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introduction

Imperialism and the Gulf war 1990-91

Preface

The writing of this pamphlet was substantially completed just before the start, on 17 January 1991, of the ferocious US-led air war on Iraq, the 38-day prelude to the brief but devastating four-day land assault by US, British, French and other imperialist forces. It was to have been published by ‘Militant’, precursor to the Socialist Party (England and Wales). Unfortunately, for practical reasons (in the first place, the departure of the author on an unexpected visit to the disintegrating Soviet Union), the pamphlet – so rapidly overtaken by events – was never produced. If it could be thoroughly revised today, many points, even on the processes that led to war, could undoubtedly be amended or elaborated to take account of the actual course of events and fuller information that has subsequently come to light. Nevertheless, although it does not cover the course of the war or its aftermath, we believe that the original text of the pamphlet contains historical background and socialist analysis that may be useful for understanding the currently renewed crisis in the Gulf and the Middle East.

Lynn Walsh, 12 February 2003

Introduction

No war for oil! – Imperialist intervention – A socialist programme against war

No war for oil!

A BARBAROUS WAR is being fought out in the Gulf. Never before has so much weaponry, of such lethal power, been hurled together on a single battlefield. In the first phase of the war, the air forces of the United States and its allies - Britain, France, Saudi Arabia, and the others - have already subjected Iraq and Kuwait to a devastating aerial bombardment. Warplanes have been flying a sortie every few minutes, to pound Iraq with missiles and bombs. Over 60,000 allied air raids had been carried out by 11 February. The destructive power far exceeds that of the weapons used in the second world war or in Vietnam. Not only military targets, but roads, bridges, power stations, factories, and inevitably homes are being destroyed.

The television reports the war as if it were a ‘star wars’ video game. Both the television and the press are subject to heavy censorship. The military carefully filter the news coming out of the Gulf through the official media ‘pools’, which are effectively under the control of the military. Stanley Cloud, a leading journalist on Time magazine, said: "This is an intolerable effort by the government to manage and control the press." (Guardian, 12 February 1991) The public is allowed only a carefully sanitised view of the war.

The assault on Iraq is supposedly ‘clinically precise’, limited to ‘strictly military targets’. Undoubtedly, the latest science and technology has been perverted to enhance the accuracy and destructive power of the weaponry used. On the ground, however, a society is being pulverised - thousands have certainly been killed and wounded. Tens of thousands will already be homeless, suffering from cold, hunger, and sickness. Returning from a visit to Iraq on 11 February, Ramsey Clark, a former US attorney general, accused the US of committing war crimes by causing extensive civilian casualties and damage: "The damage we saw was staggering in its expanse." The head of the Iraqi Red Crescent had estimated that between 6,000 and 7,000 civilians had already died in the allied bombing. "This is an attack on the people of Iraq, the economy of Iraq," Clark said, pointing out that the US military budget was four times the size of Iraq's gross national product. This is before the beginning of the land war, which will bring even greater death and destruction.

The air war against Iraq has already provoked angry mass demonstrations throughout the Arab countries. There is deep-rooted hatred of United States imperialism, which has a long history of supporting repressive dictators and intervening to crush the aspirations of the Arab workers and peasants.

When the United States opened its military action against Iraq on 17 January, Bush, Major, and other political leaders gave the impression that it would be a quick, painless war. Air superiority and hi-tech accuracy, it was claimed, would smash the military machine of Saddam Hussein in a matter of days. This was a blatant deception. Last October General Schwarzkopf himself admitted that hostilities could "last a long time and kill an awful lot of people". A US Army study last year stated: "We do not believe that air power alone will suffice to bring a war with Iraq to an early or decisive conclusion. In the final analysis, ground forces will be required to confront the Iraqi army..." (Independent, 24 January 1991) Warning of the body bags that would be coming home in the event of war, General Schwarzkopf warned: "War is a profanity because, let's face it, you've got two opposing sides trying to settle their differences by killing as many of each other as they can." (Daily Telegraph, 29 October 1990)

Generals like Schwarzkopf, who was a US military commander in Vietnam, are well aware of the barbarity of war. But he will be carrying out his orders in the Gulf. Denunciation of the horror of war is not enough. We must unearth the root causes of war. Why did the US and the Western powers assist Saddam Hussein to build up the military machine they are now fighting to destroy? Why were the United States and its allies willing to spend billions and billions of dollars to sacrifice the blood of thousands of soldiers, sailors, and pilots in a war to smash the Iraqi state? Clearly, such war aims must be linked to the fundamental interests of Western capitalism - its thirst for cheap oil, its greed for world-wide profit, and its drive to command strategic power.

The war is costing the United States "demonstrably less than £1 billion a day", according to Greenspan, Chairman of the US Federal Reserve bank. (Financial Times, 23 January 1991) This is optimistic. According to the Congressional Budget Office the cost of a month-long war would be $28 billion (£14.3 billion), while a six-month war will cost $82 billion (£41.8 billion). These figures were announced just as Greenspan himself officially admitted that the US was in recession, following two successive quarters of reduced economic output. On 4 February, Bush published a budget which included "cuts in key programmes, including an expected $23 billion cut in Medicare, among gloomy predictions about the US recession." (Independent, 4 February 1991)

The first two weeks of the war cost Britain £1.2 billion. Every day it costs another £30 million. Every Tornado that goes down costs £20 million. The Treasury estimates that a 90-day war will cost £3.09 billion. Some City analysts, however, estimate the cost could be £6 billion or even as high as £10 billion (Sunday Times, 3 February 1991). This is at a time when hospital wards are being closed and patients are being refused life-saving drugs because of cuts. Official unemployment figures jumped by more than 80,000 in December. "There remains a chilling possibility," says the Thatcherite Institute for Fiscal Studies, "that the economy could tumble into a deep recession." (Daily Telegraph, 5 February 1991).

Yet while money cannot be found to save the National Health Service, or to build houses and schools, or to keep down soaring poll tax bills, no expense is spared when it comes to the war in the Gulf.

While billions of dollars are burned up in the war, moreover, millions of people face starvation in neo-colonial countries, for want of food, clean water, and medicines. Even before the Gulf war, $1.9 billion a minute was being spent globally on military spending, while every minute 15 children in the world die for want of essential food and inexpensive vaccines. The two are, of course, linked. The capitalist powers build up their military machines and those of their puppets in order to maintain their ability to pillage the neo-colonial world.

"No war for oil!" This is the slogan which is being raised everywhere in the world-wide protest against the US intervention. Few of the soldiers in the Gulf are in doubt that they are there to protect the Western oil supplies and the profits of the giant oil companies. Long before the collision with Iraq, the strategists of US capitalism (as we will show) declared their readiness to intervene to protect their oil interests.

Imperialist intervention

BUSH, MAJOR, AND allied leaders have camouflaged their military intervention in the legality of the United Nations. They are waging war against Iraq, they claim, to defend small nations against aggression, to uphold international law, and defeat dictators. But neither the United States, Britain, nor any other colonial power has ever hesitated to invade sovereign states when it was in their interests. Saddam's Iraq, it is true, is a dictatorship and Marxists do not support the vicious police-state methods by which he maintains his power. However, Kuwait was also ruled by an authoritarian regime, controlled by the wealthy and corrupt al-Sabah family. Saddam's regime, moreover, was supported by the United States when it suited their interests. Now, in waging war against Iraq, the United States is in alliance with equally vicious dictatorships, such as Assad's regime in Syria and the reactionary rulers of Saudi Arabia.

Democracy and dictatorship are not the issue for the ruling class of the United States. What is at stake is their worldwide economic interests, their power, and their prestige. This has been admitted by the former Tory Prime Minister, Edward Heath. Asked on ITV (2 February) how he viewed Bush's "new world order", Heath bluntly described it as "the new imperialism". The new imperialism, however, is merely a continuation of the old imperialism. For decades, the Western powers have attempted to maintain an economic stranglehold over the Middle East. They have never hesitated to support reactionary regimes or to intervene to crush the movement of the Arab peoples.

The US blundered into war. But when Saddam occupied Kuwait, the US made no attempt to find a way out through negotiations. Egged on by Thatcher, and without waiting for either Congressional or UN approval, Bush dispatched the biggest US military task force since the end of World War II. It has now been revealed (Guardian, 12 February 1991), that when Perez de Cuellar went to Baghdad on 13 January, Saddam said he was willing to negotiate on the substantial issue involved in the conflict. The Secretary General's report, however, was concealed - and Bush went to war within 24 hours of the UN deadline expiring.

Bush's action shows that the real aim of the US, from the very beginning, was to destroy the Iraqi state. Bush's policy is to strengthen imperialism's stranglehold over the region, and to crush the further development of the Arab revolution. The war in the Gulf cannot be separated from the general crisis in the Middle East. Even Bush has been forced to accept there is ‘linkage’ between the Gulf and the question of Palestine. The desperate efforts of the US to keep Israel out of the war, achieved so far by the promise of massive additional military and economic aid, underlines the connection.

There is clearly massive support for Saddam Hussein amongst the workers and peasants of the Arab states. This does not imply enthusiasm for Saddam's authoritarian rule. But it shows profound support for a leader ready to stand up to US imperialism, which arms and finances the reactionary state of Israel has denied the Palestinians’ self-determination, and which has generally trampled on the aspirations of the Arab masses. The US is leaning for support on a number of Arab regimes, including those of Syria and Egypt. Washington has cancelled past debts and promised increased aid. But the fury of the Arab masses will ensure that the days of Assad and Mubarak are numbered.

The United States has the military power to defeat Saddam, though at enormous cost. The war will not produce peace and stability in the Middle East. All the problems will remain: the Israel-Palestine conflict; the instability of the regimes of the region; and the underlying economic and social crisis. Militarily, Saddam may be smashed. But as Brzezinski, formerly National Security Adviser to President Carter says: "Considerable anxiety is justified that subsequent to the war, the United States might not be able to extricate itself from the Middle East cauldron, especially if in the mean time the Arab masses have become radicalised and hostile to the Arab regimes that endorsed the US military action." (Testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, 5 December 1990)

A former British Air Commodore, Alastair Mackay, commented: "It would be the most pyrrhic victory in history because all the resources would be gone, leaving economic chaos." Former Labour leader, Dennis Healey, commented that "a war would be totally incompatible with the restoration of peace and security in the area". At worst, "Syria, Turkey and Iran would fight over the corpse of Iraq... the political and economic consequences of such a war would spread far beyond the Middle East. Those Arab regimes which had supported the war would be swept away by their own peoples; their successors would turn their arms against the West, like Khomeini after the fall of the Shah..."

Unfortunately, the present leadership of the Labour Party under Neil Kinnock do not share their former colleague's sober assessment. Clinging to the resolutions of the United Nations, the Labour leaders have slavishly supported the policy of Bush and Major. Shamefully, their role has been to help conceal the real nature of the war from the working class. Speaking in parliament on 21 January, Gerald Kaufman, Labour's shadow foreign secretary, said: "For us, the war is not about oil. I would not condone the sacrifice of one human life in exchange for a billion barrels of oil..." "Nor for us is the war about getting rid of Saddam Hussein." For the Labour Party, "the only aim of the war is the implementation of UN Security Council resolutions 660-678, all of which require the removal of Iraq unconditionally from all of Kuwait." In the same speech, however, Kaufman said: "If the military defeat of Iraq is the only way in which Iraq can be removed from Kuwait, that will be the way in which Iraq is removed." Moreover, in a resolution passed by Labour's National Executive Committee in January, the Labour leadership endorsed the aim of achieving the "substantial disarming of Iraq by the reduction of conventional forces and the verified and complete removal of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons and the means of making them," and further, "the ending of regional superpower status for Iraq..." What does this mean, other than support for US imperialism's intervention to smash the Iraqi state? In parliament, Kinnock said that it would "never be wise, desirable or feasible for the US or any power to attempt the task". "No power has any realistic ambition to assume such a role." According to Kinnock, the US, Britain, the Soviet Union, etc, were merely helping "in providing, through the United Nations, the architecture of collective security in the Middle East". The "construction - the actual task of building (of what?) - is really going to have to be done by the countries in that region". (Parliament, 21 January) Kinnock also came out in favour of "liberating Kuwait from occupation and restoring the legitimate government..." that is, the al-Sabah regime. At the end of the debate, Kinnock applauded Major's promise to "uphold collective security and the authority of the UN". "I believe," Kinnock said, "that that was a statement of conviction from the Right Honourable gentleman; I share his conviction. People are fighting and dying for that principle now."

The Labour leaders, in reality, have endorsed the war aims of American imperialism, and given their support to the Tory leadership in Britain on the issue of the war. Only a handful of the Parliamentary Labour Party, to their credit, have opposed the war. The position of Kinnock, Kaufman, and Labour's front bench has left the field clear for the capitalist propaganda machine to whip up support for the intervention in the Gulf. Once the forces went in, there was inevitably, as in every war, an increase in support for ‘our troops’ in the Gulf. This will change in the next period. The beginning of the land battle, which will be far more bitter and bloody, will bring home the real character of the war. The cost in terms of British casualties, as well as civilian deaths and casualties in Iraq, will provoke massive opposition to the war. But for the abject position of the Labour leaders, there would already be a mass anti-war movement in Britain.

Nevertheless, large sections of the youth and workers are opposed to the intervention in the Gulf. This is not on pacifist grounds, but because they know that it is a war for oil, for profit, and for the strategic power of imperialism.

Black and Asian workers and youth have already suffered a barrage of abuse and physical attacks, whipped up by the jingoistic gutter press. The whole labour movement must fight against such racist attacks.

A socialist programme against war

THE MARXISTS IN the labour movement oppose this imperialist war in the Gulf. We are against a single life or a single penny of workers’ taxes being sacrificed in the interests of capitalism. The analysis on which they are based and our full programme are outlined in the pamphlet. Our demands are as follows:

  • No to imperialist intervention, let the people of the Middle East decide their own fate.
  • End the slaughter: US and British troops out of the Gulf.
  • Support the workers and youth of the Middle East in their fight to rid themselves of the dictatorships.
  • For a democratic, socialist Iraq, which would give self-determination to all national minorities and allow the population of Kuwait the right, through a referendum, to decide their own future.
  • For a socialist confederation of the Middle East.
  • No to conscription: the young people of Britain and the US should not be used as cannon fodder in the defence of big business oil profits.
  • Support for workers and youth who decide to fight conscription.
  • Support for soldiers and reservists who oppose the war.
  • No to sanctions!
  • Kick out the Tories.
  • Defend workers’ living standards: cut defence spending and use the money on health, education and housing.
  • Fight for a socialist programme.