A word of advice about the Middle East – we’ve reached the ‘tipping point’ with cliches
By Robert Fisk, Sunday 23 December 2012
Remember the days when we thought Egypt’s path to democracy was a done deal? Western-trained Mohamed Morsi had invited the people to come and meet him in Hosni Mubarak’s former presidential palace, the old military toffs in the “Supreme Council of the Armed Forces” had been pensioned off and the International Monetary Fund was waiting to bestow some of those cruel deprivations upon Egypt that would ready it for our financial benevolence. How happy the Middle East optimists were by mid-2012.
Next door, Libya produced a victory for nice, pro-Western secularist Mahmoud Jibril, promising freedom, stability, a new home for the West in one of the Arab world’s most fecund oil producers. It was a place where even US diplomats could wander around virtually unprotected.
Tunisia may have an Islamist party running its government, but it was a “moderate” administration – in other words, we thought it would do what we wanted – while the Saudis and the Bahraini autocracy, with the purse-lipped support of Messrs Obama and Cameron, quietly suppressed what was left of the Shia uprising which threatened to remind us all that democracy was not really welcome among the wealthiest Arab states. Democracy was for the poor.
So, too, in Syria. By the spring of last year, the Western commentariat was writing off Bashar al-Assad. He did not deserve “to live on this earth”, according to French Foreign Secretary Laurent Fabius. He must “step down”, “step aside”. His regime had only weeks to go, perhaps only days. This was the “tipping point”.
Then by summer, when the “tipping point” had come and gone, we were told that Assad was about to use gas “against his own people”. Or that his supplies of chemical weapons might “fall into the wrong hands” (the “right hands” still presumably being Assad’s).
Syria’s rebels were always “closing in” – on Homs, then Damascus, then Aleppo, then Damascus again. The West supported the rebels. Money and guns aplenty came from Qatar and Saudi Arabia, moral support from Obama, Clinton, the pathetic Hague, Hollande, the whole factory of goodness – until, inevitably, it turned out that the rebels contained rather a lot of Salafists, executioners, sectarian killers and, in one case, a teenage head-chopper who behaved rather like the ruthless regime they were fighting. The factory had to put some of its machinery into reverse. The US still supported the good, secular rebels but now regarded the horrible Salafist rebels as a “terrorist organisation”.
And poor old Lebanon, needless to say, was about to explode into civil war for the second time in less than 40 years, this time because Syria’s violence was “spilling over” into its neighbour’s territory.
Wasn’t Lebanon’s sectarian make up the same as Syria’s? Wasn’t the Lebanese Hezbollah an ally of Assad? Weren’t the Sunnis of Lebanon supporting the Syrian rebels? All true. But the Lebanese did not oblige the overpaid “think-tank” bores and journos and “experts” because, assaulted as they were by Syria’s intelligence killers, they were too intelligent and well-educated to return to the midden of 1975-1990. Iran, of course, was about to be bombed because it was – or was not yet – manufacturing nuclear weapons, or might – or could – manufacture nuclear weapons in a month, or a year, or a decade from now.
Obama might not bomb Iran, he didn’t really want to, but – wait for it – “all options” were “on the table”. And so, of course, with Israel, which wanted to bomb Iran because it might, or could, manufacture nuclear weapons or was in the process of doing so, or might have them in six months, or a year, or several years’ time but – again – “all options” were “on the table”. Netanyahu’s “window of opportunity” would last, we were told, until the US presidential election. And so this nonsense continued until… well, until the US presidential election, by which time we were warned again that Iran was producing, or might, or could produce a nuclear weapon.
Israel also threatened Lebanon because the Hezbollah had thousands of missiles and threatened Gaza because the Palestinians had thousands of missiles. And many were the Israeli journalists – along with their American clones – who prepared their readers for these two wars against “terror”. In the event, Lebanon remained unbombed while a highly unsatisfactory conflict (from Israel’s point of view) broke out between Israel and Hamas which ended when Morsi – the West’s avuncular ally – persuaded the Palestinians to abide by a ceasefire, which Netanyahu then mournfully accepted. He thus boosted the prestige of Khaled Meshal who subsequently announced that Palestine must exist all the way from the River Jordan to the sea. In other words, no more Israel. Just as the soon-to-be resigned Foreign Minister of Israel, Avigdor Lieberman, and his chums had been saying for a very long time that Israel must exist between the sea and the River Jordan. In other words, no more Palestine. It was left to the courageous – and very ageing – Israeli Uri Avnery to point out that if both had their wish, only an open grave would exist between the river and the sea.
A defunct language
So at year’s end, friendly, cuddly Mohamed Morsi was playing Mubarak and hoovering up any old dictatorial powers available to him while a very dodgy constitution was ram-rodded on to the secular population of the land, whose Muslim and Christian people Morsi had all along promised to serve. In Libya, of course, the US turned out to have more enemies than it thought; the ambassador was murdered by – and the jury must remain out on this despite the obfuscations of Clinton – an al-Qa’ida-type militia.
Indeed, al-Qa’ida itself – politically bankrupt by the time of Osama bin Laden’s murder by a US military assassination squad in 2011 – was virtually written off by the White House in advance of the Obama re-election. But the ghostly desperadoes of Wahabism acquired that habit so beloved of movie monsters; they began to recreate themselves in different form in different lands. Mali replaced Afghanistan, just as Libya replaced Yemen and just as Syria replaced Iraq.
A word of advice, therefore, for Middle East potentates, dictators, Western poseurs, television presenters and journos. Do not use the following words or expressions in 2013: moderate, democracy, step down, step aside, tipping point, falling into the wrong hands, closing in, spilling over, options on the table or – terror, terror, terror, terror. Too much to hope for? You bet. We’ll even get another load of cliches from the goodness factory to replace those that have already served their purpose.