A year of the ‘war against terrorism’, and what has been achieved? Despite a year of conflict, repression and militant mobilisation we are on the edge of potentially the worst war for generations. As we approach the anniversary of 11 September, US troops are streaming towards the Middle East in preparation for war. All the talk is of an invasion of Iraq in order to effect ‘regime change’ against Saddam Hussein. We have already seen a bloody war in Afghanistan which overthrew the Taliban regime but left at least 5,000 civilians dead, a country effectively divided by warlords where there has been little material improvement in the lives of most citizens.
The situations in Kashmir and Palestine have been exacerbated by the ‘war on terrorism’. Ariel Sharon said only days after the 11 September events that Yasser Arafat is ‘our Bin Laden’, and has used the ensuing year to wage merciless war not just on the hapless Arafat but on the whole Palestinian people, provoking huge opposition and a mass solidarity movement in the other Middle Eastern countries and throughout the world.
And of Osama Bin Laden himself there is no word. Since the formal end of the Afghan war the US authorities have not come close to capturing or, it seems, killing him. The talk of ‘wanted dead or alive’ with which George Bush justified his attack on Afghanistan has now been forgotten–or rather transferred to the figure who has long been the real target of the US administration, Saddam Hussein.
Despite no evidence linking the Iraqi regime to Al Qaida or Bin Laden, despite no evidence that Iraq has the means to develop weapons of mass destruction, and despite no evidence that Saddam has any expansionist aims or abilities following his defeat in the Gulf War of 1991, we are told that he is the greatest threat to world peace–a new Hitler who must be destroyed.
Why is this happening? One reason lies in the nature of the Bush administration. It is one of the most right wing, even for a Republican regime, with a strong history of ideological commitment to right wing and anti-Communist causes. Its connection with big business, especially the oil industry, is also exceptionally close. Figures such as the self styled Prince of Darkness, Richard Perle, are key and respected advisers, rather than consigned to the political lunatic fringe as would normally be the case.
But this cannot be the only, or even main, explanation for the decision to target Iraq come what may, especially since it has led to huge divisions inside the US ruling class and internationally, and is fraught with many dangers. Instead we have to understand the problems facing the US imperialists, especially in the Middle East, and the belief of at least some of them that they need a radical strategy in order to solve these problems.
The US has always tried to control the region, and thus its key natural resource, through alliances with a number of states. The state of Israel, traditionally the US watchdog in the area, has been armed and funded to record levels to ensure that it remains loyal to its backer, and as a check against anti-American sentiments in the region. For much of the postwar years Iran was another key ally until its revolution in 1979 toppled the Pahlavi dynasty and ushered in an Islamic regime. Iran was transformed from close ally to number one enemy–a period when the US and other western powers backed Saddam’s Iraq as a bulwark against Islamicism. It was only when Saddam looked like getting out of the control of the Americans that he replaced Iran as the main enemy in the region in the run-up to and aftermath of the Gulf War in 1991.
For the past decade UN sanctions have been imposed on the people of Iraq, along with the no-fly zones over large parts of the country policed by the US and British governments. The result has not been the toppling of Saddam and his replacement by a friendly pro-western regime, but the impoverishment and destruction of much of the country, and a growing sympathy internationally for the suffering people of Iraq. Discontent has grown throughout the Middle East, fuelled by the Al Aqsa intifada and Sharon’s repression in Palestine. Some of the closest US allies among the Arab regimes, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, are subject to much greater political instability.
The impasse of US policy in the region has not led to a serious rethink of politics or an appreciation of some of the discontents. Rather it has led to a more intransigent stance which it is hoped in the US government will crush opposition. Put simply, the way to resolve the Palestine and Israel question is through an attack on Iraq which brings about regime change, and which allows western influence to gain ground elsewhere in the Islamic world. As the US think-tank Stratfor puts it, Bush’s administration is pressing ahead ‘because it sees a successful campaign against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein as a prime way to shatter the psychological advantage within the Islamist movement and demonstrate US power’.
Even immediately after 11 September it was clear that Afghanistan was only one step down the road for the US government, and that its real target was Saddam. This position has remained relatively consistent over the past year, despite the upsurge of fighting in Palestine which for a period made an Iraqi invasion look too fraught with difficulties. The decision was only deferred, never abandoned. For much of the US administration there is a belief that this is the only way out of their mess. As Stratfor puts it:
‘The destruction of the Iraqi regime will demonstrate two things. First, that American power is overwhelming and irresistible. Second, that the United States is as patient, as persevering and much more powerful than the Islamist movement.
‘Moreover, an attack on Iraq, unlike the destruction of Al Qaida and militant Islam, can be achieved. Wars with nation-states possessing large military forces are something that the United States does very well. Destroying a highly dispersed global network is something that nobody does very well. The United States cannot afford an atmosphere of ongoing stalemate.’
However, this approach has led to huge divisions and opposition, as even politicians who are normally pro war right wingers question the sanity of such attacks. The US ruling class is itself deeply divided over the way forward. Henry Kissinger, Brent Scowcroft, James Baker–hawks and warmongers all–have expressed grave reservations or outright opposition to the plans. The Republican House majority leader, Dick Armey, said in August that he saw little justification for an attack on Iraq. None of these people could remotely be described as liberals, meaning that the Republican Party and conservative America is itself split on the question. Baker was Bush Sr’s Secretary of State during the first Gulf War, and his high profile warnings of caution are highly significant.
One of the main fears coming from those in opposition to the war in the US is the lack of support for the project among US allies in Europe and elsewhere. German chancellor Gerhard Schröder opened his campaign for re-election by opposing a war in Iraq and saying Germany wanted no part of it. France and Germany want no action without UN authorisation–most other European powers are no more enthusiastic. Only in Britain is Tony Blair giving wholehearted support to the Bush project–and even here Robin Cook, Clare Short and Margaret Beckett have expressed reservations.
There is outright hostility in much of the Middle East to the policy. Mass discontent over the question of Palestine has reached boiling point in countries such as Egypt in recent months. An invasion of Iraq, while at the same time the US backs Sharon and refuses to make any concessions to the Palestinians, can only worsen the situation for the rulers of these countries as Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s president, recently made clear. The Jordanian royal family, long term alliy of the west, fears its own demise in such an eventuality. The nervousness of the Saudi royals and their hangers-on can be demonstrated by the mass withdrawal of Saudi investments in the US over recent months. Regardless of their politics or sympathies, the Middle East rulers universally fear for the chaos and upheaval which could ensue from any US attack.
The final and perhaps greatest worry in Europe and the Middle East is of popular opposition from below. In Britain, a clear majority opposes an Iraq war. Around a dozen national trade unions have policy opposing war, and the depth of opposition within the Labour Party can be judged by the number of MPs speaking out against it. This in itself suggests deep discontent among Labour supporters. In Germany over 80 percent in a recent poll opposed a war in Iraq. Even in the US opposition to an attack is growing in the opinion polls.
The anti-war movement is growing
These are some of the reasons why so many people are speaking out against a war in Iraq, regarding it as a dangerous and illogical move. However, reasoned and logical argument on its own is unlikely to prevent this war. The Bush government is in a huge dilemma–in a sense, it can’t go forward and can’t go back. It has publicly and openly committed itself to regime change. Already preparations are well underway for all-out war. According to the New York Times the Pentagon has hired two giant cargo ships to carry armoured vehicles and helicopters, and another eight ships to carry ammunition, tanks and ambulances, while the airforce is stockpiling weapons, ammunition and spare parts at depots in the Persian Gulf. Military preparations are underway. More importantly, it is very hard for the government to retreat politically, having made so much of the importance of defeating Saddam. It has to proceed because any retreat would be seen as a massive defeat–but proceeding can lead to the fall of governments, to opposition at home, and to a bloody war in the Middle East. It can also lead to the break-up of Iraq and greater instability as powers on its borders such as Iran or Turkey fight to control sections of former Iraqi territory.
Perhaps most dangerously for the US, and by implication the British government, is that a government entering a war can find itself encountering mass opposition of a sort which it only encountered in wars such as Vietnam after some years of engagement. This is the importance of the anti-war movement in Britain. Blair is in a huge dilemma as he seeks to follow Bush militarily and politically while he wants to turn to Europe economically. He has little choice but to trail abjectly behind Bush–but this can lead to his greatest political defeat. That depends on us building on opposition to the war. George Galloway, the Labour MP, described the demonstration on 28 September as potentially the biggest ever anti-war demonstration in this country. We have a month to turn that potential into reality.
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