In “new imperialism,” it is said, the American economy needs more instability abroad to maintain the health of its capital at home. Long before discourse on “new imperialism” became popular in the West, Palestinian intellectuals in refugee camps arrived at this very conclusion by simply reflecting upon the wretched conditions of their own existence.
Israeli aggressions against unarmed Palestinian refugees never end. At the same time, Israel howls, “Arabs are pushing us into the sea,” masquerading as a weakling in a sea of terror and masking its own vastly superior power, against which Palestinians’ asymmetric means of resistance is no match. In the mean time, Palestinians are daily dispossessed by the powerful Israeli army backed by the American empire.
How badly is the balance of power tilted in favor of Israel in the Near East? The successful blitzkriegs of the Six-Day War should suffice as proof. If any more evidence is necessary, consider, in addition to Israel’s acquisition of nuclear weapons in the early sixties, this excerpt from the 1958-1961 archives of the State Department: “Under-Secretary McGhee expressed understanding Israel’s apprehensions arising from its exposed position but commented US has great respect for Israel’s military competence and estimates it as being match for some time to come for any Arab combination (emphasis added, “Telegram from the Department of State to the Embassy in Israel,” 24 May 1962).
The upshot of this perennial disequilibrium over the last thirty years or so is that the Arab Near East exported some two trillion dollars to partially plug the US deficits while experiencing zero real economic growth. Consequently, it now exhibits the highest rate of youth unemployment in the world. Small and insecure Arab states carved up after WWI, despite their tremendous oil wealth, are textbook examples of highly uneven maldevelopment, whose process is, to an unprecedented degree, shaped by (both actual and threatened) war.
All that naturally did not escape the attention of Palestinian progressive circles. The theory implicit in nearly every issue of Al-Hadaf was that the struggle against Zionism was more than a struggle to reclaim land — it was a struggle against American capitalist hegemony on whose behalf Israel acted as a gendarme. Israel destabilizes the region, fomenting insecurity and boosting the growth of the US military-industrial complex and the attendant recycling of dollars (petrodollars for US weapons or T-bills or other dollar-denominated assets). That was a theory of imperialism bred by crossing open sewers and tin roofs with the ability of human beings to examine their own lives. Contemplation of facts in refugee camps proved to be ahead of the leisurely production of culture in the Western hemisphere, which only recently got around to pinning the rhythm of capital accumulation on the pace of war.
Just like Palestinians, Iraqis must be developing their own theory of imperialism by reflecting upon their own conditions, without waiting for a new Western theory. It is no secret that the Iraqis are living under dark and dismal conditions that, mixed with a cultural heritage that harbors a better relationship with death than it does with life, breed resistance tinged with a hint of fatalism. Even the Wall Street Journal‘s “good news” department could not but let this item slip into its chef d’oeuvre: “As the British head to Spain to find sun, and young Americans to Mexico for legal alcohol, Iraqis drive north to Kurdistan lured by a selling point that rarely appears in Western holiday brochures: the opportunity not to get shot” (emphasis added).1 In a word, the US colonization of Iraq has so far deprived the Iraqi population of even security of person. A recent survey indicates that Iraqis now endure worse conditions than they did under Saddam Hussein: “23 percent of children between six months and five years suffer from chronic malnutrition, while . . . 8 percent experience acute malnutrition. . . . [C]hild malnutrition rates in Iraq had nearly doubled since 2003.”2
The impoverishment of Iraqis is the only achievement of the US occupation. The occupation failed militarily and, more importantly, it failed politically, for
the old imperial strategy of divide and conquer — there would have been twice as many Arab states as there are today had the the colonial powers in WWI had their way in everything — has yet to work its magic on Iraq. First, the occupier made an ill-fated effort to change the Iraqi flag, after which armed resistance picked up. Then, elections were held, after which resistance soared again. Now, there is a Constitution fiasco, and resistance mounts. Instead of a clear Sunni/Shiite divide over the Constitution, there is a Shiite/Shiite open conflict between the Sadrist and the Hakimite currents.3
An Iraqi sociologist says that, despite many efforts on the part of the occupation force to foment a civil war in Iraq, “the situation in Iraq is still far from a full-fledged sectarian war”:
Although the sectarian divide has widened, there are signs indicating that it has reached its peak and a downturn is becoming more likely. A traditional safety valve is the large magnitude/size of inter-sectarian marriages, especially in the urban areas, and the multi-sectarianism of a good number of our key tribes. What is more important is the increasing disappointment with the sectarian parties, if not with most of the parties currently operating in Iraq. Apparently, they have all demonstrated great, if not unmatchable, capacity in corruption, inefficiency and political immaturity.4
Wamid Nazmi, an Iraqi activist and journalist based in Baghdad, cautions us against believing the
image of Iraqi guerrillas in the Western media. To take a couple of examples, Nazmi points out that two of the resisting
in Falluja are Shiites, and many military operations in the South never make the news for they do not fit into the Western propaganda framework.5 Moreover, memories of anti-British colonial uprisings are still vivid in the popular imagination. In short, the Iraqi reality is far more complex than the imperial fantasy of Shiite-Sunni conflict.
Vestigial pre-capitalist forms of social bonds — and lack of anonymity that they entail — in Iraq mean high risks for Iraqis who collaborate with Washington. (Who wants to be left behind, like collaborators in Vietnam, after the last helicopter flies away?) That is another social fact that the occupier has failed to take into account. What is ironic is that the vestigial social bonds in question are legacy of colonialism and neo-colonialism.
Iraq’s paltry development until 1958 was determined by the demands of the British Empire’s capital accumulation. Even after 1958, Iraq was a post-colonial state developing in crisis, due to external pressures and internal blunders, so its rate of capital accumulation was torpid. Crucially, the development of wage labor under the colonial and neo-colonial modes of
did not break up old pre-capitalist forms of social bonding. A slow pace of
in a state that was fragile meant that even modern Iraqi wage earners were not secure enough to wholly break free from patriarchal and communal ties. What remained of the rural subsistence economy became the mechanism of (communal) social support, as well as (patriarchal) social control, for the life-long reserve army of unemployed. The embargo, which relegated nearly the whole population into abject poverty and cut life expectancy by about ten years, reinforced Iraqis’ dependence on the patriarchal and communal ties. Such ties once functioned as a social safety net not incongruent with interests of global capital; now they enable resistance to the American Empire, which seeks to roll back oil nationalization and to redistribute more oil rents from Arab states to multinational investors.
Despite lack of success, every effort is still being made to foment sectarian divisions in Iraq, so that, even if Washington loses and withdraws, it might still score a victory by leaving fragmented Iraq in its wake of destruction. Washington invaded Iraq because it wanted to reassert that it is still in command of the global economy, exerting pressures on would-be contenders, and wished to more tightly control the region that is the richest in oil, the most precious natural resource that composes about 10-15% of world trade and about 15-30% of the energy content of production in developed and developing countries respectively. The shortest cut for Washington to achieve the latter goal is to carve as many mini Arab states around oil wells as possible, so as to have them all in its iron grip. Insecure mini states, like the Arab Gulf States, price their oil in dollars and send most of their oil rents back to the US. The strongly federalist Constitution to be voted on today paves the way for mini states, or so hopes Washington:
SECTION FIVE: POWERS OF THE REGIONS
CHAPTER ONE: REGIONS
The federal system in the Republic of Iraq is made up of a decentralized capital, regions and governorates, and local administrations.
First: This Constitution shall approbate the region of Kurdistan and its existing regional and federal authorities, at the time this constitution comes into force.
Second: This Constitution shall approbate new regions established in accordance with its provisions.
The Council of Representatives shall enact, in a period not to exceed six months from the date of its first session, a law that defines the executive procedures to form regions, by a simple majority.
One or more governorates shall have the right to organize into a region based on a request to be voted on in a referendum submitted in one of the following two methods:
A. A request by one-third of the council members of each governorate intending to form a region.
B. A request by one-tenth of the voters in each of the governorates intending to form a region.
The region shall adopt a constitution that defines the structure of the regional government, its authorities and the mechanisms of exercising these authorities provided that it does not contradict with this Constitution.
First: The regional authorities shall have the right to exercise executive, legislative, and judicial authority in accordance with this constitution, except for those powers stipulated in the exclusive powers of the federal government.
Second: In case of a contradiction between regional and national legislation in respect to a matter outside the exclusive powers of the federal government, the regional authority shall have the right to amend the application of the national legislation within that region.
Third: Regions and governorates shall be allocated an equitable share of the national revenues sufficient to discharge its responsibilities and duties, but having regard to its resources, needs and the percentage of its population.
Fourth: The regions and governorates shall establish offices in the embassies and diplomatic missions, in order to follow up cultural, social and developmental affairs.
Fifth: The Regional Government shall be responsible for all the administrative requirements of the region, particularly the establishment and organization of the internal security forces for the region such as police, security forces and guards of the region.6
The Gulf model of development with its highly unequal distribution of wealth — for instance, half a million Arabs in Qatar earn an average salary of 4000 US$ a month and their Emir buys US securities in the billions, while nearby Yemen, a country of some twenty million people, records a malnutrition rate of 36 percent according to FAO figures — is what Washington has in its mind for Iraq, not winning the “hearts and minds” of Iraqis by guaranteeing their rights through elections and the Constitution.
Washington’s wishful thinking notwithstanding, facts on the ground portend the inevitable US defeat and withdrawal. The US army is already hiding behind a proxy army of poor Iraqis. That is a familiar story in the history of this region. When the British attacked Gaza in WWI, they deployed bonded Egyptian labor in front of their own troops to have them take the bullets.7 Washington, of course, hopes to buy time — enough to build up the proxy army ready and willing to safeguard its interests (e.g., economic restructuring made in accordance with the International Monetary Fund’s guidance) after the withdrawal of its troops.8 Can it?
The resistance to military occupation in Iraq will escalate and likely degrade US power, nullifying US control over Iraqi oil. In the process, it will probably also cause disruptions to oil prices, endangering the precarious recovery of global economy. If no people can be ruled by a foreign power against their will, as the lessons of the twentieth century remind us, then what has been construed as war booty for the US may turn out to be war losses for one and all.9
1 Arthur Chrenkoff, “Taking My Leave: A Roundup of the Past Two Weeks’ Good News from Iraq,” Wall Street Journal, 13 September 2005.
2 Chris Shumway, “Iraqis Endure Worse Conditions than under Saddam, UN Survey Finds,” The NewStandard, 18 May 2005; and “Daily Living Conditions in Iraq Dismal, UN Survey Finds,” UN news Centre. See, also, Louise Roug, “Food Shortages Gnaw at Iraqis’ Stomachs, Morale,” Los Angeles Times, 16 June 2005, which underscores the horrific conditions in Iraq. According the article, “Shrinking subsidized rations are blamed on corruption, security problems or the U.S.”
4 Correspondence with an Iraqi sociologist who prefers not to be named.
5 Even in Lebanon where sectarianism was bred over a century, the political divide never was simply sectarian. Unlike in the Mount Lebanon region, the sectarian divide was never sharp in South Lebanon, where Christians spearheaded the resistance against the Israeli occupation and many Israeli collaborators were Shiites.
7 V. Lutsky, History of Modern Arab States, Beirut: Alfarabi, 1985.
8 The International Monetary Fund also stepped in. In its first economic review of Iraq in 25 years, the IMF “believes that the medium term economic outlook for Iraq is satisfactory provided the expansion in oil production goes according to plan and world oil prices remain favorable” but “fears significant downside risks to this favorable medium-term outlook, particularly as oil prices are subject to a great deal of uncertainty and the political transformation of Iraq has not reached its conclusion” (IMF, “Iraq: Staff Report for the 2005 Article IV Consultation,” 8 July 2005, p. 27). It therefore believes that “it would be important to bolster this scenario with additional revenue measures, particularly by raising the prices of domestic petroleum products” (IMF, p. 27). Along these lines, the IMF “urges the authorities to quickly reduce government subsidies for petroleum products” (IMF, p. 25) to “free up revenues worth as much as 30 per cent of GDP” (Laura MacInnis, “Violence Curbing Iraq Reconstruction Effort — IMF,” Reuters, 16 August 2005).
9 Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991 (NY: Vintage Books, 1994).
Soula Avramidis is the nom de plume of a Beirut-based economist.