In May 1970 a group of prominent Harvard academics with considerable government experience, led by the game theorist Thomas Schelling, went to the White House to meet their ex-colleague, Henry Kissinger, then national security adviser to president Richard Nixon. They were there to protest against the recent invasion of Cambodia by the United States and its client regime in South Vietnam—supposedly to attack “safe havens” used by Viet Cong guerrillas. The invasion provoked a massive wave of protest on American campuses and led to the fatal shooting of four students at Kent State University and two more at Jackson State. The historian Greg Grandin explains:
Kissinger’s former colleagues weren’t aware that Nixon and Kissinger had already been secretly bombing Cambodia and Laos for over a year… They knew only about the invasion, and that was bad enough. “Sickening,” Schelling said. Today in the United States, a shared and largely unquestioning assumption, irrespective of political affiliation, holds that Washington has the right to use military force against the “safe havens” of terrorists or potential terrorists, even if those safe havens are found in sovereign countries we are not at war with. This assumption was the premise of George W Bush’s 2002 [sic] invasion of Afghanistan and Barack Obama’s expansion of drone attacks in Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan, along with his most recent military operations against Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq. This reasoning was not widely held in 1970. Schelling’s Harvard delegation rejected Kissinger’s attempt to justify the invasion by citing the need to destroy communist “sanctuaries”. As one reporter summed up the group’s objections, violation of a neutral country’s sovereignty “could be used by anyone else in the world as a precedent for invading another country, in order, for example, to clear out terrorists”.1
So what in 1970 was exceptional and reprehensible has become normal in the course of the following near half-century. Moreover, Grandin argues that Kissinger, in attempting to justify his crimes in Vietnam, Cambodia, Chile and elsewhere, “provided a new generation of politicians a template for how to justify tomorrow’s action while ignoring yesterday’s catastrophe”:
History is affirmed, since it is America’s unprecedented historical success that justifies the exceptionalism. Yet history is also denied, or at least what is denied is understanding of the past as a series of causal relationships. That is, the blowback from any given action…is rinsed clean of its source and given a new origin story, blamed on generalised chaos that exists beyond our borders.
This evasion has been on full display of late, as the politicians who drove us into Iraq in 2003 tell us that decisions made at the time that facilitated the rise of Islamic State militants shouldn’t hinder America from taking bold action in the future to destroy Islamic State militants. “If we spend our time debating what happened eleven or twelve years ago,” former vice president Dick Cheney today says, “we’re going to miss the threat that is growing and that we do face”.2
But this whole ideological syndrome—both the normalisation of military intervention on the territory of sovereign states and what Grandin calls the “dodge” pioneered by Kissinger of imperialist powers ducking responsibility for the catastrophes to which their interventions are supposed to be responding—is no longer a US monopoly. European social democratic politicians seem especially keen on following in Kissinger’s footsteps.
French president François Hollande reacted to the Paris atrocities of 13 November by pledging “pitiless war” against ISIS, without pausing to consider whether the killings might not be blowback from France’s military interventions in Libya, Mali and Syria. This evasion of historical responsibility was as evident in the Gadarene rush by right wing Labour MPs who had voted for the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 to give David Cameron the support he needed in the House of Commons on 4 December to authorise British participation in the US-led bombing campaign against Syria.
James Meek commented on the performance of the most ineffable Labour imperialist:
listening to the speech of Hilary Benn, the pro-bombing Labour foreign affairs spokesman, was like hearing one of Churchill’s 1930s lonely-voice-warning-against-the-dangers-of-Hitler speeches, but made in 1941, by which time, it seems safe to assume, everyone really got Hitler. It was bizarre to hear Benn adding his voice to the many who criticised Cameron for branding those opposed to bombing Syria “terrorist sympathisers”, only for the Labour man to launch into a superfluous and detailed recap of the worst IS crimes. “All those who oppose air strikes are decent and honourable men,” he was effectively saying, “even if, unlike myself, they prefer to do nothing while gay men are being thrown off buildings, and Yazidi women deemed too old for sex slavery are murdered and thrown into mass graves”.3
US imperialism and the Middle East
Morally and politically responsible action is therefore inseparable from critical historical understanding. And here it is impossible not to be struck by a contrast. It’s plausible to see recent moves over Syria as the latest stage in a long war that has been waged since 1990-91 by the US and the other Western imperialist powers in what’s sometimes called the Greater Middle East—stretching as far west and south as countries such as Mali, and north and east as far as Afghanistan, but centred on the historic Arab world, in the Mashreq and Maghreb.
Before then, however, in the period 1945-90, the era of the Cold War, there were plenty of wars in the Middle East, above all between Israel and the Arab states, in 1948, 1956, 1973 and 1982. But direct imperialist military intervention primarily took the form of defensive wars waged by the declining colonial powers, Britain and France—for example, the disastrous Suez expedition of 1956 or the terrible Algerian war of 1954-62. Thanks to Suez in particular, the US established itself as the dominant imperialist power in the region—crucial as a source of the “strategic commodity” oil—during this period.4 But aside from a couple of brief military interventions in Lebanon (1958 and 1982-3), the Pentagon’s muscle was visible in the Middle East mainly in the increasingly generous military aid the US supplied its two most important allies, the odd couple of deeply antagonistic confessional states, Israel and Saudi Arabia.
1979 clearly marked a turning point. First, the Iranian Revolution toppled a key US ally, the Shah of Iran, and stimulated a new political and ideological challenge to Western dominance in the shape of radical Islamism (most visible in the rise of Hizbollah during the Lebanese civil war). Secondly, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan marked an escalation of the Cold War in which the Greater Middle East was now very clearly established as a terrain of superpower competition. President Jimmy Carter, who had already stepped up US arms expenditure to match what was (deludedly) represented as the growing military and economic strength of the USSR, declared in January 1980:
The region which is now threatened by Soviet troops in Afghanistan is of great strategic importance: It contains more than two-thirds of the world’s exportable oil… The Soviet Union is now attempting to consolidate a strategic position, therefore, that poses a grave threat to the free movement of Middle East oil… Let our position be absolutely clear: An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.5
The Carter Doctrine is widely seen as the beginning of US military intervention in the Middle East. But clearly Carter was preoccupied with the danger that Moscow would seek to exploit the Iranian Revolution. Thus he issued Presidential Directive 59, which authorised the use of tactical nuclear weapons against a Soviet military advance into the Gulf.6 The Rapid Deployment Force, from which developed Central Command, the organiser of the past quarter century’s wars, was set up under Carter. As Lawrence Freedman puts it, “although both the doctrine and the force were triggered by concerns about potential Soviet actions, they eventually derived their importance through enabling later responses to threats from within the region”.7
Nevertheless, the Reagan administration (1981-9), for all its tough talk and increased military spending, after dipping its toes into Lebanon and losing 241 marines in a suicide bombing in October 1983, rapidly pulled out again.8 Its most important intervention in the region was to back the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein after he attacked Iran in September 1980. The resulting protracted struggle, the longest conventional war of the 20th century, lasting eight years and costing a million lives, failed to strangle the Iranian Revolution. But it preoccupied two powers whose ambitions might otherwise destabilise the region; when Iran looked like winning, US naval and air power was selectively used to tilt the balance in Iraq’s favour.9 And indeed the new era of intervention was precipitated when Saddam, the eventual victor in this long contest, got greedy and grabbed Kuwait in August 1990.
But it’s crucial to grasp the change in context here. In the first place, the 1991 Gulf War waged against Iraq by the US and a coalition of Western and Arab states occurred as the Cold War drew to a close. On the one hand, the collapse of the rival imperialist bloc gave the US much greater room for manoeuvre, removing a major inhibition on the use of military power. As Freedman puts it, “in contrast to Vietnam, the Americans did not have to worry about provoking a Great Power that might enter the war on the enemy’s side”.10 The Gulf War, unlike the invasion of Iraq in 2003, was authorised by the United Nations Security Council because a prostrate Soviet Union, on the verge of disintegration, was too weak to oppose it. But, on the other hand, the dissolution of the superpower blocs could open up a new era of more fluid inter-imperialist rivalries. The easy defeat of Saddam’s Iraq underlined US military supremacy, but America’s economic position was being eroded by the expansion of other capitalist powers – Germany and Japan within the Western bloc, and, of course, China, the great outsider.11
Since the end of the Cold War, successive administrations have sought to defend and entrench US global hegemony. This has involved, firstly, the drive, particularly marked during Bill Clinton’s presidency (1993-2001) to generalise neoliberalism, levering open all the world’s states to US capital and commodities.12 Secondly, American military power has been used repeatedly to maintain US hegemony over the Middle East, and therefore allow it to control the access of other states (including possible or actual rivals) to what remains the key source of the “world’s exportable oil”. This undertaking peaked in a particularly aggressive and hubristic form under George W Bush (president 2001-9), but Obama has continued it, albeit in a much more cautious and selective manner.13
A crucial dimension in these wars has been the US relationship with Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states. In February 1945 president Franklin Roosevelt stopped off on the way back from the Yalta summit with Churchill and Stalin for a meeting in the Canal Zone with the Saudi King Ibn Saud and two other Arab monarchs. On his return to Washington, Roosevelt told the British ambassador, Lord Halifax: “Persian oil…is yours. We share the oil of Iraq and Kuwait. As for Saudi Arabian oil, it’s ours.” (In the event, the US shoved Britain aside in Iran and the Gulf as well.) A State Department memorandum that same year called the oil resources of Saudi Arabia “a stupendous source of strategic power and one of the greatest material prizes in world history”.14
Some 40 years later, it was Iranian attacks on Kuwaiti oil tankers that precipitated the deployment of US naval power in the Gulf in 1987-88.15 After Saddam seized Kuwait in August 1990, the US first responded by sending troops to defend Saudi Arabia—a move that, in a nice piece of double blowback, provoked Osama bin Laden to develop the contacts he had built up when the US and Saudi Arabia encouraged Islamist militants to fight the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan into Al Qaeda as an organisation of struggle against the American presence in the Islamic world. The Gulf has become a major hub of global capitalism, where dynastic regimes preside over companies that are investing the profits of oil production and related activities such as construction elsewhere in the Middle East and indeed world-wide.16 This is an important reason for the US to maintain its dominance of the region, even though it is now self-sufficient in oil and gas thanks to the shale revolution.
But the net result of these successive military interventions has been little short of disastrous, for US imperialism, but more importantly for the people of the Middle East. The denunciation of the Roman Empire put into the mouth of a British leader by the ancient historian Tacitus, “Solitudinem faciunt pacem appellant”—they desolate and call it peace—applies fully to what Western imperialism wrought in the Middle East. Not simply was the US defeated in Iraq, but the form in which it was able, briefly, to stabilise the country—reliance on a sectarian Shiite government closely aligned with the Islamic Republic regime in Iran—created the conditions in which ISIS could emerge as a coalition of jihadis and ex-army officers enjoying at least passive support from Iraq’s disaffected Sunni Arab minority.
Then came the revolutionary wave that swept through the Arab world in 2011, toppling the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes, and threatening to bring down many others. Eventually the risings were contained, but in forms that have further fractured political structures. At a regional level, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states orchestrated the counter-revolution—underwriting renewed military dictatorship in Egypt and (while targeting the Muslim Brotherhood) promoting Salafist (ultra-orthodox Sunni Muslim) jihadi movements. In Syria this collided with the efforts of Bashar al-Assad’s regime to defeat the revolutionary uprising by provoking a sectarian civil war.
After some dithering over whether or not to intervene against Assad, the Obama administration opted to stay out, content that the war would paralyse the Arab state that under Assad—father and son—frequently sought to block or sabotage US initiatives. This reflected what George Friedman of the Stratfor strategic intelligence website calls a “double strategy” of divide and rule rather than direct intervention:
The first layer is to keep its distance from major flare-ups in the region, providing support but making clear it will not be the one to take primary responsibility. As the situation on the ground deteriorates, the United States expects these conflicts to eventually compel regional powers to take responsibility…
The second layer of this strategy is creating a balance of power. The United States wants regional powers to deal with issues that threaten their interests more than American interests. At the same time, the United States does not want any one country to dominate the region. There are four such powers: Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel.17
Political disintegration, inter-imperialist rivalry, and ISIS
The effect of this strategy has been as disastrous as Bush Junior’s attempt to use military power to reshape the Middle East. The state collapse that was one of the main results of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein has spread much more widely. Iraq and Syria—the two core states of the Arab East—have disintegrated.18 So too have Libya, where a NATO bombing campaign tipped the balance against Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, and Yemen. All these countries have become the sites of proxy wars between local powers.
The principal antagonists at a regional level are Iran—the main backer of the Iraqi and Syrian regimes—and Saudi Arabia, which since the accession of King Salman in January 2015 has been pursuing an aggressive external policy, refusing to cut oil production in order to smash the competition from American shale producers and launching a bloody war against what it regards as Iranian-backed forces in Yemen. Other major players are Turkey and Qatar, both of which have been promoting jihadi groups in Syria and underwriting the Islamist coalition claiming to rule Libya from Tripoli (the rival secularist government based in western Libya is backed by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates).
Some people on the left imagine that this chaos favours the interests of Western imperialism, or even that it is part of some cunning plan hatched in Washington. The reasons vary: some espouse a version of Naomi Klein’s conception of “disaster capitalism”, arguing that US capitalism today pursues a “bomb and build” strategy, encouraging wars that will allow American corporations to profit from the reconstruction of shattered countries.19 This involves a basic misunderstanding of the structure and interests of US capitalism.
The top ten of the Fortune 500 list of major US companies in 2015 were, in descending order, Walmart, Exxon, Chevron, Berkshire Hathaway, Apple, General Motors, Phillips 66, General Electric, Ford, and CVS Health; Boeing, the biggest company involved in defence production, comes in at number 27.20 Only the three energy companies in the top ten belong to Klein’s “disaster capitalism complex”, and dubiously so since their business remains extracting, refining and selling oil and gas, not rebuilding disaster zones.21 Despite the continuing weight of the arms sector in US capitalism, American corporations make their profits primarily in civilian markets. They rely on the Pentagon to guarantee their access to these markets and to investment sites worldwide. This isn’t helped when oilfields are shut down or seized by jihadis, as they have been in Syria and Libya.
Others argue that the US set out to destroy Iraq and Syria, the Arab states controlled for decades by rival wings of the Arab nationalist Ba’ath Party that were thorns in the side of America and Israel. Although this overstates the anti-imperialist credentials of Saddam and the Assads, it’s undeniable that the US wanted to get rid of them. That’s not the same as seeking the disintegration of Iraq and Syria as states, though this was the unintended consequence of the policies pursued by Washington.
In a characteristically brilliant response to the Paris atrocities, the philosopher Alain Badiou argues that these state collapses are part of a wider imperialist practice he calls “zoning”, the emergence of “infra-state zones which in reality are areas of non-state pillaging”; ISIS, he argues, typifies how “certain kinds of savage, armed capitalist firms occupy the spaces left empty where the state has disappeared”.22 Badiou captures a real phenomenon here, whose main cause is probably the weakening of the state produced by the neoliberal “reforms” enforced under the Washington Consensus.
Zoning has to be seen as an extreme consequence of what Michael Mann called after 9/11 “ostracising imperialism”—“most of the world’s poorest countries are not being significantly integrated into transnational capitalism, but are ‘ostracised’ by a capitalism which regards them as too risky for investment and trade”.23 But this malign effect can react back negatively on the imperialist core itself. Spreading political disintegration in the Middle East now threatens a region economically vital to world capitalism. Moreover, the contribution the mass exodus from Syria has made to the European refugee crisis and the recent terrorist incidents underline that the European Union, one of the core zones of advanced capitalism, can’t be immunised from the chaos across the Mediterranean.
Like the sorcerer’s apprentice, the US faces aghast the monster made possible by its handiwork. Out of the chaos in Iraq and Syria, ISIS has morphed into a major challenge to Western domination of the region. Despite the conspiracy theories, ISIS is not the creature of US imperialism, either directly or via the intermediary of its regional allies and clients. The lavish support that Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey have given Sunni jihadi groups undoubtedly facilitated the rise of ISIS. But, as this journal has consistently argued, ISIS is a sui generis political project that, thanks to the destruction wrought by the occupation of Iraq and the Syrian war, and to the defeat of the Arab revolutions, has been able to build a proto-state deep into the Mashreq, and attract recruits from all over the world on the basis of the reactionary utopia of restoring the Muslim Caliphate as a transnational polity. Its theatrical violence is perfect social media fare, while the selective destruction of non-Islamic artefacts (many others help to fund the Caliphate on the international art market) offers a jihadi version of the Khmer Rouge “Year Zero” in which the profane past is spectacularly cancelled.24
The catastrophe wrought by the Western imperialist powers in the Middle East created the conditions for ISIS’s rise, but its leaders in their own brutal way have creatively seized on the opportunities these conditions offered to pursue their own sectarian and counter-revolutionary undertaking. Anne Alexander further develops her path-breaking analysis of ISIS elsewhere in this issue, but it’s worth underlining one point. Adam Hanieh writes that ISIS “does not represent any kind of anti-imperialist response, or plausible route to a Middle East free of domination or repression, whether foreign or local”.25
This is true from an objective point of view, in two senses. First, as Alexander shows, it’s far from clear that ISIS is capable of constructing a stable state that is not based primarily on plunder and spectacular violence.26 Secondly, were the ISIS project of state-building nevertheless to succeed, then sooner or later the rulers of the new state would have to come to terms with the capitalist world system, compromise their utopian ideals, and even negotiate with the dominant imperialist powers. We have seen precisely this trajectory followed by the Islamic Republican regime in Tehran in the decades since the 1978-9 Revolution, most recently in its nuclear deal with the “Great Satan” of the US and other “world powers”.
But, as the example of Iran also shows, these objective constraints don’t prevent ISIS from projecting itself as an anti-imperialist force. One of its first spectaculars was to tear down a border post between Iraq and Syria, proclaiming the end of the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement that partitioned the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire between Britain and France. In a situation where the Arab revolutions have been defeated, marginalising not just the secular left but also the reformist version of Islamism represented above all by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, ISIS’s formidable record of military success can attract many who want to strike back against imperialism. This is critical to understanding the appeal of ISIS to a small minority of the Muslim population in the advanced capitalist countries.27
There is a final dimension to the Middle Eastern catastrophe. Interwoven with the rivalries among regional powers is inter-imperialist competition. One of the main aims of US Middle East policy during the Cold War was to keep the USSR out of the region. Among its major successes were the overthrow of the nationalist military regime of Abd al-Karim Qasim in Iraq in 1963 and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s 1972 abandonment of the alliance struck with the Soviet Union by his predecessor Gamal Abdel Nasser to secure military and economic aid against Britain and Israel.
In October 1973, Kissinger, by then secretary of state, and acting on behalf of a president incapacitated by the Watergate scandal, reacted to Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev’s threat to send troops unilaterally to enforce a ceasefire on Egypt and Israel, by placing the US military on DefCon III, the highest level of peacetime alert. “We were determined to resist by force if necessary the introduction of Soviet troops in the Middle East regardless of the pretext on which they arrived”, Kissinger explained. Brezhnev backed down.28 The Ba’athist regimes in Iraq and Syria continued to manoeuvre between the two superpower blocs, but Saddam (a participant in the 1963 coup) was lured westwards in the 1980s and isolated after the 1990-1 war, leaving the Assads as Moscow’s sole reliable ally in the region.
That connection has now turned toxic for the US. The Russian bombing campaign in Syria announced by president Vladimir Putin on 30 September 2015 marked a turning point. His motives were, in all probability, twofold—first, to force the Western powers to end the policy of isolating Russia that they adopted in response to the seizure of Crimea in March 2014, and secondly to ensure Assad’s survival. The rhetoric of “fighting terrorism” served as an all too see-through cover for the use of Russian airpower against the forces fighting Assad. But, not for the first time, Putin exploited Obama’s caution, representing his dramatic intervention as a decisive move to confront ISIS.
In a compelling analysis of contemporary Russia, Perry Anderson recently described “Putin’s belief that he could build a Russian capitalism structurally interconnected with that of the West, but operationally independent of it—a predator among predators, yet a predator capable of defying them”, as “always an ingenuous delusion”.29 Certainly Russia’s ability to rival the US is much more limited than that of the old Soviet Union, despite its nuclear arsenal and revamped military—both because of the shrunken Russian economy’s chronic dependence on energy exports and its integration in global financial markets (which has helped the sanctions imposed by the US and the EU to hit home). But a series of developments—US defeat in Iraq, the financial crash, and Chinese economic and military expansion—have weakened American imperialism and made it more vulnerable to peer competition. China represents the big long-term threat to US hegemony, though so far both Washington and Beijing cautiously manoeuvre around each other (literally in the contested South China Sea). But the net effect is both to make the US much warier of taking on military commitments and to give Russia more openings to seize the initiative.30
The Western powers have now been goaded into promising a concerted military campaign against ISIS. Their prospects of success seem very poor. This is for both military and political reasons. Politically, very few of the players, Syrian or foreign, seek primarily to fight ISIS. Russia and Iran want to prop up the Assad regime in order to maintain their geopolitical influence in the Middle East (they might be prepared to ditch Bashar himself, as part of a deal with Washington, but not the order over which he presides). The priority for Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, whatever the conflicts between them, is to get rid of Assad. The different Syrian forces that have come out of the revolution form an incredibly complex mosaic of forces that, according to circumstances, cooperate or fight.
One study of the Syrian opposition lists 228 different groups and stresses the importance of Jabhat al-Nusra, which holds the local Al Qaeda franchise, for those groups actually fighting the regime:
As Russian airstrikes intensify, Syrian opposition factions will likely seek the protection of a strong partner in the fight against the regime and its allies. The majority of the groups that may seek protection already cooperate militarily with Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra out of necessity, and this trend is likely to increase as rebels come under greater duress… Groups that conduct military operations with Jabhat al-Nusra do not necessarily share its vision, end-state, or values. Many rebel groups cooperate out of military necessity, because Jabhat al-Nusra [is] one of the most capable groups on the battlefield.31
Charles Lister of the Brookings Institution says:
Almost none of these groups will be dropping their fight against the Assad regime any time soon. Fighting Assad, Iran and now Russia is their foremost priority. Isis comes second… It is only the socially rooted, largely Sunni mainstream opposition that has the true potential to defeat ISIS in Syria. But they will not realise that potential with the Assad regime in power.32
The PYD, the Syrian wing of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), much lauded by the Western left, has had some success in fighting ISIS with US air support. But its aim is to carve out the beginnings of an independent Kurdish state, which will make it a liability in Arab areas. Its advances have produced a fierce reaction from the Turkish government, for which Sunni jihadi groups are an acceptable counterweight to the PKK. This example underlines the extent to which taking ISIS on doesn’t figure on most players’ radar screens.33 The resolution calling for a ceasefire and talks that the UN Security Council passed on 18 December will most likely provide a framework for interstate bargaining rather than end the war.
In any case, defeating ISIS is a major military undertaking. It now deploys a substantial force of tens of thousands of well-equipped and highly motivated fighters, and has been tactically innovative—for example, integrating suicide bombing into battlefield tactics. Taking its strongholds in Raqqa in eastern Syria and Mosul in northern Iraq may be beyond the capabilities of any Middle East army, other than that of Israel (which is quite happy to leave Syria on the boil, preoccupying all its rivals). The Financial Times recently drew an apt parallel with the assault on the Iraqi city of Fallujah in November-December 2004, the bloodiest battle US troops have waged since Vietnam:
“The resources needed to do that were phenomenal,” recalls Afzal Ashraf, a former RAF group captain who at the time was a senior counter-terrorism adviser at the multinational force headquarters in Baghdad.
“The city was leafleted for weeks beforehand to get civilians to leave. And then when we went in with the Iraqis, we went from house to house and room to room trying to clear it.”
In total, 13,500 US, Iraqi and British forces in Operation Phantom Fury cleared a core of an estimated 500 al-Qaeda operatives from the city. The battle left 107 coalition soldiers dead—95 of them Americans—and 613 wounded…
Few, if any, policymakers in the west and Middle East seem willing to consider augmenting the aerial effort with the sort of immense ground campaign that many analysts think will be needed—on a scale far larger than the Iraqi “surge” instigated by the US in 2007 for which the earlier battle of Fallujah became the template—if the jihadis are to be destroyed.
“The air campaign has its limits,” says Mr Ashraf.
If military planners are serious about destroying Isis, they need to think about what that will require on land. “Tackling one city at a time is not going to be effective in getting rid of Isis,” he says. “You need to be hitting Ramadi, Tikrit, Mosul—and Syria too—simultaneously. That is a massive operation.” At its peak, the “surge” saw about 140,000 US troops deployed in Iraq.34
There is absolutely no sign that Washington and its allies have the stomach for such a massive military undertaking. The US is gradually increasing the number of Special Forces operating on the ground in Iraq and Syria, but the fighting on the ground grinds away very slowly. Thus, Foreign Policy magazine points out, “Iraqi troops have been fighting at the edges of the Islamic State-held city of Ramadi for months, unable to push deeply into the city despite having up to 10,000 personnel—many trained and supplied by the United States—ringing the city. The Iraqi forces outnumber the defenders 10 to 1, according to some Pentagon estimates”.35
So Syria’s agony will continue, as the country remains the object of intense manoeuvring among global and regional powers. Apart from the terrible suffering this will continue to cause for its people, this is a very dangerous situation, as different intervening states’ air campaigns bump into each other. When Turkey shot down a Russian warplane in late November this was the first actual combat between a NATO member and Moscow since the alliance’s foundation in 1949.
Rebuilding the anti-war movement
The left’s response has been marked by widespread confusion. Of no one has this been more true than Slavoj Žižek. Over the past 20 years Žižek has managed to make Marxist philosophy exciting again, in the process giving encouragement to many movements and struggles. But in the past few months we have seen a dreadful decline, as he has found excuses for the Syriza government’s capitulation to the EU, reiterated his sympathy for xenophobic reactions to migrants and refugees and, in response to the Paris atrocities, announced that the left must spring to the defence of Western values:
The irony of anti-Eurocentrism is that, on behalf of anti-colonialism, one criticises the West at the very historical moment when global capitalism no longer needs Western cultural values in order to smoothly function. In short, one tends to reject Western cultural values at the very time when, critically reinterpreted, many of those values (egalitarianism, fundamental rights, freedom of the press, the welfare state, etc) can serve as a weapon against capitalist globalisation. Did we already forget that the entire idea of Communist emancipation as envisaged by Marx is a thoroughly “Eurocentric” one?36
On 19 November the supposedly radical-left Front de Gauche joined the overwhelming majority of the National Assembly in supporting a three month prolongation of the state of emergency declared by Hollande in response to the Paris attacks. It was left to three Socialist Party and three Green deputies to vote against this measure suspending some of the “fundamental rights” Žižek wants to defend: under it protests during the Paris climate negotiations were banned. Elsewhere more honourable stances have been taken by left wing parties—in the Bundestag Die Linke opposed the unprecedented step taken by Germany (which, for example, opposed the Libyan intervention) to deploy troops to the Middle East, albeit in non-combat roles.
But there are other forms of confusion. Activists from a Communist Party background have a significant influence on the European peace movement. This dates back to the Communist parties’ peace campaigns in the early phase of the Cold War. It helps to explain the resurgence of campism—support for the US’s geopolitical rivals as supposedly more progressive forces—that we have seen on the left in recent years. Thus many in Western anti-war movements have expressed their sympathies for Putin’s Russia in the Ukraine crisis and even the Assad regime in the Syrian war. This stance, as we have argued, represents a profound misunderstanding of the nature of imperialism, which is a system of rival capitalist states competing for domination, and therefore underestimates the importance of struggles against ruling classes South as well as North, East as well as West.37
Campism is therefore more than a theoretical error: it has negative political effects. In Britain the Commons debate over bombing Syria on 2-4 December became an opportunity for the two front benches to mount a concerted attack on Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party. Corbyn, despite the authority that his consistent opposition to Britain’s participation in the long war has given him, found himself deserted by many in his own shadow cabinet and on the Labour back benches who—ignoring their own complicity in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—rallied behind the latest intervention. This reflects the fact that Labour—polarised between the Parliamentary Labour Party, the vanguard of neoliberalism and imperialism within the workers’ movement, and Corbyn, with his massive support among the party membership—has become the lightning rod for the conflict in Britain over the Syrian war.
Mark L Thomas analyses the struggle for Labour elsewhere in this issue. But the intersection of the two antagonisms—Labour and the Syrian war—has put the Stop the War Coalition in the firing line, as its relationship to Corbyn (till recently its chair) has made it the target of a relentless barrage of attacks from the Labour right and the corporate media. These attacks are contemptible and self-interested. Stop the War can be proud of its record as the organiser of one of the greatest mass movements in British history, peaking with the giant two million strong demonstration against the invasion of Iraq on 15 February 2003, and its many counterparts around the world.
But decline inevitably came after this peak, when it became clear that the movement had failed to stop the war. As its support base shrank, and reflecting divisions on the revolutionary left, some in the Stop the War leadership increasingly adapted to the activists from a Stalinist background within its ranks. This led them to offer a platform to those willing to excuse Putin’s military intervention in Ukraine, and to keep silent on the Assad regime’s atrocities, antagonising Syrian supporters of the revolution. These errors have now been seized on by the right-wing campaign against Stop the War, which seeks to destroy it as a tool of anti-imperialist struggle as well to undermine Corbyn.
Stop the War’s deviations from its original path do not in the least excuse those on the far left who have joined in the attacks and even supported the use of Western airpower in Syria. They have to explain how, if Stop the War were destroyed, they could build a better anti-war movement. It is to be hoped that the leaders of Stop the War will in future concentrate on its core mission of opposing Britain’s participation in the West’s wars in the Middle East. It will be particularly important, as during the movement’s heyday, to involve the Muslim communities facing ever stronger waves of Islamophobia and repression.
One thing is clear, amid the chaos, confusion and bloodshed in the Middle East: imperialism is a key part of the problem there. The US, Britain, France, Russia and the rest, can do no good there. They should get out of the Middle East and leave its peoples to find their own way to the goals of democracy and social justice that inspired the revolutions of 2011. In the meantime, the task of the Western left is to rebuild the anti-war movement, and mobilise as many people as possible in a campaign to force our governments finally to end the long war.
1: Grandin, 2015, Kindle loc. 58. The contrast with Niall Ferguson’s account of the meeting in his apologetic biography of Kissinger, which accuses the Harvard academics of running scared in the face of “campus radicals”, is telling—Ferguson, 2015, pp15-16. Thanks to Joseph Choonara, Judith Orr, and Camilla Royle for their comments on a draft of this piece.
2: Grandin, 2015, Kindle locs. 2007, 2015.
3: Meek, 2015, p5.
4: Bromley, 1991.
5: Carter, 1980. See, on the so-called “Second Cold War”, Binns, 1983, and Halliday, 1983.
6: Halliday, 1983, pp226-227.
7: Freedman, 2008, p104.
8: Freedman, 2008, chapter 7 (entitled “In and Out of Beirut”).
9: Hiro, 1989. The reality was much bumpier that this summary suggests: the revelation in November 1986 that the US and Israel had been supplying arms to Iran, to counter-balance Iraq (and, for the former, to help fund the right-wing Contras in Nicaragua) nearly brought down the Reagan administration. The tangled tale of the US and the Iran-Iraq War can be followed in Freedman, 2008, chapters 8 to 10.
10: Freedman, 2008, p235.
11: For an early attempt to make sense of the new conjuncture, see the essays by John Rees and myself in Humber, 1994.
12: Gowan, 1999, and Panitch and Gindin, 2012.
13: Callinicos, 2003, and Harvey, 2003.
14: Gardner, 2009, pp26-27, 32.
15: Hiro, 1989, chapter 9.
16: The economics of Gulf capitalism (though not the politics) is well explored in Hanieh, 2011.
17: Friedman, 2015.
18: An interesting report details how the war is causing economic as well as political disintegration in Syria, as investment shifts to coastal regions and to the oilfields controlled by ISIS and the Kurdish PYD, and away from the capital Damascus, and the old industrial hub of Aleppo: Alami, 2015.
19: See, for example, Bieler and Morton, 2015, and the critique in Callinicos, 2015.
21: See Klein, 2007, pp381, 424.
22: Badiou, 2015, pp11, 15.
23: Mann, 2001, p54.
24: Alexander, 2015, and Callinicos, 2014, pp30-34.
25: Hanieh, 2015.
27: Badiou has some interesting things to say about the “reactive” and “nihilist” form of subjectivity he attributes to young jihadi men, though he is quite mistaken to describe ISIS and the like as fascist (a view criticised in Alexander and Cero, 2015): Badiou, 2015, pp16-22.
28: Dallek, 2007, pp529-531.
29: Anderson, 2015, p27.
30: Callinicos, 2014.
31: Cafarella and Casagrande, 2015, p1.
32: Meek, 2015, p8.
33: Gardner, 2015.
34: Jones and Dyer, 2015.
35: McLeary, 2015. To add to the good cheer, a recent Pentagon situation report admits: “In the second half of 2015, the overall security situation in Afghanistan deteriorated with an increase in effective insurgent attacks and higher…casualties,” Department of Defense, 2015, p1. Reneging on his promise to pull out of Afghanistan, Obama will keep 9,800 US troops there for most of 2016.
36: Žižek, 2015.
37: Callinicos, 2014.