US president Barack Obama talked tough on Islamic State in his speech to the United Nations (UN) last week.
The Nobel Peace Prize laureate insisted that “the only language understood by killers like this is the language of force,” and pledged to “dismantle this network of death”.
There’s nothing new about a US president calling for war. But for several years the humiliating failure of the last war in Iraq—and the widespread opposition to it—has left the US ruling class nervous about launching more attacks.
This recalls the “Vietnam syndrome” that followed the disastrous war in south east Asia.
So Obama has made a big shift in his rhetoric, compared to his Cairo speech five year’s ago which called for a “new vision for peace”, for example.
The Financial Times’ US commentator Edward Luce lauded it as his “first robust statement of liberal interventionism”. The Washington Post likened it to George W Bush.
But getting over the “Iraq syndrome” isn’t entirely straightforward for the US’s rulers.
There’s no prospect of a simple rerun of Bush’s Project for the New American Century (PNAC) and his invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Obama’s speech might as well have been a whistle stop tour of defeats and crises for US imperialism.
After a major geopolitical defeat in Iraq, the Arab revolutions further weakened its grip on the Middle East. Its crisis continues despite the return of military rule in Egypt.
The US was the only superpower left at the end of the Cold War. But as serial war criminal Henry Kissinger warned, it was still in “no better position to dictate the global agenda unilaterally than it was at the beginning of the Cold War...The United States will face economic competition of a kind it never experienced.”
PNAC was precisely an attempt to ensure that the US could maintain its dominance against rising powers that are heavily dependent on Middle Eastern oil.
But its defeat in Iraq sent out the opposite message.
The US only managed to stabilise the situation in Iraq through a military “surge” and a divide and rule policy that led to the sectarian fighting there today.
Yet it was still forced to pull out by its own client regime, without having achieved its war aims of strengthening its world position against its rivals.
Obama has also urged governments not to let Russia off the hook in Ukraine where the US faces another crisis. But it was noticeable that Obama omitted to mention China, clearly not wanting to open another front.
The US was forced into bombing by the direct threat Islamic State poses to its strategic interests. But tank columns aren’t about to roll into Baghdad, whatever the bloody fantasies of some in the ruling class.
And it already faces major difficulties which will intensify as the war drags on. In particular it needs allies—and that’s not always easy.
So the US is talking to Iran and wants to settle nuclear talks there—and it was even looking for an informal deal with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
But it has to drag its feet to avoid antagonising key ally and major regional power Saudi Arabia.
The West is also arming Kurdish fighters to be a proxy army. But Turkey’s government persecutes its Kurdish minority—and could be set to get more assertive under president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government.
Imperialism is not an immovable edifice, and its problems provide opportunities for building opposition movements from below.
The West’s propaganda around Islamic State means that a majority of people in Britain support bombing. For now.
But the legacy of the anti war movement that mobilised two million in 2003 against the last Iraq war meant that parliament’s hands were tied over Syria just last year.
That movement didn’t come out of nowhere, and when the “war on terror” first kicked off the arguments weren’t always easy.
And the tens of thousands who marched for Palestine this year show the potential for building an anti-imperialist movement to stop the warmongers again.