A Bridge too Far :: Iraq and the longevity of the American Empire ::


In his epic analysis of the Vietnam War, "Anatomy of a War", Gabriel Kolko observed that

"the history of the postwar era is essentially one of the monumental American attempts – and failures – to weave together… a global order [suitable to its own needs, against the] vast autonomous social forces and destabilizing dynamics [existing] throughout the world to confound its ambitions.

Such ambitions immediately brought the United States face to face with what to this day remains its primary problem: the conflict between its inordinate desires and its finite resources, and the definition of realistic priorities. …..it took years for the limits on American power to become clear to its leaders, most of whom only partially perceived it….." [1]

I can think of no better summary of the current exercise of US imperial ambition.

But the US invasion of Iraq has disproved Mr Kolko’s observation that the American elites learned anything from the Vietnam experience. In fact, any recognition that there were limits to American power were grudging at best. Since at least the Reagan administration a two fold process to erase the shame of the Vietnam debacle has been underway:

Firstly – the US economy has become increasingly militarised and expenditure on high tech weaponry has been massively increased, and;

Secondly – a true imperialist ideology has been developed to justify the massive remilitarisation of America in the absence of any real enemy.

Both reactions completely miss the point. For a start, despite its massive advantage in resources and firepower, the lesson of Vietnam reveals the US can be defeated by much poorer adversaries in a war of attrition. More expensive weapons, more firepower are no guarantee of victory. More importantly, the will to impose an order on the world does not equate to a capacity to do so; which of course lie at the heart of Mr Kolko’s observation. The daydreaming fantasists at the Project for the New American Century may talk glibly of "the United States,… unrivaled military and economic power, …. impos[ing] itself virtually anywhere it wants….."; [2] Donald Rumsfeld may talk of the US fighting two full theatre actions simultaneously; and the National Defence Strategy of the USA 2002 talks of pre-emptive war to avert threats, but ultimately, this imperialist bluster is simply self congratulatory rhetoric.

The decision to invade Iraq was a consequence of the convergence of an overt imperialist agenda with a critical and domestically unsolvable economic crisis. All other reasons – weapons of mass destruction, democracy, human rights – were simply justifications for public and political consumption. For the neo-fascist ideologues in the Bush administration, the invasion fulfilled a long-held ideological purpose – the demonstration of overwhelming US imperial might. Since the publication of the National Defence Strategy of the USA in September 2002, pre-emptive military intervention and massive strike capability have become the cornerstones of US foreign policy. In order to turn the NDS of USA document from rhetoric into reality, it was necessary to pursue war as the first last and best strategy of US foreign policy.

As justification, the NDS of USA document claims, "In the Cold War, ..we faced a generally status quo, risk-averse adversary. Deterrence was an effective defence. But deterrence based only upon the threat of retaliation is less likely to work against leaders of rogue states more willing to take risks, gambling with the lives of their people, and the wealth of their nations." [3] Strangely, that analysis speaks more of the current rogue administration in the White House than of any of the so called ‘rogue states.’ Impartial studies of the foreign policy of both Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Il reveal them to be extremely risk adverse. There is a good reason for this – aggressive and militaristic foreign policy is extremely risky, as Mr Hussein learned in 1991. As far as defensive strategies are concerned, as long as a realistic threat is maintained, deterrence is far more effective and less costly in terms of resources and lives than a strategy of overt military action. War is a gamble on a massive scale.History is replete with examples of powerful nations marching to defeat at the hands of weaker foes, not least of which is America?s Vietnamese adventure.

The influential nineteenth century military philosopher, Carl Von Clausewicz, noted that "War is nothing but the continuation of political intercourse, …." [4] But one must have a definite political agenda and goal; one has to know when to push and when to quit. The battlefield is no place to make universal political statements like "America is the greatest nation on earth."[5] That is a message that can only fail as even the slightest tactical victory for the opposition, represents total failure for the protagonist.

Despite all the obvious risks, the Bush neo-fascists have embarked America on a long-term, inordinately costly and ultimately futile occupation. One does not need to search far to find the precedents of impending US failure. In the 1920?s, Britain attempted to impose colonial rule on Iraq, but the cost was too great (100 million pounds per annum in 1920!).[6] The total costs of the US occupation, currently estimated at US$6 Billion a month,[7] are inestimable. On top of a record (and still growing) deficit, the debt burden of this venture is completely untenable, even after the confiscation of Iraqi oil revenues.

But there are other costs to consider besides the economic costs, such as the human cost. To the Americans, an Iraqi life is virtually worthless#8, but every American casualty represents an enormous loss in economic, human, morale terms. Ho Chi Minh summarised the situation for the French during the Indo-Chinese War, "You can kill 10 of my men for every one I kill of yours, but at those odds, you will lose and I will win." It?s a simple matter of motivation: the Iraqi’s have every reason to want the Americans to leave; American soldiers have every desire to go home. It?s an unequal transaction with only one side prepared to pay the cost.

Given that the kind victory that would enable America to proclaim its unchallenged hegemony is unachievable, it is clear that this neo-fascist adventure is doomed to failure. The paucity of post invasion planning and co-ordination reveals the shallowness of the American strategy; the complete lack of vision outside of the grand neo-fascist scheme. ‘First we defeat Saddam, and then….’ What? It seems no one really knew.

It would be easy to point to the abject failure of the Bush neo-fascists and dismiss their schemes as the delusions of madmen. Unfortunately, the wilful irresponsibility of the neo-fascists comes not from ignorance, but from their religious-like belief in their own rightness. They viewed the lessons of history and drew absolutely the wrong conclusions. They received good advice and the good intelligence and they still drew absolutely the wrong conclusions. They refuse to admit or consider any reality that falls outside the dogma of their ideology. How should we describe such people? Fundamentalists? Sociopaths? Psychotics? A psychotic does learn from experience. They can repeat the same activity again and again and each time expect a different result. Already we are seeing a familiar pattern of accusations emerging against North Korea and Iran. As the Iraqi scheme collapses the neo-fascists will temper their blindness with dreams of the next adventure and drive the US deeper and deeper into the quagmire.

The end result of this adventure is already pre-determined – the US will be forced to withdraw from Iraq and the Iraqi?s alone will determine their destiny. Unlike Vietnam however, the economic costs will bite long before the human cost. The US is already bemoaning the international community?s refusal to help defray the massive costs of the Iraq occupation. This, the same international community that the US dismissed as irrelevant in the lead up to war. Even so, the US call for assistance has been as begrudging and disingenuous as its other foreign relations dealings, for it goes against everything the neo-fascists are trying to prove. A hegemon can demand assistance from its clients, but it cannot ask for help on a basis of equality. America must then bear the unbearable burden, be it to the detriment and bankruptcy of the nation. Which returns us to Mr Kolko?s main point: Americas infinite desires are not matched by infinite resources, no matter what the ideologues believe.


[1]. G Kolko, 2001, pg 73 ?Anatomy of a War Vietnam, the United States and the Modern Historical Experience.? Phoenix Press. London.

[2]. William Pfaff, quoted in Ahmed, NM The War on Freedom. How and Why America was Attacked September 11, 2001. 2002. Tree of Life Publications, Joshua Tree.

[3]. http://www.whitehouse.gov/nsc/nssall.html

[4]. Clausewicz, C. 1908 (trans) pg 402 On War. Published in German "Von Kreig" in 1832. English translation originally published by Routledge & Keegan Paul Ltd 1908. 1982 edition. Penguin books. Harmondsworth.

[5]. Madeline Albright speech quoted in Blum, W Rogue State. A Guide to the Worlds Only Superpower. 2002. Zed Books, London.

[6]. Fromkin, D, pg 452. A Peace to End All Peace. The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East. 1989. Henry Holt & Co. New York.

[7]. Franklin, J. The War According to David Hackworth. www.commondreams.org/views03/0805-09.htm 5 August 2003

[8]. Dixon, R. US Limits Payments to Kin of Slain Iraqi Civilians. 4 August 2003 LA Times. www.commondreams.org/headlines03/0804-10.htm

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Paul Markham is a project manager for an Australian financial institution and a student of history and politics. He is a regular contributor to Media Monitors Network (MMN).


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