An Interview with Tariq Ali
Tariq Ali is a veteran political activist since the 1960s. He is a filmmaker, novelist and author of numerous books, including The Clash of Fundamentalisms and, most recently, Bush in Babylon: Recolonizing Iraq. Tariq spoke to ANTHONY ARNOVE, editor of Iraq Under Seige: the Deadly Impact of Sanctions and War, about the unraveling occupation in postwar Iraq–and what the future holds for Washington’s war on the world.
Arnove: Your new book Bush in Babylon makes the case that the war on Iraq was based on deception. If the invasion wasn’t about weapons of mass destruction or Iraq’s ties to terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda, what was it about?
Ali: If the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq had been real, rather than imaginary, the U.S. would never have invaded. And it’s worth repeating that outside the United States, nobody believes that there were any links between the Iraqis and al-Qaeda.
The state of ignorance within the U.S. population is, I guess, a tribute to the three information monkeys–the networks and Fox TV–whose motto appears to be: see no truth, hear no truth, speak no truth. How can there be a vigilant and alert citizenry (surely a key prerequisite even for capitalist democracy) in these conditions of officially inspired ignorance?
The main reason for the war, in my opinion, was to demonstrate imperial power–to show the region and the world that the American Empire was determined to preserve its hegemony by any means necessary. Where the economic war was ineffective, a military offensive could be unleashed.
This was a shot across the bows of the Far Eastern states and the West Europeans. The message was clear: we have the capacity and power to intervene military at will. A subsidiary reason was to satisfy the Israeli regime, which saw Iraq and Syria as the only regimes in the region that resisted the Pax Israeliana.
With a puppet regime in Iraq, the plan was to topple the Syrian Baathists. As [British Prime Minister] Tony Blair confided in an off-the-record briefing to three senior liberal journalists, Iraq was designed to make wars against Syria and Iran unnecessary. The success in Iraq meant that bullying, intimidation and threats would be enough. The Iraqi resistance has dispelled that particular illusion.
Arnove: What do you make of the claim that resistance to the occupation of Iraq comes from "foreign terrorists" and "Saddam Hussein loyalists"?
Ali: One of the more comical sights in recent months was Paul Wolfowitz telling a press conference in Baghdad that the "main problem was that there were too many foreigners in Iraq." The fact that most of the Western journalists present did not burst out laughing is an indication of how embedded they have become.
The reality is that the people see the occupation armies as the real "foreign terrorists," and once you occupy a country, you have to behave in colonial fashion. The model is a mixture of Gaza and Guantanamo.
There are over 40 different resistance organizations in Iraq, large and small. They consist of Baathists, dissident communists disgusted by the treachery of the Iraqi Communist Party in backing the occupation, nationalists, groups of Iraqi soldiers and officers disbanded by the occupation, and Sunni and Shia religious groups–though the latter are still very tiny.
In other words, the resistance is Iraqi–though I would not be surprised if other Arabs are crossing the borders to help. Why shouldn’t they? If there are Poles and Ukrainians in Najaf, why should Arabs not come to the defense of fellow Arabs in Iraq?
But the key fact of the resistance today is that it is decentralized–the classic first stage of guerrilla warfare against an occupying army. Whether these groups will move to the second stage and establish an Iraqi National Liberation Front remains to be seen.
I’m told that the Pentagon has been organizing special screenings of The Battle of Algiers. An anti-colonial classic, but Gillo Pontecorvo’s movie was designed to aid the other side.
Arnove: How do conditions in Iraq today compare with what Bush and Blair promised?
Ali: All my Iraqi contacts in the country bear out what is being reported in the European press. The country is a complete mess. The situation is much worse than it was under Saddam. There is no reconstruction. There is mass unemployment. The U.S. doesn’t trust Iraqis to even act as cleaners, and so South Asian and Filipino migrants are being used.
This is colonialism in the epoch of neo-liberal capitalism, and so U.S. and "friendly" companies are given precedence. Under the occupation, Iraq will become a crony oligarchy.
Daily life is a misery, and the occupation and its puppets cannot even provide the basic amenities of life. This fuels the resistance and encourages many young men to fight. Few are prepared to betray those who are fighting, and that is important, because without the passive support of the population, a resistance becomes very difficult.
Arnove: How do you see events unfolding? For example, Bush has gone to the United Nations (UN) to ask for support for the occupation. Is he trying to get a multilateral facade for U.S. control?
Ali: The UN Security Council has disgraced itself once again. It should be renamed the Satraps Council. Here they are on their knees before the Empire.
The Germans and French and Russians (like some U.S. liberals) who opposed the war are now saying that there is no option but to back the occupation. They won’t send troops or money, but give it "moral" support. The Japanese had earlier said that that they couldn’t send troops until their soldiers had learned Arabic (i.e., never), but if they cave in to the United Nations of America, one hopes an antiwar movement will emerge in that country.
The Turks are still negotiating as to which part of Iraq they will police. They want to occupy the Kurdish areas and settle some old accounts, while the U.S. wants them to take a few hits in the Baghdad region. If and when Turkish troops arrive, it could turn some of the Kurdish groups against the occupation.
UN multilateralism will be no different from what already exists. One should never forget how much the UN is hated in Iraq, as the administrator of the killer sanctions, and the backer of weekly Anglo-American bombing raids.
Arnove: What do you think the impact of this occupation will be for Palestinians? And do you think Syria and Iran next?
Ali: If initially the Palestinians were demoralized by the fall of Baghdad, the emergence of a resistance has encouraged them. After Baghdad fell, the Israeli war criminal Ariel Sharon told the Palestinians to "come to your senses now that your protector has gone." As if the Palestinian struggle was dependent on Saddam! Well, he’s got his replies.
What people in the U.S. have to understand is that in the Arab world and elsewhere, the suicide bombings can’t be dissociated from the occupation. Even senior Zionists like Avraham Burg have said as much in recent weeks.
Nor is it the case that only Palestinians or Muslims are prepared to sacrifice their own lives. The Vietnamese employed similar tactics in cafes frequented by U.S. soldiers in Saigon.
There is now a dual occupation of the Middle East–the U.S.-Israeli occupation of Palestine and Iraq. If they’re crazy enough to go for Syria and Iran, they will overstretch themselves militarily and politically. My own view is that the Iraqi resistance has temporarily stopped all plans regarding Syria and Iran.
Arnove: What should opponents of war and occupation be doing today?
Ali: Build the widest, broadest possible antiwar movement.
Some of the statements from the soldiers and their families have been very moving. These U.S. soldiers are learning fast–and realizing that what they were told was a bunch of lies. The movement will only be successful if it wins over undecided citizens. This means that some of the leaders of the antiwar movement must break the habit of speaking to themselves and learn a new language.
This interview originally appeared in the Socialist Worker.