By Robert Fisk
Editor’s note: This column was originally published in The Independent on Saturday.
It was a weird week to be in the United States. On Tuesday, secretary of the treasury Henry Paulson told us that “this is all about the American taxpayer – that’s all we care about.” But when I flipped the page on my morning paper, I came across the latest gloomy statistic which Americans should care more about. “As of Wednesday evening, 4,162 U.S. service members and 11 Defence Department civilians had been identified as having died in the Iraq war.” By grotesque mischance, $700bn – the cost of George Bush’s Wall Street rescue cash – is about the same figure as the same President has squandered on his preposterous war in Iraq, the war we have now apparently “won” thanks to the “surge” – for which, read “escalation” – in Baghdad. The fact that the fall in casualties coincides with the near-completion of the Shia ethnic cleansing of Sunni Muslims is not part of the story.
Indeed, a strange narrative is now being built into the daily history of America. First we won the war in Afghanistan by overthrowing the evil, terrorist-protecting misogynist Islamist crazies called the Taliban, setting up a democratic government under the exotically dressed Hamid Karzai. Then we rushed off to Iraq and overthrew the evil, terrorist-protecting, nuclear-weaponised, secular Baathist crazies under Saddam, setting up a democratic government under the pro-Iranian Shia Nouri al-Maliki. Mission accomplished. Then, after 250,000 Iraqi deaths – or half a million or a million, who cares? – we rushed back to Kabul and Kandahar to win the war all over again in Afghanistan. The conflict now embraces our old chums in Pakistan, the Saudi-financed, American-financed Interservices Intelligence Agency whose Taliban friends – now attacked by our brave troops inside Pakistani sovereign territory – again control half of Afghanistan.
We are, in fact, now fighting a war in what I call Irakistan. It’s hopeless; it’s a mess; it’s shameful; it’s unethical and it’s unwinnable and no wonder the Wall Street meltdown was greeted with such relief by Messrs Obama and McCain. They couldn’t suspend their campaigns to discuss the greatest military crisis in America’s history since Vietnam – but for Wall Street, no problem. The American taxpayer – “that’s all we care about”. Mercifully for the presidential candidates, they don’t have to debate the hell-disaster of Iraq any more, nor US-Israeli relations, nor Exxon or Chevron or BP-Mobil or Shell. George Bush’s titanic if mythical battle between good and evil has transmogrified into the conflict between good taxpayers and evil bankers. Phew! No entanglement in the lives and deaths of the people of the Middle East. Until the elections – barring another 9/11 – they are yesterday’s men and women.
But truth lurks in the strangest of airports. I’m chewing my way though a plate of spiced but heavy-boned chicken wings – final proof of why chickens can’t fly – at John Wayne airport in Orange County (take a trip down the escalator and you can actually see a larger-than-life statue of the “Duke”), and up on the screen behind the bar pops Obama himself. The word “Change” flashes on the logo and the guy on my left shakes his head. “I got a brother who’s just come back from Afghanistan,” he says. “He’s been fighting there but says there’s no infrastructure so there can be no victory. There’s nothing to build on. We’re not wanted.” At California’s San Jose University, a guy comes up and asks me to sign my new book for him. “Write ‘To Sergeant ‘D’,” he says with a sigh. “That’s what they call me. Two tours in Iraq, just heading out to Afghanistan.” And he rolls his eyes and I wish him safe home afterwards.
Of course, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict no longer gets a look into the debate. McCain’s visit to the Middle East and Obama’s visit to the Middle East – in which they outdid each other in fawning to the Israeli lobby (Obama’s own contribution surely earning him membership of the Knesset if not entry to the White House) – are safely in the past. Without any discussion, Israeli and U.S. officials held a three-day security-technology forum in Washington this month which coincided with an equally undebated decision by the dying Bush administration to give a further $330m in three separate arms deals for Israel, including 28,000 M72A7 66mm light anti-armour weapons and 1,000 GBU-9 small diameter bombs from Boeing. Twenty-five Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter jets are likely to be approved before the election. The Israeli-American talks were described as “the most senior bilateral high-technology dialogue ever between the two allies”. Nothing to write home about, of course.
Almost equally unreported in major U.S. papers – save by the good old Washington Report – was a potential scandal in good old Los Angeles to which Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa recently returned after a $225,000 junket to Israel with three council members and other city officials (along with families, kids, etc). The purpose? To launch new agreements for security at Los Angeles international airport. Council members waffled away on cellphones and walked out of the chamber when protesters claimed that the council was negotiating with a foreign power before seeking bids from American security services. One of the protesters asked if the idea of handing LAX’s security to the Israelis was such a good idea when Israeli firms were operating security at Boston Logan and Newark on 9/11 when a rather sinister bunch of Arabs passed through en route to their international crimes against humanity.
But who cares? 9/11? Come again? What’s that got to do with the American taxpayer?