Published : Mar 14, 2003 00:00 IST

U.S. President George W. Bush. - J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE/AP

U.S. President George W. Bush. - J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE/AP

Millions of people pour into the streets of the world in protest against the United States' aggressive moves against Iraq, marking the convergence of the global movements against corporate globalisation and imperialist war.

CLOSE to a million people marched in Rome on February 15 to protest against their government's collusion with the United States on the question of the forthcoming imperial blitzkrieg against Iraq; over a million marched in London on the same day, in the largest public demonstration in British history. On February 20, in an absurd show of piety, British Prime Minister Tony Blair arrived at the Vatican for an audience with the Pope, with his Catholic wife in toe; the Vatican, in turn, took care to publicise widely the fact that Pope John Paul II had advised him not to go to war. In between, 90,000 protesters had gathered in Glasgow outside the hall where Blair was addressing a Labour Party conference. Meanwhile, a poll showed that 51 per cent of Britons considered him "Bush's poodle" and a staggering 90 per cent disapproved of his will to make war on Iraq. On February 21, fresh from his embarrassing audience with the Pope, Blair participated in a four-way telephonic conference with U.S President George W. Bush and Prime Ministers Silvio Berlusconi of Italy and Jose Maria Aznar of Spain to back Bush's statement that the U.S. was going to table a fresh resolution at the United Nations Security Council seeking authority to make war. All this, in the teeth of the largest anti-war demonstration that his country - in fact, the world - has ever witnessed.

And, the protesting multitude of 15 million people who poured into the streets of the world in something of a global chain really was vast and unprecedented. It began in Auckland, on the southeastern tip of the empire and gave to New Zealand easily the largest anti-war demonstration in its history. Next was Melbourne with 200,000 in the streets, and the centre of gravity in this human wave kept shifting as the sun itself moved westward. The epicentre was in Western Europe, especially the three countries of `Old Europe' the United Kingdom, Italy and Spain whose governments are identified with the U.S.; Barcelona had seen nothing like this since the fall of General Francisco Franco three decades ago. Fifteen thousand in Paris and close to half a million in Berlin were a fraction of what the multitudes would have been if their governments had not broken with Washington.

North America was in the next time zone and 400,000 gathered in New York even though the city government, backed by an extraordinary ruling by a Judge, had banned a march. This was synchronised with protest marches in roughly 300 small and medium-sized towns across the U.S. One lakh people came out in Montreal and 80,000 in Toronto, in the largest peace demonstrations in the history of the two cities. What had begun in Auckland ended 48 hours later in neighbouring Australia, with a quarter million marching in Sydney. The sun had gone full circle, and it was dawn of another day. War against the planet had brought forth the first planetary rebellion against it.

THIS outpouring of humanity against an imperial war, which has not even begun on the scale at which it is being planned, is of course deeply connected with the anti-globalisation movements, which have also become global in scale over the years, doing their work in a thousand locales across continents and periodically holding the various Social Forums which then culminate in the World Social Forum. Indeed, it was at the time of the European Social Forum (ESF) in Florence, Italy, that the first of the really vast anti-war rallies had taken place; 40,000 attended the ESF but ten times that many marched against the war. This convergence of movements against corporate globalisation with movements opposed to imperialist war may well prove to be the forerunner for the making of an authentically anti-imperialist movement of the 21st century. A notable feature of these anti-war mobilisations, as in the anti-globalisation movement, is that these consist overwhelmingly of young people, or of older people who have never marched before in their lives. The other equally important feature is the sheer breadth of the anti-war sentiment.

This is reflected in public opinion polls where anti-war sentiment across Europe ranges between 80 per cent or above in most countries and 60 per cent or so in some. In Germany, the Forsa poll found that while 57 per cent of Germans held the opinion that "the United States is a nation of warmongers", only 6 per cent said they thought Bush was concerned with "preserving peace". Public opinion in eastern Europe, where most governments have lined up behind the U.S., is even more hostile to war than in the west. A Gallup International poll found low support in the region for war, even if sanctioned by the United Nations just 38 per cent in Romania, 28 per cent in Bulgaria and 20 per cent in Estonia. The figure for Russia was 23 per cent. In Turkey, some polls are suggesting a figure of as much as 94 per cent opposed to the war.

What may prove decisive in building a truly anti-imperialist movement is the massive unrest and dissidence among the working class. In Britain, for example, five of the biggest unions, with a membership of 750,000 - including the rail union Aslef; Rail, Maritime and Transport Union; and the Communication Workers' Union - have threatened widespread industrial action, boycotts and strikes if Blair goes to war without explicit authorisation from the Security Council. At the other side of the globe, the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions campaigned actively for mass mobilisation on the issue of war and issued a statement, which said: "The U.S. should stop immediately the war against Iraq and the military threat imposed on Korea peninsula... The U.S. had attacked Afghanistan using the excuse of `war against terrorism' after September 11... After the invasion of Afghanistan, the U.S. has shifted its military target into Iraq... and the U.S. is now even touting the possibility of using nuclear weapons... The U.S. is driving another war in the Korean peninsula addressing the North Korea nuclear issue... Regardless of the demands of the Korean people to solve the issue in a peaceful manner, the U.S. has increased military tension over the Korean peninsula by pushing ahead with additional military deployment."

The really surprising development - a potentially historic shift - has actually occurred in the U.S. itself. According to the current issue of The Village Voice, leaders of more than 400 labour organisations, representing 4.5 million union members (roughly 30 per cent of all unionised labour in the U.S.), have signed a tough resolution condemning the Bush administration's push toward war. The resolution states: "There is no convincing link between Iraq and Al Qaeda or the attacks on September 11. Neither the Bush administration nor the U.N. inspections have demonstrated that Iraq poses a real threat to Americans." The principal victims of a war, says the resolution, "will be the sons and daughters of working class families serving in the military" and "innocent Iraqi civilians". The resolution stated that the billions of dollars needed for the action will come from funds meant for "schools, hospitals, housing, and social security". The war push, the resolution says, is already serving as a "pretext for attacks on labour, civil, immigrant and human rights at home" as well as a "distraction for the sinking economy, corporate corruption, and layoffs".

The resolution was initially adopted at a conference in Chicago in January, and among the signers are the national leaders of the communications workers, postal workers, State and municipal employees, as well as the central labour councils of Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Washington, Cleveland, Sacramento, Albany and northwest Indiana - in short, across the U.S. Separately, several large labour bodies, including the giant Service Employees International Union, have sent their own messages of concern to the White House. In New York, more than two dozen unions have signed the resolution, led by health and hospitals workers union 1199/SEIU, now the State's largest union, which has given office space to anti-war protest organisers and bought radio time to advertise the latest rally near the U.N. headquarters. This is, by all counts, an extraordinary development, indicating that anti-war sentiment is running higher among U.S. workers today than in almost a hundred years, since the First World War. More broadly, while 90 cities and towns - including Chicago and San Francisco - had gone on record by February 13 opposing the impending war, dozens of others were considering anti-war resolutions.

This remarkable shift in the U.S. towards a fairly generalised anti-war sentiment in labour unions, city councils and the populace at large - not just in the larger and more cosmopolitan cities but deep into what Americans call `middle America' - is taking place in the context of great scepticism among intellectuals, opinion makers and professionals of various kinds. On the religious side, the Pope's highly publicised advice to Blair has worldwide repercussions. Within the U.K., the Archbishop-designate of Canterbury and the head of the Catholic Church have combined their forces to oppose the impending war. Similar voices have been raised in the U.S. by a variety of religious figures, all the way to the Presiding Bishop of the United Catholic Church. One hundred law professors in the U.S. have written to Bush saying that if he goes through with his war plans he is liable to be prosecuted for war crimes, and the fact that the U.S. has not signed on to the International Criminal Court offers him no more immunity than had the Nazis who were tried at Nuremberg. The legal case against the war has been laid out in painstaking terms in the current issue of London Review of Books by Michael Byers, who teaches international law at Duke University.

The anti-war sentiment spills over to former and serving military personnel too. A group of U.S. soldiers, parents of soldiers and members of Congress have filed a lawsuit challenging Bush's authority to make war without a specific declaration of war from Congress. A letter, signed by a large number war veterans is doing the rounds, opposing the war. And with good reason, since many of them have had gruesome recent experience of the Gulf war of 1991. On the surface, U.S. casualties were very low - 148 killed and 467 wounded - compared to the scores of thousands of Iraqis who died within a couple of weeks. However, what never gets said - but is well known to these veterans - is that nearly two of every five of the approximately 540,000 Gulf war veterans are disabled as a result of illnesses they believe they sustained during the conflict. About 161,000 Gulf war veterans are receiving disability payments from the U.S. government, and about 209,000 have filed V.A. (Veterans Affairs) claims and are still waiting. They, their fellow-veterans and an indeterminate number of serving soldiers and officers are not convinced that a much larger war, which is now getting planned, is in their interest or is even wholly legal.

Forty-one American Nobel laureates in science and economics issued a declaration on January 27 opposing a preventive war against Iraq without wide international support. These are, by no means, people who would otherwise be identified with a peace movement. Among them are Hans A. Bethe, an architect of the atom bomb; Walter Kohn, a former adviser to the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency at the Pentagon; Norman F. Ramsey, a Manhattan Project scientist who readied the Hiroshima bomb and later advised the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), and others of their kind. At the other end of the spectrum, when Laura Bush, the President's wife, tried to organise a poetry reading at the White House, so many, including former Poet Laureates, refused to attend that the event had to be cancelled. When Sam Hamill, one of those who refused, sent out a message to invite anti-war poems, he expected to receive perhaps 50; he got 2,000.

This generalised disaffection in the core capitalist countries is supplemented by fears in Iraq's immediate vicinity. Among the six states bordering Iraq - Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iran - only Kuwait is wholly with the U.S. Turkey, which is now coming on board, is extracting such a high price (close to $30 billion in aid) and such an extensive role for itself in northern Iraq that it makes a mockery of the U.S. plans to arm some 40,000 Kurds as foot soldiers in its own largely aerial assault. For the rest, Iran knows that it is likely to be the next target in case the U.S. succeeds easily in Iraq; in fact, some 12 per cent of the Israeli Air Force is known to be already operating against it in the border zones. As for Syria, it fears that Israel may well use the U.S.-led war to move its own armies into more of Syrian and Lebanese territories, apart from attempting to push as many Palestinians as possible into Jordan, Syria and Lebanon; Jordan shares the same fears. The Saudi Arabian monarchy, meanwhile, has two different nightmares to contend with. First, it is already facing massive domestic unrest, so much so that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) compares its domestic situation to that of Iran just before the revolution. In case of Saudi acquiescence in an U.S. occupation of Iraq, it faces the possibility of getting overthrown by internal forces, sooner rather than later. Second, even if the U.S. achieves all its war aims and the monarchy survives, prices of Saudi oil are likely to collapse, the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) itself shall be wrecked and the centrality of Saudi Arabia in world oil trade shall be a thing of the past.

All this was reflected in an extraordinary two-hour lecture that was delivered at the Cairo Book Fair in early February by Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani, the first Secretary-General of OPEC and Saudi Arabia's Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources from 1962 to 1986, who became famous when he masterminded the oil embargo - and the dramatic rise in petroleum prices - in 1973. He described Arab leaders as "their highnesses, excellencies... who do not derive their power from the people" and as "lackeys who are working faithfully to satisfy the Godfather". Now, when a man of Sheikh Yamani's eminence utters such words publicly in Cairo, defying the Egyptian government as well as his own; and when, in addition, he receives a standing ovation and the words then get published in Egypt's leading newspaper despite official displeasure, one knows how high the disaffection runs among the highest echelons of even Saudi and Egyptian societies.

Yamani then went on to outline three possible scenarios. One is that there would be no war. The U.S. would succeed in ousting Iraqi President Saddam Hussein through other means, sponsor a government of its favourite henchmen and absorb most of the Ba'ath party into the new regime; all else would remain the same except that the U.S. would now determine the future of Iraqi oil.

The second, more grim, scenario would be that the U.S. shall invade and Saddam Hussien would put Iraq's own oil wells aflame. "If that happens," Yamani said, "there would be an expected shortfall of more than 10 million oil barrels in the [international] market, a gap which no country could fill - not even in part. In this case, oil prices would reach $80 to $100 a barrel. None of the world's industrial countries' oil supplies would help out of this devastating situation. Many factories across the globe would be forced to shut down, which would result in a massive wave of unemployment with no historical precedent. Not to mention, of course, what would happen to innocent children, women, elderly and other people. I hope this scenario does not happen, but we shouldn't ignore it either. This scenario would mean the end for the U.S., Europe and the West."

The third possible scenario he offered was only a little less grim: Iraq would be quickly occupied and partitioned. Oil production could resume and keep increasing after a brief interlude, reaching as much as 10,000 barrels a day within the decade and shipped to the West through pipelines reaching into the eastern Mediterranean. Oil prices shall collapse, Saudi production and revenues would fall drastically, Jordan would lose the enormous subsidies it gets from Saddam Hussein and will have to cope with the influx of Palestinians pushed out by Israel. "Then it's Iran's turn, and Syria will fall. The end result is that Israel will be the strongest and most powerful country in the region," he said and concluded with a warning that has been staring the world in the face for some time: "The horrifying repercussions of an attack on Iraq are frightening. There will be hundreds of Osama bin Ladens."

So, will there still be war? The short answer is: very likely. The U.S. has announced that it will table a new resolution in the Security Council and will defy any permanent member to veto it. As if on cue, Chief U.N. Weapons Inspector Hans Blix has ordered Iraq to start destroying its Al-A'moud missiles by the end of February, or get ready to face the consequences. (Iraq has offered to let Blix pick any of its missiles and test-fire it, to see for himself that they all have a range well within limits prescribed by the U.N. itself. But Blix is unwilling to exercise that sensible option.) He can come to the U.N. any day and report that Iraq is defying his orders, which will give the U.S. the excuse it needs. Meanwhile, every country in the world even outside the Anglo-American axis, and of course the world media, has been issuing pronouncements to the effect that a full-scale invasion would be fine if the U.N. endorses it. In the process, the Security Council itself has been endowed with utterly undeserved but a virtually mystical halo, as if it had some great history of rectitude in making fair judgments, enforcing its supposedly binding resolutions and preventing wars.

The fact of the matter is that the U.N. has never prevented any major war, and certainly none that has been waged by the U.S. or Israel, be it the Vietnam War or the Israeli attack on its neighbours in 1967. These same permanent members of the Security Council have sat around twiddling their thumbs as Israel has defied scores of its resolutions; has continued its occupation of territories it captured illegally in 1967, including Syrian territories; has built up a nuclear arsenal of over 200 nuclear warheads complete with advanced delivery systems; and is daily committing in the Occupied Territories what everyone knows are crimes against the humanity, and so on. The obstruction to the U.S. designs in the Security Council is so precarious that Germany itself never tires of pointing out that it has contributed 35,000 military personnel to the U.S. build-up - it just does not think the time is right.

So, it is really up to the U.S., and the factors that are driving it towards war are various. The U.S. now has 180,000 troops in the vicinity of Iraq and more are scheduled to arrive; a third of the British military is either already positioned in the region or on the way. These forces are not there to play war games or simply to impress Saddam Hussein. Nor are they there to put pressure, while the inspectors do their work. Everyone worth the name in the Bush administration, from the `extremist' Deputy Secretary of Defence Paul Wolfowitz to the `moderate' Secretary of State Colin Powell, has been saying for over a year that the U.S. wants to oust the legally constituted regime of Iraq regardless of what the inspectors do or do not find (this alone violates the U.N. Charter and international law generally).

WE are in fact living in perhaps the most dangerous time in imperial history. Never in history has there been an imperial power without a rival somewhere or the other; the U.S. military superiority is so overwhelming that its military budget is larger than the combined military budgets of the next 25 countries. Thanks to this superiority, and thanks also to the intoxication caused by its victory over the socialist states (the Soviet Union, in particular), it fancies itself invincible. At precisely this time, the U.S. is ruled by a faction of the far-right so extremist that no previous U.S. administration in recent memory can compare with it, not even the ones led by Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan. To understand the danger Bush and his cronies represent, one would have to imagine Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi with U.S. military and economic power at his disposal. At the core of this ruling group are individuals - the Bush father-son duo, Vice-President Dick Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice, and others - whose careers and personal wealth have been deeply tied to the oil corporations. The world is facing a macabre situation in which grabbing Iraq oil, at any cost, is crucial for U.S. hegemony per se and the U.S. oil corporations in general, and the key members of the administration personally, starting with the President himself who stands to amass much wealth in consequence, thanks to his father's business deals. This is quite additional to the fact that Bush and his ruling group owe even their political fortunes to the petrodollar-weapon-dollar complex.

As for oil and gas resources, a fuller analysis shall have to be presented in the future. Some salient facts may be mentioned. Numerous studies, reports and plans were developed in the U.S. during the 1990s with the objective of securing its hold over the world's resources of these strategic raw materials, and Cheney, among others, was closely associated with them. The long-standing U.S. interest in Afghanistan has always been connected with these resources in the Caspian Sea Basin, estimated to be worth $5 trillion; the heretofore undeveloped resources are said to comprise 6.6 trillion cubic metres of natural gas and 10 billion barrels of oil. The recent invasion of Afghanistan, and the building of 13 new U.S. military bases in the Caspian region leading up to that invasion, had to do with those resources, not with the Taliban with whom the U.S. was in cosy negotiations for several years. The U.S. itself has only 3 per cent of the world's known oil resources, which is at any rate far more expensive to produce and bring to the market than is the Gulf oil. Meanwhile, the U.S. accounts for a quarter of the world's oil consumption and imports 60 per cent of its daily consumption, 16 per cent of it from the Gulf region, which alone has close to 20 per cent of the world's resources. Iraq has the second largest reserves, next only to Saudi Arabia, and the U.S. has not been able to dominate its oil in some 35 years, as it does in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. This is now the target, after securing control over the Caspian Basin.

The U.S. is now talking of an initial period of two to three years in which Iraq shall be under its direct administration, with perhaps a token international civil servant from the Muslim community formally occupying a key position. They expect to have a permanent military presence there for an indefinite period; General Tommy Franks, who is likely to lead the assault, has spoken of the `Korean model', where U.S. troops have been stationed for half a century. This presence is to ensure control not only over Iraq but also over the region as a whole, including Saudi Arabia, which is fast becoming unpredictable. Sheikh Yamani is right: with Iraq already secured as a staging-post for military action elsewhere, ouster of regimes in Syria and Iran shall be easier.

Then, there is the U.S. economy itself, which is suffering from a crisis of stagnation, overproduction and huge unutilised facilities and liquid assets. Funnelling some $200 billion or so into the war economy - what some of us have been calling `military keynsianism' - is expected to boost the economy as a whole. Second, the re-building and breakneck expansion of Iraq's ailing oil industry under U.S. control is expected to stimulate U.S. investment; this is in addition to the Caspian basin where all the U.S. oil giants are already at work. Third, complete U.S. control over resources of the Gulf and Caspian regions will greatly contribute to building a superior competitive edge against its rivals in western Europe and Japan. It will then control not only production and flow of oil from these regions but will ensure that dollar becomes the exclusive currency for transacting oil trade. In fact, ensuring the supremacy of the dollar as the world's primary currency is crucial to maintaining the U.S.' economic position in the world. Not the least of Saddam Hussein's recent sins has been that he has increasingly traded Iraq's oil in euros, which has arisen as a competing currency. The war on Iraq is, among other things, a currency war between the dollar and the euro.

WILL the U.S. succeed? There are too many imponderables. What one gets in the world media is an unreliable mix of fine investigative reporting, sheer speculation passed off as news, and disinformation dressed up as revelation of secret documents. We do not know how loyal or battle-worthy the armed forces of Iraq shall be under the U.S.' genocidal firepower. It is perfectly possible that much of the top brass of the Iraqi military shall defect, leaving their units leaderless and wandering in the wilderness. Nor do we know what the U.S. war plans are. We do know that the tonnage dropped in the conventional bombings during the 1991 Gulf war was equal to seven and a half Hiroshimas; in the impending invasion, bombings are likely to far exceed that tonnage, and whereas only 10 per cent of the weapons during the Gulf war were precision-guided, 80 per cent will now be precision-guided. A report on the American CBS network in late January said: "If the Pentagon sticks to its current war plan, one day in March the Air Force and Navy will launch 300 to 400 cruise missiles at targets in Iraq." They may then launch the same number the next day; 6,000 of these missiles are now stockpiled around Iraq.

This is part of a strategic plan known as "Shock and Awe" that Pentagon officials spelled out for CBS, with the exultant claim: "The sheer size of this has never been seen before, never been contemplated before." The architect of this scheme, Harlan Ullman, was reported as saying: "You have this simultaneous effect - rather like the nuclear weapons at Hiroshima - not taking days or weeks but minutes." And, even though it can achieve the same effect through conventional weapons, the U.S. is now talking of perhaps using nuclear weapons for deep-penetration bombings, on the pretext that that is the way to get to the bunker where Saddam Hussein shall be hiding and at the factories for producing weapons of mass destruction which, for some odd reason, the U.N. inspectors simply cannot find, despite having complete access to anything in Iraq they wish to inspect and having at their disposal all the latest technology and equipment for the most thorough search.

Other reported plans suggest that saturation bombings shall be conducted in Baghdad itself and the area from Baghdad to Tikrit (Saddam Hussein's ancestral home), while the rest of the territory shall be quickly taken over by ground forces; British troops, in particular, are tipped for taking over the oil fields, where risk of death shall be the highest. Extensive reports in the U.S. media, including such major publications as Time, suggest that U.S. special forces as well as the CIA's secret armies have been operating already throughout northern Iraq as well as some central zones, to facilitate precisely such an occupation.

In earlier plans, Iraq was expected to be divided into three entities: a Kurdish one in the North, a Shia one in the east, and Sunni one in the remaining area. The oilfields are conveniently located in the northern and eastern zones. It then transpired that Turkey would not tolerate a sovereign or even semi-sovereign Kurdish entity on its borders, and that a Shia entity on the border with Iran was much too risky. In recent plans, the U.S. seems to be guaranteeing the territorial unity of Iraq as it currently is, infuriating the Kurds who were supposed to do much of the fighting in the offensive from the north, in lieu of (semi)-independence and a share of the spoils by way of some role in managing the Kirkuk oilfields. In these new plans, the U.S. seems to have agreed to have the Turkish Army operating in the Kurdish zones; how it will treat the Kurds, and when it will leave, remains unclear; its history of genocidal cruelties against Kurds living inside Turkey does not promise a safe future for Iraqi Kurds. And, then, there are the oil fields located in Iraqi Kurdistan, which Turkey regards as an Ottoman province and therefore its own long-lost territory.

Likewise, the fate of Iraqi oil is unclear. That the U.S. will control it and that it is building a "coalition of the willing", by promising a share of the spoils to Russia, Italy and other countries, is clear enough. However, earlier reports used to suggest that a consortium of U.S. oil corporations would hold Iraq's oil resources "in trust for the Iraqi people", would restore and expand production and perhaps help the Iraqis pay for the costs of the war against them - anywhere between $2 billion and $2 trillion - before restoring the remaining resources to their own government assembled by the U.S. New reports suggest that Iraqi oil shall be fully privatised, on the model of the privatisation of public sector assets in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. On this issue, however, Iraqi clients of the U.S. are themselves beginning to rebel, with the lofty rhetoric that privatisation is good but the privilege of ownership should be allotted to Iraqi nationals only, not to foreigners; they have suddenly become patriots, like any national bourgeoisie.

So, we really do not know what the war is going to be like and what comes after it - if there actually is an "after". Perhaps the Americans themselves have been postponing the full-scale invasion because they are unable to predict the future. But four things we do know, as we keep inching towards the holocaust. One, the Security Council is too slippery an entity to bank upon. Second, the savagery shall be strictly unimaginable for those who are not its victims. And, the Americans shall undoubtedly know how to get in but they may not know how to get out. Fourth, ground shall have been prepared for the whole region to explode. The empire might be overreaching far beyond what it can manage.

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