American demonstrators on May 1st 2002, protesting against the far-right “Front National” party’s electoral showings in place de la Bastille in Paris. —photo by David Henry
It has finally become intolerable to listen to or look at news in this country. I’ve told myself over and over again that one ought to leaf through the daily papers and turn on the TV for the national news every evening, just to find out what “the country” is thinking and planning, but patience and masochism have their limits. Colin Powell’s UN speech, designed obviously to outrage the American people and bludgeon the UN into going to war, seems to me to have been a new low point in moral hypocrisy and political manipulation. But Donald Rumsfeld’s lectures in Munich this past weekend went one step further than the bumbling Powell in unctuous sermonising and bullying derision.
For the moment, I shall discount George Bush and his coterie of advisers, spiritual mentors, and political managers like Pat Robertson, Franklin Graham, and Karl Rove: they seem to me slaves of power perfectly embodied in the repetitive monotone of their collective spokesman Ari Fliescher (who I believe is also an Israeli citizen). Bush is, he has said, in direct contact with God, or if not God, then at least Providence. Perhaps only Israeli settlers can converse with him. But the secretaries of state and defense seem to have emanated from the secular world of real women and men, so it may be somewhat more opportune to linger for a time over their words and activities.
First, a few preliminaries. The US has clearly decided on war: there seem to be no two ways about it. Yet whether the war will actually take place or not (given all the activity started, not by the Arab states who, as usual, seem to dither and be paralysed at the same time, but by France, Russia and Germany) is something else again. Nevertheless to have transported 200,000 troops to Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, leaving aside smaller deployments in Jordan, Turkey and Israel can mean only one thing.
Second, the planners of this war, as Ralph Nader has forcefully said, are chicken hawks, that is, hawks who are too cowardly to do any fighting themselves. Wolfowitz, Perle, Bush, Cheney and others of that entirely civilian group were to a man in strong favor of the Vietnam War, yet each of them got a deferment based on privilege, and therefore never fought or so much as even served in the armed forces. Their belligerence is therefore morally repugnant and, in the literal sense, anti-democratic in the extreme. What this unrepresentative cabal seeks in a war with Iraq has nothing to do with actual military considerations. Iraq, whatever the disgusting qualities of its deplorable regime, is simply not an imminent and credible threat to neighbors like Turkey, or Israel, or even Jordan (each of which could easily handle it militarily) or certainly to the US. Any argument to the contrary is simply a preposterous, entirely frivolous proposition. With a few outdated Scuds, and a small amount of chemical and biological material, most of it supplied by the US in earlier days (as Nader has said, we know that because we have the receipts for what was sold to Iraq by US companies), Iraq is, and has easily been, containable, though at unconscionable cost to the long-suffering civilian population. For this terrible state of affairs I think it is absolutely true to say that there has been collusion between the Iraqi regime and the Western enforcers of the sanctions.
Third, once big powers start to dream of regime change—a process already begun by the Perles and Wolfowitzs of this country—there is simply no end in sight. Isn’t it outrageous that people of such a dubious caliber actually go on blathering about bringing democracy, modernisation, and liberalisation to the Middle East? God knows that the area needs it, as so many Arab and Muslim intellectuals and ordinary people have said over and over. But who appointed these characters as agents of progress anyway? And what entitles them to pontificate in so shameless a way when there are already so many injustices and abuses in their own country to be remedied? It’s particularly galling that Perle, about as unqualified a person as it is imaginable to be on any subject touching on democracy and justice, should have been an election adviser to Netanyahu’s extreme right-wing government during the period 1996–9, in which he counseled the renegade Israeli to scrap any and all peace attempts, to annex the West Bank and Gaza, and try to get rid of as many Palestinians as possible. This man now talks about bringing democracy to the Middle East, and does so without provoking the slightest objection from any of the media pundits who politely (abjectly) quiz him on national television.
Fourth, Colin Powell’s speech, despite its many weaknesses, its plagiarised and manufactured evidence, its confected audio-tapes and its doctored pictures, was correct in one thing. Saddam Hussein’s regime has violated numerous human rights and UN resolutions. There can be no arguing with that and no excuses can be allowed. But what is so monumentally hypocritical about the official US position is that literally everything Powell has accused the Ba’athists of has been the stock in trade of every Israeli government since 1948, and at no time more flagrantly than since the occupation of 1967. Torture, illegal detention, assassination, assaults against civilians with missiles, helicopters and jet fighters, annexation of territory, transportation of civilians from one place to another for the purpose of imprisonment, mass killing (as in Qana, Jenin, Sabra and Shatilla to mention only the most obvious), denial of rights to free passage and unimpeded civilian movement, education, medical aid, use of civilians as human shields, humiliation, punishment of families, house demolitions on a mass scale, destruction of agricultural land, expropriation of water, illegal settlement, economic pauperisation, attacks on hospitals, medical workers and ambulances, killing of UN personnel, to name only the most outrageous abuses: all these, it should be noted with emphasis, have been carried on with the total, unconditional support of the United States which has not only supplied Israel with the weapons for such practices and every kind of military and intelligence aid, but also has given the country upwards of $135 billion in economic aid on a scale that beggars the relative amount per capita spent by the US government on its own citizens.
This is an unconscionable record to hold against the US, and Mr Powell as its human symbol in particular. As the person in charge of US foreign policy, it is his specific responsibility to uphold the laws of this country, and to make sure that the enforcement of human rights and the promotion of freedom—the proclaimed central plank in the US’s foreign policy since at least 1976—is applied uniformly, without exception or condition. How he and his bosses and co-workers can stand up before the world and righteously sermonise against Iraq while at the same time completely ignoring the ongoing American partnership in human rights abuses with Israel defies credibility. And yet no one, in all the justified critiques of the US position that have appeared since Powell made his great UN speech, has focused on this point, not even the ever-so-upright French and Germans.
The Palestinian territories today are witnessing the onset of a mass famine; there is a health crisis of catastrophic proportions; there is a civilian death toll that totals at least a dozen to 20 people a week; the economy has collapsed; hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians are unable to work, study, or move about as curfews and at least 300 barricades impede their daily lives; houses are blown up or bulldozed on a mass basis (60 yesterday). And all of it with US equipment, US political support, US finances. Bush declares that Sharon, who is a war criminal by any standard, is a man of peace, as if to spit on the innocent Palestinians’ lives that have been lost and ravaged by Sharon and his criminal army. And he has the gall to say that he acts in God’s name, and that he (and his administration) act to serve “a just and faithful God”. And, more astounding yet, he lectures the world on Saddam’s flouting of UN resolutions even as he supports a country, Israel, that has flouted at least 64 of them on a daily basis for more than half a century.
But so craven and so ineffective are the Arab regimes today that they don’t dare state any of these things publicly. Many of them need US economic aid. Many of them fear their own people and need US support to prop up their regimes. Many of them could be accused of some of the same crimes against humanity. So they say nothing, and just hope and pray that the war will pass, while in the end keeping them in power as they are.
But it is also a great and noble fact that for the first time since World War Two there are mass protests against the war taking place before rather than during the war itself. This is unprecedented and should become the central political fact of the new, globalised era into which our world has been thrust by the US and its super-power status. What this demonstrates is that despite the awesome power wielded by autocrats and tyrants like Saddam and his American antagonists, despite the complicity of a mass media that has (willingly or unwillingly) hastened the rush to war, despite the indifference and ignorance of a great many people, mass action and mass protest on the basis of human community and human sustainability are still formidable tools of human resistance. Call them weapons of the weak, if you wish. But that they have at least tampered with the plans of the Washington chicken hawks and their corporate backers, as well as the millions of religious monotheistic extremists (Christian, Jewish, Muslim) who believe in wars of religion, is a great beacon of hope for our time. Wherever I go to lecture or speak out against these injustices I haven’t found anyone in support of the war. Our job as Arabs is to link our opposition to US action in Iraq to our support for human rights in Iraq, Palestine, Israel, Kurdistan and everywhere in the Arab world—and also ask others to force the same linkage on everyone, Arab, American, African, European, Australian and Asian. These are world issues, human issues, not simply strategic matters for the United States or the other major powers.
We cannot in any way lend our silence to a policy of war that the White House has openly announced will include three to five hundred cruise missiles a day (800 of them during the first 48 hours of the war) raining down on the civilian population of Baghdad in order to produce “Shock and Awe”, or even a human cataclysm that will produce, as its boastful planner a certain Mr (or is it Dr?) Harlan Ullman has said, a Hiroshima-style effect on the Iraqi people. Note that during the 1991 Gulf War after 41 days of bombing Iraq this scale of human devastation was not even approached. And the US has 6,000 “smart” missiles ready to do the job. What sort of God would want this to be a formulated and announced policy for His people? And what sort of God would claim that this was going to bring democracy and freedom to the people not only of Iraq but to the rest of the Middle East?
These are questions I won’t even try to answer. But I do know that if anything like this is going to be visited on any population on earth it would be a criminal act, and its perpetrators and planners war criminals according to the Nuremberg Laws that the US itself was crucial in formulating. Not for nothing do General Sharon and Shaul Mofaz welcome the war and praise George Bush. Who knows what more evil will be done in the name of Good? Every one of us must raise our voices, and march in protest, now and again and again. We need creative thinking and bold action to stave off the nightmares planned by a docile, professionalised staff in places like Washington and Tel Aviv and Baghdad. For if what they have in mind is what they call “greater security” then words have no meaning at all in the ordinary sense. That Bush and Sharon have contempt for the non-white people of this world is clear. The question is, how long can they keep getting away with it?
—Edward Said 16/02/2003