Seven theses on the current period, the
war and the anti-war movement
The Iraq occupation is
entirely in keeping with the expansionist “grand strategy” initiated by the USA at the end
of the Cold War.
The end of the USSR was a major turning point in
history, equal in importance to the end of the 20th century’s two world wars.
Each of these turning points ushered in a further phase of US imperial
expansion. With the First World War, the USA graduated from its status as a
regional or minor world power to that of a major world power. It went on to
become a superpower following the Second World War, within the framework of a
bipolar world, divided up between the two empires of the Cold War.
The decay and final implosion of the USSR confronted the USA with the need to choose between
major strategic options about “shaping” the post-Cold War world. Washington decided to
perpetuate its supremacy, in a world that had become unipolar
in the area of military force, where it held a major advantage in the global
competition between imperialist states. The era of US
hyperpower was inaugurated by the first Bush
administration’s war against Iraq
in January-February 1991, the year of the USSR’s final collapse.
1991 war was decisive for “shaping the world.” It enabled the USA to
simultaneously fulfill a number of major strategic objectives:
a massive return of direct US military involvement in the Gulf
region, home to two-thirds of the world’s oil reserves. We are at the beginning
of a century which will see a growing shortage and exhaustion of this most
strategic of resources. The return to the Gulf has given the USA a dominant position in relation to both
allies and potential rivals, all of whom -- save for Russia
-- are hugely dependent on oil from the Middle East.
a striking demonstration of the crushing superiority of US weaponry over
the new dangers facing the world capitalist order in the form of “rogue states”
-- dangers exemplified by the predatory behavior of Baathist-run Iraq, and the precedent of the “Islamic
Revolution” in Iran which had brought to power a regime evading control by the
two Cold War superpowers. This show of force played a key role in convincing Washington’s key allies -- the European powers and Japan -- of the
need to renew the vassalage relationship that had been established following
the Second World War between themselves and their new American overlord.
Upholding NATO and transforming it into a “security organization” were part and
parcel of the renewal of this hierarchical relationship.
At the same time, the US return to the Middle East inaugurated a new
and final historic phase in the development of Washington’s global empire. The US could now extend the network of military
bases and alliances with which it encircled the globe, to those regions of the
planet that had previously escaped its control because they had been under Moscow’s domination. NATO
expansion to Eastern Europe, armed intervention in Bosnia,
and the Kosovo war were the first stages of this completion of imperial
globalization, carried out under the Clinton
administration. Successful pursuit of this process required favorable
political conditions, especially given the persistence of the “Vietnam syndrome” which hampered Washington’s
expansionist military ambitions.
The September 11th 2001 terrorist attacks provided the administration of George
W. Bush with an historic opportunity to dramatically accelerate and complete this
process in the name of the “war on terror.”
The invasion of Afghanistan
and the war against the Al-Qaida network were the
ideal pretext for the expansion of US
military power into the heart of formerly Soviet-controlled Central Asia (Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan,
Tajikistan) and the Caucasus
Aside from the oil and gas riches of the Caspian
Basin, Central Asia provides the
inestimable strategic interest of being located at the heart of the Eurasian
landmass -- between Russia
and China, the two main
potential adversaries of US
political and military hegemony.
The 2003 invasion of Iraq aimed to complete
work that had remained unfinished in 1991 due to the impossibility at that time
of embarking upon a long-term occupation of the country -- for reasons of both
international (the limited UN mandate, the existence of the USSR) and domestic
politics (public reluctance, a limited mandate from Congress). With its
occupation of Iraq, its ongoing
domination of the Saudi kingdom and military presence in the other emirates of
the Gulf region, the US
now has direct control of more than half of the planet’s oil reserves, in
addition to its own domestic reserves. Washington
is actively seeking to further tighten this global grip on oil resources by
spreading its hegemony to Iran
and Venezuela, its priority
targets after Iraq.
The strategic decision to pursue and complete US unipolar
domination of the world is the corollary of the neoliberal orientation adopted
by global capitalism and imposed on the entire planet through the general
process encapsulated by the term “globalization.”
In order to guarantee free access for the USA and its
partners in the global imperialist system to the resources and markets of the
rest of the world, it is of vital importance to build up and maintain military
forces up to the task. Such forces are also essential to guard against the
non-economic threats to the system and markets created by the neoliberal agenda
of social cutbacks, extreme privatization and savage competition. Washington has elected to make the US “the
indispensable nation” of the global system. As a result, the gap between the US and the rest
of the world continues to grow. At the end of the Cold War, the USA accounted
for one third of global military spending; it now spends more than all other
This formidable military superiority of the
American hyperpower can be traced to the “militarism”
inherent in the very concept of imperialism as defined by the English economist
John A. Hobson at the turn of the last century. It has been magnified by the
feudal-like hierarchical structure between the US overlord and its vassals that
has been in place since the Second World War. Through this structure, a
tutelary superpower took charge of most of the work of defending the capitalist
system. It concretized the objective solidarity that exists between capitalist
elites through an institutionalized subjective solidarity. The need for such
solidarity had been demonstrated during the economic and political experience
of the Great Depression, and became flagrant in the context of the global
confrontation with the Stalinist system.
For this hierarchical structure to become a
single global imperial system, and for it to remain so, it was and will always
be absolutely essential for the superpower -- now a hyperpower
-- to maintain the military wherewithal in keeping with its ambitions.
role as protective overlord was at the heart of the projects of the Reagan
administration and its huge increase in military spending to record peacetime
levels. This made the US
a military hyperpower by developing the “asymmetric
advantage” of its forces over those of the rest of the world.
The end of the Cold War, combined with the
economic constraints of public finances dangerously in the red, had led to a
reduction and then a leveling off of US military
spending in the first half of the 1990s. But there was a resurgence of post-Soviet
Russian challenges to US objectives around NATO expansion (from 1994 on) and
the Balkan crisis (1994-1999), as well as the emergence of a challenge from
post-Maoist China, illustrated by the confrontation over Taiwan in 1996. When
combined with the backdrop of increased military cooperation between Moscow and Beijing, these
developments led the Clinton
administration to set in motion a long-term increase in military spending from
The renewed US race to overarm itself in relation to the rest of the world --
picking up where the Cold War arms race with the USSR
left off -- was accompanied by a new approach in Washington towards the management of
Starting with the “Gulf crisis” in 1990,
there was a passing infatuation of the US
for the UN, accompanied by a belief that Washington
could pursue its imperial objectives within an international legal framework
attuned to its aspirations, as was the case for Iraq,
Somalia and Haiti. These
illusions were very short-lived and were initially jettisoned in order to carry
out unilateral NATO action in the Balkans. At that time, Washington circumvented the Russian and
Chinese vetoes at the UN Security Council by taking unilateral action through
the US-led alliance, in the name of supposedly “humanitarian” concerns.
The new surge in military spending made
possible by the September 11th attacks, the new consensus created by these
attacks in relation to Washington’s military expeditions -- combined with the
“unilateralist” predisposition of George W. Bush and his team -- led the Bush
administration to cast aside all institutional constraints to the pursuit of US
military expansion. “Coalitions of the willing” under unchallenged US leadership
even circumvented NATO, whose principle of unanimity granted the equivalent of
veto rights to all member states.
The war of invasion in Iraq was a
perfect opportunity to put this unilateralist approach into practice. The US
point of view and interests were at odds not only with those of permanent
members of the UN Security Council, such as Russia and China, who are generally
opposed to US global hegemony, but also with traditional allies and NATO
members, such as France and Germany. The overlap of interests and points of view
between the governments of the US
and the UK prompted them to
carry out the invasion together, with the support of a few NATO members and a
mix of docile and more zealous US
The quagmire of the US-led coalition in
Iraq and the Bush administration’s difficulties running the occupation, have
provided a striking demonstration of the futility of their arrogant
unilateralism, which had been criticized from the start by a section of the US
establishment, including within the Republican Party and the entourage of Bush
The Iraq failure has highlighted the need for a return to a more subtle
combination of military supremacy and the fashioning of a minimum consensus
with the traditional allied powers (NATO, Japan), if not with all the world
powers in the framework of the UN. Of course, consensus has a price. The US must skillfully take their partners’ interests at least
minimally into account while keeping the lion’s share of the spoils for
Since the 1990-1991 turning point, Washington
has felt that the UN’s role as a testing ground and
caretaker of the consensus between the big powers was obsolete. It sees the
equality of rights (to veto) for the five permanent members of the Security
Council as entirely outdated in a new unipolar world
in which, in practice, only the USA can exercise a veto in the area of
international “security.” Paradoxically, though, the world order was overturned
through a UN resolution that Bush senior obtained in order to secure domestic
support for his war against Iraq.
Then, under Clinton, the UN was reduced to
post-war caretaking alongside NATO in the Balkans, in the territories invaded
by NATO under US
leadership. This same post-war caretaking formula was used once again in Afghanistan, following Washington’s unilateral invasion.
Having led the invasion of Iraq, the USA now faces the difficulties of
running the occupation and would like to find an Afghanistan-type solution. The
letter and, even more so, the spirit of the UN Charter are blithely violated.
According to the Charter, wars of invasion are illegal unless they have been
decided by the Security Council. As such, Washington’s wars are no longer even legal,
let alone just or legitimate. The 1991 war had only been waged in the UN’s name -- but not actually by the UN, as the UN general
secretary himself put it at the time.
In any event, Washington only considers turning to the UN,
or to NATO or any other multilateral body, when it determines that it will
serve its purposes. The US
has always reserved the right to act unilaterally in defense
of its interests. International bodies are perpetually confronted with the
blackmail of US
unilateralism. This has dramatically depreciated the UN Charter since the end
of the Cold War.
6. The major post-Cold War policy directions of the US-led world
imperialist order have ushered in a long historic period of unbridled military
interventionism. The anti-war movement is the only force capable of overturning
this state of affairs.
Since the collapse of the USSR, the
evolution of the global relationship of military forces has virtually
eliminated all impediments to imperialist interventionism. In the case of the
nuclear deterrent, only a suicidal state would brandish atomic weapons against
-- another matter being the case of a clandestine terrorist network not
confined to any territory that could be targeted for reprisals. The main point is that no military force on
earth can stop the steamroller of US hyperpower
once it has decided to invade any given territory.
The only major power able to stop the
imperial war machine is public opinion and its frontline detachments in the
anti-war movement. Logically, the people of the United States play the decisive
role in this regard. The “Vietnam
syndrome” -- in other words, the impact of the spectacular anti-war movement
that massively contributed to ending the US
occupation of Vietnam --
militarily paralyzed the empire for more than 15 years, from the sudden
withdrawal from Vietnam in 1973
until the invasion of Panama
Since the military action against the
Panamanian dictatorship, Washington
has been attacking enemies that are easy to demonize given their hideous
dictatorial character: Noriega, Milosevic, Saddam Hussein, and so on. Moreover
state and media propaganda blow things out of proportion whenever the need
arises, i.e. if reality does not quite conform to the demonized image,
especially in comparison with the West’s allies. This was the case for
Milosevic (compared to Tudjman, his Croatian rival), as it continues to be the
case for the Iranian regime (compared to the far more obscurantist and medieval
fundamentalism of the Saudi monarchy). Similar efforts are underway in relation
to Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez.
Still, in 1990 Bush senior ran into some
difficulty when he tried to obtain a green light from Congress for his military
operation in the Gulf, in spite of the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait.
Similarly, the Clinton administration
had problems getting support for intervention in the Balkans; and let us not
forget its calamitous withdrawal from Somalia. This reflects strong and
persistent reluctance within US
public opinion and the impact of this uncertainty in the electoral arena.
Unfortunately, this sentiment did not prevent the anti-war movement from
promptly collapsing after its revival in 1990 in response to the Gulf crisis.
The September 11th 2001 attacks gave the
Bush administration an illusion of mass, unconditional support within Western
public opinion for its expansionist designs dressed up as the “war against
terrorism.” The illusion was short-lived. On February 15th 2003, 17 months
after the terrorist attacks, the US
and the world saw the broadest anti-war mobilization since Vietnam -- the
broadest international mobilization ever in fact, around any cause. An
expression of the massive opposition within global public opinion to the
planned invasion of Iraq,
this mobilization was nonetheless only a minority phenomenon in the USA itself. The
international movement had, as usual, contributed powerfully to the
strengthening of the US
movement, but the effects of September 11th -- nurtured by a campaign of
disinformation orchestrated by the Bush administration -- were still too
Setbacks for the US-led occupation in Iraq
have created the conditions for a major shift in US public opinion and for a
powerful and inexorable rise of sentiment in favor of
bringing the troops home.
The problem this time around is that the
frontline anti-war forces have seen a decline in activity since the invasion,
although it should have continued to grow. This untimely retreat in the
anti-war mobilization was caused by a number of factors. For one thing, the
movement was quickly demoralized due to an outlook overly focused on the short
term, although it was highly improbable that the movement would manage to
prevent the invasion given the tremendous stakes involved for Washington. For another, there is widespread
belief in the US in the
possibility of settling the question through the ballot box, whereas only mass
pressure would force a withdrawal of US troops, given the bipartisan consensus
around the importance of keeping a hold on Iraq. Finally, there is an illusion
that the various armed actions against the occupation troops will be enough to
end the occupation.
These views are at odds with the Vietnamese
experience, too far removed from the awareness of new generations for the
lessons to have remained in collective memory. There has not been the kind of
continuity in the anti-war movement that could ensure such lessons are passed
from one generation to the next. The movement that put an end to the US occupation of Vietnam was built over time, as a
long-term movement, and not as a mobilization immediately preceding the
outbreak of war and then demobilized once the invasion began. The movement had
far fewer electoral illusions in the USA given that it had been built
under the Johnson Democratic administration and then peaked under the Nixon
Republican administration. It was clear to the movement that, in spite of their
impressive resistance, incomparably broader and more effective than Iraq’s, the
Vietnamese were tragically isolated militarily and could not inflict a Dien Bien Phu on US troops --
that is to say, a defeat comparable to the one that had ended the French
occupation of their country in 1954.
This is even more evident in the case of Iraq. Leaving
aside the heterogeneous character of the origin and form of violent actions --
where terrorist attacks of a sometimes communalist character against the
civilian population are combined with legitimate actions against the occupation
forces and their local subordinates -- the nature of the terrain itself makes
it impossible to inflict a military defeat on the US hyperpower.
This is why the occupiers are far more fearful of mass mobilizations of the
Iraqi population, such as those that forced the decision to hold elections by
universal suffrage by January 2005 at the latest.
Only a big upsurge of the anti-war
movement, relayed by anti-war public opinion in the USA and around the world
and combined with pressure from the Iraqi people, can force Washington to
release its grip on a country whose economic and strategic importance is far
greater than Vietnam’s, and which has already cost so many billions of dollars
to invade and occupy.
is only a potential “new Vietnam”
from a political angle, not a military one. It is certainly the biggest
quagmire for the US since
1973 -- a quagmire whose repercussions are amplified by memories of Vietnam (proof
of the persistence of the “syndrome”) and by the development of global media
and communications since that time.
We have an historic opportunity to resume
the momentum of February 15th 2003 and rebuild a long-term anti-war movement.
This movement could transform the US-led Iraq
adventure into a new Vietnam,
in the political sense: a new long-term paralysis of the imperial war machine.
Combined with the rise of the global mobilization against neoliberalism, this
would open up the way for the profound social and political changes urgently
needed in this world of spiraling injustice.
29 August 2004
Achcar’s latest books in English are The Clash of Barbarisms: Sept. 11 and the
Making of the New World Disorder and Eastern
Cauldron: Islam, Afghanistan,
Palestine and Iraq in a Marxist Mirror, both from
Monthly Review Press, New York.
This text, written for the general assembly of the French anti-war organisation
“Agir contre la guerre” (Act
against the war), was translated by Raghu Krishnan
for the Canadian magazine New Socialist.