Fury, frustration and volatility

Daniel Lazare examines the dilemmas, contradictions and warmongering of US imperialism.

Donald Trump’s remarks following last week’s Iranian missile attack on US Iraqi airbases were amazingly mendacious, even by Washington standards: Qassem Soleimani was “the world’s top terrorist” - someone who “fuelled bloody civil wars all across the region” and “viciously wounded and murdered thousands of US troops”; while Iran is “the leading sponsor of terrorism”, a country that “threatens the civilised world” and has “created hell in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Iraq”.

Considering America’s role in waging or fuelling a half-dozen major wars since Jimmy Carter declared US military control over the region in January 1980, putting it all on Iran involves remarkable cheek. But it was a couple of the president’s more honest statements that stood out for what they said about American imperialism’s plight in the Persian Gulf and why Trump continues to bluster so noisily.

The first was about energy: “Over the last three years, under my leadership, our economy is stronger than ever before and America has achieved energy independence,” he said. “These historic accomplishments changed our strategic priorities ... We are now the number-one producer of oil and natural gas anywhere in the world. We are independent, and we do not need Middle East oil.”

This was correct: thanks to the fracking revolution, the US has indeed achieved energy independence. But the statement raises an obvious question: if the US no longer needs foreign oil and its priorities have therefore shifted, why is it still in the Persian Gulf?

The second statement concerned Islamic State, commonly known as Isis: “Tens of thousands of Isis fighters have been killed or captured during my administration,” Trump went on. “Isis is a natural enemy of Iran. The destruction of Isis is good for Iran, and we should work together on this and other shared priorities.”

Braggadocio aside about killing tens of thousands of IS fighters, the statement was also correct. Islamic State is indeed the natural enemy of Iran for the simple reason that they find themselves on opposite sides of the Sunni-Shi’ite divide at a time of mounting sectarianism. But this raises another question: if both are terrorist and terrorists are always the same as US dogma has maintained since the days of George W Bush, then how can they be at odds? Shouldn’t they be allied?

Non sequiturs like these are so common nowadays that they largely go unnoticed, especially in the capitalist fantasyland known as the United States. But these deserve a closer look. With regard to the first, a middle-class sceptic would reply that, if America no longer needs Persian Gulf oil, the answer is simple: it should get out, the sooner the better. But Marxists understand that imperialism is central to capitalist production and that the problem is necessarily more complex.

To begin with, just because the US is no longer dependent on the Persian Gulf does not mean that other countries are as well. To the contrary, while exports to the US have fallen more than 75% since the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, exports to other parts of the globe have risen, with some 65% of energy passing through the Strait of Hormuz now going to India, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and, above all, China.1 Common sense suggests that, as long as such countries consume growing amounts of Persian Gulf oil, they should shoulder more of the burden of insuring that supplies continue to flow.

But this is impossible for a number of reasons. One is that such countries lack the necessary ‘force projection’ to patrol the Gulf, while another is that the US would not permit them to, even if they did. Since the region’s importance is undiminished in global terms, controlling it allows the United States to control the world’s single most important source of fossil fuels. As long as it claims to be the sole remaining superpower, it has no choice but to maintain an exclusive chokehold on international capitalism’s most vital chokepoint.

But there is a third reason other countries do not shoulder the burden: they do not want to: “many Chinese strategists,” observes one US expert, “seem delighted at the prospect of the United States being tangled up in enduring tensions with Iran, which draws US attention and resources and allows others to portray the United States as a global hegemon.” Or, as an unnamed Chinese official put it more bluntly, “Why would we want to get involved in that mess?”2

Better to leave the mess to the United States. That way China will continue drawing benefits, while America is stuck with the bill.

What makes this even more painful is that, the more the US intercedes in the Gulf, the more unstable it becomes. Since the mid-1970s, the US military has invested trillions in the region3 - money that it has attempted to recoup by offloading billions of dollars in high-tech weaponry into what is by now the greatest arms emporium in history. Saudi arms purchases, mostly from the US, nearly tripled from 2009-13 to 2014-18, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Qatar’s more than tripled, while those of the region as a whole (defined as the area from Egypt to Iran) nearly doubled.4 Rather than making the Gulf a more peaceful place, needless to say, the result has been an explosive build-up of tensions that now threatens to culminate in the most destructive war of all - a 1914-style US-Iranian blowout that could easily drag in a half-dozen countries or more.

So not only must the US shoulder the risk of patrolling the Gulf: it must shoulder a risk that is growing exponentially.


Which brings us to the second quote, the one about IS.

Obviously, a populist crusader state like the US cannot admit out loud that its concern in the Gulf is about something as mundane as oil, especially since China is the chief beneficiary. Instead, it must invent all kinds of reasons having to do with freedom, morality and ‘values’. But, the more destabilising the American presence becomes, the more enemies it generates. Hence the identity of the “evil-doers”, as Dubya used to call them, keeps shifting. One moment it is al Qa’eda, the next it is Saddam Hussein, and then it is Qassem Soleimani. But, while the names may change, the underlying identities remain the same. ‘They’ - ie, nameless, faceless Middle Easterners - are why the region is constantly erupting in war. ‘They’ are why the US must station thousands of troops in places most Americans could not find on the map. Trump shocked the world by tweeting that the US had “targeted 52 Iranian sites … some at a very high level and important to Iran and the Iranian culture” - targets he promised to hit “very fast and very hard”, if Iran dared raise a finger in retaliation. But, if the Middle East is the enemy, shouldn’t Middle Eastern culture be as well?

By the same token, it was no surprise when Trump threatened to hit neighbouring Iraq with “sanctions like they’ve never seen before”, if it pushed for the removal of US troops. “It’ll make Iranian sanctions look somewhat tame,” he said. But so what? Iran and Iraq are both located in the Middle East, so what difference does a ‘q’ or an ‘n’ make?

America is lost in an ideological fog of its own making - one that causes it to strike out ever more blindly at enemies real and imagined. Ironically, Trumpism began as a rebellion against endless Middle East wars. As a candidate, Trump’s speciality was to throw opponents off balance by attacking them from the left on foreign policy. He had a grand time skewering hapless Jeb Bush for waffling about the invasion of Iraq, and he shocked Hillary Clinton by lauding Vladimir Putin, Bashar al-Assad and even Iran for their role in fighting IS.5 He even went after the Saudis for their role in 9/11: “Who blew up the World Trade Center?” he asked in February 2016. “It wasn’t the Iraqis, it was Saudi - take a look at Saudi Arabia, open the documents.”6

What linked candidate Trump with president Trump was free-form anger - anger at the Europeans for underfunding their militaries, anger at China for rip-off trade deals, anger at Muslims for fostering terrorism, anger at central Americans for fleeing hellish conditions created by the US war on drugs, and so on. Anger at the outside world fuelled isolationism, nationalism and a general turn inward. This was what ‘Make America great again’ meant - pulling up the drawbridge and letting other countries rot rather than trying to save them against their will. This, of course, was before the Saudis lured Trump to Riyadh a few months after he took office, lavishing him with honours and offering to purchase an additional $110 billion in US-made arms. Once that occurred, Trump took all that undifferentiated anger and directed it more specifically at Saudi Arabia’s traditional enemy - Iran.

The fact that Iran is also Israel’s traditional enemy made the shift all the more inevitable. But this sort of episodic, mercurial response is all the US is capable of for reasons having to do with capitalism, imperialism, and constitutional structure. America is a 100% pure bourgeois state - one without a mass working class party of even the most reformist sort. Genuine anti-imperialism is therefore marginalised. Given that a successful third party is essentially impossible thanks to a Balkanised political structure and a ‘first past the post’ voting system, debate is fractured and constrained, while a ‘civil religion’ based on faith in the constitution and something called the American dream undergirds political life throughout. After all, the US constitution declares America to be an ever “more perfect union”, so it is not too much of a stretch to say that belief in America’s special mission is mandated by law.

The result is fury, frustration and volatility, whenever things go awry, as they increasingly do. But it is volatility that all too easily results in more free-form anger rather than less. Critics may take issue with this or that policy, but not with imperialism as a whole and absolutely never with the idea that America’s sacred mission is to spread peace and democracy across the globe. If America falls short, it is only because it fails to live up to its own inner goodness. Bernie Sanders - the self-proclaimed socialist seeking the Democratic presidential nomination - makes noises now and again about mounting a challenge that is more fundamental. Now that his candidacy seems to be taking off, we will see how far he gets - and how far the ruling class allows him to go.

  1. ‘The Strait of Hormuz is the world’s most important oil transit chokepoint’, US Energy Information Administration, June 20 2019: www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=39932#.↩︎

  2. JB Alterman, ‘China’s balancing act in the Gulf’ Center for Strategic & International Studies August 2013: https://csis-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/legacy_files/files/publication/130821_Alterman_ChinaGulf_Web.pdf; A Lieven, ‘The unholy mess of US Middle Eastern strategy’ Valdai Discussion Club October 14 2019: https://valdaiclub.com/a/highlights/the-unholy-mess-of-us-middle-eastern-strategy.↩︎

  3. In 2010, a Princeton researcher calculated the cost of US military force projection in the Gulf at $7.3 trillion from 1976 through 2007, which, assuming a constant rate of growth, would amount to more than $16 trillion through 2019 at current prices. See RJ Stern, ‘United States cost of military force projection in the Persian Gulf, 1976-2007’ Energy Policy (2010): https://offiziere.ch/wp-content/uploads/US-miiltary-cost-of-Persian-Gulf-force-projection.pdf.↩︎

  4. Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, ‘Global arms trade: USA increases dominance; arms flows to the Middle East surge, says SIPRI’, March 11 2019: www.sipri.org/media/press-release/2019/global-arms-trade-usa-increases-dominance-arms-flows-middle-east-surge-says-sipri.↩︎

  5. Trump’s hilarious exchange with Jeb Bush can be found at www.youtube.com/watch?v=H4ThZcq1oJQ; his exchange with Clinton starts at 1:02:20 at www.youtube.com/watch?v=FRlI2SQ0Ueg.↩︎

  6. A long-suppressed 29-page chapter of the 9/11 Commission report would reveal a few months later that high-level Saudi involvement was much more extensive than the Bush or Obama administration had dared admit.↩︎