State department socialists
In the wake of the Chilcot inquiry, Paul Demarty remembers that it was not merely the Blairites who put faith in the benevolence of American power
There is a peculiar page in last week’s Solidarity, the paper of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty.1
Like many of the papers of the left - including, of course, the one you are reading right now - there is coverage of the release, after seven interminable years, of the Chilcot inquiry’s report into British participation in the second Gulf war. A short article by Gerry Bates makes the rather humdrum point that the Labour Party right’s constriction of inner-party democracy over decades eased Tony Blair’s road to war against Saddam Hussein; thus the way is shown towards making sure it never happens again, by restoring democracy - “and that means, in the first place, that we must resist the Labour would-be coup-makers”. Very good.
Alongside comrade Bates’s article, there is a reprint of an analysis piece by Martin Thomas, the AWL’s heavyweight intellectual (such as he is), on the causes and consequences of the Iraq war - from 2010, of all times (occasioned by Tony Blair’s evidence to Chilcot). It is fairly unremarkable as a piece of left commentary, noting that “US ideologues said that a short, sharp US military blow, shattering Saddam’s regime, would open the way to a world-market-friendly Iraqi regime which would be a lever to help the USA reshape the whole Middle East along the lines of world-market-friendly economics, and workable bourgeois-democratic (or semi-democratic, or quarter-democratic) regimes”, but that this had hardly been the consequence: “Even now, there were 22 bombings in the 20 days from December 28 to January 16. The bourgeois-democratic (or semi-democratic, or quarter-democratic) transformation of the Middle East looks no nearer. Islamic clerical-fascism is stronger rather than weaker.”
What were people to do about it, circa 2010? “The Iraq inquiry will not help much. What will help is a clear drive in the labour movement to oust the Blair and Brown cliques, and restore a Labour Party susceptible to trade union opposition to war.”
Indeed, we find certain ideologues proceeding from just such premises, in the immediate run-up to the war. Writing of “US ‘globocop’ war or military action”, one such ideologue finds that “since 1991 it has been used mostly to police the state fabric of the world - to maintain a smooth network of capitalist states covering the Earth’s surface, with gaps and ‘holes’ only on the margins. The military philosophy has been to apply intense heat to weld shut any seams coming apart.”
This ideologue is, of course, Martin Thomas of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty.2
He differs from the straightforward neoconservatives of the George W Bush administration, in that his description of American power is hardly complimentary - it exists, after all, to maintain the smooth operation of global capitalism, which the AWL seeks to overthrow, like any Trotskyist organisation. It should also be noted that, in the run-up to the Iraq war and its first weeks, the AWL was prepared to oppose it in sharp terms and advocate various forms of direct action against it, including strike action.
Over time, however, what was then a relatively novel political holding pattern asserted itself. The AWL had refused, in 1999, to oppose what it viewed as a ‘police action’ against the Miloševic regime in Serbia; after all, the suffering of the Kosovar Albanians was so great that to campaign to end Nato bombing of Serbia was equivalent to demanding police officers desist from interrupting an armed robbery.3 We would hear a lot more of this kind of stuff from the AWL over the years; and its great proving ground, but also its nadir, was the Iraq disaster. The AWL settled into opposing any demand to withdraw coalition military forces from the country, on the basis that to do so would unleash civil war. They maintained this position, so far as I can tell, beyond the point at which the governments of Britain and the United States themselves committed to withdrawal timetables.
That is the context of Martin Thomas’s 2010 article, previously cited, which makes it more than an unremarkable piece of leftwing commentary. It is entirely at odds with the actual policy of his organisation through the entire preceding seven years, and (as we shall see) the six and a half years that have followed. Thomas, and above all Sean Matgamna - the hardened sectarian warrior who has headed up the group through countless bruising encounters since the 1960s - have doubled down on their bets, and reasserted that left opposition to western ‘regime change’ operations among the troublesome petty tyrannies of the Middle East is evidence of terminal political illness.
Thomas (circa 2010) cites one John Pike arguing, in 2003, that “after Iraq [the neocons] have got a long list of countries to blow up. Iraq is not the final chapter - it’s the opening chapter”. “Have we at least proved Pike wrong?” Thomas asks; before concluding that we have not, yet. Quite so! Far from proving Pike wrong by building up the aforementioned “trade union opposition to war” in the period since 2010, the AWL supported Nato’s sponsorship of the overthrow by Islamists and tribal warlords of the Gaddafi regime in Libya, and persistently demanded that the western left drop its opposition to western military aid to the Kurds and non-specific ‘progressive forces’ in Syria.
Both of these policies, needless to say, have turned out just swimmingly - further steps in the spread of what Patrick Cockburn called “Somalificiation” in a recent article in the London Review of Books4: the tendency for fallen regimes to be replaced not with new, stable national polities, but fragmentation, warlordism and appalling religious sectarianism. The ‘Somalia syndrome’ phenomenon has been theorised by others on the left, including in this paper; and more broadly it is part of the instinctive mental furniture of naive anti-war sentiment, that each of these bloody encounters merely begets more chaos.
The Martin Thomas/AWL line of the early 2000s takes as good coin the ability of America to engineer favourable political regimes on the ground where it has an interest - though the results are often bloody and invariably in service to big capital. That idea seems to have gone by Thomas’s article of 2010 (although with nothing so vulgar as self-criticism provided).
Yet it remains the case that the most reliable heuristic for determining the AWL’s political line on foreign affairs is to watch the line of the US state department. Literally nothing else makes sense: the AWL is not above scaremongering about the threat of Islamism (or “Islamic clerical-fascism”, as they insist on calling it); yet it remained bluffly unconcerned about the Islamist warlords that took over from Gaddafi. The Syrian case is a little more complicated - illusions in the ‘revolutionaries’ gave way to worry at the prominence of Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra, and at this point it is difficult to gauge whether the AWL is more concerned about the survival of Assad or the victory of IS. The last sentence, of course, could have been written with equal justice about the AWL or the US state apparatus. Even in their most abject confusion and hesitation, Uncle Sam and Uncle Sean are aligned.
The difference is that the AWL presents state department policy in a sort of self-flagellating way, robbed of all its self-belief. “We give no credit in advance” to US power, a common AWL refrain goes; yet somehow the alternative to further military intervention is always so dreadful that it is impermissible to oppose it. To the aforementioned cases of Libya and Syria we could add the interpretation of the Ukrainian coup as a popular revolution against ‘Russian imperialism’; and, of course, the AWL’s enthusiastic endorsement of the artificial conflation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, to the point of collaborating in anti-union lawsuits, which in recent months has become most especially unhelpful.
It is this uncomplimentary description of US power that is presented, inaccurately, by AWL members as opposition to US power. In truth, there are two practical options available to small political ginger groups in the event of military mobilisation. The one is an anti-war policy - an attempt, through protest, propaganda and political and industrial action, to pre-empt, disrupt, sabotage and terminate the military activity of one’s own state. The other is to consent to these activities. Whether this consent takes the form of overt support is a secondary question - the point is that to adopt any form of this policy is to oppose the programme of actively trying to bring a war to an unconditional end. The AWL’s practical policy, since May 2003 at the latest, has been to deliberately demobilise anti-war sentiment.
For Bush’s disgraced colleagues in Britain, the Chilcot inquiry has - against all the odds - presented a sort of reckoning. Blair has had to make the argument that it was all worth it, despite the lies, and the games; that Iraq is better now than it was under Saddam. He has to make this argument at a point of truly terrifying barbarism in Iraq and in its neighbouring countries. Yet we must not forget that there were those among our own ranks who, entranced by American ‘shock and awe’, ended up dragged along in its wake - kicking their heels at every turn, for sure, never giving any “credit in advance”, but always sullenly onside for the next double-or-quits lurch into war. To these benighted comrades no less than Blair, the Chilcot report is a rebuke.
1. Solidarity July 8 2016.
2. ‘Two critiques: “Empire” and “New Imperialism” Workers’ Liberty 2.3.
3. See, for instance, Lucy Clement, ‘Learn from history? No, repeat it!’ Workers’ Liberty 1.56.
4. ‘Somalia syndrome’ London Review of Books June 2 2016.