Tag Archives: Egypt

Using the Establishment to Skewer the Establishment: UK Foreign Policy in the Middle East

Using the Establishment to Skewer the Establishment: UK Foreign Policy in the Middle East
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
19 July 2017

In May 2017 the House of Lords Select Committee on International Relations published a report titled The Middle East: Time for New Realism. The group who compiled the report include ex-foreign policy advisers to William Hague and Gordon Brown, former Labour Defence Secretary Lord Reid and Lord Hannay, the UK Ambassador to the United Nations from 1990-95.

Some people on the left are dismissive of establishment sources. This is a shame because they can be very useful, so are worth reading carefully if one has the time. For example, the 116-page report contains original testimony from high level policymakers, giving a rare insight into elite thinking. US dissident Noam Chomsky has a similar view of the business press, arguing “it is useful to read what the ruling class tells its people… they tend to be more honest, because they are talking to people they don’t have to worry about, and to people who need to know the truth so that they can go out and make decisions”. Select committees also attract some of the best experts on the topic under consideration. As a consequence, reports such as this are considered trustworthy and credible by many, especially the establishment itself, so are useful to cite to back up one’s argument in any debate.

The report starts by noting “The UK has critical interests in the region, both economic and security”. With the stability of the oil and gas markets having a direct impact on global economic prosperity, it explains “the interest for the UK in Middle East energy remains in securing stability of global oil supplies through the Gulf and securing its own liquefied natural gas (LNG) supplies.” Stewart Williams, Vice-President of the energy consultancy group Wood Mackenzie, explains that over half of the UK’s gas is now imported, of which around a third comes from Qatar.

The region’s energy resources have long been a central geopolitical interest of the West, with the US State Department noting at the end of the Second World War that Saudi Arabia’s oil supplies were “a stupendous source of strategic power and one of the greatest material prizes in world history.”

“British commercial interests in the region are sizeable”, the report continues, noting trade in goods and services between the UK and the Middle East amounts to approximately £18.9 billion, with the Gulf states accounting for around £16 billion of this. “Above all, the Middle East dominates the UK defence export market and is the largest regional importer of British defence services and equipment”, the select committee says.

Neil Crompton, Director of Middle East and North Africa at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), notes these security and commercial interests “draw us towards more engagement” with the region.  This euphemistic description is clarified later in the report when Hayder al-Khoei, a Visiting Fellow at the European Council of Foreign Relations, explains the UK “gives almost unconditional support” to its Gulf Arab allies. And we have no bigger Gulf Arab ally than the theocratic monarchy Saudi Arabia, who the UK has been supporting in its bombing of Yemen “in every practical way short of engaging in combat”, according to the UK foreign secretary in 2015. The report notes that in January 2016 a United Nations Panel of Experts on Yemen estimated that 60 percent of civilian deaths and injuries in Yemen were caused by air-launched explosive weapons, with “air strikes targeting civilians and civilian objects, in violation of international humanitarian law”, including refugee camps, weddings, residential areas, medical facilities, schools, mosques, markets and food storage warehouses.

“The UN has warned that Yemen is on the brink of a famine, with children paying the heaviest price”, the report notes. As of 6 July 1,600 Yemenis had died from cholera, according to UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric.

Invited to give evidence to the select committee, the group Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain maintains the UK’s support for the Saudi-led bombing has “likely extended the conflict and deepened UK complicity in a humanitarian catastrophe”. Moreover, the report goes on to note “The conflict in Yemen has jeopardised UK development work in the region”, with the Department for International Development forced to suspend its development programme in the country.

Discussing broader developments since the 2011 uprisings, Dr Christopher Davidson, Reader in Middle East Politics at Durham University, notes that the UK has supported counter-revolutionary forces in Egypt and Bahrain. The UK’s “supposed support of democracy… would be strongly challenged by many people” in the region, he argues. Antoun Issa from the Middle East Institute builds on Davidson’s testimony, explaining that a “large source of anti-Americanism (and anti-UK sentiment as an extension) stems from a region-wide perception that Western powers underwrite the regional autocratic order”.

Turning to the future, the selection committee believe that post-Brexit the UK government will seek “to deepen its security and trade relations with the Gulf states” with “the UK’s dependence on arms exports… likely to increase”. Worryingly, Jane Kinninmont, Deputy Head of Middle East and North Africa at Chatham House think-tank, explains that Gulf nations will see that the “UK needs new friends or renewed relationships with old friends” and consider British policy to be “more malleable and susceptible to influence”.

It gets worse. In a section titled Dilemma of Democracy Promotion the report argues “In the long term, in a more pacific context, the aim would be to actively encourage more democracy; but that is not the situation we find ourselves in. The priority is now to encourage efforts at stabilising the region.” There is that word again – “stability”. In a recently compiled list of Common Terms Used by the Elite to Mislead the Public British historian Mark Curtis argues the actual meaning of “stability” is “repression by Western-backed governments.” The report shows that Curtis is right on the money, when it explains the UK’s support for “the stability offered by hereditary family rulers” in the Gulf means it has “undergirded a system of authoritarianism.”

The dire ramifications of this shameful policy are inadvertently made clear by Neil Crompton from the FCO. The “underlying causes” of the Arab spring, including “the sense of economic disempowerment” among young people “have not really been addressed by any of the governments in the region”, he notes. So, contrary to the mainstream media’s framing of the West being interested in promoting democracy in the Middle East, a careful reading of the House of Lords report highlights a far more uncomfortable reality: that UK’s foreign policy plays a role in stifling popular movements that are trying to throw off the shackles of their authoritarian and unelected rulers.

Why civil resistance works

Why Civil Resistance Works
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
17 February 2014

I’ve been reviewing books for over eight years and feel I’ve just finished one of the most important books I’ve ever read. It’s a book that should cause a paradigm shift in international politics and foreign policy because it turns a lot of conventional thinking on its head.

The book is Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, co-authored by Erica Chenoweth, an Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University, and Maria J. Stephan, a strategic planner with the US State Department.

Analysing 323 examples of resistance campaigns and rebellion from 1900 to 2006, Chenoweth and Stephan conclude nonviolent campaigns have been twice as successful as violent campaigns in achieving their objectives. They contend that this difference is down to nonviolent campaigns being more likely to attract mass support, noting “the moral, physical, informational, and commitment barriers are much lower for nonviolent resistance than for violent insurgency.” This greater level of participation tends to lead to more tactical innovation, more loyalty shifts among the regime’s supporters and raises the political, economic and social costs to the regime – all of which increase the overall chances of success. Moreover, they find that nonviolent resistance campaigns are more likely to lead to democratic forms of government than violent campaigns.

Chenoweth and Stephan’s conclusions chime with Gene Sharp, the world’s leading expert on nonviolence, who told me that using violence to overthrow a dictatorship was foolish: “If your enemy has massive capacity for violence – and modern governments today have massive capacity for violence – why deliberately choose to fight with your enemy’s best weapons? They are guaranteed to win, almost certainly.”

Like me, no doubt many people will be surprised by these findings. But our ignorance isn’t surprising when one considers just how dominant the conventional view of power and violence is: physical and military force is seen as the most powerful and effective action an individual, group or society can take, while nonviolence is viewed as idealistic, passive and fearful of confrontation.

Nonviolent resistance has been hidden from history. We can all rattle off the names and dates of famous battles in recent history, but how many of us know about how peaceful demonstrations overthrew the Guatemalan dictator General Ubico in 1944? Or how mass protests overthrew Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines in 1986? If Ben Affleck wasn’t so American-centric Argo would have told the extraordinary story of how the Shah of Iran was deposed in 1979 by a campaign of civil resistance rather than focussing on staff from the US Embassy that had supported the dictatorship.

Civil resistance is rarely taken seriously in the media. Even the most radical voices at the Guardian seem to be as quick as many others to support violence. Writing about the looming war in Iraq in late 2002 George Monbiot quickly summarised one proposed diplomatic solution to the crisis before arguing “If war turns out to be the only means of removing Saddam, then let us support a war whose sole and incontestable purpose is that and only that”. A decade later Comment is Free regular Richard Seymour dismissed the idea of nonviolent resistance to the Syrian Government and backed violent resistance as the most effective option.

“Ah, this is all well and good”, the sceptic will say, “but how can nonviolence possibly succeed against a repressive dictatorship?” According to Chenoweth and Stephan, the evidence they have collected “rejects the claim that there are some types of states against which only violence will work.” Rather their results show “that when regimes crack down violently, reliance on a nonviolent strategy increases the probability of campaign success”. The Iranian Government overthrown in 1979 had the worst human rights record of any country in the world, according to Amnesty International in 1976. Not harsh enough for you? How about East Timor, where Amnesty International reported Indonesian troops had killed 200,000 people between their 1975 invasion and 1999 – approximately one third of the total population of East Timor. Despite this mass murder a largely nonviolent mass movement eventually managed to eject the Indonesian forces, and declared independence in 2002.

Another tick in the pro column for nonviolent resistance is the fact it generally leads to a much smaller death toll – on all sides of a conflict. For example, the largely nonviolent people power in Tunisia and Egypt overthrew their dictators with far less death and destruction than the violent (and externally supported) uprisings in Libya and Syria.

Of course, nonviolent resistance is not a magic wand and does not guarantee success. However, the hard evidence shows it generally has the strategic edge over violent resistance. With the debate over Western intervention in Syria rumbling on among liberal commentators, Chenoweth and Stephan’s findings raise profound questions for those living under dictatorships and Western citizens considering how best to help those resisting oppression.

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.