Syria Intervention: Endorsement Masquerading as News in the Guardian

Steve Nutt, 13 April 2012

Categories: Syria | War | Middle East | The Guardian |

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Media advocacy masquerading as news has a considerable precedent. Whether it be journalists looking for some 'sick action' in Somalia that might 'restore hope [...] in the capacity for governments taking a moral stance', or to provide western audiences with some much needed post-Cold War meaning in the flagrant PR exercise in Bosnia where the Major administration sought to rescue a single Bosnian child to bring back to Britain for treatment1; the media have advocated military intervention on abstract ideological grounds, not to provide for the immediate needs of those involved in violence, but rather to provide a purpose for Western military power.

The profoundly ambiguous results of humanitarian intervention in the 1990s saw the media take the rhetoric a step further than those whose military adventures they shored up support for. Editorials during the Kosovo campaign bemoaned the lack of 'action', practically willing more bloody confrontation, hoping that the battlefield might elicit moral virtues that were apparently lacking in the New World Order. The media were happy to cheerlead the powerful into confrontation with Iraq in 2003, ignoring the well documented humanitarian disaster of the sanctions regime, so much so that Tony Blair justified intervention at the Chilcot enquiry in part on the grounds of the mortality rate of children in Iraq, almost wholly the product of US-UK backed sanctions.

In their embedded position in Iraq, mainstream journalists further eroded their objectivity, becoming part of the unit, sharing the perspective of soldiers and forgetting the important perspective of the victims of war. The embedded journalist becomes the soldier, his enemies become our enemies, and their perspective is excised.

So, come Syria in 2012, the advocacy of casting restraint to the wind is back in vogue. The media warns of what might become of the people of Syria save for the benevolent aid of Western military power. Timothy Garton Ash writing in The Guardian on Wednesday is a perfect example of this messianism, as, practically willing the failure of a cease fire, he advocates intervention on an almost spiritual level: 'It is true that if the West's leading military powers, above all the US, then Britain and France, do engage with armed force – as they did in [...] Bosnia and Kosovo – that has a transformative effect'.

Garton Ash bemoans the unwillingness of Western governments to express their transformative military prowess. So what transformations are we referring to? Bosnia, for example, is hardly a representative example of the positive character of western intervention. The war in Bosnia was already turning by the time Western power was brought to bear, Croatian and Bosnian forces – after a bout of Croatian ethnic cleansing of Muslims in Mostar – were to push back the Serbs substantially, and to exhibit the same behaviour as the Serbs in the process. In what Sumatra Bose describes as 'a levelling of the cleansing field'2 Croatian and Bosnian forces would have substantially changed the wartime shape of Bosnia by the time of the ceasefire agreement at Dayton. In the process the Croats would attempt to cleanse the lands they would control in post Dayton Bosnia, much as the Serbs had done in years previously.

The post Dayton regime is indeed a transformation, but not a positive one. Bosnia is cantonised, the three separated communities hardly cooperate, and find themselves mostly directed in conflict with the international community effort that underpins the Bosnian state. The cost is massive, and the state somewhat ironically now resembles Yugoslavia in miniature. This is not the virtuous transformation of which Garton Ash seeks, rather more depressing, more materially and morally ambiguous.

In Kosovo the case is worse, there was a disputed massacre at Racak, but little evidence of ethnic cleansing at the time of NATO's engagement. What massive population movements there were came after bombardment commenced, not before. True the Serbian government did have a particularly bad track record vis a vis Kosovo Albanians, but this was at its height in the late 1980s. The media were profoundly dissatisfied with the lack of 'meat' in the Kosovo encounter, Guardian columnist Hugo Young bemoaned the fact that if NATO forces were unprepared to match the risk of Serbian soldiers on the ground they 'cannot expect to win and maybe don't deserve to'2. This is truly bizarre, the same journalists who would call on us to remember the 'ultimate sacrifice' of death in war, are urging such sacrifice. In the immediate aftermath, the Serbian people, not NATO would remove Milosevic from power.

Garton Ash presumably would like to see such a virtuous crusade against Syria. He cites 9,000 dead as a definitive figure, regardless of the fact that there are few journalists and fewer NGOs on the ground who might carry out such collation of casualty figures. He also cites perhaps a million displaced, similar to another figure, across the border in Iraq. There that number is not displaced but dead, the result of the same kind of self-righteous militaristic narcissism that some hope to bring to bear on Syria.


1. Hammond, P. “Media, War and Postmodernity” (Routledge:2007)

2. Bose, S. “Bosnia After Dayton: International Intervention and Nationalist Partition” (Hurst: 2002) p.52

3. Young, H. Cited in Hammond, P. “Media, War and Postmodernity” (Routledge:2007) p.55

Categories in which this article appears: Syria | War | Middle East | The Guardian |

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