The US prepares a midcourse correction in imperialist policy in Iraq

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The dominant fraction of the U.S. ruling class has utilized the November election as a means to adjust the implementation of imperialist policy, to force a recalcitrant Bush administration to make a much needed midcourse correction in Iraq. By last winter a consensus had emerged within the dominant fraction that the situation in Iraq was an absolute mess, a quagmire that jeopardized the long range, global interests of American imperialism. The U.S. military was clearly stretched so thin by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that it was incapable of responding to threats in other parts of the world. This was an intolerable situation because the exercise of military might abroad is an absolute necessity for American imperialism in a period in which its hegemony is under increasing challenge. To make matters worse, the Bush administration’s bungling of the war in Iraq had completely squandered the ideological gains the U.S. ruling class had made in manipulating popular acceptance of its overseas imperialist adventures in the aftermath of 9/11. 

The emergence of this consensus led last March to creation of a bipartisan commission, the Iraq Study Group, led by James A. Baker, III, close adviser and friend to the elder George Bush. Baker had served as treasury secretary in the Reagan administration and as secretary of state under Bush senior during the first U.S. invasion of Iraq in 1991. Former Democratic Congressman Lee Hamilton, who co-chaired the 9/11 Commission, was named co-chair of the study group. Comprised overwhelmingly of prominent officials from the Reagan, Bush senior, and Clinton administrations, the commission in essence represented the continuity of the permanent state capitalist apparatus, which saw the need to force the ruling team to alter course.

The initial work of this commission was conducted secretly and in confidence, but in the course of the electoral campaign, its members, both Democrats and Republicans increasingly spoke out in public, critiquing specifically the administration’s often repeated “stay the course” refrain. They derided the administration’s polarizing political rhetoric, pitting “stay the course” vs. “cut and run,” as incapable of advancing national imperialist interests. The administration’s tendency to put in doubt the patriotism of its bourgeois critics was clearly unacceptable. Indeed the media conveyed the message, emanating from the commission, that this simplistic policy dichotomy reflected an untenable position that implied a loss of touch with reality. So strong was this pressure, which by early September the President actually stopped using the “stay the course” slogan.  Of course, Bush still stubbornly certainly seemed to cling to this view, as he still continued to denounce the Democrats as the party of “cut and run”, and the content of his own message still stressed the need to fight on in Iraq until victory was achieved. However the Study Group had effectively laid the basis for a change in policy even before the election.  

In Internationalism 140 we predicted that the impending Democratic victory:  “would increase pressure for extra-electoral adjustments in the administration, including perhaps the forced resignation of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld”.

Confirmation of this prediction came almost immediately with the announcement of the forced resignation of defense secretary Rumsfeld and the designation of a successor by 1pm the day after the election. If bourgeois media reports can be believed, as early as the weekend before the election, Bush had already asked Rumsfeld to step down and decided to replace him with Robert Gates, a veteran national security agent, who served as CIA director under the elder George Bush. Demonstrating even more graphically the role of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group as the mechanism for reasserting control by the dominant fraction of the bourgeoisie over a badly misled and misdirected ruling political team, it must be noted that Gates was in fact a member of the Iraq Study Group (he stepped down only after his nomination as defense secretary). Gates generally subscribes to Baker’s cautious approach to imperialist policy and criticisms of the current administration’s approach. The “extra-electoral adjustments in the administration” involve not simply a change in personalities but the imposition of a policy change. The transference of key decision-making roles to people who can be relied upon to implement the bipartisan perspectives of the dominant fraction of the bourgeoisie on imperialist policy are essential in this regard.

The reinvigoration of the democratic mystification accomplished by the November election is important for the bourgeoisie because a belief that the system works is a precondition for popular acquiescence in what is to come. Despite the popular revulsion against the war, particularly in the working class, the election is of course not a victory for peace, but rather a victory for the bourgeoisie’s effort to prepare for the next war, by repairing the damage done to the U.S. military, intelligence and foreign policy apparatus by the Bush administration’s mistakes.

Developing a more effective imperialist strategy

The real debate within the bourgeoisie over Iraq does not pit hawks against doves, but hawks against hawks on how best to extricate themselves from the quagmire and prepare for the next overseas military adventure. As the “dovish” New York Times wrote in its editorial two days after the election, “Mr. Gates’ most urgent task, assuming he is confirmed, must be to reopen those necessary channels of communication with military, intelligence and foreign service professionals on the ground. After hearing what they have to say, he needs to recommend a realistic new strategy to Mr. Bush in place of the one that is now demonstrably failing…He will have to rebuild a badly overstretched Army, refocus military transformation by trading in unneeded cold war weapons for new technologies more relevant to current needs, and nurture a more constructive relationship with Congressional oversight committees”.

Since the election, the general chiefs of staff moved quickly to assert their independence of the discredited Rumsfeld. The chiefs have undertaken a reassessment of the military situation in Iraq, searching for their own policy alternatives even before Gates is confirmed and before the Iraq Study Group issues its recommendations in mid-December. The Army has already released a new training manual that reverses one of Rumsfeld’s more controversial policies regarding minimal troop levels for occupation and reconstruction operations following military invasions, a policy that has been disastrous in Iraq.

Freed from an obligation to toe the line set forth previously by the lame duck Rumsfeld, General Abizaid, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, testified before Senate and House committees in mid-November and openly criticized and contradicted Rumsfeld’s and Bush’s past decisions and policies in Iraq. For instance, regarding the long-simmering dispute between the armed services and Rumsfeld over necessary troop levels in Iraq, Abizaid testified that General Eric Shinseki  - who was fired by Rumsfeld in 2003 for criticizing Rumsfeld’s doctrine of sparse occupation force deployments and insisting that up to 300,000 troops might be necessary - had been correct in his assessment of the situation.

Abizaid also contradicted the administration’s long-standing propaganda line by insisting that the greatest threat in Iraq came not from Al Qaeda but from sectarian militias that were on the brink of civil war. Abizaid opposed both a phased troop withdrawal, as advocated by some Democrats, and a deployment of thousands more troops, as advocated by Republican Senator John McCain. Instead he called for a policy change that would shift deployment of significant numbers of American troops from patrol and combat assignments to training Iraqi security forces.

Despite popular disenchantment with the war and widespread support for withdrawal, there will in fact be no quick military withdrawal from Iraq. In all likelihood, despite some stubborn resistance from certain neo-cons still remaining in the administration, there will be the implementation in large measure of whatever the bipartisan proposal that comes from Iraq Study Group in December. This will likely involve stepped up pressure on the Iraqi bourgeoisie to reach compromises within itself, some kind of timetable for phased withdrawal, and a reversal of the Bush administration’s refusal to talk to Syria and Iran. Baker has already said publicly that it is important to talk to your “enemies” and believes that the involvement of regional powers is essential in stabilizing Iraq and preventing the spread of chaos throughout the Middle East. Indeed it increasingly appears that the Baker commission may lean towards some sort of accommodation with Iran as a key element in the new orientation. The Study Group has leaked rumors about possibly convening a regional conference in the Middle East on the future of Iraq (similar to the Dayton negotiations on Kosovo). The Bush administration has already started moving in this direction by opening regional discussions with friendly nations like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt. While the administration may drag its feet on Iranian and Syrian involvement, it is inevitable that that orientation will eventually prevail. It is the only option available that would allow the U.S. to extricate itself from the Iraq quagmire, maintain a presence in the region, and counter European overtures toward Iran and Syria.

Adjustment of the situation in the Middle East will lay the basis for the American imperialism to more effectively orient itself towards challenges in the Far East and Latin America.

The reassertion of political discipline within the bourgeoisie, the rekindling of the democratic mystification, the realignment of the ruling political team, and the adjustment of its imperialist policies are important achievements for the American ruling class. However, these accomplishments cannot mitigate the impact of the deepening global economic crisis, the growing challenges to American imperialist hegemony, and increasing chaos on the international level. As we have written many times, in the world today, the U.S. confronts a crisis of American imperialism, not a crisis of George Bush. While perhaps this crisis has been aggravated by the miscues of the Bush administration in implementing U.S. policy, it is a crisis of the system, not one attributable to an individual. It is a central characteristic of the current period that whatever actions the U.S. takes to defend its challenged imperialist hegemony, in the end they accomplish the opposite of their intended goal – only aggravating, not correcting, the challenges to U.S. imperialism. For the moment the bourgeoisie can relish the current post-election political euphoria, but it cannot last for long. J. Grevin, 2/12/06.