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Tariq Ali on “The Obama Syndrome: Surrender at Home, War Abroad”

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We speak with British Pakistani political commentator, writer, activist and editor of the New Left Review, Tariq Ali. He is the author of numerous books; his latest is The Obama Syndrome: Surrender at Home, War Abroad. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Coming up, Glenn Greenwald joins us, usually in Brazil, but here he’s in New York. But right now we’re staying with Tariq Ali. He has a new book out; it’s called The Obama Syndrome: Surrender at Home, War Abroad. Some might say that’s a little harsh.

TARIQ ALI: I know some of his supporters might feel it’s a little harsh, but I think that we’ve had two years of him now, Amy, and the contours of this administration are now visible. And essentially, it is a conservative administration which has changed the mood music. So the talk is better. The images of the administration are better, the reasonable looks. But in terms of what they do — in foreign policy, we’ve seen a continuation of the Bush-Cheney policies, and worse, in AfPak, as they call it, and at home, we’ve seen a total capitulation to the lobbyists, to the corporations. The fact that the healthcare bill was actually drafted by someone who used to be an insurance lobbyist says it all.

So, it’s essentially now a PR operation to get him reelected. But I don’t think people are that dumb. I’ve been speaking to some of his, you know, partisan supporters, and they’re disappointed. So the big problem for Obama is that if you do nothing and promise that you would bring about some changes, you will not have people coming out to vote for you again. And building up the tea party into this great bogey isn’t going to work. It’s your own supporters you have to convince to come out and vote for you, as they did before. I can’t see that happening.

AMY GOODMAN: The cover of your book, The Obama Syndrome: Surrender at Home, War Abroad, is a picture of the face, the head of President Obama, and half of it is peeled away to reveal President Bush.

TARIQ ALI: Well, this, you know, I think, is a sort of very brilliant West Coast montage artist, and they are the best. Whenever there’s a crisis, they come up with an image which says it all. And I like that image a lot, and I used it very deliberately to show the continuation, that it’s not a case that we have a new administration. We do, technically, but it’s continuing with many of the old policies in the — how it deals with the economy. When you have people like Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz, occasionally Frank Rich in the New York Times, Maureen Dowd, these people who were desperate for a Democrat administration being incredibly critical of some of its things, when you have venerable professors like Gary Wells saying, “I’m disappointed,” the honeymoon didn’t last long with Obama. It lasted much, much longer with Clinton. And one reason for that is that he had raised hopes and was unable to deliver. He turned out to be an apparatchik and a political operator from one of the worst Democrat areas in the country, Chicago, and that’s what he behaves like.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Gibbs, the White House press spokesperson, going after the so-called “professional left”? Your thoughts?

TARIQ ALI: Well, I mean, it’s interesting that they are incapable of dealing with the right. With the right, it’s conciliation. That’s what they feel they have to appeal to. With critics from the left, they tend to be very harsh, as if they are saying to us, “You don’t know how lucky you are.” But why are we lucky? I mean, you know, we judge people not by how they look or what they say, but by what they do. And what Obama has been doing is, you know, to put it mildly, extremely disappointing at home, and abroad it’s murderous. On Palestine, on Iran, no changes at all. So, one has to spell this out, because if they don’t realize that they’re doing this, they’re going to get more shocks. And Rahm Emanuel refers to people on the liberal left who are critical of Obama, and he uses a bad swear word and then says, “effing retards” — well, we’ll see who the retards are after the midterms, Amy. That’s all I can say.

AMY GOODMAN: Surrender at Home, War Abroad You were born in Pakistan. You ultimately went to Britain, where we just came from last night. It’s been interesting to see the politics there, but also the devastation of the war, the effects of the wars, on the population at home in Britain. A report in the paper the other day, when we were in London, saying that 20,000 veterans are in prison, mainly Iraq, Afghanistan war veterans, for committing violent and sexual crimes. But what about the war abroad and what President Obama is doing — says he’s scaling back Iraq, still about 50,000 — actually, well more than that — military, and you could say paramilitaries with a mercenary armies there, and in Afghanistan, the surge?

TARIQ ALI: Well, I mean, again, let’s look at it concretely. Bush had promised exactly the same withdrawal pattern from Iraq: by this time, we will be out. Obama has followed it. They’re not going out. What is essentially happening, they’re reducing the presence of combat troops and eliminating it in the big cities, and building six huge military bases all over Iraq, in which they’ll keep between fifty and sixty thousand soldiers, ready to act when the need be — just like the British did when they occupied Iraq in the '20s and ’30s of the last century. And the British were then driven out by a violent upheaval and revolution in the ’50s. So the US is keeping these bases in, (a) to control Iraq, and (b) as a warning to Iran. And I think there's going to be trouble.

The war isn’t over at all. We’ve seen, just a few days ago, huge explosions in Baghdad and Fallujah. It’s a total disaster and a mess. And to present that as somehow “mission accomplished part two” is a joke. That country has been wrecked, a million Iraqis dead, its social infrastructure destroyed. And in Afghanistan, they are now going from bad to worse. They know, and General Eikenberry knows and says, we cannot win this war militarily. They can’t lose it, but they can’t win it, either. So, political solution is the only way out, and that means that they have to have an exit strategy. Obama isn’t even talking about that, because that might be construed as a sign of weakness. But by who? The army knows what’s going on. They can’t stay there forever.

AMY GOODMAN: It was quite astounding, with the tremendous attention on Terry Jones threatening to burn a Quran, a horrific symbol all over the world, as it would be for any religious book, but at the same time, what was coming out of Afghanistan, a report of a kill team — this is a US kill team — who was taking souvenirs of fingers and other body parts, that getting very little attention in terms of what it means for not just the Muslim community, but for people all over the world.

TARIQ ALI: But, you know, Amy, some of us who are sort of elderly now remember exactly the same things happening in Vietnam during that war, where there were lots of report — in those days publicized much more, I have to say — of US soldiers in Vietnam taking trophies, which were parts of bodies of Vietnamese dead or who they had killed or tortured to death.

AMY GOODMAN: And just this report we read today, Michael Ware, well known face on CNN, constantly on talking about Iraq —-

TARIQ ALI: Exactly.

AMY GOODMAN: —- saying when he had this footage of a US soldier killing an Iraqi teen, they did not allow him to run that footage. And CNN owns it, so he can’t get it.

TARIQ ALI: It’s a disgrace that CNN did that, but that is a sign of how the global media corporations have been reporting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Self-censorship has been the order of the day. They haven’t wanted to offend the US military, in sharp contrast to how the Vietnam War was covered. I remember Morley Safer on CBS News reporting a family’s home being destroyed by US Marines and Safer commenting, “We’re fighting for freedom.” That sort of stuff is not permitted now. The global corporations don’t do it, which is why programs like this are important. But now that if he can’t even use the footage that he took, what is that? I mean, how people in that part of the world know exactly what’s going, and it’s not the Quran burnings that upset them so much — but they do, too — but what is happening to their daily lives with the US and NATO presence. That is what upsets them, and that is the root of the problem.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, we were just in London and saw a production that’s based on Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, but it’s The People Speak. It’ll air on History Channel UK on October 31st, a remarkable production of British people’s history. And one of the people who is portrayed there was you, talking about “Blair-faced liars.” But you have a long history of decades of organizing around global politics in Britain. What about solutions right now? I mean, you have this One World March that’s going to be taking place on October 2nd in Washington, DC, based on jobs, justice and education. What about the kind of organizing that you feel is the most effective? People say, well, what should Obama do? What should Obama do? He is one person, albeit occupies the most powerful position on earth. But isn’t it really about movements, pressuring these individuals? That’s what makes history.

TARIQ ALI: I agree with you entirely. And I remember saying to lots of activists in the United States during the Obama election campaign — you know, people mobilized by MoveOn.org, etc. — and I would say to them, “Fine. You’re campaigning for Obama. You want him elected. OK, good. Let’s hope he delivers what you hope he’s going to deliver. But he’s not going to deliver even that if you just elect him and go back home.” And I remember arguing for a massive antiwar gathering for the inauguration, which would pressure right from day one on the new administration, saying, “Congrats, Barack. Now out of Baghdad and Iraq. Out of Kabul and Afghanistan,” from the word go. Without that, politicians don’t do anything. We wouldn’t have won any democratic rights, unless people had fought for them. The right of women to vote would never have been got, unless there’d been suffragettes fighting for it. So, that is the lesson, I’m afraid. And, you know, when people tell me in this country, “Oh, but there’s pressure from these kooks on the right, the tea party and this and that,” I said, “Obama boasts, and his office boasts, that they have 13 million supporters online. Well, what the hell are they doing with them? I mean, why couldn’t they mobilize even a tiny proportion of these to come out and give them support?” They don’t do that. So, someone has to do it.

AMY GOODMAN: Or they’re there and the media doesn’t cover them. When you had one of the tea party rallies in Washington — I believe it was right on the anniversary of the war — there were about 500 members of the tea party there. There were thousands of people protesting the war. It got almost no coverage, certainly not equal to what happened with the tea party.

TARIQ ALI: Exactly. So the exaggerated threat of the tea party is played up by the right-wing media, Fox and many others, because they see it as a useful way to hammer the administration. But the administration’s inability to take them on in terms of arguments, that is what’s worrying, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Tariq Ali, I want to thank you for being with us. We’re going to talk about the tea party with Glenn Greenwald. Tariq Ali, The Obama Syndrome: Surrender at Home, War Abroad is the name of his new book.

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