Pakistani-born journalist and author Tariq Ali grew up in Lahore, the son of a well-connected family. At an early age he became interested in politics and took up a strongly radical position. During the civil war that eventually led to the creation of an independent Bangladesh from the former East Pakistan, he publicly supported the soon-to-secede territory and was denounced as a traitor. In 1972 he was arrested at Karachi Airport and put on the next plane out of the country. This happened to be going to Paris, but he was banned from entering France and so moved on to London. There he settled and eventually gained a British passport.
During the later phases of the Vietnam War, Ali acquired a reputation as a particularly intransigent fire-brand and political hard-liner, a reputation that persists to this day. Earlier this year the right-wing London Daily Telegraph described him as a "rabid left-winger" when reviewing, favorably, his stage play The Illustrious Corpse. (The play satirized the New Labour government of Tony Blair, so the Telegraph had arguably little choice but to like it).
In an article in the London Review of Books last June, Ali described how he was told by a British delegation at a lecture he'd given in Islamabad the previous month "how pleased they were that I had concentrated on Bush rather than Blair." He replied by explaining "the difference between an organ grinder and his performing animal."
In this new book, a ruthless and unstinting attack on the roles of the Americans and the British in the invasion of Iraq, he goes further. Blair, from being the "lapdog" of regular media parlance, becomes a "petty mastiff, snarling at the leash." Ali's tone these days may sometimes be witty and playful, but in this book he is unrelenting. The US is the new imperialist power, differing from Britain, France, Belgium and the other 19th and 20th century colonizing states only in being disinclined to stay and administer the countries it occupies. Instead, he claims, it establishes military bases and then makes commercial agreements that leave the conquered territory no option but to become its junior and much-exploited trading partner.
Left-leaning writing possesses an automatic advantage in the form of an apparently in-built monopoly on the crusading spirit. People who argue that on the one hand such-and-such is true, but on the other there is a lot to be said for its opposite, never have half the excitement quotient. Everything is black-and-white for the radical and this is his essential appeal. Whether what he writes is actually true at times feels almost beside the point.
It's as if balancing the pros and cons is too much hard work. But once we adopt a radical intransigence, all appears beautifully simple. The devil is revealed in all his wickedness, the victim's plight is obvious and the action that needs to be taken is only too clear.
Bush in Babylon is published by Verso, the independent left-wing London publisher that also publishes John Pilger. Pilger's The New Rulers of the World (reviewed in Taipei Times on 15 June) argued from the same perspective. Both Pilger and Ali are highly readable writers, though Pilger is generally the better organized and the more eloquent. Ali, though, also has his moments. His "modest proposal" for the sending of Indian troops to Iraq under the leadership of Narender Modi, Chief Minister of India's Gujarat state during the recent attack on Muslims there, is truly Swiftian in its irony.
Asia features prominently in this book. The history of American influence in the Philippines is mulled over, post-World War II Japan scrutinized, and US tactics in the Korean and Vietnam wars rehearsed once again.
Elsewhere, there are extravagant claims. "Bush wants Syria and Iran, while his deputy-sheriff in London wants to take over Zimbabwe and Burma (two former British colonies)." The World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund are "crucial to maintaining tooth-and-claw capitalism" in power. The UN is "a permanent fig leaf for new imperial adventures," and Japan's and South Korea's prime-ministers when put to the test reveal themselves as stooges of the West. But can we really believe these things?
One major virtue the book does have is its quotations from Iraqi poets, some of whom Ali knows personally. Their laments for their country as a battleground between conflicting forces are often very moving. (Ali's own previous book was called The Clash of Fundamentalisms, by which he meant Islamic and Western ones). There's also a useful history of Iraq and Kuwait.
One-sided views of world events are routinely offered by both parties in any conflict. When I was a child in England, the prevailing view of WW II was that the Germans and the Japanese had perpetrated unspeakable horrors, and the Italians were cowardly battle-avoiders. The British, by contrast, were a naturally fair-minded people, a collection of cheerful Cockneys serving under witty officers, good-humored even in captivity, where they plotted ingenious escapes under the eye of humorless and overweight German guards. Nothing of the massive bombing of German cities, and hence of German civilians, was ever mentioned.
I now believe that in war most men (though probably not most women) will do almost anything, however heinous, if they feel themselves under attack. Even before they start you can assume that all conflicts will produce atrocities of one sort or another from both sides. As for the truth, it usually lies somewhere in the middle.
If you're already inclined to believe a scenario in which the US is the big bad wolf, perhaps you ought to read something else because this book will certainly only serve to confirm your suspicions. If, on the other hand, you tend to believe in things such as the threat formerly posed by Saddam Hussein's Iraq, or that the US stands for democracy, freedom and an open mind just as importantly as it stands for military action, then this book will certainly give you reasons to re-assess your position. Its subtitle, incidentally, is The Recolonisation of Iraq, which neatly sums up its essential argument.
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