WILL THE United States go to war against Iraq? Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld appear determined to bring about a ‘regime change’ through a pre-emptive strike. They undoubtedly have the military power to destroy Saddam’s regime. But the consequences would be horrendous for the people of Iraq and the whole region.
Saddam is a ruthless dictator, but his overthrow is a task for the Iraqi people. US imperialism intervenes only to protect its own interests: strategic power and control of the region’s oil reserves. Intervention, moreover, would provoke new convulsions throughout the arc of conflict, from the Middle East to central and southern Asia. Far from bringing stability, a US military strike would intensify the cycle of turmoil and war. The likelihood of new terrorist attacks on the US and other Western states would be increased. The price of oil has already been pushed up by the ‘phoney war’ being drummed up in Washington. Another conflict in the Gulf would drive prices sky high, at least for a time, which could push the world economy into a global slump, for which workers and the poor would pay the price.
The US is isolated on Iraq. Leaders of France, Germany, and other NATO allies have come out against a military attack. Only Blair has failed unequivocally to oppose such action, maintaining servile and largely thankless support for Bush. Facing growing opposition, Labour’s foreign secretary, Jack Straw, has called for a return to UN weapons inspection before any military action. His call was summarily dismissed by Rumsfeld. The split among the major capitalist powers, however, is paralleled by a surprising split within the leadership of the US Republican party. Serious strategists of the US ruling class are alarmed at Bush’s headlong rush to war, which they see as a reckless course that would rebound on US imperialism. ‘Old guard’ Republicans in Congress and Washington’s foreign-policy establishment have mounted an intense public campaign to change Bush’s Iraq policy. Whether they will succeed is an open question. War, with all its dire and unpredictable consequences, certainly remains a real danger. There is a growing anti-war movement around the world, including in the US itself. This must be given even greater strength in the coming weeks.
Bush’s ideological hawks
US FOREIGN POLICY has been highjacked, under the leadership of Bush and vice-president Cheney, by the extreme right-wing faction of the Republican party. They are linked to the ultra-neoliberals, the religious right fundamentalists, Texas oil and gas corporations, and the most rapacious sections of finance-capital, like Enron. They seized on the overwhelming public US response to the 11 September attacks as an opportunity to implement an agenda long ago incubated in right-wing think-tanks: a massive new build-up of military might, including offensive nuclear weapons and a missile defence system; a more aggressive strategy internationally, with or without the support of traditional allies; a readiness to launch pre-emptive attacks on US-designated ‘rogue states’ and ‘terrorist organisations’.
The regime of Saddam Hussein has always been at the top of the Bush-Rumsfelt hit list. Saddam’s survival since the 1990-91 Gulf war is felt by the second Bush presidency as an irksome challenge to the US’s paramount global power and prestige. The failure to take Baghdad in 1991 was, in their view, a serious mistake that undermined the ‘New World Order’ proclaimed by Bush senior. ‘Containment’, based on economic sanctions and ‘no-fly zones’ enforced by US and British air power, has failed to topple the regime (despite half-a-dozen attempted coups). After the relatively easy US victory against the Taliban regime, the Bush leadership believes that the time has come to settle accounts with Saddam. They are also desperate to get control of Iraq’s massive oil reserves.
‘Regime change’ in Iraq, they claim, is simply the next phase of the ‘war against terrorism’, of the US crusade of ‘good’ against ‘evil’. Leaders of the European powers are appalled at this simplistic approach, based on the arrogant assumption that international problems can all be resolved through the exercise of the US’s overwhelming military power. ‘With us or against us’, is the message from Washington, and to hell with diplomacy.
The hawks – Bush, vice-president Cheney, defence secretary Rumsfeld, his deputy Wolfowitz, national security advisor Condoleezza Rice, advisor Richard Perle – have come to dominate foreign policy as well as military policy, while Secretary of State Colin Powell has been marginalized, at least for the time being. For once, we can agree with Gerald Kaufman, a veteran of the right-wing Labour Party leadership: "Bush, himself the most intellectually backward president of my political lifetime, is surrounded by advisors whose bellicosity is exceeded only by their political, military and diplomatic illiteracy". The military tops, the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, have made it clear through a series of leaks to the press that they are against war on Iraq. Beyond the overthrow of Saddam, they see no clear objectives and no serious policy for the aftermath. "Generals are against war, but amateurs are for it", writes columnist William Pfaff (International Herald Tribune, 12 August). Who among those baying for war, he asks, "has personally spilled blood, or seen it spilled, or even heard shots fired in anger?" The leading hawks mostly did time as defence department bureaucrats, avoided Vietnam, and at best experienced only peacetime military service.
The apparent determination of Bush and company to charge into war with Iraq has alarmed more far-sighted representatives of the US ruling class. There are necessary ‘Steps Before War’, warned the New York Times (editorial, 11 August). The president should not go to war without the consent of Congress, without an alliance with other powers, or without exhausting diplomatic measures. To do so would be "a terrible mistake that could cripple a military campaign before the first shots were fired and undermine American [imperialism’s] interests abroad". During August, a public campaign began to rein in the Pentagon hawk’s reckless policy – led, perhaps surprisingly, by the ‘old guard’ of the Republican establishment.
Republican ‘old guard’ attack Bush junior
TERRIFIED OF BEING denounced as ‘unpatriotic’ after 11 September, Democratic party leaders have avoided criticising Bush on foreign and defence policy. With the mid-term elections on 5 November, "Democrats [are] nervously watching a growing debate over whether the US should start a war… fearful that it could shift attention away from the economic issues that now dominate their agenda". (Washington Post, 20 August) Short-sighted opportunists, they lack the political courage to warn of the disastrous repercussions for US workers of war with Iraq. They give no lead in mobilising mass opposition to a pre-emptive military attack that would bring US casualties and have bloody consequences for the people of Iraq and surrounding states.
The assault on Bush’s Iraq strategy has been led by leading Republicans from Congress, the state department, and the Reagan and Bush senior administrations. They speak from the standpoint of a more realistic, balanced assessment of US imperialism’s interests. The cruellest blow to Bush junior came from Brent Scowcroft, who was national security advisor to Presidents Ford and Bush senior, a former air force general who is a doyen of the Washington foreign policy establishment. Scowcroft played a key policy role in the 1990-91 Gulf war and later co-authored a joint memoir with Bush senior. His ‘patriotism’ is unimpeachable. Significantly, his ‘shot across the White House lawn’ was published in the Wall Street Journal (15 August), Wall Street’s right-wing voice.
Saddam is a ‘menace’, says Scowcroft, and "clearly poses a threat to key US interests," above all US access to the region’s oil. "It may at some point be wise to remove him from power". Meanwhile, the US should continue the policy of containment, exerting pressure on Saddam through sanctions and weapons inspection. Saddam has "aggressive regional ambitions", but "there is little evidence to indicate that the US itself is an object of his aggression". Scowcroft implicitly rejects far-fetched attempts by Rumsfeld and co to link Saddam to the 11 September attacks. An attack on Iraq at this time would seriously jeopardize the US’s "pre-eminent security priority… the global counter-terrorist campaign". Bin Laden and Mullah Omar, despite the Taliban’s defeat, may well be hiding out in the Afghan-Pakistan border region. Moreover, according to the leaked report of the UN monitoring group, Al-Qaida is ‘fit and well’, with up to $300 million assets, and "poised to strike again at its leisure". (Guardian, 30 August)
Like others from the Republican ‘old guard’, Scowcroft warns of the dangerous repercussions for US imperialism of war on Iraq. Militarily, the US could undoubtedly defeat Iraq and destroy Saddam’s regime. "But it would not be a cakewalk. On the contrary, it undoubtedly would be very expensive… and could as well be bloody. In fact, Saddam would be likely to conclude that he had nothing to lose, leading him to unleash whatever weapons of mass destruction he possesses". In other words, there could well be massive US casualties, arousing mass political opposition at home.
In 1990-91 Bush senior, with the help of Gorbachev, was able to build a broad coalition of states against Iraq. Neighbouring states provided regional bases for US forces, while contributions from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Japan, Germany and others more than paid for the war (which cost $60bn). Now "there is a virtual consensus in the world" against a US attack on Iraq. Go-it-alone US action would be extremely costly and militarily risky.
In a second Gulf war, Scowcroft warns, Saddam might use weapons of mass destruction to provoke Israel to respond, "perhaps with nuclear weapons, unleashing an Armageddon in the Middle East". Such horror cannot be ruled out, any more than a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan, though that threat has receded for the time being.
A US assault on Iraq would totally destabilise the Middle East, already a boiling cauldron of anger at US support for Sharon’s assault on the Palestinians and the US war on Afghanistan. If the US turns its back on the Israel-Palestine conflict, says Scowcroft, in order to go after Iraq, "there would be an explosion of outrage against us… Even without Israeli involvement the results could well destabilize Arab regimes in the region, ironically facilitating one of Saddam’s strategic objectives. At a minimum, it would stifle any cooperation on terrorism, and could even swell the ranks of the terrorists". That is an understatement.
Not a single Arab regime supports US military action against Iraq. Three of the US’s key allies, the dictatorial regimes of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Pakistan, have come out against war on Iraq. US action might well lead to their overthrow and the emergence of anti-US fundamentalist regimes.
Scowcroft is one of a squad of ‘old guard’ Republicans who have joined the campaign against the Cheney-Rumsfeld drive to war. They include Lawrence Eagleburger (Secretary of State under Bush senior), James Baker III (Secretary of State, 1989-92) and even by Nixon’s notorious national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, who was responsible for engineering the bloody 1973 coup against Allende in Chile and other covert US interventions. This is not a ‘peace party’. They would like to see ‘regime change’ in Iraq. They are not friends of those suffering under repressive regimes. They are far-sighted strategists of the US ruling class who recognise that to go war against Saddam now, without allies, would rebound dangerously on their position at home and abroad.
Weapons of mass destruction?
UNLIKE THE BUSH hawks, many senior Republicans in Congress feel the need for UN cover for a US attack on Iraq. The case for war against Saddam, they say, has not yet been convincingly made. Given the opposition of the European powers (apart from Britain), Russia, China and others, a new Security Council resolution is feasible only on the basis of serious moves to reinstate UN weapons inspection. Rumsfeld dismisses this as a sham: ‘Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’. But people like Richard Lugar, senior Republican on the senate foreign relations committee, are not ready to back a pre-emptive war without a ‘smoking gun’. "We are all saying today that we have not found the evidence [of deployable nuclear chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons], but somebody has to ask, ‘Why not?’."
Scott Ritter, however, chief UN weapons inspector in Iraq for seven years, believes that "Congress has been dangerously mute" on the issue. A Republican supporter who voted for Bush, Ritter dismisses Rumsfeld’s claims about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction as ‘speculation’. "While we were never able to provide 100% certainty regarding the disposition of Iraq’s proscribed weaponry, we did ascertain a 90-95% level of verified disarmament. This figure takes into account the destruction or dismantling of every major factory associated with prohibited weapons manufacture, all significant items of production equipment, and the majority of the weapons and agents produced by Iraq". (Boston Globe, 20 July) Moreover, the International Atomic Energy Authority has reported that it had eliminated Iraq’s nuclear weapons programme "efficiently and effectively". (Daily Mirror, 27 August)
If Saddam were rebuilding factories to produce new weapons, says Ritter, the evidence would be readily detectible. "The technology is available; if Iraq was producing chemical weapons today on any meaningful scale, we would have definite profit to show, plain and simple, and there is none".
According to Condoleezza Rice, Saddam’s willingness to use poison gas is one of the main justifications for destroying his ‘evil’ regime. The hypocrisy of this is further exposed by a recent report that, when the US was backing Saddam’s regime against Iran in the 19881-88 war, "the Reagan administration provided Iraq with critical battle planning assistance at a time when they knew that Iraq would employ chemical weapons in waging the decisive battles". (New York Times, 18 August) The Reagan government publicly condemned the use of gas, especially after Saddam attacked Kurds in Halabja in 1988. However, one of the senior US military staff advising Saddam says: "The use of gas on the battlefield by the Iraqis was not a matter of deep strategic concern". Another comments: "It was just another way of killing people…".
Now that strategists of the ruling class are alarmed at Bush’s reckless course, more of the truth is beginning to come out. After giving Bush and co a free hand after 11 September, Congressional leaders are belatedly trying to reassert some control over the presidency.
US military options
RUMSFELD HAS HIMSELF conceded that air power alone will not remove Saddam. Some of his advisors, however, have floated the option of an ‘Inside-Out’ attack. (New York Times, 29 July) After air bombardment, special forces between 80-100,000 strong would strike at Baghdad, eliminating Saddam and his command structure. With the support of anti-Saddam forces, the US would be able to control the country. But Saddam’s military machine, though weakened since the Gulf war, is still much stronger than the Taliban’s forces. There are no forces inside Iraq comparable to the Northern Alliance and other warlord militias who fought against the pro-Soviet regime. Aside from the problem of logistical support, given the limited bases now available to the US, the ‘Baghdad first’ tactic would be extremely risky. "The US", warns Samuel Berger, formerly Clinton’s national security advisor, "should be very wary of turning its military into an international rescue squad. America does not need a Bay of Pigs in the Gulf". (International Herald Tribune, 10 August)
The overwhelming view of current military commanders, ex-commanders and most strategic experts is that the only realistic way of guaranteeing the removal of Saddam and setting up a pro-US regime would be through a ground invasion deploying around 250,000 troops. "This", writes Berger, "would be a challenging and costly mission, with possible urban combat, chemical weapons attacks, Saddam’s use of civilian shields…". Unlike the mainly desert war of 1991, Iraqis would be defending their homeland. The strength of military and civilian resistance is unknowable in advance, but if US forces are drawn into urban fighting, their casualties could be high. One former CIA Iraqi expert has raised the spectre of a ‘Mesopotamian Stalingrad’. (New York Times, 27 August)
Rumsfeld and co appear to have no plans for post-Saddam Iraq. A stable pro-Western government in Baghdad would require a long-tern military presence (75,000 according to one army expert) and a huge infusion of reconstruction funds (estimates ranging from $50bn to $150bn). The expense, however, would not be the US’s only problem. While promising ‘democracy’ for a post-Saddam Iraq, a pro-US regime would inevitably be the autocratic administration of a US military protectorate. Preventing the break up of Iraq, moreover, would be a major problem, as neighbouring regimes (Syria, Iran, Turkey) contested for influence among the country’s Sunni Moslems, Shi’ite Moslems (60%) and the Kurds. Already, Rumsfeld has promised Kurdish leaders an autonomous entity within a federated Iraq (in return for support against Saddam), while trying to placate the Turkish regime with assurances that the US will maintain Iraq’s territorial integrity. "Turkish officials have warned that they are prepared to go to war to prevent Iraq from declaring a kind of mini-Kurdish state within Iraq". (New York Times, 15 August) This is just one foretaste of what awaits the US if it occupies Iraq.
US opposition to war
HORROR AND OUTRAGE at 11 September gave Bush overwhelming, largely uncritical support for military aggression abroad and an assault on democratic rights abroad. At present only a small, radical, mainly young minority actively oppose Bush’s measures. Last November 74% supported sending US ground forces to Iraq according to polls. However, this is now down to 53% – e even though 86% believe that Saddam is supporting terrorist groups planning to attack the US and 53% believe he was involved in 11 September. (USA Today, 25 August). If the US does invade Iraq, support for US military action is likely to soar initially as Americans rally round the flag. But significant US casualties and the horror of war (brought home by television) will arouse growing opposition in the US, especially if the invasion and its aftermath were to drag on. Behind the crude poll figures there is a more thinking, questioning mood.
The New York Times (3 August) conducted two dozen interviews in Scottsdale, Arizona. Some people favoured a strike against Saddam, "but many more argued against an American offensive. Democrats and political independents interviewed were nearly unanimous in their opposition to an invasion, and most Republicans felt the same way". Most felt the administration had not developed a rationale for an invasion. "While several people said they would back administration plans if more information convinced them the cause was just, only one expressed unconditional support for military action". "War really opens up a can of worms", said one woman, a Republican voter: "You don’t know whether it could lead to a third world war or what".
Newspapers in the US have been printing letters from readers who lived through the Vietnam war. "The eras may be different, but the consequences will be the same, writes a woman from Romeo, Michigan" (USA Today, 25 August). "We will fight a fruitless war at the cost of thousands of valiant American lives. I was a teen at the time of the Vietnam War, and I remember it well. I don’t want to see this generation have to watch soldiers’ funeral processions through neighbourhoods. I don’t want to see another generation of our children slaughtered for what they think is patriotism and the American way". War she writes, should be only a final resort: "If President Bush feels this war is necessary, then when the first US helicopter lands in Iraq with our troops on the battlefield, his foot should be the first on the ground and the last up when they leave". Even quicker than during Vietnam, a US invasion of Iraq would provoke wide opposition and a mass protest movement against the US’s aggressive actions.
US imperialism faces an acute dilemma, and so does Bush. With Rumsfeld and Cheney to the fore, Bush’s government appears irreversibly committed to ‘regime change’ in Iraq through a pre-emptive military strike. Under a barrage of criticism from the Republican ‘old guard’ and the serious capitalist press, Bush seems to have taken half a step back, saying that he is a ‘patient’ man, still listening to the debate. At the same time, Cheney made a bellicose speech (28 August) indicating that the administration has firmly set a course for military action against Iraq. The outcome is undoubtedly in the balance. There is tremendous and increasing pressure from the mandarins of the ruling class. Their immediate objective is to press the president to go to Congress for approval before going to war – in the expectation that the process would block a unilateral, pre-emptive strike against Saddam. Nevertheless, it cannot be ruled out that Bush will unleash a war.
For Bush himself, no small consideration will be the results of November’s mid-term elections and his assessment of his chances of re-election in 2004. A messy war with casualties, coming together with economic stagnation and endless business scandals, would not be favourable. Yet an about-turn on Iraq would be a serious political defeat for Bush, and could lead to a split with his ideological hawks, who do not appear to care about electoral prospects. Going to war might politically destroy his presidency by 2004. But a retreat by Bush in the next few months – and especially a split in his cabinet – would almost certainly doom him in any case to follow his father as a one-term president.
War with Iraq under present conditions would create a contagious rash of new problems for US imperialism. Any gain in prestige from inflicting defeat on Saddam would soon evaporate. Yet after Bush’s loud threats of ‘regime change’ and Saddam’s taunting of the super-power, a retreat from military intervention would be a setback for the US. This dilemma highlights the limits of US power. Contrary to the delusions of the ideological hawks, unassailable military power, does not give the US unlimited, unilateral power to impose a hegemonic political order on the whole world. The more far-sighted US strategists are more realistic than Bush’s aviary of hawks; but beyond pragmatic defence of US power and wealth they have no long-term answers either. On the quicksands of worldwide capitalist crisis, today’s ‘settlement’ is only tomorrow’s conflict. Imperialism, which upholds capitalist exploitation and oppression, is at the root of the problem, and therefore has no solutions. The way out of the nightmare is through system-change, a struggle by the working class and poor masses for a socialist world.
The ’Contents’ of ST68 are posted on the web at socialismtoday.org, together with the full texts of this article and a feature on Britain, "Can the Labour Party be Reclaimed?". Texts of all other articles will be posted on 10 September.