US: cwi comment and analysis – Iraq and Hurricane Katrina show limits of US power

Socialist alternative needed to capitalist barbarism

The twin disasters of Iraq and Hurricane Katrina are huge body blows to the image, cultivated by the Bush neo-conservative gang from the very first day they occupied the White House, that the US is an unstoppable, impregnable hyperpower that can both dazzle and sweep all obstacles in its path aside. On the very day that Bush declared at the UN that “democracy is being won in Iraq”, 154 innocent Shia Iraqis were slaughtered by a suicide bomber, the second bloodiest day since the US invasion in 2003.

This was just weeks after the worst day in the killing fields of Iraq, when nearly a thousand poor pilgrims perished. More than 1800 American soldiers have also died and upwards of 10,000 injured, some severely, in the unwinnable war in Iraq. This is thirteen times the number who had died when Bush stood in front of the banner that proclaimed, “Mission accomplished” in May 2003.

All the claims made by Bush, Rumsfeld and Cheney to justify this adventure have turned to ashes in their mouths. It was confidently expected that, by toppling the Saddam regime, US imperialism and its allies could grab the oil, the second largest reserves in the world, for itself. It could then break the OPEC ‘cartel’ and a stream of cheap oil would turbocharge capitalism worldwide. A massive privatisation programme would follow in the wake of the invasion, enough to sate the appetites of the greedy Halliburton and the rest, who were waiting to sink their teeth into a defenceless and prostrate Iraq and its people.

Although it has less than 5 per cent of the world’s population, because it spends 47 per cent of the world’s military expenditure on a colossal war machine, US imperialism expected it could impose its will with little opposition. First, ‘democracy’ would be established in Iraq, backed up by US military ‘hard power’, and then all the other dominoes, undemocratic regimes throughout the Middle East, would fall and a ‘democratic’ Greater Middle East would come under the sway of US imperialism and its main ally in the regime, the Israeli ruling class.

Instead, a ferocious ‘blowback’ from Iraq has resulted in a ‘domino effect’ in the US itself. As the body count of Iraqis and mutilations of young US men and women have risen, the support for Bush has melted away – a majority of people in the US consider it was a mistake to invade Iraq in the first place and a full 33 per cent want an immediate withdrawal. The scale of opposition to the Iraq war in the US today is even greater than at the equivalent period during the Vietnam War.

Sixty per cent of the US population blame Bush for compounding the natural disaster of Katrina through the inaction, corruption and complicity of the federal government in weakening the defences of New Orleans in what was the most widely predicted disaster in US history. This catastrophe also revealed to the world the rottenness at the heart of US capitalism; the searing poverty and racism. The failure of the federal government to come to the assistance of its most defenceless and poor citizens was compared by one commentator to an army that “abandons the injured and the dying on the battlefield”.

After praising Brown, the leader of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for doing “a heck of a job”, such has been the public outrage in the US that Bush has sacked him and belatedly proffered a mild ‘mea culpa’, generously taking on his shoulders some responsibility for the lack of preparation for the disaster. He has even conceded that an inquiry should be established, conducted by him! This is like an arsonist being put in charge of the investigation of the fires he had previously started!

This bluff has not fooled the American people who are beginning to make the connection between the brutal occupation of Iraq and the daily savagery in the cities of Iraq. Bush’s popularity is at an all-time low, lower now than Nixon at the time of the Vietnam War, which if this was his first term would have ensured it was his last.

Budget deficit

US imperialism thought it could defy the laws of the Vietnam War that it was possible to pursue guns and, if not butter, then tax cuts for the rich. With a yawning federal budget deficit of six per cent of Gross National Product, and expected to be $600 billion this year, it will be difficult for the Bush government to face up to the expected $200 billion bill for Katrina in relief, cleaning up and reconstruction. Most of this will be expected to come from the federal government but with a deficit of this order it will be extremely difficult if not impossible.

If the federal deficit was to balloon much further we could se a precipitous collapse of the dollar. At the same time, the leeway for the Federal Reserve central bank to increase interest rates to compensate for this is difficult, if not impossible. Therefore, the deadly combination of the massive waste of lives and treasure in Iraq – anything from $80 billion to $100 billion a year – and twice that amount expected to be the bill for Katrina adds up to a serious crisis, not just for Bush but for American capitalism as a whole. At the very minimum, economists estimate that US economic growth will drop by 0.5-1%, this year, which will reverberate throughout the whole of world capitalism. If the rise in the price of oil continues, this will add to the recessionary trends already evident.

This has led to a profound questioning of the US, the neo-liberal model par excellence, which has been held up by Bush, Blair and Gordon Brown as the path which the rest of the world must follow. That ‘lesson’ has been drowned in the floods of New Orleans and killing fields of Baghdad in the last two weeks. The result is not just a growing rejection of neo-liberal capitalism but also the search for an alternative.

Even the capitalist commentators have dusted down quotes from prominent advocates of the Keynesian school of economics, of using state expenditure as a means of solving capitalist crises, summed up in the words of J.K. Galbraith: “Private affluence, public squalor.” Others, like Brian Reade, writing in the Daily Mirror (London), look for a socialist solution: “All I have had to do is watch the heartbreak in New Orleans to see the finest advert for socialism since Victorians sent infants up chimneys.” No doubt, this individual was a “socialist” when the immortal Liverpool 47 councillors were fighting for socialism in practice but he kept it to himself then and actually attacked them and Militant (now the Socialist Party) when they heroically fought to realise what he sees as an alternative now.

Never mind, “He who comes to Jesus last”; he now declares, “I am a socialist for selfish reasons. I want the world to be as peaceful, secure and happy as it can be, so mine and my kids’ lives are worth living for. For that to happen, we all need to feel we have an equal right to peace, security and happiness. Because when people realise they haven’t, you get the grotesque anarchy we have seen in circles as far apart as New Orleans and Baghdad. Spot the link. God bless George Bush’s America.”

Events a great educator

This is the theme which the Socialist Party and this paper have been hammering away at when others were singing hymns of praise to capitalism. But events, and those in New Orleans and Iraq are of a monumental scale, are a great educator, can drive home to millions in action that this system offers no way out and we must proceed to construct a force that can transform society in a socialist direction. The mass of working people have not arrived at clear conclusions as yet. But when we read in mass tabloid papers socialist sentiments not expressed in their columns for decades –Timothy Garton-Ash in The Guardian (London) has also rediscovered the writings of socialist Jack London – it means a profound shift in outlook and understanding is taking place.

This growing mood will not evaporate because the problems confronting US imperialism in Iraq and under its feet in the US are intractable. That is underlined not just by the recent bloody events in Iraq but also by the open abandonment of the original aims of the invasion. In place of ‘democracy’ in the new constitution concessions have been made to right-wing political Islam, which “should inform” the legal system. This condemns Iraqi women for instance who, even under Saddam, enjoyed certain secular rights, to a new dark age of barbarism and oppression at the hands of a male-dominated society and reactionary Muslim clerics.

Iraq is also sinking daily into a bloody sectarian conflict that could very quickly escalate into a massive war, which in its number of victims and repercussions could equal the nightmare of Bosnia where 200,000 were killed and two million driven from their homes. The last weak reed propping up the case of Blair and Bush for the invasion that “Iraq is much better off than it was under Saddam” is not the view of the suffering Iraqi people: “After the fall of the regime we thought Iraq was going to be a big workshop, then we ended up in a situation which is ten times worse than it used to be under Saddam.” (A nineteen-year old Iraqi caught up in the bombing in Baghdad on 14 September, speaking to a reporter from The Times (London)).

That bombing was carried out by al-Qa’ida, led by the Sunni sectarian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. It was clearly designed to target poor Shias looking for a day’s work. The aim was to exacerbate sectarian tensions. However, this comes after the capture of Tal Afar in the north, a base of al-Qa’ida, where an attack was launched by 20,000 US troops backed up by Kurds and Shia Turcomen. This, it seems, routed the predominantly Sunni Turcomen and Arab fighters. In turn, this gave an excuse for Zarqawi to attack Shias in Baghdad. As The Independent (London) correctly pointed out, this signifies “the battles for Iraq’s future are increasingly breaking down along sectarian lines”.

And it seems that US imperialism – at least the neocons that are still in the ascendant – is prepared to go along with this scenario. Whether this was a conscious policy from the start or is one that they have resorted to out of desperation is not clear. By basing themselves upon the Shias and the Kurds, they seem to think they will be able to ‘disengage’ from the ‘front line’, retiring to the bases that they need in order to defend their ‘oil interests’ in the country. Not only could this set off the centrifugal disintegration of Iraq into fractured ethnic domains, its consequences would also reverberate through the Middle East where Shias and Sunnis live together side-by-side in many countries. They could be drawn into an ethnic conflict in their own countries if one took place in Iraq itself.

This was clearly the concern of Amr Moussa, Secretary-General of the Arab League, who described the original draft of the new Iraqi constitution as a “recipe for chaos… in Iraq and around it”. The US proconsuls in Iraq and the ‘government’, it seems, have now taken heed of this. The new constitution will now incorporate the Arab League’s charter (making it clear that Iraq is part of the Arab nation as a whole). At the same time, water resources will be managed by central government rather than the provincial authorities and control of the oil, claimed by the Kurds in the north and in the south claimed by the Shias, will be determined at a later date.

Danger of civil war

However, paper concessions in a paper constitution will do nothing to alter the realities on the ground and, in particular, the danger of a terrible sectarian civil war. How to prevent this is something of vital concern to the Iraqi people but also to the thousands who will be marching in the anti-war demonstrations on 24 September. Imperialism will be using the very chaos which they have created and perpetuate daily, particularly the rise in sectarianism, to counter the call for the immediate withdrawal from Iraq.

Like in Northern Ireland – where, historically, we have to remember, as in Iraq, the British ruling class created and fanned sectarianism in the first place – they invoked the real threat of a sectarian civil war to argue for the maintenance of British troops to ‘hold the ring’. The simple demand for ‘troops out’, without linking it to the class alternative of uniting workers on the different sides of the sectarian divide, was not convincing then nor is it now in Iraq.

Even some of those who opposed the war, who marched on the massive anti-war demonstrations, could be seduced by the arguments that troops are ‘necessary’ to prevent a sectarian slaughter. The reality is that, as we have seen, US imperialism is complicit in backing one side against another. Even British troops in Basra in the south, it is now well documented, are in effect allowing, under the guise of a reformed police and army, sectarian Shia militias to act as death squads against innocent Sunni workers and peasants, while the same methods are used on the other side by Sunni sectarians.

Therefore, for the anti-war movement to be convincing in its call for the immediate withdrawal of the troops, it has to link this with the idea of building cross-ethnic class unity to prevent the sectarian catastrophe that looms in Iraq. It is not too late to prevent Iraq plunging into this abyss. There are common areas shared by Sunni and Shia Arabs, Kurds Turcomen and others, and a high degree of mingling and marriage between Sunnis and Shias, etc. There are also large mixed areas. But if the sectarian conflict continues apace, again as Northern Ireland and Bosnia demonstrate, this will not last.

It is, therefore, urgent for the Iraqi workers and peasants to organise common, ethnically mixed militias and common trade union and workers’ organisations to deal with sectarians on either side of the divide. This must be linked to a programme for jobs, opposition to the sell-off of Iraq, one of the biggest privatisation conspiracies in history. Capitalist ‘federalism’ is a recipe for division, with the different elites of Kurds, Shia, Sunni, Turcomen, etc, fighting to cream off the spoils at the expense of the ordinary workers and farmers.

However, a socialist confederation of Iraq would mean something entirely different. It would grant democratic autonomy to the peoples who wished it, and on the basis of a socialist plan of production, would mean that the economic benefits of Iraq’s oil would be evenly and fairly spread to the people throughout Iraq. On the basis of this approach, the imperialist occupation of Iraq can be defeated, the nightmare which confronts the Iraqi people can be eliminated, and a future of peace and prosperity could open up for this plundered country.

US – A weakened giant

Iraq and Hurricane Katrina have revealed US imperialism as a weakened giant. Its overwhelming military might has not led to the victory that it envisaged either in Iraq or throughout the world in the aftermath of 9/11. Even if it opts to openly support the majority Shias at the expense of the Sunnis, it will not be able to easily get out of Iraq. A guerrilla struggle – even one based on a minority, and the Sunni are five million strong – can, as Northern Ireland shows, be drawn out and costly. The US’s plans for an unchallenged world domination are bogged down in the quagmire of Iraq, Hurricane Katrina has shown its soft underbelly, its neo-liberal model is tarnished if not yet completely discredited, and a serious economic crisis looms which will unleash unprecedented social and political turmoil in the US and throughout the world.

Trotsky’s prediction was that the US after the Second World War would arise as the major capitalist force on the planet and would come to dominate the world but in the process would build into its foundations all the explosive contradictions of world capitalism. Somewhat delayed, that has now been realised in the drama that is presently being played out in Iraq and the US. This is shaking not just that society, including the re-emergence of the mighty American working class, but the whole of the world. The possessing classes have made a mess of this world. A socialist world to save humankind from capitalist barbarism is back on the agenda.

From The Socialist, weekly paper of the Socialist Party, cwi in England and Wales

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September 2005