The wounded beast – the US’s crisis in Iraq

Issue: 113

Chris Harman

‘Mission accomplished’ has turned mission bust…the US is facing defeat in Iraq… The longer the US military occupation continues, the already declining US influence in the Middle East will give way to regional extremism and instability—Zbigniew Brzezinski, architect of US foreign policy for Democratic Party administrations since the mid-1970s

Stability in Iraq remains illusive and the situation is deteriorating… The ability of the US government to shape outcomes is diminishing. Time is running out… Other countries fear significant violence crossing their borders… Such a broader sectarian conflict could open a Pandora’s box of problems—including radicalisation of populations, mass movement of populations and regime changes—that might take decades to play out—Report of the Iraq Study Group, headed by James Baker, architect of foreign policy under George Bush Senior in the late 1980s

If you mean by ‘military victory’ an Iraqi government that can be established and whose writ runs across the whole country, I don’t believe that is possible… But a hasty withdrawal from Iraq would have disastrous consequences…for which we would pay for many years—Henry Kissinger, architect of US foreign policy under Nixon and Reagan

No, sir—Reply of Robert Gates, Rumsfeld’s replacement, when asked whether the US was winning in Iraq

The debacle of US policy in Iraq is the central fact of global politics today. The neocons’ gambit for to securing ‘a New American Century’ of global hegemony by occupying Iraq is backfiring with devastating effects for US imperialism—and this can only unleash a political crisis at the heart of the beast. Yet there are still some on the left who fail to understand this.

The seriousness of the situation was spelt out to devastating effect at the beginning of December by one of imperialism’s own think tanks, the Iraq Study Group headed by Republican Party heavyweight James Baker and Democratic Party heavyweight Lee Hamilton. It contains language that only deeply worried members of a ruling class would use, bemoaning the loss of ‘blood and treasure’ with an estimate of the costs to US capitalism of a massive £1,000 billion (equal to seven months output from the British economy). But the worries extend much further than that:

The global standing of the United States could suffer if Iraq descends further into chaos. Iraq is a major test of, and strain on, US military, diplomatic, and financial capacities. Perceived failure there could diminish America’s credibility and influence in a region that is the centre of the Islamic world and vital to the world’s energy supply. This loss would reduce America’s global influence at a time when pressing issues in North Korea, Iran, and elsewhere demand our full attention and strong US leadership of international alliances.
Continued problems in Iraq could lead to greater polarisation within the United States. Sixty six percent of Americans disapprove of the government’s handling of the war, and more than 60 percent feel that there is no clear plan for moving forward. The November elections were largely viewed as a referendum on the progress in Iraq. Arguments about continuing to provide security and assistance to Iraq will fall on deaf ears if Americans become disillusioned with the government that the United States invested so much to create. US foreign policy cannot be successfully sustained without the broad support of the American people.
America’s military capacity is stretched thin: we do not have the troops or equipment to make a substantial, sustained increase in our troop presence. Increased deployments to Iraq would also necessarily hamper our ability to provide adequate resources for our efforts in Afghanistan or respond to crises around the world.

No direction out

But even this list of perils does grasp the full depth of the problem. This lies in the inability of US imperialism to see any way to extricate itself from the mess it is in. The contradictions in the report’s recommendations are living proof.

It called for negotiations with Iran to stabilise Iraq, but did not indicate how an Iranian government which feels itself to be in a very strong position could be persuaded to accept the US agenda of rebuilding its hegemony over the region. It called on Israel to return the occupied Golan Heights to Syria and to make concession to the Palestinians, but again did not indicate how the Israeli government was going to be persuaded to do these things. It called upon the sectarian political forces the US has put in charge of the Iraqi government to mend their ways, but the inducement it could provide for them to do so was the threat to sink the government (and a key plank of US policy) if they failed to do so.

Above all, it contradicted itself on the central issue, arguing that ‘the longer the United States remains in Iraq without progress, the more resentment will grow among Iraqis who believe they are subjects of a repressive American occupation’, only to then insist that ‘our leaving’ would make things ‘worse’.

Or, as Lee Hamilton admitted, ‘We don’t know how it can be turned around, but we have to try.’

No wonder Anthony Cordesman, security adviser to various presidents, says the report should be titled ‘The Elephant Gives Birth to a Mouse’: ‘The US effectively sent a bull to liberate a china shop, and the study group now calls upon the US to threaten to remove the bull if the shop doesn’t fix the china’.1
Such language shows how deep are the divisions within the US ruling class over what to do. The core group of the US administration around Bush are resistant to giving any ground over Iraq. Their immediate response to the report was to up their pressure on Syria (using the excuse of the assassination of Pierre Gemayal), to press ahead with the call for sanctions against Iran, and to rubbish any talk of pressure on Israel. And they could even find a passage in the Baker report to justify such an approach. It called for the US to maintain a major military presence in Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar, even if it is forced to withdraw from Iraq, so as ‘to deter even more destructive interference in Iraq by Syria and Iran’. As Simon Tisdall of the Guardian comments, this is ‘an apparent threat of military strikes against the two countries’.2

The politics of pending defeat

All this is remarkably similar to previous efforts of imperialist powers to keep their possessions in the face of increasingly successful resistance activities—the British in Ireland in 1920-21, in India in 1946-47 and in Aden in 1967, the French in Algeria in 1958-61 and, of course, the US in Vietnam in 1968-75.

Fear of a loss of global influence led on each occasion to desperate attempts to hang on in the face of mounting losses (and exactly the same warnings of armed forces stretched almost to breaking point). There were agonised debates within cabinets and military high commands, with bitter divisions emerging between those who believed it was possible to ‘see things through to the end’ and those who saw that was impossible. In each case, those who wanted to hold on prevailed, using the most barbarous means—until suddenly staying was no longer an option and there was a humiliating scramble to get out as quickly as possible.

In the process, they could not only cause devastating chaos in the occupied countries (the partition of Ireland and India), but, in the cases of Algeria and the US, political crises at home (the series of attempted military coups in France, the huge anti-war movement and the Watergate affair in the US).3

The Christian fundamenalists in the White House and the secular capitalists who back them will be haunted by the biblical tag, ‘A house divided against itself cannot stand.’ The US ruling class is caught between the fear that the ‘Saigon moment’ of complete defeat is approaching and the fear of the consequences of admitting it. This is true of the Republican administration, weakened by the congressional election results. But it is also true of the Democratic Party, whose leaders went along with the war. They are jubilant because they managed to do well in the November elections, getting large numbers of people who want the US troops out of Iraq to vote for candidates who are for keeping them there (as Hillary Clinton made absolutely clear on prime time television). Their only difference with Bush’s policy, that of wanting a ‘multilateral’ policy of bringing on board the French and German governments, does not provide a way forward, since the point has long been reached where the combined efforts of the European and American governments are no more likely to bring stability than the efforts of the US government alone.

The whole American political establishment is faced with a problem that it cannot solve easily and which is not going to go away. This makes further splits within it—within both its parties—inevitable as its members row with each other about the way out. The consequences will be felt not only in the Middle East, but throughout the world as well—including in the US itself. When the ruling class cannot continue in the old way, there is hope for all those who want to fight against it.

Causes and consequences

There has been a powerful current of feeling on the left to the effect that imperialism is all-powerful. This can sometimes be an understandable reaction to those pretend left wingers (the Hallidays and Hitchens) who see the US as somehow able to bring civilisation and ‘human rights’ to the rest of the world (see Richard Seymour’s account of their twists and turns later in this issue). But it is an overreaction that contains dangers of its own. For, if US imperialism is too powerful for resistance to succeed against it, the logic can be for its opponents to ‘self-limit’ their resistance in the hope of not provoking an onslaught from it. What seems like a very ‘leftist’ analysis of imperialism ends up collapsing into the mildest reformism, if not complete passivity and miserablism.

That is why we have debated these issues in this journal over the last three and a half years (see, for instance, the debate between Alex Callinicos on the one hand and Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin on the other, in issues 107, 108 and 109 of International Socialism). It was this which led us to assert, in the immediate aftermath of the US taking of Baghdad in 2003:

The determination of the Bush gang to hammer home the US’s global military hegemony by going to war without allies (apart from Britain) ensured they blitzkrieged their way to Baghdad without establishing the prerequisites for the quick establishment of a stable new pro-US regime. In the aftermath they are faced with the choice between staying for a very long period of time or putting in Iraqi clients who may not be able to keep control of the country as a whole… This choice was causing splits within the Bush administration’s ‘unilateralist’ war camp the very day after the conquest of Baghdad… The US triumphant remains the US weak. The splits with the other powers will continue, even though they will alternate between defiant gestures and grovelling actions. There will also be recurrent splits within the US political establishment and ruling class as the Bush magic fails to transmute military self-glorification into the humdrum business of making bigger profits.4

The only fault with our analysis was that we underestimated how quickly Iraqi resistance would cause devastating problems for the US. It is these problems which will ricochet around the world—and probably wreak havoc within US domestic politics—in the period ahead.

War seemed a logical policy in 2001 and 2003 for members of a ruling class whose huge military power stands in marked contrast to the relative weakening of their economic power over the last half century. The US accounts for 45 percent of world military spending but only around 20 percent of world GNP—and is now the world’s biggest debtor (see the graphs in the article ‘Snapshots of Capitalism’ later in this journal). And bombs can be deployed to ‘persuade’ others to toe the line even if troops are not available. The temptation to have another go may well be too great for sectors of the American ruling class to resist.

US imperialism cannot take defeat in Iraq lying down. It will try to hit out to restore its position, as it did last summer by backing the Israeli attack on Lebanon. But it will do so from a position of weakness, and can easily miscalculate—as it did in that war.

This is no time for the anti-war movement to wind down. We have to be prepared not only for a continuation of the carnage in Iraq, but also for sudden military confrontations elsewhere. For these reasons it is scandalous that a party like Rifondazione Comunista in Italy, whose leaders campaigned against the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001-2003, is now prepared to vote through support for the sending of troops to Afghanistan and Lebanon (see Megan Trudell’s article in this journal). Not only is the carnage in Afghanistan and Lebanon as horrific as the continuing carnage in Iraq, but the impact of defeat for US and British imperialism (and for their Italian, French and German NATO allies) can further weaken the forces of an already damaged imperialism. We have a duty to fight against the carnage—and in doing so, increase the possibilities of victories against imperialism everywhere in the world.

1: Quoted in Financial Times, 7 December 2006.
2: Guardian, 8 December 2006.
3: For more on this see Chris Harman, Socialist Review, November 2006.
4: Chris Harman, ‘Analysing Imperialism’, International Socialism 99 (Summer 2003).