Pity the Region
In the Middle East, Fisk observes, "the people live their past history, again and again, every day," and for two centuries that history has largely been shaped by outside powers, especially imperial France and Britain, the expansionist Soviet Union and for more than half a century the United States. Certainly, were it not for the etching of borders associated with seminal documents--the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, the 1917 Balfour Declaration, Lord Mountbatten's plan for the partition of British India--the region as we know it would scarcely exist. Yet even to conjure the region absent these decisive great-power intrusions is such a complex exercise in recursion that it serves to demonstrate how deeply implicated others have been in engraving the history of the region. Long after the echoes of Napoleon's cannons firing on the port of Alexandria in 1798 quieted, the profound changes that the invasion launched in Egypt and the wider Arab world reverberated. The deadly effects of "great wars" on the field of battle are clear enough, whether in the mud and slaughter of the Somme or on the hills of Maysaloun, where in 1920 the French vanquished the Arab struggle for an independent Syria. But it was what followed those episodes of mayhem that gave decisive shape to the modern Middle East: the drawing of boundaries, co-optation of local elites, economic subordination and the maneuvering of pieces on geopolitical chessboards. French generals, British diplomats and American missionaries were people with a plan. Their hubris, in Fisk's view, was to impose Western civilization on the people of the Middle East, and their efforts were part of a continuing "great war for civilisation" that has as its goal the conquest of the region.
Fisk sees no good coming from these ceaseless interventions. Indeed, he argues that campaigns in the "war for civilisation" may begin with optimism but typically end in catastrophe--America's invasion of Iraq in March 2003 being a case in point. The invasion was informed not only by a willful contempt for history and an extravagant display of ethnocentrism but also by a framework of best-case scenarios and fantasies untouched by empirical knowledge of Iraq, as the case of the Iraqi Shiites illustrates. If a new Iraq emerges from the current violent stalemate, it will look very little like the exemplary democratic state that Bush or his chorus of war-boosters envisaged. In fact, it is likely to be closer to the Iranian model of "Islamic democracy," provided it does not descend further into civil war. Fisk's cynicism about Anglo-American policy in Iraq is richly borne out by the legacy of deprivation, death and disorder that the invasion, and the preceding decade of sanctions and nibbling attacks by the United States and Britain, have yielded.
In the area around Basra in southern Iraq, to take one of many examples in Fisk's book, there has been a phenomenal epidemic of leukemia, breast and stomach cancer presumably connected to the introduction of an estimated 340 tons of radioactive material into the environment during the 1991 Gulf War. The source of the radioactivity? The profligate use of depleted uranium ammunition by the US military. In areas where the ammunition was fired in great quantities, cancer rates in children are as high as 71.8 per 100,000 compared with a regional average of 3.9 per 100,000. An Iraqi doctor reviewing his patient files tells Fisk, "Of fifteen cancer patients from one area, I have only two left. I am receiving children with cancer of the bone--this is incredible.... My God, I have performed mastectomies on two girls with cancer of the breast--one of them was only fourteen years old." Fisk calls this the product of "a policy of bomb now, die later."
But is Iraq doomed to wallow in misery, or might something good come of this poorly conceived invasion? While there may be no escape from history, Fisk's dour emphasis on history's recurrent patterns risks producing a static picture of the region. In his eagerness to discover historical parallels, he sometimes fails to grasp the novel features of the present. As a result, he offers neither feasible prescriptions nor a persuasive analysis of possible outcomes. Even if one shares Fisk's skepticism of US motives in Iraq--and his conviction, echoed by the vast majority of Iraqis, that America's war is ultimately about oil--there is no question that politics in the region have been thrown off kilter by the occupation. The naïve conception of a democratic peace that has preoccupied George Bush--especially since Iraq's WMD larder proved to be empty--is irrelevant, except perhaps as an index of presidential gullibility, but after years of political stagnation there has clearly been a step-level change in the region.
Whether the outcome of the US-led invasion of Iraq will be constructive political turmoil leading to serious reform in obdurate autocracies, such as Egypt, Syria and Tunisia, or more horrific bloodshed and instability as Iraq plunges further into civil war, is a pertinent--and still unanswered--question. Although I opposed the invasion, my sense is that the political terms of reference have changed dramatically, if only because the United States and other Western states have been forced to acknowledge that the Islamist parties are the major opposition force in the region. Fanciful presumptions about secular oppositionists have been shelved, at least for now. As the recent elections in both Iraq and Egypt reveal, the Islamist parties will be an indelible component in whatever new equilibrium emerges in the region's political systems. Oddly, for all that Fisk has to say about the errors, deceptions and missteps of US policy, he sheds scant light on the possible future of regional politics, other than showing how America's policies have been a boon to followers of Osama bin Laden. Given his long years in the Middle East, it is surprising that his book lacks a serious assessment of how the region might be affected by America's Iraq adventure.
Then again, Fisk is not offering a volume of prognostication but a work of memory. And if there is one clear lesson of this book, it is that while wars, crusades and terror may erase people, memories and the quest for retributive justice are not so easily extinguished. In his reporting on the region's wars, Fisk has waged a campaign against forgetting and deliberate amnesia.