frontline 10

Winning the war, losing the peace

Bush's victory turns sour

Bush's long prepared-for war against Iraq took place in March and April. The objectives, geopolitical and economic, were quickly attained - the overthrow of the regime of Saddam Hussein and the taking of control of the country and its vast oil reserves. The war was a convincing demonstration of American military power. Its preparation and its consequences provide equally revealing demonstrations of the political limits of that power. Murray Smith analyses the situation four months after the fall of Baghdad.

The war against Iraq represented both a continuation of American policy since the end of the Cold War and a certain modification of that policy. Even before the final collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States was preparing to assume its place as the only superpower in the new 'unipolar' world. This implied a willingness to use its military force to protect what it considered to be vital American interests. The end of the Cold War led in fact to increasing not diminishing militarism (1). A defining aspect of American policy was to refuse to accept the emergence of any rival power, neither other imperialist powers nor the newly emerging capitalist states of Russia and China (2). Three major wars (and many minor ones) marked the decade 1991-2001 - the first Gulf War, NATO's war against Serbia and the intervention in Afghanistan. Those wars had at least two common characteristics. They were conducted in reaction to events that were to some extent outside US control, and although under American leadership, they took place in a multilateral framework, with the consent and/or participation of major sections of the 'international community'.

The first Gulf War took place in reaction to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, which endangered the stability of the Middle East. In the name of that same stability, in the absence of any alternative regime to hold the country together, Saddam Hussein was allowed to stay in power. The intervention in the Balkans, first of all by imposing the Dayton accords in 1995 and then by the war in Kosovo in 1999, sought to impose stability in a sensitive region where the European powers had failed miserably. The invasion of Afghanistan was an immediate reaction to September 11, aimed at giving a demonstration of American power and toppling a regime that was in fact sheltering the leaders of Al Quaida. It had the added bonus of establishing an American presence in the geopolitically key region of Central Asia. All of these wars took place with broad degrees of support and participation from other powers and international organisations.

After September 11 there was a turn in American policy. The Bush administration began to calmly envisage the overthrow of regimes that were not under its control and the taking of direct control of key regions. In other words, moving from a reactive to an active use of US military power. We can only speculate as to how a Gore presidency would have reacted after September 11. But in the context of the Bush administration September 11 gave the opening to its aggressive neo-conservative wing, those regrouped around the 'Project for a New American Century', whose aim is to establish unchallenged US global hegemony. They include Vice-President Dick Cheney, Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the real ideological driving force of the group, Assistant Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, this group systematically advocated unilateral American action, brushing aside objections from America's allies and riding roughshod over the United Nations. The State Department under Colin Powell sought to act as a countervailing influence, with only limited success.

In January 2002, Bush identified three major culprits who made up the 'Axis of Evil' - Iraq, Iran and North Korea. For geopolitical and economic - oil - reasons Iraq was top of the list. So much so that it was even considered dealing with Iraq before Afghanistan. Neither of the pretexts given for the invasion of Iraq stands up to a moment's scrutiny. Unlike the United States and Israel, Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction in any significant quantity. Nor did it, unlike Saudi Arabia, have any known links with Al Quaida. That is now becoming increasingly clear to public opinion in Britain and America.

USA v's EU

Having chosen its target, Washington proceeded to put together a coalition. And that is where the problems began. Britain was on board from the beginning, the only country to contribute a significant number of troops. But the operation was so clearly a manifestation of American power for American interests that it met significant opposition from other countries. Not only from Moscow, which has traditional ties with Iraq and a significant interest in Iraqi oil, and from Beijing, which has a lesser economic interest but views with apprehension the growing assertion of American power. The most vocal, systematic, prolonged and largely unexpected opposition came from France and Germany. Why was this?

It is insufficient to explain it essentially by economic interests, though both countries have historic links with Iraq and France has a major interest in Iraqi oil via the TotalFinaElf company. On this level, France would have preferred no regime change and a lifting of sanctions to get back to business as usual. The insistence of France and Germany on the role of the UN and the search for a peaceful solution was not entirely hypocritical. France is not a pacifist country, as its president, Jacques Chirac, very clearly stated in a televised address to the nation on March 10. It has been continually involved in military action in Africa and is still very much present in the Balkans. And it is Schröder who succeeded, in Afghanistan, in legitimising the use of German troops abroad for the first time since 1945. This willingness to use military force when necessary is not incompatible with thinking that it is better to resolve certain questions peacefully, by exerting pressure rather than by cowboy methods, and that by invading Iraq Bush would be opening Pandora's box. Popularity in their own countries was no doubt also a factor. Schröder's anti-war stance almost certainly saved him from electoral defeat last autumn. And Chirac took full advantage of the situation to reinforce his authority after having been re-elected in very particular circumstances last year (3). Nevertheless this was a secondary factor. Other imperialist heads of state - Blair, Berlusconi and Aznar in particular - were prepared to face up to massive anti-war movements because they considered that supporting Washington was in the best interests of their ruling classes.

The principal reason for the attitude of France and Germany was to assert the existence of Europe as a force independent of the USA (4). Bush is reputed to have said, 'Is there still a European Union? I broke it in three' (5). This triumphalism was to say the least a little premature. It is clear that one key aim of American foreign policy is to try and prevent the emergence of a strong and united EU. It is equally true that American pressure managed to torpedo any possibility of a united European foreign policy position over Iraq. But in the first place, the fact that France and Germany re-established themselves as the central axis of Europe and held firm meant that there was a European counterweight to Washington, even if it only involved part of Europe and even if Blair, Aznar and Berlusconi lined up with Washington. Secondly, given the evolution of the situation in Iraq, it is not Chirac and Schröder who are on the defensive today.

Unable to obtain a UN Security Council resolution to cover them, faced with a massive anti-war movement and opposition from France, Germany, Russia, China and many other countries, Bush and Blair nevertheless pushed on with the invasion. It was a gamble and the premise undoubtedly was that once they were victorious opposition would crumble and everyone would have to recognise the fait accompli. America's allies would be rewarded by receiving a (modest) part of the Iraqi cake and its adversaries would have to eat humble pie. That appeared for a short time to be the case. On May 22 a UN Security Council resolution voted by everyone but Syria (and in particular by the three permanent members who had opposed the war, France, Russia and China) approved the occupation of Iraq by America and Britain, lifted sanctions and allowed Washington to control sales of Iraqi oil. Washington's tone with those countries who had opposed the war was far from conciliatory.

Short-lived triumph

However, the triumph was short-lived. For if Bush and Blair undoubtedly won the war, they are slowly but surely losing the peace - if indeed the word 'peace' can be used to describe the situation in Iraq today. In the initial stages of the war it is clear that US-British forces met stiffer resistance than they expected. That resistance collapsed in the face of overwhelming military power, but it existed and it showed that many Iraqis were ready to fight. Many others, particularly among the majority Shiite community, were not, motivated by hatred of Saddam's regime. But tales of British and American troops being welcomed as liberators were always considerably exaggerated, and resistance to the occupation is clearly hardening. Attacks on occupying troops are steadily escalating and hardly a day goes by without a GI being killed. The number of American deaths in June was twice as high as in May. Those who collaborate with the Americans are now also becoming targets. On July 5 in a suburb of Baghdad, a bomb killed seven Iraqi policemen. These attacks cannot be written off as simply coming from residual pockets of Saddam supporters. A broad resistance is growing, through a combination of a sense of national humiliation and the naked plunder of Iraqi oil wealth, reinforced by the inability of the occupying forces to restore essential services and their arrogant and often brutal behaviour.

It is true that for the moment most of the attacks are in Sunni areas. But it would be unwise to imagine that the Shiites will stand aside. Already some attacks have taken place. The six British soldiers killed were in a Shiite area. Most of the Shiite leaders would prefer to negotiate an American withdrawal. But the patience of their people is wearing thin, even if demonstrations remain for the moment largely peaceful. Karem Mahood was nicknamed the 'Lord of the Marshes' for having led a guerrilla army 8,000 strong in the poor marshlands of south-eastern Iraq from 1987 to 2003 - the only consistent armed resistance to Saddam Hussein outside Kurdistan. On April 7, Mahood's forces liberated the town of Al Amara before the British forces arrived. Like many Shiites Mahood was ready to wait and see what happened after the fall of Saddam. But he recently declared: 'No resistance fighter in the world can accept to have fought only to see the rule of a foreign power imposed' (6).

The people of Iraq, in their diversity, have one common interest: to regain control of their own country and its wealth. This is fundamentally incompatible with the reasons for the American invasion. Washington needs a tame Iraqi government to oversee its plunder of the country's wealth and probably accept US bases after the withdrawal of the main occupation forces. It cannot satisfy the basic aspirations of the Iraqi people. If the occupation continues America and Britain will be dragged into an inevitable cycle of resistance, repression and further resistance, in a country where everyone is armed. The nomination of a 'government council', which met for the first time on July 13, is an attempt to provide a legitimate cover for the occupation. The council has some powers, but the US proconsul, Paul Bremer, has a veto over its decisions. Probably sooner rather than later, this 'government' will either come into conflict with the Americans or become discredited.

A new Vietnam?

In press reports on Iraq, words like 'bogged down' and 'quagmire' recur ever more frequently. They are words that recall the Vietnam War. Since its historic defeat in 1975 in Vietnam, America has suffered setbacks and even withdrawn its forces when faced with stiff resistance, for example in Lebanon in the 80s and Somalia in the 90s. But these were not commitments of central strategic importance. If America were forced to withdraw from Iraq it would be its biggest defeat for 30 years. Such an outcome is not an immediate prospect. But it is worth remembering that what led to American defeat in Vietnam was a combination of three things: the inability to win militarily on the ground, demoralisation in the army and a mass anti-war movement in America and elsewhere. In the case of Vietnam the first factor led to the other two. In the case of Iraq a mass anti-war movement existed even before the war broke out. Bush is not of course confronted in Iraq with a political and military leadership of the calibre of the Vietnamese. Nevertheless we are only in the first stages of resistance to the occupation. A mass multiple resistance movement in Iraq with support in the Arab world would be a nightmare for the occupying forces. And already the signs of sagging morale in the American army are multiplying. Observers such as John Pilger who talk of 'Bush's Vietnam' may be a little premature but they are not necessarily on the wrong track (7). Furthermore if the occupying forces are faced with serious resistance in a country of over 20 million people, the present 145,000 American troops (plus 12,000 British and a few Polish and Australian troops) will be woefully inadequate. On February 25, to the great annoyance of Donald Rumsfeld, General Eric Shinseki, testifying before the armed services committee of the US Senate, estimated that an occupation of Iraq would need 'several hundred thousand' troops for several years. That looks pretty accurate today.

What Next?

As America becomes bogged down in Iraq, what will the consequences be for the rest of its foreign policy and its relations with other countries? In the first place, the chances of another major military engagement in the short term have seriously diminished. How long ago it seems today - but it was only four months ago - since there was speculation about an invasion of Syria. For the moment the Iranian and Syrian leaderships have little to fear from that quarter. There will certainly be political and economic pressure, perhaps even attacks on Iranian nuclear installations. But outright invasion seems ruled out. Washington no doubt hopes to use the growing opposition to the Islamic regime to destabilise Tehran. But it is far from certain that Iranian youth will allow themselves to be used to install a pro-American government and open up the country's resources to foreign exploitation, especially with the example of Iraq next door.

As for North Korea, the main reason why an American attack in that quarter is unlikely is precisely because unlike Iraq, Pyongyang really does have weapons of mass destruction - enough conventional missiles to inflict serious damage on South Korea and on American forces, and perhaps nuclear weapons. Nevertheless Washington is keeping two or three of the ten divisions it has on active duty in reserve in case of a crisis in North-East Asia. With the equivalent of one more in Afghanistan (which is far from 'pacified') and three or four others training to replace those on active service, it is difficult to see where 'several hundred thousand' US troops could be found (8). Hence the increasingly desperate appeals to America's allies, including those who opposed the war, to contribute troops.

Bush and Blair under pressure

The situation in Iraq is also affecting both American and British internal politics and relations with Europe, Russia and China. Public opinion in both Britain and America is rapidly coming round to the idea that it was seriously misled over the existence of weapons of mass destruction. Less than half the US population now think the war was justified. Even before the Kelly affair Blair was probably mortally wounded by Iraq, though the full effect is likely to be delayed for some time. And Bush faces an election next year. On an international level, it is quite remarkable how quickly Bush has managed to squander the wave of sympathy for the US that existed in the wake of September 11 attacks, not only from governments but from public opinion in the imperialist countries. Inevitably, the deteriorating situation in Iraq and America's relative international isolation are giving rise to tensions between the neo-conservatives and the pragmatists in his administration.

In the end it was the gamble France and Germany took by going out on a limb against the war that is paying off. In Europe it is not Blair or Aznar or Berlusconi who are in the driving seat of the EU today, but Chirac and Schröder and their allies. Supported by them, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing is forcing the pace with his draft European constitution. France is also seeking to consolidate an alliance with Russia. At the conclusion of a recent meeting of the Franco-Russian council on security questions, it was announced that the two countries were in agreement 'down to the last detail' on Iran, Afghanistan and non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (9).

Today it is Bush who is asking for French and German involvement in Iraq and being told that it can happen only within the framework of the UN - in other words in a multilateral framework. If America wants and needs to draw other powers into the Iraqi cauldron it will have to pay a price. First of all, on an economic level by allowing France, Russia, and others a share of Iraq's oil and reconstruction contracts. Secondly, by recognising a political role for the UN and therefore for the other powers. Such concessions would represent setbacks for the neo-conservative unilateralism that looked so dominant only a few months ago.

The EU comes out strengthened in relation to the USA. Its own divisions are not so much 'internal' but very much the result of American pressure, which is weak at the moment. Of course that does not mean that we are headed for an open rupture. Inter-imperialist economic and commercial rivalries will continue and increase, as witness the growing conflicts in the World Trade Organisation. There will be political and diplomatic tensions. But on the military and also on the economic plane the other powers need the USA. The contradictions between the imperialist powers will continue to work themselves out in an overall context of US hegemony. However the developing scenario in Iraq makes it likely that this hegemony will have to be exercised in a less arrogant and unilateral fashion. Bush will be forced to turn towards more collaboration and compromise with the other main powers, to accept that American leadership is exercised within a collective framework.

The invasion of Iraq once more demonstrated the awesome military might of US imperialism. But military high-tech is pretty useless against mass resistance and urban guerrillas. It is not certain that Washington will be able to convert its military victory into a lasting political and economic domination of Iraq and the scenario of a humiliating withdrawal cannot be excluded. But in any case it is increasingly clear that Bush will not extricate himself from his present impasse without returning to a more multilateral approach. The way in which that modifies the pattern of international relations is not yet clear, but it will certainly modify them. Finally, it is worth underlining that if America is in an impasse in Iraq today and has to court allies that it trampled over six months ago, the fundamental reason is the growing resistance of the Iraqi people. A factor that Bush and Blair quite clearly underestimated, a factor that imperialism has in the past sometimes paid dearly for underestimating.


1. See the article by Claude Serfati in Frontline 3.

2. See the article by Paul Wolfowitz, 'The Pentagon rules out any rival power', Washington Post, 1992. Accessible on the Internet:

3. See the articles on France in Frontline 7 and in this issue.

4. For an analysis of US-European imperialist rivalry see the article by François Vercammen, 'America, Inc. versus Europe, plc' in International Viewpoint, May 2003. On the consequences of the war, see 'The dubious victory' by Jan Malewski in the June 2003 issue.

5. Quoted in Le Monde Diplomatique, April 2003

6. Quoted in Le Monde, July 4, 2003. See also 'The Che Guevara of Iraq could turn against the Allies', The Scotsman, same date.

7. John Pilger, 'Bush's Vietnam', published in Green Left Weekly, July 9 2003 and accessible on

8. The figures on the number of US divisions available are from the Washington Post, July 3, 2003.

9. Le Monde, July 10, 2003