On Imperialism: The U.S. and Iraq

With no resolution in sight for the Iraq imbroglio, it is nonetheless still possible to draw some tentative conclusions about the results and prospects for American hegemony in both that country, and throughout the Middle East.

Despite the evident pleasure within the ranks of the ruling class in France, Germany, Russia, and China, at the inability of the U.S. to simply impose its will in Iraq, no significant faction of capital in any of those countries is now prepared to directly challenge the U.S., to seek a precipitous withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, let alone to covertly support the insurgency. Given the weakness of potential rivals to American hegemony, there is, for the moment, no alternative for these capitals to American domination in the region, and the security it provides for the flow of oil and gas, as well as for investments and markets. Whatever Paris, Berlin, Moscow, and Beijing, thought of America's decision to invade Iraq, and whatever joy the discomfort of the Americans now gives them, they have little choice but to also seek the stabilization and normalization of the situation in that country.

With respect to the original American decision to invade Iraq, and to topple the regime of Saddam Hussein, events have both vindicated the Pentagon’s plans for accomplishing the military task with a relatively small and mobile force (150, 000 thousand troops, against the half million assembled just to eject Saddam from Kuwait in the first Gulf War), and shattered the illusions of the neoconservatives (neocons) who shaped American foreign policy, and whose vision of creating a stable post-war Iraq that would be a reliable "partner" for the U.S. revealed a shocking lack of understanding of the complex realities of politics in Iraq. Let us briefly address each of these points, because they illustrate both the extent and the limits of American power.

Two wars against Iraq have demonstrated that in a world in which there is no power to challenge American hegemony, the Pentagon possesses the necessary resources to prevail on the battlefield in virtually any situation. Whereas doubts about the ease of defeating Saddam Hussein in his own country led the U.S. to agree to an armistice after ejecting the Iraqis from Kuwait, it now seems clear that the huge force that the U.S. had assembled back in 1991 would have had little difficulty in toppling the Baathist regime. Even the specter of urban guerilla warfare, so daunting to the Americans in Mogadishu, for example, has been revealed to be one in which American arms can prevail without massive casualties. That, at any rate, seems to be the recent military lesson of Fallujah. In that sense, Iraq has revealed the success of the Rumsfeld policy of creating a leaner, but more technologically sophisticated, fighting force. It is a testament to the recognition that the real limit to American military power today is not the opposition of armies or insurgents, but the potential unwillingness of the American population to support military ventures that do not quickly end in victory, that require massive buildups, and that result in large numbers of casualties; and the difficulties of creating more acceptable state forms that can assure control of the local population.

Yet, the failure of the plans of the neocons (Wolfowitz, Pearle, etc.) to quickly establish an Iraqi regime to replace that of Saddam Hussein, a regime that would assure security, that would have the trappings of democracy, and that would vindicate Bush’s decision to go to war to topple the Baathist regime, has now put in jeopardy the successes won on the battlefield, and, at least, created the prospect that support for the venture within the American ruling class itself might unravel over time. Bush’s success in linking 9/11 to the war in Iraq allowed him to prevail in last year’s election, but the failure to stabilize the situation in Iraq could quickly erode his support. This raises the question of what is fueling the insurgency in Iraq, and what prospects there are for resolving it.

It seems to us that the neocons in the Pentagon, the State Department, and the National Security Administration, failed to appreciate the fact that the overthrow of the Baathist regime did not simply entail the replacement of one faction of the ruling class by another. What was at stake, in a country torn by ethno-religious antagonisms, was the elimination or drastic reduction in the power of the Sunni elites that had dominated Iraq since its modern creation in 1919 (and, indeed, even in the Ottoman epoch). In its place, the fall of Saddam entailed a vast increase in the power of the Shia and Kurdish ruling classes, with their combined power base in nearly three quarters of the population of Iraq. What added to the potential strength of the Shia and Kurdish elites is the fact that virtually all of Iraq’s oil fields, the veritable basis for the wealth and power of a capitalist class in that country, access to which proceeds through the state, lie in either the Shia south or in northern regions (Mosul and Kirkuk) that the Kurdish militia are eager to ethnically cleanse of Sunni Arabs because they are historically Kurdish; the Kurds there having been themselves ethnically cleansed by Saddam over the past twenty years. In the face of the prospect of so far-reaching a transfer of power within the ruling class, the Sunni elites, even those segments of them that chafed under Saddam's rule, have successfully mobilized a large part of the masses within the Sunni triangle to resist an American occupation that favors their ethno-religious rivals, and to prevent their loss of power.

The aim of the insurgency is not to inflict a defeat on the American military, so much as to create a situation where the U.S. will seek a political arrangement in Iraq that guarantees the Sunni ruling class a more powerful role than that which would result from any electoral process. The specter of car bombs and the casualties they inflict (largely on the Sunni population), the steady stream of American soldiers killed or wounded, as well as the behind the scenes pressure of the rest of the Sunni Arab world, are the means to that end. And, here, the Islamists, Iraqi and foreign, who are prepared to undertake suicide bombings, can play a particularly "useful" role. These latter, however, have a different goal than the Sunni elites with whom they are, for the moment allied. While the Sunni ruling class seeks more power, and access to the extraction of surplus-value, in an Iraq that will be no threat to American hegemony in the region, the Islamists seek to create a Middle East from which non-Muslim powers, especially, though not just, the U.S., have been ejected.

While the U.S. could permit a de facto partition of Iraq into Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish states, with security, and control of the oil fields assured in the south and the north by well armed Shia and Kurdish militias, which already exist, that is not an outcome that the Americans will choose, not least because it would alienate their allies throughout the Sunni and Arab world, from Saudi Arabia, to Pakistan, to Turkey. Far more likely will be a concerted effort to bring at least a large part of the Sunni ruling class into the state apparatus of a new Iraq, on the one hand, and then to crush the Islamists, on the other. Whether that option is realistic; whether it will not alienate the Shia and Kurdish ruling classes; whether the ethno-religious rivalries in Iraq can be resolved without massive ethnic cleansing and even genocide; whether the Islamists have established a presence from which they cannot be easily ejected, whether an Iraqi state that can assure global capital the stability that it needs can be constructed – that is the complex of issues around which the Iraq imbroglio will turn in the coming months.

Mac Intosh

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