In Conversation with David Barsamian

(Armenian American independent broadcaster and activist David Barsamian was in Pakistan and India recently. All those inside the US and outside who mistrust the ‘embedded’ and corporate-funded media count on Barsamian’s Alternative Radio broadcasts. Liberation interviewed Barsamian while he was in Delhi. The entire transcript can be read on; excerpts below.)

LIB: How do you see the contenders for US President? How most people who were on the streets against the attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq see McCain, Hillary and Obama?

DB: I don’t think the US elections will change much. I think that’s the case with elections in most countries.

People think Bush and Cheney are arrogant and stupid, and many mistakes were made in the Iraq ‘war’. It’s called the ‘war in Iraq’, not the ‘invasion and occupation of Iraq’ as it rightly should be called. I ask them - what if Bush and Cheney were smart?

Obama says the Iraq war is a ‘mistake’ - I say it’s a crime, for which those responsible should be held accountable. The contenders for President are all simply discussing tactics – of how to run the empire. It’s all cosmetic, all they’re doing is a little ‘tinkering’, a little superficial change here and there. Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo etc... have deeply eroded the legitimacy of the US posture of benign democracy, and there’s a sense of the need to restore that legitimacy.

Hillary keeps saying she’s against the war in Iraq, but every time she got a chance, she has voted to spend money to continue the occupation! There’s a good technical word for what Hillary is doing: hypocrisy! Speaking out of two sides of your mouth!

LIB: What about the issues of race and gender that are involved in this contest?

DB: Well, in my opinion, Hillary is no feminist; she has not had anything to do with the women’s movement. But her spin doctors have told her to play on that angle – the fact that it’s historic – she would be the first woman Presidential candidate, etc... She’s telling women, I’m paving the way for all of you...

Obama calls himself black, but he’s not really all that black - and I don’t mean the colour of his skin. I mean that he’s no Malcolm X, he’s not even Martin Luther King. But race is a huge issue in US society. Obama has a Muslim grandfather, his middle name is Hussein; he’s been called ‘Osama’, and it’s been insinuated that he’s really Muslim, and so on. You still have white supremacists. Can never tell what might happen, the US is a very violent society.

With Hillary, people are also uncomfortable of perpetuating political dynasties. You had Bush1, then Bush2; now it might be Clinton1, and Clinton2, and people aren’t too happy about that. In Obama’s case, he has a lot of energy, and that is communicating itself and getting a response.

Another scenario is that Bush may bomb Iran in order to tilt the elections in favour of McCain. Because Mc Cain is a warrior; the professional jehadi; there’s not much difference between him and the Taliban. Unlike Obama or Hillary, he doesn’t dress things up.

LIB: Your latest book is on the US gameplan of ‘Targeting Iran’?

Iran has always been in the neocon gun-sights – it’s an original member of the Axis of Evil. Unfortunately India has been playing along with the US, to its great shame, voting against Iran twice at the IAEA, and now also not doing anything on the gas pipeline, which is in India’s economic interests.

Iran has always been the main target of American imperialism - Afghanistan and Iraq have been sideshows. They had no idea that Iraq would give them so much trouble: a ‘cakewalk’ is what one neocon said it would be. So this was a big shock to them because the main goal was Teheran – to conquer Iraq and then from Baghdad move on to Teheran. And now they’re stuck in Afghanistan for seven years, 5 years in Iraq – no end in sight. So the big neocon project of reshaping the map of the Middle East has now collapsed.

LIB: Suppose they were to attack Iran now, how would it go down with the American people who are already restive about the situation in Iraq? Would it really help them win an election?

DB: Well, if there were to be some incident where many Americans are killed and they say the Iranians did it, then, you have again the causus belli – to avenge the death of those martyrs.

LIB: You were in Pak recently – how is the new Govt. seen by those who had been in the pro-democracy movement? And what kind of equation might develop between the US regime and the new Govt.?

DB: Well, the Americans are very worried about Yousuf Gillani, the new PM. Because under Musharraf, they had basically carte blanche to do whatever they wanted. Musharraf was their typical kind of puppet who was being paid off to say the right things, talk about moderate democracy. Billions of US dollars have just disappeared in Pakistan.

That movement in Pakistan is very interesting because it was represented by lawyers, you know lawyers are not exactly working class people, they’re very privileged. Their interests were attacked by Musharraf and they were the vanguard of the movement. There was a lot of unhappiness with Musharraf, and there was also a lot of opposition to Benazir’s deal that was brokered by America with Musharraf. And the deal that she struck to allow herself, her husband Asif Ali Zardari and her party workers blanket immunity from all criminal charges really irritated a lot of Pakistanis.

The US is using Pakistan very cynically for its own purposes, and now they’re worried about Gillani, because he has been saying some things that might indicate that Pakistan may not be so “flexible” in allowing America to do whatever it wants.

Pakistan is an extremely fragile state right now, it’s barely functioning. There are huge problems of potable water, load shedding for 10-12 hours on end, in major metros like Lahore, Karachi. Musharraf has now become a liability for the Americans; I think his future will be in Miami, Florida, a designated area in the US for former dictators, generals and other despots... Musharraf had also adopted the World Bank regimen, under his Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz (whose nickname is ‘Short-cut Aziz’!) because he was selling everything off. One of the reasons there is no power in Karachi is that he sold the publicly owned electrical company to a private corporation that’s only interested in making money, not in providing the service.

Pakistan is in a critical situation because of US policies. It has always privileged the military over any other sector in the country – and this goes back to the very birth of the country. Pakistan was highly cultivated as a military outpost of the American empire. Immediately it becomes a member of CENTO and SEATO, Pakistani troops were sent to Jordan to kill Palestinians, they used Pakistani pilots to fly jets in the Saudi air force. They were part of what Chomsky would call the local cops on the beat. You had Turkey, Iran under the Shah, Israel, and Pakistan: non-Arab actors controlling Arab space. This has seriously impeded civil society in Pakistan. The joke is that most countries have a military - in Pakistan, the military has a country! They’re the biggest economic force in the country. They’re the biggest realtors – they own real estate, cement factories, banks, even breakfast cereal, tissue paper... There’s a very good book by Ayesha Siddiqa that just came out called Military Inc.: the first detailed study of how deeply Pakistani military has penetrated all aspects of society.

Why has the US been so agitated about Pakistan and the possible fall of Musharraf, and now this new Government? Right now the new Government is in a honeymoon period. People are willing to give Gillani a lot of space because he has huge problems. Two things he did very quickly that got a lot of public support: under Musharraf there had been a ban on trade unions; he lifted the ban. And under Zia-ul Haq, from 1984 till 2008, there had been no student unions. He lifted that ban. When I was in Islamabad a few weeks ago, trade union leaders were meeting there, openly rather than in secret, for the first time.

Bush is now seen as one of the worst Presidents in American history (and there have been many really terrible ones), and he knows it, he can see the public opinion poll: 25%, 26% approval rating. So I think he feels the only thing that can save his name and his reputation (because he’s obsessed with history) is to capture or kill Osama bin Laden. So that’s why there’s all this attention on Pakistan, because they think he’s there. They think, if he can get bin Laden, then Iraq, Afghanistan, everything else will be forgotten, and he’ll be vindicated. This is a huge motivating factor.

LIB: With the Maoist win in Nepal, and so much uncertainty and instability in Pakistan, what’s going to be US strategy in South Asia?

DB: The long term enemy of American imperialism, from their point of view, is China. Al-Qaeda is a sideshow. If you read their documents, it’s all about China. They’re not talking about al-Qaeda’s navy or air force or economic policy – it’s, how shall we put it, a non-state actor, it doesn’t have state apparatuses. There’s a concerted effort to recruit India into a systematic base that will encircle China all the way up to Kashmir and around up to the North East, and that’s the long-term strategy. And if India goes along with that, I think it’ll be a huge mistake.

I think what’s going on in Tibet may be a result of some kind of operation to destabilise China, to embarrass it internationally towards the Olympics (and it has succeeded). Not to say that Chinese policy in Tibet is a model, but the CIA through the 1950s and 1960s had operations going on inside of Tibet. I think America might see Nepal as more of an ideological threat; I mean, rather than an economical or political threat, it’s more of an idea – an idea that might spread. I think they see India as the major force in South Asia. They’re banking on New Delhi to be the local cop on the beat, to manage the region, take care of any problems here and there. 

Liberation Archive