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The Empire's War on Iraq

Pax Americana's push forward is, at best, an immensely costly and extremely risky venture in empire-building. The brutal war on Iraq risks a cascading series of destabilizing and violent repercussions.

Max Fraad-Wolff and Rick Wolff

Issue #63, April 2003

All expansions of empire proceed from diverse impulses and desires. Utopian and dystopian visions swirl in the clash for and against surges of imperialism. So it is with Bush's war on Iraq. His side promises economic gain, democratization, security, and rebirth for troubled souls. Opponents crying "Drop Bush not bombs" argue that empire's costs outweigh its gains; their counts stress lives lost, cultures destroyed, and vast political and economic risks. The Bush Regime persists. Accepting no limit to empire, it projects US military superpower and cultivates alarmism after September 11 to make possible a global Pax Americana, the brave new world. Yet many states and millions of people mobilize complex oppositions. The costly conflicts of imperialism are both the context for and the key to understanding the war on Iraq.

Free-market, private enterprise economies live by expanding within and across national borders. For American transnational firms and wealthy investors to make profits from growing exports, imports and foreign investment opportunities, they must have up-to-date information, a strategy for expansion, and a world that cooperates. Political and economic leaders therefore work with media outlets and academics to generate expansionist paradigms. Today's paradigm for US expansion mixes a war on terrorism with a global mission to dispense democracy and capitalist prosperity. Appropriate experts identify obstacles and develop worldwide strategies to overcome them. Masters of consciousness advertise these policies as essential to US citizens' safety, democracy, and prosperity. Afghanistan was the dress rehearsal. Iraq is act one of the main event. After the political threat — you are either with us or against us — comes the balancing act of economic rewards and/or military punishments.

Imperial imageThe economics of expansion shape foreign policy. Washington presses countries, developed and developing, to cooperate. They must secure a pliable, cheap local labor force and guarantee private property rights. US exports and investments must be absolutely free to flow in and out as profits, cheap wage goods, and plentiful, low-cost raw materials flow back to the US. Local governments, subject to military "recall", must guarantee a "stable" currency, "reasonable" taxes, and no "discrimination" against US business interests. Among the countries that cannot or will not comply, several lie in the Middle East making that region a prime target. Access to cheap oil is only the tip of the iceberg. A grandiose imperial remaking of the Middle East drives current US policy. The flashes of hi-tech munitions are burying old policies and alliances that stand in the way.

Washington forms, enters, undermines or dissolves alliances in service to its imperial goals. The continuing economic downturn since 2000 adds pressure to expand the empire as a possible corrective. In the fat years, we could work things out with longtime allies, but now the Eagle looks to scavenge. Bush plays and replays the military card from an increasingly isolated position. He mobilizes the juggernaut while hoping that its precision technology does not turn out to be the Titanic of our time. Nurturing their own imperial ambitions, increasingly "former" allies — the European Community, Russia, and China — rethink their options while steadily ratcheting up their criticisms of US expansionist policies. They too will replace old policies and alliances with new ones that identify Washington as a major problem and risk for them.

Cultural and ideological campaigns always provide crucial supports to the economics and politics of empire. Nowadays, glossy images project the US as a model for global emulation. Advertising campaigns, news, music, Hollywood and television programming celebrate "all things American." The enormous college and university systems, in teaching and publication, play key roles in educating ("Americanizing") foreign leaders and intellectuals. Simultaneously, parallel campaigns use hype and hyperbole to demonize threatening regimes, "enemy" leaders, and alien ideologies. America's strength, security, wealth and way of life require a crusade against the dark forces of backwardness blocking the democracy and economic progress their people lack and desperately want. It will arrive courtesy of the United States Air Force, Navy, Marines and Army.

Another crusade

These cultural and ideological campaigns for expansion often stumble when a changing world requires quick and awkward shifts. Consider the former US allies in the Taliban and Al Qaeda who received massive US assistance to undermine the Soviets in Afghanistan. Once that was done, they were supposed to revert to docile, compliant citizens, content to cooperate with allies no longer supportive of their aspirations. They refused, resented the end of US support, and pursued their own religious agendas. Yesterday's freedom fighters morphed into today's grave threats to freedom. Religious heroes became religious fanatics. That falling out culminated in the collapsing World Trade towers. Iraq's modern history tells a similar story. Once a key and richly rewarded US ally against fundamentalist Iran, Hussein lost US support after the Iran-Iraq War, and decided to pursue interests other than and against those of US expansion. From useful friend, Hussein became a Hitler-like demon who must be driven out by war.

As a chapter in US expansion, the Bush war on Iraq also represents the rise to power of the expansionist right wing of the Republican Party. For ten years after the USSR collapsed, they champed at the bit desiring that sole superpower status remake the world. Rightist Republican think tanks, PACs and hawks spewed mounting frustration. When the elder Bush's war on Iraq halted, they marked that a failure to reorganize the Middle East. They hated, attacked and denounced the Clinton administration for wasting a real chance to reorganize the entire world in their version of the US interest. Finally, with Bush II's bizarre election, accomplished by their fellow Republicans on the Supreme Court and in the media, a new era had finally arrived. Now in control of both Houses of Congress and a largely compliant mass media, the great historical moment of opportunity is at hand. "Old Europe", the UN, prudence and world opinion be damned. The chance will not be missed again. Carried by the economic tendencies pushing basic expansionism, this particular Republican circle thrusts war into Columbia, Afghanistan, The Philippines, Iraq, and likely beyond.

The story is as old as empire. Grabs for power and wealth from and in the Fertile Crescent have lured many nations over the centuries. Empires long gone thought they could perpetuate their control of the area. They too forgot the complex costs of empire — financial, political and cultural — and collapsed as costs and opposition soared. Pax Americana's push forward is, at best, an immensely costly and extremely risky venture in empire-building. The brutal war on Iraq risks a cascading series of destabilizing and violent repercussions. Who will be left standing and potent amid the wreckage? Only time will tell. We can be sure only that countless thousands will suffer and die.

Max Fraad Wolff is a doctoral candidate in economics at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Richard Wolff is a professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

Copyright © 2003 by Max Fraad-Wolff and Rick Wolff. All rights reserved.