After Iraq: Which Way Forward For The Movement?

As the dust settles in newly ‘liberated’ Iraq, the neo-conservative Right has become increasingly bold and shrill in their denunciations of prior Left opposition to the war. With victory, we are told, has come vindication. Amid apparent signs of jubilation on the ‘Iraqi street’, the Left, so the story goes, has been ‘shamed’ by its ‘blind Anti-Americanism.’ The anti-war movement – which at one stage drew 200,000 onto the streets of Melbourne and Sydney respectively, and perhaps 2 million onto the streets of London, has thus been dismissed as something of a ‘misguided embarrassment’. Meanwhile, many of the Left’s most dire predictions have failed to eventuate, leading some to suggest a crisis of credibility.

It seems pertinent, therefore, to pose the question: what really did happen in Iraq? What is ‘the way forward’ for a movement confronted by triumphant neo-conservative proclamations of ‘victory’ and ‘vindication’? What is more: what does the future hold for Iraq, and what are the Americans likely to do from here?

Counting the Human Cost and accounting for the Collapse

Few saw any reason to doubt the projections of the British medical association, Medact, when it was suggested a war could result in as many as 48,000-260,000 casualties.

(ie: fatalities) Most recently, however, the ‘Iraq Body Count’ web site, drawing from a broad range of sources, estimated that the present civilian death toll stands at approximately 2,700. Some suppose that Iraqi military casualties could range as high as 15,000, but certainly the Pentagon is in no rush to validate or investigate such figures.

Of course, this is only part of the picture. For every fatality, there will be numerous stories of men, women and children: crippled, dismembered, blinded – bearing physical and psychological scars that will last for the remainder of their lives. Unexploded cluster bomblets now litter most Iraqi cities and their immediate environs: a deadly temptation for curious children. Many critics – such as Robert Fisk – also insist a link between the US armed forces’ use of depleted uranium-encased munitions and disturbing instances of cancer. Such critics thus believe the Iraqi people will continue to suffer the cost of this conflict for many years to come.

It is also notable that Iraqi infrastructure, including electricity and water supplies, was seriously damaged during the conflict. The International Committee of the Red Cross, who have been working to restore basic infrastructure in Baghdad and Basra, notes that, “while the situation in central Baghdad has improved, the surrounding poorer suburbs lag far behind, with pools of sewage and heaps of uncollected refuse polluting the streets.” Cholera and Typhoid have also been reported throughout the country, raising the prospect of further casualties. Mercifully, for the citizens of Baghdad and Basra, the swift collapse of formal resistance has enabled quick access for the Red Cross and other relief agencies.

In the final analysis, however, the nightmare scenarios imagined by the Left failed to eventuate. This is not to dismiss the awful toll paid by Iraqi civilians and young conscripts. It is merely to concede that the Left was wrong in its estimates of the scale of the slaughter and human tragedy. Indeed – few foresaw the dramatic swiftness with which resistance in Baghdad collapsed. Entire divisions of Iraq’s much vaunted Republican Guard seemingly melted away into nothingness. Reports of night-vision goggles and potent Russian-made anti-tank weapons finding their way into Iraqi hands, for instance, had this author projecting the possibility of a Chechnya-like scenario for Coalition forces entering Baghdad.

Originally, the official line from Washington suggested the Iraqi collapse was linked to the final destruction of the Republican Guard’s command, control and communications capacity. It is now becoming apparent, however, that years of CIA and MI6 penetration of the Republican and Special Republican Guard finally paid off, with senior defections leading to a collapse in resistance. According to ‘The Express’ of London (4-18-3), and several other publications, senior Iraqi military figures were bribed with gold and cash. According to ‘The Express’, those who failed to co-operate were threatened with death.

Islamic state or secular US client regime?

At first it was possible to be skeptical of stage managed scenes of ‘jubilation’ at the downfall of Saddam Hussein: no more than two hundred Iraqis participating in the destruction of a statue of the dictator in the immediate aftermath of Baghdad’s capitulation. Such scenes were necessary to provide legitimation for the occupying forces in the eyes of the world. They were needed – and so they were produced. This, however, is no longer the case. Tens of thousands of Iraqis: many of them from Iraq’s Shi’ite majority – are on the move. Mass rallies and pilgrimages abound: at once rejoicing at the overthrow of Saddam’s Sunni-dominated regime, and demanding the immediate withdrawal of US forces. Increasingly, inspired and led by a long subdued radical Shi’ite clergy, the call is for an Islamic state.

Surely neither Washington nor the Left can be pleased with this scenario – although for obviously different reasons. Washington points to the hidden hand of Iran behind the recent upsurge in Shi’ite militancy, and surely one would be naïve to suppose the Iranians – like the Americans – are not rushing to take advantage of the vacuum left by the destruction of the B’aathist state apparatus. The rise to power of an Iranian-sponsored clergy was certainly not what Washington had in mind. Left to choose between a secular US client state, and a fundamentalist clerical state under the sway of Iran, progressives could also be forgiven for experiencing a pained sense of ambivalence.

It is too early, therefore, to suppose the Americans will continue to have it all their own way. US forces could yet experience a ‘second Lebanon’: remnants of Saddam’s underground intelligence networks, or radicalized Shi’ite groups acting as the catalyst for a campaign to drive the occupiers from Iraq. Suicide bombings and assassinations could yet become a common occurrence in a new Iraq rent by ethnic divisions, intrigues, and the desire of the Americans to consolidate their grip for broader geo-political/strategic objectives. This scenario must surely be haunting the Americans. In this sense, the war for Iraq might only just be beginning. To quote Churchill: “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

US plans for regional and world dominance

The Americans, however, will not be leaving. Already, the talk is of US control of several bases in Iraq from which American power can be projected throughout the entire region. US ambitions had already been clearly stated in the White House’s ‘National Security Strategy’ (NSS), released in September 2002. The NSS states quite bluntly,

“the United States will require bases and stations within and beyond Western Europe and Northeast Asia, as well as temporary access arrangements for the long-distance deployment of U.S. forces.”

And further,

“The United States possesses unprecedented— and unequaled—strength and influence in the world.”

Continuing in an idealistic tenor which belies the underlying realpolitik, the ‘strategy’ states:

“We will work to translate this moment of influence into decades of peace, prosperity, and liberty.”

This is code for: “we will exploit this unique moment of historical advantage – of unchallenged economic, diplomatic and military superiority – to extend our hegemony throughout the world, and well into the 21st Century.”

The centrality of Iraq to these plans will become increasingly clear in the coming years as the US administration uses its foothold to exert pressure upon Iran and Syria. Without Syrian support, for instance, the continued operation of Hezbollah in Syrian-occupied Lebanon would prove impossible. The removal of Saddam Hussein: who exploited the Palestinian question to boost his ambitions for Pan-Arab leadership, will also strengthen the immediate prospects of Bush’s long-awaited ‘Roadmap for Peace.’ (In the longer-term, however, the ‘roadmap’ does not seem to promise a just compromise on the final status of East Jerusalem or refugees, or a real strategy for dealing with the 200,000 Jewish settlers already living in the Territories) Meanwhile, the new foothold in Iraq, including control of Iraq’s substantial oil reserves, has enabled the US to shift its strategic centre of operations from Saudi Arabia, which was fast developing into a veritable pressure-cooker of international terror. The withdrawal from Saudi Arabia will thus ease the pressures which gave momentum to Al-Qaeda, and also allow the US more freedom in exerting diplomatic pressure upon the House of Saud. Finally – and perhaps most importantly – through Mid-East dominance the US will finally achieve the ‘resource security’ it so desperately craves, while at the same time denying this to potential rivals – in Europe, China and elsewhere.

Amidst all this, the justifiably cynical must be prone to point out that there has, as yet, been absolutely no sign of any ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’.


David McKnight, in the February-March edition of ‘Arena magazine’ – an Australian publication of the Left – was correct insofar as he insisted that ‘the enemy of my enemy is NOT my friend.’ A modern, secular Left can have no more sympathy for the former totalitarian state of Saddam Hussein than it can for the fanatical, terroristic fundamentalism of Al-Qaeda. McKnight, however, went further, questioning the entire theoretical framework of ‘anti-imperialism’, labeling it ‘outdated’.

The recent war in Iraq was nothing if not imperialist. This was a war fought for geo-political strategic advantage and ‘resource security’. It was a war fought for the preservation of US economic interests, and the extension of the American sphere of influence throughout the Middle East. It was a war sold on the basis of ‘black propaganda’: outright lies linking the regime of Saddam Hussein with September 11, and building a mythology of fear and hysteria around supposed ‘weapons of mass destruction’. At times like these, such conceptual disarmament is nothing short of intellectual suicide for the Left. McKnight, however, does succeed in underlining the disturbing ambivalence suffered by a marginalized secular Left: unable to feel particular affinity for any of the major political players in the current world order.

The Left, we are told, is ‘discredited’: exposed for its ‘blind anti-Americanism’. The fact remains, however, that perhaps 17,000 Iraqis have died horribly as a consequence of this war. The museum of Baghdad, what is more, has been ransacked, and some of the most precious antiquities from the very cradle of human civilization have been lost – perhaps forever. Amidst neoconservative cries of ‘victory’ and ‘vindication’, the failure to uncover any ‘weapons of mass destruction’ has dutifully been ‘swept under the carpet’.

The Left has no cause for shame in its opposition to the recent war in Iraq. The Left was correct in its diagnosis of the conflict’s causes: of the underlying motivations which spurred the Americans to action. The human toll, while not of the magnitude projected by much of the Left, was nevertheless nothing short of obscene.

At this time, then, the Left would be best advised to consolidate its gains, and advance the case for a truly democratic, secular Iraq. Although immediate withdrawal by the US could result in a vacuum, precipitating civil war, the Left needs to demand that any interim government limit itself purely to matters of administration. Privatisation of Iraq’s oil industry during this period must be explicitly ruled out. What is more, the broad gamut of Iraqi civil society must be enabled to mobilise in preparation for national elections. There ought be no arbitrary proscriptions on political formations of the Left, or of Arab nationalism. Following a period of stabilization and normalization, the Left needs to demand a total US withdrawal.

While the Left was unable to stop the war, the anti-war movement has mobilized massive popular networks which may yet again need to be called upon as the US continues its quest for ‘Pax Americanus’. Such networks need to be preserved and nurtured rather than being allowed to ‘wither on the vine’.

Sadly, the recent war on Iraq will likely not be the last of its kind. Undeterred by baseless neo-conservative condemnations, the need now is to regroup, and prepare for the next inevitable battle.

a version of this article will appear in ‘Arena magazine – a leading Australian publication of the Left.’


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