Al-Ahram Interview of Tom Barry

What do you reckon will be Bush’s mantra in the second term? Will prompting democracy be his new ideology? Do you think that the Bush administration is genuinely pursuing the establishment of democratic systems in ME or is it just a rhetoric to conceal the real U.S. goals and schemes?

Freedom is the mantra, both in foreign policy and domestic policy. It’s the idea that individuals are oppressed and restricted by governments that take too much power into their own hands—either as democratic governments have taken the rights away from its citizens or as what the neoconservatives—and by extension the president, Secretary of State Rice, and the whole array of foreign policy officials—like to call “totalitarian” governments, thereby conjoining the wars, cold and hot, against the Soviet Union, the Axis powers in World War II, and the “axis of evil” countries. In domestic policy, the freedom mantra carries over to economic policy and social policy. The president argues that income tax burdens and the government’s control of Social Security restrict the economic freedom of U.S. citizens—but, of course, his policies are aimed at increasing the freedom of Wall Street and the wealthiest of U.S. society to increase their profits. I believe that the Bush administration genuinely believes that a democratic Middle East would serve U.S. and Israeli interests. But it has a very limited definition of democracy—one that it tied more closely to the concept of freedom than to representative government and the rule of law. Its concept of freedom is much like the political framing used in the Cold War. The free world was the countries outside the Soviet bloc, whether they were dictatorships or democracies—as long as they supported U.S. policy.

What is this administration’s plan to spread democracy in ME? Will it be through working with sub state structures to undermine the state while at the same time working with the authoritarian regimes it has long supported? How in your view will be the shape of things between the U.S. and those regimes change in light of Bush’s second term speech?

Washington has no plan. Just as Natan Sharansky, the author of the Case for Democracy, and a major influence on the neocons and the president, has no real plan but lots of moral pronouncements, the U.S. government has no real plan to spread democratization. To a large extent, the Bush administration’s democracy and human rights policy is based on the Reagan model, in which the language of freedom, rights, and democracy were used tactically against perceived U.S. enemies, both governments and popular movements.

At the same time, the human rights abuses and anti-democratic politics of governments allied with the United States , such as Israel and Egypt , are ignored. There are democratization programs that work with nonstate actors throughout the Middle East , but this is more part of a public diplomacy effort to create a better image of the United States than part of a detailed plan to created democracy. We can look at Iran where the neocons and the administration has written off the democratic and reform sectors in the country as having been coopted by the mullahs. So what the leading ideologues and strategists call the democratic forces are expatriate groups, many allied with the son of the former Shah, and terrorist groups like the MEK.

On Iran the declared policy is that of threats of a military strikes hanging over Iran ‘s head but do you believe that this administration is intent on handling Iran militarily? Will it leave this task to Israel to handle since its hands are full with Iraq or eventually there will be some U.S. intervention?

If it’s not obvious elsewhere, then it should be obvious in the case of Iran that a foreign policy of “regime change” and U.S. “democracy building” is clearly delusional. U.S. policy in the Middle East has underscored the anti-imperialist convictions of the Iranian population. Only the wildest ideologues can ignore the fact that Iranians will never back a U.S.-sponsored coup in their country. They have seen their country’s democratic future undermined once before by such intervention. It’s likely that either the United States or Israel will strike Iran ’s nuclear facilities, even if there is no proof that nuclear weapons exist or will exist in the near future.

One must recognize that the U.S. plan for Middle East restructuring is conceived less in terms of bolstering democratic transitions than in fomenting a process of creative destruction, which Washington can control for its own ends. That’s playing with fire, of course, but the Bush administration has shown on more than one occasion that it is willing to put its faith in the inevitability of U.S. hegemony, even though there may be major political disruption and bloodshed in the interim. The same applies to Syria .

How do you think this administration will handle the Syrian file?

The terrorist bombing of the convoy of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Harri serves to strengthen the hawks and neocons in the administration. Of course, Bush himself in his State of the Union address singled out Syria as a source of terrorism and instability in the region. By stepping up sanctions, increasing economic uncertainty in Syria, and relying on congressional and UN resolutions, the Bush administration is laying the groundwork for “regime change” in Syria—a policy that has many in the CIA and State Department skittish but which has the firm support of the corporate hawks like Cheney and Rumsfeld, and neocons like David Wurmser, Douglas Feith (who will soon be leaving), and militarists and anti-multilateralists like John Bolton. Syria is commonly regarded as the next “low hanging fruit.” But if the U.S. moves against Syria , it could risk regional conflagration.

There has been much talk that the moment of the neocons is over. In what way do you think this could be true or are they having a tighter grip on the administration than at any time before?

Over the past 25 years, political analysts have repeatedly announced the death of the neoconservatives. But they have ignored several core features of the neoconservatives. One, the neoconservatives are not a movement but a small camp—no more than a couple of hundred—of largely right-wing Jews and secondarily right-wing, largely ethnic Catholics with a small sprinkling of right-wing Protestants. Two, the neocons have constructed (or taken over) an infrastructure of policy institutes, think tanks, publications, foundations, and media outlets that exercise enormous influence on the U.S. government—not only in foreign and military policy but also in domestic policy, cultural issues, and ethnic and religious issues. This infrastructure dominates not only the right wing in the United States but has overshadowed the institutions of the center, the traditional conservatives, and certainly the left. Three, the neocons are extraordinarily flexible in refashioning their basic themes—such as America’s mission to fight totalitarianism and to expose liberal appeasement and secularism—to match the new political environment.

It was the neocon camp that in the post-Cold War 1990s proved more adept than other political camps in formulating a new grand strategy for the United States, and the Bush administration has found that this strategy—by emphasizing U.S. military supremacy, the moral superiority of the U.S. system and its Judeo-Christian underpinnings, and the God-given mission of the United States as the “city on the hill” that illuminates the rest of the world with its commitment to freedom and democracy—has adopted as its own, to great success politically. Four, the neocons continue to hold prominent positions in the Bush administration. One has only to look at the appointment of Elliott Abrams to direct the Global Strategy Initiative and oversee Middle East policy from his perch at the National Security Council as an example of how the neocons and their agenda remain dominant.

On Islam and Muslim democrats, what is Bush’s agenda on dealing with Islamist movements in the Arab world?

Madeline Albright was in Cairo a couple of days ago and she made it clear that the administration would be willing to work with Islamists.

In what way is this reflecting a trend or a dominant view within the administration or is it just some sort of testing the waters and a card to wave in the face of autocratic regimes? Is there a genuine plan to deal with those forces?

The United States has a long history of working with Islamist forces to pursue its agenda in the Middle East , North Africa , and South Asia . It encouraged the Islamic militancy against the nationalists, who allied with the Soviet Union and opposed U.S. imperialism, in the 1970s, and in the 1980s funded, trained, and organized the Muhajadeen forces in Afghanistan. The United States knows well that to foster regime change in Iran or Saudi Arabia it will need to support Islamists. The National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the main instruments of the Bush’s administration’s Global Democracy Strategy, are exploring relationships with nongovernmental organizations throughout the Middle East .

But as the United States has made clear in its approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it will not support a Palestinian state that is not democratic, that does not expressly support U.S. foreign policy goals, and does not undertake the economic and political reforms necessary to establish a “free market democracy.” By laying down this gauntlet, the Bush administration has made it clear that it will not recognize governments, even if elected democratically, that establish Islamic states—which it would regard as not only undermining U.S. and Israeli interests but also as not supporting human and religious rights.

Lastly: What is the end game in Iraq? Is there a final goal the Bush administration is working toward achieving in Iraq and if so what is it? Military bases, circling Iran, containing China, Oil, what is it exactly that will keep the Americans in Iraq and what is it exactly that will drive them out of Iraq ? Resistance? High rates of casualties a la Vietnam?

There is no end game in Iraq . The invasion and occupation of Iraq cannot be understood apart from the larger agenda of Middle East restructuring. Iraq was regarded as “low hanging fruit” that could be picked off, and from the permanent military bases established there and supported by the new oil revenues could begin overhauling the entire Middle East . Iraq was seen as the beginning, not a discreet objective that existed apart from the objectives of security for Israel , ensuring U.S. global military dominance, and guaranteeing access to the region’s oil.

The problem one has in articulating U.S. Middle East policy is that it can be described as a cohesive plan that includes military, economic, and political dimensions that has a certain consistency and logic. But at the same time, it is a delusional policy based on ideological imperatives established by the neoconservatives. One has only to look at Iraq to see the delusions under which the U.S. policy is functioning.

What will it take for the American public to rise and demand a final exit from Iraq?

I don’t think the American public will rise and demand a final exit from Iraq , at least not in the short term. Certainly there is a strong anti-war popular base in the United States , but there is little connection with the Democratic Party, which doesn’t have the political will to contest the war. We know that the U.S. forces have suffered large casualties and major strategic setbacks, as well as scandals about torture, executions, and disregard for civilian casualties. But at home the U.S. public, while increasingly less sure about the occupation, is more focused—sad to say—on domestic issues, like Social Security and immigration.

But to try to answer your question: If there were a catastrophic loss of U.S. life, such as hundreds dying in one terrorist incident or the capture of U.S. forces by insurgents or terrorist networks, it’s possible that this could spark a turning point in the war. Certainly, if the Iraqi government would ask U.S. forces to leave—something that the Bush administration said it would not comply with—then there would be more political room for the Democrats to say it’s time to leave and public concern about the costs and dubious objectives of the war would increase. In the end, though, I believe that it will be a combination of public and political criticism of the war—especially about its high costs, not so much its destructive impact in Iraq—along with mounting criticism within the military itself that will be the combination that will force Washington to begin withdrawing troops. The occupation and the entire Middle East strategy of political, economic, and military restructuring of the region cannot continue if the U.S. force is broken, demoralized, and overextended.