The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

The Middle East:
A Hunting Ground for Rival Imperialist Trusts

Apr 2, 2003

Much of the early opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq revolved around the proposition that the U.S. should not go to war without the approval of the United Nations (U.N.). Implicitly, this position gave support to the war. It did not question the underlying assumption that the U.S. had the right to invade Iraq, nor did it denounce Bush’s bogus claims. Some who took this stand, such as some Democratic Party politicians and the big union apparatuses, did so as a way to respond to unease about this war in the population, pretending to oppose the drive to war when they didn’t. The proof is that they obediently fell in line and supported Bush when he invaded Iraq, even though the U.N. did not give its stamp of approval to the war.

But others naively believed that the U.N. really could make a difference, that it really had some way of stopping the war and opposing the U.S. moves to invade. Events have shown otherwise. Not only didn’t the U.N. stop the war, it didn’t even call the U.S. to account in any way for its invasion, despite the fact that one of the basic tenets of what is referred to as "international law" condemns the invasion of one country by another and the killing of civilians, as does the U.N. charter itself. Obviously, all that legal finery didn’t stop the U.S. from invading, nor the U.N. from overtly collaborating with the U.S. in its war. In the final weeks leading up to the war, the U.N. cut off shipments of food and other humanitarian aid that the Iraqi regime had already paid for in the U.N.-sponsored oil-for-food program—a blow directed primarily at the Iraqi population itself. And once the U.S. launched its war, the U.N. made it clear that it was ready to accept any role that the U.S. and British offered it to ease their burdens of the occupation of post-war Iraq.

Given the history of the recent Iraq conflicts, this should really not come as a surprise. The U.N. supported and provided a cover for the first Gulf War and the economic blockade of Iraq that followed. The U.N. weapons inspections provided the pretext for the economic blockade of Iraq, and the inspectors also provided military intelligence for such U.S. and British bombing campaigns as Operation Desert Fox in 1998, not to mention "Shock and Awe." Taken together, the U.N. actions in Iraq throughout the last 13 years allowed the big imperialist powers, starting with the U.S., to tighten their grip on the already prostrate Middle East and they contributed to the death of millions of Iraqis.

As for the rest of the almost six decades of its existence, the U.N. has either sponsored invasions of countries, like the U.S. invasion of Korea, or sat by and did nothing to stop all of the wars, coups and invasions of countries, especially by the big imperialist countries against the poor countries (like Viet Nam, for one), that helped make the twentieth century one of the bloodiest in history.

Under the guise of being an organization of peace, the U.N. has always represented the dominant big imperialist powers over the rest of the world. The make-up of the Security Council, with its five permanent members with veto power, is certainly one indication of that. In fact, the U.N. has played the same role that its predecessor, the League of Nations, did until its demise brought about by World War II. And no wonder: both international organizations were set up by the dominant imperialist powers to facilitate their plunder and exploitation of the underdeveloped countries.

In the following pages, we reprint the translation of excerpts of an article written by our comrades in the French Trotskyist group Lutte Ouvrière (LO). This article, that appeared in the April 2003 issue of LO’s magazine, Lutte de Classe (Class Struggle), number 72, puts the war in Iraq in perspective. It gives a historical overview of the domination of the Middle East by the big imperialist powers, as well as the role of both the League of Nations and the United Nations.

* * * * * * * *

The Middle East has been pillaged by Western imperialism for a century and a half. British and French banks made the first important inroads, taking control over the finances of the region’s three principal states: the Ottoman Empire (which controlled the biggest part of today’s Middle East), Persia (now called Iran) and Egypt. They took over the finances of the Ottoman Empire and Egypt. In Persia, they collected the tariff duties from foreign trade, and they even issued the regime’s money. Representatives of both British and French banks held seats in the royal Egyptian government. Everywhere, British, French and German rivals competed for control over markets. They also competed for monopolies of navigation routes, forests and mines, the tobacco trade, etc., as well as for the construction of canals, such as the Suez Canal, railroad lines and roads.

But these companies quickly moved beyond just maneuvering to create openings for their investments. They soon were relying on the armed forces of their own state apparatuses to impose their decisions over local populations and political authorities. In the process, they began to rearrange the region as a function of their own interests.

In 1860, under the pretext of rescuing the Maronite Christian bourgeoisie from the revolt of the Druze, the French troops of Napoleon III landed in force and carved an autonomous territory out of the heart of the Ottoman Empire. Called Mount Lebanon—ancestor of today’s Lebanon—it was controlled by the French army. In Egypt, the British jumped on the pretext of a nationalist revolt to occupy the country militarily, an occupation that lasted over 70 years. At the same time, Britain established a number of tiny "protectorates" that it carved out of the Ottoman Empire along the coasts of the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman.

Rivalries among the Western bourgeoisies for control of the large profits taken out of the region sometimes threatened to break out into open confrontations. Before World War I, a diplomatic battle broke out between France, Great Britain, Germany and Russia over control of the famous "Baghdad railroad," which was supposed to link Constantinople (today known as Istanbul) and Basra, by way of Ankara and Baghdad. These Western rivalries finally led to the break-up of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, completely disrupting the Middle East and resulting in its current appearance. New borders were drawn corresponding to the relationship of forces between the big powers that shared the booty, Great Britain and France. These borders had nothing to do with the economic interests and national aspirations of the peoples.

Significantly, it was during this period that two of the principal European oil trusts were formed—the predecessor of British Petroleum (BP), which became the principal exploiter of oil resources in Iraq and Iran; and the predecessor of the French company TotalFinaElf, which took over Germany’s share of Iraq’s oil reserves after Germany’s defeat in the First World War.

Imperialism, Drenched in the Blood of the Population, Imposes its Control

It really takes cynicism for current Western leaders to denounce Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, its repressive character, its clan-like basis, or its oppression of the different nationalities that coexist in Iraq. The very worst precedents in these matters were set by imperialism itself when it forced the people of the Middle East to acquiesce to its control over the region and the borders its diplomats drew.

To impose their grip on the region, the leaders of French and British imperialism used an entire panoply of vile colonial methods. They drowned in blood the aspirations for independence and democratic freedoms engendered by the collapse of the old regional empires. At the same time, they played off the different peoples against each other, without the least concern for the long-term consequences this let loose.

Upon taking control of Iraq, Great Britain soon introduced a system of feudal property that benefitted the heads of the local clans, in the hope of gaining their support. But as a consequence, this reactionary policy reduced the vast majority of poor peasants to serfdom. Fighting against this, the Shiite populations in the center and the south of the country carried out an insurrection in 1920 that the British army drowned in blood. These are the same Shiites for whom Bush and Blair shed crocodile tears in order to gain their support against Saddam Hussein.

Bush and Blair today denounce the regime of Saddam Hussein for being based on the Sunni minority against the Shiite majority. But here too, Saddam Hussein only followed down the path laid out by Great Britain. In 1921, it established a Sunni monarchy to rule Iraq, under the British mandate, of course; the cadres that made up the state apparatus were also recruited from the Sunni population.

The British authorities today also denounce the terrible repression carried out by Saddam Hussein against the Iraqi Kurds. But it was the British who set the precedent, carrying out a bloody two-year war against the Kurds, trying to force them to abandon all hope of establishing an independent Kurdish state. It was through such means that Britain and France kept control over oil in northern Iraq around the city of Mosul.

The same thing happened in Persia during this time period. During World War I, British troops occupied Persia, turning it into an unofficial British protectorate. When the Persian population rose up—inspired by both the Russian Revolution and national aspirations of minorities in the north of the country—the British army drowned their revolt in blood.

France did the same thing in the territory that it claimed for itself (an area which is roughly the same as today’s Syria and Lebanon). To break a nationalist uprising, France sent in an expeditionary force of 70,000 troops. It then set up an "independent" Lebanon—cutting off the area in such a way that the Christian Maronite bourgeoisie could impose its rule, without having to give any rights to the Muslim minority. At the same time, the remaining Syrian territory was divided in three, in an attempt to play different ethnic groups off against one another and to thus weaken rising Arab nationalism.

It was through a massive blood bath that imperialism presided over the formation of the modern Middle East. This blood bath did not stop after the first years following World War I. Far from it. The local populations never resigned themselves to Western colonization, even when it was hidden under the hypocritical label of an international "mandate," or so-called "independence" under heavy outside surveillance. Above all, these populations did not resign themselves to the misery caused by the pillage of the region’s resources by the Western oil trusts.

In fact, between World War I and World War II, none of the new regimes that the imperialist powers set up were able to achieve any kind of stability. Despite the direct military interventions by France in Syria and Great Britain in Egypt, despite the formation of local armies by Great Britain in Iraq and Iran, one uprising followed another without imperialism ever being able to put a stop to them. The memory of each successive uprising prepared for the ones that followed.

The Evolution of Imperialism’s Means of Domination

World War II became the pretext for the imperialist armies to return in force to the region. During the war, Germany and Italy sought ways to gain access to the oil they had been totally deprived of by the final political settlements of World War I, while Great Britain and then the U.S. sought ways to prevent them from getting it. Imperialism also put troops in the region, anticipating the possibility of social explosions following the end of the war. But at the same time, rivalries were already appearing among the "allied" big powers. In 1943, British troops expelled a French Gaullist military delegation from Lebanon after it tried to oppose a new constitution that contained no reference to a French mandate. At the same time, a corps of the American army spent the entire war in Iran far from any battlefield but near the oil wells of Abadan, then controlled by the British, but coveted by American oil trusts.

The political settlement following World War II did not result in the remaking of the Middle East, at least not in the same obvious way that had followed World War I. But faced with rising aspirations of Arab nationalism, imperialism found new possibilities for maneuver in the area—offered to it by Naziism, that abject by-product of imperialism, which had created millions of Jewish refugees with no place to go. In the immediate post-war period, imperialism worked to turn this Jewish population into a lever against the mass of the Arabs. The creation of the state of Israel quickly transformed itself into a blood bath. In 1948, Great Britain pushed Egypt, Jordan and Iraq into a bloody confrontation with the new Israeli state so that Britain could defend its sphere of influence in the region from encroachment by the United States, which was using its support of Israel to push the British out. As future events showed, these inter-imperialist rivalries and the Israeli-Arab war that resulted were catastrophic for the Middle East in general and for the Palestinian people in particular. The triumph of Zionism in Israel was consummated by this war, which served as the pretext to evict the majority of the Palestinians, who were then transformed into refugees.

Since World War II, the dismantling of the British sphere of influence translated into the progressive disappearance of its semi-colonial regimes.

Imperialism’s intervention in regional affairs became less direct, but remained no less brutal. It had not carried out a significant direct military intervention in this region until the 1991 Gulf War—outside of the U.S. intervention in Lebanon in 1958, and several operations by so-called "peacekeeping" U.N. troops in Lebanon to contain the mobilization of the Palestinian people. Instead, imperialism left the task of maintaining its order, protecting the pillage of the poor masses by its trusts, to local armies equipped from head to toe by the big powers. These local powers drowned popular movements in blood, as in Iran in 1953 or Iraq in 1963. As for maintaining order over the whole region, this was left to regimes such as Israel or dictators ready to curry the favor of imperialism—such as the Shah of Iran after he was brought to power with the aid of the CIA in 1953 or Saddam Hussein before his fall from grace in1990.

For half a century, the imperialist powers had been able to avoid appearing openly on the scene to maintain their domination over the region. But the price the population has had to pay has not been less bloody than during the preceding period. Quite the contrary. Witness the plight of the Palestinian population: living in what are called refugee camps but what in reality are prisons, forced into a permanent state of war with the state of Israel. As for the dictatorships imperialism used to carry out its dirty work, the more they depended on military aid from the imperialist powers to survive, the more brutal they were. The Iran-Iraq War was a punitive war against the Iranian regime, encouraged by the big powers, making it an atrocious example with its million deaths.

Since the end of World War II, there have been millions of deaths in the Middle East from the fratricidal wars encouraged by imperialism, the nationalist divisions that it created, and the brutal repression by dictators dependent on imperialism. But on top of that, the economic underdevelopment of the region imposed by imperialist domination has created an incalculable number of victims, whose numbers most likely dwarf all the other causes. Imperialist domination had no other goal than to shape the region according to its own needs. For Iraq, imperialist domination not only meant the pillage of its petroleum resources but the imposition of economic and social conditions necessary for imperialism to develop and maintain this pillage. For example, it reinforced a privileged caste that lived at the expense of the rest of the population. The Iraqi economy and society were profoundly deformed by this imperialist domination. In the period after British domination was ended, even when a regime really tried to introduce state ownership of the country’s resources, this was never able to efface the wounds left by the colonial period on the economy and the Iraqi population. Even before 1991, when the U.N. imposed sanctions on Iraq, Iraq was already an example of how imperialism pushes a country into underdevelopment, and Iraq was not among the poorest of countries. How many men, women and children died prematurely because billions of dollars from the sale of petroleum went into the pockets of imperialist arms merchants instead of being invested in the infrastructure to meet the population’s needs (potable water, medical care, etc.)?

Imperialism has many ways to make oppressed people pay for its domination over them, but no matter how, the people end up paying the bill with their own skins. Bush’s war against Iraq only confirms this rule.

The Role of Inter-Imperialist Rivalries

This very brief overview of Middle East history demonstrates the determining role that the inter-imperialist rivalries have played. At this level, nothing has changed. What has changed is the relationship of forces between the rival imperialist powers.

For months preceding the current war, the United Nations provided the field on which these rivalries were played out. This is exactly the same role that the League of Nations played in the period between the two world wars. During the inter-war period, the United States was already the dominant power on the economic level. But it was not yet dominant militarily. At the time of the settlement that followed World War I, it was hardly present in the Middle East. That’s why American leaders chose not to challenge the British and French imperialist powers, allowing them to colonize the region under the cover of a mandate of the League of Nations and "international law."

But when the occasion presented itself, the U.S. jumped to take advantage. For example, when the League of Nations arbitrated a dispute between Great Britain and Turkey over which power would control oil in the Mosul region of Iraq, the U.S. offered to support Great Britain. In exchange, Great Britain allowed U.S. oil trusts to gain a share of the Iraqi oil fields. And while the two declining imperialist powers, Great Britain and France, had to depend on their military presence in the Middle East to defend their interests in the region, the United States was able to play on its financial strength, as well as the Saudi regime’s suspicion of Great Britain, to obtain a monopoly over Saudi oil without having to impose it by force.

The Second World War reversed the relationship of forces. Despite all of Great Britain’s efforts to occupy the maximum territory in 1945, it did not have enough reserves to stand up to the fresh new forces being brought into play at the end by the United States. By contrast to the situation of the American armed forces, the British conscripts had spent the entire war fighting in the desert, and threatened to rebel if they were not sent home immediately once the war ended. After the Second World War ended, the U.S. was able to force France to withdraw all its troops from the region, and Britain almost all its troops. The United Nations replaced the League of Nations in 1946, and became the arena where disputes arising from rivalries between the big powers were fought out. But this time, it was the United States that dominated the arena. This is what happened, for example, when Israel got away with ignoring U.N. resolutions and all the plans for a Palestinian state, with the tacit agreement of the United States but the great displeasure of Great Britain.

The U.N. was and is the collective tool of all the imperialist powers for imposing their law on the rest of the world, just as the League of Nations was. But this instrument can function only when the rival powers can reach some kind of consensus, despite their rivalry, even if that consensus always expresses the relationship of forces—that is, for the last half a century, the dominance of American imperialism.

But if there is no consensus for the policy the dominant imperialism wants, it may well act without the U.N.—especially since any agreement with the U.N. would entail sharing a bigger part of its loot with the other powers. This is exactly the reasoning made by the U.S. when Bush seemed to take a special delight in thumbing his nose at the U.N. But this stance was not something new and unique with Bush. During the Balkan crisis, Clinton did something similar when he used NATO in order to circumvent giving a role to the United Nations. In any case, the current relationship of forces is such that the minor imperialist powers have no other choice but eventually to rally behind the policy of U.S. imperialism. This is what French President Chirac, like the others, will do—be it only to ensure that the French trusts can divide up the markets and resources of Iraq with their American rivals.

Ultimately, once all the niceties of U.N. diplomacy are stripped away, the policy of imperialism appears as it really is: the law of the jungle imposed on the entire planet.