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Peter Oborne is a former political commentator of The Spectator, The Daily Telegraph, and Daily Mail, who covered the war in Yemen. He currently writes about politics for openDemocracy and Middle East Eye, and is the author of “The Triumph of the Political Class” and “The Rise of Political Lying.”
Chris Hedges: Welcome to The Chris Hedges Report. Rulers divide the world into worthy and unworthy victims. Those we are allowed to pity, such as Ukrainians enduring the hell of modern warfare, and those whose suffering is minimized, dismissed, or ignored. The terror we and our allies carry out against Iraqi, Palestinian, Syrian, Libyan, Somali, and Yemeni civilians is part of the regrettable cost of war. We, echoing the empty promises from Moscow, claim we do not target civilians. Rulers always paint their militaries as humane, there to serve and protect. Collateral damage happens, but it is regrettable. This lie can only be sustained among those who are unfamiliar with the explosive ordinance and large kill zones of missiles, iron fragmentation bombs, mortar, artillery and tank shells, and belt-fed machine guns.
This bifurcation of the world into worthy and unworthy victims, as Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky point out in Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, is a key component of propaganda, especially in war. The Russian-speaking population in Ukraine, to Moscow, are worthy victims. Russia is their savior. The millions of refugees and the millions of Ukrainian families cowering in basements, car parks, and subway stations are unworthy Nazis. Worthy victims allow citizens to see themselves as empathetic, compassionate, and just. Worthy victims are an effective tool to demonize the aggressor. They are used to obliterate nuance and ambiguity.
Mention the provocations carried out by the Western Alliance with the expansion of NATO beyond the borders of a unified Germany, a violation of promises made to Moscow in 1990, the stationing of NATO troops and missile batteries in Eastern Europe, the US involvement in the ouster in 2014 of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, which led to the civil war in the East of Ukraine between Russian-backed separatists and Ukraine’s army, a conflict that has claimed tens of thousands of lives, and you are dismissed as a Putin apologist. It is to taint the sainthood of the worthy victims, and by extension ourselves. We are good. They are evil.
Worthy victims are used not only to express sanctimonious outrage, but to stoke self-adulation and a poisonous nationalism. The cause becomes sacred, a religious crusade. Fact-based evidence is abandoned, as it was during the calls to invade Iraq. Charlatans, liars, con artists, fake defectors, and opportunists become experts used to fuel the conflict. Joining me to discuss this duplicity and mendacity is Peter Oborne, a former political commentator of The Spectator, The Daily Telegraph, and Daily Mail, who covered the war in Yemen. He currently writes about politics for Open Democracy and Middle East Eye, and is the author of The Triumph of the Political Class, as well as The Rise of Political Lying.
Peter, I want to begin with Yemen, a country you know well. You’ve covered it as a reporter. It’s been defined by the United Nations as the greatest humanitarian calamity of the 21st century. I wondered if you could juxtapose the West’s response to this seven-year assault on Yemen, which has left about 240,000 dead, resulting in widespread famine, cholera epidemics, with a response to the Ukraine. And in that response, I wondered if you could speak about the visit to the Polish border by Samantha Power, the administrator of the US Agency for International Development?
Peter Oborne: Indeed. Starting with Samantha Power, she was the US ambassador, I think, to the United Nations at the very start of the Yemen conflict, and she was in a great position to stop it or to deal with the problem, but she didn’t. She never addressed the Yemen, or for that matter, as far as I know, the impending genocide of the Rohingya or the terrible events in Gaza and so on. And yet there she is. Very shortly after the terrible tragedy of Ukraine starts, there she is at the Polish border, so this is a correct cause in her mind, whereas the other causes are less interesting. I do find this myself, as a British citizen, particularly troubling.
I went, you’re right, but I’ve only been once. It’s very hard to get to Yemen as a reporter, and I went there towards the start of the war in 2016. It was very, very difficult to get in. What you saw was an attack on the Yemeni people, effectively, by Saudi Arabia, and in a coalition backed by Britain and the United States and other local parties also, such as the UAE. The legal situation is different because the internationally recognized government is actually based in Saudi Arabia. And I won’t get into the details, but the murderous nature of the assault on the Yemeni people is utterly unspeakable and horrible. As you just were saying, I mean, I think according to the latest figures I’ve seen something like 230,000 people out of a population of 20 million have died, partly through Saudi bombing and so forth, but also through starvation and cholera and the siege of the Yemen, which has been going on now for this awful time.
Now, it really hits me, as a British citizen, that Britain is the penholder at the United Nations. We are responsible for managing the war, as it were. It is also the case that we supply many of the arms to the Saudi government, and we do more than that. I think we handle them, we advise the Saudis, we give them all kinds of advice on munitions, and we make a very healthy profit on the side of it. Now, we have a huge moral responsibility for a war which is far longer and responsible for the deaths of far more people than anything which… By the way, don’t get this wrong. I mean, Putin is guilty of a war of aggression in Ukraine, but it has claimed far more lives, Yemen, than has so far, inshallah, happened in Ukraine.
Chris Hedges: Can you explore why? What do you think the disparity in terms of the response is due to?
Peter Oborne: It’s a really deep question, and actually I think this is a really shaming thing. There’s a very fine British diplomat, a whistleblower, I’m ashamed to say I’ve forgotten her name. But she’s gone public and talked about sitting in a room with Boris Johnson, now the British prime minister, when they were both at the Foreign Office, and they were talking about what to do about the Yemen situation. Boris Johnson was just laughing about, joking about what, according to her account which is extremely credible, and nobody challenged it, he had been making jokes while these very grave issues affecting the lives of millions of people are being discussed.
You have to reach the conclusion that the life of an Arab in Yemen is not anything like the same where it counts, and I think maybe doesn’t count at all in the eyes of the international community. Whereas there’s a much greater weight put on the lives of Ukrainian people. Which is excellent. I’m very happy about that. I salute the Ukrainian people fighting the aggression of Putin. But what upsets me and shames me, I think, and shames all of us, is that we don’t put the same weight or anything like the same weight on the lives of the Yemeni people.
Chris Hedges: What is it due to? Why don’t we put the same weight on the lives of Palestinians or Yemenis or Iraqis?
Peter Oborne: Well, I think if you look at the media coverage, and not just media coverage, of the remarks by politicians about the Ukrainian situation, they draw attention to the fact that Ukraine is in Europe. Some people [inaudible] they are civilized and they have blue eyes, I think, has been a phrase used occasionally. In other words, Chris, maybe that people are saying they are Christian Europeans. I went to Yemen. It’s an incredibly beautiful place. Fabulous architecture and deep, deep history. I spent so many fascinating evenings with really civilized, intelligent people, with a deep history stretching back thousands of years. They were civilized well before Europe, let alone America, supposing America ever has got civilized. Arguable point, I think. But certainly well before.
[inaudible] Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, and these incredible mud skyscrapers, a lot of which have been destroyed by the Saudis. I mean, it’s like going to Venice in terms of the sheer beauty and architectural scope, or Florence. I mean, it’s an incredible civilization. And yet clearly in the Western mind, I’m ashamed to say, that doesn’t count. It isn’t something which matters. They are simply uncivilized people who do not deserve the same respect. Their rights do not count in the same way as the rights of Europeans in Ukraine count.
Chris Hedges: There was a social media footage of a 16-year-old Palestinian girl who confronted an Israeli soldier. This was repackaged on TikTok and was sent out as a Ukrainian girl confronting a Russian soldier. What does that tell us about the Russian invasion of the Ukraine, and what does it tell us about the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land?
Peter Oborne: A film went out during the early stages of the Ukrainian conflict. It was of a very young girl, maybe 11 or 12 years old, confronting a soldier. It was presented as a Ukrainian young girl confronting a Russian soldier and being very brave and standing up to him, and this one’s reportedly got 12 million views on social media. Now, actually, that was a repackaged picture or video of a young girl called Ahed Tamimi, who ended up being arrested by the Israelis, confronting an Israeli soldier in that way. But of course, and it did cause some stir at the time, but nothing like the impact which the fake package, this Palestinian girl repackaged as a Ukrainian young woman or girl, where that was a much bigger thing. So it is interesting to compare and contrast.
Chris Hedges: I want to ask about what this means, when you bifurcate the world into worthy and unworthy victims, what this does for those who want to hold war criminals accountable. If worthy victims are deserving of justice and unworthy victims are not, what are the consequences in terms of dealing with war crimes?
Peter Oborne: Well, it’s a very difficult question, and something which is very relevant. You and I both covered, in different ways, the British-American invasion of Iraq. There is no question that that was, under international law, a war of aggression. And therefore that makes the British prime minister Tony Blair and the American president George W. Bush war criminals. I mean, actually, before coming on the show, I was preparing for this conversation, and the Nuremberg tribunal… This is quoting from the tribunal, the judge. “To initiate a war of aggression is not only an international crime. It is a supreme international crime, differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”
Now, there is no question that Mr. Putin has done exactly that. He has initiated a war of aggression in the Ukraine, and there are voices saying that he should be held accountable, but on the other hand, there is no question either that Tony Blair and George W. Bush initiated a war of aggression in Iraq. It wasn’t a war of defense – Which you can fight under international law – It did not have United Nations Security Council justification or agreement, and of course, it was based on a fabrication of weapons of mass destruction. So if you are going to call for Mr. Putin to be charged with the ultimate war crime, you must be consistent, and you must call for Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair also to be called to account in exactly the same way.
Chris Hedges: What are the consequences for, in essence, a world that doesn’t abide by the rule of law, that people who commit war crimes when they’re in power in Washington or in the UK are not held accountable and Putin is?
Peter Oborne: Well, do you know, you’re very privileged and I’m very privileged. I’m a British citizen. You, I presume, are an American citizen. We both belong to great countries which have, over time, built up democracy, rule of law, parliament, a free press, all these things which we are taught about at school, and I certainly believed it when I was taught about them at school. We were taught at my school how amazing America was because it was the bastion of all of this against evildoers, in particular at that time when I was a young boy, the Soviet Empire.
It breaks my heart, actually, that Britain and America no longer, or have chosen no longer to, abide by those values. Actually, there’s a British phrase: fair play. We prided ourselves, we were taught this very strongly. It was what we stood for. Free speech, fair play, decency, rule of law, parliamentary democracy, representative democracy. Now, if we’re going to say we stand for those things and assert that on the international stage, we must be consistent about it. We can’t say that whatever we do, when we commit a crime of aggression, that’s fine. That’s something which is perfectly reasonable because [inaudible], and when somebody we review as an enemy does it, that’s terrible. He needs to be held to account and put on trial.
That doesn’t have any credibility. And it explains, by the way, something which has been heavily underreported in this conflict, is the amount of support which Russia is getting across the globe, particularly in the Middle East. Because if you’re in the Middle East, and you and I have both gone there a lot and talked to a lot of people from there, they see us as aggressors. They see NATO as an aggressive thing which has no respect for law and has destroyed countries. Now, in other words we have betrayed our own values, and it has diminished our ability to be taken seriously and with respect on the international stage.
Chris Hedges: I want to talk about the media’s response to Ukraine and have you comment on what’s happened to our own trade as foreign correspondents.
Peter Oborne: I mean, I don’t know… The history of reporting has had its ups and downs. And actually, there have always been foreign correspondents who have been spies, or they have simply been happy to amplify the propaganda message of whichever country they represent. On the other hand, there’s also been a tradition, which is the one which I think most reporters would claim to adhere to, which is that your purpose of being a foreign correspondent is to try and tell the truth. Now, this is a very difficult thing to do. In war it’s pretty well impossible, because – Not that I’ve ever been on a battlefield, I should say – You’re stuck. You have, I know, Chris. You’re stuck in a corner of the battlefield. There’s really nothing which you can know about what’s going on.
Think of Tolstoy’s great description of Napoleon at Borodino, and even Napoleon, the general, doesn’t know what’s actually happening. But what we should aim at is a culture of some kind of detachment, in my view, for reporting from any country around the world. We should listen to all voices, including unpopular voices, ones which are people who are despised and even hated. They have a story to tell. Often it’s a very interesting story which enables you to understand things you never understood. Actually, I’d love to hear what you think about this. My observation is that we have moved to a form of reporting of engagement. You’re only allowed to report one side of the story in the West. This is what it feels like, looking not just at Ukraine, but other recent conflicts as well. There’s one set of good guys and one set of bad guys. In fact, there are no good guys. It’s much, much more complicated than that.
Chris Hedges: Well, yes. I mean, what’s not reported, certainly in the United States, and I was in Eastern Europe covering the collapse of the Communist Bloc and the Soviet Union in 1989, what’s not reported is that there was universal understanding that expanding NATO beyond the borders of a unified Germany was an unnecessary provocation that would have disastrous consequences. This was universally accepted across the board by Henry Kissinger, George Kennan, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, Margaret Thatcher, everyone.
Peter Oborne: Indeed. Yes, George. It was a famous piece of analysis by George Kennan, who really set out the strategy for the Cold War after 1945 against Soviet Russia, and then commented then and was still around at the fall of the Berlin Wall to make the very wise remark. Now, it doesn’t mean that’s right. It’s perfectly reasonable [inaudible]. Absolutely, Ukraine should be free. It shouldn’t be a part of a Russian sphere of influence. But even to start talking along those lines you get accused of somehow being a Putin ally or Putin propagandist.
What that means is you can’t really have an intelligent discussion anymore about these immensely important matters. By the way, this isn’t just a problem with foreign affairs and wars. It’s a problem generally, I think, in the West. Something’s happened to public discourse, whereby it’s very hard to have an even-handed, well-informed discussion. That we have developed this very seriously bad habit of accusing our ideological enemies or just people who disagree with us of bad faith and having maligned motives and being apologists for terrible things. Now, I think we need to escape, to return to a much more…
Oh, I can just give you a personal story, actually. I was a schoolboy in a boarding school in the West Country, England, called Sherborne, in the early 1970s, and there was a wonderful history teacher called Graham Stephenson, who was not at all liked by the school authorities. He was quite dangerous. He had a stick which he’d hurl at you in class, and that didn’t… But it was to keep us alert, and he did keep us alert. Before my time, but he wanted to take a school trip to the Les Événements in Paris in 1968 so that the boys could see history in motion.
But what I remember, and I really learned from it, this was the height of the Cold War, just around the time of the Chilean coup d’état, created by the CIA. It was a very dangerous time in the world. He brought down, and he used to do this a lot, the political officer of the Soviet embassy to speak to us about dialectical material and give the general Soviet view of the world. Soviet Weekly would be there alongside The Times Literary Supplement and New Statesman in the school library so we could read it. Now, the situation vis-à-vis Russia, between Russia and the West, was marked by deeper hostility then than it is now. It was the existential enemy of the West. It was perfectly reasonable at this school for us to be introduced to people who were going to tell us about how the Soviet Union saw the world. Now, that’s a brilliant thing.
By the way, Tim Garton Ash, who was another student there, just a year or two above me, who’s written a book about free speech, was another student of this great, great, truly great school teacher, history teacher. I’d like to know what he thinks. Because it really upsets me, for instance, that in Britain, Russia Today, RT, has been closed down. It’s not that I agree with RT particularly, but it’s just that it’s… We were allowed, as 16-year-old schoolboys, to read Pravda, Soviet Weekly. We were introduced to the officials from the regime, and we learned how the other side thought. We learned, we understood. And they had some decent points, by the way, I seem to remember. It didn’t mean that I ended up joining the Communist Party.
Chris Hedges: Well, that’s key. I was a foreign correspondent for 20 years, and you develop a linguistic, a cultural, historical, religious literacy that allows you to look at your own country, in this case step into the shoes of someone from the Middle East, someone from Latin America. Of course, Russia, given its history, was invaded in the 20th century by the Nazis that laid waste to the Soviet Union, and the century before that, Napoleon did the same thing. It has historical reasons to fear encirclement. And of course, I think that is what has been lost, especially with the steep decline in foreign bureaus and foreign coverage. We worked very, very hard to do exactly what you said, which was to present the other perspective. And many times, that perspective had to be heard because it had many legitimate grievances and many legitimate points, I think especially coming out of the Middle East. That’s true.
Peter Oborne: Also, there’s a second point here. I mean, we claim to represent [inaudible]. We claim that free speech is one of our great values. There, you have the First Amendment of your Constitution. We can point to John Stuart Mill and his classic On Liberty defense of free speech. And yet we seem terrified of allowing it. It’s not just that only one point of view can be safely projected on the mass media now in the West, but it’s also that they’re actually closing down channels which present another way of seeing the world. That suggests to me two things, actually. One is a deep insecurity about something, and I think we need to drill down to know what’s going wrong, but also a very emphatic, explicit repudiation of what we actually stand for. It’s not just free speech, of course, which we are now turning our back on, but it’s also the rule of law, and it’s also, in certain respects, democracy itself. It’s a real crisis for the West, a lack of confidence in what we are.
Chris Hedges: Great. That was Peter Oborne. I want to thank The Real News Network and its production team, Cameron Granadino, Adam Coley, Dwayne Gladden, and Kayla Rivara. You can find me at chrishedges.substack.com.