Between Iraq and a Hard Place: An Occupation Gone Awry, and a “Job-Loss” Recovery at Home

Just a few weeks ago (or even a few days ago, depending on who you ask), Bush, Rumsfeld, and co. seemed incapable of doing any wrong (again, depending on who you ask). The lighting charge across Iraq led to one of the quickest and most decisive military victories in the history of warfare.  Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime collapsed like a house of cards, and the stunned Iraqi population stood back and waited to see what would happen in the aftermath.  The US arrogantly threatened to extend the “war on terror” further, and it seemed as though US control over the world’s second largest oil reserves was firm. Here at home, things were looking up as well. Despite an economy that was shaky at best, a broad range of economic indicators seemed to indicate that this time for sure, the robust recovery the markets have been predicting for the past two years had arrived. How quickly things change!


The situation in Iraq has deteriorated to a nightmarish level for the architects of the Project for a New American Century. More US troops have been killed since the war “ended” than during the war itself. The number of wounded (rarely reported in the media) has skyrocketed as well. No WMD’s have been found, Saddam continues to issue proclamations from hiding, there is ethnic violence in the Kurdish north, the UN headquarters has been blown up, and now the all-important Shiia areas are being destabilized with a massive bomb attack and the death of a top cleric in Najaf. All across Iraq, US patrols come under fire daily from increasingly organized and sophisticated guerrillas. The obtuseness of the American ruling class stands out in all its mediocrity when it defends its lack of post-war planning by saying: how could we have foreseen the possibility of a guerrilla war when there are no jungles there?  That the war planners of the world’s mightiest power have now been reduced to screening the 1965 movie “The Battle of Algiers” to gain some insight into the French defeat in Algeria speaks volumes.

The war planners had estimated that by now in September, US troops levels would have been reduced to just 30,000, freeing them up for other wars and allowing for more or less normal rotations back home.  On the contrary, over 130,000 US troops remain I Iraq, and still the top US general, Richard Meyers, is forced to admit that “we are stretched thin”. According to Tikrit-based Sergeant Michael Evans, “it's getting crazy out there, and we can't be everywhere at the same time”.  While many call for more troops to be sent, Rumsfeld is adamant that more US troops are not needed. As a champion of a smaller invasion force and overall military, it would be a political shot in the foot for Rumsfeld to admit that he has miscalculated – not to mention the reaction he would get at home.  But more to the point, he cannot support the sending of more troops because the fact is that they are not available. With so many occupations going on around the world, the number of available reserves has been all but used up.  And let’s not forget that these folks signed up for some extra cash to be “weekend warriors”, not full time soldiers!

In a huge reversal of policy, Bush and his team have now been forced to crawl back to the UN in search of “legitimacy”, and more importantly, money and troops. If other countries want to send their soldiers into the Iraqi quagmire, the US will support them wholeheartedly!  With Tony Blair balking at the sending of more forces, the US is exerting enormous pressure on other countries. But Bush and co. don’t quite have the leverage they had just a few months ago to make these countries an “offer they can’t refuse”. The patience of the US’s imperialist rivals has worn thin in the face of insult after insult from the world’s most arrogant ruling class (remember “cowardly” French and “freedom fries, anyone?)

As for the American troops stationed in Iraq, the heat, threat of sudden death or dismemberment, and a hostile population are difficult deal with.  But for most soldiers, this is all part of their job, and they endure it grudgingly.  What really riles them up, however, is the uncertainty that surrounds their return home.  They were told that the “shortest way home was through Baghdad” – in other words, once they had done the job they were trained for, they would be sent home.  Instead, tens of thousands of troops, who had expected to be home months ago, are sent out on patrols and policing operations which they are not qualified to do. There are not even enough weapons to go around, and many US troops are picking up and using captured Iraqi AK-47s (and have found that they are more reliable and efficient than American “high-tech” weapons). First they were told they would have to stay for 6 months, now their “tour of duty” has been extended to 12 months, and even 18 months in many cases!

Earlier this summer, there were many reports and stories from discontented soldiers. The media was quiet about this for sometime (and were surely ordered to keep these stories out of the public eye), but on the occasion of Rumsfeld’s recent visit to Iraq, it has been impossible to keep the true feelings of the soldiers under wraps. Asked her opinion of Rumsfeld’s visit, Specialist Rue Gretton, had the following kind words for the Secretary of Defense: “I don't give a damn about Rumsfeld. All I give a damn about is going home.” 

Troops tidied up in preparation for a speech by Rumsfeld, which he ended up canceling due to a “tight schedule”, opting instead to meet with military leaders. Said one soldier, “the only thing his visit meant for us was we had to clean up a lot of mess to make the place look pretty. And he didn't even look at it anyway.”

Another soldier, Sergeant Green, who will likely miss her 16-year-old daughter’s entire school year, had this to say: “If I got to talk to Rumsfeld I'd tell him to give us a return date. We've been here six months and the rumor is we'll be here until at least March. This is totally, totally uncalled for.”

According to a Reuters report:

“When the Armed Forces Network showed earlier footage of Rumsfeld saying that fresh U.S. troops were unnecessary in Iraq, soldiers at the base threw their hands in the air and shouted ‘No way’ at the television.

“‘I ain't happy. No way am I happy seeing that,’ said Specialist Devon Pierce, whose wife was due to give birth to his first son in two weeks. ‘This tour is hard, real hard. It's too much. It should be six months.’

“Other soldiers said they could not complain openly about their long deployment for fear of being disciplined. Earlier this year, military leaders warned their troops they should not show disrespect for Rumsfeld after a rash of criticism from soldiers in Iraq appeared in the media.”

The discontent, frustration, and lack of respect for the US military and civilian leadership is apparent. During the Vietnam War, it took years for the morale of the troops and Americans here at home to be sapped to this degree. Combine this with cuts in combat pay and cuts in veteran’s benefits, and Bush is rapidly cutting out from under his feet one of his most important political constituencies – the military and their families.  But wait!  At least things on the economic front are going well, right?  Wrong.

The Economy

Recent glowingly optimistic forecasts from the mainstream economic pundits made it appear that the US economy was on the brink of a genuine recovery. A string of better-than-expected data on retail sales, durable goods, consumer sentiment and housing led many to believe the labor market might be starting to improve as well.  Surely businesses would now begin hiring back the millions of workers who have been laid off in the past 2.5 years. Think again. While it is clear that the figures from any single week or month cannot give the whole picture, the latest data on jobs makes it clear that there is a trend developing. The “job-loss” recovery is now a harsh reality for millions of Americans.

Despite having changed the way unemployment figures are reported (to cast them in a more favorable light), official unemployment remains high at 6.1 percent.  In a shock to investors, the government, and of course millions of Americans currently seeking work, manufacturing jobs fell 44,000 – the 37th straight month of decline – while service jobs tumbled 67,000 in August – a far cry from the increase of 12,000 expected by forecasters. Far more jobs have been shed than during the “job-less” recovery of 1991. How is this possible?  Simple: the bosses are getting more and more productivity out of fewer and fewer workers.  Why hire more workers when you can squeeze more value out of those you already have?  Why spend money on Social Security taxes, pensions, healthcare, benefits, etc. when you can fire more workers and cut costs?

Under normal circumstances, Wall Street reacts favorably to such reports – less workers doing the same amount or more work means more profits for CEOs and investors!  But this time, even the most bullish investors recognize that this reflects a deeper and more dangerous situation for the economy as a whole.  Consumer spending, which accounts for two-thirds of economic activity depends on workers having jobs and job security – neither of which exists at the present time. Consumer debt has reached astronomical levels, and all that borrowed money has to be paid back sometime or other – even if the interest rates are relatively low.

Although the US economy grew by a respectable (in capitalist terms) 3.1 percent in the second quarter of 2003, this was largely due to a massive increase in defense spending by the government. In the largest rise since 1951 at the height of the Korean War, defense spending surged 45.9 percent.  This is great news for the profits of arms manufacturers, but not for working people – these industries created hardly any jobs even with this much of the taxpayers’ money (not to mention that poor people and workers in uniform from around the world will be the ones blown up by this very expensive scrap metal!).

Massive tax cuts in an effort to prime the economy have appeared as only a blip on the economic radar. Again, the example of Japan, which has stagnated in recession for over a decade despite having spent over a trillion dollars trying to jump-start the economy, haunts the serious American capitalists. Elsewhere, Europe’s economic motor Germany is already in recession, with France and Britain in not much better shape.  Cheap, increasingly high-tech Chinese exports, combined with the Yuan’s exchange rate pegged to the dollar, threaten to ruin entire sectors of US industry and further deepen the already record trade deficit.

As for the federal budget deficit, Bush’s policies and the crisis of capitalism have turned a sizable surplus into a $900 billion shortfall over the next two years. Having already spent $80 billion on the Iraq war, Bush is now looking for a further $65 billion. At the same time, he is cutting education and Medicare, and has made it easier for hospitals to turn away patients who seek treatment in the emergency room.

What about his campaign promise that: “big government is not the answer. The alternative … is to put conservative values and conservative ideas into the thick of the fight for justice and opportunity.”? What a crock! Aside from doing nothing in the name of “justice and opportunity,” Bush has bloated the federal workforce by over a million people (thousands of whom spend their time spying on American citizens).  Sure, it was nice of him to create these jobs, but through Homeland Security legislation, he has ensured that hundreds of thousands of federal workers will be denied the right to unionization and collective bargaining as a matter of “national security”.

The list of crimes that Bush and the ruling class are perpetrating against working people grows longer every day. But there is a limit to everything, and sooner or later, this will be reached. With the untenable situation in Iraq, and the ongoing economic instability at home, Bush and his administration are in for a long winter going into the 2004 presidential campaign. Bush II may well follow Bush the First’s ignominious path to first-term election defeat despite having a “victorious” war under his belt.  But who will replace him?  That is a subject for another article, but suffice it to say that the Democrats are incapable of truly improving our conditions of life or resolving the world economic crisis of capitalism.  Working people need our own party, based on the trade unions, and armed with a socialist program!  This is the main issue confronting working people and youth in the coming months and years.  Join the WIL in the fight for a better world!

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