Arab Political Activity After Iraq

Against the Current, No. 106, September/October 2003

Azmi Bishara

INTRODUCTION: On 14 May 2003, the Jerusalem branch of the National Democratic Assembly–Tajamu’ held a meeting in the Ambassador Hotel, where party head MK Azmi Bishara discussed “The Arab World After the Aggression Against Iraq.” The lecture attempted to address the profound sense of disarray and hopelessness experienced by many anti-imperialist and Arab nationalist forces across the Arab world including within Palestine, as a result of the nature and consequences of the Anglo-American war and subsequent occupation of Iraq.

Indeed, an important part of the nature of the imperialist war itself was designed as a form of `total war’ which sought to shake and uproot the very foundations of Arab nationalist ideology. It is this ideology (or what remains of it) which (together with Islamic streams) formed the basis of popular Arab rejection of American and Zionist hegemonic interests in the region, both historically and in the present.

If indeed imperialism is able to succeed in this aim, the remaining forces on the Arab world setting are easier to marginalize (discursively, as in the case of Islamist streams), or work with (amongst the elite minority pro-American classes), with an Arab left virtually non-existent.

Below is the text of his speech. –Between the Lines

SOME MIGHT SAY that we are living in a difficult situation after the U.S.-British aggression against Iraq, and the faster than anticipated collapse of the Iraqi regime. Yet irrespective of the reasons for what happened, it is clear that the Arab world has entered a new phase that requires a certain pause to reflect upon this new reality which will govern us for a considerable period of time.

Additionally, it suffices to say that this new reality will also have repercussions upon the Palestinian issue, including the situation of Palestinian citizens inside the Green Line, and the nature of American and Israeli political behavior in the coming period.

Current Form of Empire–Pax Americana

[…] Today the concept of imperialism has developed and is a subject of consideration not merely in theoretical books, but also on the ground. It is a new type of imperialism, one reminiscent of the Roman Empire, which imposes its war as though it is peace.

Tacitus once said, “They create a massacre and call it peace.” This is what is known as a Pax Romana, and today can be termed a Pax Americana. That is, the will of imperialism and the will of the metropole are defining what is “peace and stability,” and anything that contradicts this is termed instability, terrorism, vandalism, barbarism etc.

But even in comparison to the Roman empire, such massive gaps in technology did not exist between the Romans and their enemies as is witnessed today between America and the rest of the world in the form of sophisticated air power, precision missiles etc.

In the old days, Rome was superior because of its organizational capacities and not its military ones. Likewise, this is how the Crusaders were able to come to our lands and remain here for 200 years, exploiting our lack of organization. Today’s form of empire differs entirely from the past.

Military Intervention Without UN Consent

Now allow me to recall the discussions prevalent before this war took place: They revolved around the question of why America did not receive the permission of the Security Council to conduct its aggression.

However, did all previous American wars take place with the Security Council’s permission? On the contrary . . . (s)ince the end of WWII, America has intervened in an armed military manner upon foreign soil no less than 242 times. Not one of these interventions took place with the consent of the United Nations except in the case of Korea (which was a case of a stolen and rigged vote). [The Soviet Union boycotted the UN Security Council session authorizing the Korean War–ATC.]

An illusion was able to arise in recent years that the United States was acting like the sheriff of International law. Certain theorists whose books are circulating in the market have declared that in this new era, due to the rule of “international law” there is no need anymore for such things as military bases, and there is no need for Israel, because America will implement international law directly, and even with respect to Palestine.

Today, America has returned to its old habits. There is nothing new going on here. […] Since World War II, America has acted as though it is an empire. It is attempting to impose an international domain that is directly and hierarchically subject to its influence. It secures the “head position,” below which is an unequal hierarchy whereby one gives the other orders.

America is also imposing new regimes and their policies. […] Just as today it is doing in the Arab world, its most familiar domain of this activity in the past was in Latin America. Those unconvinced that there is nothing new in American politics haven’t read their Gore Vidal or Noam Chomsky. This has been the scenario all along with America, since the Truman Era, after it tested its nuclear bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Recall the question of United Fruit Company–the monopoly American food company in Latin America, which acted to change the regime in Guatemala [in 1954] for the simple reason that the Guatemala government began taxing its produce? What then is so new?

Technological Gulf

A main difference today is that throughout the course of history there has never been such a massive technological gap (which is translated economically and militarily) between America and the rest of the world.

The money that the United States commits just to military research reports is equal to the entire military budgets of Germany and England combined. Its military budget is greater than the combined budget of the next twenty-two countries. Additionally, this total [amount of military spending] is less than three percent of U.S. GNP–i.e. it doesn’t even shake its economy. This is the difference today.

The great economic and technological gaps that America achieved opened up in the 1990s, at the same time when the Socialist regimes had collapsed, which brings us to another difference which characterizes America today: the absence of a second power to counterbalance the United States, which at least would confine the wars that it fought to a limited geographical area, or would make such wars long and drawn out because that secondary superpower supported the other side and strengthened its capacity to remain steadfast.

How does all this affect the nature of the wars carried by the United States? We have just witnessed it. Shock. The kind of war that lasts just a few days. These are the wars of the modern era with America. Today there is one empire in the world and that is America.

Of course there will be those who will say, as they did in 1967 [when Israel destroyed the armies of the Arab states–ATC], that there was a conspiracy, and that this can explain the shortness of the war. But my friends, it was not a conspiracy which caused the defeat.

Even if there were elements of the Iraqi Republican Guards who made deals with the Americans, this took place within the context of the moment they acknowledged their own defeat. After thirteen years of incomparable sanctions, together with the relentless shelling, the Iraqi command structure had been completely destroyed and the Iraqi army incinerated.

Could anyone with common sense believe that Iraq had a chance of winning this war? If not, then why shouldn’t an Iraqi soldier feel the same?

Now another question to make things more complicated.

Many an Arab genius went on satellite televisions and said that the great defeat took place because Iraq was not a democratic state (as though all of a sudden these people became experts in democracy). But was Stalin a democrat at the time of the battle of Stalingrad?

I don’t think the question is related to the presence or non-presence of democracy. Nor has the presence of democracy ever been an indicator for steadfastness in war. France used to be among the most democratic states and it was defeated in WWII within the span of two weeks. Certainly the Iraqi regime was a bloody dictatorship but this does not explain its defeat.

Rather, the Iraqi army was entering into a war without options, without hope, without any opportunity in the future to achieve victory. This is the nature of modern warfare and the results are catastrophic. Today Iraq is under direct occupation and America is acting like a colonialist state.

Possibilities for Action

What are the prospects of activity in the era characterized by an imperial regime of this nature? What is now the available space for political work?

It is clear that our [the Arab] former style of discourse, which still takes place today within classical Arab political movements, is outside this new context. It is necessary that Arab nationalist movements quickly realize that we are confronting a new era, where the political game is in need of new principles to improve Arab societies so they can avoid the dangers of returning to new colonial realities [as is the case in Iraq today].

I will give you an example of the style of the old model, and where it led and how we might transcend this style.

The kind of solidarity with Iraq [from the Arab people] reached the point whereby at least 4000 Arab volunteers went to Iraq to fight. A part of these volunteers admit that some of the bullets that were fired at them actually came from behind their ranks [meaning Iraqis shot at them].

This style of solidarity is based upon some sort of vision in our head, which exists without testing or looking into the reality on the ground in Iraq. Why did these volunteers go? What did they hope to accomplish? What will happen to them later on? Who decided to send them and for what goal?

In my opinion, these questions are not asked within the political mentality prevalent in anti-imperial movements across the Arab world. We just speak slogans “That there must be volunteers,” but we don’t ask “Why?” or “For what purpose?”

Likewise, much Arab political activity derives from this same style of thinking: “that we must do a demonstration” for this occasion, or “that we must publish a leaflet” (bayan). Yet the relationship between the means and the end is a relation that is basically left unstudied.

In the Palestinian setting much is done without ever asking the question “what does this benefit exactly” but is done within the belief that “this is how things must be done” because it is part of the prevalent political culture. If for instance, the occupation does something specific, then there is a certain way in which Palestinian forces must respond.

The dialectical relationship between a means and an end–that a certain action is for a certain purpose, and will take us to a certain point–is never carried out. In my opinion this was how the situation was dealt with in regards to Iraq.

Need for National Local Agenda

Another issue we must address is the consideration by Arab national movements whereby they say things like, “the issue of Palestine and Iraq are now the main issue of the Arab nationalist movement.” But I am of a different opinion.

The main national issue of every single nationalist movement throughout the Arab world must be the very issues in their countries. The nationalist issue in Egypt should be Egypt itself and not Palestine. If the issues pertaining to Egyptians are not addressed by the nationalist stream within Egypt, there is no way they can be in solidarity with the issue of Palestine. The same is clear for other Arab nationalist streams throughout the Arab world with regards to solidarity with Palestine.

It is true that the issue of Palestine symbolically unites the Arabs, who in these times feel targeted. However, the primary nationalist priority of each nationalist stream must be to ask itself, what is its importance in its own country precisely? What is its social relevance? What is its political relevance? How can it improve its society within this situation?

How is it that we reached a point whereby a bloody and dictatorial regime [of Saddam Hussein–ATC] which in the final phase was even acting like a monarchical family–had an officially declared ideology of Arab nationalism? We must study these questions well, and what they mean for Arab nationalist ideology across the Arab world.

Who Are We?

This takes me to the predicament which might surprise some, owing to the fact that I am an Arab nationalist and that it is my belief that it is our right to dream that this nation can unite and integrate economically and socially.

Without such unity, we will in short have no place beneath the sun, and we will remain in a state of social and civilized deformity. This is because this process [of national formation] is not completed and due to the lack of legitimacy of the existing regimes, such deformity will remain.

So when the question “what do we do?,” is asked, I counter ask “who are the we?” Who is it that is asking? This “we” comprises all the people: from Arafat to the Palestinian opposition, from Ahmed Chalabi [American-sponsored Iraqi opposition leader] to the people of Iraq, to Saddam Hussein.

Rather than wipe out the difference between itself and all the other factions when it asks itself “what do we do now?” the time has come for the Arab nationalist stream to differentiate itself from all the other streams–to ask itself, what is the difference between itself and the Islamic stream? What is the difference between itself and those streams that are pro-American?

Is the difference between ourselves and those streams allied to American interests one of our blind opposition to the United States as a finished product–culturally, civilizationally and humanly? What is it that precisely differentiates us from the Islamists? Do we share the Islamic interpretation of the United States as “Crusaders”?

Are we supposed to search out our commonality with other streams so that we wipe out the difference to the extent of not being able to differentiate them from us, and so that we can’t even put down a strategy of action? Or is it most important in this stage to search out our uniqueness and to propose plans that differentiate us from the other streams, upon the basis of our need for a democratic nature in the construction of prevalent Arab societies?

To Solve the Democratic Question

It is no longer possible for the nationalist stream to continue its work without solving the democratic question once and for all. Even if it wishes to appease the Islamic stream, or wants to be perceived as controlling popular power, or wants to have a spot on a satellite station.[…]

In my understanding, even if this consumes many years it is worth it because the nationalist stream will not be on safe footing until it does this. If the nationalist stream wishes to confront social issues, it cannot do so within the current patriarchy where fifty percent of the society is completely absent.

If you go to all corners of the earth, you notice the presence of women in the public sector except in our countries. The nationalist stream cannot pursue this issue without studying what is its internal project.

Today I hear the nationalist stream talking and saying [we must work for] “the liberation of Iraq.” Very well then. What is the program of the nationalist stream regarding the Iraqi regime afterwards? What is their position on the Kurds? Or on social issues? Or on women? Or on economic development?

The Islamic stream relieves itself [from answering] and says “Islam is the solution” (Islam huwa al hal) [traditional Islamic movement slogan]–and in that no one dares to ask what that really means.

[…] All this [the democratic agenda of the national stream] will take time, and I am in no position to give hope to those who are looking for solutions within days. But I am at least saying that this is the beginning of the road.

Without a long-term nationalist project in every Arab state, solidarity [with Iraq or Palestine] just becomes a forum for demonstrations of anger that fizzle out. Likewise, the slogans of these demonstrations are just expressions of anger that are raised and then taken away after the demonstrations. They are not raised so as to preserve a long term nationalist project in any Arab state.

Finding Our Allies

[…] Today, it is not possible for us to accomplish any achievements in fighting the policies of the United States by constructing a traditional and conventional army as was the case in Iraq. We have to make connections with the contradictions within the empire itself, whether it is with its margin (which is today Europe) or more importantly and in a concrete manner, the contradictions within America itself.

Within American society itself, there are wide sectors of those who will be against a state of permanent war which characterizes the new stage of imperialism. We must engage them and discuss things with them. But on what basis do we wish to discuss things with them today?

There must be the simple ABCs of discussion to talk with them, in addition to having credibility. This above all is how the Zionists have distinguished themselves from us in America and in other places. How are we supposed to open up avenues of discourse with African Americans, or with the feminist movement, or with the peace movement?

Only once this [democratic discourse and practice] is achieved can there be true solidarity. What happens today is not solidarity `unto the very end.’ Today it is a conservative solidarity where people were unsure of which flag to raise [i.e. were unsure whether or not to raise the Iraqi flag in demonstrations]. Well at least in parts of Europe and throughout the demonstrations, the Palestinian flag was raised.

In my opinion, the Palestinian cause has been strengthened, not weakened in the wake of the aggression against Iraq, in contrast to what some people [within the Palestinian national movement] think. These people act as though they are the owners of the “company of the Palestinian cause” claiming that now is the time to sell off stock, and that because there is no “demand” for this cause any more, concessions must be made.

But in my opinion, the Palestinian issue has strengthened. Of course we need people to remain steadfast and for there to be a [genuine] strategy. But internationally, the Palestinian issue has never in its history been this strong. It has become a part of the language of justice and legitimacy.

Those who were pushing for the war [against Iraq] can’t get around the Palestinian issue, and those who are against the war are carrying the Palestinian flag. When has it ever been that one million people are marching in the streets of London carrying the Palestinian flag? It never happened throughout history.

Throughout our whole lives the social democracies [within Europe] were with Israel and not with us. All our lives European public opinion has been with Israel and today it is with us. Blair was constantly making excuses [for joining the war] by bringing up the Palestinian issue [and his desire `to have it solved.’

Look–we knew all along that Iraq was going to fall. Of course we are not happy about it and it disturbs us to see a new occupation there. But we cannot say that it is the end of the world and that all our options are closed.

In my opinion, the war on Iraq will signify the birth of a new Arab democratic stream, just as the Nakba [disastrous Arab defeat–ATC] in 1948 was the birth of other streams [i.e. the birth of the modern Palestinian national movement as well as the rise of other new movements across the Arab world such as Pan-Arabism]. The aggression against Iraq will be the first phase of the birth of a democratic stream.

No Need for Concessions

Friends. We call upon the national stream not to be stupid once again. It must take its time and be aware of the fact that there is another generation coming. It must understand that its primary importance is to connect the concept of Arab nationalism with the idea of democracy, and with progressive ideas. If we do not undertake this struggle, we will become nothing. We will lose all the worlds at the same time.

This is important. It is not the time for concessions with regards to our nationalism. There is no need for this. And in fact nothing will be gained [from such concessions]. Today it seems that they have put Syria on the list [for the same or similar fate of Iraq].

But if Syria is to make democratic and economic reforms, it will not need to make nationalistic “reforms.” It will be in affinity with all the democratic forces in the world. It will be able to call upon them in Europe and America and it will be difficult for Syria to be touched. These are the “reforms” that are required–not reforms at the expense of our national convictions.

Tajamu’–Stream of the Future

This is the most important thing in the experience of the National Democratic Assembly–Tajamu’. If this wasn’t the case, long ago we would have been thrown in prison. The supreme court voted 7 to 4 [to allow us participate in the elections to the Knesset], just for the reason that we proved ourselves as a democratic stream. We are Arab nationalists, but at the same time we are deeply connected to democratic and progressive values and discourse.

Without this, we would not be able to remain steadfast for one day in the conditions within Israel. They would get rid of us, because they know that there is an existential contradiction between Arab nationalism and Zionism. They know this only too well.

They also know the kinds of things that we are saying here today. But they cannot touch us [as they want]–not physically, of course (if they wished to do that they could do that tomorrow)–but on the level of our discourse. This is the importance of Tajamu’ and this is the importance of discourse.

We will not make even one national concession, especially if we seek to live.

We are the stream of the future upon the [entire] Arab stage. Because the alternative to this national democratic presence is not a nationalist presence that is non-democratic, but the danger of being recruited into the ranks of Labor and Likud [the Israeli parties–ATC], or into the army, or our division into Christians, Moslems and Druze.

Without the connection between the national and the democratic with conviction, they will push us aside and the last dam preventing Israelization will fall. Believe me, there is no economic or social logic to an Arab nationalist stream [that is not democratic] for the Arabs inside Israel [known as the `48 Palestinians].

The sole [alternative] logic will be [our] Israelization. And this means marginalization, just as occurred after the Oslo agreements. In the next elections, we will see 50,000 people going to the Likud party, not just to the Labor party [a reference to the figure of Arabs who voted for Labor before the emergence of Tajamu’ on the `48 Palestinian political party scene in 1995.]

This is the dam that exists, and this is what we must preserve. We will not just work to preserve it, but we shall also call out to the Arab nationalist streams in the Arab world to come and learn from us, and to see what we have done: “This is what we have been able to accomplish within the conditions of Israel. Now go do so in Egypt.”

Our task was much more complicated than theirs. At the very least, on the level of ideology balancing Israeli citizenship with Palestinian nationality has been much more complicated. But if we were able to solve it, so must our brothers.

Need for Political Project

[Solidarity] is not angry demonstrations where people let out steam for a few days which sometimes they [the government] allow and other times they turn off. It is the capacity to exert influence upon the political process and upon political decision making.

A political party influences politics, not emotions. It is not enough to say <169>hey we did a demonstration<170>. What did the demonstration influence? A demonstration is necessary only if it influences.

We can study ourselves in every country throughout the Arab world: What was the influence of the Arab [nationalist] political project upon the decisions of their governments? I tell you: nothing. It did not influence any decision.

It had an influence upon the accent/style of discourse whereby it became necessary for them [the governments] to sometime apologize and make lexicographical appeasements, or to hide their true decisions. But it did not have any influence at the level of the decisions themselves.

But after all, the demonstrations [in the Arab world] are not presenting themselves as a political project. Talk becomes extraneous if a real political project is not proposed. When you propose yourself as a political project, you are forced to educe the means or instruments that I am talking about. But if you are not even initially proposing yourself as a political project that wants to influence the political decisions, you are proposing yourself as some sort of romantic atavism from a previous era.

The question in such cases is not one between the means and the ends (which becomes entirely secondary in this case) but one of expressionism. `How is it that I can find my own expression rather than my capacity to influence’?

It is like Walter Benjamin’s quotation while talking of the working class during Nazism. “The working class finds its expression but not its interests.” Once subjugated to expressionism and symbolisms, it is as though everything is determined in the realm of words.

What have been the achievements or the extent of influence of this style [of action prevalent within Arab nationalist movement across the Arab world, as well as in Palestine]? Nothing. Yet three quarters of the kind of [Arab nationalist] discourse takes place within this framework.

We witness this kind of thinking and dynamics on the Palestinian setting and particularly in the interaction between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the opposition. The great majority of the opposition actually speaks and acts in this manner.

This is unfortunate, though its cause is noble: the preservation of the major principles of the Palestinian national movement–something I entirely support. But it is incomprehensible that [our] political discourse takes place in this way–a mere expressionistic discourse.

At the same time, even military operations operate in the same way: as when on the anniversary of a certain date, a certain action takes place. Or when [U.S. Secretary of State Colin] Powell comes, we did so and so [military action] just because he came. So what?!

[Military] operations are to be conducted within the context of a strategy whereby these operations are beneficial in pushing the national liberation project forward according to a [previously declared] list of ways: one, two, three etc. The issue is not expressionistic. And the Palestinian opposition, whose cause is most noble, must study this with all suitable tools.

Role of the Palestinian Opposition

We are facing a problem today upon the level of the Palestinian cause that has two sides to it: First of all, Israel is very dangerous in this period because it has the illusion after [the aggression against] Iraq that what took place didn’t merely weaken the Palestinian cause, but also provided Israel the opportunity that it too can begin to act like an empire.

This is very dangerous, because the Israelis cannot. The one country today that has the capacity to occupy another country is the United States. Israel cannot do that. Its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip is like a bone in their throat. […]

But aside from what they already have, they cannot occupy Lebanon or Syria. Sure they can shell and they can hurt, but they cannot occupy. They are not a small empire–they are an important country, but not a mini-empire. And the Arabs cannot relate to them as such.

Second, we have a political stream which existed from before Camp David [June 2000], which deems that in the wake of the aggression against Iraq, the Palestinians ought to accept what is offered to them, believing that they are the best conditions that the Palestinians can ever get.

But Yasser Arafat, as an historical political phenomenon, remained steadfast at Camp David–irrespective of our criticism of him. These words are safe [i.e. he can be relied upon to preserve the basic rights of the Palestinians.] And even today we must say that he is the elected president of the Palestinian people.

We must acknowledge this because it seems there is a lobby or stream [within the PA] that says “we must learn the lesson of Iraq.” The lesson that they want us to learn is that we should accept America’s dictates without discussion. This is in fact the only thing they want us to learn.

What then are the lessons of Iraq? That we Palestinians shouldn’t occupy Kuwait? That we shouldn’t produce chemical weapons? We can’t even make a dictatorship until we have a state.

But in what way is America threatening us? With occupation? We already are occupied. In the context of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship, it is we who are demanding that UN resolutions be implemented–not the other way around as was the case with Iraq.

In the context of Israel-Palestine, it is Israel that has the weapons of mass destruction, and it is we who are oppressed. By what logic do we put ourselves in this situation [of reversed logic] and say to ourselves that “we must accept the American dictates?”

Rather, we must try to influence American public opinion, because there is an overall consensus that the Palestinians are the underdogs, and that Israel is betting upon the crazy extremist Protestant revisionist groups. [See Andrea Smith’s account elsewhere in this issue–ATC.]

If we can only understand this and put this together, and search for the appropriate tools…This is tangible talk. I read and pay attention to the American media and the influence of the Israeli lobby and those termed the `neo-conservatives.’ These people are actually from the Reagan era and I don’t see them as that new. Nothing they have said, Kissinger didn’t say before them and in worse ways.

The only difference is that today America can begin to implement these policies that Kissinger always wanted. Their new wind comes after September 11th. In fact most of them were directly implicated in the Iran-Contra Affair. Ever since the 1940s this stream exists in America. There is nothing new there. Perhaps there are new nuances but nothing significant.

But at the same time American public opinion is still there and is still in the position of being able to be talked to. We have to know how to work in this sector and within Europe as well.

ATC 106, September-October 2003