Where did the defeat of David Cameron’s attempt to drag the UK into an attack on Syria come from? And what does it tell us about imperial power today?
David Cameron’s humiliation at the hands of anti-war opinion in the UK has its roots in three related forces:
- The resistance of the anti-war movement in the UK. No other country has sustained a coalition of the breadth and depth of the Stop the War Coalition. And no ‘objective’ experience of the failure of the War on Terror can result in political change without an agency making it a factor in domestic politics with which the elite have to contend.
- The experience of millions of people in the UK that the ‘War of Terror’ conflicts were a failure in their own terms and therefore a useless waste of blood and treasure. This experience made millions open to the arguments of the anti-war movement.
- The resistance of the Afghan and Iraqi people to the wars and occupations that have been visited on them by US led coalitions, plus the impact of the Arab revolutions. Without this resistance there would be no crisis for imperialism, no focus for anti-war activity in the imperial states.
Let us examine these factors more closely.
No vote in Commons has defeated a government’s call for support in a war since 1782. Only the Suez crisis in 1956 has caused a similar breach in relations with the US, and that was because the US called time on a British colonial adventure, not because popular opinion in Britain forced its own government to refuse aid to the US.
The defeat for Cameron has its objective roots in the failure of the war on terror. But the Stop the War Coalition had made this into a domestic political crisis. The same objective crisis exists in France and the US. But the anti-war movement in those countries are either non-existent or long dwindled to the point where they are unable to effectively intervene in the national political debate.
The left is not always good at generating the stamina to sustain this length of campaign. And it sometimes does not have the historical or social breadth of analysis to see that actions and arguments can be cumulative. Nor does it always have the ability to rise above its own sectarian politics and find principled but common ground.
The Stop the War Coalition is an object lesson in all these qualities. Cameron’s Syria adventure was the smallest military action of all the conflicts in the War on Terror. Yet it has produced an effect much greater than even the previous defeat inflicted on the elite by the anti-war movement: hounding Tony Blair from power.
That paradox is the effect of over a decade of systematic and sustained campaigning.
As Tariq Ali says:
The Stop the War coalition in Britain has no equivalent elsewhere in Europe or America. Even in isolated times (the invasion and bombing of Libya, for example) the pressure was kept up".
This ability to sustain the organisation is, in the first instance, based on a capacity to analyse the new phase of imperialism. As even Tory commenter Peter Oborne has noted: ‘the Stop the War Coalition (a miscellaneous collection of mainly far-Left political organisations, by no means all of them reputable...) has consistently shown far more mature judgment on these great issues of war and peace than Downing Street, the White House or the CIA.’
Fundamental to this analysis is the idea that we are not facing a single incident, or even a series on incidents, but a series of conflicts characteristic of a fundamental crisis in the post-war imperial structure of global politics. This was our view at the out-set of the War on Terror, indeed before it began.
This analysis now requires some extension to provide the clarity necessary for the next phase of the struggle against imperialism.
The crisis of US power
The Iraq War was ultimately a political and military defeat for the US. The tenacity of the Iraqi resistance, the level of domestic opposition to war, the chaos of the post-war US administration - all this eventually resulted in a humiliating refusal by the Iraqi government to sanction a status of forces agreement in which 50,000 US troops would have remained in Iraq. Economically US companies may have gained from cherry-picking the Iraqi economy, particularly its oil industry. But the overall aim of the Iraq War - a stable pro-Western base of operations in the Middle East - has not been achieved.
The Afghan War has, if anything, been an even greater failure. It strengthened and revived the Taliban rather than defeating them. Now the US is negotiating with the Taliban about becoming part of the post-occupation government. In the meantime Al Qaeda has become an international franchise operating in, among other places, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia and Mali. Pakistan has been destabilised. It is small compensation for all this to have accomplished the extra-judicial execution of Osama Bin Laden.
The eruption of the Arab Revolutions into this already complex picture has thrown even more challenges into the face of the imperial powers. The Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions exploded with such force in early 2011 that the great powers were unable to significantly affect their course. The revolutions removed two virulently pro-Western dictators, one of which, Hosni Mubarak, had been a cornerstone of US policy toward Israel and in the wider Middle East.
But the imperial powers have also found an opportunity in the midst of this crisis. In March 2011 there was an imperial turning point in the Arab Revolutions. The Gulf States, particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar, emerged as the Western backed centres of counter-revolution the Middle East. They combined forces to crush the Bahraini revolution. This was done with the Gulf States taking the lead and the US and its allies backing them up diplomatically. The same constellation of forces then turned their attention to Libya, this time with NATO taking the military lead, specifically Britain, France and the US. This time the policy was to co-opt the leadership of the revolution with the bribe of military assistance.
It cannot be said that this worked for the Libyans. Their country has been left devastated, an arms bazaar for the whole Middle East and barely maintaining its geographical integrity. Uniquely in the Arab revolutions its first post-conflict government was declared in Paris under the watchful eyes of Hilary Clinton and Nicolas Sarkozy.
But it did work for the great powers. They were back in the game. The long held neo-con aim of creating or subverting democracy movements for the purpose of regime change in countries where the government was not sympathetic to Western interests had now been given new possibilities by the Arab revolutions. This is why there is now a struggle for the heart of the revolutions between the masses that fight for genuine and fundamental social change and those in the West, and their local clients, who wish to make them the playthings of the Western policy.
This conflict is nowhere more evident than in Syria. Here the resilience of the regime and the early militarisation of the struggle have given the West the opportunity to try and bend the revolution to the purpose of replacing the Assad regime with a pro-Western government. But things are not going to plan, as they did in Libya.
The Un-united Nations
There are a number of global flashpoints where inter-state rivalry is evident. The Afghan war has destabilised Pakistan. Georgia saw a stand-off between Russian and US backed forces in 2008, a stand-off which the Russians won. In Africa as a whole US hegemony is battered, though still functioning in North Africa, but economically Chinese investment, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, now outstrips US investment. All this has produced the ‘pivot to the Pacific’, the redeployment of US military forces to confront the rise of China.
But conflicts between the major powers are not limited to the oceans around their respective shores. These conflicts will be fought out far from Beijing, Moscow or Washington.
Syria is in many ways the point where the long term shifts in power and the immediate crisis of imperialism coincide.
Up to and including the Libya intervention all the wars of the post-Cold War world had a similar configuration: they were wars where the major powers agreed, more or less actively, more or less enthusiastically, that they would allow a US led coalition to go to war against a small, militarily weak nation. Even where Russia or others dissented the US was able to proceed without their agreement. This was the pattern in the Balkan War, the first Gulf War, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.
In Syria, partly because Russia has local interests here that it did not have elsewhere, partly because of growing anti-western sentiment resulting from longer term economic shifts toward China and Russia, there has been significant and effective divisions among the major powers.
Syria is now not only a civil war but also a proxy war between a client of Russia and China and clients and allies of the West including Turkey, the Gulf States, Jordan and the Western backed militias that these forces are aiding.
It is also self-evidently part of a post Iraq regional conflict. British Foreign Secretary William Hague has talked of a new Middle Eastern Cold War in which the West, Israel and the Gulf States are ranged against Syria, Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah. It is worthy of note that since Hague made this speech the Syrian conflict has divided Hamas and Hezbollah.
Iran has, as an unintended consequence of the US military defeat in Iraq, become a stronger regional power than it was before the War on Terror began. The US and its allies, particularly Israel, have no intention of allowing the situation to continue.
The long term economic shifts in power and the short term problems that US imperialism faces have created greater divisions among the great powers, but we should not think that the point has been reached where the US, the greatest imperial power the world has ever seen, is anywhere near exhausted. Nor should we imagine that it is incapable of acting without UN sanction.
The British Empire and the British economy were in a profound crisis from at least 1918. It took many colonial conflicts and a second world war to dislodge them from imperial pre-eminence.
The US is still the largest economy in the world, it is armed, and it is dangerous. What we face is not a greying superpower slipping gently into that good night. What we face is a wounded beast.
- This article is based on The Wounded Beast: US Power Today, and was first commissioned by the Post-globalization Initiative in Moscow.
Source: Stop the War Coalition