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Guardian: Was the Iraq War Imperialist?

o | 21.03.2008 13:06 | Analysis | Iraq | Terror War | World

The following comment piece was published today on the Guardian's Comment is Free website here:

Some Indymedia readers might find it interesting.

Progressing by Paradox
By Ben Trott

Five years ago, the war on Iraq began. Its build-up was the catalyst for one of the largest social movements the world has ever seen. The demonstrations of February 15 2003 were only one moment in a historic movement which continues to this day.

But this movement is, of course, far from homogeneous. The ways in which the war and its motivations have been understood have differed. As have the proposals as to how it can best be resisted.

If we leave aside for a moment those positions which have posited a "clash of civilisations", we are left with two principle approaches.

The most prominent tendency has argued the war, first and foremost, to be an imperialist adventure. It is an attempt by the United States and their allies to extend their power beyond their sovereign borders and gain control of profitable resources elsewhere in the world. Talk of bringing freedom was basically limited to establishing the free market - and even this is skewed in favour of a few big western businesses, granted almost monopoly powers by the invading forces.

In this sense, the operation in Iraq resembles earlier imperial adventures pursued by European powers at the beginning of the last century. In both instances, politics was seen as driven by economic motivations - and war, as the saying goes, is simply the continuation of politics by other means.

The second approach has argued that the age of imperialism is over. In the globalised world of today, there is no "outside" into which capitalist powers can extend their influence. This does not mean that there are no competing interests, but that these are mediated through a single, all encompassing global system. It is made up not only of nation states, but international organisations, humanitarian agencies and parts of civil society. Such formations, consciously or otherwise, transform war from something that simply produces death, to something which also shapes and regulates social life.

The involvement of many of these elements in the post-regime change "reconstruction" is offered as evidence of this. They have worked together largely with the goal of producing a particular kind of "stability" - where the population is turned into a manageable quantity, able to be put to work and integrated into the global economy.

So, while one approach has focused on the political and economic interests of the US behind the war, the other has tried to highlight the way in which almost all aspects of contemporary global governance - whether or not they originally opposed the war - are playing a role in creating conditions for "business as usual". And the business of profit-making is best presided over by the kind of globalised neoliberal order in which the US is, in many ways, constrained by the need to cooperate and build consensus with others.

In reality, of course, there are elements of truth to both these approaches. The neoconservative administration in the US has often used language that invites comparison to earlier imperial projects. And their willingness to pursue a unilateralist foreign policy has been clear. But willingness should not be confused with ability. Almost nobody in the world today believes that the US will be able to create any kind of stability in Iraq without the considerable involvement of others. This involvement has now long been a reality.

If the Iraq war ever was an imperialist adventure, it is a failed one. A similar, unilateral military intervention is unlikely in the near future. The question the anti-war movement needs to ask itself, then, is not how an imperialist power can be defeated. It is how the movement can begin to better comprehend the connection between war and capitalist global governance today? And what kind of a political practice can be posited against this, capable of developing less brutal, more human ways of living and relating to one another in a globalised world?


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  1. Is the Guardian imperialist? — Nick