The ostensible reason for the enormous concern in America over the Irangate affair has been the question of whether the President and his National Security Council, together with the CIA and others, have been trading weapons for the release of the hostages held in Lebanon. The argument given in defence of what was done has been, from the start, that sending Robert McFarlane to Teheran was an attempt to exploit a ‘geopolitical opening’. Both versions of the same series of events have been criticised as an affront to the stated US policy of not dealing with terrorists or terrorist states. According to the categories devised by the State Department, Iran is a terrorist state.
In both versions, the Israelis have played the role either of pioneer or broker. There have been statements in the Israeli press and elsewhere that all the various contacts maintained between Israel and the Shah have been restored since the Islamic Revolution. Moreover the two cornerstones of Israel’s Iran policy before the Revolution are no less cogent after it: that Iran is a natural ally for Israel in its battles against Arab nationalism, and that the substantial Jewish community in Iran deserves special consideration by Israel. Hence the rapprochement between the Jewish and the Islamic states.
A closer look at the situation reveals a more convincing dimension, and a much more compelling logic, behind the behaviour of the American and Israeli principals. Ayatollah Khomeini is a very old man who remains, however, the unquestioned authority in Iran. As in the first hostage crisis (1979-81), he and his lieutenants have used what appear to be diversionary events and circumstances to advance domestic political goals. One such goal is to assure a suitable successor to himself, and although Ayatollah Montazeri seemed to have been Khomeini’s (and Khomeini’s son’s) favourite for the post, a dispute about his ability to continue the old revolutionary’s policies arose a few years ago. In an article on the present crisis that appeared in the New York Review of Books (15 January) Shaul Bakhash reported on the increased presence in Teheran of power centres, all of them vying for authority and for better positions in the coming battle for the succession. If we add to this the boasts that have emanated from Israel (Uri Lubrani, the man who supervised Israeli operations in Pahlavi Iran, and who remains in control of similar operations now, has often said that he could change the regime with a handful of strong men willing to preside over ten thousand deaths), it comes to seem probable that the geo-political opening undertaken by William Casey, McFarlane, North and company was nothing less than an attempted coup whose goal was either the fomenting of prolonged instability in Iran or the accession to power of some person or group less hostile to the US and Israel. The man publicly identified with the arms deals in Iran is Majlis Speaker Rafsanjani, whose political fortunes in the past two years have risen dramatically: he is now a leading figure in the succession sweepstakes. The fact that he was America’s Teheran interlocutor suggests either that he was using the arms supply to buttress his position, or that the arms were being used against him. Whichever way one looks at it, the theatricality of American arms and visitors in Teheran was a provocation that might have triggered a domestic insurrection, thereby increasing the factionalism and fragmented authority already present. As to whether Rafsanjani is pro-American or not, it is not easy to say, although it is likely that his claims about his American connection have been that he has made the hated Yankees come begging to Teheran; he is reported to have said as much after the arms deals were discussed there. His enemies would necessarily try to characterise him as either a stooge or a secret agent. Al-Shiraa, the Lebanese magazine that leaked word of the arms supply on 1 November, may well have been enlisted by his political enemies in order to cripple his chances of greater prominence.
There are at least two precedents for such American expeditions to Iran, both of them interventionary in the most literal sense. One was the notorious Kermit Roosevelt mission in 1953, which is discussed by Roosevelt in his book Countercoup (published in 1979 but suddenly withdrawn from the market a month after it appeared). This coup disposed of Mossadegh and restored the Shah to his throne. The other was the considerably less successful Jimmy Carter-instigated mission in 1979, when Admiral Huyser was sent to Iran with orders to prod the Iranian military into resistance on behalf of Shahpur Bakhtiar and the Shah. Huyser’s own version of the affair, Mission to Teheran, provides a detailed account of his moves. He still believes that had there been a will to make the attempt in Washington and among senior Iranian officers, an American military strike modelled on the Soviet intervention in Ethiopia would have defeated Khomeini. As a preliminary to this famous US victory Huysen envisioned domestic unrest within the Khomeini camp. There was no such outcome: but this need not have been enough to deter future efforts.
Once he had been offered American arms, it is probable that Rafsanjani would have been considered both complicit with US imperialism and bold enough to try to assert himself over his competitors. Whether he won or not, the disturbance would have had a haemorr-haging effect on the Iranian polity, with some small probability that new and friendlier forces would gradually assume control and, ultimately, state power. This, in my opinion, is a much more plausible rationale for what North, the CIA and the Israelis were trying to do than trading arms for hostages or exploring contacts with Iranian moderates. Anyone with experience of Third World radical nationalism knows that the almost certain sign of a coup attempt is the sudden eminence of ‘moderates’ blessed with the US imprimatur, especially if those moderates claim to belong to an authentic native opposition. The analogies here with the Nicaraguan Contras and with the Gemayel family in Lebanon can scarcely be incidental, just as the intellectual and logistical conjuncture between Israeli and American planners has not been incidental. Once Iran became friendly, it would no longer be necessary to supply it with faulty intelligence about Iraq, nor would the war between the two states be allowed to go on as it has for the last eight years. Since Saudi Arabia had already been dragged into these schemes, one could foresee Israeli and US planners delighting in a forecast that would include bilateral negotiations between Iran and Israel, and perhaps between Israel and Jordan. The consequence would be the ‘recovery’ of a vast swatch of valuable Middle East territory for ‘Western’ power, which has become synonymous with US and Israeli domination.
One sure thing to fall back on is what the American historian William Appleman Williams has called ‘empire as a way of life’: the notion that since nearly everything in the world has a bearing on America, it had better be under American control. A precise insight into what sort of strategy might follow from such a premise is to be found in the so-called Church Commission Report (1976), undertaken by the Senate Committee to Study Foreign and Military Intelligence, in which a quotation from the Doolittle Report of 1955 is cited for its ‘chilling’ prose. President Eisenhower had commissioned James Doolittle to evaluate CIA operations. His Report, as the Church Commission notes, can be read as a brief for future CIA operations.
It is now clear that we are facing an implacable enemy whose avowed objective is world domination by whatever means and at whatever cost. There are no rules in such a game. Hitherto acceptable norms of human conduct do not apply. If the United States is to survive, long-standing American concepts of ‘fair play’ must be reconsidered. We must develop effective espionage and counter-espionage services and must learn to subvert, sabotage and destroy our enemies by more clever, more sophisticated and more effective methods than those used against us. It may become more necessary that the American people be made acquainted with, understand and support this fundamentally repugnant philosophy.
To what extent such ideas have ruled one can only surmise, although the evidence in Lawrence Wittner’s American Intervention in Greece, 1943-49 seems to be the extraordinary tip of an even more extraordinary iceberg. The passage is interesting for the attitudes it embodies to the American past (‘long-standing American concepts of fair play’). The assumption is that a new enemy has appeared whose goals and methods require the ‘world’ for their scope. This in turn places a responsibility on America to regard ‘the world’ as its ward. What is left unstated is that the old empires, as well as the competition between them – ‘normal’ imperialism – have been superseded by new imperial entities, which seem to have the metaphysical status of unchanging, almost Manichean opponents. Even more curious is the implied innocence and benign forbearance of an earlier age, in which, presumably, Americans regarded their enemies with amused courtliness at best and a chivalrous anger at worst. Gone from the record are the genocidal campaigns against native Americans, or the various interventions, from Central and South America to the Pacific, North Africa, Europe and Asia, pitting Americans against local enemies considered to be stooges, heavies or scum. What seems to determine methods is the purity of American intentions, which are and will remain more or less automatically good. Flowing from such untainted sources subversion and sabotage will turn out to be acceptable. American dirty tricks derive from goodness, on the one hand, and from the absolute evil of implacable enemies, on the other. An unspoken compact between the American people and their government on this basis, mandating clandestine operations, has been allowed to stand for almost half a century.
This has allowed the steady growth in power of a class of insiders and experts, first described by Walter Lippmann during the Thirties, whose technical skill and organic affiliations with the power structure gradually insulated them from scrutiny and accountability. It is my impression that whereas the first clandestine operatives as well as their immediate superiors came from the Eastern establishment, from Groton, Princeton and Harvard, the present variety – the Norths, the Ledeens, the McFarlanes, the Regans – come from the professional and service schools. The new men are Middle Americans. They do not feel in their bones that the country is theirs, but that they have to win it by daring exploits. For them, as for the various Wall Street ‘insiders’, what matters isn’t knowledge but ‘information’, and information is invariably tied to brokers or commission agents whose loyalties can be bought or sold. Manuchar Ghorbanifar, the Iranian go-between and Khashoggi colleague employed by the Israelis and Americans, has been described as being so dishonest that he could not be trusted to tell the truth about what he was wearing.
That these men and their Iranian, Nicaraguan, Asian and Israeli counterparts did so much of their brokering in London, Rotterdam, Frankfurt and Geneva imparts a poignant nostalgic tone, with an admixture of irony, to their machinations. Whereas the European cities were once metropolitan centres of the old imperialism, they have now become meeting-places, midway between other more powerfully central cities, where deals can be engineered and paid for. For one thing, these places are far enough from the main and often bloody action to be safe. For another, they are not airtight commercially speaking: money can be hidden there, it can be lost and of course made, free from taxation departments and snoopy government agencies. Tens of millions of dollars of Irangate money remain to be accounted for.
But these things are really corollaries of the main point: that except by a few mavericks, American imperialism has not been given the kind of scrutiny that its ambitions and attempts require. These deserve summary listing. During the past five years the US has invaded and attacked Libya, tried (according to Seymour Hersh) to assassinate its leader, and tried to coax Egypt into an invasion. It has been a participant in the Lebanese war. It has backed Israel in innumerable local as well as transcontinental adventures. It has deliberately prolonged the Iran-Iraq war by providing arms and false information to both sides. It has financed the Contra insurgency against the legally-elected government of Nicaragua, and it has engaged in sabotage throughout South and Central America. Its putative antagonists have been herded under the rubrics of terrorism or Communism.
Iran has been invaded and dominated during the modern period by one Western and Eastern power after another, among them America and Russia: yet there is scant acknowledgment in either the Tower Report or in all of the thousands of columns and television hours devoted to the Iran story that this is pertinent to its ‘terrorism’ or its Islamic fervour and intransigence. The American empire is of the present, and its activities as well as its ideas are essentialised to such a degree as to require no prior knowledge or experience. That other empires came and went, that other schemes of control were devised and failed, that other peoples rose up, rid themselves of foreign rulers, and brought in regimes that were sometimes worse but often a good deal better than their predecessors – all this seems scarcely to have mattered in the calculations of Reagan and his Administration. Just as important is the almost total absence within the culture of a deterrent to, or even a commentary on, the imperialist dimension of the Iran and Nicaragua policy, whose sole legitimacy is that it is part of ‘getting over’ Vietnam. The projection of American power around the world is considered a fact of nature, as inevitable in its manifestations as in its ontological essence. Thus has ‘the errand into the wilderness’ been transformed into the light for all nations.
The careless ‘managerial style’ of the President has brought a host of entrepreneurial types into the vacancy, there to conduct private policies in the cause of ‘anti-Communism’. This group, for whom the euphemism ‘the contents of Ollie North’s safe’ is an adequate though incomplete characterisation, ranges from the executives of right-wing foundations to private soldiers of fortune. Add to these the organised lobbies, the PACs (or Political Action Committees), the enormously profitable public-relations firms and their foreign-agent satellites (Jordan, it is reported, has four such groups in its pay, with – at best – highly dubious results), and one has a sense of a Congress and Executive Branch hamstrung between special interests and ignorance. Hence, on the one hand, the adventures of people like North, John Poindexter, Dennis Ross, Howard Teicher and Michael Ledeen, and, on the other hand, the amazing pudeur of the Secretary of State, whose position on Irangate matters, according to the Tower Report, was one of complete detachment. Representative Tom Lantos of California (a Hungarian by birth) could announce to North, when the Marine officer was hauled up by (and refused to testify before) a Congressional Committee, that such a man was a national hero, and go on to promise a contribution to his defence fund. Of such Swiftian ironies are US imperial policies constructed.
In relation to Central America and Southern Africa – to name two regions where American policy is prominent and controversial – there is an oppositional constituency in the United States. There has been no one, in the press or on television talk-shows, to represent an Islamic or Arab viewpoint, no one to testify to a reality out there that was independent of American policy. The tone of public discussion has been untempered by any awareness that other worlds and other concerns exist, which it might be prudent to regard as not in fact falling within the US security orbit. This patriotism defines policy – what is good for America now – and it regulates knowledge.
After the failure of the May 1983 agreement between Israel and Lebanon American Middle East policy and its rhetoric have reiterated the imperative of combating terrorism, and the overwhelming need to support Israel. The all-encompassing generality of the one and the absolutely forgiving specificity of the other have not obliterated the quotidian duties entailed by being a great power: embassies are run, cables go back and forth, visits, bilateral treaties, aid agreements are negotiated, and pronouncements are made. But the heavy boxing that characterised Reagan’s Middle Eastern policy from its beginning until roughly the midde of 1984 – a period that included the return of the first hostages from Iran, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and its ignominious aftermath, the first armed conflicts with Libya, followed by the second and the third, direct American involvement in the Lebanese fighting climaxed by the Marine Barracks attack and the sudden US withdrawl from Lebanon – has quite dramatically veered into ‘anti-terrorism’ (some activities, including disinformation about Libyan hit-teams and assassination attempts against Gaddafi continue from the earlier period) and the sheepish tactic of following Israel’s lead despite a slew of Israeli insults and infractions against its US patron. In October 1985 Israel bombed PLO buildings in Tunis, killing several dozen civilians: this was termed ‘understandable self-defence’ by the President. It turned out later that Jonathan Pollard, given a life sentence in America in March of this year, had handed over the requisite information about PLO offices to Israel, as part of a spying operation. Here was a weird concatentation whereby anti-terrorism, condoned and encouraged by the US, was linked both to emulating what Israel does and to being spied on by Israel.
Throughout the Arab world, striking changes have been taking place. The economies are in a slump; the human rights situation has worsened dramatically; the failure of the Arab states, except perhaps for Syria, to produce a credible military deterrent is obvious; a sense of aimless holding on (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Algeria), of tightening and restriction (Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Tunisia, Kuwait) or of unimaginably senseless violence (Lebanon) pervades the political atmosphere. The emergence of a heterogeneous Islamic traditionalism is symptomatic of the malaise, as well as of the deep alienation between ruler and ruled. The one secular nationalism still potent and still visibly in evidence is located within the Palestinian orbit, a trans-Arab phenomenon, embattled in Jordan and Lebanon, harassed or barely tolerated everywhere else, profoundly popular and symbolically threatening. Thus the Arab Middle East today is coherent neither as a state system nor as the site of an easily categorised ideological contest. The new forces are the motors driving Iran and Israel – states whose religious inspiration is barely assimilable to statehood. One of them, Israel, is the state, not of its citizens, but of ‘the Jewish people’. The other, Iran, proclaims itself responsible for exporting a purified and resurgent Islam throughout the region.
With the second of these states, America has yet to come to terms. Islam has somehow managed to retain, even in its relatively benign contemporary forms, the threat of its milennial power, when its armies poured out of the Arabian Peninsula into the rest of Asia, much of Africa and southern Europe. Its adherents in the West are lopsidedly weak, and it has acquired a remarkably unified set of enemies, religious and secular.
The spectacle, for America, of an Islamic Revolution in Iran should not be underestimated, as much because there are virtually no American institutions or precedents to deal with it on a basis of knowledge as because it has served, along with other such ‘defeats’ of ‘the West’, to register both an expanding onslaught on Western civilisation, and a welcome confirmation of how Islamic politics are medieval, sectarian and evil. Not that the closed quality, the provocative, bloody-minded relentlessness of recent Iranian Islam has been pleasant. But in almost every instance these manifestations have been interpreted ontologically and ahistorically. Thus Islamic ‘terrorism’ has become the foundation on which interpretations rest.
All of this helps us to understand the combination of animus and ignorance from which American policy is now constructed. In the process – and here we should extend the analysis to include policy towards Eastern Europe and Central America – certain types of formal policy-maker have come to the fore. There are the passive functionaries – men like Richard Murphy, Assistant Secretary of State for the Middle East; he travels here and there but because he is a career Arabist his influence is nil. More ominous are the ideological over-achievers, typified by Richard Perle in Defence, Elliot Abrams in State, whose affiliation with neo-conservatism and fanatical anti-Communism (their allies include Edward Luttwak, Michael Ledeen, Jeane Kirkpatrick, media legitimisers from George Will, William Safire, Patrick Buchanan and William Buckley to reporters like Shirley Christian and James Le Moyne, the editorial staff of the New Republic and Commentary, and many more) has moved American policy into a ruthless and uncomprehending adversarialism towards terrorism and Communism. With the compliance (not to say indifference) of the higher-ups in the White House and in the State and Defence Departments, the country’s foreign policy has been handed over to these new warriors, who see nothing wrong with committing the economy and national security to a state of permanent war. Every one of the main actors in the Iran, Contra and Eastern European theatres of US policy is also a supporter of Israel. Israel, like Iran, is not just a state, but also a cause and an idea whose role in the political economy of imperial America far transcends that of a small Levantine state belonging to a once-dominated part of the world. Israel could not, however, run for one day without US economic aid, which amounts roughly to $1,500 per Israeli man, woman and child per annum (the Israeli military receives an annual American subsidy of $9,750 per soldier). As of last year, none of this aid is in the form of repayable loans, but in outright, direct, unitemised budgetary support. No country has ever benefited from such unqualified munificence, and the mechanisms that ensure it are for the time being impressively strong. Congress is, almost to a man and woman, pro-Israel.
The failure of American policy in Lebanon during the period 1983-4 brought the degree of American reliance on Israel to a climax. That Israel’s failures in Lebanon were possibly even more dramatic, or that the havoc wreaked on the region by Israeli rejectionism was so great – these did not matter. George Shultz, it has been said, was ‘disappointed’ in the Arabs. The Israeli model of tough-minded realism was followed by American planners to the letter, thereby producing what has been called the Israelisation of American foreign policy.
Most important is to imbue yourself with a siege mentality. Conor Cruise O’Brien has done his readers the service of connecting this not only with Israel but also with South Africa and Ireland. In all cases of this sort you must portray yourself as the persecuted bearer of a sanctified vision steadfastly standing firm against the hordes of undifferentiated and unilluminated masses outside your gates. Rather than negotiate, you must not only fight defensively but – to borrow a little from the social philosopher Michael Walzer – take your just war from a defensive to a pre-emptive mode.
According to the Israeli journalist Amnon Kapeliouck (Le Monde Diplomatique, February 1986), there was a conscious effort on the part of Israeli strategists in the mid-Seventies to deal with all aspects of Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation policies under the heading of ‘terrorism’: this meant that any retaliatory measures (indiscriminate bombing of civilian refugee camps, hospitals, schools, the collective punishment of civilians, deportation, torture, preventive detention, all of which are forbidden by the Geneva Conventions) were justifiable, since the Israeli military authorities could claim that they were responding to illegal attacks and not to politically-motivated and, according to the UN Charter, permissible forms of struggle against military occupation and assault. It also meant that Palestinians could be characterised as two-legged beasts, or, in General Rafael Eytan’s phrase, as ‘drugged roaches in a bottle’.
In American terms, this pattern was easily accommodated. The reconstitution of Cold War ideology in the Reagan era has brought forth ‘the empire of evil’, which has been shown to be closely allied with international terrorism. As Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli UN Ambassador, and now a major American public figure, has put it, terrorism emanates from Islam and the PLO, on the one hand, and from Moscow and the KGB, on the other. With memories of the Monroe Doctrine stirring its publicists, the Reagan Administration found itself referring to Cuba and Nicaragua as both Communist and terrorist Two years ago Reagan stated that Nicaragua had become a base for the Soviets, as well as for Libya, the PLO and Cuba.
There is a difference, however, between American attitudes towards Central America and the Middle East. Debate has occurred in the one case, but hardly at all in the other. The Congressional vicissitudes of Reagan’s Contra aid bills testify to the importance of debate and division exactly where, in the case of the Middle East, there is none of either. Senator Christopher Dodd and Representative Steven Solarz, to mention two Contra opponents, are supporters of everything Israel does, and when the connection between the Contras and the Israelis was made public there was a noticeable avoidance of blame for Israel. The Tower Report produced massive evidence of Israel’s malfeasance, yet, as if to remind the country that Israel was no ordinary ally, drew back from the political conclusion that Israel was manipulating the US. Congress, almost unanimously harsh on the Administration’s behaviour throughout Irangate, was gentle towards Israel; the media reacted a bit more strongly when the Pollard verdict was reached in early March, but few prominent voices interpreted the Pollard case as anything more than a passing embarrassment.
The American obsession with Iran and Israel is shaped by an increasing tendency to drive politics back to anti-secular, sectarian and atavistic roots. The revival of Christian fundamentalism in the US has been part of this tendency, as has the alliance between the new Right, the conservative Christian movement and Israel. In the Middle East the Iranian model has vindicated, not the nationalist politics of the previous generation, but the notion that sects based on a narrow and intolerant view of the world ought to prevail, thus unravelling the texture of civil society as well as undermining the collective basis of multi-communal societies.
Iran and Israel are instances of a second-generation, post-independence and post-colonial syndrome in the Middle East, in which extreme dependence on the world economic system dominated by the West is accompanied by an almost complete disdain for Western opinion. The unconventional tactics adopted by ‘Islamic’ groups and the Israelis – ‘terrorism’ and kidnapping in the one case, spying, abduction and pre-emptive war in the other – are similarly uneven and deformed combinations of defiance and dependency.
The long-run stake for the United States is the discovery of some mode of co-existence with the outside world, a mode whose properties do not automatically require either a blind adversarial attitude or an unhesitating enthusiasm. These attitudes have produced different varieties of imperialist intervention, and with regard to Central America, they have also produced an exaggerated sense of territorial insecurity. To listen to the rhetoric about the dangers of Sandinista government is to have visions of Spanish-speaking terrorists parachuting into Seattle or Atlanta. Public opinion is rapidly marshalled to a pitch, it often seems, of mass hysteria. Missing are the effects of educational and informational institutions whose slower processes might provide alternatives to instant imperialism: these institutions are either dormant or ineffective, so obscuring of other peoples is the fog of self-confirming cultural power.
The most curious fact about the deluge of media disclosures on Iran and the Contras is that most of the information, except for the actual financial connection between the two operations, was previously known, and to a great extent published or broadcast by the media themselves. Gary Sick, who was the National Security Council’s top man on Iran during the Carter years, and whose chronicle of the hostage crisis, All fall down, appeared two years ago, notes that George Will, the Washington Post columnist, and others, reported at the outset of the crisis in 1979 and 1980 that US arms were supplied to Iran in return for Iran freeing the Embassy hostages. Sick also mentions that, during intricate US-Iranian negotiations in November 1979, Menachem Begin announced that Israel had given the Iranians military equipment and spare parts. This news ‘was received with astonishment bordering on disbelief’, since at that very moment the Americans were trying to maintain an embargo. Begin was asked to desist, and, according to Sick, who adds nothing to the statement, ‘he said he would.’ In January 1982 the BBC reported that Israeli arms were being sold to Teheran, and in February Nicholas Veliotis, a senior State Department official, testifying before a Congressional Committee, said that the US had discussed with Israel its supply of arms to Iran. On 21 October 1982 Moshe Arens, Israeli Ambassador to the United States, told the Boston Globe that Israel had furnished arms to Iran ‘in co-ordination with practically the highest echelon of the American Administration in order to [encourage] a conspiracy against Khomeini’. In July 1983 Time reported that Israel was violating agreements with the US by supplying Iran with arms. In May 1984 Ariel Sharon boasted before a Connecticut synagogue that, with US approval, Israel was sending arms to Iran to enable it to defeat Iraq.
As for Israeli contacts with various right-wing groups including the Contras, and ‘authoritarian’ governments in Central and South America, South Africa, South Korea, Taiwan, there, too, the public record is packed to the gunwales. As early as 1973, the Washington Post described Israel ‘as arming Central America’. Throughout the early Reagan years, whenever domestic constraints made it difficult for the Administration to supply arms and money to the Contras, or the Salvadoreans, or the Chileans, or anyone else with the correct political position, Israel would be used to do it instead. This was announced by the Government and dutifully reported in the press. In 1981 the so-called Meridor programme was written into the Memorandum of Understanding between Israel and the US: according to its terms, Israel and the US would not compete in the Third World, but would do each other’s work when either one or the other found the going rough. Sales of aircraft and arms to Guatemala and Honduras are well-known, as are the use by governments in the region friendly to the US of Israeli counter-insurgency advisers, SWAT teams and pacification and interdiction procedures. Arms are Israel’s main export and arms expertise is shared with the US.
Why then the outrage, to say nothing of the amnesia, since November 1986, when the mainstream media began to turn against the President? There are three or four answers to this. In the first place, print journalism is a tendentious medium, while television is nothing short of a mendacious one, whose public effect can be very powerful in its suppression of history and of all but a tiny fraction of reality. In the United States, television ‘News’ is usually compressed into 22 minutes per evening; the longest items, those presented by famous reporters, rarely run for more than 90 seconds. In addition, the three networks, and the independent stations with a foreign news capability, rely on a small handful of reporters based mostly in Western Europe and Japan, and rotated from there to crisis spots, as the need arises, in the Third World. None of them, when they go to unusual places, knows the language, or has much idea of the country’s history. What gets reported on the ‘News’ is pared down, selected, edited, miniaturised and essentialised. Because few Western reporters have been there in the past five years, Iran is now little more than 15 seconds of marching mobs and clenched fists.
The coverage of foreign news is almost entirely limited to places and stories considered to be of significance to the United States. Ethiopia, Sudan, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Brazil, Angola, once thought to be important, have virtually disappeared from view. The influential newspapers of record do cover such places, but there, too, they are examined with an eye to what is significant for the US policy-maker and with many of the same internal biases. Communism or insurgency are dangerous and bad. Libya is always bad, and even though the evidence that was expected to justify last April’s raid was not found, no one in the media has used this to illuminate the raid itself. Friends of the US – such as Chancellor Kohl, with Mrs Thatcher in a class by herself – are always friends of the US, unless they are sacked or forced to leave (the Shah, Marcos, Sadat): then a volte-face occurs, and the favourite either becomes a non-person or a figure of fun (Imelda Marcos and her shoes confirm the unremarked misogyny of the media – Ferdinand is rarely laughed at, although he is, one would have to say, the more grotesque).
With the exception of the Soviet Union and Cuba, the internalised consensus is strongest when the Middle East is being reported. Palestinians are only shown as refugees or as terrorists. The only stories about the Arab world that seem to be worth printing or portraying concern violence, inordinate wealth, and intransigent opposition to Israel. To compare the Israeli with the American press in the matter of coverage of the Israeli-Occupied Territories is to compare night with day. The reporting by Israeli journalists is detailed, wide-ranging, tough, often angry, American reporting is none of these things. Instead of doing journalism on the Middle East, the American media fill little containers with items that relate to some six master topics: 1. The pervasive presence of Arab or Islamic terrorism, as well as a terrorist network comprising Arab and Islamic groups and states backed by the Soviet Union, Cuba and Nicaragua. Terrorism here is most often characterised as congenital, not as having any foundation in grievances, prior violence or continuing conflicts. 2. The rise of Islamic and Muslim fundamentalism, usually but not always Shia. 3. The Middle East as a place whose violent and incomprehensible events are referred to a past full of ‘ancient’ tribal or religious hatreds. 4. The Middle East as a contested site in which ‘our’ side is the civilised and democratic West. Sometimes Turkey is included, often not. 5. The Middle East as the locale for the re-emergence of a virulent quasi-European (i.e. Nazi) type of anti-semitism. 6. The Middle East as the hatching-ground for the gratuitous evils of the PLO. Yasir Arafat, whose poor media image is probably beyond repair, is the ranking figure in this context. The message is that if they exist at all, the Palestinians are at once marginal and entirely to blame for their misfortunes.
It is not too much to claim that the Zionist lobby has become the main definer of the media’s representation of the Middle East – as of much else in the public life of America. In 1983 one of the main Zionist organisations, the Anti-Defamation League, was enlisted by the Reagan Administration as an ally in the campaign against the Sandinistas; the rumour was floated that the Nicaraguan Government was anti-semitic and carried out anti-semitic practices against the small Jewish community in Nicaragua, and even though it was proved that no such thing occurred, the lie persisted, as an aspect of a ‘deal’ struck between Reagan and an organisation which, in its own words, was trying to ‘gain clout with the Reagan White House’. Nowhere have these media distortions been more disheartening than in the case of the ‘peace-process’ in the Middle East: the ‘known’ Israeli position is that Israel wants peace, while the Arabs, and the Palestinians in particular, merely want to kill all the Jews. Roughly the same is true of the reporting of Nicaragua. Daniel Ortega is habitually viewed as a hooligan wearing designer glasses, and the Contras as freedom-fighters or the democratic opposition. Despite the presence here and there of powerful oppositional statements, such as Oliver Stone’s film Salvador, it can be said that, here again, the whole truth rarely gets through to the media.
The starkest media reality, I believe, is that evidence or news or fact is assumed to be true or false mainly on the basis of who says it. What seems to matter is that Israel and the United States always tell the truth because they and their supporters are ipso facto right, while anyone critical of either state and its supporters is villainous. Thus the possibility that Israel might have been maintaining a spy operation in the US, or that it violated US laws by selling arms to South Africa, the Contras and the Iranians, or that its attacks on Palestinians might constitute a violation of human rights, or that its kidnapping and secret trial of Mordechai Vanunu might be labelled undemocratic, carries no authority because these conceptions do not conform to the ideological consensus, and because they are likely to be uttered by critics of Israel and the US.
Whatever the strength of a social or ideological system, it cannot control everything within its domain. The one thing many people seem to feel is the powerlessness of the weak before a media-government combination that rumbles on inattentively. And yet the presence of a fledgling alternative to this combination has appeared in America, and has contributed to the emergence of a counter-politics, which, though limited to the ideological and cultural realm, is nevertheless significant.
The alternative work that has emerged during the Irangate debate and the related crises that preceded it has fastened on the striking contradictions, lapses, anomalies and discrepancies presented by the mainstream media or the Government. What we have is now a critical, a counter-archival literature employing reading methods, investigative skills, and a kind of relentless erudition, unavailable to mainstream specialists – the so-called area experts whose real concern is going along with the imperial idea. A further irony is that although this alternative appears to be peripheral, there are strong indications that it may be more representative of the popular will than is the establishment or special-interest opinion vital to Government foreign policy. There is a risk in relying on the accuracy of opinion polls, and in positing a benign People over and above the concrete, not to say unpleasant, individuals we normally encounter in everyday life. But on intervention against the Sandinistas, for instance, even the Congress has been giving the Reagan Administration a difficult time, despite the media caricatures and tendentious reporting. The ABC-Washington Post poll for 1 July 1985 reported that 47 per cent of those polled disagreed with Reagan’s handling of Central America while 40 per cent agreed: yet on the question of whether Reagan should be trying to overthrow the Sandinistas 18 per cent said yes and 71 per cent no. Only 43 per cent said they believed the President when he denied any intention of invading. The Zionists have used opinion polls to further the theory that all Americans identify with Israel unconditionally. When polls are done on a variety of more specific issues – say, the matter of Palestinian self-determination, or of Israeli violations in the Occupied Territories – a gulf opens up between US policy and US opinion.
This information can be found in ‘American Public Opinion and the Palestinian Question’, by the Palestinian-American scholar Fouad Moughrabi of the University of Tennessee. What he reveals is that over half, and in some cases 70 per cent, of the electorate, according to detailed but uncirculated polls, oppose the Administration on its willingness to forgive Israel nearly everything it does; disagreement also exists on the inflammatory issue of Palestinian representation by the PLO and on the matter of an independent Palestinian state. The heartening conclusion to Moughrabi’s study is that ‘when people are provided with factual information they adopt positions that favour neutrality and support an equitable settlement [of long-standing conflicts] consistent with the international consensus.’
Moughrabi’s work is sponsored by a small ad hoc organisation, the International Center for Research and Public Policy – in effect, half a dozen scholars concerned with the mystifications and distortions that allow the Administration to conduct an unpopular Middle East policy with impunity. Other such associations have emerged over the past twenty years: MERIP (the Middle East Research and Information Project), NACLA (the North American Congress on Latin America), the American Committee on South Africa, among others. These organisations exist in symbiotic relationship, hostile or friendly, with the major academic guild groups, the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), the Latin American Studies Association. For all their alleged radicalism, literary scholars (like economists) tend to be less involved in such matters than natural scientists, sociologists, historians and anthropologists. It is rare for a church, campus or public meeting not to have tables displaying this type of informal, peripheral literature, whose samizdat function is clear. But there is a range of other material too: newspapers like In These Times, weeklies like the Nation, serial publications like MERIP Reports. Perhaps the most noteworthy is a monthly called Israeli Foreign Affairs, now in its third year, edited, written and distributed by a woman who resides in Oakland, California, Jane Hunter. The form, and indeed the approach, of IFA bears a resemblance to I.F. Stone’s Weekly. Hunter is Jewish and feels a keen interest in how Israel conducts itself in the Third World. Each of the items she reports is based, as Stone’s Weekly used to be, on the public record. The March issue contains a review of Israeli arms sales to South Africa, a report of a visit to Israel in January 1986 by Contra emissary Julio Montealegre, during which the Israeli Government released to him ‘a consignment of weapons paid for by ousted dictator Anastasio Somoza but never delivered to him’, a story about a counter-insurgency school in Israel used by Latin American security forces, another about arms deliveries to Colombia, more details about Israel’s guiding role in the Iran-Contra diversion of American funds, reports on Israeli dealings with South Korea. Hunter has written two books: No Simple Proxy: Israel in Central America and Undercutting Sanctions: Israel, the US and South America. So far as Israel is concerned, however, the pioneer researcher remains Professor Israel Shahak of the Chemistry Department at the Hebrew University, the Chairman of the Israeli League for Human Rights. His translations, papers and commentaries are of a standard that few journalists writing today can match.
Noam Chomsky has been chronicling the painful truth about American behaviour abroad for over two decades. Unlike most commentators, he has no injunctions for policy-makers. His recent works seem like vast documentations of ‘the real world’ – as opposed to ‘the news that’s fit to print’. His books and articles increasingly tend to appear so far from the mainstream media as to be almost invisible, and yet, paradoxically, they have a large readership. The point here is that the work is published by unorthodox presses. (South End, a socialist collective in Boston, is the US publisher of his book on Central America, Turning the Tide.) Chomsky’s distinction is that he is not afraid to make connections. Turning the Tide not only goes into all the interventions in Latin America that have characterised US policy, despite its ‘good neighbourly’ claims, but also compares them with Israeli policies – policies from which the ‘peace movement’ that Chomsky addresses has always averted its gaze. Well before Irangate, he had all but completed a prophetic sketch of the many-sided cynical collusion that even today most journalists pretend never really took place. Nor is this all. He now locates his oppositional chronicles within the supposed rightward drift represented by Reagan’s ascendancy – on which Chomsky’s own researches serve to cast doubt. There is public indifference, and a sense of remoteness from government policies, so often warlike and domineering in their gist: but there is also a public preference for ‘alternatives to existing forms of hierarchy, domination, private power and social control’.
Salman Rushdie’s importance to the alternative modes I have been discussing is capital. His most recent book is The Jaguar Smile: A Nicaraguan Journey, the record of a two-week trip to Central America in the summer of 1986. Compare Rushdie with V.S. Naipaul and the drama is immediately heightened, the contest fully situated. Both are Third World natives, both displaced Indians, both eminent writers in English, both restless migrants to the world’s trouble spots, analysts of problems that won’t go away. Naipaul, however, has travelled in the post-colonial world mainly to experience its failures, its tawdry hypocrisies, its sordid tyrannies. Rushdie’s novels are scathingly critical, not to say insurrectionary, about the present rulers of India and Pakistan, but one never gets the impression from Midnight’s Children or Shame that the critique is disengaged, or haughty, or somehow disapproving of the entire post-colonial enterprise. Moreover Rushdie’s journalism, unlike Naipaul’s, argues for an ongoing political and cultural engagement not only with places like India and Pakistan but with the politics of representing them in the great metropolitan centres.
The Jaguar Smile does not really hew to the convention of books, such as Joan Didion’s Salvador, about a celebrity visiting embattled Third World countries. It is most interestingly viewed in the American context, as raising an intensely personal voice on the subject of Nicaragua, which has become, for Reagan and co, an absurdly overrated threat. The book gathers force for the American reader by doing three things it is not supposed to do. It is written by a sympathetic non-expert non-American newcomer to the debate on Central America, which is supposed to be the US’s private backyard. It represents the Sandinistas as something more than America’s enemy – as a polity made positively interesting and attractive by history, literature and politics. It is replete, not with naivety (of which the New York Times accused it), but with a guarded optimism. Rushdie keeps the episodes coming – this is a marvellously well-staged book. Some are journalistic in a good sense (the interviews with Daniel Ortega and the Ancien Régime matriarch, Dona Violeta Chamorro, who drips venom but is rewarded with Rushdie’s deadpan demystifying politeness, are outstanding); others are poetic and subtle (such as the service celebrated by ‘the television talk-show’ priest, Father Molina, or the discoveries about Nicaragua’s obsession with death); one or two (the account of a sojourn in Bluefields, on Nicaragua’s Atlantic coast) are masterpieces of travel writing and human observation. His intention has been to produce a book that deals in ‘middles’ and ‘moments’ rather than beginnings or resonant conclusions. Rushdie’s predilection for states coming into being and then somehow surviving has been demonstrated in his mock-epics of India and Pakistan: here the son of such a state journeys to another part of the world to watch a similar process, presided over by the spirit of Garcia Marquez, the fiction and poetry of Omar Cabezas and Sergio Ramirez, infused with the will of guerrillas, punctuated by the discontinuities, absences and ruins of Nicaraguan history made actual in the unfilled craters and unrepaired buildings of Managua – all this delivered in an English divorced from official bulletins and Cold War discourses and imbued with the questioning concern and friendly scepticism of l’escritor hindu, as he negotiates the routes of a revolution threatened with an idiotic external enemy and with rivals to be checked, allies to be kept satisfied, people to be mobilised.
Like the Vietnamese, Algerian and even the Iranian revolutions, Nicaragua’s has achieved a decent international success, largely as a result of mobilising opinion and galvanising the counter-informational and alternative energies of a great many people in Europe and America. To the extent that Rushdie has given Sandinismo a human face, he has perhaps staved off some indifference and some jingoism in America, which has declared war on a movement whose avowed aim is to shake off Yankee tutelage. The Jaguar Smile would have been a different, maybe a more tritely informative book if there had been more in it of the politics of Nicaragua, the conflicting camps, ideologies and tendencies. And it would have been more political had it committed itself more to specific features of Nicaragua’s turbulent politics, other than a free press. The question of violence generally remains unasked and unanswered: and the problem of how to convert violence to something else after its defensive uses have been exhausted is also deferred.
I mention these points mostly as a way of suggesting that the political responsibility of what I have been calling the emerging alternative movement includes the need to formulate solutions, ideas and even utopian hopes. It is not enough to say that we are against the CIA and the National Security Council, that we support the oppressed. One thing you come to see as you immerse yourself in the details of this international crisis is the absence of anything resembling an idea in ‘their’ camp, as if thumping the table with one fist called patriotism and the other called security will do for all occasions.
Edward Said also discusses the following publications:
The Tower Commission Report. New York Times and Bantam, 1987.
Countercoup: The Struggle for Control of Iran by Kermit Roosevelt. McGraw-Hill, 1979.
Mission to Teheran by Robert Huysen. Deutsch, 1986.
American Intervention in Greece 1943-49 by Lawrence Wittner. Columbia University Press, 1982.
All fall down: America’s Tragic Encounter with Iran by Gary Sick. Random House, 1985.
‘American Public Opinion and the Palestine Question’ by Fouad Moughrabi. International Center for Research and Public Policy, Box 1131, 1900 M Street, NW, Washington Dc 20036.
Israeli Foreign Affairs, 5825 Telegraph Avenue, Oakland, California 94609.