Robert Fisk: Once Washington made the Middle East tremble – now no one there takes it seriously

Our present leaders are paying the price for the dishonesty of Bush and Blair

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Watershed. It’s the only word for it. Once Lebanon and Syria and Egypt trembled when Washington spoke. Now they laugh. It’s not just a question of what happened to the statesmen of the past. No one believed that Cameron was Churchill or that the silly man in the White House was Roosevelt – although Putin might make a rather good Stalin. It’s more a question of credibility; no one in the Middle East takes America seriously anymore. And you only had to watch Obama on Saturday to see why.  

For there he was, prattling on in the most racist way about “ancient sectarian differences” in the Middle East. Since when was the president of the United States an expert on these supposed “sectarian differences”? Constantly we are shown maps of the Arab world with Shiites and Sunnis and Christians colour-coded onto the nations which we generously bequeathed to the region after the First World War. But when is an American paper going to carry a colour-coded map of Washington or Chicago with black and white areas delineated by streets?

But what was amazing was the sheer audacity of our leaders in thinking that they could yet again bamboozle their electorates with their lies and trumperies and tomfooleries.

This doesn’t mean that the Syrian regime did not use gas “on its own people” – a phrase we used to use about Saddam when we wanted a war in Iraq – but it does mean that our present leaders are now paying the price for the dishonesty of Bush and Blair.

Obama, who is becoming more and more preacher-like, wants to be the Punisher-in-Chief of the Western World, the Avenger-in-Chief. There is something oddly Roman about him. And the Romans were good at two things. They believed in law and they believed in crucifixion. The US constitution – American “values” and the cruise missile have a faintly similar focus. The lesser races must be civilized and they must be punished, even if the itsy-bitsy tiny missile launches look more like perniciousness than war. Everyone outside the Roman Empire was called a barbarian. Everyone outside Obama’s empire is called a terrorist.

And as usual, the Big Picture has a habit of taking away some of the little details we should know about.

Take Afghanistan, for example. I had an interesting phone call from Kabul three days ago. And it seems that the Americans are preventing President Karzai purchasing new Russian Mi helicopters – because Moscow sells the same helicopters to Syria. Well, how about that. The US, it seems, is now trying to damage Russian trade relations with Afghanistan – why the Afghans would want to do business with the country that enslaved them for eight years is another matter – because of Damascus.

Now another little piece of news. Just over a week ago, two massive car bombs blew up outside two Salafist mosques in the north Lebanese city of Tripoli. They killed 47 people and wounded another 500. Now it has emerged that five people have been charged by the Lebanese security services over these bombings and one of them is said to be a captain in the Syrian government intelligence service.

His charge is “in absentia”, as they say, and we all like to think that men and women are innocent until proved guilty. But two sheikhs have also been charged, one of them apparently the head of a pro-Damascus Islamist organization. The other sheikh is also said to be close to Syrian intelligence. Typically, Obama is so keen on bombarding Syria for gassing that he has missed out on this nugget of information which has angered and infuriated millions of Lebanese.

But I guess this is what happens when you take your eye off the ball.

It reminds me of a book that was published by Yale University Press in 2005. It was called The New Lion of Damascus by David Lesch, a professor at Trinity University in Texas. Those were the days when Bashar al-Assad was still being held up as the bright new broom in Syria.

“Bashar,” Lesch concluded, “is, indeed, the hope – and the promise of a better future.”

Then last year – by which time the West had abandoned its dreams of Bashar – the good professor came up with another book, again published by Yale. This time it was called Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad, and Lesch concluded: “He (Bashar) was short-sighted and became deluded. He failed miserably.”

As my Beirut bookseller remarked, we must await Lesch’s next book, tentatively entitled, perhaps, Assad is Back. Why, he may well last longer than Obama.

Band of Brothers

Now another book. There’s a remarkable memoir just out of an Englishman teaching in Pakistan. Robin Brooke-Smith was principal of Edwardes College outside Peshawar and his story – his book is called 'Storm Warning: Riding the Crosswinds in the Pakistan-Afghan Borderlands' -- is the almost unbelievable one of running a college amid Taliban country. Yes, he had threats and warnings and all kinds of vicious backbiting within the academic community but he maintained college standards and on the school’s hundredth anniversary – it was founded by Sir Herbert Edwardes of Shropshire – he even managed to get the band of the Irish Guards to play in college in full dress uniform.

My favourite moment came when Brooke-Smith received a phone call from the British defence attaché in Islamabad, telling him that there had been specific warnings that the school might be attacked (by the ubiquitous ‘terrorists’, of course). Did this mean that the band was not coming, Brooke-Smith asked? I loved the following reply from the defence attaché:

“No, absolutely not, they are still coming. The band is an active military unit of the British army. They have just finished a tour of duty in Bosnia. Their band playing is a sideline. The bandsmen are all professional serving soldiers.” And the Irish Guards went to Peshawar and played their marches in bandit country and that was in April of the year 2000.

And now, it sure makes Cameron look a puny man.

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