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U.S. Imperial Ambitions and Iraq

Officially Washington’s current policy toward Iraq is to bring about a “regime change”—either through a military coup, or by means of a U.S. invasion, justified as a “preemptive attack” against a rogue state bent on developing and deploying weapons of mass destruction.* But a U.S. invasion, should it take place, would not confine its objectives to mere regime change in Baghdad. The larger goal would be nothing less than the global projection of U.S. power through assertion of American dominance over the entire Middle East. What the world is now facing therefore is the prospect of a major new development in the history of imperialism.

The imperialism of today is definitely not the same as that of the late nineteenth century. In the early days of the modern era of imperialism, several powers—notably Germany, Japan, and the United States—came on the scene to challenge Britain’s hegemony in various parts of the globe. There were a number of notable features of imperialism during this period: the scramble among the European powers to divide up Africa; heightened competition in Europe for each other’s markets; the growing German challenge to London as the core of the international money market. At the same time, the United States was attempting to enter the competition for markets in Europe and was developing its own colonies and spheres of influence in Latin America and Asia. The primary causes of the First World War included both the bitter competition among the great powers for colonies and markets and the German attempt to eliminate Britain as the center of international money and commodity markets.

The period after the First World War represented a second phase of modern imperialism. The Treaty of Versailles was a process of the winners dividing the gains, with a unitary goal—the defeat of Bolshevism. Thorstein Veblen wrote that wiping Bolshevism off the map was not simply a secret clause in the Treaty of Versailles, it was the very “parchment” of the Treaty (Essays in Our Changing Order, 1934, p. 464). However, the plan to isolate and bring down the Soviet Union was interrupted by the Great Depression and by the Second World War, which developed out of the struggles of the axis powers, Germany, Italy, and Japan, to carve out larger spaces within the world system.

A third phase of imperialism emerged after the Second World War. During the war, the United States, as the new hegemonic state within the capitalist world, had developed a plan for gaining control of what it considered to be the strategic centers of the world economy—an ambition that was then only limited by the existence of the Soviet sphere of influence. Writing in this space in November 1981, Noam Chomsky described the formation of U.S. geopolitical strategy in this period as follows:

The general framework of thinking within which American foreign policy has evolved since the Second World War is best described in the planning documents produced during that war by the State Department planners and the Council for Foreign Relations who met for a six-year period in the War and Peace Studies Program, 1939–45. They knew, certainly by 1941–42, that the war was going to end with the United States in a position of enormous global dominance. The question arose: “How do we organize the world?”

They drew up a concept known as Grand Area Planning, where the Grand Area is defined as the area which, in their terms, was “strategically necessary for world control.” The geopolitical analysis behind it attempted to work out which areas of the world have to be “open”—open to investment, open to the repatriation of profits. Open, that is, to domination by the United States.

In order for the United States economy to prosper without internal changes (a crucial point which comes through in all of the discussions in this period), without any redistribution of income or power or modification of structures, the War and Peace Program determined that the minimum area strategically necessary for world control included the entire Western hemisphere, the former British empire which they were in the process of dismantling, and the Far East. That was the minimum, and the maximum was the universe.

Somewhere between the two came the concept of the Grand Area—and the task of how to organize it in terms of financial institutions and planning. This is the framework that remained constant throughout the postwar period.

The liberation of Europe’s colonies and the defeat of Japan’s ambitions in the Pacific allowed U.S. capital, backed up by U.S. military power, to begin to penetrate markets that were previously inaccessible. While the Bretton Woods Agreement provided a new economic framework for the imperialist powers, U.S. military might and covert operations were projected around the globe with increasing frequency—wars in Korea and Vietnam, the overthrow of governments in Iran, Guatemala, and Chile, the attempted overthrow of the Cuban government, and interference in numerous civil wars in Central America and Africa.

Crucial to the whole conception of the Grand Area was control of the Middle East, which was regarded as part of the old British Empire, and absolutely essential for the economic, military, and political control of the globe—not least of all because it was the repository of most of the world’s proven oil reserves. The United States thus began a long series of overt and covert interventions in the region in the 1950s, the foremost of which was the 1953 overthrow of the democratically elected Mossadegh government in Iran, which had nationalized foreign-owned oil companies. The success of the U.S. drive was clear. Between 1940 and 1967, U.S. companies increased their control of Middle Eastern oil reserves from 10 percent to close to 60 percent while reserves under British control decreased from 72 percent in 1940 to 30 percent in 1967 (H. Magdoff, Age of Imperialism, p. 43).

The long delayed meaningful integration of Western Europe, partially caused by the effects of economic stagnation, meant that it was not able to become the bulwark against U.S. interests that European leaders had hoped. With a weak Europe and Japan unable to mount a serious challenge to U.S. interests in Asia, the defeat of actually existing socialism in Europe by the early 1990s paved the way for a renewed period of U.S. hegemony, which had partly faded in the 1970s and 1980s.

Viewed from the standpoint of the historical evolution of imperialism, it is clear that the real motive behind Washington’s current drive to start a war with Iraq is not any genuine military threat from that country, but rather the goal of demonstrating that the U.S. is now prepared to use its power at will. As Jay Bookman, deputy editorial page editor of the Atlanta-Journal Constitution observed in that paper (“The President’s Real Goal in Iraq,” September 29, 2002):

The official story on Iraq has never made sense….It [the threatened invasion of Iraq] is not about weapons of mass destruction, or terrorism, or Saddam, or UN resolutions. This war, should it come, is intended to mark the official emergence of the United States as a full-fledged global empire, seizing sole responsibility and authority as planetary policeman. It would be the culmination of a plan 10 years or more in the making, carried out by those who believe that the United States must seize the opportunity for global domination, even if it means becoming the “American imperialists” that our enemies always claimed we were….Rome did not stoop to containment; it conquered. And so should we.

The Defense of Empire

Wars of imperial expansion, however unjustifiable they may be, always demand some kind of justification. Often this has been accomplished through the doctrine of defensive war. In his 1919 essay, “The Sociology of Imperialisms,” Joseph Schumpeter wrote of Rome during its years of greatest expansion,

There was no corner of the known world where some interest was not alleged to be in danger or under actual attack. If the interests were not Roman, they were those of Rome’s allies; and if Rome had no allies, then allies would be invented. When it was utterly impossible to contrive such an interest—why, then it was the national honor that had been insulted. The fight was always invested with an aura of legality. Rome was always being attacked by evil-minded neighbors, always fighting for a breathing-space. The whole world was pervaded by a host of enemies, and it was manifestly Rome’s duty to guard against their indubitably aggressive designs.*

Of course for many (if not most) of the imperial adventures of the nineteenth century there was never much latitude for pretending that the motives were defensive. The Opium Wars were fought not against an aggressive China, but rather to impose free trade in opium. The struggle amongst the European powers to divide up Africa was not directed against a belligerent Africa but rationalized as the “white man’s burden.”

The pretense that an endless series of defensive wars was needed to check evil-minded forces bent on aggression in every corner of the known world did not die with the Roman Empire, but was part of the rationale for the expansion of British imperialism in the nineteenth century and American imperialism in the twentieth.* This same mentality pervades the new National Security Strategy of the United States, recently transmitted from the executive branch to Congress (New York Times, September 20, 2002). This document establishes three key principles of U.S. strategic policy: (1) the perpetuation of unrivaled U.S. global military dominance, so that no nation will be allowed to rival or threaten the United States; (2) U.S. readiness to engage in “preemptive” military attacks against states or forces anywhere on the globe that are considered a threat to the security of the United States, its forces and installations abroad, or its friends or allies; and (3) the immunity of U.S. citizens to prosecution by the International Criminal Court. Commenting on this new National Security Strategy, Senator Edward M. Kennedy declared that, “The administration’s doctrine is a call for 21st century American imperialism that no other nation can or should accept” (October 7, 2002).

Washington’s ambition to establish a global empire beyond anything the world has yet seen is matched only by its paranoid fear of innumerable enemies lurking in every pocket of the globe ready to threaten the security of the “homeland” itself. These external threats only serve to justify, in its eyes, the extension of U.S. power. The targeted enemies of the United States at present are conveniently located in the third world, where the possibilities for outright expansion of U.S. imperialism are greatest.

Iraq under the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein is presented as the foremost rogue state, global enemy number one. Although Iraq is not yet armed with the most feared weapons of mass destruction—nuclear weapons—it is claimed by the Bush administration that it may soon obtain them. Moreover, because of the purported utter madness of its leader, Iraq is said to be so irrational as to be immune to nuclear deterrence. As a result, there is no choice, we are told, but to strike this evil regime quickly, even before it obtains the feared weapons. The UN inspection process is largely useless at this stage, the Bush administration has insisted (though overruled in this respect by the other Security Council members). Saddam Hussein, it is contended, will always find a way to hide his most critical weapons operations somewhere in the extensive complexes dedicated to his personal security, which will not be opened fully to UN inspectors, however much Iraq may agree to unconditional inspections. There is no real choice then but “regime change” (installing a puppet regime) through exercise of force—either by military coup or invasion.

It is by instilling fear in this way in an American public already primed by the events of September 11, 2001 that the administration has sought to pull the country and the world toward war. If a U.S. president and his administration can stand up day-after-day and insist that the United States is vulnerable to an imminent attack by weapons of mass destruction (raising the question of a surprise attack involving a “mushroom cloud” even in a case where the nation concerned has no such weapons capabilities), a large part of the population is bound to be carried along. The ceaseless repetition of these dire warnings under something like the big lie principle, coupled with the echo chamber provided by the mass media, gradually wears away at popular skepticism. “If public support is weak at the outset,” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has written with respect to convincing the population to back an unpopular war, then the “U.S. leadership must be willing to invest the political capital to marshal support to sustain the effort for whatever period of time may be required” (New York Times, October 14, 2002).

So crazed have been the claims emanating from the Oval Office, in its efforts to concoct the merest shreds of a justification for an invasion, that none other than CIA Director George J. Tenet has been compelled to step out and challenge the false assertions of the president. Thus Tenet has openly contradicted the president’s claim that Iraq constitutes an immediate nuclear threat to the United States, pointing out that it would take Iraq until the second half of the decade at the very least to produce enough fissile material for a single nuclear weapon. The administration has attempted to get around the weakness of its case with respect to nuclear weapons by placing more emphasis on the chemical and biological weapons threats of Iraq. In a speech delivered in Cincinnati on October 7 the president said that Baghdad might attempt at any time to attack targets in the United States with these weapons if aided and abetted by terrorist networks in delivering the weapons to their targets. Yet the CIA, in a letter to Congress signed by Tenet that same day, contradicted such an assessment, arguing that Iraq shows no signs of developing chemical and biological weapons except for purposes of deterrence and that it could be expected to refrain from sponsoring terrorist attacks in the foreseeable future if the United States does not attack it first. “Baghdad for now appears to be drawing a line short of conducting terrorist attacks with conventional or C.B.W. [chemical and biological weapons] against the United States,” the letter read. However, “should Saddam conclude that a U.S.-led attack could no longer be deterred,” the letter continued, “he probably would become much less constrained in adopting terrorist actions” (New York Times, October 10, 2002).

The Trojan Horse

The fact is that Iraq today probably does not possess functional chemical and biological war capabilities since these were effectively destroyed during the UN inspection process in 1991–1998. Its earlier capabilities in this respect date back to the 1980s when Iraq under Saddam Hussein was an ally of the United States. During 1985–1989, overlapping with the Iran-Iraq War of 1980–1988, and after Iraq’s use of chemical weapons against Iran in 1984, U.S. companies, with the approval of the Reagan and the first Bush administrations, sent numerous fatal biological cultures, including anthrax, to Iraq. Eight shipments of cultures were approved by the Department of Commerce that were later classified by the Centers for Disease Control as having “biological warfare significance.” Altogether, Iraq received at least seventy-two shipments of clones, germs, and chemicals with chemical and biological warfare potential from the U.S. in these years.* The United States continued to ship such deadly substances to Iraq even after Iraq reportedly used chemical weapons against the Kurds in northern Iraq in 1988.

It is no secret that the United States is the country that has by far the largest weapons of mass destruction capabilities and the most advanced technology in this area. It is hardly surprising therefore that Washington is viewed by much of the world as operating with double standards, when confronting nations such as Iraq. As former chief weapons inspector for the United Nations in Iraq, Richard Butler, has pointed out: “My attempt to have Americans enter into discussions about double standards have been an abject failure—even with highly educated and engaged people. I sometimes felt I was speaking to them in Martian, so deep is their inability to understand.” In Butler’s view, “What America totally fails to understand is that their weapons of mass destruction are just as much a problem as are those of Iraq.” The view that there are “good weapons of mass destruction and bad ones” is false. As a UN arms inspector, Butler found himself confronted with this contradiction every day:

Amongst my toughest moments in Baghdad were when the Iraqis demanded that I explain why they should be hounded for their weapons of mass destruction when, just down the road, Israel was not, even though it was known to possess some 200 nuclear weapons….I confess, too, that I flinch when I hear American, British and French fulminations against weapons of mass destruction, ignoring the fact that they are proud owners of massive quantities of these weapons, unapologetically insisting that they are essential for their national security, and will remain so….This is because human beings will not swallow such unfairness (Sydney Morning Herald, October 3, 2002).

Far from consistently opposing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the United States, which has a greater vested interest in such weapons than any other country, has frequently blocked international attempts to limit them. For example in December 2001, two months after the September 11 attacks, President Bush shocked the international community by killing the proposed enforcement and verification mechanism for the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention on the spurious grounds that if biological weapons inspections were to be carried out in the United States they could threaten the technological secrets and profits of U.S. biotech companies.

Washington’s objectives in Iraq in the years following the Gulf War were inconsistent with the UN inspection and disarmament process, which was aimed at ridding that country of weapons of mass destruction. According to Scott Ritter, a former UN weapons inspector in Iraq in 1991–1998, this was evident through U.S. unilateral subversion of the inspection process.* By 1998, 90–95 percent of the proscribed weapons capacity estimated to be in Iraq was accounted for and had been destroyed as a result of the UN inspection process. The sticking point in the inspections related to the extensive set of structures devoted to Saddam Hussein’s personal security and the security of the Ba’ath Party. A procedure, known as “Modalities for Sensitive Site Inspection,” was therefore agreed upon through which four UN inspectors could enter immediately into and search those facilities. Yet, in the case of the inspection of a Ba’ath Party headquarters in Baghdad in December 1998, the United States, rather than simply allowing the UN to send in its four inspectors, acted on its own, by insisting on sending in additional intelligence officers. The goal was to penetrate Hussein’s security apparatus, unrelated to the inspection of weapons of mass destruction—and to provoke an international incident. The whole operation, according to Ritter, was directed by the U.S. National Security Council, which gave orders directly to Richard Butler, who was then the head of the UN inspection team.

Iraq protested against this gross infringement of the Modalities for Sensitive Site Inspection and the United States used this as the pretext, in Ritter’s account, for a “fabricated crisis,” ordering the UN inspectors out and two days later initiating a seventy-two-hour bombing campaign, known as Operation Desert Fox, directed at Saddam Hussein’s personal security apparatus. Intelligence on Ba’ath Party hideouts obtained through U.S. violations of the UN weapons inspection process was used to guide the bombings. After that Iraq refused to readmit inspectors to sensitive sites, objecting that these inspections were being used to spy on the Iraqi government, and the UN inspection process fell apart.

In this way, Washington effectively torpedoed the final stage of the UN inspection process and made it clear that its real goal was “regime change” rather than disarmament. It had used the inspection process as a Trojan horse in its attempts to destroy the Iraqi regime.

Oil Hegemony

Military, political, and economic aspects are intertwined in all stages of imperialism, as well as capitalism in general. However, oil is the single most important strategic factor governing U.S. ambitions in the Middle East. In addition to the profit potential of all that oil for large corporations, the fact that the United States, with about 2 percent of the known oil reserves in the world, uses 25 percent of the world’s annual output gives it an added impetus to attempt to exert control over supplies. There can be no doubt that the United States seeks to control Iraqi oil production and the second largest set of proven oil reserves in the world (next to those of Saudi Arabia), consisting of over 110 billion barrels, or 12 percent of world supply. The Middle East as a whole contains 65 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves (see map facing page 11). Of seventy-three fields discovered in Iraq so far, only about a third are producing at present. The U.S. Energy Department estimates that Iraq also has as much as 220 billion barrels in “probable and possible” reserves, making the estimated total enough to cover U.S. annual oil imports at their current levels for ninety-eight years. It is calculated that Iraq could raise its oil production from three million to six million barrels a day within seven years after the lifting of sanctions. More optimistic figures see Iraqi oil production rising to as much as ten million barrels a day.*

The U.S. Department of Energy projects that global oil demand could grow from the current 77 million barrels a day to as much as 120 million barrels a day in the next twenty years, with the sharpest increases in demand occurring in the United States and China. At present about 24 percent of U.S. oil imports come from the Middle East and this is expected to rise rapidly as alternative sources dry up. OPEC under the leadership of Saudi Arabia, however, has kept oil supplies low in order to keep prices up. Middle East oil production has stagnated over the last twenty years, with overall OPEC production capacity (despite massive reserves) lower today than in 1980 (Edward L. Morse and James Richard, “The Battle for Energy Dominance,” Foreign Affairs, March/April 2002.). For this reason the security and availability of oil supplies has become a growing issue for U.S. corporations and U.S. strategic interests. As right-wing pundit and Yale professor, Donald Kagan, has stated: “When we have economic problems, it’s been caused by disruptions in our oil supply. If we have a force in Iraq, there will be no disruption in oil supplies” (quoted in Bookman, “The President’s Real Goal in Iraq”). Already U.S. oil corporations are positioning themselves for the day when they will be able to return to Iraq and Iran. According to Robert J. Allison Jr., chairman of the Anadarko Petroleum Corporation, “We bought into Qatar and Oman to get a foothold in the Middle East….We need to position ourselves in the Middle East for when Iraq and Iran become part of the family of nations again” (New York Times, October 22, 2002).

At present the French oil giant TotalFinaElf has the largest position in Iraq, with exclusive negotiating rights to develop fields in the Majnoon and Bin Umar regions. The biggest deals after that have been expected to go to Eni in Italy, and a Russian consortium led by LukOil. If U.S. armed forces enter and establish either a puppet government or a U.S. mission, all of this is brought into question. Which country’s oil companies should we then expect to do the negotiating for new contracts—as well as obtaining a healthy share of the oil now owned by the French and other non-American companies?

However, direct U.S. access to oil and the profits of U.S. oil corporations are not enough by themselves to explain overriding U.S. interests in the Middle East. Rather the United States sees the whole region as a crucial part of its strategy of global power. The occupation of Iraq and the installation of a regime under American control would leave Iran (itself an oil power and part of Bush’s “Axis of Evil”) almost completely surrounded by U.S. military bases in Central Asia to the north, Turkey and Iraq to the west, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Oman to the south, and Pakistan and Afghanistan to the east. It would make it easier for the United States to protect planned oil pipelines extending from the Caspian Sea in Central Asia through Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Arabian Sea. It would give Washington a much more solid military base in the Middle East, where it already has tens of thousands of troops located in ten countries. It would increase U.S. leverage in relation to Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern states. It would strengthen the global superpower’s efforts to force terms favorable to Israeli expansion, and the dispossession of the Palestinians, on the entire Middle East. It would make the rising economic power of China, along with Europe and Japan, increasingly dependent on a U.S. dominated oil regime in the Middle East for their most vital energy needs. Control of oil through military force would thus translate into greater economic, political, and military power, on a global scale.

A Unipolar World

In the early 1970s, as a result of the loss of economic ground to Europe and Japan over the course of the previous quarter-century, and due to the delinking of the dollar from gold in 1971, it was widely believed that the United States was losing its position as the hegemonic capitalist power. However, in the 1990s the collapse of the Soviet Union, which left the United States as the sole superpower, and faster growth in the United States than in Europe and Japan, suddenly revealed a very different reality. The idea arose in U.S. strategic circles of an American empire beyond anything seen in the history of capitalism or of the world, a true Pax Americana. U.S. foreign policy analysts now refer to this as the rise of a “unipolar world.” The consolidation of such a unipolar world on a permanent basis has emerged as the explicit goal of the Bush administration a year after the September 11 attacks. In the words of G. John Ikenberry, professor of geopolitics at Georgetown University and a regular contributor to Foreign Affairs, published by the Council on Foreign Relations:

The new grand strategy [initiated by the Bush administration]…. begins with a fundamental commitment to maintaining a unipolar world in which the United States has no peer competitor. No coalition of great powers without the United States will be allowed to achieve hegemony. Bush made this point the centerpiece of American security policy in his West Point commencement address in June: “America has, and intends to keep, military strengths beyond challenges—thereby making the destabilizing arms races of other eras pointless, and limiting rivalries to trade and other pursuits of peace.”…The United States grew faster than the other major states during the decade [of the 1990s], it reduced military spending more slowly, and it dominated investment in the technological advancement of its forces. Today, however, the new goal is to make these advantages permanent—a fait accompli that will prompt other states to not even try to catch up. Some thinkers have described the strategy as “breakout,” in which the United States moves so quickly to develop technological advantages (in robotics, lasers, satellites, precision munitions, etc.) that no state or coalition could ever challenge it as global leader, protector and enforcer (“America’s Imperial Ambition,” Foreign Affairs, October 2002).

Such a grab for unlimited imperial dominance is bound to fail in the long run. Imperialism under capitalism has centrifugal as well as centripetal tendencies. Military dominance cannot be maintained without maintaining economic dominance as well, and the latter is inherently unstable under capitalism. The immediate reality, however, is that the United States is moving very rapidly to increase its control at the expense of both potential rivals and the global South. The likely result is an intensification of exploitation on a world scale, along with a resurgence of imperialist rivalries—since other capitalist countries will naturally seek to keep the United States from achieving its “breakout” strategy.

The goal of an expanding American empire is seen by the administration not only as a strategy for establishing the United States permanently as the world’s paramount power, but also as a way out of the nation’s economic crisis that shows no signs at present of going away. The administration clearly believes it can stimulate the economy through military spending and increased arms exports. But enhanced military spending associated with a war may also contribute to economic problems, since it will undoubtedly cut further into spending for social programs that not only help people but also create the demand for consumer goods that business needs badly to stimulate economic growth. Historically, attempts to use imperial expansion as a way around needed economic and social changes at home have nearly always failed.

In the end what it is most crucial to understand is that the new U.S. doctrine of world domination is a product not of a particular administration (much less some cabal within the administration), but rather the culmination of developments in the most recent phase of imperialism. Reversing the drive to greater empire will not be easy. But the will of the people can play a critical role in how far Washington is able to proceed with its imperial ambitions. For this reason, mobilization of the population both in the United States and abroad in a militant struggle against both war and imperialism is of the utmost importance to the future of humanity.


* Recently the Bush administration has also said that “regime change” could be stretched to include an Iraqi government under Saddam Hussein that cooperates fully with UN inspections and disarmament, in terms acceptable to the United States. But the administration has declared this to be highly improbable, and its position in this respect can thus be interpreted as part of a diplomatic-legal strategy to garner support for its threatened invasion, in the event that Iraq is declared to be non-compliant with the U.N. inspection process.

* Joseph Schumpeter, Imperialism and Social Classes, edited and introduced by Paul M. Sweezy (New York: Augustus M. Kelley, 1951), p. 66.

* Of course for many (if not most) of the imperial adventures of the nineteenth century there was never much latitude for pretending that the motives were defensive. The Opium Wars were fought not against an aggressive China, but rather to impose free trade in opium. The struggle amongst the European powers to divide up Africa was not directed against a belligerent Africa but rationalized as the “white man’s burden.”

* Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, United States Dual-Use Exports to Iraq and their Impact on the Health of the Persian Gulf War Veterans, 103rd Congress, 2nd sess., May 25, 1994, pp. 264–76; Buffalo News, September 23, 2002.

* See William Rivers Pitt with Scott Ritter, War on Iraq (New York: Context Books, 2002); Newsday, July 30, 2002; The Guardian, October 7, 2002.

* www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/cabs/iraq.html; Middle East Report, Fall 2002; San Francisco Chronicle, September 29, 2002.