Four years ago, when George Bush and Tony Blair embarked on the conquest of Iraq, the US loomed supreme over the world.
After the apparently swift overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan, barely two months after 11 September 2001, few doubted America’s global dominance.
That indeed was one of the main reasons why the neoconservative wing of the Republican Party advocated invading Iraq – to perpetuate what one of them, Charles Krauthammer, called the “unipolar moment”.
Seizing Iraq would freeze the historical situation after the Cold War when the US dominated the world without any serious challengers.
It would do so because controlling Iraq would entrench the US position as the dominant power in the Middle East.
This would have implications beyond the region. The US could then, as the radical geographer David Harvey put it, decide to turn off the “oil spigot” – deny access to Middle Eastern oil to potential rivals such as the European Union, Japan and China.
Four years on, what has happened to those plans? The Pentagon’s high speed, hi-tech warfare overwhelmed the Iraqi army in a few weeks – but it has been impotent in the face of the opposition of most Iraqis to the US-led occupation.
The fundamental law of counter-insurgency has defeated the US – guerrillas can only be defeated if they can be isolated from the bulk of the population.
The occupiers of Iraq have never come remotely near achieving this objective. The armed resistance has been based chiefly among the predominantly Sunni Muslim areas in the centre of the country.
But, from the first few months of the occupation, most Iraqis, including the Shia Muslim majority in the south, have wanted to see the US and its allies out of the country.
The US tried to regain the initiative by practising divide and rule. A political alliance with the Shia establishment at the top was matched at the bottom with support for sectarian death squads based, for example, in the Iraqi interior ministry.
But the sectarian tit-for-tat killings have now escalated out of control, especially in the Greater Baghdad region.
Meanwhile, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein has tilted the regional balance of power in favour of Iran. “Today, the only army capable of containing Iran” – the old Iraqi army – “has been destroyed by the US,” says Vali Nasr, a US security expert.
To this geopolitical reality must be added the political, cultural and economic influence of Iran’s Shia Islamist regime over the Shia of southern Iraq.
This comprehensive failure has radically changed the world’s view of US power. Commentators now portray a declining US experiencing a “crisis of overstretch”, particularly because the Iraqi catastrophe has coincided with China’s rapid economic ascent.
Disaster in Iraq, together with the exposure of the lies told to justify the war in the first place, has destroyed Blair’s premiership and, since the Democratic Party’s victory in the mid-term US Congressional elections last November, turned Bush into a lame duck president.
Bush has responded to this by backing the neocons within his administration even more strongly. A new commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, is implementing an aggressive “surge” in US troop numbers.
Since the new policy was implemented on 14 February, the US military has been claiming a falloff in the number of violent incidents. But many US military experts are pessimistic.
Retired Marine Colonel Gary Anderson, who has advised top US officials on insurgencies, predicted that Sunni insurgents and Shia militias will “wait out the surge, falling upon the Iraq security forces when the Americans start leaving”.
Certainly the Mahdi Army – the Shia militia most consistently opposed to the occupation – seems to have been instructed by its leader Moqtada al-Sadr not to attack US troops entering its Baghdad stronghold.
But the Sunni resistance has been mounting aggressive attacks on US forces, shooting down at least six US helicopters since late January.
Some members of the Sunni militias may also have been involved in a wave of sectarian killings of Shia Muslims travelling to the sacred site of Kerbala over the past week.
It’s hard to judge how serious the Bush administration is in its threats to spread this chaos and slaughter to Iran.
On the one hand, the veteran investigative journalist Seymour Hersh has documented detailed plans, directed by US vice president Dick Cheney, to prepare for an attack on Iran.
These involve working with Saudi Arabia to orchestrate an alliance of Sunni regimes and movements, including radicals sympathetic to Al Qaida, against Iran, Syria, and Hizbollah.
On the other hand, the Financial Times claims to have detected a shift to a more “pragmatic” US foreign policy.
But no one should hold their breath while waiting for the victory of the “pragmatists”.
As Noam Chomsky pointed out in the Guardian last week, “A predator becomes even more dangerous and less predictable when wounded. In desperation to salvage something, the administration might risk even greater disasters.”
The ‘second superpower’ that shakes the mighty
The threats against Iran are just one reason why the anti-war movement must remain vigilant – and continue to campaign for an end to the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.
The high point of that movement remains 15 February 2003, the day of giant global anti-war protest that prompted the New York Times to hail the emergence of a “second superpower”.
It would be nice to imagine that the fourth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq will be greeted by global protests on a similar scale. But this is, alas, unlikely to happen.
The marches in Washington in January and in London a few weeks ago were large scale protests by any standards.
However, after the fall of Baghdad on 9 April 2003, many national anti-war coalitions simply gave up.
This reflected the fact that many of these coalitions, especially in continental Europe, traced their origins to campaigns against nuclear weapons during the Cold War.
They were ill-equipped ideologically to deal with a rampant Western imperialism claiming to be fighting “Islamofascism”.
Political alliances sometimes also played a negative role. US anti-war activists were hugely disoriented by their misguided support for the pro-war Democratic candidate John Kerry in the 2004 presidential elections.
The Italian movement was undermined by its support for Romano Prodi’s government, which backs Italy’s participation in the occupation of Afghanistan.
But none of these failures were inevitable. In Britain, the Stop the War Coalition was built on the understanding that we were facing a long term imperialist offensive.
This understanding has helped to sustain one of the most important mass movements in British history.
But we also recognised that the offensive could be defeated. For all the horror they inflicted on Iraq, Bush and Blair have failed. This is reason enough to rededicate ourselves to building that “second superpower”.