The Gulf War of 2003

Judging from the preparations that are already under way, the American government is dead serious about its intent to invade Iraq. As we write this, US logistical personnel are swarming over the Gulf region. In Persian Gulf states such as Bahrein, Oman and Qatar, munitions are being stocked, harbors are being prepared for the arrival of war ships, bombers and fighter planes are amassed. The HQ of the US’ Central Command has been moved to the region. Several invasion plans have been drawn up and leaked to the press. The Defense Intelligence Agency has established a long list of Iraqi targets for air attacks. President Bush has announced that preemptive attacks and limited nuclear strikes are from now on an integral part of US military doctrine. Kurdish leaders and Iraqi opposition groups have been told that “payback time” is approaching. Turkey has been warned that it cannot count on US aid to stem its devastating economic crisis unless it cooperates. Saudi Arabia has been threatened too, with highly publicized hints that there are people in the Pentagon just itching to occupy its oilfields.

US capital feels it’s on a roll since 9/11. Having been handed the ideal pretext, it has exploited the tragic fate of the thousands who perished in the terrorist attacks to unleash a barrage of jingoist propaganda, to establish an almost permanent climate of fear in the population in order to promote feelings of helplessness and support for military action, to strengthen its repressive powers and eliminate legal obstacles to it, to intimate striking workers, to hide the real cause of the economic slide, and to advance its geo-strategic interests worldwide. There is no question that the US possesses overwhelming military superiority over anybody else. What restrains its use in the first place is the risk of a loss of social control. But 9/11 has opened a window of opportunity which allows Washington to get away with murder -- literally. It fully intends to do so, before that window closes again.

The pretexts to launch yet another war are paper thin. An early attempt to link the regime in Baghdad to the terrorists responsible for 9/11 -the so-called Prague-connection- collapsed. The State Department’s own report on worldwide terrorism in 2001 does not mention a single terrorist act for which Iraq is deemed to be responsible. Far from us to deny that the rulers of Baghdad are ruthless butchers. They are gangsters like all the rest of them, those in the White House included. It just so happens that this secular regime and the Islamist terrorists are rivals rather than collaborators. As for the military threat emanating from Iraq, it can’t be that great since it has been unable to import new tanks, planes, missiles and other military hardware since the Gulf war, and UN-inspectors declared in 1998, just before they were withdrawn on orders from Washington, that Iraq’s nuclear program and its missile capacity were destroyed. It is true that Iraq possesses anthrax and other deadly biological material. It received them from the US in the ‘80’s, even after it was confirmed in 1988 that Iraq had used chemical weapons against civilians. Oh well, Saddam was an ally then. And now the US claims it must invade Iraq because it possesses some substances given to it by the US! Iraq, feeling cornered, may at some point allow UN-inspectors to return but the US already has declared that this would not derail its war plans, contradicting its claim that this is all about preventing Iraq from acquiring weapons of mass destruction.

No one of course has more weapons of mass destruction than the US and it does not hesitate to use them. They’re not all high tech. The economic sanctions against Iraq for instance, which killed at least half a million infants according to a UN-study (without, of course, disturbing the opulent lifestyle of the Iraqi ruling class), are a form of mass destruction through deprivation, the most commonly used weapon of mass destruction in capitalism’s arsenal. But rarely, very rarely, is the immense suffering of regular people as a result of capitalism’s imperialist games even mentioned in the debates about the impending war in the media, Congress or other forums of US capital. Half a million of Iraqi dead? That’s just a number for these people, and one that evokes much less emotion than the one indicating the latest swing of the Dow Jones index. In a debate of ‘experts’ on CNN about one of the proposed strategies for the invasion, the so-called ‘inside out’-option that would begin with the bombardment and conquest of Baghdad, nobody said a word about the implications for the more than 4 million inhabitants of this city. In their polite, soft spoken way, these talking heads contribute to the dehumanization of the enemy, a necessary ingredient of war preparation, just like Randall Graham and many other ‘evangelist’ leaders who have launched a vicious campaign against the Islamic religion. They cannot claim ignorance about the looming mass destruction. Classified Pentagon documents have been leaked which estimate a death-toll of 10 000 civilians and the outbreak of epidemics as a result of the bombing of water purification stations and other infrastructure (according to a Unicef-report, in the first Gulf war such bombings indirectly killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi’s, “particularly children”).

While such objections against the war are seldom heard, others are. Many point to the risk of destabilization in the Middle East, as corrupt and weak pro-American regimes would come under heavy pressure, to the probability of increased terrorism, to the need, after the war, to keep an army of occupation and a colonial-style management in Iraq for a long time, to the danger of Iraq falling into pieces and the implications thereof for neighboring countries, to the risk that an unprovoked American attack might be seen by other nations such as India as a green light to do the same and so on. These arguments come from within the capitalist class, from people such as Brent Scowcroft, the national security advisor under Bush senior. They are also said to be voiced within the US government, by secretary of State Colin Powell and CIA-director George Tenet. Circumstances may yet change so as to strengthen their hand. But for now, the war perspective has the upper hand, in the government as well as in both ruling parties.

Given that the risks are both so great and obvious, the question is what Washington thinks it will gain. The war in Afghanistan has already yielded substantial benefits to American imperialism. It is now militarily implanted in all seven ‘Stans’, including Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan which have large oil and gas reserves. Russia has not objected to this. In the short term, Moscow is banking on closer relations with the Western powers. After the installation of an American sponsored regime in Baghdad, Iran would be the only remaining anti-American country among the big oil producers. But it would be surrounded by American allies and become the next target for military pressure. In this way, the US is weaving a web of control over the world’s oil supply.

The implications are both economic and geo-strategic. It is expected that the demand for oil from the Middle East, which possesses two thirds of the world’s oil reserves, will double in the next 20 years. By strengthening its political-military control over the region, the US would assure a steady oil-supply for its own economy. At the time of the previous Gulf war, the US imported only 10 % of its oil from the Middle East but because of the relative depletion of its own reserves, this figure is expected to rise steeply. Other countries, such as Japan, China and most of Europe, are even more dependent on Middle Eastern oil. By establishing a strong control over the oil spigots, the US would also be in a position to cripple them economically at will. It would be a factor that for instance China could not ignore when it’s casting a greedy eye across the Taiwan straits.

The war against Iraq would be a huge cost for the American economy but it needs a stimulus badly. Its private sector, wrestling with overcapacity, falling profits and a large debt-overload, cannot provide such a stimulus and the Federal Reserve has already lowered interest rates so much that it risks running out of ammunition. So the stimulus can only come from a return to vast deficit spending and nothing justifies that better, for the capitalist class, than war. There is a remarkable correlation between wars in the Middle East, the accompanying oil price hikes, and economic slumps. At first sight the latter are caused by the former but in each case, the economic problems preceded the war. The oil price hikes made them worse but especially so for the countries that lacked energy sources themselves. Less so for oil-rich countries like the US who improved their global competitive position. The rising price of a particular commodity is never in itself the cause of deterioration of the global economy. The buyers lose but the sellers win, there is a transfer of surplus value but it’s a zero-sum game unless the winners spend their windfall profit less productively than the money would have been spent if it had remained in the pockets of the buyers. In the case of Middle Eastern oil, much of the extra profits resulting from the price hikes ended up in the US. Saudi-Arabia alone invested roughly 700 billion dollars in the US economy. About 80 % of the costs of the last Gulf war were paid by America’s allies, mainly Saudi-Arabia and Kuwait. In economic terms, these countries ‘bought’ the American war effort and paid for it by taxing their customers with a higher oil price -- in dollars. Not a bad deal for US capital.

The economic sanctions against Iraq are another smart business deal for the US. All the money resulting from Iraqi oil sales, on which restrictions have been gradually lifted, are deposited in a bank account in New York, administered by the Security Council. Money is disbursed from that account for Iraqi imports, only with the permission of the US, and it goes almost exclusively to foreign companies, many of them American. It goes without saying that if the sanctions were lifted, the present Iraqi government would stop all imports from the US and would make oil exploration deals with European and Russian capitals. That’s why the Europeans and the Russians have been pressing for lifting the sanctions while the Americans have resisted this. It wants to assure that Iraq has a regime that’s loyal to the US before the sanctions are ended.

We are not suggesting that all wars and political crises in the Middle East are constructed by the US to improve its competitive position. Sometimes, this factor was more important in triggering these wars, sometimes less so. But the roots of these conflicts are more complex; America’s goals are wider, the role of local imperialisms weighs heavily too, as do social pressures. But the ability of the capitalist rulers to exploit even those events which they have not machiavellistically created, should not be underestimated. US capital is now facing a serious worsening of global economic conditions. There is nothing it can do to prevent that, the cause is capitalism itself, the global overcapacity and falling rate of profit that result from its fundamental contradictions. Given that prospect, the war against Iraq makes (capitalist) sense. The war would powerfully reinforce the ‘safe haven’-effect (the flight of capital from all over the world to the US) and thereby re-inflate the American bubble (the overestimation of the value of American capital, which gives it purchasing power in exchange for nothing) at a time that its hot air is escaping at an alarming rate. This, and the probable rise of the oil price, would stimulate the global demand for dollars (oil is paid in dollars) and thus restore king dollar’s hegemony. It might give the nationalistic propaganda-campaign that was so useful for capital since 9/11 new vigor and thereby strengthen capital’s deadly grip on society, and represent an important step in the US imperialist designs.

But while the potential gains are great, so are the risks. It could all blow up in the US’s face and lead to a diminished control, both over the geo-strategic game and over the working class. For the sake of the countless innocents who would be the victims in this war, we hope that the risk-averse among the rulers in Washington, will eventually prevail. But don’t count on it. The war in Iraq, and other wars behind it, are likely because they are quite rational from a capitalist point of view. As several articles in this issue show, the inevitable prospect of a deepening crisis of the global capitalist economy makes the threat of mass destruction ever greater, despite the end of the cold war. Capitalism must be killed before it kills us.

Internationalist Perspective
August 2002

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