The Colossus and Destruction

Against the Current, No. 103, March/April 2003

The Editors

Whatever weaknesses this emerging antiwar movement has, and there are undoubtedly many, its support of the rights of the Palestinian people must be counted among its greatest strengths—particularly at a time when the fog of war in Iraq might provide the occasion for an escalated ethnic cleansing against Palestinians in the Occupied Territories.

We want to be clear that a movement that rejects redbaiting and right-wing attacks must at the same time defend the right of criticism and debate within the movement itself.

EVEN AFTER THE most spectacular antiwar mobilization in world history—millions in the streets of more than 300 cities on February 15-16—the Bush administration continues full speed ahead with its war plans.  Whatever diplomatic delay may now be required in the face of overwhelming world popular opposition, it remains likely that the conquest of Iraq will be underway around or shortly after the time this issue of Against the Current reaches our readers.

What will be the shape of the world that emerges from George Bush’s war?  According to the predictions coming from the administration and from some who call themselves “liberal interventionists,” a Middle East without Saddam Hussein will be on its way to a reorganized future of democratic modernization, freedom from terrorism and fundamentalism, Israeli-Palestinian peace and the promise of prosperity.

This rosy-glow scenario serves an important ideological purpose in constructing the pro-war coalition.  Yet among all the potential outcomes, it is just about the least likely.  In this statement we want to explore where this invasion is more likely to lead, and the importance of the magnificent antiwar movement growing in this country and internationally.

Can this war still be averted?  Almost certainly not, we believe—unless, improbably, the crisis on the Korean peninsula escalates so rapidly that it compels an emergency re-focussing of imperialist priorities.  The Korean crisis itself is one leading indicator of the world that the American colossus is producing—a world of violent instability permanently poised on the edge of destruction.  We will leave this factor aside for the moment, however, and return to it in conclusion.

On February 5, Secretary of State Colin Powell addressed the United Nations Security Council, announcing his intention to seek the Republican nomination for President in 2008—oops, that’s a slightly different topic.

Powell’s case for Iraqi deceit, evasion and general trickery was skillful packaging rather than any concrete demonstration of a clear and present danger requiring immediate war. At least, it looked skillful until Powell’s main claims were exposed as plagiarisms or contradicted outright by Hans Blix, setting the stage for Powell’s diplomatic Waterloo at the UN Security Council meeting of February 14.

But Powell, who used to be the most if not the only credible spokesperson for the Bush administration’s war drive, wasn’t really targeting the governments on the UN stage—whose stance will be determined by the blackmail, bribery and backstabbing behind the curtains.

Rather, Powell was mainly trying to secure public opinion in the United States and to a lesser degree in Europe.  The short-term result after February 5 was a spike in the majority of the U.S. population that supports war, albeit uneasily and hesitantly.  From here on that support can only go down, and the uneasiness up. In U.S. domestic politics, the war must happen soon if it is to remain halfway popular.

There are at least two other variables in the political calculus pressing for war right away. First, the stock market and the economy: Whatever impact war might ultimately have, the assumption now is that there can be no recovery of confidence or investment while the prospect of war hangs in the balance and while uncertainty over oil supplies causes wild price fluctuations.

Second is the fragility of Bush’s own right-wing coalition.  Recall the sharp debate among hawks over whether going to the United Nations in the first place last fall was an absolutely necessary tactic to gain international legitimacy (and especially Arab and Turkish support) for war, or whether UN inspections would turn into an obstacle delaying U.S. military action.

Each side of this argument was partially correct.  The difference of opinion will recede if Iraq is overwhelmed, quickly and overwhelmingly.  But if war were to be prevented or even significantly delayed now, a brutal faction fight would ensue within the right wing, as those elements most fanatically committed to total U.S.and Israeli supremacy in the Middle East would never forgive Bush for losing the chance.

The Seduction of War

Among the many factors favoring the Bush war drive, one of the greatest gifts is the nature of the enemy that has been handed to it. Here is an Iraqi regime whose record of internal genocide, external aggression and evil intentions is clearly documented, yet which now rules over an isolated and debilitated state that (unlike, say, North Korea) cannot deliver on any of its threats.

Better yet, because this is a regime that has ruled for two decades on the basis of total state terror, it has no real way of measuring the opinion of its own population, or of maintaining control past the point where its demise appears certain.  Hence the imperial calculation that Bush’s war will be quickly crowned with the spectacle of Iraqis in the streets rejoicing over their liberation.

Indeed, it may well prove true better that Iraqi military resistance to overwhelming U.S. power will rapidly disintegrate.  Nor is it likely that protracted resistance (guerilla or civilian) will be organized by an Iraqi ruling clique that is motivated only by self-preservation and perhaps revenge, not by any authentic nationalist commitment.

Whether the Iraqi population will joyfully welcome trading in Saddam Hussein’s tyranny for a U.S. military occupation is another matter entirely.  Nonetheless, the notion of a war that will “liberate” the Iraqi people is seducing many liberals, and some on the left who ought to know better, with the idea that this will begin a “democratic modernization” of the entire Middle East under benevolent U.S. guidance.

This is why we need to look into the new world that is likely to emerge from the likely, although by no means certain, smashing United States military conquest of Iraq. The war may be quick and easy; the aftermath will be a mess, even if we adopt optimistic assumptions that Iraq’s cities will not have been destroyed and hundreds of thousands of its people killed in massive urban fighting, blown to bits by U.S. bombing, poisoned by depleted uranium or sacrificed in some kind of suicidal last stand of Saddam Hussein.

First, this will be an Iraq and a Middle East ruled by the American colossus, without the previously useful pretensions that sovereign governments have anything to do with it. The United States will dictate the terms on which a new Iraqi administration is constructed and how it rules.

As the military occupier, the United States will also have responsibility for a poorly nourished Iraqi population and for a public health system in acute crisis.  Whatever warm welcome U.S. troops might (hypothetically) receive will not survive without quick improvements in people’s lives and the rapid restoration of devastated infrastructure.

This will cost many tens of billions of dollars, not counting the expenses of keeping at minimum tens of thousands of U.S. troops in Iraq for five to ten years.  Since George W. Bush has no intention of making this a charitable cause, the United States will take control of Iraq’s oil fields as a colonial possession—again, without the useful cover of a “sovereign” friendly regime—to pay for this occupation and reconstruction.

Again, this reflects the optimistic assumption that the oil fields themselves are not destroyed by U.S. bombs, or by Saddam Hussein’s forces in some kind of ecocide mission, during the war.

Second, the United States will be expected to exercise its prerogatives as world colossus to revive an Israel-Palestine peace process.  The idea that this will result from victory over Iraq is a utopian delusion.

A “peace process” on terms of present U.S. policy requires, on the one hand, the surrender of the Palestinian population of its aspiration for a measure of national dignity in an independent state in the whole West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem—22% of historic Palestine—chunks of which are to be given up for Israeli settlements and “security.”

On the other hand, the Israeli state would be asked to give up its barely-disguised intention to destroy any possibility for a viable Palestinian state, territorially and economically and politically.  There is little-to-no possibility even of cosmetic “concessions” from an Israeli government that will be expecting great rewards from its role as the most loyal U.S. ally—or of serious pressure being exerted on Israel by a U.S. administration deeply rooted in the pro-Zionist fanaticism of Christian fundamentalism.

Third, then, in a region inflamed by a U.S. occupation of Iraq, by the brutal impasse in Palestine and probably by a crisis of falling oil prices (assuming here that Iraqi oil is pumping full-blast to pay for the costs of occupation), anti-American rage of all kinds from Islamist to nationalist to populist will erupt on a previously unknown scale.

On the “homeland security” front, this rage will feed right back into U.S. society in the form of terrorist threats both real and imagined, further escalating the Bush-Ashcroft-Ridge war against the rights and liberties of the domestic population.  In the Middle East, meanwhile, managing an expanded crisis will require a much larger permanent stationing of U.S. military assets.

Since the civilian reserves now being mobilized can’t be kept on active duty forever, it is only a matter of time before the current rumblings for bringing back the military draft become a matter for serious political debate.  Permanent war, permanent fear, permanent mobilization: It’s all in the cost of empire, especially when the rest of the “axis of evil” is put into the picture.

Hope in the Movement

Against this nightmare prospect, the January 18 antiwar mobilization in Washington, D.C. and San Francisco seemed little short of miraculous.  Never had there been anything quite like this: Without exaggeration, half a million people marching against a war that has not yet officially begun.

Yet this was only the curtain-raiser for February 15.  Here, internationally, was a stunning convergence of the best traditions of mass antiwar protest from the Vietnam era with the newer global justice mobilizations from Seattle to Genoa.  Initiated by the European Social Forum and picked up by United for Peace and Justice in the USA, this overwhelming demonstration of popular antiwar sentiment marks the opening of a new period in this struggle.

The importance of this development outweighs by orders of magnitude any differences that exist between the principal antiwar coalitions, International ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) and United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ).  We unhesitatingly urge our readers to help build and participate in the coming actions of both ANSWER and UFPJ as well as other marches, teach-ins, student strikes, forums, including:

Upcoming antiwar actions scheduled at press time include a March 5 nationwide student strike; Internatonal Women’s Day Actions for Peace on March 8; a march to encircle the White House for peace March 15; and activities in Washington D.C. April 10-15 around the IMF/World Bank meetings.  Most important, local actions will take place when the war formally begins; keep in touch with your local peace and justice community for details.

Of equal if not even greater importance are antiwar activities taking place in cities and towns across the United States, many of which have no long history of such protest.  These vigils, marches and meetings are intersecting everywhere with the deep hesitation and fear among ordinary Americans about where their government’s war drive is leading.

It’s important here to note that this movement, especially as represented in the form of ANSWER, has come under public attack—particularly in parts of the liberal media.  Ostensibly, many of these critiques are about the fact that ANSWER’s main public figure Ramsey Clark, as well as a political current that plays a central organizing role in that coalition, are publicly uncritical of the Saddam Hussein regime.

We suspect that a different underlying motive is at work: a fear among many liberals that here is an antiwar movement that is becoming both too large and too radical to be controlled or channeled back into the stagnant backwaters of the Democratic Party.

This becomes particularly clear when liberal guardians of the gate like Todd Gitlin outrageously attack the January 18 organizers for having “extraneous” issues addressed from the speakers’ platform—issues like defending the Palestinian people and Mumia Abu-Jamal!

Whatever weaknesses this emerging antiwar movement has, and there are undoubtedly many, its support of the rights of the Palestinian people must be counted among its greatest strengths—particularly at a time when the fog of war in Iraq might provide the occasion for an escalated ethnic cleansing against Palestinians in the Occupied Territories.

We want to be clear that a movement that rejects redbaiting and right-wing attacks must at the same time defend the right of criticism and debate within the movement itself.

ANSWER’s inability to address the character of the Iraqi regime is many ways regrettable, especially in missing the opportunity to educate millions of people about the long history of U.S. support for that hideous dictatorship.  The struggle is further weakened when many activists find the organizing methods within a coalition to be anti-democratic or manipulative.

The best immediate solution is for activists and peace and justice organizations to find whatever coalition they find most compatible, and to seek the broadest possible unity in mass action against the war. In the context of building that unity, strategic, tactical and organizational questions will most quickly assume their rightful place.

A Dangerous Future

Up to now, our analysis of this imperialist war has put aside the most extreme potential consequences, for the simple reason that opposition to this war of conquest should not depend on the worst- case possibilities.  At the same time, the U.S.-North Korean confrontation is a profound illustration of these possibilities.  (See Martin Hart-Landsberg’s cogent account elsewhere in this issue.)

Quite apart from the fact that North Korea is a crumbling Stalinist family dynasty where much of the population struggles to subsist on boiled grass, its rulers have absorbed a pretty obvious lesson from Iraq’s predicament: When the world superpower sticks the axis-of- evil label on you, your alternatives lie either in total surrender or in getting as evil as you can as fast as you can.

Bluntly put, Iraq has no deterrent.  North Korea, with its artillery in range of Seoul and its alleged-or-actual nuclear weapons capacity, does. What conclusions is (for example) Iran supposed to draw?

As we have outlined in previous statements in Against the Current, we are confronting a moment in history where the United States government is motivated not only by traditional imperialist goals but also by its own variant of fundamentalism—a radical ideology proclaiming its ordained right to rule the world—which tends to override a sober and conservative calculation of the risks and rewards of conquest.

Yet at a very profound level, tens of millions of ordinary Americans share the fears of billions of their fellow human beings around the world.  And after the Iraq war erupts as much as before it, the antiwar movement in the United States as well as internationally represents the voices of humanity and sanity.

ATC 103, March-April 2003