Occupation and the Empire

Against the Current, No. 104, May/June 2003

The Editors

AFTER “SHOCK AND awe” failed, “Operation Iraqi Freedom” became a meatgrinder war, a kind of blitzcreep as mile by mile, town by town, Iraq’s absurdly overmatched military was systematically ground to bits, and many of its people in the process.

There is something unbearably obscene in the spectacle of the United States mass media, from the bottomfeeding Fox News to the self-identified sophisticates of National Public Radio, celebrating the victory of an American military that was always inevitable, with roughly 125 “coalition” deaths in combat, while the “Number of Iraqis Killed May Never Be Determined.” (New York Times, April 10, B1)

All this celebration for victory over a country whose Gross Domestic Product is 15 percent of that of the state of Washington, and whose annual defense budget was $1.5 billion (compared to our $400 billion). Obscene, yes, but inevitable too. An imperialist power maintains an imperialist media. Patriotic fever serves the needs of the powerful and the profiteers. Anything else new?

Actually, we think, there is something new here. The program for “A New American Century” as conceived by the weird rightwing coalition of oil men (Bush-Cheney), Christian fundamentalists and hard-line Likudnik Zionists (Wolfowitz, Perle, Abrams and neoconservative intellectuals) has been brought to life in the Iraqi desert. And we suspect that it will begin dying there too–not in military defeat but in the contradictions of occupation.

We will try to explain some of the reasons here; some others are discussed in the postwar reflections by Charlie Post, Gilbert Achcar and Uri Avnery in the issue of Against the Current.

Three weeks to the day after the first “leadership target” bombing of Baghdad, the city was entered by the U.S. military. That symbolic moment when the iron-outside, straw-inside statue of Saddam Hussein came crashing down may have been the most-watched television spectacle, incidentally, since the collapse of the Twin Towers on 9/11/01.

Fatefully and tragically, however, the Iraqi people weren’t the ones who brought down the tyrant and freed their country–that’s the big difference separating Baghdad 2003 from Berlin 1989 or Belgrade 2001, let alone Managua, Nicaragua in 1979. Iraq’s “liberation” is simultaneously a humiliating imperialist occupation.

How symbolic also that the invading liberators so efficiently secured the oil fields, yet despite months of advance warnings from international antiquities experts, couldn’t be bothered to safeguard Iraq’s national museum with six thousand years of human cultural heritage from well-planned and thoroughly organized thievery.

Contradictions of Occupation

“The duration of the war is not known, but the outcome is assured,” George W. Bush told us. Indeed the main results of this war can already be seen even through the media fog:

  • For most of Iraq’s people, including those understandably celebrating the end of Saddam Hussein, life in the wake of this the war becomes a desperate struggle for survival, even worse than before. The destruction of infrastructure, and the devastating impact of war on ecology-dependent agriculture, is overwhelming; civilian deaths and wounds from the high-tech bombings are horrific and far beyond the capacity of a sanctions-shattered medical system. And now U.S. troops are shooting down the Iraqi civilians they “liberated.”
  • The people of the United States will also be poorer, with the federal budget in deep deficit and state and local governments flat broke; less secure, with new wars looming; and less free, as John Ashcroft shreds our democratic rights and constructs the new permanent National Security State. U.S. military personnel sick from breathing oil vapor, depleted uranium dust and god-knows-what other toxins will begin returning home, where they will encounter the same bureaucratic coverups of Gulf War Syndrome and a Congress which has just voted to “Support Our Troops” while cutting veterans’ benefits.
  • For the U.S. economy, enormous budget deficits (made even worse by Bush’s new round of rich people’s tax cuts) entail greater dependence on foreign capital investors and the risk of higher interest rates that could sink the recovery.
  • The United States will be more intensely disliked internationally for the overall violent aggressiveness and arrogant self- righteousness of the U.S. government. Meanwhile the governments of Iran, North Korea and perhaps Syria will have to consider themselves the “next targets,” and will feel compelled to make sure they have the military deterrents that the Iraqi regime lacked.
  • The Israeli government has intensified the murderous repression in the West Bank and Gaza, where the killing of Palestinian children and other civilians by the Israeli army is literally a daily occurrence.

These are among the known results. There are other things we do not know yet: whether the Turkish army will occupy northern Iraq to crush the democratic aspirations of the Kurdish people; how far economic retaliation and counter-retaliation between the United States and European opponents of the war (France and Germany) may escalate.

Among the most catastrophic possibilities, particularly a potential nuclear confrontation on the Korean peninsula, none are probable but neither can they be ruled out. Meanwhile, the central contradictions of the U.S. military occupation of Iraq began to emerge within a day of the “liberation” of Baghdad.

The United States, with British assistance, conquered Iraq without cooperation or legal cover from the United Nations “international community.” That’s exactly how the new-American-century types wanted it; but the first problem is that the U.S. occupation force cannot, on its own, even police the streets of Baghdad let alone feed or reconstruct the country.

In such conditions, political legitimacy begins to flow rapidly toward those forces that can bring some measure of order and services and curb the looting. In Iraq’s cities that means mostly the mosques, and in the slums of Baghdad and Basra particularly the Shia imams. You might think that George W. Bush should welcome this faith-based initiative. Yet it somehow seems unlikely that the emergence of a powerful Islamic religious-political movement was part of his reconstruction scenario.

The initial published plan called for two dozen government ministries to be run by American officials “assisted” by four Iraqis apiece. Some “liberation.” Some “democracy.” And of course Halliburton (through its subsidiaries), Dick Cheney’s old company, and Bechtel, the U.S. construction firm with long connections to the monarchy of Saudi Arabia (speaking of “democracy”), were first in line for the juicy contracts to “rebuild” Iraq.

The plan is to use the Iraqi oil that the U.S. military will grab, to pay our corporations for reconstructing what our government’s war has destroyed. That’s the second problem, though: This is simply too undisguised a piece of colonial robbery. Will the Iraqi people be properly grateful? In their place, would you be?

Administering the occupation of Iraq through the auspices of the United Nations would relieve the United States of the full you- broke-it-you-own-it responsibility and expense involved. But it would also force U.S. corporate and political elites to surrender some of their prerogatives to French, German and Russian competing interests (a competition discussed in Charlie Post’s analysis elsewhere in this issue). There is no American intention to do this.

The simplest gesture of U.S. reconciliation with its traditional allies would be to resume the United Nations weapons inspections under Hans Blix, whose findings would have international credibility. Instead, Bush and Rumsfeld have as much as said: So what if we lied about the weapons of mass destruction? Go sue us! We’ll do our own inspections, we’ll find something or we’ll plant it; and who cares who believes us?

Finally, the United States needs to install a new Iraqi regime it can trust to allow permanent U.S. military bases or on-need facilities. That is one of the great prizes of the conquest of Iraq, just as getting U.S. military bases in Central Asia was the trophy for the Afghanistan war.

It is both a new and old story–back in the 1950s when Iraq was still ruled by a pro-western monarchy, the anti-Soviet alliance run by the United States was called the Baghdad Pact. But turning Iraq back into a U.S. strategic asset, in essence a junior partner in the U.S.-Israeli alliance, cannot be squared with “democratizing” Iraq, if democracy has anything to do with the popular will.

Resistance There and Here

For all these reasons, we believe that when an Iraqi democracy is born it will be not under the benevolent guidance of the United States occupation, but in a popular struggle against it. That struggle will be complex–part religious, part nationalist, part autonomist (the Kurds), and certainly the social program of much of its clerical leadership will be reactionary–but its success and Iraq’s future will depend precisely on resolving its contradictions in a democratic and anti-colonialist fashion.

It is not surprising that for two decades and more, U.S. policy favored Baathist rule in Iraq up to and including its ultimate degenerate end product, Saddam Hussein’s state terror machine. In the first instance, Baath rule liquidated left-wing (Communist Party) and nationalist-populist alternatives. Second, U.S. policy favored a centralized Iraqi dictatorship to suppress potential Kurdish secession or an insurgency of the mainly-Shia poor.

Third, in the 1980s Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was the recipient of U.S. favors as the bulwark against Iran’s “Islamic revolution,” though this did not prevent the Reagan administration from selling weaponry to Iran to finance the murderous contra war in Nicaragua.

The rage that all of us in the international antiwar movement feel is aimed, first and foremost, against this imperial colossus that has the power to treat the world as a toy. What it has done to Iraq is a perfect case in point: from the early 1960s when Saddam Hussein first attracted favorable CIA attention as an up-and-coming assassin and borderline psychopath, a most promising asset; through Saddam’s first decade in power in the 1980s when it helped finance his chemical and biological weapons program; through the past decade as it turned against Saddam and reduced Iraq’s population to misery.

But our anger must be constructively channeled. As we march and protest, let us remember that we are part of the biggest international antiwar movement in history. We are part of a majority of the world’s people, from the Middle East to Europe to Africa and Asia. This movement represents the voices of human solidarity and sanity, in opposition to the imperial colossus. Not only today but in the months and years to come, it must confront the awesome responsibilities that come with that role.

Thus all of us who are global justice activists, who are socialists, who oppose this brutal colonial war for blood and empire while holding no illusions about the murderous tyranny of Saddam Hussein, must be prepared to stand in solidarity with the Iraqi people as this new struggle against the U.S. occupation unfolds. We are now an antiwar AND anti-occupation movement. BRING THE TROOPS HOME NOW!

That means that we continue to march and protest against the consequences of Bush and Blair’s war. It means that we continue to explain to the people of our own country why this outrageous war and occupation makes us poorer while a few corporate giants get richer. It means that the monstrous plans of the Bush administration to “reorganize the Middle East” on the basis of total United States supremacy must be stopped, above all by struggle at home.

We demand U.S. troops out not only because we oppose the colonial occupation of Iraq, but also because the Sharon-Wolfowitz-Rumsfeld scheme views the conquest of Iraq as the prelude to an Israeli-U.S. assault on Syria (as Israeli Defense Force chief of staff Shaul Mofaz promised the Israeli press a year ago).

And more urgently than ever, the antiwar movement must stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people struggling for self- determination under an ever-more-brutal Israeli war of occupation, home demolitions, closures, economic destruction and daily killing.

The United States victory in this war was utterly inevitable despite all its political blunders and military miscalculations along the road. But organizing the world is not based on the unchallenged ability to blow things up. For U.S. imperialism, the end of the war is the beginning of the defeat.

ATC 104, May-June 2003