The truths they never tell us

Behind the jargon about failed states and humanitarian interventions lie thousands of dead. John Pil

Polite society's bombers may not have to wait long for round two. The US vice-president, Dick Cheney, warned last week that America could take action against "40 to 50 countries". Somalia, allegedly a "haven" for al-Qaeda, joins Iraq at the top of a list of potential targets. Cheered by having replaced Afghanistan's bad terrorists with America's good terrorists, the US defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, has asked the Pentagon to "think the unthinkable", having rejected its "post-Afghanistan options" as "not radical enough".

An American attack on Somalia, wrote the Guardian's man at the Foreign Office, "would offer an opportunity to settle an old score: 18 US soldiers were brutally killed there in 1993 . . ." He neglected to mention that the US Marines left between 7,000 and 10,000 Somali dead, according to the CIA. Eighteen American lives are worthy of score-settling; thousands of Somali lives are not.

Somalia will provide an ideal practice run for the final destruction of Iraq. However, as the Wall Street Journal reports, Iraq presents a "dilemma", because "few targets remain". "We're down to the last outhouse," said a US official, referring to the almost daily bombing of Iraq that is not news.

Having survived the 1991 Gulf war, Saddam Hussein's grip on Iraq has since been reinforced by one of the most ruthless blockades in modern times, policed by his former amours and arms suppliers in Washington and London. Safe in his British-built bunkers, Saddam will survive a renewed blitz - unlike the Iraqi people, held hostage to the compliance of their dictator to America's ever-shifting demands.

In this country, veiled propaganda will play its usual leading role. As so much of the Anglo-American media is in the hands of various guardians of approved truths, the fate of both the Iraqi and Somali peoples will be reported and debated on the strict premise that the US and British governments are against terrorism. Like the attack on Afghanistan, the issue will be how "we" can best deal with the problem of "uncivilised" societies.

The most salient truth will remain taboo. This is that the longevity of America as both a terrorist state and a haven for terrorists surpasses all. That the US is the only state on record to have been condemned by the World Court for international terrorism and has vetoed a UN Security Council resolution calling on governments to observe international law is unmentionable. Recently, Denis Halliday, the former assistant secretary general of the UN who resigned rather than administer what he described as a "genocidal sanctions policy" on Iraq, incurred the indignation of the BBC's Michael Buerk. "You can't possibly draw a moral equivalence between Saddam Hussein and George Bush [Senior], can you?" said Buerk. Halliday was taking part in one of the moral choice programmes that Buerk comperes, and had referred to the needless slaughter of tens of thousands of Iraqis, mostly civilians, by the Americans during the Gulf war. He pointed out that many were buried alive, and that depleted uranium was used widely, almost certainly the cause of an epidemic of cancer in southern Iraq.

That the recent history of the west's true crimes makes Saddam Hussein "an amateur", as Halliday put it, is the unmentionable; and because there is no rational rebuttal of such a truth, those who mention it are abused as "anti-American". Richard Falk, professor of international politics at Princeton, has explained this. Western foreign policy, he says, is propagated in the media "through a self-righteous, one-way moral/legal screen [with] positive images of western values and innocence portrayed as threatened, validating a campaign of unrestricted political violence".

The ascendancy of Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, and associates Richard Perle and Elliot Abrams means that much of the world is now threatened openly by a geopolitical fascism, which has been developing since 1945 and has accelerated since 11 September.

The present Washington gang are authentic American fundamentalists. They are the heirs of John Foster Dulles and Alan Dulles, the Baptist fanatics who, in the 1950s, ran the State Department and the CIA respectively, smashing reforming governments in country after country - Iran, Iraq, Guatemala - tearing up international agreements, such as the 1954 Geneva accords on Indochina, whose sabotage by John Foster Dulles led directly to the Vietnam war and five million dead. Declassified files now tell us the United States twice came within an ace of using nuclear weapons.

The parallels are there in Cheney's threat to "40 to 50" countries, and of war "that may not end in our lifetimes". The vocabulary of justification for this militarism has long been provided on both sides of the Atlantic by those factory "scholars" who have taken the humanity out of the study of nations and congealed it with a jargon that serves the dominant power. Poor countries are "failed states"; those that oppose America are "rogue states"; an attack by the west is a "humanitarian intervention". (One of the most enthusiastic bombers, Michael Ignatieff, is now "professor of human rights" at Harvard). And as in Dulles's time, the United Nations is reduced to a role of clearing up the debris of bombing and providing colonial "protectorates".

The twin towers attacks provided Bush's Washington with both a trigger and a remarkable coincidence. Pakistan's former foreign minister Niaz Naik has revealed that he was told by senior American officials in mid-July that military action against Afghanistan would go ahead by the middle of October. The US secretary of state, Colin Powell, was then travelling in central Asia, already gathering support for an anti-Afghanistan war "coalition". For Washington, the real problem with the Taliban was not human rights; these were irrelevant. The Taliban regime simply did not have total control of Afghanistan: a fact that deterred investors from financing oil and gas pipelines from the Caspian Sea, whose strategic position in relation to Russia and China and whose largely untapped fossil fuels are of crucial interest to the Americans. In 1998, Dick Cheney told oil industry executives: "I cannot think of a time when we have had a region emerge as suddenly to become as strategically significant as the Caspian."

Indeed, when the Taliban came to power in 1996, not only were they welcomed by Washington, their leaders were flown to Texas, then governed by George W Bush, and entertained by executives of the Unocal oil company. They were offered a cut of the profits from the pipelines; 15 per cent was mentioned. A US official observed that, with the Caspian's oil and gas flowing, Afghanistan would become "like Saudi Arabia", an oil colony with no democracy and the legal persecution of women. "We can live with that," he said. The deal fell through when two American embassies in east Africa were bombed and al-Qaeda was blamed.

The Taliban duly moved to the top of the media's league table of demons, where the normal exemptions apply. For example, Vladimir Putin's regime in Moscow, the killers of at least 20,000 people in Chechnya, is exempt. Last week, Putin was entertained by his new "close friend", George W Bush, at Bush's Texas ranch.

Bush and Blair are permanently exempt - even though more Iraqi children die every month, mostly as a result of the Anglo-American embargo, than the total number of dead in the twin towers, a truth that is not allowed to enter public consciousness. The killing of Iraqi infants, like the killing of Chechens, like the killing of Afghan civilians, is rated less morally abhorrent than the killing of Americans.

As one who has seen a great deal of bombing, I have been struck by the capacity of those calling themselves "liberals" and "progressives" wilfully to tolerate the suffering of innocents in Afghanistan. What do these self-regarding commentators, who witness virtually nothing of the struggles of the outside world, have to say to the families of refugees bombed to death in the dusty town of Gardez the other day, long after it fell to anti-Taliban forces? What do they say to the parents of dead children whose bodies lay in the streets of Kunduz last Sunday? "Forty people were killed," said Zumeray, a refugee. "Some of them were burned by the bombs, others were crushed by the walls and roofs of their houses when they collapsed from the blast." What does the Guardian's Polly Toynbee say to him: "Can't you see that bombing works?" Will she call him anti-American? What do "humanitarian interventionists" say to people who will die or be maimed by the 70,000 American cluster bomblets left unexploded?

For several weeks, the Observer, a liberal newspaper, has published unsubstantiated reports that have sought to link Iraq with 11 September and the anthrax scare. "Whitehall sources" and "intelligence sources" are the main tellers of this story. "The evidence is mounting . . ." said one of the pieces. The sum of the "evidence" is zero, merely grist for the likes of Wolfowitz and Perle and probably Blair, who can be expected to go along with the attack. In his essay "The Banality of Evil", the great American dissident Edward Herman described the division of labour among those who design and produce weapons like cluster bombs and daisy cutters and those who take the political decisions to use them and those who create the illusions that justify their use. "It is the function of the experts, and the mainstream media," he wrote, "to normalise the unthinkable for the general public." It is time journalists reflected upon this, and took the risk of telling the truth about an unconscionable threat to much of humanity that comes not from faraway places, but close to home.

www.johnpilger. com

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 26 November 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Special Report - The SAS story they want to suppress

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The people is sublime: the long history of populism, from Robespierre to Trump

If liberal democracy is to survive, the tide of populism will have to be turned back. The question is: how?

A spectre of populism is haunting the world’s liberal democracies. Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election, the narrow Leave majority in the EU referendum, Theresa May’s decision to call a snap election – breaking the spirit of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act passed by the government of which she was a member – and Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s victory in the recent Turkish referendum all testify to the strength of the populist tide that is sweeping through the North Atlantic world. The consequences have been calamitous: a shrunken public realm, a demeaned civic culture, threatened minorities, contempt for the rule of law and an increasingly ugly public mood. If liberal democracy is to survive, the tide will have to be turned back. The question is: how?

The first essential is to understand the nature of the beast. This is more difficult than it sounds. Most democratic politicians seek popularity, but populism and popularity are not the same. Today’s populism is the descendant of a long line of ancestors. The first unmistakably populist movement in history appeared well over two centuries ago during the later stages of the French Revolution. It was led by Robespierre (Thomas Carlyle’s “sea-green incorruptible”) and the Jacobins who promised a reign of “virtue”. They were inspired by the cloudy prose of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who believed that mere individuals should be subject to the general will of the social whole and – if necessary – “forced to be free”. As the revolution gathered pace and foreign armies mustered on France’s frontiers, the Jacobins launched the first organised, state-led and ideologically legitimised Terror in history. Chillingly, Robespierre declared, “The people is sublime, but individuals are weak.” That is the cry of populists through the ages. Appropriately, the Terror ended with Robespierre lying on a plank, screaming with pain before he was executed by guillotine.

The French Revolution – which began with the storming of the Bastille and ended with Napoleon’s ascent to an ersatz imperial throne – has an epic quality about it missing from later chapters in the populist story. Ironically, the second chapter, which opened half a century later, was the work of Louis Bonaparte, nephew of the great Napoleon. In 1848 came a second revolution and a second Republic; Louis Bonaparte was elected president by a huge majority. He tried and failed to amend the constitution to make it possible for him to have a second term; and then seized power in a coup d’état. Soon afterwards he became emperor as Napoleon III. (“Napoleon le petit”, in Victor Hugo’s savage phrase.) The whole story provoked one of Karl Marx’s best aphorisms: “History repeats itself; the first time as tragedy and the second as farce.”

There have been plenty of tragedies since – and plenty of farces, too. Trump’s victory was a tragedy, but farcical elements are already in evidence. Erdogan’s victory was even more tragic than Trump’s, but farce is conspicuously absent. The Leave victory in the referendum was tragic: arguably, the greatest tragedy in the three-century history of Britain’s union state. As with Trump, farce is already in evidence – the agitated comings and goings that have followed Theresa May’s loss of her Commons majority; the inane debate over the nature of the Brexit that Britain should seek; and the preposterous suggestion that, freed of the “Brussels” incubus, Britain will be able to conclude costless trade deals with the state-capitalist dictatorship of China and the “America First” neo-isolationists in Washington, DC. Unlike the French farce of Napoleon III’s Second Empire, however, the British farce now in progress is more likely to provoke tears than laughter.


Picture: André Carrilho

Populism is not a doctrine or a governing philosophy, still less an ideology. It is a disposition, perhaps a mood, a set of attitudes and above all a style. The People’s Party, which played a significant part in American politics in the late 19th century, is a case in point. The farmers whose grievances inspired the People’s Party wanted cheaper credit and transport to carry their products to markets in the eastern states. Hence the party’s two main proposals. One was the nationalisation of the railways, to cheapen transport costs; the other was “free silver” – the use of silver as well as gold as currency, supposedly to cheapen credit. Even then, this was not a particularly radical programme. It was designed to reform capitalism, not to replace it, as the largely Marxist social-democratic parties of Europe were seeking to do.

Rhetoric was a different matter. Mary Elizabeth Lease, a prominent member of the People’s Party, declared that America’s was no longer a government of the people by the people and for the people, but “a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street and for Wall Street”. The common people of America, she added, “are slaves and monopoly is the master”.

The Georgian populist Tom Watson once asked if Thomas Jefferson had dreamed that the party he founded would be “prostituted to the vilest purposes of monopoly” or that it would be led by “red-eyed Jewish millionaires”. The People’s Party’s constitutive Omaha Platform accused the two main parties of proposing “to sacrifice our homes, lives and children on the altar of Mammon; to destroy the multitude in order to secure corruption funds from the millionaires”. The party’s aim was “to restore the government of the Republic to the hands of ‘the plain people’ with which class it originated”. Theodore Roosevelt promised “to walk softly and carry a big stick”. The People’s Party walked noisily and carried a small stick. Jeremy Corbyn would have been at home in it.

Almost without exception, populists promise national regeneration in place of decline, decay and the vacillations and tergiversations of a corrupt establishment and the enervated elites that belong to it. Trump’s call to “make America great again” is an obvious recent case. His attacks on “crooked Hillary”, on the courts that have impeded his proposed ban on Muslim immigrants from capriciously chosen Middle Eastern and African countries, on the “fake news” of journalists seeking to hold his administration to account, and, most of all, his attack on the constitutional checks and balances that have been fundamental to US governance for more than 200 years, are the most alarming examples of populist practice, not just in American history but in the history of most of the North Atlantic world.

There are intriguing parallels between Trump’s regime and Erdogan’s. Indeed, Trump went out of his way to congratulate Erdogan on Turkey’s referendum result in April – which gives him the right to lengthen his term of office to ten years, to strengthen his control over the judiciary and to decide when to impose a state of emergency. Even before the referendum, he had dismissed more than 100,000 public servants, including teachers, prosecutors, judges and army officers; 4,000 were imprisoned. The Kurdish minority was – and is – repressed. True, none of this applies to Trump. But the rhetoric of the thin-skinned, paranoid US president and his equally thin-skinned and paranoid Turkish counterpart comes from the same repertoire. In the Turkish referendum Erdogan declared: “My nation stood upright and undivided.” It might have been Trump clamorously insisting that the crowd at his inauguration was bigger than it was.

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The best-known modern British populists – Margaret Thatcher, Nigel Farage and David Owen – form a kind of counterpoint. In some ways, all three have harked back to the themes of the 19th-century American populists. Thatcher insisted that she was “a plain, straightforward provincial”, adding that her “Bloomsbury” was Grantham – “Methodism, the grocer’s shop, Rotary and all the serious, sober virtues, cultivated and esteemed in that environment”. Farage declared that the EU referendum was “a victory for ‘the real people’ of Britain” – implying, none too subtly, that the 48 per cent who voted Remain were somehow unreal or, indeed, un-British.

On a holiday job on a building site during the Suez War, Owen experienced a kind of epiphany. Hugh Gaitskell was criticising Anthony Eden, the prime minister, on television and in the House of Commons, but Owen’s workmates were solidly in favour of Eden. That experience, he said, made him suspicious of “the kind of attitude which splits the difference on everything. The rather defeatist, even traitorous attitude reflected in the pre-war Apostles at Cambridge.” (Owen voted for Brexit in 2016.)

Did he really believe that Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes and George Moore were traitorous? Did he not know that they were Apostles? Or was he simply lashing out, Trump-like, at an elite that disdained him – and to which he yearned to belong?

Thatcher’s Grantham, Farage’s real people and David Owen’s workmates came from the same rhetorical stable as the American populists’ Omaha Platform. But the American populists really were plain, in their sense of the word, whereas Thatcher, Farage and Owen could hardly have been less so. Thatcher (at that stage Roberts) left Grantham as soon as she could and never looked back. She went to Somerville College, Oxford, where she was a pupil of the Nobel laureate Dorothy Hodgkin. She married the dashing and wealthy Denis Thatcher and abandoned science to qualify as a barrister before being elected to parliament and eventually becoming prime minister. Farage worked as a metals trader in the City before becoming leader of the UK Independence Party. Owen went to the private Bradfield College before going up to Cambridge to read medicine. Despite his Welsh antecedents, he looks and sounds like a well-brought-up English public school boy. He was elected to parliament in 1966 at the age of 28 and was appointed under-secretary for the navy at 30. He then served briefly as foreign secretary in James Callaghan’s miserable Labour government in the 1970s.

Much the same is true of Marine Le Pen in France. She is a hereditary populist – something that seems self-contradictory. The Front National (FN) she heads was founded by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen – Holocaust denier, anti-Semite, former street brawler and sometime Poujadist. In the jargon of public relations, she has worked hard to “de-toxify” the FN brand. But the Front is still the Front; it appeals most strongly to the ageing and insecure in the de-industrialised areas of the north-east. Marine Le Pen applauded the Leave victory in Britain’s referendum – she seeks to limit immigration, just as Ukip did in the referendum and as the May government does now.

Above all, the Front National appeals to a mythologised past, symbolised by the figure of Joan of Arc. Joan was a simple, illiterate peasant from an obscure village in north-eastern France, who led the French king’s forces to a decisive victory over the English in the later stages of the Hundred Years War. She was captured by England’s Burgundian allies, and the English burned her at the stake at the age of 19. She was beatified in 1909 and canonised in 1920. For well over a century, she has been a heroine for the Catholic French right, for whom the revolutionary triad of liberté, egalité, fraternité is either vacuous or menacing.

***

The past to which the FN appeals is uniquely French. It is also contentious. A struggle over the ownership of the French past has been a theme of French politics ever since the French Revolution. But other mythologised pasts have figured again and again in populist rhetoric and still do. Mussolini talked of returning to the time of the Roman empire when the Mediterranean was Mare Nostrum. Trump’s “Make America great again” presupposes a past when America was great, and from which present-day Americans have strayed, thanks to Clintonesque crooks and the pedlars of fake news. “Take back control” – the mantra of the Brexiteers in the referendum – presupposes a past in which the British had control; Owen’s bizarre pre-referendum claim that, if Britain left the EU, she would be free to “rediscover the skills of blue water diplomacy” presupposed a time when she practised those skills. Vladimir Putin, another populist of sorts, is patently trying to harness memories of tsarist glory to his chariot wheels. Margaret Thatcher, the “plain, straightforward provincial” woman, sought to revive the “vigorous virtues” of her Grantham childhood and the “Victorian values” that underpinned them.

As well as mythologising the past, populists mythologise the people. Those for whom they claim to speak are undifferentiated, homogeneous and inert. Populists have nothing but contempt for de Tocqueville’s insight that the ever-present threat of majority tyranny can be kept at bay only by a rich array of intermediate institutions, including townships, law courts and a free press, underpinned by the separation of powers.

For populists, the threat of majority tyranny is a phantom, invented by out-of-touch and craven elitists. Law courts that stand in the way of the unmediated popular will are “enemies of the people”, as the Daily Mail put it. There is no need to protect minorities against the tyranny of the majority: minorities are either part of the whole, in which case they don’t need protection, or self-excluded from it, in which case they don’t deserve to be protected.

Apparent differences of interest or value that cut across the body of the people, that divide the collective sovereign against itself, are products of elite manipulation or, in Thatcher’s notorious phrase, of “the enemy within”. For there is a strong paranoid streak in the populist mentality. Against the pure, virtuous people stand corrupt, privileged elites and sinister, conspiratorial subversives. The latter are forever plotting to do down the former.

Like pigs searching for truffles, populists search for subversives. Inevitably, they find what they are looking for. Joe McCarthy was one of the most squalid examples of the populist breed: for years, McCarthyism was a baneful presence in Hollywood, in American universities, newspaper offices and in the public service, ruining lives, restricting free expression and making it harder for the United States to win the trust of its European allies. The barrage of hatred and contempt that the tabloid press unleashed on opponents of Theresa May’s pursuit of a “hard” Brexit is another example. Her astounding claim that a mysterious entity known as “Brussels” was seeking to interfere in the British general election is a third.

As the Princeton political scientist Jan-Werner Müller argues, all of this strikes at the heart of democratic governance. Democracy depends on open debate, on dialogue between the bearers of different values, in which the protagonists learn from each other and from which they emerge as different people. For the Nobel laureate, philosopher and economist Amartya Sen, democracy is, above all, “public reasoning”; and that is impossible without social spaces in which reasoning can take place. Populism is singular; democracy is plural. The great question for non-populists is how to respond to the populist threat.

Two answers are in contention. The first is Theresa May’s. It amounts to appeasement. May’s purported reason for calling a snap general election was that the politicians were divided, whereas the people were united. It is hard to think of a better – or more frightening – summary of the spirit of populism. The second answer is Emmanuel Macron’s. For the moment, at least, he is astonishingly popular in France. More important, his victory over Le Pen has shown that, given intelligence, courage and generosity of spirit, the noxious populist tide can be resisted and, perhaps, turned back. 

David Marquand’s most recent book is “Mammon’s Kingdom”: an Essay on Britain Now” (Allen Lane)

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Special Report - The SAS story they want to suppress