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February 1999 (Volume 50, Number 9)

» Notes from the Editors
February 1999 (Volume 50, Number 9)

Back in December, while the January issue was going to press, the U.S. and Britain were bombing Iraq, and Congress was impeaching Bill Clinton. Our publication schedule spares us the temptation to say the first thing that comes into our heads when a major news story breaks. But sober reflection hasn’t changed our first reaction: if Clinton were being impeached for bombing Iraq, it wouldn’t be hard to support his removal from office—though if all U.S. presidents were fired for their imperialist adventures, impeachment would now be as normal and regular a political event as election.

But of course there isn’t and never was the remotest chance of impeachment for actions that are the bread and butter of U.S. foreign policy. Clinton’s harshest critics on the right are likely, in normal circumstances, to attack him for being too soft on Saddam Hussein (“too little too late,” wrote a major right-wing columnist about the bombing), and it’s hard to imagine a Republican President, especially one in the mold of today’s Republican right, being more reluctant to kill Iraqi civilians.

That’s why it’s pointless to speculate about Clinton’s personal motives for launching this attack. No one can rule out the possibility that the timing was determined by the impeachment proceedings, but to focus on that possibility trivializes the issue. It’s not as if Clinton’s actions are idiosyncratic or in any way inconsistent with policies pursued by previous U.S. administrations, without the same personal incentives. If we want to understand what this is all about, we won’t get anywhere just by ascribing it to the travails of William Jefferson Clinton.

At the same time, U.S. policy in Iraq, now and before, on the face of it seems pretty close to insane. Let’s, for the sake of argument, look at it on its own terms for a minute. Few serious analysts, even many who have no principled objection to U.S. imperialism, believe that actions of this kind will succeed in their avowed purposes, and a great many have questioned the effectiveness of sanctions which have caused untold damage to innocent civilians but have had no discernible effect on Saddam’s power.

Let’s, then, assume—and it’s probably true—that getting rid of Saddam has never been the objective. Even the “Desert Storm” unleashed by George Bush, a far more devastating war than Clinton’s “Desert Fox” (what bright spark dreamed that one up, by the way? Naming their attack after a Nazi general??) left him in place. It almost certainly was meant to do so, on the calculation that any likely outcome of his removal—the possible break-up of Iraq, the destabilization of the Gulf, the strengthening of Shi’ite forces against the minority Sunni elite—would be worse for U.S. interests than the devil they know (the devil they effectively created in the first place). But the effect of U.S. policies is more likely to be the strengthening of Islamic “fundamentalism,” as people in the region turn to the one force most consistently opposed to U.S. imperialism.

So, what U.S. interests are being served? Some analysts say that sections of capital don’t want Iraqi oil production to drive prices down even further, at a time when the Asian and Russian crises have battered Western commodity producers. But this somehow doesn’t quite make it as an explanation for the more or less consistent pattern of U.S. policy in the Gulf and especially for these horrendous displays of military force.

There’s nothing new, of course, about the use of military force by the U.S. to achieve not military but political objectives. It has often been said that the objectives of all imperialist wars waged by the U.S. since the end of World War II, from Korea to the Gulf, have been more political than military. The perpetrators of these wars have always known that the outcome wouldn’t be outright military victory, but they have nonetheless regarded military action as a means of achieving some other, political goal, the “containment” of external enemies or of internal opposition, or even the narrower political objectives of electoral advantage through displays of “toughness.”

But to say this isn’t enough. Why on earth does the U.S. continue to embark on military actions—such as the ones against Iraq—which have little chance of achieving their avowed political purpose? How can we explain the U.S. determination to go down this road apparently regardless of the consequences and even in the face of opposition from its allies? In large part, it comes down to one theme that has run through U.S. foreign policy for a very long time. Whether the avowed political aim has been “containment” of Communism or of Saddam Hussein, an over-riding objective has been the naked display of imperial power for its own sake, just to show who’s boss. Unless we simply dismiss it all as insanity, in the final analysis we can only say that U.S. imperial hegemony can’t now rely, if it ever could, on economic superiority alone, and that it depends on periodic displays of sheer force. It hardly matters where or for what ostensible purpose, though it helps if the target is non-European or non-white.

We can’t, then, reduce this latest display of imperial power to Clinton’s fight against impeachment. But other connections between these two events there certainly are. In both cases, the larger context is the end of the Cold War. In the same way that the Communist “threat” has been replaced by other external enemies, domestic political conflict has also found a new form, what some call a culture war, and the forces of reaction have transferred their old anti-communism to a new internal enemy.

Some people argue that Clinton has become the main target of this new cold war because, for the Republican right, he embodies the “counterculture” of the sixties. If Clinton can inspire such hatred in his adversaries on those grounds, even though his policies on so many social and economic issues are scarcely distinguishable from theirs, this very fact speaks volumes about the displacement and degradation of political debate in the U.S. The focus on so-called moral and cultural issues has, at the very least, diverted political attention away from all the country’s deepest problems. For some, this political diversion no doubt reflects real convictions, but typically, it’s a simple matter of winning elections, in a contest between two parties with few real ideological differences—though if the polls are to be believed, the attractions of this party-political strategy may be wearing a bit thin.

There may be another factor too. Eric Foner, commenting on the impeachment and the political realignment that has created the new Republican right, has recently pointed out (he was quoted in the New York Times, as we recall) that it reflects a divide not so much between North and South as between the cities of the Northeast and Midwest and the suburbs of the South and West where the Republican right is mainly based. Well, we know that this shift coincides with a movement of capital investment from the old industrial centers of the rustbelt to the new industries of the South and West. And we also know that, especially in the South, historic grievances and old cultural traditions have been readily appropriated to the new cold war. Now if we keep in mind one of the major functions of earlier Cold War ideologies in deflecting working class opposition to capital, the new moral and cultural crusade, with its racist overtones, seems well adapted to play an analogous role in the newer centers of U.S. capitalism, with their low level of labor organization and a particularly powerful capitalist interest in dividing white from black and Hispanic workers.

In any case, as we follow the impeachment saga, it’s hard to ignore the evidence of what, failing a better term, can be called a right-wing conspiracy. Nor can we dismiss the fact that Clinton’s strongest supporters have been African Americans and other minorities. Watching the spectacle on TV was not a particularly productive or edifying way of spending time, but it did dramatically bring home the difference in the social composition of the two sides, the ethnic, racial, and sexual diversity of one side standing in stark contrast to its monochrome adversary.

That alone, even without other considerations, makes it hard for many on the left to be indifferent to the outcome of this sorry impeachment business. At the same time, it really is a tragic testimony to the degradation of U.S. politics that minorities—and, on the whole, organized labor—feel compelled to turn to someone like Clinton for lack of something better. It’s no less tragic that some of the more progressive political leaders—including some who in other circumstances would oppose, and have opposed, imperialist adventures—apparently out of loyalty in the impeachment battle supported Clinton’s latest crime in Iraq.

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