October 8, 2006
The Independent

The Age of Terror

With chaos stretching from Afghanistan to the Mediterranean, we have never lived in a more dangerous time. Over the next 15 pages and 7,000 words, our man in the Middle East looks back over a lifetime of covering war and death, and lays out a bleak future for all of us - one that even those living in the comfort of the Home Counties cannot escape

by Robert Fisk

A 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 September 2001. . . .

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. . . .

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. . . .

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 world."

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. . . .

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. . . .

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 is the author of 'The Great War for Civilisation']

[The most coherent historical analogy to current Western strategies in the Middle East today is the 19th century American belief in the "Manifest Destiny" of the United States, and its impact on Native American tribes. As part of American Manifest Destiny, Native American lands were carved up by force of arms at the request of merchants, farmers, and ranchers. Native American tribes were forced onto tiny "reservations" administered by "Indian Agents". Today this process is viewed by many historians as ethnic cleansing of holocaust proportions.

As European Americans justified their violent conquest of Western North America, the Native American who fought desperately against the American military and the civilian population for his land, people, religion, and, yes, freedom, was labeled a "savage". Rebellious "Indians" were viewed as less-than-human, and not worthy of the rights shared by the rest of mankind. Said American General Philip Sheridan, "The only good Indians I ever saw were dead."

A glance at a world history book tells us that our 20th century Western Civilization carved up Islamic lands into political entities that suited our "strategic" purposes. Since that time, by supporting tyrants, "shahs", kings, and anyone else who would do our bidding, including Saddam Hussein when it was convenient, the West has, by these proxies, purposely oppressed the human rights of Muslims in the Middle East.--Casey Butler, "Fighting The International Tyranny Of 'We the People'," Information Clearing House, September 25, 2006]

[During last summer's 34-day war, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) dropped some 4 million cluster munitions on southern Lebanon. According to United Nations relief coordinator David Shearer, "Nearly all of these munitions were fired in the last three or four days of the war." At least a million of these unexploded bombs are still waiting in ambush for unwary farmers and children.

The IDF destroyed airports, harbors, water and sewage plants, electrical generators, 80 bridges, 94 roads, more than 900 businesses and 30,000 homes. Retreating Israeli soldiers systematically destroyed the infrastructure of villages and deliberately polluted water tanks and wells. According to the Lebanese government, some 1,189 Lebanese were killed, 4,399 wounded, and one-quarter of Lebanon's population - about a million in all - were turned into refugees.

Lebanon is hardly unique.

Since the Gulf War in 1991, according to Handicap International, the United States and Britain have dropped more than 13 million cluster bombs on Iraq and strewn the countryside with more than 500 tons of toxic depleted-uranium ammunition. A Johns Hopkins University study found that anywhere from 426,369 to 793,663 Iraqis have died since the March 2003 invasion. The war has also driven 1.8 million Iraqis out of their country and created 1.6 million internal refugees.

Since January 2006, almost 4,000 people have died in Afghanistan, more than 1,000 of them civilians. The United States has dropped more than three times the number of bombs on that country over the past six months as it did in its first three-year campaign against the Taliban. B-1 bombers routinely unload more than 8,500 kilograms of explosives during bombing runs, while AC-130 gunships, spitting 155-millimeter howitzer shells and tens of thousands of 40mm cannon shells, prowl the skies. In September, an AC-130 killed 31 shepherds.Conn Hallinan, "The Vishnu strategy meets its match," Asia Times, February 7, 2007]

[The Bush administration defends its pursuit of this unlikely goal by means of internationally illegal, unilateralist, and preemptive attacks on other countries, accompanied by arbitrary imprisonments and the practice of torture, and by making the claim that the United States possesses an exceptional status among nations that confers upon it special international responsibilities, and exceptional privileges in meeting those responsibilities.--William Pfaff, "Manifest Destiny: A New Direction for America," New York Review of Books, February 15, 2007]

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