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   Vol.66/No.37           October 7, 2002  
1990-91 in Gulf:
a U.S.-led war for Big Oil

Printed below are excerpts from "The Working-class Campaign against Imperialism and War," an article by Jack Barnes that appears in New International no. 7. The article is based on talks presented by Barnes in November 1990, three months after Washington imposed a blockade on Iraq following Baghdad’s invasion of Kuwait, and two months before the U.S.-led imperialist forces unleashed a six-week bombing campaign. On February 24 Washington launched a four-day invasion of the country.

The one-sided assault, in which at least 150,000 Iraqis died, is described by the editors in their introduction as "one of the most massive, cold-blooded slaughters in modern history." The U.S. rulers’ goal, they wrote, "was to impose...a reliable regime subservient to U.S. imperialism; secure greater control over oil reserves in the Gulf; [and] shift the relationship of forces against the region’s toilers, especially the Palestinian people.... In pursuing these aims, the U.S. capitalist class sought to use its military might to deal economic and political blows to its imperialist rivals in Europe and Japan."

Washington’s failure to carry through these political aims lies behind its deepening military intervention in the region and preparations for more wars, including the one being set in motion right now against Iraq. Copyright © 1991 by 408 Printing and Publishing Corp. Reprinted by permission. Subheadings are by the Militant.


Right now, at this stage in the rulers’ war drive, perhaps the biggest hazard that faces the working-class vanguard, including communists among them, is the danger of denial.

These hazards are compounded for those who are buffeted by the day-to-day swings and tactical divisions reflected in bourgeois public opinion. One day the news covers a tough-talking press conference by Bush--war! The next day, a sharp exchange at congressional hearings between Baker and several senators--war has been pushed back. The UN Security Council adopts a new resolution--war! The Iraqi regime releases the hostages--war has been pushed back. Several returning hostages call for bombing Baghdad--war! And so on.

The political vanguard of the working class must steel itself against such impressionistic reflexes. The workers’ movement has always faced a double problem leading up to every imperialist war.

On the one hand, the capitalists and bourgeois politicians who are themselves preparing the war always claim to be acting in the interests of peace--and of freedom, democracy, and national sovereignty as well. They are the most fervent opponents of war! They publicly agonize, as cameras roll and reporters fill up their notebooks. The bosses and politicians do this in order to maintain support for actions they must take to preserve their social system.

But it’s not just the bourgeois propaganda that is disorienting. Individuals and currents from the petty bourgeoisie--sometimes because of the depth of their shock at the horrors of war, and their fears of its consequences--lose their moorings and get drawn into the undertow of one or another section of the war makers and their political parties. These middle-class currents have a bigger direct impact on layers of fighting workers and farmers since--unlike the employers and most bourgeois politicians--they frequently function in or around organizations of the labor movement and in broader radical politics. They often make common cause with petty-bourgeois bureaucrats in the unions and other workers’ organizations--whether social democrats, Stalinists, or the homegrown U.S. business-unionism variety. These middle-class layers, whether well intentioned or incurably corrupted, serve as a culture for the growth of all varieties of bourgeois ideas and pressures inside the working-class and labor movement.

Based on the facts, communists can provide an independent working-class answer to the question of whether the capitalist rulers are pushing us closer to war. The answer is yes. The danger of a bloody slaughter in the Middle East is greater today, and the need for a working-class campaign against the imperialist war drive is more pressing....  
More nakedly imperialist
In one way, the war that is being prepared by Washington in the Middle East today is a "post-Cold War" war. That’s because, unlike any other war they’ve prepared since 1945, the U.S. rulers can’t present this one as part of the battle against communism or the Soviet threat. This too will be a pattern from here on out. The wars that Washington fights will be more nakedly imperialist wars--and imperialist in every sense of the word.

Imperialist, first of all, in the most popular sense--like imperial Rome and its legions. The legions of a dominant power that exaggerates its contributions to human culture and ideas in order to rationalize marching off to dominate other parts of the world. A war fought by an imperial army, claiming imperial rights and prerogatives for an imperial race. A war against illogical heathens with strange gods. A war aimed at economically draining, politically oppressing, and militarily subjugating another people. An imperial power--often with high-flown rhetoric and practiced apologists--that claims the right to police the world.

It’s good to use the term this way. There’s nothing wrong or "unscientific" about it. It is an imperialist war in that most classical, most popular sense. It goes back thousands of years, and rings a bell with people throughout the world.

Moreover, it’s completely accurate in another sense, too. Because Washington--the last of the world’s massive, brutal, imperial powers--is now embarking on a series of final wars to try to hold together a crumbling order, the capitalist order. And in the course of these conflicts--regardless of how long it takes--that empire will go down to defeat under the combined blows of workers and farmers at home and abroad.  
War for Big Oil
It’s also an imperialist war in the popular economic sense--a war over oil. It will be a war to guarantee that the profits derived from the organization and control of petroleum remain in the hands of Big Oil, of the monopolies and the imperialist governments that defend their interests. That’s the sense in which you hear people say, "I’m not sure oil is worth a single life over there."

We shouldn’t be hesitant to use the word imperialist in that sense, either. There’s a great deal of truth to the statement that the war is being fought over oil. It’s a battle over resources--a battle by the U.S. rulers to stop another capitalist class, in this case the Iraqi capitalists, from gaining too much control over those resources, directly or indirectly.

We should remember that the U.S. capitalists alone use 26 percent of the world’s oil production. Moreover, every aspect of the world oil market--right down to the gas pump--is highly monopolized by a handful of superrich capitalist families in the United States, Britain, and other imperialist countries.

Today, while the price of a barrel of oil remains well above what it cost four months ago, substantially more is being produced, sent through pipelines, and put on tankers than prior to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. In fact, in November world oil production reached a six-month high. Washington has played up information about the Saudi Arabian government bearing a big load in financing the U.S. military buildup there. But the windfall profits to the Saudi ruling families from the rise in oil prices since August 2 has produced five times as much income for them as they’ve laid out for Operation Desert Shield.

But it’s not the Saudi throne or the ruling classes of the OPEC countries that are the biggest victors of this price-gouging--although they do benefit, and at the expense of both the workers and peasants in their own countries and those in non-oil-producing countries throughout the Third World.

The big winners are the wealthy families who own the imperialist oil monopolies. They more than anyone else--more than OPEC--influence the world price of oil. This is true even though most of the Mideast oil fields have been nationalized in the decades since World War II, as well as those in many other semicolonial countries. The imperialist-owned monopolies not only own and operate their own massive oil fields, but also dominate world petroleum refining capacity, transportation, and distribution networks. The government of the Soviet Union, the world’s largest oil producer, has also benefited from recent price increases, helping to offset falling revenues from the declining output of its crisis-wracked petroleum industry.

The great losers economically--not to mention from the slaughter that is being planned--are working people in the United States and around the world. The majority of humanity--those in the semicolonial world--are being hit the hardest by the monopoly-rigged leap in oil prices. The Third World is being devastated. The working people of Eastern Europe are special victims too. They have been hit by the price hikes, the cutoff of Iraqi oil, the failure by the Soviet government to come through with contracted supplies, and--beginning January 1, 1991--with the necessity for the first time in decades of paying for Soviet oil in hard currency at the world market price.

So the war that is being prepared is an imperialist war in that sense too--a war for Big Oil.

There’s a third way in which it’s an imperialist war--the way Marxists have used the term for most of this century. It’s a war waged by finance capital. It’s a war over economic domination and control--redivision--of a big piece of the semicolonial world. It’s a war against other propertied classes in other countries for the domination of raw materials, markets, and access to the superexploitation of low-paid labor.

It even has the aspect of a war to redivide world power and influence among rival imperialist ruling classes. Despite the broad backing of the world’s capitalist ruling families for the war drive, the massive military operation in the Gulf is not a "coalition" effort. It’s not a partnership of equals. U.S. imperialism is calling the shots.

The bottom line, however, is that this will be a war in which all the imperialist powers--U.S. imperialism above all--stand to lose. It will be a war of a declining, not an advancing, imperialist power....  
Antiwar sentiment will not stop war
Communists above all must have no illusion that antiwar sentiment can prevent an imperialist war. It never has. The rulers don’t care what working people think or feel, so long as they are convinced they can get away with what they need to do to defend their profits and class interests. Modern history has taught the rulers that actually starting a war always results in dampening antiwar sentiment for a while. But only for a while.

The army in Saudi Arabia will fight. Other workers and farmers will give grudging support initially, even many who currently oppose going to war. Especially given the living memory of Vietnam, this fatalism will often take the form of just wanting to get it over as quickly as possible--to minimize the deaths of buddies and family members, so that life can get back to normal. That’s especially the case among GIs, among workers and farmers in uniform, of course. Bush and the bipartisan gang from Congress who accompanied him to Saudi Arabia in November knew what they were doing when they embraced the slogan "No more Vietnams" as their own. They assured the soldiers that if "we" have to do it, we’ll throw in everything we have and get it over with fast.

Fatalism among layers of working people, in and out of uniform, in the initial stage of a war is normal--but it is quite different from wanting to go to war. And as wars drag on, they always become increasingly unpopular and give rise to mounting working-class resistance. World War I culminated in the formation of revolutionary councils of soldiers, workers, and peasants in Russia, Germany, and elsewhere in eastern and Central Europe. In Russia, the workers and peasants took power. Similar revolutionary developments began to take place in the closing stages of World War II, many of them crushed and demobilized by the joint efforts of the Stalinists, social democrats, and bourgeois forces throughout Europe. And we’ve explained the rise of workers’ struggles that took place here in the United States.

That process of polarization and differentiation will have to be gone through again if war is unleashed in the Middle East. We’re convinced that it will be fought through more quickly this time. Opposition during war can develop very rapidly. That’s what we are getting ready for. That’s what we have our eyes on in this working-class campaign against the war.

If we’re serious about the campaign, then we must pay close attention to the place where a large section of our class is organized.
Related articles:
Hundreds of marines join desert exercise in Kuwait  
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