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International Socialist Review Issue 29, May–June 2003

Oppose the Occupation

WHEN A racist warhawk such as the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman argues that Iraqi Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis cannot live together without the "iron fist" of a strong U.S. occupation, antiwar activists rightly cringe in disgust. But many of these same activists who defiantly took to the streets and marched and built teach-ins to protest the war have been mired in confusion and contradictions since the fall of Baghdad about what stance to take regarding the occupation.

Those who opposed the war, must now call for U.S. troops to get out now. Just as the Prussian military thinker, Carl Von Clausewitz, argued, "War is merely a continuation of politics by other means," opponents of this war must now argue that occupation is war by other means.

Unfortunately, not just new activists, but many important leading voices of opposition before and during the war have argued that while the war was a terrible thing, a power vacuum and chaos would result if the U.S. pulled its troops out now. Voices in the Wilderness, a group that has heroically defied the deadly sanctions on Iraq for years and kept members in Baghdad throughout the war, issued this statement in April:

It will not serve the tremendous human need in Iraq for the U.S. military to immediately withdraw without a legitimate international presence to take its place; from what we’ve witnessed, this would create a power vacuum that could precipitate the implosion of Iraq’s civil society. The U.S. military should be pulled back from its role as a foreign occupation power into a protective role sufficient to allow for Iraq’s social and political concerns to be dictated by Iraqi parties.

Given the humanitarian crisis that this second war following 12 years of sanctions created, it is understandable that many see the only way for Iraqis to get food, water and electricity is through a centralized force, such as the American troops. But whereas some of the oil fields have been operating for weeks, most of Iraq is still without running water and electricity. According to a May 2 report by the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development:

The people of Iraq are suffering. Insecurity and uncertainty persists across Iraq. In parts of the country, the situation is critical. Already under severe strain and under-resourced before the war began, hospitals, water plants and sewage systems have been crippled by the conflict and looting. Hospitals are overwhelmed, diarrhea is endemic and the death toll is mounting. Medical and water staff are working for free, but cannot continue for long. Rubbish including medical waste is piling up. Clean water is scarce and diseases like typhoid are being reported in southern Iraq.

At this writing, more than three weeks into the occupation, U.S. forces that have access to the world’s most sophisticated technology, expert personnel and billions of dollars, have done little to meet the needs of ordinary Iraqis. Before the war, aid groups such as the International Rescue Committee complained to Congress that Pentagon secrecy was hampering their efforts to plan for the impending crisis; since the war, aid groups fear any collaboration with U.S. troops will compromise their independence and pose a security risk to their volunteers.

Many people now call for the UN to take over the occupation. This ignores the reality that it was the UN that imposed murderous sanctions on the Iraqi people and, according to recent reports in the New York Times, UN officials hoarded billions of dollars in a slush fund accrued from the oil-for-food program–money that belongs to the people of Iraq. An occupation that includes other members of the Security Council would still be an imposition of outside armies that are unaccountable to the Iraqis themselves. UN or not, a colonial occupation of Iraq is still a colonial occupation of Iraq. Moreover, as Humeira Iqtidar points out in Znet, "far from imposing sanctions on the coalition for a war, that Kofi Annan explicitly termed as an act of aggression, the UN is priming itself once more to act as the U.S. government’s very own janitorial service." France, Russia and Germany, for their part, see the UN merely as leverage to try to get their hands on a piece of the Iraqi pie.

Lurking beneath these concerns that Iraqis cannot or should not determine their own future, is fear of the possibility of an Islamic state in Iraq. First, we must argue that the Iraqis, like any free people, must have the right to determine the government of their own choosing–even if it means one with Islamic clerics in power. Second, we must remember that the U.S.-chosen leader who was stabbed to death by Iraqis at a mosque in Najaf in early April was a Shia cleric, Abdel Majid al-Khoei. Khoei, who had been living in exile in London, was given $13 million in cash by the CIA to buy off other Shia leaders in the south of Iraq and, according to Newsday, "on the day he was killed was preaching reconciliation with former Hussein backers." In other words, not only is the U.S. trying to buy an Islamic leadership that it hopes to control, but it is all too willing to reinstall into positions of power allies of Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime. Iraq is a country with a long secular tradition and some of the support now afforded Islamists is due, at least in part, to the fact that it is the mosques that are currently providing much needed medical, food and other services.

Western media have been filled with images and stories of "irrational" and "fanatical" behavior by the Iraqis. Media images of the massive pilgrimage to Karbala in April honed in on the few bloodied individuals who took part in a religious ceremony forbidden for decades under Saddam’s reign. It would be wise to remember that many Christian and Jewish ceremonies appear to the uninitiated as bizarre and self-deprecating. These caricatures of Iraqis merely play into a "notion of the ‘white man’s burden’ which formed the ideological backbone of old-style colonialism," as Ganesh Lal remarks in his polemic, "No to occupation?" on Znet. This must be exposed for the racism it is and rejected outright.

The massive and inspiring movement that defied intimidation and took to the streets against the war, must now defy the occupation. The longer U.S. troops remain, the more Iraqis will be killed and the stronger the hand of U.S. imperialism in the region will become. Empires do not liberate, they conquer.

Support for the occupation–on any level–means support for the war. One cannot oppose a war for conquest and then accept the conquerors presence as the only means to establish "order." One cannot oppose military action, and then support the results of that action. The two cannot be separated. That is, of course, exactly how the conquerors are playing it. Let the looting go on, let the country run to ruin, let the people stand on the edge of hunger and privation, without clean water or adequate electricity. This will justify our coming in and imposing a strong order–including machine gunning a few dozen people in order to show who is the boss. In the meantime, let the Iraqis "stew" for awhile. That is how all occupations proceed. It is the most disgusting hypocrisy. The U.S. strangles and bombs a country into submission–and people argue that to prevent "chaos" the U.S. must not leave right away. As if the U.S. is not responsible for the death, the hunger, the disease, the looting, and the chaos.

No one who opposed the war, who understood that it was a war for oil, a war to reshape the Middle East in American interests, without the least regard for the interests of the people in the region, should now be putting themselves in the position of offering advice on how the U.S. should run its occupation. Short of building a secular alternative that brings together all Iraqis against the U.S. invaders, much of the opposition is likely to take a religious coloring. Our position should be clear–we do not have to identify politically with fundamentalist Islam to support the unconditional right of Iraq to toss out the occupying power. The sooner that struggle begins, and is successful, the better. No to war and occupation.


Don’t fall for lesser-evilism

Liberal and progressive voices are sounding the alarm over what they see as impending disaster if President Bush is reelected in 2004. "What is at stake, then, is nothing less than the attempted transformation of a tolerably free society into a variant of the extreme regimes of the past century. In that context, the national elections of 2004 represent a crisis in its original meaning, a turning point. The question for citizens is: Which way?" Sheldon Wolin wrote in the May 1 Nation. Antiwar activists Carl Davidson and Marilyn Katz, in "Moving From Protest To Politics," a widely distributed paper urging antiwar forces to turn to the 2004 elections, call for defeat of Bush’s "War Party" or else "this party will move to control the world."

While anyone who opposed the war or who detests other parts of Bush’s program would like to see him and his cohorts defeated, the problem comes in the options of what might replace them.

For most who are looking to the 2004 election, this isn’t a big problem. They say that "anybody but Bush" would be better. The people who say "anybody but Bush" don’t really mean it. Instead, they mean "anybody who seems to have a reasonable chance" of beating Bush. By this logic, even Senators Bob Graham or Joe Lieberman–who criticized Bush for not pursuing war in the Middle East more aggressively–would be better!

At the same time, many liberals and almost all professional Democrats are now waging a preemptive war against the Greens, Nader or anyone else who might want to mount a credible electoral challenge from the left in 2004. Mimicking the right that attacks any criticism of the Bush regime as treasonous, the anybody but Bush crowd is doing their best to demonize Nader and the Greens.

"A third party presidential challenge from the left would be reactionary and traitorous in the 2004 election," wrote Marty Jezer, a liberal Vermont activist, on the Common Dreams Web site.

Yet if they really want to assign blame for the advance of Bush’s right-wing program, they should look no farther than the nearest mirror. Advocates of "anybody but Bush" usually cite the war in Iraq, the Patriot Act, and attacks on abortion rights are three principle reasons to get rid of Bush in 2004. These are certainly good reasons to oppose Bush.

But, if you look closer, you find that each of these examples of Bush extremism wouldn’t have succeeded without Democratic support. Democratic leaders Gephardt and Daschle helped Bush pass the Iraq war resolution last October. Then Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) engineered a last-minute deal with the White House that pushed through the Patriot Act–which only one U.S. senator voted against. Democratic senators provided 16 votes and the margin of victory for one of Bush’s central promises to the Christian right–the ban on late-term abortions.

The conventional wisdom holds that any Democrat who aspires to the Oval Office can’t get there on promises to reverse Bush’s disastrous domestic policies alone. He or she will need a "credible national security" platform as well. In their May 3 debate in South Carolina, Democrats fell all over themselves to prove their national security credentials.

In fact, Davidson and Katz concede this argument.

"In 2004 the Democratic national security platform must be an all-sided attack on the national security policy of the Bush hegemonist clique, showing how the future it proposes will make our country and the world less secure, not more secure. Far from defending our freedoms, it will be at great cost to our liberties. Given the relation of forces, this will be mainly the critique of the multilateral globalists–a position that is some combination of the critiques currently espoused by former Presidents Carter and Clinton and major voices of global capital like George Soros."

So they urge the antiwar movement to hitch its wagon to a foreign and military policy that’s nearly indistinguishable from the one the last President Bush espoused when he pummeled Iraq in 1991. Davidson and Katz’s logic is a perfect illustration of how the politics of supporting the "lesser of two evils" leads to a dead end.

Just what this all means in the real world became clear in the silly public spat between Democratic presidential candidates Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.) and former Vermont Governor Howard Dean. Dean apparently had the affrontery to suggest that the U.S. military couldn’t be Number 1 forever.

Kerry immediately shot back: "No serious candidate for the presidency has ever before suggested that he would compromise or tolerate an erosion of America’s military supremacy." So don’t expect the Pentagon budget to decline under a Kerry administration.

And just to make sure that no one got the wrong idea about a Dean administration, Dean told listeners at the South Carolina debate: "No commander in chief would ever allow our military to shrink."

Dean has won the media mantel of "antiwar candidate" because he was the earliest and most vocal critic of Democratic reluctance to challenge Bush’s tactics during his buildup to war. Dean didn’t really oppose the idea of war altogether.

Last fall, he proposed that if Saddam Hussein didn’t meet a 60-day deadline to comply with United Nations resolutions, "we will reserve our right as Americans to defend ourselves and we will go into Iraq."

The Reverend Al Sharpton regularly speaks to issues like racial justice and class inequality, which most of the other candidates won’t touch. And unlike the rest, including Representative Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), Sharpton spoke at major national antiwar protests in the fall and spring. Of the nine announced Democrats, he has the most genuine claim to be the "antiwar" candidate. But like other progressives who have run as Democrats before him, he will ultimately deliver voters he activitates into the hands of a more conservative or "electable" candidate.

As Bush’s administration continues to push its hard-right agenda at home and abroad, the pressure on activists to cave in to the anybody but Bush argument will only grow. Given further economic decline or increasing resistance to the U.S. occupation in Iraq, Bush’s invincibility will fade and the Democrats might gain momentum in opposing him. As thousands in the antiwar movement and millions more debate whether they must work to force a regime change at the ballot box in 2004, they should remember that the Democrats are part of the problem.

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