Years ago, in a snug underground restaurant in downtown Tehran, drinking duq â€“ an Iranian beverage of mint and yoghurt â€“ Saddam Hussein’s former head of nuclear research told me what happened when he made a personal appeal for the release of a friend from prison. “I was taken directly from my Baghdad office to the director of state security,” he said. “I was thrown down the stairs to an underground cell and then stripped and trussed up on a wheel attached to the ceiling. Then the director came to see me.
” ‘You will tell us all about your friends â€“ everything,’ he said. ‘In your field of research, you are an expert, the best. In my field of research, I am the best man.’ That’s when the whipping and the electrodes began.”
All this happened, of course, when Saddam Hussein was still our friend, when we were encouraging him to go on killing Iranians in his 1980-88 war against Tehran, when the US government â€“ under President Bush Snr â€“ was giving Iraq preferential agricultural assistance funding. Not long before, Saddam’s pilots had fired a missile into an American warship called the Stark and almost sunk it. Pilot error, claimed Saddam â€“ the American vessel had been mistaken for an Iranian oil tanker â€“ and the US government cheerfully forgave the Iraqi dictator.
Those were the days. But sitting in the United Nations General Assembly last week, watching President Bush Jr tell us with all his Texan passion about the beatings and the whippings and the rapes in Iraq, you would have thought they’d just been discovered. For sheer brazen historical hypocrisy, it would have been difficult to beat that part of the President’s speech. Saddam, it appears, turned into a bad guy when he invaded Kuwait in 1990. Before that, he was just a loyal ally of the United States, a “strong man” â€“ as the news agency boys like to call our dictators â€“ rather than a tyrant.
But the real lie in the President’s speech â€“ that which has dominated American political discourse since the crimes against humanity on 11 September last year â€“ was the virtual absence of any attempt to explain the real reasons why the United States has found itself under attack.
In his mendacious article in this newspaper last week, President Bush’s Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, also attempted to mask this reality. The 11 September assault, he announced, was an attack on people “who believe in freedom, who practise tolerance and who defend the inalienable rights of man”. He made, as usual, absolutely no reference to the Middle East, to America’s woeful, biased policies in that region, to its ruthless support for Arab dictators who do its bidding â€“ for Saddam Hussein, for example, at a time when the head of Iraqi nuclear research was undergoing his Calvary â€“ nor to America’s military presence in the holiest of Muslim lands, nor to its unconditional support for Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land in the West Bank and Gaza.
Oddly, a very faint ghost of this reality did creep into the start of the President’s UN address last week. It was contained in two sentences whose importance was totally ignored by the American press â€“ and whose true meaning might have been lost on Mr Bush himself, given that he did not write his speech â€“ but it was revealing nonetheless. “Our common security,” he said, “is challenged by regional conflicts â€“ ethnic and religious strife that is ancient but not inevitable. In the Middle East, there can be no peace for either side without freedom for both sides.” Then he repeated his old line about the need for “an independent and democratic Palestine”.
This was perhaps as close as we’ve got, so far, to an official admission that this whole terrible crisis is about the Middle East. If this is a simple war for civilisation against “evil” â€“ the line that Mr Bush was so cruelly peddling again to the survivors of 11 September and the victims’ relatives last week â€“ then what are these “regional challenges”? Why did Palestine insinuate its way into the text of President Bush’s UN speech? Needless to say, this strange, uncomfortable little truth was of no interest to the New York and Washington media, whose wilful refusal to investigate the real political causes of this whole catastrophe has led to a news coverage that is as bizarre as it is schizophrenic.
Before dawn on 11 September last week, I watched six American television channels and saw the twin towers fall to the ground 18 times. The few references to the suicide killers who committed the crime made not a single mention of the fact that they were Arabs. Last week, The Washington Post and The New York Times went to agonising lengths to separate their Middle East coverage from the 11 September commemorations, as if they might be committing some form of sacrilege or be acting in bad taste if they did not. “The challenge for the administration is to offer a coherent and persuasive explanation of how the Iraq danger is connected to the 9/11 attacks” is about as far as The Washington Post got in smelling a rat, and that only dropped into the seventh paragraph of an eight-paragraph editorial.
All references to Palestine or illegal Jewish settlements or Israeli occupation of Arab land were simply erased from the public conscience last week. When Hannan Ashrawi, that most humane of Palestinian women, tried to speak at Colorado university on 11 September, Jewish groups organised a massive demonstration against her. US television simply did not acknowledge the Palestinian tragedy. It is a tribute to our own reporting that at least John Pilger’s trenchant programme â€“ Palestine is Still the Issue â€“ is being shown on ITV tomorrow night, although at the disgracefully late time of 11.05pm.
But maybe all this no longer matters. When Mr Rumsfeld can claim so outrageously â€“ as he did when asked for proof of Iraq’s nuclear potential â€“ that the “absence of evidence doesn’t mean the evidence of absence”, we might as well end all moral debate. When Mr Rumsfeld refers to the “so-called occupied West Bank”, he reveals himself to be a very disreputable man. When he advances the policy of a pre-emptive “act” of war â€“ as he did in The Independent on Sunday last week â€“ he forgets Israel’s “pre-emptive” 1982 invasion of Lebanon which cost 17,500 Arab lives and 22 years of occupation, and ended in retreat and military defeat for Israel.
Strange things are going on in the Middle East right now. Arab military intelligence reports the shifting of massive US arms shipments around the region â€“ not just to Qatar and Kuwait, but to the Arabian Sea, the Red Sea and the eastern Mediterranean. American and Israeli military planners and intelligence analysts are said to have met twice in Tel Aviv to discuss the potential outcome of the next Middle East war. The destruction of Saddam and the break-up of Saudi Arabia â€“ a likely scenario if Iraq crumbles â€“ have long been two Israeli dreams. As the United States discovered during its fruitful period of neutrality between 1939 and 1941, war primes the pumps of the economy. Is that what is going on today â€“ the preparation of a war to refloat the US economy?
My Israeli colleague Amira Haas once defined to me our job as journalists: “to monitor the centres of power”. Never has it been so important for us to do just that. For if we fail, we will become the mouthpiece of power. So a few thoughts for the coming weeks: remember the days when Saddam was America’s friend; remember that Arabs committed the crimes against humanity of 11 September last year and that they came from a place called the Middle East, a place of injustice and occupation and torture; remember “Palestine”; remember that, a year ago, no one spoke of Iraq, only of al-Qa’ida and Osama bin Laden. And, I suppose, remember that “evil” is a good crowd-puller but a mighty hard enemy to shoot down with a missile.