From the July-August 2014 issue of News & Letters
by Gerry Emmett
The quick collapse of the Iraqi army and security forces in the wake of attacks attributed to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) seemed to leave most onlookers stunned. As long as the brutal nihilism of ISIS remained a problem for Syria’s revolution and a military and propaganda asset to the Assad regime, the powers that be saw little point bothering with it.
That attitude suddenly changed on June 12, when a lightning offensive saw Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, fall to the insurgents. The pattern extended itself to Tikrit, farther south, then Samarra, and the battle spread to the oil refining center of Baiji—though government spokespeople said the refinery remained in their control. As of this writing, the insurgency has extended to within an hour’s drive of Baghdad.
Most of this was first attributed to ISIS. The question was asked, then: Why and how could a well-armed force of 20,000 Iraqi troops, armed and trained by the U.S., dissolve in the face of 800 terrorists?
At the same time, Kurdish peshmerga fighters took over security in Kirkuk—a city historically considered their capital, disputed by Iraq’s central governments. Forces close to Shi’a Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki have been promoting a narrow, sectarian call to raise Shi’a militias. All these tensions in Iraqi society have been building for decades.
INFINITE DEGRADATION OF ‘ISIS’
ISIS may be most important as a measure of what Marx called “the infinite degradation in which humanity exists for itself.” Its extreme brutality, its nihilism, reflects the murderous attacks that Iraqi society has been subjected to for decades. This includes Saddam Hussein’s genocidal tyranny, the brutal Iran-Iraq war which killed over a million people, the cynicism with which the U.S. left the Iraqis to be slaughtered when they rose against Hussein’s rule after the first Gulf War in 1991—and the brutal and stupid U.S. occupation of Iraq after Bush’s invasion in 2003.
Those who pointed out that the U.S. rulers would not, could not, wage a war of liberation in Iraq were proven correct. From leaving Saddam Hussein’s anti-labor laws in effect, to making alliances based on sectarian religious differences, to downplaying women’s rights, the U.S. occupation was a disaster for Iraq.
Ironically, Maliki’s growing authoritarianism, which has now blown up in his face, is a vestige of that U.S. occupation. His calls for U.S. military aid, in tandem with his calls for Iranian help, reflect his desire for the military power to once again freeze social relations in their place. ISIS’s pretensions to statehood are actually similar to Maliki’s own in that respect. Both are far removed from any concept of freedom.
A LONG EXPERIMENT
For U.S. rulers in particular, Iraq has been a long experiment in the failed attempt to create a manageable post-Cold War imperialist order. It’s worth remembering how little opposition the first Bush’s 1991 Gulf War met. The U.N., Russia, Hafez al-Assad’s Syria all signed off on that dirty little exercise. It was their green light that forced Bush to allow Saddam to crush the Iraqi people’s revolt that erupted following Iraq’s expulsion from Kuwait.
While the Kurds were able to gain a no-fly zone, and thus a safe haven in northern Iraq, the rest of the population was subjected to years of cruel and debilitating sanctions. This sanctions regime, enforced mainly under President Clinton’s watch, killed countless thousands of Iraqi children, cut Iraq off from culture and science, and devastated the economy. It did, essentially, nothing to inconvenience Saddam and his circle, as his many palaces testified.
Saddam sold oil under the table, and kept an alternative culture of foreign journalists and small regional Baath parties on his payroll, while the Iraqi people starved. It is important to keep this larger picture in mind as this long experiment in cynicism unravels, to avoid the pull of any oppressive ideology that seeks to recreate inhuman social relations.
HUMAN POWER vs. IMPERIALISM
The long Kurdish struggle for self-determination, the Arab Spring-inspired occupations among the Sunni, the thirst for dignity and social justice among the Shi’a, and the many and insistent calls for anti-sectarianism, for women’s rights, for labor solidarity, all these and more are forces calling for the construction of a new Iraq and a new world. They also call for a major rethinking on the part of much of the Left.
It is vital, for revolutionaries, to see how the people of Iraq have foiled the post-Cold War effort of world imperialism to create its stable order. It is by no accident that the same forces that have united to oppose the Syrian Revolution are scrambling now to influence events in Iraq. Failing to grasp the immensity of what the Iraqi people have done—against all odds—has led many to despair of the very idea of revolutionary change.
It has led would-be revolutionaries to fail to comprehend how the humanism of the Syrian Revolution has proved the necessity of opposing all reactionary powers. The war threatened by both ISIS and Maliki’s sectarianism will prove that truth yet again.