Posted March 3, 2020
AS THE UNITED States and Iran lurch back and forth, toward war and then away and back again, the question inevitably arises: what’s it all about anyway? Similar questions can be asked in retrospect about the 2003 invasion of Iraq that’s produced such a massive catastrophe, the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan that’s now one of the longest running sores in U.S. history, the bombing of Libya and the subsequent meltdown of that country, and other interventions large and small, direct and by proxy.
On top of all this comes the Trump-Netanyahu-Kushner “peace plan,” the apartheid-annexationist blueprint for completing Israel’s seizure of the Occupied Palestinian Territories — which also envisions stripping Israeli Arabs of their citizenship by the “transfer” of their towns to the proposed Palestinian Bantustan. This atrocity is discussed elsewhere in this issue. (See also, for example, “Yet Another Declaration of War on Palestinians,” a discussion with Rashid Khalidi, January 29, 2020)
The considerable damage the post-9/11 military adventures have inflicted on U.S. society in physically and emotionally broken lives and families, trillions of wasted dollars, the rise of racism and cynical and vicious domestic politics, are dwarfed — by orders of magnitude — by the unbelievable civilian suffering and devastation of the countries where the wars are fought on the ground and from the air. It is difficult to imagine how Iraq, Syria or Yemen could be put back together if those wars were over right now, let alone the fact that they’re not ending any time in the short-term future.
The U.S. drone assassination of Iran’s top general Qassim Soleimani at Iraq’s Baghdad airport was followed by the Trump administration’s ever-shifting lying pretexts about an “imminent threat,” Iran’s retaliatory missile strikes on U.S. bases in Iraq, its shootdown under murky circumstances of the Ukrainian civilian Flight 752, and the all-but-final collapse of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, the Iran nuclear agreement). On these events, see “Remembering and Forgetting: No to War with Iran!” posted January 15.
Originally published in ATC
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The Soleimani assassination and Trump’s “Middle East peace plan” appear to fit with the U.S. effort to build an anti-Iran alliance between Israel and the Arab Gulf states, along with maintaining a U.S. political-military presence that constrains Russian and Chinese regional influence. But it’s far from clear where this will lead.
It must be clear that the foremost responsibility of the left, along with sane people in general, to do everything in our power to stop the U.S. imperialist campaign against Iran. It’s not just the off-and-on war threats that must end, but especially the sanctions that cripple Iran’s economy, drive its people into poverty, and inevitably lead to further “asymmetric” conflict through cyber attacks and proxy militias that raise the potential for catastrophe.
Yet we also need to figure out what lies behind this cascading sequence of military-political interventions, adventures and disasters. How does it come about that Donald Trump, after campaigning on the pledge or pretense to bring troops home from “endless Middle East wars,” winds up sending more into the quagmire?
Why has the United States doubled and tripled down on a war in Afghanistan, which U.S. generals — as revealed in “the Afghanistan papers” — have long known is unwinnable? Why is Washington inextricably committed to “our strategic partner” Saudi Arabia, a leading financier of jihadi fundamentalism and perpetrator of gruesome murders of dissidents globally as well as at home, long after Western dependence on Saudi oil has ended?
There’s a bigger strategic puzzle. The most significant emerging rivalry in today’s world is the contest between the United States and the rising power of China for regional and global domination — fought out in the arenas of trade, technology, naval power, political intrigue and muscle on multiple continents. How do intractable U.S. Middle East interventions help it face off with China now and in years to come? Don’t they soak up resources and drain political capital that are needed for the main imperial struggle?
For another thing, the United States rules a global financial system that dominates, paralyzes and extracts profits from huge swathes of the global South, without the need for direct military intervention. If anything, financialization is the cutting edge of today’s imperialism. Trade agreements are also important, and highly exploitative of the less affluent countries, but these are no longer primarily enforced by gunboat diplomacy or expeditionary forces.
Again, what then are the wars for? No one simple answer is adequate, but we’ll suggest a number of important, at least partial explanations.
Improvisations of “Empire”
One response that’s accurate as far as it goes is that U.S. interventions and military bases all over the world are all about maintaining “the empire.” True, but this leaves unanswered the question of the empire’s underlying interests and imperatives. It’s a blurred picture.
In the earlier period between the 1990-91 first Gulf War (triggered by Iraq’s takeover of Kuwait) and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the common antiwar slogan was “No Blood for Oil,” pointing to control of that critical resource and the flow of revenues from it as the basic cause and prize of war.
This of course is crude (no pun intended) materialism — and a certain dose of it remains essential. As the saying goes, Iraq would not have been invaded and occupied, nor would Iran’s elected, secular and moderate nationalist government been overthrown by the 1953 CIA coup, nor would there be the forty years of hostility following the 1979 Iranian revolution, if these countries produced palm oil instead of petroleum.
But U.S. dependence on Middle East oil was becoming a thing of the past already before the Iraq invasion, let alone today when the vaunted fracking and drilling boom has made the United States “energy independent” as Trump boasts, and expected to be a net energy exporter this year. The collateral damage of this triumph is that it accelerates humanity’s race toward climate-change catastrophe, but we know that is none of Trump’s concern.
Even if China’s involvement (e.g. in Iran’s economy) and Russian military-political intervention in Syria are eroding the United States’ regional hegemony, they’re not fundamentally about seizing oil supplies and routes. In short, oil in itself can hardly explain the wars.
A second factor after 9/11 was the ideology of U.S. world domination. Embodied in formations like the Project for a New American Century, the neoconservative war faction saw the terrorist 9/11 attacks as the opportunity to “reshape the Middle East” on the basis of overwhelming U.S. power with the support of Israel along with the reactionary Arab Gulf states and Egypt (prior to the Arab Spring upheavals, of course).
This turn-of-the-millennium neocon scenario for an imperial feast envisioned domino-like regime-change wars where Afghanistan would be the appetizer course, Iraq the soup, Iran the main course and Syria to be swallowed for dessert. As we know too well, the Afghanistan “appetizer” couldn’t be digested, the Iraq “soup” went down the windpipe and the whole festive meal turned into disaster.
Roads to Quagmire
As far as we can infer what’s inside Donald Trump’s brain (we don’t want to go there, literally or figuratively), he appears not to want a real war, nor of course do the Iranian rulers who have their hands full with revolts within their own population, as well as in Iraq next door where Iranian as well as American dominance are both bitterly resented. But history ominously warns that wars can break out unintended, by catastrophic accident.
Anyway, ideology and presidential stupidity are no more adequate explanations than crude “fight over resources” materialism. Consider the fact that the highly intelligent president Barack Obama, who himself wanted to disentangle from Middle East wars in favor of a “pivot toward Asia,” wound up getting in deeper.
In Obama’s case, Libya started out looking like a humanitarian rescue, bombing Muammar Qaddafi’s forces as they moved toward assaulting the population of Benghazi. It then became effectively a U.S.-led air force of a divided opposition movement, leading to the overthrow and summary torture-execution of the dictator but leaving no coherent political force to replace his regime — with Libya subsequently becoming today’s bloody civil war and proxy battleground.
For president Obama, liquidating Osama bin Laden in his Pakistan hideout was supposed to be a strategic turning point for dismantling the jihadi fundamentalist “terror network.” Instead, not only did bin Laden’s al-Qaeda persist, but the even more brutal “Islamic State” swept through much of Syria, as that country disintegrated, and into Iraq.
Iranian-sponsored militias, coordinated by General Soleimani, became the United States’ tactical allies, along with tens of thousands of Syrian Kurdish fighters, in the deadly ground war against ISIS. The Iranian general has now been assassinated, and the Kurds abandoned, on the orders of the same U.S. president who was under impeachment for extortion and blackmail of yet another “strategic ally,” Ukraine.
Trump did send more troops, however, to guard the Syrian oil fields — just to show that crude materialism shouldn’t be dismissed entirely! Overall, despite its brutality, U.S. policy looks more like serial improvisation and corrupt political opportunism than cohesive strategy.
In the course of the Cold War against the Soviet Union, the U.S. weapons industry spearheaded a “permanent war economy” that became, and remains, a quite significant element of the overall U.S. economy. It’s particularly important to specific states and communities, often of great electoral significance to both capitalist parties. On the Permanent War Economy, see Marcel van der Linden’s essay on the theorist Edward Sard.
Every attempt to close a superfluous air base brings angry howls and resistance from political leaders whose communities are impacted. And just imagine where Boeing would be, with the blood on its hands of the 346 doomed passengers and crew in its 737 Max flying coffins and the fleet indefinitely grounded, without its lucrative military contracts.
The end of the Cold War was supposed to bring a “peace dividend” without a bloated military machine. Instead, at $700 billion Trump’s Pentagon budget exceeds what even the generals asked for. The latest addition is the “space force” that promises to generate a whole new bureaucracy and inflated budgetary demands, along with the weaponization of space that will compel rivals to follow suit. The military-industrial complex carries substantial political clout in its own right, as well as serving as an important component of forces such as the “Israel Lobby.”
If this discussion seems inconclusive, it may be that ultimately these unending U.S. wars and interventions in the Middle East have no single overriding dynamic — although they’re no less imperialist, destructive and dangerous for that. They can be partially but not completely explained in terms of multiple factors — oil, the ideology of U.S. domination, competition with Russia and China, war profiteering, counterrevolutionary alliances, the domestic power of the “pro-Israel” lobby and the military-industrial complex, policy paralysis, sometimes inertia and in the cases of George W. Bush and Trump, big doses of ignorance.
What’s inertia? As the great British journalist Robert Fisk stated many years back, as the occupation of Iraq began to unravel: “The United States must get out of Iraq. The United States will get out of Iraq. And the United States can’t get out of Iraq.”
To some degree, then, these wars may be about themselves — as self-perpetuating as they are fruitless, murderous, and in the end pointless. It’s entirely clear that the American people are sick of them. But it will take a powerful antiwar movement, of a kind we haven’t seen in a long time, to break the logjam.