Politics | Iraq, ISIS and intervention: How the mainstream media failed again
New in Ceasefire, Politics - Posted on Thursday, August 28, 2014 22:51 - 6 Comments
A decade on from the Iraq invasion, Western mainstream media coverage of the current crisis has been shameful. While journalists and editors have been quick to report the crimes of ISIS/IS in all their sordid details, few seem to have bothered looking into how the rise of IS is intricately linked to Western policy in the region.
The destruction of the Iraqi Army is a case in point. After the 2003 invasion, the Anglo-American occupiers sought to weaken the Iraqi army and police, presumably in an effort to ward off challengers. The US overlord, Paul Bremer, dismantled the Iraqi army, while policing efforts were handed over to western security firms, bleeding dry an already devastated nation. Soon after, other western contractors such as DynCorp began rebuilding an Iraqi army that has recently proved to be a costly but ineffective tool against the rise of Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIS). Today, wherever ISIS fighters seem to go, Iraqi army units disband and dissipate on their path; and their heavy weaponry, tanks and cannons taken by IS. The latter has by now captured territory in large parts of Iraq and Syria. In other words, and as Tom Engelhardt puts it, IS/ISIS are ‘George W. Bush and Dick Cheney’s gift to the world’.
And yet, these and related critical themes have recently been obscured in mainstream media coverage, particularly since the recent upsurge in interest prompted by the beheading of US photojournalist James Foley last week. The 2003 invasion has been sidelined as a theme and referenced only as a ‘mistake’ which Cameron would do well not to repeat, ignoring western complicity and responsibility in the current crisis. Even David Miliband recently confessed that he regretted the 2003 invasion and believed it to be ‘a significant factor in understanding the current situation in the country’ (Jon Swaine, ‘David Miliband on global wars, chaos in Iraq and life in New York’, Observer, 10/08).
As with Somalia’s al-Shabaab, the reasons for IS’s successes in the region have to be viewed within the context of post-imperial plunder and devastation. For instance, before IS carried out its recent massacres in Deir Ezzor, it had established a period of calm welcomed by the population who had previously been divided by militia domination of the area’s resources. When IS, dedicated to eliminating the Shia governments in Baghdad and the Alawite regime in Damascus, arrived at Deir Ezzor it subjugated these forces and now intends to distribute oil revenues to provide services and clean water, mend bridges, and initiate irrigation projects. But IS has also begun to trade in oil and grain with governments officially targeting it, and is also possibly ‘trading in people’ (Richard Spencer, ‘This may be the richest terrorist group in history’, Daily Telegraph, 21/08).
Concern over resources also motivates US foreign policy in Iraq, deemed ‘shameful’ by Hassa al-Fayath, dean of Baghdad’s al-Nahrain University: ‘The Americans always say they are the leaders in fighting terrorism, but they didn’t lift a finger when Isis was taking parts of Iraq. The only time the Americans got involved was when they found it started threatening their interests by getting closer to the oilfields and to Irbil’ (Martin Chulov and Fazel Hawramy, ‘Fears grow in Baghdad that US is abandoning city to its fate’, Observer, 17/08). Indeed, the first victims of Islamic fundamentalists have often been socialists and peace activists, one of the reasons they have received generous support from Western governments, as Mark Curtis details in Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam.
IS’s fractured ranks are not only being pushed back by Kurdish Peshmerga forces, but are also estimated to be only 25,000 strong, their increasingly desperate nature being reflected in the number of foreign hostages taken in recent weeks, now numbering around 20. What is needed is not a fresh barrage of air strikes, but serious UN-authorised humanitarian efforts (a recent innovation includes the dropping of 1,200 ‘Lifesaver cubes’, ‘water-filtration devices that remove viruses, parasites and bacteria’ (‘Life-saving tech dropped in Iraq’, New Scientist, 16/08)), support for the regional government of Iraqi Kurdistan, and the establishment of a non-sectarian Baghdad government which Sunnis have a significant stake in. These priorities are jeopardised by press reports which have typically presented the US air strikes since they began on August 8th as the only force capable of removing the IS threat, whilst portraying the strikes in a wholly generic manner, whereas, in fact, they implicate a wide range of hardware including land-based bombers, fighter jets and drones.
The Middle East is in its current state of devastation not in spite of western intervention, but because of it. Anglo-American statesmen are implicated in bloodshed stretching throughout the region, either through complicity or blind-eyed diplomacy: Over 2,000 Palestinians have been killed during Operation Protective Edge at the hands of Israeli forces; supported and armed by the US and Britain, but 3,000 Syrians were killed in July alone, and it was reported on August 22nd that the total body count has now topped 191,000 from the past three years of conflict.
The archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has appealed to Britain to follow its European neighbours through helping to protect Iraq’s Christians and other minorities: ‘It is extremely important that aid efforts are supported and that those who have been displaced are able to find safety’. And while liberal atheists such as Richard Dawkins (with his ‘appetite for wonder’, as his new memoir puts it) spend their days offending those with Down Syndrome, the Church of England are calling on Cameron to offer asylum to suffering Iraqis. Welby supported a letter written to Cameron on August 15th by the bishop of Leeds, Nicholas Baines, which accused the prime minister of turning his back on the plight of the Christians, prioritising the Yazidis. Baines condemned Britain’s failure to offer sanctuary to Iraqi Christians driven from places like Mosul, Iraq’s second city: ‘The French and German governments have already made provision, but there has so far been only silence from the UK government’. Other notable religious figures, including the Bishop of Coventry and the Secretary General of the Hindu Forum of Britain, wrote a letter to the Daily Telegraph calling on Whitehall to ‘work towards a United Nations Security Council resolution that refers this matter [of IS atrocities] to the ICC for investigation’ (21/08).
Cameron established his anti-interventionist credentials in 2008 by challenging the wisdom of US/UK bombing raids in Iraq, claiming ‘We cannot drop democracy from 10,000 feet’. Substantial humanitarian assistance also seems not too amenable to be “dropped” in this manner. The only serious efforts by the UK to offer humanitarian assistance to Iraqis during the current crisis occurred in Iraq’s Dahuk region, where Britain recently supplied ‘enough food to support 12,100 children for a month’, according to International Development Secretary Justine Greening – out of a population of half a million who have been displaced (‘Britain sends aid to Iraq’, Morning Star, 22/08). Of course, even Britain’s tepid amounts of aid seem to inevitably reflect its deep-seated militarism, with RAF C-130 Hercules aircraft being forced to abort aid drops for Yazidi refugees on Mount Sinjar after fears mounted that the falling cargo would have injured those on the ground. This was after Cameron displayed his stern conviction, as he put it, to not put ‘boots on the ground’, by quietly deploying SAS soldiers in the region surrounding the stranded refugees on Mount Sinjar; a manoeuvre carried out solely to ‘gather intelligence’ for a rescue operation that was ultimately deemed unnecessary.
Many notable journalists have had little to say about Britain’s growing involvement in northern Iraq, often overlooking the role of their own media outlets in peddling establishment viewpoints. While socialist writer and activist Owen Jones (‘our generation’s Orwell,’ for Russell Brand) was thoughtfully wishing good luck to all A-Level students (‘A-level results: a fork in a road that has lasting nostalgia’, Guardian, 15/08), his newspaper was busy calling for further Western aggression in the devastated region in an editorial ominously titled ‘Going back in’. Feminist writer and activist Laurie Penny was passionately calling on all ‘beta males’ and ‘white knights’ to raise their heads on page 21 of the New Statesman (‘Retro misogynists may scoff, but the “white knights” and “beta males” are my heroes’, 15-21/08), while over on page 7 her magazine’s editors were busy announcing their support for Obama’s air strikes and ‘a sustained military commitment’.
The bombing of Iraq – which will likely ‘increase the risk’ from homegrown terrorists, according to a former MI6 head – was also well-received by the BBC’s Today Programme, with Tom Esslemont responding to Obama’s announced air strikes by stating that ‘Doing nothing here was not an option’. Mark Urban, diplomatic editor at the BBC, tweeted his suggestion for Downing Street to ‘rethink’ its strategy after France announced it was considering joining the ‘humanitarian intervention’. As always, the search for snappy headlines has been far more earnest than the desire to explore serious solutions. The Economist’s (16-22/08) front cover was dedicated to a picture of a US fighter jet under the words ‘Back to Iraq, Getting it right this time’, while its leader explained that ‘Western leaders must prepare the public for a lengthy military engagement’ in Iraq.
A Guardian editorial on August 12th entitled ‘Back to the minefield’ – the latest in a long line of recent leaders with titles such as ‘A cry for help’ (08/08), ‘Going back in’ (16/08), and ‘Near and far enemies’ (21/08), casually re-floating the notion of military intervention and Western R2P – claimed that ‘President Obama had no real alternative to the air strikes he ordered last week against Islamic State (Isis) forces’ (the qualifier ‘real’ being the operative word here). But as Nato’s 2011 assault on Libya has demonstrated (which, remember, was going to be “different from Iraq” – now all westerners are advised to ‘flee’ the country), air strikes are merely a special ‘lite’ version of intervention. The actions of ‘our brave aircrew’ are ‘praiseworthy’, noted another editorial (‘Going back in’, 16/08), before solemnly reminding us that ‘this is not a movie’. The newspaper’s message was clear: the Middle East is a serious place, and we are here to set it to rights. How, exactly? ‘There may come a time, however, when we do head back toward something like a war footing. Then parliament must indeed debate and decide”. Though occasionally, superficially critical of militarism, the Guardian is actually clear in its belief that, as Obama often puts it, “all options are on the table” – and, further, should be welcomed if parliament deems it so.
On August 16th, the US Central Command announced nine air strikes had been launched near the Mosul dam. The event was met with much awe and enthusiasm within the mainstream media which (universally) failed to mention that along with 31 militants, 21 civilians were also amongst the dead. Defence Secretary Michael Fallon announced the next day that British warplanes are flying deeper into Iraq in an operation that could last ‘months’. None of this stopped a Guardian editorial claiming that Cameron is right to show “support for US air strikes which do not threaten civilians” (‘Speak carefully and carry a proportionate stick’, 19/08). According to Nicholas Watt, its chief political correspondent, “Fallon said that Britain’s involvement in Iraq is fast expanding beyond the initial humanitarian mission to relieve Yazidi refugees besieged on Mount Sinjar” (‘Britain expands role in Iraq’, Guardian, 18/08).
The Guardian’s Spencer Ackerman also failed to report the civilian deaths caused by Obama’s air strikes and ignored the importance of Iraq’s northern oil fields in the president’s decision to bomb, noting only that US warplanes had supported Iraqi and Kurdish forces in breaking IS’s hold on the Mosul dam. Instead, Ackerman simply regurgitated Washington’s version of events, displaying no signs of independent neuronal activity beyond imitation and repetition: “On Monday, US Central Command announced two strikes near it, to ‘further expand control of the area'” (‘Isis releases video of US journalist’s beheading’, 20/08).
Britain’s Rivet Joy spy plane has also been conducting missions since mid-August, while the RAF has been sending ammunition, rifles and machine guns into Irbil to support the Iraqi Kurdish forces, and is looking into sending night-vision goggles and body armour in addition.
Meanwhile, in the same issue where a reader’s letter was given the heading “Gazans must accept their role in creating their own prison”, the Financial Times ran an article claiming that “Without the might of US air power, it seems, fighting Isis is still an uphill struggle” (Sam Jones and Erika Solomon, ‘Foley murder marks turning point for Isis’, 21/08). The article suggested that a ground invasion may be required and quoted a Peshmerga commander’s estimate that US strikes were “60 per cent responsible for the success of the operation at the Mosul dam” whilst ignoring (along with a substantial part of the corporate media) that the 2003 US/UK invasion of Iraq was almost entirely responsible for the subsequent Sunni-Shia conflagrations leading to the creation of IS.
On August 18th, alongside its uncritical and brief front cover story about the UK’s increasing involvement, the Guardian published only one other article about Iraq. This was written by Chris Huhne of all people, and called for an invasion. After Foley’s beheading, the newspaper was filled the next day with fresh opinion pieces, focusing laser-like on personalised aspects such as the killer’s identity (raising the usual questions: “How can a human being do such a thing”) while ignoring the trauma and civilian deaths already caused by Anglo-American efforts over the previous days.
The eternal sunshine of the Guardian editors’ spotless minds led them to forget the results of modern air raids in Afghanistan and Libya to concentrate instead on the personal mendacity of Foley’s killer. This reflected a tonal shift across the mainstream media, from presenting air raids as mere background noise to instantly condemning the violence of a single gruesome act of butchery, seemingly by the hands of a British jihadi.
Suddenly Huhne’s words didn’t seem so out of place: Displaying vivid disdain for humanitarian efforts, he wrote hours before Foley’s decapitation that ‘Britain has so far done little except tip food parcels out of military transport’ (‘Cameron must put his Syria humiliation behind him’, Guardian, 18/08). He added apocalyptically, with complete disregard for public opinion, that “There have been no British air strikes to support US disruption of the attacks on the Yazidis. Such is the shadow of the government’s parliamentary defeat on the Syrian intervention almost exactly a year ago”. With familiar Reaganite imagery, he concluded that “Cameron was thrown from his horse over Syrian, but he now has to get back on and ride”.
Robert Fisk predicted this trend well, writing that Obama and Cameron will “announce that Foley’s murder shows not only how awful Isis is – but how important it is to go on bombing it in order to destroy the wretched institution” (‘We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are, Independent, 22/08). Right on cue, Cowboy Cameron took some time off from sunbathing in Cornwall to condemn the ‘brutal, extremist militants’ and pledged to use ‘everything we have’, including our ‘military prowess’, to ‘keep our country safe’ from the ‘threat’ IS posed to the UK. He then proceeded to resume holidaying down south, surfing the waves with his usual relaxed indifference to human suffering.
Meanwhile, the editors of the ‘left wing’ Independent played their part by branding any notion that the west is to blame for IS’s actions as ‘twisted logic’ (‘Homegrown hate’, 21/08). They, too, supported Obama’s racist ‘opposing Gods’ imagery in a leader titled ‘Eradicating the evil’ (22/08), claiming after Foley’s beheading that the president expressed ‘the civilised world’s horror and outrage at the bestial incident’, calling for ‘robust and concerted action’. They even suggested that ‘special forces should be aggressively employed as well’. Soon after the beheading of Foley, the aptly named James Bloodworth argued for similar bombing measures and dismissed those ‘liberals’ for ‘calling for the bombs to stop’.
The long-term ineffectiveness of Anglo-American intervention was hinted at in a Wall Street Journal article, by Nour Malas, condoning further air strikes (‘U.S. strikes drive some militants out’, Wall Street Journal, Europe Edition, 21/08). Malas detailed how “Insurgents can run across the fluid border into Syria, where their real operational base continues to offer the space to recruit and reorganize largely unchallenged”. Syrian army air strikes have also been effective in pushing back IS militants from the Raqqa and Deir el-Zour provinces, but Washington still claims its air strikes (numbered at around 100 since August 8th) are vital to ending the bloodshed, despite sources estimating that 500 Yazidi people were slaughtered in response to the initial US raids.
More damningly, a July secret op authorised by Obama sent two dozen elite Delta Force commandos into Syria to rescue Foley and other hostages, but the commandos only succeeded in engaging militants in an area the hostages were no longer kept. It is now generally agreed that this mission alerted IS to the US ground presence in Syria and may have been a factor in Foley’s killing. Robert Pape, professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, relatedly noted in the Washington Post in June that “re-engaging Iraq (and/or engaging Syria) would put it back on the path of a rising terrorist threat that has taken us over a decade to escape”.
UK Defence Secretary Michael Fallon has already made it clear that Britain will assist US warplanes through refuelling and surveillance efforts. The strikes on IS are likely going to fit the pattern of past western interventions: short-term relief (Mosul dam) followed by long-term distress. Public pressure therefore urgently needs to be exerted both on local representatives and on Whitehall to send economic support and receive refugees, while planned demonstrations at the upcoming Nato summit in Newport, Wales, deserve the public’s full support and solidarity.
Cameron was recently pressured, in an open letter by the UK National Defence Association, to increase spending on the armed forces for the next five years. One of the letter’s authors, Allen Sykes, said: “To be credible in getting Nato Europe to spend more money, Britain has to set an example” (Kiran Stacey, ‘Defence experts call for ringfence of MoD budget’, Financial Times, 21/08). This comes less than two weeks before Nato’s summit, where many hope to reconfigure the alliance’s spending. As with last summer’s parliamentary vote on Syria (that ‘shadow’ dreaded by Huhne and other statesmen), persistent public efforts to deter Britain’s interventionist urges are vital if the people of Iraq are to have any hope of governing themselves in peace and security, free of the butchery spawned by past western intervention.
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