Pity the Region
Fisk is at his best when he gets off his soapbox and concentrates on his strengths: telling the stories of history's victims and exposing the lies of the powerful. Some of the most impressive writing in The Great War for Civilisation, which ranges across a century of regional conflict, explores events that took place decades before the author's birth, notably the Armenian genocide of 1915, the subject of a chapter titled "The First Holocaust." Fisk's prodigious skills as a narrator are on vivid display in his moving account of Armenians marching off to death, based on interviews he conducted with survivors living their last days in a home for the blind in Beirut. "The First Holocaust" will make it more difficult for Turkey and its well-placed friends (among them Princeton historian Bernard Lewis, a favored guest at the Vice Presidential mansion) to sustain its campaign of denial.
The Great War for Civilisation is also peopled with extraordinary characters, whom Fisk wisely allows to speak for themselves in all their fascinating--and disconcerting--dissonance. When he meets Mikhail Kalashnikov at an international arms fair in Abu Dhabi, the inventor of the eponymous rifle assures him that good prevails in the end and that "the time will come when my weapons will be no more used or necessary." (Needless to say, Fisk does not share his optimism.) And there are indelible scenes, notably an interview in Iran's Qasr prison with Sadeq Khalkhali, the infamous cleric who summarily dispatched many functionaries of the Shah's regime to the firing squad. While offering a religious defense of stoning, Khalkhali attacks a tub of ice cream, digging "his little spoon into the melting white ice-cream, oblivious to the bare-headed prisoners who trudged past behind him, heaving barrels loaded with cauldrons of vegetable soup." Not far away women in chadors, clutching children, seek the release of their imprisoned husbands, but the smiling Khalkhali pays them no mind.
Fisk is sometimes rather too eager for the spotlight, making himself a character in the dramas he reports. Writing of the assassination of Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, a leading Iraqi Shiite cleric, he says, "Only when I asked to visit Najaf in [July] 1980 did a Baath Party official tell the truth." But my recollection (I was then in Lebanon) was that months before his "scoop" there was no lack of knowledge about the savage killing of the revered cleric in Abu Ghraib prison. Sadr died as nails were driven into his head, after he was forced to watch the abuse and then execution of his sister, Bint Huda. Still, Fisk has captured many a scoop during his long and distinguished career, from his reporting on Sabra and Shatila to his revelations that the Iranian passenger jet blasted out of the air in 1988 by the USS Vincennes was identified by other American naval vessels as a civilian plane on a routine, scheduled flight, contrary to official US claims at the time.
What is more, he has been especially fearless in uncovering official deception, as in his reporting on Israel's siege of the West Bank in 2002, when Palestinian residences and government offices were ransacked, pillaged and smeared with feces. Israel tried futilely to dismiss reports as "baseless incitement whipped up by the Palestinian Authority," but the stories by Fisk and others proved otherwise. He contrasts American journalists "who report in so craven a fashion from the Middle East--so fearful of Israeli criticism that they turn Israeli murder into 'targeted attacks' and illegal settlements into 'Jewish neighborhoods'" with their Israeli colleagues, notably Ha'aretz's Ramallah correspondent Amira Hass, who abjures pablum and writes with deep moral insight about Israelis and Palestinians.
Although he is often vilified by Israel's friends for his criticisms of the Jewish state, Fisk is no less scathing about the late Yasir Arafat and other Arab and Muslim politicians and despots, many of whom, he notes, have benefited from the self-interested patronage of the powerful, including the United States. After the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993, the United States and Israel were content to allow Arafat to establish himself as a petty autocrat, one of a number of aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that Fisk treats in a fifty-page chapter and at various other points in his book. A different choice might have been made by insisting on building democratic political structures in Palestine. Instead, there was a myopic focus on Israeli "security," with Arafat cast as Israel's gendarme in Palestine. In 1994 I asked Yossi Beilin at a private meeting in Boston whether a peace built between societies would be more durable than one made by forging a deal with Arafat and his cronies. Beilin was then Deputy Foreign Minister in the government of Yitzhak Rabin, and he was a key architect of the Oslo "peace process." He replied impatiently: "The Palestinian state is going to be a dictatorship just like all the other Arab states." As Fisk notes, neither the Israelis nor the Americans objected to Arafat's allergy to democracy until the outbreak of the second intifada, when the call for Palestinian political reform became a virtual mantra in Washington and Tel Aviv:
Far from condemning the ever-increasing signs of despotism on the other side of their border, the Israelis lavished only praise on Arafat's new security measures. U.S. State Department spokesmen, while making routine reference to their "concern" for human rights, welcomed and congratulated Arafat on the vitality of his secret midnight courts--a fact bitterly condemned by Amnesty International. Equally secret meetings of Arafat's inner cabinet, which led to mass arrests of political opponents, were ignored by the U.S. administration.