Book review. The Econocracy: On the Perils of Leaving Economics to the Experts

Book review. The Econocracy: On the Perils of Leaving Economics to the Experts by Joe Earle, Cahal Moran and Zach Ward-Perkins
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
12 February 2018

Endorsed by Noam Chomsky and the economists Ha-Joon Chang and Martin Wolf, the publication of The Econocracy is effectively a hand grenade thrown into the middle of mainstream economic thought.

Studying economics at the University of Manchester, the three authors became disillusioned with how little their education was helping them understand the causes and aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. In response, they set up the Post-Crash Economics Society, and are now members of the Rethinking Economics network, which consists of 40 groups in 13 countries.

Their broad thesis is that economists wield a huge amount of influence in society (think of the importance the media gives to the post-budget analysis of the Institute for Fiscal Studies) but have become dangerously disconnected from the general population, with little public oversight. Furthermore, they argue that economics as it is taught in universities today means economics graduates are “grossly underprepared” to understand how the world works.

To prove this the authors conducted an indepth review of the curriculum at seven Russell Group universities, finding “a remarkable similarity in the content and structure of economic courses.” Capitalist-friendly neoclassicial economics – with its mechanistic focus on rational and self-interested individuals – dominates, as does textbook learning, theoretical models and multiple-choice questions. Frighteningly, they note the 83% of exams on economic courses at the top-ranked London School of Economics “entailed no form of critical or independent thinking whatsoever.” For the authors this amounts “to nothing less than the dictionary definition of indoctrination.” The narrowness of the curriculum is not an outcome of conspiracy, they explain, but of historical forces and a market-orientated higher education landscape in which funding, publication and career advancement is largely predicated on adhering to a single strand of limited economic thought.

Those looking for how change can be forced on this conservative world will be interested in the book’s short section detailing the growth of student groups attempting to reform the teaching of economics. Believing that economics is too important to be left to the experts, in 2015 the authors launched a pilot Community Crash-Course In Citizen Economics, a six-week evening class for interested members of the public.

Coming in at a quick 210 pages, it’s a tightly-argued, level-headed critique of the dominance of neoclassical economics. If there has been a more important book written in the last ten years about the role of economics in society I’d like to see it.

The Econocracy is published by Penguin Books, priced £9.99.

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The dangers of short-term foreign policy thinking

The dangers of short-term foreign policy thinking
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
29 January 2018

From Iraq circa 2002-3, to Libya in 2011 and Syria today, influential liberal commentators including David Aaronovitch, Nick Cohen, Paul Mason, Jonathan Freedland and many politicians have repeatedly pushed for Western military intervention. “Something must be done!” they shout from their newspaper columns. “We must act now before it is too late”, they warn in the House of Commons. One of the things that characterises these emotive and often simplistic calls for action are their narrow, laser-like focus on human rights abuses Western governments are publicly concerned about. Those who advise caution, critical thinking and a wider lens of analysis are often labelled naïve, or worse – apologists for the authoritarian leader in the West’s sights.

However, recent history shows this unwillingness to consider possible wider, long-term impacts of Western wars of choice has had grave consequences for the UK and the rest of the world.

Take NATO’s intervention in Kosovo in 1999, sold by Tony Blair’s government to the British public as a humanitarian intervention urgently needed to stop ethnic cleansing carried out by Serbian government forces.

“The liberal press – notably the Guardian and the Independent – backed the war to the hilt (while questioning the tactics used to wage it) and lent critical weight to the government’s arguments”, British historian Mark Curtis notes in his 2003 book Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role In The World. In addition, “the anti-war movement failed to mobilise beyond the political margins”, explained international relations specialist Dr Aidan Hehir in a 2009 Irish Times op-ed. David Aaronovitch, then at the Independent, proclaimed he would fight if asked by the government, while Andrew Marr writing in the Observer put forward “the Macbeth option: which is that we’re so steeped in blood we should go further” and “put in ground troops.”

With Tony Blair basking in the liberal media’s adoration after playing a leading role in the military campaign that pushed Serb forces out of Kosovo in June 1999, it is worth considering some of the longer term ramifications of NATO’s intervention.

It is clear the war’s perceived success (rejected by Curtis and US dissident Noam Chomsky) emboldened Blair, likely increasing his messianic tendencies, which many believed played a crucial role in the invasion of Iraq four years later. “It may well be he was actually drunk on his self-importance having had successes in Kosovo and Sierra Leone”, Colonel Tim Collins, a senior figure in the army in 2003, commented when the Chilcot Inquiry published its findings. “He genuinely believed he could do no wrong.” Iain Duncan Smith came to a similar conclusion when he recounted a September 2002 meeting he had with Blair to Andrew Rawnsley for his 2010 book The End Of The Party. “He’d decided this was a successful formula. He’d done Kosovo. He’d done Afghanistan. It was what he believed in”, said the Tory Party leader at the time of the Iraq invasion.

Writing in the Financial Times in 2007, Quentin Peel makes the obvious connection: “Kosovo was… a crucial moment in the development of the international vision… that eventually led to [Blair’s] backing for the US-led invasion of Iraq.” An invasion, let’s not forget, that was not authorised by the United Nations – just as the Kosovo intervention was also not backed by the UN. As the title of Dr Hehir’s Irish Times piece argued: NATO’s ‘Good War’ In Kosovo Degraded International Law.

There are other important links to the race to war in 2003. “It was during the [Kosovo] war… that Blair and Campbell hones their PR machine and Blair’s image as a humanitarian leader”, asserted former International Development Secretary Clare Short in her 2004 book An Honourable Deception? Noting how the Foreign Office had been sidelined in 1999, writing in International Affairs journal Dr Oliver Daddow argued Kosovo was the point when Blair confirmed “that he did not need to rely on Whitehall’s decision-making machinery for ideas or strategy”.

The 2011 NATO war in Libya has also had a number of influential effects on subsequent conflicts.

Backed by around 97 percent of British MPs and much of the liberal commentariat, the UK intervention was given legal cover by the passing of UN Security Council resolution 1973, which authorised “all necessary measures” to protect civilians in Libya.

Though the resolution did not refer to regime change – illegal under international law – the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee’s examination of the intervention in 2016 concluded the “limited intervention to protect civilians drifted into a policy of regime change by military means”.

Soon after Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was forced out of Tripoli, David Cameron and French President Nicholas Sarkozy made a triumphalist, political capital-boosting visit to the country in September 2011 (or so they thought). Russia, on the other hand, took an entirely different lesson from the war.

Quoting a senior Obama Administration official as saying President Putin is “obsessed” by the NATO-enabled overthrow and death of Gaddafi, Julia Ioffe recently argued in The Atlantic magazine that “regime change in Libya and Ukraine led to Russia propping up Bashar al-Assad in Syria.” Ioffe goes on to quote former US Secretary of State John Kerry’s chief of staff as characterising Putin’s approach to Syria as “Not one more.”

A 2011 BBC article titled Why China And Russia Rebuffed The West On Syria confirms this thesis. “Libya is perhaps the prime reason” behind Russia’s vetoes at the UN on Syria, Jonathan Marcus notes. “Both the Chinese and Russian governments seem to think that the West took advantage of [UN] resolution [1973] to intervene militarily in a Libyan civil war” and carry out regime change, he notes. “They are determined not to allow any similar resolution to go forward [on Syria]”.

NATO’s intervention in Libya also had an important influence on the Syrian rebels fighting to overthrow the Assad government. Writing about the UN’s mediation efforts in the Syrian crisis, the academics Raymond Hinnebusch and William Zartman refer to “the opposition’s unrealistic expectations” of the peace process in 2012: “During a visit to a Free Syrian Army unit, one UN official found that the Libyan precedent and anti-Assad Western rhetoric had convinced opposition fighters that NATO was going to intervene on their behalf”. According to the UN official, this was “not conducive to… serious engagement.” In his 2017 book The Battle For Syria: International Rivalry In The New Middle East, Chatham House’s Dr Christopher Phillips highlights a similar dynamic with the opposition’s regional supporters in 2012: “Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey were convinced both that Assad was close to falling and that eventually the US would intervene as it had in Libya, and so saw no need to compromise.”

The Libyan intervention, then, was one of the reasons behind Russia’s large, obstructive role in Syria, and the decision by some opposition groups to shun negotiations aiming to end the war – two of the many reasons why the horrific conflict continues today.

So it goes. The ongoing North Korean crisis is inexorably linked with these events in the Middle East. “North Korea learned from Iraq that Saddam Hussein’s mistake was he did not possess the weapons of mass destruction he was falsely accused of having. Libya taught a similar lesson”, Professor John Delury, a North Korean expert at Yonsei University Graduate School of International Studies, told the BBC in 2016. According to a 2017 Guardian report, North Korean “state media frequently refers to their [Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein] demise as proof that the US wolves are now at North Korea’s door.”

What these three examples show is that beyond the immediate crisis, Western military interventions have – often predictable – serious and widespread knock-on impacts that have been disastrous for the British public and the wider world. Not to say anything about how the interventions often undermine the UK government’s own interests and policy goals – Russia’s response to the Libyan intervention worked against UK policy goals in Syria, for example.

We desperately need more critical and long-term thinking when the government tries, as it inevitably will, to gain public support for its next foreign war. Rebuilding and maintaining a popular and powerful anti-war movement is an essential first step to achieving this.

The West’s use and abuse of human rights in foreign affairs

The West’s use and abuse of human rights in foreign affairs
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
16 January 2018

Last month news website Politico published an extraordinary leaked US government document concerning US foreign policy.

Written for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson by his senior policy adviser Brian Hook, the confidential May 2017 memo advises that “the US should use human rights as a club against its adversaries, like Iran, China and North Korea, while giving a pass to repressive allies like the Philippines, Egypt and Saudi Arabia,” Politico summarised.

“Allies should be treated differently — and better — than adversaries. Otherwise, we end up with more adversaries, and fewer allies,” argues Hook.

He continues: “We should consider human rights as an important issue in regard to US relations with China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran. And this is not only because of moral concern for practices inside those countries. It is also because pressing those regimes on human rights is one way to impose costs, apply counter-pressure and regain the initiative from them strategically.”

In addition to being a useful weapon to deploy against enemy states, the concept of human rights is also used to manipulate domestic public opinion.

Speaking to US academic Dr James Davidson about the 2001 US-led invasion of Afghanistan, a senior British intelligence official noted: “It is always helpful for governments who want to get the Guardian readers of the world on board to have a humanitarian logic.”

The US and British governments’ selective concern for human rights is broadly mirrored by the mainstream media.

Analysing the US media in their 1988 book Manufacturing Consent, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky look at “paired examples.”

For instance, they consider the different quantity and quality of coverage given to priests killed in Soviet Union-era Poland compared with religious figures murdered by US-backed dictatorships in Latin America, and the mass killing in Cambodia compared with the mass killing carried out by US client Indonesia in East Timor.

“A propaganda system will consistently portray people abused in enemy states as worthy victims, whereas those treated with equal or greater severity by its own government or clients will be unworthy,” they conclude.

Dr David Wearing, a teaching fellow in international relations at Royal Holloway, University of London, recently highlighted a similar relationship between British commentators and the ongoing wars in Syria and Yemen.

Speaking on the Media Democracy podcast, he notes that although the conflicts are not identical, there is a high level of similarity: both are brutal, complex civil wars with large amounts of indiscriminate killing, lots of internal and external actors, which has led to the creation of huge humanitarian crises.

In Syria, the evidence suggests the Assad government and its allies are responsible for the majority of non-combatant deaths.

However, in Yemen — where “the cholera outbreak is probably the worst the world has ever seen,” according to the UN’s undersecretary-general and emergency relief co-ordinator — the main danger to civilians is from British ally Saudi Arabia, dropping British-made bombs from British-made warplanes.

Wearing goes on to observe: “We know all about Syria because Syria is on the front page of every newspaper, Syria is at the top of news bulletins, Syria is the subject of one op-ed after another saying: ‘Why don’t we do something about this, we should intervene’.”

Turning to the conflict in the Gulf, he asks: “Where is the coverage of Yemen? It’s not on the front pages, it’s not at the top of the news bulletins. You’ll struggle to find an opinion article about it in any of the major newspapers.” Indeed, he notes: “The very opinion writers who will be urging us to intervene in Syria … the liberal interventionist-types … [there is] not a word from people like that about Yemen.”

Searching David Aaronovitch’s Twitter timeline, I found that since Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen commenced in March 2015, The Times columnist has mentioned the word “Syria” in 75 tweets (this figure, and all the subsequent figures I quote, excludes retweets).

In contrast, I counted Aaronovitch had mentioned “Yemen” in a total of three tweets over the same period.

To put this government-friendly focus in context, since March 2015 Aaronovitch has tweeted about The Archers BBC Radio 4 soap opera at least 26 times.

In fact he seems to have tweeted about just one character, Ruth Archer, as much as he has tweeted about Yemen.

Looking at the tweets of other commentators produces similar findings. When, in December 2017, I searched the Twitter feed of @bobfrombrockley, a relatively influential blogger and tweeter among liberal interventionist types, I found 22 tweets mentioning “Yemen” since March 2015, over two-and-a-half years before.

However, @bobfrombrockley had mentioned “Syria” 22 times on Twitter since 11 December 2017 — only 11 days before I conducted my search.

On the left of the political spectrum, the editor of the Interventions Watch website conducted a search of Guardian columnist George Monbiot’s Twitter timeline in December 2017.

The results? He found Monbiot had mentioned “Syria” in 91 tweets and “Yemen” in just three tweets.

In one sense this uniformity of emphasis is an awe-inspiring phenomenon to behold. More seriously, the British commentariat’s relative silence has grave consequences for the population of Yemen — the British government’s support for the Saudi war machine can only continue with the British public’s acquiescence.

Therefore it is the job of activists and concerned citizens is to draw the public’s attention to Britain’s deadly role in Yemen.

Quaker peace activist Sam Walton raised the profile of the conflict when he made headlines with his attempted citizen’s arrest of Saudi Arabian general Ahmed al-Asiri in London in April 2017.

Similarly the Campaign Against Arms Trade applied pressure on the government with its — unfortunately unsuccessful — legal bid to force an end to British arms exports to Saudi Arabia.

And the Labour Party has also tried to call the government account, with leader Jeremy Corbyn and shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry — along with the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas and the Scottish National Party — raising Britain’s involvement in Yemen in Parliament.

These protests seem to have rattled the British Establishment. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson called the Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to personally apologise for Walton’s action, Middle East Eye reported.

In October, then defence secretary Michael Fallon told the House of Commons defence committee that “criticism of Saudi Arabia in … Parliament is not helpful” in securing future arms deals with the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia itself seems particularly sensitive to criticism, with the New York Times reporting in June 2016 that the then UN secretary-general “had essentially been coerced into removing [the] Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen from an ignoble list of armies that kill and maim children.”

According to the article, Ban Ki Moon “told reporters that he had been threatened with the loss of financing for humanitarian operations in the Palestinian territories, South Sudan and Syria if he did not temporarily delete the Saudi-led coalition from the list.”

To combat criticism about Yemen and the kingdom more generally, the Financial Times reported in September that Saudi Arabia plans “to set up public relations hubs in Europe and Asia as part of a new offensive to counter negative media coverage of the kingdom.”

The hubs in London, Paris, Berlin, Moscow, Beijing, Mumbai and Tokyo will “produce press releases, publish content on social media and invite ‘social influencers’ to visit Saudi Arabia.”

So the protests and pressure are having an effect — on both the British and Saudi Arabian governments.

These activities now need to be seriously ramped up to force the government to stop backing Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen.

As Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a 30-year veteran of the CIA, noted in 2016: “If the United States and the United Kingdom, tonight, told King Salman [of Saudi Arabia]: ‘This war has to end,’ it would end tomorrow. The Royal Saudi Air Force cannot operate without American and British support.”

A behind-the-scenes battle over Labour’s foreign policy

A behind-the-scenes battle over Labour’s foreign policy
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
9 January 2018

Since Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party in September 2015, Emily Thornberry has been one of his key allies.

After serving as the shadow secretary of state for defence and shadow secretary of state for exiting the European Union, Thornberry has been shadow foreign secretary since June 2016.

The Islington South and Finsbury MP has proven to be an effective politician, gaining plaudits for her performance at the dispatch box standing in for Corbyn at Prime Minister’s Questions and for ambushing Tory minister Michael Fallon on The Andrew Marr Show about the time he attended a reception with Bashar al-Assad to celebrate the Syrian president winning an election.

However, though they have largely been ignored by Labour supporters and left-wing commentators, Thornberry’s comments last year about Israel are very concerning.

Speaking at a November Jewish News/Bicom Balfour 100 event, she noted Israel “still stands out as a beacon of freedom, equality and democracy, particular in respect of women and LGBT communities, in a region where oppression, discrimination and inequality is too often the norm.”

A December speech she gave at the Labour Friends of Israel annual dinner “could have been written by a pro-Israel lobbyist,” argued Asa Winstanley from Electronic Intifada.

Her statement that it was Israeli “pioneers … who made the deserts bloom” repeated one of the founding and “racist myth[s]” of Israel, Winstanley went on to note.

Amazingly, at the end of the speech she described the former Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres as “a hero of the left, of the state of Israel and of the cause of peace.”

In contrast, in 2005, US dissident Noam Chomsky called Peres “an iconic mass murderer,” presumably for his role in the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians that led to the creation of Israel and for being head of government when Israel shelled a United Nations compound in Lebanon in 1996, killing over 100 civilians.

After conducting an investigation, Amnesty International concluded the attack was intentional.

In both speeches Thornberry highlighted the denial of rights to Palestinians in the occupied territories, which makes her statement about Israel being “a beacon of freedom, equality and democracy” all the more laughable.

As the title of a 2015 article in the Independent newspaper by the academic Yara Hawari explained, “Israel is supposedly the only democracy in the Middle East, yet 4.5 million Palestinians under its control can’t vote.”

“The everyday lives of Palestinians [in the West Bank] is controlled by the IOF [Israeli Occupation Forces]. And it is done brutally,” Hawari noted.

“Movement is rigidly controlled, access to resources is denied and Israeli military incursions into villages and towns are frequent.

“Palestinians see violent settler rampages on a daily basis, which often involve the burning of agricultural land and physical assaults on anyone who gets in their way.”

Famously, former US president Jimmy Carter labelled the Israeli occupation an example of “apartheid.”

Michael Lynk, the UN rapporteur for human rights in the occupied territories, recently noted the “suffocating economic and travel blockade” Israel maintains “has driven Gaza back to the dark ages,” with “more than 60 per cent of the population of Gaza … reliant upon humanitarian aid.”

Israel is a “settler colonial state that flouts international law on a daily basis by oppressing the Palestinians in varying states of occupation,” Hawari concluded.

“And it does so with European and American complicity. The shining beacon of democracy in the Middle East? Far from it.”

Thornberry’s remarks aren’t that surprising if you consider her political career.

Until Corbyn won the Labour leadership, her politics and voting record fit comfortably with the more liberal, often interventionist, section of the British Establishment.

She was, as the New Statesman reported in 2016, “one of [Ed] Miliband’s inner circle.” As shadow attorney general, she voted for Britain’s disastrous military intervention in Libya in 2011 and, in 2014, for Britain to conduct air strikes on Isis in Iraq.

Turning to domestic politics, she abstained on the 2013 vote about the coalition government’s Workfare programme, the scheme in which people on Jobseeker’s Allowance are forced to carry out unpaid work in order to keep receiving their benefits.

And she abstained again on the 2015 vote for the Welfare Bill, which leaked government figures showed would push 40,000 more children below the poverty line. As Tony Benn used to say, politicians can be divided into two categories, signposts and weathercocks.

Thornberry’s politics are important because, as Dr David Wearing noted last year, the “anti-militarist and anti-imperialist” Corbyn “has a real chance of being our next prime minister.”

“Not only is that new in Britain, I think it’s new internationally,” the teaching fellow in international relations at Royal Holloway, University of London, explained in a Media Democracy podcast.

“I can’t think of any time in the last several decades where it has been a realistic possibility that the leader of a UN security council permanent member, a great power, a great capitalist Western power, could be in the next few years an anti-militarist and an anti-imperialist. I don’t think there is a precedent for that. So it’s really huge. It’s a challenge to the foreign policy elite, it’s a challenge to conventional wisdom.”

At the same time, writing in June 2017, British historian Mark Curtis noted that, although Labour’s general election manifesto made “several clear breaks from current UK foreign policy,” there was also evidence that, “if the manifesto is implemented in its current form, it is likely to still promote extremism in UK foreign policy” (Curtis considers much of Britain’s bipartisan post-1945 foreign policy to be extreme).

Curtis highlights pledges to “support development and innovation” in the defence industry and maintain the Tories’ 2 per cent military spending commitment, along with half-hearted statements on the so-called “special relationship” with the US, international development and Israel-Palestine.

Incidentally, Curtis described Thornberry’s “positioning” on foreign affairs in an October 2017 interview she did with Middle East Eye as “basically Blairite.”

There is, then, a battle over the nature of Labour’s foreign policy — not least over Trident nuclear weapons — within the Parliamentary Labour Party, of course, but also within the shadow cabinet and probably within Corbyn’s core circle itself.

This ongoing struggle probably provides the context behind the Guardian’s recent feature-length interview with Thornberry, with the liberal organ taking the unusual step of advertising the interview over a week before it appeared in the newspaper.

Why? As the interviewer noted, Thornberry is “widely tipped to be the party’s next leader,” but after Corbyn led Labour’s extraordinary general election campaign, direct assaults on his leadership, like the attempted coup in 2016, are no longer viable.

The Guardian’s promotion of Thornberry may well herald a switch to a subtler, longer-term strategy that looks ahead to the next Labour leadership contest.

After all, Jezza isn’t getting any younger. Thornberry is the perfect candidate for Guardian “centrist” types who would like to neuter Corbynism — someone who can gain the backing of significant numbers of Corbyn supporters while at the same time diluting the movement’s relative radicalism by returning the Labour Party to safer, Establishment-friendly ground.

With all this in mind, it is important that all those who want to see an anti-imperialist, humane and sane British foreign policy raise their voices against Thornberry when she glosses over Israel’s abysmal human rights record and tacks too closely to the Establishment line.

The basic tenets of Labour’s foreign policy need to be argued about, settled and publicised right now, rather than being fought over in office under intense pressure from the media, military and opposing political parties.

Remaining silent — perhaps in the belief that criticising Thornberry will weaken Corbyn — is surely short-term politicking that will only increase the chances of Corbyn’s Labour Party disappointing if it gains power.

Escalating the war: the West’s responsibility for the slaughter in Syria

Escalating the war: the West’s responsibility for the slaughter in Syria
by Ian Sinclair

Morning Star
3 January 2018

Despite the carnage and intense anger created by the US-led wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan, many prominent commentators and politicians have repeatedly pushed for the West to step up its intervention in Syria.

In 2012 Emile Hokayem, a Senior Fellow for Middle East Security at the Institute for Strategic Studies, wrote an article titled Arm Syrian Rebels To Enable Political Solution. Three years later human rights activist Peter Tatchell was campaigning for what he calls “Syrian democratic forces” to be given anti-aircraft missiles, and Kurdish forces to be supplied with “heavy artillery, anti-tank & anti-aircraft missiles against ISIS.” More recently, Charles Lister and Dominic Nelson from the Middle East Institute thinktank in Washington, DC argued the US needs to continue to support its proxies in Syria “as a durable source of pressure on the regime in Damascus.”

The problem with this argument is that the academic literature shows “in general, external support for rebels almost always makes wars longer, bloodier and harder to resolve”, as Professor Marc Lynch, Director of the Project on Middle East Political Science at George Washington University, explained in 2014. Max Abrahms, Professor of Political Science at Northeastern University, concurs, recently co-authoring an article in the Los Angeles Times which also noted “the conflict literature makes clear that external support for the opposition tends to exacerbate and extend civil wars”.

For example, Kathleen Gallagher Cunningham and William Reed from the Department of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland examined the data from 218 cases of civil war extending from 1990 to 2011. Their conclusion? “We find that conflicts in which the rebel group received external support from a third party lasted significantly longer than civil wars that did not involve external support.”

And it’s not just academics in their ivory towers. In 2013, there was a flurry of warnings about arming the rebels in Syria. “More arms would only mean more deaths and destruction”, noted then United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Two former NATO Secretary-Generals wrote an article in the New York Times arguing “Western military engagement in Syria is likely to provoke further escalation on all sides, deepening the civil war and strengthening the forces of extremism, sectarianism and criminality”. Many NGOs were equally opposed. “Providing more weapons will mean prolonged fighting and more civilian deaths”, noted Oxfam America, while the women’s rights organisation MADRE stated “funnelling more weapons to the opposition” would “further diminish chances of a democratic outcome for Syria.”

The US ignored the warnings from senior academics, analysts and organisations with years of experience of dealing with conflicts, and instead worked with the UK, Saudi Arabia and Qatar to supply an “extraordinary amount of arms” to the rebels in Syria, according to then US Secretary of State John Kerry in 2016.

And as predicted by the two former heads of NATO above, this increase in support provoked the Syrian government and their Russian and Iranian allies to escalate their own involvement in the conflict. This is because, as Julien Barnes-Dacey, a Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in February 2016, “A central story of the Syrian conflict has been the cycle of escalations and counter-escalations in the continued pursuit of victory by both sides”.

For instance, in an October 2015 article titled Did US Weapons Supplied To Syrian Rebels Draw Russia Into The Conflict? the Washington Post noted that TOW anti-tank missiles delivered to the rebels by the US and its allies  were “so successful… in driving rebel gains in northwestern Syria that rebels call the missile the ‘Assad Tamer’.” The report goes on to quote Oubai Shahbandar, a Dubai-based consultant who previously worked with the Syrian opposition: “A primary driving factor in Russia’s calculus [to militarily intervene in September 2015] was the realization that the Assad regime was militarily weakening and in danger of losing territory in northwestern Syria. The TOWs played an outsize role in that”.

Confirming the veracity of the earlier warnings about the West arming the rebels, last year Professor Joshua Landis, Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, explained “America has prolonged the civil war and has abetted the terrible destruction”, and “destabilised the region”. The death and destruction has been enormous. In 2016 United Nations Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura estimated 400,000 people had been killed in the conflict, while the UN reports more than half of all Syrians have been fled their homes – an estimated 5 million have left the country and more than 6 million are internally displaced.

The US and UK governments, then, consciously chose to escalate the conflict in Syria, knowing it would likely increase the level of violence and the number of civilian and combatant deaths, as well as making a peaceful resolution more unlikely.

It’s an unpalatable conclusion that jars with the liberal idea of the West’s ‘basic benevolence’, though one that is backed up by the evidence and elementary logic. And it is a conclusion you will be hard pressed to find in any other British national newspaper.

Western foreign policy and the dangerous ignorance gap

Western foreign policy and the dangerous ignorance gap
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
20 December 2017

While the mainstream media’s self-serving obsession with so-called fake news and Russian interference in elections looks set to continue for a long time, a far more serious problem with Western journalism is being conveniently ignored.

This could be called the dangerous ignorance gap of Western foreign policy: the often huge gulf between the reality of what the US and UK do in the Middle East – painfully understood by the populations on the receiving end of Western interference – and the woeful level of awareness the American and British general public and commentariat have about these interventions.

The aggressive and illegal 2003 invasion of Iraq, and subsequent occupation, is a key site in understanding this divergence. According to a 2013 ComRes poll of the British public, 74 per cent of respondents estimated that less than 50,000 Iraqi combatants and civilians had died as a consequence of the war (59 per cent estimated less than 10,000 Iraqis had died). In comparison, a 2013 study published in PLOS medical journal estimated the war and occupation directly and indirectly claimed the lives of approximately 500,000 Iraqis between 2003 and 2011 – the answer given by just 6 per cent of respondents of the ComRes poll.

Since 2014 a US-led coalition has carried out 28,000 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria targeting Islamic State. The US military admits they have unintentionally killed 801 civilians in these strikes. In contrast, the independent monitoring group Airwars estimates US-led coalition strikes have in fact killed at least 5,961 civilians. After visiting 150 sites of coalition airstrikes, the journalists Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal discovered that one in five of the coalition strikes resulted in civilian death, “a rate more than 31 times that acknowledged by the coalition.” Amazingly, in July the UK government made the extraordinary claim to have caused no civilian casualties after carrying out 1,400 airstrikes – “a statistical impossibility”, said Airwars.

Turning to the ongoing conflict in Yemen, since 2013 the US and UK-backed Saudi-led coalition assault has killed thousands of civilians. A joint statement in July from the heads of UNICEF, the World Health Organisation and the World Food Programme stated Yemen is in the midst of “the world’s largest humanitarian crisis”. The July 2016 Washington Post headline ‘In Yemeni capital, signs of hatred toward Americans are everywhere’ shows Yemenis well understand the role of the West in destroying their country. “Perhaps in no other city is anti-Americanism in such full display today”, the report noted.

In contrast, a YouGov poll earlier this year found only 49 per cent of the British public had heard of the war in Yemen. And though it wasn’t asked in the poll, it seems likely a significant number of this 49 percent will not be aware of the UK’s despicable role in arming and supporting Saudi Arabia in the conflict. “There is a really interesting discrepancy liberal interventionist newspaper columnists talking about Syria and talking about Yemen”, Dr David Wearing, a Teaching Fellow in International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London, explained in a recent Media Democracy podcast. “As in they talk about one [Syria] and not about the other [Yemen] despite the fact we’ve got much more ability to do something about what is happening in Yemen than in the case of Syria.”

Western militaries have a vested interest in treating the public like mushrooms – keeping them in the dark and feeding them bullshit – and therefore deploy expensive and sophisticated public relations campaigns to engage the population. However, the supposedly independent and fiercely critical media also play a central role in the creation and maintenance of this deadly ignorance – often not reporting, or minimising the significance of, much of the reality of the West’s interventions around the world. For example The Guardian did report that a July 2016 US airstrike killed at least 73 Syrian civilians – the majority women and children, according to activists. However, the story appeared as a small report hidden away at the bottom of page 22 of the newspaper.

These omissions have a long history. “The press and politicians for the most part keep the people of this country in ignorance of the real treatment meted out to the natives”, Labour Party leader James Keir Hardie wrote in 1906.

The enormous distance between the reality of Western foreign policy and the Western publics’ understanding of what their governments do in their name is dangerous for two reasons. First, it’s deadly for those on the receiving end of Western military force. Western populations can only exert a humanising influence on Western foreign policy if they are aware of what’s going on. If Western wars in the Middle East are effectively hidden from view then they are more likely to continue. Second, it’s dangerous for the general public in the West because the ignorance gap is where anger about Western foreign policy festers and grows. It is, in short, the public, rather than the government actually implementing the policies, who bear the brunt of the enlarged terrorist threat to the UK that is massively boosted by UK actions abroad.

So if we want to reduce the chances of future London Bridges and Manchesters then we urgently need to educate ourselves and others about the death and destruction our governments are carrying out in the Middle East.

 

My favourite books of 2017

My favourite books of 2017
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
18 December 2017

Published a long twenty years since her Booker Prize winning debut novel The God Of Small Things, Indian writer Arundhati Roy’s new book The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (Hamish Hamilton) is a sprawling epic about contemporary India – from a guesthouse for trans women in Delhi, to grassroots protest movements and the dark arts of the intelligence services. Since her initial success, Roy has turned her attention to activist politics, eloquently questioning and criticising the government and corporate elites in her own country and across the world. These concerns worm their way into the narrative, evidenced by her vivid descriptions of India’s brutal actions in Kashmir and the perilous lives of those enduring and resisting the military occupation. Though it doesn’t quite reach the giddy heights of her first book, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’s ingrained left-leaning politics and its yearning friendships and romance between school friends make for an affecting literary journey.

Tom Mills’ The BBC: Myth of a Public Service (Verso) is an essential corrective to mainstream journalists and commentators blowing a gasket about fake news and alternative media. From the 1926 General Strike to the 2008 financial crisis, Mills, a Lecturer in Sociology and Policy at Aston University, highlights the BBC’s long history of towing the British establishment line on key issues. The censure of the BBC’s Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg by the BBC Trust for erroneously editing a 2015 interview with Jeremy Corbyn, the BBC’s shameful lack of coverage of the UK-enabled humanitarian crisis in Yemen, and the corporation’s North Korea-style coverage of Prince Harry’s recent engagement suggest little has changed.

Somewhat amateurish in its presentation, George Paxton’s Nonviolent Resistance to the Nazis (YouCaxton) is nevertheless one of the most important books I’ve ever read. While Western political culture unquestionably repeats the idea that violent struggle against Nazi Germany was the only option, Paxton, a trustee of the Gandhi Foundation, tells the stories of those who non-violently resisted the Nazis in Europe. Even in the most authoritarian circumstances there was, it turns out, opportunities to challenge – and sometimes win small, but important, changes to – Nazi policies. A 1941 strike in France against food shortages involving 100,000 miners won more food coupons, while in Berlin in 1943 the non-Jewish wives of Jews protested in the street and stopped the threatened deportation of their husbands. Fascinating and inspiring in equal measure.