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You are here: The Platypus Affiliated Society/Iraq and the election: The fog of "anti-war" politics

Iraq and the election: The fog of "anti-war" politics

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review 7 | October 2008


Barack Obama had, until recently, made his campaign for President of the United States a referendum on the invasion and occupation of Iraq. In the Democratic Party primaries, Obama attacked Hillary Clinton for her vote in favor of the invasion. Among Republican contenders, John McCain went out of his way to appear as the candidate most supportive of the Bush administration’s policy in Iraq. Looking towards the general election, it is over Iraq that the candidates have been most clearly opposed: Obama has sought to distinguish himself most sharply from McCain on Iraq, emphasizing their differences in judgment. Prior to the recent financial melt-down on Wall Street, there was a consistency of emphasis on Iraq as a signal issue of the campaign. But with Iraq dramatically pacified in recent months, its political importance has diminished. Obama’s position on Iraq has, if anything, lost him traction as the McCain-supported Bush policy has succeeded.

Now might be a good time to step back and look at assumptions regarding the politics of the war, and assess their true nature and character, what they have meant for the mainstream as well as for the ostensible “Left.”

One major assumption that has persisted from the beginning of the anti-war movement and over the course of the two presidential terms of the Bush administration has been that the Iraq war was the result of a maverick policy, in which “neoconservative” ideologues hijacked the U.S. government in order to implement an extreme agenda. Recently, more astute observers of American politics such as Adolph Reed (in “Where Obamaism seems to be going,” Black Agenda Report, July 16, 2008, on-line at have conceded the point that a war in Iraq could easily have been embraced even by a Democratic adminstration. Reed writes:

“Lesser evilists assert as indisputable fact that Gore, or even Kerry, wouldn’t have invaded Iraq. Perhaps Gore wouldn’t have, but I can’t say that’s a sure thing. (And who was his running mate, by the way? [Joe Lieberman, who recently spoke in support of McCain at the Republican National Convention—CC.]) Moreover, we don’t know what other military adventurism that he —like Clinton— would have undertaken . . No, I’m not at all convinced that the Right wouldn’t have been able to hound either Gore into invading Iraq or Kerry into continuing the war indefinitely.”

This raises the issue of what “opposition” to the Iraq war policy of the Bush administration really amounts to. The Democrats’ jockeying for position is an excellent frame through which to examine the politics of the war. For the Democrats’ criticism of the Bush policy has been transparently opportunist, to seize upon the problems of the war for political gain against the Republicans. Opposition has come only to the extent that the war seemed to be a failed policy, something of which Obama has taken advantage because he was not in the U.S. Senate when the war authorization was voted, and so he has been able to escape culpability for this decision his fellow Democrats made when it was less opportune to oppose the war. (Recall that this fact was the occasion for Bill Clinton’s infamous remark that Obama’s supposed record of uncompromised opposition to the war was a “fairy tale,” for Clinton pointed out that Obama had admitted that he didn’t know how he would have voted had he been in the Senate at the time.) Furthermore, opposition to the war on the supposed “Left” has similarly focused on the Bush administration (for example in the very name of the anti-war coalition World Can’t Wait, i.e., until the next election, and their call to “Exorcise the Bush Regime”), thus playing directly into the politics of the Democratic Party, resulting now in either passive or active support of the Obama candidacy.

On Obama’s candidacy, Reed went on to say that

“Obama is on record as being prepared to expand the war [“on terror”] into Pakistan and maybe Iran . . He’s also made pretty clear that AIPAC [American-Israel Public Affairs Committee] has his ear, which does it for the Middle East, and I wouldn’t be shocked if his administration were to continue, or even step up, underwriting covert operations against Venezuela, Cuba (he’s already several times linked each of those two governments with North Korea and Iran) and maybe Ecuador or Bolivia. .This is where I don’t give two shits for the liberals’ criticism of Bush’s foreign policy: they don’t mind imperialism; they just want a more efficiently and rationally managed one. As Paul Street argues in Black Agenda Report, as well as in his forthcoming book Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics, an Obama presidency would further legitimize the imperialist orientation of US foreign policy by inscribing it as liberalism or the ‘new kind’ of progressivism. .[T]he bipartisan ‘support the troops’ rhetoric that has become a scaffold for discussing the war is a ruse for not addressing its foundation in a bellicose, imperialist foreign policy that makes the United States a scourge on the Earth. Obama, like other Dems, doesn’t want such a discussion any more than the Republicans do because they’re all committed to maintaining that foundation.”

In recognizing that the “liberals’ criticism of Bush’s foreign policy [doesn’t] mind imperialism; they just want a more efficiently and rationally managed one,” Reed and others’ arguments on the “Left” beg the question of U.S. “imperialism” and its place in the world. This is an unexamined inheritance from the Vietnam anti-war movement of the 1960s-70s that has become doxa on the “Left.” Put another way, it has been long since anyone questioned the meaning of “anti-imperialism”—asked, “as opposed to what?”

If, as Reed put it about Gore, Kerry, et al., that the “Right would have been able to hound” them into Iraq or other wars, this begs the question of why those on the “Left” would not regard Obama, Kerry, Gore, or (either) Clinton, not as beholden to the Right, but rather being themselves part of the Right, not “capitulating to” U.S. imperialism but part of its actual political foundation. There is an evident wish to avoid raising the question and problem of what is the actual nature and character of “U.S. imperialism” and its policies, what actually makes the U.S., as Reed put it, “a scourge on the Earth,” and what it means to oppose this from the “Left.” For it might indeed be the case that not only the Democrats don’t want such a discussion of the “foundation” of “U.S. imperialism” (“any more than the Republicans do”), but neither do those on the “Left.”

For Adolph Reed, as for any ostensible “Left,” the difficulty lies in the potential stakes of problematizing the role of U.S. power in the world. If the U.S. has proven to be, as Reed put it, a “scourge on the Earth,” the “Left” has consistently shied away from thinking about, or remained deeply confused and self-contradictory over the reasons for this—and what can and should be done about it.

Reed placed this problem in historical context by pointing out that:

“[E]very major party presidential candidate between 1956 and 1972—except one, Barry Goldwater, who ran partly on his willingness to blow up the world and was trounced for it—ran on a pledge to end the Vietnam War. Every one of them lied, except maybe Nixon the third time he made the pledge, but that time he had a lot of help from the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong.”

—But Nixon et al. would have gotten a lot more “help” living up to their pledges to end the U.S. war in Vietnam if the Communists had just laid down and died.

Was this the politics of the “big lie,” as Reed insists, echoing the criticisms of the Bush administration’s war policy, supposedly based on deceit, or is there a more simple and obvious explanation: that indeed, all American politicians were and remain committed to ending war, but only on their own, “U.S. imperial” terms? And why would anyone expect otherwise?

If this is the case, then, the difference between the Obama and McCain campaigns regarding U.S. “imperialism” would amount to no difference at all. Obama has pledged to remove U.S. troops from Iraq as quickly as possible, but only if the “security situation” allows this. McCain has pledged to remain in Iraq as long as it takes to “get the job done.” What’s the difference? Especially given that the Bush administration itself has begun troop reductions and has agreed in its negotiations with the government of Iraq to a “definite timetable” for withdrawal of U.S. combat troops, as the Sunni insurgency has been quelled or co-opted into the political process and Shia militias like Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Brigade have not only laid down their arms but are presently disbanding entirely. No less than Bush and McCain, Obama, too, is getting what he wants in Iraq. Everyone can declare “victory.” And they are doing so. (Obama can claim vindication the degree to which the pacification of Iraq seems more due to the political process there—such as the “Anbar awakening” movement, etc.—than to U.S. military intervention.)

All the doomsday scenarios are blowing away like so many mirages in the sand, revealing that the only differences that ever existed among Republicans and Democrats amounted to posturing over matters of detail in policy implementation and not over fundamental “principles.” This despite the Obama campaign’s sophistic qualifiers on the evident victory of U.S. policy in Iraq being merely a “tactical success within a strategic blunder,” and their pointing out that the greater goals of effective “political reconciliation” among Iraqi factions remain yet to be achieved. What was once regarded in the cynically hyperbolic “anti-war” rhetoric of the Democrats as an unmitigated “disaster” in Iraq is turning out to be something that merely could have been done better. The “Left” has echoed the hollowness of such rhetoric. At base, this has been the result of a severely mistaken if not entirely delusional imagination of the war and its causes.

At base, the U.S. did not invade and occupy Iraq to steal its oil, or for any other venal or nefarious reason, but rather because the U.N.’s 12-year-old sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s Baathist government, which meant the compromise and undermining of effective Iraqi sovereignty (for instance in the carving of an autonomous Kurdish zone under U.N. and NATO military protection) was unraveling in the oil-for-food scandal etc., and Saddam, after the first grave mistake of invading Kuwait, made the further fateful errors of spiting the U.N. arms inspectors and counting on being able to balance the interests of the European and other powers in the U.N. against the U.S. threat of invasion and occupation. The errors of judgment and bad-faith opportunism of Saddam, the Europeans, and others were as much the cause for the war as any policy ambitions of the neocons in the Bush administration. Iraq was becoming a “failed state,” and not least because of the actions of its indisputably horrifically oppressive rulers. If Saddam could not help but to choose among such bad alternatives for Iraq, this stands as indictment of the Baathist regime, its unviable character in a changing world. The niche carved out by the combination of Cold War geopolitics and the international exploitation of the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s for the Baathist shop of horrors was finally, mercifully, closing.

The unraveling of the U.N. sanctions regime prior to the 2003 invasion and occupation, enforced not only by the U.S. and Britain but by neighboring states and others, cannot be separated from the history of the disintegration of the Iraqi state. The armchair quarterbacking of “anti-war” politics was from the outset (and remains to this day) tacitly, shame-facedly, in favor of the status quo (and worse, today, must retrospectively try to distort and apologize for the history of Baathism). In comparison with such evasion of responsibility, the Bush administration’s invasion and occupation of Iraq was an eminently responsible act. They were willing to stake themselves in a way the Democrats and the Europeans and others were not—and the “Left” could not. The “success” of the Bush policy amounts to its ability to cast all alternatives into more or less impotent posturing. Attributing motives for the war to American profiteering is to mistake effect for cause. Complaining about the fact that American companies have profited from the war is to impotently protest against the world as it is, for someone was going to profit from it—would it be better if French, Japanese or Saudi firms did so?

That the U.S. government under Bush broke decorum and made the gesture of invading Iraq “unilaterally” without U.N. Security Council approval says nothing to the fact that Iraq was likely to be invaded and occupied (by “armed inspection teams” supported by tens of thousands of “international” troops, etc.) in any case. Did it really matter whether the U.S. had the U.N. fig leaf covering the ugliness of its military instrument? It was only a matter of when and how it was going to be put to use, in managing the international problem the Iraqi state had become. No one among the international powers-that-be, including the most “rogue” elements of the global order (Russia, China, Iran, et al.) had any firm interest in restoring to Saddam’s Baathists the status quo from before 1990 and, needless to say, not only the U.S. and Britain, but also Saudi Arabia and Iran, and most especially the Iraqi Kurds and Shia, were not about to let that happen. Saddam was on the way out. It was only a matter of how.

All the rhetoric about the “overreach” and “hubris” of U.S. policy in Iraq says nothing to the fact that a crossroads there was being reached—this was already true under Clinton. All the bombast about the “illegal”—or even “criminal”—character of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq neglects the simple fact that the U.S. occupation was authorized by the U.N. When Democrats impugn the “crusading” motives of the Bush administration with sophistry about the supposed folly of trying to spread “democracy” in Iraq and the greater Middle East, is this a “progressive” argument, or a conservative one?

Not only the Democrats’ but the “Left’s” opposition to the Iraq war has in fact been from the Right. This is revealed most perversely by the history of the Iraq policy recommendations of Joe Biden, who has been touted by the Obama campaign as bringing “foreign policy credentials” to their ticket as candidate for Vice President. Biden once advocated a break-up of Iraq into separate Shia, Sunni and Kurdish states, during the height of the Sunni insurgency, which would have punished the Sunni by leaving them without access to Iraq’s oil wealth (which is concentrated in the Kurdish and Shiite areas of Kirkuk and Basra). Would pursuit of such an ethno-sectarian division of Iraq have been a “progressive” outcome for furthering the “democratic self-determination” of the peoples of Iraq?—In comparison with the 20% troop “surge” that has in fact, as even Obama has put it, “succeeded beyond our wildest dreams.” Or might we see in such apparently “extreme” policy alternatives as Biden’s a deeper underlying fact, that from the standpoint of not only U.S. “imperial” interests but those of the global order, it doesn’t make much difference if Iraq remains a single or is broken up into multiple states, whether it is ruled by secular or theocratic regimes, or whether its government is “democratic” or dictatorial, whether its civil society is “liberal” or not. But, presumably, this matters a great deal to the Iraqis!

None of the posed alternatives regarding Iraq—not before, during or since the invasion and occupation—can be ascribed to being inherently in service of or opposed to the on-going realities of U.S. power (“imperialism”), or the interests of global capitalism, because all of them are compatible with these. Rather, the policy alternatives are all matters of opportunistic orientation to an underlying reality that is not being substantially challenged or even recognized politically by any of the actors involved, great or small, on the “Right” or “Left,” from al-Qaeda to the neoconservatives, or “libertarians” like Ron Paul, from Bush to the President of the Iranian Islamic Republic Ahmadinejad, and Republicans and Democrats from McCain to Obama, or “independents” and the Green Party’s candidates Cynthia McKinney and Ralph Nader, to the far-“Left” of “anarchists” and other antinomians like writers for Counterpunch and the Chomskyans, et al. at Z magazine, or the “anti-war” protest coalitions led by “Marxist” groups such as the International Socialist Organization (United for Peace and Justice coalition, Campus Anti-war Network), Workers World Party (ANSWER coalition), or the Revolutionary Communist Party (World Can’t Wait coalition).

All of the supposed “anti-imperialists”—from Iraq policy dissident Republicans like Senator Chuck Hagel, to the most intransigent “Marxists” like the Spartacist League—have failed to be truly anti-“imperialist” in their approach to Iraq, nor could they be, for none could have possibly challenged the fundamental conditions of U.S. power in global capital. There is no politics of anti-imperialism, for no one asks politically whether and what it means to say that the U.S. could be more or less “imperialist,” whether the world order can do without the U.S. acting as global cop—asking, who, for instance, would play this nevertheless necessary role in the absence of the U.S.? For there is no one. And no purported “Left” should want “openings” for their own sake in the global order—as if any “cracks” in the “system” won’t be the holes into which the world’s most abject will be immediately swallowed, without in any way sparing the next batch of victims in the train-wreck of history.

The fundamental inability of anyone on the “Left” to take a meaningfully alternative position on Iraq, beyond hoping (vainly) for the “defeat” of or “resistance” to U.S. policy, and thus immediately joining the opportunism of the politics of the Democrats, dissident Republicans, and European and other statesmen, should serve as a warning about the dire political state of the world and its possibilities today. Accusations might fly about who may more or less tacitly “support” “U.S. imperialism,” but there is such a thing as protesting too much, especially when it must be admitted that nothing can be done right now to alter the given global political and social realities in a progressive-emancipatory manner. If, as Adolph Reed put it, the U.S. remains a “scourge on the Earth,” is the alternative only to impotently denounce this and not try to properly understand it—and understand what it would mean to prepare to begin to meaningfully challenge and overcome this?

As appalling as it might be to recognize, McCain in his Republican National Convention speech was actually more truthful and straightforward than Obama when he pointed out that he has stood consistently behind what has proved to be a successful policy in Iraq. Obama now must dissemble on the issue.

On the other hand, the essence of Obama’s candidacy can be seen in the figure of Samantha Power, who was sacked from his primary campaign after saying, correctly, that Hillary Clinton was a “monster” who would “say anything” to get elected. Power is a liberal promoter of “human rights” military interventionism, and began working as a senior advisor for Obama immediately after he was elected to the U.S. Senate. Power is a representative of Obama’s version of the historical precedent of JFK’s team of “the best and the brightest” such as Robert McNamara. In fact, Obama’s candidacy has been in its origins much more about “foreign” than “domestic” policy, and more than will be apparent now that Iraq has been neutralized as the main issue in the election. Obama, no less than McCain, is campaigning for the office not only of the “top cop” of the U.S., but of the world. Obama’s campaign is over effective policy for this role, not the role itself.

The “Left” is now up in arms in the face of Obama’s candidacy because his campaign explicitly aims to refurbish the U.S. government’s capacity to play this role, and perhaps even in expanded ways, as U.S. power would be equipped to advance the liberal cause of “human rights” internationally more idealistically and less cynically than under Bush or Clinton.

But this raises the issue of how to understand the U.S.’s role in the world. Only at its peril does the Left treat the explicit Wilsonian doctrine that has essentially underwritten U.S. policy and power after the First World War as hypocritical or cynical, for the project of the U.S. as the central, without-peer hegemonic power of global capital is one in which all states internationally participate (through the U.N., the international treaty organization of U.S. power), only to a greater or lesser extent. Maintaining the “peaceful” conditions of capital has and will continue to prove a bloody business at global scale. As much as one might wish otherwise or simply regret the onus of U.S. power, reality must be faced.

The hyperbole around Iraq in mainstream politics is best illustrated by that favored word, “quagmire.” But behind this has been hysteria, not reason. Feeling in one’s step the pull of some gum on the pavement is not the threat of sinking into quicksand! The Iraqi “insurgents” knew better than their apologists and cynical anti-Bush well-wishers among the Democrats and European and other powers—and their open cheerleaders on the “Left” —that they were not so intransigent, not so willing to die to a last man in their “opposition” to the U.S. and its policies, but only wished to drive a harder bargain at the negotiating table with the U.S. and its allies in Iraq—and now they are themselves becoming allies of the Iraqi government and the U.S.

Currently, it might still remain unclear whether the combined actions and apparent attenuation of the Iraqi insurgents/militias and the struggle among the ruling and oppositional parties of the Iraqi government and, behind them, their foreign backers in Saudi Arabia and Iran, and the apparent disarray of the regime of the Iranian Islamic Republic in its nuclear standoff with the U.S. and European powers, amount to a temporary situation borne of a shared wish to ride the Obama train (or merely the potential for change inherent in the election cycle) into a better bargaining position regarding U.S. policy and so not to spoil the U.S. election and bring the supposedly more bellicose John McCain to power through the fear of the American public, or whether they’ve given up the bloody game of jockeying for influence in Iraq because they’ve already spent what chips they had in the last 5 years.

In any case, as far as the election is concerned, Obama has played a strategy in his campaign from which any purported “Left” must learn politically: that it is not a good idea to bank ahead of time on the defeat of one’s opponents. Obama’s campaign is in more trouble than it might have been because it has lost its signal issue with which to prosecute the Republicans with the Bush administration, a “losing” war in Iraq. Obama can be elected despite this, and fudge the issue of the war and “opposition” to it as policy.

But the “Left” remains in a similar but in fact much worse predicament. The “Left” never asked the burning question: What if the Bush policy “succeeds?” Then what will be the basis for opposition to U.S. “imperialism?”

Iraq is nothing like Vietnam, despite the wishes of the “Left” to have history repeat itself. If Iraq does not , as it appears it will not, fall apart or drag on in endless slaughter, but continues to stabilize, and does not give up sovereignty over its oil resources, etc., but simply allows the U.S. some minimal military presence through its embassy there, and continues to work with the U.S. against groups like al-Qaeda, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Hezbollah, the Kurdish PKK guerillas in Turkey, and willingly sides with the U.S., as it will inevitably, in any potential future wars against Iran or Syria, etc., will this mean that the U.S. invasion and occupation diminished Iraqi “sovereignty” and so was a phenomenon of U.S. “imperialism?” What will be the account of Iraqi motives in the arrangement achieved by U.S. intervention, as mere stooges for the U.S.?

And won’t this mean taking a much coarser and narrower- minded view of the actual concrete politics of Iraq and the Middle East than those evinced by Obama, McCain and (even) Bush, so effectively disqualifying the “Left” as being in any way competent to comment, let alone critique or offer political alternatives?

What will remain the basis for the “Left’s” opposition to U.S. policy in a world McCain or Obama would make after Bush — after Blackwater, et al. quit the Iraqi scene, as they already are doing, and not through defeat but success, and not without some selective high-profile (if become less interesting) investigations and prosecutions of “war crimes” by Americans, now that the U.S. can afford them?

How will U.S. power in the world be understood, and what critique and vision of the future will be posed in the face of its undiminished capacities? |P