Gilbert Achcar

Seven theses on the current period, the war and the anti-war movement


    1. 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.


    The 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.


    2. 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 (Georgia). 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.


    3. 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 countries combined.


    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. Strengthening America’s 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 1998 onwards.


    4. 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 international relations.


    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 allies.


    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 senior.


    5. 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 themselves.


    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 the US -- 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 in 1989.


    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 strong.


    7. 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.


    Iraq 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



Gilbert 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.