Why is the United States, with its British allies, occupying Iraq? Why did they go to war? What are the issues now? In this third of a series of articles, Colin Foster presents a view.
Ever since the beginnings of the world oil industry, the Gulf has always been kept under supervision by a big power, first Britain and then the USA.
In 1963 the CIA assisted the coup by which the Ba'thist party took power in Iraq. The USA saw the Ba’thists and Saddam Hussein, who became a central figure in power from 1968, as workable semi-allies. They would crush the Communist Party, which had been influential between 1958 and 1963.
The Islamic Revolution in Iran, in 1979, tilted US policy. In 1980, after the Islamic revolution in Iran, the USA enounced the "Carter Doctrine", saying that it would not allow any power other than itself to acquire dominance in the Gulf.
Saddam declared war against Iran in 1980 for his own reasons, hoping to grab territory, but the war was useful to the USA in containing Iran. The Iran-Iraq war continued from 1980 to 1988, killing maybe half a million people. Donald Rumsfeld, now US Defense Secretary, visited Saddam to do arms deals, and the USA and UK turned a blind eye to Saddam’s massacres of the Kurds.
In 1990 Saddam kicked over the traces, invading Kuwait. The USA went to war and drove Saddam’s forces out of Kuwait. Then it chose to let Saddam crush the popular rebellion in Iraq which followed.
The USA wanted Saddam to be overthrown by a controlled palace coup rather than a risky popular uprising. In the mid 1990s it made at least two serious attempts to engineer a coup. Both failed badly.
In the meantime the USA could contain Saddam by sanctions. But the sanctions became more and more leaky.
Such people as Paul Wolfowitz, now Deputy Secretary for Defense, argued for a US invasion of Iraq. A short, sharp US invasion of southern Iraq would, he claimed, be sufficient to boost pro-US Iraqi oppositionists into overthrowing Saddam and establishing a pro-US regime in Baghdad.
Most people in US ruling circles thought this far-fetched. But Wolfowitz persisted. He and others demanded an invasion of Iraq straight after the al-Qaida attacks on New York and Washington on 11 September 2001.
Those attacks reoriented US foreign policy. Previously the USA had seen forces like the Taliban, or Saddam’s regime, as erratic and destructive, but posing no immediate threat to essential US interests, and maybe usable against enemies. Now it shifted decisively to a drive to destroy all regimes and movements which may threaten "blowback" against the USA.
The speed and ease of US victory in Afghanistan emboldened Wolfowitz and his co-thinkers. They won a majority in the Bush administration for war in Iraq.
Bush built his public case for invading Iraq primarily around the issue of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and potential links to al-Qaida.
The US administration must have thought they would find enough trace of WMD to make up a plausible excuse for war. Apparently Colin Powell threw out a huge amount of a CIA dossier as "bullshit", but was convinced to present some of it on TV. He insisted that the head of the CIA sit behind him, in shot, so his career would also be on the line.
Fundamentally, however, it is more likely that the USA chose war in Iraq because they thought Iraq did not have any large stocks of WMD, and so war would carry limited risks. Links between Saddam and bin Laden were always unlikely.
The USA’s plan was not to make Iraq a colony. To think it was is to shut our eyes to history and imagine that the US ruling class has shut its eyes too.
It has been plain since Britain’s experiences with its settler colonies in the mid-19th century - maybe since as far back as the Canadian rebellions of 1837-8 - that direct colonial rule over urbanised, literate, concentrated, and even semi-industrialised populations is very difficult to sustain.
Between the 1940s and 1975, the huge former colonial empires of the Netherlands, Portugal, Belgium, France, and Britain were liquidated, with the USA playing a cautious but determined and conscious role in pushing the process along.
The USA will not lightly allow itself to be boxed into attempting a mode of domination which it knows to be expensive, dangerous, and unstable.
The US strategy was to blast Saddam’s clique out of power - killing as many Iraqis as necessary on the way - and open the way to a new pro-US government in Iraq.
All factions of the US ruling class share, to one degree or another, the dogma that the "American way" is so obviously good and natural that there must be a solid popular base for it in Iraq.
There may in fact be some base for it: the global-market pressures that have had governments everywhere in the world queuing up to join the IMF and WTO must influence the various factions of Iraq’s wealthy classes, too.
Enough base? That is not certain. And different factions in the US administration have different perspectives. The clashes and cross-cutting between factions have made restabilising Iraq even more difficult.
The extreme right wingers in the Bush administration, the so-called neo-conservatives, are, paradoxically, also more "left wing" than the more mainstream, "realistic", semi-liberal, semi-multilateralist wing.
People like Powell are more sceptical of large world-political schemes. They see the "war on terror" as a sequence of calibrated military and diplomatic blows to destroy or contain specific, identified threats. The neo-cons have a grand vision of an entire world run on "American values", meaning free markets and at least some measure of quasi-democracy and rule of law.
Global markets are more all-embracing than ever before, and the USA is more hyper-dominant than ever before. This, the neo-cons think, creates a chance to redo on a world scale what the USA managed to enforce a regional scale in Western Europe, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan after World War Two, and what it has, piecemeal and zigzag-wise, managed to nudge along in most of Latin America since the 1980s.
And - what makes the neo-cons uniquely American, and separates them from cosmopolitan liberals such as might exist in Europe - they see overwhelming American military power as an essential lever to realise that vision.
They want to reshape the whole Middle East and integrate the Gulf, with its two-thirds of the world’s total oil stocks, smoothly into the new global-market world. They think that neo-liberal, quasi-democratic restructuring can undercut Islamist and Arab-nationalist hostility to the USA.
The Middle East is not only strategically vital for the world’s hyperpower. It is also a political anomaly in the 21st century. Regimes with a large measure of 1960s-70s Third-World "statism" still rule there, with very little change from the 1960s. The major regime change has been in Iran, where the overturn of the Shah in 1979 was disadvantageous rather than advantageous for the USA.
More cautious "realists" in the US ruling class tend to see the problems in the Middle East as containable or best dealt with by patch-ups rather than attempts to rebuild the whole structure.
The neo-conservatives dismiss that view as timid and feeble. For them, the collapse of European Stalinism and the USSR in 1989-91, and the emergence of more-or-less stable, more-or-less quasi-democratic regimes, integrated into the world market, since then, proves policies of containment and adaptation to have been over-cautious.
And now the collapse of the USSR has freed them to think about remodelling the world without risk of inadvertently destabilising the USA’s allies and having countries "go communist". During the Cold War the USA supported Pinochet or Suharto, Batista or Somoza, Trujillo or... the Iraqi Ba’thists - because those were "sons of bitches, but our sons of bitches", bulwarks against the danger that democracy would let Stalinism gain ground. In Vietnam it could hardly even find viable "sons of bitches" to back, and ended up running a semi-colonial regime in Saigon as its shield against Stalinism.
Now, however, the neo-cons believe that judicious but short, sharp, intense US military blows can jolt the world into what the they see as its ideal and natural state of pluto-democracy and free range for capital.
For them, cautious realism is short-sighted, too. Rulers like Syria’s Assad, Egypt’s Mubarak, and the Saudi and Jordanian monarchies, cannot continue forever. If the USA does not act to promote their replacement by predictable, friendly, market-oriented regimes, then they may well be overthrown by anti-US Islamists, five, ten or fifteen years down the line.
For the neo-cons, September 11 was an opportunity to push the US ruling class out of temporising and into vigorous action.
In fact, some of the neo-cons denounce previous administrations’ relations with Saddam - doing deals with him, standing by as the 1991 uprising was slaughtered - as forcefully as any leftist. Paul Wolfowitz claims to see his part in getting the USA to withdraw backing from the dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, and instead support "people’s power" there, as the peak of his career to date.
At the same time the neo-cons pour scorn on "liberals" who are "uncomfortable" with American power - meaning support for the Contras, the invasion of Grenada, or the war in Vietnam. For them, the Contra war and war on Saddam are equally and indistinguishably wars against artificial tyranny and for the natural and "American" way.
The neo-cons, like Lenin (State and Revolution) though from an opposite angle, see "a democratic republic [as] the best possible political shell for capitalism". "In a democratic republic [Lenin quotes Engels] wealth exercises its power indirectly, but all the more surely", more stably, with less caprice.
Of course, they too have their measure of "realism". It is one thing in principle to want another government in Saudi Arabia, another to find an alternative to the House of Saud; and until they can find a suitable alternative, they will stick with the monarchy. None of them is demanding that the US foment revolutionary democratic opposition to the neo-Stalinist tyranny in China.
And the neo-cons’ support for democracy is contingent on and secondary to their support for capitalism and US power. If democracy threatens to allow the development of working-class power - and any broad, lively democracy from below is likely to - then they will always side with capital against democracy.
If they see democracy as opening the way for the triumph of anti-US Islamism, they will be as cautious as any "realist".
One historical analogy is the policy of Britain, then the biggest world power, under Canning and Palmerston from the 1820s to the 1860s.
Palmerston outlined his philosophy in a letter of 1859, explaining why in general he wanted no more colonies for Britain.
"We do not want it or wish it for ourselves [in the particular case he was referring to Egypt] any more than any rational man with an estate in the North of England and a residence in the South would have wished to possess the inns on the North Road. All he could want would have been that the inn should be well kept, always accessible, and furnishing him when he came with mutton chops and post horses".
Palmerston’s biographer notes: "Palmerston in fact required something more... he wanted the right to enter any of the inns, armed with a gun, and force the innkeeper... to agree to all his demands whenever there was any dispute about the quality or price of the mutton chops; and... he often took a large part of the contents of the till with him to reimburse himself for the expenses..."
Another letter of Palmerston’s, in 1864, sketched what he saw as "the usual and unavoidable stages of the intercourse of strong and civilised nations with weaker and less civilised ones. [Agreements, conflicts, threats, new agreements...] Then successful display of superior strength and then at last peaceful and settled commercial intercourse advantageous to both parties".
Palmerston generally favoured constitutional monarchy world-wide, where no overriding capitalist interest indicated otherwise. In the same way, the neo-cons generally favour US-style semi-democracy; and, like Palmerston, reserve the right to enter with a gun whenever their global scheme requires it.
As Marx commented, Palmerston’s policy actually ended up as a mass of "shams and contradictions". No ruling-class policy is ever a direct and "idealist" translation of ideology. The majority of the Bush administration are not neo-conservative ideologues, but rather what Ivo H Dalder and James M Lindsay call "assertive nationalists".
Sceptical about the neo-cons’ grand visions, their priority is to remove defined and specific dangers to US interests. It is a widespread complaint within the US military and intelligence services that the neo-con ideologues have little practical knowledge of what is needed to carry through their policy.
The USA is now in deep trouble in Iraq, well aware that continuing direct rule will only bring them increased hostility from the Iraqi people and increased casualties, but having huge difficulties in constructing a stable, suitable (to them), and credible Iraqi administration to hand over to.
Divided counsels within the US administration have helped generate this trouble.
The neo-cons believed that war would quickly clear the way for a stable pro-US Iraqi democracy and an escalating democratic transformation across the whole Middle East, helped on by judicious application of American military threats and blows. The realists, or "assertive nationalists", never believed that; were persuaded of war only as a specific measure to eliminate a specific enemy; and ensured that the USA did not, before the war, commit itself to any grandiose promises about democracy in post-war Iraq.
Meanwhile Rumsfeld, in the Pentagon, insisted on keeping US troop numbers low. He thought he was learning the lessons of previous costly and failed US military efforts and the new potential of high-tech war.
After taking Baghdad, the USA first disbanded the whole of the old Iraqi army and police (not just Saddam’s elite troops and special police forces), thus flouting reams of advice from "realists" that those forces would be their best asset in restabilising the country; and is now re-recruiting old Ba’thist cadres to try to reconstruct some workable local machinery of order and repression.
Both neo-cons and "assertive nationalists" are now embroiled in an exercise in the sort of risky, expensive, delicate "nation-building" from afar which they had both anathematised as a typical folly of the Clinton administration.
The regional policy is on hold, or at best on the back-burner at present, with the USA embroiled in crisis-management in Iraq. Thus, the USA has allowed the diplomatic "roadmap" for Israel-Palestine, an essential cog in any large regional policy, to stall, and Ariel Sharon to carry on unchecked.
The neo-cons seem to be somewhat eclipsed and discredited in Washington. Paradoxically, however, the failure of their predictions about a stable and friendly Iraqi government emerging quickly after the war, with little need for US input after the first blitz to eliminate Saddam, has also wrecked any plans the "realists" had for a limited and circumscribed operation, and may in the longer term push the whole US ruling class towards a more energetic and hands-on policy of reshaping the whole Middle East.
The forces internal to Iraqi society on which the USA have to base themselves are unpromising. The Interim Governing Council is an uneasy coalition of Islamists, Kurdish nationalists, ex-Ba’thists, groups backed by the CIA, the Communist Party, and assorted others. Some of these groups have very little base in Iraq, and worry about proper elections because they know nobody will vote for them.
All this creates a possibility that the US presence in Iraq could mutate into a colonial occupation.
The historical model for this is Britain in Egypt. Palmerston, as we have seen, thought any attempt to bring Egypt under British rule both foolish and immoral. So did his successors, Tory and Liberal, right up to 1882.
But in that year, a British naval attack on Egypt, designed as a limited effort to subdue nationalists and ensure that British and French bondholders got their due payments, escalated into outright conquest. This was partly due to the machinations of more aggressive factions within the British state, and partly also to sheer inability to construct a friendly yet stable Egyptian government to manage the stresses of integrating Egypt into the world market and returning the expected profits to foreign capitalists. British troops would remain in Egypt until 1954.
If the USA simply cannot construct any stable and friendly Iraqi government, what else will they do but continue direct rule?
But that it is difficult for the USA to construct a stable and friendly Iraqi government does not mean that it is impossible. That the stable and friendly Iraqi government would be a hard-faced neo-liberal regime, in cahoots with the IMF, and a bitter enemy to the Iraqi working class, does not mean that it would be colonial.
Nor even do the huge profits to be made by US corporations from privatisation of Iraqi industry, and the contracts for reconstruction, define the situation as colonial.
Yes, some of the top contractors have close links with the Bush administration. Vice President Cheney was boss of Halliburton. Yes, a degree of control of the vast oil reserves of the Gulf is vital for US hyperpower.
But the war was not fought just "for oil", and still less just so that Bechtel or Kellogg or the Stevedoring Services of America could win contracts.
The US strategists want to re-stabilise Iraq and the Middle East on a new basis. They focus on that area, and were unbothered by mass destruction of life in Rwanda, for example, because oil makes the Gulf strategic.
But their vision of re-stabilisation is inseparable from bringing the free market. And this is the free market of the twenty first century - of globalisation, spiralling inequality, powerful multinational corporations and impoverished local economies. Superprofiteering is endemic to capitalism, both colonial and non-colonial.
The Carter Doctrine of 1980 was not exactly colonial any more than was its precedent, the "Monroe Doctrine" of 1823 under which the USA proclaimed that it would allow no other power to intervene decisively in Latin America. Despite the USA’s later exertion of semi-colonial domination in Central America, the Monroe Doctrine was aimed against direct political domination in Latin America by European powers (like Spain, the colonial master of most of it until a few years before, or France, which briefly seized Mexico in 1863) in order to clear the way for indirect economic domination by the USA and Britain.
In September a law was passed allowing the privatisation of Iraqi companies (except the oil industry), and the repatriation of profits. Ba’thist anti-union laws have been kept by the occupation authorities. The offices of the Iraq Trade Union Federation have been raided by US troops, and leaders of the Unemployed Union arrested. Many of the US firms active now in Iraq are renowned for union-bashing.
All this is a necessary result of US/UK war and occupation, of the "imperialism of free trade", or what Ellen Wood calls the "empire of capital" and Toni Negri calls "imperial" power. The struggles now developing in Iraq for jobs, wages, union rights, and social control of the economy, are not anti-colonial: they are class struggles.
The possibility of US strategy collapsing back into colonialism-by-default exists. But to call the US/UK war and occupation now "colonial" would be skipping several hypothetical stages forward and then reading backwards from that.
For the present, the occupation and the resistance have the character of a conflict between the "globocop" of world market and various local mafias and gangs. We do not support the globocops, but it does not follow that we should support the mafias and gangs, either, or see them as a national liberation movement of the old type.
Our support goes to the activists building an independent workers’ movement in Iraq - against both the occupation forces and the local mafias and gangs. To define the situation now as colonial, and the Islamist, Ba’thist and Sunni-sectarian resistance groups as constituting a national liberation movement, is not only analytically imprecise, but can mislead socialists into supporting reactionary and dangerous forces in Iraq.
- Lawrence F Kaplan and William Kristol, The War Over Iraq: Saddam’s Tyranny and America’s Mission (Encounter 2003) and Ivo H Dalder and James M Lindsay, America Unbound: the Bush revolution in foreign policy (Brookings Institution Press 2003) are two analyses from within the US ruling class which have been useful in gaining information for this article.