Tariq Ali, born in Lahore, based in London, an internationally renowned writer, an editor of the New Left Review and author of the recent bestseller The Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads and Modernity, has been a consistent critic of global imperialism since the 1960s. In conversation with David Barsamian at Porto Alegre, Brazil, he elaborated on the nature of contemporary imperialism, the complicity of the US media, the erosion of national sovereignty through the creation of dictatorial client regimes, and the nature of the Anglo-American imperial alliance and the war in Iraq.
David Barsamian: Imperialism is not a word that is often used in polite discourse in the United States.
Tariq Ali: It is a word they do not like, though it is a word they used a lot when the British empire was dominant. Liberal magazines were constantly attacking the British empire. On the eve of the second world war, a series of articles in The New Republic argued that there was very little to choose between the British empire and Hitler. They always had this hostility to the British empire because of the origins of the American state itself, and therefore they were very reluctant to accept the fact that they themselves had all the makings of an empire from very early on. They assumed that an empire consisted of colonies abroad which were ruled and staffed by people sent from the imperial country. And they said, “Well, we don’t do it like that”.
It is true that the United States did not do it like that. Look at its internal expansion. First, it conquered and destroyed the indigenous population. Then it fought a big civil war to unite its own country. Then it gobbled up bits of Mexico and incorporated them into the United States. It did something very similar to what czarist Russia did in the old days of the Russian empire.
Then they found a different way of moving forward. The American empire and American imperialism moved very quickly, through the Monroe Doctrine in the 19th century and the early 20th century, to take over Latin America. Look at the number of military interventions that were carried out first in the Central American republics, then throughout Latin America. Why were these carried out? Long before there was a revolution in Russia, these were carried out to defend American corporate interests. Hence, the term “banana republics” came into being. It was because American companies were going in there, backed by the Marines, securing these countries for the corporations, for American capitalism to grow and triumph.
But for a long period the US kept to its own sphere. What caused it to move out was not so much the need for colonies, which it did not need in that sense, given the size and scale of the United States itself and the natural resources it possesses, plus the fact that it dominated South America. What forced it to move out was not even the first world war. What compelled it to move out was the Russian revolution. There is a very interesting parallel. At the same time as the Russian revolution was taking place, Woodrow Wilson decided that it was time for a major US intervention, because they were nervous that the threat to capitalist interests in Europe could actually threaten them in the long term. That is when they decided they had to go international.
D: To what extent is imperialism connected to or is an outcome of capitalism? You mentioned that Russia expanded. One could add that the Soviet Union had quasi-dependent states.
T: Soviet expansion after the second world war, far from being economically exploitative, was something they needed geographically and militarily, to create a network of states which were part of their sphere of influence, part of their social and economic system, in order to hold the United States at bay. There was a deal agreed to with the Americans and the British at Yalta in 1945 for the creation of spheres of influence. By that agreement the world was divided up into strategic areas of operation — you can have Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia; Yugoslavia should be 50-50; Greece is ours, so if there is a revolutionary movement there, we will crush it, and you stay out of it. That is how the whole deal was done.
But leaving that aside, all the early empires were founded by the need for capital to expand. For a while this got disguised, because while the Soviet bloc existed, by and large people in the West saw it as essentially a war against an evil empire. Now the slate is clean once again. We have the world before us naked. We see exactly what is going on. The 20 September 2002 strategy doctrine put out by the Bush administration makes it crystal clear what this is all about.
The difference between the American empire and the previous empires is that the United States usually prefers to work through local compradors, local rulers who are on their side. They do not like ruling directly, because they know it is an enormous expense. Why send your own people out to run a country when you can find locals to do it? That is how they have always operated. They occupied Japan after the second world war, they created a constitution, and MacArthur was like a viceroy. But they pulled out of that after a few years and let their local relays in Japan carry on, as they still do. The Japanese Liberal Democratic Party was created by the United States to do the job for them. Even in the latest case, Afghanistan, they did not want to have their own people there pending a general election. They put a puppet, a former employee of the CIA and the Unocal oil company, Hamid Karzai, in power in Kabul. And he does the work for them, even though they cannot leave him undefended, which they could in other cases.
The real intentions of US policy are not even concealed by most of the supporters of Bush writing in the American press. They are no longer even trying to conceal their real aims. They are saying, “we are the world’s mightiest power, these are our economic interests, these are our strategic interests, these are our geopolitical interests, and we are going to defend them”. This is imperialism, different from the past, in a new situation. And in Iraq they will assert new, raw imperial power in a way they have not done before.
D: Walter Rodney, the important political thinker and writer from Guyana, talked about what he called “the local lackeys” of imperialism, something you have just touched upon. Tell me more about this class of collaborators who serve the metropolitan centre.
T: This has been a systematic pattern throughout the 20th century. The period in the middle of the 20th century saw the rise of nationalism and liberation movements against the old empires. But already standing behind the old empires was the shadow of the United States of America. And as the old empires were going down, they were being replaced by the power of the United States of America.
In the middle of the last century there was the Korean war, a three-year war fought by the United States under the banner of the United Nations, in the course of which the industrially strong part of Korea, which was the north, was completely devastated. Not a single building was left standing. Its entire infrastructure was destroyed. And then they agreed to a ceasefire.
Then there was Vietnam. First, the French were defeated in Vietnam. The United States was not prepared to see that defeat and stepped in. And for the first time, American leaders thought of using nuclear weapons. John Foster Dulles, the secretary of state, suggested to Western allies and the French that perhaps, in order to stop these ants crawling up the hills around Dien Bien Phu, the big battle where the French were defeated, they should be destroyed.
Without understanding the national movements and the role they played, we cannot understand properly the role of collaborators. The aim of the American empire was, by hook or by crook, to get rid of these governments somehow; to maintain a nationalist pretense and to get in a different group of people who could pretend to be anti-colonial nationalists but actually serving the needs of the great metropolitan empire.
How did they do this? They failed in Vietnam. They succeeded in dividing Korea. But they could not rule South Korea democratically, because no lackeys could be found who could be elected. So they put the army in power. They did exactly the same in Pakistan. When a general election was planned for April 1959, which would have returned a government that would have withdrawn from the security pacts into which Pakistan was tied, a coup d’etat was organised and the the military came to power in October 1958 to preempt a general election.
The country which worried them the most in the middle of the last century was Indonesia, because it had the world’s largest communist party outside China and Russia, a party with a million members, and an additional two million people in front organisations. It had a big influence on the government and within the armed forces. So what do they do? They initiated one of the most dastardly actions since the second world war, a military coup, where they put Suharto in power. Suharto proceeded to kill a million people and wiped out the most powerful social movement in the country. The killings in the rural areas, where the communists had organised the peasants, were on a very high pitch. They killed a million people. And as Time magazine put it, quite bluntly, it was the best news the West had had from Asia in a long time. It was a big victory for them. In Suharto, they found a local collaborator, who stayed in power until the end of the 20’h century. A dictator much more vicious than anything we have seen in Iraq came to power on a mountain of corpses. In 1975, he invaded East Timor, killed several hundred thousand people there, and wiped out all the secular, radical opposition in the country. And then people are surprised how come the Islamists are so powerful. Because Islamists were used in 1965 to kill reds. “Go and wipe them out. They are atheists, they are communists. Kill, kill, kill, kill”. That is how collaborators are created.
And then you have a new phase, which is the post-Cold War phase, where basically the triumph of the United States and world capitalism totally disarmed even semi-nationalist politicians who felt there was nothing else to do. Just work with them, serve them. It has been very difficult now for the last 20 years to get elected leaders who are prepared to fight for their own people and the rights of their own state. Interestingly enough, Latin America is a continent which has been in revolt now for some time. You have seen the election of Chavez. You have seen the failure to topple Fidel Castro after 40 years of blockade. You have seen the phenomenal victory of Lula in Brazil. You have seen the victory of Gutierrez in Ecuador. Evo Morales in Bolivia came very close to defeating the corporations’ candidate. So we are seeing the beginnings of a new wave of, let us call it, subnationalism or protonationalism, which wants to resist and does not know how to resist. So maybe we are now reaching a period where this model could spread elsewhere. But by and large, in Asia and Africa they have, so far, pliable regimes.
I do not think this can last indefinitely. Curiously enough, the war in Iraq, the occupation of Iraq and the substitution of Saddam with a US puppet government so the oil can be shared out as war trophy, is bound to create a resistance sooner or later. It may take years but it will happen. In that sense, the American empire is no different from other empires. It is slowly sowing the seeds of the forces that will one day confront it.
But the confrontation, in the case of the United States, has also to come from within America itself. It is very interesting that Seattle was where the anti-globalisation movement was born. The first Anti-Imperialist League ever created was in Chicago in 1898 by Mark Twain and by other Americans, who identified imperialism as the major problem. Mark Twain was reacting to the American occupation of the Philippines, where they did a deal with the Spanish, as they did later with the French in Vietnam. Within a year, the league had a quarter of a million members in 30 different cities. And that was a time when there was no communism, no social enemies like that on a world scale, but imperialism still existed. And intelligent American citizens could see that it existed.
The time has come again for the heirs of Mark Twain and the other pioneers of that Anti-Imperialist League to get together and create such a body once again. This organisation can fight the empire morally from within its own heart.
D: Clearly,19th century European imperialism was predicated on racism. What factor does racism play in imperialism now?
T: Racism was the basis of the old empires. There is a similarity between the old and new, but the racist motif has declined. They do not use it much now. In fact, they are trying to bend over backwards to avoid using it, because they know it is quite explosive. But you cannot deny the underlying feeling of white superiority in all this. When lots of civilians were killed in New York and some in Washington on 11 September, the whole world was expected to weep for them in public. Why? Because they were citizens of the United States of America. When Afghan citizens are killed by indiscriminate bombings, by so-called accidental bombings, no one will ever build a monument for them. Why not? Because underlying all this is still the belief that the US is a superior nation a superior race and a superior people.
Look at the cavalier way in which casualties are discussed in the case of Iraq. There was a conference, organised by the State Department and its favourite Iraqis. An Iraqi friend who attended told me, they were discussing casualties: how many civilian deaths would be acceptable? According to him the figure the Iraqis and the Americans were talking about amongst themselves was 250,000. It should not go above that. A quarter of a million civilian deaths acceptable? When 3000 deaths are not acceptable in the United States of America, but a quarter of a million Iraqi lives are acceptable, what is that if not the most grotesque demonstration that the lives of these poor Arabs do not matter a damn. The form racism takes is different from the old days, but it is still there.
In 1996, when Madeleine Albright was the US. ambassador to the United Nations, she was asked about the impact of sanctions on Iraq, and specifically, the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children. She was asked, “Do you think the price is worth it? And she answered, “We think the price is worth it”.
That is one of the most shocking statements made by a senior American politician or leader since the second world war. If that statement had been made by Lyndon Johnson in 1968, or Nixon in 1970-71, that killing two million Vietnamese is worth it, there would have been absolute pandemonium. The fact that Madeleine Albright said this on CBS and was not reprimanded for it by her president is just deeply shocking.
This is where we see this empire at its worst. Remember the worst atrocities of the British empire in India, for instance the Jallianwala Bagh episode in 1919, where they killed several hundred people. Several hundred people and what outcry there was in the world. When Belgium’s King Leopold started killing Congolese people, a massive outcry ensued. Arthur Conan Doyle wrote a book called Atrocities in the Congo, which sold 200,000 copies in two months. There were massive worldwide campaigns against these atrocities. Now it is almost as if the world has gone to sleep, that they are so comfortable and secure in Europe and North America that killing people and the deaths of ordinary civilians do not matter a damn. They are all deemed to serve some cause, and I put it to you that the cause they serve is the cause of the American empire.
D: What is the role of the media in shaping and forming public opinion. For example, the media constantly repeat that Saddam Hussein represents a grave threat to the United States. And also, contrast the media in Britain with the United States.
T: Yes, there is a difference. In the United States, television coverage of the rest of the world is hardly ever there. And it is almost as if the only way they can teach people geography is by going and bombing countries. Oh, you don’t know where Afghanistan is? It’s here. Look, we’re bombing it. You don’t know where Iraq is? It’s here. We’re going to bomb it, then you will know where it is. So you have a population which is not informed or educated by the media except when it is time for war, and when they suddenly find a country, pick it out and attack it. It is a process which can only be described as propaganda of the most disgusting sort. You do not allow people to think for themselves. You frighten them.
This notion of Saddam Hussein being a threat to the United States makes everyone in Europe laugh, including European politicians. Recently, I was at a public debate in Berlin. I was debating Professor Ruth Wedgewood, an advisor to Donald Rumsfeld. To my amazement she suddenly turned to the Germans and said, “I know the reason you are opposed to this war. It’s because you’re scared of Saddam”. Afterwards, people came and told me, “We were really taken aback by that. What does she mean?” I said, “This is what they say in the United States all the time. They frighten the people that Saddam represents a real threat. And I am staggered that they have begun to believe their own rhetoric”. And one of the members of the audience said to me, “For us this was not so much a political experience as an anthropological experience”. There you see the big difference.
The media in the United States has degenerated. And that even applies to large numbers of television networks in Europe. The funny thing is that these so-called journalists travel all over the world, and sometimes they miss out on the most important struggles taking place because their eyes are just concentrated on what they need to report in their papers. The American media’s coverage of the Israeli occupation of Palestine is so one-sided, it is almost as if the Palestinians were occupying Jewish lands and the Israelis were resisting a big force of Palestinians.
The reporting in the American media is part and parcel of what is happening. And it is essentially the need to use the media to create an institutional depoliticisation. Do not write anything which might make people think, because if you do it, they might think things we do not want them to think, and then where would we be? This is what neoliberal economics, globalisation has done to the functioning of democracy. It is beginning to damage it very seriously.
In Europe, the situation is slightly different. You still have newspapers which will publish critical articles. It gets bad when a country is actually involved in a war. But on Iraq, for instance, and Palestine you have had coverage in the British, French and Italian newspapers of which you will find no equivalent in the United States, with the partial, occasional exception of the LA Times, which sometimes publishes very critical stuff. The European press allows far more space and far more news reportage of events which are taking place more objectively than anything in the United States itself.
D: What about such US magazines as The Nation, In These Times, The Progressive, or Z, and all these new websites, such as indymedia.org, commondreams.org, or zmag.org? They are providing alternative information.
T: This has been one of the most important developments in challenging the weight of the media, the alternative information networks, which have sprung up everywhere following Seattle. It means that a small group of politically aware citizens anywhere in the world can access this material. But the mistake we should not make is to imagine that this can somehow compete with the powers that be. That is a serious mistake. And sometimes we get carried away and excited. But always be aware that cyberspace and the web can be very deceptive. Because it is on the web does not mean that everyone gets it. And where we have not been able to compete with them at all is in the television coverage. In Genoa, the Italian police went into the Alternative Information Centre and smashed it to bits. They were scared because activists had television cameras and were filming what was going on when Carlo Giuliani, one of the protestors, was killed. But it is still very important, because it breaks the complete monopoly these people have
In some countries, there are progressive daily newspapers that have managed to keep going. It is quite remarkable. In Norway, for example, there is Klassekampfen (class struggle). In Italy, there is II Manifesto. It is interesting, when you talk to the Manifesto editors, they say, “During times of crisis, our circulation just shoots up. That is when people need alternatives”. The combination of all this and websites can work, but it is only a drop in the ocean.
D: Why is Tony Blair such an enthusiastic partner of George Bush in his war on terrorism?
T: The problem with Tony Blair is that he actually believes in it. He is a deeply conservative man. I have absolutely no doubt about it. He would have been a good leader of the British Conservative Party. He is probably too right wing for some conservatives, but he would have been perfectly at home there. Underlying Blair, which very few people talk about, there is a streak of Christian fundamentalism in him which goes very deep. And there is around him a Christian mafia, which is quite authoritarian in its social attitudes and beliefs.
In terms of foreign policy, I think Blair decided very early on after he came to office that he was going to continue the deals Thatcher had done with Reagan. What these deals have done, basically, especially after the Malvinas/Falklands conflict, is that they have docked the British Ministry of Defence totally into the Pentagon, to the extent that when the latter upgrades, the former, which does not need to do it, has to because it is part of the same system.
And now, the British political class, labour and conservative, is totally committed to this alliance. it reminds you of what Charles De Gaulle used to say when he kept Britain out of the common market, when he kept on vetoing British entry into the common market. He used to say that Britain will always be an American Trojan horse in the European Union. How right he was. Blair likes to go and tell the Europeans, I am close to Bush. I can influence him. And he tells Bush, it is important I am in the European Union because I can make sure that your views there are properly defended. That is the role this guy plays.
Underlying Blair’s servility to the United States is how he sees the country. Britain is a medium-sized, northern European country. It no longer has an empire. The country has quite an exploitative deregulated system which attracts foreign capital because wages and taxes are low. This is what Thatcher achieved. Blair believes this has to be maintained, because he does not have any other vision. And one of the ways it can be maintained is by totally hanging alongside the United States, sharing part of the proceeds and being seen by Washington as a loyal ally. Satraps used to do it in the days of the Roman empire, more loyal to the empire than many people inside the empire itself, who could see the realities of what they were doing. And that is what Blair has consciously decided he wants to be, a loyal satrap of the American empire.
I mentioned his faith in Christianity and the US. In addition, he is also a very greedy man. He is obsessed with money. He is always telling people at private dinner parties how being prime minister of Britain has meant that he is not earning as much money ashe should be. When politicians combine piety and greed and then are prepared to justify wars, you get a very internally mixed-up politician.
D: Noam Chomsky, among others, has suggested that the United States, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, has been fervently looking for an oppositional force to replace it. They tried Noriega in Panama, Qaddafi in Libya, and the Cali and Medellin drug cartels. Now they have zoomed in on Islam, a certain variant of it, fundamentalist and militant, as the new archenemy.
T: They have indeed. The one thing on which they have got support from a large numbers of other countries is that Islamic fundamentalist terrorism is a bad thing and this is an enemy which has to be wiped out and destroyed. But where do you go from there? Because unless you understand what causes young people to decide to sacrifice their own lives, how do you stop that process? So in order to justify infinite war, they have invented this enemy, which they created themselves at the height of the Cold War to service their needs in Indonesia, Afghanistan and in the Arab world. They supported the people they now call their main enemies in order to destroy radical nationalist regimes which threatened their interests. Now these people have broken loose because the Americans dumped them. That is essentially what is going on.
It is crazy to make Islam into a monolith. It is just as divided as any other part of the world. How is it a big enemy? The maximum number of people Al Qaeda has, is 3000, maybe 4000. They are ensconsed in different parts of the world, including Europe and the USA. So how come they cannot be destroyed? The problem is not Al Qaeda. The problem is the conditions which create this mood which drives young people to despair. You cannot get away from that. It will not stop unless the central problems in West Asia, Palestine, Israel, and what is being done to Iraq, are solved.
That is one reason why the war in Iraq, far from being a war against terrorism, should be called a war to promote terrorism, because people will feel their governments have let this happen. There is nothing they can do. What are we going to do? How are we going to respond when Baghdad, the historic city of Islamic civilisation, the city of the caliphs and 1001 Nights, is once again occupied by crusaders. That is what they will see. It is seen in the Arab world as a crusade for oil. And the reason they have made Islam the big enemy now is because oil is underneath Islamic lands, which is an accident of geography and history. The richest deposits of oil lie underneath Muslim lands. There is oil in Brunei, a Muslim country in Southeast Asia, Iraq has the second largest deposits of oil, Iran has oil, the Arabian peninsula has oil. If there was no oil underneath the Islamic world, it was somewhere else – let us suppose all the oil or the bulk of the oil was in Africa – that would be the enemy. The rhetoric would be different. They would be saying, “They are not proper Christians, they have never learned proper Christianity”, or whatever else suits them. The reason Islam is the enemy is tied very closely to oil and the needs of the West in controlling this region and making sure it never goes out of that control as long as the globe exists. That is the plan.