U.S. President Joe Biden. (AP)
When US President Joe Biden called Russian President Vladimir Putin a "butcher", President Emanuel Macron of France distanced himself, finding the term inelegant. Mr Putin simply can’t be allowed to continue in power, said Mr Biden. US secretary of state Antony Blinken leapt for the microphone to clarify: "regime change is not our policy". Is there order in the Western camp? Let me step back a bit and take a wider view, comparing Western behaviour then and now.
When the Anglo-American combine embarked on Operation Desert Storm in 1991, it was America’s sole superpower moment. Over 30 years later, in 2022, the two are involved in Ukraine. This time the United States is at its nadir. What motivated the superpower then; what is the driving force now?
On both occasions, the lead had been taken by the Anglo-American duet. In the first instance the idea was for the West, led by the two, to formalise the victory over the Soviet Union. The world was on notice -- there was now only one superpower and the entity called the West clustered around it. In this cluster, there was one more equal than others -- which was Britain.
There was one more factor which threatened the combine’s dominance of the world order since the Second World War. In the geopolitical seesaw, the Soviet Union’s collapse was also accompanied by Germany’s reunification. The unease about Germany’s rise was a factor which had contributed to Desert Storm. A "coalition of the willing" had by action and deed retained the existing global hierarchy.
Just as Desert Storm tapered off, German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher set the cat among the pigeons by recognising Croatia ahead of the European Union when Yugoslavia broke up. And now, in Ukraine, Germany’s gas dependency on Russia was very much the ignition. Nord Stream-I from Russia feeding Germany and beyond was kosher, but Nord Stream-II was not?
Weapons of mass destruction were not the issue in 1991, but allegations to that effect were concocted as a reason to occupy Iraq in April 2003. In Ukraine the boot is on the other foot: the UN Security Council has been discussing Moscow’s claims that the United States is funding "military biological activities" in Ukraine.
These allegations were supported by China. US undersecretary of state for political affairs Victoria Nuland affirmed the facts before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but with a twist -- the Russians were trying to get at them, she said. In an ingenious twist to the yarn, she said: "We are working with the Ukrainians on how they can prevent any of those research material from falling into the hands of the Russian forces."
In both the theatres, Iraq and Ukraine, the media was in the vanguard. As I have written before, Desert Storm was a watershed in the scale on which the media was deployed in Iraq and the subsequent 9/11 wars – in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. In Iraq, 2003, 600 Western journalists were embedded with the US forces. Who are they embedded with now in Ukraine?
Even though British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s extraordinary energy led the build-up towards Desert Storm, US defence secretary Dick Cheney gave CNN a clear edge over the BBC. It was Peter Arnett of CNN who virtually had the terrace rights of Baghdad’s Al Rasheed Hotel, from where he inaugurated an era of global media which brought a war live into our drawing rooms. For the first time, the BBC had been beaten by an American network. Compared to CNN’s high-tech demonstration, BBC’s chief foreign correspondent John Simpson looked much the poorer cousin, with his satellite telephone.
It is axiomatic that a media setup in the middle of a war, would, by the laws of patriotic nationalism, become the propaganda arm of the war effort. Unfortunately for Peter Arnett, the impulse for fair reporting caused him to pry into a children’s milk and medicine facility in Baghdad which was bombed by the allied forces. Arnett paid the price for straying into an unflattering story.
The icon of the global media in 1991, Peter Arnett had been fired by CNN by the time I revisited Baghdad during the occupation in 2003. I met a pensive Arnett by the poolside of the Al Rasheed on assignment with a lesser-known outfit.
The Western media in attendance in Ukraine is circumscribed differently because it presumably operates under the security cover of heaven knows who. In which case it can never file a story which runs contrary to Western propaganda. For instance, it can’t quote former top Pentagon adviser US Army Col. Douglas Macgregor’s fear of a possible "false flag" operation with "biological weapons" in Poland, the frontline state that is helping Ukraine. Victoria Nuland’s spin on the presence of biological weapons in Ukraine has raised the spectre of some such "mishap" taking place. The question asked at the Senate hearing was -- is the US helping Ukraine manufacture biological weapons? "Ukraine has biological research facilities", Nuland spun the googly, and "we are working with the Ukrainians on how they can prevent all these research materials falling into the hands of Russian forces". Well, in a moment of desperation, these "materials" can be planted on the Russians, leading inexorably towards a catastrophe. If the US is helping protect "benign" facilities, why this fear of the Russians laying their hands on them?
According to the colonel, the Russians have more or less achieved what they had to on the ground. But the "donors" for the Republicans as well as the Democrats want to expand the war. Antony Blinken and Victoria Nuland would like to fight the war to the last Ukrainian. The media will amplify the war to feverish pitch until Russia’s economy and Vladimir Putin are both "destroyed". An "impossible proposition", he adds.
From Desert Storm, its sole superpower moment, has the United States declined so much in power that, 31 years later, it has to stage a rearguard action in Ukraine to keep its grip on the world order? The anxiety about China’s rise is now being replaced by something much more complex -- the Sino-Russian embrace.