Tag Archives: CIA

Libya: The West vs. The United Nations

Libya: The West vs. The United Nations
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
28 September 2017

The United Kingdom joined the NATO military intervention in Libya “to uphold the will of the United Nations Security Council”, Prime Minister David Cameron told the House of Commons on the eve of the war. Six years on and the UK government continues to cite the authority of the UN to justify their actions in Libya, with the Foreign Office noting last month that Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson had visited Tripoli “to discuss what more the UK can do to support the [UN-backed] Government of National Accord (GNA) and the UN-led political process to help stabilise Libya.”

A bit of background. There are currently two rival power centres competing for legitimacy and control in Libya – the GNA led by Fayez al-Serraj and a rival authority in the east of the country under the control of General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA). More broadly, Libya is wracked by violence and chaos – a hellish mess that NATO bears significant responsibility for. “Continuing armed clashes have displaced hundreds of thousands of people and interrupted access to basic services, including fuel and electrical power. Forces engaged in the conflict are guilty of arbitrary detention, torture, unlawful killings, indiscriminate attacks, disappearances, and the forceful displacement of people”, Human Rights Watch (HRW) report. “Hundreds of thousands of migrants and asylum seekers, including children, who flock to Libya mostly en route to Europe, experience torture, sexual assault and forced labour at the hands of prison guards, members of the coast guard forces and smugglers.”

The “crucial question”, the Foreign Secretary argued in March this year, is “How to make sure that Haftar is in some way integrated into the government of Libya.”

So who is Haftar? “Libya’s most powerful and polarising figure”, is how Frederic Wehry, a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, summed him up in The Atlantic magazine. The septuagenarian Haftar served as a Field Marshal in Gaddafi’s army, leading Libyan forces in the Chad war, before being forced into exile in the US, “where he developed close links with the CIA”, according to the House of Commons Library blog. In 2011 he returned to Libya and emerged as a rebel commander in the NATO-backed uprising in which Gaddafi was toppled and killed. Asserting himself after the NATO war, in 2014 Haftar announced “Operation Dignity”, ostensibly a campaign to defeat terrorists in Benghazi, though some observers see the military surge as more complex. Writing in the London Review of Books, foreign correspondent Tom Stevenson notes Haftar “has been taking on Islamic State, non-IS jihadists, and anyone else who stands up to him”, while Ahmed el-Gasir from the group Human Rights Solidarity told Al Jazeera last month that many perceived “Operation Dignity” as an attempted military coup. Indeed, a March 2017 report from the Conservative Middle East Council (CMEC) which was compiled after two council staff members travelled to Libya and met Haftar, notes he “sees his mission as a national project covering all of Libya.”

Not mentioned in the CMEC report is the fact human rights groups have highlighted numerous abuses committed by forces aligned with Haftar, “who seem to have torn up the rule book”, according to Hanan Salah, HRW’s senior Libya researcher. Having visited Benghazi earlier this year, Wehry notes “reports of torture, disappearances, and the destruction of property emerge with numbing frequency”, with forces armed by Haftar responsible for many of the abuses.

“The tactics employed by Gaddafi in 2011 created certain divisions between towns or tribes, but they do not compare to what Haftar has done… the level of violence and disregard to the sanctity of human life and value of human dignity is unprecedented in Libyan society”, notea el-Gasir. Politically, Wehry warns of Haftar’s “militarization of governance”, in which “he has replaced elected municipal leaders with uniformed military officers” while “the Gaddafi-era intelligence apparatus is back on the payroll.”

However, despite the West’s public backing for the UN-backed GNA in Tripoli, last year Middle East Eye, citing air traffic recordings they had obtained, reported “a multinational military operation involving British, French and US forces is coordinating air strikes in support of” Haftar from a base near Benghazi. This backing is confirmed by Wehry, who notes “The French, the British, and the Americans sent special operators who provided varying levels of intelligence and front-line support” to Haftar. Middle East Eye’s scoop about the West’s relationship with Haftar followed another expose from the news website that reported the British Special Air Service (SAS) were fighting Islamic State in Libya, alongside Jordanian special forces.

More recently, Middle East Eye reported that leaked 2014 emails between the UAE Ambassador to the US and the then US National Security Advisor Susan Rice seem to “indicate that the United States knew about illegal arms shipments to rebels in Libya” from the UAE. This transfer – which likely went to Haftar’s forces – would, of course, have contravened the UN arms embargo – established with the backing of the US and the UK in February 2011.

The West’s support for Haftar is dangerous for three reasons. First, the US and UK are assisting a “warlord” (the Guardian’s description) whose forces have been accused of numerous war crimes by human rights groups. Second, the West’s backing for the Field Marshal is undermining attempts at national reconciliation. “Support by Western special forces, particularly French, to General Haftar has made it more difficult to reach a compromise with him because he thinks he has important external backing and therefore does not need to compromise with the unity government”, Mattia Toaldo, a Libya specialist at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told the Middle East Eye. Finally, supporting Haftar runs counter to the West’s professed support for the UN-backed government in Tripoli, the UN peace process and the UN arms embargo.

Frustratingly, the West’s shady dealings in Libya have gone largely unreported by the supposedly critical and fiercely independent UK fourth estate. Shamefully, one has to read the Middle East Eye and American magazine The Atlantic to find out about the support the UK has given Haftar. The British media has a similarly woeful record when it comes to UK involvement in the Syrian war, with the New York Times, rather than a British newspaper, reporting in 2013 that UK intelligence services had been working covertly with Saudi Arabia and the US to funnel arms to rebels.

“If people really knew the war would be stopped tomorrow.  But of course they don’t know and can’t know.” This was Prime Minister David Lloyd George’s reaction after listening to an account of the fighting on the Western Front during the First World War.

What would be the British public’s reaction to the UK’s covert interventions in Libya today? Unless British journalists start doing their jobs we may never find out.

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Don’t mention Western intervention! Yemen, Somalia and the Guardian

Don’t mention Western intervention! Yemen, Somalia and the Guardian
by Ian Sinclair

Morning Star
29 March 2017

Earlier this month Stephen O’Brien, the United Nations Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, warned the world was facing the largest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. Speaking to the UN Security Council, O’Brien said more than 20 million people in Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and Nigeria were facing starvation and famine.

Following up on this, on 17 March 2017 the Guardian published a report on Yemen, noting that aid agencies have warned the country is “at the point of no return”. UN figures show 17 million people facing severe food insecurity, the Guardian noted, including nearly seven million people deemed to be in a state of emergency. With the article relegated to page 29 of the newspaper, there was just one oblique mention of the US and UK, which the report explained “have influence over the Saudi-led coalition” currently attacking Yemen and blocking aid entering the country.

Here are the basic facts the Guardian chose not to highlight. Since March 2015 Saudi Arabia has led a coalition of countries in a bombing campaign to overthrow the Houthi government in Yemen (which itself overthrew the previous government). According to the United Nations there have been over 10,000 civilian casualties, with the Saudi-led coalition’s airstrikes responsible for the majority of casualties. In 2016 the Yemen Data Project – a group of academics, human rights organisers and activists – reported that one third of Saudi-led air raids have hit civilian sites such as school buildings, hospitals, markets and mosques. Martha Mundy, emeritus professor at the London School of Economics, believes “that in some regions, the Saudis are deliberately striking at agricultural infrastructure in order to destroy the civil society.”

The US and UK have been closely collaborating with Saudi Arabia in Yemen. “We’ll support the Saudis in every practical way short of engaging in combat… political support, of course, logistical and technical support”, the then UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond announced a month into the bombardment. Speaking to me last year, activist Medea Benjamin, author of Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the US-Saudi Connection, explained Saudi Arabia is “getting munitions from the West… The US is even refuelling their planes in the air”. President Obama – described as “the reluctant interventionist” by senior Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland – sold $115bn worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia during his eight years in office. This makes the 44th president of the United States “the most enthusiastic arms salesman to Saudi Arabia in American history”, according to Senior Brookings Institution Fellow Bruce Riedel.

Speaking in January 2017, O’Brien was crystal clear about the main cause of the ongoing humanitarian crisis: “The conflict in Yemen is now the primary driver of the largest food security emergency in the world.”

The Guardian has form when it comes to (not) reporting the causes of the deepening humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Surveying the newspaper’s coverage of Yemen between June 2016 and mid-January 2017, Peace News Editor Milan Rai concluded “The critical role of the Saudi blockade in creating these conditions in Yemen has been effectively suppressed by the British media, including Britain’s most liberal mainstream newspaper, the Guardian.” According to Rai there were 70 stories or editorials about Yemen on the Guardian website during this period: “Most of those 70 items (42 stories, 60 per cent of the total) do not mention the humanitarian crisis – or the role of the Saudi blockade – in any way at all.” And though the other 28 articles did refer to the humanitarian crisis “most did so only in a way that effectively suppressed the information”, Rai notes.

Unsurprisingly a recent YouGov/Independent poll found more than half of British people were unaware of the war in Yemen, with just 37 percent of 18-24 year olds aware of the conflict.

Turning to Somalia, on 13 March 2017 the Guardian published a full page article on the ongoing humanitarian crisis in east Africa. “As many as 6.2 million Somalis – more than half the population – need urgent food assistance”, noted the Guardian, including “some districts… under the control of Islamist rebels al-Shahaab, making [aid] access complicated.” There is one mention of the US – “The US government says it has spent more than $110m on humanitarian assistance in Somalia in 2017.”

In reality, the US has been heavily involved in Somali affairs since the 1990s. These interventions, noted BBC journalist Mary Harper in her 2012 book Getting Somalia Wrong?, are viewed by “a growing number of experts” as having “contributed towards [Somalia’s] destruction as a viable nation-state.”

Speaking to Democracy Now! in 2013, journalist Jeremy Scahill explained that in the early years of the ‘war on terror’ the Bush Administration “made a disastrous decision to put [Somali] warlords on the CIA payroll” and “basically had them acting as an assassination squad.” A relative stability was created for a brief period when the Islamic Courts Union took control in 2006 – quickly shattered by the December 2006 US-supported Ethiopian invasion and occupation. The occupation, as occupations often tend to do, energised extremists, with Somali journalist Jamal Osman explaining “al-Shabaab was born when Ethiopia invaded Somalia in 2006 and some still see the group as a resistance movement.”

Since then the US has been trying to destroy the group its actions helped create. In 2012 the Los Angeles Times reported “The US has been quietly equipping and training thousands of African soldiers to wage a widening proxy war against the Shabaab”.

“Officially, the troops are under the auspices of the African Union”, the report explained. “But in truth, according to interviews by US and African officials and senior military officers and budget documents, the 15,000-strong force pulled from five African countries is largely a creation of the State Department and Pentagon”. The US government “is trying to achieve US military goals with minimal risk of American deaths and scant public debate”, the Los Angeles Times noted. Since then the US has intensified its clandestine war in Somalia “using Special Operations troops, airstrikes, private contractors and African allies in an escalating campaign against Islamist militants”, according to the New York Times last year.

Like Yemen, the US military involvement in Somalia has negatively affected the country’s ability to deal with humanitarian crises. For example, though the Financial Times explains the looming famine in Somalia is primarily the result of regional drought, it goes on to note “The lack of effective government and an insurgency by al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda linked jihadi group, have not helped.”

This quick survey of the Guardian’s recent coverage of Yemen and Somalia puts the lie to Guardian regular Polly Toynbee’s claim the newspaper is “always free to hold power to account: to take on politicians, global corporations, the secret security state or great vested interests.” The Guardian may well be free to hold power to account but it’s currently missing some huge open goals when it comes to Western foreign policy.

To be clear, I’m not saying the Guardian never mentions Western interference in Yemen and Somalia or links this to the growing humanitarian crises – I’m arguing the newspaper’s coverage does not match the importance of the issue. As Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky argue in their 1988 book Manufacturing Consent “That the media provide some information about an issue… proves absolutely nothing about the adequacy or accuracy of media coverage… More important is the way they present a particular fact – its placement, tone, and frequency of repetition – and the framework of analysis in which it is placed.”

Indeed, by downplaying of US intervention in Yemen and Somalia the Guardian have helped to keep the large swatches of the general public ignorant of Western foreign policy (see the YouGov/Independent poll) – a state of affairs that suits the US government’s interests, as the Los Angeles Times report above makes clear.

Getting US intervention in Syria wrong: a response to Jamie Allinson’s ‘Disaster Islamism’

Getting US intervention in Syria wrong: a response to Jamie Allinson’s ‘Disaster Islamism’
by Ian Sinclair
Medium
16 March 2017

In February 2017 Dr Jamie Allinson, a Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East at the University of Edinburgh, published an article titled ‘Disaster Islamism’ in the revolutionary leftist Salvage magazine.

Allinson spends the first section of the article slaying a number of what he sees as leftist myths about the on-going Syrian conflict.

For example, he refers to “the myth of ISIS as US creation”. After reading his article I tweeted Allinson asking “which credible commentators, analysts or writers subscribe to this myth?” Allinson replied, noting Noam Chomsky and the former Guardian columnist Seamus Milne make the argument and that it’s “a pervasive belief on Stop the War and/ pro-Palestine marches I’ve been on, and very common on FB [Facebook] etc.” I checked Allinson’s sources, and found in the Milne article Allinson pointed me to that Milne clearly states “That doesn’t mean the US created ISIS, of course”. The Chomsky interview Allinson refers to has Chomsky quoting an ex-CIA Officer arguing ISIS grew out of US occupation of Iraq — an argument Allinson describes as “true” (though “inadequate”) in his article. Allinson’s smearing of Milne and Chomsky and citing the views of unnamed protesters is a textbook example of building a straw man to knock down, allowing Allinson to ignore more credible and sophisticated arguments and voices about Western intervention in Syria. When I pointed this out to Allinson he dismissively replied “Glad to hear it. Look forward to your disabusing people of that belief on StW marches. See you later.”

Unfortunately for Allinson the rest of the section of his article looking at Western involvement in the Syria war is littered with inaccuracies. As the article is 1) published in the influential and respected (amongst the Left, at least) Salvage 2) many of his arguments are repeated by others on the left including respected academic Professor Gilbert Achcar and Salvage Co-Founder Richard Seymour 3) Allinson criticises others for having a “dogged resistance… to empirical evidence” and 4) Allinson teaches the Middle East at one of the UK’s top universities, it is worth considering his assertions in detail.

I apologise for the length and repetitiveness of my rebuttal in advance — I thought it was important to present as much of the evidence as clearly as possible.

Has the US been pursuing regime change in Syria?

Allison believes it is a myth that “the US has pursued a policy of regime change to topple the Ba’athist Assad regime”. “There is not, and never has been, An American imperial policy to overthrow the Ba’athist regime in Damascus”, he repeats emphatically later in the piece.

How should one assess whether the US has pursued regime change in Syria? First, one could consider the statements of the US government itself. “Assad must go — and I believe he will go”, President Obama stated in March 2013. In May 2013 White House Press Secretary confirmed “We have been making clear as a matter of United States policy that we believe that Assad must not continue to rule Syria”. In September 2013 US Secretary of State John Kerry reconfirmed “President Obama’s policy is that Assad must go.” While one should always be wary of taking the public utterances of established power at face value, it is important to consider the enabling effect these statements of intent will have had on Syrian rebels and those who support them.

Many mainstream news outlets agree the US has been pursuing regime change in Syria. On 23 July 2012 the International Herald Tribune included the front page headline ‘US focuses on efforts to topple Assad government’, with the accompanying story noting the Obama Administration “is increasing aid to the rebels and redoubling efforts to rally a coalition of like-minded countries to forcibly bring down” the Syrian government. The same month the Wall Street Journal reported “The US has been mounting a secret but limited effort to speed the fall of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, without using force, scrambling spies and diplomats to block arms and oil shipments from Iran and passing intelligence to frontline allies.” In October 2015 theWashington Post’s Liz Sly referred in passing to one of “the Obama administration’s goals in Syria — Assad’s negotiated exist from power.” Writing in July 2016, Dr Austin Carson, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Chicago, and Dr Michael Poznansky, an Assistant Professor of International Affairs and Intelligence Studies in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh, noted the US is trying to achieve regime change in Syria.

US actions have broadly followed their public statements saying they wanted Assad removed from power. Since early 2012 the US has increasingly intervened in Syria, from making public statements about the Syrian government’s future, to sanctioning members of the Syrian government and sending non-lethal aid to the rebels who are trying to violently overthrow Assad. In 2013 Obama authorised the CIA to set up a programme, codenamed Timber Sycamore, to train and equip Syrian rebels. Citing US officials, in June 2015 the Washington Post estimated the programme — “one of the agency’s largest covert operations” — was spending $1bn a year and had trained and equipped 10,000 rebels.

Though conveniently ignored by Allinson, it is impossible to assess whether the US has been pursuing regime change in Syria without considering the US’s relationship with its allies in the region — specifically Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. With all three countries keen to overthrow Assad, one would presume that if, as Allinson claims, the US wasn’t pursuing regime change in Syria, the US would have nothing to do with the attempts by its allies to topple the Assad government. In reality, the evidence clearly shows that US policy has been to use (and work closely with) Saudi Arabia and Qatar to try to overthrow the Syrian government.

Citing US and Arab officials, in June 2012 the Wall Street Journal reported that “The US in many ways is acting in Syria through proxies, primarily Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates”. In November 2012 the New York Times pondered whether the US should directly arm the rebels “rather than only continuing to use other countries, especially Qatar, to do so.” As “Assad has shown no signs of leaving — the United States has slowly stepped up its assistance to include non-lethal military support, while acknowledging and tacitly welcoming arms that are being supplied by both Saudi Arabia and Qatar”, noted the Washington Post in April 2013. And in June 2013 the Los Angeles Times noted that arms shipments from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries to Syrian rebels were “provided with assent from the US.”

Dr Christopher Phillips, an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House, provides some background to the US’s use of its regional proxies in his 2016 book The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the Middle East:

…they [the West, circa 2011–12] endorsed the regional powers’ support for the rebels. Western intelligence knew of regional arms transfers and financial support and, while they urged coordination, there were few efforts to stop them. Indeed, [US Secretary of State Hillary] Clinton effectively gave the green light, admitting in her memoirs that at a meeting in Riyadh in March 2012 she acknowledged what was already happening: ‘certain countries would increase their efforts to funnel arms, while others [i.e. the US] would focus on humanitarian needs.’ Yet far from standing by, the CIA and other western intelligence services allegedly facilitated many of these operations. (p. 143)

Dr Christopher Davidson, a Reader in Middle East politics at Durham University, seems to broadly agree, noting in his book Shadow Wars: The Secret Struggle for the Middle East — in a section titled ‘Syria — Enter the Proxies’ — that the Gulf monarchies “were encouraged” by the West “to enmesh themselves in the politics and financing of the Syrian opposition.” Davidson cites an article in Foreign Policy by journalist Elizabeth Dickinson: “Qatar had such freedom to run its network for the last three years because Washington was looking the other way. In fact, in 2011, the United States gave Doha de facto free rein to do what it wasn’t willing to in the Middle East: intervene.” By May 2013 a Financial Times article co-authored by Roula Khalaf was citing people close to the Qatar government saying that Qatar had contributed as much as $3bn to the Syrian rebels.

As Obama’s Vice President Joe Biden explained in 2012, the US has been working “hand in glove” with Saudi Arabia and its other allies in the region. “Officials in the Central Intelligence Agency knew that Saudi Arabia was serious about toppling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad when the Saudi King named Prince Bander bin Sultan al-Saud to lead the effort”, reported the Wall Street Journal in August 2013. “They believed that Prince Bander… could deliver what the CIA couldn’t: planeloads of money and arms”. Having worked together since the 1980s, according to a January 2016 New York Timesreport Saudi Arabia was a “willing partner” in the CIA’s Timber Sycamore programme to support rebels fighting to overthrow Assad. “From the moment the CIA operation was started, Saudi money supported it.”

A couple of interim conclusions. First, it is concerning that the establishment corporate media seems to have a more sceptical and sharper analysis of US foreign policy in the Middle East than an academic whose expertise is the Middle East and is writing for a revolutionary leftist publication.

Second, despite Allinson’s denial, there is substantial evidence the US has been pursing regime change in Syria — confirmed by its own public statements, Obama authorising the CIA to set up a multi-billion dollar programme to support the armed opposition trying to overthrow the Assad government, and the US giving the green light to — and then working closely with — its regional allies working to topple Assad.

Of course, it’s important to remember, as Allinson argues in an article he wrote for New Left Project in 2012, that the Syrian conflict is “extremely complicated and difficult for even those within the country to grasp, let alone those outside of it.” US policy has not been static on Syria. Like any state’s foreign policy towards a long-term, multi-dimensional conflict, US policy on Syria has evolved over time. There is evidence that suggests the US actively pursued regime change in the earlier stages of the conflict, and then perhaps reduced its expectations from around 2014 onwards — looking to create the conditions on the battlefield (a stalemate) that would produce a the political settlement and the eventual exit of Assad, as Sly notes above (though this still sounds a lot like regime change to me). It’s also clear that senior Obama Administration officials and arms of the US state have had different positions and aims when it came to Syria. The discussions and divisions within Obama’s national security team have been extensively reported, as has the differing aims and methods of the Pentagon and CIA in country.

Has the US only armed Syrian rebels with the precondition the arms would only be used against ISIS?

Discussing the US funding and arming anti-Assad militias, Allinson asserts “the amount of weaponry and ammunition actually supplied by the US has been highly limited and the precondition of its supply was that it be used against ISIS rather than Assad”.

It’s an astonishing claim — refuted by a cursory glance at mainstream news reporting. While the US has spent significant funds trying to support rebels groups fighting ISIS, the US has also played a central — and much bigger — role in supporting the rebels trying to overthrow the Assad government. As the New York Times explained in January 2016 (an article Allinson cites in his own article):

The CIA training program is separate from another program to arm Syrian rebels, one the Pentagon ran that has since ended. That program was designed to train rebels to combat Islamic State fighters in Syria, unlike the CIA’s program, which focuses on rebel groups fighting the Syrian military.

Has the US been interested in increasing weapons supplies to the Syrian rebels fighting Assad?

“Where the US has the most influence over weaponry supplies we see less or no fighting against Assad”, argues Allinson. “The evidence is conclusive; and incompatible with the claim that the US has armed the FSA to overthrow the Ba’athist regime.” Moreover, Allinson continues, “the aim of the [US’s covert operations] was not to increase the supply of weapons… but to ‘try to gain control of it.’”

Considering the evidence I’ve already presented above (available to anyone who bothers to look at the US mainstream press coverage of Syria) this is another astonishing claim by Allinson, though one repeated elsewhere.

In the real world countless media reports clearly show the US has been involved in increasing the amount of weapons going to the Syrian rebels which, unsurprisingly, has led to gains for the rebels on the battlefield — that is, more fighting with Syrian government forces, not less, as Allinson bizarrely claims.

In March 2013 the New York Times noted “With the help of the CIA, Arab governments and Turkey have sharply increased their military aid to Syria’s opposition fighters in recent months.” The report goes on to summarise a former American official as saying “the size of the shipments and the degree of distributions” the CIA were helping to send to the rebels “are voluminous.” No less than the US Secretary of State told Syrian activists in 2016 that the US had “been putting an extraordinary amount of arms” into Syria. In his book Phillips refers to “vast sums [of arms] provided” (p. 145) to the Syrian rebels.

Compare Allinson’s claim that US influence over arms deliveries reduces fighting against the Assad government with the following reports. Washington Post, May 2012: “Syrian rebels battling the regime of President Bashar al-Assad have begun receiving significantly more and better weapons in recent weeks, an effort paid for by Persian Gulf nations and coordinated in part by the United States… The new supplies reversed months of setbacks for the rebels”. New York Times, March 2013: Qatari flights supplying arms to the rebels (“with help from the CIA”) “aligned with the tide-turning military campaign by rebel forces in the northern province of Idlib” which “began driving Mr. Assad’s military and supporting militias from parts of the countryside.” New York Times, October 2015: “Insurgent commanders say that… they are receiving for the first time bountiful supplies of powerful American-made antitank missiles… making a diplomatic settlement all the more unlikely.” These missiles “began arriving in the region in 2013, through a covert program run by the United States, Saudi Arabia and other allies”.Washington Post, October 2015: “So successful have they [US-made antitank missiles] been in driving rebel gains in northwestern Syria that rebels call the missile the ‘Assad Tamer’… in recent days they have been used with great success to slow the Russian-backed offensive”. In July 2016, two former members of the US National Security Council argued that those who support more US intervention in Syria “fail to recognize that the United States in fact has effectively weakened President Bashar al-Assad already. In 2015, the administration’s aggressive covert action program facilitated significant gains for the opposition in northern Syria”.

If the US has been pursuing regime change in Syria, why hasn’t it succeeded?

If the CIA “were heavily arming and supporting the Syrian opposition to overthrow the regime, we would have seen very different results”, argues Allinson. He later repeats this point, writing “If this is an attempt to overthrow the regime, it is a rather poor show.”

It’s an attractive argument but one that seems a little simplistic to me. While it is the world’s sole superpower, the US is not an all-powerful God but a state with competing priorities, domestic political pressures and finite budgets. Recent history — Iraq and Afghanistan — suggests the US does not always get want it wants. In Vietnam the US had the military power to ‘win’ the war but was unable to deploy this fully due to US public opinion.

Something similar seems to have happened with Syria. With the US preparing to conduct airstrikes on the Syrian government after its alleged use of chemical weapons in August 2013, New York Times/CBS News and Gallup polling both showed relatively low public support for military action — “among the lowest for any intervention Gallup has asked about in the last 20 years.” Kerry highlighted the government’s concern with public opinion and the American political landscape in his 2016 discussion with Syrian activists about US intervention in Syria: “How many wars have we been fighting? We’ve been fighting in Afghanistan, we’ve been fighting in Iraq, we’ve been fighting in the region for, you know, 14 years. A lot of Americans don’t believe we should be fighting and sending young Americans over to die in another country. That’s the problem. Congress won’t vote to do it.”

The rebel forces the US and its regional allies have been supporting have been riven by disunity and infighting. The US’s allies themselves have pursued their own national interests, according to Phillips (p. 145), which “helped produce a rebel marketplace that saw militia compete for resources rather than unite.”According to Professor Joshua Landis, Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, “America failed not because it didn’t try, but because its moderates were incompetent and unpopular. As soon as they began taking money and orders from America, they were tarred by radicals as CIA agents, who were corrupt and traitors to the revolution. America was toxic, and everything it touched turned to sand in its hands.”

Moreover, the Russian and Iranian support for Assad, in particular the direct Russian intervention in September 2015 — something Clinton didn’t think would happen when discussing overthrowing Assad in 2012 — is arguably the key factor why US attempts to overthrow Assad have failed. Phillips: “For every rebel gain, the regime received greater support from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah.” (p. 144) And here is the kicker: “As long as the regime retained its own foreign supporters, who appeared far more committed to Assad’s survival than western states were to his removal, it is unlikely that a limited number of western arms would force any compromise.” (p. 144–5) In short, Russia was able to overtly and decisively wade knee deep in the Syrian slaughter and not pay the price domestically (and perhaps internationally) that the US would likely have done for a similar level of intervention.

Conclusions

While Allinson admonishes others for their “dogged resistance… to empirical evidence”, it is clear Allinson himself ignores and therefore refuses to engage with the voluminous evidence that contradicts many of his central assertions about US intervention in Syria.

In turning his back on inconvenient facts, Allinson repeats a number of falsehoods about the US in Syria, significantly underplaying the level of the US interference in the conflict. As I have shown, the US is deeply involved in the Syrian war, helping to escalate and prolong the violence. There is considerable evidence to suggest the US (and the UK) has also played a key role in blocking a peaceful solution to the conflict. Therefore the US, along with Russia, Iran and other external actors such as the UK, is partly responsible for the hundreds of thousands of dead, the massive refugee flows and the wider destruction of Syria as a political, economic and cultural entity.

This uncomfortable reality is likely one reason why the US has chosen to make its largest and most effective intervention in the war (the CIA’s Timber Sycamore programme) a covert operation. This secrecy, even when it has been compromised by widespread media reports, serves a number of purposes. First, the covert nature of the intervention allows the US government to minimise public discussion and scrutiny. Second, as Carson and Poznansky argue, “any escalatory incidents or clashes can be obscured from the ‘audience’ (i.e. domestic publics and third party states), which preserves face-saving ways to de-escalate”. Finally, regime change is illegal under international law, which means “the very nature of what the United States is trying to achieve in Syria — regime change — renders such concerns particularly salient”, according to Carson and Poznansky. The US’s covert action thus allows for what is known as “plausible deniability”.

“Intellectuals are in a position to expose the lies of governments, to analyse actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions”, Professor Noam Chomsky wrote in his 1969 book American Power and the New Mandarins. Rather than expose the nefarious actions of the US government in Syria, by downplaying the level of US intervention in the face of overwhelming evidence Allinson is helping the US government continue to deceive Western publics.

Book review: Shadow Wars. The Secret Struggle for the Middle East by Christopher Davidson

Book review: Shadow Wars. The Secret Struggle for the Middle East by Christopher Davidson
by Ian Sinclair
Red Pepper
February-March 2017

Having published the critically-acclaimed After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies in 2012, with his new book Christopher Davidson has broadened his analysis out to the wider Middle East. For Davidson, a Reader in Politics at Durham University, ‘the primary blame for not only the failure of the Arab Spring, but also the dramatic and well-funded rise of Islamist extremist organizations’ such as al-Qaeda and Islamic State ‘must rest with the long-running policies of successive imperial and “advanced-capitalist” administrations’ – that is, the West.

The 670-page tome (including 120 pages of footnotes) begins with a fascinating survey of the US and UK’s long history of interference around the world, opposed to any independent and democratic forces which might endanger access to natural resources or reduce the West’s geo-political advantage. In the Middle East this often covert counter-revolutionary strategy meant backing monarchs, radical Islamists and other reactionary forces, with the US taking the reins from the fading British Empire in the early 1950s. Davidson’s frequent citing of British historian Mark Curtis and American dissident William Blum hint at his own politics, though Shadow Wars delivers more detail and expertise than either Curtis or Blum. For example, there is an absorbing section about the US and UK’s support for the mujahideen fighting the Soviet Union in 1980s Afghanistan. “The US deliberately chose to back the most dangerous elements of the insurgency”, Davidson notes. The danger of this Machiavellian strategy was obvious, with 9/11 the shocking blowback.

Likely to be provocative to many, Davidson highlights a number of uncomfortable facts in chapters titled ‘Enter the Islamic State – A Phantom Menace’ and, more controversially, ‘The Islamic State – A Strategic Asset’. There is a welcome mention of the formerly classified 2012 US Defence Intelligence Agency report that notes the West wanted a ‘Salafist Principality’ to be established in Eastern Syria. Davidson also highlights how US-UK close allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar have supported the Islamic State – confirmed by Hillary Clinton’s recently leaked emails that show the former US Secretary of State explaining the two Gulf monarchies are providing ‘clandestine financial and logistic support’ to the Islamic State ‘and other radical Sunni groups in the region’. So much for the Clash of Civilizations.

An accessible, though scholarly, tour de force, Shadow Wars is absolutely essential reading for anyone interested in understanding the West’s ongoing and deadly interventions in the Middle East.

Shadow Wars. The Secret Struggle for the Middle East is published by Oneworld Publications, priced £25.

*An edited version of this review appears in Red Pepper

What is the role of the West in the Middle East? Christopher Davidson interview

What is the role of the West in the Middle East? Christopher Davidson interview
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
18 January 2017

A Reader in Middle East Politics at Durham University, in 2012 Dr Christopher Davidson published the best-seller After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies.

Endorsed by John Pilger and Ilan Pappe, in his new book Shadow Wars: The Secret Struggle for the Middle East, Davidson turns his attention to the West’s often covert counter-revolutionary activities in the region.

Ian Sinclair: What have been the US and UK’s broad aims in the Middle East since World War Two?

Christopher Davidson: Although limping through World War Two as a technical victor, Britain’s surviving global empire was nonetheless in retreat.  With repeated uprisings and national liberation movements chipping away at overseas possessions, Whitehall officials and planners were already expert in devising strategies aimed at blocking or reversing indigenous challenges. But with increasingly resource-intensive heavy industries requiring vast imports of basic materials at a cheap and stable price from their remaining colonies and protectorates, such counter-revolutionary efforts had to become much more focused on what was now the greatest threat of all: economic nationalism. Certainly the enemy insurgents Britain was facing by the mid-twentieth century were no longer being measured by their ideology, religion, or barbarity, but quite clearly by their capacity to nationalize resources and industries or, at the very least, build states capable of demanding greater stakes in the local production of wealth.

Since its secret Sykes-Picot agreement with France that effectively carved up the territories of the crumbling Ottoman Empire in the wake of World War One, Britain’s grip over much of the Middle East had been more or less uncontested. But by the 1950s a potent pan-Arab movement was threatening to unseat remaining British client rulers in the region and jeopardize lucrative trade arrangements and control over valuable resources. With ‘classic nationalism [having become] impotent’ in the Middle East, as veteran correspondent Patrick Seale once described, many of the new ‘Arab nationalist’ revolts were effectively military operations, often led by army officers intent on forcibly removing foreign influences from their countries.

Despite some muted discomfort over Britain’s stance on Arab nationalism, the United States of the mid-twentieth century was nonetheless rapidly waking up to the demands of its own resource-hungry industries and the realities of its Cold War stalemate with the Soviet Union.  Ensuring vacuums left in the wake of the retrenching European empires were not filled by such antagonistic forces bent on nationalizing assets or – equally dangerously – liberation movements likely to align themselves with Soviet-sponsored international communism, the US government and its intelligence agencies soon found themselves at the very forefront of counter-revolutionary action, even surpassing the British. As Karl Korsch put it, the US may have been based on the ideals of revolutionary France, but by this stage it was fast losing its ‘capitalist infancy’.

Advancing into the void left by Britain’s retreat, and quickly overcoming their initial fence-sitting on Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt, by the mid-1950s US planners acknowledged that securing the Middle East, and especially the Persian Gulf region, was going to be vital to the future prosperity of Western industries and, in turn, for holding the Soviet Union in check.  As it was in the rest of the world, the extraction of natural resources was an obvious priority, so all indigenous attempts to nationalize economic assets – regardless of any progressive, liberal, or even democratic agendas – needed to be intimidated or destroyed by the US. In 1955, according to secret correspondence between British officials, President Dwight Eisenhower had even called for a ‘high class Machiavellian plan to achieve a situation in the Middle East favourable to our interests which could split the Arabs and defeat the aims of our enemies’.

Just two years later the region got its own ‘Eisenhower Doctrine’; an evolution of the earlier Truman and Monroe doctrines that had sought to secure US interests against international communism and foreign encroachment on the American continents. Stating that ‘the US regards as vital to the national interest and world peace the preservation of the independence and integrity of the nations of the Middle East…’, Eisenhower effectively made the Middle East a special zone of US control. Moreover, as with Truman’s more global declaration, Eisenhower sought to tie the Cold War to all threats to the Middle Eastern status quo by claiming he was ‘prepared to use armed forces to assist [any Middle Eastern country] requesting assistance against armed aggression from any country controlled by international communism’. He also proclaimed that ‘the existing vacuum in the Middle East must be filled by the US before it is filled by Russia’.

The sudden special treatment of the Middle East at this time was, for the most part, due to the simultaneous deepening of US dependency on crude oil imports. Although still a net exporter at the end of World War Two, by 1950 the US was importing a million barrels per day, and by the 1960s more than a third of the US energy demands were being met by such imports, mostly from the Shah’s Iran and the Gulf monarchies. US oil companies had already arrived on the Arabian Peninsula in 1933, eventually founding the American-Arabian Oil Company – Aramco – in Saudi Arabia, and with President Franklin Roosevelt proclaiming in 1943 that ‘the defence of Saudi Arabia is vital to the defence of the US.

IS: Though most accounts of Western involvement in the Middle East focus on the large scale interventions such as the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq, with Shadow Wars you’ve decided to look at the West’s often covert actions in the region. What are some of the common strategies and tactics the West has used to achieve their aims in the Middle East?

CD: Since the 1950s a variety of different strategies and tactics have been employed, mostly determined by the scale and urgency of the perceived threat to Western interests. The first ‘wave’ of activity, led by the US and Britain’s fast-growing intelligence agencies, mostly comprised of assassination attempts, false flag operations, and efforts to destabilize uncooperative governments by sponsoring street protests and public political violence. Our best case studies from this period of course include the multiple attempts to kill off Gamal Abdel Nasser, the efforts to unseat Iran’s Mohammed Mosaddegh, who sought to part-nationalize his country’s oil industry, and the steps taken to undermine various Syrian, Iraqi, and Jordanian administrations.

With other, more paramilitary threats, such as the challenges to Britain’s control over Yemen and then the Dhofar rebellion against the British-backed Omani sultan, such strategies needed to be supplemented by ‘shadow wars’ in which British forces were secretly deployed to assist the troops of their local clients or ‘proxy’ regional allies. In Yemen, for example, Saudi Arabia was conducting airstrikes with considerable British assistance and was sponsoring ‘tribal irregulars’ to fight against a new nationalist regime that had unseated a British-backed imam who had been ruling autocratically over the northern part of the country. In Oman, as well as British intelligence helping to wage a propaganda war against the rebels, the SAS was being deployed without the British parliament’s knowledge, while forces from several other pro-British states including Iran and Jordan arrived to buttress the sultan’s beleaguered army.

By the latter part of the twentieth century, with the West’s demand for Middle Eastern resources intensifying and with the Soviet Union still undefeated, a much darker strategy started to form in which US and British officials sought to cultivate an ultra-conservative pan-Islamic movement capable of countering secular, progressive or potentially Soviet-aligned national liberation movements, or even simply nationalist governments. Gestating since the 1960s, by the 1980s the strategy was bearing great fruit as a CIA and Saudi-funded international jihad had already facilitated the arrival of thousands of foreign fighters in Afghanistan and helped forge a hardline Islamic state along the vulnerable Muslim-majority southern underbelly of the Soviet Union. By the end of the decade Al-Qaeda had emerged in the jihad’s wake, and since then its leaders and various splinter organizations proved themselves more than capable of sustaining the same sort of financial networks originally put in place for the Afghan campaign.

In the 1990s such Islamic fighting forces remained a strategic, but volatile asset for the US and British intelligence agencies, with Al-Qaeda veterans helping form a jihadist ‘foreign legion’ in the Balkans to assist the Bosnian and Kosovan forces against Serbia, and with the ‘Libyan Islamic Fighting Group’ – whose leaders were living in Britain – being protected and paid by MI6 as part of a plot to remove Muammar Gaddafi from power. Al-Qaeda blowback to the West by the end of the decade, including the bombings of US embassies in Africa and the attack on the USS Cole off the coast of Yemen was largely contained. Even the massive disaster of 9/11 – which briefly threatened to expose and undo the US’s historically useful relationships with Saudi Arabia and other ultraconservative allies in the region – was successfully repackaged as a casus belli for a fresh round of US military interventions against other problematic regimes, and was carefully refocused on the immediate symptoms rather than the root causes of Al-Qaeda terror.

More recently, the nationwide revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt led to the discomforting overthrow of dictators who had opened up their economies to Western investment and had satisfactorily played the game of the post-9/11 ‘War on Terror’. Their overthrow certainly wrong-footed the Western powers, but very rapidly a series of counter-revolutions began as the West again began to call on key regional allies to either sponsor Islamist parties that could continue to uphold capitalistic structures and prevent the formation of inclusive, democratic, and secular societies, or could sponsor hard-man ‘deep state’ military dictatorships if Islamist parties proved incapable of keeping the crowds off the streets. By March 2011 a parallel campaign had also been launched to help re-direct the ‘Arab Spring’ to states such as Libya and Syria that remained antagonistic to Western interests. Wilfully fostering, funding, and weaponizing localized uprisings in an effort to create fresh nationwide revolutions, key US and British allies such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE all played major roles in destabilizing these long targeted Arab states, under the banner of the Arab Spring.

IS: Your book includes several sections on the ongoing Syrian war. The media and think-tank commentary around the conflict seems to be increasingly dominated by analysts who are pro-US intervention, or at least sympathetic to Western governments’ broad framing of the conflict. What do you make of the common arguments being put forward about the war?

CD: Despite the Central Intelligence Agency’s [CIA] bungled efforts in the twentieth century, the Western powers have still repeatedly sought to interfere in Syria’s affairs, with even Britain having had fairly well developed plans prior to 2011 to use the terrorist-designated Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and ‘armed men’ to destabilize the Al-Assad regime should it fail to prove more cooperative.  Given this, many seasoned commentators, and not just ardent anti-imperialists or pro-Iran/pro-Kremlin partisans, have correctly understood the dynamics behind the current, post-2011 Syrian conflict, seeing close parallels with the 1980s Afghanistan war, and understanding it as a function of covert Western assistance to Syrian opposition factions combined with more extensive support provided by the West’s regional allies to groups that have included Al-Qaeda franchises and other terrorist-designated organizations.

Nevertheless, as with the very vocal Western supporters of the Afghan ‘freedom fighters’ in the 1980s, most of whom were oblivious to the CIA’s ongoing ‘Operation Cyclone’ and the other efforts to wilfully create a hardline central Asian Islamic state, a significant proportion of the Western commentariat today continues to call for even greater Western intervention in Syria, either on some sort of selective humanitarian basis, or because Western allies such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been lobbying strongly for more extensive efforts to remove the Damascus administration from power once and for all, even if this would likely entail the disintegration of the Syrian nation state and the rise of yet another reactionary, conservative religious regime in the region. Indeed, most of the major think tanks and policy institutes in the United States and Britain that focus on Syria either receive substantial donations from such allied governments or, at minimum, have interests that are now incredibly closely intertwined with the political elites of the Gulf monarchies.

IS: What is the role of the Western mainstream media in the West’s ongoing shadow wars in the Middle East?

CD: In general, the Western ‘mainstream’ media seems to be suffering from something of a crisis, perhaps best exemplified by its relentlessly one-sided coverage of the British ‘Brexit’ referendum and the recent US presidential campaign, which has done little to contribute to informed debate and, as far as I can see, has helped to polarize Western society. Its coverage of international events is certainly in trouble too, as although there are still some outstanding foreign correspondents, severe cuts have drastically reduced the number able to provide high quality coalface reporting. I believe this is particularly evident when it comes to writing on the Middle East, as there are now only a handful of journalists left to cover several parallel conflicts all at once. Understandably unable to visit warzones populated by groups known to kidnap for ransom, this means that most have had to rely on difficult-to-vet intermediaries and an increasing army of organized ‘information entrepreneurs’.

Easily able to manipulate this situation, a number of bespoke media outlets and ‘atrocity propaganda’ operations either directly funded by Western governments or Western regional allies, and managed by leading PR firms, have been able to create believable, seemingly credible on-the-ground sources in countries such as Syria, Iraq, and Libya that the Western media has largely had to rely upon. Usually identifiable by their catchy logos, high definition videos, slick websites, and bilingual twitter feeds, they are often ostensibly humanitarian, civil defence, or ‘citizen journalist’ non-governmental organizations, but yet they consistently produce a highly-politicized, and often very emotive narrative that almost always seeks to undermine the adversaries of the Western powers and their regional allies.  For those who remember the ‘Nayirah testimony’ of ‘babies in incubators’ in the build-up to Operation Desert Storm, or perhaps the story of Soviet soldiers burning babies alive in Afghanistan, there is an eerie sense of familiarity.

IS: Other than your book, which other writers and books would you recommend to someone trying to understand the West’s real role in the Middle East?

CD: Robert Dreyfuss, Devil’s Game. William Blum, Killing Hope. Mark Curtis, Secret Affairs and Web of Deceit. Stephen Dorril, MI6: Fifty Years of Special Operations.

Spotlight on Saudi: interview with Medea Benjamin

Spotlight on Saudi: interview with Medea Benjamin
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
December 2016-January 2017

Having become one of the most prominent US anti-war activists protesting against the US-led ‘war on terror’, Medea Benjamin, co-founder of the group CODEPINK, has now turned her attention to her nation’s close relationship with Saudi Arabia.

‘I’ve been doing a lot of work around the Middle East conflicts since the 9/11 attacks’, Benjamin, 64, tells me when we met in London during her recent speaking tour of Europe. ‘I realised as the years went by that there was this elephant in the room and it was kind of crazy that the anti-war movement, at least in the United States, was not doing anything on Saudi Arabia’, she says. ‘I just thought how ironic it is that the US is spending at this point trillions of dollars fighting a “war on terrorism”, and yet is arming the country that is the most responsible for the spread of terrorism.’

The outcome is Benjamin’s new book Kingdom of The Unjust: Behind the US-Saudi Connection, which charts the history of US ties to the absolute monarchy. A key moment was the 1945 meeting between US president Franklin D Roosevelt and Saudi king Abdul Aziz ibn Saud to agree US access to the kingdom’s vast oil supplies in return for military support. Since then, ‘one by one, US presidents promised to keep Saudi Islamist theocracy in power’, Benjamin notes in the book.

Buying silence

‘Oil is the foundation of the relationship, but it’s become much more complicated today’, she says, highlighting the ‘mindboggling’ $110bn of US arms sales to Saudi Arabia during the Obama administration. In addition, she notes, the Saudis ‘have invested in the US economy buying hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of US treasury bonds, and investing in Wall Street, investing in real estate’ and have ‘bought silence or complicity by giving millions of dollars to US universities and think-tanks and paid lobbyists’.

‘There is so much intertwining of this relationship that to start peeling away the layers is very important to do’, she believes.

Fearful of growing Iranian influence following the 1979 Iranian Revolution, and buoyed by high oil prices, Saudi Arabia has spent huge sums of money exporting Wahhabism, their extremist version of Islam, across the Middle East. Madrassas (religious schools) and mosques were built and imams and teachers brought to the kingdom to be indoctrinated. ‘It has become such a potent mix and has corrupted the minds of a lot of young people who live in poor countries, who don’t have job opportunities, who are looking for some kind of outlet, something to believe in.’

As part of this mission, the Saudis – collaborating with the US central intelligence agency (CIA) – funnelled weapons to the armed resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, strengthening the most extreme jihadis, out of which came the Taliban and al-Qa’eda.

Benjamin personally experienced the consequences of this policy after the October 2001 US-led invasion of Afghanistan. ‘I was at the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan and I was told there was a rally against the Western invasion of Afghanistan’, she notes. ‘We were two Western women and when we got there we were attacked by the guys there and we had to get out for our lives because they were after us. I had never been in such a situation. I had always been able to talk to people and say: “Hey, I’m an anti-war activist in the US, I don’t like the invasion either.” And people said: “No, you can’t do that here because these are the Saudi-funded madrassas and they are really taught to hate people from the West.”’

The CIA’s role in arming the jihadis in Afghanistan in the 1980s was a covert operation – a cornerstone of the US-Saudi relationship, Benjamin says. ‘When the CIA has wanted to do illegal activities around the world and doesn’t want to go to the US congress, because they want these to be unseen and unheard by the American people, they go to the Saudis to get the funding.’

According to a January 2016 New York Times article, the CIA and Saudi Arabia continue to work closely together, arming the insurgency in Syria since 2013. ‘The US is selling all these weapons to Saudi Arabia; where do these weapons end up?’, she asks. ‘They are being channelled into groups that the Saudis are supporting in Syria, including the al-Qa’eda affiliate in Syria’.

Divest Saudi money

Turning to Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in Yemen, Benjamin quotes the Yemen Data Project, noting that one-third of Saudi airstrikes have struck civilian sites, including hospitals, schools, markets and weddings. ‘They are getting munitions from the West, they are getting the logistical support. The US is even refuelling their planes in the air’, she explains. With the Saudis unable to continue their air campaign without US and UK support, Benjamin believes the peace movements in the US and UK have a great opportunity to exert pressure on the kingdom. How? ‘The number one thing is weapons. Look and see who is providing the weapons, what weapons are they providing, starting to do protests at the headquarters and the production facilities. We are even looking to see where the shipments are going out of and seeing if we could block the shipments.’

She also suggests ‘shaming the political figures who are supporting the weapons sales… doing a divestment campaign to get universities and pension funds to take their money out of the weapons industries that are profiting from Saudi sales’ and ‘looking at the places that received Saudi money, like universities, and asking them to renounce taking Saudi money.’

During our interview in September, Benjamin mistakenly predicted a Hillary Clinton victory in the US presidential election. However, though she says Donald Trump in the White House would be ‘a wild card’, she expects ‘there will be a continuity of the present relationship’ between the US and Saudi Arabia. ‘There is a certain momentum that the military-industrial complex keeps in motion no matter who is in the White House… it’s bigger than one individual.’ She is also hopeful there will ‘be much more of a possibility of building up an anti-war movement like we had under the Bush years’. Presuming a president Clinton, she argued that nobody had any illusions about her ‘being a peace candidate or a peace president, so I don’t think it is going to be so hard to get people to protest her policies.’ This, of course, applies even more so to Trump.

Medea Benjamin is the author of Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the US-Saudi Connection, OR Books 2016, 246pp, £13.

 

Hollywood at war: interview with Matthew Alford

Hollywood at war: interview with Matthew Alford
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
November 2011

Last year Matthew Alford published Reel Power: Hollywood cinema and American supremacy (Pluto Press), an analysis of mainstream US cinema’s representation of US foreign policy since 9/11. He discussed his book with Ian Sinclair for Peace News at the Rebellious Media Conference.


PN: What is the main argument of Reel Power?

MA: That Hollywood films which depict American foreign policy have a very strong tendency to support notions of American “exceptionalism” and almost never criticise it at a serious level.

PN: Why do the vast majority of Hollywood films routinely promote the United States as a benevolent force in world affairs and support the foreign policy of the US government?

MA: Hollywood is a corporate media system akin to the news in that it is ostensibly free but nevertheless directed by strong factors that determine a pro-establishment line. These factors are: the concentrated ownership within Hollywood, which is owned by the same parent companies that own the news media; the prevalence of product placement and the general commercialised feel; the influence of the department of defence and the CIA, and the fact that if filmmakers do push radical political positions they tend to cause themselves a lot of problems (the Jane Fonda effect). Then there is the pervading ideology which says there is an “us” and “them”, that America is good and benevolent, with enemies throughout the world.

PN: How do you respond to the argument that Hollywood is simply giving audiences what they want?

MA: Hollywood corporations provide what they think audiences will accept. But would audiences feel the same way if they were to see at the beginning of the credits for Transformers (2007-11) or Terminator Salvation (2009) or Battle: Los Angeles (2011) “This film was made with the cooperation of the department of defense”? I suspect not.

PN: In Reel Power you highlight some films such as Redacted (2007), Syriana (2005) and Avatar (2009) that are, to a degree, critical of US foreign policy. How do you explain these films being made within corporate Hollywood? What makes them different?

MA: There are special cases which do come up and that’s because Hollywood is a free system. There is no one censorship body saying you must not produce political films which attack American exceptionalism. So a film like Avatar did get through, largely because of the enormous power that [Avatar director] James Cameron wielded through his reputation for making very profitable movies. Typically, though, such ideas slip through in films like Redacted and War, Inc (2008), which are made on low budgets and tend to be distributed very poorly. To take another case, Disney was very unhappy about the political content of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004). We don’t quite know why. It might have been due to the general political edginess of it. Others suggest it was because it looked at the relationship between the US and the Saudis. Disney prevented their subsidiary from distributing the film, which was a big move to make for one $10 million documentary movie.

PN: Are there any historical periods in which more critical and questioning Hollywood films have been produced?

MA: Yes, in the immediate aftermath of World War One, there was a general feeling of anti-militarism which was reflected in Hollywood. Perhaps most famous was All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), which provoked the Nazis in Germany to release rats in cinemas. Also to some degree in the 1970s there was an opening up of creativity prior to the big parent companies coming in and buying up Hollywood. This was the era of Apocalypse Now (1979), The Deer Hunter (1978) and Taxi Driver (1976). But even these films have to come with an asterisk attached. The Deer Hunter is widely seen as a great anti-war film but it still has really vicious representations of the Vietnamese. Do you remember the Russian roulette scene? Well the filmmakers just made that up. And although war was depicted negatively it was the American invaders who were suffering.

PN: Reel Power focuses on American movies and American foreign policy. Could your analysis be applied to British cinema and British foreign policy?

MA: When it matters to the powers that be, yes. So Peter Watkins’ The War Game (1965) docudrama, that “recreated” a nuclear war, was banned by the BBC for twenty years. Or go back to the early days of cinema and consider the film biopic The Life of David Lloyd George (1918), which was bought and suppressed by someone in the Liberal Party and found in mint condition eighty years later (Lloyd George was the wartime British prime minister). However, it’s worth pointing out that Hollywood is uniquely open to military influence because its filmmakers frequently need the assistance of the armed forces, due to the traditional emphasis on high-budget, action-packed blockbusters.

PN: What can concerned citizens and activists do to encourage films that are critical of US foreign policy?

MA: I think we should be primarily concerned about criticising films that encourage US foreign policy, rather than the other way around. We should actively oppose the most egregious, corporate-led, CIA/department of defense-backed movies through protest, boycott and criticism. If people also want to encourage anti-war films, then yes, that’s fine – they can make them and they can distribute them fairly easily through the web. One of the things that came out of the session [at the Rebellious Media Conference] was a whole range of activist ideas from the audience. For example, people were talking about calling up their local cinema to encourage certain films to be put on there. And, yes, I think if people are actively engaged in film rather than being passive consumers that will usually result in better products.