The Imperial Trifecta

Against the Current, No. 101, November/December 2002

The Editors

To be absolutely clear: We oppose this war from start to finish not because it is “unilateral,” not because it is risky, and certainly not because we hold any sympathy for the ruling tyranny in Iraq, but because this war is imperialist.  It is a war to confirm—and expand—global U.S. capitalist supremacy, and nothing is more dangerous for the world than a “success” in this war of conquest.

WHY WAR?  WHY now?  On a conservative and careful analysis of “risks to United States’ strategic interests,” the dangers arising from launching a war to conquer Iraq appear substantially greater than the risks from doing nothing.  That is why there is division and debate among the U.S. elites, to say nothing of international alarm.  What then are the perceived rewards for the U.S.-dominated system of global economic and political management (what we call, for short, imperialism) that outweigh the risks of regional chaos?

Some elementary points must be established from the beginning.  First, the war against Iraq is not “coming,” it had begun already at the beginning of October, with expanded U.S. bombing of radar sites, the presence of “Special Forces” in northern Iraq, and a reported Israeli operation in western Iraq to locate possible missile launching sites.

Second, the decision by the U.S. administration for “military action” is not pending, it was made long ago. The basic blueprint to force “regime change” in Iraq was drawn up immediately after George W. Bush’s installation; the strategic decision to actually go to war against Iraq (though not the exact timing) was almost certainly made a few days after September 11, 2001, at exactly the same time when the administration decided to go into Afghanistan.

Third, this war drive has little-to-nothing to do with whatever small stockpiles the Saddam Hussein regime may retain of “weapons of mass destruction,” with even less capacity to deliver them (except possibly in tactical battlefield arenas on Iraq’s own territory).  Understandably, ordinary people may be concerned with the proliferation of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons; but such concerns have nothing to do with U.S. policy toward Iraq, which is driven by straight-up objectives of conquest.

By any measure, in any event, the hideous Iraqi regime is vastly less “dangerous” to anyone, let alone the world superpower, than it was in the 1980s when it actually used chemical weapons against Iranian troops and Iraqi civilian Kurds.  Remember: Iraq received that weapons capability from the United States itself, back in the day when Saddam Hussein was power-lunching with Donald Rumsfeld.

Let’s briefly review the real risks arising from this war, which have been the main subject of the debate over the “wisdom” of war in elite media and policy circles:

  1. The danger that the Iraqi regime and the al-Qaeda terrorist network, which are natural bitter enemies, might be forced into an alliance of convenience for survival and revenge.
  2. The danger, if air power and “surgical” assaults or assassination fail to rapidly topple the regime, that brutal urban street fighting might ensue, with civilian deaths not only in huge numbers but, even worse, televised around the world.
  3. The danger that the war in Iraq might give occasion for large-scale Russian military action against the republic of Georgia, or the re-escalation of the India-Pakistan crisis (which is objectively the most dangerous in the world).
  4. The danger that Iraq itself may disintegrate—if, for example, the Shia population in the south or northern Kurds reject a new American-installed authoritarian central government.
  5. The danger that a war in Iraq might set off upheavals threatening the historic American allies in the Arab world—Jordan, Egypt and the royal house of Saudi Arabia.
  6. The danger of a violent escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation, potentially including an unprecedented Milosevic-scale assault launched by the Sharon government—or, perhaps, triggered by far-right settler elements whom Sharon assists but may not fully control.

This nightmare scenario extends all the way to “population transfer” (ethnic cleansing) of Arabs from the Occupied Territories if not from Israel itself.  While it is impossible to assess the odds, it is worth noting that the possibility has been seriously covered in the international press, including Israel, but barely in U.S. media.  Jeff Halper of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions suggests that summary deportations of several thousand Palestinian detainees, and other selected community leaders, is highly feasible.

In any case, when the administration after a brief period of uncertainty this past spring came down unequivocally on the side of Israeli Prime Minister Sharon’s brutal assault on Palestinian civilian society, a decisive choice had been made: to simply impose U.S.-Israeli terms on the Arab and Muslim world by the display and use of overwhelming force.

We come now to a peculiarity of the present incredibly dangerous moment.  At least some of these dangers—particularly the collapse of major Arab states, and some kind of final-solution assault on the Palestinian population—may well be seen in some Washington corridors of powers as positive opportunities.

There are certainly elements of the right wing, linked to such projects as the “New American Century” and the extreme proponents of the Israel lobby, who believe that this is the moment—a moment that may not soon come again—when American power can reshape the Middle East, on terms of complete unconditional surrender of Arab nationalist, Islamist or any other aspirations beyond subservience to the U.S. order.

These are ideologically driven types (Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz come immediately to mind), who see Ariel Sharon as the positive role model for handling Middle Eastern affairs, and who would be more than happy to see Saudi Arabia written off as a strategic U.S. ally. To accomplish this, of course, direct U.S. control of Iraq’s enormous untapped oil reserves would be critically important.

The issue here is not any American “dependence” on Iraqi oil, but power and control.  Oil is the means toward an end: the vision of U.S. dominion in the Middle East as it exercised in Latin America sixty or seventy years ago. (And did the empire then spread the blessings of democracy and development in Latin America?)

For years to come, as the master of Iraqi oil the United States could hope to render the oil-producers’ cartel OPEC irrelevant, set the world price of oil at will anywhere between $15 and $45 a barrel, and determine the fate of economies and governments from Venezuela to Saudi Arabia to Russia.

Since the 1973 Middle East oil embargo and the long gas lines that followed, U.S. politics have been haunted by the specter (far more than reality) of the combined power of Arab and Third World oil exporters over western economic destiny.  While smashing the power of OPEC would change world capitalist realities less than meets the eye, it would restore the politics of oil to their rightful shape as originally ordained by God and Standard Oil, not necessarily in that order.

This would not bring about a rapid economic recovery, but it could be of significant short-term electoral benefit to an administration plagued by a double-dip recession and the ghosts of Enrons past, present and future.

Further, there’s a powerful streak within both corporate America and the “cultural” (nationalist and religious) right wing that sees a golden opportunity here to break free of New World Order “multilateral” constraints: With military domination of the Middle East and Central Asia comes the power to dictate trade policy with Europe, turn outer space into our military domain, shove Kyoto and the international criminal court, consume cheap fossil fuels and heat up the planet till the Rapture comes.

The Bigger Picture

There remains a question, however.  No matter how conveniently this war will fit into the agenda of the political and religious U.S. right wing, and no matter how powerfully this element influences the politics of this particular administration, it is simply not the case that the hard right controls the policy of the U.S. corporate ruling class as a whole.

The capitalist class as a whole is not completely blind to the enormous costs and complexities that will be entailed in controlling and reorganizing the Iraqi state, let alone the entire Middle East, after the military conquest is accomplished.

The problem then is to explain why the U.S. establishment itself has placed so few, weak constraints on the administration’s war drive.  The facts of economic downturn and mismanagement; Bush and Cheney’s own backgrounds in corporate sleaze; the realities of international unease over the war; all this would offer plenty of opportunity to slow down or halt the war drive if the dominant economic elites wished to do so.

In our view, the potential enormous rewards that are seen to arise from the conquest of Iraq have overridden the normal “conservatism” of the capitalist class as a whole.  In a post-Cold War world, with no serious rival state power capable of imposing restraints on U.S. military power—with difficulties arising instead from a range of messy regional crises, non-state terrorism, and massive popular discontent with “globalization”—the temptations of conquest become exceptionally powerful.

Think of Iraq as completing an imperial trifecta that started with Serbia, then Afghanistan.  In each case, these are targets of opportunity, when regimes to which American policy had no great objection (certainly not to their murderous internal repression) stepped over the bounds of permitted behavior.

Taken together, these three victories—the first two, at least, accomplished with minuscule U.S. casualties—demonstrate that American power can be exercised at will whether through NATO, on its own, or under the cover of a mandate to be extracted from the United Nations Security Council through blackmail and muscle power.

Whether in far-right, conservative or liberal thought it is taken as given, not subject to respectable dissent, that U.S. power is a benevolent force for progress and democracy in the world, and that the more this power can be used, the better.  (Never mind such ancient history as 1980s Guatemala, where the bodies of the peasants gunned down by the U.S.-backed army are still being dug up.)

There is also the temptation to dissolve the problematic after effects from one victory into the euphoria of the next. If post-Milosevic Kosova remains an ethnic tinderbox, there’s the “liberation” of Afghanistan; if post-Taliban Afghanistan is a rapidly deteriorating mess, we’re moving on to finish Saddam Hussein.

If this vaguely resembles a kind of global pyramid scheme, perhaps the late 1990s stock market bubble was a prototype for it. But the assumption of the benevolence of U.S. power is also where we most fundamentally dissent.  For us, the U.S. confrontation with Saddam Hussein’s regime is not good guys versus the axis of evil; it is a vendetta of a global godfather against a middle-level gangster who stepped out of line.

To be absolutely clear: We oppose this war from start to finish not because it is “unilateral,” not because it is risky, and certainly not because we hold any sympathy for the ruling tyranny in Iraq, but because this war is imperialist.  It is a war to confirm—and expand—global U.S. capitalist supremacy, and nothing is more dangerous for the world than a “success” in this war of conquest.

To be sure, it is a risky proposition, yet in the end the U.S. ruling class with its fabulous power and arrogance sees the risks of this already begun war as worth taking inasmuch as these fall mainly upon those who matter less. United States casualties are expected to be low while those of Arab civilians are likely to be enormous; the economies and the societies subject to collapse are in other people’s countries.

In some sense, from the heights of corporate power, this war looks like a game being played primarily with house money.  From the other end, it’s one of the scariest and deadliest adventures imperialism has embarked on yet. Not since the early days of the Vietnam War has the need for an clear-headed antiwar movement been so urgent.

ATC 101, November-December 2002