26 February 2006
Everyone in the Middle East rewrites history, but never before have we had a US administration so wilfully, dishonestly and ruthlessly reinterpreting tragedy as success, defeat as victory, death as life -- helped, I have to add, by the compliant American press. I'm reminded not so much of Vietnam as of the British and French commanders of the First World War who repeatedly lied about military victory over the Kaiser as they pushed hundreds of thousands of their men through the butchers' shops of the Somme, Verdun and Gallipoli. The only difference now is that we are pushing hundreds of thousands of Arabs though the butchers' shops -- and don't even care.
Last week's visit to Beirut by one of the blindest of George Bush's bats -- his Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice -- was indicative of the cruelty that now pervades Washington. She brazenly talked about the burgeoning "democracies" of the Middle East while utterly ignoring the bloodbaths in Iraq and the growing sectarian tensions of Lebanon, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Perhaps the key to her indifference can be found in her evidence to the Senate Committee on International Affairs where she denounced Iran as "the greatest strategic challenge" facing the US in the region, because Iran uses policies that "contradict the nature of the kind of Middle East sought by the United States".
As Bouthaina Shaaban, one of the brightest of Syria's not always very bright team of government ministers, noted: "What is the nature of the kind of Middle East sought by the United States? Should Middle East states adapt themselves to that nature, designed oceans away?" As Maureen Dowd, the best and only really worthwhile columnist on the boring New York Times, observed this month, Bush "believes in self-determination only if he's doing the determining ... The Bushies are more obsessed with snooping on Americans than fathoming how other cultures think and react." And conniving with rogue regimes, too, Dowd might have added.
Take Donald Rumsfeld, the reprehensible man who helped to kick off the "shock and awe" mess that has now trapped more than 100,000 Americans in the wastes of Iraq. He's been taking a leisurely trip around North Africa to consult some of America's nastiest dictators, among them President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, the man with the largest secret service in the Arab world and whose policemen have perfected the best method of gleaning information from suspected "terrorists": to hold them down and stuff bleach-soaked rags into their mouths until they have almost drowned.
The Tunisians learned this from the somewhat cruder methods of the Algerians next door whose government death squads slaughtered quite a few of the 150,000 victims of the recent war against the Islamists. The Algerian lads -- and I've interviewed a few of them after their nightmares persuaded them to seek asylum in London -- would strap their naked victims to a ladder and, if the "chiffon" torture didn't work, they'd push a tube down the victim's throat and turn on a water tap until the prisoner swelled up like a balloon. There was a special department (at the Chateauneuf police station, in case Donald Rumsfeld wants to know) for torturing women, who were inevitably raped before being dispatched by an execution squad.
All this I mention because Rumsfeld's also been cosying up to the Algerians. On a visit to Algiers this month, he announced that "the United States and Algeria have a multifaceted relationship. It involves political and economic as well as military-to-military co-operation. And we very much value the co-operation we are receiving in counter-terrorism..." Yes, I imagine the "chiffon" technique is easy to learn, the abuse of prisoners, too -- just like Abu Ghraib, for example, which now seems to have been the fault of journalists rather than America's thugs.
Rumsfeld's latest pronouncements have included a defence of the Pentagon's system of buying favourable news stories in Iraq with bribes -- "non-traditional means to provide accurate information" was his fantasy description of this latest attempt to obscure the collapse of the American regime in Baghdad -- and an attack on our reporting of the Abu Ghraib tortures. "Consider for a moment the vast quantity of column inches and hours of television devoted to the detainee abuse [sic] at Abu Ghraib. Compare that to the volume of coverage and condemnation associated with, say, the discovery of Saddam Hussein's mass graves, which were filled with hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis."
Let's expose this whopping lie. We were exposing Saddam's vile regime, especially his use of gas, as long ago as 1983. I was refused a visa to Iraq by Saddam's satraps for exposing their vile tortures at -- Abu Ghraib. And what was Donald Rumsfeld doing? Visiting Baghdad, grovelling before Saddam, to whom he did not mention the murders and mass graves, which he knew about, and pleading with the Beast of Baghdad to reopen the US embassy in Iraq.
With the usual press courtiers in tow, Rumsfeld has no problems, witness George Melloan's recent interview with the Beast of Washington in his Boeing 737: "He generously spares me time for a chat about defence strategy. Bright sunlight streams in and lights his face ... Sitting across from him at a desk high above the clouds, one wonders if the ability of this modern Jove to call down lightning on transgressors will be equal to the tasks ahead."
And so myth-making and tragedy go hand in hand. Iraq's monumental catastrophe has become routine, shapeless, an incipient "civil war". Note how the American framework of disaster is now being portrayed as an Iraqi vs Iraqi war, as if the huge and brutal US occupation has nothing to do with the appalling violence in Iraq. They blow up each other's mosques? They just don't want to get on. We told them to have a non-sectarian government and they refused. That, I suspect, will be the get-out line when the next deluge overwhelms the Americans in Iraq.
Winston Churchill, when the Iraqis staged their insurgency against British rule in 1920, called Iraq "an ungrateful volcano". But let's just sit back and enjoy the view. Democracy is coming to the Middle East. People are enjoying more liberties. History doesn't matter, only the future. And the future for the people of the Middle East is becoming darker and bloodier by the day. I guess it just depends whether "Jove" is up to his job when all that bright sunlight streams in and lights his face.