The text below is an excerpt from “Imperialism and the Gulf War,” which was first published as the “Review of the Month” of the April 1991 issue of Monthly Review (42.11). While the exact character of the Iraqi Ba’ath Party state is certainly debatable (“lack of government corruption”? — only relatively so in comparison to occupied Iraq today), the main point of Tom Mayer’s observations regarding the purpose of imperialist propaganda and the inadequacy of left-wing response has largely stood the test of time — not only with Iraq but also other countries similarly targeted by the United States government before and after that. However, there have been notable exceptions to the silence of the Left that he regretted. For instance, see a feminist collective Redstockings’ pamphlet about Iraqi women “Women in Iraq: Illusions, Confusions, and Coverup,” published in an attempt to counter imperialist propaganda for the occupation of Iraq that began in 2003. The reader is encouraged to compare the conditions of Iraqi women before and after the beginning of the US-led occupation, as examined, for instance, by Nadje Al-Ali and Nicola Pratt in What Kind of Liberation? Women and the Occupation of Iraq (University of California Press, 2009). — Ed.
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The imperialist countries at the center of world capitalism have democratic political systems, but they rarely foster democracy in the third world regions over which they exercise dominion. Democratic governments in the third world are insufficiently attentive to imperialist interests and regularly run afoul of the major capitalist powers. Constant open and covert interventions from abroad undermine democracy, while the booming arms trade and disproportionate growth of military institutions sow the seeds of dictatorship.
Americans have been told over and over again that Saddam Hussein is a brutal tyrant, which is certainly true. Less frequently are we told that Washington ignored or abetted many of Hussein’s most abominable deeds — including the war against the Kurds, the attack upon Iran, and the use of poison gas. And even more rarely is the American public confronted with the human rights records of American allies in the Persian Gulf conflict (or elsewhere in the third world).
The ideological preparation for the war against Iraq was no mere sideshow. Its task was to sweep away the Vietnam syndrome: the reluctance of many Americans to support military intervention. If this reluctance could be overcome, even in one crucial case, a formidable barrier to the new phase of imperialism would be eliminated.
The first step was to exaggerate vastly the danger posed by the regime of Saddam Hussein. Iraq — with its 19 million people, oil dependent economy, lack of significant industrial base, and gaping wounds from war with Iran — was proclaimed a dire threat to the entire Middle East, soon to Europe, and in the foreseeable future to the entire world. But while Iraq cannot now produce a nuclear explosive and has uncertain prospects of developing such a weapon, it must contend with Israel’s substantial nuclear capacity and now confronts the United States with over 10,000 nuclear weapons and a demonstrated willingness to use them. Cultural stereotypes about Arabs increase the potency of imperialist propaganda about Iraq.
In order to make Saddam Hussein a suitable target for unlimited violence, all positive achievements of his government are ignored. We hear almost nothing about the growth of literacy in Iraq, the increased availability of housing, women’s rights, religious freedom, improved transportation facilities, lack of government corruption, or the fact that Iraq invests far more of its oil revenues internally than other Arab states of the Persian Gulf. We hear very little about several reasonable-sounding Iraqi proposals seeking to avoid war. And the U.S. left, repelled by the tyranny of the Hussein regime and burdened with a guilty conscience from its blindness to the infamies of “actually existing socialism,” remains largely silent on these issues.
Tom Mayer teaches sociology at the University of Colorado.