Seven theses on the current period, the war and the anti-war movement by Gilbert Achcar

From: Rakesh Bhandari (bhandari@BERKELEY.EDU)
Date: Sat Oct 02 2004 - 22:49:19 EDT


ZNet | Foreign Policy

Seven theses on the current period, the war and the anti-war movement
by Gilbert Achcar; September 09, 2004

1. The Iraq occupation is entirely in keeping with the expansionist
"grand strategy" initiated by the USA at the end of the Cold War.

The end of the USSR was a major turning point in history, equal in
importance to the end of the 20th century's two world wars. Each of
these turning points ushered in a further phase of US imperial
expansion. With the First World War, the USA graduated from its
status as a regional or minor world power to that of a major world
power. It went on to become a superpower following the Second World
War, within the framework of a bipolar world, divided up between the
two empires of the Cold War.

The decay and final implosion of the USSR confronted the USA with the
need to choose between major strategic options about "shaping" the
post-Cold War world. Washington decided to perpetuate its supremacy,
in a world that had become unipolar in the area of military force,
where it held a major advantage in the global competition between
imperialist states. The era of US hyperpower was inaugurated by the
first Bush administration's war against Iraq in January-February
1991, the year of the USSR's final collapse.

The 1991 war was decisive for "shaping the world." It enabled the USA
to simultaneously fulfill a number of major strategic objectives:

         a massive return of direct US military involvement in the
Gulf region, home to two-thirds of the world's oil reserves. We are
at the beginning of a century which will see a growing shortage and
exhaustion of this most strategic of resources. The return to the
Gulf has given the USA a dominant position in relation to both allies
and potential rivals, all of whom -- save for Russia -- are hugely
dependent on oil from the Middle East.

         a striking demonstration of the crushing superiority of US
weaponry over the new dangers facing the world capitalist order in
the form of "rogue states" -- dangers exemplified by the predatory
behavior of Baathist-run Iraq, and the precedent of the "Islamic
Revolution" in Iran which had brought to power a regime evading
control by the two Cold War superpowers. This show of force played a
key role in convincing Washington's key allies -- the European powers
and Japan -- of the need to renew the vassalage relationship that had
been established following the Second World War between themselves
and their new American overlord. Upholding NATO and transforming it
into a "security organization" were part and parcel of the renewal of
this hierarchical relationship.

At the same time, the US return to the Middle East inaugurated a new
and final historic phase in the development of Washington's global
empire. The US could now extend the network of military bases and
alliances with which it encircled the globe, to those regions of the
planet that had previously escaped its control because they had been
under Moscow's domination. NATO expansion to Eastern Europe, armed
intervention in Bosnia, and the Kosovo war were the first stages of
this completion of imperial globalization, carried out under the
Clinton administration. Successful pursuit of this process required
favorable political conditions, especially given the persistence of
the "Vietnam syndrome" which hampered Washington's expansionist
military ambitions.

2. The September 11th 2001 terrorist attacks provided the
administration of George W. Bush with an historic opportunity to
dramatically accelerate and complete this process in the name of the
"war on terror."

The invasion of Afghanistan and the war against the Al-Qaida network
were the ideal pretext for the expansion of US military power into
the heart of formerly Soviet-controlled Central Asia (Uzbekistan,
Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan) and the Caucasus (Georgia). Aside from the
oil and gas riches of the Caspian Basin, Central Asia provides the
inestimable strategic interest of being located at the heart of the
Eurasian landmass -- between Russia and China, the two main potential
adversaries of US political and military hegemony.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq aimed to complete work that had remained
unfinished in 1991 due to the impossibility at that time of embarking
upon a long-term occupation of the country -- for reasons of both
international (the limited UN mandate, the existence of the USSR) and
domestic politics (public reluctance, a limited mandate from
Congress). With its occupation of Iraq, its ongoing domination of the
Saudi kingdom and military presence in the other emirates of the Gulf
region, the US now has direct control of more than half of the
planet's oil reserves, in addition to its own domestic reserves.
Washington is actively seeking to further tighten this global grip on
oil resources by spreading its hegemony to Iran and Venezuela, its
priority targets after Iraq.

3. The strategic decision to pursue and complete US unipolar
domination of the world is the corollary of the neoliberal
orientation adopted by global capitalism and imposed on the entire
planet through the general process encapsulated by the term
"globalization."

In order to guarantee free access for the USA and its partners in the
global imperialist system to the resources and markets of the rest of
the world, it is of vital importance to build up and maintain
military forces up to the task. Such forces are also essential to
guard against the non-economic threats to the system and markets
created by the neoliberal agenda of social cutbacks, extreme
privatization and savage competition. Washington has elected to make
the US "the indispensable nation" of the global system. As a result,
the gap between the US and the rest of the world continues to grow.
At the end of the Cold War, the USA accounted for one third of global
military spending; it now spends more than all other countries
combined.

This formidable military superiority of the American hyperpower can
be traced to the "militarism" inherent in the very concept of
imperialism as defined by the English economist John A. Hobson at the
turn of the last century. It has been magnified by the feudal-like
hierarchical structure between the US overlord and its vassals that
has been in place since the Second World War. Through this structure,
a tutelary superpower took charge of most of the work of defending
the capitalist system. It concretized the objective solidarity that
exists between capitalist elites through an institutionalized
subjective solidarity. The need for such solidarity had been
demonstrated during the economic and political experience of the
Great Depression, and became flagrant in the context of the global
confrontation with the Stalinist system.

For this hierarchical structure to become a single global imperial
system, and for it to remain so, it was and will always be absolutely
essential for the superpower -- now a hyperpower -- to maintain the
military wherewithal in keeping with its ambitions. Strengthening
America's role as protective overlord was at the heart of the
projects of the Reagan administration and its huge increase in
military spending to record peacetime levels. This made the US a
military hyperpower by developing the "asymmetric advantage" of its
forces over those of the rest of the world.

The end of the Cold War, combined with the economic constraints of
public finances dangerously in the red, had led to a reduction and
then a leveling off of US military spending in the first half of the
1990s. But there was a resurgence of post-Soviet Russian challenges
to US objectives around NATO expansion (from 1994 on) and the Balkan
crisis (1994-1999), as well as the emergence of a challenge from
post-Maoist China, illustrated by the confrontation over Taiwan in
1996. When combined with the backdrop of increased military
cooperation between Moscow and Beijing, these developments led the
Clinton administration to set in motion a long-term increase in
military spending from 1998 onwards.

4. The renewed US race to overarm itself in relation to the rest of
the world -- picking up where the Cold War arms race with the USSR
left off -- was accompanied by a new approach in Washington towards
the management of international relations.

Starting with the "Gulf crisis" in 1990, there was a passing
infatuation of the US for the UN, accompanied by a belief that
Washington could pursue its imperial objectives within an
international legal framework attuned to its aspirations, as was the
case for Iraq, Somalia and Haiti. These illusions were very
short-lived and were initially jettisoned in order to carry out
unilateral NATO action in the Balkans. At that time, Washington
circumvented the Russian and Chinese vetoes at the UN Security
Council by taking unilateral action through the US-led alliance, in
the name of supposedly "humanitarian" concerns.

The new surge in military spending made possible by the September
11th attacks, the new consensus created by these attacks in relation
to Washington's military expeditions -- combined with the
"unilateralist" predisposition of George W. Bush and his team -- led
the Bush administration to cast aside all institutional constraints
to the pursuit of US military expansion. "Coalitions of the willing"
under unchallenged US leadership even circumvented NATO, whose
principle of unanimity granted the equivalent of veto rights to all
member states.

The war of invasion in Iraq was a perfect opportunity to put this
unilateralist approach into practice. The US point of view and
interests were at odds not only with those of permanent members of
the UN Security Council, such as Russia and China, who are generally
opposed to US global hegemony, but also with traditional allies and
NATO members, such as France and Germany. The overlap of interests
and points of view between the governments of the US and the UK
prompted them to carry out the invasion together, with the support of
a few NATO members and a mix of docile and more zealous US allies.

The quagmire of the US-led coalition in Iraq and the Bush
administration's difficulties running the occupation, have provided a
striking demonstration of the futility of their arrogant
unilateralism, which had been criticized from the start by a section
of the US establishment, including within the Republican Party and
the entourage of Bush senior.

5. The Iraq failure has highlighted the need for a return to a more
subtle combination of military supremacy and the fashioning of a
minimum consensus with the traditional allied powers (NATO, Japan),
if not with all the world powers in the framework of the UN. Of
course, consensus has a price. The US must skillfully take their
partners' interests at least minimally into account while keeping the
lion's share of the spoils for themselves.

Since the 1990-1991 turning point, Washington has felt that the UN's
role as a testing ground and caretaker of the consensus between the
big powers was obsolete. It sees the equality of rights (to veto) for
the five permanent members of the Security Council as entirely
outdated in a new unipolar world in which, in practice, only the USA
can exercise a veto in the area of international "security."
Paradoxically, though, the world order was overturned through a UN
resolution that Bush senior obtained in order to secure domestic
support for his war against Iraq. Then, under Clinton, the UN was
reduced to post-war caretaking alongside NATO in the Balkans, in the
territories invaded by NATO under US leadership. This same post-war
caretaking formula was used once again in Afghanistan, following
Washington's unilateral invasion.

Having led the invasion of Iraq, the USA now faces the difficulties
of running the occupation and would like to find an Afghanistan-type
solution. The letter and, even more so, the spirit of the UN Charter
are blithely violated. According to the Charter, wars of invasion are
illegal unless they have been decided by the Security Council. As
such, Washington's wars are no longer even legal, let alone just or
legitimate. The 1991 war had only been waged in the UN's name -- but
not actually by the UN, as the UN general secretary himself put it at
the time.

In any event, Washington only considers turning to the UN, or to NATO
or any other multilateral body, when it determines that it will serve
its purposes. The US has always reserved the right to act
unilaterally in defense of its interests. International bodies are
perpetually confronted with the blackmail of US unilateralism. This
has dramatically depreciated the UN Charter since the end of the Cold
War.

6. The major post-Cold War policy directions of the US-led world
imperialist order have ushered in a long historic period of unbridled
military interventionism. The anti-war movement is the only force
capable of overturning this state of affairs.

Since the collapse of the USSR, the evolution of the global
relationship of military forces has virtually eliminated all
impediments to imperialist interventionism. In the case of the
nuclear deterrent, only a suicidal state would brandish atomic
weapons against the US -- another matter being the case of a
clandestine terrorist network not confined to any territory that
could be targeted for reprisals.  The main point is that no military
force on earth can stop the steamroller of US hyperpower once it has
decided to invade any given territory.

The only major power able to stop the imperial war machine is public
opinion and its frontline detachments in the anti-war movement.
Logically, the people of the United States play the decisive role in
this regard. The "Vietnam syndrome" -- in other words, the impact of
the spectacular anti-war movement that massively contributed to
ending the US occupation of Vietnam -- militarily paralyzed the
empire for more than 15 years, from the sudden withdrawal from
Vietnam in 1973 until the invasion of Panama in 1989.

Since the military action against the Panamanian dictatorship,
Washington has been attacking enemies that are easy to demonize given
their hideous dictatorial character: Noriega, Milosevic, Saddam
Hussein, and so on. Moreover state and media propaganda blow things
out of proportion whenever the need arises, i.e. if reality does not
quite conform to the demonized image, especially in comparison with
the West's allies. This was the case for Milosevic (compared to
Tudjman, his Croatian rival), as it continues to be the case for the
Iranian regime (compared to the far more obscurantist and medieval
fundamentalism of the Saudi monarchy). Similar efforts are underway
in relation to Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez.

Still, in 1990 Bush senior ran into some difficulty when he tried to
obtain a green light from Congress for his military operation in the
Gulf, in spite of the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait. Similarly, the
Clinton administration had problems getting support for intervention
in the Balkans; and let us not forget its calamitous withdrawal from
Somalia. This reflects strong and persistent reluctance within US
public opinion and the impact of this uncertainty in the electoral
arena. Unfortunately, this sentiment did not prevent the anti-war
movement from promptly collapsing after its revival in 1990 in
response to the Gulf crisis.

The September 11th 2001 attacks gave the Bush administration an
illusion of mass, unconditional support within Western public opinion
for its expansionist designs dressed up as the "war against
terrorism." The illusion was short-lived. On February 15th 2003, 17
months after the terrorist attacks, the US and the world saw the
broadest anti-war mobilization since Vietnam -- the broadest
international mobilization ever in fact, around any cause. An
expression of the massive opposition within global public opinion to
the planned invasion of Iraq, this mobilization was nonetheless only
a minority phenomenon in the USA itself. The international movement
had, as usual, contributed powerfully to the strengthening of the US
movement, but the effects of September 11th -- nurtured by a campaign
of disinformation orchestrated by the Bush administration -- were
still too strong.

7. Setbacks for the US-led occupation in Iraq have created the
conditions for a major shift in US public opinion and for a powerful
and inexorable rise of sentiment in favor of bringing the troops home.

The problem this time around is that the frontline anti-war forces
have seen a decline in activity since the invasion, although it
should have continued to grow. This untimely retreat in the anti-war
mobilization was caused by a number of factors. For one thing, the
movement was quickly demoralized due to an outlook overly focused on
the short term, although it was highly improbable that the movement
would manage to prevent the invasion given the tremendous stakes
involved for Washington. For another, there is widespread belief in
the US in the possibility of settling the question through the ballot
box, whereas only mass pressure would force a withdrawal of US
troops, given the bipartisan consensus around the importance of
keeping a hold on Iraq. Finally, there is an illusion that the
various armed actions against the occupation troops will be enough to
end the occupation.

These views are at odds with the Vietnamese experience, too far
removed from the awareness of new generations for the lessons to have
remained in collective memory. There has not been the kind of
continuity in the anti-war movement that could ensure such lessons
are passed from one generation to the next. The movement that put an
end to the US occupation of Vietnam was built over time, as a
long-term movement, and not as a mobilization immediately preceding
the outbreak of war and then demobilized once the invasion began. The
movement had far fewer electoral illusions in the USA given that it
had been built under the Johnson Democratic administration and then
peaked under the Nixon Republican administration. It was clear to the
movement that, in spite of their impressive resistance, incomparably
broader and more effective than Iraq's, the Vietnamese were
tragically isolated militarily and could not inflict a Dien Bien Phu
on US troops -- that is to say, a defeat comparable to the one that
had ended the French occupation of their country in 1954.

This is even more evident in the case of Iraq. Leaving aside the
heterogeneous character of the origin and form of violent actions --
where terrorist attacks of a sometimes communalist character against
the civilian population are combined with legitimate actions against
the occupation forces and their local subordinates -- the nature of
the terrain itself makes it impossible to inflict a military defeat
on the US hyperpower. This is why the occupiers are far more fearful
of mass mobilizations of the Iraqi population, such as those that
forced the decision to hold elections by universal suffrage by
January 2005 at the latest.

Only a big upsurge of the anti-war movement, relayed by anti-war
public opinion in the USA and around the world and combined with
pressure from the Iraqi people, can force Washington to release its
grip on a country whose economic and strategic importance is far
greater than Vietnam's, and which has already cost so many billions
of dollars to invade and occupy.

Iraq is only a potential "new Vietnam" from a political angle, not a
military one. It is certainly the biggest quagmire for the US since
1973 -- a quagmire whose repercussions are amplified by memories of
Vietnam (proof of the persistence of the "syndrome") and by the
development of global media and communications since that time.

We have an historic opportunity to resume the momentum of February
15th 2003 and rebuild a long-term anti-war movement. This movement
could transform the US-led Iraq adventure into a new Vietnam, in the
political sense: a new long-term paralysis of the imperial war
machine. Combined with the rise of the global mobilization against
neoliberalism, this would open up the way for the profound social and
political changes urgently needed in this world of spiraling
injustice.

August 29, 2004


Gilbert Achcar's latest books in English are The Clash of Barbarisms:
Sept. 11 and the Making of the New World Disorder and Eastern
Cauldron: Islam, Afghanistan, Palestine and Iraq  in a Marxist
Mirror, both from Monthly Review Press, New York. This text, written
for the general assembly of the French anti-war organisation "Agir
contre la guerre" (Act against the war), was translated by Raghu
Krishnan for the Canadian magazine New Socialist.


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