Johann Hari and Noam Chomsky

On November 20, we received the following email from Johann Hari of the Independent in response to our Media Alert, Friendly Bombs, Part 1 (November 20, 2003):

Dear David and David,

Thank you for your e-mail. While I obviously disagree profoundly with you, I am never less than provoked and stimulated by your alerts, which provide a very valuable function in making journalists justify their position.

As I’m sure you can understand, I am insanely rushed but I hope you will accept this brief response.

We have a legitimate disagreement over what the Iraqi people want. I made clear before the war that we could not know what Iraqi people wanted with the scientific certainty of a MORI poll (I don’t have time to check quotes but all my pre-war articles are amply available on my website, www.johannhari.com. Pore through them if you are self-punishing enough and you’ll find everything I mention here). However, the International Crisis Group survey and my own limited experiences with the Iraqi people in Iraq itself and my more extensive experiences with the Iraqi exile community led me to believe that there was support for the invasion.

This was subsequently proven to be correct, because every single opinion poll following the liberation – produced by firms who have successfully predicted the results of general elections across the world – showed that Iraqis wanted the invasion to proceed. I am basing my interpretation of Iraqi opinion on polls, the best source of information that we have. You seem to be basing yours on guesswork, supposition and telepathy.

I was also, of course, basing my view on the experience of Northern Iraq, where, under US and British military protection since 1991, the Kurds have built a thriving democracy. Why do you never mention this? Do you congratulate the Kurds on their incredible achievement – 70 free newspapers, a democratic parliament and Prime M inister (who supported the invasion of the South), and female High Court judges – I know that the Americans allowed Turkish troops to attack Kurdish freedom fighters on a handful of occassions, and I am appalled by that – but does it undnermine the whole achievement and make their democracy meaningless? Of course not.

The same sanctions applied in Northern Iraq as in Saddam’s tyranny, and all the factors which you attribute to sanctions and I attribute to Saddam did not occur. How do you explain that? Please don’t just give me quotes from Dennis Halliday and say “he knows better than you”: actually answer the argument.

You ask when the United States changed its mind from supporting tyranny in the Muslim countries (as your friend George Galloway has in the past: I refer you to his Mail on Sunday article in which he says that “”in poor third world countries like Pakistan, politics is too important to be left to petty squabbling politicians. Pakistan is always on the brink of breaking apart into its widely disparate components. Only the armed forces can really be counted on to hold such a country together … Democracy is a means, not an end in itself.”). I refer you to George Bush, who said apologised yesterday for “decades of failed US policy in the Middle East? we should not tolerate oppression for the sake of stability.” Nor, he implied, should they fund and arm it. Yes, it will take time to turn around all US policy: we can discuss (and must campaign about) the horrors of Uzbekistan and the House of Saud. But I believe it is beginning.

Do I think the US will promote deep democracy, a form better than our own corporate semi-democracy? Of course not. It will be deeply imperfect and bounded within neoconservative precepts that you and I reject. But it will be a damn sight better than Ba’athist Stalinism, and it was worth fighting for.

It is a shame that you have to imply that every single person who disagrees with you has some sinister mission to corrupt the truth. For example, you act as though you have cunningly exposed that I went to Iraq in September 2002 as part of a holiday tour. Yes: I cunningly disguised this by writing it as a front page story for the Guardian.

I hope you’ll understand if I don’t enter into a lengthy dialogue, although I will be very interested in your response. I also hope you’ll understand that I feel your revelation that you would not have fought a war against Nazism but rather would have spent your energies informing the British people that they were complicit while gay people and Jews were systematically murdered on the other side of the Channel somewhat undermines your ability to take the moral high ground on issues pertaining to tyranny.

Lastly, I hope the people who have e-mailed in response to your original message will accept this response.

Thanks again for an interesting media alert,


Dear Johann

Many thanks for your kind words. We appreciate your taking the time to respond at such length. You say that you accept one “could not know what the Iraqi people wanted with the scientific certainty of a MORI poll”, and yet in the Independent you have written repeatedly of “the indisputable wishes of the Iraqi people”. (Hari, ‘The state visit of President Bush: I support Bush on Iraq – but I’ll join the protests’, The Independent, November 19, 2003)

“Indisputable” suggests certainty, does it not?

It is curious that you focus so intensely on the highly uncertain wishes of the Iraqi people, and yet you ignore the very clear democratic wish of the British people +not+ to invade and bomb them. This time last year support for invasion without UN backing stood at barely 10% anywhere outside the United States. In January, 81% of the British public was opposed to unilateral military action by the US and UK, with 47% opposed to war in all circumstances. Only 10% of those polled believed that the war should start regardless of UN backing. (Alan Travis, ‘Support for war falls to new low,’ The Guardian, January 21, 2003)

Surely your respect for the indisputable wishes of the British people means you should have been fiercely opposed to war.

You describe our analysis of Iraqi opinion polls as “guesswork, supposition and telepathy”. In reality, like most journalists we debate with, you have simply ignored the points we made: the poll of Iraqis mentioned by Jonathan Steele in the Guardian, the absence of “concrete evidence” of Iraqi support for invasion, the ICG’s establishment links and sympathies, and so on.

You also ignored our point that the Iraqi people “cheering us on” were in reality facing a miserable choice between war or continued genocidal sanctions that had already claimed one million lives. A reasonable range of options presented by pollsters might, for example, have included:

No invasion but continued genocidal sanctions and bombing with Saddam Hussein retaining power.

US/UK invasion deposing Saddam Hussein.

UN-backed invasion deposing Saddam Hussein by a genuinely international coalition under the auspices of the UN.

Full Iraqi compliance with UNMOVIC inspections leading to 100% disarmament of WMD and the lifting of non-military sanctions, with Saddam retaining power.

In your Independent articles, you have presented no evidence to suggest that the Iraqi people were polled on such a range of options. Even if they had been, Iraqis might well have felt inclined to simply ignore options that avoided war but which were clearly not on the West’s agenda. It is absurd to state that the Iraq people freely chose the invasion while looking down the barrel of a gun.

It is interesting to consider the latest polls of the people you claim were “cheering us on” during the invasion. An October poll by Iraq’s Centre for Research and Strategic Studies showed that 67 per cent of Iraqis viewed “coalition” forces as “occupying powers”, more than 20 per cent higher than a survey conducted shortly after the fall of Saddam Hussein. According to the poll, the number of Iraqis who viewed the coalition as a “liberating” force had dropped from 43 to 15 per cent, with very few feeling safe in the presence of the police or occupying armies. (Peter Beaumont, ‘US helicopter shot down in Iraq’, The Observer, October 26, 2003)

Oxford Research International (ORI), sampled the views of 3,244 Iraqis interviewed in their own homes in October and early November. They found that 79 percent of people questioned had “no trust” or “very little trust” in the US-led “coalition” – 8 percent said they had a great deal of confidence in the occupying force. 42 percent said they had a great deal of trust in Iraq’s religious leaders.

The authors of the survey said: “The very troops which liberated Iraqis from Saddam are the most mistrusted institution in Iraq today.”

You refer to the situation in Northern Iraq. Echoing familiar government propaganda, you write: “The same sanctions applied in Northern Iraq as in Saddam’s tyranny, and all the factors which you attribute to sanctions and I attribute to Saddam did not occur.”

The reality is revealed by considering the issue of child mortality. While it is true that child mortality rates were lower in the autonomous north than in south/central regions controlled by Saddam Hussein, UNICEF noted that, “the difference [in child mortality rates] cannot be attributed to the differing ways the Oil for Food Programme is implemented in the two parts of Iraq”.

The same point was reiterated by UN humanitarian co-ordinator, Tun Myat, who noted on several occasions that the “improvement in nutrition in the north was not due to differences in distribution, or the fact that the United Nations was responsible for implementation of the programme in the north”. (UN Press Briefing, November 19, 2000)

Important differences between the north and the south/centre described by the UN included:

· “that the sanctions have not been so rigorously enforced in the north as the border is more ‘porous’ than in the [south/centre]“. (UNICEF, August 1999)

· that the north, with roughly 15% of Iraq’s population, has 50% of Iraq’s productive arable land. (UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, September 2000)

· that the north “received 22% more per capita [than the south/centre] and gets 10% of all UN-controlled assistance in currency” while the rest of the country received only commodities. (UNICEF, August 1999)

· “the fact that the north has received far more support per capita from the international community than the south and centre of the country”. (UNICEF, August 1999)

You write, “The same sanctions applied in Northern Iraq as in Saddam’s tyranny.” But Professor Richard Garfield, a leading epidemiologist at Columbia University, pointed out in the New York Times on September 13, 1999, that the embargo in the North is “not the same embargo”:

“The North enjoys porous borders with Turkey, Syria, and Iran, and thus is effectively less embargoed than the rest of the country. It benefits from the aid of 34 Non-Government Organizations, while in the whole rest of the country there are only 11…

“Food, medicine, and water pumps are now helping reduce mortality throughout Iraq, but the pumps do less for sanitation where authorities cannot buy sand, hire day laborers, or find many other minor inputs to make filtration plants work. Goods have been approved by the UN and distributed to the North far faster than in the Center or South. The UN Security Council treats people in that part of the country like innocents. Close to 20 million civilians in the Center and South of the country deserve the same treatment.”

Finally, Gabriel Carlyle of Voices In The Wilderness UK, told us, “it is interesting to note that child mortality rates in south/central Iraq were also lower in some of those areas close to the border with the autonomous governorates, where similar conditions prevail and where people have been able to fall back on traditional patterns of life”. (Email to Media Lens, January 16, 2003)

You celebrate “a democratic parliament and Prime Minister (who supported the invasion of the South)” in northern Iraq. This will be Barham Salah, the prime minister who said of the oil-for-food programme that has left Iraq devastated:

“The oil-for-food programme is a good programme; it must continue. It is the best thing that has happened to Iraq since the foundation of the Iraqi state. By the way, not only for the Kurdish areas but also for the rest of Iraq, because we never had it so good – all Iraqis not just Kurds.” (Interviewed in The Mother of all Ironies, by John Sweeney, Correspondent, BBC2, June 23, 2002)

This is crude pro-Western propaganda, but then Salah is doubtless sensitive to the harsh realities of realpolitik in “democratic” northern Iraq. Perhaps he had read the New York Times report in March 2002 noting that the Bush administration had assured its Turkish ally that in the event of an invasion it would “ensure Iraq’s territorial integrity” and not allow the creation of an independent Kurdish state. (New York Times, March 10, 2002)

Last February, the Washington Post reported that the White House had attempted to cut a deal with Turkey – if Turkey allowed the US to open a northern front against Iraq, Washington would prevent the Kurds from establishing a permanent autonomous region or federal-style government in postwar Iraq. The US would also turn a blind eye to a Turkish “incursion” into Iraq. (Conn Hallinan, ‘Double Crossing the Kurds’, ZNet, March 29, 2003)

This makes perfect sense given, rhetorical flourishes aside, the consistent US policy of indifference to the Kurds and their suffering. Ten days after the gassing of 5,000 Kurds at Halabja in March 1988, Jim Hoagland made an accurate prediction in the Washington Post:

“Washington’s friendship for Baghdad is likely to survive one night of poison gas and sickening television film. TV moves on, shock succeeds shock, the day’s horror becomes distant memory. The Kurds will stay on history’s margins, and policy will have continuity.” (Hoagland, Washington Post, March 26, 1988)

“Iraq has not paid much of a diplomatic price for its actions,” the Christian Science Monitor noted on December 13 that same year. Indeed, on September 8, 1988, when US Secretary of State George Shultz met with Saadun Hamadi, Iraq’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs in Washington, he expressed merely “concern” about Halabja. “The approach we want to take [toward Iraq] is that, ‘We want to have a good relationship with you, but that this sort of thing [the Halabja massacre] makes it very difficult,’” a State Department official explained. (Quoted, Anthony Arnove, ‘Convenient And Not So Convenient Massacres’, ZNet Commentary, March 28, 2002)

In explaining “when the United States changed its mind from supporting tyranny in the Muslim countries” you refer “to George Bush, who said [sic] apologised yesterday for ‘decades of failed US policy in the Middle East – we should not tolerate oppression for the sake of stability’.”

It is remarkable that you should present as serious evidence the words of a president who has this year revealed an almost infinite capacity for deceit.

You refer to an alleged revolution in American foreign policy in the above message and also in a second email – we will return to this in our next alert.

We have never suggested that any journalist is on a “sinister mission to corrupt the truth”. We are forever pointing out that we reject sinister conspiracy theories of this kind – the idea that journalists are involved in dark “missions” to deceive people. We’re sure you are sincere in everything you’re saying.

Finally, you write that the fact that we “would not have fought a war against Nazism” undermines our “ability to take the moral high ground on issues pertaining to tyranny.”

We are much more interested in fighting tyranny in all its forms than in aspiring to some “moral high ground”.

The essence of Nazism was the belief that violence, fear, hatred of enemies, and deception, could be harnessed as tools of elite aggrandisement and enrichment. One of the terrible ironies of the West’s violent destruction of the Nazi killing machine is that violence thereby became even more deeply entrenched in our own economic and political systems. To paraphrase Nietzsche, when we looked into the abyss of mass violence and total war, the abyss looked into us.

Generally speaking, real solutions to problems rooted in greed, hatred and irrationality can only be found in compassion, restraint and reason.

We received a second response from Johann Hari on November 29 also in response to our Media Alert, Friendly Bombs, Part 1 (November 20, 2003)

Dear David and David,

I’ve been moping in bed with ‘flu all day and just had an amicable row with a friend who read your alert and basically agrees with it. Some interesting points emerged from our discussion of it (and some e-mail exchanges with some of your readers), so I thought I’d add them to my previous e-mail if I may.

I realise that my answer to your question about when US foreign policy towards the Middle East changed was somewhat cursory. I think there is a growing realisation among US elites since September 11th that the policy of propping up tyrannies in the Middle East has led to disaster for America.

Of course they are not suddenly worried about Arab lives in some purely altruistic sense. Rather, they have developed a new sense of enlightened self-interest, where America will only become safe if the Middle East undergoes a bourgeois democratic revolution and Arab grievances can find outlets within democratic processes.

Read Bush’s Guild Hall speech: it is a fairly candid statement of that, and as close to a retraction and apology for US foreign policy in the region for the last forty years. (Of course, like you, I would like to see the criminals who enacted that policy – Henry Kissinger at the forefront, but also Bush’s own father and countless others – tried. We should keep arguing for that, forlorn though it may be; but that should not blind us to other positive developments). Of course there is a danger in taking what politicians with an abysmal history of lying say at face value. We will have ample opportunity to see if Bush is this time telling the truth.

On a separate but related point, you say: “what ‘we’ need [if we are to justify any war on humanitarian grounds] is a credible track record of compassionate, humanitarian intervention.” I believe that we are developing that track-record. The Kosovo war – which you see as part of a devilish plot – would be my first example, but since that is contentious, let us leave it aside. Let’s look at Sierra Leone. Noam Chomsky admitted to me at a New Statesman lunch that this was ‘probably’ a sincere humanitarian intervention, although he did add, “that’s probably because I haven’t looked into it too closely.” He hasn’t looked into it, I fear, because he suspects that if he did it would displease his fan base and undermine his thesis that Western powers invariably (as opposed to often, as I believe) act in line with a rapacious imperialism.

Sierra Leone was – to summarise crudely, albeit in a way that nobody to my knowledge disputes – a desperately poor country whose democracy was about to be liquidated by a gang of hand-chopping thugs. Only intervention from the British army prevented it descending into civil war, with all the attendant human miseries. Britain had no strategic or financial interest in that devastated country. Blair did it for the same reason he has dedicated so much energy to the Northern Ireland peace process: because he believed it would make the world a better place. Is this not humanitarian intervention? And if you concede that Blair can act in a humanitarian way at least once, doesn’t that undermine your position that his government is obviously reprehensible in everything it does? Does it undermine your hero Harold Pinter, who bizarrely claimed on the Today programme that Blair bombed Kosovo because “he enjoys killing children”?

Onto another point. You ask why I did not agitate for the ending of sanctions, a course that the Iraqi people clearly wanted throughout the nineties: a proper and important question. As I explained in my earlier message, the primary responsibility for the deaths caused by sanctions lie with Saddam Hussein, because the same sanctions did not cause anything like the same number of deaths in Northern Iraq, where Saddam’s power (mercifully) did not extend. However, my position was simple, and it was firmly opposed to sanctions. Sanctions should not have been implemented, because the whole policy of ‘containment’ – locking a dictator in a box along with the Iraqi people, where he could merrily butcher them – was heinous.

Your alternative to sanctions was to leave Saddam in place and hope that the battered, tyrannised Iraqi people could somehow find a way to break the lock of a modern totalitarian state and overthrow him. I believe that this course would have resulted in far, far more deaths than the current invasion: look at how many people were slaughtered in just one uprising, in 1991. My alternative to sanctions was regime change. We both wanted them to end; it was only our tactics that differed.

There is a wider disagreement between us concerning the attitude towards power that we on the left should adopt. You seem to believe – I hope this is a fair précis – that the holders of power in our world, even in advanced democracies (which are mere husks of democracy in your telling), are depraved perpetrators of genocide and mass murder, utterly contemptible and beyond redemption. The only possible course decent people can adopt is to smash this power structure and begin the long course of building a new one. To engage those with power, to try to make it more decent and to coax it to do good things, is, at best, a fool’s errand, and at worst an attempt to humanise a monster. The only decent thing that can be done with power as it is currently constituted is to oppose it entirely and to agitate for a better world.

I have wrestled with this view. I do not want to spend my life putting a humanitarian veneer on horrendous policies, and there are days – usually when Donald Rumsfeld gives a press conference – when I wonder if that is what I am doing, and whether you are right. That is why I welcome your alert, even though it obviously isn’t pleasant to be harshly criticised: anybody with a conscience should have to examine their relationship to power, and justify themselves.

My own attitude to power is that we should formulate our political philosophies independently, and support governments when they accord with them and oppose them when they do not. I hope you will accept that this is what I try to do. Whether or not George Bush was in favour of overthrowing Saddam, I was on the side of the Iraqi people, backing the end of his tyranny. Whether or not Tony Blair is in favour of gay rights (mercifully, he is), rights for refugees (appallingly, he most certainly is not), I hold to my independent position. Whatever Bush and Blair say, I will support (in whatever pathetically small way I can through my column) the people of Burma, Zimbabwe, North Korea and (yes) Uzbekistan against the tyrants who repress them. If Bush and Blair act to end their tyrannies – which would require a very substantial reversal when it comes to Uzbekistan – then I will welcome them.

I can see why you are tempted to see any support for the recent war as cow-towing to power. Bluntly, in the case of many journalists, it was. Establishment arse-lickers like William Rees-Mogg (who wrote a preposterous piece in the Times the other day about how America “always” supports democracies) like the Downing Street invites and the places on corporate boards. But can’t you see there is a substantial difference between the Rees-Moggs, who suddenly discover a concern for Iraqi democracy when it is convenient, and people like Nick Cohen and Christopher Hitchens, who were in favour of the overthrow of Saddam long before any powerful person thought it prudent, or for that matter David Aaronovitch, who was advocating an invasion when the idea seemed preposterous years ago?

Our positions must be independent of those with power. I fear that those of your heroes John Pilger and Noam Chomsky is determined by power just as simplistically as the likes of Rees-Mogg, because where he will always snap into line with the US government, they will oppose it, not matter what it does. So Pilger heroically backed the East Timorese liberation movement for decades, but then then, when the US very belatedly changed its policy and Pilger’s East Timorese friends thanked the heavens, he opposed that too! (I recommend Francis Wheen’s excellent forthcoming book for documentation of all this, along with clear accounts of Noam Chomsky’s horrifying blindness to the genocide in Cambodia).

So: no Rees-Mogg line in defence of power, no Pilger line opposed to it; independent principles, which we hold those with power to. Sierra Leone is evidence that great good can happen within existing power-structures. If your apparent position – oppose all that the existing power structure does – had been adopted in Sierra Leone, we would have been lobbying in effect for the liquidation of a very fragile African democracy and its descent into becoming a failed state, with many horrific deaths. That is not a political position I am comfortable with. If we wait for the existing power-structures of the world to be torn down before we advocate any positive action, there will be an awful lot more countries like Sierra Leone ripped to shreds before we’re done.

Anyway, I have written far more than I intended, and my tissues have turned into a soggy mush that cannot absorb any more mucus no matter how hard I try, so I’ll leave this here until your response, if that’s okay.

Hope you are well,

Yours sincerely,


Dear Johann

Even by the standard of the responses we’ve received from mainstream journalists your arguments are remarkable.

You write, accurately, that your answer to the question of when US foreign policy in the Middle East became guided by “enlightened self-interest” was “somewhat cursory”. You explain: “I think there is a growing realisation among US elites since September 11th that the policy of propping up tyrannies in the Middle East has led to disaster for America.”

The oil companies, arms manufacturers, indeed much of corporate America, might have something to say about that. No matter, let’s take a look at your evidence.

But what is so remarkable is that there is none – your non-cursory evidence supporting this extraordinary claim consists, quite literally, of a speech by George Bush at the Guild Hall!

You do add that on “a separate but related point” there is a growing track-record of humanitarian intervention, as indicated by the actions in Kosovo and Sierra Leone (we’ll return to these, and your gross misrepresentation of Chomsky’s position below). But as these took place in 1999 and 2000, respectively, they of course cannot support your non-cursory explanation relating to September 11, which thus continues to rely on one speech by Bush.

Your comment on how America understands it “will only become safe if the Middle East undergoes a bourgeois democratic revolution” reeks of the unthinking arrogance of so many media commentators – of course the United States should be supported in asserting its moral and legal right to promote “democratic revolution” wherever it pleases. Let the world’s lone superpower overturn whichever government it chooses through mass violence out of – what else? – “self-defence”.

The US writer Edward Herman has been studying US foreign policy in great depth and with great intelligence for decades. We thought it would be interesting to see what he made of your argument. This was his response:

“[Hari's] suggestion that US policy in the Middle East is geared to making America ‘safe’ is comical – did he swallow the notion that Saddam, with or without WMD, could pose a real security threat to the US? If safety is not the criterion, how about domination of oil and control and projection of power so openly announced by the Bush team in 1992 and later? Also the protection of Sharon and ethnic cleansing in Palestine. I like his phrase ‘only if Arab grievances can find outlets within democratic processes’! No suggestion that they might have grievances from US supported massive ethnic cleansing in favor of settlers, which is so god-damned obvious as a grievance and crime.” (Email to Media Lens, November 29, 2003)

You write:

“Of course there is a danger in taking what politicians with an abysmal history of lying say at face value. We will have ample opportunity to see if Bush is this time telling the truth.”

There is indeed a danger – the tens of thousands of Iraqi dead from the latest war you supported will +not+ have ample opportunity to see if Bush is telling the truth. The idea that, based on zero evidence, we should sit back while Bush wages war around the world and see if “this time”, at last, great power is finally telling the truth is too absurd even to discuss.

While you are waiting and seeing, even establishment foreign policy analysts like Samuel Huntington are warning that “America’s imperial ambition” is a threat to everyone, the United States included (Foreign Affairs, March-April, 1999). Robert Jervis also writes in Foreign Affairs of how the Bush administration has one aim: “unilateral world domination through absolute military superiority”. (Foreign Affairs, July-August, 2001)

You say that the war on Iraq is part of a new humanitarian trend rooted in Bush’s recognition that “we should not tolerate oppression for the sake of stability”. And yet UN resolution 1441, used by the Bush administration to prepare the way for war, was rammed through the Security Council by senior US officials whose job was “to urge leaders to vote with the United States on Iraq or risk ‘paying a heavy price’.” (Dafna Linzer, Boston Globe, February 24, 2003), with the fate of Yemen after the 1991 Gulf War doubtless on everyone’s minds. Noam Chomsky makes the obvious point:

“The support is in fact submission; signers understood what the alternative would be. In systems of law that are intended to be taken seriously, coerced acquiescence is invalid. In international affairs, however, it is honoured as diplomacy.” (Chomsky, Hegemony or Survival, Routledge, 2003, p.36)

You assert that we see the Kosovo war “as part of a devilish plot”. This, again, hardly merits comment.

You write:

“Noam Chomsky admitted to me at a New Statesman lunch that this was ‘probably’ a sincere humanitarian intervention, although he did add, ‘that’s probably because I haven’t looked into it too closely.’ He hasn’t looked into it, I fear, because he suspects that if he did it would displease his fan base and undermine his thesis that Western powers invariably (as opposed to often, as I believe) act in line with a rapacious imperialism.”

Your first sentence struck us as deeply implausible. Chomsky has repeatedly stated that he believes it is quite possible that there has not in all history been an example of humanitarian state intervention. We suspected he was trying to make a typically honest point to you about the need to actually study issues rather than rushing to judgement. We asked Chomsky to clarify his position. This was his response:

“I have no idea whether I met him at the lunch, but I certainly didn’t ‘admit’ anything of the sort. Rather, I stated that Britain in Sierra Leone might be an authentic example of humanitarian intervention. And there was no ‘although’; another flight of the Hari imagination. Rather, I stated that I hadn’t looked into it more closely. The reasons are not his silly inventions — which tell us a lot about him; more below — but rather a moral truism, that I have repeated to the point of boredom, and did again at the lunch: a person is responsible for the anticipated consequences of his or her own acts, and if capable if comprehending moral truisms, will therefore focus finite energy and attention on them — +focus+, which does not mean, as the subservient intellectuals like to pretend, keep to them exclusively.

“Of course, I would not expect him to understand the moral truism that I repeated, once again, at the lunch. Nor will he ever understand it, I suppose, any more than it could be understood by his Stalinist counterparts. As anyone familiar with Russia in the old days knows, the loyal commissars could never understand — or at least pretended not to understand — why Soviet dissidents concentrated on the actions of Russia, not someone else’s. And their Western mimics, like Hari, cannot understand why I concentrate on actions of the US, and he should concentrate on actions of England. Of course, I don’t suggest a comparison. He is far more depraved than his models, who could at least plead fear for their conformity to power, and who had far less responsibility for the actions of their states than he and I have — REPEAT, FAR LESS for obvious reasons, a deeply significant fact, but another one that he will never comprehend, I presume.

“Those who do understand moral truisms and elementary facts will understand at once why, in a life with finite time and energy, I wouldn’t undertake the kind of research project about Britain in Sierra Leone than I do about issues for which I share responsibility, which I can influence, and which therefore should take priority. That would be true even if I had not again explained the obvious, in monosyllables, at that lunch. The fact that he would resort to these idiotic fabrications tells us a lot about him; even more, perhaps, than his apparent utter inability to comprehend moral truisms.” (Email to Media Lens, November 29, 2003)

Your response to these comments on your website is revealing:

“I think that rant speaks for itself really.” (www.johannhari.com)

Your suggestion that someone as honest and rational as Chomsky would not look too closely at an issue because it might “displease his fan base and undermine his thesis” reveals your ignorance of his work. The whole point about Chomsky is that he focuses on precisely the presumed strongest examples testing his arguments – such as the idea that Watergate demonstrates the independence of the press, that the Kosovo intervention indicates a “new humanitarianism” – to show the true scale of state-corporate lying and deceit.

You say of Britain’s intervention in Sierra Leone: “Blair did it for the same reason he has dedicated so much energy to the Northern Ireland peace process: because he believed it would make the world a better place. Is this not humanitarian intervention?”

Again, naturally, no evidence is required – it’s enough just to say it. British historian Mark Curtis has unearthed remarkable evidence in released government documents that reveal the British motivation for interventions in the Third World since 1945. His work – in particular The Ambiguities Of Power (Zed Books, 1995) and Web Of Deceit (Vintage, 2003) – are must-read books. We asked Curtis what he thought of your analysis of the interventions in Kosovo and Sierra Leone:

“I have looked through the formerly secret government files on numerous past British military interventions and if there is one thing that is clear, it is that the publicly stated reasons for intervention are never the real ones. In the case of British Guiana in 1953, for example, when British troops were sent to remove a democratically-elected government, the government told Parliament it was intervening to stop the Guianan government acting as a stooge of Moscow; the files reveal, however, that British planners were really concerned about the Guianan government threatening British business interests. In Malaya in the 1950s, the official reasons for intervention – repeated for a decade – were to prevent “communism terrorism”; the files, however, show that planners saw the war primarily as “in defence of [the] rubber industry”, which British business interests effectively controlled. These are just two examples.

“Coming closer to the Blair government and Sierra Leone, it should be remembered that the intervention took place only a few months after the bombing of Yugoslavia. This was again trumpeted – with the support of the entire mainstream media – as an humanitarian intervention to save the lives of thousands of Kosovans. Yet the record makes clear that it was following the NATO bombing that the worst humanitarian catastrophe ensued; before, human rights abuses were horrific, certainly, but on far lower scale than the Foreign Office was putting out, and indeed in the context of a civil war between the Belgrade government and the KLA. Only when the NATO bombing started were huge numbers of people pushed over the borders.

“This is not to excuse Milosevic for gross horrors; it is simply to state the facts. And indeed, Blair and Clinton stated quite openly what is a more plausible reason for their bombing than humanitarian intervention – the “credibility” of NATO. That, around the 50th anniversary of NATO, the US and UK could not let Milosevic undermine the Alliance. I also think other factors were at play – such as forcing Milosevic’s removal at a time when NATO and the EU wanted to expand eastwards.

“On Sierra Leone, the safest thing to say is that when we see the declassified files in 30 years, I suggest we will see a different story than that spun by Blair’s propagandists and their allies in the mainstream media. If we look for plausible reasons for the intervention, the immediate one is the restoration of a pro-British government, which had of course been overthrown. This followed, it should be remembered, the coup in neighbouring Gambia, which also overthrew a very long-standing British ally, virtually a puppet. The major country in the region is of course Nigeria. I am just looking through the declassified files on the civil war there in the late 1960s – they reveal very clearly the UK’s support for the Lagos government and the primacy of British oil interests, which dictated British then, and we can assume also now.

“This is the UK’s prize in the region, along with the stability needing to be provided by pro-British governments. This is also in the context of ongoing rivalry between France and the UK in the region. I think London was worried that the instability/conflict in the area, based as they see it around Liberia, was threatening pro-British governments, the wider British role in the region and possibly Nigeria itself.

“I also think an additional factor, related to this, was the need to demonstrate British power in this region – to show that it was still capable of defending its interests through military force, a similar issue, indeed, to ‘credibility’. This is also similar to some of France’s concerns in the region. This is not to say that the intervention has not had some benign effects – the opposition RUF were clearly entirely gruesome. But to argue that humanitarian reasons were primary in deciding Whitehall to act is another thing altogether.

“Nigeria is a good example of how propping up favoured governments in the region works against West Africans interests – British oil companies and Nigerian elites have been bleeding ordinary Nigerians dry for decades. They have seen hardly any of the benefits of oil revenues and many have become poorer. We should not expect a pro-British government in Sierra Leone to deliver benefits for people over the long term; this would simply be defying history.

“It is typical that the mainstream media takes at face value, and accepts, the governments arguments for intervention in Sierra Leone, as elsewhere – then, discussion merely takes place around whether the government is promoting the right tactics to achieve its noble purposes, based on its own propaganda. In the light of what is publicly known about the government’s propaganda strategy on Iraq, this role of the media is really remarkable, a tremendous elite achievement in democratic society.” (Email to Media Lens, December 2, 2003)

It’s important that we add Chomsky’s response to your reference to his “horrifying blindness to the genocide in Cambodia”. We can only imagine that you have not read Chomsky and Herman’s work on the issue – particularly The Political Economy of Human Rights, Volumes 1 and 2 (South End Press, 1979), or the responses to it, all of which have been comprehensively rebutted.

Chomsky writes:

“Very interesting. Neither he [Hari], nor anyone, has found even a misplaced comma in what Ed [Herman] and I wrote about Cambodia (I wrote nothing relevant of my own), which of course bitterly and prominently condemned the atrocities, suggested that US intelligence was probably the most reliable source (as proved to be the case in retrospect; we were probably the only ones to cite them), but argued that one should try to tell the truth about the horrifying atrocities, not concoct lies of a kind that would have made Stalin and Goebbels gasp — which is no exaggeration.

“As noted, not the slightest error, or hint of an error, has ever been unearthed. Ask Hari to produce one, instead of just following his crowd in the obligatory tantrum. The tantrum is extremely revealing. We were challenging the right to lie in service to the holy state, and that is intolerable. Hence the reactions in which Hari joins, possibly in total ignorance in his case, just repeating what he’s heard at some dinner party.

“There is another point, which takes the intelligence of a ten-year old to understand, so I rarely bother with it. In our two volumes, Ed and I were comparing the reaction to atrocities, depending on the source and the way domestic power wanted them to be perceived. Our two prime examples were East Timor and Cambodia, a very good test case as anyone familiar with the facts is aware, and as we showed in detail. We described the atrocities as comparable in scale and character, as was true (bending over backwards to give the benefit of the doubt to the US-UK and their educated classes).

“The prime difference was that in one case the US-UK bore direct responsibility, and were in fact carrying forward their decisive support for the crimes at the very moment we wrote, while in the other case the crimes could be blamed on an official enemy and could also be exploited to justify further US-UK crimes (as they were, as we also have documented). The difference in treatment was dramatic. Massive lying in both cases, but in opposite directions, going well beyond what we predicted.

“The revelation of the subservience of intellectuals to power in the case of Cambodia has elicited a huge mountain of tantrums (to which Hari adds his toothpick) — though, as noted, not a particle of evidence or argument to support any of the hysterical charges, just more lying (as we’ve also reviewed). The chapter on East Timor has almost never been mentioned, though by any moral standards it was vastly more important, since what we revealed there were ongoing crimes, for which we share enormous responsibility. You might check, for example, to see what Hari wrote about the fact that his hands are dripping with blood of Timorese, right up to late September 1999, and what he has written about the comparable crimes of the official enemy. That would tell us a lot about whether the comparison to Stalinist commissars is fair — to the commissars.

“Here’s the point of logic, admittedly beyond the capacity of deeply indoctrinated Western intellectuals to understand. We described the two crimes as comparable. Therefore, those who claim (like Hari) that we were downplaying the crimes of Pol Pot are themselves downplaying their own crimes in East Timor. That’s elementary logic. And the conclusion is also obvious. To deny one’s own ongoing crimes is vastly more disgraceful than denying the crimes of someone else. Hence Hari is, once again, declaring that he falls well below the Stalinist commissars he seems determined to mimic. Elementary logic suffices to demonstrate that. Note that this would be true even if we were downplaying Pol Pot’s crimes, which is a pure lie, as he would discover if he sought to try the experiment of literacy instead of repeating gossip he’s heard somewhere.”

Johann, it is reasonable for you to imagine that you can repeat fact-free establishment propaganda – including the usual smears – in the Independent and come away with your credibility intact. It is a big mistake, however, to expect the same outcome in media where evidence, consistency and rationality are deemed important.

Best wishes

David Edwards and David Cromwell

Hari has since responded a third time. We will not be responding to this email. It is available at the Media Lens website www.medialens.org under ‘latest’, and also at www.johannhari.com

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