There are basically two reasons why countries go to war: for self-defence, or for pillage and plunder. No country ever admits to indulging in such imperialist adventures; it is always done ostensibly in the name of some higher purpose. The colonialism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was justified in the name of “civilizing” the natives; that they had requested no such favour was never considered relevant. Nor was it ever mentioned that the colonialists' benevolent proclamations might have malevolent intent: to plunder the resources of the colonies.
Colonial adventures have, however, often gone horribly wrong: the French experienced this in Algeria, the Americans in Vietnam, and the Russians in Afghanistan. Now the Americans are in trouble in Iraq. The self-proclaimed sole superpower, undoubtedly with the most lethal military machine in the world, finds itself on the ropes hoping the bell will ring so that it can stagger back to its corner; but there is no referee to save it. The US itself picked the fight in Iraq, assuming that it would be a walkover. US President George Bush said as much on May 2, 2003, when he landed on a US aircraft carrier, and declared the end of “major combat” in Iraq. Would that reality were so simple, or that it could be tailored to suit Bush's political ambitions. Three years and thousands of deaths later, Bush's popularity is heading ever further south; and still he can find no escape from the Iraqi quagmire. The US today suffers from what historian Paul Kennedy described as “imperial over-reach”. That, however, would be putting it mildly.
Although Bush insists that he will “stay the course” in Iraq, all he is doing is digging an even bigger hole for himself and his military. A poll conducted by Zogby International in January and February found that 72 percent of US troops in Iraq want to get out before the end of 2006. Thousands of US soldiers have deserted while back in the US on leave, or have refused to report back for duty. Not only have retired generals criticised the conduct of the war in Iraq — general William Odom describes it as the “greatest strategic disaster”—but hundreds of West Point graduates have also launched a website declaring their opposition to the war, calling it illegal. Indeed, they have gone further, saying that their duty is to protect the constitution, not to obey a President who violates it. Mothers of slain soldiers have established an anti-war organization called Gold Star Families. One of its leading members, Cindy Sheehan, has mesmerized Americans with her sincerity and dedication, giving the anti-war movement a very human face and exposing the real nature of the political system with her argument that there is only one party in the US: the War Party.
In September 2002, Bush spoke of America's “unparalleled strength and influence”, which, he declared, would be used to confront regimes that supported terror and “extend the benefits of freedom and progress to nations that lack them”. People in dirt-poor Afghanistan and bombed-out Iraq may be forgiven for refusing to thank Bush for providing them with democracy and progress by cruise missiles. Bush blundered into Iraq because it was considered a “soft target” and because Afghanistan had been so easy to occupy. His neo-conservative allies had painted a rosy picture of how Iraqi oil would finance the war. Richard Perle, one of the chief ideologues of the war, told a Senate hearing on November 8, 2002, that the costs of the war would be covered by revenues from Iraqi oil exports. In fact, American economists and military analysts have calculated that the US has incurred nearly US$300 billion in direct military costs in Iraq.
However, another study by two Harvard economists, Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes, puts the actual cost at nearly US$2 trillion, a figure they have reached by adding the costs of dead soldiers' pensions, and of disability payments to the 18,000 injured (20 percent of them seriously), to the direct costs. Coupled with the US deficit which has surpassed $8 trillion and is still rising, one can begin to understand what commentators mean by the meltdown of the US economy. Bankrupt economies cannot wage wars, at least not for very long. The free fall of the US dollar is one indication of economic trouble; the other is the increasing self-assertion of countries like Russia, which now regards itself as a serious contender for influence in Central Asiaand the Middle East. Iran's bold stand for its rights is also helped by the fact that the US is mired so badly in Iraq and Afghanistan, and its military stretched so thin, that it can hardly afford to indulge in other aggressive adventures. Even in Latin America, which America regards as its backyard, countries like Venezuela, Brazil and Bolivia are challenging the US’s dominance.
All this would have been unthinkable even two years ago, and is a direct result of the Iraqis' refusal to accept American overlordship. Bush's insistence on “staying the course” in Iraq, instead of accepting defeat and getting out, could yet break the back of the US military. It could also banish the neo-conservatives to political oblivion in Washington. The resistance inIraq, for all its faults and errors, has dealt America a blow that may prove invaluable in the broader historical struggle of oppressed peoples around the world against Western imperialism.