what's left

If Maliki’s a good guy, then so is Assad

with 3 comments

Maliki’s “anti-Sunni policies have blown up in his face — literally”–Former US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, January, 2014

By Stephen Gowans

The armed rebellion in Iraq is a broad-based attempt by Sunnis to press for the resolution of legitimate grievances against a Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad which has marginalized them and treated them as second class citizens. Prime minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government reacted to largely peaceful Sunni demonstrations earlier this year with mass arrests, torture and violence. This sparked an armed rebellion, of which ISIS, the Islamist group which has dominated Western media coverage of the conflict, acts as only one part of a larger alliance of Sunni rebel organizations. The Iraqi army has met the armed rebellion with barrel bombs and indiscriminate shelling of residential targets, including a hospital in Fallujah.

Maliki’s policies have marginalized Iraq’s Sunni minority politically and economically. He has targeted Sunni politicians for arrest, manoeuvred to transform political power into a Shiite monopoly, and alienated ordinary Sunnis, who say they’re discriminated against in housing, employment, and education. Sunnis complain of being treated as second class citizens.

Sunni frustration with Maliki’s policies boiled over into mass demonstrations in five major cities last January. Tens of thousands of Sunnis participated. The Maliki government met the protests with violence (killing 51 protesters at one demonstration) and invoking anti-terrorism laws to scoop up protesters in mass arrests. According to Human Rights Watch, “detainees reported prolonged detentions without a judicial hearing and torture during interrogations.” The rights organization cited multiple abuses by Iraqi security forces, including the rape of female prisoners.

It was Baghdad’s draconian crackdown on peaceful protests that sparked the armed rebellion, not the aspirations of ISIS, the formerly al-Qaeda-linked Islamist rebel group which aims to carve a Sunni Islamist state out of parts of Syria and Iraq. Baghdad’s response to the armed rebellion has been no less draconian than its response to the largely peaceful demonstrations. Earlier this month, government forces “abandoned previous pledges not to harm civilians” and began to indiscriminately shell parts of Fallujah, including a hospital and residential areas, which had been captured by Sunni rebels. Human Rights Watch reported that “indiscriminate government attacks have included the use of barrel bombs, dropped from helicopters, on populated areas of Fallujah.” The attacks have “caused civilian casualties and forced thousands of residents to flee.” The rights group also says that Maliki’s forces have “illegally detained, tortured and extra-judicially executed an unknown number of” Sunnis since the conflict began in January.

It’s small wonder, then, that Sunnis regard Iraqi security forces as “an occupation army” and as “a foreign force in their own country.”

While early reports of the uprising reduced the armed rebellion to an ISIS campaign, it has become clear that ISIS is only one part of a broad-based and co-ordinated Sunni armed struggle. Human Rights Watch reported last month that “11 armed opposition groups are fighting in Anbar,” the Sunni-majority province of Western Iraq which borders Syria. These include fighters affiliated with Anbar’s tribes. Veteran foreign correspondent Patrick Cockburn points to “Jaish Naqshbandi, led by Saddam Hussein’s former deputy Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, former members of the Baath party, the Mukhbarat security services and the Special Republican Guard,” as groups that are also involved in the armed rebellion. “It is these groups,” reports Cockburn, “rather than ISIS, which captured Tikrit.” The New York Times’s Tim Arango and Washington Post’s Joby Warrick have also reported that the rebellion cuts across a number of Sunni groups, encompassing tribal militias and former Ba’ath Party members, as well as ISIS.

In many respects Iraq’s Sunni rebellion resembles the conflict in neighboring Syria. A protest movement quickly transforms into an armed rebellion, with armed Sunni jihadists assuming a highly visible role on the ground, and the government facing accusations of using mass arrests, torture, barrel bombs, and indiscriminate shelling against rebel forces and civilians. Of course, there are important differences, too, but the differences are not so large as to warrant the vastly different ways in which Damascus and Baghdad are treated by Western state officials and mass media.

To begin, there has been a tendency to try to minimize the role played by Islamist takfiri elements in the Syrian rebellion in favor of emphasizing the largely illusory “moderate” rebels, while in the Iraqi case, the role played by non-takfiri Sunni militants has been downplayed in favor of presenting the rebellion as an almost exclusively ISIS affair.

What’s more, Maliki has never been subjected to the demonization Assad has endured at the hands of Western state officials and mass media. And yet, much of what Assad has been accused of to warrant his demonization has been done by Maliki too. First, there’s the matter of the Iraqi prime minister failing to resolve Sunni grievances through discussion, negotiation, and inclusion, preferring instead to use anti-terrorism laws to target Sunni leaders for arrest and to try to repress mass demonstrations. Second, there are the reports of the Iraqi army’s indiscriminate shelling of residential areas and use of barrel bombs against the civilian population. Even Human Rights Watch, an organization which is linked to the US foreign policy establishment and tends to go easy on US allies, has raised the question of whether Maliki’s security forces have committed serious violations of the laws of war. Yet none of this has received more than passing mention in Western media, and no mention at all by Western state officials, who have loudly denounced Assad for the same behavior.

Similarly, the Western mass media have demonized ISIS for destabilizing Iraq, but not for destabilizing Syria. Their use of the label “terrorist” is reserved for ISIS when the organization operates in Iraq (against a US client) but not when it operates in Syria (against an officially designated enemy.) So it is that the Wall Street Journal could run an opinion piece titled “The terrorist army marching on Baghdad” when it’s inconceivable that the Journal, or any other Western newspaper, would run an opinion piece titled “The terrorist army marching on Damascus.”

ISIS and other Jihadi groups in Syria are armed and funded by reactionary Arab regimes, including the feudal tyrannies of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar, all warmly embraced as allies by Washington, despite their complete contempt for democracy. According to Wall Street Journal reporters Adam Entous and Julian E. Barnes, Qatari officials have assured Washington that Islamist militants in Syria can be eliminated once they’ve served the useful purpose of toppling Assad, yet, while Assad remains president, ISIS in Syria is safe from US attack. By contrast, as part of a coalition to redress legitimate Sunni grievances in Iraq against a US satellite government, ISIS has become a target of possible US air strikes.

If ever there were an example of governments (and mass media) dishonestly invoking charges of terrorism to justify a war against people with legitimate grievances, this is it. As one tribal leader of a Sunni rebel tribal council in Anbar put it: “It is an exaggeration and an attempt to stop the revolution against the Maliki government to say that ISIS is leading the fight. This is a rebellion against the unfairness and marginalization” of Sunnis by Baghdad.

It’s also a demonstration of Western double-standards and the complete bankruptcy of the official Western discourse on antiterrorism, human rights, democracy and the Arab Spring.

Written by what's left

June 17, 2014 at 1:22 am

Posted in Iraq, Syria

Egypt’s Illegitimate President

with 15 comments

By Stephen Gowans

Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the former head of the military that overthrew Egypt’s legitimately elected president Mohammed Morsi in a 2013 coup d’état, is almost certain to win a landslide victory in today’s presidential election. Sisi’s victory, however, won’t be due to a groundswell of popular support. In fact, a Pew Research poll conducted in April found that only a narrow majority of Egyptians support him. [1] Instead, Sisi will win because he has banned the main opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood, the organization from which the legitimate president, Morsi, sprang. Just as importantly, Morsi supporters are boycotting the vote, reasoning that they already have a legitimate president, even if he has been illegally locked away in the regime’s prisons. [2] So, with the only substantial opposition viciously suppressed, and Morsi supporters staying away from the polls, a Sisi landslide victory is a virtual certainty. But it will confer no legitimacy on the Egyptian strongman.

Under Sisi’s leadership, the military government has massacred thousands of demonstrators who took to the streets in protest against the coup. It has also jailed tens of thousands of other Morsi supporters, banned demonstrations, and discouraged dissent by locking up journalists who oppose the military take-over.

If you’ve forgotten how closely Sisi cleaves to the model of the brutal authoritarian tyrant that Western governments and media profess to abominate, think back to last summer. Here are New York Times reporters Kareem Fahim and Mayy el Sheik describing one Sisi-led massacre:

The Egyptian authorities unleashed a ferocious attack on Islamist protesters early Saturday, killing at least 72 people in the second mass killing of demonstrators in three weeks and the deadliest attack by the security services since Egypt’s uprising in early 2011.

The tactics — many were killed with gunshot wounds to the head or the chest — suggested that Egypt’s security services felt no need to show any restraint.

In the attack on Saturday, civilians joined riot police officers in firing live ammunition at the protesters as they marched toward a bridge over the Nile. By early morning, the numbers of wounded people had overwhelmed doctors at a nearby field hospital. [3]

Carried out by Muamar Gadaffi, a brutal crackdown on this scale would have been enough to raise alarms of an impending genocide and calls for humanitarian intervention. When it happens in Egypt, it’s mentioned in the back pages of some (though not all or even most) newspapers and forgotten the next day.

In October, “Clashes between protesters and security forces…left at least 51 people dead and more than 246 injured…as supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi rallied to press for his reinstatement despite a months-long crackdown on their ranks. Activists from Mr. Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood said the police used live ammunition to subdue the pro-Morsi crowds.” [4] By the end of October, an estimated 1,000 Morsi supporters had been shot dead by security forces and 6,000 herded into prisons. [5] Today, it’s acknowledged that the regime has “killed more than a thousand of Mr. Morsi’s … supporters at street protests and jailed tens of thousands of others.” [6]

Sadly, the crackdown isn’t limited to pumping live ammunition into the skulls of the ousted president’s backers. In March, an Egyptian court sentenced hundreds of Morsi supporters to death, finding them all guilty of killing a single police officer at a demonstration. The judgment was so flagrantly political that it moved the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, to denounce it. “The mass imposition of the death penalty after a trial rife with procedural irregularities is in breach of international human rights law,” the commissioner concluded. [7] This evident repression of Morsi supporters was duly noted by some Western media, though never denounced as an outrage, and quickly forgotten. We needn’t wonder how the same event would have been treated had it occurred in Syria.

Egypt’s military government also launched an assault on journalists who failed to toe the regime’s line on the appropriate attitude to the Muslim Brotherhood—now banned as a “terrorist” organization. (Additionally, the April 6 movement, considered the most effective left-leaning protest group, has been outlawed on espionage charges. [8]) A reporter who steps over the line is liable to be tossed into jail and tried with crimes against the state, a fate that befell 20 Al-Jazeera employees. [9] The jailing of journalists for what they report by a state that isn’t an ally of Washington would be thoroughly denounced by Western officials and deplored by Western media. Carried out by Egypt’s military rulers, it’s quietly noted, then forgotten.

What, then, accounts for the blatant double-standard?

As the Wall Street Journal’s Adam Entous explains, “Washington has long viewed its military ties with Cairo, backed by more than $40 billion in military aid since 1948 along with annual military exercises and extensive officer exchanges, as an anchor of one of its most important relationships in the Arab world.” [10] Which is to say that Egypt—or more specifically, its military—does Washington’s bidding. Notably, Syria, North Korea, Venezuela and Zimbabwe, reject US domination and pursue independent paths. When the leaders of these countries use their state’s repressive apparatus to quell opposition (often encouraged by dollops of “pro-democracy” funding funnelled by Western governments to opposition forces through NGOs), they are demonized.

Apart from underpinning Egypt’s role as an agent of US influence in the Arab world, Washington’s military aid program to the country—surpassed only by aid to Israel—is a source of handsome profits to US military contractors. Every year US taxpayers fork over $1.3 billion to the Egyptian military to submit large orders for weaponry and equipment to US arms manufacturers. [11] In concrete terms, the bullets Egyptian soldiers used to mow down Morsi supporters were purchased by US taxpayers.

Adding to Cairo’s value as a US ally is that fact that it grants the Pentagon virtual carte-blanche access to its territory.

Most nations, including many close allies of the United States, require up to a week’s notice before American warplanes are allowed to cross their territory. Not Egypt, which offers near-automatic approval for military overflights…American warships are also allowed to cut to the front of the line through the Suez Canal in times of crisis, even when oil tankers are stacked up like cars on an interstate highway at rush hour. [12]

Accordingly, Sisi’s brutal rise to power is tolerated by Western governments and his undemocratic and illiberal methods passed over in near silence by the Western media, because he can be counted on to maintain Egypt as a reliable agent of US influence in the Arab world, provide valuable services to the US military, and fatten the bottom lines of US arms manufacturers with weapons orders. None of this is to say that Morsi wouldn’t have performed the same valuable services. The reality of US domination would have structured the decision-making environment to hem Morsi in and limit his room for manoeuvre. But it’s doubtful he could have been counted on to be as reliable a servant as Sisi, who trained at the US Army War College, and has extensive connections to the US military. Hence, rather than denouncing Sisi, Western politicians and media mobilize the energies of social justice-advocates against countries whose leaders reject the international dictatorship of the United States and refuse to provide valuable services to the Pentagon, not against those that do.

Caught up in mass media-manipulated campaigns of indignation against targets of US imperialist designs, the beautiful souls of the left ignore the deplorable activities of the West’s faithful local agents in the Arab world, from the hereditary tyrannies of the Gulf states to the blood-stained US-backed strongman in Cairo, while at the same time protesting the resistance of the Syrian government and its Hezbollah ally against Western efforts to crush an independent Arab political project. Immersed in a fantasy world structured by the mass media’s promotion of Western foreign policy agendas, they line up with the US-aligned Arab royal dictatorships against the only organized Arab forces prepared to resist domination by the United States and its Zionist client.

While dispassionately documenting Sisi’s affronts against liberal democratic ideals, the Western media have not demonized him, as they invariably do leaders of governments who refuse to act as ductile agents of US power. Even so, Sisi’s actions would certainly warrant the same media treatment meted out to the West’s favorite international villains were he standing on his feet against US domination, rather than kneeling before it as a loyal servant. If Western conceptions of democracy and human rights mean anything, Sisi would long ago have occupied center stage in the West’s pantheon of demons. That he is allowed to fly under the radar—despite cancelling democracy, murdering protesters, executing political opponents, and jailing journalists—reveals much about US foreign policy, the Western media that support it, and social-justice advocates who are deceived by it.

1. “One Year after Morsi’s Ouster, Divides Persist on El-Sisi, Muslim Brotherhood,” Pew Research Global Attitude Project, May 22, 2014. http://www.pewglobal.org/2014/05/22/one-year-after-morsis-ouster-divides-persist-on-el-sisi-muslim-brotherhood/
2. David D. Kirkpatrick, “In Egyptian Town, Cheers for Sisi but Murmurs of Discontent,” The New York Times, May 25, 2014.
3. Kareem Fahim and Mayy el Sheik, “Crackdown in Egypt kills Islamists as they protest”, The New York Times, July 27, 2013/
4. Matt Bradley, “Egyptian clashes leave at least 51 dead”, The Wall Street Journal, October 6, 2013.
5. Tamer El-Ghobashy and Matt Bradely, “Egypt arrests Brotherhood official ahead of Morsi trial”, The Wall Street Journal, Oct 30, 2013.
6. David. D. Kirkpatrick, “Egypt’s new strongman, Sisi knows best”, The New York Times, May 24, 2014.
7. Nick Cumming-Bruce, “U.N. expresses alarm over Egyptian death sentences”, The New York Times, March 25, 2014.
8. David D. Kirkpatrick, “Uproar in Egypt after judge sentences more than 680 to death”, The New York Times, April 28, 2014.
9. Tamer El-Ghobashy, “Egypt to charge Al Jazeera journalists”, The Wall Street Journal, January 28, 2013.
10. Adam Entous, “U.S. defense chief mans hot line to Cairo”, The Wall Street Journal, The Wall Street Journal, July 10, 2013.
11. Eric Schmitt, “Cairo military firmly hooked to U.S. lifeline”, The New York Times, August 20, 2013.
12. Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt, “Ties with Egypt army constrain Washington”, The New York Times, August 16, 2013.

Written by what's left

May 26, 2014 at 10:19 pm

Posted in Egypt

US Policy on Ukraine: Follow the Money

with 4 comments

Don’t underestimate the role played by Yanukovych’s foreign-investor-unfriendly economic policy in spurring the US intervention in Ukraine

By Stephen Gowans

A favored leftist explanation of the United States’s and European Union’s intervention in Ukraine revolves around the geopolitical imperative for Washington of containing a US military rival, Russia, and bringing NATO up to its borders by integrating Ukraine into the US-led military alliance. What’s rarely mentioned is that the role played by the United States and its European subalterns in supporting the Maidan uprising and the consequent rise to power of the pro-Western coup government has also been motivated by the goal of building a more congenial climate in Ukraine for the profit-making activities of Western corporations and investors.

While Ukraine’s economy is understood by leftists to be capitalist and therefore not to raise a red flag at the US State Department, it is far from true that Ukraine’s economic policies under the ousted former president Victor Yanukovych were warmly accepted, even tolerated, in Western foreign policy circles. Indeed, from the point of view of the West, Ukraine’s economy left much to be desired. It needed, IMF managers said, to be reorganized by “structural reforms” to “improve the business climate.” [1] What’s important here is not that Ukraine was viewed as infertile ground for capitalist profit-making—but that it was viewed as infertile ground for the profit-making activities of Western corporations specifically.

The Heritage Foundation-Wall Street Journal 2014 Index of Economic Freedom rates Ukraine’s economy as “repressed” along with those of such perennial US regime change targets as North Korea, Cuba, Zimbabwe, Venezuela and Iran—all unfriendly to the idea that economic policy should be formulated to pad bank accounts and bottom lines in New York, London, Frankfurt and Paris. [2] Ukraine’s economic freedom—that is, its adherence to the free enterprise, open markets, free trade agenda favored on Wall Street—is even ranked behind that of Belarus, a country reviled in Western foreign policy circles for its nostalgic attachment to Soviet economic forms. Of 43 countries in Europe, the US ruling class foundation and newspaper rank Ukraine’s friendliness to Western corporate interests dead last, and only a little better than that of communist North Korea and Cuba, socialist Venezuela and economically nationalist Zimbabwe and Iran. So where, in the view of the West’s corporate elite, has Ukraine gone wrong?

The Heritage Foundation and its Wall Street Journal partner have a number of complaints. “Contracts are not well enforced, and expropriation is always a possibility.” “The labor code” they grouse, “is outmoded and lacks flexibility,” meaning it offers too many protections to workers. Government procurement policies are denounced for sometimes favoring domestic firms, and hence, limiting the profit-making opportunities of North American and European corporations. Exception is taken to Ukraine’s state-owned firms, which crowd out private (mainly Western) enterprise, and Kiev’s restrictions on foreign investment, which give a leg up to domestic businesses but cut foreign corporations out of the action.

Some of these noxious-to-Wall-Street barriers to Western profit-making would have been dismantled had Yanukovych not backed away from an agreement with the European Union that would have seen Ukraine get preferential access to EU markets in return for turning over Ukraine’s labor, markets and resources to Western business interests. But, alas, Yanukovych balked and Washington took advantage of the ensuing protests to foment an uprising to bring a biddable pro-foreign-investment stooge to power, backed by fascists and militant Russophobes.

The coup government quickly signed on to an IMF economic reform program which promises to replace the set of economic policies Washington and Brussels have long derogated for being unfriendly to Western investors with one aimed at pushing Ukraine into Wall Street’s good books. Reza Moghadam, director of the IMF’s European Department, explained that “the program…is expected to…help restore confidence among private investors,” to which he might have added, investors of the sort who own mansions in and around New York City and other Western financial capitals. Moghadam adds that “Ukraine needs to undertake deep-reaching structural reforms” to improve Ukraine’s business climate. That roughly translates into holding the line on wages, laying off public sector workers, gutting protections for employees, hiking taxes on ordinary people while bringing them down for businesses, rolling back social services, and throwing open the doors of the economy to Western corporations.

Here are the details. Public sector wages will be held in check while increases in the minimum wage will be capped. At the same time, “expenditure restraint will be exercised through the suspension of” (what the IMF calls) “unaffordable wage and pension increases planned by the previous” (i.e., Yanukovych) “government, public employment reduction…and rationalization of social assistance spending.” So far this is shaping up to mean that “24,000 state workers and 80,000 police officers nationwide are set to be laid off,” [3] with more austerity to follow. And while public expenditures are being reined in in the interests of creating an improved business environment, tax revenues will be hiked, not through increases in corporate taxes and income tax, but on regressive consumption taxes, which fall most heavily on those with the lowest incomes. The wealthy will be spared the burden of contributing to state coffers by measures to “facilitate value-added tax refunds for businesses.” And while ordinary Ukrainians are being squeezed to give more to businesses and investors, a new procurement law will be adopted to deny domestic firms preferential treatment in the awarding of government contracts. North American and European firms will be the principal beneficiaries.

The coup government’s principals, explains Moghadam, “believe there is a window of opportunity for bold and ambitious reforms in order to transform Ukraine” into “a vibrant business environment”—yes, and one that pays dividends to foreigners on the backs of Ukrainians. The sole reason for the existence of Ukrainians (and most of humanity) under the logic of the US-superintended system of global capitalism is to be screwed over in order to make a thin upper layer of Western society fabulously wealthy.

If we accept that the United States’s wealthiest citizens as a class exercise inordinate influence over public policy—a point supported by research presented in an upcoming paper in Perspectives on Politics by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page [4]–it follows that the principal function of the US State Department and the Pentagon is to support the overseas profit-making activities of US corporations. Hence, what likely lies at the root of US interventions abroad is the defense and promotion of US investor and corporate interests contra the economic nationalist (Ukraine, Zimbabwe, Iran), socialist (Venezuela) or communist (Cuba and North Korea) economic policies of foreign states. Yanukovych’s government gave too many breaks to Ukrainian investors, businesses, and even ordinary citizens, and therefore committed the cardinal sin in the church of US global hegemony: interfering in the profit-maximization of US corporations. That, perhaps more than US geopolitical and military interests, explains why the United States backs the coup in Kiev and opposes the forces arrayed against it.

Russia’s repatriation of Crimea—backed by the peninsula’s largely Russophone population, as it had also been overwhelmingly backed in a 1991 plebiscite [5]—was simply a defensive reaction by Moscow against the danger that the coup government in Kiev would seek to eject it from its naval base on the Black Sea. It was not the aggressive act Western figures of state and their mass media echo-chambers have made it out to be. The true aggressor here is US foreign policy in pursuit of its principal function of promoting the overseas profit-making interests of corporate America.

Postscript

Yanukovych’s successor as president, Petro Poroshenko, announced that “We will do the absolutely unique transformation of our country…with a very good investment climate…with all the necessary things to attract business.” (David M. Herszenhorn, “Pro-European businessman claims victory in Ukraine presidential vote”, The New York Times, May 25, 2014)

1. Interview with Reza Moghadam: Ukraine Unveils Reform Program with IMF Support, IMF Survey, April 30, 2014
2. http://www.heritage.org/index/
3. Anthony Faiola, “In Ukraine, a crisis of bullets and economics,” The Washington Post, April 16, 2014
4. Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” forthcoming Fall 2014 in Perspectives on Politics. http://www.princeton.edu/~mgilens/Gilens%20homepage%20materials/Gilens%20and%20Page/Gilens%20and%20Page%202014-Testing%20Theories%203-7-14.pdf
5. Peter Hart, “Radioactive Putin is ‘Stalin’s Spawn’”, Extra!, May 1, 2014

Written by what's left

May 9, 2014 at 2:19 pm

Posted in Ukraine

UN Report on North Korea could be about the United States or South Korea

leave a comment »

By Stephen Gowans

Surely one could be forgiven for thinking that when the Washington Post’s Chico Harlan (February 17) described the conclusions reached by the UN Human Rights Commission’s investigation into North Korea that he was really describing his own country, the United States. Harlan wrote, “The report makes for devastating reading, laying out the way North Korea conducts surveillance on its citizens (see Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA’s spying on US citizens…and everyone else), bans them from travel (anyone up for a visit to Cuba?), discriminates against them based on supposed ideological impurities (has the United States ever been kind to Marxist-Leninists?), tortures them (water boarding and Abu Ghraib) and sometimes banishes them to isolated prison camps, where they are held incommunicado” (recently Guantanamo and other CIA torture camps around the world to which opponents of the US regime have been rendered, more distantly, the incarceration of German-, Italian- and Japanese-Americans during WWII.)

The report recommends that North Korea be referred to the International Criminal Court at The Hague, but if the charges against North Korea are true, then surely the case for referring the United States to the same court is at least as compelling. Add the United States’ record of extrajudicial assassination, its world-leading rate of incarceration, its illegal wars, and its support for the most vile human rights violators on the planet, among them Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Bahrain, and the case for referring US leaders to The Hague is overwhelming.

The UN report says that North Korea is committing human rights violations “without any parallel in the contemporary world,” a conclusion that could only be reached by wilful blindness to the human rights violations of the United States, its democracy-abominating allies in the Gulf, and its south Korean neo-colony. South Korea, whose affronts against human rights are passed over largely in silence by the Western media (and it seems by the UN Human Rights Commission too), conducts surveillance on its citizens, bans them from travel to North Korea, discriminates against them if they hold views sympathetic to North Korea, its official Juche ideology or Marxism-Leninism, and uses its highly repressive National Security Law to lock up and intimidate anyone who has a good word to say about North Korea.

The UN report can hardly be taken seriously. It is a transparent effort to discredit a government that has, for more than half a century, been in the cross-hairs of a US program of military intimidation, economic warfare, diplomatic isolation and ideological assault, targeted for regime change for rejecting participation in a US-superintended global capitalist order. More than that, by passing over regimes that do what North Korea is accused of doing, it sanitizes the behavior of the United States and its allies, buttressing the ideological fiction that anti-capitalist governments are uniquely human rights violators, while upholders of global capitalism are uniquely champions of human rights.

If a case is to be pressed to refer North Korea to the ICC, then referrals of the United States, Saudi Arabia, and South Korea to The Hague—to start—are long overdue. Until this oversight is rectified, it is impossible to regard the UN report—and the western media’s coverage of it—as anything but sops to the propaganda imperatives of US foreign policy.

Written by what's left

February 18, 2014 at 5:47 pm

Posted in north Korea

Ukraine and How the West Treats Comparable Events in Satellite and Non-Satellite Countries Differently

with 20 comments

By Stephen Gowans

The uprising in Ukraine represents a struggle between the West and Russia to integrate Ukraine economically, and, ultimately, militarily, into their respective orbits. I take no side in the struggle. All the same, each side wants me, and you, to take sides. Since I live in the West, and have greater exposure to the pronouncements of people of state in the West, and to the Western mass media than I do to their Russian counterparts, I’ll concentrate herein on analyzing Western efforts to shape public opinion to support the Western side of the struggle.

First, a few points by way of background.

• Ukraine is divided nationally between ethnic Ukrainians, who are concentrated in the West, and Russians, who are concentrated in the East, and especially in Crimea. Russians in Crimea and the East lean toward integration with Russia, while ethnic Ukrainians in the West tend to resent Russia’s historical domination of Ukraine.
• Crimea, a peninsula jutting into the Black Sea, is the home to the Russian Black Sea fleet. The current president, Yanukovych, extended the Russian lease on the naval base.
• Russian gas bound for Europe transits Ukraine.
• Russia does not want Ukraine to be integrated into NATO, which it views, for sound reasons, as an anti-Russian military alliance.

For the West, integration of Ukraine into its orbit means:

• Expansion of Western business opportunities.
• Growing isolation of Russia, one of the few countries strong enough to challenge US hegemony.
• Influence over transit of Russian gas exports to Europe.
• Military strategic advantage.

It’s instructive to contrast the treatment by Western states and mass media of the uprising in Ukraine with the concurrent uprisings in Egypt (which the West opposes) and Syria (which it supports.)

The Syrian uprising, contrary to its depiction by Western forces as a battle for democracy, is the latest, and most violent, eruption of an ongoing Islamist insurgency dating back to the 1960s and the Muslim Brotherhood’s efforts to oust the “infidel” non-sectarian Arab nationalist government. The insurgency has since mutated into one dominated by salafist, takfiri, and al-Qaeda-aligned fighters backed by hereditary Muslim tyrannies, the Qatari and Saudi royal dictatorships, and former colonial powers, Turkey, France and Britain. The Western narrative makes obligatory references to the Syrian government as a “regime”, complains about its authoritarian nature, insists the insurgency springs from the peaceful protests of pro-democracy activists, and celebrates the “moderate” rebels. The moderate rebels are, in the main, Muslim Brothers. To be sure, they’re moderate compared to the Nusra Front and Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, but they’re not the secular liberal- or social-democrats so many in the West would like to believe they are.

In contrast, the uprising in Egypt against a military dictatorship that ousted an elected Muslim Brother as president is treated very differently. The dictatorship is not called a “dictatorship”, nor even a “regime”, but neutrally, a “military government.” The Muslim Brothers, who have taken to the streets in protest at the coup, and have been gunned down and locked up for their troubles, are not called “pro-democracy activists”, as the Muslim Brothers in Syria are, or even moderate rebels, but an “emerging Islamist insurgency.” Nor is the dictatorship which shot them down and locked them up called a “brutal” dictatorship. The Egyptian dictatorship calls the insurgents “terrorists”, which is dispassionately noted in Western news reports, while the Assad government’s depictions of Syrian insurgents who set off car bombs in crowded downtown streets as terrorists is dismissed as patent propaganda. Egypt’s military dictatorship has banned political parties, tossed political opponents in jail on trumped up charges, and arrested journalists. Over the weekend the Egyptian military killed somewhere between 50 and 60 demonstrators. This is mechanically documented in major Western newspapers. There are no calls for Western intervention.

The recent events in Ukraine are treated very differently. The deaths of a few rioters in Ukraine sparks fevered media coverage and denunciation in Western capitals, while the president’s attempts to quell the disorder by invoking laws restricting civil liberties is treated as a major assault on human rights. Compare that to the relative silence over the deaths of many more demonstrators in Egypt and the suspension of all political liberties in that country. If we should be exercised by the state of affairs in Ukraine, surely we should be incensed on a far grander scale by the state of affairs in Egypt.

Foreign governments stand in relation to the West as satellites, in which case they’re called allies, or non-satellites, in which case they’re “enemies”, or, if they’re large enough, “rivals.” Comparable events in any two countries will be treated in Western mass media differently and using different language depending on whether the country is a satellite (ally) or non-satellite (enemy or rival). Hence, in Syria (a non-satellite) an elected government (elected, to be sure, under restrictive conditions) is called a “regime” headed by a “dictator”, while in Egypt (a satellite) a military-appointed government is not called a “regime” but a “government” and the de facto head of state (a dictator) is simply called “the head of the military.” In Egypt, an emerging insurgency led by Muslim Brothers and Islamist fanatics is called “an emerging Islamist insurgency”, but in Syria, an insurgency reignited by Muslim Brothers and now dominated by Islamist fanatics is called a “rebellion against dictatorship.” In Ukraine (a non-satellite so far as the government goes ahead with plans to align itself with Russia and not the EU) a crackdown on dissent which is mild compared to the crackdown in Egypt (or Bahrain or Saudi Arabia or any other Gulf monarchy satellite of the United States) is treated as a major transgression on human rights, one warranting some form of Western intervention. However, no intervention is called for to stay the hand of Egypt’s military. Through the deft use of language and selective emphasis and silence, Western states concoct and spread through the mass media an understanding of events in far off places that comport with the pursuit of their own interests (which, more narrowly, once you parse them out, are the interests of their wealthiest citizens as a class.)

Efforts to integrate Ukraine into the EU are motivated by the desire of Western states to secure advantages for their economic elite, while efforts to integrate Ukraine into Russia are aimed at garnering benefits for Russian enterprises and investors. The interests of the bulk of Ukrainians do not, however, enter into the equation. Their role is simply to produce wealth for investors—Russian or Western or both—while doing so for as little compensation in wages, salary, benefits and government services as possible to allow the investors to make off with as much as possible. The interests of the bulk of Ukraine’s citizens lie, neither with the EU nor Russian elites, but with themselves.

Written by what's left

January 27, 2014 at 11:32 pm

Posted in Egypt, Syria, Ukraine

Qatar’s Questionable Syrian Torture Allegations

with 4 comments

By Stephen Gowans

A report sponsored by one of the Syrian insurgency’s major weapons suppliers claims to provide “new visual corroboration that Mr. Assad’s government is guilty of mass war crimes against its own citizens.” Based on photos of dead detainees said to be taken by a defector from the Syrian military, the report alleges that Syrian forces engaged in widespread torture.

While the allegations may be true, there is considerable room for skepticism.

First, and foremost, the photographs on which the report is based have not been independently verified.

Second, the driving force behind the report is Qatar, which has been energetically engaged in efforts to bring down the Syrian government. Part of that effort has been to supply Syrian and foreign jihadists– themselves the target of torture accusations–with arms.

Third, there are three reasons the Qatari emirate might have an interest in traducing the Syrian government with phony allegations.

• To strengthen assertions that Assad must step down, preventing any deal at the Geneva II conference that might leave him in place.

• To provide a pretext for direct intervention by Western military forces into the Syrian conflict.

• To divert attention from the brutal war crimes (including mass executions, beheadings and eviscerations) carried out by the insurgents, now under investigation by Navi Pillay, the United Nations human rights chief.

Of course, we can’t be sure that the financing of the torture allegations report is a stratagem to gain the upper hand in the Syrian conflict, but as The New York Times acknowledges in an understatement, the funding of the project by one of the insurgents’ principal backers is “likely to raise questions.”

Indeed.

Written by what's left

January 22, 2014 at 5:14 pm

Posted in Qatar, Syria

Seven Myths about the USSR

with 29 comments

By Stephen Gowans

The Soviet Union was dissolved 22 years ago, on December 26, 1991. It’s widely believed outside the former republics of the USSR that Soviet citizens fervently wished for this; that Stalin was hated as a vile despot; that the USSR’s socialist economy never worked; and that the citizens of the former Soviet Union prefer the life they have today under capitalist democracy to, what, in the fevered parlance of Western journalists, politicians and historians, was the repressive, dictatorial rule of a one-party state which presided over a sclerotic, creaky and unworkable socialist economy.

None of these beliefs is true.

Myth #1. The Soviet Union had no popular support. On March 17, 1991, nine months before the Soviet Union’s demise, Soviet citizens went to the polls to vote on a referendum which asked whether they were in favor of preserving the USSR. Over three-quarters voted yes. Far from favoring the breakup of the union, most Soviet citizens wanted to preserve it. [1]

Myth #2. Russians hate Stalin. In 2009, Rossiya, a Russian TV channel, spent three months polling over 50 million Russians to find out who, in their view, were the greatest Russians of all time. Prince Alexander Nevsky, who successfully repelled an attempted Western invasion of Russia in the 13th century, came first. Second place went to Pyotr Stolypin, who served as prime minister to Tsar Nicholas II, and enacted agrarian reforms. In third place, behind Stolypin by only 5,500 votes, was Joseph Stalin, a man that Western opinion leaders routinely describe as a ruthless dictator with the blood of tens of millions on his hands. [2] He may be reviled in the West, not surprisingly, since he was never one after the hearts of the corporate grandees who dominate the West’s ideological apparatus, but, it seems, Russians have a different view—one that fails to comport with the notion that Russians were victimized, rather than elevated, by Stalin’s leadership.

In a May/June 2004 Foreign Affairs article, (Flight from Freedom: What Russians Think and Want), anti-communist Harvard historian Richard Pipes cited a poll in which Russians were asked to list the 10 greatest men and women of all time. The poll-takers were looking for significant figures of any country, not just Russians. Stalin came fourth, behind Peter the Great, Lenin, and Pushkin…much to Pipes’ irritation. [3]

Myth #3. Soviet socialism didn’t work. If this is true, then capitalism, by any equal measure, is an indisputable failure. From its inception in 1928, to the point at which it was dismantled in 1989, Soviet socialism never once, except during the extraordinary years of World War II, stumbled into recession, nor failed to provide full employment. [4] What capitalist economy has ever grown unremittingly, without recession, and providing jobs for all, over a 56 year span (the period during which the Soviet economy was socialist and the country was not at war, 1928-1941 and 1946-1989)? Moreover, the Soviet economy grew faster than capitalist economies that were at an equal level of economic development when Stalin launched the first five year plan in 1928—and faster than the US economy through much of the socialist system’s existence. [5] To be sure, the Soviet economy never caught up to or surpassed the advanced industrial economies of the capitalist core, but it started the race further back; was not aided, as Western countries were, by histories of slavery, colonial plunder, and economic imperialism; and was unremittingly the object of Western, and especially US, attempts to sabotage it. Particularly deleterious to Soviet economic development was the necessity of diverting material and human resources from the civilian to the military economy, to meet the challenge of Western military pressure. The Cold War and arms race, which entangled the Soviet Union in battles against a stronger foe, not state ownership and planning, kept the socialist economy from overtaking the advanced industrial economies of the capitalist West. [6] And yet, despite the West’s unflagging efforts to cripple it, the Soviet socialist economy produced positive growth in each and every non-war year of its existence, providing a materially secure existence for all. Which capitalist economy can claim equal success?

Myth #4. Now that they’ve experienced it, citizens of the former Soviet Union prefer capitalism. On the contrary, they prefer the Soviet system’s state planning, that is, socialism. Asked in a recent poll what socio-economic system they favor, Russians answered [7]:

• State planning and distribution, 58%
• Private property and distribution, 28%
• Hard to say, 14%
• Total, 100%

Pipes cites a poll in which 72 percent of Russians “said they wanted to restrict private economic initiative.” [8]

Myth #5. Twenty-two years later, citizens of the former Soviet Union see the USSR’s demise as more beneficial than harmful. Wrong again. According to a just-released Gallup poll, for every citizen of 11 former Soviet republics, including Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, who thinks the breakup of the Soviet Union benefited their country, two think it did harm. And the results are more strongly skewed toward the view that the breakup was harmful among those aged 45 years and over, namely, the people who knew the Soviet system best. [9]

According to another poll cited by Pipes, three-quarters of Russians regret the Soviet Union’s demise [10]—hardly what you would think of people who were reportedly delivered from a supposedly repressive state and allegedly arthritic, ponderous economy.

Myth #6. Citizens of the former Soviet Union are better off today. To be sure, some are. But are most? Given that more prefer the former socialist system to the current capitalist one, and think that the USSR’s breakup has done more harm than good, we might infer that most aren’t better off—or at least, that they don’t see themselves as such. This view is confirmed, at least as regards life expectancy. In a paper in the prestigious British medical journal, The Lancet, sociologist David Stuckler and medical researcher Martin McKee, show that the transition to capitalism in the former USSR precipitated a sharp drop in life-expectancy, and that “only a little over half of the ex-Communist countries have regained their pre-transition life-expectancy levels.” Male life expectancy in Russia, for example, was 67 years in 1985, under communism. In 2007, it was less than 60 years. Life expectancy plunged five years between 1991 and 1994. [11] The transition to capitalism, then, produced countless pre-mature deaths—and continues to produce a higher mortality rate than likely would have prevailed under the (more humane) socialist system. (A 1986 study by Shirley Ciresto and Howard Waitzkin, based on World Bank data, found that the socialist economies of the Soviet bloc produced more favorable outcomes on measures of physical quality of life, including life expectancy, infant mortality, and caloric intake, than did capitalist economies at the same level of economic development, and as good as capitalist economies at a higher level of development. [12])

As regards the transition from a one-party state to a multi-party democracy, Pipes points to a poll that shows that Russians view democracy as a fraud. Over three-quarters believe “democracy is a facade for a government controlled by rich and powerful cliques.” [13] Who says Russians aren’t perspicacious?

Myth #7. If citizens of the former Soviet Union really wanted a return to socialism, they would just vote it in. If only it were so simple. Capitalist systems are structured to deliver public policy that suits capitalists, and not what’s popular, if what’s popular is against capitalist interests. Obamacare aside, the United States doesn’t have full public health insurance. Why not? According to the polls, most Americans want it. So, why don’t they just vote it in? The answer, of course, is that there are powerful capitalist interests, principally private insurance companies, that have used their wealth and connections to block a public policy that would attenuate their profits. What’s popular doesn’t always, or even often, prevail in societies where those who own and control the economy can use their wealth and connections to dominate the political system to win in contests that pit their elite interests against mass interests. As Michael Parenti writes,

Capitalism is not just an economic system, but an entire social order. Once it takes hold, it is not voted out of existence by electing socialists or communists. They may occupy office but the wealth of the nation, the basic property relations, organic law, financial system, and debt structure, along with the national media, police power, and state institutions have all been fundamentally restructured. [14]

A Russian return to socialism is far more likely to come about the way it did the first time, through revolution, not elections—and revolutions don’t happen simply because people prefer a better system to the one they currently have. Revolutions happen when life can no longer be lived in the old way—and Russians haven’t reached the point where life as it’s lived today is no longer tolerable.

Interestingly, a 2003 poll asked Russians how they would react if the Communists seized power. Almost one-quarter would support the new government, one in five would collaborate, 27 percent would accept it, 16 percent would emigrate, and only 10 percent would actively resist it. In other words, for every Russian who would actively oppose a Communist take-over, four would support it or collaborate with it, and three would accept it [15]—not what you would expect if you think Russians are glad to get out from underneath what we’re told was the burden of communist rule.

So, the Soviet Union’s passing is regretted by the people who knew the USSR firsthand (but not by Western journalists, politicians and historians who knew Soviet socialism only through the prism of their capitalist ideology.) Now that they’ve had over two decades of multi-party democracy, private enterprise and a market economy, Russians don’t think these institutions are the wonders Western politicians and mass media make them out to be. Most Russians would prefer a return to the Soviet system of state planning, that is, to socialism.

Even so, these realities are hidden behind a blizzard of propaganda, whose intensity peaks each year on the anniversary of the USSR’s passing. We’re supposed to believe that where it was tried, socialism was popularly disdained and failed to deliver—though neither assertion is true.

Of course, that anti-Soviet views have hegemonic status in the capitalist core is hardly surprising. The Soviet Union is reviled by just about everyone in the West: by the Trotskyists, because the USSR was built under Stalin’s (and not their man’s) leadership; by social democrats, because the Soviets embraced revolution and rejected capitalism; by the capitalists, for obvious reasons; and by the mass media (which are owned by the capitalists) and the schools (whose curricula, ideological orientation and political and economic research are strongly influenced by them.)

So, on the anniversary of the USSR’s demise we should not be surprised to discover that socialism’s political enemies should present a view of the Soviet Union that is at odds with what those on the ground really experienced, what a socialist economy really accomplished, and what those deprived of it really want.

1.”Referendum on the preservation of the USSR,” RIA Novosti, 2001, http://en.ria.ru/infographics/20110313/162959645.html
2. Guy Gavriel Kay, “The greatest Russians of all time?” The Globe and Mail (Toronto), January 10, 2009.
3. Richard Pipes, “Flight from Freedom: What Russians Think and Want,” Foreign Affairs, May/June 2004.
4. Robert C. Allen. Farm to Factory: A Reinterpretation of the Soviet Industrial Revolution, Princeton University Press, 2003. David Kotz and Fred Weir. Revolution From Above: The Demise of the Soviet System, Routledge, 1997.
5. Allen; Kotz and Weir.
6. Stephen Gowans, “Do Publicly Owned, Planned Economies Work?” what’s left, December 21, 2012.
7. “Russia Nw”, in The Washington Post, March 25, 2009.
8. Pipes.
9. Neli Espova and Julie Ray, “Former Soviet countries see more harm from breakup,” Gallup, December 19, 2013, http://www.gallup.com/poll/166538/former-soviet-countries-harm-breakup.aspx
10. Pipes.
11. Judy Dempsey, “Study looks at mortality in post-Soviet era,” The New York Times, January 16, 2009.
12. Shirley Ceresto and Howard Waitzkin, “Economic development, political-economic system, and the physical quality of life”, American Journal of Public Health, June 1986, Vol. 76, No. 6.
13. Pipes.
14. Michael Parenti, Blackshirts & Reds: Rational Fascism and the Overthrow of Communism, City Light Books, 1997, p. 119.
15. Pipes.

Written by what's left

December 23, 2013 at 11:31 pm

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 621 other followers

%d bloggers like this: