Tariq Ali on Obama: Imperialism with a human face

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With President Obama set to visit Ottawa this Thursday, Feb. 19, renowned writer and anti-war campaigner Tariq Ali shares his thoughts on the new administration's foreign policy. In his recently published book, The Duel, Ali argues that expanding the war in Afghanistan will only sow more destruction in that long suffering Central Asian country, and aggravate the already volatile situation in Pakistan.

In this interview with rabble.ca editor Derrick O'Keefe, Ali discusses the war, prospects for Palestine under Obama's watch, the rising left-wing tide in Uncle Sam's backyard and his thoughts on long-time UK resident Michael Ignatieff.

Derrick O'Keefe: This week, President Obama makes his first official foreign visit - to Canada, where he will be welcomed in Ottawa by Stephen Harper. For activists in the U.S., you suggested Obama's inauguration be met with slogans that recognized the historic moment, but nevertheless pressed demands, "Congrats Barack. Now out of Kabul, out of Iraq." How should progressives in Canada greet Obama?

Tariq Ali: They should drop the 'congrats,' which already feels politically stale, replace it with 'hello' and everything else stays the same. It's interesting to observe that a number of columnists who are staunch Democrats are becoming increasingly critical of the 'business as usual' approach typified by the Obama-Biden team. On the Middle East they have not made a single criticism of Israel, are backtracking on the withdrawal timeframe on Iraq and will no doubt, as in the past, continue to support the non-elected regimes in the area.

Imperialism may have acquired a human face, but has to be judged on its actions. It's not looking good. On the economy the attempted bipartisanship has blown up in Obama's face and Paul Krugman's critique in the New York Times is mild, but accurate.

DO: Obama's 'diplomatic surge' will certainly feature a major effort to get NATO countries like Canada to boost their troop presence in Afghanistan. What are the prospects for this charm offensive? Will Afghanistan increasingly become even more of a strictly U.S. war?

TA: It will. Most European countries are extremely nervous. The British Ambassador to Kabul has stated that the war cannot be won. A German General who returned from Afghanistan repeated the same thing. The Spanish are reportedly on the verge of withdrawal.

Sending 20,000 more U.S. troops will make things worse, not better. My impression is that Obama's advisers are split on this question. All are however agreed that the aim is no longer nation-building (always a joke) but getting a pro or at least not an anti-Western regime without Karzai set up as soon as possible. This might not be as easy as they think.

DO: Newsweek recently ran a cover story, 'Afghanistan: Obama's Vietnam'. Could Pakistan become his Cambodia, and what does the appointment of Richard Holbrooke as his envoy to Pakistan forebode on that front?

TA: Holbrooke is little more than a messenger boy. He will do whatever the White House wants. But he should have picked up something on his latest travels including a few facts. A large majority in Pakistan want an exit strategy from Afghanistan. I have argued recently in my new book and in TomDispatch that such a strategy is crucial. However it should not entail handing over Afghanistan to the Pakistani military as happened last time after the Russians were defeated.

We need a regional solution that involves Iran, Russia, China and India as well as, of course, Pakistan. If this does not happen the Afghan war will become uncontrollable leading to further havoc in that country and Pakistan. Already the chaos in the region has emboldened religious extremists in the Frontier province and religious warlords have reduced Swat to a fiefdom. Here it must be said that the decision of the Pakistan state to abandon its legitimate monopoly of violence and permit armed gangs to burn down schools and assault women is astonishing. A state that is incapable of protecting its citizens against violence either local or external is doomed to collapse. In fact, as is obvious, the events in Swat could not have occurred had the governments of the country not colluded with some of these groups, using them to pressure Washington in different ways.

DO: Seemingly borrowing from the Manichean logic of George W. Bush, some pro-war commentators in Canada have tarred the anti-war movement as being 'supporters' of the Taliban. One of them, Tarek Fatah, a former NDP activist who has migrated in recent years across the political spectrum all the way to being a darling of the far right frontpagemag.com, has spread this accusation against you personally. Would a reading of Clash of Fundamentalisms be in order for some of these critics of the anti-war movement?

TA: My views have not changed at all as is obvious to anyone who reads my books and essays past and present or watches videos from Fatah's old TV programs. I have, just recently, written of the previous Taliban regime in Afghanistan as a 'malignant social order' and for that reason insisted on a national coalition government in that country following the NATO withdrawal. Given the massive increase in support for the new version of the Taliban that is the result of the war and occupation, any government has to include their representatives.

The Western refusal to recognize Hamas was directly responsible for the Israeli assault on Gaza. I have strongly criticized Hamas in the past but simply because I disagree with them is not a reason to deny the fact that they won a majority in an election or that their opponents were corrupt on every level.

One can go further back in history. The early uprisings against imperial depredations in the Sudan (Britain), Algeria (France), Libya (Italy) were all led by religious leaders. At the Toilers of the East conference in Baku in 1922, the Bolsheviks recognized this fact and Zinoviev called for backing to the jihad against imperialism. He went over the top, but the point is that these questions are not new, though the context is different.

The fact that many former Afghan communists supported the NATO occupation is unlikely to help the secular cause. Nor is the deal done by the secular Awami National Party provincial government in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) with hard-line extremists, agreeing to the IMARGRAH: A five-point agreement for the enforcement of Shariat in Malakand Division which has been finalized in the successful talks held between the NWFP government and Maulana Sufi Muhammad. They were wrong to do so just as they were wrong in supporting first the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and more recently the NATO occupation.

DO: Despite his silence during the massacre of Gaza, and his appointment of Hilary Clinton, some see an opening for peace and justice in the Middle East with the Obama administration. Is there any reason for optimism?

TA: I don't see it myself. The victory of far right and fascist-type parties in Israel, alas, reflects the views of a majority of Israelis. It's no use pretending otherwise. It is clearly not in the U.S. interests to support such a regime, but they will. The campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) so eloquently argued by Naomi Klein is the only way forward and I'm glad it's becoming truly international.

Later this month I'm speaking at SOAS with Ronnie Kasrils, the former South African Minister for Intelligence and a Jew hostile to Zionism, to promote the BDS campaign in Britain.

DO: Moving away from South and Central Asia, and the Middle East, what are your expectations for Obama's policy on Cuba, and the ALBA and UNASUR countries in general? Will Obama pay more attention to the U.S. backyard, which in the past decade has moved substantially to the left?

TA: If he wanted to do a Nixon in Beijing, he should fly to Havana and end the sanctions. He should then fly to Caracas and meet the Bolivarian presidents of Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Paraguay. And I'm sure Lula of Brazil and Kirschner of Argentina would also fly in to impress on Obama that Plan Colombia is a disaster. He should do this, but he won't.

I fear that he is mired in the mess that is the Democratic Party. Also the economic recession is a magnet for the Presidency. He will rise or fall on the question of the economy and so doing anything serious in South America will not appear an attractive option, which is both short-sighted (think of the large Hispanic population in the U.S.) and foolish.

DO: Obama-mania is a political phenomenon every political operative in the world is trying to tap into. Here in Canada, some have even touted Michael Ignatieff as Canada's Obama, or as the 'new Trudeau.' What were your impressions of Ignatieff during his twenty-plus year stint in the UK?

TA: Trudeau was an independent-minded leader, not a stooge of the neighbouring country. The Count (as we called Ignatieff) supported the war in Iraq, defended torture and aligned himself in a dog-like coital lock with the Bush-Cheney gang. If Canadians elect him as Prime Minister they might as well join the United States after demanding exceptional status on health, education and the CBC. Why not? It will be that in everything but name.

From this you'll have gathered that my impressions of his stint here were not totally positive.


Tariq Ali is a novelist, historian, political campaigner and one of New Left Reviews editors. After two North American book tours related to his book on Pakistan, he is working on a set of essays on politics and culture, The Protocols of the Elders of Sodom and Other Essays, for Verso's Spring 2009 list.

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