From the April 2004 issue of the Socialist Standard
Truth, it seems, is not just the first casualty of war. It’s also the first casualty of preparations for war. In the days of open imperialism, if a state felt that its “vital interests”, i.e. the economic or strategic interests of its capitalist class, were at stake it simply went to war. Certainly, at least if another major capitalist Power was involved, certain minimum diplomatic niceties had to be met such as sending a 24 or 48 hour ultimatum, to allow embassy staff to withdraw but that was the only requirement.
After the Second World War the victorious Powers decided to establish a legal framework for future wars. They hadn’t been so rash as to promise, as they had during the first world slaughter, that this had been a war to end all wars and so the UN Charter was drawn up. Basically, this makes war as an instrument of foreign policy illegal under international law unless certain conditions are met. States are still allowed to go to war if they consider that their “vital interests” are at stake (that’s the main let-out clause; the other is “self-defence”), but they have to demonstrate this to the UN.
So, when the Bush/Cheney regime in America decided that the vital interests of its capitalist class required the overthrow of the Saddam regime in Iraq, they had to come up with a more internationally acceptable reason than the real one of wanting to control an alternative source of oil should the Saudi princes be toppled and to control territory where they could install bases near to both the Middle East and the Caspian oilfields. Other UN members, some of whom had their own imperialist reasons for not wanting America to take over Iraq, would not have agreed. So the would-be aggressor states decided to play the “weapons of mass destruction” card.
The US and British governments probably knew very well that Iraq didn’t have such weapons and that the primitive ones it had once possessed had been destroyed after the last Gulf War. After all, Bush and Blair would hardly have sent their troops in to face certain death from chemical and germ warfare if they thought that Iraq really had such weapons. The Iraqi regime helped their case by dragging its feet over the matter, but it had probably concluded (rightly, as it happened) that America and Britain were going to invade anyway and presumably decided that allowing some doubt as to whether it might have some weapons of mass destruction was the only chance it had of dissuading the attackers.
The Bush/Cheney regime couldn’t care a fig about the UN in his State of the Union address. In January Bush baldly declared that the US didn’t need permission from anybody to go to war to protect its “vital interests” but Blair, ever the unctuous hypocrite, does.
Revelations by Claire Short, who was a cabinet minister at the time and supported the attack on Iraq, show that the British Labour government was prepared to go to great lengths to try to secure UN approval, including listening in on the Secretary General’s phone conversations. When Short revealed this, the whole Establishment turned on her: how dare she reveal the dirty tricks of “our” brave secret service! They must be allowed to do such things to protect Britain’s (read: the British capitalist class’s) vital interests! No doubt, they did other things too, such as trying to bribe or blackmail African or South American ministers and ambassadors but we’ll never know. Under capitalism where a democratic principle such as the right to full information conflicts with “vital interests“, it’s the democratic principle that is ditched.
In any event, it didn’t work. The UN did not back the US/British attack on Iraq, so they had to make do with invoking the other let-out article in the UN Charter, relating to “self-defence”. Bush let the US media put about the lie that there was some connection between the saddam regime and Al Qaeda even though Bin Laden hated Saddam as much as Bush. Blair let the British media put it about that Iraq had missiles that could be filled with lethal germs and sent to rain down on British troops in Cyprus (all the papers printed maps showing this possibility).
It now turns out that this claim about missiles was untrue and people are demanding an enquiry into whether or not Blair and his ministers knew it was untrue and on whether or not Blair “took Britain into war” on the basis of false or falsified information. But this is all a side-show. It was not missiles of mass destruction that was at issue in the war, but oil. In fact, all this fuss about the (non-existent) weapons of mass destruction is a diversion from the real reason why America and Britain attacked Iraq. Lord Hutton never even mentioned the word “oil” once.
In this sense it is irrelevant whether the information supplied and given out about weapons of mass destruction was accurate or not. This was just the reason invoked to be seen to be complying with the UN Charter. It was not the real reason for the war.
Of course when you don’t tell the truth there’s always a strong risk that you’ll be found out. Blair has been. From his point of view, it might have been better if he had told the truth from the start that America and Britain went to war for economic and strategic reasons related to oil; that it was a threat to their vital interests that the second largest oil field in the world should be controlled by a unpredictable and hostile regime such as Saddam’s; and that they wanted to install a more compliant set of rulers in Baghdad.
Once Iraq had been invaded and easily conquered (peashooters aren’t very effective against machine guns, since that was the scale of the difference between the two sides), and the Saddam regime toppled, Blair, Shaw, Blunkett and the other Labour leaders came out with another justification for the war: to overthrow a nasty dictator. Saddam was indeed a nasty dictator but, quite apart from the fact that this wouldn’t have made the war any more legal in terms of the UN charter (the UN charter doesn’t outlaw dictators), this too can’t have been the real reason as there are plenty of other nasty dictators around. The Saudi prices for instance, but America and Britain did not propose a war to overthrow them; they are allies and friends, nice dictators. A nasty dictatorship is alright provided it poses no threat to the vital economic and strategic interests of the capitalist class in America or Britain.
Before Bin Laden was ever heard of (except by the CIA operatives training him for guerrilla warfare in Russian-occupied Afghanistan), two nasty dictators were running neck-and-neck for the most evil person in the world. One was Saddam Hussein. The other was Colonel (though, surely, he must be a Generalissimo or Field Marshall by now) Gaddafi. He’s done all the things Saddam did, and perhaps more. But now that he’s agreed to call off his challenge to US world domination (no doubt he doesn’t want to end up living in a hole in the desert), he’s OK. It’s against Britain’s “vital interests” now to call him a nasty dictator. It is even rumoured that Blair’s next foreign trip is going to be to Libya, so he can shake Gaddafi’s blood-stained hands or rather so they can both shake each other’s blood-stained hands. What hypocrisy!
But what’s so special about Gaddafi? Yes, you’ve guessed it.. He’s not just any old tin-pot dictator. The power and wealth of his regime derive from sitting on an oil-field, which US capital is anxious to modernise so as to increase the world supply of oil.
The fact is that the foreign policy of capitalist States isn’t, and can’t be, based on “ethical” considerations. It is based on what the old 19th imperialist Lord Palmerston called “interests” and what his counterparts on the Continent, Metternich and Bismarck, called “Realpolitik”. The UN Charter is just a scrap of paper. All it has done is forced governments to be even more dishonest about the reasons they go to war.