At first sight, compassion appears to loom large in ‘mainstream’ politics and media. When the American and British governments target countries like Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, ‘compassion’ is always at or near the top of the agenda.
Time and again, the cry from the political system is: ‘We Must Do Something!’ ‘We’ must save Afghan women from the ‘Medieval’ Taliban. ‘We’ must save Kuwaiti new-borns flung from their incubators by Iraqi stormtroopers. ‘We’ must save Iraqi civilians from Saddam’s shredding machines. ‘We’ must save civilians in Kosovo from Milosevic’s ‘final solution’.
As for the suffering civilians of Aleppo in Syria, hard-right MPs like Andrew Mitchell demand, not merely that ‘we’ save them, not merely that ‘we’ engage in war to save them, but that ‘we’ must confront Russia, shoot down their planes if necessary, and risk actual thermonuclear war – complete self-destruction – to save them:
If that means confronting Russian air power defensively, on behalf of the innocent people on the ground who we are trying to protect, then we should do that.
State-corporate propaganda is full of ‘shoulds’, all rooted in ‘our’ alleged ‘responsibility to protect’. Why ‘us’? Why not Sweden or Iceland? Because ‘we’ care. ‘We’ just care more.
A key task of the corporate media is to pretend this is something more than a charade. The truth is hinted at in BBC political programmes that open with jovial, bombastic, comical music, as if introducing some kind of music hall farce. The cast is currently led by foreign secretary Boris Johnson, a P.G. Wodehouse character reimagined by Stephen King. After chuckling about how ‘There is no other country that comes close to [Britain’s] record of beligerence’ in invading or conquering 178 out of 200 countries existing today, Johnson opined:
As our American friends instinctively understand, it is the existence of strong and well-resourced British Armed Forces that gives this country the ability to express and affirm our values overseas: of freedom, democracy, tolerance, pluralism.
As Johnson doubtless understands, this was a near-exact reversal of the truth. He noted in 2014 of the 2003 Iraq invasion:
It looks to me as though the Americans were motivated by a general strategic desire to control one of the biggest oil exporters in the world…
If politicians are clearly bluffers, corporate journalists are selected because they powerfully echo and enhance the alleged need for compassionate ‘intervention’. The likes of David Aaronovitch, Nick Cohen, John Rentoul, Jonathan Freedland and Oliver Kamm earn their salaries by appearing to tear their hair out in outrage at the crimes of official enemies and at the ‘useful idiocy’ of the perennial, naysaying ‘leftists’. Aaronovitch of The Times has supported just about every opportunity to wage war, whether under Labour or the Tories, for decades. In March 1999, in an article titled, ‘It’s because we’re rich that we must impose peace for others,’ Aaronovitch commented:
Given a choice, do we really think that the suffering civilians of Sierra Leone would object to a military presence by the British? (Aaronovitch, The Independent, March 25, 1999)
In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks on the United States, he wrote of Afghanistan:
For a fair-minded progressive the call should not be Stop the War. That slogan is now irrelevant and harmful. The requirement is surely to win the peace…
So on Sunday, instead of listening to the same old tired stuff about cowboys with rockets and selective horror stories from Mazar; instead of marching along with mouth open and ears closed (however comforting that can be); instead of indulging yourself in a cosmic whinge, why not do something that might help the people of Afghanistan? (Aaronovitch, ‘Stop trying to stop the war, Start trying to win the peace,’ The Independent, November 16, 2001)
The message is always the same: we understand you’re sincere, but sometimes you have to drop your reflexive ‘anti-Americanism’, drop your blinkered adherence to ‘principled opposition’ and live in the real world. You can’t just sit on your hands, you can’t just righteously preach – you have to act!
This is the shtick of the corporate warmonger and it is repeated over and over again. It appears to be the key function that determines whether a commentator is granted job-for-life privileges at newspapers like the Guardian, The Times and Telegraph.
But the point is that compassion – the kind rooted in an understanding that all suffering is equal, the kind that feels even more responsibility for suffering caused by our own government – is not partial, it does not defer to power. It doesn’t fall silent when ‘we’ are committing crimes. Quite the reverse.
The Yemen Motion
On October 26, Emily Thornberry, Labour shadow foreign secretary, placed the following motion before the House of Commons:
That this House supports efforts to bring about a cessation of hostilities and provide humanitarian relief in Yemen, and notes that the country is now on the brink of famine; condemns the reported bombings of civilian areas that have exacerbated this crisis; believes that a full independent UN-led investigation must be established into alleged violations of international humanitarian law in the conflict in Yemen; and calls on the Government to suspend its support for the Saudi Arabia-led coalition forces in Yemen until it has been determined whether they have been responsible for any such violations.’
Yemen truly is facing disaster. The Guardian reports:
There are 370,000 children enduring severe malnutrition that weakens their immune system, according to Unicef, and 1.5 million are going hungry. Food shortages are a long-term problem, but they have got worse in recent months. Half of children under five are stunted because of chronic malnutrition.
Oxfam’s humanitarian policy adviser, Richard Stanforth, said:
Everything is stacked against the people on the brink of starvation in Yemen.
Martha Mundy, a professor emeritus at the London School of Economics, comments:
The [Saudi-led] coalition was and is targeting intentionally food production, not simply agriculture in the fields.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, 2.8 per cent of Yemen’s land is cultivated. To hit that small amount of agricultural land, you have to target it.
Saudi Arabia’s blockade has worsened the crisis. A World Food Program official warned: ‘An entire generation could be crippled by hunger.’ At least 14 million Yemenis, more than half of the country’s population, are going hungry.
More than one-third of all Saudi-led air raids on Yemen have hit civilian sites, such as schools, hospitals, markets, mosques and economic infrastructure.
A minimum of 10,000 civilians have been killed or wounded in the US-backed war, according to the U.N. humanitarian coordinator, an average of 13 civilian casualties a day. At least 2.8 million Yemenis, including more than 400,000 families, have been forced to flee their homes because of the violence. In October, a Saudi bombing raid killed 140 people and wounded 525 at a funeral. At least four medical facilities operated by the humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders have also been bombed by the coalition in the past year. British-manufactured cluster bombs have been found in Yemeni villages, all but confirming the banned weapons are being used. The United Nations has repeatedly reported that the Saudi-led coalition is responsible for nearly two-thirds of civilian deaths.
The Obama regime has done more than $110 billion in arms deals with the Saudi tyranny. As we noted in a recent media alert, the British regime agreed to £3.3bn of arms exports to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the country’s war on Yemen, including £2.2bn-worth of equipment such as drones, helicopters, and other aircraft. The Saudis have been sold £1.1bn-worth of bombs, missiles, grenades, and countermeasures, and armoured vehicles and tanks worth £430,000.
In a leaked draft report the Committee on Arms Exports Control, which comprises 16 MPs from four parties, said it was likely British weapons had been used to violate international law:
The weight of evidence of violations of international humanitarian law by the Saudi-led coalition is now so great, that it is very difficult to continue to support Saudi Arabia.
The Independent reports:
Since 2010 Britain has also sold arms to 39 of the 51 countries ranked “not free” on the Freedom House “Freedom in the world” report, and 22 of the 30 countries on the UK Government’s own human rights watch list.
As for Thornberry’s motion, more than 100 Labour MPs – almost half the Labour Party – failed to support it. As a result, it was defeated by 283 votes to just 193, a majority of 90.
Labour MP John Woodcock had dismissed the motion in advance as mere ‘gesture politics’. In justifying his stance, he even welcomed the involvement of UK personnel in the Saudi bombing campaign:
the support we are giving is largely to help train pilots in targeting practices that reduce civilian casualties.
As revealed by Campaign Against Arms Trade, Woodcock attended a dinner in February 2015 in support of the arms trade as a guest of BAE. As the chairman of Labour’s backbench defence committee, he is an ardent supporter of Trident, describing the announcement that Labour would support it as a ‘very thoughtful birthday present’.
Investigative journalist Peter Oborne writes:
To sum up… the British parliament sent the green light to Saudi Arabia and its allies to carry on bombing, maiming and killing. I have reported politics from Westminster for almost 25 years and can recall few more shocking parliamentary events.
Shocking – but not surprising. The Yemen vote demonstrates something that has been apparent ever since the vote on 18 March 2003 to support the invasion of Iraq: the party of war holds a majority in the Commons.
It comprises virtually all of the Conservative Party and the Blairite wing of Labour.
Since the rejection of the motion, ‘Do something!’ crusaders like Aaronovitch, Freedland and Cohen have printed not a word about ‘our’ ‘responsibility to protect’ civilian life in Yemen.
In the entire UK ‘mainstream’ press, we found a single opinion piece, in the Guardian, condemning the vote under the title, ‘The Labour rebels who didn’t back the Yemen vote have blood on their hands.’ A curiously vague Guardian leader commented merely of the Yemen motion:
Though admirable, it could change government policy only indirectly, by contributing to moral pressure.
Apart from that, the only other mention was in passing in a comment piece on the Yemen disaster in the Telegraph.
No corporate journalist raised the question that cried out to be asked: if Britain cares enough about civilian suffering in Kosovo, Libya and Syria to actually go to war, then how can it not merely suspend support for Saudi Arabia while potential war crimes are investigated?
Literally no journalist made the point that the vote makes a complete nonsense of the UK’s famed enthusiasm for ‘responsibility to protect’. The warmongers’ silence tells us their ‘compassion’ is a tool of realpolitik, nothing more.