Notes From the Margins…

Governments who love too much

  • February 01, 2012
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It’s a great comfort in these troubled times to see that some governments still care when other people are suffering, and that unlike Neville Chamberlain, their compassion, empathy and humanitarian concern will even extend to ‘  a quarrel in a faraway country  between people of whom we know nothing.’

Yesterday representatives of some of the world’s most caring  governments  were lining up in the United Nations to demonstrate how much they care about Syria,  with a passion and sincerity that was enough to rouse the hardest of hearts.    There was Hilary Clinton, exuding moral authority as she told the Security Council:

‘At the end of the day, every member of that Security Council has a choice to make. If you do not choose to try to stand on the side of the Syrian people, then you are standing on the side of the continuing killing and abuses that are carried out every single day.’

There was the French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé warning that the silence of the council was ‘no longer acceptable. ‘   And William Hague, the smug gnome with a heart of tweed expressing similar sentiments and  insisting that the resolution was an ‘Arab decision’ – and rightly so since only supporters of dictators and other people who do not care would suggest that our governments would ever take any action in the Middle East without Arab support or approval.

Well ok, there have been some occasions in the past when such approval was absent, such as the Balfour Declaration or the Sykes-Picot agreement, and even in Syria, where France bombed the capital Damascus on two occasions in 1925 and 1945 to suppress popular resistance to French occupation.  But all that is water under the bridge now.  These are different times and as Hague pointed out:

‘This is not the West telling Syria what to do. It is not the permanent members of the Security Council seeking to impose their view. This is the Arab Nations calling on the U.N. Security Council to help address the crisis in Syria and the threat that it poses to the stability of their region.’

No, God forbid that the permanent members would seek to ‘impose their view’.  That’s why representatives of the ‘Arab Nations’ were on hand to demonstrate that they also care about freedom, democracy, justice and human rights and all the other things that our own leaders care about.

There was Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, Prime Minister of the emirate of Qatar, declaring that ‘the hope of the Syrian people is in your hands’ and calling for free elections – something that has yet to take place in Qatar itself.  And Arab League Secretary-General Nabil al-Araby also exhorted the council ‘Do not let the Syrian people down in its plight’ and condemned the ‘government killing machine.’

Beyond the Security Council there was alarming  news from some of the other countries that Western governments have cared about in recent years.  In Libya Medicins Sans Frontieres closed down their operations in Misrata,    on the grounds that pro-Gaddafi prisoners in detention centres are being tortured and denied medical care.   According to MSF General Director Christopher Sykes:

Some officials have sought to exploit and obstruct MSF”s medical work.  Patients were brought to us for medical care between interrogation sessions, so that they would be fit for further interrogation.  This is unacceptable. Our role is to provide medical care to war casualties and sick detainees, not to repeatedly treat the same patients between torture sessions.’

And in Iraq, twelve people were killed in what was a relatively low body count in recent weeks, and vice-president  Tariq al-Hashimi – who the Maliki government is currently trying to arrest on terrorism charges – gave an interview from Kurdistan in which he accused Maliki of pushing the country into renewed sectarian violence.

Al-Hashimi told his CNN interviewer ‘the future of Iraq is grim’ and criticized Obama’s depiction of the country as free, stable and democratic.   The Iraqi vice-president is not the only one to express such pessimism.  Last month Human Rights Watch described Iraq as a ‘budding police state’ where ‘every time someone attends a peaceful protest, they put themselves at risk of attack and abuse by security forces or their proxies.’

Little attention has been paid to these developments.  Because our governments have other countries that we care about now.   And that is why the West and the Arab League – a singularly useless organization that Western governments only ever pay attention to when it suits them – have  drafted a security council resolution which calls on Assad to step down within fifteen days or face  ‘further measures, in consultation with the League of Arab States.’

Unfortunately not all governments appreciate these efforts.   Russia has been mean-spirited enough  to interpret these ‘further measures’  as a potential trigger for ‘regime change’ and a full-scale military assault, comparable to the resolution which enabled NATO to whack Libya.

But this is a ‘false analogy’ as Hilary Clinton says.   And anyway Russia, as the Western media helpfully informs us,  is a country whose foreign policy decisions are generally dependent on  arms deals, commercial contracts and its geopolitical influence – something that our governments could never be accused of.

So it is really gross cynicism to suggest that the US, Britain and France, or Qatar, Bahrain or Saudi Arabia are motivated by anything but the purest and most selfless motives,  or that their position on Syria might be aimed at isolating and undermining Iran,  or that their support of ‘free and fair elections’ in Syria might be intended to  get a government in power that will be beholden to them.

No,  the real reason is that these governments want to save the ‘Syrian people’, like the ‘Afghan people’, the ‘Iraqi people’ and the ‘Libyan people’ before them.    And if their salvation can only be achieved by  civil war, ‘shock and awe’ bombardments, special forces ops,  and even invasion, well sometimes eggs must be broken to make the omelette, and for some governments, its just the only way that they can show how much they care.


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  1. Susan Dirgham

    1st Feb 2012 - 9:10 am

    Hi Matt,
    I watched the presentations from Ambassadors in the UN this morning (Oz time). It was an historic occasion. Western governments working with Saudi Arabia and Qatar bent on destroying a increasingly modern and successful secular, pluralist society, which has a highly-regarded, open-minded, reformist leader (having lived in Syria, read President Assad’s biography, and watched long interviews with him, I don’t hesitate to write that.) So many of those who spoke have either sold their soul (for what? status, money, a voice in the UN?) or they have a research team that does no work at all, well nothing beyond watch and read Al-Jazeera.

    By the way, I do not agree with you in regard to your assessment of President al-Maliki and Vice-President al-Hashimi. President Maliki apparently spoke strongly to President Obama about Syria, making it clear that he gave Syria support. He knows very well what is happening on the ground there and about US involvement. After I heard that, I feared greatly for his political future. That is around the time the trouble began and there were more bombings across Iraq. I tend to believe al-Hashimi is a criminal who has been guilty of what the president has accused him of. It would fit a US game-plan to have had their man in such a position, sowing trouble when needed to. It is a very dirty world. (Have you seen this interview with a former CIA agent: )

    Back to Syria: Since I last wrote to you, I have discovered something of interest. George Soros funds Amnesty, Human Rights Watch ($10 million every year for next 10 years), International Criminal Court, and International Crisis Group, and lots of other stuff.

    I thought his views on the ‘Arab Spring’ might be relevant. It can be assumed he pushes them with the money. I didn’t get very far, except for this document:

    Here’s a direct quote from it below. I find it quite scary. My reading of it is that George Soros supports the ‘revolutions’ but expects there will be blood for decades, but that is OK. Do the Syrian people have a say in that?


    George Soros. Soros, who fled Budapest as a teen-ager and made his fortune in the United States, suggested that the history of his homeland offered an example for the Arab revolutions that was both cruelly realistic and ultimately inspiring.

    “Reflecting on the Arab revolutions, one very important factor is that people were willing to sacrifice their lives for a common cause,” Soros said. “That is a memory, a historic event, that will change those countries forever. It is irreversible.”

    That’s the positive part of Soros’s lesson. But here is the dark cloud to that silver lining:

    “Revolutions are rarely successful. They often end in tragedy. But they change the behavior of that country afterwards. The 1956 Hungarian Revolution was repressed. But it carried with it the seeds of the successful revolution in 1989.”

    At a time when many of us in the West — and on the Arab street — are looking for instant results from the Jasmine Revolution, Soros’s conclusion is both heartening and frightening. Sometimes, as with Hungary’s 1956 uprising, a successful rebellion can take 33 years to work.

    That long view may be one of the greatest gifts Central Europe has to offer Egypt, Tunisia and their neighbors. Pretty soon, we will start to write the obituaries of the Arab Spring. We will begin to talk about how the promise of Tahrir Square has been squandered by the chaotic and corrupt governments the brave people on the street propelled into office. But, as with 1956 in Hungary, 1968 in Prague and 1980 in Gdansk, revolutions can be successful even if it takes decades for their promise to flower.

    • Matt

      1st Feb 2012 - 10:14 am

      Well I think I’ve made it clear before that I don’t agree with you about Assad – even if we both share a similar position regarding the kind of ‘intervention’ that is being proposed, its possible consequences and its motives.

      As for Maliki – he presides over a stunningly corrupt and authoritarian sectarian government that has been using police state methods for some time – long before the crisis in Syria began.

      It is well-documented that the Iraqi security forces under his government torture and kill who they like, when they like, with absolute impunity. I don’t know the truth about his allegation against al-Hashemi any more than you do, but televised ‘confessions’ from his bodyguards prove nothing at all – and accusations of death squad activity coming from the Dawa party are somewhat laughable.

      In any case these accusations take place at a time when Maliki is clearly intent on concentrating power around his own clique. In this context, as Reidar Vissar (a reliable and informed observer of Iraqi politics) notes, the charges against Hashemi may well represent ‘ a judicial attack on a political enemy that Maliki would not be able to get rid of in parliament.’

      As a pro-Iranian Shia politician who spent time in both Syria and Iran in exile, it isn’t surprising that Maliki should support Assad. But that doesn’t make him a good guy.

      And I really don’t see why there has to be this ‘either/or’ worldview when trying to understand what Western governments are up to in the Middle East. Just because the West wants to topple Assad/Gaddafi/Ahmadinajad doesn’t mean that their regimes are somehow progressive.

      And I don’t share your reading of Soros’ comments at all. In a way he’s offering a variant of what Mao once said when asked what he thought the influence of the French revolution had been. He replied ‘it’s too early to tell’.

      Soros seems to be making a similar point – that the consequences of a revolution are not always immediately obvious. I don’t see that he is advocating ‘blood’ for decades, and I still don’t accept the subtext in your argument, which seems to be that all the opposition to Assad’s regime (and by extension all the other rebellions in the ‘Arab spring’?) is externally generated by a vast all-powerful imperialist conspiracy.

      I think that Western governments would have preferred that most of these revolts had not taken place – at least initially – but now that they have, they are seeking to use them and manipulate them for their own purposes.

  2. Susan Dirgham

    1st Feb 2012 - 8:26 pm

    Hi Matt,
    Thanks for your response to my comment. I’m afraid I don’t have a chance to answer that at the moment as it is early morning and I’m rushing to start the day. But I would like to draw your attention to this very recent analysis on Syria. It’s from Media Lens, but it is hoped that it makes it to The NY Times. It challenges the mainstream narrative on Syria.

    New York Times interview with Lizzie Phelan on Syria/Libya

    Kind regards,

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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