Saturday, September 13, 2014

Cui Bono?

Warning: Contains greater than 1000% of the RDA of crackpot conspiracy theories. Maybe much greater. 

Marco has avowed recently that he no longer believes anything he reads in the media, and is of the opinion that the freedom of the press in the West is about as great, in real terms, as the freedom of the press in the renegade mainland provinces of the Republic of China. It is clear to him that much of what passes for news and news analysis is simply “off the wall out and out lies”. He says he is close to believing all left-wing conspiracy theories about the media, and he cites this article from the Economist about Putin’s ambitions in Ukraine as an example of Western journalism starting from a basis of pure propaganda, and professes a generally pro-Russian view of the situation in Ukraine.

While sharing Marco’s distrust of the media, I replied that on the contrary, I am close to believing all right-wing conspiracy theories about the media. Rather than the Western media being manipulated to defame Russia, I think it is much more likely that it is a puppet dancing on Russian strings. This was after all the case for the left-wing Western media throughout the entire history of the Soviet Union. In the twenties Western journalists reported things that were later found to be untrue; in the thirties Western journalists reported things that were later found to be untrue; in the forties Western journalists enthusiastically participated in creating propaganda for ‘Uncle Joe’; throughout the Cold War the Western Media was infected with defeatism; up to the very last moment of August 1991 a false moral-equivalence and exaggerated respect for the solidity and effectiveness of the Soviet Union permeated the Western media. They did not produce much in the Soviet Union that was better than the West: Energiya rockets, certainly; but besides that, lies. They were masters at generating every kind of lie for every kind of purpose. Brash, unsubtle big lies that worked through their sheer audacity; little lies that slowly wore away resistance by constant repetition; subtle lies that were almost the truth. The Cold War was a war of disinformation.  And Putin, former KGB man, is an heir to this tradition.  I think that he has taken up the dusty levers for steering western public opinion that were left untended in 1991-1999, and that the Western media has to a large extent been reporting exactly what he wants it to during the 21st century. I think he is a master both of the brash unsubtle lie for domestic consumption and the insidious byzantine lie for foreign consumption. I think if negative press about Putin gets traction in the West, it is because he no longer cares what we think.
I am now going to consider three cases, two big ones and one almost trivial one, where the narrative of the Western media has made no sense, asking the question: who benefits from this narrative? 

Exhibit A: Kosovo cf. Iraq
Kuwait was to Iraq as Crimea is to Russia. They both should be back where they belong. (Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Times, 21st December 1993)

In 1999 the government of Serbia and Montenegro, the rump of Yugoslavia, fought to maintain the territorial integrity of their country against an secessionist ethnic minority, in much the same way that NATO members the United Kingdom, Spain, and Turkey have acted against their own secessionist ethnic minorities. Serbia and Montenegro had never shown any territorial ambitions outside the boundaries of the former Yugoslavia. All of their aggression had been in an attempt to prevent the disintegration of a country that had been a solid member of the community of nations for seventy years: the communist state that had been best integrated into the rest of Europe. They had never attacked anyone outside the borders of Yugoslavia. Since 1995 they had accepted with good grace peace agreements negotiated in Bosnia and Hercegovina and in Croatia. They were not causing trouble to anyone outside their own country. They were trying their best to rebuild from the damage (largely self-inflicted) they had suffered during the break of Yugoslavia.

NATO bombed them and set up an unviable kleptocratic state of Kosovo. There was no basis in international law for the attack. The government of Serbia and Montenegro was not a threat to anyone outside of Serbia and Montenegro.A few people protested. In Sydney, I remember, they all seemed to be Serbs. The Western media yawned. Western public opinion applauded.

The dictator of Iraq had launched the worst war of the 1980s in an unprovoked attack on one of his neighbours; at the beginning of the 1990s he annexed another of his neighbours, and in the course of the war fought to liberate this neighbour, he mounted a ground invasion of a third neighbour and bombed a fourth country. He was a clear menace to the neighbourhood. He was not removed from power in 1991, only because he was in the Soviet orbit, and the lingering Cold War mentality of the West shrank from pushing so far. Internally, he had pursued policies against ethnic minorities and political opponents that were vastly worse than anything done in Serbia and Montenegro. In 2003 he had been in breach of United Nations resolutions for twelve years. But it was the war to get rid of him – a war with a justification in international law, fought with a coalition much broader than NATO - that brought out protesters in tens of thousands in every capital city of the West. It was the war against him that we argued about for years, the war that is still excoriated by the entire left and repudiated by a plurality of the right. Why? 

Sure, party politics inside the United States might lead the media in that country to reflexively support Clinton in 1999 but not Bush in 2003, but why should this solipsistic madness infect the rest of the world? I never understood.

Who benefits from keeping a genocidal, aggressive dictator in the heart of the Middle East? Not his neighbours, four of which he waged war on. Not Europe or Japan, who want the region that is the source of a large fraction of their fossil fuels to be calm and reliable. Not China: it doesn’t have global ambitions, and has an interest in cheap fuel. Not the United States: it has no ticker for being the world’s policeman, and wishes it could sit securely behind its oceans and ignore the rest of the world like it did in the 19th century.

I have just finished re-reading ’Zhirinovksy: The Little Black Book’, a collection of quotes cobbled together back in 1994 from the speeches and writings of Russian politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky. A probable KGB-stooge, renowned sayer of crazy things and vile misogynist, he was deputy speaker of the Russian parliament for more than a decade. To compare him to members of the Australian parliament who are renowned for saying crazy things - to Bob Katter or Christine Milne, f’rinstance – is to involuntarily fall to one’s knees and thank God for Australia.

One thing that struck me on rereading the book is a recurring theme in the quotes made by the early Zhirinovsky: the importance to Russia of the countries immediately to the south of the old Soviet Union. He wants Russian soldiers to wash their boots in the Indian Ocean. He does not have global ambitions, but he wants the near abroad back, and he wants Russia to be the hegemon of the Middle East. He wants Iran; he wants Turkey. This was an old tsarist ambition, and the kind of thing Bob Santamaria used to endlessly warn us about on television. I think it is still there. Russia cannot expand into a Middle East that is peaceful and stable and secure under the umbrella of the Pax Americana. If it is too weak at the moment to act against it now, it is in its interests to keep it weak and divided until it can. Russia is also a major exporter of fossil fuels. It is in its interests to keep other major exporters of fossil fuels insecure, to push up prices and to increase its comparative advantage as a stable, reliable source. Russia is the one nation whose long-term interests clearly align with continued chaos in the Middle East.

So consider this difference between 1999 and 2003 as one possible explanation for the bizarre difference between the public reaction to these two wars: Putin was in charge of the old Soviet propaganda mill in 2003, but not in 1999. He was horrified at how badly the propaganda machine had been mismanaged in aid of his slavic brethren in Kosovo, and swore ‘never again’.  Correlation is not causation; but I respectfully submit that this is less batshit insane than most other explanations I can come up with. It’s just a theory. 

Exhibit B: Climate Change

The observational evidence for anthropogenic global warming was strong in the 1990s. The evidence since then has been weak, but the media frenzy has been much greater in the 2000s, peaking in 2007.
I have argued about this ad nauseam, so I won’t bore you now. Much. It has just been always blindingly obvious to me that Bjorn Lomberg is right. The cost-benefit analysis of taking action to stop emission of carbon dioxide now, to such an extent that it might actually reduce warming, shows that it is almost the dumbest possible thing we could do. Why should the media interest increase, and continue to increase, as the observational evidence gets weaker and weaker? This is another thing I could never understand.

Who benefits from the West hobbling its economy in a precipitous rush to head off a crisis that is a media beat-up? Not the West itself. Not any country that is integrated into the global economy and earns it living selling us stuff; or that aspires to such a position. Not the poorer Third World, whose restive urban populations need cheap food from the fossil-fuel-dependent farms of the West. No, only a country that is poorly integrated with the global economy, with long-term ambitions to autarky, that knows it is at a competitive disadvantage and needs time to catch up, could benefit from ill-thought out climate change action by the West. Did I mention it is a major supplier of a fuel that can give a large immediate impact on reducing greenhouse emissions by replacing coal? And there’s this. I would be willing to bet that Russian involvement in the anti-fracking movement is deeper and broader than anyone imagines.

Again, this is just a theory. Please don’t send anyone around to put polonium in my coffee.

Exhibit C: Assassination of Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh

You might recall the assassination of a top Hamas official in Dubai in 2010, attributed to Mossad. It was carried out by a ridiculously large number of agents, all travelling on forged Western passports. The faces of the assassins were captured on camera; the details of their forged passports were recorded; the whole operation seemed rather amateurish.  Yet none of the assassins has ever been identified publicly. It struck me as strange that all the passports used were from European countries or Australia and all the agents could pass for Western Europeans or Australians, when there are many more people in the pool of potential Mossad agents who are fluent speakers of Arabic and Russian than of Western European languages, and could pass for nationals of those countries who are common travellers in the UAE: but this may well be because the passports are all from countries that don’t need visas to enter the UAE (and Russia and the Arab countries aren’t).

But, why haven’t any of these people been identified? Israel is a fairly open society with a population about the same as New South Wales. There is a free press. There is a big Israeli emigre population all over the world. How come nobody has come out in London or Berkeley and given an interview to one of the many rabidly anti-Zionist papers out there, saying ‘I recognise that guy, that’s X, we used to play volleyball together in high school in Petah Tikvah’? Where are all the acquaintances of these 11 suspects? I don’t understand. And I think, where are you going to find 11 educated white people who don’t have any acquaintances who are going to show up in the Western media? Russia, that’s where I think. And maybe Western European and Australian passports were just to avoid having to get a visa, and Mossad didn’t mind limiting their pool of potential agents in this way; or maybe instead, someone with a background in byzantine spycraft wanted to pin the blame for the assassination of Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh on Israel, and at the same time sow trouble between Israel and its near-allies in the West. Two birds with one stone: get rid of a Hamas loose cannon who is about to (f’rinstance) spill the beans on the extent of Russian involvement in the Iranian nuclear program, and cause trouble for Israel.

Just a wacky conspiracy theory, again. If true, an amazingly successful piece of FSB disinformation. I am in awe. But I don’t have any evidence, so there’s no need to hunt me down. Thanks!

Parenthetically consider this: A weak and disorderly Middle-East is good for Russia. A demonised Israel is a good way to ensure a weak and disorderly Middle East. The first intifada stopped about the time the Soviet Union collapsed.  The Al-Aqsa intifada started up in 2000, shortly after Putin came to power.


Marco Parigi said...

The thing is, there is no way around it. We can't even go to some of these places to verify even the most basic of facts. As far as your exhibits go, if you asked me last year I would have probably broadly agreed with your conclusions. My realisation that there is information manipulation on an industrial scale within Western media has made me doubt all the things that are written now, and also all the things I ever believed and took for granted in the media in the past. My conclusion at the moment is that the process of the western media becoming less free and more manipulated has been gradual. Russian media always has been, and continues to be, quite unfree and manipulated. But just looking at the *relative* manipulation, the Russian narrative is slightly closer to the truth than that pushed by Western media.

Marco Parigi said...

The thing that convinces me the most with regards to Ukraine is that the Russians in and to the east of Ukraine can see for themselves what is happening to some extent. They can also see what the western media is saying. The reaction to Western media reports is befuddlement. Convoys of aid appear to be precisely that. In Syria, I had the distinct impression that the west was helping the rebels against Assad. Now that the rebels have morphed into an organised and ruthless outfit not limited to the Iraq border, suddenly the West is crying fowl and making them the new enemy. Similarly, at the time of the Iran-Iraq war starting, Saddam Hussein had the implicit backing of the US. I get the distinct impression that the powers that be in the US are using some of their influence to start and perpetuate wars between Arabs- and separately between former soviet states, to keep, respectively Israel and themselves safer than if Arab States were ganging up on Israel together, or if former soviet states work together as a bulwark against NATO.

Dr Clam said...

I get the distinct impression that the powers that be in the US are using some of their influence to start and perpetuate wars between Arabs- and separately between former soviet states

These are daft and ignoble left-wing conspiracy theories that do not have the merit of being entertaining. The claimed benefits are negligible and there is no evidence that those parts of the world have been more warlike than other regions with similarly weak frameworks of governance. Post-1991 the West has been more eager to hose down unrealistic expectations in pro-NATO ex-Soviet states than goad them into fighting each other. Israel, the object of unremitting and irrational hate by the Western media, easily defeated a united Arab coalition in 1967. Lebanon was Israel's least troublesome neighbour before 1975 but became a world of pain once it descended into inter-Arab war, and Jordan, which has been peaceful inside and out since the monarchy was nearly overthrown by Palestinians in 1970, is Israel's best neighbour.

Marco Parigi said...

At first I thought they were daft too. However, I have been applying many techniques to sort through the propaganda(My techniques are article independent - I use the same technique for articles purporting opposite views). eg. if the evidence that this article is based on a lie, who is the one lying. Is th

Marco Parigi said...

To summarise I don't look at what is good or bad for "the West" or "US" or "Israel", but what is good or bad for the individuals that may be serving up lies as bases for propaganda (on either "side") There is, for instance, wholesale acceptance at face value on one side at any "intelligence" about troop movements by NATO military correspondence, and on the other a tacit acceptance that Putin has a very defensive stance at the moment.