The Academy of Lagado

Edward Said

Full of contradictions, flat-out lies and groundless affirmations, the torrent of reporting and commentary on the ‘coalition’ war against Iraq has obscured the negligence of the military and policy experts who planned it and now justify it. For the past two weeks, I have been travelling in Egypt and Lebanon trying to keep up with the stream of information and misinformation coming out of Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar and Jordan, much of it misleadingly upbeat, but some of it horrifyingly dramatic in its import as well as its immediacy. The Arab satellite channels, al-Jazeera being by now the most notorious and efficient, have given a quite different view of the war from the standard stuff served up by American reporters with their mass uprisings in Basra, their multiple ‘falls’ of Umm Qasr and al-Faw, their talk of Iraqis being killed for not fighting, and their grimy pictures of themselves, as lost as the English-speaking soldiers they have been living with. Al-Jazeera has had reporters inside Mosul, Baghdad, Basra and Nasiriya, one of them the irrepressible Tasir Alouni, fluent veteran of the Afghanistan war, and they have presented a much more detailed, more realistic account of what has befallen Baghdad and Basra, as well as showing the resistance and anger of the Iraqi population, dismissed by Western propaganda as a sullen bunch waiting to throw flowers at Clint Eastwood lookalikes.

Let’s get straight to what is so unwise about this war, leaving aside for the moment its illegality and international unpopularity. In the first place, no one has satisfactorily proved that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction that furnish an imminent threat to the United States. Iraq is a hugely weakened and ineffective Third World state ruled by a hated despotic regime: there is no disagreement about that anywhere, least of all in the Arab and Islamic world. But that after 12 years of sanctions it is a threat of any kind to any other state is a laughable notion, and not a single journalist of the overpaid legions who swarm around the Pentagon, State Department and White House has ever bothered to investigate it.

Iraq might once have been a potential challenge to Israel. It was the one Arab country with the human and natural resources, as well as the infrastructure, to take on Israel’s arrogant brutality. That is why Begin bombed Iraq pre-emptively in 1981, supplying a model for the US in its own pre-emptive war. How regrettable that the media have failed to elucidate the Likud’s slow takeover of US military and political thinking about the Arab world. So fearful has everyone been of the charge of anti-semitism that the stranglehold of the neo-conservative cum Christian Right cum Pentagon civilian hawks on American policy is now a reality which forces the entire country into an attitude of undifferentiated bellicosity.

The idea that Iraq’s population would have welcomed American forces entering the country after a terrifying aerial bombardment was always utterly implausible. That this became one of the lynchpins of US policy is evidence of the rubbish fed to the Administration by the Iraqi opposition (many of whose members were out of touch with their country as well as keen on promoting their postwar careers by persuading the Americans of how easy an invasion would be) and by the two accredited Middle East experts identified long ago as having the most influence over American Middle East policy, Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami.

Now in his late eighties, Lewis came to the US from the UK some thirty years ago to teach at Princeton. His fervent anti-Communism and disapproval of everything about contemporary Arabs and Islam pushed him to the forefront of the pro-Israel contingents during the last years of the 20th century. An old-fashioned Orientalist who seems to have little feeling for any country in the region other than Turkey, he was quickly bypassed by the advances in the social sciences and humanities that formed a new generation of scholars who treated Arabs and Muslims as living subjects rather than benighted natives. For Lewis, vast generalisations about Islam and about the backwardness of ‘the Arabs’ were viable routes to the truth. Common sense about human experience was out: resounding pronouncements about the clash of civilisations were in (Samuel Huntington derived his lucrative concept from one of Lewis’s essays about the ‘return of Islam’). A generalist and an ideologue, Lewis found a new audience within the American Zionist lobby to whom, in journals such as Commentary and later the New York Review of Books, he addressed his tendentious pontifications.

What made Lewis’s work so damaging was its appeal – in the absence of any counter-argument – to American policy-makers. That, together with the superciliousness of his manner, turned him into an ‘authority’ even though he hadn’t entered, much less lived in, the Arab world in decades. His last book, What Went Wrong?, became a post-11 September bestseller and, I am told, required reading for the US military, despite its unsupported and often factually incorrect statements about the history of the Arabs over the past five hundred years. Reading the book, you get the idea that they are a useless bunch of primitives, easier to attack and destroy than ever before.

Lewis formulated the thesis that there were three overlapping circles in the Middle East: countries with pro-American people and governments (Jordan, Egypt and Morocco), countries with pro-American people and anti-American governments (Iraq and Iran), and countries with anti-American governments and people (Syria and Libya). This thinking gradually made its way into Pentagon planning, at the same time as Lewis repeated his simplistic formulae on television and in articles for the right-wing press. Arabs, it was now entirely reasonable to believe, wouldn’t fight; indeed, they would welcome us – they were entirely vulnerable to whatever power America could bring to bear on them.

Fouad Ajami is a Lebanese Shia educated in the US who made his name as a pro-Palestinian commentator. But by the mid-1980s, he was teaching at Johns Hopkins; he’d become a fervent anti-Arab ideologue and had been taken up by the right-wing Zionist lobby (he now works for Martin Peretz and Mort Zuckerman) and the Council on Foreign Relations. He is fond of describing himself as a non-fiction Naipaul and quotes Conrad while sounding as hokey as Khalil Gibran. He also has a penchant for catchy one-liners, ideally suited to television. The author of two or three books, he has become influential as a ‘native informant’ – the Arab ‘expert’ is a rare species on American networks. Ten years ago, he started deploying ‘we’ as an imperial collectivity which, along with Israel, never does anything wrong. Arabs are to blame for everything and therefore deserve ‘our’ contempt and hostility.

Ajami has always had it in for Iraq. He was an early advocate of the 1991 war and has, I think, deliberately misled the American strategic mind into believing that ‘our’ power can set things straight. Dick Cheney quoted him in a major speech last August as saying that Iraqis would welcome ‘us’ as liberators in ‘the streets of Basra’ – which still fights on as I write. Like Lewis, Ajami hasn’t been a resident of the Arab world for years, although he is rumoured to be close to the Saudis, of whom he has recently spoken as models for the Arab world’s future governance.

One can only wince at the way weak-minded policy hacks in the Pentagon and White House have spun out the ‘ideas’ of Lewis and Ajami into the scenario for a quick romp in a friendly Iraq. The State Department, after a long campaign against its so-called ‘Arabists’, is purged of any countervailing views, and Colin Powell is little more than a dutiful servant of power. So, because of its potential to make trouble in Israel, Saddam’s Iraq was targeted for military and political termination – never mind its history, its complicated society, its internal dynamics and contradictions. Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle said exactly that in 1996, when they were acting as consultants to Benjamin Netanyahu’s election campaign. That the Iraqis would be willing to accept more punishment from America, in addition to Saddam’s tyranny, on the off chance that they would be ‘liberated’, was taken for granted. Look at the war against Afghanistan, which also featured bombing and peanut butter sandwiches. Yes, Karzai is now in power but it’s power of a very iffy kind, and the Taliban, the Pakistani secret services and the poppy fields are all back, as are the warlords. Hardly a brilliant blueprint to follow in Iraq.

As for the expatriate Iraqi opposition, it has always been a motley bunch. Its leader Ahmad Chalabi may be a brilliant man but he has been found guilty of fraud in Jordan and has no real constituency beyond Paul Wolfowitz’s Pentagon office. He and his helpers – Kanan Makiya, for example, the man who said that news of the merciless high-altitude US bombing of his native land was ‘music to my ears’ – plus a few ex-Baathists, Shiite clerics and others have also sold the US Administration a bill of goods about quick wars, deserting soldiers, cheering crowds, similarly unsupported by evidence or lived experience. One can’t fault these people for wanting to rid the world of Saddam Hussein: we’d all be better off without him. The problem has been the falsifying of reality and the creation of scenarios for unchecked American policy planners to foist on a fundamentalist President and a largely misinformed public. In all this, Iraq might as well have been the moon and the Pentagon and White House Swift’s Academy of Lagado.

Another thought-stopping premise underlying the campaign in Iraq is that the map of the Middle East can be redrawn in such a way as to set in motion a ‘domino effect’ that will introduce Israel-friendly democracies all over the territory. According to this model, the Iraqi people are a blank sheet on which to inscribe the ideas of William Kristol, Robert Kagan and other deep thinkers of the Far Right. As I said in an earlier article for the LRB (17 October 2002), such ideas were first tried out by Ariel Sharon in Lebanon during the 1982 invasion, and then more recently in Palestine, where, in terms of security, peace and subaltern compliance, there’s been nothing to show for it. Never mind: well-trained US special forces have practised and perfected the storming of civilian homes alongside Israeli soldiers in Jenin. It is hard to believe, as this ill-conceived war advances, that things will be very different in Iraq. On the other hand, with countries like Syria and Iran involved, their shaky regimes shaken even further, and general Arab outrage inflamed to boiling point, one cannot imagine that victory in Iraq will resemble any of the simple-minded myths posited by Bush and his entourage.

What is truly puzzling is that the prevailing American ideology is still underpinned by the view that US power is basically benign and altruistic. This surely accounts for the outrage expressed by US pundits and officials that Iraqis should have had the gall to resist at all, or that, when captured, US soldiers were exhibited on Iraqi TV. Apparently this is much worse than showing rows of Iraqi prisoners made to kneel or lie spread-eagled in the sand. Breaches of the Geneva Conventions are invoked not for Camp X-Ray but for Saddam, and when his forces hide inside cities, that is cheating, while high-altitude bombing is playing fair.

This is the most reckless war in modern times. It is all about imperial arrogance unschooled in worldliness, unfettered either by competence or experience, undeterred by history or human complexity, unrepentant in its violence and the cruelty of its technology. What winning, or for that matter losing, such a war will ultimately entail is unthinkable. But pity the Iraqi civilians who must still suffer a great deal more before they are finally ‘liberated’.

3 April