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International Socialist Review Issue 33, January–February 2004

A conversation with Tariq Ali: Cracks in the empire

Interviewed by David Barsamian

TARIQ ALI, born in Lahore, Pakistan, is an internationally renowned writer based in London where he is the editor of New Left Review. He is a prolific writer, the author of more than a dozen books on politics and world history, including, most recently, The Clash of Fundamentalisms and Bush in Babylon, both published by Verso. In his spare time he’s a filmmaker, a playwright and a novelist. He’s a charismatic speaker and lectures all over the world. He spoke to David Barsamian on November 19 in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

David Barsamian is the director and producer of Alternative Radio in Boulder, Colorado. He recently published Culture and Resistance, a book of interviews with Edward Said.

BABYLON IS one of the great cities of antiquity based in Mesopotamia, along with such cities as Nineveh, Ur and Samarra. Why did you call your book Bush in Babylon?

IT CAME to me instinctively. When Amy Goodman asked me that same question on "Democracy Now!" I had to think quickly, so I devised an answer, and it is this: The only town that George Bush was possibly aware of in Mesopotamia was Babylon–because it appears in the Old Testament. I thought if by some mischance he came across this book and saw it, he would understand the title immediately, and that’s where he’d be mired. As you know, in the Old Testament Babylon is a wicked town. So there is a double entendre there. "Bush in Babylon" also means Bush is stuck in wickedness. And I thought born-again Christians might appreciate this title.

YOU BEGIN your book asking: "Why are otherwise intelligent people in Britain and the United States surprised on learning that the occupation is detested by a majority of its citizens?" Why is that?

I THINK it’s because the United States has never been occupied as a modern country. The last time the American mainland was hit, apart from 9/11, was in the early part of the 19th century. So they have no idea what it is to be occupied and likewise in Britain. The last time it was occupied was during the Roman Empire. So citizens in these two countries have no idea what it means to be occupied by a foreign power, whereas a large part of Europe does. And a large part of the colonial world does. I think what creates this level of complete bewilderment is: 1) there’s no sense of being occupied historically, and 2) there’s an arrogance in the world in which we live that says they should be so lucky to be occupied by the United States. What’s wrong with them? Why are they getting so upset? We’re doing them a big favor.

There is no awareness of Iraqi history in the mainstream media. And I’m shocked to find even in the American intelligence agencies a lack of knowledge. If anyone had known the history of Iraq–and certainly the British do, and they should have warned these guys–there is a long history of resisting empires. The fact they did not know this creates ignorance in the population. The last reason is that the networks like Fox TV, which dominate people’s consciousness, do not provide an adequate picture of what this country was, what its history and culture are and what they were going to get into. So how can you have an alert citizenry with such a high degree of deliberately fostered ignorance?

TALK ABOUT what happened in Iraq after the British took over from the Turks at the end of the First World War. There was resistance.

THERE CERTAINLY was. People have to understand that the Ottoman Empire, which had many strengths but also many weaknesses, was in many ways quite a relaxed empire. So that as long as the occupied lands sent in money to the central treasury they were more or less left alone. So the Arab world under the Ottomans was not a divided world. It was a world dominated by cities–Damascus, Cairo, Baghdad and Jerusalem. These were big Ottoman cities and populations traveled easily between them. The Ottoman system had provinces. The three that divided Iraq were Mosul, Baghdad and Basra. After the First World War, Turkey made a foolish mistake in deciding to go with the Germans. It is interesting to speculate what would have happened in the Arab world had Turkey gone with the other side. They didn’t, so the Ottoman Empire was divided between the French and the British. The British, being the dominant empire, got the lion’s share. The French got Lebanon and Syria, so you see different patterns. Where the British ruled they imposed monarchies because that was their experience at home. Where the French ruled they established French-dominated republics. So you have different colonial traditions.

The British colonial tradition in Iraq was to look for a monarch. They looked around. There were lots of contenders. Finally, they picked on the family in Saudi Arabia–the Hashemites to whom they promised Syria. They promised Feisal he could be king of Greater Arabia but the French said no way, we don’t want a king. So they had to find this poor guy a throne. They gave him Iraq. He wasn’t very happy from the beginning because he wasn’t independent. He knew he was simply an instrument of the British Empire. From then on–while the British governed Iraq through the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s–there was resistance of one sort or another. The first time chemical weapons were used in the Arab world was by the British Royal Air Force, which bombed villages in Iraq, testing new chemicals.

EAT THE State, a radical, anti-authoritarian journal from Seattle, quotes a U.S. Army colonel who says, "It was a big mistake to discount the Iraqi resistance. If someone invaded Texas we’d do the same thing."

WELL THERE you go. I’ve been arguing since Iraq was occupied that the people who know the most about what is really going on are the soldiers and officers because they see it every day. The media can lie to citizens but it can’t lie to soldiers in the field because they know what’s going on. They see it. I read on the Internet that there is a woman–a lieutenant colonel–who worked for some neocon apparatus who is now horrified about what is going on in Iraq and Palestine. She’s said what our country is doing in this region is monstrous.

I think it would be a strange irony, but a fitting one, if the truth of what’s going on in Iraq is finally transmitted back into the U.S. by the soldiers, or the families of soldiers killed, or those who come back wounded without arms or legs. These are the people who will begin to tell the truth to their communities in a much, much bigger way than people like us ever could.

ONE OF the striking features of Bush in Babylon is the use of poetry. You come from the Urdu poetic tradition. You grew up with the poetry of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Mohammed Iqbal and others. In your book you cite such Arab poets as Nizar Qabbani, Saadi Youssef and Mudhaffar al-Nawab. Why did you introduce poetry in what is a very political book?

BECAUSE ARAB culture in the broader sense, including the political culture of the Arab world, is dominated by poetry and people in the West are simply not aware of this. Poetry plays a very important role in the culture. It’s not an elite thing at all, which it has become in the West. Poetry readings here are attended by 50 to 200 people at the most. In the Arab world and the Muslim world you have poetry readings attended by tens of thousands.

When I was growing up in Pakistan at age 16 or so, I would go to a poetry reading that would start after dinner about 10:30 p.m. and it would be going on when it was time for breakfast. In the morning we were just swaying with the rhythm of the words and the chant would go up from the crowd to recite some extemporary poetry–make it up. The poets would then have a competition. They would decide on a subject and recite poetry. And the audience would judge which one was the best.

There is one story that is linked in a strange way to empire. When the United States carried out its first coup in 1958–you know they prefer ruling Pakistan through the military–the great Punjabi poet, Ustad Daman–who was an oral poet (his poetry is only written down occasionally) gave a big poetry reading. Some of our best poets were in prison. Ustad Daman came to recite. He was a big man with a wonderful voice. He recited some apolitical poems about birds fluttering here and there. And we said, "birds flutter anywhere, say something about today." As he carried on and we pressed him he got angry and he recited extemporaneously. The poem went something like this: "Now each day is fair and balmy/ Everywhere you look: the army." This poem got him imprisoned. He was picked up the next day and was locked up for three weeks. The next time he met us, he said, "Come here, you mothers. Don’t you ever tell me at a poetry reading to say something, because I go to prison and not you guys."

This was the tradition I grew up in, a tradition that is very strong in the Arab world. It is a tradition where a poem written by Nizar Qabbani, the fine Syrian poet, or Mahmoud Darwish, the national poet of Palestine, is immediately picked up by ordinary people in cafes, crosses frontiers without any problems. The great singers of the Arab world then sing these poems. When Um Kalsoum sings Qabbani or another poet, that poem is transformed, it’s heard by millions. As a result, people sing it or recite it and these poets become near cult figures. The underlying reason is that in countries where politicians are by and large venal, do not represent what people want, poets become the conscience of that world. When people in the West say, "The Arabs don’t have a critical culture, they always blame the West," it’s rubbish. If you read the poetry of the Arab world, you will see. Nizar Qabbani is more critical of the Arab leaders than anyone else. They express this anger with their own leadership and this gives them the respect of the populace. The people know that the poets are good, that they speak for us and they can’t be bought in most cases.

WE LAST met at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in late January 2003. Of course much has happened since then. I want to ask you about the massive outpouring on February 15. You were involved in the London demonstration against the projected U.S. attack on Iraq. Were you surprised at the turnout?

I WAS very surprised. We were expecting in London about 200,000 people. We said if we are lucky it might reach 250,000, which would have been tremendous–the largest demonstration ever. When I arrived at the demonstration I was just stunned. It was just unending. The police for once were very friendly. Senior police chiefs came up to me and said you must be very proud today. I asked them for their estimates, and this was just at the beginning of the demonstration, and they said people are still pouring in, but our official sources are saying half a million people on the streets already. By the time the demonstration reached Hyde Park we had a million and a half people in London. It was the biggest demonstration in the history of Britain. We had never seen anything like it.

The features of this demonstration were interesting. The overwhelming bulk of people who came were ordinary people. They were not people from the Left, not radicals, not people who had any link with any progressive cause. This was the most moving part of it. These were ordinary citizens who did not believe the lies of their politicians and who said we want to stop this war. The touching thing was they actually thought they could stop the war by coming out in large numbers. In a perfect world they should have been able to. But when I spoke at that demonstration, I said, "I’m afraid the war won’t stop unless there is a regime change in Britain." I said, "We need to get rid of this servile government which is predominately stationed in the posterior of the White House, regardless if the occupant is Clinton or Bush. Unless we get rid of governments like this, they will go and make wars." We also predicted that there would be resistance in Iraq. People all over Europe and the United States genuinely felt they could stop the war. They didn’t realize that the decision to make war had been made weeks before.

THE THEME at the World Social Forum was "Another World is Possible." One of the things that seem to plague the Left is a lack of a vision. It’s very articulate and clear about what it doesn’t like. It doesn’t like globalization, it doesn’t like imperialism and it doesn’t like American hegemony. What about projecting some genuine alternatives?

I THINK this is very important. It’s a point I stress often. We have a very large movement against global injustice but there’s no vision as to what should replace it. I often say to people that it can always start in a small way. When 45 years ago a bunch of neoliberal economists in Chicago, inspired by Frederick Von Hayek and Milton Friedman, began to articulate the theories of neoliberal economics, all the Keynesians and socialists were just laughing at them, mocking them, calling them nutty. Well, these completely nutty people, I’m afraid, have conquered the world. They utilized the regimes of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher and got close to power and their policies began to be applied. I say we have to get a group of people who actually sit down and work out an alternative plan. Simply stalking the summits–whether the G8, the G10 or whatever–is good, but it’s not going to solve our problems.

The most worrying thing for me is the following: When Argentina collapsed, everyone was triumphant, saying it shows the bankruptcy of neoliberal policies. Argentine politicians stood up and said, "We did everything we were told to do by the U.S. Treasury Department, by the IMF [International Monetary Fund] and the World Bank. Everything we’ve been asked to do for 10 years, we’ve done–and this is the result." Fine, but what’s the alternative? The alternative is not an easy one but the glimmerings of it are there. We have to argue for states in this region not to abdicate their responsibilities to international institutions, to take them on and say, "We are going to fight because that’s what our people need." It should be a very minimal program to start off with. "We don’t care what the IMF and World Bank say. We will intervene to provide free health care, free education and subsidized shelter for the bulk of our populations. And if you don’t do that, we’ll take you on. Come and occupy our countries directly and rule them."

This is the demand of Latin America, a whole continent in revolt. You had a Bolivian revolt against water privatization. You had in Cuzco, in the interior of Peru, in one of the most culturally backward areas, peasants fighting really hard against electricity privatization. Why? Because they know instinctively, if not intellectually, that when these things are privatized the cost for them becomes unbearable. Especially when the U.S. corporations that privatized the water in Bolivia got the government to pass a law saying that rainwater could not be collected in receptacles on the rooftops. How could people live with that? So in Cochabamba you had an insurrection. The leaders who have come to power–Chavez in Venezuela and Lula in Brazil–have come to power because people want politicians to challenge this. Chavez is challenging this, Lula is thinking about it, but something has to be done even in a modest way. The demands they are making are incredibly modest. These were the demands of European social democracy after the Second World War, elements of the New Deal in the United States. It’s not so radical but it’s extremely important to build up the confidence both of governments and the people to say there are some things we can do. So, I say let’s start off modestly with these essential demands, which try and rebuild and recreate indigenous social infrastructures in different countries of the world, and then see how we can use that base to proceed. Some people say we can’t ask the state to do anything. Why? If the states in Latin America or Asia completely abandon their roles, then you are just at the mercy of the big corporations and the international institutions, which just run over you like a steamroller. The debate has started and Kirchner in Argentina is beginning to articulate a few of these demands. The recent insurrection in Bolivia toppled a government that thought it could kill native Bolivians–the Indians, the most oppressed section of the population–and crush the revolt. But they couldn’t crush it because people had lost their fear. They came out in larger and larger numbers. I think there are possibilities and I think the World Social Forum has to start articulating them.

Coupled to that, as I’ve always argued, the American Empire walks on two legs. One is the leg of the Washington consensus, with all of the economic institutions to dominate that way. The second leg is the U.S. military, which enforces the neoliberal global consensus. You have a situation now where out of 190 member nations in the United Nations; there is a U.S. military presence in 121 of these states. Together with these other demands, one has to start pressing the World Social Forum and similar organizations to demand the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the rest of the world. The combination of this could develop a new consciousness.

ONE OF the U.S. corporations in Bolivia that was privatizing the water happened to be Bechtel, which is also one of the big winners of the Iraq war. It’s been given huge contracts. So there have been some winners in Iraq–Halliburton, Bechtel, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman. There are profits to be made from imperial aggression.

THERE CERTAINLY are profits to be made, though I wonder if they’ll be as high as they imagine. If in order to start the reconstruction you have pay a large amount of money–hiring security guards and mercenaries who have to be paid. I think their profits will not be as high as they imagine. If the Iraqi resistance carries out its scorched earth policy, a lot of these places could be blown up again. I think some of these corporations are aware of this. They’ve had to be bullied and pushed to going in there, because they know the security situation isn’t good. They might get their comeuppance in Iraq.

TWO DAYS after those massive demonstrations on February 15, the New York Times had a front-page story where it reported that there was a new superpower in the world–"global public opinion." What do you think about that?

IT SOUNDS good. It flatters the demonstrators, but it’s not true. Pubic opinion is public opinion. It has no way in which it can enforce its will. The only way that can happen is if this public opinion has an impact on official politics. In the United States, it had zero impact. Not even on the Democratic Party did it register. The Democrats basically ignored it and went along with Bush, voted for the war with very few exceptions and basically gave Bush a blank check to do what he wanted. In Britain, it partially worked. The scale of the demonstration was such that a considerable number of Labor members of parliament got nervous that they might not get reelected and challenged Blair in parliament. Blair then lied through his teeth in order to save his skin, saying we could be hit in 45 minutes, that there were weapons of mass destruction, and so on. He managed to win over some MPs [members of parliament]. If the opposition inside the Labor Party had gotten 15 to 20 more members, Blair would have lost and he would have been dependent on Conservative Party votes, which would have been very fitting. He would have lost the support of Labor–and that’s why the lies reached an amazing magnitude.

WHAT DO you say to people who marched, protested, sent emails, wrote letters before the war, who now feel "we’ve done our best. We couldn’t stop it. Game over. I’m going home"?

WELL, THE game isn’t over. They’ve got to understand that. I think many of them, because they were first-time protesters, thought once Iraq was invaded the game was up, but as we are seeing the game continues. We now have Iraqi resistance, which grows every day. The U.S. generals know that they are partially trapped. They’re trying to look for ways out. In this situation the big antiwar movements which rose in February have got to be revived and really lay siege to their congressmen and their senators and their members of parliament and say, "We warned you. We told you not to make war. You went ahead and made that war. It’s our people who are being killed, it’s Iraqis who are being killed. It’s time to stop it." If they begin to put the pressure on–not just by big demonstrations on the streets–but also by targeting whole groups of congressmen and senators, it could begin to have some effect. I remember well that the large mail response congressmen began receiving as the Vietnam War escalated had a real effect on them. We need a repeat of Senator Fulbright’s hearings at the foreign relations committee. I remember those hearings were shown all over the world. Every night on BBC television Fulbright would come on and we saw how he made the administration squirm. Unfortunately, we have very few senators with integrity at the moment. We should take out an ad in the Nation saying, "Wanted: Senators with Integrity."

HOWARD ZINN in his classic book A People’s History of the United States closes with the words of the poet Shelley: "Rise like lions after slumber / In unvanquishable number! / Shake your chains to earth, like dew / Which in sleep had fallen on you— / Ye are many; they are few!"

IT’S A great poem, which shows that this tradition of radical poetry is not confined to the Arab or the Islamic world. It was a very strong strain in Britain and the United States in the 19th century. I think it would be great if it could be revived, if lots of our own poets in the West started intervening more and became engaged in the world in which we live. Shelley’s message is absolutely true. What Iraq shows in that sense is something very interesting. You can be the world’s largest and only superpower, the world’s only empire. You can have superiority on a scale never dreamt of, even by science fiction writers. You can destroy whole countries just by pushing two or three buttons. But if you go in and occupy those countries with your own troops, all that technology is irrelevant. Then you have to confront a sullen and embittered population, which is what American soldiers are now fighting. Then cracks begin to appear in what once seemed incredibly strong. Then you begin to realize, after all, when it comes to people, you aren’t that strong, because they are not prepared to accept what you are imposing on them.

This is how resistance begins and this resistance does not just shape the consciousness in the occupied country but also shapes the consciousness of people in the country from where the occupiers come. That is why occupying empires endlessly provoke a resistance and finally this resistance has an impact inside the empire itself. It’s the history of all empires and the United States is not immune from it.

MUCH OF the polite discussion in the United States is really focusing on this particular issue: "They botched the occupation." There was a recent New York Times Magazine cover story with that title by David Rieff. There isn’t much talk about the illegality or immorality of attacking an independent state that was not threatening you.

THIS IS also the position of General Wesley Clark, saying that the problem with the occupation is not that it happened but the way it was done and, of course, he would have done it much better. This is where these people are completely wrong. They believed they could repeat the Balkan experience in the Arab world. In my opinion, even if the United Nations had sanctioned the occupation from the start, even if there were French and German troops alongside the British and Americans, the result would have been exactly the same. It’s just that the casualties would have been shared. I don’t think it would have been any different. If you send in blue-helmeted UN troops, the reaction would be just as hostile, if not more. The UN is hated in Iraq because of what it did in administering the sanctions and in giving the Americans and British permission to bomb Iraq every week for 12 years. So there’s no way out of it. What’s wrong is the occupation, not the way in which it’s being carried out.

IN YOUR book you call the resistance the maquis, which conjures up images of brave Frenchmen fighting the Nazi occupiers in the 1940s. There’s been a bit of controversy at the Los Angeles Times about the term "resistance."

THE MANAGEMENT of the Los Angeles Times has asked their journalists not to publish reports, which refer to the Iraqi resistance as the "resistance." They would prefer to use words like "insurgents," "guerrillas" or even "terrorists." This isn’t going to work. They can change the name as much as they like. I noticed in a recent Los Angeles Times book review that Christopher Hitchens had the word "resistance" in inverted commas. You can’t fool people all the time. What is going on is a classic resistance. It’s much quicker than what happened in France. In France under Nazi occupation, it took a long time to get cracking. Then the U.S., the Office of Strategic Services and the British intelligence networks helped that resistance. They taught them how to blow up rail lines, kill occupying officers, throw hand grenades and so on. They were never called terrorists. They were called the maquis, the resistance.

In France, you had another thing, a sizable section of the old establishment collaborated with the Germans. The Vichy regime was not a tiny minority. The puppet regime in Iraq was installed from the outside. Ahmed Chalabi was taken from the United States and the U.S. paid for 200 mercenaries and implanted them in Baghdad. Then he thinks he’s going to be popular. The French at least had a local population that was happy to be occupied by the Germans. In Iraq, that’s not the case. Very few people, even those most hostile to Saddam Hussein, want to be occupied by the United States and Britain. It’s classic resistance, similar to the Algerian resistance, like the Vietnamese, like the resistance in parts of Africa. This is how it starts.

EDWARD SAID, the noted Palestinian-American professor and author, passed away in September. In one of his essays he wrote "[A] deep gulf separates Arab culture and civilization from the United States.... The notion of an Arab people with traditions, cultures and identities of their own is simply inadmissible in the United States. Arabs are dehumanized, they are seen as violent, irrational terrorists always on the lookout for murder and bombing outrages.... This morbid, obsessional fear and hatred of the Arabs has been a constant theme in U.S. foreign policy since World War Two."

THAT’S TRUE. It’s also the case that the United States did this quite cynically but used large parts of the Islamist organizations to fight their other enemy–communism and the secular nationalist regimes. What formed Edward was the 1967 war. Prior to that, as he’s said, he wasn’t engaged. It’s the 1967 war that changed his life and basically made the Arab world and Palestine a central feature of his biography. That war was decisive because the U.S. used Israel as their enforcer to go and take out the nationalist regimes in Egypt and Syria. The defeat inflicted on these countries was the death knell of Arab nationalism. It had reached a peak. It had tried to unite the Arab world, but failed.

I remember a time in the late 1950s when you had Radio Baghdad, Radio Cairo and Radio Damascus inciting Arab citizens to revolt against the monarchies with the result that even in Saudi Arabia there was an attempt at a nationalist coup from within the Saudi army. These people had to be taught a lesson, and the Israelis were used to teach the lesson. So the propaganda seeing the Arab world as one monolithic entity is self-serving. This never was the case. There were always divisions. Having helped the enemies of light to destroy all the secular movements in the Arab world, they now have the nerve to complain that the only real opposition in the Arab world is Islamist. It is because the U.S. laid the basis for it. You wiped out the alternatives. The Islamists are the only ones to oppose the American Empire. Secularists tended to be demoralized or intimidated and then the NGOs [non-governmental organizations] bought off many of the best with the agreement that you don’t engage in direct politics if you want our help.

The impact of NGOs on the intellectual life in the Muslim world and elsewhere needs to be tabulated. Take Pakistan, for example. Recently, in the elections two Islamist parties won two key provinces bordering Afghanistan. In previous elections they had won at maximum 5 to 6 percent of the vote. One of the Islamist leaders was very open. He said the other parties left us a clean field. We didn’t use religion. We didn’t say we were going to impose Shariah law. We didn’t do anything but attack the American Empire. No one else was doing it. That won us the elections.

AFGHANISTAN HAS somewhat dropped off the radar screen with the focus on Iraq, but there is a lot happening there. There has been a surge of Taliban activity. A New York Times editorial says that Afghanistan is "in danger of reverting to a deadly combination of rule by warlords and Taliban." What’s going on in Afghanistan?

IT’S VERY simple. Basically, they did a deal with the warlords of the Northern Alliance. They didn’t have to fight. The Taliban melted away. As I said at the time, the Taliban will not fight. The section with Osama bin Laden will disappear and the section controlled by the Pakistan army will be withdrawn. And that’s what happened. They delayed the war for two or three weeks to allow the Pakistan army to pull its own soldiers and as many of the Taliban fighters as they could out of Afghanistan. This notion that the Taliban was a totally independent force was not true. Without the Pakistan army, they could never have taken Kabul in the 1990s.

When I was in Pakistan in May of 2003, I gave the Eqbal Ahmad lecture in Islamabad. I taunted many of the generals who were there in civilian clothes, "The only victory you have won in your entire existence, apart from those against your own people, has been when you took Kabul. This was your biggest victory, and now you’ve rolled over like spaniels and unraveled your only military victory." After that, a high senior civil servant followed me to Karachi and told me that he carried a message from high up: "Tell him we’ve only unraveled the victory temporarily. We’ll be back and this time we might go in without beards just to keep the Americans happy." There’s a great deal of cynicism inside the Pakistan army.

In Afghanistan, you have a very interesting situation. They install Hamid Karzai, who we all know worked for U.S. intelligence agencies. He is so popular that he doesn’t want to be guarded by a single Afghan. His entire bodyguard consists of U.S. Marines. His only single distinguishing feature is the beautiful shawls that he wears. He’s not long for this world if he remains there. The guy has absolutely no legitimacy. Meanwhile, the rest of Afghanistan, outside of Kabul, is run by the Northern Alliance and various factions. One faction of the Taliban is gearing up for attacks and another faction basically is ready to do a deal with Karzai. That wing is controlled by the Pakistan military and is engaged in secret talks with Zalmay Khalilzad, the American proconsul there. They’re discussing how to work with this faction of the Taliban and isolate the Northern Alliance. It’s back to square one.

Remember at the beginning of the Afghan war when Laura Bush and Cherie Blair were talking about liberating the women of Afghanistan? This was a new one for me–the first imperial intervention to aid women’s liberation. But all it amounted to was a few pictures of a women announcer on Afghan television. She’s long since disappeared, and the condition of women is as bad as ever. The incidents of rape have gone up. The only thing that has happened is that prior to the occupation two factions–the Taliban and the Northern Alliance–dominated the heroin trade. The Taliban’s heroin went through Pakistan and shipped out from there. The Northern Alliance’s heroin went through Central Asia via the Russian Mafia and ended up in Kosovo for distribution. Since the occupation, the Northern Alliance has a complete monopoly on heroin. All the Pakistani entities are suffering quite badly, including the colonels and generals who benefited from the trade.

IN A debate with one of Blair’s MPs that I had in Dublin, he jettisoned all the reasons that justified the war in Iraq. He fell back on two arguments: 1) anyone criticizing the war was anti-American, and 2) aren’t the Iraqis better off? Isn’t the world a better place with Saddam Hussein gone? How would you respond to those arguments?

THE ANTI-AMERICAN argument implies that we see America as a monolith. We know there is a long history of those who have opposed American imperialism from the beginning. Over the Philippines, it was Mark Twain and others who opposed the depredations of empire and formed the Anti-Imperialist League. There is a long tradition of dissent in the U.S.

The second argument is rubbish. How is the world a better place with an Arab country being occupied, with a war going on, a dual occupation of the Middle East? The world isn’t a better place. It’s a more dangerous place because this war encourages terrorism. As for Saddam Hussein, his repression was at its worst when Donald Rumsfeld was visiting him in Iraq in the early 1980s, as Reagan’s special envoy. That’s when his repression was at its worst–when Britain and the U.S. backed him in a war against Iran, when he carried out the chemical attacks against the Kurds. We protested that, but the governments were backing him. The U.S. and Britain vetoed a resolution in the UN condemning Iraq. So there is no basis on which they can say things are better. It’s always better for dictators or the Iranian clerics to be removed by their own people. Then the change remains organic. To be removed by outside forces has given Saddam Hussein new life. His popularity is rising. He didn’t flee. However much Iraqis may dislike him, they do respect him now.

THERE’S A quote in your book that is appropriate for today: "Next the statesman will invent cheap lies, putting the blame upon the nation that is attacked, and every man will be glad of those conscience-soothing falsities, and will diligently study them, and refuse to examine any refutations of them and thus he will by and by convince himself that the war is just and will thank God for the better sleep he enjoys after this process of grotesque self-deception." Who wrote that?

THOSE WONDERFUL words were written by Mark Twain at the founding of the Anti-Imperialist League. It was published in Harper’s magazine posthumously in 1916. Rumor has it that Lewis Lapham is thinking of reviving the Anti-Imperialist League. I’ve suggested that we try and get Gore Vidal to write the manifesto. I think it could get support in a very broad, non-sectarian way. It shouldn’t be restricted to the Left, but draw in a whole range of people. It could take off globally and be a big step forward.

ARUNDHATI ROY writes in War Talk, "Our strategy should not be only to confront Empire but to lay siege to it. To deprive it of oxygen." How do you deprive an empire of oxygen?

IT’S DIFFICULT. We shouldn’t underestimate the scale of the problems that confront us. This is the first time in history that we’ve had only one empire–and it’s not easy to combat. It cannot be defeated militarily. It can be harried and worn down–laid siege to–but a very important part of that siege has to be inside the United States. It has to be a democratic siege. I travel a lot in the U.S. and many people come to my talks just for the information. In Minneapolis a guy came up to me and asked, "Is it true Israel has nuclear and chemical weapons?" I said, yes. "Why doesn’t our president tell us this?" This is a question you’re not supposed to raise. I’m constantly amazed at the lack of information people have in the United States.

IN BUSH in Babylon, you quote Antonio Gramsci, the Italian theorist most feared by the fascists, who says "The ‘normal’ exercise of hegemony is characterized by the combination of force and consent, in variable equilibrium, without force predominating too much over consent." Why does Gramsci attract your attention?

BECAUSE HE was the theorist who thought about how capitalism rules the world. In contrast to other theorists, he said it wasn’t all done through force. If it was done just through force, it couldn’t be maintained indefinitely. Consent by the ruled for those who rule them plays a big part in keeping the system going. This may seem more evident now, but in the 1920s, when he wrote this, it was a hotly debated issue.

If we look at the British Empire, throughout its rule in India, apart from the Second World War, the total number of British soldiers in India was 36,000. That small force controlling a subcontinent, how could they do it? They could only do it because they had the support of the ruling élites in India. Once that support began to disappear, then the end was possible. That’s why the British never educated anyone in India. They knew if they educated the bulk of the population, it would have been curtains a long time earlier. When the British left, 85 percent of India was rural and 90 percent of India was illiterate. How was this consent for rule brought about? Gramsci helped me think about this. The U.S. has ruled like this too–in Latin America, for example.

Then Gramsci came out with another insight that is so relevant today. Sometimes, when neither force nor consent works, the use of money comes into play. People can simply be bought off. If you look at the resolutions in the UNSecurity Council, it’s often a mixture of the carrot and the stick. States are promised aid if they cast their votes the right way. That’s how Israel was accepted in 1948.

GRAMSCI, WHO was persecuted and jailed during Mussolini’s reign in Italy, talked about cracks in the system and how the opposition needed to use them and point their energy at them because the system wasn’t monolithic. In a society like the U.S. or in Europe, there are openings. Michael Moore, for example, is very skillful at exploiting them.

I THINK that’s true. There are three fissures in the empire at the moment. The biggest is in Latin America. This is a part of the world dominated by the U.S. since the Monroe Doctrine. If you read Smedley Butler’s book War is a Racket, he describes how the U.S. Marine Corps was used as Mafia-style enforcers for the corporations in capturing Central America. This is a book written by a general who had time to reflect after he left the armed forces. I like to stress there is Mark Twain on the one hand and Smedley Butler on the other to show there is a very powerful strain of dissent in the U.S., which we have to build on. But very few people know this. Now sections of Latin America are in open revolt. In order to drive home the lessons, they have to come up with alternatives. If even modest alternatives begin to work in Latin America, it will be a serious setback for the economic policies of the empire.

Then you have the Arab East. It is important because of oil. Let’s suppose there was no oil underneath the Islamic lands. No one would think twice about Islam. Or suppose all the countries in the Arab East–which have cheap sources of energy–were Buddhist. The big enemy would be Buddhism, not Islam.

In this region we now have a dual occupation–Palestine occupied by Israel and Iraq by the U.S. and Britain. This is not an easy problem to solve. That’s the second big fissure.

The third is the fissure in Afghanistan. They are tied down there. They will probably be forced to withdraw under the cover of a puppet regime. The minute they go, there will be chaos.

As these things begin to unfold, we hope the crucial element emerges, which is the challenge at home. The challenge in the heart of the United States takes place on different levels–culturally, politically, socially–but ultimately it has to find its way into official politics. You cannot just challenge from below. The movement from below has to find some reflection at the top in terms of someone who can give voice to the aspirations of those down below. The last time that happened was when George McGovern ran for president. It’s true books by Michael Moore and Noam Chomsky reach the best-seller list despite not being very much reviewed, and that’s fantastically positive.

EDWARD SAID was fond of quoting a Gramsci dictum: "Pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will." Does that inspire you?

GRAMSCI BORROWED that from, I think, Romain Rolland, but it does inspire me. We have to be hard-headed and realistic. In the past there was a lot of fantasy politics. The 1960s were great times. I don’t regret anything we did then. There was a craziness as well. There was this notion by the Weather Underground and the Black Panthers that by challenging the empire by force you could win. It was crazy. You cannot win unless you win over a majority or at least a sizable segment of the population. We have got to win over that consent to our side. Otherwise, we lose. Even when it goes against us, we have to tell the truth, not raise false hopes. Capitalism is not cracking up today, and it may take a long while. It won’t disappear until people see an alternative with which to replace it. The one alternative they saw from 1917 to 1989 was the false dawn of Communism.

The system we have now doesn’t satisfy the needs of the majority in the United States or anywhere else in the world. Sooner or later alternatives will arise. We have to be patient.

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