Don’t Let the B2s Get You Down

— Gilbert Achcar


I don’t think that the disappointment that you’ve felt at the news of the Iraqi regime’s collapse is warranted.

Of course I can understand it. The main thing that saddened you was the fact that this collapse has enabled the vultures in Washington and London to deck the carrion-filled halls.

This was a semi-colonial war that the tandem Bush and Blair (let’s call them B2s; it suits them well to call them after a bomber!) waged in defiance of a clear majority of world public opinion. Yet now they can declare it a “war of liberation” inspired by democratic ideals.

Yes, that’s infuriating! But remember the predictions that we’ve been making for months and months. They can be summed up in a few hypotheses:

  1. That B2’s easiest task would be overthrowing Saddam Hussein’s regime, which they could defeat without too much trouble. Their real problems would begin afterwards.
  2. That they dared to defy public opinion because they counted on the spectacle of Iraqi crowds celebrating Saddam Hussein’s fall to win over public opinion. We had to be prepared for this spectacle. Given how hated the Baathist dictatorship was – with good reason – it was inevitable.
  3. B2 are adventurers, gamblers; they went to war betting on a best-case scenario. They bet on taking over the bulk of the Iraqi state apparatus, particularly the army, on its turning against Saddam Hussein, and on their being able to use it to control Iraq after their victory.

But, we said, the most likely outcome was that their intervention – which would begin with an attempt to liquidate Saddam Hussein and the occupation of the Iraqi oil fields – would lead to the collapse of the state apparatus and would result in a vast chaos marked by bloody score-settling.

All these hypotheses have been verified. Nothing that has happened, in the last analysis, should have surprised you; everything was predictable. Let’s take a closer look at the events of the last few days.

The Victory

On the one side we had a “coalition” between the world’s main military power, which accounts on its own for more than 40 percent of world military expenditures, and a major vassal power.

On the other side we had a Third World country, two-thirds of whose armed forces had been destroyed in 1991, the other third of which had been worn away through the ensuing years by an embargo that interfered with maintaining its weaponry, and all this further aggravated by several years of UN-supervised disarmament.

How could anybody be surprised in these circumstances at the Iraqi rout? This same regime had already suffered a crushing defeat in 1991 with the collapse of Iraqi forces in Kuwait and Southern Iraq. True, this time Washington’s goal was to take the cities and occupy the whole country; admittedly, that was a harder goal to achieve. But in the meantime the country had been bled white, exhausted by more than twenty years of wars, bombings and embargo.

This is the country that Washington set out to conquer. And in 2003 as in 1991, the great majority of the Iraqis who were supposed to carry out the orders from Baghdad hated the Baathist regime. How could anybody expect a popular mobilization in conditions like these!

What was surprising in fact was not the rapid victory by U.S. and British troops, but the resistance that the Iraqi regime’s troops put up in the first days of the offensive.

Remember, all the commentators joined at first in sneering at the predictions of a speedy victory. Many believed that the quagmire predicted in 1991 was now finally becoming reality.

They were mistaken about the reasons for the initial resistance. It was due to the fact that the ground offensive was launched at the same time as the intensive bombing campaign, whereas in 1991 Washington had subjected the Iraqi army to more than five weeks of savage bombing before sending its troops into action.

This meant that the regime’s forces were still ready to fight at the moment when the ground offensive began – much more than in 1991, when the Iraqi troops that had survived the bombings were exhausted and dazed, and surrendered en masse to the coalition troops.

The regime’s forces, nothing more! Anyone who confused what happened in Iraq with genuine popular resistance, anyone who confused the regime’s troops’ defence of Baghdad with the people’s defence of Beirut during the Israeli army siege in 1982, made a big mistake about the military prospects as well as about the Iraqi people’s relationship to Saddam Hussein’s tyrannical regime.

The main setback for the Pentagon’s plan was in any event the fact that the “opportunistic” bombings on the offensive’s first day missed their target: Saddam Hussein. And the end of Saddam Hussein’s role as commander-in-chief probably directly provoked the sped-up collapse of the defence of Baghdad, whether he was killed by a bomb or sneaked off.

In such a centralized, personalized dictatorship, getting rid of the dictator is enough to destroy the regime’s foundations once they are put under intense pressure.

The Reactions in Iraq

How could anybody be surprised at the Iraqi people’s relief and joy when they learned of the dictatorship’s fall? I felt genuine relief myself, even though I had never experienced what the Iraqis had.

The Iraqi Baathist dictatorship took power in July 1968, when I was in the midst of my own radicalization, like much of my generation in many parts of the world. The new regime’s first priority was to crush the Iraqi expression of that radicalization, whose catalyst in the Middle East had been the Arab regimes’ defeat by Israeli aggression in June 1967.

The reign of terror established in Baghdad proceeded to ruthlessly crush the guerrilla front opened in southern Iraq by the Guevarist Khaled Ahmed Zaki as well as the left-wing split from the Iraqi Communist Party.

The new putschists quickly earned a reputation as the region’s most vicious regime. Iraqi militants knew that they were better off dying in combat with the regime’s forces than being arrested and dying under torture of unrivalled cruelty.

The Baathist regime crushed the Iraqi left, the largest component of the Arab left, in blood and gore. It thus contributed in its way to preparing the ground for the hegemony of Islamic fundamentalism over Middle Eastern popular protest movements.

Of all the dictators who have been compared to Hitler in the past half-century, generally in the most tendentious way and for propagandist ends, Saddam Hussein is the one who most closely fit the bill – not only in terms of his regime’s domestic characteristics (minus Nazism’s ideologically mobilized mass base) but also in terms of an expansionist drive fuelled by blind megalomania.

For 35 years I have been waiting and hoping for the fall of this horrible regime! So I was relieved when it finally fell, as were millions of Iraqi men and women. Nor was the Iraqi people’s relief surprising; it was completely predictable.

What was surprising, at least for Washington and London, was the lukewarm welcome, often edged with hostility, that Arab Iraqis gave their troops – including in the Shiite South, which they thought they had won over. This is not hard to understand either. What Washington and London failed to grasp is that this people, which had so many reasons to hate Saddam Hussein, has even more reasons to hate them. Iraqis remember how the coalition abandoned them to Saddam Hussein in 1991.

They are still suffering from the twelve years of genocidal embargo imposed by Washington and London with the complicity of their UN Security Council partners. And they could not welcome as liberators the United States, the main oppressor of the Middle East and sponsor of the state of Israel, or the tag-along British colonizers of yesteryear who had left such bitter memories behind them.

As a result of this fact, the Iraqis’ expressions of joy were quite restrained. Washington had to resort to propaganda tricks in order to give the impression that the U.S.-British coalition troops were being welcomed as “liberators.”

Hailed they were, but above all by the looters, who with their booty in hand had the most reason to find “Bush very good.” The occupation troops deliberately gave these plunderers “free” rein, on the orders of “unlawful commanders” who thought they were securing the occupation against popular hostility and in the end increased it considerably.

The only public building in Baghdad that was well guarded was the Ministry of Oil, just as the only “secured” areas in Iraq were the oil fields. The new invaders became responsible for a sack of Baghdad that will linger in historical memory as the modern equivalent of the 13th-century sack of Baghdad during the Mongol invasion.

The only part of the Iraqi population that allied with the occupied troops and massively expressed joy at their presence has been the Kurds. Once more the leaderships of Iraqi Kurdistan have demonstrated their never-ending short-sightedness, having so often cast their lot with very poor allies: Israel, the Shah of Iran, the Turkish government, the Iranian mullahs – even Saddam Hussein!

The Kurdish leaders have not had the sense to avoid compromising themselves with an occupation force destined to become an object of resentment for Arab Iraqis, the only ally that will make a decisive difference in the end to the future of Iraqi Kurdistan.

It would be disastrous for the Kurds for their leaders to confirm their image as devoted partners of the occupying powers. The United States and Britain have in fact no intention of defending the Kurdish people’s right to self-determination.

They will not hesitate to sacrifice Iraq’s Kurds if that serves their purpose of consolidating their hold on the country.

Controlling Iraq, Dominating the World

The small-scale looters of Iraq’s cities have at this early date already singularly complicated the task of the big-scale looters, the occupying powers.

Each passing day confirms how difficult it will be for B2 to control Iraq in face of a population that cordially detests them. Confidence man Ahmed Chalabi and his handful of mercenaries brought along in the U.S. troops’ baggage are certainly not capable of changing this situation.

The U.S. problem is that – to a far greater extent than in Germany or Japan after 1945, when it could make use of whole layers of the old regime’s state apparatus (including in Japan the emperor himself) – they will find nothing more reliable in Iraq than the leftovers from Saddam Hussein’s apparatus.

Only the servants of the old regime have in sufficient numbers the degree of moral degradation required to put themselves at the occupiers’ devoted service. They alone will be inclined to serve the country’s new masters, with all the more enthusiasm because they will be saving their skins while slaking their thirst for power.

This will make the occupation all the more hateful for the great majority of Iraqis. As it extends its presence in the Arab world further and further, the United States is stretching its troops too thin.

The hatred that it evokes in all Middle Eastern countries and throughout the Islamic world has already blown up in its face several times; 11 September 2001 was only the most spectacular, deadliest manifestation so far of this hatred.

The occupation of Iraq will push the general resentment to extremes; it will speed up the decomposition of the regional order backed by Washington.

There will be no Pax Americana. Rather there will be another step downwards towards barbarism, with the chief barbarism of Washington and its allies sustaining the opposite barbarism of religious fanaticism – as long as no new progressive forces emerge in this part of the world.

The project of building a global empire dominated by the United States by means of brute force is inexorably doomed to failure. In this respect Washington has at this early stage already suffered major political reverses, contrary to the impression that its military victory in Iraq might temporarily give.

Never since the end of the Cold War has U.S. hegemony been so widely challenged in the world; never has the consensus around this hegemony been so lacking. This is the case at the level of international relations: The grumbling and fractiousness of countries that Washington considered its loyal allies have never been so widespread. Even the Turkish parliament refused to let U.S. troops pass through its territory. Washington failed to buy it, just as it failed to buy enough members of the UN Security Council to get nine measly votes for its war on Iraq!

Admittedly, the existing states are not reliable allies for the anti-war movement, nor its allies at all in fact – particularly when, like France and Russia, they behave just as brutally and hatefully in their imperial domains as the United States does in its own.

But this cacophony in the system of states associated with the great empire ruled from Washington has in a way reflected the other major reverse for the imperial project. I refer of course to the emergence of the other superpower, “world public opinion,” as the New York Times rightly labelled it after the demonstrations on 15 February 2003, the biggest day of worldwide popular mobilization in history.

“World public opinion” – or rather the real movement, the anti-war movement; polls do not demonstrate. During the 1990s many thought that this movement was fated never to overcome its notorious weakness. They thought that the Vietnam years had essentially been well and truly buried, particularly since Washington had learned the lessons of Vietnam and applied them in its later wars, starting in Panama (1989).

But beginning in the Fall of 2002, we have seen the breathtaking rise of a new anti-war movement, which has quickly set new historic records in several countries and even engulfed the United States. This fact is absolutely decisive; the key mobilization is of course the one that takes place in the U.S. itself.

The U.S. anti-war movement has not yet the level of its peak in the Vietnam years, but it has already distinguished itself by reaching a mass scale, in spite of the trauma of September 11 and the Bush Administration’s exploitation of that trauma.

Carefully selected images of the so-called “liberation” of Iraq and the Pentagon’s scripted scenes have impressed many opponents of the war. But each passing day shows how right the anti-war movement was.

The countless deaths, the massive destruction and the pillage of Iraq’s national wealth constitute a huge tribute imposed on the Iraqi people to pay for a “liberation” that is ushering in a foreign occupation.

As Washington bogs down in a country that cannot be hidden from the world – unlike Afghanistan, more chaotic today than ever – the anti-war movement will be able to rise to new heights.

This movement’s spectacular growth has only been possible because it rested on the foundations of three years of progress by the global movement against neoliberal globalization born in Seattle. These two dimensions will continue to fuel each other, to strengthen people’s awareness that neoliberalism and war are two faces of the same system of domination which must be overthrown.

April 14, 2003

Translated from French by Peter Drucker. Gilbert Achcar is the author of Clash of Barbarisms, 2002, and Eastern Cauldron, forthcoming 2003, both from Monthly Review Press, New York. He teaches at the University of Paris.

ATC 104, May–June 2003