The war in the Gulf has shattered the mood of euphoria among the strategists of capitalism. Only a year ago they were buoyed up with confidence. The eight-year boom in the advanced capitalist countries had not yet been punctured by indicators of a downturn. There was the prospect of the rapid unification of Germany, with the absorption of the former GDR into capitalist West Germany. In the rest of Eastern Europe, the crisis in the Stalinist bureaucracies meant the ‘death of communism’. Capitalism, apparently, was triumphant.

Even last September, as US forces were being dispatched to the Gulf, Bush proclaimed “a new world order” We were entering “an era in which the nations of the world, east and west, north and south, can prosper and live in harmony”. There was a new world “struggling to be born”, in which “nations recognized a shared responsibility for freedom and justice. A world where the strong respect the rights of the weak.” (11 September 1990)

These lofty words bear no more relationship to reality than the rhetoric of Woodrow Wilson in 1918 or the grandiose plans of Roosevelt in 1945. In reality, the invasion of Iraq by the combined forces of Western imperialism means we are entering a new era of world dis-order.

The US is asserting its armed might as a superpower. But this is no longer the era of the post-war economic upswing. The unchallengeable supremacy of the US in the world economy has been undermined. Cracks in the Western coalition, with differences between the US, on the one side, and Germany, France, and Japan, on the other, reflect the sharpening rivalry between the advanced capitalist states. The recent breakdown of the GATT talks on international trade are an ominous warning of the chaos that can erupt in the world economy. Moreover, the United States and Britain have already entered a recession.

The neo-colonial countries, as we have shown, have not enjoyed the fruits of the boom since 1981. On the contrary, the exploitation of the underdeveloped countries has intensified through the piling up of debt and the extraction of cheap raw materials, including oil. The decay of the bureaucracy in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, on the other hand, has not successfully advanced the frontiers of the capitalist system. The attempt to introduce elements of the market has led to mass unemployment, falling living standards, and chaos.

The invasion of the Gulf will rebound on US imperialism and world capitalism. They may succeed in the aim of smashing Saddam’s military machine. But, as a Wall Street Journal headline bluntly put it: “Battlefield success won’t guarantee victory.” (3 February) The war will simply act as a fuse to ignite the super-charged powder keg of the Middle East.

The war is already having a radicalizing effect on the Arab masses. Mubarak and Assad will face an angry upsurge of opposition as the war claims thousands of lives and casualties. Even the Saudi ruling class is terrified of the reaction against the presence of US forces and the massacre of fellow Arabs in Iraq.

When Baker met the Soviet foreign minister early in February, he committed the US to a “meaningful peace process”, one which “promotes a just peace, security and real reconciliation for Israel, Arab states, and Palestinians”. This is a chimera. For a start, Israeli leaders have bluntly stated that they will not participate in an international peace conference, which attempts to include the Israel-Palestine question as part of a post-war settlement.

The strategists of imperialism, moreover, are themselves divided over post-war aims. Hurd, the British Foreign Secretary, has said that Iraq will not be broken up. However, other Western strategists have raised the prospect of the dismemberment of Iraq.

Representatives of Turkish capitalism have discussed with the US State Department about plans for a ‘Kurdistan’. In reality, this would mean a nominally autonomous region under Turkish military control that would include parts of Iraq and Turkey. This has nothing to do with self-determination for the Kurds, but everything to do with Turkish capitalism’s desire to get it hands on the oilfields and other resources of northern Iraq.

If Iraq is militarily defeated, moreover, Assad is likely to claim the return of the Golan Heights from Israel as part of his price for supporting the US. Iran, which under Rafsanjani has maintained a position of ‘neutrality’ – which really means passive support for imperialism – will also attempt to reassert its position as a regional superpower. The hypocritical assurances of Bush and Baker that the US will assist with the rebuilding of Iraq after the war reflect imperialism’s fear of the explosive reaction against their intervention and the effects of war.