No way back for warmongers

Mike Macnair addressed the Hopi AGM on the continued threat of war. US imperialism has a new face, but when it comes to foreign policy it is business as usual

It should now be clear enough to everyone that Barack Obama's policy in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan is for all practical purposes the same as that of George W Bush.

True, in its propaganda the new administration presents itself as much less gung-ho and unilateral, preferring to focus on the “common interests of the international community” and so on. True, too, during the last summer there was a pause or toning-down in the drumbeats of threats against Iran, as the US clearly hoped the mass movement around the rigged elections would produce a “colour revolution”. Nevertheless, sanctions remain high on the agenda, diplomatic pressure is intense and the threat of a bombing strike, ostensibly to destroy Iranian nuclear facilities, is still a serious one.

In response to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s November 26 resolution condemning the Qom enrichment facility, the Iranian regime has - for domestic political reasons - declared an extension of its nuclear programme. Obama has announced that most of the additional US soldiers demanded by general McChrystal for a “troop surge” - ie, escalation - in Afghanistan, will be sent. The last few days has seen the British government agree to increase its contingent by 500 extra troops and other Nato powers are being urged to follow suit.

Sanctions represent an extremely serious threat to the people of Iran. It is important to be clear that sanctions are a clinical word for what is in fact military blockade. Blockade of trade is an act of war. Not as sharp and immediate as dropping bombs, to be sure. But if an army were to surround London and, while allowing food and medical supplies in, refused to let in petrol and so on, no-one would have any hesitation describing that as an act of war. It is a form that has existed since classical antiquity and before: a siege. In essence, “sanctions” are a euphemism for besieging a country.

Not Bush, the warmonger, but US state interests lie behind US policy in the Middle East. It does not make any difference having a Democrat and a black face in the White House if those state interests continue to determine the underlying structure of US policy.

What are those interests? One - the Carter doctrine, dating formally to 1980 - asserts that “An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force”. “Outside force”, in this context, obviously does not include the US!

But the Carter doctrine itself is part of a larger body of ideas. Consider, for example, the 2008 book Chinese naval strategy in the 21st century: the turn to Mahan by James R Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara, professors at the US naval academy. What is of interest in this context is less the authors” arguments about the policy of the Chinese state than the US naval doctrine they assume, adopted in the late 1940s - that the US navy must have access to all the world’s coastlines and shipping lanes. It follows naturally enough that any denial of access by the US navy to the coast of China is an immediate threat to US security - and Holmes and Yoshihara say so openly. They raise the appalling possibility of China having enough naval strength to defend its own territorial waters - and claim that this would be a threat to US security.

There is nothing particularly novel in this idea. In the late Middle Ages Venice - even as an interstitial merchant-capitalist state within a predominantly feudal society - felt compelled to have a naval policy which would give it unrestricted access to and control of the whole of the eastern Mediterranean. The Dutch Republic in the 17th century aimed for global dominance and ability to strike with naval power in Spanish waters. After the displacement of the Netherlands as the “lead capitalist power” by Britain in the wars between 1689 and 1713, the doctrine became fully transparent. The British navy aimed at global dominance and access to shores anywhere in the world.

Capitalism is from its inception an international system. From its inception a capitalist state has to be concerned about access to raw materials and its ability to protect its shipping for export purposes. Therefore from the beginning there is a necessary choice facing every leading capitalist state - aim for global top-dog status or accept a subordinate military position. Thus the Netherlands after 1714 accepted a subordinate position to Britain, while after 1945 the latter deferred to the US.

Why does capitalism have to have this hierarchy? Ultimately because capitalism - even very primitive and proto-capitalism - needs credit money, and that necessarily involves the state. For full development of capitalism, the scale of credit money operations involved requires the central bank and the central market in state bonds, whether this be the Venetian, Amsterdam, London or New York money market.

And at the same time, because capitalism is an international phenomenon, money - as Marx stated - is only money to the extent that it is global money. So capitalism as a world system necessarily aspires to a world state, which it never achieves. What it gets is a nation-state which partially plays - as a proxy - the role of a world state. Hence, a capitalist country which is progressing in terms of capitalist industrial development is forced in the direction of becoming the world state, the top dog, the state which can maintain a navy capable of touching anywhere in the world. Military success in this competition makes the top-dog state”s money into world money.

But this in its turn has its own logic. In the first place, to win and maintain world military dominance requires consent from important sections of the subordinate classes in the dominant state. It is highly skilled workers who have to both manufacture the ships and armaments and crew them. Concessions must be made to these classes in order to maintain such consent and the domestic political stability that brings.

Secondly, it costs money. There is a massive tax bill associated with providing a navy (and, since the 20th century, air force) which can outfight those of any other two (or more) states in the world. That tax bill has got larger and larger as capitalism has developed and the technology of warfare has got more and more expensive.

The consequence, therefore, is that the underlying profitability of industry in the dominant capitalist state declines, both because of concessions which have been made to the working class and because of the overall tax burden. The dominant state now needs to convert its dominance into extracting tribute from subordinate states. Its internal dynamics of world dominance lead to the export of capital and the rise of industrial production in other countries, as opposed to the world dominant state, and an increase in the practice of skimming the cream from global financial transactions - exploiting monetary dominance to bring in the funds which enable the dominant state to continue supporting the armed forces, which in turn enables that state to continue to be financially dominant.

The effect of world dominance is thus to undermine the industrial dominance on which it was originally based. The imposing structure of military-financial dominance becomes increasingly hollow, while other capitalist countries grow up as centres of industrial and technical development. There is no road back. Like Macbeth, any dominant power of this sort is “in blood stepped in so far that ... returning were as tedious as go o”er”. The dominant state”s only practical option is to step up the exploitation of its military and financial dominance and its global property claims, to go further towards the role of world parasite.

The increasing disjuncture which results from, on the one hand, the increasing financial and property claims of the world power and, on the other, the decline of its domestic industry results in a decreasing ability of the world dominant power to actually act as a global policeman and provide order for the world capitalist economy. This drives other powers towards developing their own military capabilities and their own bilateral relations with other countries. In the later 19th century in relation to Britain, that meant the rise of rival colonial powers; today we have other powers increasingly pursuing their own bilateral relations - notably China with large numbers of South American countries and in Africa. China is visible and obvious because the bourgeois press wants us to know about these things: the capitalist media wants us to worry about China. But it is also happening with the continental European powers and their relations with various countries in the “south”.

The US has entered into the first phase of its decline. But we are not in 1913, or even 1900, or 1890. Rather the US has entered into decline in the same sense as Britain entered decline after the 1853-56 Crimean War. The phase takes a different form from the decline of Britain, which was characterised by the growth of European territorial empires. It took that form because Britain’s Indian empire allowed access to the enormous Indian military labour market. As a consequence Britain was able to use the combination of its navy and Indian troops to establish territorial power all across the world and the other European countries were forced to imitate Britain in that respect.

With the US, the dynamic has been very different. The turning point - the Crimea of the US - was Vietnam. At that moment the US lost the ability to impose order by direct military intervention. What has replaced that policy is one of exporting destruction - Lebanon, Angola, Mozambique, Somalia, Yugoslavia, etc, etc. The US combines in various ways support for insurgents of one sort or another against local states; US strategic bombing activities; and blockades (“sanctions”) to break down the structure of states. The US is not able to impose pro-United States regimes, but is able to punish those who are seen in some way to defy it.

The effect of exporting destruction is still to levy tribute from the subordinate countries. On the one hand, it makes direct French, German and so on investment in the regions targeted for US attack unattractive. Global capital is sucked into the US financial and other markets as a “safe haven”; US capitalists, on the other hand, can better afford to take the risks of investing in “emerging markets” which may become US targets.

The attempt to conquer Iraq was in part an attempt by the neo-conservatives to change that: to turn US policy into a policy of “constructively imposing order”. But it failed - the outcome is not a pro-US regime, but a pro-Iranian regime perched on a chaotic society. Why did it fail? In the first place the US would have had to put four times the number of troops on the ground as were actually available to ensure order; secondly it would have to be willing to give up resources to the material reconstruction of Iraqi industry and infrastructure.

But in reality the US cannot put a million troops on the ground. US imperialism represents a decline in capitalism as such relative to British imperialism and has to make more concessions to the working class than British imperialism in its world-dominant phase ever had to make. With the result that going overseas to fight and die for “your” country is unattractive to the working class. They call it the “Vietnam syndrome”.

Equally, US capital decreasingly wishes to engage in constructive activities: it is increasingly a parasite which looks to suck on the teat of state support. $56 billion is what the US claims to have spent on Iraqi reconstruction, but the Iraqis have seen hardly any of this. Iraq has seen “private finance initiative” on the largest possible scale, with far more money poured into corruption, thrown away and stolen by the contractors, and far less delivered on the ground by the contractors themselves. So the US proves unable to turn away from the policy of exporting destruction to the policy of imposing order.

The question of US policy towards Iran, therefore, has to be seen within the framework of the Iraq debacle. This places the US under severe threat of being seen to be defeated. All the more is this true of the continuing failure in Afghanistan. Obama’s administration has wavered over what policy to follow and whether to send more troops. But in reality there was no real choice. If the US is seen to be defeated in the Middle East 34 years after being seen to be defeated in Vietnam, there will inevitably be an acceleration of the growth of rival bilateral relations between countries in the global north and the global south. Not rival empires, but rival direct investments and rival naval and air rearmament. That will follow, as night follows day, from the US being seen to be defeated.

And that means the question of an attack on Iran is inevitably on the agenda. Because that is the direction in which decline drives the US. It is obliged to expand the scope of its “war on terror”, even as it fails, to avoid being seen to be defeated. This is why Obama’s Middle East policy is essentially the same as Bush’s. However much important capitalists and senior state figures, in the US and the US”s allies, may think that the neocons were irrational, that it would have been better not to invade Iraq and that it might be better to seek a deal with the Iranian regime, there is now no way back for the United States from the policy of escalation.