Is Iraq another Vietnam?

Submitted by AWL on 9 March, 2005 - 8:52

Chris Reynolds answers some questions

How is Iraq today different from Vietnam in the late 1960s?

In Iraq there are workers’, unemployed, and women’s movements which oppose both the US and other occupation forces and the Islamist and neo-Ba’thist militias which fight them. Socialists’ main duty is solidarity with those workers’, unemployed, and women’s movements.

There was no “third force” like that in Vietnam?

Anti-Stalinist socialists in the USA like Irving Howe, who were dissatisfied with just saying “US out now” because they saw that meant Stalinist victory which would crush all independent working-class organisation, looked hard for a third force to support. Under the US-protected South Vietnamese dictatorship, they could not find one.

So they proposed “negotiations now”. It was in fact a soft, quibbling middle way between support for the US war and “US out now”, not a solid “third camp” stance. Ironically, the US Communist Party, concerned by then above all to be moderate and respectable, proposed exactly the same slogan.

As the war escalated, some “negotiations now” people moved to “US out now”, and a few, round Max Shachtman, to backing the US war.

What about the Vietnamese Trotskyists?

We met and discussed with Vietnamese Trotskyists in the 1970s. They operated in exile, in France. Their comrades in Vietnam were left at liberty by the Southern dictatorship or the Northern Stalinists only if they avoided political activity. They had few illusions about the Stalinists, but stood with them against the Americans on grounds of national self-determination.

Doesn’t that same principle of national self-determination mandate support for the Islamist and neo-Ba’thist militias in Iraq?

The Vietnamese Stalinists embodied the principle of national self-determination because they were a national liberation movement with mass support.

None of the militias in Iraq is that sort of movement.

Each one is sectional, Sunni or Shia. Each one is as much concerned to secure its position in a future Iraqi state, against its rivals, as to fight the Americans.

The only movement in Iraq which can be called a national movement is the PUK-KDP alliance in the north, a movement of the Kurdish national minority.

It is, for its own reasons, allied with the USA.

The clash between the US forces and the militias has more the character of a battle between the “globocop” and local mafias than a national liberation struggle.

But many national liberation movements have started small. Many have made their way by brutal repression of rival forces within their national arena (as the Vietnamese Stalinists repressed the Vietnamese Trotskyists). Most have been repressive towards national minorities in their countries (as the Vietnamese Stalinists were towards Vietnam’s Chinese).

That is true. There is still a question of scale and proportion. And at present, anyway, it is hard to see how any of the militias in Iraq could expand to become a genuine broad, popular, movement of the whole Iraqi people, or even of the Iraqi Arabs.

Say what you like, the militias are fighting to drive out the US and its allies, and the peoples of Iraq cannot regain their self-determination without an armed battle to drive out the USA.

In cold fact, a sudden military victory for the militias over the USA would be less likely to bring self-determination for the peoples of Iraq than would a US victory over the militias.

A sudden military victory for the militias, and a sudden scuttling by the USA, would unleash civil war between the militias. Neighbouring states would intervene. Iran would invade to help militias allied to it, like SCIRI. Probably some Arab states would intervene to help some of the Sunni militias.

Probably Turkey would invade northern Iraq to make sure that the Kurdish areas neither became independent nor came under the control of whichever Iraqi Arab militia prevailed.

Iraq would probably be torn apart, and certainly come under the domination of communalist or fundamentalist militias.

The USA, on the other hand, knows from decades of experience that old-style colonial rule is expensive, risky, and probably unworkable. It wants a friendly government in Iraq, and it wants military bases there, but it also wants to withdraw the bulk of its forces as soon as it can get a stable Iraqi government.

The USA’s prime concern is to get stability. It will do deals, with any part of Iraq’s existing political forces — Shia parties, ex-Ba’thists and even with part of the “resistance” — to get that. IMF and WTO constraints can then give US big business most of what it wants in Iraq.

The USA did not want old-style colonial rule in Vietnam, either.

True. It found that it could not construct a viable pro-American regime, and so got sucked into substituting for it. It allowed that to happen, rather than cutting its losses early and getting out, because of the “domino theory”.

US leaders believed that unless they checked the Stalinists in Vietnam, other “dominoes” would fall one by one to Stalinism. They were not entirely wrong, from their own point of view. After 1975 the USSR’s position in the world was much strengthened. It felt confident enough, for example, to invade Afghanistan in 1979. As it turned out, however, the Stalinist advance was limited, and soon reversed.

Could something similar happen in Iraq?

Yes. In many ways the pressure for the USA to stay in Iraq, even at the cost of being drawn into a colonial role, is greater than in Vietnam.

Vietnam was not, in and of itself, economically important enough to justify the cost of the war to US capitalists. Iraq is, however, both economically important in itself, and central to the Gulf, which has two-thirds of the world’s oil reserves.

The USA would prefer to see Iraq evolve out of US military control like South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, or West Germany. Whether it can engineer that is another matter.

However, the possibilities have not closed off yet. For them to close off means a bloody polarisation of Iraq between the US occupation forces, and a few Iraqi allies, on the one hand, and fully-mobilised militias on the other.

In the process of such a polarisation, if it happens, the new Iraqi workers’ movement will probably be crushed between the two reactionary poles. That has not happened yet. To rush to assume that it is certain to happen, and that therefore the only real political choice is between the resistance militias and the USA, would be a betrayal of the Iraqi workers’ movement.

What if you have a Stalinist or Islamist movement which is a genuine national movement, with broad popular support, fighting a neo-colonial power, and at the same time a minority workers’ movement which would have some breathing space (not much, and not reliable, but some) under the neo-colonial regime and none under a Stalinist or Islamist one?

In principle the interests of the workers’ movement come first. National self-determination belongs to the category of what Marxists call “bourgeois-democratic rights”. We support those rights because they create a broader, more open arena for workers and oppressed people to organise, debate, and unite. To elevate such rights above the very existence of the workers’ movement is, from a working-class socialist point of view, nonsense.

It can happen that Stalinists, Islamists, or other reactionary forces win democratic electoral majorities. If they do so, and are going to ban trade unions and socialist groups, then we do not advocate that the workers’ movement peacefully submits in the name of democracy.

The nearest case is Algeria in 1992. An Islamist party was about to win elections. A military-dominated regime — under which trade unions had some restricted legal existence — cancelled the elections. The Algerian Trotskyists, the PST, did not support the military regime, and could not do so without compromising themselves fatally. But neither did they agitate for the elections to go ahead, as they would usually have done in the case of a military regime cancelling elections. They argued for the workers’ movement to be a “third camp” against both the military and the Islamists.

Would you support US rule in Iraq as a lesser evil?

No. US rule is brutal. The Iraqi workers¬í movement can develop, and become a force capable of winning social change, only in struggle against both the occupation forces and the Islamists and neo-Ba’thists.

If Vietnam was different, was the commonplace slogan of the Western left in the late 1960s, “Victory to the NLF”, correct?

We used it at the time. But no. Whatever the criticisms we added to it — and we did add criticisms — the slogan implied a positive political endorsement of the Vietnamese Stalinists.

And “US out now”?

That was right. The word “now” did not signify absolute opposition to any negotiations. We did not denounce the Paris Peace Accord of 1973. The significance of the word “now” is that we wanted the US actually to get out of Vietnam, rather than carry on making promises to do so.

Lyndon Baines Johnson had won the presidential election in 1964 as the candidate suggesting he would bring peace in Vietnam, while his opponent Barry Goldwater promised all-out war. Then Johnson brought all-out war.

Richard Nixon won the presidential election in 1968, again promising to end the war. Then in 1970 he spread the war by invading Cambodia.

The slogan “US out now” stood in opposition to Johnson’s and Nixon’s empty promises.

It was perfectly possible both to say that the NLF, when victorious, would impose a Stalinist despotism, and to say that the continuation of the US war could only increase the deaths and maimings, further brutalise Vietnamese society, and probably make the eventual Stalinist regime worse.

In Afghanistan in 1979-88, we said “USSR troops out”, without suggesting that the Islamist rebels could bring anything other than tyranny. The longer the USSR stayed, the more people killed, the more people brutalised, the worse (probably) the eventual tyranny, the more difficult eventual recovery from it.

The Stalinists triumphed in neighbouring Cambodia at the same time as in Vietnam, and there created a system so murderous that the invasion of Cambodia by the relatively run-of-the-mill Stalinist regime of Vietnam in December 1978 was a sort of liberation. Were we wrong to demand that the US get its troops out of Cambodia and stop bombing the country? No. It was the troops and the bombing which prepared the way for the ultra-Stalinist regime by brutalising the country.

What about the slogan “Troops out now” for Iraq now?

We don’t use it — not because we want the US and UK troops to stay, but because it is the wrong focus. It would be a good slogan if we could positively support a national liberation movement in Iraq, or if the situation had worsened to the point where we could discern no large progressive forces to support and could only advocate that a neo-colonial war be stopped as soon as possible. In the present situation, it means positively supporting the Islamist and neo-Ba’thist militias which are deadly enemies of the workers’ movement, and writing off the workers’ movement in advance.

We cannot advise the US and UK governments about what to do, or not do, in Iraq. Our slogans make sense, and have grip, only as summaries of what we explain and advocate to the working class (and, in some situations, democratic movements more generally).