Tag Archives: Iraq

BBC Newsnight: the more you watch, the less you know?

BBC Newsnight: the more you watch, the less you know?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
3 October 2021

“Watch Newsnight tonight.” This was the response from BBC Newsnight’s Policy Editor Lewis Goodall to someone tweeting on 12 August “Who should I follow to understand the contemporary situation in Afghanistan? Feel like the media in the UK not covering it enough/from all angles.”

How well has Newsnight been reporting on Afghanistan? In an attempt to gain some insight into this question, I made a list of the people the BBC news programme directly interviewed about Afghanistan in August, when the Western military forces were compelled to hastily withdraw and a crisis ensued in and around Kabul airport. This amounted to 118 people interviewed either from the studio or as part of a video report (this figure includes multiple appearances on different days by the same person). I didn’t include pooled news clips of speeches and interviews – those shared with other outlets – which were largely of US-UK government and military figures.

Who gets invited on the UK’s premier news programme, who gets to speak, who the BBC believes to be an expert and therefore worthy of our time is, of course, very important. Those who appear have the power to frame the debate, and inevitably bring their own experience and politics, and therefore bias, to the topic. An appearance on Newsnight confers legitimacy and credibility – at least in the eyes of many – and will likely lead to more invitations from other news outlets, increasing the power of the interviewee to define the debate across the wider media.

My analysis shows just 32 per cent of the 118 guests were women, with Afghans making up 31 per cent of interviewees.

In contrast, Western voices (current and former representatives of the US and UK governments, US and UK political parties, Western militaries and thinktanks based in the US, UK and Canada) made up 48 per cent of interviewees.

Of the Afghan interviewees, 62 per cent were either current or former representatives of national government, local government, MPs or had worked for the British.

And who were the guests on the 12 August, the night Goodall recommended people tune into Newsnight? Three Afghans were interviewed – freelance journalist Bilal Sarwary and Gul Ahmad Kamin, the MP for Kandahar, appeared in a news report, while Mariam Wardak was a studio guest, appearing via video link. Wardak was billed as the founder of the women’s rights charity Her Afghanistan. However, she also worked as the Communication Adviser to Afghan National Security Adviser from 2015-18, which wasn’t mentioned (though was when she appeared on the programme earlier in the month). Joining Wardak for the studio discussion was General Lord Richards, the former British Chief of the Defence Staff, and David Sedney, ex-US Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary for Afghanistan. Hardly a recipe for deep understanding and enlightenment.

Of course, an examination of guests invited to speak by Newsnight only gives a small insight into how the programme has covered Afghanistan. The guests aren’t robots. Affiliation is not destiny: interviewees may, intentionally or unintentionally, say something that significantly conflicts with their current or previous employer’s interests or viewpoint. For example, ex-British Army officer Michael Martin, who briefly appeared in a news report on 2 August, wrote the 2014 book An Intimate War: An Oral History of the Helmand Conflict, which contains many inconvenient and important facts about the British intervention in Afghanistan. (Martin didn’t say anything controversial during his Newsnight appearance, just gave an update on what was happening on the ground in Helmand).

Despite these caveats, I believe Newsnight’s selection of guests is very telling, and is a good indicator of their broader coverage of Afghanistan. However, arguably as important as who is chosen to appear on Newsnight, is who doesn’t appear on the programme, those whose voices are excluded.

No representatives of the Taliban are directly interviewed by the programme (pooled interviews with Taliban spokesmen briefly appear in a couple of video reports). From what I can tell this exclusion isn’t because of access – several other news organisations, including France24, NPR in the US and Turkey’s TRT, all conducted in-depth interviews with Taliban representatives in August.

Except for a representative from peace organisation Pugwash, no one from the British or American anti-war movement appeared. No one from Stop the War, the Peace Pledge Union, Peace News or individuals like peace activist Maya Evans, who has visited Afghanistan many times in recent years. This omission is especially frustrating when you consider, as Richard Burgon MP tweeted in August, “The political establishment needs to learn the lessons of Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. They got it disastrously wrong and the anti-war movement got it exactly right.”

All of the 13 British MPs who appeared were either members of the Conservative Party or the centre and right of the Labour Party. No members of the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs, namely Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott, all three of whom opposed the war in parliament in November 2001, were interviewed by Newsnight. No one from the Green Party, Liberal Democrats, Scottish National Party or Plaid Cymru.

Organisations like Veterans for Peace UK and individual ex-soldiers who served in Afghanistan and who take a principled stand against the war, such as Joe Glenton, did not appear. No one from the lower ranks of UK and US forces who served in Afghanistan got to speak – all of the current and former Western military representatives who were  interviewed were mostly very senior figures in the military (General Lord Richards appeared twice, while Major General Charlie Herbert, NATO Adviser to the Afghan government from 2017-18, appeared four times).

All of this won’t be a surprise to most Morning Star readers. As academic Tom Mills summarises in his 2016 book The BBC: Myth of a Public Service, the BBC’s “journalism has overwhelmingly reflected the ideas and interests of elite groups, and marginalised alternative and oppositional perspectives.”

This pattern of news coverage holds for Iraq too. Speaking about the run up to the 2003 Iraq War during a 2020 Aljazeera panel discussion, former Newsnight Business Editor Paul Mason argued the programme “had become a government mouthpiece” and “specific voices,” including writer Tariq Ali “were not allowed.”

This broadly fits with academic research done on the BBC’s performance during the Iraq War. For example a 2003 Cardiff University study of peak-time television news bulletins during the course of the Iraq war found the BBC was more reliant on government and military sources than other UK broadcasters. According to a Guardian summary of the study “The BBC was the least likely to quote official Iraqi sources, and less likely than Sky, ITV or Channel 4 News to use independent (and often sceptical) sources such as the Red Cross.”

As Newsnight Editor Peter Horrocks reportedly told staff in 1997, “Our job should not be to quarrel with the purpose of policy, but to question its implementation.” This power-friendly MO was perfectly illustrated in 2005 by Horrocks’s successor, Peter Barron. Challenged by media watchdog Media Lens about a Newsnight presenter assuming President Bush wanted democracy in Iraq, Barron replied “While there’s bound to be a debate about what kind of democracy the US is furthering in the Middle East, there can be no doubt that President Bush regards it as a foreign policy goal to install what he regards as democracy.”

Contrary to what Goodall self-servingly believes, the brief survey of the people interviewed by  Newsnight suggests watching the programme is unlikely to provide an accurate picture of what has been going on in Afghanistan. Indeed, for anyone interested in gaining a better understanding of Afghanistan and Western foreign policy a good idea would be to seek out the groups and individuals excluded by Newsnight and listen to what they have to say.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Uncovering the Ignorance of the BBC’s Big Beasts

Uncovering the Ignorance of the BBC’s Big Beasts
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
25 March 2021

Increasingly shared on Twitter, Andrew Marr’s 1996 interview with Noam Chomsky has become a well-known TV moment for many on the left.

Over the course of 30 minutes discussing the politics of the media on BBC2’s The Big Idea, the seemingly unprepared Marr, who would become the Editor of the Independent in 1996, is repeatedly corrected and out-argued by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor.

Chomsky begins by summarising the Propaganda Model he developed in the late 1980s with Edward Herman, which they argue shows the media “serve to mobilise support for the special interests that dominate the state and private activity.”

Discombobulated, Marr says: “I was brought up like a lot of people, probably post-Watergate film and so on to believe that journalism was a crusading craft and there were a lot of disputatious, stroppy, difficult people in journalism.”

Chomsky doesn’t dispute there are people like this in the media but argues the Propaganda Model can be applied to US media coverage of the Vietnam War and Watergate. For Chomsky, one of the roles “of the liberal intellectual establishment”, within which the New York Times, BBC and Guardian operate, “is to set very sharp bounds on how far you can go. This far, and no further.”

“How can you know that I’m self-censoring?”, Marr asks. To which Chomsky replies: “I’m not saying you’re self-censoring. I’m sure you believe everything you’re saying. But what I’m saying is that if you believe something different, you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.”

It’s an extremely telling interview – at one point Chomsky has to explain what COINTELPRO is to Marr – which is well worth watching if you haven’t seen it.

25 years later and Aljazeera has provided another illuminating example of an established journalist having the politics of their own profession explained to them by a left-wing academic.

After broadcasting their Battle for the BBC documentary, last summer Aljazeera organised an online discussion with key interviewees from the programme – BBC big beast David Dimbleby and the academic Tom Mills, author of the 2016 book The BBC Myth Of A Public Service. Former BBC Newsnight Economics Editor Paul Mason was also on the panel, but the crux of the debate is between Dimbleby and Mills.

Aljazeera presenter Flo Phillips led the discussion on three key events in BBC history: the 1926 General Strike, the Thatcher era and the corporation’s coverage of the Iraq War.

As the Aljazeera documentary set out, the BBC backed the government during the General Strike, with BBC founder Lord John Reith even helping to write one of the Prime Minister’s speeches, which was delivered from Reith’s own home. This supportive relationship occurred within the framework of a typically British compromise: the government did not commandeer the BBC, as some members of the cabinet wanted, on the tacit understanding the BBC would broadly serve the government. “Dissenting voices, from the trade unions to the opposition Labour Party, were banned”, Phillips notes in the documentary.

“They know they can trust us not to be really impartial”, is how Reith put it in his diary at the time.

Dimbleby is quick to dismiss the focus on 1926: “It’s like talking about an adult who is now in his middle age, like the BBC as it is now, and then complaining about what it did when it was a toddler. It’s absurd to go back that far.”

Mills explains why the history is important: “If you want to understand the BBC, if you want to understand any institution, you have to understand first of all its origins.”

“It tells us something about the ambiguous position that the BBC has found itself actually since the General Strike, which is that it has neither been independent of government, nor a direct instrument of government.”

Turning to the BBC under Thatcher, Mills sets out how John Birt pushed through a radical process of organisational and cultural change when he became Deputy Director of the Beeb in 1987 (and then Director-General from 1992), integrating the BBC into the market and making its journalism more risk averse.

“Birt was allied with the New Right”, Mills says. “He was a neoliberal in the very narrow sense of the word. He would go for lunch with [right-wing Tory Minister] Keith Joseph and… the Institute for Economic Affairs.”

Dimbleby, though opposed to Birt’s ‘reforms’, is again dismissive. “I don’t think there was a political agenda here”, he says, before layering on the sarcasm: “He had lunch with Keith Joseph? Wow”. To back up his position, Dimbleby notes Labour-supporting Peter Jay, who was Economics Editor at the Times and then at the BBC, also supported Birt’s changes.

Mills is fully aware of this, and unlike Dimbleby can clearly think outside the narrow Tory vs. Labour framing of British politics, replying that Jay “was one of the largest advocates of monetarism in that period” and “a big fan of Milton Friedman.”

“I’m surprised you don’t know that”, Mills says, likely annoyed by Dimbleby calling him “Tim” moments before.

Dimbleby can’t quite believe what he is hearing: “Sorry. What are you saying? That Jay and Birt came in to take over the BBC with monetarist policies? Is that your line?”

Mills: “That’s what happened, yes.” Mills tries to elaborate but is unable to as Dimbleby temporarily takes over as chair and invites Mason to comment.

Dimbleby has less to say on Iraq, other than to point out that the anti-war campaigner Tariq Ali had been a guest on BBC Question Time (Mason had noted BBC Newsnight “had become a government mouthpiece” and “specific voices”, including Ali, “were not allowed”).

It is left to Mills to provide the key bits of evidence, mentioning the 2003 Cardiff University study which found the corporation displayed the most pro-war agenda of any broadcaster in the UK.

Marr himself infamously became the government’s spokesperson as the BBC’s Political Editor. Speaking about Prime Minister Tony Blair on the News At Ten just after US-UK forces had taken Baghdad in April 2003, Marr opined “It would be entirely ungracious, even for his critics, not to acknowledge that tonight he stands as a larger man and a stronger prime minister as a result.”

Mills also highlights how Kevin Marsh, the Editor of the BBC Today programme from 2002-6, had admitted they were not interested in covering the anti-Iraq War protests.

Mills is referring to testimony that appeared in my 2013 book The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003.

“Since we, rightly or wrongly, see ourselves as public policy journalists then necessarily we look at what is happening in public policy i.e. politicians and officials”, Marsh told me. “And it is probably true that we would think more about what politicians and the military and so on were saying to us than we would think about those who were not in a position to make decisions, like the anti-war movement.”

As Mills explains, many people at the BBC believe the job of political journalism is “to report what is going on in the corridors of power.” Indeed, responding to complaints about his reporting on Iraq, in 2004 ITN reporter Nick Robinson – soon to become a BBC big beast himself – explained “It was my job to report what those in power were doing or thinking… that is all someone in my sort of job can do.  We are not investigative reporters.”

Two conclusions can be drawn from the Aljazeera panel discussion and Marr’s interview with Chomsky.

First, senior media figures often simply don’t understand the history and political economy of the institutions they work – and exercise considerable power – in. As Chomsky might say, it is precisely their establishment-friendly, ideologically-restricted mindset that has allowed Marr and Dimbleby to rise to the top of the BBC: if they had a more radical worldview they wouldn’t be senior figures at the BBC.

Second, faced with academic evidence and critical thinking both Marr and Dimbleby had very little to offer in response except spluttering disbelief, well-worn clichés and anecdotal evidence.

Rarely has Upton Sinclair’s well known dictum been illustrated so well: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

Andrew Marr’s interview with Noam Chomsky can be viewed on Youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GjENnyQupow. As can Aljazeera’s The Battle for the BBC panel discussion: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=74qcsksuqtU

The importance of knowing our own strength: the anti-war movement and UK foreign policy

The importance of knowing our own strength: the anti-war movement and UK foreign policy
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
28 June 2021

Though considered an abject failure by many, the enormous anti-war movement against the 2003 Iraq War has had a number of long-lasting impacts on British politics and society. One unfortunate effect is, nearly 20 years later, the movement’s inability to stop the invasion continues to breed cynicism and defeatism when it comes to the general public influencing UK foreign policy.

For example, discussing the large-scale UK protests against the recent Israeli bombardment of Gaza, one Middle East scholar quipped on Twitter “If history has taught me anything, when people in the UK march against immoral actions in the Middle East, their government will almost certainly ignore them.”

This pessimistic take is even shared by anti-war figureheads like Tariq Ali, who spoke at the rally in Hyde Park in London at the end of the biggest march in British history on 15 February 2003. “It was a huge show of anger, but that’s about it. It left no lasting legacy”, Ali commented on the tenth anniversary of the demonstration.

So should we be disheartened? History suggests there is cause for optimism.

Take the Vietnam War and the US anti-war movement that opposed it. Elected in 1968, “President Richard Nixon claimed in public to be completely unmoved by anti-war protests”, academic Simon Hall notes in Rethinking the American Anti-War Movement.

The reality was rather different. Both Nixon and President Lyndon Johnson before him “took an active interest in the movement’s doings”, Tom Wells explains in his 1994 book The War Within: America’s Battle Over Vietnam. Indeed, Nixon “received multiple reports per day on some demonstrations.”

Admiral Thomas Moorer, the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during Nixon’s presidency, told Wells “The reaction of the noisy radical groups was considered all the time”, with the wider movement having “a major impact… both in the executive and legislative branches of government.”

With the movement playing “a major role in constraining, de-escalating, and ending the war”, it “was perhaps the most successful anti-war movement in history”, Wells concludes.

In short, the US anti-war movement of the late 1960s and 1970s was able to successfully inhibit the most powerful nation and biggest war machine the world had ever seen.

Impressive stuff. But British anti-war activists don’t need to look across the Atlantic for inspiration.

Having trawled the National Archives on post-war UK foreign policy, in his 2004 book Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses, Mark Curtis notes “the public is feared” by the UK government. “A perennial truth which emerges from the declassified files is the public’s ability to mount protests and demonstrations that divert the government from its course.”

In the late 1950s British forces were involved in crushing an uprising against the UK-backed Sultan of Oman. Curtis notes the senior British official in the region – the Political Resident in Bahrain – had recommended three villages should be bombed unless they surrendered the ringleaders of the revolt. However, the government initially decided not to bomb since, they argued, “world opinion at that time was very flammable.” The British commander’s report at the end of the war noted “great pains were taken throughout the Command to keep all operational actions of the press”.

By the 1960s, the ongoing US aggression in Vietnam had generated considerable anti-war activity in the UK, including some high profile demonstrations. By 1965 the British Ambassador in Saigon noted “mischievous publicity” about the war from the anti-war movement “is having an effect on the policy of Her Majesty’s Government.”

Curtis disagrees, explaining Britain backed the US war in Vietnam “at virtually every stage of military escalation.” What was happening? Noting there was an “organised campaign” against the war, in 1965 Foreign Official James Cable reported: “All this has not yet affected our basic support for American policy in Vietnam, but it has generated a certain preference for discretion in the outward manifestation of this support.”

So the government continued to follow their preferred policy, just out of the public eye – not much to shout about, it could be argued. However, it’s important to remember the bigger picture. Despite significant pressure from President Johnson, Prime Minister Harold Wilson refused to send regular British troops to Vietnam (a small number of British special forces did fight in Vietnam). According to History Extra, the official website for BBC History Magazine, one of the main reasons Wilson gave was it “would be extremely unpopular with his party and the wider public.”

The British establishment’s fear of the public is not confined to distant history. Starting in late 2001, the UK government’s huge propaganda campaign to persuade the public to back the Iraq War underscores just how seriously it was concerned about public opinion. According to the Guardian, days before the onslaught started the Spanish UN ambassador noted in a memo to Spain’s foreign minister that the UK had become “exclusively obsessed” with domestic public opinion.

Reporting on leaked documents, in November 2003 the Guardian also revealed “a [MoD-organised] media offensive aimed to convert the UK public to supporting the outcome of the Iraq War”. According to the papers “the MoD’s main target is the UK public and media while [the main target] of the Basra headquarters for British troops is the Iraqi people.”

Though it is rarely framed as such, parliament’s momentous vote against British military action in Syria in 2013 – the first time a British prime minister had lost a vote on war since 1782 – can be considered a delayed impact of the anti-Iraq War movement. “The spectre of the 2003 Iraq war hung over the Commons”, the Guardian reported at the time, with Labour leader Ed Miliband apparently telling Prime Minister David Cameron “You have to realise that after Iraq nobody trusts any of us.”

This historic defeat sent shock waves through the British political and military establishment.

Speaking at the international affairs thinktank Chatham House in September 2015, Sir Nick Houghton, the UK’s chief of defence staff, argued “we are experiencing ever greater constraints on our freedom to use force”. Some of these related to technological advances of potential enemies, Houghton said, “but the more worrying constraints on the use of force lay in the areas of societal support, parliamentary consent and ever greater legal challenge”.

The year before, former Labour Party Defence Secretary Lord Browne conceded “the British public have made it clear that there is very little support for new expeditionary wars of choice, even where there is a national security dimension.”

Of course, the British military were not simply bystanders to this shift in public opinion. In September 2013 the Guardian carried an extraordinary front-page story which further highlighted the influence of the UK anti-war movement and the general public.

Titled “MoD study sets out how to sell wars to the public”, the report summarised a November 2012 MoD document, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act: “The armed forces should seek to make British involvement in future wars more palatable to the public by reducing the public profile of repatriation ceremonies for casualties”.

“Other suggestions made by the MoD thinktank in a discussion paper examining how to assuage ‘casualty averse’ public opinion include the greater use of mercenaries and unmanned vehicles, as well as the SAS and other special forces, because it says losses sustained by the elite soldiers do not have the same impact on the public and press.”

“The public have become better informed”, the MoD paper noted, recommending the armed forces run “a clear and constant information campaign in order to influence the major areas of the press and public opinion.”

Back to the anti-Vietnam War movement. Wells has a distressing conclusion: despite its huge impact on the government’s war policy “few activists fully appreciated the considerable political power they possessed”, which “spawned defections from the movement… bred lethargy, stagnation, and despair in the movement’s ranks, impeding the organization of protests and the maintenance of anti-war groups.”

All of which will be familiar to peace activists working today.

Of course, we shouldn’t uncritically exaggerate the power of grassroots activism. But a good understanding of the history of UK foreign policy, and how this interacts with social movements and public opinion, provides a valuable grounding for maximising our influence on future government policy.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair. Ian is the author of The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003, published by Peace News Press.

It was the Blair and Bush, not Saddam Hussein, who lied about Iraq’s WMDs

It was the Blair and Bush, not Saddam Hussein, who lied about Iraq’s WMDs
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
21 December 2020

As the famous quote – commonly attributed to US writer Mark Twain – goes: “a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes”.

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that while the case for the 2003 Iraq war has been largely discredited, an unnerving amount of propaganda spread by the US and UK governments at the time still has some purchase today.

For example, Gerd Nonneman, Professor of International Relations and Gulf Studies at Georgetown University Qatar, recently tweeted about Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD): “Saddam’s aim was to keep everyone at home & abroad guessing.” Similarly a November Financial Times review by Chief Political Correspondent Philip Stephens of two books on UK intelligence matters noted the then Iraqi leader “believed his domestic authority in Iraq rested on a pretence that he still had WMD.”

The thesis that Hussein tricked the rest of the world into thinking Iraq had WMDs is surprisingly common. Appearing on a 2013 BBC Newsnight special Iraq: 10 Years On veteran correspondent John Simpson said “It came as a shock to Blair and Bush to find that Saddam had craftily got rid of his weapons” before the 2003 invasion. And during his testimony to the Chilcot Inquiry in 2009, Sir John Scarlett, Chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) in 2003, argued Hussein wanted to create the impression he had WMD to “project power in the region”.

Compare these claims with public statements from Saddam Hussein and other members of the Iraqi government.

In early February 2003 Hussein told Tony Benn in an interview screened on Channel Four “There is only one truth and therefore I tell you as I have said on many occasions before that Iraq has no weapons of mass destruction whatsoever”. Later that month he referred to “the big lie that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction such as biological, chemical and nuclear weapons” in an interview with CBS News. In December 2002 the Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz told ABC News “We don’t have weapons of mass destruction. We don’t have chemical, biological or nuclear weaponry”.

As the US Brookings Institution think-tank noted in December 2002: “Iraq has repeatedly denied that it possesses any weapons of mass destruction.”

On 13 November 2002 Iraq told the United Nations it had neither produced nor was in possession of weapons of mass destruction since the inspectors left in December 1998. And two months earlier on 19 September 2002 CNN reported “Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri delivers a letter to the United Nations from Hussein stating that Iraq has no chemical, nuclear or biological weapons.”

What’s going on? Why are supposedly smart and informed people claiming Hussein tried to trick the world into thinking Iraq had WMDs when the evidence clearly shows the exact opposite – that the Iraqi leadership repeatedly denied having WMDs?

The answer is to be found in the part of Nonneman’s tweet preceding his claim about Hussein’s duplicity: “The problem wasn’t [US and UK] mendacity, it was intel being skewed by group think & failure to contemplate alternative explanations.”

If Hussein was deceiving the world, then it means the US and UK governments mistakenly, but sincerely, believed there were WMD in Iraq. In short, there were no lies about WMD. The 55 per cent of respondents to the July 2004 Guardian/ICM opinion poll who said UK Prime Minister Tony Blair lied were wrong.

Like the belief the Iraqi government was deliberately ambiguous about WMD, this thesis doesn’t stand up to elementary evidence either.

As anyone who had a passing interest in the news circa 2002-3 will remember, the UK government’s lies and deceptions on Iraq were numerous, relentless and increasingly blatant.

For example, Blair repeatedly said he wanted to resolve the issue of Iraq and WMD through the United Nations. The historical evidence suggests something very different. In a March 2002 memo to Blair’s chief foreign policy advisor, the UK Ambassador to the US set out a plan “to wrongfoot Saddam on the inspectors and UN SCRs [UN security council resolutions]”. How? A July 2002 Cabinet Office briefing paper explains: “It is just possible that an ultimatum could be cast in terms which Saddam would reject (because he is unwilling to accept unfettered access) and which would not be regarded as unreasonable by the international community.” The goal, then, was to use the weapons inspectors and the UN process to trigger war, not to negotiate a peaceful solution.

In July 2002 – fully eight months before the invasion and before UN weapons inspectors returned to Iraq in November 2002 – Blair also wrote to US President George Bush, telling him: “I will be with you, whatever.”

The minutes of a July 2002 meeting in Downing Street with Blair and senior government officials – recorded in the leaked Downing Street Memo – highlight further deceptions. The Head of MI6 is summarised as saying “Military action was now seen as inevitable” in Washington. “Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.” The minutes summarise Foreign Secretary Jack Straw as saying the case for war “was thin. Saddam was not threatening his neighbours, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran.”

Furthermore, the JIC’s Assessment of 21 August 2002 noted “We have little intelligence on Iraq’s CBW doctrine, and know little about Iraq’s CBW work since late 1998”, while their earlier assessment on 15 March 2002 explained “Intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programme is sporadic and patchy.”

In contrast, Blair’s foreword to the infamous September 2002 dossier on Iraq’s supposed WMDs boldly stated “I am in no doubt that the threat is serious and current”, with the Prime Minister noting “the assessed intelligence has established beyond doubt is that Saddam has continued to produce chemical and biological weapons.” 

Largely ignored by the media at the time, and rarely mentioned since, is the testimony of Iraqi general Hussein Kamel, the head of Iraq’s weapons programme in the 1980s and 1990s, which was leaked to Newsweek magazine. Speaking to UN inspectors in Jordan in 1995 Kamel, who was Saddam Hussein’s son-in-law, said “I ordered the destruction of all chemical weapons. All weapons – biological, chemical, missile, nuclear were destroyed.” However, not only did the Blair government fail to disclose this important information in the run up to the war, Blair shamelessly cited Kamel when he pushed for war in parliament on 18 March 2003: “Hussain Kamel defected to Jordan. He disclosed a far more extensive BW [biological weapons] programme and for the first time said Iraq had weaponsied the programme.”

What does all this show?

First, it highlights the power of what British historian Mark Curtis called “a government propaganda campaign of perhaps unprecedented heights in the post-war world”. For example, a 2006 Harris Interactive poll found half of Americans believed that Iraq had WMD when the US invaded in 2003.

Second, it suggests supposedly highly educated, critically-minded members of the elite, such as Nonneman, Simpson and Stephens, are as susceptible to government propaganda as anyone else. Indeed, US dissident Noam Chomsky suggests intellectuals are likely the most heavily indoctrinated sector of society: “By and large, they’re part of the privileged elite, and share the interests and perceptions of those in power.” Chomsky notes “the respected intellectuals in virtually every society are those who are distinguished by their conformist subservience to those in power.”

And finally, it highlights the upside down moral world we live in.  So while Blair, his spin doctor Alastair Campbell and Chancellor Gordon Brown all played a central role in the illegal and aggressive invasion of Iraq that led to 500,000 dead Iraqi men, women and children, millions of refugees and created the conditions for Islamic State to prosper, all three continue to appear regularly in the mainstream media.

In a sane and just world the only public appearances these men would be making would be at The Hague to answer for their crimes.

Ian Sinclair is the author of The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003, published by Peace News Press. Ian tweets @IanJSinclair.

How the media ignores the deadly impacts of UK military intervention

How the media ignores the deadly impacts of UK military intervention
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
24 November 2020

US journalist Glenn Greenwald’s tweet declaring he has “never encountered any group more driven by group think and rank-closing than British journalism” is an evergreen observation.

It’s especially accurate during times of war, with the air campaign waged by the US-led coalition against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) a good case study in support of Greenwald’s assertion.

The UK joined the bombardment following parliamentary votes in support of bombing in Iraq (September 2014) and Syria (December 2015).

The Defence Secretary Michael Fallon told the BBC after the Iraq vote that the priority would be to stop the “slaughter of civilians” in Iraq.

As always the British media heeded the call up. The Times, Daily Telegraph, Sun, Daily Mirror, Daily Express, Guardian and Observer all backed British military action in Iraq in 2014.

“ISIS have been responsible for appalling atrocities against civilians” and their actions “have greatly exacerbated the refugee crises and mass population dislocations”, an Observer editorial explained.

“Now is the time for anyone of a remotely progressive temperament to call for an intensification of the military campaign against ISIS”, James Bloodworth, then the editor of Left Foot Forward website, wrote in the Independent in August 2014: “Indeed, let more bombs fall on those who behead journalists and enslave Kurdish and Iraqi women.”

Discussing Britain joining the US-led air strikes in Syria on US new channel CNBC before the parliamentary vote, Dr James Strong, a specialist in UK foreign policy at Queen Mary University of London, sang the praises of so-called precision armaments used by UK forces such as Pathfinder bombs and Brimstone missiles. As these weapons are “more accurate than their US or French counterparts” they are “slightly more able to hit what it is aiming at, and slightly less likely to hit things it is not aiming at”, Strong noted. “That means it is slightly better at hitting targets in built-up areas.”

Of course, pro-war – and war-adjacent – journalists and academics are not directed or controlled by the government, as some conspiracy theorists believe. But it’s an inescapable and frightening fact that on many high stakes issues large sections of our supposedly free and questioning media and intellectual class end up holding remarkably similar positions to the British government and foreign policy establishment.

Which brings us to Seeing Through The Rubble: The Civilian Impact Of The Use Of Explosive Weapons In The Fight Against ISIS, the new 46-page report from Airwars, a not-for-profit transparency organisation which monitors military actions and related civilian harm claims in conflict zones, and Dutch peace organisation PAX.

As the subtitle suggests, the report looks at the impacts of the US-led air campaign against ISIS since 2014, focussing on Raqqa in Syria and Mosul and Hawijah in Iraq.

Given their interest in the wellbeing of Iraqi and Syrian civilians when the government was proposing joining the bombing, you might assume British journalists have been tripping over each other to cover and comment on the report. I asked Chris Woods, the Founder and Director of Airwars, about the level of coverage the report has received in the UK media.

“As far as I understand no UK news organisation picked it up”, he tells me on 11 November, though interestingly he notes there has been widespread coverage in the Netherlands. He adds: “It speaks I’m afraid to a worrying complacency towards civilian harm from UK military actions – from parliament, the press and from the Ministry of Defence itself.”

Perhaps the media have ignored the report because it isn’t newsworthy, or of little interest to the British public? Let’s have a look at some of the report’s key findings to see if this is the case.

“Most Western militaries claim that their operations have been conducted in compliance with International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and that they are already well-equipped [with precision weapons] to limit civilian harm from explosive weapons during operations fought” in urban areas, the report’s introduction explains. However, the authors note “precision has not prevented significant levels of reported civilian harm in Syrian and Iraqi cities from the use of explosive weapons.”

The report explains the primary effects of explosive weapons are caused by “the blast wave and fragmentation of the warhead after detonation. They cause injuries such as the bursting of hollow organs (ears, lungs and the gastro-intestinal tract), brain damage when the brain crushes into the side of the skull, and burns and projectile wounds from weapon fragments.”

However, the report confirms “The civilian harm caused by explosive weapons use in towns and cities extends well beyond the time and place of the attack. Explosive weapons are a main driver of forced displacement and have a profound impact upon critical infrastructure services such as health care, education and water and sanitation services.”

During the battle to drive ISIS from the Iraqi city of Mosul in 2016-17 “the 500-pound general-purpose bombs that the US-led coalition used primarily… contained around 200 pounds of high explosive, and were lethal up to a 230-metre radius”, the authors observe. Which doesn’t sound very precise to me. Indeed, in July 2017 Amnesty International concluded that Iraqi government and the US-led coalition “appear to have repeatedly carried out indiscriminate, disproportionate or otherwise unlawful attacks, some of which may amount to war crimes”.

Airwars and PAX estimate between 9,000 and 12,000 civilians died in the fighting – “with most killed by explosive weapons with wide area effects.” Approximately 700,000 people were initially displaced from the city, with the United Nations (UN) estimating around 130,000 homes were destroyed.

Shamefully, the report notes “despite declaring that it had struck more than 900 targets in Mosul during the battle for the city, the official UK position remains that no civilians were harmed in its own urban strikes.”

The report’s conclusions about the US-led coalition’s actions in Mosul are damning: The “unwillingness on the part of most Western militaries to investigate properly whether their own use of explosive weapons in populated areas resulted in civilian harm critically undermines any claim that their implementation of IHL is enough to protect civilians against these weapons.”

Turning to the coalition assault to take the Syrian city of Raqqa back from ISIS between June and October 2017, the report highlights how “by spring 2017, the US-led coalition was acutely aware of the risks to civilians of intense bombardment of heavily populated areas—even while using precision munitions”. Yet “these harsh lessons were not applied at Raqqa, with devastating implications for non-combatants.”

Airwars and Amnesty International conservatively estimate at least 1,600 civilians died as a result of coalition strikes on the city. The local monitoring network Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently reported that 90 per cent of the city had been levelled in the fighting, with eight hospitals, 29 mosques, five universities, more than 40 schools, and the city’s water irrigation system all destroyed. According to the UN, 436,000 people were displaced during the fighting.

The report notes “The great majority of both the urban destruction and civilian harm in Raqqa resulted largely from the actions of just one party to the fighting: the United States.”

Far from not being newsworthy, or of no interest to the British public, the report includes very important information about the huge loss of civilian life caused by US and UK military intervention in Iraq and Syria.

Indeed, given the UK government, supportive MPs and pro-war media outlets bear significant responsibility for this death and destruction you would think they would be particularly interested in the outcome of their policies, votes and journalism. The reality is far more telling. An inverse relationship can be divined: the more responsibility the UK government and media have for the deaths of people around the world the less interest the UK government and media take in these deaths.

All of which suggests the media is as much a well-oiled propaganda machine as it is a reliable news source.

Seeing Through The Rubble can be read at https://airwars.org/. Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Book review. War in the Age of Trump: The Defeat of Isis, the Fall of the Kurds, the Conflict with Iran

Book review. War in the Age of Trump: The Defeat of Isis, the Fall of the Kurds, the Conflict with Iran
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
August 2020

Currently writing for the Independent and the London Review of Books, Patrick Cockburn is one of the most experienced foreign correspondents working in the Middle East today.

His latest book is largely made up of short-form reportage based on writings and diary entries at the time of the events being covered, alongside some contextualising retrospective explanation.

Covering the first term of the Trump administration, which Cockburn argues has been populated by an unusually high number of dangerous people, the book’s strength lies in its on-the-ground journalism. ‘I have tried to give voice to what the Syrian, Iraqis and Kurds felt about events as they unfolded around them,’ he writes.

Cockburn regularly notes the complexity of the fighting in Iraq and Syria, describing the latter as having ‘the feel of medieval Italy’ where ‘every city and town had its own distinct politics, along with some powerful foreign sponsor.’

In Syria alone, the list of nations involved in the conflict is huge: Russia, Iran, the US, the UK, France, Turkey, Israel, Qatar and Saudi Arabia being the main actors.

There is much of interest to peace activists in the book. For example, those who wonder if Western air strikes were the only option for dealing with ISIS will be interested to read that NATO member Turkey allowed around 40,000 ISIS fighters to cross its border into ISIS territory.

Cockburn is also keen to highlight the skewed, propagandistic nature of much mainstream news reporting of the wars, noting ‘copious media coverage of civilian casualties caused by Syrian and Russian airstrikes’ in Aleppo and Ghouta (both in Syria).

In contrast, there has been ‘near silence… amounting at times to a media blackout’ about the similarly huge number of civilian casualties caused by US–UK air strikes in Mosul in Iraq (2016) and Raqqa in Syria (2017).

Visiting Raqqa after ISIS were defeated, he describes the ‘universal destruction’ as ‘similar to that of the carpet-bombed German cities in the Second World War.’

Elsewhere he notes the Western powers have ‘stoked’ the war in Syria ‘year after year’, supporting the armed opposition to the Syrian government, which has been ‘dominated by various Al-Qaeda clones’ since 2013.

Frustratingly there is no bibliography or footnotes, though arguably the first-hand nature of Cockburn’s reporting means these are not essential. This is a small gripe about an accessible, often engrossing, introduction to the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East which should be of central concern to anti-war groups and activists in the UK.

The elite versus the public: the struggle over UK foreign policy

The elite versus the public: the struggle over UK foreign policy
by Ian Sinclair

Peace News
August 2020

After interviewing more than 36 senior officials in the Johnson and Nixon administrations for The War Within, his 1994 book about the movement against the Vietnam War, US historian Tom Wells concluded that ‘the movement played a major role in constraining, de-escalating, and ending the war.’

Admiral Thomas Moorer, the chair of the joint chiefs of staff during Nixon’s presidency, told Wells the movement ‘had a major impact… both in the executive and legislative branches of government.’

However, despite this huge influence, Wells found ‘few activists fully appreciated the considerable political power they possessed’. This failure to appreciate the impact of their actions ‘hurt their cause’, he argued, leading to ‘defections from the movement’ and to ‘lethargy, stagnation, and despair in the movement’s ranks.’

‘Moreover, some Americans never protested because they felt it was futile.’

A window

A new report prepared for the UK ministry of defence (MoD) inadvertently highlights how the post-9/11 anti-war movement in the UK has had a similarly important impact on British foreign policy – an influence largely unknown to the general public, and to many activists too.

Published by the RAND Corporation, a US think tank, The Utility of Military Force and Public Understanding in Today’s Britain is co-written by top British military historian Hew Strachan (currently professor of international relations at the University of St Andrews) and Ruth Harris (currently a researcher at RAND Europe, previously an RAF officer).

‘The government’s preference is to see both strategy and defence policy as areas to be settled between it and the armed forces, and so far as possible within the corridors of power’, the authors note.

The outcome of this largely unexamined agreement is that ‘the making of strategy in today’s Britain is an elite activity, hammered out by ministers, civil servants and chiefs of staff.’

This elite stitch-up works well for the government because it believes ‘the public is reluctant to support the cost of defence’ and ‘is unpersuaded of the utility of military force’, Strachan and Harris state. ‘The Whitehall mindset towards the public on matters of defence tends to be one of distrust.’

Why is the public not supportive of UK military action?

‘The prevailing conventional wisdom is that the wars in which Britain has engaged since 9/11 have created a public mood which respects the armed forces but doubts the utility of military force’, the authors explain.

Indeed, while it didn’t stop the UK’s involvement in the invasion and occupation of Iraq, there is evidence the anti-war movement, by informing and mobilising the wider British public, had a significant constraining influence on the actions of UK forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Limiting Iraq

Discussing the UK military deployment to Iraq from 2003 onwards, major general (ret) Christopher Elliott notes there was ‘a cap on numbers, driven by political constraints rather than military necessity.’ The consequence of this was that the UK had ‘insufficient troops to be effective in the post-conflict phase in Iraq’, forcing ‘commanders in-theatre to react to events, and not to be able to shape them’. (RUSI Journal, 29 September 2016)

In addition, it is likely UK public opinion shaped the timing of the UK withdrawal from Iraq.

Contrary to claims from the UK government, a Telegraph report noted the US military ‘has no doubt’ the UK’s pull-out from central Basra ‘is being driven by “the political situation at home in the UK”.’ (Sunday Telegraph, 19 August 2007)

Speaking at the London School of Economics in May 2012, Greg Muttitt, author of Fuel on the Fire: Oil and Politics in Occupied Iraq (Bodley Head, 2011), argued the overall British pull-out from Iraq in April 2009 ‘was largely because their continued presence in Iraq was politically toxic’ in the UK.

Limiting Afghanistan

A similar dynamic was evident in Afghanistan, with US general Stanley McChrystal, then NATO commander in Afghanistan, pushing for British troops to be moved out of ‘harm’s way’ because the Taliban would target them in the lead-up to the 2010 British general election.

McChrystal held ‘the view that Britain’s continued participation in Afghanistan will be more acceptable to an increasingly sceptical British public if troops are switched to less dangerous duties, including “capacity building”.’ (Observer, 8 November 2009).

Writing in 2013, Strachan provides an insight into the impact of public opinion on the British withdrawal from Afghanistan by 2014, announced by British prime minister David Cameron in 2010: ‘He [Cameron] explained his timeline not in relation to conditions which he saw as likely to prevail in Afghanistan but in terms of what the British public would demand.’

UK propaganda I

Aware that public opinion can hamper the actions of British forces, the UK military and government spent considerable resources trying to manipulate the public to increase the popularity of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This fear of the public manifested itself very early after 9/11.

Under the heading ‘Propaganda’, in a declassified October 2001 letter, British prime minister Tony Blair suggested to US president George Bush: ‘we need a dedicated, tightly knit propaganda unit for the war generally [against Afghanistan and later Iraq]’.

What followed in the lead-up to the 2003 US–UK invasion of Iraq was ‘a government propaganda campaign of perhaps unprecedented heights in the post-war world’, according to British historian Mark Curtis. (Tell Me Lies: Propaganda and Media Distortion in the Attack on Iraq, Pluto Press, 2004)

More specifically, a November 2003 Guardian report revealed ‘a [MoD-organised] media offensive aimed to convert the UK public to supporting the outcome of the Iraq War’.

According to leaked confidential papers ‘the MoD’s main target is the UK public and media while [the main target] of the Basra headquarters for British troops is the Iraqi people.’

In Afghanistan, the military tried to shape the narrative of the war by controlling the media coverage. ‘There is a general policy by the MoD to keep the horror of what’s going on in Afghanistan out of the public domain, and that’s probably for political reasons’, a senior officer told the Telegraph in September 2008.

‘If the real truth were known it would have a huge impact on Army recruiting and the Government would come under severe pressure to withdraw the troops.’

The Syria vote

The huge post-9/11 UK anti-war movement, peaking with the largest demonstration in British history on 15 February 2003, has had a long tail of influence on UK foreign policy going far beyond Iraq and Afghanistan.

For example, in August 2013, the British government was set to support planned US air strikes in Syria in response to the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government.

However, unexpectedly, the house of commons refused to support a government motion endorsing the planned attack. This was the first time a British government had lost a vote on military action since 1782. The UK was forced to cease its involvement in the proposed strikes.

Public opinion was strongly opposed to military action, with a YouGov poll just before the vote showing opposition at 51 percent, and support at just 22 percent (Peace News, October 2013).

‘The spectre of the 2003 Iraq War hung over the Commons’ during the Syria debate. (Guardian, 30 August 2013) When Labour leader Ed Miliband met with the prime minister and deputy prime minister in Downing Street just before the parliamentary vote, a source reported: ‘Ed said to the Prime Minister: “You have to realize that after Iraq nobody trusts any of us”.’ (Guardian, 29 August 2013)

Professor Richard English, a historian at the University of St Andrews, confirms the link: ‘The decision in the House of Commons about Syria was really a decision about Iraq, but a few years late.’ (Guardian, 12 February 2014)

More importantly, in addition to stopping UK involvement in the attack, the parliamentary vote played a crucial role in halting the wider US air strikes.

The day after the parliamentary vote, officers on board US warships in the Mediterranean were expecting launch orders. (Wall Street Journal, 17 September 2013)

However, after speaking with advisers, US president Barack Obama decided to seek congressional approval for the air strikes, telling aides that ‘He had several reasons … including a sense of isolation after the terrible setback in the British Parliament.’ (New York Times, 31 August 2013)

With opposition building in the US congress, the attack was called off in favour of a joint US–Russian plan to force the Syrian government to give up its chemical weapon stockpiles.

John Kerry, US secretary of state at the time, confirmed this narrative at his farewell press conference in January 2017.

‘The president had already decided to use force’, he explained, but ‘the president decided that he needed to go to Congress because of what had happened in Great Britain and because he needed the approval.’ (Guardian, 6 January 2017)

The government defeat – that is, the democratic process – created panic within the British establishment.

Alistair Burt, minister for the Middle East from 2010–2013, argued: ‘the UK finds itself in quite a mess.’ If the government has to convince a majority in parliament, he worried, ‘to what can government commit itself in discussions with allies, or prepare in advance for regional strategic defence?’ Burt continued: ‘Just occasionally politicians need space and time to take unpopular action that they believe in the long run is in their nation’s interest.’ (Guardian, 7 February 2014)

On 18 December 2013, the chief of the defence staff, general sir Nicholas Houghton, noted in a lecture to the Royal United Services Institute: ‘the purposes to which [the armed forces] have most recently been put has seldom been more deeply questioned. As a nation we have become a touch sceptical about the ability to use force in a beneficial way.’

UK propaganda II

Just after the parliamentary vote on Syria, the Guardian carried an extraordinary front-page story which further highlighted the power of the UK anti-war movement.

Under the headline, ‘MoD study sets out how to sell wars to the public’, the report provided a summary of a November 2012 MoD document, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act: ‘The armed forces should seek to make British involvement in future wars more palatable to the public by reducing the public profile of repatriation ceremonies for casualties’.

The article went on: ‘Other suggestions made by the MoD thinktank in a discussion paper examining how to assuage “casualty averse” public opinion include the greater use of mercenaries and unmanned vehicles, as well as the SAS and other special forces, because it says losses sustained by the elite soldiers do not have the same impact on the public and press.’

Noting ‘the public have become better informed’, the report also recommended the armed forces run ‘a clear and constant information campaign in order to influence the major areas of the press and public opinion.’ (Guardian, 27 September 2013)

Since then, UK military interventions have broadly followed these proposals, with Mark Curtis highlighting in 2016 that Britain was involved in at least seven covert wars in the Middle East: ‘Whitehall has in effect gone underground, with neither parliament nor the public being allowed to debate, scrutinise or even know about these wars.’ (Huffington Post, 18 October 2016) (The seven covert wars were in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria and Yemen.)

Chris Cole, director of Drone Wars UK, tells me: ‘The increasing use of air power by the UK rather than the use of ground troops has been remarkable.’

He continues: ‘In Iraq and Syria over the past five years, for example, there have been few troops on the ground but thousands of air strikes. And increasingly, drones are being used to undertake those strikes.

‘In its first five years in service, British Reaper drones fired just over 350 bombs and missiles. In the last five years, however, that has increased by more than two-and-a-half times to almost 1,000 – and that’s an aircraft we are told is primarily used for surveillance.’

Occasional isolated news reports have highlighted that British special forces are operating in Iraq (Independent, 6 November 2016), Yemen (Daily Mail, 23 March 2019) and Syria (Guardian, 7 January 2019), but there has been no sustained media coverage or parliamentary interest.

In September 2013, the New York Times reported how British intelligence had been ‘working covertly’ with Saudi Arabia ‘for months… quietly funnelling arms, including antitank missiles’ to the armed opposition to the Syrian government.

‘Britain’s special forces are more secretive than any of the UK’s Five Eyes allies’, investigative journalist Phil Miller, author of Keenie Meenie: the British Mercenaries Who Got Away with War Crimes (Pluto Press, 2020), tells me. (The Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance links the UK to Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US.)

Miller goes on: ‘This secrecy prevents transparency around unsafe equipment and training accidents, to the detriment of the soldiers themselves and their families. There is no need for this level of secrecy in a mature democracy.’

Ongoing struggle

While I’ve highlighted how the UK anti-war movement has played a key role in constraining, and even stopping, UK military action, it is important to understand these clear-cut successes are relatively infrequent – the government usually wins in this high-stakes confrontation.

In 2014, parliament voted in support of air strikes against Islamic State in Iraq, and then a year later against Islamic State in Syria. At the time of the two parliamentary votes, polls showed clear support for the air strikes amongst the public. (YouGov, 26 September 2014 and 25 November 2015)

The UK then took part in punitive missile strikes against the Syrian government in April 2018 without a vote in parliament.

The election of anti-war, anti-imperialist Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party represented the best opportunity in a generation to break the elite consensus on foreign policy. In response, large sections of the media waged an unrelenting war against him, with a ‘senior serving general’ even threatening a military coup should he be elected prime minister. (Independent, 20 September 2015)

The Labour Party’s defeat in the December 2019 general election was therefore a huge victory for the elite and their preference for excluding the public from foreign policy decision-making. Despite these setbacks British foreign policy continues to be highly contested, with an ongoing struggle over public opinion and military interventions.

As Curtis argues in his book, Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World (Vintage, 2003): ‘It is no exaggeration to say that Britain has visited widespread destruction on many parts of the world, overthrowing popular governments, trampling over human rights, undermining democratic forces in favour of repressive elites’.

The UK ‘gets away with this largely because of the domestic structures of power’, he concludes.

The extent to which anti-war and peace activists are able to effectively organise, shift public opinion and intervene in the elite decision-making process described by Strachan and Harris therefore has enormous ramifications.

Public opinion and coronavirus: the sleeping giant the government is afraid of

Public opinion and coronavirus: the sleeping giant the government is afraid of
by Ian Sinclair
Byline Times
1 May 2020

“All politicians recognize the force of public opinion”, Richard Gregg wrote in his 1934 book The Power of Nonviolence.

There is evidence this truism applies to the coronavirus outbreak in the UK. “Conservative backbenchers voiced concern in private about the government’s failure to roll out testing faster, saying there was anxiety that the public mood could turn against the government if it appeared there was no end to the lockdown as a result”, the Guardian reported on 2 April. “One senior MP said the party would be watching the polls closely and that he was ‘frankly amazed’ that Johnson’s popularity was holding up. A bit like the virus, there might be a two-week lag before the public comes to fully realise that the government is failing to get the testing issue under control, they said.” The source continued: “The death toll will become totemic. If we get thousands of people dying every day for several days, who knows where this will go. It is frightening, and the prime minister looks like he doesn’t know what to do.”

More explicitly, a “cabinet source” was quoted in the Telegraph on 18 April about the government’s so-called “exit plan” from the lockdown: “They [the government] are waiting for the public to change their mind. We didn’t want to go down this route in the first place – public and media pressure pushed the lockdown, we went with the science.”

So there you have it: according to a “cabinet source” the public played a key role in forcing the government’s hand in introducing the national lockdown on 23 March. A new Ipsos MORI poll suggests public opinion is shifting against the government on the timing of the lockdown, with 66 percent of people saying the Government acted too late in taking stricter measures, up from 57 percent two weeks ago.

Beyond the present crisis, recent history is littered with examples of public opinion and public pressure impacting the actions of government and corporations.

For example, last month the Telegraph reported Shell has pledged to become carbon neutral by 2050, with its Chief Executive noting “Society’s expectations have shifted quickly in the debate around climate change.” The Tory broadsheet provided the crucial context: “Oil companies have been rocked by the pace at which climate activists have demanded action, forcing them to burnish their green credentials.” The early years of the Coalition government provided another inspiring example of people power, with a Guardian headline in February 2011 explaining ‘English Woodlands Sell-Off Postponed After Public Backlash’. Luckily government plans to sell off a huge chunk of the public forest estate had been leaked in October 2010. A huge movement quickly rose up in defence of our woodlands: 38 Degrees organised an online petition that gained 500,000 signatures, popular local campaigns sprang up in the Forest of Dean and other locations and public figures, including the Archbishop of Canterbury and Dame Judi Dench, spoke out. Victory was achieved on 16 February when Prime Minister David Cameron told the House of Commons he was not happy with the government’s sell-off plans.

Going back to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, many people continue to believe the anti-war movement was ineffective. However, there is evidence to suggest the unprecedented large-scale opposition, though it didn’t stop the war, was heard in the halls of power and inhibited UK foreign policy.

In the week before the US-UK attack on Iraq the Spanish Ambassador to the United Nations noted Britain was becoming “nervous” and “exclusively obsessed” with domestic public opinion, according to the Guardian. This fits with British historian Mark Curtis’s belief that in 2002-3 the British public were victims of “a government propaganda campaign of perhaps unprecedented heights in the post-war world.” Indeed, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) was involved in a media offensive circa September 2003 – “aimed to convert the UK public to supporting the outcome of the Iraq war”, the Guardian reported. Leaked papers from a media seminar held in London reveal “the MoD’s main target is the UK public and media while [the main target] of Basra headquarters for British troops in the Iraqi people.”

The campaign was not successful. The British public continued to oppose British intervention, while Iraqi public opinion was strongly opposed to the British military occupation in Southern Iraq. In 2005 the Telegraph reported an internal Ministry of Defence poll had found 45 per cent of Iraqis believed attacks against the US and UK troops were justified (rising to 65 per cent in the British controlled Maysan province). Similarly, a 2007 Opinion Research Business poll for BBC Newsnight found 83 per cent of the adults surveyed in Basra wanted British troops to leave Iraq.

British forces pulled out of Basra in September 2007. Reporting from Washington DC in August 2007, the Telegraph’s Tim Shipman noted “the US military has no doubt, despite what [Prime Minister] Gordon Brown claims, that the pullout is being driven by ‘the political situation at home in the UK’”. The report quoted a “senior US officer familiar with [top US] General Petreaus’s thinking”: “Britain is in a difficult spot because of the lack of political support at home, but for a long time – more than a year – they have not been engaged in Basra and have tried to avoid casualties.”

This concern about domestic public opinion and casualties echoes what was happening in Afghanistan. With a UK general election looming, in November 2009 the Observer reported General Stanley McChrystal, the NATO commander in Afghanistan, “holds the view that Britain’s continued participation in Afghanistan will be more acceptable to an increasingly sceptical British public if troops are switched to less dangerous duties”.

The opposition of the general public to the UK’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, then, played a crucial role in constraining UK forces, almost certainly preventing them carrying out more aggressive operations in those countries.

We must not “forget our own influence, the innumerable times we’ve swayed outcomes”, US author Rebecca Solnit wrote in 2016. Highlighting successful examples of people power in recent history such as the gaining of civil rights for African Americans and how women got the vote, she notes “in all these cases, the people who we mislabel ‘leaders’ only followed the will of the people.”

Returning to the coronavirus crisis, the Guardian reports rightwingers in the government and wider Tory party are pushing for an early exit from the lockdown – due to concerns about the economy. Other news reports suggest the cabinet is split on the issue, with Michael Gove, Rishi Sunak, Priti Patel and Dominic Raab favouring lifting the lockdown sooner rather than later, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock favouring a more cautious approach.

As former Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell recently tweeted: “Without mass testing & tracing & with a government that can’t even manage the supply of PPE” locking the lockdown “would be lethal, irresponsible & putting profit before people’s lives.”

So on the question of when to lift the lockdown, public pressure has the potential to leverage influence on government, strengthening the voices of those in government and on its scientific advisory bodies that are more hesitant about sacrificing lives at the altar of the economy. A new poll from Opinium suggests there is a broad public consensus on this, with 67 percent of respondents opposed to opening schools, 78 percent and 81 percent opposed to opening restaurants and pubs respectively, and 84 percent against allowing mass gatherings at sports events or concerts to resume.

It is no exaggeration to suggest the lives of thousands of Britons are hanging in the balance. After all a Financial Times’s analysis of Office for National Statistics figures estimates 48,100 people (as of 30 April) have died in the UK because of the outbreak, while epidemiologist Professor Neil Ferguson from Imperial College recently warned lifting the lockdown too early could lead to 100,000 deaths.

The question is will concerned citizens make their voices heard and force the government to take the most effective and humane action possible in these difficult circumstances?

Ian Sinclair is the author of ‘The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003’, published by Peace News Press. Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Witnessing the BBC’s Omissions on Fallujah

Witnessing the BBC’s Omissions on Fallujah
by Ian Sinclair

Morning Star
3 February 2020

“The chief problem in historical honesty is not outright lying, it is omission or de-emphasis of important data”, US historian Howard Zinn says in You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, the 2004 documentary about his life.

A good example of this truism is a recent episode of Witness History on the BBC World Service – with US Colonel Andrew Milburn recounting his time fighting in what BBC presenter Alex Last calls “the Battle for Fallujah” in Iraq.

In the short radio piece – each segment of Witness History is just nine minutes long – Last provides some context for listeners: with the 2003 US-UK invasion and subsequent occupation creating significant opposition, the city of Fallujah, in the western province of Anbar, had become an insurgency stronghold. In an attempt to subdue the resistance, the US undertook a huge assault on Fallujah in November 2004 – involving 20,000 troops backed by tanks and aircraft.

With a population of 250,000, Last notes there was estimated to be around 2,500 fighters in the city at the time of the attack, along with some 20-30,000 civilians.

“Honestly, it was rare that you saw civilians”, Milburn says about the urban warfare he experienced. “There was a kind of feeling ‘Look there aren’t civilians here, we have got tanks, we have got anti-tank weapons, let’s just use these instead of sending guys into buildings.’”

“That is when most of the destruction happened”, he remembers. “By the end of the battle [in December 2004]… it looked like the second world war. It looked like Dresden or Stalingrad”.

The US and Iraqi government forces lost around 100 killed and 500 wounded, notes Last, with “conservative estimates” of “hundreds of Iraqi civilians” killed.

“It was a pyrrhic victory”, Milburn concludes. “Even as we won the city and we killed thousands of the insurgents there were many, many more being recruited – largely by pictures of us rubbling a city”.

As these quotes suggest, critical consumers can occasionally gleam some useful information from BBC reporting. However, Witness History’s focus is on the US experience, with all the problems that comes with this.

Last’s assertion that 20-30,000 civilians were left in Fallujah is a very low estimate, with a statement at the time from the top US general in Iraq, George W. Casey, suggesting the US military believed 60-100,000 civilians remained in the city at the beginning of the attack. The essential 2017 book Media, Propaganda and the Politics of Intervention by Newcastle University’s Dr Florian Zollmann also calls into question the BBC’s estimate of civilian deaths. After conducting a detailed analysis of media coverage of Fallujah, Zollmann suggests the total number of civilian dead was likely around 2,000. For example, in January 2005 the director of the main hospital in Fallujah reported there had been 700 bodies recovered from just one third of the city, 550 of them women and children.

Moreover, the programme omitted any mention of arguably the most important aspect of the carnage – that US forces carried out what would be considered war crimes if they were carried out by Official Enemy states like Iran, Syria or Russia. Indeed in the introduction to his 2007 verbatim play Fallujah academic and playwright Jonathan Holmes argues the US contravened 70 individual articles of the Geneva Conventions in Fallujah.

The scene was set for the slaughter by US Lt Col Gary Brandl, who led the 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment into the fight with these words: “The enemy has got a face. He’s called Satan. He’s in Falluja. And we’re going to destroy him.”

Media reports at the time noted the US military and their Iraqi allies cut off the electricity and water supplies to the city, and, in an early operation, targeted Fallujah’s General Hospital. “Considered a refuge for insurgents and a center of propaganda”, the New York Times reported US Special forces and Iraqi troops smashed in doors, with patients and medical staff “rushed out of rooms by armed soldiers and ordered to sit or lie on the floor while troops tied their hands behind their backs.”

Testifying at the 2008 Winter Solider hearings, US Marine Michael Leduc explained how the rules of engagement changed for Fallujah – “now, we were operating under the assumption that everyone was hostile.” His battalion officer encouraged Marines to kill anyone using a cell phone and anyone they suspected of “manoeuvring against” them. The US implemented “a strict night time shoot-to-kill curfew”, The Times reported, with “anyone spotted in the soldiers’ night vision sights… shot.”

“Every weapon available in our arsenal short of nukes is turned on Fallujah”, US Army Sergeant David Bellavia wrote in his memoir. This included White Phosphorus, with a 2005 edition of the journal Field Artillery confirming its use in Fallujah by publishing testimony from a US officer: “We used it… as a potent psychological weapon against the insurgents in trench lines and spider holes when we could not get effects on them with HE [high explosive].”

With the bloodbath in full swing, the US military blocked aid from reaching the city, with a convoy of food and medicine brought by the Iraqi Red Crescent refused entry to the city, according to the Guardian.

Furthermore, Associated Press reported that “hundreds of men trying to flee the assault on Fallujah have been turned back by US troops following orders to allow only women, children and the elderly to leave”.

Also unmentioned by Witness History is the key role played by UK forces. The British infantry battalion The Black Watch was redeployed from southern Iraq to the area surrounding Fallujah – to replace US marines sent into the city. “They have been used to block off insurgents running weapons into Baghdad and to plug escape routes for those fleeing the US assault on Fallujah”, a November 2004 BBC News article reported.

BBC World Service journalists may see themselves as part of an “impartial, accurate, trustworthy” news organisation, as a former World Service director once said. However, in reality their reporting, such as this episode of Witness History, often follows a propagandistic framing of Western foreign policy.

As Warwick University’s Professor Susan Carruthers noted in her 2000 book The Media At War, in wartime “the media have generally served the military rather well”.

Zollmann confirms this maxim very much applies to Fallujah, with his study comparing the US offensive in the Iraqi city to human rights abuses in Kosovo (1999), Libya (2011), Syria (2012) and Egypt (2013).

His analysis shows how Fallujah was “framed in terms of reciprocal war and fighting” – remember the title of the Witness History episode: “The Battle for Fallujah”.  There was some critical media coverage, he notes, but this “was placed in an ideological context, which still assumed that ‘allied’ countries constitute legitimate and positive forces.”

This “politicised discourse” has huge ramifications, he argues, serving “to obscure the well-documented fact” US actions in Fallujah “also shared the properties of massacres and war crimes.”

“If countries designated to be ‘enemy’ states of the West conduct human rights violations, the news media highlights these abuses and conveys demands for action to stop human rights abuses”, is Zollmann’s damning conclusion. “If, on the other hand, Western states or their ‘allies’ are the perpetrators of human rights violations the news media employs significantly less investigatory zeal in its reporting and virtually no measures to stop abuses are conveyed.”

With the BBC and the rest of the mainstream media downplaying US-UK crimes it falls to those concerned citizens who are aware of the real history of Fallujah to make sure this dark chapter in US-UK foreign policy is never forgotten.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.