Monthly Archives: August 2014

Gok Wan: A Revolutionary?

Gok Wan: A Revolutionary?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
July 2010

The US feminist poet Katha Pollitt once warned “When left, right and centre agree, watch out. They probably don’t know what they’re talking about.” Pollitt was unlikely to have had Gok Wan in mind when she wrote that, but I would argue the popular TV fashion guru is a textbook example of her cautionary advice.

For those not in the know, 35-year old Wan burst on to Britain’s television screens in 2006 as the flamboyant presenter of Channel Four’s How To Look Good Naked. Pulling in over three million viewers at its peak, the show professes to boost women’s body confidence by using fashion and style tips, rather than encouraging weight loss or cosmetic surgery. As Wan explains in the very first episode: “46-year old Susan Sharpe, like nine out of ten British women, hates her body. My mission is to show her how good she can look with her clothes on and off – without having to nip, tuck, crunch or starve.” By the end of the show the transformation is complete, with the once tearfully insecure Sharpe confident enough to do a naked photo shoot.
Wan has gone on to present five more successful series of How To Look Good Naked, as well as new shows such as Gok’s Fashion Fix and Miss Naked Beauty. Writing in The Times, Caitlin Moran breathlessly argues Wan is “a revolutionary” and “a public service”. Not wanting “to overstate his importance” she proclaims: “Now we have the vote, and equal rights legislation, it might well be that Gok Wan… is the most significant person in the lives of 21st-century women.”
Wan certainly pushes a lot of the right progressive buttons in a country where women make up 90 percent of the 1.5 million people with eating disorders and 91 percent of those who undergo cosmetic surgery.
But before you get too excited and throw away your copy of The Beauty Myth, shouldn’t we take a closer look at Wan’s message?
Noting there is “enormous pressure on women to conform to the body shape ideal”, the official Simply Gok Wan website argues “Some women are naturally thin, some are naturally curvy, and as long as both are healthy then who is to say one is more ‘ideal’ than the other? Beauty should be about diversity”.
So far, so right on. However, at the start of the first episode Wan explains: “I’ve got only four weeks to show my curvy girl how to lift those boobs, tone that tum and shape that bum.” What happened to beauty being about diversity?! Instead Wan boosts Sharpe’s self-esteem saying she has “curves to die for”, while simultaneously shaping her to fit the unattainable image of a beautiful woman. Am I the only person who sees the deep hypocrisy in this? So despite the faux-feminist rhetoric, like Nick Clegg’s ‘new politics’, Wan’s ideas on beauty are in fact highly conventional and conservative.
Throughout the half-hour show Wan continues to flip between playing the supportive gay best friend to reinforcing the destructive beauty ideal that his own official website argues leads to “depression, shame and guilt”.
“It takes pounds and inches off you… it slims you write down”, gasps Wan about a dress in the changing room. Elsewhere he explains that “If you are short and thin, this season’s super skinny trousers will lengthen your legs and make your bottom look pert.”
More importantly, while Wan is undoubtedly a step up from such hateful fare as Trinny and Susannah’s What Not To Wear and Ten Years Younger, the fundamental message remains the same: Appearance is, and should be, central to a woman’s identity. The assumption being that women are not naturally beautiful but are always in need of improvement which requires endless effort and the endless consumption of beauty products and fashionable clothes.
So when Wan asks Sharpe what her future plans are, she says she intends to buy “nice clothes, nice dresses, nice underwear, nice bags, nice shoes”. And if she gets stuck for ideas it just so happens Wan has his own “Sexy Shapewear” lingerie line, selling Super Slicker Knicker’s for £30 or Banger Booster’s for £33.
In The Equality Illusion feminist Kat Banyard argues that “viewing one’s own body as an inanimate object to be made pleasing to onlookers is inherently harmful.” As evidence she cites a 2008 Flinders University study that found even complimenting a woman who views her body as an object on her physical appearance can have negative consequences. “This apparently counterintuitive conclusion followed upon the discovery that the compliment focused these women’s attention on their body and led them to fell more ashamed of it”, Banyard comments.
Despite the very real progress made by first, second and third wave feminism, the fixation on women’s physical appearance today is greater than it has ever been. Wan may be a noticeable improvement on other makeover show hosts, but this shouldn’t lead to everybody suddenly losing their critical faculties. To do so would mean we miss the fact that although How To Look Good Naked is targeted primarily at women and professes to support women, in reality its deeply contradictory messages ultimately elevate a beauty ideal that continues to damage women’s mental and physical health.

The Iraq Crisis: The madness of the media and political elite

The Iraq Crisis: The madness of the media and political elite
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
20 August 2014

By authorising airstrikes against the Islamic State (aka ISIS), President Obama became the fourth US Commander-In-Chief since Ronald Reagan to initiate a bombing campaign on Iraq.

As always, the BBC quickly fell in line. Reporting on the announcement for the Today Programme the BBC’s Tom Esslemont stated “Doing nothing here was not an option”. Like much of the BBC’s output it was unclear whether Esslemont was telling us the US Government’s view or his own. There was no confusion about his concluding remark: “To critics it is too limited an operation that will do little to diminish the power of the Islamic State jihadists.” Mark Urban, the BBC’s Diplomatic Editor, was also far from objective and neutral when he tweeted “France is considering joining humanitarian intervention in northern Iraq. [US Secretary of State John] Kerry is talking abt ‘genocide’. Time for Downing St to re-think?” In addition, The Guardian has come out in support of the airstrikes (“The Americans have a special responsibility here”), as has the Labour Party.

Often missing from the depressingly narrow debate in the media and political mainstream is expert opinion. Noting the rise of the Islamic State is a symptom of the failure of the Iraqi and Western political elites, Jane Kinninmont, Deputy Head of Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa Programme, argues “the airstrikes could propagate rather than solve the problem”. Phyllis Bennis, a Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, says “it should be eminently clear that we cannot bomb Islamist extremists into submission or disappearance. Every bomb recruits more supporters.” Robert Pape, Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago and Director of the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism, agrees. Writing in June, he argued “Far from hurting the terrorists, reengaging Iraq (and/or engaging Syria) would put us back on the path of a rising terrorist threat that has taken us over a decade to escape”, before concluding “US military involvement can only hurt, not help.”

Even former Obama Administration insiders have been critical of the bombing. Writing for Foreign Affairs magazine, Steven Simon, who served as Senior Director for Middle Eastern and North African Affairs at the White House from 2011-12, argues US airstrikes “will almost certainly unite Sunnis against other sects and boost support for ISIS while fueling disdain for the United States.”

So if US military attacks are not the solution, what is? With the Islamic State feeding off the support given to them by significant sections of the Sunni community in Iraq, there is a broad consensus among Middle East observers that the answer lies in Baghdad. In short, the threat from the Islamic State will only be solved when there is a broad-based, non-sectarian Iraqi Government that Sunnis feel they have a stake in. Nouri Al-Maliki’s decision to step down as Iraq’s Prime Minister is therefore an important step towards this goal, although questions remain over whether his replacement, Haidar al-Abadi (from the same political party as Maliki), will make the changes that are necessary for national reconciliation. Second, pressure needs to be applied to those, mainly in the Gulf, who support the Islamic State. The recently announced United Nations resolution threatening sanctions against those who finance, recruit or supply weapons to the jihadi group is therefore welcome. More broadly, rather than external states arming one side or another, all arms deliveries to the region need to be stopped. It is common knowledge the Islamic State has captured large amounts of the US-supplied Iraqi army’s armoury. Less well known is the fact the Islamic State has been seen using Croatian-made weapons – which the CIA helped to send in to Syria, according to the New York Times.

These are medium and long-term solutions. However, contrary to the media’s framing of the crisis, the US is not the only global actor who is able to respond quickly to an immediate crisis. As Diane Abbott MP noted on BBC Newsnight, if there is to be external intervention in Iraq, it should be conducted by the United Nations – exactly what it was set up to do. “We’ve forgotten the role of international institutions”, noted Abbott. Media commentators unable to comprehend anyone but the US acting should take note.

They would do well to also take note of the recent New York Times report about the leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi: “At every turn, Mr Baghdadi’s rise has been shaped by the United States’ involvement in Iraq”. Quoting the research of Iraqi scholar Hisham al-Hashimi, the article noted Mr Baghdadi had spent five years in a US prison “where, like many ISIS fighters now on the battlefield, he became more radicalised.”

As Abbott sardonically noted on Newsnight about the West’s violent relationship with Iraq, the definition of madness is to keep doing the same thing and expect a different result.

Ian Sinclair is the author of The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003, published by Peace News Press. He tweets @IanJSinclair

Interview: Ann Oakley on housework

Interview: Ann Oakley on housework
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
5 August 2014

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the publication of Ann Oakley’s Housewife.

Based on Oakley’s PhD research, the pioneering feminist book looks at the role of the housewife in modern industrialised society. “The study of domestic labour was not taken seriously at all – it wasn’t understood to be a topic, in fact”, Oakley tells me as we sit in her office at the Institute for Education in London where she is Professor of Sociology and Social Policy.

Interviewing 40 women living in suburban London, Oakley, now 70, found they tended to be dissatisfied because of the monotony, fragmentation and social isolation inherent in the role of housewife. Therefore, as “housework is directly opposed to the possibility of human self-actualisation” she concluded with a call to abolish the housewife role. “I was being deliberately provocative”, she explains about the book’s final chapter which also called for the abolition of the traditional family and the abolition of traditional gender roles.

Four decades later, what’s changed? “I think the whole notion of women being housewives has changed”, she replies. “If you asked women now to talk about themselves as housewives they wouldn’t know what you were talking about really.” But while she concedes men do more housework today, she explains it’s still not equal. “I don’t think there is any study in the world which shows it’s equal.”

Sure enough, in the newly published 2014 Global Trends survey 70 percent of British women said they are mostly responsible for cooking, food shopping and household cleaning. These findings are supported by research from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (2013) and the Institute for Public Policy Research (2012), both of which show British women still do the lion’s share of domestic labour.

“Most of the change that has happened since the 70s has been, in my view, fairly superficial”, Oakley says. “The change in behaviour is probably less than the professed attitude – what people say is more egalitarian than what they do.”

In particular, Oakley’s 1970s research was interested in the inequality of responsibility. “In so far as men did housework it was construed by the men and women as him helping her with the housework – not the other way round. In terms of the issue of responsibility, what happened in the 1970s is still happening now.”

When men do pitch in studies show they generally end up doing the tasks that are arguably more enjoyable and leisurely – gardening and DIY, for example. Oakley agrees: “In the area of childcare, it’s still the case that men are more likely to be doing the more enjoyable side of childcare, rather than changing the dirty nappies.”

So why does this grossly unfair status quo continue? “Patriarchy is the simple explanation”, Oakley argues. “Men are a privileged group and there is no reason they should give up their privilege unless they are forced to do so.” This is where feminism comes in: “Most of the change in men’s behaviour, I suspect has come about because the women they are involved with have put pressure on them to change. Men haven’t, en masse, decided that housework is a good thing to do.”

Oakley sees increasing men’s involvement in housework and childcare as an important step in addressing the social problem of masculinity – a topic she explored in a 2011 Guardian article co-written with fellow feminist academic Cynthia Cockburn. Quoting government statistics, they noted “men were perpetrators in 91% of all violent incidents in England and Wales… 81% for domestic violence, 86% for assault, 94% for wounding, 96% for mugging, 98% for robbery.” In addition, Ministry of Justice figures show men to be responsible for 98% of sexual offences, 92% of drug offences and 89% of criminal damage. “The evidence is that being involved in basic care work, being involved in very close relationships with dependent people including children, is something that brings out qualities which are traditionally associated with being a woman – caring, altruism and all that”, Oakley says. “That happens with men too but they have to first of all be willing to put themselves in the position so those changes can occur.”

According to 2011 research by Churchill Home Insurers one in seven of the population pay for outside hired help to do housework. Oakley doesn’t buy this as a solution to the problem. “That’s not a solution because very often the people who are hired are women and they are underpaid, their job conditions and security are not good”, she says. “And usually it is the woman in the household who is responsible for looking after the hired help. So you’ve simply passed the oppression on in some sense.”

Oakley’s politics and research interests were energised by the second-wave feminism of the early 1970s. 40 years later many commentators argue we are currently in the midst of fourth-wave feminism, with groups and campaigns such as UK Feminista, Everyday Sexism and No More Page 3 evidence of renewed feminist activism.

“I don’t know enough about it really”, Oakley admits when I ask her about the resurgent movement. However, she feels that some of the media discussions around contemporary feminism she is aware of have little in common with the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s. She points to the current focus on the representation of women in positions of power: “We were not arguing for women’s share of the top jobs. We were talking about basic issues, we were arguing on the level of basic reproductive rights and access to childcare – state-provided childcare. It was all about doing something about the domestic oppression and not about undoing the privilege at the top.” Rather than getting a bigger portion of the pie, she argues “It was about changing the pie. We wanted a different kind of pie.”

She is philosophical when I suggest her work, and the work of many other feminists from her generation, are rarely cited in the popular feminist polemics being published today. “Time moves on – it’s one of the sad things that so much has to be re-discovered time and again”, she says. In fact she says she found one book that referred to her as dead – “The late Ann Oakley.”

“I’m not late in the sense I’m dead and also I’m quite a punctual person”, she quips.

Having read Housewife and Oakley’s stupendously good Gender and Planet Earth – a book that moves from men and meat-eating to critiquing post-modernism – I can safely say contemporary feminism is missing a lot by ignoring Oakley’s ground-breaking work. As the recent surveys mentioned above show, housework continues to be a source of inequality between men and women. Housewife could therefore be the key text in the revival of feminist concern over housework that must take place if women are to gain any semblance of equality in the future.

Ian Sinclair is the author of The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003, published by Peace News Press. He tweets @IanJSinclair

Iraq: Left Foot Forward’s James Bloodworth Goes to War Again

Iraq: Left Foot Forward’s James Bloodworth Goes to War Again
By Ian Sinclair
Huffington Post
21 August 2014

We are, it would seem, being misled about Iraq once again.

On 12 August 2014 the Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, said the UK was only providing humanitarian support and would not join the US in launching military strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq. Within six days the Government’s position had changed, with the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, stating on 18 August 2014 that the UK’s involvement in Iraq was expanding beyond the initial humanitarian mission.

So far the UK has helped transport weapons to the Kurdish armed forces, and has said it is open to arming the Kurds directly. However, as of today the Government has not ordered British forces into battle (there are, apparently, UK special forces in Iraq but politicians refuse to give any information about this and journalists seem happy to not pry further).

With events changing rapidly – both in Iraq and Western capitals – and the UK seemingly sliding into war once again in Iraq, now is the time for the anti-war movement, and anyone interested in keeping the US and UK out of Iraq, to apply pressure and make their arguments as forcefully as possible.

It is this critical window of opportunity that leads me to James Bloodworth’s latest blast of pro-war hot air – ‘Today ISIS is attacking the Middle East. Tomorrow it’ll be the West’. Having previously critiqued Bloodworth’s warmongering on Afghanistan and Pakistan, I’m not particularly keen to get down in the dirt again. However, his positions as Editor of the popular Left Foot Forward website and as an Independent columnist means he has a relatively wide audience, and therefore I think it’s important his simplistic, illogical and fact-free assertions are exposed for what they are.

Like much of the media and political commentary on the Iraq crisis, Bloodworth seems to have an aversion to expert testimony, instead preferring to base his argument on his own unsubstantiated claims. With this in mind, I’m going to do something really revolutionary for a journalist – cite people who have spent their professional lives visiting, researching and writing about Iraq, the Middle East and conflict more generally. Crazy, I know, but bear with me.

Bloodworth starts by arguing ‘now is the time for anyone of a remotely progressive temperament to call for an intensification of the military campaign against ISIS. Indeed, let more bombs fall on those who behead journalists’. Sceptics among you may wonder if it’s really such a good idea for the US and UK, whose 2003 invasion cost the lives of around 500,000 Iraqis and led to 4 million refugees, to start bombing Iraq again. Indeed, if you did have these kind of outlandish reservations, you’d be in agreement with such ignorant asses as the Deputy Head of Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa Programme, the Director of the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism, Professor of Peace Studies at Bradford University Paul Rogers and Obama’s own Senior Director for Middle Eastern and North African affairs from 2011-12.

Bloodworth goes onto to say ‘It bears repeating: the existence of ISIS (as opposed to the group’s growth) is in no sense “our” fault.’ Now, we can get in to the semantics of what constitutes ‘fault’ but there seems to be broad agreement among Iraq observers like Professor George Joffe that the US-UK invasion of 2003 and occupation had something to do with the rise of ISIS – both in the deadly chaos and sectarianism the US-UK occupation (often deliberately) engendered, along with the repression US and UK forces directly meted out. For example, the New York Times recently reported the following about the leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi: ‘At every turn, Mr Baghdadi’s rise has been shaped by the United States’s involvement in Iraq.’ The article goes on to note Baghdadi had spent five years in a US prison ‘where, like many Isis fighters now on the battlefield, he became more radicalised’ (my emphasis added). Call me old-fashioned but this suggests the US and UK bear some responsibility for the current crisis.

Echoing Hillary Clinton’s criticism of Obama’s supposed lack of action in Syria, Bloodworth further argues ‘Isis have germinated so rapidly not because of George Bush and Tony Blair, but because Western governments decided at some point that it would be acceptable for Bashar al-Assad to drop explosives on the Syrian people in order to keep power’. Unfortunately for Bloodworth and the neo-con Clinton, Professor Marc Lynch, Director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University, has comprehensively debunked this argument. As has the Independent’s own veteran Middle East correspondent Patrick Cockburn. As did two former NATO Secretary-Generals in June 2013.

Forget Brutus’s speech in Julius Caesar, a student of rhetoric would have a field day analysing Bloodworth’s work. He ends here by presenting a false binary opposition, with the pro-war pundits like himself on one side calling for action, and on the other side ‘those that are inclined to bury their heads in the sand’. In the real world, those opposed to, or at least sceptical of, US military strikes in Iraq – including Middle East scholar David Wearing, Diane Abbott MP, a former Director of Global Counter Terrorism Operations at MI6 and Guardian columnist Seamus Milne – have suggested a number of actions that could be taken that may reduce the threat from ISIS.

A few quick Google searches would have uncovered all this inconvenient expert testimony. But why complicate matters when your argument is as dangerously uninformed as Bloodworth’s is?

Lamenting the loss of Western power: Paul Mason and the Middle East

Lamenting the loss of Western power: Paul Mason and the Middle East
by Ian Sinclair
BS News
26 August 2014

Channel 4 News has long been known as the television news show to watch to get an alternative, more sensible, more in-depth, more critical take on current affairs. And within the Channel 4 News team Paul Mason is seen as one of the few mainstream television journalists with left-wing sympathies (albeit never overtly stated – he was BBC Newsnight’s Economics Editor from 2001 to 2013, after all).

As he is respected by many on the Left as a progressive and critical reporter, and as he represents the limits of critical reportage in the mainstream, it’s worth taking some time to look at a couple of blogs Mason has written about world events in 2014.

First up is his February 2014 blog ‘How the West slipped into powerlessness’, which includes this nugget:

When the USA decided, last summer, it could not sell military intervention in Syria – either to its parliaments, its people or its military – it sent a signal to every dictator, torturer and autocrat in the world that only diplomats, at the time, truly understood. The British diplomat in charge of Syria, Reza Afshar, tweeted a one-word summary of the UK parliamentary vote on Syria: “Disaster!”

So Mason, championed by many on the Left, laments that the US-UK did not attack Syria. Luckily parliament responded to public opinion and expert opinion rather than journalists like Mason and voted down a Government’s motion on war for the first time since 1782.

[An aside. Media Lens published a critique of Mason’s blog in March 2014, to which Mason said he would respond when he had the time. Mason’s silence stretched through June 2014, when I prodded him. Media Lens joined the Twitter exchange, noting Noam Chomsky, a man who famously spends several hours a day replying to letters and emails, always replies promptly. Mason’s reply: “Yeah but I deal in fact, not ideology.”]

In June 2014 Mason published another sprawling blog ‘Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Ukraine: what happens in a world without framework?’ Sounding much like the kind of man who cries wolf about the loss of men’s power at the first whiff of feminism, Mason argues the world order is in crisis: “The look on the faces of the politicians – Obama, Hague, Hollande – says it all: not much. Like [Humphrey] Bogart in Casablanca they have the look of people whose world is falling apart.”

Why is the world collapsing? Mason has the answer. “The root cause is pretty clear: America’s sudden swing from armed intervention in the Middle East to multi-lateralism and disengagement.” Yep, that’s right. The problem isn’t US intervention in the Middle East. No, the problem is that the US isn’t intervening enough! So the US propping up the Egyptian dictatorship for 30 years since the early 80s isn’t a root cause. Neither is the US’s continued support for President al-Sisi’s dictatorship, drenched in the blood of thousands of dead Egyptians. Neither is the US’s support for the Gulf autocracies Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and UAE. Or the US-UK’s illegal, aggressive invasion of Iraq in 2003 and subsequent occupation that decimated the country, deliberately stoked sectarianism and led to a massive increase in suicide terrorism.

Incidentally, Mason’s characterisation of current US foreign policy as one of “multi-lateralism and disengagement” is certainly one way of describing the US arming and financing the Syrian rebels (see below), US drone attacks on seven countries during the Obama Administration, the US being the biggest arms supplier to the Middle East, the US’s continued support for the Gulf monarchies, US military bases in Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Bahrain, UAE and Oman, not to mention the US’s current support of Iraqi forces bombing urban areas.

Mason goes on to explain that we live in a “world where the democracies on the security council no longer care about upholding international law and human rights.” Readers who graduated from primary school will no doubt be wondering just when the “democracies of the security council” – which for Mason is clearly the US, UK and France – cared about upholding “international law and human rights”. Was it in the 60s and early 70s when the United States did a pretty good job of destroying Vietnam? Was it between 1954 and 1962 when France fought a savage counterinsurgency war to deny Algeria its independence? Or perhaps it was during World War Two when the US and UK suppressed the popular Greek resistance that had played the key role in throwing out the German armed forces?

Turning to Syria, Mason notes “the West refuses to aid the secular and moderate forces [rebels].” This is flatly false. Since before May 2012 the US has been helping to arm, train and fund the rebels in Syria. In March 2013 the New York Times quoted an expert who estimated 3,500 tons of military equipment had been sent to the rebels by Arab Governments and Turkey with assistance from the CIA. In February 2014 The National newspaper, citing Syrian opposition sources, noted “The United States has increased direct funding to rebel groups fighting in Damascus and southern Syria” with US officials “handing over hundreds of thousands of dollars to Syrian rebel commanders in Jordan”. This publicly available information means either Mason is straight out lying to readers or he is ignorant of hundreds of articles that have reported US support for the rebels. Neither option reflects well on Mason.

Other howlers litter the blog: Sunnis in Iraq have been protesting against the perceived sectarianism of the Maliki Government” [my emphasis added]; the present disaster in the Middle East “has resulted from America’s failed attempt to create what Bush senior called ‘the new world order’”; and despite experts and reports throwing doubt on the official US-UK-French narrative, Mason is certain Assad carried out the chemical weapons attack on 21 August 2013. Furthermore, Mason doesn’t just pin the blame on “Assad’s Government” but “Assad” personally – which is even more difficult to prove.

So what conclusions can we make from a close reading of two of Mason’s recent articles on the Middle East? First, it’s important to register that the half-formed, contradictory and ignorant thinking on display is the work of someone who is seen as one of the most critical, radical broadcast journalists working in the UK today. That I, writing this in my spare time, can so easily highlight Mason’s obvious factual errors and his evidence-free Western power-friendly assumptions is worrying to say the least. Second, we need to be clear that to gain a good understanding of the world – how it works, its history, its power relationships and possible solutions – requires us to go beyond the mainstream television news. Beyond Channel 4 News. And beyond Paul Mason.

Ian Sinclair is a freelance writer based in London and the author of The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003, published by Peace News Press. He tweets @IanJSinclair.

Asking the wrong questions: Western intervention in Syria, not inaction, has strengthened ISIS

Asking the wrong questions: Western intervention in Syria, not inaction, has strengthened ISIS
By Ian Sinclair
New Left Project
26 August 2014

Hillary Clinton, in what was likely an early attempt to position herself as strong on foreign policy for the 2016 US Presidential Election, recently criticised President Obama’s alleged failure to ‘help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad’.  This, she said, had  ‘left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled’.

As is often the case, the BBC was happy to let established power define the news agenda. ‘Did inaction over Syria forment regional chaos?’, was the title of BBC Defence Correspondent Jonathan Marcus’s BBC website think piece on the rise of ISIS [the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria aka the Islamic State] in Iraq.

The article was largely opinion free, but in a way it didn’t matter what  answer was given, the damage had already been done by how the story had been framed. As the American author Thomas Pynchon once wrote: ‘If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.’

Someone who has been answering the wrong questions on Western foreign policy for some time is James Bloodworth, Editor of Left Foot Forward and a columnist with the Independent.  Echoing the former US Secretary of State, Bloodworth argues: ‘ISIS have germinated so rapidly not because of George Bush and Tony Blair, but because Western governments decided at some point that it would be acceptable for Bashar al-Assad to drop explosives on the Syrian people in order to keep power.’  Political commentator Sunny Hundal made the same argument in June 2014.

Unfortunately, for Clinton, Bloodworth and Hundal, this argument has been thoroughly discredited.

Professor Marc Lynch, Director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and the Project on Middle East Political Science at George Washington University, concluded: ‘As catastrophic as Syria’s war has been, and as alarming as the Islamic State has become, there has never been a plausible case to be made that more US arms for Syrian rebels would have meaningfully altered their path.’

Patrick Cockburn, the Independent’s veteran Middle East Correspondent who has just published the book The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising, is also dismissive of Clinton’s claim, ridiculing it as ‘nonsense’.  ‘The idea, which is very widespread,’ says Cockburn, ‘that there was a moment that, with a few more guns and ammunition, that a moderate Syrian opposition could have taken over in Syria in 2011 or ’12 or ’13, is just unreal.’

More importantly, not only is the ‘West inaction in Syria is to blame for ISIS in Iraq’ argument wrong, it also hides a far more significant, inconvenient truth – that the West’s intervention in Syria is a key reason behind ISIS’s growth.

This argument contradicts the popular notion that the West’s role in Syria has been one of inaction and indifference. But, as with the common perception that President Obama is ‘intervention-averse’, the facts tell a different story.

As I’ve explained elsewhere, the Obama Administration, often along with the UK and France, has been supporting the rebels in Syria since at least mid-2012.  As the Wall Street Journal noted, from the early stages of the war the US has been ‘acting in Syria through proxies, primarily Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates’.  The CIA has played a key role, coordinating large arm shipments to the insurgents, training them in Jordan and providing significant amounts of non-lethal and financial support.

This support has likely prolonged the war.  Citing the academic literature on the subject, Professor Lynch notes: ‘In general, external support for rebels almost always make wars longer, bloodier and harder to resolve.’

Middle East analyst Hassan Hassan has explained how many of the Western-backed rebels in Syria have changed their allegiance to ISIS.

Linking all this with the current crisis in Iraq, Cockburn makes the key point that: ‘US government as a whole – and foreign powers steer away from one very crucial aspect of the rise of ISIS, which is that in Syria, the West backed the uprising against President Assad, and still does, and this enabled ISIS to develop, gain military experience and then use it back in Iraq.’

This is not just the clarity of hindsight.  In June 2013, referring to the possibility of directly arming rebels or conducting military strikes against Assad’s forces, two former Secretary Generals of NATO argued:

Rather than secure humanitarian space and empower a political transition, 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 gaining strength across the country. The idea that the West can empower and remotely control moderate forces is optimistic at best. Escalation begets escalation and mission creep is a predictable outcome if the West sets out on a military path [emphasis added].

This, then, is the real link between the West’s role in Syria and the rise of ISIS – not Clinton’s evidence-free musings about President Obama’s inaction.  With the UK seemingly sliding deeper into war in Iraq, now is the time for the anti-war movement to challenge and change the popular narrative about the West and Syria – not least because it’s another example of the disastrous and deadly consequences of Western intervention in the region.

Ian Sinclair is the author of The March that Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003, published by Peace News Press. He tweets @IanJSinclair