Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 27, 2011

The Iraq war in retrospect

Filed under: imperialism/globalization,Iran,Iraq,Libya — louisproyect @ 7:47 pm

The latest issue of Frontline, a leftist Indian newspaper, has an article by Vijay Prashad titled “Exit America” that deals with the question of whether the war in Iraq was “dumb”, an allusion to then State Senator Barack Obama’s comment in 2002:

What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war. What I am opposed to is the cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz and other armchair, weekend warriors in this administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne.

Forced by circumstances of his elevation to supreme representative of the American ruling class, Obama no longer uses words like “dumb” and tries to put the best possible spin on how things turned out. Vijay writes:

Obama, who had made his own position clear in 2002, could not revisit them in 2011: he is now the Commander in Chief and would find it awkward to belittle the sacrifices of troops who were sent to fight a false war. At most Obama could acknowledge the debate before the war, with the lead-up “a source of great controversy here at home, with patriots on both sides of the debate”. The Iraq war was not perfect, he accepted, but its outcome was good, with the troops leaving behind “a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people”. American liberalism is not capable of any more than that.

Meanwhile, the notion that the troops have left behind a “sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq” has been demolished within hours after Obama uttered these words. The Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, has ordered the arrest of his Sunni vice-president, Tareq al-Hashemi for supporting “terrorist activity”. Al-Hashemi then fled to sanctuary in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in the north, an act that prompted al-Maliki to brandish threats against the Kurds as well.

As it turns out, al-Maliki’s crackdown was in part a reaction to intelligence he received from an apparently friendly government in the region. Now your first reaction would be to conclude that Iran or Syria furnished this information as part of their membership in the Shia “axis of good” network in the Middle East, the last bastion of resistance to the imperialist/Sunni cabal made up of Qatar, al-Jazeera, Saudi Arabia and the CIA. Well, it turns out that al-Maliki’s informer was none other than Libya, as the NY Times reported: “The Iraqi government said the arrests had been prompted by a tip from Libya’s transitional government that said documents revealed Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi was working with insurgents to stage a coup.”

What the fuck? I thought that the Libyan government was made up of Sunni jihadists. That’s the point made by MRZine when it published a photo showing al-Qaeda flags on a courthouse in Benghazi. Hasn’t Pepe Escobar proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the “revolution” against Qaddafi was a plot hatched by French intelligence and jihadists? All this is beginning to sound murkier than a John le Carré novel, don’t you think? And what the hell was Qaddafi doing, making alliances with Sunni insurgents who he had tortured in Libyan prisons as part of his obligations to the CIA?

Now it can turn out that all that intelligence was nothing but bullshit designed to justify al-Maliki’s crackdown. But it is not bullshit to say that the political elites in Libya are on fairly good terms now with Iraq’s:

Head of the Libyan National Transitional Council (NTC), Mahmoud Jibril, arrived on Thursday to Iraq in a short surprise visit. Jibril met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al Maliki, French Foreign Minister Hosheyar Zebari and a number of Iraqi officials. During the meeting, Maliki discussed the reconstruction of Iraq, a source told Alsumaria.

Jibril stated that he agreed with Maliki to exchange ambassadors between both countries as soon as possible and benefit from Iraqi expertise especially in the oil sector.

Of course someone with a proper anti-imperialist training would point out that what Jibril and al-Maliki have in common is that they got where they are courtesy of American military power. What further proof can you have that someone is an agent of imperialism if Cruise missiles were pointed in the direction of their enemies?

Things get a bit more complicated, however, when you consider that al-Maliki has also targeted the MEK camp in Iraq, a presence that the government Iran considers deeply inimical to its own security.  We are obviously compelled to support al-Maliki in this initiative considering what Rostam Pourzal told MRZine readers in 2006:

In Iran, where the militia has been known since its inception in 1965 as Mojahedin, or jihadists, MEK lost all credibility after it became a proxy of Iran’s archenemy, Saddam Hussein, in 1986.  Anne Singleton, a former insider and now an advocate for penitent MEK activists in Europe, has labeled the militia “Saddam’s private army” in her book-length memoirs by the same title.

A day before the Berkeley forum took place, the far-right daily Washington Times was busy promoting MEK’s annual convention in the US capital.  Perhaps you remember a similar cozy relationship the Moonie newspaper had with Nicaragua’s Contra mercenaries and with UNITA, the rebel army that terrorized Namibia on behalf of the Reagan Administration and apartheid South Africa.  A Reagan-era Pentagon official and leading architect of the Iraq invasion, Richard Perle, was the keynote speaker at MEK’s 2004 convention.

And, of course, any anti-imperialist worth his or her salt would have to back al-Maliki’s crackdown on a friend of the Baathist Party in light of the fact that Richard Perle spoke at their convention.  To really succeed in this brand of politics, it is necessary to put a minus where someone like Perle puts a plus. And for those stodgy old Marxists hung-up on dialectical contradictions, the only advice is to wise up and get with the program.

Now it is a possibility that the left makes a mistake by thinking in these terms, I am afraid. I have vivid recollections of those arguments made on behalf of the Sunni guerrillas some years ago, when the slogan “support the resistance” became a kind of litmus test.

In 2005, ISO’er Sharon Smith wrote an article titled “The Right to Resist Occupation” that claimed:

SUPPORT FOR the right of Iraqis to resist occupation must extend beyond an abstract principle for the U.S. antiwar movement.

While recognizing “the right of the Iraqi people to resist as a point of principle,” Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies–in widely circulated notes for a speech to the steering committee of United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) on December 18–argued, “We should not call for ‘supporting the resistance’ because we don’t know who most of them are and what they really stand for, and because of those we do know, we mostly don’t support their social program beyond opposition to the occupation.”

To be meaningful, however, supporting the “right to resist” must include support for that resistance once it actually emerges.

To be fair to the ISO, they were not half as bad as someone like George Galloway who in his debate with Christopher Hitchens described the Sunni guerrillas as some of the greatest patriots since the days of the heroic NLF.

Unfortunately, nobody on the left could have guessed how willing the Sunni fighters would have been to cut their own deals with imperialism in a pacified Anbar Province:

Much of the local population here has always wanted the US to give them handouts, but it’s different now, American officials say. Over the past few years, the strategy here was to clear an area of danger and then swoop down with reconstruction projects in an attempt to win over the populace. That was because Anbar was still dangerous, still peppered with Al Qaeda and other Sunni extremists. The US would see a project finished, only to be destroyed.

Now, say Marine officials, they’ll only spend money on a project that tribal sheikhs want only if those sheikhs get buy-in from the local and provincial governments that will ultimately own and maintain it.

“We don’t want this to be about us spending American money for the sheikhs,” says Brig. Gen. John Allen, who oversees political and economic reconstruction for Multi-National Forces-West. “We want this to be about American money that makes a difference in bringing government along and making the sheikhs part of the government.”

In other words, the Sunni resistance melted away as soon as the imperialist pocketbook opened up.

Back in the 1960s, the SWP resisted every effort made by SDS or independent leftists to make slogans like “Support the NLF” part of a mass mobilization. Primarily, the thinking was that anything that kept Americans from participating on the basis, for example, that the NLF was trying to kill their draftee son, was objectively against the interests of the NLF. A demonstration of 200,000 under the banner of “Out Now” was far more effective than one of 20,000 around the slogan “Victory to the NLF”. When you stop and think about it, such a slogan made little sense since it was not directed against the American government. It functioned more as an emotional expression of how you felt about imperialism—clearly understandable given the tenor of the times. Surely we should be capable of more nuanced thinking nowadays.

Returning to the original question posed by Vijay, maybe the best way to look at things is not from the perspective of “dumb” or “intelligent”. Looking at how things turned out in retrospect, they certainly seem dumb. Iraq appears destined to be as close to Iran as the U.S. is with Britain. A war against Iran likely will spark economic and military retaliation by the Shia states.

If you think, however, in terms of how Wall Street operates, the foreign policy calculations of Washington make a little bit more sense. Did Jon Corzine make a dumb decision when he bet that the EU would be forced to back up the government bonds of a Greece or a Spain? If he were correct, then MF Global would have been catapulted to the ranks of a junior Goldman-Sachs. If he weren’t, then the worst outcome would have been MF Global coming to an ignominious end. That would have not gotten in the way, however, of Corzine getting his golden parachute worth $12 million (even though he would have been last on line getting paid by the defunct hedge fund.)

Imperialist foreign policy is the same kind of high stakes casino as well but one that allows you to hedge your bets. You seed the Egyptian army with billions of dollars while simultaneously funding some of the activists who organized the Tahrir Square protests through the NED and Soro-type NGO’s. You back Qaddafi until the signs become abundantly clear that the movement against him has achieved the critical mass necessary to topple him, just as the case with al-Assad.

The only way to throw a monkey wrench in this kind of operation is to build our own movement globally that seeks to promote working class and revolutionary oppositions that cannot be so easily bought off. That requires breaking with bourgeois oppositions to imperialism, even as we organize to defend their countries from imperialist attack. As daunting a task as this might seem today, it is the only intelligent course of action open to those who want to live in a world of peace and plenty, namely the 99 percent globally.


  1. We should never have gone into Iraq, the first gulf war or in 2003.

    Too many American casualties and for what, no WMD.

    As in mistake like Vietnam.

    But of course Obama with his ego has to take the credit for the exit strategy and photo-op and puts out the propaganda that Iraq is now a sovereign nation and everything is fine and dandy.

    No it’s more complicated than that.

    Very complicated. We need to stay out of these countries with their civil wars, internal uprisings and conflicts.

    Countries in turmoil will rise to the occasion, like Egypt and Libya.

    We must stop the overbearing and police state imperialism with our occupation and military actions against certain nations and territories in the world that are unwanted and not popular with many Americans.

    The imperialism must stop and the power must be of the people.

    Comment by Deborah Jeffries — December 28, 2011 @ 5:10 am

  2. Unlike Louis and some others on Marxmail, I think the ISO was essentially correct about this argument. We can nit-pick about whether the argument was always phrased in precisely the correct way, but the important issue is the core principles involved and the context of the argument. A few things deserve to be said.

    First of all, the ISO– and others, notably Tariq Ali and Arundhati Roy, did not choose to create a debate over the issue of the Iraqi resistance. This debate was forced by liberals in UFPJ and elsewhere, who en masse used the question of resistance to the American occupation as the pivot upon which to abandon the slogan, “Troops Out Now,” and thus cease opposing the war. This context is very important to understand and judge an article like Sharon Smith’s. It is something Louis never gave proper attention to. The liberals’ argument was that the politics of the resistance was so awful (and often: so awful because so Muslim) that it made a continued US presence the lesser evil. Absorbing the media’s relentless demonization of the Iraqi resistance, the liberals made this argument the pivot upon which to backslide on the slogan of immediate withdrawal. This history can be easily documented in the history of UFPJ, arguments in The Nation, and many other places. Eventually and tragically, of course, the liberals *did* abandon the position of immediate withdrawal, and the far left was not in strong enough a position nationally to stop this betrayal from destroying the movement.

    Given this context, the ISO, Tariq Ali, Arundahti Roy, and others tried to hit back by affirming the classical Marxist position on resistance to imperialist wars— ie. “critical but unconditional support.” What does this mean? It means that while we can and should be critical of the strategy, tactics, and politics of those genuinely resisting imperialist occupation, political conditions should not be placed on our support for it. To put it crudely: we should not make our disagreement with the confused ideas in the resistance fighter’s mind the basis on which to withhold our support for his or her objectively effective effort to drive the imperialist aggressor out. Self-determination, not political agreement, is the overriding concern for those of us whose state is doing the occupying and mass murdering.

    Obviously in Iraq, this question got progressively more complicated as sectarian violence, directly and indirectly encouraged by the US, overcame the country. The ISO and others tried their best to document this tragic, bloody process. However, the ISO never made support for the resistance a “litmus test” for the antiwar movement— this is simply a distortion of reality. It was in no position to do so, and did not attempt to do so: the primary argument was over trying to maintain the slogan, “troops out now” as the unifying, united front message when the entire leadership of the movement was abandoning this position with the excuse that the resistance were Islamic barbarians, etc and so better the US try to find a way a constructive way to fix things. “Troops Out Now” became “War now, peace later.”

    Many who demonized the Iraqi resistance did so by romanticizing the NLF. As a side note, it should be remembered that for all of the NLF’s heroism, they executed Trotskyists and other dissidents. This is something that critical Marxists, including the ISOs forerunners in the US and UK, pointed out very early during the American war in Vietnam. Against others on the far left at the time, “critical but unconditional” was also the correct slogan then.

    Comment by Andrew — December 28, 2011 @ 10:31 am

  3. One final point: a conjuctural polemic waged in a socialist newspaper should never be mechanically transposed into a slogan for a demonstration or a formal united front position for a movement. This seems like a fairly obvious point, and certainly it was for socialists actively building the antiwar movement. I think Louis’ default attitude of skepticism toward the ISO has gotten the best of him here.

    Comment by Andrew — December 28, 2011 @ 11:34 am

  4. I think Louis is confusing the tasks of the working classes of the imperialist attacked countries with that of his own. “Breaking with bourgeoisie oppositions to Imperialism” is up to them, not us. Until then, supporting the right to self determination and to resist occupation (regardless of political leadership) seems like an ABC of Marxism to me.

    I agree with Andrew, you may nitpick the language of the ISO, but what they say is essentially correct. Are leftists in the west supposed to wait until a healthy strong working class tendency exist in these countries till we support the right to resist? Where does that leave us with Hamas in Gaza, or Hezbollah in Lebanon? I consider the fighters of the latter to be quite “heroic” and worthy of my support in their struggle against Israel, despite their reactionary politics at home. Shall I withhold that since they may, at some point in the future, make a deal with imperialism? I suspect that the political breathing room for an independent working class movement in a country like Lebanon is quite small. Moreover, to the extent that such a tendency exists, I imagine that they must also ‘support’ Hezbollah’s right to resist the occupation and defend against Israeli attacks. Until they have guns of their own, what option do they have? In my opinion, this is the very same political line that As’ad Abukhalil walks on his blog.

    The idea of a global working class movement sounds very romantic, but I think a prerequisite for that is a local and national working class movement.

    Comment by Beesat — December 28, 2011 @ 4:12 pm

  5. We should rename our country the Empire of America.

    Comment by Deborah Jeffries — December 28, 2011 @ 5:31 pm

  6. Speaking of convoluted alliances: “Afghan President Karzai backs Taliban Qatar office plan”, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-16342640

    Comment by Matt — December 28, 2011 @ 5:37 pm

  7. If it were not for the Iraqi resistance, the US would already have attacked Iran.

    Comment by purple — December 28, 2011 @ 7:19 pm

  8. If it were not for the Iraqi resistance, the US would already have attacked Iran.

    Who knows. In any case,there is a terrible problem of Shia-Sunni conflict in the Middle East. As long as you have “anti-imperialist movements” setting off car bombs at Shia mosques, something more is required.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 28, 2011 @ 7:23 pm

  9. One could say the same thing about the IRA . Still there was plenty of resistance in N Ireland out of the IRA that was directed against military targets and was not sectarian.

    Comment by purple — December 28, 2011 @ 8:00 pm

  10. @Andrew

    A minor quibble, while i think all your analysis is right on the mark i’d disagree with you about louis and the ISO. If you read through his older posts Louis has often said the ISO is one of the few groups really trying to cross sectarian divisions and build a wider marxist movement. To the extent he’s disagreed with them (see his posts dealing with party building and “Respect” in the UK) these have been disagreements around particular tactics and were meant as helpful critiques, they weren’t part of a default skepticism towards the ISO.

    Comment by Michael — December 29, 2011 @ 6:30 pm

  11. And what makes me blood boiling mad is that our government wants to right every wrong and police the world to try to make every nation a capitalist democracy.

    This is not a democracy with a flawed election system (outdated electoral college), propaganda media reports (like how the economy is recovering so Obama looks good), military oppression and of course the class struggle.

    The government has too much military influence globally ESPECIALLY in the middle east.

    Should be focusing on the economy that’s still a wreck despite the lies saying we’re in recovery conveniently put out by the media to influence people to vote for Obama.

    Comment by Deborah Jeffries — December 31, 2011 @ 3:34 am

  12. This is a thorny problem, one that recurs again and again. Algeria and the FLN, Vietnam and NLF, Iraq and the Sunni and Shia resistance. Algeria may be the most apt comparison in this instance. As recognized by Guerin, the autocratic nature of the post-independence Algeria state was prefigured in the social relations that emerged during the French imperial presence. Hence, there was a need for the Algerians to recover their sovereignty as a precondition for a possible broader social transformation. Guerin, and many others on the French left like him, understood the first aspect of the situation, but failed to find a way to maintain a critical stance in support of a socialist transformation of the country.

    So, in this respect, it was always off key to say “Support for the FLN”, or, in relation to Vietnam, “Support for the NLF”, because it confused the right of the oppressed people to fight for their autonomy with the future social order contemplated by those militarily in control of the resistance. Camus, for all of his eurocentrism, was essentially correct when he condemned the nihilistic brutality of the FLN when it arbitrarily killed pied noirs and Algerians, even if he failed to fully acknowledge the colonialism of his own community. What sort of democratic, autonomous social order can be based upon such such mass violence? Through such practices, the FLN, like many in the Iraqi resistance, mirrored the trend among nation states towards warfare inflicted more and more upon the populace instead of upon the combatants. The methods by which liberation is achieved do matter, as those empowered by the use of violence tend to impose an indigenous autocracy as a substitute for an imperial one, one that, paradoxically often reaches an accommodation with the departing empire, whether French, British or American, to tighten their control. One can retrospectively interpret Pontecorvo’s “The Battle of Algiers” in this light.

    In Iraq, the consequence, beyond the deaths and injuries, was the segregation of Sunni and Shia in separate neighborhoods. Such an outcome is entirely consistent with the US imperial practice of maintaining hegemony by inflaming local conflicts based upon ethnic and/or class status. Beyond the fact that such sectarian cleansing is morally reprehensible, it also played into the hands of the occupier and is therefore subject to condemnation for this reason as well. Indeed, one can argue that this cleansing is more worthy of left criticism than the mercenary behavior highlighted by Louis.

    One of the problems here is the tendency by some to see indigenous resistance to the US in terms of a binary opposition, with the resistance having a social and cultural identity predominately separate from the one associated with the occupation (as we have seen in relation to those who align themselves with Iran). In fact, as Guerin recognized in regard to Algeria, the Iraqi resistance has been shaped by local, regional and international features. In this respect, “Out Now” is closer to an appropriate left response to situations like Iraq, because, while centered around anti-imperialist opposition to occupation, it preserves political room for maneuver as to the nature of post-liberation society. Or, to put it slightly differently, it emphasizes opposition to to occupation as being part of a broader social, cultural and political field beyond the politically recognized combatants. The problem, of course, is that “Out Now” can easily be appropriated to serve the purposes of libertarian, capitalist anti-imperialist types who are all too happy to see the troops pulled out while the people are left prostrate before finance capital.

    Comment by Richard Estes — December 31, 2011 @ 7:09 am

  13. > The problem, of course, is that “Out Now” can easily be appropriated to serve the purposes of libertarian, capitalist anti-imperialist types who are all too happy to see the troops pulled out while the people are left prostrate before finance capital.

    Although I have a lot of major differences with Right-wing libertarians, I don’t think that your statement does justice to them. If anything, libertarians tend to be more often obsessed with conspiracy theories which place finance capital at the heart of darkness. A central tenet of libertarianism is that there is no such issue as “the decline in the rate of profit” caused by “overproduction” and a rise in labor-efficiency. Everything can be handled by simply removing the hand of big government and allowing the free market to work its magic. Because reality is so drastically different, libertarians are forced to resort to conspiracy-mongering as a way of explaining the apparent failure of capitalism to do what it is supposed to do. Virtually every type of conspiracy theory along these lines always turns to finance capital as the mega-headquarters of something akin to The Learned Elders of Zion.

    That has some logic to it insofar as there is a clearly documentable tendency for capital in crisis to shift towards finance and away from industry. More to the point, the trend runs from production industries to consumer services to financial investments. When the economy becomes saturated with automobile production, the first shift is to go from opening new factories (production) to opening automobile repair shops (service). When it becomes obvious that the economy is overloaded with car repair shops, then people with money simply go to the bank and seek an investment advisor who can help them invest the money without opening any new business themselves. When this trend goes too far then the crisis of overproduction becomes apparent and profits can no longer be sustained for investments which don’t add to the goods and services on the consumer market. It is therefore logical that crises highlight the role of finance capital.

    Libertarian ideologues tend to divorce this latter stage from the process of overproduction of capital in general. For this reason the libertarian analysis is not a serious diagnosis of anything. But to be fair, I can’t really envision most libertarians as “happy to see … the people … left prostrate before finance capital.” They are more likely to assert that if only we could defeat the nefarious conspiracy which led to the creation of the Federal Reserve, then capitalism would be hunky-dory all over again (just like it used to be in the 19th century). That’s a gross distortion of both economics and history, but it still is different from what you’ve suggested.

    Comment by PatrickSMcNally — December 31, 2011 @ 8:06 pm

  14. Again, arguments are presented as if they are floating above class forces and influencing politics independently of material factors. UFPJ liberals did not retreat from “out now” because they had bad arguments or ideas about the Iraqi resistance but because they did not want an all-out defeat for the U.S. via Viet Nam-style mass mobilizations because such mobilizations would have to tap into the social power of the working class in order to succeed. By the late 60s/early 70s this is exactly what happened in the military itself with the revolt of the rank and file against the war and the officers, in addition to the student strikes and unbelievably huge and numerous protests that shook the country.

    That was not a road UFPJ was prepared to go down and had nothing to do with either the character of the Iraqi resistance or UFPJ’s reaction to it.

    Where the ISO got into trouble was the way we responded to UFPJ’s increasingly conservative political practice. We located this phenomenon in an argument about the resistance rather than in real, material forces, namely, the shift in mass consciousness to the right (or maybe de-radicalization would be a better way to describe it) after the Iraq anti-war movement was defeated when the U.S. invaded in spite of the largest and most widespread protests since the Viet Nam era. After that, the flood of protests dried up; the lesson people drew on a mass scale was “protest doesn’t matter.” No amount of political argument about the resistance could change that feeling, that mass sentiment. It was like taking a small chisel and hammer and trying to take down down the Empire State Building.

    The reason Louis and many others remember the “right to resist” thing as an “ISO litmus test” is because this theme animated the ISO’s anti-war work to extreme and excessive levels. (Probably it was a very nasty case of stick-bending.) This overemphasis paved the way for an ISO speaker being physically barred from the mic at the March 19, 2005 rally in Fayetteville, North Carolina outside of Fort Bragg, damaged its relationship with Stan Goff and Lou Plummer, helped destroy Students Against the War at San Francisco State University in 2005 (see: http://news.infoshop.org/article.php?story=20050529001500670 and http://news.infoshop.org/article.php?story=20050531124816353 on that disaster), and played a part in the NYC district organizer’s decision to leave the group in 2006 after a decade or more of service.

    The point here is that this overemphasis did a lot more harm than good in practical terms.

    Comment by Binh — January 3, 2012 @ 9:05 pm

  15. Looking back on the Iraq War, I find that sometimes I get the right answers:


    Yeah, shameless horn tooting. My excuse for posting this here is that I did read Marx to get the hints I needed to guess (in 2004) what effect the Iraq War might have on Americans (in 2011).

    That was also the time when I became aware of Louis Proyect’s writing.

    Comment by manuelgarciajr — January 5, 2012 @ 3:31 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: