The Regime That Isn’t
December 19, 2016
By Stephen Gowans
“A substantial body of research conducted over many decades highlights the proximity between western news media and their respective governments, especially in the realm of foreign affairs,” writes Piers Robinson, Chair in Politics, Society and Political Journalism at the University of Sheffield. “For reasons that include overreliance on government officials as news sources, economic constraints, the imperatives of big business and good old-fashioned patriotism, mainstream western media frequently fail to meet democratic expectations regarding independence.” Robinson’s study of news coverage of the 2003 US-UK war on Arab nationalist Iraq found that mainstream media reinforced official views rather than challenged them. 
One of the ways in which the mainstream media reinforce official views is by characterizing foreign governments which reject the United States’ self-proclaimed role as leader of the global order as violating Western democratic norms, regardless of whether they do or do not. At the same time, foreign governments which categorically reject Western democratic norms, but which agree that the United States “can and must lead the global economy” (as the 2015 National Security Strategy of the United States insists) are treated deferentially by the Western press. “We give a free pass to governments which cooperate and ream the others as best as we can,” a U.S. official explained,  a statement of modus operandi which applies as much to the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and other Western news media, as it does to the US government.That there exists a glaring double-standard on democratic norms, under which lies a consistent standard of demonizing governments which reject US primacy while refusing to demonize governments that do not, is exemplified in a recent juxtaposition.
On December 18, US secretary of state John Kerry was in Riyadh, rhapsodizing about “His Majesty King Salman,” the head of an absolutist state which is the very antithesis of Western democratic norms. It “is good to have solid friends” in the Saudi monarchy, said the United States’ top diplomat. The “United States partnership with Saudi Arabia is, frankly, so valuable,” added Kerry. The “relationship between our countries remains strong in every dimension. It is a relationship that’s been a priority for President Obama and myself. We’re partners, but we’re also friends.” 
The US government’s friend and partner is a tyranny which crushed a 2011 Arab Spring uprising for democracy that erupted on the Arabian Peninsula, while sending tanks into Bahrain to crush a related uprising there. Saudi authorities suppressed a movement for democratic rule by executing the uprising’s leadership, relying on decapitation as the favored method of liquidating democratic trouble-makers. The regime practices an official misogyny that goes so far as to deny women the right to drive automobiles. Saudi clerics propagate worldwide an austere, hate-filled, anti-Shia strain of Islam that, along with Muslim Brotherhood ideology, inspires Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and Jabhat al Nusra. And the House of Saud, the family dictatorship which tyrannizes the Arabian Peninsula, has not, for one second, tolerated the slightest democratic challenge to its autocratic and sectarian rule.
In short, Salman—good friend and partner of US presidents and secretaries of state, to say nothing of US arms dealers, the CIA, US oil companies, and New York investment bankers—is a dictator and a strongman who uses Western-supplied tanks to crush calls for democracy and leads a regime that is aptly characterized as a dictatorship. If ever these terms have been used by the mainstream media and US government officials to refer to the head of the Saudi state and the government he leads, I’m not aware of them. Yet these terms fit to a tee.
On the very same day Kerry was paying tribute to the anti-democratic strongman in Riyadh and celebrating the bonds of friendship between the United States and the despot in Riyadh, an article appeared in the Wall Street Journal, titled “The Dictator Who Stole Christmas.”  Therein Wall Street Journal editor Mary Anastasia O’Grady, a practitioner of journalism for the world’s “freest press,” labelled the subject of her article a “strongman” at the head of a government she called a “regime” and a “dictatorship.” O’Grady’s broadside was not targeted at an absolute monarch but at the president of a republic. It concerned not a leader who had assumed his role as head of state through hereditary succession, but through an election no one of an unbiased mind thought was coerced or unfair. Astonishingly, the alleged dictator O’Grady was writing about was Nicolas Maduro, the president of Venezuela, who was elected on April 14, 2013, defeating opposition candidate Henrique Capriles (much beloved by the Wall Street Journal and other Wall Street-types) in a free and fair election. The democratically-elected Maduro, according to O’Grady, contrary to what you and the Venezuelans who elected him may think, is a dictator and strongman who leads a regime.
That O’Grady can so easily label Maduro as an aberration from Western democratic norms in egregious contradiction of the facts only underscores “the proximity between western news media and their respective governments,” as Robinson put it, or the propaganda role played by the mainstream media on behalf of US foreign policy. This should remind us that other leaders of governments, who, like Maduro, govern with the consent of their people, but who refuse to kowtow to the international dictatorship of the United States, have also been demonized in the same manner, namely as dictators and strongmen at the head of regimes, not governments. The most salient current example of this style of propaganda is the depiction of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad along the same lines.
The depiction is completely undeserved, and is a reflection of US distaste for governments which insist on self-determination and sovereignty, instead of submission to its international dictatorship (which the mainstream media euphemize as the “Washington-led global order,” and Washington as “American global leadership.”)
Washington’s hostility to the Assad government is ideological, and is unrelated to the Syrian government’s response to the Islamist insurrection which broke out (afresh, given that similar insurrections have plagued Syria since the 1960s) in March, 2011, in no small measure helped along by the United States. Washington has conspired to oust the government of Bashar al-Assad since at least 2003, when it launched a vicious campaign of economic warfare against the country with the intention of undermining popular support for the government by making life miserable for ordinary Syrians. Soon after Washington began to conspire with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, historically the main internal opposition to the secular Arab nationalist governments of Bashar al-Assad, and his predecessor, Hafaz al-Assad, to resume jihad against secularism in Damascus. 
The Muslim Brothers, and their ideological descendants, the Islamic State, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, Ahrar al-Sham, and the other Al Qaeda spinoffs, allies and auxiliaries which make up the main armed Syrian opposition, hate the Assad government because it is secular and non-sectarian, and because it rejects the Brotherhood tenet that the Quran and Sunna, the latter the record of the Prophet Muhammad’s actions and sayings, are a sufficient (and coming from God, perfect) legal foundation for Syrian society, jurisprudence and politics.
For its part, Washington hates the Syrian government for three reasons, which can be summed up in the three major goals of the Ba’ath Arab Socialist Party, the party Assad leads: unity of the Arab nation, which threatens US domination of the petroleum-rich Middle East and North Africa; freedom from foreign domination, a position that is inimical to the principle, expressed in multiple US strategy documents that “American leadership” is “indispensable,”  “U.S. leadership is essential,”  and that the United States “will lead the world” ; and socialism, a form of economic organization Washington abhors, to the point that it has been willing to carry out economic warfare against its practitioners with the explicit intention of coercing its abandonment.
For example, US president Eisenhower approved economic sanctions against Cuba, anticipating “that, as the situation unfolds, we shall be obliged to take further economic measures which will have the effect of impressing on the Cuban people the cost of this Communist orientation.”  Similarly, the reason some US sanctions have been imposed on North Korea is listed as either “communism”, “non-market economy” or “communism and market disruption,” according to the United States Congressional Research Service.  In other words, the US government believes it has a right to dictate to the people of other countries how they can organize their own economic affairs and to punish them by carrying out campaigns of economic warfare—and sometimes worse—if they fail to comply.
In short, Washington is hostile to the Syrian government because Damascus safeguards its sovereignty, insists on self-determination, and in its Arab nationalist aspirations, challenges US hegemony over the Arab world. “Syria,” Assad told an Argentine journalist, “is an independent state working for the interests of its people, rather than making the Syrian people work for the interests of the West.”  Washington abhors independent states.
Prior to 2012, Assad governed with the consent of the people obtained in a presidential referendum. While this fell short of the multi-candidate presidential elections favored in the West, it was far more democratic than the hereditary succession that brought the king of Saudi Arabia and emir of Qatar, key U.S. allies in the war against Syria, to power in their countries. In 2012, Assad led efforts to move Syria closer to Western-style representative democracy, amending the country’s constitution to transform presidential elections into multi-candidate contests. Assad stood for election against other candidates and won handily. This was not unexpected, since he is popular.
On the eve of the Islamist insurrection’s most recent outbreak, in March 2011, Time magazine reported that even “critics concede that Assad is popular” and that he had endeared himself, “personally, to the public.”  A week after the eruption of violence in Daraa, Time’s Rania Abouzeid would report that “there do not appear to be widespread calls for the fall of the regime or the removal of the relatively popular President.”  Moreover, the demands issued by the protesters and clerics did not include calls for Assad to step down. And the protests never reached a critical mass. On the contrary, the government continued to enjoy “the loyalty” of “a large part of the population,” reported Time.  Over a month after the outbreak of violence in Daraa, the New York Times’ Anthony Shadid would report that the protests fell “short of the popular upheaval of revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia.” 
That the government commanded popular support was affirmed when the British survey firm YouGov conducted a poll in late 2011 showing that 55 percent of Syrians wanted Assad to stay. The poll received almost no mention in the Western media, prompting the British journalist Jonathan Steele to ask: “Suppose a respectable opinion poll found that most Syrians are in favor of Bashar al-Assad remaining as president, would that not be major news?” Steele described the poll findings as “inconvenient facts” which were suppressed because Western media coverage of the events in Syria had ceased “to be fair” and had turned into “a propaganda weapon.” 
Hence, in 2011 Syria was closer to the Western model of democracy than virtually any other Arab country, and was certainly closer to Western-style democracy than were Washington’s principal Arab allies, which were all monarchical or military dictatorships.
Nevertheless, just days before flying to Riyadh to praise the Saudi dictatorship and wax rhapsodic about the strong bonds between King Salman’s regime and the United States, John Kerry offered remarks on Syria in which he referred repeatedly to the Syrian government as a regime.  Descriptions of Assad in the mainstream media as a dictator and strongman are commonplace.
The Syrian government is not a regime. Syria is a multi-party representative democracy headed by an elected president. Its leader is neither a strongman nor a dictator, anymore than is Venezuela’s president Nicolas Maduro. While the US government may not like the Arab nationalist orientation of the Syrian government as a repudiation of Washington’s self-appointed role as leader of a global order, this does not make the Assad government a dictatorship headed by a strongman. Syria, on the contrary, is closer to Western democratic norms than virtually any other Arab country, and is far closer to those norms than are the monarchies, sultanates, emirates, military dictatorships and settler colonial religious tyrannies which constitute Washington’s principal Middle Eastern allies.
If the Western mainstream media need to denounce heads of state as dictators and strongmen and foreign governments as dictatorships and regimes, they will find the list of their own governments’ strong allies and partners teeming with suitable candidates. Of course, asking them to draw from this list is to expect too much. They won’t. As Robinson notes, mainstream media are “overly deferential to the political and economic order.”  The reason why is that as large businesses themselves, owned by wealthy investors, news media are integral parts of the very same political and economic order they profess to police, but which they, in reality, defend, justify and promote. Labelling democrats dictators, and ignoring the dictatorships of allies, is simply part of the ideological role Western news media play to defend and promote the foreign policy interests of the interlocked US political and economic elite.
1. Piers Robinson, “Russian news may be biased—but so is much western media,” The Guardian, August 2, 2016
2. Craig Whitlock, “Niger rapidly emerging as a key U.S. partner,” The Washington Post, April 14, 2013
3. Joint Press Availability with Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir; Secretary of State John Kerry; Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, December 18, 2016 , http://www.state.gov/secretary/remarks/2016/12/265750.htm
4. Mary Anastasia O’Grady, “The Dictator Who Stole Christmas,” The Wall Street Journal, December 18, 2016
5. See my “The Revolutionary Distemper in Syria That Wasn’t,” what’s left, October 22, 2016
6. Remarks of President Barack Obama-State of the Union Address as Delivered,” January 13, 2016, whitehouse.gov/SOTU.
7. Mission Statement, FY 2004-2009 Department of State and USAID Strategic Plan.
8. National Security Strategy, February 2015.
9. Louis A Perez Jr., “Fear and loathing of Fidel Castro: Sources of US policy toward Cuba,” Journal of Latin American Studies, 34, 2002, 237-254.
10. Dianne E. Rennack, “North Korea: Economic Sanctions,” Congressional Research Service, October 17, 2006. http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/crs/rl31696.pdf
11. President al-Assad: Basis for any political solution for crisis in Syria is what the Syrian people want,” http://www.syriaonline.sy/?f=Details&catid=12&pageid=5835
12. Rania Abouzeid, “Sitting pretty in Syria: Why few go backing Bashar,” Time, March 6, 2011.
13. Rania Abouzeid, “Syria’s Friday of dignity becomes a day of death,” Time, March 25, 2011
14. Nicholas Blanford, “Can the Syrian regime divide and conquer its opposition?” Time, April 9, 2011
15. Anthony Shadid, “Security forces kill dozens in uprisings around Syria”, The New York Times, April 22, 2011
16. Jonathan Steele, “Most Syrians back President Assad, but you’d never know from western media,” The Guardian, January 17, 2012
17. Remarks on Syria; Secretary of State John Kerry; Washington, DC, December 15, 2016, http://www.state.gov/secretary/remarks/2016/12/265696.htm