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New Labour's weirdness in conversation with Nick Cohen

(part 2)

Tawfiq Chahboune (TC) interviewing Nick Cohen (NC)  

Due to the length of this interview we are publishing it in two parts. This is the second part.

Read part one here


TC: You say that Scarlett gets Blair off the hook, because Blair can always…

 

NC: No, I don’t say that at all. The book ends by saying that Blair is  never going to escape from this. I sincerely think at the next election Blair is going to be punished massively for this. He ought to have gone. But if you want to make a specific allegation that Blair ordered the intelligence services to lie, and John Scarlett, the chairman of the intelligence services, says, “No”, then you have a massive inquiry, with vast amounts of documents, and nowhere in any of these documents is there any sign of this happening, well, you’re in a fucking lot of trouble.

 

TC: Nick, you say something very interesting in the book about “smoking guns”. You say that you’ll never find a smoking gun. The best that can ever be done is to join up the dots.

 

NC: Yes.

 

TC: And the dots here, I would suggest, is that Blair is lying through his teeth; Campbell is lying through his teeth; Jonathan Powell is lying through his teeth; John Scarlett knows they’re lying through their respective teeth but signs off anyway. Everybody know what’s going on.

 

NC: I don’t agree with that. I think it’s more, as the Senate inquiry said, group think. I think that Saddam Hussein had been given the benefit of the doubt loads and loads of times. In 1991 they thought he’s years away from a nuclear bomb. In fact he was months away. The silly, old fool, if he had just waited. In 1996 the CIA thought they had a full-proof assassination plan. It was all infiltrated from the beginning, and about a thousand Iraqi officers were killed by Saddam.

 

TC: That’s precisely one of the reasons why he refused to cooperate with the UN. You say that Saddam Hussein kicked out the weapons inspectors; he did no such thing. Pretty much everyone accepts that.

 

NC: That’s the difference between us: I’m happy to see Saddam Hussein killed. I don’t give a toss about the UN weapons inspectors…

 

TC: That isn’t true, Nick. All I’m trying to clarify is that you say in the book that Saddam kicked out the weapons inspectors. No one accepts that that is true…

 

NC: Well, he did do.

 

TC: No, he said I’m not cooperating anymore, because you had the UN weapons inspectors infiltrated by the CIA who tried to kill me.

 

NC: Yeah.

 

TC: Well, he’s hardly going to carry on down this line, is he?

 

NC: I’m just not one of those people who are going to look at the world through Saddam Hussein’s point of view.

 

TC: In April 2002 you wrote a very good column summarising the Pentagon’s Defense Planning Guidance. This United States’ oil policy can be summarised as: “The US has to control the flow of oil in order to keep its friends in a state of dependence.” That was a straight reading from the document. It also happens to be what leftwing political economists would predict: control and not access to the world’s most important resource gives enormous leverage over the world economy. By June 2003 you write that: “The cry that it’s all about oil is the clear winner of the competition for the silliest slogan in the Iraq debate.” The point is that if you want oil, “make deals with the corrupt and authoritarian governments in place”. Which do you believe?

 

NC: I believe both. The point I’m making is that the interesting thing about America is that they do…It’s quite clear the Iraq war was not a war about oil. If it was, they would have done a deal with Saddam Hussein.

 

TC: But it’s about control, not access.

 

NC. Right. I wrote before the war that a lot of Iraqis I know said were extremely dubious and said, “They’d never allow elections in Iraq. They’ll just replace…” The phrase Iraqis used was Saddam without the moustache…

 

TC: But they didn’t allow elections. This all happened because Grand Ayatollah Al Sistani threatened mayhem. If you watched Newsnight last night, you even had Madeleine Albright saying exactly that: the US was forced into elections by Sistani. The US never wanted elections. They delayed them for months and months and months, hoping to keep delaying them indefinitely until…

 

NC: I’m terribly sorry. There were elections in Iraq.

 

TC: Of course. But why did they happen? Not because the US wanted them. It’s because Al Sistani and other leading Shiites were saying that if you don’t hold elections …

 

NC: There’ll be civil war…

 

TC: Right. Well, more that they would join the insurgency. You yourself wrote that the US would love to see another dictatorship, another tyranny in Iraq…

 

NC: Some would and some wouldn’t. Madeleine Albright would have done. The CIA would have done. The Pentagon wouldn’t have done. The Pentagon has utterly bought into the idea of democracy is the way forward. It’s why people have such problems with the neoconcervatives: they don’t fit in with previous American policy. Neoconservatives are idealists; they’re democratic idealists. They’re like Wilsonians; they’re like Kennedyans. They are democratic idealists. Madeleine Albright was the woman who stood back and let Rwanda burn. She did nothing about Bosnia, and so on and so forth. They are in foreign policy terms realists.

 

TC: You bring up Wilson and Kennedy. They massacred millions, restricted democracy, aided mass murderers…

 

NC: Wilson imposed a ludicrous democratic structure on Europe in 1919 which all fell apart. I’m not saying they’re necessarily right, but they did do, you know, the whole Treaty of Versailles, the creation of new nations in Eastern Europe.

 

TC: And Kennedy and Vietnam?

 

NC: Vietnam? That was about communism.

 

TC: Vietnam had little or nothing to do with communism.

 

NC: What!

 

TC: Vietnam was about stopping independent nationalism, a great threat to imperial…

 

NC: Yes, but within the context of the Cold War. But the point I was making in those two quotes was that the American policy in the Middle East - and you should never be naïve about it - was all about oil but that ended on September 11th, in that mainly it was about Saudi Arabia.

 

TC: And that’s just the Middle East? This urge to spread democracy is aimed only at the Middle East? How about Venezuela? The US supported the coup in Venezuela. If you want to support democracy… I mean, you say that you don’t have to be consistent in these matters.

 

NC: I do, yes. But you’d have to be consistent as well. You’d have to acknowledge that there is a shift, possibly a very naïve shift.

 

TC: I don’t believe there is a shift. I believe…

 

NC: There’s a huge difference between the reason why so many British Tories hate Bush; the reason why Kissinger and Scowcroft hate bush is because they understand what’s happening. They understand it’s a switch from foreign policy realism, which means you support any dictator where your national interests are at stake or you impose your dictator. The fact is that Chavez is still in charge of Venezuela.

 

TC: Not for want of trying by the US.

 

NC: It was a half-hearted attempt to back a popular movement against him, which included trade unionists. It’s very complicated this thing about Venezuela. Thirty years ago the US would have just done him. Now it doesn’t. It’s more complicated. It’s more confused. The US believes the Wolfowitz line: democracy will lead to free markets, will lead to peace. It’s almost, sort of, nineteenth century liberal utopianism. I’m not at all sure that will be the case. But, on the other hand, to keep looking at it through the prism of the Cold War means you have two consequences. First of all, you don’t understand what’s going on. Two, and this is my big beef with what’s happened in Europe since September 11th, you do not support your comrades in the Middle East, you can’t do. You say that it’s all an illusion, it’s all a joke, blah blah blah. You end up on the side of the realists and of the right. Does that make sense to you?

 

TC: Well, I know what it is you’re trying to say. I just don’t agree. I would say that there is absolutely no evidence at all that the United States has any plans for real democracy in the Middle East. Let’s take a look at the country that they apparently liberated, Kuwait. Why not start there with democratic reforms? Any reforms there? None. Zero. Egypt, Saudi Arabia…

 

NC: If what has happened had been as the Foreign Office had wanted it to be, after the invasion of Iraq, you essentially find a local strongman, you keep the Iraqi army intact. Dissolving the Iraqi army has been a disaster on the ground…

 

TC: You know why they dissolved the Iraqi army?

 

NC: DeBaathification.

 

TC: That had nothing to do with it.

 

NC: Oh come on…

 

TC: It’s not that the Iraqi army were Baathists. Everyone was a Baathist: the dentist was a Baathist, the cobbler was a Baathist, the kindergarten teacher was a Baathist. If you wanted a job of pretty much any description you had to be a member of the Baath Party. It’s important to distinguish between the card carriers and the true believers. The problem with the Iraqi army was that it was highly nationalist: it would never accept domination by a foreign power, which is the US plan. The British Empire had the same problem when it was the colonial power.

 

NC. You have to at some level come to terms with the fact that America hasn’t imposed a dictatorship on Iraq. You might say, and I would argue this, that they are being very naïve if they think a democracy in the Middle East is going to produce anything recognisable as a liberal democracy within a hundred years.

 

TC: I think that would be quite easy to do.

 

NC: Yes?

 

TC: If you really want to promote democracy in the Middle East, you could almost guarantee a liberal democracy within a few years. If you talk to people in the Arab-Islamic world they’ll tell you that they don’t want to live under a theocratic regime. They want to see something along the lines of Britain or France or the United States. It’s just that the Great Powers then and America now just don’t have any interest in anything like that.    

 

NC: We’ll see. What I can’t quite get my head around is… What you’re not taking into account is the huge divisions in the American administration between the neocons and the State Department and the CIA. The State Department and the CIA essentially want the old policy. The neocons are, in their own way, idealists, in that they believe in democracy, human freedom, they believe it is 1989 and all of that. Now, they may well be wrong. I hope they’re not and I hope you’re not. To carry on in the same Cold War way means that you have at the very least, if something better is going to emerge, people in Europe have to be allied with democratic and socialist forces in the Arab world, and they’re simply not at the moment because they can’t see past America.

 

TC: Supposing the United States really wanted to see democracy in the Middle East. Or, for example, for people to love America, the United States could do some very easy things. They could call off their attack dog in the Middle East, Israel. They could demand the abandonment of all the settlements…

 

NC: I think that’s happening.

 

TC: It’s not. Huge chunks of the West Bank are expected to be part of Israel in any “peace deal”. If the United States took terrorism seriously, it would take away the Islamic fundamentalists key recruiting tools. Take that away and you will have destroyed one of the fundamentalists most important tools for recruitment. Not only would it be the right thing to do, it would be in the United States’ own national security interest. They could easily cut Mubarak and the Al Saud family off at the knees. The US could demand democratic elections within, say, five years in their client states.

 

NC: To?

 

TC: Jordan or Kuwait or Egypt or Saudi Arabia or Tunisia or…

 

NC: Yeah.

 

TC: The US could threaten to stop the weapons sales which keep these from being overthrown by their people. There’s a whole load of stuff they could do…

 

NC: No more aid.

 

TC: Absolutely. There would be no need for any military confrontation, and the US would be held in the highest regard by the people of the Middle East. But that would be unthinkable. It’s not what the United States considers its “national interest”. Control of oil, compliant regimes and arms sales dominates policy. Everything else doesn’t even appear on the radar. If you do as we say, everything is fine. If you don’t, we’ll kick your head in. It’s the history of every empire. Do you see the point I’m making?

 

NC: I’m reluctant to defend American foreign policy, which I don’t defend towards Israel. They are starting to turn the pressure on Egypt. With Saudi Arabia…God knows what we do with Saudi Arabia.

What I’m wary about with everything you’re saying is that you end up as a sort of mirror of American power. You sound as if you almost want to be pro-American. It sounds like: “If only they would do this, I would wear the stars and stripes.”

 

TC: It’s not about being pro or anti. I see the US as any other great power in history. The British Empire was like this. The Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, French empires were like this. It’s an analysis of empire and capitalism.

 

NC: What happens if the great power decides that democratic reform is in its interests? If democratic reform is in its own national interest? That’s what the whole argument in America is all about. I agree with you it’s all from the top and it’s all from outside the region, but what happens if as, say, the British fought for the abolition of the slave trade…The Americans thought that at the end of World War II in Europe and in Japan that democracies are within its own national interest, that’s the real difficulty. My problem is that I don’t know enough about what Condoleezza Rice has been doing with Egypt in the past couple of weeks. There’s been quite a lot: money’s been stopped from going there, Bush gives old whatshisface a big dressing down about imprisoning liberal leaders. I am in many ways a skeptic about America power, and I don’t think it’s anywhere near as powerful as people make out, and I think that…

 

TC: You don’t buy into Christopher Hitchens’s and Johann Hari’s arguments - Hari’s argument is unsurprisingly the same as Hitchens’s - that the US has, post-9/11, learnt its lesson and come to the belated conclusion that supporting dictatorships and preventing democracy is not a terribly good idea, and these things have a sting in the tail? Because the US clearly does continue to support dictatorships.

 

NC: Part of the problem is that there aren’t that many dictatorships left. If you look at what’s happened since 1989, I mean, you’ve had huge swathes of the world - all of Latin America…

 

TC: Can we stay on the Middle East? Nearly every single Arab country is controlled by a US-supported dictatorship. With the possible of exception of one or two like Lebanon …

 

NC: So the question then comes whether the fears of Islamism are overrated. They seem so now, but they didn’t seem so on September 12th. The Paul Berman argument in Terror and Liberalism, which is worth reading, is that the Middle East is the part of the world that never had its 1989. In other words, the old continuities of fascism…

 

TC: Only because it couldn’t.

 

NC: Yes.

 

TC: It’s not as if it’s their own fault for not being able to overthrow US-backed psychos…

 

NC: No, no, no. I mean, you’ve got me wrong. I agree.

 

TC: There’s always that self-serving nonsense that the Muslim world should look at itself. It’s kind of difficult to look at yourself and solve your problems when a dictator has his heel pressed firmly against your throat…

 

NC: Sure. And that’s part of the problem. Silly liberals like Timothy Garton Ash go on about how they want a velvet revolution. You couldn’t have a velvet revolution in Iraq. It’s just impossible. You couldn’t have a velvet revolution in Saudi Arabia. You probably couldn’t have  a velvet revolution in Morocco. What the liberals don’t seem to understand is that where you have dictatorships who are prepared to go down  fighting… The Berlin Wall only came down because the East German Communist Party said, “Oh, forget it. Just let the kids climb over; let the kids knock it down. We give up.” That happens very, very rarely in history. Dictatorships cling on to power, and the overthrow is normally very bloody.

 

TC: You write that in Chechnya there are “Both Al Qaeda fighters who are prepared to kill pretty much anyone pretty much anywhere on the planet, and Chechens engaged in a recognisable war of national liberation.” This is demonstrably true. You don’t, however, accept that the same is true in Iraq when all the evidence suggests exactly that. Most of those involved are Iraqi nationalists, and they’re not foreign fighters or theocrats. There are others, who have nothing to do with the insurgency, and they are out and out terrorists. There is a difference.

 

NC: They’re the Baath Party.

 

TC: Every study I’ve seen and every decent publication states that maybe, at best, ten percent of the insurgency are Baathists, foreign fighters and, what you call, “theocratic fascists”. The rest are Iraqis who don’t like being occupied.

 

NC: Any Kurds in that?

 

TC: The insurgency is only in central Iraq. The Kurdish areas have been free from…

 

NC: Thanks to Britain and America.

 

TC: That’s not true. The Kurds are free by accident. Was that not by accident?

 

NC: That was by protest by people like me and others saying you cannot betray the Kurds again.

 

TC: In 1991, after the Gulf War, you had all these Kurds running for their lives from Saddam’s forces - the green light was given by the US to crush them - the TV cameras happened to be there and, as a result, the British and American people shamed the US and UK into doing something.

 

NC: Yeah. Right.

 

TC: It was basically a PR stunt. It’s not as if they wanted to do anything. They were probably quite happy to see them crushed. Kurds are not a high foreign policy priority…

 

NC: Well, they did it. The problem with your argument is because you can’t credit democracy with anything…

 

TC: Oh Nick, come on, that’s a silly thing to say. Frankly, that’s…

 

NC: You can’t say that in democratic societies, when there are TV cameras there, you have the possibility for pressure, and the possibility for then doing it. I was arguing in 1991 to march on to Baghdad. It was the most ludicrous thing, and it proved to be ludicrous to throw Saddam out of Kuwait but leave him in control of Iraq. So you’ve got the Kurds, about 20% of the population, and the Shia, who are presumably not supporting [the insurgency], so you get down to the remaining 20% of the population, and so on a vote you’re already losing 4 to 1. On top of that, you have the one structure in place that can fund a good terrorist organisation is the Baath Party and can organise support and intimidation. If you want to support that, that’s absolutely fine.

 

TC: Come off it, Nick. I’m not supporting anything. Is it not the case that the only reason there hasn’t been an uprising among the Shia, who are at least 60% of the population, and have not joined the insurgency is because Shiite leaders, like Sistani, have stopped them from doing so. Sistani’s strategy, like others, has been to get a mandate and then ask the occupiers to leave.

 

NC: Well, fine. The main problem people have been arguing against was the Americans saying this is all a bloody mess and cutting and running. 

 

TC: When have they ever done that? You remember that chap with the sledgehammer who was banging away furiously at Saddam’s statue on that famous day? He was interviewed on Channel 4 News some time later, and he said something like: “Do you think the Americans came this far just to liberate us? Do you think they will leave? They will never leave.” That’s the best summary I’ve heard. In the past few weeks it has been leaked that the US is considering a Salvador Option for Iraq. The Salvador Option was the systematic targeting of the civilian population, not…

 

NC: I know what the Salvador Option was.

 

TC: And you’re comfortable with that?

 

NC: The so-called resistance, who you support, are nothing but Baathist fascists and theocratic fascists…

 

TC: I don’t support them, and, in any case, the Salvador Option wouldn’t be targeting those people. It would target the civilian population…

 

NC: The fascists.

 

TC: No…

 

NC: The difference is that you support fascism…

 

TC: I don’t know why you keep saying that…

 

NC: Look…You don’t seem to…We’re not going to agree.

 

TC: You’ve written on many occasions that we should have solidarity with…

 

NC: It’s the thing that’s missing, whether it’s socialists supporting socialists, trade unionists supporting trade unionists, liberals supporting liberals…

 

TC: I agree, although as you wrote in your book: that doesn’t mean that we should give support unquestioningly. My question is that recent polls have approximately 80% of Iraqis demanding the end of the occupation.

 

NC: The government of Iraq…

 

TC: And the people?

 

NC: The government of Iraq is handling the withdrawal…

 

TC: You don’t support the decision by a majority of Iraqis who wish to see the end of the occupation? Where’s your solidarity with the Iraqi…

 

NC: I think the Iraqi government should decide. 

 

TC: One last question, Nick. You’ve documented rather well the disgrace that is New Labour. The Left is in really poor shape. The campaign to reclaim the Labour Party and turn it leftwards is going nowhere and will go nowhere. Tam Dalyell has said that Blair is the worst prime minister he has ever seen. The other day, Brian Sedgemore, a pretty lame and toothless MP…

 

 

NC: He’s alright.

 

TC: Well, he wailed - and it certainly took me by surprise - in the House of Commons: “May this Government be damned.” If even someone like that starts laying into - OK, he’s standing down - Labour…

 

NC: Forget Labour.

 

TC: You think all is lost with Labour?

 

NC: Oh yeah. What’s interesting is where the rest of the Left is going - they’re on the extreme right. I mean, look at Respect. They’re controlled by Trotskyists and religious fascists. That’s incredible. Why choose the Muslim Association of Britain? There are plenty of Muslim groups they could have…The Muslim Association of Britain is really extreme…If you vote for Respect, you might as well vote for the BNP.

 

May 2005

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