48. After Iraq, who next?



Shortly after the war began we drew a balance sheet in The Socialist. We wrote that in the bloody equation of war, how it would unfold was unknowable but it did not take a military genius to conclude that the US would ‘win’ the war. Yet at what price? Even before a shot had been fired, all the hallowed institutions which underpinned the power of world capitalism lay in ruins. The UN was now an ‘irrelevancy’, according to Bush, because it did not acquiesce to the wishes of the representatives of the new ‘Empire’. The military alliance of European and US capitalism, NATO – already weakened by the demise of its ‘enemy’, the Stalinist states of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union – then appeared to be completely redundant.

The new so-called ‘democratic imperialists’, who dominated the Bush administration – Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowiz and Donald Rumsfeld – claimed the use of Iraq’s oil resources would achieve a new democratic flowering of Iraq and the rest of the Middle East. Instead, “we see the unseemly scramble by US firms to grab the lion’s share of these resources and use them for their own benefit.” Iraq’s nationalised oil industry, it was envisaged, would be “privatised” for the benefit primarily of the US, with even Bush’s allies being pushed aside.

The real fruits of the war had already been portioned out as the Bush administration awarded contracts worth $900m (£560  million) to American companies to undertake the profitable aspects of ‘reconstruction’. We concluded: “This is a war for the re-colonisation of Iraq, not a war of ‘liberation’ and ‘democracy’.” We pointed out that the US had been drawn into the “quagmire of a possible civil war between the Sunnis and Shia, and a similar conflict between the Kurds and the Turks in the North. The Kurdish leaders, once more foolishly ensnared into supporting the US, will be betrayed again… A successful war against Saddam… would still have huge consequences. After Afghanistan, the impression will have been reinforced amongst the more than one billion Muslims that the ‘Christian West’ is bent on another crusade to crush them. In reality, this war is not being conducted against Muslims alone but to enhance the economic power of US imperialism through the acquisition of Iraq’s oil and, at the same time, to reinforce the role of US imperialism as the world’s policeman.”

We concluded: “The adventure in Iraq is projected by the ‘hawks’ to lead to similar action, possibly against Iran, Syria, Libya and any other ‘evil’ or ‘failed’ state. ‘Diplomacy’ will be used for the time being against North Korea but as both Bush and Blair have admitted in recent months, action to ‘disarm’ North Korea will also be posed. The conflict between the US and Europe, as well as the divergences which have emerged over Iraq with Russia, China and other powers, symbolise a return to the same kind of inter-imperialist rivalries which marked out world capitalism in the decades prior to 1914.”

These perspectives have been generally borne out in the bloody inferno which the Middle East is today. The writer Gore Vidal commented that the US’s policy was one of “permanent war for permanent peace”. Such an approach would inevitably come up against the resistance of the peoples of the world. We concluded that the mass demonstrations, particularly on 15 February, and the strikes which followed were not enough to stop the war. Nevertheless, they were sufficient to temporarily stay the hand of Bush and Blair and this mood had not gone away.

The fallout from the war, we predicted, would be huge and it would be measured over months and years. Not least of the effects would be a revival of the anti-capitalist movement itself, combined with a mass anti-war feeling. We wrote: “In Britain, even if he wins, Blair will ultimately lose as a result of his backing of this obscene war. Even the sanitised Labour Party is split from top to bottom and big defections from its ranks are taking place.” All of this was laying the basis for a profound radicalisation in Britain and throughout the world.1

“You’re next” was the message that Bush’s adviser Richard Perle said he wanted to send to any country that opposed US imperialism’s interest internationally. Before the war had even started, the US administration was accusing Syria of “hostile acts”. Syria had also been attacked for giving refuge to leading figures from Saddam Hussein’s regime, supporting terrorism and having chemical weapons. According to the Guardian, US Defence Secretary Rumsfeld ordered a review of contingency plans for a war against Syria after the fall in Baghdad. We posed the question: “So will the Syrian people be next in line after Iraq to suffer the consequences of the US’s overwhelming military might?” We answered our own question by saying that they would not proceed to invade Syria at that stage.2

Any attack then would have had even less international support than the war in Iraq. Nevertheless, the leaders of the major capitalist powers were absolutely relentless in the pursuit of the long-term goal that they had set themselves. With the help of the counterrevolution in general in the Middle East that followed the North African revolution – the Arab Spring – imperialism returned to the task of unseating the Syrian regime. We oppose this undemocratic blood-soaked government and we stand for its removal. We believe that is a task primarily of the Syrian people and above all of the working class in an alliance with the poor peasants, supported by the workers’ movement internationally, fighting against all manifestations of capitalism and for a new socialist future for Syria and in the Middle East as a whole.

There was some persecution of civilians from the fallout of the Iraq war in Britain. The young people who walked out on Day X, when the war started, were harassed, some of them prosecuted and some who took action in the workplace were disciplined. In the north-east 100 school students were suspended at one school while at another, students were expelled. In Lewisham, South-East London, the police had used considerable numbers to try to prevent school students from participating in the Parliament Square protests on Day X. In so doing, they arrested ISR coordinator at the time Karl Debbaut and charged him with an assault on a police officer, which he denied. After a number of court appearances, with the police producing slanted video evidence and after consistent lobbying by the ISR in conjunction with the Socialist Party and others he was found not guilty. The Lewisham police gained a reputation amongst young people for persecuting protesting school students, often seeing them as mindless truants ‘manipulated’ by older anti-war protesters.

In East London Nancy Taaffe and another library worker were threatened by Waltham Forest Council for walking out on Day X. The council originally said it would have a flexible attitude to workers wanting to protest on the day but it reneged on this and instigated disciplinary action. It was no accident that library workers in Waltham Forest were fighting cuts in their working conditions as the council was preparing for privatisation. Nancy was the Unison co-convenor for the libraries. This attack was defeated but she ultimately lost her job in the savage cuts eight years later, when a nominally ‘Labour’ Council passed on the cuts of the ConDem government.

In the first few days after the ‘victory’ over Iraq, Bush and Blair were celebrating but within a matter of hours it became clear that piecing Iraq back together again would prove much more difficult than the war itself. The rapid fall of the Saddam regime left a vacuum that had been filled by looting and chaos. Many Iraqi people, while relieved to be rid of Saddam Hussein, blamed the US and Britain for the turmoil that the war had unleashed. It had been conducted under the signboard of ‘democracy’ but instead the Iraqi people faced occupation by US and British troops with, at best, the installation of a stooge regime in power at the behest of US imperialism. As with all military incursions – like Northern Ireland or later on Israel’s occupation of South Lebanon – some Iraqis initially welcomed the troops. However, the troops rapidly came into bitter conflict with the very communities that had first greeted them.

The US’s attempts to rely on elements of Saddam’s old state apparatus to maintain law and order met with opposition, particularly from the Shias, with the mosques organising to fill the vacuum of power. A massive crowd of 20,000 people demonstrated in Nasiriya outside a meeting called to discuss the future of Iraq and in protest at the inclusion of the US in the talks. They chanted: “Yes to freedom, Yes to Islam, No to America, No to Saddam.”3 The Pentagon’s choice as the first proconsul of Iraq, Chalabi – a figurehead for the future pro-US government – was totally rejected. The tensions between the different national groups developed into a sectarian civil war between the Shia and the Sunni within a very short period following the US occupation.

Within the anti-war forces in Britain a debate – sometimes fierce – unfolded within the Stop the War Coalition on “Where next in the aftermath of war?” This was also reflected within the trade union movement. Some left trade union leaders like Paul Mackney, general secretary of the lecturers’ union NATFHE, tended to think that by taking an anti-war position they were somehow insulated from criticism when it came to domestic issues in Britain. The late Andrew Price, a long-standing supporter of Militant and then the Socialist Party, as well as a fine orator, criticised Mackney in our paper for not being sufficiently “forthcoming on strike action in support of members’ pay and conditions”.4 Paul Mackney exercised his right of reply: “I don’t usually rise to Andrew’s attacks and I welcome robust debates on our industrial policy. But you may wish to consider whether it is appropriate at this time to carry articles attacking trade union leaders because they have been in the forefront of organising the resistance to this imperialist war.”5

This summed up the approach of some union leaders, even those who nominally stood on the left, like Paul Mackney, which amounted in our opinion to a ‘love of the distant’. International issues were separated by them from what was done in the day-today struggle in Britain. We, on the contrary, believed that foreign policy was a continuation of home policy, not just for the bourgeoisie but also, above all, for the working class and its leadership. There had been a tradition in Britain for some of the left leaders to attempt to screen themselves from criticism by the members by taking up radical positions on foreign policy, which Paul Mackney’s letter signified.

Similar discussions took place in the Stop the War Coalition soon after the occupation of Iraq had begun. Ken Smith was the Socialist Party’s representative on this body’s committee. The Socialist Party laid heavy emphasis on the need to organise a meeting of workplace representatives, union executive committee members and general secretaries to mobilise for the next phase of the resistance. While on Day X there were lots of protests and workers taking time off, actual industrial action was, unfortunately, limited because many union leaders did not back up their calls for action with concrete plans. The SWP placed heavy reliance on further national demonstrations, arguing that they could create a crisis for the government similar to the one which developed around the 15 February demonstration. And while everyone supported some form of national demonstration, merely rehashing the same kind of demonstration would not stop the war. In particular, the decision was taken to popularise the idea of workplace action in different forms – on May Day in particular – including through the production of leaflets and to build a network of union anti-war organisers.

Opposition to the occupation of Iraq rumbled on throughout 2003. We recognised that the war had entered an end-stage – at least in terms of set-piece battles and conflicts – within a few months of the invasion. It appeared as though overwhelming military might had broken the back of the Iraqi military resistance on the ground despite determined resistance from a number of Iraqi militias and armed forces. Nevertheless, the US and Britain were shocked by Iraqi hostility towards the invading forces and the degree of armed resistance. They believed their own propaganda when they claimed their troops would be welcomed as liberators. While the Iraqi people had not welcomed the US and British troops as liberators, most were not prepared to fight and defend Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. There was chaos for all to see in Iraq as the old regime collapsed and the US struggled to create a new leadership and apparatus. Nationalist conflict broke out between Kurds, Shia and Sunni. US imperialism was undoubtedly crowing behind-the-scenes because of their ‘fourth military’ victory in a row. Yet we predicted they would reap an unwelcome reward through the global mass indignation and increased opposition within Iraq that would inevitably follow.

Meanwhile, while most of the population were preoccupied with the news from Iraq, the British government sought to bury ‘bad news’, as they had done with 9/11. John Prescott dropped his threat of big council tax rises and then announced a new bill to impose terms and conditions on the firefighters. Home Secretary David Blunkett widened police powers to let them take fingerprints and swabs from anyone arrested. The Lord Chancellor’s Department also agreed to allow bailiffs the right of forcible entry into people’s homes. The last piece of hidden news was that New Labour ‘fat cat’ Lord Sainsbury was giving £2.5 million to the Labour Party, taking his contribution to £8.5 million! The ‘really good news’ from the point of view of working people was the massive 24-hour general strike called by the unions in France against the right-wing government of Raffarin.

By mid-May the issue of the absence of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq took centre stage. Blair declared to Parliament on 30 April: “I am absolutely convinced and confident about the case on weapons of mass destruction.” He continued that those who doubted the presence of WMD “will be eating some of your words”.6 In fact, it was Blair who was forced to eat his words as divisions began at the top between the intelligence agencies and the government on this issue. As no weapons were found, the decision to go to war against Iraq lacked any credibility. Some of the higher echelons of the American ‘intelligence community’ began to confirm this. CIA director George Tenet admitted that he was wrong to let part of an ‘intelligence dossier’ compiled by Blair’s government be included in Bush’s State of the Union speech in January 2003. This was the much criticised ‘dodgy dossier’ of September 2002. The claim that Saddam Hussein had a new source of uranium from the African state of Niger to reactivate a nuclear weapons programme was investigated by the International Atomic Energy Agency and was found to be based on forged documents.

Then in July came the bombshell of the death of the scientist Dr David Kelly. Before his suicide, he had written an email about “dark actors playing games”. In reality he had become a tragic pawn in New Labour’s cynical game-plan to divert attention from the lies and distortions they had resorted to in order to go to war. They had also claimed that WMD could be launched within 45 minutes of an order from Saddam. Yet three months after the invasion, no WMD had been discovered, while the body count of soldiers and ordinary Iraqis rose. An opinion poll carried out prior to Dr Kelly’s death, found that 66% of people in Britain thought Blair had misled them about going to war.

The Socialist Party demanded not another fake inquiry, but a genuine inquiry made up of workers and community representatives, which would look not just at the immediate issues surrounding Dr Kelly’s death, but the wider question of Blair’s reasons for going to war. A YouGov poll for the Daily Telegraph found that 39% of people thought that “Blair should go now”. This once again underlined the character of the Labour Party now as a lying machine in the interests of big business.7

The same month, the annual international school of the CWI was convened in Belgium with over 300 primarily young people attending the event. Most of the CWI’s sections had grown as a result of the intervention in the anti-war movement. The confidence of CWI members at this event was shown by the collection of well over £11,000 in the financial appeal.

Another inquiry was convened – this time by Lord Hutton – to examine the background to the Iraq war. We wrote of this event: “A shoddy string of Pontius Pilates roll out before the inquiry, trying to absolve themselves of any responsibility for the events leading to David Kelly’s suicide, desperately trying to point the finger of blame elsewhere.” The stark reality was that the occupying forces had now spent longer inside Iraq by August than the un weapons inspectors were given before the conflict began, yet still they had found no evidence of WMD. Indeed, Blair had now changed his tune to say that they were looking for evidence of programmes for WMD, rather than the WMD themselves. We concluded: “The real force that will hold Blair and his cronies accountable is not sitting inside Court 73 of the Royal Courts of Justice. It is residing in Britain’s factories, offices, shops, schools, colleges and streets – the people who opposed the war and will never believe another word Blair or his government says.”8

Finally, in 2009 the Gordon Brown government commissioned the Chilcot Inquiry into Britain’s role in the Iraq War. The subsequent report took seven years to write, ran to 2.6 million words and condemned the war. It effectively tried to exonerate Blair, made no recommendations for prosecutions and said that Blair did not “deliberately” mislead people. Nevertheless, many of the families of soldiers killed and maimed in Iraq branded Blair a “bloody murderer” and the real “terrorist”. He was effectively condemned in the court of public opinion.

As a result of the commotion around the death of Kelly, Alistair Campbell, Blair’s liar-in-chief, was forced to quit the government. The calculation was that by leaving then he would lessen the harm to Blair. Campbell’s exit was expected to make it easier for Blair to make a ‘fresh start’ at the upcoming Labour Party conference. However, Blair has never escaped, not even today, his mantle as a war criminal in the Iraq catastrophe.

Moreover, the domestic front was littered with minefields, which could explode at any one time. The economy was in an uncertain state. Brown could see a budget deficit of £10 billion in the current year. He was already warning that the next public spending round could be the ‘toughest’ since Labour came to power, with spending frozen or cut. Industrial action from firefighters and postal workers loomed, and huge anger was building up on the issues of foundation hospitals, PFI and tuition fees.

One of the effects of the Iraq war was a renewed interest in past wars, particularly the Vietnam War. Therefore, I decided to write a book, ‘Empire Defeated’, which gave an historical analysis of the Vietnam War – called the ‘American War’ by the Vietnamese themselves – drawing out the lessons for today’s generation.

As the year drew to an end, the anti-war mood remained intense. This was reflected in over 200,000 people marching at the end of November in Central London in protest at Bush’s visit to Britain. The massive turnout, the biggest ever for a midweek demonstration, showed the endurance of the anti-war movement and the active layer who sustained it. Particularly evident was the number of school, college and university students, as well as many working class people turning out on a demonstration for the first time. Unfortunately, not as many trade unionists were able to go on the day because of the difficulties of getting time off work. Also there were fewer Muslims than on the previous demonstrations. It also felt like a carnival, but one of outrage at the actions of Bush and Blair and the anger at Bush’s state visit.

In December came the news of the capture of Saddam Hussein. We argued that this was not the “beginning of the end” of the Iraq quagmire. Saddam had been found but not WMD – the reason given for conducting the war. Moreover, any benefits from Saddam’s capture, and the propaganda value that flowed from this, was likely to be short lived. Within two hours of Saddam’s capture, two car bombs exploded outside Iraqi police stations, killing nine people and injuring many others. Bush had consistently tried to blame suicide bombings and the 20 or so attacks each day against US forces on ‘remnants’ of the Saddam regime. Serious analysis identified between 15 and 30 resistance groups active in Iraq, yet most of them had no links with Saddam. While Saddam had been captured, we posed the question, “What about justice for the prisoners languishing for years in Guantánamo Bay? What about a trial of US imperialism and its role in financing and arming Saddam’s brutal rule?” We also demanded that Saddam should be put on trial by a democratic tribunal of elected representatives of the working people who suffered at his hands, not by the imperialist countries who backed him when it suited their own interests.9