BEIRUT - In wide-ranging remarks during a lecture at the American University of Beirut on Thursday, veteran British journalist Robert Fisk sharply criticized US policy in Iraq, analyzed shortcomings in Western journalism on the Middle East and reflected on the state of politics in the region, saying he was “distressed” by what he called the people’s hesitancy to question rulers.The lecture, entitled “After the Collapse: Disengagement in the Middle East,” ran for about 45 minutes and was followed by more than 20 minutes of questions. A live telecast of the remarks was broadcast in a second room to accommodate an overflow crowd.
Fisk, who lived and reported in Lebanon throughout the Civil War, has for many years worked in the region as a correspondent for Britain’s Independent newspaper. He is also the author of the widely read “Pity the Nation: Lebanon at War,” among other titles.
In a spirited style that kept the audience laughing, Fisk lampooned Western journalists for their lack of historical perspective when reporting from the Middle East.
“I asked myself, how do our journalists go to war without history books?” he said.
In order to drive home his point about how poorly journalists had covered the Iraq war and how ignorant of history they had been, Fisk retold the story of the failed 1917-1920 British occupation of the country in a way that mirrored the current track of the United States there. The US excursion has been a “fingerprint parallel of history,” he said.
Again pointing a finger at Western journalists, Fisk ran through articles from The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times, noting that although the incidents reported in the articles took place in Iraq, the only sources cited were US officials.
Fisk discussed journalists’ tendency to illustrate division in the Middle East, such as divisions between Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds in Iraq, by using maps. He then noted that journalists rarely dare to show such disunity within their own countries, noting that a US paper would never run maps of the racial divisions in Washington.
Turning to foreign policy, Fisk recommended that Western countries adopt a more compassionate approach in their interactions with Middle Eastern countries. “I don’t think that we Westerners care about the people of the Middle East, care about you,” he said.
Fisk also charged that democracy was never part of the plan for Iraq.
“It was only when the Shiites threatened to join the insurgency that we wanted democracy,” he said.
Criticizing what he believes are “futile, appalling policies in Iraq,” Fisk said of the US, “I think that superpowers have a visceral need to project military strength.”
Fisk said he believes that people in the Middle East want democracy and that they may want Western products as well. What they don’t want, he argued, is the West.
Asked during the question-and-answer session if he had any criticisms for people in the Middle East, Fisk said he had two.
First, he said he was “deeply distressed and deeply depressed” by the people’s willingness to accept things like torture and dictatorship. “I would like to see a Middle East that questions its own rulers much more than it does,” he said.
Second, Fisk said residents of the Middle East would do well to learn more about the United States. He lamented what he called a lack of American Studies departments at Middle Eastern universities in comparison with the numerous Middle Eastern studies departments at American universities.
Fisk punctuated his remarks with moments of optimism. “Lebanon’s refusal to re-enter civil war is probably the finest thing I’ve witnessed,” he said.
Ultimately, Fisk had a simple message for all Middle Easterners: “The only people who can decide your future is you.”
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