The Salisbury Review, June 1991.
Tho Salisbury Review The Gulf War raised many questions - not the least being that of the loyalties of those who reported it. As David Pryce-Jones demonstrates, Robert Fisk - the most influential, if not the most intelligent, of our Middle Eastern correspondents - treated his readers to wild predictions, eccentric observations, and judgements calculated to undermine the conviction and morale of the allied armies. In this he was only applying to the Gulf the formulae that he had perfected in the Lebanon: ridiculing Western attempts at self-assertion, relentlessly exposing the weakness and corruption of our allies and sympathisers, and crowning his chosen 'victims' (usually Palestinians) with a martyr's halo. Throughout the crisis such 'experts' as Fisk could be found on the thrones of public opinion, broadcasting their subversive propaganda to the world, and laughingly dismissing all rival opinions as the selfserving fantasies of Western power.
Fisk first came before the public as a reporter for The Times covering events in Ireland in the Seventies. Whatever the government then did by way of coaxing out a solution for Ulster, he decried. Evidently he takes it for granted that governments are there for everyone else to be their adversaries. Journalism, to someone of this temperament, has the duty, even the sacred duty, to expose and oppose what can only be bad if not scandalous, with the result that its practitioners are not reporters concerned with news and facts, but rather clerks of high calling and moral purpose, a clerisy, a priesthood. In Beirut since 1976, for The Times and later for The Independent, this particular clerk or priest sought to refine his vocation. His experience as a reporter in the Middle East has been resumed in Pity the Nation, a book he published in 1990. In its preface, he has a conceit about the journalist 'at the edge of history' as a man might sit on the lip of a smoking volcano, recording 'as honestly as we can'. Far from following this pontification, on the page Fisk is busy selecting whatever helps to build some case according to his temperamental and moral preconceptions, whether or not the facts fit. Over the last fifteen years Lebanon has disintegrated from a democracy, albeit imperfect, into a free-for-all whereby its several religious or ethnic communities have withdrawn from such agreed arrangements as existed, each into his own identity. Each seeks to survive at the expense of the others, and all employ the same means of offence and defence. However regrettable it may be, moral distinctions between the communities are vain and irrelevant. This is customary or tribal warfare, and it illustrates the central dilemma of Arab politics today. No political structures or institutional mechanisms exist to permit some form of power-sharing, with pluralism and rights, and in the best case, democracy. To the strong the spoils, as ever, and to the weak dispossession, flight and finally massacre. The Lebanese plight is to be found in reality or in potential in every Arab country, all of them despotisms where one man and his kind hold power at the expense of everyone else. Unwillingness to address this central dilemma makes Pity the Nation tendentious to the point of untruthfulness. Ever the adversary, ever the priest on the trail of wickedness, Fisk ignores the defective structure of Arab politics by laying the blame for everything on foreign intervention, primarily American and Israeli. The pretence that such intervention is the cause of present troubles - rather than yet another effect of them - opens the way to moral hysteria against the West. Fisk never notices how condescending it is to depict Arabs as people without a decisive say in their own affairs, not agents but only passive objects of others. The Victorian imperialist ascribed bad character to the native whom he did not like, and good character to himself. The target is reversed for Fisk, who ascribes bad charac ter to the West because he dislikes it, and good character to the native, but the emotional need to be moralising at other people's expense remains constant. This is the mind-set which led Fisk so astray in the Gulf crisis. In his reports the tone of delicious gloating over the Western calamity which he anticipated was as unmistakable as it was other-worldly. The priest had talked himself into a belief that the hour of retribution was at hand. At this point, something must be said about Fisk's technique. The standard practice in filing a newspaper report is to minimise selectivity and bias. This involves opening with a statement which resumes the event in question, then following up with supporting evidence, including quotations from witnesses or those affected by it. The reader is provided with substantive facts upon which to base an informed opinion of his own. This will not do for Fisk. Instead, he prefers, if possible in the first sentence of his story, to select some individual, then to append a splashy purple description of him or her, and the circumstances of their encounter, finally extrapolating from that encounter some generalised conclusion. What he has seen and heard has been used to paint his mood. Here is the exact opposite of recording 'as honestly as we can'. More often than not, Fisk's conclusion cannot bear the weight of extrapolation from the individual encounter, and amounts to nothing but a personal statement which may or may not be valid. The net effect is that Fisk habitually places himself not at all on the edge but at the centre of his story, not really reporting on others but on himself. This is not a style in which the truth can be told. Readers are instead being invited to admire the panache of Fisk's approach, the advantage with which he is able to observe the bit-parts played by those fortunate enough to be converting themselves into his copy, and finally the superior morality which allows him to absolve or to condemn, even as he leaves the scene. How he depicts himself tripping over corpses (his phrase), imagining Israeli jets passing through the windows of his bedroom one foot above his bed ( his dream), screaming four- letter words at those alleged to be preventing him carrying through with his calling. Pocketa-pocketa, as Walter Mitty had it. Self- dramatisation like this is a branch of fiction, not journalism. From the beginning of last August, when he turned up in the Gulf, until early in December when he seems to have taken a break lasting into the new year of 1991, Fisk set about establishing as best he could that a victorious war could not be waged by vulnerable Western troops against the formidable Iraqis. The political and military costs would be unbearable. The West, which he sometimes likened to 'crusaders' or even 'Christendom', had no conception of the revenge Arabs and Muslims would exact. He appealed to history as justification for some highly dubious but ex cathedra generalisations. It would be well, he had already jumped to the conclusion by August 9, for 'the West to remember that history in the Middle East rarely rewards the just. It never favours the foreigner. ...Not once has a military adventure in the Middle East achieved its end. For it is also an irresistible trap....Mr Bush urged his people yesterday to go to church and pray for the young Americans who are on their way to the Gulf. It was a wise precaution'. Evidence for these preconceptions then had to be furnished. The seamen of HMS For* were duly 'expressing the nonchalance of frightened youth". The ship itself ' looked a very fragile vessel', and he continued, 'had not its sister ship Sheffield been hit by an Exocet missile? Did the Iraqis not have 1,000 Exocets ?' Day after day, he imagined rich new fields for hysteria. The Iraqis had struck the USSStark'm an unprovoked attack in the Gulf in 1987. The US Navy had little protection against mines, and - pocketa-pocketa - 'Any location west of 50.5 degrees would place American ships in range of Iraq's Mirage fighter bombers and their Exocet missiles'. Two Italian ships off course threatened the US fleet. Most of his stories were in the give-away mould, for instance on August 20: 'Sami Ahmed Abdullah and Tahir Juma Mohamed were yesterday rejoicing in the sobriquet of 'rightful soldiers of Saddam Hussein', thanks to the US Navy .. ..They were the first Iraqis to brave US gunfire in the Gulf.. ..They proved how seamen can make a mockery of a naval blockade....US naval operations had earned a definite failure mark'. What they proved in fact was how Fisk manages to extrapolate whatever he needs for his temperamental ends from the insignificant actions of insignificant individuals. It was the same on land. 'He was every mother's son, tall, strong, handsome, enjoying his status as a soldier in a foreign land. He stood on the ramp in an artificial way, rifle in hand, bag over his shoulder, feet apart, an image on a hundred front covers and a thousand war memorials'. Or again, 'truth is not the first casualty in war. Soldiers are. There are enough portents already that this crisis could end in tragedy without confusing the issue'. There were fist-fights in Marine units, he informed us, and infantrymen were chastising their officers for lack of command-and-control procedures. A private soldier asked Fisk if he could borrow a tourist map 'to see where we are'. The ' unhappiness of the Americans' prompted Fisk to advise them to 'train and move at night; clean and maintain engines, generators and weapons constantly, initiate a postal system', and so on. Granted the mentality which disposed him to blame the West for Arab shortcomings, Fisk devoted numerous reports to the incompatability as military allies of the West and Arabs. What with their insensitivity and ignorance, the Americans were alienating Arabs, and bound to do so more and more. The armies could not integrate their commands. Press conferences allowed him to create the mood for which he was searching. American spokesmen or organisers were 'sweating. ...truly awful', while the message for the Saudis was 'watch out'. Right to the end, such conferences reinforced Fisk's anti-Americanism. ' Uninformative and embarrassing' in his words, briefings served to confirm in Arabs their 'suspicion and hatred' of Americans as people intoxicated with their technology and blinded by naivety. Actually the Egyptian and Syrian leadership was more eager than anyone to draw Saddam's claws by enforcing his departure from Kuwait, by a land campaign if necessary, but Fisk sought to show the opposite with stories about their alleged insincerity. One such story opened typically, 'General Mohamed Bilal says that his primary military mission is to defend Islam's holy places. This is, of course, a terminological inexactitude'. When he asked of Arab armies, 'Will they fight?', the question was merely sarcastic. By September 26, he had convinced himself by these means of ' the catastrophe that may soon befall all the armies of the Gulf. Beyond that, one of his articles of faith was that Arabs, as Muslims, could not possibly accept any American presence on Saudi soil, especially not to wage war against an Arab country. It is part and parcel of his condescending attitude that Arabs must be considered people who cannot think through what exactly their interests are, but confuse politics and religion so irrevocably that they can have only a single and unanimous response to a given situation; in short, they are creatures of frenzy. In a staggering inversion of the facts on the ground, he wrote, 'The greatest threat to Saudi Arabia is not Iraq. It is America' . Proof of this? A Saudi sheikh and Khalid, a Bedu, both doubted that America would really evacuate its troops after the war. Since Arabs seemed unaccountably reluctant to oblige Fisk by splitting the coalition and breaking the new crusaders', he press- ganged the Israelis to bring this about. Under the bald heading 'The Gulf alliance is gunned down', on October 10, he discussed at length the horrible incident which had just occured in Jerusalem. At the bidding of Saddam, the PLO had attempted to instigate a mass uprising there. Caught by surprise, Israeli police lost order and regained it only by firing into the crowd, killing 19 people. Fisk's predictions arising from this event bore not the least relation to what was to happen. 'At the very moment when those Western armies desperately need to maintain a broad measure of Arab support for their stand against President Saddam, the Israelis have done more damage to this new alliance than all the radical leaders combined. ..If ever a sword was thrust into a military alliance of East and West, the Israelis wielded that dagger'. President Mubarak could now not contain Egyptian dissatisfaction for much longer, the Syrians would not be contributing armour, the Israelis had allowed Saddam to undermine America.
Let it be conceded that Fisk was sincerely worried by the prospect of Allied casualties; and also that he, like others, was taken in by the Pentagon's brilliant campaign to dampen everyone's expectations. Even so, anyone with a fifteen- year experience of the Middle East ought to have understood that Iraq was a fragmented country ethnically and religiously, and for dreadful years had been in the grip of terror, that its soldiers embodied that fragmentation and feared the terror, and had as a result performed poorly in the Iran war, and now had no intention of engaging the Allies in a hopeless war fought solely for Saddam's aggrandisement. Nor is this hindsight. Hazhir Teimourian of The Times was only one among many informed commentators to publish (on December 12) an accurate forecast of the likely course of events under the title 'Arab generals say war against Baghdad could be won on the first day of battle'. The Egyptian chief of staff, Field Marshal Abu Ghazzala, described in a definitive and much-quoted speech how for many years he had co-ordinated Egyptian-Iraqi military endeavours, and from his knowledge he declared that the war would be over in three days. Informed commentators also observed the common Arab- American aims which solidly underpinned the coalition. Fisk's fears were groundless. Returning from his leave (if such it was) at the beginning of this January, Fisk took up all his themes on a still higher note of hysteria. War was evidently approaching. On January 14, Fisk found the Iraqi anti-tank 'berins' of piled sand to be 'frightening revetments' - the armour was to cross them without ado - and he observed soldiers wiping tears from their eyes at the prospects ahead. Stormy weather may have granted 'a few extra days of life to the tens of thousands of young men who are likely to die in the coming weeks'. General Disorder rather than General Schwarzkopf, he already thought, was likely to be in command, and now he repeated that 'wars destroy the best- laid plans'. Instead of factual or first-hand reports, speculative anxieties poured out of him. The Iraqis might use gas and biological weapons, the Israelis might expel the Palestinians, Jordan might disappear. He worried deeply about such things as Islamic scholars asking why Muslim armies had been beaten back from Vienna in 1683: was it because they lacked faith or because the armies of Christendom possessed better weapons?' On the day when the UN ultimatum expired, Fisk asked where American confidence sprang from. 'Patriotism? America's characteristic and dangerous trust in technology? Or was it the war-speak of military colleges?' Saddam was speaking in just that vein about America. Fortunately, Fisk reassured himself by finding soldiers 'who suspect the war which now seems inevitable will lead to disaster'. For once hearing a soldier say say that the war would end in seventy two hours, Fisk criticised him for 'dangerous euphoria'. To his own satisfaction, he established that Allied air successes were nothing of the kind. 'Pilots have noticed Iraqi planes flying on a non- combat status around them over Iraq', he wrote, whatever this might mean. There were no Iraqi defectors either, he thought, because those 'truly awful' organisers had not produced any for him. Under the fascinating heading, 'Tanks bogged down in unmapped mud and confusion', Fisk on January 23 depicted 'a logistical nightmare', in which the mass of troops and armour heading for the front-line were unable to find their way. Summoning once more the full military skills he must have gathered as. a newspaperman, he explained how convoy discipline was to be restored, secrecy of unit location maintained, and medical standards bettered. Medical staff might be unable to do much about gas attacks, but he could instruct how to suck teeth out of a throat wound. Self-dramatising as usual, he was able once more to donate maps to commanders who were 'hopelessly lost'. Judging from the response in The Independent and elsewhere, this story marked the turning-point when readers began to wonder what confidence could be placed in Fisk. The very next morning, he was reporting how Saudi Tornados had taken off on a sortie, as a result of a decision 'taken personally by King Fahd and applauded privately by President George Bush'. It was heart-warming, naturally, that these two leaders should have interrupted their schedules to confide their personal and private thoughts and deeds to Fisk; perhaps they had been moved by his contribution to the war of those maps, or his alarm at what might be happening west of 50.5 degrees. No less imaginatively, Fisk was still warning that the Arabs were on the side of the Americans only because of three conditions. The war had to be concluded victoriously and swiftly , Iraq had to survive as a strong nation, and the Israelis had to keep out. 'The trouble, of course', as Fisk summarised it with guesswork erratic even by his own standards, 'is that the first condition can no longer be met; the second is unlikely to be fulfilled and the third could collapse within days'. Brand- new anxieties were surfacing right up to the liberation of Kuwait. For instance, 'Arab reaction to the relentless bombardment of Iraq could now cause as many fractures in the Arab coalition as if Israel became involved in the war'. Then it was over, as informed people knew it would be. Just a few hours of the land war, and Fisk was exposed as someone whose obsessive self- dramatising had led him into a gaping and obvious dead-end which was far more uninformative and embarrassing than anything American press officers might have provided. Just a few hours, and Fisk's preconceptions and analyses and predictions burst like soap bubbles. Once it was over, and he was in Kuwait City, on February 28, he discovered what the Iraqis had actually done there, and hey presto! He sensed 'that something very wicked, at times evil, had visited this city'. Were these by any chance the same Iraqis whom it had been utter madness to think of attacking all this while, the same men who behind their 'frightening revetments' had been about to set the Muslim world marching in righteousness against the West ? The priestly purpose remained the same, but just a few hours Were enough for the target of the moralising to be reversed. Did he apologise for his hysteria? Did he ask himself why he had outrageously misled readers of his newspaper and done so much to confuse public opinion? Did he question the total mismatch between what he said would happen and the actual unfolding of events? Did he reflect on the American performance west and even east of 50.5 degrees, and go on to wonder why Arab anti- Americanism was not as he had anticipated? Might he think through his misconceptions about the structure of Arab politics? Oh indeed not. Nothing of that sort. ... What other reporter has ever projected his own self-drama as though it were reality? Who else has been unable to distinguish between a priestly purpose and the facts? No precedent for Fisk springs to mind.
The Salisbury Review, June 1991 13.