Recolonising the Middle East

FRFI 173 June / July 2003

In the previous issue of this paper we said ‘In five of the past nine decades the Royal Air Force (RAF) has bombed Iraq.’ This was wrong. The RAF was formed in 1918 and began bombing Iraq, then Mesopotamia, in 1919. It bombed in 1919, the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1990s and in each year this decade. That is six not five of the past nine decades. The RAF bombed Iraq at the orders of British Conservative, Labour and Coalition governments in the service of the Empire and imperialism. TREVOR RAYNE reports on the recolonisation of Iraq.

The first Labour government responded to criticism of the bombing in 1924. Labour MP and pacifist George Lansbury described the bombing as a ‘Hunnish and barbarous method of warfare.’ In The Royal Airforce in Iraq

Old Labour, New Labour – it is essentially the same racist, imperialist, warmongering party: New Labour is not some distortion, as George Galloway and many on the left would have it. The Labour Party at its outset was racist and imperialist. In 1907 the Independent Labour Party MP (later the first Labour Prime Minister in 1924) Ramsay Macdonald wrote:

‘The Tropics can yield much to keep the Temperate lands in comfort and to sweeten life for them, and the Temperate lands have a right to ask from the Tropics some of their desirable productions… The white nations which exploit the Tropics economically assume responsibility for the natives, and how to fulfil that responsibility is the kernel of the problem of dependency government. This responsibility, however, may be regarded from a worthier point of view than as a consequence of economic exploitation. A community may well claim that it has a duty imposed upon it to spread the blessings of its civilisation over the Earth. Morality has a universal sway, and by reason of its imperium the more developed nations are brought into a position of something like guardian and teacher of the less developed nations.’ (Labour and Empire, 1907).

MacDonald, like Tony Blair, was a devout Christian.

Thus did the RAF ‘spread the blessings of civilisation’ across Iraq in 1924. In 2003 Prime Minister Blair repeats MacDonald’s message of moral superiority to justify colonialism, ‘getting rid of the regime was justified in its own terms morally’. Blair’s call to ‘re-order the world’, as he put it, is a modern expression of socialist colonialism. At the 1907 Stuttgart conference of the Second International a dispute emerged over colonial policy. MacDonald, the British Labour Party and Fabians attended the conference and justified colonial policy on the grounds that it ‘may have a civilising effect’. The German Social Democratic Party member, Eduard Bernstein, using similarly racist tones to MacDonald, expressed the position thus:

‘The colonies are there. We must put up with this fact. A certain guardianship of cultured peoples over non-cultured peoples is a necessity, which should also be recognised by the socialists…A great part of our economic system is based on the exploitation of resources from the colonies which the natives would not know what to do with…’

The British Labour Party, MacDonald and Bernstein represented a privileged section of workers, a labour aristocracy, whose conditions of life were ‘sweetened’ by the ‘desirable productions of the Tropics’, by the profits of imperialism. That is why in 1907 and today the Labour Party has defended British imperialism, for plain material motives cloaked in moral justifications: today we are presented with a ‘humanitarian imperialism’. The motion for socialist colonialism at the Stuttgart conference was narrowly defeated with the Russian delegation leading the opposition to it. Labour, the German Social Democrats and their supporters proceeded to lead the workers into the slaughter and pillage of the First World War when Britain first occupied Iraq. So successful was the RAF in Iraq that British governments swiftly deployed it in Palestine, Aden, Egypt, Sudan, Somalia, Ireland and against workers in Britain itself.

The recolonisation of the Middle East
Commenting on this most recent invasion of Iraq Le Monde Diplomatique described the arrival in Baghdad on 21 April of retired US General Garner to head the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (with his deputy British Major General Tim Cross at his side) to run Iraq. It likened their arrival to those of Clive in India and Kitchener in Sudan. This is the re-colonisation of the Middle East as the RCG subtitled its 1994 publication The New Warlords.

A week before he arrived in Baghdad, Garner told the New York Times of his model for Iraq: ‘Start with Vietnam and the strategic hamlet concept.’ Garner worked on this programme in 1970-71; it was modelled on the British in Malaya after 1945. Heady with victory over the Iraqi army Garner went on reminiscing about Vietnam, ‘We should have taken the war north instead of waiting in the south. Just like here. If Bush had been president we would have won’. This is deranged even for a US general.

After less than a month Garner was subordinated to one L Paul ‘Jerry’ Bremer III. Formerly serving the US diplomatic service in Afghanistan, Malawi, Norway and the Netherlands, Bremer is described as ‘one of the world’s leading experts on crisis management, terrorism and homeland security’. He is a director of Air Products and Chemicals Inc., Akzo Nobel, the Harvard Business School of New York etc. and was previously Managing Director of Kissinger Associates, ‘a strategic consulting firm headed by former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’. So these are the credentials of the modern Clive and Kitchener.

On 27 March, as the US forces advanced towards Baghdad, the New York Times reported that the US 101st Airborne Division had named two new forward bases in Iraq Forward Operating Base Shell and Forward Operating Base Exxon. Questioned about this, the Pentagon saw no cause for embarrassment and Exxon’s boss said it was ‘pretty neat’. While the museums and hospitals were looted and US troops goaded people on to ransack universities, while ministries of agriculture, transport, foreign relations, water and irrigation burned, the ministries of oil and intelligence were ringed by US tanks. The oil, the pipelines, ports and airbases were all secured. The oil flowed before the water. As a commanding British officer put it, ‘Iraq’s national treasure is safe’ – by treasure he meant oil.

There has been no shame at the speed with which international capital has moved to loot Iraq. The US and Britain intend to privatise Iraqi oil and state assets. Philip Carroll, former Shell executive, has been put in charge of an Advisory Team to manage Iraq’s oil. Britain and the US, as the occupying powers, are to manage Iraq’s oil revenues through the Development Fund for Iraq that they have set up. Contracts have been handed out to firms directly tied to the current US administration: Halliburton gets operation of oil facilities, distribution of products and extinguishing of fires, worth up to $7 billion over two years; Bechtel, the US construction giant, gets $680 million. Most of this money will be paid for with Iraqi government assets seized in 1990-91. The British Labour government has set up its own Working Group on Iraq including Marconi, Balfour Beatty, Taylor Woodrow, Alstom, the Health Network Association and the Confederation of British Industries (CBI). They anticipate a fifth of the contracts in recognition of Britain’s military and new colonial role. Japanese companies Mitsubishi, Marubeni and Komatsu are also in the bidding to ‘rebuild Iraq’, seeking joint ventures with US partners as the best way to get in on the action.

The Iraqi people will remember that from 1927 when oil gushed out of the ground until 1972 when the oil industry was nationalised they saw almost no benefits from oil revenues, these flowed into accounts of the Iraq Petroleum Company (BP) in London. The US and British governments intend to establish free markets in the Middle East. This means privatisation, opening up economies to international capital. In Kosovo and Bosnia the US and British imposed the same free markets and privatisation. Today in Kosovo there is over 60% unemployment and in Bosnia it is over 40% with 75% of the people in poverty. Corruption and gangsters rule – this is the reality of the free market vision: humiliated, degraded, colonised people. The US is considering drafting in cheap Filipino labour for the new investment opportunities in Iraq.

A crisis of imperialism

Behind this brazen demonstration of crude power we must not lose sight of two factors. Firstly, the repeated success of US and British military ventures in the recent period, averaging almost one a year for this Labour government. The loss ratios for the US and British forces never exceed one of their own to 100 of their target’s. Secondly, the deepening economic crisis of capitalism that propels these military aggressions. Together these spell great danger for the world. The crisis of accumulation has two consequences: the desperate pursuit of resources and markets to augment profits, and a tendency towards inter-imperialist rivalry. Both increase the trend to militarism and war.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 the US ruling class has moved to dominate the world. The British ruling class seeks a share of the spoils through its alliance with the US. The Middle East and Central Asia are the arenas where the US ruling class believes it can stamp its domination over any potential rival – the European Union, Japan, Russia, China – by means of control over oil supplies and transportation routes combined with unmatched military power.

Also, the oil in the Middle East is cheap: $2-3 a barrel compared to $12-15 in the Gulf of Mexico and North Sea. Fantastic profits are to be made at prices of $20 a barrel. Iraq’s proven oil reserves are 115 billion barrels. Possible reserves rise to 250 billion barrels. War and sanctions prevented Iraq developing 55 of its 70 known oil fields. Pre-war production capacity of 2.8 million barrels per day could be raised to 7-8 million barrels per day, rivalling Saudi Arabia. But to exploit these reserves meant that UN sanctions had to be removed. Without relinquishing their control over Iraq the US and British governments devised a United Nations resolution to allow the UN a role in monitoring oil revenues. This was interpreted by the French and Russian governments as offering a prospect of getting something from their contracts with the former regime. The resolution was passed on 22 May, giving UN legitimacy to the US and British occupation.

Meanwhile, evidence of the crisis gripping capitalism mounts up. US wholesale prices fell a record 1.9% in April. Federal Reserve chair Greenspan warned that the US had so little experience in dealing with deflation that the possibility required ‘very close scrutiny’. The US economy is in danger of subsiding under an avalanche of debt. According to the International Monetary Fund, Germany is in ‘considerable’ risk of deflation.

So the world’s three biggest capitalist economies, the US, Japan and Germany are going into reverse. In 2002 US personal bankruptcies reached a record 1.5 million and requests for both emergency food assistance and emergency housing were up by a fifth. In the two years to February 2003, US capital shed two million jobs: unemployment and poverty grow.

Imperialism’s assault on the oppressed nations of the world is co-ordinated with attacks on the conditions and rights of the masses in its heartlands. The drive to war and repression will continue: escalating savagery accompanies capitalist crises until there is sufficient death and destruction for the system to be revived. If we do not accept this fate we must ally with the oppressed wherever they resist our ruling classes and we must break the deathly grip of the Labour Party on workers, ideas and action in Britain. Peter Sluglett states, ‘In August 1924 the Labour Minister for Air presented to Parliament “A Note on the Employment of Air Arm in Iraq”, apparently an attempt at a blanket answer to these criticisms. It described the circumstances under which RAF assistance could be requested and administrative procedures involved…The alternatives to air control were dismissed as impossibly unwieldy and expensive. The Note claimed that air defence was cheap, that it provided “a method of control more effective and less costly to life and suffering…”’ That is, less costly to the Labour government and to British troops who could kill with impunity from the skies.


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