“We have before us the opportunity to forge for ourselves and for future generations a New World Order, a world where the rule of law, not the law of the jungle, governs the conduct of nations.”

– President George H.W. Bush, Sept. 11, 1990

On that infamous date in 1990, U.S. President George H.W. Bush, declared his “New World Order” in a speech before the US Congress. Using words like “democracy” and “peace,” Bush was soon to rain thousands of tons of napalm, air-fuel explosives, phosphorous bombs, cluster bombs and uranium-encased shells upon Iraq, killing thousands, poisoning the drinking water and crops, terrorizing that country.

Seven years later, President Bill Clinton did George Bush one better — he actually signed a top secret directive authorizing first use of nuclear weapons against Iraq “under certain circumstances.”

By the end of February, 1998, two Los Angeles-class submarines carrying nuclear warheads atop Tomahawk missiles had arrived in the Gulf. Each missile was hardened with so-called “depleted” uranium. The supposedly “non-nuclear” version of these weapons, also containing DU, are now being used by the US in Afghanistan and again in Iraq.

Depleted uranium had been used extensively in the Gulf war and in the bombardment of Yugoslavia, irradiating food and water supplies and poisoning those lands for millennia. Childhood cancers skyrocketed in Iraq and in Yugoslavia; depleted uranium is thought to be a contributing factor in the illnesses of tens of thousands of US soldiers who had handled or become exposed to the material. Of course all of this was completely immoral and constitute crimes against humanity. But here, I want to ask a different question:

“Right or wrong, what strategic goal was the U.S. government actually trying to accomplish, and was the Gulf War necessary for accomplishing it?”

* * *

What are we to make of George Bush’s assertion that the war had “nothing to do with oil”?

As much as the U.S. wanted the Gulf states to line up behind Saudi Arabia as the industry’s price-setter and steady prices at around $26 a barrel (think back to those halcyon days of yore!), it did not need the violent, brutal bombardment to accomplish that. Nor was the slaughter necessary to secure immediate profits for the oil companies, assert control over a larger share of the world’s oil resources, defend the hundreds of billions of dollars deposited in U.S. banks by Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, or test out new weapons systems — all rationales we have heard from the peace movement, as it tried to make sense of what was (and still is) going on. From the long-term perspective of capital, the war was not needed to achieve those results; those were secondary plums, achievable through other measures.

We, as anti-imperialist activists and analysts, need to reframe the way we look at the bombardment and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan to understand the U.S. ruling class’ hidden objectives, which are not at all apparent on the surface:

    • The war enabled the international banking and oil companies to secure new political as well as economic conditions for the ongoing production of oil (and other commodities);
    • For the first time, the U.S. government — acting as the “executive arm of the ruling class” — succeeded in forcing all the factions and competing interests of the severely divided capitalist class into line behind the Trilateral Commission’s strategy for the globalization of capital: the “New World Order”; and,
    • The war enabled the U.S. government and its allies to crush the many eruptions of working class organizing in the Gulf region — most visibly in Iran and Iraq — and kept them from spreading to other countries. It accomplished this by breaking up the increasingly organized oil proletariat and replacing it with workers from even more desperate and unorganized areas of the world.

Please note, we are not talking here about going to war to generate huge immediate profits for oil companies (even though that was one result). Individual corporations have again profited handsomely, as we continued to be distracted from the Enron and WorldCom collapses (this was originally written in 2003), leading directly to the current crisis of the U.S. economy.

On the one hand the longstanding contradictions within the U.S. capitalist class between trilateralist (world bankers, oil cartels), construction, manufacturing, agribusiness, and aerospace/armaments/“defense” industries — all with their own competing sets of economic and political interests — had again propelled conflicting, even chaotic, government policies. And on the other, within Iraq — as had been the case in Iran eleven years earlier — leftist-led uprisings were threatening to destabilize the centralized nation-state itself, with the potential to launch a powerful communist push throughout the region. Crushing those uprisings became a priority for the US and a main reason for the U.S. government’s promotion, funding and arming of Iraq in its long war with Iran.

In 1978 and 1979 the Iranian revolution had bubbled up from the grassroots and ejected the Shah — the main supporter of Israel in the region and the U.S. government’s military strongman in the Arab and Western Asian oil-producing world. One of the key features of the Iranian revolution — one not shown on American TV, which focused solely on the student takeovers in Iran’s capital city, Teheran, and the 1979 taking of 52 hostages (1) — was the rebellion of the oil workers, some 80,000 strong.

With the involvement of two million people living in oil towns, striking workers shut down the massive Iranian petroleum industry.

“The U.S. engineered an attempt to get oil flowing again by staffing the fields and refineries with 10,000 naval cadets trained for this purpose. The strikebreaking effort failed. The striking workers refused to send oil to Israel and South Africa. Yet through a strong and intricate network of peoples’ com­mit­tees called Shura in Pharsi, oil products were distributed throughout Iran, though not to the Shah’s military.” (2)

The Iranian oil workers were irreplaceable in the dangerous and highly technical operations of the oil system. They immediately coordinated amongst themselves a national operation, using the organization and communications technology of the industry itself.

Iranian society during the revolutionary period was democratically run from the grassroots by decentralized popular committees (Komitehs or Shuraá) for approximately two years. These Shura formed in late 1978 in all sectors of society: the schools, the military and media, the oil industry, among the rural Kurds and in the civil service as well as in local neighborhoods. Garbage collection, bread baking and distribution, education and publishing, munitions manufacture and international relations were some of the social activities that these radical democratic committees carried out. (3)

The Ayatollah Khomeini’s aim in returning to Iran after the upsurge from his exile in Paris, was to reassert the power of the bazaari, the mullahs and the national bourgeoisie in Iran — the basis for his authority. Even while declaring the United States to be “the Great Satan,” the Islamic fundamentalist Khomeini served the U.S. and global capitalism’s interests by crushing the neighborhood and workers’ councils that were the true revolutionary movement in Iran. Those councils had been serving to democratize the society and subject the oil industry to workers’ control (to the consternation of the U.S. oil companies). Khomeini reactivated the Shah’s SAVAK — the savage secret police that had been trained a generation earlier by Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf’s father. To gain the upper hand over the Shura, Khomeini needed a means for galvanizing the country. This was accomplished by the war with neighboring Iraq, which lasted for 8 long years and killing more than 1 million Iranian and Iraqi people.

From Khomeini’s position, the war between Iran and Iraq served as a means to defeat an insurgent working class movement at home. It enabled Khomeini to concentrate the power of the State in the hands of ultra-religious fanatics (an outcome welcomed by the U.S. government as the lesser of two evils, representing the long term interests of the oilgarchy); and, from Saddam Hussein’s position, the war served as a means to reap the material benefits of doing the U.S.’s bidding in the region and, similarly, to crush rising working class movements in Iraq, particularly around Basra, Nasria and Hilah where, for decades, there had been strong Stalinist as well as council communist movements, and among the Kurds in the North. The ruling clique in Iraq used U.S. aid to consolidate the power of Iraq’s fascist state through the terror of Saddam’s brownshirts — the Republican Guards. (More about them shortly.)

Donald Rumsfeld and Saddam Hussein greet each other in Iraq in 1983.

Donald Rumsfeld and Saddam Hussein greet each other in Iraq in 1983.

How could the U.S. play the various forces in the Middle East against each other? When should it befriend one sector, attack another? How could it maintain the Saudi rulers’ allegiance as U.S. capital’s primary ally in the region along with Israel? These have ever been the source of debate in Washington. Here we come to a main argument I am making: There is no monolithic U.S. policy that benefits all sectors of the ruling class equally. The alignment of members of the U.S. President’s cabinet with different sectors of capital helps explain the differences in approach and even outright policy struggles between Baker and Cheney in 1990, or Haig, Shultz and Weinberger a decade earlier (4) — and, for that matter, between Clinton/Gore and Bush/Cheney in 2000.

Support for sanctions against Iraq and for the U.N. Security Council resolutions had been a prime strategy of the big oil and banking sector, reflecting its own long-range economic and political interests, and its reliance upon military assistance to Israel.

Military support for Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, had long been a strategy of the aerospace and construction companies, such as Bechtel and Northrup, with enormous projects in that country and billions of dollars at stake.

In contrast to the first term of Reagan’s presidency (in whose cabinet the Bechtel corporation played an inordinately powerful and, except for Gen. Haig, a controlling role), all camps had strong presence in the first Bush Administration. (After the Gulf war and still under George H. W. Bush’s presidency, Bechtel was awarded multi-billion dollar contracts for the reconstruction of Kuwait. Bush used the power of his office to basically cajole, coerce and bribe the different sectors of capital into getting in line behind his policy of the New World Order/globalization of capital.) Bush’s successful co-optation of the right-wing of capital, which had historically been hostile to the United Nations, and disciplining the entire capitalist class behind the dominant strategy of seeking U.S. capital’s expansion through U.N. mechanisms was quite an extraordinary feat of political manipulation with long term political consequences.

The Gulf war was the hammer needed to accomplish that objective. The alphabet soup of UN structural adjustment programs, debt service payments, enterprise zones, the IMF, World Bank, WTO, NAFTA, GATT, U.S. Agency for International Development and what today we call NGOs — non-governmental organizations, the so-called “progressive” arm of globalization — are the resulting mechanisms through which the New World Order is implemented. (5)

Today, we are seeing various sectoral tensions being played out at the UN Security Council. Whether the massive outpouring of global antiwar sentiment has helped bring about a rupture in the New World Order consensus promulgated by George Bush, Sr. (which would be irony worthy of Sophocles (or, should we say, “Carlyle”) and give new meaning to Oedipus Rex, where the son wrecks the neoliberal strategy of the father, or is only a slightly chaotic blip within that hegemonic framework remains to be seen. It is this concern that is occupying the various global strategists.

Twelve years ago I wrote that if the anti-globalization movement could more deeply influence the direction of the anti-war movement, we may be seeing the end of the period of neoliberalism and the beginnings of mass movements for revolutionary economic, ecological and social transformation. The route has been circuitous indeed, but in responding to the built-in capitalist economic crisis and the global ecological catastrophes we’re facing, the Occupy Wall Street movement, Black Lives Matter, and their offshoots provides the kind of sustained “critique-in-practice” of capitalism that some of us thought to be both possible and necessary 25 years ago.


1. ABC’s Nightline, with Ted Koppel, was born as a means of documenting the hostage crisis day by day.

2. Terisa Turner, “The 1991 Gulf War and Popular Struggles,” in Arise Ye Mighty People! Gender, Class & Race in Popular Struggles, Terisa Turner and Bryan Furguson, eds. Africa World Press, Inc., Trenton, NJ.

3. Turner, ibid., and Terisa Turner, “The politics of world resource development in the 1990s,” International Oil Working Group, New York, 1990.

4. See, for example, Mitchel Cohen, “Class Wars: Haig, Israel & the U.S. Government,” in Red Balloon Newsletter, October 1981. Haig represented the strong pro-Israel position of the trilateralists; Shultz and Weinberger, who had been officers of the Bechtel Corporation, represented the position favoring arms to Saudi Arabia, which was strongly protested by Israel, even though they, too, did not take an anti-Israel line directly.

5. See Mitchel Cohen, “The L.A. Rebellion and the World Bank,” in The Capitalist Infesto: What Is The Existential Vacuum … & Does It Come With Attachments?, and also Mitchel Cohen, Haiti and Somalia: The International Trade in Toxic Waste for further development and case study applications of NGOs in practice and the development of a new global division of labor to which the Gulf war was central.



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