Pity the Region
Yet for Americans fed a bland diet of government-manipulated news about the Middle East, The Great War for Civilisation should be a bracing, troubling book. American journalism does not come off well, although Fisk doffs his cap to several veteran reporters, including John Kifner of the New York Times and the late Peter Jennings. During the 1991 Gulf War, he writes, journalists became "mere cyphers, mouthpieces of generals, discreetly avoiding any moral questions, switching off their cameras--as we would later witness--when the horrors of war became too obvious. Journalists connived in the war, supported it, became part of it. Immaturity, inexperience, upbringing: you can choose any excuse you want. But they created war without death. They lied." (Fisk has never been accused of mincing words.) The ease with which the mainstream media became accomplices to the White House in the rush to war in Iraq less than three years ago suggests that Fisk's charges apply with equal force today.
The New York Times comes in for particularly tough criticism in Fisk's book. He accuses the Times of being gutless for its elliptical coverage of Iraq's use of chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88). Fisk was one of the few Western journalists who reported from both the Iranian and Iraqi fronts during the war, and he wrote of Saddam's use of gas several years before Iraq's defiance of Washington made it politically acceptable to do so in the paper of record. His description of riding on a troop train returning casualties from the front is a rejoinder to the Gray Lady's doubts (at the time) about the Iraqi use of gas:
Then I pull open the connecting door of the next carriage and they are sitting in there by the dozen, the young soldiers and Revolutionary Guards of the Islamic Republic, coughing softly into tissues and gauze cloths. Some are in open carriages, others crammed into compartments, all slowly dribbling blood and mucus from their mouths and noses.
Times columnist Thomas Friedman, described as "messianic" and featured for certitudes with short half-lives, might wonder what Fisk would write about him were he not a "friend" from their days in Lebanon during the civil war, when Friedman made a name for himself as a fine, honest war reporter. Policy experts are not spared either, including the Brookings Institution's Kenneth Pollack, who is assailed for his "most meretricious" book The Threatening Storm, which convinced many liberal intellectuals to endorse the Iraq War. As Fisk notes, the book was no less flawed and biased in its blinkered assumptions than the Bush Administration's self-deceptive paradigm of Iraq.
But in decrying the timorousness of intellectuals, he makes his own no less bold claims to special knowledge, if not truth, grounded in appreciation of history's lessons in the Middle East. One of those lessons is that foreign intervention typically leads to catastrophe, particularly for the region's residents and often for the intervening state. There is precedent for the claim, including Lebanon in the early 1980s and Iran in the 1970s. Yet reading The Great War for Civilisation the credulous reader would imagine that the US invasion of Afghanistan was wholly unpopular with the Afghans. In fact, the toppling of the Taliban, while not universally applauded, was welcomed by many, many Afghans. He even wrote in 2003 that the American mission in the country was "collapsing," which reveals that Fisk may sometimes be as blinkered as those he derides.
Fisk also has an unfortunate weakness for lazy harangues, as in his evocation of the buildup to the war against Saddam Hussein:
This war, about oil and regional control, was being cheer-led by a president who was treacherously telling us that this was part of an eternal war against "terror." The British and most Europeans didn't believe him. It's not that Britons wouldn't fight for America. They just didn't want to fight for Bush or his friends. And if that included the prime minister, they didn't want to fight for Blair either. Still less did they wish to embark on endless wars with a Texas governor-executioner who dodged the Vietnam draft and who, with his oil buddies, was now sending America's poor to destroy a Muslim nation that had nothing at all to do with the crimes against humanity of 11 September 2001.