Iraq: Blair's Suez?
George Galloway talks to Omayma Abdel-Latif in Cairo about the future of the Middle East, the Anglo-American alliance, the impending war on Iraq and division within the British Labour Party's ranks
George Galloway is something of a phenomenon. He stands out for being both an active member of Britain's Labour Party and a staunch defender of many Arab causes. Sitting in a coffee-shop in downtown Cairo, accompanied by his Palestinian wife of eight years, 48-year-old Galloway playfully revels in his popularity at home and in the region. He is one of the most outspoken critics of his country's Middle East policy and one of the main architects of the anti-war movement in Britain.
Click to view caption
'You make a monster for your own use and then you discover that actually it is beyond your control. They [the West] found this with Zionism, which they encouraged and helped and made powerful to serve their interests in the Middle East and now they have discovered that it does not obey orders. They would like them [the Israelis] to behave more reasonably, they want the Israeli electorate to elect some one less provocative. They would like the Israeli army to [operate] according to western orders, but they've discovered that Sharon, Netanyahu and Zionism are beyond their day-to-day control'
'Anthony Eden was the unchallenged king of British politics before the Suez crisis in 1956. Now he is not even a footnote in history. I believe that the Iraq war could be Blair's Suez if it goes badly and it has a tremendous capacity to go badly'
"I have never been more popular or had more supporters," Galloway said with a laugh. He feels that his views and that of Britain's anti- war movement are much more in tune with public opinion than the prime minister. This might explain why Galloway is currently the highest paid columnist in Britain.
Born into a politically active family in Glasgow, Galloway was the youngest ever member of the Labour Party. He joined at 15. He left school a year later.
"I educated myself in the labour movement," he says.
His father was a member of the Labour Party and a trade union activist.
"My father was more moderate than me, he always asked me to be less, as he would put it, extreme."
Unlike his father, Galloway does not regard his views as extreme. Whether it is the characteristic bluntnes or the rantings of a loony leftist, as his opponents would say, Galloway is one of the rare voices who has earned himself a reputation for speaking his mind without having to resort to any of the diplomatic niceties most politicians seek refuge in.
At 26, he was named chairman of the Labour Party in Scotland, where five prominent members of the Blair cabinet sat under his chairmanship. These included the present Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, Transport Secretary Alastair Darling and John Reed.
"All these people were on the left of British politics, some of them were further to the left than myself, some were even Trotskyite, which I never was."
These are the very same people who now rule a Labour party which some of its backbenchers believe is antithetical to all that the Labour Party stood for in the past. The reason, according to Galloway, is that, "The Labour Party has been hijacked. The hijackers' demands have been the effective liquidation of the Labour party as it was known historically."
These "hijackers" emerged after the death of John Smith, the then party leader, in 1994.
"Smith seemed as if he was taking us to victory and then he died. He was a genuine Labour man. In its grief, the party feared that with the death of Smith, we would never gain power again. This is when Blair enters."
Tony Blair's leadership of the party sent alarm bells ringing among those members who considered themselves to be part of the Labour tradition.
"No sooner was he in the leadership, than he started to go against the grain of the party in a serious way, changing the constitution, talking about changing the party's name and throwing out all the basic things we believed in. Now we have a government which is nominally Labour but the things that it does are far from Labour. The most important area in which this is true is in foreign policy."
Galloway's argument is lent credence by the left-of-centre Guardian newspaper's report that almost a hundred Members of Parliament (MPs) were, "preparing to rebel. Junior ministers could resign if the war on Iraq began without United Nations authorisation."
But is Galloway contemplating leaving the Labour Party?
"I don't want to leave the Labour Party... I hope it will not come to that," he said.
He is pinning hope on, "a massive ground swell of opposition within the rank and file of the party against the war on Iraq".
He explains that the half million protesters who attended the 28 September anti-war march in London were Labour voters and virtually all Labour activists.
"The kind of war which Bush, Blair and Sharon are talking about is one that does not have UN authorisation. It is very unlikely that the UN will authorise something which is bound to change the whole basis of international relations. So the number of people who would support an unauthorised, illegal Anglo- American-Israeli attack on Iraq will be very small and the overwhelming majority, including Labour activists, will be actively against it."
This is precisely why Galloway strongly believes that the war on Iraq, together with the anti-war movement, can produce a momentum for change within the Labour Party.
What kind of change?
"A change of leadership. Anthony Eden was the unchallenged king of British politics before the Suez crisis in 1956. Now he is not even a footnote in history. I believe that the Iraq war could be Blair's Suez if it goes badly and it has a tremendous capacity to go badly."
But if the stakes were so high for Britain, why would Blair risk his country's interests and his own political career in order to stand shoulder to shoulder with George Bush?
Galloway makes very little effort to hide his resentment and frustration with such an alliance. He explains it in terms of a strategic decision on the part of Britain to be the auxiliary to a greater power: Greece to America's Rome. So, Britain plays the role of the more sophisticated, older, wiser advisor whispering in the ear of the new rude imperial power. Iraq is a case in point.
"One of the scenarios to be discussed concerns dividing Iraq into three parts. Maybe the Sunni-Christian section of the population will be incorporated into a new Hashemite kingdom running from the [Jordan] river to the Gulf. This is being sketched out but the Americans lack the expert knowledge. They don't know anything about the Hashemites, whereas the British know these things. They [the British] know that the Hashemites have some kind of echo among the Shi'a, and that they claim decendency from the Prophet; they know which part of Iraq can safely be incorporated in such a scenario and which are best left in a different entity. The Americans don't, so they [the British] are providing services; not just special forces. It is the intellectual services which matter most at this stage."
This is why Galloway is most concerned about discussions currently taking place within some political circles in Britain.
"In the building where I work Lord Arthur Balfour committed the original sin [the Balfour Declaration] which has been the cause of all the problems in the region. In the same building the Sykes-Picot agreement was signed in 1916 and in the same building, as we talk and on the same table, foreign men are trying to redraw the maps of the Middle East as they have done before."
Yet Galloway is not a man who embraces conspiracy theories. "Ministers, former ministers and senior figures in British politics have, over the last few months, brought up things which I know they have never heard before. They can hardly even pronounce them, words like Hijaz and Najd. Yet they say, 'you know there is nothing called Saudi Arabia really. It was never one country, it was conquered by Al-Saud.' It then became clear to me that this was all part of a discussion about partitioning Saudi Arabia. So I began to make enquiries with my sources at the Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence and, as it turns out, there is a policy discussion. They ask why we have this problem with Saudi Arabia: 'We don't have any interest in the holy places, let them keep their holy places without any foreign soldiers. Our interests in Saudi Arabia are elsewhere in the country so why don't we have two Arabias, why don't we go back to the situation that existed before Saudi Arabia, why don't we go back to a Western looking Hijaz, why don't we free the oppressed Shi'a minority and let the Wahabbis keep their Mecca,' they say. These issues are being discussed now as we talk," Galloway says.
Galloway does not agree with the Blair government on the Arab-Israeli conflict either. He believes that Blair's government is, "a Zionist government".
"The British arms trade to and from Israel [today] is higher than it has been in the history of any Labour government. This takes place at a time when the Palestinians are being slaughtered. Even under my questioning in parliament, the British government had to concede that weapons sold to Israel on the basis that they would not be used in the occupied territories had actually been used. In the end they [the government] take refuge in their underlying position and that is pro-Israeli, namely the defence of Israel. They would like to solve the Palestinian issue but not at the cost of Israeli interests. They hope for a Palestinian leadership that would accept a settlement excluding refugees and where East Jerusalem remains an Israeli city."
But is there an acknowledgment among British politicians of the need to claim some sort of responsibility for the wrongdoing and injustices that have been done to the Palestinians? "Surprisingly not," Galloway said.
"For a long time, we were fooled by the concept of Kibbutzim as collective socialist enterprise. We failed to see that the Kibbutz was to socialism no more than a gang of thieves agreeing to share the spoils equally. Racism also comes at the heart of this, for it is easier, even for leftists, to relate to people like them [the Israelis]. The Palestinians were an 'other' who conducted themselves in a 'foreign' way. The Israelis, on the other hand, were people like us, they were settlers from Europe and North America who could speak our language, who knew the tools of public relations, who knew the value of calling themselves a democracy and so on."
According to Galloway, the story of Israel is like "Frankenstein's monster".
"You make a monster for your own use and then you discover that actually it is beyond your control. They [the West] found this with Zionism, which they encouraged and helped and made powerful to serve their interests in the Middle East and now they have discovered that it does not obey orders. They would like them [the Israelis] to behave more reasonably, they want the Israeli electorate to elect some one less provocative. They would like the Israeli army to [operate] according to western orders, but they've discovered that Sharon, Netanyahu and Zionism are beyond their day-to-day control."
Galloway is hopeful that, with respect to Israel, a change in public opinion is underway. At the governmental level, however, the status quo remains.
"At the end of the day Israel is an important imperial asset. It is the guardian controlling this region with its weapons of mass destruction."
One would expect that such radical views would be likely to alienate his British voters and subject him to negative press coverage. Indeed, he has been dubbed "Saddam's agent", "Saddam's mouthpiece" and is routinely branded as an anti-Semite. However, Galloway does not seem to give much credence to the press's hostile attitudes. He remains defiant.
"When you stand against the interests of the state, the rich and powerful, the least they will call you is controversial." This was during the 1970s, when anybody who involved himself in the Palestinian cause was considered untrustworthy by mainstream society.
"Arabs were automatically deemed to be corrupt and by extension [so were] the westerners working with them. They were regarded to be doing it [supporting any Arab causes] for money."
Galloway says that some press reports left the impression that he has tea regularly with Saddam, whom he has only met twice during the past 10 years.
Has he ever been accused of being bribed by his Arab friends?
"I was never accused of that myself because I was never close to the rich regimes. But these are racist assumptions and this is the kind of mindset which was prevalent in the early days [1970s]. [Now], for example with my work on Iraq, they don't say it openly because I would sue them. I always say that people can criticise me, but their response is, 'you are Saddam's agent, his spokesman' and so on. They imply that there must be some financial gains. They are powerful people, they own the media and have very different views than people like myself."
Despite this bad press, Galloway says that he has never been more popular.
"I have more supporters [now] than I have ever had in my entire political career. More and more people are behind me, writing in support and sending donations for our campaign. We have 10,000 members [at the House of Commons Committee on Iraq and Palestine] and this makes us one of the biggest organisations in Britain. Those of us who wanted a different policy on Iraq some 10 years ago had no support. Now we are in a majority because we have built a mass movement, with clear-headed and far-sighted activists."
Galloway dismisses the claim that these anti-war demonstrations are nothing more than a "weekend activity".
"People were shocked by the size of our demonstration in September. Nobody ever expected something like this. This was a very big step forward."
On 15 February, the "Stop-The-War" coalition will be organising a huge demonstration. Galloway hopes that it will attract even more people. However, he laments the fact that anti-war demonstrations in Europe have not been reflected on the Arab street.
"The real danger is that the Arab street will boil only when it is too late, when Iraq is already under occupation," Galloway says.
He admits that he has been through hard times, the most devastating of which was the collapse of the Soviet Union.
"It was a bitter and devastating blow to me."
Galloway does not regret any of the political choices he has made during his 35-year career in politics.
"People used to say that I would be the prime minister and leader of the Labour Party. My father knew that having strong views would cost me something but I never looked at politics as a career. I could never say things I don't believe in."