Western foreign policy and the dangerous ignorance gap
by Ian Sinclair
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.