As the World Burns

As dispatches from the frontlines of Operation Iraqi Freedom reveal increasing confusion and even pessimism about the war on Iraq, more people are turning to Alexander Cockburn. Cockburn is one of the few journalists—from the left or right—who didn't merely oppose the war but predicted the sort of disaster now unfolding on live television. In the past week, daily readers of, the political newsletter Cockburn co-edits with Jeffrey St. Clair, have doubled from 40,000 to 80,000. A prolific author, Cockburn is also a regular columnist for The Nation magazine. We caught up with him at his home in Northern California, shortly before he travels to Chapman University and UC Irvine, where he'll speak about the war on April 9 and 10, respectively.

OC Weekly: The U.S. and British militaries predicted that once Operation Iraqi Freedom got under way, the Iraqi people would rise up against Saddam Hussein. What's going on?Alexander Cockburn: It has become clear that almost nothing coming out of British and American forces can be taken at face value. For example, the British claimed there was an uprising in Basra. This turned out to be untrue. They have claimed successes in cities from Umm Qasr as far north as An Najaf. Yet, in fact, they now admit they do not control or have safe access to any Iraqi city, including Umm Qasr, at night—and you can practically see Umm Qasr from Kuwait City. They said that a 1,000-vehicle force of Republican guards was heading south two nights ago. They now admit that was completely untrue. In fact, some reporters are now saying the Iraqi daily briefings have a closer relationship to reality than what American or British military officials are putting out. One of the primary stated objectives of this war is to bring democracy to Iraq. Is there any chance that's going to happen?

No. I think, from any sane point of view, all U.S. options look terrible. In the short term, you'll find many off-record quotations from Pentagon sources who believe they face months of dangerous—and, in public-relations terms, disastrous—guerrilla warfare in cities. The only way an army wins guerrilla warfare in a city is to destroy the city house by house. At the worst, they get caught and badly mangled with blows at their extended lines of communications, since it will be weeks before the Fourth Infantry Division arrives as backup. After that, they will pulverize the place with B-52s and house-to-house fighting and will be trying to control an area far larger than that under U.S. military control in South Vietnam back in the early 1970s.

The idea of imposing democracy from outside was always a pretty nutty proposition, but after what has happened so far, it would be like claiming that Air Marshall [Nguyen Cao] Ky becoming president of South Vietnam was the consequence of a democratic plebiscite. So now Americans will be lodged in the Islamic heartland. Is this going to reduce the threat of terrorism? Let's note that Randall Beers, the White House terror chief, resigned on March 19, seemingly on the grounds that the attack on Iraq was a huge setback for the war on terrorism.

Has the anti-war movement had any effect on our policy?

I think it has had a huge impact. The fact is that the largest demonstrations in the history of the world took place across the world through February and early March. That had a great deal to do with the humiliating failure of the U.S. to rally more than three other countries, Britain included, for the final vote in the Security Council they had to abandon. Those peace demonstrations made it far easier for Germany and France to take the position they have, which in turn made it easier for Russia and China. But above all, those world demonstrations played a powerful factor in heartening the Turkish people in the vast protests that prompted the Turkish parliament to deny the U.S. Turkey as a jumping-off point for an attack from the north. That in turn had a huge effect on the military situation in Iraq.

So you don't share the concern recently cited by Todd Gitlen, David Corn and Marc Cooper that the anti-war movement is being marginalized because it's being organized by far-left political groups?

When people like Cooper and Corn and Gitlen were writing these old-fashioned McCarthy-ite pieces about how the anti-war movement had Marxist-Leninist nuts at the core, I asked what were the credentials of people like Cooper, Corn and Gitlin. The answer is from any decently radical point of view that they have very little radical credentials. But more important, if you look back, someone has to start the organizing somewhere. Even if you think they are all Marxist-Leninst-bonkerists, the Workers World Party (WWP) has a perfect right to organize demonstrations.


Not every one who goes to a rally organized by ANSWER is going to believe everything the WWP says is doctrine. The same thing is true of the 1960s. The anti-war movement got going in large part through organizing efforts made by Trotskyites and Maoists. By the time you got to the Pentagon demonstrations in the late 1960s you had a vast movement and not many of them were carrying pictures of Mao Tse Tung or Trotsky or even Frida Kahlo, god damn it. Movements sort themselves out with out being micromanaged by Todd Gitlin.

What can the peace movement accomplish now that fighting has begun?

The peace movement stands as a politically significant factor if the U.S. is considering scorched-earth tactics with waves of B-52 attacks on urban areas of Iraq. If the movement remains strong, it will have an effect on U.S. Congress when it comes to votes on war appropriations. And they will hopefully hearten Democratic presidential candidates to stake out positions against the war.

Do you take seriously claims by Tony Blair and George Bush that they will force Israel to allow statehood for Palestine?

No. I don't think they can. Bush has no plan in the Middle East beyond giving Ariel Sharon exactly what he wants. Bush remembers one thing: his father lost the presidency in 1992 in part because he took some timid stands on Israel's intransigence toward the Palestinians. He angered the Jewish-American lobby. At the moment, the Republicans think they've got not just the Christians but have also made huge inroads into traditional Jewish support for the Democrats. Bush isn't going to throw that away with some plan to tell Sharon to curb settlements.

Will one of the long-term consequences of this war be a fortification of U.S. society, much like what we see in Israel?

We're pretty far down that road already. One shouldn't say everything in U.S. policy is new: we've been defying UN resolutions for years; there's a cruelty to Bush's international posture that in some ways owes more to manner than actual real substance. But it is true that in terms of world standing, the U.S. is vastly more unpopular than it was in the days of the Clinton era.

I think there is a fanatical element to Bush's foreign policy. I'm sure Bush remembers that in the Book of Daniel, when the Israelites were in exile in Babylon, King Nebuchadnezzar had a dream of a great stone destroying his image. Many people interpret that stone as being Israel. When George Bush said on March 19 that the day of reckoning has arrived, he might well have been thinking that this war is the Christian comeback on Islam. Bush makes Ronald Reagan look like Voltaire.

Your formerNation colleague Christopher Hitchens was a prominent voice in favor of a preemptive strike against Iraq. The war doesn't seem to have gone as well as he and other hawks were predicting, has it?

No, it hasn't. It's quite clear the expectation which actually underlay the whole U.S. strategy such as it is now lies in ruins. It's probably the most humiliating contradiction by reality in decades, and Hitchens looks as foolish and stupid and criminally responsible as anyone else. In fact, he's more to blame than most because for years now, he has been using the camouflage of a left uniform to bolster the plan of a right-wing clique in the White House. Just days before the invasion began, Hitchens was invited to the White House to bolster the staff with a lecture on the importance of their divine mission.

People including myself regard Hitchens as a barstool bombardier. I think one of the most pathetic things one can ever see is a supposed independent intellectual debasing himself as a major player in political events, and that's what Hitchens has done. In his recent visit to the Horowitz club in Beverly Hills, he pulled a usual Hitchens stunt by denigrating Berkeley as “Absurdistan.” Berkeley is a city that, to my dismay, has been unusually hospitable to Hitchens in recent months. Mario Savio's foolish widow invited Hitchens of all people to give the inaugural Savio lecture on the UC Berkeley campus, and he has been a visiting professor at the UC Berkeley journalism school, giving practical demonstrations on the relationship between reporting and alcohol.

We haven't heard much from Hitchens about Iraq since the war started, have we?

Everything that has happened in Iraq since the very first day of the war has been an utter refutation of everything he was saying—particularly when it comes to the supposed instant hospitality of the Iraqi people to an armed incursion by the U.S. and Britain. I think he has had the prudence to remain silent.

What's the story behind your falling-out with Hitchens?

I have always said my problem with Hitchens began in the early 1990s. The thing that most shocked me was a piece he wrote about indigenous people. He said that the Indians in Brazil were objectively in an earlier stage of development and had to yield to the path of progress. I think I did see fairly early on which way he was headed. I was nauseated by his performance. He is an incredibly heavy drinker and an absolutely compulsive self-advertiser.

His hatred of Clinton even exceeds his hatred of Saddam Hussein. In the case of Clinton, this ended up with him trying to get his close friend Sidney Blumenthal cited for perjury and put in prison. I thought that was utterly disgusting and still do. He said he absolutely no longer believes in a left program. He has thought about what he's saying. He has said that George W. Bush is the hope of the whole world. This disgusting journey has ended with him giving lectures to George Bush and his staff on the eve of the unlawful, illegal and insane enterprise in which they are presently engaged.

Alexander Cockburn speaks on “The War and Beyond” at Chapman University, Beckman Hall Room 404, 1 University Dr., Orange, (714) 997-6556. Wed., 7 p.m.; and at UC Irvine, Social Science Plaza A, Room 1100, W. Peltason and Campus drs., Irvine, (949) 824-8687. Thurs., April 10, 3:30 p.m.

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