by Robert Fisk (27 January 2003)
The Israeli writer Uri Avnery once delivered a wickedly sharp open letter to Menachem Begin, the Israeli prime minister who sent his army to defeat in Lebanon. Enraged by Begin's constant evocation of the Second World War likening Yasser Arafat in Beirut to Hitler in his Berlin bunker in 1945 Avnery entitled his letter: "Mr Prime Minister, Hitler is Dead."
How often I have wanted to repeat his advice to Bush and Blair. Obsessed with their own demonisation of Saddam Hussein, both are now reminding us of the price of appeasement. Bush thinks that he is the Churchill of America, refusing the appeasement of Saddam. Now the US ambassador to the European Union, Rockwell Schnabel, has compared Saddam to Hitler. "You had Hitler in Europe and no one really did anything about him," Schnabel lectured the Europeans in Brussels a week ago: "We knew he could be dangerous but nothing was done. The same type of person [is in Baghdad] and it's there that our concern lies." Mr Schnabel ended this infantile parallel by adding unconvincingly that "this has nothing to do with oil".
How can the sane human being react to this pitiful stuff? One of the principal nations which "did nothing about Hitler" was the US, which enjoyed a profitable period of neutrality in 1939 and 1940 and most of 1941 until it was attacked by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor. And when the Churchill-Roosevelt alliance decided that it would only accept Germany's unconditional surrender a demand that shocked even Churchill when Roosevelt suddenly announced the terms at Casablanca Hitler was doomed.
Not so Saddam it seems. For last week Donald Rumsfeld offered the Hitler of Baghdad a way out: exile, with a suitcase full of cash and an armful of family members if that is what he wished. Funny, but I don't recall Churchill or Roosevelt ever suggesting that the Nazi führer should be allowed to escape. Saddam is Hitler but then suddenly, he's not Hitler after all. He is said TheNew York Times to be put before a war crimes tribunal. But then he's not. He can scoot off to Saudi Arabia or Latin America. In other words, he's not Hitler.
But even if he were, are we prepared to pay the price of so promiscuous a war? Arabs who admire Saddam and there are plenty in Jordan believe Iraq cannot hold out for more than a week. Some are convinced the US 3rd Infantry Division will be in Baghdad in three days, the British with them. It's a fair bet that hundreds, if not thousands, of Iraqis will die. But in the civil unrest that follows, what are we going to do? Are American and British troops to defend the homes of Baath party officials whom the mobs want to hang?
Far more seriously, what happens after that? What do we do when Iraqis not ex-Baathists but anti-Saddam Iraqis demand our withdrawal? For be sure this will happen. In the Shia mosques of Kerbala and An Najaf, they are not going to welcome Anglo-American forces. The Kurds will want a price for their co-operation. A state perhaps? A federation? The Sunnis will need our protection. They will also, in due time, demand our withdrawal. Iraq is a tough, violent state and General Tommy Franks is no General MacArthur.
For we will be in occupation of a foreign land. We will be in occupation of Iraq as surely as Israel is in occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. And with Saddam gone, the way is open for Osama bin Laden to demand the liberation of Iraq as another of his objectives. How easily he will be able to slot Iraq into the fabric of American occupation across the Gulf. Are we then ready to fight al-Qa'ida in Iraq as well as in Afghanistan and Pakistan and countless other countries? It seems that the peoples of the Middle East and the West realise these dangers, but that their leaders do not, or do not want to.
Travelling to the US more than once a month, visiting Britain at the weekend, moving around the Middle East, I have never been so struck by the absolute, unwavering determination of so many Arabs and Europeans and Americans to oppose a war. Did Tony Blair really need that gloriously pertinacious student at the Labour Party meeting on Friday to prove to him what so many Britons feel: that this proposed Iraqi war is a lie, that the reasons for this conflict have nothing to do with weapons of mass destruction, that Blair has no business following Bush into the America-Israeli war? Never before have I received so many readers' letters expressing exactly the same sentiment: that somehow because of Labour's huge majority, because of the Tory party's effective disappearance as an opposition, because of parliamentary cynicism British democracy is not permitting British people to stop a war for which most of them have nothing but contempt. From Washington's pathetic attempt to link Saddam to al-Qa'ida, to Blair's childish "dossier" on weapons of mass destruction, to the whole tragic farce of UN inspections, people are just no longer fooled.
The denials that this war has anything to do with oil are as unconvincing as Colin Powell's claim last week that Iraq's oil would be held in trusteeship for the Iraqi people. Trusteeship was exactly what the League of Nations offered the Levant when it allowed Britain and France to adopt mandates in Palestine and Transjordan and Syria and Lebanon after the First World War. Who will run the oil wells and explore Iraqi oil reserves during this generous period of trusteeship? American companies, perhaps? No, people are not fooled.
Take the inspectors. George Bush and Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld and now, alas, Colin Powell don't want to give the inspectors more time. Why not, for God's sake? Let's just go back to 12 September last year when Bush, wallowing in the nostalgia of the 11 September 2001 crimes against humanity, demanded that the UN act. It must send its inspectors back to Iraq. They must resume their work. They must complete their work. Bush, of course, was hoping that Iraq would refuse to let the inspectors return. Horrifically, Iraq welcomed the UN. Bush was waiting for the inspectors to find hidden weapons. Terrifyingly, they found none. They are still looking. And that is the last thing Bush wants. Bush said he was "sick and tired" of Saddam's trickery when what he meant was that he was sick and tired of waiting for the UN inspectors to find the weapons that will allow America to go to war. He who wanted so much to get the inspectors back to work now doesn't want them to work. "Time is running out," Bush said last week. He was talking about Saddam but he was actually referring to the UN inspectors, in fact to the whole UN institution so laboriously established after the Second World War by his own country.
The only other nation pushing for war save for the ever-grateful Kuwait is Israel. Listen to the words of Zalman Shoval, Israeli Prime Minster Ariel Sharon's foreign affairs adviser, last week. Israel, he said, would "pay dearly" for a "long deferral" of an American strike on Iraq. "If the attack were to be postponed on political rather than military grounds," he said, "we will have every reason in Israel to fear that Saddam Hussein uses this delay to develop non-conventional weapons." As long as Saddam was not sidelined, it would be difficult to convince the Palestinian leadership that violence didn't pay and that it should be replaced by a new administration; Arafat would use such a delay "to intensify terrorist attacks".
Note how the savage Israeli-Palestinian war can only according to the Shoval thesis be resolved if America invades Iraq; how terrorism cannot be ended in Israel until the US destroys Saddam. There can be no regime change for the Palestinians until there is regime change in Baghdad. By going along with the Bush drive to war, Blair is, indirectly, supporting Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza (since Israel still claims to be fighting America's "war on terror" against Arafat). Does Blair believe Britons haven't grasped this? Does he think Britons are stupid? A quarter of the British Army is sent to fight in a war that 80 per cent of Britons oppose. How soon before we see real people power 500,000 protesters or more in London, Manchester and other cities to oppose this folly?
Yes an essential part of any such argument Saddam is a cruel, ruthless dictator, not unlike the Dear Leader of North Korea, the nuclear megalomaniac with whom the Americans have been having "excellent" discussions but who doesn't have oil. How typical of Saddam to send Ali "Chemical" Majid the war criminal who gassed the Kurds of Halabja to tour Arab capitals last week, to sit with President Bashar Assad of Syria and President Emile Lahoud of Lebanon as if he never ordered the slaughter of women and children. But Bush and Blair said nothing about Majid's tour either so as not to offend the Arab leaders who met him or because the link between gas, war crimes and Washington's original support for Saddam is a sensitive issue.
Instead, we are deluged with more threats from Washington about "states that sponsor terror". Western journalists play a leading role in this propaganda. Take Eric Schmitt in TheNew York Times a week ago. He wrote a story about America's decision to "confront countries that sponsor terrorism". And his sources? "Senior defence officials", "administration officials", "some American intelligence officials", "the officials", "officials", "military officials", "terrorist experts" and "defence officials". Why not just let the Pentagon write its own reports in TheNew York Times?
But that is what is changing. More and more Americans aware that their President declined to serve his country in Vietnam realise that their newspapers are lying to them and acting as a conduit for the US government alone. More and more Britons are tired of being told to go to war by their newspapers and television stations and politicians. Indeed, I'd guess that far more Britons are represented today by the policies of President Chirac of France than Prime Minister Blair of Britain.