On Contact: War, News and Chaos in the Middle East
On the show, Chris Hedges discusses ‘War, News and Chaos in the Middle East’ with its author, foreign correspondent Patrick Cockburn.
When Patrick Cockburn, the Middle East correspondent for The Independent, first traveled to the region in 1975, and when Chris Hedges arrived a decade later, most of the states were ruled by dictators, usually army officers or hereditary monarchs, though the level of cruelty and repression varied widely. Today, they are mostly still dictatorships, but the cruelty, repression, and suffering has increased exponentially. Even in the handful of states where there is somewhat greater political freedom, such as Iraq, power has been seized by a kleptocratic elite that, as Cockburn notes, has siphoned off oil revenues for its own benefit, scarcely built any essential infrastructure, and, with the fall of oil prices, is unable to pay wages and salaries. Rather more countries – Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia – have collapsed into chaos and war. States that remain at peace, such as Turkey and Egypt, have seen freedom of speech crushed and opposition to the government criminalized.
The disintegration of the Middle East is the result of two decades of US, NATO, and Israeli military intervention in the region, which has stoked sectarian wars and spawned numerous radical jihadist groups determined to rid the region of the foreign occupier. The morass in the region is compounded by our ignorance of what is happening – the result of the anemic state of journalism. Readers and viewers are largely unaware of the realities on the ground, and the consequences of Western policies both for those in the Middle East and those in the industrialized West who fall victim to acts of terrorism.
Patrick Cockburn has written six books on the region’s recent history, including his latest, ‘Behind Enemy Lies: War, News and Chaos in the Middle East’.
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Chris Hedges: Welcome to On Contact. Today, we speak to Patrick Cockburn, currently Middle East Correspondent for The Independent newspaper about his long coverage in the Middle East.
Patrick Cockburn: The way in which they wage these wars, I mean, primarily the U.S. wages these wars is one--another reason they go on forever, which is basically using air power and some special forces to attack the other side what you deem to be the enemy. Now, a number of things happen when you depend on air power, which is there are a lot of civilian dead because whatever you say, you can’t--don’t actually know where the enemy is, and all careful investigation of casualties on the ground, whatever Air Forces claim show an incredible disparity between Air force claims at one point outside Mosul, the U.S. Air Force claim I think, killed one civilian or something, real figure was forty-three, this was in a small area. But this is pretty typical. So you kill a lot of civilians, you make them have a lot of anger--pretty angry. So you act as a recruiting sergeant for the Taliban or Islamic State or whoever is on the receiving end. And, you know, so you alienate the civilian population.
CH: When Patrick Cockburn, currently Middle East correspondent for The Independent newspaper in the UK, first went to the Middle East in 1975, and when I arrived a decade later, most of the countries were ruled by dictators, usually army officers, or hereditary monarchs, though the level of cruelty and repression varied widely. Today, they are mostly still dictatorships, but cruelty, repression, and suffering has exponentially increased. Even in the handful of states where there is somewhat greater political freedom such as Iraq, power has been seized by kleptocratic elite, who have, as Cockburn notes, siphoned off oil revenues for their own benefit, built little essential infrastructure, and with the fall of oil prices are unable to pay wages and salaries. “Rather more countries,” he writes “Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia have collapsed into chaos and war. Countries that remain at peace, such as Turkey and Egypt, have seen freedom of speech crushed and opposition to the government criminalized. The disintegration of the Middle East is the result of two decades of US, NATO, and Israeli military intervention in the region, which has stoked sectarian wars and spawned numerous radical jihadist groups determined to rid the region of the foreign occupier. The morass in the Middle East is compounded by our ignorance of what is happening, the result of the anemic state of journalism, readers and viewers are largely unaware of the realities on the ground, and the consequences of Western policies for those in the Middle East and those in the industrialized West, who fall victim to acts of terrorism.” Joining me to discuss these issues is Patrick Cockburn, who has authored six books on the recent history of the Middle East, including his latest, “Behind Enemy Lines” War, News, and Chaos in the Middle East.” And I just--as I said before we went on the air, I’m a huge admirer of your work and have been for many years. I want to go back to a moment that’s not in the book, but it is 1948, the creation of the State of Israel. And there were strong democratic movements in the Middle East, countries like Lebanon, for instance. And it is that imposition of the State of Israel on land that, from the seventh century until 1948, had been Muslim, Palestine in its final iteration under the British. And I think that that strikes a theme that I find in your book, and that is that the use, the heavy-handed use of militarism itself, and that, of course, is emblematic in the two decades of intervention in the Middle East, is what spawned many of these evils.
PC: Yes. I find one of the depressing things looking back, and you may feel the same way, is how things were pretty bad in 1975, but they’re considerably worse now. You mentioned Lebanon, you know, Lebanon had--was the beginning of the Civil War there. Then 11 years later, the Civil War ended. But today, there’s a country in which does--the electricity is off, there are no lights, half the population is not getting enough to eat, and there’s a great swathe of country right across from Afghanistan, you know, through Iraq, through Syria, through Lebanon, right over to Libya, in which you have these sort of shattered societies, which people have somehow come to feel is the sort of normal state of the place. This isn’t what you have in the rest of the world so why does it happen here? But I think it’s, sort of--it’s become almost accepted that that is natural there. It also seems to, you know, there’s an acceptance that it’s natural that the place should be ruled by despotic military rulers, by monarchs. The last absolute monarchs in the world are in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. You don’t have that anywhere else. You have states that are basically looting machines. Even Iraq is probably--just had an election, and it has its faults, but it was a real election. But even so, you have an immovable kleptocratic elite running Iraq, which has stolen the oil revenues, which means that in the heat of the summer, when it gets to, you know, incredibly hot in the Mesopotamian plain, people can’t get air conditioning, they can’t get water. And so this is a catastrophic state of events, which somehow has been accepted as the norm in the rest of the world.
CH: Let’s look first at Iraq, because they just did have elections, which were the result of widespread street protests, which were crushed quite brutally, I think it was some 600 people are estimated to have been killed, the numbers may be higher. And yet there was a deep apathy in terms of voter turnout. And as you write about--you write about Muqtada al-Sadr in the book. So--and the rise of this kind of religious populism, but I also want you to talk about what you do in the book about Iranian overreach and Soleimani, there’s the Iranian Quds Force General who was assassinated during the Trump administration. I mean, there’s a scene there where he shows up and I think he takes the prime minister’s chair, but talk a little bit about what’s happened in Iraq, because you’ve covered it from the inception of the invasion.
PC: Yeah. The latest round when you--where the protests started, which you just mentioned, I was in Baghdad. I was in my hotel, close to the center and I talked to some of the people who were going on this protest before, and they’re pretty low key, didn’t expect you to get anywhere, a lot of them were students who are trying to get a job, all of them had been trying to get a job for a decade, and they were going rather hopelessly to--and wearily to this demonstration. And I--so I heard this popping in the background when I was in my hotel room and I thought, you know, is that a wedding or a football match or something, you know, Iraqis fire guns into the air, things like that. Eventually, it seemed to go on. I went down to the hotel lobby, and the guys all rushed through the door, saying, you know, they’ve opened fire on the protesters, and there are already 10 dead. Actually the figures were much higher. And this was Iranian overreach. Soleimani, who somehow got the reputation as being, you know, the Machiavelli of Iraq and Syria, the guy who really knew what was happening. But he was behind this, I think, and, you know, it was a really disastrous idea because the Iranians managed to--the right link between Iran and the majority of Iraqi population is that both Shia--belong to the Shia branch of Islam, and by opening fire and killing so many people and wounding many more, he succeeded in alienating a lot of the Shia population, particularly the Shia youth. So when he was assassinated on the orders of Trump, with a U.S. drone in January 2020, you know, it was, in some ways, Trump did the Iranians a favor, because this guy was really running a bankrupt and counterproductive policy.
CH: Well, we should be clear that Shia militias, which Iran controls, were implicated in the slaughters as many students were out on the street and this gets to a point, and I think all foreign meddling is included in this, you write, “Foreign powers plug into civil wars which they and their local allies do not have the strength to win, but do have the strength to prevent their own side losing which is why these wars go on forever.”
PC: Yeah. I mean, that said, I’m--you know, I would stick with that. I’d add another point, which is the way in which they wage these wars. I mean, primarily The US wages these wars is one--another reason they go on forever, which is basically using air power and some special forces to attack the other side what you deem to be the enemy. Now a number of things happen when you depend on air power, which is there are a lot of civilian dead because whatever you say, you can’t--don’t actually know where the enemy is, and all careful investigation of casualties on the ground, whatever Air Forces claim show an incredible disparity between Air Force claims at one point outside Mosul, the U.S. Air Force claim I think they killed one civilian or something, real figure was forty-three, this was in a small area. But this is pretty typical. So you kill a lot of civilians, you make them have a lot of anger--pretty angry. So you act as a recruiting sergeant for the Taliban or Islamic State or whoever is on the receiving end. And, you know, so you alienate the civilian population. And you don’t win, you can probably stop the other side taking cities. If they do, you can probably win it back like Mosul. But you can’t actually win the war. So that’s an additional military reason why these wars don’t end, and why they’re so bloody.
CH: Let’s talk about Syria, the moderate rebels. You saw this from the beginning that it was never going to work to overthrow Assad. And I think there was a certain point that I think we pumped in $500,000,000 worth of weapons, handing them out to jihadists, many of whom had crossed the border from Iraq into Syria. So we’re trying to hunt them down in Iraq. We’re arming them in Syria. And then, of course, some light bulb went off somewhere in Washington and said, “Well, what if we do win, we’ll have in essence an al-Qaeda government in Damascus,” but just--I mean, the folly of that entire intervention, which you covered, can you talk about that?
PC: The folly and the cruelty, I’d say, because they sort of wished on Syria an endless war. They pretend--there was a sort of pretense which, unfortunately, to my mind too much of the media shared in, that the opposition to Assad, which is Assad runs a pretty--a monstrous dictatorship. And--but the opposition, you know, behaved in many ways in similar--in a similar fashion. You’ve very--there’s no part of Syria, maybe some parts that are run by the Kurds in the Northeast, where things have got much better when the government’s been--forces have been pushed out, the jihadis, highly sectarian against anybody who doesn’t believe in their own branch of--branch of Islam. They use torture, they suppress, they jail, they kill any opposition. I think there was a sort of blindness to this. And I find it very frustrating. And I think I say this in the book, that it’s not--for instance, when in Damascus, you had big government tax on Duma, lots of civilians killed and so forth, pretty horrific. This is very bad. But at the same time at one moment, there’s a Kurdish area I called Afrin in the north, which the Turks invaded, they drove out the civilian population, they settled it with other people, they killed a lot of people. And this got almost no publicity at all. It was completely sort of disappeared from the news media, although there was lots of, you know, it wasn’t difficult to do. These guys didn’t really conceal their sort of ethnic cleansing much. In fact, they were running, you know, videos on YouTube, showing them sort of harassing, killing, you know, local Kurds, and that’s been particularly in Syria. I think that that’s been particularly bad, this very sort of partisan coverage, highlighting the atrocities of one side and not the atrocities of the other.
CH: Great. When we come back, we’ll continue our conversation about the Middle East with the journalist Patrick Cockburn. Welcome back to On Contact. We continue our discussion about the Middle East with the journalist, Patrick Cockburn. I do want to talk about the coverage, which you write about in the book, and how anemic it has become for all of a multiplicity of reasons, all of which you detail in your book. But before I do that, there’s a very prescient kind of paragraph. You write “Arrogance is a weakness common to all decision-making elites, but this is enhanced in the region by one particularly deceptive feature of its political landscape. Regimes may be weak and easily overthrown, but communities bound together by religious, ethnic, or tribal loyalties are strong, and will fight on regardless. The Israelis discovered this to their cost in Lebanon in 1982, as did Bush in Iraq in 2003, and Saudi Arabia and the UAE in Yemen. In all cases, military superiority catastrophically failed to translate into political victory. So the first weeks of the war usually turned out to be the best from the point of view of the aggressor.” That’s a very important point to make, which I think those of us who have spent time in the Middle East understand but many on the outside don’t.
PC: Yes, I think so. And I think that, you know, put it in more general terms, what amazes me about the Middle East, perhaps the rest of the world, but particularly the Middle East, is how governments get involved in wars there. And they don’t bother to sort of find out about these societies or how they work or what their history is. You know, there’s a sort of extraordinary arrogance, racism, perhaps, that it does--because we’re going to roll over them, despite the fact that anybody’s tried it previously, you know, has ended up regretting it. And you find that all, you know, you find people whose--somebody like Tony Blair, the former British Prime Minister, you know, he’s nobody’s fool, but it’s perfect--it was perfectly evident in 2003, hadn’t much of a clue about Iraq. Maybe that’s not surprising. But after all the experiences, oh, you listen to him today talking about Iraq, he still doesn’t have much of a clue about what goes on there. The same is true of Afghanistan. And the same is true of Syria. Now why is that? Because they’re probably--they’re thinking about the internal politics in their own country, how securing power there, so they don’t think about it. But I think there’s a, sort of, Imperial imperialist instinct that lives on that leads these people to underestimate and ignore the societies that they’re--that they’re about to invade. Actually, it was a journalist, not a politician, I remember in the very beginning of 2003, I was in Washington, and I was saying--somebody, a journalist was explaining to me what the US was going to do in Iraq. And I said, “Well, I think these Iraqi people might, sort of, object to that various plans.” And the person said, “Well, just who cares? Who cares what they think.” But of course, a couple of years later, you know, they discovered or they all discovered that there was a very good reason for caring what they think.
CH: I want to talk about the Shia. You write “One of the most significant developments in the Middle East since 1945 has been the rise of the previously marginalized and impoverished Shia communities in many, though not all, of the region’s countries, above all Lebanon and Iraq. The latter becoming the first Shia-ruled state in the Arab world since Saladin overthrew the Fatimid dynasty in Egypt in 1171.” There’s a little factoid it I didn’t know. But talk about that, because it is highly significant. The Shia were poor, marginalized, kept out of power. For instance, Saddam Hussein wouldn’t allow the Shia to become officers in the Iraqi military or the intelligence service. Talk about that.
PC: Yeah, I think that there’s an underestimation of, you know, not just underestimation, but it’s ignored. And it’s ignoring the, sort of, crucial facts about these places. You know, the Iranian Revolution 1979. This is--you have a--the rise of Khomeini, then you have Saudi Arabia and the others, sort of, wanting to portray this as a purely sectarian conflict. You have the increase in sectarianism. But you have, for instance, in Syria, you know, after 2011, you could kind of work out what each area in Syria who they supported politically, by just looking at the sectarian geography, you know. Arabs in Syria wasn’t--were the Sunni Arabs, yeah, they’re probably going to go that way. You know, in other place, the Alawites, they’ll go with the government. You know, the Kurds in between, but eventually they generally find they’re more frightened of Islamic State and al-Qaeda than they were of the government. So it’s partly ethnicity, but an awful lot of it is religion. And, you know, it was kind of absurd to find people portray, you know, the Libyan--the Syrian opposition, as if they were just Liberal Democrats, you know, looking for a liberal democracy. You could say it also in Libya, I remember, the--again, the rebels was, sort of, portrayed as if they were, sort of, Thomas Jefferson on the march. And, you know, when--I think the first directive of the transitional government in 2011, was to abolish the ban on Polygamy in Syria. This kind of told one where these guys were coming from. But before that, you know, what you could say is they had a very, sort of, sophisticated PR campaign to persuade people of the opposite.
CH: I want to talk a little bit about the press. And the--I would say the, kind of, bankruptcy of coverage, which you attribute to several factors, but it’s quite dangerous because we have these Imperial projects. But we, as a public, are just virtually uninformed at this point about what is happening and the clear partisanship of the press, which I think both of us have witnessed throughout our time in the Middle East. Can you address the issue of the coverage?
PC: Yes, I think that one could say, you know, when I started off, you know, there was always it was partisan in favor of, you know, America, Britain, or the outside powers. But it seems to me there used to be more, sort of, counterpunching by the media. There seemed to be more critics, more skepticism. And that seems to me to have very substantially died away. There are still some good people there if you know where to look. But they don’t seem to have the outlets they once did. The mainline media seems, sort of, deeply conventional and plugged into whatever governments, Western governments would like them to say. And, you know, as you said, there are reasons, many reasons for this. One is the internet has, sort of, taken away their revenue, they have less money. You know, it’s much easier, it’s very cheap, you know, to--if you just run a bit of film taken on a camera film, a phone on Aleppo showing, you know, people being shelled. You know, this is not untrue and these are real atrocities. But if you rely on what used to be called citizen journalists, I guess maybe still is, you know, these guys live in Aleppo. They--they’re subject to even more restrictions than foreign journalists, so you get a wholly partisan account of what is happening. And there’s a sort of rather deliberate ignorance or ignoring the fact that what television is often running are really dollops of propaganda. The--it’s, you know, war has always been like that. I mean, propaganda is an art of war and it has been since the time of Julius Caesar. But I think that somehow government’s intelligence services have become more sophisticated in using it. They give it more resources. And the media has--on its side has--is weaker, and less capable of punching back.
CH: I want to close. You write in the book about the 1917, “The intervention which began in 1914, British intervention in Iraq, ostensibly to protect the oil fields in Southwest Iran from attack by the Ottoman Turks.” And you write by 1918, “The campaign had ballooned into the biggest British military action outside of Europe.” You talk about the Siege of Kut, “By the end of the war, 70% of the British, 50% of the Indian troops captured at Kut were dead.” And you quote Kipling’s poem, Rudyard Kipling’s poem, Mesopotamia, which is about that imperial folly, and it seems so prescient to this latest modern iteration of Imperial folly. And I wondered if we just close if--by having you read it.
PC: Yes, I think I’ll--we’ll have to shift the lights when I actually read it--read it. But, yeah, I’ve always found the poem very moving. And I found the cemeteries, which the British and--the British Indian Army dead or buried sort of very moving. You find the, sort of, last little--the one in Kut itself, which were the British were besieged. It was--when I first saw, I’ve seen it a number of times, there’s the swamp with the tops of gravestones, sort of, sticking out of it. It’s right in the middle of the city, the--and, you know, you could see little green frogs are hopping up and down on top of these gravestones of these, sort of, soldiers, you know, which named came from Yorkshire or, you know, Sussex or Cornwall, you know? These areas in Britain, underneath the sky is [INDISTINCT] you think. You would really do feel angry, you know, a century later about the people who sent these kids to die in a country where they couldn’t wish--they couldn’t find on a map and made sure they did die because the campaign was run with such, sort of, incredible incompetence at every level. And Kipling, sort of, brought that out. He did, sort of, understand the army. He’s--and I think, you know, it’s rather depressing in some ways that the sort of criticism he made, then, you could make the same criticism now as to, you know, why these young guys died. And why the other great point of this poem, the people who are responsible for that got away with it.
CH: Well, let’s have you read it. That’s how we’ll close the show.
PC: Okay. I think now I’m going to have to alter the lighting here and I’m going to have to put on my glasses. “They shall not return to us, the resolute, the young. The eager, wholehearted, whom we gave. But the men who left them thriftily to die in their own dung, shall they come with years and honor to the grave. They shall not return to us. The strong men coldly slain, in sight of help denied from day to day, but the men who edged their agonies and chided them in their--in their pain. Are they too strong and wise to put away? Never while the bars of sunset hold, but the idle minded overlings who quibbled while they died, shall they thrust for high employment as of old? Shall we only threaten and be angry for an hour? When the storm is ended, shall we find. How softly but how swiftly they have sidled back to power by the favoring contrivance of their kind? Even while they soothe us, while they promised large amends, even while they make a show of fear, do they call upon their debtors, and take counsel with their friends, to confirm and reestablish each career. Their lives cannot repay us. Their deaths could not undo. The shame that they have laid upon our race. But the slothfulness that wasted and the arrogance that slew, shall we leave it unabated in their place?
CH: Great. That was author and journalist Patrick Cockburn about his new book, “Behind Enemy Lines: War, News, and Chaos in the Middle East.”