Tariq Ali On The Recolonisation Of Iraq
Ali, Tariq. Bush in Babylon: The Recolonisation of Iraq, London, UK and New York, NY; Verso, 2003; ISBN: 1-85984-583-5.
(Swans - February 2, 2004) Most recent books on Iraq are written from the vantage point of the new conquerors of Baghdad; that is, the Anglo-American invaders and occupiers. Tariq Ali's latest book, Bush in Babylon: The Recolonisation of Iraq, takes a different perspective. Its provocative jacket, quite befitting to the reality of occupation, shows an Iraqi kid relieving himself on a US soldier -- a picture that many Americans would rather not see. But, surely, North Americans need to look at it and then ask deeper questions: Why has the USA occupied Iraq? How many Iraqis have died from UN sanctions and Anglo-American wars? Why did so many Iraqis have to die? And, why are US soldiers being greeted with bullets and grenades instead of flowers? Tariq Ali begins by asking, "Why are otherwise intelligence people in Britain and the United States surprised on learning that the occupation is detested by a majority of the Iraqi citizens?" (1) and carries on to answer his own question with great detail. The answer should be fairly obvious. Most people do not want their country to be occupied by another people. Yet the Bush administration was able to convince a majority of the American people that the invading US military would be greeted as liberators. The daily resistance to Anglo-American rule is a testimony to the Iraqi people's hatred of the new conquerors of Baghdad.
Ali's book, which was published soon after the Anglo-American conquest, is a thorough examination of the historic background to the occupation. Its subtitle conveys the author's thesis that this latest US foreign adventure is yet another attempt to recolonize Iraq, a country prized for its hydrocarbon riches. An astute student of history and culture, Ali draws upon his knowledge of the Arab and the Muslim world, its rich and complex history, its cultures and traditions, to trace the modern problems of the Middle East back to the defeat of Muslim countries by the European powers and their colonization under imperialism following the 1916 Anglo-French Sykes-Picot agreement. (2) He relates the Anglo-American invasion to that background and offers insightful perspectives on the occupation.
Ali writes in solidarity with the Iraqi people who have a long history of resistance to foreign rule. But the resistance to foreign and imperial rule made many mistakes in the past, including fatal ones. Indeed, the foreign rule over the country, then as now, could not have been achieved without the collaboration of local quislings. Ali hopes that the current resistance movement will avoid these mistakes and learn from the errors and false turns of past leadership. The best part of Ali's book, (3) however, is when the author writes about Iraq's poets-in-exile, such as Saadi Youssef and Mudhaffar al-Nawab. The poets had fled to escape persecution. After the Anglo-American invasion and occupation of Iraq, they still remain abroad, writing nationalist poems opposed to the occupation. Like the Iraqis, Ali draws inspiration from the beautiful works of these poets, which today reach their fellow citizens through the Internet. In a poem directed at the collaborators, Youssef writes:
"I'll spit on the jackals' faces,
I'll spit on their lists,
I'll declare that we are the people of Iraq—
we are the ancestral trees of this land, proud beneath our modest roof of bamboo." (4)
His fellow poet al-Nawab writes:
"O my people in love with our homeland,
I'm not scared of barbarians gathered at our gates.
No, I'm afraid of the enemies within—
Tyranny, Autocracy, and Dictatorship." (5)
Ali reports that the names of the poets have been added to the occupation authorities' "list of undesirables."
The main chapters of the book examine the history of Iraq; the author's knack for drawing on the right anecdotes and stories strengthens his thesis. Ali rejects the nostalgic and romantic view of the Hashemite reign and points out that King Feisal was imposed by the British with the collaboration of tribal leaders against the wishes of the Iraqi people. He posits that the origin of the resistance can be found in the people's growing opposition to the monarchy. He cites and uses the works of Hanna Batatu, the eminent scholar on society and class structure in Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries. Two main political forces, the Baath Party and the Communist Party, dominated modern Iraq. The Baath Party was founded by Arab nationalists opposed to communism. Although the Communist Party had a large social base and many dedicated cadres, its political leadership was divided on strategic and tactical issues and often blindly followed the dictates of Moscow.
Ali provides a detailed background of internal politics and struggles of the Baathists and the Communists, and the role of nationalist military officers in a period marked by a series of intrigues, coups, countercoups, and brutal purges. The Baath Party was regarded by the United States as a bulwark against the communists. The U.S. did provide the Baathists with critical support in their efforts to contain, co-opt, intimidate, and in various cases physically liquidate the communists. While Ali's sympathies lie with the latter, he reckons that there is no evidence a communist takeover of Iraq would have been less brutal or bloody than the Baathists' rule and would have led to a better society.
By 1979 Saddam Hussein emerged as Iraq's strongman. With the tacit backing of the Arab Gulf states, Western powers, and the USSR, he launched a disastrous war against Iran following the Islamic Revolution that overthrew the Shah of Iran. During that war, Saddam Hussein received critical support from abroad, including the United States. Physicians for Human Rights (6) reported that through the analysis of environmental residues taken later, "scientists have been able to prove the use of chemical weapons" against the Kurds in 1988-89 in Northern Iraq. It is worth reiterating that the majority of Saddam Hussein's most serious crimes were committed by the regime while he was a valued ally and client of the Western powers. (7) The U.S., the European countries, the USSR and others had no qualms about providing military hardware and "soft loans" to the regime as long as Hussein was not perceived as a threat to their interests. The invasion of Kuwait proved to be Saddam Hussein's major strategic error but the U.S. allowed the regime to survive intact after the first Gulf War. Indeed, the U.S. let the Iraqi regime mercilessly slaughter the southern Shias in 1991 during their rebellion because Saddam Hussein was seen as a lesser risk than the potential emergence of a Shia regime modeled upon Iran. Despite the tremendous loss suffered by the Iraqi people in the Iran and the first Gulf War, the regime was willingly kept in power. Meanwhile, the international sanctions further devastated what was once one of the most prosperous and advanced societies in the Middle East. The consequences were quite lethal, as have been documented in Anthony Arnove's Iraq under Siege (South End Press, Cambridge, MA, 2002).
The events of September 11, 2001, provided the Bush administration with the opportunity to invade Iraq on various pretexts, primarily that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, had links to the al Qaeda terrorist organization, and posed an imminent threat to the security of the United States. Although these allegations were demonstrably false (and have been amply debunked), the Bush administration was able to carry out this war in spite of the opposition of world public opinion. Gaining control of Iraq's vast and yet untapped oil resources was too good an opportunity to pass and the domestic political climate following the terrorists attacks of 9/11 proved to be a gift of fortune.
Ali discusses the international antiwar movement and its scope for mobilization to resist imperial policies. He opines that the rise of this global movement is the most important and greatest resistance to the US Empire since the Vietnam War. However, despite mass rallies, the absence of UN authorization, and even conflicts within NATO, the antiwar movement was not strong enough to stop the war. Clearly the movement lacks the political structure and organizational effectiveness to resist the Anglo-American ruling classes in their relentless drive for profit and imperial control. The political cost of war to the corporate elite is still manageable from their vantage point. Accordingly, one could argue that the greatest challenge for the antiwar movement is to help raise the political cost of war and occupation to the international ruling class.
Ali has no illusions about the United Nations. He believes that replacing the US occupation force by the UN "peacekeepers" will not work. Only the restoration of Iraqi self-determination can bring back peace. Ali confidently asserts that the U.S. and its collaborators will be defeated but does discuss how the resistance can be successful. He correctly opines that the Iraqi Governing Council is essentially a motley collection of turncoats that includes embezzlers like Chalabi, religious notables, and communists. He exposes the disgraceful role of certain socialists and liberals during the age of imperialism in rationalizing the conquest of the South. Alas, this role continues. Ali critiques the likes of Jürgen Habermas, the German philosopher, and other flamboyant European thinkers whose tame objection to the Anglo-American war is that the war was not endorsed by the United Nations and NATO; a position that is without any moral foundation. In an Appendix, Ali documents and chronicles Christopher Hitchens's objections to the first Gulf War. These arguments still hold merit. But Hitchens is now an ardent proponent of the most vicious form of Anglo-American imperialist conquest and bombing of other countries. It should be said that many radicals had earlier overlooked Hitchens's fondness for violence. For instance, he once wrote, "[T]hose who view the history of North America as a narrative of genocide and slavery are, it seems to me, hopelessly stuck on this reactionary position. They can think of the Western expansion of the United States only in terms of plague blankets, bootleg booze and dead buffalo, never in terms of the medicine chest, the wheel and the railway." (8) In hindsight, his passionate advocacy of the neo-conservative agenda of Western domination of the Middle East should not surprise anyone.
There are a number of issues one wished Tariq Ali had probed more thoroughly. In particular, a detailed discussion about the Iraqi resistance would have been useful. How is the Iraqi resistance developing? What are its social and political origins? What are the main threads within the resistance? What are the current political formations in Iraq? Will the Anglo-Americans be able to exploit the ethnic cleavages that divide the people? Will the country be divided geographically along ethnic lines? Will a Unified National Liberation Front emerge? While these are difficult questions -- and no definite reports and studies on these issues exist -- the author could have drawn upon detailed interviews and focused group discussions to map out the current political thinking in Iraq and give a more meticulous analysis of the anti-occupation resistance movements and its threads.
In his earlier years Tariq Ali was involved in leftist and Trotskyite politics. Some of the neo-conservatives who have been instrumental in advancing the Middle East policies of the Bush administration have a similar political background. Unfortunately, Ali does not address the Trotskyite political origin of what is known as the "War Party" and whether it has any bearing on the politics and political tactics of the neocons. Ali also suggests that F.A. Hayek (9) was the inspirer of the "Washington Consensus." Even though Hayek was the intellectual guru of Mrs. Margaret Thatcher, the influence of "Austrian economists" such as Hayek on mainstream policy discussions and neoclassical economics is quite limited. The credit for formulating the "Washington Consensus" (10) goes to John Williamson (11) of the Washington D.C.-based Institute of International Economics. (12) Furthermore, Ali believes that Boutros Boutros-Gali was not reelected Secretary-General of the United Nations because of his insistence that the UN intervene in Rwanda. However, the UN report (13) on the Qana massacre (14) committed by the Israeli military forces may have also contributed to the US administration's aversion for him. The ditching of Boutros Boutros-Gali by the U.S. was not related to a single issue but more realistically caused by a combination of factors. In another place, Ali mistakenly states that the first Gulf War occurred in 1990 (instead of 1991). (15)
Despite these few limitations, Bush in Babylon is a worthy contribution that deserves to be widely read. Ali's writing on poetry and poets-in-exile are some of the best parts of the book. His observations and insightful perspectives may prove to be prescient. International solidarity with Iraq is critical at this juncture in history -- people need to be armed with knowledge and understanding and develop empathy for the Iraqi people. Tariq Ali's latest work does a great service to this cause; it is quite an informative and educated discourse as well as a devastating critique of the Anglo-American occupation, intellectual sycophants, and certain disgraceful collaborators.
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