At the end of February, the USA nearly went to war against Iraq. At almost the last minute the threatened bombing raids were called off, or at least postponed. War would certainly have killed many Iraqi civilians, and quite possibly spread much further.
No thanks are due to Tony Blair’s New Labour regime; it backed the USA’s war plans more slavishly than any other government in the world. None to the body of Labour MPs; only 23 of them opposed war, fewer than the 38 who objected in 1990 when Saddam Hussein not only had a large arsenal but had just used it to invade Kuwait. None to the trade union leaders, who remained silent. And none to the liberal press, which all backed war with various amounts of hand-wringing.
Some are due to the thousands of protesters who took to the streets for ad hoc demonstrations, and to the people of Ohio who shook Madeleine Albright when she took her war drive to a public meeting there. It must be said, though, that, with the leaders of the official labour movement in Britain and the USA so passive, domestic opposition would have been nowhere near enough to stop him had Bill Clinton been truly determined (as, fortunately, he was not) to wage war; nor will it be until we can transform the labour movement on socialist lines.
Why did we come so close to war? The reasons lie in the ambitions and failures of US imperialist policy in the Middle East. With its victory in the Gulf war of 1991, the USA proclaimed a “new world order”, a new regime of US-policed free trade and bourgeois democracy. In order to secure the “new order” in the Middle East, an area crucial in world politics because of oil, the USA made a drive “to settle the Arab-Israeli conflict and establish a Pax Americana in the Middle East, while isolating ‘rogue’ states like Iraq and Iran” (Financial Times, 17.2.98).
The problem is, as the Financial Times continues, that “following the election of Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, the US has presided over the virtual collapse of the [Israel-Palestine] peace process, unable or unwilling to hold its Israeli ally to its international commitments. The post-Gulf-war consensus has been shattered. Arab countries are frustrated...”
The USA is the world’s Great Power; but it is not the only big power. The Arab states have options. They can do business with other states — for example France, which has consistently signalled itself as more pro-Arab than the USA.
Saddam saw the USA’s difficulty as his opportunity to re-establish some prestige and begin a process of loosening the cage of economic sanctions. That he calculated right is shown by the USA’s extreme difficulty in getting other governments to back its military threats. Even such people as Peter de la Billiere, British commander in the 1991 war, questioned the US stance. Did the USA plan just a few bombing raids? Then it would not achieve its stated aim of destroying Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons. Or did it plan to smash Saddam’s government and install a replacement? Then how would it ensure that the replacement is more favourable? After seven years of sanctions, there cannot be many Iraqis with friendly feelings towards the West. And if the USA put military forces into Iraq, it would force every ruler in the Arab world — mindful of the Arab-nationalist and Islamicist feelings among their people — to take his distance from the USA, and possibly even trigger the downfall of some of the more pro-US rulers.
The difficulties explain why the USA has not gone to war (yet); why then did it go so close to war? The factor of imperialist arrogance must account for much. The IMF, based in Washington DC, has spent the 1990s laying down the law to governments across Latin America, Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe. Through most of the decade, the US ruling class has had rising profits and successes in international arm-twisting on trade and investment. Its recent military ventures, the 1983 invasion of Grenada, the 1990 operation in Panama, the 1991 Gulf war, and its intervention in Bosnia, have been successful to one degree or another. The USA’s rulers believe in their right to police the world — they were confident and arrogant enough to say in so many words that they would judge United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan’s negotiations for peace in the Gulf not by the usual pious formulas of “peace”, “security”, “democracy” (still less “self-determination”), but by “US national interests” — and, moreover, US president Bill Clinton wanted to redirect public attention above his waist.
Clinton’s and Blair’s line that Iraq should be bombed because Saddam is dangerous was hypocritical and false. There are many vicious dictators in the world with deadly arsenals, and most of them are backed by the USA. The USA itself has the world’s biggest megadeath arsenal, and — from the nuclear-bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, through the mass-bombing and defoliation of Vietnam, to the IMF’s starve-the-children programmes — the smooth-talking “democratic” lawyers who run US politics have proved themselves as brutal and dangerous on the world scene as any military dictator.
The international economic sanctions against Iraq have killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children, without shaking Saddam. A new bomb attack would have killed more Iraqis but made the region not safer or more peaceful, but the contrary.
The “anti-imperialist” side of this conflict is more complex. In 1990-1 and today Saddam appeals to the widespread Arab resentment of the big powers who carved up the region after World War 1, ruled many countries until the 1940s or 1950s, and still weigh heavily.
That resentment, and the reflex feeling for Arab unity and independence, have much progressive about them. In the 1950s they generated a big movement across the Arab world, centred around the Egyptian ruler Gamal Abdul Nasser. Since the 1970s, however, rebel feeling in the region has increasingly been channelled by fundamentalists who counterpose Islamic fervour both to Western domination and to all the secular, modernising, and democratic strands in the old Arab nationalism; and the Arab states have gone their separate ways, under their own wealthy classes rather than foreign rule. It is those Arab wealthy classes who now uphold the state frameworks. The only progressive anti-imperialist programme in the Middle East today is the programme of working-class action, and the real revolutionary unification of the Arabs will be the creation of the Socialist United States of the Middle East.
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat said he would suppress any pro-Saddam demonstrations in the West Bank and Gaza. The Palestine Liberation Organisation’s equivocal sympathy for the Iraqi regime in 1990-1 cost it dear diplomatically. By all accounts pro-Iraqi feeling is strong among the much-oppressed and frustrated Palestinian Arabs, and not only among the Islamicists. But if Iraq were to destroy Israel, that would be an atrocity against the Israeli Jews — and put the Palestinians under rule more vicious than Israel’s.
The Palestinian Arabs have a right to an independent state of their own, on all the territory where they are a majority, but the Israeli Jews also have a right to exist as a nation. Self-determination for all the peoples in the Middle East — Palestinian Arabs, Kurds, and Israeli Jews included — is the answer.
In 1990, some on the left, and, notably, Socialist Worker, which favours destruction of Israel, proposed support for Saddam’s occupation of Kuwait on the grounds that it was “anti-imperialist”. “His call for Israel to ‘get out of the occupied territories of Palestine’ will increase his standing among those Arabs who have supported the intifada [the Palestinian uprising in the West Bank]... So, the more US pressure builds up, the more Saddam will play an anti-imperialist role... This means he will increasingly have to rely on one of his few remaining strengths, the Arab masses’ hatred of imperialism. In all of this Saddam should have the support of socialists... Socialists must hope that Iraq gives the US a bloody nose and that the US is frustrated in its attempt to force the Iraqis out of Kuwait...” (18 August 1990).
Socialist Worker later turned to more bland and general arguments against war and for peace, and dropped the pro-Saddam agitation. It never criticised itself; but it is important to disentangle the issues.
To turn from opposition to Clinton and Blair to positive support for Saddam is false because Saddam’s “anti-imperialism” is so overloaded with his own mini-imperialism against Iraq’s subject peoples and the region, with his chauvinist threats against Israel, and with his appeals to reactionary Islamic fundamentalism. To favour Saddam because the imperialists oppose him would be to derive our politics from saying yes when the imperialists say no, no when they say yes. It would be to lose political independence as much as if we were to start from a desire to be in tune with the imperialists.
There is talk now among the committees and groups which sprang up to oppose the war threat of combining to form a campaign to lift the sanctions on Iraq. Saddam wants the sanctions lifted too, but if we oppose Saddam in the name of solidarity with the Iraqi and Kurdish people against him — as we must — then we must oppose sanctions too.
The sanctions hit the people of Iraq much harder than they hit Saddam, and children, the poor, the sick, and the elderly hardest of all. They also strengthen Saddam’s rule; the half-starved population is driven by reflex hostility to the foreign blockade to rally round its “own” government.