On Wednesday afternoon in the British Parliament, near the end of question time for British Prime Minister David Cameron, a short though incredibly revealing exchange occurred between Cameron and Respect Party MP George Galloway. Whatever one’s preexisting views might be of either of these two polarizing figures is entirely irrelevant to the points and facts raised here about this incident.
Galloway stood to ask Cameron about a seeming contradiction in the policy of the British government (one shared by the US government). He wanted to know why it is that the British government is so intent on fighting and bombing Islamic extremists in Mali, while simultaneously arming and funding equally brutal Islamic extremists in Syria (indeed, although it was once taboo to mention, it is now widely reported in the most establishment venues such as the New York Times that while many ordinary Syrians are fighting against the savagery and tyranny of Assad, Islamic extremists, including ones loyal to al-Qaida, are playing a major role in the war against the regime). The same question could have been posed regarding Libya, where Nato-supported rebel factions were filled with fighters with all sorts of links to al-Qaida.
There certainly are reasonable answers to Galloway’s point, but whatever one’s views might be on those points, there’s no denying it’s a reasonable question. It is simply the case that the British government, along with its Nato allies including the US, were – in both the wars in Syria and Libya – on the same side as, and even arming and funding, the very extremists, “jihaidists”, and even al-Qaida-supporting fighters they claim pose the greatest menace to world peace.
In lieu of addressing the substance of the question, Cameron unleashed a 10-second snide attack on Galloway himself. “Some things come and go,” proclaimed the Prime Minister, “but there is one thing that is certain: wherever there is a brutal Arab dictator in the world, he will have the support of [Galloway].” Here is the one-minute video of this exchange:
As usual, anyone who questions the militarism of western governments is instantly smeared as a sympathizer or even supporter of tyrants. Thus, those who opposed the aggressive attack on Iraq were pro-Saddam; those who now oppose bombing Iran love the mullahs; those who oppose Nato intervention in Syria or Libya harbor affection for Assad and Ghadaffi – just as those who opposed the Vietnam War fifty years ago or Reagan’s brutal covert wars in Latin America thirty years ago were Communist sympathizers, etc. etc. Cameron’s outburst was just the standard smear tactic used for decades by western leaders to try to discredit anyone who opposes their wars.
The more important point here is that of all the people on the planet, there is nobody with less authority to accuse others of supporting “brutal Arab dictators in the world” than David Cameron and his Nato allies, including those in the Obama administration. Supporting “brutal Arab dictators in the world” is a perfect summary of the west’s approach to the Arab world for the last five decades, and it continues to be.
In January of last year, Cameron visited the region’s most repressive dictators, the close British allies in Saudi Arabia. In Riyadh, he met King Abdullah and Crown Prince Nayef in order, he said, to “broaden and deepen” the UK-Saudi relationship. That “relationship” was already quite broad and deep, as “Saudi Arabia is the UK’s largest trading partner in the Middle East with annual trade worth £15bn a year.”
Moreover, “a Saudi official told the BBC the leaders would discuss sales of the latest technology and weaponry, and making Britain a major part of a massive Saudi military expansion.” Indeed, as the Guardian noted in 2012, “during the third quarter of last year Britain exported arms valued at more than £1m to Saudi Arabia, including components for military combat vehicles and turrets.” In June, Cameron again visited Saudi Arabia as well as the UAE, and the Huffington Post UK reported at the time: “Cameron has been open about his desire to sell arms to the Saudis, the UAE and Oman.”
In November – just two months before yesterday’s attack on Galloway – Cameron again traveled around to several tyrannical Gulf states – including his close ally Saudi Arabia as well as the United Arab Emirates – in order to sell British fighter jets and other military hardware to those regimes. As Amnesty International UK’s head of policy and government affairs Allan Hogarth said: “Saudi Arabia has been the recipient of record-breaking arms deals involving the UK.” Indeed, as the Guardian noted during this trip: “In 2009 the Saudi air force used UK-supplied Tornado fighter-bombers in attacks in Yemen which killed hundreds – possibly thousands – of civilians.”
Then there was that charming incident in May, 2011, when – at the height of the violent crackdown by the Bahraini regime on democratic protesters – Cameron welcomed Bahrain‘s Crown Prince to 10 Downing Street and posed for photographers shaking hands with the tyrant. Former Labour foreign minister Denis MacShane protested that Cameron should not be “rolling out the red carpet for Bahrain’s torturer-in-chief”.
In August, Cameron met with Bahrain’s King in London. While the Prime Minister’s office claimed he pressed the King to implement greater political reforms, the Guardian noted that the King was “given red carpet treatment in Downing Street”.
Just last year, it was reported that – despite a temporary suspension of licenses – “Britain has continued to sell arms to Bahrain despite continuing political unrest in the Gulf state”. Indeed, “several licences were granted for arms exports, including in February and March 2011, and during the height of the violence.” Specifically:
“According to the figures the government approved the sale of military equipment valued at more than £1m in the months following the violent crackdown on demonstrators a year ago. They included licences for gun silencers, weapons sights, rifles, artillery and components for military training aircraft.
“Also cleared for export to Bahrain between July and September last year were naval guns and components for detecting and jamming improvised explosive devices.”
As Maryam Al-Khawaja of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights said: “The US, UK and France attack Russia for providing weapons to Syria, but that’s exactly what they are doing for the Bahrain government; Russia is criticised for a naval base in Syria, but the US has one here.” Of course, Bahrain wasn’t the only close UK ally to violently attack democratic protesters in the kingdom. “During last year’s uprising, Saudi Arabia sent forces to Bahrain in British military trucks.”
Then there’s Britain’s long-standing support for the Mubarak dictatorship, and Cameron’s personal support for Mubarak as the protest movement unfolded. In January, 2011, as tens of thousands of Egyptians assembled to demand an end to their dictatorship, he sat for an interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, who asked him whether Mubarak should resign. Cameron said: “What we support is evolution, reform, not revolution.” As Egyptian police were killing protesters, this exchange then occurred:
“ZAKARIA: Is Mubarak a friend of Britain?
“CAMERON: He is a friend of Britain. Britain has good relations with Egypt.”
The following month, as Mubarak’s crackdown intensified, “the British government refuse[d] to say whether it would follow the example of Germany and France and suspend exports of arms and riot control equipment to Egypt.” In 2009, Britain sold £16.4m worth of arms to the regime in Egypt.
In 2010, the UK granted licenses for the sale of arms to Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, the UAE and Yemen. In July of that year, shortly after Cameron assumed office, “the Scrutiny of Arms Exports report by the Parliamentary Committee on Arms Export Controls (CAEC) show[ed] that there are still 600 existing arms exports licences in place for the sale of goods including assault weapons, ammunition, and surveillence equipment, to Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen.” In 2011, Der Spiegel reported:
“Britain exported over €100 million ($142 million) in weapons to Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi in the last two years alone. Included in those shipments are sniper rifles that may currently be in use against the Libyan opposition. Furthermore, Gadhafi’s terror police are British-trained.”
So who exactly is it that is guilty of supporting every “brutal Arab dictator in the world”? At the top of any honest list, one would find David Cameron, along with the leaders of most leading Nato countries, beginning with the US (see here and here). Indeed, as Der Spiegel noted in April 2011 about yet another of Cameron’s trips to visit Arab tyrants: “Cameron flew on to Kuwait, where he got down to the real purpose of his trip: selling weapons to Arab autocrats.”
Cameron’s so-called “slapdown” of Galloway was predictably celebrated in many precincts. The reality, though, is that it was quite cowardly: he refused to answer Galloway’s question, then smeared him knowing that he could not reply, then simply moved on to the next questioner. Galloway was able to respond afterward only by posting an open letter on his website, noting the multiple Arab dictators steadfastly supported not by Galloway but by his accuser, David Cameron.
The more important point here is that this so perfectly reflects the central propagandistic self-delusion amazingly sustained throughout the west. The very same western countries that snuggle up to and prop up the planet’s worst dictators are the same ones who strut around depicting themselves as crusaders for democracy and freedom, all while smearing anyone who objects to their conduct as lovers of tyranny. That’s how David Cameron can literally embrace and strengthen the autocrats of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, Yemen and so many others, while accusing others with a straight face of lending support “wherever there is a brutal Arab dictator in the world”.
In the most minimally rational universe, Cameron’s act of extreme projection would provoke a sustained fit of mocking laughter. In the propaganda-suffused western world, it all seems perfectly cogent and even inspiring.
The Hillary Clinton version
The outgoing US Secretary of State on Wednesday unleashed this bizarre description of the Egyptian people: “It’s hard going from decades under one-party or one-man rule, as somebody said, waking up from a political coma and understanding democracy.” As As’ad AbuKhalil astutely replied: “The US and not the Egyptian people were in denial about the true nature of the Sadat-Mubarak regime. No, in fact they were not in denial: they knew full well what they were doing against the Egyptian people.”
Indeed, it was Hillary Clinton – not the Egyptian people – who proclaimed in 2009: “I really consider President and Mrs. Mubarak to be friends of my family. So I hope to see him often here in Egypt and in the United States.” (As a related bonus, see this all-time great Hillary Clinton quote about the US role in the world.) In sum, any list of those lending support “wherever there is a brutal Arab dictator in the world” must begin with the leaders of the US and the UK in order to have any minimal credibility.