Friday, 4 September 2009

Guardians of Obama

As the latest Media Lens Alert, 'An existential threat: the US, Israel and Iran', ably documents, the Guardian and other liberal media continue to provide convenient cover for US-Israeli war positioning in the Middle East.

In particular, Media Lens cite a slavish and misleading article by Julian Borger and Ewen MacAskill, 'US takes on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Iran's nuclear programme in one massive gamble'.

Here's my own response to Borger and MacAskill:

Dear Julian and Ewen,

I trust you've both taken time to consider the charges of misleading and compliant journalism presented in the latest Media Lens Alert, 'An existential threat: the US, Israel and Iran' (1 September 2009).

It's a sad reflection of what passes for critical reporting to read this face-value acceptance of US-Israeli positioning in the Middle East.

You say:
"The Obama administration's approach to two of the world's most intractable and dangerous problems, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Iran's nuclear programme, is to link them together in the search for a solution to both."
This suggests that the US has played no particular part in the creation of these "dangerous problems" or can be blamed for the absence of any available "solution to both." Readers are to presume that continued US-Israeli efforts to destabilise Iran, Washington's unrelenting support for Israel and now the spurious linking of the Israel-Palestinian issue to a contrived Iranian threat constitutes some kind of neutral, peace-seeking "approach" rather than nefarious peace-defying behaviour.

We then we have this favourable reading of Obama's motives and modus operandi:
"The new US strategy aims to use its Iran policy to gain leverage on Binyamin Netanyahu's government. Sanctions planned against Iran's energy sector if Tehran does not compromise on uranium enrichment by the end of next month are not only aimed at pre-empting Israeli military action; they are also a bargaining chip offered in part exchange for a substantial freeze on Jewish settlements in the West Bank. "The message is: Iran is an existential threat to Israel; settlements are not," said one official close to the negotiations."
Unfortunately, the Guardian's acceptance of Obama's benevolent 'game plan' includes no apparent concern over the untold suffering these planned sanctions will cause, nor any thought on the minuscule worth of the 'concession' he's supposedly getting on a settlement freeze. Aside from what this freeze conveniently excludes - actual removal of the settlements - where, one wonders, is your critical comment on the gross injustice of this cosy quid pro quo? Millions of Iranians are to suffer economic hardship and possible death 'in return' for a "temporary and partial" cessation of settlement construction. Have you nothing to say about the appalling logic behind that proposal?

Likewise, have you any thoughts on the patronising message of the "new US strategy" in relegating the primary case of Palestinian statehood to some secondary status and outcome of relations with another state?

The article continues:
"Netanyahu is heartened by what he sees as US and western European determination to impose "crippling" sanctions on Iran, a phrase used by Hillary Clinton that the Israeli prime minister repeated at his meeting with Gordon Brown. Israel is no longer threatening military action to curtail Iran's nuclear programme, and Netanyahu is signalling readiness to bargain on the Jewish settlements. European diplomats believe Netanyahu will be better able to keep his coalition together through a freeze on settlements if he can demonstrate western resolve on Iran."
As with your 'good Machiavellian' portrayal of Obama, this is a completely vacant reading of Netanyahu's true agenda of aggression, intransigence and destabilisation. You may claim to be illustrating Israeli 'bargaining power' in these matters. But it carries no useful reflection on the actual peace-destroying motives behind it.

In the same vein, there's no elementary questioning of "US and western European determination" to target Iran. As desired by the US and Israel, this "existential threat" is reported with immediacy and gravitas, while the actual, imminent threat of "crippling sanctions" against a non-threatening state is, seemingly, not fit for discussion. Nor is there any consideration of the fact that Iran is an already threatened state neighboured by a sanction-crippled, occupied and broken country.

You conclude:
"The Obama administration is setting out to juggle two potentially explosive global crises, while walking the tightrope of a shaky and nervous global economy. It is not going to be easy, but Washington appears to have decided it has no option but to try."
Again, we're left with only noble images of Washington as an honest broker and selfless saviour in its resolve to effect peace in the region. It reminds me of that B-list film cliché where our (usually American) heroes consider the last resort rescue plan: "it's a long shot, but, just maybe..."

It may not be easy, or editorially permissible, but perhaps 'serious' Guardian journalists might occasionally decide that there's another narrative option besides slavish reiteration of 'benign US interventionism'.


John Hilley


An additional exchange with the BBC's Roger Hardy (9 September 2009)

Roger Hardy
BBC Middle East analyst

Dear Roger

I was interested to read of your firm belief in Obama's "good intentions" for the Middle East ('Obama Mid-East plans in jeopardy', 7 September 2009, which included this statement:

"On the Middle East, as on other issues, Barack Obama entered the White House full of good intentions.

The Bush administration had neglected the peace process. He would revive it.

Mr Bush had shunned Iran and Syria. Mr Obama would talk to them.

But like other presidents before him, he has discovered how resistant the region's problems are to solution."
Allow me to ask three simple questions:

1. How do you reconcile the standard BBC instruction towards 'impartiality' against your clearly-stated opinion that Obama is acting with "good intentions" in the Middle East?

2. How might you explain Obama's "talk to" position given his current threat, at the behest of Netanyahu, to impose crippling sanctions on Iran?

3. Coupling Washington's confrontational words towards Tehran with its unrelenting support for Israel, might your 'analysis' better include the suggestion that the US is itself a key part of "the region's problems" and, thus, a "resistant" party to any "solution"?

I look forward to hearing from you.


John Hilley


Re-read my piece and you will see it is scarcely a ringing endorsement of Obama's achievements in the region so far. To be fair to him, it is early days. But almost nothing is going right -- and, had I had space, I might have included Iran in that category. As for good intentions, aren't they supposed to be what the road to hell is paved with?


Hi Roger,

Thanks for getting back.

As you probably understand from my questions - alas, unanswered - the issue isn't about "Obama's achievements in the Middle East so far." It's about the posturing behind his Cairo speech and America's own principal role in undermining any peace agenda.

Or do you believe that threatening to starve Iran into submission over spurious Israeli-fed charges of nuclear terrorism is some kind of benevolent, peace-promoting position? Likewise, are we to believe the BBC repetition that Obama's token pleas to Israel for a 'settlement freeze' constitutes "good intentions"?

Is it too much to expect from BBC analysts like yourself analysis that doesn't begin with face-value acceptance of 'Obama the neutral peace facilitator'?

In the meantime, here's some useful analysis to ponder:



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