Tag Archives: Yemen

Praising Alistair Burt and forgetting the bloodbath in Yemen

Praising Alistair Burt and forgetting the bloodbath in Yemen
by Ian Sinclair

Morning Star
8 April 2019

“I’ve never encountered any group more driven by group-think and rank-closing cohesion than British journalists”, US writer Glenn Greenwald tweeted in September 2015.

In addition to the media, the recent response to Alistair Burt MP resigning from his position as Minister of State for the Middle East over the government’s handling of Brexit shows this herd-like behaviour also infects sections of civil society and apparently progressive politicians.

“Many disagree with UK policy in the Middle East but he has a reputation for even handedness”, tweeted the Guardian’s Diplomatic Editor Patrick Wintour. “Big blow to FCO [Foreign & Commonwealth Office].” Laura Kuenssberg, the BBC’s Political Editor echoed these thoughts, noting Burt was a “well respected foreign office minister.” Minutes later Scottish National Party MP Alison Thewliss tweeted her own tribute: “Alistair Burt attended pretty well every debate on Yemen and helped as much as he could.” Tom Copley, Labour Party London Assembly member chipped in: “I’ve heard nothing but good things about Alistair Burt.” A Communications staffer in the Labour Party, Tom Hinchcliffe, tweeted that though he disagreed with their politics “ministers like Alistair Burt are genuinely decent people. They believe what they say and they’re in it for the right reasons.”

“Sad to hear that @AlistairBurtUK has resigned… a loss to Middle East diplomacy”, tweeted James Denselow, the Head of Conflict Team at Save The Children UK.

As Morning Star readers will know, Burt, as the Middle East Minister from 2017-2019, has played a central and very public role in British policy on Yemen, a nation engulfed in war after the Saudi-led coalition started bombing the country in March 2015 in support of deposed President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi.

Two years later, in March 2017, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs announced Yemen was “the largest humanitarian crisis in the world”.

Out of a population of 29.3 million, nearly 17.8 million people were food insecure and 8.4 million were on the brink of famine, according to a September 2018 report by the Office of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR): “Since April 2017, a cholera epidemic has swept through Yemen at an unprecedented scale.”

The crisis is fundamentally man-made, with the Saudi-led coalition implementing a brutal blockade of Yemen, stopping vital goods entering the country. “These delays are killing children”, Grant Pritchard, interim country director for Save the Children in Yemen, said in March 2017. “Our teams are dealing with outbreaks of cholera, and children suffering from diarrhoea, measles, malaria and malnutrition. With the right medicines these are all completely treatable – but the Saudi-led coalition is stopping them getting in. They are turning aid and commercial supplies into weapons of war.”

Indeed, in November 2018 Save the Children estimated approximately 85,000 children under five may have died from extreme hunger or disease in Yemen since March 2015.

According to the OHCHR report the Saudi-led coalition airstrikes “have been and continue to be the leading direct cause of civilian deaths and destruction of civilian infrastructure in the conflict.” This fits with the 2016 findings of the Yemen Data Project – that one third of Saudi-led air raids had hit civilian sites such as school buildings, hospitals, markets and mosques. By October 2018 the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project was estimating 56,000 people had been killed between January 2016 and October 2018.

What has been the UK’s role in this mass slaughter?

“We’ll support the Saudis in every practical way short of engaging in combat”, then UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said in April 2015. “Political support, of course, logistical and technical support.”

Unusually in foreign affairs, the UK government has kept its word. Asked “What do you think the UK can do more in the realm of helping the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen?”, Burt told Majella magazine in 2018 “At the moment it’s difficult to see what more we can do.”

In terms of armaments, in February the House of Lords Select Committee on International Relations noted the UK has licensed £4.7 billion of arms exports to Saudi Arabia since March 2015. Britain’s seemingly bottomless support for the absolute monarchy even went as far as the UK Foreign Secretary recently lobbying Germany to resume their arms sales to the Kingdom following a ban after the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Speaking to the House of Lords Select Committee Burt said he wanted to make it “very clear” that the UK was “not a party to the military conflict as part of the coalition.” However, last month The Mail on Sunday revealed British Special Forces had been wounded in combat fighting against Houthi rebels. The report notes “The SBS [Special Boat Service] mentoring teams inside Yemen include… Forward Air Controllers (FACs), whose job is to request air support from the Saudis.”

Britain’s rapacious role in Yemen is quite simply “the worst thing that the British government is doing today”, Dr David Wearing, a Teaching Fellow in International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London, argued in a 2017 Novara Media video. “Make no mistake: the British role here is not trivial. If the considerable assistance that our government is providing to the Saudis was to be removed it would seriously impede the Saudi war effort.”

Burt, then, as the UK’s Minister of State for the Middle East, was up to his neck in the blood of tens of thousands of Yemeni men, women and children. Not according to Laura Kuenssberg though, who called him a “well respected foreign office minister”, or Save The Children’s James Denselow, who shockingly called Burt’s resignation “a loss to Middle East diplomacy.” Never has Mark Curtis’s concept of “Unpeople” been so apt: “the modern equivalent of the ‘savages’ of colonial days, who could be mown down by British guns in virtual secrecy, or else in circumstances where the perpetrators were hailed as the upholders of civilisation.”

As the American historian Howard Zinn once noted “The truth is so often the reverse of what has been told us by our culture that we cannot turn our heads far enough around to see it.”

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

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Why Gulf Wealth Matters to the UK: David Wearing interview

Why Gulf Wealth Matters to the UK: David Wearing interview
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
9 November 2018

In his new book Dr David Wearing, a Teaching Fellow in International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London, argues the UK’s relationship with the authoritarian GCC states (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates) is one of “asymmetric interdependence”: the UK and the Gulf monarchies depend upon each other, but it is the UK that is in the stronger position.

Providing a historical analysis starting from the British Empire’s dominant position in the Gulf, AngloArabia: Why Gulf Wealth Matters to Britain explains how “British power has been an important factor (among others) in the promotion and preservation of monarchical rule in the region”, which, in turn, has assisted the UK maintaining its global power status since the demise of the British Empire.

Ian Sinclair questioned Wearing about the UK’s interest in the region’s energy reserves, its role in the Gulf during the 2011 Arab uprisings and how the relationship between the UK and Gulf may change in the short and long-term.

Ian Sinclair: You argue that the UK’s interest in the Gulf’s vast oil and gas reserves is not about “direct energy supply” to the UK. Can you explain why this is, and what the UK’s interest is really about?

David Wearing: Britain imported a lot of oil from the Middle East during the post-war years, but this tailed off significantly from the 1970s as North Sea oil came on stream. At this point, we import a little more than we export, and only about 3% of our imports come from Saudi Arabia, less from the other Gulf states. However, gas is an important part of the UK’s energy mix, and imports from Qatar comprise about 13% of our gas consumption.

Gulf oil does matter to the UK, but in different ways. First there’s the structural power in the world system that major states gain from control over hydrocarbons – the lifeblood of the industrialised world economy. Those sorts of geopolitical questions are slightly above the pay-grade of post-imperial Britain, but are of real relevance for the global hegemon, the United States, and the UK of course supports and complements US power in the Gulf. A reasonably stable flow of oil out of the Gulf is also important to the world economy (and thus to British capitalism, with its extensive global connections) since price shocks can be hugely disruptive. And Gulf oil remains a major commercial prize for two of the UK’s leading firms, BP and Shell.

But as I argue in the book, what the UK is interested in above all is the wealth that Gulf oil sales generate, and how it can use the connections developed with the Gulf Arab monarchies during the imperial era to attract those “petrodollars” into the British economy and arms industry.

The move to neoliberalism, and the consequent growth of the City of London alongside the decline of manufacturing export industry, has left Britain with a large and growing current account deficit. That’s the deficit between income and outgoings related to trade and investment that the UK has with the rest of the world. Running such a deficit puts downward pressure on your currency, which can be offset in two ways: first, by finding areas of the world where you can run a trade surplus, thus narrowing the overall deficit, and second, by attracting foreign inward investment, by which demand for assets in your own currency “finances” the deficit, and keeps your currency stable.

What I describe in my book is a process whereby, while neoliberalism in the UK was becoming more entrenched, the Gulf states were enjoying a huge windfall from oil prices, starting in the early 2000s and continuing until very recently. Gulf demand for imports of goods and services rocketed, as did the sovereign wealth they had available for investment. So British neoliberal capitalism and Gulf rentier capitalism came to complement each other. The UK provided the goods and services and the investment outlet that the Gulf monarchies required, while the Gulf monarchies provided an export market with which it was possible to build a trade surplus, as well as a source of capital inflows that could help finance the current account deficit.

In addition, about half of UK arms exports go to the Gulf, mainly to Saudi Arabia. Britain’s post-war strategic objective to remain a global military power despite the loss of empire requires it to maintain its own arms industry. Arms exports make that industry more economically viable, especially when we’re talking about the major, sophisticated weapons systems – military jets and the supporting infrastructure – that the UK provides to the Gulf monarchs. Those exports are a very small part of total UK exports worldwide – less than 1% – ad alternative employment could certainly be found for arms industry workers. This is not about economic benefits for the British people but the strategic priorities of the British state.

So “Gulf wealth matters to Britain”, as the book title says, but to a specific neoliberal, militaristic Britain. Gulf wealth could matter a lot less to the UK if we ran our economy differently and reconfigured our foreign relations.

IS: During the 2010-11 ‘Arab Spring’ there were significant pro-democracy protests in the Gulf, most notably in Bahrain. What was the UK’s response to these events?

DW: Notwithstanding the nominal “concerns” expressed by Whitehall about state abuses during the anti-democratic crackdown, the UK effectively took up the PR line of the Bahraini government: that the violence was down to sectarian divisions, that any abuses were regrettable mistakes, and that “reform” was now underway – led by the regime – to resolve matters. In reality, the uprising was broad based and democratic, the abuses were the predictable response of an authoritarian regime to the threat of democracy, and the “reforms” were designed to whitewash the regime’s international image and consolidate its position after that threat had been substantively extinguished. British arms sales increased during this period, and strategic military ties deepened considerably, in what was a visible vote of confidence in continued monarchical rule.

This was entirely consistent with the preceding two centuries of Britain’s involvement in the region. The Gulf was originally brought under the control of the British Empire as part of a wider buffer zone around the Indian subcontinent. Local rulers were given British protection, and through the crucial decades of state formation and development, especially as the oil revenues came in, the UK and increasingly the US played a decisive role in entrenching monarchical rule and building up the body and muscle of the coercive apparatus that blocked any prospect of socio-political change (despite the brave efforts of many of the region’s people).

In light of this, one can only attribute the common association of democracy with especially “Western values”, and the belief that authoritarianism springs from the region’s “culture”, to a refusal to look at the history, together with a deeply ingrained set of basically racist assumptions that frame many people’s understanding of our relationship with this part of the world.

IS: How might the economic and political responses needed to combat climate change alter the UK’s relationship with the Gulf?

DW: It’s increasingly understood that global decarbonisation is now a matter of urgency. Fundamentally, the majority of the world’s oil has to stay in the ground. Most Gulf oil goes to East Asia, and China in particular is making massive efforts to decarbonise. The oil-dependent Gulf monarchies could well be sitting on stranded assets, which means the petrodollars helping to prop up British neoliberalism and post-imperial militarism could soon begin to dry up. The UK needs to adapt to these realities.

IS: In the short-term, arguably the best chance for making significant and lasting positive change to the UK’s relationship with the Gulf monarchies is electing a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour government. How difficult would it be for a newly elected Labour government to shift the UK’s relationship with the GCC?

DW: As indicated above, these relationships are contingent, not inescapable. The Labour leadership’s aim of demilitarising UK foreign policy and transitioning away from neoliberalism fit well with – and would be decisive in making possible – a major rethink of UK relations with the Gulf Arab monarchs. The fact that it is achievable, however, does not mean that it wouldn’t be a challenge.

There are interests within the Labour Party committed to Britain maintaining a major arms industry, and its status as a military power. The 2017 manifesto was clearly a compromise between those interests and the Corbyn leadership. Sustaining that compromise results in the current line that Britain can compensate for ending arms sales to Saudi Arabia by selling an equivalent value of arms elsewhere. The reality is that alternative markets simply do not exist. Ending arms sales to the Gulf will undoubtedly impact on the UK arms industry and thus the UK’s ability to maintain its status as a military power. Corbyn and his allies will likely be fine with that, especially if they (correctly) believe that alternative jobs for arms industry workers could be created as part of the proposed industrial strategy. But they will be forced to stop triangulating on this issue area, and to take on and defeat the party right. If they frame that battle around what’s happening in Yemen they could mobilise the support of the mass membership and probably win.

On the wider economic dimensions, an export-oriented industrial strategy would over time obviate the need for petrodollar inflows to finance the current account deficit, but in the short and medium term that need might remain. The Saudis would have the option of retaliating against any cessation of UK arms supplies by pulling some of their investments, and Labour should at least be war-gaming such a scenario in advance of taking office. I suspect that, in their current position of weakness, especially after the Khashoggi murder, it’s doubtful that the Saudis would want to further alienate the Western allies upon whom they depend by taking such an aggressive action. I also suspect that a major programme of public investment under a Labour government would attract a good deal of foreign capital, which may well offset any withdrawal of Saudi and Gulf capital. But again, these are challenges that Labour would have to think through and prepare for.

The major misconception I’ve found when discussing my book in public and in the media is that the Gulf monarchs have decisive power over the UK and that there’s nothing policymakers can do about the relationship. That isn’t true. Recalibrating and disentangling these relationships is certainly possible. It won’t be easy, but the coming changes resulting from global warming make this challenge an inescapable one.

The propagandistic nature of the liberal media: Interview with Florian Zollmann

The propagandistic nature of the liberal media: Interview with Florian Zollmann
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
5 June 2018

Ian Sinclair interviews Dr Florian Zollmann, a Lecturer in Journalism at Newcastle University and author of the recent book Media, Propaganda and the Politics of Intervention (Peter Lang, 2017). Zollmann starts by setting out the main findings of his study.

Florian Zollmann: Leading news organisations in liberal democracies employ a double-standard when reporting on human rights violations: If countries designated to be ‘enemies’ of the West (in my study, I look at cases from the past including the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1999, Libya in 2011 and Syria in 2012) conduct human rights violations, the news media highlight these abuses and report demands for action to stop human rights breaches. Such measures may entail policies with potentially serious effects for the target countries, including sanctions and military intervention. If, on the other hand, Western states or their ‘allies’ (in my study, I look at cases from the past including the US-led Coalition in Iraq in 2004 and Egypt in 2013) are the perpetrators of human rights violations that are similar or in excess of those conducted by ‘enemies’, the news media employ significantly less investigatory zeal in their reporting and virtually no measures to stop abuses are suggested.

My study shows, on the basis of an assessment of extensive quantitative and textual data, that the news media utilise different journalistic norms in terms of how they convey emotional sentiment, handle facts and evidence, use sources and perspective and classify events. These journalistic double standards, then, translate into a radically dichotomised news framing of problem definitions, responsibility of actors and policy options in response to what constitute relatively similar human rights violations: Official ‘enemies’ are depicted as pariah states, facing international condemnation and intervention. Western states and their ‘allies’ are depicted as benign forces, which may at best be criticised for using the wrong tactics and policy approaches. The dynamics of such dichotomised propaganda campaigns have had the effect that only some bloodbaths received visibility and scrutiny in the public sphere.

In Libya, conflict between government and opposition groups erupted on 15 February 2011. By 23 February, Western newspapers had provided generous space for quotations by US, UK and EU government spokespersons as well as partisan actors who demanded intervention in Libya in accordance with the ‘responsibility to protect’ doctrine. The dominant news media discourse depicted the actions of the Libyan government as atrocious crimes, ordered by the highest levels of governance. The United Nations Security Council eventually authorised the 19 March 2011 NATO intervention in Libya.

Yet, whilst the International Criminal Court estimated that about 500-700 people had been killed in Libya in February, no independent investigation into the incidents had been conducted at the time of the NATO onslaught. As my study shows, the international press had acted as a facilitator for intervention in Libya. This so-called ‘humanitarian’ intervention was far deadlier than the violence that had preceded it. According to Alan J. Kuperman, ‘NATO intervention magnified the death toll in Libya by about seven to ten times’. Moreover, it turned out that Libyan security forces had not indiscriminately targeted protestors (see here). My study also shows how the pretext for intervention in Libya was discursively manufactured.

Another case study in my book looks at news media reporting of so-called US-Coalition ‘counter-insurgency’ operations during the occupation of Iraq. In October 2004, the respected medical journal The Lancet published a studysuggesting that 98,000 people had been killed during the US-Coalition invasion-occupation of Iraq between 19 March 2003 and mid-September 2004. The authors of the study wrote that the violent deaths ‘were mainly attributed to coalition forces’ and ‘most individuals reportedly killed by coalition forces were women and children’. On 8 November 2004, US-Coalition forces attacked the Sunni city Fallujah, the centre of Iraqi resistance against the occupation. US-Coalition air and ground forces used an array of heavy weaponry including artillery, tanks, helicopters, jets, heavy bombs, and other devices, like explosive coils to clear minefields, in residential areas. Fallujah was treated largely as a ‘free-fire zone’. It is estimated that during this assault between 800 and 6,000Iraqi civilians were killed.

As I document in my book, the Western press hardly reported these figures. The findings of the Lancet study were largely ignored and not linked with US-Coalition warfare in Iraq. In fact, the press depicted civilian carnage as ‘casualties’ – the tragic outcomes of ‘war’. Whilst the press included indignant statements by Iraqi actors and human rights organisations, there were almost no reports of any statements conveying policy options that would have put a constraint on the US-Coalition’s use of military force such as sanctions or measures in line with ‘responsibility to protect’.

IS: Why do elite newspapers in the West report foreign affairs in the way you describe?

FZ: The Western elite press draws heavily from government officials to define, explain and accentuate events. Such performance results from institutional imperatives: newspapers have to operate cost-effectively in the market system. The institutional requirement to make profits compromises journalistic standards, such as to report accurately and in a balanced way, to search for the ‘truth’, or to monitor the powerful. Markets incentivise the use of pre-packaged information provided by governments and powerful lobby groups. Nurturing such official news beats decreases the costs of newsgathering and fact-checking. Official statements are regarded as authoritative and their publication does not lead to reprimands.

Additionally, there has been a vast increase in government and corporate propaganda activities that feed into the news media cycle. If newspapers engage in critical investigations that undermine the official narrative, they face costly repercussions: denial of access to official spokespersons, negative responses by think-tanks and actors as well as the threat of libel suits. Because small losses in revenue may threaten their economic survival, news organisations are driven towards the powerful in society.

Commercial constraints are augmented by the integration of newspapers into quasi-monopoly corporations. According to the Media Reform Coalition, ‘Britain has one of the most concentrated media environments in the world, with 3 companies in control of 71% of national newspaper circulation and 5 companies in command of 81% of local newspaper titles.’ Such levels of media concentration encourage ideological homogenisation. For example, market concentration allows media owners to synchronise the news agenda and incentivises the recycling of information across different platforms. Corporate consolidation establishes market-entry barriers and prevents the launching of alternative newspapers. Finally, the commercial press is dependent on corporations that act as major advertising sponsors. The research I discuss in my book suggests that news organisations are inclined to not undermine the interests of their sponsors. Moreover, work by James Curran highlights how advertisers act as de-facto licensers: without advertising support, commercial news organisations go out of business.

IS: Did you find any significant differences between the US, UK and German press?

FZ: On a macro-level, there are strikingly similar reporting patterns in the US, UK and German press. This means that the dichotomised reporting patterns outlined above are replicated across countries independent of a newspaper’s national or ideological affiliation. Such a performance can be explained by the fact that US, UK and German news organisations are subject to the same economic constraints. Furthermore, US, UK and German governments share a similar ideological outlook in terms of US-led Western foreign policy objectives. We have seen numerous examples in recent years when the UK and German governments have supported US foreign policies, such as in Afghanistan and Iraq. The news media broadly reflect this alignment. Of course, there are also differences. National political interests manifest in reporting as well. For instance, the German press included tactical reservations about using military force in Libya. This appeared to reflect national elite disagreements, as German politicians preferred other policy options. There were also differences in the quantity and detail of coverage. The US press arguably provided the most comprehensive coverage in terms of the amount of published material. The ‘liberal’ UK press reported in more detail on humanitarian issues and was more critical of US-Coalition actions in Iraq – albeit not in a way that substantially challenged policy.

IS: The ongoing war in Yemen is not one of the case studies you analyse in your book. From what you have seen of the media coverage of the Yemen conflict, does it conform to your thesis?

FZ: As I have written elsewhere, the Yemen case fits well in the framework of my study. The humanitarian crisis is largely a consequence of the blockade and invasion of Yemen orchestrated by a Saudi-led military coalition. Saudi Arabia has been a close ally of the West. During the war in Yemen, the US and UK have provided substantial diplomatic and military support to Saudi Arabia. Consequently, there has been no willingness by the so-called ‘international community’ to put pressure on Saudi Arabia to stop its actions in Yemen and R2P and related doctrines have not been seriously evoked. This, then, has been reflected in muted news media coverage. Whilst reports and critical discussions about Saudi Arabia’s military conduct and the way civilian areas have been systematically targeted in Yemen have been published by the press, there has been no sustained campaign in the news media aimed at seriously constraining the Saudi military’s ability to use force. Comparing this with reporting on Syria, where the Western news media have been constantly featuring reports that include discussions about military and other forms of intervention, the double standards could not be more obvious.

IS: What advice would you give to interested citizens keen to get an accurate understanding of world affairs?

FZ: I am hesitant to recommend specific news outlets. It is important to draw from multiple and diverse sources of information and to question official announcements, narratives and ideologies, independent of where they come from.

The West’s use and abuse of human rights in foreign affairs

The West’s use and abuse of human rights in foreign affairs
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
16 January 2018

Last month news website Politico published an extraordinary leaked US government document concerning US foreign policy.

Written for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson by his senior policy adviser Brian Hook, the confidential May 2017 memo advises that “the US should use human rights as a club against its adversaries, like Iran, China and North Korea, while giving a pass to repressive allies like the Philippines, Egypt and Saudi Arabia,” Politico summarised.

“Allies should be treated differently — and better — than adversaries. Otherwise, we end up with more adversaries, and fewer allies,” argues Hook.

He continues: “We should consider human rights as an important issue in regard to US relations with China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran. And this is not only because of moral concern for practices inside those countries. It is also because pressing those regimes on human rights is one way to impose costs, apply counter-pressure and regain the initiative from them strategically.”

In addition to being a useful weapon to deploy against enemy states, the concept of human rights is also used to manipulate domestic public opinion.

Speaking to US academic Dr James Davidson about the 2001 US-led invasion of Afghanistan, a senior British intelligence official noted: “It is always helpful for governments who want to get the Guardian readers of the world on board to have a humanitarian logic.”

The US and British governments’ selective concern for human rights is broadly mirrored by the mainstream media.

Analysing the US media in their 1988 book Manufacturing Consent, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky look at “paired examples.”

For instance, they consider the different quantity and quality of coverage given to priests killed in Soviet Union-era Poland compared with religious figures murdered by US-backed dictatorships in Latin America, and the mass killing in Cambodia compared with the mass killing carried out by US client Indonesia in East Timor.

“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,” they conclude.

Dr David Wearing, a teaching fellow in international relations at Royal Holloway, University of London, recently highlighted a similar relationship between British commentators and the ongoing wars in Syria and Yemen.

Speaking on the Media Democracy podcast, he notes that although the conflicts are not identical, there is a high level of similarity: both are brutal, complex civil wars with large amounts of indiscriminate killing, lots of internal and external actors, which has led to the creation of huge humanitarian crises.

In Syria, the evidence suggests the Assad government and its allies are responsible for the majority of non-combatant deaths.

However, in Yemen — where “the cholera outbreak is probably the worst the world has ever seen,” according to the UN’s undersecretary-general and emergency relief co-ordinator — the main danger to civilians is from British ally Saudi Arabia, dropping British-made bombs from British-made warplanes.

Wearing goes on to observe: “We know all about Syria because Syria is on the front page of every newspaper, Syria is at the top of news bulletins, Syria is the subject of one op-ed after another saying: ‘Why don’t we do something about this, we should intervene’.”

Turning to the conflict in the Gulf, he asks: “Where is the coverage of Yemen? It’s not on the front pages, it’s not at the top of the news bulletins. You’ll struggle to find an opinion article about it in any of the major newspapers.” Indeed, he notes: “The very opinion writers who will be urging us to intervene in Syria … the liberal interventionist-types … [there is] not a word from people like that about Yemen.”

Searching David Aaronovitch’s Twitter timeline, I found that since Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen commenced in March 2015, The Times columnist has mentioned the word “Syria” in 75 tweets (this figure, and all the subsequent figures I quote, excludes retweets).

In contrast, I counted Aaronovitch had mentioned “Yemen” in a total of three tweets over the same period.

To put this government-friendly focus in context, since March 2015 Aaronovitch has tweeted about The Archers BBC Radio 4 soap opera at least 26 times.

In fact he seems to have tweeted about just one character, Ruth Archer, as much as he has tweeted about Yemen.

Looking at the tweets of other commentators produces similar findings. When, in December 2017, I searched the Twitter feed of @bobfrombrockley, a relatively influential blogger and tweeter among liberal interventionist types, I found 22 tweets mentioning “Yemen” since March 2015, over two-and-a-half years before.

However, @bobfrombrockley had mentioned “Syria” 22 times on Twitter since 11 December 2017 — only 11 days before I conducted my search.

On the left of the political spectrum, the editor of the Interventions Watch website conducted a search of Guardian columnist George Monbiot’s Twitter timeline in December 2017.

The results? He found Monbiot had mentioned “Syria” in 91 tweets and “Yemen” in just three tweets.

In one sense this uniformity of emphasis is an awe-inspiring phenomenon to behold. More seriously, the British commentariat’s relative silence has grave consequences for the population of Yemen — the British government’s support for the Saudi war machine can only continue with the British public’s acquiescence.

Therefore it is the job of activists and concerned citizens is to draw the public’s attention to Britain’s deadly role in Yemen.

Quaker peace activist Sam Walton raised the profile of the conflict when he made headlines with his attempted citizen’s arrest of Saudi Arabian general Ahmed al-Asiri in London in April 2017.

Similarly the Campaign Against Arms Trade applied pressure on the government with its — unfortunately unsuccessful — legal bid to force an end to British arms exports to Saudi Arabia.

And the Labour Party has also tried to call the government account, with leader Jeremy Corbyn and shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry — along with the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas and the Scottish National Party — raising Britain’s involvement in Yemen in Parliament.

These protests seem to have rattled the British Establishment. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson called the Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to personally apologise for Walton’s action, Middle East Eye reported.

In October, then defence secretary Michael Fallon told the House of Commons defence committee that “criticism of Saudi Arabia in … Parliament is not helpful” in securing future arms deals with the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia itself seems particularly sensitive to criticism, with the New York Times reporting in June 2016 that the then UN secretary-general “had essentially been coerced into removing [the] Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen from an ignoble list of armies that kill and maim children.”

According to the article, Ban Ki Moon “told reporters that he had been threatened with the loss of financing for humanitarian operations in the Palestinian territories, South Sudan and Syria if he did not temporarily delete the Saudi-led coalition from the list.”

To combat criticism about Yemen and the kingdom more generally, the Financial Times reported in September that Saudi Arabia plans “to set up public relations hubs in Europe and Asia as part of a new offensive to counter negative media coverage of the kingdom.”

The hubs in London, Paris, Berlin, Moscow, Beijing, Mumbai and Tokyo will “produce press releases, publish content on social media and invite ‘social influencers’ to visit Saudi Arabia.”

So the protests and pressure are having an effect — on both the British and Saudi Arabian governments.

These activities now need to be seriously ramped up to force the government to stop backing Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen.

As Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a 30-year veteran of the CIA, noted in 2016: “If the United States and the United Kingdom, tonight, told King Salman [of Saudi Arabia]: ‘This war has to end,’ it would end tomorrow. The Royal Saudi Air Force cannot operate without American and British support.”

Western foreign policy and the dangerous ignorance gap

Western foreign policy and the dangerous ignorance gap
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
20 December 2017

While the mainstream media’s self-serving obsession with so-called fake news and Russian interference in elections looks set to continue for a long time, a far more serious problem with Western journalism is being conveniently ignored.

This could be called the dangerous ignorance gap of Western foreign policy: the often huge gulf between the reality of what the US and UK do in the Middle East – painfully understood by the populations on the receiving end of Western interference – and the woeful level of awareness the American and British general public and commentariat have about these interventions.

The aggressive and illegal 2003 invasion of Iraq, and subsequent occupation, is a key site in understanding this divergence. According to a 2013 ComRes poll of the British public, 74 per cent of respondents estimated that less than 50,000 Iraqi combatants and civilians had died as a consequence of the war (59 per cent estimated less than 10,000 Iraqis had died). In comparison, a 2013 study published in PLOS medical journal estimated the war and occupation directly and indirectly claimed the lives of approximately 500,000 Iraqis between 2003 and 2011 – the answer given by just 6 per cent of respondents of the ComRes poll.

Since 2014 a US-led coalition has carried out 28,000 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria targeting Islamic State. The US military admits they have unintentionally killed 801 civilians in these strikes. In contrast, the independent monitoring group Airwars estimates US-led coalition strikes have in fact killed at least 5,961 civilians. After visiting 150 sites of coalition airstrikes, the journalists Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal discovered that one in five of the coalition strikes resulted in civilian death, “a rate more than 31 times that acknowledged by the coalition.” Amazingly, in July the UK government made the extraordinary claim to have caused no civilian casualties after carrying out 1,400 airstrikes – “a statistical impossibility”, said Airwars.

Turning to the ongoing conflict in Yemen, since 2013 the US and UK-backed Saudi-led coalition assault has killed thousands of civilians. A joint statement in July from the heads of UNICEF, the World Health Organisation and the World Food Programme stated Yemen is in the midst of “the world’s largest humanitarian crisis”. The July 2016 Washington Post headline ‘In Yemeni capital, signs of hatred toward Americans are everywhere’ shows Yemenis well understand the role of the West in destroying their country. “Perhaps in no other city is anti-Americanism in such full display today”, the report noted.

In contrast, a YouGov poll earlier this year found only 49 per cent of the British public had heard of the war in Yemen. And though it wasn’t asked in the poll, it seems likely a significant number of this 49 percent will not be aware of the UK’s despicable role in arming and supporting Saudi Arabia in the conflict. “There is a really interesting discrepancy liberal interventionist newspaper columnists talking about Syria and talking about Yemen”, Dr David Wearing, a Teaching Fellow in International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London, explained in a recent Media Democracy podcast. “As in they talk about one [Syria] and not about the other [Yemen] despite the fact we’ve got much more ability to do something about what is happening in Yemen than in the case of Syria.”

Western militaries have a vested interest in treating the public like mushrooms – keeping them in the dark and feeding them bullshit – and therefore deploy expensive and sophisticated public relations campaigns to engage the population. However, the supposedly independent and fiercely critical media also play a central role in the creation and maintenance of this deadly ignorance – often not reporting, or minimising the significance of, much of the reality of the West’s interventions around the world. For example The Guardian did report that a July 2016 US airstrike killed at least 73 Syrian civilians – the majority women and children, according to activists. However, the story appeared as a small report hidden away at the bottom of page 22 of the newspaper.

These omissions have a long history. “The press and politicians for the most part keep the people of this country in ignorance of the real treatment meted out to the natives”, Labour Party leader James Keir Hardie wrote in 1906.

The enormous distance between the reality of Western foreign policy and the Western publics’ understanding of what their governments do in their name is dangerous for two reasons. First, it’s deadly for those on the receiving end of Western military force. Western populations can only exert a humanising influence on Western foreign policy if they are aware of what’s going on. If Western wars in the Middle East are effectively hidden from view then they are more likely to continue. Second, it’s dangerous for the general public in the West because the ignorance gap is where anger about Western foreign policy festers and grows. It is, in short, the public, rather than the government actually implementing the policies, who bear the brunt of the enlarged terrorist threat to the UK that is massively boosted by UK actions abroad.

So if we want to reduce the chances of future London Bridges and Manchesters then we urgently need to educate ourselves and others about the death and destruction our governments are carrying out in the Middle East.

 

My favourite books of 2017

My favourite books of 2017
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
18 December 2017

Published a long twenty years since her Booker Prize winning debut novel The God Of Small Things, Indian writer Arundhati Roy’s new book The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (Hamish Hamilton) is a sprawling epic about contemporary India – from a guesthouse for trans women in Delhi, to grassroots protest movements and the dark arts of the intelligence services. Since her initial success, Roy has turned her attention to activist politics, eloquently questioning and criticising the government and corporate elites in her own country and across the world. These concerns worm their way into the narrative, evidenced by her vivid descriptions of India’s brutal actions in Kashmir and the perilous lives of those enduring and resisting the military occupation. Though it doesn’t quite reach the giddy heights of her first book, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’s ingrained left-leaning politics and its yearning friendships and romance between school friends make for an affecting literary journey.

Tom Mills’ The BBC: Myth of a Public Service (Verso) is an essential corrective to mainstream journalists and commentators blowing a gasket about fake news and alternative media. From the 1926 General Strike to the 2008 financial crisis, Mills, a Lecturer in Sociology and Policy at Aston University, highlights the BBC’s long history of towing the British establishment line on key issues. The censure of the BBC’s Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg by the BBC Trust for erroneously editing a 2015 interview with Jeremy Corbyn, the BBC’s shameful lack of coverage of the UK-enabled humanitarian crisis in Yemen, and the corporation’s North Korea-style coverage of Prince Harry’s recent engagement suggest little has changed.

Somewhat amateurish in its presentation, George Paxton’s Nonviolent Resistance to the Nazis (YouCaxton) is nevertheless one of the most important books I’ve ever read. While Western political culture unquestionably repeats the idea that violent struggle against Nazi Germany was the only option, Paxton, a trustee of the Gandhi Foundation, tells the stories of those who non-violently resisted the Nazis in Europe. Even in the most authoritarian circumstances there was, it turns out, opportunities to challenge – and sometimes win small, but important, changes to – Nazi policies. A 1941 strike in France against food shortages involving 100,000 miners won more food coupons, while in Berlin in 1943 the non-Jewish wives of Jews protested in the street and stopped the threatened deportation of their husbands. Fascinating and inspiring in equal measure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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