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 for its in-depth interviews with scholars, writers and activists which critique capitalism and imperialism. Liberation interviewed Barsamian in Delhi.)
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. In the US, media is controlled by five corporations, with enormous interests, so most people hear only the propaganda. You can’t use the word ‘imperialism’ in the context of the US. Nor ‘capitalism’ - you call it ‘free trade’, it sounds so much better - like ‘free press’, ‘free speech’ etc. This is what Orwell talked about in 1984: war is peace; slavery is freedom, and so on. Language turns meaning upside down. In the US you can go to jail if you steal a pizza, but go free for the most horrific war crimes. The US has 735 military bases all over the world. After communism, Islam is the latest pretext, the bahana. They even have the audacity to talk of feminism! Muslim men are said to be violent and lawless; Muslim women are victims, needing rescue...
People think Bush is stupid, Cheney is 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. I mean, look at Milosevic. He is Mother Teresa compared to Bush but look what happened to him - he was arrested, prosecuted, brought to trial for war crimes... I don’t mean he is a saint, but I mean – in the sheer scale of war crimes, Bush is far worse, and yet he gets away with it.
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’?
They want to destroy Teheran - that’s been part of neocon plan for a long time. 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, because the people that were giving them advice about Iraq knew nothing about the country; had been living in exile for years like Chalabi, and they were telling them that the Americans would be greeted with flowers, and it would all be just a big happy party, no problem. A ‘cakewalk’ is 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. Even Obama is saying we have to keep forces in Iraq, to protect the American embassy, and American facilities and private contractors, and also to conduct operations against al-Qaeda. What does that mean?
They don’t even know what’s al-Qaeda – it’s a made up bogey, it’s whatever they don’t like. I see it here in India – the way they call everyone a terrorist; in Kashmir a Pakistani terrorist! Again, the language is used to obscure reality. So Iran has always been in their gun-sights – it’s an original member of the Axis of Evil. And they want to control the regime in Damascus also, and to crush Hezbollah and Hamas and to reshape the map of the Middle East. This is the big neocon project which has now collapsed. And the liberal critique in America is about their mistakes – how stupid they were, how arrogant they were, not how criminal they are.
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. The crowds that greeted her on her return on 18 October were much, much smaller than before because people had become very cynical about politics. 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...
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. The US was suspicious of the Bandung type of non-aligned politics; even then it was ‘either you’re with us or you must be with the communists’. So Pakistan was highly cultivated as a military outpost of the American empire. Immediately it becomes a member of CENTO and SEATO, Pakistani troops are 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. Civil society in India might not be great, but it’s much more than in Pakistan because the military has not been as privileged as 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. 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.
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, get that head, then Iraq, Afghanistan, everything else will be forgotten, and he’ll be vindicated. I’m certain (without any evidence) that this is a huge motivating factor.
LIB: Isn’t there huge resentment against the US?
DB: Well, it’s quite contradictory: young people are also attracted to music and Hollywood films. But political people are very agitated; the approval ratings of the US in Pakistan are very low.
LIB: There was a survey that showed that most Indians saw Pakistan as the biggest threat, while most Pakistanis saw the US as the biggest threat!
DB: Isn’t that interesting? That’s all over the Islamic world: Indonesia, Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, because of what the Americans are doing in Lebanon, vis a vis Hamas in Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq...certainly they’re already carrying out secret operations, trying to stir up the minorities (the Arabs, the Kurds, the Turks) inside of Iran to create some sort of civil war tension.
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.
LIB: What kind of audience responds to Alternate Radio? And are there similar efforts in TV and print media in the US too?
DB: As I said, the media is dominated by 5 corporations, but as bad as the media are, we also do have the most extensive and elaborate community radio network. I know other country that has community radio stations that are run by people like you or me: teachers, carpenters, masons, architects, bus drivers: they own radio stations. And they’re all non-commercial stations. They’re supported by listeners who become members, and make voluntary donations. That has grown in recent years. You also have community TV, but that’s much more expensive. Radio is very inexpensive and economical in terms of economics of scale; it’s ideal for India, Pakistan, Nepal...That’s how I got into it – I had no money, I’m from a refugee family. My own radio is totally listener-supported; there’s no corporate or Government money at all; this lets me be independent, do radical things. If I were to take money from the corporations, I would be constantly looking over my shoulder. So much of the censorship in the American media is self-censorship. The media workers “know the score”, the lines that cannot be crossed, even if there’s no editor standing over their heads. They don’t even think it is censorship – it comes as naturally as breathing!
The audience is people who are fed up, angry with the system, students, young people, who are always looking for alternatives. Also people who are oppressed in America, who are working two jobs, don’t have money for healthcare, who can’t take care of their parents who are sick because we have a terrible healthcare system... So there’s a wide range of discontent but it’s not always politically focussed. They may be very unhappy with the system and think Bush is terrible, but they don’t understand capitalism, economics, they don’t know what imperialism is. So it’s our job in the alternative media like mine to provide that analysis. So I feel the role of the intellectuals or the media workers (I don’t consider myself an intellectual, I consider myself a media worker) is to speak truth to power, but also empower the powerless. To be on the side of the vulnerable, the most fragile sectors of society - I feel that’s my obligation.
The internet has expanded; there is a peace community in the US. I think it’s flawed to some extent because it doesn’t deal with structural issues. It deals with one-off problems – stop the Iraq war, the Afghan war, stop this chemical plant... but I think what we need is a more organic approach to a system that keeps producing problems. One of the things I do with my radio programmes is promote solidarity – I help various groups reach out to an audience, and solidarity helps movements grow – one on top of the other...