Bringer of death, destruction and disorganisation

March 20 is the fifth anniversary of the US-led invasion. Mike Macnair examines the features of present-day US imperialism and sets out once again the basic tasks of the workers' movement

We have now had a bit more than a year since the beginning of the US ‘troop surge’ policy originally advocated by a section of the neo-cons and implemented under the leadership of general Petraeus. If nothing else, the policy has persuaded the global media to downplay Iraq. US casualties tick on - most recently eight killed on Monday March 10. Sectarian attacks killing Iraqis, even very serious ones, have dropped off the front pages. The US government is certainly claiming that the numbers are down and that this shows the success of the ‘surge’.

Most critics of the war accept the numbers, but then say that this does not imply a fundamental shift in the situation in Iraq. I will say so, too; but it is necessary to maintain the caution that both the US and its client regime in Iraq have a clear interest in minimising the number of attacks, and effective control of what gets reported. So the number of attacks probably is down, but may well not be down by as much as the reported figures represent.

The supposed success has led ‘liberal interventionism’ to crawl back out from under various stones (for example, David Miliband’s February 12 Aung San Suu Kyi lecture in Oxford).1 On the far-left wing of the social-imperialist camp, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty’s Martin Thomas argued in January that the AWL was still right to have “opposed slogans like ‘Troops out now’, which suggest that an unrestrained battle for power by the sectarian militias would be some sort of ‘self-determination’ and a lesser evil than the status quo. On the contrary: a lurch into full-scale civil war would be even more destructive of the labour movement, of elements of democratic life and of possibilities of self-determination than the current slower horrors.”2

Colin Foster in the March 7 issue of Solidarity is a bit more cagey. He comments that “... there has been no rise of workers’ struggles over the period of relative ‘stabilisation’ since September. If the ‘stabilisation’ represents local warlords and sectarian gangs getting a stronger grip on their respective areas, it may even have made things worse for the labour movement. And a strengthening of the central government, if that should happen, may also be adverse: that government has on its books, as yet only part-implemented, decree 8750 of August 2005 confiscating all union funds, the unrepealed 1987 Saddam Hussein law banning unions in the public sector, and oil minister Shahristani’s assertion last summer that oil industry management should refuse to deal with the Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions.”3

The problem is that the AWL’s whole argument refuses to recognise that this result is the predictable outcome of the invasion and occupation and will predictably tend to get worse the longer the occupation continues.

On the other side of this coin, a substantial part of what was identified as ‘the Iraqi resistance’ by Socialist Workers Party and similar authors up to last year4 has either backed off for the moment (most notably Muqtada al Sadr’s Jaish Mahdi militia) or gone over to collaboration with the occupiers (the ‘awakening councils’). The idea that it is a matter of principle for socialists in Britain to ‘support the resistance’ has thus become somewhat fly-blown.

In this context, five years of occupation and a year of ‘surge’ call for an assessment of the background and results of the invasion and occupation - and what its reasonably predictable results were.


Down to Vietnam, the policy of US military and covert interventions overseas, and their actual effect, was to impose some sort of order for the benefit of capital. The order imposed was usually one leftists disliked and generally amounted to support for authoritarian conservatives in the local society. But the US intervention did - even in Chile - create order. Since its defeat in Vietnam, the character of US military/covert interventions abroad has been to inflict destruction on those who fail to ‘play ball’ with the US government, or whose rhetoric suggests that there might be an alternative to ‘playing ball’.

The US has made little, if any, attempt to impose order: once the immediate ‘hostile regime’ has been dealt with, the population of the country attacked can be left to struggle on as best as it can in the ruins. The weapons of imposing destruction have been primarily economic sanctions, combined with support for one or another sort of proxy military force - South Africa and Unita in Angola, the Israelis in Lebanon, the Contras in Nicaragua, the Iraqi Ba’athist regime in the Iran-Iraq war, the Mujahedin in Afghanistan, and so on. Direct US military intervention has been very limited, and has largely had the same character. This was even true of the largest example, the 1991 Gulf War.

Running in parallel with this policy shift was a second: in its rhetoric and its diplomacy the US promoted ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’ as a replacement for some of the authoritarian-conservative regimes it had previously supported. By ‘democracy’ was meant rule-of-law parliamentary-constitutional regimes. These were usually characterised by an increase in corruption, even compared to the authoritarian-conservative regimes they replaced; by commitment to the ‘Washington consensus’ of economic neoliberalism; and, in consequence, by a decline in local material production for local markets in favour of primary raw materials outputs and ‘maquiladora’ production dependent on US-owned corporations, and by sharp increases in material social inequality and absolute poverty. This policy and its effects could be seen in operation across Latin America, in Southern Africa and in Indonesia.

In general, it did not involve military intervention or covert intervention beyond financial support for ‘democrats’. It was overwhelmingly a matter of ideological and diplomatic support. The exception was Argentina. Here the Thatcher government for domestic political reasons started a war which the Argentinean military junta lost; and this military defeat precipitated the fall of the junta.

The 1991 Gulf War was in part an attempt to procure a similar result. Just as the Thatcher government had given military-diplomatic signals to the Argentinean junta that they were not serious about defending the Falklands colony, leading the junta to invade, so the US gave military-diplomatic signals to the Iraqi Ba’athist regime that they were not serious about defending Kuwait, leading the Iraqis to invade. Like the south Atlantic war, the 1991 Gulf war was accompanied by a revival of World War II rhetoric about democracy versus fascism and appeasement. The Bush (senior) administration certainly hoped that, as in Argentina, the military defeat would lead to the overthrow of the Ba’athist regime in favour of ‘democracy’. But they were certainly not prepared to use military intervention to achieve this result.

In fact, this aspect of the project of the 1991 war failed: the Ba’athist regime crushed its internal enemies. This defiance, in turn, led the US - like any playground bully who has been ‘dissed’ - to embark on an attempt to destroy Iraq through blockade ‘sanctions’. There was nothing new in the bully’s response to disobedience or the ‘sanctions war’: similar motives had been present and similar tactics had been used in the blockade of Cuba, the indirect and covert operations against Mozambique and Angola, and so on.


Running behind these shifts in the character of US overseas interventions is the relative decline of US productive capital, and with it the decline of the ability of US capital to give order to the world. In the late 1960s US hegemony reached its apogee. But the cold war order, which involved ‘containment’ of the USSR and major concessions both to the working class in the ‘west’ and to third world capitals, failed spectacularly with US defeat in Vietnam, with the year 1968 and its aftermath, and finally with the Portuguese revolution in 1974-76 and the final defeat in Vietnam in 1975. The cold war order had made the working class too strong and undermined the relative strength of US capital. The US now turned to the policy which has been dominant since 1976: financial deregulation and financialisation; taking back concessions both from the domestic working class and the third world; and ‘roll-back’ of ‘communism’ through a combination of military pressure on the Soviet budget and exploiting the national contradictions between the nationalist bureaucracies.

Both the ‘human rights offensive’, which led to ideological-diplomatic support for ‘democracy’, and the decision to avoid attempting to use US troops to impose order in third world countries, were part of this turn. Under the new order the US sucks in investment from abroad, funding its trade and budget deficits and also supplying funds which US-based ‘multinationals’ invest abroad at higher rates of return. The ‘classic imperialism’ of semi-colonial state indebtedness and of foreign direct investment and remittance of profits has reappeared, and with it the ascendancy of financial capital.

This policy has had spectacular successes - chiefly the fall of the USSR and its satellites, and the shift of the Chinese and Vietnamese regimes to creating ‘communist sweatshops’. But it has also carried with it the return of classic boom-crash sharp business cycles, in place of the attenuated form of the business cycle which was seen in the cold war period. Each downswing has two consequences. First, it threatens the security of assets invested in the United States. In the case of Japan, getting caught with deflating US real estate in the late 80s-early 90s led to a prolonged slump of the Japanese economy. Second, while the down phase of the cycle is in operation, it undermines the political-ideological authority of the capitalist state and the pro-capitalist parties.

A full crash therefore cannot be permitted: it is necessary both to apply stimulus to the US economy, sucking in more money into US markets as a ‘safe haven’, and to divert political attention from the downswing. The solution has been military operations, primarily based on air power: the 1991 Gulf War in the wake of the 1987 market crash, the operations in the Balkans in the wake of the 1998 ‘east Asian crisis’, the invasion of Iraq in the wake of the 2001 ‘dot-com crash’.

The dominance of air power has two advantages. The first is that it is the most hardware-intensive form of military operations and therefore has the largest Keynesian stimulus effect. The second is that it avoids the danger of a collapse of military morale in prolonged counter-insurgency operations, which brought down the Portuguese Caetano regime in 1974 and came close to destroying the US army in the early 1970s.

Invading Iraq

The 2003 invasion of Iraq was both a continuation of these dynamics and policies and a break from them. It was a continuation insofar as financial capitals and the ideology of neoliberalism remained dominant, insofar as the use of air power outweighed the use of ground forces and insofar as it was - as became immediately apparent - a looting operation, without any serious effort to reconstruct order. It was a break insofar as - whatever the US administration’s original intentions - it rapidly became obvious that a long-term commitment of ground troops was necessary to avoid obvious failure of the US’s project: thus reversing an element of US policy consistent since Vietnam.

This danger was apparent to important sections of capital and of the US and British state apparatuses, leave aside the fact that the invasion was flatly against the interests of non-US capitals, which had one or another sort of interest in the Iraqi regime. The result was that opposition to the invasion was briefly in 2002-03 allowed to become a real mass opposition by support from elements of the state bureaucracy and of the capitalist media.

The coalition within US politics which put together the Iraq invasion was animated by a wide variety of more or less irrational views which had very varying strategic implications. But it is reasonably clear that one aspect - the immediate planning for after the invasion - was animated by the views of groups of long-term Iraqi exiles. They believed that their country was the most secular in the Arab world (which may have been true in the 1950s-70s), substantially urbanised and with a developed infrastructure, and that there would therefore be broad, mass demand for ‘democracy’ Latin-American style. Hence, a US invasion could be a very short-term operation which could rapidly hand over power to themselves and the allies they expected to find on the ground (including within the state) once the Ba’athist regime had been overthrown.

The US certainly intended to keep bases in Iraq; but this is not by any means the same thing as attempting to govern the country or to reconstruct a new political order.

The exiles were in one sense talking at complete cross-purposes to their American interlocutors. Where the exiles saw an urban, industrialised society, the Americans - whether they were neo-cons proper, religious extremists or ‘realists’ - saw a Soviet-style economy which needed to be smashed by ‘shock treatment’ to enable the free market to take root.

In addition, however, both the Americans and the exiles had simply failed to take account of the implications of the processes by which Saddam Hussein al-Tikriti and his family had consolidated power within the Ba’ath party in the 1980s, and of 12 years of the sanctions blockade war and failed attempts to overthrow the Ba’athist regime, for post-occupation politics.

In the first place - as had happened across the Arab world and in Iran - US-backed repression of the communist parties and secular left had left the mosques as the only semi-legal centre of opposition to the regimes.

Secondly, in spite of the heroic efforts of Iraqi workers, engineers and technicians to repair the damage of 1991 and keep things running under sanctions, the blockade war had seriously damaged the Iraqi economy. This damage in turn implied that the ability of the mosques - funded by charitable donations from the Saudi and Iranian states - to provide relief from poverty was the most fundamental form of social solidarity.

Thirdly, as any Iraqi not blinded by the hope of getting rid of the regime through US aid knew, all the catastrophes affecting their country had been inflicted on Iraq by the US - both in its original support of Saddam and, most immediately, in the blockade war.

Hence what the US and its allies found when they invaded the country was - entirely predictably - three things which made their original plans worthless. First, there was no mass base for their preferred allies. Second, the Ba’athists stubbornly rejected the occupation, shifting from open military resistance to guerrilla resistance. Third, the people who did have mass support were the (primarily shia) islamist parties, and only those allied with Tehran - which had supported the invasion - were willing to play ball with the Americans. (Iraqi Kurdistan, of course, was different: in the blockade period, US protection had put the Kurdish nationalists in power, and the invasion simply strengthened their position.) To pull out quickly would therefore have resulted merely in a more or less rapid return to power of the Ba’athist regime.


The failure of the original idea of a short handover has led the US to attempt a series of different projects. Between May 2003 and summer 2004 the US attempted to ‘reconstruct’ Iraq under direct rule, on the model of its ‘reconstructions’ of Germany and Japan after 1945. But there were never anything like enough troops on the ground for this purpose, and the US was neither willing to make economic concessions to kick-start the economy, nor to bring the Ba’athists on board as they had, after 1945, brought on board ex-Nazis and pro-Hirohito Japanese.

In summer-autumn 2004 the US attempted to bring ex-Ba’athists on board and crush Jaish Mahdi. This project failed on both sides, and in late autumn 2004 the US turned to an alliance with the shia islamist parties, launching large-scale attacks on the ‘sunni resistance’ (Fallujah) and agreeing to elections, which had been demanded by shia religious leader Ayatollah Sistani.

Between January 2005 and December 2006 the US attempted to make its alliance with the shia islamist parties work. However, the ‘government’ created by these parties (in unstable alliance with the Kurdish nationalists) proved to be unable to deliver any level of ‘security’ on the ground. There was a marked rise in sectarian attacks between shia and sunni islamist groups, and episodic flashpoints between Jaish Mahdi and other Sadrist groups, on the one side, and the Iranian-backed Badr Brigade (now largely rebadged as Iraqi army and police), on the other.

After these failures, pressure for withdrawal began to grow in the US, reflected in the debates of autumn-winter 2006-07. The problem - for advocates of withdrawal as well as for advocates of ‘staying the course’ - was how to avoid the outcome that the US was seen to have suffered a military defeat. The outcome was the ‘surge’ policy.


The formal policy of the ‘surge’ was to put additional US troops on the ground in order to provide effective ‘security’, thereby making it possible (a) to begin economic reconstruction, and (b) to allow a political policy of ‘reconciliation’. In practice, the ‘surge’ meant something different.

In substance, the effect of the sectarian warfare of 2005-06 had been to create ‘religious cleansing’ and a de facto partition of the country - street by street in Baghdad - between the turf of different militias. By agreeing to what had already been produced by this process - most clearly by the ‘separation walls’ in Baghdad - the US could continue its formal alliance with the shia islamist parties, while giving elements of the Ba’athist and sunni religious armed groups a freer hand on their turf. This turn was reflected in the US-sponsored ‘awakening councils’. The US thus accepted that the puppet government’s writ would not run in the ‘sunni areas’. Large-scale US military operations and the accompanying US casualties would be reduced.

The ‘surge’ was heavily spun as being aimed at Jaish Mahdi, and its initiation had been accompanied by strong sabre-rattling against Iran. This had the effect of pushing the Sadrists, who were historically suspicious of Iran, more into the Iranian camp, where US (indirect) diplomacy with Iran could exercise more control of them. It is reasonably clear that the Sadrists were also given to understand privately that if they stood down offensive operations they would be allowed to keep what they now held. The clearest aspect of this message was the draw-down of British troops from Basra and their withdrawal from the city itself. Sadr responded by putting Jaish Mahdi on ceasefire, a ceasefire which has continued - with episodic interruptions - to the present.

The additional troops thus serve as a threat rather than as a means of immediate military operations. They are the stick which is to accompany the carrot of reduced actual US military actions.

Meanwhile, the US has been pressing the Iraqi ‘parliament’ to agree ‘reconciliation measures’. So far little ‘progress’. The de-Ba’athification law imposed in the direct rule period, which led to the sacking of vast numbers of state employees, has been revised - but in a way which is considered in practice an obstacle to full reintegration of former Ba’athists.5 The oil law - which has been the subject of endless US pressure on the puppet government, because it would allow effective privatisation of Iraqi oilfields in the hands of US corporations - has not yet been agreed (though the oil ministry is acting as if it was in force).6 A law defining the powers of confederations of provinces made it through the Iraqi parliament but was rejected by the presidency council, possibly because the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (formerly SCIRI) and Dawa parties think that they will lose out to the Sadrists.7

As far as economic reconstruction is concerned, the picture is similarly bleak. The damping down of turf wars between the militias has allowed a limited revival of ultra-local businesses. The US’s deals with part of the ‘sunni resistance’ has reduced, though not eliminated, attacks on oil pipelines, and recent skyrocketing oil prices have increased ‘Iraqi GDP’ (illustrating the almost complete meaninglessness of GDP figures). But the division of the country into micro-territories prohibits any large-scale reconstruction, and unemployment remains around 60-70%.8 Refugees returning to Iraq were given major media hype in February, but the most recent account has the refugee crisis “worsening”.9

For exactly the same reasons, the Iraqi workers’ movement remains extremely weak. Unemployment above 60% is not a strong situation for the working class as a class. The reduction of the country to a series of militia fiefdoms makes it extremely difficult for the workers’ movement to organise on a national scale. Both the US and its islamist allies are deadly enemies of the workers’ movement - a fact reflected at a most basic level in attacks on trade unionists.

Imperialist options

What all this boils down to is simple. The ‘surge’ has not laid the foundations for overcoming the USA’s problems in creating a stable client regime in Iraq. Rather, it has merely temporarily frozen the situation in Iraq and taken the heat off the US and British governments in relation to troop withdrawals. The underlying situation is unaltered. The strategic choices facing the occupiers remain the same: they are just postponed (hopefully, from the administration’s point of view, until after the US presidential election).

These options are limited. Going back to Ba’athism or any form of all-Iraq secular regime is now practically ruled out without a prolonged civil war: the US has done enough damage to the Ba’athist guerrillas, sufficiently strengthened Badr brigade and the Kurds, and made refugees of enough of the Ba’athist and secular middle classes to ensure that Humpty can no longer be put back together again.

There remain two options open to the occupiers which would not amount to an obvious ignominious retreat. The first is to make a deal with Tehran, under which the US accepts a shia islamist regime which would be an Iranian protectorate in southern Iraq, with (more) effective partitioning of the country between this regime, the Kurds in the north-east and some sort of ‘sunni’ regime in the centre and north-west.

This option would have the advantage for the imperialists that it is the probable outcome if the occupiers simply withdrew without preconditions. It therefore ‘goes with the grain’ of the dynamics the US invasion and occupation has created. It would, however, practically require a general deal between the US and Tehran.

It also has two serious regional problems. The first is that the existing dependent states in the region have an obvious interest in the sanctity of the international borders established after World War I. If Iraq can be partitioned, why not any other country in the region? The second is that, whatever the imperialists’ intentions or those of the Kurdish Stalino-nationalists, an independent Iraqi Kurdistan will inevitably be a beacon of hope for Kurdish nationalists in Turkey, Iran and Syria.

The second option is to escalate by attacking Iran, thereby (if the attack were successful) undercutting the autonomy of the shia islamist parties in Iraq, and making them more amenable to US dictation. The disadvantage is that both the regional and the global outcomes of such an escalation are utterly unpredictable. It might secure the position of the US for the immediate future: oderint, dum metuant (let them hate me, so long as they fear me), as several US neo-cons assert.10 Or it might bring the whole structure of US dominance down.

Working class interests

The best interest of the Iraqi and international working class would have been that the sanctions did not happen and the invasion did not happen. The Ba’athist regime was certainly tyrannical, but under the right conditions the working class can overthrow tyrannical regimes. Unfortunately - as 2002-03 demonstrated - protest cannot prevent capitalist states from going to war: it is only overthrowing the state that can do that. Next best would have been for the invasion to have been defeated militarily in 2003. This was, of course, never a realistic possibility. But it remains true that - just as it would have been better for the working class not to have had either the sanctions war or the invasion - so it would have been better if the invaders were thrown back.

Once the US and its allies had set out on the path of occupation, they were inevitably going to need local allies. The idea that they could possibly do what was done in Germany and Japan in 1945-50 was always illusory: in the first place, the US state no longer disposes of the relative resources which would allow it to carry out this sort of exercise; secondly, in 1945-50 the US was forced by the threat of the working class to make major concessions, while in 2003 there was no such threat; thirdly, in 1945-50 they made deals with important elements of the overthrown regime, and in 2003 they failed to do so. The US’s local allies were therefore necessarily going to be the islamist militias, and the result was inevitably going to be localised warlordism.

If the occupiers could be got rid of, the possibility would exist of a movement of unification based on the working class overthrowing the warlords-militias. The process would not be easy or quick, but it would be possible. As long as the imperialists continue to occupy the country, however, they are bound to play sectarian ‘divide and rule’ games and thereby support the militias. They have no other means of keeping even a modicum of control which will allow supplies to flow to their bases, etc. The pattern of divide-and-rule behaviour is entirely familiar from the whole history of the British empire.

It follows that the most basic interest of the Iraqi workers and of the international working class is to end the occupation: to get the troops out, as soon as possible and unconditionally. The AWL idea that the imperialist troops in some sense protect the Iraqi workers’ movement is just pathetic, social-imperialist nonsense.

Secondly, the workers’ movement needs to fight against the divide and rule tactics: for Iraqi unity, and more broadly for the unity of workers across the region and internationally. It is for this reason that the line of ‘support the resistance’ is illusory. ‘The resistance’ always consisted of fragmentary groups pursuing sectional interests, which in the ‘surge’ period the US has exploited to keep them quieter. This sort of sectional response will not get rid of the occupiers, but merely plays into the hands of their divide and rule operation.

That implies that the workers’ movement needs to put forward its own programme of unification. A good starting point is the oilworkers’ defence of the nationalised status of oil resources: against both imperialist exploitation and ‘regionalisation’. Another is the defence of the rationing system, which the puppet government now proposes to abolish. The same logic would support demands to restart publicly owned plants closed by the Americans, and to offer the unemployed work on public reconstruction projects.

The Iraqi and international working class has an interest in the unity of Iraq. But it may well be that the choice is posed between US- and Iranian-sponsored partition of Iraq, on the one side, and a US military attack on Iran, on the other. In that case the lesser evil would also be clear. A US military attack on Iran would be the worst possible outcome of the invasion of Iraq.

In Britain

After the initial shock, the media and the state have largely rallied round behind the idea that Britain should not ‘cut and run’ from Iraq. Opposition has therefore gradually become more muted. The policies of the leadership of the Stop the War Coalition have not helped. Repeated national demonstrations of declining size is a good way to give the government the impression that anti-war sentiment is decreasing, where a steadier stream of local actions might have been more beneficial. The failure of the STWC to take a clear position on throwing out pro-war MPs in the last general election, and the Socialist Workers Party’s attempts to pretend that Respect ‘represented the anti-war movement’, added to the impression that ‘nothing can be done about the war’ at the level of politics.

The workers’ movement in Britain nonetheless has clear responsibilities in relation to Iraq. And they are simple ones. The first is to fight for the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of British troops from Iraq. The second is to fight to give as much practical solidarity as is possible to Iraqi workers’ organisations.

As I have argued above, Iran and Iraq are inescapably linked in imperialist policy. Here, too, the British workers’ movement needs to fight: against the current sanctions regime; against any US military or covert attack on Iran; but, again, for solidarity with the Iranian workers’ movement. Precisely because Iran and Iraq are linked by the problem of imperialist policy, this two-sided struggle in relation to Iran can also aid the Iraqi workers’ movement.


1. ‘The democratic imperative’: www.democratiya.com/review.asp?reviews_id=143
2. ‘Iraq: a quieter patch in the nightmare’ Solidarity January 7.
3. ‘Iraq is still prey to the militias’ Solidarity March 6.
4. See, for example, Alex Callinicos’s 2006 interview with Ardashir Mehrdad: www.swp.org.uk/swp_archive.php?article_id=10032
5. ‘Ex-Ba’athists get a break. Or do they?’ New York Times January 14.
6. ‘Challenges facing Iraq, five years after US invasion’, Reuters March 11; ‘Exxon, Shell: oil law needed for deal’, UPI February 13.
7. Ibid.
8. ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=41284
9. ‘UN hints at Iraq refugee returns’, BBC February16; ‘Iraq refugee crisis “getting worse”: experts’, AFP March 11.
10. The tag is from the early Roman playwright Accius, as echoed by the emperor Tiberius in Tacitus Annals (Classical Quarterly No56, 2006)