The present unending war, which has rolled from one country to another since 2001, has already gone on for longer than the two world wars of the twentieth century combined. Its battlefields have covered a vast region from Libya and Mali in the west to Afghanistan and Pakistan in the east, with most of the Middle East in between.
The rationalisation has been to fight a ‘war on terror’ against an ‘axis of evil’ to use US President Bush’s cartoonish formulations. This has been a falsehood from the start. Of the five states which have been destroyed since 2001 four – Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen- had absolutely nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks or, indeed, with terrorism at all, at least at the time of their destruction.
On the other hand, the country which supplied almost all the 9/11 attackers, and which has funded and provided ideological inspiration for jihadism – Saudi Arabia – remains a valued ally of the USA and Britain. Terrorism, meanwhile, has become a still greater challenge, as the rise of Islamic State and the barbaric attacks in Paris, Brussels, Beirut and elsewhere demonstrate.
This huge disparity between stated objectives and the actual course of events indicates that another agenda is at work. It is an agenda rooted in the same imperialist impulses which led to the world war one hundred years ago – but with one major difference. Unlike during that great slaughter, when several imperial powers of roughly equivalent economic power and military strength competed for hegemony, in 2001 the USA stood alone as sole superpower. Its military budget is as great as that of the next ten powers in the world combined.
US policy since the end of the Cold War has been to use this ‘unipolar moment’ to enforce a global order with its own business interests – and those of its closest allies – firmly in the driving seat. Even as the US has faced a relative economic decline, with the rise of the Chinese economy in particular, it has sought to bolt in place a world capitalist regime secure against all challenges and run from Washington.
It is no surprise that it has devoted the greatest effort to trying to impose this order in the Middle East. It is both the source of much of the world’s oil – and the major share of the cheapest-to-produce and most-profitable-to-sell oil – and also a huge market for western arms companies. For the last century, the big powers have devoted extraordinary efforts to keeping the Middle East ‘safe’ for western business.
In the case of Britain, the vast influence oil and arms companies have had on government of both parties of late is clear. Their pressure alone would go a long way to explain the drive to war. Still more powerful, however, is the City of London and the global financial interests which direct so much of British policy.
They are now closely entwined with the ruling elites along the Persian Gulf, recycling the vast oil wealth which has been amassed in their hands. Stability – for business – in the Middle East feed directly into the bottom lines of the biggest of big businesses.
The whole-hearted backing given to Saudi Arabia in its murderous war on Yemen, and to the rulers of Bahrain in their brutal suppression of the democracy movement in their country, over and above the interventions in Iraq, Libya and Syria, have all had uniformly disastrous results. All this has little to do with fighting terrorism, and still less to do with supporting democracy. It is about supporting compliant regimes, and destroying awkward or inconvenient ones, like Assad’s in Syria. The cost in human lives, in refugees and material destruction in Syria alone has been immense. And why did Britain join in the bombing of Syria? Not for Britain’s insignificant military contribution but to ‘get a seat at the table’ when the powers redesign the post-war Middle East.
Rather than promoting peace talks, the Tories have sought to impose wrecking pre-conditions on discussions, thereby helping prolong the suffering. It could get worse. Tensions are rising in eastern Europe and in the Pacific as well as in the Middle East. The role of a mass, united movement against war, of the sort which has developed across Britain in the last fifteen years, has never been more important.
Andrew Murray is Chair of the Stop the War coalition and Chief of Staff at the Unite union