Tag Archives: US foreign policy

Did the UK torpedo peace talks on Ukraine?

Did the UK torpedo peace talks on Ukraine?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
12 November 2022

Since 1976 the award-winning US media watchdog Project Censored has printed an annual list of the most under-reported news stories in the US media – the “news that didn’t make the news”.

Should someone start publishing a similar book about the UK media, the top under-reported story of 2022 will almost certainly be the news the UK government worked to prevent a negotiated settlement to the Ukraine war in March-April 2022.

Here’s what we know.

Following Russia’s aggressive and illegal invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, in March Ukrainian and Russian negotiators met in Istanbul for talks. On 17 March a Sky News headline summarised: “‘15-point’ peace deal being ‘seriously discussed’ as Putin says he’s ‘ready to talk’”.

The deal included “a ceasefire and a Russian withdrawal, with Kyiv having to accept neutrality and curbs on its armed forces,” the report noted. “Citing three sources involved in the negotiations, the FT [Financial Times] said Ukraine would have to give up its bid to join NATO – something Mr Zelenskyy has already hinted at.”

“It would also have to promise not to allow foreign military bases or weaponry into the country in exchange for protection from allies such as the US, UK and Turkey.”

Quoted in a 20 March Al-Jazeera report, Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu stated “We see that the parties are close to an agreement”.

This is also the conclusion of Fiona Hill, a Russia specialist in the Bush and Obama Administrations, and Angela Stent, an ex-Intelligence Officer for Russia and Eurasia at the US National Intelligence Council. Writing in the September/October issue of the establishment Foreign Affairs magazine after having spoken to “multiple former senior US officials”, they note “Russian and Ukrainian negotiators appeared to have tentatively agreed on the outlines of a negotiated interim settlement” in April 2022. “Russia would withdraw to its position on February 23, where it controlled part of the Donbas region and all of Crimea, and in exchange, Ukraine would promise not to seek NATO membership and instead receive security guarantees from a number of countries.”

However, in May the Ukrainian online newspaper Ukrainska Pravda, citing “sources close to [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelenskyy,” reported UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson “appeared in the capital [Kyiv] almost without warning” on 9 April, bringing “two simple messages.”

“The first is that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is a war criminal, he should be pressured, not negotiated with. And the second is that even if Ukraine is ready to sign some agreements on guarantees with Putin, they are not.”

According to the Ukrainska Pravda – described by Encyclopædia Britannica as “one of Ukraine’s most-respected news sites” – “Johnson’s position was that the collective West, which back in February had suggested Zelenskyy should surrender and flee, now felt that Putin was not really as powerful as they had previously imagined, and that here was a chance to ‘press him.’”

Three days after Johnson returned to the UK Putin said the talks “had turned into a dead end”. In September Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov asserted that “the Americans and the British… forbade Ukraine to conduct further dialogue with Russia” and “since then, the Ukrainian authorities have been shying away from negotiation process.”

Of course, hopefully it goes without saying we should be highly sceptical of public statement from Putin and Lavrov, especially about their willingness to seriously pursue a negotiated settlement. And it should also be noted that the Ukrainska Pravda also reported that Russian atrocities in Bucha and other locations in Ukraine affected the course of the peace talks.

But as the Morning Star is a British newspaper, and as I am a British citizen, let’s get back to the actions of the UK and the US. Johnson publicly confirmed his opposition to talks during a trip to India later in April, telling reporters that negotiating with Putin was like dealing with “a crocodile when it’s got your leg in its jaws,” according to Reuters.

Why did the UK government try to torpedo the peace talks? The answer likely lies in the references above to the “collective West” and the opportunity to “press” Putin. As Leon Panetta, the director of the CIA under President Barack Obama, explained in March: the conflict is “a proxy war with Russia whether we say so or not.”

This fits with comments made by US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin at a press conference in Poland in late April. Asked whether the US aims had shifted since February, he replied the US supported Ukraine in retaining its sovereignty and defending its territory, before adding a second, previously unstated, goal: “We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.”

Hal Brands, the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, concurs with this “proxy war” framing, writing in May that “For NATO, the payoff has been damaging some of the most important parts of the Russian military – its ground and mechanized forces, its airborne units, its special operations forces – so badly that it may take them years to recover.”

However, while the West has continued to ramp up their military support for Ukraine, there are increasing calls for the US – and UK – to change their position and make a serious diplomatic push for peace negotiations.

Commenting on Russia’s repeated threats to use nuclear weapons, in October Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, told ABC News “We’re about at the top of the language scale, if you will. And I think we need to back off that a little bit and do everything we possibly can to try to get to the table to resolve this thing… the sooner the better, as far as I’m concerned.”

Speaking to Newsweek magazine about President Biden’s comment that he was “trying to figure out what is Putin’s offramp”, a “senior intelligence officer” said “We have the power to influence how that offramp might work. I’m not comfortable criticizing a president, as if I’m some partisan animal, but we are just not doing enough.”

A “senior military source” quoted by Financial Times columnist Gideon Rachman last month made the same point: “Military action is ineffective on its own. It’s only truly effective when it’s combined with economic and diplomatic efforts. And we’re not seeing enough diplomacy.”

Tellingly, I didn’t find out about Johnson attempting to block peace negotiations from the UK’s famously stroppy and disputatious Fourth Estate but from small, progressive publications and writers – namely Milan Rai at Peace News and Branko Marcetic from Jacobin magazine.

With the war dangerously escalating and President Biden warning the world is the closest it’s been to nuclear “Armageddon” since the Cuban missile crisis, concerned citizens simply cannot afford to rely on the mainstream media to gain an accurate understanding of the world.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

The Russian attack on Ukraine and the Western propaganda system

The Russian attack on Ukraine and the Western propaganda system
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
14 March 2022

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has confirmed the criminal barbarity of the Russian government and the leadership of its armed forces.

On 8 March Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said two million people had fled Ukraine since the Russian attack on 24 February. The same day the World Health Organisation reported attacks on hospitals, ambulances and other healthcare facilities had surged, and the International Committee of the Red Cross described the conditions in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol as “apocalyptic”. On 10 March the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights verified a total of 564 civilian deaths, with close to 1,000 injured.

In addition to this horror, the crisis has also highlighted the extraordinary power and influence of the mainstream media. In particular, it has proven the continuing relevance of Edward Herman’s and Noam Chomsky’s analysis in their 1988 book Manufacturing Consent: A Political Economy of the Mass Media. “A propaganda system will consistently portray people abused in enemy states as worthy victims, whereas those treated with equal or greater severity by its own government or clients will be unworthy”, the argue. “The evidence of worth may be read from the extent and character of attention and indignation.”

Following this framing, the Ukrainians under Russian attack are, rightly, considered worthy victims. For example, as of 11 March, the Guardian has devoted no less than 13 pages in the news section of each day’s newspaper to the crisis since Russia’s invasion (not counting the extensive coverage in the Finance, Sports and G2 sections of the paper, and the many op-ed columns and editorials devoted to the topic). Media watchdog Media Lens has highlighted a similar level of coverage on the BBC News website, noting the first 26 stories on the BBC News’s home page on 27 February were devoted to the Russian attack on Ukraine.

As well as focussing on the military situation, the Guardian has provided extensive coverage of the refugee crisis and civilians living under Russian bombardment, focussing on personal, often heart-breaking stories. It has published powerful front page images of people injured in Russian airstrikes and covered debates in parliament about how many Ukrainian refugees the UK should take in. The ongoing protests in Russia against the invasion have also been reported, while columnists and reporters have shown understandable outrage and indignation about Russia’s attack. There have also been reports on moves to get the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court to address Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

All this coverage has led to an extraordinary – and very welcome – show of solidarity and support for Ukrainians in the face of Russian aggression. The UK and other nations have delivered significant amounts of arms to the Ukrainian forces, aid has been sent to assist refugees, protests have been held across the country, and many corporations, under public pressure, have stopped doing business with or in Russia.

However, as Herman and Chomsky intimate, we should not forget the people considered unworthy victims by the media propaganda system. These tend to be non-white people in the Global South who are on the business end of Western military and corporate power, either directly or indirectly through the West’s clients.

For example, since 2016 the United Nations has repeatedly described Yemen as “the largest humanitarian crisis in the world”. 377,000 people have been killed, either directly through violence or indirectly through hunger and disease, since Saudi Arabia’s military intervention began in March 2015, according to the United Nations. In March 2021 Save The Children estimated that over the past three years almost one in four civilian casualties in Yemen were children. In 2019 the World Health Organisation reported an estimated 24.4 million Yemenis –roughly 80 percent of Yemen’s total population – needed humanitarian assistance to survive.

By supporting the Saudi intervention, both diplomatically and militarily, the UK and US bear significant responsibility for the continuation of the carnage in Yemen. However, as per Herman and Chomsky’s analysis, apart from a few honourable exceptions, the UK media has largely ignored the slaughter in Yemen.

Take the Guardian, which is generally viewed as the most anti-establishment mainstream newspaper. It has published some in-depth, on the ground reporting from Iona Craig and Bethan McKernan. However, all too often the Guardian’s news reports on Yemen are buried deep inside the paper. On 20 February 2021 a report with the frightening headline Yemen At Risk Of World’s Worst Famine In Decades was published on page 28, while a tiny report titled Cholera: Yemen On Course For Catastrophe appeared on page 27 of the 29 July 2020 edition of the paper.

Sometimes this media’s laser-like focus on worthy victims becomes too much to take. For example, on 10 March the first two headlines during the BBC Today Programme 8 am news were the Ukrainian president saying a Russian attack on maternity hospital was a war crime, and that Russia had been accused of deploying powerful vacuum bombs in Ukraine. All of which is important news, of course.

However, in 2019 The Yemeni Archive, a Danish-based database project tracking human rights violations in the war, stated the Saudi-led coalition was allegedly responsible for 72 attacks on medical facilities in Yemen, while Action on Armed Violence confirms the US has previously dropped vacuum bombs – AKA thermobaric weapons, which take oxygen from the air around them to create an explosion with a more deadly blast wave – in both Afghanistan and Iraq. I don’t have a time machine but I’m willing to bet none of the Saudi and US actions made it into a BBC News headline at the time.

One conclusion seems inescapable: if the war in Yemen received the level and quality of media coverage Ukraine has had for just a couple of days the UK would be forced to end its support for Saudi Arabia. This would mean the end of the Saudi bombardment of Yemen as they wouldn’t have the crucial UK logistical support they need to continue their air war, as one BAE employee explained to Channel 4’s Dispatches in 2019.

In case it is not already clear, I am not arguing the media shouldn’t focus on the atrocities Russia is committing in Ukraine. I am arguing the media should also be focusing on the atrocities the UK is helping Saudi Arabia commit in Yemen.

Indeed, a case can be made that the media have a responsibility to focus more on Yemen than Ukraine. The humanitarian crisis in Yemen has been fuelled by the UK, the home country of the UK media, and the vast majority of its journalists and audience. It is where we pay our taxes and have the greatest opportunity to impact government policy. And while stopping the Russian government’s attack on Ukraine will be a very difficult task, ending the Saudi attack on Yemen is comparatively simple: the UK just needs to stop providing support to Saudi Arabia.

So, yes, of course we should all show solidarity and support for Ukrainians under Russian attack. But at the same time we would do well to understand, as Herman and Chomsky argue, that the media coverage of the conflict “is evidence of an extremely effective propaganda system.”

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.


The Curious Incident of the Missing Article of the Russian Treaty

The Curious Incident of the Missing Article of the Russian Treaty
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
22-23 January 2022

Last month Russia’s Supreme Court ordered the closure of Memorial International, the nation’s oldest human rights group, which was devoted to researching and recording crimes committed in the Soviet Union.

“It is not hard to see how Putin, mired in historical conflicts over Crimea, Nato expansion and the fall of the Soviet Union, the second world war and more, sees investigation of Soviet history as a threat to national security”, the Guardian noted.

Back in the UK, such overt, authoritarian censorship is rarely deployed by the government. As George Orwell argued in his unpublished preface to his 1945 novella Animal Farm, “Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban.” How? “The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary,” he explains, the dominant orthodoxy and wealthy press owners creating an environment in which there is “a general tacit agreement that ʻit wouldn’t doʼ to mention” particular facts.

Over 75 years later and Orwell’s pithy analysis is as relevant as ever. “The wildest thing about Western establishment media is its journalists aren’t even working under threat of prison or violence,” Declassified UK’s Matt Kennard tweeted about the fawning media coverage of ex-US Secretary of State Colin Powell, who died in October. “They do state propaganda – and sanitise our worst war criminals – totally off their own back. Incredible discipline and dedication to serving power.”

A good example of the propagandistic nature of the UK media is its coverage of the draft agreement Russia presented to the United States on 17 December – titled Treaty Between The United States Of America And The Russian Federation On Security Guarantees (Russia also presented a draft security agreement to NATO).

With tensions rising over Ukraine, amongst other things the draft text calls for an end to further eastward expansion of NATO, no US bases established in former USSR states and that “The Parties shall not use the territories of other States with a view to preparing or carrying out an armed attack against the other Party or other actions affecting core security interests of the other Party.”

Article 7 of the treaty is particularly interesting: “The Parties shall refrain from deploying nuclear weapons outside their national territories and return such weapons already deployed outside their national territories at the time of the entry into force of the Treaty to their national territories”.

For anyone interested in reducing the threat of nuclear war, this sounds like an extremely sane, fair proposal. As the Morning Star recently reported, US nuclear weapons are currently based in Germany, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands. Russia does not currently station any nuclear weapons outside of Russia. Interestingly, a January 2021 YouGov poll found 74% of Italian respondents, 58% of Dutch and 57% of Belgians wanted US nuclear weapons removed from their countries. A July 2020 Kantar poll found 83% of Germans also supported the removal of US nuclear weapons from their country.

However, after conducting searches of Google and the Lexis-Nexus newspaper database, as far as I can tell the existence of Article 7 has only been acknowledged by two national newspapers in the UK – the Morning Star and the Financial Times, in one report on 17 December. Despite devoting a huge amount of column inches to the ongoing tensions between the West and Russia, the Guardian, Independent, Times, Telegraph, Daily Mirror, Sun, Daily Mail and Daily Express do not seem to have mentioned Article 7. (A caveat: on 10 January the Guardian did briefly mention Russia’s demand for ”the withdrawal of US nuclear weapons from Europe”, which nods to the content of Article 7, though ignores US nuclear weapons in Turkey and, more importantly, erroneously presents the demand as one-sided).

This press blackout is important because productive and fair public debate requires an informed citizenry and politicians. What happens when the media do not report key facts? How are citizens and politicians supposed to make informed decisions about current affairs?

The memory holing of Article 7 echoes the British public’s broader ignorance surrounding the country’s nuclear weapons. This dearth of knowledge is no accident – the UK’s nuclear arsenal has been mired in secrecy from the start, with Labour Party hero Clement Attlee authorising the creation of the UK’s first atomic bomb in 1947, keeping it secret from parliament, the public and even some members of his own cabinet.

While the official government narrative – happily repeated by mainstream media commentators and academics – is one of defensive deterrence and use as a last resort, activist and author Milan Rai provides an alternative, very persuasive understanding of the UK’s nuclear weapons.

Rai, editor of Peace News newspaper, highlights the analysis of famed US whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg. Best known for leaking the Pentagon Papers in 1971, Ellsberg worked at the RAND Corporation in the early 60s on nuclear strategy, later challenging the popular belief the US hasn’t used its nuclear arsenal since 1945. “It is not the case that US nuclear weapons have simply piled up over the years… unused and unusuable, save for the single function of deterring their use against us by the Soviets”, Ellsberg argued in 1981. “Again and again, generally in secret from the American public, US nuclear weapons have been used, for quite difference purposes: in the precise way that a gun is used when you point it at someone’s head in a direct confrontation, whether or not the trigger is pulled.”

This revelatory framing indicates the UK uses its nuclear weapons every day. In every diplomatic meeting, both cordial and confrontational, the UK’s status as a nuclear power, and all this means, is there in the background, impacting the decision-making of participants. Every time a rival nation considers confronting the UK government or the UK military they are there in the background.

More precisely, Rai points out the UK has conducted nuclear terrorism – issuing nuclear threats against non-nuclear weapons states in the Global South, with the aim of intimidating their opponent and giving the UK the freedom to act on the world stage. Writing in Peace News in 2020, he explained that during the ‘confrontation’ with Indonesia between 1963-66 over the future of Brunei and North Borneo, British Victor strategic nuclear bombers were deployed to RAF Tengah in Singapore, carrying out low-level bombing practice. In his official history of the RAF in South-East Asia, Air Chief Marshall David Lee noted “Their potential was well known to Indonesia and their presence did not go unnoticed.” He continues: “the knowledge of RAF strength and competence created a wholesome respect among Indonesia’s leaders, and the deterrent effect of RAF air defence fighters, light bombers and V-bombers… was absolute.”

Rai has also highlighted the UK’s threats to use nuclear weapons against Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War. “If we were prepared to use tactical nuclear weapons against the Russians, I can’t see why we shouldn’t be prepared to use them against Iraq”, a senior British minister was quoted saying by the Daily Mail in October 1990. 12 years later during the lead up to the US-UK invasion of Iraq UK Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon told the House of Commons Defence Select Committee states like Iraq “can be absolutely confident that in the right conditions we would be willing to use our nuclear weapons.” Speaking to ITV’s Jonathan Dimbleby a few days later, he explained what the “right conditions” might be – if British troops were threatened by chemical or biological weapons.

The secrecy and ignorance surrounding the reality of the UK’s nuclear weapons has very real consequences for public opinion, which broadly favours the retention of the Trident nuclear weapons programme. Who can forget, for example, the seven-minute primetime TV grilling Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn received from the audience and presenter David Dimbleby about his position on Trident during BBC Question Time’s general election special in 2017?

A key job of anti-war and peace campaigners should be clear – to draw the public’s attention to the UK’s history of aggressively using its nuclear weapons to intimidate and coerce other nations. This can only undermine the government’s benign ‘deterrence’ narrative and shift the debate towards disarmament.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Blood Brothers? Bruce Springsteen and Barack Obama

Blood Brothers? Bruce Springsteen and Barack Obama
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
13-14 November 2021

Having released a joint podcast earlier this year, US music superstar Bruce Springsteen and former President Barack Obama have just published those conversations as a book – Renegades: Born In The USA.

The podcast was hugely popular, and no doubt the book will be a bestseller this Christmas and beyond.

As a Springsteen fan, I’m very uneasy about this partnership.

First, I was surprised Springsteen decided to do it. Since President Ronald Reagan’s attempt to appropriate his epic Born In The USA song in 1984, The Boss has been wary of intervening in party politics. As he explained in 2012, “I don’t write for one side of the street … normally I would prefer to stay on the sidelines.”  This general stance shifted in 2004, when he campaigned for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, and then Obama in 2008. However, it’s worth noting he told Channel 4 News he didn’t “have any plans” to campaign for Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential election, just three weeks before he did exactly that. Beyond these endorsements, there is a sense Springsteen thinks very carefully before acting in the political arena, aware the more he campaigns the less power each intervention has.

Second, though both men are Democrats, arguably Springsteen is further to the left than Obama, and certainly the 2008-2016 Obama Administration.

Springsteen’s concern about the lives of Americans stretches back decades. In October 2016 he told Channel 4 News “The past 40 years, as the deindustrialisation and globalization has affected a lot of work lives, the issues that matter to a lot of hardworking folks haven’t been addressed… neither party has really addressed their concerns.” Note the timing of his criticism of all US political leaders – the tailend of Obama’s supposedly paradigm-shifting presidency.

Speaking about his 2012 album Wrecking Ball, his angry response to the financial crisis and its effects on Mainstreet USA, Springsteen told the Guardian “What was done to our country was wrong and unpatriotic and un-American and nobody has been held to account.” Of course that’s because Obama didn’t take any significant action to punish or reign in Wall Street. Meeting the US’s top thirteen financial executives in March 2009, according to Politico Obama told them “My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks,” He continued: “You guys have an acute public relations problem that’s turning into a political problem. And I want to help… I’m not here to go after you. I’m protecting you… I’m going to shield you from congressional and public anger.”

During a 2012 press conference in Paris Springsteen praised Obama for keeping General Motors alive and killing Osama Bin Laden. However, though he noted Obama “got through healthcare” he said it was “not the public system I would have wanted… big business still has too much say in government and there has not been as many middle- or working-class voices in the administration as I expected.”  

This is an accurate analysis. Obama stuffed his administration with Wall Street insiders. Larry Summers, who as Deputy Treasury Secretary under Bill Clinton played a key role in the deregulation of the finance sector that led to the 2008 financial crisis, was appointed Chief Economic Advisor, Timothy Geithner, a protégé Summers, was made Treasury Secretary, and Mark Patterson, a former lobbyist for Goldman Sachs investment bank, Geithner’s Chief of Staff.  

On healthcare, Springsteen is in agreement with Obama circa 2003, when as a state senator he supported “single payer” (universal public healthcare), though explained its introduction would require Democrats to take back the White House and Congress. By 2009 Obama was in the White House and the Democrats controlled Congress. However, the Obama Administration “worked to deliberately marginalize the idea” of single payer, according to Tim Higginbotham, writing for Jacobin in 2018. For example the White House held a summit on healthcare reform in March 2009 where “every voice has to be heard” and “every idea must be considered”, according to the president. But as always with Obama, it is best to attend to his deeds, not words. The idea of creating a single-payer programme had already been rejected, it seems. Asked at the start of the summit why Obama was against single payer, the White House press secretary Robert Gibbs answered “The President doesn’t believe that’s the best way to achieve the goal of cutting costs and increasing access.”

The Affordable Care Act (AKA Obamacare) was eventually passed in 2010, expanding health insurance coverage to around 20 million people but it wasn’t the public option Springsteen favours. As Matt Taibbi explained in Rolling Stone in 2009: “Even though [Obama] and the Democrats enjoy a political monopoly and could have started from a very strong bargaining position, they chose instead to concede at least half the battle before it even began.”

While it is important not to exaggerate the differences but Springsteen and Obama, the former is probably best described as a New Deal Democrat, giving a voice to politically and economically dispossessed Americans on albums like The Ghost of Tom Joad and Nebraska. In contrast, in 2008 US writer Paul Street described the first African American president as a “relatively conservative, capitalism-/corporate-friendly, racially conciliatory and Empire-friendly centrist”. As US journalist John R. MacArthur said in 2013: “He never stops serving the ruling class.”

Listening to the eight-episode podcast series the lack of time given to hard politics is noticeable, with no serious discussion about Obama’s actual record in office.

Turning to US foreign policy, a survey of Springsteen’s albums suggests it’s a secondary concern for the New Jersey native. And largely only of interest when it negatively impacts Americans. His epic Born In The USA song, for example, refers to “Viet Cong” and the “yellow man” but is far more interested in the dark days facing the returning Vietnam veteran. During his recent Broadway show, he introduced the song as a “G.I. blues.” Ditto Youngstown from 1995, which mentions wars in Korea and Vietnam, and alludes to the forces of globalisation (“now sir you tell me the world’s changed”) but is primarily concerned with how industrial decline impacted the American worker. And I think his 2002 album The Rising – made in the wake of 9/11 – is a great record, but its lack of interest in what the US had been doing around the world – when the national political debate cried out for exactly that – was telling.

This disinterest (or should I say ignorance?) likely suits their friendship: Obama’s murderous foreign policy record wouldn’t be the best fit with the relaxed atmosphere of the podcast.

As Peter Bergen, then CNN’s national security analyst, wrote in 2014: Obama is “one of the most militarily aggressive American presidents in decades”, bombing seven Muslim countries – Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and Syria. Obama embraced drone warfare, conducting ten times more air strikes in the so-called war on terror than President Bush, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. In a Council on Foreign Relations blog, Micah Zenko and Jennifer Wilson note the Obama Administration dropped 26,172 bombs in 2016 – an average of 72 bombs a day.

Infamously, “Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties” for air strikes, the New York Times explained in 2012. Citing several Obama Administration officials, the report noted this approach “in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants… unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.”

Tellingly, Springsteen recently told US talk show host Stephen Colbert that it was Obama who approached him about doing a podcast. It seems Obama, a master of dazzling, criticism-muzzling presentation and PR, still has an expert eye for engagements that will burnish and improve his image.

But what does Springsteen get out of it? Over his more than 50-year music career he has built up a perhaps unprecedented level of respect and trust with his audience. Why risk endangering this?

Personally, I’m all for more political interventions from artists – just not a close collaboration with a former Imperial Administrator who is up to his neck in the blood of thousands of men, women, children and babies from the Global South.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Joe Biden: The Guardian gets fooled again

Joe Biden: The Guardian gets fooled again
By Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
30 November 2020

“Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss”, sings Roger Daltrey at the end of Won’t Get Fooled Again, one of The Who’s greatest songs. In fact it’s one of the greatest anthems in the rock canon full stop, reaching the top ten in 1971. However, reading the Guardian’s coverage of Joe Biden you would think most of the staff at the liberal-left newspaper have never heard of the track, nor are familiar with the sceptical sentiment which courses through it.

In Guardianland the President-elect of the United States is “a decent, empathetic man”, as senior columnist Jonathan Freedland explained.

“Joe Biden has won… renewing hope for the US and the world”, the paper confirmed. “After four years of turmoil, misinformation, manipulation and division, the result of this historic presidential election offers fresh promise for democracy and progress.” To celebrate his victory the Guardian produced a “Free 16-page Joe Biden souvenir supplement” for readers, filled with propaganda photographs of the 78-year old looking popular and presidential.

“He will have to reassert America’s role as the global problem-solver”, a Guardian editorial asserted. “Under Mr Trump the ‘indispensable nation’ disappeared when it was needed the most.”

If all this bowing of the knee to authority sounds familiar that’s because it is.

“They did it. They really did it”, the Guardian’s leader column swooned when Barack Obama was elected to the White House in November 2008. “So often crudely caricatured by others, the American people yesterday stood in the eye of history and made an emphatic choice for change for themselves and the world… Today is for celebration, for happiness and for reflected human glory. Savour those words: President Barack Obama, America’s hope and, in no small way, ours too.” Freedland himself breathlessly recorded 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”.

Of course, the problem is much wider than the Guardian.

“Congratulations @KamalaHarris and @JoeBiden we are all rooting for you in your new jobs!”, tweeted self-proclaimed “actual socialist” Stella Creasy MP. “He ran a campaign on the values that we in the United Kingdom share – decency, integrity, compassion and strength”, commented Labour Leader Sir Keir Starmer. “In a dark year, this is a good day. It’s time for a return to decency, unity and humanity in our politics”, tweeted Manchester mayor Andy Burnham.

There is no excuse for this kind of vacuous power-friendly bullshit. Unlike Obama in 2008, Biden has a very long political record so there is no reason to get fooled again.

As American political analyst Thomas Frank noted in the Guardian itself – sometimes useful things do appear in the paper – “Biden’s name is virtually synonymous with Washington consensus.”

“His years in the US Senate overlap almost precisely with his party’s famous turn to the ‘third way’ right, and Biden personally played a leading role in many of the signature initiatives of the era: Nafta-style trade agreements, lucrative favors for banks, tough-on-crime measures, proposed cuts to social security, even.”

And, Frank notes, “It was precisely this turn, this rightward shift in the 1980s and 90s” and the abandonment of the working class “that set the stage for Trumpism.”

As Vice-President in the Obama Administration from 2009-17, Biden oversaw the bombing of seven Muslim-majority countries (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen). According to a Council on Foreign Relations blog written by Micah Zenko and Jennifer Wilson, the US dropped 26,172 bombs in 2016 – an average of 72 bombs a day.

Going further back, in his new book Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden, Branko Marcetic says Biden “arguably more than any Democrat had created the crisis in Iraq.” In the run up to the aggressive and illegal invasion in 2003 he supported the Bush Administration’s push for war in the media and as Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and travelled to Europe and the Middle East to make the case to other leaders.

Writer Louis Allday recently provided some clear-sighted analysis in Ebb magazine: Biden “has caused an incalculable amount of suffering over his many decades as a senior official of the US empire.” This is supported by a September 2020 Brown University study, which “using the best available international data… conservatively estimates that at least 37 million people have fled their homes in the eight most violent wars the US military has launched or participated in since 2001.”

On the environment, the (recently departed) Guardian columnist Suzanne Moore argues Biden “has room for manoeuvre… he can, in short, act as if the climate emergency is real.”

Indeed, Biden has pledged to immediately sign up to the Paris Agreement, This is good news, though it needs to be tempered with a pinch of reality. As the leading climate scientist James Hansen remarked about the agreement: “It’s a fraud really, a fake. It’s just bullshit for them to say: ‘We’ll have a 2C warming target and then try to do a little better every five years.’ It’s just worthless words. There is no action, just promises.”

And while you’ll be hard pressed to find any mention of it in the fawning media coverage of Biden and the climate crisis, it’s worth noting the US’s piss-poor pledge at Paris, when Biden was Vice-President: the US promised to reduce its carbon emissions by 26-28 per cent below its 2005 level by 2025. Friends of the Earth described these goals as “weak” and not “commensurate with the demands of climate science and justice” as “it moves us closer to the brink of global catastrophe”.

To be sure Biden presidency will usher in many positive changes. The US will almost certainly re-join the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and reverse Trump’s move to withdraw from the World Health Organization. Biden is also expected to rescind Trump’s rule on US foreign aid, “which rights campaigners say has prevented millions of women across the globe from getting access to proper reproductive and sexual healthcare over the past four years”, the Guardian reports.

But Biden himself confirmed “nothing would fundamentally change” when he met with wealthy donors in New York in 2019. According to Salon, the President-elect went on to say that the rich should not be blamed for income inequality, telling the donors, “I need you very badly.”

“I hope if I win this nomination, I won’t let you down. I promise you,” he added.

Biden is, in the words of US muckraker Matt Taibbi, the latest “imperial administrator”. Yes, he might be a highly experienced politician, more prone to multilateralism and someone who will oversee a more predictable US foreign policy, but he is still the head of the reigning imperial power in the world today.

And this is the key issue: Biden’s presidency will give US imperialism a more likeable face that will likely reduce opposition to its often deadly policies and actions, both at home and abroad. It is, in short, another opportunity for An Instant Overhaul For Tainted Brand America, as Advertising Age hailed the last incoming Democratic president in 2008.

Interestingly, it seems many people were able to see through the political marketing surrounding Obama, with a 2013 WIN/Gallup International poll of over 60,000 people across 65 nations finding 24 percent (the most popular answer) believed the United States was “the greatest threat to peace in the world”.

Not so the Guardian. Instead, its servile coverage of the election of Biden and Obama makes a mockery of editor Katharine Viner’s claim the paper is committed to “holding the powerful to account.”

As Tony Benn memorably wrote in his diaries: “The Guardian represents a whole batch of journalists, from moderate right to moderate left – i.e. centre journalists – who, broadly speaking, like the status quo. They like the two-party system, with no real change. They’re quite happy to live under the aegis of the Americans and NATO.”

“They are just the Establishment”, he added. “It is a society that suits them well.”

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Documentary review: COUP 53

Documentary review: COUP 53
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
13 August 2020

Speaking to the BBC in 2011, Noam Chomsky explained “the West has an extremely ugly history” in the Middle East. We may not pay attention to this history, the US dissident noted, but the people in the region negatively impacted by Western military and economic interference don’t forget.

A good example of Chomsky’s truism is the 1953 coup in Iran, the subject of Taghi Amirani’s brilliant new documentary. After Iran’s parliament voted to nationalise the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in 1951, the CIA and MI6 played a leading, covert role in toppling Iran’s democratically elected prime minister Mohammad Mossadeq, installing the autocratic Shah (King) Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in power.

Much like the best political thrillers, the film has a real momentum. It is anchored around newly discovered testimony from MI6 officer Norman Darbyshire, found after some serious detective work by Amirani. Interviewed for Granada Television’s epic 1985 documentary series End of Empire, Darbyshire’s firsthand memories were mysteriously missing when the programme was broadcast on television. However, the transcript of his interview survived. And from this we find Darbyshire, suavely played by actor Ralph Feinnes, admitting to being involved in the kidnapping and killing of the Iranian police chief and, more broadly, confirming the UK’s central role in the coup – a historical fact which has never been officially recognised by the UK state.

As well as interviews with US and UK experts such as intelligence specialist Stephen Dorril and Stephen Kinzer, author of the 2003 book All The Shah’s Men, the film includes fascinating testimony from key members of Mossadeq’s inner circle and other Iranians involved at the time. Look out, too, for some innovative and effective animation telling key parts of the story.

With events involving President Eisenhower, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, oil and corporate interests, a nefarious BBC and the British secret services, Kinzer is surely right to argue the coup was “a decisive historic episode” of the twentieth century that deserves to be much better known.

The coup strengthened the voices of those in the US government pushing for more US covert action (e.g. Guatemala in 1954). More importantly, it wrecked attempts to build a more democratic Iran. “As a result of that the Shah of Iran came in, a terrible dictator”, US Senator Bernie Sanders educated viewers during a 2016 Democratic Party presidential debate. “And as a result of that you had the [1979] Iranian revolution”.

Essential viewing.

COUP 53 is being screened online on 19 August, the 67th anniversary of the coup. Visit https://coup53.com/screenings/ to buy a ticket.

US sanctions, Iran and coronavirus

US sanctions, Iran and coronavirus
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
21-22 March 2020

As Morning Star readers know, the BBC largely reflects the interests and opinions of the British establishment. Nevertheless, occasionally discerning consumers can find important, critical information on one of the corporation’s many platforms.

For example, at the end of February BBC Radio 4’s World Tonight programme broadcast a brief interview about the UK’s response to coronavirus with Dr Bharat Pankhania, a Senior Clinical Lecturer at the College of Medicine and Health, University of Exeter.

Though he wasn’t asked about Iran, Pankhania, who has over 20 years’ experience working as a consultant in communicable diseases, snuck in an inconvenient truth: “What happens in other countries can come to bite us too”, he said. “I am very concerned about Iran and the health sanctions by America against Iran. Because when you have uncontrolled transmission of infection in Iran it will affect the Middle East and it will affect us too.”

As those following the outbreak will know, Iran has been hit particular hard by the virus. Before the Italian outbreak fully took hold, Iran had the highest number of deaths from coronavirus outside China. “Iran has the highest mortality rate in the world”, ITV News Correspondent John Irvine noted on 13 March. “On a daily basis it fluctuates between eight and eighteen per cent.” As of 19 March the statistics website Worldometer had recorded 18,407 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Iran, with 1,284 deaths.

So what is the connection between US sanctions and Iran’s response to coronavirus?

The US began sanctioning Iran in 1979, following the seizure of the American Embassy in Tehran and the subsequent hostage crisis. More recently, President Obama – along with the European Union – implemented a tough sanctions regime from 2012 to 2015, which was largely suspended when the US and Iran agreed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to limit Iran’s nuclear programme.

The Obama Administration’s sanctions caused mass suffering for ordinary Iranians. “Among those bearing the brunt of the crisis are patients and hospitals reliant on currency for imported medicines and foreign-based services”, the Guardian noted in October 2012. “Iran’s Haemophilia Society, for example, has blamed the sanctions for risking thousands of children’s lives due to a lack of proper drugs.”

Following the Trump Administration’s withdrawal from JCPOA in 2018, the US implemented an even harsher set of sanctions on Iran.

“The sanctions we have imposed are the toughest ever… the Iranian economy this year could contract by as much as 14 percent”, US Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook stated in January.

“More than 700 individuals, entities, aircraft and vessels” including 50 Iranian banks and their foreign subsidiaries are sanctioned, according to a July 2019 report from the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, Javaid Rehman. “The sanctions have hit oil sales, imposed wide ranging restrictions on traders and businesses and significantly contributed to a devaluation of the currency and inflation.” Importantly, the US sanctions regime effectively applies to nations and organisations without any ties to the US doing business with Iran. The effect of these “secondary sanctions” has been “to deter international banks, pharmaceutical companies, NGOs and charities from facilitating the flow of goods and services and money to Iran”, Salil Patel, a junior doctor at Imperial College, explained in the Independent in January.

In his report, the UN Special Rapporteur said he was concerned that the sanctions “will unduly affect food security and the availability and distribution of medicines, pharmaceutical equipment and supplies.”

Similarly, Human Rights Watch raised the alarm in an October 2019 report: “The consequences of redoubled US sanctions, whether intentional or not, pose a serious threat to Iranians’ right to health and access to essential medicines – and has almost certainly contributed to documented shortages – ranging from a lack of critical drugs for epilepsy patients to limited chemotherapy medications for Iranians with cancer.”

In an attempt to understand the link between US sanctions and coronavirus in Iran I spoke to Dr Pankhania. “When you have a completely super-stretched and almost bare-boned healthcare system as a result of sanctions you do not have any reserves for dealing with a surge in the number of patients”, he told me. “Furthermore, you wouldn’t have extensive laboratory facilities”, which are essential in the early stages of an outbreak to “recognise that you had the presence of the coronavirus in your midst – because you only know if you look for it.”

Indeed, earlier his month the BBC reported Ramin Fallah, a board member of Iran’s Association of Medical Equipment, saying he is unable to purchase testing kits for coronavirus due to US-imposed sanctions.

The sanctions have had a broader influence on the Iranian government’s response to the virus, according to Amir Afkhami, an Associate Professor of psychiatry, global health and history at George Washington University, writing for Politico earlier this month: they “have made matters worse by making the Iranian regime more skittish about taking any public health measures – such as reducing contacts with its main trading partners or declaring a public health emergency – that could further damage its already ailing economy.”

The evidence, then, strongly suggests that the US’s barbaric, isolating sanctions regime has caused widespread pain and misery in Iran – and endangered the rest of the world. Many of the first cases of coronavirus registered in other locations, including Iraq, Lebanon, Qatar, New Zealand and New York, have been attributed to individuals who travelled from Iran, a recent Foreign Policy article explained.

As Open Democracy editor Adam Ramsay recently tweeted: “The coronavirus is an important reminder that health isn’t private. As a species we live in herds. Everyone’s health relies to some extent on everyone else’s.”

In addition, to helping to trigger an economic crisis and having deleterious impacts on the Iranian health system during this health emergency, the US sanctions have had a number of other specific impacts on Iran.

First, air safety: “There have been scores of plane crashes in Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, mainly because western sanctions for decades limited its ability to purchase spare parts or buy new planes”,  the Guardian reported in February 2018. This was a welcome acknowledgement in the mainstream press of the West’s culpability for hundreds of needless deaths, though, to be clear, this information appeared in paragraph 19 of 21 of the article, so will likely have been missed by many readers.

Second, US sanctions have likely strengthened the hand of hardliners in Iran. In 2013 several hundred Iranian political and human rights activists, academics, and students wrote an open letter to President Obama warning of exactly this. Referring to the deadly US sanctions on Iraq in the 1990s, they noted “We are deeply concerned about the recurrence of the Iraqi experience for Iran, which would eliminate the only opportunity for peaceful and democratic change in our country. We are certain that economic sanctions will continue to weaken Iran’s civil society and strengthen the hands of extremists.”

Incredibly, on 17 March Reuters reported the US had imposed fresh sanctions on Iran, targetting a number of entities and individuals, “keeping up its economic pressure campaign even as it offered to help Tehran cope with the coronavirus pandemic”.

“The US government is run by sociopaths”, was journalist Mehdi Hasan’s response to the US doubling down on its crippling sanctions regime.

Close observers of Western-Iran relations will be aware historical facts that undermine the official Western narrative, such as the 1953 US-UK led coup against Iran’s democratically elected prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, are, conveniently, rarely mentioned in the Western mainstream media (though they are not forgotten in Iran, of course).

With this in mind, it is essential we do not let the key role of US sanctions in the ongoing coronavirus crisis in Iran to be pushed down the memory hole too.

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.

How the media covers-up the bloody reality of Western wars in the Middle East

How the media covers-up the bloody reality of Western wars in the Middle East
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
10 August 2019

From what I can tell a new report from monitoring group Air Wars, concerning US media coverage of the US-led military interventions in Iraq and Syria since 2014, has been ignored by the entire British media, except for the Morning Star.

“News reporting on civilian casualties from international and US actions, was found to be largely absent during key periods of the conflict”, the study concludes.

The extraordinary depth of this Western power-friendly journalism is highlighted by Airwars’s survey of more than 900 US Department of Defense transcripts of press conferences. Incredibly the research “found that [US military] officials were… the first to raise civilian harm in three-quarters of the press conferences or briefings in which the issue was broached since 2014.”

This lack of coverage was linked by US journalists themselves to a variety of factors, including “the limited presence of reporters on-the-ground”, a news cycle dominated by US domestic politics and credibly sourcing claims of civilian casualties. However, these justifications ring somewhat hollow when you consider arguably the most interesting finding of the study: “Major US media were… five times more likely to report on civilian harm from Russian and Assad regime actions at Aleppo than they were from US and allied actions at Mosul” (the report notes “civilian harm outcomes” in Aleppo and Mosul “were often similar”).

So it turns out the US media does report on civilian casualties – as long as the civilians are harmed by Russian and Syrian government forces.

US writer and media critic Adam Johnson has humorously coined The North Korea Law of Journalism, in which “editorial standards are inversely proportional to a county’s enemy status”. If journalists are considering crimes committed by the US and its allies then “rock solid, smoking gun evidence” is usually required to run a story. In contrast, journalists can “pretty much make up whatever [they] want” with little or no evidence to back up their claims if they are criticising North Korea, and nations like Iran, Russia and Syria.

Though the Air Wars study only looked at US media, there are indications the British media also acts as a defacto “propaganda system” when it comes to reporting on Western intervention in the Middle East.

Take three well-known commentators working at two respected newspapers: The Times’s David Aaronovitch and Jonathan Freedland and George Monbiot at The Guardian. Monbiot is arguably the most radical journalist working in the mainstream media. No doubt all three of these experienced journalists see themselves as critically-minded, free-thinking writers.

Their Twitter feeds suggest a different story.

Culminating in December 2016, the battle for Aleppo involved Syrian government and (from September 2015) Russian forces unleashing hell on areas held by assorted rebel groups in the northern Syrian city.

Aaronovitch has tweeted about Aleppo 13 times. “Aleppo is Stalingrad” and the “destruction of Aleppo” is “awful” were two of his outraged hot takes.

Freedland tweeted about Aleppo six times up until December 2016.

Monbiot has tweeted about Aleppo nine times, according to Interventions Watch blog. “A monstrous crime against humanity” and “a crime beyond reckoning”, the enraged Monbiot commented.

Monbiot’s “response to events in another Syrian city, however, was markedly different”, Interventions Watch explains.

From June to October 2017 the US (with British support) led an intense assault on Raqqa, targeting the city being held by Islamic State with airstrikes and artillery barrages.

An April 2019 investigation by Amnesty International estimated the US-led coalition killed over 1,600 civilians during the assault. “Never before have I seen a city so completely devastated. Not just in one district area, but almost entirely”, Kate Allen, Director of Amnesty International UK, reported after visiting the city. “Think Dresden and you’d be close.”

“The intent may have been different … but through modelling the impacts, we have determined that there was not a huge difference in terms of civilian harm between the coalition in Raqqa and Russia in East Ghouta and Aleppo,” Airwars director Chris Woods told The Times in December 2018.

Monbiot’s response to this slaughter? Tumbleweed. “Monbiot *said nothing*. Not a word of condemnation, not a single attempt to highlight the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding, not even a passing mention, either as it was happening, or afterwards”, Interventions Watch note.

Likewise, Aaronovitch and Freedland have not tweeted one word about the US-UK bloodbath in Raqqa as far as I can tell.

This brief Twitter review echoes the findings of Dr Florian Zollmann, Lecturer in Journalism at Newcastle University, who analysed US, UK and German newspaper coverage of human rights abuses in Kosovo (1999), Iraq (2004), Libya (2011), Syria (2012) and Egypt (2013) for his 2017 book Media, Propaganda and the Politics of Intervention.

“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”, he notes. “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.”

This systematic bias can only increase the worrying level of ignorance of UK foreign policy amongst the British public – a status quo the government and military will be more than happy with.

“There is a general policy by the MoD [Ministry of Defence] 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 British officer told the Sunday Telegraph in 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.”

With the media providing such poor, power-friendly coverage, how is the general public supposed to gain an accurate understanding of the world? How can politicians make good decisions when it comes to future votes on war and peace? And what chance does the public have of understanding why many people in the Middle East and beyond have an unfavourable view of the UK?

Rather than being the tenacious Woodward and Bernstein-style Fourth Estate of journalists’ fantasies, it’s clear that when it comes to the Middle East the US and British media have, by and large, given their own governments and their militaries a free pass, shamefully helping to hide the bloody reality of Western military action from the American and British people.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.