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Interview: Tariq Ali on Gaza, BDS, ISIS and Iraq

On August 11, 2014, the British left organisation Counterfire sponsored a public forum on Palestine featuring Tariq Ali.

Tariq Ali interviewed by Al McKay, an editor-at-large of E-International Relations.

August 18, 2014 -- E-International Relations -- Tariq Ali is a longstanding editor of the New Left Review. He has written seven novels and a number of screenplays, in addition to many works on history and world politics. His latest books are On History: Tariq Ali and Oliver Stone in Coversation and The Obama Syndrome.

In this interview, Tariq Ali discusses the recent Israel-Palestine conflict, the BDS movment, the rise of ISIS, and Obama’s commitment to long-term US involvement in Iraq.

* * *

How has the way you understand the world changed over time, and what (or who) prompted the most significant shifts in your thinking?

I was born 26 years after the Russian Revolution and six years before the Chinese Revolution. I was 11 years old when the Vietnamese defeated France at the epic battle of Dien Bien Phu. These events played a big part in my political biography.

One had to read Marx, Lenin, Trotsky and Mao. Initially uncritically, later with a more critical eye. This I did in Pakistan. The Cuban Revolution had very little impact on the left in Asia—except during the missile crisis—and  so it was not until I arrived to study at Oxford in October 1963 that I really understood what had happened in Cuba and read a great deal of Fidel and Che.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, one understood that it was the end of an epoch. One couldn’t just say, "Ah, the slate has been wiped clean and we can start afresh". What happened marked the triumph of capitalism and the ideologies associated with it. Broadly speaking, a global counter-revolution. So what was to be done?

For some on the left, mainly uncritical admirers of the various Communist regimes, the choice was simple. Always worshippers of accomplished facts, they shifted their loyalties to the new order, becoming as dogmatic in its defence as they had once been in relation to Russia, China, Yugoslavia, North Korea, Albania, etc. For them, the new emancipatory project became "globalisation", the United States and NATO or, in the case of some, Israel.

This process is not exactly novel. It happened after the Restoration in 17th century Britain. Christopher Hill has written an illuminating study on precisely this: "The Experience of Defeat."  The process was repeated again after the final defeat of the revolution in France. Stendhal wrote about this phenomenon very well. And so it goes. One must recognise the defeat, but one must not capitulate to "presentism". Because what is now is not permanently static. Things change.

By the end of this century, the trajectory might be clearer. To give up, to say farewell to what was important about many of the ideas that motivated people in the last century, is foolish.

There has been much discussion in the media of the so-called moral high ground in the current crisis involving Israel-Palestine. Taking into consideration how events have played out, do you see either side having a serious claim to this?

"Moral high ground" is not a phrase I ever use. One person’s moral high ground can be another person’s dungeon. In the overall conflict the Palestinians are in the right. Much wrong has been done to them by Israel and its principal backer, the United States. The Israelis treat them as untermensch, have tried to destroy their past, their historical memory, and are now attempting to destroy them as a political entity.

What do you feel are the Israeli government’s current political aims in Gaza?

The destruction of Hamas, the intimidation of those who vote for it and the institution of a puppet regime that is a twin of the Palestinian equivalent of the Judenrat that exists on the West Bank. This aim is supported by Washington, Riyadh and Cairo, as well.

You’ve recently pointed out, in an interview with the BBC and in a talk for the Stop the War Coalition, that you feel there has been a change in the perception of the conflict, particularly the Israeli use of force, from those who were previously described as neutral and from those who were previously in the strongly pro-Israel camp. Do you feel that this shift in opinion offers hope to the Palestinians?

Opinion polls in Europe indicate that a vast majority of European citizens are opposed to Israel’s most recent assault on Gaza, but this was also the case on Iraq. On its own, public opinion has no real force. So the shift will certainly give succour to the Palestinians, make them feel they’re not alone, but that is not sufficient to alter the overall situation.

The boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement has been criticised recently by those who are also considered stern critics of the Israel government, such as Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein. Do you think the BDS movement is still an effective approach?

I don’t agree with the two Ns on this question. I think they’re wrong. What else can one do? It’s the only alternative to non-violence. Mustafa Barghouti, the secretary-general of the Palestinian National Initiative movement, has estimated that Israel has incurred losses of around 8 billion dollars due to the boycott campaign against illegal settlements, equivalent to 20 per cent of its GDP. If the figure is accurate, the movement has been a success.

What are your thoughts on US President Barack Obama’s commitment of the US to long-term involvement in Iraq, which he claims is a response to the rise of Islamic militants?

Nonsense. The real reason is to make sure that the US-Israeli protectorate [Kurdish region] remains safe. The aftermath of the occupation was designed to divide Iraq across religious lines. What we are witnessing (as I pointed out a decade ago) is the balkanisation of Iraq.

Do you agree with Hillary Clinton’s recent statement that the rise of ISIS can be attributed to the failure of the US to help rebels in Syria?

Another absurdity. The US did help and arm the Syrian rebels via Turkey. They did not bomb Assad out of existence, as they were unsure of the consequences. After all, Clinton, who supported the war on Iraq, should see what happens if you destroy a regime unilaterally. The rise of ISIS in Iraq is because they destroyed all the structures of the old regime. Had they done the same in Syria, we would have had an even worse situation than now, with at least three different wars taking place. Qatar/Turkey/US backing the so-called moderate Islamists, and the Saudis angry that the Muslim Brotherhood is being revived in Syria.

It is arguable that some of the loudest voices currently calling for military intervention in Iraq, who were previously calling for military intervention in Syria, are coming from what could be described as the Euston Manifesto left. What effect do you feel the Euston Manifesto has had on the political left since it was created, and do you think it actually represents what it claims to represent, i.e. modern leftist internationalism?

Are these people on the left? I think I described them in my response to your first question. They’re liberal imperialists, a position that has a long pedigree in Britain. The Fabians and mainstream Labour upheld the British Empire and defended its values long after the independence of India in 1947. Labour governments played an appalling role in Malaya and Aden in the late 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. They had no need of a "humanitarian" ideology, since they were still infected by civilisational zeal.

Many E-International Relations readers are students. What key advice would you give those wanting to start a career in political activism?

Read, read and read again while becoming active. In Britain and North America, I couldn’t advise them to join a political party of the left because none exist. In Greece, I do recommend that working within Syriza is the best opposition, Podemos in Spain and the Left Party [Die Linke] in Germany, and that’s about it… otherwise, the Radical Independence Campaign in Scotland, Stop the War in Britain and other similar organisations elsewhere are the best transition to radical politics.


Celebrity revolutionaries v serious commentary

Asked whether he agrees with the widely held view (not just Clinton’s) that the rise of ISIS can be attributed to the failure of the US (or anyone else) to help rebels in Syria, Tariq Ali responds:

“Another absurdity. The US did help and arm the Syrian rebels via Turkey.”
I guess when you are a celebrity revolutionary like Ali you don’t actually have to know much, still less try to provide evidence, any sweeping statement will do because you think everyone will just listen to you because you’re Tariq Ali. Unfortunately, for thousands of activists who are very well aware of what has been going on in Syria, Ali’s shallowness is self-evident.

The US did not “arm” the rebels as Ali baldly states, and even the “help” via Turkey can only mean one of two things, either (1) the non-lethal aid, ie, tents, radios, night-goggles, ready-meals and so much other useless rubbish, which presumably Ali thinks “helped” them confront Assad’s helicopter gunships, barrel bombs, ballistic missiles, incendiary bombs, chemical weapons etc, or (2) it means the CIA role in making sure an already existing (no thanks to the CIA) arms pipeline via Turkey greatly limited what weapons actually got from the storehouses in Turkey into Syria, in actively vetoing any groups they didn’t like getting anything, and in preventing Manpads (shoulder-fired anti-aircraft guns, the actually useful thing) getting in at all to anyone.

The absolute paucity of the rebels’ weapons right throughout the conflict, in comparison to the regime’s massive use of conventional wmd, is only too obvious to anyone that actually looks. Whatever the FSA and others did get from Saudi Arabia and Qatar (*not* from the US) was never of any kind of quantity, still less quality, to make any difference to the struggle.

Ali simply avoids the fact that if the secular and moderate Islamist forces had better access to proper arms they would have been much better able to fight both the regime and ISIS but also would be able to be a more effective force themselves, holding back the kind of radicalisation that results from extraordinary suffering and hopelessness, which groups like ISIS can prey on, and also preventing many rebels drifting over to better armed and thus more effective jihadist groups, including at the most extreme end ISIS.

He also avoids the well-known fact, at least to anyone who reads and has an analysis beyond Ali-style shallowness, that it has been only the FSA and its allies that have actually been fighting ISIS for the last year, all across Syria, while the whole time the regime hasn’t touched ISIS and in fact has often actively collaborated with it against the rebels. How could it be that arming the main force fighting ISIS would not have stemmed its rise?

Yet Ali then jumps on to a complete red herring:
“They did not bomb Assad out of existence, as they were unsure of the consequences.”

The question was about whether the popular masses and their armed organisations confronting a fascist regime should have been able to get better arms and Ali responds that the US didn’t bomb Assad out of existence! What a bombastic fool. As if there is any connection between the two. Moreover, as if there was ever even the remotest likelihood or interest in the US in “bombing Assad out of existence”. What a non-seqitir. Even last August, the one moment in the last 4 years when it looks vaguely possible that the US might send a few air strikes after Assad’s chemical genocide in East Ghouta, “bombing Assad out of existence” was not on the table. Then only thing on the table was a few “punishment strikes,” which in any case were mostly more a figment of the “anti-imperialiist” left’s imaginations than a serious likelihood.

He continues:
“After all, Clinton, who supported the war on Iraq, should see what happens if you destroy a regime unilaterally. The rise of ISIS in Iraq is because they destroyed all the structures of the old regime. Had they done the same in Syria, we would have had an even worse situation than now, with at least three different wars taking place.”

The guy has completely lost it. The question is about allowing the FSA a few arms to fight itself, he takes that to an imaginary US bombing of Syria, and then a full-scale Iraq-style invasion, which has never even remotely been US strategy – the maximum US strategy for Syria has always been the “Yemeni solution” of rearranging the Baathist state, ensuring the “core” of the regime, especially the “military-security apparatus”, is maintained, in order for it to better crush the revolution (the imperialists usually put this in the language of “fighting terrorists” or “fighting jihadists”, which, by some amazing coincidence, just happens to be the same language as that of “the anti-imperialist left”).

Celebrity revolutionaries

It is inevitable that some individuals will be better known than others and we will sometimes capitalize on that in our work. Whenever I go to Green left Weekly I see the endorsement by John Pilger. John Pilger is not necessarily better informed or more intelligent than any number of other people, but he is well known.
I think Pilger and Ali have earned their status through their work. In addition there may be superficial factors such as good looks and a good accent, but these are not that important. I think the word "celebrity" is dismissive and undeserved.

Celebrity vs substance

In this instance I must beg to differ, Ken. what's at issue here is not that some people have well-earned reputations that should prompt us to give weight to their considered views,even if we disagree with their conclusions; but that there are individuals(and Tariq is certainly not alone in this) who use their past reputations to give credibility to lazy, ill-informed, and poorly reasoned assertions. This is substituting celebrity for intellectual substance. Tariq has been doing this for some time now, and its good to see someone calling him to account.

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