Looking at Bush in Babylon

— interview with Tariq Ali

Suzi Weissman: We turn now to an extended conversation with Tariq Ali, who has just published Bush in Babylon: The Recolonization of Iraq, a compelling corrective to many of the current pot-boilers hitting the bookstores. Rather than engage in simplicities, Tariq Ali looks back in history and pays homage to the poets who reflect cultural memory and history in the powerful and passionate language of resistance.

This follows on the heels of his Clash of Fundamentalisms. Both books are characterized not only by the erudite use of history, but by these incredible covers that are sure to sell them. The last one I proudly showed to a lot of different people to see if they could recognize who was on the cover -- Osama bin Laden or Bush or both or which? The cover of the new one features a fairly famous photo of a young kid urinating on an American soldier, maybe he's British -- Is he American?

Tariq Ali: No, I think he's American, though a big debate goes on the net as to who the soldier really is. And it's a symbolic photograph, really, to show the role kids play. I mean, I talk about it in the book. Kids are the most sensitive of creatures and feel the pain of their elders much before the parents even realize it and react -- and are very angered by being occupied and do all sorts of things.

SW: I think right in the beginning of the book you talk about when you went to Hanoi [during the Vietnam War] that you noticed children were not there at the height of the war. The children, as the “sensitive creatures,” at least, were evacuated.

TA: Well, the North Vietnamese authorities were very particular that as few children as possible get killed in that war, so they evacuated them. I was in Hanoi when it was being bombed by the United States in '66-67.

I noticed when we came out that there were no kids on the street. It's a very strange feeling. They said we've taken all our kids into safety in the villages.

Then I went to some of the villages and noticed the kids were there and the teachers would tell me: Our kids can't work; the war is wrecking them, they're thinking about their parents, about what's happening. People with their brothers and sisters being killed fighting. The only way we can get them to work is by promising to mark their homework not in numbers but in downed U.S. planes.

Not so long ago a Palestinian teacher imparted the same information: that the only way we can get kids to do some homework is marking them in, you know, Israeli tanks and things like this. And now we have Iraq occupied, and that's why the cover of the book is very carefully thought, it's not just a tasteless thing, it's done for a purpose -- to show that kids really feel what's going on in the country and are angry.

SW: The other thing that you do is to use poets to reflect the history. There are a lot of books coming out about Iraq and about Islamic fundamentalism and about Afghanistan; but this book is very different in the genre, because you use poetry to tell the whole story, the history, and I'm hoping that we will have time to go through some of that.

TA: You see the situation in Iraq is this: It's a very young country that was only formed after the first world war in 1920, and occupied by the British. And there is a long history in Iraq of resistance to the British Empire. You have grandfathers still alive who remember what it was like when they and their brothers and sisters were demonstrating in 1948 against the Portsmouth Treaty, imposed on the puppet government by the British.

People remember how many people died on Martyr's Bridge over the Tigris. They remember al-Jawahiri, the great poet of Iraq who used to write poems about it --  these poems are remembered and were being recalled as the United States was bombing Baghdad this year.

This, I think, is what all the collaborators forget: It's not that these people who are resisting the occupation are defending Saddam Hussein, they're defending themselves against being occupied again by an imperial power.

It's something which I'm amazed that American intelligence got so wrong. That they didn't warn them that, look, if you go in, regardless of Saddam, people won't like it. And the first reaction from American soldiers was horror. These poor young kids, Latino, Afro-American kids, who'd been sent in there to fight were told “you'd be greeted as liberators. People would give you sweets and flowers.”

SW: That's a joke.

TA: That's a total joke. But that is what Kanaan Makiya and a group of Iraqis told George W. Bush when he gave them an audience at the White House: Please invade quickly, our people are waiting! How these guys can be taken seriously by anyone I just cannot understand, they gave very, very wrong advice.

SW: It's even more than that. It's really something I'm trying to understand. Let's see if you can help out here. This is the experiment of the neoconservatives, they've written about it, they planned this, the Wolfowitz, Perle, Cheney, Kagan plan.

They had this plan and they're putting it into effect. They were lucky enough to get Bush into power by accident and found a receptive audience to this. What everyone talks about is how stunning, in a way, the war was and how inept the occupation is. It's as if they didn't think past the war.

TA: Well, I think you've got to understand that this was a very strange war. It was a war determined and decided on by the neo-cons not just to re-make the Middle East -- that's just one stated aim -- but I think, essentially, as a demonstration of imperial power.

 [Their logic was:] We can take Iraq, it's a weak country, we've wrecked it by sanctions, its army can't fight, they've got very little weaponry. And they knew perfectly well there were no weapons of mass destruction, because if there had been, they wouldn't have invaded.

Tony Blair, Bush's sidekick and deputy sheriff based in London, said to journalists privately, in an off-the-record briefing, `Well, the reason we went to war is because we won't have to fight other wars when we want to get our way with Syria and Iran.'

SW: But why did Blair risk so much of his own political fortune to do this? He could have been like the rest of Europe?

TA: Yeah, but I think Blair is very committed to the American project both politically and economically. Of all the European countries, Britain is most like America now in terms of the application of neoliberal economics.

Everything has been privatized, the country's education and health system are starting to rot. He's gone even beyond Margaret Thatcher in terms of what's happening to Britain. And the foreign policy is the other leg of this situation and enterprise. Blair is totally committed to it.

It's not that he's a poodle -- he's a mastiff snarling at the leash, wanting to be released, wanting to go. And Blair believes in all this guff of imperial destiny and wants to be alongside the United States; but it has wrecked him, he's now hated and loathed in the country.

Half his own party can't wait to see the back of him. If he hadn't lied so brutally I think he would have lost the vote in parliament and been dependent on conservative votes. Something that will shock American viewers is how British intelligence, senior officials, came out publicly and attacked him<197>which is unheard-of in Britain, a very secretive society.

I'm thinking here of Sir Roderick Braithwaite, the former head of the joint intelligence committee, Blair's national security advisor, who wrote a public letter to the Financial Times, after the fall of Baghdad, denouncing the war, denouncing the propaganda that had been used to frighten people into backing it.

Then he used a cutting phrase. He said “Fishmongers sell fish; warmongers sell war. I think our Prime Minister somewhat oversold his wares.”

SW: Many people in the United States believe that only Bush would have taken us into war; that had Gore been elected, he never would have done it. There are those who reply: Blair did it, and Gore is in that same mold, why wouldn't he have? Was there some project, as you said an imperial project, that would have forced Gore as well, do you think? I know it's difficult to imagine . . .

TA: It's difficult to prove things in abstract and in the negative, but it's an open question. I mean, it depends on the quality, capacity, mental strength of a president. Whether he is won over.

I'm not so sure that Gore would have gone into war for the following reasons: The American intelligence agencies were divided, the Pentagon was divided, senior generals were attacking Bush for going to war.

The pressure to war was coming not from the Pentagon or the intelligence agencies but from the Bush Administration, from Rumsfeld, from Cheney, from Wolfowitz, and from the neo-cons. And the people who were resisting, surprisingly, were elements inside the military and the intelligence agencies. That, I think, indicates that Gore would not have gone to war.

SW: Or certainly not gone alone.

TA: Oh, he never would have gone alone. There's no question about that. I think that Blair, you have to understand, shares more seriously then he did with Clinton, Bush's messianism. A born-again Christianity. Blair's quite a hardcore Christian -- and has said in private to people that he actually prefers Bush to Clinton.

SW: I didn't know that! But is there another reason? I've always thought what they were trying to do is recreate the conditions of the Cold War in terms of arms spending, to revive the economy. It's very hard to imagine they could do that in a war against terror, because you can't use the same type of weapon systems, but if you go to war against a country, perhaps.

TA: I feel these are all partial reasons. I think the war was motivated by ideology and a desire to assert U.S. hegemony on the world, to show the big sectors in the Far East, the Japanese, the Chinese, the Korean peninsula, etc., this is who we are, so don't tangle with us.

It's also to demonstrate to the Europeans, you may think you are very clever, and you may try and think you're going to take us economically and all that, but you can never overtake us politically and militarily.

So I often compare the war on Iraq in terms of an analogy with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These bombs were not necessary to win the war against Japan; it was a demonstration bombing of imperial power for the Russians.

The Iraq war is a demonstration occupation of a country not just for the Arab world or to appease Israel -- that's a part of it -- but the big game is to show the rest of the world who the United States is and what's it's capable of doing. And from that point of view it's been a disaster.

They manufactured this excuse with weapons of mass destruction which everyone knows now is a lie -- and no one seems to care, that's so shocking. In my book, I give you three pages of quotations from George W. Bush, week-after-week-after-week, saying Saddam's got weapons of mass destruction which threaten humanity, etc., etc.

Total and complete lie. Blair repeated that lie, the bulk of the media followed that lie, the networks here, the print media, completely went along with it, and now haven't had the decency to say we were totally wrong, we were bamboozled; oh well it doesn't really matter because we've toppled a dictator.

SW: Even after Bush was confronted and said that he had no indication, to a reporter, that there were any ties between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda, which was the other major reason, it is said that 69% of the American people still believe that Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9-11.

TA: ell, this is a tribute to the power of the networks and Fox TV, and the gutter press in this country. Nowhere else in the world -- nowhere else -- is it believed that Saddam had any links with Al Qaeda. Anyone who knows anything about the region knows that Saddam actually smashed religious fundamentalist organizations in his own country.

So no one believed it except in the United States, which is a real tragedy, because instead of having a vigilant and alert citizenry which is what you need, you have people who just accept anything which appears on the networks as the gospel. Then you have these right-wing disc jockeys who keep repeating these lies on the right-wing radio networks.

SW: And yet we do have a highly polarized country here as in the world, and we had the largest pre-war antiwar movement. There were, as you know, in February, 15 million people across the globe marching. But even in tiny rural towns in America, people had candlelight vigils and that opposition is there. I don't know what it is going to mean in terms of the next election.

TA: I know! I spoke at some of these meetings, and you heard of how people came in freezing temperatures to Minneapolis to demonstrate, and all the state capitols. But this I know, and I tell people in Europe about it all the time.

America in many ways is no different, you know, big big opposition there. The big difference is that this opposition was not reflected on the level of official politics in the United States. The Democrats went along with the war. Kerry voted for it, which is why he now is looking weak.

SW: And why Dean looks strong.

TA: That's why Dean looks strong, because he wasn't in the Senate or the House of Representatives where he would be faced with the choice. I wonder what he would have done if he had been.

The overwhelming majority of Democrats went along with it, whereas this was not the case in Europe. Half the parliamentary Labour Party opposed Blair. Chirac and Schroeder, the leaders of Germany and France, said they weren't in favor of the war. That was the big difference, and unless and until this opposition in the States finds some representation, I think it's going to be incredibly frustrating.

SW: Tariq, let's go back a little now into the history. We do have to understand where Saddam Hussein comes from and why the United States and Britain picked on Iraq. A lot of people have made the connection between Saddam Hussein and Stalinism, certainly Fox News and others often did that. Is the Ba'ath party something that came out of the communist tradition?

TA: No, in fact exactly the opposite. The Ba'ath party was formed by a group of intellectuals who were antagonized by Stalinism, hated it. And Michel Aflaq, the Christian Syrian who basically took the initiative to form the Ba'ath Party, had been in France in the 1930s during the days of the Popular Front, and was quite shocked by Communist behavior inside the Popular Front.

Aflaq asked himself the question<197>he had admired the French Communist Party, but when they came into government in 1936 in France, how come they weren't letting the colonies free? Syria was then occupied by France. He said, why is this popular Socialist-Communist government in France not giving independence to French colonies in Vietnam, in the Middle East, in Algeria?

That led Aflaq to the basic conclusion that when it came down to it, the French Communists were caving into French national chauvinism and French imperial interests. He said, never will I join this party. So when he went back to Syria, he set up the Ba'ath, which means `renaissance,' as a secular socialist party. That was the origins of the Ba'ath.

In the early days, it created quite a stir in the Arab world that there were a group of intellectuals who were neither communist but at the same time very hostile to Western imperialism. These are the origins of the Ba'ath. Of course the Ba'ath, like the Communist parties and other parties in the region, degenerated terribly and Saddam Hussein represented its worst side.

But it is worth recalling that during the Iran-Iraq war, which Saddam went for against advice of the leadership of the Ba'ath -- and he went for it because the United States and Britain backed him on that, and said they needed the Iranian mullahs taken out -- was also the time Saddam was at his most repressive.

That was the time of the use of chemical weapons and nerve gasses at Halabja and against Iran. Not a whisper [from western governments]! I demonstrated in favor of the Kurds and against the use of chemical weapons together with Jeremy Corbin and other left-wing Labour Party members, outside the Iraqi Embassy.

No one else was doing anything! The United States and Britain vetoed a resolution condemning this in the United Nations. So they have no right to talk about Saddam Hussein. Now subsequently, he broke with the United States because he misread the signals he got from the U.S. Ambassador over Kuwait.

SW: But let me ask you, because the United States has been trying to rid the world of these statist regimes, did that play a part in it?

TA: That played a very big part in it. You see, with the advent of the Washington consensus and neoliberal economics, one of the aims, of course, is to wipe out any resistance on that level. Whatever other reasons they may or may not have had, they went for Milosevic, and for Saddam in Iraq, to wipe out the statist elements.

You have now medical teams from the United States going into Iraq and coming back. I'm told, on good authority, that a team went from Columbia University and said Iraq had a perfectly good health system, which we've wrecked, and we now want to impose a U.S. privatized health system on that country.

Iraq, prior to the Gulf War of 1991, had the best education system and the best health system in the Arab world, and a larger percentage of educated women working as doctors and teachers and airline pilots and government offices and administrators than anywhere else in the Arab world.

SW: And I think, the highest rate of literacy in the Middle East.

TA: And the highest rate of literacy in the Middle East. This was Ba'athist Iraq, with all its warts and all. Now, this example they want to wipe out.

Coupled to that is the thorny question of Palestine. The Israeli regime of Ariel Sharon has been pressing the Likkudists inside the Bush administration -- because these neo-cons are also Likkudists -- saying to them, this guy Saddam's a pain, because he's giving Palestinians money, and wipe him out.

It's interesting that the day after Baghdad fell, Ariel Sharon said, now I hope you Palestinians will come to your senses because your great protector is gone. As if the Palestinian struggle is dependent on the whims of a single person.

SW: I've been told by one of my friends who is a journalist at Ha'aretz in Israel that they've now suffered six or seven years of neoliberalism, it is destroying their social democratic paradise, and she said then if you want to understand the secret of the settlements look at the monetary inducements that the Sharon regime gives to young kids to go there, enough to buy their apartments and two years later sell them and come back to the “Israeli mainland.”

Recently I spoke with a journalist, who just came back from Baghdad and who's very pro-market. She said this is a great opportunity now for young entrepreneurs to go over there. But she said something quite interesting, that even the American-British command structure is privatized and marketized in the sense that there's no central command.

In order to find out who the resistance is, the commander of one region will tell soldiers to knock down the doors at 3:00 in the morning, arrest grandmothers and hold them until they give the information. In other parts they say well, maybe we shouldn't make enemies of these people; we'll knock on the door in the daytime and just ask polite questions.

TA: It's not working, and what we have in occupied Iraq today, Suzi, is a mixture of Gaza and Guantanamo, these are the two tactics being employed.

I have seen some horrific photographs, very touching and depressing, of an Afro-American soldier in U.S. army uniform, in the house of an Iraqi family, tying up the hands of little girls aged ten and twelve behind their backs to intimidate the family into giving information.

There have been stories of rapes coming out from the occupation, and I think this will leave a mark on that region for a long, long time to come. If there are people in the United States who genuinely believe all this is going to end terrorism, I think they better think again.

It's precisely wars like this that drive people crazy and make them into terrorists. Even if anyone seriously believed that, they must start rethinking again.

SW: Given that the occupation is going so badly, would you like to offer any speculation about where it's going to go from here?

TA: Well, I think basically that the bulk of the population is opposed to the occupation. And how do we know? Because if people are not in favor of a resistance they go to the occupying authority and tell them who's doing it and why they're doing it, and where to find them.

The fact that the United States hasn't been able to find large numbers of people to do that is an indication of a lot of tacit and indirect support for the resistance that is going on. I think there's absolutely no doubt about that.

The resistance couldn't exist without this support. It's a classical first-stage guerrilla warfare against a colonial occupation, we've seen it before in Algeria, we've seen it before in Vietnam, we've seen it in other countries.

SW: We know that Rumsfeld, by the way, showed the top brass in his group and in the Pentagon the movie “Battle of Algiers” as preparation for this occupation, yet they seem to have learned nothing from it.

TA: Well, I think they might have learned really awful things, because that film, a great anti-colonial film by Gilles Pontecorvo, also shows how the French managed to keep control for a short time by using torture and getting people to talk.

I hope that was not the reason they were showing it, because the message of the film is very clear: You can torture, you can kill, you can destroy, you can bomb buildings, but ultimately the people triumph. As “Battle of Algiers” ends a new storm is arising in the background. I think this is what the United States is going to find happening in Iraq if they carry on in this way.

SW: Iraq did have one of the most prominent Communist Parties in the Middle East and probably in the world. It was massacred just before, or maybe at the same time, as the Ba'ath regime was coming into power. Can you talk about that resistance and its remnants?

TA: There was a very large Iraqi Communist Party. One of my dear friends, Khalid Ahmed Zaki, from Britain, went in the 1960s to try and mount a Che Guevara-type resistance. He was captured and killed, his body was displayed just like that of Che, and I have managed to pay tribute to him in the book.

He was a very dear, honest comrade and leader, much admired by many young Iraqis. That was a tragedy. I think the Iraqi Communist Party's big tragedy was not to make a bid for power when they could, so they left the space open for the Ba'athists to do it.

SW: And was this on Moscow's orders -- do we know? And even earlier, they were told, don't go for full nationalization of the oil?

TA: Yeah, it was on Moscow's orders, Moscow said don't destabilize our relations with the Iraqi government. That's exactly the tragedy of the Iraqi Communist Party, that it followed Moscow's orders too much.

King Hussein of Jordan said that the CIA provided Saddam and the Ba'athists with lists of communists and their addresses and told them where they could be bumped off and where they could be found. Several thousand, lots of very good people died, others went into exile including these poets I write about in the book, the poets who are now strongly opposed to the occupation.

I think these things are worth knowing. The tragedy of Iraqi communism is that they did a deal with the Ba'ath, again; and the second big mistake they've made is to do a deal with the occupation, which is creating havoc at the base of this party.

There is great anger that these Iraqi Communists who went to Eastern Europe then came back and immediately joined the occupation -- like the Eastern European satellites, once satellites of the Soviet Union, now satellites of the United States, with Bulgarians, Ukrainians, Romanians, fighting in Iraq . . . .

SW: It's crazy.

TA: It's crazy. And I think probably there will be a big split inside the Communist Party.

I think the key thing people have to understand is that this resistance will grow and grow with or without the Ba'athists. I think the resistance will develop its own ideology and politics as it goes along.

I know that there are lots of people trying to establish a national democratic front as a political arm of the resistance in the cities, but don't want to come out in case they are repressed. These are good people, some of whom I know, and I think what they want is an Iraq that is democratic and social democratic.

These people are not neoliberals, but whether they can resist the might of Washington remains to be seen. I always point them in the direction of Latin America.

SW: Finally Tariq, just to get to the title of the book . . .it’s not really about Bush, but what can you say about “Bush in Babylon”?

TA: Babylon is, as you know, the city in Mesopotamia, and [in the biblical account] denotes corruption and a mess --

SW: Wicked Babylon.

TA: Yeah, so it's Bush in Babylon but not Bush in Baghdad, to show that he is basically in a very big mess indeed. I also thought that if ever he saw the book somewhere he'd recognize that it was about him and he'd recognize Babylon, being a born-again Christian.

[Tariq Ali was interviewed by Suzi Weissman for her program “Beneath the Surface” on Pacifica radio station KPFK, November 17, 2003. It is abridged for publication here. Tariq Ali is a filmmaker and an editor of New Left Review and Verso Books, and an antiwar activist since the Vietnam War era. Many thanks to Walter J. Tanner for transcribing the broadcast.]

ATC 108, January-February 2004