Middle East: The February Gulf crisis

Working people across the world were relieved that war was averted in the Gulf in February. Tens of thousands of Iraqi people, perhaps more, would have been killed if US-led imperialism had launched its promised murderous attack. This would have added to the already intense suffering of the Iraqi people caused by imperialism, after the devastation of the 1991 Gulf War and years of barbaric sanctions. The Iraqi bourgeoisie and military rulers also heap unending misery on the masses. While Saddam and his clique – surely one of the most brutal dictatorships in the world today – build opulent palaces for themselves and spend huge amounts re-arming, the masses live in extreme poverty and squalor.

Most commentators predicted that a US-led attack on Iraq was imminent. However, a number of factors led to a change of policy: sharp inter-imperialist differences, the hostility of the Arab regimes to armed action, a lack of clear military and political objectives on the part of the US and its allies, and the degree of mass opposition to an attack, in the Middle East, advanced capitalist states and the US itself. The mood of the masses of the Middle East brought home to imperialism that an attack would have ignited the region with profound social and political consequences. The Arab masses are otraged at what they see as imperialism’s double standards: Israel continues to ignore UN resolutions with impunity while Iraqis are mercilessly punished by sanctions. The already barely alive Israeli/Palestinian ’peace process’ could have entirely disintegrated if an attack had taken place against Iraq, leading to a bloody ’second Intifada’.

A setback for US imperialism

The UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan brokered a deal with Saddam Hussein in Baghdad on 24 February. The agreement, and at least a temporary hold on war, represents a setback and a loss of prestige for US imperialism and the Clinton presidency. Many Republican and Democrat congress politicians have fiercely attacked the deal. In 1991, the US and allies were able to ’teach a lesson’ to wayward bourgeois states in the ’Third World’ and the colonial and ex-colonial masses, through the horror of the Gulf War. In 1998 US imperialism was unable to re-enact this bloody policy. Nor could the US impose its will on the UN.

It is true that Saddam back-tracked at the eleventh hour in the face of a severe military bombardment. However, this climb down is unlikely to threaten his position in the short term. In fact he has been emboldened in the eyes of the Arab masses as someone who ’stands up to the West’, despite the brutal nature of his regime. Like Egypt’s Gamel Abdel Nasser, who faced military defeat at the hands of Britain, France and Israel in 1956, Saddam has emerged strengthened from imperialist aggression and the division amongst world imperialist powers. The onus was on US-led imperialism to act decisively, to ’eradicate Saddam’s (so-called) weapons of mass destruction stockpiles and capability’ and to either further weaken or remove the Iraqi leader. US imperialism has singularly failed to achieve any of these goals or to assert by military might its attempted hegemony in the region.

Annan, balancing between divided imperialist powers, the Arab states and Iraq, was able to play a relatively independent role in the crisis. He has issued stern warnings to Iraq not to renege on the deal but is also able to challenge the US policy of enforcing sanctions on Iraq for as long as Saddam remains in power.

Will the US strike Iraq in the near future to regain lost credibility and to cow the region? We cannot rule this out. The high-tech Armada has been kept on standby in the Gulf and the US has decreed its intention to act in its ’national interests’. Clinton has boasted the US "would have the unilateral right to respond at a time, place and manner of our own choosing." All the factors (imperialist military and economic rivalry in the region, Saddam’s "rogue state", the restive anti-imperialist mood of the masses) that led to the crisis and threat of a bombardment, are still present. On the other hand, to carry out an attack now that a ’compromise’ has been made would earn the US the wrath of the masses not just in the Middle East but the world over. The issues which mitigated against a US-led imperialist attack – the opposition of the Arab regimes to military action, the anti-imperialist outrage of the masses in the region, the growing mood against war plans in the US, Britain and the West, a divided UN, the conflicting interests of imperialist powers – these all persist and have been added to by the retreat of the US and Britain. Welcoming Annan’s deal Boris Yelstin warned that a US attack "would not end with Iraq (but) involve a much greater territory and significantly more countries." It is not at all certain that the present US-led mini-coalition would survive another attempted war drive. Even Britain, Washington’s most compliant ally, was uneasy at conducting bombings without a renewed UN Security Council resolution backing such action (an unattainable aim, as the US understood). The financial costs of maintaining an enormous military presence in the Gulf (so far over $6oo million for the US presence of 35,000 troops, 30 warships and 450 warplanes) and the logistical requirements of such an operation, means a show of strength cannot be maintained indefinitely. Moreover, this show of imperialist hardware acts as a dangerous provocation to the Arab masses. It is most likely Clinton and Blair, while talking tough, will conduct a military retreat over a period of time (unless Saddam flagrantly flouts the deal). Hawkish elements in the Clinton cabinet and Pentagon will argue and prepare for a future showdown, manufacturing the conditions to go to make an attack. Other military strategists argue against undertaking military action which has indistinct goals. The US has asserted its intention to use military action in its own interests. However, it cannot use this strength at will.

The Annan Deal

The fine print of the ’memorandum of understanding’ between Annan and Saddam clearly shows that despite initial claims of outright victory by Washington and London, these powers have been forced to cede ground. UN inspectors are allowed "immediate, unconditional, and unrestricted access" throughout Iraq. The new team has been given authority over 1,000 to 1,500 buildings and unlimited inspection of 8 ’presidential palaces’ (accompanied by ’diplomatic chaperones’). Washington fears that if inspectors are accompanied by diplomats from Russia, France or other powers which take a more lenient view of Iraq, Saddam will be given an easy passage. The accord’s ambiguities, particularly about who may inspect which buildings, may enable Saddam to bar certain teams and to allow access to those more friendly. He can still claim to be abiding by the accord. According to a former Unscom member, David Kay, the terms of the new deal are so elastic that it will be impossible to ascertain that ’non-conventional arms’ have been eliminated. The US and Britain desperately wanted the UN security council to adopt a new resolution underwriting the ’memorandum of understanding’ with military force. Russia and China agreed to a resolution warning Saddam of dire consequences if he should delay or obstruct Unscom operations but which falls short of authorising a UN military assault. The US and Britain are again reduced to considering future unilateral military action.

On paper Saddam has retreated but in most ways he has gained. In the eyes of the Arab masses he is perceived as having faced down US imperialism. He can bargain to end sanctions from a stronger position. The UN will now allow Iraq to produce enough oil to achieve $5.2 billion in oil sales every six months, up from $2 billion, in the ’oil-for-food’ programme (though Iraq can only pump up to $4 billion in oil every six months because of the drop in oil prices, a lack of equipment, materials and spare parts). US policy in the region lies in tatters. Plans to indict Saddam before a tribunal and to enforce ’no-drive zones’ in northern and southern Iraq, which were seriously considered in Washington circles, now look ludicrous and fanciful.

Whether the Annan deal holds will crucially depend on the relaxation of sanctions and the West providing technical assistance to enable Iraq to produce more oil. There are signs of this happening. If the sanctions are not considerably relaxed Saddam would probably impose curbs on weapons inspectors, leading to renewed confrontation with the US. Otherwise, a relaxation of sanctions could lead to a growth in trade and the stablisation and strengthening of Saddam’s regime. This in turn could provoke new conflicts with the US.

Failure of US Middle East policies

The US policy of ’dual containment’ of the ’rogue states’ of Iraq and Iran has failed miserably. In fact, the US had begun to change its position towards Iran over the last year, adopting a more ’flexible’ approach. Iran has managed to move out of isolation and continues rapprochement with Iraq and Syria. Ex-Iranian president Rafsanjani was recently received by King Fahd in Saudi Arabia – an audience not extended to leading US politicians trying to drum up support for an attack on Iraq. Egypt kept an open channel to Saddam throughout the recent crisis. A study by the US Army War College, released in the week of the Annan deal, concludes that dual containment "is probably unsustainable over the long term". After the 1991 Gulf War allied victory the US promised an Arab-Israeli settlement through the exchange of stolen Arab land for peace. With the help of European money, the Middle East economic landscape promised to be ’transformed’. This has not materialised. Instead the US is seen to indulge the hawkish policy of Israeli government and the neo-liberal imperialist exploitation of the masses has deepened the region’s endemic poverty. Consequently, Tehran’s policy of a regional security arrangement between the main Arab powers to supplant US ’policing’ of the Gulf has gained some ground. Traditionally crony client states of the US, like Saudi Arabia, accept the need for co-existence with its neighbours, even Iran and Iraq. The public distance Saudi Arabia kept from the US in the recent crisis indicates how far this process has gone. The US foreign policy debacle of the last few weeks will only further this estrangement.

Over the next period Washington may have to modify regional policy in the Middle East. ’Co-operation’ on ’security’ and ’arms control’, even with Iran, may take precedence, for a period, over the bungling gunboat policy of the last years. There are those in Washington who argue for a return to CIA-backed sabotage and subversion in Iraq, where an attempt would be made to topple Saddam through the discredited opposition or a parallel ’provisional government’ would be established. However, always central to US considerations is the question: what real alternative is there to Saddam, and would it be worse? (e.g.. a power vacuum and the break-up of Iraq). For those reasons the main US policy will be to try and subdue Saddam, because for the foreseeable future there is no other choice.

The US has begun a begrudging rapprochement with Iran and its ’reforming’ president to try and cut across profitable investment by competitor capitalist countries . Whereas Iraq under Saddam is a major obstruction to US interests and leads to a hard-line approach, Iran may prove more amenable with a softening shift in US policy (despite reports that Iran has attained Chinese and Russian long range missiles and is developing a nuclear capability). Nevertheless, countervailing pressures, like the regional ambitions of Iran and Turkey, Russian and French imperialist competition in the area, and movements of the masses, means the US, isolated and setback, will be tempted, again and again, to crudely employ its indisputable superior firepower.

Role of the UN

The mandarins in the UN have used the outcome of the Gulf crisis to try and rehabilitate their organisation. After indecision and disaster in places like Somalia and Bosnia, the UN is attempting to portray itself as a benign, independent entity, arbitrating between nations. The Left wing British MP, Tony Benn, congratulated the UN and Kofi Annan for "rescuing the UN from the attempt by the US to dominate it." This misrepresents the real role of the UN. The organisation is dominated by and acts on behalf of the main imperialist powers and their selfish interests. In the Cold War period the UN had been largely paralysed by the contending forces of the imperialist powers and Stalinist states. The East European Stalinist powers collapsed in the late eighties and early nineties and consequently the UN, under the domination of imperialism, was able to act as a cover for the 1991 murderous attack on Iraq. The 1991 Gulf War was a rare example of where the interests of the main powers temporarily co-incided. In the most recent Iraqi crisis we have seen a serious falling out amongst the same powers and the majority could not agree to the pliant UN being used as a cover again for attacks on Iraq. High-minded humanitarianism is the least consideration of the UN. Despite numerous Security Council resolutions, the UN has never acted against Israeli aggression as it would collide directly with US Middle East policy.

Whatever kudos the UN takes from recent events in the Gulf will be short-lived. New conflicts in the region or any number of troublespots across the globe will again expose the UN’s big capitalist powers bias. Already angry remarks by US and British UN officials towards Annan’s deal has taken the shine off his negotiating ’triumph’ in Baghdad. The CWI opposes all imperialist aggression in the Gulf, be that UN economic sanctions or war. We also oppose Saddam’s bloody rule and support all efforts by the Iraqi masses to overthrow this tyrant and his clique.

Consequences of war

The political, social and economic consequences of a conflict, in the region and globally, would have been profound. Anti-imperialist feelings in the Middle East and the colonial and ex-colonial world as a whole would have intensified enormously. The Palestinian/Israeli ’peace process’, already on a life machine, would have been put under enormous strain and would quite likely have totally collapsed. A ’second Intifada’, could have arose from the carpet bombing of Baghdad. New conflicts in the region and within states would be the result of a sharpening of tensions. A one sided war in the Gulf will also have had big repercussions in the West and advanced capitalist states. Anti-war, anti-establishment and anti-big business feelings can rapidly develop in such a situation leading to the radicalisation of whole sections, especially amongst the youth. The results of an ’allied’ attack would not have signified a new strengthened US-led imperialism but rather its historic weakness. Tensions and friction between the main world powers have already been sharpened over Iraq and would have deepened should an attack have occurred. The temporary and not-to-be-repeated factors which combined over 40 countries together during the 1991 Gulf War, are long over. The Gulf crisis indicates the very volatile and unstable period we have entered.

In trying to justify the use of direct military force US and British imperialism conducted a propaganda war against the Saddam Hussein regime for some weeks and months. Fantastical stories about Saddam’s bio-chemical weaponry and even potential nuclear capabilities have been largely uncritically carried by the media. Last October, US Defence Secretary William Cohen held aloft a bag of sugar at a Washington news conference and declared that an equivalent amount of anthrax in Saddam’s hands could kill half of the US capital’s population. Recently, a British minister made a similar statement with the aid of a cup of tea. All of these dramatic claims are pure supposition. There are no hard facts. Saddam undoubtedly still harbours regional expansionist ambitions and will try and gather the military wherewithal to carry out his plans. He has also shown that he is quite prepared to use chemical and biological weapons against his own peoples, such as the Kurds in the north. However, the hugely exaggerated claims and downright lies emanating from Washington and London were used as an excuse to justify an attack. Following the massive destruction by ’Operation Desert Storm’ and years of UN sanctions, Iraq has been brought to its knees. Saddam is no position to pose the sort of world threat that he is accused of.

Imperialism armed Saddam

The CWI totally opposes imperialist aggression and imperialist attacks against Iraq. Murderous air raids are not intended to remove despotic rule in Iraq and to introduce democratic rights. In fact, imperialism would like to see Saddam replaced with a more compliant tyrant (which is not on offer at present). The US is mainly interested in maintaining and extending its strategical and oil interests in the region. Nor will an attack outlaw the indiscriminate use of chemical, biological and other weapons of mass destruction. Pro-US ’friendly’ states like Israel have nuclear capabilities and are suspected of developing offensive biological-warfare programmes. No action is taken against their stockpiles or their occupation of areas like south Lebanon.

Saddam was financed, armed and backed by imperialism when he was at war with Iran during the 1980s. After he gassed to death 5,000 Kurds in 1988 the British government extended war credits to his regime. Regimes which are deemed acceptable to the interests of powers like the US, no matter how dictatorial, are clearly allowed to develop armament programmes unhindered. The US, the only power on earth that has ever used the deadliest weapons of mass destruction – nuclear bombs – has a number of chemical weapons stockpiles in storage sites dotted across its states. US imperialism is not prepared to accept the same rigorous inspection of its own sites that it demands for Iraq. New congress legislation is being prepared to block international inspection of US chemical weapons stockpiles. Historically, along with British imperialism, the US has shown no hesitation in using chemical weapons against the masses – for instance, the indiscriminate use of ’agent orange’ during the Vietnam War. These two powers today are the biggest arms exporters in the world, happily selling to genocidal regimes like Indonesia.

Imperialism’s Limited Military Options

US imperialism has amassed considerable forces in the Gulf with lesser British, Canadian and Australian support. Yet the forces assembled are just a fraction of the total involved during the 1990-1991 Gulf War. This time there were virtually no ground forces assembled. The refusal of Saudi Arabia and other key Gulf states to allow operations to be conducted from their soil means a land invasion of Iraq would be logistically very difficult, if not impossible. Oman, Bahrain and Kuwait can be used to facilitate and service an air strike. Although US ground troops are in the region, mainly in the virtual protectorate of Kuwait, we were never about to see a rerun of 1991. This would have been a military assault limited by the meagre size of the present day ’coalition’.

Many strategical and political problems would have confronted US-led imperialism once an assault on Iraq commenced. If after a number of days air attack there had been no compliance by Saddam then the whole US strategy would have unravelled. Saddam would have found his position strengthened and the UN weapons inspectors would have been expelled. The effect of an air war is open to question. During the Gulf War we were treated to ridiculous claims about the accuracy of ’smart bombs’. The air capability and precision of the allies was hugely overstated. Large fixed objects, like electricity pylons and public buildings, were quite easy to destroy but not smaller and mobile targets like tanks. Ultimately any air strike relies on prior intelligence reports for accuracy and effectiveness (though of course indiscriminate carpet bombing has a devastating effect on the populace). If they don’t know where exactly Saddam’s stockpiles are how can they know whether they have destroyed them? It would have proved impossible for US-led imperialism to accomplish even the official aim of their attack; eliminating Saddam’s bio-chemical stockpiles and capability. Even if they did possess detailed knowledge of the whereabouts of stockpiles, bombing is the least suitable method of eradicating the danger of contagious bacteria and chemical weaponry. In fact a ’smart bomb’ hit would only achieve the madness of potentially spreading deadly fumes over large areas, killing many. To counter this the US argued that bomb attacks would ignite such high temperatures that all germs would be destroyed. Experts in the field disagree with this Anglo-American pseudo-science propaganda. In reality such intense bombing attacks are only certain of inflicting uncontrollable, massive fire-storms on cities and towns. Moreover, there were reports that a new "bunker busting’ weapon, which targets deep underground shelters by means of a nuclear explosion, may have been used on Iraqis. Washington’s war policy in the Gulf is precisely what its accuses Iraq of planning: the use of weapons of mass destruction against a virtually defenceless population.

Appreciating the very limited capability of a sustained air attack led sections of the ruling class in the US to raise the idea of a ground invasion. "Air strikes are not going to solve the problem," said Democrat Congressman John Murtha, "you have to put people on the ground if you want to solve the problem." Ultra-right Republican Pat Buchanan dismissed planned carpet bombing and asked the administration to "just see how enthusiastic we really are about playing Globocop, if it comes to the serious shedding of American blood." Buchanon was joined by others like the Wall Street Journal. Leading Republican congressmen like Newton Gingrich demanded that the assault took on the explicit goal of removing the Iraqi president from power. The Clinton administration did not agree. The Congress as a whole and the Pentagon were against an attempted invasion. A ground invasion would have quickly spread the conflict and the break-up of Iraq. After the experience in Somalia and the Lebanon, where US troops faced casualties and an ignominious retreat, Clinton was not keen to commit his forces to an indefinite stay in a very hostile region. The US and Britain would prefer to see Saddam fall or be ’taken out’ and replaced with a compliant ’benign’ dictatorship. But not at the price of a resulting power vacuum, the division of the country into Kurdish, Shiite and Sunni Muslim entities, and hugely exacerbated regional tensions. For that reason the overriding aim of imperialism was to severely weaken the regime and cow the masses while maintaining the present Iraqi borders (Saddam’s ’controlled’ departure would have been a welcome by-product for imperialism). Despite being the foremost military and economic world power the US is unable to utilise its full strength. It was limited to the option of engaging in air strikes in order to ’punish’ Saddam.

Other imperialist strategists warned of the dire consequences of any attack. General Schwarzkopf, the former commander of allied forces during the 1991 Gulf War, warned that the US ran the risk of repeating the disastrous Vietnam experience. In Britain pro-New Labour newspapers like the Independent and the Guardian either came out against a war or expressed huge misgivings. As opposed to 1991 these Gulf war plans had only minor support and active involvement. Only two of the five permanent member states of the UN Security Council fully support an attack. Even within the ruling circles of the US and Britain there are many who questioned the results of armed action. The whole crisis has exposed the extreme shorted sighted nature of US foreign policy and its international isolation on this issue.

Background To The Crisis

The February weapons’ crisis could properly be traced to October 1997 and back further. Then, as now, a row erupted over UN weapons inspectors’ access to Iraqi stockpiles. If the US really wanted to resolve the crisis it could have reduced the number of US nationals in the UN inspectors’ teams. Not without good reason the Iraqis regarded the high proportion of British and US inspectors as nothing less than intelligence spies. However, it was crucially the scope and aim of UNSCOM activities which produced the crisis. UNSCOM steadily widened its scope of inspection, checking on the whole of Saddam’s military apparatus and its potential to produce future weapons. Saddam placed restrictions on UNSCOM, evidently concluding that UNSCOM, on behalf of US imperialism, would never declare Iraq ’clean’, and sanctions would continue, so long as he remained in power. Clinton wanted to inflict a military assault on Saddam at this point but faced a setback when France and Russia successfully negotiated a compromise. A weakened Clinton was left smarting and planned to engineer a pretext for a future military strike. Clinton’s loss of authority in US ruling circles no doubt made him susceptible to recent scandals about his sexual peccadilloes. In turn, he used the February Gulf crisis to turn attention away from sexual harassment related charges. Now these allegations and other domestic issues have returned.

Long term US plans to force Saddam into submission and to replace him with a puppet regime, which would open up the country to US economic exploitation, have been undermined by other competing capitalist states which have effectively begun to dismantle the trade embargoes. A secret ’oil-for-arms’ agreement between Saddam and Russia was uncovered in 1995. East European states have been selling arms to Iraq for years. Oil contracts between Russia, China and France and Iraq have struck terror into US imperialism which fears losing out in the regional market (i.e. the oil rich Gulf, and new natural fuel markets of the Caucuses and Central Asia). A military assault to destroy or dissuade competing powers from commerce with Iraq was one of the reasons behind last November’s showdown and the recent crisis. Clearly, the classic symptoms of inter-imperialist rivalry have returned with renewed vigour.

End of bi-polar relations

The Cold War marked a period of bi-polar relations. In the Middle East regimes were either in the camp of Stalinism or imperialism, or balanced between the two. The collapse of the Soviet Union saw a radical change in relations and the balance of forces. Imperialism was strengthened and US imperialism especially was able to regain some of its influence lost in the region after the fall of the Shah of Iran in 1979. The majority of Arab regimes became prostrate before imperialism. Imperialist powers have massively intensified their attempts to carve out spheres of influence, markets and sources of cheap labour and resources in the region. Under ’globalisation’ and ’liberalisation’ Arab states are more than ever at the mercy of big monopolies and banks. Arab regimes are more than ever tied to the interests of imperialism, though they still try and play a certain independent role. Iraq was treated a an ally of the West – a useful counterweight to Iran – until Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990. The US could not allow Saddam control of the oil wealth and therefore a dominant position in the Gulf to the detriment of their allies, like Saudi Arabia. A fragile ’coalition’ of reactionary Arab regimes and international capitalist interests was put together and unleashed on Iraq. 100 – 120,000 Iraqis were killed in ’Operation Desert Storm’ in six weeks of air bombardments and a ground assault, the infamous ’turkey shoot’. Iraq was bombed back to the middle ages. Today its GDP is only 1% of that of the US. The Coalition land invasion halted before reaching Baghdad. To win and hold down the capital and entire country would have meant many Coalition troop casualties. The Coalition would have lost most Arab support in the event of a pro-longed subjugation of ’fellow Arabs’. Moreover, imperialism initially wanted to see Saddam overthrown by palace coups or as a result of the Kurds and Shi’ites in revolt. Once simultaneous uprisings were under way however, imperialism backed off fearing the dismemberment of Iraq into a fundamentalist Shi’ite entity closely aligned to Iran, a radicalised Kurdish state, and a rump Sunni Iraq. Once Saddam had brutally put down the uprisings in the north and south neither did Iraq turn out to be a compliant protectorate of the West. Under US insistence ’No-fly zones" and a cruel economic embargo were imposed to try and tame the Baghdad regime. This has led to the death of between one and one and a half million Iraqis, through malnutrition, disease and lack of medicines etc.

Since the collapse of Stalinism US imperialism has emerged as the only superpower. The Gulf crisis however goes to show the limits of this strength. From 1991-1996 the CIA actively backed Iraqi opposition and helped orchestrate a number of unsuccessful coups. The CIA was forced to flee when the Saddam-backed KDP Kurdish group gained territorial control from the Iran-backed PUK in northern Iraq. Saddam survived the Gulf war and has seen off virtually all other world leaders since 1991. He has conducted a war of attrition with the West, testing the limits of US imperialist strength in the region. The ’No-Fly Zones’ and sanctions have not loosened Saddam’s grip on power. The intense suffering of the Iraqi masses may have played into his hands to some degree. In this latest crisis, despite Saddam’s monstrous dictatorship, the enraged masses of the region view him as a victim of imperialism and rally to his side.

Conflicting Powers’ Interests

Even without a single shot being fired US policy over the Gulf has been a disaster. Clinton had bi-partisan support in Congress but was at odds with other imperialist powers. In the aftermath of Stalinism, US imperialism is not able to play the role of binding together and leading the other main powers. Economic and political competition between these powers has sharpened and intensified. The Gulf War Coalition of 1991 arose due to particular and temporary factors. These were: the dominant role of the imperialist powers following the collapse of Stalinism, the threat to many powers posed by Saddam’s stranglehold of oil supplies, support for the war from the leadership of the international social democracies, and the stunning and confusion of the masses following the fall of Stalinism. Today the US could only lead the minor forces of Britain, Canada, Australia, Poland (a candidate for NATO membership) and one or two puppet Arab states into a war with vague objectives and catastrophic consequences.

In 1991 Germany and Japan paid $20 billion towards the costs of prosecuting the Gulf War. Germany gave support to an attack in February 1998 but promised no money. At the same time Germany wants to extend trade and influence in the Gulf region, which means conflict with US interests. France, Russia and China all came out against an attack. They resent the US military bridgehead, established in the aftermath of the Gulf war, over the strategic and oil rich region. All three countries are listed as among Iraq’s ’friends’ i.e.. French, Russian and Chinese companies enjoy direct contract awards with the regime. However, moral outrage is not allowed to get in the way of US companies making big profits from the misery of the Iraqi people. US companies were last year the main beneficiaries of both oil sale and food contracts under the ’oil-for-food’ imposed UN programme. US companies were also third, after France and Australia, in supplying medicines.

France has never given up on its ambition to play a decisive role in the Middle East. Its opposition to US plans in the Gulf was a crucial factor in blocking an attack on Iraq. In the 1960s Paris overtook London as the main arms supplier to Iraq. French is the second language in Iraq. France has its sights on lucrative oil and construction contracts with Baghdad and wants therefore to maintain friendly relations and to get Saddam accepted back into the fold of ’civilised nations’. In this vein Paris advocated more favourable ’oil-for-food’ deals between the UN and Iraq.

Capitalist Russia would like to cultivate the sort of influence the ex-Soviet Union had with Iraq. Last year a $3.8 billion oil deal was negotiated between the two countries. The military and sections of the new capitalist class in Russia look upon US assertiveness and NATO expansionism with alarm – signified by Yeltsin’s exaggerated warnings of a ’Third world war" and constant Russian TV pictures of Middle East anti-US demonstrations. The oil rich Caucuses are vital to Russia’s interests and provide an arena of conflicting interests with the US. The three Caspian republics of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan possess more than 100 billion barrels of oil, the world’s third-largest reserves after the Gulf and Siberia. Military domination in the Gulf supplies the US with a base from which it can project its influence into the Caucuses and Central Asia. US companies have been trying to win contracts in the oil and gas fields of the Caspian Sea.

Unlike 1991, when a defeated Stalinist bureaucracy gave way to the war aims and and strategic and economic interests of imperialism in the Gulf, capitalist Russia now harbours its own regional ambitions and is trying to assert its global influence. The discontent amongst the masses, after years of capitalist ’shock therapy’, is played upon by nationalist and chauvinist politicians. Alekandr Zhirinovsky, who visited Baghdad during the recent crisis to show Saddam support, whips up the mood against demeaning dependence on Western capitalism. China is also emerging as another regional power, extending its influence in Asia. China fears efforts by the US to deepen its penetration into Asia under the cloak of the region’s present financial meltdown. It does not want to see US hegemony in the Gulf either.

The planned assault on Iraq was therefore intended to bolster the position of the US in relation to these other powers as much as it was to deal with Saddam. With military domination over the Gulf the US maintains control over oil supplies which are of vital importance to European rivals. This in itself shows how the coalition of interests amongst the main powers and ’new world order’ of the early 1990s have fallen to bits.

Only Britain has maintained a loyal, subservient role to US imperialism. This third rate power is of more political and symbolic use to the US than actual military assistance. The Anglo-American ’special relationship’ has been given a facelift with Blair in power. He and Clinton talk about a common ’Third Way’ political outlook. This poorly masks the truth of their relations: Britain is Washington’s most dependable, slavish ally in Europe and Britain uses this alliance as a lever in a Europe dominated by Germany and France. The obsequious way Blair ran to aid Clinton’s war plans says a lot about the nature of the New Labour government. This is a government led by openly bourgeois politicians who carry out Tory-type welfare cuts at home and make war against the masses abroad. Within weeks of heralding a new ’ethical foreign policy’ New Labour was prepared to bomb another country. New Labour might try to dress up military bullying and aggression in flowery humanitarian sound bites but they are simply carrying on the same barbaric policies with which the British ruling class has long been associated.

Arab Regimes

It is in the Middle East where the consequences of a US-led attack were most starkly posed. An imperialist attack would have acted as a powerful anti-imperialist impulse throughout the Arab and Muslim nations of the region and indeed throughout the ex-colonial world as a whole. Mainly Anglo-Saxon powers would be seen imposing brute force in addition to economic and cultural imperialism. Only Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain, minor reactionary states, agreed to allow their bases to be used by the US and allies. In private many other Arab rulers may well ’voice the opinion that they want to see the back of Saddam’, as the US administration repeatedly pointed out, but these regimes could not be seen supporting a US-led show of strength against Arabs and Muslims. As Egyptian President Mubarak said in an interview, "The issue is not what the Arab leaders think, but what the public opinion in the Arab world states. They (the western powers) don’t understand the significance of the fact that not a single Arab leader is supportive of the bombing." Furthermore, Arab regimes were threatened by Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Now they fear that the dismemberment of Iraq, as a result of imperialist aggression, could tip the strategic balance in favour of non-Arab adverseries like Turkey and Israel.

Arab leaders like Mubarak recognise the broad, popular appeal of Saddam’s perceived stand against US aggression and his accusation that imperialist Middle East policy is dictated to by Israeli interests. Iraq is threatened with military action to enforce UN resolutions, while Israel is allowed to flout UN resolutions, like Resolution 242, which calls upon Israel to withdraw from territory occupied in the 1967 war. Professor Abdella Shayji, a political scientist at Kuwait University, summed up the general mood, "There is no great love for Saddam Hussein, certainly not here. But Saddam has come to represent the voice of the voiceless in the Arab world. Suddenly, he has become their voice, their leader, their Scud against the frustration and futility they feel with the collapse of the peace process and the fact that nothing has really changed in the New World Order."

The rotten regimes in the Gulf and Middle East are more unstable than ever before. Falling oil prices have led to falling financial revenues. The oil-Sheikhs of Saudi Arabia can no longer give the sort of concessions which helped them maintain a power base in the past. They fear the Shi’ite opposition and Iranian influence more than Saddam. Iraq did not invade another country this time and Saudi Arabia did not feel directly threatened. Iran has also been badly effected by the decline in oil prices. A ’moderate’ pro-Western wing of the clerical elite has stoked up powerful opposition feelings amongst the masses. A Gulf War could bring to a head the contending forces within the theocratic state. Outside powers have previously adopted differing approaches when dealing with Iran; a Franco-Russian plan to develop natural gas reserves in Iran met with hostility from the US which advocated a hard-line approach, and biting sanctions, towards the Islamic regime. Under its new president Iran decided to open up to foreign investment last year, winning oil and gas contracts with French, Italian, Danish and Canadian companies. Unable to stem the flood of European and east European investments the US is showing signs of trying to do deals with Tehran, in order to make sure US firms can join in the scramble for new markets.

All the Gulf and Arab regimes face mounting internal opposition and could face downfall as a result of the mass discontent engendered by an imperialist war and aggression. In Cairo thousands of people rallied waving Iraqi flags during the recent crisis. Palestinians marched with mock Scud missiles and clashed with Israeli troops in the West Bank. In Yemen hundreds joined anti-US protests. Like Egypt, Saudi Arabia has experienced the car bombing carnage of Islamic opposition. Saddam has used Islamic ideas to bolster his own position. One day’s solidarity collection for ’fellow Iraqi Muslims’ raised $2 million (?) in Saudi Arabia before the country’s terrified despots put a stop to it. Jordan has experienced hunger riots over the last few years and with a large Palestinian population King Hussein feels acutely the anger of the masses with the actions of the US and Israel. Street demonstrations supporting Saddam in the capital, Amman, were crushed by the police. Following a number of Arab states, Arafat’s Palestinian Authority tried to enforce a ban on any pro-Iraq demonstrations. Independent radio and TV stations were shut down. Such is the terror of the reactionary ruling cliques, even before a war had started, of the impoverished, discontented masses in the region.

Regional Tensions

The end of Cold War bi-polarity in the region has unleashed regional power tensions. Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria all harbour regional ambitions. Turkey leans on the US at times and then on the EU and Russia. It is angry with the main EU powers like Germany after an unsuccessful attempt to gain entry into the EU. A ’Strategic Agreement’ has been signed with the US and co-operation is being stepped up with Israel. At the same time new agreements have been signed with Russia. This fine balancing act reflects the instability of the Turkish ruling elite and the vital strategic importance of the country. The oil reserves of the Caspian, new markets in the Caucuses, the close proximity of the Middle East and Balkans, the regional drugs and arms trade – all these factors make Turkey’s geographical position vital to imperialist interests. US imperialism wants to see Turkey act as its reliable military, economic and political springboard in the region. However economic, political and social crisis in Turkey itself acts as an obstacle to these ends, as well as the dislocation caused by the bloody war against the Kurds. The Turkish ruling class wants to pursue its own national agenda in post-Cold War world relations. Turkey has developed a more independent distance from the US since the end of the Gulf War, having lost an estimated $27 billion in trade due to the embargo against Iraq. Increasingly sections of the Turkish ruling class have tried to develop links with Turkic and Islamic states. Despite being a vital NATO member, Turkey opposed an attack on Iraq. It would rather see a strong Saddam firmly contain the Kurds in the north. Using the present crisis the Turkish army has made incursions into Iraq against the PKK.

Turkey jostles with Syria and Iraq over water resources and for influence and trade with the Caucuses and Central Asia. Yet in 1996 these regimes all moved against the Kurds in northern Iraq in order to quell any potential revolt by Kurds in their own countries. Whatever the territorial and resources disputes between these local powers they will be loath to precipitate any action which might lead to the dismemberment of states and a power vacuum in the region. The re-mapping of Iraq would have serious consequences for the future maintenance of their own nation-states, especially if the Kurds were to carve out some sort of entity in northern Iraq. The Kurds, like the Palestinians, are by force of circumstances a radicalised people, whose homelands span the countries of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. These powers are therefore against the foolhardy military plans of the US and Britain.

’Peace Process’

The planned attack on Iraq brought closer a general explosion of anger amongst Palestinians. While Clinton threatens Saddam the Israeli prime minister, Netanyahu, tore up the Oslo agreement and was indulged by Washington policy makers and US big business. US banks have given Israel a new $1.4 billion loan and armaments firms have sent long-range fighter bombers. After the fall of Stalinism and the Coalition victory in the Gulf War the US used its supremacy to push Israel into an agreement with Arafat. Having cowed the Arab states the US wanted to try and impose a settlement to the Palestinian question. However, the assassination of the more amenable Israeli prime minister Rabin resulted in the election of Netanyahu and his right wing coalition cabinet. Even the limited concessions given to Palestinians under the Oslo accord have been revoked by Netanyahu; none of four agreed Israeli withdrawals have taken place and the government support new Jewish settlements. The Palestinian Authority statelet, run with an iron hand by Arafat’s faction, cannot begin to address the aspiration for a independent homeland under the poverty conditions of capitalism. Arafat’s own aides have indicated that they are prepared to accept a miserable ’phased redeployment’ of Israeli troops from ’no less’ than 10% of Palestinian land. An uprising by Palestinians in the event of a Gulf conflict would have put Arafat’s corrupt rule under enormous strain. A hawkish Israeli cabinet might have been tempted to send in troops to put down a revolt. This raised the prospect of a direct confrontation between the Israeli Defence Force and the Palestinian Authority police, backed up by an entire population. Such a bloody duel would spill over into places like the Lebanon, where fighting has recently occurred between Israeli troops and Hizbullah guerrillas in the occupied south.

Although a new Gulf war has been averted Netanyahu speaks of a ’Middle East of missiles’. Arafat welcomed the Annan deal as "a very important step to achieving peace" in the Middle East. He will be relieved at the marked lessening of tension in the occupied territories and hopes that international pressure will now mount for concerted efforts in the peace process. Indeed, Britain and US have turned attention to the Palestinian/Israeli issue to try and stabilise the area. Not least of their worries are the recent strike movements by discontented Israeli workers against government austerity programmes. Netanyahu has called for emergency ’Dayton-style’ talks but reliant as he is on the extreme right in his cabinet what can he offer Arafat? All the ingredients which could have led to an explosion amongst Palestinians during a US attack on Iraq still exist. A new Intifada can assume at least a partial class character inside the PA. Huge resentment is gathering up against Arafat and his corrupt PA ruling bureaucracy. PA officials openly do business with Israel and obtain special favours and rights. A PA minister, Jamil Tarrifi, reportedly runs a company building Israeli settlements and requires the protection of well-armed guards. Added to this is crisis within Israel itself. The right wing Likud-led government plans more social welfare cuts which will led to more general strikes and a deepening class differentiation in society. Israeli workers are increasingly alienated from the establishment politicians and despair at the failure of the Oslo Accord. Fundamental fault lines have been exposed in the ’unified Zionist state’ and open up the prospect of the renewed emergence of class politics and creation of independent working class organisations.

Anti-war movement

In the West and the advanced capitalist countries a powerful anti-war movement would have rapidly gain ground once the bombs started falling. In the countries involved in direct military engagement warmongering propaganda was at a pitch. British and US politicians tried to dress up the attack as a mercy mission to relieve the ’suffering Iraqis’ from the hands of the ’evil’ Saddam. They posed a war as necessary to rid the world of a madman bent on launching biological and chemical attacks. Some of this propaganda had some effect, especially as there are so few voices presenting an alternative. In Westminster and in Congress there was near total unanimity for war. Only a handful of politicians, like New Labour’s veteran Left, Tony Benn, dared to take a stand against conflict. Even then they often approached the question in a liberal/pacifist manner and appealed to the UN to arbitrate. However, although the opinion polls in these countries initially showed a majority supported government policy, it was nowhere near as high as the support given to war aims during the 1991 Gulf conflict. Then Iraq had invaded another country and the issues appeared straightforward (though as the war continued the public mood welled up against the imperialist slaughter). This time the US, Britain and handful of other countries stood alone in launching an attack. Other powers and sections of the media contradicted their war arguments. Few people would have been taken in by tales of ’smart bombs’ prosecuting a ’clinical war’. Whatever lukewarm support for a strike existed in Britain and the US was already diminishing by the time of the Annan deal. A CNN survey in mid-February showed 50% were against bombing Iraq and 41% in favour. A poll in the US magazine Newsweek, published just a few days before the Baghdad agreement, found only 18% of Americans favoured air strikes and 39% wanted continued diplomacy. When Madelaine Albright went to ’middle America’ to drum up support for military action she was publicly barracked and derided. Undoubtedly, this was a factor in Clinton’s acceptance of Annan’s mission to Iraq. Any lingering gun-ho support for a war amongst the US working class would have rapidly eroded as a bloody conflict without clear ends began. Bitter divisions would have opened up throughout US society. In other countries not involved in war plans the mood was often already predominantly anti-war.

Protests against war took place in a number of European cities and the US. These threatened to grow dramatically in scale as conflict began in earnest. Youth especially would have taken to the streets. Universities, colleges and schools would have proved hotbeds of discussion and organisation against the imperialist war. A developing youth and workers’ movement in the advanced capitalist states would have emboldened the Arab masses and graphically shown the potentially mighty solidarity which is only possible along class lines.

Socialist solution

The CWI stands with anti-war workers and youth. We present a socialist analysis of events and advocate a socialist alternative to the barbarism of war and capitalism in the Middle East. The people of Iraq and the whole region have the right to resist all imperialist aggression and war plans and to defend themselves. It is in their interests to be rid of the corrupt and despotic rulers of the Arab states. Saddam and his likes can only be overthrown by the masses of Iraq itself. The CWI supports and gives aid to the independent actions of the workers and peasants in Iraq and indeed to all the peoples of the region’s corrupt, brutal regimes. We applaud all bold efforts to build working class and socialist organisations in Iraq and neighbouring countries. Only a socialist federation of states in the region can ensure democratic rights for all and a homeland for peoples like the Kurds and Palestinians. Only a socialist planned economy can eliminate the endemic poverty, unemployment and unending conflict produced by international imperialism and local capitalism and landlordism.

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April 1998