The United States is the strongest power the world has ever seen.
cwi comment and analysis.
The US is the world’s only superpower yet, despite its overwhelming military might, in relation to Iraq, Afghanistan and now Somalia it has become embroiled in situations that it cannot control. Peter Taaffe examines the perspectives for US imperialism.
US ‘empire’ in crisis
It has an army of more than one and a quarter million men and women, with half a million soldiers, spies, technicians, teachers, dependants and civilian contractors deployed in other nations. It also has just under a dozen carrier task forces in all the oceans and seas of the world and, through its doctrine of ‘full military spectrum’, intends to dominate space as well.
This new Rome – called an ‘empire of bases’ by the perceptive US commentator Chalmers Johnson – has 725 officially recognised bases throughout the world; unofficially there are at least 1,700 of these military institutions. Its arms expenditure, bloated enormously since 9/11, is equal almost to the total spending of the rest of the world put together.
The new Rome
Following the attack on the World Trade Centre in 2001, US imperialism sought to unilaterally deploy this force to establish a ‘unipolar world’, in which its power remained unchallenged.
Indeed, one commentator proclaimed that “there was hardly a single prominent figure [in the US] who found fault with the notion of the United States remaining the sole military superpower until the end of time”. Even before 9/11, another asserted: “America is no mere international citizen. It is the dominant power in the world, more dominant than any since Rome. Accordingly, America is in the position to reshape norms, alter expectations and create new realities. How? By unapologetic and implacable demonstrations of will.”
Al-Qa’ida’s attack on the US gave Bush precisely the excuse to realise this dream of the ‘neo-conservative’ cabal that surrounded him from his first day in office. The first target was Afghanistan, then Iraq, to be followed by the bringing to heel of Iran and the subjugation of the whole of the Middle East. This was part of the ‘grand plan’ of transforming the United States’ ‘informal empire’ into an open ‘New Rome’.
It took centuries for the Roman Empire to collapse, yet in less than a decade Bush’s imperial presidency is disintegrating in the sands of Iraq, the mountains of Afghanistan and the chaos of Somalia. The reasons for the record headlong retreat of US imperialism were anticipated by the Socialist Party and the Committee for a Workers’ International. We argued that the use of overwhelming military power alone could not succeed. It would conjure up a massive national and social revolt that would rebound within the borders of the US itself, resulting in what capitalist commentators themselves call ‘blowback’.
The effects of this are seen in the unprecedented slump in Bush’s ratings – standing at 31% in May. He is the most unpopular president since 1945 apart from the hated Nixon, who was driven from office as a result of the Vietnam War and its repercussions in Watergate.
There is no foreseeable end to the horrors of Iraq. The horrible massacre at Haditha inevitably conjures up the similar atrocities of the Vietnam War, symbolised by the massacre of over 500 men, women and children at My Lai. The difference this time is that the revelations of Haditha have come out much more quickly than those of My Lai.
Also, American opposition to the Iraq war is now greater than it was at the time of the Vietnam atrocities, with six out of ten Americans already believing that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was a ‘mistake’. This has compelled normally hawkish senators such as John Murtha to demand a speedy withdrawal of the US from Iraq. However, it is one thing to go into a quagmire but much more difficult to extract oneself from it.
The Independent commented on the bayoneting and shooting of women and children at Haditha: “Clearly, with every passing day, the war that Iraq resembles is Vietnam.”
Yes and no. A widespread nationalist resistance exists in Iraq, as in Vietnam, reflected in the insurgency.
However, at present the insurgency involves the predominantly five million Sunni Iraqi Arabs. The killing of al-Zarqawi – who in any case played a minor role in the resistance – will do nothing to quell this movement, as even Bush and Blair have conceded. At the time of the capture of Saddam Hussein and the death of his sons they sang a different song however, claiming it was a turning point.
The Kurds and the Shias, who constitute the majority of the population of Iraq, have for different reasons either supported the US-led invasion (the Kurds) or tolerated it (the Shias). The Shia elite, in particular, have gone along with Britain and the US as the means of finally realising their power. But now “Shia animosity towards the American and British forces is… beginning to look like that of the Sunni at the beginning of the guerrilla war”. [Patrick Cockburn, The Independent, 24 May.]
At the same time, the communal conflict between the Shias (60% of the population), the Sunni and the Kurds is intractable on a capitalist basis, and is reflected in the tit-for-tat ‘civil war’ which has riven the country.
This is the crucial difference with Vietnam. The opposition to US imperialism was united in the main behind the predominantly Stalinist nationalist forces of Ho Chi Minh and the National Liberation Front, which also reflected a programme of social liberation for the peasant masses in particular.
No such force exists in Iraq which US imperialism could ‘hand over’ to, ‘declare victory’ and come home. There is a clear recognition that the 132,000 American troops backed by a small of force of British troops are incapable of holding the situation in check.
British soldiers have been attacked at a rate of 60 times a month, since the beginning of the year. A thousand British soldiers have gone absent without leave (AWOL) for more than 30 days since the beginning of the war in 2003.
The US is therefore attempting to stitch together an Iraqi ‘national army’, which stands at 230,000 personnel at present but is projected to rise to 320,000 by the end of next year. But, as commentators in capitalist newspapers such as The Independent have recognised, “the allegiance of these forces is to the Sunni, Shia and Kurdish communities, and not to the central government. The problem has always been loyalty rather than training.”
This sectarian impasse cannot be solved on a capitalist basis. This, incredibly, is not recognised by the alleged leaders of the ‘Stop the War’ movement in Britain.
The Socialist Party demands the immediate withdrawal of all foreign forces from Iraq, so that the Iraqi people can decide their own fate. Yet, a complete unilateral withdrawal is unlikely to be undertaken by the US. It invaded Iraq to secure the oil and, while most of its troops (alongside those from Britain and other ‘coalition’ partners) could be formally withdrawn, it is highly unlikely they will immediately give up all of the 110 bases which they occupy in Iraq.
Only an effective, non-sectarian movement of workers – Kurds, Shias and Sunni, as well as Turcomen and others – can fully and lastingly break the military and economic stranglehold over Iraq exercised by US imperialism. This movement would have to be linked to the idea of a socialist Iraq organised on the basis of a democratic confederation, guaranteeing the rights of all the peoples of Iraq, including the minorities.
Nothing is more utopian than the arguments of some ‘socialists’ who maintain that just by withdrawing the troops the Iraqi people would then live in amity, peace and understanding. Left to their own devices, they undoubtedly would.
But on the basis of capitalism, with a historical legacy of division fomented by imperialism and capitalism and exploited by the elites in all the different communities, these sectarian divisions can grow, as the experiences of Northern Ireland and, perhaps more tragically, the Balkans have demonstrated.
Some of the siren voices that restrict themselves to the slogan ‘withdraw the troops’ adopted the same position in relation to Northern Ireland in the past. Withdraw British troops and Protestants and Catholics would live peacefully. Their utopian experiment was never put to the test as British imperialism, although it would have liked to have withdrawn its forces from Northern Ireland, understood that this could trigger a sectarian civil war – created by their own past policies. Therefore, despite the bombings and casualties, they settled in for the long haul against the IRA.
Similar arguments are now raised within the ranks of US imperialism to justify the continued military, and particularly economic, subjugation of Iraq, even if the troops are ‘formally withdrawn to bases’. The task of the Iraqi workers and farmers, therefore, is to forge a class alliance that can show a way out of the horrors inflicted upon them by imperialism and the different communal elites who are struggling for power.
Iraq will never be democratic or free on a capitalist basis. This was underlined by Bush’s visit to Iraq on 13 June. He told the new Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki: “I have expressed our country’s desire to work with you but I appreciate you recognise the fact that the future of the country is in your hands.” Yet, the ‘independent’ Iraqi prime minister received precisely five minutes notice of Bush’s flying visit, a clear demonstration of the relationship between ‘Caesar’ and his pro-consul in Iraq.
However, neither the Iraqi people nor the neo-colonial masses that were meant to be brought to heel by the ‘war on terror’ have been cowed by this. The slogan of Roman leaders towards their colonial slaves was “let them hate us as long as they fear us” (oderint dum metuant). This was the real philosophy of Bush and his gang in the aftermath of 9/11. As a consequence of the US’s actions since then, the masses in the neo-colonial world continue to hate the US even more intensely but they no longer fear them!
Events in Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iran and elsewhere, underline this. The victory of the ‘Islamists’ in Somalia, backed by the local capitalists and the masses desperate for any alternative to the unending chaos, represents “a staggering defeat for the US strategy of counter-terrorism by proxy” in the Horn of Africa [the Guardian].
Since the ousting of the dictator Mohammed Siad Barre in 1991, the country has been under the heel of corrupt warlords who have accumulated vast wealth through the control of ports, roads and airfields with no recognised national authority. The US backed these despots to the hilt because of the fear of the danger of the ‘Talibanisation’ of Somalia. Their miscalculation now threatens to achieve precisely the outcome they wished to avert.
Bush has made threatening noises about preventing a “new base for al-Qa’ida” but after the ignominious retreat of US forces from Somalia under Clinton in 1994 it will not be able to directly intervene militarily. The Islamists, on the other hand, will no more be capable of opening up a new road of peace and prosperity for the suffering Somali people than the Taliban were able to do in Afghanistan.
American and British military intervention in Afghanistan was supposed to extirpate all remnants of the barbaric Taliban, smash the power of the warlords and sweep away the feudal rubbish, including the persecution and discrimination against women. Yet, four and a half years after the invasion, ‘Iraq’ has spread to Afghanistan, with suicide bombers in Kabul, poppy production fuelling the drugs trade at its highest ever and the return of the Taliban in the south.
The writ of President Karzai, contemptuously described as the ‘Mayor of Kabul’, does not run beyond the capital. In the south and the border country between Afghanistan and Pakistan, “the Taliban rule the night”. Medieval barbarism has returned as schools have been burnt down and terrorised women are forced back into their homes. The thin line of US and British troops are incapable of holding the situation in the battle against the Taliban. Therefore the Karzai government, in desperation, is attempting to forge an alliance with the ‘narco-warlords’ and their militias to combat the Taliban.
The 23,000-strong US contingent of troops, together with 9,000 NATO troops, are incapable of securing the country. In fact, it is estimated that a ‘foreign legion’ of 150,000 troops would be necessary just to hold the south of Afghanistan! The complete collapse of the charade of ‘democratic’ government under the Karzai administration, propped up as it is by US and British bayonets, is posed. In desperation, Karzai is attempting to come to an agreement with the Taliban, or a section of it in the south, much as Pakistan has done.
Over Iran, the US has been compelled to reverse its policy of 27 years in offering talks with a regime described by Bush as one of the “axis of evil”. Although US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, declares that there is no ‘grand bargain’ on offer to Iran, it is clear that the US has miscalculated. Its sabre-rattling has not succeeded in eliminating Iran’s nuclear programme. One observer commented that the US’s approach towards Iran over its nuclear programme and the possibility of nuclear weapons in the future amounted to an ultimatum: “Please hand over your gun and then I’m going to shoot you.”
Although there is mass internal opposition to the mullahs’ regime in Tehran, given the history of imperialist intervention and the nationalist resistance to this by the Iranian people, the majority of Iranians are implacably opposed to the threats of Bush and US imperialism.
Contrary to the expectations of Bush, the intervention in Iraq, rather than weakening Iran, has enormously strengthened its position as a regional power in the Middle East. Through its contacts with Hezbollah and because of the retreat of Syria from Lebanon, it is now a major player there. It has also stepped in to finance Hamas in its conflict with the Palestinian authority.
Record oil prices and an increase in trade with Russia, China and India have allowed Iran to shrug off the pressure of the US to give up its nuclear programme. There are sections of the US administration – led, it seems, by Vice-President Cheney – who still wish to resort to a military solution. But a full-scale military invasion of Iran, three times the population of Iraq, is ruled out. The bombing of Iran’s nuclear facilities, however, is still an option which ‘remains on the table’, such is the deranged outlook of the Bush administration.
However, due to the opposition of other capitalist powers, the US looks as though it has been forced to put even this plan into cold storage, preferring to rely on Europe in particular, and China and Russia, to pressurise Iran to come to some kind of compromise.
We oppose the resort to nuclear energy by Iran, never mind the acquisition of nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, it is sheer hypocrisy for the US to denounce the Iranian regime while Iran is surrounded on all its borders by nuclear powers – some, like Israel, armed to the teeth by US imperialism.
The changed approach of the US over Iran signifies the weakening of its position, a setback for the underlying philosophy of the Bush administration of unilateralism and ‘pre-emptive strikes’ against the perceived enemies of the US.
Its military prowess is not underwritten, as was the case in the past, by its dominant economic situation. It has been enormously weakened by the hollowing out of its economy through deindustrialisation and its dependency on Asian capitalism, particularly China, to plug the 7% deficit in the US’s balance of trade by buying up its dollar assets. How long this will continue is another matter, as we have explained in previous issues of the socialist.
One thing is clear: the writ of US imperialism has not gone unchallenged, either in the neo-colonial world or elsewhere. In fact the world design of US imperialism’s domination has been severely checked. The mass strikes on the issue of immigration in the US, together with the growing discontent of the American workers, are also indications of the colossal social opposition which is brewing domestically in the US. Internationally, France and now Chile show the massive worldwide opposition to capitalism and imperialism.
This is fuelled by the huge wealth divide, which is now being challenged by workers and the mass opposition demonstrated towards the Iraq War and the bellicose international actions of US imperialism. This has not yet found an organised political expression in the formation of a distinct mass workers’ party of the US working class, but the actions of the Bush regime are preparing the ground for precisely such a development.
The brutal Roman Empire provoked the slaves’ revolt – this modern ‘empire’ will do likewise. However, the slaves of Rome could not offer a higher form of production and development of society. The modern wage-slaves of capitalism, both in the ‘advanced’ and the neo-colonial worlds, represent human progress, the future of socialism and a world planned economy in answer to the militarism and barbarity of US imperialism and the world system it defends today.