Coffee With Robert Fisk

Militarily, the most helpful – or least harmful – thing the West can do is to withdraw all troops from the entire Middle East, and from South Asia to boot. That’s the bottom line I got from a conversation with celebrated British foreign correspondent Robert Fisk a couple of weeks ago. Pulling out the military doesn’t imply reducing or downgrading cultural, social, or economic relations; in fact, it would be helpful if those kinds of relations were strengthened, and getting the troops out would likely lead to such strengthening. But the longer the West keeps troops in the Middle East, the more insurgents/jihadists/disgruntled opponents it will create.

Mr. Fisk was in California for a speech at Chapman University and was able to spend about 90 minutes with me and my colleague at the Orange County Register, Steve Greenhut, over lots of coffee. We had met with him once before, just before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, against which he had advised strongly (and which the Register opposed vociferously).

Fisk, who lives in Beirut, can be controversial, especially in that he tends to be more critical of Israel than most correspondents. The Independent, the newspaper for which he writes, prints opinion columns from him as well as straight reporting. Nonetheless, he is widely viewed as the most experienced and honored English foreign correspondent, having been named the British Press Awards International Journalist of the Year seven times. He speaks fluent Arabic. In three decades he has covered 11 outright wars and innumerable smaller-scale conflicts. He has a new book out, The Age of the Warrior, consisting mostly of articles published in the Independent over the last five years, on an array of topics (he’s interested in much more than politics and war). To the limited extent I’ve dipped into it, I’ve found it fascinating, but I’ll report more fully when I’ve finished it.

By the way, despite Internet rumors, he’s not ready to think about retiring.

Although I wouldn’t be surprised if he has left-of-center ideological inclinations – which I certainly don’t – in our conversations he has not expressed ideological views. He prefers to discuss facts on the ground as he has seen them in the context of his own extensive experience and knowledge of the region. You don’t need to view things through an ideological lens to notice that invading countries with late-blooming talk of democracy and freedom carried on tanks, Humvees, and bombs is unlikely to make a lot of friends.

At any rate, here are some impressions and insights I scribbled down as we were talking.

Fisk thinks that Osama bin Laden, whom he interviewed three times, once in Sudan and twice in Afghanistan, all before 9/11, is fairly irrelevant now. Bin Laden created al-Qaeda, and it will survive in some form or another for some time to come, whether he is alive or dead. Incidentally, Fisk told us that while his meetings with bin Laden all involved a certain amount of intrigue, he was never afraid. He figured bin Laden and his people had a strong interest in him not being harmed, and it turned out that way.

Fisk finds the U.S. media’s coverage of the rest of the world, especially the Middle East, quite appalling. Not only are most correspondents afraid to criticize Israel, they are reluctant to take on the Arab regimes, many of which are also worthy of informed criticism. The news media coverage of the Middle East, he says, bears almost no resemblance to the place where he lives and works. While it is still in nascent form, he observes, the Arab lobby has learned from the Israel lobby: pounce quickly and in a reasonably intimidating fashion, discerning bias and prejudice whenever anything remotely critical appears in print or on the air. That generally keeps other correspondents in line. Thus the "agencies," or wire services, are relatively useless as well.

When Tom Friedman is considered the cutting edge of knowledge about the Middle East and the rest of the world, Fisk observes, American journalism is in a lot of trouble. Fisk found The World Is Flat virtually unreadable, as did I, with its transformations of anecdotal encounters that may or may not have been representative into ersatz universal lessons.

Among the sins of most Western journalism is the use of dishonest terms in discussions of the Middle East. For instance, Israel’s wall between itself and the Palestinian territories (and sometimes within Palestinian territories) is a "security barrier." Most news reports speak of "disputed territories" rather than "occupied territories."

Perhaps most egregious is the failure to delve with anything more than superficial slogans into the possible reasons for hostility to the West or the U.S. in particular. Can it possibly be because Arabs "hate democracy"? Most of them wouldn’t know what democracy was if they suddenly woke up living in a fully democratic society. They have never experienced it. What they have experienced is invasion and military occupation by countries that call themselves democracies – several Western European colonial powers and now the United States. There are now 22 times as many Western soldiers in Anwar alone as the West had in the Middle East at the time of the Crusades, but Western journalists are not inclined or are not allowed to wonder if that has anything to do with why those benighted people hate us so.

We discussed the "surge" in Iraq a bit. While acknowledging that Iraq is certainly less violent than it was a year and a half ago, Fisk mentioned a couple of aspects that don’t get all that much attention in the West. The U.S. has essentially walled off most of the city of Baghdad into ethnic/religious enclaves. That makes it almost impossible for Sunnis to attack Shia and vice versa, of course, but it also makes it very difficulty for people to move around as they might do in a relatively peaceful, post-conflict city. He also notes that every time a guerrilla army is confronted with more troops from the occupation and/or government side, it takes a holiday, reasonably secure that in time the occupiers will have to leave. He also says that amid the general reduction of violence in Iraq, there are numerous secret hangings in Iraqi prisons. I haven’t been able to confirm this elsewhere, but it doesn’t seem unlikely.

As to the larger region, Fisk is simply fascinated by the fact that having essentially lost in Iraq, no matter how bravely Bush and others may talk (note that Petraeus is much more circumspect), Americans on all sides are eager to rush into Afghanistan, where every foreign occupier has lost. He notes that in later years even Mortimer Durand, who drew the Durand Line as a border between what is now Pakistan (then part of colonized India) and Afghanistan, acknowledged that it was not a good border. I would add that imperialists and colonists almost never draw good borders.

How can one get decent information about how things are really going in Iraq or other war zones? Fisk says his experience suggests that everyone up to the rank of major knows what’s really going on, and although some prefer anonymity most will talk fairly freely. He thinks it is quite possible that it will turn out that Iraq has the biggest oil reserves in the world, dwarfing those of Saudi Arabia, and that ironically enough much of it will prove to be in the west, in what is considered Sunni territory, where the relative lack of developed oil resources is a constant source of friction. The insurgents in Iraq are now fighting, or keeping themselves organized and ready, mainly to have a stake in the future regime, whatever it turns out to be when the U.S. finally leaves.

Fisk is fascinated at the fact that the U.S. is "loaded with experts on Islam and the Arab world" in universities and a few think tanks, but they are hardly ever consulted, while the stuff on which the State Department makes decisions about how to act – not to mention the Pentagon – is at a kindergarten level.

Despite all the recent conflicts, Fisk says, Beirut is still a beautiful city and a wonderful place to live despite periodic bombings. The Syrians, however, are back, and have almost as much control as before the "Cedar revolution" that supposedly ushered in a pro-Western, democratic regime. The Syrians don’t have to cross the border to control Lebanon; they effectively control it already. He expects another Hezbollah-Israeli war before too long. I don’t know if I agree, especially if Syria and Israel work out some kind of modus vivendi, but Fisk does live there.

It can be a bit demoralizing to have a discussion focused on the folly and ignorance most Western powers bring to their fitful efforts to control the Middle East, but at the same time it is bracing to hear frank opinions backed by knowledge and experience. If I don’t get to Beirut anytime soon – and it’s unlikely considering the economic trouble our newspaper, like most U.S. newspapers, is facing – I hope Robert Fisk returns to California in the near future.

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Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).