Iraq: The Limits of Empire

- By Mark Yu

The U.S. occupation of Iraq is running into serious obstacles on several fronts. Photos documenting the use of torture at Abu Ghraib prison have torn the mask of legitimacy from the face of the civilian-military occupying force. While the torture itself could be treated as a mere aberration by U.S. politicians and commentators--overlooking the violence of the entire colonial enterprise in Iraq and ignoring similar abuse in prisons at home--the political impact of the photographs could not be so easily disregarded. The prison scandal, scandalous only because the perpetrators were caught in the act, has permanently disarmed the public relations effort to "win the hearts and minds" of the Iraqi people.

At the same time, the Iraqi resistance, once dismissed by the Bush administration as the remnants of a dying Ba'athist regime, is sinking deep roots into popular sentiment.1 In a survey conducted in May 2004 by the U.S. Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), only 2 percent of Iraqis polled said the U.S. and British troops were "liberators," while 92 percent saw them as "occupiers." In another question, 55 percent answering the survey said they would feel safer if all 138,000 U.S. troops left immediately.2 With a political program centered on the withdrawal of the foreign invader, the various strands of the resistance are proving their ability to put aside religious divisions and unite against a common enemy. At the very least, they are disrupting the functioning of the occupying state machinery. At most, entire towns are becoming contested territory between lightly-armed fighters and the world's most technologically-advanced and heavily-funded military.

As of June 28, the CPA has "handed over sovereignty" to a U.S.-appointed interim government. This will not result in any fundamental changes to the situation on the ground. This "sovereignty," according the head of the interim government himself, can be guaranteed only by the continued presence of U.S. troops.3 The political power of the interim regime will flow not from the national and democratic aspirations of the Iraqi popular classes, but from the guns of the occupation.

Even though we should not completely rule out the possibility that France and Germany, core countries of the European Union, might sign onto a U.S.-led occupation as junior partners in the future, this remains a highly unlikely scenario even if the Bush administration is ousted in the November elections. The falling out between the U.S. and its former western European allies is best understood in terms of interimperialist rivalry, not the diplomatic incompetence of President Bush or the "cowboy" mentality of his administration. The economic, political, and military considerations driving the U.S. ruling class in the current war are hostile to the long-term interests of the European ruling classes. The proposal for a multilateral occupation raised by "anti-war" Democrats as the only alternative against Bush unilateralism relies on a false premise, that the other leading capitalist states would be willing to offer substantial troop support in a costly war of counterinsurgency while being kept at arm's length from the imperial spoils.

On the domestic front, fractures within the ruling camp are deepening. Twenty-six high-level retired U.S. diplomats and military officials issued a statement on June 15, 2004 sharply critical of the overt belligerence of Bush administration foreign policy, calling for change in November. Signers of the statement, many who claim they supported Bush in 2000, included the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under the Reagan administration, Air Force chief of staff under Bush I, Central Intelligence Agency director under Carter, and former ambassadors.4 Dissent among the elites is also being expressed through first and second-hand accounts in several recent publications. Written by an anonymous CIA official and obtained by the New York Times, the 309-page book "Imperial Hubris" refers to Afghanistan and Iraq as two "failed half-wars."5 Another book published in January of this year, "The Price of Loyalty," based on interviews with former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, revealed that Bush and his inner circle were intent on crafting a rationale for invading Iraq in the early months of 2001. The book also contained a Pentagon document speculating on the division of Iraqi oil wealth among various contractors in a post-invasion scenario.6

Tensions over military strategy in Iraq and beyond, between civilian Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and army officers on the battlefield, came out into the open briefly in March/April 2004. Army commanders struck out verbally at Rumsfeld for the overstretch of the U.S. military in Iraq and his emphasis on sheer technological firepower over ground troops. According to one unnamed colonel, "He [Rumsfeld] wanted to fight this war on the cheap. He got what he wanted."7 The specter of Vietnam, which the ideological warriors of empire have desperately tried to exorcise from the American consciousness, emerged when army officers dissatisfied with the Iraq predicament compared Rumsfeld to Robert McNamara. Even though the Vietnam analogy may not be wholly applicable to the present situation, the fact that it is being raised at all highlights the seriousness of the problems confronting the U.S. state.

The overstretch of regular military personnel has coincided with the growth of private military firms, involved in everything from background support to frontline fighting. These mercenary corporations are paid with money allocated not for military expenditures but for Iraqi reconstruction; according to government estimates, they will receive one-quarter of the reconstruction budget. Individual "security contractors" may be paid ten to twenty times more than enlisted U.S. soldiers.8 However, despite the expansive privatization of the armed forces, the occupation of Iraq alone, not to speak of other U.S. military engagements, is not sustainable with the current number of troops. The return of the draft is certainly a possibility. Though debate on the issue is consciously subdued during the election season, it will likely gain momentum as soon as the quadrennial corporate circus is over. How exactly that will play out will depend on the ability of the anti-war and other people's movements in the U.S. to mobilize opposition.9

Regardless of the in-fighting over immediate tactics and long-term strategy, there is a broad consensus among the U.S. corporate elite, government officials, and military authorities that reconsidering the occupation is out of the question. Too much is being risked in Iraq for U.S. imperialism to simply cut and run. Access to Iraqi oil supplies, the second largest reserves in the world, must be secured for the fossil-fuel dependent economy. The denomination of oil solely in U.S. dollars, partly sustaining the U.S. currency despite the balance of payments deficit, must be safeguarded. The creation of a military jumping-off point in Iraq for restructuring the entire Middle East, establishing effective political control over the bulk of the world's declining oil resources and preventing the rise of future European and Asian rivals, must succeed.10 The anti-war movement and all decent, peace-loving people must grasp these harsh realities and prepare for the long haul.

Given the international balance of forces today, a return to the multilateralism of the past is not a realistic proposition. The collapse of the Soviet Union has, ironically, shaken the Cold War security arrangement where the U.S. state acted as the armed protector of global capitalism and other countries of the "free world" subordinated themselves to U.S. leadership. The disappearance of the Soviet bloc, rather than signaling the "end of history," has unleashed a struggle between rival (and unequal) capitalist states for the control of raw materials and crucial markets. For now, the U.S. is the undisputed military power and the center of world monopoly capital, but growing regional alliances in Europe and Asia can potentially challenge its hegemony, beginning in the economic sphere. Interimperialist rivalry, which in an earlier age led to the barbarism of the first World War, the meaningless mass-bloodshed of working people, and socialist revolution, once again has a central role in shaping international relations. This time around, the stakes, for the imperialists themselves and for the people of the world, will be much higher.

Mark Yu, 19, is a student in NJ. He can be reached at:


1. "Protest 200,000 join Baghdad rally to denounce US occupation." The Guardian. See here.

2. "Poll reveals hostility to US and support for rebel cleric." The Independent. See: here.

3. "Iraqi Leader Backs U.S. Troops After June 30, Allawi: Coalition Troops Would Guarantee Sovereignty." See here

4. "Retired officials say Bush has made U.S. isolated, distrusted." USA Today. See here.

5. "Book by CIA official slams US war on terrorism, Iraq." AFP. See here.

6. "Bush Sought 'Way' To Invade Iraq?" See here.

7. "War on the cheap? Tensions erupt between Rumsfeld and army command." The New York Times. See: here.

8. Huck Gutman, "Soldiers for Hire," Monthly Review, June 2004, 11-18.

9. "Coming Soon: The Return of the Draft, a Bipartisan Production." Counterpunch. See:

10. The book "Behind the Invasion of Iraq" by the Research Unit for Political Economy, based in India, presents an excellent analysis of the real reasons for the war. It is available online at:

Discussion List Issues: Debating Differences Between Vietnam and Iraq (1) Debating Differences Between Vietnam and Iraq (2) The Present Crisis of US Imperialism Is Marxism Still Relevant? (1) Is Marxism Still Relevant? (2) Is Marxism Still Relevant? (3) To join our discussion list, go here Join Our Info. List:
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