Friday, 26 September 2014

Waiting for the Bombers...

Early this afternoon, under the awning of a cafe table in the centre of sunny Bradford, I read the last 18 pages of Robert Fisk’s 1,286-page book The Great War For Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East. Getting through it – on trains, buses, in cafes, the office and our back yard – has taken just over two months.

From that sententious opening you would be correct in assuming that I think I am not quite the same man I was on July 24 when, hesitatingly, I bought the book in Waterstone’s. I knew it would be polemical, I knew it would take me to places I did not want to go, above all I knew it would expose me to views of invasions and conflicts, from Afghanistan to Palestine, that I did not want to accept. The fact that Fisk lived in Beirut, had lived there for the best part of 30 years, had risked his neck to interview all concerned in these conflicts and invasions, unlike officially embedded correspondents or those who gaze upon terrible events from afar and pass judgement in the safety of book-lined studies, may have played a part in persuading me to take a chance and buy it.

Yes, all right, it is too long and there were times when I wondered whether Fisk was taking a perverse pleasure in the litany of horror he chronicles, from the massacre of Armenians by Turks, to the torture in the jails of Iran and Iraq and shoot 'em up policies of Israel and the United States. Then I realised that by putting names to the liquidated, the disappeared, he was bringing the corpses back into history. I didn't like it. You may not have the stomach for it. But, at least we have a public record of the things done to real people that have been obscured by silence or jargon - "targeted killings" or Donald Rumsfeld double-speak: "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." I was an apologist for these people who talked about Iraq as a line in the sand in thje West's valiant "war against terror". I was a nodding dog because, though I should have known better, I didn't want to listen to those who said the 2003 invasion of Iraq was wrong and that it would lead to greater disaster. Reading this book made me realise that everything I thought I knew about the Middle East was wrong or at least was more wrong than right. If that doesn't satisfy you, tough; you'll just have to take my word for it: that book has made a difference. 

The coincidence of finishing it on the day that MPs in Parliament were debating whether to send in RAF bombers against the executioners of Islamic State merely reminded me of history’s barbed-wire ironies, the snagging statements of intent by presidents and prime ministers whose words cause others to bleed.

As MPs rose to address the nation, and posterity, I read: it was little wonder that as the West’s moral and physical power was smashed in the Middle East, a new wave of al-Queda-style bombings reached us across the world, even taking the lives of more than fifty Londoners on 7 July 2005 when the city’s tube and bus systems were attacked by suicide bombers. Prime Minister Blair still insisted this had nothing to do with Britain’s role in Iraq – a claim that seemed all the more mendacious when it was revealed that the British security apparatus had already warned of just such attacks after Britain occupied southern Iraq...

No one grasped that the leader of the Islamic side in this so-called war – bin Laden – was now irrelevant. The billions of dollars spent in trying to find him proved that we had still not understood the reality of the attacks of 11 September, 2001: bin Laden had created al-Qaeda, but his role was now largely ceremonial, theological rather than now existed in the minds of thousands of Muslims. The monster – as Western journalists like to refer to their enemies – had grown up and propagated.

Who created that monster? We did. Fisk’s book rewinds history back to the start of the Great War and the botched settlements in the Middle East that followed the destruction of the Ottoman Empire in Palestine and Arabia. But if you read William Dalrymple's Return of a King, you can trace the origins of present day bitterness in Afghanistan back to Britain's first botched venture into the country back in the early nineteenth century. Fearing a joint attack on its Imperial interests in India byTsarist Russia and Napoleonic France, Britain sent out an armed embassy loaded with gifts; but in seeking friends and allies we backed the wrong tribal leaders, which later resulted in military defeat in the first Afghan War followed by British reprisals of such savagery that they would never be forgotten or forgiven by future generations. I bought and read Dalrymple's fine book last year.

The monster emerged in the form of the Taliban in Afghanistan and then al-Qaeda and now Islamic State. Different groups with different agendas perhaps, but all nourished by spilt blood and broken promises.  Professor Paul Rogers, from Bradford University’s department of Peace Studies, suggested as much when he told me: “The Taliban were supposed to be defeated in six weeks; Saddam Hussein in three weeks. But the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been going on for 13 and 11 years respectively. It is tempting to say we should destroy Islamic State, but you have to be incredibly cautious. The toughest elements of IS are Iraqis who fought against the Americans after 2003. I think they will probably welcome it (US and British bombing) because it supports their case against the West.”

Fisk’s book, published in 2006, concludes with the Iraqi insurgency and its ramifications, the shock waves of which are still making the horizon quiver. Interestingly he includes a quote from T S Eliot, made in 1946: Justice itself tends to be corrupted by political passion; and that meddling in other people’s affairs which was formerly conducted by the most discreet intrigue is now openly advocated under the name of intervention. Nations which once shrank from condemning the most flagitious violation of human rights in Germany, are now exhorted to interfere in other countries’ government – and always in the name of peace and concord. Respect for the culture, the pattern of life, of other respect for history; and by history we set no great store.

History repeats itself, first as tragedy and then farce. Those who fail to learn from the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them...Given the present circumstance we may extend that dialectic: the only lesson we learn from our mistakes is to repeat them with more expertise.

Today's debate in the Commons was ostensibly about bombing IS in Iraq - at least that was the message from the Conservative chief whip's office yesterday; but I gather that during the seven-hour debate some Tory MPs were bidding up RAF air strikes to include Syria. Well, that's not what the House overwhelmingly voted in favour of. It would be the mother of all ironies if the West ended up bombing the enemies of Syria's Government when just 13 months ago David Cameron was all for bombing the Assad regime. 

Three days before finishing Fisk’s great and shaming ensemble of recollections, press cuttings and polemic, I saw a small story on page 25 of The Independent. The headline, ‘Rabbi’s car firebombed after he criticised Israel’s actions in Gaza’ didn’t prepare me for what I read underneath.
The torching of Rabbi Ahron Cohen’s Volvo estate happened not in Israel but in Rochdale, Greater Manchester, two weeks after the George Bernard Shaw-bearded rabbi publicly voiced disapproval of Israel’s military policy in supposedly independent Gaza. An anonymous neighbour said: “His views have angered a lot of people around here. A lot of families have boys in the Israeli army.”

I don’t imagine that Home Secretary Teresa May will be discussing with her officials whether these fighters for Israeli freedom should be allowed back into Britain, after all Israel is not a threat to our way of life, is it?