An opinion piece without a catchy introductory tag is, well, like a boiled egg without salt. Commentators are usually cut some slack on this score, but Anne Summers's characterisation of the recent John Le Carre novel [“The spy who is back out in the cold” SMH Jan 5, 2004] as unleashing uncontrolled teeth grinding in neo-con circles on the strength of a single US review in the Washington Times and one in the UK Telegraph stretches the convention past breaking point.
Of the numerous reviews turned up by Google, most were warm, even fawning, only George Walden in the Torygraph – not the review quoted by Summers - was (unsurprisingly) harshly critical. As far as I could determine, the Le Carre book rated not a mention in the house journal of the "neo-cons" - Murdoch’s Weekly Standard.
Whether Le Carre has become something resembling a paid-up member of the Bulgarian Writers Guild circa 1959 is for other, more literary types to judge. But Le Carre is fair game like all of us when he enters the world of public discourse as he did with his now infamous "The United States of America has gone mad" piece in London's The Times last January.
Summers treated us to select quotes from that piece but quickly turned to the new novel. Such a shame because any assessment of Le Carre's credibility on issues of foreign policy is best measured by what he actually said on the topic. Here are some plums that she omitted:
“What is at stake is not an imminent military or terrorist threat, but the economic imperative of US growth. What is at stake is America’s need to demonstrate its military power to all of us … poor mad little North Korea, as well as the Middle East.” Curiously, not a word at all about the estimated 200,000 political prisoners held in starvation in the Gulag state of poor mad little North Korea just as the 200,000 Iraqis and hundreds of thousands of forced exiles and other victims of Saddam rated not a syllable.
As for Tony Blair, Le Carre tells us that "... Blair’s best chance of personal survival must be that, at the eleventh hour, world protest and an improbably emboldened UN will force Bush to put his gun back in his holster unfired. But what happens when the world’s greatest cowboy rides back into town without a tyrant’s head to wave at the boys?" By [joining the war against Saddam], Blair will have set back our relations with Europe and the Middle East for decades to come. He will have helped to provoke unforeseeable retaliation, great domestic unrest, and regional chaos in the Middle East.
What a difference a year makes, not to mention the removal of the Saddam regime for 23 million Iraqis. No doubt to Le Carre’s chagrin, Bush and Blair have the "tyrant’s head", amid domestic and comparative regional (i.e. middle east) tranquility with the additional scalp of the "auto de-fanged" tyrant, Gaddaffi. Even the mad mullahs in Iran suddenly decided to become more co-operative with the IAEA. And the capacity for retaliation by OBL and his allies has been significantly reduced.
Funny, like so many of the "hate Amerika" crowd of which le Carre now seems to be a celebrity member, the appalling human rights record of Saddam just doesn’t figure – just as the post-war revelations of what we always knew - the mass graves, the torture centres the childrens jails, the rape rooms, seemingly occupy another universe. They are addressed by omission, conspicuous by their absence, supplanted by the overwhelming requirement to maintain an anti American pose at all costs.
It is perhaps not surprising that Summers has now resorted to the celebration of fiction to make good attacks on Bush and Blair. The facts associated with Saddam have always been awkward, because so many of us who had an interest in Iraq since the first Gulf War appreciated how disgracefully the coalition in the that conflict sold out the Iraqi people in the name of "national sovereignty" and in order to placate Saudi Arabia and others. The cause of human rights was well served in 2003 precisely because Bush and Blair turned their backs on the pusillanimous "international community".
A heady mixture of fact and fiction is a timely new direction because it allows proponents to switch from one to another when confronted by uncomfortable facts – like those 200,000 plus bodies in mass graves in Iraq. This is a new politics which subsumes analysis in the portentous subtext – always hinted at, never articulated. Summers tells us that Le Carre's critique of "this extremely delicate point in all our histories" is chilling because of his contention that the threat of terrorism is now being used to sneak other agendas past the political radar. Just when the plot is thickening we are denied the denoument! Exactly what are these "other agendas" Summers hints at?
This tendency to strike but not to wound has typified the arguments of so many of those who in their heart of hearts would really like to have seen the coalition humiliated in Iraq, who really believe that the whole enterprise was undertaken simply at the behest of Halliburton and who are presently channelling their fantasies into re-inventing the Ba’athist fascists remnants in Iraq into plucky revolutionaries. Just as Michael Moore has hinted at but not stated that Bush had something to do with 9/11, Summers leaves the tantalising "other agendas" hanging in the air. If her radar has detected them, well why not share them with us – surely she is not a cowed victim of the "compliant media" excoriated by Le Carre in his essay?
Will Le Carre serve to popularise the anti-Americanism already so evident among the conformist left and reactionary right? Perhaps, but if Summers’s inarticulate pleading is any example, not to an extent that it can get much worse.