The Liberal Media vs. Reality: The West’s promotion of democracy in the Middle East

The Liberal Media vs. Reality: The West’s promotion of democracy in the Middle East
by Ian Sinclair
19 January 2015

One of my favourite quotes about Western foreign policy comes from British historian Mark Curtis:

“The ideological system promotes one key concept that underpins everything else – the idea of Britain’s basic benevolence. Mainstream reporting and analysis usually actively promotes, or at least does not challenge, the idea that Britain promotes high principles – democracy, peace, human rights and development – in its foreign policy. Criticism of foreign policies is certainly possible, and normal, but within narrow limits which show ‘exceptions’ to or ‘mistakes’ in, promoting the rule of basic benevolence.” (Mark Curtis, Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World, Vintage, 2003, p. 380)

Take these recent examples from the liberal media assuming the West’s basic benevolence:

  • Jonathan Steele, The Guardian, 23 October 2011: “The neocons’ grand plan to use the 2003 invasion to turn the country [Iraq] into a secure pro-western democracy and a garrison for US bases that could put pressure on Syria and Iran lies in tatters. Their hopes of making Iraq a democratic model for the Middle East have been tipped on their head.”
  • Presenter John Humphrys talking about the British 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq, BBC Today Programme, October 2012: “If a country has sent its young men to another country to die, to restore – create democracy, you’d expect, well you’d expect a bit of gratitude, wouldn’t you?”
  • Professor David Runciman, Guardian Review, 8 November 2013: “The wars fought after 2001 in Afghanistan and Iraq were designed to combat terrorism and to spread the merits of democracy.”
  • Peter Baker, New York Times, 24 February 2014: “For Mr. Bush, the focus on spreading democracy preceded his decision to invade Iraq, but it was inextricably linked to the war after the failure to find the unconventional weapons that had been the primary public justification. The goal of establishing a democratic beachhead in the Middle East began driving the occupation, but it became tarnished among many overseas because of its association with the war.”
  • Editorial, The Guardian, 3 September 2014: “In the Middle East, the rise of a new jihadist movement burst upon the western nations who had once aspired to democratically reshape the region like a thunder storm.”

Compare these statements with the recent blog post on The Guardian website by Richard Norton-Taylor and Ewen MacAskill titled ‘Saudi Arabia and Bahrain: UK arms sales trump human rights’. Noting the planned British base in Bahrain and large-scale weapons sales to Saudi Arabia – both of whom have violently put down pro-democracy and human rights protests – the authors note “Britain has made it clear that arms sales and military and security considerations must take priority over human rights, even torture.”

Noam Chomsky has long been making similar statements. For example in 2011 he noted “Both Bush and Obama are terrified of the Arab spring. And there is a very sensible reason for that. They don’t want democracies in the Arab world. If Arab public opinion had any influence on policy, the US and Britain had been tossed out of the Middle East. That’s why they are terrified of democracies in the region.”

Chomsky is frequently derided by liberal commentators, but his broad argument is backed up by Jane Kinninmont, Deputy Head of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House: “It is presented as though the invasion of Iraq was motivated largely or entirely by an altruistic desire to share democracy. This is asserted despite the long history of Anglo-American great-power involvement in the Middle East, which has, for the most part, not involved an effort to democratize the region. Rather, the general trend has been to either support authoritarian rulers who were already in place, or to participate in the active consolidation of authoritarian rule, including strong military and intelligence cooperation, as long as these rulers have been seen as supporting Western interests more than popularly elected governments would.”

David Wearing, a PhD student at the School of African and Oriental Studies, concurs: “Over the last ten years of debate, this bipartisan assumption has persisted in both countries: that Britain and America, long-time supporters of some of the region’s worst autocrats, including Saddam Hussein, genuinely sought to bring democracy to Iraq.” In reality, Wearing notes “What the Bush and Blair administrations wanted for Iraq was a hollowed-out democracy where the elected government was subservient to a huge US military and diplomatic presence, where the shape of the economy had been decided for them in advance by the occupiers, and where management of the nation’s key natural resource was largely in the hands of foreign multinationals.”

UK public opinion seems to be broadly in line with Chomsky, Kinninmont and Wearing. In January 2003 a YouGov /ITN poll found just 5 percent of respondents thought the US and UK were invading Iraq “to bring freedom and democracy to Iraq” (30 percent of respondents thought the invasion was “to secure and control oil supplies from the Middle East”). Similarly, an October 2003 Gallup poll of Baghdad residents found just one percent of respondents believed that “a desire to establish democracy” was the reason for the US-UK invasion (43 percent said the invasion’s principal objective was Iraq’s oil reserves). In terms of wider Middle East opinion, a 2012 Pew poll discovered “majorities or pluralities in six predominantly Muslim countries see Washington as an obstacle to their democratic aspirations”.

To summarise: the basic facts, a significant section of expert opinion and public opinion both in the UK and Middle East all run counter to the liberal media’s belief in the basic benevolence of Western Government. So, does this overwhelming evidence mean the liberal media will change its tune when it comes to assuming the West promotes high principles like democracy and human rights in its foreign policy? Does it heck…

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