Crisis of US leadership

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In order to mount a real opposition to imperialist war, revolutionaries have to be able to look beneath all the false explanations for this or that conflict. The media and the politicians from left to right have certainly provided enough of these in the war in Iraq: it's all down to the evil Saddam, or to the no less evil George Bush and his cronies in the oil business, and so on and so forth. Our article 'What is imperialism?' in this issue shows why imperialist wars are the inevitable product not of this or that state or leader, but of the entire capitalist system at a certain stage of its development. But the revolutionary analysis of war does not only provide a general theoretical understanding of the drive to war. Like Rosa Luxemburg in her Junius Pamphlet, written during the First World War, it is also necessary to examine in depth the particular strategies of the various imperialist powers engaged in a conflict. In the article that follows we are therefore putting forward a broad framework for uncovering the real aims and policies that lie behind the actions and phoney justifications of the competing imperialist powers today.

From Gulf War One to Gulf War Two

Faced with the collapse of the rival Russian bloc at the end of the 1980s, and with the rapid unravelling of its own western bloc, US imperialism formulated a strategic plan which has, in the ensuing decade, revealed itself more and more openly. Confirmed as the only remaining superpower, the USA would do everything in its power to ensure that no new superpower - in reality, no new imperialist bloc - could arise to challenge its 'New World Order'. The principal methods of this strategy were demonstrated forcefully by the first Gulf war of 1991:

  • a massive display of US military superiority, using Saddam's regime as a whipping boy
  • the press-ganging of the other powers into a coalition that would give an air of legitimacy to the US operation, as well as providing a considerable portion of the enormous funds required. Germany in particular - the only real candidate to the leadership of a new anti-American bloc - was to pay the most.

But if the Gulf war's primary aim was to issue an effective warning to all who would challenge US hegemony, it must be judged a failure. Within a year, Germany had provoked the war in the Balkans, with the aim of extending its influence to a key strategic crossroads of Europe and the Middle East. It would take the best part of the decade before the US - through the war in Kosovo - could impose its authority in this region, having been opposed not only by Germany (which gave underhand support to Croatia) but also by France and its supposedly loyal ally Britain, who secretly backed Serbia. The chaos in the Balkans was a clear expression of the contradictions faced by the US: the more it sought to discipline its former allies, the more it provoked resistance and hostility, and the less able it was to recruit them for military operations which they knew were ultimately aimed against them. Thus the phenomenon of the US being increasingly obliged to 'go it alone' in its adventures, relying less and less on 'legal' international structures such as the UN and NATO, which have more and more functioned as obstacles to the US's plans.

After September 11 2001 - almost certainly carried out with the complicity of the US state - the USA's global strategy shifted onto a higher level. The 'war against terrorism' was immediately announced as a permanent and planet-wide military offensive. Faced with an increasing challenge from its principal imperialist rivals (expressed in rows over the Kyoto agreement, the European military force, manoeuvres over the policing of Kosovo, etc), the USA opted for a policy of much more massive and direct military intervention, with the strategic goal of the encirclement of Europe and Russia by gaining control of Central Asia and the Middle East. In the far east, by including North Korea in the 'axis of evil', and by renewing its interest in the 'struggle against terrorism' in Indonesia following the Bali bombing, US imperialism has also declared its intention to intervene directly in the backyard of China and Japan.

The aims of this intervention are by no means limited to the question of oil considered uniquely as a source of capitalist profits. Control of the Middle East and central Asia for geo-strategic reasons was a matter of intense inter-imperialist rivalry long before oil became a vital element in the capitalist economy. And while there is a clear necessity to control the huge oil-producing capacities of the Middle East and the Caucasus, US military action there is not carried out on behalf of the oil companies: the oil companies are only allowed to get their pay-off provided they fit in with the overall strategic plan, which includes the ability to shut off oil supplies to America's potential enemies and thus throttle any military challenge before it begins. Germany and Japan in particular are far more dependent on Middle East oil than the USA.

Imperialist rivalries come into the open

The USA's audacious project of building a ring of steel around its main imperialist rivals thus provides the real explanation for the war in Afghanistan, the assault on Iraq, and the declared intention to deal with Iran and North Korea. However, the upping of the stakes by the US has called forth a commensurate response from its main challengers. The resistance to the US plan for a second Gulf war was led by France, which threatened to use its veto on the UN Security Council; but even more significant is the explicit challenge issued by Germany, which hitherto has tended to work in the shadows, allowing France to play the role of declared opponent of US ambitions. Today however, Germany perceives the US adventure in Iraq as a real menace to its interests in an area which has been central to its imperialist ambitions since before the First World War. It has thus issued a far more open challenge to the US than ever before; furthermore, its resolute 'anti-war' stance has emboldened France, which until quite close to the outbreak of war was still hinting that it might change tack and take part in the military action. With the outbreak of the war, these powers are adopting a fairly low profile, but historically a real milestone has been marked. This crisis has pointed to the demise not only of NATO (whose irrelevance was shown over its inability to agree on the 'defence' of Turkey just before the war) but also of the UN. The American bourgeoisie is increasingly regarding this institution as an instrument of its principal rivals, and is openly saying that it will not play any real role in the 'reconstruction' of Iraq. The abandonment of such institutions of 'international law' represents a significant step in the development of chaos in international relations.

The resistance to US plans by an alliance between France, Germany, Russia and China shows that, faced with the massive superiority of the US, its main rivals have no choice but to band together against it. This confirms that the tendency towards the constitution of new imperialist blocs remains a real factor in the current situation. But it would be a mistake to confuse a tendency with an accomplished fact. This is mainly because in the phase of capitalist decomposition, which is marked by growing disorder in international relations, the movement towards the formation of new blocs is being constantly obstructed by the counter-tendency for each country to defend its own immediate national interests above all else - by the tendency towards every man for himself. The powerful divisions between the European countries over the war in Iraq has demonstrated that 'Europe' is very far from forming a coherent bloc, as some elements of the revolutionary movement have tended to argue. Furthermore, such arguments are based on a confusion between economic alliances and real imperialist blocs, which are above all military formations oriented towards world war. And here two other important factors come into play: first, the undeniable military dominance of the US, which still makes it impossible for any openly warlike challenge to be mounted against the US by its great power rivals; and secondly, the undefeated nature of the proletariat, which means that it is not yet possible to create the social and ideological conditions for new war blocs. Thus the war against Iraq, however much it has brought imperialist rivalries between the great powers into the open, still takes the same basic form as the other major wars of this phase: a 'deflected' war whose real target is hidden by the selection of a 'scapegoat' constituted by a third or fourth rate power, and in which the major powers take care to fight using only professional armies.

The Iraq war further undermines US authority

Although the USA's attack on Iraq demonstrates its crushing military superiority to all the other major powers, the increasingly open character of its imperialist ambitions is tending to weaken its overall political authority. In both world wars and in the conflict with the Russian bloc, the US was able to pose as the principal rampart of democracy and the rights of nations, the defender of the free world against totalitarianism and military aggression. But since the collapse of the Russian bloc the US has been obliged to itself play the role of aggressor; and while, in the immediate aftermath of September 11, the US was still able to some extent to present its action in Afghanistan as an act of legitimate self-defence, the justifications for the war in Iraq have shown themselves to be completely threadbare, while its rivals have come forward as the best defenders of democratic values in the face of US bullying.

The first weeks of the military action served mainly to create further difficulties for US political authority. Initially presented as a war that would be both quick and clean, it became clear that the war plan drawn up by the current administration seriously underestimated the degree to which the invasion would provoke a general reaction of hostility to the American invasion, even if this is not accompanied by any great enthusiasm for Saddam's regime. Even the Shiite organisations, who were being counted on to lead an 'uprising' against Saddam, declared that the first duty of all Iraqis was to resist the invader. Equally, the war plan underestimated the capacity of the regime to wage a kind of warfare that would profit from the political difficulties facing the coalition. To win the 'hearts and minds' of the Iraqi population, and convince a more international public opinion that it is waging a humane war, the US coalition needed to make rapid progress and avoid too much civilian suffering. But by luring the invaders onto the terrain of urban sieges and guerrilla warfare, the Iraqi forces have threatened to turn the situation into a real quagmire. The prolongation of the war can only serve to aggravate the misery of the population, whether through the action of Saddam's terror squads aimed at inhibiting any attempts to flee or desert the battle front, through the intensification of coalition bombing which will cause more and more civilian deaths and damage to the infrastructure, or through the multiplication of 'tragic incidents' in which civilians are gunned down by coalition soldiers fearful about terrorist attacks.

At the time of writing (5/4/3), the 'coalition' appears to be gaining ground both militarily and ideologically. Key units of the Republican Guard seem to have been pulverised; Baghdad is being encircled and we are being shown scenes of Iraqi civilians waving at coalition forces as they advance. The Iraqi regime is making itself look more and more ridiculous with its fantasies about military victory, and we are being encouraged to believe that it could collapse without a real fight. The fact remains that it took an unexpectedly long time to take the port of Umm Qasr and that Basra has yet to fall; and the risk remains that the siege and capture of Baghdad could turn into a veritable bloodbath.

The US is thus experiencing considerable difficulty in portraying itself as the 'liberator' of the Iraqi people. And even if Baghdad falls fairly quickly, the Americans' plan to install a puppet regime directly controlled by the US military will tend to increase the bitterness that many Iraqis feel towards the invading force. Moreover, the war is already exacerbating the divisions within Iraqi society, in particular between those who have allied themselves with the USA (as in the Kurdish regions) and those who have fought against the invasion. These divisions can only serve to create disorder and instability in post-Saddam Iraq, further undermining the USA claim that it will be the bearer of peace and prosperity in the region. On the contrary, the war is already stoking up tensions throughout the Middle East and Central Asia. The USA's inability to use Turkey as a base for opening its northern front was already a severe blow to its overall strategy; and since the war began Turkey has been threatening to move against the Kurds in northern Iraq, potentially opening up a war within the war; Syria's anti-American rhetoric (and covert aid to Iraq) has provoked Rumsfeld and Powell to make serious threats against Damascus; India and Pakistan have again begun rattling sabres at each other; and the war in Iraq cannot fail to pour oil on the fire in Israel/Palestine.

Thus, far from resolving the crisis of American leadership, the war in Iraq can only take it to new levels - and that means new levels of barbarism for a growing number of populations around the world.

WR, 5/4/03.


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