[What follows is the transcript of a televised debate from the excellent Australian SBS program Dateline between CounterPunch's Tariq Ali and ultra-hawk Daniel Pipes.]
JANA WENDT: Tariq Ali and Daniel Pipes, welcome to you both. Tariq Ali, what do you believe is the historical significance of what happened on September 11?
TARIQ ALI,: Well, the historical significance is that it’s the first time since 1812 that the American mainland has been subjected to violence by persons from outside. I don’t think it was an act of war, but it certainly was a very serious act of terror and its significance lies in, for me, not so much in the actual effects it had…because, economically and militarily, it was even less than a pinprick. I mean, you can’t challenge the might of the United States by actions of this sort. The psychological impact, of course, went much, much deeper but, in reality, what has happened is that the United States Administration has decided quite openly and blatantly to use the events of September 11 to remap the world according to their own needs and that, I think, is where the significance of September 11 will lie when historians discuss it in 10, 20, 30 years time.
JANA WENDT: Well, Daniel Pipes, what do you think of that assessment? Has it completely changed the way that the United States is conducting itself in the world?
DANIEL PIPES: No, Jana, very far from a complete change. To me, the significance of September 11 is that the war that militant Islam had declared on the US back in 1979 when Ayatollah Khomeini came to power and said, “Death to America,” the war that then took some 800 lives in the course of the many, many attacks on Americans, the war which was not really noticed, finally on September 11, 2001, became noticed. There could have been many more deaths in a small sort of way without it being noted, but the largeness of this event, the traumatic nature of the day, that caused Americans for the first time to sit up and take notice, that they had an enemy that had declared war and who was going to do all that it could to harm and potentially even destroy the United States.
TARIQ ALI: Well, I don’t accept this for a moment. Basically, what Daniel Pipes is referring to is the victory of the clerics in Iran after a big mass upheaval which toppled a pretty much universally hated despotic ruler in that country, who was seen as having been put on his throne by the United States after a previous attempt to overthrow him by secular politicians had failed in the ’50s. So it wasn’t militant Islam particularly. It was the voice of the Iranians and because – I give you an example. At the same time as supposedly militant Islam had declared war on the United States, the United States was, in fact, collaborating with sections of militant Islam to fight the Russians in Afghanistan, including the groups which currently carried out the attacks on the United States were allies then.
DANIEL PIPES: You’re just corroborating my point that Americans before 9/11 were not aware that militant Islam had declared war on them and were therefore happy to collaborate with some elements while being attacked by others. That would be much less likely today.
JANA WENDT: OK, I want to ask you both why you believe that those attacks on September 11 did take place when they took place? Tariq Ali?
TARIQ ALI: Well, I think that the organisation which carried out these attacks had made no secret of the fact for some years previously that it was targeting US institutions. This was the al-Qa’ida group, and they basically argued they were people who had fought with the US during the Cold War but, after the end of the Cold War, and particularly after the Gulf War, when Saudi Arabia had American troops present on its soil in large numbers, they turned against the United States, partially because they were dumped by it and had to keep their little group going, and partially because they thought that this would win them support throughout the Islamic world, for these were people left loose and they had to carry on, so they changed their style of functioning, they changed their ideology and they moved on. Though I would like to stress that it is not a very large group. It is a group, according to all reports, maximum of 2,000 to 3,000 people globally, and so the key thing is to try and cut off the support these organisations sometimes get and stop the flow of recruits to them and that requires political not military solutions, in my opinion.
DANIEL PIPES: No, there was not a shift in ideology. The shift – there was a consistency. First, it was the Soviets they fought and then it was the United States. “One down, one to go,” was the prevailing view in Afghanistan. Secondly, we did not fight with al-Qa’ida. There was no al-Qa’ida, back when the United States was in Afghanistan. The events of last September were in response to the fact that the United States had reacted so feebly to the prior attacks I mentioned – 800 who had been killed in the process of those attacks. Really, there was no response. 241 marines were killed in Beirut, for example, in 1983. No response, nothing, just the United States left. 17 soldiers killed in Somalia. The United States left. Well, the leaders of al-Qa’ida saw this weakness and said, “Well, let’s be even tougher. Let’s hit them in their homeland and then they’ll really capitulate.” They misread, obviously, the American public, but I believe the goal was to hit hard the political and business leadership, to create a condition of civil unrest and to create conditions in the United States which would lead to the collapse of the United States, just as their victory over the Soviet Union in some fashion contributed to their victory…to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
JANA WENDT: Just very quickly, Daniel Pipes, Tariq Ali says this is a small group of people, that action can be taken against them. You present it as an enormous threat. Why do you see it as such a huge threat?
DANIEL PIPES: Well, the actual number of operatives who are out there, ready to engage in violence, may be small, in the thousands, yes. But their support group is much larger and we saw a year ago the enormous popularity of this kind of strike against the West. Easily half the Muslim world thought this was a great thing. So, yes, the operatives are few but their support is quite large and their popular base is massive.
JANA WENDT: Tariq Ali, support from over half the Muslim world, according to Daniel Pipes. Is that right?
TARIQ ALI: There was some jubilation, not because of this group, but because they felt that this great, big empire, which rules the world and which goes round doing what it wants in every continent had been hit. But this wasn’t confined to the world of Islam. This was very, very strong in Latin America. I mean, in parts of Latin America, there were public celebrations of this event. The reaction in parts of China were also very similar. But that, I don’t think, has much to do with militant Islam at all. And just on one more thing to take up, which Daniel said, I mean, I think some of the leaders of this group might have this lunatic dream that they can topple or overthrow the United States or its allies, but the more serious ideologues within them have no such crazy illusions or ideas. Basically, they think that this is the way they can weaken their own governments in power in the Middle East and countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, governments close to the US, and topple them. I think that’s the main aim because, after all, they are not that dumb. They know that they didn’t bring down the Soviet Union in Afghanistan on their own.
DANIEL PIPES: Can I just counter those two points quickly? There was no public jubilation in China and Latin America. Public jubilation was exclusively in the Muslim world. Let’s get that straight. Secondly, the key thing about al-Qa’ida…
TARIQ ALI: That is not true.
DANIEL PIPES: is that they had decided not to go after their own governments – Pakistan, Egypt and so forth. They’ve given up on that route and they’ve decided to go after what they consider to be the protector and sponsor, namely the United States. So, what you’re calling the lunatic fringe is actually the very heart and soul of al-Qa’ida. Read up on it, you’ll see. They’re not interested in Pakistan. They’re interested in the United States.
JANA WENDT: We appear to be heading at the moment towards a confrontation with Iraq. Daniel Pipes, is this the right step in this war?
DANIEL PIPES: Well, it is the right step, but it’s a different war. I think the main war, the war that began a year ago today, is the war on militant Islam, the one that we’ve been talking about until now – it so happens that Saddam Hussein lives in the same part of the world and is a nominal Muslim and so there is a tendency to see him as connected to this, but he’s not. The problem of Saddam Hussein is a simple one. Here is an absolutely ruthless megalomaniac dictator, who is trying by all means possible to get his hands on nuclear weapons. He is close to achieving that. We must stop it. It’s easy to do, easy to defeat him militarily, easy to get rid of him. There is no ideology. He has no cadre. There’s no-one devoted to the thoughts of Saddam Hussein. He’ll be gone and one can begin with a new Iraq and this will have enormously beneficial effects on all sorts of Middle Eastern and international issues. So it’s urgent. Saddam Hussein with nuclear weapons is the single most terrifying prospect in the world today. It needs to be done soon.
TARIQ ALI: I totally disagree. This ruthless megalomaniac was once a close ally of the United States, backed by them and Britain when they unleashed him to fight the war against the clerics in Iran. That’s when he acquired chemical weapons and some of his scientists came and were trained in the Porton Down laboratories in Britain. The notion that this regime, which has been weakened by continuous sanctions, by weekly Anglo-American bombing raids, is capable of threatening any Western country is, of course, a joke. What it does pose a potential threat to…
DANIEL PIPES: What if you’re wrong?
TARIQ ALI: is the hegemony of Israel. That’s the real – that’s what this war is about. My prediction is it’s, of course, perfectly possible and likely that the power of the United States is such that they can change the regime in Iraq. The thought that they will be able to have a democratically elected regime which would put a Shi-ite majority in power in Iraq, will be accepted either by the United States or its allies in the region to me is inconceivable, so you will have more instability and you will have the whole Arab world saying, “You are siding and backing Ariel Sharon with what he is doing to the Palestinians. You won’t stop him. He’s got nuclear weapons.
He’s got chemical weapons, but you’re after yet another Arab government itself.” That’s for the people of that region to sort out, these governments, not for the United States.
JANA WENDT: Daniel Pipes, do you think an attack on Iraq will take place?
DANIEL PIPES: Oh, I do think it will. The gearing-up for war is very clear. Mr. Ali is correct that this is not exactly popular in the Arab world or Europe or elsewhere. Isn’t it lucky that it’s the United States, Mr. Ali, that’s making the decisions and not you?
TARIQ ALI: No, it’s not lucky. Well, no, I think it’s deeply unfortunate for the world that it is the United States which is making the decisions, ’cause what this will do, actually, is promote terror and not deal with its political causes.
DANIEL PIPES: Let’s revisit it.
JANA WENDT: Let’s revisit it, but at another time. Tariq Ali in London, thank you very much. Daniel Pipes in Philadelphia, thank you to you too.