The danse macabre of US-style democracy
The danse macabre of US-style democracy
23 Jan 2008 -- John Pilger
The former president of Tanzania Julius Nyerere once asked, "Why haven.t we all got a vote in the US election? Surely everyone with a TV set has earned that right just for enduring the merciless bombardment every four years." Having reported four presidential election campaigns, from the Kennedys to Nixon, Carter to Reagan, with their Zeppelins of platitudes, robotic followers and rictal wives, I can sympathise. But what difference would the vote make? Of the presidential candidates I have interviewed, only George C Wallace, governor of Alabama, spoke the truth. "There.s not a dime.s worth of difference between the Democrats and Republicans," he said. And he was shot.
What struck me, living and working in the United States, was that presidential campaigns were a parody, entertaining and often grotesque. They are a ritual danse macabre of flags, balloons and bullshit, designed to camouflage a venal system based on money power, human division and a culture of permanent war.
Travelling with Robert Kennedy in 1968 was eye-opening for me. To audiences of the poor, Kennedy would present himself as a saviour. The words "change" and "hope" were used relentlessly and cynically. For audiences of fearful whites, he would use racist codes, such as "law and order". With those opposed to the invasion of Vietnam, he would attack "putting American boys in the line of fire", but never say when he would withdraw them. That year (after Kennedy was assassinated), Richard Nixon used a version of the same, malleable speech to win the presidency. Thereafter, it was used successfully by Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and the two Bushes. Carter promised a foreign policy based on "human rights" . and practised the very opposite. Reagan.s "freedom agenda" was a bloodbath in central America. Clinton "solemnly pledged" universal health care and tore down the last safety net of the Depression.
Nothing has changed. Barack Obama is a glossy Uncle Tom who would bomb Pakistan. Hillary Clinton, another bomber, is anti-feminist. John McCain.s one distinction is that he has personally bombed a country. They all believe the US is not subject to the rules of human behaviour, because it is "a city upon a hill", regardless that most of humanity sees it as a monumental bully which, since 1945, has overthrown 50 governments, many of them democracies, and bombed 30 nations, destroying millions of lives.
If you wonder why this holocaust is not an "issue" in the current campaign, you might ask the BBC, which is responsible for reporting the campaign to much of the world, or better still Justin Webb, the BBC.s North America editor. In a Radio 4 series last year, Webb displayed the kind of sycophancy that evokes the 1930s appeaser Geoffrey Dawson, then editor of the London Times. Condoleezza Rice cannot be too mendacious for Webb. According to Rice, the US is "supporting the democratic aspirations of all people". For Webb, who believes American patriotism "creates a feeling of happiness and solidity", the crimes committed in the name of this patriotism, such as support for war and injustice in the Middle East for the past 25 years, and in Latin America, are irrelevant. Indeed, those who resist such an epic assault on democracy are guilty of "anti-Americanism", says Webb, apparently unaware of the totalitarian origins of this term of abuse. Journalists in Nazi Berlin would damn critics of the Reich as "anti-German".
Moreover, his treacle about the "ideals" and "core values" that make up America.s sanctified "set of ideas about human conduct" denies us a true sense of the destruction of American democracy: the dismantling of the Bill of Rights, habeas corpus and separation of powers. Here is Webb on the campaign trail: "[This] is not about mass politics. It is a celebration of the one-to-one relationship between an individual American and his or her putative commander-in-chief." He calls this "dizzying". And Webb on Bush: "Let us not forget that while the candidates win, lose, win again... there is a world to be run and President Bush is still running it." The emphasis in the BBC text actually links to the White House website.
None of this drivel is journalism. It is anti-journalism, worthy of a minor courtier of a great power. Webb is not exceptional. His boss Helen Boaden, director of BBC News, sent this reply to a viewer who had protested the prevalence of propaganda as the basis of news: "It is simply a fact that Bush has tried to export democracy [to Iraq] and that this has been troublesome."
And her source for this "fact"? Quotations from Bush and Blair saying it is a fact.
The 'good war' is a bad war
John Pilger -- 9 Jan 2008
In his latest article for the New Statesman, John Pilger describes how the invasion of Afghanistan, which was widely supported in the West as a 'good war' and justifiable response to 9/11, was actually planned months before 9/11 and is the latest instalment of 'a great game'.
"To me, I confess, [countries] are pieces on a chessboard upon which is being played out a game for dominion of the world."
Lord Curzon, viceroy of India, speaking about Afghanistan, 1898
I had suggested to Marina that we meet in the safety of the Intercontinental Hotel, where foreigners stay in Kabul, but she said no. She had been there once and government agents, suspecting she was Rawa, had arrested her. We met instead at a safe house, reached through contours of bombed rubble that was once streets, where people live like earthquake victims awaiting rescue.
Rawa is the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, which since 1977 has alerted the world to the suffering of women and girls in that country. There is no organisation on earth like it. It is the high bar of feminism, home of the bravest of the brave. Year after year, Rawa agents have travelled secretly through Afghanistan, teaching at clandestine girls. schools, ministering to isolated and brutalised women, recording outrages on cameras concealed beneath their burqas. They were the Taliban regime.s implacable foes when the word Taliban was barely heard in the west: when the Clinton administration was secretly courting the mullahs so that the oil company Unocal could build a pipeline across Afghanistan from the Caspian.
Indeed, Rawa.s understanding of the designs and hypocrisy of western governments informs a truth about Afghanistan excluded from news, now reduced to a drama of British squaddies besieged by a demonic enemy in a "good war". When we met, Marina was veiled to conceal her identity. Marina is her nom de guerre. She said: "We, the women of Afghanistan, only became a cause in the west following 11 September 2001, when the Taliban suddenly became the official enemy of America. Yes, they persecuted women, but they were not unique, and we have resented the silence in the west over the atrocious nature of the western-backed warlords, who are no different. They rape and kidnap and terrorise, yet they hold seats in [Hamid] Karzai.s government. In some ways, we were more secure under the Taliban. You could cross Afghanistan by road and feel secure. Now, you take your life into your hands."
The reason the United States gave for invading Afghanistan in October 2001 was "to destroy the infrastructure of al-Qaeda, the perpetrators of 9/11". The women of Rawa say this is false. In a rare statement on 4 December that went unreported in Britain, they said: "By experience, [we have found] that the US does not want to defeat the Taliban and al-Qaeda, because then they will have no excuse to stay in Afghanistan and work towards the realisation of their economic, political and strategic interests in the region."
The truth about the "good war" is to be found in compelling evidence that the 2001 invasion, widely supported in the west as a justifiable response to the 11 September attacks, was actually planned two months prior to 9/11 and that the most pressing problem for Washington was not the Taliban.s links with Osama Bin Laden, but the prospect of the Taliban mullahs losing control of Afghanistan to less reliable mujahedin factions, led by warlords who had been funded and armed by the CIA to fight America.s proxy war against the Soviet occupiers in the 1980s. Known as the Northern Alliance, these mujahedin had been largely a creation of Washington, which believed the "jihadi card" could be used to bring down the Soviet Union. The Taliban were a product of this and, during the Clinton years, they were admired for their "discipline". Or, as the Wall Street Journal put it, "[the Taliban] are the players most capable of achieving peace in Afghanistan at this moment in history".
The "moment in history" was a secret memorandum of understanding the mullahs had signed with the Clinton administration on the pipeline deal. However, by the late 1990s, the Northern Alliance had encroached further and further on territory controlled by the Taliban, whom, as a result, were deemed in Washington to lack the "stability" required of such an important client. It was the consistency of this client relationship that had been a prerequisite of US support, regardless of the Taliban.s aversion to human rights. (Asked about this, a state department briefer had predicted that "the Taliban will develop like the Saudis did", with a pro-American economy, no democracy and "lots of sharia law", which meant the legalised persecution of women. "We can live with that," he said.)
By early 2001, convinced it was the presence of Osama Bin Laden that was souring their relationship with Washington, the Taliban tried to get rid of him. Under a deal negotiated by the leaders of Pakistan.s two Islamic parties, Bin Laden was to be held under house arrest in Peshawar. A tribunal of clerics would then hear evidence against him and decide whether to try him or hand him over to the Americans. Whether or not this would have happened, Pakistan.s Pervez Musharraf vetoed the plan. According to the then Pakistani foreign minister, Niaz Naik, a senior US diplomat told him on 21 July 2001 that it had been decided to dispense with the Taliban "under a carpet of bombs".
Acclaimed as the first "victory" in the "war on terror", the attack on Afghanistan in October 2001 and its ripple effect caused the deaths of thousands of civilians who, even more than Iraqis, remain invisible to western eyes. The family of Gulam Rasul is typical. It was 7.45am on 21 October. The headmaster of a school in the town of Khair Khana, Rasul had just finished eating breakfast with his family and had walked outside to chat to a neighbour. Inside the house were his wife, Shiekra, his four sons, aged three to ten, his brother and his wife, his sister and her husband. He looked up to see an aircraft weaving in the sky, then his house exploded in a fireball behind him. Nine people died in this attack by a US F-16 dropping a 500lb bomb. The only survivor was his nine-year-old son, Ahmad Bilal. "Most of the people killed in this war are not Taliban; they are innocents," Gulam Rasul told me. "Was the killing of my family a mistake? No, it was not. They fly their planes and look down on us, the mere Afghan people, who have no planes, and they bomb us for our birthright, and with all contempt."
There was the wedding party in the village of Niazi Qala, 100km south of Kabul, to celebrate the marriage of the son of a respected farmer. By all accounts it was a wonderfully boisterous affair, with music and singing. The roar of aircraft started when everyone was asleep, at about three in the morning. According to a United Nations report, the bombing lasted two hours and killed 52 people: 17 men, ten women and 25 children, many of whom were found blown to bits where they had desperately sought refuge, in a dried-up pond. Such slaughter is not uncommon, and these days the dead are described as "Taliban"; or, if they are children, they are said to be "partly to blame for being at a site used by militants" -- according to the BBC, speaking to a US military spokesman.
The British military have played an important part in this violence, having stepped up high-altitude bombing by up to 30 per cent since they took over command of Nato forces in Afghanistan in May 2006. This translated to more than 6,200 Afghan deaths last year. In December, a contrived news event was the "fall" of a "Taliban stronghold", Musa Qala, in southern Afghanistan. Puppet government forces were allowed to "liberate" rubble left by American B-52s.
What justifies this? Various fables have been spun -- "building democracy" is one. "The war on drugs" is the most perverse. When the Americans invaded Afghanistan in 2001 they had one striking success. They brought to an abrupt end a historic ban on opium production that the Taliban regime had achieved. A UN official in Kabul described the ban to me as "a modern miracle". The miracle was quickly rescinded. As a reward for supporting the Karzai "democracy", the Americans allowed Northern Alliance warlords to replant the country.s entire opium crop in 2002. Twenty-eight out of the 32 provinces instantly went under cultivation. Today, 90 per cent of world trade in opium originates in Afghanistan. In 2005, a British government report estimated that 35,000 children in this country were using heroin. While the British taxpayer pays for a £1bn military super-base in Helmand Province and the second-biggest British embassy in the world, in Kabul, peanuts are spent on drug rehabilitation at home.
Tony Blair once said memorably: "To the Afghan people, we make this commitment. We will not walk away . . . [We will offer] some way out of the poverty that is your miserable existence." I thought about this as I watched children play in a destroyed cinema. They were illiterate and so could not read the poster warning that unexploded cluster bombs lay in the debris.
"After five years of engagement," reported James Fergusson in the London Independent on 16 December, "the [UK] Department for International Development had spent just £390m on Afghan projects." Unusually, Fergusson has had meetings with Taliban who are fighting the British. "They remained charming and courteous throughout," he wrote of one visit in February. "This is the beauty of malmastia, the Pashtun tradition of hospitality towards strangers. So long as he comes unarmed, even a mortal enemy can rely on a kind reception. The opportunity for dialogue that malmastia affords is unique."
This "opportunity for dialogue" is a far cry from the surrender-or-else offers made by the government of Gordon Brown. What Brown and his Foreign Office advisers wilfully fail to understand is that the tactical victory in Afghanistan in 2001, achieved with bombs, has become a strategic disaster in south Asia. Exacerbated by the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the current turmoil in Pakistan has its contemporary roots in a Washington-contrived war in neighbouring Afghanistan that has alienated the Pashtuns who inhabit much of the long border area between the two countries. This is also true of most Pakistanis, who, according to opinion polls, want their government to negotiate a regional peace, rather than play a prescribed part in a rerun of Lord Curzon.s Great Game.