Tariq Ali Says "The American Government Lied Through its Teeth"

Tariq Ali speaks. (James M Thorne/Flickr)
Tariq Ali speaks. (James M Thorne/Flickr)

Tariq Ali, born in Lahore, Pakistan, is an internationally renowned political commentator, novelist and playwright based in London.

An editor of New Left Review, Mr Ali is also a prolific writer. He is the author of more than a dozen books on world history and politics, as well as five novels. Some of his most recent books include Bush in Babylon: The Recolonisation of Iraq (2003) and Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads, and Modernity (2002). Three novels of his "Islamic Quintet" have been published (all by Verso): Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree (1996), The Book of Saladin (1998), and The Stone Woman (2000). They portray Islamic civilization in a way that he says "runs counter to the standard views."

In this interview with The Asia Society, Mr Ali discusses, among other things, the US military operation in Iraq, perceptions of 9/11 in the Muslim world, the long-term objectives of American foreign policy in the Middle East, the stability of the Musharraf regime in Pakistan, and the prospects for a more equitable global order.

You have suggested that this most recent war against Iraq proves unequivocally the futility of the sanctions regime imposed on the country throughout the 1990s after the First Gulf War. Could you elaborate on this?

The aim of the sanctions regime imposed on Iraq in the 1990s after the First Gulf War was essentially to weaken the Saddam Hussein regime to try and bring him down. The assumption was that people would get so angry that they would topple the regime. This proved to be a big miscalculation because the people in fact became more dependent on the regime. The only force in the country helping the people to survive the sanctions was the state. The state provided food subsidies, health services and so on - although of course in a much more limited way than it did before but nevertheless it provided something - and the bulk of the population viewed the United Nations and the United States as pushing through the sanctions.

Also, curiously enough, there was less repression in Iraq over the last 10 years - that is, the period the sanctions were in place - than there had been previously.

The sanctions failed to adversely affect the regime at all. But the people were severely punished: half a million children died according to UNESCO figures. Clearly the sanctions did not work.

This was the point I was trying to make when the US administration started arguing that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The secondary aim of the sanctions regime was supposedly to deny Saddam Hussein weapons of mass destruction. So I argued that the Americans could not have it both ways: either the sanctions had worked, in which case Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction, and therefore the whole invasion was futile. Or he did have weapons of mass destruction, and the sanctions had therefore completely failed.

Of course the American government lied through its teeth. We know that there were no weapons of mass destruction; they had been destroyed soon after the Gulf War.

One of the explanations for the most recent US invasion of Iraq is that relations with the main oil producers in the region had soured: initially with Iran following the Revolution, later with Iraq following Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, and most recently with Saudi Arabia in the wake of the attacks on the United States in September 2001 (once it was revealed that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi nationals). According to this argument, it was subsequently necessary to establish a new, reliable source for oil in the region. Would you agree with this?

I am not sure I agree with the argument that the main reason for the invasion of Iraq had to do with oil. This is commonly argued amongst sections of the Left. I think it is an economic-determinist argument and it does not work for the following reason: if gaining access to oil was the principal aim of the United States, they could have easily done a deal with the regime as they have done before. The Iraqi government was interested in providing the oil, and the US could have had the sanctions lifted and simply reverted to what existed previously.

No, I think there are two fundamental explanations for the invasion of Iraq. First, it was a demonstration of imperial power. It was essentially designed to show - not just the Arab world but the Europeans and the states of the Far East as well (currently just economic rivals, but viewed as potential political rivals of the US) - that no one can tangle with the United States of America. The invasion served to demonstrate that this is what America can do: it can occupy countries and crush regimes whenever it chooses.

Second, the invasion of Iraq was a classic case, in that part of the world, of appeasing the Israeli leadership. The Likudist faction inside the Bush Administration - represented by Wolfowitz, Cheney, and the rest of the Neocon-gang - was desperate to remove the Saddam Hussein regime because there was a big Israeli demand to do so. The Israelis saw the Iraqis, together with the Syrians, as potentially still holding out and not accepting Israeli hegemony in the region. Also, the Israelis thought the Iraqi regime was supplying a lot of money and probably weapons to the Palestinian resistance, which it was doing (something of which Saddam Hussein's government was very proud and admitted quite openly). So the Israelis wanted them out of the way.

I think asserting an American imperial presence in the region and in the world was the main reason for the invasion of Iraq, and helping out the Israelis was the second reason. Obviously the fact that the Iraqis had oil made it easier because the US thought they could then control and re-colonize an oil-producing country and reduce their dependence on the Saudi regime, and possibly also use Iraq as a base to police Syria and Iran.

This was, I think, the impulse behind the neoconservative pressure to invade Iraq.

It has been argued elsewhere that US foreign policy objectives in the post-war era can best be understood in terms of containing "militant Third World nationalism" and that this has been continuous from the Cold War to the present, from Vietnam to the most recent war on Iraq. Would you agree?

I think the main aim of US foreign policy after the Second World War was not so much to contain militant Third World nationalism as to defeat communism. Of course, because militant Third World nationalism was either close to, or supported by, the Soviet Union or China (in the early years), or took a neutral position - that is, refused to support the United States in the Cold War - American foreign policy was very hostile to any independent nationalism. The first thing that nationalists did was to use the existence of the Soviet Union to fight the West: Egypt, Iraq, Syria, countries in Latin America, they all did it. So I think in the wake of the Cold War, defeating those regimes that refused to bow down before the United States was a crucial part of American foreign policy. That is why the US had security alliances all over the world, why they dominated Latin America through military dictatorships, and why they used the Israelis to crush Arab nationalism after the Six Day War, and so on. In fact, when in 1967 Israel launched what it said was a pre-emptive strike against Egypt, the language they used was exactly the same as the language used by the Americans during the most recent invasion of Iraq.

So that is essentially what the Americans did. Of course where they suffered a heavy defeat was in Vietnam because here the resistance was both nationalist and communist. The American people too were motivated and the epic resistance of the Vietnamese produced, after some years, a very big anti-war movement in the United States that eventually infected the American army. When GIs began to be involved in the anti-war movement, and the morale of the GIs in Vietnam plummeted, then it became impossible for the United States to win, and the Vietnamese armies marched into Saigon. That was a big political-military defeat for the United States, a defeat they are still trying to recover from.

In the Iraq war, we have seen that a new form of resistance had taken hold from virtually the day the US occupied the country. American casualties are not as high as in Vietnam obviously, but it is the first stage of the resistance, which I think has been quite effective to date. It is the fact of this resistance that is changing politics in the United States already. The Democrats are beginning to speak up; they had lost their tongues and have now found them and are becoming more critical of the Administration's foreign policy, thanks to the Iraqi resistance.

You suggest in Bush in Babylon that there was stiff and united resistance to imperial power throughout the Arab world till the Suez Crisis - viewed at the time as a pre-emptive assault on the entire Arab nation. Why do you say that it would be unrealistic to even ask whether Arab states would put up similar resistance to the present invader of Iraq?

It was in fact the victory of Nasser in Egypt in the mid-50s and the nationalization of the Suez Canal that provoked a stiff conflict with imperial powers. The British, French and later, the Americans, were very nervous that this wave of nationalism, which started in Egypt, was infecting the whole region. They were absolutely right - from their point of view - to be worried. It was a very powerful force. It was the first time the Arab nation had produced a leader who was respected all over the Arab world including amongst the masses in Saudi Arabia. There were staunch Nasserite currents inside the Saudi army, and inside the Saudi population. One of the Saudi princes was involved in an attempt to get rid of the royal dynasty altogether. So Nasser had a very big impact and it was this that was beginning to shake the pro-Western regimes in the region.

Just look at what happened: Egypt nationalizes the Suez Canal and a massive wave of nationalism sweeps through the Arab world. There is unity between Syria and Iraq. In 1958, the Iraqi monarchy is toppled. There is talk of one Arab nation with three capitals (Baghdad, Damascus, and Cairo), which would have been phenomenal but this did not happen.

So the imperial powers began to plan a counter-offensive and at the heart of this counter-offensive was Israel. No other country could do it so they built up Israel as a military power and unleashed it against Egypt and Syria. The Israelis took these regimes by surprise and smashed them. That is essentially what happened.

The Arab regimes - Egypt in particular, which was a major player - decided to make a compromise with the United States. They made a pact with Israel, and were taken out of the ambit of the Arab world. For a long time the natural leader of the Arab world, a country where modern Arab nationalism was reborn, Egypt was now completely removed from the sphere, leaving the Arab world pretty leaderless. The two Ba'athist states - Syria and Iraq - were left quarreling with each other. There was total disunity.

It is important to keep in mind that we are talking about a time when the United States was not the only big power in the world; there was the Soviet Union, and there was China. The big difference today is that the United States is the dominant power in the world and that means that the Arab states cannot even think of putting up any resistance - their leaders are pretty venal anyway - because they fear they will be crushed. And they are not wrong. President Bashar Assad of Syria attacks the US occupation of Iraq, quite hard in fact, and what happens? The Israelis are sent in to bomb them a couple of weeks later [on October 5]. There is no way the Israeli bombing of Syria could have been carried out without the permission of the United States.

Why do you say that the peoples of the Arab world view Operation Iraqi Freedom as "a cover for an old-fashioned, European-style colonial occupation"?

The reason the Arab world views the occupation of Iraq as a cover for old-style colonial occupation is very simple. This is an occupation which is not supported by the Iraqi people. Even Iraqis who dislike Saddam Hussein hate the occupation even more. That is becoming increasingly clear. The Americans were not prepared for that. They simply think they will be welcomed everywhere.

It is not an occupation that is going to end quickly because they have taken their companies in with them. All the multinationals are in there: privatized security companies are supposed to be guarding the oil wells, defense contractors are there as well, so American capitalism has been heavily involved in the war right from the beginning.

This is an old-style colonial occupation. In fact the result of the influx of American capital into Iraq will probably be to alienate the one social layer in the country that tends to work with imperial powers: the merchants and the traders. They are not being given any space to maneuver because of the large presence of American corporations. If the only Iraqis who are going to be part of the crony deals are the family of Ahmad Chalabi - who is a fraudster and a rogue anyway - this will completely alienate the people of Iraq from the occupation.

I think this is why we are witnessing such strong resistance. People see the occupation as serving American - not Iraqi - interests.

Tell us about the import of the 1997 publication entitled, "Project for the New American Century". Why do you say that the occupation of Iraq is only the first step on the US imperial agenda? What can we expect after this?

I have read the "Project for the New American Century." The National Security Strategy of the Bush Administration is based on it. It is very simple. Basically what it says is that the US has the right to invade by force and destroy any real challenge to American hegemony. Now, if you accept that as your national security strategy - that the United States can go in and attack any country from where it feels a threat might emanate - this is a very serious matter.

The US thought Iraq would be a smooth operation and then they could go and take Syria and topple that regime, and then the Israelis would be happy. The Israelis would then be the super-policeman of the Middle East, acting with the United States, and the other regimes would essentially be protectorates.

But the Iraqi resistance has stopped this. For how long, we can't say. But it certainly has stopped it. There is not going to be an invasion of Tehran and Damascus very soon because if they decide to go in either directly or using Israel, there will be a big upsurge in that whole region. As it is, people are very angry.

I personally hope that the Saudi and Egyptian regimes are toppled by insurrections and democratic revolutions from below, which will clearly show the United States what the view of the Arab masses is. The West talks a lot about democracy, but if there was a vote taken in the whole Arab world, or even in Iraq, no one would support what the West is doing and they would still carry on doing it. So despite what they say about democracy, in oil-producing regions the US has historically preferred to deal with oligarchies because whenever there has been a democratic regime (for instance, in Iran or anywhere else), the US has toppled it. The reasons for this are obvious: democratic regimes in the region want to use the oil for the benefit of their own people.

You have said the American occupation of Iraq will determine global politics for the present century. What exactly do you mean by this?

What I mean by this is quite simple: the American occupation of Iraq marks a turning point in world politics. They occupied a country, and the occupation, the resistance and how it all works out will determine what happens elsewhere, as we have been discussing. If the resistance is successful, it will, I think, stop the Empire from behaving in this particular fashion. If they crush the resistance, restore stability, and Iraq becomes a semi-colonial, neo-liberal state, then I think they will try similar tactics elsewhere.

The struggle that is taking place in Iraq today is crucial and I think the US is beginning to realize that now. The fact that the White House has taken direct control over Iraq through Condoleezza Rice, pushing aside Rumsfeld, is a sign that there is nervousness in the Bush Administration. There are big fights and discussions going on within the Administration, again because of the Iraqi resistance.

So the occupation and the resistance are the determining factors. The fact that the United States has directly occupied an independent, sovereign Arab state is critical. I think the relative success or failure of this operation will determine the future.

At a press conference in 1992, Colin Powell expressed skepticism - if not cynicism - at the prospects for establishing democracy in Iraq, saying that if Saddam Hussein were to be removed, it is a "romantic notion" that "some Jeffersonian democrat [would be] waiting in the wings to hold popular elections". What accounts for the dramatic shift in official US policy in the last decade?

Exactly. Colin Powell did express skepticism and he is now coming to understand that he was right, that he should not have gone along with the Neocons. He should have stuck to his position and resigned. If he had, he would have been in a very strong and popular position and could have challenged some of the people now running the show. But he has been a weak man, in my opinion, both on Iraq and on Palestine. Colin Powell is incapable of standing up to the White House and is probably a much, much weaker Secretary of State than Madeleine Albright, for instance. He is too dependent on the Executive and cannot defend his own department against the depredations of the White House. It has sort of reduced him to the role of a cipher. The Israelis bomb Syria, Bush backs them up, and Colin Powell cannot say a word. It is just shocking, but there you go.

How would you characterize the relationship between the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and US support for the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq?

The United States was very disturbed by the Iranian Revolution because it was an Islamic revolution (even though Shi'ite) and was stirring up Islamists everywhere. In some places, like Bahrain and all the oil-producing countries, a big hostile mood was developing against the "Great Satan", as the late-Ayatollah Khomeini described the United States. The US was fearful that the Saudi regime would be toppled, they were fearful that the Gulf states would be taken by Iran - although not directly of course - through popular upheavals across the Arab world. They wanted to crush the Iranian regime to prevent this from happening. Saddam Hussein had his own motives, but the United States and Britain backed him to take on the Iranians. Without Western support, Western money, Western equipment, and of course, the use of chemical weapons also supplied by the West, he could not have done it.

It was a disastrous war for the people of that region. Millions of Iraqis and Iranians died. The only people who benefited were the Israelis, who sat back and clapped their hands, and the United States, who were not too unhappy at seeing these giant armies fighting each other and losing lots of people in two important oil-producing countries. The US certainly backed Saddam Hussein a great deal at that time.

At a critical point, the Ba'athist leadership in Iraq suggested that they should have a peaceful settlement with Khomeini. Saddam opposed it, and if Khomeini had been intelligent and had accepted, then Saddam would have fallen. There would have been a Ba'ath leadership without Saddam Hussein. But Khomeini did not do it.

This was also the time when the repression used by the Ba'athists against the Kurds was at its most severe. During the Iran-Iraq war, the Ba'athist regime was convinced that the Kurds were working with Iran, which they had been during the period of the Shah of Iran. This is why the West did not do anything about the repression of the Kurds at that time.

Why is it that the term "international community" always appears in quotes in your book? What do you mean to suggest by this?

The international community is a joke. It is a complete mask for the United States, a multilateral mask. The Bush regime has not used it much, because it is a unilateralist regime, but the Clinton people used it all the time for getting their own way. They never said it was the United States, they always used the phrase "the international community". The international community always acted to defend American interests.

I just think we should call things by their proper names. It is much better to say the United States or the American Empire when that is what you mean. Kofi Annan is a sort of houseboy to the White House basically. He simply does not have the guts; the West openly violates the UN Charter, and he cannot speak out.

You also suggest that the role of NGOs is by and large rather insidious in Iraq (as elsewhere). Could you explain why?

It is not just the role of NGOs in Iraq, it is basically that NGOs - not in every single case but I would say 80 per cent of NGOs - are utilized by the World Bank to buy over large numbers of people in Africa, Asia, Latin America. People working for NGOs in these countries are given large amounts of money, big salaries and so on, so they do not do anything political. One of the conditions for NGO money is that you cannot be overtly political. Many NGOs in Iraq were too scared to protest the US invasion and subsequent occupation because they felt that if they did, their money would be cut off. And I think the US will continue to do this, to try and buy off Iraqis in this way.

You argue that policies of multiculturalism in the Euro-American world have had depoliticizing effects in these societies. Could you explain why?

The point I was making is not that I am opposed to multiculturalism per se - obviously we are all in favor of it, how can we be opposed to it - but rather to how multiculturalism is sometimes used unscrupulously, both by governments and individuals, to develop a form of identity politics which supercedes everything else. All of a sudden, the only thing that is important is your individual identity, your race, your gender, and that is it. Nothing else matters. In this form, multiculturalism can be very divisive.

The whole point about multiculturalism is to mix cultures, not to say that our culture is better than yours, but to say that all great cultures are a synthesis. But if all you do is promote yourselves as Muslims or Hindus or Jews or Buddhists or Christians, which is how multiculturalism often manifests itself now, it is very divisive. Why should Hindus and Muslims and Buddhists in the West not work together? They have certain common interests, so what should prevent them from working together?

So that is the only point I am making: we cannot let identity - defined in these terms - be the only issue. Obviously identity is not unimportant, but it should not be made into something that defines everything. This is what I fear has happened in the United States and in parts of Europe as well.

How would you account for the fact that many Muslims throughout the world still hold Israel responsible for the attacks on the United States in September 2001?

I am amazed by the fact that so many Muslims still say that Israel was responsible for the attacks of 9/11. They do it primarily because they do not want to be held responsible for the attacks, but also because 9/11 came as a gift from heaven for the United States, which has used that event to start remapping the world.

Many Muslims just refuse to acknowledge that they were responsible. The sad fact is that those responsible were Muslims. We know who the people were, they were not Israeli agents, they were people from Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Arab world, with links to Al-Qaeda. No one even denies it. The Al-Qaeda leadership has not issued a single denial. If they had not done it, they would have denounced it rather than having stayed silent. Instead Al-Qaeda has basically claimed the event.

Muslims and everyone else - since there are lots of conspiracy kooks in this country who also believe either that Israel or the United States itself organized the events of 9/11 - need to face up to what happened and who was responsible. When I am approached in this country with such conspiracies, I am put in the awkward position of telling them that in fact Al-Qaeda was responsible and these theories are not true. I think Muslims here and elsewhere just have to understand this fact. There is no point covering it up. We have to acknowledge the reality of what took place and try and deal with it.

This is also one problem with identity politics - it is precisely identity politics that prevents people from accepting what really happened. Identity politics does not allow for much complexity or plurality within traditions. Muslims are not monolithic: there are different currents in Islam, there are lots of Muslims who are not religious, there are "cultural" Muslims who do not believe in religion, there are Muslims who are non-believers, and so on. This is all true in the Islamic world. It is in the diaspora that it becomes very heavy and difficult to acknowledge such heterogeneity. No one in the Islamic world cares about many of these things or of denying the reality of September 11th: they know who did it. It is here that it becomes a problem. On the one hand, I can see why this happens: Muslims have clearly been suffering as a result. They have been targeted, they have been deported without trial, they have been "disappeared" off the streets, so I can understand the anger. But the anger must not lead to losing a grip on reality. No one will believe this kind of talk - that the Israelis were responsible - and it makes people who say this sort of thing look totally stupid.

It appears now that American support for the Mujahideen in Afghanistan during the Cold War was intended to prolong the war and give the Soviets their Vietnam. One would think that after the events of September 2001, the US might regret this policy of arming the most radical Islamist groups in Afghanistan at the time, yet you quote Brzezinski from Le Nouvel Observateur saying that a "few crazed Muslims" were worth the price to pay for the destruction of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.

The Americans essentially built up and created the Mujahideen together with the Pakistani military dictator of the time, General Zia-ul-Haq. Their aim was the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. My own position was that the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan was wrong, that it would prove to be a total disaster and it would create a mess in the region for decades to come. I actually wrote that two weeks after the Soviet armies marched in to Afghanistan.

The irony of 9/11 is that Brzezinski's "few crazed Muslims" finally came and hit the United States. They had been dumped brutally after the end of the Cold War and in response they did crazy things. There was also Mir Aimal Kansi, who had worked for the United States during the Afghan war, and in 1993, by which time he was no longer on the CIA payroll, he went to Fort Langley in Virginia, shot two CIA agents, and escaped out of the country. So the CIA trained him well clearly.

When General Musharraf agreed to cooperate with the US in the war against Afghanistan in October 2001, there was much speculation that this might result in a revolt among the lower ranks - many of whom had close links with the Taliban regime, and indeed were central to its creation - and a putsch within the army. Do you think that there is still a possibility of this happening?

General Musharraf was faced, in my opinion, with one of the worst choices to confront a Pakistani leader. If he did not collaborate with the United States, they were going to work with India, there is no doubt about that. Vajpayee and company were saying openly that the US could use their bases to hit back.

I think that was a real dilemma for Musharraf because had the Americans worked with Vajpayee, there would have been a major shift within the subcontinent. I think that was his calculation.

There is also the issue of the Pakistan army, which has always worked very closely with the DIA and the American military. In the period that followed the Afghan war, it was the United States that lost interest in the Pakistani military not vice versa. So the Pakistan army saw this as an opportunity to build up close links again and they were thrilled. In order to do this they unraveled the only military victory they had ever gained in their entire existence! Kabul fell to the Taliban only because of Pakistan military assistance; the notion that they could have taken it on their own is a joke.

Given the increasing mess in Afghanistan, I think when the United States withdraws, the Pakistani army, or sections of it, have not given up their hopes of going back in again (though this time they might go clean-shaven and well dressed to make it a very modernist intervention!). The Americans might even support such Pakistani intervention to keep the Iranians out, so that story isn't over by any means.

You have mentioned elsewhere that the Mujahideen were celebrated as freedom fighters in official American circles for the duration of the war in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan.

During the Soviet period in Afghanistan, all these bearded leaders - the mujahideen - were welcomed by Reagan in the White House. He in fact compared Gulbuddin Hekmatyar to the Founding Fathers of the United States. It was probably going a bit far to say that Hekmatyar was going to be the Jefferson of the Afghan revolution! Thatcher met them in 10 Downing Street and did exactly the same thing.

Newspaper journalists were told to refer to all the Mujahideen - who they are now denouncing endlessly - as freedom fighters. So one person's terrorist is the other side's freedom fighter. It was always thus.

US pressure on Pakistan has not yet resulted in Pakistan ceasing its funding of militants in Kashmir. What allows this and what are the implications of this in the long-term? Is the Pakistan army itself divided over the question of jihad?

I think the Pakistan Army is very seriously divided on this. The Afghan veterans and others who have infiltrated into Kashmir are part of keeping up the pressure on the Indian regime. I think the Pakistani military believes that this is the way they will get a settlement, but I think they are wrong.

All the information I have suggests that Kashmiris are really fed up. They have always been fed up with the Indian army, they are now totally fed up with the jihadis, who have invaded villages, kidnapped and raped women, etc. So it is a total mess. As you know, I have always argued the only way out of it is an overall South Asian deal. Otherwise I just can't see this problem being sorted out. It is a very depressing situation. The world ignores it completely but 70,000 Kashmiri people - civilians, women, children - have now been killed. Two thousand died in Kosovo and the US led an invasion, which had nothing to do with the Kosovans but everything to do with their own interests. But Kashmir they are not interested in at all.

One official justification of the invasion of Iraq - one with the greatest currency now, given the failure to find any evidence of weapons of mass destruction - was one of humanitarian intervention given that Saddam Hussein's regime was oppressive and dictatorial. This is frequently an explanation for military interventions in the Third World. Why are there so many dictatorial governments in the Third World?

We have dealt with part of this question already - the fact that there were no weapons of mass destruction - but they did not use the humanitarian argument against Saddam Hussein because the regimes they support (the Saudis, the Gulf states, the Egyptians) are hardly models of democracy. So if they invade Iraq on the basis of humanitarian intervention, people in the Arab world will wonder why they don't do the same elsewhere.

As for the weapons of mass destruction argument, the only country in the Middle East in possession of WMD is Israel. People argue that in Israel's case this is acceptable because Israel is a democracy. First, that is an incorrect argument, since Israel is an ethnic democracy (like South Africa was); it is not a proper, functioning democracy for all its citizens. Secondly, even if it were, so what? This implies that if democratic states use chemical weapons and nuclear weapons, then it is acceptable. But if a dictatorship does, then that is unacceptable. It is crazy to think like that.

There are so many dictatorial governments in the Third World partially as a hangover from the Cold War, and partially due to the fact that the United States does not want democratic governments in oil-producing countries. The only condition under which they are willing to accept democratic governments there is if they can be given guarantees that they can continue to control oil flows but that is a guarantee that cannot be given. For instance, if there were a genuine election in Iraq, I am certain that 80 per cent of the population would elect people who would demand two things immediately: (i) An immediate end to the occupation (i.e., all foreign troops out of Iraq); and (ii) Iraqi control over Iraqi oil.

The other reason for one-party governments, especially of the left-nationalist variety, was the example of the Soviet Union, which I think has left us a terrible legacy. People thought it was somehow radical to have a one-party state. They linked nationalized structure - nationalizing the key industries (oil) - to having a one-party state, which was not the case at all. It is possible to have a single economic structure (like capitalism) and also have different parties who all agree to defend that structure. There is no reason why that could not have been attempted either in the Soviet Union, or China, or these countries who mimic them by creating one-party states. I think that is a legacy we have to live with.

Curiously enough, in my opinion, we are now seeing a situation where democracy itself is under threat by capitalism. In the sense that modern capitalism, especially its neo-liberal variant, does not require diversity in politics. If centre-left and centre-right agree on the economic program, then what is the real import of a multiparty system? You see it here in the United States, and you see it increasingly in Europe.

One of the jokes I use often is: "What's the difference between Britain and Iraq?" Answer: "In Iraq, they have an opposition".

So much for democracy!

The Left has long held that US power has been on the decline since the mid-70s. Would you agree with this diagnosis, and what are the prospects for an impending precipitous decline in American global hegemony? If this is the case, what shape can we expect the post-US hegemon world to take?

It is true that after the defeat in Vietnam, US power was on the decline but then it won a tremendous victory with the defeat inflicted on communism. This was not a military defeat but a defeat that imploded the Soviet Union from within, and all former Soviet Bloc states were made satellite states of the United States. The collapse of the Soviet Union also propelled China into the direction of becoming a very dynamic capitalist state. All these things in my opinion strengthened and reversed the trend of US decline and made the US globally hegemonic.

Economically, the United States still remains weak. It is a state in debt and the US depends very heavily on consumer debts. There is more personal debt in the United States than any other country in the world. The US economy is also heavily dependent on Chinese and Japanese imports. So it is not strong economically but precisely because it is not strong economically it threatens to use its military power to correct the balance. Hence the new National Security Strategy, which is a strategy to substitute military strength for economic weakness. That is what we are seeing.

The global anti-war movement failed to forestall the war in Iraq even with the participation of the anti-globalization movement (which was especially in evidence in Europe). What are the prospects for such grassroots mobilization now?

The anti-war movement tried to stop the Iraq war and failed. I was not surprised by that because the United States was determined to wage war. They were not going to be stopped by a large anti-war movement. The only thing that might have stopped them was an intifada erupting throughout the Arab world - but that did not happen.

I think grassroots mobilization has to take place and what we need to do is unite as many people as possible against the imperial project, as I have argued in my books and essays. We have an example from Mark Twain, Henry James, William James - some of the leading lights of the United States in the late years of the 19th century and early-20th century - who organized an anti-imperialist league after the United States invaded and occupied the Philippines.

We now have a situation that is comparable: the American invasion and occupation of Iraq. I hope that American intellectuals will set up an anti-imperialist league, because as I always argue, we have to hope that American public opinion and American citizens become vigilant and alert to what is going on and what is being done in their name. Without them, we are doomed. We really need a strong opposition in this country.

I read in the newspapers today that suicides among American soldiers in Iraq are now very high. This means that their families are being affected but the fact is that it is the poor who go and fight. Forty percent of the US army are not even US citizens. They are green card holders who are promised citizenship once they come back. But what if they come back in body bags? You can hardly give citizenship to a dead person.

I think if the American population really believes in this war - which I doubt, but if they do - then there should be a draft so that the burden is equally shared and not just inflicted on the poor. Blacks and other non-whites constitute the majority of the soldiery of the United States Army and they are the ones who are taking the hits. I think it is extremely undemocratic. The draft at least has the merit of being democratic; everyone who believes in the war fights for it. Of course you can avoid the draft and leave the country but if you support the war, why not go and fight for it? Why do you want to send only the poorest sections of the population to go and fight for it?

So I think we need grassroots mobilizations. There is no doubt in my opinion that the movements for global justice have to link up with the anti-war movement. But here we come back to a problem: many of those involved in the movements for global justice are NGOs who are paid money, courtesy the World Bank and its various outfits, and this poses a problem for reasons we already discussed. But there are lots of people in the movements for global justice who are certainly not part of the NGO scene. They have to link the two strands of imperial policy together: neo-liberal economics on the one hand, and military might on the other to impose neo-liberal economics on the whole world.

Some have suggested that what is needed today is a global parliament to redistribute global power. Is the Westphalian order now really in such a profound state of crisis as to require such major restructuring? What do you think of this idea, and what are its prospects?

A global parliament to redistribute global power is a total joke. It completely ignores the question of real power and who has it. We have been discussing this. It is the United States that is the only imperial state in the world, the only imperial power in the world.

I think the Westphalian order does need major restructuring but this cannot happen in the abstract. This will only happen when real rivals and opposition to this empire emerge. But a global parliament is no way to go about this; it would just be a talk-shop. Everyone will vote, like in the United Nations General Assembly, and their votes will have absolutely nil impact. The Security Council today is a complete joke as well; it does not reflect at all the reality of the world.

So we have to go beyond that. Unless people who are opposed to the Empire understand the reality of the world today we will all get caught up in foolish notions. If Iraq had been invaded with a UN resolution, would that have made it correct? That is the logic of such thinking. I argued at the beginning that a UN vote would make no difference to us at all. The war would have been just as immoral but of course it would have appeased many people who are now very angry.

It is a question of seeing how the American Empire operates and what it does. Clinton was cleverer than Bush, he got people on board. The Bush Administration feels they can just do whatever they want on their own.

I am equally opposed to both.

Interview conducted by Nermeen Shaikh of The Asia Society.