Year in Review: 2003

The year 2003 marked a turning point in world history. US imperialism, with the complicity of all the major powers, launched a brutal and illegal war against Iraq. Defying the will of the majority of the world’s population—millions of whom took to the streets in protest—the imperialist powers, driven by insoluble economic contradictions, escalated a campaign of military predation and world conquest.

The drive to war

The year began against the backdrop of impending war and deepening economic crisis. In the course of nearly 700 articles, the World Socialist Web Site analyzed the fundamental causes of the unfolding disaster and elaborated the only viable perspective for the defeat of American militarism. In “On eve of US war against Iraq: the political challenge of 2003,” published January 6, the WSWS Editorial Board warned that the administration of George W. Bush had already made the decision for war.

There is nothing Baghdad could do, including the elimination of Saddam Hussein, to avert a US invasion. Bush’s talk of Iraqi violations of UN resolutions are transparent pretexts. Washington’s aim is not the “disarming” of Iraq or even the removal of Saddam Hussein, but rather the occupation of the country and the seizure of its oilfields.

The occupation of Iraq would not be the last war led by the American ruling class with the aim of maintaining its position of global dominance:

The same rationale that underlies the war against Iraq will inevitably lead to wars against Iran, Syria and other countries in the region. The US drive to dominate the world’s oil supplies will lead to increasingly fierce conflicts with more powerful nations, including Russia, China and America’s great power rivals in Europe and Japan. A US conquest of Iraq will initiate a process whose ultimate outcome will be a third world war.

To justify its act of aggression, the Bush administration employed increasingly brazen lies, centered on the claims that Saddam Hussein had ties to Al Qaeda and possessed “weapons of mass destruction” (WMD).

On February 5, US Secretary of State Colin Powell made his infamous address to the United Nations Security Council. In a statement the next day, headlined "Powell's UN speech triggers countdown to war against Iraq,” the WSWS Editorial Board subjected his brief for war to a thorough analysis, noting that it “was predicated on a colossal lie: that the coming invasion is about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and Baghdad’s supposed threat to US security and world peace.”

Within the United States, Bush relied on the media and the Democratic Party to sell these lies to the American people. The mass media seized on Powell’s speech to unanimously proclaim that it was an “irrefutable” indictment of the Iraqi regime. The WSWS noted that a number of liberal commentators were obliged to write their declarations of unconditional support for Powell’s claims before the secretary of state had finished speaking.

The New York Times referred to Powell’s remarks as “the most powerful case to date.” The Times own reporters played a critical role in promoting the lies used by Powell and the Bush administration. Times correspondent Judith Miller, functioning as a Pentagon mouthpiece, published a series of sensational stories purporting to substantiate the existence of chemical and biological weapons. Times chief foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman personified the cynicism and reaction of the liberal establishment in its efforts to cloak the administration’s aggression in “democratic” garb.

No significant section of the Democratic Party opposed this criminal plot, with Sen. Joseph Biden and Sen. Dianne Feinstein immediately declaring Powell’s speech “unanswerable.” John Kerry, who would be the Democrats’ candidate for president in 2004, declared that it was necessary to “face up to the threat of weapons of mass destruction,” while urging the Bush administration to solicit international support in any military action.

The Bush administration was also given critical assistance by other major powers, particularly Britain, led by Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair. In a series of intelligence dossiers, Blair put forward increasingly dire claims, including the assertion that Hussein had sought uranium from Niger for possible nuclear weapons and that he could deploy WMD within 45 minutes (prompting the Sun headline in September 2002: “Brits 45 Mins from Doom”).

The slowly unfolding nightmare of the war preparations provoked mass opposition around the world. On February 15-16, the largest antiwar protests in history took place. More than ten million people marched in over 60 countries and 600 cities, with demonstrations taking place on every continent, including Antarctica. The demonstrations included 3 million people in Rome, the single largest antiwar rally in history. One-and-a-half million people attended a rally in Madrid, and 1 million took to the streets of London. In the United States, at least 225 separate demonstrations took place, with 400,000 marching in New York City.

The New York Times commented nervously that the demonstrations showed “there may be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion.” In “An event of world historical significance,” the WSWS noted that in the aftermath of the coordinated international mobilization “all pretense of democratic political legitimacy for the war … has been irrevocably shattered.”

The eruption of mass protests only underscored that this sentiment did not find any organized political expression. The sections of the International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI) and their supporters distributed the leaflet “The tasks facing the anti-war movement” which called for a turn to the working class on the basis of a fight for a socialist program.

In the US, not only the Republicans, but also the leading Democrats are to a man supporting the war. In Europe, even those governments and parties that reject a military strike at this point accept the American war aims as plausible and legitimate…

The anti-war movement must be transformed into a powerful political movement of the working class. This requires a program based on an understanding of the causes and driving forces behind this war. Not unity at any price, but clarity is the demand of the hour.

The statement stressed that, if it were to be successful, opposition to war could not be subordinated to parties standing “with one or both legs in the camp of the bourgeois order—not only the Democrats in the US, but also the Social Democrats, the Greens, the German PDS, the Communist Party in France and the Democratic Left in Italy.”

The war preparations against Iraq exposed mounting conflicts between the major powers. Tensions ran high when French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin blocked attempts by the US to obtain the approval of the UN Security Council for an invasion of Iraq. France and Germany had no principled objections to this war, however. The the WSWS wrote, in opposition to the “left” French group Attac, “If France is a ‘pacifist’ in the current crisis, that is because it finds itself outgunned and has no choice at the moment but to pursue diplomatic efforts to curtail US ambitions. Given transformed circumstances, nothing would prevent Paris or Berlin from launching its own predatory wars of conquest.”

US Secretary of State Powell holds a model vial of anthrax as he makes the case for war against Iraq at the UN

The invasion of Iraq

The world’s population watched in horror as American imperialism and its criminal accomplices commenced the annihilation of Iraqi society. “March 21, 2003 is a shameful day in US history,” wrote the WSWS, as Bush’s “shock and awe” blitzkrieg campaign transformed Baghdad into an inferno. Unsurprisingly, the Iraqi population did not welcome the invading troops as liberators, and bitter guerrilla warfare was waged in many cities.

On March 21, the day of the invasion, the WSWS published a statement by Editorial Board Chairman David North, “The crisis of American capitalism and the war against Iraq,” which began:

The unprovoked and illegal invasion of Iraq by the United States is an event that will live in infamy. The political criminals in Washington who have launched this war, and the wretched scoundrels in the mass media who are reveling in the bloodbath, have covered this country in shame. Hundreds of millions of people in every part of the world are repulsed by the spectacle of a brutal and unrestrained military power pulverizing a small and defenseless country. The invasion of Iraq is an imperialist war in the classic sense of the term: a vile act of aggression that has been undertaken on behalf of the interests of the most reactionary and predatory sections of the financial and corporate oligarchy in the United States. Its overt and immediate purpose is the establishment of control over Iraq’s vast oil resources and reduction of that long-oppressed country to an American colonial protectorate.

The invasion of Iraq was a war of aggression, illegal under international law developed in the aftermath of the First and Second World Wars. North wrote, “The ‘war of choice’ being launched by the Bush administration is in no legal sense fundamentally different from the decisions and actions for which the Nazi leaders were tried and hanged in October 1946.”

The American ruling class carried out the invasion of Iraq to seize control of Iraqi oil as part of a broader strategy to utilize military force to counter US capitalism’s economic decline. Unending war served as well as a mechanism for directing increasingly explosive tensions within the United States outward. The attempt to resolve the crisis of American capitalism through imperialist aggression, however, was doomed to failure:

Whatever the outcome of the initial stages of the conflict that has begun, American imperialism has a rendezvous with disaster. It cannot conquer the world. It cannot reimpose colonial shackles upon the masses of the Middle East. It will not find through the medium of war a viable solution to its internal maladies. Rather, the unforeseen difficulties and mounting resistance engendered by war will intensify all of the internal contradictions of American society.

Administration officials and proponents of war predicted a “cakewalk,” with American troops greeted as liberators. Within days of the invasion, however, resistance to the invasion shattered the propaganda of a “liberation” war. Not long after the dust had settled around the stage-managed toppling of the statue of Iraqi president Saddam Hussein and the “Battle of Baghdad” was declared over, the initial opposition of the Iraqi masses developed into a full-blown insurgency, which would last for years. The reality of the increasingly tenuous grip held by the imperialists over the country was illustrated in August, when a truck bomb killed the UN’s chief representative in Iraq, Sergio de Mello.

For the Iraqi people, the invasion marked a new period of catastrophe, in which an entire society was torn apart. In “The rape of Iraq,” published a month and a half after the invasion, the WSWS compared the war to the brutal conquests carried out by the Nazis throughout Europe in the 20th century:

Today Iraq lies in ruins. A campaign that can better be described as a massacre than a war yielded combined civilian and military casualties that number in the many tens, if not hundreds of thousands. Hospitals, schools, power facilities, water and sewage services, trash collection and every other section of infrastructure required to sustain life in a highly urbanized society have been smashed. Cholera and other diseases have reached epidemic proportions.

The editorial examined in detail the corporate interests at stake and the plans for the privatization and looting of Iraqi resources. This “war for democracy” would eventually turn countless millions of Iraqis into refugees, orphans, invalids or corpses. The hypocrisy behind the phony WMD pretext became brutally evident in the use by the imperialists of cluster bombs and depleted uranium weapons against the Iraqi population.

In May, Bush proclaimed victory and the end of major combat operations in Iraq in his notorious “Mission Accomplished” speech. After being presented with this fait accompli, the UN Security Council quickly fell into line and voted to sanction the continued military occupation of Iraq by the US and Britain, providing absolution for “past, present and future” crimes.

As the war dragged on, the WSWS continued to expose the phony “anti-war” stance of France and Germany, which were seeking to use the UN merely to increase their own influence, gaining access for European companies to Iraq’s oil and securing a role for European concerns in reconstruction projects. While German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder adapted his political rhetoric to the strong antiwar sentiments in the German population, he and his coalition partner, the Greens, soon supported the occupation and permitted the US war machine to operate out of Ramstein Airbase, which served as the most important hub for deploying military personnel and supplies to the war zone.

When it became undeniable that Iraq had never possessed any WMDs, the imperialists’ web of deception unraveled. Calls for an inquiry into British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s role in developing the war’s phony pretexts were initially met alternately with cover-ups and whitewashes. However, after the suspicious death of whistleblower and UN weapons inspector David Kelly, demands for an investigation resulted in the Hutton Inquiry, which provided irrefutable evidence of the lies by Blair and senior British officials.

Upon the capture of Hussein later in December, members of the Bush administration and media called for the swift trial and execution of the nation’s former leader. “There are good reasons for Washington to want to avoid any public prosecution of Hussein,” the WSWS noted in an editorial comment. “Indeed, his regime’s greatest crimes against the Iraqi people—the Iran-Iraq war, the suppression of the Shiites and Kurds, etc.—were carried out with Washington’s active support.”

The integral role played by the media in laying the groundwork for the war reached its logical conclusion once the conflict finally began: both in its unprecedented and obedient censorship of the human suffering imposed on Iraq and in its willing participation in the invasion of hundreds of “embedded journalists.”

A world in crisis

While the US invasion of Iraq was its foulest expression, the crisis of American and world capitalism produced political convulsions and social disasters around the world.  Rosa Luxemburg’s description of society at the inception of the First World War—”violated, dishonored, wading in blood, dripping filth”—found its terrible echo in many countries.

In Israel, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s brutality rose in tandem with Bush’s preparations for the invasion of Iraq. After winning re-election in January, the Sharon government intensified its policy of “collective punishment” in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, deliberately disrupting food distribution to the extent that most Palestinians were forcedto live on one meal a day. Sharon expanded the construction of illegal settlements and the $2 billion “security wall,” which aimed to seal off Palestinian communities and control the population with military sharpshooters.

On March 16, 2003, American student Rachel Corrie, protesting home demolitions, was deliberately crushed to death by an Israeli military bulldozer in southern Gaza. Her brutal death prompted an international outcry. At the beginning of October, Sharon also carried out a bombing raid deep inside Syria, opening the door to a wider war in the Middle East.

In June 2003, sending its own political signal across the Atlantic, the European Union (EU) launched its first independent military operation, deploying 1,400 troops to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Following a Franco-African summit in Paris earlier in the year entitled “Africa and France, Together in a New Partnership,” the Europeans were making clear that the United States was not the only world power with the ability to launch international military operations. France also stepped up its troop strength in the ongoing civil war taking place in its strategically located former colony, the Ivory Coast.

In July, the Indonesian government of President Megawati Sukarnoputri set out to crush the separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM) in the northern province of Sumatra, emphasizing that the brutal operation conducted by more than 30,000 troops, backed by 13,000 police, armored vehicles, warplanes and artillery, had the tacit approval of the US, Australia and other major powers.

During the same month, the right-wing Howard government in Australia sent troops to seize control of the Solomon Islands, a former colonial territory to the east of resource-rich Papua New Guinea. A subsequent editorial board statement explained that Australian imperialism was following the militaristic example of the Bush administration, albeit limited to its own sphere of influence in the South Pacific.

On October 18, after ordering the massacre of unarmed protesters, US-backed Bolivian President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada was forced to resign and flee to exile in the United States. The resignation was the culmination of a month of protests and strikes against the privatization of energy resources. Just days earlier, army attacks on peasants in the countryside and workers in the city had left 86 protesters dead. The WSWS linked these events to the US military aggression in Iraq, emphasizing that the repression was aimed at defending US economic hegemony over the region and quelling the social revolt that Washington feared could spread throughout Latin America.

In November, in the first of the “color revolutions,” the US engineered the toppling of President Eduard Shevardnadze in the former Soviet republic of Georgia. The WSWS article “Georgia’s ‘rose revolution’: a made-in-America coup” exposed the imperialist claims of “democracy,” pointing out:

For Washington, the maintenance of relative stability in a Georgia run by an unambiguously pro-US regime is a matter of the greatest urgency. The interests of US energy giants and the global military and the strategic aims of American imperialism as a whole converge on this question.

In Sri Lanka, President Chandrika Kumaratunga staged a constitutional coup the same month, sacking the ministers of defense, interior and information, all members of the conservative United National Party (UNP), which held a majority in parliament, and assuming direction of the security forces herself, despite her own party’s minority status.

The year 2003 was also characterized by deep social cuts throughout Europe and massive protests opposing them. In Germany, the Social Democratic-Green coalition government, led by Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, carried out the most far-reaching attacks on the social conditions of the working class since World War II. In November, hundreds of thousands of workers and unemployed demonstrated in Berlin, although the trade unions effectively boycotted the event. A WSWS statement distributed at the rally, “A political answer to social cuts and war,” explained the connection between the anti-social policies of the Schröder government and its de facto support for the war in Iraq.

Similar struggles rocked the rest of the European continent. On May 13, more than a million workers demonstrated against pension “reforms” in France. The deteriorating conditions of life were reflected in a wave of heat-related deaths across Europe, particularly in France, where more than 10,000 people, mainly elderly, perished for lack of air conditioning and ventilation in one of the most economically advanced countries.

In December, a million Italian workers demonstrated against the right-wing Berlusconi government’s pension “reform”. In Austria, 500,000 workers participated in the biggest political strike in 50 years against massive cuts in the pension system by the conservative government.

In Canada, mass protests and walkouts erupted in early December against the newly elected Quebec Liberal government’s assault on public services and workers’ rights. The unions torpedoed this opposition movement by declaring a “Christmas truce” while issuing phony threats of a general strike in the New Year.

In September, Swedish voters said “no” to the introduction of the euro. Only 18 months after its launch in 12 of the 15 EU member states, the new currency had already come to be seen as an instrument for slashing the living standards of masses of people.

Two developments in the United States underscored the deteriorating position of American capitalism. The first was the Columbia disaster, the second incident in which a space shuttle suffered catastrophic disintegration, killing its crew. A series of articles on the WSWS placed the crisis of the once-vaunted US space program in its historical and social context.

In August came the blackout centered in the Great Lakes region of the United States and Canada, cutting off electrical power for tens of millions of people for more than a day. Like the space shuttle disaster, the blackout demonstrated the failure of capitalism, expressed in its inability to maintain complex technical systems where profit considerations clashed with the social need for rational, long-term planning.

International Committee of the Fourth International

The ICFI placed the struggle against imperialism and war at the center of its work in 2003, convening a series of public conferences to explain the world historical significance of the war in Iraq, as well as to elaborate a path forward for the working class in confronting the eruption of militarism. “Socialism and the Struggle Against Imperialism and War: the Strategy and Program of a New International Working Class Movement” was the banner of the conferences on March 29-30 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, just a week after the war’s official launch, and July 5-6 in Sydney, Australia. Both events were attended and followed by youth and workers from across the globe. 

WSWS Editorial Board Chairman David North delivered the opening report to the Ann Arbor conference, entitled “Into the maelstrom: the crisis of American imperialism and the war against Iraq."

Two cases highlighted the complicity of world governments in the Bush administration’s “war on terror”—those of Maher Arar, tortured by Jordan and Syria at the behest of the US and with the complicity of the Canadian government, and David Hicks. The SEP in Australia conducted a campaign in defense of David Hicks, the Australian convert to Islam who was seized in Afghanistan, transported to Guantanamo, and held there for years without any evidence that he had committed any crime. The WSWS interviewed Terry Hicks, David’s father, who spearheaded efforts to win his son’s release, and covered the struggles waged by the families of Hicks and the other Australian prisoner at Guantanamo, Mamdouh Habib, to break through the wall of opposition from the Howard government, the Labor Party opposition and the media.

Also in Australia, the SEP waged a campaign against the falsification of history, which took the form of a reactionary book on Aboriginal history by Keith Windschuttle. The SEP also denounced the conviction and jailing of two right-wing populist leaders, Pauline Hanson and David Ettridge of the One Nation Party. While opposing the reactionary political positions of One Nation, the WSWS explained the anti-democratic implications of the prosecution, which was supported by pseudo-left groups such as the International Socialist Organisation. 

In October, California’s Democratic Governor Gray Davis was recalled in a historic election debacle for the Democratic Party after a petition drive financed by ultra-right Republican multi-millionaires. He was replaced by Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger. Davis had won reelection in 2002, but his popularity plummeted after he imposed sharp increases in electricity rates, massive cuts in education and health care, and a tripling of car license fees.

The Socialist Equality Party (US) intervened in the recall election, running John Christopher Burton, a civil rights lawyer, as an independent candidate for governor. The SEP took a principled position in the election by calling for a “no” vote on the recall, alerting workers to the dangerous and reactionary manipulation of the electoral process, while putting forward a candidate who opposed the attacks on social conditions being waged by both Democrats and Republicans.

During the recall campaign the party distributed thousands of political statements in English and Spanish, analyzing the roots of the California fiscal crisis and its connection to war and the decay of bourgeois democracy. The SEP exposed Green Party candidate and ex-Socialist Workers Party member Peter Camejo, who was an avid supporter of the recall, demonstrating his opportunistic contempt for democratic rights.

The SEP campaign was part of a broad turnout to the working class, including statements and visits by the candidate and supporters to show solidarity with striking transit and supermarket workers in Southern California. Burton finished 14th out of 135 candidates, with more than 6,200 votes. The campaign culminated in a public meeting, “The Crisis in California: A Socialist Policy for Working People,” held in Los Angeles.

In November and December, the ICFI held meetings in Frankfurt, Germany; London; Colombo, Sri Lanka and Sydney, Australia to mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of the International Committee of the Fourth International, the organization born out of the struggle against Pabloite revisionism inside the Fourth International, the international party of socialist revolution founded by Leon Trotsky. On November 16, 1953, the US Socialist Workers Party published its famous “Open Letter,” which called upon orthodox Trotskyists all over the world to unite in a struggle against a revisionist tendency under the leadership of Michel Pablo, at that time the secretary of the Fourth International.

Reviewing this history, David North emphasized at the Colombo meeting

Virtually all of those who were active in that struggle have now passed from the scene. But the political principles for which they fought retain and acquire an immense political significance in the present period. And we will demonstrate that it is, indeed, possible to build the most powerful political parties in the world on the basis of Marxism… That is the meaning of this anniversary.

Culture and the Iraq War

The Iraq War cast a significant shadow over artistic and cultural life in 2003, perhaps best symbolized by the covering up of Picasso’s famous antiwar painting “Guernica” prior to Colin Powell’s pitch for war before the UN Security Council. US imperialism also precipitated a more literal blow to human culture by permitting the looting of the Iraqi National Museum and the burning of the Iraqi National Library after the invasion.

Despite the strident efforts of the media and entertainment conglomerates to blacklist and censor any antiwar sentiment among artists, a number nevertheless had the courage to voice their opposition. Although somewhat inevitably colored by a good deal of pacifist illusions and political disorientation, prominent figures in the film industry and elsewhere made an attempt to swim against the tide of reaction—including actors Sean Penn and Martin Sheen, American country music group the Dixie Chicks, and a number of artists at that year’s Oscar ceremony.

The WSWS continued to broaden and deepen its coverage of the arts. Articles were written on an extremely wide range of subjects, including the artwork of Francis Bacon, the strike of English National Opera choristers, an exhibition of drawings by Leonardo da Vinci, and the sculpture of Edgar Degas.

In film, the Academy Awards nominees conveyed, in somewhat limited form, the conflicting trends in American artistic life: on the one hand, efforts to deal with the most tragic events of the 20th century with objectivity and compassion (Roman Polanski’ “The Pianist”); on the other, trends toward an increasing artistic narrowness and solipsism (“The Hours”); and finally, a growing tendency among a backward layer of artists to view the general population with unmitigated misanthropy (“Gangs of New York”).

A number of interesting films were shown at international film festivals, and the WSWS was able to offer extended reports from VancouverTorontoBuenos AiresBerlin, and Sydney. In addition, there were obituaries on Hollywood actors Katherine Hepburn and Gregory Peck and filmmaker for the Nazis Leni Riefenstahl. Significant films directed by Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa and German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder from the 1950s and 1970s, respectively, also came in for analysis.

Finally, the WSWS provided commentary on other spheres of human culture, in particular analyzing the implications of new developments in science and technology, such as the completion of the Human Genome Project and the discovery of the oldest modern human fossil in Ethiopia, as well as an assessment of the significance of the SARS outbreak, one of the most widespread epidemics of modern times.