Lamenting the loss of Western power: Paul Mason and the Middle East
by Ian Sinclair
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.