Iraq - The lull before the storm

The sound of war drums from Washington becomes louder and more insistent by the day. The recent declarations of Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld leave no doubt as to the intentions of the ruling clique in the USA. They are impatient to launch a military operation against Iraq. When this perspective becomes reality there will be enormous potential for a massive anti-war movement around the world. The best activists in the workers' and students' movements will want to show their anger and to oppose the war, and we must be prepared.

The sound of war drums from Washington becomes louder and more insistent by the day. Political observers are busy examining every nuance of the speeches coming out of Washington like the ancient Roman augurers trying to guess the future from the entrails of dead animals, and with no greater success. President Bush himself has been keeping very quiet, apart from insisting that the aim of his Iraq policy is "regime change" - that is, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein while stressing that he is a "patient man".

The implication is that the final decisions about military action have yet to be taken. But this hardly seems likely. After so much public sound and fury, a climb-down now would entail intolerable loss of face for George W. Bush. The President is silent but is allowing others to speak for him (and take all the criticism). Vice President Cheney insists that the decision has already been taken and that "The risks of inaction are far greater than the risk of action." This is undoubtedly the authentic voice of the Bush administration.

The recent declarations of Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld leave no doubt as to the intentions of the ruling clique in the USA. They are impatient to launch a military operation against Iraq. They have made it clear that the President does not have to consult Congress before commencing hostilities and that the support of America's allies is not a necessary condition for it. There is, of course, nothing new in the assertion that the White House does not have to ask the permission of Congress in order to declare war. The last time such a thing happened was in 1941, on the eve of the war against Japan! Since then the USA has participated in hundreds of military actions on foreign soil and has never felt the urge to consult the nation's elected representatives. It is always possible to find some justification for a good cause!

The faint-hearts are naturally demanding that the matter be placed in the hands of the "United" Nations - as if that would be a guarantee that there will be no war! In fact, it is quite possible that the UN would eventually agree to military action against Iraq, as it did (let us not forget) ten years ago. The Americans have plenty of strings to pull in the UN, where they control the purse strings. However, Bush is determined to bypass the United Nations and the Security Council, because he fears that the US could be vetoed, possibly by the Russians, and not only by them. China - a permanent member of the Security Council - is opposed to any attack on Iraq. On August 28 both India and China repeated their objections to any military action against that country.

Predictably, Saddam Hussein has responded to the threats from Washington by playing the kind of cat-and-mouse game in which he excels. The Americans understand that by manoeuvring on the question of allowing inspectors in, he might delay American war plans by months or years, especially in light of the difficulty of fighting in the Iraqi summer. This they want to avoid at all costs.

These diplomatic manoeuvres in Baghdad explain why so much of Cheney's speech last week was a polemic about the futility of weapons inspection. Saddam Hussein, he said, runs "a totalitarian regime that has made a science out of deceiving the international community". America argues that he already has biological and chemical weapons and is trying to develop nuclear ones, and must be stopped. Following Cheney's lead, Rumsfeld compared President George Bush's stance over Iraq with Winston Churchill's warnings in the 1930s against the rise of Nazi Germany!

That is all very well, except for the fact that, unlike Hitler's Germany in the 1930s, Iraq suffered a deadly onslaught ten years ago that virtually destroyed its war machine. Since then it has been subject to a vicious economic embargo that has crippled its whole economic and industrial potential. Its military and civil installations have been subjected to close scrutiny. Former UN weapons inspectors have stated that it is physically impossible for Iraq to have rebuilt its arms industry since they withdrew from the country.

Opposition in the Middle East

The chorus of criticism has been loudest of all in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia, a firm US ally, has ruled out the use of its bases for an attack on Iraq, a position that was not changed - publicly at least - by a meeting on August 27 at Mr Bush's ranch in Texas between the president and the Saudi ambassador.

The foreign minister of Qatar, a small emirate in the Gulf where the American army has bases and which had been proposed as a possible alternative command centre for a war, went to Iraq recently to express his opposition to military action. Even more significantly, Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, said in a speech on August 27 that in the event of an American attack on Iraq "not one Arab leader will be able to control the angry outburst of the masses."

These warning voices are an expression of the precarious position of the pro-western Arab regimes. There is now not a single stable regime in all the Middle East. An American attack on Iraq would act like a lighted match in a parched prairie. Right-wing Arab regimes could fall like dominoes. The Economist (August 29, 2002) admitted that "the fear of popular outrage helps explain the public positions taken by Arab leaders who, the Americans say, are privately much less adamantly opposed to military action."

With so many frantic warnings from friendly regimes in the Middle East, why does Bush remain deaf to all pleadings? Why does he insist on maintaining the present collision course, even though it could prepare the most violent backlash throughout the region?

In part, it is a continuation of the logic of America's world role after September 11, when Bush in practice abrogated to himself the right to intervene militarily against any country in the world, thus tearing up all the basic ground-laws that have governed international relations since the 17th century. This, in turn, is the result of the unprecedented situation since the fall of the USSR, when the entire world is dominated by a single superpower that is responsible for approximately 40 percent of the world's military production.

America thinks it can safely defy the opinions of the rest of the world, and act just as it likes, on the logic of "who can stop us?" The defeat and removal of Saddam Hussein would be a powerful warning to the peoples of the whole world and especially the Middle East: do as we say, or accept the consequences!

There are, of course, important economic factors in this equation. The struggle in the Middle East is closely linked to the question of who will control the world's oil supplies (don't forget that George W. is an oil man). With the world in the grip of an economic recession of uncertain length and duration, the USA is anxious to get its hands on the main levers of economic power in the world - in particular it seeks to guarantee its oil supplies. Iraq possesses the second largest known reserves of oil in the world. This is not a secondary matter, especially when Saudi Arabia is prey to such great instability.

Lately the relations between Saudi Arabia and the USA are not what they used to be. The Saudi regime looks increasingly unstable and incapable of controlling events within the country. They have not even been able to crack down seriously on al Qaeda. The prospect arises that the pro-American regime could be overthrown. In this case, the US troops based in Saudi Arabia would move to seize the narrow coastal strip where the oil is concentrated, considerately leaving the sand to the inhabitants.

The turbulence in the Middle East, which shows no signs of abating, and could result in the outbreak of war, threatens to cause a steep rise in oil prices, over which the USA would have no control. This, in turn, would cause both the American and the world economy to go into an uncontrollable tailspin.

If the Americans could only get their hands on Iraqi oil, they would obtain a kind of insurance policy for the future. They would be in a position, so the theory goes, of pumping out massive amounts of oil, and thus keep prices down, while guaranteeing US supplies for the foreseeable future. The prior condition for this, however, is the removal of Saddam Hussein. And this cannot be achieved by peaceful means.

However, the whole plan is deeply flawed from the standpoint of imperialism. The bellicose clique that controls the White House has thought nothing out to the end. The removal of Saddam Hussein cannot be achieved by bombing alone. Nor is there any force inside Iraq remotely similar to the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. In order to achieve this end (and Bush makes no secret of the fact that it is the end), a large US land force would need to be deployed. Moreover, the conflict would neither be easy or short. The US could get bogged down for years in a bloody military adventure, which would set the whole Middle East ablaze. Such considerations have caused deep rifts in the administration and forced Bush to delay his cherished plans for war.

Splits in the administration

The administration is deeply split and the divisions in its ranks have been paraded in the pages of the press in an unprecedented manner. The speeches by Rumsfeld and Cheney were part of this internal faction fight, in which James Baker, a secretary of state under President George W. Bush's father, has urged caution. Since Baker also masterminded the legal campaign in Florida which won George W. Bush the presidency in 2000, this opposition comes from a significant quarter.

Baker's warnings underlined the risks of unilateral military action: the sheer scale of the operation; the commitment it would demand from the United States to ten years of "nation-building"; the huge financial cost; and the dangers to long-standing alliances in the Middle East and elsewhere. Others have stressed the risk that invasion might provoke Mr Hussein into using whatever weapons he may still possess against Israel.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who has his own Presidential ambitions, has utilized the fears of the European leaders and the Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia and Egypt, to mobilize opposition to war among the traditionally isolationist sectors of the Republican establishment. This has undoubtedly complicated life for Bush, Rumsfeld and Cheney. But it would be naïve to think that this is a determining factor.

Powell's supposedly "peace-loving" allies - Brent Scowcroft, Norman Schwarzkopf and James Baker and the rest - have never opposed an invasion of Iraq in principle. Their comments merely insist that the invasion must be carried out in the name of the anti-terrorism coalition and should not destroy the coalition. They are therefore not opposed to war, but to the break-up of the allied coalition.

The Rumsfeld-Cheney position is that innovations in warfare have made it possible to mount an attack on Iraq without relying on Arab or European coalition partners. They have convinced themselves that Saddam can be removed without the need for the deployment of massive numbers of troops on the ground. According to this theory the new technologies will allow the Air Force and Special Operations Command (SOCOM) to destroy the regime of Iraqi President Saddam. This is a very foolish supposition. Any attack on Iraq itself will open up a conflict that could drag on for years. Precisely for that reason the Americans did not press on to Baghdad at the end of the Gulf War.

Other U.S. army officials, including Schwarzkopf, do not share these technological illusions. They understand that, in the last analysis, massive ground forces including armour will have to be sent into Iraq to defeat Hussein's army on the ground. This would involve colossal logistical difficulties. Given the size of the U.S. army, and the need for reliable bases near the theatre of operations, the participation of coalition forces in the initiative is imperative.

A large armoured force would be needed, and this in turn would require considerable logistical support. Particularly vital would be large-scale port facilities. Since neither Saudi Arabia, Kuwait or any of the other Gulf States would be prepared to allow their ports or airfields to be used, all eyes are directed to Turkey. A strike through Turkey, however, would not be nearly as effective as a two-front attack from north and south. Rumsfeld is pushing the idea of the "new technology" only because he has no other case to argue. But the argument of Powell that they must try to keep the coalition together is soundly based.

The Americans will therefore do all in their power to win over the European leaders, who, with the exception of Tony Blair, have objected to military action against Iraq on the grounds that the United States has not consulted them properly. So far Washington has been demanding something like a blank cheque from Europe. "We lead, you follow" is the basic message.

Europe and America

US diplomacy has been, as usual, about as subtle as a rhinoceros in a china shop. First prize for diplomatic skill must go to Donald Rumsfeld, who informed America's coalition allies, in so many words, that their views were of not the slightest interest either to him or his chief. America, if necessary, would go in alone and then presumably drag her allies behind her. Both Cheney and Rumsfeld are pushing for pre-emptive action to remove Saddam Hussein, whether or not he accedes to the UN's demand that he allow its inspectors back in to investigate Iraq's manufacturing of weapons of mass destruction.

American officials are privately making it clear that, whatever NATO's role may be, it will not include Iraq. Bush seems determined to go ahead with his plans to remove Saddam Hussein, though, as a result of the mess in Palestine and the threat of a broader destabilisation in the Middle East, he has temporarily been forced to back off. Instead of military action, America is attempting to push its case forward through diplomatic means. But if those fail - and they will - Washington will be prepared to take unilateral military action. Anyone who doubts this has only to read the statements of George W. Bush - including his speech in the Reichstag, which reiterated that America will use any means at its disposal to conduct the "war on terror".

On May 31 we wrote: "The contradictions between Europe and America are still in their early beginnings, and are expressed in private, or in secondary manifestations, as an underlying mood of mutual distrust and malaise. For the time being, the cracks are papered over. The American administration now says it wants NATO to act ‘out of area'. The same point is echoed in Europe. German and British officials emphasise that all is well in the alliance. NATO now has the authority to act wherever there is a threat to any member. But immediately a whole series of questions arise: How will it act? - Where? - With what weapons? - And, above all, who commands?" Events in the last few weeks have confirmed this analysis beyond reasonable doubt.

The European capitalists have their own interests in the Middle East, which do not necessarily correspond to those of America. They have tried to link the "war on terror" and the problem of al Qaeda to a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, arguing that there can be no progress on al Qaeda until there is a solution to the Israel-Palestine dispute. Like a drowning man clutching at a straw they have eagerly embraced the Saudi plan. But they know very well that a settlement is not on the agenda. Sharon's policy is "what we have we hold". And since Israel is America's only reliable ally in the area, Washington has looked the other way while the Israeli forces continue to pulverise the Palestinians. In such a context, any outbreak of hostilities in Iraq would have explosive consequences in the Middle East. This the Europeans wish to avoid at all costs.

The international response to Washington's warlike speeches, predictably, has been either sceptical or openly hostile. The suggestion that the American administration might launch a war unilaterally, without seeking renewed approval from the United Nations Security Council, and perhaps not even from the American Congress has gone down like a lead balloon. France has made it clear that it will not support military action. Germany has taken a similar position.

The American ambassador in Germany rebuked the chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, for his comments calling plans for a war an "adventure". Even Schröder's Conservative opponent in next month's elections, Edmund Stoiber, has said a war would need UN endorsement. That leaves Britain in a state of uncomfortable isolation. As an outspoken stooge of US imperialism, Tony Blair is anxious to do everything in his power to please the White House. But he is coming under heavy pressure on the home front.

A recent opinion poll shows that almost three quarters of the people of Britain do not support military action against Iraq. Opposition is most intense in the Labour Party. There are growing signs of a split in the cabinet itself. Senior Labour ministers are distancing themselves from the line promoted by Cheney and Rumsfeld. Jack Straw, the foreign secretary, has been stressing that war is not inevitable, if only Saddam Hussein can be persuaded to allow UN weapons inspectors back into the country. Britain says it is considering asking the UN to impose a "firm deadline" for the readmission of inspectors, who were withdrawn in 1999.

What this means is that Labour's right wing would like to back American aggression against Iraq, but would like it to be a bit better prepared. It is like a criminal who is about to commit murder, but realises that he needs to prepare a suitable alibi in advance. The same is true of the appeals to the UN. However, the Americans will answer that they already have sufficient authorization from the UN in the form of the resolutions of ten years ago. The argument of Blair and co is that the US should change its tactics, not at all that it should abandon its aggressive plans. They want Washington to force Iraq to accept intrusive international inspection. But America stubbornly refuses to rule out an invasion even if inspectors are let in and find nothing. The murderer wishes to proceed with his business with no regard for an alibi!

In these circumstances, as Mr Schröder among others has pointed out, there is no incentive for Saddam Hussein to allow inspection, which he can argue, quite rightly, is simply a trick to spy on him. But that is the idea! America does not want Iraq to accept inspection because that would make military action more difficult to justify. If America drops its threats, then its hands might be tied if Baghdad did allow the inspectors in, and they were unable to find much evidence of wrongdoing. Therefore, unlike the Godfather who made people "an offer they could not refuse", George W. Bush wants to make the Iraqi people an offer they cannot accept.

What next?

The present apparent vacillations are probably just the lull before the storm. Washington will soon launch a diplomatic offensive to silence America's critics in Europe, Saudi Arabia and above all, Turkey. The Bush administration will make use of the anniversary of September 11 to prepare the ground at home and abroad for a renewal of hostilities.

The recent declarations emanating from Washington powerfully suggest that some kind of military operation can begin suddenly and without warning. However, former experience also suggests that the Americans may organize some provocation first. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, which is always presented as a sudden and unprovoked attack on America by a treacherous foe, was in fact deliberately provoked by President Roosevelt, who wished at all costs to drag the USA into the World War against Germany, and needed an excuse to do so.

It is never difficult to manufacture such an excuse. It is an elementary proposition in war that one must always appear as the victim of aggression, never the aggressor. The other side must be seen to "strike the first blow". As a matter of fact, the question of who strikes first in war is a secondary question. The question of who is the aggressor and who the victim cannot be settled by appealing to such things, since it is very easy to provoke an incident that will create an impression of "aggression" that is the exact opposite of the real situation.

America "justified" its intervention in Vietnam by the so-called Tonkin incident. More recently the events of September 11 were used as an excuse to attack Afghanistan and launch the so-called worldwide "war on terror". Under this convenient cover, the mightiest power on earth demands the right to intervene wherever it likes, whenever it likes. And whoever stands in its way must be blasted aside. That is the real message of the "war on terror" and the preparations for military action against Iraq.

In war the reasons evoked to justify the opening of hostilities is of secondary importance. It is merely a diplomatic smokescreen intended to distract attention from the real aims. The question of "weapons of mass destruction" is clearly just a pretext for the real war aim, which is to get rid of Saddam Hussein. The White House is quite open about its intentions.

The next few months will see a continuation of the same instability that has characterised the world situation for the last two years or so. There may be new and possibly catastrophic attacks by al Qaeda. If these do not materialize, they can always be provoked or even manufactured.

We can confidently expect terrorist acts of some kind to occur in the next few weeks or months. There will be some invented revelation about Iraq's alleged stock of weapons of mass destruction or the intentions of Baghdad in relation to the USA or its allies in the Middle East. Or maybe an American plane will be shot down. The exact nature of the incident is impossible to foresee, since it belongs to the category of historical accident, but some such event is necessary in order to soften up public opinion in advance of a war.

The Europeans want consultations, and consultations they will get. Washington will go through the motions of discussing with its allies in the next weeks and months. This will change nothing substantial, and Bush remains determined to launch an attack on Iraq. The diplomatic horse-trading between America and Europe will merely provide a convenient smokescreen for the preparations for war. The USA may play a game of pretending to consider other diplomatic actions in Iraq. The sole purpose of this will be to make Baghdad an offer it cannot accept, and then blame it for refusing to collaborate.

Despite all their bluff, the Europeans are, in practice, impotent. They have no plan and no strategy. All their "wisdom" consists in playing for time. The attempt to tie the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the question of the war on terror is only a transparent delaying action. The United States will eventually call their bluff. At the end of the day, Bush will present them with an ultimatum: "For or against the war on terror?"

Heavy pressure will be put on Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The latter can be bought with the offer of more financial aid and the promise of a chunk of Iraqi territory, including the oil fields in the North. After Turkey, Kuwait and Jordan will also come under pressure, with unpredictable results. Thus, nobody will be able to say that they have not been fully "consulted". It will be clear to everyone that Europe and Saudi Arabia have no viable counterproposals. Washington will feel free to start the action.

It must be stressed that Powell and his faction do not at all oppose the idea of a war, but would like to keep the European and Saudi leaders on board. The difference is only tactical. At the end of the day, Powell will support military action, and the "allies" will have to make their minds up. The argument that there must be no war on Iraq and no major military initiatives will fall on deaf ears in Washington.

Once the military machine starts to grind into action, all minds will be concentrated wonderfully. Fear of being completely isolated from the USA will act as a powerful lever. Starting with Britain, others will either fall into line or at least stand silently on the sidelines. The USA will move with irresistible force and drag the others behind it. This seems to be the most likely scenario. Thus, at the end of the day, war seems to be an inevitable outcome. It is not a question of "if" but only of "how" and "when".

When this perspective becomes reality there will be enormous potential for a massive anti-war movement around the world. The best activists in the workers' and students' movements will want to show their anger and to oppose the war. We must be prepared! We must show ourselves to be the most resolute and militant fighters against imperialism. The Marxists should take the initiative in forming anti-war committees and organizing pickets, meetings, demonstrations, petitions and other forms of protest. It is necessary to raise this question in meetings of the labour movement, with resolutions in union branches.

Above all, we must explain to the most advanced workers and youth the causal connection between the wars that are sweeping the planet like some malignant epidemic and the organic crisis of world capitalism. It is not a question of wringing our hands about the evils of war. Any capitalist politician will readily agree to this - starting with George W. Bush. They will explain that war is, of course, an evil. But it is a necessary evil.

That is quite right. War is absolutely necessary for the capitalist system in the epoch of imperialism. The general crisis of capitalism expresses itself in a ferocious struggle between the imperialist powers to divide up the whole world into markets and spheres of influence. Unless and until capitalism is overthrown, there will be one war after another. The only way to achieve a lasting peace and to solve the problems of the world is by breaking the power of the banks and giant corporations that are ravaging the planet.

The new aggression of the mightiest power on earth against a poor, bleeding land that has already been trampled into the dust is an affront to every human value. It is a monstrous act of militaristic violence that cannot be justified. The US imperialists hope that by such means they will terrorize and intimidate the peoples. This is terrorism of the worst kind. To attempt to justify such acts in the name of a so-called war on terror is a sick joke. Far from succeeding in their objectives the imperialists will cause a massive wave of revolt that will shake the whole Middle East to its foundations. It will render inevitable new and appalling acts of terrorism and sow the seeds of new wars, hatreds and violence in one country after another.

A system that can create such monstrosities stands condemned before the judgement seat of history.