“Mass slaughter has become the tiresome and monotonous business of the day and the end is no closer. Bourgeois statecraft is held fast in its own vise. The spirits summoned up can no longer be exorcised.” —Rosa Luxemburg, The Junius Pamphlet
“America is back!” proclaimed British prime minister Boris Johnson roughly a month after the inauguration of Joe Biden. Johnson’s childish hurrah is a summation of Joe Biden’s presidential promise to restore US leadership on the world stage. His promise of “leadership” was realized on February 26th when Biden—without congressional approval—carried out airstrikes on an alleged military installation of Iranian-backed Iraqi militias in eastern Syria. With the delivery of 7 500-pound bombs, Biden’s attack killed 22 people in retaliation for a rocket attack on a US military base in Iraq 11 days prior.
The real target of this attack is Iran, as the US continues to work with regional allies Saudia Arabia and Israel to foment an anti-Iranian axis to maintain US hegemony over the strategically important Middle East region.
In addition to his embrace of the US tradition of bombing the Middle East, Biden also presented himself throughout his campaign as “out-toughing” Trump with aggressive stances on China. This stance reflects the continuation and sharpening of an anti-China strategy by the American ruling class and fits into the emergence of a “new cold war” between the two powers over the past three years.
Beyond the US–China faultline, dual crises of economic woes and the still-unresolved pandemic could increase imperial tension around the world. As has always been the case, the scramble for profit and competition between capitalists internationally is greatly exacerbated by global crises like we currently face. The height of crisis can be expressed as armed conflict between states. As the epidemiological and economic storm does not appear to be clearing, we should expect these imperial tensions between the capitalist powers to rise, if not in a linear and symmetrical fashion, certainly as a dangerous trend.
To confront these dangers, there is an urgent need to build a new movement against imperialism and war, and in the process to reflect on how we organize as we adapt to a new situation. It is no longer the case that we wait in a state of non-war on the brink of entering a traditional declared war. War is already upon us. In an inheritance of past conflicts, much of the orientation of left activity relies on trying to exert pressure at critical moments of emergency to stop the beginnings of traditional declared wars. We are living in a state of permanent, asymmetrical war carried out daily all over the globe.
The main way that much of the left has engaged with questions of imperialism has tended to follow a similar playbook. In this playbook, anti-imperialist organizing work is not broadly connected or infused into the left and socialist project beyond calls for emergency protests. These are called as responses to escalations of US aggression overseas that are estimated to put the US over the brink into broader conflict. The United States will engage in an action that could further escalate an existing conflict, the media puts concerted attention on the escalation, and activists will spring into action with calls for “Hands Off X.” These efforts have held the line while larger liberal forces have deserted antiwar politics and even cheered US militarism. Yet to move forward, we think this strategy needs to be interrogated. Strategy should be designed to activate broader layers.
The playbook was in action in January of 2020 when the US assassinated Qassem Soleimani, a top Iranian general, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an Iraqi militia leader. One response by Democratic Socialists of America was an emergency organizing call and the prescription for members to join protests. Locally, they joined smaller groups like the Stalinist Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL), and other local left groups. There have been several similar protests called concerning US intervention in Syria, and from 2013 to 2017 there were various threats of escalation with similar emergency responses from the left.
Notably, the left didn’t put out a statement or a call for emergency protest in response to Biden’s recent bombing. One can’t help but wonder if the support for Biden that characterized certain sections of the left haven’t blunted the response.
Obviously, there is nothing wrong with calling emergency protests in attempts to stave off escalation. Indeed, emergency protests are better than complacency or strongly worded tweets. However, while we imagine there will still be a need to exert pressure at critical moments when more violence threatens, we also think that there is a limit to that strategy. The conception of war and imperialism that guides it does not match the current landscape of military conflict and domination. To put it bluntly, we are already past the brink and living in a dangerous world of infinite conflict.
The lay definition of imperialism is generally understood to be a synonym for military aggression. While military might and conquest is its sharpest edge and most visible expression, imperialism is not only carried out through the barrel of a gun. We define imperialism as competition and conflict between the world’s capitalist classes of different states—especially the major powers—vying for domination and exploitation of the globe’s people, wealth, and resources. Economic tools are in some ways the preferred, less messy method, with institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank and the policies of trade deals, zones, tariffs, etc., also being weapons the ruling class uses for domination.
Questions of war and interstate conflict cannot be separated from capitalism, its expansion, and competition. This understanding distinguishes anti-imperialist politics from antiwar pacifism or a liberal opposition to war that objects to its exorbitant cost.
Liberals may view armed conflict as distinct and separate from trade deals, sanctions, and the like. But all of these are tools of US power that operate in concert with the same motivations. Our organizing can only benefit by being able to present the total picture and the full arsenal of tools at the disposal of the ruling class. Presenting this total picture in its full breadth de-normalizes state bullying and makes visible what are the constant, current, everyday features of US imperialism.
The way the left looks at war and imperialism must change to reflect the actual conditions of war in the twenty-first century. Iraq and Afghanistan still conform to the traditional conception of war, where the US state formally declares war and a bunch of troops move to the target area to overthrow another state. But beyond these examples, formal declarations of war have often been skipped in ongoing conflicts inaugurated under the auspices of the War on Terror, which uses the vague concept of “terror” and a weaponized Islamophobia to wage war on whomever is convenient for the ruling class. This war has been waged via a large consolidation of power within the executive branch, allowing it to act unilaterally and largely without congressional oversight. And, importantly, it has been a bipartisan process.
This war has no boundaries and no end.
One of the defining features of the forever war is the proliferation of drone strikes and targeted assassinations. Thousands of drone strikes have been carried out in Somalia, Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, and Libya under the pretense of targeting Daesh (ISIS) or Al Qaeda-affiliated groups. However the official doctrine of the Obama administration determined that “all military-age males” in certain areas were targets. Combatant deaths are therefore inflated and the reported civilian deaths are underestimated. Just under Obama, thousands have been killed. Under the bellicose Trump administration not only did the number of strikes perhaps double, but measures for reporting deaths were basically removed. We can expect more of the same under Biden.
While the drone war is its most visible aspect, the breadth of US imperialism globally is massive. The United States has over 800 military bases in 70 countries. US special forces are deployed in various countries with 4,000 being deployed weekly to the Middle East region while others wage secret wars in Africa. The United States has multiple fleets of aircraft carriers and battleships deployed abroad in the Persian Gulf and South China Sea. Secret prisons and detention camps like Guantanamo Bay pepper the globe. On top of the formal military there is an additional army of mercenaries—called “contractors” in neutered State Department language—that in places like Iraq and Afghanistan represent double the number of troops. As of the end of 2017, the Department of Defense decided to no longer report how many mercenaries it employs.
US military activity is omnipresent and so is its presence in the arms trade. As of 2018, the top five weapons manufacturers made over $148 billion in sales. US companies’ brisk arms dealing is responsible for about 40 percent of total global weapons sales. Arms deals help the US state facilitate proxy wars and maintain influence, all the while filling up the coffers.
War extends beyond troops and bombs. Trade deals, sanctions, and international financial institutions are used to control nations with consequences akin to the ravages of war. For example, both the Trump and Obama administrations have sanctioned the Iranian government, and Biden has so far refused to grant any sanction relief to Iran. These current sanctions—as Iran reels from Covid-19—harm Iranians’ right to health by limiting what types of medicines they can import and thus making the pandemic deadlier. Sanctions on Venezuela, which Biden will continue, killed 40,000 people in 2017–18. The sanctions on these countries and against others such as North Korea, Cuba, and Zimbabwe must be considered not only as war against the leaders of those countries but as collective punishment waged on the working and oppressed people within those countries.
The United States’ nefarious actions through proxy wars, CIA coup attempts, and economic measures are not unique to the present. However, the magnitude of the operations has tipped over from one of quantity into one of quality. Responding to this new reality will mean reassessing the notion of the “brink” and of when the “emergency” begins.
New Boss, Same as the Old Boss(es).
Joe Biden promises to “rebuild the instruments of American power,” and we can expect the general contours of war and domination we have described to continue and in some ways sharpen.
Biden will continue to turn up the heat on China, and this poses the most dangerous competitive theater for imperialist conflict. He will maintain the trade war tariffs imposed by Trump and attempt—through carrot-and-stick diplomatic methods—to shore up regional allies to counter Chinese hegemony. In Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s first major address since taking office, he outlined the administration’s foreign policy vision that “on virtually every front” focused on adversarial competition with China as the “biggest geopolitical test of the 21st century.” At the same time Biden has continued with the military chest-thumping of naval exercises in the South China Sea by US vessels just as antagonistically as Trump’s administration did.
In the Middle East and North Africa region, the US strategy is to scramble to secure hegemony over a US dominant economic zone that is currently in competition with Iran on the regional scale. While Biden has expressed interest in securing a new nuclear deal with Iran after Trump’s unilateral withdrawal, whatever deal is arrived at will still be secured via a combination of continued sanctions and military threats, as the missile strikes from last week demonstrated. Indeed, one of Biden’s top officials dealing with Iran is Richard Nephew, whose career-defining use of sanctions culminated in his book, The Art of Sanctions. Additionally, the interests of US allies Israel and Saudi Arabia will come first.
Biden’s much ballyhooed change in stance into being “hard” on Saudia Arabia will most likely be cosmetic. This is apparent already with his release of the CIA report acknowledging Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s complicity in the assassination of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi while at the same time stating that he will take no action against MBS. Some have argued that the change will be more substantial and have pointed to Biden’s decision to pause and review weapons deals to Saudia Arabia being used in Yemen. Again, the devil is in the details, as there are no restrictions for weapons that the Saudis can use for “defensive purposes”—a term with broad usage by the United States. Indeed, the entire doctrine of the War on Terror is premised on all aggression being “defensive.”
Palestinians too will suffer as Biden will further the drive to normalization that Trump accelerated with the Abraham accords. Biden has stated he will restore contact with the PLO and restore some monetary aid, but will continue to address Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. And settlements and ethnic cleansing will continue unabated. In keeping with the United States’ blanket support of Israeli war crimes, Biden will continue to oppose the International Criminal Court’s attempts to investigate Israel’s brutality toward Palestinians. Is Biden’s Palestine policy at all different from that of Trump? The suggestion of Biden being a big improvement, as Haider Eid remarked, is best met with a dismissive shrug.
Why are these bipartisan policies so crucial for the US ruling class? Normalization of relations with Israel is key for the deeper coherence of a Saudi–Israeli block against Iran. Iran is a fly in the ointment of US regional hegemony, and they have been resistant to the Saudi–Israeli axis. Additionally, Iran’s influence over Iraq gives the Iranian state cachet over the second and third largest oil producing countries in the region. We should not confuse these conflicts with real challenges to US imperialism, however. They can best be understood as features of competition between capitalist classes. All the while, while China is one of the major trading partners of Iran, they have—so far—prefered to sit in the background and not actively compete with the US in the MENA region. However, the vast majority of oil used to fuel Chinese factories comes from the Gulf states, and Chinese interest and investment in Africa will edge their Belt-and-Road infrastructure project toward more and more integration within the Middle East.
The general trajectory of US imperialism may involve some small strategic pivots, but the overall course of domination, support for despotic regimes, infinite war on terror, omnipresent bases, and dangerous brinksmanship with China remains.
Challenges of Breadth and Brink
It is already an analytic challenge to capture the breadth of the US military’s imposition on the world. How can the left match our organizing to the reality that the US is currently operating in 40 percent of the world’s countries, maintains military bases in forty countries, and stations combat troops in fourteen countries, with another seven being bombed by planes and drones? It is not enough to see the extent of war being the direct military confrontation between two nations. Rather, the breadth of how imperialism operates on a daily basis shows a panorama of a different kind of war and violence perpetrated by the US around the globe.
Rather than expressing that breadth, the ghosts of “campism” still haunt the analyses and organizing of many US leftists, namely those led by certain socialist-groups-with-Stalinist-characteristics who focus on defending certain governments, be they “socialist” China or “anti-imperialist” Iran, Venezuela, or Russia. This support of nation-states of the “anti-imperial camp” resisting US aggression often completely needlessly glides into a position of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” that supports dictators and despots.
US imperial efforts around the world should be unambiguously opposed, no matter the country, on principle. An analysis that explicitly or implicitly allies with a fictional “anti-imperial camp” also leads to a situation where certain conflicts receive focus while others are neglected. The narrow focus of demanding US keep its hands off countries described as anti-imperialist means that the left seems to have completely neglected the still on-going, actually-existing war in Afghanistan. Similarly it misses developments in places like sub-Saharan Africa. In Somalia there is an undeclared war and dramatic escalation of drone and special forces attacks. These are just two examples.
In addition to expanding the breadth we also need to explore how we conceive of where the “brink” before emergency and war begins in the context of the forever War on Terror. In both the case of Iran and Syria the idea that we are about to go to war becomes very complicated.
The back-and-forth rocket attacks in Syria and Iraq of the past month under Biden has a similar dynamic to the events of a year ago. Then, pro-Iranian militia demonstrations at the US embassy in Iraq and the killing of Soleimani escalated tensions between the two countries. Subsequently there was a series of tête-à-tête missile strikes, including a superficial attack on a US base in Iraq. Both the events of a year ago under Trump and those of weeks ago under Biden are the product of an ongoing situation of attack and riposte played out in a struggle for hegemony over Iraq and its oil. But these actions and any escalation will not require any formal declaration of war. They are the procedure of the new normal of permanent warfare.
The notion of saber-rattling implies the sword is sheathed. But throughout 2019 there were air strikes on Saudi oil fields, the shooting down of a US drone, a cyber-attack carried out by the United States, and threats to close the Gulf of Hormuz. Practically, the use of force no longer requires authorization from Congress: warships are already in the water, sanctions are in place, US bases and troops are in Iraq, and outrage blows over after proxy attacks and displays of aggression. Given this reality, is focusing on a hypothetical “brink” in the conflict the best strategy to begin to mount a campaign against US actions abroad? What is needed is a de-normalization of this state of affairs and a concerted effort to build opposition to US imperialism.
The case of Syria reveals another problem. When Obama first threatened missile strikes in 2013 and then Trump carried out actual, yet superficial strikes in April 2017 (both after gas attacks carried out by the Assad regime), antiwar forces called demonstrations against US “war on Syria.” However, missile strikes by the US in Syria have been a near daily occurrence since at least 2014 when Obama ramped up the fight against Daesh. From 2014 to 2018 the US carried out 30,801 strikes on Syria and Iraq (56 percent of them in Syria) and killed, by conservative estimates, three thousand civilians. Undoubtedly, the fact that one set of military actions were directed at the Assad regime (which is supported by some so-called anti-imperialist activists) and the other was not, helped to determine how they defined an “emergency.” The grim irony is that the United States’ bloody intervention accounts for but a fraction of civilian deaths (roughly 1.3 percent) when compared to the number killed by Assad, Russia, and Iran.
The reality of US imperialism is daily atrocity and destruction. The saber is unsheathed and sweeps across the globe. To respond to this breadth of war-making today with the old modes of organizing would result in near endless “emergency” protests. The state of emergency has lasted consistently for over a decade.
How do we call masses of people into action in this situation of near endless violence and continuous impact? How do we state the case of “why now” and “why here?” Instead of a focus on sounding the alarm of war to come we should point out that war is here and alter our political perspective to focus on the totality of the war machine. Here is an opportunity to agitate and politically educate around the system of imperialism.
Sketches of a New Movement
We need a reconceptualization of strategy. Firstly, it is time to end the selective opposition to imperialism that has undermined the formation of a robust anti-imperialist movement for so long. That will mean developing a genuine international solidarity with struggles from below, rather than apologias for competing state machines. Secondly, our tactics should reflect the immediacy and omnipresence of war by targeting the arteries of militarism throughout the everyday functioning of US society. These general guidelines must be at the center of a serious, consistent, and broadly based opposition to empire.
In building a new movement, international solidarity must be central. We must reject the campism of some dinosaurs of the left that demands that a movement against imperialism support other capitalist states. Anti-imperialist politics doesn’t mean only opposing American imperialism, but opposing all forms of domination carried out by powerful nations. Our movement will draw strength from supporting the international working class and the oppressed and their struggles against the states oppressing them. We should reject garbage claims that Syrian revolutionaries are terrorists, whole movements in Hong Kong and Iran are reducible to US proxies, or that China’s ethnic cleansing of the Uygher people is manufactured US propaganda.
Imagine if, during the peak of the bombardment of Syria, instead of connecting antiwar organizing to an apology for Russia and minimization of the overwhelming violence of the Assadist state, the left saw the importance of building bridges between those rallying against the US state in Washington and those rallying against the Russian state in Moscow.
Organizing for popular reforms like health care, free college, and social programs often provoke the response: how are you going to pay for that? Rather than responding with byzantine arguments about the tax code, a simple truth should be repopularized: we have the money, take it from the Pentagon.
Building campaigns and a movement against US militarism that can be responsive to the breadth of all of its odious tendrils has to reckon with the immense amount of funding that the Department of Defense receives. As of 2020, this comprised $738 billion, though costs are often obscured and the real amount spent could be closer to 1.2 trillion, roughly a third of the total federal budget. On top of this, the US leads the world in the arms trade. In addition to campaigns targeting the sale of weapons, the left can and should organize campaigns against the manufacture of weapons, following the example of divestment tactics often connected with the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement. The liberation of Palestine must also be considered central, as the United States’ unstinting support for apartheid Israel is one the sharpest edges of the US imperial saber, and Palestinans are frequently the first abandoned.
Building a real anti-imperialist movement in the US will require engaging left forces more meaningfully than the mode of emergency protest and intermittent demonstrations. These methods reinforce the false idea that imperialism is something that happens “over there”—bombs falling on distant lands. In reality, the US imperialist project shapes every aspect of US workers’ lives and activity.
The enormity of the federal budget and the vast apparatus devoted to the Pentagon and various state intelligence agencies is just one important element. Because military service represents the United States’ only major jobs program—albeit one the churns out death—millions of especially Black and brown youth must constantly constrict their hopes of a stable future to a life of death-dealing in service of empire. The rot of US gun culture connected with the affliction of mass shootings is intimately tied to the imperial order, present and past. Ten percent of all US factory output goes into weapons manufacturing. In time of impending climate catastrophe, the US military is the largest single consumer of hydrocarbons and consequently the biggest polluter in the world. Historically, the US labor movement has aided and abetted US interests abroad, which has contributed to undermining the labor movement’s strength domestically.
And finally, a immense humanitarian migrant crisis persists, driven above all by a competition among nation-states that has resulted in environmental catastrophe, dispossession, capital extraction, and destabilization through war and conflict. Immigration and the weaponization of borders is a question of imperialism and cannot fully be understood outside of this context.
A thriving anti-imperialist movement can only grow from a strategy that targets the multifaceted impact of US imperialism on people’s everyday lives. This will require drawing connections between the poverty draft into the military and the need for actual jobs programs, fighting for a Green New Deal that includes a significant draw-down of the military, repurposing industrial output for green energy and for human need, and generally devoting the resources of our society to meet the actual needs presented by a deeply unstable world of climate and pandemic. Undergirding it all is a dire need for an uncompromising stance of international solidarity with those who face—and often heroically resist—the brutal reality of US dominance.
If we understand that imperialism is not purely military domination and are able to connect it to the economic weapons of tariffs, trade deals, sanctions, and international financial institutions, we can strategically integrate the immediate cancelation of the debt held by the Global South as an anti-imperial demand.
An important part of educating a new movement will mean discussing issues of imperialism in terms that go beyond questions of foreign policy. With this analytic reorientation, the left should also abandon the idea that we should aim to take hold of the existing state through elections in order to promote some sort of “socialist foreign policy.” This approach existed among some supporters of Bernie Sanders. Many assumed that if the movement could just get him elected, then the US imperialist project could be reformed into a socialist foreign policy enacted by presidential executive orders. Obviously, reforms enacted by people like Sanders and Ilhan Omar would have positive effects. However, the fact that the US cannot be transformed from imperial dominator to anti-imperial bastion must be central to our analysis. That means that the position of any socialist in congress toward imperialism should be simple and unequivocal: “not a penny for this system”—to quote Rosa Luxemburg.
Rather than reinforcing the notion that the US should be the global hegemon with talking points about America leading the world “for good,” the left should challenge this fundamental assumption. The only socialist “foreign policy” should be international revolution.
The suggestions above are only outlines that indicate the kind of concrete politics and organizing needed to remake a new anti-imperialist movement. The task is to build grassroots engagement that articulates the breadth and centrality of the US imperial project to our everyday lives, effectively interrupts the new normal of global violence, insists upon a hard-line stance against US militarism and funding, and sees international solidarity as key. This is what we need to take on the greatest purveyor of violence in the world: the United States of America.