Robert Fisk: New actor on the same old stage

If Obama is elected he will be enmeshed in the Middle East tragedy and forced to take sides

Saturday 02 August 2008 00:00 BST

I was in the studios of al-Jazeera – the Qatar satellite channel so democratic in the eyes of Colin Powell that Bush later wanted to bomb it – while Barack Obama was performing his theatricals in the Middle East. "Theatre" is what I called it on air while the anchor desperately tried to suck some Arab hope out of the whole ridiculous fandango. No such luck, I told him. It isn't going to make the slightest difference to the Arabs whether Obama or McCain wins.

Westerners believe that Obama appeals to the Arabs because of his middle name or because he's black. Untrue. They like him – or liked him – because he grew up poor. Like them, he understood – or rather, they thought he understood – what oppression was about. But they quickly found out where they stood in the food chain. Forty-five minutes in Ramallah vs 24 hours in Israel was the Obama equation. Yes, I know the old saw. Every US presidential candidate has to make the pilgrimage to the Wailing Wall, to Yad Vashem, to some Israeli town or village that has taken casualties (albeit minuscule in comparison to those visited upon the Palestinians), to talk about Israel's security, etc. That doesn't mean, we are always told, that Israel is going to have it easy once the US president is elected. Wrong. Israel is going to have it easy. Because no sooner is he elected than he will be enmeshed in the Middle East tragedy and be forced to take sides – Israel's, of course – and then it will be time for the next election, so the president's hands will be tied again and he'll be talking about Israel's security (rather than Palestinian security) and we'll be back on the same old itinerary.

It's like the Lebanese, who keep believing that a Labour government is better than a Kadima or a Likud government in Israel; a clever idea, but – whoever runs Israel – the bombs keep falling on Lebanon. It's not that US presidents shouldn't understand the immensity of Jewish suffering during the Holocaust – it's a pity the Arabs still won't acknowledge it – but the Second World War is over and, right now, Israel continues to build colonies for Jews and Jews only on Arab land. Of course, Obama made the usual references to Jewish settlements not being helpful to peace, just as Gordon Brown did a few days earlier. And the Israelis showed what they thought of both men by announcing further colony-building within 24 hours of Obama's departure.

But hasn't anyone realised that Obama has chosen for his advisers two of the most lamentable failures of US Middle East policy-making? There, yet again, is Dennis Ross, a former prominent staff member of Aipac, the most powerful Israeli lobby in America – yup, the very same Aipac to which Obama grovelled last month – and the man who failed to make the Oslo agreement work. And there is Madeleine Albright who, as US ambassador to the UN, said that the price of half a million dead children under sanctions in Iraq was "worth it", and who later announced that Israel was "under siege". This must be the only time – ever – that a US politician thought Palestinian tanks were on the streets of Tel Aviv.

But this dreary old stage play doesn't end there. No one follows the narrative any more because it is so repetitive. Take Nouri al-Maliki, the PMIGZ – Prime Minister of the Iraqi Green Zone – who's suddenly gone from being the Democrats' favourite target to being their election buddy-buddy, as Max Boot sagely noted in The Washington Post. Maliki suggested to Obama that Iraq will be ready to assume responsibility for its own security by 2010. Bingo. This chimes in perfectly with Obama's promises.

But wait a minute. In May, 2006, Maliki announced that "our forces are capable of taking over the security in all Iraqi provinces within a year and a half". Five months later, the PMIGZ said that it would be "only a matter of months" before Iraqi security forces "take over the security portfolio entirely and keep some (sic) multinational forces only in a supporting role". Then in January, 2007, Maliki boasted that "within three to six months our need for the American troops will dramatically go down".

Four months later, he was at it again, claiming that Iraqi forces would control all security "in every province" within eight months. Quite apart from the idea that there is a security "portfolio" in Iraq, his own military chums don't agree with any of this bumph. The PMIGZ's own defence minister claims his forces can't assume responsibility until 2012, while the Iraqi commander in Basra wants US troops to stay until 2020!

Even if we ignore all this drivel, what does Obama want to do with his soldiers once he withdraws them from Iraq? He's going to send the poor devils back to Afghanistan, that graveyard of foreign armies where the Taliban were so utterly defeated in 2001 that they are now stronger than ever. I would recommend that Obama glance through Appendix XXIV of the official British account of the 1878-80 Second Afghan War where he will find the British announcing victory over a massed Afghan force which included a fierce group of fighters known as "talibs". These men would choose a particular soldier in the British ranks and make a suicidal attack to seize him and cut his throat in front of his comrades.

And I am "minded" (as Jack Straw used to say when he was showing off his English) of the bleak conversation I had with an adviser to the Taliban "elders" of Kandahar, a certain Mullah Abdullah, in the last days of the dark militia's rule in 2001. "If our people return and take back this lost land, it's a success," he told me. "If we are killed trying to do so, we have received martyrdom and this will be a great success for us too... If we are thrown out of Kandahar, we will go to the mountains and start the guerrilla war as we did with the Russians." The Taliban would fight on, he said. They would ambush the Americans in ever greater numbers. And so today Obama is also going to reinforce his soldiers to fight on in another Muslim country. If he wins.

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