Background to Bush’s Debacle: Iraq and the Empire

Against the Current, No. 119, November/December 2005

Christopher Phelps

Bush in Babylon:
The Recolonisation of Iraq
by Tariq Ali
Verso, 2003. 214 pages, $12 paper.

THE STATED OBJECTIVE of the neoconservatives in control of United States foreign policy today is to carry out a war on terror by spreading freedom and democracy throughout the Middle East and the rest of the world, if necessary by American power alone, and if necessary by guided missiles, Humvees, and fighter jets.

This philosophy of imposed democracy is riven with contradictions. It is, for one thing, opposed by an overwhelming majority of the world’s people, who poured onto the streets in unprecedented anti-war mobilizations in 2003. Had they been able to vote for what the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano calls “president of the planet,” they would have turned George W. Bush out on his ear.

Even at home, this newly aggressive version of democratic imperialism could be baptized only by short-circuiting democratic processes with a barrage of lies. In the buildup to war with Iraq, one administration official after another misled the public and Congress by claiming that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction or was in league with Al Qaeda.

Conservatives call for governments based upon rule of law, while practicing torture and indefinite detention without charge in the prisons of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. They have consolidated and strengthened the national security bureaucracy, that part of the state least susceptible to democratic control, given it sweeping authority to override civil liberties, and disciplined it to serve their political ends.

In the global war on terror, U.S. military and intelligence operations are carried out in alliance with military or strong-man dictatorships like Egypt and Pakistan and dynastic autocracies like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait, states where too fervent an advocacy of freedom or democracy will issue in a prison term, if not a shallow grave.

Although Bush’s paeans to democracy imply something more robust, the conservative criterion of democracy is not the rule of the people but at best formal elections, and the free market is its only essential condition of freedom. This is why the American state is certain to prevent any Middle Eastern polity from actually giving expression to democratic longings in the Arab world for the nationalization of oil or, at the very least, higher rates of taxation and redistribution of oil profits.

The neoconservative doctrine, justifying muscular unilateralism with claims of national interest and democratic principle, runs against the diplomatic tradition of seeing idealism and realism as antithetical approaches to international relations, and neoconservative policy formulations such as “preventive” war break with long-established norms. Despite these departures, however, there is nothing new in the distance between promised ideals and reality in imperial claims or the vastness of self-deception and arrogance on the part of conquerors in the Middle East.

A Long View of Empire

We are reminded of this truth time and again by Tariq Ali in his perceptive polemic Bush in Babylon. Ali is an Oxford-educated Pakistani writer whose prominence on the British left dates back to his opposition to the Vietnam War, and who is today an editor of New Left Review and Verso Books. In Ali’s long view of history, present-day neoconservative conceits and ambitions contiinue the basic pattern of empires that have long shaped the destiny of the region.

He unearths the history beneath the surface of current events in a style that might be called erudite popularization. Ali draws not merely upon research and logic but cleverness, poetry, anecdotes, playful wit, creativeness, and controlled anger. (His devastating appendix on Christopher Hitchens is not to be missed, and his mention of Kanaan Makiya, the author of Republic of Fear, as having evolved “from Marxist to liberal-imperialist” bristles with the contempt reserved for turncoats one has known.)

Ali dips into ancient history with his title’s allusion to the notoriously decadent city in Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization between the Tigris and Euphrates. Babylon is a deliberate point of departure, evoking the King James Bible more likely to be found in U.S. conservatives’ desk drawers these days than the Constitution.

Although Ali takes note of the subsequent invasions of the Mongols and Persians, he concentrates in earnest on the modern period, beginning in the sixteenth century when the Ottoman Empire laid hold of these lands. During Ottoman rule, a majority of the world’s Muslims looked for the first time to what Ali terms “a single center of temporal and spiritual authority” in the person of the Turkish caliph.

By the nineteenth century, however, the caliphate’s grip was weakening. The British, the Turks’ primary competitor for imperial reach, encouraged Arab opposition to the Ottomans in a strategy of fomentation that, combined with victory in the First World War, enabled the British to seize Jerusalem and Baghdad in 1917.

France and Britain divided the Arab East between themselves, carving new states and borders out of the former Ottoman provinces. The conquering British hit ingeniously upon creating Arab dynasties out of whole cloth to reward clans who had served them well. The peninsular plum went to the family of Ibn Saud, creating today’s Saudi Arabia. The thrones of Jordan and Iraq went to two of the sons of Sharif Hussein.

As custodians for British control, these monarchies acted as a smokescreen to meet the challenge posed by the Russian Revolution of 1917, namely the revolutionary socialist call for national self-determination. Arab dynasties, the British hoped, would defuse both the threat of Arab nationalism and “the syndicalist and socialistic ideas seeping out of Europe,” as the shrewd administrator Gertrude Bell put it. (Her boss Sir Percy Cox, in words later echoed by the brass of another empire, informed the citizens of Basrah in 1914 that the British came as “liberators, not conquerors.”)

The Invention of Iraq

The new state of Iraq was stitched together out of the former Ottoman provinces of Baghdad, Basrah, and Mosul. King Feisal I was crowned its first monarch, but the Iraqi throne proved a simulacrum of sovereignty. In Ali’s words, the “Colonial Office in London made all the key military, economic, and foreign policy decisions.”

Feisal and his ministers had to consult the British High Commissioner on all matters, down to what Ali terms trivial “local disputes related to patronage, ethnicity, or religion.” Even Feisal declared, “I am an instrument of British policy.”

Feisal’s son and successor, King Ghazi, who assumed the throne in 1933, proved less pliant. Influenced by Arab nationalism, Ghazi financed a palace radio station that urged Kuwaitis to overthrow their Sheik and rejoin Iraq, while denouncing British and Zionist maneuvering in Palestine. British consular officers, moreover, were scandalized by Ghazi’s passion for men.

When Ghazi died in a dubious car crash, it was most likely a murder, and most Iraqis suspected a British hand behind it. The organizer was probably Nuri al-Said, a sinister Iraqi government minister whom Ali likens, fittingly, to Macchiavelli and Iago. Suspicions over Ghazi’s death, Ali writes, “accelerated pan-Arab nationalism,” leading to a 1941 coup by military colonels whose “popular nationalist government attempted to establish relations with both Berlin and Moscow.”

Soon after, British troops reoccupied Iraq, restoring both the monarchy and Nuri, and the subsequent Portsmouth Agreement reduced Iraq to the status of a protectorate in 1948. A mass uprising erupted against the Portsmouth Agreement, sparked by the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP), but it was defeated — partly by the government’s ingenious device of sending hundreds of eager young militants to a war to “liberate Palestine,” whereupon they were left stranded in Jordan while the revolt at home was suppressed.

With the rebellion defeated, the ICP’s secretary general Yusuf Salman Yusuf was executed along with two other leaders. That same year, the feckless Arab war with Israel revealed the extent of corruption and incompetence in the Arab states.

The humiliating defeat fanned radicalism throughout the Arab world, especially among nationalist officers resentful of generals craven to the British. Military revolutions were the result. By 1956, Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt stood down the British, French and Israelis over the Suez Canal, making him, writes Ali, “an Arab leader who, despite all his weaknesses, was genuinely popular with his people, unlike the freaks and monsters that came later.”

From Revolution to Saddam’s Rule

At this, the high point of Arab nationalism, Iraq’s government was so out of step with the immense regional sentiment in favor of Arab autonomy and unity, a feeling shared widely among Iraqis, that the Nuri government facilitated the creation of the Baghdad Pact, a security arrangement patently meant to foil pan-Arab nationalism.

The Baghdad Pact comprised Britain, Turkey, Iran (then controlled by its own royalty, the Shah, installed by a 1953 coup instigated by the Central Intelligence Agency), and Pakistan. In the background, notes Ali, was “a powerful new guarantor: the United States.”

The gulf between the regional mood of defiance and the Iraqi government’s complicity with dominant foreign powers explains why 1958 became a signal year in Iraqi history. A military coup toppled the monarchy and won Iraq’s freedom from foreign rule for the first time. The military, explains Ali, was “the only institution in the country where virtually every segment of society was represented” because the Nuri-led elite had sought to create “an army whose composition transcended regional, ethnic, and tribal divisions.”

This nation-building project was altogether too successful, overflowing in the heady atmosphere of the Arab world of the 1950s. Young Iraqis drawn to the army began to see the appeal of “a wider entity that was the Arab nation,” as Ali puts it. These sentiments were found among “Free Officers” supportive of Nasser, among radicals in the Iraqi Communist Party, and among the very small nationalist Ba’ath Party.

All three currents shared a loathing for the palace, Nuri and the British Empire. On July 14, 1958, the Free Officers, led by the social reformist Brigadier Abdul-Karim Qasim, seized power with tacit support of the Communists and Ba’athists. A republic was declared. The king and Nuri were executed. No substantial resistance showed itself in any part of the army or population. Exuberant crowds filled the streets.

Tension, however, pervaded the new ruling coalition. Arab nationalists distrusted Arab Communists, not for their Marxism but because “they operated as Moscow’s instruments in the region,” writes Ali. The German 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union and subsequent Grand Alliance of the Second World War had brought the cessation of opposition to imperialism by Communists in the British, French and Dutch colonies, including Iraq, for which nationalists never forgave them. Then came a second blow.

In 1948, writes Ali, the Arab Communist parties “had gone against all their own political instincts and the advice of their own Jewish members and backed the formation of Israel because this was official Soviet policy at the time.”

The resultant fissure between Communists and nationalists grew to tragic dimensions, dividing the two main strands of anti-imperialist Arab opinion. “None of this can be laid at the door of any Western imperialism or, for that matter, Israel,” writes Ali. “It was a self-inflicted wound. The sectarian failure of communists and nationalists to reach a compromise became a tragedy for Iraq and the region as a whole.”

Another weakness traced to the mutual failure of nationalists and Communists to recognize the need for “a genuine assembly and the right of other political parties to exist,” writes Ali. The hierarchical organization of the army, from which the Iraqi coup’s leadership emerged, fostered a governing political style that Ali characterizes as “Bonapartism,” authoritarian rule elevating the solitary leader above social classes and discussion.

In this respect, the Nasser example was profoundly negative, for it encouraged his emulators to establish top-down military-populist regimes. Still, the new regime was authentically popular in its first years because Qasim’s social and economic agenda included land reform, increased taxes on the wealthy, rent control, price control, regulation of working hours, and compulsory social insurance provisions.

These popular measures were undoubtedly a response to the Iraqi Communist Party, by then the most substantial in the Arab world, capable of leading more than half a million out for a May Day march in 1959. The party’s base of peasants and workers put pressure on its leaders, claiming that landlords and industrialists were resisting implementation of the land reforms and working hour regulations.

Conditions may have been ripe for revolution, but under instructions from the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev (who feared estranging Nasser) the pro-Moscow Iraqi party decided to offer its unconditional support to Qasim. As a result, with the pressure off, his regime in its final two years retreated from social reform and grew more authoritarian.

Into the vaccuum stepped the Ba’ath, orchestrating a coup d’etat in 1963. Qasim was executed and the Communist left subjected to a severe repression that prefigured the massive bloodbath against the Indonesian Communist Party in 1965.

The tiny Ba’ath, including a young man from Tikrit, had lists of names and addresses of known Communists to enable this operation. The probably source of the rosters was U.S. intelligence, if King Hussein of Jordan, a cooperator with American interests in the region, is believed, for in a 1963 interview with an Egyptian editor he stated, “Permit me to tell you that I know for a certainty that what happened in Iraq on 8 February had the support of American Intelligence.”

Ali explains the origins of the Ba’ath in the estrangement of educated young Arabs in the interwar years from liberal and social-democratic parties in Europe that did not demand freedom for the colonies and protectorates. The remaining models were fascism and communism. Fascism appealed to some as a counterweight to British and French empire, but Michel Aflaq, as a student at the Sorbonne, was at first attracted to the French Communist Party.

The Communists’ refusal in the Popular Front government to insist on colonial freedom alienated Aflaq, and in 1943 he and Salah Bitar formed the Ba’ath (meaning “Renaissance”) party to espouse uncompromising nationalism. In Syria and Iraq in the 1960s and 1970s, as the Ba’ath party obtained and consolidated its power, the two states became military dictatorships revolving around rival state interests and reliant upon revived clan patronage.

Somehow the Iraqi Communist Party survived its 1963 decimation, its Kurdish cadre being the least affected, and when its leadership regrouped in 1967 in Prague it released a self-assessment regretful of not having seized the opportunity presented by 1959.

The late 1960s were changing times, of “polycentrism” among the Communist states — of Cuba, China and Vietnam — in which atmosphere a “central command” faction of the ICP argued for initiating armed struggle in Iraq. Expelled for this deviation, a handful of the faction’s most fervent members proceeded to launch a resistance movement in the southeAnd it is Brown in his daily life that we are privy to in Reynolds’ work. rn marshes, hoping to create a “liberated zone” from which to advance on Baghdad.

Ali paints a fond and moving portrait of Khalid Ahmed Zaki, the quixotic leader of this failed guerrilla adventure, whom he knew on the London left of the 1960s. (In general, Ali’s attentiveness to the history of the Iraqi Marxist left, as should by now be clear, is one of the great contributions of Bush in Babylon.)

The 1967 pre-emptive strike of Israel against Nasser’s Egypt dealt Arab nationalism “a body blow” from which it “never recovered,” notes Ali. Therefore, the residual memory of the Iraqi left made it the main potential threat remaining to the Ba’athist regime. Saddam Hussein, leader of the Ba’ath security apparatus, devised a strategy that drew the remaining pro-Moscow Communists into the open by persuading them to enter into a national front.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi regime, Ali records, “developed close relations with the Soviet Union, trade agreements with Poland, and recognized the German Democratic Republic [East Germany], which in those days was regarded as the acid test for determining the orientation of third-world regimes.” The result was a “pincer movement” that trapped Iraqi Communists between their loyalty to Moscow and their knowledge of the murderous nature of the Ba’athists.

The Iraqi Communists suspended their better judgment and joined the government in 1973. No sooner was this phony unity announced than the wily Saddam began to tack westward. (Although Ali never compares Saddam to Nuri, the comparison can hardly escape any reader of his study. Both figures loom large as unscrupulous machinators in the politics of twentieth-century Iraq.)

In 1978, the ICP was expelled from the government and 31 Communists were executed. The following year marked the ascendancy of Saddam to President of the Republic.

America’s Gulf Friend

Saddam’s attainment of dictatorial power in 1979 coincided, Ali observes, with a new interest in Iraq among U.S. policymakers:

“That same year, the Shah of Iran had been toppled by a popular revolution dominated by Shia clerics, and the United States was desperately in search of a regional replacement. Might Saddam suffice? He might. He was certainly brutal enough. He had shown this by his robust treatment of Kurds, communists, and clerics. Could he be trusted? Perhaps not, but then who could be trusted in that world any more, apart from the Saudi monarchy, whose loyalty was beyond reproach?”

For his part, Saddam had contradictory desires, both to run in the league of Big Powers and to become a hero in the Arab world, for although the unoriginal “personality cult he instituted was modelled on that of Stalin, Mao, and Kim il-Sung,” writes Ali, “the person he really yearned to be was Gamal Abdel Nasser.”

War with mullah-revolutionary Iran would serve both purposes well, and the result in 1980 was the Iraqi invasion of Iran, supported behind the scenes by the United States and concluded in stalemate in 1988 after 262,000 Iranian and 105,000 Iraqi deaths.

Next Saddam set his eyes on Kuwait, which for reasons of geography had always been seen by Iraqi rulers as an artificial entity, a product of British colonialism that ought, by all lights, to be reunified with the Basrah province from which it was split. Iraq’s claims on Kuwait had long been based on the observation that the British had, in parceling out the Ottoman provinces, left Iraq without access to the sea.

By 1990, though, a resource more aluable than salt water was at stake. In Saddam’s calculation, the annexation of Kuwait and its oil reserves would be his Suez, rendering him the Nasser of 1990. Ambiguous signals from the U.S. ambassador, April Glaspie, led Saddam to think — or at least to claim later — that he had a green light.

The source of the Western consensus against Iraq in 1990 was not law, according to Ali, but oil and power. It would be difficult to match the dry delivery of Ali in the following masterful passage: “The regime change carried out by Saddam Hussein was undoubtedly in violation of Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, and the United States organized a coalition under the UN flag to take back Kuwait. At the time the phrase ‘national sovereignty’ was much in vogue.”

The liberation of Kuwait meant the restoration of its unpopular ruling family to their fiefdom. Iraq’s conscript armies were destroyed as they fled from Kuwait, in violation of the conventions of war, while the Republican Guards were left intact to drown a Shi’ite uprising in blood.

In passing, Ali mentions one consequence that the stationing of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia had during the Gulf War on one devout believer just back from helping defeat the Soviet Union as a “freedom fighter” for Islam in Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden’s “total alienation from the Saudi ruling family and the attacks of 9/11 were an unexpected minor outcome of the 1990 conflict,” Ali notes. “Blowbacks are never immediate.”

Sanctions, War, Occupation

For the Iraqi people, the upshot was a punishing sanctions regime imposed by the United Nations, along with routine bombings by British and American planes. This according to Ali made Iraq one of the poorest societies on earth, with “the effect of making the people totally dependent on the regime for all basic necessities, strengthening the hold of the regime.”

All of the foregoing brings us to the military conflict that has lasted, in various phases, from March 2003 to the present. One potent aspect of Ali’s book is his careful attempt to discern the reason we find Bush in Babylon.  Ali holds that this is “a war only partially about oil” and “essentially a war to assert imperial hegemony.”

Ali is quite right that oil did not constitute an exclusive cause for the intervention, but he is mistaken to discount oil in the following manner: “If the war had just been about oil there was nothing to prevent a rapprochement with Saddam Hussein, who would have dealt just as happily with U.S. companies as he did with the French and the Russians.”

This mistakenly conflates the ability to purchase oil (access) with the far more profitable practice of oil extraction (direct control). As Ali mentions elsewhere, the Ba’athists nationalized Iraqi oil in the 1960s, and the signal result of the 2003 invasion, presuming the country can be “stabilized,” would be the industry’s privatization. The primary beneficiaries without question would be multinational energy companies headquartered in the U.S. and Britain.

It is, in other words, hard to be too crass about the emphasis this administration places on unfettered corporate freedom to invest in petroleum production. Nevertheless, Ali’s case for a multicausal analysis, rooted in but not limited to oil, is powerful. Especially useful is the following passage, worth quoting at length lest anyone still harbor thoughts that democracy motivates the current campaign in Iraq:

“If no single reason explains the targeting of Iraq, there is little mystery about the range of calculations behind it. Economically, Iraq possesses the second largest reserves of cheap oil in the world; Baghdad’s decision in 2000 to invoice its exports in euros rather than dollars risked imitation by Chavez in Venezuela and the Iranian mullahs; the privatization of the Iraqi wells under U.S. control would help to weaken OPEC; strategically, the existence of an independent Arab regime in Baghdad had always been an irritation to the Israeli military —even when Saddam was an ally of the West, the IDF [Israeli army]supplied spare parts to Teheran during the Iran-Iraq war; with the installation of Republican zealots close to Likud in key positions in Washington, the elimination of a traditional adversary became an attractive immediate goal for Jerusalem.  Lastly, just as the use of nuclear weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki had once been a pointed demonstration of American might to the Soviet Union, so today a blitzkrieg rolling swiftly across Iraq would serve to show the world at large, and perhaps states in the Far East — China, North Korea, even Japan — in particular, that if the chips are down, the United States has, in the last resort, the means to enforce its will.”

Unsurprisingly, Arabs never saw Operation Iraqi Freedom as a war for democracy. To them, writes Ali, the invasion was “a grisly charade, a cover for an old-fashioned European-style colonial occupation, constructed like its predecessors on the most rickety of foundations — innumerable falsehoods, cupidity, and imperial fantasies.”

The memory of Arabs is longer than that of their would-be saviors, so they are inclined to see barbarism rather than civilization in the present-day conquest. When American officials failed to safeguard Baghdad’s cultural treasures in 2003, it immediately brought to Iraqi minds the Mongol warriors’ burning of the Baghdad Library in 1258.

Against the imperial juggernaut, Ali cautions, the European Union and United Nations will not stand. He instead poses a strategy of a movement resistance from three-quarters: the Arab world, the United States, and the worldwide global justice movement as manifested in the World Social Forum, which he suggests should begin to campaign for the closing of all U.S. military bases and facilities abroad.

Brief Critique

Here it is that I must close with two points of dissent. The first regards Ali’s unconditional support for the Iraqi resistance. Ali hopes that “the invaders of Iraq will eventually be harried out of the country by a growing national reaction to the occupation regime they will install.”

What would follow, in such a scenario? Ali asserts that while “Ba’athists dominate this resistance in the Baghdad region, they are not the only people involved” and it is possible to speak of “the emergence of a much broader national resistance.”

In a recent interview with Suzi Weissman in these pages, Ali went further, stating “I think the resistance will develop its own ideology and politics as it goes along” and that he knows some of its partisans, who want “an Iraq that is democratic and social democratic.”

Reliable knowledge of the precise political character of the resistance is difficult to obtain, even two years into the conflict, and the resistance is undoubtedly heterogeneous.  But it seems more than probable, given Ali’s retelling of the multiple waves of brutality visited upon the Iraqi left over the past 60 years, that organized Ba’athist and Islamist elements far outnumber political leftists or pure-and-simple patriots in the Iraqi resistance. Even the once-formidable Iraqi Communist Party has been reduced to collaboration with the occupiers. (Ali relates graffiti on a Baghdad wall: “ICP = Iraqi Collaborators Party.”)

The presence of some rational, secular, democratic leftists within the resistance does not mean that the resistance as a whole reflects such values. The logical political conclusion of Ali’s history is not unconditional support for the resistance but a judicious, discerning politics that stands on principle against Ba’athism in any incarnation, against mystical Islamist reaction, and against the imperial occupation, while seeking to support whatever forces are committed to the interests of the Iraqi working class and poor.

My second objection pertains to the book’s cover, a contrived image of an Iraqi child pissing on an American soldier. Impish scatology is amusing in some circumstances, and this certainly conveys the ribald, bawdy elements in Ali’s prose. At the present conjuncture, however, to put such an image on the front of a book is a case study in the self-defeating phenomenon that Lenin called “infantile leftism” (for this cover, “toddler leftism” is perhaps a more scientific term).

Ali is entirely correct when he writes that the United States is the “crucial” site for worldwide anti-imperialist resistance, because the history of empires teaches us that “it is when their own citizens finally lose faith in the virtue of infinite war and permanent occupations that the system enters into retreat.”

Given an America increasingly awash in propaganda, ignorance, moralism and fear, a boy with penis exposed and urine streaming is not the best possible outreach strategy. Why inhibit any American bookstore from carrying this valuable book, instructor from assigning it, magazine from reviewing it, library from ordering it, or friend from passing it on to someone in the military?

Before us lies a long, difficult, uphill campaign of education and mobilization if inequality and imperialism are to be supplanted by justice and solidarity. Tariq Ali’s books are precisely the kind of texts that we need. Let us hope that his future books are wrapped more intelligently. If we are serious about challenging empire, if neoconservative imperial ideology is ever to be replaced by a world of authentic freedom and democracy, all our messages should be designed to break through the psychological resistances of an American public that must learn to think in radically new ways.

ATC 119, November-December 2005