Iraq: A reverse for the United States

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On 23 February, with the agreement between Saddam Hussein and the general secretary of the UN about the continuation of the weapons inspection mission in Iraq, the impasse facing the US was sealed. Clinton had no choice but to shelve the new "Desert Storm" operation - the massive and murderous bombing of Iraq. This military operation would have reaffirmed US leadership in front of the whole world, and particularly in front of the other big imperialist powers like France, Russia and Germany. But this reverse for the Americans should come as no surprise.

"The USA is faced with a world dominated by 'every man for himself', where its former vassals are trying to withdraw as much as possible from the tight grip of the world cop, which they had to put up with as long as the threat from the rival bloc existed. In this situation, the only decisive way the US can impose its authority is to resort to the area in which they have a crushing superiority over all other states: military force. But in doing so, the US is caught in a contradiction:


- on the one hand, if it gives up using or extending the use of its military superiority, this will only encourage the countries contesting its authority to contest even more;
- on the other hand, when it does use brute force, even, and especially when this momentarily obliges its opponents to rein in their ambitions towards independence, this only pushes the latter to seize on the least occasion to get their revenge and squirm away from America's grip"
(Resolution on the international situation from the 12th ICC congress, International Review 90).

In trying to repeat the Gulf war of 1990-91, the American bourgeoisie found itself isolated. Except for Britain, none of the important world powers fully supported the US initiative[1]. In 1990, the invasion of Kuwait provided the perfect argument for forcing all these countries to support them in the war. In 1996, the US again succeeded in launching missiles against Iraq, despite the opposition of most of the other powers and of the main Arab countries. In 1998, the threats and preparations for massive bombardments appeared to be completely out of proportion to the Iraqi action of limiting the scope of the UN inspectors. The pretext was thus easy to reject. But in addition to this, Clinton's hands were tied and - in contrast to 1990 - this time he gave a considerable margin of manoeuvre both to Sad dam Hussein and to the rival imperialisms. Taking advantage of America's isolation, Hussein was able to accept the reimposition of the UN inspections at the time, and under the conditions, most convenient to him. Even before the signing of the agreement between the UN and Iraq, significant factions of the US bourgeoisie had begun to realise what a mistake Clinton had made. As the American press pointed out after the accord "President Clinton didn't really have any choice" (International Herald Tribune, 25.2.98).

Saddam Hussein didn't inflict this set-back on the US all by himself. Without the support and advise proffered to Hussein by Russia and France, without the approval of the anti-American policy of these two powers by most of the European countries and by China and Japan, the Iraqi population - which suffers daily not only from Saddam's terrible yoke, but also from the effects of the economic embargo which ensures that a child dies every six minutes (see Le Monde Diplomatique, March 1998) - would once again have been subjected to the terror of US and British bombs.

The official and media reactions were very revealing about this set-back for the Americans. Instead of hearing exalted proclamations about the "saving of the peace" and the "triumph of civilised values", we heard two types of speeches: triumphal and satisfied from Russia and France, disappointed and vengeful from the American bourgeoisie. France's self-satisfaction was expressed in diplomatic terms by the former Gaullist minister Peyrefite, who considered that France "had helped Clinton to avoid a terrible faux pas by leaving the diplomatic option open to him "(Le Figaro cited by International Herald Tribune, 25.2.98). To this the Americans responded with bitterness and threats: "while the accord was a success to the extent that the French drew benefits from it, the latter have a particular responsibility to ensure that it is strictly adhered to in the weeks ahead" (ibid).


So this time the Americans had to retreat and call off "Desert Storm II": "The negotiations with the general secretary of the UN. Kofi Annan, makes it impossible for Clinton to go ahead with the bombing. This is why the US didn't want Annan to go to Baghdad" (Daily Telegraph, 24.2.98). And this is why France and Russia pushed for and sponsored the general secretary's trip. A number of significant and highly symbolic facts testify to this: Kofi Annan's trips between New York and Paris in the French Concorde; between Paris and Baghdad in Chirac's presidential plane; and above all, both before and after going, the "preferential" interviews between the general secretary of the UN and the latter. The conditions under which this whole journey took place were a slap in the face for the US and a failure for the US bourgeoisie.

This situation can only aggravate imperialist tensions, because the US is not going to allow its authority to be flouted like this without reacting.


What has just happened is the latest demonstration of the tendency towards "every man for himself' which typifies the present historical phase of decadent capitalism - its phase of decomposition. Saddam Hussein's ability to set a trap for the Americans in contrast to 1990 and 1996, is due essentially to the growing difficulty of the US to maintain its authority and a certain discipline behind its imperialist policies. This applies both to the small local imperialisms - in this case the Arab countries (Saudi Arabia for example refused the use of its air bases to American troops), or Israel which is challenging the whole Pax Americana in the Middle East - and America's big imperialist rivals.


The American bourgeoisie can't let this affront go. At stake is its hegemony in all continents, particularly the Middle East. It is already preparing the "next crisis" in Iraq:

"Very few in Washington believe that the last chapter in this story has been written" (New York Times, quoted by International Herald Tribune, 25.2.98). The rivalries between the major imperialisms over Iraq will centre around the question of the UN inspections, of who will control them, and around whether the embargo against Iraq is to continue or not. On this latter point, Russia and France are being opposed fiercely by the US, which is maintaining its armada in the Persian Gulf - a real pistol pointing at the Iraqis' heads. It has also made it quite clear that it will not tolerate the Europeans, especially France and Germany, getting mixed up in the Israel-Palestine conflict.


The American bourgeoisie is preparing the "next crisis" in Africa and ex-Yugoslavia as well. It has clearly announced that it is carrying on its offensive in Africa, aimed at undermining the presence of France and European influence in general. It has also announced that it will maintain its military presence in Macedonia at a time when military tensions are growing in neighbouring Kosovo. In this province, it is clear that the recent confrontations between the Albanian populations and the Serbian police forces have a significance which goes well beyond the limits of the region. Behind the Albanian nationalist cliques stands Albania of course, and to a certain extent other Muslim countries like Bosnia and also Turkey, which has been the traditional bridgehead for German imperialism in the Balkans. Behind the Serbian forces we find the Russian "big brother" and, more discretely, the traditional allies of Serbia, France and Britain; meanwhile America has addressed a solemn warning to Serbia. Thus, despite the Dayton agreements of 1995, there is no definitive peace in the Balkans. This region remains a powder keg, where the different imperialisms and notably the most powerful amongst them will not give up pressing forward their strategic interests as we saw them do between 1991 and 1995.

The US reverse over Iraq is therefore the harbinger of sharpening imperialist tensions in every part of the world, bringing in their wake more massacres, more terror for the populations of the planet.


Capitalism's historic impasse is the cause of the bloody conflicts multiplying everywhere today, and of the continuation and dramatic deepening of those which are already there. All the great tirades about peace and the virtues of democracy are just a way of reassuring the population, and above all, of hindering the international proletariat from becoming aware of the warlike reality of capitalism. This reality is that every imperialism is merely preparing itself for the future conflicts that are bound to arise.


RL, 14 March


[1] The fact that Kohl at the Munich "Security Conference" in early February announced that Germany would put its air bases at the disposal of the US (something which would have gone without saying a few years ago) should not be seen as a sign of real German support for the US. On the one hand, sending planes from Germany to bomb Iraq is far from the best strategy given the distance and the number of "neutral" countries they would have to fly over. Thus Germany's proposal was a highly platonic one. At the same time, the policy of German imperialism is to move its pawns without overtly defying the US. Having opposed the big boss at the conference by supporting the French position on the question of the European arms industry (towards which the Americans are hostile), German diplomacy then had to show some "good will" on a question which didn't bother them that much.