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Ahmed Shawki

Bush Doctrine: Turning point
for U.S. Imperialism

(September 2002)

From International Socialist Review, Issue 26, November–December 2002.
Downloaded with thanks from the ISR Archive Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

From a speech given by Ahmed Shawki, editor of ISR, on September 7, 2002

THE MOST important theme to underline is that we are facing a period–when we look back in five or ten years–that we will consider to be a defining period of U.S. imperialism. It is a turn in international relations that is bigger than the one we saw with the collapse of the Berlin Wall–the period that was declared as the “New World Order.” This new turn is the attempt by the U.S. ruling class to redefine its position in the world not only to take advantage of the collapse of the USSR–its main competitor since the establishment of the international system after the end of the Second World War–but an attempt to redefine the international terms of trade and to perpetuate what has been called the “unipolar world.”

The U.S. is the preeminent military and economic power in the world, and it wants to ensure that the future, over the next 40 to 50 years and longer, keeps looking the same way.

That is the only way to explain why the Bush administration is leading the American ruling class toward war against Iraq, a move that, on the surface of it, has enraged allies from the Europeans to the Japanese, the Chinese to the Russians, and would enrage the Arab regimes themselves. They want to exploit the advantages they have today and ride them into the future.

To understand the nature of this turn, we first have to examine what has happened to U.S. imperialism over the last 20 years and why the administration uses terms like “preemptive strike” and “regime change.”

Imperialism describes a world economic, financial, and military system in which the key great powers compete to dominate the world and to divide it between themselves. That’s the classical theory of imperialism. Economic competition leads into military competition. The First World War showed this. The Second World War was a repetition of the First in a number of key respects, or really the conclusion of the unsettled items from the First World War.

From the Second World War onward, there was a change. Instead of a struggle among several key imperialist powers–notably the conflict between the European powers and the rising American and Japanese superpowers–you had the system of imperialism characterized by the competition that emerged between the USSR and the West, in particular the United States. In other words, the Cold War. As a result of many changes–the relative decline of British imperialism, the division of Germany, the occupation of Japan–the old multi-polar competition was subsumed in the competition between the U.S. and the USSR.

The main aspects of U.S. Cold War policy were the defense of the West and the spread of the market system into areas where it hadn’t previously been. That included not only defense against expansion of the East, but also market penetration into the former colonies of the West. Thus the U.S. became the champion of decolonization in the sense of supporting the dissolution of formal structures of colonial rule, but on the condition of economic penetration and informal empire. Put simply, get rid of colonialism in Africa, and open up the local McDonald’s chain. That was the essential thrust of postwar American imperialism. NATO was formed “to keep Russia out, Germany down, and the U.S. in” the key region of Europe. That summarizes the postwar world, albeit very schematically.

Problem number one: This new imperial order raised the ire of many countries around the world, which went from being colonial possessions to simply being economic adjuncts to the United States. That is, nationalist movements arose that said “we want more,” and that challenged U.S. domination, especially in the context of a divide in the world between East and West. Many of the newly emerging nationalist movements said they wanted nothing to do with either power and ended up being pushed by the U.S. into the hands of the USSR.

Problem number two: The U.S. in the late 1960s and 1970s was an economic power in relative decline to the rise of Germany and Japan. It became more and more difficult for the U.S. to maintain its commitments to the defense of the West and the world. In particular, the U.S. had a difficult time both economically and militarily with its commitments in Vietnam.

Problem number three: The rise of an enormous anti-imperialist sentiment as a result of a combination of the other two factors, which mobilized around the idea that the U.S. should not be the policeman of the world. Plus, what the U.S. does is against everything it says. It’s anti-democratic, it subverts governments, it kills innocent peasants, workers, etc. The growth of a mass anti-imperialist movement produces the first major defeat for the U.S. in Vietnam in 1975.

This produced a crisis in the way U.S. imperialism functioned. Instead of direct military intervention, it had to set up proxy regimes internationally through which it did its business. In the Middle East, that was the key role that Israel was meant to play, and the U.S. relied on the triangle of regional powers–Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Egypt–as its proxies in the region. This was the Nixon Doctrine.

That strategy comes to an end, not only with the defeat in Vietnam, but critically with the Iranian Revolution of 1979, in which one of the key proxy powers built up over 20-odd years is overthrown, followed by the rise of the Khomeini regime.

Fast-forward 10 years. The whole edifice on which this policy was built collapses with the attempts by the Reagan administration to reverse the defeat in Vietnam by raising the arms race through the roof–which in the end helps economically bankrupt the USSR and creates a new order.

The main pillars of the Cold War order–the competition between East and West–are removed, and the United States emerges as the predominant power. That’s the picture in the 1990s.

American imperial policy in the 1990s combined two aspects: One, to reestablish the right of the U.S. to militarily intervene directly, not just through proxies. Number two, economic imperialism had to be advanced, in particular to bring in those areas of the world that had been previously dominated by the USSR and to penetrate other areas of the world more deeply–Latin America, Eastern Europe, Asia. Thus, the main aspects of Clinton’s policy emphasized the economic arms of imperialism along with “humanitarian” interventions which, in themselves, were not principally about altering the balance of world power but were about demonstrating the ability and the right of the U.S. to intervene.

When we talk about the Vietnam syndrome–the unwillingness of the U.S. to commit troops overseas–you think now about a number of interventions designed to overcome it. It began under Reagan on a small scale–Grenada in 1983, Libya in 1986. Then Panama (1989) and Somalia (1992) under the first Bush. Then Haiti (1994) and Kosovo (1999) under Clinton. You have the slow ratcheting up of the right to intervene and really the closing of the last era. The Gulf War of 1991 fits in this series not as the true beginning of a new era but as a culmination of the old.

We are now entering imperialism’s emergence into a new and different era. It has the following characteristics: First, you are not talking about competition between East and West, nor even about powers that approximate anything like the strength of the U.S. This isn’t like the picture prior to the First World War where you have imperialism expressing itself through the competition among Germany, Japan, and the U.S. And that’s clearly not militarily the case. It may be a situation they think might emerge 20 or 30 years down the line. That’s certainly the debate in the U.S. on how to relate to China–how to hold China as a “friend” and get ready to kill them 20 or 30 years from now.

Imperialism today is defining its tasks around not only “rogue states,” that is, states that do not accept economic or political discipline of the U.S., but also “non-state” enemies, like terrorism. We’ve spent a lot of time saying that top U.S. officials were paranoid, nuts, all of which makes sense. Having a military machine like the U.S. has couldn’t stop al-Qaeda or September 11, but there is clearly, from the point of view of imperialism, a sense that “We were right, there is a threat out there to which we have to respond–including the use of non-state actors against the US.”

The war on terrorism has a logic of its own. There is a logic the present administration is pursuing that dovetails with the view of more conservative sections of the ruling class. Their logic is: “We are now way ahead of any of the other powers in the world. We have to maintain that superiority.” That is: If anyone appears to be developing a potential threat we need to knock it out now. It was in the context of discussions of Asia that U.S. planners said that any emerging threat needs to be taken out now in order to guarantee U.S. superiority in the future. And that it is the beginning of a doctrine that any perceived threat anywhere needs to be taken out. It’s considered a part of a preemptive war in which the goal is the maintenance of the U.S. as the chief power in the world.

Why Iraq? What’s it all about? We need to look at Iraq in the context of September 11. The administration and Paul Wolfowitz, one of its ideologues, had Iraq in their sights well before September 11. We need to understand that it isn’t simply terrorists attacking the U.S., but any state sponsoring terrorism, or that isn’t seen as accepting the discipline of the U.S., must itself be disciplined. It isn’t only that they are ideologically preoccupied with Iraq. They are, of course. But the point is that Iraq clearly stands out as one of the states that stands in the way of the U.S. ability to rule the world.

That’s what we’re talking about, the drive by the U.S. to determine the fate of the world in its own interests. Therefore, the administration has decided that Iraq must be taken out. Not only for Iraq’s sake, but read for Iraq, “Saudi Arabia”; read for Iraq, “Iran”; read for Iraq, “China”; read for Iraq, “the first step.” If they don’t get Iraq, why should anyone listen to what the U.S. says? It is one thing to launch a multinational operation into Kosovo. It is another thing to say, “We intend to set the agenda for the world, and you are either with us”–and this is the connection with September 11–“or against us.” With the new doctrine, the question becomes whether the U.S. will be able to carry this program through, whether or not they are overstepping their capabilities.

That’s also the key to understanding the debate between the multilateralists and the unilateralists. All of these people–Scowcroft, Kissinger, all who hung onto the last breath as unilateralists in Vietnam–these born-again coalition-builders are now arguing, “Let’s not go it alone.” But there is actually now, with the war against terrorism, a new basis for unilateralism since the U.S. has interests that are not necessarily shared with Middle East allies, the European powers, or others. There is a basis on which unilateral interests lead them to pursue Iraq to the end.

What does it mean in terms of the war? It means they have an uphill battle to win over the rest of the world. It doesn’t rule out getting the acquiescence from the rest of the international powers, but there are all kinds of problems. For example, German Chancellor Gerhard Schr–der used opposition to the war against Iraq as a key to his reelection. There are all kinds of problems, but it seems clear that they will still go ahead with the war–that they intend to get all their ducks in a row.

It’s guesswork about the timetable, but the timetable in terms of getting approval seems to be accelerating. We will have to do a lot more to explain the apparent contradictions of American imperialism, which is that they don’t seem to give much thought to what the effects will be on “the street” in the Middle East. They are playing with notions like “International stability”–the hallmark of Cold War imperial ideology–“is secondary to the needs to impose the rights and authority of the U.S.” A recent article in Foreign Affairs arguing against this conception, nevertheless, notes that the Bush administration does put forth this new view of unilateralism. We need to understand this if we are to come to terms with what they are undertaking.

Part of their logic can be attributed to the fact that they do not face the kind of anti-imperialism that they faced in the past. When they say “in the street” they mean inchoate opposition that repression can take care of, and that’s why the right wing is strong here. They don’t see the same kind of political movements that emerged 20 or 30 years ago that had a nationalist or anti-imperialist direction.

What is the prognosis? We have to understand that American imperialism feels emboldened, but that even with a couple of victories under its belt it does not have a free ride. Even if it is able to get approval for this war, it will unleash a set of events despite itself, which include a number of new contradictions. For example, how do you settle the war? Who gets Iraq? Who gets the second largest reserves of oil in the world? They are talking about an occupation of years. Now they say they will cut a deal with France and Russia to get frozen money and contracts. What about the rest of the world? The rest of Europe? Japan? That’s just one question. What happens when the Middle East is thrown into turmoil, let alone the development of an anti-imperialist movement in the heart of the beast?

A couple of things about the character of the opposition movement we need to build. Anti-imperialism is no longer a given in the movement. We have to explain why activists should be anti-imperialist–in some cases with arguments about the past history of American intervention, but we also need to develop arguments about the present character of American imperialism. What is wrong with regime changes? What is wrong with preemptive strikes? We have to be versatile in being able to argue the case against the administration. We also have to offer an alternative, but not only of anti-imperialism. We need to develop socialist propaganda that ties opposing the war to changing the system that produces war.

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