The impact of the Gulf war

First published: April 1991

The Gulf War was an overwhelming military victory for the United States. But what relation of international class forces did it create? And what conclusions flow for the coming class struggles?

On the military level the Gulf War was an overwhelming victory for the United States. In one sense this was inevitable. That the superior armed force of the imperialism, above all US imperialism, cannot be defeated by purely conventional military confrontation was a standard point made during the heyday of the colonial liberation movements of the 1950s and 1960s – it was the backbone of the military ideas of Mao-Tse Tung, Ho Chi Minh, Che Guevara, the African liberation movements against the Portuguese empire or in the struggle against Ian Smith’s ‘Rhodesia’. The original idea was that the imperialist enemy could not be defeated on the purely military level but had to be ground down by prolonged social mobilisation to which military action was subordinate – it was no accident that the NLF’s major military offensives during the Vietnam war coincided with US presidential election years. Only at the final stage, when the imperialist enemy had been ground down by political and social mobilisation, and localised armed action on that basis, could relatively conventional military struggle be engaged with a chance of success.

This was the strategy which allowed the NLF in Vietnam to defeat the last comparable imperialist military onslaught before the Gulf. It also brought success to the FSLN in Nicaragua, has sustained the struggle of the FMLN in El Salvador, won for Frelimo and the MPLA against the Portuguese, and secured victory for Mugabe’s forces in ‘Rhodesia’. The Israelis, likewise, won a rapid military victory against the Lebanese army in 1982 but were hard hit by the resistance of the PLO and Islamic forces.

Saddam Hussein’s idea of confronting the imperialists in conventional war was a typical fantasy of a bureaucratic military dictator. A regime such as Saddam Hussein’s, first, did not possess the political strategy to win – if it had, as Fidel Castro pointed out, it would never have invaded Kuwait in the first place, giving the imperialists an almost ideal pretext for war. Second, Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship was incapable of sustained social struggle, inside or outside Iraq, because it was based on crushing the Arab masses and not mobilising or enthusing them.

For that reason Saddam Hussein’s appeal even to the masses of the third world, or the Arab people, was, unlike the NLF in Vietnam or the Cubans, essentially negative – the masses opposed imperialism, and supported Iraq, and even Saddam, because of the conflict with imperialism but with no enthusiasm for his regime. Given the nature and base of the Iraqi regime, its purely military defeat was able to gain the political relation of forces, due to Gorbachev’s role, allowing it to bring its military machine to bear.

The Gulf War was a bloody crime carried out by imperialism, revealed in its full horror in the final slaughter on the Basra road. It adds to the long list of slaughters. But it also confirms that only the type of political strategy developed by national liberation struggles, and forces such as the NLF, can defeat imperialist military intervention against third world countries. Bureaucratic military actions by bourgeois semi-colonial countries cannot.

The military phases of the struggle clearly showed the nature of the regime and its political and social incapacity. The decision to send the airforce to Iran, rather than inflict what damage could be done on the US and its allies, indicated that from near the beginning Saddam Hussein was looking to preserve his armed forces for after the conflict – not to put up the maximum resistance during the war. Similarly the offer to withdraw from Kuwait meant Iraqi troops in the ground war faced a ruthless and powerful enemy for territory their government was already pledged to give up – which guaranteed they would not be prepared to fight. By the end of the war it was clear the Iraqi regime was asking its troops to engage in bloody combat simply to maintain the prestige of a dictatorial regime in the Arab world. It is no surprise they were not prepared to do so.

This political and social reality also provides the background to what is undoubtedly a significant military boost for the United States – the success of its sophisticated weaponry. Not only will the US be more willing to undertake military action against the third world after the Gulf War but it will, for example, review the issue of whether it is possible to invade Cuba. Previously the US calculated that an invasion of Cuba would result in a military struggle of such length and fierceness, due to the social mobilisation Castro would create, to have major destabilising political consequences in world politics – as the masses internationally would mobilise to defend Cuba. Now the US is undoubtedly re-estimating whether its hi-tech weaponry would allow it to overwhelm Cuba rapidly and thereby defuse international opposition before it could have time to develop its full scope.

On a more extreme level, elements in the Pentagon will also reconsider Star Wars – whether the US military could build on the success of the Patriot missile against the Scud to deal with the Soviet Union’s ICBMs. Gorbachev, by acquiescing to the US military action in the Gulf, has undoubtedly significantly increased the military threat to the USSR. As the Wall Street Journal gloatingly noted on 20 March: ‘America’s victory over Iraq leaves not only Saddam Hussein’s army in tatters. Without suffering a single casualty, the Soviet military has suffered the worst psychological defeat… possibly since June 1941.’

But again it is necessary to be very careful. The US faced only small resistance in getting its military apparatus into place because of the role played by Gorbachev. The US confronted Iraqi troops who were clearly not motivated by Saddam Hussein’s regime nor, therefore, able to put up the most effective resistance to the US high-tech weapons systems. As regards the Soviet Union it, in contrast, possesses a nuclear arsenal capable of destroying the US which no weapons system which can be deployed in the next decade will be capable of blocking. A new nuclear arms race, probably not in numbers but in sophistication of weapons and in tightening the US grip around the USSR, is now almost a certainty. But the most immediate serious threat is of much greater military intervention by the US in the third world and against Cuba.

Having stated the overall gains made by the US from the Gulf War, the limits of this must also be understood. While the US popular press is engaging in a bout of triumphalism, believing it will sweep all problems before it, this is not the real situation nor do the most serious representatives of US imperialism believe it to be the case.

The most difficult part of the Gulf conflict for the United States was not fighting the war from January onwards but getting the political forces in place between August and January to make it possible to wage war. Just how narrowly that was achieved should be clear from the fact that the US Senate only authorised the war by 52 votes to 47 and US public opinion was split 50:50 prior to the outbreak of the war. Given that the situation was finely balanced, it is clear that without the support given by Gorbachev, above all in the period from August to January, the US would not have been able to go to war or would have been forced to fight in conditions that would have totally destabilised world politics because of the weight of opinion against it. The US was strengthened after the war but it was Gorbachev who played the decisive role in getting it there.

This is indeed the lesson drawn, for example, by Kissinger in the Guardian – who ascribed the victory in the Gulf to a specific set of circumstances, and not a new ability of the US to control the world. Time magazine, while lavishly praising Bush and the war, finished its balance sheet of the war by quoting the words of General Patton, that Roman generals who had secured a victory could hold a triumph in Rome with a slave holding a laurel wreath above their head and whispering in their ear that all glory is transient. Most significantly, US Secretary of State Baker has gone out of his way to maintain good relations with the Soviet Union after the war and minoritise those forces that wanted a quick confrontation with it.

The US ruling class rightly believes that it has made a significant step forward in the Gulf War. But it has not at all achieved world stability nor do its representatives believe it has.

The elements of that instability which the United States confronts are clear. First, at the military level, the arms build-up by the US necessary to win so rapidly – not the immediate conflict but the decade of armament which preceded it – was and is beyond its economic resources. Reagan’s military build-up, on which the Gulf War was based, was financed by the import of $800 billion of capital from the rest of the world. This overstrained both the economies of Germany (reflected in the events preceding the 1987 stock market crash) and Japan (with its own stockmarket crash in February 1990). In addition it created economic chaos in the third world. Furthermore the Gulf conflict strained the US military back-up system – it was forced to withdraw forces from Europe and its transport system was greatly stretched. As Dennis Healey wrote in the Guardian: ‘In the Gulf War it took 75 per cent of America’s tactical aircraft and 40 per cent of its tanks to defeat a country with the national product of Portugal’.

The fantasy, planned by previous US Secretary of Defence Weinberger, that the US should be able to simultaneously fight both a war against the USSR and one in the colonial world was shown to be completely untenable. US military supremacy continues to rest on dividing its enemies – splitting the USSR from China, the USSR from the semi-colonial countries, the semi-colonial countries from each other etc.

Secondly the war itself has been somewhat economically destabilising in the intermediate term because it has reduced the world supply of capital. Even if the US itself receives full financing for the war – and Saudi Arabia and Germany are both trying to get out of paying their full pledges – the surplus capital which Saudi Arabia would normally have exported has instead been spent on the war – and Kuwait’s contribution to the world supply of capital has been eliminated. Both Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have been turned from international suppliers of capital to international borrowers.

This loss is offset for the imperialist countries themselves by the prospect of lower oil prices due to Saudi subordination to the US, but these low oil prices will tend to destabilise the Middle East itself. The chief imperialist economic gain of the war is the purely negative one that if Iraq had been able to successfully seize Kuwait there would been far higher world oil prices and other third world countries might have pursued their own interests more vigorously.

Any new economic gains to be made by imperialism directly from the Middle East itself are extremely limited. The GDP of Saudi Arabia, by far the richest state in the area, is only $75 billion – compared to a US GDP of $5,500 billion. Only the impact of the third world economies as a whole, not that of any individual state, is significant. The belief, suggested in some sections of the US press, that there could be an international economic boom on the basis of victory in the Gulf, or economic reconstruction, is as ridiculous as the earlier theory that capitalism could resolve its problems through surplus value extracted from new capitalisms in eastern Europe.

Annual capital accumulation in the United States is $850 billion, in Japan $950 billion, and in the EEC over $1,000 billion. The new profits to be directly extracted from the Middle East scarcely contribute to solving the problems of accumulation even in the US economy. The only two developments which could restabilise the situation of the world capitalist economy would be either a devastating defeat of the working class in the imperialist countries or the restoration of capitalism in the USSR. Neither has taken place.

General instability, in particular instability in the third world, and economic problems inside the imperialist countries will continue to characterise the world situation quite regardless of the outcome of the Gulf War. This remains the fundamental problem confronted by the United States.

Turning from the overall world situation to the Middle East, the masses there have, of course, suffered a severe defeat. Furthermore, unlike following Israel’s military victory in 1967, the Soviet Union will not step in to rearm the defeated Arab regime as it did for Nasser. It will take time for the mass movement to recover. But the elements of continued instability in the region are clear – and fed by the general instability in the semi-colonial world.

The first such element of instability is the situation in Iraq itself. As we go to press the outcome of the civil war in Iraq is not decided. However the rebellion against Saddam Hussein is large and, particularly in Kurdistan, has deep social roots. In addition to the internal consequences a victory for the Shi’ite forces would greatly strengthen Iran against Saudi Arabia and a victory of the Kurds would deeply affect Turkey and Iran. A short term victory of Saddam Hussein would not achieve stability in Iraq.

Second is the crisis in Kuwait. Here the behaviour of the Emir has been so grotesque that it has disgusted not simply the inhabitants of Kuwait but even wide sectors of imperialist public opinion which supported the war. There is clearly major pressure for a more democratic regime in Kuwait.

But despite this there are profound reasons why the Saudis, who will largely determine the issue, are not prepared to see anything except the continuation of the previous form of rule of the Emir. Apart from Yemen every state in the Arabian peninsula is an authoritarian monarchy – Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates. If the Kuwaiti monarchy were to be removed, or its powers even significantly reduced, this would provide an example for Saudi Arabia itself. Caught between deep opposition to the Emir and Saudi Arabia’s attachment to the absolutist monarchy, stability in Kuwait will not be easily achieved.

Third, both Jordan and the Maghreb (Arab north Africa) saw colossal social mobilisations during the war. The regimes in Algeria, Tunisia, and particularly Morocco – where the king sent troops to the Gulf against the virtually unanimous opposition of the population – have been deeply affected by the war with major consequences for the period ahead.

Fourth Saudi Arabia, due to its direct subordination to the United States, is playing a role in OPEC which destabilises the region. Saudi Arabia expanded oil production during the war from 5.6 to 8.4 million barrels a day to satisfy the demands of the US to keep down oil prices. Saudi Arabia is now attempting to build output towards 10 million barrels a day and to create the physical capacity to produce 13 million.

Translated into oil prices this means a low international oil price, which meets the demands of the US, but means lower incomes for the other oil producers – notably Iran, Saudi Arabia’s chief rival in the Gulf. The new Saudi line, flowing from the demands of the US, will therefore tend to destabilise the situation in the Middle East – the economic crisis in Iraq created by Kuwait’s forcing down the price of oil was one of the chief reasons why Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in the first place.

Fifth it is not clear what direct military role the US will play in the Gulf. Certainly, as it has attempted for years to get permanent bases in the Gulf, the US is going to be very reluctant to disengage – and this would be very difficult even if it wanted to. According to every account, the first meeting of the eight Arab states which participated in the war to discuss a new security structure in the Middle East ended in fiasco. Saudi Arabia did not believe in Egypt and Syria’s military ability to defend it – nor, after the financial effort of the Gulf war, was it happy with their huge demands for cash for doing so. But the Saudi regime did not want US forces permanently on its soil because of its destabilising political consequences – it instead generously proposed that a US military base be established in Bahrain! Iran will undoubtedly launch a campaign against a US presence in the Gulf and declare that all who accept it are puppets of US imperialism. Arab opposition to any permanent US ground presence in the Gulf is likely to be considerable. Furthermore under such circumstances Iran could also tilt towards an alliance with the USSR – something which is already possible and which would have major consequences for the region.

Finally, and most importantly, the issue of the Palestinians remains completely unresolved. The US understands that military stability in the Middle East can only be based on accommodation between Israel and the Arab regimes. At least Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Jordan and Syria (if it got back the Golan Heights – which it won’t), are prepared in principle to follow Egypt and come to agreement with Israel. The obstacle to that is the Palestinian people – the Arab states, outside Egypt, have always calculated that the Palestinians, and the Palestinian cause, have sufficient weight to destabilise their own countries if they come to agreement with Israel.

The hope of the Arab regimes is that Israel will agree to a ‘land for peace’ deal in which a Palestinian ‘entity’ will be set up in at least part of the Occupied Territories. But Israel has no intention of making any such agreement and the US will not compel it. Without this the Arab regimes would have to openly capitulate to arrive at agreement with Israel.

The inevitable conclusion which the US and Israel will draw from this is that they must crush the Palestinians. The first step in this is the attempt to delegitimise the PLO – to create a fake pliable ‘Palestinian’ leadership completely subordinate to the Arab states. This is the significance of the current media and political witch hunt against the PLO, and also against Yasser Arafat, and the US and Israeli attempt to create an alternative leadership. If this fails, as it almost certainly will, the next step will be to unleash a new wave of repression against the Palestinians – to attempt to break them, to force them to submit to a reactionary deal at their expense.

The problem for the US is that the Palestinians, unlike Saddam Hussein, are capable of major social mobilisations and enjoy widespread international sympathy – as they have shown in a forty-year struggle against Israel which includes three years of the Intifada. Crushing the Palestinians will be a much more difficult task for the US than defeating the Iraqi army.

The conclusions that flow from the aftermath of the Gulf War are therefore clear. The US has won a significant victory, a significant battle. But the war, which is to crush the third world to create a ‘new world order’, i.e. a new phase of the accumulation of capital equivalent to the prolonged post-war boom, has scarcely even begun. Even on the military field the US is dominant only because it can succeed in dividing its enemies – here the role of both the Soviet and Chinese leaderships continues to be criminal. Political instability in the third world will increase. The economic crisis in the imperialist countries is not even remotely resolved by the Gulf War. In short, despite the US victory, the Gulf, in the actual economic, social and political conditions, opens a deeper period of world turbulence, not one of stability. What it does ensure is that there is a much greater military threat to the third world.

In revising their priorities socialists therefore have to take on board two decisive developments, and the general trend, after the Gulf. The first is the crisis in the Middle East itself. It is therefore excellent news that the Committee to Stop War in the Gulf is to continue its activity around a just peace in the Middle East – taking up first the question of the attack on the Palestinians. The second is the very real threat which now exists to Cuba.

Finally the general trend is that which Socialist Action outlined in dealing with the consequences of Gorbachev’s policies, and the events in eastern Europe, in our editorial in March 1990, well before Saddam Hussein ever invaded Kuwait: ‘They [Gorbachev’s course and the events in Eastern Europe] have emboldened imperialism, and in the first place US imperialism, to launch a new and more aggressive policy internationally. The US invasion of Panama, and its military support to Aquino in the Philippines, were directly aided by its view that it is now free from any serious reaction to its actions from the USSR…

‘Events in Eastern Europe will directly cut off aid to liberation struggles… the developments in Eastern Europe will lead to stepping up of the imperialist economic offensive against the third world…

‘Imperialism has major problems – in particular whether it can hold together its world economy and whether it has the resources to simultaneously advance into Eastern Europe, mount an intensified attack on the semi-colonial countries, and contain the consequences of the worsening of the position of the West European working class this will create.

‘But one thing is clear. Gorbachev has not shifted politics to the left. He has strengthened the hand of reaction.’

The Gulf War was the first massive confirmation of that reality. As we have noted several times it was, in the present context of world politics, not the last but the first of the new series of North South wars. The left must draw all the implications of this for its attitude to the third world, its attitude to Gorbachev, and to its tasks inside the imperialist countries themselves.