Left Forum NYC 2010: Iraq

The Left and prospects for democracy in the Middle East: Iraq

Chris Cutrone

Presented on a panel with Issam Shukri (Worker-communist Party of Iraq) and Ashley Smith (International Socialist Organization) at the Left Forum in New York City, Pace University, March 21, 2010.

American political activist Danny Postel interviewed the British Left historian of the Middle East Fred Halliday in Chicago in 2005. They published the interview under the title “Who is responsible?” This is the question faced by purported “Leftists” internationally. What would it mean to practice a responsible politics on the Left in the face of phenomena like the Iraq war?

But we can turn this problem around slightly, in the issue of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, now winding up. The question is, “Who was responsible?” for the war. While the Spartacist socialist radical Karl Liebknecht may have said of Germany in the first World War, “The main enemy is at home!,” he certainly did not think that the German ruling class was the only enemy or the main enemy of everyone, but rather the main enemy for the German Left, especially in the context of the war in which the German working class was held hostage. So the kind of inverted nationalism one sees in today’s so-called “anti-imperialism” is completely foreign to the perspectives of historic revolutionary Marxist politics. While U.S. policy is certainly responsible, it is not exclusively so. And while the U.S. ruling class and its government may be the “main” or principal enemy for American Leftists, it is not the only one – and, perhaps more importantly, it is certainly not the main or only enemy for Iraqi Leftists. Most have avoided this fundamental truth. But this is a measure of the unseriousness of their “politics.”

Baathism was responsible at least as much as U.S. Republicans and neoconservatives for the Iraq war. This can be demonstrated conclusively to the degree that Saddam Hussein and his Baathist regime made two disastrous miscalculations: 1.) in feigning possession of WMDs; and 2.) thinking that it was possible to split Europe from U.S. hegemony and balance one against the other, preserving some breathing room for Baathist Iraq. That Iraqis had absolutely no ability to resist these catastrophic political miscalculations by the Baathist regime is the most fundamental fact conditioning the war. The truth is that the Baathist regime is what made the war possible — perhaps even inevitable — to begin with. The regime was willing to drag the rest of Iraq down with it.

On the Baathists’ political calculus, would it have been better if Iraq had indeed had WMDs, or if Europe had actively opposed the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq? Were the Russian and Chinese vetoes in the U.N. Security Council in any way progressive or emancipatory in character? Who had the best interest of the Iraqis, let alone their potential emancipation, in consideration in this decisive context? Weren’t the Europeans, Russians (and before them, the Soviets) and Chinese, and not only the U.S., responsible for not only the toleration but the very existence and continued subsistence of the Baathist regime in Iraq?

So the geopolitics of the Iraq war needs to be evaluated in light of Iraq and the greater Middle East, not exclusively and perhaps not even primarily in terms of U.S. hegemony — to which there is no actual alternative anyway. The U.S. was going to remain the cop of the world whether or not it invaded Iraq. That the U.S. risked and did not necessarily enhance its role as global cop/hegemon in invading and occupying Iraq should point this basic fact out clearly enough.

The truth is that all of the neighboring countries were hostile to Baathist Iraq. (This is also true, relatedly, for Iran today, so this is a historical lesson that needs to be learned!) Not only Europe but also Russia and China were no reliable friends of the Iraqis, to say the least. They have long been and remain perhaps worse enemies of the Iraqis than the U.S. has been, as seen in their erstwhile support for Saddam’s Baathist Iraq.

In this situation that the Worker-communist Party has described evocatively as the “dark scenario” for Iraq, we must face the deeper history that has made this possible today. Only in this way can we face squarely the tasks of the present — the potential possibilities internationally for a truly social-emancipatory politics. All else remains vain posturing or merely hand-wringing. In the U.S. itself, it is merely high-strung rhetoric covering, in the case of Iraq, a desire to have the Republicans voted out in favor of the Democrats. Now that this has happened, there is embarrassed silence about Iraq on the “Left.” But Obama did exactly what he promised. And the Democrats more generally never offered anything of a progressive-emancipatory alternative to the Republican policy. — This can be seen in Biden’s proposal to divide Iraq into three separate countries, punishing the Sunnis for their resistance by robbing them of access to Iraq’s oil wealth (which is concentrated in the Shiite South and Kurdish North). Leaving Baathist Iraq alone would have hardly been better for the Iraqis in the long term, if history is any kind of indication.

Why did the Iraq war happen? Because Saddam’s Baathist regime had turned Iraq into a pariah state internationally, and a grotesque house of horrors for its own inhabitants. The Baathist regime was becoming worse not better for the Iraqis as time went on. Saddam was willing to wager the Iraqi people, seemingly without limit, for the continuation of his regime. Did he really think he could outlast the hostility he had generated, not only with the U.S., but also with Iran, Saudi Arabia, and others? What was the actual future for Baathist Iraq, if not implosion and civil war, barring (also) foreign intervention of one form or other (if not invasion and occupation)? — Has Lebanon really been any better?

On the other hand, what about Iraq today, after the invasion and occupation? It is arguably true that, apart from Israel, Iraq is today the most politically “democratic” state (if only in political dynamism) in the Middle East. The U.S. achieved its aims of removing Baathism and making Iraq a state more responsible not only to the international community but also to its own inhabitants. The only question is whether the cost for achieving this has been too great. If so, then one needs to ask, who actually made it so costly? Was the so-called “resistance” worth it? Was it even directed at the U.S. occupiers, or really at its sectarian opponents (on both sides)? Was it only or even primarily the U.S. that was responsible for the destruction, or were there other actors involved, and, if so, how do we hold them accountable — and how may any purported “Left” challenge and oppose them, moving forward? Isn’t this the question we especially face today, when the U.S. is vacating the scene? Or will the “Left” simply forget about Iraq, end of story? — Weren’t Iraq and the Iraqis always in fact forgotten in the estimations of the so-called “Left?”

Who was responsible? | §

2 Responses to “Left Forum NYC 2010: Iraq”

  1. Dr Hussain Alwan Hussain says:

    Gentleman
    To my thinking the main responsible side for the ongoing Iraqi tragedy is the Bush Administration for invading an already devastated country, by inflicting more damage to its infrastructures, production means, and the whole population, installing pro-Iranian rulers in place, letting huge numbers of machine guns enter every house, relinquishing its legal responsibility as protector of the civil population against militias, and refusing to write a decent constitution for the people of Iraq that takes into consideration international law, persisting in exercising combat area orders of shoot-to-kill against civilian cars innocently passing by, commencing power abuse and pilferage, etc. In short for doing everything to prevent the emergence of a truly democratic rule.
    Obama’s administration is even more responsible by choosing to abandon the ugly scene of mutilated carcass as quickly as possible, leaving the people of Iraq to the dogs.
    Babylon, Iraq

  2. Even if the U.S. is primarily, preponderantly or overwhelmingly responsible for everything that took place in Iraq, this would not absolve the irresponsibility of the international “Left” with respect to its specific responsibilities, which are to help clarify and enable more effective opposition to wars, “imperialist” or “civil.” The reason the anti-war movement dried up was not simply because of the success of the U.S. in pursuing its aims, but because the “Left” failed to rally anti-war sentiment effectively politically.

    I agree that the Obama administration should be criticized and opposed in its pull-out as much as the previous administration of Bush should have been for invading and occupying. But that’s precisely a point that the international “Left” has been unable to digest.

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