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US war strategy is caught between a rock and a hard place

This article is over 17 years, 1 months old
John Rees writes on the tasks facing the anti-war movement in 2007
Issue 2032
US soldiers in Adwania, in the Babil province of Iraq, during a search for insurgents in December of last year
US soldiers in Adwania, in the Babil province of Iraq, during a search for insurgents in December of last year

The imperial project in the Middle East is damaged but not destroyed. It is damaged in part because of the successive blows that have rained down on it from the Iraqi, Afghan, Palestinian and Lebanese resistance since 2002.

But this resistance alone could not have damaged George Bush and Tony Blair’s administrations as much as they have been.

Imperial powers can suffer any amount of death and destruction in their “colonies” so long as it does not translate itself into political pressure at home.

The international anti-war movement has translated the pressure of the resistance into political pressure on the governments who began the “war on terror”.

This is why the imperial powers are now caught in a vice much like that which held their predecessors at the end of the Vietnam War more than a generation ago.

They face an enemy they cannot defeat militarily on the ground and an opposition that is growing in strength domestically.

The two main supporters of the “war on terror” in mainland Europe, José Maria Aznar in Spain and Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, have both lost elections as a result of the war.

Blair was forced to announce his early departure this year as a direct result of the opposition to his backing for Israel in last summer’s war against Lebanon.

Bush has been damaged by the mid-term elections rout of his Republican party in both houses of Congress.

In the wake of this defeat the recent report by James Baker showed that the foreign policy elite in the US believe that the Iraq occupation is unsustainable in its current form.

The question that will be settled in 2007 is whether Bush will react by moving towards some kind of withdrawal from Iraq or whether he will, Jimmy Cagney style, try and shoot his way out of the crisis.

There are very deep problems whichever horn of the dilemma he strikes at first.

If he “cuts and walks”, as the Washington wags have it, at least immediate political damage can be brought to an end. US troops would stop dying and the widening disaster of Iraq can be handed back to (and blamed on) the Iraqis themselves.

Moreover, Bush may be able to normalise relations with Syria and Iran. And having removed the main inflammatory cause spreading radicalism in the Middle East, Bush would have been in a better position to support his friends in the Arab despotisms everywhere from Egypt to Saudi Arabia.

But “drawing down” the forces in Iraq, whatever euphemism is employed, will be seen as a massive defeat for US imperialism.

All those who oppose imperialism, whether they be the anti-war movements, the resistance in the Arab world, or the left in Latin America, will see the US humbled.

A second Vietnam syndrome, but deeper and potentially longer lasting, will engulf the US ruling class and its allies internationally.

The stakes could not possibly be higher for the US government.

That is why it is still some distance from embracing the Baker report’s “alternative strategy”.

Indeed there are already signs that Bush and Blair, neither of whom face another election, may be contemplating another try at a military solution.

Bush is rumoured to be thinking of deploying more troops – perhaps as many as 30,000 to 40,000.

This would be almost a one-third increase on current force deployment. The talk from the US military commander in Iraq is of (another) attempt to re-take Baghdad.

The problems with this approach are obvious. Iraq is not governable by an occupying military force unless that force were many times greater in numbers than is currently the case.

In addition it would have to be willing to fight a full scale counter-insurgency war that would annihilate even the puppet regimes that the US has so far concocted to justify its occupation.

Military solutions are easy to start, but more difficult to bring to a successful conclusion, as both the Israeli army in Lebanon and the Nato forces in Afghanistan are well able to attest to from recent experience.

We cannot know which of these options, or which combination of these approaches, Bush will ultimately adopt.

But we do know that the war will remain central to global and British politics and that, as Blair prepares his final days in office, the anti-war movement can play a crucial role in shaping British politics.

We must keep on opposing the ‘war on terror’

The Stop the War Coalition must remain insistent that the troops must come home now. Their only role now is to foment further division among Iraqis in order to try and hold on to a territory they cannot themselves control militarily.

Take, for example, the “enlightened execution” of Saddam Hussein. The US knows that the execution of Saddam will not stop Shia opposition to the US but that it will further embitter Sunnis.

The only good that can come of it, from a US perspective, is that Sunni and Shia will do more damage to each other than they do to US troops.

In Britain the cost of the war will continue to be a source of opposition, all the more so since it is now added to by the cost of the replacement for Trident.

For many leading labour movement figures Trident is an easier issue on which to oppose the government than the Iraq occupation. Combining the two issues on the next demonstration on 24 February maximises the striking power of the anti-war movement.

Moveover, the more New Labour loses the central argument about the war, the more it lashes out at Muslims.

It must be so – the government’s three arguments for going to war were that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, that the West would bring democracy to the Middle East and that there was a “clash of civilisations” between Muslims and the West.

Arguments one and two are widely discredited. That leaves the clash of civilisations thesis constantly reiterated by Blair.

Increasingly, the sole remaining argument for the “war on terror” is that Islam leads to terrorism and extremism internationally.

But if, as the war’s supporters claim, some people thousands of miles away are so benighted and blinded by irrational religion that they must be corrected by force of arms, where does this leave their co-religionists in the West? It leaves them the domestic scapegoats for a failed foreign policy.

That is why, as 2007 begins, the three founding aims of the Stop the War Coalition – to oppose the “war on terror”, to stop the racist backlash and to defend civil liberties – are more important now than they were in September 2001.

John Rees’s most recent book, Imperialism and Resistance, is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop £12.99. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to

Stop the War dates for your diary in 2007

  • Monday 22 January
    Islamophobia – the new McCarthyism
    Speakers include Gary Younge (Guardian journalist) and Louise Christian (human rights lawyer).
    7.30pm, Bloomsbury Central church hall, Shaftesbury Avenue, central London.
    Organised by Media Workers Against the War
  • Saturday 27 January
    School Students Against War national conference
    University of London Union, Malet Street.
    Open to all those under 19 or at an FE college.
  • Saturday 10 February
    Stop the War Scottish conference
    Speakers include Kate Hudson (chair of CND), Craig Murray, Jeremy Corbyn MP, Lindsey German (Stop the War Coalition), Moazzam Begg (ex-Guantanamo prisoner), Rose Gentle (Military Families Against the War).
    10am to 5pm, Sir Charles Wilson Building, Glasgow University, Gibson Street.
  • Saturday 24 February
    No Trident, Troops Out of Iraq
    CND/Stop the War national demonstration, central London
  • 29 March to 1 April
    Fifth Cairo Conference

For more information and events go to

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