A Fine Imperial Mess

Against the Current, No. 121, March/April 2006

The Editors

IF YOU’VE BEEN getting tired—and who hasn’t? —of the stream of disasters and atrocities coming from the Bush gang’s imperial adventure in Iraq, it’s not too early to get ready for the next patch of this administration’s Road Map to hell for the Middle East and the world: the coming war with Iran, a new catastrophic war for oil and empire.

No, don’t head for the bomb shelters or the Fox War Channel.  No overt shooting war is imminent (probably).  Thanks in part to the mess in Iraq and U.S. imperialism’s miscalculations there and in Afghanistan, an immediate or short-term assault or bombing campaign against Iran is unlikely.  That would be insane, given Iran’s capacity to upgrade the military capacity of Iraqi insurgents if it chose to do so, not to mention what $100 a barrel oil and $5 a gallon gasoline would do to the Republican Party’s prospects for the November midterm election.  But the war buildup is deadly serious, and terrifying.

The slow-boiling confrontation with Iran certainly has nothing to do with any military “threat” from Iran against the United States—not today, not tomorrow, not ten or twenty years from now. Nor is it really about a possible Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons capacity—something that most experts seem to agree is both impossible in the short run and probably unpreventable in the long run (barring the establishment of a nuclear-free Middle East).

Strategically, the escalating threats against Iran from the United States—and from Israel, though no one should imagine that the latter would act as an independent agent in this case—reflect not imperial strength, but the extent of a regional and global challenge to American supremacy.  This challenge comes not only from the Middle East, but from Latin America’s growing continental rejection, spearheaded by Venezuela and Bolivia, of the neoliberal-corporate agenda; and from the rise of new economic power centers in Asia, notably China and India.

Given the choice that the U.S. ruling class and its ideologues have made since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union—that the United States would rule the post-Cold War world with the velvet glove of free-market doctrine over the iron fist of overwhelming military power—in that context, yes, a politically independent and economically muscular Iran is a “threat,” especially in a world of tightening oil and natural gas markets.

This brings to the fore a central contradiction in this way of trying to run the world.  The unilateral U.S. conquest of Iraq and removal of Saddam Hussein was intended by the “Neoconservative” faction to display American power to act without restriction.  The result, however, is a reorientation of Iraqi politics toward pro-Iranian Shia religious parties.  The ruinous occupation of Iraq has been a major, barely disguised U.S. defeat; it has created what didn’t exist before, an entrenched terrorist force in Iraq; and it has tied down and nearly exhausted the U.S. military, and disillusioned the American public, to the point where another such adventure is impossible and as our friend Ismael Hossein-Zadeh of Drake University suggests:

The administration is also limited by other constraints.  One of these stems from fears of a likely backlash not only from Shia Muslims in the region (Iraq and southern Lebanon) but from the broader Muslim communities and countries at large.  Most of the U.S. allies/puppets in the region such as the Saudi, Kuwaiti, Egyptian, Jordanian, Lebanese, Turkish and Pakistani rulers are quite wary of such likely backlashes.  Another limiting factor on U.S. schemes is its military capabilities and incapacities.  An additional constraint is the fact that, despite all the lies and fabrications, there is no hard evidence Iran is developing a nuclear weapons program or is even in noncompliance with NPT [Nuclear non-proliferation treaty].  Not that the neoconservative warmongers would be hampered by such moral issues, but this would make their charade of “alliance building” somewhat difficult.

Regimes Under Pressure

The Iranian regime is deeply despised by the middle class, and unable to deliver on its populist promises to its supporters among the poor.  For nationalist reasons, it needs to push its nuclear power development agenda.  Meanwhile the U.S. administration is beset by its Iraq debacle, a cavalcade of corruption scandals, deep discontent over electronic spying, and looming budget battles over vicious cuts in Medicare and social programs while tax cuts for the rich become permanent.  The Republican strategy for retaining power depends on permanently maintaining a state of fear in the population.

So long as such institutions as the International Atomic Energy Agency, United Nations Security Council, Gulf Cooperation Council, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (IAEA, UNSC, GCC, OSCE) and the rest of the alphabet soup are useful for the isolation of the Islamic Republic, they will be employed: an IAEA report to the UN; then the threat of sanctions; then the semi-secret positioning of assets in friendly states for covert action and destabilization.  All this is intended to precede the official massive bombing of Iranian strategic targets.

The U.S. course to war with Iran is obviously constrained by the above-mentioned material factors, as well as the American public’s fear and the world’s horror of the prospect, and cannot be pursued quite so openly as the post-9/11 drive to the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.  But the Iranian regime currently headed by the certified political primitive Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, with his holocaust-denial ravings and empty threats on the elimination or “relocation” of Israel, is easy to isolate diplomatically.

The obvious reality is that Iran is no “existential” threat to Israel (let alone America), not even if it (foolishly) waves a nuclear weapons threat in the air, inviting annihilation.  What makes Iran threatening to U.S. imperial power is its status as an oil-rich nation with a large population and industrial capacity, able to pursue an independent foreign policy including strategic alliances with rising economic powers like China and India.  Breaking up that possibility is what the current U.S. campaign to isolate Iran, and ultimately crush its power, is centrally about.  The Democratic Party not only isn’t opposing this drive but is actively helping to promote it. So while the outbreak of “shooting war” with Iran is in all likelihood not imminent—at least, assuming fully rational behavior, which can never be fully guaranteed—the time to organize to stop it is now.

The prospect of independent political and economic development is the same reason why Venezuela—where there is no question of a “nuclear weapons threat”—is intolerable to U.S. imperial dominance in Latin America.

Those Emerging Democracies

The next war is shaping up while the Bush regime promotes “the spread of democracy through the Middle East,” the gift brought by American weapons and inspiration.  And check out those emerging Middle Eastern democracies: Iraq and Palestine, where populations under military occupation voted for the parties and candidates they wanted, not those favored by the overlords.

In the former case, the Bush regime hailed the Iraqi election as a major step toward the promised “victory in the war against terror.”  In promoting this claim, the administration has one powerful asset—the corporate mass media, which dutifully echo it on a daily basis—and one liability: reality.  The whole world in essence knows that the Iraq war is a failed venture rapidly turning into a catastrophe; but what hangs in the balance is whether enough of the U.S. population can be convinced of the fraud to get the Republicans through the dreaded November midterm election.

In the Palestinian case, the U.S. post-election response was direct and clear: You voted for Hamas, now you can starve.  Cutting off international funding for the Palestinian territories means a complete social collapse in the West Bank and Gaza, which are dangerously close to that point already.  This response to Palestinian democracy fits into the logic of a several-prolonged final assault by the United States and Israel against the hope of a viable independent Palestinian state.

While this course of action is ultimately self-destructive to the point of insanity, in immediate terms the Israeli state is in a strong position to implement it given unconditional American backing.  The U.S.-Israeli plan is first, to isolate the Occupied Palestinian Territories, crush Palestinian civil society, force as much as possible of its middle class to leave (“soft ethnic cleansing,” it’s sometimes called) and give a Hamas-led PA no choice but to turn for financial support to Iran and other Muslim countries, allowing it to be demonized even further.  Second, demand that Hamas recognize Israel, disarm and unconditionally cease all military resistance; while third, continuing Israeli assassinations of resistance leaders, to make it impossible for Hamas even to maintain a cease-fire.

Fourth, the next Israeli government will proceed with what it calls “unilateral disengagement”—in essence the accelerated continuation of Ariel Sharon’s plan—the completion of Israel’s annexation-apartheid Wall around of so much of the West Bank that what’s left cannot possibly function as an independent Palestinian state.

Fulfillment of this plan will be proclaimed as “implementing the two-state solution,” while in fact destroying that possible solution.  The result: an apartheid Israeli state and a truncated Palestinian Bantustan, brutally imposed in the same way that white-ruled South Africa attempted to force “separate development” on that country’s Black majority.

The consequences for the coming years and decades are entirely predictable—and here again, the Democratic Party fully endorses this disastrous course.  But if the disasters pursued by the imperial warmakers toward Palestine/Israel and Iran remain largely unknown to most of the U.S. public, hiding the folly and failure of policy in Iraq becomes harder by the month.  As of the middle of February, the December 15 Iraqi election hadn’t yet produced a government.  When it does form, it will be a rickety balance among competing Shia religious forces and Kurds aspiring to maximum autonomy or independence, hoping to gain a degree of tolerance from the Sunni Arab minority while the resistance against the occupation persists and sectarian killings continue.

While the Bush gang continues lying about a “road to victory” in Iraq, the ostensible Democratic opposition offers absolutely no substantive alternative.  That’s not a coincidence: the Democrats share the imperial agenda against Iran, Palestine and Venezuela.

The only alternative to the Iraq war that can appeal to the U.S. population is incompatible with the bipartisan imperial project.  Bring the Troops Home—Now! Bringing that message, clear and uncompromised, to the streets and communities of this country is what the revived antiwar movement must do this Spring and beyond.

War at Home and Abroad

Two other factors must be noted, however briefly, if we are to understand the present situation.  First, this administration is at war at home with much of the population.  The “rebuilding” of the Gulf Coast and New Orleans is a fraud and a failure, amounting to a giant program of Black and poor population transfer—and beyond emergency levee repair, the region will be all but defenseless against next summer’s hurricane season.  This is simply emblematic of this government’s agenda toward the entire ensemble of massive social disasters in America—income inequality and poverty, industrial downsizing and job loss, the health care disaster—cynical neglect, empty rhetoric, savage budget cuts in federal programs that work and increases for the failures (Halliburton and the military above all).

Second, the angry response in the Muslim world to the disgusting and bigoted cartoons published in the European press may push European public opinion, disastrously, in the direction of the U.S. right wing’s “clash of civilizations” line.  It is particularly tragic to contemplate the political consequences of attacks on European Union offices in Gaza, and what forces stand to benefit, at a time when Palestinians under siege so desperately need international solidarity.

The Turkish author Orhan Pamuk (accused of “insulting” Turkey by openly discussing the Armenian genocide) has correctly noted that Western societies are “scarcely aware of the overwhelming feeling of humiliation experienced by most of the world’s population.”  Indeed the legitimate rage among Muslims, as well as the manipulation of this anger by various reactionary regimes and forces, is a part of this global reality, a proper discussion of which is not possible here.  But the four savage years following September 11, 2001 have shown us how the world’s most dangerous terrorists, in the White House and the Pentagon, can be expected to take advantage as well as revenge.

ATC 121, March-April 2006