US empire after Iraq: analysis and perspectives

By Malik Miah, Barry Sheppard and Caroline Lund

The authors are longtime socialist activists in the United States and wrote "The Bush Doctrine" in issue 22. Miah is a member of the editorial board of Links; Sheppard and Lund are contributing editors.


1. What US imperialism accomplished in the war

2. Obstacles for imperialism revealed by the war

3. Tasks of revolutionary socialists

"We will be called imperialists regardless, so we might as well be competent imperialists." (Stephen Peter Rosen, professor of strategic studies at Harvard University, Wall Street Journal, April 4, 2003.)

"It's time for the US to behave more like an occupying power." ("The Bremer Regency", editorial, Wall Street Journal, May 16, 2003.)

"The notion that you can't export democracy through the barrel of a gun is simply wrong. We did it in Germany, Italy, Japan and elsewhere." (Max Boot, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, as quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle, May 4, 2003.)

1. What US imperialism accomplished in the war

The most powerful military power humanity has ever seen is beating its chest and proclaiming to the world: "Do what we say or face the consequences".

What's new in the arrogant speeches and threats is the fact that the rulers of the United States are confident they can reshape the world under US tutelage without fear of serious reprisals. Washington sees no viable threats from any power—including "old European" allies. President Bush's seven-country, seven-day tour of Europe and the Middle East in May was that of a conqueror. He didn't come to mend fences with France or Russia, who opposed the US-UK war on Iraq. Bush said he wouldn't forget their impertinence but would move on so long as they understood that the world would be ruled on Washington's terms.

The bombast is not that of a madman or a neo-conservative gang out of step with the US ruling class. It is directly tied to the new world relationship of forces. It is linked to the overwhelming US military power that the Pentagon put on display in the mismatched, illegal and immoral invasion of Iraq. The US military's ability to use drone planes without pilots, anti-tank shells and bombs that guide themselves, computers in the field to guide the troops and so forth had never been seen even in Gulf War One. The US sent five of its nine supercarrier battle groups to the region. No other nation has even one. It is like the superiority of the British navy in the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when England ruled the seas, or when the European invaders slaughtered the native peoples of the "new world".

The massive bombing of Iraq, the sweep of super-tech tanks over the country and the other displays of military technology shown on TV throughout the world were aimed to cow not only the Third World but the other imperialist powers as well. This was a demonstration to underscore George Bush's September 2002 declaration that the US would never again allow any country to achieve rough military parity with it, as the former Soviet Union had done. The US is so far ahead of any other country in air power, naval power and troop strength that no other country is even trying to catch up. We can now add space power, as shown in the war against Iraq, in which space-relayed data links helped US squad leaders know Iraqi positions, and the global positioning system was used to guide bombs. The US is actively pursuing a monopoly on the military uses of space, including an anti-missile defence system, designed to give it first-strike nuclear capacity. Since the occupation of Iraq, the Pentagon has disclosed plans for the development of a new generation of nuclear weapons for more specialised targets than the obliteration of cities—of which it already has thousands. It has stepped up its threats against North Korea and Iran concerning their possible development of nuclear weapons. It has moved 18,000 troops back from the "demilitarised zone" in Korea in order to set the stage for an attack on North Korea if that is deemed necessary. Nuclear blackmail by the US will increase, as the long-term objective of "non-proliferation" is more and more revealed to mean a US monopoly on nuclear weapons. The overwhelming US military power is producing, however, a contrary result. Countries that feel threatened by the US are now seriously considering building nuclear weapons, or keeping those they have, as the only realistic deterrent to US military power.

The US now has new military bases in Iraq, to add to those it established in Afghanistan and former Soviet republics during the Afghan war. In the first war against Iraq in 1991, the US set up new bases in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates. Following September 11, 2001, it set up new bases in Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Uzbekistan, Kyrgystan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Djibouti, and sent troops to the Philippines, Georgia and elsewhere.

The spread of US bases allows rapid military intervention with or without the support of local regimes, "new" or "old" Europe, the United Nations or NATO. The Bush Doctrine is refined daily to target what the Pentagon calls the "arc of instability" that runs through the Caribbean Basin, Africa, the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Middle East, South Asia and North Korea. The targets of "pre-emptive war" are not just the three members of the "axis of evil"—Iraq, North Korea and Iran—but also Cuba, Palestine, Libya, Lebanon, Syria, Sudan, the Philippines, Indonesia and all countries where "terrorists" operate or "rogue" regimes are in power.

In a throwback to an earlier time of imperialist expansion, heavily funded fundamentalist Christian missionaries are fanning out around the world, following the troops as in Iraq, or laying the groundwork. They are targeting mainly Muslims. Many target Islam as an "evil" religion. Others don't want to be so "negative", but want to explain how accepting Jesus will get you into heaven, quoting Attorney-General John Ashcroft: "Islam is a religion in which God requires you to send your son to die for him. Christianity is a faith in which God sends his son to die for you."[1]

Bush was quick to announce that the US victory in Iraq was something the Palestinians had better ponder—or else. The "road map" was dusted off and presented as a solution. It stipulates that Israel can go on building new colonial outposts in the West Bank and Gaza until the Palestinians make enough concessions in the eyes of Ariel Sharon and Bush. The first thing demanded of the Palestinians is that they crush all armed Palestinian resistance. Only then will there be a "freeze" on new settlements and the eventual establishment of a Palestinian Bantustan divided by the settlements and the roads leading to them. That's the best the Palestinians can expect, and they won't get even that as Israel continues to establish "facts on the ground". Military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza will go hand in hand with the military occupation of Iraq. The US is facing great difficulties in the occupation. But it is in charge, together with its British junior partner. This allows it to hire US-based firms to rebuild Iraq. US military dictator Paul Bremer has announced that he will privatise the entire Iraqi economy and sell off to private investors Iraq's state-owned industries. Apparently he thinks he can do this without even an Iraqi puppet government in place, which may take years to establish.

US public opinion

The US has defined its "war on terrorism" as a decades-long war, which will include hot wars as well as clandestine operations, assassinations, economic boycotts and sabotage etc. Important for Washington's ability to carry out this project is support from the US people. How did the war in Iraq affect US public opinion? During the preparations for the war, African Americans were opposed to it by a small majority, according to polls. A larger majority of whites supported the invasion, with some ninety per cent of white males doing so. Soon after the Iraq victory, polls showed public opinion solidly behind the Pentagon. A study by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (May 2003) found that forty-one percent of US citizens either believe "weapons of mass destruction" have been found in Iraq or aren't sure, even though none have been found. More than sixty percent said that it didn't matter if such weapons were found: the war was justified anyway. Some three-quarters of the public thought that Bush showed strong leadership on Iraq.

Another study of college students showed an amazing shift in political attitudes. An April 2003 poll by the Harvard Institute of Politics based on interviews with 1,200 college undergraduates found that seventy-five per cent said they trusted the military "to do the right thing" either "all of the time" or "most of the time". Two-thirds of the students said they supported the Iraq war.[2]

An aspect of this support was the lock-step solid front of the mass media during the war, from the Murdoch-owned Fox news channel, which specialises in Neanderthal pro-war chauvinist bigotry, all the way over to National Public Radio, which the conservatives call "left wing". Whenever Bush or Rumsfeld or any of the others spoke, there was hardly a TV or radio station that didn't carry it, with the exception of non-news channels. It was like being in Hitler's Germany or Stalin's Russia. The political support at home combined with the overwhelming military superiority displayed in Afghanistan and Iraq bolsters the swaggering attitude of the top war criminals. They are promoting an aggressive policy that the average US citizen doesn't see affecting his or her everyday life except when "orange" terrorist alerts cause some inconveniences. Even the round-ups of Arab-Americans, Muslims and immigrants (with or without papers) and the attacks on democratic rights are not seen to affect the great majority. There is a clear disconnection between the war abroad and "safety" at home.

2. Obstacles for imperialism revealed by the war

What took place around the world leading up to the US invasion of Iraq shows that world public opinion matters and that people in the US in significant numbers can be won to an anti-war and objectively anti-imperialist, anti-empire stance. The January and February mobilisations of more than twelve million protesters on five continents show that potential. The turnouts in Western Europe were especially important, where three million marched in Rome and two million in Spain, where the governments backed the US war drive. Even in London, more than one and half million marched against Blair's support for Bush. In the US the peace protests involved perhaps two million, and took place in scores of towns in every state, proclaiming, "Not In Our Name".

The fact that the administration was able temporarily to silence the great majority of anti-war protesters and bolster the war supporters was because so few US troops died in the initial occupation of Iraq, which was over quickly, and the war's true material costs had not yet registered. Mass anti-war demonstrations ended when it appeared that the military operation was over. But this situation is beginning to turn around.

The looting—allowed by the US and British—by desperate people devastated by the war and twelve years of murderous sanctions was not expected by the US public. The "welcome" the Iraqi people were supposed to give the occupation forces failed to materialise. Mass demonstrations of Iraqis demanding self-determination have gradually become known in the US. The occupation forces have not restored basic services they destroyed during the sanctions and war. Iraqi anger is boiling up, and some of it is being reported in the US media. The failure to find the "weapons of mass destruction" and the unravelling of other lies told by the US and British administrations to justify the war is having an impact, emboldening those who were against the war and putting the war supporters on the defensive.

Most important, the Iraqi resistance and the daily death toll of US soldiers are mounting, causing opposition to the prolonged occupation among the soldiers themselves and their families. A Gallup poll taken in June showed that fifty-six per cent of the US population believed that it was worth going to war in Iraq, down from seventy-three per cent in April. The percentage who thought the war wasn't going well jumped from thirteen to forty-two per cent since Bush declared the "mission accomplished". This poll was taken before a demonstration of 800 members of soldiers' families, angry that the soldiers have not been quickly brought home as the administration promised, drove the brass out of a meeting at a Florida army base. And before GIs began publicly to speak out against their prolonged deployment in Iraq and how they are not wanted there. And before the Pentagon admitted that the war's cost was about $4 billion a month, and that the occupation could last a long time.

An editorial in the June 26 Wall Street Journal sounded the alarm: "The War Isn't Over". Concerning the situation in Iraq, the editorial said "we aren't saying that Iraq is now like Algeria under the French". Blaming Ba'athists for the increasing attacks, it did, however, conclude, "the longer we refuse to take the Ba'athist threat seriously, the more we run the risk that Iraq could become an Algeria". That's a pretty heavy comparison. The Journal's solution is for the US military to launch a huge crackdown on the Ba'ath Party, which the US has attempted in recent weeks. The French tried that in Algeria, killing more than one million—and eventually lost anyway. Moreover, those opposed to the occupation are not just Ba'athists, but mass anti-Ba'athists Shiite organisations and others, including many rural tribes. More massive repression by the occupying forces will trigger more massive resistance.

A poll at the end of July indicated that now a small majority think the present level of GI casualties is not acceptable. The direction is clear: every day on which reports of soldiers' deaths and maiming come in lowers the support for the occupation. Every day that the administration's arguments for the war change, and more lies are exposed, has the same result.

Another indication of the shifting mood is that some of the Democratic Party presidential candidates who still support the war and voted for it are opportunistically trying to find ways to criticize Bush's conduct of the war. One candidate, ex-governor Howard Dean of Vermont, has seen his popularity shoot up as a result of his initial opposition to the war, although he supports the occupation.

The two main national anti-war coalitions have survived and have held national conferences. The Act Now to Stop War and Racism (ANSWER) coalition was formed before the Afghan war, and initiated the anti-Iraq-war movement. It sees the need to fight against the threats to Iran, Syria, North Korea, Cuba etc. as well as to support the Palestinian struggle. The other, United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ), is broader but is not as anti-imperialist as ANSWER. Both seek to connect the anti-war struggle with attacks on working people at home.

Once again, ANSWER has taken the initiative and called for a March On Washington for October 25, and has received wide endorsement for the action. It probably will not match in size the prewar mobilisations, but it will be a significant reaffirmation that the movement is once again on the march. It is to be hoped that the UFPJ people will join in.

The situation in Afghanistan is not much better, although there has not been much in the US press about it. The Karzai government basically controls only Kabul, and that control is shaky. A June 14 article from Karachi in Asia Times, printed in Hong Kong, reports: "Such is the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, compounded by the return to the country of a large number of former Afghan communist refugees, that the United States and Pakistani intelligence officials have met with Taliban leaders in an effort to devise a political solution to prevent the country from being further ripped apart". While no agreement to bring the Taliban into the government has yet been reached, the article reports that the

… backdrop to the first meeting is an ever-increasing escalation in the guerrilla war being waged against foreign troops in Afghanistan. Small hit-and-run attacks are a daily feature in most parts of the country, while face-to-face skirmishes are common in the former Taliban stronghold around Kandahar in the south.

According to people familiar with Afghan resistance movements, the one that has emerged over the past year and a half since the fall of the Taliban is about four times as strong as the movements that opposed Soviet invaders for nearly a decade starting in 1979.

As resistance grows in Iraq and Afghanistan, it will begin to be known in the US, and those who were opposed to the Iraq war will become more emboldened. The reasons the administration gave for launching the war are being undermined. The assertion that the war was to liberate the Iraqi people and establish democracy looks increasingly dubious as the occupation meets resistance. If the occupation looks like it will last for years, the patience of the US people will begin to wear thin.

There have even been some reports in the press of US troops beginning to become demoralised by the prospect of a long occupation amidst an increasingly hostile population. The US would like to set up a bourgeois democracy through the barrels of its guns in Iraq, which would be the most stable situation. But it would be a bourgeois democracy that was completely subordinated to Washington; that would carry out Washington's policies in the Middle East, including in relation to Israel, Syria and Iran; that would preside over a privatised "free market" economy dominated by imperialist interests. Would a free Iraqi people voluntarily agree to these conditions? This prospect seems increasingly remote.

Another reason given for the war was that the US and the world were threatened by Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD). As this assertion unravels, it is appearing to more and more people that the administration lied. Opponents of the war are once again demanding an accounting. The US public is not likely to readily accept more wars (even if few lives may be lost) if the reasons given for the Iraqi invasion turn out to be false. The pace of these shifts in public opinion is unknown. But they will happen eventually. In this fluid context, the anti-war movement in the US will be an important player. The ruling class will launch more wars because the opportunity to build a new empire won't last forever. "Old" Europe, Russia and China will not sit by idly forever, for their own political and economic reasons. Russia remains a nuclear power, as does China. France could upgrade its nuclear capability. The support among the US people won't last forever.

3. Tasks of revolutionary socialists

While September 11 gave the ultra-right in the White House and Pentagon the green light to implement a plan they advocated even under Clinton, the roots of the strategy of empire-building and pre-emptive strikes against enemies and former friends dates back to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. After the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, there were discussions in ruling-class circles about a new strategy of world domination. The problem was the expectation of US and world public opinion that "peace dividends" were possible with the end of the Cold War.

Although the Cheney-Rumsfeld team was present in the first Bush presidency, and people like Wolfowitz were around, their views were in a minority. That's one reason that the US did not overthrow Saddam Hussein in 1991. The US did not have the permanent bases in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, and the other countries it now has. It wasn't convinced it wouldn't face a new threat from Russia or China. The hard right was not ready to smash Saddam Hussein until September 11 gave them the opportunity to do so. Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security adviser, in an article for the January-February 2000 Foreign Affairs (during Clinton's last year in office) wrote this about Hussein and WMD: "If they [Iraq's leaders] do acquire WMD, their weapons will be unusable because any attempt to use them will bring national obliteration". After September 11, of course she changed her tune.

The pre-emptive war strategy in fact was first proposed to the Clinton administration, reflecting the bipartisan nature of the shift in imperialist strategy after the Cold War. SigNATOries of the 1997 programmatic document, "Project for the New American Century", included Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and Jeb Bush. It urged the Clinton administration to take a firmer policy into the world after the end of the Cold War. They wrote:

We seem to have forgotten the essential elements of the Reagan Administration's success: a military that is strong and ready to meet both present and future challenges; a foreign policy that boldly and purposefully promotes American principles abroad; and national leadership that accepts the United States' global responsibilities.

The September 11 attack was what the doctor ordered to convince the US people that they were under a real threat and that the US had to counter it, unilaterally if necessary. The strategy of the "coalition of the willing" was created then. The seeds of the policy change, of course, went back to the Balkan Wars in Yugoslavia, when Clinton used NATO instead of the UN after Russia threatened to veto UN intervention. The Bush Doctrine, first outlined in the infamous National Security Strategy of the United States after September 11, is so far reaching that no country is off limits from possible attack. It and further pronouncements make clear that the US goal is to set up a new world empire under its domination.

The first such empire in the epoch of modern imperialism, beginning in the last quarter of the 19th century, was the British. That empire was based on previous colonial conquests and British naval might. It didn't dominate the entire world, but did encircle it: "The sun never sets on the British Empire". The decline of this empire began after the first world war, with the rise of US power. In the 1930s Britain and the US almost went to war over control of the seas. The second world war, which saw the victory of both the US and the Soviet Union, and the rise of the colonial revolution, finished off the British Empire.

The second attempt at building a world empire was that of Germany under the Nazis in the 1930s and during the second world war. Their drive made impressive successes in Europe and North Africa. This attempt was smashed by the Soviet Union at great cost to the Soviet peoples. Without the Soviet victories over the invading German army, Germany would have been able to concentrate its military machine against Britain, and, in alliance with Japan, against the United States. The outcome would have been uncertain.

The US emerged from the war as the pre-eminent imperialist power, with its declared imperialist enemies and allies alike defeated. It was in a position to strive for world domination, except for the victory of the USSR.

The collapse of the Soviet bloc removed that obstacle. Now, a decade later, the US has embarked full tilt to establish its world domination over the exploited and oppressed nations and over its imperialist allies/competitors. This third attempt at imperialist empire aims to truly cover the entire world.

It is critical for anti-war activists to seek the cause of imperialist war. All the imperialist powers are driven by their economic systems to expand and dominate as much of the world as they can, at the expense of the other imperialist powers, as was explained by Lenin and others. Thus the US drive for empire is not the result of mistaken policies of this or that capitalist politician, but is inherent in the system itself.

It is imperative for revolutionary socialists to explain this reality.

At the same time, it is important for socialists, especially in the imperialist countries, to build the broadest possible movements opposed to imperialist attacks against and occupations of Third World countries, irrespective of the political character of the regimes ruling those countries or the political character of the movements resisting any imperialist occupation. We defend the oppressed nations' right to national self-determination.

We are for the defeat of the imperialist invaders/occupiers even if this results in the military victory of reactionary-led resistance movements. Such an outcome would be a lesser evil than any successful imperialist invasion/occupation. Moreover, if the imperialist invasion/occupation were defeated, the masses involved would have been inspired and mobilised, creating openings for revolutionary socialist forces to challenge the reactionaries politically.

The reason for this stance is that it is not the Third World regimes or movements, however reactionary and repugnant, like the Taliban or the "Northern Alliance" gangsters or other enemies of socialism, secularism and democracy that are the main source of danger to humanity's well-being and progress today, but imperialism, which seeks to enslave the world and drive the great masses of humanity into greater misery and impoverishment.

We should support the freeing of the prisoners the US is holding at its Guantánamo base in Cuba. They are suffering inhumane conditions, with some driven to suicide. They are not even given the status of prisoners of war, and have no rights whatever. They don't know what charges will be levelled against them, if any, and may be held indefinitely. They were swept up as "illegal combatants" in the imperialist invasion of Afghanistan. They should be freed because they had the right to resist the invasion, whether they actually did so or not.

In the United States, this policy translates politically into building the broadest possible anti-war movement against each of Washington's wars. In the other imperialist countries, activists should build anti-war movements not only against the US wars but also against all complicity of their own imperialist governments in such wars. In the US and the other imperialist countries, the challenge for the left wing of the movement is to recognise that a viable peace movement must begin to take on the entire political objectives of the US strategy. We should not expect massive demonstrations except in times of war preparations or actual war, but it is important to keep the movement alive in the interims.

The broad worldwide anti-war movement is in an early stage of development. The strategy that can be most effective now is one based on an educational campaign focusing on the crimes being carried out against the people of the world "in our name" from Afghanistan and Iraq and Palestine to elsewhere in the "arc of instability". Key demands include the immediate withdrawal of all US and allied troops. The people must decide their own future (self-determination and liberty) without US interference. Colonial rule is colonial rule no matter what Washington calls it. Demands for economic reparations are important to rebuild the countries the US has devastated. Rebuilding by US multinationals is a new form of neocolonialism, to put these multinationals in a dominant position in the economy.

All US bases must be dismantled and withdrawn from the Middle East and southeast Asia. The spy apparatus must be shut down too. The fact that an anti-globalisation movement against the exploitation of the Third World exists and existed before the world anti-war and peace movements reflects the fact that the economic, political and military issues can and must be linked by progressive forces. These issues do not just involve the Third World, but impact on the imperialist countries too. Social gains in the imperialist countries were the result of mass struggles. But they were also partly a result of the existence of the Soviet Union and its free education and medical care, relative job security, social security and similar advances. In the struggle with "communism", the imperialist countries were more vulnerable to worker demands for social reforms. The collapse of the Soviet Union has made it easier for the imperialists to attack social gains the masses won earlier.

In the present world economic situation, with economic stagnation and decline in some countries, and the resultant intensification of inter-imperialist competition, there is an intensification of pressures on the imperialists towards war abroad and attacks on the working people at home. The two are deeply related. In the US, there has been a colossal attack on working people, which has intensified in the last two years along with the drive toward empire. The whole social wage is under attack, including education, medicine, public transportation and even libraries. Wages and even the existence of unions are threatened, with layoffs and massive outsourcing to low-wage companies. Union leaderships have increasingly become complicit with the capitalists in carrying out these attacks in the workplace and by government.

More than ever, a movement of left-wing forces, led by socialists, is needed to educate on capitalism, imperialism and the clash of classes. We cannot allow the fundamentalists to get away with appearing to be the most dedicated anti-imperialists. Socialists need to step up education and organisation to build a secular left wing in the international anti-imperialist movement. In the US it is the urgent task of socialists from all traditions to unite to build the anti-war movement and its anti-imperialist left wing. We need to relearn lessons of the pre-World War I socialists who led the fight against their own governments in war, who fought for peace and revolutionary defeatism.

How far will the US go in its drive for world empire? As far as it can until it is stopped. How much death and destruction will occur first? And can a nuclear holocaust be prevented? We can be optimistic that the peoples of Third World nations under attack, and the working classes in the imperialist countries, will rise up to short-circuit the plans of the empire builders. Vietnam showed that it can be done. But even if the US succeeds in setting up its empire for a time, there will be continual struggle against it until it is brought down. It is a doomed project.


1. Time, June 30, 2003.

2. New York Times, May 27, 2003.