“Without a Strong American Opposition We Are Doomed” – Renowned Author and Middle East Expert Tariq Ali Speaks Out on Iraq

StoryOctober 16, 2003
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We spend the hour hearing a speech by renowned author and Middle East expert Tariq Ali. His latest book is Bush in Babylon: The Recolonisation of Iraq. [Includes transcript]

Click here to read to full transcript A new report issued yesterday by the International Institute for Strategic Studies found that the war in Iraq has helped Al Qaeda increase its size and galvanized the group’s will.

The report concluded in part, “War in Iraq has probably inflamed radical passions among Muslims and thus increased al Qaeda’s recruiting power and morale and, at least marginally, its operating capability.”

The report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies is considered to be the annual bible for defense analysts.

  • Tariq Ali, speaking at Saint John the Devine in New York on October 14th, 2003.


AMY GOODMAN: As we turn now to a new report issued yesterday by the international institute for strategic studies found the war in Iraq has helped Al Qaeda increase its size and galvanize the group’s will. The report concluded in part, “war in Iraq has probably inflamed radical passion among Muslims, and that’s increased Al Qaeda’s recruiting power and morale, and at least marginally its operating capability.” The report by the international institute for strategic studies is considered to be the annual Bible for defense analysts.

Today we’re going to hear a speech by Tariq Ali, he’s author of “Bush in Babylon: The Recolonisation of Iraq.” His book combines Iraqi and Arab and Iraqi history and world politics. Without knowing the past, he says, it is impossible to understand what is happening today and the history is presented as a warning to both occupier and resister.

We turn now to Tariq Ali, who began his speech by talking about there being two ways to deal with 9-11, he said in New York at the riverside church, one being political and one military.

TARIQ ALI: The political method involved asking yourself the question what it was that induced large numbers of young, middle-class professional people, graduating from universities in the Arab world and outside to join organizations like Al Qaeda. Why were they doing it? And if you begin to ask that question, you are then compelled to look at the region and see what’s going on. And at that moment, three things were going on. One, you had the occupation, the continuing occupation of Palestine, which was upsetting large numbers of people in that world. Secondly, you had the continuing sanctions against Iraq, which, according to UNESCO and the United Nations, has cost the lives of 500,000 children, wrecked the social infrastructure of Iraq, prevented the regime from implementing what it was doing before the war, giving people a decent health service, shelter, education. And thirdly, the support being given to the venal Arab regimes, which were backing the west and had backed the west for the last 20 years. These were the three reasons.

Now, what happened? Did anyone discuss seriously what to do when attacks of terror take place like this? There were examples from the rest of the world. Long years ago when the Irish Republican army attempted to blow up the entire British cabinet and came close to doing it, with Mrs. Thatcher as their central target, the British did have two options, they could have gone on a rampage in Northern Ireland. They could have destroyed the county of the southern Armah, where the headquarters and the strength of the IRA were. They could have bombed Dublin if they wanted to. They could have invaded. What did they do? After a pretty outrageous attack, which nearly took off the entire front bench of the conservative leadership, they decided to negotiate. Secret negotiations were begun three months after that attack, because they wanted to bring this to an end. And if the American administration had bee serious about dealing with 9/11 they would have put first massive pressure on the regime in Israel to pull out of the occupied territories, to withdraw to the 67 Frontiers, which is what the Israeli peace movement demands, which is what the brave Israeli reservists, several hundred of them have said they refuse to serve in the occupied lands anymore. But they didn’t do it. Instead, Ariel Sharon became a valued ally in the war against terror. He was given the green light to go into whatever he wanted to do. And instead of ending the sanctions against Iraq, instead of ending the 12-year bombing campaign against Iraq where bombs were dropped on that country every single week, so much so that American military spokesman told the New York Times, “we’ve run out of targets to bomb. There’s nothing left to bomb. This is the country they said posed a threat to the United States of America and its aircraft carrier near the North Sea called Britain. The aircraft carrier called Britain felt threatened. They said this aircraft carrier can be destroyed in 45 minutes by a hit from Saddam Hussein. Then it turned out that was a lie, because just as the regime here has been lying, the regime in Britain has been lying to its people. So they did exactly the opposite. And what has happened as a result, this is what partially explains the massive turnout from February 15. Because millions of people march, as you know, including in your country, every single state Capital had a big demonstration. 60,000 people marched in Minnesota in freezing temperatures, unheard of. A million of you marched in New York. 800,000 marched in San Francisco.”

Why? Most of the people who came out and joined these marches, it was the first time they had ever done something like this, because unfortunately, the American left isn’t that strong. These were ordinary people coming up because they were disturbed by what they saw as the irrational nature of this war that was being prepared. They understood it, instinctively they saw that. “It’s wrong, we are being fed lies, and there is no rational reason for this war.

AMY GOODMAN: Tariq Ali, “Bush in Babylon, the recolonization of Iraq” We’ll be back with him in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: Melud, here on Democracy Now, the war and peace report, as we continue with author, writer, journalist, Tariq Ali, “Bush in Babylon: The Recolonisation of Iraq.”

TARIQ ALI: Pentagon Generals were leaking stuff to the newspapers saying they didn’t know why this war was taking place. In Britain, you had an amazing development. Britain is a far more secretive country than the United States where people tend to leak quite regularly. Which is a good thing, as Amy would agree. We need more people to leak. But Britain is a very secretive country, and there is a culture of secrecy there. So when you have, after the fall of Baghdad a letter written to a daily newspaper in Britain, “the financial times, signed by sir Robert Brat Waite, former head of the intelligence committee, a former national security adviser to Tony Blair at 10 downing street, and what does this letter say? -That the fall of Baghdad means nothing. He says the British people were skeptical about this war and they were lied to. Housewives were told to stock up goods for three weeks in case of terrorist attacks. Tanks were sent to Heathrow airport. By the way, even at the time the tanks were sent to Heathrow airport, we knew it was fake, because a number of policemen on the demonstration said, “you don’t have to believe that, because when it will 5:30, the tanks clocked off and went back home, so it’s not serious. And then they frightened people that within 45 minutes Britain could be hit. They attempted to intimidate people, frighten them. Partially they succeeded, not completely. And the head of the joint intelligence committee said “fish mongers sell fish, warmongers sell war. I think our prime minister oversold his wares. This is unheard of. That indicates that there was a very strong resistance to this war inside the establishment of that country. When Blair sent 1/3 of the British army to occupy bases in southern Iraq which had been British bases in the 1920’s, 1930’s, and 1940’s, and which had been removed at that time after a fierce resistance, so they went to war. The great leaders of the free world. And what happened? ì What did they imagine would happen? I’ll tell you what they thought would happen. They thought they would be welcomed with flowers by the population of Iraq. And why did they think that? Because a handful of Iraqi collaborators on the payroll of the intelligence agencies here, all wanting be to be on the payroll of the intelligence agencies, gearing up for university positions, went to the White House and told Bush this would be a war of liberation. Just like Japan and Germany after the Second World War. And this administration believed them. The intelligence services in the United States didn’t believe them. The CIA was nervous, the defense intelligence agency was nervous. The generals in the Pentagon were nervous. But not the neo-cons, not the man in the White House, not his deputy dog, none of them were nervous. They wanted to go to war, and what had to happen happened. We warned them in speeches, in writings, in essays, if did you to war against Iraq, remember one thing. This is not the Balkans. This is not even Afghanistan. This is a sovereign, independent Arab state who you are attacking for no rhyme or reason, and even though the population doesn’t like Saddam Hussein, they will hate you even more and resist you. And that’s exactly what happened. ì The resistance first started in the south. Strong holds of anti-Saddam resistance in the old days. That’s where the resistance first started. Then it spread. The mistake I made, and I admitted it, I thought it would take about six months for the resistance to commence in Iraq. I was wrong, happily. It started very quickly. And you know what never fails to surprise me? Its how so many people in the United States, and even in Britain, are surprised that people don’t like being occupied. It’s a big mystery to lots of people here that the Iraqis in their majority do not like being occupied. Well, it’s no mystery in that world. And the reason it isn’t a mystery in that world is that Iraq is the country with a history of resistance. This is what I try to explain in my new book, Bush in Babylon. The title I choose deliberately because I thought it was the only thing I thought the great thinker president would understand. Babylon being an Old Testament city. But what I tried to show is that in a country with such a strong tradition of resistance against one empire and a young country formed only in the 1920’s, with that strong tradition, there are large numbers of people alive who still remember that resistance. And they have created a consciousness in Iraq, regardless of Saddam Hussein or anyone else, they have created a consciousness in Iraq, which is a consciousness of a people with a historical memory. Their memory has not been wiped out. And that’s why they don’t take kindly to being occupied by foreign powers. And that’s why the resistance in Iraq will grow.

At the moment, it’s at the first stage, classical first stage of resistance to a foreign occupation —low intensity, guerrilla warfare, targeting of certain buildings, certain people—, to try and make the country ungovernable. And they’ve done it. And the only social layer in Iraq which might have supported the intervention and occupation, the layer of merchants who the British used as a prop when they were ruling the country for 25 years are completely hostile to what’s going on because the aim of this particular occupation is obvious. This is not an occupation, which takes place in the pattern of traditional colonial occupation. This is an occupation in an epoch of neo-liberal capitalism. So you cannot have what the old states used to do, provide some semblance of normality to countries they occupied.

This empire imposes on Iraq, not just its military, but as Amy pointed out very eloquently, also imposes on this country its companies, its businessmen, its privatized mercenaries, and its operators on every level. And deep down it understands that the occupation is unpopular because it will not even hire local people to do the cleaning up jobs in the American barracks. South Asian workers, Filipino workers are brought in to do that work. And if you are in an occupation where you can’t trust any section of the country, then in reality you recognize that this Occupation is doomed.

And so the talk which we hear, the bravado, that is Reminiscent. There are not many analogies with Vietnam, but one of the analogies which does apply are the lies you are fed by the politicians and generals there who have to tell lies to justify the occupation. Yes, there are a few problems, but send us a few more troops, and it will get better. The white head among you will recall general Westmoreland standing in Saigon year after year and say the war would be over this Christmas.

Now, no one in Iraq wants this occupation. No one wants innocent American soldiers to die. They are perfectly aware of this. They know that the bulk of the army is an army of the poor. That’s what it is. It’s an army from some of the poorest people in this country who join in order to get a job, in order to get an education in many cases as you know full well. Many join because they feel this is the way they will get to college; they will get an education after they did that. They didn’t know they were going to be sent to occupy Militarily. If this government believes it has the support of the American people, then let’s make it a democratic war. Let’s have a draft so that every single person has to face exactly the same threat. I know it’s not popular, but why? If you’re fighting for enduring freedom, if this is the great cause of democracy, then go and fight for it, don’t send the poorest people in your country to fight for it. Why should they suffer? They won’t do that because it will be unpopular and it will begin to boost the size of the anti-war movement in this country so that it will become irresistible.

Now, people say, how do we resist the American empire? Those who are directly occupied will resist it as they do, what other means is left open to them? People say what if there’s an election in Iraq? The British organized an election when they occupied Iraq, where 2/3 of the seats were not contested. You can have elections like that. But if you have a proper election in Iraq to elect a Constituent assembly, I’m prepared to bet anything that amongst the first two demands of this elected constituent assembly, one-all Foreign troops all occupying troops out of Iraq and second Iraqi control of Iraqi oil. And countries, which have oil, —that’s not the exclusive or even major reason for this war—, but countries with oil, just look at their history. The West prefers these countries to be ruled by dictatorships or oligarchies that can safeguard the oil. That’s why they toppled the democratic regime in Iran in 1953 and Brought the Shah back because they wanted someone they could rely on, and they wiped out all secular alternatives. They tortured them, drove them out of the country, so the only doors that were left open were the doors of the mosque, and then they have the nerve to attack the Iranians to make a Clerical revolution. What other hope did you leave there when you put the Shah back on the throne? And that’s what they did in most of the Middle East during the Cold war in order to wipe out secular nationalists, inflict defeat on them. They used Israel as the battering ram and the clericals in Saudi Arabia as the ideological weapon to defeat the enemy within. Destroy them. They did it in Indonesia. A million and a half people were killed in Indonesia, and many of the vigilantes who participated in the killings are now people leading the Islammist organizations. Every single case, Osama bin Laden you know full well. And it’s not going to work like that. For either side. You have to have movements in that region, which have a social vision. And in Iraq, you will have such movement. So people know instinctively in the state department that any talk of immediately privatizing the Iraqi oil will offend every section of Iraqi society. So if you look at their web site, they’re saying, go easy on it, don’t raise the question of oil just yet.

I’ll give you another example if you really need to be convinced that this is about democracy. Look at the other oil-producing country in the South American continent, Venezuela. They tried to topple Hugo Chavez, who has been elected in different capacities six different times by the people of Venezuela. They tried to organize a coup. They organized a coup to defeat him. The coup succeeded for 48 hours, and the fraudster, the corrupt businessmen they were swearing in as president of Venezuela was going to be introduced as the new freedom fighter, the guy who was going to fight for freedom and who had defeated the forces of evil. That’s what the New York Times said. After Chavez was removed, a coup had taken place; the New York Times said democracy in Venezuela has been enhanced. Well, yes. In a way, it has. The sort of democracy they believe, a sort of democracy which only protects the interest of Capital. That’s what they believe in.

But Chavez came back, because half a million of the poor in Caracas marched outside the Mira Flores palace. And the soldiers told their officers, “We will not support the coup”. There were threats of mutiny inside the army, and I want to give you an example of this. Outside of palace, there is a band, which plays the national anthem. There is a 17-year-old soldier, boy soldier, whose only job is to play the bugle. He’s the bugler. Every time the president comes out, he plays the bugle. The general who made the coup came and told the band the new President is coming out, you get ready to play the national anthem, and he told the bugler, you play the bugle. And these rank-and-file soldiers said “why do we have a new president, we’ve got an elected one, Hugo Chavez. What’s happened to him? And the general said, it’s not your business to ask me that question, so he told the bugler, “the minute I bring the new President out, you will play the bugle, and the bugler said, “but my president is Hugo Chavez. And the general said, “you will obey orders, and the 17-year-old kid said to the general, “you seem to be really keen on playing the bugle, here, play it yourself.

Now, that’s a spirit which can exist in different parts of the World. And that’s a spirit now, which is coming up in Iraq. There are 44 different resistance organizations, small, big, Composing every political current. The next stage for this resistance will be to try and create a nationwide organization, a national organization to resist the occupation. And I’ll tell you something else, just think and ask yourself, what would have happened in the world and the political situation in this country if there had been no resistance at all? It’s the resistance in Iraq, whether they admit it or not, which gave some democratic politicians the courage to find their tongues again and to say “perhaps there was something wrong in the war. They wouldn’t have done it if nothing had happened in Iraq. They wouldn’t have done it without that.

So we have a situation in the Middle East today, which is a mess. A complete mess. We have a dual occupation of that region. Iraq is now occupied by western armies led by the United States, and Palestine continues to be occupied. And every single day I get emails from the Israeli peace movement and people working with them and human Rights monitors of episodes which take place in some part of Palestine, people Being shot, people being killed, children dying every single day. Children dying in many cases not shot in the arm or the leg by accident, but shot in the head. And the world stays silent and watches. In Europe, at least there’s some reporting of this. But the media, the official media in this country, not Democracy Now!, the official media in this country is totally blind to the suffering of the Palestinian people. Why? I advise them sometimes when I debate them; “Why don’t you just publish in the New York Times and The Washington Post and the L.A. Times just a few articles which are already being published in the Israeli press and which show exactly what’s going on, then no one will accuse you, just reprint these articles from the Israeli press. But they don’t do it. They don’t do it because the interests of the American empire have got very badly entangled with the operation of Zionism in Israel. That’s what’s happened. But I’ll tell you something, even decent, honest Zionists are now upset. Recently, I don’t know whether this article was published in the United States, probably not, it was published in European newspapers, an article by Abraham Berg, a former chairman of the Israeli parliament, saying, “I am ashamed to be a Zionist because of what is being done in our name to the Palestinians, and this man asks, “if you make the Palestinians totally despair, if you crush all their national aspirations, if you go to shoot and kill them every day, how else do you expect them to behave? Basically what he’s saying is that when the daily life of a people becomes so awful that they sometimes feel it might be easier to die than to live, then they are prepared to risk their lives and take others with them. That’s the reality of what is going on in Palestine.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re listening to Tariq Ali, author of Bush in Babylon: The Recolonisation of Iraq. We’ll be back with him in a minute.

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