Western Benevolence, Johann Hari And “Us”

Following the killing of 27 people including 19 Italian troops in Nassiriya on November 12, Channel 4 News presenter, Jon Snow, asked Labour MP Ann Clwyd:

“Are we now losing the Shias? That would be a tragedy.”

We asked Snow to explain the meaning of this question:

“Did you mean to suggest that you view yourself as a member of ‘the coalition’, of the British government, or both?” (David Edwards, email to Jon Snow, November 12, 2003)

Snow responded almost immediately:


We wrote again on November 12:

“How can Clwyd, as a representative of a British government that waged war on Iraq and is now ruling the country by force of arms, be included among ‘we as human beings’ who have not given up on ‘peaceful activity in favour of violence’?”

We received no reply. We wonder if, in the 1980s, Snow would have asked a Soviet politician at the time of the Red Army’s invasion of Afghanistan:

“Are we now losing the people in the Kunar region? That would be a tragedy.”

Would it still have been reasonable to argue that the “we” referred to ‘us’ as peace-loving human beings, the Soviet government included?

A week earlier, another Channel 4 news anchor referred to killings resulting from a “terrorist insurgency” in Iraq. We asked Channel 4 to explain why they had not also talked in terms of a “terrorist occupation”. We received this reply from deputy editor, Martin Fewell:

“Agree with your point. We always try to be careful when using the word ‘terrorist’ or describing an event as ‘an act of terrorism’ on Channel Four News. I don’t think we got it right this time, and we told the team that on Friday night. It’s the Pentagon, and specifically Donald Rumsfeld, who use words like ‘terrorist’ and ‘insurgency’ to describe what’s happening in Iraq. We should have ascribed this comment to them, not repeated it as a statement of fact.” (Email to Media Lens, November 10, 2003)

Two days later, Channel 4’s Jonathan Rugman declared:

“Yes, the Americans want democracy here [Iraq], but they don’t want to die for it.” (Channel 4 News, November 12, 2003)

Moments later, Rugman noted that, if they “democratise too quickly”, the Americans risk handing power over to Shia clerics. It appeared not to be an attempt at irony.

Channel 4, the BBC, ITN – all are busy reporting that the Americans are working “to democratise” Iraq. And all are instantly contradicting themselves by pointing out that the Americans are trying not to “rush the process” in order to secure the democracy they “hoped for”. (BBC 1 News at Ten, November 13, 2003)

The media forever try to convince us of the fundamental benevolence of Western power in this way. Reinforcement is provided by encouraging viewers and readers to believe that, together with our leaders, we form a united and benevolent “us”.

As a result it is easy to lose sight of the actual policymakers selected out of the oil and arms industries – George Bush, Condaleeza Rice, Dick Cheney – and fierce hawks like Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle. We may begin to actually think in terms of a benign “us” led by individuals who somehow act independently of their backgrounds, their declared intentions, and the greedy vested interests of which they are a part.

Writing in the Independent on Sunday, Robert Fisk told the truth about the lie that America and Britain are passionate supporters of democracy:

“We supported the Egyptian generals (aka Gamal Abdul Nasser) when they originally kicked out King Farouk. We – the Brits – created the Hashemite Kingdom in Jordan. We – the Brits – put a Hashemite King on the throne of Iraq. And when the Baath party took over from the monarchy in Baghdad, the CIA obligingly handed Saddam’s mates the names of all senior communist party members so they could be liquidated.

“The Brits created all those worthy sheikhdoms in the Gulf. Kuwait was our doing; Saudi Arabia was ultimately a joint Anglo-US project, the United Arab Emirates (formerly the Trucial State) etc. But when Iran decided in the 1950s that it preferred Mohammed Mossadeq’s democratic rule to the Shah’s, the CIA’s Kim Roosevelt, with Colonel “Monty” Woodhouse of MI6, overthrew democracy in Iran. Now President Bush demands the same “democracy” in present-day Iran.” (Fisk, ‘How we denied democracy to the Middle’, The Independent on Sunday, November 9, 2003)

Noam Chomsky noted recently that the current US leadership has failed to explain when, or why, they abandoned the view they held in 1991: that “the best of all worlds” would be “an iron-fisted Iraqi junta without Saddam Hussein”. How does this fit with their promise to democratise Iraq now? Chomsky adds:

“At the time, the incumbents’ British allies were in the opposition and therefore more free than the Thatcherites to speak out against Saddam’s British-backed crimes. Their names are noteworthy by their absence from the parliamentary record of protests against these crimes, including Tony Blair, Jack Straw, Geoff Hoon, and other leading figures of New Labour.” (Chomsky, ZNet Commentary, ‘The Iraq War and Contempt for Democracy’, October 31, 2003)

The kind of ‘democracy’ that is actually being built in Iraq is summed up by Iraqi exile Sami Ramadani:

“Saddam’s old right-wing friends, Rumsfeld and co, are recruiting Saddam’s security men and are prepared to drench Iraq in new bloodbaths precisely to stop its people from achieving democracy and true liberation.” (Ramadani, ‘Iraqis Distrust The US And Its Promises Of Democracy’, letter to the editor, The Independent, September 20, 2003)

These issues are very rarely raised by our media because they threaten to expose far too many truths about our own society. After all, if the public started to think about the interests opposing genuine democracy in Iraq, it might also start thinking about the interests opposing democracy at home. And come to think of it, why +do+ Republicans and Democrats, New Labour and Tories, offer near-identical policies benefiting the same elite interests? Why do we feel so disenfranchised from a political system that seems to have nothing to do with us? How did our political system come to be structured in a way that prevents us from making meaningful choices?

Johann Hari And The “Friendly Bombs”

Like so many journalists, Johann Hari of the Independent takes it for granted that “we” are intent on bringing “democracy” to Iraq. Hari wrote in January:

“We do not need Bush’s dangerous arguments about ‘pre-emptive action’ to justify this war. Nor do we need to have the smoking gun of WMD. All we need are the humanitarian arguments we used during the Kosovo conflict to remove the monstrous Slobodan Milosevic.” (Hari, ‘Forget the UN: Saddam Hussein is the best possible reason for liberating Iraq’, The Independent, January 10, 2003)

There is, again, a simple series of questions that demand to be asked in response to this statement. They are the same questions posed by playwright Harold Pinter in 2000:

“Who is this ‘we’ exactly that you’re talking about? First of all: Who is the ‘we’? Under what heading do ‘we’ act, under what law? And also, the notion that this ‘we’ has the right to act presupposes a moral authority of which this ‘we’ possesses not a jot! It doesn’t exist!” (Interview with David Edwards, 1999. See Interviews: www.Media

According to Hari, all “we” need are the humanitarian arguments. But actually what “we” need is a credible track record of compassionate, humanitarian intervention. And as veteran Middle East correspondent Charles Glass has noted, there is none to be found:

“The United States has one strategic interest in the Middle East: oil. Everything else is gravy, sentiment, rhetoric… American transnational corporations do not care about Israeli settlers and their biblical claims, Palestinians who are losing their land and water, Kurds who are caught stateless between gangsters in Baghdad and Tehran, victims of war or torture in Sudan, Afghanistan, Algeria, South Lebanon…” (Glass, New Statesman, November 15, 1996)

This is the reality, not the seductive, but utterly false, vision of a US government of humanitarians, by humanitarians for democracy. We can accept the illusion if we like, but that simply means the “humanitarians” will continue killing for profit with impunity.

Hari writes of his support for a US-led invasion:

“Who, you may be asking incredulously, would want their country to be bombed? What would make people want to risk their children being blown to pieces? I thought this too until, last October, I spent a month as a journalist seeing the reality of life under Saddam Hussein. Strangely, it’s the small details which remain in the memory, even now, three months later. It’s the pale, sickly look that would come over people’s faces when I mentioned Saddam. It’s the fact that the Marsh Arabs – a proud, independent people who have seen their marshes drained and been ‘relocated’ to tiny desert shacks…” (Hari, ‘Forget the UN’, op., cit)

This is impassioned stuff – we can imagine Hari in combat fatigues standing stern-faced amid the rubble and chaos. But in a December 2002 article for the Guardian, Hari described the same visit as “the mother of all package tours” and as “a holiday”. The tour, he wrote, lasted 18 days. As for spending this “month” as “a journalist seeing the reality of life under Saddam”, Hari wrote:

“First, I met Julie and Phil. They seemed an almost comically suburban couple: polite, a little posh, all golf jumpers and floral smocks… The group had a handful of people like Phil, risk-takers craving a change from Marbella and some amusing dinner-party anecdotes. Sean, a 36-year-old New York restaurateur and multimillionaire, was clearly in this category… Then there were the hardcore archaeology fiends… With this group of amiable maniacs, I boarded the flight to Damascus.” (‘The mother of all package tours’, Hari, The Guardian, December 3, 2002)

Hari’s first day in Iraq “as a journalist” with Julie, Phil and Sean would have sent shivers up even John Pilger’s spine:

“Our first full day in Baghdad was pretty frustrating. The Baghdad Museum has begun to evacuate its most important exhibits, and clay pots are not my priority on this trip…  As we darted from museum to ancient monument, I snatched every moment I could with ‘real’ Iraqi people.”

Occasionally Hari was stricken by bewildering moments of conscience:

“I began to experience what I quickly identified as my John Pilger moments. If I didn’t know better, I would swear that Saddam Hussein had deliberately scattered the most dignified, stoical Iraqis and – especially – the cutest doe-eyed children in our paths, and trained them to say lines riddled with pathos about sanctions. As I looked at these kids on the streets, it was tempting to work up a satisfying rage about sanctions and piously denounce all this as the work of my own government.”

How to respond to these glimpses of dissident enlightenment? Was Hari drawing up plans to send his CV to Media Lens? Alas, no:

“Instead I just took a valium and lay down for a few hours.”

On the basis of these experiences and other evidence, Hari claims that many people in Iraq wanted “us” to bomb them to freedom.

In January, Hari cited “concrete evidence” from The International Crisis Group (ICG), a Brussels-based think-tank, indicating that Iraqis would, as Hari put it, “welcome friendly bombs”. In autumn 2002, the ICG had conducted interviews with dozens of Iraqis – the majority from the urban areas of Baghdad and Mosul. The introduction to the ICG report cautioned: “the Iraqis interviewed for this briefing paper do not constitute a scientific or representative sample”. Hari, however, made great claims for the report:

“It is time that, in light of the ICG report, we in the West admit that we have misunderstood the Iraqi people’s position. We have been acting as though an attack on Saddam would be the beginning of another hideous ordeal for the population, the interruption of an otherwise peaceful situation.” (Hari, ‘Forget the UN’, The Independent, January 10, 2003)

The report describes how “a significant number of those Iraqis interviewed, with surprising candour, expressed their view that, if regime change required an American-led attack, they would support it’. The notion of leaving the country’s destiny in the hands of an omnipotent foreign party has more appeal than might be expected – and the desire for a long-term US involvement is higher than expected.” (Hari, op., cit, January 10, 2003)

This is the extent of the “concrete evidence” presented by Hari. He did, however, provide an additional piece of anecdotal evidence: “one person I spoke to said that ‘the few soldiers who fight for [Saddam] will be defeated in a weekend’…” Ironic words, six months into a ferocious and growing guerrilla insurgency.

It is, we suppose, conceivable that, despite the 1991 obliteration of Iraqi infrastructure – which “effectively terminated everything vital to human survival”, according to one Harvard study team – and despite the 12 years of genocidal sanctions and endless bombing, some Iraqis might still believe “we” are sincerely intent on their liberation.

It is also conceivable that the ICG report confirms what we had already learned about human nature from the experience of Nicaragua after years of US-backed terror attacks and economic strangulation: namely, that if a small country is tortured for long enough by the world’s superpower, its victims may well agree to almost anything that promises to end the torture.

As the 1990 election campaign opened in Nicaragua, Washington made clear that the economic strangulation and terror – waged by a US proxy army, the Contras – would continue unless the revolutionary Sandinista government were ousted and Washington’s candidate elected. The eventual election of the US candidate was hailed in the US press as a triumph of “government with the consent of the governed… To say so seems romantic, but we live in a romantic age.”

Time magazine explained that the US’s “romantic” policy had been, “to wreck the economy and prosecute a long and deadly proxy war until the exhausted natives overthrow the unwanted government themselves”. (Quoted Noam Chomsky, Powers and Prospects, Pluto, 1996, p.110)

The consequences of this “triumph for democracy” in Nicaragua were catastrophic – a 35% increase in child deaths from malnutrition, mass starvation on the Atlantic coast, a drugs epidemic, and UN warnings that the next generation would be “smaller, weaker, and less intelligent” as a result.

Similarly, it is quite possible that the “exhausted natives” of Iraq might choose even violent invasion over genocidal Western sanctions. For Hari to interpret this as Iraqis “cheering us on”, however, is obscene.

We noticed that Hari described the ICG, somewhat tentatively, as “by no means pro-war”. In fact ICG is packed with establishment figures. Its president and CEO, Gareth Evans, for example, was formerly Australian foreign minister. In this last role he was described by John Pilger as “a functionary of a superpower” notable for his “appeasement of East Timor’s mass murderers” in Indonesia. (Pilger, Hidden Agendas, Vintage, 1998, pp.260-1)

Evans wrote last February:

“The real question, the first-order one, goes back simply to threat: Is Iraq’s present leadership such a threat to international peace and security that it must be overthrown by military force?

“If this question can be answered affirmatively, war would be justifiable.” (‘The question for Powell’. Comment by Gareth Evans in the International Herald Tribune, February 3, 2003)

Another member of the ICG’s board, Ken Adelman, said recently:

“It bothers me that people in Britain don’t see it as people in America see it. We did a beautiful thing.” (Quoted, ‘How Blair Lost By Winning’, Geoffrey Wheatcroft, The New York Times, October 8, 2003)

Other luminaries on the ICG board include Morton Abramowitz (former US assistant secretary of state and ambassador to Turkey), Richard Allen (former US national security adviser), Saud Nasir Al-Sabah (former Kuwait ambassador to the US and UK), Wesley Clark (former NATO supreme allied commander), and many other high-ranking state and corporate figures.

In reality, pre-war polls showed that Iraqis were of course keen to avoid yet another war. In March, Jonathan Steele of the Guardian sampled the views of some of the 300,000 Iraqi refugees, students and businesspeople living in Jordan. Steele reported:

“According to a Guardian straw poll, a majority is opposed to war, giving the lie to those who claim that the imminent attack by US and British forces has the overwhelming backing of the Iraqi people.

“The Iraqi president, Saddam Hussein, is deeply unpopular, but only 35 per cent of those asked see the use of massive force as the correct way to oust him.” (Steele’, ‘Exiles voice fears as conflict looms’, The Guardian, March 19, 2003)

Steele added:

“This was not a scientific survey, but phone calls home from Amman to Iraq have surged in the last few days. These anxious Iraqis, who are in regular contact with Baghdad and other cities, probably reflect the mood of Iraqis in the country with a high degree of accuracy.”

Hari insists that +he+ listened to the authentic will of the Iraqi people whereas peace campaigners in the West  “interpreted events in Iraq through the filter of their own prejudices.” He continues:

“Whenever there is a development in that battered country, they do not bother to think about the views of actual, real Iraqi people; no, they simply and arrogantly assume that they already know what Iraqis think.” (Hari, ‘The last thing Iraqis want is for Britain and America to leave their country’, The Independent, August 22, 2003)

Hari doubtless knows what British and US leaders think and have planned for Iraq. Plans which, if Hari is to be believed, amount to a compassionate revolution in US foreign policy. Quite when Bush, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz stormed the gates of corporate greed is not clear.

Curiously, Hari doesn’t explore +why+ Iraq is such a “battered country”. He never explains why, in the past, he failed to demand that Bush and Blair recognise the wishes of the Iraqi people by lifting genocidal non-military sanctions costing a million lives.

The passionate concern, then, is for Iraqi democracy – Iraqi genocide is unworthy even of mention.

Part 2 will follow shortly…


The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

Email: [email protected]

Ask Hari why he is so sure that the West is intent on bringing democracy to Iraq.

Ask him if he is aware of the long and bloody US/UK history of selecting, arming and installing dictators in the region. What makes the regime of Bush, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and Cheney so much more compassionate and moral than earlier US regimes? When and why did this compassionate revolution take place, and why did nobody notice? Why has there not been a peep of protest in response to this unprecedented subordination of profit to people in the right-wing press?

Ask how many times in the past Hari called for Bush and Blair to recognise the wishes of the Iraqi people by lifting the genocidal non-military sanctions.

Importantly, please copy your emails to Simon Kelner, editor of The Independent:

Email: [email protected]