One of the surprises of the London bombings has been the line taken by prominent
imperialist spokesmen. Tony Blair, Charles Clarke, John Reid, Condoleezza Rice
and John Howard have all been careful to say, or imply, that the bombings were
not specifically related to their nations’ invasion and occupation of Iraq.
At first glance, this is a bizarre position, but on further reflection the
reason for it is obvious. Clear majorities in Australia and Britain were opposed
to joining the US-led invasion of Iraq. Majorities in Britain, the United States
and Australia now think that the Coalition should get out of Iraq (although
there are differences on the timetable). The war is widely viewed as immoral,
a bad mistake and a quagmire. It follows logically from majority public opinion
that if the putative enemy is now bringing the war to London (and potentially,
New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, Sydney or Melbourne) we can remove
the threat by bringing the troops home.
If on the other hand the London attacks are just about “their”
hatred of “us” (as Bush and Blair are now spinning it) a Coalition
retreat from Iraq would make no difference to the shadowy Islamist fanatics
for whom (the story goes) the target is “our way of life”. Of course,
this is the exact opposite of George Bush’s previous line that it’s
better to fight the terrorists in Iraq rather than back home in the good old
US of A.
With uncanny precision, the various imperialist spokesmen have picked up the
new line and are staying “on message” (as they say in the spin industry).
In the 24 hours after the bombings the new spin was so uniformly presented that
it seemed as though they’d workshopped it in advance, although it’s
probably just that you don’t get their jobs without a finely-honed instinct
for political manipulation.
But I believe the new message serves a much bigger purpose and one that arises
out of the dilemma in which the American-led Coalition now finds itself.
By any standard the Coalition is in a very, very, awkward politico-military
The fact is that the Bush regime, led by the neoconservatives, misjudged the
strength of Iraqi and Arab nationalism and embarked on the war with a fraction
of the number of troops necessary to win decisively and to dominate colonial
administrations headed up by reliable puppets.
Right now, to prevail in Iraq, the Coalition would have to deploy not less
than 300,000 troops (not counting the inherently unreliable Iraqi puppet troops
– the sort of forces quaintly referred to as “native levies”
by 19th Century colonialists). This disturbing state of affairs is frankly admitted
by all qualified military observers who are not actually beholden to their government
for the next pay cheque.
The core of the problem is that to present a façade of democracy in
Iraq and to recruit Shiite s to fight the predominantly Sunni and secularist
partisan movement, the Coalition is now totally reliant on the goodwill –
and the Islamist military surrogates – of the Iranian government they
once targeted as part of “the Axis of Evil”.
So in spite of some elements within the Bush administration persisting with
attempts to bully the Iranian government over its nuclear ambitions, Tehran
has a lot of leverage over Washington. This ugly and embarrassing predicament
has arisen directly out of the Bush regime’s failure to put enough boots
on the ground.
On the one hand an open accommodation with Tehran, recognizing Iran’s
tutelage over most of southern, predominantly Shiite, Iraq would be a humiliating
blow to American prestige. On the other hand, persisting with a confrontational
stance against Iran runs the danger of a guerilla war in the south pitting militias
loyal to Iran against British, Australian and other coalition forces. This would
be a military debacle because the Coalition forces in the south are simply too
small to handle a determined uprising.
And Washington’s reliance on the Tehran government worsens the danger
of Saudi Arabia, Syria and even Turkey clandestinely supporting the Sunni/Baathist
Thus the occupation has degenerated into a debacle, derailing the neo-con’s
strategy, which aimed at giving of the US (and its client states, Britain and
Australia), unrestricted access to Iraq’s oil and using it to ride out
the rapidly approaching peak of world oil production and the subsequent relentless
decline in supplies.
To pull out of Iraq now, letting a once-stable oil producer sink into a complex,
long-running, civil war, or to allow it to be divided between Saudi Arabia and
Iran would be an unprecedented geo-political disaster for the US and would lead
to its inexorable decline as the world’s only superpower. Time to turn
the situation around is fast running out.
So in practical terms, it all gets back to the imperialists’ urgent need
to put more boots on the ground in Iraq and the failure to achieve this end
using voluntary recruitment alone.
The imperialist powers need conscription, but so far they’ve been extremely
reluctant to introduce it. The reasons aren’t hard to find. Conscription
isn’t politically popular, and historically, voters have been loath to
support it unless they can see a very convincing, direct threat to the nation’s
borders or at least its vital interests. Voters will turn a blind eye to overseas
military adventures as long as professional soldiers are doing the fighting
and dying, but compulsory military service focuses the public mind wonderfully.
For this reason capitalist governments prefer, if at all possible, to rely on
The Vietnam War began during the Cold War. At the time, in America, Britain
and Australia, conscription, in various forms, had been an established part
of the political landscape since WWII and relatively quiescent populations had
been sold on the need to fight revolutionary nationalism led by Stalinist parties.
In the case of Vietnam, military commitments were scaled up gradually. The reality
of the war crept up on people, but conscription quickly led to trouble and a
determined popular opposition evolved.
In contrast to the years preceding the Vietnam experience, we have now seen
two generations without conscription. In the US, Australia and the UK, introducing
it will be politically difficult … which brings us back to the London
bombings spin doctoring.
So far, the three governments have shied away from the intensive massaging
of public opinion necessary to clear away opposition to further cuts to civil
liberties and for the draft itself. For months now, Bush, Blair and Howard have
drifted fecklessly, hoping against the odds that something will happen to turn
around the situation in Iraq (and Afghanistan).The “evil, inexplicable
terrorists” spin is directed towards redressing this failure. It will
be far easier to convince the people that conscription is somehow necessary
for the defence of “the homeland” itself, than for a colonial war
that’s already on the nose.
Of course, once conscription is introduced, the conscripts will be dispatched
as required to Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria or Iran, but for Bush, Blair and Howard
the trick is to get conscription, and other emergency measures, by any spin