Protest needs to be sustained, coherent, forceful, persistent, and bold

Anthony Arnove

Socialist Unity recently spoke to Anthony Arnove author of "Iraq: the logic of withdrawal"


Socialist Unity In your book "Iraq: the logic of withdrawal" you argue for an immediate rather than phased withdrawal. Could you outline why a phased withdrawal is inappropriate.

Anthony Arnove First of all, the idea of phased withdrawal assumes that there is some legitimacy to the occupation of Iraq, when in fact it has none. The occupation was based on utterly baseless pretexts that were used to explain why Iraq had no sovereignty that the United States and its allies had to respect. We know the litany: the threat posed by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and its connections to al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups, invoked repeatedly in the lead up to the war, and also the absurd idea that the United States was enforcing United Nations resolutions by invading Iraq and toppling the regime of Saddam Hussein.

Secondly, it assumes that there is some benefit to the occupation continuing, when in reality every day the occupation continues, the situation in Iraq gets worse. Rather than preventing civil war, the occupation forces are fuelling it. As Sami Ramadani wrote in the Guardian, “the occupation is the main architect of institutionalised sectarian and ethnic divisions; its removal would act as a catalyst for Iraqis to resolve some of their differences politically.” Rather than providing stability, the occupation is the main source of instability.

Finally, all the proposals for timetables are based on criteria that will be evaluated by the very forces that have so much at stake in “wining” in Iraq, who are today building permanent military bases, building the largest U.S. embassy in the world in Baghdad, and making plans for the continued economic occupation of Iraq. The plans are about dampening antiwar sentiment by creating the illusion of a drawdown of troops, rather than with actually mobilizing for an end to the occupation.

Socialist Unity Do you think the same arguments hold true for Afghanistan for instance?

Anthony Arnove Afghanistan is also under occupation and we should similarly be demanding an immediate withdrawal of occupying forces from Afghanistan. We have seen recently how bogus are the claims to have liberated Afghanistan. Afghans are refugees in their own country, ruled by violent warlords allied with the United States. We heard so much about the plight of Afghan women when Bush and Blair wanted to dress up their war in a humanitarian guise, but by all accounts the situation of Afghan women is as bad or worse today than it was before the U.S. invasion and occupation. Meanwhile, the U.S. is carrying out the same kind of violent raids as it is in Iraq, with the usual result: more civilians dead, more infrastructure destroyed, and more resentment created, resentment that then is used to recruit to reactionary and terrorist groups, further destabilizing Afghan society.

Socialist Unity In the UK the anti-capitalist movement turned into an anti-war movement almost over night - how quick were US radicals to see that 9/11 would lead to imperialist adventures?

Anthony Arnove There was a quick recognition in the United States among radicals that the Bush administration would use the horrific attacks of 9/11 as a pretext for a crackdown on civil liberties at home and a series of imperialist interventions abroad. Among liberals, the reaction was quite different. Many U.S. liberals defended the invasion of Afghanistan as a “just war,” and some supported the invasion of Iraq as well, though others saw it as a “distraction” from more vital targets in the otherwise legitimate “war on terror.”

Within the broad global solidarity movement, within which a small minority of activists (primarily anarchists) consciously see themselves as anti-capitalists, there was another problem: the downplaying of the role of the state in the analysis of many anti-capitalists (particularly those influenced by Hardt and Negri’s abysmal Empire) led to a focus on economic issues and a theoretical and political weakness when it came to understanding and challenging thee very real and intense exercise of state power we have seen in Afghanistan and Iraq. Some even saw other activists’ focus on a war as taking away from the “real” issues: capitalist globalization, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, third world debt. So we saw a rather reductive form of economism that I think led some radicals into an abstentionist posture at a time when these and other radicals needed too be linking issues of capitalist globalization and imperialism.

Socialist Unity How far do you think the US stance towards Iran is hard ball diplomacy rather than genuine threat of war?

Anthony Arnove Today the United States is threatening Iran using a modified version of the script it used from 2001 to 2003 in the lead up to the invasion and occupation of Iraq. The Bush administration has repeatedly described Iran as a threat to the United States, a state sponsor of terrorism, and a “rogue state,” and has created an artificial crisis over Iran's nuclear program to create a pretext for pursuing a program of regime change in Iraq. While reporting in the corporate press has echoed the view of the Bush administration that Iran's nuclear program, is an immediate threat, Iran today is five to ten years away from developing a single atomic weapon under the most optimistic scenarios for the development of the complex technology needed to enrich uranium in a cascade of centrifuges.

In contrast, the United States has thousands of nuclear weapons, is developing a new generation of nuclear weapons, including so-called mini-nukes and nuclear-tipped bunker busters, and is engaged in provocative programs to weaponize space, to build a missile shield, which in reality is a means to expand first-strike capacity, and is developing long-range weapons that could easily be confused with nuclear Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, thereby increasing the likelihood of nuclear accident or nuclear war. Israel meanwhile has more than 200 nuclear weapons and is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

For decades, the United States has long allowed Israel to pretend that it does not have nuclear weapons, maintaining a policy of so-called “nuclear ambiguity.” As with Iraq, the discussion of Iran's potential development of nuclear weapons is a smokescreen. The real issues in both cases have to do with energy and geography. The United States has for decades been committed to dominating the energy resources of the Middle East and Western and Central Asia. Control over these resources is vital to the global balance of power. Two-thirds of world oil reserves and the vast majority of the world's natural gas reserves are in this region of the world. Control over these resources is a vital lever of control over rival economic, political, and military powers — in the case of Iran, particularly against China and Russia.

Oil is a vital resource for the world capitalist economy and his been central to the functioning of empire since the British converted from coal to oil-powered ships during World War One. But oil is a dwindling resource. Each barrel is more expensive to extract than the last. And it is increasingly becoming clear to the United States, and other regional powers, that control over natural gas is increasingly important. Looked at in this light, Iran merges as a central player in the global scramble for control of energy resources. Iran has the world's second-largest reserves of natural gas, second only to Russia. It has the world's second or third-largest reserves of oil, surpassed only by Saudi Arabia and perhaps Iraq. Combined that makes Iran one of a handful most important energy states in the world.

Additionally, Iranian energy resources are vastly underexploited. There is not only the likelihood that it has more oil and natural gas than has been proven through previous exploration, but Iran today is exporting oil at about half the rate it did at the height of its capacity in the 1970s. Iran could become a much larger exporter if it were not under U.S. sanctions and were partnered with the most advanced Western energy firms. Iran borders not only Iraq, the Persian Gulf, and the Arabian Sea, it borders Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and the oil-rich Caspian Sea, another important route of energy resources. To its north and east, Iran borders Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, with proximity to India, China, and Russia, three major players in current and likely future energy conflicts, as well as three states with important regional — and global — ambitions. Iran is just across the Persian Gulf from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, other key energy players. So, Iran is at a crossroads of the world’s major energy supplies and most important pipeline and shipping routes.

Because of how badly things have gone for the United States in Iraq, President Ahmadi-Nejad has been able to take a much more aggressive posture against Bush. He has effectively out-manoeuvred the Bush administration, forcing it to retreat from its most intense direct threats to attack Iran. But we shouldn't confuse a shift in rhetoric by the Bush administration with a real shift in fundamental US aim of overthrowing the government in Tehran and installing one favourable to US interests. The current shift is rhetorical, designed to show that the US went the extra mile and eventually to manoeuvre to get Europe onboard and to get around China and Russia, who would at this point veto military action in the UN Security Council, and also eventually to be able to expose the UN Security Council as a block to disarming Iran, thus paving the way for military action (much like happened with regard to Iraq).

Some observers have pointed out it would be lunacy for the US to attack Iran at the moment — not only because Iran has a much larger military and is a much larger and stronger country than Iran was in 1991 and certainly in 2003, with a population that would fiercely fight US attack — but especially given how badly things are going in Iraq. But a few things should be kept in mind. The first is that Iran stands to gain from US misfortune in Iraq. The U.S. is aware of the real risk of a hostile Shia block emerging in Iran and Iraq, which would be a major reversal of U.S. position in the region. Also, we should not forget, these people are irrational. Their arrogance and ignorance are dangerous, and should not be discounted. Thirdly, the fundamental goals driving U.S. imperialism in Iran, Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan, the Caspian region are not going away any time soon.

Given the givens, I suspect an attack like the one we saw in 1981 against the Osirak facility in Iraq is far more likely than a full-scale attack. In the context of recent events in Israel, I think it’s more likely Israel would undertake the attack, as it did in Osirak, but the U.S. may prefer not to use a proxy in Iran. Either way, the consequences will be horrifying.

Socialist Unity In your opinion what are the key lessons that the US anti-war movement needs to learn for the future?

Anthony Arnove I think we have to assess our missteps. We are still dealing with the fact that many people drew pessimistic conclusions after the February 15, 2003, day of international demonstrations -- perhaps the largest coordinated protest in human history -- failed to prevent the war. This pessimism was exacerbated by some of the leading spokespeople for the antiwar movement, who misled audiences by suggesting that the demonstrations could stop the war. As inspiring as the demonstrations were, it would have taken a significantly higher degree of protest, organization, and disruption of business as usual to do so.

The lesson of February 15 is not that protest no longer works, but that protest needs to be sustained, coherent, forceful, persistent, and bold -- rather than episodic and isolated. And it needs to involve large numbers of working-class people, veterans, military families, conscientious objectors, Arabs, Muslims, and other people from targeted communities, not just as passive observers but as active participants and leaders. The post-February 15 demoralization of many activists was exacerbated when large sections of the U.S. antiwar movement threw themselves into the project of mobilizing for a candidate, John Kerry, who supported the so-called war on terror, who was calling for more troops to be sent to Iraq, and who stood opposed to many of the most fundamental demands of the antiwar movement. This forced sections of the left into the most tortured mental gymnastics and apologetics for Kerry.

Then when Bush gained a second term, a number of people mistakenly concluded that the election had given the war and Bush a popular mandate. In reality, a majority oppose the war and Bush has the lowest approval rating of any modern president since Richard Nixon at the height of the Watergate scandal. Zogby did a poll that was published in Military Times showing that 72 percent of active duty troops in Iraq would like to withdraw within a year and 29 percent would like to withdraw immediately, much more than the number of the troops that believe U.S. troops should stay until the “mission is accomplished.” That’s a significant development, given all the pressure on soldiers not to question the mission and just to follow orders. And it reveals the contradictions between being told they would be greeted as liberators and the fact that they’re being greeted as occupiers. More than 2,500 of them are dead, they haven’t discovered weapons of mass destruction, and they haven’t brought democracy to Iraq. The troops have seen first hand the gap between the lies that were used to sell this war and the reality.

Moreover, as the occupation has continued, people have seen how each of the so-called turning points that this administration has declared have turned out to be nothing of the sort. I’m particularly encouraged by the number of Iraq war veterans who have been making the call for immediate withdrawal. Iraq Veterans Against War calls for immediate withdrawal, reparations for the Iraqi people, and for taking care of the veterans of this war and other U.S. wars. The main obstacle remains, I think, giving people a sense that they can express their opposition to war effectively, that protest can make a difference. I think we have some very positive recent examples of the power of protest that we can point to in the defeat of the French government over its project to roll back workers’ rights and in thee huge, vibrant protests of undocumented immigrants, documented immigrants, and their allies around the United States, which have shifted the debate on immigration significantly. We need to build on this experience and also remind ourselves of the history of the movements, especially the GI movement (documented in a brilliant new documentary Sir! No Sir! and in the indispensable book Soldiers in Revolt, recently updated and published by Haymarket Books), that ended the war in Vietnam and set their sites on far more fundamental — and necessary — changes.



Review of "Iraq the logic of withdrawal" here

July 2006

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