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TARIQ ALI
Bush in Babylon
Mt. Holyoke College, South Hadley, MA 16 October 2003

Tariq Ali, born in Lahore, Pakistan is an internationally renowned writer. He is based in London where he is an editor of New Left Review. He’s written more than a dozen books on world history and politics. A charismatic speaker, he is in great demand all over the world. In his spare time he is a filmmaker, playwright and novelist. He is the author of The Clash of Fundamentalisms. His latest book is Bush in Babylon.

When 9/11 happened, a number of us who had been analyzing why it happened and how to prevent acts like that from happening again, began a debate and a dialogue. Initially in the early weeks, and the early months, I had to encounter spokesmen from the Bush Administration, from the Republican Party, in different parts of the world. Not a very pleasant experience. I had to do that. We asked, what do you really want?
If your aim is to stop the flow of recruits into organizations like Al Qaeda, then you have a very clear option and a very clear way of doing it. If, however, you want to use the events of 9/11 to get your way in other parts of the world, then we can’t be of any assistance. And it’s the latter option which they took.

But if they had decided that the real problem was the despair and bitterness in the Muslim world and the Arab world, and if they had asked themselves how are we going to stop the kids from going in the direction they are going, there were two questions that came up immediately. First, almost a blind spot in this country but not elsewhere in the world, was the question of Palestine. The second was the campaign of sanctions against Iraq which had been policed by the United Nations for nearly twelve years; the weekly bombing raids against Iraq which had begun soon after the Gulf War, sanctioned by the United Nations, which meant that Iraq had been under continuous bombing attack more than any other country in the world since the conclusion of the Second World War. The war in Iraq and the bombing of Iraq went on much longer than the bombing of Vietnam.
We said to the administration and its apologists here and in Europe: There are two ways. One is to wage more war, which will produce more terrorism, more attacks and more violence.
The other is to think of a political solution to these problems.
The only political solution to these problems that is available is the following: As far as Iraq is concerned, we urge you to lift the sanctions against Iraq, which have crippled that country, crippled its population, led to the death of a half a million kids due to malnourishment according to UNESCO figures. The sanctions made the Iraqi people more dependent on the regime than they ever were before, in order to survive, in order to get health facilities, in order to get food subsidies. Because of the sanctions they are more dependent on the regime, not less. So you can’t have it both ways, saying this is an evil, vicious dictatorship which no one can do anything about, if you keep these sanctions in place and make the people dependent on the regime.
The second thing we advised them was solve the question of Palestine. The continuing occupation of Palestine by the Israeli state is something which is never going to appeal to the people of that part of the world. It is going to create more bitterness, more despair, more anger. And what is the point of it? I said in many debates, with both Israelis and U.S. officials, don’t give us this argument that we offer the Palestinians everything, and they refuse. No one believes it. You offer nothing. You offer them the status of a protectorate, a permanent protectorate. The Oslo Accords, as my dear friend, the late Edward Said used to say, offered us nothing. All they offered was shriveled little Bantustans, divided from each other by Israeli roads on which Palestinians were not allowed, infiltrated permanently by Israeli settlers, overlooked permanently by Israeli tanks. What sort of independence is that?
The South African Bantustans had more independence than that.
So it was hardly a surprise that the second intifada happened.
This was not simply an intifada against Israel and Sharon, which it was. It was also an intifada against the Palestinian leadership which had accepted the Oslo Accords and done nothing. It was a dual intifada. And they didn’t listen. Ariel Sharon became a valued in the war against terrorism.
Vladimir Putin of Russia became a valued ally in the war against terrorism. He had killed more Chechens that Milosevic killed Kosovans. The city of Grozny was raised to the dust but that was fine because Putin was fighting terrorism.
And the world sits and watches, this world where human rights has become a code word for doing whatever needs to be done to occupy countries. But as far as Palestine is concerned the Western world in particular and the United States especially are blind.
There is more criticism of what Sharon is doing to the Palestinians in the Israeli press than in the United States media.
Think about that. I often tell people I encounter from the Washington Post, the New York Times or the L.A. Times, or the so-called liberal papers, why don’t you just reprint a few reports each week from the Israeli press? Then you don’t have to take any risks yourselves. These are Israelis saying it. The reports are written in Hebrew. Just print them in English.
Before Sharon went into the Occupied Territories, an Israeli colonel was quoted in the Israeli newspaper Maariv as saying, and I quote, “If the politicians send us in to occupy the Palestinian territories, whether people like it or not, the tactics we will have to use in repressing them will be the same tactics as were used by the Germans in occupying the Warsaw ghetto.” Not said by me or by any Palestinian; said by an Israeli colonel.
Reported in the Israeli press, reported on the Internet, reported on dissident websites. New York Times? No, forget the thought.
Washington Post? No. Even the European papers who were better on this question did not report it.

I think the United States after 9/11 lost a very big opportunity by settling that question by getting the Israelis to pull out, back to the 1967 borders, and permitting the Palestinians to have their own democratic, independent sovereign republic. It was a big, big mistake, for which they are paying a big price.
That one act alone would have reduced the attraction of groups like Al Qaeda to a whole number of young people, middle class kids, professionals growing up in that world.

II

One day after 9/11, Bob Woodward tells us there is a meeting of the National Security Council in the White House. There was a big debate between these intellectual giants who sit around the table, George Bush, Dick Cheney, Ashcroft, who found time to come away from writing hymns to attend this crucial meeting, Condi Rice, and others. The big decision they had to make was should we go for Afghanistan or Iraq? Excuse me. What on earth had Iraq had to do with 9/11? Absolutely nothing. The Al Qaeda leadership hated the Iraqi regime because it was a totally secular regime.
There were big clashes between their supporters and the Ba‘athists, both in Syria and in Iraq. So what had it to do with that? And if Woodward is to be believed, and he talked to all the top official sources, Condi Rice was quoted as saying 9/11, “Let us use 9/11 to get our own way everywhere in the world.” They decided to go for Afghanistan, which incidentally is not talked about very much. You don’t read about it. You don’t hear about it too much. It’s not on your television screens but it is a total and complete mess. The puppet leader put into power in Kabul, Hamid Karzai, the man with the lovely shawls who really should be modeling them in Paris or New York rather than running Afghanistan, this is dear sweet old boy who once worked for the CIA and is now put in charge in Kabul, is so confident of his popularity that he doesn’t allow a single Afghan be a member of his body guard. He has to be guarded by U.S.
Marines.
Afghanistan is run by the Northern Alliance. Do you remember those wonderful occasions when Laura Bush and Cherie Blair, Tony Blair’s wife, had that television tête-à-tête and the discussions on radio where they said the reason why we have to invade Afghanistan is to improve the condition of Afghan women? This would have been the first imperial intervention in favor of women’s liberation.
Not something they are very well known for. But that’s what we were told. Look at Afghanistan today. The women are complaining that nothing much has changed.

Then we have Iraq. Why take Iraq? What was the point in taking Iraq? Was it the oil? I don’t think so. They need the oil, of course we know that. That’s why you have billions of dollars of security arrangements for that whole region. But if it was just the oil they could have done a deal with the regime as they had done in the 1980s when the regime was at its most repressive.
When the regime was at its most repressive, it was when it was a close ally of the U.S. It wasn’t just the oil. I think it was a display of imperial power. And it was a display of imperial power not just for the Arab world and not just to appease the Israelis who wanted this regime removed at all costs because it was backing the Palestinians and they saw in it a potential threat at some stage in the future. It was a display of imperial power for all their potential rivals in the Far East and in Europe. Saying we’re doing this, we can do it.
Remember when they dropped the nuclear bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Targeting civilians, chemical weapons, weapons of mass destruction. Why did they do that?
Because the Japanese were about to defeat them? They were on the edge of defeat. They had virtually lost the war. It was a matter of weeks. It was a shot across the bows of the communist enemy, which was an ally but was going to become an enemy during the Cold War. To show the Russians we’ve got them and you haven’t.

Before the war began I warned them that if they took Iraq, do not imagine this would be like Pristina. This is Baghdad. This is an independent Arab country, a young Arab country formed in the 1920s. It had a long history of resisting the British Empire which ruled it for three decades. Every single year there was a rebellion against the British Empire in some part of Iraq. I said don’t think you will get away with it. Oh yes, a large chunk of the population hates Saddam Hussein but they will hate you even more because there is a strong national consciousness in that country.
They didn’t believe us. Who did they believe? They believed the quislings and the collaborators, some of who were on their payroll, others who wanted to be on that payroll, others who would be provided sinecures at American universities.
They went to the White House, Kanan Makiya and Fouad Ajami and their hangers on, and said go in you will be welcomed with “sweets and flowers.” That was reported by the New York Times after this delegation of Iraqis met Bush at the White House.
Well there were no sweets, and no flowers, not even in the areas most hostile to Saddam Hussein. None of that. Instead, everywhere they went they were met with hostility.

If there were no Iraqi resistance, if they had gone in and there’d been silence, even a sullen silence, it would’ve been greeted as massive triumph and a victory. All those who were marginally critical would have been silenced. Instead, the resistance in Iraq has given courage to a few Democratic politicians to speak up against the war. It’s now become an issue—were you for or against the war?—amongst the Democratic candidates. They’re all jostling around because most of them supported it. They’re saying no we always had our doubts. Well if you had these doubts why didn’t we hear of them at the time? How come the votes were so large in Congress and in the Senate? Where were your doubts then?
It required resistance in Iraq to raise doubts, just like it required a massive resistance and an epic struggle in Vietnam to really lift the peace movement to new heights in this country.

There is a resistance and they’re trying to stop it. They’re looking for covers. They’ve got the Security Council to give them the mask of the United Nations or fig leaf which they can hold up saying, look, the U.N. is backing it. But you’re doing it in a part of the world where the U.N. is hated. Hated for what it did during the sanctions years, when two leading U.N. people, deputy secretary general Denis Halliday and Hans von Sponeck, resigned in disgust with their own organization. Having bluehelmeted mercenaries there isn’t going to better than having Poles, or Ukrainians or Bulgarians.
All these old Eastern Europeans countries, who were referred to once as satellite countries because they did whatever the Soviet Union wanted, remain satellite countries because now they do just what the United States wants. Old habits die hard, especially when the personnel carrying out the orders are virtually the same. They’ve just changed their coats. From running the states, they’ve now become in many cases heads of large multinational companies and privatizers. And that’s fine because that’s all that matters.
If you think neoliberal economics, that’s the epoch in which this new colonialism is taking place—can deliver the goods in Afghanistan and Iraq when it can’t deliver them at home, you’ve got another thing coming. How can people who are privatizing everything at home, attacking public provisions in education and in health in their own countries create a health service or an education facility in Afghanistan and Iraq? They don’t even believe in it. They did it after the Second World War because they had a very big rival-the Soviet Union. Revolutions were erupting all over the world—China, Vietnam, Indonesia, later Cuba. They needed to make reforms available to make the system more attractive. Now there’s no enemy. All that counts is money and profits.

Money and profits, in the present epoch of the Washington consensus, do not give the people of Iraq or Afghanistan what they want or what they desire. The restructuring that they talk about is a restructuring that would be carried out largely by U.S.
companies. The French and the Germans want some of their companies to be involved. That’s the big difference. Why should you have it all? It’s a war of the North against the South, that’s how it’s seen now in that part of the world, with different factions in the North wanting a bigger share or smaller share of the lot. That’s what’s going on and it will not work.
In my book Bush in Babylon, I explain why the British occupation of Iraq didn’t work for three decades. They had three decades and they couldn’t make it work. A British intelligence team went in to do a study in Iraq in the 1940s and they said what we have created in this country is an oligarchy of racketeers. And when this report was sent to the British Foreign Office, the Foreign Office’s reply was slightly exaggerated. But it was absolutely accurate. And if that’s what they could do in the 1940s and 1950s when there was a bigger interest in creating a different sort of a world, in today’s epoch you will have something worse than an oligarchy of racketeers, you will have an oligarchy of foreign racketeers, which is worse.
The British created racketeers and landlords to create a social base for themselves in that country. The United States is taking everyone from outside because they don’t trust the Iraqis.
Not even the people cleaning up the U.S. barracks are South Asian or Filipino immigrants. How can you ever expect the people in this country to trust you?
4 One of the most amazing sights is to see Paul Wolfowitz standing in Baghdad addressing a press conference composed mainly of Western journalists. They say it’s not going well, what’s the problem in Iraq? He says the problem in Iraq is there are too many foreigners coming in. Think about it for a minute.

What he is referring to is Arabs from the other parts of the Arab world, not the occupying forces. These people are so un-selfconscious it’s becoming difficult to satirize them. You have one third of the British Army, tens of thousands of American soldiers, coming from thousands of miles away to occupy an Arab country and this idiot stands up and says the problem is there are too many foreigners. You can’t have a sense of reality when you begin to talk like that. This dual Arab occupation of the Arab world is not going to end well.
I’ll tell you what you’re not told by the mainstream media by and large in this country. A large chunk of the Iraqi population is pretty much hostile to the occupation. They don’t want it. If a free election by some miracle took place and a parliament was elected, I’m prepared to bet you that the first two demands of this parliament would be: one, all occupying troops out of our country and two, Iraqi control of Iraqi oil. And then what would they do? Another regime change, that’s what they would be force to do like they did in Iran in 1953 when they toppled the democratic government Mohammed Mossadegh because he nationalized Anglo-Iranian oil. They do not like oil producing countries to be governed by democratic governments because there’s always a risk.

III

There is last argument which they make, not the politicians so much but the tame intellectuals, the pundits, and the press, when they attack the Arab world. They say we are very different from the Arab world. There are civilizational differences, religious differences. Basically they say, and I’ve read it in the Western press it’s quite common, these people are incapable of being critical of themselves. They blame everything on the United States. How many times have you heard that? It’s not true. In fact, if you travel around the Arab world, you can go in to any tea house, to any café in any Arab capital and you will see some of the most vicious, savage criticisms against the Arab regimes which rule in that part of the world. It’s a much more politically conscious population than the population of the United States of America—that may be a civilizational difference. Everyone is engaged. They want to know how to change these wretched people who rule them, who they don’t like. The hostility to the United States comes, because, in many 5 cases but not all, these regimes are only there because they have U.S. backing and support.
Some of the people, its intellectuals and its poets who’ve spoken up, have been incredibly self-critical of themselves and their regimes. This is a very common in that world. It’s not the case that people blame the United States for no rhyme or reason.
They blame them because in Egypt, in Saudi Arabia, in the Gulf States, and for a long time in Iraq, the U.S. sustained these regimes. They do to this day. That is the reason the U.S. is not seen as a power in that world which encourages democracy; if anything the opposite.

There is opposition in this country. There is anger. But it has to be mobilized. You have to more forward. And if you completely fall into the trap of “anyone but Bush,” we’ll get more problems. I want Bush to be removed for God’s sake, but if you can’t just do it apolitically. This regime is horrible, but it’s no different from other regimes which have existed before.
People have short memories. We are angry about the Patriot Act. It’s disgusting. I agree with you. But have you forgotten Attorney General Palmer’s raids? In the early years of the twentieth century when large numbers of immigrants—Germans and Italians—were locked up and deported. It’s not new. It’s part and parcel of the self-defense mechanisms of this empire.
They’ve done it before.
Have you forgotten the COINTEL program, implemented during the Democratic administration during the Vietnam War to spy on people in the anti-war movement? It has happened before. So let’s not exaggerate the threat. It is particularly obnoxious because the president himself is not very bright. But the notion that somehow this is qualitatively different from what we’ve had before, is something I don’t accept. Look at your own history. Look at what’s happened before. Look at the opposition that’s been mounted up against it. That’s what you have to look at.

One good thing that has happened as a result of this absurd, irrational war of occupation in Iraq is there is a whole new generation of people, especially young people, who have become more engaged in politics than their predecessor generation. I think that’s absolutely true. One of the most heartening things, both in North America and in Europe, on the day that the bombing of Baghdad began, hundreds of thousands of school students, young men and young women, ages of fifteen and upwards, poured out of the schools onto the streets.
They chanted slogans which they made up, which were the slogans of their own generation, taken from rock songs and punk songs of the period. The big chant of the school students in London was, “Who let the bombs out? Bush, Bush, and Blair.” It completely threw us. It is this spirit, that it is somehow become cool again to be politically engaged, which is important.
What Nizar Qabbani, the great Syrian poet who died a few years ago, was saying about the Arab generations to come applies just as much to new generations springing up here and in Western Europe.
In this war of the North against the South, of the great empire against future rivals and people it characterizes as its current enemies, we need a big opposition in the United States.
And on that difficult note I’ll end. Thank you.

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