Bush is walking into a trap
by Robert Fisk
The Independent, 16 September 2001
Retaliation is a trap. In a world that was supposed to have
learnt that the rule of law comes above revenge, President Bush
appears to be heading for the very disaster that Osama bin Laden
has laid down for him. Let us have no doubts about what happened
in New York and Washington last week. It was a crime against humanity.
We cannot understand America's need to retaliate unless we accept
this bleak, awesome fact. But this crime was perpetrated it becomes
ever clearer to provoke the United States into just the blind,
arrogant punch that the US military is preparing.
Mr bin Laden every day his culpability becomes more apparent
has described to me how he wishes to overthrow the pro-American
regime of the Middle East, starting with Saudi Arabia and moving
on to Egypt, Jordan and the other Gulf states. In an Arab world
sunk in corruption and dictatorships most of them supported by
the West the only act that might bring Muslims to strike at their
own leaders would be a brutal, indiscriminate assault by the United
States. Mr bin Laden is unsophisticated in foreign affairs, but
a close student of the art and horror of war. He knew how to fight
the Russians who stayed on in Afghanistan, a Russian monster that
revenged itself upon its ill-educated, courageous antagonists
until, faced with war without end, the entire Soviet Union began
to fall apart.
The Chechens learnt this lesson. And the man responsible for
so much of the bloodbath in Chechnya the career KGB man whose
army is raping and murdering the insurgent Sunni Muslim population
of Chechnya is now being signed up by Mr Bush for his "war
against people''. Vladimir Putin must surely have a sense of humour
to appreciate the cruel ironies that have now come to pass, though
I doubt if he will let Mr Bush know what happens when you start
a war of retaliation; your army like the Russian forces in Chechnya
becomes locked into battle with an enemy that appears ever more
ruthless, ever more evil.
But the Americans need look no further than Ariel Sharon's
futile war with the Palestinians to understand the folly of retaliation.
In Lebanon, it was always the same. A Hizbollah guerrilla would
kill an Israeli occupation soldier, and the Israelis would fire
back in retaliation at a village in which a civilian would die.
The Hizbollah would retaliate with a Katyusha missile attack over
the Israeli border, and the Israelis would retaliate again with
a bombardment of southern Lebanon. In the end, the Hizbollah the
"centre of world terror'' according to Mr Sharon drove the
Israelis out of Lebanon.
In Israel/Palestine, it is the same story. An Israeli soldier
shoots a Palestinian stone-thrower. The Palestinians retaliate
by killing a settler. The Israelis then retaliate by sending a
murder squad to kill a Palestinian gunman. The Palestinians retaliate
by sending a suicide bomber into a pizzeria. The Israelis then
retaliate by sending F-16s to bomb a Palestinian police station.
Retaliation leads to retaliation and more retaliation. War without
And while Mr Bush and perhaps Mr Blair prepare their forces,
they explain so meretriciously that this is a war for "democracy
and liberty'', that it is about men who are "attacking civilisation''.
"America was targeted for attack,'' Mr Bush informed us on
Friday, "because we are the brightest beacon for freedom
and opportunity in the world.'' But this is not why America was
attacked. If this was an Arab-Muslim apocalypse, then it is intimately
associated with events in the Middle East and with America's stewardship
of the area. Arabs, it might be added, would rather like some
of that democracy and liberty and freedom that Mr Bush has been
telling them about. Instead, they get a president who wins 98
per cent in the elections (Washington's friend, Mr Mubarak) or
a Palestinian police force, trained by the CIA, that tortures
and sometimes kills its people in prison. The Syrians would also
like a little of that democracy. So would the Saudis. But their
effete princes are all friends of America in many cases, educated
at US universities.
I will always remember how President Clinton announced that
Saddam Hussein another of our grotesque inventions must be overthrown
so that the people of Iraq could choose their own leaders. But
if that happened, it would be the first time in Middle Eastern
history that Arabs have been permitted to do so. No, it is "our''
democracy and "our'' liberty and freedom that Mr Bush and
Mr Blair are talking about, our Western sanctuary that is under
attack, not the vast place of terror and injustice that the Middle
East has become.
Let me illustrate what I mean. Nineteen years ago today, the
greatest act of terrorism using Israel's own definition of that
much misused word in modern Middle Eastern history began. Does
anyone remember the anniversary in the West? How many readers
of this article will remember it? I will take a tiny risk and
say that no other British newspaper certainly no American newspaper
will today recall the fact that on 16 September 1982, Israel's
Phalangist militia allies started their three-day orgy of rape
and knifing and murder in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra
and Shatila that cost 1,800 lives. It followed an Israeli invasion
of Lebanon designed to drive the PLO out of the country and given
the green light by the then US Secretary of State, Alexander Haig
which cost the lives of 17,500 Lebanese and Palestinians, almost
all of them civilians. That's probably three times the death toll
in the World Trade Centre. Yet I do not remember any vigils or
memorial services or candle-lighting in America or the West for
the innocent dead of Lebanon; I don't recall any stirring speeches
about democracy or liberty. In fact, my memory is that the United
States spent most of the bloody months of July and August 1982
calling for "restraint".
No, Israel is not to blame for what happened last week. The
culprits were Arabs, not Israelis. But America's failure to act
with honour in the Middle East, its promiscuous sale of missiles
to those who use them against civilians, its blithe disregard
for the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqi children under sanctions
of which Washington is the principal supporter all these are intimately
related to the society that produced the Arabs who plunged America
into an apocalypse of fire last week.
America's name is literally stamped on to the missiles fired
by Israel into Palestinian buildings in Gaza and the West Bank.
Only four weeks ago, I identified one of them as an AGM 114-D
air-to-ground rocket made by Boeing and Lockheed-Martin at their
factory in of all places Florida, the state where some of the
suiciders trained to fly.
It was fired from an Apache helicopter (made in America, of
course) during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, when hundreds
of cluster bombs were dropped in civilian areas of Beruit by the
Israelis in contravention of undertakings given to the United
States. Most of the bombs had US Naval markings and America then
suspended a shipment of fighter bombers to Israel for less than
The same type of missile this time an AGM 114-C made in Georgia
was fired by the Israelis into the back of an ambulance near the
Lebanese village of Mansori, killing two women and four children.
I collected the pieces of the missile, including its computer
coding plate, flew to Georgia and presented them to the manufacturers
at the Boeing factory. And what did the developer of the missile
say to me when I showed him photographs of the children his missile
had killed? "Whatever you do," he told me, "don't
quote me as saying anything critical of the policies of Israel."
I'm sure the father of those children, who was driving the
ambulance, will have been appalled by last week's events, but
I don't suppose, given the fate of his own wife one of the women
killed that he was in a mood to send condolences to anyone. All
these facts, of course, must be forgotten now.
Every effort will be made in the coming days to switch off
the "why'' question and concentrate on the who, what and
how. CNN and most of the world's media have already obeyed this
essential new war rule. I've already seen what happens when this
rule is broken. When The Independent published my article on the
connection between Middle Eastern injustice and the New York holocaust,
the BBC's 24-hour news channel produced an American commentator
who remarked that "Robert Fisk has won the prize for bad
taste''. When I raised the same point on an Irish radio talk show,
the other guest, a Harvard lawyer, denounced me as a bigot, a
liar, a "dangerous man'' and of course potentially anti-Semitic.
The Irish pulled the plug on him.
No wonder we have to refer to the terrorists as "mindless''.
For if we did not, we would have to explain what went on in those
minds. But this attempt to censor the realities of the war that
has already begun must not be permitted to continue. Look at the
logic. Secretary of State Colin Powell was insisting on Friday
that his message to the Taliban is simple: they have to take responsibility
for sheltering Mr bin Laden. "You cannot separate your activities
from the activities of the perpetrators,'' he warned. But the
Americans absolutely refuse to associate their own response to
their predicament with their activities in the Middle East. We
are supposed to hold our tongues, even when Ariel Sharon a man
whose name will always be associated with the massacre at Sabra
and Shatila announces that Israel also wishes to join the battle
against "world terror''.
No wonder the Palestinians are fearful. In the past four days,
23 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank and Gaza, an
astonishing figure that would have been front-page news had America
not been blitzed. If Israel signs up for the new conflict, then
the Palestinians by fighting the Israelis will, by extension,
become part of the "world terror'' against which Mr Bush
is supposedly going to war. Not for nothing did Mr Sharon claim
that Yasser Arafat had connections with Osama bin Laden.
I repeat: what happened in New York was a crime against humanity.
And that means policemen, arrests, justice, a whole new international
court at The Hague if necessary. Not cruise missiles and "precision''
bombs and Muslim lives lost in revenge for Western lives. But
the trap has been sprung. Mr Bush perhaps we, too are now walking
11th, 2001 - New York City