Iraq: Is US imperialism invincible?

"A WAR to remake the world" is how Michael Ledeen, a leading neo-conservative associated with the Bush government, described the war on Iraq. Exactly how the world could be remade was succinctly explained by White House hawk Richard Perle when he said that victory for US imperialism in Iraq would enable them to "deliver a short message, a two-word message: ’You’re next’".

After the war…

Is US imperialism invincible?

This premeditated showdown with Iraq was always conceived by George Bush and Co. as a war, not for democracy or human rights, but to increase US imperialism’s economic and military dominance of the world.

Part of their strategy is to frighten, not just the peoples of Iraq, but the oppressed worldwide, particularly in the neo-colonial countries. Bush’s regime wants everyone to believe that US imperialism is all-powerful and that there is no choice but to bow down before it.

The bellicose threats against Syria in recent weeks give a graphic illustration of how US imperialism intends to use their victory in Iraq to bully the rest of the world. While no immediate prospect of war lies behind these threats, they are designed to say ’you could be next’ if you don’t fall into line, particularly over the Palestinian question.

The anti-Iraq-war movement was unprecedented in its scale and international character. Never before have so many marched against a war before it began. Yet, despite the mass protests the war went ahead and the US and British forces won.

It is true that the war was not quite the ’cakewalk’ that US politicians had predicted, taking 21 days instead of seven. Nonetheless, the Anglo-American troops faced limited resistance, and were able to secure a relatively easy victory. The question that now weighs on the minds of the millions who demonstrated is ’can US imperialism be challenged or is it, as they would have us believe, all powerful?’

To the socialist the victory of US and British imperialism was no surprise. From the time Bush first starting banging the drums of war we argued that, once a war started, victory for the US was inevitable. The Iraqi regime was defeated quickly both because of its far inferior military equipment and its narrow base in Iraqi society.

Contrary to imperialism’s expectations the majority of the Iraqi people did not unequivocally welcome the US and British forces as liberators, but nor were they prepared to fight to defend Saddam Hussein’s brutal dictatorship. The Anglo-American forces faced fierce opposition on a number of occasions but this came overwhelmingly from a narrow layer of Iraqi militias and armed forces.

The attitude of the vast majority of the population, including most of the Iraqi army, was to try to stand aside from the conflict and concentrate on surviving this devastating war.

Limited victory

FOR THESE reasons the Iraqi regime collapsed quickly but this does not mean that US imperialism is all-powerful. On the contrary, whilst the Iraq victory has undoubtedly strengthened US imperialism in terms of its perceived power, its increased military presence in Iraq and its control of Iraq’s oil, it is nonetheless a very limited victory.

It has made the world a far more unstable place, dramatically increased tensions between the different imperialist powers, and created problems for US imperialism which will, at a certain stage, reveal its fundamental weakness.

In the Middle East, the Secretary General of the Arab League predicted that war in Iraq would ’open the gates of hell’. In the short term this has not proved to be the case, but this war has massively increased the hatred of the Arab masses for US imperialism.

The running sore of the Palestinians’ suffering has now been added to by the occupation of Iraq. This time, rather than against crimes committed by Israel, as a US-backed regime, anger will be directed against direct colonial intervention by US imperialism.

At present the anger of the Arab masses may take the form of the seemingly passive, sullen hatred that comes with defeat. But if US occupation of Iraq is prolonged, or if another country is invaded by the US, it will erupt into a tidal wave of defiance. If, for example, the US were to attack Syria there would probably be far larger numbers than in Iraq travelling from across the region to fight against the US.

Daddy Bush’s victory in the last Gulf war was, of course, less complete than this victory – after all, Saddam remained in power. However, its consequences, set against the background of the collapse of Stalinism, were far more favourable for US imperialism.

In its aftermath, they were able to agree the Oslo Accord, which for a period of time, raised the Palestinian and Arab masses’ hopes that imperialism offered a way forward for the Palestinians. Experience cruelly shattered those hopes, and the result was the second Intifada.

Now, after another decade of vicious repression, if any deal results from George Junior’s roadmap, it will not raise one-hundredth of the hopes that the Oslo Accord was able to do. In fact it is more likely to further increase the Arab masses’ anger from day one.

Growing opposition

INSIDE IRAQ, whilst there is relief that Saddam has gone, opposition to US and British occupation is growing rapidly. After escaping decades of dictatorship the Iraqis are not going to easily accept a new oppressor – this time a colonial occupier.

Bush and Co.’s original plan, that pro-Israeli arms dealer, General Jay Garner would run Iraq for two years or more is now looking increasingly unviable. If the US is to have a cat in hell’s chance of creating a veneer of stability in Iraq they have to come up with some kind of Iraqi-led regime very quickly.

In trying to establish a client regime, however, US imperialism faces the problem of the ethnic and religious make-up of the Iraqi population. The Shia majority, particularly oppressed under the Sunni-dominated Saddam regime, are determined not to return to that situation, and are the main force demonstrating against US occupation.

There are many variant trends within the Shia population and it is too early to say from outside whether the dominant mood will be of a purely Shia consciousness, leaning towards Iran, or whether there will be more of an Iraqi national outlook.

However, as Rumsfeld made clear when he said that an Iranian-sympathising-Shia government "will not be permitted", the Iraqi people will not have a free choice. In fact, the US will try to prevent any regime coming to power, whether or not it is in the Iranian mould, unless it will guarantee US’s strategic control over Iraqi oil.

And, as Bush has already stated, the US military bases in Iraq will not go home with Jay Garner – they are likely to be permanent. As this reality becomes clear to the Iraqi masses resistance will grow including, at a certain stage, a growth in suicide bombings and guerrilla attacks. US and British lives are likely be on the line enforcing the ’peace’ far more than they were fighting the war.

Bush represents the most arrogant section of US imperialism – after this war they are more puffed-up still. However, their arrogance is not based on reality. Most serious of their many miscalculations is their failure to pay any regard to the power of the oppressed, particularly of the working class.

In Iraq they have got away with it so far because of the narrow base of Saddam’s regime, although the future may well be different. However, if US imperialism tried to go to war against any democratically elected government that had a popular base amongst the population they would face a far more difficult task, this would be even truer for a socialist government.

A glimpse of this is given by events in Venezuela in April of last year. The radical populist President, Hugo Chavez, was overthrown by a right-wing military coup. It is clear that US imperialism backed and encouraged the coup in part because they wanted to have a ’friendly’ regime in control of Venezuela’s oil before they went to war with Iraq. The response of the so-called democrats in New Labour to this military coup was to express happiness that the "demagogue" Chavez had been overthrown!

However, New Labour spoke too soon. The poor in the shanty towns of Venezuela combined with large sections of the rank and file of the armed forces swept Chavez back into power. Faced with this massive movement of popular support for Chavez, US imperialism had no choice but to retreat.

Even the short-sighted Bush government understood that, however much they wanted the right-wing in power, it would have been disastrous at that stage to use direct US military force against an uprising of the Venezuelan people.

The Times correctly declared during the Iranian Revolution of 1979: "Never invade a revolution". For imperialism to try to use direct military force against any popular movement is an extremely dangerous strategy because of the huge opposition it can provoke worldwide, and crucially in the US itself.

Covert measures

A section of the Bush government, for example, would like to use military force to finish off Castro’s regime in Cuba, an irritant to US imperialism, particularly because it is next door, and is still based on a form of planned economy (albeit without genuine workers’ democracy).

However, while such an attempt cannot be ruled out given the short-sighted nature of the Bush government, the most serious strategists of imperialism realise it is better to use economic and covert measures to try to defeat Cuba.

They understand that the Cuban government still has strong support not only in Cuba but throughout Latin America, both because of the achievements of the revolution and because Cuba is seen to have stood up to US imperialism.

And invasion would meet with armed resistance from the Cubans and mass movements across the continent. This in turn would have an effect on the population of the US, where Latin immigrants form a large minority. Given these difficulties, even the US hawks are perhaps likely to opt for increased military intervention in other parts of Latin America, such as Columbia, rather than a direct attack on Cuba.

US workers foot the bill

THE MORE serious representatives of US imperialism are worried by the rashness of the Bush clique, as was shown by the warning of Lawrence Eagleburger, Secretary of State under Bush Senior, who put a shot over Bush’s bows by saying that he should be impeached if he tries to go to war against Syria or Iran.

Above all, it will be the growth of opposition to Bush’s policies within the US that will terrify the imperialists. The US is not one homogeneous block. The majority of the US population are themselves oppressed by US imperialism. The richest 0.5% of the US population own as much as the bottom 90%.

As the war on Iraq began the House of Representatives voted through swingeing cuts in benefits – for war veterans. The current crisis in the US economy means increased poverty for millions of workers in the US. Even during the boom 45 million Americans lived below the poverty line.

Working-class Americans have more in common with the working class and oppressed of Iraq or Venezuela than they do with Bush, Rumsfeld or the owners of the big oil companies.

It is true that the US ruling class was able to successfully use September 11 to temporarily win the support of the majority of US workers for the war on Afghanistan and then on Iraq. However, the unparalleled scale of this year’s anti-war movement worldwide has also had its reflection in America.

Demonstrations against the war have been hundreds of thousands strong. This is bigger than the movement against the Vietnam war was at the same stage. And it was the movement against the Vietnam war in the US, particularly when it won support amongst the working class, which played the major role in forcing the US troops to withdraw.

Support for Bush’s stance on Iraq has, in the immediate aftermath of the war, according to opinion polls, increased to 71%. However, only 44% approve of his economic policies. As the American working class are asked to foot the bill for the war (which already stands at $74 billion) anger against it will increase.

It is likely to be far harder for Bush and company to win support for another ’war on terror’ whether against Syria or some other state. It is even possible that Bush will suffer the same fate as his father who had approval ratings of 91% after the first gulf war, only to lose the next election.

International socialism

HOWEVER, THE working class in the US and in Britain have no organised voice to campaign for and lead mass action, whether against imperialist war or to the class war conducted by big business at home. The struggle to create such voices – mass parties that organise and represent the working class in the imperialist countries – is a vital part of the struggle against imperialist war.

If such a party had existed in Britain at the time of the massive two-million strong 15 February demonstration our call for general strike action, to bring the country to a halt in protest at the war, would have been a real possibility.

The opportunities to found new mass workers’ parties will increase in the coming period. The war on Iraq, and its bloody aftermath, has revealed the brutal nature of 21st century capitalism to millions. This will feed into, and strengthen, the anti-capitalist movement. A new generation are beginning to try and find the means to change this brutal world. The opportunities for socialist ideas to gain support are potentially huge.

In the future, as the socialist movement grows stronger, imperialism’s attitude to socialist governments will become a central issue for the workers’ movement. Socialist governments would undoubtedly be a threat to US imperialism.

They would begin, for example, by bringing into democratic public ownership the big companies of the country concerned, so as to use those assets to improve the living standards of the whole population. In any country on the planet today, many of those companies would be owned by US multinationals.

Nevertheless, it would be wrong to conclude that a socialist government would be powerless before the might of US imperialism. It is one thing for imperialism to win support for taking action against the reactionary Taliban or Saddam’s vicious dictatorship. It would be an entirely different question to justify an attack on a popular socialist government which was making open appeals to the US working class for support.

At the start of the last century the working class took power for the first time in history – in Russia in 1917. Although it degenerated later the Soviet Union began as a genuine workers’ state. There are many differences today, but also lessons we can learn.

The Soviet Union was faced with 21 imperialist armies attacking it – trying to crush this first attempt at socialism. Yet this poor country, with a badly-equipped, hungry army, was able to claim victory in a little under three years. As support for socialism spread amongst the troops attacking the Soviet Union, the imperialist armies were forced to withdraw for fear of the socialist plague spreading to their own countries.

Today, the imperialist countries have weaponry that was unimaginable in 1917. But they also have a far more informed working class. Modern communications mean that, despite all the distortions and lies of the capitalist media, working people are aware of international events.

It could be entirely possible for a future socialist government to win international support on a scale so large that US imperialism would be unable to take military action against it.

On the contrary the prospect of a socialist US, as a real step towards a socialist world, would be raised.

However, it is vital that the socialist movement organises internationally. That is why the Socialist Party is affiliated to the Committee for a Workers’ International, which organises in 36 countries, including the USA.

Special feature from The Socialist, paper of the Socialist Party, CWI in England and Wales.

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May 2003