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Iraq debacle

No easy exit for US imperialism

The war in Iraq was the single biggest factor in the defeat of Bush and the Republican Party in November’s mid-term US elections. What does this now mean for the future of Iraq? PETER TAAFFE examines the present situation and the war in Iraq.

"HE DOTH BESTRIDE the narrow world, like a colossus; and we petty men, walk under his huge legs and peep about". (Shakespeare, Julius Caesar) Bush, decked out as a poor imitation of a modern ‘Caesar’, did for a period bestride the globe. The leader of a new ‘empire’ armed with unprecedented military power sought to impose the will of US imperialism throughout the world. Now he has been humbled in the mid-term elections, along with the neo-con cabal that surrounded him, not by the stabbing of a gang of assassins on Capitol Hill, but by what amounts to an electoral uprising against the catastrophic war in Iraq. Seven million more votes went to the Democrats than the Republicans. Larry Summers, US treasury secretary under president Bill Clinton, writes: "Of the 16 mid-term elections since the second world war, Tuesday’s was the seventh that could be classified as a ‘repudiation election’." (Financial Times, 9 November) And it was the war which was repudiated, with 60% of the US population favouring the withdrawal of US troops either immediately or ‘soon’.

This was not because of the arguments of the Democrats – divided on the war between those like Kerry who want a phased withdrawal and others like Hillary Clinton who are more circumspect – but despite them. This anti-war ‘referendum’, which is what these elections signified, means that the US people have rejected Bush and the departed Rumsfeld’s determination to ‘stay the course’ in Iraq. They concluded that the price demanded by Bush in blood and treasure, both of the US and Iraqi people, was not worth paying. One hundred and one US troops were killed in the month before the election, one of the bloodiest since the occupation. The number of US deaths is almost 3,000, with over 20,000 wounded, many of them with horrible life-changing incapacities and injuries.

But this is as nothing to the suffering of the Iraqi people. Bourgeois commentators disputed the figure of 655,000 Iraqis killed since the invasion given by the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore. But now Iraq’s health minister, Ali al-Shamari, has said, "that about 150,000 Iraqis have been killed by insurgents since the March 2003 US-led invasion… for every person killed about three have been wounded in violence since the war started". (The Guardian, 10 November)

And then there is the cost, with American military spending on Iraq now approaching $8 billion a month. Ed Harriman, writing in the London Review of Books (2 November), comments: "Accounting for inflation, this is half as much again as the average monthly cost of the Vietnam war; the total spent so far has long surpassed the cost of the entire Apollo space programme. Three and a half months of occupation cost the equivalent of Iraq’s estimated oil revenues for the current financial year". If the US army left the region and if the money was, instead, handed out to every Iraqi man, woman and child, they would each receive more than $300 a month.

Joseph Stiglitz has estimated that the total eventual cost of the Iraq war, "including the budgetary, social and macroeconomic costs, are likely to exceed $2 trillion". Commenting on this, Timothy Garton-Ash, in The Guardian, states: "That would be $2,000 a head for each of the world’s poorest billion people, who live [and die] on less than $1 a day".

Fraud & corruption

THEN THERE IS the graft and corruption. Harriman comments: "Most of the American money never even gets to Iraq. The bulk of it has gone to American consultants, or into American contractors’ international bank accounts. Most of the projects planned in sewerage, irrigation, drainage and dams have been cancelled". There are countless allegations of ‘ghost employees’ on ministry payrolls, of kickbacks, cronyism, nepotism and fraud. The special report from the inspector general for Iraq, a US body, reports: "Corruption is a virtual pandemic in Iraq. The interior minister employs at least 1,000 ‘ghost employees’, whose wages amount to more than $1 million a month. The defence minister, Hazim al-Shaalan, has been accused of being party to corruption involving more than $1.3 billion, and promptly fled to London. The transport minister has disappeared. And the electricity minister, Abdul Muhsin Shalash, is reportedly living in Jordan".

Patrick Cockburn, the most accurate reporter on the catastrophe of the Iraq war, has pointed out that the health service is virtually non-existent. Yet before 1991, Iraq had one of the best health services in the Middle East. According to Harriman: "Baghdad’s doctors and nurses provided care often comparable to that of their counterparts in Tel Aviv or Cairo". Of course, UN-imposed sanctions undermined this, with a 90% reduction in the health ministry budget under Saddam Hussein, but the invasion and war have catastrophically reduced it further. A whole book could be written about the rip-offs, the privatisation – Iraq must have the biggest privatisation programme in the world – the vast army of mercenaries, operating outside the law, which has been used by the occupation forces to ‘supplement’ the regular armed forces. The number of British armed security guards employed by private companies is estimated by the charity War On Want to be almost three times the number of British troops in the country.

This corruption, inevitable in a broken and virtually atomised society, is breathtaking. More than 1,600 fishing boats in Basra spirit away 15 million litres of oil a month. Everyone is being accused of smuggling: "The Iranian-funded Shia militias, criminal syndicates, the mayor, the Baghdad oil ministry. More than two and a half years after the invasion, Iraq still does not meter its oil, despite repeated warnings from the international advisory and monitoring board".

But the ‘freelancing’ of fishermen is minor compared to what the giant western-based oil multinationals are planning for the Iraqi oil industry, which has the world’s second-largest proven oil reserves after Saudi Arabia, possibly up to 200 billion barrels. The western oil companies are demanding ‘production sharing agreements’, which means that, given their costs of getting new oilfields up and running, they will be guaranteed long-term access to these oil reserves. Experts have worked out that, even at a cost of production of $40 a barrel, the oil companies’ returns on investments would be somewhere between 42% and 162%, representing between $74-194 billion in profits. This is just one measure of the unmitigated and unprecedented disaster which Iraq represents, first of all for the Iraqi people.

Military doctrine

THE MILITARY PROCONSULS of the US seek to put a gloss on all this. Major-General William Caldwell, chief military spokesman, the day after 49 people were found dead in Iraq, incredibly declared: "Every great work of art goes through messy phases while it is in transition. A lump of clay can become a sculpture. Blobs of paint become paintings which inspire". These comments were made to journalists behind the fortified Green Zone! US policy in Iraq, far from being a ‘work of art’, is probably the greatest foreign policy disaster in US history.

This is evident in the military sphere. Prior to Rumsfeld’s ill-fated rule at the Pentagon, the ‘Powell military doctrine’ – named after Colin Powell, then chairman of the joint chiefs of staff – determined US military strategy abroad. Heavily influenced by the example of Vietnam, Powell enunciated the doctrine of ‘overwhelming military force’ in any future foreign wars. Before military action was undertaken, he posed a number of questions: ‘Is the action supported by the American people? Is there a plausible exit strategy?’ This military doctrine was exemplified in the first Gulf war of 1991 with the massive deployment of troops, which was successful in evicting Saddam’s forces from Kuwait.

This strategy, however, was repudiated by the ascendant neo-conservatives under Bush and even earlier by Madeleine Albright, the secretary of state in Clinton’s presidency. The Clintonites did restrict any military action to short, sharp police-type interventions, as with the Balkan war. In Somalia, however, in 1993-94 they withdrew at the first ‘whiff of grapeshot’, when faced with substantial local hostility to US forces.

It took the special ‘genius’ of Rumsfeld, who brushed aside the CIA and the established US military leadership, to envisage a ‘new’ military doctrine with fewer troops. This was a ‘new American way of war’: the sending of small forces equipped with hi-technology fire power on missions in the neo-colonial world. As opposed to the previous reactive policies, this involved ‘wars of choice’ intended to produce regime change. This went hand in hand, of course, with the crushing military dominance of US imperialism which became more pronounced following the collapse of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

This ‘war-lite’ doctrine met with the immediate opposition of the military establishment but has now been smashed in the sands of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan. The idea that even the mighty US military machine could fight two major wars at the same time has been shattered. One hundred and fifty thousand troops have been incapable of keeping the Iraqi insurgency at bay. Rumsfeld has paid for it with his job. But neither Bush nor Blair – who should be in the dock alongside Saddam as war criminals – has as yet suffered the same fate. Nevertheless, one crumb of comfort in all this is the spectacle of the neo-con rats crowding the gangplank to escape from the sinking ‘SS Bush enterprise’!

One of the most odious of this neo-con breed is Kenneth Adelman, who regularly appeared on British television at the time of the invasion, extolling the superiority of US forces, praising Bush to the skies, and predicting ‘inevitable victory’. He is now equally ‘convincing’ in denouncing Bush for the Iraq mess. Yet a new twist is now added. The main responsibility for the Iraq disaster is unloaded onto Blair’s shoulders. According to Adelman, Blair should have warned Bush of the disaster in Iraq ‘on the ground’! Another of this breed is Thomas L Friedman, a prominent New York Times columnist, who acted as a kind of intellectual loudspeaker for Bush and the neo-cons. He now declares, without blushing: "It is clear, nothing that Americans will feel particularly proud of, nothing that we feel justifies the vast expenditure of lives and treasure, is going to come out of Iraq". (International Herald Tribune, 9 November) As to the future: "America’s only two options left today in Iraq are ‘tolerable’ or ‘awful’. ‘Good’ is no longer on the menu".

It is very doubtful whether the first ‘tolerable’ option will be achieved even after the palace revolution among Bush’s entourage. The replacement of Donald Rumsfeld by Robert Gates – a long time CIA chief – will not lead to an easy way out of the Iraq impasse. Nor will the bipartisan report of the Iraq ‘Study’ Group, under the chairmanship of James Baker, former secretary of state and confidante to the first president Bush, lead to an easy exit from Iraq. However, these two developments do signify the return of the Republican establishment – gathered around George Bush senior who, initially, opposed the war, but then was silent when it appeared to ‘succeed’.

The retreat of Bush junior can be gauged by his comments to Bob Woodward, of Watergate fame, who asked whether he had consulted Bush senior over the war: "You know, he is the wrong father to appeal to in terms of strength… There is a higher father that I appeal to". Now ‘god’ of the spiritual kind has failed Bush, he is compelled to fall back on his ‘weak’ daddy. More importantly, there is a growing realisation among a decisive section of the American bourgeoisie that "the US has already been defeated" in Iraq. (Phillip Stephens, Financial Times, 10 November)

Incredibly, at the press conference when he was explaining the dismissal of Rumsfeld from office, under questioning from reporters, Bush pleaded that he was open to "any suggestions" that could extract the US from this imbroglio! Rarely, even in this era of mass communications, has the political leader of a nation, in this case, the strongest on the planet, confessed to such bankruptcy. The mood in America is one of foreboding of even greater disaster if the US does not extricate itself from Iraq. If he had not indicated a change in course, rather than ‘staying the course’, Bush could have faced impeachment proceedings with the control of both houses of Congress now in the hands of the Democrats.

But the cowardly Democratic Party has promised to save George Bush by ruling out impeachment. In fact, many of the Democratic leaders, including some who have just been elected, are as ‘conservative’ as the Republicans who they have defeated. This ‘neo-Dems’ wing of the Democratic Party, like New Labour in Britain, has no fundamental differences with the other capitalist party, the Republicans. Both defend the interests of the rich in the US and abroad.

The decisive sections of the American ruling class wish to militarily disengage, in the main, from Iraq. However, as the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) warned even before the war took place, it is easy to go into a quagmire but a much more difficult task to extricate yourself. This was shown by the disaster of Vietnam. That led to the first military defeat of US imperialism. It also had wide ramifications in Asia, in Laos and Cambodia in particular. On the eve of the war we drew some parallels with Vietnam – we produced a special book – but we also warned from the outset that the ethnic, religious and social situation, including the consciousness of different sections of the Iraqi people, was different to Vietnam. In Vietnam, a movement of social and national liberation, for land by the peasants and the eviction of imperialist military and economic interests, forced the US out and unified the country behind one major political force, the National Liberation Front (the Vietcong).

A divided Iraq

IRAQ, AS WE and many capitalist experts pointed out, was immeasurably more complicated. The five million Sunni Arabs would resist; they have formed the backbone of the insurgency against the occupation forces. The Kurds welcomed the US invasion, and the Shia stood on the sidelines with the Shia elite hoping they would replace Sunni domination under Saddam with their own. The possibility of an ethnic and national fracturing of the country was implicit in this situation.

Not just US imperialism but some of those in the anti-war movement in Britain, led by the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP), completely closed their eyes to this danger. The SWP argued – and unbelievably still does – that the withdrawal of US troops would lead the Iraqi people to live in amity, peace and understanding. Left to their own devices, no doubt, the Iraqi people would. But, inevitably on the basis of capitalism, the elites in each ‘community’ seek advantages for themselves, a greater share of power and wealth, to the disadvantage of other ethnic or religious groups. For this reason, we have consistently advocated that alongside the demand for an immediate withdrawal of troops should go the call for class unity across sectarian divisions. This was accompanied by a warning that a bloody sectarian civil war was possible if that was not done.

Unfortunately, a near civil war now exists on the ground. Patrick Cockburn, recently pointed out in The Independent: "Sunni insurgents have cut the roads linking the city to the rest of Iraq. The country is being partitioned as militiamen fight bloody battles for control of towns and villages north and south of the capital. As American and British political leaders argue over responsibility for the crisis in Iraq, this country has taken another lunge towards disintegration. Well-armed Sunni tribes now largely surround Baghdad and are fighting Shia militia to complete the encirclement. On the other hand, Shia fighters have taken over much of Baghdad. The Iraqi Red Crescent says 1.5 million have fled the country as Sunni and Shia militias fight for control with no real intervention by the enfeebled army or police". The sectarian carnage puts in the shade the 30-year war in Northern Ireland.

In desperation even some bourgeois commentators, like the former US ambassador to Croatia, Peter Galbraith, have suggested the partitioning of Iraq. But suggestions that Iraq could go back to the three-province system that existed under the Ottoman empire, through an ‘equitable divorce’, is completely utopian. As even James Baker has pointed out: "The minute you say we are going to do that [partition] and make three autonomous regions, you are likely to kick off a huge civil war". The Balkans conflict shows that, with a quarter of a million dead. On the basis of capitalism, if Iraq was divided into three sections – the Kurds in the north, the Sunni in the middle belt, and the Shia in the south – this would involve such a population displacement that it would risk a repetition of the bloody partition of the Indian subcontinent into Pakistan and India in 1947-48. An even greater chapter of horrors than what has gone before would be visited on the long-suffering Iraqi people. Moreover, the ramifications in the Middle East region would, potentially, be even greater than the partitioning of India. The neighbouring states with sizeable Shia populations could face the same disintegration in the ‘blow back’ resulting from the break-up of Iraq.

If this should happen, it would be a disaster for the Iraqi people, but also for the prestige of US imperialism, whose reputation worldwide is already at a low ebb. It was this which compelled British imperialism against withdrawing from Northern Ireland despite the 30-year war with the IRA. The stakes for the US in Iraq and the world ramifications of this are much greater than the British in Northern Ireland. Therefore, while a forced withdrawal of the US and its allies, as in a desperate situation akin to Vietnam, is not ruled out for US imperialism, both its Democratic and Republican wings will resist going down this road.

For this reason, the favoured US policy, which will probably be reflected in the Iraq Study Group’s conclusions, would include trying to ‘reshape’ Iraq as more of a loose capitalist federation of predominantly-Kurdish, Shia and Sunni zones. Even this is fraught with huge difficulties. Nuri al-Maliki, the present Iraqi prime minister, has "run a government in name only. He could not fix a pothole, let alone deliver electricity, a functioning bureaucracy or a broader national strategy. His only prospective allies are Shia militias, which have their own narrow interests". (International Herald Tribune, 9 November)

We have witnessed not just Sunni-Shia sectarian conflicts recently, but also battles within the ranks of the Shia themselves. Even within the Mahdi army, controlled by Moqtada al-Sadr, there has been conflict. Al-Sadr’s forces (looking towards Iraqi and Arab nationalism) clashed violently with the supporters of the Dawa Party (linked to Iran) in Shia-on-Shia violence in Amara in late October. In this are the seeds of a Lebanese-type civil war of different factions vying for control. It is also al-Sadr who has "long emphasised Sunni-Shia unity against the Americans" (Financial Times) and, it seems, he is dismayed by recent conflicts between Shia. But, on the ground, his forces have been as brutal as the Sunni sectarians in the indiscriminate slaughter of those from opposite ethnic or religious groups.

The Iraq syndrome

IT IS FOR this reason that Baker, again reflecting the Republican establishment and the opinions of the most serious strategists of capital, says that an attempt must be made to lean on Syria and, particularly, Iran to intervene in Iraq to contain the forces there which look towards that regime, in the interests of ‘stability’. This represents a major volte-face for the Washington regime which only yesterday saw Iran, in particular, as a component of the ‘axis of evil’. The ancient Greeks had a word for this, hubris – overweening arrogance which invites disaster – followed, in Bush’s case, with nemesis, retributive justice!

The blunders of Bush have enormously strengthened the regional power of Iran. We now face the spectacle of the representatives of US imperialism out of one corner of their mouths denouncing Iran, demanding the end of its nuclear programme, while out of the other pleading for it to come to their assistance in a pacifying role in Iraq. This is a measure of the desperate straits which Bush has forced the US ruling class into. He will not be easily forgiven.

As we have commented before, it is possible that Bush has done as much damage to the Republicans as Thatcher did to the Tory party, finishing it for a generation. However, the ability of the Democrats to mitigate the damage to Bush and the Republicans should not be underestimated. They are a party of big business, tied in the final analysis to the defence of ‘US interests’, American capitalism and imperialism. In foreign policy – which is still the preserve of the president – they will seek to tone down, if not completely eliminate, the ‘pre-emptive’ policies of Bush.

But, given the power of US imperialism on a world scale, a retreat into ‘isolationism’ is not an option for the representatives of big business. Nor is a narrow ‘unilateralism’ likely to be the platform on which the Democrats will base themselves. Masquerading as a latter day ‘Wilsonian’ humanitarian, Clinton intervened in Somalia and also in the Balkans. These incursions were not on the pattern of Iraq, of full-scale military invasion and subsequent occupation. But in any case, the discrediting of the Rumsfeld doctrine has put paid to these ideas: "A case can be made that no amount of conventional forces, using conventional tactics, can be effective against insurgencies". (Michael Lind, senior fellow of the New American Foundation, Financial Times, 6 November)

Just as there was a backlash against the Vietnam disaster, which forced US presidents Ford and Reagan to exercise caution about sending troops abroad, any US government will now suffer from the same impediment. Bush and the neo-cons wanted to destroy the ‘Vietnam syndrome’ and it appeared for a time that they had succeeded. The reality of Iraq has now shattered that and, in place of the Vietnam syndrome, the ‘Iraq syndrome’ will dominate the strategic and military thinking of the US ruling class in the next period. This does not preclude military-police type interventions. Nor will it mean that, even if some kind of ramshackle, loose confederation can be established in Iraq, and which holds the situation together for a period, US imperialism will immediately withdraw. Its troops, at least the bulk of them, will have to retreat. But any US capitalist government will seek to safeguard its economic, strategic and military interests. The US embassy in Baghdad is the largest and most expensive embassy in the world, costing $1 billion. This does not presage an easy or early withdrawal. The mainly capitalist forces among the elites of the Kurds, Shia and Sunni will also seek to constrain the masses against any tendency towards an anarchic disintegration of Iraq.

Despite all of this, however, it is not at all guaranteed that Iraq will survive in its present form. Thomas Friedman wails: "As badly as we have performed in Iraq, what Iraqis have done to each other, and the little that other Muslims have done to stop them, is an even bigger travesty". US imperialism, with those like Friedman in tow as an apologist for its crimes, has created the ‘fires of madness’ now raging in Iraq, but now wish to cover this over by blaming the Iraqi people themselves. Preparing for the ‘awful’ scenario, a date for withdrawal of US troops, he states: "We need to give visas to Iraqis who wanted to flee the madness, we need to give a security umbrella to the Kurds so that Syria, Turkey or Iran did not invade them if we left, and we need to protect Jordan from the spill-over".

The US, led by the discredited Bush junta, has produced this chaos in Iraq and the Middle East, the burden of which is not borne by them but by the workers and peasants in the region, and by the American people. When Bush embarked on his journey of reshaping the world in the image of the neo-cons, he was bolstered by the three military victories before Iraq – the 1991 Gulf war, the Balkans and Afghanistan. Many, including some who stood on the left, believed that US imperialism could not be stopped.

The CWI said, not ex post facto but at the time, that, on the contrary, its invasion of Iraq could be undone by the national resistance of the Iraqi people. It would also conjure up an unprecedented mass opposition to the war which would shatter the foundations of the Bush regime. That seemed to be contradicted by the last presidential elections of 2004, but these elections have vindicated this prognosis. The US, according to an international survey – carried out by The Guardian in Britain, Ha’aretz in Israel, the Toronto Star in Canada and the journal Reforma in Mexico – is now seen as the greatest threat to world peace by its closest neighbours and allies. North Korea and Iran were once cited by the US president as part of an ‘axis of evil’. Now, Bush is seen in Britain as a more dangerous man than the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il, and the leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah. Only Osama bin Laden, it seems, in these countries at least, is more unpopular.

This discontent, not just with Bush but with the role of US imperialism and at bottom world capitalism, must be turned into a movement of mass opposition for change. The key to a just and democratic solution to the problems of Iraq lies not with the US, Britain or its capitalist allies but with the Iraqi workers and peasants, supported by the international working class. They may appear to be scattered and atomised at the present time but that will change. Only a socialist, democratic confederation of the Shia, Kurds and Sunnis, the Turcomen and others, can open up a new road for the Iraqi people. Together with the Israeli working class, in opposition to the brutal capitalist class there, the Egyptian working class and the masses of the Middle East, the chapter of horrors in Iraq can be put to an end and a new socialist road opened up for Iraq and the Middle East.


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