From Iraq to Ukraine: War, Empire and the Loss of Historical Memory
Economic and military competition between powerful states links the wars in Iraq and Ukraine.
February 2023 contains two significant anniversaries – 20 years from the birth of the mass movement against the US and Britain’s invasion of Iraq, and one year from the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
According to the prevailing media view in the west, there is no relationship between these two wars, and any attempt to draw one is offensive. Clive Myrie, the BBC correspondent who became a totem of British liberal war fever in the early months of the Ukraine invasion, told the Times that any attempt at comparison would be to draw a “false equivalence” and “fucking bullshit” (Myrie was embedded with British Marines in Iraq in 2003).
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In Scotland, seasoned foreign correspondent David Pratt recently described the invasion of Ukraine as an event without precedent in the almost eight decades of a “largely peaceful international system since 1945”. Pratt is only asserting bluntly the deranged but widespread message since February 2022 – that Ukraine is the first real war since its natural equivalent, the Nazi conquest of continental Europe.
In place of even a rudimentary materialist analysis of inter-state competition has come a plethora of trite, folk wisdom explanations for the present war in Ukraine. Paranoia about civilisational threats and ill-fitting analogies to WW2, hyper-personalised and instrumentalist claims, such as the moral evil of Putin or his alleged mental instability, abound. More colour has been painted around a revival of Russian nationalism and ‘greater-Russian’ claims to rights in neighbouring countries. This phenomenon is real but cannot explain war. Chauvinist nationalism and imperial arrogance express state interests, geostrategy and class relations – they do not, in the first instance, create them.
All this is a great departure from the anti-war mood in Britain, which extended well beyond the left to wider opinion at the time of the invasion of Iraq 20 years ago. Of course, the context was very different, Britain being among the aggressors invading a sovereign state. Nonetheless, we have to account for the failure to translate anti-war politics into a meaningful analysis of global competition between states, and the ways this informs episodic outbreaks of war. The failure to understand that Iraq and the ‘War on Terror’ are part of the road to Ukraine is a central feature of the imperial amnesia attacking historical memory in the west.
What follows is an outline of the road to war, told from the perspective of the global system’s most powerful state actors, the US and her allies. It is far from a comprehensive telling with an analytical rather than documentary purpose. The aim is to examine the motivations of capitalist war, using a materialist analysis that eschews the petty and unserious explanations cited above. It will focus on the western record, which has been lost to historical memory in the west. The theoretical weakness of the pro-war left, in part consequent upon the loss of this history, will be examined in the second half of this article.
The origins of US power, and its road to confrontation with Russia over Ukraine, can be found before the collapse of the USSR. A decades-long arms race characterised the bipolar world order after WW2, when the US and USSR competed for global influence in a Cold War that frequently turned hot in Africa, Asia and Latin America. This arms race planted the seeds for US militarism after 1989, diminishing US economic dominance at the expense of a ballooning military power. To take just one measurement, at the end of WW2 the US produced a massive 50% of all the world’s manufacturing output. By 1980 this had fallen to 31%, as rival countries spending less on the arms race became more competitive. This decline set a hard pathway for US economic development, and by 2019 US output was down to 17%, far below China at 29%.
Meanwhile, US military budgets ballooned, commensurate with the scale of industrial decline. Military spending had grown to $50 billion (in 1982 value US dollars) and then rose in waves with consecutive Cold War confrontations including the Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam. Inflation, triggered by Vietnam war spending, crippled the long post war boom of US capitalism, and helped pave the way for a neoliberal backlash. Yet despite the gradual withdrawal of state protection for industry around the western world in this period, US military spending continued to soar, placing massive strain on the USSR. US military spending hit $250 billion by the late 1980s and the end of the Cold War.
Redefining Global Power
Thus the US emerged victorious from the Cold War, with an over-developed military power, and no major rivals in the world system. This hegemonic position was bolstered by its control of international finance, the US dollar as a world currency, and a network of international allies with no option but to accept the US position as world hegemon. Not only was US military spending greater than all other major countries combined, but most of these smaller military powers were part of the US alliance. These military and diplomatic strengths were complimented by enormous ideological and cultural power. The defeat of the USSR meant that systemic alternatives to the prevailing mode of US-led global capitalism were practically non-existent. The US was, and so far remains, quite simply the most powerful empire in world history.
But this victory was not perfect. The US emerged marked by the relative decline in its competitive economic position. At first, triumphalism obscured this weakness. But with the passage of time, and particularly the rise of China, it would only become more pronounced. The collapse of the USSR also heralded the explosive development of what was termed ‘globalisation’ – the integration of many countries, principally the former Eastern Bloc and China, deeper into the global market. This too initially appeared as a boon to a US power that dominated the global economy. But over time it meant a multiplication of competitors, and deeper mutual integration between them.
The US was faced with a paradox: its economic position was deteriorating relative to its challengers, but it also had an overweening supremacy of arms. The solution to this paradox was elegantly simple – it would use its military strength to arrest relative economic decline.
A new foreign policy establishment rapidly developed in Washington to preach the gospel of interventionism. The first Gulf War sought to redress the setbacks suffered by the US in Western Asia in decades past. Chief among these was the Iranian Revolution of 1979, which had deprived the US of a powerful client. The region is crucial for the strategy of maintaining US hegemony through force because of its oil wealth and location at the heart of the Eurasian landmass.
The first war with Iraq was launched opportunistically upon the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Though Iraq was roundly defeated, the war did not issue in a stable US client. Instead, Saddam Hussein and his apparatus re-imposed control in a bloody crackdown, and the US imposed an even bloodier sanctions regime.
Though the mood for a forward military posture in the Washington of the 1990s and early 2000s was bipartisan, it established its most fanatical adherents around the neoconservative movement in the Republican party. A thinktank formed in 1997, the Project for A New American Century, was a home for leading neoconservatives and explicit on the need to defend US hegemony through military force. It viewed Iraq as unfinished business, and pushed for regime change, eventually forming a camarilla around George Bush and the second Iraq War in 2003.
This second war succeeded in overthrowing Hussein and his badly weakened state, but it could not establish a stable pro-western government. Iran – a major target of the war, was strengthened in Iraq and the wider region.
The Arab Revolutions from 2011 were, in part, a backlash against the US-facilitated order in the region. US backed dictators like Mubarak in Egypt were toppled, and Russia and Iran backed a threatened Assad in Syria. In a dash to shape the outcome of the uprisings, Nato, Russia and regional powers drowned many thousands in blood. In the Middle East and wider Arab and Muslim world, the failure of western policy was being reflected in a new imperial competition.
The New Europe
The collapse of the USSR in the early 1990s also meant a rebirth of US and Western power in Europe. Russia’s old sphere of influence disintegrated in a tide of nationalist revolution and moved into the US-dominated global market. The re-unification of Germany paved the way for European integration and eventual German primacy in the EU.
Nato, born as a Cold War alliance, survived its rival Warsaw Pact. By 1994 President Clinton was welcoming new member states, driving the alliance eastward across the continent towards a defeated and broken Russia. The Russian state leadership reacted with fury but was impotent to prevent waves of eastward expansion that brought Nato to Russian borders. Fourteen new member states (excluding East Germany) joined Nato between 1990 and 2020. All were former Warsaw Pact members and several were formerly members of the USSR.
From the early 1990s onward, many voices from within the US security state and establishment warned that Nato expansion could inflame tensions and ultimately provoke war. But the expansion served US and allied interests in key ways. It marginalised Russia, long a competitor for influence in Europe. It strengthened the US and western project for hegemony over the Eurasian landmass, and it kept a resurgent Germany in its place.
The rise of Putin saw a stabilisation of Russia’s post Cold War decline (and no more than that – Russia is still declining by many metrics, just more slowly). He first stabilised Russia internally through the brutal second Chechen War (welcomed in the west at the time), before turning his attention to rebuilding Russian influence in its near abroad. At first Putin sought détente with the west, but this faded with growing Nato and western belligerence.
In 2008, the twin processes of Nato expansion and Russian relative stabilisation met in war. A Nato summit in Bucharest promised eventual Nato membership to Georgia and Ukraine – marking them as a clear threat to Russia in the future but leaving them defenceless for the meantime. Just months later Russia defeated Georgia in a five day conflict.
Undeterred, Nato and the EU continued their expansion. The tussle between pro-Russian and Pro-Western factions of the Ukrainian elite exploded onto the streets in the Maidan Revolution. After a Russia-friendly government was deposed, Russian troops seized the Crimea to secure Black Sea access, and fighting broke out between Ukrainian forces and Russian-speaking separatists in the east and south of Ukraine. The stage was set for the war of 2022.
The Nature of Geostrategy Under Capitalism
These different theatres (and more besides – such as Latin America and the Pacific, though they are beyond the scope of this article) demonstrate the bloody scale and sophistication of the global attempt to shore-up US imperial reach, at a time when its mandarins anticipated rival imperialisms. But to many in the west (though not these mandarins themselves – from New American Century to the Rand corporation, there has been astonishing openness about the project), the course of historical events has been obscure and subject to misinterpretation. This requires some explanation.
A crucial mistake has been for many on the left to understand the wars in Iraq and the wider War on Terror as essentially wars of ‘theft’ or ‘profit-making’. The profile of some major neoconservative-linked US corporations in the Iraq War (such as Haliburton) indicates the extent to which an instrumentalist view of war-making gained purchase on the left. Narrowly interpreting the (highly effective and well-pitched) slogan ‘No War for Oil’ to mean ‘no war for corporate profits’, this attitude held that wars are conducted by narrowly based elite conspiracies. This attitude found a mirror in the early months of the invasion of Ukraine, when left intellectuals like Gilbert Achcar accused Russia of conducting a “war of rapine”, literally a war of theft. A common framing for the war has been to assess it as one of ‘colonialism’: either an attempt to permanently occupy and eradicate the Ukrainian nation for the purpose of direct exploitation, or a smash and grab for Ukrainian mineral or agricultural wealth.
This is an absurdly simplistic and narrow conception of capitalist war. The major capitalist states (and alliances of such states) do not simply reproduce the profit-making or otherwise acquisitive functions of individual units of capital. Instead, they become successful hosts and handmaidens to capital by acting semi-autonomously from it. All else being equal, states with ready access to resources and markets, as well as to the means of strategy itself (powerful allies, the ability to project hard and soft power, internal coherence and class stability) will be successful in attracting and creating opportunities for capital, and building strong capitalist economies. States which fail to be competitive in these terms will not be so successful.
This competitive drive is sufficiently powerful that deviation from it over any duration or in any significant way will result in catastrophic decline for any state. It will lose position to its competitors, and with it economic activity, revenue, stability and strategic reach in a vicious cycle. Significant capitalist states cannot choose to opt-out of this competition.
Both of the major actors in the present war, the western/Nato allies and Russia, have engaged military strategy in this more sophisticated sense. The invasion of Iraq was, as noted, intended as an intervention to serve various ends in a vital region. One was indeed to seize oil fields. And whilst profits were made and wealth simply looted, the main objective was the control of oil as a strategic asset. The war would bar Chinese access to Iraqi and regional markets – an attempt to curtail the rise of this major competitor (the failure of US power in Iraq has seen Chinese investments flood the country in recent years).
Russian interests in Ukraine have a long pedigree (geostrategic objects can be ‘sticky’ – sea outlets, chokepoints and mountain ranges maintain their significance over time). For hundreds of years Russia has sought both a buffer between itself and European competitors, and secure access to the Black Sea, often in the teeth of western resistance. Without the Black Sea, Russia loses its capacity to project influence into both the Black Sea region and the Mediterranean, with it the markets of southern Europe and the Middle East. If it lost naval power in the Black Sea, Russia would enter a profound decline and its claim to world power status would be finished.
The understanding of war as a simple extension of capitalist accumulation is indicative of a deeper confusion on large parts of left opinion. It is a false image of capitalism, rooted in the historical conditions of the 1990s and 2000s.
Globalisation, so characteristic of the rise to hegemony of US state power and the defeat of its rivals, was re-imagined as a triumph of markets over state power. The very real development of transnationalism, with its offshoring of elite power to institutions like trade bodies and military alliances, and a concurrent decline in national-state democracy, was interpreted as an ambiguous, even positive development, ushering in a post-national world order.
In the prevailing conception, capitalism was seen as a disembodied force imposing its will on political institutions which are somehow outside of capitalism. Thus, in this era, everything from the EU to NGOs, the remaining public sector industries in the west to various Latin American governments were seen as not only outside of capitalist relations, but the seeds of an extant alternative, already living alongside capitalism.
This market capitalism bore an obvious resemblance to the imagined capitalism promoted by the prevailing economic liberalism. Champions of neoliberalism, seeking pro-market reform, also characterised public ownership, developmentalist governments in the global periphery, and any institution seeking regulation of markets as socialistic fetters on capitalist development.
Behind the ideologies of left and neoliberal right, the real capitalism was made up precisely of state and transnational institutions, deeply inter-penetrated with capital and markets. As this real capitalism was obscured, so too was any meaningful conception of capitalist state rivalry.
According to Leandros Fischer:
“While it was easy to be against George W. and the neocons in this unipolar moment, it was not always easy to analytically discern the root causes of things like the ‘war on terror’.
“A minority of us made the argument that the state and imperialism were still a thing, and that the fact that we now lived in a unipolar moment did not mean that the state was irrelevant or that challengers to this order would not ultimately appear. Indeed, we argued that the war on Iraq was not the result of neocon-groupthink but a badly organized flight forward to prevent the emergence of such challengers to US hegemony.”
This delusion of a weightless, world spirit of capitalism has suffered numerous shocks in the two decades since. The 2008 financial crisis demonstrated the contradictory and destructive unity of finance capital and the nation state. Brexit and the populist moment indicated the instability of transnationalism. The latter was greeted in a mood of hysteria by many on the left unwilling to abandon illusions in a ‘post-national’ world capitalism. The re-appearance of state challenges to the US has caused this same constituency to project onto Russia, and increasingly China, the characteristics of the world system as a whole, and especially its leading power.
The arbitrary separation of economics and politics is an old feature of primitive anti-capitalist thought. It has been re-organised and recharged by US victory in the Cold War, and is now stubbornly holding-on to left consciousness. For every advocate of progressive proxy-war in Ukraine (and before that the bombing of Libya and Syria), there are more who have come to view politics as simply secondary to fundamental (domestic, even local) economic demands. Both vehement supporters of the war and the ambivalent share a distorted understanding of the capitalist system as split between capitalist economics and non-capitalist political features of the system – some progressive and others reactionary.
The moral and cultural thought of the left also reflects establishment ideology. The mutation of the doctrine of ‘humanitarian intervention’ is a sign of the damage done to that concept through its deployment in Afghanistan and Iraq. But rather than disappear, ideas of progressive war have shifted their focus from universalist claims of spreading democracy and human rights, to particularist claims about national and ethnic justice. As Ukrainian sociologist Volodymyr Ishchenko as argued: “Ukraine’s ‘decolonization’ becomes a version of (national-)identity politics—that is, a politics centered around the affirmation of belonging to a particular essentialized group, with a projected shared experience.”
This is how war for territory has transitioned from being seen as the most obscene waste of human life (as in popular retellings of WW1) to the most noble object of war. Demands in the west focus on the restoration of the Ukrainian borders of 1991 (and in Russia on the restoration of a Russian Ukraine). By comparison, war for human rights sounds cynical and unrealistic. The politics of blood and soil has returned to Europe, and it is lauded at many points on the political spectrum. Rather than decried, on parts of the left it is dressed up in the language of national self-determination and treated as another sacred totem somehow distinct from the logic of capitalist military and geostrategic competition.
Wars to Come
As stated, the attitudes of much of the modern left are a product of the unipolar moment and its incremental breakdown. They also reflect the prevailing ideologies of the system – both the neoliberal theory of market capitalism and ideas about liberation and freedom through war.
Another ingredient is necessary to explain left and liberal support for the war (not forgetting that there is still both an organised anti-war left and a much wider element of the population which is generally sceptical of western foreign policy). The general demoralisation of the left, and its loss of belief in making a meaningful challenge to established power hangs over the entire debate about the war.
It is naturally easier to make the case for an anti-war politics when there is a powerful labour movement capable of halting war policies and seizing on military setbacks at home. The retreat of parts of the left behind their own states’ policy in the west was facilitated by setbacks, such as the collapse of the Sanders and Corbynite projects. The lessons drawn from these defeats seem to include a feeling that divisive political issues are beyond the scope of useful engagement.
These shortcomings will need to be overcome. The war currently raging in Europe, at such terrible human cost, is only the precursor of a desperate struggle for hegemony in Asia that may well define the 21st century. Russia is already openly discussed in the corridors of power as a problem that must be solved to enable a further pivot to the South China Sea, where a much more powerful rival is emerging. At the one year anniversary of the invasion of Ukraine, panic spread in western capitals about China allegedly offering military supplies to the Russian arsenal. This broader geostrategic competition cannot be stymied by backing one rival or the other. It must be opposed from within each armed camp. A clear-sighted appreciation of the motivations, methods and strategies of the powers is essential in building that opposition.
Free on Conter
From Iraq to Ukraine: War, Empire and the Loss of Historical Memory
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Boris Johnson is at his demagogic worst in escalating the war in Ukraine. Yet his liberal critics are quietly supportive of his provocations, writes Ben Wray.
Event: The Strategic Dilemmas of Working Class Politics and Organization Today
Thursday, 13th April, 5pm
Cat Boyd is a Glasgow-based writer, campaigner and trade unionist. She is assistant editor at Conter and host of Contercast. She writes mainly on Scottish and American politics, culture and work.
Daniel Chavez works at the Transnational Institute (TNI) where he runs their New Politics Initiative. After the defeat of left governments in Latin America following the 2008 economic crisis, and disappointments in European left projects, the New Politics project was initiated to learn the lessons of the past. A scholar-activist with a strong commitment to progressive Latin America, Daniel cut his activist teeth at the United Federation of Mutual Aid Housing Cooperatives (FUCVAM) in Uruguay where he worked for almost a decade.
He is the author and editor of several books, including The Left in the City: Progressive and Participatory Local Governments in Latin America (Latin American Bureau, 2004) and in Spanish as La izquierda en la ciudad (Icaria, 2004), The New Latin American Left: Utopia Reborn (TNI, 2008) and Nueva Izquierda En America Latina (Catarata, 2008).
Vivek Chibber is Professor of Sociology at New York University and the author of The Class Matrix, Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital and Locked in Place: State-Building and Late Industrialization in India, which won the Barrington Moore, Jr. Prize. He is the editor of Catalyst and has contributed to many journls, including the Socialist Register, American Journal of Sociology, Boston Review and New Left Review.
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