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September 26, 2008

Truth and War Mean Nothing at the Party Conferences


by John Pilger

Britain's political conference season of 2008 will be remembered as The Great Silence. Politicians have come and gone and their mouths have moved in front of large images of themselves, and they often wave at someone. There has been lots of news about each other. Adam Boulton, the political editor of Sky News, and billed as "the husband of Blair aide Anji Hunter," has published a book of gossip derived from his "unrivaled access to No 10." His revelation is that Tony Blair's mouthpiece told lies. The war criminal himself has been absent, but the former mouthpiece has been signing his own book of gossip, and waving. The club is celebrating itself, including all those, Labour and Tory, who gave the war criminal a standing ovation on his last day in parliament and who have yet to vote on, let alone condemn, Britain's part in the wanton human, social and physical destruction of an entire nation. Instead, there are happy debates such as, "Can hope win?" and, my favorite, "Can foreign policy be a Labour strength?" As Harold Pinter said of unmentionable crimes: "Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening, it wasn't happening. It didn't matter. It was of no interest."

The Guardian's economics editor, Larry Elliott, has written that the Prime Minister "resembles a tragic hero in a Hardy novel: an essentially good man brought down by one error of judgment." What is this one error of judgment? The bankrolling of two murderous colonial adventures? No. The unprecedented growth of the British arms industry and the sale of weapons to the poorest countries? No. The replacement of manufacturing and public service by an arcane cult serving the ultra-rich? No. The Prime Minister's "folly" is "postponing the election last year." This is the March Hare Factor.

Following the US

Reality can be detected, however, by applying the Orwell Rule and inverting public pronouncements and headlines, such as "Aggressor Russia facing pariah status, US warns," thereby identifying the correct pariah; or by crossing the invisible boundaries that fix the boundaries of political and media discussion. "When truth is replaced by silence," said the Soviet dissident Yevgeny Yevtushenko, "the silence is a lie."

Understanding this silence is critical in a society in which news has become noise. Silence covers the truth that Britain's political parties have converged and now follow the single-ideology model of the United States. This is different from the political consensus of half a century ago that produced what was known as social democracy. Today's political union has no principled social democratic premises. Debate has become just another weasel word and principle, like the language of Chaucer, is bygone. That the poor and the state fund the rich is a given, along with the theft of public services, known as privatization. This was spelt out by Margaret Thatcher but, more importantly, by new Labour's engineers. In The Blair Revolution: Can New Labour Deliver? Peter Mandelson and Roger Liddle declared Britain's new "economic strengths" to be its transnational corporations, the "aerospace" industry (weapons) and "the preeminence of the City of London." The rest was to be asset-stripped, including the peculiar British pursuit of selfless public service. Overlaying this was a new social authoritarianism guided by a hypocrisy based on "values." Mandelson and Liddle demanded "a tough discipline" and a "hardworking majority" and the "proper bringing-up [sic] of children." And in formally launching his Murdochracy, Blair used "moral" and "morality" 18 times in a speech he gave in Australia as a guest of Rupert Murdoch, who had recently found God.

A "think tank" called Demos exemplified this new order. A founder of Demos, Geoff Mulgan, himself rewarded with a job in one of Blair's "policy units," wrote a book called Connexity. "In much of the world today," he offered, "the most pressing problems on the public agenda are not poverty or material shortage . . . but rather the disorders of freedom: the troubles that result from having too many freedoms that are abused rather than constructively used." As if celebrating life in another solar system, he wrote: "For the first time ever, most of the world's most powerful nations do not want to conquer territory."

That reads, now as it ought to have read then, as dark parody in a world where more than 24,000 children die every day from the effects of poverty and at least a million people lie dead in just one territory conquered by the most powerful nations. However, it serves to remind us of the political "culture" that has so successfully fused traditional liberalism with the lunar branch of western political life and allowed our "too many freedoms" to be taken away as ruthlessly and anonymously as wedding parties in Afghanistan have been obliterated by our bombs.

The product of these organized delusions is rarely acknowledged. The current economic crisis, with its threat to jobs and savings and public services, is the direct consequence of a rampant militarism comparable, in large part, with that of the first half of the last century, when Europe's most advanced and cultured nation committed genocide. Since the 1990s, America's military budget has doubled. Like the national debt, it is currently the largest ever. The true figure is not known, because up to 40 per cent is classified "black" – it is hidden. Britain, with a weapons industry second only to the US, has also been militarized. The Iraq invasion has cost $5trn, at least. The 4,500 British troops in Basra almost never leave their base. They are there because the Americans demand it. On 19 September, Robert Gates, the American defense secretary, was in London demanding $20bn from allies like Britain so that the US invasion force in Afghanistan could be increased to 44,000. He said the British force would be increased. It was an order.

In the meantime, an American invasion of Pakistan is under way, secretly authorized by President Bush. The "change" candidate for president, Barack Obama, had already called for an invasion and more aircraft and bombs. The ironies are searing. A Pakistani religious school attacked by American drone missiles, killing 23 people, was set up in the 1980s with CIA backing. It was part of Operation Cyclone, in which the US armed and funded mujahedin groups that became al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The aim was to bring down the Soviet Union. This was achieved; it also brought down the Twin Towers.

War of the world

On 20 September the inevitable response to the latest invasion came with the bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad. For me, it is reminiscent of President Nixon's invasion of Cambodia in 1970, which was planned as a diversion from the coming defeat in Vietnam. The result was the rise to power of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge. Today, with Taliban guerrillas closing on Kabul and NATO refusing to conduct serious negotiations, defeat in Afghanistan is also coming.

It is a war of the world. In Latin America, the Bush administration is fomenting incipient military coups in Venezuela, Bolivia, and possibly Paraguay, democracies whose governments have opposed Washington's historic rapacious intervention in its "backyard." Washington's "Plan Colombia" is the model for a mostly unreported assault on Mexico. This is the Merida Initiative, which will allow the United States to fund "the war on drugs and organized crime" in Mexico – a cover, as in Colombia, for militarizing its closest neighbor and ensuring its "business stability."

Britain is tied to all these adventures – a British "School of the Americas" is to be built in Wales, where British soldiers will train killers from all corners of the American empire in the name of "global security."

None of this is as potentially dangerous, or more distorted in permitted public discussion, than the war on Russia. Two years ago, Stephen Cohen, professor of Russian Studies at New York University, wrote a landmark essay in the Nation which has now been reprinted in Britain.* He warns of "the gravest threats [posed] by the undeclared Cold War Washington has waged, under both parties, against post-communist Russia during the past 15 years." He describes a catastrophic "relentless winner-take-all of Russia's post-1991 weakness," with two-thirds of the population forced into poverty and life expectancy barely at 59. With most of us in the West unaware, Russia is being encircled by US and NATO bases and missiles in violation of a pledge by the United States not to expand NATO "one inch to the east." The result, writes Cohen, "is a US-built reverse iron curtain [and] a US denial that Russia has any legitimate national interests outside its own territory, even in ethnically akin former republics such as Ukraine, Belarus and Georgia. [There is even] a presumption that Russia does not have full sovereignty within its own borders, as expressed by constant US interventions in Moscow's internal affairs since 1992 . . . the United States is attempting to acquire the nuclear responsibility it could not achieve during the Soviet era."

This danger has grown rapidly as the American media again presents US-Russian relations as "a duel to the death – perhaps literally." The liberal Washington Post, says Cohen, "reads like a bygone Pravda on the Potomac." The same is true in Britain, with the regurgitation of propaganda that Russia was wholly responsible for the war in the Caucasus and must therefore be a "pariah." Sarah Palin, who may end up US president, says she is ready to attack Russia. The steady beat of this drum has seen Moscow return to its old nuclear alerts. Remember the 1980s, writes Cohen, "when the world faced exceedingly grave Cold War perils, and Mikhail Gorbachev unexpectedly emerged to offer a heretical way out. Is there an American leader today ready to retrieve that missed opportunity?" It is an urgent question that must be asked all over the world by those of us still unafraid to break the lethal silence.

*Stephen Cohen's article, "The New American Cold War," is reprinted in full in the current issue of the Spokesman, published by the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation.


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  • John Pilger was born and educated in Sydney, Australia. He has been a war correspondent, film-maker and playwright. Based in London, he has written from many countries and has twice won British journalism's highest award, that of "Journalist of the Year," for his work in Vietnam and Cambodia.

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