edward said essay

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    I met Fouad Ajami in a small conference of 8 in Nigeria on World Order
    in 1976 when he was still at Princton and a pro-palestinian academic. He
    has become a neocon most of whom are immigrants from the left.

    London Review of Books | Vol. 25 No. 8 dated 17 April 2003 | Edward Said



    The Academy of Lagado


    Edward Said
    Full of contradictions, flat-out lies and groundless affirmations, the
    torrent of reporting and commentary on the 'coalition' war against Iraq
    has obscured the negligence of the military and policy experts who
    planned it and now justify it. For the past two weeks, I have been
    travelling in Egypt and Lebanon trying to keep up with the stream of
    information and misinformation coming out of Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar and
    Jordan, much of it misleadingly upbeat, but some of it horrifyingly
    dramatic in its import as well as its immediacy. The Arab satellite
    channels, al-Jazeera being by now the most notorious and efficient, have
    given a quite different view of the war from the standard stuff served
    up by American reporters with their mass uprisings in Basra, their
    multiple 'falls' of Umm Qasr and al-Faw, their talk of Iraqis being
    killed for not fighting, and their grimy pictures of themselves, as lost
    as the English-speaking soldiers they have been living with. Al-Jazeera
    has had reporters inside Mosul, Baghdad, Basra and Nasiriya, one of them
    the irrepressible Tasir Alouni, fluent veteran of the Afghanistan war,
    and they have presented a much more detailed, more realistic account of
    what has befallen Baghdad and Basra, as well as showing the resistance
    and anger of the Iraqi population, dismissed by Western propaganda as a
    sullen bunch waiting to throw flowers at Clint Eastwood lookalikes.

    Let's get straight to what is so unwise about this war, leaving aside
    for the moment its illegality and international unpopularity. In the
    first place, no one has satisfactorily proved that Iraq possesses
    weapons of mass destruction that furnish an imminent threat to the
    United States. Iraq is a hugely weakened and ineffective Third World
    state ruled by a hated despotic regime: there is no disagreement about
    that anywhere, least of all in the Arab and Islamic world. But that
    after 12 years of sanctions it is a threat of any kind to any other
    state is a laughable notion, and not a single journalist of the overpaid
    legions who swarm around the Pentagon, State Department and White House
    has ever bothered to investigate it.

    Iraq might once have been a potential challenge to Israel. It was the
    one Arab country with the human and natural resources, as well as the
    infrastructure, to take on Israel's arrogant brutality. That is why
    Begin bombed Iraq pre-emptively in 1981, supplying a model for the US in
    its own pre-emptive war. How regrettable that the media have failed to
    elucidate the Likud's slow takeover of US military and political
    thinking about the Arab world. So fearful has everyone been of the
    charge of anti-semitism that the stranglehold of the neo-conservative
    cum Christian Right cum Pentagon civilian hawks on American policy is
    now a reality which forces the entire country into an attitude of
    undifferentiated bellicosity.

    The idea that Iraq's population would have welcomed American forces
    entering the country after a terrifying aerial bombardment was always
    utterly implausible. That this became one of the lynchpins of US policy
    is evidence of the rubbish fed to the Administration by the Iraqi
    opposition (many of whose members were out of touch with their country
    as well as keen on promoting their postwar careers by persuading the
    Americans of how easy an invasion would be) and by the two accredited
    Middle East experts identified long ago as having the most influence
    over American Middle East policy, Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami.

    Now in his late eighties, Lewis came to the US from the UK some thirty
    years ago to teach at Princeton. His fervent anti-Communism and
    disapproval of everything about contemporary Arabs and Islam pushed him
    to the forefront of the pro-Israel contingents during the last years of
    the 20th century. An old-fashioned Orientalist who seems to have little
    feeling for any country in the region other than Turkey, he was quickly
    bypassed by the advances in the social sciences and humanities that
    formed a new generation of scholars who treated Arabs and Muslims as
    living subjects rather than benighted natives. For Lewis, vast
    generalisations about Islam and about the backwardness of 'the Arabs'
    were viable routes to the truth. Common sense about human experience was
    out: resounding pronouncements about the clash of civilisations were in
    (Samuel Huntington derived his lucrative concept from one of Lewis's
    essays about the 'return of Islam'). A generalist and an ideologue,
    Lewis found a new audience within the American Zionist lobby to whom, in
    journals such as Commentary and later the New York Review of Books, he
    addressed his tendentious pontifications.

    What made Lewis's work so damaging was its appeal - in the absence of
    any counter-argument - to American policy-makers. That, together with
    the superciliousness of his manner, turned him into an 'authority' even
    though he hadn't entered, much less lived in, the Arab world in decades.
    His last book, What Went Wrong?, became a post-11 September bestseller
    and, I am told, required reading for the US military, despite its
    unsupported and often factually incorrect statements about the history
    of the Arabs over the past five hundred years. Reading the book, you get
    the idea that they are a useless bunch of primitives, easier to attack
    and destroy than ever before.

    Lewis formulated the thesis that there were three overlapping circles in
    the Middle East: countries with pro-American people and governments
    (Jordan, Egypt and Morocco), countries with pro-American people and
    anti-American governments (Iraq and Iran), and countries with
    anti-American governments and people (Syria and Libya). This thinking
    gradually made its way into Pentagon planning, at the same time as Lewis
    repeated his simplistic formulae on television and in articles for the
    right-wing press. Arabs, it was now entirely reasonable to believe,
    wouldn't fight; indeed, they would welcome us - they were entirely
    vulnerable to whatever power America could bring to bear on them.

    Fouad Ajami is a Lebanese Shia educated in the US who made his name as a
    pro-Palestinian commentator. But by the mid-1980s, he was teaching at
    Johns Hopkins; he'd become a fervent anti-Arab ideologue and had been
    taken up by the right-wing Zionist lobby (he now works for Martin Peretz
    and Mort Zuckerman) and the Council on Foreign Relations. He is fond of
    describing himself as a non-fiction Naipaul and quotes Conrad while
    sounding as hokey as Khalil Gibran. He also has a penchant for catchy
    one-liners, ideally suited to television. The author of two or three
    books, he has become influential as a 'native informant' - the Arab
    'expert' is a rare species on American networks. Ten years ago, he
    started deploying 'we' as an imperial collectivity which, along with
    Israel, never does anything wrong. Arabs are to blame for everything and
    therefore deserve 'our' contempt and hostility.

    Ajami has always had it in for Iraq. He was an early advocate of the
    1991 war and has, I think, deliberately misled the American strategic
    mind into believing that 'our' power can set things straight. Dick
    Cheney quoted him in a major speech last August as saying that Iraqis
    would welcome 'us' as liberators in 'the streets of Basra' - which still
    fights on as I write. Like Lewis, Ajami hasn't been a resident of the
    Arab world for years, although he is rumoured to be close to the Saudis,
    of whom he has recently spoken as models for the Arab world's future
    governance.

    One can only wince at the way weak-minded policy hacks in the Pentagon
    and White House have spun out the 'ideas' of Lewis and Ajami into the
    scenario for a quick romp in a friendly Iraq. The State Department,
    after a long campaign against its so-called 'Arabists', is purged of any
    countervailing views, and Colin Powell is little more than a dutiful
    servant of power. So, because of its potential to make trouble in
    Israel, Saddam's Iraq was targeted for military and political
    termination - never mind its history, its complicated society, its
    internal dynamics and contradictions. Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle
    said exactly that in 1996, when they were acting as consultants to
    Benjamin Netanyahu's election campaign. That the Iraqis would be willing
    to accept more punishment from America, in addition to Saddam's tyranny,
    on the off chance that they would be 'liberated', was taken for granted.
    Look at the war against Afghanistan, which also featured bombing and
    peanut butter sandwiches. Yes, Karzai is now in power but it's power of
    a very iffy kind, and the Taliban, the Pakistani secret services and the
    poppy fields are all back, as are the warlords. Hardly a brilliant
    blueprint to follow in Iraq.

    As for the expatriate Iraqi opposition, it has always been a motley
    bunch. Its leader Ahmad Chalabi may be a brilliant man but he has been
    found guilty of fraud in Jordan and has no real constituency beyond Paul
    Wolfowitz's Pentagon office. He and his helpers - Kanan Makiya, for
    example, the man who said that news of the merciless high-altitude US
    bombing of his native land was 'music to my ears' - plus a few
    ex-Baathists, Shiite clerics and others have also sold the US
    Administration a bill of goods about quick wars, deserting soldiers,
    cheering crowds, similarly unsupported by evidence or lived experience.
    One can't fault these people for wanting to rid the world of Saddam
    Hussein: we'd all be better off without him. The problem has been the
    falsifying of reality and the creation of scenarios for unchecked
    American policy planners to foist on a fundamentalist President and a
    largely misinformed public. In all this, Iraq might as well have been
    the moon and the Pentagon and White House Swift's Academy of Lagado.

    Another thought-stopping premise underlying the campaign in Iraq is that
    the map of the Middle East can be redrawn in such a way as to set in
    motion a 'domino effect' that will introduce Israel-friendly democracies
    all over the territory. According to this model, the Iraqi people are a
    blank sheet on which to inscribe the ideas of William Kristol, Robert
    Kagan and other deep thinkers of the Far Right. As I said in an earlier
    article for the LRB (17 October 2002), such ideas were first tried out
    by Ariel Sharon in Lebanon during the 1982 invasion, and then more
    recently in Palestine, where, in terms of security, peace and subaltern
    compliance, there's been nothing to show for it. Never mind:
    well-trained US special forces have practised and perfected the storming
    of civilian homes alongside Israeli soldiers in Jenin. It is hard to
    believe, as this ill-conceived war advances, that things will be very
    different in Iraq. On the other hand, with countries like Syria and Iran
    involved, their shaky regimes shaken even further, and general Arab
    outrage inflamed to boiling point, one cannot imagine that victory in
    Iraq will resemble any of the simple-minded myths posited by Bush and
    his entourage.

    What is truly puzzling is that the prevailing American ideology is still
    underpinned by the view that US power is basically benign and
    altruistic. This surely accounts for the outrage expressed by US pundits
    and officials that Iraqis should have had the gall to resist at all, or
    that, when captured, US soldiers were exhibited on Iraqi TV. Apparently
    this is much worse than showing rows of Iraqi prisoners made to kneel or
    lie spread-eagled in the sand. Breaches of the Geneva Conventions are
    invoked not for Camp X-Ray but for Saddam, and when his forces hide
    inside cities, that is cheating, while high-altitude bombing is playing
    fair.

    This is the most reckless war in modern times. It is all about imperial
    arrogance unschooled in worldliness, unfettered either by competence or
    experience, undeterred by history or human complexity, unrepentant in
    its violence and the cruelty of its technology. What winning, or for
    that matter losing, such a war will ultimately entail is unthinkable.
    But pity the Iraqi civilians who must still suffer a great deal more
    before they are finally 'liberated'.

    3 April

    Edward Said's Reflections on Exile, a collection of essays, many of them
    written for this paper, is published by Granta. A memoir, Out of Place,
    came out in 1999.


 
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