Monday, April 01, 2013

Adam Curtis: The Baby and the Baath Water

The Baby and the Baath Water
by Adam Curtis
The Medium and the Message

What is happening in Syria feels like one of the last gasps of the age of the military dictators. An old way of running the world is still desperately trying to cling to power, but the underlying feeling in the west is that somehow Assad's archaic and cruel military rule will inevitably collapse and Syrians will move forward into a democratic age.

That may, or may not, happen, but what is extraordinary is that we have been here before. Between 1947 and 1949 an odd group of idealists and hard realists in the American government set out to intervene in Syria. Their aim was to liberate the Syrian people from a corrupt autocratic elite - and allow true democracy to flourish. They did this because they were convinced that "the Syrian people are naturally democratic" and that all that was neccessary was to get rid of the elites - and a new world of "peace and progress" would inevitably emerge.

What resulted was a disaster, and the consequences of that disaster then led, through a weird series of bloody twists and turns, to the rise to power of the Assad family and the widescale repression in Syria today.

I thought I would tell that story.

In 1968 a CIA agent called Miles Copeland wrote a book called 'The Game of Nations' that revealed what went on in 1947. Back then Copeland was part of a mangement consulting team in Washington who were working out how America should contain the threat of communism in the Middle East, now the old European Empires had gone. This was before the CIA existed, and Copeland describes how they got together an odd group of diplomats, secret agents left over from the war, advertising men from Madison Avenue, and "pipe-smoking owls" (which is what intellectuals were called in those days).

Copeland describes an impassioned lecturer telling this group that their aim should be to change the leadership in the countries in the Middle East:

"Politicians in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt seem to have been elected into power, but what elections! The winners were all candidates of foreign powers, old land-owners who tell their tenants and villagers how to vote, or rich crooks who can buy their votes. But peoples of these countries are intelligent, and they have a natural bent for politics. If there is a part of the world which is crying for the democratic process the Arab World is it."

They decided to start with Syria.

Compared to what was to come, it was all very sweet and innocent. Elections were due in Syria in 1947, and the Americans decided to give "a discreet nudge here and there". This involved warning landowners, employers, ward bosses and police chiefs not to intimidate the voters. The American oil companies were paid to put up big posters telling the Syrians to "vote for the candidate of your choice" (apparently this baffled all the Syrians because the posters didn't mention any candidates by name). Hundreds of taxis were hired to take voters to the polls free of charge. And the Americans brought in automatic, tamper-proof voting machines.

It didn't go as expected. The landowners and other elites ignored all the warnings and intimidated everyone. There were massive gun fights and scores of people were killed. The taxi-drivers bonded together and sold themselves to different candidates - promising to make their passengers vote the "right" way. The voting machines didn't work properly because of irregularities in the electric current, or were sabotaged. Two did work - but the losing candidates refused to accept the verdict of "imperialist technology" - and got recounts by hand, which strangely made them win.

And worst of all, most of the pro-American candidates defected to other foreign powers. The Americans had nobly refused to give them any money - so the Russians, the French and the British stepped in and bribed them - and the candidates changed their allegiances.

The Americans were upset. So they decided they would have to go further. The chief diplomat in Damascus was called James Keeley. The solution he said was to find a way of "quarantining" the Syrians from the corrupting forces that had wrecked the election so they would become more self-confident. More "naturally democratic". Here is a picture of James Keeley.

And the way to create this "quarantine" was by engineering a military coup. According to Copeland, Keeley believed that America should get rid of the present elected leaders, bring in a short period of dictatorship which would protect the Syrian people and thus allow them to develop self-confidence and stronger personalities, and within a few years a real independent democracy would emerge.

To Read the Rest of the Essay and to Watch Video Clips

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