wasn't sure what to expect when I learned that I had the opportunity
to meet with Robert Fisk, the British journalist, who
was in Southern California last Friday for a speaking engagement
at Chapman University in Orange. Of course, I knew his work, in part
because Antiwar.com features it regularly and the Register used his
pieces during the Kosovo bombing campaign.
Fisk writes for the Independent newspaper in London, which
strikes me as a bit more left-wing in policy than the Orange County
Register, for which I write. He has been an outspoken critic of
Israeli policies, more so than I am. I didn't know whether he would
strike me as an ideologue.
turned out to be much more reporter than ideologue and utterly charming
and delightful. A relatively small, gray-haired man who could probably
talk for days, he parried with our four-member editorial board for
almost two hours. Some representatives of the Council on American
Islamic Relations were also present. I would have loved to have
been able to talk with him one-on-one for six or eight hours, but
I'll take what I could get.
most valuable aspect of talking to Robert Fisk is the understanding
that he has been there – almost anywhere in the Middle East and
surrounding territory where there have been conflicts or news –
and knows more about the people and the context of events than almost
anybody. He has for 26 years been a Middle Eastern correspondent
– for the Independent newspaper in London since 1988 and
before that for the Times of London – and Britain's most
highly honored foreign correspondent.
Fisk now operates mostly out of Beirut. Over the years he has covered
the Iranian revolution, the Iran-Iraq war, the Persian Gulf war,
the conflict in Algeria, the Kosovo conflict, and the recent war
in Afghanistan. He broke the story about Israeli shelling of a UN
compound in Qana, Lebanon in 1996. He has written a book, Pity
the Nation: Lebanon at War, published in 1990 by Atheneum.
has interviewed Osama bin Laden three times, most recently in 1997.
After finishing his speaking engagement in Southern California,
his plan was to return through Beirut to Ramallah.
Fisk told us he first met bin Laden in Sudan in 1994, having been
taken to a remote desert location whose location he wasn't supposed
to be able to identify. The future Public Enemy Number One wore
a white robe "like a saviour" and seemed to be the big dog in the
encampment. He talked mostly on that occasion about fighting the
Russians in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
was when he told the story, which Mr. Fisk has written about, of
being right next to a mortar shell and expecting to die within the
next few seconds. When the shell didn't explode, bin Laden viewed
it as a religious experience, a sign he was being saved for greater
is a story I had not heard before. Fisk told us that bin Laden told
him then that after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, he offered to
take care of the Iraqi dictator with his battle-hardened guerrillas.
But the Saudis told him they wanted the Americans to handle the
that experience started bin Laden's disdain for the Saudi regime
or not is difficult to tell. It may have had some origins in his
original recruitment to fight the Saudis in Afghanistan. The Saudis
had wanted the Saudi force to be led by a prince (there are hundreds)
but none of the princes was interested, so Osama (who had apparently
led the pampered playboy life a bit himself) was the highest-ranking
person willing to do it.
the origin, bin Laden's hatred for the Saudi regime seems to have
hardened since then.
Afghanistan in 1996, shortly after he arrived in the country, bin
Laden mainly talked with Mr. Fisk about the corruption of the Saudi
regime and his desire to see the Americans and British out of the
country. That, rather than concern about the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict or even the awfulness of America, seemed to be his main
1997, when he interviewed him again, said Mr. Fisk, bin Laden had
many more armed men in evidence and very professional security.
In a cave built with help from the CIA, bin Laden said, "From this
mountain upon which we're sitting we brought down the Soviet Union.
And I pray to God that he allows us to turn America into a shadow
took him seriously then," Mr. Fisk told us, "but I didn't anticipate
anything like 9/11. If he did it – the British brief was not completely
persuasive – he had developed a sophisticated and extensive network."
he has no direct knowledge, Mr. Fisk would be surprised if Osama
bin Laden is dead.
speculates – in our conversation he was always very clear about
demarcations between speculation and known facts – that Osama's
intention might have been to get American ground troops into Afghanistan,
where they would be quickly demoralized. After the Somali fiasco,
Fisk thinks, Osama was convinced U.S. troops had poor morale and
not very good leadership and would be chewed up quickly. He was
probably shocked that the Taliban fell at all, and more shocked
that it fell so quickly.
al Qaida has no particular loyalty to Afghanistan, it was just a
handy base of operations.
asked if it was constructive, as the United States has announced
it was doing, to offer advice, materiel and logistical support to
build a national army in Afghanistan, a place that has traditionally
been highly decentralized. Fisk said that was exactly what the Russians
tried to do when they tried to occupy the country. The first ambush
of Russians that he covered happened in precisely the caves where
the US tried to oust, capture or kill al Qaida fighters a few weeks
ago in Operation Anaconda.
he said, the stories that Afghanistan has always been dominated
by brutal, heavily armed regional warlords is not especially valid.
The first resistance to the Russians was quite amateurish. It wasn't
until the CIA got in there with funding, weapons and organizational
help that there were professional fighters and warlords.
thinks that to do proper peacekeeping in Afghanistan would require
a force of 50,000 to 100,000 foreign (or UN or whatever) troops
who could perform fairly comprehensive disarmament. I have my doubts
whether that would work, and while there are probably a lot of weapons
beyond what might be needed for personal defense, I'm pretty dubious
about disarmament as a prescription.
to the Middle East, Mr. Fisk said he thought from the beginning
that the Oslo "peace process" was doomed since Israeli West Bank
settlements continued and there were no international guarantees.
The recent fighting, he believes, has hardened attitudes on all
he referred to Yasser Arafat as "a corrupt, despotic little man,"
he believes that "every attack by Ariel Sharon leads to a mass grave."
(He investigated the Sabra-Chatila refugee camp massacres in Beirut
in 1982 and believes Sharon bears great personal responsibility.
He is still interviewing witnesses and participants to try to fill
out the picture.)
Fisk thinks what eventually comes from a full investigation into
the conflicts at the refugee camp at Jenin in the West Bank will
tell a great deal about how things stand in the current conflict.
During the Israeli attack last week, after resistance that may have
included a suicide bomber, the Israelis brought in bulldozers to
knock down buildings. Although they warned people before knocking
them down, many fear there are hundreds of corpses under the rubble.
who says the Guardian correspondent told him there was a terrible
stench in Jenin, criticized Israel for not allowing Red Cross workers
and reporters into the refugee camps immediately. Israeli military
leaders now say the Palestinian dead are "not in the hundreds but
in the dozens." Mr. Fisk fears a massacre occurred.
Fisk believes that the August 2000 Camp David offer from which Yasser
Arafat walked away was not as good a deal for Palestinians as has
been generally described. He noted there was no real guarantee of
a capital in East Jerusalem but a palace outside the walls, and
that the Palestinians were offered "a sort of sovereignty." By his
calculations they would have gotten about 46 percent of the West
Bank, not 97 percent.
thinks there was no way Arafat could have taken the deal and remained
leader, but he thinks he screwed up pretty badly in not explaining
the reasons for the rejection well and in commencing violence almost
immediately. He thinks the right-of-return is not the real stumbling-block,
that Palestinians know very well they won't get it but use it as
leverage for some kind of compensation.
thinks that both Arafat and Sharon are essentially reactive personalities,
that they don't plan very far ahead, so the potential for disastrous
miscalculation is high. He thinks the most important recent development
in the region is that the Arabs are not afraid any more, either
of Israel, the US or the West. He thinks most Europeans view US
policy as bankrupt and uninformed, reflexively pro-Israel.
being quite critical, as we expected, of Israel, Mr. Fisk made sure
to point out that it has taken two sides to create a volatile standoff.
He suggested that "in the Muslim world there is little self-criticism,
no self-questioning, a tendency to fall back on myths." There has
never been a Muslim equivalent of the Renaissance, a period of respectful
questioning and refinement of religious and cultural traditions.
still runs into Arabs who believe the Mossad pulled off the World
Trade Center attacks and don't want to be confused with facts. In
fact, throughout the Muslim world, he says, it's very difficult
to have serious and respectful disagreements.
but fascinating, our conversation left us with little hope that
America will be able to pull a peace rabbit out of a hat any time
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