Talk on U.S. War Airms

Here are some comments I made to the University of Iowa Antiwar Goup yesterday. …….Good afternoon.  Thanks for asking me to speak.


I want to say a few things about why the American Empire is in Iraq, why it’s going to a big job to get them out, and what it all means for anti-recruitment efforts and other parts of the antiwar movement.  

In antiwar politics like in chess or football or any other contest, it’s important to know your enemy very well. Sometimes I’m not sure that everyone on the left knows or likes to face the full extent of what Uncle Sam is really up to and where he’s coming from.

It’s essential to keep our eyes on the prize of why the Bush administration is in Iraq. As all faithful daily readers of the nation’s official “newspaper-of-record” the New York Times know, the former ABC “Nightline” anchor-editor Ted Koppel graced yesterday’s Times op-ed page with a column chiding the Bush administration for its refusal to admit that “oil” is the reason that for the United States (U.S.) occupation of Iraq (hold up).

For some time now, the Bush administration has been saying that it is “irresponsible,” “partisan,” “dishonest,” and damn-near treasonous to “claim we acted in Iraq because of oil.”  

That’s childish nonsense, Koppel says.  There’s no reason,” Koppel declares, “to be coy about why the U.S. is in Iraq.”  “The reason for America’s rapt attention to the security of the Persian Gulf,” he says, “is what is has always been.  It’s about the oil.”

And there’s nothing to be embarrassed about in that, Koppel says.  Glorious America is unfortunately “addicted” to overseas petroleum, he argues, and has long required “an uninterrupted flow of Persian Gulf oil.”

Consistent with this historical argument, Koppel dedicates the bulk of his column to a review of successive moments when Uncle Sam has moved to guarantee secure regular “oil flows out of the Persian Gulf.”  Koppel’s narrative includes British and U.S. collaboration in the illegal but apparently noble (or at least understandable, as far as Koppel is concerned) overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected head of state Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953 and America’s sponsorship of the brutal dictatorship of Sha Mohammed Reza Pahlevi between 1967 and 1979.  

Also meriting favorable mention in Koppel’s account is the famous White House “Carter Doctrine,” which proclaimed that “an[y] attempt by an outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”  The provocative establishment of U.S. military bases in Saudi Arabia and the launching of Operation Dessert Storm were legitimate expressions, Koppel feels, of America’s obvious and logical interest in protecting its own and the world’s economy by “defending the free flow of Middle East oil.”  

Now some of this is music to the ears to those of us (and that’s probably most of us in this room) who’ve never bought the doctrinal White House story lines about Iraqi “weapons of mass destruction” and (then) the equally big fairy talke about the administration’s passionate desire to export “democracy” to Iraq and the Middle East.  If it’s about controlling oil, then of course, the last they want is a truly free and independent Iraq. Such an Iraq would want to control its own raw material.   

But this is Ted Koppel not Tariq Ali or Noam Chomsky so of course he leaves out a number of key things.

The first thing he deletes is all the Arabs and Persians who died so that American could supposedly "keep the oil flowing" from the Persian Gulf.  the death count includes hundreds of thousands pf Iranians killed by the Shah of Iran, the hudreds of thousands killed by Operation Dessert Storm, and the many tens of thousandsof Iraqis who have died in Operation Iraqi Freedom.  

That’s a pretty big omission, but not surprising, morally speaking.

The second thing Koppel deletes is the selfish and imperial nature of America’s “rapt attention” to Middle Eastern oil.  If Koppel likes history so much, he might want to look at how the U.S. State Department described that region’s unmatched oil reserves in 1945: “a stupendous source of strategic power, and one of the greatest material prizes in history.” As such, that “prize” has long been understood by U.S. planners to be what leading U.S. policy critic Noam Chomsky calls “a lever of ‘unilateral world domination,’” adding that control of that that “prize” has “funnel[ed] enormous wealth to the U.S. in numerous ways.”

Consistent with that imperial perception and the related wealth windfall, Chomsky observes, “the U.S. invaded Iraq because it has enormous oil resources, mostly untapped, and it’s right in the heart of the world’s energy system.”  If the U.S. succeeds in controlling Iraq, Chomsky notes, “it extends enormously its strategic power, what [leading imperial strategist and Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor] Zbigniew Brzezinski calls its ‘critical leverage’ over Europe and Asia. That’s a major reason for controlling the oil resources — it gives you strategic power”(Chomsky, “Confronting the Empire,” Address to World Social Forum, February 2, 2003).  

Now, I do think America’s insatiable demand for fossil fuels is making the U.S. increasingly reliant on foreign oil. But even if the U.S. overcame its gasoline “addiction” and became fully energy- self-reliant (it currently receives just 20 percent of its oil from the Middle East), something else would still make U.S. officials positively obsessed with Middle Eastern petroleum: the ongoing and ever-worsening loss of America’s one-time supremacy in basic global-capitalist realms of production, trade, international finance, and currency and the related emergence of the rapidly expanding giant China as a new strategic military (as well as economic) competitor.   America’s basic economic decline, reflecting predictable (and predicted) shifts in the spatial patterns of capitalist investment and social infrastructure gives special urgency for the empire to deepen its control of Middle Eastern oil and use it as what Chalmers Johnson calls “a bargaining chip with even more oil-dependent regions” like Western Europe and East Asia, homes to the leading challengers to U.S. economic power.

America’s long-fading capitalist hegemony is a big part of what drove its hard-right and nationalist administration to occupy Iraq.  By many analysts’ estimation, OIF is part of a White House effort to use America’s last truly unchallenged form of world dominance – it’s near monopoly over globally projected organized violence – “to establish U.S. control over the global oil spigot, and thus over the global economy, for another fifty years.” As David Harvey noted on the eve of the illegal U.S. invasion of Iraq:

"Europe and Japan, as well as East and Southeast Asia (now crucially including China) are heavily dependent on Gulf oil, and these are regional configurations of political-economic power that now pose a challenge to U.S. hegemony in the worlds of production and finance.  What better way to ward off that competition and secure its own hegemonic position than to control the price, condition, and distribution of the key economic resource on which the competitors rely? And what better way to do that than to use the one line of force where the U.S. still remains all-powerful – military might?”

Now that’s a helluva lot different than trying to save the world economy for the benefit of all. It’s also rather different that trying to keep the oil flowing; it’s more about controlling its flow and restricting its use by others…mainly our competitors both economic and military.   

The third thing Koppel either doesn’t know or doesn’t wish to divulge is that the U.S. is not simply worried about “outside forces” controlling Persian Gulf oil.  It’s has an equal and related fear that groups internal to the region might attain significant control over the region’s critical raw materials.  

The fourth thing Koppel leaves out is that the U.S. is actually more willing to reduce, not enhance "security" in the Middle East in order to deepen its control over Middle Eastern oil.  Just look at what’s happening in Iraq today and what’s been happening there since March 19, 2003.

Full truth be told, the U.S. strategic “stakes” and opposition to internal control in Iraq are so great that much current U.S. discussion of American withdrawal from Mesopotamia seems exceedingly na*ve.  Even on what passes for a left in the U.S., many commentators seem to think that the invasion is properly understood as a bungled effort to spread democracy – an incompetent occupation that genuinely sought to “liberate” and would have been undertaken even if Iraq’s only raw materials were chicory, lettuce, and bananas.  The “freedom”- loving Bush administration, many “left” American commentators seem to think, should just call off its overly “idealistic” misadventure and let the Iraqis work their problems out on their own.   “We” should accept “defeat,” which “we” allegedly suffered in Vietnam and muster the humanitarian courage to admit “our” (merely) tactical “mistake” and leave (see, for example, Nicholas Kristoff, “What We Need in Iraq: An Exit Date,” New York Times, 14 February, 2006, p. A23).  

The White House has never had the slightest interest in creating a genuinely free, sovereign, democratic, and independent Iraq.  Under the useful cover story of “Iraqi Freedom,” it wants to deepen U.S. control of Iraqi and thus Middle Eastern oil, something such an Iraq would be certain resist.  That core objective would hardly be attained by leaving Iraq to its own independently and democratically determined fortunes.   

And to make “the logic of withdrawal” yet less apparent to U.S. planners, like Chomsky’s been saying, the majority of Iraqis are Shiite Muslims and therefore likely to use real national independence as an opportunity to form a rough anti-systemic partnership with also oil-rich Iran.  Together with Iran, Iraqi Shiites might well inspire Shiite resistance to state power in the Persian Gulf’s ultimate oil-prize, feudal and arch-repressive Saudi Arabia, home (by the way) to the world’s largest known oil reserves, where “strategic” petro-imperial considerations have long mandated a deep  U.S. partnership with tyranny and dictatorship.

The good news is is that Iraq’s oil reserves and related social infrastructure cannot be “saved” for “critical [imperial] leverage” and global-economic windfall through wanton annihilation.  The utter demolition America inflicted on Vietnam in the 1960s and 70s doesn’t seem to me to be a fully rational imperial option in regard to Iraq.

The bad news is that Uncle Sam isn’t leaving anytime soon. Iraq cannot be physically lost – territorially conceded – to the Iraqis without monumentally dire consequences to American Empire.  

He’ll do a lot to stay along time in one way or another. As he draws down ground troops he’ll increase imperial enforcement from the sky, as is already sort of happening according to  Symour Hersch and others.

So does that mean it’s pointless to work to stop recruitment? Not at all. There are all kinds of reasons to work against recruitment.  

The biggest one is that war is generally and this war in particular is morally wrong. Even without the torture and the civilian casualties, the very invasion itself is monumentally illegal. Saving people from participating in evil is a good thing.

Another reason is that even if they shift more of the burdens of empire to high-tech air power and the like that stuff will be concentrated in the Middle East and they’ll be trying to shift  "boots on the ground" to other regions like…especially Latin America.  If it wasn’t for the Iraq quagmire they’d be recruiting for harassing and ultimately working to overthrow Chavez and Morales so as to ..gee guess what…deepen U.S. control over world oil and gas supplies.

In fact one part of the U.S. ruling class is pissed off at Bush II because they think his big adventutre in Iraq is distracting the empire from handling other threats…like Latin American democracy and independence (Chavez and Morales etc.) and Chinese expansion.  Take a look at the latest Foreign Affairs; there’s an article by someone from the "Inter-American Dialogue" titled "Are We Losing Latin America?" or something like that. 

Another reason to fight recruitment is that military recruitment is class-biased and class-selective: very predominantly working-class.  The armed forces are (very) disproportionately staffed in the most dangerous jobs by people with limited economic options: people without the family inheritance for college tuition in a period when the college wage premium (the earnings gains to those with versus those without bachelor’s degrees) is higher than ever before.

Another reason is that a mercenary army is a very bad thing. You don’t want a whole cadre of people whose livelihoods depend on warfare and preparation for war.  Such people become a separate militaristic caste, something that is very dangerous for peace and democracy at home and abroad. If you must have a military it should be a conscription army.

Another reason and this is very important is that every person trained and employed as a killer is not being trained and employed as a teacher or a child care provider or a drug counselor or as a sustainable energy developer or as a civil rights investigator or as a poverty lawyer…or as a fill in the blank of your favorite socially productive and healthy profession.

I looked up the NPP web site and did their Cost of Iraq War thing for your state. Iowa’s share of the Iraq War cost is $2.2 billion, which = 435,905 scholarships for university students; 1,325, 921 children receiving health care; 52,336 elementary school teachers; 23,934 affordable housing units.  

So my point isn’t don’t do counter-recruitment. My point is to do it while being serious and honest about who we are fighting: a determined and powerful empire that explicitly wants to sustain unilateral world domination —- see its key "Defense Strategy" documents —  and sees Middle Eastern oil as a big part of that domination and will do a lot of different, complex, and deceptive things to keep it.  It’ll draw GI’s  down in Iraq but then increase bombs and missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles and send in more off-the-books Blackwell mercenaries while transferring more troops to the hills of Columbia and the outskirts of Bolivia and many other critical energy areas.

We are also fighting a related system of severe domestic socioeconomic inequality which mandates that some of us go to college with money from our parents (I did) and others feel the only the way they can access opportunity through a college degree is by serving a deadly, murderous hitch with the military that can cost them their lives, limbs, and/or their sanity.  

We need campaigns for peace and justice but we also and above all need a movement for social and transformation and renewal in accordance with the principles of democracy.  A campaign against Wal-Mart is a good thing but it’s not the same as a movement for social and economic justice. It might be part of such a movement but it’s not a movement.  Same I think for counter-recruitment.  It’s a damn good campaign and of course it needs to be part of a broad movement for peace and justice.      

Counter-recruitment is a natural and essential part of a broad egalitarian, multi-class, multi-ethnic, and interracial recruitment to a popular-democratic movement for peace and justice and against empire and inequality in post-9/11 America.  

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