The first truth of American foreign policy is that it is formulated to maximise corporate profits and state power. The second truth is that it is perennially sold to the public as a mission to spread freedom, democracy and human rights. The third truth is that the first two truths apply regardless of whether the Republicans or Democrats hold power.
But this cannot be true. After all, America led the 1999 Nato campaign to stop “the Serbian genocide machine” in Kosovo, as the Guardian observed in April of that year. (Peter Preston and Patrick Wintour, ‘War in the Balkans,‘ The Guardian, April 4, 1999)
Although the word genocide is rarely used now that the basic facts have become undeniable, Kosovo continues to be almost universally acclaimed as an example of “humanitarian intervention”. Indeed it is used as circumstantial evidence for the purity of US-UK motives in Iraq. In reviewing the “legacy” of Tony Blair, Polly Toynbee wrote:
“Abroad, Blairism was a noble ideal of liberal interventionism: sheer force of moral argument brought a reluctant US to the rescue of Kosovo and the downfall of genocidal Milosevic.” (Toynbee, ‘Regrets? Too few to mention any in particular,’ The Guardian, May 11, 2007)
Jonathan Freedland commented of Blair:
“He led the Nato alliance into what was hailed as the first humanitarian war, the military action aimed at saving Muslim lives from Serb aggression in Kosovo in 1999.” (Freedland, ‘The Blair years: A contrarian and a magician,’ The Guardian, May 11, 2007)
Notice that Freedland subtly affirmed in the second half of the sentence what he reported as merely “hailed as” true in the first half.
Johann Hari wrote in the Independent:
“In 1997, with fears that the violence would begin again, Blair had a naive, noble desire to stop Serbian ultranationalism in its bloody tracks.” (Hari, ‘Blair’s legacy lies in the Baghdad morgue,’ The Independent, May 14, 2007)
‘Bambi’ Blair, then, was a well-intentioned innocent abroad. Hari felt able to write this eight years, and many hundreds of thousands of deaths, after Andrew Marr wrote at the height of the Kosovo war of Blair: “I am constantly impressed, but also mildly alarmed, by his utter lack of cynicism.” (Marr, ‘Hail to the chief. Sorry, Bill, but this time we’re talking about Tony,’ The Observer, May 16, 1999)
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown wrote more recently:
“Robin Cook promulgated the ideals of an ethical foreign policy and we intervened nobly in Sierra Leone, Bosnia and Kosovo.” (Alibhai-Brown, ‘Blair’s failed promise to Britain’s blacks,’ The Independent, May 14, 2007)
“Who is this ‘we’ exactly that you’re talking about?” as Harold Pinter has asked so well. Is it, perhaps, an elite journalist special forces unit? David Aaronovitch explained in the Independent:
“Would I fight, or (more realistically) would I countenance the possibility that members of my family might die [for Kosovar Albanians]?”
His answer: “I think so.” (Aaronovitch, ‘My country needs me,’ The Independent, April 6, 1999)
The technical term for this kind of writing is: ‘independent liberal journalism.’
Keith Waterhouse responded a little unkindly in the Daily Mail:
“David, baby, you are too old, too fat and too silly to be allowed to handle a gun, as you well know. Throwing Lion bars to the refugees would be about your mark.
“On the other hand, we don’t want to lose you but we think you ought to go.
“I would personally buy the tin helmet and fly him over Kosovo in a hired helicopter if I thought the beggar would jump.” (Waterhouse, ‘Fighting talk,‘ Daily Mail, April 8, 1999)
By contrast, John Norris, director of communications during the Kosovo war for deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott – a leading figure in State Department and Pentagon planning for the war – commented on the real motives. Presenting the position of the Clinton administration, Norris wrote in his book, Collision Course: “it was Yugoslavia’s resistance to the broader trends of political and economic reform – not the plight of Kosovar Albanians – that best explains NATO’s war”. (Norris, Collision Course: NATO, Russia, and Kosovo, Praeger, 2005, p.xiii)
Strobe Talbott noted in his foreword that “thanks to John Norris,” anyone interested in the war in Kosovo “will know… how events looked and felt at the time to those of us who were involved”.
“Hence,” Noam Chomsky writes, “Norris’s evaluation is of particular significance for determining the motivation for the war.” (Chomsky, Failed States, Hamish Hamilton, 2006, chap. 2, n 34)
The Balkans writer Neil Clark had earlier pointed out: “The rump Yugoslavia… was the last economy in central-southern Europe to be uncolonised by western capital. ‘Socially owned enterprises’, the form of worker self-management pioneered under Tito, still predominated. Yugoslavia had publicly owned petroleum, mining, car and tobacco industries, and 75% of industry was state or socially owned.” (Clark, ‘The spoils of another war,’ The Guardian, September 21, 2004; http://www.guardian.co.uk/Kosovo /Story/0,2763,1309165,00.html)
In the Nato bombing campaign, state-owned companies – rather than military sites – were specifically targeted. Nato only destroyed 14 tanks, but 372 industrial facilities were hit – including the Zastava car plant at Kragujevac. “Not one foreign or privately owned factory was bombed,” Clark noted. (Ibid)
The media consensus on the humanitarian nature of the war, then, is a fraud. Indeed, in reality, Nato’s bombing campaign dramatically increased the scale of atrocities against Kosovar civilians, as Nato commanders predicted ahead of their assault.
Unsurprisingly, Norris’s words do not exist for the liberal media – they have not been mentioned in any UK newspaper.
This all accords well with the three truths of US policy described above.
British Foreign Policy – Always A New Dawn
The first truth of British foreign policy is that it is also formulated to serve elite power. The second truth is that it is rooted in unwavering support for US policy, including participation in attacks on defenceless Third World targets – the reason London, not Stockholm, has been subject to September 11-style suicide attacks.
The third truth is that this foreign policy is always sold in a way that echoes US claims of humanitarian intent, so lending a veneer of international legitimacy and support. It is of course very much easier for a “coalition” to claim to be expressing “the will of the international community” than it is for a rogue superpower acting alone.
The fourth truth is that these truths apply regardless of whether Labour or Conservatives hold power.
Finally, because the collision between the reality and appearance of policy becomes increasingly obvious over time, the fifth truth is that a change of British government is always said to herald a change to a more moral foreign policy. This transformed policy is always said to be driven by idealistic new minds acting out of revulsion at past ’mistakes’ – the slate can thus be wiped clean and media gullibility rebooted to the default setting.
Thus, as Tony Blair took office in 1997, his new foreign secretary, Robin Cook, promised a new, ethical approach:
“We will not permit the sale of arms to regimes that might use them for internal repression or international aggression.” (Quoted, Ian Black, ‘Cook gives ethics priority,’ The Guardian, May 13, 1997)
This would be part of New Labour’s determination to do nothing less than “put human rights at the heart of our foreign policy,” Cook claimed. (Ibid)
Liberal cheerleaders queued up to celebrate the revolution. In the New Statesman in 1999, John Lloyd looked back on “one of the boldest initiatives taken by a major state to shift foreign policy on to new tracks”. (Lloyd, ‘Mandarins, guns and morals,’ New Statesman, October 25, 1999)
The Guardian’s Hugo Young wrote of Blair: “the grandeur of his ambition shouldn’t be underestimated. He wants to create a world none of us have known, where the laws of political gravity are overturned.” (Young, ‘Everybody is one of us in Blair’s world,’ The Guardian, May 27, 1997) This in “the age when ideology has surrendered entirely to ‘values’.” (Young, ‘After the Blair deluge, reality steps forward,’ The Guardian, June 17, 1997)
Even after claims of an ethical foreign policy were made ridiculous by Blair’s wars of aggression, the myth was simply too important to be ditched. Following Robin Cook’s death in August 2005, former culture secretary Chris Smith wrote in the Independent of Cook’s foreign policy:
“It represented a brave attempt to cast our country’s relations with the rest of the world in a moral light.” (Smith, ’Robin Cook: 1946-2005, The House of Commons was his true home,’ The Independent, August 8, 2005)
As the piles of corpses expanded in Iraq, Labour MP Denis MacShane wrote in the New Statesman:
“As foreign secretary, he [Cook] rescued British foreign policy from the dead waters of failed Tory cynicism.” (MacShane, ‘More loyal than left: Robin Cook: a tribute,’ New Statesman, August 15, 2005)
Two years later, of course, much of the British public perceives Blair and his government as utterly discredited – and, by extension, the Labour party that allowed him to remain in place while he cut a bloody swathe through the Iraqi people.
Many in the corporate media are also only too aware that their credibility has been shredded by their earlier adulation of Blair, by their failure to challenge even the most obvious government deceptions ahead of the war, and by their cheerleading of the war before the catastrophe became undeniable. It is not hard to understand why the political-media system has a shared interest in declaring a new, ethical beginning.
Gordon Brown’s Brave New World
In Gordon Brown’s inaugural Downing Street speech, the new man claimed: “I have listened and I have learned from the British people.” (http://www.timesonline.co.uk/ tol/news/politics/article1996727.ece, June 28, 2007)
Brown, it seems, will bring about “change” by sweeping away “the old politics,” promising “a new spirit of public service to make our nation what it can be”.
Perhaps this ‘New’ New Labour could be marketed as New Labour Plus.
Echoing John Lloyd in 1999, former government adviser, David Clark, wrote in the Guardian last week:
“Only the most implacable critics of the government could fail to appreciate the shift in foreign policy since Tony Blair left office three weeks ago. This was always going to be a difficult and controversial process.” (Clark, ‘Britain must take the lead in Iraq – by getting out first,’ The Guardian, July 16, 2007
On the BBC’s Sunday AM programme, new British foreign secretary David Miliband, echoing Robin Cook, declared that the goal was for British foreign policy to be “a force for good in the world“. Asked if this meant Britain would distance itself from US policy, Miliband instantly reversed the claimed priorities, insisting that the alliance with the US was vital for Britain’s “national interest”. (Sunday AM, BBC 1, July 15, 2007) In other words, Miliband is playing the traditional “double game” – the claimed emphasis will be on “doing good”, while policy will be rooted in the muscular realpolitik of “national interest”. In 1937, anarchist writer Rudolf Rocker explained the meaning of the favoured patriotic term:
“We speak of national interests, national capital, national spheres of interest, national honour, and national spirit; but we forget that behind all this there are hidden merely the selfish interests of power-loving politicians and money-loving business men for whom the nation is a convenient cover to hide their personal greed and their schemes for political power from the eyes of the world.” (Rocker, Culture and Nationalism, Michael E. Coughlan, 1978, p.253)
The same unavoidable clash between appearance and reality is repeated across the press. An editorial in the Guardian observed that “in a fundamental way… the New Labour strategy that [Brown] helped create will not change”.
The editors then necessarily muddied the issue, pointing to a “sense that something significant has shifted” and asserting that Brown’s arrival marks a “renewal” and “the drama of a new cabinet with a changed agenda”. (Leader, ‘Brown arrives: The old and the new,’ The Guardian, June 28, 2007)
Senior Guardian journalists were quick to reinforce this vital aspect of propaganda. The Guardian’s political editor, Patrick Wintour, wrote of Brown’s intention to “rebalance Mr Blair’s foreign policy”, with the introduction of “new faces and plans to heal old wounds” aimed towards “restoring trust in politics”. (Wintour, ‘Brown’s first day,’ The Guardian, June 29, 2007)
Exactly the same, of course, was declared of Robin Cook’s rebalancing of unethical Tory policy – with all doubters dismissed as miserable cynics. The title of a June 1997 article by Neil Ascherson in the Independent read: “After 18 years of national egoism, the world has a chance to like us again.” (Ascherson, The Independent, June 7, 1997)
Guardian assistant editor, Michael White, welcomed “a smiling Gordon Brown” and the “unexpected echoes of that other new beginning” in May 1997 when Blair strode towards Downing Street before wild throngs of Labour Party activists. (White, ‘The accession,’ The Guardian, June 28, 2007)
In truth there was nothing “unexpected” about claims of another “new beginning”. Despite being up to his neck in the Iraq bloodbath, Brown has to claim to represent the fresh start, new direction and clean slate that he clearly is not.
An Independent editorial claimed Brown was “breaking with the Blair years”. (Leader, ‘Things can only get better???,’ The Independent, June 28, 2007)
By contrast, John Pilger was all but alone in noting the “tsunami of unction” that “engulfed the departure of Blair and the elevation of Brown”. (John Pilger, ‘These are Brown’s bombs too,’ New Statesman, July 5, 2007; http://www.newstatesman.com/200707050024)
Pilger put Blair’s departure – treated by the media almost as a state occasion – into painfully accurate perspective: “those MPs who stood and gave him a standing ovation finally certified parliament as a place of minimal consequence to British democracy”. (Ibid)
Historian Mark Curtis has commented:
“Brown has been four-square behind Blair on foreign policy, including, of course, Iraq, which he has financed as Chancellor and publicly defended when required.”
Curtis also points to Brown’s “total support and defence of big business” describing it as “quite extraordinary and perhaps unprecedented in the postwar years,” adding:
“Virtually every speech for the last ten years has been a reassurance to business that Labour is on its side and a defence of ‘free trade’ and ensuring climates around the world favourable for British foreign investment, along with ongoing commitments to low corporation taxes and cutting business regulation. Brown is the ultimate liberalisation theologist and every one of his policies has pushed in this direction.” (Curtis, interview, ‘The future of British foreign policy,’ ukwatch.net, May 7, 2007; http://www.ukwatch.net/article/ the_future_of_british_foreign_policy)
This is not allowed to matter in the combined media-political attempt to wash the blood of Iraq from their hands. And what will be the result if they are allowed to succeed?
This was made clear enough last week by the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland who, as though appearing in some recurring bad dream, warned, yet again, of “a very real threat: Iran”. He added:
“Nowhere is the Iranian peril assessed more closely than in Israel, which would, after all, be target number one for any Iranian bomb.” (Freedland, ‘This flurry of Middle East activity is the product of a very real threat: Iran,’ The Guardian, July 18, 2007)
With the policy goals and the interests shaping them unchanged, with the “necessary illusions” of power unchanged, with the bottom-line of state-corporate greed unchanged, the lies and killing are certain to continue.
The novelist James Joyce commented on the endlessly repeating cycle of human tragedy: “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”
There is no choice – it is up to us as individuals to wake up. That’s all there is. But what does this mean? It means we must not allow ourselves to yet again be deceived. In the absence of serious investigation or evidence, we must not believe something merely on the grounds that it is pleasant and comforting. We must not assume that the world really is under some benign ‘new management’. Instead we must take personal responsibility and work for real change rooted in genuine compassion for others.
Mass killing does not originate in great drama. Ten years ago, when journalists were so eagerly hailing Blair’s “new dawn”, nothing very terrible happened. People went along with it, agreed with it – they felt they had played a virtuous role in promoting positive change, experiencing their optimism as a healthy, life-affirming thing. They were doubtless relieved that they could leave it to this new, more “ethical” group of politicians to sort out the problems of the world so that they could ‘get on with their lives’.
And yet these responses were crucial links in a causal chain that has since resulted in the deaths of perhaps one million Iraqi people.
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you decide to write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Write to Jonathan Freedland
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Write to Alan Rusbridger, Guardian editor
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Write to Simon Kelner, Independent editor
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