You can tell at one glance what a journalist thinks of a country by the words he chooses to describe it. A country with a government is a place you’d take a chance on visiting. You might like it there when you arrive, or you might not, but at least you know it’s civilised, with its nice, friendly, western-style government. Regimes, on the other hand, are evil and oppressive. There are no regimes in Western Europe or North America, only governments, but in the Middle East, regimes are everywhere, apart from Israel. And of course the Gulf oil states, which we like to stay on friendly terms with. Even though they are not democracies, they don’t have regimes. Instead, they have ruling families. Not vile despots, tyrants or dictators. These places are run by uncles and aunts and grandmothers, brothers and sisters, and the heads of state are kings.
Everyone knows, a king is not a dictator but what’s the difference? Well, the obvious one is that a king’s family have ruled a country longer than the family of a dictator. While it’s true that all kings started out as dictators, you don’t just become a monarch overnight. It takes a while.
We need hardly concern ourselves with that other class of ridiculous autocrat: the Tinpot Dictator. Everyone agrees that we can support him as long as he’s useful and then send in fifty well-trained men with boot-polish on their faces to decommission him at four in the morning.
Until he became a despicable tyrant in western eyes, Muammar Gadaffi was the Libyan Leader. While Saddam Hussein did America’s bidding, he was the Iraqi Leader, but then he tried to trade his oil in euros, and suddenly he became a brutal despot who must be toppled. (Note: tyrants and despots are always toppled, never removed or deposed).
Back in the 80s, all the Warsaw Pact countries had regimes headed by dictators with brutal interrogators, while we, on the other hand, had governments with intelligence services. And they didn’t have a civil service like us either. They had a State Apparatus. Bashar al-Assad has his secret police, a thoroughly swarthy and unshaven bunch of assassins, unlike the clean-cut, sharply-dressed agents of Homeland Security, or the affable old Etonians in MI5.
What happens when an invader arrives?
Well that depends on who the invader happens to be and who’s being invaded.
When the Nazis invaded France and Poland, a well-organised resistance movement grew up. Resistance. Not guerrillas or even insurgents. Certainly not terrorists. The left-leaning Greek partisans were hailed as freedom fighters until Germany surrendered, and then they became dangerous Commie terrorists to be crushed by the victorious Allied forces.
Iraqis fighting against the invasion of their country, needless to say, were never called Resistance. They were insurgents (a term that only acquired pejorative overtones after the US invasion). They were near the top of the vileness scale : worse than activists, worse than extremists, worse than fanatics, they were terrorists., and what an interesting word that is. Terrorist. One who uses terror as a means of furthering a strategic objective. That, of course, would not include Sir Arthur Harris, who regarded the flattening of German cities as a relatively humane method , nor would it include Curtis leMay, who masterminded the fire-bombing of Japan. Nor would it include Dick Cheney, even though he did all in his power to sell the US public a huge lie, that Iraq had something to do with the 9-11 attacks.
What’s a militant? Does it include people like Donald Rumsfeld or Tony Blair or GW Bush who started two wars?
It all depends what language you speak and what uniform you wear. When the media spoke of foreign fighters in Iraq, we all knew they didn’t mean the American soldiers from the other side of the planet. They were talking about neighbouring Arabs from two hundred miles up the road.
Extraordinary rendition was not torture, because you were simply handing your prisoners over to a friendly state, whose interrogators, unfortunately, have fewer moral scruples than your own, and fewer legal restrictions on what they might do to a captive. Locking people up in Guantanamo was not imprisonment without trial — anathema to American notions of liberty. It was internment of suspected terrorists, and when the T-word comes into the equation, all other considerations may be abandoned.
I remember a few years back, Robert Fisk describing the constant Israeli use of the word terrorist to describe anyone they disagreed with, or who criticised them. In his book Pity the Nation, he told of a car with three or four foreign journalists being strafed by a warplane. The incident was later reported in the papers as an engagement with a vehicle carrying terrorists.
As Fisk put it terrorist, terrorist, terrorist. The mantra that silences all argument.
It even comes down to the physical objects used by soldiers, or fighters or insurgents, or activists, or extremists, or militias or defence forces or warring factions. Take your pick. Each carries its own layer of innuendo, with defence forces at the very top of the virtue tree even when they happen to be bombing a crowded civilian neighbourhood into rubble. They’re defence forces, and they carry nice friendly M-16 carbines, unlike the Soviet-made Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifles used by their evil, Islamic fundamentalist extremist terrorist enemies.
Of course, it works the other way round too, doesn’t it? In the eyes of people like Iran’s Ahmedinejad, America is the Great Satan and Israel may be extinguished without a second thought. Osama bin Laden saw no contradiction between his Islamic beliefs and his mass murder of thousands. Brutal dictators like Saddam and Gadaffi didn’t blink at the thought of inflicting total war on their own people. Bashar al Assad, the cultured, urbane ophthalmologist, is content to unleash on innocent civilians his security forces, or army, or militias, or shadowy armed groups or fighters sympathetic to the regime. Whatever flavour you’re having yourself. Naturally, there’s no reporting of the other side in that conflict, which is that the UN observers are being withdrawn because the freedom fighters / resistance / insurgents / activists / militias are shooting at them.
It’s never simple. Facts are always blurred and nuance is always added by the choice of words.
Propaganda isn’t always obvious.