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Famed Journalist Robert Fisk: Canada's Moral Power Is Lost

Middle East sage on ISIS, refugees, Harper, 'short-termism' and more. A Tyee interview.

By Matthew Hays 23 Sep 2015 |

Matthew Hays teaches communication studies and film at Marianopolis College and Concordia University. His articles have appeared in the Guardian, the Globe and Mail, the Washington Post and the New York Times.

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Veteran war correspondent Fisk: 'Harper had opportunities that he didn't even think about, let alone grasp.'

Arguably the world's most famous international war correspondent, Robert Fisk has been travelling to strife-ravaged regions of the world for over 30 years. His columns -- he has been contributing to the British newspaper the Independent since 1988 -- are trenchant, often angry analyses of missteps in military interventions in the Middle East.

Fisk has interviewed numerous leaders and figures in the region, including Osama bin Laden (three times). The current refugee crisis, created by instability in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, is the worst of its kind since the Second World War, he says.

Fisk argues the bombing campaign against ISIS -- of which Canada is a part -- is a huge mistake, one that will only complicate matters. "It amazes me," he wrote in a column in May, "that all these warriors of the air don't regularly crash into each other."

Fisk blasts both politicians and the media for lack of historical perspective on the region. In particular, he points to the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, in which the British and French colonial powers covertly agreed to carve up much of the Middle East between them. It was a secret agreement that was later exposed by the Russians, one Fisk points to as a valid reason for ongoing resentment throughout much of the Middle East.

Currently on a cross-Canada tour, Robert Fisk spoke to The Tyee about the deepening crisis in the Middle East and how the global community should react to it.

The Tyee: Seeing the images coming out of the Middle East, of so much of Syria destroyed, of the things ISIS is up to, of the droves of refugees, of dead children on the beach, people feel a sense that something must be done. You have pointed to the dire complications presented by the bombing campaigns. What is to be done?

Robert Fisk: "The phrase 'What is to be done?' is the worst phrase you can use in relation to the Middle East. I don't mean this personally, because I know it's a question that's often asked, and I understand why it's asked. But what it means is, people don't know the history. What's happening in the Middle East is a result of history. Whether you want to go back to the Sykes-Picot [Agreement], to World War II or the establishment of the state of Israel... once you ask what can we do, you've missed the point of history.

"We had a chance to do something at the end of the First World War [when Sykes-Picot was signed], but we didn't. Nobody reads history books anymore. One of the first things ISIS did was to put up a badly filmed sequence of a bulldozer pushing down a sand wall on the Iraqi-Syrian border. It was pushing it down, and on the ground beside it was a tiny piece of paper, 'End of Sykes-Picot.' Someone said to me then that it was the end of Sykes-Picot. I didn't think it was, but that's what it has been -- the end of all those borders. No one was really watching the news so no one caught it at the time, because people didn't know what ISIS was at the time.

"You have to go back and look at all the mistakes that were made. There were promises made to Arabs, and to Jews, none of which were kept. In any other historical circumstance, you say, how did we come to this? But in the Middle East, we never do that, we ask: What can we do now? After the Holocaust, people didn't acknowledge it for a while, but if you look at it now, you cannot discuss it without talking about where it began. Did it begin in '33? Or did it go back to the pogroms in the early 19th century? But with the Middle East, we are so often not interested in going back and examining where it all began, and why.

"Don't ask what we can do now, ask how we screwed it up originally. I think then we can begin to understand what to do now. What was specific about Sykes-Picot, aside from the fact that it was grotesque, unfair and colonialist, was that it assured people of the Middle East that they would live under the tutelage of the West, under one of our proxies. It was about possessing land. If you look at that, what did it do for people? It didn't give them freedom. It certainly didn't give them justice. It didn't make them want to have democracy, because that was associated with the dictators.

"We gave the dictators tanks, arms, and funded them. People in Egypt didn't want democracy. I didn't see the word 'democracy' on any posters anywhere in Egypt in 2011, because people associated democracy with Mubarak."

Where does that lead us now?

"Then it leads us to the questions: What are we doing now? Are we supporting dictators now? In 20 years' time, are we going to have boots on the ground to invade Uzbekistan, because we've been arming and supporting a dictator? Why did we deprive them of justice? Why did we give them so little reason to believe in the nation-state?

"The trek of the refugees now, to me, is similar to the Arab Spring, in that it's a strong statement that the people leaving have no faith in their governments, or any of the bureaucracy that we set up. The same refusal to abide by the rules of the dictators is the same refusal to abide by the borders we set up, because they were false. In my view, that's how you have to look at this. That's why they're headed to Germany. We have to begin planning for decades ahead."

So, how do we plan for the next 50 years?

"No one goes beyond the next election or the press conference of the following day. In the end of World War Two, Churchill began to plan as to how Germany would be governed after the war was over. People were trained in the German language and in how they would run the country after the Nazis fell. We planned ahead. At a time when that would seem impossible, we planned.

"When the Americans crossed into Iraq in 2003 they didn't even have a fucking map. We have to plan for the next 60 years. We need to have institutions that will deal with these situations. In 1945, people began laying the groundwork for the UN. As well as taking in the refugees and absorbing them, we are going to have to set up an organization that involves the people of the Middle East, one that can resolve these problems, long-term."

But isn't that what the UN is supposed to be?

"Yes. I'm still a believer in the UN, but perhaps less than I was 20 years ago. The Security Council is supposed to be this incredible group of people, but it's not. It's no longer a group of wise men. It represents its parts. Those parts aren't there, because the countries aren't very impressive anymore. You've got no more de Gaulles, no Churchills, no Roosevelts, no Trumans -- you note I leave out Stalin here.

"You've got this short-termism in politics today. Harper is a good example of this. He's faced with big questions like this, and he's talking about whether or not a woman should wear a niqab at a citizenship ceremony.

"Twenty or 30 years ago, when you had grave differences, there would be a Canadian prime minister who would work to moderate between the powers. Now it's Merkel doing that. I don't see a lot of statesmanship in Harper. He should be in Moscow, talking to Putin as the leader of a peace-loving country, and urging for peaceful solutions in the Ukraine and in Syria. His claim to fame is simply, 'Get out of Ukraine, Putin!' It's not a very complex or effective response."

The refugee issue has become a sticking point for the Conservatives in our current election campaign.

"I was so amazed that [Canada's Minister of National Defence and for Multiculturalism] Jason Kenney made the statement that some of the refugees could be terrorists. He was basing his argument on some story about someone in a camp talking about fighting Assad.

"When you go back and look at how Canadians reacted to the Vietnamese boat people, some were suggesting that some of them might be communists, as if that were a reason not to take them in. Kenney is playing an old card, that Muslims would be prone to terrorism while Christians won't be.

"Some pundits have argued that there are extremists in the refugee camps, and while we need to do something, we can't, because security. It's a bad card to play because it's immoral, and though it is immoral, it's a bad card to play because it will become reality. Someone will plant a bomb to make it look like it was the wrong thing to do to let refugees in.

"Merkel has stepped forward and done more to expunge moral guilt of any German leader since World War Two. She did what Obama should have done. She said: Bring me your huddled masses. The idea that we're going to go over and kill ISIS, Assad, the Yemen leadership -- to continue the bombing campaign -- is infantilism.

"We have to abandon the politics of Harper and Cameron. It might be the statesmanship of 1940, but it's not the statesmanship we need. I'm talking long-term, to plan for the next 50 years. Future generations don't matter to politicians. Harper had opportunities that he didn't even think about, let alone grasp. Canada's natural position in the world is to be a great moral power, that tries to put out fires, bring people together, and look out for the suffering and the poor. None of that applies to Harper."

Robert Fisk's tour continues this week: Hamilton, Ontario on Wednesday, Sept. 23; Toronto on Thursday, Sept. 24; Ottawa on Friday, Sept. 25; and Montreal on Saturday, Sept. 26. Tour details here.  [Tyee]

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