Workers Vanguard No. 1070
12 June 2015
U.S. Out of the Near East!
Down With Saudi-led War in Yemen!
With all the subtlety of a Mad Max film, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia announced its declaration of war against the Houthi-led forces now in power in Yemen not from its royal palace but rather from its embassy in Washington. Having already turned Yemen into a firing range for drone attacks, the Obama administration is now reluctantly helping its oil-rich Saudi ally further devastate that small, impoverished country. Over 2000 people have been killed since the war was launched in late March and upwards of one million have been displaced from their homes.
As noted by Conn Hallinan in an article in CounterPunch (13 May): “The U.S. has played an important, if somewhat uncomfortable, role in the Yemen War.” The U.S. has been supplying the Saudi air force with bombs, in-flight refueling and targeting information. With U.S. and British backing, the Saudis imposed a naval blockade of Yemen, worsening a humanitarian disaster in a country where the populace relies heavily on imported food and where medicine and other necessities are always scarce. In April, U.S. Navy ships, including the aircraft carrier USS Roosevelt, were sent to the region to prevent Iranian ships from delivering supplies to Yemen. U.S. president Barack Obama brazenly and hypocritically claimed this naval presence was meant to defend “freedom of navigation”—mass starvation presumably being only a collateral issue.
While supporting its Saudi clients, Washington has been less than enthusiastic about their Yemen adventure. Early on, the lack of a prospect of a quick Saudi victory led the White House to urge negotiations toward a political solution. On June 2, the administration announced that it had engaged in talks with the Houthis aimed at ending the war. The Obama administration is concerned that the anti-Houthi operation is playing into the hands of Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula, as well as threatening yet further destabilization in the region. Voicing the concerns of the White House, the New York Times (22 April) intoned, “the challenge has been advising a crucial Middle East ally on how to carry out a complex military campaign whose results were starting to undercut larger political goals.” The Times article quoted a “Middle East specialist” who complained, “Once your clients have a quasi-independent military capacity, you lose some control over them.”
Especially since the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, the American empire has been spreading its tentacles ever more widely and deeply throughout the Near East, wreaking mass murder and destruction, strengthening the most retrograde and anti-woman tribal and religious forces and fueling sectarian conflicts and pogroms. Every time one of its tentacles is weakened or cut off, every time a blow is struck against the American imperialist monster and its local agents and allies, working people and oppressed around the world benefit, not least in the U.S. itself.
That is why we have called for military defense of the Islamic State (ISIS) reactionaries in Iraq and Syria against U.S. imperialism and its foot soldiers on the ground—including Kurdish and Iraqi Shi’ite militias—notwithstanding that the bloodthirsty methods and retrograde outlook of ISIS are counterposed to everything Marxism stands for. And that is why we now likewise take a stand militarily with the Houthi forces and their allies, without giving them any political support, when they are targeted by the U.S.-backed Saudi-led military coalition and its proxies on the ground.
Apologists for the Saudi intervention claim that it was launched in response to a proxy war waged by Shi’ite Iran, which is supposedly funding and arming the Houthis, who adhere to Zaidi Islam, a variant of Shi’ism that in fact has much in common with Sunni Islam. Newly installed Saudi king Salman hopes to awe Tehran by deploying his extensive—and expensive—arsenal of military hardware (usually reserved for air shows) against Houthi fighters and civilians, but there is little evidence linking Iran to the fighting in Yemen. Then again, there was little evidence linking the Saddam Hussein regime to non-existent “weapons of mass destruction,” a fact which drives the younger and marginally more articulate brother in the Bush clan, Jeb, to descend into fits of incomprehensible burbling about bringing democracy and stability to the region. And the current tenant in the White House, who it should be recalled was elected in good part on his pledge to end U.S. involvement in Iraq, is supporting what is arguably the most reactionary regime in the world, Saudi Arabia. That country is a theocracy rooted in the extreme, Wahhabi variant of Sunni fundamentalism, the social strictures of which are quite similar to those of ISIS.
Although U.S. reliance on Saudi oil has declined considerably in recent years, Washington wants to retain control over the flow of Gulf oil to the rest of the world. Moreover, Saudi Arabia, along with Zionist Israel, has long been a key ally of the U.S. in the Near East. Its importance particularly increased after the ouster of the U.S.-backed Shah of Iran by the 1979 “Islamic revolution.” The Saudi monarchy, one of the biggest importers of advanced U.S. and British weapons systems, plays a critical role in financially sustaining other U.S. client states in the area, such as Egypt and Jordan, as well as propping up other oil-rich Gulf kingdoms and emirates.
After the U.S. overthrow of the Sunni-dominated Ba’athist regime in Baghdad in 2003 and the establishment of a Shi’ite-led regime there, the Sunni theocracy in Saudi Arabia appointed itself guardian of the Sunni Arab peoples of the Near East against the Persian-dominated Shi’ite theocracy in Iran. The Saudi monarchy is also fearful of the sizable oppressed Shi’ite minority in its own kingdom and elsewhere in the peninsula. In 2011, the Saudis viciously suppressed Shi’ite protests against the Saudi’s fellow royals in Bahrain. Like that other regional gendarme of pro-imperialist reaction, the Zionist rulers of Israel, the Saudi rulers have openly thumbed their noses at Obama over his nuclear deal with Tehran, much to the applause of the Christian fundamentalists in the Republican Party.
Obama has sought to smooth ruffled feathers, hosting a meeting of the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council at Camp David in May, where he promised to send more military equipment to the emirs and to assist the development of an integrated missile defense system in the region. King Salman showed his continuing displeasure with Obama by boycotting the gathering. But, for the moment, Washington continues to stand foursquare behind its Saudi ally, adding further evidence of why Iran needs nuclear weapons to defend its own sovereignty.
Big Oil and Tribal Turmoil
The Houthi movement, centered on a family of the same name that traces its lineage back to the prophet Muhammed, is a Zaidi revivalist movement that arose in the face of Wahhabi encroachment into the Zaidi heartland of northern Yemen. In the early 2000s, the anti-American sermons of Houthi leader Hussein al-Houthi embarrassed the longtime Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh as he was trying to prove himself a valuable asset of Washington in the “war on terror.” In 2004, Saleh unleashed his army in an effort to suppress the Houthis, during which Hussein was killed. Over the next decade, the Houthis waged a low-level insurgency against the central government. Saleh launched five further military campaigns aimed at destroying the Houthis, among them the 2009 “Operation Scorched Earth,” carried out with Saudi involvement.
In 2011, inspired by the “Arab Spring,” Yemen was swept by protests demanding Saleh’s ouster. Washington stood by its dictator until sections of the military threatened to go over to the opposition, at which point the U.S. had Saleh make way “constitutionally” for his vice-president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Hadi continued his predecessor’s policy of hosting a U.S. command center and endorsing the deadly drone attacks that have killed scores of Yemeni civilians (as well as U.S. citizens targeted for assassination like Anwar al-Awlaki) in the name of combating the local Al Qaeda franchise.
Last year, the Houthis launched a new offensive and, joined by their former tormenter Saleh and his supporters, who made up the bulk of the Yemeni army, they quickly overran the Yemeni capital, Sana’a. Hadi fled and ended up in the Saudi capital Riyadh, as had Saleh following his ouster four years earlier. Notably, Washington continued doing business with the new regime in Sana’a. Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael Vickers declared, “The Houthis are anti al-Qaeda, and we’ve been able to continue some of our counterterrorism operations against al-Qaeda” (Al-Monitor, 22 January). Indeed, as the Houthis continued their surge into the predominantly Sunni southern and eastern parts of the country, Al Qaeda and Sunni tribes now allied with it have been among the main forces opposing them.
The multiple religious, nationalist and tribal forces in the region join together and fall out with each other in a continual state of flux, while the imperialists favor one or another which they then dump when it has served the purpose of the moment. Marxists had no military side in the squalid civil war in Yemen until the U.S.-backed Saudi air war began. Revolutionary socialists must oppose every imperialist military intervention while pointing the way to a revolutionary-proletarian perspective.
Until the first Iraq war in 1990-91, an important source of Yemen’s income was remittances from the more than one million Yemeni workers slaving away in Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf kingdoms and emirates. But they were all thrown out when Saleh’s Yemen became the only Arab state that refused to condemn Saddam Hussein’s takeover of Kuwait. (Saleh was mentored by the Iraqi strongman and was known as “Little Saddam.”) Even before the current starvation blockade, nearly half of Yemen’s children were malnourished; the country ranks 178th in the world in per capita GDP. Until recently, the various tribal leaders and other personages relied on and competed for patronage paid in Saudi petrodollars by the Yemeni government, or directly by the Saudis, as a means of keeping them pacified. This competition for patronage has been behind the recurrent domestic tensions and insurgencies.
While impoverished Yemen lacks much in the way of natural resources, what makes it important for the Gulf monarchies and the imperialists is that it occupies a strategic piece of real estate on the southwestern corner of the Arabian Peninsula and shares a border hundreds of miles long with its Saudi neighbor. The House of Saud is paranoid about any hint of instability that might undermine its stranglehold on Saudi society and its grip on one of the largest fortunes in the world. The border is secured to keep out hundreds of thousands of desperate immigrants from Yemen and the Horn of Africa as well as “hostile” terrorists, i.e., those who are not currently sponsored by the Wahhabi establishment. Moreover, Yemen is only 18 miles from the Horn of Africa across the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, located at the southeastern end of the Red Sea. If blocked, this choke point would cut off all shipping between the Suez Canal and points east.
Saudi Arabia: Bulwark of Reaction
In 1839, well before the discovery of oil, Britain seized the area of southern Yemen around the port city of Aden in order to secure its passage to India, then the British Empire’s most profitable colony. With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Britain played the sort of cynical game that earned it the epithet, “perfidious Albion.” On the one hand, it promised the Arabs independence if they fought against the Turkish-dominated Ottoman Empire, which then controlled much of the Near East and was allied with Germany and Austro-Hungary against Britain and France (and Russia) in the war. On the other, with the infamous Sykes-Picot Treaty of 1916, Britain schemed with France to seize and share the whole region, drawing arbitrary borders to divide up or lump together distinct ethnic or religious populations that had more or less coexisted under Ottoman rule. Britain also promised that the tiny population of Zionist colonizers in Palestine could create a “Jewish homeland” there—at the expense of the existing Arab population.
Nations and peoples were carved up to exacerbate conflict between Christian and Muslim, Kurd and Arab, Shi’ite and Sunni, Arab and Jew. At the war’s end, the British imperialists installed pliant regimes from among the various competing Arab clans. Two brothers of the Hashemite clan became kings of the newly created states of Jordan and Iraq, while the rival Saud family went on to reign in Arabia.
The discovery of large deposits of oil in the late 1930s by what became the Arabian American Oil Company ensured not only that the Saud dynasty would be fabulously wealthy for as long as it retained power but that it would have all the military protection that ascendant U.S. imperialism could provide. Saudi Arabia became a bulwark of reaction in the Near East.
Seeking to counter the rise of “progressive” nationalist forces such as Nasser in Egypt in the 1950s and ’60s, Riyadh financed a massive effort to propagate the Wahhabi doctrine, seeding future jihadist groups, and to buy the loyalty of tribal militias in the region. This led, among other things, to a civil war in Yemen.
For centuries, Yemen had been ruled by a line of Zaidi imams who continued to rule in the North after Britain had colonized Aden. One week after the imam Ahmad bin Yahya died in September 1962, nationalist army officers, who looked to Nasser’s Egypt, seized power from his son and successor Muhammad al-Badr and declared the Yemen Arab Republic.
An insurgency, supported by Riyadh, was launched to restore the imam. London, fearing that the overthrow of the imamate would bolster opposition to its colonial rule in South Yemen, launched a campaign of covert action, with the support of Washington, to support the royalists. The British imperialists also relished the opportunity to punish Nasser, not least for his seizure of the Suez Canal six years earlier. Egypt responded by sending 20,000 troops to Yemen to bolster the republican regime. The ensuing war involved republican Yemeni officers and Egyptian troops backed by the USSR and China fighting against Saudi-armed tribal militias backed by Britain. As the war ground down the Egyptian forces, the “Arab socialist” Nasser began competing with the Saudis in buying the support of reactionary tribal leaders. The war resulted in the deaths of 200,000 Yemenis and a shattered economy. Although the imamate was not restored, the republican regime that emerged was a conservative one beholden to the tribal leaders and forced to turn to Saudi Arabia after the demoralized Egyptians pulled out.
The declaration of the republic in the North did indeed serve as an inspiration to the masses in South Yemen, including a tiny but politically militant labor movement centered on port and refinery workers. The southern populace rose up against their colonial overlords, who responded with brutal counterinsurgency operations. In the finest Etonian English, a senior British colonial officer intoned: “Pacification of a country unaccustomed to orderly government could not be effected without collective punishment” (quoted in Tariq Ali, “Unhappy Yemen,” London Review of Books, 25 March 2010).
After four years of guerilla war, the British were evicted from South Yemen in 1967 and the more left-wing elements of the republican forces set up the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) three years later. With aid from the Soviet Union, the new regime provided for universal education and healthcare as well as significant advances for women. Notwithstanding the hosannas of various fake-Marxists at the time for the PDRY, however, there was no social revolution. This economically and socially backward country could hardly sustain elementary democratic reforms. During the 1980s, the regime started unraveling and, with the Soviet Union itself in crisis, in 1990 South Yemen reunited with Saleh’s Republic of Yemen.
After the unification, the southern population chafed under Saleh’s iron-fisted rule, leading to an all-out rebellion in 1994 that Saleh brutally suppressed. “Arab Afghans,” returning from the U.S.-sponsored “holy war” against Soviet troops in Afghanistan, assassinated many left-wing cadre of the former PDRY regime while ruthlessly attacking women’s rights. Separatist sentiments in the South persist to this day. Around Aden, a significant force opposing the Houthis is the Southern Movement, an alliance of groups favoring autonomy or independence for the South, which is in a de facto bloc with the imperialist-backed Saudi forces. The question of South Yemen’s political status is, for now, subordinated to the defense of the Houthis against the U.S.-backed war.
For a Socialist Federation of the Near East!
What drives the myriad internecine conflicts in the Near East is competition over scarce resources. So long as there is not enough to feed and clothe the masses of the dispossessed—nor any perception that this can be achieved—they will remain mired in the false solace of religion and tribal, ethnic and national solidarities.
The industrial revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries, beginning in Britain, led to a qualitative expansion of production, posing the possibility, for the first time in history, that the needs of all could be satisfied. But capitalist property relations (the private ownership of the means of production) and the nation-state became fetters on the further development of the productive forces unleashed by industrial capitalism itself.
The advances in technological and social progress were monopolized by a handful of capitalist ruling classes in Europe, North America and Japan, who enriched themselves at the expense of the workers they exploited. With the rise of imperialism in the decades before WWI, the independent industrial development and modernization of the rest of the world under capitalism were foreclosed. The bourgeoisies of the colonial and semicolonial countries arose as appendages and servants of imperialism and ultimately relied on the imperialists to prevent any challenge by the nascent proletariat to continued capitalist rule.
The development of a proletariat in colonial and semicolonial countries was a consequence of the export of capital that characterizes imperialism. This development was given impetus during WWI, when the disruption of international trade and the diversion of manufacturing in the imperialist centers to production of munitions resulted in the development of local capitalist industry—and a proletariat—in countries like India, China and Egypt.
Today, humanity is being strangled by decaying capitalism, a system based on production for profit, and this is nowhere more evident than in the disease-ridden slums dotted across the semicolonial world, where more than a century of imperialist depredation has served to retard, and indeed reverse, social progress. The only way to overcome the backwardness of the semicolonial world and cast off the yoke of imperialism is the program of permanent revolution. The working class, leading the peasantry and all the oppressed masses, must seize power through socialist revolution—sweeping away all the capitalist regimes of the region: the sheiks, emirs, military strongmen and Zionist rulers.
The proletariat in power would reorganize society on the basis of collectivized property and fight to extend the revolution internationally, especially to the imperialist centers. In breaking the chains of exploitation that enslave it, the proletariat will simultaneously open the door to the liberation of all—peasants, women, youth, national and ethnic minorities—who are oppressed under capitalism. Only in a socialist federation of the Near East will there be a full and equal place for all the myriad peoples of the region—Sunnis, Shi’ites and Christians as well as the Kurdish, Palestinian Arab and Israeli Jewish nations.
For this to come about, the working class requires the consciousness and discipline that can only be provided by a Marxist party modeled on the Bolshevik party of V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky that led the multinational proletariat of Russia to victory in October 1917. The Bolshevik-led seizure of power in backward Russia, the revolutionary government’s publication of Sykes-Picot and all the other secret treaties in the tsarist archives, its courageous modernizing efforts in Muslim Central Asia—all these inspired advanced workers and rebellious youth around the globe.
Even following the Stalinist bureaucratic degeneration of the Soviet Union and Stalin’s destruction of the Third (Communist) International of Lenin and Trotsky, the Bolshevik Revolution (albeit refracted through the distorting lens of Stalinism) remained a beacon for all those seeking an egalitarian society free of exploitation and oppression. In the 1950s, pro-Moscow Communist parties rooted in the proletariat and comprised of the most oppressed layers of society could have taken power in Iran and Iraq on the basis of social revolutions, but these opportunities were sacrificed on the altar of “peaceful coexistence” and “national unity” with the capitalist rulers. (For more on this, see “Near East, 1950s: Permanent Revolution vs. Bourgeois Nationalism,” WV Nos. 740-41, 25 August and 8 September 2000.)
Particularly since the counterrevolutionary destruction of the Soviet Union in 1991-92, the necessity and possibility of a communist future has been erased from the consciousness of much of the working class. This vision must be reimplanted in the course of renewed struggle around a class axis and through the intervention of a conscious revolutionary vanguard. While there is little in the way of an indigenous working class on the Arabian Peninsula (although there are millions of migrant workers), sizable proletarian concentrations exist elsewhere in the Near East with the potential power to topple the capitalist regimes that subjugate hundreds of millions of people—all under the heel of imperialism. From Egyptian textile workers to workers in Israeli chemical plants, Turkish auto factories and Iranian oil fields, the objective basis exists to forge the nuclei of revolutionary proletarian parties as part of a reborn Trotskyist Fourth International. This is the task the International Communist League sets for itself, in the Near East and around the world.
Down With U.S. Imperialism!
Whom the gods would destroy they first drive mad. There is certainly plenty of evidence of imperialist madness in Washington’s role in the Near East. It is now a commonplace that Al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden, the most prominent Saudi ever, was a Frankenstein’s monster created by the CIA (with the help of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan) in order to kill Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan in the 1980s. As revealed by Seymour Hersh in his exposé in the London Review of Books (21 May), Pakistan and Saudi Arabia continued to take care of bin Laden until his murder by a U.S. hit squad four years ago.
In Iraq, the toppling of Saddam Hussein led to a pro-Iran regime and unleashed Sunni and Shi’ite fundamentalist militias that have fought alternately alongside and against the U.S., but have mainly carried out pogroms against each other’s peoples. In Syria, the U.S. targeted the Alawite regime of Bashar al-Assad, another ally of Tehran, backing and arming the Sunni fundamentalist rebels who, along with Sunni forces in Iraq, spawned ISIS. Now Washington is backing pro-Iranian Shi’ite militias in Iraq while finding itself in a tacit bloc with Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula against the Houthis!
On top of the irrationality inherent in a system based on the anarchy of the marketplace, imperialist triumphalism over the final overturn of the Bolshevik Revolution made the U.S. rulers drunk with fantasies of their own “democratic” variant of a Thousand Year Reich. Under Democrats and Republicans alike, Washington has been acting as though it can wade in wherever it likes without fear of challenge or concern for the consequences. While sinking ever deeper into the quagmire in the Near East, the U.S. continues to join with Ukrainian fascists and Polish revanchists in baiting the Russian bear and to stage flagrant provocations against the Chinese deformed workers state, such as flying through Chinese air space in the South China Sea (see article on page 1). Add to this the fact that U.S. imperialism’s enormous military supremacy is no longer matched by global economic hegemony and you get a dangerous and heady mix indeed.
U.S. imperialism is clearly overextended. The war-weary populace may tolerate the situation so long as it seems wars can be fought from behind video consoles or with proxies and mercenaries, but the situation cannot last. For now, the bourgeoisie faces little social struggle on the home front, thanks in large part to the pro-imperialist labor bureaucracy—who have sold out and derailed one struggle after another until the very existence of the trade unions is in question—and the absence of even a semblance of militant leadership in the black ghettos. But manifold discontents have been building up at the base of this society over the decades—anger over rampant cop terror against black and Latino youth, frustration over the ongoing decline of living standards among the working people, fear of the steady whittling away of union rights and even rights supposedly guaranteed under the Constitution.
It is not the gods who will destroy U.S. imperialism but the men and women who keep the wheels of production turning and whose labor produces the profits of the capitalists. This may seem far-fetched given the current passivity and demoralization of the working class after decades of defeats and betrayals. But there is no other way. It will take a change in the period, marked by a sharp increase in working-class struggle and the intervention of a communist vanguard, for Marxism to again win the allegiance of a layer of the proletariat. But so long as capitalism exists, the class struggle arising from its contradictions will continue to erupt.
Our role is to maintain and propagate the only program that expresses the historic, revolutionary mission of the working class. This means fighting for parties that will bring to the fore the principle of international working-class unity across all national, religious and communal boundaries in opposition to all forms of bourgeois ideology and religious reaction. As part of a reforged Fourth International extending from the advanced industrial countries to the countries of the semicolonial world, Leninist-Trotskyist parties will be dedicated to the struggle for international socialist revolution.
Only then will humanity embark on the road to a communist future. The organization of production for use, not for profit, under the rule of the proletariat, combined with economic planning on an international scale, will usher in a further massive increase in productivity, leading to an elimination of scarcity and the creation of a global communist society, in which divisions based on class, race, national borders, sex and religion will have become artifacts.