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Mugged by reality: Jeremy Bowen meets Colonel Gaddafi on an escorted press tour of Tripoli last month 

The former US Ambassador to the United Nations Daniel Patrick Moynihan composed an aphorism as he watched dictatorships pile opprobrium on democracies: "The amount of violations of human rights in a country is always an inverse function of the amount of complaints about human rights violations heard from there." Journalists, lawyers, academics and opposition politicians can investigate the injustices of democracies, and because they can investigate, injustice is kept in check. They cannot expose the greater atrocities of dictatorships because there is no freedom to report, and hence their greater crimes pass unnoticed.

I have my doubts about the universal jurisdiction of Moynihan's Law — America was responsible for many great crimes while he was its good and faithful servant. But his insight explains why Jeremy Bowen is blinking at his cameraman in Tripoli, like some startled, uncomprehending mammal who has been shaken by the convulsions around him from a hibernation that has lasted for most of his career. 

The BBC's Middle East editor is not the only expert whose expertise now looks spurious. The Arab uprising is annihilating the assumptions of foreign ministries, academia and human rights groups with true revolutionary élan. In journalistic language, it is showing they had committed the greatest blunder a reporter can commit: they missed the story. They thought that the problems of the Middle East were at root the fault of democratic Israel or more broadly the democratic West. They did not see and did not want to see that while Israelis are certainly the Palestinians' problem — and vice versa — the problem of the subject millions of the Arab world was the tyranny, cruelty, corruption and inequality the Arab dictators enforced.

Put this starkly, it sounds as if the charges of double standards and anti-Semitism habitually directed at liberal Westerners are justified. But liberal prejudice — "anti-liberal prejudice" is a more accurate description — is a process as well as an ideology. Dictatorial states and movements shepherded liberal opinion into a one-way street by exploiting the logistics of news-gathering.

No news organisation in the West could base their main Middle Eastern bureau anywhere other than Israel, for the simple reason that it was the only free country with a free press, an independent judiciary and a constitution. Researchers and diplomats, as well as reporters, could phone or visit Palestinians in the occupied territories, as indeed could anyone else. Crucially, in an age dominated by images, television crews could get pictures. I am not saying that the authorities do not harass foreign or Israeli correspondents trying to report the undoubted violations of Palestinian rights, simply that they can report from Jerusalem but cannot from Damascus or Riyadh.

Even if the Baathists or Wahaabis let journalists in, they would place them under constant surveillance. Meanwhile any local invited to go on air to criticise his or her rulers would refuse because they knew that they would be running a terrible risk. Moynihan's Law explains why you never hear a BBC or Sky anchor announce, "We are going live to hear our Saudi Arabian editor on the oppression of women in Mecca," although if we are very lucky maybe we will soon.

At some level Westerners ought to have registered that millions of people must bite their tongues in the Middle East, and tempered their judgments accordingly. They mistook silence for compliance for a reason the late Fred Halliday, who never shirked from confronting the ugliness of the region, identified when he tried to stop his asinine colleagues at the London School of Economics endorsing the Libyan tyranny. Naturally, Saif Gaddafi could appear suave and at ease in Western circles after having unlimited amounts of stolen money lavished on his education. But, said Halliday, Westerners must realise that the function of plausible and well-groomed men from Libya, Egypt and Saudi Arabia was to impress foreigners by making "compromises with internal hardliners that serve to lessen external pressure". Keep executions and police interrogations off YouTube and the prudent tyrant will be delighted by the readiness of Westerners to dismiss informed criticisms of his regime as neocon propaganda. 

Instead of listening to Halliday, Anthony Giddens flew to meet Gaddafi and uttered the only remark anyone is likely to remember him for. Libya's future was as a "Norway of North Africa: prosperous, democratic and free". How the sight of the Saharan Scandinavians slaughtering their own civilians must perplex him.

Gaddafi was hardly an exception. From the moment he took power in Syria on the sole ground that he was his father's son, Bashir al-Assad has heard politicians insist that he is a Baathist they can do business with. Only last month, Anna Wintour, a fashion magazine editor who could be a tenured LSE professor, allowed her Vogue staff to simper that Bashir's wife was "the most magnetic of first ladies". For all the Western fawning, the denial of Syrian liberty continued undiminished, but it could only be brought to the world by talking to exiles or explaining the totalitarian nature of the Baath Party, neither of which would have made good television. 

Mohammed al-Jahmi, brother of the tortured Libyan dissident Fathi al-Jahmi, offered further explanation of fellow-travelling, after Human Rights Watch unctuously declared that Libya was advancing towards liberty under Gaddafi. Foreigners want access, he said, but the regime makes them wait for months for visas. When Human Rights Watch did gain entry, its emissaries were honoured guests, visiting an exotic country other journalists and campaigners could not enter. They were grateful, and psychologically dependent on their hosts. Everyone they met reinforced the regime's message that life was good and getting better. "Somewhere along the way," Mohammed said, "a fundamental truth gets lost: these dictators don't change overnight."

Logistics as much as infantile leftism produced the ideology of Middle Eastern commentary. Israel was the only story in the region journalists could cover daily. Rather than stop pretending to be omniscient and admit their limitations to the viewer, rather than show common human feeling and think of the silenced millions, journalists pretended that Israel was the region's only story because it was the source of the region's ills. The effect was anti-Semitic because the Jew once again was depicted as a supernatural figure with the diabolic power to create suffering on an epic scale. That narrow, prejudiced world of Middle Eastern commentary went up in flames when the Arab revolutionaries threw their first Molotovs. Whatever happens next, its loss will be no loss at all.

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Brian Williams
April 17th, 2011
9:04 PM
All very well, but when all arabs have the democratic freedom to vote in islamic theocracies, and a muslim caliphate is established throughout the Middle East, and the nuclear missiles are pointed at the infidels by people only too happy to die for the jihad, what then?

Melissa L.
April 13th, 2011
7:04 AM
"Only last month, Anna Wintour, a fashion magazine editor who could be a tenured LSE professor...". Nick Cohen this is a slightly easy and insulting joke -if indeed you intended to laugh about it. Speaking as a postgraduate student at the LSE, being taught by extraordinary and -I can assure you- perfectly honourable professors who were never involved with neither Saif Gaddafi nor the Lybian regime, I find this remark irrelevant and perfectly useless. Anna Wintour. Really Nick.

Charlie in NY
April 8th, 2011
3:04 PM
Please permit me to offer a brief reply to Mr. Townson's email as it relates to the Goldstone Report. The report's capstone conclusion was its finding that Israel had, as a matter of policy, deliberately targeted civilians and infrastructure. That is how the report was portrayed to the world and more importantly used by certain groups, even though Justice Goldstone himself later cautioned that the report was not a judicial inquiry nor was anything in it to be taken as proven. Taking the findings of the Davis Commission into account, Justice Goldstone has now concluded that there was no such Israeli policy. With that capstone removed, the balance of report crumbles into a series of allegations of misconduct by individual soldiers at least 400 of which are being investigated by the IDF (compared with 0 by Hamas). Justice Goldstone has also confirmed several other things: that Hamas' rocket firing in the general direction of civilian targets is, in all instances, a war crime and has spoken about the UNHRC's anti-Israel bias. Mr. Townson for some reason, sees fit to repeat casualty figures that not even Hamas supports. In fact, Justice Goldstone picked up on Hamas' admission a couple of months ago that its combat casualties were almost identical to those long-reported (but ignored) by the IDF. As a personal note, I find it a cheap rhetorical stunt to use casualty figures as if they were some sporting result (1,400 v. a dozen, though both Hamas and Israel seem to agree that the total was around 1,100 Gazans) to "prove" that somehow the party with the fewer casualties was the aggressor. Flogging the words "women and children" as if neither could ever be a combatant, is also not an argument where, sadly, Hamas has shown little compunction in where it gets its cannon fodder. Of course, the ratio of combatant to civilian killed in what is described as one of the most densely inhabited sections of the planet is, to the contrary, a remarkable statistic - better than NATO in Afghanistan or Iraq. And it is that population density which puts the lie to any claim that Israel has a genocidal policy against the Palestinians. If it wanted to kill as many as possible, the numbers from Cast Lead would establish extreme incompetence when all it needed to do was follow the Russian precedent in Grozhny and flatten the cities and camps. The take-away, politics aside, is that Israel's conduct is in compliance with expected norms of behavior in war and Hamas' are not. This is not news to any fair minded individual.

Steve T
April 8th, 2011
11:04 AM
Yes but the most telling words of the line are "in Tripoli". Could never say that about Nick.

Ian Townson
April 8th, 2011
10:04 AM
@Barry Larking, Jeff Bracey, Mark Noonan, Rob Crawford. Thanks for responding to the points I made regarding Operation Cast Lead. For clarity here are a few more points to consider. Please see the attached article below by MJ Rosenberg regarding the Goldstone report and OCL. GOLDSTONE REPORT Goldstone revised only one of his original findings, saying that Israel did not intentionally kill hundreds of civilians [EPA] Defenders of Israel's Gaza onslaught of 2008-9 can barely contain their joy. In a Washington Post op-ed on Friday, Judge Richard Goldstone offered some second thoughts about it that softened his earlier criticism of Israel's actions in Gaza as "war crimes". In fact, Goldstone altered only one of his original findings. He now says that he has concluded that the Israeli Defense Forces did not intentionally target civilians during attacks in which 1,400 Palestinians died, of whom half were civilians and 400 were children. Rather they were collateral damage, not the intended targets but people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. And this "exoneration" of Israel's behaviour has Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and their defenders in Israel and the United States crazily dancing in the end zone. You see, they shout, Goldstone lied all along. We didn't kill all these people on purpose. Hooray for us. These celebrations tell us infinitely more about the Israeli government and its cutouts here than Goldstone's column does about what happened in Gaza. Imagine if the United States government was forced to admit that it killed hundreds of innocent people in a few days and that hundreds of that number were kids. Does anyone imagine that our government would pat itself on the back because the killings were deemed unintentional? No doubt, many many innocent people have been killed at American hands just as at Israel's in Gaza. But it is hard to recall American officials saying that the discovery that the deaths were unintentional exonerated us. As for victory laps such as those being taken by Netanyahu and Barak, they wouldn't happen here. The only way Goldstone could really exonerate Israel would be to prove that the hundreds of non-combatant dead, including all those kids, were, in fact, not civilians at all. He would have to prove that they were fighters who were killed while engaged in battle with Israel. But not even the Israelis claim that. No, the civilian dead were indeed civilians and they are still dead. They are dead because the Israeli government made the decision that taking care not to kill innocents would put more Israeli soldiers in harms way. Elections were coming and the Israeli government felt that the Israeli public would not tolerate a war that took more than few soldiers' lives. So the army would bombard targets from afar; if civilians were killed, so what. The strategy worked. While 1,432 Palestinians were killed, only a dozen Israelis were. That was a ratio that did not hurt any politician's political standing, being almost unprecedented in the history of warfare. (Actually, it suggests that the Gaza was not a war at all, but rather an attack by a powerful army against powerless militants.) The jubilation over Goldstone's minor edit is also misplaced because the strong opposition felt in most quarters to the Gaza onslaught had nothing whatsoever to do with whether or not the killings of civilians were intentional but that they took place at all. Even if it could be proven that the United Nations school was destroyed by accident, what difference would it make? It was destroyed. Would Israel exonerate Hamas if it, by accident, hit an Israeli hospital when its target was a nearby army base. It is a distinction without a difference and only the morally bankrupt would point to it with pride. Furthermore, opponents of the Gaza war were outraged by Israel's actions in Gaza right from the start not following publication of the Goldstone report. The outrage was produced when it became clear that Israel was not exercising its legitimate right to defend itself against rocket fire from Gaza by targeting the people launching the missiles but by targeting the whole Gazan population. Additionally the whole war was unnecessary. A cease-fire between Hamas and Israel had been in effect for the six months leading up to Israel's decision to invade. Why did it end? This comes from US News, a newsweekly owned by Mortimer Zuckerman, one of the Israeli government's leading defenders in the United States. (He is the former president of the Conference of Presidents Of Major Jewish Organizations.) "Why now? Two reasons: the expiration of the Israeli-Gazan cease-fire on December 19 and the Israeli national election coming up on February 10. The six-month cease-fire started coming apart at the beginning of November after Israeli commandos killed a team of Hamas fighters during a raid on a tunnel they suspected was being dug for the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers. That raid set off more Palestinian rocketing which prompted further Israeli attacks. All this prompted Hamas to declare that it wouldn't extend the cease-fire unless Israel lifted it's punishing siege of the Gaza Strip, which was imposed after the militant group Hamas was elected to power nearly three years ago." US News has it exactly right. The ceasefire ended because Israel decided to end it. And then when the rockets started falling, Israel had the pretext it wanted to attack. None of this is surprising, Israeli leaders have never been shy about saying that their goal is not merely ending mortar attacks from Gaza but eliminating the Hamas government (elected, incidentally, in a democratic election forced on the Palestinians by the United States). The bottom line is that Goldstone's edit doesn't matter except to those who defended and still defend this indefensible war. The damage done to Israel's reputation is indelible. But that is insignificant when compared to the life-long damage inflicted on all those who lost loved ones in the monstrous Gaza war. MJ Rosenberg is a Senior Foreign Policy Fellow at Media Matters Action Network. The above article first appeared in Foreign Policy Matters, a part of the Media Matters Action Network. BLOOD LIBEL I also must say something about the accusations of a 'blood libel' from me against the actions of the IDF. In its original form the blood libel was a deliberate lie designed to foment violence against and the persectution of Jews who were accused of murdering Christian children and using their blood in sacrificial religous rituals and ceremonies. As a persecuted minority group the Jews of medieval Europe were subjected to periodic pogroms including torture and burning at the stake. In contrast to this, Israel is a modern nation state with a massive army and an independent citizenry with full democratic rights. Israelis are not a persecuted minority group and are fully able to defend themsleves against adversity. By contrast the Palestininad have no state, no army and no status as citizens. I am sorry this comment is long but I also have to say something about the Iraq War which you have also taken me to task for. THE IRAQ WAR George Dubya and the Messianic Saint Blair did not get rid of Sadam Hussain for altruistic reasons (to free the people of Iraq). Their reasons were ones of anger, geopolitics, economic theft and ideology as follows: 1. Revenge for the mass murder of 9/11 by Islamist fanatics. 2. To further promote the 21st century as the 'American Century'. 3. To establish 'full spectrum dominance' globally through the building of American military bases. 4. To export the virtues of liberal democracy, free trade and neo-liberal economics. 5. To demonstrate the moral superiority of the West over the rest. To bring all this about George Bush appointed Paul Bremer as colonial administrator with dictatorial powers. He forbade Sunni muslims from sharing power which promoted sectarian violence and the possibility of civli war. He awarded contracts to rebuild the infrastructure that the coalition of the willing had destroyed to American companies along with secutriy etc. When you add to this two wars and ten year of sanctions Iraq was in a pretty destroyed state. After 8 years of occupation there is mass unemployment, very little electricity or clean water, the displacement of millions of refugees both internally and externally, a million dead? There are now mass uprisings in several Iraqi cities demanding better living conditions and an end to corrupt government. Ther have been many deaths and injuries. If only...the spririt of the Egyptian/Tunisian revolutions has been there 8 years ago instead of a foreign invasion. Libya next for a mission creep screw up??

Jonathan Karmi
April 7th, 2011
10:04 PM
Excellent article as ever by Nick Cohen. His line on Jeremy Bowen is the truest and funniest thing I've read for some while.

Steve T
April 7th, 2011
10:04 AM
Head of the UN probe into the Gaza war Richard Goldstone has rejected claims by the Israeli interior minister that he intends to reconsider his final report on the 2008-2009 Gaza war. Goldstone, who held Israel accountable for war crimes against Palestinian civilians, says he has not been planning to retract the report. The report alleged that the Israeli operations "were carefully planned in all their phases as a deliberately disproportionate attack designed to punish, humiliate and terrorize a civilian population."

Dave Weeden
April 7th, 2011
8:04 AM
"No news organisation in the West could base their main Middle Eastern bureau anywhere other than Israel, for the simple reason that it was the only free country with a free press, an independent judiciary and a constitution. Researchers and diplomats, as well as reporters, could phone or visit Palestinians in the occupied territories, as indeed could anyone else." Nice logic but Reuters has a bureau in Gaza CNN opened a Dubai bureau CNBC's Middle East bureau is in Bahrain And let's not forget Al Jazeera which is based in Dubai. I take it a correction will appear in due course. "Sorry our correspondent used logic where he could have checked facts."

Steve T
April 5th, 2011
4:04 PM
Ian and A.Berman, Please see the response from the Samouni Family to the Goldstone retraction. These are the alleged victims of "the most moral army in warfare" .

Steve T
April 5th, 2011
3:04 PM
Ian, how can you call Israel a democracy when white westerners who settle there have more rights than the natives? You were right about the 1400 though. Whatever their bitch Colonel says.

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