Just shut up. That’s the new foreign policy line of our masters. When Senator Edward Kennedy dubbed Iraq “George Bush’s Vietnam”, US Secretary of State Colin Powell told him to be “a little more restrained and careful” in his comments. I recall that when the US commenced its bombing of Afghanistan, the White House spokesman claimed that some journalists were “asking questions that the American people wouldn’t want asked”. Back in the early 1980s, when I reported on the Iranian soldiers on a troop train to Tehran who were coughing Saddam’s mustard gas out of their lungs in blood and mucus, a Foreign Office official told my then editor on The Times that my dispatch was “not helpful”. In other words, stop criticising our ally, Saddam.
So maybe the policy has been around for quite awhile. When the occupation authorities deliberately concealed the attacks against US troops after the start of the Iraq occupation last year, journalists who investigated this violence were told that they weren’t covering the big picture, that only small areas of Iraq were restive. And there was a lot of clucking of tongues when a few of us decided to take a close look at US proconsul Paul Bremmer’s press laws last year. A whole team of “Coalition Provisional Authority” lawyers was set up to see how they could legalise the closure and censorship of Iraqi newspapers the “incited violence”. And whenever we raised questions about it, the CPA spokesman – and its current attendant lord, Dan Senor, used the same phrase last week – would announce that “we will not tolerate incitement to violence”.
So when Bremmer’s own closure last week of Muqtada Sadr’s silly little weekly – circulation about a quarter of the Kent Messenger – incited the very violence he supposedly wanted to avoid, what did the American High Commissioner announce? “This will not be tolerated.” One of the papers major sins was to have condemned Paul Bremmer for taking Iraq down “Saddam’s path”, an article which Bremmer condemned in painstaking detail in his signed letter – in execrable Arabic – to the editor of the miscreant paper.
Now I’m all against incitement to violence. Just like I’m against incitement to war by the use of fraudulent claims of weapons of mass destruction and secret links to al-Qa’ida. Just like I’m against the use of Saddam’s army against Iraqi cities. For let’s remember that some of Muqtada Sadr’s dangerous militiamen fought Saddam in the 1991 insurgency – the one we supported and then betrayed. Saddam, of course, knew how to deal with resistance. “We will not tolerate…,” he told his commanders. And we all know what that meant. No, the Americans are not Saddam’s army. But the siege of Fallujah is likely to give that city the heroic status among future generations of Iraqi Sunnis as Basra – surrounded by Saddam’s hordes in 1991 – holds among Iraqi Shias today.
But still, we must shut up. I remember how last autumn the cabal of rightwing neo-conservatives who urged the Bush administration into this war suddenly went to ground. What was this so-called neo-conservative lobby behind Bush and Cheney, a New York Times columnist demanded to know, these so-called former Likudist supporters of Israel? When one of them, Richard Perle, turned up on a radio show with me a few weeks ago, he insisted that things were getting better in Iraq, that we were all en route to a cracking little democracy in Mesopotamia.
The moment I suggested that this was a massive case of self-delusion, Perle replied that Fisk had “always been for the maintenance of the Baathist regime”. I got the message. Anyone who condemned this bloody mess was a secret Baathist, a lover of the dictator and his torturers. Thus far have the falcons of Washington fallen.
Of course, the “shut-up” principle works both ways. Back on 16 March 2003, when the world was obsessed with the war that would break out in Iraq three days later, a tragedy occurred on another battlefield 500 miles west of Baghdad. On that day, an Israeli soldier drove his nine-ton Caterpillar bulldozer over a young American peace activist called Rachel Corrie who was unarmed, clearly visible in a fluorescent jacket and trying to protect a Palestinian home that the Israelis intended to destroy. The Caterpillar was part of the regular US aid to Israel. Israel acquitted its own army of responsibility for Rachel’s death – which was taped on video by her appalled friends – and the Bush administration remained gutlessly silent.
Rachel’s grieving mother Elizabeth had been a picture of dignity. US citizens, she wrote, “should ask themselves how it is that an unarmed US citizen can be killed with impunity by a soldier from an allied nation receiving massive US aid… When three Americans were killed, presumably by Palestinians, in an explosion on October 15th, 2003 … the FBI came within 24 hours to investigate the deaths. After one year, neither the FBI nor any other US-led team has done anything to investigate the death of an American killed by an Israeli”.
Well, the answer the answer is that Bush and his administration know how to shut themselves up when it pays them to do so. That’s what Condeleeza Rice initially tried to do when summoned before the 11 September hearings. And thanks to the subservience of many members of the White House and Pentagon press corps, the administration has an easy time. Why, for example, no press questions about Rachel Corrie?
It seems that as long as you say “war on terror”, you are safe from all criticism. For not a single American journalist has investigated the links between the Israeli army’s “rules of engagement” – so blithely handed over to US forces on Sharon’s orders – and the behaviour of the US military in Iraq. The destruction of houses of “suspects”, the wholesale detention of thousands of Iraqis without trial, the cordoning off of “hostile” villages with razor wire, the bombardment of civilian areas by Apache helicopter gunships and tanks on the hunt for “terrorists” are all part of the Israeli military lexicon.
In besieging cities – when they were taking casualties or the number of civilians killed was becoming too shameful to sustain – the Israeli army would call a “unilateral suspension of offensive operations”. They did this 11 times when they surrounded Beirut in 1982. And yesterday, the American army declared a “unilateral suspension of offensive operations” around Fallujah.
Not a word on this mysterious parallel by America’s reporters, no questions about the even more mysterious use of identical language. And in the coming days, we shall – perhaps – find out how many of the estimated 300 dead of Fallujah were Sunni gunmen and how many were women and children. Following Israel’s rules is going to lead the Americans into the same disaster those rules have led the Israelis. But I guess we’ll shut up about it.
In the end, I suspect, the Iraqis will probably have a greater say in the US presidential elections than American voters. They will decide if President Bush loses or wins. The same may apply to Mr Blair. Funny thing, that a far away people, just 26 million, can change our political history. As for us, I guess we’ll be expected to shut up.