By Stephen Gowans
While the class character of regimes under siege by Western powers is often explored in analyses of imperialist interventions and is frequently invoked to justify them, it neither explains why capitalist imperialist powers intervene nor stands as a justification for their actions.
The relevant consideration in explaining why interventions occur is not the political orientation of the government under siege, nor its relations with its citizens, but whether it accommodates the profit-making interests of the dominant class in the intervening countries. Does it welcome foreign investment, allow repatriation of profits, demand little in the way of corporate income tax, open its markets, and offer abundant supplies of cheap labor and raw materials? Or does it impose high tariffs on imports, subsidize domestic production, operate state-owned enterprises (displacing opportunities for foreign-private-owned ones), force investors to take on local partners, and insist that workers be protected from desperation wages and intolerable working conditions?
Much as it might be supposed that imperialist interventions target worker and peasant-led governments alone, this is not the case. Regimes that promote national bourgeois interests by denying or limiting the profit-making interests in their own countries of the dominant class of other countries are routinely targeted for regime change, especially if they are militarily weak or have pluralist political systems that afford space for destabilization and political interference. Since the effects are the same in imperialist countries of a local regime, say, expropriating a foreign-privately-owned oil company, no matter whether the company is turned over to local business people, the state, or the company’s employees, it is a matter of supreme indifference to imperialist countries whether the expropriation is carried out by communists, socialists or radical nationalists. Whether you’re inspired by Marx and Lenin, 21st century socialism, or the actually-existing capitalist policies that the United States, Germany and Japan followed to challenge Britain’s industrial monopoly, if you’re going to mess with the profit-making opportunities of an imperialist country’s capital class, it will mess with you.
Gaddafi was faulted by the US State Department for his “increasingly nationalistic policies in the energy sector” and for trying to “Libyanize” the economy. (1) He “proved to be a problematic partner for international oil companies, frequently raising fees and taxes and making other demands.” (2) And his pro-Libya trade and foreign investment policies were irritants to Western banks, corporations and major investors as they surveyed the globe for lucrative profit-making opportunities.
Equally likely to be targets of imperialist designs are capitalist rivals that compete for access to investment and trade opportunities in third countries. They too may become the objects of destabilization, economic warfare, and military encirclement.
This is evidenced in one of Nato’s roles: to contest spheres of exploitation. The organization’s secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen, explaining why Nato countries need to spend more on their militaries, remarked that: “If you’re not able to deploy troops beyond your borders, then you can’t exert influence internationally, and then that gap will be filled by emerging powers that don’t necessarily share your values and thinking.” (3) You can interpret this to mean that when it comes to Africa and the Middle East—which are likely the regions Rasmussen alludes to–the alliance’s raison d’être is to keep North Americans and Western Europeans in, the Russians, Chinese and Brazilians out, and the natives down. But however you interpret it, it’s clear that the alliance’s secretary general doesn’t understand Nato to be an organization of mutual self-defense, but an instrument to be used by developed countries to compete with emerging ones.
Concerning the validity of interventions by Nato countries, here too reference to the class character of targeted governments misses the point. It is not a regime’s class character, nor how it treats its citizens, that explains the reasons for intervention against it, but the class character of the countries that intervene. This in turn illuminates whether the intervention is valid or not.
The principal Nato countries are all incontestably class societies in which major corporations, banks and ultra-wealthy investors wield out-sized influence over their societies. Their representatives and loyal servants hold key positions in the state, including and especially in the military and foreign affairs, and the corporate rich have access to resources that allow them to lobby governments far more vigorously than any other class or interest can. Accordingly, the foreign policy of these countries reflects the interests of the class that dominates them.
It would be exceedingly odd were this not so. Profit-making concerns don’t melt away when corporate CEOs, corporate lawyers and bankers are assigned to key foreign policy posts in the state; when they develop foreign policy recommendations for governments in elite-consensus-making organizations, like the Council on Foreign Relations; or when they lobby presidents, premiers, and cabinet secretaries and cabinet ministers.
For this reason, US and Nato interventions, while billed as humanitarian for obvious PR reasons, are at their heart, exercises in protecting and advancing the interests of the class that dominates foreign policy. This is clear enough in the business pages of major newspapers.
In recent days, the business section of The New York Times announced that “The scramble for access to Libya’s oil wealth begins.” Eric Reguly, a business columnist with The Globe & Mail, the newspaper of Canada’s financial elite, echoed the point.
“The oil industry’s biggest players, meanwhile, are salivating to reclaim their old concessions and nab new ones, all the more so since their own oil production has been in decline. The vast Ghadames and Sirte basins, largely off limits to foreign oil companies since Col. Gadhafi swept to power 42 years ago, are especially attractive. So is Libya’s offshore area.
“Who will get the prizes? The (National Transitional Council) has already said it will reward the countries that bombed Col. Gadhafi’s forces. ‘We don’t have a problem with Western countries like Italians, French and U.K. companies,’ Abdeljalil Mayouf, a spokesman for the rebel oil company Agogco, was quoted by Reuters as saying. ‘But we may have some political issues with Russia, China and Brazil.’”
Reguly’s column ran under the headline, “They bombed and therefore they shall reap.” They shall reap, too, in another way. “The head of the Transitional National Council, Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, explicitly promised to reward those nations that backed Libya’s revolt with contracts in the state’s postwar reconstruction.” (4) This is the charmed circle of aggressive imperialism.
Billions of dollars are sucked out of taxpayers and into the pockets of arms manufacturers to build a war machine. The war machine is pressed into service against countries whose governments have denied or limited the profit-making opportunities of the imperialist country’s corporations, banks and major investors (many of whom have interests in arms manufacturing), causing significant damage to the victim countries’ infrastructure. Comprador regimes are installed, which throw their country’s doors wide open to the intervening country’s exports and investments and invite the intervening country to set up military bases on their territories. At the same time, the new regimes funnel reconstruction contracts to the intervening country to rebuild what its war machine has destroyed. So it is that the capitalist class of the intervening country profits in three ways: From defense contracts; new investment and export opportunities; and post-war rebuilding. A peaceful resolution of Libya’s civil war would have disrupted this charmed circle. Is it any wonder, then, that Washington, Paris, and London ignored all proposals for a negotiated settlement?
An alternative explanation might be offered. While the major oil and engineering companies of the leading Nato countries will profit from Gaddafi’s downfall, the motivation to intervene was nevertheless independent of crass commercial concerns, and was humanitarian at its core.
But if this were so you would have to explain how it was that Nato’s humanitarian concern was uniquely invested in a country in which there are still Western oil-industry-profit-making opportunities to be had, while Nato remained unmoved by humanitarian concern over the plight of Shiite Bahrainis whose peaceful protests were violently suppressed by an absolute monarchy — with the help of the tanks and troops of three other absolute monarchies, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
A third contributor to the violent suppression of the Bahraini revolt, Qatar, deserves special mention. It is celebrated in the Western press for its contribution to the Libyan rebels in arms, warplanes, training, diplomatic recognition, and (in the Qatar-state-owned Al Jazeera) propaganda–a real friend of democracy in its struggle against dictatorship and repression. The New York Times referred to Al Jazeera as an “independent news channel” (5) though it is not clear what Al Jazeera is independent of. The Times has never, to my knowledge, referred to the state-owned media of countries under imperialist siege as “independent,” this laudatory and impossible adjective (all media are dependent—whether on the state or private investors) is reserved for media that have adopted a perspective that is pleasing to the interests of The New York Times’ board of directors and major owner.
Bahrain—a paragon society for Western investors—has already disgorged its profit-making opportunities to Western oil companies. It is also home to the US Fifth Fleet. It is therefore a de facto extension of the US economy, indeed, of US territory, and so its government can do whatever it likes, so long as it continues to keep Wall Street happy. Bombing, sanctions, destabilization and International Criminal Court indictments are reserved for governments that “raise fees and taxes” on US oil firms and try to nationalize their economies, a clear red-line in an imperialist time.
In the view of one sector of the left, imperialist interventions are supportable so long as they lead to the toppling of a capitalist regime, irrespective of its succession by another. Of course, the outcome of any successful imperialist intervention against a bourgeois nationalist regime is its replacement by a comprador one. This hardly amounts to an advance.
For still another sector, the character of the besieged government is all that matters. The character of the intervening state, by contrast, matters not at all – not its domination by corporate, banking and investor interests; not its record of pursuing wars of conquest; and not its resort to fabrication to justify its aggressions. For these leftists, such as they are, the targeted government is reprehensible, while their own is either angelic or well-meaning. In this frame, Gaddafi’s attempts to crush an uprising is understood to be on a more barbaric plane than, say, the war on Iraq, which created a humanitarian catastrophe on a scale Gaddafi’s repressions could never match. What manner of delusion leads one to believe that the United States and Britain, the architects of rapacity and slaughter on a global scale, are (a) angelic and well-meaning, (b) motivated in their foreign policy by humanitarianism, and (c) are playing a constructive role in Libya?
The most pusillanimous of leftists are those who condemn the brutalized and brutalizers equally. They take a comfortable though craven moral stance, but their condemnation of targeted governments is irrelevant. Since the character of governments under siege has nothing whatever to do with the reasons for the intervention, and does not, in the case of capitalist imperialist interventions, justify it, there can be one reason alone for singling out the victim for equal condemnation in the context of his assault: a desire for respectability and a penchant for knuckling under to mainstream opinion, not challenging it and offering an alternative, counter-hegemonic, explanation.
Suppose you live next door to an ill-mannered, thoroughly dislikeable woman who has managed to alienate everyone you know. One day her husband beats her. You can condemn the husband for beating his wife, and say nothing of his wife’s character. Why would you? It doesn’t excuse the husband’s behavior. Or you can condemn both equally, noting that as much as you deplore wife-beating, you also deplore the victim for her bad manners and irksome ways. To do the latter is unsupportable and anyone who did this would be deservedly rebuked. Yet left fence sitters do the same when they insist on condemning the governments of countries that capitalist imperialist countries intervene in to show that they don’t support the crimes of which those governments are accused. Worse, they refuse to even investigate the veracity of the accusations, and then challenge them if they fail to stand up to scrutiny, for fear of being denounced as apologists. Instead, they simply accept the accusations as true, even though similar accusations against other victims on similar occasions have been shown to be fabrications (Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, for example.) This is apologetics of another kind, on behalf of the left fence sitters’ own ruling class. It keeps them on safe ground. They can say later, as so many did in connection with the Iraqi WMD scam, “We didn’t know. I’m shocked, shocked!, that the government deceived us.”
However, the analogy suggests that interventions only happen in countries where governments behave in reprehensible ways, and this isn’t the case. Certainly, the impression produced by the propaganda assault that accompanies interventions is one of targeted regimes being thoroughly detestable and their demise consequently to be wished for, even if the intervention that brings it about is undertaken for the wrong reasons. And leftists, if they’re to be taken seriously in the court of respectable mainstream opinion, are expected to genuflect before the depiction of targeted countries as criminal lest they be accused of being apologists for dictators, or useful idiots. But it sometimes happens that the crimes of which targeted regimes are accused are not crimes at all, or if they are, are mild ones at worst.
The narrative used to explain the need for intervention in Libya is that a peaceful uprising of democracy-loving Libyans against the Gaddafi dictatorship was about to be crushed in blood. A narrative that navigates closer to the truth is that the uprising, touched off by surrounding events in Tunisia and Egypt, originates in the longstanding rift between a nationalist, government on the one hand, and Islamists and comprador elements on the other. While this fails to explain the uprising in full, it explains a good part of it. Is the repression of reactionary forces that threaten the state a crime? If you’re a Libyan Islamist, monarchist or CIA-backed exile, the answer is yes, just as it is if you’re an ideologue for this particular imperialist intervention. But if you’re Gaddafi, and his nationalist supporters, the answer is no.
Significantly, few people are seriously calling for Nato to mount an operation to protect Bahraini civilians from the violent repression of an absolute monarchy. However much the Khalifa regime’s crackdown on Bahraini protestors is considered a crime, it is not a crime on a large enough scale to warrant a Nato intervention. Indeed, it is difficult to conceive of any justification for a Nato intervention, since Nato countries are only good at undertaking interventions as investments. There has to be a promise of a lucrative payoff for an elite of capitalist masters if the investment in blood and treasure is to be justified: oil concessions free from profit-reducing taxes and fees; new export and investment opportunities; reconstruction contracts. Humanitarianism doesn’t add to the bottom line. But let’s assume for the moment, as the naïve do, that Nato can intervene for selfless reasons, and that this is not, like the lion lying down with the lamb, an impossibility. Why would we call for intervention against Gaddafi but not Khalifa? The reasons why bankers, corporations and major investors who dominate foreign policy in the Nato countries would do this is clear. That leftists do the same raises questions about what is meant by the “left”.
Diana Johnstone and Jean Bricmont lambasted significant sections of the European left for failing to vigorously oppose the Nato intervention in Libya’s civil war and in many cases for supporting it. (6) But this is like faulting sheep for grazing on grass. While regrettable, there is nothing strange or unprecedented about people who consider themselves to be of the political left, even socialists, siding with their own government’s imperialist eruptions. It has been happening since at least WWI. Lenin offered an explanation — and whether you find his explanation compelling or not the phenomenon he set out to explain cannot be denied. A sector of the left regularly sides with its own government’s imperialism, while another sector finds ways to subtly support it while professing opposition. The only sector of the Western left, with one or two exceptions, that can be counted upon to reliably oppose imperialism, and to have some kind of sophisticated understanding of it, are the Leninists.
Max Elbaum points to the phenomenon in his book about the 1960s New Communist Movement, Revolution in the Air. “Late-sixties activists,” he writes, “felt a powerful political and emotional bond” with the Leninist wing of the socialist movement. During WWI, this wing broke decisively “with those socialists who supported the war, or at least did little or nothing to oppose it.” They were drawn to Leninism because, like the original followers of Lenin, “they too had spent years in frustrating fights with more prestigious left forces that had dragged their feet—or worse—in the antiwar campaign.”
Elbaum credits democratic socialism’s refusal to vigorously oppose the US war on Vietnam with building support for the New Communist Movement. “Though today’s democratic socialists don’t talk about it much,” writes Elbaum, “the U.S. social democrats played a sluggish or even backward role in the anti-Vietnam War movement.” The official US affiliate of the Socialist International, the Socialist Party, “actually supported the war” and “was all but absent from antiwar activity.” Editor of Dissent, Irving Howe, among the most prominent of US social democrats, “long opposed the demand for immediate withdrawal from Vietnam.” Michael Harrington, perhaps the most widely known US social democrat, never offered a full-throated denunciation of the war. According to his sympathetic biographer, Maurice Isserman, Harrington referred to the war as if it were a force of nature rather than a product of human agency (a tragedy, like a hurricane or earthquake, rather than an instrument of US imperialism) for fear of alienating “his closest and long-standing political comrades who were supporting the slaughter…” Harrington regarded his pro-war social democratic colleagues not as backward, reactionary collaborationists but as “good socialists with whom he differed on peripheral issues.” (7)
Internationally, democratic socialists acted in ways that provoked disgust. “French Socialists, while in power had conducted the colonial war in Algeria—complete with torture. The Harold Wilson-led Labour Party government in Britain backed US Vietnam policy despite its misgivings.” And “social democrats worldwide were among the most vocal supporters of Zionism and opponents of Palestinian self-determination.”
In the late-sixties, writes Elbaum, “it seemed only natural to identify with the tendency that had fought against similar social democratic backwardness during an earlier imperialist bloodletting.”
So too in 2011.
1. Steven Mufson, “Conflict in Libya: U.S. oil companies sit on sidelines as Gaddafi maintains hold”, The Washington Post, June 10, 2011.
2. Clifford Kraus, “The scramble for access to Libya’s oil wealth begins”, The New York Times, August 22, 2011.
3. Stephen Fidler and Alistair MacDonald, “Europeans retreat on defense spending”, The Wall Street Journal, August 24, 2011.
4. Steven Lee Myers and Dan Bilefsky, “U.N. releases $1.5 billion in frozen Qaddafi assets to aid rebuilding of Libya”, The New York Times, August 25, 2011.
5. David D. Kirkpatrick and Kareem Fahim, “Inside a Libyan hospital, proof of a revolt’s costs”, The New York Times, August 25, 2011.
6. Jean Bricmont and Diana Johnstone, “Who will save Libya from its Western saviours?” http://www.counterpunch.org, August 16, 2011.
7. Max Elbaum, Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals turn to Lenin, Mao and Che, Verso, 2006, p. 46
By Stephen Gowans
Wars have almost always been highly devastating affairs, with dire consequences in ruined and destroyed lives, as well as in the destruction of economies, farms, factories, housing and public infrastructure. While it cannot be said that all people at all times have considered wars to be best avoided, it is safe to say that the humanitarian case against war is overwhelming.
This essay is concerned, not with war in general, but with military interventions. To be sure, military interventions are often inseparable from wars, since they are often the causes of them. But not always. Some occur in the context of wars that are already underway. And some happen without provoking major resistance.
Today, on the left—and even the right—there are many activists who are committed to an anti-war position, but who are more properly said to oppose military intervention. Opposition to war implies, not only opposition to one country initiating a war against another (aggression), but also to using military means to repel an attack (self-defence.) Yet it is highly unlikely that people who say they are against war mean that they are against self-defence. It is more likely that they mean that a military response to a conflict must only occur for valid reasons, and that self-defence is the only valid one.
However, those who have adopted an anti-war position often stress other reasons for opposing military interventions. These include the ideas that:
• Democracy is senior to other considerations and that people should be allowed to resolve internal conflicts free from the meddling of outside forces.
• Institutions and ideologies cannot be successfully imposed on other people and interventions that seek to do so (e.g., bring democracy to another country) are bound to fail.
• International law is a legitimate basis for determining the validity of military interventions and countries ought to abide by it.
In this essay, the arguments will be made that: none of these principles are grounds to oppose military intervention; one of them is empirically insupportable as an absolute statement; the idea that military force ought to be used only in self-defence is indefensible; and that had these principles been adopted as inviolable, a number of interventions that are now widely regarded as progressive and desirable would never have occurred. A case will be made, instead, that some military interventions are valid and that validity depends on whose interests the intervention serves and whether the long-run effects are progressive. By these criteria, NATO interventions in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya are not valid, while France’s intervention on the side of the United States in the American Revolution and the Union government’s intervention in the states of the Confederacy in the American Civil War were valid. Also valid were the interventions of the Comintern on the Republican side of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1938), the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) interventions in Korea (1950) and Tibet (1959), Cuba’s intervention in Angola (1975), and the Soviet Union’s intervention in Afghanistan (1979).
Full essay in PDF format: Military Interventions Progressive vs Imperialist
In the battle for public opinion over war on Iran, one strikes at the heart of Washington’s informal case for war while the other endorses it
By Stephen Gowans
Antiwar activist Phil Wilayto’s criticism of the Campaign for Peace and Democracy’s (CPD) petition condemning both Washington and Tehran, and the Campaign’s reply to him, illustrate the tensions in the antiwar movement among what I call challengers, formalists, and CPD anarchists. These three modes of opposition to Washington’s aggressions are largely defined by how the demonization of target regimes is responded to, and whether it is responded to at all. The challengers attack the informal campaigns of demonization aimed at building popular support for war, the formalists ignore them, and the CPD anarchists (self described peace and democracy campaigners) embrace them. In the battle against Washington for public opinion, the approach of the challengers has the greatest chance of success, the blows of the formalists fall wide of the mark, and the CPD anarchists play into Washington’s hands by endorsing the aggressor’s demonization campaign from within the antiwar movement itself.
The accustomed practice of countries that seek to change the political regime of other countries is to demonize the target of their aggression in order to justify the war, subversion, economic strangulation and other measures they have taken to achieve regime change. The aim is to legitimize their actions in the court of public opinion in order to secure at least popular acquiescence to, if not ardent support for, the toppling of a foreign government. Campaigns of vilification—typically based on hyperbole, distortion and occasionally outright deception–are invariably begun by aggressive governments and then amplified and carried on by a mimetic mass media (dishonestly labelled “independent” though dependent on the class of super-wealthy businesspeople who own them.) An emblematic case is the demonization of Iraq’s Ba’athist regime. A mighty oak sprang from a tiny acorn — an acorn that in the end, turned out to exist not at all. Iraq was said to represent a looming threat (the oak) on the basis of its alleged possession of banned weapons (the acorn.) If Iraq had indeed possessed hidden biological and chemical weapons, would it have posed any more danger than countries that possess infinitely larger and more deadly arsenals? That it did not pose even this modest threat shows that the aggressor never had a legitimate case for war. Today, the echoes of the demonization campaign are heard in the justifications of George Bush and Tony Blair for starting the war. We didn’t find weapons of mass destruction, they concede, but insist the war was just all the same, for a terrible tyrant was toppled. Since objections to this line of reasoning are heard only among a tiny minority of vocal opponents of Washington’s wars (and not all of them) we can conclude with some degree of certainty that creating an understanding that the head of a target regime is a brutal dictator—or simply emphasizing this where it is true–is enough to secure public acquiescence to the squandering of billions of dollars in military expenditure and the waste of countless lost and ruined lives.
The strategies of the various sectors of the antiwar movement are defined, on one level, by their orientation to the campaigns of demonization. There are three approaches. All share a common objection to the aggressive government’s stated reasons for waging war, but differ in how–and whether—they respond to the government’s attempted legitimization of its actions. One group challenges the invariable campaigns of demonization that depict target regimes as horrible and inhuman, another ignores them, while a third embraces them.
The first group, the challengers, seeks to undermine the emotional basis of popular support for wars that aggressive states and their media allies construct through their vilification of the intended victim. This the challengers do by scrutinizing the evidentiary basis of the informal campaign and exposing its lies and weaknesses. For example, against the charge that Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has called for the physical annihilation of Israel, the challengers have shown that Ahmadinejad’s oft-cited call to “wipe Israel off the map” is a mistranslation of Farsi to English. What the Iranian president actually called for was regime change in Jerusalem (which is to say, an end to Zionist hegemony over—and clearing the way for Arab self-determination within—former mandate Palestine.) To be sure, Zionists and their supporters condemn even this progressive aim as the rankest Judeophobia, but it hardly constitutes a call for the destruction of the people of Israel. Similarly, the challengers place the accusation that Ahmadinejad is a holocaust-denier in context, showing that while the Iranian president’s position on the historical existence of the Nazi program to exterminate European Jewry is unquestionably ambiguous, his pronouncements on the matter are largely concerned with exposing how Zionists dishonestly exploit the holocaust to deny Arab self-determination. Hence, what Ahmadinejad has done is condemn in a highly visible way the Zionist project of dispossessing Arabs to create a Jewish homeland, while pointing to the exploitation of the holocaust by the same forces to justify Israeli actions and stifle objections to Israel as a colonial settler state. Inasmuch as this reinforces opposition to Israel—and the United States counts on Israel as an instrument of its foreign policy in the Middle East—Washington’s interest in eliminating the Islamic regime in Tehran is obvious. Tehran’s support for Hamas (which seeks Arab self-determination within former mandate Palestine) and Hezbollah (which exists as a bulwark against Israeli incursions into Lebanon) bolsters Washington’s enmity to Tehran. The latest salvo in the campaign to build an emotional rationale for replacing the government in Tehran is the claim that the last presidential election was stolen and that Ahmadinejad’s mandate is therefore illegitimate. To be sure, Western popular sympathies, no less on the left, lie with an opposition which appears to exemplify anti-theocratic values. All the same, evidence that the election was stolen is thin at best and evidence that it wasn’t is compelling. There is also reason to believe that the mass protests following the elections were helped along by the support of “pro-democracy” forces generously backed by payments taken out of the king’s ransom in destabilization program funding set up by the Bush administration and carried on by Obama. There’s nothing secret about this funding; it’s on the public record.
The challengers represent the most reviled sector of the antiwar movement. This is so because they carry on their debunking in the face of opposition, not only from pro-war forces, but also from some antiwar opponents, who are never as happy as when they can turn their venom on their nominal allies, accusing them of supporting thuggish regimes. Accordingly, the challengers are branded as dictator-lovers and tyrant-supporters and are accused of tripping over the logical error of assuming the enemy of their enemy is their friend. This accusation is hurled so frequently and uncritically as to have become a comfortable part of the dogma of a certain sector of the antiwar movement. That it is dogma, and not a particularly compelling explanation of the challengers’ position, is evidenced by the following: The support the challengers extend to targeted regimes is support, not for the regimes per se (though in some case it can be), but support for their struggles against the aggression of which they have become a target. No one ever accused Churchill of being a Soviet Marxist for supporting the Soviet Union against the Nazis, but those who support the Iranian government against the predations of the United States and Israel are regularly accused of being partisans of and apologists for political Islam. If Churchill’s support for the Soviet Union against Hitler didn’t make him a Stalinist, how is it that the challengers’ support for the Iranian government against US imperialism makes them Islamists? Challenging propaganda aimed at preparing and sustaining popular support for aggression against a regime—and supporting it in its struggle against unjust aggression– in no way amounts to support for the regime’s political content. Falsely equating one with the other is a means by which one sector of the antiwar movement pressures another to abandon its solidarity with the victims of US aggression.
Another sector of the antiwar movement, the formalists, ignores the demonization campaigns of the aggressor states altogether, choosing to focus its attack on the formal, legal, case for war. For example, rather than challenging the depiction of Ahmadinejad as a Judeophobe and holocaust denier whose political rule is based on electoral fraud, formalists dismiss these accusations as irrelevant to the question of whether there is a just or legal basis for war. A war cannot be prosecuted justly or legally, they say, simply because a leader’s views are unpalatable or because the election that brought him to power has been called into question. Therefore, even if the charges against the regime are true, there’s no legitimate case for war. Besides, the formal case for an attack on Iran, for example, rests, not on these allegations, but on fear that Iran is secretly developing nuclear weapons. The attack on the formal case then proceeds with an examination of the evidence that Iran is developing a nuclear arsenal, while pointing to the hypocrisy of nuclear armed countries denying Iran nuclear arms, as they allow Israel to dangle the threat of a nuclear strike over the heads of its opponents, while calls for Israel to disarm and join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty are blocked. Since threatened countries are compelled to seek nuclear arms to provide for their self-defense against nuclear-armed powers, a further argument is made that the key to preventing Iran and other countries from developing their own nuclear arsenals is to reduce the threat level, not increase it.
One view is that the formalists’ strategy is preferable to that of the challengers because it focuses debate on what is seen to be the weakest part of the war-promoters’ argument (the absent legal basis for aggression), and therefore prevents the war-promoters from turning to demonization to build emotional mass support for war. Moreover, since the formalists ignore the accusations of brutality, dictatorship, human rights violations and so on against the target regime as irrelevant to the question of whether there is a just or legal basis for war, they reduce their chances of being tarred as thug-huggers, dictator-lovers, and tyrants’ apologists. To the extent these labels stick, the antiwar movement is discredited within the larger population.
The alternative view is that the formalists’ strategy fails in practice. Neutrality on the question of whether the targeted leader is brutal, holds unpalatable views, and has come to power through electoral fraud, is met by accusations that the formalists, through their silence, are tacit supporters of the regime. The charge is loosed: Failure to condemn is tantamount to support! What’s more, trying to keep the debate focussed on the formal case doesn’t stop the emotional case being made. And while the formalists may win the debate on the terrain they’ve chosen, the emotional case remains a potent pacifier of popular opinion. “Oh sure,” reasons the man on the street, “Maybe the formal case for war was flawed, but a brutal dictator (or the misogynist Taliban, or the ethnic cleansing Serbs, and so on) was removed. ”
The formalists’ error, in training their attack on the formal case for war, is to mistake where the enemy’s strength lies. The formal case carries little weight in popular discourse. What matters is the public’s emotional reaction. Is the target regime and its leader brutal, thuggish, unpredictable, dangerous, hate-filled and detestable? In other words, is he a demon? If that’s what the public understands, the fact that there’s no case for war under the UN Charter; that war hasn’t been blessed by the Security Council; that the accused hasn’t done what he’s accused of doing; that there’s a double standard involved, doesn’t matter. The public will go along. First, because wars as they’re fought by imperialist powers today—invariably against weak countries—demand no obvious sacrifice on the part of the public; and second, because they can be rationalized as an enterprise whose outcome, on balance, is desirable. This rationalization, depends, of course, on a fair degree of blindness to the scale of humanitarian tragedy US-led wars of imperialist aggression have created in the former Yugoslavia and more clearly in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it’s a blindness the mass media play a hand in creating and many people, besotted with patriotism, are happy to accept. The formalists, while perceiving their own path to be wiser than that of the challengers, have, on the contrary, stumbled into a cul-de-sac. If the goal is to arouse the public against preparations for war, their blows miss the real target.
The CPD Anarchists
The third sector of the antiwar movement, the CPD anarchists, neither challenges the campaigns of demonization that prepare public opinion for aggression against a target regime, nor ignore them. Instead, they embrace them. This sector of the antiwar movement is against the state—any state—whether it is a powerful aggressor or a weak victim, an imperialist power or a successor to a movement of national liberation, an enforcer of a regime of exploitation or an enforcer of a regime against it. During the Cold War CPD anarchists were against both the United States and the Soviet Union. In the Persian Gulf War they were against both the United States and Iraq, and remained so in 2003. Today they are against both the United States and Iran. Mostly, this sector is made up of anarchists who call themselves campaigners for peace and democracy. But while not all of its members self-identify as anarchists, they are guided by anarchist principles. Their invariable opposition to any state is accompanied by an invariable solidarity with anyone who challenges any state. They are for the dissidents in Cuba who take money from Washington to overthrow Cuba’s socialism and are against the Cuban state for jailing them. They were for the anticommunist Polish trade union Solidarity and anticommunist dissidents in Eastern Europe as ardently as Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and The Wall Street Journal were. We can be sure that the State Department likes the CPD anarchists a good deal. They are for the same people they’re for (anyone working against the regimes the US is opposed to) and against the regimes they’re against (the Soviet Union, Cuba, Iraq, Iran.) True, the CPD anarchists are also against regimes the United States is for (like Saudi Arabia). And they’re against US foreign policy, but their opposition, as we shall see in a moment, is more a help to the State Department than a hindrance.
CPD anarchists have a curious habit of launching demonization campaigns of their own at the peak of the US state’s demonization of the next regime to be taken down. When Washington demonized the Soviet government to justify the Cold War, the CPD anarchists were not far behind. When Washington deplored Havana’s jailing of mercenary dissidents, the CPD anarchists joined in. On the eve of the 2003 US-British invasion of Iraq, they let it be known that they too condemned Saddam Hussein. Unlike the challengers, who expose the distortions and deceptions that make up Washington’s informal campaigns for war, the CPD anarchists accept them at face value, and in doing so, legitimize them from within the antiwar movement. They take the line of least resistance. Accept the propaganda against the intended victim holus bolus (because the victim is a state and it must, by the very definition of a state in the anarchist lexicon, be as corrupt and horrible as the press and State Department say it is.) Whereas the formalists ignore the aggressors’ informal case for war, the CPD anarchists buttress it.
Recently, the Campaign for Peace and Democracy issued a petition to rally opposition to both Washington and Tehran. The government in Tehran, the CPD anarchists argued, is hardly a government leftists should want to support. This confuses support for a government in its struggle against predation by imperialist powers with support for a regime’s political content. It’s true that leftists shouldn’t want to support the political content of the Islamic regime, but it’s untrue that leftists wouldn’t want to support a state that is resisting imperialist aggression. The Stalin government was the kind of government capitalists wouldn’t want to support, but Churchill and Roosevelt did support it, because, from the perspective of US and British capital at the time, it made sense to do so. Should Churchill and Roosevelt have abandoned the Soviets in their struggle against the invading Nazis and called instead for solidarity with anti-Soviet dissidents in Russia (i.e., a fifth column) simply because the Stalin government was not one a capitalist should want to support? If the goal were to allow the Nazis to swallow up the Soviet Union, no better advice could have been given. But neither Churchill nor Roosevelt were stupid enough to follow for their class the kind of fatuous reasoning the CPD anarchists advance for ours.
The CPD calls on leftists to abandon the Iranian government in its struggle against the predations of the United States and Israel and support anti-regime dissidents within the country instead. If the objective is to allow Iran to be brought once again under the US heel, this is, indeed, sound advice. Were CPD principal Joanne Landy and her allies around at the time we can be sure they would have condemned German fascism and Soviet socialism equally, waiting until the Nazis had launched their invasion to wish a pox on both their houses, at which point they would have called for solidarity with anti-Soviet dissidents in Moscow. If the result was that the Nazis swallowed up the Soviet Union, Landy et al would have washed their hands of responsibility for their actions, as they must have done when Solidarity helped return Poland to its place on the periphery of European capitalism, and anti-Soviet dissidents helped bring about the collapse of the Soviet Union and along with it a collapse in living standards and the demise of guaranteed employment, free health care, a robust social wage and substantial equality.
The CPD anarchists say they’re standing in solidarity with democracy activists in Iran who are challenging the illegitimate, electoral fraud-tainted Ahmadinejad government. But their solidarity is legitimate only to the degree the “democracy” activists challenge a real breach of democracy, and are not upholding a fiction spun to further US efforts at destabilization. As mentioned above, the evidence for electoral theft is pathetically thin, amounting to little more than assertion. On the other hand, substantial polling backs the counterclaim that the outcome of the election truly reflected the way Iranians voted. The balance of evidence, then, lies on Ahmadinejad’s side. What can be said of a campaign for democracy whose solidarity is with forces on the ground that are against the side backed by the majority? What can be said of a campaign for peace that reinforces the distortions and misinformation that make up the informal case for war by accepting it at face value and then seeking endorsement of it within the antiwar movement itself?
Needless to say, the CPD anarchists have little good to say about the challengers. They accuse them of falsely seeing the enemy of their enemy as their friend. The aim is to discredit the challengers’ work of exposing the distortions and fabrications that make up the aggressor states’ demonization campaigns. For how can the outcome of their work be sound if it is based on a logical error? What’s more, the demonization must be accepted at face value, for in keeping with anarchist principles, the state and its leaders must be opposed. How much easier to oppose demons. If Washington and The New York Times say that Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe is a dictator who clings to power for power’s-sake, then he is everything they say he is, for he is the leader of a state. If the State Department and Wall Street Journal say north Korea’s Kim Jong Il is a dangerously unpredictable tyrant who has an itch for war, the CPD anarchists will shy away from critical examination of the claim. Why risk undermining a depiction so favorable to the anarchist penchant for reviling heads of state? In fact, the CPD anarchists themselves practice the very same enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend thinking they accuse the challengers of practicing. Who are the heroes of the CPD anarchists? The Soviet, Eastern European and Cuban anti-socialist dissidents who, with US assistance, sought to overthrow socialist states; the “pro-democracy” dissidents in the former Yugoslavia who, with US assistance, overthrew the government of Slobodan Milosevic; the dissidents in Iraq who, with US assistance, sought to overthrow the Ba’athist regime; and the dissidents in Iran who, with US assistance, seek to overthrow the Islamic state. These are the CPD anarchists’ friends. Why? Because they are the enemies of the CPD’s enemy (the state — though, apparently, not enemies of the US state). The enemy of their enemy is their friend. For the CPD anarchists, it is all right to pledge solidarity with the enemies of a state, but not all right to pledge solidarity with a state the US is about to attack.
Of the three groups, the challengers would appear to have the best chance of success in countering Washington’s and the mass media’s efforts to build popular support, or at least, foster acquiescence to, wars of aggression. The formalists’ failure to challenge the informal campaign of demonization leaves the field open to pro-war forces, who are free to create popular revulsion to the targeted regime. Their attack on the legal basis for war, is too cerebral, and at the end of the day, is no match for the emotional hot buttons skilled politicians, public relations experts, and mass media manipulators are left free to push. Finally, there is no chance the CPD anarchists will counter Washington and the mass media’s war mongering in any effective way. On the contrary, their efforts only strengthen them, and one wonders how sincerely opposed to war are people who, on the eve of an attack, endorse the informal campaign of lies, distortions and exaggeration the aggressors use to garner popular support for their imminent predations.
House of Latin America (HOLA), an Iranian NGO dedicated to solidarity and defense of the peoples of Latin America and the people of Iran, has initiated the following appeal to individuals and organizations worldwide to join with them in a campaign of solidarity with Iran in light of U.S. escalating threats and continuing sanctions.
Whereas, the escalating sanctions and threats of military intervention against Iran are intended to deprive the Iranian people of their internationally recognized right to live as an independent and free nation;
Whereas, the sanctions and threats are clear violations of Article 2 of the UN Charter, according to which member states must “refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state”;
Whereas, the United States is unequivocally obligated under the bilateral 1981 Algiers Treaty to refrain from interfering in the internal affairs of Iran;
Whereas, sanctions often pave the way to war;
Whereas, Iran, as a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, has an “inalienable right” to develop and use nuclear technology for peaceful purposes;
Whereas, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, there is no evidence to back up the charge that Iran is “planning to produce nuclear weapons”;
Whereas, the hegemonic lobbies that portray Iran as a threat to peace today also lied about imaginary weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to convince the public that war was necessary;
The people of the world cannot allow such a crime against humanity.
Therefore, I (we) join with all who stand for justice, peace, sovereignty and self determination in raising my (our) voice to demand:
* Lift economic sanctions against Iran.
* Recognize the right of Iran to develop and use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.
* Stop military threats against Iran.
By Stephen Gowans
If legitimacy and moral principle mattered, a groundswell of effective popular resistance would have arisen in NATO countries and brought the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to an end long ago. But vigorous opposition is inspired by more than ideals; it happens when war has very real personal consequences for a large part of the population. In the NATO countries, this has not been true of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have been fought with light causalities to a tiny fraction of the population that makes up a volunteer, professional military; have led to no major tax increases; and have provoked few disruptions due to retaliatory terrorist attacks. By contrast, the wars have had very real, tragic, personal consequences for large parts of the Afghan and Iraqi populations. Asymmetrical conditions (intolerable ones for the people of Afghanistan and Iraq; life lived much as it always is in the aggressor countries) produce asymmetrical responses (a determined armed resistance in Afghanistan and Iraq; a weak anti-war movement in the aggressor countries.)
Absence of Legitimacy
While it’s true that large numbers of people have been opposed to the war on Iraq from its formal beginning in 2003, those who said there was no credible evidence that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, that the WMD angle was a transparent pretext, that the war was for oil, and that it (along with the war on Afghanistan) wouldn’t lessen threats to the US and Britain but increase them, were in the minority. They were dismissed in various ways: as loony and pro-authoritarian, as having never met a dictator they didn’t like, as thug-huggers and apologists for terrorism, and so on.
Others, perhaps intimidated by the ridicule they saw heaped upon this minority and afraid of departing too far from the mainstream of mass media-approved opinion, compromised. Some called for more sanctions rather than war, although sanctions, which are simply war by other means, had already led to the deaths of half a million Iraqi children under the age of five(1)and perhaps as many people over five. Perhaps their concern was chauvinistic: not that Iraqis were being killed, but that US and British troops might get killed. Or maybe they didn’t know that sanctions are indeed directed at ordinary people. After all, the politicians who imposed them kept assuring everyone that sanctions only hurt the leadership of target countries, not the people.
The cowardly, afraid they would be tarred as dictator-lovers, issued statements denouncing both sides – the aggressor and the intended victim, as if, on the eve of the Nazi invasion of Poland, they had declared, “We like neither the Nazis nor the Poles,” in case, in opposing the Nazi action, they should be accused of supporting Polish politics.
Some of these people thought they were being clever. If they said (quite truthfully though irrelevantly) that they hated Saddam Hussein because he was a dictator, they could take the dictator-lover charge off the table, and focus public attention on US actions. But all they did was help to give heart to those seeking a silver lining in the dark cloud of impending war. “The war might be conducted for the wrong reasons,” rationalized the silver lining seekers, “but at least some good will come of it. The world will be rid of a vicious dictator.”
Perhaps the largest part of the sector that opposed the war did so, not because the war was nakedly imperialist and would increase the threat to Americans by further inflaming the anger of Muslims against US domination of the Middle East, but because they were Democrats and this was Bush’s war. Likewise, there were many Republicans who opposed the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia, not because it was nakedly imperialist, but because it was Clinton’s war. The Democrats who opposed the Iraq war weren’t anti-war or anti-imperialist, they were anti-Bush. And the Republicans who opposed the Kosovo air war weren’t anti-war or anti-imperialist, they were anti-Clinton. Part of the reason the anti-war movement, which has been mostly a part-time affair limited to a series of ritualized, orderly, marches, has virtually died out, is because Bush – the impetus for opposition to the wars – has retired to his ranch in Texas. Protest, at least in the view of partisan Democrats, is no longer necessary; indeed, from their point of view, it is to be vigorously avoided.
Withdrawal: An Exercise in Semantics
Today, the war in Iraq is in the midst of a US troop draw down, but not as the beginning to the end of US military involvement in Iraq. The real purpose is to redeploy troops to Afghanistan, where, with the war going poorly for the Pentagon, more troops are needed. US military occupation of Iraq is open-ended.
The withdrawal, which will reduce the number of American troops to 50,000 — from 112,000 earlier this year and close to 165,000 at the height of the surge — is … an exercise in semantics. What soldiers today would call combat operations — hunting insurgents, joint raids between Iraqi security forces and United States Special Forces to kill or arrest militants — will be called “stability operations.” Beyond August the next Iraq deadline is the end of 2011, when all American troops are supposed to be gone. But few believe that America’s military involvement in Iraq will end then. The conventional wisdom among military officers, diplomats and Iraqi officials is that after a new government is formed, talks will begin about a longer-term American troop presence. (2)
A longer-term American troop presence is exactly what US Secretary of War Robert Gates in 2007 told Congress could be expected. He said he envisioned keeping at least five combat brigades in Iraq as a long term presence, which is equal to about 20,000 combat personnel with an equal number of support staff. (3) The US military spokesman in Iraq, Major General Stephen Lanza, assured supporters of a US troop presence in Iraq that despite the troop draw-down, “In practical terms, nothing will change.” (4)
Meanwhile, the US government isn’t just rebranding the occupation, it’s also privatising it. There are around 100,000 private contractors working for the occupying forces, of whom more than 11,000 are armed mercenaries, mostly “third country nationals”, typically from the developing world. … The US now wants to expand their numbers sharply in what Jeremy Scahill, who helped expose the role of the notorious US security firm Blackwater, calls the “coming surge” of contractors in Iraq. Hillary Clinton wants to increase the number of military contractors working for the state department alone from 2,700 to 7,000, to be based in five “enduring presence posts” across Iraq. (5)
Colonialism without Colonies
The 1980 Carter Doctrine identified Persian Gulf oil as a US national security interest. In plain language, this meant that the petroleum rich countries of the Persian Gulf would be reserved as an area open to exploitation by US business enterprises and investors. The US would tolerate no attempt by other outside forces – or internal forces either — to control the region’s petro-reserves, and thereby deny or limit US enterprises access to the region’s oil and gas on preferential terms. Access would be guaranteed to ensure that US oil majors reaped a bonanza of profits from the sale of Middle Eastern oil to its principal consumers, namely Western Europe and Japan, and not primarily to guarantee sufficient oil to run the US military machine and economy, as is commonly supposed. Indeed, while the United States relies on oil from the Middle East, it has access to plentiful supplies of fossil fuels from sources that are much closer to hand: Canada (which has the world’s largest reserves of oil after Saudi Arabia); Venezuela (sixth in the world in oil reserves); and from its own oil wells. (6)
The Carter Doctrine was the modern version of colonialism. Under the old one, an outside power claims a territory as its own for the purposes of monopolizing its land, labor, markets and raw materials for the enrichment of its dominant politico-economic interests, its ruling class. It does so by planting its flag, appointing a governor, and establishing a military garrison. This announces to the world that use of this territory is exclusively at the discretion of the colonial power, and that the monopoly is backed by the colonial power’s military.
Under the Carter Doctrine, Washington would leave the flags, constitutions, currencies and leaders of the nominally independent Middle Eastern countries in place. But it would be understood that these countries would open themselves to exploitation by US business enterprises, if they weren’t already, or would remain open, if they were. The Pentagon would be the ultimate enforcer, ensuring that investment opportunities remained available on preferential terms to US businesspeople and that US investments were kept free from the threat of expropriation, or limitation by high taxes, stringent regulations, strong unions, restraints on repatriation of profits, and affirmative action programs designed to promote local businesses. Whereas the colonial powers had carved out territories for themselves and ipso facto claimed them as their own, Carter simply said what amounted to, “This now belongs to the United States on a de facto basis and anyone who says otherwise will have to deal with the Pentagon.” Significantly, this warning wasn’t directed at outside powers alone; it was also intended for communist, socialist and nationalist forces, who might take it into their heads that the land on which they lived and their raw materials ought to be collectively or publicly owned for the benefit of the local population or turned over to the local bourgeoisie to spur independent internal development.
Iran and Iraq were a problem. Nationalists were in power in both countries. Washington provided military assistance to help Iraq in its war against Iran, hoping the two nationalist powers would exhaust and weaken each other in war, and, in the aftermath, Washington could step in to assert control. When Iraq invaded Kuwait with what it believed was tacit US approval (7), Washington used the event to initiate a war against Iraq that continues today. The eventual invasion of Iraq was carried out under the Wolfowitz Doctrine, which said the United States would prevent the emergence of a regional Middle Eastern power capable of monopolizing the region’s petroleum resources, but which really meant that regional oil powers, like Iraq and Iran, would be prevented from controlling their own petroleum resources. George W. Bush pointed to preventing “a world in which these extremists and radicals got control of energy resources” (8) as the rationale for US military strategy in the Persian Gulf. What made the objects of Bush’s alarm “extreme” and “radical” was that they weren’t prepared to surrender control of their oil and gas to US corporations.
The Insecurity State
Fighting terrorism and preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons has become the rationale for US military domination of the Middle East. Yet it was US military domination of the Middle East that sparked terrorist attacks against US targets in the first place, and established the conditions that pressure Iran to develop nuclear weapons (which isn’t to say that Iran is developing nuclear weapons, only that the need to build a defense against US and Israeli aggression makes it more likely that it will.)
What motivates Osama bin Laden and his followers has largely been kept from Western audiences, who have been fed pabulum about al Qaeda’s “hatred of our freedoms,” but it is clear that bin Laden’s campaign of terrorism is a reaction to US imperialism in the Middle East. He importunes his followers to strike the United States because:
…the United States has been occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places, the Arabian Peninsula, plundering its riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people, terrorising its neighbours, and turning its bases in the Peninsula into a spearhead through which to fight the neighboring Muslim peoples. (9)
On another occasion bin Laden explained that:
The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies—civilians and military—is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it, in order to liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque and the holy Mosque from their grip, and in order for their armies to move out of all the lands of Islam, defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim. (10)
Having operated on behalf of the CIA to oppose Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan in the 1980s, bin Laden is sometimes said to be a creation of the United States, a kind of Frankenstein monster. But receiving assistance from a state does not make one its creation. Bin Laden would have militantly opposed Soviet intervention in Afghanistan whether the CIA helped him out or not. There is, however, a sense in which bin Laden is, indeed, a creation of the United States, or more precisely, a reaction against its policies. Bin Laden, as a fighter against US domination of the Middle East, wouldn’t exist were it not for the US troop presence in Saudi Arabia, and now Iraq and Afghanistan; were the United States not the guarantor of Israel’s existence as an anti-Arab settler state; and had Washington not created a string of marionette rulers throughout the Arab world. In seeking to extend and consolidate US hegemony on behalf of the United States’ dominant economic class, these policies have had the effect of stirring up a nest of hornets. Once stirred up, the danger the hornets pose become a pretext for further extension of US hegemony to deny the hornets sanctuary and a base of operations from which they can inflict harm. As Victor Kiernan once remarked: “Now, as on other occasions, it appear[s] that American security require(s) everyone else to be insecure.” (11)
Right All Along
The ridiculed minority was right. The Iraq war was – and continues to be – about oil; there never were any weapons of mass destruction; Iraq posed no danger to the West; and rather than lessening the threat of terrorist attack, it has increased it. As for the idea, promulgated by Barack Obama as justification for his war policy in Afghanistan, that Afghanistan must be occupied by US forces and the militaries of its allies in order to prevent the country from becoming a base of operations for al-Qaeda, it can be pointed out that terrorist attacks can be – and have been – plotted and organized just about anywhere. William Blum asks:
[W]hat actually is needed to plot to buy airline tickets and take flying lessons in the United States? A room with some chairs? What does “an even larger safe haven” mean? A larger room with more chairs? Perhaps a blackboard? Terrorists intent upon attacking the United States can meet almost anywhere, with Afghanistan probably being one of the worst places for them, given the American occupation. (12)
Indeed, it is very unlikely that al-Qaeda is the position to establish a base of operations in Afghanistan, a point made by Stephen Biddle, a scholar at the uber-establishment Council on Foreign Relations, who advised General Stanley McChrystal, the former US commander in Afghanistan. Biddle “said the chance of a new Qaeda stronghold that could threaten American territory was relatively low” equating the odds of this happening “to a 50-year-old dying in the next year in America” which he said was “substantially less than 1 percent.” So why carry on an occupation whose costs approach $1 trillion (13) in order to avert an event that has virtually no chance of happening? Because, says Biddle – who advances an argument that is perhaps one of the least cogent ever — “It’s like buying life insurance” and “most Americans buy life insurance.” (14)
Richard Boucher had a different view. When he spoke on September 20, 2007 at the Paul H. Nitze School for Advanced International Studies in Washington, he was US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs. Boucher’s account of why the United States has spent countless dollars on war in Afghanistan had nothing to do with insurance policies and much to do with oil and gas. “One of our goals is to stabilize Afghanistan, so it can become a conduit and a hub between South and Central Asia so that energy can flow to the south,” he explained. (15) Boucher’s views mesh with Biddle’s if we take “stabilize” to mean pacifying forces opposed to the United States controlling Afghanistan as a hub between South and Central Asia.
Fadhil Chalabi, an adviser to Washington in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq and later Iraq’s oil undersecretary of state, described the invasion as “a strategic move on the part of the United States of America and the UK to have a military presence in the Gulf in order to secure [oil] supplies in the future”. (16) He echoed the former chairman of the US Federal Reserve Bank, Alan Greenspan, who, in his memoirs, The Age of Turbulence, lamented “that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil.” (17) George W. Bush himself, in worrying that “extremists would control a key part of the world’s energy supply” if the US did not have a troop presence in Iraq, indirectly acknowledged that oil was central to the reason he ordered an invasion of the country. (18) But it should be recalled that it is not the need to guarantee a secure supply of Middle Eastern oil for US consumers that was central to the reason for the invasion, for the US has access to plentiful oil from sources close to home. What really counted was the attraction of securing a bonanza of profits for US oil majors from the sale of Middle Eastern oil to Western Europe and Japan. A subsidiary benefit also figured in the equation: if Washington controls Japan’s and Western Europe’s oil supply, it controls Japan and Western Europe. (19)
Testifying before the Chilcot Inquiry into the Britain’s role in the Iraq war, Baroness Manningham-Buller, the former director general of Britain’s domestic intelligence agency, MI-5, confirmed what the minority had said eight years earlier: “That Iraq had presented little threat … before the invasion”(20) and that fears that “Saddam could have linked terrorists to weapons of mass destruction, facilitating their use against the west…certainly wasn’t of concern in either the short term or the medium term.” (21)
Manningham-Buller also testified that “the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had greatly increased the terrorist threat” and that “involvement in Iraq, for want of a better word, radicalized a whole generation of young people — not a whole generation, a few among a generation — who saw our involvement in Iraq, on top of our involvement in Afghanistan, as being an attack on Islam.”(22)
Democracy for the Few
The majority of citizens of the aggressor countries are opposed to their governments deploying their nations’ troops to Iraq and Afghanistan,(23)and yet the wars go on. US voters elected a president whose equivocations led them to believe he would end the wars, although the letter of what he said was never anti-war. The wars continue, just as they did under his predecessor. The Nobel committee (grotesquely) gave the new US president the Peace Prize, hoping it might nudge him to declare peace. Its members’ hopes were dashed. There never were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and yet the occupation of Iraq continues, and will for the foreseeable future, by both US troops engaged in combat operations under a new name that draws a veil over their continued combat role and private sector mercenaries hired by the United States. The reasons for conducting the wars have been shown to be false, and yet talk of bringing US military intervention to a close is merely a sop to public opinion. The conventional wisdom among decision-makers is that a significant US troop presence will continue in both countries beyond 2011.(24) Even if US troops are repatriated (or redeployed to the next war for profits), the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will continue anyway through local surrogates: the US-trained, equipped and directed Iraq and Afghanistan (and Pakistan) armies, to say nothing of US State Department-hired mercenaries.
In a true democracy, the decisions made within the society reflect the interests of the majority. Does anyone believe the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan are waged in the interests of the majority?
It is commonplace to refer to the waging of the wars as if it is something that legitimately involves the plural “we”, as in: “we” are still in Afghanistan, and when are “we” going to get out of Iraq? There is no “we”. “We” weren’t asked to consent to the wars, “we” don’t support them, and “we” don’t benefit from them. The reality is that “we” don’t matter, except insofar as we have to be tossed a lagniappe every now and then to prevent our opposition from escalating to levels that would threaten to destabilize the rule of those who, from the system’s perspective, really do matter.
On the other hand, “we” are not really burdened by the wars, either. “We” don’t fight them, or not many of us do. A small minority of volunteer professional soldiers and private sector mercenaries fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they fight in ways that minimize the number of their casualties. And because “we” don’t fight the wars, even though “we” oppose them and “we” don’t benefit from them, it doesn’t really matter whether “we” are opposed morally and intellectually. Foreign policy is shaped without reference to public opinion and in complete isolation from it, and therefore the moral and intellectual opposition of majorities counts for little. Foreign policy, it should be clear, doesn’t depend on public opinion as an input. That’s not to say it can’t be shaped by pressure from below, but the pressure that alters foreign policy doesn’t come in the form of ritualized, non-disruptive expressions of popular opposition: the orderly and nonviolent march; petitions and letter writing campaigns; letters sent to editors of newspapers, and so on. The fact that all of these things have been done and continue to be done without the slightest discernible effect is proof enough. No, foreign policy bends from pressure that disrupts the normal functioning of society and therefore threatens the interests of the dominant economic class; in other words, from activities that are “incompatible with the stability required by big business for the tranquil digestion of profits.” (25) And foreign policy becomes something other than an expression of the class interests of big business, that at best can be momentarily restrained only by enormous pressure from below, when the authority to make foreign policy is wrested from the control of big business’s representatives and reconstituted on the basis of a different class altogether.
But bringing about reforms within the system (that is actually bringing them about and not simply registering dissent), much less changing the system altogether, requires a willingness to accept all manner of risks, dangers and penalties: trouble with the police and security services and the potential of going to jail or being forced to live underground. While a small minority may be prepared to accept these risks as the price of pursuing their moral and intellectual ideals, most people are not made in the mold of Che Guevara. Mass movements for change that disrupt the tranquil digestion of profits arise when conditions become intolerable for the mass of people – so intolerable that the considerable costs of acting to change them are outweighed by the costs exacted by the conditions themselves. It is no surprise that the anti-Vietnam War movement in the United States was student-led. It was students who faced the unwelcome prospect of being sent to Southeast Asia to kill or be killed. It wasn’t until the war led to tax increases that opposition in the wider society was aroused. But as “soon as the risk of having to serve at the front was removed, agitation and concern over Vietnamese sufferings died down abruptly; a year or two more, and Vietnam was forgotten.”(26)In the end, it wasn’t the student movement that brought the war to a close; it was the resistance of the people for whom the conditions of the war and decades of colonial domination had proved intolerable: the Vietnamese.
Cost of War
It’s worth quoting an Elisabeth Bumiller New York Times article on this at length.
The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost Americans a staggering $1 trillion to date, second only in inflation-adjusted dollars to the $4 trillion price tag for World War II, when the United States put 16 million men and women into uniform and fought on three continents. (27)
But while the numbers are high in absolute terms, a second look
shows another story underneath. In 2008, the peak year so far of war spending for Iraq and Afghanistan, the costs amounted to only 1.2 percent of America’s gross domestic product. During the peak year of spending on World War II, 1945, the costs came to nearly 36 percent of G.D.P. (28)
With the cost of the war being eminently affordable, there’s little burden on US citizens.
“The army is at war, but the country is not,” said David M. Kennedy, the Stanford University historian. “We have managed to create and field an armed force that can engage in very, very lethal warfare without the society in whose name it fights breaking a sweat.” The result, he said, is “a moral hazard for the political leadership to resort to force in the knowledge that civil society will not be deeply disturbed.” (29)
The wars haven’t imposed a painful tax burden either. Bumiller points out that,
taxes have not been raised to pay for Iraq and Afghanistan — the first time that has happened in an American war since the Revolution, when there was not yet a country to impose them. Rightly or wrongly, that has further cut American civilians off from the two wars on the opposite side of the world. (30)
Some will say the anti-war movement is weak because it has been hijacked by the Democrats and derailed by Obama’s beguiling anti-war rhetoric. While these factors can’t be discounted, it seems more likely that a greater cause of the weakness can be found in the light to virtually non-existent costs the wars have imposed on the civilian populations of the aggressor countries and the failure of massive demonstrations of the past to make any difference, coupled with the expectation that future demonstrations will likewise fail to influence decision-makers. People seem to implicitly recognize than on matters of foreign affairs, governments operate on a plane completely divorced from, and unresponsive to, public opinion expressed in peaceful, respectful, and non-disruptive ways. Or to put it another way, despite its vaunted status, democracy, as it is practiced in most places, bears little connection to the original and substantive meaning of the word.
Everything about Bush’s wars, now Obama’s wars, and which have always been US wars and more broadly wars for profits, is false. They weren’t started to reduce threats to the physical safety of citizens of the countries that waged them, but to consolidate US domination of the Middle East to ensure the region’s land, labor, markets and especially its raw materials and petro-resources are available for the enrichment of the business enterprises of the United States and its allies. The effect has been quite the opposite of the stated intent. Rather than reducing the threat of terrorist attacks, which had arisen in response to ongoing US efforts to dominate the Middle East, the wars have increased the threat. Still, while the threat has increased, disruptions due to terrorist attacks have been minimal. The wars have made little difference in the lives of the citizens of the aggressor countries. As a result, while military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq are completely illegitimate and their continuation is opposed by majorities in the NATO bloc, they are not total wars involving global conflicts among fairly evenly matched countries that disrupt the lives of the citizens of all belligerents, but grossly uneven contests between an alliance of industrialized countries led by a global hegemon of unprecedented military power against weak, Third World, countries that suffer complete devastation while the civilian populations of the other side emerge unscathed. The gross imbalance in wealth and military strength means that for the hegemonic powers there is no need to inconvenience their civilian populations with conscription, there are no tax increases explicitly levied to fund the wars, and there are few retaliatory attacks of consequence. Civil society, accordingly, remains quiescent, and while its members may be morally and intellectually opposed to the wars, the costs they face as a result of the wars are too mild and the threat of jail and trouble with the police that an effective resistance implies is too great, to allow a strong, effective and sustained anti-war movement to develop. It seems that so long as disruptions are kept to a minimum and most people’s lives are kept fairly comfortable and filled with family, friends and work, that naked imperialism and rule by governments with utter disdain for popular opinion are possible as the normal features of political life in an imperialist “democracy”.
Contrast the quietude of life in the aggressor countries with conditions in Iraq (little different from those in Afghanistan.)
It’s not only the hundreds of thousands of dead and 4 million refugees. After seven years of US (and British) occupation, tens of thousands are still tortured and imprisoned without trial, health and education has dramatically deteriorated, the position of women has gone horrifically backwards, trade unions are effectively banned, Baghdad is divided by 1,500 checkpoints and blast walls, electricity supplies have all but broken down and people pay with their lives for speaking out. (31)
And what was the reason for producing this humanitarian catastrophe? It wasn’t to eliminate the threat posed by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, for Iraq’s WMDs would have posed little threat, if they existed, which they didn’t, when US and British troops invaded. Nor was it to eliminate a dictator. If it was, the costs — hundreds of thousands dead, four million refugees, and a destroyed society – can hardly be justified to eliminate a single man whose threat to the wider world was virtually nil. Neither was the reason for the 2003 invasion to guarantee access to the world’s energy supply so that Americans can continue to burn fossil fuels in their SUVs, run their power plants, keep their B2 bombers in the air, and continue to enjoy a standard of living based largely on petroleum. Yes, it’s true that the US standard of living depends on oil, but the United States is capable of satisfying its energy requirements through ready access to plentiful supplies of oil located elsewhere in the world and closer to home. Its next door neighbour, Canada — which is a virtual appendage of the United States — has the world’s largest reserves of oil after Saudi Arabia. No, the reasons for the invasion of Iraq weren’t WMDs, eliminating a dictator, and keeping the world’s oil supply out of the hands of radicals and extremists; the reason was to secure a bonanza of profits for US oil majors from the sale of Iraqi oil to Western Europe and Japan, the principal customers for oil from the Middle East. Energy profits – specifically those to be derived from transforming Afghanistan into “a conduit and a hub between South and Central Asia so that energy can flow to the south” – figured in the decision to invade that country. In a business society, where stability depends on big business’s tranquil digestion of profits, and key decision-making posts in the state are filled by corporate executives, corporate lawyers and ambitious politicians backed by corporate money, is it really any surprise that its wars, much as almost everything else about it, are organized around the inexorable need of business to expand its capital?
All of this should leave us thinking: about how much substance there is to the idea that we live in democracies of the many; of whether the democracies we live in are really democracies of, for, and by the few; and whose interests really matter. Other questions: How can the societies in which we live be made different? Who – and what — is standing in the way of real, meaningful change? And how might the roadblocks be swept away? Also: What conditions conduce to the mobilization of the mass energy necessary to bring about radical change? And what activities carried out when the conditions are not present can facilitate their emergence and prepare for the time they do emerge?
1. “Iraq surveys show ‘humanitarian emergency’”, UNICEF.org, August 12, 1999. http://www.unicef.org/newsline/99pr29.htm
2. Tim Arango, “War in Iraq defies U.S. timetable for end of combat”, The New York Times, July 2, 2010.
3. The New York Times, September 27, 2007.
4. Seumas Milne, “The US isn’t leaving Iraq, it’s rebranding the occupation”, The Guardian (UK), August 4, 2010.
6. Research Unit for Political Economy, Behind the Invasion of Iraq, Monthly Review Press, New York, 2003, pp. 97-98; Albert Szymanski, The Logic of Imperialism, Praeger, 1983, pp. 161-166.
7. David Harvey, The New Imperialism, Oxford University Press, 2003.
8. Robert A. Pape, “The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism”, American Political Science Review, Vol. 97, No.3, August 2003.
11. V.G. Kiernan, America: The New Imperialism, Verso, 2005, pp. 293.
12. William Blum, ”The Anti-Empire Report”, August 4, 2010, http://killinghope.org/bblum6/aer84.html
13. Elisabeth Bumiller, “The war: A trillion can be cheap”, The New York Times, July 24, 2010.
14. Peter Baker and Eric Schmitt, “Several Afghan strategies, none a clear choice,” The New York Times, October 1, 2009.
15. William Blum, “The Anti-Empire Report”, December 9, 2009.
16. Naomi Klein, “Big Oil’s Iraq deals are the greatest stick-up in history,” The Guardian (UK), July 4, 2008.
17. The Observer (UK), September 16, 2007.
18. The Guardian (Australia), September 5, 2007.
19. Research Unit for Political Economy.
20. Sarah Lyall, “Ex-official says Afghan and Iraq wars increased threats to Britain”, The New York Times, July 20, 2010.
21. Haroon Siddique, “Iraq inquiry: Saddam posed very limited threat to UK, ex-MI5 chief says”, The Guardian (UK), July 20, 2010.
23. In April 2010, 39 percent of Canadians supported Canada’s military mission to Afghanistan, while 56 percent opposed it. “Support for Afghanistan Mission Falls Markedly in Canada,” http://www.visioncritical.com/2010/04/support-for-afghanistan-mission-falls-markedly-in-canada/
Two out of three Germans are opposed to the war, according to a poll in Stern magazine. Judy Dempsey, “Merkel tries to beat back opposition to Afghanistan”, The New York Times, April 22, 2010.
Some 72 per cent of Britons want their troops out of Afghanistan immediately. William Dalrymple, “Why the Taliban is winning in Afghanistan”, New Statesman, June 22, 2010.
In the United States, public opinion polls show that a majority of Americans have turned against the war. Dexter Filkens, “Petraeus takes command of Afghan mission”, The New York Times, July 4, 2010.
A July 11 ABC/Washington Post poll, found just 42 percent of respondents said that the Afghan War was “worth fighting” — with a majority, 55 percent, saying they did not think it was. A CNN poll (5/29/10) found that 56 percent opposed the war in Afghanistan, while 42 percent supported it. In three surveys since July, the AP/GfKpoll has reported that at least 53 percent of respondents say they oppose the Afghanistan War. In September, 51 percent told the Washington Post/ABC News poll (9/10–12/09) that the war was not “worth fighting.”
Steve Rendall, “USA Today: Americans continue to support Afghan war—in 2001”, FAIR Blog, July 30, 2010.
25. Kiernan, p.302.
26. Kiernan, pp. 340-341.