The Iraq War and America’s Economic Imperialism

Several weeks ago, with much media fanfare, the James Baker-Lee Hamilton Committee submitted to President George W. Bush its long-awaited, bipartisan report on the U.S. war in Iraq.  On balance, the report provided Bush with a face-saving strategy for pulling out all U.S. combat forces by the beginning of 2008.  The Baker-Hamilton report favors an increase of U.S. advisers being embedded inside Iraqi troops and direct negotiations with regional powers Iran and Syria.

Bush, however, almost immediately distanced himself from key proposals in the Baker-Hamilton report.  He now seems prepared to flagrantly flaunt his contempt for the majority of American voters, who purged both the Senate and House of their Republican majorities last November.  Why does Bush defy public opinion by pursuing this unpopular war?

The answer lies not in America’s need to “combat Islamic terrorism” but in the economic necessity for the United States to control international markets and valuable natural resources, such as petroleum.  Bush’s economic strategy is that of “neoliberalism” — which advocates the dismantling of the welfare state, the abolition of redistributive social programs for the poor, and the elimination of governmental regulations on corporations.

In a recent issue of the New York Times (December 5, 2006), Professor Thomas B. Edsall of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism astutely characterized this reactionary process of neoliberal politics within the United States in these terms: “For a quarter-century, the Republican temper — its reckless drive to jettison the social safety net; its support of violence in law enforcement and national defense; its advocacy of regressive taxation, environmental hazard and probusiness deregulation; its ‘remoralizing’ of the pursuit of wealth — has been judged by many voters as essential to America’s position in the world, producing more benefit than cost.”

One of the consequences of this reactionary political and economic agenda, according to Edsall, was “the Reagan administration’s arms race” during the 1980s, which “arguably drove the Soviet Union into bankruptcy.”  A second consequence, Edsall argues, was America’s disastrous military invasion of Iraq.  “While inflicting destruction on the Iraqis,” Edsall observes, “Bush multiplied America’s enemies and endangered this nation’s military, economic health and international stature.  Courting risk without managing it, Bush repeatedly and remorselessly failed to accurately evaluate the consequences of his actions.”

What is significant about Edsall’s analysis is that he does not explain away the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and current military occupation as a political “mistake” or an “error of judgment.”  Rather, he locates the rationale for the so-called “war on terrorism” within the context of U.S. domestic, neoliberal politics.  “The embroilment in Iraq is not an aberration,” Edsall observed.  “It stems from core [Republican] party principles, equally evident on the domestic front.”

The larger question of political economy, left unexplored by Edsall and most analysts, is the connection between American militarism abroad, neoliberalism, and trends in the global economy.  As economists Paul Sweezy, Harry Magdoff, and others noted decades ago, the general economic tendency of mature capitalism is toward stagnation.  For decades in the United States and Western Europe, there has been a steady decline in investment in the productive economy, leading to a decline in industrial capacity and lower future growth.

Since the 1970s, U.S. corporations and financial institutions have relied primarily on debt to expand domestic economic growth.  By 1985, total U.S. debt — which is comprised of the debt owed by all households, governments (federal, state, and local), and all financial and non-financial businesses — reached twice the size of the annual U.S. gross domestic product.  By 2005, the total U.S. debt amounted to nearly “three and a half times the nation’s GDP, and not far from the $44 trillion GDP for the entire world,” according to Fred Magdoff.

As a result, mature U.S. corporations have been forced to export products and investment abroad, to take advantage of lower wages, weak or nonexistent environmental and safety standards, and so forth, to obtain higher profit margins.  Today about 18 percent of total U.S. corporate profits come from direct overseas investment.  Partially to protect these growing investments, the United States has pursued an aggressive, interventionist foreign policy across the globe.  As of 2006, the U.S. maintained military bases in fifty-nine nations.  The potential for deploying military forces in any part of the world is essential for both political and economic hegemony.

Thus the current Iraq War is not essentially a military blunder caused by a search for “weapons of mass destruction,” but an imperialist effort to secure control of the world’s second largest proven oil reserves; Bush also invaded Iraq because it was the first military step of the Bush administration’s neoconservatives (such as Paul Wolfwitz, now head of the World Bank) to “remake the Middle East” by destroying the governments of Iraq, Iran, and Syria.

Manning Marable is Professor Public Affairs, History, and African-American Studies at Columbia University, New York City.  His column “Along the Color Line” appears in over 400 publications internationally and is available at  This article was published in the Jackson Progressive, and it is republished here with kind permission of the author, who retains all rights.

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