Robert Fisk, chief Middle East correspondent for the London Independent, recently participated in a roundtable discussion on the Iraq Study Group report held at the sixth annual convention of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. We play his comments. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: We turn to Robert Fisk. Robert Fisk is the chief Middle East correspondent for The Independent of London. He has been reporting from the Middle East for the last 30 years, whether in Afghanistan or Iran, Lebanon, the Occupied Territories, Israel or in Iraq, year after year.
Well, he came to California, to Long Beach, this weekend to address the Muslim Public Affairs Council, a group of more than 1,000 Muslims who gathered for their sixth annual conference. He gave the keynote address at night, which we will play. But first, we go to the speech he gave late in the afternoon at a roundtable discussion on the Baker-Hamilton report. He came to the podium with a copy of the report in his hand.
ROBERT FISK: Ladies and gentlemen, how many of you have actually read the Iraq report by Baker and Hamilton? A sea of no hands, virtually, yes. It reads, oddly enough — it has this odd journalistic flavor. It keeps talking about "time is running out," "porous borders." It reminds me of the kind of stuff we get from the Brookings Institution or my favorite journalist, Tom Friedman of The New York Times. So, I do suggest before you read it — I managed to get through this on United Flight 979 yesterday. Before you actually read it, I do suggest you start at the back, because you will find that Mr. Hamilton and Mr. Baker have been kind enough to list all the experts who helped them. They’re actually called former officials and experts.
Let me read through a few things here for you: Strobe Talbott, the Brookings Institution; George Will, The Washington Post; Kenneth Pollack, the man who brought you The Threatening Storm, the book that told you there really were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq; the Brookings Institution; Carlos Pascual, the Brookings Institution; Michael O’Hanlon, the Brookings Institution; American Enterprise Institute; Martin Indyk, the Brookings Institution. You get the idea that perhaps these proposals are not really going to work, don’t you? And then, here we are, Thomas Friedman, The New York Times. So, I do strongly advise you to read this document.
Maybe Mr. Bush is right. You know, I think we don’t want democracy, we Westerners. We don’t want democracy in the Middle East. We have no intention. I think the people of the Middle East — well, actually, I agree entirely — would like some of our democracy. I think they’d like some packets of human rights off our Western supermarket shelves. But they also, I think, want a different kind of freedom. They want freedom from us. And this we do not intend to give them.
Is it about oil? Of course, it is. Do you really think that if the national export of Iraq was asparagus or carrots that the 82nd Airborne would be in Mosul or the U.S. Marines in Ramadi and Fallujah and elsewhere in Anbar province? I really don’t think so.
It’s also about something else, though. It’s about the visceral need of imperial powers to project themselves — military — and expand. I mean, the Romans did it, the British did it. I had a very strange conversation a couple of years ago when the Spanish were withdrawing after the Madrid bombings. And I went down to the Spanish headquarters at Kufa, just outside Najaf. And while I was talking to some Spanish officers, all of whom couldn’t wait to get home to Spain, out walks a guy, an American military man, pistol, rifle, civilian clothes, obviously CIA. And he says, "They’re saying that there are men, 60 or 70, with weapons, moving around the roads here at night." And I said, "There probably are."
He said, "How will we do? What will we do? Where did we go wrong?" And I said, "Look, when the Romans conquered another country — and they did so with great brutality; they crucified anyone who opposed them — they made everyone a citizen of Rome. Everybody had the equivalent of a Roman passport. Just imagine," I said, "what would have happened if, when the first American troops crossed the Tigris River in April of 2003, the United States had said every citizen of Iraq who wishes to be can join our democracy and become an American citizen." I can’t tell you how long the queue would be around the first American embassy to open. That doesn’t mean all the people of Iraq would go and live in America, or vice versa. But I don’t think there would have been an insurgency if generosity had been shown to Iraqis.
When I watched Baghdad burn — its institutions, its museums, its art galleries, its heritage — the United States military should have been setting up a massive tent medical city around Baghdad. Free medical aid for everyone, the sick, the wounded, those in pain, to show you that we are your fellow human beings. But that, of course, was not part of the plan. What a terrible, terrible mistake, much worse than disbanding the Iraqi army or disbanding their police force. Even worse than stealing the oil.
You know, we face today in the media the same constant problem of weakness, laziness and fear. In trying to report the realities, what newspaper have you read in your country, mainstream newspaper recently, where an ordinary mainstream reporter can say the things that I’ve said to you tonight? Which is probably why I’m here and Tom Friedman is not, isn’t it? Well, Tom Friedman could say it up to a point, but I think we can read him in this report.
The problem, I’m afraid, is that we have grown used to a kind of mild, temperate reporting out of the Middle East in the U.S. media, which is incomprehensible unless you happen to know the region. The "wall" becomes a "security barrier," like the Berlin security barrier, which some of you may remember. "Occupied territory" is "disputed territory." A "colony" becomes a "neighborhood." And thus, of course, the Palestinians, generically violent for opposing this by throwing stones, or worse.
I think, you know, you see the same thing happen with Mearsheimer-Walt report. I interviewed poor old Walt up in Harvard just after he produced his famous report on the Israeli lobby and the power of the Israel lobby, and he was in a state of near catatonic shock. And I said, "Calm down, you know. Join the club. We’ve been through this before." Anybody who has a reasonable decent criticism of Israel, including Israelis, will be called anti-Semitic. And we respond to this very clearly. In Britain, we threaten to sue when anyone calls us that, because it’s a lie. John Malkovich, the actor, who said at the Cambridge Union he wanted to shoot me, followed this up in the Observer by saying he hated me because of my, quote, "vicious anti-Semitism." Our lawyers went into action immediately. The Observer withdrew the story and apologized. You’ve got to stand up. And journalists have got to stand up when they are falsely accused of racism.
I agree entirely with my friend when he talks about the shamefulness of denying the Jewish Holocaust. It happened. Six million Jews were murdered in Europe. I’ve been to Auschwitz. I’ve been to Birkenau. I’ve been to Treblinka. It’s all true. Read Martin Gilbert’s magisterial book, The Holocaust. But why doesn’t President Ahmadinejad and those many Arab figures who say the same things, but not so loudly, why doesn’t he say, "Yes, yes, 6 million Jews were foully murdered, and it’s true, but we didn’t do it"? There’s the mistake.
Over and over again, the Arabs are blamed now for the Holocaust. Do you remember Menachem Begin, when he was sending his troops towards Beirut in 1982, he wrote this rambling, crazed letter to Reagan saying he felt he was the Red Army advancing on Berlin where Hitler was — Hitler being the poor old Yasser Arafat, who was claiming at the time, by the way, that he was defending Beirut like Stalingrad.
Everyone is obsessed with the Second World War. Everyone. Bush, even our own dear Mr. Blair, think they’re Winston Churchill. And all our enemies, every one of them, believe me, is a Hitler of the Tigris. Antony Eden actually referred to Nasser as the Mussolini of the Nile. We’re all putting on our World War II cloaks, it’s incredible. And if anyone, anyone, suggests the war is wrong, then we are Neville Chamberlain, we’re in the house of appeasement, and look what happened in 1939.
And journalists go along with this. Pollack, one of these people, went along with that line. We’re contently trying to repeat the bits of history that we remember inaccurately and wrongly. And we do not remember the British invasion of Iraq in 1917, when the British commander issued a document on the walls of Baghdad, saying, "We come here" — to the people of the Mohafazat, the governorate of Baghdad — "We come here, not as conquerors, but as liberators to free you from generations of tyranny." And in 1920, when the insurgency, the Iraqi insurgency against British rule in Iraq, began, we shelled Fallujah, and we shelled Najaf. The British army, in 1920. I’ve seen the telegram written by British intelligence in Baghdad to the War Department in London saying that terrorists were crossing the border, from…?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Syria.
ROBERT FISK: Yes, quite. You read that telegram. You knew about that telegram. And then Lloyd George, the British prime minister, stood up in the House of Commons and said, "If British troops leave Iraq now, there will be…"?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Civil war.
ROBERT FISK: Spot on. You read the Times parliamentary report in 1920, didn’t you? We don’t read history. Our journalists don’t read history. My goodness, me, nor do our leaders.
You know, I think that this — one of these problems of journalism is that we don’t carry history books in our back pocket. And I think the other problem is that our leaders don’t. And there’s one major problem, above all others, which we don’t look at. Many of us, many of you here, many of us have witnessed wars. But there isn’t a single member of any Western government anywhere in the world that has ever experienced or been in a war. Mr. Bush could have been, of course. Mr. Cheney could have been. Colin Powell was, and he’s gone; he had experience. When I grew up, Churchill, Eden, we had lots of prime ministers in Britain who had been in the war. They knew that you don’t go to war on false and meretricious reasons. But that’s gone now. Our leaders’ experience of war is now Hollywood.
I think that, you know, the project to remake the Middle East is a project of a child. It’s been forgotten already. The neoconservative planners have already said, "Not us, mate. Not us, no, no. We’re going. His fault. And look at those Iraqis." The latest line we’re getting, by the way — read David Brooks in The New York Times — is that the Iraqis have proved unworthy of the fruits of civilization which we wish to give them. Greedy. Sectarian. They only know the tribe. Until, of course, we find some other nation suitable to be invaded and offered the fruits of our civilization. Be sure, there’s quite a selection around. It won’t be North Korea, because they’ve got the bomb.
Look at the way we bought the whole line on Iran. Iran, whose nuclear facilities were begun with our encouragement, and Washington’s encouragement under the Shah. There is actually a Muslim country in Southwest Asia, which has many Taliban supporters there, many al-Qaeda people, and it has a bomb. It’s called Pakistan. But we don’t talk about that. That’s not part of the narrative set down by our leaders. It is Iran, Iran, Iran. As if everyone, for thousands, millions of years to come, who has a turban, will not be allowed to have nuclear power stations. This is preposterous. This is the language of children and the policies of children. And it is us, the most powerful superpower presence in the West, that is permitting this and actually organizing it.
Ladies and gentleman, we are not going to reshape the Middle East. We may help to destroy it, but we are not going to reshape it. If you want to know what is deciding American politics now and what is deciding British politics, it is not Mr. Blair, and it is not Mr. Bush, it is the Iraqis. Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen.
AMY GOODMAN: Veteran war correspondent Robert Fisk, writes for The Independent of London, speaking at a panel discussion of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, their annual gathering this weekend. The convention was called "Reform, Relevance and Renewal: Understanding Islam for the Future."