Wednesday, 26 June 2013

The Economist and Media Bias

I’ve read The Economist every week for years now, and every so often an article comes along which reminds me never to underestimate the newspaper’s ability to infuriate me with its incredible reserve of pro-Western war mongering. The July 22nd-28th issue featured a front cover with ‘Can Iran Be Stopped?’ plastered across it, the name of the main leader in the paper this week. It also contained a 3 page briefing on Iran’s nuclear programme.

The Economist has a proven track record at advocating every intervention and Western war our elites cook up, including the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, and intervention in Libya and Syria. The language it regularly uses about the need to ‘punish’ nations which ‘misbehave’ economically or politically often has more than a slight undertone of good-old British imperialism. This week’s leading story was another case study in the art of omission and distortion that the newspaper has mastered.

The main leader started with an effort to claim that the West should disregard the recent victory of Hassan Rohani in the Iranian presidential elections; Rohani was considered the moderate in the contest. We shouldn’t laud the new President’s calls for serious negotiation with the West according to the paper, as apparently ‘Iran’s regional assertiveness and its nuclear capacity mean that it is a more dangerous place than it ever was before’. By ‘regional’ they mean the Middle East, and a glance at Arab public opinion, the majority of citizens in the Middle East, shows that they actually consider the United States to be the biggest threat in the region, not Iran. According to a study by the Wilson Center and the United States Institute of Peace carried out in 2011, ‘Iran remained far behind… the United States: 59 percent identified the United States, and 18 percent identified Iran as one of the two greatest threats’ in the region. Other studies show similar, or even more pronounced results. Of course, The Economist has little regard for the ignorant opinions of the natives. That they consider the US to possess far more ‘regional assertiveness’ than Iran is irrelevant. That Israel is the only country with ‘nuclear capacity’- actually nuclear weapons- is also presumably irrelevant. Note also the construction of Iran as a ‘dangerous place’, not merely a dangerous state or government. The portrayal of enemies and far-away lands as mysterious and dangerous has a long tradition in Western journalism and writing.

The paper notes with implicit approval that Western-imposed sanctions have inflicted ‘severe economic pain… on Iran’s people’, ‘with 40% of Iranians thought to be living below the poverty line’; there is no comment on the fact that our actions are seriously harming the lives of millions of innocent Iranians.

It then provides a sober analysis of Obama’s recent decision to arm the rebels in Syria: ‘many believe the greater reason was [Obama’s] reluctance to see Mr Assad hold on to power as a client of Iran’s’. This cynical ‘real politic’ is actually applauded by the paper, which claims that a major reason to not only arm the rebels but to establish a no-fly zone over Syria is to ‘stem the rise of Persian power’. Apparently it is ‘not in the West’s interest that a state that sponsors terrorism and rejects Israel’s right to exist should become the regional hegemon’. That one of the West’s major allies in the region (Saudi Arabia) is probably a far greater sponsor of terrorism than Iran is of little importance to the paper. So presumably is the fact that Israel and the US have carried out terrorist assassinations of civilian scientists in Iran and sponsored exiled Iranian terrorist groups like MEK, something I wrote about briefly here. The historical context is utterly stripped from the article, and Iran is portrayed as the aggressive would-be hegemon in the region, a fantasy which ignores the elementary facts available to anyone who cares to look: namely that the US and Britain have sought to control the Middle East for their own interests, often with extreme aggression and terrorism, for decades. The piece ends with the battle cry: ‘When Persian power is on the rise, it is not the time to back away from the Middle East’; suggesting that there is some voluntary retreat from the Middle East by the Western powers, a fabrication unsurprisingly not elaborated on by the paper.

The briefing on Iran’s nuclear programme is somewhat more subtle, revealing in what it excludes rather than what it asserts. It follows the tradition of nearly every Western politician and journalist of the last decade and a half in hysterically asserting that the time is near when Iran will be able to acquire nuclear weapons- maybe true, but the humble reminder that people have been making that charge- falsely- for years, is again unsurprisingly missing from the paper’s piece. It presents Iran as making an ‘impossible demand’ in negotiations, ignoring the US role in scuppering potential deals and negotiations, something I wrote about here. It claims that ‘British and American intelligence sources think [Iran] is about a year away from having enough fissile material to make a bomb’, ignoring that it is the intelligence agency’s assessments (and the IAEA’s) that Iran hasn’t made the decision to attempt to get a bomb. Jacques Hymans wrote in Foreign Affairs the other month that ‘at the end of January, Israeli intelligence officials quietly indicated that they have downgraded their assessments of Iran's ability to build a nuclear bomb… Now, Israel believes that Iran will not have its first nuclear device before 2015 or 2016.’ That will probably be pushed back even further in the future.

It quotes a researcher at the highly establishment RAND Corporation, Greg Jones, and a more respectable source, David Albright, a former UN weapons inspector, to back up its arguments. It also references the oft-mentioned 2011 IAEA report that I discussed here. Left out of the picture are those such as former Director of the IAEA’s Iraq Action Team, Robert Kelly, who argues that the report proves nothing, and former head of the IAEA, Hans Blix, who has claimed that the hysteria about Iran is over-hyped. Even Jack Straw has come out recently to say that there isn’t sufficient evidence to prove Iran is moving towards a nuclear weapon- far from it.

Ultimately, thankfully, the paper doesn’t advocate a military attack on Iran, though for strictly practical reasons, as is the usual in the media. The (il)legality, or the (im)morality of a strike, isn’t even discussed. They do have the sense to recognise the danger that an attack upon Iran could end with a ‘full-scale invasion’ of the country, something even The Economist doesn’t want.

This is an example of the endless systemic bias inherent in the media, often represented most clearly in liberal papers like The Economist. A source of information they may be, but one needs to know how to read the media: a task I am still learning. 

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

A Few Words on Barack Obama

It’s been a while, but exams are now over for me (bar the unfortunate fact that I have to retype my world politics exam because my handwriting is so terrible), and so regular blog posts will now return. To get back into it, and kick off the summer, a few comments on President Obama.

Barack Obama remains surprisingly popular among Europeans in general, particularly young Europeans. At Warwick’s election night event last year, cheers rang through the building every time Obama won a state, and choruses of boos were to be heard whenever Mitt Romney’s face appeared on the big screen. I’ve long found this bizarre- I could perhaps understand why the casual observer may have once been taken in by the sweeping rhetoric of the first black President, but it seemed to me that anyone who took even a passing dispassionate look at policies and practice, rather than just rhetoric, would see the sharp continuities between the hated Bush administration and the adored Obama successor.

Reading through a 2010 article by Pakistani-English writer Tariq Ali, I was struck by the comparison he drew between Obama and Woodrow Wilson, ‘whose every second word was peace, democracy or self-determination, while his armies invaded Mexico, occupied Haiti and attacked Russia, and his treaties handed one colony after another to his partners in war’ (‘President of Cant’, New Left Review, 2010, 61, p.116). It seems an apt comparison indeed, since for all the fine words from Obama, his administration has more or less carried on the major policies of the Bush administration, and in some instances even upped the intensity.

Drone strikes are an obvious example. Obama has increased their frequency by around 6 times that of Bush, including expanding their use in Pakistan, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Yemen. I won’t deal with this topic here- it will be saved for a later blog post- but suffice to say this represents a massive expansion of an unregulated, most probably illegal (Professor David Luban of Georgetown University said in a lecture at Warwick earlier this year that the memo justifying the strikes was ‘terrible legal reasoning’), global assassination campaign, waged in any country Obama and his advisors deem to be housing enemies of the US. The destabilising effects in Pakistan are well known; those in Yemen less so, revealed most fully by excellent independent journalist Jeremy Scahill in his new book about US foreign policy ‘Dirty Wars’.See this short documentary by him here for a window into the impact on Yemen.

Connected to this is Obama’s expansion of the war in Afghanistan.  His ‘surge’ in Afghanistan has probably left the US in a worse military shape than before, with the Afghani troops the US army is training turning their weapons on their mentors more often than in any other US war in history (so-called green-on-blue violence). The Afghan population has seemingly turned completely against the US, Afghanistan is now constantly in the top two worst places in the world to be a woman (along with the DRC), Afghanistan is the number one source of refugees in the world (over 2.5 million), unknown 10’s of 1000’s of civilians are dead, the CIA is fuelling corruption by funnelling millions of dollars of ‘ghost money’ into the Afghani leadership… and so on.

Recently it has been revealed that the global kidnapping campaign started by the Bush administration (often referred to as ‘rendition’) has actually carried on under Obama. So-called ‘black sites’, legal black holes that the CIA set up after 9/11 to imprison and torture people they didn’t like without any semblance of due process (given a relatively easy ride in the Hollywood blockbuster ‘Zero Dark Thirty’) have carried on under Obama, at the least in Somalia. Scahill, the afore-mentioned independent journalist who also revealed the Somalian black site, has documented the continuation of and increase in so-called ‘Special Operations’: secret operations carried out all over the globe with no transparency or legitimacy, little oversight, no public knowledge, and often murky consequences.

I’ve written about how the Obama administration has continued the absurd Bush policies (and policies of more or less every President of the US) towards Iran, and we can only hope that Obama doesn’t make his Presidency remembered for starting a disastrous war with Iran before 2016.

That doesn’t even scratch the surface of foreign policy- domestically, on civil liberties in particular, he has been no better.

The Bush administration was notorious for hauling people into off-shore prisons like Guantanamo Bay, without the possibility of a trial or release. However under Obama, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) of 2012 has actually made it legal for the government to detain any US citizen or foreign national indefinitely without charge or trial, if the executive branch deems them ‘suspected of terrorism’. Signed in to law quietly on New Year’s Day 2012, it marked the codification of what Bush had always done anyway and damn the law: the destruction of the right to a fair and speedy trial, habeas corpus. The act is currently under challenge in court by a group of academics, activists and journalists- the part of the act relating to indefinite detention was struck down, but the Obama administration has appealed (the case continues). Most interestingly, the administration refused in court to promise that the plaintiffs in the case (such as Chris Hedges and Noam Chomsky) wouldn’t ever find themselves being held indefinitely under the NDAA for their work.

Another aspect of Obama’s attack on civil liberties is the ‘War on Whistleblowers’. In 1917 Woodrow Wilson passed the Espionage Act, designed to put foreign spies in prison (and almost certainly crush dissent domestically) during WW1. Obama has blown the dust off the act and charged more people under it than all other post-war Presidents combined. The people charged include Bradley Manning, who leaked the ‘collateral murder’ video of a US helicopter opening fire on unarmed civilians, and thousands of low-level classified diplomatic documents to Wikileaks. He was kept for over 1,000 days without trial in conditions the UN’s special rapporteur on torture described as amounting tocruel, inhuman and degrading treatment’. NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake was also charged. There is some evidence to suggest that a secret indictment has been issued under the Espionage Act to charge Wikileaks founder and head Julian Assange.

Lastly for this blog is the vast domestic surveillance that has carried on under Obama. In the last week or so it has come out that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been monitoring between 150 - 300 million American's phone calls, and the ‘PRISM’ programme taking mass amounts of data on users from internet service providers like Google and Facebook. Those who follow these issues closely would have been more or less aware that this kind of thing was going on already, and whistleblowers like William Binney had revealed it long before the latest story. However this time we have documents fully confirming it, leaked by (now former) NSA official Edward Snowden, who has now fled to Hong Kong. The Snowden leak has also revealed a glimpse into the Obama administration’s plans to wage global offensive cyber war- but that’s for another blog. Glenn Greenwald, one of the journalists at the Guardian who received the documents from Snowden, has hinted that far more devastating revelations will follow in the near-future.

This blog has barely touched on the ways Obama has not been the ‘change we can believe in’. Tariq Ali pointed out in the article I quoted earlier that disenchanted former Obama-supporters tend ‘to blame structural constraints rather than the incumbent himself’, seemingly unwilling to accept that Obama is little different to George Bush in the face of his apparently progressive and inspiring speeches. But one’s elocution is no measure of one's moral fibre; we should assess Obama without reference to his speeches, skin colour, looks or charms. Policies are what matters. It is true that there are deep power structures in the US which prevent any President from enacting real change, and the fundamentals of US Empire go far deeper than any one man. But the gusto with which he has furthered the cause of US hegemony overseas and domestic state control should give us all strong pause for thought when cheering on the next tall, handsome, ‘liberal’ Democrat. 

UPDATE: A day or two after writing this, Mehdi Hasan at the Huffington Post wrote a good new piece arguing the same thing: worth a read here.