Fighting Words

The Inalienable Right To Screw Up Your Country

And the joy of finding a leader who can help bring it back together again.

More than half the exchanges I have about Iraq are concerned with the sheer fact of how messed up it is. Unprevented looting in the early days, water and power all on a knife edge, religious fanaticism, corruption … you know how it goes. Even as I grit my teeth and whisper, “Tell me something I don’t know, sweetie,” I try politely to point out that this is a non sequitur. The messed-up-ness of the country is part of the original justification for taking action, as I attempted to say before April 2003. Unless perhaps you think that we should have intervened in some other country that was not near terminally ruined and not on the verge of civil war and of intervention from outside neighbors. A Somalia on the Tigris. A Rwanda astride the sea lanes of the Gulf. A Bosnia in Mesopotamia. Every picture of today’s chaos and violence serves to remind me of how much worse things would have been had Iraq been left to rot and crash.

It was quite amazing to meet President Jalal Talabani, the country’s first elected president, last week. His patience and good humor are extraordinary. What he likes about the new constitution, for example, is that nobody very much likes it—proof that no faction or section, including his own native Kurdistan, is in a position to crow about victory. Talabani is much more than a regional politician: He’s an old lion in his 70s who was well-known in Arab and nationalist and intellectual circles when Gamal Abdel Nasser was still alive. He recalls some of his disagreements with former Coalition Provisional Authority head L. Paul Bremer and grins when he says that Bremer would always exclaim, “That’s your Marxist background coming out again.” What odds would you have given, four years ago, that Iraq would move from being privately owned by a kleptocratic sadist to having a brave, tough, democratic socialist as an elected president? One should be on his side, up or down and win or lose, and one must have the moral fiber to say that the authors of the chaos and misery are not the coalition but the jihadist and Baathist saboteurs who gleefully make war on civilians and on the very concept of society.

A similar principle holds, at least with me, when it comes to Palestine. The Palestinian Arabs, whether Muslim, Christian, or secular, have an innate right to self-determination in the land of their birth. This right, as I never tire of saying, is not Israel’s gift and is not a reward for good behavior. Suppose someone were to come to me, after reading the papers last week, and say—Look: No sooner did Israeli troops leave Gaza than mobs began to loot and destroy even the greenhouses that had been left there as part of their agricultural infrastructure. The police of the Palestinian Authority, who had ample warning of the deadline, managed to post a total of 70 policemen at these valuable sites, who could do no more than stand by as people scavenged and stole. The synagogues left behind by the settlers, which the Israelis were too squeamish to destroy, could perhaps have been preserved for a day or so until a decision was made about what to do with them (a museum, perhaps, or even a school—religious buildings have no special sacredness for me), but they were simply and viciously torched. Gangs of ruffians and blackmailers roam Gaza unchecked, and even tolerated, and prey upon their fellows. Clerical extremist parties flourish their banners and mouth fearsome oaths and slogans. The promise to respect the border with Egypt is void, and smugglers and mobsters laugh at the authorities. So, now how do you like your Palestinian state?

My reply would be that this doesn’t alter the case. It breaks my heart, but it doesn’t alter the case. The right of the Palestinians to a homeland and flag and passport of their own is in the first place inalienable, and in the second place enshrined in many U.N. resolutions as well as in the pledges (moral and monetary) made by European and American statesmen. The fact that this cause was represented for so long in the person of a thief and dictator and fantasist (and admirer of Saddam Hussein), a man well-described by Edward Said as “the Papa Doc of Palestine,” doesn’t change this essential point, even though everybody should read David Samuels’ absolutely arresting profile of the late Yasser Arafat in the September 2005 issue of the Atlantic Monthly. Still, when one considers how many lives have been pointlessly lost in the last decade of the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation, and how many billions upon billions of international donations have been poured down a rathole and used for the greasing of the nastiest palms, a certain feeling of depression is inevitable. But have I heard anybody say that the whole thing’s obviously a waste of time and resources, and the Palestinians should therefore be abandoned to their own devices? No. And the obvious difference in my comparison—the presence of U.S. troops—may not be as weighty as it first appears. Does anyone believe that another breakdown of Palestinian and Israeli relations would not end up costing American lives? Meanwhile, we should hope that, as they begin to recover more of their territory and autonomy and self-respect, the Palestinians find a leader as good as President Talabani.


Galloway update: Thanks to all who wrote to take my side after the debate last Wednesday. I wasn’t actually on very good form and was feeling a bit hot and, after awhile, a bit sick. For example, when told I was a butterfly who had metamorphosed back into a slug, I ought to have been able to summon lepidopteral correctness and reply that butterflies pupate from sturdy, furry caterpillars. But others did notice this for me—and a man who can’t tell a slug from a caterpillar is liable to miss the difference between an Iraqi dictatorship and an Iraqi democracy.

I don’t know how Galloway felt, but he failed to show up two nights later when we were billed to appear on Canadian television, and he has since had Jane Fonda cancel her two promised appearances with him in Madison and Chicago this week. She claims to be recovering from hip surgery, and I hope she feels better soon, but I know she didn’t have hip surgery between the time the debate was transmitted and the time she bailed.

On Galloway’s oil-for-food arrangements, I shall be offering updates on

There was some question of security in the hall on Wednesday, with the audience being subjected to metal detectors, but my advance complaint to the organizers was about someone who was already safely inside the premises. George Galloway has a press officer named Ron McKay, who is just about as fastidious as his boss. Here is what he said, as transmitted by the BBC current affairs program Newsnight, when another of Galloway’s business ventures was being investigated by a reporter named Richard Watson. Watson received the following telephone call, broadcast to BBC viewers on June 25, 1998:

McKay: “Turn on your tape-recorder because he’s having a hard time from ***** like you and, really, enough is enough. I’ll come and see you after you do your *****”Watson: “What do you mean by that?”McKay: “I think you know what I mean.”Watson: “Well, what do you mean?”McKay: “I’ll fill you in.”Watson: “Come off it.
McKay: “Oh no. I’m serious. Absolutely serious. Check my record, check my record.”

In British slang, to “fill you in” means to give you a hard beating. McKay, in any case, was obviously not offering to fill gaps in Watson’s knowledge. And yes, I have checked McKay’s record, and I quite see what he must have meant. It’s not only in Iraq and Syria that Galloway gravitates to the company of thugs.