SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 114 - December 2007/January 2008

Indicting imperialism

The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East

By Robert Fisk

Harper, 2006, £9-99

Reviewed by

Per-Ake Westerlund

WHO CARRIES the responsibility for the catastrophe in the Middle East? In this book, the journalist Robert Fisk attempts to account for what has taken place in the region over the last 30 years.

Fisk has experienced more than most movie heroes. Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini and Osama bin Ladin are two of the many people he has interviewed as a correspondent, first for The Times and later for The Independent. He was in Iran during and after the revolution in 1979. He made several visits to the front lines on both sides during the war between Iraq and Iran, from 1980-88. He travelled with Russian troops in the 1980s in Afghanistan, and was beaten up there by an angry crowd following the US bombings in 2001. He came to Baghdad on the last plane in just before Bush fired the first missiles in March 2003.

Fisk is willing to take risks in order to get his own opinion of what’s going on. He has increasingly challenged the media majority, with his critique of the Iraq war and Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians. What he writes is therefore always worth reading, not least this book, over 1,000 pages of recent Middle East history. The point of departure is his own experiences, but the theme is the responsibility of the Western powers for war, suffering and dictatorships in this part of the world. "Historically, there has been no Western involvement in the Arab world without betrayal", is one of his conclusions.

Fisk writes that September 11 was not the reason for this book, but it is an attempt to explain the background to that event. How could Osama bin Laden win popularity contests? Where did he originate from? The answer is about history. During the 20th century the Western powers have repeatedly started wars, occupied countries, and overthrown regimes in the Middle East. Fisk says that a sensible Arab would agree that September 11 was a crime, but would also ask why the same word is not used when 17,500 civilians were killed by Israel’s invasion in Lebanon in 1982? While the regimes in the Middle East are close friends of the US – Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the present Palestinian president, Abbas – bin Laden and other Islamists have reminded the masses of the wars conducted by the US and Israel against Muslims. When the Stalinist communist parties and the social democratic labour movement internationally completely failed to give a way forward for the struggle, religion has appeared as a political factor. This has also been used by the regimes – not least Saddam Hussein in his last years – portraying themselves as real Muslims.

Following 9/11, George W Bush, with the support of all ‘world leaders’, decided to bomb the already devastated Afghanistan. When that country was invaded by the Soviet Union in 1980 it was the start of 16 years of war, with over one million being killed and six million refugees. The declining Stalinist regime in Moscow was forced to retreat in 1988 after a long war against the mujahedin ‘holy warriors’, hailed by the US president Reagan as ‘freedom fighters’. Among them was a Saudi contingent, led by the billionaire bin Laden, financed and supported by the CIA, the Saudi monarchy, and Pakistan. From 1988 followed years of civil war between different mujahedin troops, before the Taliban took power in 1996. The Taliban were the children of poor Afghan refugees, grew up in right-wing Islamist schools in Pakistan, and were armed by the Pakistani secret service. The Taliban quickly took control over the country and established a strongly reactionary Islamist regime, notorious for its oppression of women, bans on music etc. Osama bin Ladin, in conflict with the Saudis and the US after the first Iraq war in 1991, was a guest of honour in Taliban Afghanistan.

Despite the character of the Taliban, Fisk warned what Bush’s bombing would lead to. The Northern Alliance, Bush’s allied ground troops, were also Islamist right-wing killers – just in opposition to the Taliban. The new president, Hamid Karzai, was a former employee of Unocal, the US oil company that attempted to get a deal with the Taliban over a pipeline from Central Asia to Pakistan. The warnings were confirmed in a short time, and today the civilian population is caught in a war between the re-emerging Taliban and US-led troops.

Fisk also provides a background account of developments in Iran, going back to 1953 when Iran’s elected prime minister, Muhammed Mosaddeq, was overthrown after he had nationalised the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (later British Petroleum). In the 1980s Fisk interviewed one of the British agents who, together with the CIA, conducted the coup and installed the Shah’s regime, including his vicious secret police, the SAVAK. The Shah became a reliable ally of US imperialism, as an oil supplier and militarily. From below, however, Iranian nationalism and a hatred against the US was strengthened.

This eventually exploded in the revolution in 1979. Fisk quotes his reporter friend, Edward Mortimer, who described the revolution as "the most genuine since 1917 anywhere in the world". Fisk’s main weakness is that he does not understand the role of the working class, although he stresses that the "urban poor" were the main force of the revolution. The slogans, and the hopes, of workers and some left-wing organisations for a ‘people’s democracy’ soon collided with the intentions of the Islamists and the mullahs. The working class in northern Iran confiscated capitalist property, while Khomeini’s regime, based on wealthier layers in the cities, was against all kind of confiscation. For a long time, the left could rally strong support. Fisk describes how half a million students demonstrated with the illegal Fedayin in November 1979. Khomeini had to act gradually to smash the left and the organisations of the working class. He exploited the conflict with US imperialism to a maximum, leading the pro-Moscow communist party, the Tudeh party, to support Khomeini until the party was crushed in 1983. Even then, the regime in Russia had no problem in continuing to sell arms to Tehran. Mass purges were also conducted during the war against Iraq, sometimes on the basis of ‘anti-communist’ information supplied from the West. During 1983, 60 people a day were executed, many of them youth.

When Saddam’s military machine attacked Iran in 1980 the mood among ‘experts’ and in the media was that Iraq would achieve a rapid victory. But the troops got stuck soon after passing the border, and the Iraqi army started using missiles against Iranian cities, including chemical weapons. Fisk gives detailed and moving reports from the front lines, describes the horrors and interviews Iranian child soldiers, on the front to become martyrs.

The Western powers never wavered in their support for Saddam – it was in 1983 that Donald Rumsfeld, then the US defence secretary as in 2003, made his notorious visit to Saddam – even if some of them sold arms to both the belligerent countries during the eight-year-long conflict that cost more than one million lives. More than 60 US officers acted as ‘military advisors’ to Saddam, who also received satellite intelligence from Washington. Saudi Arabia paid more than $25 billion towards Baghdad’s war costs. Kuwait and Egypt were other sponsors.

Not even during Anfal, Saddam’s deadly war against the Kurds in northern Iraq, did the West protest. In Halabja alone, 5,000 Kurds were killed by chemical weapons on 17-18 March 1988.

The US navy was mobilised to the Persian Gulf, as a threat against Iran. A US missile shot down a civilian Iranian aircraft with civilian passengers. The US hypocrisy, however, was exposed in the Iran-Contra affair in 1986. The US had secretly sold 200 missiles to Iran in hope of getting US hostages released by Iranian-linked groups in Lebanon. The money from the arms deal was then sent to the reactionary Contra troops in Nicaragua.

When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990 he had got the impression from the US ambassador in Baghdad that Washington would not react. He was still the West’s man. As late as June 1990 the British government had approved sales of new chemical equipment to Iraq. Kuwait had been part of the same Ottoman province as Iraq until 1899, and had come close to being part of Iraq again in 1958, only stopped then by British troops.

But at stake this time was oil, and the interests of other US allies. The Saudi regime invited US troops into the most important country of Islam, with wide repercussions later. The build-up to war took place under the illusion of an alliance with a UN flag, but in practice this was the biggest US war since the humiliating retreat from Vietnam. This time, the war started with massive air bombing, 40 days and 40 nights with 80,000 tons of explosives, more than in the second world war. Bridges, power stations and hospitals were among the targets. Saddam’s troops lived off starvation rations and fled in panic before the ground attack took place. Between 100,000 and 200,000 Iraqis were massacred by the attacking US air force, tanks and troops.

George Bush senior than appealed for an uprising against Saddam, but allowed the Kurdish and Shia insurrections to be crushed in blood. "Rather the Saddam we know" than any other, insecure, regime, Fisk quotes an US official as saying. More people died in the quelling of the uprisings than in the war itself and two million Kurds became refugees.

The same Arab states that had paid for Saddam’s war against Iran a few years earlier took the bill this time as well, $84 billion. And in the two years that followed, the US sold armaments worth $28 billion to countries in the region.

Against an Iraq with a smashed infrastructure and impoverished population the UN now implemented sanctions. As a result "4,500 children die every month" said Dennis Halliday, representing Unicef, in October 1996. Robert Fisk reported about the Iraqi cancer children, victims of ammunition with depleted uranium, something that also affected many US soldiers. In the middle of the humanitarian crises, the US and Britain conducted new bombing raids, particularly in the New Year 1999.

After 9/11 and the attacks on Afghanistan it was clear that Bush, Rumsfeld and their neo-conservative advisers were aiming at Iraq. Fisk goes over all their invented arguments for war, from ‘weapons of mass destruction’ to al-Qaida ‘connections’. In addition, George W Bush promised ‘democracy for the entire Muslim world’, something he had hardly consulted his friends about in the regimes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt or Pakistan. The propaganda apparatus now demanded that the West’s support for Saddam should be forgotten. ‘War against terror’ at this stage also meant support to Israel and to Russia’s war in Chechnya. Fisk’s criticism meant that he was pointed out as a supporter of Saddam’s regime.

This war, which Fisk followed from Baghdad, meant even heavier bombing than 12 years earlier. Fisk contrasts the computer-guided missiles to the visits he made to suffering civilians in hospitals with no computers. The US now also used cluster bombs against civilians, something Israel has done twice in Lebanon.

Fisk remained in Baghdad after the ‘liberation’ of 9 April 2003, when the mass looting started. The US troops only protected the oil and home office ministry buildings. In Baghdad thousands-year old documents were destroyed while US generals moved into Saddam’s palaces. The US acted as all occupants do, Fisk writes. Demonstrators were shot down; Bremer, the US consul during the first year, banned Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr’s newspaper; scared US soldiers searched houses. With the Abu Ghraib prison and Guantanamo, the US also copied Saddam’s methods of torture, including using the same prison head doctor as Saddam. The US "will leave the country. But they can’t leave the country…", is Fisk’s summary of the crises of US imperialism in Iraq, a description that still holds today.

Robert Fisk’s book contains a lot of action, but also a lot of interesting subjects for analysis. He writes about the Armenian genocide of April 1915; the liberation war and the civil war of the 1990s in Algeria; and the Suez crises of 1956. He traces the producers of a Hellfire missile used by an Israeli Apache helicopter which killed civilians in an ambulance in Lebanon. He says that the cost of one year’s research about Parkinson’s disease (of which his mother died) is equivalent to five minutes global arms spending. He analyses Jordan and Syria; he writes about his father, who was a solider in world war one. His massive and well-founded criticism, however, never becomes a critique of the system, of capitalism and imperialism. He still says ‘we’ when describing British and US military attacks.

Workers and socialists in the Middle East and internationally must draw the necessary conclusions from the region’s history and current events. The working class, allied with the urban poor and peasants, need a socialist and revolutionary party, able to unite the class in struggle over religious and ethnic differences, against capitalism, imperialism and dictatorship.


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