The Coffee Table War

In Britain, newspapers scream their arguments for war. In America, they do it with books, heaps of them, coffee table books recalling the attacks of 11 September 2001, paperbacks pleading for peace in Iraq, great tomes weighed down with footnotes extolling the virtues of “regime change” in the Middle East. In New York, the publishers as well as the media have gone to war.

Just read the titles of the 9/11 books – many of them massive photo-memorial volumes – on America’s newsstands: Above Hallowed Ground, So Others Might Live, Strong of Heart, What We Saw, The Final Frontier, A Fury For God, The Shadow of Swords… No wonder American television networks can take the next war for granted. “Showdown in Iraq”, CNN announces. “Prepared for War.” No one questions its certainty. I protested during a live radio show earlier this month that the participants – including an Israeli academic, a former Irish UN officer, a Vietnam vet, Tony Benn and others (including myself) – were asked to debate not whether there should be a war in Iraq, but what the consequences of that war would be. The inevitability of conflict had been written into the script.

The most recent and most meretricious contribution to this utterly fraudulent “debate” in the United States is The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq (Random House, New York) by Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA spook and an ex-director for “Gulf affairs” at the National Security Council. It’s the book that all America is supposed to be talking about and its title (the “Threatening Storm” is, of course, a copy-cat version of The Gathering Storm, the first volume of Winston Churchill’s Second World War history) tells you all you need to know about the contents.

Just as George W Bush last year tried to dress himself up as Churchill fighting appeasement, so Pollack twice pretends that the world is confronting the same dilemma that confronted Britain and France in 1938. The Allies could have won in a year, he claims, if they had gone to war against Hitler then. The fact that Britain and France, though numerically stronger in troops, were weaker in modern armaments – whereas the United States today can crush Saddam’s forces in a week – is not allowed to interfere with this specious argument. Pollack accepts that Saddam is not Hitler, but once more Saddam is dressed in Hitler’s clothes – just as Nasser was the Mussolini of the Nile during the Suez crisis of 1956 – and anyone who opposes war is, by quiet extension, a Nazi sympathiser.

Before and immediately after the start of the Second World War – the real Second World War, that is – British publishers deployed their authors to support the conflict. Victor Gollancz was a tireless defender of British freedoms. By 1941, we were publishing the best-selling Last Train from Berlin by Howard K Smith, the brilliant American foreign correspondent’s chilling account of life in Nazi Germany before the US entered the conflict.

But these were often works of literature as well as ideology. What is happening in the United States now is something quite different: a mawkish, cheap-skate attempt to push Americans into war on the back of the hushed, reverent, unimpeachable sacrifice of 11 September.

Pollack’s “arguments” for war in Iraq, if that is what they can be called, need to be carefully deconstructed lest this 494-page tome achieve the iconic status it is clearly intended to acquire. Here, for example, are some of his conclusions: “The greatest advantage of an invasion [of Iraq] is the near certainty of its outcome… if the United States were to launch a full-scale war against Iraq, we can have high confidence in victory… The costs of that victory are unclear, but even the worst-case estimates are not catastrophic. These conclusions are also widely held within the US military.” Being rid of Saddam Hussein, Pollack writes, would be “an enormous boon to US foreign policy” because it would free Washington to “pursue other items on our foreign policy agenda”. An invasion of Iraq “would assure the moderate Arab states that we were serious about removing him… ” and “allow us to reduce our presence in the Gulf region, especially Saudi Arabia” (where “our military personnel dislike the rigid regulations and inhospitable accommodations”).

More seriously, and far more sinister in the context of the Middle East, removing Saddam “would sever the ‘linkage’ between the Iraq issue and the Arab-Israeli conflict”. In the long-term, “it would remove an important source of anti-Americanism” and produce a positive outcome “if the United States were to build a strong, prosperous, and inclusive new Iraqi state… a model of what a modern Arab state could be”. Invading Iraq, Pollack adds, “might not just be our least bad alternative, it potentially could be our best course of action”.

Now even putting aside one of the ex-CIA man’s first assertions – his claim that the US military supports an invasion, which, according to a number of Pentagon generals, is simply untrue – Pollack’s argument for war is breathtakingly amoral. War is the right decision, it seems, not because it is morally necessary but because we will win. War, far from being a symbol of the total failure of the human spirit which involves immense suffering and the death of innocents, has become a viable and potentially successful policy option. It would free up Washington’s “foreign policy agenda”, presumably allowing it to invade another country or two where American vital interests could be discovered. An invasion would be reassuring for “moderate” Arabs (presumably our still-loyal, pro-American Arab dictators) while at the same time rescuing those poor American boys from their “inhospitable” barracks in Saudi Arabia. Since Pollack also advocates a sizeable US military presence in post-invasion Iraq, one can only wonder at what kind of accommodation he thinks the Americans will find amid the ruins of Mesopotamia.

And that all-important “linkage” between Iraq and the Palestinian-Israeli war will be over. This theme occurs several times in Pollack’s text, and the narrative – in essence an Israeli one – is quite simple: deprived of the support of one of the Arab world’s most powerful nations, the Palestinians will be further weakened in their struggle against Israeli occupation. Pollack refers to the Palestinians’ “vicious terrorist campaign” without the slightest criticism of Israel. He talks about “weekly terrorist attacks followed by Israeli responses” [sic], the standard Israeli version of the conflict. The author regards America’s bias in favour of Israel as nothing more than an Arab “belief”. Advocating an Arab federal system of government, Pollack approvingly quotes Israeli authors and then says, disingenuously, that “we do not know how the Arabs would react” to an Israeli retaliatory attack on Iraq. If this is really true, we might as well close down the CIA.

Erased from the pages of Pollack’s deeply cynical book, of course, are any references to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land; illegal Jewish settlements; Madeleine Albright’s revolting comment that the deaths of thousands of Iraqi children under sanctions might be “worth it” in the struggle against Saddam; and Donald Rumsfeld’s visits to Iraq in 1983 when the Beast of Baghdad was already using weapons of mass destruction in his war against Iran.

Also missing, of course, is any reference to the scandalous infiltration of the former UN inspectorate, Unscom, by Mr Pollack’s former employers, the CIA. Indeed, he even makes the false claim that Unscom was “evicted” by the Iraqis (this crops up on page 233) when in fact the inspectors, already discredited by the CIA’s interference, were withdrawn by Richard Butler prior to one of President Clinton’s missile bombardments. Needless to say, there is equally no mention of former UN weapons inspector and ex-Marine Major Scott Ritter whose own tiny volume opposing the war – War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn’t Want You to Know (Profile £4.99) – is a mere 96-page flea-bite on the back of the pro-war literature now being churned out in Washington.

Again, at the end of his dreary tract, Pollack returns to the Saddam/Hitler parallel which he originally professes to deny. Britain and France chose not to go to war with Germany in 1938. “We face a similar choice with Iraq today.” Thus political dishonesty reaches out to fantasy.

But is it any wonder? As I was reading Pollack’s dreadful book with its tired prose, in which “the wheel of fate” turns against Saddam for whom inspectors are “the last straw” – by their clichés, thou shalt know them – the latest bit of fantasy was seeping out of Washington and London.

Stories of further attacks – on the Lincoln Tunnel and the Golden Gate bridge in the States – have been mixed with all the scare stories Britons have been fed these past few weeks: smallpox, dirty bombs, attacks on hotels and shopping malls, a chemical attack on the Tube, the poisoning of water supplies, “postcard target” attacks on Big Ben and Canary Wharf, the procurement of 5,000 body bags, 120,000 decontamination suits, survival classes for seven-year-old schoolchildren, new laws to quarantine Britons in the event of a biological attack (please God this would involve Mr Blair’s incarceration in Downing Street too) – there seems no end to this government terrorism. Do they want Osama bin Laden to win? Or is this merely part of the countdown to war on Iraq, the essential drug of fear which we all need to support Messrs Bush and Blair?

For these stories provide a vital underpinning to pro-war literature. In the United States, the intellectuals’ support for war in fact goes far further than Kenneth Pollack’s insipid book. In the latest issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, for example, Johns Hopkins University Professor Fouad Ajami, constantly disparaging the Arab world for its backwardness, its lack of democracy, its supposed use of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “as an alibi for yet more self-pity and rage” announces, “with sobering caution… that a war will have to be waged”. The “Rubicon has been crossed,” he writes. And – here’s the line for fantasy-lovers to remember – “any fallout of war is certain to be dwarfed by the terrible consequences of America’s walking right up to the edge of war and then stepping back, letting the Iraqi dictator work out the terms of another reprieve.”

The logic of this is truly awesome. America has to go to war because it threatened to do so. Its threat has become the cause of war; peace would therefore be more terrible than war. As New York St Lawrence University Professor Laura Rediehs remarked in a perceptive essay in Collateral Language (eds John Collins & Ross Glover, New York University Press), one of the best books on the linguistics of this conflict, in a Cosmic Battle between Good and Evil of the kind Bush imagines, the taking of innocent lives by us is justified because we are good. But when the other side kills innocents, it is unjustified because the other side is evil. “What makes the deaths of innocent people bad, then, is not their actual deaths, but the attitudes and feelings of those who killed them.”

It is almost a relief to turn to Milan Rai’s War Plan Iraq: 10 Reasons Why We Shouldn’t Launch Another War Against Iraq (Verso £10), in which Noam Chomsky’s seminal essay reminds readers of the acts of terror carried out in our name – by Turkey against the Kurds, among others. The book’s “10 Reasons” for opposing an Iraqi invasion include the humanitarian disaster that could follow war, the lack of any connection between 9/11 and Iraq, the likely establishment of a pro-American Saddam “clone” in Baghdad, the lack of evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the fear that Arabs have of Bush rather than Saddam, and the danger of a post-war world recession.

Better still for those who oppose an Iraqi war, go back to an excellent book published 11 years ago by Kenneth R Timmerman, The Death Lobby (Fourth Estate), just to remind ourselves who constructed the monster of the Tigris river.

War, as I never tire of boring friends by repeating, is primarily not about victory or defeat. It is about death. And in this context, I can only quote the most moving contribution towards the anti-war campaign in Collateral Language, that of Amber Amundson whose husband Craig of the US army was killed in the Pentagon on 11 September, 2001. “Will the invasion of Iraq really bring us to a more peaceful global community?” she asked her nation’s leaders. “… If you choose to respond to this incomprehensible brutality [of 11 September] by perpetuating violence against other human beings, you may not do so in the name of justice for my husband.”

Courtesy Raja Mattar

Correspondent for the Independent, Robert Fisk is resident in the Middle East and comments on events unfolding there