October 24, 2003

Our Old Pal Neil

Eccentric British journalist and tireless defender of totalitarianism Neil Clark returns with another weird column in the Guardian, on the "neo-con induced Arabophobia" which he affects to believe is driving Anglo-American Middle East policy.

It is of a piece with his previous work, which we've noted before. Just as Slobodan Milosevic was an innocent "prisoner of conscience" whose "worst crime was to carry on being a socialist," so are Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden merely "the latest in a long line of Arab bogeymen," unjustly demonized by the rapacious Western powers for their own nefarious purposes. And just as, for Clark, genocide in the Balkans had a silver lining in Belgrade's fabulous "self-service restaurants and state-owned department stores," so too with Iraq:

independent Ba'athist Iraq, although a dictatorship, had the most developed infrastructure, the best healthcare and the best universities of any country in the Middle East.

Well, that's all right then. Nice infrastructure; shame about the mass murder. Like any good totalitarian apologist, Clark knows you can't make an omelet without breaking eggs; and believes that a Stalin-esque dictatorship ought not to be judged upon its mass graves alone. True to form, in another echo of the previous Milosevic piece, Clark worries that, post-Saddam, shopping in Iraq will never be the same again. And, most amusingly, perhaps, he regards Jeremy Paxman's impoliteness (towards a Syrian diplomat) as a kind of cultural barometer with universal significance.

Now I wouldn't rule out the possibility that something like "Arabophobia" (vaguely defined though it may be in Clark's article) exists or may play a role in the Western approach to Middle Eastern diplomacy and post-war reconstruction. Clark's quotations of various British servicemen do reflect a disagreeable ethnic caricature, to be sure. (A bit of a stretch, though, to attribute these sentiments to Tony Blair, however.) Yet the grounds for his assertion that such anti-Arab prejudice is the chief motivation behind the Iraq-American conflict as well as the spirit that animates the reconstruction plan are rather shaky.

According to Clark, we are being told that post-Saddam Iraq is rife with violence, chaos, anarchy and criminality because "... er ... terrorism, anarchy and criminality are what Iraqis do." He doesn't say by whom we are being told this; but if, as he seems to imply, this theory on the inherent, irredeemable criminality lurking in the Arab soul is being propounded by the US or British governments, I can honestly say I have missed it, even though I'm a semi-regular Fox News viewer. I thought the government's line was that the "resistance" was supposed to be Baathist remnants augmented by an influx of al Qaeda irregulars and a tiny fringe of domestic religious fanatics; or, more recently, that the violence and chaos wasn't as bad as it was cracked up to be. If anything, it's the opponents of the Anglo-American policy who tend to claim that violent opposition to the occupation is a more generalized phenomenon reflecting the attitudes of the population as a whole. Right? I confess I don't really have any idea who is right on that, or the degree to which any of it may be true or slanted, but I daresay I'd know if I were being fed a line about bred-in-the-bone Iraqi moral inferiority. Clark's article provides no evidence for the existence of such an unlikely (and, I'd say, quite stupid) propaganda campaign. It looks as though he just made it up.

Does the administration have an explicit policy of "'de-Arabising'" the Middle East? Clark says so, as though it were common knowledge, but neglects to cite a source, or to explain what on earth it may mean. My best guess: Clark regards his own unreconstructed Cold War anti-Americanism as the essential, non-negotiable, defining characteristic of the true, proper Arab consciousness as well, and thus the rather unsurprising American intent to wind up with a secular pro-American government in Iraq amounts to a desire to purge Iraq of "real" Arabs. That's no less culturally chauvinistic and paternalistic than the sentiments he attributes to the "neo-cons" in Washington, but it hardly matters as the entire "de-Arabisation" topic seems to have no other source than his own imagination. The same might be said for his eccentric view that the neoconservative approach to Middle Eastern politics is typically characterized by an over-riding pessimism regarding the ability of Arabs to govern themselves responsibly according to liberal democratic principles. For better or worse, the usual criticism leveled against Wolfowitz et al. in that specific regard is nearly precisely the opposite, as far as I've observed.

But Clark is no usual critic. It's one thing to suspect the motives or sincerity of those who have championed the idea of liberal democracy in Iraq, or to question the practicality, desirability, even the morality of attempting to "impose" something like it upon an occupied non-Western country; to maintain that such a program is a sham, or a bad idea, or that its architects are knaves or madmen. It is quite another actually to prefer, and to insist that potential and erstwhile victims ought to prefer, a variety of Stalinism to liberal democracy in theory and in practice. As near as I can figure, that is Neil Clark's view. And whatever else you might say about that, it is spectacularly weird. If indeed he is serious. Who knows?

The kindest view of Clark's work is that his apparent admiration of this or that totalitarian mass murderer, and the accompanying indifference to the suffering of their victims, is merely a rhetorical pretense constructed to provide a context within which to express the anti-Americanism about which he is genuinely sincere. Nice work if you can get it, I suppose. Harry comments here, and Jackie has a detailed fisking, if you like that sort of thing.

Posted by Dr. Frank at October 24, 2003 12:29 AM | TrackBack

Also note the typical Guardianista over-use of the word "neo-con". The other day someone wrote that Pat Robertson was a neo-con, for pity's sake. I wish I could figure out what it was supposed to be code for. "A conservative when conservatives are in power," would be my guess.

Posted by: Angie Schultz at October 24, 2003 06:32 PM

The only problem with "independent Ba'athist Iraq, although a dictatorship, had the most developed infrastructure, the best healthcare and the best universities of any country in the Middle East." is that it's simply not true.

From earlier blogs we find that in Iraq, doctors are paid very little, and hospitals get little funding. (The story is that early in his career, Saddam went to a hospital to get patched up after a gunfight, the doctor wouldnt' treat him (him being a thug and all), and that ever since, hospitals had been near the bottom of Saddam's "to do" list.)

Naturally, evidence to the contrary would be welcome.

Posted by: Mike at October 31, 2003 12:58 AM
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