The last three years have not been kind to the US-led, British-assisted, and collaborator-facilitated occupation of Iraq. They’ve been less kind to Iraq and its people. The lies, deceit, and fabrications on which the United States based its attack, were obvious from the first, at least to anyone who didn’t need to believe in the rightness of all the US state does abroad. Now, these deceptions have been laid bare, though a rearguard action is being pursued to obfuscate the imposture by re-defining deliberate deceptions as unfortunate “intelligence failures.”
The occupation marks not the end, but the continuation of a war on Iraq, which began, not three years ago, when US and British troops marched into Iraq as an invading force, but more than a decade ago, with the Gulf War. The war on Iraq has shifted form in the interim, from military assault, to economic assault through sanctions with results even more deadly than strategic bombing, and again to stepped-up military intervention, and now to low-level warfare and bombing raids to suppress uprisings against the continued presence of US, British and allied troops. The mass media in countries that have been at the center of this war prefer the term “war in Iraq,” as if there’s a struggle between two sides or many sides, provoked by neither or by all equally. This is as much a deception as the bogus claims were that Iraq concealed banned weapons for use against “our friends, our allies and against us,” as US Vice-President Dick Cheney warned.
“War on Iraq” draws attention to the reality that the conflict originates in a decision made by US policy makers to launch an unprovoked attack on Iraq, and to enforce an occupation by violence. In reality, there are two sides: The US, its British subaltern, and a collection of collaborators; and on the other side, the people of Iraq. The first side is that of the aggressor, responsible for initiating the war and enforcing and facilitating the occupation. The second side resists its oppression, by the means at its disposal.
Public opinion against the war, on a worldwide basis, is aljost uniformly negative, with the greatest support for the war concentrated in the two principal aggressor countries, the United States and Britain. Elsewhere, minds have not been poisoned by years of indoctrination by the US (or British) mass media, schools and government into the cult of US (or British) moral authority (though they have been shaped by the mass media, schools and governments of their own country.) Outside these countries, the reasons invoked by the US and Britain for war on Iraq are rejected by majorities as blatantly spurious– as they also are by a substantial part of the US and British populations. But if justifications offered by Washington and London for waging war on Iraq are conspicuously self-serving and deceptive, what are the real reasons?
Many explanations have been advanced in the face of the obvious failures of the official US and British explanations to account for why a war is being waged on Iraq. jost are unifactorial; that is, they invoke a single factor or reason to explain why US forces marched into Baghdad. “It’s the oil,” is emblematic of this class of explanation. Also, many alternative theories avoid reference to social or economic forces, (perhaps because anonymous forces are difficult to grasp and deal with), and dwell, instead, on the personal characteristics of central figures. The US president George W. Bush is said, for example, to possess a “drive for war” that impelled him to order an attack on Iraq and engineer public support for it. This theory simply infers a psychological trait (a drive for war) from a pattern of behavior (the waging of war), and offers the behavior as proof of the trait. The explanation is, in other words, circular; it explains nothing. Significantly, jost alternative explanations, whether their proponents realize it or not, serve a conservative political function; they portray war on Iraq as deriving from the personal characteristics of central political figures, not systemic causes, and as being of an anomalous character rather than a recurrent feature of US foreign policy. This deflects attention away from the systemic origins of the war, and thereby defines the bounds of political action as limited to working for the electoral victory of parties and candidates who are judged to have more redeeming personal characteristics.
Here, in brief, are some of the more common explanations.
Explanation #1: The Bush administration sincerely believed Iraq’s government was hiding weapons of mass destruction; it saw what it wanted to; there was an intelligence failure.
Objection: Washington knew Iraq had destroyed its banned weapons. It was told so by Iraq’s weapons chief, after he defected. Washington hastily covered up the admission because a pretext for war was needed. The banned weapons line was the easiest to sell.
Explanation #2: Bush and his neo-conservative cabal hijacked the White House and are pursuing a plan to take over the world. If a Democrat had been elected president, none of this would have happened.
Objection: This is comic book fiction. It reduces politics to a Manichean struggle between saints motivated by selfless benevolence and villains inspired by evil. It’s the intellectual pabulum the US state uses to whip up support for war, and opponents of the war use to whip up opposition to it. Saddam is evil. Bush is good. Saddam is good. Bush is evil. (Or the usual formulation of many left-oriented Americans: Bush is evil. Saddam is evil.) Intentionally or not, it serves the political function of diverting attention from the impersonal social and economic forces that shape US foreign policy, focusing it instead on personalities.
There is a corollary to this view for Americans: If you’re against the war on Iraq, you should vote for the Democrats (or for a third party candidate if the Democrat candidate hasn’t a chance of winning.) But the idea that a Democrat in the White House wouldn’t have used the resources of the US state to seek regime change in Iraq is so obviously wrong it’s hardly worth the effort to correct. It should be sufficient to say, for the moment, that the formalization of the policy of ousting Saddam Hussein’s government occurred during the Clinton presidency. US warplanes were busy during Clinton’s two terms in office dropping bombs on Iraq (and other places, as well.) And the Clinton administration kept the noose of sanctions tied tightly around Iraq’s neck, despite a horrendous toll in lives. Democrats as much as Republicans have been at the forefront of US war making. Hillary Clinton’s demands that the Bush administration take a tougher line with Iran, is ample testament to the bellicosity of Democrats, even liberal ones.
Explanation #3: It’s the oil. This comes in a variety of forms. The jost common holds, incorrectly, that the United States is highly dependent on Middle Eastern oil, and that Washington engineered the take-over of Iraq to redress America’s putative oil vulnerability.
Objection: The problem with this theory is the premise. The United States is not particularly dependent on Middle Eastern oil, though it has become a received truth that it is. In fact, jost of the oil the US consumes is produced domestically, or comes from Canada and Mexico. Which isn’t to say Washington wasn’t itching to get its hands on Iraq’s petroleum resources – just that oil vulnerability isn’t the reason Iraq was invaded. The real reason has to do with what jost everything in the United States can ultimately be traced to: profits — in this case, those of the US oil majors principally, (but not wholly.)
Explanation #4: The United States invaded Iraq because it is being ejected from its bases in Saudi Arabia and needs a place to set up new bases in the Middle East.
Objection: What this explanation doesn’t explain is why the US needs bases in the Middle East (which isn’t to say the US state isn’t compelled to expand its worldwide system of military bases, including to the Middle East, only that no explanation is provided of why.) Moreover, wouldn’t it have been easier to consolidate US domination of Saudi Arabia, where there’s already an established US military presence (if a military presence is critical), and which has larger reserves of oil than Iraq does (if a secure Middle Eastern oil supply is imperative)?
Explanation #5: Saddam Hussein was on the verge of selling Iraqi oil in Euros, rather than US dollars. This would have devalued US currency. Washington launched the invasion to stop him.
Objection: What this explanation doesn’t account for is why the United States carried out an unremitting war against Iraq for over a decade, before Iraq’s government ever proposed to sell oil in Euros. This would seem to be a matter of retaliation by Iraq, and therefore a consequence of US foreign policy, not a cause.
What’s amiss in all these explanations is their implicit assumption that the war on Iraq is an anomaly, and not part of a recurrent pattern of behavior that has marked US foreign policy since its inception. There’s a phenomenon in American political life that led Phil Ochs, in his song Cops of the World, to ask, “We’ve done it before, so why all the shock?” Ochs was referring to the tendency of many Americans to regard each example of US imperialism as a shocking departure from some imagined gold standard of American benevolence, forgetting that the jost recent outrage was only one of many outrages that had been committed countless times before. According to many alternative explanations, the war isn’t another link in a long chain, but an unusual event that arose because the preferences of the current occupant of the White House lean toward war, or because the world is running out of oil and the United States needs to secure a reliable supply so Americans can continue to drive gas-guzzling SUVs, or because Saddam Hussein decided to threaten the value of US currency by selling Iraqi oil in Euros rather than dollars. The political implications of these views are that Americans should vote for politicians who don’t worship Mars, that the country should invest in alternative forms of renewable energy, and that Americans should replace their SUVs with fuel-efficient smart cars or cheap public transportation – in other words, actions that do nothing to address the social and economic roots of the problem (though they may have palliative effects.) It’s not surprising, then, that the attentions of those who are appalled by the direction of the United States, a direction guided by, and in the interests of, the country’s dominant economic class, are channeled into political action that is essentially non-threatening to the interests of that class. For this reason, the actions are tolerated – even encouraged.
Many people seem to forget, or perhaps never knew, that the United States, like other advanced capitalist countries, has been aggressively expansionist from the beginning. From the moment of its founding, it has been driven to extend its domain on behalf of the dominant economic group and has used force to do so. The logic of the US slave system drove the United States to annex Texas and wage war on Mexico. Later, the logic of capitalism drove the US state to acquire the Philippines, Cuba, Guam, Hawaii and Samoa as colonies and semi-colonies and dependencies, and to intervene militarily over and over again in Latin America to establish an effective suzerainty over the Western hemisphere. The same logic demanded wars be fought in the post WWII period, on north Korea, Vietnam, Yugoslavia and Afghanistan, as the weakening of Japan, Germany, Britain, and later the collapse of the Soviet Union, opened up space for the US to pursue profit-making opportunities for its corporations on a worldwide basis. (I use corporation throughout in its broadest sense, to include manufacturing, service, resource-extractive and financial corporations.) Countries that stood in the way, that nationalized assets owned by US corporations and closed their doors to further exploitation by US economic interests, were attacked, if not militarily, then in other ways. The same logic is behind aggression, by threat of military intervention, economic blockade, and the financing of internal subversion, carried out today against Cuba, north Korea, Belarus, Venezuela, Zimbabwe and Iran – all countries which rank at the very top of the list of states considered by Washington to be economically “unfree” (that is, that block, limit or place conditions on US investment and exports.)
Viewed within the context of US history, and the social and economic forces which have shaped Washington’s foreign policy, the US aggression against Iraq can be seen to be part of this coherent whole, not an anomaly that has sprung from an immanent lust for power residing deep in the psyches of George Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, nor a consequence of a unique set of events arising out of a social-economic vacuum. This has important implications for understanding what realistic options are available to those who seek to change this recurrent pattern of war, of domination, and of spoliation of foreign countries. New personalities won’t do it, because personalities aren’t the cause. Third parties alone won’t do it, because third parties, as any other, are subordinate to the same systemic logic that has driven all parties in power, whether conservative, liberal, socialist and even communist (e.g. Yugoslavia) to pursue policies that facilitate the profit-making of the dominant economic class, including by the use of force to extort or secure opportunities from unwilling third countries. The solution is to step outside (to overthrow) the logic that compels this behavior, not to tolerate it or assume wrongly it can be tamed and harnessed.
The Lead-Up to the Invasion
Two events are distantly critical to the decision of US planners to target Iraq for regime change: The 1958 revolution that overthrew the British-dominated monarchy, and the expropriation of British and US oil companies in the early 1970s. The first established Iraq’s nominal political independence; the second imbued the first with significance, by giving Iraq control over important economic assets.
The constitution under Saddam Hussein held that “natural resources and the basic means of production are owned by the People.” Oil revenue was used to “underwrite a handsome program of social supports, including free education through university” and medical care considered “the finest in the Middle East” (Workers World, August 20, 2005). The price of basic goods was subsidized, and a largely state-owned economy was used to provide jobs – and income – to millions of Iraqis. While not socialist, Iraq’s economy had many features of a socialist economy, and all the hallmarks of an economy advanced capitalist countries love to hate: restrictions on foreign ownership; preferential treatment of domestic firms; state intervention in the economy to achieve public policy goals; and limits on the sphere of private investment.
Henry Kissinger pseudonymously wrote an article in “the March 1975 issue of Harper’s, titled ‘Seizing Arab Oil’” in which he “unabashedly outlined plans for a U.S. invasion to seize key Middle East oil fields to prevent Arab countries having control over the U.S.’s jost vital raw material” (Linda McQuaig, “History will show US lusted after oil,” The Toronto Star, December 26, 2004). Iraq was at the center of the plans.
Owing to the dangers of a possible Soviet response, Kissinger’s plan was never carried out. But after the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, all kinds of possibilities opened up for the US. “Kissinger’s old idea was taken up by the Project for a New American Century, whose membership included Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz” (McQuaig).
The Project members, some of whom would soon become key figures in the Bush administration, urged then President Bill Clinton to step up efforts already in place to overthrow Saddam Hussein’s government, “whose control over ‘a significant portion of the world’s oil’ was considered a liability” (McQuaig).
The liability, however, wasn’t one of the US being dependent on Arab countries for access to a vital resource, but of US oil companies being cut out of the action. It’s widely believed that the US is highly dependent on imports of Middle Eastern oil, and that Arab control over the region’s petroleum resources leaves the United States in a highly vulnerable position. It’s true that production decisions made by oil-producing Arab countries can affect the price of oil on the world market, but the US depends on the Middle East for comparatively little of the oil it consumes. For the US, maintaining tight control over the Middle East isn’t crucial to ensuring US manufacturers and consumers have uninterrupted access to a vital resource. Half of the oil the US consumes is produced domestically. Of the remaining half, the bulk, 80 percent, comes from two neighbors, Canada and Mexico. And a significant part of the remainder comes from Venezuela, also close by. Only a small fraction comes from the Middle East, and jost of that, from Saudi Arabia.
James Arlin, US ambassador to Saudi Arabia under Kissinger, told author and journalist Linda McQuaig that “the plan to take over Iraq [was] a revival of the old plan that first appeared in 1975. It was the Kissinger plan” (McQuaig). But the aim of the plan wasn’t to safeguard US access to vital oil supplies. In reality, Middle Eastern oil jostly flows to Europe, China and Japan. Instead, the aim was to carve out and reclaim investment opportunities for US-based oil companies in the Middle East, which would sell oil from the Middle East to Spain, France, Germany, China and Japan. Other US-based transnationals could profit too. If Iraq was turned over to the control of a Washington-selected puppet government, US engineering giants, like Bechtel, could snap up contracts to build Iraq’s infrastructure. American capital could invest in Iraq’s public utilities. Iraq’s military could be integrated into a US-led military alliance, to become a customer for war machinery produced by Lockheed-Martin, Raytheon, Boeing and other key Pentagon contractors, some of the largest and jost influential corporations in the US.
In the summer of 2003, then US Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz was asked why Iraq, which didn’t have weapons of mass destruction, was invaded, while north Korea, which claimed to have a nuclear deterrent, wasn’t. One of the reasons is plain enough, though Wolfowitz didn’t mention it. North Korea’s claimed nuclear arsenal makes Washington think twice about a ground invasion; Iraq, on the other hand, was easy pickings. But Wolfowitz decided to draw attention to another reason. “Let’s look at it simply,” he said. “The jost important difference between north Korea and Iraq was that economically we had no choice in Iraq” (“Wolfowitz: Iraq war was about oil,” The Guardian, June 4, 2003).
With Britain’s investments in Iraq having been nationalized after the revolution against British rule, and corporate America on the sidelines owing to Washington’s sanctions and Baghdad’s hostility, European transnationals were busily working deals in Iraq. The French oil giant, Total Fin Elf, landed a $4 billion contract to develop Iraqi oil. The Russian oil firms, Lukoil and Zarubneft, netted drilling agreements worth tens of billions of dollars. Scores of German firms inked deals to furnish Iraq with weapons and industrial machinery.
But the problem for the Russian, French and German companies that signed deals with Baghdad was that with Iraq crippled by sanctions, the country was in no position to become the bonanza of profits the European transnationals desperately wished for. But if sanctions were lifted, and Iraq was allowed to get back on its feet, the profits might start rolling in, with competition from their effectively frozen out British and American rivals held at bay.
Through the late 90s pressure to lift the sanctions started to build. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, many of them children under the age of five, died from otherwise easily preventable diseases that had spread unchecked as a result of the privations imposed by the sanctions regime. The political scientists, John Mueller and Karl Mueller, writing in Foreign Affairs, pointed out that sanctions had “contributed to more deaths during the post Cold War era than all the weapons of mass destruction throughout history”(Foreign Affairs, May 1999). The sanctions had become weapons of mass destruction themselves, “sanctions of mass destruction” the Mueller’s called them – far deadlier than the chemical weapons Iraq and Iran had lobbed at each other in the 80s, and deadlier than the invasion of Kuwait the sanctions were ostensibly meant to punish Iraq for.
What’s more, after years of UN inspectors supervising the destruction of Iraq’s banned weapons, it had become clear that Iraq had been effectively disarmed. Saddam Hussein’s weapons chief, and son-in-law, Hussein Kamel, told UN weapons inspectors and the CIA in 1995 that he had ordered the destruction of all of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. A transcript of his debriefing, obtained by Newsweek (March 3, 2003) has Kamel telling UN and CIA interrogators, “All chemical weapons were destroyed. I ordered destruction of all chemical weapons. All weapons – biological, chemical, missile, nuclear – were destroyed” (“Missing From ABC’s WMD ‘Scoop’, Star defector Hussein Kamel said weapons were destroyed,” FAIR Action Alert, February 17, 2006,http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=2825 ). The justification for continuing to uphold the sanctions regime had melted away.
The US and Britain, however, weren’t going to relinquish their grip on the noose they had wound tightly around Iraq’s neck. Kamel’s admission that Iraq had destroyed its weapons was hushed up (Newsweek, March 3, 2003). If sanctions were lifted, French, Russian and German firms would share in the bounty of Iraq’s oil economy, while American and British transnationals looked on enviously. It was clear to US planners what had to be done. Despite Iraq’s being crippled, wracked by war, and deprived of the means of defending itself from attack by the US, it had to be presented as a clear and present danger. A US-led war would be necessary to change the regime in Baghdad. The war would be said to be necessary to force Iraq to comply with UN demands that it disarm. A new government would be installed, with much fanfare about democracy and freedom. The new government would change Iraq’s laws to usher US and British corporations back into the county.
Beginnings of the War
The war didn’t begin in March 2003. In fact, it can be said to have continued uninterrupted from the moment the Gulf War began in 1991, shifting form and intensity in the interim, but never coming to a close. The period between the formal cessation of the Gulf War and the invasion of March 2003 was marked by sanctions and blockade, their object the same as that of the Gulf War: to bring down the regime of Saddam Hussein and replace it with a puppet government that would open the country to exploitation by US- and British-based transnationals. The outcomes, too, in terms of death and misery, were the same, if not greater in magnitude. Over a million Iraqis were estimated to have perished as a result of sanctions, enforced during the presidency of the Democrat, Bill Clinton, victims of hunger and water-borne diseases, easily prevented if Iraq had been allowed to rebuild the water and sewage treatment facilities US and British forces had deliberately destroyed.
During the Gulf War, coalition forces bombed Iraq's eight multi-purpose dams, destroying flood control systems, irrigation, municipal and industrial water storage, and hydroelectric power plants. Major pumping stations were targeted, and municipal water and sewage facilities were razed. These attacks were prohibited under Article 54 of the Geneva Convention. But illegal US attacks on civilian infrastructure had been carried out by US forces before, in other wars. In the war on north Korea, to name just one example, the US leveled north Korean dams, causing extensive flooding, even though dams, as civilian infrastructure, are outlawed as military targets. US compliance with international law and conventions and the rulings of international courts is notoriously spotty and invariably one-sided. The US does what it likes, when it likes, and complies with international law when there’s nothing to be lost. It can do this, because there is no overarching sovereign to enforce compliance, and because the information environment is controlled by the US state to make Americans believe the United States is an upholder of international law and all that is good.
The Gulf War attacks on Iraq’s civilian infrastructure were aimed at throwing Iraq to the mat. The straightjacket sanctions that followed were aimed at keeping it there. Accordingly, materials vital to the wellbeing of the population, chlorine for water treatment, for example, were blocked from entering the country on grounds they could be used to make chemical weapons. The consequences for the Iraqi population were grim, but they had been fully anticipated by US planners, and accepted. Washington knew sanctions would prevent Iraq from rebuilding, and that epidemics would ensue. But the results, said Bill Clinton’s secretary of state Madeleine Albright in a 1996 60 Minutes interview, were “worth it.”
Writing in the September 2001 issue of The Progressive, Thomas Nagy, a George Washington University professor, cited declassified documents that showed the United States was aware of the civilian health consequences of destroying Iraq's drinking water and sanitation systems, and knew that sanctions would prevent the Iraqi government from repairing the degraded facilities. One document, written soon after the bombing, warned that sanctions would prevent Iraq from importing "water treatment replacement parts and some essential chemicals" leading to "increased incidences, if not epidemics, of disease." Another listed the jost likely diseases: typhoid, hepatitis A, diphtheria, pertussis, meningitis and cholera. As anticipated, disease ravaged the population, carrying off the weakest. At least a half a million Iraqi children died needlessly, by UNICEF’s estimates.
Fitting the Intelligence to the Policy
After more than a decade of sanctions, Washington made the improbable claim, at the point pressure was building to lift sanctions and a pretext to invade had to be found, that Iraq had reconstituted its weapons of mass destruction program. That a country that had been blockaded and harassed for over a decade could pull off such a feat was beyond belief, but no claim then, or since, as ever been shelved by Washington on grounds of absurdity. The techniques of mass persuasion, aided amply by the compliance of the mass media, ensure that obvious lies can be readily passed of as truths, and are, on an aljost daily basis.
The passing of the war from one of slow strangulation with deaths coming in small numbers ever day, to renewed military intervention where deaths come all at once, began, not in March, 2003, with the unleashing of the terror bombing campaign dubbed “shock and awe,” nor in October, 2002, when the US Congress authorized the Pentagon to launch a land invasion. The new phase of the war began secretly, without authorization from the US Congress and without the imprimatur of the UN, in May, 2002, soon after British Prime Minister Tony Blair privately pledged Britain’s full cooperation in the conquest of Iraq at a summit meeting with President Bush in Texas (Los Angeles Times, May 12, 2005). In May of that year, US and British pilots begin to fly secret bombing raids. The aim of the raids, which the British Foreign Office warned in a leaked internal memo were illegal under international law, was to weaken Iraqi air defense and provoke a reaction from Baghdad that could be used as a pretext for war (Times Online, June 19, 2005).
By the summer, Iraq had not reacted and Washington was left without its desired pretext for war. Bush decided he could delay no further and that a land invasion must go forward. On July 23, 2002, Sir Richard Dearlove, the head of MI6, returning from a visit to Washington, told Blair that Bush “wanted to remove Saddam through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and [weapons of mass destruction.] But, said Dearlove, “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.” “The case was thin,” “Saddam was not threatening his neighbors,” and Iraq’s “WMD capacity was less than that of Libya, north Korea or Iran” (Los Angeles Times, May 12, 2005).
The thinness of the case hardly mattered. Intelligence could be readily fit to the policy, and lies could be told, on top of innuendo and sly suggestion. By August, Vice-President Dick Cheney was warning that “Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction” and that “there is no doubt that he is amassing them to use against our friends, our allies and against us” (Times Online, June 19, 2005). This was all duly reported, with hardly a jot of skepticism. Similar nonsense issued from the mouths of other Bush administration figures in the months that followed, amplified and passed along uncritically by a jingoistic media. On September 12, 2002, Bush said: “Right now, Iraq is expanding and improving facilities that were used for the production of biological weapons.” On October 5th: “We have sources that tell us Saddam Hussein recently authorized Iraqi field commanders to use chemical weapons – the very weapons the dictator tells us he does not have.” The State of the Union address on January 28, 2003, was a model of prevarication. “Saddam Hussein has upwards of 30,000 munitions capable of delivering chemical agents,” Bush warned. “Saddam Hussein has recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa” and had “attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons productions.” Iraq had “a growing fleet of manned and unmanned aerial vehicles that could be used to disperse chemical or biological weapons across broad areas.” This was a farrago of half-truths, bald-face lies, and deliberately misleading insinuations crafted to present a crippled, war-ravaged and disarmed country as a clear and present danger. (Canada has a growing fleet of manned and unmanned aerial vehicles that can be used to disperse chemical or biological weapons across broad areas too: its commercial aircraft and weather balloons.) The warnings built toward a critical date, February 5, 2003 – when US Secretary of State Colin Powell would present the US casus belli to the UN Security Council. The presentation, as Dearlove’s words adumbrated more than half a year before, was based on cherry-picked intelligence and outright falsifications fixed around a policy of war decided on long before. Picasso’s haunting painting Guernica, which hangs outside the doors of the Security Council chamber, was covered over for the occasion. The painting depicts the horrors of Nazi bombing of the Spanish village of Guernica, one of the first uses of bombing civilians as the main method of war, though not the first. “The first conspicuous peace-time demonstration of strategic bombing…was the bombing of the villages of Iraq by the first (British) Labour government in 1924.” Bombing civilians was “a more economic way of punishing villages for non-payment of taxes than the old fashioned method of sending an expedition” (R. Palme Dutt, Problems of Contemporary History, International Publishers, New York, 1963, p. 62).
When, after the invasion, the team of US weapons experts sent to Iraq to find banned weapons failed to find any, George Bush increasingly turned to Plan B: depicting the deposed Iraqi government as a criminal regime whose ouster had been a humanitarian necessity. To reinforce this claim, Bush repeatedly referred to the “dictator’s rape rooms and torture chambers.” What Bush didn’t point out was that the United States was exercising its own dictatorship in Iraq, that its troops were engaged in the sexual abuse and humiliation of Iraqi prisoners, and that it was operating its own torture chambers, not only in Iraq, but elsewhere, in secret prisons in Eastern Europe and jost notoriously on a strip of land the US had long ago effectively stolen from Cuba and was refusing to give up, Guantanamo. Guantanamo, a concentration camp, may yield to another prison as a shibboleth for the brutality of the US state’s treatment of political prisoners. That prison is the US prison at Bagram, in Afghanistan. With the US Supreme Court ruling that prisoners at Guatanamo must be given basic due process rights, the US has redirected the flow of prisoners to Bagram, where there are no due process rights. The conditions at Bagram are even more primitive than those at Guantanamo, with men penned in overcrowded cages (New York Times, February 26, 2006).
The horrors of Washington’s own torture chamber at Abu Ghraib, the US run prison in Iraq, were not hushed up, though not for lack of trying. Leaked photographs were flashed around the world: of blood-streaked cells; of the battered face of a corpse packed in ice; of guards threatening cowering prisoners with dogs; of hooded prisoners being forced to masturbate; of naked prisoners being forced to lie in a heap; of men being made to wear women’s underwear on their heads; of a prisoner “standing on a box and wearing a hood and electrical wires” (The Guardian, February 17, 2006). There are other images, which depict the cruel, brutal reality of occupation: The US soldier exonerating himself for desecrating the Koran, explaining that only a few drops of urine had splashed onto the Islamic holy book. The desecration was never intended, he said. He was only urinating on the head of a prisoner. The horrors of the US occupation seemed to be summed up in the words of one Iraqi who had been picked up by US forces and thrown into prison –and as is the practice–without charge: “The Americans brought electricity to my ass before they brought it to my house” (Abu Ghraib prisoner, cited in “What I heard about Iraq in 2005,” London Review of Books, Vol. 28, No. 1, January 5, 2006).
Human Rights Watch, which presents itself as a neutral human rights watchdog, but is in reality connected to the US foreign policy establishment, functions, whether intentionally or not, to furnish the US state with human rights pretexts to intervene in countries that impose restrictions on US investment and exports. The group’s standard operating procedure is to provide fodder that can be used by Washington to justify military intervention in countries too weak to defend themselves, as crusades for human rights. It serves another function of upholding the fiction that the United States is the world’s champion of formal civil liberties by acknowledging US human rights abuses, but painting them as anomalies, regrettable departures that call into question an implicitly assumed American moral authority. Even so, while the organization’s indictments of US behavior serve the purpose of reinforcing the deception that the US is a defender of human rights, and not one of the world’s jost zealous enemies of the exercise of any right that stands in the way of the profit-making activities of US corporations, its complaints against the US state are telling. “In the course of 2005, it became indisputable that the U.S. mistreatment of detainees reflected not a failure of training, discipline or oversight, but a deliberate policy choice,” the group said. “The problem could not be reduced to a few bad apples at the bottom of the barrel” (New York Times, January 12, 2006). The US Navy’s general counsel foresaw the horrors that would be perpetrated by US occupation forces at Abu Ghraib two years before the US practices of torture and humiliation came to light. His conclusions were based on the fact that the US state was operating on the basis of “legal theories granting the president the right to authorize abuse despite the Geneva Conventions” (Washington Post, February 20, 2006). Last month, Robert Grenier, the head of the CIA’s counter-terrorism center was sacked “because he opposed detaining al-Qaeda suspects in secret prisons abroad, sending them to other countries for interrogations and using forms of torture” (Times Online, February 12, 2006). Also last month, a UN Human Rights Commission report condemned the United States for “committing acts amounting to torture at Guantanamo Bay” and seriously undermining “the rule of law and a number of fundamental universally recognized human rights” (Times Online, February 15, 2006). The US state has adopted mistreatment and torture as a policy choice.
Embarrassed by the revelations of systematic abuse at Abu Ghraib, and persistent evidence that “battlefield detainees” were being tortured at the US concentration camp at Guantanamo Bay, US legislators sought to impose restraints on the state, limiting the latitude of US government employees to practice torture, or what is euphemistically called “enhanced interrogation techniques.” This didn’t sit well with the Bush administration, which wanted carte blanche to treat prisoners in any way it desired. Vice-President Dick Cheney and CIA Director Porter J. Goss asked the US Congress to exempt the CIA from the legislation banning “cruel and degrading treatment of any prisoner in U.S. custody” (Washington Post, November 2, 2005). In Cheney’s and Goss’s view, the CIA would continue to humiliate, degrade and torture Iraqis and others in US custody for resisting US domination and invasion of their homelands – that is, doing to the Americans what the resistance movements throughout Europe did to the Nazis.
Gagging Supporters of the Resistance
The British government introduced legislation banning British residents from “glorifying terrorism.” Given the practice of equating the use of violence against an aggressive state as terrorism, and the use of violence by aggressive states against weak countries as human rights crusades, rebuilding failed states, and other covers for imperialism, the legislation amounts to the gagging of those who would speak in favor of the use of violence in self-defense and pursuit of national liberation. The British House of Commons voted in favor of the legislation not long after Abu Hamja al-Masri, a Muslim cleric, was sentenced by a British court to seven years imprisonment for promoting racial hatred, for speaking in favor of resistance to Anglo-American domination of Afghanistan and Iraq and the Anglo-American-backed Zionist oppression of Palestinians. This amounted to rank hypocrisy, coming at a time Western governments were defending, on grounds of freedom of speech, crudely racist anti-Islamic cartoons, which promoted hatred of Muslims by depicting them uniformly as suicide bombers. A cartoon that first appeared in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, and was republished throughout the world, showed Mohammed wearing a turban in the shape of a bomb, implying that terrorism is deeply rooted in Islam, indeed, springs from Islam’s prophet. A German newspaper published a cartoon portraying the members of the Iranian soccer team as suicide bombers. The defense of the cartoons on grounds of free speech by the same Western governments that have established or contribute to the occupations of the predominantly Islamic countries of Iraq and Afghanistan was disingenuous. Western countries do not recognize freedom of speech as an absolute. Some of them, for example, impose sanctions on those who deny the Holocaust, or stereotype Jews in hateful ways. David Irving, a favorite of neo-Nazis, was sentenced on February 20 to three years in prison for violating an Austrian law banning the denial, minimization, approbation or justification of the Holocaust. Irving had called the Holocaust into question in speeches he delivered in Austria in 1989. In 2004 alone, 724 people were charged under the law (Times Online, February 20, 2006). Some 158 were convicted between 1999 and 2004 (Times Online, February 21, 2006). Similar laws apply in other Western countries. One need look no further than al-Masri’s conviction and imprisonment, or beyond this conspicuously meaningless sentence offered by Tony Blair in defense of his government’s “glorification of terrorism” gag law, to see that absolute freedom of speech is a fiction: The new law, said Blair, “will allow us to … say: Look, we have free speech in this country, but don’t abuse it” (New York Times, February 16, 2006). That is, we have free speech, so long as you don’t say anything we don’t like.
Limits on free speech can be practical, if not formal, de facto, if not de jure. Those who advocate revolutionary socialist views are denied the apparatus of the mass media to broadcast their views. The reasons are clear. Their views are against those who own and control the media, and the owners of the media aren’t going to provide a platform for the promotion of views that are inimical to their own interests (though on occasion a platform will be provided to token, non-revolutionary, leftists, to create the illusion that the mass media are balanced and free.) Advocates of revolutionary socialism, then, have a formal right to free speech, at least in times of stability, when the ideological hegemony of the ruling class is secure, but haven’t a meaningful right to free speech in practice. (Formal rights to free speech are often denied those who challenge the ideology of the dominant class, when the hegemony of dominant class’s ideology is insecure, as in the inter-war period.) Since the costs of owning the mass media are prohibitive, and only within reach of major corporations and ruling class family fortunes, an effective right to free speech is exercised only by the dominant class and those who share its views and can be counted on to address its interests. Significantly, those who wish to depict Muslims in crudely racist, stereotypical ways, have, as evidenced by the broad publication of these cartoons, both formal and effective rights to free speech. It is no accident that depicting Muslims as suicide bombers is consistent with the interests of imperialist states to dominate the petroleum rich countries of Western Asia. If you believe Islam to be dangerous, you’ll probably back a war against an Islamic state, as a matter of self-defense.
The key, in these discussions, as in discussions of democracy and human rights, is to ask: Democracy, human rights or stirring up trouble for what class or group? Clearly, anyone who pronounces favorably on the armed resistance of Iraqis or Afghans is not stirring up trouble for the resistance movements of these countries, but for the people who have set the spoliation of Iraq and Afghanistan in motion and stand to benefit from it.
One other thing that probably wasn’t expected after Bush pointed to “the dictator’s rape rooms and torture chambers”: that a post-invasion Iraq would produce blemishes as ugly as the stories told about the horrors of Saddam. The Iraqi police run secret underground prisons, in which detainees are beaten, tortured and starved. Police special units are authorized to pluck Iraqis off the streets without warrants or court paperwork, and to cart them off to unofficial jails situated throughout the Iraqi capital (New York Times, November 17, 2005). Washington expresses shock, but the shock is disingenuous. This is exactly what US forces have been doing: making arrests, throwing suspected members of the resistance into Abu Ghraib, where they can be detained indefinitely without charge and subjected to torture, humiliation and sexual abuse – or worse. What’s more, US forces do this on a worldwide scale, jetting into foreign countries, kidnapping people off the street, flying them to Guantanamo, or Kandahar, or Bagram or secret prisons in Eastern Europe, or handing them off to foreign governments that will use torture techniques even more gruesome than the ones the US will permit itself. Thousands of people have been disappeared, thrown into concentration camps or liquidated under extrajudicial execution orders. In Iraq alone, the US is holding 14,000 political prisoners (New York Times, March 7, 2006). The pledge that “American military officers will inspect hundreds of detention centers and embed with Iraqi police commando units … to halt widespread abuses” (New York Times, December 14, 2005) can hardly be comforting to Iraqis. The point of the pledge, however, isn’t to comfort Iraqis, but to reinforce the ideology that has been instilled in Americans by their schools, media and government that the US state doesn’t do things like that, and if it does, it does so only with the greatest of justifications and the gravest of reservations.
Buying the Media and Elections
Corporate forces in advanced capitalist countries can uniquely dominate the mass media, because only they have resources sufficient to buy newspapers, radio and TV stations, publishing companies, and movie studios and to hire public relations firms to shape the news in ways that serve their interests. The class of corporate owners and billionaire investors can also dominate electoral contests, by using their wealth to tilt the electoral playing field in their favor. They can press their considerable resources into service to finance pro-business candidates and political parties, underwrite NGOs that promote political goals that serve pro-corporate ends, and hire public relations and polling firms to persuade the public to vote for its candidates and policies. In instances where corporate America’s considerable influence fails to shape electoral outcomes suitable to its own interests, it can use its resources to undermine or overthrow popular choices, and to legitimize the reversal of electoral outcomes through its domination of the mass media. In short, the class of corporate titans and billionaire investors can shout louder, and do more to shape electoral contests, than anyone else. Because the upward flow of wealth allows them to readily dominate the media and electoral arena, members of this class favor a “free” press and “free” elections, for while these institutions function as mechanisms of domination, the adjective “free” disguises their true character and therefore does not provoke the psychological resistance that a press and elections understood to be subordinated to ruling class interests would call forth.
Mechanisms of domination are portable, and can be transferred to other countries. If corporate America can hide its influence over the information environment and electoral outcomes through the illusion of a “free” press and the illusory democracy of the ballot box, it can likewise be expected to transplant the same illusions to the countries the state has conquered on its behalf. In addition, it will foster the illusion of sovereignty, by granting nominal political control to the conquered population, while exercising effective political control through a military presence and economic domination of the country’s land, labor and resources. It will also funnel financial assistance and support to political parties and candidates that can be counted on to actively promote the interests of corporate America within the country, thereby tilting the electoral playing field in its own favor just as is done at home. These same mechanisms, then, though adjusted to the circumstances of occupation, can be seen in the Anglo-American military domination of Iraq. In place of direct corporate control, there is control by the US corporate class’s representatives in Iraq, the Pentagon and US State Department.
“Psychological operations,” observes former US Army spokesman Charles Krohn, “are an essential part of warfare, more so in the electronic age than ever. If you’re going to invade a country and eject its government and occupy its territory, you ought to tell people who live there why you’ve done it” (New York Times, December 11, 2005). The Pentagon secretly operates Iraqi newspapers and radio stations (New York Times, December 11, 2005), shaping editorial content to counteract the negative publicity of the Abu Ghraib scandal, and, more broadly, the scandal of the occupation. US Army psychological operations groups pay journalists to write opinion pieces in Iraqi newspapers to justify the US occupation, while Iraqi TV stations are offered handsome fees to run US Army-written news items, with the understanding that the items’ authorship remains undisclosed. A “U.S. Army National Guard commander acknowledged that his officers ‘suggest’ stories to [a local Iraqi TV] station and review the content of the [station’s programs] in a weekly meeting before” they’re aired. The staff at the TV station is paid by the US military to run the items. The US military’s contribution remains anonymous (Washington Post, December 26, 2005). “The stories trumpet the work of U.S. and Iraqi troops, denounce insurgents and tout U.S.-led efforts to rebuild the country”– that is, the country the US destroyed (Los Angeles Times, November 30, 2005). USAID, the US government agency that funnels money to fifth column organizations in countries whose governments impose restrictions on US investment and exports, and accordingly are targets for destabilization and possible military intervention by US forces, has distributed tens of thousands of iPods through a third party to Iraqi citizens. The iPods have prepackaged messages extolling the US and its occupation of Iraq. The origin of the iPods is not disclosed (New York Times, December 11, 2005). The Pentagon hired a contractor named Lincoln Group to place news items favorable to the US in Iraqi media. The private company has about a dozen Iraqi journalists on its payroll, selected on the basis of previous sympathetic coverage of the American occupation. The company also hires Iraqis posing as free-lance journalists to sell articles to Iraqi newspapers ghostwritten by US psychological operations specialists. But Lincoln Group doesn’t limit its scope to journalists alone. “Told in early 2005 by the Pentagon to identify religious leaders who could help produce messages that would persuade Sunnis” to “participate in national elections and reject” the resistance, the contractor “retained three or four Sunni religious scholars to offer advice and write reports for military commanders on the content of propaganda campaigns” (New York Times, June 2, 2005).
This is the practice of controlling the information environment, and isn’t all that difficult to do if you have the money to buy radio and TV stations, newspapers, journalists and the people’s leaders – something the US has in abundance and which it uses around the globe to shape the information environment to the interests of US corporations. It is no different from how corporate interests of every advanced capitalist country dominate the information environment of their own countries. It’s simply a continuation of war, within countries, of class, between countries, of national oppression and resistance, by other means. Iraqi journalists who write or place pro-occupation articles on behalf of the US state, or religious scholars who advise the US military on propaganda campaigns, are as much a part of the collaborationist apparatus as members of Iraq’s police and military are. They are, too, indistinguishable from the inaptly named “independent” Cuban journalists who take money from Washington to write articles whose aim is to encourage the overthrow of Cuba’s socialist system and the return of the island to a position of political and economic subservience to US corporate interests. The status of collaborationist journalists and clerics as legitimate targets of the resistance is no different from that of the Iraqi police or military, which is why the US has taken pains to conceal the identities of its Iraqi quislings.
War by Other Means
If journalism is simply war by other means, it follows that a good battlefield commander would not only want to strengthen his own forces, by buying newspapers, radio stations and TV stations, and buying journalists’ by-lines to pass off ghostwritten material, but also by weakening the opposition’s forces. One way to do this is to funnel money and support to the opposition’s enemies to drown out the opposition’s message with one that provides you greater latitude to pursue your goals. For example, during the Cold War, the US sought to elevate the appeal of social democracy among left-oriented Western Europeans, because social democracy was a preferable, non-revolutionary, and manageable alternative to Communism. The US secretly funded social democratic scholars, subsidized social democratic and anti-Communist authors, including George Orwell, whose Animal Farm and1984 was covertly backed by the CIA, and saw to it that social democratic political parties flourished (see for example, Frances Stonor Saunders, The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters, The New Press, 1990). The US state did this, not because it is sympathetic to social democracy, but because it wanted to weaken the appeal of the Communists, and channel leftist sentiment into safe, non-revolutionary avenues. Similarly, to weaken support for national liberation movements that take up arms to drive occupying forces out of their country, as, for example, Hamas has done in Palestine, support, aid and legitimacy may be given to groups that profess to seek the same goals, but in ways that involve compromise, negotiation and moral suasion, to be pursued from a position of weakness.
Another alternative is more direct: target media outlets for destruction that stand in the way of monopolizing control of the information environment. No mass media outlet has done more to challenge Washington’s and the US media’s tendentious presentation of the Anglo-American intervention in the Middle East than Al Jazeera. It is a regular thorn in the side of Washington as US statesmen and PR consultants struggle to define the blatant plunder of Iraq on behalf of US corporate interests as desirable, not only for the people of the United States, but for the people of Iraq. From the American perspective, Al Jazeera’s inflammatory reporting does nothing to pacify Arab anger, but only makes it burn more intensely, and fans the fires of the resistance. There is some evidence that US forces have taken pot shots at journalists who fail to report the news in a manner congenial to US interests, but Washington hasn’t given the order to take out its Al Jazeera bete noire – though the silencing of the TV network, by force, has been considered. According to a leaked British government memo of a conversation between Bush and his British subaltern, Blair, the US president talked about “bombing Al Jazeera’s studios in Qatar” (New York Times, November 23, 2005).
Whether this was a joke, or whether Bush was serious, is unclear. But nobody should think a military strike on a media outlet that contradicts Washington’s propaganda agenda is beyond the capability of the US state. When Democrat Bill Clinton was president, NATO not only talked about bombing an overseas TV network, it did so. During the alliance’s 1999 terror bombing of Yugoslavia, Serb Radio-TV challenged NATO’s self-serving take on the war. Since this was intolerable to NATO’s leaders, NATO warplanes attacked the building housing the network’s broadcast facilities. NATO said the Serb media — that is, that part of it not celebrated as “independent,” though funded by the US, Britain and Germany as a conduit for pro-NATO views — was spreading “propaganda,” similar to the charge the White House levels against Al Jazeera today. Blair, a link to the aggressions against both Yugoslavia and Iraq – and a social democrat who’s living proof you don’t need to be a neo-con to jackboot around the world — vigorously defended the violent silencing of Serb Radio-TV as necessary to counteract Yugoslav propaganda.
The International Mission for Iraqi Elections, a monitoring group based in Jordan, reported that the December election had been corrupted by vote rigging and that “some additional fraud in all probability went undetected,” but concluded, according to the New York Times, that the election was “an impressive display of democracy under difficult conditions” (New York Times, January 20, 2006).
The group’s conclusions about vote rigging were largely beside the point. The fact that the election was held under a military occupation in which the US was pulling the strings behind the scenes, and secretly blanketing the media with pro-occupation, pro-US and pro-election messages, is sufficient to discredit it. But the conjunction of the finding that fraud was perpetrated with the conclusion that the election was nevertheless an “impressive display of democracy” is interesting for what it says about how the same set of facts can co-exist with diametrically opposite conclusions (an impartial observer might conclude, on the basis of the Mission’s findings, that the election was far from an impressive display of democracy.) Which conclusion is advanced is a political decision, tied to a particular political or economic interest.
Evidence of vote rigging and electoral fraud, even the claim of fraud, is sufficient for the mass media and Western governments to call into question the election of regimes the United States and Britain have an interest in deposing and replacing with governments more congenial to the profit-making interests of their transnational corporations. If the anti-US corporate class candidate is expected to win, the standard procedure is to loudly announce in advance that electoral fraud is imminent, and later to point to election results that favor the targeted regime’s candidate as confirmation of the prediction. If, on the other hand, the pro-US corporate class candidate wins, his victory can be said to represent the triumph of the people’s will, despite attempts to steal the election. The strategy is one of: heads I win, tails you lose. The presidential election in Yugoslavia in 2000 was dismissed by the Western media, whose governments had spent the preceding decade trying to crush Serb socialism, as fraudulent even before the first vote was cast. When Slobodan Milosevic received more votes in the preliminary round than the candidate backed and financed by NATO, no further evidence was said to be necessary to demonstrate that a fraud had occurred.
Some degree of fraud, vote rigging and chicanery is inevitable in any election, including those in the United States, jost famously in Florida in connection with the election of George W. Bush to his first term as president. What matters is not whether fraud occurs, but whether it’s widespread and systematic, or marginal and random. Some degree of marginal and random fraud is an inevitable feature of any election, including the jost scrupulously conducted ones.
Even so, low level, randomly occurring fraud, can be turned from mole hill into mountain by governments intent on fomenting insurrection or a “color” revolution in a state that has become a target to be folded into an imperialist country’s orbit. In these cases, the reports of monitoring organizations about elections being marred by vote rigging will be used to call for the ouster of the undesirable candidates. Candidates who win elections in Third World countries who are prepared to remove restrictions on foreign investment, allow repatriation of profits, and to open up markets, even if they have come to power in elections corrupted by wide-spread and systematic fraud, will be said to have received a mandate to govern in elections that, “though marred by some irregularities, were essentially fair, even impressive displays of democracy.” The conclusion, then, about whether an election is fair or not, is politically determined, and reflects the interests represented by the person making the conclusion.
The United States has an extensive history of intervening in the elections of other countries to promote conservative, pro-investment and pro-US regimes, and to block the election of economically nationalist, socialist and communist governments that threaten the profit-making opportunities of US transnationals. It is also an inveterate organizer of coups, both soft and hard, to bring down governments that fail to promote the economic interests of US corporations, and is a keen architect of programs to reverse electoral outcomes deemed to be inconsistent with the interests of the US ruling class (William Blum, Killing Hope: U.S. Global Interventions Since World War II, Common Courage Press, 1995; Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower, Common Courage Press, 2005).
In recent years, the United States has: launched a concerted effort to block the return of the leftwing Sandinista party to power in Nicaragua (New York Times, April 5, 2005); set up a multi-agency taskforce to funnel money to “foundations and business and political groups opposed to” the Chavez government (New York Times, April 26, 2005); financed opposition groups in Georgia and Ukraine that instigated “color” revolutions (New York Times, May 29, 2005) which paved the way for pro-Russian governments to be replaced by governments committed to facilitating the profit-making activities of US transnational corporations; taken “a page from the playbook” on Ukraine and Georgia to channel money to fifth column groups in Iran which seek to replace the current economically nationalist government with one more amenable to US investment and economic domination (New York Times, May 29, 2005); pledged millions of dollars in funding to media and opposition groups (New York Times, December 17, 2005) seeking to oust the Lukashenko government in Belarus, whose crime has been to turn “Belarus into a miniature version of the Soviet Union itself, with a state-run economy” (New York Times, January 1, 2006). Terry Nelson, the national political director of the Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign, is running the campaign of the US-selected opposition candidate, Aleksandr Milinkevich, in Belarus’ presidential election. The campaign’s own polling, paid for by the International Republican Institute, shows that Milinkevich’s support is in the single digits. With Milinkevich’s popularity so limited that he has virtually no chance of winning the election, his US handlers are trying to make the case that the election will be marred by fraud, as the basis for an uprising. At the center of the plan to foment an insurrection is an activist youth group called Khopits, financed by “cash smuggled into Belarus in small amounts” from the US, British and German governments (New York Times, January 1, 2006; New York Times, February 26, 2006).
One might expect, given the US ruling class practice of buying electoral outcomes at home, and bringing the same approach to the domination of weaker countries, that the stamp of intervention would be impressed upon the elections in Iraq. Washington, however, adamantly denies this, saying that while it considered funneling campaign financing to favored candidates, in the end, it decided not to (New York Times, July 16, 2005). Not true, says Seymour Hersh, writing in the New Yorker. According to Hersh, the Bush administration went ahead with its plans to directly meddle in the elections, over the objections of the US Congress, using “retired CIA officers and other non-government personnel, and … funds that were not necessarily appropriated by Congress,” to get around US law (New York Times, July 16, 2005). The funds were used to “bolster the campaign of Ayad Allawi, who had been installed by the United States as Iraq’s interim prime minister in 2004, and who had worked closely with the CIA during his years as an Iraqi exile” (Washington Post, July 18, 2005). Allawi didn’t win, but he did better than expected.
The nature of the elections is best glimpsed, as so much as else in Iraq, through the eyes of Iraqis. “It is difficult for any sensible person to believe the US would give up its domination of Iraq after spending billions of dollars and sacrificing the lives of hundreds of soldiers,” remarks Mohammed al-Obaidi, a member of the People’s Struggle Movement. “Iraqis never believed that the US would simply allow free and democratic elections that could, and would, results in a government that would make the first priority ending the occupation. In fact, the main purpose of the election process was to secure a government that will facilitate long-lasting agreements with the US to keep its forces on Iraqi soil and transform the country into an American colony” (www.counterpunch.org, July 12, 2005).
The Invasion’s and Occupation’s Toll in Lives
Over 2,000 US soldiers have been killed since their government plunged them into a war of conquest, and more than 16,000 have been wounded (New York Times, January 1, 2006). The figures for the aggressors are bad enough, but they don’t begin to compare with the death and destruction visited upon the victims, Iraqis.
A study by the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University estimated that 100,000 Iraqi civilians were killed as a direct or indirect result of the Anglo-American invasion (New York Times, October 29, 2004). The Iraq Body Count estimates that 30,000 Iraqis have been killed since March 2003.
The UN Human Rights Commission found that a year and a half into the occupation, aljost twice as many Iraqi children were malnourished as before US and British troops began their assault on the country. Close to eight percent of Iraqi children under the age of five – 400,000 kids — suffer from acute malnutrition, up from four percent two years earlier (Workers World, April 6, 2005). And there are other blights: Limited access to potable water; irregular and limited electricity generation; a degraded health care system; and schools destroyed. Those who say Iraq would be plunged into disarray if the US cut and run, are either blind to the reality that the humanitarian crisis is deepening under the Anglo-American occupation (indeed, was set in motion by the decision of the US to wage war on Iraq), or don’t particularly care.
Asked by a French reporter whether it was cowardly to use women’s baskets and handbags to carry explosives to kill innocent people, Larbi Ben M’hidi, leader of the resistance against the French colonial occupation of Algeria, turned the question around. “And doesn’t it seem more cowardly to drop napalm bombs on defenseless villages so that there are a thousand times more innocent victims? Of course, if we had your airplanes it would be a lot easier for us. Give us your bombers, and you can have our baskets.”
Contrary to the impression that could be easily formed from media accounts of armed resistance to the US and British occupation of Iraq, those engaged in hostile acts against occupation forces and collaborationist Iraqi police and military personnel are not, in the main, al-Qaeda fighters who have poured into Iraq from other predominantly Islamic countries. They’re Iraqis retaliating against the invasion of their country. All but a small percentage of political prisoners held by US forces are Iraqi citizens (Washington Post, May 10, 2005).
Likewise, the impression created by the media of resistance activities being comprised largely of an endless series of attacks on Iraqi civilians by suicide bombers is also wrong. To be sure, suicide bombings that kill Iraqi civilians occur, and they occur regularly enough, but they do not occur with anywhere near the frequency of attacks on occupying military forces, their adjuncts, and Iraqi collaborators. Over the 12 month period ending last summer, the number of attacks on occupying and collaborationist forces averaged 65 per day (New York Times, July 24, 2005). And there’s every indication the resistance is growing despite (indeed, because of) stepped up efforts to quell it, including an intensification of air attacks with its inevitable growing mountain of by-stander victims. The number of attacks by resistance forces in March 2004 nearly doubled over the previous summer, while attacks by the end of last year were 250 percent higher than in March 2004. At the same time, resistance attacks on Iraqi collaborationist forces had grown 200 percent from March 2004 to December 2005 (New York Times, February 2006).
Imperialism has only ever been defeated by the recalcitrance of the natives, and the resistance of Iraqis to the blatant attempt by Anglo-American forces to dominate Iraq to exploit the country’s land, labor and resources, is progressive, necessary and inevitable. As author Tariq Ali told the Stop the War Peace Conference held in London, last December, “the resistance is fighting for us all” (Proletarian, February-March, 2006, http://www.cpgb-ml.org/index.php?secName=proletarian).
The Façade of Sovereignty
The tribunal trying Saddam Hussein and other leading figures of the ousted Iraqi government with various crimes is an instrument of US policy, barely concealed behind a thin Iraqi façade. It was established by a decree passed by the American occupation authority. The US provides the funding – more than $75 million (New York Times, June 6, 2005). Washington furnishes the tribunal with US lawyers, forensic experts and others “who work in an agency known as the Regime Crimes Liaison Office, financed by the US Justice Department and housed in the US embassy” (New York Times, July 18, 2005). The Iraqi judges take “pains to proclaim their autonomy” but “work closely with dozens of US Justice Department lawyers and forensic specialists” who “have screened tons of physical and documentary evidence, offered guidance to Iraqi prosecutors on strategy and run them through a mock trial” (New York Times, October 18, 2005). The US even holds Saddam Hussein in its own prison near the Baghdad airport, under a special arrangement that allows the ousted president to be nominally, though not actually, in the custody of Iraq. The Justice Department cajoles and threatens until it gets its way, at one point threatening to take Hussein to The Haque if Iraqi politicians didn’t stop interfering in the tribunal’s work (New York Times, July 20, 2005). The US, accordingly, is declared to be “the real power behind the tribunal, advising and often deciding on aljost every facet of its work, always behind a shield of anonymity” (New York Times, October 18, 2005). This is a microcosm of the larger relationship between the US and Iraq, in which Washington is the real power behind the Iraqi government, advising and often deciding on aljost every facet of its work, always behind a shield (though a not particularly opaque one) of anonymity. Contrary to the poorly constructed illusion, Iraq is not sovereign, nor even semi-sovereign. The United States sets the drum beat to which its Iraqi functionaries march, and will, through the operation of the institutions, laws, and ownership claims the US has created, always march, unless toppled by the resistance.
That Iraq is in no sense sovereign is clear, not only in the reality that the tribunal is US-run and directed, but in the fact that the US is creating an army in Iraq whose function is not to defend the country, but to put down uprisings against the occupation. Washington “envisions Iraq as having little air force, and presumably little ground defense against enemy air weaponry.” “U.S. officers tend to describe what they are training as a counterinsurgency force, rather than an army” (Washington Post, November 20, 2005). In other words, Iraq’s military will defend US interests against internal opposition, but will not be capable of mounting a defense against outside aggressors – which includes, objectively, the US and British militaries. Iraq’s army is woefully under-equipped. Its officers importune US officials for equipment: assault rifles, tanks, attack helicopters and command and control equipment, but their requests are turned down, with vague promises that equipment will be furnished in good time. A properly equipped Iraqi army could turn on the occupiers.
This echoes the strategy the British used to dominate Iraq. In the 1920s, Britain pieced together Iraq from three Ottoman provinces, won as war booty in WWI. Control of Iraq furnished British companies with access to newly discovered oil fields in Kurdistan and along Iraq’s border with Iran. A puppet king was installed to create the illusion of Iraqi autonomy and a domestic army was built to quell minor internal uprisings, but was kept weak enough that it wouldn’t be able to challenge continued British domination. The task of dealing with major uprisings fell to Britain. Under Britain’s first Labour government, terror bombing of Iraqi villages was authorized, to keep restive Iraqis in line, and to enforce Britain’s domination of the country and its prized oil assets. This wasn’t the first, nor the last, time an avowed socialist would act as a good imperialist.
In the same tradition, the US is building four major airbases in Iraq. General John Jumper, the US Air Force Chief of Staff, says American warplanes will remain in Iraq “more or less indefinitely.” A US troop presence will also remain to protect the airbases (New York Times, August 30, 2005). The indefinite American military presence, says Jumper, is necessary to protect US “interests in that part of the world,” a curious statement from the standpoint of democracy and geography, but perfectly understandable from the standpoint of imperialism.
What purpose does the nominally-sovereign, US-directed tribunal service? To some, it’s to justify the invasion because the weapons of mass destruction that formed the original basis for the war were never found. One analysis argued, “For the Bush administration, which found no weapons of mass destruction after ousting Hussein, a string of successful prosecutions could help to defend the decision to invade Iraq by focusing attention on the crimes of the ousted regime” (New York Times, October 18, 2005). This could be interpreted to mean Washington sincerely believed weapons would be found (which is why it went looking for them), and when it discovered it had blundered, established the tribunal to provide evidence that would form the basis of the justification it needed to save face. But this ignores the evidence that the Bush administration knew all along there were no weapons of mass destruction, but invoked the threat of hidden banned weapons as the strongest pretext for an invasion. There was Dearlove’s report to Blair that the intelligence was being fit to the policy; the debriefing of the defector Hussein Kamel, Saddam’s weapons chief and son-in-law, who told the CIA he had ordered the destruction of all Iraq’s weapons; and the subsequent cover up. This all pointed to Washington knowing that Iraq was disarmed. Former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz told Vanity Fair that “for reasons that have a lot to do with the US government bureaucracy, we settled on the issue that everyone could agree on: weapons of mass destruction.” While this can be interpreted to mean the hidden weapons claim was accepted because everyone believed it to be true, it can also mean (and this seems far more likely) that the claim was seized on because the deception that Iraq had reconstituted its weapons program made the best public relations case for war. Significantly, Wolfowitz’s words indicate the Bush administration was looking for a pretext, not that it discovered Iraq had banned weapons and proceeded from there. Recall, too, that the real reason for the invasion of Iraq, in Wolfowitz’s words, was that economically Iraq could not be overlooked – “it swims in a sea of oil,” he said (The Guardian, June 9, 2003). A pretext had to be found to justify the ousting, by force, of the economically nationalist regime of Saddam Hussein, which had walled off a vast sea of oil, and other investment and trade opportunities, from US capital.
American officials have kept the tribunal’s charges within narrow limits, ensuring the indictments are not broad enough to include events connected with the Iran-Iraq war. The goal is to shelter Iraq from the obligation to pay war reparations to Iran (New York Times, June 6, 2005), to avoid reducing the attractiveness of Iraq as a potential bonanza of profits for US transnationals, and to prevent infusions of capital from flowing to a country Washington has also targeted for regime change.
So far the Tribunal has only dealt with the former regime’s response to a botched attempt on the life of Saddam Hussein in the village of Dujail in 1982. If the deposed president is found guilty of having ordered the execution of 140 residents of the village, the tribunal hearings, at least they respect Saddam Hussein, may come to an end. Under a new law, all death sentences must be carried out within 30 days of a failed appeal, regardless of pending charges (Times Online, February 19, 2006). If the tribunal rules against Hussein (as it must, for reasons explained below), other charges will be dropped, including the charge the ousted president “gassed his own people” at Halabja in March 1988.
The Halabja Incident
Iranian forces had occupied Halabja, part of the Kurd region of Iraq, in the latter days of the Iraq-Iran war. Iraqi forces launched an attack to drive the Iranians out of the village. In the battle, both sides used poison gas. Caught in the middle, 5,000 Kurd civilians died horrible deaths. But who was responsible for their deaths – Iraqi forces, Iranian forces, or both – was never clear. All we know for sure, says Stephen C. Pelletiere, a former professor at the US Army War College, and the CIA’s senior political analyst during the Iraq-Iran war, was that the “Kurds were bombarded with poison gas that day at Halabja,” not that “Iraqi chemical weapons killed the Kurds” (Stephen C. Pelletiere, “A war crime or an act of war?” New York Times, January 31, 2003). The condition of the dead, however, suggests that it was Iran, not Iraq, which bears responsibility. According to Pelletiere, “The condition of the dead bodies indicated they had been killed with a blood agent…which Iran was known to use. The Iraqis, who are thought to have used mustard gas in the battle, are not known to have possessed blood agents.” Hence, rather than Saddam Hussein ordering the use of poison gas to kill Kurd civilians, the ultimate culprit may have been the Iranian forces that had occupied the village. Even if we accept, against the evidence, that it was Iraqi mustard gas that killed the residents of Halabja, the context makes clear that Saddam Hussein did not deliberately order the gassing of his own people, contrary to the impression US pro-war propaganda has created.
The Real Reason for the Tribunal
What is the tribunal’s purpose? The answer is fairly obvious, if you think through the problem from the perspective of the people who engineered the take-over of Iraq. But the answer, contrary to the view favored in many left-wing circles, isn’t that the tribunal is a Machiavellian ploy to justify the assault on Iraq by finding Saddam Hussein guilty of crimes against humanity. There are too many problems with this view.
First, Washington no longer has to justify the invasion. The invasion is over, a fait accompli. If Washington has a PR problem, the problem isn’t justifying what it did three years ago, but managing opposition at home to the continued presence of US occupation forces in Iraq. Declaring Saddam Hussein guilty of crimes against humanity does nothing to further this cause.
Second, Saddam Hussein was long ago declared guilty of crimes against humanity in the only court that matters in securing public consent for war: the court of public opinion. That such prominent left-wing critics of US foreign policy and the war on Iraq as Noam Chomsky can declare the ousted Iraqi president to be a monster should make it clear that the job of criminalizing Hussein is unnecessary; he’s as reviled on the left as he is on the right. The tribunal, if its purpose is to present Hussein as a monster, simply belabors a point already made and widely accepted as true.
Third, if the purpose is to depict Hussein as a monster to justify his ouster, why also try other high-ranking members of his government, none of whom anyone but a few people outside of the Middle East had ever heard of before they became faces on a deck of playing cards? It’s enough to criminalize Saddam Hussein, who, in the public mind, as dictator, is solely responsible for all that happened in Iraq. Dragging anonymous figures before the court, from the standpoint of justifying the ouster of Saddam Hussein, is superfluous.
That the tribunal’s charges extend well beyond Hussein, to touch other key members of his government, offers a hint as to the tribunal’s real purpose. Put yourself in the shoes of a planner working in the US State Department. US troops are about to march into Iraq. If the initial resistance of Iraq’s military is overcome, and your invading forces conquer the centers of power, what do you do with the members of the toppled regime? You can’t allow them their freedom, to lead quiet lives under the new order, because they won’t lead quiet lives. They’ll become rallying points for resistance. You can’t allow them to go into exile, for resistance movements can be organized and directed from outside the country, and probably with greater ease than they can be from within, where room to maneuver is limited. There is only one option: to neutralize the central figures of the toppled government so they cannot use their authority, contacts, resources, and organizational skills to lead a backlash to undermine the new order, and restore the old. To accomplish this goal, high-ranking government officials must be targeted in the initial assault. If they escape death, they must be hunted down. If they are caught, they must be rendered hors de combat, either by being consigned to a life term of imprisonment, or executed. To do otherwise risks imperiling the entire enterprise of invasion, conquest and regime change.
The next problem for our US State Department planner becomes how to justify the imprisonment and execution of members of the old regime. On what grounds are they to be held? On what grounds are they to be executed? This is tricky because there’s no real legal basis to throw key figures of the old government into jail and no legal basis on which to execute them. Defying US demands to open your country to exploitation by US transnational corporations or being a potential rallying point for a post-invasion resistance, are hardly formal crimes. Accordingly, in the absence of a legal basis for the neutralization of the old government’s high-ranking members, one must be created.
In the case of the UN Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, which was trying the ousted Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic until his death this month, the UN Security Council, under US and British pressure, simply over-stepped its bounds, and arrogated onto itself the legal authority to try key figures on the losing side of the NATO war on Yugoslavia. In doing so, it arbitrarily declared itself a sovereign power, with authority over the former Yugoslavia. To prevent further missteps in this direction, the UN created the International Criminal Court, based on the consent of participating countries, which voluntarily invest the court with authority by agreeing to be bound by its decisions. In this way, authority to try those accused of crimes against humanity is not assumed arbitrarily as a right. However, the United States refuses to support the court, and actively works to undermine it, by threatening the withdrawal of economic and military aid to countries that don’t agree to refrain from sending US citizens wanted by the court to The Hague to stand trial. From Washington’s perspective, any court that isn’t under its control, operating to secure its interests, is intolerable.
To create a legal basis for the imprisonment and possible execution of the key figures of the toppled Iraqi government, the US occupation authority created a set of laws to establish a tribunal to try Saddam Hussein and other key members of the toppled regime. Essentially, the tribunal retroactively defines as crimes certain previous actions of the Iraqi government, which may have been legal under the laws of the old regime, in much the same way the Nuremberg Tribunal retroactively defined as crimes only the class of atrocities the Nazis had uniquely carried out (e.g., the Holocaust), and not those also carried out by the Allies (e.g., strategic bombing of civilians), to provide a legal basis for the imprisonment and execution of the key surviving members of the Nazi hierarchy. Similarly, the tribunal in Iraq is tailored to provide a legal foundation for the imprisonment and possible execution of the key members of the Ba’athist hierarchy. Just as Washington fit the intelligence to its pro-war policy to justify a land invasion, the laws establishing the tribunal have fit a legal basis to the policy of eliminating members of Iraq’s toppled government. The tribunal, then, is a not ploy to justify the invasion after the fact, but a means of justifying the neutralization of potential rallying points against the occupation.
The Forces that Compelled the Invasion
The United States and Britain, and other advanced capitalist countries, are societies built around business; that is, their organizing principle is the pursuit of profit. The governments of these countries, as is fitting of business societies, operate to facilitate the profit making of businesses generally, and especially of the largest businesses. This is so because the concentration of wealth in large corporations means that they uniquely have the resources to monopolize the financing of political campaigns, to carry on vigorous lobbying, and to place representatives in key positions of the state. They are also able to deter governments from pursuing anti-private property policies, by announcing massive layoffs, by going on investment strikes, by moving operations to other jurisdictions, by launching visible negative publicity campaigns against the government, and by the actual or threatened withdrawal of campaign financing to block re-election of the government’s key elected personnel. The ability of large corporations as a group to tip a country into economic crisis, either as a deliberate pressure tactic or as the outcome of a rational economic response to policies that encroach upon corporate interests, ensures that progressive, socialist and even communist (e.g., Yugoslavia) governments that operate within the logic of the capitalist system are constrained to follow policies that facilitate profit-making. This applies not only to domestic policy, but to foreign policy, as well.
The principal goal of the foreign policy of a business society is to secure export and investment opportunities for its corporations, and those countries which are equipped with formidable armed forces and the apparatus of covert intervention, will use these assets to extort, or take by force, the profit-making opportunities they demand foreign countries grant their corporations. Because the foreign policy of all business societies is organized around the securing of opportunities for their major corporations to accumulate capital, there is an unremitting competition among them for access to export markets, cheap labor and raw materials. To the degree they can, they seek to monopolize these advantages for the exclusive benefit of their own business communities at the expense of those of competing countries.
In the 20th century, this competition broke out into devastating world wars, which allowed the United States to reap huge profits as a supplier of goods and materiel to the combatants, only entering the wars at the last moment to dictate the terms of peace to weakened and exhausted combatants. As a result, the US was able to become the hegemonic power in the world, incorporating the weakened German, Japanese and British imperialisms into its own imperialist bloc. The subordination of these countries to US leadership, does not, however, eliminate the competition; it only forces it to be played out in other ways. The motive force of profit making, which lies at the heart of the competition, hasn’t been eliminated. But the chances of any US-challenger prevailing in a war against the United States are slim. Consequently, overt military conflict is avoided by the weaker powers, in favor of war by other, largely diplomatic, means. However, given a rough parity in military strength, war would be a real possibility.
For Britain, whose power to dominate the world was weakened by WWII and the rise of its competitor, the United States, the pursuit of profit-making opportunities on behalf of its corporations has been yoked to an alliance with the United States, with Britain serving as junior partner. The Anglo-American military partnership undermines the development of the European Union as an economic bloc backed by a unified European military alliance with the military muscle to compete with the United States to monopolize resources, markets and access to cheap labor. In return, Britain is rewarded by Washington, granted a share of the spoils of US-led conquests of such countries as Iraq.
The allure of Iraq to the United States, and to Britain, is the country’s vast oil reserves. Neither country especially needs these reserves for its own consumption. The United States produces half of the oil it consumes from domestic sources, and the bulk of the remainder comes from its neighbors, Canada and Mexico. Britain has the advantage of access to North Sea oil. But France, Spain, Germany, China and Japan, depend heavily on oil imports from the Middle East. Washington and London don’t want control over Iraq’s oil resources to establish security of supply to fuel their own economies, but to secure profit-making opportunities for US and British oil firms. This could only be done by forcing out the government of Saddam Hussein, which was hostile to US and British investment, and replacing it with one subordinate to Washington, which would re-write the Iraqi constitution to open up the country’s oil fields to domination by US and British corporations.
It’s tempting to come up with a single motive to explain the US-British take-over of Iraq, but while the impetus of securing profit-making opportunities for US and British oil companies was probably central to the decision-making of US planners, it’s unlikely that it was the only, or even the chief, factor. Instead, it seems more likely that a complex of forces and motives impelled the US toward war on Iraq. One such factor is the necessity of destroying a counterexample to the self-serving trade and investment policies the US prescribes for less-developed countries. Under the government of Saddam Hussein, Iraq used its oil resources to build an economy that had many features of a socialist economy: free education through university; state-owned enterprises; subsidies to keep the prices of necessities low; a full-employment policy; and a healthcare system that was the envy of the Middle East. These achievements were secured by rejecting the model of an economy open to exploitation by the corporations of advanced capitalist countries, like the United States. Iraq’s constitution, for example, defined Iraq’s oil resources as the property of the people of Iraq, not as resources the oil majors of the US, Britain and other advanced capitalist powers could claim title to and exploit for their own narrow aims.
As a model for how a post-colonial society could develop, Iraq was an anathema to the governments of the First World, for Iraq’s economic nationalist policies negated the very goal to which the foreign policy of the advanced capitalist countries is directed: securing profit-making opportunities for their own corporations. Iraq rejected this model, adopting a set of counter-policies, which together with the country’s native petroleum wealth, allowed it to thrive, while Third World countries that accepted the self-serving prescriptions of the First World for how a Third World country should develop, remained mired in poverty and thwarted in their development. Were all Third World countries to follow in Iraq’s footsteps, the corporations of the First World would be doubly disadvantaged. First, they would incur the cost of lost opportunity, and second, Third World enterprises, developing behind protective barriers, might grow large enough to challenge their First World counterparts. For governments imbued by their economies with the mission of promoting the profit-making opportunities of their corporate communities, the prospect is intolerable. The solution is to crush the counter-example, and in the process, to send a warning to other countries inspired to follow the same path: develop outside the self-serving parameters we set, and we’ll crush you.
Two other motives for the US to wage war on Iraq are related to the centrality of militarism and arms production to the profitability of companies operating within the US economy. Lockheed-Martin, Raytheon, Boeing, General Electric and other US corporate titans reap billions of dollars in profits by producing arms and the machinery of war for, and providing services to, the Pentagon. Their profitability depends on a credible case being made for the existence of omnipresent threats to the security of the United States to justify continued Pentagon orders, and on the regular fighting of wars to deplete inventories of missiles, bombs and equipment, to generate replacement orders. These corporations can use their extensive resources to mount public relations campaigns to warn of threats posed by foreign countries or movements, fund think tanks and scholars to make the case that the US is under threat, and lobby the US Congress to ensure the flow of Pentagon orders continues unabated. US corporations that stand to receive contracts to rebuild the damaged and destroyed infrastructure of countries that have been targets of US attacks may also press their resources into service to lobby politicians for military intervention. George Shultz, who is connected to the US engineering giant Bechtel, used his connections as secretary of state in the Reagan administration to lobby the Bush administration to invade Iraq. Bechtel received reconstruction contracts after the invasion. Massive US state spending on the military and war also provides jobs to numberless Americans, who might otherwise find themselves on the streets, with no means of support. As such, it keeps at bay the persistent problems of intolerably high unemployment, and the incessant threat of economic crisis, to which advanced capitalist economies are inherently prone.
A related motive is to strengthen the US military presence in the Middle East. The US operates a vast system of military bases around the world, in scores of countries, to “defend US interests,” that is, to protect US foreign investments from expropriation by nationalizing governments, to ensure that countries within the US orbit maintain a US-business-friendly investment and trade climate, and to discourage competitors from encroaching on the US sphere of interest. This system of military bases acts as a constant threat to governments that might dare to risk the pursuit of anti-private property policies, to other advanced capitalist countries that might seek to extend their domain, and to serve as launch pads for attacks on other countries, to the expand the domain in which US corporations are free to operate. A permanent military presence in Iraq provides the US with facilities to safeguard the investment of the US oil majors in the region, and to threaten, and possibly launch, an attack on Iran.
Finally, all advanced capitalist states are driven to use their resources to try to monopolize opportunities for their transnational corporations to make profits. Pre-invasion Iraq had all the hallmarks of a country US planners would have targeted for regime change, even if it didn’t have vast reserves of oil, because the government of Saddam Hussein had largely walled the country off from US capital. All Third World countries the US state regards as economically unfree, that is, that block, limit, or impose performance requirements on foreign investment, deploy trade barriers, or intervene in domestic markets to achieve public policy goals at the expense of the potential profits of US corporations, are subject to threat, destabilization, economic warfare and military intervention by the US state. These countries include: Cuba, which restricts and imposes performance criteria on foreign investment; Belarus, whose economy is largely state-owned and follows policies of import suppression and export promotion; Venezuela, whose government controls key sectors of the economy, limiting US investment opportunities; Zimbabwe, which promotes majority Zimbabwean participation in new ventures, and pushes for eventual transition of foreign investment to local ownership; north Korea, which prohibits jost foreign investment and controls all imports and exports; and Iran, which prohibits private ownership of power generation, postal services, telecommunications and large-scale industry, restricts foreign ownership in the petroleum sector, mandates that the banking sector remain in state hands, and uses its ownership stake in over 1,500 companies to meet social policy goals.
Washington is actively trying to replace the governments of each of these countries with governments that will throw open their economies to penetration by US capital, preferably on monopoly terms. Iraq then, is not unique. No ad hoc explanation need be invoked to account for why Iraq has been subject to economic strangulation, strategic bombing and occupation. It can be posited as a law that advanced capitalist states are driven by the logic of their economies to secure profit-making opportunities, and that they use the resources at their disposal to extort those opportunities, or take them by force, from unwilling countries. Iraq is simply the jost conspicuous current manifestation of the working out of the logic of that law.
The cycle begins anew, this time with Iran at the center. The deceptions, to those whose minds have not been poisoned by years of indoctrination into the cult of US or British moral authority by the mass media, schools and governments of these states, are as plain as ever. It’s as if the US president, the British prime minister, and their advisors, aren’t even trying, figuring Americans and Britons will believe anything their leaders tell them. Many do.
The alarm has been sounded: Iran’s civilian nuclear energy program is a cover for a secret nuclear weapons program. Iran must, accordingly, be deprived of the right to enrich uranium, even if it pledges to operate within the safeguards established by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and to grant UN inspectors a level of access to its nuclear facilities exceeding that other countries are willing to allow.
Two questions are critical. What evidence is there to back up the allegations of the notoriously untruthful Bush administration that Tehran is pursuing a secret weapons program? Not a jot. Is there are reason, nevertheless, to believe that Iran would be well-served by building a nuclear weapons capability? Yes.
A nuclear arsenal, even a modest one, would allow Iran to create a Mexican standoff to deter the United States (or Israel, on Washington’s behalf) from using the threat of war or military intervention to compel compliance with demands that the country’s economically nationalist policies be thrown aside in favor of an open door for US capital. Once George Bush declared Iran to be part of an “axis of evil,” and then invaded Iraq, (one of the other states said to be part of the same axis), pressure on Iran to develop a nuclear weapons program as a defensive measure increased, especially considering the positive model north Korea’s ambiguous possession of a nuclear weapons capability provides in restraining Washington’s hand in carrying through on its threats to attack the DPRK.
However, whether Iran is pursuing a secret weapons program, or will in the future, is a moot point. But what is clear, is that the warning that an Iran in possession of a few warheads stands as a direct military threat to the United States and Israel borders on the absurd. Israel is widely believed to have 200 nuclear weapons. Against this formidable arsenal, Iran could not possibly destroy Israel; it could only guarantee its own annihilation. Against the vastly more formidable US arsenal, a nuclear equipped Iran is not a threat; it is only a country the Pentagon would have to think twice about attacking.
The scenario of an Iran in possession of nuclear weapons deciding to furnish a national liberation group with a warhead is more difficult to deal with from the standpoint of conventional military confrontation, and may be regarded in Washington as a more pressing concern than the comic book scenario of Tehran launching a warhead at Europe or Tel Aviv out of pure malice. But Washington’s desired preemption of this possibility is motivated, not by concern over the lives of numberless people dying in a non-conventional attack carried out by groups that have no state-affiliation, but in monopolizing weapons of mass destruction so that the domination and national oppression these groups react against can continue without interruption. The analogy is an occupying force seeking to monopolize access to arms, to reduce the chances its occupation will be challenged in any effective form.
So long as there is oppression, there will be resistance. It’s naïve to think Washington is oblivious to the connection between its actions and the retaliatory actions it demonizes as terrorism. The connection is clear. However, the US state cannot, as a matter of choice, simply stop acting in ways that victimize weak countries, ways that impel partisans of those countries to strike back. Washington is under a structural compulsion to pursue a predatory foreign policy, which means it can’t deal with the backlash its foreign policy generates by choosing to pursue a different path (a non-interventionist or “democratic” foreign policy.) Imperialism is the only option it can pursue so long as the organizing principle of US society is the pursuit of profit. It must, then, use force to limit the backlash as best it can. Conflict is inevitable, and it’s the only path through which the US imperialist bloc can pursue its foreign policy and the only path through which its opponents can defeat it.
For purposes of building support for a war, the US state prefers to spin fantastical tales of Tehran seeking to covertly develop nuclear weapons to “wipe Israel off the map,” presumably in a direct nuclear attack on the Zionist state. The “wipe Israel off the map” line, attributed to Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is twisted to give it a sinister meaning: that Iran seeks to destroy every man, women and child living in Israel. This isn’t the case. What Ahmadinejad would like to wipe off the map is Israel as an idea, that of a Jewish state based on the expulsion of Palestinians and discrimination against Arabs who remain in Israel; Zionism, in other words. Interpreting Ahmadinejad’s words as a promised campaign of genocide to be carried out against Israeli Jews is tantamount to saying anyone who called for the Third Reich to be wiped off the face of the map was calling for the genocide of Germans. This deliberate, demagogic misinterpretation serves a purpose: to build public support for a war on Iran.
If an attack on Iran comes, by US cruise missiles or B2s or Israeli warplanes carrying US–supplied bunker busters to penetrate deep into the earth to cripple Iran’s fledging subterranean nuclear power industry, the fundamental reasons for the attack will remain hidden. But the main forces that drive the US to war will be the same as those that compelled the US, with British assistance, to attack Iraq: to replace an economically nationalist regime that has largely walled off the country from US and British capital, and is developing outside the self-serving parameters established by Washington. There will also be subsidiary factors, unique to Iran, which add or detract from these forces (e.g., the link between Iran and pro-Palestinian groups which threatens the viability of a country that acts as an enforcer in the Middle East on behalf of US interests.) If an attack comes, it will only be a military manifestation of an aggression already begun, one based now on the threat of the use of force, diplomatic pressure and the fomenting of internal subversion. This is part of a pattern that reaches back to the founding of the US, and has characterized the behavior of all advanced capitalist states. If the aggressions now being undertaken by Washington against Iran escalate to war, we shouldn’t be shocked. It has been done before.