EVERY JOURNALIST HAS A LIST of regrets: of stories that might have been. Somewhere on my personal list is an invitation I received several years ago, from a then-Labour member of parliament named George Galloway. Would I care, he inquired, to join him on a chartered plane to Baghdad? He was hoping to call attention to the sufferings of the Iraqi people under sanctions, and had long been an admirer of my staunch and muscular prose and my commitment to universal justice (I paraphrase only slightly). Indeed, in an article in a Communist party newspaper in 2001 he referred to me as "that great British man of letters" and "the greatest polemicist of our age."
No thanks, was my reply. I had my own worries about the sanctions, but I had also already been on an officially guided visit to Saddam's Iraq and had decided that the next time I went to that terrorized slum it would be with either the Kurdish guerrillas or the U.S. Marines. (I've since fulfilled both ambitions.) Moreover, I knew a bit about Galloway. He had had to resign as the head of a charity called "War on Want," after repaying some disputed expenses for living the high life in dirt-poor countries. Indeed, he was a type well known in the Labour movement. Prolier than thou, and ostentatiously radical, but a bit too fond of the cigars and limos and always looking a bit odd in a suit that was slightly too expensive. By turns aggressive and unctuous, either at your feet or at your throat; a bit of a backslapper, nothing's too good for the working class: what the English call a "wide boy."
This was exactly his demeanor when I ran into him last Tuesday on the sidewalk of Constitution Avenue, outside the Dirksen Senate Office Building, where he was due to testify before the subcommittee that has been uncovering the looting of the U.N. Oil-for-Food program. His short, cocky frame was enveloped in a thicket of recording equipment, and he was holding forth almost uninterrupted until I asked him about his endorsement of Saddam Hussein's payment for suicide-murderers in Israel and the occupied territories. He had evidently been admirably consistent in his attention to my humble work, because he changed tone and said that this was just what he'd expect from a "drink-sodden ex-Trotskyist popinjay." It takes a little more than this to wound your correspondent--I could still hold a martini without spilling it when I was "the greatest polemicist of our age" in 2001--but please note that the real thrust is contained in the word "Trotskyist." Galloway says that the worst day of his entire life was the day the Soviet Union fell. His existence since that dreadful event has involved the pathetic search for an alternative fatherland. He has recently written that, "just as Stalin industrialised the Soviet Union, so on a different scale Saddam plotted Iraq's own Great Leap Forward." I love the word "scale" in that sentence. I also admire the use of the word "plotted."
As it happens, I adore the street-fight and soap-box side of political life, so that when the cluster had moved inside, and when Galloway had taken his seat flanked by his aides and guards, I decided to deny him the 10 minutes of unmolested time that otherwise awaited him before the session began. Denouncing the hearings as a show-trial the previous week, he had claimed that he had written several times to the subcommittee (whose members he has publicly called "lickspittles") asking to be allowed to clear his name, and been ignored. The subcommittee staff denies possessing any record of such an overture. Taking a position near where he was sitting, I asked him loudly if he had brought a copy of his letter, or letters. A fresh hose of abuse was turned upon me, but I persisted in asking, and after awhile others joined in--receiving no answer--so at least he didn't get to sit gravely like a volunteer martyr.
Senators Norm Coleman and Carl Levin then began the proceedings, and staff members went through a meticulous presentation, with documents and boards, showing the paperwork of the Iraqi State Oil Marketing Organization and the Iraqi Oil Ministry. These were augmented by testimony from an (unnamed) "senior Saddam regime official," who had vouched for the authenticity of the provenance and the signatures. The exhibits clearly showed that pro-Saddam political figures in France and Russia, and at least one American oil company, had earned the right to profit from illegal oil-trades, and had sweetened the pot by kicking back a percentage to Saddam's personal palace-building and mass grave-digging fund.
In several cases, the documents suggested that a man named Fawaz Zureikat, a Jordanian tycoon, had been intimately involved in these transactions. Galloway's name also appears in parentheses on the Zureikat papers--perhaps as an aide-memoire to those processing them--but you must keep in mind that the material does not show transfers directly to Galloway himself; only to Zureikat, his patron and partner and friend. In an analogous way, one cannot accuse Scott Ritter, who made a ferocious documentary attacking the Iraq war, of being in Iraqi pay. One may be aware, though, that the Iraqi-American businessman who financed that film, Shakir al-Khafaji, has since shown up in the captured Oil-for-Food correspondence.
After about 90 minutes of this cumulative testimony, Galloway was seated and sworn, and the humiliation began. The humiliation of the deliberative body, I mean. I once sat in the hearing room while a uniformed Oliver North hectored a Senate committee and instructed the legislative branch in its duties, and not since that day have I felt such alarm and frustration and disgust. Galloway has learned to master the word "neocon" and the acronym "AIPAC," and he insulted the subcommittee for its deference to both of these. He took up much of his time in a demagogic attack on the lie-generated war in Iraq. He announced that he had never traded in a single barrel of oil, and he declared that he had never been a public supporter of the Saddam Hussein regime. As I had guessed he would, he made the most of the anonymity of the "senior Saddam regime official," and protested at not knowing the identity of his accuser. He improved on this by suggesting that the person concerned might now be in a cell in Abu Ghraib.
In a small way--an exceedingly small way--this had the paradoxical effect of making me proud to be British. Parliament trains its sons in a hard school of debate and unscripted exchange, and so does the British Labour movement. You get your retaliation in first, you rise to a point of order, you heckle and you watch out for hecklers. The torpid majesty of a Senate proceeding does nothing to prepare you for a Galloway, who is in addition a man without embarrassment who has stayed just on the right side of many inquiries into his character and his accounting methods. He has, for example, temporarily won a libel case against the Daily Telegraph in London, which printed similar documents about him that were found in the Oil Ministry just after the fall of Baghdad. The newspaper claimed a public-interest defense, and did not explicitly state that the documents were genuine. Galloway, for his part, carefully did not state that they were false, either. The case has now gone to appeal.
When estimating the propensity of anyone to take money or gifts, one must also balance the propensity of a regime to offer them. I once had an Iraqi diplomat contact in London, who later became one of Saddam's ministers. After inviting him to dinner one night, I noticed that he had wordlessly left a handsome bag, which contained a small but nice rug, several boxes of Cuban cigars (which I don't smoke), and several bottles of single malt Scotch. I was at the time a fairly junior editor at a socialist weekly. More recently, I have interviewed a very senior and reliable U.N. arms inspector in Iraq, who was directly offered an enormous bribe by Tariq Aziz himself, and who duly reported the fact to the U.S. government. If the Baathists would risk approaching this particular man, it seems to me, they must have tried it with practically everybody. Quite possibly, though, the Saddam regime decided that Galloway was entirely incorruptible, and would consider such an inducement beneath him.
SUCH SPECULATION TO ONE SIDE, the subcommittee and its staff had a tranche of information on Galloway, and on his record for truthfulness. It would have been a simple matter for them to call him out on a number of things. First of all, and easiest, he had dared to state under oath that he had not been a defender of the Saddam regime. This, from the man who visited Baghdad after the first Gulf war and, addressing Saddam, said: "Sir, I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability." How's that for lickspittling? And even if you make allowances for emotional public moments, you can't argue with Galloway's own autobiography, blush-makingly entitled I'm Not the Only One, which was published last spring and from which I offer the following extracts:
The state of Kuwait is "clearly a part of the greater Iraqi whole, stolen from the motherland by perfidious Albion." (Kuwait existed long before Iraq had even been named.) "In my experience none of the Ba'ath leaders have displayed any hostility to Jews." The post-Gulf war massacres of Kurds and Shia in 1991 were part of "a civil war that involved massive violence on both sides." Asked about Saddam's palaces after one of his many fraternal visits, he remarked, "Our own head of state has a fair bit of real estate herself." Her Majesty the Queen and her awful brood may take up a lot of room, but it's hardly comparable to one palace per province, built during a time of famine. Discussing Saddam's direct payments to the families of suicide-murderers--the very question he had refused to answer when I asked him--he once again lapsed into accidental accuracy, as with the Stalin comparison, and said that "as the martyred know, he put Iraq's money where his mouth was." That's true enough: It was indeed Iraq's money, if a bit more than Saddam's mouth.
At the hearing, also, Galloway was half-correct in yelling at the subcommittee that he had been a critic of Saddam Hussein when Donald Rumsfeld was still making friendly visits to Baghdad. Here, a brief excursion into the aridities of left history may elucidate more than the Galloway phenomenon.
There came a time, in the late 1970s, when the Iraqi Communist party realized the horrific mistake it had made in joining the Baath party's Revolutionary Command Council. The Communists in Baghdad, as I can testify from personal experience and interviews at the time, began to protest--too late--at the unbelievable cruelty of Saddam's purge of the army and the state: a prelude to his seizure of total power in a full-blown fascist coup. The consequence of this, in Britain, was the setting-up of a group named CARDRI: the Campaign Against Repression and for Democratic Rights in Iraq. Many democratic socialists and liberals supported this organization, but there was no doubting that its letterhead and its active staff were Communist volunteers. And Galloway joined it. At the time, it is at least half true to say, the United States distinctly preferred Saddam's Iraq to Khomeini's Iran, and acted accordingly. Thus a leftist could attack Saddam for being, among other things, an American client. We ought not to forget the shame of American policy at that time, because the preference for Saddam outlived the war with Iran, and continued into the postwar Anfal campaign to exterminate the Kurds. In today's "antiwar" movement, you may still hear the echoes of that filthy compromise, in the pseudo-ironic jibe that "we" used to be Saddam's ally.
But mark the sequel. It must have been in full knowledge, then, of that repression, and that genocide, and of the invasion of Kuwait and all that ensued from it, that George Galloway shifted his position and became an outright partisan of the Iraqi Baath. There can be only two explanations for this, and they do not by any means exclude one another. The first explanation, which would apply to many leftists of different stripes, is that anti-Americanism simply trumps everything, and that once Saddam Hussein became an official enemy of Washington the whole case was altered. Given what Galloway has said at other times, in defense of Slobodan Milosevic for example, it is fair to assume that he would have taken such a position for nothing: without, in other words, the hope of remuneration.
There was another faction, however, that was, relatively speaking, nonpolitical. During the imposition of international U.N. sanctions on Iraq, and the creation of the Oil-for-Food system, it swiftly became known to a class of middlemen that lavish pickings were to be had by anyone who could boast an insider contact in Baghdad. This much is well known and has been solidly established, by the Volcker report and by the Senate subcommittee. During the material time, George Galloway received hard-to-get visas for Iraq on multiple occasions, and admits to at least two personal meetings with Saddam Hussein and more than ten with his "dear friend" Tariq Aziz. But as far as is known by me, he confined his activity on these occasions to pro-regime propaganda, with Iraqi crowds often turned out by the authorities to applaud him, and provide a useful platform in both parliament and the press back home.
However, his friend and business partner, Fawaz Zureikat, didn't concern himself so much with ideological questions (though he did try to set up a broadcasting service for Saddam). He was, as Galloway happily testified, involved in a vast range of deals in Baghdad. But Galloway's admitted knowledge of this somehow does not extend to Zureikat's involvement in any Oil-for-Food transactions, which are now prima facie established in black and white by the subcommittee's report. Galloway, indeed, has arranged to be adequately uninformed about this for some time now: It is two years since he promised the BBC that he would establish and make known the facts about his Zureikat connection.
Here then are these facts, as we know them without his help. In 1998, Galloway founded something, easily confused with a charity, known as the Mariam Appeal. The ostensible aim of the appeal was to provide treatment in Britain for a 4-year-old Iraqi girl named Mariam Hamza, who suffered from leukemia. An announced secondary aim was to campaign against the sanctions then in force, and still a third, somewhat occluded, aim was to state that Mariam Hamza and many others like her had contracted cancer from the use of depleted-uranium shells by American forces in the first Gulf war. A letter exists, on House of Commons writing paper, signed by Galloway and appointing Fawaz Zureikat as his personal representative in Iraq, on any and all matters connected to the Mariam Appeal.
Although it was briefly claimed by one of its officers that the Appeal raised most of its money from ordinary citizens, Galloway has since testified that the bulk of the revenue came from the ruler of the United Arab Emirates and from a Saudi prince. He has also conceded that Zureikat was a very generous donor. The remainder of the funding is somewhat opaque, since the British Charity Commissioners, who monitor such things, began an investigation in 2003. This investigation was inconclusive. The commissioners were able to determine that the Mariam Appeal, which had used much of its revenue for political campaigning, had not but ought to have been legally registered as a charity. They were not able to determine much beyond this, because it was then announced that the account books of the Appeal had been removed, first to Amman, Jordan, and then to Baghdad. This is the first charity or proto-charity in history to have disposed of its records in that way.
TO THIS DAY, George Galloway defiantly insists, as he did before the senators, that he has "never seen a barrel of oil, owned one, bought one, sold one, and neither has anybody on my behalf." As a Clintonian defense this has its admirable points: I myself have never seen a kilowatt, but I know that a barrel is also a unit and not an entity. For the rest, his defense would be more impressive if it answered any charge that has actually been made. Galloway is not supposed by anyone to have been an oil trader. He is asked, simply, to say what he knows about his chief fundraiser, nominee, and crony. And when asked this, he flatly declines to answer. We are therefore invited by him to assume that, having earlier acquired a justified reputation for loose bookkeeping in respect of "charities," he switched sides in Iraq, attached himself to a regime known for giving and receiving bribes, appointed a notorious middleman as his envoy, kept company with the corrupt inner circle of the Baath party, helped organize a vigorous campaign to retain that party in power, and was not a penny piece the better off for it. I think I believe this as readily as any other reasonable and objective person would. If you wish to pursue the matter with Galloway himself, you will have to find the unlisted number for his villa in Portugal.
Even if the matter of subornation and bribery had never arisen, there would remain the crucial question of Iraq itself. It was said during the time of sanctions on that long-suffering country that the embargo was killing, or had killed, as many as a million people, many of them infants. Give credit to the accusers here. Some of the gravamen of the charge must be true. Add the parasitic regime to the sanctions, over 12 years, and it is clear that the suffering of average Iraqis must have been inordinate.
There are only two ways this suffering could have been relieved. Either the sanctions could have been lifted, as Galloway and others demanded, or the regime could have been removed. The first policy, if followed without conditions, would have untied the hands of Saddam. The second policy would have had the dual effect of ending sanctions and terminating a hideous and lawless one-man rule. But when the second policy was proposed, the streets filled with people who absolutely opposed it. Saying farewell to the regime was, evidently, too high a price to pay for relief from sanctions.
Let me phrase this another way: Those who had alleged that a million civilians were dying from sanctions were willing, nay eager, to keep those same murderous sanctions if it meant preserving Saddam! This is repellent enough in itself. If the Saddam regime was cheating its terrified people of food and medicine in order to finance its own propaganda, that would perhaps be in character. But if it were to be discovered that any third parties had profited from the persistence of "sanctions plus regime," prolonging the agony and misery thanks to personal connections, then one would have to become quite judgmental.
The bad faith of a majority of the left is instanced by four things (apart, that is, from mass demonstrations in favor of prolonging the life of a fascist government). First, the antiwar forces never asked the Iraqi left what it wanted, because they would have heard very clearly that their comrades wanted the overthrow of Saddam. (President Jalal Talabani's party, for example, is a member in good standing of the Socialist International.) This is a betrayal of what used to be called internationalism. Second, the left decided to scab and blackleg on the Kurds, whose struggle is the oldest cause of the left in the Middle East. Third, many leftists and liberals stressed the cost of the Iraq intervention as against the cost of domestic expenditure, when if they had been looking for zero-sum comparisons they might have been expected to cite waste in certain military programs, or perhaps the cost of the "war on drugs." This, then, was mere cynicism. Fourth, and as mentioned, their humanitarian talk about the sanctions turned out to be the most inexpensive hypocrisy.
George Galloway--having been rightly expelled by the British Labour party for calling for "jihad" against British troops, and having since then hailed the nihilism and sadism and sectarianism that goes by the lazy name of the Iraqi "insurgency" or, in his circles, "resistance"--ran for election in a new seat in East London and was successful in unseating the Labour incumbent. His party calls itself RESPECT, which stands for "Respect, Equality, Socialism, Peace, Environment, Community, Trade Unionism." (So that really ought to be RESPECTU, except that it would then sound less like an Aretha Franklin song and more like an organ of the Romanian state under Ceausescu.)
The defeated incumbent, Oona King, is of mixed African and Jewish heritage, and had to endure an appalling whispering campaign, based on her sex and her combined ethnicities. Who knows who started this torrent of abuse? Galloway certainly has, once again, remained adequately uninformed about it. His chief appeal was to the militant Islamist element among Asian immigrants who live in large numbers in his district, and his main organizational muscle was provided by a depraved sub-Leninist sect called the Socialist Workers party. The servants of the one god finally meet the votaries of the one-party state. Perfect. To this most opportunist of alliances, add some Tory and Liberal Democrat "tactical voters" whose hatred of Tony Blair eclipses everything else.
Perhaps I may be allowed a closing moment of sentiment here? To the left, the old East End of London was once near-sacred ground. It was here in 1936 that a massive demonstration of longshoremen, artisans, and Jewish refugees and migrants made a human wall and drove back a determined attempt by Sir Oswald Mosley's Blackshirts to mount a march of intimidation. The event is still remembered locally as "The Battle of Cable Street." That part of London, in fact, was one of the few place in Europe where the attempt to raise the emblems of fascism was defeated by force.
And now, on the same turf, there struts a little popinjay who defends dictatorship abroad and who trades on religious sectarianism at home. Within a month of his triumph in a British election, he has flown to Washington and spat full in the face of the Senate. A megaphone media in London, and a hysterical fan-club of fundamentalists and political thugs, saw to it that he returned as a conquering hero and all-round celeb. If only the supporters of regime change, and the friends of the Afghan and Iraqi and Kurdish peoples, could manifest anything like the same resolve and determination.
Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and a visiting professor at the New School in New York. His new book is Thomas Jefferson: Author of America.