Profits_of_doom_cover_350Vulture capitalism has seen the corporation become more powerful than the state, and yet its work is often done by stealth, supported by political and media elites. The result is privatised wars and outsourced detention centres, mining companies pillaging precious land in developing countries and struggling nations invaded by NGOs and the corporate dollar. Best-selling journalist Antony Loewenstein travels to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Haiti, Papua New Guinea and across Australia to witness the reality of this largely hidden world of privatised detention centres, outsourced aid, destructive resource wars and militarized private security. Who is involved and why? Can it be stopped? What are the alternatives in a globalised world? Profits of Doom, published in 2013 and released in an updated edition in 2014, challenges the fundamentals of our unsustainable way of life and the money-making imperatives driving it. It is released in an updated edition in 2014.
forgodssakecover Four Australian thinkers come together to ask and answer the big questions, such as: What is the nature of the universe? Doesn't religion cause most of the conflict in the world? And Where do we find hope?   We are introduced to different belief systems – Judaism, Christianity, Islam – and to the argument that atheism, like organised religion, has its own compelling logic. And we gain insight into the life events that led each author to their current position.   Jane Caro flirted briefly with spiritual belief, inspired by 19th century literary heroines such as Elizabeth Gaskell and the Bronte sisters. Antony Loewenstein is proudly culturally, yet unconventionally, Jewish. Simon Smart is firmly and resolutely a Christian, but one who has had some of his most profound spiritual moments while surfing. Rachel Woodlock grew up in the alternative embrace of Baha'i belief but became entranced by its older parent religion, Islam.   Provocative, informative and passionately argued, For God's Sakepublished in 2013, encourages us to accept religious differences, but to also challenge more vigorously the beliefs that create discord.  
After Zionism, published in 2012 and 2013 with co-editor Ahmed Moor, brings together some of the world s leading thinkers on the Middle East question to dissect the century-long conflict between Zionism and the Palestinians, and to explore possible forms of a one-state solution. Time has run out for the two-state solution because of the unending and permanent Jewish colonization of Palestinian land. Although deep mistrust exists on both sides of the conflict, growing numbers of Palestinians and Israelis, Jews and Arabs are working together to forge a different, unified future. Progressive and realist ideas are at last gaining a foothold in the discourse, while those influenced by the colonial era have been discredited or abandoned. Whatever the political solution may be, Palestinian and Israeli lives are intertwined, enmeshed, irrevocably. This daring and timely collection includes essays by Omar Barghouti, Jonathan Cook, Joseph Dana, Jeremiah Haber, Jeff Halper, Ghada Karmi, Antony Loewenstein, Saree Makdisi, John Mearsheimer, Ahmed Moor, Ilan Pappe, Sara Roy and Phil Weiss.
The 2008 financial crisis opened the door for a bold, progressive social movement. But despite widespread revulsion at economic inequity and political opportunism, after the crash very little has changed. Has the Left failed? What agenda should progressives pursue? And what alternatives do they dare to imagine? Left Turn, published by Melbourne University Press in 2012 and co-edited with Jeff Sparrow, is aimed at the many Australians disillusioned with the political process. It includes passionate and challenging contributions by a diverse range of writers, thinkers and politicians, from Larissa Berendht and Christos Tsiolkas to Guy Rundle and Lee Rhiannon. These essays offer perspectives largely excluded from the mainstream. They offer possibilities for resistance and for a renewed struggle for change.
The Blogging Revolution, released by Melbourne University Press in 2008, is a colourful and revelatory account of bloggers around the globe why live and write under repressive regimes - many of them risking their lives in doing so. Antony Loewenstein's travels take him to private parties in Iran and Egypt, internet cafes in Saudi Arabia and Damascus, to the homes of Cuban dissidents and into newspaper offices in Beijing, where he discovers the ways in which the internet is threatening the ruld of governments. Through first-hand investigations, he reveals the complicity of Western multinationals in assisting the restriction of information in these countries and how bloggers are leading the charge for change. The blogging revolution is a superb examination about the nature of repression in the twenty-first century and the power of brave individuals to overcome it. It was released in an updated edition in 2011, post the Arab revolutions, and an updated Indian print version in 2011.
The best-selling book on the Israel/Palestine conflict, My Israel Question - on Jewish identity, the Zionist lobby, reporting from Palestine and future Middle East directions - was released by Melbourne University Press in 2006. A new, updated edition was released in 2007 (and reprinted again in 2008). The book was short-listed for the 2007 NSW Premier's Literary Award. Another fully updated, third edition was published in 2009. It was released in all e-book formats in 2011. An updated and translated edition was published in Arabic in 2012.

How Israel brutally imposes regional order (yet fails to get respect)

A strong piece by Larry Derfner in +972 magazine:

Most people in the West, I’d say, think that if Israel gives up the occupation, it will be healed. It will no longer be a danger to others and itself. Unfortunately, that’s not the case, and additional proof of this came Monday night when Israeli jet bombers again struck Hezbollah in Lebanon. The attack was another reminder that even if Israel were to get out of the West Bank and adopt a hands-off policy toward Gaza, it still believes it has the right to bomb neighboring countries to retard their military develoIpment, all the while Israel itself, of course, goes on building its arsenal to the heavens.

That won’t change if Israel signs a peace treaty with the Palestinians. Hezbollah will still be arming itself across the border, Muslim countries will sooner or later try to build nuclear weapons. And Israel won’t tolerate that; Israel will keep sending out the jet bombers (unless, as in the case with Iran, America puts its foot down).

Israel’s regional military policy – bombing Iraq’s embryonic nuclear reactor (which marked not the end of Saddam’s nuclear program, but really its beginning), bombing Syria’s embryonic nuclear reactor, killing Iranian nuclear scientists, killing Hezbollah’s military chief, bombing Hamas-bound arms convoys in Sudan, and, the latest obsession, bombing Hezbollah-bound arms convoys along the Lebanese-Syrian border – is more dangerous, at least in the short term, than the occupation. Any of these attacks could start a war, and eventually one of them is likely to do just that, unless you believe that Israel can go on hitting its neighbors indefinitely without them ever hitting back. (Since the 2006 war in Lebanon, the blowback has been limited to a Hezbollah terror attack that killed five Israelis on a tourist bus in Burgas, Bulgaria, and an Iranian attack on the Israeli embassy in New Delhi that injured the wife of a diplomat.)

Another way in which Israel’s regional military policy is a worse problem than the occupation is the complete acceptance of it by the country’s Jewish majority, and the apathy toward it from the Western world. That these attacks are acts of military aggression by a regional superpower using bombs to maintain its “qualitative edge” doesn’t seem to matter to anyone; Hezbollah is bad, Iran is bad, Syria is bad, they’re all bad, and Israel is good, or at least relatively good, so anything goes. (As long as it doesn’t backfire.) These enemies are “pledged to Israel’s destruction,” they’re “militant Islamists,” so Israel can attack them to its heart’s content. They don’t have to fire any missiles at Israel, they just have to possess those missiles (which are a pittance compared to Israel’s), and any Israeli bombing run on their territory automatically becomes “self-defense.”

It goes without saying that if any of the neighbors bombed Israel’s advanced weapons or killed its nuclear scientists or even tried to fly a spy plane through its airspace, which Israel does about every other day in Lebanon, it would be treated as an act of war, an attempt to destroy this country.

You would think that a nation which is so much stronger than its enemies, which attacks them time after time without getting hit back, would one day say: “What do you know – they’re afraid of me. That means I don’t have to attack them – I just have to sit on my military superiority and I’ll be safe. There’s a name for this, isn’t there? Oh yeah – deterrence.” Israel’s deterrence, as seen again in Monday night’s lethal, unanswered attack on Hezbollah, is absolutely incredible. Hezbollah, Syria, Iran – as much as they loathe Israel, as much as they’d love to attack it, not only don’t they attack, they very rarely lift a finger when Israel attacks them! Yet this country goes on doing it because it believes that if these enemies ever get even a fraction of the sophisticated weaponry Israel has, they will go for the kill.

The problem with this theory is it assumes that Iraq, Syria, Iran and Hezbollah (not to mention the Palestinians, who have been under attack 24/7 for nearly half a century) are willing to destroy themselves for the sake of destroying this country. Because no matter how strong they get, they will never be able to carry out a crushing, life-threatening attack on Israel, even with nuclear weapons, without ending up in smoking ruins themselves.

But Israeli policy is based on the assumption that its enemies are willing – no, eager – to pay that price. They are willing to die en masse for the privilege of annihilating the Jewish state. And there’s no deterrence against that, there’s only, as Prime Minister Netanyahu likes to call it, “vigilance.”

Yet what does this assumption say about Israel’s view of its enemies? That they’re not exactly human. They’re willing to sacrifice their entire country, their entire society, for the sake of destroying this one. What human society has ever been willing to do that? What species of animal has ever been homicidal to the point of collective suicide? Yet this is what Israel believes about its enemies, which is why it can’t stop bombing them. We’re up against a “culture of death.” As Golda Meir said, in one of the most beloved aphorisms of Zionist history, “Peace will come when the Arabs will love their children more than they hate us.”

This is what we believe: that the Arabs hate us more than they love their children.

There is a term for an attitude such as ours: “dehumanization.”

It is dehumanization of Arabs, of Muslims, that causes Israel to go on bombing its enemies even when those enemies don’t retaliate, even when they are incomparably weaker than Israel, even when it’s self-evident to Israel that those enemies know how weak they are and how strong Israel is. We bomb them because we know that if they ever stop being weak, they will kill us, even though they know we will kill them, too, because they don’t care. They hate us more than they love their own children.

They’re not human. There’s no deterrence against them. Only vigilance.

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Why it’s time for UN sanctions against Australia

My weekly Guardian column is published today:

This month, the United Nations accused Canberra of potentially breaking international law by forcibly repelling refugee boats back to Indonesia. Adrian Edwards, spokesman for the UN high commissioner for refugees, said that the international body was “concerned by any policy or practice that involved pushing asylum-seeker boats back at sea without a proper consideration of individual needs for protection.” He continued: “any such approach would raise significant issues and potentially place Australia in breach of its obligations under the 1951 refugee convention and other international law obligations.”

The comments were brushed aside as soon as they were uttered. Prime minister Tony Abbott’s administration insists that its policies are legal and safe, and the vast bulk of Australians apparently back even harsher methods against asylum seekers. It is now clear who has won this battle, and it isn’t the forces pushing for moderation.

After 20 years of steadily increasing cruelty towards refugees, it’s time to admit that we’ve reached a stalemate. Simply arguing for a more humane approach has failed. Reason, international law and common sense are no match against inflammatory media reporting, false fears about asylum seekers living in the community, and politicians proudly punishing the most vulnerable in the name of “deterrence.”

Enter the need for a new approach, one that seriously ups the ante: sanctions against the Australian state for ignoring humanitarian law. Australia deserves nothing less. A price must be paid, in a political and economic sense, for flagrantly breaching Australian and international conventions. This could be directed at both the multinationals such as Serco and G4S, who are administering the government’s policies, and the bank accounts and assets maintained by government ministers and officials.

Australian citizens must feel this global isolation in their daily lives, and be made to realise that business as usual is a choice that will bring tough penalties. Locking up children on remote Pacific islands, without proper medical or psychological care, is designed for only one purpose: pain. States opposed to these breaches must gather together and take action, regardless of the inevitable short-term bleating from the Australian government. Activists around the world and at home must have a clear target and goal: to make Canberra believe that the ramifications are simply too high to maintain the current system of a privatised detention network.

Western state powers believe they are immune from prosecution. The idea of a senior western leader or official being charged for war crimes or abuses of power is almost unheard of. The recent news that British human rights lawyers are pushing for the International Criminal Court (ICC) to prosecute local military figures and politicians over serial breaches against detainees in Iraq after 2003 was an important reminder that it isn’t only presidents in dictatorships that might face the wrath of The Hague. We are surely not far away from a precedent being set with the sight of a London or Washington-based official found guilty for covering up systematic assaults against Iraqis or Afghans during the last decade.

Journalist Glenn Greenwald’s book, With Liberty and Justice for Some, explains how the US system is designed to protect the powerful at the expense of the majority. There are countless officials after 9/11 who haven’t been jailed for ordering and performing waterboarding, sexual assaults, illegal interrogations, hiding prisoners in black sites and invading nations. President Barack Obama has ferociously protected the worst abusers, including CIA torturers, and provided immunity.

The relevance to Australia is clear. Western leaders live under the belief that they can behave as they like to the powerless and invisible. Asylum seekers are essentially voiceless, reporters are barred from visiting where they’re warehoused in Nauru and Papua New Guinea, and the daily drumbeat of dishonest rhetoric wrongly accuses them of being “illegal”.

Even the threat of sanctions against Australia would enrage the Abbott government and its backers. Australia is a democracy, they will claim. Australia’s decisions are checked and approved by lawyers, they may argue. Australians can vote out recalcitrant regimes, they could state.

And yet transparency over asylum seeker policy has arguably never been more absent. There are far too few journalists dedicated to investigating the refugee issue, media organisations prefer sending their “journalists” to junkets in Los Angeles promoting Australian celebrities, and the result is an immigration bureaucracy that rightly believes its actions have few consequences, shielded from censure.

Sanctions against Australia would wake them up immediately – even though the usefulness of traditional sanctions are questionable. Imagine if immigration minister Scott Morrison feared leaving the country amidst threats of questioning if he landed at Heathrow airport because of the abuse of asylum seekers in his care.

The first, obvious step is rousing worldwide support to place serious pressure on Australia and make its officials and leaders uncomfortable. Ask them tough questions in global forums. Demand they explain why dumping vulnerable men, women and children in isolated prison camps doesn’t warrant sanctions. Tell them that the humane treatment of asylum seekers, at a time when the globe is struggling to cope with millions of displaced Syrians and growing numbers of climate refugees, is vital in a connected world.

The Australian government feels invincible, protected under America’s security blanket and selling its dirty coal to the world. We are sold the myth that building remote detention camps will protect us from the “hordes” trying to enter our promised land. It’s impossible not to conclude that Australia, a colonial construction, doesn’t see itself akin to Canada, the US and Israel as countries struggling to cope with people various officials call “infiltrators”. That bubble must be burst, and the threats of sanctions will be the required shot. Until Australia and its defenders appreciate the necessity to treat asylum seekers with dignity and respect, they should feel the world’s opprobrium.

Talk is no longer enough. The UN has had more than 20 years to convince Australia to abandon mandatory detention and its associated ills. Frankly, it hasn’t tried hard enough. Absent of a complete overhaul of the UN system, something that is long overdue, let legitimate legal sanctions be threatened and used.

It’s a price every Australian, myself included, should feel.

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Why the Wikileaks Party visit to Syria was so delusional

My weekly Guardian column is published below:

The sight of Australian citizens associated with the WikiLeaks party sitting and chatting with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad during their recent “solidarity mission”, along with their comments about the regime, is a damning indictment on a party that ran a dismal election campaign in 2013 and has never bothered to explain its subsequent collapse.

For WikiLeaks supporters such as myself (I have been backing the group since 2006), this latest PR exercise is nothing more than an act of stunning political bastardry. It does nothing to push for true peace in Syria, and essentially amounts to a propaganda coup for a brutal dictatorship. It’s also a slap in the face to the WikiLeaks backers who are still expecting answers about why the party imploded without public review or reflection.

The problem isn’t meeting Assad himself. He’s the (unelected) leader of Syria and an essential part of any resolution of the conflict, still supported by many Syrians who fear Islamic fundamentalism. Saudi Arabian-backed extremism across the Middle East, implicitly supported by the Western powers now focused on Assad’s butchery, is spreading sectarian carnage by pitting Sunni against Shia, leading to the death of thousands. Syrian civilians are suffering the full brunt of this madness. Saudi funding for Syrian “rebels” – in essence backing Al-Qaida terrorism – is repeating the playbook used against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, enriching militants in a battle that will inevitably come back to bite the Saudis and their Western allies.

A third way is, for the time being, out of sight. And in this context, it’s hard to see how the WikiLeaks party can judiciously show solidarity to Syria’s besieged people.

When the WikiLeaks party delegation returned to Australia, various members expressed their views about the trip. Activist Jamal Daoud, who wrote in 2012 that he supported Assad, blogged that he had heard while in Syria that “the alternative to the regime is total chaos.” Although acknowledging that meetings were held with both regime and rebel representatives, Daoud clearly believes that the regime remaining in place is the ideal outcome.

John Shipton, chief executive of the party and the father of Julian Assange, spoke to ABC Radio in Melbourne to defend the mission. He mouthed the talking points of the regime itself – that they’re fighting terrorism in cities and towns across the country – and claimed that the WikiLeaks party is planning to set up an office in Damascus in 2014. “We’ll continue to expose the truth to the Australian people and to our international audience”, he said. Shipton added that as the delegation walked around Damascus, they found “a lot of support for the government” – which is undoubtedly true, but likely to be similar to journalists being taken around by minders from Saddam Hussein in Iraq and finding nearly universal backing for the dictator.

Sydney University academic Tim Anderson – who wrote in 2007 that Cuba is a democracy and the US is not, ignoring the lack of an open press and the Castro brothers’ authoritarian ruling in the process – also defended his participation in the mission after The Australian newspaper attacked him. He went on to state: “forget the absurd myth of a single man [Assad] ‘killing his own people’. That line is designed to pull the wool over our eyes. This is a ‘regime change’ exercise that went wrong, because Syria resisted.”

It is deeply problematic that Anderson and other side players downplay or brush aside the gross abuses committed by the regime, which have occurred both during the war and during Bashar and his father Hafez’s decades-long rule.

Considering how the mainstream media will spin such a trip must be a major consideration when talking about “truth” in a modern, complex war. How support for a peaceful resolution practically occurs when facts on the ground are notoriously difficult to assess should be the heart of the matter. Instead, it appears that the WikiLeaks party was caught up in an inevitable maelstrom of their own naive making. If you visit Syria and are pictured meeting Assad, you should make damn sure you’re on the front foot to rebut the likely criticisms and provide a cogent and detailed rebuttal to what you saw, and why a few WikiLeaks party members from Australia can make any difference to the war. You should also know that any “solidarity mission” to Syria will be used by either side as a way to bolster their claims and defend their own crimes, of which there have been plenty by all sides.

Moral and political clarity is vital – which is why, for example, the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez was rightly condemned in my view after he voiced support for Iran and Syria in the process of opposing “US imperialism“, and refused to oppose human rights abuses in both nations. Equally, being a supporter of the Palestinians’ right to self-determination shouldn’t automatically lead to backing Fatah or Hamas, two groups with a documented record of abusing their own citizens.

The situation in Syria is dire, with dirty hands on all sides. As it stands, the solution is not with the Baath party, nor the Al-Qaida-aligned rebels – but this is a decision for the Syrian people to decide. Encouraging a peaceful settlement and negotiations must be the goal. The WikiLeaks organisation remains an essential tool in holding governments to account, but its Australian-based party’s visit to Syria exposes the dangers of believing that the “enemy’s enemy is my friend”. It is not.

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Wikileaks Party meets Syria’s Assad and ignores reality of country

It’s the first day of 2014 and what a way to begin the new year.

Today’s Australian newspaper features this story on page one by Jared Owens and Rick Morton. As a Wikileaks supporter since 2006, right from the beginning (and I remain a public backer of the organisation), it’s tragic to see the Wikileaks Party in Australia, after a disastrous 2013 election campaign, descend into political grandstanding. My comments below were based around tweets I sent a few days ago to former Wikileaks Campaign Director Greg Barns.

The conflict in Syria is filled with Western and Saudi hypocrisy and brutality on all sides:

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has condemned the WikiLeaks Party’s “extremely reckless” meeting with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, warning the foray is “deeply counterproductive” and undermines sanctions placed on the pariah regime.

But John Shipton, who is Julian Assange’s father and chief executive of the WikiLeaks Party, defended his decision to meet Assad, saying it was better than siding with “the liver-eaters and the head-choppers” of the rebel opposition.

Some of WikiLeaks’ most steadfast supporters, however, joined the government and opposition in condemning the “solidarity mission” to Syria that toured Damascus and was shown in state-run media visiting senior members of the regime.

Police also disputed the regime’s claims to the delegation that Canberra had “turned a blind eye” to a prominent Sydney imam who was allegedly “responsible for” the kidnapping of 106 women and children during a massacre of civilians by jihadi rebels on August 4.

The Foreign Minister warned that the WikiLeaks mission, which claimed to represent Australia, “could be interpreted as a show of support for President Assad’s behaviour”.

“I find it extraordinarily reckless that an organisation registered as a political party in Australia would seek to insert itself into the conflict in Syria and engage with a leader accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including using chemical weapons against his own people,” Ms Bishop told The Australian.

“Their actions could be interpreted as a show of support for President Assad’s behaviour. Further, the Syrian regime is subject to wide-ranging sanctions and WikiLeaks’ actions are deeply counterproductive.

“Australia, as a member of the UN Security Council, is actively pursuing humanitarian efforts in Syria. It is not a place for political parties to pursue their political ends.”

Mr Shipton insisted his party’s enemies would attempt to smear the “fact-finding” mission to Syria.

He claimed the mission mirrored international efforts to find a peaceful solution to the conflict after almost three years of bloodshed and more than 125,000 deaths.

“We’re clearly on the right side of history here, and who would want to be on the side of the liver-eaters and the head-choppers that plague the poor people of Syria?” Mr Shipton said.

“I have no interest in supporting the Syrian government at all, or the opposition. That’s their thing they fight about.

“I’m interested in the effect on the people of Syria and the strategies the contending (regional and world) powers are putting into place there.

“In Damascus they’ve got four hours of electricity a day and random mortar fire at night … You could smell the aftermath of gunfire in the air.”

Mr Shipton was spending New Year’s Eve with Mr Assange, who is being harboured in the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

Ecuador supports the Syrian government and has offered asylum to Assad and his inner circle if they ask for it.

Author Antony Loewenstein, a supporter of WikiLeaks, backed “peaceful dialogue” with Assad but insisted the WikiLeaks Party’s solidarity mission “whitewashes the crimes of the regime”.

“It’s sad to see the WikiLeaks Party visit Syria and show ‘solidarity’ with Assad, a brutal dictator who is responsible for the death of countless civilians. The Saudi and Western-backed ‘rebels’ are equally complicit in war crimes,” Mr Loewenstein said. The head of the Islamic Friendship Association, Keysar Trad, accused the WikiLeaks Party of blatant hypocrisy for giving Assad the publicity coup of being visited by an Australian delegation.

“It’s very disappointing to see WikiLeaks, which supports openness and human rights, to be meeting with one of the biggest human rights abusers of our time,” Mr Trad said.

“It’s disrespectful to all the families who have been victims of the Assad regime.”

Mr Trad defended the prominent Sydney imam whom Syrian officials claimed was involved in the kidnapping of 106 women and children during a massacre of civilians by rebels in the province of Latakia on August 4.

These claims were made to the WikiLeaks delegation.

Mr Trad said he personally knew the imam, describing him as an eminent scholar and respected member of the Australian community.

It was implausible that the sheik would have been involved in any form of violent activity in Syria, he said.

NSW Police Deputy Commissioner Nick Kaldas yesterday said NSW Police had not heard of any such claims against the imam. Mr Kaldas said federal agencies would routinely alert NSW Police about any such allegations concerning someone from NSW.

Opposition frontbencher Chris Bowen described the WikiLeaks mission as an “extraordinary” and “irresponsible” development that was “surprising even for them”.

“The Assad regime has been widely criticised, and correctly criticised around the world, and for an Australian political party to think it’s sensible to go and have discussions and try to provide some legitimacy is something which they have to explain and they would find very difficult to explain how that’s a sensible, responsible or appropriate thing to do,” Mr Bowen.

But three other senior WikiLeaks party figures – former Senate candidates Alison Broinowski, Gerry Georgatos and deputy chairman Omar Todd – backed the delegation’s motives.

Mr Georgatos likened it to the first olive branches offered to South African leaders that ultimately dismantled apartheid.

The Greens declined an opportunity to comment.

Mr Shipton said individual delegates – himself, University of Sydney academic Tim Anderson (who was acquitted of the 1978 Sydney Hilton bombing), Sydney Shia activist Jamal Daoud and WikiLeaks activist Gail Malone – paid the “pretty weighty” cost of the tour. But he declined to estimate how much he had paid.

He denied seeking any favours from the Syrian regime, saying they “were getting impatient with us and were glad to see us gone”.

Mr Shipton said he had asked a team of Syrian journalists to become their Damascus “transparency office”, sending “proper information” back to Sydney about the conflict.

“We did find, wandering around the place talking to people, a lot of support for the government. They seemed to be quite warm towards their government and as the crisis has unfolded their support has grown,” he said.

Their translator, western Sydney-based Mr Daoud, is a well-known opponent of the anti-Assad insurgency.

Mr Shipton said there were no formal links between the WikiLeaks Party and Dr Anderson, a former member of the Ananda Marga religious sect who was jailed and later acquitted of the terrorist bombing of the Sydney Hilton that killed two council workers and a police officer in 1978.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING: EAN HIGGINS, CAMERON STEWART

UPDATE: The Guardian published the following story about this Wikileaks story on 1 January by Oliver Milman:

WikiLeaks has revealed it did not “know or approve” of its Australian political party’s visit to Syria to meet Bashar al-Assad, amid criticism from both the government and Labor over the trip.

A WikiLeaks party delegation, reportedly including its founder Julian Assange’s father, John Shipton, held talks with a number of high-ranking Syrian officials, with a picture released by the Syrian government of ameeting with the president himself.

Before the visit, the party stated it was going as part of its “peace and reconciliation” efforts, as well as warning over the dangers of western intervention into the bloody three-year Syrian civil war. Shipton said he wanted to show “solidarity” with the Syrian people and told a local TV station that WikiLeaks would be opening an office in Damascus this year.

But WikiLeaks has distanced itself from the trip, saying via Twitter that while peace brokering is a “good idea”, it “did not know or approve” of the delegation’s visit to Syria.

Julie Bishop, the Australian foreign affairs minister, said Syria was not a place for “political parties to pursue their political ends”.

“I find it extraordinarily reckless that an organisation registered as a political party in Australia would seek to insert itself into the conflict in Syria and engage with a leader accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including using chemical weapons against his own people,” Bishop told The Australian newspaper.

“Their actions could be interpreted as a show of support for President Assad’s behaviour. Further, the Syrian regime is subject to wide-ranging sanctions and WikiLeaks’ actions are deeply counterproductive”.

Labor has also criticised the visit, with Chris Bowen, the shadow treasurer, calling the decision “extraordinary”.

“The Assad regime has been widely criticised and correctly criticised around the world,” he said.

“And for an Australian political party to think it’s sensible to go and have discussions and try and provide some legitimacy, is something I think which they have to explain.”

It’s understood that the visit was initially intended as a “fact-finding” mission before meetings with Syrian government officials were brokered. Members of the visiting group, which included the academic Tim Anderson and activists Jamal Daoud and Gail Malone, are expected back in Australia next week.

Several former members of the WikiLeaks party have told Guardian Australia the trip has caused further consternation within the party, which was formed last year but endured a fraught federal election campaign after several of its candidates resigned amid dissatisfaction over preferencing and internal party processes.

Antony Loewenstein, an author and long-term supporter of WikiLeaks – although never a member of the political party – told Guardian Australia the situation was a “sad state of affairs”.

“I don’t think meeting Assad is the issue, although he is a brutal dictator, no doubt about it,” he said. “The problem is the optics of it, that they are being used as a prop by a regime that has undeniably killed tens of thousands or more civilians.”

The WikiLeaks party has been contacted for comment on the trip but not responded.

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How Western-backed Saudi fundamentalism is causing chaos

One of the great unspoken truths of the 21st century. After this week’s shocking terrorist acts in Russia, it’s possible (though impossible to know) that Saudi Arabia may be behind the carnage (they threatened as much a few months ago).

The venerable Patrick Cockburn, writing in the UK Independent, on the ominous signs of sectarian madness in the Middle East and globally. The West turns a blind eye:

Anti-Shia hate propaganda spread by Sunni religious figures sponsored by, or based in, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies, is creating the ingredients for a sectarian civil war engulfing the entire Muslim world. Iraq and Syria have seen the most violence, with the majority of the 766 civilian fatalities in Iraq this month being Shia pilgrims killed by suicide bombers from the al-Qa’ida umbrella group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis). The anti-Shia hostility of this organisation, now operating from Baghdad to Beirut, is so extreme that last month it had to apologise for beheading one of its own wounded fighters in Aleppo – because he was mistakenly believed to have muttered the name of Shia saints as he lay on a stretcher.

At the beginning of December, al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula killed 53 doctors and nurses and wounded 162 in an attack on a hospital in Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, which had been threatened for not taking care of wounded militants by a commentator on an extreme Sunni satellite TV station. Days before the attack, he announced that armies and tribes would assault the hospital “to take revenge for our brothers. We say this and, by the grace of Allah, we will do it”.

Skilled use of the internet and access to satellite television funded by or based in Sunni states has been central to the resurgence of al-Qa’ida across the Middle East, to a degree that Western politicians have so far failed to grasp. In the last year, Isis has become the most powerful single rebel military force in Iraq and Syria, partly because of its ability to recruit suicide bombers and fanatical fighters through the social media. Western intelligence agencies, such as the NSA in the US, much criticised for spying on the internet communications of their own citizens, have paid much less attention to open and instantly accessible calls for sectarian murder that are in plain view. Critics say that this is in keeping with a tradition since 9/11 of Western governments not wishing to hold Saudi Arabia or the Gulf monarchies responsible for funding extreme Sunni jihadi groups and propagandists supporting them through private donations.

Satellite television, internet, YouTube and Twitter content, frequently emanating from or financed by oil states in the Arabian peninsula, are at the centre of a campaign to spread sectarian hatred to every corner of the Muslim world, including places where Shia are a vulnerable minority, such as Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and Malaysia. In Benghazi, in effect the capital of eastern Libya, a jihadi group uploaded a video of the execution of an Iraqi professor who admitted to being a Shia, saying they had shot him in revenge for the execution of Sunni militants by the Iraqi government.

There is now a fast-expanding pool of jihadis willing to fight and die anywhere. The Saudis and the Gulf monarchies may find, as happened in Afghanistan 30 years ago, that, by funding or tolerating the dissemination of Sunni-Shia hate, they have created a sectarian Frankenstein’s monster of religious fanatics beyond their control. 

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What robust journalism should look like in 2014

My weekly Guardian column is published today:

2013 was the year of Edward Snowden. The former NSA contractor, voted the Guardian’s person of the year (after Chelsea Manning the year before), unleashed a vital global debate on the extent of mass surveillance in the modern age. “Among the casualties”, writes one reporter, “is the assumption that some of the nation’s most carefully guarded secrets will stay secret.”

This is a uniformly positive development, despite the bleating from countless intelligence insidersmedia commentators, the vast bulk of the US Washington elite and a media class that has largely forgotten how to operate without being on the official drip feed. The general public does not accept patronising claims by NSA backers that its tools are used to protect us from terrorism.

A mature debate about post 9/11 spying is essential, something that’s almost impossible to offer when politicians who should know better - I’m looking at you, Australian minister for communications Malcolm Turnbull – slam journalists for doing their job.

So in 2014, reporters have a choice: to either continue being regarded as untrustworthy pariahs (a recent Gallop poll in the US confirmed this belief amongst the general population), or as investigators on power. In this spirit, here are my suggestions for reporters to regain trust – so that all of us finally remember what adversarial journalism looks like in a robust democracy.

Be deeply skeptical of anonymously-sourced stories

Too many stories appearing in the mainstream media are sourced to one, often anonymous source. The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance union states in its code of ethics that a reporter should “aim to attribute information to its source. Where a source seeks anonymity, do not agree without first considering the source’s motives and any alternative attributable source.” This is routinely breached as journalists prefer to receive sanctioned leaks from officials, government and opposition ministers and advisors and sympathetic business players. It’s lazy and counter-productive, because the story becomes little more than propaganda dressed-up with a byline. Journalists don’t need to leave their air-conditioned offices, and they rarely do.

Think of this year’s main story: Syria reportedly using chemical weapons against its own civilians (despite serious concerns about the truth of the claim and President Obama’s questionable use of intelligence, as raised in a recent article by legendary reporter Seymour Hersh that has barely raised a ripple). When the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights – a one-man operation in Britain – is so routinely cited as a source of Syrian casualties in the media, it becomes problematic. The truth from inside Syria is notoriously tough to get, but editors should acknowledge that they often do not know what’s happening on the ground.

Moreover, journalists should only grant anonymity to sources if it’s absolutely essential. The New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan chastised her paper for failing to learn the lesson of history (hello, Iraq and WMDs?) and continuing to allow officials to give a clear agenda without attribution. “ One part of the solution”, she wrote, “is for reporters to push back harder against sources who request anonymity. This may not work on high-stakes national security coverage, but it certainly will in other areas.” Too often journalists will allow a source to be quoted anonymously because they’re desperate to find legitimacy to boost their stories’ credibility. The result is a yarn that will please those in power, yet strong journalism should always bring discomfort for those elected to rule us.

No more opinion pieces by sitting politicians

Our media landscape is polluted by politicians pushing a partisan line. An example: on Christmas Eve, Australia’s Liberal assistant treasurer Arthur Sinodinos wrote in The Australian that the economy was once again booming after Labor administration’s apparent mismanagement. It’s a press release that any self-respecting editor would refuse to print. Likewise, ABC TV’s Q&A should ban politicians, because they offer little more than hackneyed lines produced by overpaid PR agents.

Decent media outlets would tell politicians (and the advisors who often write the columns) that political point-scoring is tiresome. The job of a robust press isn’t to simply provide a carte blanche for our leaders to freely pontificate.

Increasing the ‘Snowden effect’

The rolling coverage of documents leaked by Snowden will continue into 2014 but the big challenge, as Dan Gillmor articulates in the Nieman Journalism Lab, is to:

“use the documents to identify and amplify an issue of such importance and scope that it doesn’t flame up and out in the manner of most stories … In 2014 and beyond, journalists should be inspired by the Snowden effect. They should focus more on critical mass – how to achieve it and how to sustain it. If journalism is to matter, we can’t just raise big topics. We have to spread them, and then sustain them.”

Wikileaks pioneered this publishing model, with countless media outlets around the world covering documents that relates directly to their country. Many others should follow this inspiring lead. It’s the opposite of parochial reporting, and it forces often reluctant competing publications to collaborate on key stories. Competition for leads, and a refusal to recognise that the internet makes such old traditions close to obsolete, hampers innovative journalism.

Cherish the importance of public broadcasters

Who can forget James Murdoch, himself involved in the British phone hacking scandal, telling the Edinburgh TV festival in 2009 that the size of the BBC was “chilling” and that it was mounting a “land grab” in a competitive media market? “The corporation is incapable of distinguishing between what is good for it”, he said, “and what is good for the country.” Such sentiments are routinely mouthed by Murdoch hacks in Australia, where innumerable editorials dare to demand the ABC prostrate themselves before the surveillance state and not damage the “national interest”.

The BBC has its issues - more scrutiny should be applied to its war coverage – but its existence is a challenge to commercial interests and a threat to market fundamentalism. In Australia the ABC, successfully bullied during the Howard years from 1996 to 2007 and intimidated from pursuing countless controversial stories, faces renewed pressures to kowtow to government whims. Constant pressure works, often through self-censorship – something I examined in my book My Israel Question over the Middle East issue. Producers, journalists and editors must resist any attempt to remove or soften stories with the potential to embarrass the powerful. The inherent dangers of taxpayer funded media in such a climate are clear.

Your thoughts

Please share below your ideas about how to bring greater strength to the media and mechanisms to hold journalism, governments and business to account. We’ll all benefit from sharing ideas rather than believing one person or group has all the answers.

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Why the mainstream media is broken part 9754322

The kind of debate that can prove either endlessly boring or vitally important for the health of democracy. Take your pick.

The beautifully produced literary magazine Island asked me recently, after deep coverage of the new book by writer Tim Dunlop called The New Front Page, to write a few words about my vision for a more robust press:

The corporate media talks down to its readers and viewers. The general public likes to consume news in small, easily digested bites, the supposed experts tell us. Nothing too complex.

This may be true for many of the population but not all. The internet has thankfully broken the ability for mainstream reporters to believe they have the right to pontificate and we all should listen.

From Iraq in 2003 to Syria in 2013 and the global financial crisis in 2008, there are countless reasons why alternative perspectives are required and following the herd, a favourite pastime of insider media, has often been destructive and wrong. Trust is in short supply and yet even raising such issues brings defensiveness from the merry band of journalists who call themselves professionals. The relationship between consumer and producer is frayed.

Well-resourced journalism is vital but the Canberra and state press galleries almost guarantee groupthink. Ethical, trained and accountable citizen reporters could regularly write from their areas. Blogging and tweeting should be obligatory. Relying on political ‘experts’ from Labor and Liberal, has reduced political debate to partisan rants. Use only when desperate. Include the list of talent to a) individuals from non-white back- grounds, b) individuals in areas away from the inner cities, c) the disadvantaged and d) anybody under forty- five without a close connection to a politician/adviser/ hanger-on/hack.

This is not a call to dismantle the mainstream press – its resources still dwarf independent alternatives – but to recognise that working for mainstream news doesn’t give you all the knowledge. In fact, it probably means you’re residing in a bubble. Get out more. The more people the media engages, the more likely it’ll be respected. It’s not that complicated.

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Global trends of fleeing asylum seekers

Desperate refugees looking for a new, safer life. The stories span the globe.

This latest article in the New York Times highlights the ongoing suffering in Syria:

Fifty miles off the southeastern coast of Sicily, the refugee boat first appeared as a gray spot on the horizon, rising up or dipping away with the churn of the Mediterranean. Then, as an Italian Coast Guard rescue ship drew closer, the small boat came fully into view, as did the dim figure of a man, standing on the bow, waving a white blanket.

A child wore a SpongeBob life jacket. Smugglers had left them alone with a satellite phone and an emergency number in Italy: Save us, they pleaded to the Italians before the phone went dead. We are lost.

Capt. Roberto Mangione shouted for everyone to stay calm as he positioned his Coast Guard ship alongside the listing trawler. The Syrians, pale and beleaguered, started clapping. They had been at sea for six days, drinking fetid water, enduring a terrifying storm. One man combed his hair, as if preparing to greet his new life. A woman named Abeer, dazed and exhausted, thought: salvation, at last.

“I had nothing left in Syria,” she explained after stepping onto the rescue boat. She had fled with her husband and three teenage children. “We came with nothing but ourselves to Europe.”

The Syrian exodus has become one of the gravest global refugee crises of recent decades. More than two million people have fled Syria’s civil war, most resettling in neighboring Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon. But since this summer, refugees have also started pouring into Europe in what became for many weeks a humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean. Over five months, Italy’s Coast Guard rescued thousands of Syrians, even as hundreds of other migrants, including many Syrians, died in two major shipwrecks in October.

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Hold the champagne, but nuclear deal with Iran (probably) avoids war

Robert Fisk on the winners and those who are pissed that a war against Tehran may not now happen:

It marks a victory for the Shia in their growing conflict with the Sunni Muslim Middle East. It gives substantial hope to Bashar al-Assad that he will be left in power in Syria. It isolates Israel. And it infuriates Saudi Arabia and Qatar and Kuwait and other Sunni Gulf States which secretly hoped that a breakdown of the Geneva nuclear talks would humiliate Shia Iran and support their efforts to depose Assad, Iran’s only ally in the Arab world.

In the cruel politics of the Middle East, the partial nuclear agreement between Iran and the world’s six most important powers proves that the West will not go to war with Iran and has no intention – far into the future – of undertaking military action in the region. We already guessed that when – after branding Assad as yet another Middle Eastern Hitler – the US, Britain and France declined to assault Syria and bring down the regime. American and British people – those who had to pay the price for these monumental adventures, because political leaders no longer lead their men into battle – had no stomach for another Iraq or another Afghanistan.

Iran’s sudden offer to negotiate a high-speed end to this cancerous threat of further war was thus greeted with almost manic excitement by the US and the EU, along with theatrical enthusiasm by the man who realises that his own country has been further empowered in the Middle East: Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. Assad’s continued tenure in Damascus is assured. Peace in our time. Be sure we’ll be hearing that Chamberlonian boast uttered in irony by the Israelis in the weeks to come.

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Add Saudi, insert extremism, change Syria, bring chaos

What could possibly go wrong (and since when is Saudi Arabia, that US-backed apartheid state in the Middle East, a believer in democracy?). Foreign Policy reports:

Saudi Arabia, having largely abandoned hope that the United States will spearhead international efforts to topple the Assad regime, is embarking on a major new effort to train Syrian rebel forces. And according to three sources with knowledge of the program, Riyadh has enlisted the help of Pakistani instructors to do it.

Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, along with the CIA, also supported the Afghan rebels against the Soviet-backed government during the 1980s. That collaboration contains a cautionary note for the current day: The fractured Afghan rebels were unable to govern after the old regime fell, paving the way for chaos and the rise of the Taliban. Some of the insurgents, meanwhile, transformed into al Qaeda and eventually turned their weapons against their former patrons.

While the risk of blowback has been discussed in Riyadh, Saudis with knowledge of the training program describe it as an antidote to extremism, not a potential cause of it. They have described the kingdom’s effort as having two goals — toppling the Assad regime, and weakening al Qaeda-linked groups in the country. Prince Turki, the former Saudi intelligence chief and envoy to Washington, said in a recent interview that the mainstream opposition must be strengthened so that it could protect itself “these extremists who are coming from all over the place” to impose their own ideologies on Syria.

The ramped up Saudi effort has been spurred by the kingdom’s disillusionment with the United States. A Saudi insider with knowledge of the program described how Riyadh had determined to move ahead with its plans after coming to the conclusion that President Barack Obama was simply not prepared to move aggressively to oust Assad. “We didn’t know if the Americans would give [support] or not, but nothing ever came through,” the source said. “Now we know the president just didn’t want it.”

Pakistan’s role is so far relatively small, though another source with knowledge of Saudi thinking said that a plan was currently being debated to give Pakistan responsibility for training two rebel brigades, or around 5,000 to 10,000 fighters. Carnegie Middle East Center fellow Yezid Sayigh first noted the use of Pakistani instructors, writing that the Saudis were planning to build a Syrian rebel army of roughly 40,000 to 50,000 soldiers.

“The only way Assad will think about giving up power is if he’s faced with the threat of a credible, armed force,” said the Saudi insider.

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Stop drinking the think-tank kool-aid

My weekly column for the Guardian appears today:

The ABC TV Lateline interview with Kurt Campbell, former US assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, was cordial, even reverential. It was conducted in the middle of March this year, more than a month after Campbell had left the state department.

Interviewer Emma Alberici asked Campbell about the transformation of Burma and the release of Aung San Suu Kyi. He gushed that it was remarkable, and gave some folksy anecdotes about a “better future” for the Burmese. The interview then swiftly moved on to focus on the prospects of Hillary Clinton running for president in 2016. There were no questions about Campbell’s push for greater ties with the Indonesian military despite its shocking record of abuse in West Papua.

There were also no questions about Campbell’s Washington and Singapore-based investment organisation, the Asia Group, and its efforts to win lucrative contracts across the Asia-Pacific region. After all, his company had been launched before this interview took place and surely warranted some questions about the appropriateness of setting up a company so soon after leaving government.

It might be considered an example of the unwillingness of the mainstream media to challenge potential conflicts of interest when it comes to the murky melding of business and politics. With the announcement in August by the Lowy Institute that Campbell was its 2013 distinguished international fellow, it’s vital to question the ways in which our media has drunk the thinktank kool-aid.

The Lowy Institute sees itself as Australia’s leading foreign affairs thinktank. Its fellows and staff routinely appear in the media pontificating about global affairs, including a push for greater defence spending that would allow countless contractors to earn billions of dollars. Its head Michael Fullilove, who’s also a non-resident senior fellow in foreign affairs at the Brookings Institution, writes longingly about former US national security advisor Henry Kissinger as a “realist”, despite there being questions over Kissinger’s record of foreign policy. Kissinger endorsed Fullilove’s recent book, a love letter to Franklin D Roosevelt. Fullilove has also been an outspoken critic of the release of the Wikileaks cables.

When former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard recently announced that she had been made a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, I could find no local news story that explained what the thinktank was. Glenn Greenwald has pithily written that “Brookings is a classic example of that sprawling strain of Washington thinktank culture that exist for little reason other than to serve and justify government power.”

The US-based Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting group investigated the influence of corporate and foundation money on thinktanks and their spokepeople, and urged an examination of their fundings in the areas of climate change, war, arms manufacturing and energy policy. Frustratingly, interviewers rarely get past the bland soundbite from their guests. As an example, the Public Accountability Initiative released a report this month that found a number many of the expert voices calling for military action against Syria in the US were linked to the weapons industry and would financially benefit from a US strike. However, in the vast bulk of media appearances, outlets failed to disclose these business interests.

In Australia, the questions around the independence of thinktanks started with the establishment of Sydney University’s United States Studies Centre in 2006. At its launch dinner, Rupert Murdoch said that “Australians must resist and reject the facile, reflexive, unthinking anti-Americanism that has gripped much of Europe”. The media today laps up its views, despite questions around the Centre Sydney University allowing itself to be funded by politically friendly parties.

The US Studies Centre is supported by a range of corporate interests, including the Dow Chemical Company Foundation, “to support a three-year research program on sustainability.” A key aim of Dow is to push genetically modified foods, and to oppose complete labelling of GM foods in the US. People should take these connections into account when evaluating any US Studies Centre face that appears in our media to talk dispassionately about the environment.

But back to Kurt Campbell. In May 2013, his company the Asia Group was one of the bidders on Yangon International Airport, a $1bn project. In July 2012, Campbell had successfully convinced the Obama administration while he was still in government to lift an investment ban on Burma, allowing US firms to make a fortune in the country.

This led to Foreign Policy’s The Cable wondering whether The Asia Group had some conflict of interest questions to answer, leading company COO Nirav Patel to claim that Campbell’s activities in the country had been “extremely consistent” for years. “This is intrinsically about supporting reform,” he said. “You can’t get to supporting reform without people taking [investment] risks. That’s something we’re very passionate about.” In the end, a Korean consortium, Incheon, won the airport tender.

There are no suggestions of illegal behaviour by Campbell or his company. But questions can be asked over the appropriateness of setting up a consulting firm shortly after leaving government, and then potentially making money from relationships established during his time as a public servant. My many requests for comment from Campbell and the Asia Group went unanswered.

I asked the Lowy Institute a range of questions about Campbell’s possible conflicts of interest. They sent me a statement that ignored these issues:

“Dr Campbell has long been one of the United States’ foremost policymakers on Asia. As assistant secretary of state for east Asian and Pacific affairs, he played a leading role on issues such at the US “rebalance” towards Asia, US-China relations, and efforts to promote democratic change in Burma. This fellowship will provide the international policy community in Australia with an opportunity to draw upon Dr Campbell’s experience and insights on the defining political, economic and strategic issues in Asia at a time of great change in the region. It will also be an opportunity to expose Dr Campbell to Australian perspectives on these issues.”

Business and politics rarely mix without controversy; the media needs to be careful not to be seduced by smooth thinktank talkers.

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On the fallacies, toughness, bias and challenges of war journalism

Reporting from a conflict zone is messy and complicated, rarely as smooth as journalists try to convey. Britain’s Patrick Cockburn, writer for The Independent, is one of the finest chroniclers of post 9/11 madness. His essay in Counterpunch outlines what we should know:

The four wars fought in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria over the past 12 years have all involved overt or covert foreign intervention in deeply divided countries. In each case the involvement of the West exacerbated existing differences and pushed hostile parties towards civil war. In each country, all or part of the opposition have been hard-core jihadi fighters. Whatever the real issues at stake, the interventions have been presented as primarily humanitarian, in support of popular forces against dictators and police states. Despite apparent military successes, in none of these cases have the local opposition and their backers succeeded in consolidating power and establishing stable states.

More than most armed struggles, the conflicts have been propaganda wars in which newspaper, television and radio journalists played a central role. In all wars there is a difference between reported news and what really happened, but during these four campaigns the outside world has been left with misconceptions even about the identity of the victors and the defeated. In 2001 reports of the Afghan war gave the impression that the Taliban had been beaten decisively even though there had been very little fighting. In 2003 there was a belief in the West that Saddam Hussein’s forces had been crushed when in fact the Iraqi army, including the units of the elite Special Republican Guard, had simply disbanded and gone home. In Libya in 2011 the rebel militiamen, so often shown on television firing truck-mounted heavy machine-guns in the general direction of the enemy, had only a limited role in the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, which was mostly brought about by Nato air strikes. In Syria in 2011 and 2012 foreign leaders and journalists repeatedly and vainly predicted the imminent defeat of Bashar al-Assad.

These misperceptions explain why there have been so many surprises and unexpected reversals of fortune. The Taliban rose again in 2006 because it hadn’t been beaten as comprehensively as the rest of the world imagined. At the end of 2001 I was able to drive – nervously but safely – from Kabul to Kandahar, but when I tried to make the same journey in 2011 I could go no further south on the main road than the last police station on the outskirts of Kabul. In Tripoli two years ago hotels were filled to capacity with journalists covering Gaddafi’s fall and the triumph of the rebel militias. But state authority still hasn’t been restored. This summer Libya almost stopped exporting oil because the main ports on the Mediterranean had been seized by mutinying militiamen, and the prime minister, Ali Zeidan, threatened to bomb ‘from the air and the sea’ the oil tankers the militiamen were using to sell oil on the black market.

Libya’s descent into anarchy was scarcely covered by the international media since they had long since moved on to Syria, and more recently Egypt. Iraq, home a few years ago to so many foreign news bureaux, has also dropped off the media map although up to a thousand Iraqis are killed each month, mostly as a result of the bombing of civilian targets. When it rained for a few days in Baghdad in January the sewer system, supposedly restored at a cost of $7 billion, couldn’t cope: some streets were knee-deep in dirty water and sewage. In Syria, many opposition fighters who had fought to defend their communities turned into licensed bandits and racketeers when they took power in rebel-held enclaves.

It wasn’t that reporters were factually incorrect in their descriptions of what they had seen. But the very term ‘war reporter’, though not often used by journalists themselves, helps explain what went wrong. Leaving aside its macho overtones, it gives the misleading impression that war can be adequately described by focusing on military combat. But irregular or guerrilla wars are always intensely political, and none more so than the strange stop-go conflicts that followed from 9/11. This doesn’t mean that what happened on the battlefield was insignificant, but that it requires interpretation. In 2003 television showed columns of Iraqi tanks smashed and on fire after US air strikes on the main highway north of Baghdad. If it hadn’t been for the desert background, viewers could have been watching pictures of the defeated German army in Normandy in 1944. But I climbed into some of the tanks and could see that they had been abandoned long before they were hit. This mattered because it showed that the Iraqi army wasn’t prepared to fight and die for Saddam. It was a pointer too to the likely future of the allied occupation. Iraqi soldiers, who didn’t see themselves as having been defeated, expected to keep their jobs in post-Saddam Iraq, and were enraged when the Americans dissolved their army. Well-trained officers flooded into the resistance, with devastating consequences for the occupying forces: a year later the Americans controlled only islands of territory in Iraq.

War reporting is easier than other types of journalism in one respect because the melodrama of events drives the story and attracts an audience. It may be risky at times, but the correspondent talking to camera, with exploding shells and blazing military vehicles behind him, knows his report will feature high up in any newscast. ‘If it bleeds it leads,’ is an old American media adage. The drama of battle inevitably dominates the news, but oversimplifies it by disclosing only part of what is happening. These oversimplifications were more than usually gross and deceptive in Afghanistan and Iraq, when they dovetailed with political propaganda that demonised the Taliban and later Saddam as evil incarnate, casting the conflict – particularly easy in the US in the hysterical atmosphere after 9/11 – as a black and white struggle between good and evil. The crippling inadequacies of the opposition were ignored.

By 2011 the complexity of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan was evident to journalists in Baghdad and Kabul if not necessarily to editors in London and New York. But by then the reporting of the wars in Libya and Syria was demonstrating a different though equally potent form of naivety. A version of the spirit of 1968 prevailed: antagonisms that predated the Arab Spring were suddenly said to be obsolete; a brave new world was being created at hectic speed. Commentators optimistically suggested that, in the age of satellite television and the internet, traditional forms of repression – censorship, imprisonment, torture, execution – could no longer secure a police state in power; they might even be counter-productive. State control of information and communication had been subverted by blogs, satellite phones and even the mobile phone; YouTube provided the means to expose in the most graphic and immediate way the crimes and violence of security forces.

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