The “war on terror” might now be considered the longest general imperialist war in history. Now in its twelfth year, it comfortably exceeds the duration of the two world wars of the twentieth centurycombined.

Particular imperialist wars – against the Vietnamese for example – have lasted longer; but the “war on terror” is of a different type – a war ostensibly against a method, fought by fluctuating alliances of great powers, with the USA at their core, extending over a vast and enlarging range of nations across thousands of miles, reading from west to east – Mali, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan being those explicitly targeted, with still others, headed by Iran and Syria obviously targeted. In its scope and duration, this has been a historically imposing episode.

It cannot be said to have gone well. That may be a statement of the obvious, but it bears explaining. The war has evidently been a disaster for those it has been visited upon – the Iraqi and Afghan people first of all. But it has also been an enormous failure, in its own way on a Vietnam-war scale, for its promoters, the US elite above all. In general terms, the objective has been to maintain the “unipolar moment” – the unchallengeable world hegemony of the USA which emerged from 1991 – internationally, and in particular to impose a Pax Americana across the greater Middle East. The different specific conflicts have of course had specific triggers, but they have all occurred in that broad setting.

We can now trace four overlapping phases to the war – the conflict in Afghanistan (begun 2001, scheduled to officially finish in 2014 – we shall see); the Iraq war (2003-2010?); the Obama drone war (Pakistan, Yemen and beyond 2009 to date) and what could be termed the “Arab Spring” war (Libya, Syria and, indirectly Mali, running from 2011 onwards). Let us judge their outcomes from the perspective of their promoters.

In launching the Afghan war, George Bush and Tony Blair set two objectives – overturning the Taliban regime and denying Al-Qaeda sanctuary and support in Afghanistan. Both objectives were achieved within three months – but the great powers have then spent the ensuing eleven years un-achieving them again. By occupying Afghanistan and seeking to prop up a corrupt and undemocratic regime, with all the ensuing brutalities, the Taliban has been given a cause and space to re-establish itself; while the spread of the conflict to Pakistan has allowed Al-Qaeda to entrench itself there instead.

Whenever the war ends, it is certainly not going to look like it will be under any circumstances which can be passed off as a NATO ‘victory’, which has been the main purpose for maintaining the war for so long. That is in itself sensational – that a guerrilla army in one of the world’s poorest countries can deny victory to the mightiest military alliance ever seen. Peoples all over the world fighting for independence and justice will no doubt have taken note.

The Iraq war was fought for multiple aims – overthrowing the Saddam regime; turning Iraq into a permanent base for US military hegemony in the region; securing the strategic supremacy of Israel; isolating Iran; seizing Iraqi oil; and turning Iraq into a “democratic and free-market beacon” in the Arab world. All of these aims were iterated, with different weight being given to each at different stages.

Clearly, only the first has been achieved, and that must be qualified by the acknowledgement that the present government in Iraq, if lacking Saddam’s brutality, is a monument to sectarian dysfunctionality and lacks almost all the attributes of a national, let alone democratic, regime. Otherwise: US troops have departed with no permanent bases left behind; Iran has been strengthened; Israel is as isolated as ever; Iraq is no sort of a beacon and the attempt to impose a rigid Chicago School economy was a disaster – and even the unchallenged access to oil resources appears to be out of reach for most of the US transnationals licking their lips back in 2003. Again, a lost war and, incidentally, a particular humiliation for the British military, the ineffectiveness of which was long plain, but the extent of its brutality is only now coming to light.

The “drone wars” may appear to have had more success from Washington’s point of view, since they are, if reports are to be credited, led to the death of a number of al-Qaeda leaders. However, they have effectively spread the war to Pakistan, destabilising this nuclear-armed state, in part because the drones kill far more civilians than they do their stated targets. While drones are not, unlike ground invasions, a means of securing regime change, they also operate according to the law of unintended consequences, whereby their continued use can push a regime over the edge regardless.

Finally, the “Arab Spring” conflicts – by which is meant those western interventions arising from, and designed to master, the movement of the Arab peoples for democratic liberation, beginning in Tunisia and Egypt two years ago. To date the main overt military intervention was the regime change war against Libya, which, while succeeding in ousting the Gadhafi government, has not led to a viable alternative government in Libya – rather it has plunged the country into ethnic, regional and sectarian strife, which has again given a new scope to local al-Qaeda affiliates and has spilled over into Mali and Algeria, provoking in the former a fresh neo-colonial incursion by the former imperial power, France.

In Syria too the opposition to Assad, that which was not in the pocket of imperialism from the get-go, has been suborned by great powers apparently, at time of writing, content to see Syria bleed but concerned as to what genies might come flying out of the bottle should their cobbled-together opposition “alliance” actually prevail.

So from this litany of half-met goals and more often outright failure, we can draw the obvious conclusion that imperialism, and the USA above all, is a good deal less imposing and mighty than it seemed at the turn of the century. More specific consequences follow:

The effort to extend and entrench the bases of a US-dominated New World Order has failed. That seems to me to be definitive – even before we consider the behaviour of other events, other powers, in ushering on the passing of the “unipolar moment”, the limits of declining US power have been exposed.

The unity of the imperialist camp has been eroded in two senses. The core US alliance – basically NATO plus Japan and Australia – has found it harder and harder to act in concert, from the start of the Iraq war onwards. This is relative and not absolute, but still an important factor. Secondly, new centres of opposition to US power – China and Russia – have emerged and established themselves in a way that looked far from certain, and not even particularly likely, in the 1990s.

Neo-conservative ideology, whether presented as “liberal interventionism” or the “mission to protect” is relatively discredited. The disaster in Iraq was the first and most serious blow, but its inability to deal with the Arab Spring, and identify with the Arab people’s desire for democracy (except where that coincides with imperial interests) has further highlighted its limitations. It now amounts to little more, as a practical programme, than uncritical support for the Israeli government.
None of this points, however, towards a safer world. Indeed, it indicates a transition to a new phase of imperialist conflict, and in all likelihood a more dangerous one. The first harbinger of the new order was the Russia-Georgian war of 2008, which saw the Georgian government, a key NATO satrapy and in itself virtually a neo-con “international”, humiliated by Russia, with the US powerless to intervene.

It may be worth recalling that the foremost western political leader urging such intervention at the time was David Miliband, then British Foreign Secretary. It is not hard to envisage such conflicts recurring in the former “Soviet space” as Putin seeks to re-establish imperial Russia, using the many legitimate national grievances left behind by the Soviet collapse as levers.

But the situation in Asia is still more threatening. This week’s issue of the Economist headlines the danger or China and Japan going to war, a conflict which would certainly draw in the USA. Indeed, Obama’s “pivot to Asia”, announced a year ago – shifting military power to the Pacific from elsewhere – is perhaps the moment the future will identify as the start of the march to a third world war. The ostensible issue is the control of various uninhabited islands lying between China and Japan. Similar arguments over archipelagos and their associated resources have set China against almost all its neighbours in the recent past, notwithstanding the rhetoric of “peaceful ascent”, tending to drive them to seek shelter under the expanding US military umbrella.

The Chinese government, on the other hand, is surely right to characterise Japan, now under a more nationalist government itself, as the advanced detachment of a US drive to encircle their country. Indeed, such a drive has been a part, albeit a subordinate one, of the “war on terror” from the outset, when the Pentagon used 9/11 to seek new bases in the Philippines, ostensibly to challenge Islamic guerrillas there.

Where does this new tension come from? Undoubtedly from the rapid growth and economic expansion of China, to the point where it is now a powerful competitor for access to natural resources in Africa and elsewhere, and can develop its own military into a powerful counter-balance to the US in the Pacific and the Far East – all this occurring at a time of deep and enduring economic crisis in the USA and its principal allies.

The scale of the last factor is well-known and needs little elaboration here. So let us content ourselves by citing the views of someone you have never heard of and probably should have – Saker Nusseibeh. Over to the Financial Times:

“Political risk in the developed world is higher than it has been for at least two generations and investors need to factor in the risk of government appropriation of assets, civil unrest and even war, according to a large investment house.

“Saker Nusseibeh, chief executive of Hermes Fund Managers, a £25bn UK investment House, feared that the US and China were entering a cold war, that rising economic nationalism in Europe ‘is creating conditions last seen at the end of the 19th century in the run up to World War 1’, and that the high youth unemployment prevalent in many southern European states is ‘typically one of the two main ingredients for civil war’, alongside bad harvests….

“ ‘The idea of war between developed nations in modern times may seem absurd, yet it is not that far-fetched. Do not forget that for most of modern history these nations have gone to war over economics’ said Mr Nusseibeh.

“ ‘Considering today’s wealth divide both between countries and within them, it is entirely possible that at some stage some will say ‘enough’ and seek forcible change.’ “

The Hermes chief argues that the period since the second world war and since the 1980s in particular has been one of particular stability in the ‘developed world’ and is now coming to an end. Being a fund manager, he naturally expects to make some money from the situation, mainly it would seem in commodity speculation.

Mr Nusseibeh’s personal fortunes to one side, his bleak assessment of the future corresponds to the facts of the world situation. A prolonged period of political stability and a shorter period of high rates of economic growth (albeit largely fictitious and bubble-driven as it turned out) have come to an end.

The achievements of neo-liberalism were secured in the class struggle, through the use of the state power in a number of countries, Britain not least, to weaken and break up the working-class movement; and internationally to destroy any obstacle to the global expansion and accumulation of capital, of which the USSR was the most significant and obvious. The “stability” thus secured pursued three ends:

First, the extension of wage labour, the only source of surplus value and hence ultimately of profit, across the world, pulling perhaps as many as a billion more people into the circuit of capitalist production, in China, the former socialist countries, India and elsewhere. This fact above all has driven capitalist growth over the last generation.

Second, the intensification of exploitation, the fruits of weakened trade unions and workers’ parties, which has seen the share of wealth secured by labour diminished in most countries, and inequality spread.

Third, state intervention to secure the extension of commodification, through privatisation and the elimination of many barriers to the “free operation of the market”.

In the end however this led to an increasing over-accumulation of capital, with the evil day of reckoning only postponed by a series of “bubbles” culminating in the vast speculations on the housing market, with an array of banks, hedge funds and investors each effectively looking for a bigger and bigger slice of every mortgaged property in the world, to the point of insolvency and borderline insanity.

The consequence of a ” free market” would here have led to wholesale bank failure and economic seizure. To avert this, the banks have been bailed out with vast sums of public money, at a time when tax income has been reduced by the slump. The capitalist answer to the problem of their own making has been austerity, the kindly word for mass social immiseration, in southern Europe and Ireland most of all, but also in the USA and here in Britain.

So far, so bad. The second line of crisis is the democratic, as our friend from Hermes implies. Bourgeois democracy has always basically been democracy for the good times, when any likely outcome of the normal democratic process is guaranteed to leave prevailing property relations intact and to subject the social hierarchy to no more than reasonable – unavoidable – modifications.

When elections might actually make a profound difference we drift onto territory which starts as “technocratic” takeovers of elected governments, proceeds through voter suppression initiatives and other measures to drive down turnout and keep politics as an exclusive elite preserve and end up with outright authoritarian government. The continuum runs Mario Monti – US Republicans – Golden Dawn as it were. All fuelled, of course, by a popular contempt of the politicians which have led the world into this mess, a contempt very easy to arouse.

Weakened democracy and circumscribed political activity makes it easier for the third leg of the world crisis to bear its bitter fruit – beyond economic slump and political reaction lies war. In a world of over-accumulation, with opportunities for profit blocked and limited by the crisis, the scramble for resources, for access to markets, for the opportunity to exploit and super-exploit gradually passes from the realm of private initiative to become public business, from the corporation to the state.

It is under these conditions, or those very like them, that in the past imperialism has gone feral. Absent a single powerful hegemonic power able to exercise the strength to impose an agreeable division of the world market between interested parties, which includes denying itself that which could maybe otherwise obtain, no set of rules, let alone ideological wishful thinking, can hold things together.

The failure of the “war on terror” in its own terms seems to establish that it is these conditions which are coming to predominate today. Whether it is disputed Pacific islands, a discontented Russian minority in a post-Soviet “successor state”, an attack on Iran or something else altogether which provides the spark is ultimately a secondary question – second to the question as to whether imperialism should be endured at all.

The immediate alternative is to break the pressure that imperialist interests have on democratic politics, and to as far as possible block the avenues to war. It is true that the drive to war is ineluctable under monopoly capitalism, but it is eminently possible to block any particular war at any particular time.

If the foregoing is right, then the strengthening of the existing anti-war movement is clearly a priority. There are other demands which could be described as anti-imperialist, which have broad popular support and could and should be campaigned for, alongside the immediate “anti-austerity” questions, to which they are closely connected:

  • Withdraw all British troops from abroad, and close all military bases.
  • Nationalise the arms industry, which would allow a reconfiguration of the manufacturing sector which it dominates. The state effectively directs the sector in any case.
  • State control over the banking sector.
  • Nationalisation of the energy sector, which could protect consumers while also curbing a major private source of pressure for an aggressive world policy.
  • Extend the Leveson recommendations to the issue of the ownership of the media, dispersing the concentrations of communications power which have prostituted themselves in support of war in Iraq and elsewhere.
  • Establish a system for the recall of MPs. Had such been in place in 2003, the parliamentary vote on the Iraq war might well have been different.

One could add to or subtract from these measures, but taken together they create the greatest possibility of arresting the drive to a third general imperialist war at a time when the working-class movement is not strong enough to end the capitalist system as a whole. Indeed, their adoption would also speed the reconstitution of the working-class movement itself.
Andrew Murray is vice president of the Stop the War Coalition and is a contributor to 21centurymanifesto