For the dispossessed, the war in Iraq has been a disaster from its first day. Since then, the misery that it has brought has grown exponentially. It would be hard to imagine a place where life is more hellish than it is in Baghdad today.
By now, it’s also clear that the war is a disaster from the point of view of those who started it. American capital is worried, not about the loss of Iraqi lives, or even those of American troops, but about the hundreds of billions spent on this undertaking with so little result. It is worried about putting so many resources into one place that other geo-strategic investments (like Afghanistan) become neglected. It is worried about the destabilizing effects of a military escalation that has no popular support. It raises big questions about the priorities and effectiveness of the Bush government. Illustrating how the tide has turned for the Bush team, a recent report of the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank that often articulates the majority view within the ruling class on foreign affairs, has said that an American “military victory was impossible in Iraq.” Nothing more could be achieved, according to the report, so it is time for an orderly retreat.
It could be conceived that a massive military escalation, which would shift the struggle back to more battlefield type of operations and inflict heavy destruction, could allow the US to pacify the country. But Bush has lost the popular support that would be needed. He spent all the political capital that 9/11 gave him; nothing more can be squeezed from it, at least not for the war in Iraq.
The remarkable contrast between the ease with which the US conquered the country and the difficulty it has in pacifying it, points to the chink in the US’s armor. Its military dominance is such that no other state can even think of waging war against it. But occupation is a different game from conquest. The military advantage is not so lopsided. Cheap small bombs prove to be very effective, as long as there is enough cannon fodder ready to commit suicide. The despair that living in Iraq today provokes is fertile ground for heroic madness to bloom. As cheap as they are, these weapons are not, for the most part, home made: they come from somewhere else. They come from the powers that used to sell to Saddam Hussein. Large parts of the arsenals of his army are now spread all across the country. They come from neighboring countries – Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia -- that all hope to dominate Iraq, or at least a part of it, after the Americans leave. They come from states with imperialist designs that clash with the US’s hegemonic domination, and who relish the opportunity to bloody Washington’s nose at a bargain price: Russia, perhaps China too.
The very fact that the focus of the conflict in Iraq has shifted, from an insurgent guerrilla war against occupation, to a war between the different factions of capital in Iraq and has thus become a conflict of Sunni’s vs. Shiites and of Arabs vs. Kurds, clearly indicates which way the wind blows. The conflict is already about who will have power in what part of Iraq after the Americans have gone.
Even though the Washington consensus has turned against it, the faction of the ruling class that designed the Iraq war, the so-called neo-cons are still entrenched in the government. It doesn’t have a free hand, but neither is it willing to throw in the towel. It started the war because it could -- 9/11 made it possible -- and with the dual aim of projecting America’s power in defense of its world order and securing oil-rich Iraq as the centerpiece of a Pax Americana in the Middle East. It hasn’t succeeded on either level. The present escalation or “surge,” already openly opposed by Congress, is an attempt to still achieve these goals. But it seems too little too late and thus likely to fail, after which the US will probably have to change course in Iraq.
Even before exploring the possible options that the American ruling class still has in Iraq, it’s important to recognize that the debacle there, and the loss of influence of the neo-cons, has not yet entailed any kind of challenge to the overall policy of American imperialism as it seeks to dominate Central Asia, the Middle East, and to control the flow of oil so vital to global capital. A foreign policy or military debacle on this scale, in most other states would have resulted in regime change, the fall of a government, a shift in power from one faction of the ruling class to another. However, the very suppleness of the American state-form, the power that “democracy” provides its ruling class, has meant that the loss of popularity of the President, and the opprobrium directed at the neo-cons, has not translated into a loss of confidence in the political system on the part of the populace. Indeed, the opposition to the war has largely been directed into efforts to have the foreign policy establishment (the Iraq Study Group), Congress, now controlled by the Democrats, or a new President elected in 2008, adjust the tactics of American capital in Iraq and the Middle East, even as the overall strategy – American hegemony – remains the same. The fact the electoral campaign of 2008 has already begun indicates how well the ruling class has been able to so far contain the opposition to the war within the framework of the overall management of the capitalist state, and its circuits of control.
The alternatives to Bush’s Iraq strategy, articulated by Democratic presidential candidates, like Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards, and even some Republicans (Chuck Hagel), entail a quick, or not so quick, redeployment of American forces. However, with the exception of marginal candidates, none of them is advocating giving up Iraq; all want to retain a strong military presence, either inside the country or at its borders (Kuwait, Saudi Arabia), to assure a steady Middle Eastern oil supply and to prevent the emergence of an anti-American regime in Iraq. All of them are committed to a continuation and strengthening of American hegemony and control over the world. Indeed, as the new Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, has put it, the Iraq quagmire has adversely affected the war on terrorism, and especially the military struggle against a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan, as well as jeopardizing the ability of the US to mobilize its Allies for coordinated action in the Middle East, including a “solution” to the Palestinian issue, and especially with respect to the regional challenge posed by Iran and its nuclear program. What these figures represent is an effort by the foreign policy establishment to reverse course in Iraq so as to consolidate the power of American capital and to preserve its global hegemony.
Meanwhile, within the Republican Party, the likely candidates, McCain or Giuliani, support Bush’s “surge” and the claims that it can salvage the policy of preserving a united, albeit federal, Iraqi state under some kind of majority rule. However, one has the sense that behind the support for the surge, and the present Maliki government, what may really be at stake is the prospect of shifting the blame for who lost Iraq onto the Democrats, who will have purportedly snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by their failure to “hang tough” and support the President in his one last effort to crush the insurgencies and control the sectarian violence. Given the problems with the strategy pursued by the leaders of the Democratic Party, and especially if there are new terrorist attacks on US soil, such a political strategy could yet prove successful in 2008.
This brings us back to the inherent difficulties in a strategy of “retrench yet maintain control” in Iraq advocated by much of the foreign policy establishment and the leadership of the Democratic Party – a strategy that may be just as hard to implement as a “surge” strategy. The closer the US moves towards implementing such a strategy, the more intense the struggle between Iraqi factions for control of the country in the post-occupation era will become, and thus the more difficult it will be to disengage. If it wants to maintain control of the country, the US cannot simply turn its back on it while civil war escalates. So it has to find a political solution before it can retreat. Given the dynamic of the conflict today, the least difficult (but not least bloody) “solution” might be one based on a partition of Iraq in 3 semi-independent states: Shi’ite, Sunni, and Kurdish. Such an outcome would not necessarily go against Washington’s interests, though the kind of ethnic cleansing entailed in drawing the boundaries of these statelets will escalate the scale of violence. To that must be added the strong possibility that one or more of them would fall under the sway of a power challenging American domination of the region, Iran in the case of a Shi’ite statelet, for example. That is not something either party in Washington is prepared to accept.
Whatever strategy the US follows in Iraq, for the foreseeable future, more violence, death, and fear, will be the fate of the ordinary people there. And it here that the illusions of the “peace movement” in the US and Europe need to be confronted. Quite apart from the fact that important elements of the ruling class are involved in such a movement, as they seek support for their own preferred strategy for capital, a peace movement that fails to recognize that a capitalist “peace” in Iraq will entail not a decrease, but an increase in the barbarism, and mass death to which the population of that land is exposed, becomes one more factor in the murderous train of capitalist power politics that the operation of the law of value imposes on humankind. The struggle against that brutalization of life begins, not with a peace movement, but with the struggle against capitalism.
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