Imperial Hubris

David Barsamian interviews Tariq Ali, March 2006


Tariq Ali was born in Lahore, then a part of British-ruled India, now in Pakistan. For many years he has been based in London where he is an editor of New Left Review. He's written more than a dozen books on world history and politics. He is also a filmmaker, playwright, and novelist. He is the author of The Clash of Fundamentalisms and Bush in Babylon. His latest book is Speaking of Empire & Resistance. I talked with him in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on December 16, 2005 during the Perdana Gobal Peace Forum.


BARSAMIAN: Lawrence of Arabia wrote in 1920, "The people of England have been led in Iraq into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honour. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information. It is a disgrace to our imperial record, and may soon be too inflamed for any ordinary cure.... Our unfortunate troops, under hard conditions of climate and supply are policing an immense area, paying dearly every day in lives for the willfully wrong policy." It's interesting how history moves in cycles.

ALI: I've always argued that though history never repeats itself exactly, it constantly echoes. And these echoes of history are with us as long as the structures of the world remain basically the same.

On May 1, 2005, the Sunday Times of London published the Downing Street memo. It became front-page news in Britain, but not in the U.S. Explain what it is.

The Downing Street memo is the record of a set of secret conversations, which took place at the highest levels of the British government and intelligence and civil services. What the memorandum reveals is that from the beginning they were determined to lie their way to war.

The date of the memo is July 23, 2002, months before the invasion of Iraq.

Essentially these rogues were devising a plan to go to war, setting traps for the Iraqi government. The staggering thing is that despite the publication of the Downing Street memorandum, Blair is still prime minister of Britain, Jack Straw is still foreign secretary, and George Bush and Dick Cheney are still running the United States. The public is so cynical it doesn't much care.

Another stunning revelation that appeared in the British press, the Daily Mirror, was that President Bush proposed bombing Al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based Arab satellite network.

Al-Jazeera posed a big problem-from the beginning it provided alternative images. These images could be seen in Europe. The number of European citizens, especially in France, Germany, and Britain, buying Al-Jazeera cable sets so that they could access the station went up by two million at the start of the war. Even though people couldn't speak a word of Arabic, they did not trust Western images and they wanted to see alternatives.

And it was in order to destroy any possibility of alternative images that the U.S. bombed Al-Jazeera in Afghanistan at the start of the war there. They bombed Al-Jazeera positions even though Al-Jazeera's directors had told them, "This is where our offices are. Please make sure they don't bomb us." Besides the murder of Tariq Ayoub, we have seen a senior Al-Jazeera correspondent arrested in Spain and charged with terrorism on the basis of information received from the U.S. We have an Al-Jazeera correspondent arrested and tortured in Abu Ghraib prison and we have an Al-Jazeera correspondent at Guantanamo Bay.


DB: On July 7, 2005 the London underground and a bus were bombed, resulting in scores of deaths and casualties. What has happened to civil liberties in Britain since the bombings?

TA: The London bombings were a tragedy because innocents died and these young kids who carried them out took their own lives. Senseless carnage on the streets of a city which, by and large, had opposed the war. Nonetheless, one had to ask, "Why did they do it?" And here you saw for one whole week the British establishment and the entire British media system closing ranks. I think, without blowing my own trumpet, that I was the only person who wrote in the Guardian the following day an article on the bombings, saying that this was a direct outcome of Blair's decision to go to war in Iraq. The Guardian, to its credit, published this. But the letters columns published attacks on me for days on end, without anyone being allowed to respond. Normally after I make a public intervention, I get about 100 emails, sometimes a bit more, 80 percent usually in favor, 20 percent against. After this article, I got over 800 emails and over 90 percent of them were in favor.

Within two weeks it became clear that what I had said was right. The first opinion poll, published in the Guardian, showed that 66 percent of the British public said that the attacks on London were a direct outcome of the war on Iraq. Then we had the leak of a letter written by the head of the British Foreign Office to the prime minister's office a year prior to the bombings saying, "I am deeply concerned that our foreign policy and intervention in Iraq are creating havoc inside the Muslim communities in Britain." Then we had a special report, commissioned by the Royal Institute of International Affairs, a semi-Foreign Office think tank. They said, "The war in Iraq has created massive problems within Britain itself and has threatened the security of our country." July 7 brought all that to the fore. Blair's ratings are now down. He is a much loathed and despised prime minister.

DB: And civil liberties?

TA: Blair, in order to show that he was doing something, has waged a war on civil liberties. He has demanded emergency laws and demanded that the police should be allowed to detain and hold suspects for 90 days. The 90-day law was a law of apartheid South Africa, which used to be criticized by liberals and conservatives alike as something unacceptable within a democratic state.

But there already is a law under existing legislation whereby police can detain someone for 14 days without access to a lawyer. The shoddy compromise was 28 days, not the proposed 90. The parliamentarians who defeated the 90-day law said, "We've defeated Blair," which is true. They humiliated him. But for the police to hold someone for a whole month? Unheard of. Habeas corpus suspended, the right to hold prisoners without trial indefinitely? This is what is going on in Britain today.

Part of the lexicon of the war on terrorism are such phrases as ghost detainees, extraordinary rendition, secret flights, and secret prisons. This has created a brouhaha in Europe and prompted a visit by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to explain the situation.

We know that Condoleezza Rice was subjected to quite tough questioning, especially when she visited Germany, because they had lifted a German citizen when he was vacationing somewhere and had taken him to some prison. According to this unfortunate German citizen, he was sodomized, tortured, and locked up. Finally they realized he wasn't guilty of anything and had to release him. He's now trying to sue the U.S. government. He was kidnapped and the German government didn't lift a finger to do anything. When Condoleezza Rice visited Berlin, the new German chancellor, who supported the Iraq war, Angela Merkel, had to confront Rice on this question because the German press was outraged.

There is outrage all over Europe. The Italians, who have a pro-U.S. government, are nonetheless angry that people are lifted off the streets of Rome and taken on planes to Guantánamo, prisons in Egypt, or wherever. No one quite knows. The European media have been very angry and say it's a violation of human rights laws. Blair, of course, is the only one who isn't angry because he's been fully collaborating with this. Unmarked planes have been seen taking off from British airports with prisoners.

Some of the prisons they have been taken to are in Eastern Europe. You will recall that throughout the Cold War we were told Eastern Europe were satellite states of the Soviet Union, they didn't have their own freedoms. Exactly the same is happening now. It's just that they've become satellite states of the U.S. In many cases the same people who were working with the Russians are now working with the U.S. I wouldn't be surprised if many of the prison guards and wardens are the same.

Eastern Europe dissidents who used to scream and shout in order to get U.S. assistance-Václav Havel, Adam Michnik, Lech Walechsa-where are they now? Why don't they speak up? Michnik and Havel actually supported the war in Iraq and presumably justified this as part of the fight against "barbarism" or whatever. I don't know. But this is another aspect of the situation in Europe, which very few people actually discuss.

Sectors of the U.S. elite are critical of the Iraq war such as Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations and Colin Powell's deputy, Lawrence Wilkerson. Even the New York Times. The gist of their critique, however, is based not on the immorality or criminality of attacking a country, but on the incompetence and ineptitude of the Bush administration. Their logic is that if they had done it properly, we wouldn't have any problems.

The people who only talk about ineptitude are people who basically supported the war and now feel compelled to come out against it because it's gone wrong. It's the fact that they didn't expect a resistance. That's very, very dangerous talk. It is no way to fight this crazed adventurism of the Bush administration. It totally plays into their hands. They can then point to these people and say, "They want us to send more troops." And we might have a weird situation where many Democrats, like Hillary Clinton and her gang, are attacking Republicans for not sending more troops. Is this what the next political debate within the American political establishment should be? We did send enough troops. No, you didn't send enough troops. We did, you didn't, we did, you didn't. Give us a break.


DB: In an article in the Guardian, you write that "the argument that withdrawal will lead to civil war is slightly absurd." Why do you say that?

Because a form of civil war exists already. Whenever imperial powers occupy a country, historically speaking, there is one basic policy they follow, which is divide and rule. Usually they go for a minority ethnic community, give them all sorts of privileges, and hope that will do the trick. In Iraq the British did that with the Sunnis. It kept the Shia at bay. It relied on the Sunni elite to do the trick for them, which worked for a short time. The U.S. is relying largely on the Kurds and collaborationist element within the Shia religious leadership to do the business for them. I'm not sure it's going to work with the rest of Iraq. But the notion that if they leave, there will be a civil war is utterly ludicrous because it's their presence that has created a civil war situation inside Iraq.


DB: Harold Pinter won the 2005 Nobel Prize for Literature. His acceptance speech, "Art, Truth, and Politics," was a critique of U.S. power around the world. He says, "The crimes of the United States have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless, but very few people have actually talked about them." What kind of coverage did Pinter, who is British, get?

TA: Harold Pinter is probably the greatest living playwright in the English-speaking world today. He is highly respected in Britain, including by people who don't agree with his political opinions. His speech was shown on Channel 4 television, extracts were shown on the BBC. It was a very moving speech because he was ill in bed. It was given massive coverage in the British media and in Europe. I think it's been translated into almost every European language. It was certainly publicized widely all over Asia, Africa, and a big extract of Pinter's speech was shown on Telesur, the Latin American TV channel. And I'm sure Al-Jazeera broadcast it as well. The only country where this speech was not broadcast or covered was in the U.S.

U.S. military power is unchallenged and supreme. However, on the economic level, the U.S. is plagued by a number of serious problems. Other than weapons and cultural products, such as music, Hollywood films, and video games, there are very few things made in the U.S. that people around the world want. So there seems to be a paradox, perhaps echoing previous empires, of great military power, on one hand, and an eroding economic base.

This is true and it certainly applies to the British and the European empires of the 20th century. Though in the case of the Germans, they were defeated not economically, but militarily. But, by and large, empires extend themselves too far, their economies begin to suffer, and there are rebellions within. It's the conjunction of all these events which usually helps to bring about the fall of empires.

The U.S. can't do this indefinitely, granted, but it can do it easily for another 25 years. I think the alarm bells are beginning to ring inside the U.S. because they are threatened now not by this spurious threat of terror or tiny groups of religious extremists, but by economic developments in East Asia.

The emergence of China as a very major player does potentially threaten the U.S., though even here I would advise caution. I have many colleagues and friends in the American academy who sometimes get carried away by the development of China. They sort of ascribe to the Chinese leadership motives that are remote from Chinese thinking. The Chinese, after all, are dependent on the U.S. market so this notion that they can punish the U.S. just by withdrawing from the dollar reserves and going to the Euro would punish themselves. If the U.S. imposed tariffs on Chinese exports to the U.S., then the Chinese could do something. But as long as they don't impose tariff barriers and there is free trade taking place between both countries, then the Chinese are not going to do anything, because the Chinese economy is booming. The most dynamic capitalism you see today is in China, not in the U.S., Europe, or South Korea even.

DB: Hurricane Katrina exposed enormous fissures. in the U.S. Months after the hurricane, large sections of New Orleans still do not have clean water, sanitation, electricity. How was this seen in the British press?

TA: The European press, not just Britain, are pretty obsessed with the U.S. because this is the empire before which they scrape and bow. Anything that happens there is of enormous concern. The coverage of the New Orleans events in the European media was as if it was happening to their own countries. But they were also shocked, just as for the first two weeks the U.S. media was in a state of complete shock. Even journalists on Fox television were reporting with real anger because they couldn't believe what they were seeing and, like many Americans, had no idea that so many black people lived in New Orleans. So this was a part of the U.S., which they said was almost like the Third World. It isn't almost. It is.

In this situation, what you see is a state that cannot provide the basic amenities of life either to countries it's occupying or to its own country. We know all this and there has been endless stuff written about it. The thing is, as long as no political, social, or economic alternative exists, they will carry on getting away with it. Wouldn't it be great if in New Orleans they stood independent candidates against the two-party system and won. Just a small thing, but it would reverberate throughout the U.S., saying, "You let us down and we're going to let you down."

DB: How is fighting power today different from the 1960s?

TA: It's very different in the sense that in the 1960s and 1970s, and even the early 1980s, there was still a lot of hope that you could get rid of this system and transform it through a series of democratic revolutions or insurrections or whatever. That no longer exists in large parts of the world. So there is a general feeling that really we're stuck, there is no real alternative to the system. That is the feeling in North America, Europe, and large chunks of Asia and Africa.

Not in Latin America. Here you have the beginnings of an alternative. This is why the propaganda war against Chavez and the attempts to overthrow him make sense from the U.S. point of view. Chavez is totally challenging the neoliberal economic order. He quotes Simon Bolivar and numerous other leaders of Latin American nationalism to say what needs to be done. And it's a very clever, intelligent operation. He is using money from the oil wealth of Venezuela, which has benefited the Venezuelan poor enormously because they're lucky to have a government that doesn't accept neoliberal jargon and neoliberal prescriptions. So you have had in Venezuela a massive social expenditure on health, education, creating shelter for the poor, land reform, giving land to the peasant farmers, slum dwellers getting the right to the houses they have built and the land on which they have built them. All this is happening.

Gradually, news of this experience is traveling through Latin America because ideas cross borders very easily, they don't need passports. So Chavez and the Bolivarians in Venezuela have become a pole of attraction for social movements throughout Latin America. These, I would say, are social movements which are movements in the genuine sense of the word. Every single deprived layer is active in some way or the other.

Latin America, from that point of view, is extremely important today in terms of offering some social alternatives. One of the things they told me in Cuba, they said, "We get fed up with these stupid articles in the American press saying, 'After Fidel, Who? Miami? Raul Castro?'" They said, "No, the answer is very simple. After Fidel, Hugo Chavez, because," they said, "this is Latin America." This continent has a habit of throwing up popular leaders who express the aspirations of the poor.

Telesur TV, which you've been involved in, went on the air in 2005. It broadcasts from Caracas and is supported by the governments of Venezuela, Argentina, Cuba, and Uruguay.

This is an idea that grew over the years. I remember going to Caracas in 2003 to celebrate the defeat of the coup attempt against Chavez. I said to them at a big public rally where Chavez and others were present that one has to fight on many fronts and one of the fronts one has to fight on is the media front. And I said, "We have in the Arab world Al-Jazeera and what we need in the Latin American world is Al Bolivar." Afterwards, Chavez pointed out to me, "We can't call it Al Bolivar because the Brazilians have no memory of Bolivar. He didn't go there." So they called it Telesur instead. And together with Eduardo Galeano, Fernando Solanas, many other intellectuals, I'm on the advisory board. So when they ask us, we play an advisory role.

It's early yet to judge whether it will be a success or not. They have not reached the level of Al-Jazeera. Also, their project is slightly different from Al-Jazeera's. Telesur's project is to unify Latin America, so it's critical of what's going on, but at the same time it has a very constructive side to it.

DB: The theme of the World Social Forum is "another world is possible." What signs do you see that another world is possible?

TA: The signs are there, largely in Latin America. I have to say that in Africa and Asia there are not many signs. There are some. You have the discontent of the Chinese peasants now, who are demanding more and more social rights. You have some social movements in India which have scored some victories. But in terms of an overall alternative to the existing neoliberal order, the big struggles that are taking place in Latin America. So there are these possibilities. I don't exaggerate them. The nice thing about the World Social Forum is that it's a gathering of like-minded people who meet once a year or once every two years and say, "Hi, guys, we're still around." Which is nice, but it's not sufficient.

DB: What does the title of your book Rough Music mean?

TA: "Rough music" is a phrase that was popularized by the English historian E. P. Thompson who said, "Rough music is the term which has been generally used in England since the end of the 17th century to denote a rude cacophony, with or without more elaborate ritual, which usually directed mockery or hostility against individuals who offended against certain community norms."

My book Rough Music is a rude cacophony against Tony Blair and all the wielders of power and his embedded journalists in the media who tell endless lies.


David Barsamian is the founder and current director of Alternative Radio in Boulder, Colorado (www.alternative and the author of numerous books. His latest is Speaking of Empire & Resistance, with Tariq Ali.

American Empire page

Home Page