As George Bush looks forward to resting his head once more on a fluffy White House pillow and the clean-up of central London begins, many British people will want to make sense of the issues raised by his visit. Among the cascades of instant books about the Second Gulf War, two works by left-wing intellectuals have been much anticipated. Noam Chomsky has, admittedly, cheated, by publishing a collection of essays already printed elsewhere. Tariq Ali has cheated too, by printing almost exactly the same book he has published once every few years since 1968. He performs a simple "search and replace" exercise, changing "Kennedy" to "Reagan" to "Bush". Still, these books make instructive reading, although perhaps not for the reasons the authors intended.
Tariq Ali speaks for the Iraqi people. He knows what they think and feel. "The occupation is detested by a majority of Iraqi citizens," he writes in Bush in Babylon, and "virtually all" of them rejoice when an American soldier is killed. Only a tiny handful celebrated when Saddam was deposed. Those who rejoiced are "a few spunky little jackals, even-tempered to those who do not share their vision of occupation as liberation".
Ali does not explain how he knows all that in his book on "the recolonisation of Iraq". Presumably, the answer is telepathy, because he has not visited Iraq recently, and every single opinion poll - by independent firms that successfully predict election results across the world - paints a very different picture. Real Iraqis, as opposed to Ali's confections, wanted the invasion to proceed by a clear majority. They want the Americans and British to secure a transition to a democratic Iraq within the next two years, and then leave. Happily, George Bush and Tony Blair have the same idea.
Ali cannot accept that. In Bush in Babylon, he is trying to make the new Iraqi beat fit his old 1960s anti-imperialist tune, and the result is painful to hear. His ideological contortions have twisted his internationalism beyond all recognition. He says that the charities and NGOs such as the Red Cross are "like aliens from another planet", that will "descend on Iraq like a swarm of locusts and interbreed with the locals". Interbreeding will never do.
The NGOs are actually trying to vaccinate Iraqi children and exhume the hundreds of thousands of corpses scattered in shallow graves across the country, but Ali doesn't seem very interested in all that. In his quest to deny the now-considerable evidence that Iraqis supported the invasion, Ali uses one of the anti-war movement's best-loved clichés. He says that the famous image of Saddam's statue being toppled was misleading; it was in fact "pulled down by 200 people and American equipment, in a Baghdad where there are over one million Kurds".
There are two important responses to this. First, Ali's point is based on ignorance of Baghdad itself. As I found on a visit last year, there were statues and images of Saddam on every Baghdad corner. There was no obvious rallying point, no Bastille for tens of thousands to storm.
All over the city, there were small bonfires of Saddam's image that day. There were many crowds of 200 or more; not one solitary group egged on by the US, as Ali falsely implies. Second, Ali could more honestly refer to the bombings that he consistently praises as committed by "a few thousand people and Iranian and Syrian equipment, in a country of 23 million".
He admits that the resistance is "dominated" by Ba'athists. They are the very people who have murdered hundreds of thousands of Iraqis for the past few decades, yet he seems to believe that they offer part of the solution for Iraq. Perhaps that is because Ali is convinced that the way forward for Iraq is... communism! Yes, those glorious success stories, Cuba and the Soviet Union, are to be shining beacons for liberated Iraqis. Ali's sincere hatred of communist Ba'athism is evidence of what Sigmund Freud calls "the narcissism of small differences".
Ba'athism is very close to the communism Ali espouses and would visit upon the Iraqi people even now. That can be seen in the admiration he expresses for the early Ba'ath leaders Michel Aflaq and Salah Bitar. They were "moderate men" and good socialists "committed to an Arab Renaissance"; "the bullets came later". The problems only emerged when Ba'athism "degenerated into a bureaucratic clique of power-hungry officers".
That is a dismal misreading of Iraqi history. Ba'athism was, in fact, a non-democratic, Stalinist philosophy that was always going to find its Saddam Hussein. It followed a predictable communist path to tyranny.
Unlike Ali, Noam Chomsky is a serious intellectual force and - contrary to some slurs against him - not an apologist for tyrants. Anybody who thinks about US foreign policy has to read and contemplate his new book, Hegemony or Survival? America's quest for global dominance. Chomsky was one of the first public intellectuals in the US to condemn the horrors of Vietnam, and we would be foolish to discount entirely his arguments now.
The problem with his work, however, derives from the way that Chomsky imputes to US history (since at least Harry Truman) an underlying, undeviating imperialist essence. It is, in his telling, entirely rapacious and malign. In fact, US foreign policy has been complex and contradictory, sometimes benign and sometimes utterly wicked, according to the whims of strategic interest and public opinion. Chomsky cannot admit that ambivalence.
Nowhere in this book does he admit that northern Iraq has been a thriving democracy for the past decade under US military protection. He refers to Europe's extraordinary democratic renaissance under US military protection in just one paragraph and, even then, he is grudging and uncharacteristically unclear.
Chomsky utilises the US ambition for "full spectrum dominance" as evidence that the US is hostile to democracy. His reasoning contains a crucial flaw: the US had full-spectrum dominance over Western Europe and Japan for four decades, and democracy flourished there as never before. He refuses to admit that US foreign policy can evolve and change, or that it can be used to promote democracy as well as tyranny.
He documents the horrors extremely well, and does so bravely in a country that often does not want to hear about its government's crimes. Yet his need to bring all of America's actions in line with its worst behaviour often obscures the truth.
For Chomsky and Ali, the only solution is the complete overthrow of American power and hegemony. I would like, in contrast, to see all that power used for good rather than (as so often) for repression, because we will be waiting a long time for the United States to disappear, and its competitors are even worse. China, anyone?
Neither author can admit that the best and worst of American foreign policy has been showcased in Iraq over the past few decades. We have seen support for a genocidal tyrant, but we have also seen protection of a democratic Kurdish statelet against that same tyrant, thanks to pressure from public opinion. Ideologues of left and right have tended to acknowledge one and ignore the other. We need an intelligent, reflective left perspective that sees both and encourages more of the latter. Sadly, I doubt we will get that from Ali or Chomsky.Reuse content