France has launched bombing raids in Mali and Britain has sent RAF aircrafts to support the US-backed Western aggression. Richard Lance Keeble examines the media’s response to this military intervention in one of the poorest countries in the world.
So Britain is at war once again – sending jets to assist the French in quelling a rebellion in the north of Mali. Predictably all the limitations of the corporate media’s coverage of warfare and foreign affairs are exposed – with all the essential historical, political, economic, military and geo-strategic background missing.
The dominant narrative represents the West intervening against a predictable enemy: radical, fundamentalist Islamic groups. The Guardian, for instance, on 12 January, reported that French troops were aiming "to contain Islamist groups which are continuing to clash with the army in a fight for control of the desert north of the west African country". The Sunday Times (on January 13) reported on French and British joining ‘an internationally co-ordinated effort to stop an al-Qaeda linked rebel alliance from reaching the capital of Mali’. The policy of the French President, Francois Hollande, they described as ‘dynamic’.
Yet most crucially this simple narrative ignores the fact that on many occasions the West has joined with ‘Islamic fundamentalists’ in overt and covert military activities. Today in Syria, for instance, a complex web of Islamic groupings – backed by the West, Qatar and Saudi Arabia – are competing for prominence in the movement opposing the government of President Bashar al-Assad. Increasingly the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda linked group with up to 5,000 fighters, is emerging as the dominant faction within the Western-backed opposition – and yet it has been labelled by the US as an outlawed "terrorist organisation"!
Similarly, during the 2011 revolt which toppled Col Gaddafi in Libya the West relied heavily on the forces of radical Islamic groups. The problems associated with this strategy rebounded on the US when some of those same Islamic fighters stormed the American embassy in Benghazi, in the east of Libya, on September 11 last year and assassinated the US ambassador, Christopher Stephens.
This collusion of the West with terrorist groups is nothing new. The historian Mark Curtis reveals in his ground-breaking book Secret Affairs (Serpent’s Tail; 2010).that Britain has supported radical Islamic groups in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Libya, the Balkans, Syria, Indonesia and Egypt since the 1940s. Moreover, Curtis shows how British policies of "divide and rule" exploited Islamic forces to promote imperial interests in India, Palestine, Jordan and Yemen.
Let’s consider some of the deeper military/economic factors behind the West’s intervention in Mali – largely ignored by the corporate press. At the heart of the conflict is the ongoing rivalry between West and China for access to Africa’s rich resources – of oil, diamonds, copper, gold, iron, cobalt, uranium, bauxite, silver, petroleum, woods and tropical fruits.
In 2007, the Pentagon created the African Command (Africom) to spearhead its military advances on the continent and to counter China’s growing economic influence. More than 2,000 Chinese companies have invested in the continent. This is mostly in energy, mining, construction and manufacturing projects though recently tourism, finance, agriculture and aviation have attracted investment from Chinese businesses. It is difficult to know precisely the overall figure, but in n mid-2012, China’s ambassador to South Africa, Tian Xuejun, said that China’s investment in Africa of various kinds exceeded $40 billion.
One of the many reasons for Nato’s intervention in the Libyan civil war – also ignored by the corporate press – was Gaddafi’s refusal to join all the other Maghreb nations in Africom and, instead, develop close economic ties with the Chinese. Significantly, just before the Nato raids began, in March 2011, China hastily withdrew 35,000 of its citizens from the country.
Another consequence of Nato’s Libyan intervention was the fleeing of Touareg nationalist militias, who had backed Gaddafi, into northern Mali. Here, the early successes of the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad provoked the ousting of President Amadou Toumani Touré in a military coup on 22 March last year – and this in turn has led to the collapse of the Malian army and the continuing successes of Islamists in the north.
Recently, the US announced the formation of a dedicated 3,500-strong brigade to carry on continuous activities in an estimated 35 countries on the African continent. Last November, Hillary Clinton, then Secretary of State, visited Algeria (just to the north of Mali) to win their support for Western military intervention in Mali. Significantly, this was followed by the first ever US strategic dialogue with the Algerian National Liberation Front government in Washington. Last October www.wired.com reported that activities at the US drone base in Djibouti, a tiny French colonial outpost to the north of Somalia, were expanding. Already the base was hosting eight Predator drones and eight F-15E fighter-bombers plus other warplanes, as well as around 300 Special Operations Forces and more than 2,000 other US troops and civilians.
Another factor behind France’s military adventurism, largely ignored by the corporate media, is the importance of West Africa to the country’s nuclear industry. The French nuclear company Areva, which provides 78 per cent of the country’s electricity, and which is the world’s largest developer of nuclear equipment, gets much of its uranium from Mali and neighbouring Niger. Areva draws profits of roughly 3 billion euros every year.
Already French forces had intervened in 2011 in the civil war in the Ivory Coast (with US and UN blessing) to topple President Lauren Gbagbo and install the Western-backed Alassane Quattara. Yet military/foreign policy hardly featured in last year’s presidential elections in France. Intriguingly the only party challenging the consensus behind the military adventurism was the far-right Front National.
Predictably the West’s intervention has won the support of the mainstream press. The Times, of 14 January, for instance, described it as a ‘just mission’. ‘France, the former colonial power, has responded with air strikes and Britain is rightly giving logistical support under the terms of a defence treaty signed with France in 2010.’
The Guardian, the most "liberal" of Fleet Street’s offerings, backed the intervention in an editorial on 15 January, describing it as ‘a calculated gamble’ though not without risk. On its website, Gregory Mann was emphatic in his support. "The intervention was necessary," he stressed. But it was definitely not a "neo-colonial offensive". ‘The argument that it is might be comfortable and familiar, but it is bogus and ill-informed.’ At the same time he said Mali needed ‘a diplomatic intervention as urgently as it needed military intervention’. Ian Birrell, in the Independent on January 14, argued that French action was necessary "to stop the deadly cancer of Islamist extremism spreading further south".
Media coverage is never monolithic: Owen Jones, author of the excellent Chavs (about the demonisation of the working class) has an excellent piece in the Independent of January 14 warning that Britain was "being led into another war that risks disaster". The Daily Mail, which usually manages to combine undying support for "our boys in the frontline" in its news reports whenever conflicts erupt, with an editorial scepticism, predictably questioned British involvement in Mali with these words: "Isn’t there a risk we’ll be drawn into yet another bloody conflict?"
And yet the views of the global peace movement, which consistently opposes military adventurism by the major imperial powers, are largely unheard.
All the more reason to check out the many alternative websites offering insightful analyses – and challenging the dominant narrative. For instance, www.wsws.org was absolutely right when it editorialised on January 15:
Mali is the fourth country attacked by France in two years, after Libya, the Ivory Coast and Syria. Of these countries, all but Libya were former French colonies. Explanations for this war given by President François Hollande and other French officials – that France aims to defend Mali’s "democracy" from Al Qaeda, and not what Hollande called France’s “fundamental interests” – are cynical lies. French imperialism is setting out to re-establish a dominant position in West Africa, using military force to assert its interests.
Steve Breyman, writing on January 15 in www.counterpoint.org, a superb investigative site, provided excellent background and analysis on the Malian conflict, highlighting the response of the US administration:
The US will collaborate closely with France as the war in Mali escalates. If US participation is limited to drones, there will not be much clamour for invocation of the WPR. The test will come should the French get bogged down in the vast deserts of northern Mali, and the armed US role expands.
And, finally, Walter Russell Mead, at The American Interest (the-american-interest.com/), cast a critical eye over President Obama’s "counter-terrorism" policies in North Africa:
Since Obama took office the US spent almost $600 million to combat Islamic militancy across North Africa. In countries like Mali and Niger US forces trained local soldiers in counterterrorism skills. Arms and equipment were bought so local governments could protect their territories. This strategy, in theory, would protect North Africa from falling into the hands of Islamist militants – who would impose strict Sharia rule on unwilling locals and use lawless territory to launch attacks on Western targets – without involving a heavy deployment of American troops like in Iraq and Afghanistan. That was the theory.
But as heavily armed Islamist militants battle French forces in the Battle for Mali, it’s clear Obama’s strategy to help weak North African states protect themselves from terrorists has failed catastrophically.
* Professor Richard Lance Keeble is Acting Head of the University of Lincoln School of Journalism