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Exposed – the limits of US power

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The crisis in Iraq shows the weakness of the US — and that means movements from below can strike blows against the whole system, Alex Callinicos tells Socialist Worker
Issue 2409
US troops in the Iraqi city of Mosul in 2007
US troops in the Iraqi city of Mosul in 2007 (Pic: The US Army/flickr)

What has happened to the Project for New American Century (PNAC) we used to hear so much about?

The PNAC was a plan, or perhaps better described as a set of ambitions, developed by leading figures in George W Bush’s administration after 9/11. 

They saw an opportunity in proclaiming the “war on terror” to use military power to entrench US domination of the Middle East.

The US hugely overreached itself. 

It was rapidly confronted in Iraq with armed resistance from all sections of society. Opposition came not just in the Sunni Muslim areas but, for example, from Moqtada al-Sadr and his followers among the Shiite poor of Baghdad.

In response the US essentially relied on a policy of divide and rule, building up Shia parties directed particularly against the Sunnis. That led to a sectarian civil war between 2005 and 2008.

When that got out of control the US tried to balance things by encouraging the so-called Sunni awakening movement directed particularly against the supporters of Al Qaida.

But the winner in all this was Nouri Al-Maliki who took over as prime minister of Iraq in 2006. He institutionalised a highly sectarian form of Shiite domination which has precipitated a new wave of risings in the Sunni areas which now Isis has been able to exploit.

So the US attempt to entrench its domination has produced a situation in which Iraq is threatened with disintegration. This has very serious consequences for the whole region.

Are we seeing a new form of Vietnam syndrome where the US is wary of a full military intervention?

Yes. Obama is absolutely desperate to end the series of wars that the US has engaged in since 9/11. 

So he pulled US troops out of Iraq, although he wanted to keep some there, but Maliki blocked him. He’s also moving US troops out of Afghanistan. 

Now the leading members of the old Bush administration are saying that the present crisis is all Obama’s fault.

But there’s very deep opposition throughout US society, on the right as well as on the left, to further US military engagement in the Middle East. 

This is a problem that any US administration would face.

I think we can now say that we’ve got, instead of the Vietnam syndrome, the Iraq syndrome. And this is a big constraint.

US power has been weakened. Not simply by failure in Iraq, but also by the economic crisis.

That doesn’t mean we should underestimate the US. It is now sending special forces to Iraq, mainly with the aim of them supporting the use of air power.

The thought of American air power being unleashed in Iraq again is very frightening. This is particularly since a lot of the fighting is taking place in highly populated areas.

So even a constrained and limited US can still be vicious and cause enormous suffering.

We are confronted with an imperial power whose crisis seems to accelerate with every turn of events.

At the beginning of this year, who would have imagined that the US would be faced with a very serious confrontation with Russia in Ukraine and the prospect of losing a lot of Iraq to a Jihadi organisation that even Al Qaida has repudiated as too extreme?

What’s happening in Iraq underlines the extent to which the US has been weakened.

That’s important politically. It means movements from below can strike real blows—not just against US power or the power of particular ruling classes, but against the whole system.

What difference have the Arab revolutions made?

They’ve further weakened the US. Washington is probably relieved to see the Egyptian military under el-Sisi back in control. 

But the Arab revolutions have had the effect, whatever their specific outcome, of weakening all the regimes in the region. The level of political fragility is much greater. 

We can see that in the way in which Syria has disintegrated through the civil war Bashar al-Assad unleashed, 

Now, the prospect of the disintegration of Iraq in turn makes other regimes more vulnerable.

For example there’s a lot of speculation that the next country that is going to see this kind of fighting will be Jordan, a state that is absolutely crucial for the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

What role do the Gulf States play in the region?

All Western talk of democracy in the Middle East is undermined by the very close alliances that not just the US but also Britain and France maintain with Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia is supporting at least some of the Jihadis who are causing mayhem in Syria and Iraq. Saudi Arabia is very strongly supporting the military regime in Egypt.

And here we see the contradictions in the situation. The US sees its alliance with Saudi Arabia as a stabilising factor.

But what the Saudis are doing to entrench their influence in the rest of the region is contributing to the chaos that’s developing.

How important is oil in the situation now?

Middle East oil is important to the US—not because it takes a big proportion of that oil, because it doesn’t. Latin America and Africa are important sources of US oil supplies.

Plus the so-called fracking revolution means the US is becoming increasingly self-sufficient when it comes to oil and natural gas.

But the biggest oil reserves in the world are concentrated in the Middle East. 

That means that the other major capitalist powers—the European Union, for example, Japan, increasingly important China, are heavily dependent on Middle East oil.

The invasion of Iraq for the Americans was not simply about grabbing oil for Exxon, although of course that’s always good from their point of view.

It was to entrench US control over oil reserves and therefore make other powers more respectful and subservient towards the US.

This has completely rebounded as the US failure in Iraq has been a powerful factor in leading other states to see the US as in decline.

What impact do events in Iraq have on Israel, the key US watchdog in the region?

Israel must find the present situation very worrying. 

Partly because the kind of forces of radical Sunni Islam that are becoming stronger as a result of the crIsis in Iraq and Syria are also hostile to Israel.

The Al Qaida founder Bin Laden always stressed the importance of the Palestinian question for the kind of cause that Al Qaida was pursuing.

Israel is particularly concerned about the regional power of Iran. 

One reason why the Iraq war was such a disaster for the US was that the major regional beneficiary was Iran.

Iran is playing a crucial role in saving the regime of president Bashar al-Assad from the forces of revolution. 

Iran has a close relationship with the Maliki regime and Iranian officials are active in Iraq to try and prop the regime up. The prospect of Iran and the US cooperating to stop Isis and stabilise Iraq is very worrying from Israel’s point of view. 

Particularly since the US is already in negotiations with Iran about its nuclear programme—something that Israel has been very unhappy about.

The other player, particularly in Syria, is Russia—would you say Russian power is in the ascendancy?

Ascendancy is an overstatement. 

Russia is a much weaker power than the Soviet Union was. Putin is trying to rebuild Russian power and the links that Moscow has in the Middle East—historically, a strong relationship with Syria.

Putin’s position is essentially a defensive one. 

He’s run rings around the US and the EU in Ukraine but what he’s engaged in is a defensive operation to try and stop Ukraine being pulled into the Western axis.

There’s speculation that the Russians, via Saudi Arabia, have encouraged the Isis offensive in order to distract the US from Ukraine. But that’s extremely speculative.

A big problem for the US is China’s rise in East Asia. So the more the US is distracted on other fronts the better it is from Russia’s point of view. 

This reflects the inter-imperialist rivalry manoeuvring that we’re seeing on a global scale.

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