Our leaders know how to bang the war drums and, by and large, we go along with them. The US threatens Iran with war – so will Iran close the Strait of Hormuz and attack American warships in the Gulf? Israel strikes Iranian targets in Syria after rockets fall on Golan – so does an Arab-Israeli conflict loom closer than at any time since the 1973 conflict? Jared Kushner plans to reveal Trump’s “deal of the century” for peace in the Middle East – but is it dead in the water?
Meanwhile the real stories get pushed down the page – or “to the back of the book”, as we journalists used to say.
Take Donald Trump’s desire to furnish Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates with billions of dollars of extra weapons so that they can increase the ferocity of their war in Yemen against the Houthis – whose support from Iran, such as it is, prompts much of the international abuse against the Islamic Republic. French intelligence officers in Washington have apparently discovered that this is no routine request from Riyadh but a desperate appeal to Washington, because so promiscuous has been the Saudis’ use of US munitions against Houthi rebels (and civilians, hospitals, aid centres, schools and wedding parties) that they are running out of bombs, guided and unguided missiles, drone parts and other “precision” arms to be used on one of the poorest countries in the world.
Thus when Trump found himself confronted by congress, which wanted to halt the supplies – not least because its members are still very angry about the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi – the destination of the weapons supplies was broadened to include America’s plucky little ally, King Abdullah II of Jordan. Yes, we all missed that bit, didn’t we? We added the words “and Jordan” to the headline, but didn’t ask why. And the munitions will come not from direct sales to the Gulf, with a possible congressional cap of $25m (£19.7m), but from US government military stocks and – so the French suggest – a very large part of these weapons will go to Jordan.
Which is very odd, because Jordan is not at war with anyone right now, and is certainly not part of the Saudi “coalition” forces bombing Yemen.
So how much of the $8.1 billion worth of missiles, bombs and so on will be sent to Amman? And how much of that will be unloaded from US military aircraft and reloaded onto Saudi military aircraft once the stocks arrive in Jordan? Only one small but traditionally brave little publication, the unputdownable French weekly Le Canard enchaine picked up this story. Its Washington sources have always proved correct in the past, and the whole wretched arms transfer was summed up by the paper as: “Very smart, if not moral, [just] a few trifles for new massacres.”
And now let’s take a New York Times investigation of the Mubarez family’s destruction by a US air attack in Afghanistan on 23 September last year. The US-led mission in Afghanistan at first denied the attack. Then it narrowed down the target to the coordinates of the Mubarez family home in Wardak province, where Masih Mubarez’s wife and seven children had been spending the morning at the moment of the bombing. Her husband was in Iran. Yet now the Americans claimed that its soldiers had received “sniper fire” from the building and after the bombing, “it is our assessment that only combatants were killed”.
But, after what were obviously weeks of reporting work alongside The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, The New York Times revealed this week, in a story with four reporters’ bylines, that an American-made precision GPS-guided bomb had indeed killed Mubarez’s wife Amina; his four daughters Anisa, aged 14, Safia, 12, Samina, seven and Fahima, five; his three sons Mohammad Wiqad, 10, Mohammad Ilyas, eight and Mohammad Fayaz, four; and four of their teenage cousins.
Mubarez, who last spoke from Iran on his mobile phone to his wife an hour and a half before she died, said of the Americans: “They can kill the enemy, but they only destroy my home.” And one last thought: in his last call home, Mubarez heard his wife say that American and Afghan soldiers were inside their house. What did this mean?
In days gone by, this would have been a front-page story in The New York Times. There would have been follow-up reports, perhaps an editorial. But this week it was confined to the “World/Asia” section of the paper. In the international edition, it was at the bottom of page three. Like Le Canard enchaine’s report – also at the bottom of page three, although in a paper of only eight pages – the story appears to have fallen into a ditch. Like so much else these days.
Take, for example, the death in an Algerian hospital of Berber activist and lawyer Kamel Eddine Fekhar, who had embarked on a prolonged hunger strike after arrest. The pouvoir (“power”) – the same corrupt Algerian government which clung on to the comatose Abdelaziz Bouteflika as president until the crowds forced his removal and which now says elections for a successor must be postponed – had jailed Fekhar as a “threat to state security” who had “incited racial hatred”. These were the usual fake claims the same pouvoir often uttered whenever it locked up or killed political activists during the 1990-98 civil war (total dead somewhere around 250,000).
The story which would never otherwise have reached us, however, came from Tunisian journalist-lawyer Nessim Ben Gharbia. He pointed out that Fekhar, rather than being routinely locked up to await trial or imprisoned with other supposed suspects, was kept in “provisional detention” where harsh interrogations – and in the Algerian context, we should know what that means – are conducted against those who have committed, according to the law books, “the gravest crimes”, an imprisonment which is, says Article 59 of the Algerian constitution, an “exceptional” measure. But Ben Gharbia reveals in a tiny French-language magazine that this same law is now being applied to men and women accused of fake money transfers, “demoralisation” of the army and “plotting” against the state. A state, one should add, which only ended its civil war with a law forbidding any punishment of state employees for what we would call war crimes.
Routine reports of Fekhar’s death did not mention this extraordinary development in the prisons of the country, which is now regarded by the West as a bastion against Isis and other Islamist killers. Nor has there been any follow-up, as we say, to Ben Gharbia’s report.
Nor is there likely to be in a world where we all take a rhetoric bath several times a week from the Trumps, the Boltons and the Pompeos – yes, and the Khameneis, the Netanyahus and the Mohammed bin Salmans.
And, I suppose, the Farages, the Goves and the Johnsons.
Maybe it’s time we ended the right of these people to set our agenda and pushed real people to the top of the page, now that the Assanges and the Mannings can’t do that job for us.
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