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The challenge to the empire


TARIQ ALI is a veteran opponent of war and imperialism who rose to prominence as a leader of the anti-Vietnam War movement in Britain in the 1960s. Since then, he has written numerous books, including the just published Pirates of the Caribbean: Axis of Hope.

ANTHONY ARNOVE is the author of Iraq: The Logic of Withdrawal, forthcoming this January in an updated paperback edition from Metropolitan Books’ American Empire Project Series. He is a member of the International Socialist Organization and is on the editorial board of Haymarket Books and the International Socialist Review.

Tariq and Anthony answered Socialist Worker’s questions about the development of a challenge to the U.S. empire–most directly with Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, but evident in the opposition in every corner of the globe to American imperialism.

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AFTER HUGO Chávez’s United Nations (UN) speech in September, the U.S. media either denounced him or treated him with derision. Does Chávez deserve to be dismissed as a madman?

Tariq Ali: In a world deep in neoliberal sleep, any person who tries to disturb this sleep and to wake people up is denounced and traduced.

Hugo Chávez, who I have met and talked with on several occasions, is an extremely intelligent and enlightened political leader. In the public arena, he uses a language that is no longer considered acceptable by the proponents of the Washington consensus. The U.S. media has, in the main, been so slavish toward the Bush regime that Chávez appears extreme.

What he says, in fact, is the common sense of large swathes of world public opinion. He represents it in the global arena. That’s why they carry his portraits on demonstrations in Beirut. In a crazy world of imperial wars and occupations, and the economic fundamentalism of the IMF and the WTO, anyone who speaks up against this is denounced as insane.

In the last decades of the Soviet Union, the decaying bureaucrat Leonid Brezhnev used to have dissidents locked up in mental asylums. The apologists of the American empire seem to be gripped by the same logic–and let’s hope with the same results.

Chávez has been denounced non-stop as an “authoritarian,” “a crazy dictator,” etc. If only there was a U.S. media as opposed to its president as its Venezuelan equivalent is to Chávez, U.S. democracy would be greatly enhanced.

 

Anthony Arnove: For officials in the Bush administration to call other political leaders “mad” is sheer hypocrisy. But this is nothing new. The U.S. government has always demonized its political enemies, whether Chávez in Venezuela, Mossadegh in Iran, Castro in Cuba, or Aristide in Haiti.

The converse of this fact is that the crimes of the friends of Washington do not exist. Central Asian, Middle Eastern and Latin American dictators who are allied with the United States are “moderates,” “reformers” and “friends.”

For many years, Saddam Hussein, “The Butcher of Baghdad,” was a friend of Washington, even as he carried out his worst human rights abuses–which years later would be trotted out as part of the reason why the United States had to overthrow his regime. Manuel Noriega in Panama was an ally on the CIA payroll before he was declared a “madman.”

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WHY DO you think the U.S. political establishment views Chávez as a threat?

Tariq Ali: Primarily because Venezuela is the richest oil-producer in South America, and is using this oil to improve the conditions of the poor in Venezuela; to help Bolivia and Cuba; and even to offer cut-price gas and heating oil to the poor in the United States.

It’s this combination that Washington and its global acolytes hate. You can see exactly the same type of attacks on Chávez in the New York Times, the Financial Times, The Economist, Le Monde, El Pais, the London Sunday Times, Folha in Sao Paulo, etc. The global elite doesn’t like the Venezuela program of structural reforms.

Add to this Chávez’s campaign against imperialism, and you have a complete picture. This is an alternative they do not want to encourage, which is why they tried to topple him on three separate occasions.

If you compare how Chávez has used the oil wealth of Venezuela with the venal U.S. protectorates in the Arab world, the contrast is startling. The Arab elites have enough money to educate and provide free health facilities for the entire Muslim world. They can’t even do it in their own part of the world.

And the West is surprised by the support for radical Islam. Not that this current has spent its money well–the class polarization in Iran produced Ahmadinejad, but until now, the clerics have not let him implement his program.

 

Anthony Arnove: Tariq is absolutely right to stress the importance of Venezuela’s oil reserves. Keep in mind that the United States imports most of its oil not from the Middle East but from Canada and Venezuela. So Washington sees a real threat of Venezuela using oil as a weapon.

But the main concern, I think, is the “threat of a good example”–the danger that other governments will follow Venezuela’s lead in confronting neoliberalism and U.S. imperialism.

Venezuela alone can’t counter U.S. imperial designs in Latin America or globally. But aligned with other countries, it could be part of a challenge to U.S. hegemony. And, most worrying of all for those in Washington, it could inspire a revival of movements for more radical change.

 

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CHÁVEZ CRITICIZED the U.S. for waging war in the name of democracy, but imposing the opposite. Can you talk about that?

Anthony Arnove: The U.S. rationale for invading Iraq has gone through so many permutations, it’s sometimes hard to keep track: weapons of mass destruction, the alleged connection between Iraq and al-Qaeda, Saddam Hussein’s human rights abuses. But the one justification you still hear repeated the most–and which the establishment media has never questioned — is that Washington is “bringing democracy” to Iraq.

If Bush and Co. are bringing democracy to Iraq, then let’s ask the Iraqi people what they think about the occupation. That’s democracy–the Iraqi people should decide. And the answer is absolutely clear. Even polling by the U.S. State Department has found that a strong majority of Iraqis want the occupation to end immediately.

But that outcome isn’t acceptable to the U.S. So much for democracy, then.

The bottom line is that the United States is occupying Iraq to deny democracy and self-determination to the people of Iraq, just as it has long undermined democratic movements elsewhere in the region and the world. The United States doesn’t want democracy. It wants military bases, control of energy resources and a client government in Baghdad. And the lives of millions of Iraqis mean nothing compared to those goals.

Tariq Ali: Nobody in their right mind can say that Iraq and Afghanistan are democratic states. It’s a sick joke when you see what’s happening in both countries.

Iraq is on the verge of disintegration. Its structures have collapsed. Hundreds of thousands of children are no longer receiving an education. Water and electricity are cut off for several hours each day. Everyday life has become a torture for most Iraqis. And real torture carries on inside the prisons of the occupation. The fact that the U.S. media does not report this on a regular basis is a disgrace.

In Afghanistan, the NATO gangs have resorted to indiscriminate killings usually reported as “200 Taliban killed,” etc. There is a de facto Balkanization of the country, and Karzai is a joke figure, seen as such even by his own side. Meanwhile, poppy fields flourish, and the output has increased dramatically since the NATO occupation.

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DO YOU think the difficulties U.S. imperialism faces in its different wars–Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon–relate to the fundamental injustice of the imperialist project?

Tariq Ali: This is the case. Apart from the Kurds, who are happy to be the Gurkhas of the American empire, nobody has benefited.

In Lebanon, the imperialist project suffered a heavy blow with the inability of the supposedly invulnerable Israel Defense Force to destroy Hezbollah. The IDF has, in fact, given an enormous political boost to Hezbollah, which is, at the moment, the most popular political organization in that country. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s demand for a new general election to replace the current government echoes majority public opinion.

The UN force (Plan B) is designed to curb Hezbollah and stop the flow of weapons. But this organization has a will and capacity far superior to anything in Iraq or Palestine. Its disarmament is virtually impossible.

The Israeli failure also represented a defeat for Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, which had eagerly supported the assault.

 

Anthony Arnove: In some ways, the U.S. government has confronted the limits of empire in Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan. In all three countries, the U.S. faces serious defeat, especially in light of the exaggerated claims of what its interventions would achieve.

We have been reminded of the fact that–as we saw in Vietnam–no imperial army is all-powerful, especially when confronting popular indigenous forces opposed to occupation and foreign intervention.

Unfortunately, the Vietnam analogy shows us something else: When faced with the prospect of defeat in Vietnam, the United States did not withdraw, but intensified its destruction of Vietnam and expanded the war to Laos and Cambodia, killing millions of people in the process.

The fundamental injustice of the imperial project is on full display in each of these countries. Unfortunately, the mainstream media has restricted the discussion to questions of “poor planning,” “mistakes” and “good efforts gone awry.”

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THE DEMOCRATS have restricted their criticism of the Bush administration’s wars mainly to tactics–for example, Rep. John Murtha’s plan for “redeployment” in Iraq representing a different strategy, rather than the end of the occupation. Is that enough?

Anthony Arnove: The Democrats offer no alternative. They are just proposing to manage the empire more effectively than Bush has. The real alternative will have to come from below, from a patient rebuilding of the anti-imperialist current in the left in the United States and internationally.

The antiwar movement in the United States has to declare its independence from the Democratic Party. We have to challenge both the Republicans and the Democrats, who have a bipartisan consensus on the fundamental aims of U.S. empire.

This isn’t an abstract question. We saw the complete collapse of the antiwar movement in the last presidential election, as groups like United for Peace and Justice mobilized support for pro-war candidates like John Kerry. Millions of dollars and hours have been wasted supporting a party that has nothing but contempt for the politics and aims of the antiwar movement.

 

Tariq Ali: The Democrats must be one of the more pathetic political parties on the planet. The Clinton makeover neutered this party completely, and its failure to oppose Bush on the war and related civil liberty issues has turned out to be a disaster. Some of the Democratic worms have begun to turn, but late in the day, and the leadership remains ineffective.

As even elements within the Pentagon are arguing for a quick withdrawal (probably alarmed by Henry Kissinger nipping in and out of the White House), the fact that this demand finds no echo in official politics reflects a crisis for U.S. democracy. We already noticed this in the case of the invasion of Lebanon, where, unlike Europe, the U.S. TV networks showed no images of women and children being killed. This censorship is designed to further depoliticize the population.

Meanwhile, Iraq burns, its people die, U.S. soldiers are still getting killed every day, and the U.S. antiwar movement is virtually nonexistent.

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WHY DO you think the antiwar movement–most obviously here, but internationally–hasn’t advanced further?

Tariq Ali: I think the reason for this is that the war is being fought by a volunteer army. So the country as a whole, especially the white middle-class sectors, remains unaffected.

Secondly, the media censorship (in sharp contrast here to the coverage of the Vietnam War) means that the U.S. population is not getting a real picture of what is happening on the ground. Third, the dominant neoliberal culture is one of consumerism and individualism, and this bubble seals people off from reality.

Fourth, there is no section of official politics that is seriously antiwar. Fifth, the way of organizing utilized by the principal coalition against the war fails to understand the period in which we live.

This could change quickly if something unexpected happened on the battlefields or in U.S. politics. Because the tragedy is that public opinion against the war seems to be reflected nowhere.

Incidentally, with the partial exception of Britain, this applies to the antiwar movement elsewhere as well. Neoliberalism is the grammar of politics in most parts of the globe and induces an institutionalized apathy. Imaginative, nonviolent guerrilla antiwar actions seem to be the only solution.

 

Anthony Arnove: I think we will also need to connect the war abroad to the war at home–a war on poor people, a war on working people, a war on civil liberties.

The indirect economic costs of the Iraq occupation are now more than $1.6 billion, according to a study by Columbia University economist Joseph Stiglitz. Communities across the country are seeing cuts in education, health care, veterans programs, libraries, job training programs.

And we are seeing, in effect, a backdoor draft of reservists who are being sent to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan–many of them held past their service obligations through the “stop-loss” program, others being sent for three or four tours of duty.

And now Congress is removing habeas corpus protections, taking us back to 1214, the year before the Magna Carta.

One only has to watch a few minutes of Spike Lee’s phenomenal documentary When the Levees Broke to see the reality of race and class in the United States today. It should be required viewing. Lee’s film shows vividly how what happened on the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is intimately related to what’s happening in the Persian Gulf today.

In addition, I think it’s really important that we support those soldiers who are speaking out against the war. Groups like Iraq Veterans Against the War are playing a crucial role and need wider support.

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CHÁVEZ SAID in his UN speech that the world was “waking up” and “rising up against the empire.” What do you think is needed for this resistance to truly deal a blow to imperialism?

Tariq Ali: It’s true, the world is waking up, but very slowly.

If you look at China, you see the new workshop of the world, whose economy has led to structural alterations in the world market reminiscent of Victorian England much more than the Gilded Age. This country is locked in a tight embrace with the United States, its economy even more dependent on the U.S. market than Japan’s. To expect anything vaguely progressive from the Chinese elite is to daydream.

Latin America is waking up, but the rest of the world is still in deep, neoliberal sleep, with Russia ruled by a neo-authoritarian regime, doing well thanks to the world commodities boom and finding it more and more irritating to simulate democratic niceties (not completely unlike Bush and Blair).

In Iraq, Lebanon, and Afghanistan there is an armed resistance, but which lacks the social vision needed to have an impact inside the United States. In Palestine, the picture looks bleak as the PLO has become a 100 percent collaborationist outfit.

The left must not exaggerate what is going on. At the same time, it shouldn’t lose its nerve.

 

Anthony Arnove: Around the globe, we see signs of people rejecting the values of the so-called Washington consensus. In Ecuador, in Bolivia, in Brazil, in Spain, in Italy and many other countries, we have seen people expressing a strong desire for an alternative.

Here at home, a majority now believes it was wrong to invade Iraq. More than 70 percent of active-duty U.S. troops in Iraq say they want to come home. Bush’s approval rating is abysmal. His popularity with African American voters is 2 percent. That’s unprecedented.

But around the world, we also see an enormous gap between popular aspirations and the political leadership and organization that can help build movements to challenge those in power and build a real alternative.

In the absence of that organization, the most likely outcome is the spread of feelings of atomization, alienation and cynicism. The sense that we can’t have an impact on those in power–or that we’ll just end up, like in Brazil or South Africa, with more of the same.

I think one of the reasons so many people responded positively to Hugo Chávez’s speech at the United Nations was the feeling that, finally, someone was speaking up. Someone was challenging Bush and telling the truth.

Noam Chomsky’s book Hegemony or Survival became the number-one book on Amazon.com and shot up to number five on the New York Times bestseller after Chávez recommended it in his UN General Assembly speech. I think that’s a sign of the fact that people want an alternative and are open to radical ideas.

But we still need to overcome the poisonous legacy of Stalinism, which has led so many people to associate radicalism–and specifically socialism–with dictatorship and repression. That will take time. Movements for change always take time.

On the other hand, I think more and more people are becoming aware of the fact that our time may be limited. The direction capitalism is taking the planet is unsustainable. The evidence is mounting every day that we are destroying the environment in ways that are potentially catastrophic. The invasion of Iraq has also pushed us closer the brink of nuclear war, which could also wipe out humanity.

So there’s an urgency now that’s hard to exaggerate. We can’t look to saviors from on high to get us out of this mess, though. We have to do it ourselves.

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