Ted Grant

Imperialist bullying and the crisis in the Middle East

Source: In Defence Of Marxism, 13 February, 1998. Co-authored with Alan Woods.
Markup: Maarten 2008

The threat of a renewed bombing campaign against Iraq by US imperialism and its British stooges has added a new and explosive element into the world situation. Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, for a period of almost half a century world relations were characterised by a relative stability, punctuated by occasional military conflicts (Korea, Vietnam...). Now, however, the whole situation has been transformed. Even before the advent of a new world recession, the general situation is characterised by extreme turbulence and instability—economic, financial, social, political, and military.

The crisis in SE Asia has already had an effect in the other so-called “emerging markets” provoking falling investments, rising interest rates and increased instability. The fall out from this has begun to affect the fragile balance of forces in the Middle East. The slow-down in Asia is putting further pressure on the price of oil, the most important export of the region. Gone are the days when OPEC could dictate to the rest of the world. Following the oil crisis of 1973-74, the imperialist nations and the big monopolies have adopted a battery of measures to hold oil prices down. OPEC has to all intents and purposes ceased to exist. This will have far reaching effects. On the other hand, the Middle East remains a fundamentally important part of the world from the standpoint of imperialism, especially the USA which is determined to strengthen its stranglehold on the region by all the means at its disposal.

The collapse of Stalinism has meant that US imperialism has acquired complete dominance. Rarely has the world seen such a concentration of economic and military power in the hands of one country. This fact expresses itself in an intensification of the oppression and exploitation of the ex-colonial countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America. The accumulated debt of the Third World has increased from $700 billion a decade ago to approximately $1,200 billion at present. This signifies the complete enslavement of the ex-colonial people’s to the imperialist powers in general and the USA in particular.

As we have explained in previous documents, this enslavement takes place through the mechanism of the market and world trade, instead of the direct military-bureaucratic domination of the past. But the effects on the lives of the masses are no less brutal than before. The terms of trade are biased against the underdeveloped countries which, to use Marx’s expression, are compelled to exchange more labour for less. The relative price of the machinery and finished products exported from the advanced capitalist countries to the Third World has increased far more than that of the raw materials exported by the latter. Consequently, they are compelled to sell more goods to obtain less. This situation—accompanied by progressive indebtedness, the ruin of local industries and the poverty of the masses—is a finished recipe for an explosion of the colonial revolution in the next period.

The American, European and Japanese imperialists have intensified their efforts to carve out markets, spheres of influence, and sources of cheap labour and raw materials in Africa, Asia and Latin America. They have put remorseless pressure on these countries to reduce their tariff barriers and open up their markets in the name of “liberalisation”. This policy spells the ruination of the weak local industries in the interests of the big multinational companies, placing them completely at the mercy of foreign bankers and capitalists. Thus, the concept of national independence becomes an utterly empty phrase. The colonial people’s are bound to the chariot of world imperialism far more firmly than at any period in history.

The crisis in the ex-colonial countries is shown by the persistence of guerrilla wars in Columbia and Peru and to some extent even in Mexico. In the event of a new slump, there would inevitably be new outbreaks of guerrilla warfare in other countries which may well lead to the establishment of new regimes of proletarian Bonapartism, especially in the event of a deep slump on a world scale. The unstable nature of all these regimes is undoubtedly a major factor in the conduct of US imperialism in its relations to such countries as Iraq, Iran, Libya, Cuba, and earlier in Somalia, Grenada, Panama and the Lebanon. Before the war, Trotsky predicted that the USA would emerge as the dominant capitalist power in the world, but that it would have dynamite built into its foundations. Now we see that this prediction is about to come true.

Failure of colonial bourgeoisie

Trotsky also predicted that the colonial bourgeoisie would be unable to provide a solution to the problems of backward semi-feudal, semi-colonial countries. The history of the Third World, particularly since 1945, is a graphic proof of the theory of the permanent revolution. Nowhere has the weak and corrupt colonial bourgeoisie succeeded in finding a way out of the abyss of poverty, illiteracy and backwardness. Fifty years after so-called independence, the Indian bourgeoisie has solved not a single one of the problems of the sub-continent—the land question, modernisation, the national question, and national independence—none has been resolved. Not even the caste system has been abolished. The emergence of Hindu fundamentalism is a devastating comment on the failure of the Indian bourgeoisie, which in the past claimed to be secular and even “socialist”.

As a result of the depredations of imperialism and the impossibility of developing society under capitalism, elements of barbarism have reappeared in many ex-colonial countries—Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Cambodia, Somalia, Haiti, Afghanistan, Algeria and even Pakistan. The wave of fundamentalism which has engulfed the Middle East and other areas is the price that has been paid for the crimes of Stalinism with its criminal “two stages” theory, which handed power to the rotten and reactionary colonial bourgeoisie when power could have been taken by the working class. This was the case specifically in countries like Iran, Iraq, Sudan, and Indonesia. In every case it lead to a catastrophe, and the rise of monstrous dictatorships like that of Saddam Hussein.

Despite the present hypocritical propaganda campaign being waged in Washington and London, the imperialists welcomed and supported the bloody dictator in Baghdad, whom they were prepared to arm and finance as long as he served their purpose—as a counter-weight to Iran which, up until the invasion of Kuwait, was seen as the main enemy in that area. Only when Saddam, as a result of a stupid blunder of US diplomacy, decided to seize Kuwait in 1990, did they change their attitude. Suddenly these hypocrites “discovered” that Saddam Hussein was a dictator, an inhumane monster, who “waged war against his own people”. All this was an attempt to whip up hostility against Iraq and prepare public opinion for the Gulf war. This had absolutely nothing to do with the defence of the sovereignty of “poor little Kuwait”, but was dictated by the fact that the USA could not allow Saddam Hussein to get possession of Kuwait’s oil, which would have given him an overwhelming dominance in the Persian Gulf—thus threatening the position of America’s key allies—Saudi Arabia and the other reactionary feudal monarchies of the Gulf.

Basing themselves upon the fear of these reactionary Arab rulers, and the vested interests of the other Western powers in Arab oil, Washington succeeded temporarily in putting together an unstable “coalition” which served it as a fig leaf to cover its naked aggression. As usual in war, all the massive forces of the propaganda machine were moved into action to lie, deceive and manipulate public opinion as to the true nature of this war. In particular, Western public opinion was fed a “sanitised” image of the aerial bombardment which was presented as a virtually bloodless surgical operation in which “smart bombs”, carefully distinguished between military targets and the civilian population. This lie has since been completely exploded. The bloody campaign of bombing was mass slaughter on a scale probably without precedent (except maybe for the bombing of North Vietnam and Cambodia) since the Second World War. At least 100,000 men, women and children were needlessly slaughtered to further the interests of the US imperialists and oil barons.

Blatant terrorism

What was the purpose of this exercise? Neither more nor less than to assert the overwhelming military power of the USA, and to cow and terrorise the masses, not only in the Middle East, but in the colonial world in general. The message from Washington was brutally clear: “Do as you are told—or else!”. While raising a hue and cry about “terrorism”, in practice the imperialists have resorted to the most cruel, destructive and indiscriminate form of terrorism in bombing entire populations. By such civilised and Christian means, the defenders of Western values succeeded in bringing Iraq to its knees. However, the entire history of modern warfare proves that in order to win a war air power alone is insufficient. Ultimately ground troops are required to occupy the enemy country and compel it to submit to your will. The history of aerial bombardment shows the complete falsity of the assertion (frequently made by the air force generals to justify the colossal amounts of public money spent on their latest toys) that in modern wars the enemy can be defeated by air power on its own.

This point was made recently by the Financial Times: “Air cover is necessary but not sufficient; you also need troops on the ground. The US, understandably does not like putting troops on the ground in other people’s wars. (…) Reconstituting an effective opposition on the ground now will not be easy. But it remains the only strategy with any real chance of dislodging Mr Saddam. Until it is in place, more bombs will achieve nothing except more suffering, and hatred throughout the region for the states that drop them.” (Financial Times, 11/2/98.)

The ferocious aerial bombardment of Britain by Hitler did not bring Britain to its knees but, on the contrary, stiffened the resolve of the British people to continue the war. Likewise, the savage bombing of North Vietnam and Cambodia did not prevent the defeat of the mighty US military machine in South East Asia. Ever since that defeat (the first real military defeat that the USA has ever suffered) the US military establishment and Congress have been reluctant to commit ground troops in any part of the world. This explains the extreme hesitancy which they displayed before sending in troops in both Haiti and Bosnia. By contrast in the period between the two world wars, they did not hesitate to send in the marines in any country that caused them bother. “The marines have landed and the situation is under control” was the normal banner headline. No longer. In both the Lebanon and Somalia the Americans got a bloody nose. Thus, after the collapse of the Iraqi army, they failed to advance on Baghdad, although there was really nothing to stop them. They knew full well that it was one thing to occupy Baghdad but another thing altogether to hold down the entire Iraqi people for any length of time. Napoleon once remarked that you can do anything with bayonets except sit on them. For all its might, the US army could not have withstood the resistance of the Iraqi people. It would have been faced with a Vietnam style movement of national resistance with the most tremendous consequences. Let us not forget that the Vietnam war was brought to an end by the massive anti-war movement in the US and the mutinous mood of the American troops themselves which one American general compared to the mood of the garrison in Petrograd in 1917. Had a mass revolutionary party existed in the USA, this could have led to revolution.

For fear of such a situation the US hesitated and lost the only opportunity it had of eliminating Saddam Hussein. They hoped that Saddam would remain weakened, or even be overthrown, either by dissident generals or by the Kurds and Shiites. But even here, they dithered. Fearing the consequences of the break-up of Iraq for the rest of the region, they failed to assist either the Kurds or the Shiites. However, with astounding arrogance, they imposed the so-called “No fly zones”,—a clear violation of the sovereign rights of Iraq over its own air space. Not satisfied with this, Washington decided to subject the Iraqi people to the horrors of mass starvation through a criminal economic blockade, the effects of which are described in the following extract from The Economist:

“The current scheme, which got under way last April, ‘barely provides for the basics of life,’ according to Denis Halliday, the UN’s man in Iraq. A third of the $2 billion finances UN operations and compensates Gulf-war victims. Of the rest, $805m goes on food, $210m on health, and what little remains on Iraq’s battered infrastructure: electricity, sanitation, education. The money is not nearly enough. Hospitals are not only short of such medicine as antibiotics, but also of gloves for doctors, light bulbs for operating theatres. The monthly food ration lasts two weeks and malnutrition is everywhere. Mr Annan wants to raise the energy intake from 2,030 kilocalories per head per day to 2,450, include a bit more protein in the food basket, and provide supplementary food for nearly 2m particularly vulnerable people. Most Iraqis are preoccupied with surviving. Schools are run down, with no textbooks, let alone computers. Children stay away to beg at traffic lights throughout Baghdad. The city’s buildings are crumbling; many sanitation systems have collapsed. Streets have been turned into makeshift second-hand markets as people flog their worn-out shoes and other goods.” (The Economist, 7/2/98.)

As a result of the brutal bombing of Iraqi civilians and the subsequent imposition of a vicious blockade which has reduced the Iraqi masses to the most appalling misery and hunger, all that Washington has succeeded in doing is to strengthen the position of Saddam Hussein. Every new humiliation of Iraq has merely served the same purpose. It has united the Arab people around the dictator of Baghdad in a way that his propaganda machine could never have done. Everywhere he is regarded as an Arab hero and a fighter against imperialism, although the record shows that he is no such thing.

President Truman once remarked that the US generals were incapable of marching and chewing gum at the same time. The same is obviously true of US diplomats. Washington has made one blunder after another. So confident does Saddam Hussein feel that he has armed the masses for the defence of the country, even women. If the Americans were to attempt an invasion of Iraq, they would undoubtedly face another Vietnam. For that very reason, both the Congress and the Pentagon are implacably against it. This fact shows the limitations of US power. With unprecedented military fire-power at its disposal, and no real opponent worthy of the name, they are in no position to use the power in their hands. That is why they are once again threatening air strikes.

Chemical weapons

In the words of one French diplomat of the old school, “This is worse than a crime, it’s a mistake”! What would such bombing achieve? The further destruction of Iraq. Tens of thousands of people killed. And for what? Saddam’s position would not be weakened but strengthened. Moreover, the whole of the Middle East would go up in flames. Hardly an American embassy would be left standing. As news and pictures of civilian casualties became known, revulsion would grow in the USA and Britain. If the conflict became prolonged opposition would grow. That is why they would favour a quick strike to batter a number of key targets and then withdraw as quickly as possible. But the idea that it is possible just to bomb military targets without causing massive civilian casualties is nonsense. Even more nonsensical is the idea of “taking out” Saddam Hussein’s chemical and biological weaponry through bombing. Even if Baghdad still possesses supplies of anthrax and other pleasant little items provided by Western suppliers with the compliance of the governments of London and Washington in the past, how can they know where they are, when the whole point of the present situation was that Baghdad prevented the UN arms inspectors from discovering them? The Guardian admits that: “an intelligence assessment from Whitehall revealed earlier this week, the UN inspection body, Unscom, simply does not know how many usable chemical or biological warheads lie hidden.” (The Guardian, 11/2/98.)

Even if they possessed such detailed knowledge, bombing is the last method that is suitable for disposing of highly contagious and lethal bacteria. Dr Douglas Holdstock is quoted as saying: “Nerve gases such as VX and biological agents such as anthrax could be widely dispersed as a result of bombing attacks; only exact targeting can produce the high temperatures and pressures to destroy the weapons reliably, and the knowledge to achieve such accuracy seems unavailable. If Iraq has chemical and biological weapons in usable missiles, they could be used in early response to an attack. An area contaminated with anthrax spores is uninhabitable for years. As little as one milligram (a drop) of VX, which can be absorbed through the skin, is fatal within minutes in the absence of intensive care and specific antidotes.” (Ibid.) The results of such madness must be sufficiently evident even to the none-too-clever ladies and gentlemen in charge of the US’s Iraq policy.

The latest product to be churned out by the Anglo-American propaganda machine is that they will conduct the bombing in such a way that the resulting high temperatures will destroy all the germs. What this implies is that the bombing will be of such an intensity as to cause fire-storms, like those that destroyed Dresden in World War Two, with horrific loss of life. The conclusion is inescapable: the purpose of bombing is not to “take out” Saddam’s real or imaginary secret weapons, but to intimidate and terrify the people of Iraq and anyone else who dares to say no to the USA. The treatment meted out to Iraq is intended as a statement of US power. It is a warning to the whole colonial world that whoever stands against America will be ground into the dust, as sure as those cities that dared offer resistance to the Assyrian kings of old.

Nauseating hypocrisy

Of course, the prostitute press in Britain and the USA are faithfully fulfilling the role they always play on the eve of a war— that of a megaphone for the stream of black propaganda and disinformation streaming forth from the Foreign Office and the Department of State to present the enemy as monsters and sub-human barbarians, thus softening up public opinion for the impending slaughter. In this case there is a slight variation on the old theme. The Iraqi people are said to be O.K. but languishing under the heel of the dictator Saddam. Quite right. But what was the attitude of Britain and the United States towards this monstrous dictator?

Writing in The Guardian on February 9th, Paul Foot correctly points out that “…Saddam himself would not be where he is today without support from the Pentagon and Whitehall. No less an authority than Oliver North has told us how the US government, from the very start of the war between Iran and Iraq in 1980 ‘quietly sided with Iraq’ under its new dictator, Saddam Hussein. When the war ended eight years later, bequeathing to both countries a mountain of debt and 1,000,000 corpses, the US and British governments rushed to sell arms to the dictator of Baghdad.

“In an ecstatic paper on Iraq, William Waldegrave, ‘moderate’ minister of state at the Foreign Office, could not contain himself. ‘I doubt if there is any future market on such a scale anywhere where the UK is potentially so well placed if we play our diplomatic hand correctly, nor can I think of any major market where the importance of diplomacy is so great to our commercial position’. He and his fellow ministers relaxed the guidelines on the export of arms to Iraq, and a great river of British ‘defence equipment’ flowed into Baghdad. When, two years later, Saddam used the equipment to invade Kuwait and threaten the supply of cheap oil to the USA, he quickly became a ‘brutal dictator’ and was crushed. In the moment of military defeat, he seemed doomed. At last, the way was clear for the people of Iraq to throw off their hated oppressor. But then US policy switched again. The deployment of the victorious allied forces was devoted not to toppling Saddam but to keeping him in power. The fear of popular revolution was far, far greater than the continued regime of a brutal dictator. The whole region might be ‘destabilised’! The Iraqi Kurds might win their autonomy, and inspire Kurdish communities elsewhere. What would happen then to the ‘stable’ regimes in Turkey and Syria? Thus Saddam survived, not by accident, as some suggested, still less from some perverse compassion, but by design.”

For decades Britain and the USA not only supported Saddam Hussein, not only armed him, but actually provided him with precisely the kind of horrific weapons of destruction which they now hypocritically claim to wish to destroy for the benefit of humanity. As a matter of fact, all the big powers were and are involved in the production of chemical and bacteriological weapons. The Guardian points out that after the war, the US developed weapons that used anthrax, yellow fever, tularaemia, brucellosis and other fevers, plus diseases designed to hit crops. “Britain has not been averse to developing such weapons. During the first world war, Britain stockpiled five million cattlecakes infected with anthrax to drop on German cattle if the Kaiser’s scientists used biological weapons. At the close of the war, British, American and Canadian teams worked on an ‘anti-personnel’ anthrax bomb which was never made.” (The Guardian, 11/2/98.)

Britain and America both played a big part in building up the Iraqi biological arsenal for use against Iran. The same article points out that: “In 1986 specific strains of anthrax, clostridium botulinum, and clostridium perfringens, secretly paid for by the Iraqi military, were shipped to the University of Baghdad with full approval of the US Commerce Department. Iraq was able to order 39 tons of growth media from both British and Swiss firms in 1987-88, enough to produce 4 tons of bacteria.”

The nauseating hypocrisy of the propaganda with which the West seeks to justify its naked aggression against Iraq is shown by the fact that America, while demanding that the Iraqis open up every nook and cranny to their arms inspectors, is simultaneously preparing legislation to prevent any such international inspection of its own stockpiles of chemical weapons which undoubtedly are vastly greater than those of any other country on earth:

“The United States, preparing to wage war with Iraq over its blocking of international weapons inspections, has crafted legislation on the inspection of its own chemical arsenal in such a way that the president can refuse admission to international inspectors. The draft legislation also allows the president to pick and choose inspectors and to deny access to individuals from certain countries without giving reasons, with no court redress against his decision. Thus the two details in the code of inspection over which the US is threatening war against Iraq are both specifically omitted. (…) Senator Joseph Biden warned: ‘With few exceptions, denial of a duly authorised inspection would violate the [chemical weapons] convention’.

“Yesterday, Amy Smithson, who waged a one-woman campaign for US ratification of the convention, said: ‘We are in violation of the treaty, and it is so ironic that we are about to engage in hostilities against Iraq over the matter of weapons inspections, because Saddam Hussein has registered the same exceptions as we have done’.

“The Guardian has learned that two inspectors, one Cuban and one Iranian, have already been struck off by the US. Washington may of course regard such inspectors as hostile to its interests—but that is precisely the same argument used by Baghdad about the preponderance of US— and British—inspectors on the team now in dispute. The Senate has empowered the President to go even further, approving an act which would allow him to deny any request to inspect a facility on the grounds that such inspection may pose a threat to national security interests. Again, this is not so different from the right claimed by Saddam Hussein to exclude certain installations.” (The Guardian, 12/2/98.)

France, China and Russia

Even before the first bomb has been dropped, US policy has been a disaster in the Middle East. The old coalition has fallen to bits. Saudi Arabia has refused to allow its air bases to be used for air strikes against Iraq. Turkey’s position remains unclear. Only Kuwait and Bahrain—both puppets of imperialism with tiny populations and reactionary feudal regimes—have agreed to allow their bases to be used. King Hussein of Jordan has been to London to plead with the British not to proceed with the bombing. To make matters worse, France, Russia and China have also come out against.

This is not an accident. In 1990 Russia gave the green light for war against Iraq, despite the fact that the latter was supposed to be its ally. At that time, Moscow was coming under the influence of the USA, and also could use the UN as a convenient screen. But now things are very different. After seven years of “market reform” the Russian economy is in a state of complete collapse. There is a growing reaction against capitalism and the humiliating dependence on the West in general and America in particular. The military caste is seething with indignation at the repeated sell-outs, particularly the advance of NATO up to the frontiers of Russia. Further American air strikes against Russia’s former ally Iraq will provoke a wave of anger in the barracks, and would give a further impulse in the direction of a coup d’état. All these factors explain Yeltsin’s posturing, including his talk about the danger of “World War”, etc.

China, faced with the prospect of economic crisis and social unrest at home, has been quietly arming itself to defend its interests in Asia and on a world scale. Despite public shows of solidarity, the conflict of interest between China and the USA have been steadily building up. China’s trading surplus with America is rapidly approaching the levels of Japan’s. Behind the recent spate of criticisms in America about China’s human rights abuses, which for some strange reason were not noticed before but suddenly find an expression even in Hollywood movies, at bottom reflect a growing protectionist mood in the USA directed not only against Japan but also against China. Washington’s support of Taiwan and its general ambitions to dominate Asia have provoked the national susceptibilities of China which has moved closer to Russia in the last period. The opposition to US hegemony is thus preparing the way for a future bloc between Moscow and Beijing which must fill Washington with apprehension.

For its part, France is pursuing its own policy. Paris has never abandoned its ambition to play the role of a world power, it is not reconciled to the loss of influence to America in Africa and the Middle East. The French want access to Iraqi oil reserves and lucrative construction projects once the situation is normalised. They are likely to get both as a result of their present stand. France has conspicuously separated itself from the USA. There is certainly an element of vindictive revenge in all this. In the Zairian conflict, France backed the losing side by supporting Mobutu. The result was that it lost an important sphere of influence in Africa to the USA which backed Kabila. (Although they were on the winning side in the war in Congo-Brazzaville where the US stooges were defeated). Smarting from its defeat in Zaire, Paris now intends to get its own back on Washington by manoeuvring for influence in the Middle East. Needless to say, the interests of the Iraqi people have nothing to do with the diplomatic manoeuvres of French imperialism which merely serve to underline the point that, at bottom, almost all the “little” wars which are fought out in the Third World end up as conflicts between the surrogates of one imperialist group or another.

The Middle East in crisis

However, the most serious consequences would be felt in the Middle East. A new attack on Iraq would not obtain the desired objective—the removal of Saddam Hussein—but would provide a powerful impulse to the anti-imperialist movement throughout the Arab world and further afield. This is the main reason why countries like Saudi Arabia are not willing to allow US air strikes to be launched from their bases. These reactionary regimes are already seen by the masses as puppets of the West. To be seen to support a new offensive against the Iraqi people could easily lead to their downfall.

Already before the present crisis, there were clear signs that the Saudi regime was in trouble. There have been reports of splits within the royal family. This is undoubtedly a reflection of a profound crisis in Saudi society. The fall in price of oil no longer permits the leading clique to give the kind of reforms and concessions to the native Saudis which gave the regime its stability in the past. Discontent is accumulating which can produce the same kind of overturn that we saw with the downfall of the Shah in Iran twenty years ago. In addition to economic problems, the lack of a settlement of the Palestinian problem and the provocative conduct of Israeli imperialism fuels the discontent of the masses throughout the region. It is precisely fear of the masses which compels the reactionary Saudi ruling clique to try to distance itself from the actions of US imperialism at the present time.

Fears that an attack on Iraq can provoke revolutionary upheavals in the Middle East have been openly expressed in the pages of the bourgeois press: “The bombing of Iraq could trigger a shock wave of Islamic militancy and Arab nationalism across the region, destabilising secular Arab governments and overturning the Middle East process, Egyptian officials and commentators said yesterday.” (...) Hani Shukrallah, the editor of Al-Ahram’s English-language weekly edition, said … ‘if the bombing starts, you will get a reaction. You will get people rising up across the Arab world, and this may get out of hand. If Israel shoots back, you can imagine what effect that will have’. Mohamed El-Awa, a lawyer and Islamic activist, said: ‘I don’t think regimes like Jordan and Egypt will remain for long. Their fall will come quickly within one or two years, as a direct effect of the bombing of Iraq’.” (The Guardian, 11/2/98.)

The Palestinian problem remains the central contradiction in the Middle East. The fall of the USSR, brought about a change in the balance of forces in the region. Initially Washington felt that it could reduce its dependence on the Israeli regime as the main bulwark of reaction in the Middle East—a fundamentally important area of interest for the USA for both economic and strategic reasons. The Americans have no interest in wars and instability in this vital area. They hoped to push Tel Aviv into an agreement with the PLO that would reduce tension and simultaneously broaden the sphere of influence of the USA in the Arab world. But this has proved to be a pipe-dream. The contradictions involved in this conflict cannot be solved on the basis of capitalism. Rabin and the leadership of the Israeli Labour Party were faithful stooges of Washington and willing to carry out its policies. But the settlers and the Israeli right wing remained implacable. Rabin’s assassination and the election of Netanyahu completely changed the equation. In any case, the “concessions” offered to the Palestinians did not offer them a real solution, but only the mockery of a truncated statelet completely dependant on Israel. Under Netanyahu even the limited concessions made by the Oslo agreement have been systematically undermined. This has created an explosive situation among the Palestinians which can easily result in a new intifada.

A new attack on Iraq could be the spark that ignites this powder-keg. Already there have been angry demonstrations in the Palestinian territories in support of Iraq. The fact that the Palestinian National Authority has banned these demonstrations merely underlines the fact that Arafat and co. have became the stooges of Tel Aviv. If this situation continues, they can find themselves overthrown. For the same reason King Hussein of Jordan is terrified of the mass reaction to an attack on Iraq. He has likewise banned demonstrations. But if there is an outbreak of hostilities, it is entirely possible that he can be overthrown. A revolution in Jordan, however, might provoke the armed intervention of the Israelis, acting on behalf of US imperialism in order to prevent the revolution from spreading to other countries. Such a development would, however, have explosive consequences throughout the Middle East.

The situation in Iran is also explosive. After 20 years of the role by the mullahs, the masses are beginning to stir. The fall in the price of oil has hit Iran badly (Iranian crude now fetches just $12 a barrel). Since oil provides 30% of Iran’s total revenues and 80% of its foreign reserves, this threatens to destabilise the country’s finances. Although the recent budget showed an increase of 16%, given a 25% rate of inflation, this represented a cut in real terms. If one considers that no less than 40% of the budget goes on education and that there are 20 million students in Iran, the potential for social upheavals is self-evident. Iran is already being affected by falling investment in industry, construction and the retail sector. The election of president Khatami was an indication of growing opposition. There is a clear split between the Khatami wing and the conservative Parliament (the Majlis). It is possible that an attack against Iraq might temporarily strengthen the fundamentalist wing, but such a development would be of a temporary character. The unleashing of a new wave of anti-US demonstrations has a logic of its own which the regime, under present conditions would find it difficult to control.

The Middle East International magazine (30/1/1998) pointed out that: “The US, or at least parts of the political establishment in Washington, are determined to grind Iran’s oil industry to a halt by suffocating it of international investment and forcing Teheran to defer to US and Israeli policy in the region”. The insolence of US imperialism in attempting to subordinate the whole of the Middle East to its control will produce an equal and opposite reaction.

The fact that the Americans could even contemplate such action indicates extreme short-sightedness. The obtuseness of their diplomatic representatives is personified by Madeleine Albright, who thinks that she can bully Middle Eastern leaders by lecturing them like an American provincial school-ma’am speaking to little children. However, more serious representatives of capitalism have issued stern warnings against such action. General Norman Schwarzkopf, the former commander in chief of US forces in the Gulf war, has warned of the dangers of a new air strike: “The United States risks another Vietnam if it bombs Iraq, the former Desert Storm Commander, General Norman Schwarzkopf, warned yesterday … ‘We run the risk of doing the same thing we did to North Vietnam’. In the Vietnam war, US bombing was escalated without achieving military or political goals. ‘It’s definitely a risk’, said Gen Schwarzkopf. ‘What after that?’.” (The Guardian, 9/2/98.)

The role of right and left reformism

From the editor of the Financial Times to the Pope there have been loud misgivings about the proposed adventure. Yet Tony Blair immediately rushed to support the bombing.

The position of Blair, apart from its self-evident stupidity, can be explained from two points of view—the real position of British capitalism in the world, and the politics of right reformism. In the first place, what is reflected here is the complete collapse of the power of British capitalism on a world scale. The destruction of Britain’s manufacturing base has reduced it to the status of a third rate power. Despite the pretensions of Blair and the Tory Little Englanders, Britain is really no more than an unimportant off-shore island of Europe where Germany and France take all the important decisions. The so-called “special relationship” with America is merely another way of expressing the fact of Britain’s humiliating dependence on the transatlantic giant. However, from the standpoint of US imperialism, Britain plays a useful role as its only reliable ally in Europe. This has now been underlined by the indecent haste with which Blair rushed to support the proposed American action against Iraq. The British Prime Minister acted like Clinton’s poodle, and this precisely reflects the real relationship between Britain and America. Without the support of Britain it would have been far more difficult for America to proceed with military action, since nobody else was prepared to play this role.

Marxism explains that foreign policy is only the continuation of home policy. As a political trend, right reformism reflects the direct pressures of capitalism in the labour movement. Far more than open bourgeois politicians, the right wing labour leaders express the interests of the ruling class in the most crude and slavish fashion. Thus on the home front Blair is carrying out a vicious policy of cuts which goes even further than what the Tories dared contemplate. In the field of foreign policy he adopts an even more servile attitude towards US imperialism. In both cases, the cause is the same—a slavish acceptance of the dictates of the big banks and monopolies, nationally and internationally. This is, after all, the historical role of right reformism. Only Blair has carried it to an extreme.

Nowhere does the contradiction between the words and deeds of right reformism emerge more clearly than in the field of foreign policy. When Labour was in opposition, it promised not to “issue export licences for the sale of arms to regimes that might use them for internal repression or international aggression”, as well as when their sale might “intensify or prolong existing armed conflicts or where these weapons might be used to abuse human rights”. Once in office, Cook was quick to issue a mission statement that promised to “put human rights at the heart of our foreign policy”. However, Britain remains one of the biggest exporters of arms, According to figures released this week (by the Military Balance 1997/98, International Institute for Strategic Studies, 14/10/97), Britain now accounts for almost a quarter of the global arms market—22.1 per cent, to be precise, second only to the United States and its military-industrial complex, and worth well over £5 billion a year. Despite the so-called “ethical foreign policy” Britain still sells huge quantities of weapons to reactionary regimes:

“…Government lawyers advised that pre-existing contracts for the sale to Indonesia of £160 million-worth of Hawk training aircraft, Alvis armoured cars and Tactica water cannon could not be revoked. Cook insisted that a balance had to be struck: ‘Britain is one of the largest arms exporters in the world,’ he said. ‘That leading position obliges us to take seriously the reputation of the arms trade. Success and responsibility go hand in hand.” (The Guardian, 16/10/97.)

This policy is not entirely disinterested. Among other big business backers of Blair’s “New Labour” are arms manufacturers, as the Sunday Times pointed out:

“The Labour Party has secretly received thousands of pounds from foreign weapons firms through an organisation set up by a friend of Tony Blair. One of the firms is Thomson-CSF, the French arms giant which in the past has been accused of trying to sell high-technology military equipment to Iraq. (…) Thomson, partly owned by the French government and one of the largest defence companies in Europe, is among four foreign firms who have contributed thousands of pounds to the party through fund-raising events attended by Blair and senior ministers. Robin Ashby, a prominent Labour donor and public relations consultant who arranged the donations, said the American companies Lockheed-Martin and Boeing and the French firm Trimarine have also contributed. Money from another eight firms, including British Aerospace and Babcock International, has also been channelled to Labour (…) The cash contributions have not been listed by Labour in its official list of donors, published last month. Instead, they appear in Ashby’s name (…) He said some of the money described by Labour as his donation was actually cash provided by the British and foreign arms firms. ‘I’m on the donor list because it sweeps up everything,’ he said.” (The Sunday Times, 23/11/97.)

The direct links between the right reformists, big business and imperialism are sufficiently clear. Their “ethical foreign policy” is a sham. The only ethics involved here are the ethics of big business and its military and diplomatic backers—that is, the ethics of the jungle. It is the same “ethics” that cuts the miserable pittance given to lone parents and disabled people, that seeks to drive unemployed people into low paid jobs and accepts Tory closures of hospitals and mines. This is already provoking a backlash among Labour Party members and trade unionists, preparing a big swing to the left. If Tony Blair imagines that by taking “tough action” against Iraq he will gain popularity, he is in for a surprise. Despite a constant barrage of propaganda about the dictator of Baghdad and nightmare weapons etc., there is no enthusiasm in Britain for war. Although a majority expressed support for the government’s policy, the Guardian points out that: “It is clear that [support for military action] is nowhere near what it was in a similar Guardian/ICM poll in September 1990, just before the Gulf war, or before the British task force sailed to the Falklands in 1982. The public backed British involvement in the Gulf war by 71 per cent to 19 per cent, and the decision to send the Falklands task force was supported by 78 per cent.” (The Guardian, 10/2/98.)

In contrast to the blatantly pro-imperialist policies of right reformism, the left reformists have opposed the bombing of Iraq. That is to their credit. However, they do so not from a socialist class position but from the standpoint of confused pacifism. They complain that these actions are “against international law”. But international law is meaningless when the fundamental interests of imperialism are involved. They appeal for a “diplomatic solution”. But capitalist diplomacy is merely a justification of the interests of the big powers, which must ultimately be defended by force of arms, as Blair and co. point out—correctly from their point of view. Worst of all, they persist in presenting the so-called United Nations as an acceptable arbiter of international relations and defender of world peace and human rights. This is an illusion and a deceit. Who determines the policies of the United Nations? The big powers, especially America. The United Nations is only capable of “resolving” secondary conflicts where the interests of the big powers are not involved. It has frequently been used as a convenient cover for acts of imperialist aggression. Let us not forget that the Gulf war (like the Korean war and the reactionary intervention in the Congo in 1960) was waged under the banner of the United Nations. The double standards of the UN are graphically revealed if we contrast its complete inaction over its resolutions on the Palestinian question with the agility with which it unleashed the barbaric assault against Iraq. To propagate illusions in the UN is a complete abandonment of a socialist policy. The only policy that should be defended by socialists is one based on a clear internationalist and class point of view.

It is true that Saddam Hussein is a dictator, a monster and an enemy of the Iraqi people. All socialists are implacably opposed to the Iraqi regime. But the task of settling accounts with Saddam Hussein is the task of the Iraqi workers and peasants themselves. It cannot be entrusted to the tender mercies of the imperialists who, let us not forget, backed and armed Saddam Hussein for decades and only broke with him because he refused to be an obedient stooge. The stinking hypocrisy of these so-called “democrats” can easily be exposed by the fact that they continue to back and arm other reactionary and dictatorial regimes in the Middle East without batting an eyelid. Turkey oppresses and massacres the Kurds (and has just taken advantage of the situation to launch a new attack on the Kurds inside Iraq, with no condemnation from London and Washington). Saudi Arabia is a reactionary feudal dictatorship. Israel mercilessly oppressed the Palestinians. But all this is fine—as long as they uphold American interests.

Whether they fight under the flag of the UN, NATO, or any other flag is a matter of complete indifference. The end result will be the same. Even if they could overthrow Saddam Hussein, they would merely replace him with another reactionary puppet who would be prepared to dance to Washington’s tune. This fact was openly stated in the following extract from The Observer:

“John Sweeney talks to Iraqi democrats and unveils the West’s hidden agenda for replacing their oppressor (...) The question is: if we finally get the head of Saddam, who will replace him? (...) The third contender, Dr Ahmad Chalabi, is president of the executive council of the Iraqi National Congress and is running on the democracy ticket. …One US senior player said: ‘The CIA and MI6 have poured millions down this guy’s throat. There have been a lot of lunches at the Dorchester. But other than that, we have nothing to show for it’.

“…Ann Clwyd, the left-wing Labour MP said: ‘The reason the Foreign Office and State Department are now wary of him [Dr Chalabi] is that he has challenged the West’s duplicitous and disgraceful policy towards the Iraqi people’. Dr Chalabi (…) outlined the West’s real (as opposed to public relations) policy on Iraq. It is that the people there are not yet ready for democracy. It wants no democrat but a nice Sunni general. The West’s ideal method of getting rid of Saddam would be a military coup, not an uprising. He said with a steeliness in his voice: ‘It’s disappointing and ridiculous. There’s an element of disdain and racism in the West’s real policy. And the liberals are the most useless.

“But the West won’t do that [an uprising] because it fears it will not be able to place a Sunni general at the top if a popular uprising succeeds. And the problem with the West’s coup strategy is that it will not work. Saddam has made himself coup-proof. He sits in Baghdad, inside the innermost of a series of concentric circles. On the outside is the army. Their nearest tanks are 100 miles from Baghdad. The Republican Guard comes next. Then there is the Special Republican Guard.

“Chalabi said: ‘Of course the Iraqi National Congress received money from the CIA. When I criticised Western policy on Iraq, the funding stopped’. The mistake of Dr Chalabi and the romantics in the Iraqi National Congress appears to have been a different one: that when the Western governments said they wanted democracy in Iraq, they believed them. What the West appears really to want is a more acceptable despot than Saddam—and, if not, then Saddam can stay. Chalabi shook his head and repeated: ‘It’s disgusting. They’re just going to kill a lot of innocent Iraqis, but not get rid of Saddam’.” (The Observer, 8/2/98.)

At this time of writing, it is still not entirely clear whether the American and British threats will be carried into practice, or whether Saddam, as so often in the past, will go to the brink only to draw back at the eleventh hour. This is not ruled out. But war has a logic of its own and can overrule the best laid plans of diplomacy. Once the order to mobilise has been made, it is difficult to put the machinery into reverse without massive loss of face. Prestige in international politics can often become a material force. The essential war aim of US (and to some extent even British) imperialism is precisely to demonstrate their military power. To be seen to back down in the face of Baghdad’s diplomatic manoeuvring would defeat the whole purpose of the enterprise. Things have gone too far for that. That is why neither the to-ing and fro-ing of French and Russian diplomats have had the slightest effect—much less the plaintive wailing of the pacifists, no matter how well-intentioned. No. Here the serious questions are solved by serious (that is, military) means. But this has always been the case throughout history, as any well-informed person knows. One can regret it, but it is a fact nonetheless.

The only way that the bombing can be averted under present circumstances is a complete capitulation by Baghdad. Saddam would have to accept each and every condition demanded of him. This he may do to avoid what is obviously intended to be a terrible punishment. Or he may not. It is impossible to predict. But in any case, the present crisis has important lessons for socialists and workers everywhere. When decisive questions are posed, only the Marxists can offer a firm and principled class position. Every other tendency fails the test. The present case is no exception. Above all it is necessary to nail the lie that the present manoeuvres of Anglo-American imperialism can serve the interests of the Iraqi people, democracy, peace, or any progressive aim whatever.

The very idea that the men who have murdered 100,000 people in bombing attacks and are responsible for the deaths of over one million children through an inhuman and indiscriminate blockade, could in some way play a progressive role in Iraq is an abomination and a lie. All genuine socialists must implacably oppose the aggressions of imperialism (both military and economic) against the Iraqi people. We must support each and every effort to build an independent working class and socialist opposition inside Iraq, pledged to overthrow the bloody Saddam dictatorship and replace it with a genuine workers’ democracy. A socialist Iraq would be a beacon to the oppressed peoples of all the Middle East. It could be the basis for the establishment of a Socialist Federation of the Middle East—the only way in which we can put an end to the horrors of wars, ethnic and religious conflicts, and create the basis for a harmonious and progressive future for all the peoples.