Basra: Another retreat for British imperialism

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"There have been difficult times along the way, but British troops have made an outstanding contribution to laying the ground for a stable and increasingly prosperous Basra - part of a stable, secure and prosperous Iraq"(Independent, 1/4/9). Thus spoke Gordon Brown as British troops formally handed control of Basra over to the Americans.

Brown's optimistic assessment was echoed by various military spokesmen and fellow politicians. However, Andrew Gilligan in the Evening Standard of 30/4/9 sounded a note of caution: "while it is quite true that over the past year the security of Basra has vastly improved, that has almost nothing to do with Britain. The turning point, last spring, was an Iraqi and American military offensive, Charge of the Knights, in which we took virtually no part. Until then, Basra had been controlled by Iranian-backed fundamentalist militias, enforcing head-scarves on women and destroying video shops, as British troops looked on from their fortified base at the airport.

What prompted Charge of the Knights was the Iraqi government's horrified realisation that Britain had secretly signed what was in effect a surrender agreement with the militias to hand Basra over to them, in return for a promise that they would stop attacking us. Part of the deal was that British troops would no longer enter the city...."

Of course, both Gilligan's and Brown's balance-sheets leave aside the problem of whether there is any real long term trend towards stability and prosperity in Iraq. A recent upsurge in murderous suicide bombings, both in the Kurdish north and Baghdad, puts into question the idea that the US troop surge is having a profound impact on the ‘security situation' in the country; and there are also signs that the US strategy of incorporating former insurgents into the anti-al Qaida ‘Awakening' militias is turning sour given the failure of the Iraqi regime to integrate these militias into its military/police apparatus.  

Gilligan however does make a telling point: the British withdrawal from Basra is not at all an example of ‘a job well done' but of yet another retreat by declining British imperialism.

Britain is perpetually caught between the desire to maintain a world role at a military level and the fact of its declining economic power. This has been true ever since the First World War, which brought an end to Britain's capacity to maintain itself as a first rate military power, despite the fact that it was a victor of the war. The full implications of this were not fully apparent in the inter-war period, because Britain still had access to the residual power of its previous world role. The Empire was still formally intact; and in particular the Indian army was still at the disposal of the British bourgeoisie and the policing of the Middle East was greatly assisted by the resources available from India.

The Second World War put an end to Britain's capacity to maintain its world role. There have been many episodes since the Second World War to demonstrate this. The British had to pull out of Greece in the 1940s and allow the US to take over. In 1956 they had to bow to American pressure and bring an end to their military adventure alongside Israel and France against Nasser's Egypt. At the end of the 1960s they again had to accept the inevitable and withdraw most of their presence east of the Suez Canal. Even so, despite announcing a general withdrawal from east of Suez, they actually maintained a military presence in the Gulf, with the agreement of some of the small powers there.

For the future, the British are intent on staying the course in Afghanistan. But the accelerating economic crisis is making it very difficult for them to continue to afford all the implications of their military policy. They are supposed to be buying two very expensive aircraft carriers and their accompanying aircraft. These purchases were aimed at being able to carry out a a policy of increased global intervention. But the dramatic deepening of the world economic crisis is bound to result in a re-evaluation of the affordability of these ambitions. BAe Systems say they are closing three factories, with the loss of 500 jobs because of the ‘downturn' in the overall commitment to Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the 1930s the war economy was able to expand because capitalism only had to deal with a defeated working class. The situation is not the same today. The working class is responding to the deepening of the crisis and has the potential to overthrow this crisis-ridden system.  

Hardin 2/5/9


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