interviewed by David Barsamian
The Progressive magazine, June
Robert Fisk is Middle East correspondent
for The Independent of London. He has called Beirut home for almost
thirty years. The recipient of the Amnesty International UK Press
Award, Fisk has won the British International Journalist of the
Year award seven times. He's also the author of Pity the Nation:
The Abduction of Lebanon.
In an era of drive-by journalism, where
reporters turn up in places only when there is a major crisis,
Fisk is a throwback to an earlier period when journalists would
stay in a country for many years and learn the language and customs
and develop and mine contacts. A well-known figure in the Lebanese
capital, Fisk is often addressed as "Mr. Robert." He
says he's been "chronicling the betrayals and treachery and
deceits of the Middle East" from Beirut. "I love the
city," he says. "It's been a place of great kindness
to me. It taught me to stay alive."
He is indignant about what passes for
most journalism today. And he's contemptuous of the Bush Administration
and the neocons who confuse the realities on the ground for the
fantasies in their heads. He has no patience for jihadis, be they
in Washington or the Middle East. And he cautions the United States
about getting involved in Lebanon: "It's a very dangerous
country to meddle in, very deceptive."
I met him in early April on the steps
of the Riviera Hotel on the Beirut waterfront. His face still
bears the scars from the beating Afghan refugees gave him in Pakistan
in 2001. From the hotel we went to his spacious flat overlooking
the Mediterranean. He was putting the final touches on his new
book, which will be out this fall. We sat on his balcony drinking
tea and coffee and trading stories and then went into his office
to do the interview.
Q: We're sitting just a few blocks from
where former Lebanese Premier Rafik Hariri was assassinated on
February 14. What's the significance of his murder?
Robert Fisk. Hariri was the underpinning
of the Lebanese economy and state. His death struck a body blow,
if not a fatal body blow, to the economy of this country. And
that presumably is what the enemies of Lebanon or the enemies
of Hariri wanted to do. Hariri never groomed a successor. He made
himself Lebanon. He was among Forbes's top 100 richest men, and
he used his wealth to rebuild Lebanon after the civil war. He
was instrumental in securing loans and attracting investors and
reviving the economy, which brought in at least a million Arab
tourists every year. Now all the tourists have run away. If you
look around downtown, it's empty. The country is saddled with
a $33 billion debt. I don't know how they're even going to pay
interest on that debt now that Hariri is gone.
Q: What's the reaction here to all the
attention Washington has recently been paying to Lebanon, celebrating
the demonstrations and the so-called Cedar Revolution?
Fisk: Well, that's a State Department
phrase. The Americans don't understand what's happening here.
These were not demonstrations for democracy. This was an insurrection
against the corruption of government here and the lack of freedom
of speech in parliament, which is weighted down with pro-Syrian
MPs. It has been misinterpreted in the West as part of this great
domino effect of democracy, which is allegedly bursting out all
over the place. But it's not. There isn't such an effect at all.
This is how the legend, the narrative, is being written. By misreading
what's happening in Lebanon, the Americans will make more mistakes
here. They're using what is happening in Lebanon for their own
purposes, and possibly for Israel's. And that's the real tragedy,
because people here deserve better than that.
Opposition leaders are asking themselves
whether the Americans really want a working democracy or whether
Washington's support hinges on a neoconservative project which
culminates in the United States ambassador visiting the president
of Lebanon and saying, "Well, how about a peace treaty with
Israel?" Is that what this is really about? The senior members
of the opposition are very worried that America is much less interested
in democracy than in shoring up another bulwark for Israel.
American foreign policy in the Middle
East has never been so skewed towards Israel and against the Arabs
as it is now. That's bad for the Arabs, it's actually bad for
the Israelis, and it's very bad for the U.S. But the policy is
being ruthlessly pursued by Bush and his friends.
Q: Israel invaded first in 1978, and again
in 1982. It remained in the country until 2000. Hezbollah is given
credit for forcing Israel out of Lebanon.
Fisk The Israeli military officers believe
that is basically accurate. Hezbollah believes it's accurate.
I'm not going to disagree with both the Israelis and Hezbollah.
When Israel came here, the ferocity of
the invasion in 1982 drove people who were not deeply religious
into seeing Islam as the only way of leading their lives if they
were going to seriously oppose Israel's military force. Hezbollah
was the only real resistance movement against the Israelis. So
Hezbollah in a sense won its spurs, to use an old cliché.
Most Lebanese are not interested in disarming Hezbollah, despite
its ties with Syria, which has been here for more than a quarter
of a century. If Hezbollah is disarmed, which is part of the U.N.
Resolution 1559, there will be no active force capable of resisting
other interference in Lebanon's internal affairs. But the disarming
of Hezbollah is something the Israelis want, and that, I suspect,
is why the Americans are pushing it.
The Americans say Hezbollah is the most
powerful terrorist movement in the world. It's certainly the most
disciplined guerrilla movement in the world - much more disciplined,
for example, than the insurgency in Iraq, although that, of course,
is on a much bigger scale.
Needless to say, Hezbollah is watching
the insurgency in Iraq and the American response with great interest.
'When they were fighting the Israelis, they had a longer-term
objective, which was to play a role in Lebanese politics later:
"We freed the country, we have a right." So now they
realize that the insurgents in the Sunni areas of Iraq also have
a longer-term aim than just getting rid of the Americans. It is
to be able to say afterwards: "We got rid of the Americans,
so the Sunnis do have a right to power in Iraq." The Shias
did not fight the Americans, and Hezbollah sees this. The Americans
don't. They won't look at the day after tomorrow, only today and
tonight. Short-term, short-term, short-term. That's why they're
in this mess in Iraq in the first place.
Q: Why else is the U.S. in Iraq?
Fisk: That's the question I ask myself
more and more. We didn't invade for weapons of mass destruction,
because there weren't any. We didn't want to help the Shiites,
because we had asked them to rise up in 1991 and sat back while
they were all massacred. Clearly, we wouldn't have invaded Iraq
if its chief export was cauliflower or carrots. So the oil dimension
has to be there.
But I think there is something else, too.
I was down that horrible Highway 18 in Iraq. I was interviewing
some people after a Red Cross man had been murdered. I was standing
by the roadside, and the road started to move. I thought, "My
God, it's an earthquake." Around the corner and coming up
the highway was an American infantry division. Thousands and thousands
and thousands of soldiers. Abrams tanks, Bradley armored vehicles,
truck after truck with the infantry, all wearing shades, rifles
pointing out the side like porcupines, transporters, mobile-tracked
armored vehicles, anti-aircraft guns, heavy artillery. It took
almost an hour to pass, and all the time the ground shook.
And I remember thinking that 2,000 years
ago a little bit to the west of where I was standing we would
have been feeling the vibration of centurions' feet, tromp, tromp,
tromp. I began to wonder, then, when I saw this massive armored
centipede, whether it didn't also represent the visceral need
to project power, which is a characteristic of a superpower. We
can go to Baghdad, so we will go to Baghdad. We can go to Tehran.
We can go to Damascus. We will, because we can.
That is part of the way in which a neoconservative
thinks. You know, it's very easy to sneer at the Cheneys and the
Wolfowitzes and the Feiths and the Perles. But we should spend
a lot more time examining what their motives are and what makes
them tick, because this projection of power is much more important
than we realize. Possibly, it's almost as important as oil.
You have to be on this side of the world
to realize that the Americans have a steel line right across the
region. They're in Britain, they're in Germany, they're in Italy,
they're in Greece, they're in Turkey. They won't get to Syria
yet, but they're in Iraq, they're in Saudi Arabia on a lesser
scale, they're in Qatar on a big scale, they're in Bahrain, they're
in Kuwait, Special Forces are operating in Yemen. A whole steel
line runs from the Arctic right down below the equator. Lily pads
are what Donald Rumsfeld calls them, these zones where the Americans
live. But in fact they are not lily pads; they are armed fortresses.
It reminds me of the Crusader castles.
They are quite lovely on the outside. But when you're inside,
it's cold and damp and you can't see out; you just have to peer
through these arrow slits. That's all the Crusaders saw of the
land they were occupying. And that's now happening to the Americans
in Iraq. They sit in this little Green Zone, which is where the
Republican Palace was, where the American and British embassies
are, and where all their American-appointed Iraqis are, surrounded
by palisades of prestressed concrete. It's the nearest we've got
to the Crusader castle. And they peer out through the machine
gun openings, and they see a street outside. That is Baghdad.
That is their contact with the land they occupy. And all these
positions-Kandahar airport in Afghanistan, the huge American base
outside Fallujah, the Green Zone inside Baghdad-are massive Crusader
Q: The U.S. is building permanent military
bases in Iraq. Their intention is to stay for many years.
Fisk: I think so. The great equation,
which causes so much bloodshed in Iraq, is this: The Americans
must leave, and the Americans will leave, and the Americans can't
leave. They can't leave for a whole series of reasons, which we
know. Because if they leave behind them chaos, what did they achieve
by invading Iraq?
Q: 'What are the historical parallels
Fisk: If you go back to the British invasion
of Iraq in 1917, I have a document that was put up on the wall
by General Stanley Maude when he arrived in Baghdad. "To
the people of Baghdad: We come here not as conquerors but as liberators,
to free you from generations of tyranny." We were saying
the same things then. What happened when the insurgency started
against the British? It started in Fallujah, and we shelled Fallujah
and half destroyed the town. We surrounded Najaf and claimed we
wanted a Shiite prelate who was an insurrectionist to be handed
over to us. In the House of Commons, Lloyd George stood up and
said, "If the British Army leaves Iraq, there will be civil
war." For some reason, the Americans didn't read the history
Q: What about Iraqi casualties?
Fisk: The Americans are not interested;
they don't want to know. The authorities won't tell us. The health
ministry, run by American appointees, won't tell us. Almost every
day I go to the mortuary in Baghdad and find twenty or thirty
people-men, women, children-dead of gunshot wounds, shot at American
checkpoints, shot in family feuds, shot by insurgents for alleged
collaboration. The Iraqis are paying a terrible, terrible price
every day for our adventure. And this is just Baghdad I'm talking
about, not Mosul, not Najaf, not Basra. And when you hear Iraqis
say it was better under Saddam, it's time we listen to them. They
know what Saddam was like. They don't want Saddam. But they mean
that there was security Do you want freedom and anarchy or do
you want dictatorship and security? If you have a family, it's
a big choice to make.
Q: Talk about the impact of the Abu Ghraib
Fisk: People misunderstand how Muslims
reacted to this. Muslims always believed that's how Americans
behaved. They believed that they would be set upon with dogs.
They believed they would be sexually humiliated.
The shock of Abu Ghraib was much greater
on us than it was on the Iraqis. They knew about it. Their relatives
were telling them about it. It had been going on for a long time.
This was not some sudden appearance. This is a system. So, for
the people of this region, they expect the Americans to behave
as they did at Abu Ghraib. It wasn't a shock here. It was a shock
in New York and Washington and Boston and San Diego and Berkeley.
That's where it was a shock.
Q: Seymour Hersh has written that responsibility
hasn't gone up the chain of command.
Fisk: Seymour Hersh, with the possible
exception of John Burns, is about the only American journalist
doing his job on Iraq. He doesn't have to go there, but by God,
we're learning what's happening from him. The banalities in the
American mainstream press are certainly not worth reading. We
do not fully understand, for example, that there are 20,000 to
30,000 armed mercenaries from South Africa, Ireland, Britain,
and America. They are a law unto themselves. They shoot, they
kill, and they don't care. There is no law, no justice, nothing.
Q: These are the so-called security contractors.
Fisk: "Security contractors."
Those are the soft words. It's another of these euphemisms like
"disputed territory" for the Occupied Territory in the
West Bank. They're hired armed men. I call them mercenaries. I
don't call them security contractors. I leave that to The New
York Times and The Washington Post. We don't realize, because
of this effective cover-up, that torture is common in Iraqi police
stations again, just as it was under Saddam. That torture has
always been common in Abu Ghraib under the Americans. It's not
as bad as it was under Saddam, but that's not really the kind
of scoreboard you want to set yourself against.
Another fact that is covered up: Most
of Iraq is in a state of anarchy. And that is the reality. I don't
know how far self-delusion can go before something happens to
prove the truth, but with the connivance of journalists, lethal
connivance, in my view, the world has been told that Iraq is the
newest democracy and everything is going to be OK. Just a bit
of a problem with these insurgents for the moment, who number
in the tens of thousands.
Q: How do you get in and out of Iraq?
How do you operate there?
Fisk: I go to Beirut airport, and I climb
on a little airplane which has two propellers and twenty passengers,
run by a company called Flying Carpet. This airplane takes two
and a half hours to climb up over the snow-covered mountains.
You see the cedars of Lebanon as you go over. And very quickly
it's over Syria, and you have the start of the great desert that
lasts all the way to the Tigris River. You realize how beautiful
Lebanon is and how harsh the rest of the Middle East is on this
I land at Baghdad airport. I'm met by
my driver. We go down the treacherous airport road to the city,
and I either stay with Iraqi friends or I stay at a small hotel
near the Tigris River. And from there I travel around every day
in the city of Baghdad, and sometimes outside.
But it is extremely dangerous now. Many
of my colleagues won't go to Iraq. And many of them who do, they
just sit in their hotel rooms. I don't object to that. What I
do object to is they don't tell their readers that they sit in
their hotel rooms. They give the impression that they can check
out stories or, for example, people shot by the Americans, when
in fact they can't or don't or won't. So they take the line from
a telephone call from an American officer and that becomes the
story, which is one reason why the reporting on Iraq has become
so skewed. The situation is comparable to the worst days of the
recent civil war in Algeria, when the insurgents were taking the
heads off every foreigner they could find. And that was pretty
frightening. In those days we reckoned that we could spend three
minutes in a shop and get out before anyone could make a phone
call and bring someone to kill you. We're down to five minutes
in Baghdad at the moment. But I do still go out and interview
people in the street, and I go see refugees, and I'll travel outside
the city, but only with great preparation. It's certainly the
most dangerous assignment I've been on for a long time.
Q: Tell me about your new book
Fisk: It's called The Great War Civilization
The Conquest of the Middle East. My father was a soldier in the
First World War. He was sent to the Somme in 1918, age nineteen.
When he died at the age of ninety-three in 1992, I inherited his
First World War campaign medal on the back of which was written,
"The great war for civilization." In the seventeen months
that followed the Great War, the victorious powers created the
borders of Northern Ireland, Yugoslavia, and most of the Middle
East. I've spent my entire professional career watching the people
on those borders burn-in Belfast, in Sarajevo, Baghdad, Beirut,
across the Middle East.
I've been trying to work out in my mind,
having spent well over a quarter of a century in the Middle East,
whether you can escape from history, whether you can say, "Enough."
And part of this is the need to reject the narrative we're given
by others, the narrative of Bush, for example, that September
11 changed the world forever. One thousand seven hundred Palestinians
died at Sabra-Shatila. We don't light candles for them. That's
more than half the total dead of the World Trade Center. Murdered
in 1982, in front of me. I was in the camps.
My father, in the First World War, refused
to execute a fellow soldier, an Australian soldier, actually,
who had been charged with murder. I found the last appeal for
clemency from the young man. He begged the judges: "I'm only
nineteen. Please let me have a new life." But he was shot
at 3:15 in the morning.
For refusing to participate, my father
was courtmartialed. His punishment in the end was to clear up
the bodies lying around in the muck of the Western Front after
the war was over. So the book is also about refusing to believe
what we're told and refusing to take orders. .
David Barsamian, the director of Alternative
Radio in Boulder, Colorado, interviewed Seymour Hersh in the April
issue. Barsamian's latest book, with Tariq Ali, is "Speaking
of Empire and Resistance."
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