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By lara keller (last updated 14th March 2017)

Owen Jones and “progressive” foreign policy (2).

A highly popular book called “The Establishment” by the fresh faced UK Oxford educated “radical” left journalist, historian and pundit Owen Jones, provides a neat encapsulation of this “foul abscess” when he talks about foreign policy in the MENA region. The book’s main theme deals with the question of how the elites in the UK (“The Establishment”) have subverted democracy in that country. In a characteristic ordering of “progressive” priorities foreign policy is relegated to the last chapter (number 8) before the conclusion. This chapter’s focus is on the UK Establishment’s slavish attitude to the imperialism of the US elites.

I think his subeditor must have been flagging by page 270 (talking about the Penguin 2014 paperback version), as the Second World War and the issue of defeating the evil of Nazism is dismissed in a single sentence: “The modern alliance [between UK and US] was only forged in World War II, when scores of American soldiers were sent to Britain and remained on British soil long after the fall of Hitler.” Scores? In the same way saving Europe from oppression by Stalinist Russia is expressed as: “It was Britain’s post-war Labour [reforming socialist] government under Clement Attlee that brought the country solidly into the US-led sphere of influence by joining Nato in 1949, and under the Conservatives it became a nuclear power in 1952”.

Jones then moves on to Tony Blair’s New Labour government in the UK, and its support for the disastrous US led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in the wake of 9/11 terrorist attacks. He describes the threat to civil liberties in the UK as a result of the response to fundamentalist terrorism these invasions partly stimulated. There is eleven pages of this.

The Arab Democratic Spring from 2011 onwards is dealt with briefly in comparison:

“With US power declining, the Establishment dogma behind the special relationship [between US and UK] may be weakening too, as an abortive build up to military action would illustrate. From 2011 onwards, the despotic rulers of the Middle East were challenged by a wave of revolutions quickly labelled the Arab Spring. One such uprising exploded in Syria, but it began to degenerate into a sectarian bloodbath, with Iran helping to prop up the regime of Bashar al-Assad, Qatari autocracies bankrolling rebel groups by fundamentalist Islamists. Western states supported Assad’s overthrow. In the summer of 2013, hundreds of Syrian civilians were gassed to death, almost certainly by regime forces. A western military strike appeared inevitable, and the British government recalled Parliament to win legislative backing for such action. But, unexpectedly, the Labour leadership broke ranks with the Conservative-led coalition government. As far as Establishment dogma was concerned they had gone off script. The coalition’s motion on intervention was defeated, marking a near-unprecedented rejection of a government’s position on matters of war and peace.

The vote provoked fury from large swathes of the Establishment. The Sun [a popular reactionary tabloid] ran a front page with the headline ‘DEATH NOTICE’, and the text underneath read: ‘THE SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP. Died at home after a sudden illness on Thursday, August 29, 2013, aged 67. Beloved offspring of Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

And yet, once again, polls revealed just how distant British public opinion was from Establishment dogma. Weary of being dragged by their rulers into disastrous wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, a large majority of voters rejected any British military intervention in Syria. Not only did 72 per cent disagree that the ‘special relationship’ was undermined’, but 67 per cent felt that the special relationship was ‘not relevant’ in the modern age, and we should not be concerned about hurting ‘American feelings’. Nonetheless, support for US power remains an article of faith among the British Establishment.”

[pages 286-287 “The Establishment” Owen Jones Penguin 2014]

Jones presents the UK parliament vote against intervention in August 2013 as some kind of triumph for UK progressive politics against the Establishment’s policy of supporting US imperialism. In reality in August 2013 in the Damascus suburb of East Ghouta around 1000 mostly women and children were killed by the nerve gas Sarin. This war crime was beyond reasonable doubt committed by the Assad regime (the regime started using chemical weapons in Homs in Decemebr2012). It came a year and a day after President Obama’s declaration that the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime would be a “red line”. The massacre openly broke an important moratorium on the use of chemical weapons in warfare, last broken by Saddam Hussein’s attack on Iraqi Kurds and the war with Iran in the 1980s.

What is entirely absent in Jones’ account is the brutality of the Assad dictatorship that has ruled Syria since 1970, and the genocidal war the regime has been conducting against ordinary Syrians since 2011 (regime is responsible for 95+% of all civilian causalities). The Syrian people or their recent history do not appear even briefly in Jones’ summary of the Syrian Revolution.

The short description of the Syrian Revolution he presents is a gross distortion. Assad’s foreign support system includes China, Russia and Iran. The main conflict concerns replacing the Assad elitist dictatorship with a representative government. Sectarianism is one of the tools used by the regime since its creation, they are mainly responsible for it. Most of the opposition are mainstream, with a minority of “fundamentalist Islamists”. Western elites including Zionists do not want the overthrow of the self-serving Assad regime. Neither do they want representative government in the MENA region. In the same way Western elites have promoted its degradation in the West. The vote in the UK parliament was a useful cover for these elites including Obama to do nothing. [See this series of articles starting with for a summary of the Assad regime and the Syrian Revolution.]

Nothing Jones says about Syria is actually true, apart from Qatar being an autocratic monarchy (although it is less reactionary than the rest of the Gulf monarchies, with Saudi Arabia at the apex). Most importantly the vote in the UK parliament against intervention in Syria was actually a triumph for the “Establishment” not against it.

Chapter 8 of “The Establishment” on foreign policy finishes with the contradictory Eurosceptism of much of the “Establishment” and the excessive corporate influence in the European Union. This is something of a non-issue for the UK now after its disastrous Brexit vote in 2016. Naturally Jones has nothing to say about how ordinary people in the European Union, can end the “democratic deficit”. Jones’ book (like many fashionable progressive diatribes) is strong on exposing a long list of selected symptoms, but the anti-climactic concluding chapter “A Democratic Revolution” is weak on solutions.

This general “progressive deficit” of the pseudo Left is at its most prominent and glaring in protest campaigns that involve foreign policy. I look at the human rights history of the Assad regime and the essentially indifferent response of most Western “progressives”, and see part of a “foul abscess” that is a definitive indication of the root causes of their ineffectiveness. The Syrian Crisis is not obviously the cause of this, but has created a symptom that needs urgent attention. Fighting for ordinary Syrians and the Syrian Revolution will do us a lot of good. It is only pride that stands in our way.

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