Robert Fisk: We are paying the price of an infantile attempt to reshape the Middle East
By Robert Fisk
21 November 2003
The Australians paid the price for the alliance with Bush in Bali. The Italians paid the price in Nasiriyah. Now it is our turn
It's the price of joining George Bush's "war on terror". They couldn't hit Britain while Bush was on his triumphalist state visit to London, so they went for the jugular in Turkey. The British consulate, the British- headquartered HSBC bank. London-abroad. And of course, no one - least of all the Turks - imagined they would strike twice in the same place. Turkey had already had its dose of attacks, hadn't it?
"They" must mean "al-Qa'ida". And of course, merely to point out that we - the British - are now paying the price for George Bush's infantile attempt to reshape the Middle East in Israel's favour will attract the usual venom. To tell the brutal truth about the human cost of Tony Blair's alliance with the Bush administration is to "do the terrorists' work for them", to be their "propagandist". Thus, as usual, will all discussion of yesterday's atrocities be closed down.
But the American and British administrations know very well what this means. The Australians paid the price for John Howard's alliance with Bush in Bali. The Italians paid the price for Silvio Berlusconi's alliance with Bush in Nasiriyah. Now it is our turn. Al-Qa'ida was quite specific. The Saudis would pay. The Australians would pay. The Italians would pay. The British would pay. They have. Canada is still on the list. Until, I suppose, it is our turn again. Even in 1997, Osama bin Laden would repeat to me that Britain would only escape Islamic "anger" if it pulled out of the Gulf. Nor do these mass murders have just one purpose. Turkey is allied to Israel. Ariel Sharon has visited Ankara. Turkey is hated in Iraq and much of the Arab world, partly for its Ottoman antecedents.
And if the Saudis are attacked because their Islamic regime is led by a corrupt monarchy, Turkey is attacked because it isn't Islamic enough. Break up Turkey. Break up the relations between Muslims and Jews in Istanbul - the purpose of last Saturday's suicide bombings - and break up the compromise "Islamist" government that now rules Turkey. All must have formed a part of al-Qaida's thinking.
Nor should we fool ourselves about what I always call "the brain". We have a habit of thinking that the bombers don't understand the outside world. If they are "against democracy", they wouldn't understand us, would they? But they do. They knew exactly what they were doing when they attacked the Australians in Bali - they knew the Iraqi invasion was unpopular in Australia, that Howard might ultimately be blamed. They knew the invasion was unpopular in Italy. So Italy would be punished for Berlusconi's hubris.
They knew, too, of the demonstrations that awaited George Bush in London. So why not distract attention from the whole panjandrum by assaulting Britain in Turkey. Who would care about Bush's visit to Sedgefield when Britons are lying dead in the grounds of their consulate in Istanbul? Just so in Iraq. The Iraqi insurgents are well aware of George Bush's falling opinion polls in the United States. They know how desperate he is to extract himself from Iraq before next year's presidential elections. Thus are they increasing their assaults on American forces and their Iraqi supporters, provoking the US army to ever more ferocious retaliation?
We have a kind of fatal incomprehension about those against whom we have gone to war; that they are living in caves, cut off from reality, striking blindly - "desperately" as Mr Bush would have us believe - as they realise that the free world is resolved to destroy them. Just now, I suspect they are resolved to destroy Mr. Bush - politically if not physically. Mr Blair too. In a war in which we go all out to crush the leadership of our antagonists, we can only expect them to adopt the same policy.
But we go on misunderstanding. Take those tiresome speeches by Osama bin Laden. When his audio-tapes are aired, we journalists always take the same line. Is it really him? Is he alive? That becomes our only story. But the Arab response is quite different. They know it's him. And they listen to what he says. So should we.
But alas, we still pedal the old myths, as George Bush did in London on Wednesday. His speech contained the usual untruths. Note, for example, the list of attacks he gave us: "Bali, Jakarta, Casablanca, Bombay, Mombasa, Najaf, Jerusalem, Riyadh, Baghdad and Istanbul". Najaf may well have nothing to do with al-Qa'ida but the suicide bombings in Jerusalem, vicious though they are, have absolutely nothing to do with our "war on terror". They are part of a brutal anti-colonial struggle between Palestinians and Israelis. Yet the inclusion of Jerusalem allows Ariel Sharon to join his war against the Palestinians to Bush's war against al-Qa'ida. This mendacity continued. Israel, said Bush, had to "freeze" settlements on Palestinian land - not close them down - and only dismantle what he artfully called "unauthorised outposts".
"Outposts" is Israel's word for the most recent land seizures in the West Bank and the word "unauthorised" suggests that there is some legality to the massive settlements already built on Palestinian land. According to Bush, the "heart of the matter" in the Middle East is "a viable Palestinian democracy." Not once did Bush mention "occupation". Why not? Is he so frightened of Israel's lobby before next year's US presidential election that even this most salient fact of the Middle East experience has to be censored from his narrative of events?
There was, too, the familiar distortion of the historical narrative. He said that America and Britain would do "all in their power to prevent the United Nations from solemnly choosing its own irrelevance." Come again? Who was it who wouldn't let the UN inspectors finish their search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq last year? Who was it who wouldn't accept a UN stewardship of the Iraq crisis?
Bush claimed yet again that we "tolerated" the dictatorships of the Middle East. Rubbish. We created them, Saddam's regime being the most obvious example. Who doubts, Mr Bush asked us, "that Afghanistan is a more just society and less dangerous without Mullah Omar playing host to terrorists from around the world?" Could this be the same Afghanistan which once more cringes under the warlords of the old Northern Alliance, the Afghanistan where the opium poppy is once again the country's prime export, where aid workers are being cut down by the Taliban?
And in Iraq, where the occupying powers now face an Iraqi insurgency of fearful proportions, Mr Bush still thinks he is fighting "Ba'athist holdouts and jihadists". Even his military officers are repeating that it is a growing Iraqi guerrilla army they are fighting - not "foreign fighters" or "jihadis". At the end, of course, we came back to the Second World War and Churchill - the "leader who did not waver", with whom Bush last year compared himself and with whom he on Wednesday compared Tony Blair - a "leader of good judgement and blunt counsel and backbone."
Where, oh where are we going? How much longer must we suffer this false account of history? How much longer must we willfully misread what we are doing and what is being done to us?