Beyond Iraq: The Spreading Crisis

Against the Current, No. 122, May/June 2006

David Finkel

THE DISASTER AND carnage of the Iraq occupation is the center of a crisis now spreading through the region—to Iran, to Afghanistan and the India-Pakistan subcontinent, and especially to Israel-Palestine—with implications far beyond.

The immediate question is whether the military adventurism of the Bush regime toward Iran will push the Middle East and the world toward an unimaginable catastrophe.  In the long run, a set of deep contradictions confront any strategy for global management—in other words, imperialism—whatever political faction reigns in Washington, D.C.  Those imperial contradictions also underlie the United States’ slide toward a police state at home, and for that matter, the enormous political eruption over “illegal immigration” discussed elsewhere in this issue of Against the Current.

Iraq itself is proceeding toward full meltdown.  Even worse than a conventional civil war among defined political factions, Iraqi society is virtually dividing into communal and tribal fractions as people, mostly against their will, retreat into religious or ethnic “identity” for some hope of shelter from competing government and insurgent death squads.

But the argument in the United States about “whether Iraq is in civil war” is less about Iraq’s politics than about our own. The domestic discussion of Iraq has a surreal quality: While Bush and Cheney stage their “Strategy for Victory” traveling show, hardly anyone among the U.S. elites or the general population believes it any more.  Even among Republicans, active defenders of Donald Rumsfeld are as elusive as the ivory-billed woodpecker.  Reading between the lines, the debate seems to be whether and when to say out loud what the commentators know—the United States has lost the Iraq war.

The uncertainty over admitting defeat is mainly because neither conservatives nor liberals have much to say about what would come next, in Iraq or at home.  The administration’s implicit political defense is this: To say openly “Iraq is in a civil war” is to admit that the war has failed and U.S. troops should leave.  Further, combined with the debacles of Katrina, the budget deficit and illegal domestic spying, it’s to imply that the entire Bush regime is a disaster and that its top officials ought to resign in disgrace, beginning with Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld.  These are consequences that the U.S. political establishment can’t honestly confront.

What’s the reality behind the mushrooming revelations of killings of Iraqi civilians by United States military forces?  These aren’t isolated incidents; every week now we learn of families slaughtered by U.S. troops in their homes, of a massacre in a mosque, of wild firing in all directions after a roadside bombing.  In part, they reflect simple fear among soldiers under fire who can’t identify insurgents from civilians, but they also present a warning sign—just as in the Vietnam war four decades ago—of military spirit, discipline and “rational” objectives being displaced by the revenge lust of soldiers sensing they’re in a war they can’t win, or even define what “winning” would be.

This is horrific enough, but it looks like getting worse.  Start with Afghanistan, parts of which were never “stabilized” following the 2001-02 invasion because the Bush administration was consumed with mobilizing resources for the conquest of Iraq and parts beyond.  A revived Taliban insurgency in southern Afghanistan will occupy the NATO expeditionary force for years to come (the government of Canada, currying favor with Washington, has foolishly dragged its military into commanding this mess).  As the Taliban forces enjoy support within Pakistan’s military intelligence service, this will feed into the permanent political crisis of that country.

Beyond this, Bush has signed an agreement with the government of India allowing it to continue its nuclear weapons program free of inspection, while gaining access to U.S. technology for nuclear power.  The motive is to gain India’s backing for Washington’s gang-bang against “the Iranian threat” of nuclear weapons—a hypothetical possibility at least a decade away, while the most concrete and immediate risk of a nuclear showdown is between the two really-existing nuclear-armed states of the subcontinent, India and Pakistan—and to forestall an Indian orientation toward China.

The Next War

To top this off, the Bush administration has made explicit its threat of war with Iran.  We discussed this in the editorial in our previous issue (ATC 121, March-April 2006), but we now know that factions in the White House—not the generals, who know insanity when they see it—are pushing for a “tactical nuclear option” against Iranian targets.

It’s not just the repetition by Cheney and Ambassador John Bolton of the formula “we are not taking any options off the table” which indicates the clear intention to go to war; it’s also Rumsfeld’s accusation that Iran is the “source” of IED (roadside bomb) materials that are killing U.S. troops in Iraq.  None of these explosives, we’re supposed to believe, had been lying around in the looted Iraqi armories that U.S. commanders neglected to guard after the “liberation.”

But this accusation, however grotesque on its face, creates a pretext for future U.S. military action against Iran on grounds of “self-defense” without the need for a United Nations cover, in case the UN fails to obey imperial orders to isolate and ultimately punish Iran for its impudence.

For its part, the government of Iran—and no doubt the forces competing for supremacy in the Tehran regime’s murky internal factional life—are deeply involved in “the internal affairs” of Iraq, from the Shia militias to the political parties and perhaps some insurgent elements.  Iran’s internal conflicts aside, how could any state fail to “meddle” in a neighboring country, a recent deadly enemy no less, on the verge of disintegration under a foreign occupation?

The Iranian regime’s first choice since 2003 has been to cooperate with The Great Satan in establishing a semi-theocratic Shia-controlled government in Iraq.  But if the occupier’s intention is to use “liberated” Iraq as the springboard to destroy the Iranian regime, then it makes perfect sense to turn that springboard into a quicksand for the Americans, especially as assorted U.S. blunders and brutalities have accomplished much of this already.

The immediate likelihood of war with Iran remains low, at least before the November election.  The Bush gang’s instinct for political survival will make it think twice about the prospects for $100-a-barrel oil and $5.00-per-gallon gasoline.  The president’s political base is smaller than it was just before 9/11, and the confidence he enjoys among U.S. elites has never been weaker.

Bush’s relations with Russia, moreover, which were strong in the buildup to the Iraq war (despite Moscow’s diplomatic opposition to the invasion), have also turned somewhat sour.  Nonetheless, the United States has been unexpectedly successful in enlisting European support for its anti-Iran campaign—whether because European governments want to follow the American lead, or think that joining this diplomatic front will forestall an early recourse to military strikes.

In any case, even if the insane “tactical nuclear option” disappears, bombing and “regime change” in Iran is the clear direction that the administration has staked out in either the long or short run. All of which poses the question: With the unbelievable mess the Bush regime has made for itself and the world in Iraq, how can the U.S. political establishment allow this largely discredited administration to march toward an even more dangerous debacle?

Why in particular does the Democratic Party, whose Congressional representatives are sniping at the administration’s “incompetent” handling of the current war, raise no opposition to the next one while it can be stopped?  Why, after admitting they fell for the phony “Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction,” would these fools, including most of the liberal politicians and editorialists among them, accept or actively promote the fraudulent pretext for attacking Iran?

One reason is plain political cowardice, a fear of being attacked as traitors by the right wing’s attack dogs for “deserting” the cause and the troops in time of war. But at a deeper level, two fundamental factors are at work.  First, most of the opposition to the Bush gang in bourgeois politics actually supports the administration’s war aims in Iraq and wants to see them more “competently” pursued (don’t ask how)—and especially, crushing any independent economic and political course for a large oil-rich country like Iran.

Second, as much as they may dislike the Bush administration, these elite opponents are even more fearful of a major defeat for U.S. power.  To bring down the Bush regime at the expense of weakening U.S. imperialism would be too great a price in their view.  They would not choose that risk, except under pressure from a powerful popular movement that threatened more fundamental change—a threat that the antiwar movement so far, regrettably, hasn’t been able to pose.

Israel’s “Withdrawal” to Apartheid

Over the past year, considerable speculation has focused on the possibility of Israel participating in, even initiating, a military attack on Iran.  In immediate terms, the Israeli election outcome doesn’t appear to lead in this direction.  Israel’s parliamentary politics are highly fractured: The newly-hatched governing Kadima party has fewer seats than expected; its leader Ehud Olmert doesn’t carry the military weight and doesn’t have the grandiose ambitions of the defunct Ariel Sharon; the long-dead Labor Party has been partly resurrected as a social-democratic force under its Moroccan-born trade unionist leader Amir Peretz, reflecting the potential for the re-emergence of class politics within the Israeli state; and the Israeli electorate showed if anything that it wants a period of quiet to deal with the country’s wracking social crises.

What may look like “peace and quiet” to inward-looking Israeli voters, however, is chaos and disaster for the Occupied Palestinian Territories.  The parameters of Olmert’s program for “unilateral disengagement” and “fixing Israel’s final borders by 2010,” backed by the Bush regime and the Democrats in the United States, are fixed in practice by Israel’s Annexation Wall.  This so-called “security barrier” carves the West Bank into cantons, cuts villages from their lands and from Jerusalem, and destroys the possibility of any semblance of a viable independent Palestinian state.

In the name of “two states” and “preserving the Jewish and democratic character of Israel,” the Israeli state is on the road towards “withdrawal” to apartheid on the model of the failed South African Bantustans.  This is not only an obscenity but also a formula for permanent conflict, as even the most servile pro-American dictatorships in the Arab world will find it difficult to accept in the face of their own populations.

For Israel’s 1.5 million Arab citizens, the rise to third place of Avigdor Lieberman’s fascistic “Israel Our Homeland” party—displacing the collapsing traditional right wing Likud, and advocating that Arabs be stripped of Israeli citizenship and the regions where they live “transferred” to the Palestinian Bantustan in exchange for Israel’s annexation of the settlement blocs—doesn’t mean “peace and quiet” either.

This extreme “demographic solution” is not on the short-term political agenda, for reasons of international politics (and because traditional Zionism would hardly be eager to “sacrifice” the territory of the Galilee).  But it represents the kind of permanent threat that Israeli Arab citizens, sometimes called “1948 Palestinians,” face under the imperative of “preserving Israel’s strong Jewish majority.”  It also naturally accompanies the sick logic of establishing “peace and final borders” by annexing as much of the West Bank as the Israeli state thinks it can digest, which represents close to a consensus among Jewish voters.

Israel’s pretext for “unilateral disengagement,” of course, is that there is “no Palestinian partner for peace.”  Translated, this means that the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas rejected Israel’s demand that he launch a civil war against the Islamist movement, and then that the population in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem refused to vote for surrender.  As the new Palestinian Authority government organized by Hamas was installed, the United States along with Canada joined Israel in cutting off aid and relations with the PA and attempting to starve the population into submission.

Imperial Chaos

Sum it up: the glorious imperial conquest of Iraq has become U.S. imperialism’s very own suicide bomb, blowing up the region along with the invader.  Now the circle of chaos threatens to close.  The Palestinians cannot accept the Israeli-American demand of surrender to apartheid.  They must look for allies simply in order to survive, and it certainly doesn’t look like the European Union intends to defy the United States on this issue by replacing the lifeline that Washington and Israel have cut off.

Suppose now that the Iranian regime, as it has promised, steps up to do so—because Iran too needs allies in the face of the imperialist threat.  To protect Palestinians from starvation would no doubt confirm Condoleezza Rice’s proclamation that Iran is “the central banker of international terrorism”—as if any country other than the United States of America could claim that title.  Would Iranian aid to the Palestinian Authority propel Israel toward joining a U.S. attack on Iran?  Would this bring about a resumption of the Iran-backed Lebanese Hezbollah’s war with Israel—and what would that mean for a fragile Lebanese state and society, and for Syria?

The worst-case scenarios aren’t inevitable.  But sooner than anyone would like, a cascade of new disasters may tie together the multiple crises that U.S. imperialism has sharpened in its drive to “transform the Middle East.”

David Finkel is an editor of ATC and Detroit activist in support of Palestinian rights. 

ATC 122, May-June 2006