Riley: How would you contrast the Vietnam anti-war movement of the 1960s with the movement against the US war on Iraq today?
Ali: The anti-war movement of the 1960s was not simply an anti-war movement. It was also a movement that wanted victory for one side, that wanted the Vietnamese to win. So that gave it extra zest. People knew which side they were on. It was ultra-radical for that reason.
The anti-war movement that erupted before the Iraq war was certainly broader and much larger. You can put all the Vietnam demonstrations together and add them up and, globally, it was 100 times larger. But, this was not a movement supporting one side — because no-one in the anti-war movement supported Saddam Hussein — it was rather a movement trying to stop a war that many people believed was completely unjustified.
And not just unjustified, but the reasons for it were kept completely hidden from public view by the US and British governments. It wasn’t about weapons of mass destruction. It was about capturing an oil-producing country with a regime that was very hostile to Israel, which was giving money to the Palestinians. These were the reasons for that war — apart from being a way of showing just what imperial power is and what it can do.
People felt they were being lied to. They were not happy about this war. They felt it was irrational. That explains the size of the mobilisations. It brought out large numbers of people who were not usually political.
Riley: Does this indicate that, over the last 30 years, the “Vietnam syndrome” has remained a powerful force?
Ali: The reason why it is such a force is that the Vietnamese people inflicted a defeat on the US. Fifty-thousand US soldiers died in that war. The Americans could not maintain their hold on that country and were forced to withdraw as a result of the combination of Vietnamese military successes and the fact that the anti-war movement had spread into the US army itself. GIs opposed to the war organised large demonstrations of GIs outside the Pentagon and this scared the living daylights out of them.
Riley: How do you assess the receding of the anti-war movement in the period after the invasion of Iraq?
Ali: I think people really believed they could stop the war. And when they found they couldn’t, it demoralised large numbers of them. Lots of people have said to me, “What’s the point of demonstrating if it changes nothing”. I tried to say nicely: “Look, they are going to make this war, and we need to be mobilising once the war starts and once it goes on”. But lots of people felt that by demonstrating and by coming out in large numbers they would stop the war.
Riley: If people were saying that troops were withdrawn from Vietnam because of the mass anti-war movement, does that mean that they misread the history of the Vietnam War?
Ali: To say that the US war against Vietnam was bought to an end because of the [Western] anti-war movement is wrong. It was because the Vietnamese people had been resisting three big empires for a long, long time and everyone knew the history of that struggle. Partially, it was bought to an end by the anti-war movement, but what made the anti-war movement happen — after all it didn’t exist as a large movement until the Vietnamese people began to score big victories against the US forces. What made the anti-war movement very big, was that many US people realised the war could not be won.
I think there is demoralisation, but I don’t think people should be too demoralised. The war isn’t going well for Washington. The US administration thought it would capture Iraq and everyone there would welcome them. That hasn’t happened. There is a resistance movement and it is not just made up of the remnants of the Baath Party. There are lots of other people resisting the occupation as well.
The only people capable of stopping the US-led occupation is the resistance in the region.
If this resistance carries on, I think the US will switch its tactics, probably by bringing in blue-helmeted United Nations mercenaries to run Iraq for them. For the US, the main thing in Iraq is to push through the privatisation of Iraq’s oil, to achieve the liberalisation of the Iraqi economy and to get the big US corporations in there. They are not too concerned as to how the country will be run, as long as that sort of economic structure is maintained.
Riley: The anti-war movement seems to have led to a crisis in the British Labour Party. How has the anti-war movement impacted on social democracy in Britain and, in particular, the political alignment and views of the population?
Ali: The size and scale of the movement shook everyone, including the Labour Party, and gave lots of Labour MPs courage to come out against the war. This is why Prime Minister Tony Blair started telling more and more lies. Even a number of Blairite MPs have said they would have voted against the war had they known Blair was lying about Baghdad’s weapons of mass destruction. I think if 10 more Labour MPs had voted against Blair on the war issue, he would only have stayed in power with Conservative Party votes.
From that point of view, the anti-war movement was effective. But you have to also understand that the British ruling class was divided on this. Half the intelligence agencies weren’t convinced of [the need to go to war]. The military itself wasn’t particularly convinced. The furore that has surrounded the death of David Kelly, the scientist, is all part and parcel of this.
Kelly told the BBC that the government had grossly exaggerated the threat. For that the government wanted to punish him and drove him to his death. It’s as simple as that. So there was division over this war that was not confined to the anti-war movement, but also reached upwards into various strata of British society and this is what is creating the big crisis for the Blair government.
Riley: Is Iraq becoming a “quagmire” for the US?
Ali: I have just finished a book on the history of Iraq, Bush in Babylon, which should be out in September. My thesis is that US President George Bush’s administration made a very big mistake with Iraq. Washington thought it was going to be like Kosova in the 1990s, that US troops would be welcomed by sections of the Iraqi population.
Apart from the quislings, no-one welcomed them. Even people who hated Hussein did not want this occupation and are unhappy about it. So the US and British governments have a very real problem on their hands.
There have just been big protest demonstrations in Basra, in southern Iraq, and the British have had to fire rubber bullets just like they did in Ireland. The US troops fire real bullets but the British use rubber bullets. They know what to do because they are more experienced colonialists.
The resistance is attracting people from all over the Arab world.
There are 20 or so different resistance groups which have been set up. The Iraqi Communist Party is not one of them — it’s collaborating in the quisling Governing Council. There are small leftist groups, there are lots of religious groups and lots of non-religious groups — none of them want the occupation. When you have that degree of hostility it is a real problem for the occupying powers.
There were some quislings who thought that this occupation would be like in Japan or Germany after the Second World War — where the US rebuilt the country. There’s no sign of that in Iraq. What these people forget is that the reason Japan and Germany had to be rebuilt was because of the “Communist threat”, because of the existence of the Soviet Union. Now, Washington does not feel threatened.
We are witnessing imperialism in the epoch of neoliberal economics and the “Washington consensus”. Why rebuild hospitals and recreate the state health service in Iraq when you are dismantling it in your own countries? There’s a big ideological and financial problem for them which is why they are using the corporations.
Riley: What does the Iraq experience suggest for the future of US foreign policy?
Ali: I think Washington has realised that the Iraq operation has not been a success. The Bush gang won’t admit it but they know it. The US empire has historically preferred to rule the world indirectly not directly. It tries to find governments that will do its bidding, regardless of whether they are elected or are military dictatorships, like those that have ruled in Latin America and large parts of Asia.
Washington would like to return to that situation, except that now the key criteria of US support is whether these regimes impose neoliberal economics and open the country up to a market economy. So they abandoned Milosevic and Hussein because they wouldn’t cooperate in that. Burma is another country on their list, not because it is a military regime — after all they deal with a military regime in Pakistan endlessly — but because it is closed to foreign companies.
Riley: Some are suggesting that the US is looking for another military target? Do you think that is a likely scenario?
Ali: Washington’s eyes are on Iran. But if it does move on to Iran, it will create a new resistance. The clerics are so hated in Iran — curiously you’ll have more people welcoming US troops than you had in Iraq — but still it will be a mess and not a pushover. And again they will incite Iranian nationalism.
They will not attack North Korea, precisely because North Korea does have weapons of mass destruction. They have said that if they are attacked they will use them. It may be bluff but it works. The Chinese regime would not accept US intervention in North Korea and would try to stop it, because it would bring US troops right to its borders.
Riley: How do you assess the future of the UN?
Ali: The UN is irrelevant in the sense that it cannot be relied on to do anything against the wishes of the US. What the organisation will be used for is to clean up the empire’s mess. It will go in, try and clean up the mess and put a gloss on it — Kofi Annan will stand up and mutter sweet inanities and people will say: “Oh well, at least this is a step forward. The UN is there. We’ve got the Americans out.”
The UN is an instrument of US foreign policy; when Washington cannot use it in that way, it uses something else. But what the UN cannot be used for is as an instrument against US policy.
Tariq Ali spoke with Socialist Alliance’s DAVE RILEY in Brisbane on August 13. This interview originally appeared in Green Left Weekly.
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