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Tariq Ali: Bush in Babylon (Book Review)

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  • ummyakoub
    Iraq, empire and resistance Bush in Babylon: the Recolonisation of Iraq By Tariq Ali Verso 2003 214 pages, $25 A Review by Nick Fredman I see a horizon lit
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 5, 2003
      Iraq, empire and resistance
      Bush in Babylon: the Recolonisation of Iraq
      By Tariq Ali
      Verso 2003
      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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