Iraq: debate on the real motives behind the war

Printer-friendly version

This article was written for our German publication Weltrevolution, no 118 ('Internationalist voices against the war'). It was written in response to a growing number of groups and elements who are searching for an internationalist response to the capitalist war-drive. As such its arguments are not merely of local significance but can be applied to many similar efforts throughout the world, including Britain. We will come back to some of the latter in another issue of WR.

When the Iraq war was unleashed a year ago there were a number of voices that took up a postion against the war from an internationalist point of view and which unequivocally denounced both imperialist sides. In our press we mentioned several of these voices Apart from the importance of the condemnation of the war from the point of view of the working class and the denunciation of the so-called 'peace camp' (Germany, France etc.), we pointed out that there are a number of different approaches to explaining the roots of the war. Now, one year after the war, we want to come back to some of these explanations, because revolutionaries are obliged to verify their analysis of the situation and the perspectives in the light of reality.

Why was the war waged? One central theme of the explanations of some groups was that the war was unleashed in order to give a boost to the economy. Thus the Frankfurt Proletarian Circle wrote: "Imperialist wars are not just a simple mistake of the system, a mere coincidence, which flows from the antagonistic interests of the states and the companies and their struggle to acquire oil. Wars are an expression of the crisis of the capitalist world system. A promising way out of this economic crisis, which all the industrial states are presently experiencing, is war. This is the option that the USA is presently choosing. Since capitalism is constantly hit by the crisis, the violent destruction of commodities and capital, the redistribution of the market, resources and zones of influence - that is war - have become a cyclical necessity. The 'peaceful' roads of capital maximisation, as we constantly see them in the form of mass lay-offs, worsening of the relations of exploitation, destruction of social welfare and hostile take-over bids, are no longer sufficient for the long-term profit maximisation." ('No peace in Iraq, no peace with the imperialist system!') Unfortunately we do not know what the comrades of the Proletarian Circle say about the subsequent developments because the circle has since dissolved.

On the one hand, the war filled the pockets of the armaments companies and those companies who received contracts through the reconstruction programme. But does it mean that the US economy has recovered since the war? Is the economy about to recover?

According to US figures, the costs of the war during its 'hottest phase' amounted to some $70 billion - if there are any realistic figures at all. To these figures we have to add the cost of the occupation forces: 145,000 US-soldiers require about $1 billion a week, which amounts to more than $50 billion a year - with no end of the occupation in sight. Furthermore, we have not mentioned the cost of the British, Polish, Spanish, Korean, Japanese troops, and that the cost of their maintenance is also being financed to some extent by the USA. The total costs of the war far exceed the revenue of the armaments companies and of those companies that received contracts for reconstruction.

The idea that war serves as a boost for the economy is a naive miscalculation, because in reality this war will mean a gigantic blood letting, a real haemorrhage, for the US state and for US capital. Both the immediate costs of war as well as the entire armaments programme adopted under Bush have led to the biggest budget deficit in the history of the USA. While the budget surplus during Clinton's last year in office was still $120 billion (due to the brutal austerity policy of the Democratic President at the expense of the working class), now, after 3 years of intensive rearmament under the Bush administration, the USA will be facing a deficit of more than $500 billion. All in all, this amounts to an increase of more than $600 billion. In 2005 armaments expenditure is scheduled to rise by 7% to $402 billion, yet the cost of the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan are not yet included in these figures. In 2003 alone, the USA spent some $10 billion for its 9,000 troops in Afghanistan, while the country itself received only some $600 million in 'development aid'. The budget of the Ministry for Homeland Defence is scheduled to increase by 10% to $33.8 billion. Thus under Bush 'defence expenditure' will have risen by a third. What were these $600 billion spent on? Maybe a small portion on civilian recovery programmes (certainly not on programmes for fighting poverty), but a large part has certainly been poured into the war machine.

Contrary to the position of the Frankfurt Proletarian Circle, the ICC thinks that, "The wars of decadence, unlike the wars of ascendancy, do not make economic sense. Contrary to the view that war is 'good' for the health of the economy, war today both expresses and aggravates its incurable sickness�War is the ruin of capital - both a product of its decline and a factor in its acceleration. The development of a bloated war economy does not offer a solution to the crisis of capitalism...The war economy does not exist for itself but because capitalism in decadence is obliged to go through war after war after war, and to increasingly subsume the entire economy to the needs of war. This creates a tremendous drain on the economy because this expenditure is fundamentally sterile...The present war in the Gulf, and more generally the whole 'war against terror', is linked to a vast increase of arms spending designed to totally eclipse the arms budgets of the rest of the world combined." (from the 'Resolution on international situation', adopted by the 15th International Congress of the ICC, which took place at the time of the war).

From an economic point of view the goals of the war have become more and more irrational. Because of the war the US state undermines the competitiveness of its economy. Even if some armaments companies make gigantic profits, the US state itself has to increase its debts astronomically. The money that flows into the pockets of the armaments companies in reality is financed by the credit policy of the US state, which is forced to collect money everywhere for financing the war machinery. But unlike 1991, when the costs of the war (some $60 billion) were financed collectively by the 'Coalition', the US is now forced to finance most of the cost of the war itself. At the recent Madrid 'donor conference', where the US had hoped to collect some $36 billion for the next four years, they received a blank refusal from the other states. The US only collected $13 billion, which was given not as grants but as credits. In addition, most of the money designated for reconstruction has been spent on financing the USA's military presence: it was not spent on the actual reconstruction. In 2003, out of the total special US budget funds for Iraq of $80 billion, only $20 billion was actually spent on reconstruction programmes. The largest part was swallowed by the costs of the occupation. The relationship between the military and 'civilian' expenditure is approximately 3:1.

In decadent capitalism wars do not serve to boost the economy. It is not the economy that chooses the option of war, but it is militarism that has imposed its laws more and more on the economy. (See Chapter 7 of our pamphlet The Decadence of Capitalism).

Wars for oil

Another major element of explanation put forward by many groups was that it was a 'war for oil'.

Attac and other leftist groups claim that Bush is only a puppet of the oil industry. For them it was above all Vice-President Dick Cheney - as the man of the oil and construction industry - who was the driving force in the war against Iraq, who had imposed the idea of controlling the oil resources in the region onto the US state. Even if the groups of the internationalist camp do not repeat this crude argument, some place their whole emphasis on the importance of oil resources and the control of oil prices. Thus a representative of the Berlin group Aufbrechen explained months before the war at a discussion in Berlin: "Antagonistic interests are clashing with each other. The question is who controls the oil tap? Oil is not only the last raw material that cannot be replaced by synthetics, but because of its central role in the production of energy it has become the 'lubricant' for the capitalist economy. This is why a low crude oil price corresponds best to the conditions of accumulation of capital, in order to achieve high profits and to keep the costs of reproduction of the proletariat in the industrial countries low�For Washington, the long-term and direct control of the second biggest oil reserves of the world seems more important than a low oil price in the short-term [with a special reference to the instability and the significance of Saudi-Arabia]. In this context, the oil reserves of Iraq have moved into the focus of the US administration, which is known as a lobby of the US oil industry" (Leaflet of invitation to a public debate by Aufbrechen, Gruppe Internationale Sozialisten, November 2002).

Can the war be explained by 'local' factors (availability of raw materials) and the respective role and importance of these raw materials in the economy? What link is there between the availability of raw materials and the development of militarism?

The booty the US has received so far from the oil wells is fairly 'modest' to say the least. One year after the war, oil production has not really got off the ground. In January 2004, Iraqi oil production reached 2.2 million barrels, out of which 1.8 million are exported. Before the war production capacity was around 3.5 million barrels. So far, the hope that Iraqi oil resources might enrich the oil companies has not materialised: it was hoped that Iraqi oil revenues might pour some $25-$50 billion into the pockets of the oil companies. In order to bring in this amount of money, Iraqi oil production would have to be increased to 7 million barrels a day. But oil pipelines are being destroyed repeatedly through sabotage. Years will go by before the Iraqi oil infrastructure is sufficiently modernised. Moreover it's not at all clear what proportion of the oil profits from Iraq will indeed flow into the pockets of US companies. One year after the Iraq war the oil price was at around the same level as before the war. The Iraqi oil revenues will neither be sufficient to boost the economy of the country nor will they be sufficient to cover the war funds of the USA.

Furthermore, the situation today is not comparable to the situation after the Second World War, when in the midst of a ruined Europe, with the biggest destruction above all in Germany, the Marshall Plan served as a lever to initiate a 20 year long reconstruction period. In addition, the USA has so much debt today that it has to go and beg for money: without the billions that other countries invest in the USA, the US economy could not survive. Also it is now obvious that US troops - and other troops who are part of the US-led alliance, as well as Iraqi police and other state institutions - have become the preferred targets for terrorist attacks. This is not a favourable environment for US business activities or foreign investment.

If the US has not shied away from the gigantic costs involved, even if no (short-term) economic benefit can be drawn from this, then why did they unleash the war? What key role does the Middle East play?

The geo-strategic interests of the USA

After September 11th the USA placed its global strategy at 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...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" (International Review 113 'Resolution on the international situation', April 2003, point 6).

Against this background of the global geo-strategic approach of the US bourgeoisie, where it is the only superpower left since the collapse of the Russian bloc, where it has to confront any new possible challenge to its hegemony with the greatest determination, where it must not stop short of using any means, and where the US aims to encircle Europe and Russia in the long-term, it is indispensable to have an additional tool for blackmailing its rivals other than its direct military domination. For the US it is of decisive importance for it to be able to exploit Japanese and European dependency on oil supplies from the Middle East. If they can close the oil tap whenever they like, then on this level the US has scored an important point, because while the US are occupying Iraq the Europeans cannot get access to the Iraqi oil without the permission of the US. Consequently, most of the European states and Russia will have no option but to try to push the US out of Iraq.

But even this strategically important point that the US has scored, which gives it a considerable advantage, has turned out to be a double-edged sword. US intervention has unleashed a spiral of terror and chaos in the region. This can only contribute to the undermining of US influence in the Middle East and thus offer America's rivals more room for manoeuvre.

The explanation that the Iraq conflict was a 'war for oil' cannot offer a sufficient explanation if the US finds itself in an increasingly worsening quagmire. We can see that wars have increasingly detached themselves from a simple cost-benefit calculation and the needs of the military have become prevalent.

War has become the mode of survival of the decadent capitalist system: "Imperialist policy is not the policy of one or of some states, it is the product of a certain level of development in the world development of capital, a profoundly international phenomena, an indivisible totality, which can only be understood in its global context and that no state can escape from." (Rosa Luxemburg, Junius Pamphlet)

For reasons of space we cannot deal with other types of explanation of the war. However, those groups that a year ago said that Europe was acting as a single bloc against the USA should verify their analyses in the light of reality: developments have since confirmed that Europe is not a unit. And those who saw behind the Iraq war the defence of the predominant position of the US currency - and thought that the war was unleashed because the USA wanted the oil-trade to continue to be paid in US dollars - also have to put their analysis into question. The reasons why the value of the dollar has continued to fall need answering, and why the euro for some time now has reached record heights against the dollar. Even if the exchange rates are determined by different factors, we can still see - one year after the war - that the US dollar has not been able to strengthen its position.

Instead of boosting the economy, instead of pouring gigantic sums into the pockets of the oil-companies, the spiral of war has not only worsened in Iraq but in the whole Middle East. To reduce this worsening of barbarism to some simple economic calculation would be to underestimate the impasse of the capitalist system. Therefore, the Iraq war should force us to draw a more profound balance sheet on the prospects of the capitalist system as a whole.

Da, 15/3/04.

Political currents and reference: 

Recent and ongoing: