have provided the way out. The Marxists in the PPP are fighting for the programme of socialism—for the original programme of the PPP. But the masses can only learn which programme and policies are correct through their own experience.
“The January elections would have given the masses an opportunity to advance at least one step in the right direction, by inflicting a decisive defeat on the forces of reaction and dictatorship. Then they would have had the possibility of learning about programmes and policies, not in theory but in practice….
“The masses always adhere to their traditional mass organizations. The PPP developed in the heat of the revolutionary movement of 1968-9, when the workers and peasants came close to taking power.”
—Marxist.com, 27 December 2007
The PPP was launched in 1967, shortly before a wave of mass student protest and workers’ strikes drove Ayub Khan, the ruling military despot, from power. Like many Third World bourgeois nationalist movements in that period, the PPP liberally sprinkled its propaganda with references to “socialism” to appeal to militant workers and the leftist intelligentsia. Like Gamal Abdel Nasser’s “Arab socialism,” Julius Nyerere’s “African socialism” and Muammar Gaddafi’s “Islamic socialism,” the PPP’s “socialism” was never more than a rhetorical device that put a left gloss on policies intended to preserve and strengthen the existing social order.
Throughout its history, the PPP has served as little more than a vehicle for the political ambitions of the landowning Bhutto family and their associates—which is why Benazir Bhutto’s 19-year-old son was immediately proposed as party leader when she was assassinated. The administration of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Benazir’s father, who took office in 1971 when military rule had become so unpopular that the Pakistani bourgeoisie thought it prudent to provide a civilian facelift, was characterized by widespread corruption, special deals for landed aristocrats, endemic police repression and flagrant disregard for promised land reform.
The PPP leadership’s allegiance to U.S. imperialism and its eagerness to collaborate with military autocrats remain unchanged. Woods’ claim that a PPP electoral victory would represent “a decisive defeat on the forces of reaction and dictatorship” perversely inverts the truth. Bhutto’s election was supposed to provide a democratic facade for military rule, and reduce the risk of mass struggles against the Pakistani ruling class.
There are few societies on Earth where it is clearer than in Pakistan that the historic tasks of the bourgeois democratic revolution can only be accomplished through the rule of the proletariat. Yet the petty-bourgeois democrats leading the IMT and its Pakistani section, who ostensibly uphold the Trotskyist program of permanent revolution, dedicate their practical activity to maintaining the political subordination of the workers’ movement to the bourgeois PPP.
The IMT’s subservience to the PPP, which only serves to tie the proletariat to its class enemy, is rationalized by pointing to its mass base. Trotsky rebutted this argument years ago in criticizing the Chinese Communist Party’s disastrous “bloc” with (i.e., political subordination to) the bourgeois Guomindang in the 1920s:
“Such ‘blocs’ abound in the revolutionary as well as the parliamentary history of bourgeois countries: the big bourgeoisie leads the petty bourgeois democrats, the phrase-mongers of the national united front, behind it, and the latter, in turn, confuse the workers and drag them along behind the bourgeoisie. When the proletarian ‘tail,’ despite the efforts of the petty bourgeois phrasemongers, begins to stir too violently, the bourgeoisie orders its generals to stamp on it.”
—“The Chinese Revolution and the Theses of Comrade Stalin,” 17 May 1927
For Workers’ Revolution to Uproot Imperialism!
The political order established in the Middle East at the conclusion of World War I, which was partially overhauled after the U.S. took over as the dominant imperial power after World War II, is in a precarious condition today. The prospect of civil war hangs over Lebanon, Palestine and Pakistan. The failing imperialist military occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq have set the stage for a convulsive bloodletting.
The United States entered the Cold War in a position of unquestioned military and economic supremacy. The other major imperialist powers—West Germany, France, Britain, Japan—had no choice but to accept American leadership in the global war against “communism.” But with the Soviet Union gone, and America’s vaunted military bogged down for years in an unsuccessful attempt to establish control of Iraq, the other imperialist powers are less inclined to unquestioningly accept Washington’s leadership.
The Iranian mullahs have the impression that they, not the U.S., are holding the winning hand in the region, and thumb their nose at Washington’s bellicose threats. The U.S. is now deliberately—if half-heartedly—responding by incubating a new generation of Sunni jihadists to act as a counterweight to the Shiite fundamentalists aligned with Tehran. The seeds of future wars and imperialist interventions are being sown by the desperate acts of a declining hegemon.
Despite widespread hysteria about “terrorism” and insurgent Islamism, the prospect of social revolution, which seems remote today to many, does seriously concern far-sighted elements of the bourgeoisie. A 90-page report entitled Global Strategic Trends, 2007-2036, compiled in January 2007 by the Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre of Britain’s defense ministry, lists “terrorism,” “rogue states” and the proliferation of “weapons of mass destruction” as potential threats to global political order. But a significant concern of the authors is that growing global social inequality could well lead to a “resurgence of not only anti-capitalist ideologies…but also to populism and the revival of Marxism.” The report takes a gloomy view of “globalized” capitalism:
“Globalization will result in critical interdependencies that will link members of a globalized society that includes a small super-rich elite and a substantial underclass of slum and subsistence dwellers, who will make up 20% of the world population in 2020. A severe pricing shock, possibly caused by an energy spike or a series of harvest failures, could trigger a domino effect involving the collapse of key international markets across a range of sectors. The impacts of this collapse could be transmitted throughout the globalized economy, possibly resulting in a breakdown of the international political system, as states attempt to respond to domestic crises and local effects of wider economic collapse. Sophisticated societies that depend on complex, transnational networks for the supply of basic human needs, such as food that cannot be provided indigenously, are likely to face severe infrastructure failure, collapse of public services and societal conflict.”
“The globalization of labour markets and the reducing level of national welfare provision and employment could reduce peoples’ attachment to particular states. The growing gap between themselves and a small number of highly visible super-rich individuals might fuel disillusion with meritocracy, while the growing urban under-classes are likely to pose an increasing threat to social order and stability, as the burden of acquired debt and the failure of pension provision begins to bite. Faced by these twin challenges, the world’s middle-classes might unite, using access to knowledge, resources and skills to shape transnational processes in their own class interest.”
While the bourgeois strategic planners who wrote this tend to put a minus where Marxists would put a plus, and underestimate the strategic importance of the working class in any successful revolt, we are broadly in agreement regarding the fragility of the imperialist world order and the possibility that the eruption of social struggle in one sector of the global economy could spread rapidly and even penetrate traditionally politically backward strata in the imperialist homelands.
The endless thirst for higher profits that propels the rulers of the United States and its imperialist rivals into predatory colonial wars abroad also requires a continuous offensive against working people at home—attacks not only on wages and living standards, but also on the democratic rights won by the struggles of previous generations. This is why, in the final analysis, there is an identity of interests between working people in imperialist countries and those in the neo-colonies. Capitalism can never be transformed into a social system that will serve humanity: it must be destroyed and replaced with a globally planned socialist system in which meeting human need, rather than generating super-profits for parasites, is the guiding principle.
Workers in the advanced capitalist states, who possess both an objective interest in overturning the existing system of imperialist exploitation and the social power to do so, have a vital role in making an egalitarian global social order a concrete reality. To unlock this potential, it is necessary to create a revolutionary leadership within the working class—a Trotskyist vanguard that is capable of harnessing the energy and anger of the tens and hundreds of millions of victims of international capital. The International Bolshevik Tendency is dedicated to the project of constructing such a leadership through the struggle to reforge the Fourth International, World Party of Socialist Revolution.