The situation in Iraq this spring has become a total disaster for US imperialism. The highlights of this mess include:
- The highest number of casualties for American military forces since the official end of the war, which had been triumphantly, if prematurely, marked by President Bush's "mission accomplished" theatrics on an American aircraft carrier at sea last May.
- Simultaneous armed uprisings by both Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq, neither of which the American military was able to put down by force. In both cases the US military command had to back down from publicly stated operational goals and negotiate compromises. For example, the American punitive expedition against the Sunni city of Falluja, where four American mercenaries (officially called security "contractors" by US authorities) had been killed and their corpses mutilated, became bogged down in a nearly month-long siege that inadvertently provoked a momentary unity between Sunnis and Shiites against the American occupation, ended in a stalemate. The negotiated settlement to the siege of Falluja put the city under the military control of a Sunni militia commanded by a Baathist general of Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard. After embarrassing revelations about their new ally, the Americans replaced him with another general from Saddam's regular army.
- The American crackdown against the militant Shiite cleric, Sadr, who the American authorities had vowed to "arrest or kill," provoked a 7-week rebellion by Sadr's militia, the Mahdi army. By early June, the Americans were again forced to back down, negotiating a truce with Sadr, whose militia was allowed to withdraw, but not disband or surrender its weapons, and the warrant for his arrest was withdrawn.
- Supporters of the US have been under attack, including regular terrorist attacks near the entry to the American occupation government headquarters, which resulted in the assassination of the head of governing council in May, and at least 3 high ranking officials in June.
- The scandal around the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison was the final nail in the coffin for the Bush administration's ideological justifications for the war. Already all the propaganda about Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and Saddam's alleged links to al Qaeda as reasons for invading Iraq had been thoroughly discredited. Now the torture, brutalization, and even murder of prisoners eliminated the last vestige of ideological justification - the "defense of human rights." The prison scandal turned that particular "reason" into a sick joke.
- The main US ally in Iraq, Chalabi, a favored client of Vice President Cheney, and Pentagon confidant has been dumped, cut off from his $400,000 per month US subsidy, and accused of ties to Iran.
- US authorities suffer increasing difficulties in manipulating its hand-picked governing council, which rejected the US choice for interim President of the provisional government.
- The costs for waging the war in Iraq, and in Afghanistan, are completely out of control. The administration has requested an additional $75 billion from Congress, giving the lie to its pre-invasion claims that the occupation and reconstruction of Iraq would be self-financed through the sale of Iraqi oil on the world market. In fact, the Iraq oil industry, which was not seriously damaged during the invasion, had been so weakened by ten years of US-imposed economic sanctions, that the occupying authority has been compelled to import oil into Iraq.
- With its political authority eroding badly, the US has been forced into a series of abrupt policy about-faces. For example, the US has abandoned:
- its policy of banning Baathist party members and military officers from government posts in the "new" Iraq
- its policy of dismantling the private militias loyal to the various religious and ethnic factions in Iraq
- its policy of ultra-unilateralism, appealing to the previously vilified United Nations for political cover for the occupation of Iraq.
It is important to be clear that this is a crisis, not of the Bush administration, but of American imperialism as a whole. The strategy to block the rise of any potential rivals, and even the use of unilateral military action to support the implementation of that strategic goal is an orientation shared by all major factions of the American ruling class. Despite recent criticisms of Bush's unilateralism from certain factions within the bourgeoisie, the fact is that US imperialism has always acted unilaterally on the international arena since the end of World War II. However, during the Cold War when the US acted unilaterally, making major imperialist policy decisions that effected the entire western bloc, whether it was war in Korea, or in Vietnam or the deployment of intermediate range nuclear missiles in Europe without prior consultation with its "allies," it could count on the discipline of the bloc to force its partners to go along with its decisions. In the post-Cold War period, the disappearance of the imperialist confrontation with a rival bloc, which was the basis of that international discipline, has made it more difficult for the US to get other imperialisms to sacrifice their own interests and submit to American diktat. The first Gulf War against Iraq in 1991 was designed precisely to get the European powers to support American imperialism, even against their own interests, and remind them that the US was still the dominant power. The ideology of human rights was used repeatedly by the Clinton administration during the 1990s to justify its military actions in the Balkans and Iraq. The current criticism of Bush's unilateralism is premised on the contention that his administration has used the wrong tactics and abandoned prematurely efforts to get the European powers to endorse the US invasion.
The invasion of Iraq in fact had the unified support of all major factions of the American ruling class and was conceived as the latest installment in the implementation of American imperialism's abovementioned general strategy for the post-cold war era. This strategy, adopted by the US in the early 1990s, has been continued and developed by both Republican and Democratic administrations for the last decade and a half. In this context, the invasion of Iraq had nothing to do with Iraq per se, but was aimed at the European powers - Germany and France in particular - to put pressure on the European powers through strategic control of Middle Eastern oil supplies, and to block European diplomatic and economic inroads in the region, especially by French, German and Russian imperialisms. The invasion and occupation of Iraq was supposed to complement America's military occupation of Afghanistan in establishing a direct US military presence in a strategically vital part of the globe. American saber-rattling during the Iraq invasion demonstrated that next on the US military target list were Iran and Syria, which taken together with growing American influence in Pakistan and the Central Asian republics that were formerly part of the USSR would allow the US to begin a literal encirclement of Europe. The reason that France and Germany were the most vocal opponents of the US invasion was not because they were champions of peace, but because they understood the real intent of US policy.
There were however differences within the ruling class about the ideological justifications for, and timing of, the invasion. For example, even former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, the most outspoken critic of the Bush administration at the onset of the Iraq invasion, was actually in favor of invading Iraq, but argued that it would have been more effective to use "human rights" and not false claims about Iraqi links to 9/11 and weapons of mass destruction. Albright and other administration critics also disagreed with the precipitous rush to act unilaterally in Iraq and favored more patient - and more convincing - efforts to pressure and manipulate the European powers into endorsing the invasion. From this perspective, the European powers would have found it much more difficult to justify their refusal to support a military intervention based on ousting a tyrannical regime and restoring human rights in Iraq. The Bush administration is in deep political trouble today because it seriously botched both the ideological campaign to justify the war and the occupation of Iraq.
Botching the ideological campaign means that the political capital that accrued from the 9/11 attacks has been largely squandered at home and it will be much more difficult to convince the American population, especially the working class, to rally behind the next military adventure of American imperialism. This is a serious problem because in the inter-imperialist arena the period of capitalist decomposition is characterized by each country, even third rate regional powers, increasingly playing its own card, growing chaos in international relations, and hence even more challenges to American hegemony. This in turn will most assuredly mean that US imperialism will be compelled to launch new military campaigns in the future, but its own population will be distrustful of its war-justifying propaganda and less likely to accept the sacrifices and loss of life that war requires. It will also be more difficult to get the populations of other countries to acquiesce in American imperialist adventures.
Botching the occupation of Iraq has demonstrated that while it might be the sole superpower in the world today, the US military is spread too thin and has military weaknesses which make it vulnerable in the international arena. For example, the inability to accomplish publicly announced goals, like arresting or killing Sadr, or occupying Falluja, demonstrates concretely American imperialism's weakness and will embolden other countries to play their own cards in the period ahead.
In this sense, rather than improving its imperialist position on the international level, the invasion and occupation of Iraq has aggravated the US position. Instead of bringing stability to Iraq, the country is totally destabilized. Instead of bringing stability to the Middle East, the entire region is embroiled in turmoil. Instead of buttressing American authority, it has become undermined. The US cannot even control or influence the policies of its only reliable client/ally in the region - Israel, and has been forced to endorse a complete reversal of policy regarding the settlements on the West Bank and the creation of a Palestinian state, that Ariel Sharon can't even successfully sell to his own political party in Israel. Instead of checking the tendency towards chaos on the international level as it was intended to do, the war has increased chaos, and made the world more dangerous, as the current situation in Saudi Arabia amply illustrates. Impact of the Imperialist Crisis on US Politics
While President Bush and his closest advisers stand alone in insisting that things are going well in Iraq and that all that needs to be done is to "stay the course," almost everybody in the bourgeoisie recognizes that the occupation is a mess. Even Paul Wolfowitz, the "neo-conservative" perhaps most identified with the failed invasion and occupation, has recently been compelled to acknowledge a series of miscalculations and underestimations by the Pentagon. The Bush administration's blunders in the past year have raised genuine concerns about the future direction of American policy within a ruling class that is still otherwise united on the basic strategic goal of maintaining the American superpower monopoly. In May, Walter Cronkite, the dean of American broadcast journalism, who stepped down as the anchorman of CBS nightly news two decades ago but still appears in documentaries and talk shows wrote a widely circulated op-ed piece criticizing Bush's errors.
It was Cronkite, who in 1968, after the onset of the Tet offensive, returned from a visit to Vietnam and announced in on-air editorial that he called for an end to the Vietnam War - an act that signaled the beginning of a split within the bourgeoisie and a qualitative change in American media coverage of that war. In a thinly veiled attempt to reprise his earlier role, Cronkite's recent essay criticized Bush's squandering of the post-9/11 goodwill, unilateralism, and sidestepping of the Geneva Convention. "It seems to me," he wrote, "that, in the appalling abuses at Abu Ghraib prison and the international outrage it has caused, we are reaping what we have so carelessly sown. In this and so many other ways, our unilateralism and the arrogance that accompanies it have cost us dearly." Cronkite advocates a return to a foreign policy that "embraces international cooperation," but at the same time demonstrates the unity of the bourgeoisie on the Iraq invasion. He insists, "It still is immediately important for this nation that its invasion of Iraq should result in a free and functioning Iraqi democracy?We need to restore America's image as a preserver and defender of the peace and prove to the world that the change is more than cosmetic. But one has to ask, as others have, whether we can convince the world of our sincerity without regime change at home." (AM-New York, May 21, 2004).
This was followed by a blistering denunciation by Al Gore at a speech in New York, in which he called for the resignations of Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice, and CIA Director George Tenet. A week later, Tenet and his second in command, announced their resignations. In June, in a similar vein, 20 former ambassadors, state department officials, and military leaders, including the former commander of US operations in the Middle East, prepared a statement labeling Bush's execution of foreign policy as detrimental to American interests and calling for his replacement in the November elections. In essence these critics focus their venom not on strategic goals but on the implementation of those goals. It is the execution of the policy orientation, not the fundamental, underlying policy that it is at issue. The sometimes vociferous calls for a switch to a cut-and-run policy in Iraq are confined to a small segment on the left of the bourgeoisie and is not embraced by any serious factions of the ruling class. This explains why John Kerry's policy for Iraq calls for more military forces to be sent to that country, to better "pacify" the insurgents and assure the successful installation of a loyal puppet regime in Baghdad, and not an end to the war, or even a phased-in military withdrawal.
The underlying strategic unity, however, doesn't diminish the current disarray within the bourgeoisie on imperialist policy implementation, and on how to fix the current mess. Disagreements exist even within the Republican party and the Bush administration itself. For example, the right wing of the Republican party, as reflected in articles in the National Review, has expressed its disenchantment with the "neo-conservatives" and the concept of "nation building." The disputes between Secretary of State Powell and Rumsfeld, Cheney and the "neo-conservatives" at the Pentagon over the rush to unilateralist action have been well publicized in the American media. On the military level, Powell and senior career officers in the Pentagon subscribed to the "doctrine of overwhelming force" that had been so successful for the US in the first Gulf War in 1991 and were sharply critical of Rumsfeld's insistence on a smaller, leaner, fast-strike military operation and occupation in Iraq. A leading general who argued that an occupation force of 300,000 troops would be required in Iraq, instead of Rumsfeld's 115,000 troops, was forced to retire at the outset of the war. One can only imagine the level of "I told you so" ranting in leading military circles today.
The seriousness of the crisis faced by American imperialism and the political disarray it has caused within the bourgeoisie explains the extraordinarily early beginning of the presidential election circus this year. Normally, the primary elections continue through early June and the party conventions are held in July and August. The formal campaign doesn't traditionally begin until Labor Day in September. But this year, as early as March, both sides began running political campaign ads slamming the other side on television in the major "undecided" states. It is certainly true that in part this early campaign start has been motivated by a political need to revive the democratic mystification, which had suffered a severe blow in the debacle of 2000, in which Bush lost the popular vote by a quarter million but won in the electoral college. But clearly it is also true there is a widespread sentiment within the bourgeoisie that the implementation of American imperialist policy requires a much needed repair job.
Currently the Bush administration is in deep political trouble. The numerous political scandals in the news are the product of divisions within the bourgeoisie, designed to put pressure on the administration. One conservative commentator complained that the New York Times had devoted a front page on 43 of 47 days since the Abu Ghraib scandal surfaced. But the result of the elections is not sealed. No political consensus has emerged yet on the best political division of labor for the bourgeois parties. It is still possible that Bush could manage to remain in the White House. For example, a house cleaning at the Pentagon, with the departure of Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz and their replacement with a new team that would set things right could salvage the situation for Bush. Implications for the Working Class
For the working class the implications of the current situation are potentially very serious. The working class was never mobilized behind this war in the first place, and clearly there is a growing dissatisfaction with the war today. A year ago Bush had a 90% popularity rating and today it is 43%. However we cannot afford to exaggerate the political significance this development. The current opposition to the war in the working class is not simply a reflection of the fact that the working class, in the US and throughout the world, is not politically or ideologically defeated on the historic level, that the historic course remains one oriented towards class confrontation not global imperialist war. While this is partly the case, discontent with the war also reflects the serious divergences and disarray within the bourgeoisie. The situation is similar to what happened in Europe when war broke out in Iraq. The massive anti-war demonstrations that shook Europe at the time in part reflected the fact that important factions of the bourgeoisie, and even the state in France and Germany, were openly opposed to the invasion. This governmental opposition to the war helped foment and legitimize those protests. In the same vein, the relentless attacks on the Bush administration from within the bourgeoisie feed the current anti-war sentiment, and create a situation in which that discontent can be controlled and manipulated by the ruling class.
There is also a serious danger that the democratic myth can be reinforced through the elections and the present anti-Bush campaign. The anti-war sentiment can easily be channeled not into an understanding of the bankruptcy of capitalism and the need to destroy it, but into a mobilization to vote the scoundrel in the White House out of office. In this sense, revolutionaries must insist that a Kerry administration will not be an anti-war administration. Kerry will only offer a different ideological campaign to justify war (human rights) and will work more patiently perhaps to draw the various European powers into future American military actions as reluctant allies. No matter who wins the election in November there will be more war, not less - more war in Iraq, more war in Palestine, and throughout the world. No matter who wins the election, the crisis of American imperialism will only deepen, chaos will grow in the international arena, and the world will move closer and closer to a future of barbarism, which is the only thing that capitalism holds in store for humanity. The only antidote to this devastating future for the human race is the class struggle and proletarian revolution. This is what revolutionaries must patiently explain to the rest of the working class in this difficult time.
Internationalism, June 15, 2004.