As calls for an exit strategy from Iraq increase within ruling class circles, Chris Harman looks at what past imperial retreats could herald for the Iraqis.
Ninety percent of the politicians, generals and overpaid media hacks who enthused in support of the blitz against Baghdad three and a half years ago are now agreed on one thing. They made terrible mistakes. Not in terms of the death toll. For such people the US and Britain cannot, by definition, commit war crimes.
No, the mistake was in believing that the barbarity they inflicted on Iraq would strengthen US imperialism (and its British junior partner) worldwide. Instead it has been weakened. It is having to rely on China to try to control North Korea, and is being advised by one of the US administration's most influential advisers, James Baker, to turn to two members of the "axis of evil", Syria and Iran, to help it find an exit strategy from Iraq.
US imperialism will eventually be forced to retreat from its Iraq adventure. Of that there is now little doubt. But no one should believe that it will be easy for it to do so, or that the retreat will be anything other than bloody and barbaric. The history of imperial retreat has rarely been a peaceful one.
This month is the fiftieth anniversary of the invasion of Egypt by Britain, France and Israel over the nationalisation of the Suez Canal - a last throw by the British Empire to hang on to the predominant influence in the Middle East it had gained with the conquest of Egypt in 1882 and the partitioning with France of the Arab lands in 1919.
But Suez was neither the first step nor the last in the unravelling of Britain's empire.
The first serious blow to the empire was in its oldest colony, Ireland. The British ruling class had long been divided over whether to agree to limited reform ("home rule") to placate the nationalist movement, but both sides were insistent that Ireland had to be subordinate to the financial and military requirements of the British state. But in the summer of 1920, they came to the sudden realisation that their attempts to smash a huge mass movement of resistance to their rule might backfire terribly on the forces of occupation.
The army, the cabinet secretary told the premier, David Lloyd George, would "bend and probably break" unless some other method of dealing with the unrest was found. Twelve months followed of intense debates in the British cabinet and vicious repression in Ireland. Finally Britain's rulers felt compelled to abandon more than three centuries of colonial rule. Even then a long history of deliberately inflaming Protestant communal hatred for Catholics enabled Britain to hang on to the north eastern quarter of the island and effectively cripple the impact of independence in the other three quarters.
Unravelling of empire
The next serious unravelling of the empire came two decades later in the "jewel in the crown" of British imperialism, the Indian Empire, held in subjugation for over 150 years. A massive Quit India movement - involving demonstrations, strikes, sabotage, train derailments and attempts at guerrilla activities - swept the subcontinent in 1942, and then, four years later in February 1946, the whole of Britain's Indian navy mutinied. It was suddenly faced with the harsh reality that it could no longer rely on the recruits to its Indian armed forces to hold on to the empire, let alone continue to cement its domination elsewhere.
The same sort of debate now took place in Britain's ruling circles over India as earlier over Ireland - a debate over what would now be called an exit strategy. Most could see that Britain, weakened by two world wars, no longer had the money or the troops to repress the national movement. They did, however, believe they could hold out long enough to persuade the leaders of that movement to keep India within the British Imperial Defence structure - helping British control in the Middle East, Malaya and Africa. To this end, they again played the divide and rule card, building up the prestige of the Muslim League led by Bombay lawyer Muhammad Ali Jinnah as a counterweight to the demands of the main national movement, the Indian National Congress.
But control over the exit strategy had escaped from their hands. In June 1947, unable to deal with the communal unrest sweeping right across North India, Britain announced it would be partitioning India into two states and leaving once and for all in just ten weeks time.
Losing India did not by any means end the attempt of the British ruling class to hold on to the rest of its empire. It mercilessly crushed guerrillas who fought against it in Malaya, Kenya and Cyprus.
But after the failure of the Suez war in October-November 1956, British capitalism felt it had to look to dependence on US global power rather than keeping its own colonial empire. One by one it conceded independence to its other colonies, often after little or no struggle.
France's ruling class - economically weaker than Britain at the time - fought much more ferociously to hang on to its empire. It waged a bloody nine-year war in Indochina (Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia) which it lost. It declared Algeria to be an integral part of France which could never be abandoned and fought another, just as bloody, eight-year war to keep it. Its final "exit strategy" from Algeria only came about after a bitter split in the ruling class, a series of attempted military coups and the establishment of a semi-dictatorship under President Charles de Gaulle.
What relevance do these examples have today?
They show that occupying powers often have no choice as to when they leave. But they also show how an occupying power can cause immense havoc in its attempt to preserve some influence when it withdraws.
The British game of divide and rule culminated in partition and waves of communal killings in Ireland, India, Palestine and Cyprus. The US and British occupiers of Iraq are now considering schemes for the partition of Iraq, even though, with half the population in ethnically and religiously mixed cities, the result could be as appallingly bloody as it was in India.
But as well as these lessons from the past, there is also an important difference. Evacuating their colonies only caused short lived political crises for the European powers. Suez forced prime minister Anthony Eden to resign, but his successor Harold Macmillan stayed in office for another seven years. And, even in the case of France, de Gaulle was able to remain in office for another six years after he had got out of Algeria.
Behind the political stability was the discovery by the European imperialists of the 1940s and 1950s that losing their direct control over their colonies did not cost them much. Economic changes in the post-war period meant that the most profitable destinations for investment were more likely to be in other advanced countries than in the former colonies. So the British, French, Dutch and Belgian economies all boomed after the loss of their colonies.
The situation for US imperialism today is rather different to this. It did not go into Iraq primarily for the profits to be had on getting control of Iraqi oil, or from privatising Iraqi industry - although clearly firms like Halliburton did expect to benefit enormously.
The neocons saw the conquest of Iraq as a way of guaranteeing global dominance in "a new American century". The US no longer has overwhelming economic supremacy compared with the other industrially advanced countries - today its output is roughly the same as the European Union's and it is in debt to the tune of some three trillion dollars.
But the occupation would give it control of the most important sources of the world's key raw material and form another link in the chain of military bases right across Eurasia. Such assets would strengthen its hand massively in economic and political stand-offs with the other big powers - and the Iraq effect would also ensure that rulers elsewhere in Asia, Latin America and Africa would see no choice but to kowtow to the US for fear of being added to the "axis of evil" list of those to be dealt with after Iraq, alongside Syria, Iran and North Korea.
Overall, the US would be turning its massive arms budget - $400 billion a year (nearly half the world's arms budget) - to good economic use.
Now, instead of the Iraq effect, it faces the Iraq syndrome. Its massive investment in military hardware has proved ineffective against resistance movements armed with Kalashnikovs and improvised roadside bombs. And for the moment it does not even have enough soldiers to intervene elsewhere in the world. Iran, North Korea and Hugo Chavez in Venezuela feel able to shout defiance at the US, while China and Russia feel able, more quietly, to assert their interests in defiance of Washington.
It is for these reasons that the US's rulers are still divided over whether to retreat from George Bush's Iraq adventure. There are still influential voices such as that of Henry Kissinger claiming that victory is still possible. And the Democrats do not feel it befits the second party of US imperialism (the party that took the US into the Cold War, the Korean War and the Vietnam War) to say openly and clearly that enough is enough.
Fortunately, the choice of getting out or not may well not end up with the US political establishment. Facts on the ground - the military damage being done by the resistance and the way anti-war feeling at home prevents sending in more troops - can force them to get out despite their own wishes.
But this is not going to happen without enormous turmoil inside the US political establishment.