A lost war?
By Robert Jensen
Published in The Hindu · December, 2004
The United States has lost the war in Iraq, and that’s a good thing.
By that I don’t mean that the loss of American and Iraqi lives is to be celebrated. The death and destruction are numbingly tragic, and the suffering in Iraq is hard for most of us in the United States to comprehend. The tragedy is compounded because these deaths haven’t protected Americans or brought freedom to Iraqis — they have come in the quest to extend the American empire in this so-called “new American century,” as some right-wing ideologues have named our future.
So, as a U.S. citizen, I welcome the U.S. defeat, for a simple reason: It isn’t the defeat of the United States — its people or their ideals — but of that empire. And it’s essential the American empire be defeated and dismantled.
Making that statement in the United States, as I often have done over the past year, guarantees that one will be attacked as a traitor by those on the center and the right; in their world, to oppose any U.S. military action is by definition treason because, in their world, the U.S. military is always on the side of truth, freedom, justice and democracy. These people condemn me, in the words of one who wrote to berate me, for engaging in “constant introspection of what you think are the flaws in America.” For these people, whatever potential flaws there are in U.S. society or politics are so minor as to be meaningless, hence any critical moral assessment is wasted energy. Better to move forward boldly, they argue, lauding George W. Bush for exactly that.
But stating that level of intensity of opposition to the U.S. assault on Iraq also opens one up to criticism from many liberals who complain that such remarks are callous; I’ve been scolded for not taking into consideration the feelings of Americans whose friends and loved ones serving in the military are at risk in Iraq. Other liberals have argued that such blunt talk is ill-advised on strategic grounds; it will alienate the vast majority of Americans who reflexively support the U.S. military for emotional reasons.
But now is precisely the time to make these kinds of blunt statements. The 2004 elections made it clear just how marginal the anti-empire/global-justice movement in the United States is at this moment in history. There is no hope of success in watering down a message in a vain quest to accommodate the maximal number of people for a short-term campaign; that kind of attempt in the run-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq failed.
Although the worldwide turnout for the mass demonstrations on Feb. 15, 2003, was inspiring, we shouldn’t delude ourselves about the composition of the crowds in the United States. Many of those anti-war demonstrators were motivated by simple hatred of the Bush administration; if it had been a Democratic president taking us to war, those folks likely would have stayed home. Another segment of demonstrators was there not through the long-term work of organizing and public education, but because of a rejection of the Bush ideologues that was based more in a visceral fear than in analysis; without a connection to a movement, they disappeared from public protest once the bombs started falling. In my estimation, at best only a third of the people who participated in that mass mobilization had any meaningful connection to an anti-empire/global-justice movement that looked beyond the moment.
So, there is no short-term strategy for victory that makes any sense if one takes seriously a left, anti-authoritarian political project. That doesn’t mean there is no hope for left politics in the United States, but only that we have to avoid naiveté and wishful thinking: We are in a period of movement building — trying to identify a core group, radicalize and clarify the analysis, and begin the process of finding ways to speak to a broader public that is (1) intensely propagandized through a highly ideological news media to accept hyperpatriotic politics, and at the same time (2) encouraged to be politically passive and disengaged from meaningful participation. That kind of change can’t happen overnight. We are faced with the task of literally rebuilding U.S. politics.
This isn’t an argument for self-indulgent ideological purity or dogmatism; in fact, just the reverse. It’s an argument for carefully assessing where we are — both in terms of the state of the power of the empire worldwide and of domestic U.S. politics — and charting a path that can do more than put forward an argument for a softer-and-gentler empire, a la John Kerry and the mainstream Democrats. That project, we can hope, is dead forever (though many Democrats hold onto the notion they can ride it back to power).
What is the message that the U.S. left needs to refine? We have to find a way to explain to people that the fact the Bush administration says we are fighting for freedom and democracy (having long ago abandoned fictions about weapons of mass destruction and terrorist ties) does not make it so. We must help U.S. citizens look at the reality, no matter how painful. Iraq is the place to start to explain how this contemporary empire works.
The people of Iraq are no doubt better off without Saddam Hussein’s despised regime, but that does not prove our benevolent intentions nor guarantee the United States will work to bring meaningful democracy to Iraq. Throughout history, our support for democracies has depended on their support for U.S. policy. When democratic governments follow an independent course, they typically end up as targets of U.S. power, military or economic. Ask Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez or Haiti’s Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
In Iraq, the Bush administration invaded not to liberate but to extend and deepen U.S. domination. When Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld says the Iraq war “has nothing to do with oil — literally nothing to do with it,” he is telling a complete lie. But when Bush says, “We have no territorial ambitions; we don’t seek an empire,” he is telling a half-truth. The United States doesn’t want to absorb Iraq nor take direct possession of its oil. That’s not the way of empire today — it’s about control over the flow of oil and oil profits, not ownership. Vice President Dick Cheney hit on the truth when in 1990 (serving then as secretary of defense) he told the Senate Armed Services Committee: “Whoever controls the flow of Persian Gulf oil has a stranglehold not only on our economy but also on the other countries of the world as well.”
So, in a world that runs on oil, the nation that controls the flow of oil has great strategic power. U.S. policymakers want leverage over the economies of competitors — Western Europe, Japan and China — which are more dependent on Middle Eastern oil. Hence the longstanding U.S. policy of support for reactionary regimes (Saudi Arabia), dictatorships (Iran under the Shah) and regional military surrogates (Israel), aimed at maintaining control.
The Bush administration has invested money and lives in making Iraq a platform from which the United States can project power — from permanent U.S. bases, officials hope. That requires not the liberation of Iraq, but its subordination. But most Iraqis don’t want to be subordinated, which is why the United States in some sense lost the war on the day it invaded; one lesson of post-World War II history is that occupying armies generate resistance that, inevitably, prevails over imperial power.
Most Iraqis are glad Hussein is gone, and most want the United States gone. When we admit defeat and pull out — not if, but when — the fate of Iraqis depends in part on whether the United States (1) makes good on legal and moral obligations to pay reparations, and (2) allows international institutions to aid in creating a truly sovereign Iraq. We shouldn’t expect politicians to do either without pressure. An anti-empire movement — the joining of antiwar forces with the movement to reject corporate globalization — must help create that pressure. Failure will add to the suffering in Iraq and more clearly mark the United States as a rogue state and an impediment to a just and peaceful world.
So, I talk openly in public about why I’m glad for the U.S. military defeat in Iraq, but with no joy in my heart. We should all carry a profound sense of sadness at where decisions made by U.S. policymakers — not just the gang in power today but a string of Republican and Democratic administrations — have left us, the Iraqis and the world. But that sadness should not keep Americans from pursuing the most courageous act of citizenship in the United States today: Pledging to dismantle the American empire.
Here is what U.S. citizens have to come to terms with if the planet is to survive: The planet’s resources do not belong to the United States. The century is not America’s. We own neither the world nor time. And if we don’t give up the quest — if we don’t find our place in the world instead of on top of the world — there is little hope for a safe, sane, and sustainable future.