US holds a system of neo-colonial regime to rule West and South Asia
David Barsamian is an Armenian-American radio broadcaster, writer, and the founder director of Alternative Radio, Colorado-based syndicated weekly talk programme heard on some 125 radio stations in various countries. As a writer, Barsamian is best known for his series of interview based books with Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Edward Said, Eqbal Ahmad, Arundhati Roy and others. The dynamic witty speaker in him doubles as a distinguished thinker and incisive commentator on developmental issues, global economic conflicts and international politics. A vocal critic of America’s economic and international policies, Barsamian is also deeply critical of neo-liberal economic policies being pursued by countries like India, which he believes, will only lead to widening of economic chasm and conflict in the society. Excerpts from an interview with Harsh Dobhal and Parul
1.) Tell us a bit about yourself?
I was born in New York in 1945. My parents were refugees from the genocide the Turkish government carried out in 1915 against the Armenian people. That history cast a shadow over my early life and remains an influence until today. The very first interviews I did were with my mother and other survivors of the genocide. I wanted to understand what happened. My abiding interest in history and politics comes from that. Why are people targeted, oppressed and persecuted? How does imperialism work? What role does propaganda play? I wanted to know those things. That background informs my work. I am an independent journalist and I have a radio programme that is broadcast all over the United States, Canada, Australia and other countries.
I attended one year of college in San Francisco before quitting. I got a job on a Norwegian freighter as an assistant cook and went to Japan in 1965. I travelled to Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia before arriving in India in 1966. In the following year, in Delhi, by pure chance I met sitar maestro Pandit Debu Chaudhuri, who at that time was not so well known. He invited me to learn from him. So I decided to study Indian classical music and Sitar. That was my real education. I was exposed to great music and musicians.
I learned so much while I was in India from 1967-1969. Since then I’ve retained an interest in South Asia. I visit Pakistan, Nepal, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. And I keep returning to India for personal as well as professional reasons. I have featured on my radio programme Arundhati Roy, Vandana Shiva, environmentalist Sunita Narain, documentary filmmaker Sanjay Kak, economist Amit Bhaduri, writer Fatima Bhutto in Karachi, Pervez Hoodbhoy of Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad and others. So Alternative Radio, this programme that I do, tends to address the imbalance in the US media which is heavily tilted in the direction of corporations and Washington’s policies. And it introduces listeners to voices they would otherwise not hear.
2.) The story behind launching Alternative Radio.
Well, very much like my learning Sitar and living in India, it was a combination of luck and synchronicity. I moved from New York to Boulder, Colorado in 1978 and I began doing radio there. There was a new station, KGNU, and they needed volunteers. I joined and slowly I learned how to do radio – recording, editing, writing, narrating, and producing. I got better and better at it and I liked it too. And after a few years I decided to distribute my programme to other radio stations in the United States. AR has grown substantially since then. The one-hour programme tries to focus on one particular topic or issue, such as water, food, US foreign policy in South Asia, the environment in Pakistan, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Iran, Palestine – different types of national as well as international issues. Those interested can even visit my website at www.alternativeradio.org
3.) What is the audience for alternative media in the United States? Do you think you have been able to make some kind of a solid impact in a world where, as you said, media is completely controlled and tilted in favour of powerful corporations?
Well, if we don’t do anything then we can be certain of the outcome: the corporations will win and dominate. So just by doing something, you create the possibility, the space, to have an alternative to challenge and confront hegemonic thinking. And so in the US, with its predatory economic system and its violent, imperialistic foreign policy, there is some space for dissent, for opposition voices to be heard. And that space is gradually growing. Millions of people do not trust the corporate-controlled media, but they do not have access to other sources. So it’s our job to expand the range of opinion, to push the parameters of debate, to raise uncomfortable questions, to bring those independent and progressive voices and ideas to citizens who are not exposed to them.
4.) What is the status of the Peace Movement in the United States? Even as the Obama administration is imposing its foreign policy in South Asia and elsewhere, what is the situation of human rights within the country?
Actually, the Peace Movement is very weak at present. It was much stronger during the Bush period because Bush presented a very clear target by his arrogant and violent rhetoric, his invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, his threatening war with Iran, his auguring of Venezuela and Bolivia. Thus it was easier to mobilise people to oppose Bush. Then Obama was elected and many in the Peace Movement felt: “Okay, here we have a new President. He is articulate and eloquent. Because he is black, he must be sensitive to the oppression and vulnerability of the poor. Many in the Peace Movement were seduced by Obama’s style and were anxious to be rid of the legacy and policies of Bush. So they wilfully ignored certain things about Obama. All this has taken the teeth out of the Peace Movement at the moment.
Human rights in the US are a problematic issue because of economic disparity. And economic inequality is the incubator for human rights violations. And when you have a disproportionate amount of wealth concentrated in the hands of a few people and a few corporations, you have societal imbalances and injustice. Indigent people do not have access to wealth and privilege. Wealth brings with it access to the best colleges and universities, and the best jobs.
You cannot compare poverty in India to poverty in United States. The scale is vastly different. But on the issues of human rights and injustice, there are some similarities. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz are major war criminals and are not being prosecuted by Obama. And now Obama is committing war crimes. Hence the patterns of war and intervention continue — that international law and human rights are to be applied to other nations and not to the United States.
5.) So you are saying that Bush at least presented some kind of an object for the Peace Movement to unite in a positive and forceful manner. Do you see areas where Obama has actually departed from the policies of George Bush in a major way?
The points of departure are mainly cosmetic. They are not substantive or deep. On the surface they seem to be quite different. It’s like an onion. It has many layers; you have to peel off the outer layer. And when you do, what do you find? You find basically the same onion with maybe a slight difference in taste. Obama has completely embraced capitalism as the organising economic system for the United States and the rest of the world. He will not even consider any alternative economic system. Except when it comes to helping the banks and the corporations. Then he believes that the taxpayers should give their money to support them, public money to bailout private banks and corporations. He has greatly expanded the war in Afghanistan, as I predicted here in December. It was very clear that he was going to diminish to some extent the war in Iraq and increase the war in Afghanistan and expand the one in Pakistan. He has now signed a secret order to have US Special Forces operating in Somalia and Yemen, where they are bombing too. All of this is done in the name of fighting terrorism. Now, has anyone noticed that since September 11, 2001 and the subsequent US invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan –there has been a vast increase in this phenomenon called terrorism? That vast increase is directly connected to US foreign policy. Because it is this policy that has poured gasoline on top of the fires instead of water. The US has inflamed world opinion from Palestine to Pakistan.
6.) Obama’s Cairo speech was hyped quite a bit. Your comment on this.
Obama’s June 4, 2009 speech in Cairo was a triumph of propaganda. It did not represent any substantive change in US policy in West Asia or South Asia. It was a change of tone, mostly cosmetic. He made some Muslims feel good by saying Salaam Aleikum, he talked about the Holy Prophet and the Holy Quran, he recited Sura. That made people say he understands us because he is sympathetic. But beyond that it has been the same policy – military bases, subjugation, and neo-colonial relationships.
Take for example, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, he is an American puppet. The last election in October was completely rigged. He got 99 percent of the vote. After the farcical election he extended emergency rule, which has been in effect since 1981. Mubarak is now the longest running ruler of Egypt since the pharaoh Ramses the Second. He is considered a treasured ally of Washington. He is a dictator but in the US media and political discourse he is described as a “moderate.” The misogynist, homophobic, fundamentalist regime in Saudi Arabia is also described as “moderate.” Karzai in Afghanistan is another example. In August 2009 he rigged the elections. His regime, like Mubarak’s, is deeply unpopular. Corruption in Afghanistan is of epic proportions. Same thing with Pakistan. It’s a feudal state that does little for its impoverished people. Its elites live in villas and mansions and shop in London and New York. Much of the country’s wealth goes straight to the military and spy agencies and banks in the Gulf.
Washington has created a system of neo-colonial collaborative regimes to allow it to continue its domination in West and South Asia.
7.) How do you look at the US reaction to this crisis in Gaza where, in international waters, Israelis attacked a ship full of peace activists carrying humanitarian aid?
There’s a technical word for what Israel did. It’s piracy. It’s a clear example of piracy and should be totally condemned by Washington. In addition to extra-judicial assassinations, Israel’s action also involved the kidnapping and deportation of some 700 passengers on the six ships carrying aid. The mobiles, cameras and computers of the activists were seized. The US issued a timid statement calling it a tragedy; it’s too bad that lives were lost, etc. The US then prevented the UN from launching an inquiry. Instead of taking an unequivocal, strong stance against this violent act of piracy, the US once again demonstrated to the world that Israel is privileged over all other countries. It has diplomatic and political protection from Washington. It receives more military and economic aid than any other state. It’s not a poor country – it’s not Niger or Burma. It’s a very prosperous country. The per capita income of an Israeli exceeds that of at least three member states of the European Union — Greece, Spain and Portugal. Yet, this country gets enormous military and economic aid from the United States. Why is that? Imagine for a second if Iran had done something similar to what Israel did on May 31, what do you think the US response would have been? I should add that Israel has been carrying out, with impunity, assassinations and kidnappings for decades in many countries of West Asia. Its blockade of Gaza and control of its borders, sea and airspace is illegal under international law as are its colonisation policies on Syrian and Palestinian land. But as long as the US protects Israel it will not be held to account.
8.) You said that the departure points are just cosmetic and not really deep but is there any change somewhere, because Obama did get support from peace activists, from a lot of progressive sections, cutting across the political spectrum. Internationally too, he got that kind of a support. Do you think that there is still time and we should wait and watch?
This is a very interesting question because the apologists for Obama on the Left and in the Peace Movement say the structures are such that he has very little room to manoeuvre, that he would like to do good things but the system won’t allow him to do it. Of course they don’t know that. This is pure speculation about what he is really thinking or feels so this is not an empirical statement that can be measured in any way. It’s people’s hopes. The structures are in place that is true. A President who has progressive or leftist ideas has very little room to operate in. It’s narrow. But I say that even within that narrow space he could do a lot. I’ll just give you a small example relating to the Armenian genocide. When Obama was a state senator and then a senator from Illinois, he said that the Turkish government committed genocide against the Armenians. He was unequivocal, absolutely clear, unambiguous. And then he promised if he were elected President, he would say it. All the Armenians in the United States voted for him. An American President will utter the word genocide. Finally the messiah has arrived. So what happened? He becomes President. Then he finds that the political structure is such that it doesn’t allow him to say what he had said before. Turkey is a valuable ally in the Middle East, it’s a member of NATO, it could become a member of the European Union. Washington cannot offend Turkey. We need Turkish military bases because of Iraq and on and on. That’s just one of the many examples. Another is climate change. When he was a candidate, his position was unequivocal: that climate change is a fact, there is an urgent need for action. Time was short. The situation was urgent. Polar ice caps and glaciers are melting. Temperatures are rising. Sea levels are going up. So what happens at Copenhagen? Compromise after compromise until nothing happened. Business as usual. The corporations are allowed to continue to pollute and emit greenhouse gases which are warming the earth’s temperature.
Another example is healthcare. People on the Left in the United States wanted single-payer universal healthcare, that is, all citizens are covered by the same system. Such a system has uniformity of paperwork and procedures which produces enormous savings and efficiencies. So if you live in Texas and travel to California, and you get sick in California, you receive treatment because it’s all the same system, and the costs are contained. The US has the highest cost per capita for its medical care than any country in the world. Almost 50 million Americans have no healthcare at all. Many others have a minimal healthcare insurance. So if anything serious happens to them, they’d be financially wiped out. Obama compromised again and again until he gave up his stand on healthcare — which is like a complex, like a military industrial complex. There is also a private healthcare insurance pharmaceutical complex which has tremendous amounts of money to lobby, pay politicians, to put advertisements on television scaring people that single-payer universal healthcare is socialism, we are going to turn into a Soviet State, we are going to lose our freedom, the government is going to force you to go to this doctor, you will have no choice. Just scaring people like this – pure propaganda – but it was very effective and Obama completely collapsed and he gave the insurance and pharmaceutical corporations what they wanted and not what the American people needed. Against this backdrop I should mention the US spends more money on its military then all the countries in the world combined. And it is the number one weapons seller.
9.) Coming back to India, under the US leadership, where is the war on terror headed for? Secondly, how far do you see the US role in the discontent in this subcontinent as some experts argue the south Asia policy of the US is responsible for fuelling this discontent and conflict in the region.
I wouldn’t say that. I think that it’s easy to blame the outside force. There are internal reasons for the problems of the Indian state. One-third of its 600 districts are in some kind of revolt against the Centre. So there are internal explanations. But as a rule any weaker power should be careful and suspicious about the intentions of a stronger power. Just as a rule, this has nothing to do with the United States, this is how imperialism operates, it’s looking for its advantage. But it will never say that to you directly. It will say I’m helping you. But they’re always looking for their advantage and strategic position. What is the US interest in the war on terror? Firstly, it fuels the military industrial complex. War is good for the military sector of the US economy, for the huge corporations that build weapons – Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northup Grumman, Raytheon, Honeywell, General Dynamics, and others. What happens if there’s peace in the world? It’s a disaster for them. So war is great for their profits, their economic bottom line. That is one factor. War also allows the US cultural, political and economic penetration in other countries under the guise of saying I’m doing this to protect you. Washington’s always altruistic. All intentions of imperialist countries are benign; they’re always good, not negative. And you have the media then, which propagates this lie. The US wants India for certain of its own geo-strategic reasons, mainly in dealing with China. It doesn’t really care about India. India is just a pawn in this game. What they’re doing now in Central Asia and Afghanistan is to build a network, a necklace of bases around China because they see China as their greatest long-term threat. This war on terror doesn’t occupy the attention of the Pentagon planners very much. If you look at their documents, Al-Qaida takes up very little space. Al-Qaida is a small group of people. Yes, they can do some damage, but it is limited. US strategists all see China as the major threat. So India plays a role in that, as does Pakistan. China has major investments in Pakistan, it’s investing in Afghanistan. One-seventh of the US debt is owned by China. China has increasing leverage of the US because of this.
10.) But, the US is walking a tight rope between India and Pakistan on the issue of terrorism. What do you have to say on this?
What is terrorism? What do you call these bombings, these drone attacks on Pakistan, when they hit a wedding party, a madarsa, a Masjid or people’s homes, a school, what is that? That’s State terror. But when the State does it becomes defence. But if you have a small group of people who blow up a bus, that’s terrorism. Maoists in Dantewada, that’s terrorism. What the Indian Government has been doing for 63 years there in the Northeast and Kashmir is not considered terrorism. But it is a form of terrorism: economic terrorism, stealing people’s land and natural resources, displacing them, not providing them with water, health clinics, and schools. People are deprived of the basic amenities of life. That’s rarely discussed in the screaming debates led by the appalling anchors on Indian Television screen. So terrorism as I say is always in the eye of the beholder. And from the US point of view, they never commit terrorism. They are its victim. They are innocent. There are these horrible Iraqis, Palestinians, Afghans, Pakistanis who want to blow up Times Square and crash planes into the World Trade Centre. The US is innocent. They never make any connection between its economic and military policy and the growth of what is called terrorism. The corporate media play a significant role in obscuring reality from the American people. Who created, funded, armed and trained the Mujahideen? The US did, along with its great “democratic” allies, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
11.) You’ve been travelling in India, quite a bit. Given our tremendous desire to be a US ally, nuclear deal and so on, on the one hand, and neo-liberal economic policies on the other hand, what are the major challenges human rights activists face today?
Well, you’d know better than I. As an outsider, I cannot give the kind of detailed answer that someone who has studied it carefully can give. But to me, the issues of water and land are paramount. Because in water and land, you have the whole division of the advantaged sectors of the population and the disadvantaged, between the haves and the have-nots. And there is a war on the poor in this country because the poor just happen to be living in areas which have abundant amounts of iron ore, bauxite and water and other resources that are in great demand by not just Indian corporations but international ones too. So there is a kind of war on the poor that has led to tens of millions of people losing their homes, being forced into kind of strategic hamlets like in Chhattisgarh. In a way, you have to have this vigilante group created by the State called Salwa Judum on the rampage, killing people, abusing them and then forcing them from their villages and putting them into camps. All of the crimes they commit are done with legal impunity. It is similar to Vietnam. Just like what the Americans did, strategic hamlets, put barbed wire around people, and prevented them from returning to their land and villages. This is your new home, be happy. How can I be happy? My house is there, my land is there, my culture, my traditions, everything. All my family and cultural memories are in that land. So cutting people off from that, you make them desperate. What would desperate people do? They would do desperate things, to fight back. To me it’s surprising that there isn’t even more unrest in the country. More disadvantaged districts, like those I have just visited in Uttarakhand and saw the desperate situation with water there, the creation of the Tehri-Garhwal dam which has caused social and economic dislocation. Why? So that people in Kanpur, Allahabad and Delhi could have water. And there the people do not have water even to drink, to bathe, to wash their clothes. Is that justice? So the question is about justice. Who defines justice? In India we have seen, time and again, for example, the Bhopal case, the massacre of Sikhs in Delhi and in Punjab, the Babri Masjid, Bombay killings, Gujarat carnage. How many times has justice been delayed or completely denied? It’s a very serious issue and it tells you a lot about where power rests in this country. It is with the elite who dominate the business sector, the financial sector, and the State. There are interlocking networks. They attend the same top universities, they come out of corporations like Chidambaram who comes from Enron and Vedanta and then he becomes first finance minister then home minister and when he retires, maybe he will go to America and teach at Harvard a course about India and Operation Green Hunt. How he heroically devised clever strategies to defeat the Maoists. He will appear on TV and write a book and make millions of dollars. So there is a sinister intersection between the State and the private sector that arrests justice. So no justice for Bhopal victims, nothing for Sikh massacres, no justice for Gujarat massacres, Babri Masjid, Bombay massacre and so many others which have gone down Orwell’s memory hole. And in the instances where there is some sort of justice it’s perverted. Take the case of Punjab’s ex-DGP SPS Rathore and Ruchika Girhotra. When I was here in December, everyday it was in the news. Now he has been given an 18-month sentence, which is basically nothing. We would call it, in American lingo, a tap on the wrist. He abused his position of power and drove this girl to suicide. Eighteen months for that?