Tag Archives: Yemen

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.

Antonio Guterres’s United Nations: a democratic institution?

Antonio Guterres’s United Nations: a democratic institution?
by Ian Sinclair
The New Arab
11 January 2017

“We the people of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person”.

The humane, internationalist and poetic preamble to the United Nations (UN) Charter is one of the many reasons the UN continues to be a broadly popular institution, with the Pew Research Center noting in 2013 that “publics around the world continue to have a positive impression of the international organization”.

Having taken over from Ban Ki-moon on 1 January 2017, the new UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will, like his predecessors, become “a secular saint, an ambassador of peace and voice of the poor and downtrodden”, according to The Guardian’s Julian Borger.

Western governments have instinctively understood the importance of the UN’s popularity to their own foreign policy objectives. For example, the University of Connecticut’s Dr Stephen Benedict Dyson notes that in the run up to the March 2003 US-UK invasion of Iraq, British Prime Minister Tony Blair “was aware that his stance on Iraq was not popular but remained confident that he could achieve support with a campaign of public persuasion, bolstered by the international diplomacy that would secure UN cover.” And Blair was right. Though he failed to get UN backing, polling conducted by Ipsos MORI just before the invasion showed that the backing of the UN would have massively increased support for the war among the British public.

Considering the global public’s high opinion of the UN, and the important ramifications this popularity can have, it is worth taking time to investigate just how democratic the UN is, and how the most senior position in the organisation is appointed.

With the UN set up in 1945 by the victors of World War Two, the 15-member Security Council dominates, wielding the real authority in the organisation, able to make and enforce decisions. In contrast, the far more representative 193-member, one-nation-one-vote General Assembly is relegated to a deliberative role, its resolutions recommendations only.

Within the Security Council itself the P5 – the permanent members of the Security Council, the US, UK, France, China and Russia – hold the real power. The other ten seats are non-permanent, with nations elected by the General Assembly for two-year terms. Importantly, the P5 have the power to veto any resolution put before the group, even if it has majority support among the 15 members.

“The US is such a big power that it has enormous clout in the Security Council as its defacto ‘majority leader’, putting together the votes and resources to make things happen”, notes international affairs specialist Jeffrey Laurenti.

Accordingly, “for almost 30 years (since 1984) the leading wielder of the veto in the UN security council has been the United States”, explained John Weston, the UK’s permanent representative to the UN between 1995-98, in 2013. Most of Washington’s vetoes have been deployed for a specific reason – since 1982 the US has used its veto 35 times to block resolutions critical of Israel.

Beyond using its veto the US has a variety of other methods it can use to get its way. When Yemen joined Cuba on 29 November 1990 in voting against a Security Council resolution authorising force to eject Iraqi troops from Kuwait, a US official told the Yemeni ambassador “That was the most expensive vote you will have cast”. Shortly afterwards the US aid budget to Yemen was severely cut.

With the US and UK once again looking for the UN’s stamp of approval as they geared up for war in Iraq 13 years later, massive pressure was again applied to the members of the Security Council. The US Ambassador to Mexico warned that if Mexico didn’t support the US it could alienate members of the US Congress. “Relatively straightforward issues related to Mexico” might be “difficult to pass”, he said. President George Bush was blunter, absurdly telling the Mexican President Vicente Fox “I want your vote, the security of the United States is at stake”.

Alongside this bullying diplomacy, the US, working with the UK, instituted a ‘dirty tricks’ spying campaign against the Security Council – involving the interception of the home and office telephones and emails of UN delegates – which was heroically uncovered by Government Communications Headquarters’s whistleblower Katharine Gun.

“When the United States leads, the United Nations will follow”, noted John Bolton, Under-Secretary of State for International Organizations under President George H Bush, in 1994. “When it suits our interest to do so, we will do so. When it does not suit our interests we will not.” This arrogant pick ’n’ mix attitude to working with the UN is also held by members of the Democratic Party establishment, with Madeleine Albright, the US Ambassador to the UN under President Clinton, telling the Security Council “We will act multilaterally when we can and unilaterally as we must.”

Sadly, the undemocratic structure of the UN is reflected in the secretive and opaque process used to choose the Secretary-General. Traditionally the Secretary-General has been chosen behind closed doors by the Security Council, and then presented to the General Assembly for approval.  There is no public record of these discussions except for brief communiques from the Security Council President, and at any point the P5 can veto a candidate.

Borger notes Ki-moon was the US’s preferred candidate ten years ago. During the recently concluded contest, Borger maintains Vuk Jeremic, the ex-Serbian foreign minister, will likely have been vetoed by Washington because of his opposition to an independent Kosovo.

However, it is not all doom and gloom: there are chinks of hope in this relentless pursuit of national interest and power. Proposals for reform have been repeatedly raised by many nations.

Conveniently, in the West ‘reform’ has largely been interpreted at considering the UN’s financial management and inefficiencies. Writing in her essential 1996 book Calling the Shots: How Washington Dominates Today’s UN, Phyllis Bennis has a different take: “The key UN problem… is the question of power.” Suggestions to equalise the existing rank power imbalance include enlarging the Security Council to be more representative of the planet’s population; restricting the Security Council’s currently wide mandate; curtailing or abolishing the P5’s veto power; and empowering the General Assembly.

One small victory was the opening up of the process to appoint Guterres himself, with the contest beginning with all the candidates publicly explaining their ideals and intentions to the General Assembly – the first time this has happened. This increased transparency arose from pressure applied by the 1 For 7 Billion movement, a campaign supported by 750 organisations across the world working for “an open and inclusive selection process, with genuine involvement by all UN Member States.”

The Security Council still got to choose the final candidate but it is a small step in the right direction. “What we are doing is raising the costs for the permanent five of parachuting a candidate in at the last moment”, Natalie Samarainghe, the Executive Director of the United Nations Association UK, told The Guardian last year. “So it could still be a stitch-up but it wouldn’t happen without an outcry.”

Covering Western foreign policy: the Morning Star versus The Guardian

Covering Western foreign policy: the Morning Star versus The Guardian
by Ian Sinclair
Medium
29 December 2016

Earlier this month the Morning Star newspaper found itself in the middle of a media shitstorm. The trigger was their front page headline about the final stages of the battle of Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city: ‘Final liberation of Aleppo is in sight’.

The response from some Labour MPs and liberal commentators was immediate and indignant. ‘Absolute disgrace’, tweeted Tom Blenkinsop MP. ‘All parliamentarians, especially party leaders, should condemn false propaganda as was displayed in the Morning Star. People are being murdered not liberated’, Jess Phillips MP argued. Writing the next day in The Guardian Owen Jones noted ‘Yesterday’s front page of the Morning Star rightly provoked revulsion when it described Aleppo’s fall as a “liberation”’. The Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland was similarly critical, as was fellow columnist George Monbiot, who retweeted Jones’s column. Paul Mason, also a regular at The Guardian, went one further tweeting the following challenge: ‘Dear NUJ colleagues at Morning Star: in what world does cheering on a war crime conform to union code of practice? Or any form of socialism?’

(Full disclosure: While I write for the Morning Star, I do not agree with the Morning Star’s front page description of what’s happening in Aleppo. Accordingly, I wrote a letter to the paper stating this, which was published on their letters page — like other letters I’ve recently written critical of their Syria coverage.)

To make sense of this uproar, it is useful to compare the reaction to the Morning Star front page on Aleppo to a recent three-page leading article in The Guardian’s Review section. With the front page of the Review section depicting a very presidential-looking Barack Obama next to the headline ‘Amazing Grace’, The Guardian asked seventeen leading authors to reflect on Obama’s legacy.

Before I consider the writers’ contributions, it’s worth stating some basic facts about the first black president’s time in office. Since 2008 the Obama Administration has bombed seven Muslim-majority countries (Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Syria, Yemen and Somalia), escalating the war in Afghanistan, and massively expanding the secret war in Somalia. In 2012 the New York Times reported that Obama had ‘embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties’ of US drone strikes that ‘in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants.’ US counter-terrorism officials insisted this approach is based on simple logic, the New York Times explained: that ‘people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good.’ According to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee the 2011 US-NATO bombing of Libya led to ‘political and economic collapse, inter-militia and inter-tribal warfare, humanitarian and migrant crises, widespread human rights violations, the spread of Gaddafi regime weapons across the region and the growth of ISIL [Islamic State] in North Africa’. In Syria, Obama has been carrying out an illegal bombing campaign against Islamic State, and has provided extensive military support to Syrian rebels trying to overthrow the Syrian government, and given a wink and a nod to Saudi Arabia and Qatar to send in arms to, thus playing a key role in escalating and prolonging the conflict.

The Obama Administration has supported Saudi Arabia’s attack on Yemen, with the Yemen Data Project reporting that one third of Saudi Arabian-led air raids have hit civilian sites such as school buildings, hospitals, markets and mosques. With the US providing logistical and intelligence support to the Saudi-led coalition, the war has played a key role in creating a dire humanitarian emergency, with the UN estimating as early as June 2015 that 20 million Yemenis — nearly 80 percent of the population — were in urgent need of food, water and medical aid. More broadly, the Obama administration has offered to sell $115bn worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia over its eight years in office, making Obama ‘the most enthusiastic arms salesman to Saudi Arabia in American history’, according to Senior Brookings Institution Fellow Bruce Riedel. Turning to the US’s other major regional ally, Obama has protected Israel more times at the United Nations than any other US president, recently agreeing a record $38 billion, 10-year US military aid deal with Israel.

At the tail end of George W Bush’s presidency US Special Forces were deployed in 60 countries. Under Obama today they are deployed in 135 countries — presumably why muckraker Matt Taibbi sees the US presidential race as being about choosing the next ‘imperial administrator’.

At home Obama ‘has waged a war against whistleblowers and official leakers’, according to Spencer Ackerman and Ed Pilkington. ‘On his watch, there have been eight prosecutions under the 1917 Espionage Act — more than double those under all previous presidents combined.’ In April 2011 more than 250 American legal scholars signed a letter protesting against the Obama Administration’s treatment of Chelsea Manning arguing her ‘degrading and inhumane conditions’ were illegal, unconstitutional and could even amount to torture. Described by some immigration NGOs as the ‘Deporter in Chief’, between 2009 and 2015 the Obama removed more than 2.5 million people through immigration orders. ‘Based on statements so far, Trump’s plan to remove the undocumented immigrants who have committed crimes is similar to what President Obama declared in 2014’, ABC News noted in August 2016. On climate change — an existential threat to humanity — Obama’s actions have been wholly inadequate, with the US turning up at the crunch 2009 Copenhagen climate talks with a paltry offer to make 17 percent reductions in carbon emissions on 2005 levels by 2020 (in comparison the European Union pledged to reduce carbon emissions by 20 percent on 1990 levels by 2020). For Peter Brown, Assistant Director of the Quinnipiac University polling institute, this obstructionism was further proof Obama was ‘a conservative voice among world leaders’ on climate change.

So, what did the authors commissioned by The Guardian make of Obama’s time in office? ‘Brilliant and understated, urbane, witty, compassionate, composed, Barack Obama is a unique human being’, began Joyce Carol Oates’s contribution. Siri Hustvedt described Obama as ‘an elegant… moderate, morally upright’ black man. ‘Thank you for your grace, your intelligence, your curiosity, your patience, your respect for the constitution, your respect for people who don’t look like you or pray like you’, wrote Attica Locke. Pulitzer Prize winner Marilyn Robinson asserted Obama was ‘a deeply reflective man, an idealist whose ideal America is a process of advance and self-realisation.’ In the most critical piece, Gary Younge inverts reality, arguing Obama’s ‘victories saved the country from… war without end or purpose’. Noting that she opposed Obama’s use of ‘kill lists’, Professor Sarah Churchwell nevertheless felt the Obama family were ‘disciplined, distinguished, serious… there was not a whiff of scandal’. After he leaves office Churchwell hopes Obama will ‘keep fighting’ as he ‘remains a formidable champion to have on our side.’ Ending the contributions Aminatta Forna laments ‘The world will miss Obama. Deeply.’

I could quote many more lines from the contributions, but you get the picture: evidence-free eulogising from supposedly free-thinking, smart individuals whose worship of established power would shame Pravda. Yemen is never mentioned, nor is Pakistan or Somalia. Libya gets one mention — described by Lorrie Moore as something Obama ‘did not entirely succeed at’. Lionel Shriver provides the sole mention of Afghanistan, noting Obama has been ‘slow to get us out of the sinkhole of Afghanistan’. In short, the deadly impact of American military power is largely either ignored or downplayed.

Far from being an outlier, the authors’ shocking support for an American president who has caused the deaths of thousands of men, women and children, and destabilised entire countries, fits well with the Guardian’s broader coverage of the Obama Administration.

For example, a front-page Guardian article penned by Freedland about Obama’s July 2008 speech in Berlin breathlessly reported 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.’ In January 2011 Guardian columnist Madelaine Bunting argued Obama’s Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was advancing a US foreign policy with ‘an explicitly feminist agenda’. In April 2015 a Guardian editorial referred to ‘the Obama-esque oath to first do no harm’. A year before Assistant Editor and foreign affairs specialist Simon Tisdall chided Obama for his ‘retreat from attachment to the imperious might, the responsibilities and the ideals that once made America an unrivalled and deserving superpower.’ Tisdall has form — in December 2013 he wrote of the ‘good causes for which western soldiers bravely fought and died’ in Afghanistan. What are these, you ask? Tisdall explains: ‘creating and safeguarding the space for extending women’s rights, human rights in general, universal education and child healthcare.’ World Affairs Editor Julian Borger went one better in July 2012, making the extraordinary claim that the US’s ‘military and civilian assistance’ to Egypt was ‘an investment in Middle East peace.’

On Syria, The Guardian has repeatedly downplayed the US’s extensive intervention in the ongoing war. Shockingly, The Guardian’s report of a July 2016 US airstrike that killed at least 73 Syrian civilians — the majority women and children, according to activists — appeared as a small report at the bottom of page 22. In May 2013 Tisdall provided a perfect case study for Mark Curtis’s concept of basic benevolence — how the ideological system promotes the idea Western foreign policy is driven by high principles and benign intentions — when he asserted Obama ‘cannot count on Russian (or, therefore, Chinese or UN security council) support to fix Syria.’

If, as Professor of Journalism Robert Jensen argues, the role of mainstream journalism in a democratic society is ‘to analyse and critique systems of power to help ordinary people take greater control over our lives’, then large sections of The Guardian’s reporting of the Obama Administration has failed miserably.

But now I am downplaying things: if one seriously considers the level of devastation, death and misery around the world the Obama Administration is responsible for, then The Guardian’s ongoing support for/ignoring/downplaying (pick one) of these crimes becomes nothing less than obscene. But while there were howls of outrage at the Morning Star’s front page on the war in Aleppo, there is a telling silence when it comes to the more subtle pro-US government propaganda pumped out by the far more influential Guardian. The Morning Star’s headline was simply unacceptable to the liberal commentariat. In contrast, The Guardian’s often positive coverage of Obama is considered a legitimate part of the broader media debate.

The difference, of course, is all about politics — who is doing the killing and who is being killed. ‘A propaganda system will consistently portray people abused in enemy states as worthy victims’, argue Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky in their seminal 1988 book Manufacturing Consent. In contrast ‘those treated with equal or greater severity by its own government or clients will be unworthy. The evidence of worth may be read from the extent and character of attention and indignation.’ And, of course, it’s all about which newspaper is doing the reporting — the small circulation, cash-strapped and generally left-wing Morning Star or the liberal, establishment newspaper that publishes the work of — and pays the salaries of — Jones, Freedland, Monbiot and Mason.

 

Spotlight on Saudi: interview with Medea Benjamin

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

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

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

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

Buying silence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Divest Saudi money

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

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

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

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

 

Refocusing our attention on Western airstrikes in the Middle East

Refocusing our attention on Western airstrikes in the Middle East
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
11 November 2016

The claim by Jeremy Corbyn’s spokesman that the government’s focus on Russian airstrikes in Syria “diverts attention” away from other “atrocities”, including those committed by the West, created a backlash in liberal circles.

“Jeremy is unwilling to face up to the role that Putin’s Russia is playing in Syria”, said Labour MP Angela Smith. Alice Ross from the independent monitoring group Airwars took a different tack, jumping to the conclusion Corbyn was making a direct comparison between Russian and Western airstrikes, even though his spokesman had explicitly said he was not drawing a “moral equivalence” between the two. “Russia and the [Western] coalition are fighting different wars when it comes to civilians”, Airwars Director Chris Woods responded. The US-led coalition tries to limit civilian deaths, he noted, “while everything we understand about the way Russia is behaving shows they are deliberately targeting civilians, civilian infrastructure”.

Building on this straw man, the Guardian’s Emma Graham-Harrison penned an article ‘Reality check: are US-led airstrikes on Syrians as bad as Russia’s?’ Corbyn’s “remarks implied the casualties were comparable”, noted Graham-Harrison mistakenly, “and that coalition attacks had been ignored by politicians, rights groups and the media in the west.”

One wonders why Graham-Harrison felt the need to ask about the media’s coverage of Western airstrikes when her own Guardian report about the July 2016 US airstrike that killed 73 civilians in northern Syria appeared as a tiny story tucked away at the bottom of page 22. Appearing on BBC Any Questions in August 2016, the broadcaster and publisher Iain Dale noted UK airstrikes in Syria “haven’t killed people… because they are precision airstrikes” – an assertion that fellow panellist Labour MP Chuka Umunna agreed with. Similarly, backing the Tory Government in December 2015, Labour MP Dan Jarvis made the extraordinary claim that there had been no civilian casualties in over 300 UK airstrikes in Iraq since summer 2014.

So what are the facts about the ongoing Western air campaign in the Middle East?

Two key bits of information are often missing from any discussions of the topic. First, in April 2016 USA Today reported that new rule changes meant “The Pentagon has approved airstrikes that risk more civilian casualties in order to destroy Islamic State targets”. Worryingly, this modification itself followed a 2014 report from Yahoo News that noted “strict standards President Obama imposed last year to prevent civilian deaths from US drone strikes will not apply to US military operations in Syria and Iraq.”

Second, the US and UK use highly questionable methods to monitor the number of civilian casualties. In 2012 the New York Times reported that Obama has “embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties” of US drone strikes that “in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants.” US counterterrorism officials insisted this approach is based on simple logic, the New York Times explains: that “people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good.” Not to be outdone by their American allies, in January 2016 the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) told the Sunday Herald that it only investigates reports of deaths on the ground in Syria and Iraq coming from “UK military personnel, and ‘local forces’ deemed friendly.”

This, then, is presumably why the MoD recently claimed they had killed 1,700 Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria since 2014 but no civilians. These figures were “an estimate based on ‘post-strike analysis’ and has not been confirmed by visits to the targeted areas”, the BBC noted. Responding to these fantastical figures Woods argued that if the MoD’s claims were true, it was “unprecedented in the history of modern warfare”. Woods also provided a pertinent comparison: “Britain is in the uncomfortable position of being in the same position as Russia in claiming that large numbers of air strikes have killed no civilians.” In contrast, Airwars’s own analysis shows the US-led coalition has conducted 16,008 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria since 2014, killing an estimated minimum of 1,749 to 2,608 civilians.

Western governments – rarely questioned by a pliant media and intellectual class – have a long and shameful record of aerial bombardment and indifference to the hundreds of thousands of men, women and children they have killed.

“The aim of the Combined Bomber Offensive… should be unambiguously stated [as] the destruction of German cities, the killing of German workers, and the disruption of civilised life throughout Germany”, noted Arthur Harris, Commander of RAF Bomber Command, in 1943 (his statue was erected in London in 1992). Discussing the US bombing of Japanese cities in the same war, US Secretary of War Henry Stimson confided to President Truman that the US could “get the reputation of outdoing Hitler in atrocities”.

Between 1965 and 1973 the US dropped 2.7 million tons of explosives on Cambodia – “more than the Allies dropped in the entirety of World War II”, according to Henry Graber writing in Atlantic magazine in 2013. “Estimates of the number of people killed begin in the low hundreds of thousands and range up from there, but the truth is that no one has any idea.” Neighbouring Laos also bore the brunt of US military aggression during this period, with the US dropping more than two million tons of ordnance in an astonishing 580,000 bombing missions, apparently making Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history.

Visiting Iraq following the 1991 Gulf War, Dr Eric Hoskins, the coordinator of a Harvard study team, noted the US-led bombardment had “effectively terminated everything vital to human survival in Iraq – electricity, water, sewage systems, agriculture, industry and health care”. Ten years later during the US-UK bombing of Afghanistan, the Chief of the UK Defence Staff exhibited a touching level of trust in the efficiency of the country’s political system, declaring “The squeeze will carry on until the people of the country themselves recognise that this is going to go on until they get their leadership changed.” In Pakistan, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism found the US Central Intelligence Agency has carried out “double-tap” drone strikes – the tactic of deliberately targeting rescuers at the scene of a previous drone strike.

The US bombed a hospital and clinic in Fallujah in 2004, and the US-supported Iraqi government reportedly used US helicopters to drop barrel bombs on the city in 2014. The 600 airstrikes carried out by the US between July and December 2015 in Ramadi played a key role in destroying nearly 80 percent of the city. One third of Saudi Arabian-led air raids in Yemen have hit civilian sites such as school buildings, hospitals, markets and mosques. The UK supports “the Saudis in every practical way short of engaging in combat”, then UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said in April 2015.

Like Woods, I agree that the evidence suggests Russian bombing in Syria is deliberately targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure. However, as a British citizen, I also believe my primary concern should be the actions of the UK and its allies. And it is clear Western airstrikes in the Middle East since 2014 have killed thousands of civilians, including hundreds of children: a deeply upsetting reality largely ignored or downplayed by the mainstream media, government and Labour MPs like Dan Jarvis and Chuka Umunna.

Comparing the West with Russia is simplistic and unhelpful (since when did Russia become the moral baseline to judge the West’s actions by?) Instead we need a more intelligent, nuanced and honest analysis of the morality of Western airstrikes. Because while the US and UK are not, it seems, deliberately targeting civilians in Iraq and Syria, neither is it satisfactory to simply state the US and UK are doing everything they can to minimise civilian casualties, and that any so-called “collateral damage” is accidental.

In reality the West carries out air campaigns comprised of thousands of airstrikes in the full knowledge it will kill non-combatants, and then goes to significant lengths to ignore – that is, cover-up – the existence of those dead civilians.

So, how should concerned citizens define this kind of behaviour? Violence, a callous disregard for the safety of others, a lack of empathy, deceitfulness, the failure to conform to social norms and respect the law – arguably the US and UK’s governments continued bombing in the Middle East exhibits many of the commonly understood symptoms of psychopathy.

Book review. Kingdom of the Unjust: the US-Saudi connection by Medea Benjamin

Book review. Kingdom of the Unjust: the US-Saudi connection by Medea Benjamin
by Ian Sinclair
Red Pepper
September 2016

Having campaigned against the ‘war on terror’ and penned a book on drone warfare in 2012, American CODEPINK activist Medea Benjamin has turned her attention to the United States’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, one of its closest allies.

Set out in an accessible self-answered Q&A-style format, the book’s first half summarises the political, economic and social conditions in the theocratic Gulf monarchy. All public gatherings are prohibited, with no freedom of worship and a near total intolerance of dissent. Trade unions are banned, the death penalty implemented for non-violent crimes and women continue to be treated as minors who must be supervised by a male relative. Reform is painfully slow. For example, women only gained the right to ride a bike in 2013, and only then in “recreational areas” accompanied by a male guardian.

Why would the self-proclaimed home of democracy and freedom support such an oppressive regime? Benjamin explains that US President Franklin D. Roosevelt met with the Saudi king in 1945 to agree access to the Kingdom’s vast oil supplies in return for security and military support. Since then, “one by one, US presidents promised to keep Saudi Islamist theocracy in power”, she notes. Under the US’s protective umbrella Saudi Arabia has spent huge sums of money exporting Wahhabism, their extremist version of Islam, most notably backing jihadists in Afghanistan in the 1980s. In 2014 the US Vice-President noted Saudi Arabia, along with Qatar and UAE, was financing and arming Al-Qaeda in Syria.

More broadly, Saudi Arabia has been a key counter-revolutionary force in the Arab Spring, acting to crush democratic movements in Bahrain and Egypt. In Yemen, the US-backed Saudi war on the Houthi rebels has caused thousands of civilian deaths and a deadly humanitarian emergency. “Experts say the [Saudi-led] coalition would be grounded if Washington withheld its support”, the New York Times noted recently.

Though largely ignored by the British media, the UK Government is also providing support to its close ally Saudi Arabia, and therefore also bears significant responsibility for the on-going Yemen catastrophe.

With Saudi Arabia very sensitive to international criticism, Benjamin urges concerned citizens in the West to support democratic activists in the Kingdom and put pressure on their own political masters. Our responsibility in the West is “to make sure our governments get of their way as they attempt to transform their own nation”, she argues.

A brilliant primer.

Kingdom of the Unjust: the US-Saudi connection by Medea Benjamin is published by OR books, priced £13.

Enabling a humanitarian crisis: the UK and US in Yemen

Enabling a humanitarian crisis: the UK and US in Yemen
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
20 July 2015

On 25 March 2015 a Saudi Arabian-led coalition began bombing the Gulf state of Yemen. According to Saudi Arabia the intervention was in support of the US and Saudi-backed Yemen President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who had been overthrown by supposedly Iranian-backed Houthi rebels allied to Hadi’s predecessor – the US-backed Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The Saudi bombing campaign has been relentless and largely indiscriminate. According to a joint statement made by 18 Yemen scholars “the targets of the campaign include schools, homes, refugee camps, water systems, grain stores, and food industries.” In May, CNN noted “The Saudi Press Agency reported that the latest attack against Houthi rebels in Yemen – 130 airstrikes in a 24-hour period – included the targeting of schools and hospitals.”

The World Health Organisation estimates 3,083 people have died and 14,324 wounded since the start of the attack. UN agencies report that over one million people have been displaced by the fighting.

It gets worse. In April the United Nations High Commissioner warned Yemen was “on the verge of total collapse”. By June the situation had deteriorated significantly, with the UN estimating that 20 million Yemenis, nearly 80 percent of the population, were in urgent need of food, water and medical aid. According to a superb report in the Guardian by Julian Borger it was “a humanitarian disaster that aid agencies say has been dramatically worsened by a naval blockade” imposed by the Saudi-led coalition.

“The blockade means it’s impossible to bring anything into the country”, said Oxfam’s humanitarian programme manager in Sana, Yemen’s capital. “The situation is deteriorating, hospitals are now shutting down, without diesel.” Save the Children’s director of programmes in Yemen offered a similarly bleak assessment: “Children are dying preventable deaths in Yemen because the rate of infectious diseases is rising”. Citing Save the Children, Borger noted that cholera is on the rise and a dengue fever outbreak has been reported in the port city of Aden.

What has been the UK’s response to this human-made catastrophe? If one believed government statements about the UK fighting terrorism and promoting democracy and human rights in the Middle East, one would presume the UK is strongly opposed to Saudi actions in Yemen.

The shocking reality is the UK is supporting Saudi Arabia as it batters and destabilises Yemen. “We’ll support the Saudis in every practical way short of engaging in combat”, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said in April. What did this mean in practice? Hammond explained: “Political support, of course, logistical and technical support.”

This support comes on the back of huge British arms sales to Saudi Arabia, making the most fundamentalist nation on the planet Britain’s largest customer for weapons. This means, as Bahrain Watch’s John Horne recently explained, “British-made Typhoon fighter jets scream through Yemen’s skies, flown by British-trained Saudi pilots, dropping British-made bombs on the poorest country in the region.”

The US is also backing the attack, providing logistical and intelligence support to the Saudi-led coalition. “American military planners are using live intelligence feeds from surveillance flights over Yemen to help Saudi Arabia decide what and where to bomb”, the Wall Street Journal reported in March.

Borger notes in the Guardian that the naval blockade causing misery and death in Yemen has “US and British backing.” However, he goes on to explain “Washington and London have quietly tried to persuade the Saudis… to moderate their tactics, and in in particular to ease the blockade”. What other nation responsible for such mass slaughter, one wonders, receives a quiet word in the ear from the US and UK rather than outraged public denouements? With the UN declaring its highest-level of humanitarian emergency in Yemen earlier this month, the US and UK’s delicate persuasive tactics have clearly had little effect. According to the UN more than 21.1 million people now need aid, with 13 million facing “a food security crisis” and 9.4 million with little or no access to water.

Coupled with the likely use of British-made jets in the Saudi Arabian bombing of Yemen in 2009, Britain’s current support for Saudi aggression is part of Britain’s broader strategy in the region. “With the US keen to reduce its military presence in the Gulf, the UK is preparing to fill the gap, restoring its former links, returning to ‘East of Suez’”, Richard Norton-Taylor, the Guardian’s defence and security specialist, argues.

The British Government is only able to get away with enabling a humanitarian crisis of this size because the media has largely failed to adequately report on the crisis in Yemen. And when the media does cover the conflict the UK’s support for the death and destruction is rarely mentioned. Dr Florian Zollmann, a Lecturer in Media at Liverpool Hope University, has found a number of other disturbing patterns in the media coverage. Analysing how the quality US and UK press reports the conflict in Yemen, Zollmann notes “the Anglo-American news media has largely failed to investigate the legality of the intervention” or the fact “Saudi Arabia hardly constitutes a benevolent and stabilizing force.”

Faced with a defacto media blackout of the role of the UK and US in the Saudi attack on Yemen, it is important progressives who are aware of the reality shout about it as loudly as possible. Ultimately it is only public pressure that can halt the UK support for the Saudi bombing campaign and push the government to urge the UN Security Council to agree a resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire and negotiations to resolve the conflict.