“This war is un-American”, writes Jonathan Freedland of Operation Iraqi Freedom in the Guardian. America, after all, “still sees itself as the instinctive friend of all who struggle to kick out a foreign occupier – and the last nation on earth to play the role of outside ruler.” (‘Emperor George’, Jonathan Freedland, The Guardian, April 2, 2003)
A day earlier, Hugo Young had described how when John F Kennedy talked of “genuine peace… Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave” he found “an audience that believed” him – his words “articulated a credible ideal, infused with internationalist generosity.” (‘Blair has one final chance to break free of his tainted fealty’, Hugo Young, The Guardian, April 1, 2003)
A Martian reading Freedland and Young would not know whether to laugh or cry. Belief in the fundamental benevolence of America (and Britain) is the basic creed of senior writers at the Guardian and Observer (and Independent) – at the most progressive end, recall, of mainstream opinion. Thus, Martin Woollacott notes that a bloody battle for Baghdad “risks sullying the liberation which is the larger Anglo-American aim”. (‘Freeing Iraqis will not be a single act, but a long process’, Martin Woollacott, The Guardian, March 28, 2003) The “liberation” from Saddam – an aim, notice, not a claim – is not already sullied, then, by the fact that: “It is precisely because he is not now a real threat to the US, nor a real ally of al-Qaida, and nor, probably, in possession of usable weapons, that war is feasible”, as Woollacott wrote last September.
Nick Cohen takes a similar view in the Observer:
“What opponents of the war against Iraq really mean is… it’s better to be against war than for the liberation of the peoples of Iraq.” (Cohen, ‘Put him behind you’, The Observer, November 24, 2002)
If said of any other imperial power in history, this would be ridiculed as the propaganda that it is. Of course “liberation” will be the outcome – what else could possibly motivate a superpower to spend billions of dollars on sending a quarter of a million troops half-way across the globe to a Third World country?
The fundamental media faith in the goodness of the US heart mandates some careful tiptoeing around history. Last December, the BBC’s Sue Lloyd-Roberts described how Iranian students had “stormed the American embassy in 1979, held 52 diplomats hostage for 15 months, and America was universally agreed to be ‘the Great Satan’.” (December 16, 2002). When we asked Lloyd-Roberts why she hadn’t explored the genesis of the Iranian view of America as “the Great Satan”, she replied curtly (we weren’t writing for the New Statesman at the time):
“Newsnight is a current affairs programme and not a history documentary programme and there simply is not the space available to go back too far”. (Email to David Edwards, December 17, 2002)
The same shortage afflicts the Guardian which, in 2001, produced a “Timeline: A brief history of diplomatic relations between Iran and Britain since 1979.” Note when diplomatic relations are said to have begun:
“1979 – The ruling shah is forced into exile and conservative clerics, led by Ayatollah Khomeini, attempt to crush liberal influences in the country.” (Simon Jeffery, ‘Timeline: British-Iranian relations – A brief history of diplomatic relations between Iran and Britain since 1979’, The Guardian, September 25, 2001)
The “liberal influences” in question were installed by the US/UK partners in 1953 because the nationalist Musaddiq would not “settle the oil question on reasonable terms”, according to the Foreign Office at the time. Ex-CIA agent Richard Cottam reports how terms were settled: “That mob that came into north Teheran and was decisive in the overthrow was a mercenary mob. It had no ideology. That mob was paid for by American dollars.” (Quoted, Mark Curtis, The Ambiguities of Power, Zed Books, 1995, p.93) As for the new head of state: “We should leave the name-suggesting to the Americans”, the FO advised.
Unfortunately for the Iranians, the suggested name was that of the Shah. And how “un-American” was this brand of “liberation”? In 1976, Amnesty International reported that Iran under the Shah had the “highest rate of death penalties in the world, no valid system of civilian courts and a history of torture” which was “beyond belief”. This was a society in which “the entire population was subjected to a constant, all-pervasive terror”. (Martin Ennals, Secretary General of Amnesty International, cited in an Amnesty Publication, Matchbox, Autumn 1976) “The more dictatorial his regime became, the closer the US-Iran relationship became”, US-Iran specialist Eric Hooglund comments (Quoted, Curtis, p.95). The support was pragmatic not psychopathic – the US was defending Iranian oil from deluded Iranian nationalists who had the notion that it belonged to them. Nothing could be less “un-American” than pragmatism of this kind – the kind blitzing Iraq right now.
History doesn’t repeat itself, but the informative example of what the coalition’s “liberation” meant for Iraq’s neighbour, Iran, has been ignored by the media. The Guardian/Observer have mentioned it in passing in three articles this year (four last year). Not one article has explored the parallels with the Iraq crisis.
This silence is no recent phenomenon and it is not particular to the UK. In 1979, as the Shah crashed down in the bloodbath he had created, researchers William A. Dorman and Ehsan Omad wrote of the tyrant:
“We have been unable to find a single example of a news and feature story in the American mainstream press that uses the label ‘dictator’.” (Dorman and Omad, ‘Reporting Iran the Shah’s Way’, Columbia Journalism Review, January-February 1979)
Meanwhile, in Baghdad, US troops have allowed mobs to wreck and burn the Ministry of Planning, the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Irrigation, the Ministry of Trade, the Ministry of Industry, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Information. Looters have been free to destroy the Baghdad Archaeological Museum, the museum in the city of Mosul, and three hospitals. Robert Fisk reports a curious feature of this widespread chaos:
“The Americans have, though, put hundreds of troops inside two Iraqi ministries that remain untouched – and untouchable – because tanks and armoured personnel carriers and Humvees have been placed inside and outside both institutions. And which ministries proved to be so important for the Americans? Why, the Ministry of Interior, of course – with its vast wealth of intelligence information on Iraq – and the Ministry of Oil. The archives and files of Iraq’s most valuable asset – its oilfields and, even more important, its massive reserves – are safe and sound, sealed off from the mobs and looters, and safe to be shared, as Washington almost certainly intends, with American oil companies.” (‘Americans defend two untouchable ministries from the hordes of looters’, Robert Fisk, 14 April 2003)
The truth of the motivation behind US/UK foreign policy and of their atrocities around the world is all but inadmissible in our ‘free press’. The problem is that without this basic, honest framework of understanding, nothing about the tragedy in Iraq, or anywhere else, can be understood – which is just ideal from the point of view of Bush and Blair.
A deeper problem is that self-criticism in the media is effectively banned – the Guardian and Independent won’t tolerate it, for example -and where else can you go to read a critique challenging the establishment sympathies of the ‘liberal press’? The Guardian and Independent are as good as it gets – people who aspire to something better simply do not have a voice in the mainstream media.
More articles by David Edwards