Libya in Chaos: Vijay Prashad on Rise of Islamist Militias & Bloody Legacy of 2011 U.S. Intervention
Islamist militants in Libya say they have solidified control of the capital Tripoli after taking over the main airport and ousting rival militias. Libya is facing its worst violence since the U.S.-backed ouster of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. To talk more about Libya, we are joined by Vijay Prashad, professor of international studies at Trinity College. He is the author of several books, including Arab Spring, Libyan Winter.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. Islamist militants in Libya say they’ve solidified control of the capital Tripoli after taking over the main airport and ousting rival militias. Libya is facing its worst violence since the U.S.-backed ouster of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
To talk more about Libya, we’re joined by Vijay Prashad in part two of our interview. Professor of international studies at Trinity College, he’s the author of a number of books, including Arab Spring, Libyan Winter and his most recent, The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Vijay. Talk about what’s happening in Libya today.
VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, today in Cairo, ministers from North Africa are meeting, because the Libyan crisis has become so severe. I mean, Libya has a very long border with Egypt. It has a long border with Algeria. It has a border with Tunisia. These are the three countries that are most terrified about the spillover of the violence.
So, what is this violence? You know, it’s not that the violence began yesterday, so they have an emergency meeting. This violence has been ongoing since 2011. The way the war against Gaddafi had been prosecuted was that different—you know, firstly, I should explain something about Libya to understand the nature of the war. Libya is like Indonesia, except that in between the little island cities there is desert. There is very little countryside. You know, these are cities in an archipelago. So, what happened when Gaddafi, you know, felt the resistance against his rule in 2011 was that the archipelagos of Benghazi, of Ajdabiya, these cities immediately seceded. And what’s so interesting is that they seceded as cities, as Benghazi, not as a major Libyan uprising. You then saw uprising in Misurata, in Zintan. You know, each city had its own militia, and these urban militias had a certain political character. There was an attempt—brief attempt—by NATO to try to create a unified command, but they basically gave that up. They bombed the country and opened the door for the different militias to now compete against each other. So the day Gaddafi was killed, from then onwards, the militias have basically been at each other’s throats.
And interestingly, the government in Tripoli, which to some extent, you know, dominates the oil revenues, has been paying each of these militias—you know, it’s amazing. The government in Tripoli is paying the militia in Zintan and the militia in Misurata, and they’ve been both attacking the government in Tripoli. It is a very weird and peculiar situation.
AMY GOODMAN: Why paying?
VIJAY PRASHAD: That was part of the agreement to maintain the peace. You know, there was a long process where pressure was brought on the basically parachuted government that came into Tripoli. You know, these are people who had been financial advisers to the emir of Qatar. The first major leader of the National Transitional Council, Mr. Mahmoud Jibril, was the principal financial consultant for the then-emir of Qatar’s second wife, Sheikha Mozah. So, these people didn’t have a mass base. They flew in on a NATO aircraft, they arrived in Tripoli, and in order to keep the peace, they decided to pay off every one of the, you know, little urban militias. They’ve continued that.
Now these militias are basically at each other’s throats. And it’s an exaggeration, as well, to say, for instance, that the Zintan militia is secular—that’s the one that was holding the airport; the Misurata militia is Islamist or has a Muslim Brotherhood cast, which has now taken the airport and the city. These are true adjectives. It is an Islamist force. But it’s not that the Zintan militia is not an Islamist force. It’s just that they have very different backers. The militia that has now taken the city of Tripoli is largely a Muslim Brotherhood force.
Meanwhile, in the city of Benghazi, which was the origin of the revolt, there is a major and very bloody battle between two forces. One is Ansar al-Sharia, which was the group that is alleged to have attacked the U.S. Consulate and killed the American ambassador, against a man who one should be very familiar with—his name is General Khalifa Haftar—who is the man who was a major Gaddafi general until the Chad war, defected from Gaddafi in 1987, flew to Vienna, Virginia, to live 10 minutes from the CIA headquarters in Langley, and then, a few weeks into the rebellion in Benghazi, was flown back into Benghazi, with the American hope that he would take over unified command. As I said, that failed. General Haftar has twice over the last three years attempted to create a coup in Libya. It’s failed. This time, rather than attempt a coup in Tripoli, he’s decided to position himself as the great savior of Libya and has marched his military forces into Benghazi, where he’s directly confronting Ansar al-Sharia. Now, some people say this is at the behest of the Americans, because they want Ansar al-Sharia destroyed.
Whatever it may be, Amy, the point is that in the eastern side of Libya, in Benghazi, there is a murderous war being fought between Ansar al-Sharia, you know, a terrorist organization, and Khalifa Haftar. And in Tripoli, as well as other cities in western Libya, there is a murderous war being waged between two militias, the Zintan militia, the militia of the town of Zintan, which has now been defeated largely, and the Misurata militia, led by a man who really needs to see a doctor. His name is Salah Badi, who suffers terrible post-traumatic stress disorder.
AMY GOODMAN: And he suffers PTSD from what?
VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, partly from the nature of the conflict that he was on the front lines of. I mean, you know, the people who flew in on NATO planes and took positions of authority in Tripoli were not on the battlefield. The people on the battlefield were people like Salah Badi. But not only that, you know, they were people who had fought in the international jihad around the world. They are people who were members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which had a major role in the 1990s inside Libya. They were defeated, they went abroad, they went to al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, etc. They return, and many of them have been fighting in Chechnya, in Philippines, in Afghanistan. So these people have very severe mental problems. And unfortunately, when—
AMY GOODMAN: How do they express those mental problems?
VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, Mr. Salah Badi, for instance, if people disagree with him, he’s like a gang leader. I mean, last year he was angry with the Parliament, and he decided that they were not doing what he had said they were going to do, so he brought a group of fighters, and they stormed the Parliament building. Earlier this year, he threatened the government that if he’s not made the head of Libyan intelligence—I mean, it’s extraordinary—he is going to kill parliamentarians. I mean, the Libyan Parliament has decided now, most likely, they will meet on a cruise ship off the coast of Tripoli, because they are too scared. They cannot—they haven’t met in the Parliament building. They decided to meet in a five-star hotel, because the security is better. And now they, in fact, might move offshore. You can see the state of Libyan politics.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Vijay Prashad, you were opposed to the U.S. intervention in 2011, the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi. Can you talk about why?
VIJAY PRASHAD: Yes. There are two reasons why I was principally opposed to the use of American and NATO force. The first reason was I had a very clear sense of who was going to benefit from this. You know, countries take time to develop alternative leaderships. They take time to develop, you know, new forms of political power. If NATO was going to come in, bomb Tripoli, destroy the Libyan state immediately and allow these different archipelago militias to take power, it was going to lead to chaos. That was one of the principal reasons.
But the second reason I was opposed to U.S. and NATO force was that by the time the Americans started talking about intervening, a third of Libya was out of Mr. Gaddafi’s hands. And I’ll give you a sense of this. If you traveled to Libya, Egypt and Syria prior to the Arab Spring, you would find something interesting. In Libya, since 1987, the military has been a wreck. There’s no morale. You know, you could walk in and out of a base without being asked questions. In other words, their military was a shambles. When Gaddafi’s son visited Benghazi a week into the rebellion, he came running back to Tripoli and said, you know, "Papa, it’s over. We’ve lost Benghazi." You know, they essentially ceded that part of the country. Libya was going—Gaddafi’s rule was going to fall. There was no need for NATO intervention. In Egypt, the military is very powerful, but you will find something interesting. The soldiers have dark skin compared to the other Egyptians. They are recruited from upper Egypt. They are very disciplined, but they are not exactly with high morale. In Syria, the military has very high morale. You know, it has often been amazing to me. I keep wondering, why did the Turks and others believe that the Syrian regime was going to fall like the Libyan regime? They have completely different military structures, and the morale is completely different.
So, the second reason I opposed intervention in Libya was it was inevitable that Gaddafi was going to lose power. Let the process take its own way. Let them fight a little bit. Let there be a political dialogue within the rebellion. Let them create alternative structures of power. If you just give the Libyan people a destroyed country, how are they going to build a future? And that was the real danger of aerial bombardment of the style the Americans conduct. They level countries and then tell people, "Well, create a democracy." It doesn’t work like that. If the Libyans had been given three, four, eight months to fight against Gaddafi, already much weakened, I think a different outcome might have been possible.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you think it’s critical for people to understand about the forces that support Libya right now and where you feel it will go?
VIJAY PRASHAD: I mean, who supports Libya right now? You know, let’s do the drumroll. The United States has withdrawn from Libya. The French and the English have withdrawn their embassies. You know, they have all essentially abandoned Libya. I haven’t seen much talk in these countries about the importance of Libya any longer. You know, all that noise about the massacre of people in Ajdabiya, "We have to go in responsibly to protect," etc.—all that stuff has vanished, you know? Now, what I hear from Samantha Power is the anodyne things: you know, "There needs to be a political process." Hello, that could have been the language in 2011. You know, there needs to be politics.
AMY GOODMAN: How much violence was there before 2011, and then when Gaddafi fell?
VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, you know, violence in Libya has been there for a long time. In the 1990s, the Libyan state was cracking down against the Islamists, brutally, inside the prison, killing 200 people inside a prison. At that time, the United States didn’t say very much. During the 2000s, when the United States was exporting prisoners to Gaddafi’s jails to be tortured, you know, nobody said a thing. You know, the United States used extraordinary rendition, brought in members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, including one senior fighter whose wife was, I think, several months pregnant. They were caught in Malaysia, brought to Tripoli. When they walked into Tripoli, the head of the security services says, "I’ve been expecting you." They were hand-delivered by a British plane. So, what we’re saying is that, you know, the violence has been there in Libya for a long time. What I question is these bursts of great humanitarian concern. They don’t come, it seems to me, authentically.
AMY GOODMAN: The whole controversy in the United States around Benghazi, the congressional committee that’s going to be investigating, how does that play into what’s happening in Libya right now?
VIJAY PRASHAD: It’s a bizarre thing. I mean, you know, when Americans say Benghazi, what they mean is Hillary Clinton’s attempt to become president. You know, I don’t think Americans really care anymore about what’s happening in Libya, to be honest with you. I think this is entirely about Hillary Clinton’s march to the White House and the Republicans’ attempt to stymie her move. I read her memoir, the section on Libya, in particular. I was very interested to see how she is trying to dodge all the potential bullets which will come from the right wing of the Republican party. So, I don’t really think people care about Libya. You know, important human rights activists have been assassinated in Benghazi. Senior figures of the government have been killed. Prime minister of Libya at one point, Mr. Ali Zeidan, had to flee the country, and he then went to Germany. You know, the prime minister of the country fled. Where was the excitement, you know? We know the word "Benghazi" only because of a very important event in the career of Hillary Clinton. And I think that tells you a great deal about the nature of American foreign policy making, that it’s so insular.
AMY GOODMAN: How does Libya, Professor Prashad, fit into the story of the Middle East right now, in the surge of ISIS, a group that you’ve been following for a long time?
VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, it’s fundamental to the entire story. You know, in a sense, people are saying that at any minute, Mr. Salah Badi of the great militia of Misurata might declare that he is an ISIS man. You know, I mean, these things are very possible. After all, if you look at Mali, if you look at other al-Qaeda manifestations, many times people opportunistically say, "We are al-Qaeda." You know, in Mali, so many al-Qaeda were previously human traffickers, who trafficked people across the Sahara. They were drugs traffickers, arms traffickers. It suited their purpose to suddenly become al-Qaeda, you know, to create an alliance with the Berber. So, it’s not improbable. Because of the gains of the Islamic State, its prestige has risen. This is a very dangerous phenomenon, because it creates new kinds of confidence and new kinds of sensibilities, that, you know, we are going to fight to win. We’re not just fighting to secure our town anymore; we’re going to take all of North Africa. That’s why the ministers are meeting in Cairo. The Egyptians are very afraid that this is going to spill directly into Egypt. And that’s a serious threat to them.
AMY GOODMAN: And where do the ministers, the government of Egypt stand on what’s happening in Libya?
VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, honestly, I think they just want to build a big wall, to prevent it entering, you know? The Egyptians have several times threatened that they could enter to stop any attempt at movement towards Egypt. So, there have been troop movements at the Egyptian-Libyan border. They have no ambitions to go into Libya. You know, everybody’s hoping—that is, the militaries are hoping that Mr. Haftar is going to level Ansar al-Sharia. You know, one of the interesting features of the Arab Spring, unspoken feature, is that I was speaking to a senior military officer in Egypt, and he said, "You know, all of you people, you report about people on the streets and what’s happening with the Muslim Brotherhood. What you don’t know is, right through all this, the militaries of Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Libya, etc., we have been in communication with each other." You know, they have active liaison, and they have a certain opinion about how things should run. So, for instance, I’ll give you an example of that. When Mr. Morsi, at a major rally in Cairo, gave a speech where he said to people of Egypt—
AMY GOODMAN: When he was president.
VIJAY PRASHAD: When he was president—said to people of Egypt, "Go and fight in Syria," and then, after he stepped down from the podium, a senior cleric spoke there and said, "The Shia are the great enemy." A few days later—you know, there’s hardly a Shia population in Egypt, but a major Shia figure was killed on the street, you know, was basically slaughtered on the street. The military decided to move, this man told me, against Mr. Morsi because of this gesture—"Go and fight in Egypt"—because, he said that, "Look, we are a proud Egyptian military. We don’t want to see a ragtag group of people. We don’t want to see Arabia, greater Arabia, turned into, you know, Afghanistan." So, the Egyptian military, despite the politics, had very close liaison with the Syrian military and, similarly, with the Libyan military. Now, the Libyan military has vastly collapsed. Mr. Khalifa Haftar, the general, is reclaiming the mantle of a united Libyan military. So, I am almost sure that he is the one in close touch with the Egyptian military. In other words, what I’m saying is there’s another nervous system in this region. It’s not just the globalization of people, the globalization of Muslim Brotherhood, the globalization of al-Qaeda. There’s also a kind of linkage of the military. And they have a certain view of how these states should function. And I think, therefore, they will support some of these initiatives. So I don’t think the Egyptians are going to cross the border. That would be suicidal.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Vijay Prashad, you’ve been talking about ISIS for a number of years. You have been told you have just been exaggerating their strength.
VIJAY PRASHAD: Yeah, it’s interesting. I first wrote about the Islamic State as the Islamic State before the Arab Spring, because they had, after all, emerged in 2006 as the Islamic State of Iraq. So, this is not a new organization. Over the last couple of years, since 2012, in January 2012, when the Islamic State created their Syrian assistance group, Jabhat al-Nusra, which means "the support front," since that time, I’ve been covering their emergence. And it’s true that the Assad regime basically withdrew from northern Syria to consolidate their control along a mountain chain that divides Lebanon from Syria, the so-called—you know, the Qalamun Mountains. They have been fighting there. They have been fighting to defend Damascus, to defend their main cities of Tartus, Latakia, on the coastline. So they withdrew from northern Syria. Into that vacuum emerged the Iraqi group, the Islamic State of Iraq, and their front, Jabhat al-Nusra.
And so, I’ve been writing about this, and it’s very interesting the reactions. In January or so, I met two European diplomats at a breakfast, two ambassadors in Beirut. And both of them said, "You know, why are you exaggerating the power of this group? They are very weak. You know, by exaggerating them, you are basically believing the narrative of the Assad regime." Now, I am no defender of the Assad regime, but I still believe that reality is reality. You know, you cannot live in an illusion. So, I questioned them, and they said, "You should not exaggerate. You don’t understand what’s going on." Then I asked them, I said, "Listen, in December of 2013," just a few months before, or a month before, "the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria had taken the major Iraqi cities of Ramadi and Fallujah, you know, just in December." I said, "How do you explain that? They’ve taken major cities. They’ve held Raqqa since the summer." And they said, "This is not really—you know, it’s not really the Islamic State. It’s other rebels. People like you call them the Islamic State." I find that amazing.
AMY GOODMAN: How much is both what the U.S. did in Iraq—because every time you talk about Fallujah and the Islamic State there, how people know Fallujah, 2004, was a fierce U.S. assault on Fallujah. How related is that to the rise of ISIS?
VIJAY PRASHAD: When the United States came in in 2003 and bombed the country, they made a couple of serious decisions. One decision was the decision called de-Baathification. So they throw out all Baath Party people from state bureaucracy.
AMY GOODMAN: All the Baathists. That was Saddam Hussein’s party.
VIJAY PRASHAD: All the Baathists, exactly. All the Baathists were basically cashiered, thrown out.
The second thing they did, because of that, as a consequence of that, was that they basically removed the officer corps from the military, because they were Baath Party members. So you’ve cleansed the military of their most sophisticated people. Well, these are the people, we know, that then formed the insurgency. Many of them will run into Syria, where they will basically regroup and come back and attack the Americans in Fallujah, Ramadi, Tal Afar, these cities in Anbar province. Now, what happens is that at the same time, the most important deputy of Saddam Hussein, who was not captured, Mr. Ibrahim al-Douri, who was the leader of the Naqshbandi sect in northern Iraq—Mr. al-Douri, who’s an interesting, also mercurial character, makes an alliance in about 2006 with the Islamic State. Now, this guy is a career Baathist. And Baathists are fundamentally opposed to Islamism. He reconfigures a very weird kind of Islamic Baathism, makes a link with the Islamic State, and provides the Islamic State, therefore, with the sophisticated battlefield experience of the Baath Party officers. And that ups the game.
You know, this is something that al-Qaeda never had in Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, they didn’t win over the Afghan military, because the Afghan military at the time, in the 1970s, were basically—the officer corps were basically the communists, and they were the ones who were either killed or run out of Afghanistan. In Iraq, on the other hand, the officer section—by "officer," I also mean captains, lieutenants, you know, people who are needed on the battlefield, not generals who are used to sitting around tables—tactical people, will join up and provide the Islamic State with that kind of sophisticated battlefield experience that they bring from the Iraqi army. I mean, that’s the main reason that they are so good on the battlefield. You can’t expect some kid from Birmingham or some kid from, you know, Chechnya, who’s been out there firing a gun into the air every 15 minutes—you know, too much testosterone—to have the kind of sophisticated battlefield experience that the Islamic State has demonstrated. So, this is the reason why I point the finger directly at the nature of the American destruction of the Iraqi state.
AMY GOODMAN: So you talked about the U.S. fueling this. What about what’s happening in Gaza? How significant is that in fueling ISIS, the Islamic State?
VIJAY PRASHAD: I’m not sure it’s directly related to fueling the Islamic State, because the Islamic State has been on the ascendancy prior to this particular bombardment in Gaza. It is of course the case that the Palestinians are the greatest uniters of people in the Arab world. You know, even when they disagree, like in Syria, when many people disagree, or in Egypt, where many people have—you know, Egypt, it’s become very hard to talk politics with people, because you don’t know what side of the politics they’re going to have. But everybody unites on Palestine. And Palestine provides the greatest propaganda for any Arab group to draw in support.
And, of course, the Israelis deliver this on a platter. You know, you kill 500 children through aerial bombardment, you’re going to inflame public opinion all around, you know, so even people who have a moderate understanding of politics in the Middle East. Once the events take place, as they have taken place on a punctuated basis—2009, ’12, ’14—it inflames opinion. And in that sense, of course, it has inflamed people.
But I don’t think it’s directly impacted the Islamic State. Some people argue that the Israelis—you know, they have been saying now—Netanyahu is saying Hamas is like the Islamic State. That’s a delusion. Hamas is nothing like the Islamic State. Hamas is a Muslim Brotherhood organization, you know, largely backed by Qatar. That was its origin. That’s its politics. Its politics isn’t the Takfiri-Salafi politics that’s—
AMY GOODMAN: Wasn’t it even supported by the Israeli government as a counterpower to their hated PLO, right, Palestine Liberation Organization, against Yasser Arafat?
VIJAY PRASHAD: That’s right. In 1987—in 1987, that’s true. When it first emerged, the Israelis said, "Yes, we prefer you, because an Islamist group of your nature is not radical like Arafat." And when the First Intifada breaks out, of course, this group that the Israelis allowed to form becomes a serious threat to Israel, you know, within two years of Israel essentially allowing it to set up—absolutely correct. But the politics of the people that formed the Hamas organization, people like Sheikh Yassin and others, they come from a Brotherhood tradition. They are not Salafis. They are not Takfiris. They don’t belong to the same tradition as the Islamic State. And that’s why it’s amazing how Mr. Netanyahu, he utilizes ignorance to get his way in propaganda, by saying Hamas is basically the Islamic State. It has got nothing to do with the Islamic State. Hamas has become—over the course of the last 15, 16 years, it has become a organization of Palestine. It is not even any longer an organization of the Muslim Brotherhood. It has inhabited, in a sense, part of the Palestinian project. It’s not an external force, as it had been.
AMY GOODMAN: Why does it fire the rockets? I mean, if its goal is to accomplish the killing of Israelis—I mean, certainly the Israelis are the ones who have killed more than 2,000 Palestinians. These rockets can terrorize, and the few people they have killed, it’s horrific. But why the rockets? Why not engage in massive nonviolent civil disobedience?
VIJAY PRASHAD: Let me answer the question the other way before tackling it directly. Major nonviolent Palestinian political leaders, like Mr. Barghouti, are sitting in an Israeli prison. Why does Israel maintain inside its jails people who are committed to the nonviolent path? If Israel arrests every single nonviolent leader with a great deal of credibility and holds them in prison, how can they produce an alternative paradigm for Palestinian resistance?
Now, why does Hamas fire rockets? Since the 1960s, the United Nations has permitted people who are occupied to resist. It is their obligation to resist. Hamas is part of Gaza. Gaza has been suffocated for at least 20 years, if not longer. It is under a terrible embargo. If you put a pillow on the face of a human being, that human being cannot be expected to close their mouth and willingly be suffocated. They will struggle. And that is why they fight back. But it’s not—
AMY GOODMAN: But in terms of what’s most effective—I mean, there’s different ways to fight back.
VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, the question is, yes, I’m not convinced what will be the most effective way. They are using all their ways. But if Israel is genuinely interested in having so-called nonviolent partners, let them release Mr. Barghouti. Let him do a march from Ramallah to Gaza City, and let’s see what politics he is able to create.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain who Barghouti is.
VIJAY PRASHAD: I mean, he has been sitting in prison for 13 years—or, I don’t know; I’ve forgotten, Amy. It’s very hard to keep track how many years people have been in detention. People say that he is the Mandela of the Palestinians. You know, he has been one of the most popular leaders of the Fatah organization. You know, if he was genuinely allowed to—and he has, himself, said, "I am committed to a nonviolent path." You know, he has talked about taking mass marches across the West Bank. He is committed to nonviolence. And yet, of course, the Israelis hold him in prison.
So, my feeling is that when one talks about what will be the most effective strategy—I agree with you. That’s a very good question and a very important question. But firstly, let’s admit that this is a place under occupation. And also, it’s not only under occupation; its population has been, in a sense, distorted. You know, you have people who have been living in crippling conditions for decades. How can you expect them to react in a completely calm and peaceful way? I’ll tell you, Mr. Khaled Meshaal, the head of Hamas, one of the political heads of Hamas, has repeatedly said that the condition, the psychosocial condition in Gaza is so bad that Hamas is treated by the people of Gaza as too moderate. And that’s something to think about, that when you cripple a population so deeply, its psychosocial condition is not one that is able to have—you know, you cannot expect people to sit around the table and have an easy dialogue. They have to be able to breathe.
AMY GOODMAN: And the effect of the killing of the Hamas leaders that Israel claims to have done, for example, in Rafah?
VIJAY PRASHAD: I mean, what is that going to bring? Israel has killed Hamas leaders periodically, you know? Organizations like Hamas, organizations like al-Qaeda, organizations like the U.S. military, they don’t rely on simply one person. You know, the Israeli military has a chain of command. If one person is killed, somebody else is going to step in. Why do we always expect that organizations like Hamas can be decapitated? You know, do you think when an American general retires that suddenly the American military is in chaos? No, there’s a chain of command. Somebody has been trained to take over. You know, so, these organizations are much the same. There is a cliché in the media, which talks about decapitation. You know, remember, when bin Laden was killed, "Well, now al-Qaeda is decapitated." Wait a minute, friends, this is not, you know, some unusual organization where there’s only one monstrous James Bond villain-type head. You know, it’s a sophisticated organization in itself.
AMY GOODMAN: Marwan Barghouti in prison, not to be confused with Mustafa Barghouti, the Palestinian politician.
VIJAY PRASHAD: Yes, yes. Marwan Barghouti is a—you know, he has been called, even by the Israeli media, as the Mandela of Palestine. And he’s been in jail for, as I said, 13-some years. If we’re going to discuss the rockets, let’s discuss Marwan Barghouti.
AMY GOODMAN: You write for Frontline, which is the Indian magazine. Israel is one of India’s largest weapons suppliers. You’re one of the few in the Indian media to write critically about Israeli policy. What’s the effect of that? And how significant is Israel for Indian politics and the government and military?
VIJAY PRASHAD: It’s very significant. I mean, India buys half of Israel’s military exports. I mean, we’re talking about the billions of dollars, 10 billion perhaps the last decade. So, why does India buy from Israel? Partly because the United States—when Indian exploded a nuclear device in 1998, for the second time—the first nuclear test was in 1974—the United States, because of congressional rules, had to stop supplying certain military equipment to India. Well, Israel, which has joint ventures with American military firms, produces exactly the same equipment as the American firms produce, and they have no compunctions about selling to anybody. So, they began to sell to India from about 1999 onward. And that sales has escalated over the last decade. This produces in India an interesting politics, on the one side, just the military sales.
Second really important thing is that now we have a right-wing government in power in India that is fueled, to some extent, by an anti-Muslim agenda, an anti-Muslim social agenda. So, there is a section of Indian society, a considerable section, that believes that the way in which Israel is tackling so-called Islamic terrorism should be something that the Indians adopt in India’s fight against Islamic terrorism. This is an absurd argument, because it’s not as if Israel has succeeded. In fact, the fact that it has to keep going to war means its strategy is a failed strategy. If you have to bomb Gaza every two years, you haven’t succeeded in anything. It’s a failed strategy. That’s part of what I tried to explain, is that if you want a successful strategy, don’t look to Israel. And also it’s murderous, because the Palestinians don’t have nuclear weapons and don’t have a large conventional army. India’s neighbor, Pakistan, not only has conventional weapons, but also nuclear weapons. So the Israeli strategy is moot. It’s not possible.
But very dangerous for the Palestinians is the fact that India is tempted to vote with the United States in the United Nations, and therefore legitimize some of these Israeli strategies. For instance, in the Human Rights Council recently, when there was a vote on an investigation of the nature of the Israeli war—basically a Goldstone Two—the United States was the only country to vote against having a Goldstone Two. I was very afraid that India would vote with the United States. And if India voted with the United States, it would create some confusion in the countries of the Global South. Fortunately, because of pressure from Brazil, Russia, India—I mean, Brazil, Russia, China, South Africa, the BRICS countries, India voted against—voted for an investigation. So India is now dancing between the pressures of declining American power and the ascendant BRICS consensus. And in the ascendant BRICS consensus on foreign policy, the Brazilians are the most sophisticated world analyst, but also China and Russia have a very strong position on West Asian policy, which is going to maintain India in its place, I hope, for a little while longer.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Vijay Prashad, I wanted to end here at home. You know, in the streets of Ferguson, people have been met with tear gas, and some people in Gaza have been sending messages to the people of Ferguson on how to deal with tear gas. Can you talk about these kind of global connections?
VIJAY PRASHAD: I mean, these are very important. You know, this reminds me of the pizza sent from Tahrir Square to the protesters in Wisconsin, you know, where somebody called long distance to a pizza house and had pizza delivered. I mean, these are very important gestures of solidarity, because one of the features of politics over the last couple of decades, at least since the Cold War, is the sense of isolation of small protests. You know, in the West, one has seen both very large demonstrations, as in the southern part of Europe, but also small demonstrations—thousands here, 3,000-4,000. In America, when 3,000-4,000 people come out on the street, one feels quite amazed, that wow, 3,000-4,000, 10,000 people in Wisconsin, 15,000. Somehow, to feel now that people outside are watching you, are rooting for you, especially when your neighbors are turning their noses up against you, I think is very important. It’s a beautiful thing. The actual strategic impact of this is low, but I think, you know, all politics is not about strategy and victory. Politics is also very much about the feeling that what one is doing is meaningful. And if you feel that it’s meaningful, you’ll do it again tomorrow. And so, I feel like these gestures of human solidarity give us the capacity to keep struggling. I think if you stop struggling because you don’t feel like it’s useful anymore, that’s the end of good politics. So these gestures are very important, not only for themselves, but for the future.
AMY GOODMAN: Vijay Prashad, I want to thank you for being with us, professor of international studies at Trinity College, author of several books, including Arab Spring, Libyan Winter and, most recently, The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South. Vijay Prashad is also a columnist for Frontline, where he’s been writing extensively about the Islamic State. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.