Thirty years of war

Few of us can say we’ve liberated a city. John Simpson did. Speaking as he entered Afghanistan’s capital in November 2001, the BBC World Affairs Editor said that it was ‘extraordinarily exhilarating to be liberating a city’. Interviewed next, the British Home Secretary David Blunkett said, ‘I’m still reeling here from the news that the BBC and John Simpson have taken Kabul.’ Fair call.

It was a remark about which Simpson later said he was ‘very, very, very embarrassed’, but he also took the opportunity to accuse those media outlets (not to mention military forces) who were ‘hours and hours and hours behind us’ of ‘sour grapes’.

The episode gives a good measure of the man, a man with a Shakespearean sense of theatre and not a lot of tact.

A veteran of over 30 years and 30 wars, John Simpson was once threatened with liquidation—not corporate mind you, but corporal. By someone with both the malice and the means: Chaldean Christian and former Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq, Tariq Aziz.

‘I was probably a bit tactless in asking him questions. It was during the 1991 bombing … We hadn’t seen him for some days. I was determined to get some word out of him. So I just followed him down the corridor, asking him the same questions. He said at the end if I asked another question he’d have me liquidated. I just thought, well, he might do what he says. I went away.’

One rather gets the feeling that after a Palestinian gun to the head, being gassed in the Iran-Iraq war, shot at in Tiananmen Square, and taking 14 pieces of American shrapnel in a missile attack this year that killed his translator, it takes a fair bit to make John Simpson go away.

Aziz could have taken a tip from former British prime minister Harold Wilson who opted not to liquidate Simpson but rather just to punch him. The young Simpson had asked if Wilson were about to call an election.

Simpson’s latest book The Wars Against Saddam: The Hard Road to Baghdad has just landed on the shelves of Australian bookstores. Those wanting to immerse themselves in the good cheer of platitudinous certainty this Christmastide should avoid it; those wanting to put both bleeding hearts and rednecks off their left-over plum pudding should stock up. Simpson will not permit a banal analysis along the lines of: ‘ancient peace-loving culture—controlled by mad dictator—overthrown by Western forces [wholly liberators or wholly looters]—ancient peace-loving culture thrives again.’ It is neither Hussein, nor Bush and Blair and Howard, who Simpson has in his sights; his target is simple-minded sloganeering.

For instance, Simpson is under no illusion about the Iraqi culture. Act One (the book unfolds in acts, not chapters) is called ‘Iraq’s bloodstained history’.

‘It’s a country with a very violent past’, says Simpson. ‘Lots of ferocious little city states fighting each other, turning into big empires, collapsing, new empires forming, violent gods, violent leaders. That is the history of Iraq—a history of violence, and of violent leaders.’

Simpson does nevertheless have much to say about Bush and Blair and their merry men.

‘I’m sure Blair wouldn’t have gone in for it if he didn’t believe that they had the weapons. I don’t think it was a cynical exercise on his part. I think Blair was a true believer.’ Will Blair survive the fallout? ‘I suspect that Blair will survive—he has survived reasonably well. I think he’s going to be permanently damaged by it, winged by it. Everybody will always remember that this is what happened to him and why it happened.’

As for the Americans, Simpson is a little more critical. ‘If it hadn’t been for the United States on two completely different occasions, Saddam would have gone down. On two occasions they saved him, and so it’s hard for them now to grumble about him, although they seem to manage.’

Hussein’s first US rescue, according to Simpson, came in 1986 during the Iraq-Iran conflict. ‘The Iranians invaded the Faw Peninsula, took it over—that was a stunning victory for them. Saddam was absolutely on the ropes and the British, the Americans, the French, the Germans, weighed in to help Saddam because they didn’t like the idea that Iran was going to win. So they saved his bacon there.’

America’s next omission Simpson seems to feel more bitterly: ‘In 1991 after the Gulf War, when George Bush Senior said that Iraqis should rise up against Saddam, they did, and our friend Colin Powell was the one who persuaded George Bush not to give them any support. So those revolutions which would have undoubtedly succeeded, collapsed for lack of American support.’

The Iraqis have not forgotten this, according to Simpson. Act Three is called ‘The Uprisings and U.S. Betrayal’. Simpson, like many others including Bush, Blair and Howard, had been sure that the allies would be greeted as liberating heroes. But the betrayal of ten years earlier was still vividly in the Iraqi memory. ‘I was certain that when the Americans invaded, they and the British and the Australians would be regarded as saviours and, well, it happened a bit but it didn’t happen anything like I was certain it would.’

It was not just the 1991 betrayal that fed this ambivalence. The Iraq into which Bush’s armies marched, or rather crawled, was also a country crippled by sanctions. Simpson is less than enthusiastic about this strategy. ‘I’ve seen them in too many countries to like them’, he says. ‘Where they’re successful they do awful damage to the weakest people in society, while the regime, whatever it might be, gets away with everything, and lives high on the hog. Secondly I just think it eats away at a country, even though actually for the most part sanctions don’t work terribly well. Governments usually manage to get everything they need at a higher price, and again, the price is paid by the poorest and weakest in society. It never has quite the effect that everybody promises at the start.’

Had there not been sanctions, would there have been weapons of mass destruction? Simpson’s response was reluctant, almost grudging. ‘That is a possibility, yes, that might well be. This is an historic kind of judgment, which is hard to be certain about. That is certainly possible, that is certainly why the sanctions were introduced.’ He quickly adds, ‘Whether, even given that, it was the right thing to impose them is another question, but yes, I think that is a possibility, certainly.’

Simpson is pessimistic about the prospects for the United Nations in the wake of the war. The Iraq episode ‘leaves it really looking as though it does what the United States wants it to do; that is the biggest danger for the UN. This is not after all meant to be an institution which serves the interests of one particular country. Something has to be done about that, if the United Nations is to keep its self-respect and the respect of [member] countries. The Islamic countries feel that the UN doesn’t operate in their favour at all.’

Simpson seems worried about America’s commitment to reconstruction. ‘I think the danger is that having found itself in this position, the Americans are going to get increasingly anxious about it, and politicians are going to come up who say the only answer is to get out, and then, as we saw in Vietnam,
they could get out really, really quickly, without proper planning and organisation. Leaving a hastily got-together army from the UN or anybody else who’ll send soldiers might be equally as dangerous.
‘When the Americans get out of a place they get out of it so much that they scarcely leave a notice afterwards of what happened there.’

What began as a series of random acts of resistance in Iraq has turned into a ‘planned, organised, fully operational war of resistance. As things stand, the Americans, the British, the Australians, the other UN outfits, do not have any serious intelligence about who’s doing these bomb attacks, why, where or anything like that. That’s a serious, serious disadvantage. You can’t conduct an anti-terrorist war
without intelligence.’

The same is true of the search for Saddam Hussein. According to Simpson, nobody really has any idea where he is. Simpson’s best information is that he is with Bedouin tribes in the huge area to the west and north­­-west of Baghdad. Simpson has heard what he calls a ‘very, very strong story’ that there is an ‘ultra secret bunker’ which Hussein constructed. He is then said to have executed anyone who knew anything about it. ‘I got that from one of his former prime ministers.’

‘I’m certain that he thinks this is going to end up with him back in power again, even though I don’t think that’s very likely. I think that’s what he’s playing for.’

‘He may well be protected and helped by the intelligence services of one or other of the neighbouring countries who just keep an eye on things for him.’ Simpson reads a widespread ambivalence in the region. There are Middle Eastern leaders who are glad to see Hussein gone, but who nevertheless are worried that Iraq ‘will fall into the American orbit’. He adds wryly, ‘you can bet the Iranians are really stirring things up.’

Act Four is ‘11 September—the fall-out’. Simpson referred to an extraordinary American opinion poll that claimed that 20 per cent of people thought that Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden were the same person. ‘There never was any serious suggestion that Saddam Hussein, such an anti-religious character, could have had the remotest contact with Osama bin Laden. He’s just the kind of person that Osama bin Laden wanted to overthrow. Yet, because we’ve managed to attach this “evil” notion so very clearly onto Saddam, that means “OK if he’s evil, well he must have supported 11th September. That was evil, ergo he must be evil, and ergo there must be a connection”. I do feel we’ve got to get away from that. I think there’s an awful lot of projecting of our own failings and shortcomings and our own fears onto somebody else, onto Saddam in this case.’

And yet, Simpson is certainly no Hussein apologist. It was, he says, ‘a horrible and fear-ridden regime. Sometimes when you read the anti-war people it’s as though Saddam was a quiet little social democrat.’ But he says that the book is ‘an attempt to counter the idea that is so common [in Britain], and I think in Australia too, and certainly in the US, that Saddam is some kind of devil character. He’s just a sort of mad dictator, that you don’t need to take seriously. I’ve tried to present him as a real human being, not just a hate figure.’

‘Everybody calls him by his first name as though they know him. And yet he’s a very, very complex and interesting character and in some very restricted, limited way, is very impressive. I just don’t think we should allow ourselves to lose sight of that simply because we don’t like him.

‘I just think it’s important to see people as they are and not just do a lot of sloganeering about them.’  

John Simpson’s latest book The Wars Against Saddam: The Hard Road to Baghdad is published by Pan Macmillan, 2003.

Joshua Puls is a lawyer and psychologist and is Chaplain of Newman College in the University of Melbourne.



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