My unpublished interview with Fred Halliday

I was shocked to learn that academic Fred Halliday died in Barcelona last week at the age of 64. Halliday was a lecturer at the LSE (London School of Economics) for over 20 years and more recently, the IBEI (Barcelona Institute for International Studies) and wrote regularly for Opendemocracy and La Vanguardia newspaper. I attended a few of his political talks in Barcelona, had dinner with him and some of his colleagues and even managed to interview him for an article in June 2007. Well, I say “I” interviewed him but in the end, it was more like Fred Halliday interviewed himself. The interview didn’t quite turn out as I expected due to the fact that he was very busy and when he did manage to respond six months later, my questions had been unanswered and the entire interview rewritten by Halliday himself. As a result, I reluctantly shelved it and it never got published. For those that are interested in international relations and Fred Halliday’s work however, I’ve published here for the first time Halliday’s self-written interview plus for the record, my original questions.

I felt that Halliday was typical of many highly respected liberal scholars. He was willing to criticize power up to a point but he knew where the limits were. He had internalized the liberal boundaries that there are certain things you simply don’t challenge or say about centres of power if you want to be respected and applauded in the liberal world.

As his obituary in The Guardian points out:

Fred never shied away from controversy: he was forthright in his advocacy of justice, human rights and socialist democratic values, and against cultural relativism and apologetics for tyrannies in developing nations in the name of anti-imperialism. This was part of his more general belief that imperialism and capitalism were often progressive forces in many parts of the world, notwithstanding their well-known oppressive and exploitative elements. In this vein, Fred considered the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan favourable, on balance, and indeed the period of communist control as a progressive episode in the violence and oppression that preceded and followed it. Equally, Fred favoured western interventions in the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq – Saddam Hussein and his regime being by far the greater evil – but criticised what he considered the arrogance and incompetence of the US and British administrations of these policies and their tragic consequences.

He was nevertheless an incredibly learned academic, especially on the Middle East and authored over 20 books. He was also quite a linguist able to speak several languages fluently including Catalan and Arabic. He had a special place in his heart for Barcelona and he was a keen historian of the Spanish Civil War. Although he divided his time between Barcelona and London, his aim was to eventually settle in Barcelona full time.

After listening to a talk by Halliday on the Cold War at Barcelona’s CCCB, I sent the following questions to him on the 21st November 2006:

1. You said that some people such as Noam Chomsky are guilty of claiming threats such as communism and now terrorism are simply fabrications aimed at scaring the public. If the USA justified building up its military to defeat communism, why is Pentagon spending higher than at any time in history now that the threat has gone?

2. Whilst Catholic priests such as Oscar Romero in El Salvador were murdered for speaking out against the US supported military dictatorships in his country, why did the US continue to support such dictatorships there and in other South American countries such as Nicaragua?

3. Was it fair to accuse a country of accepting weapons or aid from Russia if the USA refused to sell it any? For example, the US blocked France from selling weapons to the Sandinistas in Nicaragua so they had no choice but to turn to the only other great power at the time, the Russians.

4. Shortly after the collapse of communism in 1989, the White House presented its annual request for funding to Congress. Since communism could no longer be used as a justification, it said the threat was, quote, “the technological sophistication of Third World powers.” Does this suggest that communism was just an excuse and the US will say anything to increase Pentagon funding?

5. Do you think that the US opposed communism on moral grounds or simply because it didn’t provide safe and secure business climates for Western corporations?

6. Is the Pentagon essentially a crafty way of making the public subsidise high technology industry such as computer technology and biotechnology that is then sold back to them when development has made them profitable for commercial release?

7. Is the reason that the US waged war on Iraq based on their moral opposition to the USA or on the grounds that increased military spending stimulates the US economy and that military occupation enables them to take control of the oil their and provide safe capitalistic business climates for investors?

8. Do you agree or disagree with the view that one of the biggest steps to decrease terrorism in the world would be for the US to stop trying to control the natural resources of other nations and observe international law?

The Middle East

I’d like to ask you a few questions related to issues in Afghanistan and Israel.

1. Bearing in mind three things – that the US had no idea where Bin Laden was in the World, that removing the Taliban was not an initial aim of invasion (it suddenly became an issue a month afterwards when they realised that they had no clue where Bin Laden was), and that the UN warned millions were already at risk of starvation before the invasion, why did you support the invasion of Afghanistan?

2. Tahmeena Faryal, spokesperson for the RAWA women’s human rights group in Afghanistan, says that the situation for the majority of Afghans became worse after than before the invasion noting that most Afghan Warlords that were in place before the invasion have been returned. The then newly installed Northern Alliance Justice Minister Ahamat Ulla Zarif said that the basic brutal structure of Sharia law, as instituted by the Taliban, would stay in place except small changes such as, quote, “The Taliban used to hang a body for four days. We will hang only for a short time, say 15 minutes.” Do you agree with these observations and do you subsequently still think the invasion was justified?

3. Since the mid-1970’s, virtually the entire UN community has endorsed a modification of UN resolution 242 to include a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. Washington vetoed this in 1976 and has continued to vote regularly against subsequent resolutions. Why does the US continue to oppose this widely supported democratically agreed resolution if it really wants peace?

4. Although amazingly, no maps were published in the US press, a map of the boundaries agreed at Camp David shows that the proposals would have effectively cut the West Bank into three virtually isolated cantons, all virtually separated from Jerusalem. Why were you therefore in favour of the Camp David proposals?

Below is the response that Halliday sent me around six months later on 20th June 2007. During these six months, he apologized for the delay and also invited me for an evening dinner with himself and some of his visiting colleagues from the London School of Economics. He also launched a book 100 Myths About The Middle East. He was very keen for the article to be published in the now defunct English newspaper Catalonia Today which is why he formatted it perfectly ready for publication. In actual fact, I hadn’t written the interview for Catalonia Today at all. I aimed to get the interview published on some alternative political websites (hence the wide ranging nature of my questions) and intended to do an interview with him based on Spain at a later date for Catalonia Today.

Dear Nicholas,

Herewith the interview: I took a broad reworking of the questions as in order, to bring out more general theems, hope it works. If you want me to answer anything more specific, let me know. Also it is about 1,400 words, so edit as you want.



The Cold War, Middle East Crises and the Role of the USA

Catalonia Today Interview with Fred Halliday

[Fred Halliday, born in Dublin in 1946, divides his time between Barcelona, where he is Visiting Professor at the postgraduate research and training college IBEI (Barcelona Institute for International Studies), and LSE (the London School of Economics). He is a regular columnist for the website journal opendemocracy,net and for the main Barcelona daily, La Vanguardia. His most recent book, 100 Myths About the Middle East, is published this spring in Spanish and Catalan translations by Globalrhythms Press, a Barcelona publishing house specialising in musical and cultural studies. Interview conducted by Nichlolas Mead for Catalonia Today, Barcelona 19 June 2007.]

Q. In an article in ‘The Observer’ in early 2005 you argued that the Cold War, although it ended with the collapse

of the Soviet Union in 1991, still dominates the politics of the world today. With so much that has happened in the ensuing sixteen years, why do you argue this?
A. I do not  believe that we are all determined by past events: states, like peoples, can move on, encounter new problems, have new ideas. There is much that has happened in the world sinced 1991 that is new, most especially the rise of China and East Asia in general, which has reversed the four centuries-long domination of the world by the Atlantic states, the strengthening of economic and informational ties between countries, what we loosely term ‘globalisation’, and the increased influence of such things as identity, tradition, religion in politics and social life, most obviously in the Muslim world, but also in the USA, India and some countries of Europe. However, to understand this world of the twenty-first century we have to study the Cold War, both to see how it continues to influence us and also to recognise what lessons we can draw from it for the contemporary world.

Q. so, can you substantiate the claim that the Cold War remains influential?

Of course.  First of all in regard to the USA. America emerged predominant on the world scale from the Cold War. It won. And for a time, under Clinton, it felt more relaxed, and, in his liberal internationalism, put that victory to good use. But other forces were still strong inside the USA: Bush’s contested victory of 2000 and the alarm that gripped America after 9/11 have unleashed a new, more aggressive, nationalist and beleagured policy that draws on much of the Cold War legacy, as also, in the person of people like Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and other ‘neo-conservatibves’ on personnel reccycled from the 1970s, what are sometimes called ‘Richard Nixon retreads’. Thus we get the emphasis on resorting first of all to force in solving problems ( evident in the totally misconceived ‘War Against Terrorism’), the falsification of the military threat ( as in the Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction saga), and the unilateral approach to solving problems. At the same time the USA’s opponents must also be seen as products of the Cold War. As for Russia, and the former USSR, it is obvious that while Russia is much weaker, in global military and ideological terms than was the USSR, it has acquired new purpose and direction under Putin because he has, in effect, put the country under the tutelage of the former KGB: the power of the state is being enhanced over the economy and over public life, opponents are being shot and intimidated, and the country is being dragged towards greater and greater nationalism and suspicion of the west. This is not, as some suggest, another ‘Cold War’, because it is neither global nor ideologically distinct, but it is a confrontation made possible by the takeover of Russia by, in effect, a former Cold War institution, just as the USA has fallen into the hands of the ‘Neo-Conservatives’.

Q. We have just marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Falklands War. Can this be seen as another part of the Cold War legacy?

A. Thatcher, then British Prime Minister, threw herself into two wars, publicaly that of the Falklands in 1982 , but also that, covertly, of Afghanistan from the early 1980s. The Islamist guerrilla movement in Afghanistan of the 1980s, out of which emerged Bin Laden and Al Qaida, was a product of the Cold War, in this case of US and Saudi creation of, and backing for, the anti-communist mujahidin. Osama bin Laden is, in effect, the illegitimate son of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Indeed, if we are to judge Thatcer and her impact on the world, we should devote much more attention to her role in fomenting the war in Afghanistan, with all its consequences, and less to the marginal and remote war in the Falklands whose anniversary has just been celebrated, in obscene pomposity, in London. The Falklands war, in which two thousand soldiers died or were wounded defending the way of life of less than three thousand people (the actual lives of the Falklanders were not in danger) was wholly unnecessary, on both side, ‘two bald men quarrelling over a comb’, as the Argentinian writer Jose Luis Borges remarked at the time.

Q. And what about the lessons of the Cold War for understanding the world today?

A. Let us just take one example, that of Iran, a country I have visted and studied since I first went there, as an undergraduate, when I was 19, 42 years ago. Many people find it hard to understand this country and resort either to remote history or religion, or to seeing it as irrational, fanatical or part of some ‘Axis of Evil’. I detest the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran, which has brought ruin and repression to a country I hold dear, but the explanation for its conduct does not lie in remote times, or in the irrational. It lies in contemporary politics, and in two ways that the history of the Cold War does much to explain. First, Iran is a revolutionary country: Iran had a revolution, a very profound and original one, less than three decades ago. The experience of the revolutions of the Cold War, be they the USSR, China or Cuba indicate that while they soon encounter limits from other states – Iran was invaded by its neighbour Iraq a year after its revolution – it normally takes much longer, up to three generations, for such revolutions to run out of steam. So Iran today retains, in its militant leadership and in a significant part of the population, a continued aspiration to radicalise the Middle East and to egalitarian, nationalistic and radical policies at home. At the same time, if we want to understand why Iran aspires to have nuclear weapons, the answer lies in understanding the nuclear arms race of the Cold War: Moscow and Washington pursued nuclear capability, and tried to gain advantages over the other, not so much for purely military reasons, but to give themselves prestige and also enhanced bargaining power in crisis situations. Iran today, faced with enemies around the Middle East and seeking to strengthen its hand in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Gulf, Lebanon and Palestine, sees the possession of nuclear weapons as a means of advancing these political goals.

Q. And so how does this serve to explain the overall situation in the Middle East today, which seems to be going from bad to worse?

A. The other day, on my way to work in Barcelona, my taxi-driver was giving me a brief overview of the last few centuries of Catalian history: after a denunciation of all recent Spanish governments for refusing to recognise the Catalans as a nation, he went back to the seventeenth century, to the marriage of the Kings of Aragon and Castille, to the revolt of the Seguidors in the 1640s and to the events of 1713. When I asked him what the connections between all these different events was he remarked ‘Well, they are all more or less the connected’. The same applies to the Middle East of today: whereas a generation or two ago, the conflict around Palestine only really affected the four Arab states neighbouring Israel, and whereas at that time events in Iran or Afghanistan did not really affect the Arab world, today they were much more interrelated. This is a result both of the spread of the radical, transnational, Islamic militancy inspired, when not organised, by Bin Laden, and of the blunders of the USA during and after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. From this follows the kind of region-wide picture of crisis explained in a recent article in La Vanguardia, by Professor Fawaz Gerges, a Lebanese American academic who is one of the best analysts of the region, and also, I am happy to say, a graduate of the LSE, where he did his MSc, and then of Oxford. There is now an integrated, region-wide, crisis, of which Iraq is the epicentre, but with implications all the way from Tel Aviv to Islamabad. And this is the region from which most of the world’s oil and gas must come for the forseeable future, whose investment.


Since it was clear Halliday either wasn’t able or wasn’t willing to answer my specific questions and was very short of time, I at least tried to make him answer more succinct specific questions on the Middle East (his specialist area) with the following reply the next day:

Thanks very much for the detailed responses. I appreciate you’ve rephrased and brought all the questions under the umbrella of the Cold War for coherence although there are a few specific questions I would like to ask related to the Middle East since that is the theme of your new book. They are:

1) Do you think the bombing of Afghanistan was justified and why?
2) Do you think the Northern Alliance that Western allies have helped bring to power in Afghanistan are an improvement on the Taliban in terms of respect for human rights?
3) Do you think the invasion of Iraq was justified and why?
4) Do you agree with the theory that the best way to reduce terrorism in the Middle East is for the Americans to stop participating in it i.e. stop arming Israel, stop propping up brutal regimes/dictators and stop blocking UN resolution 242?

Thanks for your help. I hope to get this published next week.



I received no further contact and despite calling him to ask for a response, our correspondence ended here.

In summary, I felt the response Halliday had sent me was a political academic’s version of a press release. It avoided all of my questions and answered only those that he wanted to be asked for reasons that I can only guess at. It only reinforced my feeling that questioning outside of acceptable liberal frameworks is as unwelcome in the academic world as it is in the mainstream media.

I hope anyway that this interview may be useful for anyone interested in Halliday’s life and work.

One thought on “My unpublished interview with Fred Halliday

  1. Wow man, what a awesome essay, complete, concise and well edited. You´re one smart son of a bitch.
    Keep well amigo.

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