Middle East: The limits of US power

Workers’ movements need determined opposition to Western imperialism and all Middle Eastern elites

Instead of strengthening the hand of US imperialism, the disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003 actually exposed its limits – and has fuelled violent sectarian division. The Arab Spring revolts of 2011 deposed key US allies. Conflict in Syria, regional instability, and Iran-Israel tensions are also testing US authority.

The 2011 Arab Spring mass uprisings – in particular the overthrow of dictators in Tunisia and Egypt – shook US imperialism to its core. It was powerless to prevent its friends Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak from being removed from power in the face of such mass opposition. US president Barack Obama had initially clung to the idea of continued rule by them, then had to abruptly change tack to try to gain influence on the elected Muslim Brotherhood led governments.

Just a year later, after a second even larger mass movement in Egypt led to the army generals re-taking the helm, Obama faced a new dilemma: how to respond to the removal of an elected Islamist government and the subsequent brutal suppression of its supporters and leaders. It was only four years ago that Obama said in Cairo that he sought "a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world".

Yet US envoys were not even able to influence Egypt’s generals enough to persuade them to compromise with Mohamed Morsi, the ousted Muslim Brotherhood president. US imperialism no doubt expected renewed rule by the unelected military to better suit its interests, as it had long been closely allied to the repressive Mubarak regime and this was a turn back to rule by the same elite. But to welcome the change publicly – although in tune with many Egyptian people, who reacted against Morsi’s authoritarian and Islamist changes and a rise in poverty – would make a mockery of US pretensions of promoting ‘democracy’ across the globe.

Obama therefore resorted to token sanctions, suspending delivery of some fighter jets, tanks and missiles, and $260 million in cash. When US secretary of state John Kerry visited Cairo at the start of November – unannounced publicly until he was in the air – he didn’t even mention Morsi’s name in public, despite the fact that Morsi’s trial on charges brought by the new regime was starting the following day.

The US did not suspend its full £1.3 billion a year support for the Egyptian military, not least because it threatened to rebound on Egypt’s purchase of arms from US companies. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait were offering £12 billion to Egypt’s generals to speed them on their path of repressing the Brotherhood. Russia was on hand with a $2 billion arms deal.

Qatar’s leaders were on Morsi’s side, having funnelled aid to his regime, as was Turkey’s prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. So the US’s allies in the Middle East were on different sides regarding Egypt, making it even harder for the US to shape developments. The US administration was also treading carefully for other reasons: to not threaten Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel; and it viewed the turmoil in Egypt – the second largest Arab economy – with alarm, no doubt fearing that any sanctions that would worsen Egypt’s economy further could potentially trigger new mass protests that could grow to not just change the regime, but to threaten capitalism itself.

Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan

The inability of US imperialism to impose its will followed disastrous interventions elsewhere in the region. It supported the western military intervention in Libya that overthrew Muammar Gaddafi, but Libya is now a country fragmented on regional and tribal lines, with brutal power struggles and major disruption to the oil industry. The US-led wars on Iraq and Afghanistan will end up costing the US a phenomenal $6 trillion, the equivalent of $75,000 for every American household, said a Harvard University report. On top of the devastation and high death toll inflicted, 6,778 US soldiers lost their lives. Yet Iraq is now wracked by sectarian violence, with bloodshed spilling over from Syria contributing to a death toll of around 1,000 a month. The Iraqi Shia-dominated government has come more and more under the influence of Shia-led Iran – a disastrous outcome for US imperialism that intended to oust Saddam Hussein and install a regime to do its bidding.

Outrage from the masses of the Middle East against the US military’s atrocities has meant that even regimes that are formally friends of the US and receive significant US financial support – including those of Egypt and Pakistan – feel compelled to play down that collaboration on their domestic scene. Afghan president Hamid Karzai was installed by the US to lead a puppet government, yet he expresses the anti-US mood in the population and his own anger by refusing to give the US a free hand with any troops it leaves in Afghanistan. Nouri al-Maliki’s Iraqi government reflects similar hostility to US troops, and defies US requests to stop arms being passed from Iran to Syria across Iraq.

Pakistan’s government was enraged by the killing of Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud by a US drone on 1 November. As Mehsud had just before his death entered into peace talks, "the US has foiled the peace process", exclaimed the interior minister. For a new leader the Taliban chose Mullah Fazlullah, renowned for ruthlessness, who ordered the killing of school girl Malala Yousafzai for defending the right of girls to education. He opposes negotiations with the government.

Among ordinary people across the planet there was a widespread anti-war mood even before the war on Iraq. In February 2003 up to ten million people demonstrated internationally against that war, including hundreds of thousands across the US. The failures and atrocities of the US and its allies in Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond have added to and reinforced this mass opposition, as was shown in the great pressure that came to bear in the US and Britain against missile strikes on Syria.


The western capitalist powers from the start viewed possible intervention in Syria as more problematic than their previous wars. This was for a number of reasons, including Syria’s complex ethnic, national and religious makeup and its pivotal geopolitical position in the Middle East. Obama was therefore very reluctant to intervene militarily. But to respond to demands that he should step up help for the Syrian opposition and to suggest that there were limits to what the US would tolerate, he declared use of chemical weapons a red line that could not be crossed.

So despite the fact that slaughters with a higher death toll had occurred earlier in the civil war, when chemical weapons were used at Ghouta on 21 August, the crossing of the red line put US imperialism’s authority at stake. "Our refusal to act would undermine the credibility of America’s other security commitments", said defence secretary Charles Hagel to a Senate committee. The US was also alarmed by the way in which Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon were aiding Bashar al-Assad’s battles and feared that their ‘axis’ would make headway, along with Russia – as also did the US’s Middle East allies, including Israel.

However, Obama came up against huge opposition within the US population to striking Assad’s apparatus, which was reflected in the US Congress. David Cameron, via a defeat in parliament, fell victim to mass opposition in Britain to striking Syria, then Obama felt forced to back off in the face of the escalating opposition in the US – including from sections of the Nato hierarchy. His way out was provided by Russia, with its proposal that Assad could voluntarily give up his chemical weapons.

For Vladimir Putin, this turnabout prevented his ally Assad’s conventional weapons from being damaged by western missiles. Russia’s capitalists and state have significant arms exports to Syria and other interests in its economy. Also, the only Russian military base outside the former USSR countries is at Tartus in Syria. Putin had been wrong-footed by assurances from the western powers that bombed Libya that they were only ‘protecting civilians’, and did not intend to make a similar mistake again.

Obama’s pulling back from striking Syria was therefore a boost for Russia and gave it a central mediating role. This is not to say that Russia and the US are on opposite sides of the fence on all issues regarding Syria. They both fear a spread of the war in the region and neither wants to see inroads being made by the al-Qaida linked militias which are prominent in the Syrian opposition forces.

Furthermore, the US has not pulled back from its many lower level military activities across the region. In Bahrain it staunchly supports the ruling Al Khalifa family in its brutal repression of a pro-democracy movement. US drones continue to assassinate Islamist militia leaders in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen, with many civilians also killed in these horrific strikes. The CIA has assisted with training Syrian opposition forces in Jordan and in helping to send arms to selected Syrian rebel militias, along with the regimes of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Jordan, who all sponsor the armed groups that they think will develop their own stake in the war and its spoils.

Meanwhile, the Syrian masses are paying a terrible price: over 120,000 dead, over five million displaced inside Syria and over two million outside. The war goes on, and even if the US had launched strikes – which the Socialist Party and CWI would strongly condemn – they would have been unlikely to decisively tip the balance on the ground, as Assad’s army is well supplied by Russia.


The shift towards negotiations with Syria helped open the way to talks with Iran over its nuclear industry, the first involving the US and Iran since 1979. This led to a ‘landmark’ interim deal. Iran’s nuclear programme will be restricted for six months and sanctions reduced in return.

The 2005 election of the hardline Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was partly a repercussion of US president George W Bush’s inclusion of Iran in an "axis of evil". The departure from Ahmadinejad’s policies of the new president, Hassan Rouhani, does not indicate a fundamental change in the nature of the repressive regime. But Rouhani’s election and approach have reflected strong desire by the Iranian masses to end the deprivations blamed primarily on western imposed sanctions, and recognition by a layer of the ruling clerics that they need to ease censorship and sanctions in order to head off revolt from below. Inflation is an unbearable 40%, poverty is rising and the economy is shrinking. Obama being US president and flailing about for solutions for Syria was part of the jigsaw that enabled Rouhani to enter into talks.

As well as wanting the sanctions lifted, Iran has expressed willingness to help with talks to concoct a deal in Syria, probably partly motivated by the fact that assisting Assad is a strain on Iran’s budget. Obama will be hoping that, following the myriad of setbacks for US imperialism in the Middle East, he can at least oversee a new departure in relations with Iran, gain kudos from it in his final term of office and open a door to Iran using its influence in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon in a conciliatory manner. But as fast as the US tries to open this new door, some others shut in its face as outrage breaks out from regimes that see Iran as a bitter enemy.

The stakes are high. If at any stage Iran is suspected of becoming closer to making a nuclear bomb, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt will want to follow suit. A BBC Newsnight programme on 6 November suggested that Saudi Arabia has already made plans to receive nuclear weapons from Pakistan if it believes it necessary. Further negotiations with Iran may bring about a final deal. However, there are plenty of leading Republicans and Democrats in the US who are critical of the interim deal, with some adamantly opposed to concessions for as long as Iran has any nuclear industry. They see a nuclear Iran as a much greater threat to the interests of the US and Israel (both armed with nuclear weapons) than Assad’s non-nuclear Syria. In Iran too there are clerics in the elite who are opposed to making the necessary concessions for a final deal to be reached.

The Israeli state’s response

Obama’s overtures to Iran were met with unrelenting outrage from Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He went into open conflict with the US administration, arguing that no concessions should be given to Iran while it still enriches uranium. He condemned the interim deal as a "historic mistake".

As Iran says it will not give up its right to enrich uranium, there is no middle ground between it and Netanyahu’s position at present. Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman tried half-heartedly to reduce tensions by saying in November that "Israel’s relations with the United States are a cornerstone and without them we cannot make our way in the current global climate". However, he also warned in the same month that, while "the ties with the US are continually deteriorating", Israel must "seek other allies with common interests".

Netanyahu has often stated that he will not allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons. His predecessors launched ‘pre-emptive’ missile strikes on the Osirak reactor in Iraq in 1981 and a Syrian site in 2007. More recently test flights have been carried out with Iran in mind. If his government at some stage decides to strike Iran unilaterally, it does not have the bunker busting bombs that the US has and it would face even greater isolation internationally than it already does. Going ahead would strain relations with the US further and indicate a corresponding loss of US influence. Iran and Hezbollah could retaliate against oil supply routes, US bases or Israel itself, widening out the conflict considerably.

There are voices within the Israeli ruling class urging their government to veer away from pursuing ‘reckless’ policies regarding Iran and the Palestinian territories. Nevertheless, although now even more problematic for Netanyahu in the short term, it cannot be ruled out that he will eventually order an attack. This is despite the fact that neither military strikes nor an international deal can guarantee to stop the Iranian elite from making nuclear bombs in the long run. Strikes could even spur them on to do so.

The Saudi monarchy has common cause with its enemy regime in Israel in wanting to stop concessions to Iran. Saudi Arabia is also furious with the US for its failure to strike Assad and step up assistance for some of the Syrian rebel forces. It has threatened to withdraw cooperation with the US regarding its own financing of Syrian militias and turned down a position on the UN Security Council in October, citing that the UN had not stopped the Syrian government from using chemical weapons and has not found a solution to the Palestinian cause, among other condemnations.

Not only the UN, but none of the individual capitalist powers can offer a ‘solution’ for the Palestinians. Kerry has been struggling to mediate in Israeli-Palestinian talks and, despite the US’s fundamental safeguarding of the interests of the Israeli capitalists, has expressed anger at the ongoing building of Jewish settlements in what would be a Palestinian state. Netanyahu’s governing coalition includes the Jewish Home party which opposes a two-state solution, but Netanyahu himself is a master of saying he wants talks to continue, while at the same time creating ‘facts on the ground’.

The US is giving over $3 billion a year of military aid to Israel, double the huge amount even that it gives to Egypt, but is finding it increasingly hard to use that money to assert its will. Meanwhile, conditions for the Palestinians in the occupied territories continue to be dire, with a third intifada against their oppression essential, and inevitable at some stage.

Weakened US authority

While US authority in the Middle East has clearly weakened, commentators who write an obituary on its role are not fully taking into account the extent of its military and economic weight. It spent $682 billion on its armed forces in 2012, over four times more than the next largest military expenditure in the world, China’s, at $166 billion. It has around 750 foreign-based military ‘facilities’ in around 40 countries (Washington Post, 2 September).

The US has turned some attention away from the Middle East in order to look after its interests in Asia and the Pacific – a response to China’s growing global reach, as well as to US failures in the Middle East. The development of new sources of oil in shale-rock formations, etc, mean that by 2020, according to the US Energy Information Administration, nearly half of the crude oil the US uses will be produced at home and 82% will come from the western hemisphere. However, the US and global economy today needs stability in Middle Eastern oil supply and prices, and the US still has enormous military resources at its disposal on a world scale to direct to where it wants.

As the leading player in the club of advanced capitalist economies that dominate the globe in production and trade, the US inevitably gains in direct and indirect ways from the counter-revolutionary developments that have taken place in the Middle East since the Arab Spring. Nevertheless, its position and gains in the Middle East have fallen a long way short of the dreams of former president Bush and his fellow neocons, who wanted a Middle East firmly serving the interests of the US energy conglomerates and Israeli big business. They were gung ho following the collapse of Stalinism in the USSR and eastern Europe and set about getting rid of ‘evil’ regimes that they viewed as US enemies.

One of the expressions of the disastrous consequences has been seen in Obama’s inconsistency and sometimes near paralysis on foreign policy. As a senator in 2002 he opposed the war on Iraq, but this did not stop him from continuing the war in Afghanistan and eventually pushing for missile strikes on Syria – despite his comprehension that he was elected, in his own words, to "end wars, not start them".

Division and terrorism

Nor has US imperialism succeeded in its ‘war on terror’. Its actions only drive more young Muslims and in some cases far-right anti-Muslims into the propaganda arms of reactionary, anti-imperialist terrorist networks. Al-Qaida type organisations have fluctuated in size and weight but have recently gained some strength in and around Syria by organising and training militias there. Terrorist acts have increased in the Sinai.

Furthermore, worsening Sunni-Shia conflict is tragically a feature in a number of countries of the Middle East. The US-led bloody overthrow of the minority Sunni regime in Iraq, which was replaced with an elected Shia-dominated government, was part of a chain of developments that have exacerbated Sunni-Shia tensions across the region. This is rooted in the repression of minorities and fed by the region’s elites, as part of their power struggles in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere. The rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia has been a factor in Iran tending to support Shia organisations in the region, and Saudi Arabia supporting Salafist Sunnis.

There are plenty of divergences from this though. For instance, Iran has grown closer to the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, while the Saudi elite – based on the Wahhabi variant of Sunni Islam – condemns the Brotherhood, not least because it made gains in the Arab Spring on the back of movements against brutal dictatorships. The Saudi princes fear the spread of mass revolt to Saudi Arabia, an inevitable development at some stage against that authoritarian, obscenely rich monarchy.

Each major change in the region tests and shifts the alliances and enmities between the ruling classes, which are not primarily based on religion but on how they can best further their profits, power and prestige. Turkey’s leaders agree with Iran in criticising General Sisi’s regime in Egypt, but they are on opposite sides regarding Syria; Saudi Arabia and Russia support Sisi’s regime but also are on opposite sides regarding Syria… and so the power plays go on.

On a global scale, competition between the main capitalist powers has reduced US imperialism’s room to manoeuvre in the Middle East, as was shown when Russia and China opposed moves to strike Syria. The US has military superiority but is restricted in what it can do by these divisions. Above all, it is becoming more and more limited in its actions by the growing realisation of its motives and failures by the working masses and poor of the world and in the US itself.

Mass movements to come

The masses of the Middle East have long suffered at the hands of brutally repressive capitalist and semi-feudal elites, whose enrichment has increased the wealth gap and generally widened poverty. Ordinary people across the region desperately want decent living standards and democracy, and an end to insecurity and the consequences of wars. This was the sentiment of the Arab Spring, including in the initial uprising in Syria that was so terribly usurped by sectarian forces.

The road out of decades of despotism and subjugation was never going to be straightforward, but important experiences have been gained in the social movements and strikes that have occurred in the last few years. Following the titanic 2011 movements in Tunisia and Egypt, came the first big political wave of protest in Turkey since the 1970s, in the summer of 2013. In Iran the repressive theocratic elite has to constantly suppress pro-democracy campaigners to ensure its own survival, but at some stage a mass movement will inevitably overwhelm it. The largest social protest movement in Israel’s history shook the Israeli capitalists in 2011.

In the new movements to come, independent working-class organisations need to be built, so that workers can lead the way in uniting people from all national, ethnic and religious backgrounds. The UGTT union federation in Tunisia and the independent trade unions in Egypt – the latter now encompassing 2.5 million workers – have the potential to play a decisive role in the class battles to come.

Workers’ movements and parties will need to emblazon on their banners determined opposition to western imperialism and all the Middle Eastern elites. Plus, along with this, a programme of socialist ideas, so that an alternative can be put forward that would meet the needs of the overwhelming majority of people, based on public ownership of the main industries and democratic socialist planning.

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December 2013