Chris Harman


Imperialism’s new facade


(Spring 2005)

From International Socialism (2nd series), No. 106, Spring 2005.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Downloaded with thanks from the International Socialism Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The supporters of US imperialism were crowing as we began to put this journal to press early in March. By the time we put the final touches to it their crowing looked increasingly misplaced.

They claimed that things were at last going their way two years after their conquest of Baghdad. Elections in Iraq had been followed by the election in occupied Palestine of a president willing to end hostilities with Israel. And then came a week of demonstrations against the Syrian presence in Lebanon. ‘Maybe, just maybe, those neo-cons weren’t so nutty after all,’ crowed Max Boot in the Los Angeles Times (3 March). Bush’s ‘declaration of the cause of Middle East democracy is producing earth-shaking results’, crowed Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post. ‘Many of those who have once again called a Republican president a stupid cowboy will be forced to eat their words and admit that it was the war in Iraq that began to change the political face of the Middle East,’ crowed Angelo Panebianco in Corriere della Sera.

The crowing of the warmongers was matched by expressions of self- doubt by liberal opponents of the war. Typical was the reaction of Jonathan Friedland of the Guardian (2 March): ‘We ought to admit that the dark cloud of the Iraq war may have carried a silver lining … It could yet have at least one good outcome. We have to say that the call for freedom throughout the Arab and Muslim world is a sound and just one – even if it is a Bush slogan and arguably code for the installation of malleable regimes.’

According to the euphoric theorists of a US triumphant, the Bush administration was guaranteed to succeed in the Middle East with methods used in Serbia, Georgia, Haiti and Ukraine. The demand for ‘democracy’ would sweep away regimes that reject US strategic objectives and replace them with governments with democratic legitimacy abiding by these objectives. All the US had to do was deploy its money and its own NGOs to court and finance internal opposition forces, and the regimes would simply collapse through rainbow-coloured peaceful ‘revolutions’. A domino effect would lead to stable pro-US regimes sprouting up right across the Middle East, in a supposed rerun of the wave of political revolutions which swept Eastern Europe in 1989–90. The US, it is assumed, could not fail to cement its hegemony in this way.

But any such comparisons are very superficial and very glib. The funeral of the assassinated former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri may have been immense, but the demonstrations afterwards were small affairs, made up mainly of upper class members of the Maronite minority (only about 20 percent of the population). This, Al Jazeera television said, was the ‘Gucci revolution’, not the cedar revolution. The huge anti-US demonstration organised by Hizbullah, the party of the Lebanese Shias (with 40 percent of the population, the country’s largest religious group) a few days later put the anti-Syria demonstrations in the shade.

The Iraq miscalculation

What is more, the attention the US administration is now directing towards Syria is a symptom of weakness on its part, not strength. It is a product of the continuing problems it faces in Iraq.

The elections in Iraq do not mean that the resistance has gone away (as Anne Alexander and Simon Assaf show in the next article), or that the US has somehow miraculously escaped from the morass it blundered into two years ago. Its assumption then was that not only could it easily overthrow Saddam Hussein, but also it could just as easily set up a stable puppet regime within a matter of weeks. Rumsfeld insisted this could be done with a mere 130,000 troops, most not needing to be in Iraq long, ignoring the advice of army chief of staff General Eric Shinseki that hundreds of thousands of US troops would be needed to ensure security in Iraq, including the security necessary to rebuild and operate the country’s oil industry. The relatively small number of troops used fitted into the neocons’ wider assumption that the US’s overwhelming technical superiority in armaments would enable it to move straight on from Iraq to threaten any other country physically, waging two or more wars at a time if necessary.

No amount of chest beating can conceal how wrong these assumptions were. The death toll of US troops is now over 1,500, creating discontent among the families of service personnel. The financial cost is predicted by Anthony Cordesman, former Middle East adviser to US administrations, to reach $232 billion by the end of this year, and $308 billion by the end 2007. Occupying Iraq accounts for about 15 percent of the $427 billion US budget deficit which threatens to destabilise the US and world economies. [1]

Just as serious for US imperialism’s overall global goals is the cost in terms of military overstretch. Far from being ready for further Iraq-type wars, the US barely has enough troops to sustain its position in Iraq. When it invaded Haiti last year, it sent 2,000 troops, not the 20,000 sent by Clinton a decade ago, and has since done its best to replace them with forces from countries like Brazil and Argentina. Bogged down in Iraq, the administration has been forced to go softly on North Korea and to sit back while Chávez in Venezuela – as important a source of US oil imports as the Middle East – steps up his anti-imperialist rhetoric and plans to diversify his oil sales through deals with China and other countries.

The election result in Iraq is not, by itself, going to change any of this. The privileged strata among the Shias who dominate the most successful electoral slate already show signs of trying to do a deal with the US to advance their own class interests by bringing the insurgency to an end, and their equivalents among the Sunnis will hope for some offer that enables them to do the same. But it will be difficult for them to gain widespread support among the population at large for such an approach and isolate the armed resistance unless they are seen to use oil revenues to rebuild shattered infrastructure and economy. And this means putting up resistance to US pressures for the oil to serve simply as a tool for US economic and strategic interests when it comes to bargaining with the other great powers.

The US then faces the dilemma that to stabilise the country after the elections it needs to loosen the economic control which was a central part of its rationale for going to war in the first place. Cordesman summed up the problem in an article last November. ‘The odds on lasting US success in Iraq are at best even, and may well be worse,’ he wrote. ‘The US can almost certainly win every military battle and clash; it is far less certain to win the political and economic war … The US faces too much Iraqi anger and resentment to try to hold on in the face of clear failure, and achieving any lasting success in terms of Iraqi political acceptance means that the US must seek to withdraw over the next two years …’ Among the preconditions for the US getting out without risking a very visible defeat were to stop using ‘Iraq as a lever for changing the region’ and to stop interfering with ‘Iraq’s independence in terms of its politics, economics and above all oil’. [2]

The Bush administration shows no sign of doing this. It will be distrustful of the main forces in the new Iraqi assembly, since they are dominated by Shia politicians who in the past have shown some degree of allegiance to Iran. And so it will insist on keeping US troops in the country, even if the price of doing so is to ensure that resistance to the occupation continues in one form or another. It may well end up in the situation which has occurred in other such colonial occupations, where sections of the collaborationist government play a double game, encouraging some degree of resistance so as to increase their own credibility with the masses and their bargaining power in relation to the occupiers. It will not develop a solid foundation of pro- American rule, the only way the US can get out of the morass.

The Cambodian syndrome

How does a great capitalist power react when it is bogged down in one small, even if strategically central, country? If it cannot retreat, it is forced to get involved in more adventures in order to try to shift the overall strategic balance in its favour. This is what Nixon and Kissinger did in 1970s when they extended their war in Vietnam across the border into Cambodia, causing another million deaths.

None other than the architect of the Cambodia attacks 35 years ago, Henry Kissinger, joined with George Shultz to urge this policy on Bush in late January, calling for a ‘strategy for eliminating the sanctuaries in Syria and Iran from which the enemy can be instructed, supplied, and given refuge in time to regroup’. [3]

The US was already making scarcely veiled threats against Iran last autumn, with widespread talk of the Israeli air force bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities. The US administration may eventually give the go-ahead to that scenario. But a direct confrontation with Iran is full of dangers to the US position in Iraq. Representatives of the Iranian regime have boasted privately to journalists that they have more ‘assets’ – armed supporters – on the ground in Iraq than the US. And the Shia politicians elected to the new assembly cannot expect to maintain their influence for long if they back US attacks on the Shias of Iran.

This explains the shift in focus to Lebanon and Syria.

But this tactic can rebound in the US administration’s face just as its move against Iraq did two years ago. The US could only get its anti-Syrian demonstrations in Lebanon by relying on the leaders of some of the sectarian factions who waged the civil war of 1975–90. Yet Syrian troops entered the country, in the first place, to help one of them, the Maronite Falangists, avoid defeat at the hands of the forces of the left and the Palestinians. Then the US (and France) relied on the Syrian presence to stabilise the country after US intervention (shelling Beirut) had made things worse and 250 marines had been blown up in 1983. Now the US is risking reigniting civil war, without any guarantee that the outcome would be favourable to it.

An explicit part of the US agenda (embodied in the resolution it pushed through the UN) is to disarm and curtail the influence of Hizbullah. But Hizbullah is well armed and skilled at fighting. It is, after all, the only Arab force that has ever won a significant victory over the Israeli army, forcing it out of southern Lebanon five years ago, and it has massive support among the impoverished Shias of the south. The assumption that it will accept humiliation is naive in the extreme. So is any assumption that the US can make such moves in Lebanon without upsetting high ranking Shia religious notables in Iraq with close links with Lebanon.

The most likely outcome for the neo-cons if they proceed with their ‘strategy’ is that they will simply spread the chaos in Iraq more widely across the region. If pressure on Syria were to lead to the regime’s collapse all sorts of uncontrollable forces might be released. After all, it has been the Syrian regime which has been clamping down on guerrilla attacks on Israel from southern Lebanon for the last five years, and more recently on the movement of resistance fighters and arms into Iraq. In their blind fury that its regime will not do 100 percent of what US imperialism wants, the neo-cons would be destroying a force which has done 90 percent of that for 30 years and more.

Opening the pressure cooker

Those euphoric about the ‘spread’ of democracy extend their argument to Saudi Arabia, where the first ever local elections have taken place, and to Egypt, whose dictator, Mubarak, has decreed that more than one candidate will be allowed to stand in the presidential election in the autumn. As the neo-cons see it, this is part of one great process of stabilising the region through replacing autocratic regimes by capitalist democracies – ideally, as in the American model, with elections confined to competition between different pro-capitalist and pro-imperialist parties.

But in reality the processes at work are very different in each case. Lebanon already had a long established democratic structure, even if distorted by bargaining between the leaders of different religious sects, and the ‘cedar’ revolution was about bending this to suit US interests. Palestine under Yasser Arafat already had elections, even if they produced a corrupt government, and the so called ‘democratic’ change merely amounted to the Western states exerting pressures on a war-weary and half-defeated people to vote for a president who would give in to many of the demands of the occupying power. It will in no way lessen the bitterness of the terms imposed by Israel, or the sense of anger against the pro-US rulers in the Arab world for failing to lift a finger for the Palestinians.

The turn towards elections in Saudi Arabia and Egypt is designed to provide a safety valve lest enormous discontent among the mass of people explodes violently. The aim has been to do what was done, for instance, by the South Korean military dictatorship after it was faced with mass demonstrations and strikes in 1987–88. It relaxed repression against the moderate pro-capitalist elements in the opposition (although not against more radical groups) while promising them an elected government four years later. In this way it drew their leaders into acceptance of its framework for a ‘transition’ which, under the guise of change, left untouched the central features of Korean society. It helped them ward off the chances of sudden explosive change (and kept intact the repression against the radicals when the opposition eventually took office). Essentially the same approach was followed in dismantling many of the Latin American dictatorships in the 1980s. Known as ‘apertura’ (‘opening’) it was a slow, carefully controlled process of allowing the bourgeois opposition parties to begin to play a role in parliamentary and other electoral institutions, so that when full democracy came about they were hegemonic within it.

But it is a tactic which always contains a danger for those using it. If the discontent below is too great, even the smallest opening can create an uncontrollable movement of people to express their feelings. The very attempt to save a regime through reform can unleash the forces of revolution. After all, it was Gorbachev’s attempt to prop up the Soviet Union’s regime through ‘openness’ (‘glasnost’) that allowed the popular discontent to emerge that so rapidly brought it crashing down.

There have been several times when the US State Department encouraged one of its client states to reform so as to increase stability – and unwittingly helped its enemies on the road to power. So it withdrew support from the Cuban dictator Batista late in 1958 and from the Nicaraguan dictator Somoza in 1979 in order to pressure them to accept reform, but by doing so hastened their fall to forces opposed to US imperialism.

The neo-con assumption in the Middle East today is that any instability will rapidly be brought under control by powerful local forces that accept the US’s agenda. After all, this did happen in most of the east European countries after 1989.

But it is an over-optimistic view for them to hold today, particularly in the Middle East. It was still possible in the early 1990s to convince the mass of people who had suffered under the rigours of Stalinist state capitalism that privatisation and the unleashing of market forces would produce a dramatic improvement in their livelihoods: I remember arguing with dissidents in Poznan in Poland in 1988 who assured me that the market would give them Scandinavian-level living standards. [4] You do not find such overinflated expectations about market capitalism anywhere today. Neoliberalism and privatisation are not something new in the Middle East. They have been the core policies of the existing dictatorships for at least a decade (see the interview on Egypt below). And they have been accompanied by a worsening economic situation.

The Korean ‘opening’ of the late 1980s took place in a country with a very rapidly expanding economy and full employment, where the ruling class could concede very large wage increases so as to reduce the political pressure on it. The situation in the big Middle Eastern countries is very different. National income per head in Egypt, for instance, is one fifth of the South Korean level.

Countries which knew considerable economic growth and some reduction in poverty in the 1960s and 1970s are now faced with the lowest growth rates in the world after sub-Saharan Africa, growing poverty and massive levels of unemployment, especially among the young. In Egypt official unemployment figures of 9 percent hide a real figure of 15 to 30 percent; more than one-third of Morocco’s youth are unemployed; while in Syria youth unemployment is a staggering 73 percent. Such a situation creates massive bitterness – and not only among workers. The economic squeeze hits the old petty bourgeoisie, and the lack of jobs is devastating for hundreds of thousands of university graduates who aspire to join the new middle class. They do not respond by looking to the US version of capitalism as an alternative. Very large numbers are drawn towards Islamist organisations, which blame ‘cultural imperialism’ for their problems. The secular intelligentsia, feeling themselves to be heirs to a tradition of fighting Western colonialism and moved by a sense of solidarity with Palestine, are not going to jump into the American camp as easily as the East European intelligentsia so stupidly did 16 years ago. If the genie escapes from the bottle in Egypt or Saudi Arabia it will not simply bow down to US hegemony.

The one group the US can rely on, at least to some extent, is the local bourgeoisie – including the state bourgeoisie running the remaining nationalised industries. Their turn to neo-liberalism has been part of a process of trying to find niches for themselves within multinational capitalism. They can identify with the untrammelled capitalism of the official American vision of the world. Even in the midst of the miseries of Israeli- occupied Palestine there are bourgeois PLO leaders prepared to put their faith in US promises. But in societies where economic growth has been slow in recent years they are quite cut off from wider social layers.

The days are long gone in which any national bourgeoisie anywhere would throw down a revolutionary challenge to those who run the world system. Even in the 1960s the ruling classes in the supposedly ‘progressive’ Arab countries put preservation of their class positions within their own states above rhetoric of fighting to unite the whole Arab world from the Atlantic to the Gulf in opposition to imperialism. [5] But this does not mean they will always automatically dance to the American tune. They all want to advance their own positions in the global pecking order, and they will occasionally exploit to this end both popular discontent with imperialism and divisions between the great imperialist powers. They do not provide a foolproof means of imposing US hegemony in the midst of movements of mass protest. Even in the Serbian prototype for the US manipulation of mass movements, the government which emerged at the end, that of Kostunica, is a nationalist one which resists certain US demands.

Madness in great ones

The optimism of the neo-cons – and of gullible liberals like Friedland – consists in believing that if they encourage the break-up of the existing Middle Eastern regimes and throw all the bits up in the air, they will land in the pattern that US imperialism needs. It may be that such unlikely things happen occasionally, but only a desperate bunch of people would gamble $308 billion on it. That is why the neo-cons’ approach is causing unease within the US political establishment, with conservative ‘realists’ deeply unhappy with it. One former CIA analyst complains, ‘Bush administration policy toward the Middle East is being run by men who were routinely referred to in high circles in Washington during the 1980s as the “crazies”.’ [6]

However, what is at issue is not the psychology of the individuals in key positions. Their approach follows, as we have argued in this journal over the last two years [7], from the position of US capitalism. Its overwhelming military superiority over the other big powers is not matched by a similarly unchangeable economic dominance. This creates a pressure to engage in military adventures that will secure its global hegemony against all comers for the foreseeable future – to ensure a ‘New American Century’. Moves in such a direction began under the Clinton administration, and the Bush team saw the invasion of Iraq as the means to bring them to fruition. Now, having embarked so far into the morass, they feel compelled to go further. But if they do so, they risk compounding their problems many times.


1. Figures from M. Sieff, UPI, 27 January 2005.

2. A. Cordesman, Playing the Course: A Strategy for Reshaping US Policy in Iraq and the Middle East.

3. Washington Post, 25 January 2005.

4. A transcript of some of the discussions is contained in Which Road for Polish Socialists?, in International Socialism 41 (Winter 1988).

5. See Tony Cliff’s analysis after the defeat of the Arab armies by Israel in the ‘Six Day War’ of 1967, reprinted in T. Cliff, International Struggle and the Marxist Tradition (London 2001), pp. 43–57.

6. Ray McGovern, who served as a CIA analyst for 27 years, Asia Times.

7. See, for instance, A. Callinicos, The Grand Strategy of the American Empire, in International Socialism 97 (Winter 2002), and my own Analysing Imperialism, in International Socialism 99 (Summer 2003).

Last updated on 17.11.2011