Imperial Hubris


ariq 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

The Clash of Fundamentalisms


Bush in Babylon

His latest book is

Speaking of Empire & Resistance.

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,

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.

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? 

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 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


, 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


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. 

And civil liberties? 

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. 

In an article in the


, 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. 

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? 

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. 

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. 

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? 

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.” 

How is fighting power today different from the 1960s? 

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

The theme of the World Social Forum is “another world is
possible.” What signs do you see that another world is possible? 

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. 

What does the title of your book

Rough Music


“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.

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
& Resistanc

e, with Tariq Ali.