(Verso Publishers, NY, 2003, 214 pps. With illustrations)
When it comes to a political history-especially one that has a strong bias towards the people and events it’s describing-it’s always best, I think, to know something about the author.
Tariq Ali is a left journalist/writer/historian. His last book was The Clash of Fundamentalisms-about the fundamentalist Christian Right in the US, as personified by Bush and his business partners vs. the fundamentalist Islamists of the Middle East and East, as personified by Osama Bin Laden and acolytes.
Mr. Ali is originally Pakistani but, at this point in his life, he’s more a citizen of the world, having, since the Sixties, traveled everywhere, covering various wars and political and social upheavals. He was educated at Oxford, currently lives in London and is an editor of The New Left Review.
He is a passionate hater of Western Imperialism-and in the case of this present book-the United States in particular. In fact, he sees the European countries, including NATO and most of the security council of the UN, as nothing more than puppets manipulated by a spreading American Empire. As he points out more than once in the book, he considers the USA the new Roman Empire-willing to bribe, subvert or destroy anyone who gets in the way of its goal of world domination. Tariq Ali also considers Israel (in its treatment of the Palestinians and its general influence on Middle East policy) as nothing more than the Mid-east regional office of the United States Empire.
Beginning with America’s expansionist policies after the war with Spain in 1898, Ali tracks, with laser-like judgment, the oppressive policies of the US (in the Caribbean, Central and South America, and the far East). Then he follows the USA’s Imperialist expansion after WW2: Cuba, Chile, Argentina, Nicaragua, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Iran, The Philippines, Indonesia, East Timor, ad infinitum… He makes it clear that the USA has now deliberately expanded the Monroe Doctrine to cover the entire planet.
Insatiable lust for money and power finally brings the USA (and the reader) to Iraq, where, the author says, the American Empire may have-much in the manner of Vietnam-bitten off more than it can chew.
Iraq has long been the Middle East’s epicenter of intractable (and often violent) reaction against colonial intrusion-first against the Ottoman Empire, then the British, and now, finally the Americans. Ali gives us a long, detailed political and cultural history of the groups, ethnicities and religious forces that make up what is now modern Iraq-a country formed by (and for) the European powers after World War One.
The book is rich in the history of the entire Middle-east region; the development of Arab nationalism after the First World War, the struggle over who controls oil, and the puppet regimes installed by France, Britain and the US in Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iran, and Iraq. And according to the author, behind most of these events, one can generally find the nefarious influence of Israeli Zionists.
All the tragic dramas of Iraq, and the Arab world in general, are portrayed in the frame of the author’s red-hot anger and hatred of the West. He also has a profound and enduring disgust for the homegrown politicians and rulers of the Middle East, whose greed, vanity and intramural bickering betrayed their countries into the hands of the Western powers.
Ali delivers a penetrating analysis of the rise and fall of the political parties and politicians in Iraq; first, the Iraqi Communist and Baath parties, and then the ascendency of Saddam Hussein. He also gives a thorough description of the relationships between the Kurds, Sunnis, and Shiites. This is followed by an analysis of the war between Iraq and Iran and the causes of the first Gulf War in 1991.
To anyone familiar with the history of the United States government’s sad and shameful record in the twentieth century (save for its fight against the Nazis and the Japanese Empire in World War 2) this book will come as no news. For the reader unfamiliar with the USA’s political-military manipulations, subversions and invasions, this book will serve as an introductory eye-opener. As far as the facts are concerned-to the extent such facts are clearly uncontestable-it can be shocking and sad for an uninformed American citizen to read a true history of his country’s behavior on the world stage.
Just as one instance…In January and February of 1991, after quickly routing the Iraqi army, United States forces murdered-there is really no other word for it-almost 100,000 retreating Iraqi troops. This gratuitous slaughter gave the Pentagon a chance to test out their new weapons and the rulers of the US a chance to begin what turned out to be a campaign of deliberate destruction in Iraq.
During the “war,” the US and Britain deliberately and unnecessarily (from a tactical standpoint) bombed water treatment plants, sewage plants, bridges, roads, etc. Then, for the next twelve years, right up until the invasion of 2003, The US, again, aided and abetted by Britain-and in essential violation of the UN’s wishes-proceeded to systematically destroy what was left of Iraq’s infrastructure with unrelenting targeted bombing.
It is estimated (by neutral UN and other NGO sources) that hundreds of thousands of Iraqi men, women and children died from starvation and disease brought about by this incessant bombing combined with the US boycott, which included basic supplies such as medicine.
This is not leftist propaganda or knee-jerk anti-Americanism. Ali backs all this up with numerous testimonies from very reliable sources and quotes taken directly from formerly secret US government documents. For instance, Bill Clinton read and approved the National Security and Defense Intelligence Agency’s written plan to deliberately bomb water-filtration plants throughout the country-a program that directly resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqi children. Clinton was well aware of the results of this bombing (and the boycott), but he never made a move to change his policy.
What was the point of such gratuitous aggression and destruction? After all, Bush senior had already beaten the Iraqis back into their own country and effectively destroyed their military capabilities. Was it just to get rid of Saddam Hussein? Makes very little sense when you consider it. That would be like burning down an entire house to get rid of one rat in the basement.
Why, asks Tariq Ali, wouldn’t the US do with Saddam Hussein what it has frequently done with other dictators and autocrats throughout the world; namely: buy them off? In other words, why not, after destroying the Iraqi Army and rendering the country helpless, just strike a deal with Saddam Hussein and buy his oil at a cut-rate price? After all, the US and Saddam Hussein were no strangers to each other. After the Shah of Iran was deposed in 1979, the US provided a great deal of financial support and military equipment to Hussein in his ruinous war against the Iranian Ayatollahs.
The answer to these questions, as Ali makes painstakingly clear, is that the US never had any other goal than the eventual conquest and occupation of Iraq, with the initial purpose of eventually controlling the entire Middle East; and the concomitant goal of privatizing (stealing back) the oil resources of the entire area. And, as always, says the author, Israel was a moving force in all this because it wanted all the Arab countries kept destabilized and weak.
The bottom line, according to the author, is that the most recent US invasion of Iraq was long planned and inevitable.
Bush in Babylon states its case, then proves it pretty well. Given the author’s anger and passion, the book is, of course, as much an anti-US manifesto and call to arms as it is a political history of Iraq.
I think the book has two weaknesses…
I really don’t mind righteous political rants. After all, I’m not on
WBAI radio for nothing. But the author is given-as are many politicians and writers on the left (or the right for that matter)-to overusing words like “running-dog,” “jackal,” “puppet,” etc. Use of these words (as I know very well, having overused them myself many times) tends to dilute the integrity and passion that the author brings to his work. But, I suppose you might excuse him for this-the villains in this story (European, American and Arab) are so truly despicable, and the author’s anger is so profound, that sometimes he just can’t contain himself.
The other weakness is that the author has, in the first quarter of the book, invoked a great many Arab/Iraqi poets to make his point about the repression and suffering of the Arabs. He relates touching conversations he’s had with exiled poets and quotes a lot from their work.
Now obviously there is nothing wrong with that-it can be quite effective and moving-if that was the entire style and content of the book: writing about the artist as emblematic of all Arab suffering. But the problem here is in trying to combine the two approaches: poets/poetry and historical/political analysis. Even though the poets and their poetry are political-often exiled for their politics-the join doesn’t really work.
But these are minor criticisms… I strongly recommend this book for anyone who wants an alternative to the bought-and-sold opinions of most of American media on the subject of the growing American Empire’s invasion and occupation of Iraq as a first step to controlling the entire Middle East.
– Mike Feder (New York City – November 2, 2003)