Daily Times - November 15, 2005
Robert Fisk launches new book in New York
By Ayesha Javed Akram
NEW YORK: Distinguished British journalist Robert Fisk, an outspoken critic of the US-British war in Iraq, launched his latest book The Great War for Civilization in New York the other day.
Robert Fisk, 59, Middle-East correspondent for Britain’s The Independent newspaper, began his address to a roomful of United Nations correspondents by mentioning that the last time he was at the UN was to hear Colin Powell make his airtight case for Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. This time around, it was Fisk making an airtight case for America’s failure in the Middle East.
“The United States must leave Iraq and will leave Iraq but can’t,” said Fisk, who is currently touring the United States to launch the American edition of his new book, “The Great War for Civilisation”.
Dressed in a rumpled blue shirt with his wearied face bearing the signs of a hectic travel schedule, Fisk spoke animatedly about the situation in Iraq and the state of American journalism today.
“After World War I, Britain and France drew the borders of the Middle East,” he said. “I have spent my career watching the people within these borders burn.” When Fisk was offered the position of Middle East correspondent at The Independent, his editor sold him onto the job by saying: “There will be lots of sunshine and lots of adventures,” remembers Fisk. After reporting on the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Iran-Iraq war, the Iranian revolution and the US-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, Fisk has encountered numerous adventures but maybe not enough sunshine.
Looking back over the time he has spent in the Middle East, Fisk said he is astonished at how often history tends to repeat itself.
“When the British army invaded Iraq in 1917, the commander of the army put up a proclamation outside the city. It read: ‘We come here not as conquerors but as liberators’,” said Fisk, referring to President Bush’s declarations that the United States wished to liberate Iraqis from the clutches of a ferocious dictator.
Fisk drew other parallels with history. “The British invasion led to an upswing of Iraqi insurgency. In order to control the insurgents, the British shelled the cities of Fallujah and Najaf. In 1920, the British declared that if they left, Iraq would be caught in the throes of a civil war.”
During a recent trip to Baghdad, Fisk asked an Iraqi if there would be civil war if the Americans left. The man was a Sunni Muslim and was attending his brother’s funeral when Fisk put this question to him. “Why do you westerners always want us to have civil war,” he said. “I am married to a Shia Muslim – do you want me to kill my wife?”
Fisk is extremely skeptical about most American claims. He doesn’t believe civil war will wreck Iraq if America pulled out, just like he chuckles at the American insistence that they invaded Iraq to liberate it. “ Did we invade Iraq for the oil? I think so. If the major export of Iraq had been asparagus instead of oil, I don’t think the 82nd Airborne Division would be there right now.”
According to British Petroleum, Iraq has the second largest oil reserves in the Middle East. Michael Klare writing for the Inter-hemispheric Resource Center agrees with Fisk that oil was the main reason for invading Iraq. “Much of America’s oil comes from the Gulf. This dependency is (a weakness) for American power: Unless Persian Gulf oil can be kept under American control, our ability to remain the dominant world power would be put into question.”
But the debate over US motives for invading Iraq is now irrelevant.
What is more important to discuss is Fisk’s portrayal of the situation on the ground.
“Vast armies of the Mafioso are now operating in Iraq. Women are being sold into prostitution into Syria and Yemen. As we sit in New York or London with wall-to-wall coverage of the (Iraqi) constitutional referendum, in their homes Iraqis are not talking about the constitution. They are talking about how to protect their wives and children from being kidnapped,” said Fisk.
The average ransom for a kidnapped child in Iraq is $50,000-$60,000. But, said Fisk, paying up doesn’t always mean the child will be returned.
“I have spoken to families who have paid kidnappers and been told that their child is waiting for them at the street corner. The child is waiting, but he is dead. Yes, there is lawlessness, anarchy and chaos in Iraq today,” said Fisk.
Though the British and Arab press have devoted many column inches to stories of kidnappings in Iraq, the issue has only received cursory attention in the American media. But, this isn’t Fisk’s only criticism of US journalism.
“Most American journalists are practicing hotel journalism,” said Fisk. “The Associated Press is living behind two steel walls in the Palestine Hotel. NBC is behind an iron grill in another hotel, while The New York Times lives inside four watch towers manned by Iraqi guards wearing New York Times t-shirts.”
Given the dangers journalists face in Iraq, these precautions don’t seem unreasonable. For two years in a row, the Committee to Protect Journalists has described Iraq as the most dangerous place for journalists to report from. At least 57 journalists and 22 media support staff have been killed in Iraq since March 2003 said CPJ. Roger Cohen, New York Times columnist, recently said news organisations had started to wonder if the story was worth the risk. Cohen was speaking at a panel discussion about reporting in Iraq at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
But, Fisk argues, his criticism isn’t about the measures American journalists are taking to protect themselves. He said US journalists aren’t being honest to their readers by not explaining the restrictions they are operating under.
“There are no health warnings stuck on the reports coming out of Iraq,” he said, “and so the Baghdad dateline makes readers assume that the reporter was able to freely gather information.”
How does Fisk report? He practices what he calls mouse journalism. ‘I don’t spend more than 20 minutes in a place,” he said, “and I spend two weeks preparing if I am traveling south of Najaf.”
Is Fisk justified in criticizing the American press for having a cozy relationship with the White House? Is he correct in saying that US reporters are not being honest about the restrictions they are reporting under in Iraq? Should we believe him when he said that American media is acceding to authority instead of challenging it?
Most American journalists heartily disagree with Fisk. Many web-blogs use Fisking as a verb to describe, “thorough and forceful verbal beating of an anti-war, possibly anti-American, commentator who has richly earned this figurative beating through his words”.
When reporting on the US led invasion of Afghanistan, Fisk was beaten up by some locals he encountered after doing an interview. Mark Steyn of The Wall Street Journal, described the beating by saying “multiculturalist” – Robert Fisk – had “got his due”.
But there are some Americans who agree with Fisk’s criticisms of US media. CBS’s Dan Rather admitted that patriotism has run amok in American journalism, leading to a loss of objectivity.
Robert Parry, a former AP correspondent, said the inadequate reporting on Iraqi casualties in the US press can be linked to the rise of the patriotic journalism in America.
Robert Jensen, professor of journalism at the University of Texas, said in the aftermath of the Iraq war, American journalists became patriotic as opposed to skeptical.
Why then does the bulk of American journalism continue to nurture dislike against Fisk? Maybe being criticised by a non-American is what irks American journalists. If so, they better get used to it. Fisk isn’t likely to lay low any time soon.
Here is a partial transcript of Mr Fisk’s talk:
“In 1993 when I met bin Laden in Sudan, the last words he said to me were: Mr Robert, from the mountain from which you are sitting we destroyed the Soviet army. It helped bring down the Soviet Union ...” This may be a bit of an exaggeration but there was a certain element of truth in there. Then bin Laden said: ‘I pray to God, Mr Robert, that He permits us to bring America down into the shadow of its self.’
On September 11, I was crossing the Atlantic — going to New York. I was on the satellite phone with my business centre office in London. I heard about the attack, I told the attendant to tell the captain that there was an attack going on against the United States of America, aircraft have gone into many buildings — the stewardess stood there and asked where are the planes coming from? I said we do not know, could be from anywhere, Latin America, Europe, wherever. Then the captain came. We went around the plane together to look around for passengers we didn’t like. I noted down 13, two in business class, the rest in economy. The attendant had 14 seat numbers. Of course they were all Muslims, some reading the holy Quran, praying with worry beads. They were dark skinned, they were all Muslims, they looked at me suspiciously. Because I was looking at them suspiciously I realized suddenly that bin Laden has turned nice liberal Bob into a racist. I was going around racially profiling the passengers on the aircraft. I realized that one of the purposes of the attacks of Sept 11 might have been to turn the innocent against the innocent, not just Muslims against the West.
And I remember that night when I returned to Europe, I ended up on Irish Radio which had me along with Harvard Prof Alan Dershowitz, and when I kept saying “We must ask the question Why (these attacks) — to which Mr Dershowitz responded “to ask the question ‘why’ you are a dangerous man you are sympathetic to terrorists, hence you are anti-American and being anti-American you are anti-Semitic’.
It struck me as odd that when a crime is committed on New York streets the first thing is to look at the motive, but the first thing you were not allowed to do was to ask for the motive..... you can ask about gays, lesbians, etc., but not question US relationships and the Middle East, whether it be relationship with Israel or the Arab world. But the first thing you were not allowed to ask was “Why”. And that night the BBC put one guest on its programme who said that my asking why was the worst bad joke of the year. I think it should have been the first question that should be asked. Not asking why would allow the president of the US to change the world forever. I don’t believe it did. I don’t think we should allow 19 killers to change my world forever. I think Bush got away with it.
And I think that by and large for many months Americans were prevented from looking for the motive. By the time they could look for the motive, we were bombing Afghanistan and saying there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. And then defeating Saddam Hussein. And so it goes on and on. And it seems somehow that modern-day politicians with, in many cases, the help, I’m afraid, of journalists, are able to continue to bamboozle people. ‘We’ll explain it tomorrow’, ‘that’s too secret to tell you,’ secret intelligence officials insist. Look at The New York Times’s first paragraphs over and over again, “According to American intelligence officials.” “American officials say.” I think sometimes The New York Times should be called “American Officials Say.” Just look at it tomorrow or the day after. Or the L.A. Times, or the, not the San Francisco Chronicle, it’s not much of a paper anymore unfortunately, but The Washington Post.
You know the cozy relationship between American journalists and power is very dangerous. You want to look and see what that relationship is like. The osmotic, the host and the parasite together. You only have to look at a White House press conference, ‘Mr President, Mr President?’ ‘Yes, Bob. Yes, John? Yes, Nancy,’ that’s the relationship. Journalists like to be close to power. They know that if they want to be close to power, they mustn’t challenge power. And that goes back to the Amira Haas definition of journalism, of which I am a total devotee: you must challenge power all the time, all the time, all the time even if the politicians and the prime minister, even if your readers hate you. You must challenge power. And that includes bin Laden power.
New York Times - November 19, 2005
A foreign correspondent who does more than report
By ETHAN BRONNER
Robert Fisk is probably the most famous foreign correspondent in Britain. Based in Beirut for the past three decades, he rode with Soviet troops invading Afghanistan in 1980, chronicled the prison tortures of Saddam Hussein and Ayatollah Khomeini in the early 1980's, recorded the butchery in Algeria in the 1990's and interviewed Osama bin Laden three times, starting in 1993 when few Westerners knew the name. First for The Times of London and since 1989 for The Independent, Mr. Fisk, a writer of exceptional power, has brought readers deep inside the Muslim Middle East, laying bare its humiliation and suffering.
Yet for all the awards he has garnered, and despite his rare combination of scholarly knowledge, experience and drive, Mr. Fisk has become something of a caricature of himself, railing against Israel and the United States, dismissing the work of most of his colleagues as cowering and dishonest, and seeking to expose the West's self-satisfied hypocrisy nearly to the exclusion of the pursuit of straight journalism.
All of Mr. Fisk's strengths and weaknesses are on display in this enormous memoir of the past quarter century. He seems to have saved all his notebooks and tape recordings and draws on the telling details in them to bring us into the heart of each story. During the Iranian revolution, for example, he watched Sadegh Khalkhali, the nation's chief justice, as he coolly sent hundreds to their deaths in half-day "trials." Mr. Fisk writes: "He stood now, this formidable judicial luminary, in the sunny courtyard of Qasr prison, brandishing a miniature pink plastic spoon, smacking his lips noisily and tucking into a large cardboard tub of vanilla ice cream. For a man who had just ordered the first public execution in Tehran for 15 years, he was in an excellent frame of mind." A footnote explains that the conversation had been taped "and on the cassette in my archives it is still possible to hear the Hojatolislam's lips smacking over his ice cream as he discusses the finer points of stoning."
The book is at times a numbing chronicle of electric torture, burnt genitals, sawed-off heads and mutilated corpses, a charnel house of the abuse that has characterized the Middle East in recent years. It is not for the faint of heart - nor at 1,100 pages is it for anyone who'd like to get to the point in a hurry.
Mr. Fisk's title, a reference to World War I, has a personal element - his father fought in that war, talked to his son often about it and won a medal with that phrase inscribed on it. The carnage is on a similar scale as well. In the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war alone, there were probably one million dead, yet few in the West noticed. (Mr. Fisk tells of risking his life accompanying Iranian troops in that war, only to be asked by his desk, can the story hold?) Finally there is Mr. Fisk's belief that Western treatment of the Muslim world - through the war on terror and the occupation of Iraq - is today's version of the Great War.
Mr. Fisk is most passionate and least informed about Israel. He calls Yisrael Harel - a founder of the Jewish settler movement who writes an opinion column - a journalist, as if his views were mainstream. He describes Israel's offer to the Palestinians at Camp David in 2000 as 64 percent of the West Bank and Gaza, when it was actually much higher. And his chapter on Israel is titled "The Last Colonial War," surely a misnomer no matter how offended he is by Israel and its policies.
But Mr. Fisk seems to have decided that even striving for objectivity is silly. He approvingly quotes the left-wing Israeli journalist Amira Hass as saying that it is a misconception to imagine journalists can be objective. Journalism's job, she says, is "to monitor power and the centers of power."
Mr. Fisk then adds: "If only, I kept thinking, the American journalists who report in so craven a fashion from the Middle East - so fearful of Israeli criticism that they turn Israeli murder into 'targeted attacks' and illegal settlements into 'Jewish neighborhoods' - could listen to Amira Hass. She writes each day an essay of despair." So too does Mr. Fisk.
The West's sins of ignorance and aggression in the Middle East are real. Mr. Fisk lays them out in depressing detail, quoting American military men on "Eye-rack" and "Ay-rabs" and making clear that the failings of the Iraqi occupation were utterly predictable. But his many legitimate points are sometimes warped by his perspective.
A good example is a story Mr. Fisk tells of covering the United States invasion of Afghanistan. He was on the border, in Pakistan, when his car broke down and he was set upon by a group of Afghans, who struck his face repeatedly with large stones. Rescued at the last minute, Mr. Fisk says he asked: "Why record my few minutes of terror and self-disgust near the Afghan border, bleeding and crying like an animal, when thousands of innocent civilians were dying under American air strikes in Afghanistan, when the War for Civilisation was burning and maiming the people of Kandahar and other cities because 'good' must triumph over 'evil'?" And so he wrote of his attack in his newspaper: "If I was an Afghan refugee in Kila Abdulla, I would have done just what they did. I would have attacked Robert Fisk. Or any other Westerner I could find."
After reading that and his description of Palestinian suicide bombings as inevitable, you are not surprised to learn that Osama bin Laden urged Americans last year to listen to his interviews with Mr. Fisk because, the mass-murdering founder of Al Qaeda noted, Mr. Fisk was "neutral."