Pity the Region | The Nation


Pity the Region

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After the assassination of Rabin in 1995, the Clinton Administration pursued an anemic policy vis-à-vis the new Likud government of Benjamin Netanyahu. Clinton privately characterized Netanyahu as unable to "recognize the humanity of the Palestinians," but the Israeli prime minister was permitted to undermine the very peace process Clinton had welcomed with ceremony and fanfare on the White House lawn in 1993.

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Augustus Richard Norton
Augustus Richard Norton, professor of anthropology and international relations at Boston University, is the author of...

Only in his last six months in office did Clinton get out front on peacemaking, first through an enormous effort at the Camp David summit in the summer of 2000 and then at Taba in the Sinai. Arafat was unfairly condemned by Clinton for sabotaging the effort because he would not accept then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak's take-it-or-leave-it offer. Even so, in the final months of the Clinton Administration the Palestinians and Israelis came close to nailing down the details of an agreement, but the new Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, was uninterested in a deal that would jeopardize his beloved West Bank settlements. The new American President, George W. Bush, espoused no interest in Middle East peacemaking and certainly did not want sloppy seconds to the despised Clinton. In any case, Bush's fixation was Iraq.

By the time Arafat died, in 2004--unmourned by Washington, hounded and surrounded by Sharon--he had long since become the villain, the sole "obstacle to peace." Then Israel departed forlorn Gaza, and in return "vast areas of the Palestinian West Bank would now become Israeli, courtesy of President Bush." With characteristic sarcasm, Fisk wonders about Bush: "Does he actually work for al-Qaeda?"

Few reporters in the West have gotten as close to the leader of Al Qaeda as Fisk, who landed two meetings with Osama bin Laden: the first in Khartoum in 1993, the second in Afghanistan in 1996. His accounts of the meetings are valuable for revealing bin Laden's concern for the fate of the Palestinians, which is often glossed as opportunistic by Western observers, as well as his contemplative demeanor and his confidence that "sooner or later the Americans will leave Saudi Arabia" and that "the war declared by America against the Saudi people means war against all Muslims everywhere." "Resistance against America will spread in many, many places in Muslim countries," he tells Fisk. Later, in February 2003, as the United States was poised to invade Iraq, bin Laden seized the opportunity to mobilize Muslims against the invaders and grasped the need to put aside his differences with secular Muslims opposed to America's presence in Iraq: "Despite our belief and our proclamation concerning the infidelity of socialists [i.e., Baathists], in present-day circumstances there is a coincidence of interests between Muslims and socialists in their battles against the Crusaders." This was bin Laden's call to arms in Iraq.

Yet Fisk fails to put bin Laden in context. Considering the many years that he has lived in and reported from the Middle East--and the formidable heft of his book--it's striking that he has not provided readers with a richer sense of the weave and texture of Muslim societies, where bin Laden's pursuit of cataclysm is widely abhorred and rejected, even as it inspires worrying numbers of jihadists to join the battle. Indeed, by the end of The Great War for Civilisation the reader is left with an extraordinary Hieronymus Bosch regional mural in mind. It is fascinating to gaze upon, often grotesque, but also quite incomplete. Not only does Fisk risk reducing complex societies to war zones, in a kind of anti-imperialist version of Orientalism; he also risks suggesting that most of the tensions and conflicts in the region, including the struggle over the meaning of Islam and Islamist politics, are simply a reaction to Western interference. The rise of the Arab Shiites, for example, has arguably more to do with local politics (and intra-Muslim struggles) than international relations--although nothing is merely local anymore. Fisk has an "externalist" view of the region, despite having lived there for decades. And one hardly gets a flavor of the various cultures within it. This is a systematic shortcoming of the book, which presents the Middle East as a cockpit of bloodshed and sorrow, not as a place where people face mundane challenges that ultimately must be addressed peacefully.

The Great War for Civilisation is 1,000-plus pages of history with attitude. It is not an impartial reading of contemporary Middle East history, but it is generally clear-eyed and consistently unflinching. The book seals Robert Fisk's place as a venerable, indispensable contributor to informed debate in and about the Middle East. If there are no realistic remedies on offer, there is generous informed criticism and a storehouse of rare detail and erudite reportage that serve as testimony to an exceptional career, one that is unmatched in its sustained intensity, moral introspection and courage. Lieut. William Fisk would be proud.

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