HINDSIGHT is at best a painful experience. This is particularly true if one were to look back at some of the events in recent history. Nevertheless, look back one must if only to keep the memory green and/or to learn from past experience. So, here are a couple of vignettes from the not too distant past. First comes from the American adventure in Iraq. If one were asked to single out one element emerging from that rather ungainly campaign, one would point the finger at the re-hatching of the phrase ‘friendly fire’. As one recalls, the Western media had made such extensive and unbridled use of this phrase in that infamous era of ‘embedded’ journalism that it leads one to wonder how they would have coped if, say, a censor restriction of sorts had been placed on its use.
Those who had followed the course of the invasion of Iraq will undoubtedly recall that the first British casualties in Iraq occurred, thanks to the ‘friendly fire’ of their American comrades-in-arms. Now, it may be argued that there is nothing very extraordinary about this occurrence. Such things do tend to occur in the course of battles. In particular, in a war of this nature in which the coalition air force and armour happened to be virtually piled up one on top of the other rather like a haystack! What did emerge as bizarre, though, was the way the US TV anchors and their ‘embedded’ henchmen kept plugging it in, hour after agonising hour.
The matter was verified and re-verified from every conceivable source and the issue thrashed out so thoroughly that not even a semblance of doubt remained about the fact that the servicemen in question had NOT fallen in legitimate combat, but were rather cut down by their own ‘friendly fire’. By the end of a very trying day, the long suffering captive viewers were left in no doubt whatsoever that the wretched individuals who had left their homes and hearths to fight what they had been led to believe was a monstrous enemy had, in deed, been instead sacrificed at the altar of Anglo-American friendship, so to speak.
One could not but feel sorry for the poor families of these soldiers. In the mad rush to conform to the official guidelines for the ‘embedded’ ones, the feelings of the families were relegated to the lowest drawer. In the process, the spin-doctors had wrenched away from the near and dear ones of these soldiers even that elusive satisfaction that their beloved children had died in legitimate combat. The television anchors’ repetition, ad nauseum, of the fact that that it was not the enemy but ‘friendly fire’ that got them is the somewhat unsettling imagery that the families of the soldiers will be condemned to live with for the rest of their lives. This, then, is life for you!
Changing the subject, it is evident that the Iraq campaign was destined to run its course without the discovery of the Weapons of Mass Destruction that were touted to be the raison d’etre of the invasion in the first place. When the umpteenth attempt at producing the ‘smoking gun’ appeared to have boomeranged, the US commanders admitted this fact when they ordered their forces to shed their protective gear. The already bewildered world was left to draw its own conclusions. Public memory is proverbially short. Who would now recall the time when President George W. Bush and his sidekick from across the ocean kicked up an almighty fuss about the Iraqi leadership’s possession of WMDs, a claim about which no evidence emerged however flimsy.
The American media – and elements of the British media too – aided and abetted by highly paid spin-doctors, one recalls, had worked overtime to diffuse the issue. Editorial comment of the time was aimed at obfuscating the issue by throwing up such bizarre and unlikely possibilities as the possible transfer of the dreaded WMDs to neighbouring states ‘amid throngs of refugees crossing the border’. There were also dark hints about ‘leakage of chemical agents’ to obscure terrorist groups. These distinguished members of the Western press hardly needed to be reminded that not so very long before their own revered leaders were making public claims of being in possession of irrefutable intelligence on the subject. What happened, it may justifiably be asked, to the ultra-secret information that the US and British leadership were so coy about sharing with the United Nations’ arms inspectors before the start of their little adventure?
Now that one looks back, the coalition leaders did owe it to the world to come clean about their earlier claims. It is not a mere matter of apportioning blame; the very credibility of the two leaderships was at stake. Even though they may manage to get away with the declaration of a ‘brilliant victory’ on the battlefield, moral victory is destined to elude them unless and until they exorcise the ghost of what now appear to have been mere ‘Weapons of Mass Deception’. One of the major actors of the time, former Prime Minister Tony Blair, stepped down from his high pedestal unrepentant. So did his senior partner, President George W. Bush. Should they not have been concerned about their respective legacies?
While on this subject, one may perhaps append the remark that the only person to have come out of the Iraq business without egg on his face was the UN weapons inspector, Hans Blix. One has had the pleasure of working side by side with Mr. Blix in the late 1970s when the two of us were representing our respective countries in the UN Committee for Disarmament in Geneva (he as advisor to the Swedish delegation; yours truly as Counsellor of the Pakistan Mission). Hans Blix was a remarkable gentleman and something of an authority on disarmament issues. The two of us had a rollicking good time sometimes jointly taking on the representatives of the then nuclear weapon states on the subject of non-proliferation, but that, as they say, is another story!
— The writer is a former ambassador and former assistant secretary general of OIC.