A review of Tariq Ali's Bush in Babylon

"Bush in Babylon"

The Recolonisation of Iraq


by Tariq Ali

W. W. Norton & Company, 2003

224 pages


Civilizing them with fear and violence

A review of Tariq Ali's Bush in Babylon


By Pete Dolack





And so the world lies prostrate at the feet of the superpower. But it is an optional prostration. German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder declares the United States and United Kingdom must not fail, and with enemies like this, who needs friends?


"Victory" in Iraq means control of the occupied country's oil by American energy companies and multibillion-dollar contracts for Bechtel and Halliburton. More than 1,200 Americans lives have already paid for this, more will pay and few are even bothering to count the Iraqi lives, although that total may already be above 100,000 as we enter 2005. Many more are injured, often with loss of limbs, on both sides and Iraqis are living behind barbed wire and under collective punishments. Future relations don't seem likely to become smoother, what with kind-hearted statements such as the battalion commander who said "with a healthy dose of fear and violence, and a lot of money for projects, I think we can convince these people that we are here to help them."


It is hard to understand why this should be regarded as "victory." It is tempting to shrug shoulders at this as "imperialism as usual," as even nations like Poland scramble to get on the bandwagon  --  former Polish premier Leszek Miller deftly learned from his nation's domination by a former superpower by joining the remaining superpower in dominating another midsized nation with inconvenient geography, to cite merely one dreary example. But even the likes of Miller and Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's morbid combination of George W. Bush, Ross Perot and Rupert Murdoch, are amateurs next to the mandarins of the Democratic Party.


Even I was a bit taken aback at the pathetic depths John Kerry and Dick Gephardt had descended to in the face of the "anti-war" insurgency campaign of Howard Dean, screeching that Dean was "irresponsible" and "unfit to be president" for daring to suggest the capture of Saddam Hussein didn't make the United States "safer" and boiling into apoplectic rages over the suggestion that Osama bin Laden, if captured, should be given a trial. Even Nazis received trials at Nuremberg.


Considering that the "terror alert" was raised to orange and several airline flights were cancelled in the days following Hussein's capture, the thought at the time that the "war on terror" was wrapping up was perhaps premature. Given that previous terror alerts seemed to mysteriously coincide with increased calls for an independent investigation into why the 9/11 terror attacks were allowed to happen and bad news days for the Bush administration, perhaps a cynical eye could be cast on terror alerts. The terror-alert color system has apparently ceased to scare Americans and seems to have been quietly dropped, so last summer's cynical handing over of "sovereignty" to a hand-picked group in part reflected the panic that must be in place behind the serene arrogance the Bush administration likes to show the world. But that is not the only reason  --  under international law, it is unambiguously illegal for an occupying power to sell or take over an occupied nation's economic institutions; therefore a compliant "sovereign" Iraqi government, complete with January's scheduled "elections" despite civil war and the wholesale destruction of cities such as Falluja, is required to provide a legal fiction for the takeover of Iraqi commercial assets.


Bechtel and Halliburton executives surely would not have lost sleep if Kerry had won. And not just because Kerry's campaign declared the troops must stay to conduct the occupation in a "correct" way as opposed to Bush's "incorrect" methods. (Just what is the "proper" way to invade a country, take its resources and hand over its economic institutions to the invader?) Look at the record of the last Democratic administration  --  a brutal regime of sanctions and intentional infrastructure destruction that led to hundreds of thousands of deaths in Iraq and ruthless bombings of Yugoslavia, ably aided by Joschka Fischer, the "Green" foreign minister of Germany, the head of an anti-war, anti-nuclear party that has endorsed three wars and administers Germany's nuclear plants.


"Why are otherwise intelligent people in Britain and the United States surprised on learning that the occupation is detested by a majority of Iraqi citizens?" Tariq Ali asks in the first sentence of his latest book\italic{ Bush in Babylon: The Recolonisation of Iraq}. A fair question. Ali does indeed tell us what the invadees think, and why. Despite the title, Ali spends only a few pages on Bush, Tony Blair & Co., pointing out the many contradictions of the war's promoters, including this analysis by national security advisor Condeleeza Rice: "If they do acquire WMD, their weapons will be unusable because any attempt to use them will bring national obliteration." Meaning Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction nor could threaten anyone with them even were it to someday come into possession of them. Rice wrote this in the long-ago year of 2000.


What Ali primarily does in \italic{Bush in Babylon} is present a 20th century history of Iraq, its people's historic resistance to previous occupations, a generous sampling of the poetry and other culture that opposes imperialism and an explanation of the social forces that eventually resulted in the Ba'ath dictatorship that later narrowed to Hussein's personal dictatorship. Nor does Ali shy from showing the aid the United States provided to the Ba'ath Party in its rise to power and then facilitated the Ba'ath slaughter of Iraqi communists during its 1963 coup d'etat by giving the Ba'athists the names and address of Communist Party members, which Ali confirms by quoting the late King Hussein of Jordan. But Ali, with a deep knowledge of European social democracy and Marxist history in addition to his expertise in Arab history and culture, also discusses the less obvious factors  --  the failure of social movements and Leftists in industrialized nations to support Third World liberation movements and the mistakes made in the Arab world. Not one to mince words, Ali states:


"The plea to Iraqis not to fight back or resist the Anglo-American occupation  --  coming as it did from French Gaullists, German Greens/social-democrats, the Russian oligarchy and numerous European others  --  struck a strange note. Was it simply Northern arrogance with regard to the South; or a desire to appease the United States; or a belief that Iraqis are a different or lower breed of people who might be happier under occupation, just like the Palestinians? Perhaps it was a mixture of all three. Whatever the reason, the Iraqis appear to have ignored the pleas."


Undoubtedly, all three of those factors, in various mixtures, are present. To Ali's list, I would add an inability to distinguish propaganda from reality among political elites, including the "oppositions," be they Democrat, Social Democratic, Labor, Green, etc. A change of governments in countries such as the United Kingdom and Germany has made no difference in behavior, any more than U.S. foreign policy differs when the White House changes hands. Indeed, the U.S. facilitation in the creation of the Ba'ath dictatorship in Iraq and the Suharto dictatorship in Indonesia  --  these two regimes would murder more than 1 million between them  --  occurred during Democratic administrations. And the French government was motivated by France's competing economic interests, not by any humanitarianism and certainly not by learning lessons from its extremely bloody but futile efforts to retain its Vietnamese and Algerian colonies.


U.S. supporters of the Iraq invasion continue to wail that the nation that brought the world Hollywood ought to be able to create a public relations campaign to convince Iraqis the invasion is good for them. Tempting though it may be to forgive this line of "thought" as understandable given the success of lying to Americans, it does lay bare the profound inability of so many to view their own government with even a modicum of objectivity. Successive U.S. governments supported the Ba'ath rise to power, assisted Hussein, including supplying military hardware while approving of his use of chemical weapons against Iranians, intentionally destroyed Iraq's water system, imposed sanctions, declared the deaths of 500,000 children "worth it" in the pursuit of a political goal and launched an invasion with a mixture of lies and exaggerations.


The occupation itself features the seizure of Iraq's oil facilities, indifference at the looting of the country's historical treasures, the firing of automatic weapons on demonstrations, repeated killings, ransacking houses, unilateral seizure of state enterprises to sell them off to U.S. companies and allowing rapid increases in the prices of basic goods while freezing salaries. Interestingly, the occupation authorities have left intact all of Hussein's harsh labor laws prohibiting unions and collective bargaining. The privatizing of plants will increase unemployment, and employees, shackled by the labor laws, are unable to do anything about it. And this was before the routine use of torture came to light.


Given all this, it is something beyond unreal that a public relations campaign can be proposed as the cure. "Empires sometimes forget who they are crusading against and why, but the occupied rarely suffer from such confusions," Ali writes. At another point, noting that the United States has military facilities in more than 100 nations, he asks: "What possible justification does this vast octapoid expanse have, other than the exercise of American power?" \italic{Bush in Babylon} provides the tools for understanding Iraq, not only by documenting past occupations but by providing a lively, often tart, introduction to the many factors, internal and external, that shaped the country over the past several decades. It is also a timely reminder that the occupation is far from an unusual development.


"Regime change beings at home" has been a favorite slogan of the anti-war demonstrations. As detestable as the current occupants of the White House are, "regime change" means much more than simply changing personalities. As important as protest across the globe is, there is no substitute for a genuine anti-imperialist movement in the United States, for it is the imperialist power par excellence. Real pressure from the streets of the world will prevent the next occupation, not a switch from one imperial party to the other.