Middle East: A hunting ground for imperialism
The region around Israel, Palestine and Lebanon has long been a focus of rivalries between great Empires: Babylon, Persia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome; in the epochs of the ancient world; the Caliphate and the Crusades in the mediaeval period. At the beginning of the era of capitalism’s decline, marked beyond any shadow of a doubt by the outbreak of the First World War, the geopolitical importance of the region was magnified by the new importance of oil, above all for the maintenance of a functioning war machine. At this point, British and French imperialism led the unseemly charge to displace the crumbling Ottoman Empire, which had been supported by the Kaiser’s Germany. In the immediate aftermath of the war, Iraq was created by joint agreement between Britain and France, their diplomats and generals cynically drawing lines on a map. Not long after that came the first Iraqi insurgence, during which Winston Churchill was the first Statesman to order the use of gas against a rebellious Kurdish population.
The same Winston Churchill had been the keenest representative of his class when he led the campaign of the ‘democratic’ powers to crush what they called the ‘Bolshevik’ revolution, by dispatching troops to Russia and supporting the ‘White’ insurgency. He understood that the Bolshevik revolution was also the Spartacist revolution, was also the world revolution and the end of his civilization.
The defeat of the revolution, however, removed the chains that had, for a while, held the wolves of imperialist war in check. One of these wolves was Hitler and Nazism, a hideous new face of German imperialism and another definitive sign that the bourgeoisie’s historical redundancy was leading it to lose its reason. Stirring the darkest passions in its drive towards war, it revived the mediaeval witch-tales of Jewish cabbalism and conspiracy. The European Jews became the sacrificial scapegoat of a vast pogrom, organised with the efficiency of a Fordist factory. The Jews were sacrificed not only by the blackhearted blackshirted SS, but also by the democratic powers who abandoned them to their fate. At Bermuda in April 1943, the month that the Warsaw ghetto rose, America and Britain formally closed the doors on any mass escape.
In 1917 Britain, in line with its ambitions in the Middle East, issued the Balfour Declaration, establishing the principle of Palestine as a Jewish Homeland. This was also in line with the basic aims of the Zionist movement. “A little loyal Ulster in the Middle East” was the British motto. But the march towards war in Europe destroyed any hopes for an interlude of stable British rule. The Zionist movement began to grow as the persecution of the Jews in Germany became more brazen. Increased Jewish immigration into Palestine, the buying of tracts of land for Jewish-only labour, created fear and discontent among the Arab Palestinians, and this in turn was injected with a pogrom spirit by the first Palestinian nationalists, such as the Mufti of Jerusalem and his Nazi backers.
The British, as ever, played a double game, promising the impossible both to Arabs and Zionists, using both against the Italians and the Germans, and both against each other. After the Second World War, the conflict took a new twist: the British closed the gates once again, to the Jewish refugees fleeing the wreck of Europe, and became the target of terrorist attacks by the Zionists’ military wing. But America and Russia came forth as the saviours of the Jews; by supporting Israel in its war of independence in 1948, they drove the British out of their Palestinian ‘Protectorate’.
With the old colonial powers pushed into second rank (a process completed through the Suez fiasco of 1956), the USA and the USSR became the new dominant Empires. Russia stood behind the ‘Arab national liberation movement’ in its various forms: Nasserism, Baathism, the PLO. America had Israel, the Shah of Iran, and the oil kingdoms of Arabia. The military and strategic superiority of the western bloc and its Israeli gendarme were demonstrated again and again: in the Six Day War of ‘67, the Yom Kippur War of ‘73, and the Lebanon carnage of the early ‘80s. Russia progressively lost all its footholds in the region, from Ethiopia and Egypt to Northern Yemen. The collapse of the Shah’s regime in Iran was a blow to the US and a sign of things to come, but the most spectacular defeat was of the USSR’s last attempt to break through its growing encirclement: the invasion of Afghanistan.
The writing was on the wall for the Russian empire. In Poland 1980, it became plain that the proletariat of Eastern Europe would not fight its wars. Its economy staggering under the weight of state bureaucracy and military expenditure, the Russian empire imploded. But the triumph of the American superpower was short-lived. No sooner had the Russian threat been deflated than America’s former allies and vassals, from the biggest to the least significant, began to assert their own interests more than ever before. The war of each against all took hold; and each attempt by the US power to stem the tide through massive displays of military might – as in the Gulf war of ‘91 or the bombing of Serbia in 99 – only succeeded, more or less rapidly, in stoking the flames still further. The invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq are definitive proof of this: the USA’s very attempt to impose its military and political authority in this region has resulted in a bloody descent into chaos, a nightmare without end for the populations of those benighted countries. And today the arena of conflict is threatening to spread still further – to merge together with the intractable Israel/Palestine conflict, to widen into an open clash with the emerging imperialist ambitions of Iran, to shake the fragile oil kingdoms to their foundations.
The ‘Holy Land’ of three world religions still lives under the shadow of the Empires. But whereas in the ancient past the downfall of one Empire was always succeeded by the rise of another, the empire of capital will not give birth to a new civilization unless the international working class overthrows it. If that does not happen, the old nightmares of Armageddon and the Apocalypse, myths whose kernel of truth lay in the clash and collapse of mighty empires, will be realized, and, as in the myth, the focal point could well be Jerusalem, Israel and the Middle East. WR, 11/9/6.