For those hoping to limit the American empire’s power and violence, the outcome of the war on Iraq has in some ways been a very good thing. The attempt at unilateral American military intervention has been a disaster for America’s rulers. Despite all of the United States’ vast military might, America has been unable to win militarily against a determined, lightly armed local insurgency. All the firepower, armor, airplanes, missiles and high tech gadgets are ultimately a false form of power — the war against Iraq has exposed this for all to see.
In practice, the ability to kill on a mass industrial scale cannot bring control. This capacity can only bring death, which is far removed from control over a population. Each additional Iraqi civilian cut down by American guns hurts American control over Iraq’s population and breeds more resistance, more seething anger, more hands clutching RPG launchers and planting roadside bombs.
In order for an empire like America — and the global capitalist system which America’s rulers serve — to profit from military aggression, global capitalism needs to acquire economic opportunities after the war — open markets, cheap labor for its corporations, raw materials. You won’t hear anyone talking about it, but the main reason that US rulers want to crush the insurgency in Iraq is not so our hand-picked Iraqi overlords can have a peaceful day on which to hold elections, but so the world’s corporations can start making profitable investments in Iraq. Investment and trade only work in a context of stability. The American imperial military can kill thousands of Iraqis, but it is powerless to create stability — an environment where workers go happily to their jobs to serve their corporate economic masters. The US military hasn’t even been very good at protecting oil extraction from Iraq, which should have been the easiest and most basic form of post-war economic looting.
By alienating the Iraqi population with repeated instances of clumsy brutality — shooting up and invading mosques, bombing wedding parties, torturing naked Iraqi prisoners — the American occupation has all but ensured that if Iraqis finally are permitted to go to the polls, they will elect representatives hostile to American imperial interests, if not a radical Islamic state.
US military planners had hoped to establish numerous permanent military bases in Iraq as a launching pad for further aggression in the Middle East. But after a year of occupation, American troops have their hands full just protecting their own asses, leaving little time to consider further invasions of Iran or Syria.
Given the failure to achieve any perceptible post-invasion imperial goals, the deaths of 11,000 Iraqis and over 800 American soldiers must be seeming a bit “unfortunate” even to the fanatical US regime.
Although Bush tries not to care, the whole situation has been made far worse because he ignored and offended all of America’s capitalist allies with his unilateralism. The US military weakness exposed by the war on Iraq has also shattered the political theory behind efforts like the Project for the New American Century — that as the only super-power left standing, the US could further increase its power by freely using all that military might, without taking into account the views of all those pesky allies.
In fact, using American military power has made the US empire politically weaker in the eyes of the world, not stronger. The US may be the only super-power left standing, but that coin has two sides. Either it means every other country will be scared and compliant, or it sets the stage for other global political blocks to unite to take down the biggest bully on the block.
Given all that the war on Iraq has revealed, we can hope the American imperial masters won’t try anything like this pointless, unilateral military adventure again anytime soon. It is also a bonus that the US military is tied down in Iraq for the time being. The world outside Iraq has rarely been safer from US military terrorism than it is at the moment.
The War at Home
Anti-authoritarians in the belly of the beast here in the US still have a special and crucial role to play in working to limit American imperial power and if possible, destabilize US military and economic might. The key continues to be adopting a diversity of tactics and maintaining flexibility to hit the weak spots at crucial moments. Given the astonishing failures of the war on Iraq, it is curious that domestic expressions of opposition to the war and the occupation have been so flaccid up to this point.
A year ago, during the build up to the war against Iraq, millions of people in the US and abroad poured into the streets to protest the war, but as the occupation has floundered, there have only been a handful of smallish protests led by sectarian groups. Predictably, the Democratic party has failed to criticize the war and occupation. Thus, there has been an odd vacuum of opposition to one of the hugest recent examples of US imperial arrogance and violence.
Perhaps for many, the daily bad news from Iraq (and Israel and the environment and so many other sources) has caused something like “atrocity fatigue” — events have gotten so bad that we’ve become paralyzed. Like a deer caught in the headlights of an on-coming truck, those who could be marching within the US to denounce its disastrous occupation have felt frozen, unable to fight back.
While millions of Americans undoubtedly oppose the occupation and its abuses, private, invisible opposition does nothing to limit US imperial power and turn the political tide against the militarists. People outside the US are left to conclude that most Americans support or are indifferent to the occupation — the torture, the killing, the suspension of press freedom, the stifling of Iraqi political opposition — because all official US voices from Bush to the Democrats have basically supported the occupation. People within the US who privately oppose the occupation or are developing serious questions about its wisdom feel isolated because all media and political voices seem to either support the occupation or just want to make minor reforms so it can be kinder and gentler.
Imagine how differently events like the prison scandal or the ever-climbing body count would look in the context of a vigorous, public opposition movement to the occupation and the militaristic, imperial policies that led to the occupation. Not just an occasional large protest in San Francisco led by a sectarian group, but numerous small and large acts of resistance across the nation occurring every day, every week.
Such visible and public opposition would change the political climate in Iraq, in the world, and in the US. In Iraq, protests would encourage resistance from US soldiers who have concluded that the war is just another disastrous mistake. The war in Vietnam finally became impossible when US troops refused to fight. Even John Kerry, when he was much younger, asked “Who wants to be the last man to die for a mistake?” Indeed.
The Iraqi population would be emboldened to continue resisting the occupation. It is crucial for everyone to understand that regular people in Iraq and regular people in the US have precisely the same enemy — the killers in power in the United States.
Around the world, a strong and visible resistance movement in the US would further degrade the power of the US rulers. Why should populations in Europe, South America, Africa and Asia fear the US empire when that empire is threatened by chaos in the streets at home?
What we need is a way to organize frequent, public resistance to events in a more timely and more heart-felt fashion. The establishment left is a big part of the problem. They have poured all their resources into rare, centralized, stage-managed protests in major cities which are transparently weak, ritualistic and socially isolated.
What is needed is a way to go around the establishment left — which didn’t organize anything while pictures of Iraqis subject to torture flashed on TV screens for weeks — and empower grassroots people everywhere. Building informal, decentralized, autonomous networks in towns big and small across the country is the only effective way to maintain a constant swarm of visible resistance activity.
In Berkeley in the 1980s, I remember a tradition called a BART alert. When folks learned of an outrageous event — say the recent attack on holy sites in Najaf or the recent prisoner torture photographs — someone would phone up the local radio station to declare a BART alert. (BART is the local subway system, and there is a station in downtown.) The station would broadcast calls for the BART alert all day, and maybe some flyers would quickly go up around town. There were phone trees that would be activated — you would call 3 people, they would call 3 people, and so on, reaching a few hundred people in a couple of hours.
At 6 p.m. (always the same time) everyone would meet at BART, there would be a few quick speeches on a bullhorn, and then a march through town which often seemed to end up at the ROTC office on campus or some other suitable symbol of the US imperial monster. It being Berkeley, sometimes windows would get smashed, etc., but the effectiveness of the action didn’t really depend on that kind of thing, although it sure was satisfying.
These protests were great because they were very spontaneous, they took hardly any organizational resources or time, required no city permits or dependence on sectarian groups, and they kept opposition timely, heart-felt, grass-roots, and visible.
What if people around the country set up similar systems for calling small protests quickly? Instead of a sectarian group calling a protest ever 2-3 months in San Francisco and Washington DC, you would have protests going on all over the place every week. Sure, a lot of them would be small. 50 people in Madison, Wisconsin. 35 people in Middletown, Conn. 15 people in Houston. But small protests break the paralysis of inaction. Protests that start small get bigger. People get empowered to realize that everyone in the US can resist the occupation. A tiny protest in Iowa City can mean a lot more — and is harder to dismiss — than a much bigger protest in San Francisco.
Having a constant storm of decentralized, smaller acts of resistance will emphasize a diversity of tactics. The point will be doing something public rather than just sitting at home — isolated and powerless in private. At this crucial stage of history — when the American empire is especially vulnerable — now is the time to seize any opportunity available to say “this occupation is unacceptable and we’re not going to stand idly by.”