Robert Fisk

interviewed by David Barsamian

The Progressive magazine, June 2005


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 compounds.


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 here?

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 books.


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 prison scandal.

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 plane.

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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