Vol. 13 No. 5 · 7 March 1991

Edward Said, an American and an Arab, writes on the eve of the Iraqi-Soviet peace talks

3545 words

The United States is at an extraordinarily bloody moment in its history as the last superpower. Perhaps because I come from the Arab world, I have often thought during the past few months, and more anxiously during the past few days, that such a war as we Americans are now engaged in, with such aims, rhetoric, and all-encompassing violence and destruction, could now have been waged only against an Arab-Islamic-Third World country. It does no one in it any credit, and it will not produce any of the great results which have been predicted, however ostensibly victorious either side may prove to be, and whatever the results may prove to be for the other. It will not solve the problems of the Middle East, or those of America, now in a deep recession, plagued by poverty, joblessness, and an urban, education and health crisis of gigantic proportions.

A war like this could only have occurred in a part of the world beset with huge inequities of endowment and rule, bearing within itself a history of promises postponed and endlessly betrayed for justice and fairness at the hands of the West, and now exploding in an agony of hatred, anti-Americanism and tremendous, largely unforeseen upheaval. I do not excuse and have not excused the aggression of Iraq against Kuwait. I have condemned it from the beginning, just as I have long condemned the abuses of Saddam Hussein’s government, and those of the other governments of the region, whether Arab or Israeli. Democracy in any real sense of the word is nowhere to be found in the Middle East: there are either privileged oligarchies or privileged ethnic groups. The large mass of the people is crushed beneath dictatorship or unyielding, unresponsive, unpopular government. But I dispute the notion that the US is a virtuous innocent in this awful conflict, just as I dispute the notion that this is not a war between George Bush and Saddam Hussein – it most certainly is – and that the US is acting solely or principally in the interests of the United Nations. The United Nations resolutions have already been exceeded, and the bombing campaign against Iraq’s population is now murderous. Yet at bottom this is a personalised struggle between, on the one hand, a Third World dictator of a kind the US has long dealt with, whose rule it has encouraged, whose favours it has long enjoyed, and, on the other, the president of a country which has taken on the mantle of empire inherited from Britain and France and is determined to remain in the Middle East for reasons of oil and of geo-strategic and political advantage.

There has been a great deal of talk about linkage, a word I find ugly and a concept I find slippery. ‘Analogy’, ‘relationship’, ‘association’ are three possible alternatives, which suggest to me that the US has no record of consistent opposition to aggression – the instances of Namibia, South Africa, Cyprus, Panama, Nicaragua and the Israeli-occupied territories come quickly to mind – and that Iraq and Kuwait do not exist only in some unhistorical region of the mind or on a map in Dick Cheney’s office. For two generations the US has sided in the Middle East mostly with tyranny and injustice. I defy anyone to tell me of a single struggle for democracy, or women’s rights, or secularism, or the rights of minorities, that the US has supported. Instead we have propped up compliant and unpopular clients, and turned our backs on the efforts of small peoples to liberate themselves from military occupation, while subsidising their enemies. We have prompted unlimited militarism and engaged in vast arms sales everywhere in the region, mostly to governments which have now been driven to ever more desperate actions as a result of the US’s obsession with, and exaggeration of, the power of Saddam Hussein. To conceive of a post-war Arab world dominated by the rulers of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria, all of them working in a new Pax Americana, is neither intellectually nor morally credible.

Two things have occurred, quickly and completely, over the past few months. One is that, in the information blitz which has been going on since the summer, the media and its personnel have, with a few exceptions, internalised norms which prevent dispassionate analysis and induce self-censorship, as well as a very shallow sort of news presentation. The other is that we have not yet developed a discourse that does anything more than identify with power, despite the dangers of that power in a world which has shrunk so small and become so impressively interconnected. The US cannot belligerently declare its right, as 6 per cent of the world’s population, to consume 30 per cent of the world’s energy; nor for that matter can it unilaterally declare a new world order because it exercises the military power to destroy a few complaining countries along the way. There was no evidence that Iraqi expansion would continue after Kuwait. Indeed, there is now ample evidence that an arrangement between Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt had been worked out in early August: this would have involved Iraqi withdrawal and an adjudication of the dispute with Kuwait. Like every other regional compromise, this was rejected out of hand by the US. There was considerable evidence that, if further provoked by an exterminist gesture on the part of the US, Iraq would settle for universal destruction, rather than back down. Even the anti-Saddam Iraqi opposition outside Iraq has now closed ranks and sided against the US.

There are many Arabs who believe, as I do, that Iraq’s invasion and occupation must be reversed, but few would agree with the strategy of immediately sending troops because George Bush and Margaret Thatcher assumed that wogs could be told to behave by the white man: there is a pattern of such contemptuous attitudes towards the Arab world, from the days of the British expeditionary force sent to Egypt in 1882 to put down the Orabi rebellion to the 1956 attack on Egypt undertaken by Anthony Eden in collusion with Israel and France – Eden’s attitude, delivered in the accents of a petty and vengeful stubbornness, strangely prefigures Bush’s personalised hatred of Saddam Hussein. The question that none of the media has asked is what right does the US have to send a massive military force around the world in order to attack Iraq in this tough, relentless, preachy way? This is very different from opposing aggression, which many Arabs would have been anxious to do. What the American move has done is effectively to turn a regional issue into an imperial one, especially since the US has shown no concern over other aggressions – its own or those, like Israel’s, which it supported and paid for. Bush has treated Saddam as his personal Moby Dick, to be punished and destroyed – the war plan was designed for that – as if bombing and frightening the natives would be sure to lead to a crumbling of their will.

I have written elsewhere of the dreadful situation inside the Arab world: in countries that are now allied with the US and in those that are not, there is a lot to be disturbed about, all of it attributable, not to the Arab character or to Islam, but to specific political and social distortions, all of them remediable by strenuous secular policies of reform. What concerns me here is the United States itself.

For decades in America there has been a cultural war against the Arabs and Islam: the most appalling racist caricatures of Arabs and Muslims have conveyed that they are all either terrorists or sheikhs, and that the region is a large arid slum, fit only for profit or war. The very notion that there might be a history, a culture, a society – indeed many societies – to be thought of as interlocutor or as partner has never held the stage for more than a moment or two. A flow of trivial books by journalists has flooded the market, and has gained currency for a handful of dehumanising stereotypes. Nearly every recent movie about American commandos pits a hulking Rambo or a whizz-like Delta Force against Arab/Muslim terrorist-desperados. Now it is as if an almost metaphysical need to defeat Iraq has come into being, not because Iraq’s offence, though great, is cataclysmic, but because a small non-white country has rankled a suddenly energised super-nation imbued with a fervour that can only be satisfied with subservience from sheikhs, dictators, terrorists and camel-jockeys. The truly acceptable Arabs are those like Sadat who can be made to seem almost completely purified of their national selfhood – folksy talkshow guests.

Arabs may only be an attenuated example of those others who in the past have incurred the wrath of the stern white man, a kind of Puritan super-ego whose errand into the wilderness knows few boundaries and who will go to very great lengths to make his points. One of the ingredients conspicuously missing from today’s discussions about the Gulf is the word ‘imperialism’. But it is difficult not to catch in the moralistic accents of American leaders, and in their obedient media echoes, repetitions of the grandiose self-endowment of previous imperialisms (muffled though they may be by the pious formula that Saddam’s wrong against Kuwait is to be righted by the US). And as the Iraqi infraction seems to grow before our eyes, Saddam has become Hitler, the butcher of Baghdad, the madman who has to be brought low.

‘All roads lead to the bazaar’, ‘Arabs only understand force’, ‘brutality and violence are central to Arab civilisation’, ‘Islam is an intolerant, segregationalist, medieval, fanatical, cruel religion’. No other major cultural group could be spoken of in this way, yet the context, framework, setting of any discussion has been limited, indeed frozen, by these ideas. There has seemed to be a kind of pleasure in the prospect of the Arabs as represented by Saddam at last getting their comeuppance. Scores would be settled with Palestinians, Arab nationalism, Islamic civilisation. Most of these old enemies of the ‘West’, it should be noted, had the further cheek to be anti-Israeli.

The worst offenders in all this have been the academic experts on the Arab mind, the usual suspects who can always be rounded up and counted on for egregious displays of phoney expertise. The public mood has been such as to decontextualise and isolate Iraq, to exaggerate its power fantastically, to subsume its entire population in the two routinely mispronounced words ‘Saddam Hussein’ – as if all ‘we’ were doing was fighting the one dreadful spectre of evil. This enables us to bomb Iraq without a twinge of compunction, and to do it, indeed, with a horrific sense of righteous exhilaration. This is something the media has encouraged, even promoted, as if Iraq could most appropriately be seen through the sights of an F15 or a smart missile. Note also that with the sudden disappearance of April Glaspie and John Kelly, the present war-making Administration has been run without a single professional who has any real knowledge or experience of the Middle East, its languages or its peoples. Such as it was, Iraq’s case against Kuwait – a case to some degree encouraged and bolstered by the US, as the transcript of April Glaspie’s conversations with Saddam in late July testifies – was given no hearing, thereby ensuring the need for war. It is my supposition that Iraq is being destroyed today, not because of its aggression against Kuwait, which could have been reversed patiently, regionally, economically and politically, but because the US wants a physical presence in the Gulf, wants to have direct leverage on oil to affect Europe and Japan, because it wishes to set the world agenda, because Iraq was perceived as a threat to Israel.

I know that loyalty and patriotism come into all this: but these should be based on a critical sense of what the facts are, what our interests are, and what as residents of this shrinking and depleted planet we owe our neighbours and the rest of mankind. Uncritical solidarity with the policy of the moment, especially when it is so unimaginably costly, cannot be allowed to rule. America’s survival is not at stake in the Persian Gulf, and never has been. Why have we no criticism of such ridiculous statements as ‘we have to stop him now, otherwise it will be harder later’? Why have we not heard anyone say that the UN resolutions were bullied out of the Security Council, and that these resolutions say nothing whatever about destroying a country in order to liberate Kuwait and to restore to its throne a dynasty which, along with other Gulf monarchies, has put two and a half trillion dollars on deposit outside the Arab world. These are monarchies which respect neither human rights nor the priorities of their own people.

Desert Storm is ultimately a war against the Iraqi people, an effort to break and kill them as part of an effort to break and kill Saddam. Yet this is largely kept from the American television audience, as a way of maintaining the image of the war as a painless Nintendo exercise, and the image of the American as a virtuous, clean warrior. On 27 January, in the lead New York Times article by R.W. Apple, Bush was described as ‘a strict Marquess of Queensberry rules man’, as if what the US has been doing is not, in effect, carpet-bombing the cities and towns of Iraq, violating the Geneva and Hague conventions by destroying water and fuel supplies for civilians, and doing only very unascertainable damage to the armed forces in the process. It might make a difference even to Americans who are not interested in history to know that the last time Baghdad was destroyed was in 1258, by the Mongols: to know what precedents there are for what we are doing.

What else in the many pictures we are getting is deliberately manipulative? I would say that the lingering over scenes in Israeli cities where a few missiles have hit is part of the same distortion. Not that such scenes shouldn’t be shown, or that I condone Scud attacks against civilians: they should be shown and I am against these attacks. But why is it granted that only Israeli and Western affliction should be to this extent available – if not to maintain the fiction that Arabs are not equal with ‘our’ side, that their lives and sorrows are not worth listening to?

The claim that Iraq gassed its own citizens has often been repeated. At best, this is uncertain. There is at least one War College report, done while Iraq was a US ally, which claims that the gassings of the Kurds in Halabja was done by Iran. Few people mention such reports in the media today, although references to them turn up occasionally in the alternative press. Now ‘gassing his own citizens’ has become a fact about Saddam, elevated into one of the proofs that the US should destroy him, as if by doing so it wouldn’t also destroy Iraq, kill thousands of people, sacrifice thousands of American lives (mostly the poor and disadvantaged) and create a host of new problems.

The whole premise of the way the war was prepared and is being fought is colonial: the assumption is that a small Third World country doesn’t have the right to resist America, which is white and superior. I submit that such notions are amoral, anachronistic, and supremely mischievous, since they not only make wars possible, but also prevent diplomacy and politics from playing the role they should. When the historical record is fully revealed, we shall know what we already partly know now: that the United States steadily resisted and subverted every attempt at mediation, compromise or adjudication, and pressed for war almost from the very beginning. Thus one can have only the slightest hope that Bush will react positively to an Iraqi-Soviet proposal for withdrawal.

It would therefore seem that the point of this war is not to permit lesser nations and subject peoples to enjoy the same privileges that ‘we’ do. Had the US from the beginning earned moral authority by getting behind Arab and UN action, expanding the rule of UN resolutions to include the whole region and not just one demonised and demeaned country, there would have been no war, and we would be able to speak about dialogue and reconciliation. How absurd and morally repugnant George Bush’s phrase that to resolve the Palestinian question now would be ‘to reward aggression’, as if a peace settlement on an issue that antedates not only Saddam but George Bush himself could be spoken of in so coarse and schoolmasterish a way.

There has been scarcely any serious thought about the aftermath of the war: the tremendous economic, ecological and human waste; the strengthening of powerful religious sentiment and the defeat of secularism, dialogue and moderation; the destruction of Iraq, its possible dismemberment, the long and awful period of depredations for its citizens; the rise of extremism, of calls for vengeance and more killing and destruction; the instability of many governments, especially those of unpopular US allies like Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia; the endless prolongation of an American presence, with occupation, killing and collaboration as our legacy; the growth of intransigence in Israel, which will use its US lobby to extract more concessions; the destruction of the environment, of the economy. The list is very long.

An article in last winter’s issue of the journal Foreign Affairs is entitled ‘The Summer of Arab Discontent’, and contains the following passage:

No sooner had the Arab/Muslim world said farewell to the wrath and passion of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s crusade than another contender rose in Baghdad. The new claimant was made of material different from the turbaned saviour from Qum: Saddam Hussein was not a writer of treatises on Islamic government nor a product of high learning in religious seminaries. Not for him were the drawn-out ideological struggles for the hearts and minds of the faithful. He came from a brittle land, a frontier country between Persia and Arabia, with little claim to culture and books and grand ideas. The new contender was a despot, a ruthless and skilled warden who had tamed his domain and turned it into a large prison.

The merest Arab schoolchild knows that Baghdad was not only the seat of the Abbasid civilisation, the highest flowering of Arab culture, between the ninth and 12th centuries, which produced works of literature still read today as Shakespeare, Dante and Dickens are still read, but as a city is also one of the great monuments of Islamic art. In addition, Baghdad is the city in which, along with Cairo and Damascus, the 19th and 20th-century revival of art and literature took place. Baghdad produced at least five of the greatest 20th-century Arab poets, and without any question all of the top artists and sculptors. To say of Iraq that it has no relation to books and ideas is to be amnesiac about Sumer, and Babylon, and Nineveh, and Hammurabi, and Assyria, and all the great monuments of ancient Mesopotamian (and world) civilisation. To say that Iraq is a ‘brittle’ land, with the suggestion of aridity and emptiness, is also to show ignorance which an elementary school child would be embarrassed to reveal. What happened to the Tigris and the Euphrates? What happened to the fact that of all the countries in the Middle East Iraq is by far the most fertile?

This author sings the praises of contemporary Saudi Arabia, more brittle and out of touch with books, ideas and culture than Iraq ever was. The point is not to belittle Saudi Arabia, which is an important country and has much to contribute. I do, however, want to say that such writing as this, appearing as the US was poised on the edge of war in the pages of the country’s most influential foreign affairs quarterly, is neither informative, nor illuminating, nor valuable. Even more important, it is symptomatic of the intellectual will to please power, to tell it what it wants to hear, to say to it that it can go ahead and kill and bomb and destroy, since what is being attacked is really negligible, brittle, with no relationship to books, ideas, cultures, and no relation either, it gently suggests, to real people. There is only the Iraqi dictator and, like a monstrous disease, he must be extirpated.

With such information then, what forgiveness, what humanity, what chance for humane argument? Very little, alas. Yet there are signs that all over the country, beneath the misleading euphoria and the manufactured consent put together by the media, people are angry, consciences disturbed, spirits anguished. Our duty as intellectuals is to the truth, as Benda said, and not to the encouragement of collective passions in the interests of mass slaughter. When one hears philosophers like Michael Walzer or columnists like Anthony Lewis proclaim this as a ‘just war’, one realises once more that words are the first casualty in any conflict.

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Vol. 13 No. 7 · 4 April 1991

It is a great pity that Edward Said tarnishes his excellent article about the criminal folly of Desert Storm (LRB, 7 March) by mentioning the unsustainable claim that the gassing of the Kurdish civilian population of Halabjah in March 1988, in which some five to six thousand people died, was an Iranian rather than an Iraqi atrocity. This piece of disinformation was propagated by the Pentagon at a time when the US was massively supporting Iraq in its war with Iran, a policy continued, as Said points out, until 2 August last year, and reflected, as I write, in the current paradoxical US attempts to preserve Saddam Hussein against the less palatable alternative forces fighting against him in Basra and Kurdistan.

I had the opportunity, in the aftermath of Halabjah, to interview a number of the Kurdish survivors, who had been flown by the Iranians to London for treatment. Their accounts of what had taken place were clear and consistent: the chemical weapons had been delivered by Iraqi Sukhoi 22 fighter-bombers. The survivors I saw were all extensively burned by mustard gas, for which the Iraqis had a production plant at Samara. The same plant manufactured the nerve gas which was almost certainly responsible for most of the deaths at Halabjah. The US defence analysts who disputed this did so on the extraordinary and unsustainable grounds that the Halabjah deaths were caused by blood gases (cyanide) and that Iraq did not possess such weapons. Their version of events is refuted not only by my own observations but by the UN investigators, by the UK pathologist who saw victims in Tehran not long after the gassing occurred, and by the team from the Boston-based Physicians for Human Rights who interviewed Kurdish refugees in eastern Turkey.

Halabjah represented a turning-point in the history of warfare as significant as Hiroshima. It was the first time that chemical weapons had been used on such a scale against a defenceless population and the first time that nerve gas had ever been used. It was a clear breach of the 1925 Geneva Protocol on chemical and biological weapons (to which Iraq had been one of the early signatories). That Iraq was allowed by its Western backers to get away with such an atrocity has undoubtedly compromised subsequent attempts to demilitarise in the Middle East or to negotiate an effective new chemical weapons treaty at Geneva. That Iraq’s chemical weapons capability was provided by Western European technical support, and that the US turned a blind eye to its use, contributes one more twist to the spiral of disaster which led the world into Desert Storm and which that savage campaign has merely added to. But in condemning Western imperialist goals in that war, there is no need to try to wash the bloody stains from the Iraqi dictator’s record.

Steven Rose
Open University, Milton Keynes

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