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John Pilger: Welcome to the violent world of Mr Hopey Changey, Barack Obama

As Barack Obama continues his ludicrously overhyped European tour, media gloss cannot disguise the renewed imperial ambition of Libya’s western aggressors.

When Britain lost control of Egypt in 1956, Prime Minister Anthony Eden said he wanted the nationalist president Gamal Abdel Nasser "destroyed . . . murdered . . . I don't give a damn if there's anarchy and chaos in Egypt." Those insolent Arabs, Winston Churchill had urged in 1951, should be driven "into the gutter from which they should never have emerged".

The language of colonialism may have been modified, but the spirit and the hypocrisy are unchanged. A new imperial phase is unfolding in direct response to the Arab uprising that has shocked Washington and Europe, causing an Eden-style panic. The loss of the Egyptian tyrant Hosni Mubarak was grievous, though not irretrievable: a US-backed counter-revolution is under way as the military regime in Cairo is seduced with bribes, and power is shifting from the street to political groups that did not initiate the revolution. The western aim, as ever, is to stop authentic democracy and reclaim control.

Robbers and bombers

Libya is the immediate opportunity. The Nato attack, with the UN Security Council assigned to mandate a bogus "no-fly zone" to "protect civilians", is strikingly similar to the final destruction of Yugoslavia in 1999. There was no UN cover for the bombing of Serbia and the "rescue" of Kosovo, yet the propaganda echoes today. Like Slobodan Milosevic, Muammar al-Gaddafi is a "new Hitler", plotting "genocide" against his people. There is no evidence of this, as there was no genocide in Kosovo. In Libya, there is a tribal civil war; and the armed uprising against Gaddafi has long been appropriated by the US, French and British, their planes attacking residential Tripoli with uranium-tipped missiles and the submarine HMS Triumph firing Tomahawks, in a repeat of the Iraq "shock and awe" that left thousands of civilians dead and maimed. As in Iraq, the victims, including countless incinerated Libyan army conscripts, are media unpeople.

In the "rebel" east, the terrorising and killing of black African immigrants is not news. On 22 May, a rare piece in the Washington Post described the repression, lawlessness and death squads in the "liberated zones" just as the visiting EU foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, declared she had found only "great aspirations" and "leadership qualities". In demonstrating these qualities, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the "rebel leader" and Gaddafi's justice minister until February, pledged: "Our friends . . . will have the best opportunity in future contracts in Libya." The east holds most of Libya's oil, the greatest reserves in Africa. In March the rebels, with expert foreign guidance, transferred to Benghazi the Libyan Central Bank, a wholly state-owned institution. This is unprecedented. Meanwhile, the US and the EU froze almost $100bn in Libyan funds, "the largest sum ever blocked", according to official statements. It is the biggest bank robbery in history.

The French elite are enthusiastic robbers and bombers. Nicolas Sarkozy's imperial design is for a French-dominated Mediterranean Union, which would allow France to "return" to its former colonies in North Africa and profit from privileged investment and cheap labour. Gaddafi described the Sarkozy plan as "an insult" that was "taking us for fools". The Merkel government in Berlin agreed, fearing its old foe would diminish Germany in the EU, and abstained in the Security Council vote on Libya. As in the attack on Yugoslavia and the charade of Milosevic's trial, the International Criminal Court is being used to pro­secute Gaddafi while his repeated offers of a ceasefire are ignored. Gaddafi is a Bad Arab. David Cameron's government and its verbose top general want to eliminate this Bad Arab, much as the Obama administration killed a famous Bad Arab in Pakistan recently.

The crown prince of Bahrain, on the other hand, is a Good Arab. On 19 May he was warmly welcomed to Britain by Cameron with a photocall on the steps of 10 Downing Street. In March, the same crown prince slaughtered unarmed protesters in his country and allowed Saudi forces to crush the Bahraini democracy movement. The Obama administration has rewarded Saudi Arabia, one of the most repressive regimes on earth, with a $60bn arms deal, the biggest in US history. The Saudis have the most oil. They are the Best Arabs.

The assault on Libya, a crime under the Nuremberg standard, is Britain's 46th military "intervention" in the Middle East since 1945. Like its imperial partners, Britain aims to control Africa's oil. Cameron is not Eden, but almost. Same school. Same values. In the media pack, the words colonialism and imperialism are no longer used, so the cynical and the credulous can celebrate state violence in its more palatable form.

Keys to the kingdom

As "Mr Hopey Changey" (the name that the great American cartoonist Ted Rall gives Obama) is fawned upon by the British elite and launches another insufferable campaign, the Anglo-American reign of terror proceeds in Afghan­istan and elsewhere with the murder of people by unmanned drones - a US/Israeli innovation, embraced by Obama.

On a scorecard of imposed misery, from secret trials and prisons, to the hounding of whistleblowers and the criminalising of dissent, to the incarceration and impoverishment of his own people, mostly black people, Obama is as bad as George W Bush.

The Palestinians understand all this. As their young people courageously face the violence of Israel's racism, carrying the keys to their grandparents' stolen homes, they are not even inclu­ded in Mr Hopey Changey's list of peoples in the Middle East whose liberation is long overdue. What the oppressed need, he said on 19 May, is a dose of "America's interests [which] are essential to them". He insults us all.

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 30 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Hands up who knows how to fix our schools

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Exclusive interview: the Qatari foreign minister on Syria and the refugee crisis

Dr Khalid Al-Attiyah responds to allegations that the Gulf states have not taken their fair share of Syrian refugees.

As the debate over how Europe should deal with the ongoing “migrant crisis” continues to rage following talks in Brussels, questions have increasingly been posed over how other countries are contributing to alleviating the misery of those fleeing war and acute poverty. The question is indeed a burning one, since according to Professor Alexander Betts, director of the Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford, “refugees and displacement are likely to become a defining issue of the twenty-first century”.

Many of the current arrivals are refuges from the war raging in Syria. As Syria’s neighbouring countries (Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey) struggle with the constant stream of refugees from the conflict, questions have begun to surface over who on the international stage hasn’t been pulling their proverbial weight.

Europe’s own record has been chequered, from Germany’s pledge to take in 800,000 asylum seekers, to Britain’s pitiful commitment to 20,000 over 5 years – a mere 4,000 people annually. Meanwhile, after shutting down the main corridor for refugees to central Europe and fortifying its border with 109 miles of razor-wire fencing, Hungary has undertaken mass arrests of migrants trying to cross its border. This split within Europe has been most glaring during recent emergency meeting in Brussels during which leaders failed to agree on long term solutions.

In the midst of European disarray over how to deal with the crisis, attention has increasingly begun to focus on the wealthy Gulf states whom Human Rights organisations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch’s Kenneth Roth, have lambasted for having offered “zero resettlement places to Syrian refugees”. All the more so in light of the themes of Muslim “solidarity” and “humanitarianism” which have become the theme of the Gulf’s public relations.

In an exclusive interview with the New Statesman, Qatari foreign minister Dr Khalid Al-Attiyah responded to allegations that his country was failing in its obligations towards the world’s refugees: “Let me be clear”, he said, “the state of Qatar is in no way falling short in its responsibilities when it comes to the Syrian crisis. Just look at the record and the various initiatives – humanitarian, economic, diplomatic and others – supported or directly launched by Qatar. I would also urge everyone to look at the timing of our support. We recognised the potential for chaos in Syria and the region early on, and urged action by the international community.”

In the face of criticism, the Gulf states have emphasised the extent to which they have provided financial support to neighbouring nations as part of their assistance to Syrian refugees, support which assists the overwhelming majority of refugees, given that only a minority are making the journey to Europe: “Qatar’s contribution to the Syrian crisis alone totals over $1.6bn. This is in addition to the billions of dollars of humanitarian aid we have provided to the people of Gaza, Yemen, Iraq, Libya, Nepal and other countries around the world. Qatar is a generous provider of humanitarian assistance and our aid for the Syrian refugees is a case in point.”

Qatar has continued to urge a political resolution of the Syrian conflict – a solution which it considers necessarily precludes the presence of President Bashar al Assad – emphasising the need for the refugee camps to be viewed as an interim solution until Syria’s conflict is resolved and refugees can return home to rebuild the destroyed nation: “This refugee crisis will not end until the international community addresses its root cause, which is the tyranny of the Assad regime. When the regime launched a brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters in 2011, Qatar was one of the first to call for Assad to step down. And when he escalated his violence against the people of Syria, we called for international efforts to support the moderate and legitimate opposition groups fighting the regime. We warned then that a failure to support these groups would lead to chaos in Syria and open the door to the extremists. And that, unfortunately, is exactly what has happened.”

Part of the concern expressed by the Qatari official lies in the long term implications of a mass dislocation of the Syrian peoples and the consequences on the future of Syria itself of a mass exodus of people, including the educated middle class necessary for reconstruction: “Qatar hopes the Syrian people will have the opportunity to rebuild their country peacefully and to live free from oppression. We hope that Syria can once again be a ‘beautiful mosaic’ where different ethnic groups and religions can live together in peace.”

Speaking ahead of the UN General Assembly in New York, Dr Khalid Al-Attiyah also responded to accusations the Gulf states were ignoring their responsibility to take in refugees. Historically, the Gulf States are not signatories to the UN refugee convention, meaning that displaced people are not officially recognised as refugees. This fact is rooted in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Gulf’s position that displaced Palestinians should be returned to a Palestinian state. But critics argue that the Gulf states should reconsider this policy in light of the acute need in the region. In a recent op-ed, Hossam Shaker denounced the Gulf as having “more than enough capabilities to carry out its responsibilities”, adding that “those building skyscrapers are not unable to provide decent living conditions in their land for the families and children sleeping out in the open before the eyes of the world’s nations.”

In response to accusations of Gulf failings, the Qatari Foreign Minister pointed to Qatar’s specific developmental challenges, as a wealthy, but still emerging nation: “The immigration challenges in Qatar are unique. Foreign workers here already outnumber Qataris by about six to one, and a massive influx of refugees would overwhelm our native population. Despite this, we have, in fact, eased visa restrictions for Syrian nationals arriving in Qatar.” Indeed, according to the Lowy Institute, Qatar has the largest proportion of expat population of all the Gulf states, with 85 per cent of those currently residing in Qatar being foreign workers. Compare that with the UK, where 12.5 per cent of the population are foreign born – Qataris are quite literally a small minority within their country, due to their need for a significant workforce. This has implications for the country’s stability, not least when it comes to a region in the grips of sectarian tensions and broader political upheaval.

 But visa restrictions fail to answer the need for resettlement which many members of the international community, as well as many Syrians, consider essential in the face of a seemingly intractable conflict. What of the allegation, made by Amnesty international and others, that Gulf states have refused to resettle a single Syrian refugee? “There are currently almost 54,000 Syrians living in Qatar, 47,000 with full residency permits and another 7,000 on renewable visitor visas as they do not work. And as noted, approximately 25,000 of these Syrians have arrived during the past four years of the Syrian conflict”. In the weeks following the allegations of zero resettlement, other Gulf states, including the UAE as well as Saudi Arabia, have highlighted figures suggesting a more nuanced picture. Nabil Othman, acting regional representative to the Gulf region at the United Nations' refugee agency, UNHCR, recently listed a figure of 500,000 Syrians in Saudi Arabia, although the Saudis claim to have 2.5 million Syrians on work visas, while Qatar’s neighbour the UAE has announced it has 100,000 Syrians with work visas.

But what of Arab and Muslim solidarity? I ask him if he views Arab nations as having a greater responsibility to take in refugees than Europe, as some have sought to suggest? “The suffering of the Syrian people is not an issue of religion, ethnicity or nationality. It is a human issue. The duty is therefore shared among all of us in the international community – east and west, Arab and non-Arab. We all must do what we can to help the desperate people fleeing violence, tyranny and terrorism in Syria.” But what of Qatar’s alleged funding of opposition groups in Syria – including allegations of support for the Al-Qaida affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, I put to the Foreign Minister, does this intervention on the global scene not create a greater obligation to deal with its fallout? “There are, unfortunately, numerous extremist groups operating in Syria today. They are filling the void that was created by the lack of organised and well-supported opposition to the Assad regime in the early days of the civil war. In our view, their existence represents our collective failure. But in the words of His Highness the Emir, ‘terrorism can only be defeated in its social environment’. That is to say, one has to look at the situation on the ground to understand the real causes of terrorism. And when one looks at Syria, it should be clear that the Syrian people could not be expected to endure the tyranny of the Assad regime forever... To eliminate terrorism, we will need to eliminate the reasons it came into being and end the tyranny of the Assad regime.”

This interview was conducted both over email and in person, In London, between 20 - 21 September 2015

Myriam Francois-Cerrah is a freelance journalist and broadcaster (France, Middle East and North Africa, Islam) and a DPhil candidate in Middle Eastern studies at Oxford University.