Home Imperialism

Where Now for the New Imperial Era?                      [April 2003]

The long-predicted war – with its long-predicted outcome – is over. Everywhere the Left is trying to work out what will happen in the sort term, and what it means for world politics in the long-term. Here we will pose five basic questions. What will happen in Iraq? Will America launch new wars soon? How will the war affect the European Union? Is the US now all-triumphant and undefeatable? And what does all this mean for the anti-war movement and the Left?

In Iraq the key question is whether some sort of bourgeois democracy can be installed – in other words whether the United States can be seen as really creating and independent, self-governing and democratic state. This is the easiest question to answer – democracy in Iraq is absolutely impossible, for basic structural reasons. Any kind of independent and democratic Iraq requires a ‘rebuilding’ which creates an independent economy and a civil society – a base of support for the new democratic order. It requires, in other words, the US to do what it did in Germany and Japan after the Second World War – real independent capitalist nation-building. America cannot allow this.

First, the US must have control, directly or indirectly, of Iraq’s fabulous oil reserves. Iraq is the one country where huge proven unexploited reserves exist which can be a new factor in staving off the coming oil crisis – a predicted shortfall of 20% between world production and demand by 2020. To fully exploit these reserves requires an estimated $35 million in investment. US companies are not going to put that money in without sure-fire security guarantees. In a situation where the Saudi regime is brittle and under threat, the US needs control of Iraqi oil.

Second, the current brand of neoliberalism in the US is not going to permit a developed Iraqi industry which prevents American firms dominating the economy. You can forget independent Iraqi economic development and thus you can forget a broad base of support for a new regime. Instead the US will rely – as it did in Afghanistan – on a ragbag collection of tribal chiefs and right-wing exiles to cobble together a government under US tutelage. American troops will be off the streets as soon as possible, but a substantial military presence in new bases will continue. This means a thwarted Iraqi nation, gigantic opposition to the US presence and permanent political instability – the unleashing of a real national struggle.

Will the US now proceed to attack Syria and North Korea? That is highly unlikely. North Korea has a huge arsenal, including probably a few nuclear weapons – and vitally thousands of missiles which can obliterate the ‘kill box’ around the South Korean capital Seoul and wreak huge damage to Japan. Don’t expect US troops in Pyongyang soon.

The current threats against Syria probably presage something different from all-out invasion, namely a more narrow return to the ‘war against terrorism’. Syria and Iran are the key backers of Hizbollah, the Islamist group in southern Lebanon which has repeatedly shown its ability to hit Israel hard. The US wants to knock out Hizbollah for good. The US is telling Assad junior in Damascus to stop backing anti-Israeli armed groups. This could mean US action against Hizbollah, but more likely the US wants Syria to close down their bases in the Bek’aa valley and elsewhere. But war against Syria would cause another huge outcry, break the alliance with Blair and create another set of massive problems, which the resources currently devoted to Iraq do not permit the US to deal with.

In any case Bush is not going to stop playing the international terrorism card. Various analysts have argued that after he Iraq war the American president will return to domestic issues, but that seems unlikely. Despite the scale of the American anti-war movement, George Bush has scored his highest opinion-poll ratings ever through the Iraq war. The US economy, as everyone knows, is in retreat with its awful toll of bankruptcies, the blow-out of finance-based giant firms and airlines, and the terrible damage done to the savings and pensions of ordinary Americans. Why concentrate on this when the media can be made to concentrate on international politics and ‘terrorism’, in its characteristic manner of crazed ‘US first’ patriotism.

US special forces are establishing new bases worldwide. For example, they now have a special task force of 2000 in Djibouti, from which operations against ‘terrorists’ can be launched against targets in the Horn of Africa and the Middle East. Many other such bases exist. In the short-term, we can expect anti-terrorist raids, operations to capture wanted individuals – in other words operations short of all-out war, but ones which keep the anti-terrorist message before the American people, in preparation for the coming presidential elections.

The effects of the war on the European Union are unpredictable. But the leaders of all the main states understand they cannot allow permanent warfare between themselves. France, Germany and Italy will cleave to Tony Blair as the one person who can make the US see sense. Now the contracts in Iraq are up for grabs, things are changing. For example Italian president Burlusconi is arguing for a strong UN role in Iraq, something clearly linked to the desire of Italian state oil firm ENI to get its hands on a share of Iraqi oil. The line between ‘pro’ and ‘anti’ US factions in the EU is going to be blurred in the next period. Despite that, it cannot be doubted that the war has struck a strong blow against moves towards any kind of co-ordinated EU foreign and military policy.

Is the US now invulnerable? Are we in for a prolonged period of total US dominance as it does what it wants militarily and politically? Is world politics shifted to the right for decades? There is no simple yes/no answer to these questions. But there are strong reasons for doubting that the US has the ability to bestride the globe as it wants indefinitely. In a failing US economy there are limits to what the military can undertake. Already the war has had negative impacts on many US companies; tax revenue is going down and government plans are in financial trouble. But the danger of American imperialism overstretching itself is not mainly financial or military, but political. “Everyone hates us, we don’t care” may function for Millwall fans, but cannot be tolerated for long by the US state and particularly by US companies. At a certain point we can expect a series of political, economic and maybe military setbacks – combined with political chaos in Iraq – to cause a retreat on the wilder plans of the Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz wing of the administration. But if the US does make a partial or total retreat on plans to re-order the world militarily, can it move back to what the Europeans want – a kind of US-European condominium in which the there is joint planning and control of the world order?

That seems very unlikely. More likely will be a continued deepening of inter-imperialist rivalry, with much more serious trade wars and political competition between the major powers.

What does all this mean for the anti-war movement? Whether or not new wars are on the immediate horizon the current militarism is not going to disappear and the war danger will remain. The extraordinary thing about the anti-war movement, in the UK and elsewhere, has been not only its enormous size, but also its durability. Contrary to what happened during the first Gulf war, it did not immediately collapse once the war started. The immense ‘our boys’ propaganda barrage did shift many waverers, and parts of the less hardened anti-war opinion; but the scale of anti-war opposition during a war where Britain was fighting was unprecedented. The enormous appeal of anti-war sentiment among the youth – especially in Britain and Germany which both saw large-scale school student action – went way beyond anything which happened during the Vietnam war. There are immense reserves, immense potential for remobilisation against any future war threat, and indeed for action now on the axis of the demand for the US and UK to get out of the Gulf. And there are wide layers in many countries who now understand or even speak the language of the Left, something which will rpovide many positive gains in the years ahead.

Finally a note of caution. All perspectives, as a leading Russian Marxist once said, are provisional. We should not leave out the chaotic elements of politics. Look at the Gulf region itself. Nobody predicted the overthrow of the Shah and the Islamic revolution of 1977-8. The US war drive is intensifying the trend to chaos and unpredictability in world politics. America is indeed involved in a global gamble; it is unleashing forces that it cannot control and whose consequences cannot be predicted.

 

Where Now for the New Imperial Era?                      [April 2003]

The long-predicted war – with its long-predicted outcome – is over. Everywhere the Left is trying to work out what will happen in the sort term, and what it means for world politics in the long-term. Here we will pose five basic questions. What will happen in Iraq? Will America launch new wars soon? How will the war affect the European Union? Is the US now all-triumphant and undefeatable? And what does all this mean for the anti-war movement and the Left?

In Iraq the key question is whether some sort of bourgeois democracy can be installed – in other words whether the United States can be seen as really creating and independent, self-governing and democratic state. This is the easiest question to answer – democracy in Iraq is absolutely impossible, for basic structural reasons. Any kind of independent and democratic Iraq requires a ‘rebuilding’ which creates an independent economy and a civil society – a base of support for the new democratic order. It requires, in other words, the US to do what it did in Germany and Japan after the Second World War – real independent capitalist nation-building. America cannot allow this.

First, the US must have control, directly or indirectly, of Iraq’s fabulous oil reserves. Iraq is the one country where huge proven unexploited reserves exist which can be a new factor in staving off the coming oil crisis – a predicted shortfall of 20% between world production and demand by 2020. To fully exploit these reserves requires an estimated $35 million in investment. US companies are not going to put that money in without sure-fire security guarantees. In a situation where the Saudi regime is brittle and under threat, the US needs control of Iraqi oil.

Second, the current brand of neoliberalism in the US is not going to permit a developed Iraqi industry which prevents American firms dominating the economy. You can forget independent Iraqi economic development and thus you can forget a broad base of support for a new regime. Instead the US will rely – as it did in Afghanistan – on a ragbag collection of tribal chiefs and right-wing exiles to cobble together a government under US tutelage. American troops will be off the streets as soon as possible, but a substantial military presence in new bases will continue. This means a thwarted Iraqi nation, gigantic opposition to the US presence and permanent political instability – the unleashing of a real national struggle.

Will the US now proceed to attack Syria and North Korea? That is highly unlikely. North Korea has a huge arsenal, including probably a few nuclear weapons – and vitally thousands of missiles which can obliterate the ‘kill box’ around the South Korean capital Seoul and wreak huge damage to Japan. Don’t expect US troops in Pyongyang soon.

The current threats against Syria probably presage something different from all-out invasion, namely a more narrow return to the ‘war against terrorism’. Syria and Iran are the key backers of Hizbollah, the Islamist group in southern Lebanon which has repeatedly shown its ability to hit Israel hard. The US wants to knock out Hizbollah for good. The US is telling Assad junior in Damascus to stop backing anti-Israeli armed groups. This could mean US action against Hizbollah, but more likely the US wants Syria to close down their bases in the Bek’aa valley and elsewhere. But war against Syria would cause another huge outcry, break the alliance with Blair and create another set of massive problems, which the resources currently devoted to Iraq do not permit the US to deal with.

In any case Bush is not going to stop playing the international terrorism card. Various analysts have argued that after he Iraq war the American president will return to domestic issues, but that seems unlikely. Despite the scale of the American anti-war movement, George Bush has scored his highest opinion-poll ratings ever through the Iraq war. The US economy, as everyone knows, is in retreat with its awful toll of bankruptcies, the blow-out of finance-based giant firms and airlines, and the terrible damage done to the savings and pensions of ordinary Americans. Why concentrate on this when the media can be made to concentrate on international politics and ‘terrorism’, in its characteristic manner of crazed ‘US first’ patriotism.

US special forces are establishing new bases worldwide. For example, they now have a special task force of 2000 in Djibouti, from which operations against ‘terrorists’ can be launched against targets in the Horn of Africa and the Middle East. Many other such bases exist. In the short-term, we can expect anti-terrorist raids, operations to capture wanted individuals – in other words operations short of all-out war, but ones which keep the anti-terrorist message before the American people, in preparation for the coming presidential elections.

The effects of the war on the European Union are unpredictable. But the leaders of all the main states understand they cannot allow permanent warfare between themselves. France, Germany and Italy will cleave to Tony Blair as the one person who can make the US see sense. Now the contracts in Iraq are up for grabs, things are changing. For example Italian president Burlusconi is arguing for a strong UN role in Iraq, something clearly linked to the desire of Italian state oil firm ENI to get its hands on a share of Iraqi oil. The line between ‘pro’ and ‘anti’ US factions in the EU is going to be blurred in the next period. Despite that, it cannot be doubted that the war has struck a strong blow against moves towards any kind of co-ordinated EU foreign and military policy.

Is the US now invulnerable? Are we in for a prolonged period of total US dominance as it does what it wants militarily and politically? Is world politics shifted to the right for decades? There is no simple yes/no answer to these questions. But there are strong reasons for doubting that the US has the ability to bestride the globe as it wants indefinitely. In a failing US economy there are limits to what the military can undertake. Already the war has had negative impacts on many US companies; tax revenue is going down and government plans are in financial trouble. But the danger of American imperialism overstretching itself is not mainly financial or military, but political. “Everyone hates us, we don’t care” may function for Millwall fans, but cannot be tolerated for long by the US state and particularly by US companies. At a certain point we can expect a series of political, economic and maybe military setbacks – combined with political chaos in Iraq – to cause a retreat on the wilder plans of the Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz wing of the administration. But if the US does make a partial or total retreat on plans to re-order the world militarily, can it move back to what the Europeans want – a kind of US-European condominium in which the there is joint planning and control of the world order?

That seems very unlikely. More likely will be a continued deepening of inter-imperialist rivalry, with much more serious trade wars and political competition between the major powers.

What does all this mean for the anti-war movement? Whether or not new wars are on the immediate horizon the current militarism is not going to disappear and the war danger will remain. The extraordinary thing about the anti-war movement, in the UK and elsewhere, has been not only its enormous size, but also its durability. Contrary to what happened during the first Gulf war, it did not immediately collapse once the war started. The immense ‘our boys’ propaganda barrage did shift many waverers, and parts of the less hardened anti-war opinion; but the scale of anti-war opposition during a war where Britain was fighting was unprecedented. The enormous appeal of anti-war sentiment among the youth – especially in Britain and Germany which both saw large-scale school student action – went way beyond anything which happened during the Vietnam war. There are immense reserves, immense potential for remobilisation against any future war threat, and indeed for action now on the axis of the demand for the US and UK to get out of the Gulf. And there are wide layers in many countries who now understand or even speak the language of the Left, something which will rpovide many positive gains in the years ahead.

Finally a note of caution. All perspectives, as a leading Russian Marxist once said, are provisional. We should not leave out the chaotic elements of politics. Look at the Gulf region itself. Nobody predicted the overthrow of the Shah and the Islamic revolution of 1977-8. The US war drive is intensifying the trend to chaos and unpredictability in world politics. America is indeed involved in a global gamble; it is unleashing forces that it cannot control and whose consequences cannot be predicted.