Regardless of the wrongs of the Syrian civil war — and they are many, with the cruel Assad regime largely responsible — no one should have been allowed to wreck the recent attempt to reach a truce in the fighting there. It was probably the last chance to put an end to the brutal war, and to endorse the impressive personal relationship that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov seems to have established with his U.S. counterpart, Secretary of State John Kerry.
But not only was it allowed, in the shape of that U.S.-led airstrike on a Syrian government army base near the town of Deir al-Zour leaving over 60 soldiers dead and 100 injured. Worse, it seemed to confirm earlier reports that the Pentagon was not happy with truce conditions that required coordination with the Russian military.
If true, it amounted to insubordination, with the U.S. military seeking to destroy the policies of its own government. Even worse, the attack allowed besieging Islamic State forces to move into the town and massacre up to 300 citizens before being partially driven out by pro-Assad forces. This in turn has provided grist for Assad regime claims the U.S. is even willing to cooperate with IS to seek its overthrow — a claim that if true has implications too horrible even to think about.
Yet our Western media were able to ignore all this by focusing almost exclusively on Moscow’s alleged responsibility for a subsequent attack on a U.N. aid convoy — an attack far more likely to have been triggered by local anti-Assad forces.
The U.S. military has claimed that the Deir al-Zour bombing was an accident. But the same military has a long record of claiming its improper attacks are accidental — the 1999 bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, for example. Yet once again we find little media interest in confirming the accident theory. They prefer, as ever, to focus on that alleged Moscow convoy attack.
True, Moscow is sometimes its own worst enemy when it comes to justifications. A Russian Defense Ministry claim that the convoy may have suffered spontaneous combustion had to be sarcastically refuted by Kerry in the U.N. Security Council. In Moscow in August last year, top Foreign Ministry officials assured me they had irrefutable radar evidence Ukrainian fighter jets had shot down Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, which crashed over Ukraine territory in July 2014. But today in the face of a report by an international investigation group, they seem to have had no choice but to accept the evidence it was shot down by a Russian-made surface-to-air Buk rocket, though they claim they can prove it was an older Ukrainian-owned rocket that did the damage.
All governments lie, some more than others. But why do our allegedly independent and fair Western media go along with the lies and even at times work to propagate them, one of the more notorious examples being the way the respected New York Times helped to promote the weapons of mass destruction myth justifying the 2003 attack on Iraq (it later apologized)?
The planting of intelligence people into sensitive positions in cooperating media is one reason. Another is the use of incentives to subvert media people — privileged access to confidential materials, for example, allowing recipients to scoop rivals. Monetary payments may even be involved, according to former senior German editor Udo Ulfkotte. But there are also independent-minded media and media people only too willing to expose domestic wrongdoings. Why are they so reluctant to expose foreign policy wrongdoings?
I blame the demonization effect. Societies, like individuals, are prone to see the world in black-and-white terms. This collective bias makes it easy to summon up collective hatreds or dislikes for regimes that our governments have decided they want to oppose. Japan is an especially bad example of collective thinking. And as in Japan, those who oppose the collective mood can be dismissed as cranks and outsiders.
We all dislike the brutal North Korean regime, for example. But if we look at the record of threats and broken promises made against it, then it has sinned no more than it has been sinned against. It is the U.S., not Pyongyang, that refuses the peace treaty that would put an end to its fears of being attacked. But woe to any Western commentator who tries sympathetically to explain Pyongyang’s occasionally not unjustified phobias.
It was not hard to demonize a Chinese regime responsible for the horrors of its Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s and Cultural Revolution policies of the late 1960s. But in the late 1980s, with the regime of Deng Xiaoping clearly bent on reform, did the media and the U.K. intelligence agencies really have to invent a Tiananmen Square massacre myth?
Why did our media manage so relentlessly to ignore the firebombing and brutal killings of regime troops by anti-regime crowds that preceded and led to those revenge killings by out-of-control troops in the streets around Tiananmen? By some inversion of logic the photos of fire-bombed buses are made to support the claims of regime brutality. We never get to see the photos of incinerated soldiers strung up under overpasses by angry crowds.
The New York Times, which seems to have assumed responsibility in exposing alleged Tiananmen atrocities, has long made much of a photo allegedly showing a lone student stopping a row of army tanks entering Tiananmen Square. “Tank Man,” he is called. But AP photographer Jeff Widener, who took the photo, insists Tank Man was someone with a shopping bag crossing the street the day after Tiananmen and the tanks were trying to leave, not enter, the city. The New York Times publishes corrections of even minor mistakes in its articles. But it refuses any admission that it has grossly misused a photo that is still being used to demonize Beijing.
Russia is another demonization target. It is accused of aggression in Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine. But in that case the governments of France and Germany are equally guilty since they also signed the 2015 Minsk agreement endorsing Moscow’s goal of autarky for eastern Ukraine, a goal that another signatory, Kiev, now refuses to accept. We do not hear much criticism of Kiev for trying to break the agreement.
And so it continues. Moscow’s not unjustified effort peacefully to regain control of the mainly Russian-speaking Crimea which it gifted to Ukraine in 1954 for administrative convenience is supposed to be gross violation of international sovereignty law. And the vicious NATO bombing attacks to force Belgrade to give up its sovereignty over Kosovo? Or NATO’s partner in Ankara using ethnic cleansing to create a pro-Turkey sovereign state in northern Cyprus?
Western opinion is stirred up by the way Moscow’s intelligence organs seem to have targeted one or two critics for assassination. Meanwhile the many CIA attempts to assassinate Cuba’s Fidel Castro are regarded as some kind of joke. Is there one standard of morality for our friends and another for those we choose to demonize?
Gregory Clark is a former Australian diplomat now resident in Japan. A Japanese translation of this article will appear on www.gregoryclark.net.
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