Iraq: Imperial Overreach
U.S./UK Troops Out Now!
“All causes shall give way: I am in blood Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more, Returning were as tedious as go o’er.”
—Macbeth, Act III Scene IV
In this passage from Shakespeare’s tragedy, Macbeth, contemplating his trail of murderous havoc, decides he is too deep in blood to go back, and that he can only extricate himself by plunging forward. The American ruling class regards its Mesopotamian misadventure similarly. The conquest of Iraq is a huge, bloody, high-stakes gamble for world supremacy that has thus far only revealed the limits of U.S. military power, undermined its diplomatic leverage and dissipated whatever moral capital “the world’s greatest democracy” had accrued as the victim of the horrific attack on the World Trade Center in September 2001. Anger at the ravages of the U.S. colossus is cutting into international sales of American brands, while in the Middle East Osama has suddenly become the most popular name for baby boys.
The official rationalization for the unprovoked attack on Iraq has morphed from preemptive self-defense against non-existent Iraqi “weapons of mass destruction” into a burning desire to “liberate” benighted Iraqis and bring peace and democracy to all the peoples of the Middle East. But the real reason has always been obvious: Iraq is to be the linchpin in a system of “democratic” vassal states through which Washington hopes to control the oil riches of the Middle East, thereby cementing U.S. hegemony over all potential rivals in a “New American Century.” The U.S. is constructing a chain of permanent military bases across Iraq and plans to employ 3,000 people in its Iraqi embassy, which is projected to be the largest overseas American diplomatic installation anywhere.
Everything went well…at first. The rapid, low-cost victory scored by the U.S. military over Saddam Hussein’s army, coming only a year-and-a-half after its earlier success toppling Afghanistan’s Taliban regime, made a major impression internationally. This was of course all part of the plan—the devastation of Iraq was intended to “shock and awe” the rulers of other neo-colonies who might be tempted to defy their patron. Muammar Gaddafi, the populist Libyan leader once demonized as the “mad dog of the Middle East,” is today a poster boy for Washington’s “War on Terror.” As soon as sanctions were lifted, Royal Dutch Shell rushed to sign a $200 million exploration deal with Libya, while U.S. oil majors, including Occidental Petroleum and ConocoPhillips, are also planning a return to the Libyan oil fields they once controlled.
But since toppling Saddam Hussein’s regime, little has gone right for the “liberators.” The grotesque lies about the supposedly imminent danger posed to the U.S. by Iraq had to be officially repudiated along with the ludicrous claims of a link between the Ba’athist regime and Al Qaeda. The notion that Iraqi resistance to U.S. occupation somehow itself provides justification for the occupation has not proved particularly persuasive outside the U.S. Bible belt. Support for Bush Jr.’s “war of choice” is falling as it continues to drag on. Most Americans who support the president’s policy do so out of ignorance. The 8 November 2004 New York Times reported that a University of Maryland poll revealed that more than two-thirds of Bush voters believed there was “clear evidence” of Saddam Hussein’s collaboration with Osama bin Laden. In fact, their only connection was that both were nurtured and equipped by the U.S.
It is significant that, at the outset, there was more opposition to the attack on Iraq than any previous military action in U.S. history. Tens of millions of Americans saw the “war” for what it was: a brutal colonial rape. The continuing stream of casualties belies the preposterous insistence by the Bush administration that everything remains on track. Domestic opposition to the entire criminal enterprise seems likely to grow as time goes on.
In the 1991 UN-backed war on Iraq, the 1999 assault on Yugoslavia and the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, the rulers of France and Germany calculated that they had more to gain by following America’s lead than by opposing it. But this time they drew the opposite conclusion. The U.S. remains far more powerful than its rivals, particularly in military terms, but its economic position is declining. This is reflected in a trade deficit currently running at $600 billion a year and the Bush administration’s reckless policy of spending some $400 billion a year more than it takes in. This points to serious trouble on the horizon, especially if the bid for direct control of the energy resources of the Middle East fails. If it succeeds, the American bourgeoisie will recoup its investment many times over—but if the U.S. proves unable to subdue Iraq and consolidate control of the region, its decline relative to its imperialist rivals will dramatically accelerate.
The imperialist world order today increasingly resembles that of pre-1914 Europe, when rivalries between major powers gradually escalated until they eventually exploded in a savage conflagration that killed more than 20 million people. In the midst of that hellish bloodbath, Vladimir Lenin, leader of the October 1917 Russian Revolution, observed:
“Imperialism is capitalism at that stage of development at which the dominance of monopolies and finance capital is established; in which the export of capital has acquired pronounced importance; in which the division of the world among the international trusts has begun, in which the division of all territories of the globe among the biggest capitalist powers has been completed.”
— Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism
Lenin rejected the idea that imperialism was merely a “bad policy,” and insisted that competition for the redivision of spheres of influence, access to markets, raw materials and cheap labor is an inevitable and necessary product of capitalist development. The various transnational institutions created after the second inter-imperialist world war (the United Nations, International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organization and World Bank) do not stand above nation-states—they are only operational to the extent that the interests of the big imperialist powers coincide. Capitalist corporations operate around the globe, but virtually without exception they remain nationally headquartered and ultimately dependent on their own capitalist states (in which they are major shareholders) to defend their interests when necessary with tariffs, protectionism, trade wars and, ultimately, shooting wars.
The American seizure of Iraq, while congruent with Israeli interests, was not foisted on the born-again faux-cowboy in the White House by an evil cabal of Zionist neo-conservatives. However poorly executed, Bush’s predatory war reflected a longstanding bi-partisan ruling-class policy. It was Bill Clinton’s Democratic administration that, in 1998, made “regime change” in Baghdad official U.S. policy. The fear and anger generated domestically in the U.S. by the September 2001 attacks provided a golden opportunity to implement this strategy.
The dozen U.S. military installations now under construction in Iraq are intended to give the Pentagon complete operational autonomy in the region. This is a critical element in a major shift of U.S. military resources from Western Europe to a string of bases stretching from the Middle East to Southeast Asia designed to secure U.S. control of major oil deposits while tightening the encirclement of the Chinese deformed workers’ state.
The U.S. used the assault on Afghanistan in 2001 as a pretext for establishing military bases in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. While most American forces have been withdrawn from Saudi Arabia, a long-time Middle Eastern client that is looking increasingly unstable, the U.S. retains bases in Bahrain and Qatar. American zeal for “democracy” does not seem to apply to any of these autocratic regimes, nor to that of Pakistan’s General Pervez Musharraf, a critical regional ally who seized power by ousting an elected government. In fact, the U.S. has a long record of working to overthrow democratically-elected governments whose policies displease it—from Iran’s Mossadeq in 1953 to Venezuela’s Chavez in 2002.
‘The Iraqis hate us. They want to kill us.’
In July 2003, a few months after his premature proclamation of “mission accomplished,” Bush confidently predicted that his soldiers would make short work of any Iraqi “dead-enders” who dared challenge American control. “Bring them on!” he declared. He got his wish, but it soon became apparent that there is widespread resistance to the U.S. occupation throughout Iraq (except in the Kurdish north, where there is no significant American presence).
In 1991 George Bush the elder, under the auspices of the United Nations, easily defeated Saddam Hussein’s vastly inferior Iraqi army, and then proceeded to brutally massacre tens of thousands of defenseless draftees. Bush Sr., seeking to avoid the costly overhead of occupation his son so eagerly assumed, opted to leave the Ba’athist regime in power—confident that Hussein could soon be replaced with someone more pliable.
But despite imperialist bullying, several CIA-organized coup attempts and a decade of UN sanctions (which killed over a million Iraqis, many of them children) Hussein hung on to power. An unintended effect of the UN embargo was to place Iraqi oil beyond Washington’s grasp, leaving French and Russian oil companies to sign lucrative contracts with the Ba’athists. George Bush Jr. came to office intending to correct his father’s apparent miscalculation by establishing direct control of Iraq.
While claiming to be winning “hearts and minds” and “liberating” Iraqis from the regime the imperialists had backed for decades, American policy, from the initial “shock and awe” whiz-bang bombardment of Baghdad that announced the invasion, has been aimed at terrorizing Iraqis into submission. The stark photographic evidence of U.S. crimes emerging from Abu Ghraib prison created a public-relations nightmare for the White House. Such horrors should not have been surprising, given that the U.S. had renounced the Geneva Conventions and “legalized” the torture of anyone deemed an “unlawful combatant.” Seymour Hersh, the American journalist who broke the Abu Ghraib story, reported:
“The roots of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal lie not in the criminal inclinations of a few Army reservists but in a decision, approved last year by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld….
“…the Pentagon’s operation, known inside the intelligence community by several code words, including Copper Green, encouraged physical coercion and sexual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners in an effort to generate more intelligence about the growing insurgency in Iraq.”
— New Yorker, 24 May 2004
A U.S. soldier in Baghdad summed up what he learned at Fort Hood, Texas prior to deployment: “Cultural training takes 10 seconds. The Iraqis hate us. They want to kill us. That’s all you need to know” ( Toronto Star, 26 June 2004). The reasons the “liberators” are hated are obvious. Two decades of war and brutal imperialist sanctions have destroyed most of Iraq’s social and economic infrastructure and pauperized its people:
“In much of the countryside, the long-term agrarian crisis—salination, pump failure, silted canals—is worsening as agribusiness imports increase. Rising rural unemployment has swollen the slum populations of Basra and Baghdad. In most towns outside the North, small businesses have been hit by a combination of cheap foreign goods and the breakdown of law and order. Much of Iraq’s shrunken 70s-era industrial sector—already skewed towards arms production during the Iran-Iraq war, then targeted by Western bombs in the 1990s—faces not privatization but closure, putting a once-skilled workforce on the street. Two-thirds of the pre-invasion workforce may now be unemployed. As for the future, promotional literature for the country as a regional trade hub—a giant Dubai, handling freight operations for the Greater Middle East—offers Iraqis little more than a distant prospect of integration into the global economy as baggage handlers and warehousemen. A deepening social crisis is concealed behind the daily military communiqués, and the tangible Occupation presence provides a ready target for its frustrations.”
— New Left Review, July/August 2004
Britain’s foremost medical journal,The Lancet, reported that at least 100,000 Iraqis perished in the first year-and-a-half since the March 2003 invasion—mostly as a result of coalition air strikes. The risk of violent death for Iraqi civilians is now 58 times higher than it was under Hussein (Guardian Weekly, 5 November 2004).
After devastating Iraq with sanctions, bombing and war, the U.S. pledged to “reconstruct” it, with a $19 billion “Development Fund for Iraq” derived from Iraqi oil revenues and $24 billion from the U.S. Congress. While most of these funds were allocated to foreign (chiefly American) contractors, by October 2004 only a miniscule percentage had been spent on water, sanitation, health, bridges and roads (Guardian Weekly, 22 October 2004).
Most of the money is being spent on the construction of foreign military bases. After “security,” the top priority of the occupation authorities has been to rebuild the country’s oil pipelines. The failure to restore electrical power, sewage systems and drinking water to what they were prior to the invasion has turned the promises of “reconstruction” into a bitter joke.
Defying the American Leviathan
After parroting the government’s repeated projections of imminent victory and announcements of “decisive turning points,” the U.S. corporate media has gradually become skeptical about Iraq being subdued any time soon. Predictions that the back of the resistance was broken by Saddam’s capture in December 2003 proved wildly inaccurate, as did anticipations that armed opposition would die down after “sovereignty” was formally handed over to longtime CIA asset Ayad Allawi in June 2004. The January election of a new interim Iraqi puppet “government,” without the participation of the restive Sunni minority, could also change nothing fundamental.
The sophistication and intensity of resistance to the American occupation has steadily raised the price of the adventure, and this time, unlike in 1991, the U.S. has been unable to offload the costs onto its rivals and vassals. Initially the Pentagon envisaged a swift American victory, followed by the rapid restructuring of the Iraqi economy to maximize profitable investment opportunities for the “liberators.” Only when it became clear that there would be no loot to parcel out in the foreseeable future did the U.S. begin to express an interest in a multilateral cost-sharing arrangement with other powers:
“For months, European countries like France, Germany and Russia have vocally opposed American occupation and pushed for a strong, independent U.N. role. But they have inexplicably failed to provide the troops and bodyguards needed for this special force, which will initially require fewer than 1,000 heavily armed soldiers and 60 or more lightly armed bodyguards.”
— New York Times, 20 July 2004
The unwillingness of other major powers to underwrite Washington’s attempts to seize control of the Middle East oil fields is hardly “inexplicable.” By voiding contracts signed by Hussein’s regime, the U.S. deprived French and Russian companies of access to billions of barrels of oil. Yet, while pleased to see the America humbled, its capitalist rivals also have an interest in preserving some semblance of order in the global economy and fear that an outright U.S. defeat could be dangerously destabilizing.
The Iraqi puppet governments have upheld the occupation authorities’ decree granting “coalition” forces, contractors and foreign mercenaries blanket immunity from prosecution. But they have not been immune from the resistance. In April 2004, when insurgents in Falluja killed four American Blackwater Security mercenaries and then displayed their corpses to the media, the imperialist ideologues frothed about the fiendish treatment of these “civilians.” Yet when the U.S. military responded by attacking Falluja and killing 600 residents there were no similar expressions of outrage in the American media. However, the televised images of the invaders’ wonton brutality, broadcast throughout the Arab world, sparked a wave of revulsion and an upsurge of resistance by both Sunnis and Shi’ites in Iraq.
Alarmed at the growth of dissent among Iraq’s Shi’ite majority, U.S. authorities clumsily attempted to silence Moqtada al-Sadr, a prominent opponent of the occupation. After the puppet authorities closed his newspaper and issued a warrant for his arrest, Sadr’s “Mahdi army” launched armed resistance, seizing control of the Shi’ite holy city of Najaf and “Sadr City,” Baghdad’s teeming Shi’ite slum. In some cases Sadr’s forces fought alongside the Sunni resistance:
“…during the broad uprising across Iraq in April, a rare confluence of Sunni Muslim and Shiite Muslim insurgents took place in Baquba, as the Shiite followers of Mr. Sadr tried overrunning government buildings while Sunni fighters battled American forces.”
— New York Times, 28 June 2004
Popular resentment toward the April 2004 U.S. assaults on Najaf and Falluja ran so deep that even the hand-picked imperialist lackeys on the Governing Council felt compelled to criticize their masters. In the face of a potentially massive explosion of popular revolt, the U.S. pulled back, effectively ceding control of both cities to the insurgents. In a significant indication of Shi’ite resentment toward the occupation, Sadr’s popularity soared after his confrontation with the U.S. military:
“A few months ago, only about 1 per cent of Iraqis supported [Sadr]. The latest opinion poll, conducted in late April by the Iraqi Centre for Research and Strategic Studies, found that 32 percent of Iraqis strongly support him and 35 per cent somewhat support him.”
— Globe and Mail (Toronto), 1 June 2004
In August 2004, after a bloody assault by U.S. forces in Najaf, Sadr’s fighters negotiated an agreement to pull out of the city.
After Najaf, the next U.S. target was the Sunni stronghold of Falluja. Months of devastating air attacks (cynically described as “precision strikes”) had forced most of Falluja’s residents to flee their homes by mid-October. A few weeks later, immediately after the American presidential election, U.S. troops launched operation “Phantom Fury,” a ground assault on the city. Advertised as a decisive blow to the resistance, the real objective was to punish the population for opposing the occupation, and to demonstrate the terrible price of defying the American Leviathan:
“We need to demonstrate that the United States military cannot be deterred or defeated. If that means widespread destruction, we must accept the price. Most of Fallujah’s residents—those who wish to live in peace—have already fled. Those who remain have made their choice. We need to pursue the terrorists remorselessly.
“That means killing….We don’t need more complaints about our treatment of prisoners from the global forces of appeasement. We need terrorists dead in the dust. And the world needs to see their corpses.
“Even if Fallujah has to go the way of Carthage, reduced to shards, the price will be worth it. We need to demonstrate our strength of will to the world, to show that there is only one possible result when madmen take on America.”
— New York Post, 4 November 2004
Ralph Peters, the psychotic jingoist who wrote these words, considered that any resident of this city of 300,000 who remained behind (mostly people too old or sick to travel, along with those who stayed to care for them) deserved to die. Most of the American media was not quite so blunt, but the bottom line was the same. In 1999, when tens of thousands of ethnic Albanians fled Kosovo prior to NATO’s air assault, it was presented as evidence that Slobodan Milosevic’s policy of “ethnic cleansing” and “genocide.” But when the U.S. turned most of Falluja’s residents into refugees, it was described as a demonstration of the “humanitarianism” of the U.S. war machine.
The first objective of the U.S. military was to seize or destroy Falluja’s hospitals and medical facilities in order to prevent pictures of civilian casualties circulating as they had in April 2004. The fact that this vastly increased the number of civilian fatalities was a matter of indifference for the U.S. war criminals. The Americans flattened much of Falluja but, like the Russians who destroyed Grozny (the Chechen capital), they were unable to score a decisive victory. Most of the resistance fighters had left before the assault. Those who remained behind gave a good account of themselves, killing more than 70 invaders and severely wounding another 300 within a couple of weeks.
The hatred of the occupation among both Sunnis and the long-oppressed Shi’ite majority has prevented the imperialist coalition from cohering even marginally effective police and military auxiliaries. Most recruits to the quisling security apparatus are penniless, unemployed men desperate to feed their families, with little enthusiasm for the occupation or fighting the insurgency. Many of the Iraqi enlistees sent to attack Falluja in April 2004 joined the insurgents, and a significant number also defected in November. It is clear that both the police and military are riddled with resistance sympathizers. At one point, Allawi suggested that as many as five percent of the Iraqi government’s troops could be working with the insurgents. The fact that the overwhelming majority of the population wants to be rid of the occupation makes it relatively easy for the resistance to identify and deal with collaborators—during the last four months of 2004 some 1,300 puppet police were killed according to Allawi’s interior ministry.
The man charged with subduing Iraq is U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte, who as Reagan’s envoy to Honduras in the 1980s played a central role in organizing the contras’ murderous campaign against Nicaragua’s left-nationalist Sandinista government. Through a combination of terror, brutal repression and economic pressure the U.S. was ultimately successful in removing the Sandinistas from power and quelling a large-scale leftist insurrection in El Salvador. But Central America in the 1980s differed from Iraq today in one critical way—the Salvadoran and Nicaraguan bourgeoisies were eager participants in Washington’s war against the left, whereas today no significant section of Iraqi society, whether Sunni or Shi’ite, has any desire to help the U.S. seize Iraq’s oil wealth.
‘No Good Options’
The U.S. neo-conservative think-tankers who brain trusted Bush’s Iraq adventure hoped to legitimate permanent military domination behind a democratic facade by playing Kurds, Shi’ites and Sunnis off against each other. But the entire project has proved far more difficult than the “regime change” chicken hawks imagined. The Sunni minority is currently the most hostile to the occupation, but the U.S. is suspicious of Kurdish ambitions to detach their enclave from Baghdad’s control, and is also concerned about the growth of Iranian influence among the Shi’ite majority.
President Bush succinctly encapsulated the wishful thinking that guides his Iraq policy with the claim that the January elections would “destroy the myth that the terrorists are fighting a foreign occupation and make clear that what the terrorists are really fighting is the will of the Iraqi people” (New York Times, 8 December 2004). The “will of the Iraqi people” is clearly to be rid of foreign occupiers, and the only myth that has been destroyed is that of American military invincibility. Today much of Iraq is effectively controlled by groups hostile to the U.S. Casualties on overland routes are so high (“about 100 deaths and injuries a month,” according to the New York Times, 15 December 2004) that in many areas essential supplies for the occupation forces, including water, have to be flown in.
While the Bush gang remains officially upbeat, U.S. intelligence estimates about the prospects have been uniformly pessimistic for some time. In September 2004, former Clinton adviser Sidney Blumenthal reported:
“Retired general William Odom, former head of the National Security Agency, told me: ‘Bush hasn’t found the WMD [weapons of mass destruction]. Al-Qaida, it’s worse, he’s lost on that front. That he’s going to achieve a democracy there? That goal is lost, too. It’s lost.’ He adds: ‘Right now, the course we’re on, we’re achieving Bin Laden’s ends.’
“Retired general Joseph Hoare, the former marine commandant and head of US Central Command, told me: ‘The idea that this is going to go the way these guys planned is ludicrous. There are no good options.…’ “Jeffrey Record, professor of strategy at the Air War College, said: ‘I see no ray of light on the horizon at all. The worst case has become true. There’s no analogy whatsoever between the situation in Iraq and the advantages we had after the second world war in Germany and Japan.’”
— Guardian, 16 September 2004
On 22 November 2004, the New York Times editorial page complained that after the inconclusive attack on Falluja, “last year’s ‘mission accomplished’ started to look like ‘mission impossible’.” Yet the U.S. bourgeoisie has invested so much in the conquest of Iraq, and is so fearful of the consequences of failure, that no major faction has yet begun to call for pulling out.
Strains in the U.S. Military
Unable to create an Iraqi military able or willing to battle the insurgents, and with its “coalition of the willing” auxiliaries melting away, the Pentagon has few options except to intensify pressure on its overstretched forces. Thousands of soldiers in the U.S. “volunteer military” are no longer serving voluntarily. Some soldiers nearing discharge are being forced to choose between re-enlistment and immediate deployment to Iraq, while others are issued “stop-loss” orders extending their tours of duty. As one sergeant complained, “the Army is moving the goal posts on me” (New York Times, 1 October 2004).
At the same time, the Pentagon has been reaching deeply into the ranks of the part-time soldiers of National Guard and Reserves, who comprise 40 percent of the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. These are not career military people. They signed up for extra cash and a chance to play soldier in the backwoods on the odd weekend—not to get killed or maimed in a far-off land. Many of them have been sent to Iraq or Afghanistan for a year or more. The facile and cynical blather offered by the Bush administration about spreading “liberty” to heathens provides little compensation for those whose careers and marriages are destroyed, even if they are lucky enough to return home in one piece.
In keeping with its free-market ideology, the Bush administration has gone to the private sector to relieve some of the pressure. Twenty-seven of the 37 interrogators at Abu Ghraib prison were employees of CACI International, a private contractor. The 20,000 employees of the “privatized military firms” in Iraq who earn several times as much as regular troops are not paid by the Defense Department, but rather from the Iraqi “reconstruction” budget.
Marxists recognize that the racial and class inequalities of capitalist society are reproduced and intensified within the imperialist military. For many working-class, black and hispanic youth in de-industrialized “middle America,” the armed forces provide the only chance to go to college and escape a lifetime of low-paid McJobs. The forcibly-extended tours of duty, low pay and high risks faced by U.S. troops in Iraq, as well as the ugly reality of waging war on civilians, have lowered morale, sharply reduced enlistments and led ‘Coalition’ air strikes have killed tens of thousands of Iraqis and destroyed thousands of homes to isolated incidents of insubordination. The most publicized instance was the refusal by 18 members of the 343rd Quartermaster Company in October 2004 to carry out a “suicide mission” delivering jet fuel to a U.S. base in the “Sunni Triangle.” Confronted by a major social crisis the U.S. volunteer army could begin to disintegrate along class lines, as the draft army of the 1970s did toward the end of the Vietnam War.
Iraq remains a “war of choice” for the U.S. If the costs get too high the American bourgeoisie could decide to throw in the towel. But that would represent a major humiliation for the “world’s only superpower.” In October 1983, when suicide truck bombers from a group calling itself “Islamic Jihad” blew up the Beirut barracks of both the U.S. Marines and French paratroopers, killing almost 300 colonial gendarmes, the imperialists decided to withdraw. This setback, and a similar one a decade later in Somalia, resonate to this day. During the 2004 election campaign, U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney:
“blamed the Clinton and Reagan administrations for teaching terrorists that ‘they could strike us with relative impunity’ and that ‘if they hit us hard enough, they could change our policy.’ Mr. Cheney cited the attack on United States Marines barracks in Beirut in 1983, in the first Reagan term, along with the 1993 killings of American soldiers in Somalia….”
— New York Times, 7 September 2004
A defeat for the rapacious imperialist predators in Iraq would weaken the Bush administration and the vicious, union-busting social parasites it represents, making it easier for American workers to defend their pensions, living standards and democratic rights. Revolutionaries call for the immediate withdrawal of all imperialist troops from Iraq, and defend all blows struck against the occupiers and their hirelings by the resistance.
While class-conscious workers in Britain, the U.S. and other imperialist countries have a duty to militarily support the Iraqi resistance, Marxists give absolutely no political support to the disparate mélange of reactionaries that comprise the core of the insurgency. The Ba’athist fighters aspire to resurrect a blood-drenched regime that murdered thousands of political dissidents and trade unionists, and savagely oppressed Kurds and Shi’ites. Islamic fundamentalists, both Sunni and Shi’ite, are, if anything, even more unsavory. In Falluja, Najaf, Sadr City and other areas under their control, they have torched movie theaters, beauty parlors and CD stores, and administered public whippings for “crimes” such as selling alcohol. The Islamists have forced women outside of the Kurdish region to don the veil, and in the areas they control there has been an upsurge of misogynist “honor killings” as well as a wave of vicious attacks on Christians and other minorities:
“The gypsies across the Diyala Bridge south of Baghdad have much to fear from the turbulent Shia cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr. Their homestead is one of the few his militiamen have yet to smite. Elsewhere in Baghdad and in southern Iraq, their raiding parties with pickaxes have routed gypsy families by the hundreds, stolen their cars and cash savings in the name of the Shia’s religious authority, the Hawza, and reduced their homes to rubble. His Shia God-squads have grabbed their girls and shaven their heads.”
— Economist, 24 July 2004
Class Politics and Anti-Imperialism
In the run-up to the March 2003 invasion, when a revolutionary intervention demanded the defense of Iraq against the impending imperialist attack, most of the world’s ostensibly Marxist organizations sought to create “broad-church” coalitions on an explicitly liberal/pacifist basis. In Britain, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) set up the “Stop the War Coalition” (StWC) which sponsored massive demonstrations for clerics, union bureaucrats and an assortment of petty-bourgeois reformists to expound their views. To maintain “broad unity,” the SWP, which formally claims to be a revolutionary organization, deliberately enforced a policy of limiting the politics at StWC events to those acceptable to the liberal wing of the bourgeoisie. The main demand of the StWC today is “Bring the Troops Home.” Revolutionaries certainly favor the immediate, unconditional withdrawal of all imperialist troops from Iraq. But for the supposedly Marxist SWP, the call to withdraw the troops is the alpha and omega; they are never so gauche as to suggest that the dreams of their pacifist allies of a world without war can only be realized through the pursuit of class struggle and the overthrow of the social system that produces war in the first place.
Most of the supposedly revolutionary left in the U.S. also organized its anti-war activity on a liberal/pacifist basis, with an orientation toward pressuring the Democratic Party to steer U.S. imperialist foreign policy in a more “progressive” direction. However, it is common knowledge that there is no substantive difference between the twin parties of racism and imperialist war concerning Iraq and the control of Middle Eastern oil.
Members of “Marxist” groups that pitch their appeals to the liberal “mainstream” imperialists (i.e., the Democrats) have to develop a high tolerance for absurdity. A case in point is the Maoist Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), which denounces the “seductive and misleading” logic of lesser-evilism:
“People have, unfortunately, tried this logic many times before. And the results, it must be said, have been uniformly bad. The ‘more reasonable’ section of rulers may have some concerns, but in the end they share the same class interests and corresponding strategic objectives as the hardcore, and so they ride the thing out…until it runs into too much resistance. Then, and only then, do they fall out. Think Vietnam. Or—again—Nazi Germany.”
— Revolutionary Worker, 29 August 2004
Yet in the same issue, the RCP assures its readers that voting for Democratic politicians is a minor tactical issue: “Go ahead and vote for Kerry if you feel you really have to, but put your efforts toward recasting this polarization.” For these “revolutionary communists,” the movement is everything, the class line nothing.
The RCP’s anti-war coalition (“Not In Our Name”) routinely invites anti-war Democrats like Dennis Kucinich to speak at its rallies. In promoting its “Million Globes Campaign,” the RCP made its appetite for a connection with liberal patriots explicit: “We want to build this campaign broadly. It needs to include people who want to ‘cleanse the U.S. flag’ as well as those who would never under any circumstances fly the U.S. flag.” When working the “peace is patriotic” crowd, the RCP is careful to conceal its supposedly revolutionary principles.
As soon as Bush was re-elected, the RCP began pushing “greater evilism,” with the panicked announcement that “Bush and his people aren’t just ordinary Republicans….They are Christian Fascists….” A fascist takeover of the American state would normally spell big trouble, but Revolutionary Worker assures its readers that fortunately, “there IS a leader, the likes of which this country has never seen before, that can lead a mighty struggle to make revolution and remake society. That leader is Bob Avakian, Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party.” The RCP suggests, apparently seriously, that the major issue posed today is: “which vision will prevail: that of George W. Bush? Or Bob Avakian?” A coalition of Bob Avakian acolytes and U.S. flag-cleansers might be a marvelous thing to behold, but at this point it seems a rather unlikely vehicle for solving the fundamental problems of humanity.
The International Socialist Organization (ISO, erstwhile U.S. affiliate of the British SWP) combines adaptation to the Democrats and “revolutionary” phrase-mongering in a slightly different fashion. The ISO demanded, “Kerry Take A Stand: Bring the Troops Home Now!,” while, at the same time, proclaiming: “these Islamic movements [in Iraq] need the unconditional support of the U.S. antiwar movement, which must reject any hair-splitting regarding the nature or character of this resistance” (International Socialist Review, July/August 2004).
For the ISO, criticism of the anti-working class character of the Ba’athists or the misogynist Islamist fanatics may be “hair-splitting,” but revolutionaries have a different attitude—we want to see a government of and by the workers and oppressed, and we are opposed to the restoration of Ba’athist rule or the imposition of an Islamic theocracy. We state openly that the class interests of working people are antithetical to those of petty-bourgeois nationalists, bourgeois “democrats” and mullahs. The ISO’s blank check for the Iraqi resistance parallels the political capitulation of their mentors in Tony Cliff’s International Socialist Tendency to Ayatollah Khomeini’s “Islamic Revolution” in Iran a quarter of a century ago. Offering political support to the reactionary leadership of the Iraqi insurgency can only disarm the working class, and set the stage for a repetition of the bloody disaster in Iran where, after consolidating power, Khomeini jailed and murdered his former leftist cheerleaders.
The professional confusionists of the British Workers Power (WP) group, who make a habit of embracing mutually exclusive political positions, are running true to form on Iraq. With a representative on the leadership of the SWP’s Stop the War Coalition, WP shares political responsibility for the pacifist politics that have dominated anti-war protests in Britain, despite attempts to strike a more leftist pose in its press. In a similar vein, Workers Power talks about the independent political mobilization of Iraqi workers while simultaneously presenting the existing Islamist/Ba’athist resistance as the embodiment of “the Iraqi revolution”:
“The US and British media describe Fallujah as a stronghold of Saddam supporters, Islamic fundamentalists or ‘foreign’ fighters from Al Qa’ida. This is a lie. What has been going on in Fallujah is a popular resistance struggle against the US-dominated occupation forces. It is part of a national liberation struggle—the Iraqi revolution.”
—“Imperialist Butchery in Fallujah,” 9 November 2004
Although there is mass participation in the resistance, the political leadership of the struggle against the imperialist occupation is dominated by Ba’athists and Islamic fundamentalists. The “Iraqi revolution,” if it is to be a genuine social revolution, will require the independent intervention of the working class in a struggle for power. The illusion that a military bloc of Ba’athists and Islamist reactionaries can somehow constitute an agency for carrying out “the Iraqi revolution” is dangerously disorienting.
Throughout the Middle East there is enormous anger at the imperialist predators. In order to channel this sentiment in a revolutionary direction, it is necessary to crystalize a political vanguard rooted in the working class that can link the fight against the occupation to the struggle for an egalitarian social order in which those who labor rule. There is no such party in Iraq today, nor even the embryo of one. Yet the Iraqi working class, traditionally the most militant and best organized in the Arab world, remains a potent factor. Despite being decimated by massive unemployment and the difficulties of operating in the midst of a raging guerrilla war, a number of workers’ struggles have taken place under the occupation, including three general strikes in Basra. While most of this activity has been ignored by the corporate media, an article in the Nation (28 June 2004) reported that a January 2004 strike by oil workers in southern Iraq successfully beat back an attempt by the Coalition Provisional Authority to lower wages, and forced Halliburton Inc. to abandon plans for replacing Iraqis with foreign workers. In August 2004, according to the Guardian (30 September 2004) employees of the Southern Oil Company briefly halted oil exports to protest the American assault on Najaf. These actions, significant in themselves, point to the ability of the Iraqi working class to decisively shape the outcome of the struggle.
The wretched Stalinists of the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP), who constituted the historic leadership of the Iraqi workers’ movement, have eagerly collaborated with the occupation from the beginning. Its members sat on the U.S.-appointed Governing Council and its successor, the so-called interim assembly created after the farcical June 2004 “transfer of sovereignty.” There is a certain bitter irony in the fact that the ICP was savagely persecuted by Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime; the Stalinists, acting on Moscow’s instructions, played a key role in derailing a potential workers’ revolution in 1958, thus paving the way for the Ba’athist dictatorship in the first place (see 1917 No. 26).
The Worker-communist Party of Iraq (WCPI), unlike the ICP quislings, opposes the occupation and denounces collaborators. WCPI cadres have been instrumental in building the Union of the Unemployed in Iraq (UUI), which claims a membership of 150,000. The UUI has organized scores of protests, sit-downs and strike-support actions, and dozens of WCPI organizers have been imprisoned. Yet despite its important contributions, the WCPI’s activity is fundamentally flawed by its insistence on equating Islamist insurgents with the imperialist crusaders:
“Groups of political Islam are one pole of the international terrorism. They are fighting against the other pole of terrorism for their share in power. They are one of the two poles of the unfolding dark scenario in Iraq whose first chapters were written by the USA war on the masses of Iraq.”
—“Communiqué of the Worker-communist Party of Iraq on: The transgressions of groups of Islamic terrorism against people of Iraq,” 26 October 2004
This neutrality in the military conflict between the insurgency and imperialist occupation parallels the WCPI’s earlier refusal to defend Iraq against the British and American invasion on the grounds that Hussein’s regime was also reactionary.
It is necessary to connect the struggle against colonial occupation to the necessity of expropriating both foreign and domestic capital in order to liberate the peoples of the Middle East from imperialist bondage. A Leninist vanguard party would actively participate in the struggle to drive the imperialist troops out, and would militarily defend all insurgents, regardless of their political stripe, against the occupiers. By championing the rights of Iraq’s oppressed ethnic and religious minorities (in particular, the right of the oppressed Kurdish minority to separate) while fighting for equal rights for women and the strict separation of mosque and state, a revolutionary party would seek to inspire the millions of Iraqis who burn with anger at the depredations of the murderous imperial crusaders with a vision of a far better future than that offered by an autarkic theocracy.
Imperialism: ‘Mortal Enemy of the Proletariat’
The chief lesson the U.S. ruling class has drawn from Iraq so far seems to be that it is necessary to expand its war machine. Recruiting more cannon fodder will mean substantially increasing salaries and benefits, as the political risks of reintroducing conscription are too great. Bush’s open-ended “war on terror,” which has thus far provided a convenient political pretext for both foreign military adventures and the expansion of police repression at home, is to be paid for by “reforming” Social Security and Medicare and squeezing what little remains of other federally-funded social programs. At the same time, under the banner of defending “freedom,” the architects of the new American security state are busy shredding habeas corpus and other democratic rights and expanding government surveillance and control over the lives of ordinary Americans.
Capitalism, in its imperialist form, is a social system dripping in blood and filth. The future of the vast majority of the people of the Middle East under imperialism will be an endless series of predatory wars, and desperate, hopeless poverty. The devastation of Iraq is a portent of the future, as each of the major capitalist powers, sanctimoniously deploring “violence” and “terror,” undertakes to equip itself with horrendous weapons of incalculable destructive power, and maneuvers for advantage against each other in a prelude to a third inter-imperialist war.
Every setback suffered by the U.S. and British imperialists’ attempt to re-impose direct colonial control over Iraq is to be welcomed by class-conscious workers everywhere. But the fundamental problems facing humanity cannot be solved by simply opposing colonialism. The riches of the Middle East will only be used to better the lives of the people of the region, instead of the international oil cartels and their local middlemen, with the revolutionary expropriation of the indigenous Arab rulers and their imperialist godfathers by the exploited and oppressed.
The creation of a revolutionary new social order, committed to the defense of the interests of the vast majority of society, was an immediately realizable prospect in Iraq in 1958. What was missing was a Leninist-Trotskyist combat party, armed with the Bolshevik program of irreconcilable class struggle, capable of politically defeating the Stalinist misleaders and leading the masses in a successful seizure of power.
The world-historic mission of the international working class is to overthrow the tyranny of capital and create a planned, collectivized economy on a global scale in which production is determined by human need, not private profit. Today in the Middle East, amid imperialist carnage and Islamic reaction, this may seem a distant prospect. Nonetheless, it remains the only road to a future free of poverty, hunger and oppression.
The defeat of the U.S.-led crusade to seize the natural resources of Iraq could fundamentally alter the contours of the global political order. Instead of securing America’s supremacy over its imperial rivals, the Bush administration’s Mesopotamian adventure would be recorded as a reckless gamble that accelerated the decline of the “world’s only superpower.” The U.S. is not defeated, but its inability to score more than tactical victories over the insurgency, despite its overwhelming military superiority, has revealed that for all its high-tech gadgetry and enormous capacity to inflict death and destruction, the American war machine is not omnipotent.
If the U.S./British axis fails in its bid to control the oilfields of the Middle East, it would be a victory not only for the peoples of the region, but also for working people in the imperialist countries themselves, even if most of them are not yet politically conscious enough to recognize that, in the words of the great German revolutionary, Rosa Luxemburg:
“Imperialism, as the final phase of life and the highest stage in the development of world political domination of capital, is the common mortal enemy of the proletariat of all countries.”
—“Either/Or,” April 1916