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International Socialist Review Issue 43, SeptemberOctober 2005
Exposing the big lie
George Galloway is Respect Party member of parliament (MP) for Bethnal Green and Bow in East London. He recently electrified the United States with his appearance at a Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations hearing on May 17. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer described Galloway’s speech in the Senate as “a blistering attack on U.S. senators rarely heard” in Washington. He is touring the United States from September 13–25, 2005. The tour is sponsored by The New Press, International Socialist Review, and the Center for Economic Research and Social Change. This month, The New Press is publishing his book Mr. Galloway Goes to Washington (see review in this issue). He was interviewed by the ISR’s Eric Ruder.
WHY DO you think that the antiwar movement got it right—about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, or the lack thereof, and the absence of any connection between Iraq and al-Qaeda—when world leaders like George Bush and Tony Blair got it wrong?
I THINK the antiwar movement was guided by the journalistic principle first annunciated by the great Claude Cockburn, father of Alexander and Patrick. Cockburn’s principle was that nothing is true until it’s been officially denied. And, of course, the corollary is also true—that which the state and the government claim should be treated as a lie until it’s proved otherwise. While the mass media and the gullible among the political legislatures accepted hook, line, and sinker everything they were fed by the state, it all turned out to be false.
I think we instinctively imagined that there was an absurd level of demonization of Iraq going on, a total exaggeration of its potential danger, and the demonization of its leadership out of all proportion. After all, Saddam Hussein committed real and serious crimes against the people of Iraq, most of them when he was Britain and America’s best friend. In fact, by the time of the beginning of sanctions in 1991, until the overthrow of the regime, it was Britain and America who were slaughtering the Iraqis, not the Iraqi regime. There was an Iraqi child dying every six minutes under the sanctions. Even Saddam Hussein never dreamt of batting averages like that.
WHAT IMPACT do you think that the July bombings in London have had on the political climate there?
THE GOVERNMENT obviously is trying to make it into a 9/11 moment, complete with our own variation of the Patriot Act. The antiwar movement is trying to make it into a Madrid moment and hold the government to account for the role that it played in creating the conditions in which the London bombings took place. The truth is, it’s presently neither. The government’s best efforts, helped by the very same tame media machine that swallowed all their lies in the first place about Iraq, are trying their very best but failing to persuade people that there was no link between the two things. When I said so on the day of the bombing on the seventh of July in the House of Commons, the sky fell on top of my head. The political class and the media attacked me in the most virulent way.
But within ten days, 85 percent—85 percent!—of the British people in the opinion polls were saying that the two issues were linked. So the government is certainly failing to make it a 9/11 moment. So far we haven’t made it a Madrid moment, but there may well be things going on under the surface in the governing party, because there must be a realization dawning ever so slowly that Britain has to make a change of course, and it’s not going to be able to do so with its current leadership. Its current leadership, which already announced its own retirement (albeit four years off), cannot be said to be sitting securely in its place at this time.
We’re bringing forward our scheduled November demonstration to September 24, which coincides of course with the U.S. demonstration. This is the day before the Labor Party conference opens, and obviously the movement is trying to impact on that conference in the strongest possible way. A number of the big unions, who’ve got 49 percent of the votes at the Labor conference, were already lined up to vote for immediate withdrawal, or withdrawal of British troops by Christmas. The bombing in London has not yet changed their policy, but of course there’s quite a bit of time to go between now and then.
If all the unions stand firm, then the Labor conference will pass a resolution demanding either immediate withdrawal by our British forces, or, at worst, the withdrawal of troops by Christmas.
HAS ANTI-MUSLIM racism increased as a result of the bombings, or as a result of government reactions to the bombings?
WELL, BOTH, markedly. There’s a 700 percent increase in the number of assaults on Muslims since the seventh of July, and that almost certainly underreports the extent of the problem. Many Muslims have just chosen to shrug off the odd kick, and certainly they’ve had to ignore a pretty savage stepping up in ugly Islamophobic rhetoric against them. There have been some assaults on Muslim property. At least three mosques have been attacked.
The government and the gutter media have been stepping up the assaults, too. The government has launched a new raft of so-called anti-terror proposals, which are all pregnant with the death of the very way of life that we say we are all trying to defend, not least freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom to choose one’s own priests.
TODAY, PEOPLE who are apologists for the occupation of Iraq say that without U.S. or British forces there, there would be civil war. What’s your view?
I KNOW the Iraqi people very well, and I have the fullest confidence that they are not in need of foreign forces to mend their broken state. There are people who are trying to foment one—some of them, playing with fire, don’t really want one, but want to keep the danger of one right at the top of the agenda for their own political purposes. But there is no civil war in Iraq. There’s a war by the Iraqi resistance against the occupying foreign forces and their domestic collaborators.
This is the case in every anti-colonial struggle. In Vietnam, the Vietnamese people’s resistance was meted out both to the foreign army and their domestic collaborators. In every anti-colonial struggle, that is true. Now, it does happen to be the case that most of the collaborator forces of the puppet regime in Baghdad are Shiite Muslims. They are being attacked not because they are Shiites, but because they are collaborators, because they are part of the occupation state. That does not constitute a civil war.
Of course, there’s an absolute requirement on the resistance, and this is something I say in every one of my speeches here and in the Middle East, and in my daily communication with Iraq: It is an obligation of the resistance to so conduct its resistance as to minimize the danger of civil war, to conduct itself in a way that is tending toward bringing the Shiite Muslim population into the resistance. And many, of course, are in the resistance—some of them armed, and some of them not armed. In the latter case, some of them not armed, but who have been armed in the past and might be armed again in the future. I’m thinking, for example, of Moqtada al Sadr’s group, and his Mahdi Army, which is not involved in armed struggle at the moment, but is collecting signatures—has collected more than a million signatures—demanding an end to the occupation. It regularly organizes demonstrations and other mass activity. They are a part of the resistance, albeit one that at the moment is not actually fighting the occupation militarily.
But there are many Shiites in the resistance fighting the occupation. And we must all conduct everything that we do with a view to maximizing the unity of the Iraqi people, and struggling against any tendency towards division on a confessional, sectarian, or ethnic basis. But much more has been made of this than is the case. If you talk with Iraqis, there’s far less of this apparent confessional strife than is routinely reported and puffed up here in the Western media. Most Iraqis, including most Shiites, believe themselves to be Iraqis first, Muslims next, and Sunnis and Shiites third. So, we shouldn’t exaggerate this problem, but we must struggle to address this problem, and I am all the time trying to encourage that.
Now, as to the danger of civil war if the occupier withdraws—that is, of course, what every occupier always says. We have more experience of this here than you do. We’ve occupied more countries for longer, and it is always the case that the occupier claims that he’d like to go but he can’t really go because the natives would tear each other apart. That simply isn’t true.
WHAT DO you think accounts for the U.S. quagmire in Iraq?
I THINK, as George Bush himself might put it, they “misunderestimated” the Iraqis. They thought that this would be a pushover, and they thought that it would then act as a terrorizing big stick for others, and the other dominos in the region would fall, and the world would take note and be suitably terrified of American power. But, of course, if I may be allowed to quote Chairman Mao in your magazine, the enemy sometimes struggles mightily to lift a huge stone, only to drop it on its own feet. And that’s precisely what they’ve done.
Instead of terrorizing the world with American power, they have demonstrated the limits of American power. They have demonstrated that America has ferocious power in the air, above rocket-propelled grenade range, but they cannot control a single street in a country that’s resisting them. And that has effectively stopped them in their tracks. So I think it was an opportunistic attack by Bush on Iraq. He thought in the wake of 9/11 that it was a smart idea to achieve both the goal of taking control of Iraq, but also terrorizing the world and knocking over a few dominos in the region, principally Iran and Syria, and no doubt forcing countries like North Korea and others to bow the knee to American power.
WHAT ROLE does Israel’s occupation of Palestine play in this equation?
A TREMENDOUS role. But I always insist—and I insist on it to your audience, even though they almost certainly know it—that it’s not the case, as some like Pat Buchanan and others claim, that America works for Israel. It’s the other way around. Israel works for America. Israel works for imperialism. It’s not that there’s a Zionist lobby acting as the tail that wags the dog. The dog always wags the tail. And Israel’s purpose, in its creation, was to keep the Arabs divided and weak and to be an advance guard for imperialist interests in the region, the full importance of which was only just becoming known when the Zionist enterprise sprang forth. And now, Israel is an indispensable, nuclear-armed military superpower acting on behalf of imperialism in the Arab world.
One of the reasons for keeping the Arabs divided and weak is, of course, so that the imperialist countries can steal their wealth, so that they could keep them in their box, so that they don’t unify and challenge their domination of the region. But of course a consequent need is to make sure that no Arab power emerges that can balance Israel, let alone threaten it. Israel’s overwhelming military superiority has to be maintained. And so one of the reasons for attacking Iraq was for Israel, but not because imperialism is working for Israel. It’s the other way around.
THERE HAS been a debate in the U.S. about whether the antiwar movement that is opposing the occupation of Iraq also has a responsibility to take up the issue of Palestine.
I KNOW this is a vexed question in the U.S., and I only gingerly approach it. It’s best if I describe the situation here in Britain. We do not require people who oppose the war in Iraq also to have our view on Palestine. We are confident that when drawn into the antiwar movement, the bigger picture will become clear to almost everyone who participates in it, and that’s exactly what happened. When we started the Stop the War Coalition, we did not require people to sign up to what we would call “freedom for Palestine” as part of the deal, but a couple of years in, probably less than a couple of years in, and after several demonstrations, we introduced the slogan “freedom for Palestine,” and not only did it not make a blind bit of difference to the numbers attending our demonstrations, our greatest demonstration, on February 15, of some two million people, had these two slogans: “No war on Iraq” and “Freedom for Palestine.” So there is no evidence that it weakened or divided the movement in Britain.
Now, I understand that there are bigger problems in the United States. There’s less clarity, frankly, on the Israel-Palestine issues amongst the general population than there is here, there’s a more powerful pro-Israel lobby in the United States that has clouded this question.
YOU RECENTLY traveled to Syria and Lebanon, and I wonder if you could comment on the idea coming out of Washington that most Iraqis actually welcomed the U.S. and are grateful to the U.S. for removing Saddam Hussein and bringing democracy. This even extends to other parts of the Arab world, where Washington claims this has touched off democratic uprisings in Lebanon and so on.
THAT THESIS is enough to make a horse laugh. Let me start with Lebanon. The so-called revolution in Lebanon was not for democracy, because if there were democracy in Lebanon, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah—the head of Hezbollah—would be the president of the country. Whatever else they where demonstrating for, it was not democracy. They were not seeking the right of the Lebanese people to elect their government on a one-person, one-vote basis, which is most people’s definition of democracy. They were in fact demonstrating, most of them, for the preservation in aspic of an utterly outdated confessional, undemocratic system, and they got the full support of George Bush for that.
The Christians in Lebanon constitute some 20 percent of the population, but have most of the political support and most of the wealth. So, whatever else the cedar movement was, it was not a Cedar Revolution for democracy. The truth is, the United States has no interest objectively in democracy in the Arab world, because the first thing a democratically-elected government in any Arab country would do would be to ask the United States to leave. The second thing would be to ask Israel to leave, and if they have an embassy there, to close it. The third thing they would do is step up their support for the Palestinian people. The fourth thing they would do is insist that their democratic government stop using their country’s wealth to enrich further the imperialist countries and start using it to develop their own countries, and so on and so on.
So, objectively, they have no interest in democracy. What they want to do is put a new lipstick on the ugly face of the dictatorships they’ve long been supporting, like the dictatorship in Cairo, where they realize that the Mubarak era has become a faintly embarrassing farce. They don’t want the Egyptian people to choose freely a new government, so they seek some kind of new footing in some cosmetic rearrangement of affairs. In fact, the Arab people are boiling with rage, but they are also increasingly confident.
I found a big echo in every speech I made—and I made one every day—to Lenin’s words that there are decades when nothing happens, but there are weeks when decades happen. And those weeks may well be coming in the Middle East sooner than we think. And the Iraqi resistance is the reason for that. It has emboldened all Arabs and all Muslims everywhere, and I think it has emboldened people as far away as Latin America—Ecuador, Bolivia, and so on.
YOUR SPEECH in May before a U.S. Senate subcommittee electrified debate in the U.S. about the war on Iraq and inspired antiwar activists across the country. It was such a breath of fresh air when you told Reuters in plain terms: “I have no expectation of justice from a group of Christian fundamentalist and Zionist activists under the chair-man-ship of a neocon George Bush who is prowar. I come not as the accused but as the accuser.” And it brought a smile to the faces of many antiwar activists when you called Senator Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), the chair of the committee, a “prowar, neocon hawk and the lickspittle of George W. Bush.” But did you expect that you’d have such an impact, that your appearance and criticisms would make headlines around the world?
NO, I really didn’t. I was extremely keen to have a go, and many years of pent-up wishes came true, and I knew that it had gone well when I walked outside the door. But my first indication was when a Black janitor in the building punched the air and said, “Way to go, bro. You sent George Bush back to his ranch.” He was the first person I encountered as I came out of the building. I better not identify him further, in case he loses his job, but he is an employee of the U.S. government.
I then went to the Aljazeera studios in Washington, and they told me that it had been broadcast live by them—the whole thing, forty-five minutes or so—and I later learned that twenty-three million people had watched it on Aljazeera live. Frankly, a good proportion of them wrote to me and phoned me since. And I had a hero’s welcome, really, in the Middle East over the last two weeks. I got more than 22,000 e-mails from the United States alone, which is pretty phenomenal. Almost all of them were friendly, and that’s funny, because whenever I write an article, say, in the Guardian, most of the e-mails I get are from the United States, and most of them are hostile, and some of them in the most lurid and awful terms. But, on this occasion, so complete was the victory, I think, the enemy went back into its Fox hole (emphasis on Fox with a capital “F”).
I DID read an article by one detractor you may be familiar with, named Christopher Hitchens, who wrote that he was appalled that you would be so rude and contemptuous towards a body so esteemed as a U.S. Senate Subcommittee.
TOWARDS MY betters, yeah. I noticed he reached for the phrase “working class” when describing me. That seemed to be the thing that stuck in his throat, that unlike him I had no gilded youth or Oxbridge education, I left school and went to work in a factory, and I learned my trade in the labor movement. He accentuated that in everything that he wrote—“working-class white boy” and insults like that. He is the perfect definition of Ernest Hemingway’s description of a popinjay in Death in the Afternoon. I commend it to you—the word could have been invented for Christopher Hitchens, possibly with prescience, was. But I don’t honestly take him seriously. Very few people in Britain do, and I hope fewer people in America do—now that he has crawled across the political terrain to the extent that he is virtually a George Bush script writer and cheerleader.
THE LABOR Party expelled you in 2003, and then tried to smear you in what you described as a “kangaroo court.” But you came back and ran as a Respect candidate and beat out a prowar Labor MP. What did your campaign have to do to reach voters, and what do you think this says about antiwar sentiment?
FIRST OF all, it was the first left of Labor victory in English politics since 1945. Respect is powerful amongst immigrants who are overwhelmingly Muslim in the East End of London. But we also got support from a clear majority of Black people, and a sizable minority of white people. And we did that by trying to synthesize our antiwar ideas and our progressive economic and social program.
We effectively declared ourselves as a labor party with a small “l”—a party that would stand for the workers when no one else was doing so; that would stand for the people now too old to work; for their grandchildren, still too young to work; for the poor, the immigrants, the asylum seekers; those who preferred peace to war; the trade union militants; the environmental campaigners; civil liberty campaigners, and so on. We had a broad platform, which can be viewed on our Web site, www.respectcoalition.org. I think we had something for everyone.
Not only did we win a seat, but we came second in three other seats, which is in a sense an even more remarkable result than mine, because I’m pretty well known in Britain. Our candidates in the other three were not, but they came second in a party that’s only one-and-a-half years old. This is unprecedented. We came third in another, we came fourth in four others, and four of the ten biggest swings against the government on the night were scored by us. So, nobody is in any doubt that we’re a new political force to be reckoned with.
WHAT DO you think are the main tasks in building the antiwar movement, particularly in the U.S. and Britain?
WE’RE CONCENTRATING a lot of our efforts on the military families. And that’s obviously a path which has been trodden before in the Vietnam conflict, but which is I think particularly powerful. If it can be achieved, it’s important to find unity among the different antiwar forces, which requires some sacrifice programmatically and tactically, but is well worth the effort. We also should work to bring the Muslim population fully and wholeheartedly on board. There are many millions of Muslims in America. There are two million in Britain, and we have the support of the vast majority of them, and we have the active engagement of a very significant number of them. And that, too, I think, is likely to pay dividends if it is followed in the U.S. And that means not picking fights with the Muslim population on the issues which may be important but which are inevitably of a lesser order than war or occupation, and leaving those issues at the door for later. That’s the approach that we take, and I recommend it to others.
Action speaks louder than words. The more activity and action we have, the more the media have got a chance to report them, even if they don’t want to always. If we don’t take actions, they’ll not be able to report them. So whilst letter writing and e-mail writing are all very good and necessary, they are not sufficient. We need action. That’s why these demonstrations that are coming up on September 24 are very valuable.
WHAT DO you think about the debate over immediate versus eventual with-drawal, which has been a significant point of contention here in the U.S.?
THAT THE occupiers will have to withdraw is undeniable. They can withdraw now, or soon, or they can withdraw later—when they have lost still more young men, sent to die for the lies of Bush and Blair; when they have disfigured their own political system and community relations within their own countries, even more than what already exists; when they’ve made more people in the world hate them even more intensely; when they’ve endangered their citizens’ lives, and the interests of their country, and the reputation of their country.
I would have thought it’s better to do it sooner rather than later, because eventually they will have to withdraw. Iraq is ungovernable by them, and that much is already obvious. And the resistance is getting stronger by the day, not weaker, as even the occupiers make clear. Iyad Allawi, the former puppet prime minister, has said three times in the last fortnight that America has lost the war in Iraq, and he’s right about that.