“The United States of America Has Gone Mad”: John le Carré on Iraq War, Israel & U.S. Militarism

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form. AMY GOODMAN: In this special broadcast, we spend the hour remembering the world-renowned British novelist…

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In this special broadcast, we spend the hour remembering the world-renowned British novelist John le Carré. He died on December 12th at the age of 89. Le Carré was a master writer of spy novels, in a career that spanned more than half a century. He worked in the British Secret Service from the late 1950s until the early ’60s, at the height of the Cold War, which was the topic of his early novels. His third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, became an international best-seller. Le Carré’s gritty depiction of the realities of the spy world contrasted sharply with the characters in Ian Fleming’s James Bond series.

This is a clip from the film adaptation of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, starring Richard Burton as Alec Leamas, an alcoholic cynical British spy.

ALEC LEAMAS: [played by Richard Burton] What the hell do you think spies are? Model philosophers measuring everything they do against the word of God or Karl Marx? They’re not. They’re just a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me, little men, drunkards, queers, henpecked husbands, civil servants, playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives. Do you think they sit like monks in a cell, balancing right against wrong?

Yesterday I would have killed Mundt, because I thought him evil and an enemy. But not today. Today he’s evil and my friend. London needs him. They need him so that the great, moronic masses you admire so much can sleep soundly in their flea-bitten beds again. They need him for the safety of ordinary, crummy people like you and me.

AMY GOODMAN: John le Carré continued writing, expanding with a series featuring his British spymaster George Smiley, including the hit novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. As the Cold War ended, John le Carré continued to write prolifically, shifting focus to the inequities of globalization, unchecked multinational corporate power, and the role national spy services play in protecting corporate interests.

Perhaps best known among his many post-Cold War novels is The Constant Gardener, depicting a pharmaceutical company’s exploitation of unwitting Kenyans for dangerous, sometimes fatal, drug tests. In this clip from the film adaptation of The Constant Gardener, an activist, who is later killed by the pharmaceutical corporation, played by Rachel Weisz, confronts a government official, played by Ralph Fiennes, about war.

TESSA QUAYLE: [played by Rachel Weisz] Excuse me? Excuse me?

JUSTIN QUAYLE: [played by Ralph Fiennes] Yeah?

TESSA QUAYLE: Excuse me.

JUSTIN QUAYLE: Yeah, sorry.

TESSA QUAYLE: Sir, I’ve just got one question. I just wondered: Whose map is Britain using when it completely ignores the United Nations and decides to invade Iraq? Or do you think it’s more diplomatic to bend the will of a superpower and politely take part in Vietnam the sequel?

JUSTIN QUAYLE: Well, I can’t speak for Sir Bernard.

TESSA QUAYLE: Oh, I thought that’s why you were here.

JUSTIN QUAYLE: I mean, diplomats have to go where they’re sent.

TESSA QUAYLE: So do Labradors.

JUSTIN QUAYLE: Ouch. Well, I think that, no, Sir Bernard would no doubt argue that when peaceful means are exhausted, then —

TESSA QUAYLE: Exhausted? Mr. Quayle, they’re not exactly exhausted, are they? I mean, they’re just — they’re just — no, they are just lying in the way of the tanks. No, let’s face it: We’ve taken 60 years to build up this international organization called the United Nations, which is meant to avoid wars, and now we just blow it up because our car is running out of petrol.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz in The Constant Gardener.

In 2010, Democracy Now! interviewed John le Carré in London following the publication of his novel Our Kind of Traitor. I began by asking as him to read an essay he wrote in 2003 titled “The United States of America Has Gone Mad.” Le Carré wrote it in the lead-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which had the backing of then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

JOHN LE CARRÉ: America has entered one of its periods of historical madness, but this is the worst I can remember: worse than McCarthyism, worse than the Bay of Pigs and in the long term potentially more disastrous than the Vietnam War.

The reaction to 9/11 is beyond anything Osama bin Laden could have hoped for in his nastiest dreams. As in McCarthy times, the freedoms that have made America the envy of the world are being systematically eroded. The combination of compliant US media and vested corporate interests is once more ensuring that a debate that should be ringing out in every town square is confined to the loftier columns of the East Coast press.

The imminent war was planned years before bin Laden struck, but it was he who made it possible. Without bin Laden, the Bush junta would still be trying to explain such tricky matters as how it came to be elected in the first place; Enron; its shameless favouring of the already-too-rich; its reckless disregard for the world’s poor, the ecology and a raft of unilaterally abrogated international treaties. They might also have to be telling us why they support Israel in its continuing disregard for UN resolutions.

But bin Laden conveniently swept all that under the carpet. The Bushies are riding high. Now 88 per cent of Americans want the war, we are told. The US defence budget has been raised by another $60 billion to around $360 billion. A splendid new generation of nuclear weapons is in the pipeline, so we can all breathe easy. Quite what war 88 per cent of Americans think they are supporting is a lot less clear. A war for how long, please? At what cost in American lives? At what cost to the American taxpayer’s pocket? At what cost — because most of those 88 per cent are thoroughly decent and humane people — in Iraqi lives?

How Bush and his junta succeeded in deflecting America’s anger from bin Laden to Saddam Hussein is one of the great public relations conjuring tricks of history. But they swung it. A recent poll tells us that one in two Americans now believe Saddam was responsible for the attack on the World Trade Centre. But the American public is not merely being misled. It is being browbeaten and kept in a state of ignorance and fear. The carefully orchestrated neurosis should carry Bush and his fellow conspirators nicely into the next election.

Those who are not with Mr Bush are against him. Worse, they are the enemy. Which is odd, because I’m dead against Bush, but I would love to see Saddam’s downfall — just not on Bush’s terms and not by his methods. And not under the banner of such outrageous hypocrisy.

The religious cant that will send American troops into battle is perhaps the most sickening aspect of this surreal war-to-be. Bush has an arm-lock on God. And God has very particular political opinions. God appointed America to save the world in any way that suits America. God appointed Israel to be the nexus of America’s Middle Eastern policy, and anyone who wants to mess with that idea is a) anti-Semitic, b) anti-American, c) with the enemy, and d) a terrorist.

To be a member of the team you must also believe in Absolute Good and Absolute Evil, and Bush, with a lot of help from his friends, family and God, is there to tell you which is which. What Bush won’t tell us is the truth about why we’re going to war. What is at stake is not an Axis of Evil — but oil, money and people’s lives. Saddam’s misfortune is to sit on the second biggest oilfield in the world. Bush wants it, and who helps him get it will receive a piece of the cake. And who doesn’t, won’t.

If Saddam didn’t have the oil, he could torture his citizens to his heart’s content. Other leaders do it every day — think Saudi Arabia, think Pakistan, think Turkey, think Syria, think Egypt.

Baghdad represents no clear and present danger to its neighbours, and none to the US or Britain. Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, if he’s still got them, will be peanuts by comparison with the stuff Israel or America can hurl at him at five minutes’ notice. What is at stake is not an imminent military or terrorist threat, but the economic imperative of US growth. What is at stake is America’s need to demonstrate its military power to all of us — to Europe and Russia and China, and poor mad little North Korea, as well as the Middle East; to show who rules America at home, and who is to be ruled by America abroad.

The most charitable interpretation of Tony Blair’s part in all of this is that he believed that, by riding the tiger, he could steer it. He can’t. Instead, he gave it a phoney legitimacy, and a smooth voice. Now I fear, the same tiger has him penned into a corner, and he can’t get out.

It is utterly laughable that, at a time when Blair has talked himself against the ropes, neither of Britain’s opposition leaders can lay a glove on him. But that’s Britain’s tragedy, as it is America’s: as our Governments spin, lie and lose their credibility, the electorate simply shrugs and looks the other way. …

I cringe when I hear my Prime Minister lend his head prefect’s sophistries to this colonialist adventure. His very real anxieties about terror are shared by all sane men. What he can’t explain is how he reconciles a global assault on al-Qaeda with a territorial assault on Iraq. We are in this war, if it takes place, to secure the fig leaf of our special relationship, to grab our share of the oil pot, and because, after all the public hand-holding in Washington and Camp David, Blair has to show up at the altar.

“But will we win, Daddy?”

“Of course, child. It will all be over while you’re still in bed.”

“Why?”

“Because otherwise Mr Bush’s voters will get terribly impatient and may decide not to vote for him.”

“But will people be killed, Daddy?”

“Nobody you know, darling. Just foreign people.”

“Can I watch it on television?”

“Only if Mr Bush says you can.”

“And afterwards, will everything be normal again? Nobody will do anything horrid any more?”

“Hush child, and go to sleep.”

Last Friday a friend of mine in California drove to his local supermarket with a sticker on his car saying: “Peace is also Patriotic”. It was gone by the time he’d finished shopping.

AMY GOODMAN: The late John le Carré reading from his 2003 essay, “The United States of America Has Gone Mad.”

This post was originally published on Radio Free.


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