Bush ups the ante

Differences over Iraq have been sharply debated in Washington between 'neocons' and 'realists', writes Mike Macnair. On a micro-scale this is paralleled in Britain by a debate within the Alliance for Workers' Liberty

On Wednesday January 10 president Bush announced his 'new' policy on Iraq. He hoped it would help overcome the deep divisions within the US ruling class. These had become even more evident with the publication on December 6 2006 of the report of the 'bipartisan' Iraq Study Group (ISG). The group was co-chaired by James Baker, secretary of state under Bush senior, and Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic senator and member of the US foreign and security policy establishment, and was made up of 50% Republicans, broadly of a 'realist' background, and 50% Democrats.

The ISG's report was the clearest statement yet that the US administration's current policy in Iraq is not working. Their proposals amounted in substance to an 'exit strategy' for the US, which would involve cutting the US's political and diplomatic losses from the Iraq operation. Counter-insurgency operations were to be more extensively handed over to the Iraqi puppet regime, on the basis that the regime was to be told that US troops would be withdrawn (albeit not on any definite timetable) apart from trainers, including some embedded in 'Iraqi' units. The administration was to make diplomatic openings to Iran and Syria with a view to their giving assistance in 'stabilising' Iraq. The report did not openly say that this implied abandoning altogether the larger ambitions of the neocons in the Middle East, but this inference could readily be drawn.

The neocons' immediate response was that the ISG proposals were to admit defeat. Murdoch's New York Post led with a picture of Baker and Hamilton as "surrender monkeys". Bush had already said, in his response to the Democrats' victory in the congressional elections, that "most Americans and leaders here in Washington from both political parties understand we cannot accept defeat". Senator John McCain, a Republican but by no means a simple neocon, holds a similar view. Addressing the Senate armed services committee, he said: "There's only one thing worse than an overstressed army and marine corps, and that's a defeated army and marine corps. I believe this [the ISG proposals] is a recipe that will lead to our defeat sooner than later in Iraq."

What is the Bush administration's alternative? What has been spun over the last few weeks is the 'troop surge' announced by Bush on December 10: ie, upping the number of US troops in order to increase 'security', especially in Baghdad.

Part of the problem is that the US simply does not have enough troops under arms to put into Iraq, at short notice - certainly not the sort of numbers which are really needed to govern the country without the assistance of the shi'ite islamists. This would perhaps be half a million, according to some estimates. Indeed, the army high command has said that the US army is too small overall - Bush has said that he is willing to see an increase in its size (Washington Post December 20). Coincidentally, the administration announced a test of the dormant mechanisms of the draft (AP, December 21), triggering a debate about the merits of conscription in the US media, though the report was rapidly downplayed as referring to a routine test some time in the future.

From the Pentagon, two distinct issues have been raised. The first is that - doh! - the Pentagon has finally recognised that the occupiers' 2003 decision to crash the Iraqi economy by shutting down the ('inefficient') nationalised industries and throwing millions out of work has contributed to the insurgency: "After three years of unemployment in excess of 50%, there are no people in the world that wouldn't be undergoing violence and militias" (Washington Post December 12).

The second is more sinister. The Pentagon's November 2006 report to Congress - 'Measuring security and stability in Iraq' - assessed that "shia militants [meaning in particular the Sadrist Jaysh Mahdi militia] were the most significant threat to the coalition presence in Baghdad and southern Iraq" (p20) and that "Iran and Syria continue to influence security negatively in Iraq" (p23) (www.defenselink.mil/pubs/pdfs/9010Quarterly-Report-20061216.pdf). These statements are code for what the policy of 'troop surge' may turn out to mean. In the first place, it might mean a renewed effort to crush the Sadrists by military force, as was attempted in 2004 (Ayatollah Sistani at that time saved the Sadrists in Najaf by ordering mass demonstrations).

In this context, the shi'ite sectarian timing of the execution of Saddam Hussein and the leak of the sectarian character of the executioners, which otherwise looks stupid, makes a certain amount of sense. The US has given the Iraqi shi'ite islamists rope with which to hang not just Saddam, but themselves: preparing the ground for a US offensive against the shi'ite militias and perhaps a coup of some sort against the puppet government.

Attack on Iran?

Secondly, a 'troop surge' aimed to crush Jaysh Mahdi might be part of a more general turn in which the US not only abandoned the shi'ite-dominated Iraqi puppet government, but also went for 'double or quits' by an attack on Iran.

There are a number of pointers in this direction. The diplomatic offensive against Iran was stepped up in December and has not let up with the adoption of (very limited) UN sanctions on December 23. Anatole Kaletsky, no leftwinger, writing in The Times, suggests that Blair's December 20 Dubai speech, in which he called for an "alliance of moderation" to "pin back" Iran, is part of the process of laying the groundwork for an attack on Iran (January 4).

The Pentagon has reportedly decided to move a second carrier group to the Gulf. The Saudis have replaced their ambassador to the US, who supported talks with Tehran, with an advocate of confronting Iran - and also signalled strongly, if informally, that a shi'ite-dominated regime in Iraq, linked to the Iranian regime, is unacceptable to them and that US withdrawal in favour of such a regime would lead to open Saudi intervention in favour of the 'sunni' insurgents. The Tel Aviv press in the first week in January has been reporting that the Israeli air force could destroy the Iranian nuclear programme by targeted air strikes, without US support. The Spectator (January 6) and The Sunday Times (January 8) reported that such an attack would use tactical nuclear weapons, though this claim was immediately denied by the Israeli government.

An Israeli air raid on alleged Iranian nuclear research sites would not be the end of the matter, of course. The point of this exercise - and of the US turning on the Iraqi shi'ite islamists - would be to push the Iranian regime into a 'use it or lose it' position in relation to their military assets: if they chose to respond to Israeli attack, or some other provocation, this would then justify a larger-scale US strategic air assault on Iran.

In terms of US domestic politics, a policy of this type would have considerable advantages for Bush. It would completely wrong-foot the Democrats. The Democratic leadership has been looking to distance itself from the disaster unfolding in Iraq, with Democrat Congressional leaders rejecting the 'troop surge' idea. But the Democratic leadership has unequivocally backed the idea that 'something must be done' about Iran and the threats to use force against the alleged nuclear weapons programme. The disastrous occupation of Iraq would be subsumed in the larger war and media attention diverted from it.

Contrary signals

Nothing that has been done so far has definitely committed the Bush administration to the combination of 'surge' with an attack on Iran. Indeed, some recent appointments have been taken to point in the opposite direction: that the 'realists' have finally got the upper hand. Rumsfeld is gone, replaced by Gates, who participated in the ISG. It has been reported that Khalilzay is to be moved from ambassador to Baghdad to the UN, replacing Bolton; in Baghdad he is to be replaced by Ryan Crocker, a professional diplomat and former ambassador to Kuwait, Syria, Lebanon and (currently) Pakistan.

The military theatre commander (Abizaid) and Iraq ground forces commander (Casey) are to be replaced, with the latter role given to counter-insurgency expert general David Petraeus. The theatre command is to go to an admiral, William J Fallon: it has been suggested that going for a naval commander at theatre level fits with a coming air attack on Iran, but it could equally fit with a plan for a partial withdrawal of US ground troops, perhaps after a brief 'surge' to intimidate the Sadrists and force them to play ball.

Not new

The debate about Iraq among US policymakers (and writers who try to influence them) is not new. In reality, it goes back to the beginning of the war, to the decision to launch the invasion of Iraq in the first place ... and, behind this, to the Republican Party's campaign for the presidency in the run-up to the 2000 election. What is new is the prominence of the debate.

The underlying reason both for the debate, and for its current prominence, is a contradiction affecting US imperialism. On the one hand, the US is and has been since the 1940s an imperial world hegemon state, like Britain before World War I. On the other, this imperial role has less direct domestic political legitimacy than Britain's imperial role had before the 1940s - or, indeed, still has.

A world hegemon state is the ultimate guarantor of international credit money, and therefore a financial rentier on the scale of the world market. In order to have this role, it has to have military dominance on the scale of this market - and also to display this military dominance, and its ability by direct or indirect means to enforce a world order.

US citizens take for granted the material benefits of America's world-hegemonic role, but lack the ideological forms to celebrate the dirty military necessities which this role entails. Wars have to be sold politically as something other than imperial actions. To give a concrete example, the south Atlantic war, though its diplomatic cover was 'self-determination', was sold in the British tabloid press as Thatcher 'making Britain great again', with rhetoric and imagery which harked back to the high imperial period. Rhetoric of this type has been used by the neocons within a relatively narrow circle, but for mass consumption the 1991 war was presented as a UN action, and the present war has been sold as a war of self-defence against an alleged threat to the US - a sort of new variant of the cold war.

This legitimacy problem has been given the name 'Vietnam syndrome', because in the Vietnam war the US was defeated by a crisis of legitimacy which found expression in a mass movement against the war, widespread revulsion at US (conscript) soldiers dying without achieving anything like victory and a morale crisis in the army.

Spreading disorder

After Vietnam, the US rebuilt its armed units as smaller volunteer forces, and to a considerable extent relied on backing proxies for military interventions - South Africa against Mozambique and Angola, Iraq against Iran, the Contras against Nicaragua, the islamists against the PDPA regime in Afghanistan and so on. Successive administrations showed high sensitivity to US casualties, backing off rapidly from direct interventions in Lebanon (1982-84) and Somalia (1992-93) and relying overwhelmingly on air power against Iraq (1991 and after) and ex-Yugoslavia (1995, 1998-99). This policy was highly successful in inflicting death and destruction on anti-US regimes, but (except in marginal cases like Grenada) was not capable of positively imposing order.

The fall of the USSR immediately seemed to create a 'unipolar world'. But it has become increasingly clear as time has passed since 1991 that it has actually increased the margin of manoeuvre of other capitalist states against the US. This is both because it removes the actual threat of Soviet or Soviet-supported action, and because it has led to a crisis of confidence of the workers' movement, allowing the considerable (and continuing) reduction of concessions made to the working class in the cold war period. Thus France and Germany pursued limited independent policies in the 1990s in relation to the Yugoslav crisis and to Iran and Iraq; and thus both the EU, and the larger 'third world' states, have become increasingly assertive in the several rounds of trade talks.

A part of shift has been that several countries' politicians and diplomats have exploited the 'international rule of law' rhetoric which backed the 1991 Gulf War, to argue for efforts to create a positive 'new world order'. That is, for an alternative to the US's merely destructive proxy wars of the period since Vietnam, and for some (imaginary) means of subordinating the US to international institutions.

To the extent that US interventions seem merely to spread destruction and insecurity, this is in the short-term interests of US and British financial capital (since it sucks in capital investments into the US and British financial markets) and the US state (since this dynamic supports the US trade and budgetary deficits). But it is not in the interests of capitals which wish to make productive investments in countries which might be targeted by US interventions or to acquire raw materials from these sources.

At the same time, the turn to financial globalisation from the 1980s has made the US (and its sidekick, Britain) increasingly dependent on financial and intellectual property rents. The security of these rents depends in the last analysis on US military dominance.

The question for the US state elite has been and remains: how is the US to assert this dominance, given 'Vietnam syndrome'? The approach of the Bush senior and Clinton administrations was to legitimise US military operations through the UN and Nato, the idea being in effect that the US would serve as global capital's military arm in exchange for dominance of the counsels of the international bodies and financial tribute. The project came unstuck because of internal US political dynamics. The Republicans lost the 1992 and 1996 presidential elections because of loss of votes to their right (Perot and 'Reform'). In the run-up to the 2000 election they responded by moving onto the nationalist and social conservative territory of the right; meanwhile, the Democrats encountered anti-globalisation opposition to their left (Nader). The result in 2000 let Bush in by the narrowest of margins.

Iraq as a soft target

The new Republican leadership created an electoral coalition of social conservatives, tax-cutters and deregulators, and advocates of a strengthened US military and of the open defence of American interests. But it was itself a coalition, not a simple expression of the views of the neocon Project for the New American Century. The war on Iraq is just an example: it is clear that there has been infighting between neocons and 'realists' from before then.

In this context, it is reasonably clear the Iraq war was never primarily about Iraq. Moreover, Iraq was chosen for attack because it was thought to be a soft target. The air defences and a good deal of infrastructure had already been demolished and the economy to a considerable extent strangled by a decade of 'sanctions'. The exile leaders assured their neocon friends that they had widespread support on the ground. While some 'realists' were more sceptical, the war plan Bush and Rumsfeld adopted - relatively few troops, in a rapid decapitation strike on major strategic centres, especially Baghdad - was clearly premised on taking out the top leadership of the Ba'ath party and replacing it with the exiles. This sort of quick fix could be a step towards overcoming 'Vietnam syndrome'.

Within the period of open field operations in April-May 2003 this policy was disproved. The invaders encountered more military resistance and less political support than they had expected, and the conventional military resistance shifted more or less seamlessly in April-May 2003 into the guerrilla operations against the US troops and their collaborators which the media call the 'sunni insurgency'. These developments proved that the Ba'ath Party had deeper roots in Iraqi society, and that these roots were more intransigently opposed to a US invasion, than the architects of the invasion believed.

In May 2003 the US responded to this turn of events by turning to a policy of full-scale reconstruction modelled in theory on post-war Germany and Japan. Initial 'reconstruction director' Jay Garner was replaced by 'coalition provisional authority' (CPA) head L Paul Bremer. The CPA began by demolishing the Iraqi state through 'deBa'athification' (May 16) and dissolution of the Iraqi army (May 23). Elections, which had initially been intended to be held quickly, were to be postponed. The CPA sought to restructure the Iraqi economy through privatisations before elections, and handed out reconstruction contracts overwhelmingly to US companies. Vast amounts of money simply disappeared.

This policy would have had some plausibility if the invaders had had a lot more troops on the ground. Germany in 1945 had a population of about 65 million. The country was invaded from the west by 1.3 million Allied troops and from the east by 2.5 million Soviet troops. Since Iraq's population is around 27 million, a comparable troop commitment would be 1.7 million. Japan (whose population was also around 65 million) was occupied more economically, with 400,000 troops (which would imply about 165,000 for Iraq). But in Japan the US left in place the principal structures of the political regime, obtaining the agreement of emperor Hirohito to their operations, and conducted only limited purging of the high command and a relatively small number of 'identified war criminals'. This would have been consistent with the US's original plan to decapitate the Ba'ath Party but leave the state in place.

Moreover, in neither Germany nor Japan was there any equivalent to the CPA's free-market dogmatism or contract bonanza for US industry, and the level of kleptocracy and corruption in the occupation administration was on a smaller scale.

The practical effect of the CPA period was simply to collapse the Iraqi state and society into a condition of warlordism. There is only one way out of such a condition, and that is the gradual street-by street, mosque-by-mosque and town-by-town conquest of territory by a proto-state or party-army. The Americans could reduce Iraq to a condition of resentful acquiescence and begin to build a fully colonial state, if they were prepared to put in a million-plus troops and take the high level of casualties - perhaps 25% - involved in extensive house-to-house fighting. But the original premise that Iraq would be a soft target, together with the war's doubtful legitimacy, blocks any such orientation.

After the illusions

By 2004 the CPA policy was clearly failing, and in the summer the US attempted a compromise which attempted to bring at least part of the Ba'athists on board via the 'interim government' headed by Allawi and an arrangement with ex-Ba'athist military officers in Fallujah. An attempt was made to crush Jaysh Mahdi, which was blocked by ayatollah Sistani's call for peace demonstrations. This policy failed in turn and almost from the outset. The Allawi 'government' disposed neither of effective armed forces, nor of the ability to modify the CPA's economic policy. The abortive showdown with Jaysh Mahdi meant that the US was forced to concede Sistani's demand for early elections, which would inevitably imply a government dominated by shia islamists. This turn to alliance with the shia islamist parties was reflected in the destruction of Fallujah in November 2004.

Since then, the US has been attempting to make the alliance with the shia islamist parties work. We have seen a series of events spun as political turning points: the January 2005 elections, the April 2005 agreement on a government, the October 2005 referendum on the constitution, the December 2005 elections and the April 2006 agreement on a government.

But it turns out that the islamist-dominated 'government' has no more power, either on the ground or over economic policy, than the Allawi 'government' before it. Nor does it have sufficient legitimacy to support the creation of an army which can take and hold ground: the ISG report is scathing on the character of the 'Iraqi army' created by the occupiers.

What the 'government' does have is the support of the Badr Brigade Iranian-backed militia and the half-support of Jaysh Mahdi: and these forces are beginning to try to take ground for themselves by 'religious cleansing' attacks on sunnis and secular figures. Local 'sunni' militias, as well as the existing guerrilla groups, respond in kind. To the guerrilla attacks on US forces there is therefore added an increasing number of purely sectarian terrorist attacks and an increasing refugee problem.

The spin is running out. And with it is running out the willingness of the US public to support the war in Iraq ... with the inevitable logic that, although the process will be slower than in Vietnam, there will be a crisis of morale of the US troops. It becomes urgent to propose an alternative policy. Hence the very public debate initiated by the ISG.

Where we began

At this point we return to where we began. The US perhaps could, with its existing forces in Iraq - or with a 'surge' - or even with fewer troops than are now deployed - and with Iranian assistance, help the shia islamist militias to drive out sunnis and secular figures and create some sort of shi'ite islamic republic, which would inevitably end up as a dependency of Iran. The Kurds would have to be given effective independence. This is the substance which lies behind the ISG proposals. Such a policy could in theory be spun as the democratic verdict of the majority. But the neocons are perfectly correct to say that it would amount to an admission of defeat by the US, and would be seen as such globally. It would be a clear message that, while it is still true that the US can inflict destruction and chaos, it cannot impose order. It would also be, and would inevitably appear to be, a victory for the Iranian regime.

The implications of such an admission are much larger than a simple defeat for the policy of the neocons. The problem is that US hegemony is central to the structure of the world economy. And this hegemony rests on US military dominance. Defeat in Iraq would by no means necessarily mean an immediate crash of US power; but it would inevitably imply an increasing tendency for other powers to begin to make their own arrangements with parts of the 'third world', increase their arms expenditure and so on.

The alternative to admitting defeat is for the US to attack Iran. Both the strategic logic of the situation in Iraq and that of the US global position in the wake of the failure of the Iraq war to deliver democratic reconstruction demand it.