Tag Archives: US foreign policy

The Power of Protest: the anti-Vietnam War movement

The Power of Protest: the anti-Vietnam War movement
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
26 October 2017

The new 10-part Vietnam War documentary from legendary American filmmaker Ken Burns and Lynn Novick has garnered much praise (in the Guardian and the Morning Star television guides), along with some searing criticism from journalist John Pilger.

In addition to the conflict in South-East Asia, the series covers the extensive and diverse anti-war movement back in the United States, the influence of which continues to be contested today. For example, in his 2012 study Rethinking the American Anti-War Movement Simon Hall, currently a Professor of Modern History at the University of Leeds, argues “when it comes to the ultimate test – whether it helped to end the war in Vietnam – it is far from clear that the anti-war movement had any meaningful impact at all.” Interestingly, many anti-war activists at the time also saw the movement as powerless against the US military machine, according to historian Tom Wells.

The impact of social movements is certainly often difficult to quantify. The evidence is messy, sometimes contradictory. ‘Decision-makers’ are usually loath to admit they have been swayed by public opinion on matters of war and peace. And there are many influences on governments and public opinion during wartime, including domestic and international politics, geopolitical concerns and the progress of the war itself.

However, despite these caveats the evidence of the power of the anti-Vietnam War movement is clear. Wells, who interviewed over 35 senior US government officials from the period for his 1994 book The War Within: America’s Battle Over Vietnam, notes “If many protesters failed to appreciate their political clout, officials in the Johnson and Nixon administrations did not.” Admiral Thomas Moorer, Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Nixon administration: “The reaction of the noisy radical groups was considered all the time. And it served to inhibit and restrain the decision makers.” For Moorer the movement “had a major impact… both in the executive and legislative branches of the government.”

Wells elaborates: “The movement played a major role in constraining, de-escalating, and ending the war.”

US dissident Noam Chomsky remembers becoming active against the war in 1962, when the US intervention in Vietnam was still relatively light. “You couldn’t get two people in a living room to talk about it”, he notes. “In October 1965… in Boston… we tried to have our first major public demonstration against the war on the Boston Common, the usual place for meetings”, he recalls. “I was supposed to be one of the speakers, but nobody could hear a word. The meeting was totally broken up—by students marching over from universities, by others, and hundreds of state police, which kept people from being murdered.”

From these modest and difficult beginnings, the movement – which continued to be unpopular throughout the war according to opinion polls – grew in tandem with the increasing levels of US military aggression in Vietnam. According to Gallup, in 1965 24 percent of American felt sending troops to Vietnam was a mistake. By 1971 the figure was 61 percent.

Like Wells, the historian Melvin Small also believes the anti-war movement had “a significant impact” on the Johnson and Nixon administrations managing the war, highlighting two key points of influence – October 1967 and October 1969. Informed by interviews with US policymakers and archival research, Small argues in his 1989 book Johnson, Nixon and The Doves that the famous March on the Pentagon in 1967, which involved 35,000-50,000 protesters marching to the heart of military power in Washington, “shocked” the Johnson administration. By early 1968, Pentagon officials were warning a further increase in US troop levels in Vietnam in the face of the public’s “growing dissatisfaction” risked provoking “a domestic crisis of unprecedented proportions.” Clark Clifford, who served as US Secretary of Defence for a short period from 1968-69, said this advice had a “tremendous” impact on him.

In autumn 1969, President Richard Nixon was threatening North Vietnam with an escalation in violence if it didn’t play ball in peace negotiations. The historian Marilyn Young notes the proposed assault – known as Operation Duck Hook – “explored a new range of options, including a land invasion of the North, the systematic bombing of dikes so as to destroy the food supply, and the saturation bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong.”

However, Small notes The Moratorium – a series of demonstrations held across the country in October 1969 that drew more than two million people – “helped to convince Nixon that Americans would not accept the savage blows envisaged by Operation Duck Hook.” Nixon’s memoirs support this conclusion, with Tricky Dicky writing that after the huge protests “American public opinion would be seriously divided by any military escalation of the war.”

“The protester’s victory over the war machine was not, of course, absolute”, Wells notes. The movement had not prevented the war’s escalation, some two million Vietnamese deaths, or the 58,000 Americans who returned home in a body bag. “Nonetheless, their influence on their government had been profound”, he explains. “Had they not acted, the death and destruction they mourned would have been immensely greater.”

Wells sets out a number of other effects of the decentralised, often chaotic anti-war movement: it fed the deterioration in US troop morale and discipline; hastened troop withdrawals, promoted congressional legislation that limited US funds for the war; and applied pressure on the Nixon administration to negotiate a settlement of the war. Writing in 1988, McGeorge Bundy – National Security Advisor to presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson – argued that public opinion was a key factor behind why the US government never seriously contemplated using nuclear weapons against North Vietnam. One could also point to longer term influences, including playing a key role in germinating other social movements such as the environmental movement, and its constraining effect on US military actions abroad until the epoch-changing 9/11 attacks.

“The movement cannot be measured on the basis of its instrumental achievements alone”, argues scholar Winifred Breines. “The whole culture was transformed.”

Why is it important to highlight the power and influence of the American anti-Vietnam War movement over 50 years later in a British newspaper?

Rebecca Solnit’s extraordinary introduction to the new edition of her powerful book Hope in Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities provides a good explanation. Quoting theologian Walter Brueggemann that “Memory produces hope in the same way that amnesia produces despair”, Solnit argues established power is always keen to present the status quo as “immutable, inevitable and invulnerable”. Highlighting the success of the anti-Vietnam War movement gives hope, showing people that protest and activism – broadly nonviolent in nature – is a powerful force that can compel significant changes in government policy and save lives.

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The Western propaganda machine and the North Korean nuclear crisis

The Western propaganda machine and the North Korean nuclear crisis
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
14 October 2017

“Defence news is highly sensitive and tends to be conservative especially at times of crisis”, the Glasgow University Media Group noted in its influential 1985 book War and Peace News.

The nuclear standoff between the US and North Korea (DPRK) is the perfect illustration of this truism, with the mainstream media – bar a few exceptions – acting as a well-oiled propaganda system, echoing the official line of Western governments and minimising the public’s understanding of the ongoing confrontation.

This mass production of ignorance occurs in several ways.

First, the media tends to focus on immediate events and ignore the wider historical context. When some history is discussed, it tends to be a simplistic, limited and Western-biased narrative which is presented.

“As the war memorials in South Korea tell you: freedom isn’t free. In the Korean War four million died on both sides – soldier and civilian – in just three years, after the Communist Korean People’s Army invaded the pro-Western South”. This was Asia correspondent Jonathan Miller’s take on the crisis for Channel 4 News in August 2017.

Compare Miller’s suggestion the war was fought for freedom with a 2008 report in the Sydney Morning Herald that noted by the start of the Korean War in 1950 South Korean leader Syngman Rhee “had about 30,000 alleged communists in his jails, and had about 300,000 suspected sympathisers enrolled in an official ‘re-education’ movement”. In his book The Death of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars, John Tirman notes the CIA knew Rhee was “bent on autocratic rule”, with repression of trade unions, liberal newspapers, political parties proceeding with US support.

Miller’s quote highlights the conflict’s gigantic human death toll but doesn’t give any indication of the central role played by the US in the slaughter. Journalist Blaine Harden summarised the largely unknown history in the Washington Post in 2015: in 1984, General Curtis LeMay, head of the US Strategic Air Command during the Korean War, told the Office of Air Force “Over a period of three years or so, we killed off — what — 20 percent of the population”. Dean Rusk, who served as US Secretary of State in the 1960s, said the US bombed “everything that moved in North Korea, every brick standing on top of another.” After running low on urban targets, US aircraft destroyed hydroelectric and irrigation dams, flooding farmland and destroying crops, notes Harden.

While the Korean War has largely been forgotten in the West, “the American air war left a deep and lasting impression” on North Koreans, notes Professor Charles Armstrong from Columbia University in his 2013 book Tyranny of the Weak: North Korea and the World, 1950-1992. The aerial bombardment “more than any other single factor, gave North Koreans a collective sense of anxiety and fear of outside threats, that would continue long after the war’s end”.

Another key propaganda technique, wilfully amplified by the media, is the demonization of the enemy’s leader – in this case Kim Jung-un, who has ruled North Korea since 2011. In addition to focussing the public’s attention on a single, supposedly evil, person rather than the millions of ordinary people who would be killed in any war, the demonization campaign has painted Kim as unstable, perhaps insane. However, after weeks of interviews with “experts and insiders” Benjamin Haas and Justin McCurry noted in The Guardian that while Kim “may be ruthless and bellicose, few believe he is a madman with his finger on the button.”

The portrayal of the North Korean leader as mad chimes with another argument pushed by the Western media: that it is impossible – and therefore pointless to try – to negotiate with North Korea. In contrast, in a 2008 report for Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation John Lewis and Robert Carlin, a senior advisor on North Korea from 1989 to 2002 in the US State Department, wrote “Forgotten is the reality that from 1993 to 2000, the US Government has twenty or more issues under discussion with the DPRK in a wide variety of settings.”

“A large percentage of those talks ended in agreements or made substantial progress”, they note.

Discussing the recent history of US-North Korean relations, Professor Noam Chomsky told Democracy Now! earlier this year “maybe you can say it’s the worst regime in history… but they have been following a pretty rational tit-for-tat policy.” Chomsky pointed to the establishment of the Framework Agreement between the Clinton Administration and North Korea in 1994, which agreed a freeze on North Korea’s nuclear weapons ambitions in exchange for the US providing North Korea with fuel oil, assistance with building two nuclear reactors and the normalisation of relations between the two nations. Though neither side fully lived up to their commitments, Chomsky noted “it more or less worked”, meaning that up until 2000 “North Korea had not proceeded with its nuclear weapons programs.” James Pierce, who was part of the US State Department team which negotiated the agreement, tells a similar story. “The bottom line is, there was a lot in the 1994 agreement that worked and continued for some years”, he told The Nation magazine. “The assertion, now gospel, that the North Koreans broke it right away is simply not true.”

Finally, the way in which the media chooses to present important information or arguments plays a crucial role in the public’s level of knowledge and understanding. “The best way to erase-a-story-while-reporting-it is to give no hint of it in the title or in most of the article, and to drop it in at the end of the piece without any context, like a throwaway remark which deserves no attention”, activist and author Milan Rai recently argued in Peace News. One could add an additional test: is the information or argument voiced by a particular actor? If so, are they a credible source to readers?

For example, in a 30 August 2017 Guardian 34-paragraph report on the crisis titled Donald Trump On North Korea: All Options Are On The Table US-South Korean military exercises are only mentioned in paragraphs 20 and 26 by Chinese and North Korean government officials, respectively. These war games have previously included training for striking North Korea and assassinating Kim and top North Korean military figures.

This is hugely significant because China and North Korea have repeatedly suggested a deal in which North Korea freezes its nuclear weapons programme in return for an end to the joint US-South Korean military exercises – the last of which took place in August 2017, likely escalating the face-off.

The offer has been rejected by Washington. Chomsky, however, believes the proposed deal “to end the highly provocative actions on North Korea’s border could be the basis for more far-reaching negotiations, which could radically reduce the nuclear threat and perhaps even being the North Korea crisis to an end.”

Surveying the US media’s reluctance to report on the willingness of North Korea to negotiate, The Intercept’s Jon Schwarz argues “there are huge road blocks” to finding a peaceful solution to the crisis “and one of the biggest is the western media’s failure to simply inform their audience of the basics of what’s happening.”

The peace movement and general public in the West therefore have an important role to play in this suicidal game of nuclear chicken: to apply pressure on their governments to sincerely explore the Chinese-North Korean offer, and work to de-escalate and resolve the crisis as quickly as possible.

Book review: To Kill The President by Sam Bourne

Book review: To Kill The President by Sam Bourne
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
31 August 2017

Writing under the pseudonym Sam Bourne, Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland’s new book is a timely Washington D.C.-based political thriller.

Presumably finished soon after Donald Trump won the presidency in November last year, To Kill The President begins with an unnamed, newly elected and manically unstable Commander in Chief stopped at the last minute from ordering an unprovoked nuclear strike on North Korea – a storyline that got Freedland plenty of media exposure during the recent US-North Korean nuclear standoff.

Operating in the shadows is the president’s calculating, deeply unpleasant chief strategist Crawford ‘Mac’ McNamara, clearly based on the recently departed Steve Bannon.

Fighting the good liberal fight is Maggie Costello, a former UN aid worker and peace negotiator now working in the White House’s Counsel Office. Ordered to investigate the mysterious death of the President’s personal doctor, she uncovers a plot to assassinate POTUS, grappling with the personal, moral and political repercussions of her discovery. Should she try to stop the murder of the democratically elected head of state, or would the US and the world be a better place if the ignorant and dangerous demagogue was six feet under? This conundrum isn’t as interesting as Freedland thinks it is but nonetheless it’s an entertaining plot device, one that encourages the reader to root for the assassin, in a similar way to Frederick Forsyth’s classic The Day of the Jackal.

The centrality of the assassination plot means the book is inescapably premised on a particularly elite view of history – that the real power resides with Great Men and that significant, long-lasting political change is triggered if they are disposed. Social movements, grassroots activism, broad historical currents – all are ignored.

Talking of politics, as a long-time reader of Freedland’s Guardian articles, I was interested to see if his brand of liberal, establishment-friendly politics would be reflected in his writing, or whether he was a skilled enough author to escape, or atleast think critically about, his increasingly irrelevant worldview (e.g. his article just before the general election about Labour’s fortunes titled ‘No more excuses: Jeremy Corbyn is to blame for this meltdown’).

Spoiler alert: it’s the former.

Diligently following the press pack, lamentably the book is preoccupied with the supposed dangers of social media, and those liberal bête noires – so-called Fake News and post-truth politics. In contrast Media Lens told the Morning Star last year the “media performance” of the corporate liberal media “is itself largely fake news”, arguing the term is deployed to demonise social media and bolster the corporate media. Indeed, Freedland isn’t averse to some post-truth politics himself. For example, “when violence resumed in Gaza” was how he described/dismissed, on BBC Question Time, Israel’s 2014 one-sided bombardment of Gaza that killed 1,523 Palestinian civilians, including 519 children, according to the United Nations.

The previous occupant of the Oval Office – who Costello reverentially remembers serving under – is represented as a benign, wise, rational man. Laughably, at one point Freedland writes that this Obama-like figure insisted an investigation into a “mid-ranking official” in his own administration had as wide a remit as possible to make sure it uncovered any corruption going on. Again, this power worship shouldn’t be surprising when one considers Freedland’s quasi-religious account of Obama coming on stage in Berlin in July 2008: the then Democratic presidential candidate “almost floated into view, walking to the podium on a raised, blue-carpeted runway as if he were somehow, magically, walking on water”, he breathlessly recorded.

“We will miss him when he’s gone”, he wrote about president No. 44, who had bombed seven nations, killing thousands of men, women and children, during his presidency. Freedland has acted as a defacto unpaid intern in the White House press office for decades. “I had seen a maestro at the height of his powers. Clinton was the Pele of politics, and we might wait half a century to see his like again”, he gushed at the end of Bill Clinton’s time in office in 2000. “I will miss him”.

Perhaps it’s too much to ask from To Kill A President, but the book – and no doubt Freedland – shows no awareness of the relationship between Obama’s neoliberal, status quo-saving politics and the rise of Trump. Or the key role played by liberal commentators such as Freedland in shielding the Wall Street-funded Obama from serious criticism.

Though it doesn’t match the excitement levels or political conspiracy of the best in the genre – think the unthreatening and simplistic politics of TV show Designated Survivor rather than the radicalism of Costa Gavras’s Z or the lightening pace of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels – Freedland has written an enjoyable page-turner. Just don’t read it to understand US politics, the Trump presidency or how real progressive change might be made in America.

To Kill The President is published by HarperCollins, priced £7.99.

 

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.

Book Review: How I Lost by Hillary Clinton

Book Review: How I Lost by Hillary Clinton
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
7 August 2017

Since Trump was elected President of the United States the Democratic Party establishment and Hillary Clinton supporters have blamed everyone – including FBI Director James Comey, the Russian government and backers of Bernie Sanders – except the Democratic candidate herself.

How I Lost puts the spotlight firmly on Clinton, arguing she lost because she is “an economic and political elitist and a foreign policy hawk divorced from the serious concerns of ordinary Americans”.

The book’s wheeze is that Clinton is the author, based on the fact it’s largely based on Clinton’s own words taken from her campaign chairman John Podesta’s emails and Democratic National Committee (DNC) emails – both leaked by Wikileaks last year. However, Clinton’s authorship is a red herring – it is former Wall Street Journal correspondent Joe Lauria who provides the important context and inconvenient facts (for Clinton anyway) to help the reader make sense of all the leaked information. Wikileaks Editor-In-Chief Julian Assange provides the book’s foreword.

The emails paint a picture of Clinton and her team as deeply Machiavellian characters, her “embrace of centrist neoliberalism” completely out of touch with our turbulent political times. Journalists are shown to have an extremely cosy relationship with Clinton’s campaign, while emails are presented showing that Clinton’s entourage and the Democratic Party establishment colluded to crush Sander’s insurgent campaign to be the Democratic Party’s nominee for the presidency. The Vice Chair of the Democratic National Committee sent Clinton’s team advanced warning of questions to be asked by the audience in debates between Sanders and Clinton, while the DNC’s Chief Financial Officer suggested to the DNC Communications Manager that Sanders should be challenged about his religious beliefs, which they saw as a potential weakness.

On foreign policy, the emails highlight Clinton as an aggressive military interventionist in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and the “shit show” (Barack Obama’s description) that is Libya. Though she publically called for the US setting up no-fly zones in Syria, in a private 2013 speech to Goldman Sachs she suggested caution as it would “kill a lot of Syrians.”

So how can Trump and the Republicans be defeated at the next presidential election? Lauria is clear: the Democrats need to “find a candidate seriously committed to reversing the betrayal of the party’s traditional working-class base and restore the badly eroded New Deal.” Who that should be is unclear, though one thing is undeniable – it can’t be Clinton or someone with her politics.

How I Lost by Hillary Clinton is published by OR Books, priced £14.

No, the US has not made ‘well-meaning efforts to broker peace’ in Syria

No, the US has not made ‘well-meaning efforts to broker peace’ in Syria
by Ian Sinclair
Middle East Eye
9 May 2017

Testifying to the United States House Committee on Foreign Affairs last month, the highly-respected Syria analyst Charles Lister asserted the Obama Administration had made “repeated, well-meaning efforts to broker peace” in Syria. This belief in the “basic benevolence” of the US underpins much of the mainstream commentary on the ongoing conflict. For example, in 2013 the Guardian’s foreign affairs specialist Simon Tisdall noted that Obama “cannot count on Russian support to fix Syria”.

Embarrassingly for Lister and Tisdall the historical record clearly shows that far from being a “well-meaning” broker for peace, the US (and UK) have in actual fact repeatedly blocked a peaceful, negotiated settlement in Syria.

A key date is 2 August 2012 – the day Kofi Annan, the United Nations and Arab League envoy to Syria, resigned after failing to reach a peace deal with many of the participants in the war at talks in Geneva.

Writing in 2015, Professor Avi Shlaim, Professor Emeritus of International Relations at Oxford University, provided some important context for the collapse of the talks. “British ministers [following the lead of the US] keep repeating the mantra that Assad is part of the problem, not part of the solution. In truth he is a very large part of the problem but also an indispensable part of any negotiated solution”, Shlaim noted. “Western insistence on regime change in Damascus sabotaged his [Annan’s] efforts and forced him to resign.” Professor Hugh Roberts, the former Director of the North Africa Project at the International Crisis Group, agreed with Shlaim’s analysis. “Western policy has been a disgrace”, Roberts argued in the London Review of Books. “They sabotaged the efforts of the UN special envoys, Kofi Annan and then Lakhdar Brahimi, to broker a political compromise that would have ended the fighting.”

The West’s negative role at the 2012 Syrian peace talks has been confirmed by Andrew Mitchell, the former British Secretary of State for International Development, Chatham House’s Dr Christopher Phillips*, and veteran foreign correspondents Jonathan Steele and Patrick Cockburn. Amazingly, in 2015 former US Secretary of State John Kerry himself admitted the US demanding Assad’s departure upfront in the peace process was “in fact, prolonging the war.”

On 17 August 2012 it was announced the seasoned diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi would succeed Annan as the UN and Arab League envoy to Syria. Less than two years later Brahimi himself resigned after also failing to achieve a peaceful settlement to the fighting. “I would put a lot of blame on the outside forces – the forces, the governments and others who were supporting one side or the other. None of these countries had the interests of the Syrian people as the first priority… everybody is to blame”, Brahimi told Al-Jazeera’s Mehdi Hasan in March 2016. “The entire world. What did the Americans do? What did the French do? What did the British do?”

As Brahimi’s testimony hints at, other actors also bear a heavy responsibility for the breakdown of the talks and the continuation of the ongoing conflict, especially the Syrian Government and its backers Russia and Iran. However, as a British citizen my focus in this article is the United States, the UK’s closet ally.

In addition to playing a blocking role in the peace talks, by supplying – as Kerry told Syrian activists last year – an “extraordinary amount of arms” to the Syrian rebels and working with its regional allies to send in arms, the US has played a key role in lengthening and escalating the conflict. The Syrian specialist Patrick Seale was fully aware of “the central contradiction in US policy” in 2012: “Although it says it supports the Annan plan, it is unashamedly undermining it by helping to arms the rebels” a depressing reality many expert voices warned about in 2013, including the UN Secretary-General and two former NATO Secretary-Generals.

Frustratingly, despite this slew of first-hand testimony and expert analysis, it is Lister’s evidence-free misrepresentation of the US role that informs the popular understanding of Western involvement in Syria – which suggests we are in the midst of a huge propaganda war directed at Western publics. And even more frustratingly, it is likely to stay this way because the inconvenient facts around the US’s role in the Syrian bloodbath challenge a number of media-fuelled shibboleths: from the portrayal of Assad and Putin as the only ‘bad guys’ in the war to the oft repeated myth of US non-intervention in the conflict. Hell, if the US’s real role in Syria became better understood then people might also start asking awkward questions about other recent conflicts, such as Serbia in 1999 and Libya in 2011, where the US has presented itself as sincerely seeking peace when it has really been pushing for war.

In the end one particularly ugly conclusion is inescapable: if the West has been involved in blocking peace initiatives and therefore extending the fighting, it also means the West’s is partly responsible for the hundreds of thousands of people who have been killed in the ongoing slaughter and the mammoth refugee crisis – a world away from the US being a well-meaning peace broker.

*In his 2016 book ‘The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the New Middle East’ Dr Christopher Phillips notes “at the Geneva conference in summer 2012, neither the US nor Russia was willing to prioritise the prevention of conflict over their positions on Assad’s future.” (page 103)

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

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

Morning Star
29 March 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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