Tariq Ali: Bush in Babylon (Book Review)
- View SourceIraq, empire and resistance
Bush in Babylon: the Recolonisation of Iraq
By Tariq Ali
214 pages, $25
A Review by Nick Fredman
"I see a horizon lit with blood And many a starless night. A
generation comes and another goes And the fire keeps burning." --
Iraqi poet al Jawahiri, on the 1948 anti-British uprising.
Tariq Ali has often commented on the importance of poets in the Arab
and Islamic worlds, and in his latest book he quotes poetry freely, a
move that heightens the sense of history and anti-imperialist
identity in this narrative of Iraq, empire and resistance.
It's a timely release, with Iraqi resistance fighters almost daily
killing and maiming bewildered US and allied occupation soldiers,
continued protest actions by Iraqis, polls in the US showing a
majority now opposing George Bush's Iraq policies, and conservative
ruling-class organs like the British Economist now wondering if the
invasion has failed. Bush in Babylon is an excellent guide to
understanding the quagmire US imperialism seems to have got itself
Ali is a long-time socialist activist, was a leading figure in the
campaign in Britain against the Vietnam War, and is currently an
editor of New Left Review. He's now published eight non-fiction books
as well as several novels and screenplays. These works cover a wide
range of political and cultural topics, but a central concern of the
Pakistan-born, England-based Ali is the role of imperialism in the
Indian subcontinent and the Middle East.
Bush in Babylon in many ways is a companion work to Ali's Clash of
Fundamentalisms, published in 2002. In that, book Ali takes
apart "clash of civilisation" type ideologies that are used to
justify the "war on terror". He surveys the history of the Islamic
world, from Morocco to Indonesia, its interaction with Western
colonialism and imperialism, and relates the rise of religious
fundamentalism to global exploitation and national class struggles.
In his more recent book, Ali takes a closer look at the Iraqi front
of US imperialism's bid for a "new American century" of world
domination. Its title sums up his theme that the latest intervention
in Iraq, although also shaped by the current needs of the US ruling
class and its allies, and the particular nature of the Bush regime,
fits a familiar pattern of invasion and resistance that the
imperialist high command seems oblivious to.
"As a born-again Christian fundamentalist, Bush obviously was aware
of the wickedness of ancient Babylon (an old testament favourite) and
the associated rhymes. Possibly he was also aware that its ruins were
located in Mesopotamia, which was now Iraq, but did he know much
else? Had anyone enlightened him on Baghdad and its history? Did he
know why the US occupiers were being referred to as the `new
Ali outlines how Iraq itself was a product of imperialism, knocked
together by the British from three provinces of the defeated Ottoman
Empire in the Anglo-French carve-up of the Middle East following the
first world war. The British imposed a king plucked from the Arabian
Hashemite family (who were also given Jordan to run), and secured
their access to rich oil fields by crushing a rebellion with tanks
and chemical weapons (mustard gas) in the early 1920s.
The British used the tested strategy of cultivating a new landlord
class as a social base for a pro-imperialist regime, and ran Iraq
through a corrupt "oligarchy of racketeers". Continuing resistance
was only partly checked by the apparent assassination of modernising
King Ghazi in 1936, and another British invasion in 1941, aimed at
crushing a nationalist coup. A mass insurrection in 1948, calling for
a republic and social justice, was again drowned in blood, with
leaders publicly hanged.
However, nationalist and leftist currents were growing rapidly in the
Arab world, particularly after Egyptian leader Gamal Abdul Nasser
nationalised the Suez Canal and held off a British, French and
Israeli invasion in 1956. An alliance of the Iraqi Communist Party
(ICP), the Nasser-inspired Free Officers and the newly formed left-
nationalist Baath (Renewal) Party swept away the client regime in
Land was distributed and a range of social reforms carried out.
However, power was held by the pro-capitalist Free Officers, and
their leader, Abdul-Karim Qasim, played off nationalists and
Communists against each other. The latter, following the Stalinist
strategy for Third World countries of insisting on bourgeois-
nationalist leadership for the anti-imperialist, national-democratic
revolution, refused to carry out an independent policy and
uncritically supported Qasim, who attempted, in classic Bonapartist
fashion, to balance the interests of all classes.
Inevitably, the revolution stalled and the Baathists and Nasserites
seized the opportunity in 1963 to launch a coup, killing many
Communists with lists supplied by the CIA.
A 1967 self-criticism by ICP leaders is relevant to the similar
disaster that befell the Indonesian Communists, and to a program of
national-democratic revolution in countries like Iraq that can open
the road to socialist revolution: "Had we seized the helm and without
delay armed the people, carried out a radical agrarian reform ...
granted to the Kurds their autonomy and, by revolutionary measures,
transformed the army into a democratic force, our regime would have
with extraordinary speed attained the widest popularity and would
have released great mass initiatives, enabling the millions to make
their own history."
After 1963 one wing of the ICP was destroyed in a heroic but
fruitless guerrilla struggle, while the remnants were drawn into
Saddam Hussein's government in 1973, under pressure from Moscow,
which made it all the easier for Hussein to isolate and eliminate
them in 1978.
The Baathists have a similarly tragic history. The Arab Baath
Socialist Party was founded by leftist Syrian intellectual Michel
Aflaq in 1943 as an attempted synthesis of socialism and pan-Arab
nationalism. Its influence had spread to Iraq by the 1950s.
In 1963, when Baath Party leftists won a majority at a joint Syrian-
Iraqi party congress and adopted a avowedly socialist program, Aflaq
showed the contradictions of his politics by ordering rightist,
militaristic elements to seize control of the Iraqi party at
gunpoint. Saddam Hussein used this militarised machine to seize power
from the Nasserites in 1968 and set up a regime based on crony
capitalism, the army and the secret police.
In the same year, a similar regime was set up in Syria when a left-
Baathist government was overthrown by right-wing Baathist army
general Hafez al Asad, who was succeeded after his death by his son
Bashar, the current Syrian president.
Saddam Hussein, "both creature and master of the Baath apparatus",
was throughout his rule led by contradictory desires to garner the
lucrative support of Washington and win legitimacy in the Arab world.
Anti-imperialist rhetoric was combined with waging a disastrous war
against Iran from 1980 to 1988, with the backing of the US. Hussein
was coaxed and tricked by Washington into invading Kuwait in 1990,
leading to the wholesale massacre of Iraq's conscript armies and even
more murderous UN sanctions through the 1990s.
Ali outlines the march to another Iraq war this year, with a sea of
lies about terror weapons and al Qaeda links masking US imperialism's
true aims of securing oil profits and military-political dominance in
the Middle East. He puts the war in the context of imperialist
interventions across the globe throughout the 20th century.
The Iraq war also highlights for Ali the failure of the UN and the
capitulation of many liberals and some leftists to imperialism. An
appendix compares the strident anti-Gulf War I polemics of
Christopher Hitchens to the "vile replica" who smugly supports Bush
Ali focuses on the importance of imperialism, but a central
occupation of his work is to insist that the masses of the Third
World are the subjects and not just the objects of history. He is
scathing towards indigenous exploiters and betrayers -- "the self-
inflicted wounds of the Arab world" -- and insists that ordinary
people North and South uniting in a movement that "can only be
effective if it is global" is the alternative.
Ali's sense of history and his understanding of imperialism and how
it can be resisted make him a vital author for today's left.
From Green Left Weekly,
November 19, 2003.
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