BY SAEED NAQVI
The moment I saw BBC’s Lyse Doucet in Kiev, Ukraine, before the Russian invasion, my mind made the strangest connection with Corbett Park. The Mahout hushes everyone on the howdah, puts his fingers on his lips and whispers, “call ho rahi hai”, which means that monkeys on the highest branches are warning the jungle that a tiger is on the prowl. This is the surest signal that a tiger might well be sighted. As soon as I saw Doucet I knew that “action” would begin.
My experience of post-Soviet wars beginning with Operation Desert Storm, 1991, has followed a pattern: rolling of war drums on the media was no guarantee that military action would begin until Lyse Doucet, Wolf Blitzer, Christiane Amanpour, Nick Robertson appeared on the scene. They appeared in, say, Afghanistan, Iraq, any war involving Israel, Lebanon, Bosnia, always thoroughly briefed by their respective military intelligence, and fireworks were guaranteed.
In fact, all post Soviet wars, mostly Western action in various theatres, have been custom made for TV. In the sole super power moment, these wars were an amplification of what was essentially Anglo-American dominance. This became quite clear during Desert Storm: there were two separate briefings for the US and British journalists. Europeans, indeed all others twiddled their thumbs on the periphery.
French President Francois Mitterrand was, until the last minute, reluctant to join the “coalition of the willing” drummed up by Margaret Thatcher and President Bush Senior. One of its purposes was to retain the Anglo-Saxon grip on global power, something Mitterrand sensed. Redistribution of power, with a reunified Germany knocking at the door, looked imminent. A question mark was being placed on the need for NATO, now that the Soviet Union was gone and Francis Fukuyama had written the End of History.
Desert Storm it was that gave birth to the new information order with the global media at its pinnacle, one that was to come into play even in Ukraine. From the terrace of the Al Rasheed hotel, Peter Arnett of the CNN brought a war live into our drawing rooms, for the first time in history. This newly discovered power was put to considerable use in all the post 9/11 wars.
Since perceptions supersede reality in the way international affairs are played today, Ukraine will give vent to an almighty propaganda campaign. The Western media will go full throttle to demonize Putin. He will be painted in the same lurid colours as Saddam Hussain was – Hitler, thug, Satan, brute, gangster whose oligarchs have to be emasculated. The chorus against oligarchs in the House of Commons will embarrass Boris Johnson because he rather enjoyed flying to Tuscany, escaping the security detail he was entitled to as Foreign Secretary, and all to attend parties thrown by his Russian oligarch friends like Evgeny Lebedev. Little wonder he whimpered in the Commons, “All Russians are not bad.”
For Lyse Doucet the job becomes that much more difficult to project Britain’s response to Putin’s “barbarism”. The job is difficult because her Prime Minister is an unconvincing war leader. In the US, the situation is no better. The right wing in the US Senate says a lot of irresponsible things which a newspapers like the New York Times plays down. That is why NYT columnist, Thomas Friedman quoting these senators when they talk of President Biden’s “dementia” is unusual.
Otherwise it is an excellent column with a heading which sums up the situation succinctly: “This is Putin’s War. But America and NATO Aren’t Innocent Bystanders.” Friedman ferrets out a priceless interview with one of the finest minds on strategy and foreign policy, George Kennan. These observations were made by Kennan in 1998 just when the Senate ratified NATO’s expansion eastward in violation of promises made to Russia.
“I think it is the beginning of a new Cold War. I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else. This expansion would make the founding fathers of this country turn over in their graves.”
“What bothers me is how superficial and ill informed the whole Senate debate was. I was particularly bothered by the references to Russia as a country dying to attack Western Europe.”
“Don’t people understand? Our differences in the Cold War were with the Soviet Communist regime. And now we are turning our backs on the very people who mounted the greatest bloodless revolution in history to remove that Soviet regime. And Russia’s democracy is as far advanced, if not farther, as any of these countries we’ve just signed up to defend from Russia. Of course there is going to be a bad reaction from Russia, and then [the NATO expanders] will say that we always told you that is how the Russians are — but this is just wrong.” How prescient Kennan was.
In normal times Donald Trump’s ringing applause for Vladimir Putin’s “genius” in the way the Russian strongman has handled the crisis would be dismissed as rant by an irresponsible politician. At the moment Trump’s ratings are rising just as Biden’s are diminishing. Trump cannot be ignored.
On Ukraine, the West screamed “wolf” persistently. But when the “wolf” materialized, US and Britain left President Volodymyr Zelensky high and dry with routine sanctions on Russia. This is like denying breakfast to an errant schoolboy. France and Germany were always opposed to baiting Putin.
The global scorecard looks something like this – disarray in Western ranks. On the other side Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan firmly clasping each other’s hands. Capitals like New Delhi and Jerusalem sunk in deep thought.
We shall be exposed to a barrage of anti-Putin propaganda by the Western TV, focusing on skirmishes and building them up as major rebellion. Russian TV with its limited viewership will go hammer and tongs at Biden and Johnson. What a wonderful initiative by India Today to fly out a team hopefully to give us balanced reporting.
(Saeed Naqvi is a senior Indian journalist, television commentator, interviewer, and a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. Mr. Naqvi is also a mentor and a guest blogger with Canary Trap)
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