What the Gulf War Is All About

Against the Current, No. 30, January/February 1991

Peter Drucker

WHY IS THE United States on the brink of war in the Middle East? What should socialists do about it?

U.S. troops are in Saudi Arabia because of oil, but for other reasons as well: to inflict a major defeat on Arab nationalism; to make the U.S. the supreme military power in the Middle East; to overcome the “Vietnam syndrome” once and for all; and to save the military-industrial complex from any threat of a substantial contraction. If the people who rule the United States want to achieve all or even most of these goals, they probably need a full-scale war against Iraq. Let’s look at each of these reasons in turn.

Whose Oil Is It?

We have to start from the understanding that the OPEC countries, like other countries producing raw materials, are in a relatively weak position in the world capitalist economy. The terms of trade have been steadily shifting in a way that diminishes the prices of raw materials relative to manufactured products. This is not an accident. It reflects the fact that the main centers of world economic power are in the industrialized, imperialist countries, not in the OPEC countries or the Third World. The 1973 and 1979 oil price hikes were blips, exceptions, in an otherwise consistent pattern of falling real oil prices.

The capitalist ruling classes as a whole like this pattern. They don’t want to see it changed.

Some people say that it would be more rational, from a U.S. capitalist point of view, to use energy more efficiently and stop importing it from the Middle East. After all, we only import 11 percent of our oil from the Middle East now, up from only 2 percent in 1985. This point is true, but irrelevant. Long-run rationality is not what U.S. capitalism is about. Short-run profitability is.

Anyway, the issue isn’t an oil price increase now. It’s unpredictable fluctuations, independent of imperialist control, in the future. From an imperialist point of view, the emir of Kuwait and king of Saudi Arabia are almost ideal oil price arbiters, because they have a direct stake in capitalist profitability in Europe, North America and Japan.

Kuwait in particular has $100 billion invested in the imperialist countries. Even before the Iraqi invasion, over half of Kuwait’s income came not from oil sales but from overseas investments. Now, in Alexander Cock-burn’s phrase, Kuwait has become the world’s first “offshore nation”: a closely held corporation with a flag and a seat in the United Nations. You can count on a government like that to keep in step with the interests of European, North American and Japanese corporations.

Saddam Hussein’s interests are ultimately compatible with corporate interests as well—he needs to sell his oil, after all, at a price that buyers can afford to pay—but there’s a lot more room there for divergence and disagreement Jimmy Carter made clear in the late 1970s that that’s a difference Washington is ready to go to war over Now George Bush is proving it.

Back to Colonialism

But there are other things at stake besides oil. The U.S. would like to roll back political and social structures in several Arab countries that have been in place since the 1950s. To understand the kind of Middle East that imperialism would really like to see, we just have to remember how the Middle East looked in 1948.

Syria and Lebanon were virtual French protectorates. Egypt, Transjordan and Iraq were virtual British protectorates. They were what Lenin called “semi-colonies”: nominally independent countries with imperial troops, bureaucracies and companies planted on their soil. Iraq was a sterling example, ruled by a British-installed royal family and a British-backed dictator named Nuri Said.

The creation of the Israeli state in 1948-49 jolted this order Quasi-revolutions in Egypt in 1952 and Iraq in 1958 and a full-fledged war of national liberation in Algeria in 1954-62 severely dislocated it. The regimes that resulted, while still capitalist, were far more autonomous from imperialism. The power of the new bourgeois classes that dominated them rested not on foreign troops, but on nationalized oil and industry, as well as outright looting of state resources and private companies funded out of that looting. Soviet aid directed against the United States, Saudi aid directed against Israel, and other oil money made these regimes possible. Rhetorical anti-Zionism and anti-imperialism were their main ideological stock in trade.

But nothing structural about these regimes prevented their retrieval by imperialism, and that retrieval has in fact been under way for two decades. It had already begun in Egypt by the time that Anwar Sadat broke with the Soviet Union, and later signed the Camp David accords, in the 1970s. Dependence on U.S. aid, entanglement with the International Monetary Fund (IMP) and western banks, reopening the economy to the world market, and selling off state companies have all followed. We could call this process “re-semicolonization.” A similar process is well under way in Algeria.

The only old-line Arab nationalist regimes left are Iraq, Syria and Libya. Iraq’s tight alliance with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates during the 1979-88 war with Iran may have led Washington to assume that Iraq too was headed the way of Egypt and Algeria. Washington has had no objection to the fact that the Iraqi regime is brutal and totalitarian, that strikes have been crushed, that Kurds have been gassed and massacred, that Communists and other oppositionists have been tortured to death and their bodies displayed on Iraqi TV. Vicious repression of the working class can if anything be a plus from Washington’s point of view, as Augusto Pinochet showed in Chile.

With the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, however, Bush has had to see that re-semi-colonization is not automatic. On the contrary, in a period when integration into a western-dominated world order means deepening austerity and continual blows to Arab pride, nationalist revivals are possible and likely. Consequently a country like Iraq could continue to be a relatively poor place for multinational corporations to invest, and the Iraqi government could continue to show an irritating independence in its trade and foreign policies. These are things that Bush would like to see changed. Re-semi-colonization requires a big push: for example, crushing and purging the Iraqi army and state apparatus.

Now that Bush has drawn his line in the sand, anything less than a crushing military victory over Iraq would probably be a setback for the imperialist project in the Middle East. This project has been abetted by the role of the United Nations. Both the United States and the United Nations have cited “international law,” before which body of law all states are (supposedly) equal. Oppressed and oppressor nations, states that represent a people’s self-determination and those created only through foreign intervention, brutal repression and even genocide are rendered equivalent We need to reject this hypocritical formalism: only when all nations exercise the right of self-determination can there be equality and the basis for just international relations.

A major obstacle to imperialism in the Middle East is the Palestinian intifada. Independently of what Bush wants, once the war starts the extreme right-wing Shamir government of Israel will have every opportunity to escalate repression and expulsions from the West Bank and Gaza. This would be the distinctive Israeli contribution to the assault on Arab nationalism—although the long-term consequence would probably be a deepening and radicalization of Arab nationalism.

U.S. Troops in Arabia—How Long?

Ensuring the stability of the oil supply and taming Arab governments are in the collective interest of all the imperialist powers. But Bush also has specific U.S. interests in mind. Establishing a permanent U.S. military presence in the Middle East is one. The bases that U.S. troops are using now in Saudi Arabia were in fact built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, designed extra-large in the expectation that U.S. troops would occupy them one day, and eyed greedily by the Pentagon ever since as hoped-for permanent acquisitions.

It’s been suggested that Washington’s move into Saudi Arabia was aimed as much at Germany and Japan as at Iraq, that it was an attempt to boost the slipping U.S. standing in the ranks of big powers. A strong permanent military presence would at least give the United States a bargaining chip that might come in useful in some indirect way some day. It might help in future trade talks with Europe and Japan, for example, much as the U.S. military presence in Europe probably made a difference in the 1971 Eurodollar crisis.

Since the U.S. defeat in Vietnam in 1975, though, U.S. military muscle has not carried quite the same weight. The strength of sentiment in this country against committing U.S. troops to prolonged ground wars in the Third World has been a real, material limit to the power of U.S. imperialism. Overcoming the “Vietnam syndrome” would be a big net gain for the U.S. ruling class. Saddam Hussein has given it an ideal target an Arab (read: nonwhite), an oil baron, a dictator, an aggressor, a taker of hostages.

Would military victory over Iraq be a lasting gain for U.S. imperialism? Perhaps not. Perhaps the tens of thousands of U.S. deaths inevitable in such a war would reinforce the Vietnam syndrome instead of eliminating it. But some ruling- class strategists think differently. They think Washington could have won in Vietnam if “we had given it everything we had.” They think the antiwar movement gained so much strength because Johnson escalated the war too slowly. This time, they think, the United States can strike fast, defeat Iraq in a few months, and ensure that the U.S. dead will be mourned and forgotten in the triumphant glow of military victory.

Only hundreds of thousands of Arab and U.S. deaths would enable us to find out whether these hard-core “strategic thinkers” are right. Even if they are wrong, the dead would still be dead. If they are right, the U.S. victory would substantially increase the likelihood that Washington would fight a prolonged ground war again, in the Philippines, or Peru, or any one of a number of countries around the Third World.

Goodbye, “Peace Dividend”

These right wingers also hope to save the military-industrial complex’s bacon for years to come. In early 1990 the Pentagon and its allies among the Fortune 500 at least potentially faced big cuts in military spending. It had happened before: in 1945-47, the military budget was cut by 90 percent over the course of two fiscal years. Given the size of the budget deficit, the savings and loan crisis, and the depth of the corporate-military alliance forty years after the Korean war, the threat of cuts this time was nowhere near as immediate But there was pressure. When the pressure evaporated in August, September, and October 1990, the House of Representatives added back over $5 billion it had cut from fiscal 1991 military spending.

A fiasco for U.S. imperialism in the Middle East could bring that anti-militarist pressure back to life with a vengeance. The pressure could be much greater than in the mid-1970s after the Vietnam defeat, when the social crisis at home was less acute and the alleged Soviet nuclear threat was available as an ideological backup. A decisive U.S. victory over Iraq, on the other hand, could prop up the existing setup for the 1990s in something of the same way that the Korean War did for the 1950s. The stakes, for us as well as the ruling class, are big.

If the ruling class wants to achieve all or even most of its goals in this crisis, it needs a full-scale war against Iraq. The conflict in the Persian Gulf is the first major test of U.S. imperialism in the post-Cold War world. The outcome will determine the shape of international politics for years to come. Socialists have to be clear: war would be an absolute evil, but a U.S. military victory would be the greatest evil. To prevent war and to prevent a U.S. victory, we have to get U.S. forces out of the Middle East, as fast as possible, by any means necessary.

Iraqi Withdrawal, Yes—U.S. Victory, No

Within this context and only within this context, we can live with the peace movement making some kind of call for Iraqi withdrawal. We have to OPPOSE any call for Iraqi withdrawal in the context of war: in the context of war, we see Iraqi victory as a lesser evil. We have to OPPOSE any call for Iraqi withdrawal as part of some unspecified settlement that would probably restore the emir through threats and pressure. But we can live with a call for Iraqi withdrawal if it means the U.S. gets out first and the people in Kuwait decide their future without intimidation by Iraqi troops.

We in Solidarity see the people we are working with in this antiwar movement as our brothers and sisters in a crucial common battle. Our ability to work together with them, respectfully and honestly, is an important test for us for the kind of non-sectarian, revolutionary socialist current we are trying to build.

January-February 1991, ATC 30