Imperial Delusions


The United States, unlike the Empires of old Europe has always preferred to excersize its hegemony indirectly. It has relied on local relays–uniformed despots, corrupt oligarchs, pliant politicians and obedient monarchs–rather than lengthy occupations and nation-building with carefully-controlled forms of elite, low-intensity democracy. It was only when rebellions from below threatened to disrupt this order that the Marines were dispatched and wars were fought.

Despite the changed world that came into existence during the Nineties necessitating a shift in US priorities and the establishment of the Washington consensus, the imperial elite is still allergic to long-term occupations. If, during the Cold War, money was indiscriminately supplied to all anti-communist forces (including the current leadership of al-Qaeda) the 21st century recipients are more carefully targeted. The aim is to slowly replace the traditional elites in the old satrapies with a new breed of genetically programmed neo-liberal politicians, who have been trained and educated in the United States. This is the primary function of the money allocated to ´democracy promotion´ programmes in the US. Loyalty, being a commodity, can be purchased from politicians, parties and trades unions. And the result, it is hoped, is to create a new layer of janissary politicians who serve Washington.

Why is this necessary? Because in the absence of a system whereby the financial benefits of foreign investment accrue directly to the US treasury, the costs of maintaining the Empire must be largely funded by the satrapies. Already the US military budget has reached astronomical heights. The US spends more money on arms then the next fifteen nations combined. Iraqi oil is vital to help maintain the US military bases that now exist in 138 countries all over the globe.

This is what ´democracy promotion´ is all about. Its most recent variant has now been applied in Afghanistan and Iraq and it will hit Haiti (another occupied country) in November this year. Create a new elite, give it funds and weaponry to build a new army and let them make the country safe for the corporations. The Afghan elections of 2004, even according to some pro-US commentators, were a complete farce and the much vaunted 73 percent turnout was a fraud. If this were not the case the US pro-consul would not be engaged in re-building a new alliance with Taliban factions close to Pakistani military intelligence.

In Iraq the turnout (according to DEBKA the totally loyal Israeli intelligence website) was closer to forty percent and in Basra (subcontracted to Tony Blair) was no more than 32 percent. Sistani´s followers voted to please their Ayotallah, but if he is unable to deliver peace and an end to the occupation, they too might defect. The only force which can be relied on at the moment are the Kurdish tribes. The Kurdish 36th command batallion fought alongside the US marines in Fallujah, but the tribal chiefs want some form of independence (even as a US-Israeli protectorate) and some oil. If loyal NATO ally and EU aspirant, Turkey, vetoes any such possibility, then the Kurds too, might accept money from elsewhere. The battle for Iraq is far from over. It has merely entered a new stage. Despite strong disagreements on the boycott of the elections, the majority of Iraqis will not willingly hand over their oil or their country to the West. Politicians, bearded or otherwise, who try and force this through will lose all support and become totally dependent on the foreign armies encamped in their country. The popular resistance will continue. Times have changed. Many in the North find it difficult to support this resistance. The arguments for and against are old ones. In the last decades of the 19th century, the English socialist William Morris celebrated the defeat of General Gordon by the Mahdi: “Khartoum fallen-into the hands of the people it belongs to”. Morris argued that the duty of English internationalists was to support all those being oppressed by the British Empire despite one’s disagreements with nationalism or fanaticism.

The triumphalist chorus of the corporate and state media of the West reflects a single fact: the Iraqi elections were designed not so much to preserve the unity of Iraq but to re-establish the unity of the West. Already after Bush´s re-election the French and Germans were looking for a bridge back to Washington. The French had collaborated in the occupation of Haiti without any dissent from the French media. The Germans can now re-join the pack. Will French and German troops now join their battered British, American and privatized mercenary colleagues in the war zones of Iraq to seal this unity? And if they do will their citizens object or will they accept the propaganda that sees the illegitimate election (the Carter Centre that monitors elections worldwide refused to send observers) as justifying the occupation. And if French and German troops are dispatched will they be forbidden the use of digital cameras to record the torture that still goes on in open defiance of the Geneva Convention?

The occupation of Iraq involved both a military and an economic invasion as envisaged by Hayek, the father of neo-liberalism. The essential vision of imperial power was firmly embedded in the original doctrine. It was Hayek, after all who pioneered the notion of lightning air strikes against Iran in 1979 and Argentina in 1982. The re-colonisation of Iraq would have greatly pleased him. He despised pieties. Politicians masking their true aims with weasel words about ´humanity´ would have greatly irritated him.
Hayek’s followers in Washington, however, did not predict a resistance in Iraq. Nor did most of the Western world, where a majority of intellectuals, TV journalists and web-site afficinados are so disillusioned, bitter and cynical that they assume the bulk of the world is like them. They don’t like to be reminded of cases to the contrary. They forget that the graph of history is always twisted. There is never a line of uninterrupted progress. And so it happened that the occupation of Iraq produced a resistance. Contrary to the bulf of reports in the western press, this resistance is NOT dominated by Zarqawwi or his tiny band. If it were it would have been crushed long ago.

There is a popular resistance in Iraq, both armed and non-violent. The bulk of the armed resistance consists of demobilised soldiers and officers, many of whom were disgusted by Saddam’s corruption and cruelty and his failure to defend the country. To these one must add both secular nationalist and religious groups who hate the occupation. The left is weak in Iraq because the Iraqi Communist Part backed the occupation and served in the puppet government.

The size and scale of the Iraqi resistance (and, incidentally, it exists also in the Shia south and resistance cells are numerous in Basra) took the world by surprise. The Iraqis were like lightning, compared to the European resistance against the Third Reich. In France, the Vichy regime was popular with a large majority. Not so in Iraq. In occupied Holland the resistance was tiny and very dependent on British support. Not so in Iraq where the resistance receives nil support from its Arab neighbours. In Vietnam, the nationalist resistance to the French, Japanese and American Empires was led by the Communist Party. In Iraq it is completely decentralized. In all the above cases there were collaborators who worked closely with the occupying power. Here Iraq is no different.

Is it a perfect resistance? No. How could a resistance be pretty when the occupation is so brutal and ugly. The senseless violence inflicted upon the Iraqi people by the occupation results in a violent response. It was no different when the Algerians fought the French to a standstill in the early Sixties of the last century. When a leader of the Algerian resistance was asked why they often bombed cafes and killed civilians, he replied: ‘Give us planes and helicopters and then we will only target French troops.’

During an early stage of the occupation, US papers reported young kids in Baghdad shaking hands with the Marines. What these newspapers did not report (because the journalists did not speak Arabic) was what the kids with a smile said to the marines; ‘We hate you, motherfucker.’ These photographs stopped a long time ago. Many smiling children have been shot dead.
And what of the media, the propaganda pillar of the new order? In ´Control Room´, a Canadian documentary on al-Jazeera, one of the more telling and disgusting images is that of embedded Western journalists jumping and whooping with joy as the capture of Baghdad was announced. The coverage of élections´ in Afghanistan and Iraq is little more than empty propaganda.

This symbiosis of neo-liberal politics and a neo-liberal media helps to reinforce the collective memory loss from which the West suffers today. The insistence that the totality of contemporary politics is encompassed by the essential categories of ´friend´ and `´enemy´´ has a long pedigree. It was Carl Schmitt, a gifted legal theorist of the Third Reich, who first developed this view to justify Hitler´s preemptive strikes against neighbouring states. Schmitt´s writing were adapted by local conservatives to the needs of the United States after the Second World war and are currently the bedrock of neo-con thinking. Their message is straightforward: if your country does not serve our needs it is an enemy state. It will be occupied, its leaders removed and pliant satraps placed on the throne. But when the troops withdraw the satrapies often crumble. Occupation, rebellion, withdrawal, occupation, self-emancipation is a pattern in world history.

Only in the North is the death of over 100,000 Iraqi civilians ignored by the mainstream politico-media complex. Iraqi lives don’t matter to the human rights brigades in the West. It is this that helps fuel an anger against the West as a whole. The demonisation of Islam has reached such heights that dead Muslims don’t have to be counted. And the fount of this demonisation is the government of the United States, a country awash with religion: 95 percent of Americans believe in God, 70 percent in angels, 67 percent in the devil. ‘Who believes in the Devil’, wrote Thomas Mann in Doctor Faustus, ‘already belongs to him.’ Against the terrorism of tiny Islamist cells is deployed the almighty terrorism of the American state and its allies. But David was always more popular than Goliath. This is what I attempted to explain in my book, Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads, Modernity. For most of the 20th century, conservative Islam was, more often than not, supportive of the British Empire and its American successor. Islam was seen as a conservative social force, rattling the chains of superstiton and fanaticism to stifle even the most fragile tremors of social revolution. The West was delighted to have such an ally. Times change.

I was in Brazil last week for the World Social Forum. In this time of frustration and defeats, when social advance appears marooned on the shoals of the Washington consensus, it was heartening to hear a Latin American leader–Hugo Chavez of Venezuela–address a large crowd of 15,000 participants and defending the resistance in Iraq. The United States had made three attempts to topple him. They had failed. ‘If they try by force, we will resist just like the Iraqis’, he declared. He called for the establishment of a worldwide Anti-Imperialist Front. The curtain is still down on the main acts of the drama that is history, but the breaks and intervals are also full of tension and conflict.

At the Nurnberg War Crimes trials the German Foreign Minister, Von Ribbentrop, was also charged with war crimes. Why? Because he had provided the political and ideological justification for the pre-emptive strike against Norway.

If this precedent were to be followed in an imaginary dock of some future tribunal, then Colin Powell, Condoleeza Rice, Tony Blair and their big boss in the White House could face a similar indictment. Unlikely, but desirable.

TARIQ ALI’s latest book, Bush in Babylon: The Re-colonisation of Iraq, is published by Verso.


Tariq Ali is the author of The Obama Syndrome (Verso).