The Image Book: a demanding critique on the role of film in contemporary Western society

Jean-Luc Godard, “The Image Book / Le Livre d’Image” (2018)

At 84 minutes, in no way is this a long film, yet it’s far more demanding of one’s attention in so many different aspects than more commercial films that are at least half as long. This film works on so many levels and probably needs to be seen at least a few times for Godard’s message/s to sink in.

On one level, the film questions and criticises the dominant role of cinema as escapist entertainment in an age where so many technologies and trends that have developed at the same time and in parallel or even enmeshed together with cinema have had destructive effects on humanity around the world: modern warfare, the development of weapons capable of destroying all life on earth, propaganda, societies dependent on technology (including cinema) and materialism to keep people distracted and unaware of their repression by Deep States. On a second level, in its use of snippets of other directors’ films, film audio soundtracks, music and paintings, Godard pays homage to directors and films that he may consider significant: I managed to pick out Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “Salo”, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” and Georges Franju’s “Blood of the Beasts” among the films referenced. By juxtaposing audio soundtracks from other films with the snippets of film organised collage-style, Godard creates a new narrative that, among other things, criticises Western viewpoints of Arabic-language peoples and their cultures and histories, and invites viewers to question how their opinions and worldviews have been moulded and manipulated by film in all its variety, documentary and newsreel film as well as film drama. This narrative includes a completely fictional story about the despotic ruler of an imaginary Arab country called Dofa which has no resources – not even oil or natural gas to speak of – but which lack does not stop this ruler from dreaming of dominating all the Arabian Gulf oil states.

There is much beauty, a lot of it deliberately over-coloured or overlit in ways to make the film look psychedelic and hallucinatory, as if to call attention to the power of film and film narrative to keep people in a heightened state of addiction and to change their neural networks (not always for the better). For all its experimentation, the film does present a linear narrative based on the five fingers of the hand – because the hand does much if not most of the work of the imagination and creation – with each chapter in the narrative representing some form of motion or conflict: water, trains, warfare, the law and the Western view of the Middle East.

The film’s collage nature and confrontational message make it difficult viewing for most people. I must confess I did find the middle section of the film quite heavy and tiring.

Exposing propaganda at work in “The Thom Hartmann Program: The American Destruction of Venezuela – The Real Story”

“The Thom Hartmann Program: The American Destruction of Venezuela – The Real Story” (21 February 2019)

In recent months, with the 2020 US Presidential year looming on the horizon, there has been talk of a set of programs and policies known as the Green New Deal (named after former US President Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal programs in the 1930s that invested in infrastructure construction and stimulated job creation and employment during the Great Depression) to address national issues such as failing infrastructure, climate change and its effects, unemployment and rising social inequalities across the nation. A major objection to the Green New Deal, usually lobbed by neoconservative politicians and think-tanks, is that its programs will lead to hyperinflation and economic / political instability of the kind currently (or supposedly) present in Venezuela under Nicolas Maduro’s Bolivarian socialist government. On this radio talk-show, host Thom Hartmann invited Dr Richard Wolff to discuss this objection and the real agenda behind the false association of the social-democratic policies proposed and the economic situation in Venezuela.

Much of the first half of Hartmann’s conversation with Wolff focuses on the definition of hyperinflation (a situation in which too much money is chasing too few goods) and how the phenomenon can occur in any political / economic environment regardless of the prevailing ideology. Wolff points out that the hyperinflation argument is trotted out in public to dissuade voters and even aspiring politicians (and presidential candidates) from favouring government policies and programs spending money on infrastructure construction and maintenance projects that would generate jobs and incomes – and thus more tax revenue – and help reduce social inequalities. Such programs, including a nationalised healthcare system, have their consequences such as reduced healthcare expenditures in the future (because the population ends up much healthier if health insurance is subsidised by the government rather than privatised). Wolff says the issue is that such government policies must be paid for by increased taxation, particularly taxation of the wealthy, and this is the issue that neoconservative politicians, talk-show hosts and think-tanks (and the people and organisations who fund them) object to.

The actual discussion about Venezuela involves a comparison of the people in Maduro’s government and the Constituent National Assembly, most of whom are of mixed ancestry, and the anti-government National Assembly, all of whom are of white European ancestry. Wolff makes the point that Maduro’s difficulties in governing Venezuela and steering the nation’s economy away from disaster stem from the old Venezuelan white minority elite’s determination to maintain its power and control of the country’s resources at the expense of the majority poor, and US sanctions on the country which include the freezing of Venezuela’s financial and other assets held in foreign countries.

The discussion is densely packed with information and jumps from one topic to the next, due to the restricted time allocated to Wolff. I daresay though that viewers and listeners will learn much more about the political and economic reality in Venezuela, and the US propaganda use of that country’s dire economic straits to browbeat Americans into accepting agendas that impoverish and degrade them even more than they currently are.

The Making of a Modern British Soldier: how ordinary people are trained to become killing machines

Ben Griffin, “The Making of a Modern British Soldier” (Veterans for Peace UK, October 2015)

All you see in this video uploaded to Youtube is a man in mufti standing before a white blank wall, telling the story of his life from the time he was old enough to walk and ask questions of his grandfather about his experiences as a military man and his medals – but what a story he tells, about the propaganda and indoctrination he was subjected to as a teenage army cadet on into his training to be an SAS marine, to the physical and psychological methods used in the British armed forces to mould ordinary people into elitist psychopathic killers, to his experiences as a soldier in the Iraq war after the US-led invasion in 2003 that toppled Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, to his realisation that Western forces in Iraq had merely replaced Hussein’s government in terrorising people and moreover were protecting Western corporate interests in Iraq (all intent on making money and profits from grabbing and selling the oil and other natural resources that rightfully belonged to the Iraqi people) instead of bringing “freedom” and “democracy” to a long-suffering nation. Former British SAS marine and co-founder of Veterans For Peace (UK) Ben Griffin tells the fascinating true story of his old life as a killing machine and how he, like many other people in the British armed forces, had been seduced by highly romanticised military histories and tales of derring-do to join an army cadet group and army camps for teenaged kids who were not academic. As an army cadet, Griffin was allowed to smoke, drink and do all sorts of things that youngsters in civilian institutions were discouraged from doing, and from this beginning, the notion that he and other teenage army cadets were special, a higher grade of human who could look down on everyone else, took hold.

Griffin speaks in great detail about the military values instilled into him and they make for frightening listening: following orders from above instantly and without hesitation for fear of punishment; Spartan-like loyalty to one’s own unit and hatred of everyone else; the enforcement of discipline by punishing an entire unit for one individual member’s mistake; and the removal of one’s natural aversion to killing people with methods including sleep deprivation and repetitive drills. The end result of such intense inculcation must surely be an emotionally and spiritually hollow shell of a human, into which shell fanatical beliefs and behaviours, a hatred of anyone and anything different, even on the flimsiest criteria, replace empathy and compassion. Punishments for mistakes are severe and brutal.

Griffin’s turning-point in his old military career comes during his deployment to Basra in southern Iraq where, after witnessing or being party to grave injustices committed by the British on Basra civilians, he realises that he can no longer stomach the lies that have been shovelled into his head over the years and which he starts to doubt. He is uneasy at the presence of Western corporations with their private security in major cities in Iraq, and what that presence and the security details might say about US-led allied forces and their actions and behaviour.

The film cuts out abruptly while Griffin is still describing how he became involved with the Veterans For Peace organisation in the US and decided together with fellow former soldiers to set up their own British chapter. By this stage, he has said more than enough about how military recruits are effectively manipulated and broken down into dehumanised sociopaths and how British forces, mingling with US and other allied forces, engaged in torturing prisoners (usually culled from the civilian population by raiding their homes and taking male residents) at “black sites”. For this reason, reports of “US forces” in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and other parts of the Middle East / North Africa, and maybe other parts of the world, can be assumed to include forces (plus mercenaries from private corporations – and, depending on the region involved, freelancers, militias and naive people recruited via social media or personal / community networks, often portrayed in the media as “freedom fighters” or “terrorists” when the situation permits) from other Western nations.

Griffin’s talk, peppered with anecdotes and very surprisingly detailed information about aspects of British military culture, is highly informative and lively. Griffin’s description of how he as a child fell for the relentless ear-bashing propaganda and how he signed up for army boot camp for wannabe teenage soldiers like himself is especially chilling. This talk is recommended listening for Griffin’s animated style and the information he offers.

Why ‘Wonder Woman’ is Banned in Lebanon: taking a stand against propaganda that denies history and exalts violence and brutality

Nora Barrows-Friedman, “Why ‘Wonder Woman’ is Banned in Lebanon” (Electronic Intifada, 8 June 2017)

With every passing year, the commercial movie industry in the United States, popularly known as Hollywood, reveals itself more and more as the propaganda arm of US foreign policy, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the spate of superhero movies, based on characters in comics published by DC Comics and Marvel Comics. The Batman / Dark Knight trilogy of films directed by Christopher Nolan insinuates that in order for good to triumph over evil, good must stoop to the level of evil (including the killing of innocents as “collateral damage”) and promotes the cynical notion that societies can only function if their citizens are persuaded to believe lies – because knowing the truth would inevitably lead to chaos. These and other superhero films fetishise technology and violence, in the process disdaining character development and sticking to stereotyped plots and narratives that reject diplomacy, compromise and co-operation between opposed forces, preferring instead to solve problems with overwhelming force and violence.

In this context, the casting of a former Israeli soldier, who participated in Israel’s war against Lebanon in 2006, and who supported and praised the Israeli Defense Forces in their pounding of Gaza in mid-2014, as the superhero Wonder Woman in a film of the same name in 2017 takes Hollywood and the superhero movie genre to a new low. Hollywood’s use of Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman represents a tacit acceptance of Israel’s ongoing war against the Palestinians and Lebanon. No wonder that Lebanon – admittedly after much prompting from its own activists – banned the screening of the Wonder Woman movie in its cinemas, in line with a law banning transactions that involve Israeli partners which “normalise” or implies acceptance of past Israeli actions or policies that oppress Palestinians and people living in territories neighbouring Israel.

In this interview hosted by Electronic Intifada, reporter Nora Barrows-Friedman speaks with academic and activist Rania Masri who explains why the ban on “Wonder Woman” is a boycott and not an example of censorship. Masri calls attention to the settler movement in Israel which continually encroaches on Palestinian lands and forcibly ejects Palestinians from them with approval and support from the Israeli government. She also reminds listeners that Israel also threatens people in the Shebaa Farms region in southern Lebanon bordering Israel, and people in Syria’s Golan Heights region. Masri then turns her fiery ire onto the English-language press which has deliberately misrepresented the Lebanese ban on “Wonder Woman” as censorship and left out the context surrounding the Lebanese decision.

Masri emphasises that the people now known as Syrians, Lebanese and Palestinians were one before World War I and were separated when their lands were divided and claimed by Britain and France as colonies in the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement. It was as a result of this agreement that the Zionist movement in Palestine, enabled by the British who thought to use the Zionists as their sheriffs in the Middle East to keep watch over the Arab peoples, took deeper root especially after the Balfour Declaration in 1917, eventually giving rise to the founding of Israel in 1948 after the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem by the Irgun terrorist gang in that year. How galling it would be for Lebanese audiences to watch a film in which the star is not only a former soldier and a proud patriot of a country that still seeks to destroy Lebanon, but is also a reminder of the forced separation of the Arabs in the Levant which deliberately weakened them and subjected them to a subservient role in their own lands.

Left out of Masri’s argument is other reasons why films like “Wonder Woman” are propaganda: they help promote the idea of the United States as an exceptional nation, as they espouse values and behaviours considered typically American, with the result that those who resist the US must want to destroy all that the US supposedly represents and defends; and they flatten history, especially recent history, and drain it of context so it has nothing to teach audiences or to encourage them to think about what they have seen. Masri could have included these reasons in her criticism but perhaps time did not permit and Barrows-Friedman had quite a list of questions to ask her.

The Curious Incident of the Skripal Poisoning in Salisbury, UK: a View from the Russian Foreign Ministry

Russian Foreign Ministry Meeting with Foreign Ambassadors on Skripal poisoning case (21 March 2018)

For nearly all of March 2018, the world was gripped by a strange incident in the sleepy English cathedral town of Salisbury – the kind of provincial English urban centre that might be a setting for a low-budget television crime / mystery series – in which an elderly Russian ex-spy and his adult daughter from Moscow were found unconscious (and the daughter suffering convulsions and loss of body functions to boot) on a park bench in the town’s shopping mall on a Sunday afternoon. The couple are attended by a doctor who administers first aid before they are taken to the local general hospital. Initially the two are thought to have suffered an overdose of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid drug which can be fatal in small amounts, not just to those who ingest but also to first-response emergency personnel who accidentally breathe or touch the particles while treating the victims. The narrative however starts to change from one day to the next: a police officer is reported as having been stricken by the same poisoning agent (which changes from fentanyl to a mystery nerve gas toxin) but the onset of his symptoms is very different (sudden as opposed to gradual in the case of the Russians) yet his condition is described in media reports as serious but stable while the Russians’ condition is critical. British police make a strange show of going to the local cemetery in Salisbury to cordon off the graves of the ex-spy’s wife and son and having two officers in hazmat suits perform a lap around them.

By the middle of March, British Prime Minister Theresa May and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson have blamed Russia for poisoning the Russian ex-spy Sergei and daughter Julia Skripal with a Novichok nerve gas agent, and demanded an explanation from the Russian ambassador, despite having no evidence that the Russian government or its agents had anything to do with the poisoning, if indeed poisoning with a man-made agent let alone Novichok did occur. At the same time the British government refused to share any information about the Skripals’ condition or to reply to Russian requests about Julia Skripal, and denied Russian consular access to the stricken woman. The British government also appointed a barrister to represent the Skripals’ interests in a High Court hearing on 22 March 2018 to allow doctors to obtain fresh blood samples from the couple; as far as is known, said barrister refuses to contact family and business connections of the Skripals in Russia.

With the British ultimatum to Russia demanding an explanation for the poisoning of the Skripals passing its deadline, the Russian Foreign Ministry in Moscow summoned all foreign ambassadors to a meeting on 21 March 2018 to discuss the Skripal poisoning incident. Speaker Vladimir Yermakov gave an outline of the situation surrounding the incident from a Russian point of view, noting that Russia was within its rights in requesting samples of materials for testing for the presence of Novichok from the British. He observed that the British had not shared any information about the incident or the condition of the Skripals with Russia, and that the way British authorities were dealing with the incident and blaming Russia was clumsy and inept. The possibility that British authorities themselves were involved in the attack on the Skripals, directly or indirectly, was raised.

Yermakov noted that the Director-General of the Organisation of Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) had met with the United Nations Security Council to discuss the use of chemical weapons in Syria, at which meeting the Salisbury incident was raised by the British. The Russians asked questions about the incident, to which the answers were evasive. Yermakov went on to say that Russia itself had destroyed all its chemical weapons stockpiles under OPCW supervision and control by late September 2017.

Two other speakers were invited to give a broader context to the issue of the possible use of Novichok or a Novichok-like agent in the Salisbury incident. Major General Igor Kirillov from the Ministry of Defence spoke of the recent discovery made by Syrian Arab Army soldiers in East Ghouta (which had been held by jihadi forces for several years), in the Damascus region, of secret laboratories for the production of chemical weapons. Jihadis in that area had been preparing a large-scale CW attack that would be blamed on the Syrian government. He went on to discuss the issue of Novichok and how most information about it in the West comes from one former Soviet chemist, Vil Mirzayanov, who currently lives in the US and who holds anti-Putin views. Mirzayanov published the formulae for making Novichok in a book and on the Internet – which means that anyone with a chemistry background up to and including undergraduate university level can make the stuff. More information about Mirzayanov and his publications, and the research on Novichok and related nerve gas agents (including a list of these) was provided by Viktor Kholstov from the Ministry of Industry and Trade.

Kirillov also reminded the audience that the UK also researches and makes toxic nerve gas agents including VX nerve gas and sarin in its Porton Down laboratory (some 12 kilometres away from Salisbury) and has tested them on human guinea pigs in the past. He mentioned in particular the name of Ronald Maddison, a young soldier who was killed by sarin liquid in one experiment in the 1950s which he had volunteered for after being invited to participate in a flu vaccine trial.

There then followed a Q&A session in which ambassadors from various Western European countries and the US expressed support for and solidarity with Britain on the Salisbury incident. The ambassador from Bosnia and Hercegovina complained about the Serbian ambassador having mentioned incidents in Sarajevo and other parts of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s that were used by NATO to justify bombing Serbia, and suggesting a parallel with these incidents and the Salisbury incident, in that the Salisbury incident was being exploited by the West to isolate and demonise Russia. The ambassador from Venezuela expressed support for Russia to resolve the investigation of the Skripal poisoning in a manner transparent to everyone and urged the British to do the same.

This meeting should be of interest to all those keen to see the Salisbury incident dealt with in the manner that all incidents in which individuals are victims of possible foul play should be treated: in the manner that shuns finger-pointing, blaming others and holding kangaroo courts before evidence is properly collected, sorted and analysed to determine how the incident occurred, who most likely had the means to cause and create it, and the possible motive the perpetrator had to do it. The meeting presents the official Russian point of view of the Salisbury incident and provides a good (if embarrassing) example of how Western nations have closed ranks around the British position despite the lack of definitive evidence or proof provided by the British government so far of Russian involvement in the attack on the Skripals.  (For an example of such evidence, see this slideshow presentation made by the British Embassy in Moscow.) The British reaction to the Salisbury incident and the British government’s exploitation of it demonstrate the extent to which British elites are prepared to jettison British principles, values and institutions – and the British people themselves – to pursue an agenda against Russia.

Rethinking Putin: stripping away Western criticism and fantasy, and painting a picture of pragmatic and steady leadership

Stephen F Cohen, “Rethinking Putin”, Annual Nation Cruise (2 December 2017)

Professor Stephen Cohen is a scholar and professor emeritus of Russian studies at Princeton University and New York University, and the spouse of Katrina vanden Heuvel who edits The Nation magazine, so perhaps it’s no surprise that he was invited to give a speech to the magazine’s subscribers on its annual cruise. He chose as his subject current Russian President Vladimir Putin who, if you believe Western mainstream news media, is Planet Earth’s equivalent of Star Wars villain Darth Vader, and in his speech sets out to show Putin as a major national leader of importance and a politician born of historic circumstances and political and economic trends in post-Soviet Russia.

Regrettably Cohen gets off on a wrong footing by stating that Putin has been in power for 18 years since early 2000; in fact, Putin was only Prime Minister from 2008 to 2012, second to President Dmitri Medvedev. During this period, Russia supported the Western call for a no-fly zone over Libya in 2011, such call leading to the NATO invasion of that country and its descent into chaos. Had Putin been President then, Russia most probably would not have supported a no-fly zone over Libya and the country might not have lost its independence and Colonel Muammar Gaddhafi. From then on, listeners are wise to be wary of any prejudices and limitations on Cohen’s part in discussing the extent to which Putin currently wields power in Russia as the current President. Anyway, Cohen observes the extreme and often hysterical demonisation of President Putin in the Western news media, and starts his talk proper by emphasising what Putin is not, rather than what he is. He emphasises that Boris Yeltsin as President from 1991 to 1999 behaved in a way that was highly authoritarian and corrupt, and presided over post-Soviet decline and deindustrialisation, often with the underhanded help of the US government, so any authoritarian tendencies in the current Russian administration or any corruption and concentration of wealth in the hands of an oligarchic elite did not start with Putin. Cohen also states that the killings of Russian journalists and prominent opposition figures did not begin during Putin’s early presidency. From there, Cohen strips further layers of Western criticism and fantasy about Putin.

For Cohen, Putin comes across as a reactive and conservative politician, especially in the realm of foreign policy, in the sense of attempting to preserve the status quo. Putin’s previous work in the KGB has had no bearing on his leadership style or the policies he pursues. In the last few minutes of his speech, Cohen outlines his idea of Putin: initially a young, inexperienced public servant who found a collapsing and unstable Russia, and who over the years restores proper governance, stability and security to the country in a pragmatic system of “managed democracy”. This for Cohen extends to controlling to some extent what history and historical narratives can be passed from one generation to the next, so that young people have a sure idea of what Russia represents and what its values are: this is actually no more and no less what Western countries have done for much of the 20th century. To an extent, Putin represents a conservative, somewhat traditional segment of the Russian population (who might be called the silent majority in most Western countries) who desire to see Russia as a great power with a stable and robust economy, and a society with a clear direction not disturbed and riven by the agendas of competing social and cultural groups.

At this point, the talk breaks off just as Cohen warms up to discussing Russia’s treatment of its Jewish minority but the gist of his view of Putin has been established. Whether Cohen’s view is accurate, I have no idea, not knowing any more about Russia or Putin than most people in the West do but it seems to me that to call Putin reactive and conservative in his foreign policy is doing him and his government an injustice. In an age where governments are expected to spring to action immediately over a major terrorist or other incident with no thought as to the consequences of such action, Russian delay in response, and the kind of considered action that does follow – and which often ends up flummoxing the US and its allies, and puts them in a bad light (which they richly deserve) – is no bad thing at all. One even senses that Putin takes mischievous delight in the considered actions he does take, especially if the West ends up with egg on its collective face.

Cohen paints a picture of a pragmatic and cautious leader who has steadily restored stability, security, economic and cultural progress, and most of all pride to Russia. He does not say anything about how Putin’s leadership has inspired the country to turn around from a failing and despairing post-industrial scrap-heap into a growing economic power in the space of less than 20 years; that could have been a very interesting discussion. At the very least though, Cohen gives us a vision of a country that has rediscovered a path to security and prosperity.

 

Sergei Lavrov’s Speech to Military Academy of General Staff, Moscow: a summary of Russia’s place and direction in the new global political order

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s Speech to Senior Officers of the Military Academy of General Staff, Moscow (23 March 2017)

On 23 March 2017, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov gave a speech to senior officers of the Military Academy of General Staff in Moscow. Lavrov chose to focus on Russia’s role in international politics – a not surprising choice, given his position as foreign minister for such a large and varied nation as Russia is. The entire speech is not long – less than 20 minutes – but it is worth examining as it summarises how Russia has come to have the role it has and how its role fits into the new global political order of the early 21st century.

First Lavrov lays out the very specific and essential values and principles that support and influence the role the Russian state plays in international politics. One factor gives Russia a very solid foundation that most other countries can only dream about: sheer physical size that gives the country a variety of physical environments and climates, abundant natural resources and a unique location straddling and uniting both Europe and Asia. This factor is a result of Russia’s expansion across Siberia and central Asia over the centuries, resulting in many different peoples and cultures residing together, suffering together and working together to build the nation. Such experience gives Russia a unique point of view and paradigm that enable it to encourage dialogue among different nations and to form partnerships among nations, civilisations and religions in which all are considered equal.

Given Russia’s history of different peoples, faiths and societies sharing the same space under one government, we should not be surprised that Lavrov emphasises public respect for the state that encompasses all these peoples and provides them with security, stability and a share in the collective wealth they create. This respect enables the state to be strong enough to pursue domestic and foreign policies beholden to no other country. In other words, respect for and trust in a strong government go hand in hand with a secure economy (financial and productive), a cohesive if not homogeneous national culture encompassing a rich history and traditions, and the state’s ability to safeguard all of these and other elements that help to provide and enforce stability. These factors together provide what might be called “soft power” that Russia can project and model to other nations.

From here, Lavrov discusses Russia’s role in international politics, in particular the country’s role as an economic and political centre to which other countries are drawn. He notes the improvement in Russia’s military capabilities and the nation’s determination to use military power in strict compliance with its own laws and with international laws to defend its own interests and to assist other nations that call on it for help. In this, Lavrov cannot help but notice that other major nations use their military to pursue agendas that violate their own laws and international laws, and that infringe on other countries’ sovereignty and overthrow their governments with the intent to occupy their lands and drain them of their resources while the true owners are displaced, forced to serve their occupiers and to live in poverty or are scattered around the planet.

Lavrov sets considerable importance by historical traditions and trends in helping to determine Russia’s role in world politics since the nation became a major European power under Tsar Peter I (1696 – 1725) after defeating Sweden in the Great Northern War in 1721. He observes that efforts on by other countries to shut out and deny Russia (or the Soviet Union) as a major power have ended badly: one might ask Napoleon I or Adolf Hitler for an opinion in this regard. Nevertheless even today Europe and the United States through the EU and NATO have sought to demonise the country and its leaders by painting Russia as a poor, developing (or deteriorating) nation or making false accusations such as invading Ukraine, forcing people in Crimea to vote for “annexation”, helping to shoot down a civilian passenger jet over Ukrainian territory or infiltrating and hacking other countries’ electronic databases for the purpose of throwing elections. In particular Russian President Vladimir Putin is portrayed as an authoritarian and corrupt despot who salts away large sums of money into offshore investment funds owned by personal associates or in expensive palaces and vineyards.

Surveying the world as it is, Lavrov sees that power is definitely shifting away from the North Atlantic region (the US and western Europe) towards the Asia-Pacific region (in particular China) and Eurasia. In addition Latin America and Africa are taking on more importance as regional power blocs in their own right. A multi-polar world that is not dominated by any one nation or power bloc is inevitable. In such a world, a nation that considers itself exceptional, not bound by the lessons of history, and believes it can force its interpretation of democracy (as a cover for its real agenda) onto others will end up bringing instability, chaos and extreme violence instead. In the long term, that nation will also become weak and become unstable. The changes that are bringing about a multi-headed international order demand that countries work together and cooperate in a spirit of mutual respect and equality, and not to compete against one another.

In this, Russia can set an example by pursuing a pragmatic and consistent foreign policy based on its experience and history as a nation of different peoples and cultures living and working together in diverse environments to achieve common goals in relationships of cooperation and mutual respect.

Lavrov’s speech is significant inasmuch as it supports speeches and interviews given by Vladimir Putin that also stress mutual respect among nations and cooperation based on common interests or desires to solve common problems. The speech also demonstrates very clearly that Russia is aware that its approach and foreign policy, even its very existence, are perceived as threats by the United States and its allies in Europe and elsewhere. Russia is aware that the Americans are following an agenda inimical to Russian interests and to global peace and security. Pressure is on Russia then to pursue its interests and to try to uphold international laws and conventions in ways that don’t ratchet up global tensions and give the US an excuse or an outlet to cause war or create the conditions for them. Surprisingly this is not difficult for Russia to do, given that what currently passes for political leadership in the West is mediocre at best.

After the speech Lavrov took questions from his audience on issues such as global media / information and Internet governance (with respect to cyber-security, combating hacking and dealing with propaganda and false media narratives), rescuing and returning Russian prisoners of war in Syria, limiting strategic arms (nuclear and conventional), the use by the United States of staged and managed chaos across North Africa and western Asia, the split between globalist politicians acting on behalf of transnational corporations and “populist” or “nationalist” politicians claiming to represent the voice of their publics, the changing nature of war to include non-violent means of waging war (through control of the Internet and media, for example), and Russia’s interests in the Balkans. The questions show the audience’s concerns and depth of knowledge about what it considers to be the key issues facing Russia in its neighbourhood. Lavrov’s replies reveal a sharp intellect at work, tremendous historical and geopolitical knowledge and a keen interest in contemporary global affairs.

The speech and the Q&A session that follows can be viewed at The Saker. An English-language transcript follows.

Vladimir Putin’s Valdai Speech (2016): shaping the world of tomorrow needs mutual understanding and co-operation, not lies, propaganda and destruction

Vladimir Putin’s Valdai Speech at the XIII Meeting (Final Plenary Session) of the Valdai International Discussion Club (Sochi, October 2016)

As is his usual custom, Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered a speech at the final session of the annual Valdai International Discussion Club’s 13th meeting, held this year in Sochi, before an audience that included the President of Finland Tarja Halonen and former President of South Africa Thabo Mbeki. The theme for the 2016 meeting and its discussion forums was “The Future in Progress: Shaping the World of Tomorrow” which as Putin noted was very topical and relevant to current developments and trends in global politics, economic and social affairs.

Putin noted that the previous year’s Valdai Club discussions centred around global problems and crises, in particular the ongoing wars in the Middle East, and this gave him the opportunity to summarise global political developments over the past half-century, beginning with the United States’ presumption of having won the Cold War and subsequently reshaping the international political, economic and social order to conform to its expectations based on neoliberal capitalist assumptions. To that end, the US and its allies across western Europe, North America and the western Pacific have co-operated in pressing economic and political restructuring including regime change in many parts of the world, in eastern Europe and the Balkans, in western Asia (particularly Afghanistan and Iraq) and in northern Africa (Libya). In achieving these goals, the West has either ignored at best or at worst exploited international political, military and economic structures, agencies and alliances to the detriment of these institutions’ reputations and credibility around the world. The West also has not hesitated to dredge and drum up imaginary threats to the security of the world, most notably the threat of Russian aggression and desire to recreate the Soviet Union on former Soviet territories and beyond, the supposed Russian meddling in the US Presidential elections, and Russian hacking and leaking of emails related to US Presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton’s conduct as US Secretary of State from 2008 to 2012.

After his observation of current world trends as they have developed since 1991, Putin queries what kind of future we face if political elites in Washington and elsewhere focus on non-existent problems and threats, or on problems of their own making, and ignore the very real issues and problems affecting ordinary people everywhere: issues of stability, security and sustainable economic development. The US alone has problems of police violence against minority groups, high levels of public and private debt measured in trillions of dollars, failing transport infrastructure across most states, massive unemployment that either goes undocumented and unreported or is deliberately under-reported, high prison incarceration rates and other problems and issues indicative of a highly dysfunctional society. In societies that are ostensibly liberal democracies where the public enjoys political freedoms, there is an ever-growing and vast gap between what people perceive as major problems needing solutions and the political establishment’s perceptions of what the problems are, and all too often the public view and the elite view are at polar opposites. The result is that when referenda and elections are held, predictions and assurances of victory one way or another are smashed by actual results showing public preference for the other or another way.

Putin points out that the only way forward is for all countries to acknowledge and work together on the problems that challenge all humans today, the resolution of which should make the world more stable, more secure and more sustaining of human existence. Globalisation should not just benefit a small plutocratic elite but should be demonstrated in concrete ways to benefit all. Only by adhering to international law and legal arrangements, through the charter of the United Nations and its agencies, can all countries hope to achieve security and stability and realise a better future for their peoples.

To this end, the sovereignty of Middle Eastern countries like Iraq, Syria and Yemen should be respected and the wars in those countries should be brought to an end, replaced by long-term plans and programs of economic and social reconstruction and development. Global economic development and progress that will reduce disparities between First World and Third World countries, eliminate notions of “winning” and “losing”, and end grinding poverty and the problems that go with it should be a major priority. Economic co-operation should be mutually beneficial for all parties that engage in it.

Putin also briefly mentioned in passing the development of human potential and creativity, environmental protection and climate change, and global healthcare as important goals that all countries should strive for.

While there’s not much in Putin’s speech that he hasn’t said before, what he says is typical of his worldview, the breadth and depth of his understanding of current world events (which very few Western politicians can match), and his preferred approach of nations working together on common problems and coming to solutions that benefit all and which don’t advantage one party’s interests to the detriment of others and their needs. Putin’s approach is a typically pragmatic and cautious one, neutral with regards to the political or economic ideology of whomever he deals with, but an approach focused on goals and results, and the best way and methods to achieve those goals.

One interesting aspect of Putin’s speech comes near the end where he says that only a world with opportunities for everyone, with access to knowledge to all and many ways to realise creative potential, can be considered truly free. Putin’s understanding of freedom would appear to be very different from what the West (and Americans in particular) understand to be “freedom”, that is, being free of restraints on one’s behaviour. Putin’s understanding of freedom would be closer to what 20th-century British philosopher Isaiah Berlin would consider to be “positive freedom”, that is, self-mastery, with the implication that for people to have self-mastery, societies need to provide the conditions in which such people can exist and thrive.

The most outstanding point in Putin’s speech, which unfortunately he does not elaborate on further, given the context of the venue, is the disconnect between the political establishment and the public in most developed countries, the role of the mass media industry in reducing or widening it, and the dangers that this disconnect poses to societies if it continues. If elites continue to pursue their own fantasies and lies, and neglect the needs of the public on whom they rely for support (yet abuse by diminishing their security through offshoring jobs, weakening and eliminating worker protection, privatising education, health and energy, and encouraging housing and other debt bubbles), the invisible bonds of society – what might collectively be called “the social contract” between the ruler and the ruled – will disintegrate and people may turn to violence or other extreme activities to get what they want.

An English-language translation of Putin’s speech can be viewed at Paul Craig Roberts’ blog at this link.

WikiLeaks, Hillary-Gulen Intimate Ties & How Clintons Gave Birth to Mullah Gulen’s Terrorist Network: an astounding report on the links between US politics and extremist Islam

Newsbud Spotlight with Sibel and Spiro (12 August 2016): WikiLeaks, Hillary-Gulen Intimate Ties & How Clintons Gave Birth to Mullah Gulen’s Terrorist Network

In the wake of the aborted military coup in Turkey on 15 July 2016 and the subsequent ongoing purges of suspected followers of charismatic Turkish imam Fethullah Gülen within the Turkish government, armed forces and education system, and against the backdrop of the 2016 US Presidential election circus, with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as the nominated presidential candidates for the Democratic and Republican parties respectively, this timely report investigates the financial and other links between Gülen and Clinton, and what these mean for the future security of the world. The report is timely not only because the US Presidential elections are only a few months away but also because Julian Assange’s Wikileaks is preparing to release emails showing the Clinton-Gulen connections and the report devotes some time commenting on the way in which Wikileaks has chosen to release the information.

The report takes the form of part-interview / part-discussion between Newsbud reporter Spiro Skouras and Boiling Frogs Post analyst Sibel Edmonds, the whistle-blower who formerly worked as a translator for the FBI before being sacked in 2002 for accusing a colleague of covering up illegal activity involving Turkish nationals and covering up security breaches. It begins more or less with a brief introduction to Fethullah Gülen, his worldwide network of schools and educational institutes (many of them in the United States), and how he was brought to the US by CIA agent Graham Fuller and given asylum. Edmonds is excited over the Wikileaks news and states that the way in which Wikileaks plans to release the raw material as it is, allowing people to pore over the information and pick over it, is the best way the information can be made public, as compared to the slow way in which The Intercept is releasing NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden’s documents. Edmonds expects that the emails will show the close ties between Hillary and Bill Clinton and their Clinton Foundation on the one hand, and on the other hand Fethullah Gülen, going back to the mid-1990s and involving the transfer of hundreds of millions of dollars. Edmonds links this partnership to the Gladio B operation which covers the training and preparation of extreme Islamic militants in Balkan Europe, the Caucasus and the Middle East to undermine the legitimate governments in those regions and bring never-ending war and chaos. Heroin trafficking was also part of this operation, I presume to help raise money for the recruitment and training of the jihadi fighters.

Edmonds’ argument is easy to follow – she is a very articulate and impassioned interviewee – although listeners not familiar with Fethullah Gülen, Graham Fuller and the Clinton couple’s dark secrets need to do their own research on these people and their histories. (Among other things, Graham Fuller was once the father-in-law of Kazakhstani businessman Ruslan Tsarnaev, uncle of Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the supposed 2013 Boston Marathon bombers.) The discussion shifts away from the Turkish imam to the Clinton couple and the way in which the Clintons have been able to skate their way through two Presidential administrations and are poised for a third, maybe even a fourth administration spanning another eight years, in spite of the criminal activity, the numerous lies and the wars and devastation across south-east Europe, Ukraine and the Middle East they and their associates have left in their wake.

Edmonds does not put up statistics and give sources or evidence for the statements she makes about the Clintons, and this is the main weakness of the Newsbud report. Googling Hillary Clinton and Fethullah Gülen’s names, I did find a number of websites (such as this one) that focused on the ties between the two, that also went into great detail on the emails that passed between them or their respective organisations (the Clinton Foundation and the Gülen-related Alliance for Shared Values). So those sceptical about the claims Edmonds makes need to make their own inquiries and do some research – not only will they be surprised, they will be horrified as well at the scale and wide-reaching range of the links and the corruption.

The Newsbud Report can be viewed at this link.

Vladimir Putin’s Valdai Speech (2015): in the midst of war, a plea for co-operation, mutual respect and trust leading to renewal and reconciliation

Vladimir Putin’s Valdai Speech at the XII Meeting (Final Plenary Session) of the Valdai International Discussion Club (October 2015) 

Compared to his speech at XI Meeting in 2014, this 2015 speech by Russian President Vladimir Putin isn’t quite as ground-breaking but it is full of fire nevertheless. In his speech, Putin spiked the United States government and its elites for following a path that has not only led to war and instability around the world, and continues to do so, but which has the potential to spread poverty, ignorance, distrust and a degraded culture as well, one that celebrates and encourages even more chaos and brutality.

The theme of the XII Meeting was war and peace and Putin had plenty to say about the current global drive towards war, driven in the main by the United States and its allies. Starting from a general perspective on the role of war as a catalyst for relieving tensions and re-organising and establishing new political, social and economic hierarchies in the world, Putin observed how the threat of war diminished in the period after the end of World War II in 1945 – a period in which diplomacy under the threat of nuclear war prevailed – until the Cold War ended in 1991 with the fall of the Soviet Union. Since then, diplomacy as a tool for resolving long-simmering tensions and conflicts has increasingly fallen by the wayside and the use of force by the United States to achieve its aims in different parts of the world, especially in the Middle East, has come to be the first resort. Along with this flexing of military muscle and the chaos, violence and brutality that have followed, comes the creation of economic blocs, based on neo-liberal economic ideologies, between and among nations with the signing of treaties whose details and implications are deliberately hidden away from the public and never discussed or mentioned until long after the ink used to sign the documents has dried. At the same time, governments, corporations and the media actively seek to withhold and censor information, analysis and opinion that oppose the aims of their agendas; plus they use databases and database networks to gather and share information about citizens and their families for various purposes which can include blackmail, psychological manipulation, marketing and pushing products and services for profit. Constant wars against terrorists and terrorist movements – themselves the consequence of US-led invasions of countries (and in the case of ISIS, possibly the creation of the US government and its agencies, to serve as a substitute army keeping Middle Eastern countries weak and divided) – result in the displacement of people in those countries, leading them to flee in their thousands to Western countries, usually by any means available (no matter how hazardous and expensive), which are not only reluctant to offer safe haven to them but actively and aggressively throw them back into the seas or imprison them in detention centres where they face abuse, violence and death from fellow refugees or prison guards working under stress. The refugee crisis is used by Western governments to whip up hatred and prejudice against refugees, and to encourage and escalate public support for more invasions of the countries being destabilised to “stop” the refugee flow.

Putin singled out the example of Syria where the process of regime change, starting in 2011 with the aim of ousting President Bashar al Assad, in ways similar to the Kiev Maidan revolution against President Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine over 2013 and early 2014, is in full swing with takfiri fighters belonging to groups such as Islamic State, Jabhat al Nusra and other al Qa’ida offshoots, all funded and armed by foreign governments, fighting the Syrian Arab Army. Putin observed that such terrorist groups are hard to fight if they are being used as a de facto army to overthrow governments that, coincidentally, the US and its friends do not like.

Putin went on to say that Russia launched a military operation in the form of airstrikes on the Islamic extremists at the request of the Syrian government. Russia understands that if the terrorists in Syria win, they will send many of their number to Russia itself, in particular into the vulnerable region of Daghestan and its surrounds. Putin emphasised that the world must support the revival of Syria and Iraq, and assist in their reconstruction and revitalisation of their institutions. A plan must be developed for these countries’ reconstruction, for the restoration of their infrastructures, their hospitals, housing and schools. This is an opportunity for all countries throughout the world to come together and offer assistance to these two long-suffering nations. What is most noteworthy about Putin’s speech at this point is its emphasis on the Syrian people as the major party in deciding Syria’s future and deserving respect, civil treatment and autonomy in the decisions they make about their institutions and future from the rest of the world.

While the theme of the XII Meeting may have been war and peace, the theme of Putin’s speech is that for peace to reign, nations must co-operate together, respect one another and trust one another and in the rule of international law. This is very much a speech that follows from his speech at the XI Meeting in 2014. The fact that Putin ended his 2015 speech by speaking of renewal, restoration, hope and opportunity, and the hard work that must be done to achieve revival, demonstrates that he and his government are looking beyond helping Syria get rid of ISIS and other terrorists, and stabilising the country. An opportunity for Syria to become a model of reconstruction, renewal and reconciliation for the Middle East and the wider world is present and ready for the taking. How many Western politicians can be said to be as forward-looking as Putin? Given the way in which the US has blundered in the Middle East and north Africa over the past decade and how Germany brought chaos and confusion when it offered a haven to thousands of Syrian refugees stuck in Turkey, with no apparent thought for how to bring them over or how they would be settled, it seems that having a vision of the future and achieving it is something beyond Western leaders’ capabilities – to the detriment of the West.

This essay is based on the English-language transcript of Putin’s speech at the Vineyard of the Saker blog.