By Chris Nineham
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War without End?

This article is over 22 years, 4 months old
Bush and Blair are preparing to launch war on Iraq, but this could unleash opposition which they might find hard to contain.
Issue 261

US threats to unilaterally escalate the war have sent shockwaves around the world. Members of the French, German, Canadian and Japanese governments, all part of the western coalition, have expressed alarm and warned against precipitate US action. In Britain the normally pro New Labour ‘Guardian’ has come out against an attack on Iraq, and within two weeks of Bush’s ‘axis of evil’ speech protests against war had been reported in Japan, Iran and South Korea.

The US establishment remains defiant and united. Spokesmen are barely bothering to link their new hitlist, which includes Iran, Iraq and North Korea, to a campaign against terrorist networks. War is now threatened against any or all regimes which fail to comply with US policy–and its allies can take it or leave it. Regarded as a moderate in Washington terms, US Secretary of State Colin Powell recently conceded that the US’s allies will be consulted about plans for a ‘regime change’ in Iraq, but he added, ‘We have to preserve the option to act alone.’ Their arrogance is breathtaking. Action against Iraq is expected sometime after Iraq takes a decision on whether to allow in arms inspectors. But a US spokesman added the rider, ‘We won’t take yes for an answer.’

This frightening departure confirms what many in the anti-war movement have been saying from the start–the western powers have been using the horrific attack of 11 September as an opportunity to pursue wider geopolitical ambitions. The balance sheet from Afghanistan bears this out. Far from bringing liberation, the war has brought almost unimaginable misery to a country already on its knees. One estimate suggests 8,000 innocent people have been killed by western military action, and no one contests that many continue to die due to the hunger and disease that trails in the wake of war.

Despite this desperate situation, and despite the fact that the interim government is already showing signs of murderous factional infighting, the promised reconstruction package has not materialised. The interim government in Afghanistan has bid for $45 billion of aid. The World Bank estimates the country needs between $15 and $20 billion in the next few years if it is to lift itself out of ‘a situation that is really extreme’. So far only $3 billion has been pledged.

For the Pentagon on the other hand, its been a good war so far. Apart from the kudos of ‘victory’ in Afghanistan, the US has come out of it with at least 13 new military bases and camps in the bordering states including a huge base at Khanabad in Uzbekistan, and a ‘transportation hub’ at Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan housing 3000 soldiers with warplanes and surveillance aircraft. The Pentagon has already started periodic replacement and rotation of troops in a clear signal that they intend to stay. Hawks within the administration have been pushing for a military presence in central Eurasia for years. In 1998 Congress introduced the ‘Silk Road Strategy Act’ to push for control of the oil supplies that will come on line soon in these countries.

The operation reveals the working relationship between the military, state finance and big business which drives imperialism. Since the troops have been ‘welcomed’ in Kazakhstan for example, Bush has rewarded the unelected government with a promise of $52 million in aid, but only on condition that a large proportion is spent on US weapons systems. Likewise Uzbekistan has been offered $136 million in US import-export bank credits. So US arms manufacturers and others get new contracts and the US is well positioned to control the oil and to contest Russian or Chinese influence in the area.

Encouraged by their swift success in Afghanistan and the added bonus of a $120 billion arms spending hike, the hawks could not resist looking further afield. They now believe they have an opportunity to strengthen their hegemony in the Middle East and address their worries in the Asian Pacific rim. A successful attack on Iraq would have obvious benefits. Saddam Hussein’s regime has become a symbolic test of US strength in the area, Iraq is a major oil producer and stands at the western end of the Silk Route. Further east the US has long had concerns about China. On present growth trends of 7 to 8 percent a year, China threatens to become the dominant power in the Far East, and its recent pact with Russia and neighbouring states could extend its influence westwards. A military presence in South Korea is crucial to the strategy to contain China, and threats against North Korea are designed to ensure that US troops stay in the South. Meanwhile the campaign against the Abu Sayyaf terrorists in the Philippines, strategically placed on the South China Sea route, is a useful pretext to put US troops back into that country after their withdrawal in 1992.

Military power

This is clearly a critical moment for US foreign policy. As Joseph Biden, chair of the US Senate’s foreign relations committee, put it, ‘The good news is we’re the world’s only superpower. The bad news is, we’re the world’s only superpower.’ The US military is unchallenged in terms of brute firepower, and it is way ahead of any competition technologically. As it pushes forward with new technologies of unmanned aircraft and missile defence systems, even its closest allies in Nato are in danger of becoming incapable of fighting alongside it. Whatever the future for the National Missile Defence system, the might of the US war machine is already daunting. The US has nearly 1,000 strategic nuclear weapons, 136 naval ships on overseas service and a quarter of a million military personnel abroad, including 90,000 troops in East Asia and the Pacific.

But the US Empire is not uncontested, as some on the left suggest. Imperialism is actually a product of competition. The reason western-driven globalisation needs an armed wing is precisely because it faces challenges around the globe. And massive arms spending can’t guarantee US ascendancy. Either other powers will be forced to catch up or the disproportionate military spending will damage the US economy.

The attraction of the military option for the US establishment conceals more immediate problems. The truth is that there is a mismatch between US military might and its economic muscle. After the Second World War the US accounted for approximately half of world economic output. Although it has bounced back recently that figure still only stands at around 30 percent today. Historically US ascendancy in the west and elsewhere has been won with the carrot and the stick. The billions of US dollars pumped into a devastated Europe after the Second World War were crucial to the US’s ability to rebuild markets and head off social unrest. Its meanness in postwar Afghanistan suggests how much things have changed. Its global aid policy tells the same story. World Bank figures show US foreign aid provision has fallen from over 0.5 percent of GDP in the 1960s to under 0.2 percent today. The developing approach seems to be the one chillingly summed up by the Pentagon official who told the world recently, ‘We don’t do peace.’

A militarised foreign policy carries big political costs. With the exception of the ever loyal Tony Blair, the US’s Nato allies clearly feel out in the cold. They know they will have little stake in a war on Bush’s ‘axis of evil’. It is in their interests to argue for a policy of dialogue with so called rogue states. They are also genuinely nervous about the impact that an assault on Iraq would have on regimes in the Middle East and beyond. The attacks on Afghanistan didn’t trigger full scale anti-government uprisings in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan or elsewhere. But the bitterness hasn’t gone away. The Saudi royal family is extremely jumpy about growing domestic opposition. In January it raised the possibility of expelling US troops from Saudi soil for the first time. In February, fearing protest, it massively stepped up security at this year’s Haj, when up to 1 million Muslims travel to Mecca.

The threat of unilateral action is leaving many Middle Eastern regimes with little room for manoeuvre. They want the benefits that come from close relations with the US, but they can’t be seen to support more military action. The Iranian authorities are doing everything they can to give out pro-US signals, but last month they had to respond to anti-US anger by allowing the normally low key commemoration of the revolution to become a mass display of opposition to US imperialism. Meanwhile the war on terror has encouraged the Israeli government to step up its repression of the Palestinians, further raising tension in the region. As one unnamed Arab diplomat in Washington said recently, ‘It is a nightmare situation for us. We feel the Americans will take very drastic action, and we have to be prepared for such a reality. But the public opinion in the street will not see this as a benign attempt to restore order but as American imperialism.’

Public opinion is a real issue across the world given the record of the economic model that the US has been championing for the last 25 years. Corporate globalisation has successfully brought almost every part of the globe into the world market, and has opened up previously state-run sectors to commercial interests. In the process it has massively increased the power and reach of mainly western-based multinationals. But for most around the world the experience has been devastating. The global labour force has more than doubled since 1965, but the number of people earning less than $1 a day has rocketed to over 1 billion. This immiseration, combined with the sell-off of essential services, has led to a decline in basic indices of wellbeing like health, education, diet and life expectancy in vast areas of the globe from sub-Saharan Africa to central Eurasia, the Middle East and many parts of Latin America.

Despite the ten-year boom in the US, neoliberalism has been a negative experience for most, even in the capitalist heartlands. Real average income has failed to rise in the US over the last 15 years despite a massive increase in working hours and job insecurity. The erosion of social security and healthcare provision has left millions with no safety net. Close ties between aggressive corporate capital and a compliant state are always in danger of spilling over into the public domain, as they did with the Enron scandal.

It is these experiences that gave birth to the anti-capitalist movement in both North and South. For all the wishful thinking of the ruling classes, 11 September has failed to derail that movement. In fact, after initial disorientation in some places, most activists have understood both the dangers and the real dynamic of the war on terror, and have come out clearly against it. This was demonstrated at the beginning of February, when on the same weekend, 10,000 marched against militarism in Munich, and huge anti-capitalist gatherings in New York and Porto Alegre, Brazil, put opposition to the war at the centre of their protests.

Recession in the US and Europe, and economic stagnation in Japan, can only deepen discontent. This in turn presents the possibility of the link-up of the anti-capitalist movement proper with much wider forces, especially organised workers. In some countries this is a process that’s already underway. In Italy the social forums which have emerged out of the Genoa demonstrations have helped create a huge new left with real roots in the working class. It is significant too that the MST landless labourers’ movement in Brazil brought huge contingents on the Porto Alegre demonstrations.

Against this background the US turn towards a militarised foreign policy looks more risky. Even in the short term increased arms spending can only further erode social cohesion–in the US social spending has already been cut back as a direct result of a commitment to increased arms expenditure. And there are other dangers inherent in the US’s hawkish new confidence. Recent military adventures were given careful ideological cover. Desert Storm in 1991 was a response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, intervention in the Balkans was passed off as a humanitarian war, and the assault on Afghanistan could be presented as an understandable reaction to the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Centre. Now there seems little ideological justification for their next assult other than naked aggression.

Henry Kissinger exemplified the new spirit of openness when he admitted recently in the Korean Times, ‘The issue is not whether Iraq was involved in the terrorist attack on the United States, though no doubt there was some intelligence contact between Iraqi intelligence and one of the chief plotters. The challenge of Iraq is essentially geopolitical.’ Camp X-Ray is also a product of the new open spirit of aggression. The photos that have periodically been released from Guantanamo Bay by the authorities can have had only one purpose–to show that the US is prepared to use horrific barbarity against anyone who dares oppose it.

In practice, as well, an assault on Iraq may well be a very different proposition to the strikes against the poorly armed and unsupported Taliban. No proxy forces are obviously available to attack Iraq, and leading Washington hawk Richard Perle himself recently suggested an invasion might push Saddam Hussein to use biological weapons. His briefing suggested that up to 200,000 US troops would be necessary for a ground assault.

A Strategic Forecast analysis reports that there is still nervousness about this option in Washington, so much so that the State Department is apparently opposing the Pentagon’s confrontational approach. It is pushing for a planned coup in Iraq to unseat Saddam Hussein as ‘the quiet option, the one that will cause the fewest ripples in the Middle East and the rest of the world’.

Whatever option they choose, opposition to the expansion of the war on terror is likely to be massive. Given the present mood in Washington it would be foolish to rely on the persuasive powers of erstwhile allies on the US. But the fact that government ministers in Europe and elsewhere are speaking out against war will encourage anti-war activists everywhere. Here in Britain the signs are that our government will continue its slavish support for any US adventure on the grounds that it can act as a restraining influence on the inside. No one is going to be taken in by that argument any more, and if the US does go ahead with Blair’s support there will be massive unrest within the Labour Party. Anti-war feeling is likely to connect with the growing discord between the unions and New Labour. A number of national unions distanced themselves from outright support for the assault on Afghanistan. Privately a number of union leaders have expressed grave doubts about that operation. More importantly, activists have found it easy to win anti-war positions among rank and file trade unionists.

Defeating the Taliban is one thing–dealing with mass opposition is quite another. The Vietnam War showed how the combination of local opposition and a domestic anti-war movement could stop the US near the height of its powers. As the US blithely takes on more and more enemies it risks creating a global movement against war. And because the war is so tightly linked to western commercial interests it can quickly turn into a movement that generalises against the whole system. The job of socialists is to build this movement as widely and energetically as possible, and at the same time tie it in to the revolt against corporate rule and privatisation at home. George Bush may yet regret the day he said, ‘You are either with us or against us.’

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