Age Of Terror
By Robert Fisk
09 October, 2006
few days after Lebanon's latest war came to an end, I went through many
of the reporter's notebooks I have used in my last 30 years in the Middle
East. Some contained the names of dead colleagues, others the individual
stories of the suffering of Arabs and Kurds and Christians and Jews.
One, dated 1991, is even splashed with a dark and viscous substance,
the oil that came raining down on us from the skies over the Kuwaiti
desert after Saddam blew up the wells of the Emirate. It was only after
a few minutes that I realised what I was looking for: some hint, back
in the days of dangerous innocence, of what was going to happen on 11
And sure enough, in one notebook,
part of a transcript of an interview I gave in Toronto in the late 1990s,
I see myself trying to discourage the Middle East optimism of my host.
"There is an explosion coming in the Middle East," I tell
him. What was this explosion I was talking about? I find myself writing
almost the same thing a couple of years later in The Independent - I
refer to "the explosion to come" without locating it in the
Middle East at all. What was I talking about? And then, most disturbingly,
I re-run parts of a film series I made with the late Michael Dutfield
for Channel 4 and Discovery in 1993. Called From Beirut to Bosnia, it
was billed as an attempt to record "Muslims growing anger towards
In one sequence, I walk into
a destroyed mosque in a Bosnian village called Cela. And I hear my voice
on the soundtrack, saying: "When I see things like this, I think
of the place I work, the Middle East... I wonder what the Muslim world
has in store for us... Maybe I should end each of my reports with the
words: 'Watch out!' " And when I checked back to my post-production
notes, I find the dates of all our film sequences listed. I had walked
into that Bosnian mosque, watched by Serb policemen, on 11 September
1993. My warning was exactly eight years too early.
I don't like journalists
who, in middle age, start to pontificate morbidly about the wickedness
of a world that should be full of love, or who rummage through old notebooks
in search of pessimism. So I own up at once. Surely we don't have to
be weighed down by the baggage of history, always looking backwards
and holding up billboards with the "The End of the World is Nigh"
written in black for readers too bored to look at the fine print. Yet
when I sit on my seafront balcony today, I am waiting for the next explosion
Beirut is a good place to
reflect on the tragedy through which the Middle East is now inexorably
moving. After all, the city has suffered so many horrors these past
31 years, it seems haunted by the mass graves that lie across the region,
from Afghanistan to Iraq to "Palestine" and to Lebanon itself.
And I look across the waters and see a German warship cruising past
my home, part of Nato's contribution to stop gun-running into Lebanon
under UN Security Council Resolution 1701. And then, I ask myself what
the Germans could possibly be doing when no guns have ever been run
to the Hizbollah guerrilla army from the sea. The weapons came through
Syria, and Syria has a land frontier with the country and is to the
north and east of Lebanon, not on the other side of the Mediterranean.
And then when I call on my
landlord to discuss this latest, hopeless demonstration of Western power,
he turns to me in some anger and says, "Yes, why is the German
navy cruising off my home?" And I see his point. For we Westerners
are now spreading ourselves across the entire Muslim world. In one form
or another, "we" - "us", the West - are now in Khazakstan,
Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Egypt, Algeria, Yemen, Qatar, Bahrain,
Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Lebanon. We are now trapped across this
vast area of suffering, fiercely angry people, militarily far more deeply
entrenched and entrapped than the 12th-century crusaders who faced defeat
at the battle of Hittin, our massive forces fighting armies of Islamists,
suicide bombers, warlords, drug barons, and militias. And losing. The
latest UN army in Lebanon, with its French and Italian troops, is moving
in ever greater numbers to the south, young men and women who have already
been threatened by al-Qa'ida and who will, in three of four months,
be hit by al-Qa'ida. Which is one reason why the French have been pallisading
themselves into their barracks in southern Lebanon. There is no shortage
of suicide bombers here, although it will be the Sunni -- not the Hizbollah-Shiite
variety -- which will strike at the UN.
When will the bombers arrive?
After further massacres in Iraq? After the Israelis cross the border
again? After Israel - or the US - bombs Iran's nuclear facilities in
the coming months? After someone in the northern city of Tripoli, perhaps,
or in the Palestinian camps outside Sidon, decides he has seen too many
Western soldiers trampling the lands of southern Lebanon, too many German
warships off the coast, or heard too many mendacious statements of optimism
from George W Bush or Tony Blair or Condoleezza Rice. "There will
be no 'new' Middle East, Miss Rice," a new Hizbollah poster says
south of Sidon. And the Hizbollah is right. The entire region is sinking
deeper into bloodshed and all the time, over and over again, Bush and
Blair tell us it is all getting much better, that we can all be heartened
by the spread of non-existent democracies, that the dawn is rising on
Condi's "new" Middle East. Are they really hoping that they
can distort the mirror of the world's reality with their words? There
is a kind of new dawn rising in the lands from the old Indian empire
to the tides of the Mediterranean. The only trouble is that it is blood
It is as if the Bushes and
Blairs do not live on this planet any more. As my colleague Patrick
Cockburn wrote recently, the enraging thing about Blair's constant optimism
is that, to prove it all a pack of lies, a journalist has to have his
throat cut amid the anarchy which Blair says does not exist. The Americans
cannot protect themselves in Iraq, let alone the Iraqis, and the British
have twice nearly been defeated in battles with the Taliban, and the
Israeli army - counting it as part of the "West" for a moment
-- were soundly thrashed when they crossed the border to fight the Hizbollah,
losing 40 men in 36 hours. Yet still Blair delayed a ceasefire in Lebanon.
And still - be certain of this - when the fire strikes us again, in
London or New York or wherever, Blair and Bush will say that the attack
has nothing to do with the Middle East, that Britain's enemies hate
"our values" or our "way of life".
I once mourned the lack of
titans in the modern world, the Roosevelts and the Churchills, blood-drenched
though their century was. Blair and Bush, posing as wartime leaders,
threatening the midget Hitlers around them, appear to have gone through
a kind of "stasis", a psychological inability to grasp what
they do not want to hear or what they do not want to be true. And they
have lost the thread of history.
In the past, we - the "West"
- could have post-war adventures abroad and feel safe at home. No North
Korean tried to blow himself up on the London Tube in the 1950s. No
Viet Cong ever arrived in Washington to assault the United States. We
fought in Kenya and Malaya and Palestine and Suez and Yemen, but we
felt safe in Gloucestershire. Perhaps the change came with the Algerian
War of Independence when the bombers attacked in Paris and Lyons, or
perhaps it came later when the IRA arrived to bomb London.
But it is a fact that "we"
cannot take our armies and warships and tanks and helicopter gunships
and para battalions for foreign wars and expect to be unhurt at home.
This is the inescapable logic of history that Bush and Blair will not
face, will not acknowledge, will not believe - will not even let us
believe. All across the Middle East, we are locked in battle in our
preposterous "war on terror" because "the world changed
forever" on 11 September, even though I have said many times that
we should not allow 19 murderers to change our world. So we live in
a darker world of phone-taps and "terror plots" and underground
CIA prisoners whose interrogators set about victims in secret, tearing
to pieces the Geneva Conventions so painfully constructed after the
Second World War.
And in a world betrayed.
Remember all those promises we made to the Arabs about creating a wonderful
new functioning democracy in Iraq whose example would be followed by
other Middle East states? And remember our promise to honour the fledgling
democracy of Lebanon, the famous "Cedars Revolution" - a title
invented by the US State Department, so the Lebanese should have been
suspicious - which brought the retreat of the Syrian army. Lebanon was
then held up to be a future model for the Arab world. But once the Hizbollah
crossed the frontier and seized two Israeli soldiers, killing three
others on 12 July, we stood back and watched the Lebanese suffer. "If
there is one thing this last war has convinced me of," a young
Lebanese woman put it to me this month, "it is that the Lebanese
are on their own. I can never trust a foreign promise again."
And this is true. For the
direct result of the disastrous Israeli campaign has been to turn the
Hizbollah into heroes of the Arab - indeed the Muslim - world, to break
apart the fragile political stability established by the Lebanese prime
minister, Fouad Siniora, and to have Hizbollah's leader, Sayed Hassan
Nasrallah, declare a "divine victory" and demand a "national
unity" government which, if it comes about, will be pro-Syrian.
The language now being used in Lebanon by the country's political leaders
is approaching the incendiary, lethal grammar of pre-civil war Lebanon.
Samir Geagea, the Christian
ex-militia commander, brought out tens of thousands of supporters to
jeer at Nasrallah. "They demand a strong state but how can a strong
state be built with a statelet in its midst?" Geagea demanded to
know after the Hizbollah suddenly announced that it has no intention
of handing over its weapons. Indeed, Nasrallah is now boasting that
he still has 20,000 missiles in southern Lebanon, a claim which led
the Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt, to abuse Nasrallah as a creature of
Syria - there is speculation over the depth of his relationship with
Damascus but his arms certainly come from Iran - and to say to him:
"Sayed Nasrallah, rest your mind, I will not reach an agreement
with you. When you separate yourself from the Syrian leadership, I will
possibly hold a dialogue with you." Thus two more paper-thin links
- between Lebanon's Druze community and the Christians and the larger
population of Shiite Muslims - have been broken. And that is how civil
Had Bush - indeed Blair --
denounced Israel's claim that it held the Lebanese government responsible
for the kidnapping and killing of its soldiers, and demanded an immediate
ceasefire, then the disaster that is destroying Lebanon's democracy
would not have happened. But no, Bush and Blair let the bloodshed go
on and postponed hopes of a ceasefire for the Lebanese upon whom they
had lavished so much praise a year ago. Just last week, the Lebanese
recovered the bodies of five more children under the rubble of the Sidon
Vocational Training Centre in Tyre. Ali Alawiah identified his children
Aya, Zeinab and Hussein and his nephews Battoul and Abbas. All would
have been alive if even Blair and Margaret Beckett had demanded a ceasefire.
But they are dead. And Blair and Beckett and Bush should have this on
The fact they don't speaks
sorrowfully of our double standard of morality. Almost all Lebanon's
1,300 dead - which comes close to half the total of the World Trade
Centre murders - were civilians. But we don't care for them as we do
our own "kith and kin". This is the same sickness that pervades
our policies in Iraq where we never counted the number of civilians
killed, only the tally of our precious soldiers who died there.
How did we come to be infected
by this virus of negligence and betrayal? Does it really go back to
the Crusades or the ramblings of Spanish Christians of the 15th century
- whose portrayals of the Prophet Mohamed were infinitely more obscene
than Denmark's third-rate cartoonist - or to the vicious anti-Muslim
ravings of long-forgotten Popes who seem to obsess the present incumbent
of the Vatican? I am still uncertain what Benedict meant by his quotation
of the old man of Byzantium - while I am equally suspicious of his almost
equally insulting remarks at Auschwitz where he blamed Nazi Germany's
cruelty on a mere "gang of criminals". But then again, this
is a Pope - anti-divorce, anti-homosexual and, once, anti-aircraft -
who has signally failed to follow John Paul II's devotions on the need
for the seed of Abraham to acknowledge the love they should show to
This failure to see the Other
as the same as "us" is now evident across the Middle East.
Some months ago, I received letters originally written to his family
by a young Marine officer in Iraq who was trying - eloquently, I have
to add - to explain how frustrating his work with Iraqis had become.
"There is something culturally childish in their understanding
of Western governance and management that will require immeasurable
education and probably several generations to overcome if they find
it of any interest," he wrote. "Our understanding of their
tribal governance and its relationship to formal civil management is
equally naïve and charges our frustration... The reality is that
they cannot, culturally, comprehend our altruism or believe our stated
intentions... Liberation will compete with invasion as our legacy but
locally we are ideologically irrelevant... I share the American fascination
with action and it has consistently betrayed us in our foreign policy."
The reality in Iraq is summed
up by the same American Marine officer's description of the building
of the Ramadi glass factory, a story that shows just how vacuous all
the stories of our "success" there are. "The Division
has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into a glass factory. It
does not work. It will take millions of dollars to rehabilitate and
modernise. There are supposed to be 2,500 Iraqis employed there but
they have nothing to do and no more than 100 arrive on any given day
to sit in their offices as new computers and furniture are delivered
with our compliments... It is like walking through a fictional business
that physically exists. It may be Kafka's revenge. Most rooms are empty
but are still preserved as they had been under a layer of dust. Some
areas hold a man at a desk in a stark room too large for him. It is
like Pompeii being slowly reoccupied, as if nothing had happened. I
stood on a tall mound of broken glass outside. Shards of window panes
shattered in the process of manufacturing them. The windows of the city
were poured and cut here once... This glass was made from sand, desert
made invisible until exposed by reflection. The bright sunlight makes
little impression on the pile due to a dull coating of dust but the
fragments fracture further and slide beneath my feet with the sound
of ruin. Walking on windows and unable to see the ground." Could
there be a more Conradian description of the failure of the American
empire in Iraq?
And does it not echo a remark
that TE Lawrence - Lawrence of Arabia - made of Iraq in the 1920s: "Do
not try to do too much with your own hands. Better the Arabs do it tolerably
than that you do it perfectly... Actually, also, under the very odd
conditions of Arabia, your practical work may not be as good as, perhaps,
A different kind of alienation,
of course, is reflected in our dispute with Iran. "We" think
that its government wants to make nuclear weapons - in six months, according
to the Israelis; in 10 years, according to some nuclear analysts. But
no one asks if "we" didn't help to cause this "nuclear"
crisis. For it was the Shah who commenced Iran's nuclear power programme
in 1973 and Western companies were shoulder-hopping each other in their
desire to sell him nuclear reactors and enrichment technology. Siemens,
for example, started to build the Bushehr reactor. And the Shah was
regularly interviewed on Western television stations where he said that
he didn't see why Iran shouldn't have nuclear weapons when America and
the Soviets had them. And we had no objection to the ambitions of "our"
Policeman of the Gulf.
And when Ayatollah Khomeini's
Islamic revolution engulfed Iran, what did he do? He called the nuclear
programme "the work of the devil" and closed it down. It was
only when Saddam Hussein invaded Iran the following year and began showering
Iran with missiles and chemical weapons - an invasion supported by "us"
- that the clerical regime decided they may have to use nuclear weapons
against Iraq and reopened the complex. In other words, it was the West
which supported Iran's original nuclear programme and it was closed
by the chief divine of George Bush's "axis of evil" and then
reopened when the West stood behind Saddam (in the days when he was
"our strongman" rather than our caged prisoner in a dying
The greater irony, of course,
is that if we were really concerned about the spread of nuclear technology
among Muslim states, we would be condemning Pakistan, most of whose
cities are in a state of almost Iraqi anarchy and whose jolly dictator
now says he was threatened with being "bombed back to the Stone
Age" by the Americans if he didn't sign up to the "war on
terror". Now it happens that Pakistan is infinitely more violent
than Iran and it also happens that it was a close Pakistani friend of
the Pakistani President- General Pervez Musharraf - a certain scientist
called Abdul Qadeer Khan - who actually gave solid centrifuge components
to Iran. But all that has been taken out of the story. And so they will
remain out of the narrative because Pakistan already has a bomb and
may use it if someone decided to create a new Stone Age in that former
corner of the British empire.
But all this raises a more
complex question. Are we really going to carry on arguing for years
- for generation after generation of crisis - over who has or doesn't
have nuclear technology or the capacity to build a bomb? Are "we"
forever going to decide who may have a bomb on the basis of his obedience
to us - Mr Musharraf now being a loyal Pakistani shah - or his religion
or how many turbans are worn by ministers in the government. Are we
still going to be doing this in 2007 or 2107 or 3006?
What I suspect lies behind
much of our hypocrisy in the Middle East is that Muslims have not lost
their faith and we have. It's not just that religion governs their lives,
it is the fact that they have kept the faith - and that is why we try
to hide that we have lost it by talking about Islam's "difficulty
with secularism". We are the good liberals who wish to bestow the
pleasures of our Enlightenment upon the rest of the world, although,
to the Muslim nations, this sounds more like our desire to invade them
with different cultures and traditions and - in some cases - different
And Muslims have learnt to
remember. I still recall an Iraqi friend, shaking his head at my naivety
when I asked if there was not any cup of generosity to be bestowed on
the West for ridding Iraqis of Saddam's presence. "You supported
him," he replied. "You supported him when he invaded Iran
and we died in our tens of thousands. Then, after the invasion of Kuwait,
you imposed sanctions that killed tens of thousands of our children.
And now you reduce Iraq to anarchy. And you want us to be grateful?"
And I recalled seeing a train
load of gassed Iranian soldiers on the way to Tehran, coughing up mucus
and blood into stained handkerchiefs and coughing up the gas too because
I suddenly smelled a kind of dirty perfume and walked down the train
opening all the windows. I saw their vast wobbling blisters upon which
ever-smaller blisters would form, one on top of the other. And where
did this filthy stuff come from, this real weapon of mass destruction
Saddam was using? Components came from Germany and from the US. No wonder
US Lieutenant Rick Francona noted indifferently in a report to the Pentagon
that the Iraqis had drenched Fao in gas when he visited the battlefield
during the war. So do we expect the Iranians to be grateful that we
eventually toppled Saddam?
Needless to say, the division
between Shias and Sunnis - especially in Iraq - can reach stages of
cruelty not seen since the European Protestant-Catholic wars; nor, in
this context, should we forget the conflict we are still trying to control
in Northern Ireland. Islam as a society, rather than a religion, does
have to face the "West"; it must find, in the words of that
fine former Iranian president Mohamad Khatami, a "civil society".
And it is outrageous that Muslims have not condemned the slaughter in
Darfur or, indeed, in Iraq and, one might add, on the battlefields of
the Iran-Iraq war where one and a half million Muslims killed each other
over almost eight years. Self-criticism is not in great supply across
the Muslim world where, of course, our spirited Western political conflicts
and elections sometimes look like self-flagellation.
As for our desire to award
the Muslim Middle East with "our" democratic systems, it's
not just in Lebanon that we have proved to be much less enthusiastic
about its existence in the Arab world. The former US ambassador to Iraq
- once he realised the Shiites would join the Sunni resistance if they
did not have elections, for democracy was originally not going to be
America's gift there - accepted a dominant role for Muslim clerics in
the government, thus ensuring discrimination against women in marriage,
divorce and inheritance.
When Daniel Fried, the US
Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs visited
Paris last year, he lectured European and Arab diplomats on what he
called "the US-European imperative to support democratic reform
and democratic reformers in the Middle East" - forgetting, it seems,
that just such a man, Khatami, existed in Iran but had been snubbed
by the US. His failure as a genuinely elected president produced his
somewhat cracked successor. Fried, however, insisted that bringing democracy
to the Middle East "is not for us a question of political theory,
but of central strategic importance", something that clearly didn't
matter less than a year later in Lebanon and certainly not when the
Palestinians participated in genuine elections, of which more later.
Fried took the risky step
of quoting the French historian Alexis de Tocqueville to back his claim
that democracy, far from being a fragile flower, was "robust, and
its applicability is potentially universal". The former French
foreign minister, Hubert Védrine, was invited to reply to respond
to Fried's words and he cynically spoke of "people who have historical
experience, who have seen how past experiences turned out", the
subtext of which was: "You Americans have no sense of history."
Védrine spoke of meeting with Madeleine Albright when she was
the US Foreign Secretary. "I told her we had no problem regarding
the objective of democracy, but I asked whether it was a process, or
a religious conversion, like Saint Paul on the road to Damascus."
And he quoted the Mexican writer, Octavio Pas: "Democracy is not
like Nescafé, you don't just add water." For historical
reasons, Védrine told Fried, "Because of colonialism, the
Middle East is the region of the world where external intervention is
most at risk of being rejected."
And when it is imposed, as
America says it would like to do in Damascus, what will happen? A nice,
flourishing electoral process to put Syrians in power or another descent
into Iraqi-style horrors with a Sunni-Muslim regime in place in Damascus?
And so to "Palestine"
- the inverted commas are more important than ever today - and its own
act of democracy. Of course, the Palestinians elected the wrong people,
Hamas, and had to suffer for it. Democratic Israel would not accept
the results of Palestine's democratic elections and the Europeans joined
with America in placing sanctions against the newly elected government
unless it recognised Israel and all agreements signed with Israel since
the Camp David accords of the 1970s. Even when Ariel Sharon was staging
his withdrawal of 8,500 settlers from Gaza last year, he was shifting
12,000 more settlers into the West Bank, and George W Bush had effectively
accepted this illegality by talking of the "realities" of
the Jewish settlements still being enlarged there. And that was the
end of UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 upon which the "peace
process" was supposed to be based - Israeli withdrawal from territories
occupied in the 1967 Middle East war, in return for the security of
all states in the area.
One of the few honourable
American statesmen to grasp what this portends is ex-President Jimmy
Carter, who wrote after the Palestinian elections in May this year that
"innocent Palestinian people are being treated like animals, with
the presumption that they are guilty of some crime. Because they voted
for candidates who are members of Hamas, the US government has become
the driving force behind an apparently effective scheme of depriving
the general public of income, access to the outside world and the necessities
of life... The additional restraints imposed on the new government are
a planned and deliberate catastrophe for the citizens of the occupied
territories, in hopes that Hamas will yield to the economic pressure."
Oh, for the years of the Carter administration...
And now we have the wall
- or the "fence" as too many journalists gutlessly call it.
The Palestinians went to the International Court in the Hague to have
it declared illegal because much of its course runs through their land.
The court said it was illegal. And Israel ignored the court's decision
and, once more, the US supported Israel. Here was another lesson for
the Palestinians. They went peacefully - without violence or "terrorism"
- to our Western institutions to get justice. And we were powerless
to help them because Israel rejected this symbol of Western freedoms.
Ehud Olmert, the Israeli
prime minister whose Lebanese bombardment was such a catastrophe, still
says that the wall is only temporary, as if it might be shifted back
to the original frontiers of Israel. But if it is only temporary, it
can also be moved forward to take in more Jewish settlements on Arab
land, colonies which, it must be noted, are illegal under international
law. Olmert says he wants to draw "permanent borders" unilaterally
- which is against the spirit of Camp David which Hamas is now supposed
to abide by.
And how does US Secretary
of State Condoleezza Rice respond to this? Well, try this for wriggle
room. "I wouldn't on the face of it just say absolutely we don't
think there's any value in what the Israelis are talking about."
And if the US does recognise - which it will - unilaterally fixed borders
of the kind proposed by Olmert, it will sanction the permanent annexation
of up to 10 per cent of the Arab territory seized in 1967, contrary
to all previous US policy and to the International Court. All this,
of course, is part of the new flouting of international laws which the
US - and increasingly Israel - now regards as its right since the world
"changed forever" on 11 September, 2001.
Remarkably, however, the
US still believes that it is increasingly loathed in the Arab world
not because of its policies but because its policies are not being presented
fairly. It's not a political problem, it's a public-relations problem.
Curiously, that is what Israel thought when accused of killing too many
Lebanese during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. What we do is right. We're
just not selling it right. Hence, the appointment of Karen Hughes as
US "Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy". Her line
is straight to the point. "I try to portray the facts in the best
light for our country," she said after her appointment. "Because
I believe we're a wonderful country and that we are doing things across
The columnist Roger Cohen
placed her problem in a nutshell. The problem are the facts. And they
include the fact that, in the 65-year period between 1941 and 2006,
the US has been at war in some form or another for all but 14 of them.
And people around the world have got tired of this. They got tired of
America's insatiable need for an enemy - and suspicious of all the talk
of democracy, freedom and morality in which every war was cast. They
stopped buying the US narrative. Hughes says that the vision followed
by bin Laden's followers "is a mission of destruction and death;
ours a message of life and opportunity." Well, yes. "If only
it were that simple," Cohen wrote.
At that Paris meeting with
Fried, Védrine won almost all the arguments, not that Fried realised
it. Védrine pleaded with the Americans to exercise caution in
the Middle East. "We don't know how things are going to turn out
in Afghanistan, Iraq or Egypt," he said presciently. "This
is a high-risk process, like transporting nitroglycerine. You talk about
an alliance; if there is an alliance, it must not be an ideological
alliance, but an alliance of surgeons, of professionals, of chemists
specialised in explosive substances. If we set out to do this, it will
take 20 or 30 years, far longer than the second Bush administration."
But the US Marines and the
82 Airborne are not surgeons or chemists. They are losing control of
lands they thought they had conquered or "liberated". Iraq
is already out of control. So is much of Afghanistan. Palestine looks
set to go the same way and Lebanon is in danger of freefall. A series
of letters in The New York Times in April this year suggested that ordinary
US citizens grasp the "democratic" argument better than their
leaders. "Democracy cannot be easily imposed on people who are
not prepared to accept it," one wrote. "Democracy cannot be
exported," wrote another. "Changing a political culture happens
only if the people embrace it. Iraqi society is too traumatised by the
history of Saddam Hussein and the war to do more than survive both at
this point." Spot on.
It may well be that journalists
in the "West" should feel a burden of guilt for much that
has happened because they have, with their gullibility, helped to sell
US actions much more effectively than Karen Hughes. Their constant references
to a "fence" instead of a wall, to "settlements"
or "neighbourhoods" instead of colonies, their description
of the West Bank as "disputed" rather than occupied, has a
bred a kind of slackness in reporting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Just as it did in Iraq when so many reporters from the great Western
newspapers and TV stations used US ambassador Bremer's laughable description
of the ferocious insurgents as "dead-enders" or "remnants"
- the same phrase still being used by our colleagues in Kabul in reference
to a distinctly resurgent Taliban which is being helped - despite General
Musharraf's denials - by the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI.
Much worse, however, is the
failure to enquire into the real policies of governments. Why, for example,
was there no front-page treatment of this year's Herzliya conference,
Israel's most important policy-making jamboree? Most of the important
figures in the Israeli government - they had yet to be elected - were
in attendance. The conference was the place where Ehud Olmert first
suggested handing over slices of the West Bank: "The choice between
allowing Jews to live in all parts of the land of Israel" - the
"land of Israel" in this context included the West Bank -
"and living in a state with a Jewish majority mandate giving up
part of the land of Israel. We cannot continue to control parts of the
territories where most of the Palestinians live."
However, most speakers agreed
that the Palestinians would be given a state on whatever is left after
the huge settlements had been included behind the wall. Benjamin Netanyahu
even suggested the wall should be moved deeper into the West Bank. But
the implications were obvious. A Palestinian state will be allowed,
but it will not have a capital in east Jerusalem nor any connection
between Gaza and the bits of the West Bank that are handed over. So
there will be no peace, and the words "Palestinian" and "terrorist"
will, again, be inextricably linked by Israel and the US.
There were articles in the
Israeli press about Herzliya, including one by Sergio Della Pergola
in which he warned of the "menace" to Israel of Palestinian
birth rates and advised that "if the demographic tie doesn't come
in 2010, it will come in 2020." Earlier conferences have discussed
the possible need for the revoking of the citizenship rights of some
Israeli Arabs. Already this year, Haaretz has reported an opinion poll
in which 68 per cent of Israeli Jews said they would refuse to live
in the same building as an Arab - 26 per cent would agree to do so -
and 46 per cent of Israeli Jews said they would refuse to allow an Arab
to visit their home. The inclination toward segregation rose as the
income level of the respondents dropped - as might be expected - and
there was no poll of Palestinian opinion, though the Palestinians might
be able to point out that tens of thousands of Israelis already do live
on their land in the huge colonies across the West Bank, most of which
will remain, illegally, in Israeli hands.
All these details are available
in the Arab press - and of course, the Israeli press, but are largely
absent from our own. Why? Even when Norman Finkelstein wrote a damning
academic report on the way Israel's High Court of Justice "proved"
the wall - deemed illegal by the Hague -- was legal, it was virtually
ignored in the West. So, for that matter, was the US academics' report
on the power of the Israeli lobby, until the usual taunts of "anti-Semitism"
forced the American mainstream to write about it, albeit in a shifty,
There are so many other examples
of our fear of Middle Eastern truth. Our soft handling of Hosni Mubarak's
increasingly autocratic regime in Egypt is typical. So is reporting
of Algeria now that British governments are prepared to deport refugees
home on the grounds that they no longer face arrest and torture. But
arrest and torture continue in Algeria. Its recent amnesty poll effectively
immunises all members of the security services involved in torture and
makes it a crime to oppose the amnesty.
Is this really the best that
we journalists can do? Save for the indefatigable Seymour Hersh, there
are still no truly investigative correspondents in the US press. But
challenging authority should not be that difficult. No one is being
asked to end the straightforward reporting of Arab tyrannies. We are
still invited to ask - and should ask - why the Muslim world has produced
so many dictatorships, most of them supported by "us". But
there are too many dark corners into which we will not look. Where,
for example, are the CIA's secret torture prisons? I know two reporters
who are aware of the locations. But they are silent, no doubt in the
interests of "national security".
This reluctance to confront
unpleasant truths diminishes the reader or viewer for whom Middle East
reporting in the US media is almost incomprehensible to anyone who does
not know the region. It also has its trickle-down effects even in theatres,
universities and schools in America. The case of the play about Rachel
Corrie - the young US activist twice run over by an Israeli bulldozer
while trying to prevent the demolition of Palestinian homes - taken
off the New York stage was one of the more deplorable of these. I was
also surprised in the Bronx to find that Fieldston, a private school
in Riverdale - was forced to cancel a college meeting with two Palestinian
lecturers when parents objected to the absence of an Israeli on the
panel. The fact that Israeli speakers were to be invited later made
no difference. The school's principal later announced that the meeting
would "not be appropriate given the sensitivity and complexity
of the issue". Complex problems are supposed to be explained. But
this could not be explained because, well, it was too complex and -
the truth - would upset the usual Israeli lobbyists.
So there we go again. Freedom
of speech is a precious commodity but just how precious I found out
for myself when I addressed the American University of Beirut after
receiving an honorary degree there this summer. I made my usual points
about the Bush administration and the growing dangers of the Middle
East only to find that a US diplomat in Beirut was condemning me in
front of Lebanese friends for being allowed to criticise the Bush administration
in a college which receives US government money.
And so on we go with the
Middle East tragedy, telling the world that things are getting better
when they are getting worse, that democracy is flourishing when it is
swamped in blood, that freedom is not without "birth pangs"
when the midwife is killing the baby.
It's always been my view
that the people of this part of the Earth would like some of our democracy.
They would like a few packets of human rights off our supermarket shelves.
They want freedom. But they want another kind of freedom - freedom from
us. And this we do not intend to give them. Which is why our Middle
East presence is heading into further darkness. Which is why I sit on
my balcony and wonder where the next explosion is going to be. For,
be sure, it will happen. Bin Laden doesn't matter any more, alive or
dead. Because, like nuclear scientists, he has invented the bomb. You
can arrest all of the world's nuclear scientists but the bomb has been
made. Bin Laden created al-Qa'ida amid the matchwood of the Middle East.
It exists. His presence is no longer necessary.
And all around these lands
are a legion of young men preparing to strike again, at us, at our symbols,
at our history. And yes, maybe I should end all my reports with the
words: Watch out!
Robert Fisk's book 'The Great
War for Civilisation' is published by Fourth Estate at £9.99.
His speaking tour runs until 12 October, visit www.seminars.ie for details
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