You can read my thoughts on Russia and the US presidential election on RT, here.
Media bias can be rather annoying. But on occasion, it can also be inadvertently amusing. And so it was that I had a little chuckle at an article in yesterday’s Independent, which described a clash between American and Russian troops in Syria. For this is what the Indy had to say:
A series of videos posted to Twitter on Wednesday appears to show several Russian patrol vehicles harassing US vehicles that had attempted to block their path.
Ho, ho, ho. The Independent’s reporter Griffin Connolly is obviously so wrapped up in the narrative that the Russians are the bad guys that he can’t see the irony in what he wrote – the Russian harassed the Americans, when the latter ‘attempted to block their path’. Can’t you see the problem here, Griffin, old boy? The Americans started this by trying to block the Russians. So, who really was harassing who here?
Obviously, Connolly doesn’t get it. For a little later on, he adds the following:
The drawdown by roughly half of the US peace-keeping forces in the region created a vacuum that Russia and Turkey have sought to fill, observers have said. This week’s harassment of US vehicles by Russian troops is one of a handful of recent escalations by Moscow to try to strong-arm the US out of the Syria — and the Middle East more broadly.
Note not merely the repetition of the term ‘harassment’ as if it were a given fact, but also the casual reference to the allegedly terrible consequences of a US withdrawal from Syria, justified in turn by the citing of ‘observers’, whose identities are not revealed. As for what these ‘recent escalations’ are, and what evidence there is that Russia is trying ‘to strong arm the US out of the Syria [sic]’, we are not told. It is taken for granted that Russia is a malign actor that it is to blame for any clashes with the Americans, and that the American presence in Syria is a good thing whose ending could only bring negative results. As a propaganda piece for US imperialism it does a very good job.
Of course, what it doesn’t tell us is what these American troops are doing in Syria now that ISIS has been largely defeated. (‘We left troops behind only for the oil’, said Donald Trump.) Nor does the article tell us that the American troops are occupying another country’s territory without the consent of that country’s government, unlike the Russians who at least have the pretext of an official invitation. But it does wrap up with this little gem of information:
Earlier this summer, reports emerged that Donald Trump had received a written intelligence briefing containing allegations that Russia was paying bounties to Taliban-linked fighters in Afghanistan to kill American soldiers. The White House denied Mr Trump had ever been briefed on that intelligence report, even though the New York Times reported it was included in his daily written brief of national security intelligence matters in February. The last time he was asked about it by reporters, the president said he had not brought up the alleged bounty programme in his calls with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
For whatever reason, Mr Connolly makes no effort to inform readers of the disputed, and decidedly dubious, nature of the claim about Afghanistan. Likewise, he doesn’t bother to explain why the hell he has included this completely irrelevant material about Afghanistan in a story about Russian and American troops playing bumper cars in Syria. I can only imagine it’s because it meant to discredit a) the Russians, and b) Donald Trump. Whatever this article is, straightforward objective news reporting it ain’t.
The funny thing is that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s connections with The Independent’s owner Evgeny Lebedev is often used as a reason to claim that Boris is somehow in the pocket of the Russian state. Obviously, anyone making such a claim has never bothered reading Lebedev’s newspaper.
‘Something is rotten with the state of Denmark’, or if not Denmark then certainly the United States of America. It’s the only conclusion one can draw from the way the absolutely normal is nowadays treated as the most extraordinary drama.
On Monday, US President Donald Trump met Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. It’s about as normal a diplomatic event as one could possibly imagine, but it caused much of the American commentariat to go into a collective meltdown.
Remember this story, which appeared on the BBC in September 2016?
The US ambassador to the UN has accused Russia of “barbarism” over the bombing of the Syrian city of Aleppo. At an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council, Samantha Power said Russia had told the council outright lies about its conduct in Syria. She said Russia and the Syrian regime were “laying waste to what is left of an iconic Middle Eastern city”.
Samatha Power’s accusations against the Russians were hardly unique. They were in fact pretty much the norm among American commentators throughout the battle for the Syrian city of Aleppo. For instance, Max Fisher of the New York Times wrote the following denunciation of Russian ‘brutality’:
The effects of Russia’s bombing campaign in the Syrian city of Aleppo — destroying hospitals and schools, choking off basic supplies, and killing aid workers and hundreds of civilians over just days — raise a question: What could possibly motivate such brutality?
Observers attribute Russia’s bombing to recklessness, cruelty or Moscow’s desperate thrashing in what the White House has called a “quagmire.”
But many analysts take a different view: Russia and its Syrian government allies, they say, could be massacring Aleppo’s civilians as part of a calculated strategy, aimed beyond this one city.
Meanwhile, the ‘brutal’ and ‘barbaric’ methods of the Russians were contrasted with the relatively benign tactics of the American military. As Zack Beauchamp commented in Vox:
While the United States and its allies are waging a targeted air campaign against ISIS and other extremists, Russia and the Syrian government are launching an all-out assault on a single city, an assault heedless of the civilian casualties. Washington and its allies have killed innocents but work to avoid it. Russia and Syria — which are carpet-bombing densely populated civilian areas with indiscriminate weapons like barrel bombs — don’t.
Americans weren’t the only ones to take this line. Former British foreign minister Boris Johnson, for instance, remarked that Russia was becoming a ‘pariah nation’ due to its attacks on Aleppo, some of which, he claimed, were ‘unquestionably a war crime’. And Mark Galeotti commented in Foreign Policy magazine, that:
Anyone trying to understand Russia’s military strategy in Syria would be wise to examine the heavy-handed methods Vladimir Putin used during his first war as Russia’s commander in chief, the bloody Second Chechn War. … These are very different wars, fought in different ways by different forces, but they nonetheless highlight one central aspect of Putin’s approach to fighting insurgents: the value of brutality.
Fair enough, you might say – a lot of innocent people died in Aleppo. According to Wikipedia:
The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), a pro-opposition non-governmental organization, reported that the Russian bombardments killed at least 1,640 civilians in the Aleppo area: 1,178 civilians died between 30 September 2015 and 1 August 2016, while additional 462 civilians were killed from 19 September 2016 until 30 November 2016.
It’s impossible for me to validate these figures, which could be criticised for the fact that they come from a ‘pro-opposition’ organization. But for simplicity’s sake, let’s take them as reasonably accurate. Now let’s compare them with something else – the numbers killed by air and artillery strikes carried out by American forces and their coalition allies in the battle for the Syrian city of Raqqa. As I reported a year ago, when a team from the UNHCR entered Raqqa after its liberation from the forces of the Islamic State, its members recorded that they witnessed a ‘level of destruction which exceeded anything they had ever seen before.’ Since then, analysts have been trying to calculate the human cost of this destruction, and today we have the results. According to the BBC:
More than 1,600 civilians were killed in US-led coalition air and artillery strikes during the offensive to oust the Islamic State group from the Syrian city of Raqqa in 2017, activists say.
Amnesty International and monitoring group Airwars said they had carried out investigations at 200 strike locations … Researchers spent about two months on the ground in the city, carrying out investigations at strike locations and interviewing more than 400 witnesses and survivors. They were able to directly verify the names of 641 victims, and there were very strong multiple sources for the rest, Amnesty said.
So, there we have it. In a campaign marked by ‘war crimes’, ‘brutality’, and ‘barbarism’, the Russians killed 1,600 civilians. Meanwhile, in the campaign for Raqqa, the Americans killed … 1,600 civilians! Can you spot the difference? I can’t.
If you have time, I suggest that you all take a few moments to read an article in the forthcoming New York Times Magazine by Keith Gessen entitled ‘The Quiet Americans Behind the U.S.-Russia Imbroglio’. Keith is the brother of Masha Gessen, who has acquired some fame as a result of various books she has written denouncing Vladimir Putin and the ‘totalitarian’ Putin ‘regime’. Keith is a very different kettle of fish. Seeking to explain why Russian-American relations seem to stay bad no matter who is in power in Washington, he is willing to consider the possibility that the answer might lie not just in Russian misbehaviour but also in the nature of the American state and the people who advise it about Russia. To this end, in his article he describes his conversations with the so-called ‘Russia hands’ (the Russian ‘experts’ within the American public service), and he seeks to determine how they view Russia, what policies they recommend, and how this affects politicians’ decisions.
The result is an excellent article which I thoroughly recommend to you all. Two points in particular struck me as I read it: the first relates to the structural incapacity of the American state to take Russian interests seriously; the second relates to the relative ideological unity among the ‘Russia hands.’ Let’s look at these in turn.
In October last year, troops of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, with the assistance of the US Air Force, finally captured the city of Raqqa, which had previously been the capital of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). On 1 April this year, an inter-agency team from the United Nations (UN) entered Raqqa in what was the first UN visit to the city since ISIS’s defeat. According to the website of the UN refugee agency, UNHCR:
The UN team entering Raqqa city were shocked by the level of destruction, which exceeded anything they had ever seen before. A cascade of rubble lies along the streets with hardly a single building intact.
It’s worth repeating some of that again. The UN team found a
level of destruction, which exceeded anything they had ever seen before.
That’s quite something. There have been a fair number of destructive wars in recent years, including some which have done quite a lot of damage to urban infrastructure (e.g. the various wars in Iraq, the war in Libya, and so on). Yet Raqqa exceeds them all. Specifically, the UN reports that in Raqqa:
With nearly the entire infrastructure totally destroyed, public services barely exist and no safe water or electricity. The widespread presence of explosive hazards, including unexploded ordnance, landmines and improvised explosive devices, particularly in those neighborhoods of the city that were the stronghold of ISIS towards the end of hostilities, pose a significant threat to civilians; some 130 civilians having been killed and a further 658 injured in blasts since the city was retaken from ISIS in October 2017.
In addition to unexploded ordnance, the UNHCR protection team on the mission, who met with women, men and the youth, identified numerous protection and other challenges, risks and threats, ranging from criminality, early marriages and other SGBV [sexual and gender based violence] concerns, to lack of safe water, electricity, healthcare and education services. But these are just a few of the many challenges preventing people from regaining their dignified life.
I mention all this because throughout the civil war in Syria, and particularly since the Russian Federation became involved, we have bombarded with complaints about the particularly barbaric methods of war used by the Syrian Arab Army and the Russians. British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, for instance, ranted about the ‘flagrant disregard for human life’ displayed by the Syrian government during the battle for East Aleppo. Former American ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, accused Russia of ‘barbarism’ in Syria. ‘Russia is abetting mass murder in Syria’ shouted the headline of a recent article in The Atlantic magazine. And so on. There’s far too many such statements to count.
Accompanying these complaints are repeated claims that ‘something must be done’. This normally means something military. The aforementioned Atlantic article, for instance, claims that,
Military force and deterrence may also be the key to ending the Syrian war. … The war in Syria will only end when the aggressors know America is serious—about diplomacy, about sanctioning the aggressors, and about using military force not just to fight isis, but to protect Syrians. Continued failure to take these steps will only make America an accessory to evil.
And yet, if we are to believe the UN report I began with, the United States and its allies have been more destructive than the Syrian government and the Russians. Raqqa is not a unique case either. Patrick Cockburn of The Independent newspaper, for instance, has described the ‘mass slaughter’ of civilians in Mosul, with ‘appalling damage inflicted by continuing artillery and rocket fire aimed over a five-month period at a confined area jam-packed with civilians who were unable to escape.’ Despite this, there seems to be an extraordinary lack of indignation over such matters, let alone any calls to ‘do something’ to stop the Americans and their allies from killing civilians.
Of course, none of this excuses any excesses committed by the Syrians and the Russians, or means that they have been particularly mindful of civilian casualties during their military operations. It also shouldn’t be interpreted as meaning that the Americans are worse than the Russians. In my view, they’re one and the same. The massive destruction one can see in places such as Raqqa, Mosul, and Aleppo is simply an inevitable consequence of urban warfare. There is no way that you can destroy an enemy who is in a city and who is determined to stand and fight without destroying much of the city in the process. And if a lot of civilians are present (perhaps because the defenders won’t let them leave), there’s no way that you can do it without killing large numbers of civilians as well. This is reality, and the fact that both Americans and Russians end up doing much the same thing is a reflection of it.
In short, the problem isn’t that either the Russians or the Americans are particularly barbaric, it’s that war itself is brutal, and there is no getting around it. This is a message that the ‘something must be done’ crowd seem unwilling to learn. They seem to believe that there is some simple, cheap, and relatively benign way of applying force, which will solve all sorts of problems without killing a lot of innocent people along the way. This is (99 percent of the time) a myth.
Yes indeed, the Syrian government led by Bashar al-Assad is hardly a shining example of liberal democratic values. Yes, it would be nice if it could be replaced by something which was. But how exactly do the would-be intervenors imagine that Assad could be overthrown? Their problem is that they don’t have a plan. Well, let me tell them what their plan would have to be if they were serious about ‘regime change’. They couldn’t just drop a few bombs or fly in a few rockets, and expect that to do the job. It wouldn’t. They’d have to create a land army, and support it over a prolonged period of time as it ground its way slowly forward taking government-held cities one by one: Aleppo, Homs, Latakia, and others, and ultimately Damascus. And every time, they’d have to do to them what they did to Raqqa.
So, I have a simple question to our armchair humanitarian warriors: How on earth would that help save the lives of innocents?
I don’t often read the Lawyers, Guns, and Money blog, but today one of its commentators inadvertently pointed me in the direction of something quite striking. In a discussion of gun control, a comment provided a link to a 1981 article in the Finger Lake Times (a local newspaper in upstate New York) by the historian Paul Fussell (who wrote a very interesting book entitled The Great War and Modern Memory). As it happens, on the same page there is also an article by former Under-Secretary of State George W. Ball, famous for having been almost the only person in the administration of Lyndon B. Johnson to have opposed escalating the war in Vietnam. Ball’s article bears the headline, ‘The obsession with Soviet Communism’, and it’s well worth a read. Substitute ‘Soviet Union’ with ‘Russia’ and you’ll understand why. Here are some highlights from what Ball wrote:
John Foster Dulles is alive and well and living in the White House. Once again we hear his passionate charge that the Soviet Union is the anti-Christ threatening civilization with a pernicious doctrine. The Soviets, we are told … are responsible for all our international troubles … Detente … is a deceit … Our only hope is to scar the desert with the MX and mobilize our allies for Armageddon.
So now once more, we shiver in the icy winds of the Cold War. Diplomacy is for sissies, a resolute America must build more and bigger weapons, while meanwhile arming any regime – no matter how corrupt or oppressive – that shouts anti-Communist slogans.
… Such an attitude is not a policy but an obsession. … Our incessant and quite gratuitous hectoring of Moscow is alienating our Western allies and encouraging the emergence of an ominous neutralism.
… The administration seems bent on persuading the Soviet Union that it foresees an unlimited arms race and has lost interest in peaceful working relations. … In its total effect, the administration’s current position denies all hope of a better future. … We have been lucky so far that we have not yet blown up the world but it is statistically absurd to think that such luck can last forever.
Some things never change, it seems!
Who’s to blame for the war in Ukraine? The great majority of Western politicians and security experts have no doubt. It’s Russia. The war in Donbass is not a civil war, but ‘Russian aggression’. If enough pressure can just be exerted on Moscow to get it to change its behaviour, the violence would stop, Donbass would rejoin Ukraine, and the country could march happily towards its inevitable future as a prosperous, free, and democratic member of the community of European nations.
A minority of commentators has a different point of view. One of them is Dutch journalist Chris Kaspar de Ploeg. In his new book Ukraine in the Crossfire, de Ploeg does not seek to whitewash either Russia or deposed Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich, and admits that Russia has provided significant support to the Donbass rebels. Nevertheless, he points the finger of blame for Ukraine’s problems quite firmly at the United States of America. ‘The war in Ukraine serves to keep the EU [European Union] in line with the wider US agenda,’ he argues.
Remember how, back in 2001, George W. Bush abrogated the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, previously one of the cornerstones of the international security system? It was one of the first American steps to annoy the then relatively new Russian president, Vladimir Putin, helping launch US-Russian relations on their long downward trajectory. The Americans claimed that it was worth the price, however, because they foresaw a danger from ‘rogue states’ armed with nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles, and by reneging on the ABM Treaty the US could develop a means of defending itself. And thus was born the National Missile Defense boondoggle.
Sixteen years later and, if we are to believe the CIA and the press, the predictions have come true, and North Korea has finally developed a miniaturized nuclear bomb which can fit inside a ballistic missile, and has also developed missiles capable of hitting the continental USA. Donald Trump is threatening ‘fire and fury’ the likes of which the world has never seen. Something must be done, he shreaks. The United States faces a terrible danger, we are told.
But why? Aren’t the Americans safe by now behind their missile shield? It hasn’t been cheap, and surely given how much has been spent, it must be able to shoot down those North Korean nukes? After all, we are told:
According to Missile Defense Agency (MDA) estimates, Congress has appropriated roughly $190 billion for the agency’s programs between fiscal years 1985 and 2017. That total does not include spending by the military services on programs such as the Patriot system or the many additional tens of billions of dollars spent since work on anti-missile systems first began in the 1950s.
So, why are the Americans running around like headless chickens and threatening blue murder? There is only one answer – they don’t believe that their beloved missile defence system actually works. And they’re right. National missile defence’s latest manifestation is the so-called Ground-Based Mid-Course Defense System. This alone has cost $40 billion. But according to a report issued last year, it is ‘simply unable to protect the public’ – in other words, it’s a dud.
In a world of rational policy making, somebody would ask why such vast sums of money had been wasted on a project which to date has failed utterly to produce what it promised, and which has also incurred broader political costs, such as those associated with the abrogation of the ABM Treaty. In such a world, policy makers would decide that it was long past time to put an end to this fiasco and stop funding immediately. That, of course, is most unlikely to happen. The progress made by the North Koreans will almost certainly instead be used to argue that missile defence has never been more critical, and so to demand even more money to throw even deeper into the hole.
If this were the only such example of massive waste, one could perhaps forgive it (if one was a particularly generous soul). But, of course, it isn’t. In other posts I have, for instance, highlighted the $100 billion plus which the USA has spent on economic aid to Afghanistan, which the American government’s own auditor admits hasn’t achieved any positive results he can identify. And then, there’s the trillion or so dollars the US has spent on its military campaign in Afghanistan, similarly without success. And, I’m sure, it would be pretty easy to find other, equally outrageous examples.
I’m going to say it straight. The military industrial complex is a system of scandalous profligacy and inefficiency, the primary effect of which is not to make the USA (or other countries with similar MICs) any safer but rather to redistribute wealth out of the pockets of the general taxpayer and into the pockets of select constituencies (military personnel, defence contractors, and the like). It also largely beyond democratic control. The foundation of a liberal democratic system is accountability. But the MIC is not accountable. The large and more wasteful its failures, the more it is able to claim that it needs more money: smash up the Middle East and then the resulting disorder enables one to claim that the world is dangerous and one needs more funding; spend $190 billion failing to produce a workable missile defence system, and the fact that you don’t have a workable system justifies even more money in order to try to create one. And so on. In the world of military affairs, nothing is as rewarding as failure.
Will anybody in a position of power now start asking what’s happened to the $190 billion which was meant to protect the USA against North Korean missiles? Don’t bet on it.
A couple of weeks ago, after attending a showing of the Russian TV talk show Vremia pokazhet, British journalist Angus Roxburgh complained that what he saw shocked even as hardened and cynical a Russia-watcher as him. ‘Xenophobia, fear, and intimidation’ were what he witnessed, he said.
I confess to be an occasional Vremia pokazhet watcher. It’s hard to understand what people are saying half the time, as the show tends to descend into a shouting match. But that’s kind of the point. There’s always a vigorous debate. It’s not just somebody spouting the official line, although it has to be said that the official line tends to win out when the dust settles. But let’s engage in a little bit of whataboutism. Would Mr Roxburgh be equally shocked if he spent some time watching American TV? Would he come across ‘xenophobia, fear, and intimidation’ there?
Let’s take a look.
A couple of days ago, CNN interviewed Congressman Mike Quigley. This is what Quigley had to say:
When you meet with any Russians, you’re meeting with Russian intelligence and therefore President Putin.