The New York Times Book Review put its review of Robert Fisk's new 1107-page (1384-page in the British edition) anti-imperialist history of Western imperialism in the Middle East on the cover review Sunday, but it couldn't bring itself to allow the use of the word "imperialism." -- Come to think of it, the words "oil" and "petroleum" don't appear there, either. -- The review, by author Geoffrey Wheatcroft, is a strange piece of work. -- Its opening gambit, if you can believe it, is that things are going so well right now here on Planet Earth that we have "good reasons for being cheerful when we look around the world today." -- But there's "just one" exception "that gives grounds for the deepest gloom": the Middle East. -- There, in Wheatcroft's opinion, we're at risk because of "a historically immense, pathological crisis whose character we only partly understand, although we can perceive easily enough that what is already perilous may turn catastrophic, and could yet engulf us all." -- That's right: poor North America and poor America risk being "engulfed" by a Middle Eastern "crisis." -- One can only marvel: this is psychological projection on a truly global scale. -- Wheatcroft is remarkably obtuse. -- Does he really imagine that the fact that his neighbor, who helped pull off the CIA-engineered 1953 overthrow of the Mossadegh government in Iran, is "a charming and courteous old gentleman," is evidence that contradicts Fisk's understanding of history? -- A man who has studied (and written) as much history as he has must know that charm and courtesy are utterly beside the point. -- For more about The Great War for Civilisation than can be gained from Wheatcroft's snide review, listen to this hour-long lecture by Robert Fisk about his new book, given on Nov. 19, 2005, in Berkeley....
ONE MAN'S ARABIA
By Geoffrey Wheatcroft
New York Times Book Review
December 11, 2005
Pages 1 & 14-15
[Review of The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East by Robert Fisk. 1,107 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $40.]
Even those of us who are not optimists by disposition have to admit that there are good reasons for being cheerful when we look around the world today. North America and Western Europe enjoy peace and prosperity unimaginable by historic standards, and if the picture is less rosy in Latin America, and often tragic in Africa, then one must admit that whatever happens in those places doesn't threaten global stability. And now Japan is being joined by China and India in an explosive economic development (with whatever untoward social and environmental consequences) that may yet make this the Asian century.
There is, in fact, just one region on earth that gives grounds for the deepest gloom. We unhelpfully call it the Middle East, although what's really meant is Western Asia, the area between the Mediterranean and the Indus, bordered in the north by the Black Sea, the Caucasus and desert, in the south by the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean. That region is in the throes of a historically immense, pathological crisis whose character we only partly understand, although we can perceive easily enough that what is already perilous may turn catastrophic, and could yet engulf us all.
One symptom of this crisis is the degree to which the region, not really so populous compared with Africa on one side and South Asia on the other, dominates our daily news. A breed of reporters have made it their home and their career, few of them better known than the Englishman Robert Fisk. Now in his late 50's, he is one of the most controversial journalists of the age, winner of numerous prizes, much admired by some, including colleagues who respect his obsessive attention to detail and sheer physical courage, execrated by others because of what has been seen as his open hostility to Israel, America, and the West.
For most of the 1970's and 80's he worked for the Times of London, covering Belfast before he moved to the Middle East in 1976. Eleven years later he switched papers, and has since then been writing for the Independent, which has itself changed character since its birth less than 20 years ago and is now a daily version of the weekly "viewspapers," using its front page more for campaigning and debate than for hard news. Fisk fits in there very snugly.
He has already written a book about Lebanon, where he lives. Now comes The Great War for Civilisation, his Big Book (and how) and his testament. A vast overview of the region, it makes use of every clipping and notebook he has ever kept and runs in no particular order, chronological or otherwise, from his meetings with Osama bin Laden ("my first impression was of a shy man") to the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and the Iraq-Iran war, both of which he covered.
Then he heads back to the Armenian genocide of 90 years ago before coming forward again to the first gulf war and the betrayal of the Kurds that followed it, by way of "The Last Colonial War" (that would be Israel in the territories, of course), not to mention 19th-century British expeditions to Afghanistan. All in all, it adds up to some half a million words.
If that description sounds a little sour, maybe it is. There are different kinds of full disclosure, and on occasion it might be appropriate for a reviewer to own up and admit to a touch of sheer resentment at having had to read diligently a book of more than 1,000 pages that might with profit have been kept to half that length, or even a third.
This is really several books fighting each other inside the sack. It could have been an intelligent young person's guide to Western Asia, or a concentrated, closely structured polemic against American policy in the region, or just a memoir. A recurring reminiscence about Fisk's father, who served as an infantry officer in World War I, and the gung-ho adventure yarn about Afghanistan the elder Fisk had read as a boy, might have made for a vivid personal story on its own, but seem here to have wandered into the wrong party.
When Fisk (or any of us) is writing for a newspaper, the exigencies of the trade, and tough-minded copy editors, keep length under control. Here he lets it all hang out, diffuse and inchoate, made worse by a penchant for Fine Writing. "The night wind moved through the darkening trees, ruffling the robes of the Arab fighters around us." "I have woken in my bed to hear the blades of the palm trees outside slapping each other in the night, the rain smashing against the shutters." Chapters begin with tiresomely portentous sentences -- "Ben Greenberger doesn't trust the Arabs"; "Roger Tartouche grins at visitors from beneath his steel French army helmet, head turned slightly to the left, his battledress buttoned up to the neck" (on his gravestone, that is) -- all of which only adds to the immense wordage.
At least in part, "The Great War for Civilisation" is a stimulating and absorbing book, by a man who speaks Arabic, who has known the region better than most and has met the leading players, from bin Laden to Ahmad Chalabi (who offered to introduce him to Oliver North). It is a formidable production; and as Dr. Johnson said of "Paradise Lost," no man ever wished it longer.
What Fisk's enemies will be scanning the book for is not so much stylistic lapses as the bias of which he is often accused, and here I believe he can be defended, at least in terms of personal honor. Robert Fisk is not a crooked journalist like -- well, some sentences are better left unfinished, but quite a few names come to mind. Indeed, Fisk uses the book, among other things, to settle old scores, and there are some hair-raising and all too plausible stories about working for Rupert Murdoch and his more sycophantic apparatchiks.
Without doubt Fisk is an honest man by his lights, but then plain dishonesty is not the only danger for journalism. Another correspondent on Fisk's own paper who had reported from the Balkans in the 1990's looked back with distaste at "the angry partisanship" with which that conflict was covered. The phrase could almost be Fisk's heraldic motto.
He doesn't let us forget that he loathes Saddam Hussein, and is contemptuous of Yasir Arafat even as he sarcastically mentions his own anti-Israeli reputation. Then he goes on to write about "Israel's policy of state murder" and "the American journalists who report in so craven a fashion from the Middle East." This newspaper and its writers are regularly pummeled, notably "Tom Friedman, an old friend but an increasingly messianic columnist." Friedman can look after himself, but if I were Fisk I would not lightly use the word "messianic" about anyone.
Some former colleagues of Fisk's have claimed that events are wrongly described and names wrongly recorded here. There are certainly quite a few historical errors. A. J. Balfour was not "Lord Balfour" at the time of the eponymous Declaration; and the famous wartime broadcast from an R.A.F. bomber by Richard Dimbleby was over Berlin, not Hamburg. But such minor slips are not the real problem.
Journalists are not automatons but sentient men and women, and the "extinction of self" that supposedly scientific German historians once preached is an illusion. And yet Fisk's brand of reporting-with-attitude has obvious dangers. His ungovernable anger may do his heart credit, but it does not make for satisfactory history. His book contains very many gruesome accounts of murder and mutilation, and page after page describing torture in almost salacious detail. This has an unintended effect. A reader who knew nothing about the subject -- the proverbial man from Mars -- might easily conclude from The Great War for Civilisation that the whole region is mad, bad and dangerous to know, which is presumably not what Fisk wants us to think. Nor does he much abet the argument by George W. Bush and Tony Blair that Islam is essentially a peaceful and gentle religion. Most of the Muslims met here seem cruel and crazy, exemplifying Shelley's line about "bloody faith, the foulest birth of time."
Such a relentless catalog of butchery also misses the point. Unless one is an unconditional pacifist one must accept even the death of innocents. During World War II, 100,000 German children (as well as half a million adults, mostly women) were killed by Allied bombing. It is possible utterly to deplore that bombing campaign while still believing that the war to defeat Hitler was just. Likewise there is a distinction between the violent consequences of the present operation in Iraq, and the question of how far it was wise or virtuous in the first place.
Both the ferocity with which the Americans waged the first gulf war, and the betrayal of the Marsh Arabs and the Kurds thereafter, are bitterly condemned by Fisk (although he also describes with revulsion what the Iraqis did in Kuwait). So should we not have fought that war at all? Or, having begun it, should we have pressed on to destroy Saddam Hussein the first time around? What some members of the administration of Bush the Elder said -- if we'd taken Baghdad, we would have owned the country -- has surely gained more force now, when exactly that has come to pass.
After all I have said, to add "more in sorrow" might seem a little hypocritical, but this review is, for what it's worth, written by someone who largely shares Fisk's broader outlook, if one can filter out the rage and exaggeration. Western intervention -- once European, now American -- in that region has been too often malign in intention and lamentable in effect. Iraq itself is a creation of the British, in particular of Winston Churchill, and not the happiest legacy of empire, though one that may be unraveling thanks to the latest Western meddling.
But Fisk's condemnations, and his tone of voice, are so sweeping as to damage his own case. He became particularly unpopular four years ago because of what he wrote after the attacks in New York: "This is not the war of democracy versus terror that the world will be asked to believe in the coming hours and days. It is also about American missiles smashing into Palestinian homes and U.S. helicopters firing missiles into a Lebanese ambulance in 1996 and . . . ." He still feels sorry for himself about the torrent of abuse he received, unable to see that, although there is a great deal to be said in criticism of American policy in the Middle East, Sept. 12, 2001, might not have been the best day to say it.
Nor does he allow for historical context. He denounces, for example, the 1953 coup in Iran, engineered by Kermit Roosevelt of the C.I.A. and his British buddies to oust the government of Mohammed Mossadegh and install the shah. As it happens, one of the conspirators is a neighbor of mine, a charming and courteous old gentleman who was a wartime hero before he swapped a Royal Navy uniform for the cloak and dagger of MI6, and to this day he is impenitent about that power play in the cold war.
He and his fellow plotters didn't delude themselves that they were trying to bring good government to the Persian people, nor did they "call too loud on Freedom / To cloak your weariness," as Kipling had it. The object of the exercise wasn't to "democratize the Middle East" but to keep the Soviets from reaching the Indian Ocean, and it succeeded. If anything, I have more sympathy with that kind of realpolitik than for the weird mixture of ideology and deception we get from the present administration.
All the same, there is plenty here to make us think again about where the region is heading, and why. Some of Fisk's points are very telling. Next time the president informs us of the noble and beneficent cause of democracy, read Fisk on Algeria, which did indeed have democratic elections, only they were unfortunately won by the wrong party in the form of the Islamic extremists.
And as a break from the latest grim news coming out of Baghdad, have a look at what a correspondent for Fisk's old paper, the *Times* of London, said about Iraq. Many people "think that the local inhabitants will welcome us because we have saved them," and that the country only needs developing to repay our expenditure, but this is clearly wrong, since "we are asking the Arab to exchange his pride and independence for a little Western civilization."
That was written in September 1919. Another commentator said that in Iraq we have been led "into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honor. . . . Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows. . . . We are today not far from a disaster." The writer was none other than T. E. Lawrence -- in August 1920. Did someone say what goes around comes around?
--Geoffrey Wheatcroft's books include The Controversy of Zion: Jewish Nationalism, the Jewish State, and the Unresolved Jewish Dilemma and, most recently, The Strange Death of Tory England.