By Farooq Sulehria
The war was the worst possible way to get rid of Saddam Hussain,
says Gilbert Achcar. The USA will not go for full-scale war against
Iran and Syria, he thinks. Counting on the recent activities by
communists inside Iraq, he points out the possibility of left renaissance
in the Arab world for the first time in 20 years.
A Lebanese Marxist, living in Paris for almost two decades, Gilbert
is a leading expert on Middle East affairs in particular and Muslim
world in general. His recent book Clash of Barbarisms,
is an interesting study on political Islam and the Arab world.
By profession, he is a university teacher, teaching International
Relations at the University of Paris. Workers Struggle recently
held an exclusive interview with him in Paris. Excerpts:
Workers Struggle: What implications the Iraq war will have on
the Arab world in particular and the Muslim world in general?
GA: Obviously this is perceived as a new move and another step
towards Western and US domination of the Arab world. The US involvement
brings the level of Western hegemony to an unprecedented level
since World War 2. For the first time since the colonial period,
this amounts to a full scale US invasion of an Arab country to
install a government of its choice. It is therefore obvious that
the resentment in the Muslim world against Western and US hegemony
will reach new heights.
The resentment against the West and US imperialism is already
very high in the Arab world, in particular, and the Muslim world,
in general, as compared to other parts of the third world. Over
and above the reasons for such resentment and hatred towards imperialism
due to the feelings of exploitation and oppression common to all
the third world, there are certain specific reasons for this hatred
in the Middle East. First, it is because of the fact that imperialist
domination in that part of the world is maintained through very
despotic regimes. In contrast, other parts of the third world
have seen a wave of democratisation which makes the pill easier
to swallow. Second, one should not forget the impact of cultural
resentment. For instance, Latin America does not have the same
problem of cultural estrangement. Furthermore, Israel has been
a focal point of tension, keeping the temperatures very high.
Against this background, the Iraq war will bring the tension to
an even higher degree.
Workers Struggle: What would it lead to?
GA: The important question is into what this resentment will translate.
For the last 20 years, the trend has been that Islamic fundamentalists
have been in the forefront to exploit this resentment. Building
on this social anger, will the invasion of Iraq lead to a renewal
of progressive forces? This is a big question. We cannot make
any prognosis. We can only hope. And there are good reasons for
hope. One reason for hope is that Iraq, in the Arab world, used
to have the most important left-wing tradition. Since the overthrow
of Saddam Hussein, we have seen some left-wing activity. The Communist
Party of Iraq has opened its headquarter; it has organised
demonstrations and has started publishing its paper Peoples
Path. It is important that the left is part of the movement unfolding
in Iraq. We have not been used to that for the last 20 years when
the scene was dominated by Islamic fundamentalists. This low-scale
left renewal might be fostered by the fact that imperialism will
find ways to collaborate with some Islamic fundamentalists. At
present, US imperialism is not targeting fundamentalists, but
nationalist secular forces like the Syrian Baath regime and the
Arafat-led PLO. This objective situation should make things easier
for the left-wing in terms of political consciousness. I stress
again that in the 50s and 60s, the anti-imperialist movement in
the Arab world was lead either by Marxists or bourgeois nationalists.
The Islamic fundamentalists were marginalized. We are still in
the historical cycle that followed, in which they have become
the dominant influence on mass protest. It is not a question of
popular religious faith, but of historical cycle. The fundamentalists
will not dominate forever. Things will change. The task of the
left is to hasten this reversal.
Workers Struggle: Has the Iraq war not re-enforced the clash
of civilisations theory being the second war against a Muslim
country in two years?
GA: On the contrary, the Iraq war has played against that interpretation.
The war in Afghanistan could fit into that theory when the USA
attacked two very fundamentalist Islamic forces: the Taliban and
Al-Qaida. But the Islamic fundamentalists used to consider the
Iraqi Baath regime as infidel or atheist. For them, this regime
was part of the enemy configuration. Inside the Arab world, it
was not seen as a religious attack on Islam as much as a national
attack on the Arab world. It fits into the general framework of
aggression that this area has suffered since World War 2. This
war can fit into only that kind of interpretation. Now the problem
is how the situation will develop within Iraq? If the Islamic
fundamentalists get an upper hand and lead the resistance movement
into a clash with US occupation forces then we will be drawn back
to the clash of religions model. But if and
this possibility should not be excluded the resistance
is led by a national front including Islamic fundamentalists along
with secular forces, and then it could have another political
Workers Struggle: But who do you think will lead this possible
resistance movement, Islamic fundamentalists or some kind of national
GA: It is difficult to say right now. It depends to a great extent
on the Iranian attitude. The Shia population is not only represented
by the fundamentalist Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution
in Iraq, linked to Tehran. There are independent organisations
as well. Washington is trying to get Tehran on board. If Tehran
agrees to collaboration, the fundamentalists will go for cooperation
with the USA. On the contrary, if Iran decides to support the
anti-US struggle, it will strengthen the hegemony of Islamic fundamentalist
Workers Struggle: Do you see Iran opposing the USA when US forces
are present in two of its neighbouring countries: Iraq and Afghanistan?
GA: Iran at the moment is playing a smart but dangerous game.
It is true that Iran has been encircled by the USA. This pushes
Tehran to develop relations with Moscow and these relations are
strategically very important for Iran. This is an attempt by Tehran
not to get suffocated by the US presence in Iraq, Afghanistan
and Central Asia. Iran also knows that it cannot stop the US from
intervening in these countries. The fact is also that Tehran had
an interest in getting rid of the existing regimes in Afghanistan
and Iraq which were seen as enemy regimes. Iran has tried to make
the best out of the situation. It has pushed its own agenda in
these two countries. We have seen in Afghanistan that the US had
to topple the Taliban through the Northern Alliance that had close
links with Russia and Iran. Tehran has actually reinforced its
presence in Afghanistan since the overthrow of the Taliban. It
has the same calculations in Iraq where it is trying to outsmart
the USA. Its a game they are playing skilfully. The risk
however is that the US might react violently. It already has threatened
Iran, though the USA will not go for a full-fledged war against
Iran as was the case in Iraq.
Workers Struggle: How come you are excluding this possibility
while Iran is a part of the axis of evil?
GA: Well, in the foreseeable future it is unlikely that the USA
will launch a full-fledged war against Iran. There is a growing
anti-regime movement there that has pro-US inclinations. The USA
will wait until it gets ripe. Moreover the Iranian regime has
a much wider constituency than the Saddam Hussein regime ever
had and Iran is a much larger country. A full-fledged war would
be too costly. However, a limited strike cannot be excluded, or
even an attack by Israel with a green light from the US. Israel
or the US might attack Iranian nuclear facilities as happened
in 1981 when Israel attacked and destroyed an Iraqi nuclear reactor
built by France.
Workers Struggle: What about Syria. Will USA go for a war against
GA: That too is now becoming unlikely. It was soon after occupying
Baghdad that the USA started threatening Syria. This had two reasons.
First, it was to exploit the impact of occupying Iraq. The aim
was to frighten Syria so that it complies with US demands with
regard to Palestine. It is obvious that there is a need for the
US to move forward on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Syria is
important for that as it has links with the Palestinian opposition.
Damascus also is an ally of the Iranian regime and was warned
against any intervention in Iraq through these threats.
The second reason was to invent an excuse for not finding any
weapons of mass destruction.
The Syrian regime, however, understood the warning and made it
clear to the USA that it would cooperate. Thats why Collin
Powel visited Syria.
Workers Struggle: How come the Palestine question figures in
this whole scenario?
GA: As I said before the US administration wants to move forward
on the Palestinian issue. In order to consolidate the US order
in the Middle East, Washington needs to settle this issue as it
is the most burning issue in this region that keeps tensions and
anti-US feelings very high. They have to quell it. They did the
same in 1991 after the first Iraq war when Bush Senior exerted
strong pressure on Israel. We are seeing a repetition of the 1991
situation. Thats why the roadmap has been published
and a prime minister of US choice been imposed on Palestine. However,
a lot has happened in the meantime. We have had the Oslo process,
the second Intifada and the terrible repression by Sharon. The
question is whether the US will really exert pressure on Sharon.
For the time being, Sharon is trying to win time. He will not
say No to the USA but he will practice obstruction till next year
when there will be an election in the US. During elections, the
administration is weak. In 1991, then Israeli Prime Minister Shame
did the same. He obstructed the process launched in Madrid soon
after the Gulf war. It was not until 1993 when there was a change
of government in Israel that a process could get really started.
Workers Struggle: Back to Iraq. Do you think getting rid of a
repressive regime like Saddams through US intervention was
the only solution for the Iraqi population?
GA: I would say that getting rid of Saddam Hussein was definitely
a welcome step for a majority of the Iraqi masses but what happened
was the worst way of getting rid of the Baathist regime. There
was an alternative: popular overthrow as could have happened in
1991 in the aftermath of the Gulf war. But at that time the USA
colluded with Saddam Hussein. He was given a green light by Washington
for repression. After that, the US imposed an embargo on Iraq
that impoverished and weakened the Iraqi masses. This embargo
prevented the Iraqi people from acting against Saddam Hussein.
Now the US has launched a war to get rid of him, but this goal
has been achieved at a terrible cost in terms of the loss of human
lives, destruction of the national wealth and so on. Above all,
Iraq is now occupied and this occupation is resented by most of
the Iraqis. This war was definitely the worst possible way to
get rid of Saddam Hussain.
Workers Struggle: What in your opinion is the solution to the
Iraq crisis now?
GA: First, an immediate and unconditional withdrawal of all US
and British occupation forces. Second, free and fair elections
in Iraq under a comprehensively representative national interim