Why Iraq? An Interview with Rahul Mahajan
Mahajan serves on the National Board of Peace Action and is a
founding member of the Nowar Collective. He is the author of
New Crusade: America’s War on Terrorism
Dominance: U.S. Power in Iraq and Beyond
. I interviewed him
in mid-April via the Internet about what we can expect from U.S.
policy makers in the coming months.
Why did the U.S. invade Iraq?
The reasons that have been put forward by the Administration are
as follows: some putative link with al-Qaeda, Iraq’s weapons
of mass destruction, the need to uphold international law, and
the liberation of Iraq. The first three at this point are almost
British intelligence recently concluded there was no link between
Iraq and al-Qaeda and that attempts at communication “collapsed
because of mistrust and incompatible ideologies.” Even when
bin Laden made a call to the Muslim world to oppose the war on
Iraq he couldn’t keep from calling the Iraqi government a
nest of “socialists” and “infidels” who “lost
their legitimacy a long time ago.”
No Iraqi WMD capacity has yet come to light. Even if Iraq had
any, intrusive inspections were ongoing, capacities for monitoring
were still being increased, and both Hans Blix and Mohammed el-Baradei,
the two chief inspectors, were confident that they could finish
the job. The fact is, whenever disarmament looked likely, the
United States tried to derail the process. So as soon as Blix
ordered Iraq to dismantle its al-Samoud 2 missiles, Bush immediately
said that the war was coming anyway.
Violating the UN Charter and undermining the entire United Nations
in order to save international law is, to say the least, odd behavior.
Iraq’s violations of Security Council resolutions since the
Gulf War, though numerous, in no way compare with the waging of
aggressive war outside the auspices of the UN.
So what are the reasons?
Any war the United States has waged in the postwar era has been
in part about the need for force projection in order to maintain
an imperial policy. What has emerged more recently, however, is
something very specific. The neocon- servatives currently running
the U.S. foreign policy have a very clear vision of an empire
based more and more on overt military domination as opposed to
the combination of economic control and sometimes open, sometimes
subtle military coercion that characterized the Clinton era. The
theorists of the Project for the New American Century state, “In
the post-Cold War era, America and its allies…have become the
primary objects of deterrence” (“Rebuilding America’s
Defenses”). This empire will be based on the following central
to increase the already massive technological superiority of
the United States.
network of military bases. The U.S. military is in well over
100 countries, maybe as many as 140. In over 70 of these, it
has permanent military bases, many of them built since 9/11.
in our favor. The installation of semi- colonial governments
that obey U.S. dictates directly, as in Afghanistan now (and
as the Bush administration attempted in Venezuela). This direct
control is viewed as far preferable to control through multilateral
oil, conspicuously absent from the neocon- servatives’
talk, but very present in other documents, such as the Cheney
energy policy. This includes some level of military control
not only over sources and potential sources, but also control
Thus a new U.S. military presence in Central Asia, where
Kazakhstan at least has substantial oil reserves and natural
gas is abundant; an increased counterinsurgency in Colombia
that is directly linked to oil; an attempted coup in Venezuela;
increased attempts to cultivate non-OPEC West African oil sources;
and a dramatically increased military presence in the Middle
East and on the other side of the Red Sea in Djibouti and potentially
Somalia. Also, U.S. naval patrolling the Straits of Malacca
through which most of China and Japan’s oil comes.
combines all of these considerations, but of control of oil is
at the heart of it. Iraq has the second largest reserves in the
world and there are at least indications that it may have far
more than its posted reserves. Iraq also has the least developed
reserves in the Middle East, with the greatest potential for increased
That said, the war is not quite a simpleminded oil grab. Although
in the long run, major U.S. oil corporations will make money off
Iraq that they could not have made without a war, this is far
from the primary reason for the war. The primary reason for the
war is that the United States will now have a regime in Iraq totally
beholden to it and will have control over Iraq’s oil policy
to an even greater degree than they have exercised over Saudi
Arabia. It’s about (figuratively) putting the United States
into OPEC and Iraq into NATO.
There was some cheering in the streets of Iraqi cities.
Does that retrospectively undercut antiwar opposition?
The cheering is genuine and I felt real happiness for the Iraqi
people as I saw them go about dismantling the symbols of this
hated dictatorship. It is also undoubtedly true that much of the
cheering is because people can see an end to the sanctions, kept
on Iraq at the behest of the U.S., that have crippled the country
for a dozen years.
The joy because of Hussein’s downfall hardly undercuts principled
antiwar opposition. Such opposition is not based on the structure
of Iraqi society, but on an understanding of the role of the United
States in the world. The primary reason we know this is not a
war of liberation is that the United States does not act and has
not acted as a liberatory force. There have been times, as after
World War II, when the United States installed in place a regime
that was substantially better than the one that preceded it; even
then, it made sure not to allow genuine popular forces and movements
in countries like France, Italy, Germany, and Japan to realize
their own political goals. Subsequently, from 1950 to 1990, roughly,
the United States consistently intervened against democracy and
against popular movements, from the counterinsurgency in Korea
to the coup in Iran in 1953 to its involvement in the ouster of
Aristide in Haiti in 1991.
U.S. intervention today means structural adjustment, water privatization,
user fees on primary education, a crusade to keep poor countries
like South Africa from manufacturing cheaper AIDS drugs (this
is one on which the United States is losing, but still fighting),
taking away from the poorest people in the world some of the few
things they have left. This economic agenda and the military agenda
fit together, more or less coherently, into a larger pattern that
is the U.S. role in the world. Ken Livingstone, the mayor of London,
was not exaggerating when he said that the IMF and World Bank
have killed more people than Hitler.
The Iraqis will be better off in some ways now, partly because
Hussein’s reign of terror is over and partly because the
U.S.-imposed economic strangulation will cease. Simultaneously,
however, the poorer citizens may well become worse off as they
have become entirely dependent on the government-distributed food
ration. It is entirely likely that we’ll see the cutting
of safety-nets around the world by reducing the ration, increasing
its price, and gradually eliminating it, without giving the poor
sufficient alternative opportunities. Additionally, the war on
Iraq dramatically increases U.S. imperial power and reach and
this means a truly liberatory alternative becomes harder to achieve.
The whole Global South will suffer for this increase in U.S. power.
It’s not foolish to say that more Africans than Iraqis will
die as a result of this war.
There have been no WMD found. Does this retrospectively
undercut Bush’s rationales for war?
If WMD are found, that will strengthen the antiwar arguments.
Even against an illegal war of aggression whose end was the annihilation
of the regime, the Iraqis didn’t use WMD. How then could
anyone argue that there was a threat that it would use WMD if
it wasn’t invaded? One can also say that a nuclear bomb wouldn’t
have changed the balance of forces against any possible enemy.
Both Israel and the United States have far larger arsenals and
far greater delivery capacity.
Will there be democracy in Iraq, as a result of this invasion?
Not likely. The U.S. will undoubtedly engineer a process to create
a veneer of democratic legitimacy. It will, however, be a process
designed to create a government that will serve U.S. “strategic”
interests, not those of the Iraqi people, and one that is tied
by extremely tight strings to Washington.
What message has been received by governments around the
world, with what likely broad implications?
Bush’s twin ultimata of March 16, one to Iraq and one to
the United Nations, made the situation clear: the target of this
war is the current world order and Iraq is a means to an end.
Nearly everyone outside the United States understands that
this is an explicit attempt to replace a U.S.-dominated multilateral
framework in which the U.S. was “first among equals”
(but in practice held most of the power) with an explicit new
imperium. In the short term, France and Germany have been sent
a clear message and are unwilling or unable to cross the United
States, so are trying to find some face-saving way to return to
the fold. In the long term, they will be looking to options other
than remaining subordinate allies.
the Arab world, this marks the emergence of an explicit feeling
that the U.S. is a colonial power just like the nations of old
Europe were. The Arab regimes are politically bankrupt and will
follow along expecting to see yet another replay of the charade
over a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian issue in which the
Arab states pretend that the United States is attempting to broker
a reasonable deal. The pressures being built up in their societies
will find some outlet; with luck, it will mean “destabilization”
of the regimes by popular movements and without luck, it will
mean significant increases in religious extremism and terrorism.
We reached a new height in absurdity when John Bolton, Undersecretary
of State for Arms Control, said in Rome recently, “With respect
to the issue of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction
in the post-conflict period, we are hopeful that a number of regimes
will draw the appropriate lesson from Iraq that the pursuit of
weapons of mass destruction is not in their national interest.”
Instead, the obvious lesson from the war has already been articulated
by North Korea: “The Iraqi war shows that to allow disarming
through inspection does not help avert a war but rather sparks
This war has put an end to nonproliferation, arms control, disarmament,
any idea of any mutual international agreements to limit weapons
of mass destruction. Iraq was attacked while it was disarming
and it was attacked because it couldn’t defend itself; no
one outside this country has missed that fact. One lesson we should
draw from this is that peace work against WMD should concentrate
on the United States; the argument that even if the U.S. keeps
its arsenals this is to make others disarm, must be abandoned
for the hypocrisy and lunacy it is.
What was the role of the U.S. media establishment in paving
the way for this war and then narrowing the terms of discussion,
The U.S. media always has an underlying acceptance of the mythology
of American exceptionalism, that the U.S., in everything it does,
is the last, best hope of humanity. All media are more or less
patriotic, but the U.S. idea of patriotism involves constantly
making war on other countries far from our borders; this is what
makes the patriotism of the American media particularly pernicious.
More than any media outside of countries like Iraq or North Korea,
the American media are characterized by subservience to power.
Top-level “journalists” like, say TV network anchors,
never need to be censored because they have gotten where they
are by never or almost never asking tough questions or dissenting
from the official line.
All of that is always true, in every U.S. war. This one was different
for a while, especially in the print media, because there was
a significant elite difference of opinion about the war and even
more about the approach to the war based on unilateralism and
pre-emption. When there is an elite split, one can have a public
debate and one was carried on in the media for six months leading
up to the war. The debate was constrained; it was almost always
on the basis of pragmatic considerations like how many Americans
will die and “can Saddam be contained” and very rarely
about deeper moral issues or about the depravity of the sanctions
or the nefariousness of Bush administration intentions for the
world. It did, however, lead to far more reporting of relevant
facts and far more openness to dissenting opinion than I have
ever seen. The contrast with, say, the media coverage of the Sandinistas
in the 1980’s, is really blatant.
After the bombs started falling, however, the media returned to
business as usual. The broadcast media in particular performed
as shamefully here as they did in the Gulf War or the Afghanistan
war. U.S. government claims constantly repeated as facts, without
acknowledgment later on that they were incorrect; jingoistic language
and presumption of American moral superiority; little coverage
of civilian casualties, but lots of stirring photo montages of
U.S. troops handing out candy, etc.
What is next on the agenda, broadly, for Bush and Co.?
The most immediate thing is presumably securing Bush’s reelection
and thus ensuring there is enough time to finish transforming
the world. The completion of the war with minimal American losses
and scenes of cheering Iraqis will be wielded as a very effective
club to silence domestic opposition and in particular to shut
up the Democrats. It will also lead the Democrats to continue
in their time-honored losing strategy of running as Republicans.
The agenda of domestic repression will be continued and expanded,
likely along with the destruction of the country’s economic
Internationally, Syria, Iran, and North Korea are all on the target
list. Perhaps the only organized force in the region that might
pose a real challenge to the military occupation of Iraq is Hezbollah.
Al- Qaeda is small and scattered and Palestinian organizations
have very limited access to resources. Both Syria and Iran are
involved with Hezbollah, and so that will be one stick to beat
them with and the other will be weapons of mass destruction. A
significant Hezbollah attack on the U.S. military might be the
perfect pretext for the next stage of the war. Of the two targets,
Syria seems far more vulnerable because Iran’s government
has a much wider popular base. North Korea, while a critical part
of the long-term anti-China strategy that drives the neocons,
will likely be a tough nut to crack.
obstacles now stand in the way of Bush and Co.?
There are two major obstacles. First, a still relatively diffuse
global public opinion that opposes the Bush policies, but has
very few avenues to project political power against them. In the
place where that opposition matters most, the United States, the
organization is weakest. Still, organized opposition in the United
States is far bigger than it has been since the Vietnam era (with
the exception of single-issue campaigns like the nuclear freeze).
Second, a split with Europe. France, and Germany. They did not
oppose this war out of the goodness of their hearts nor did they
do so simply because the European culture is bound up in multilateral
institutions. Part of the reason for the opposition is that Europe
and the United States are on rough par economically, but the U.S.
has virtually all the global political power. This is an unsustainable
state of affairs without constant new American conquests, increasing
attempts to keep Europe down, and more and more deliberate state
intervention to privilege U.S. corporations over European ones.
Even now, as France and Germany try to return to the American
camp, those dif- ferences cannot simply disappear.
Other obstacles that are likely to arise include mass opposition
in the Arab world and increasing disaffection from the Global
What has been your impression of antiwar opposition?
The phenomenal growth of antiwar opposition has been a remarkable
and heartening development. It was driven heavily by two things:
the more open media (and larger political) climate I mentioned
earlier, and very effective mass Internet activism. The success
of opposition far outstripped the educational and organizational
capacity of the existing activist infrastructure and we’re
all scrambling to deal with the fallout from that.
First, we need to educate the movement and figure out what it
stands for. Much of it opposed the war for the wrong reasons,
i.e., that this is the first time America has committed aggression,
that the war will be a “quagmire,” and that there will
be huge American casualties. An integrated understanding of U.S.
imperialism, of its military and economic aspects and the scope
of its current depredations, is essential to building a broad
anti-imperialist move ment.
Second, we need to integrate the movement. In part, this means
closer ties made with the issues of domestic repression and the
new racist formulations involved in the “war on terrorism”;
mostly it means sustained dialogue at all organizational levels
between whites and people of color, especially African-Americans,
who are the most antiwar major ethnic group in the country.
Third, we need to get out of the twin traps of a proliferating
national umbrella organizations cut off from the grassroots and
a lack of effective organizational structures at the local level.
This will require building larger democratic organizations that
have three crucial aspects: internal dialogue and political evolution,
structures of accountability, and efficiency in translating activist
energy into meaningful action.
What do you think is the relationship between the invasion
of Iraq and corporate globalization, and between the anti-corporate
globalization movement and the peace movement?
War, structural adjustment, and free trade agreements must now
be seen as simply different instruments for the projection of
the same U.S. imperial power. The U.S. uses multilateral institutions
like the UN or the WTO when they can serve its purposes and ignores
them otherwise. Witness the Helms-Burton amendment, the farm bill,
and the steel tariff. This Administration favors the more unilateral
and aggressive instruments; other administrations have a different
balance. These are not separate; they are one issue—U.S.
imperialism. Issues like weapons of mass destruction and dictatorial
regimes, though important, are excuses for the projection obscure
these larger connections.
Since they’re in a larger sense, the same issue, the movement
should be the same movement. This doesn’t mean that we abandon
specialization or that we never prioritize specific reforms. It
does mean that we must strategize together, share resources, and
eventually organize together.
Michael Albert co-founded South End
Press and Z Magazine. He currently staffs ZNet and is author of
numerous books, including
Looking Forward, Moving Forward,
and most recently
Parecon: Life After Capitalism