A British attack on Syria has been stopped, but the Western powers remain highly militarised imperial states - the need for an anti-war movement remains as great as ever
The Commons vote against attacking Syria is an historic victory for the global anti-war movement. It marks a serious fracture in the power of Western imperialism.
But, as John Rees observes in another article on this site, a wounded beast is an aggressive and dangerous one. History teaches that imperialism in decline is liable to lash out in ferocious violence.
The last two decades have been shaped by the contradiction between a declining US economy and enduring US military power. It is the weakening of economic leverage that has driven US rulers to launch a series of wars in the Balkans, Central Asia, and the Middle East. The balance between dollar and gun has shifted to make the world a more fractured, violent, and deadly place.
Saturday’s anti-war demonstration should therefore be both a celebration of victory and a protest against the still murderous instincts of our rulers.
Nonetheless, we may be bearing witness to a shift in the tectonic plates of global power.
The Iraq Syndrome
Parliament is but a pale shadow of real social forces. Last night, however, it became the touchstone of Western imperial decline. Cameron’s grim-faced admission of defeat was a signal event in British history: ‘It is clear tonight that … the British Parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action. I get that and the government will act accordingly.’
Half an hour later, speaking on Newsnight, defence secretary Philip Hammond laid the blame squarely on Blair and Iraq. The experience had ‘poisoned the well of public opinion’.
Many MPs had indeed referred to Iraq during the debate. One described himself as a ‘victim of past dossiers’. Another said that she ‘cannot sit in this House and be duped again’. A third declared that ‘our intelligence as it stands might just be wrong’.
But these preoccupations reflect deeper forces. Despite a barrage of atrocity propaganda from government ministers and their media chorus, opinion polls show less than one in ten Britons favouring military action against Syria. As Miliband is reported to have told Cameron in private, trust in the political elite has collapsed.
Public opinion does not form in a vacuum. It is created by information flows. The Iraq Syndrome is a product of the global anti-war movement. Twelve years of protests to expose the lies, assert the truth, and resist the warmongering of our rulers have created the mood of opposition to military aggression that lies behind Cameron’s defeat.
Two other factors are at work. One is the scale of resistance in Central Asia and the Middle East.
The forces at work are often reactionary. The benighted tribal conservatives of the Taliban offer little hope to the people of Afghanistan. The jihadist militias of the Syrian resistance have turned a popular revolution into a sectarian nightmare. But whatever the politics, the forces in play are too powerful to be easily contained by Western military intervention.
This is one reason a string of senior politicians, diplomats, and generals have broken with Cameron over Syria. Christopher Meyer, former British ambassador to Washington, said: ‘It cannot be in the British national interest to see Assad disintegrate under the pressure of cruise missile attacks … such that his stocks of chemical weapons fall out of his control into the hands of the extremist jihadists among the rebels. This is why this decision on what to do next is truly the decision from hell.’
Afghanistan turned into an unwinnable guerrilla war. Iraq disintegrated into a mosaic of sectarian enclaves. Syria is a civil war devoid of the sort of indigenous proxy forces that might provide Western leverage for establishing a post-Assad client regime. Their inability to control events in the region has split the British ruling class over military action.
The seriousness of this cannot be underestimated. Oil is world capitalism’s most important commodity. Without it, armies stop moving and economies shut down. Oil is running out as global demand rises. The Middle East has up to 70% of the world’s known reserves. That is why it has been a battleground of imperial powers for a century.
This also explains the third factor at work in the Middle Eastern crisis: imperial rivalries. Russia and China are firm allies of the two main ‘anti-Western’ pariah states in the region – Assad’s Syria and the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Russia and China are on opposite sides to the US, Britain, and France in the conflict. But their aims are identical: control over global energy reserves. In Russia’s case – itself a major producer – the motive is mainly strategic. In China’s – desperate to feed the voracious appetite for fuel of its fast-growing industries – the motive is mainly economic.
Suez and Vietnam
Three factors are at work, then: the anti-war mood in the West; the armed resistance in Central Asia and the Middle East; and the intensity of imperial rivalry with Eastern capitalism and its local allies. This combination of forces has defeated Cameron and exposed the limits of Western imperial power.
There are parallels with both the Suez Crisis of 1956 and the Vietnam Syndrome after 1973.
In November 1956 the British and the French invaded Egypt in alliance with Israel. They were responding to the challenge of an Arab nationalist regime in Cairo.
The invasion was a political disaster for the imperial powers. It provoked a storm of rage in the Arab world and mass protests at home. A demonstration called by the Labour Party and the TUC was the biggest in London since the Second World War and culminated in clashes between protestors and police outside 10 Downing Street.
The US took advantage of the hostile reaction to pull the plug on the operation by threatening to cut off the funding on which the British economy depended. Its aim was to displace Britain as the major imperial power in the Middle East.
The Suez Crisis destroyed any illusions about the British Empire: it was clearly in terminal decline; it could no longer play a role in the world independent of the US.
In 1973 the last US troops were withdrawn from Vietnam. The military commitment had peaked at half a million men, but it had not been enough. An army of peasant guerrillas had defeated US imperialism in a full-scale war.
The Vietnamese had not fought alone. The American people had become their allies. So too had millions of others across the globe.
As the economic cost of the war spiralled, the combination of resistance in Vietnam and protest at home split the US ruling class, brought down President Johnson, and crippled the future ability of American governments to intervene around the world.
The effect of the ‘Vietnam Syndrome’ was demonstrated vividly during the Iranian Revolution of 1979. The US was unable to save its client dictator, unable to prevent an Islamic regime, and unable to avoid a humiliating hostage crisis which exposed its weakness under a global spotlight.
The limits of peace
None of this makes the world a safer place. A British attack on Syria has been stopped. The effect may be to undermine planned US action. But the Western powers remain highly militarised imperial states grappling with the problem of long-term economic decline. Western imperialism is a wounded beast, not a carcass.
Britain’s decline from superpower status began as early as 1890. But Britain emerged victorious from the carnage of the First World War with an even bigger empire than before, and then fought a Second World War to protect its empire that was even longer and bloodier 20 years later.
US decline began in the 1950s. That has not prevented the US being the world’s single most aggressive military power in the decades since, with its armed forces almost always engaged in active operations somewhere in the world.
The need for a powerful anti-war and anti-imperialist movement remains as great as ever.
Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.
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