Ten Years since the Gulf War

American killersIn the year 2000 the Project for the New American Century, a rightwing coalition of politicians, generals, business people and academics, published its keynote document Rebuilding America’s Defences. The Project included future stalwarts of George W. Bush’s government like Paul Wolfowitz and Scooter Libby, and explicitly based itself on a report that had been written in 1992 by Dick Cheney writes Phil Hearse. Republicans won the presidency and the ideas of the Project became those of government.

Centrally the report said that the world domination of American neoliberal capitalism could be maintained militarily with vigorous diplomacy backing it up. Military dominance included enough resources to fight several major wars simultaneously, carry out ‘constabulary’ duties worldwide which might involve fighting low level ‘asymmetrical’ wars, and dominate new theatres like cyberspace and outer space.

Failure of the turn to militarism

This was the opposite of thinking the dominance of US capitalism could be maintained by the projection of ‘soft power’ – America’s economic, cultural and political example. Implicitly it involved giving an answer to the question Secretary of State Madeleine Albright asked of Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Colin Powell under the Clinton government in the 1990s – “What’s the use of this wonderful military you keep telling me about if you never actually use it”.

By the end of 2000 George W. Bush had been elected president and some of the Project’s key supporters were in office. The 9/11 attack provoked the invasion of Afghanistan and as is well known, immediately started discussions about the possibility of a fake retaliatory assault on Saddam Hussein in Iraq – discussions led by Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz. America’s military was going to be deployed big time in the Middle East, in a way that would redefine world political alliances and secure both US oil supplies and the control of the oil supplies of others. The overarching political framework for this assault would be the ‘War on Terror’.

In addition to this ambitious world political endeavor would be the attempt to ‘nation build’ in Iraq and Afghanistan, creating viable capitalist democracies under American aegis.

Ten years later it can be easily seen that this whole project was a failure – at least in terms of ensuring the unchallenged dominance of the United States, economically and politically. Because of this failure the prestige of the civilisational model represented by American capitalism has declined, despite thousands banging on the door each year demanding admittance as immigrants to the US itself. It failed because American and world capitalism faced a series of challenges that are not amenable to a military solution.

Invading Afghanistan and Iraq had some initial successes of course, militarily and politically. Most European and Arab states were dragooned behind the war on terrorism. The Taliban and Saddam Hussein governments were rolled over militarily with little difficulty although harsh costs for the civilian population. But Pax Americana in those two countries was elusive because political-ideological hegemony in those countries fell to forces hostile to the American project, in Iraq mainly pro-Iranian Shi’ite forces and in Afghanistan a resurgent Taliban.

In Iraq the immediate result of the invasion was the Baathist and mainly Sunni insurgency. At first this seemed to have the possibility of creating a real nationalist resistance that would cross religious confessional lines. During the first battle of Fallujah in 2004 queues of Shi’ite civilians formed in Basra to give blood for the Sunni civilian and insurgent victims of the conflict. However sectarian Shi’ite forces (for example the Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr) and Al Qaeda on the Sunni side, prevented the emergence of a national resistance by persistent and brutal cross confessional attacks. The US deftly played the divide and rule game, standing aside from Shi’ite attacks.

The outcome for Iraq has been catastrophe. Ned Parker says in Foreign Affairs, house journal of the US foreign policy establishment:

“Nine years after U.S. troops toppled Saddam Hussein and just a few months after the last U.S. soldier left Iraq, the country has become something close to a failed state. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki presides over a system rife with corruption and brutality, in which political leaders use security forces and militias to repress enemies and intimidate the general population. The law exists as a weapon to be wielded against rivals and to hide the misdeeds of allies. The dream of an Iraq governed by elected leaders answerable to the people is rapidly fading away.

“The Iraqi state cannot provide basic services, including regular electricity in summer, clean water, and decent health care; meanwhile, unemployment among young men hovers close to 30 percent, making them easy recruits for criminal gangs and militant factions. Although the level of violence is down from the worst days of the civil war in 2006 and 2007, the current pace of bombings and shootings is more than enough to leave most Iraqis on edge and deeply uncertain about their futures. They have lost any hope that the bloodshed will go away and simply live with their dread.” (Foreign Affairs, March-April 2012).

And how many billions of dollars did it take to achieve that?

Morbid consequences: torture and Islamophobia

In both Iraq and Afghanistan the civilian toll has been horrendous and continues.  Part of it has been a relapse of military and security norms into mass torture, assassinations and disappearances on a scale not seen since the colonial wars in Algeria and Vietnam. Even in those cases, torture and disappearance were not officially admitted by France and the US; today they are not only admitted but they are even justified as inevitable and necessary.

A first item in a balance sheet of the Gulf War then must be the deepening of militarism that began with the Reagan years in the 1980s. The glorification of militarism has a corrosive effect on civil society, including the para-militarisation and recourse to repression of police forces internationally. Anyone who thinks about it for five minutes can see that the glorification of militarism – and its cultural echoes in huge numbers of video games and movies like Call of Duty-Black Ops and Black Hawk Down – has stoked America’s gun culture and the stream of senseless civilian shootings (although this is far from being the only cause of those events).

The second morbid consequence has been the stoking of Islamophobia in the US and Europe, which in turn has fuelled racism and xenophobia in general. Ideologically this has been the most damaging outcome of the ‘war on terror’, the most ubiquitous and the most difficult to combat. Racism and xenophobia remain the most potent weapons in the hands of the capitalist class in all the advanced capitalist countries to divide the popular masses and drive political discourse to the right, especially in countries like Italy and Greece that like to see themselves as ethnically and culturally homogenous.

In country after country hostility to immigrants drives support for the right; in Britain it especially takes the ideologically pathetic but toxic form of anti-Europeanism. The most anti-Europeanists are the most Islamophobic and hostile to multiculturalism, which poses important questions for the left’s response.

A third morbid consequence was  the further degradation of European, and especially British, social democracy into a crude pro-Americanism exemplified of course by the cringing, fawning attitude of Tony Blair – and the acceptance by the media and much of the Parliamentary Labour Party of Alistair Campbell’s transparent mendacity about ‘weapons of mass destruction’ as good coin. Of course it was opposed by a massive anti-war movement discussed below.

The rise of China and the economic crash

The new militarism could not prevent the economic rise of China, nor could it prevent the 2008 world economic crash which started with the subprime market in the United States. If anything the hundreds of billions of dollars that went into Iraq and Afghanistan gave a new twist to the US government’s structural deficit, making it more difficult to deal with the economic crisis.

In the founding documents of the Project for a New American Century, economics is not really absent, it is assumed. It is assumed that the US military and diplomacy go hand-in-hand with the ‘Washington consensus’, ie untrammeled neoliberal pro-business economic dominance. As such, the new ideologists of militarism could not answer, nor could even ask, how the United States and other major capitalist powers could overcome the limitations of neoliberal capitalism – its inherent deflationary bias and its reliance on unsustainable mountains of debt to maintain demand, at a time when the potential purchasing power of the masses was being hoovered up as mega profits by the banks, utilities and major corporations.

In 2001-2002, as America was invading Afghanistan, the Enron scandal broke showing the nasty corrupt core of the globalised neoliberal corporations, and their manipulation of vast amounts of finance and political clout to deregulate utilities and services worldwide, enabling them to pump more money out of customers and governments –  often by creating nothing of real value, but only by way paper accounting. This ‘fictitious capital’ mountain would eventually tumble in a way that would hit ordinary workers’ pay and conditions – and especially their pensions – exceedingly hard.

Neoliberal globalisation proved not to be the one-way street some American experts expected. Globalisation enabled the economic growth of China and India, and to a lesser extent of Brazil and some other ‘developing’ countries. In China the end of the Commune system impoverished millions of rural workers, forced to migrate to the cities as casual labourers, generally employed in vast real estate projects. But it did create a new middle class of tens of millions and brought new economic prosperity to millions of better-off workers. Chinese economic growth was not the result of free-market economics but of state-directed investment, as China became a full-fledged ‘state capitalist’ economy.

Economic growth in China, India and Brazil has an immediate spin-off in terms of re-aligning the state system. China is becoming a super power, but still one that is far inferior in economic and especially military terms to the US. Nonetheless the United States sees a resurgent China as a potential threat, especially to its interests in Asia and this is what underlies the new political and military ‘tilt’ towards Asia and the tentative rapprochement with the Burma regime. According to US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta:

“By 2020 the Navy will reposture its forces from today’s roughly 50-50 split from the Pacific and Atlantic to a 60-40 split in those oceans. We will also invest — invest in cyber, invest in space, invest in unmanned systems, invest in special forces operations. We will invest in the newest technologies. And we will invest in new technology to mobilize quickly, if necessary”.

Along with enhanced military cooperation, Panetta emphasised diplomacy and a “rules-based order” that includes “open and free commerce, and open access by all to their shared domains of sea and air” – an obvious reference to the East China Sea islands disputed between China, Japan and Taiwan.

While a military clash between the United States and China seems unthinkable, the election of a right-wing nationalist government in Japan, bent on significantly boosting Japan’s military capacities, is a warning about the dangers of militarism in the region.

The failure to secure America’s world position through militarism does not mean of course the abandonment of military might as a key aspect of the projection of American power. In addition to East Asia the other key theatres remain Afghanistan and the Middle East. War with Iran over its nuclear programme, fuelled by fear of Israel losing its status as the sole nuclear power in the region, is still an option for which detailed plans are being made. US intervention in the Libyan war was downplayed by the media, as are the preparations being made for possible intervention in Syria. Military intervention to  derail mass rebellions and secure the most reactionary possible outcome remains a permanent temptation.

US militarism and its associated political alliances have been powerless to prevent other key features of the post-Gulf war situation – the Arab Spring and the Euro crisis – and the intensification of class struggle and resistance that has followed. It has also largely been absent as a factor in the continuing radicalisation and victories of left wing governments in Latin America.

Financial crisis and worldwide revolt

The 9/11 attacks immediately threw back the growing and confident global justice movement. A massive global justice march planned for Washington the weekend after the Twin Towers and Pentagon attacks was immediately called off. The global justice movement after 9/11 morphed into the anti-war movement – in some countries, notably Britain, a monster movement compared with anti-war movements of the 1960s. But the short time span before the assault on Iraq started didn’t give enough space for US and British government resolve to weaken.

Worldwide radicalisation over the war has morphed again into the gigantic waves of protest that have occurred internationally as a result of the austerity assault caused by the financial crash. This is the real answer to questions like ‘Whatever happened to the anti-war movement’ or ‘What happened to the global justice movement’? The core of these movements is an important part of the organisational and ideological continuity that leads straight into worldwide revolt against austerity. In a future article we will deal in detail with what happened to the Left since the Gulf War.

The ratcheting up of imperialist militarism in Iraq and Afghanistan was an expression of the conclusion in sections of the US ruling class political elite that decisive action had to be taken to ensure continued US economic and political dominance. But the 2008 financial crisis showed that what was at stake was something broader and deeper – the future of the neoliberal economic and social order that the US and Britain had pioneered and which all the major capitalist powers had adhered to. The failure to break out of the world slump is simply the effect of the failure of the ruling classes in all the major countries to define an alternative that would break with neoliberalism. It is testimony to the residual strength of financial capital to dominate or at least constrain the policy choices of major Western governments.

In the advanced capitalist countries not only welfare systems, but the whole position of the working class in society established since 1945 is under threat. In the worst affected countries in Europe – Spain and Greece – signs of police authoritarianism and even the growth of the extreme right are significant and indeed inevitable. Many observers are beginning to pose the question of whether the depth of the current crisis and the austerity demands made on the working class are compatible with bourgeois democracy, at least in its present form.

This goes far beyond the simple issue of whether the banks and big corporations subvert the democratic choices of the people. It is a matter of whether the ‘normal’ functioning of the bourgeois democratic process can work when the working class and big sections of the middle class think that they are being excluded and impoverished, and that all the ‘old’ political parties are useless and have failed them. You can see the beginnings of an authoritarian response in the harsh attacks on demonstrators in both Spain and Greece, the rise of Golden Dawn and growing legal attacks on trade unions in Spain especially but across the continent.

A massive feeling of social exclusion is now thecase in Greece and Spain and carries with it many risks to the capitalist democratic order. If penury on this scale persists then the present order will collapse – either to the right or to the left. The danger for European and world capitalism is the emergence of  politically catastrophic situations in one or a number of European states to accompany economic catastrophe. If that happens then you can write off the European Union and we are back to the 1930s politically, with grave threats to stable capitalist democracy from the militant left and the extreme right. The only way for European capitalism to defuse the impending politically explosion without recourse to authoritarianism is a permanent no-strings bail-out of debtor countries (via Germany and the European Bank), but that means in effect a return to full-scale Keynesianism, a major break with neoliberalism. And such an outcome will be fought tooth and nail by finance capital.

Meanwhile to the South…

Nowhere has the conscious rejection of neoliberalism been so widespread as in Latin America, the only continent on the planet where in the last decade governments  that  style themselves as socialist have come to power. No doubt these governments – certainly in Venezuela and Bolivia, to a more limited extent in Brazil and Ecuador – have been the focus of left wing illusions. A decisive break with capitalism has occurred in none of these countries, either at an economic or state level.  Nonetheless the very existence of left-leaning governments and the repeated rejection of reaction at the polls helps create an international space where left and radical alternatives can gain credibility.


The main features of the balance sheet of the launching of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars is now obvious. While temporarily achieving some geopolitical successes, United States and world imperialism have solved none of their central problems by the recourse to militarism. Neither have they been able to stem mass rebellion – against corrupt regimes in the Arab Spring and against neoliberal austerity worldwide, including in the United States itself.

The US response to 9/11 massively overstated the power and the threat of Islamist terrorism and thereby launched a paranoid nationalistic mindset in advanced capitalist countries that crystallized around Islamophobia.

Militarism is a permanent feature of imperialism but is more likely to be on display as a supposed central saviour of society in times of crisis and uncertainty. The separation of the Gulf War and the Great Crash of 2008 by only five years is not an accidental conjunction. Both are features of a giant crisis of capitalist civilisation.

The last ten years have also been the period when the looming ecological catastrophe has been more on show than ever. Two of the major climate events that demonstrated the incapacity of neoliberal capitalism to confront the coming disaster were ironically in the United States itself – Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and tropical storm Sandy in  2012. War, economic catastrophe and paralysis in the face of looming environmental dangers are hallmarks of a world system losing its ability to cope.

Lenin once said that capitalism can survive any crisis provided  the working class is prepared to pay the price. But whether it is prepared to pay the price depends on the availability of credible alternatives. The challenges this period poses to the political Left is the topic of a future article.

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