This article has been reproduced from the Socialist Standard (August 2000), the monthly journal of The Socialist Party of Great Britain.
Competitive imperialist strategies to gain control of and/or access to oil continue to cause the murder of the workers in Iraq.
Even by the barbaric standards of contemporary capitalism, the situation in Iraq is dire. A deadly combination of routine daily bombings since December 1998 and economic sanctions imposed after the invasion of Kuwait has led to the “destruction of a society” in the words of former United Nations (U.N.) official Denis Halliday.
However, how many people realise that “their country” is still effectively at war? Moreover, how many are aware that half-a-million Iraqi children have been killed as a direct result of the sanctions? The answer to both these questions is, of course, not many but this should come as no surprise.
It would appear that the media in the west has imposed a blanket over the sufferings in Iraq, which is only removed periodically to lambast Saddam Hussein and to justify a U.S.A./U.K.-led policy which is terrorising tens of thousands of ordinary Iraqi people, yet paradoxically making Saddam’s brutal Ba’thist regime even stronger
A brief history
It will be remembered that the Gulf War of 1991 was initiated by Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. When Iraq refused to withdraw, the U.N. imposed economic sanctions and in January 1991 after the apparent failure of diplomacy, the U.N.-led coalition went to war which resulted in victory a few weeks later.
With the end of the conflict, uprisings took place in Kurdish northern Iraq and the Shia and Marsh Arabs in the south. These risings which were anti-Saddam were initially supported and encouraged by the West only to be betrayed and for Saddam to be allowed to crush the rebellions in blood. However, it created the veneer of legitimacy required by the U.N. to pose as protectors of the anti-Saddam minorities and create the infamous “no-fly zones” over northern and southern Iraq.
The U.N., of course, had access to this airspace. They patrol these areas with the mandate to shoot down any undesirable flying objects, so long as these are not Turkish fighters which routinely bomb northern Iraq as part of their continuing war against the Kurds.
It scarcely needs to be mentioned that oil is the reason for all this attention on Iraq. Iraq has the world’s second largest known oil reserves and this fact should underline any understanding of the competitive imperialist strategies to gain control and/or access to that oil.
Saddam Hussein was not always out of favour. In 1980 he was positively encouraged to invade Iran as the U.S.A. wanted to nip the “Khomeini revolution” in the bud in order to prevent Iran becoming the regional superpower. However, they did not want Iraq to dominate either, so in the words of Henry Kissinger “The ultimate American interest in the war is that both sides should lose”—a policy of duel containment. The U.S.A. got their wish. After eight years of brutality—with millions of casualties on both sides—a draw was declared and the balance of power maintained.
For Saddam’s part the Iraqi economy was severely weakened, accruing debts from various powers not least of all the Kuwaiti ruling family.
The rest is history. A combination of a disputed oil field and a row in O.P.E.C. about oil prices (Iraq wanted higher oil prices)—normally at least led to Iraq’s decision to invade Kuwait, thus setting the scene for the next decade.
Each against all
The end of the Cold War saw the demise of the bipolar East and Western blocs with the defeat of the Soviet Union and the victory of the U.S.A. as the undisputed world superpower. The allied action taken over Iraq—under the auspices of the U.N.—was the first major event of the so-called “New World Order”. Since then the coalition of allies has effectively broken down with states such as Germany, France and Russia pursuing their own imperialist strategies often in direct contradiction to those of the U.S.A.. The raison d’être of this period is ever-shifting alliances and blocs which was not possible under bipolarity.
Operation Desert Fox
In December 1998 after nearly a year of brinkmanship over the role of U.N.S.C.O.M. (the U.N. inspectors looking for Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction), Iraq was bombed by U.S.A. and U.K. forces without reference to the U.N. Security Council. It was alleged that the Iraqis were preventing the inspectors doing their job so they were withdrawn to make way for the bombing.
“U.N.S.C.O.M. director Richard Butler removed inspectors from Iraq prior to the December 1998 bombardment of the country, contrary to what is commonly reported. According to Butler’s own records, his team of weapons inspectors made numerous unimpeded visits before the December bombing” (Iraq Under Siege, edited by Anthony Arnove, p.69).
Evidently, the U.S.A./U.K. were not concerned about “weapons of mass destruction” when Iraq used chemical attacks during the latter stages of the war with Iran or the Kurdish village of Halabja in 1988. In any case what about other countries’ “weapons of mass destruction” such as the U.S.A. and U.K. for example?
One way the U.N. has supposedly attempted to ameliorate the effects of sanctions on the civilian population has been via the oil-for-food programme. Under this programme Iraq is allowed to export a certain quota of oil so enabling it to obtain food and basic medical supplies. Things, however, are not as they seem. Thirty percent of Iraq’s revenue goes into the U.N. Compensation Fund and until very recently with oil prices on the floor Iraq’s export earnings would have been minimal.
There are many advantages for the U.N. to pursue this policy. Firstly, it keeps Iraq’s oil infrastructure in use whilst keeping the vast bulk of the oil off the market and it allows the U.N. to pose as “humanitarians” whilst blaming Saddam for failing to distribute the booty to the population at large.
Even this accusation has been undermined by the man who actually ran the oil-for-food programme in Baghdad: Denis Halliday. Halliday who resigned in disgust because of the effects of the sanctions has said:
” . . . oil-for-food was never intended to actually resolve the humanitarian crisis. It was designed to stop further deterioration. It was designed to build on what the Iraqi government was already doing and is still doing” (Iraq Under Siege, p.36).
Halliday now spends his time campaigning against the sanctions after 34 years with the U.N..
In the light of this, how seriously can we take U.S.A. Secretary of State Madeline Albright’s assertion that despite the carnage sanctions are a “price worth paying”?
The effect of the sanctions and the bombings has been “to blow Iraq back to the Stone Age” and strengthen Saddam’s brutal dictatorship. Bearing in mind that official U.S.A. policy is to remove Saddam from power, one may be mistaken for thinking that ending the sanctions would have been the order of the day. The sanctions have continued unabated despite efforts from states such as France and Russia to rehabilitate and reintegrate Iraq into the world economy.
But of course, the U.S.A. and the likes of France and Russia do not want democracy for Iraq. Indeed, one of the opposition groups funded by the U.S.A. wants to restore the Iraqi monarchy! Only a brutal dictatorship can hold Iraq together which guarantees the integrity of Iraq’s borders and hence a semblance of stability in a strategically vital part of the world. Paradoxically, an internally strong Iraq must be counterposed by being externally weak so it too is unable to threaten the region’s equilibrium. Saddam and/or the Ba’th Party are currently fulfilling this role so to some extent share a unity of purpose with the U.S.A.. In the words of Richard Haass—the former director of Middle East affairs for the National Security Council:
“Our policy is to get rid of Saddam, not his regime” (quoted in Iraq under Siege, p.11).
Slaughter of the working class – just another job under capitalism
With France and Russia first in line for contracts when Iraq oil comes back on tap it’s understandable that they are even more pro-Saddam than the U.S.A.. Even a change of leadership could see them lose out to U.S.A.-based majors. As Noam Chomsky explained last year:
“At the moment there is an oil glut. That’s one good reason why it’s beneficial to the U.S.A. to keep Iraqi oil off the market. The U.S.A. does not want the price of oil to go too low. It’s always wanted it to stay within a range, not too high because of the harm to U.S.A. manufacturers, but not too low because that’s harmful to the energy producers, which are mostly U.S.A.-based and their profits would go down.”
“The other problem with Iraqi oil is that the inside track on developing Iraqi oil is held currently by France and Russia, not by the U.S.A.-based majors. So, for the moment at least keeping Iraqi oil from being developed is a wise project” (Iraq Under Siege, p.53).
Another factor to consider is that the destruction of Iraqi civilian life means a much more compliant working class when Iraq’s oil returns to the open market. As Chomsky explains:
“So, if the population of Iraq were reduced or marginalized, maybe even reduced to such a level that they are barely functional, then when the time comes to bring Iraqi production back on line, they will be less of an impediment” (quoted in Iraq Under Siege, p.53).
This may prove to be significant in the light of the International Monetary Fund (I.M.F.)-style austerity measures that Saddam was attempting to bring in during the late 80s. Previously the policy had been “Guns and Butter”, but the war with Iran put paid to that. The Iraqi working class was showing resistance to cuts in its living standards then, of course, the Gulf War started.
Generally, in the period of “each against all” it can be argued that the U.S.A. has been attempting to reconstitute its own hegemony over the Middle East at the expense of its main industrial rivals. And the Middle East is not the only region. The 1990s’ Balkans experience has demonstrated that nominal co-operation between the big powers does not necessarily mean that differing imperialist strategies were not actually being pursued.
With reference to Iraq, the differing policies between the likes of France, Russia, U.S.A./U.K. have become increasingly pronounced and as pressure builds to life the sanctions and to stop the bombing, the battle to re-control Iraq and its oil will begin again.
End of sanctions
Under which terms and conditions Iraq will be allowed to rejoin the world economy remains to be seen, but it is reasonable to assume that it will happen eventually. If it is the case that the sanctions regime (by design or not) has helped to keep Saddam in power, how will the lifting affect him and the Ba’thists? It is worth remembering that any differences between the U.S.A. and its main rivals does not include democracy in Iraq. So the chances are that Saddam (or whoever is in charge) will have to be rehabilitated in the eyes of the West.
Iraq remains one of the most obvious reasons why the world’s working class has to organise to abolish capitalism and replace it with socialism. We in the Socialist Party place on record our complete abhorrence with regard to the plight of our class brothers and sisters in Iraq and have no equivocation in denouncing the murderous gangsters who have blood on their hands—Saddam Hussein, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair to name but three.
Author: D Flynn
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