In the first installation of this three-part reflection on the similarities and (more importantly) the differences between Uncle Sam’s War on Vietnam and his current war on Iraq, I argued that the real parallels between the first and the second illegal war are commonly overdrawn (see Part 1). The leading analogies simply and predictably reflect underlying historical continuity in the long American Empire Project and its domestic underpinnings and contradictions, such as: opposition to other nations’ independent and egalitarian development ambitions, the imposition of subordinate roles on weaker states, the determination to maintain U.S. imperial-military credibility come Hell or high water, the racially charged distinction between worthy (our) and unworthy (theirs) victims, and the conflict between the privileged war masters’ need for soldiers and the U.S. population’s reluctance to send its young men (and now women) into bloody imperial service, and so on.
In the second part, which relies heavily on the work of left imperialism critics Giovanni Arrighi and David Harvey and on the public opinion research of the hawkish political scientist John Mueller, I detailed and analyzed the distinctively early opposition that the second (Iraq) war has met within the leading wealthy and imperial (world-systemic “core”) states, including the increasingly post-”hegemonic” U.S. itself (see Part 2).
This third and final installment builds on the first two and relies especially on the writings of leading U.S. policy critic Noam Chomsky to discuss the fundamentally different nature of Washington’s imperial stake in Iraq, something that holds critical significance for the ease with which Uncle Sam can be convinced to make a full physical and military withdrawal from Mesopotamia on the model of his outwardly humiliating but in fact darkly victorious flight from Vietnam.
DIFFERENT IMPERIAL STAKES
In John Mueller’s recent analysis (see John Mueller, “The Iraq Syndrome,” Foreign Affairs [November-December 2005], presented and criticized in the second installation of this series), the American citizenry’s “lower tolerance for [U.S.] casualties” in Iraq than in Vietnam and Korea is “largely due to the fact that the American public places far less value on the stakes in Iraq than it did on those in Korea and Vietnam.” According to Mueller, “the main threat that Iraq was supposed to present to the United States when troops went in – weapons of mass destruction and support for international terrorism – have been, to say the least, discounted. With these justifications gone, the Iraq war is left as something of a humanitarian venture, and, as Francis Fukyama has put it, a request to spend ‘several hundred billion dollars and several thousand American lives in order to bring democracy to Iraq’ would ‘have been laughed out of court’” (Mueller, “An Iraq Syndrome,” p. 45).
It doesn’t enter Mueller’s mind (or at least his text) that the American public and U.S. policymakers may not share the same definition of “stakes.” He does not examine the possibility that many Americans oppose OIF on moral and ethical, even “humanitarian” grounds and see it as having nothing to do with spreading or defending “democracy” at home or abroad (a poll undertaken after he published his article showed that half of the U.S. citizenry now believes that the war on Iraq is not “morally justified”). He does not care to investigate the possibility that many U.S. citizens think they have both a moral and a security “stake” in the U.S. treating other nations and international laws and norms with respect and decency, not violent and provocative disdain.
Iraq: to Deepen U.S. Control Over “The Greatest Material Prize in History”
What about the “elite” level, where U.S. policy is made in accordance with imperial power considerations alone? Washington’s “stakes” in Iraq are neither “higher” nor “lower” than they were in Vietnam in any way that can be meaningfully gauged across the rifts of time and space. Ironically enough for Mueller’s finding, the imperial U.S. investment in Iraq (which naturally has little more to do with exporting democracy than it does with protecting America and the world from WMD) is sky-high. America’s imperial planners have known for at least six decades that the Persian Gulf’ s unmatched oil reserves constitute what the U.S. State Department in 1945 called “a stupendous source of strategic power, and one of the greatest material prizes in history” – what leading U.S. policy critic Noam Chomsky calls “a lever of ‘unilateral world domination,’” adding that control of 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 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. Even if you’re on renewable energy you want to do that. That’s the reason for invading Iraq, the fundamental reason,” readily understood, Chomsky argues, by anybody who has “three gray cells functioning” (Chomsky, “Confronting the Empire,” Address to World Social Forum, February 2, 2003; Harvey, New Imperialism, pp. 24-25, 74-81; Anthony Sampson, “West’s Greed for Oil Supplies Fuels Saddam Fever,” Observer, 11 August, 2002). Early in the occupation of Iraq, Chomsky has recently noted, Brzezinski argued that “America’s control over Middle Eastern oil producers ‘gives it indirect but politically critical leverage on the European and Asian economies that are also dependent on energy exports from the [Persian Gulf] region.’” Brzezinski was simply “reiterating the leading post-World War II [U.S.] planners, George Kennan in this case, who recognized that control of the resources of the Gulf region would five the United States ‘veto power’ over its industrial rivals” (Noam Chomsky, Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy , pp. 36-37).
To be sure, America’s “insatiable demand for fossil fuels” (Chalmers Johnson) 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. As David Harvey argues, the United States’ long decline, reflecting predictable (and predicted) shifts in the spatial patterns of capitalist investment and social infrastructure (David Harvey, Spaces of Capital: Toward a Critical Geography [New York, NY: Routledge, 2001], pp. 237-393) 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. There’s a viciously circular logic to that urgency, since U.S. economic decline is exacerbated by the expensive invasion and occupation of Iraq and America’s related extreme investment in means of destruction and military empire. At the same time, America’s aggressive, zero-sum militarism (see part 2) has encouraged the other core (and non-core) states and regions of a broadly oil-dependent world system to form critical energy, trade, and even military alliances to counter U.S. dominance.
Former ABC news show director Ted Koppel was only partially candid and/or informed in a recent New York Times opinion editorial titled “Will Fight for Oil” “There’s no reason,” Koppel boldly declared, “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 is what is has always been. It’s about the oil.” Koppel was right to put Persian Gulf petroleum reserves at the heart of “Operation Iraqi Freedom” and (as we shall see below) to argue that Uncle Sam’s longstanding oil stake in Iraq works against what he calls a “precipitous withdrawal” of U.S. military forces from that nation. Where he mislead readers and perhaps himself is in claiming that Washington wants to secure regular and uninterrupted “oil flows out of the Persian Gulf” simply to feed its own oil addiction and to guarantee the health of the global economy (Ted Koppel, “Will fight for Oil,” New York Times, 24 February, 2006). Koppel deleted the selfish, restrictive, and imperial nature of America’s longstanding “rapt attention” to Middle Eastern oil and the political-economic “critical leverage” and “veto power” that control of that oil confers upon U.S. policymakers within the world capitalist economic and state systems.
Silly Talk on “Withdrawal”
The U.S. strategic “stakes” in Iraq are so great that much current U.S. discussion of American withdrawal from Mesopotamia seems hopelessly naÃ¯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 naively “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 (see the next sub-section below for a different perspective) 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).
But 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.
To make “the logic of withdrawal” yet less apparent to U.S. planners, 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. As Chomsky recently explained in an important interview, reminding us that U.S. domination of majority-Shiite post-invasion Iraq is intimately related to U.S. domination of the entire Persian Gulf region (home to two-thirds of the world’s known oil reserves) and the rising world-systemic threat (to U.S. planners) of a dynamic new East Asian state capitalism:
“Let’s talk about withdrawal. Take any day’s newspapers or journals and so on. They start by saying the United States aims to bring about a sovereign democratic independent Iraq. I mean, is that even a remote possibility? Just consider what the policies would be likely to be of an independent sovereign Iraq. If it’s more or less democratic, it’ll have a Shiite majority. They will naturally want to improve their linkages with Iran, Shiite Iran. Most of the clerics come from Iran. The Badr Brigade, which basically runs the South, is trained in Iran. They have close and sensible economic relationships which are going to increase. So you get an Iraqi/Iran loose alliance. Furthermore, right across the border in Saudi Arabia, there’s a Shiite population which has been bitterly oppressed by the U.S.-backed fundamentalist tyranny. And any moves toward independence in Iraq are surely going to stimulate them, it’s already happening. That happens to be where most of Saudi Arabian oil is. Okay, so you can just imagine the ultimate nightmare in Washington: a loose Shiite alliance controlling most of the world’s oil, independent of Washington and probably turning toward the East, where China and others are eager to make relationships with them, and are already doing it. Is that even conceivable? The U.S. would go to nuclear war before allowing that, as things now stand.” (Noam Chomsky, “There is no War on Terror,” ZNet Magazine, January 16, 2006)
Vietnam: to Cripple the “Virus” of Third World Revolutionary Nationalism
As its willingness to “sacrifice” 58,000 American soldiers, not to mention (and dominant U.S. culture never does) several million Indochinese suggests, U.S. planners were no less invested in their imperial mission in Vietnam. To be sure, Vietnam possessed no great “stupendous” “material prize,” “strategic” or otherwise, remotely comparable to Persian Gulf oil. A relatively small and poor, predominantly agricultural and “pre-modern” nation where water buffaloes and oxen were primary farm “technologies,” is held no great economic significance for the United States. It was not a relevant market for surplus Western commodities, a great source of raw materials, or an important outlet for investment of surplus capital.
Still, looking through the oil-slicked rear view mirror of history, it is easy to forget how ominously the imperial architects of American foreign policy regarded the “danger” posed by radical Vietnamese nationalism after World War II. The “stakes” were huge, even without petroleum (or any other precious commodity) in Vietnam, as far as American Cold War policymakers were concerned. That seemingly insignificant little peasant country was home to a rugged, radical, and heroic popular-revolutionary Third World nationalist movement – the Viet Minh. This movement sought to overthrow its own corrupt, imperially supported oligarchy and to develop its own nation’s wealth and resources on an independent basis. It refused to follow the regressive and imperial dictates of the metropolitan investor class from Europe and the United States. Along the way, it conducted a determined social-revolutionary struggle in the imperially occupied South. That movement was no small matter to U.S. policy makers and has no relevant analogue in contemporary Iraq.
For American men of Empire, the main danger posed by this radical combination of nationalism and populist social revolution was that it represented a potentially contagious infection. If successful, the Vietnamese revolutionary independence movement threatened to inspire others to resist subordinate integration into the US-dominated world system and the internal social inequality that such integration tends to require and enhance. Like the significantly successful Cuban revolution and other left- nationalist Third World struggles that troubled American global planners after WWII, the Vietnamese Revolution threatened to add to the disturbing (for imperial planners) anti-systemic “bad examples” of Russia and China. If not defeated, U.S. officials feared, it would join those “Communist” states in showing that poor, predominantly peasant-based nations could achieve significant modernization outside the direction and against the imperatives of Western capitals and capital. It would advance and demonstrate the effectiveness of the supremely treacherous (for U.S. planners) notion that people and nations across the poor global periphery could productively “take matters into their own hands,” without the parasitic supervision and constraints of distant imperial overlords and the Western-based global investor-class. The new “bad example,” U.S. imperialists worried, might even spread to include the industrialized “super-domino” Japan.
As Chomsky noted in For Reasons of State, his classic 1971 examination of the Defense Department’s internal Vietnam planning record (the “Pentagon Papers”), the real menace posed to U.S. policymakers by the Vietnamese revolution was “the threat of social and economic progress within a framework unacceptable to American imperial interests. This is the rot that may spread” (Chomsky, For Reasons of State, p. 35)
To stop this “rot” from spreading, US planners determined, radical nationalist movements had to be neutralized in one way or another. In American policymakers’ best-case scenario, the US would work with threatened local oligarchies to help them crush rebellions “on their own.” This is what took place, of course, in Indonesia in 1965, when the US-backed Suharto regime slaughtered that nation’s radical nationalist political movement. More than 600,000 Indonesians died in that great repression, portrayed as democratic “liberation” by U.S. authorities and media. The anti-systemic infection, conveniently marked (as always during the Cold War period) as part of the mythical international “Communist” conspiracy, was technically handled by the client state’s own U.S.-funded and trained military. In the less favorable (for American imperialists) scenario of Vietnam, however, the local police force wasn’t up to the job. The imperial power had to inject its own troops to “keep the world [system] safe” from the virus of radical Third World nationalism.
But even with formal military “defeat, all was hardly lost for Uncle Sam. ” Uncle Sam caught a black eye with the symbolically humiliating removal of its troops prior to and without the consolidation of a U.S.-friendly regime in either Hanoi or even Saigon. Still, the small and in-itself relatively minor Vietnam “domino” (to use the standard Cold War analogy) fell. But it fell in upon itself, too damaged by the assault of the world’s most powerful military to inspire Third World revolutionaries near or far. The radical-democratic potential of the revolutionary peasant movement in South Vietnam was significantly degraded by America’s withering attack and the authoritarian Hanoi government’s consolidation of national control. The massive state terror inflicted by the U.S. on Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia by the early 1970s was so great that, as Chomsky noted in 1991, “Indochina will be lucky if it recovers in a hundred years.” Thanks also to a subsequent vicious US trade embargo (lifted only in 1997), and the austerity-imposing dictates of the US-controlled International Monetary Fund and World Bank (whose presidency Robert McNamara assumed after heading the “Defense” Department during the peak American military assault), the American Empire’s “basic goal – the crucial one, the one that really mattered – to destroy the virus” was in fact achieved. While it had successfully resisted full integration into the US global order, Chomsky observed, “Vietnam is a basket case, and the US is doing everything it can to keep it that way” (Noam Chomsky, What Uncle Sam, Really Wants , pp. 59-60)
Today, ten years after the US dropped its embargo and established diplomatic relations with Vietnam, the latter nation’s officially Communist government has “joined the rush to global capitalism.” It has “come to accept,” Chicago Tribune foreign correspondent Michael Lev reported last April, that “it must unshackl[e] the economy from Communist-era regulations.” It must also “develop better political ties with the rest of the world” (meaning the rich states and especially the US) and open itself to foreign investment so that it doesn’t get “left behind” in the “rush” to global capitalism ((Lev, “Young Vietnam Strides Into the Future,” Chicago Tribune, 24 April, 2005). “Most” of the Vietnamese population “remains poor,” Lev observed, “with per capita income about $500 a year.” But “these days,” Associated Press correspondent Tini Tran reported, old Saigon’s “Le Duan street …is home to Diamond Plaza, a glittering upscale department store where French perfumes and Italian shoes are sold to an urbane middle-class. Along the same strip, a French-owned five-star hotel sits across the street from the US Consulate*. The United States,” Tran ads, “is Vietnam’s leading trade partner.” According to a Mekong Delta schoolteacher interviewed by Tran, “many people from the North came down to Saigon to do business. Now people don’t care about politics. What they care about is how to get rich” (Tin Tran, “Vietnam Revels in Its Future 30 Years After War,” Boston Globe, 1 May, 2005)
Tran describes something like U.S. victory as defined by top Pentagon strategists in the early 1960s. By Chomsky’s estimation three years after U.S. officials acknowledged that their “maximal” military and political objectives would not be attained in Vietnam, the empire had good reasons to see its illegal invasion as “a moderate success.” “It may,” Chomsky observed, “that Vietnam can be lost to the Vietnamese without the dire consequences of social and economic progress of a sort that might be meaningful to the Asian poor” (Chomsky, For Reasons of State, p. 35). The basic “imperial drive” to prevent Vietnamese revolutionary nationalism from stimulating “other significant groups in the Third World” to act against “the destructive impact of [subordinate and exploited, P.S.] integration in the global economy dominated by the industrial powers” (Chomsky, For Reasons of State, p. xli) had been “blunted by the unexpected resilience and obstinacy of the Vietnamese. Nevertheless, it has partially achieved its aims (p. 49).” Vietnam was exceptional in the historical record of American imperialism’s opposition to Third World independence “only because familiar objectives have been so difficult to achieve” ( Noam Chomsky, “The Rule of Force in International Affairs” (The Yale Law Journal, 1971).
As Chomsky (again) recently explained, repeating a thesis he advanced during the Vietnam War, U.S. policymakers “went to war in Vietnam for a very good reason. They were afraid Vietnam would be a successful model of independent development and that would have a virus effect-infect others who might try to follow the same course. There was a very simple war aim-destroy Vietnam. And they did it. The United States basically achieved its war aims in Vietnam by . It’s called a loss, a defeat, because they didn’t achieve the maximal aims, the maximal aims being turning it into something like the Philippines. They didn’t do that. [But] they did achieve the major aims” (Chomsky, “A Tale of Two Quagmires,” ZNet Magazine , January 4, 2006).
DEATH GRIP? NO DEMOLISH AND LEAVE
Uncle Sam achieved this objective through sheer, practically unimaginable destruction – a proto-genocidal campaign of carnage and ecocide that probably goes beyond anything that he will likely deploy against Iraq. “The means were available to demolish the society in which the nationalist movement was rooted” (Chomsky, For Reasons of State, p. 258). And then the American empire physically departed, in what most observers, including most on the left, call a great “defeat.”
The biggest contrast between Vietnam and Iraq, perhaps, is that no such “destroy and exit” option is available to the U.S. Empire in Mesopotamia. It’s not that controlling Iraqi and Middle Eastern oil is a bigger U.S-imperial “stake” in the 21st century than containing Vietnamese and other revolutionary Third World nationalisms was in the 1960s. And it’s not that the U.S. in Iraq is seeing its military credibility called into question by a less impressive nationalist resistance than the one that supposedly “defeated” Uncle Sam in Vietnam (Giovanni Arrighi, “Hegemony Unraveling – I,” New Left Review, March-April 2005, pp. pp. 57-58).
It’s about the difference between killing people, revolutions, and hope (the “rational” U.S.-imperialist goal in Vietnam) and controlling a spatially fixed concentration of super-strategic raw material (the equally “rational” U.S.-imperialist goal in Iraq). Vietnam’s all-too human and mortal revolutionaries could be “bombed to Hell” and then safely abandoned to their crippled fate. Such was the brutal outcome of a murderous policy conducted in accord with the chilling American military saying that Vietnam had “to be destroyed in order to be saved.”
By pivotal contrast, Iraq’s inanimate oil reserves and related social infrastructure cannot really be “saved” for “critical [imperial] leverage” and global-economic windfall through wanton annihilation. Iraq’s critical raw material cannot be removed from Iraq along with U.S. soldiers and B-52s in the same way that American crucifiers stole the promise of the Vietnamese revolution. The lifeless but super-strategic oil virus is planted firmly in Iraqi soil and there’s nothing even the most deadly imperial state known to history can do to change that. To be sure, as the prolific Marxian imperialism analyst Giovanni Arrighi notes, “Washington has the technological capabilities to exterminate any country it chooses” (Arrighi, p. 54). But sheer demolition on the 1960s-70s Vietnamese scale is not a rational imperial option in regard to Iraq. Iraq cannot be physically lost – territorially conceded – to the Iraqis without monumentally dire consequences to American Empire. If abandoned, Iraq’s significant share of “the greatest material prize in history” can only be left to the control of others, an outcome that is unacceptable to American policymakers for (again) “very good [imperial] reason[s].”
For this reason, it seems rational to wonder if Arrighi is right but for the wrong reasons to argue that Iraq is shaping up as a bigger failure for the U.S. empire – a bigger signpost and agent of declining U.S. “hegemony”- than Vietnam. It’s not, he says, because of Iraqi and Middle Eastern oil. It’s because, he argues, the U.S. is being defeated in Iraq by a resistance that lacks the military prowess, revolutionary ardor, military hardware, and foreign anti-imperial superpower (Soviet) assistance enjoyed by the Vietnamese freedom-fighters who (supposedly) vanquished the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s. To make matters worse for Uncle Sam, he adds, the U.S. military is much more technologically lethal today than it was in the Vietnam era.
Arrighi’s contrasts between Vietnam and Iraq are suggestive, but the U.S. wasn’t “defeated” in Vietnam and Vietnam did not possess the spectacular, super-strategic (militarily as well as economically) oil reserves that have long made the Middle East a rational imperial obsession for U.S. policymakers. The obsession has only deepened in the recent age of ever-encroaching oil scarcity, when Uncle Sam’s declining fiscal and material position in a now economically tripolar (if now militarily unipolar) world system makes his ability to control global hydrocarbon reserves more critical to his wealth and power than ever before. As Koppel knows for his own wrong reasons, it is all, or mostly, “about the oil,” with “oil” understood in the imperial, overall strategic, and world political-economic sense proclaimed by Kennan, Brzezinski, Chomsky, and David Harvey. As Chomsky has recently reminded us: “if the United States can maintain its control over Iraq – which has the world’s second largest known oil reserves and is located at the center of the world’s major energy supplies – it will enhance significantly Washington’s ‘strategic power’ and ‘critical leverage’ over its major rivals in the tripolar world that has been taking shape for the past thirty years (with US-dominated North America serving as one pole and Europe and northeast Asia, which is linked to south and southeast Asia economies, as the other two). These concerns have always been central to post-World War II planning, considerably more so today than before as substantial alliances are taking shape to counter American dominance, accelerated, as was predicted, by Bush’s aggressive militarism.” (Chomsky, Failed States, p. 37)
The self-proclaimed universal state and global super-power Uncle Sam has no intention of granting management of the world’s most “stupendous source of strategic power” and “critical” global political-economic “leverage” to the non-western and non-white people who happen to live on its merely national, not-so sovereign topsoil. At this precarious and potentially late point in the history of its global dominance, the U.S. can be expected to hold on to that control with an impressive imperial death grip. It will likely exhibit a fierce determination to defend that grasp through even the most terrible conflicts and violence abroad and at home, where more and bigger 9/11′s seem all-too likely in coming years. The risks of not holding on are simply too great, as far as those structurally super-empowered U.S. actors who crave planetary (and indeed inter-planetary) supremacy are concerned. Withdrawal from Iraq is a most unlikely thing for Uncle Sam to seriously contemplate in light of his tendency to value hegemony over survival, consistent with deadly choices made by concentrated power through the long, reckless, and criminal record of empire.
Paul Street (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Visiting Professor of United States History at Northern Illinois University. He is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2004), and Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York, NY: Routledge, 2005)