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16 Sep, 2009 09:00

“We created borders to divide these people, not to bring them together”

The Middle East remains the focus of global policy. RT's political commentator Peter Lavelle spoke via satellite link to Robert Fisk in Lebanon, who is one of the most renowned journalists and authors on the subject.

RT: He’s a journalist writing for the British newspaper The Independent. He is the author of numerous books that are bestsellers. And he is a person who’s never shy with his opinions. It’s Robert Fisk.

Robert Fisk, thank you for joining us. In reading your books, your articles you constantly focus on the issue of justice. How can justice help us better understand the conflicts in the Greater Middle East and beyond?

Robert Fisk: Well I think there are two issues here. The first one is that after World War I, the victors – who were primarily the British and the French – they created the modern Middle East, they drew the borders. And I’ve spent my entire professional career watching the people on those borders burn. The borders are artificial. We never want the Arab world or the Middle East in general including Iran and Afghanistan to have the freedom to make their own decisions. You know, everybody in this region – the Kurds in Turkey, the Armenians who were driven out of Turkey after World War I and the genocide, the Palestinians in what we still call “Palestine”, or Israel if you wish, many of the people who live in Jordan, who regard themselves as being the same tribe as the people in Iraq – you have the same sort of situation in Afghanistan between the Pushtuns of Pakistan, and the Pushtuns of Afghanistan. We created borders to divide these people, not to bring them together. We haven’t ever given them the opportunity to have real nation states. We always want to come and liberate them, and give them democracy. We always arrive with our tanks, our helicopters, our armed personnel carriers and our soldiers, instead of arriving with our teachers, our educators, our doctors and our social carers.

We always come to impose the society we believe these people should have. These people – they’d like some of our democracy off our supermarket shelves, and they’d like some human rights too, but the freedom they ask for is the freedom to make their own choices. And this we do not give them. And that is why they ask for justice.

RT: Robert, you often mock what the people call “the peace process”. And what we see in front of our eyes – we see that there should be a Palestinian state, and a two-state solution, but we see more and more settlements. And the government of Israel is ignoring the United States and is continuing to build settlements. Now, what should the Arab-Muslim world think of Mr. Obama after that wonderful speech in Cairo?

R.F.: Look, I was present for the wonderful speech in Cairo, and I did not think it was that wonderful. Some of the phrases he used about Palestinians were very, very soft and careful. I did not get the impression that he was really going to be able to put pressure on the Israelis to stop the settlements. I think Obama is a very smart guy. His books, he at least wrote himself. They are real books. They are not books ghost written like Hillary Clinton’s book was, for instance. But government is not about the nice guys. Government is primarily about power and the use of power. And the power of the Israeli lobby, or as I call it the Likud lobby, as it’s really the lobby for the right wing Israelis in government, is such that you can’t have a single president change that round – it’s not going to alter. The fact that many Americans realize that following Israel’s policy or allowing Israel to follow its own policy contrary to American wishes is not necessarily in the interest of the United States – doesn’t change that, because in Congress, in the Senate, Israel’s power is immensely strong. They can make and break American politicians. And Mr. Obama can make the most beautiful speeches, the most eloquent speeches; he can mean what he says, but at the end of the day government is about power and not about nice people.

RT: Can we go back to the Palestinian issue? Everyone talks about “land for peace”. But if there is no land left for them to create a viable state, then what peace can we possibly have?

R.F.: I have this argument with Israelis and Jewish supporters of Israel around the world. It is my view that the only possible peace for the future must be based, as all these “processes” are supposed to be based, on UN Security Council Resolution 242 which followed the 1967 war and demanded the withdrawal of military forces from territories occupied in that war in return for the recognition and security of all the states in the area, including Israel. But you see, such is the extent of – let’s use the word – colony building for Jews and Jews only on Arab land, that it’s almost impossible to go back to 242. Unless you have 242 as the basis for peace, I don’t think there will be peace. The real question for Israel in government is – and there are plenty of Israelis who’d probably agree with what I am saying of course, but they are probably a minority – the real question for Israel in government is: do you want land or do you want peace? If you want land, you will not have peace. You might get the land, but you won’t have peace. If you want peace it’s got to be international frontiers – not the frontiers placed there artificially by the Israeli government, by seizing and, let’s speak frankly, stealing in international law other people’s land.

RT: The other side of the coin of course is the Arab world. We don’t see much unity there, we have leaders that are popular, unpopular, there’s not much democracy there, and they collectively cannot challenge the United States or Israel. Isn’t the problem also the Arab world?

R.F.: Yes, of course, it is. Look, the Arab world has a whole series of problems: corruption is the cancer that eats through all Arab countries. I have to say it doesn’t leave the Israeli leadership untainted either, but the Arab world… it is the cancer of corruption that gnaws away at it. There is no serious democracy – except perhaps where I am now, a kind of para-democracy, half-democracy in Lebanon. It is a land rule by secret policemen where torture chambers are the ultimate fear of every individual citizen. But you know, this myth of Arab unity has been around for a long time. And the Arabs are not united, they are different peoples. Frontiers may not represent the difference between various tribes, but they are different peoples.

To the point of view, for example, that an Arab in Lebanon usually can’t understand an Arab speaking Arabic in Algeria. They often have to speak French together. So, you know there are huge differences. One of the things you should remember is that after the First World War, while the French and the British were dividing up the Middle East, the Americans (these are the State Department officials to the dying Ottoman Empire) and the NGOs, which at the time of course we would have called missionaries, all asked the United States to create one modern Arab state from the border of Persia (Iran) and Mesopotamia, which is now Iraq, all the way to the Atlantic coast, to Morocco – to make it a modern Arab state. And we, the British and the French, didn’t want that, we wanted bits of it, which would always have to rely on us for support. And that’s pretty much what has come about. The American dream of having one modern Arab nation was a good one, and it was a moment when, if he had the power, President Wilson after the First World War might have been able to create that, but alas he could no more do that than he could create a proper large state for the Armenians after their genocide.

So I think that you’re dealing with a whole series of artificial countries. And one of the problems is that because the Arabs feel themselves always under pressure – it’s like the enemy are at the gates – and when the enemies are at the gates, you don’t start questioning your society or questioning the powers or behaviour of your rulers. You have to stand firm, so we have this endless thing about “Arab unity”. The Syrians always call themselves “the mother of one Arab nation” – and it’s rubbish, they’re not. But you know, one of the other problems is that when you don’t have nation states, people will always be loyal to their tribe, to their village, or to their town, or to their religious sectarian groupings than they are to “our idea of a nation state.”

RT: Let’s turn to Afghanistan. Are you disappointed that Mr. Obama seems to be going down a similar path that Bush did with Iraq?

R.F.: Look, I’m amazed that Obama has seized on Afghanistan as a war to win. There’s a cliché that it’s the graveyard of empires. The problem is that the cliché is true. The British in 1842, the British in the 1880s, the Soviets from 1979 to 1989, now the Americans and the British. We lose, we lose, we lose, we always lose in Afghanistan, because we’re always propping up new governments. Hamid Karzai has just had a totally fraudulent election, and we hope that he wins, or we hope he hasn’t won, or do we, and who are we going to support again? I think one of the problems of people like Barack Obama – who is a nice guy, I mean, after George Bush anyone would be – is that we still feel that we are the superior people, that we must teach the other people how to live their lives.

If you have an NGO, for example, going to an Afghan village and announce that there has to be equality of education between men and women, the men will see it as an attack on their society, their culture, and their religion. At the end of the day, they are the ones who’re going to have to come to this decision. And if the delay takes another century, we Westerners have to put up with that. The real problem, I think, is you can no more convince a country like Afghanistan to behave as we want them to behave, than you could persuade Peter the Great in the benefits of parliamentary democracy – it just wouldn’t work, you can’t do it.

These people have got to learn themselves how they should run their society fairly. We cannot march in as Westerners – I was going to say as Christians, but there aren’t many Christians left now – and tell them what to do. It doesn’t work.

RT: Let’s talk about another challenge. And that’s Iran. What should Obama do? What should the West do in dealing with Iran?

R.F.: Obama got it right when he referred to the injustice that America inflicted on Iran during the time of Mossadegh in the fifties, when the CIA and the British secret service staged a coup to get rid of the only democratically elected leaders of Iran, Mossadegh, and put the Shah back on his throne, with all his secret policemen and his soldiers and so on. And these are wounds that go very deep, and one speech, two speeches is not going to solve that. And many times, in the recent past, Iran has reached out to America with positive ideas, including ideas about Afghanistan. Remember the Taliban are as much an enemy of Iran – they used to call them the Black Taliban – as they are of America. And over and over again, under Bush, the United States rejected this.

One of the key points with Iran was that it did have a very fine man, Mohammad Khatami, who’s now in the opposition of course, who was the president. He reached out to America in the same way Obama wants to reach out to Iran, and he was slapped down: “We aren’t interested in dealing with Khatami.” So what happened? Ahmadinejad becomes the president. And now he’s the president again, whether he actually is a president depends on whether you believe the election results. So, in a sense, politics goes in such a way that people keep slapping each other down.

What can Obama do now? I don’t think he can do anything. I don’t think, frankly, that the Iranians really want a bomb, and if they got one, I don’t think they’d use it. I mean there is a country, a Muslim country, filled with fanatics, which does have a bomb, and it’s called Pakistan. But we are still obsessed with Iran. And anyway, are we going to go on for the rest of our lives and generation after generation saying, “Well they can have a bomb because they’re on our side, they can have a bomb because they’re on our side in the war of terror, oh they can’t have a bomb, there’s far too many clergymen in that government”? We can’t do that. At the end of the day, every country will be able, if it wants, to get nuclear weapons. But I don’t think Iran will ever use them. Anyway, it’s not up to people like Ahmadinejad to make such decisions, because if Iran used nuclear weapons, say, against Israel it would destroy all the Palestinians, and the Israelis would respond by destroying Tehran. And the Iranians are not stupid. These are wise people, and they don’t want to go to war, and they’re not gonna go to war.

RT: Thank you very much for being with us here.

R.F.: You’re welcome.