On Oil and Quicksand

Against the Current, No. 114, January/February 2005

The Editors

THE DEATH OF Yaser Arafat, as well as the American assault and ensuing holocaust in the Iraqi city of Fallujah, occurred shortly after our previous issue (Against the Current 113) went to press.  The end of 2004 finds the Middle East sliding toward an even bloodier morass, thanks in large part to imperial and colonial arrogance which has rarely been on such open display. 

Begin with Iraq, where the real lesson of Fallujah is as clear to most of the world as it is obscured in the United States by government spin and the declining visibility of the antiwar movement: The U.S. occupation has already lost the Iraq war. In Fallujah, exactly as the U.S. general famously described the Vietnamese village of Ben Tre, the military “had to destroy the city in order to save it.”

The war in Iraq, of course, is not over.  Quite the contrary, it will last for many years, as the carnage in Vietnam persisted long after 1968.  A wide range of outcomes are possible, from a centralized semi-dictatorship to the breakup of the country.  What will not happen in Iraq is a stable, peaceful, happy haven for U.S. corporations and American military bases to dominate the Middle East—what the Bush administration would have called the “new democratic Iraq.”

The Bush gang got through the U.S. election by hiding from enough voters the degree to which this war was being lost.  Now, claiming “victory” and promising “reconstruction” in Fallujah, this regime seeks to hide the fact of its defeat long enough to get through the January election in Iraq.  Its main hope is that this exercise will confer enough legitimacy to induce other countries to share the burden of cleaning up the mess Bush has made.

Frankly, this is why many imperial elites both here and abroad were hoping that John Kerry would defeat Bush: The chances of getting Europe to throw Washington a rope to pull out of the Iraq swamp would thereby have improved.  But if Kerry despite his miserable campaign had won the election, he would have inherited a situation in the Middle East that is the deadliest and most chaotic in that region’s modern history.

Shortly after all this came the off-again-on-again deal between the European Union and Iran to suspend Iranian nuclear enrichment programs.  The EU-Iran negotiations provoked the rage of the U.S. administration against the Europeans, who for reasons of their own security keep trying to rescue Washington from the consequences of its own ideologically driven warmongering.

The last thing the mullahcracy in Iran, which is deeply hated by most of its own population, wants now is a showdown with the United States.  If forced into such a confrontation or if hit by a “preemptive” U.S.-Israeli military strike, however, Iran has the capacity to make Shia Iraq an even worse hellhole for American forces than the Sunni insurgent regions already are.

Triple Threat

The crisis in the Middle East combines multiple elements that are difficult to untangle.  Seldom if ever has a triple threat coincided as at present: an imperial military occupation and insurgency in a major Arab country (Iraq); an international political crisis over potential nuclear proliferation and threats of preemptive war against a regional power (Iran); the likelihood of a consolidated apartheid reality and a protracted, messy struggle against it (Israel-Palestine).  Competition among imperialist centers; local elites threatened from within by the growth of militant religious fundamentalism all over the place; the traditional politics of oil; all these are part of the pool of oil and quicksand in which George W. Bush’s administration is standing.

The issues of oil price and supply, in particular, are made more volatile by factors outside the Middle East arena, notably rising demand from China and Venezuela’s “Bolivarian revolution.”  There is also the specter that somewhere down the road, a sharply declining U.S. dollar might impel OPEC to price its oil in euros instead.  It could be that meeting such a potential threat is a factor propelling the incredible expansion of U.S. military-technological power.

If the Republicans are now the United States’ ruling party until they screw something up really badly, the interlocking Middle East crises make a likely short-term place for that debacle to occur.  (The second leading possibility is a financial meltdown over budget and trade deficits—that’s a story for another time.)

Most of the world, frankly, would shed no tears at seeing the Bush gang politically crash and burn.  The problem is the terrible damage to human lives, to say nothing of our planet’s fragile ecology, that this regime can inflict upon us all in the course of its self- destruction.

Reviving the Antiwar Movement That John Kerry’s campaign failed to give focus on the Iraq debacle, let alone offer a way out of it for an increasingly war- weary and fearful American public, was only to be expected.  The Democratic Party is after all an unconditionally loyal party of U.S. capital and imperialism.

The Democrats could call Bush’s war “a terrible failure of judgment,” but it would not and could not tell the population the simple truth: “Victory” is impossible.  The only way out of Iraq is—Out of Iraq.  Bring the Troops Home Now!

Only the antiwar movement, independent and visible in the streets, could deliver that message.  The tragedy is that most of this movement, trapped by the logic of “Anybody But Bush,” sincerely convinced that “defeating Bush” (i.e. electing Kerry) was an overriding obligation to American democracy and to the people of the world, became largely invisible.  The movement’s invisibility could only benefit an incumbent President who, between the two prowar candidates, came off as the more optimistic and “decisive.”  It didn’t matter in the end that the optimism was a tissue of lies; the truth, except for the much-maligned Ralph Nader/Peter Camejo campaign and the essentially invisible Green Party ticket, wasn’t on the 2004 ballot and not in the streets either.

Following the election it is commonly agreed on the left that reviving the antiwar movement—and making it also an anti-draft movement—is urgently necessary.  We look forward to the winter and spring mobilizations hopefully forthcoming from United for Peace and Justice, US Labor Against War, Million Worker March and other coalitions.  These begin with protests at the presidential inaugural initiated by ANSWER, and continue with March 19-20 antiwar actions including an East Coast mobilization in Fayetteville, North Carolina.

Focus on Palestine/Israel

George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon proclaimed “a historic opportunity for peace,” now that the historic leader of the Palestinian people is gone, while the Israeli army’s killing of civilians in the Arab West Bank and Gaza continued.  We want to focus briefly here on the importance of Palestine/Israel as part of the antiwar agenda in the second GW Bush term.

Indeed the Palestinian people, along with those Israelis struggling against their own society’s self-destruction, face a particularly desperate moment of crisis that they cannot survive singlehanded.  Among the many facets of the situation, a few can be highlighted:

  • Ariel Sharon’s “Gaza withdrawal and disengagement” program is essentially fraudulent, as Tanya Reinhart eloquently explains elsewhere in this issue, and in any case has nothing to do with a viable peace.  Even if implemented under Sharon’s new “unity” coalition—and this is by no means guaranteed—this is a program for consolidating an apartheid and Bantustan “solution” of the kind that produced so much misery, and ultimately failed, in South Africa.
  • The entry of the Labor Party under Shimon Peres into Ariel Sharon’s government does not mean a turn toward “a new peace process,” as advertised.  It simply means that the world’s oldest currently active war criminal will be joined by the oldest living political practitioner of the world’s oldest profession.  Observers of Israel’s disintegrating party politics and the collapse of Labor in particular as an alternative or potential governing party understand this very well.
  • The shape of post-Arafat Palestinian politics is complex and fluid.  The entry and subsequent withdrawal of Marwan Barghouthi, the imprisoned militant who’s the closest figure to a Palestinian Nelson Mandela, from the presidential campaign, was a case in point.

    If the Israeli and American governments were genuinely interested in the development of Palestinian democracy and a credible and serious leadership to negotiate with, Marwan Barghouthi would have been released immediately and free to campaign—but this of course is an abstraction inasmuch as Tel Aviv and Washington have no such desire or intent.

    Another independent Palestinian presidential candidate, Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi of Ramallah (a distant cousin of Marwan Barghouthi, but representing a different political perspective and running as an alternative to the failed “old guard”), was severely beaten in early December by Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint.  This is just one of the daily outrages that make U.S.- Israeli pretensions of supporting Palestinian democracy a hollow joke.

  • U.S. policy is based on a fundamental and fatal error: It assumes that the entrenched PLO bureaucracy around Arafat will switch its support to Mahmood Abbas (Abu Mazen) and Abbas will emerge as Palestinian President, and that he will accept the take- it-or-leave-it deal that Sharon and Bush put on the table.  The first of these assumptions is almost surely true, pending the outcome of Palestinian elections if these are allowed to occur.  It’s the conclusion that’s flawed: the notion that conservative, desperately compromising and accommodating Palestinian leaders like Abu Mazen and Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala) will sign away the rights of their people in return for Gaza and whatever fragments of the West Bank remain after Sharon and Peres take what they want for settlements, apartheid bypass roads and “security buffers.”

    It is not simply that radical nationalists and Islamists will not permit such a sellout.  In fact, even though Abu Mazen and Abu Ala are ready to give up far more than many Palestinians will agree, they are still conservative nationalists, not quislings or traitors or Buthelezis.

    The perspective of a descent into an even bloodier impasse is frightening to European states and to Egypt, a fact which explains the post-Arafat round of talks they initiated to revive the moribund “road map” or similar project.  The details of this matter little, except to specialists, for one overriding reason: The U.S. administration and the Sharon-Peres government will simply veto and sabotage any “peace process” that they do not directly control and dictate.

  • Amidst this horror, an important development emerged in the United States: the movement within the Presbyterian and Episcopal churches, and initiatives in several cities, for divestment from Israel (e.g. Israeli bonds, U.S. corporations partnering with the Israeli military or operating in the settlements, etc.).

    As Attorney Shamai Leibowitz explains in his statement published in this issue of ATC, divestment is in no way anti-Semitic nor even is it “anti-Israel.”  It is, rather, a legitimate and moral stand against brutal injustice, exactly as was the divestment movement in the era of South African apartheid.

    Further, this divestment struggle is a voice for sanity that is necessary in order to allow Israelis and Palestinians to shape a peaceful joint future—an opportunity that is denied to them by the American subsidy of the Occupation.  The entire U.S. peace movement should embrace the opportunity to stand with this struggle, which continues the best traditions of abolitionism, anti-racism and civil rights movements in our own society.

    This doesn’t mean that solidarity with Palestine will be mechanically placed on the formal agenda of every mobilization against the war in Iraq.  Those mobilizations need to be as large and broad as possible in their own right—particularly now, when the urgency of exposing the defeat of the U.S. occupation is so urgent.

    The point, rather, is that the American public needs to be educated that the dead-end occupation of Iraq and the brutal suppression of the Palestinian people are both aspects of the same evil system of imperial domination, which threatens the peoples of the Middle East and the United States alike.

    The struggle against the occupation of Iraq is objectively an aid to the long struggle for the right of Palestinian self-determination as well.  Supporters of the Palestinian people need to be in the antiwar coalitions and the marches, making sure that their voices and message are heard.

ATC 114, January-February 2005