From Somalia to Iraq: the hack as collaborator

In this extract from his new book, Philip Hammond says the media-ignited fuss over Bush and Blair’s destruction in Iraq should not blind us to the fact that throughout the 1990s, and still today, journalists collaborated with Western warmongers.

Philip Hammond

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The breakdown of the long-established Cold War ideological framework has been widely understood as presenting a problem for journalists seeking shorthand explanations of new crises and conflicts, but no clear understanding has so far emerged of how the media have responded to this situation.

Commentators have observed, for example, that in the 1990s the first potential replacement for the Cold War frame – the idea of a ‘New World Order’ – was only a short-lived success, which soon gave way to an inchoate idea of generalised disorder and a cacophony of individual reporters’ own ‘personalised perspectives’. Many critics have suggested that a new model of ‘ethnic’ or ‘tribal’ conflict became dominant in the 1990s, a model which offered misleading explanations of why conflict had broken out in Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and which apparently justified inaction rather than intervention.

At the same time, it is also often claimed that greater attention to the suffering of victims of human rights abuses or humanitarian crises offered the possibility of a new role for journalists in pricking the conscience of the West and encouraging greater, more ‘ethical’, international activism. Since 9/11, the ‘war on terror’ has seemed to some to supply a new comprehensive frame, offering a model of global ‘bipolarity’ comparable to the Cold War framework.

There is a grain of truth in all these views, each of which captures some particular aspect of media coverage, and of the wider public debate about how the West should understand and respond to post-Cold War conflicts. Through the comparative study offered in my book, Framing Post-Cold War Conflicts: The Media and International Intervention, it is possible to discern some overall patterns in the way that conflicts and the international responses to them have been framed in press coverage.

Ethnic war and genocide

One of the most misunderstood elements of media coverage of recent conflicts is the theme of ethnicity. A surprise finding of my study is that in coverage of Bosnia, when ‘ethnic hatred’ is often said to have been a prominent, or even the dominant theme, in fact such ideas barely registered in comparison with the dominant view that the war resulted from the aggression of one side. On the evidence examined, the supposed consensus that conflict was the product of mutual ethnic antagonisms did not exist: it was only ever a minor theme.

Even in the case of Rwanda, when notions of ‘tribal conflict’ did initially predominate in news coverage, the importance of such explanations has been overstated by most analysts: this was the prevailing framework, but only for a brief period, and even then it had to compete with a variety of other explanations and did not go uncontested.

The significance claimed for ‘ethnic’ explanations tends to centre on the assertion that this way of framing conflict discourages effective international action, provides an alibi for non-intervention, and distances news audiences from the suffering of victims portrayed as ‘Other’. Although the argument seems a logical one, it is not borne out by the evidence considered in my study.

Firstly, the extent of ‘ethnic’ framing has been exaggerated in cases where it is held to have discouraged greater intervention, particularly Bosnia. Secondly, the presence of similar ideas about ‘ethnic’ or ‘tribal’ divisions in other cases – Somalia, Afghanistan and Kosovo – in no way challenged the consensus in favour of intervention. Indeed, it seems to have had the opposite effect in the case of Somalia, since the more chaotic and ‘tribal’ the country was thought to be, the greater the perceived need for long-term international involvement. In practice, there is no straightforward correspondence between ‘ethnic’ explanations and a non-interventionist policy orientation. Similarly, in Afghanistan post-9/11 the focus on the country’s backward, tribal culture could serve the argument that greater ‘nation-building’ efforts were needed just as well as it could support the argument that British peacekeepers would be at risk in such hostile circumstances.

In terms of both its prominence and its implicit prescriptive significance, ‘ethnic’ framing appears to have been set up as a straw man by advocates of greater Western interventionism, eager to delineate who were the villains and who were the victims in Bosnia and elsewhere. At the same time, the alternative explanations favoured by such advocates have sometimes reintroduced the faulty assumptions ostensibly rejected in the critique of ‘ethnic’ explanations of conflict. In the case of Rwanda, for instance, many commentators have rejected the idea that violence was the spontaneous product of innate tribal hatreds, yet the proposed alternative explanation – seeing the violence as premeditated and systematic genocide – did not produce any greater understanding when it was taken up in press coverage.

Where reporting of ‘tribal massacres’ naturalised supposed differences between Hutu and Tutsi, later reporting of ‘genocidal massacres’ presented the whole country, and indeed the wider region, as defined by its difference, inherently prone to explosive violence, permanently on the edge of a further descent into evil. Simplistic and misleading ideas about tribalism were replaced with equally simplistic ideas about the peculiar and ‘psychotic’ culture of Rwandan society, which had turned tens of thousands of people into obedient killers.

Similarly, where the ‘ethnic’ explanation of conflict in the former Yugoslavia tended to imply that all sides were equally prone to violent hatreds, the alternative view which sought to identify clear villains against whom the West could intervene simply transferred ideas about savagery and irrational ‘bloodlust’ into descriptions of the Serbs. By the time of the Kosovo conflict, the idea that conflict was ‘medieval’ could sit alongside the idea that it was Nazi-style genocide with little sense of incongruity.

It is striking that the term ‘genocide’ was used in relation to every conflict considered in my book except Afghanistan, including descriptions of Somalia’s ‘suigenocide’ and Saddam’s ‘genocidal regime’. Usage was often very loose and in some cases little attempt was made by press commentators to develop any sort of explanation on the basis of this idea. Although, in other cases, explicit explanations were sometimes elaborated, in general accusations of genocide are best understood mainly as a way to indicate that particular events or groups of people deserved the strongest possible moral opprobrium.

This was particularly marked in the case of Kosovo, when the term genocide was used very freely but with almost no attempt to develop this into a proper explanation. Instead, it was hurled around in an effort to assert the most zealous possible ‘moral’ case for intervention. The outrage usually directed at anyone questioning this frame or adopting an alternative explanation suggests that it has been used more as a badge of moral attitudes than as a genuine attempt at explanation. From this perspective, to ask whether recent conflicts can properly be understood as genocide appears as a refusal to acknowledge the suffering of victims by putting violence into its proper moral framework. Yet we can agree that the consequences of conflict are terrible and sympathise with its victims without sacrificing understanding for spurious moral certainty.

Indeed, the genocide frame is highly selective in deciding which groups may be considered ‘worthy victims’, and it allows any violence even against civilians associated with groups defined as evil to be ignored, minimised or justified.

The disturbing feature of many accounts, including those in the media, which explain post-Cold War conflicts in terms of genocide is that the quest for moral simplicity involves distortion. In Bosnia, the adoption of this framework seriously impeded understanding of the nature of the conflict, apparently deliberately, as journalists went out of their way to portray it as a one-sided war of Serbian aggression.

Even in Rwanda, where there is a stronger case for characterising the violence as genocide, the idea tended to be used in a highly simplistic fashion. Important questions about the impact of Western interference prior to April 1994 were closed off and the recent context of civil war was bracketed out, leaving only the suggestion that Hutu refugees were in thrall to a genocidal ideology and that violence against them was therefore justified. In Kosovo, the distortions again appear to have been largely deliberate, with signs that journalists were fully aware that talking up genocide was a calculated propaganda ploy by NATO governments, but they went along with it anyway.

Collusion and collaboration

Given what has been established by many previous studies of the news media, it is not surprising that in every case examined here official Western sources were the most dominant. More significantly, in the majority of cases the editorial position taken by newspapers closely coincided with the line of the British and American governments. Even where criticism was expressed, the most common complaints tended to be either that Western governments were not intervening enough, or that they were intervening in the wrong way. The idea that they should somehow be intervening was almost never contested.

However, it would be misleading to suggest that journalists simply followed the lead of official sources. In some cases they certainly did, most clearly in the case of Kosovo. Yet in other cases there was not the same sort of concerted and coordinated propaganda effort by Western governments as there was over Kosovo in 1999. At least as far as the ‘ethical’ interventions of the 1990s are concerned, journalists were active collaborators in writing the script rather than simply colluding with the presentation offered by official sources.

The use of the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ in discussing Bosnia is a case in point. First put into circulation by Western officials wishing to promote greater intervention by their governments, it was eagerly taken up, elaborated and selectively applied by like-minded journalists, whose reports then contributed to the evidential basis for expert judgements about how the war should be understood. By the time of the Kosovo conflict in 1999, the sorts of justifications promoted by NATO leaders – framing the bombing as an epic struggle of good against evil, drawing comparisons with the Holocaust, and justifying military action in terms of moral values based on human rights – drew on ideas and themes which had been developed by journalists advocating tougher action in Bosnia.

In at least some cases it is clear that media commentators knew that morally simplified justifications for intervention entailed misrepresentation and distortion, but pressed ahead regardless. In the case of Somalia, for example, there was a disconnection between, on the one hand, reports which pointed out that the extent of the crisis was being exaggerated in order to justify intervention, and which also sometimes drew attention to the deliberate creation of media-friendly events by the US, and, on the other, editorial commentaries which chorused approval of the tremendous moral mission supposedly being undertaken by the West.

In general, the media were neither ignorant of the reality of the crises they covered nor entirely uncritical of the policy justifications offered by Western governments. Rather, journalists and political leaders were engaged in a common project of both struggling to understand the post-Cold War world and trying to find a new and meaningful role for Western powers within it.

Legitimacy and sovereign inequality

The legitimacy of Western military intervention was almost never questioned in the press. In this respect – whatever explanations were adopted in relation to particular conflicts – the key organising idea was that of sovereign inequality. The principles of sovereign equality and non-interference which underpinned the post-Second World War UN system were quickly abandoned as outdated and irrelevant after 1989.

With the demise of the Soviet Union as, at least in principle, a counterweight and deterrent to Western power, there no longer seemed to be any reason to respect the sovereignty of weak states. States which abused their own citizens’ human rights, which could not cope with humanitarian emergencies or which presented, through their internal instability and lawlessness, a threat to international order were seen to lack the legitimacy of ‘full’ sovereignty. This perspective has been institutionalised in various ways since the end of the Cold War, including through the apparatus of international criminal courts, as well as being expressed through armed intervention.

It is striking just how quickly this idea was established, appearing as a fully developed justification for international intervention in the 1992 ‘humanitarian mission’ to Somalia. Indeed, in retrospect, it is clear that the idea was already implicit in the notion of a ‘New World Order’ in which the US and its allies would be able to adopt ‘moral’ policies, following an ethical imperative to intervene against illegitimate regimes rather than following the amoral dictates of realpolitik. Already at the end of the 1991 Gulf War, when Western leaders were roundly criticised in the media for not ‘finishing the job’ and overthrowing Saddam, the presumption was that Iraq had forfeited any right to be regarded as an equal sovereign state. Part of Iraq’s territory could be taken out of its control, its airspace could be patrolled by the Western military and the country regularly bombed, and its economy could be regulated and controlled through a stringent sanctions regime. Regardless of the controversies surrounding the issue of weapons of mass destruction in 2003, the argument that the West had the right to intervene in Iraq had decisively been won long before.

In light of the case studies of Bosnia and Rwanda in my book, it is also significant that the idea of the West’s moral imperative to intervene in problem states arose both as an official justification for action and as a criticism of inaction by Western governments. President George Bush Snr presented a ‘moral’ case for intervention against Saddam in 1991 and was then criticised by the media for not intervening enough. In Somalia, the US staged an elaborate and highly publicised ‘humanitarian’ military intervention, justified in terms of a moral obligation to act, and was criticised for not doing enough or for lacking stamina and commitment.

In the case of both Bosnia and Rwanda, the criticisms were similar, with the West apparently lagging behind the demands of media commentators anxious to see ever-tougher intervention. The media’s concern with declining Western prestige and credibility in Bosnia, or their condemnation of the West’s moral failure in Rwanda, appears as a harsh and critical judgement on their own governments, but it was a criticism which presumed more common ground than disagreement. Again, it is best thought of as a collaborative effort on the part of both political leaders and journalists to find ways to bolster Western prestige and to delineate a new and positive role in a changing international landscape. Of course, there have been different ideas about how such a role should be defined, and there have been disagreements over particular policies and particular crises. Yet through my comparative study it has become apparent that the underlying similarities stand out more than the superficial differences.

Sovereign inequality can be conceived of in a variety of ways. It can be presented in terms of a ‘clash of civilisations’, or as a struggle of the civilised against the primitive and barbaric. It can be understood as a moral obligation to help people who are suffering and to end abuses, or as a defensive move against potential sources of instability and disorder. How arguments are made in specific circumstances matters very much at the time, but in the long run much of the debate about how to explain particular conflicts and how to rationalise specific policy choices is secondary to the fact that all these conceptions of the West’s role are ways of thinking about its superiority.

This superiority can be presented in particularist terms, as a defence of national or Western values, or dressed up in the pseudo-universalist garb of human rights. Either way, the results tend to be similar. Looking back, it has been humanitarian and human rights which have provided the more influential and effective formulations. This is a pseudo-universalism because it divides the world, according to ‘moral’ (as opposed to civilisational or cultural) criteria, into the law-givers and the criminals. In doing so, unequal status and unequal treatment are presumed to be justified on the basis of whether a state is deemed to possess ‘full’ sovereignty. The sovereignty of the weak state is ‘conditional’ on the verdict of the strong.

The suggestion that in the 1990s liberal advocates of ethical intervention came into conflict with conservative defenders of traditional ideas about national sovereignty (or indeed the idea that in 2003 left-leaning critics of the Iraq war belatedly became defenders of sovereign equality in order to oppose regime change) is largely untrue. While conservative thinkers in Britain in the 1990s sometimes mounted a defence of their own country’s national sovereignty against the feared encroachments of the European Union, the principle of sovereign equality was almost never defended by anyone.

The habitual differences of tone and stance in the newspapers analysed for this study cannot easily be understood in terms of straightforward left/right divisions. A traditional emphasis on national interests is often identified with a right-of-centre or conservative outlook, while the promotion of multilateral frameworks for ‘humanitarian’ or otherwise ‘ethical’ action tends to be associated with liberal or left-leaning writers. Yet the divisions have rarely been as neat as this. It was left-wingers who lamented Britain’s supposed subservience to imperial America in 2003 and protested that Britain must look to its own interests rather than serving those of the US, while the right-leaning Times of London was a consistently forceful advocate of ‘ethical’ military intervention in Somalia, Bosnia and Kosovo.

Although it is true that objections to British involvement in ‘other people’s wars’ were sometimes couched in terms of there being no British national interest, over the course of the 1990s such arguments were largely superseded by the development of rationales for action on the basis of both interests and values. This was most clearly formulated by Tony Blair in relation to Kosovo, when military action was justified in terms of both an altruistic wish to help the victims of oppression and a self-interested desire to bring stability to a nearby region and prevent refugee flows. In the effort to make intervention appear not only necessary but also meaningful in terms of the West’s positive role in the post-Cold War world, the accent has usually been on the ‘values’ which military action is held to express. But in any case, in practice the arguments which were raised against intervention in particular crises virtually never contested the legitimacy of Western intervention as such.

After 9/11: no new Cold War

A key finding of my study is that the sorts of explanatory frames which developed in the 1990s have been adapted for the ‘war on terrorism’, with the most significant underlying continuity again being the presumption of sovereign inequality.

At first glance, it seems very odd to try to turn a response to a terrorist attack into a quasi-humanitarian mission involving aid drops and measures to end human rights abuses in Afghanistan, or to switch from scaremongering about WMD to promises of liberation and democracy in Iraq. Understandably, many critics have seen such ‘add-on’ justifications as mere window-dressing, as throwing some loftier-sounding rhetoric into the mix in order to win round sceptics and shore up both domestic and international support. Indeed, the proliferation of different sorts of explanations and rationales itself probably adds to the suspicions of anti-war critics that there must be some hidden conspiracy or interest involved.

In fact, however, the combination of different reasons for waging war in the case of both Afghanistan and Iraq was premised on the idea that intervention is justified on the grounds of sovereign inequality, summed up in the idea that the former was a problem because it was a ‘failed’ state, or that the latter presented a threat because it was an ‘outlaw’ state. Either way, these were not ‘proper’ states and needed to be transformed for both security and moral reasons. These were attempts to restate the ‘interests and values’ formula offered by Blair as his ‘doctrine of international community’ in 1999.

It was on the basis of the broader arguments about ‘values’ that the liberal broadsheets put aside their antipathy to George W Bush and, albeit conditionally, supported the war on terrorism in Afghanistan. So long as it could be understood as not merely a war of self-defence or of US national interest, but a war which would deliver humanitarian relief and improve human rights while diplomatic efforts concentrated on resolving the grievances of the Middle East – so long, in other words, as it entailed an ethical mission to transform the region as much as possible – the UK Guardian and Independent were in favour.

Even more strikingly, as US policy began to be reassessed in a more critical light in December 2001, with the Guardian especially mistrustful of US motives, the objection was not that the future government of Afghanistan was decided in Bonn rather than Kabul, and by Western donors rather than Afghans. Rather, the criticism was that the US was not sufficiently committed to long-term nation-building. The attempts of the new Afghan government to limit the number of foreign troops and to halt US airstrikes, which continued to cause civilian casualties, were brushed aside. Such was the consensus in favour of intervention that this high-handed treatment attracted no critical comment, even from those who had expressed misgivings about the war. As seen time and again, from Somalia in 1992 to Iraq in 2003, the loudest complaint voiced in the press has been that the West does not do enough to reorganise other societies.

One might think that the combination of values and security interests had found a near perfect expression in the war on terrorism. The enemy, so far as one can be identified, professes open antipathy to Western values, while the shocking destruction of 9/11 surely made the threat real enough. Given the underlying agreement on the legitimacy of Western interference in weak states, it is perhaps difficult see why, at least in Britain, the war on terrorism has proved to be rather a flop. Whereas, to a greater or lesser extent, all newspapers supported British and/or American military action in almost every other case in the post-Cold War era considered in my book, they divided sharply over the 2003 Iraq war, and despite the media’s wide take-up of the anti-terror theme in 2001 there has been little sign of any enthusiasm for defending either the interests or the values which are supposed to be at stake.

The war on terrorism cannot plausibly be seen as a viable replacement for the Cold War framework. It is true, of course, that neo-conservative thinkers have sought to present it in these terms, but their efforts have not been very successful. The main limitation is the difficulty of articulating the distinctive values which are to be defended and propagated. Since these are supposed to be shared by some but hated by others, notably Islamist terrorists and their sympathisers, some critics have accused politicians and the media of adopting a ‘clash of civilisations’ framework or of conducting a crusade against Islam. Yet while a few right-wing ideologues might wish to frame contemporary conflict in these terms, it is hardly a popular idea; nor is it likely to become so.

Instead, the promotion of the idea of defending ‘our’ values is defensive and apologetic. As illustrated in press coverage of Afghanistan, the supposedly confident and aggressive espousal of ‘Western values’ in the war on terror was transformed almost instantly into an admission of past failures, as the problem of failed states was widely understood in terms of ‘blowback’ from previous Western policy, and a feeling that terrorist attacks must be an expression of understandable grievances caused by earlier Western wrongdoing. Notwithstanding Bush’s ‘with us or against us’ rhetoric, the war on terror has not galvanised popular enthusiasm for Western values but has instead, in the case of Iraq, produced divisions within and between Western nations.

A further limitation of the war on terrorism frame is that, in the formulation of interests and values, the ‘interests’ half of the equation is presented in terms of fear. The attempt to inspire action through fear is apt to backfire, of course, when threats turn out to have been exaggerated or made up. More importantly, fear is at least as likely to be interpreted as a reason for inaction as it is to inspire action. Debates about war in recent years have often been couched in terms of whether to act now to avert danger or whether acting in itself increases the risks. Neither side of the discussion questions the assumption that Western intervention in weaker states is legitimate in principle, and since the 2003 Iraq war the US and Britain have again been criticised for not intervening more, in Sudan and elsewhere, just as they were in relation to Rwanda and Bosnia a decade earlier.

It appears that any contemporary formulation of America’s ‘manifest destiny’ or Britain’s global role is likely to be cut from essentially the same cloth as the ethical interventionism of the 1990s, whatever the political orientation of the next incumbents of the White House or Downing Street.

Philip Hammond is Reader in Media and Communications at London South Bank University. The above is an edited extract from his book Framing Post-Cold War Conflicts: The Media and International Intervention, published by Manchester University Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) He is also the author of Media, War and Postmodernity, published by Routledge and reviewed in the spiked review of books in November 2007. Read the review here, and buy the book from Amazon(UK) here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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