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Thursday 27 May 2010
Robert Fisk: Power to change
If America can't broker peace in the Middle East, is it time for the Russians to step in? They have a long history with the region – and aren't hobbled by an Israeli lobby
I've always claimed that somewhere across the Atlantic – or perhaps somewhere over the Mediterranean – there lies a geopolitical fault line, perhaps a screen or curtain, through which the loveable old West (once called Christendom) sees the Middle East, and then misinterprets all it observes. An Iranian offer of peaceably resolving its nuclear program becomes a threat and a cause for sanctions. Forthcoming elections in Egypt are seen as another step towards democracy rather than further one-party rule by an 81-year old dictator.
The start – yet again – of "indirect" peace talks between the Palestinians and Israelis becomes another partial success for US peacemaking rather than a shameful symbol that there is no hope for the Palestinians. Yet more slaughter in Iraq and Afghanistan are symbols of al-Qa'ida and Taliban "desperation", rather than signs that we have lost our war in both countries.
The fault lines between Russia and the Middle East, however, are not so deep, nor do they obscure so much truth. There are a number of reasons for this. The old Soviet Union maintained a more-than-colonial hold on a clutch of Muslim republics – indeed Tsarist Russia had been fighting in Chechnya in the 19th century. Read Tolstoy's Haaji Murat. "No one spoke of hatred of the Russians," Tolstoy wrote of the men whose descendants would be fighting Putin's army well over a century later. "The feeling experienced ... from the youngest to the oldest, was stronger than hatred. It was not hatred, for they did not regard dogs as human beings, but it was such repulsion, disgust and perplexity at the senseless cruelty of these creatures." He might have been writing of the incendiary anger of the people of Grozny, or of the savage fury of the Afghans after the 1979 Soviet invasion.
Yes, the Russians learned a lot in Afghanistan; and our occupation has now lasted – it's not a point our jolly generals and prime ministers will tell you – longer than theirs. Our great plans for the Battle of Kandahar – a battle I suspect will not be fought – are less ambitious than were the Soviet plans for Herat and Kandahar. But the Russians remember what happened to them.
Bin Laden once boasted to me that he destroyed the Soviet army in Afghanistan – a claim which had the merit of some truth. In Moscow five years ago, I listened to Soviet veterans of Afghanistan – some now crippled by drugs – describing the IEDs which claimed the lives of their comrades in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, the skinning alive and dismembering of captured Soviet patrols. The Soviets, it will be remembered, entered Afghanistan for their own interests – Brezhnev feared that the loss of his Communist ally in Kabul might precipitate attacks from Muslims inside the southern Soviet Union – but claimed they were fighting to prop up a people's government led (of course) by a corrupt leader, to bring socialist equality, especially in schools and healthcare, to train the Afghan army. I won't go on ...
But the Soviets understood much of the Muslim world, certainly the Arab bit of it. They had spent decades helping to teach their dictators how to rule like the Kremlin ruled, setting up a hundred mini-KGBs to crush all opposition, flooding them with arms and military aircraft, training their soldiers to fight their own people.
And when Israel won in 1967, and won again in 1973 and then again in 1982 – one memorable moment in the Israeli siege of Beirut, I recall, came when the leader of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine pleaded with Moscow to air drop weapons for them into the surrounded Lebanese capital – the Russians witnessed the humiliation of the Arabs. Russian diplomats spoke far better Arabic than their American colleagues (the same is true today) and understood the false claims of support that they – the Russians – were expected to make to the Arab "cause".
So when President Dmitry Medvedev arrived in Damascus for a meeting with President Bashar Assad earlier this month, it was typical of the Arabs to listen to him – and typical of us that we did not. Far from being impressed with "peacemaking", Medvedev declared that the Middle East situation was "very, very bad", pleading with the Americans to take serious action. "In essence, the Middle East peace process has deteriorated," he said. "A further heating up of the situation in the Middle East is fraught with an explosion and a catastrophe." And did the Americans listen? Not a bit of it. Instead, La Clinton flounced up to the Hill to tell America's legislators that the new Turkish-Brazilian-Iran nuclear deal was not good enough; UN sanctions would go ahead – with Russian help. Well, we shall see.
After his warning, the President of Russia – which is a member of the infamous Quartet supposedly run by the equally infamous Tony Blair – then did what Blair and a host of British diplomats should have done long ago; he went off to see Khaled Meshaal, the Hamas leader in Damascus, and ask for the release of the Israeli soldier imprisoned in Gaza – undiscovered by the heroic Israeli army, let it be remembered, when Israel's warriors stormed into that midden of poverty and injustice almost a year and a half ago. The Israelis scarcely criticised Medvedev – which they would if Blair or Hague or Obama were to pay such a visit – but then again, the crazed Israeli foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, happens to be a Russian, doesn't he?
So what happens then? Why, Medvedev stokes the flames by formally announcing the sale of air-defence systems to Syria – Pantsir short-range surface-to-air missiles – anti-aircraft artillery batteries and a fleet of Mig-29 fighters. And on the very same day, what does Obama do? He asks Congress to approve £133m for Israel's rocket air defence. This is just a month after President Shimon Peres of Israel claimed – to considerable American scepticism, though of course they cannot show that in the face of Israeli allegations – that Syria had been sending hosts of mighty (and outdated) Scud missiles to the Hizbollah in Lebanon. These old behemoths would be of little use to the Hizbollah, though the latter – who have already claimed to have 20,000 rockets to fire at Israel – slyly chose not to deny the Scud nonsense.
This vast waste of money by the US and Russia and by the Syrians – though not by the Israelis whose economy floats on US financial grants – simply goes unnoticed in the West, where we play our little games of UN sanctions and concern for Israeli "security" (and no concern at all for Palestinian "security"). And where Obama lays out the red carpet – quite literally – for the corrupt and corrupting Hamid Karzai.
Why, oh why, I keep asking myself, doesn't Obama – who spent months debating a "surge" (how I hate that word) in Afghanistan – bring in all his foreign policy "experts" and get a hold on the deepening tragedy of this region? From sea to shining sea, the US possesses armies of deans of departments of Middle East Studies, Islamic Studies, Hebrew Studies, Arabic Studies – and yet their wisdom is never called upon. Why not? Because the foreign policy "experts" – and their disreputable clones on CNN, Fox News, ABC, NBC, CBS, etc – want no part of their wisdom. For Harvard, read the Brookings Institute; for Berkeley, read the Rand Corporation, etc, etc.
And what lies behind this? I turn to my old mate John Mearsheimer, co-author of The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy which became a best- seller among ordinary Americans – despite the usual ravings of Alan Dershowitz (he of "Judge Goldstone is an evil man" infamy) – who has now published yet another brave article on the woeful influence of the Israeli lobby on Washington; actually, it is the Likud party lobby, but let's not worry about the difference right now. Mearsheimer says that President Barack Obama has "finally coaxed Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table", hoping that this will lead to the creation of a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank. "Regrettably, that is not going to happen," Mearsheimer states. "Instead, those territories are almost certain to be incorporated into a 'Greater Israel' which will then be an apartheid state bearing a marked resemblance to white-ruled South Africa."
No American president can pressure Israel to change its policies towards Palestinians. Mearsheimer does not mince his words. "The main reason is the Israeli lobby, a powerful coalition of American Jews and Christian evangelicals that has a profound influence on US Middle East policy. Alan Dershowitz" – yes, the same – "was spot on when he said, 'My generation of Jews ... became part of what is perhaps the most effective lobbying and fund-raising effort in the history of democracy.'"
It isn't the first time that an American academic has been so blunt. Since 1967, every US president has opposed the internationally illegal Israeli colonisation of Arab land in the West Bank. None has been successful. Obama isn't going to have any more luck that his predecessors. After becoming President, he demanded an end to these colonies. Netanyahu told him to get lost. Obama – Mearsheimer's accurate words – "caved in". When Obama demanded no more Israeli building in East Jerusalem, Netanyahu said Israel would never stop building there because it was "an integral part of the Jewish state". Obama flunked again.
Netanyahu has yet again repeated there will be no halt in building in that part of Jerusalem which the Palestinians need as their capital. Obama didn't even respond. And don't think for a moment that Clinton will – she wants to be the next American president after Obama.
The flaw of the Europeans, of course, is that they will not themselves take any steps over Israel because – this is the sublime and false message of all EU foreign ministers – it is America that has "leverage" over Israel. Yes, it should be America that has leverage over Israel – given its massive economic subventions to the Jewish state – but it's not; because, as Mearsheimer says, the lobby has too much control over US policy in the Middle East. This is not to suggest that there is some kind of Jewish "conspiracy", merely that this Israeli-Likudist lobby deprives the US of any independent rights as a negotiator and emasculates American policy by endangering American relations with the rest of the region.
Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert – who like many ex-ministers and presidents tells the self-evident truth when he no longer has the ability to enforce that truth – says that if the two-state solution collapses (which it will), "Israel will face a South African-style struggle" and "as soon as that happens, the state of Israel is finished". Mearsheimer's argument is that "the lobby in the US is effectively helping Israel destroy its own future as a Jewish state".
And what do we do? We go on supporting all the outrageous dictators and potentates of the region, encouraging them to trust the US, to make more concessions to Israel, but to keep their people down. We do sometimes ask them to be "more democratic". This was a George W Bush idea – summed up by his wife, who thought King Abdullah of Jordan and his wife were good examples of democrats – this, in an unconstitutional monarchy! I do sometimes wonder at the irony – and the hypocrisy – of European countries which urge democracy on the Arabs.
We all want little Houses of Commons dotted over the Middle East at a time when most EU countries are turning into presidential-style nations. The prestige of the real House of Commons has been steadily deteriorating for years – no British paper, for example, even carries a parliamentary page today – and Blairite rule has a lot to do with this. Perhaps that's why this wretched man doesn't push the democracy thing too much in the Middle East.
Yet, it is all true. Arab rulers are so sure of themselves that they now say boo to the golden goose. When the Obama administration criticised Hosni Mubarak's decision to continue its three-decade-old emergency law – Clinton said the extension ignored "a broad range of Egyptian voices" – the Egyptian foreign minister blithely replied that the statement was "overly politicised", adding that the criticism was aimed at the US media and human rights groups. He was absolutely right about the latter.
So is the American age ending? Alas, not yet. Perhaps some of our illusions about the Middle East are being amended. Perhaps the latest attacks in Iraq, and the more spectacular ones in Afghanistan, including the astonishing attack on Bagram air base – I thought we were supposed to be fighting the Battle of Kandahar, not the Battle of Bagram – will force us to acknowledge more truths. That the Muslim people – not their corrupt leaders – cannot be put down, will not be put down, even when the insurgencies against the West are as ruthless as they are regressive. But are we learning? The US sends flocks of drones over Pakistan, shoots missiles into Waziristan, a Pakistani-born American then tries to bow up a car bomb in Times Square in revenge – and the Americans then in revenge use drones to kill 15 more men in Pakistan, and then ... Readers can write the next bit for themselves.
On top of all this, we still graft our own extraordinary preemptive history onto this massive conflict. I'm often reminded of the way we went to war in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s. We journalists arrived there with little historical knowledge, save for a vague image of the Punch cartoon Irishman, drunk and carrying a cudgel, anxious to kill without reason all the refined Englishmen who came to invade his country – and the faint memory that Catholic Ireland was neutral in the Second World War (true), that de Valera paid a visit of condolence to the German legation on Hitler's death (true), that Irishmen refuelled German U-boats (untrue).
The Muslims find themselves in a similar situation; we believe they want to Islamicise the West (untrue), they want to expand into the West – untrue, they did that in Andalucia – that their expansion is achieved by the sword. Do we really believe that Indonesia, the largest Muslim nation in the world, was invaded by Arabs? There's even the Second World War bit – that the Arabs were pro-Nazi. Well, it's true that the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem met Hitler and made several disgraceful broadcasts against the Jews though he did not – as Israel's propagandists claim – ever visit Auschwitz. But then again, Anwar Sadat was a spy for Rommel in Egypt – and would happily have watched the Wehrmacht continue on its way to Palestine – but he became Israel's greatest Arab friend, invited to Jerusalem when he wanted to make peace.
But our preconceptions go much further back – to the days when we generally used the word "Turk" for Muslims. In Italy, they were using the word "Turks" as a curse before the 16th century. As Swedish diplomat Ingmar Karlsson discovered when researching for a paper he delivered in Istanbul in 2005, the Italians used to have a phrase "puzza come un Turco" which meant "he stinks like a Turk". Today, we still use the phrase "to talk turkey" and my own 1949 Random House American College Dictionary gives one definition of "Turk" as "a cruel, barbarous, or tyrannical person".
And so it goes on, not without a little help from our dear Pope at Regensburg. Yet Arabs became Roman emperors and were visiting the east before us. When Vasco Da Gama "discovered" India and reached Calicut (Calcutta) on 20 May 1498 – I owe this possibly apocryphal story to Warwick Ball in his remarkable Out of Arabia – he was greeted by an Arab from Tunisia with the words "May the devil take you! What brought you here?" But a contemporary chronicle from Hadramaut (in modern-day Yemen) describes how French vessels appeared at sea one day heading for India. "They took about seven (Arab) vessels, killing those on board and making some prisoners. This was their first action, may God curse them!" The Europeans were arriving in the Indian Ocean when we think the Arabs were trying to enter Europe.
Maybe that was the original fault line. Or it was the Crusades? Or the Ottoman Empire – remember how Turkey was "the sick man of Europe"? – or our lies to the Arabs about Palestine? Or the Iranian revolution? Or our unconditional support for Israel? Or our fostering of all those awful dictatorships? But it's time we got rid of fault lines, saw the reality of history and listened – dare I repeat it? – to the likes of Dmitry Medvedev.
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