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International Socialist Review Issue 38, November–December 2004

Gilbert Achcar: The Dynamics of U.S. Mideast Policy

Gilbert Achcar lived in Lebanon for many years before moving to France where he teaches politics and international relations at the University of Paris. He’s a frequent contributor to Le Monde Diplomatique and is the author of several books on contemporary politics. His latest book is Eastern Cauldron: Islam, Afghanistan, Palestine, and Iraq in a Marxist Mirror (Monthly Review Press). He was interviewed by the ISR’s Anthony Arnove.


Why is the United States interested in seeking hegemony in the Middle East? How does Iraq fit into the equation?

I think that there is now a pretty clear consciousness on this issue, at least within the antiwar movement, as was expressed in slogans like "No Blood for Oil." People, even those with a very limited knowledge of the situation in the Middle East, know that it is the key area in the world with regard to oil resources. As we know, two-thirds of the world’s oil reserves are in the area around the Arab-Persian Gulf, and Iraq represents a major country in this respect: it holds the second highest reserves, exceeded only by the Saudi kingdom. That’s hugely important when you consider the strategic importance of oil, and especially its prospective strategic importance in light of the depletion of oil reserves that is certain to happen this century, and, according to some estimates, even around the middle of the century, in just a few decades.

One understands easily how important it is to get control of those reserves–not only for the consumption of the United States–which is an important part of the story, but not the whole story. The control of oil is also a key factor of U.S. domination over the rest of the world, because by controlling the sources of oil, the United States gets controlling leverage over all other powers in the world, whether they be potential challengers like China, which is very much dependent on Middle Eastern oil, or partners/competitors like Japan and Western Europe.

We cannot, therefore, exaggerate the importance of this factor. It is hugely important. The comments about how the invasion of Iraq was "not only about oil" never succeed in giving any serious reason for the U.S. action that was unrelated to oil. There are those who would say, "It is not only about oil, but also about the strategic importance of the area." Well, why is the region strategically important? The fact is that it’s only because of oil nowadays. Everything revolves around oil. This is the key reason why this area, since the Second World War, has been consistently considered one of the most strategic, most vital parts of the world for the United States, along with Western Europe and Japan, that is, the industrial imperialist countries.

In the United States today, many people are very uncomfortable with what’s happening in Iraq and disagree with Bush’s current policy. However, there’s confusion or questions about what would be an alternative, specifically around the idea that if the United States pulled out of Iraq, there would be chaos, and the idea that since the United States went in and destroyed the country, "we" have a responsibility to stay there and help the people.

There is a specious argument about that. And sometimes yes, there’s a way of putting things which might give some ground to that kind of argumentation, when the demand for the withdrawal of the troops is presented as being a demand for a sudden immediate withdrawal, abandoning Iraq to its fate (like in the "selfish" nationalist rhetoric of the isolationist Right). Given what the United States has been doing in Iraq, tragically disrupting the situation in that country, if the U.S. troops were just to leave Iraq suddenly, in forty-eight hours, without prior notice, that would definitely create a dangerous chaotic situation. But this is not what we are saying. The demand for the withdrawal of the troops is a demand for an immediate political decision to withdraw the troops. Once the political decision is taken, it becomes possible, in fact indispensable, to prepare the best conditions for its implementation as soon as possible, the key to that being the organization of conditions through which the Iraqis themselves could determine their fate, so that power is transferred to a legitimate representative Iraqi government.

It is the lack of any desire to leave Iraq, in other words the desire to occupy the country for the long haul for the reasons we have just mentioned, that led U.S. proconsul Paul Bremer to try to postpone for as long as possible the prospect of free elections, though they were demanded by a large majority of the Iraqi people and could have already taken place many months ago.

Now, part of the U.S. ruling class is trying to find a way out of this quagmire in which the United States has found itself, without losing control over Iraq. In this view, the solution goes through the United Nations–that’s at least what the presidential candidate John Kerry is advocating and what President Bush himself is now trying. But any attempt by Washington to pretend to exert power in Iraq through the UN, directly or through a puppet government instead of a democratically elected one, would just deepen the quagmire. Any continuation of the U.S. occupation can only lead to terrible consequences for both the Iraqi population and for those U.S. soldiers who pay with their lives and bodies or their mental health for the decisions of the U.S. government.

There’s a need for stopping that. There’s an urgent need for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq. If the political decision for withdrawing the troops is made and proclaimed, then the modalities through which this should be done in a way not to harm the Iraqis themselves can be negotiated with the Iraqis, with genuine representatives of the Iraqi people. And that’s the key point: with genuine representatives of the Iraqi people, not with U.S.-appointed bodies.

You were recently in a discussion on the radio with the author Dilip Hiro. He said one solution to the occupation would be some sort of Arab League intervention into Iraq. What’s your assessment of that?

Actually, that would be even worse than the attempt to bring the UN in as a fig leaf for the United States. The Arab League could be even a better fig leaf for the United States than the UN itself. That’s because in the UN Security Council, the UN body that actually manages the use of troops, there are competitors of the United States with regard to Iraq, such as France and Russia, each of which holds a veto right. This makes the UN Security Council a body that is unreliable for U.S. interests, as we’ve seen very clearly in the failure of George Bush and British prime minister Tony Blair to get a UN cover for their invasion of Iraq (a failure that helped a lot in building up the antiwar movement). But when you look at the reality of the Arab states, the majority of which are under U.S. domination and are close U.S. allies, you understand that the Arab League would be a safer tool for the United States to perpetuate U.S. domination by proxy.

What should be stressed very clearly is that neither the UN nor any foreign body has the right to decide the fate of the Iraqis. It is up to the Iraqis themselves to decide how they want to proceed in rebuilding their country. But it’s true that the United States has a responsibility toward Iraq, as Kerry says, but not as he means: in fact, the United States and Britain should be asked to pay reparations to Iraq for the huge damage that was inflicted on the country, in the same way that Iraq was obliged to pay reparations after its invasion of Kuwait. The same logic should apply to the United States and Britain.

Bush has gone out of his way to try to link the resistance in Iraq to al-Qaeda and to the attacks of September 11, 2001, as well as to the March 11, 2004, train bombing in Madrid, suggesting that the resistance in Iraq is another example of terrorism targeting the United States. How should we address this attempt to link al-Qaeda and the resistance inside of Iraq?

There are links, in the sense that it is very likely that al-Qaeda is involved in Iraq, as are many other groups. The armed actions in Iraq are of many various origins and nature. A lot of them are probably unorganized actions from a very angry population in a country where there is a very widespread possession of arms and where a very important part of the population has gone through at least some military training, due to the many wars that the country has been involved in for the past twenty years. However, it’s also true that there are grounds to believe that some of the more spectacular actions in Iraq were in some way or another linked to al-Qaeda. If this is so, it would by itself be a condemnation of the Bush strategy of carrying on the so-called war on terror by invading Iraq, since, as many people have stressed, it has only broadened the ground for those same groups that the U.S. administration is claiming to be fighting as its priority.

Actually the behavior of the successive U.S. administrations–and the behavior of the present one to a still higher degree–is just fostering the development of a network like al-Qaeda. There is no better proof that the Bush strategy of the "war on terror" is a complete failure. It just shows that you can’t settle this issue through military means, through violent means.

If you want to end the terrorist threat, and I mean by that the threat of attacks aimed at civilians, then you have to address the core roots of such attacks. Now, it’s quite obvious that everything that the United States is doing and has been doing in the Middle East is just the contrary of what ought to be done in order to reduce the risk of terrorist activity. Most recently, the way Bush endorsed Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon’s "plan" for handling the Palestinians is like throwing oil on a fire and claiming that you are trying to extinguish it. That’s exactly what the Bush administration is doing now, and has been doing since September 11.

This is a key issue to be explained to the U.S. public. It’s not through Homeland Security, it’s not through Big Brother, it’s not through those assaults on civil liberties, on individual freedoms, on the immigrants, that one reduces the terrorist threat. All these measures have as a consequence to render life more difficult for the big majority of the citizens actually, not only the immigrants, without bringing any real benefit in terms of increasing safety. The recent hearings of the 9/11 Commission have shown how inefficient this police-military conception of security is. Real security, the progressive conception of security, is completely opposed to that. The progressive conception is that security means above all feeling secure in terms of social conditions, in terms of welfare, in terms of social justice, and political justice. That’s what you’ve got to achieve if you want to get true security.

As for the U.S. involvement in the Middle East, which is presently the key source of threats on the U.S. civilian population of the so-called terrorist kind, the solution is clear: it is to change radically U.S. politics toward that part of the world, supporting genuine political justice and defending the right of people in the region to self-determination, whether the Iraqi people, the Palestinian people, or whomever.

Instead of plundering the wealth of this part of the world, the United States should be helping it to make better use of its wealth through extending technological help and every kind of help needed. You would then get a very different image of the United States in the Middle East, and you would no longer face threats against U.S. citizens. Only then could you have the kind of image the United States had for a while during World War II, when U.S. troops appeared as liberators in Nazi-occupied countries. Presently in the Middle East, the reality is that the image of the United States is closer to that of Nazi-like occupiers than to liberators.

You have spoken in your lectures about an "Israelification" of U.S. policy. What do you mean by this?

I mean by this term the pattern that we have seen developing after September 11, through which the United States has been behaving in a way more and more similar to the way the Israeli state has been behaving for decades. Israel has consistently shown a very high contempt for any international institution and international law, and has always stuck to a conception of defense of its own security that enables it to do whatever it deems useful for that, disregarding any other consideration. The so-called preventive war doctrine, the deliberate killing of civilians in "retaliatory" bombings, direct assassinations, and so on, have long been a standard Israeli practice. Of course, one could make the point that these have also been common practices of the U.S. government for a long time, but not in the same blatant and systematic way as they have been since September 11.

You also now have the increasing resemblance between the U.S. occupation of Iraq and the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. For instance, U.S. troops routinely resort to collective punishment in Iraq, as we have seen in the way they dealt with Falluja. Sharon is clearly a role model for Bush. So, one cannot avoid the impression that the United States is dealing with the rest of the world increasingly like Israel deals with its environment. That’s what one could call the "Israelification" of U.S. foreign policy.

There are people in the United States who are very opposed to the occupation in Iraq, but who see the Bush administration as so powerful and so determined that they wonder if there’s really anything that can be done to end it. What do you see as the key political pressure points for the antiwar movement to focus on if we are to force the United States to pull out?

We’re in a situation where there is a clear consensus in the U.S. ruling class, which has existed for some time, that the United States must control Iraq. Any disagreement about that, if ever to be found in the establishment, would be totally marginal. The Clinton administration had the same goal of controlling the country as its predecessor, the first Bush administration, and as its successor, the current Bush administration. It’s only that the Bush Jr. administration found the ideological opportunity, the political opportunity, for implementing a goal that neither Bush Sr. (because of the limitations he was faced with at the time he invaded Iraq, when he had only a very thin majority, even for expelling Iraqi troops from Kuwait) nor the Clinton administration (because it was entangled with its affairs and scandals and so Clinton was not in a position to lead the country or to get any endorsement, whether popular or institutional, for a war against Iraq) could implement.

The ideological opportunity for implementing this goal came with September 11. It’s obvious in that regard that Osama bin Laden offered the Bush administration a very great service. There’s no possible dispute about the fact that September 11 was a real windfall for the administration. Quite incidentally, one can give credit to the idea that this administration, in a more or less deliberate way, did not give enough attention to preventing that kind of event because they were in need of some kind of shock of this nature, some "Pearl Harbor" as they put it themselves before September 11, in order to implement their strategy of controlling the greater Middle East and Central Asia–which they did after September 11.

So, there is agreement on the strategic goal and the strategic importance of that, and it’s also revealed by the bipartisan consensus among the ruling class on the war itself. So, it’s obvious that there’s no way to change the course of things in relation to U.S. involvement in the area if you don’t build a popular movement like the one that was built during the Vietnam years, and that was decisive in creating the conditions for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam. That’s what is needed to achieve the goal of the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. It won’t come from just a change of mind at the level of the ruling class, if what is happening in Iraq is not backed by an important mobilization in the United States. After all, we had in Vietnam a much larger popular resistance to the U.S. presence than anything we’ve got now in Iraq. But nevertheless, the resistance of the Vietnamese people was not enough by itself to get the result of 1973. What played a key role in complementing the Vietnamese resistance was the objective interaction between this resistance and the growth of the movement in the United States.

In the same way, Iraq is turning into a quagmire and becoming a huge political problem–a much bigger political problem than a military one. What is needed is to complement this political problem with the build-up of the movement. The deeper the quagmire is, the better the conditions are for the revival of the movement that reached a peak in February 2003. The struggle needs to again reach this level, and go beyond it, if we want not just an end to the occupation of Iraq, but also beyond that an overall change of U.S. policy in the Middle East. In that respect, the argument being made in the antiwar movement about the linkage between the Palestinian issue and the Iraq issue is a sound one. What is needed is not only a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, but a more general change in the policy of the United States toward the whole area.

Could you say more about the issue of pressure points, what issues the movement could raise which might reach a wider audience?

The cost of the war is already huge. It’s already some $125 billion. Before the recent upheaval in the country, the cost of occupation was estimated at about $1 billion per week. And the cost is certainly higher now that U.S. forces are facing an increasingly difficult situation. To get an idea of what these amounts represent (because to many this may seem like an abstract figure), I was recently reading about the richest man in the world, whose fortune is estimated at $73 billion: if this is the biggest fortune in the world, consider that nearly twice this amount has already been spent in Iraq, with very disastrous results. If that money were spent for development and welfare and the like, it could reap excellent fruits. But it’s spent for killing, it’s spent for destruction, much more than for any so-called reconstruction by U.S. companies, which are getting contracts on very dubious terms and have been unable to deliver anything that could change the mood of the Iraqi population toward the U.S. occupation in one year of occupation.

It’s clear that this is a powerful argument because people can understand that state budgets are not unlimited and any increase in military expenditure can only happen at the expense of other programs. In the United States today, there is no attempt at combining warfare and welfare, like Lyndon B. Johnson tried to do during the Vietnam War with his "Great Society" program. Those were different times, and the economic situation was different. The U.S. ruling class believed it could afford to do that, but the end result was a deep economic crisis.

We are clearly no longer in the same situation, and very recently the International Monetary Fund has been warning that the increase in the U.S. deficit could have dire consequences for the world economy, obviously starting with the U.S. economy itself and its effects on the U.S. population. From that angle, the trade union movement in this country ought to be at the forefront of the struggle for a change of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and for an end to the occupation of Iraq.

But the security issue is more important still: the sense of insecurity in the country since September 11, which has been used by the Bush administration as an ideological weapon for its own agenda, should be turned into a powerful ideological weapon by the antiwar movement, with the argument that the only way to stop this infernal cycle is to change course.

You end your book Eastern Cauldron by making a connection between arguments that have confronted the movement against neoliberal globalization and movements now challenging imperialism and war. You write, "These two dimensions will continue to fuel each other, to strengthen people’s awareness that neoliberalism and war are two faces of the same system of domination–which must be overthrown." Can you elaborate on this?

At the national scale, it’s not difficult to understand that the neoliberal agenda– which means dismantlement of social safety nets, dismantlement of social security, dismantlement of a whole set of democratic and social gains achieved through popular struggle in the previous decades–creates the ground for increased insecurity and social violence, urban violence, and therefore is intimately linked to the strengthening of state repression. If you want to implement a neoliberal agenda, you’ve got to strengthen your repressive apparatus, because you have to be prepared to deal with an increasingly tense social situation.

Just look at the figures. It’s crystal clear. When you look at the implementation of the neoliberal agenda, starting from the Reagan years up to now, and you look at one key figure indicator, which is the increase in the prison population in the United States, the link between the two processes is absolutely clear. You’ve got now a situation in this country where there are more than two million people in jail: that’s absolutely frightening.

The same applies to the world situation. When you push the neoliberal agenda on the world scale, you dismantle also a whole set of protections that have been established by poorer countries for their own economies. You create a precariousness at a global level for hundreds of millions of people, and you increase, therefore, the potential for all kinds of violence. There is a link between neoliberalism and ethnic strife. This is something that one can see very clearly from the facts. When this is the kind of agenda you want to impose on a world scale, you have to prepare yourself for repression at the same time, and repression on a world scale is through the military.

The neoliberal agenda of the Clinton administration cannot be separated from the fact that this administration maintained a military budget of a Cold War level and then reinitiated a long-term increase in military spending from 1998 on, after years of decrease because of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Bush Jr. administration has just been walking on the path of the Clinton administration. And if one remembers the 2000 electoral campaign, Al Gore was actually outbidding Bush in terms of plans for military expenditure. This goes hand in hand with the more general neoliberal agenda.

And in reverse, the disarmament perspective goes hand in hand with a perspective of social security and social welfare, and that was at the root of the famous "four freedoms" of Franklin D. Roosevelt. He spoke of the connection between "freedom from fear" and "freedom from want." It’s a very sensible idea that both are closely related, so that you can’t get one if you don’t get the other. And that’s in a nutshell what we are saying about security, the progressive conception of security versus the reactionary one. Successive administrations in recent U.S. history have been committed to a very reactionary conception of security, whether global or national. And you don’t need to be a radical Marxist (and Roosevelt was definitely not one) to understand that this prevailing conception is counterproductive, to understand that there is a different conception of security, one based mainly on social security and disarmament, the decrease and dismantlement of armed forces and repressive apparatuses.

A major opportunity has been missed in that respect after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and I think that there was not enough awareness of these issues by the U.S. public in general, and by the Left in particular. There was not enough attention given to key decisions concerning military budgets, concerning key foreign policy decisions, and the agenda the government was pushing forward at a world level.

Important opportunities have been missed, but it’s not too late. In fact, the need to act is becoming more and more urgent in light of the descent into barbarism that the U.S. government is fostering at the world level. It’s becoming very urgent to counter all of this with a radically opposed conception of security on the basis of which one could build a very broad movement going far beyond the radical Left.

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