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In 1848, Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew, Louis Philippe, was elected to the French presidency. A few years later he staged a coup against his own government, setting up a military dictatorship. In two analytical pamphlets written soon after these world-historical events, Karl Marx wrote of the conditions that “made it possible for a grotesque mediocrity to play a hero’s part.” Although under much different conditions, we are again witnessing a person of grotesque mediocrity mascarading as a hero. With Bush’s relentless drive for war, we have the dubious distinction of living in a similar world-historical conjuncture.
There is much speculation by critics of the war on Iraq as to the reasons behind what Senator Robert Byrd has termed “a massive unprovoked military attack on a nation which is over 50% children” (Senate Floor Speech, 2/12/03). It has been argued that the war is for oil, driven by the military-industrial complex, or to divert attention from the dragging economy. Perhaps the critics have it all wrong. Is it really, as Bush claimed in his latest state of the union address, to “help the afflicted and defend the peace and confound the designs of evil men?”
UN humanitarian coordinators Hans von Sponeck (1998-2000) and Denis Halliday (1997-1998) should be able to tell us something about “helping the afflicted.” Their efforts on the ground in Iraq have led them to agree with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) that US-imposed sanctions against Iraq are responsible for “the death of some 5-6000 children a month . . . mostly due to contaminated water, lack of medicines and malnutrition” (The Guardian 11/29/01). In spite of the Bush Regime’s claims of its selfless humanitarian aid, von Sponeck and Halliday also note that an October 2001 UN report finds that “the US and UK governments’ blocking of $4bn of humanitarian supplies is by far the greatest constraint on the implementation of the oil-for-food programme.”
The Bush Regime also argues that war is necessary in order to secure the safety of the US and Iraq’s neighbors. Yet, in their article, von Sponeck and Halliday note that Clinton’s Secretary of Defense, William Cohen, told incoming President Bush that “Iraq no longer poses a military threat to its neighbors.” More strikingly, in a report to congress right before the Joint Resolution on Iraq was passed, the CIA said that “Baghdad for now appears to be drawing a line short of conducting terrorist attacks with conventional or chemical and biological weapons against the United States.” The CIA said that only if Iraq concludes that “a US-led attack could no longer be deterred” would the threat of attack on the US be serious. Furthermore, Islamic fundamentalist extremists are more likely to find nuclear warheads from among the likely thousands of unaccounted nuclear warheads from the breakup of the former Soviet Union, than from the secular, anti-religious fundamentalist Baathist regime in Iraq.
Furthermore, after promising to back the Northern Kurds and Southern Shiites in overthrowing Hussein after the Gulf War, the US immediately withdrew support, leaving the opposition to be crushed. Stephen Zunes, of Foreign Policy in Focus, notes that while the US banned the use of airplanes by the Iraqi airforce, which could threaten US troops, they allowed the use of helicopter gunships, which were used to slaughter of the opposition (www.fpif.org/commentary/0111gulfwar.html). In another article, Zunes notes that, again contrary to the high rhetoric of the Bush Regime, “according to Amnesty International, the majority of recipients of arms transfers from the United States engage in a pattern of gross and systematic human rights violations” (www.fpif.org/commentary/2002/0201sou.html). These include allies from Egypt and Oman and Uzbekistan to clear dictatorships such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan (and, of course, formerly Iraq during the Iraq-Iran war).
Indeed, the killing of civilians by Israel and NATO member Turkey are officially sanctioned via US military aid, and carried out with military hardware (planes, armored tanks, etc.) manufactured by US multinationals. Colin Powell, in his speech at the World Economic Forum (1/26/03), instructed us that “Afghanistan’s leaders and Afghanistan’s people know that they can trust America to do this, to do the right thing.” Could he be referring to events described by journalist Robert Fisk, such as the strategic assistance in war crimes given by the United States Air Force when it bombed Mazar-i-Sharif so that the Northern Alliance were able to “move into the city and execute up to 300 Taliban fighters?” Fisk contrasts these legally sanctioned American death squads, created to bypass public justice, with Truman’s decision to send Nazis-responsible for tens of millions of deaths-to public trials at Nuremberg.
The days of Wilsonian idealism are over, and the fragile framework of multilateralism and the rule of law in international relations are crumbling. At this critical juncture we must reject the Orwellian logic of peace through war, and the at once banal and apocalyptic epithets that the bumbling Bush can hardly utter correctly between pauses. In a glimmer of hope, such resistance has been growing. In the February15th anti-war protests, over 10 million people demonstrated in the streets, in counties on every continent. And the Los Angeles city council recently passed a resolution against the war, joining over US 100 cities in such action.
However, Bush has rejected these heartening displays of grass-roots democratic voice. While unwilling to listen to popular opinion, at home and abroad, Bush continues with the same rhetoric as used in his 2002 State of the Union address: “America will lead by defending liberty and justice,” standing “firm for the nonnegotiable demands of human dignity: the rule of law, limits on the power of the state . . . .” However, it would be hard to read Bush’s record as anything other than a systematic subversion of the rule of law (e.g., denying due process to all suspected terrorists and “interrogating” key Al Qaeda prisoners outside of the US) and dramatic expansion of the power of the state, both domestically and internationally. But a process perhaps even more ominous is unfolding: the Bush regime, executive of the sole superpower in a unipolar world, is rejecting its leadership role.
The notion of hegemony in international relations has entered popular discourse as the idea of a superpower that dominates in international relations. Yet this term has been applied by (some) international relations theorists in a more naunced form. The concept of hegemony was originally developed by the Italian Marxist Gramsci, to refer to a form of class compromise under capitalism which combined domination with leadership. He reasoned that in modern societies pure coercion will be ineffective and inefficient. Capitalist relations are better reproduced if there is some non-trivial degree of effective leadership by the dominant classes. Capitalists are able to rule better when they provide “moral and intellectual” leadership, and when they allow some of the interests of the dominated to be realized (hence, a growing middle class).
Hegemony works similarly in international relations. Stability in a unipolar international political economy cannot be maintained when the hegemonic power dominates exclusively in its own interests. Rather, it must also provide a form of leadership in which it makes compromises. However, with utter disregard for any interests other than those of the Bush Regime, Powell declared to the World Economic Forum: “Multilateralism cannot become an excuse for inaction . . . We continue to reserve our sovereign right to take military action against Iraq.” This is a direct signal that the administration has rejected its role as a world leader. The notion of sovereignty, which is about the right to defend oneself, is now being used to justify blatant aggression, even against widespread world opinion. Leadership has given way to domination. While the rhetoric that Iraq has defied UN resolution 1441 may sound compelling, the reality is that the US is systematically undermining the whole UN framework. Such a system of international cooperation can only work if the sole superpower provides the leadership to make it work, rather than acting unilaterally whenever the Security Council (or any other international body) does not agree.
Back to the original question, is this war because of oil or other capitalist interests? Marx’s analysis of Louis Philippe has more in common with our present conditions than central figure of grotesque mediocrity. In his class analysis, Marx generally held that the state is either directly controlled by the capitalist class or that whoever is in control, their actions will be constrained by the imperatives of capitalist accumulation. In a capitalist system, the state cannot take actions that will seriously undermine the conditions of profitability. In his more specific applications of class analysis, such as the analysis of Louis Philippe’s Eighteenth Brumaire, however, he made two arguments relevant for our current conditions.
First, capitalists are often divided (e.g., oil, versus global finance, versus military contractors, versus domestic exporters, etc.). Thus, we may find that many fractions of the capitalist class are against the massive amount of uncertainty that this war will cause. Indeed, such uncertainty has caused hundreds of billions in stock market losses, and it’s quite plausible that the majority of capitalist interests are against the war. This leads to Marx’s second point: in extraordinary conditions, the state in capitalism may in fact act against the interests of capitalists, acting unconstrained by the constraints of capital accumulation. Marx used the term Bonapartism to describe just his situation, when Louis Philippe, an elected president, established a military dictatorship and ran the French state against the interests of its capitalists. While I’m not intending a strict analogy here, I do think it is clear that the Bush Regime is acting against the interests of many sectors within the global capitalist economy. Such massive risks and uncertainties involved in a war with Iraq, including radical disruptions of oil flows, are by no means in the interests of global capitalism.
The point of understanding the current political situation is not so much to pinpoint what the Bush Regime’s motivations are. What is important are the larger effects: a war machine is on the loose, out of control of the discipline of capital, and set to destroy nascent and precarious framework of international cooperation, along with hundreds of thousands of innocent children and other civilians. Capitalism is brutal enough, but when the hegemon switches its modus operandi from domination-cum-leadership to self-regarding domination, times are dangerous for everyone.
MATT VIDAL is pursuing his doctorate at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org