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BOOKS Middle East must-read

Patrick Cockburn's new book is an insightful account of how the aggressive policies promoted by President Trump are destabilising the region, says CARLOS MARTINEZ

War in the Age of Trump: the Defeat of ISIS, the Fall of the Kurds, the Conflict with Iran
by Patrick Cockburn
(Verso, £18.99)

THE LATEST book from veteran Middle East correspondent Patrick Cockburn presents a detailed analysis of key events in the Middle East since Trump's election.

The major themes are the ever-deepening confrontation between the US and Iran, the defeat of Isis in Iraq and Syria and the incredibly complex relationship between the different Kurdish factions and the US.

Cockburn’s rare quality as a journalist is his insistence on engaging in actual journalism by doing the hard work of uncovering evidence and trying to make sense of contrasting narratives, as opposed to simply picking up on the Tweets and press releases of a few “reliable” (pro-Western) sources, as is the way of so many.

As a result, he has been able to build up a reputation for credibility and objectivity over the course of his four decades covering Middle Eastern politics. He has largely managed to avoid falling for the absurd but pervasive lies such as Saddam’s Weapons of Mass Destruction or Gaddafi supplying troops with Viagra to facilitate mass rapes.

And while he isn’t a leftist or anti-imperialist, his writing provides valuable insights and abundant information.

Given its timeframe of “the Age of Trump,” Cockburn shows a particular interest in the US president’s own role in pursuing aggressive policies in the region. After all, Trump campaigned on the basis of wanting to end the US’s wars abroad. Indeed, many even on the left thought a Trump presidency might be a good thing on this basis.

With the US administration now pushing forcefully for a new cold war against China, any hopes for an “isolationist” US under Trump have crumbled. In the Middle East, the US has escalated its attack on Syria, with missile strikes in 2017 and 2018, and stepped up its support for Saudi Arabia, including in its genocidal war in Yemen.

It has ramped up confrontation with Iran, assassinating General Qassem Soleimani, reimposing sanctions and abandoning the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Of US sanctions on Iran and Syria, Cockburn goes so far as to assert that “the US Treasury is a more lethal international power than the Pentagon.”

So what has happened? Cockburn points out that George W Bush and Barack Obama also presented themselves as non-interventionists on the campaign trail but “the enthusiasm of the Washington foreign-policy establishment for foreign military adventures changed all that.”

In Trump’s case, the Pentagon status quo is combined with the fact that he is “impulsive, ill-informed and keen not to appear weak,” and has surrounded himself with neoconservative interventionists such as Mike Pompeo, John Bolton and Robert O’Brien.

Perhaps the most important part of the book is Cockburn’s discussion of the murky relationship between politics and the “free” press. He observes: “Usually it is not the reporter but the Home Office or media herd instinct that decides the story of the day.”

If a particular story has hit the headlines, journalists are under enormous pressure to report on it. “It may smell bad to [journalists on the ground] but they cannot disprove it and their news editor will be harrying them to follow it up.”

Cockburn points to the example of Iraq in late 2002 and early 2003, when several New York Times journalists wrote stories casting doubt on the existence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, “only to find their stories buried deep inside the newspaper, which was led by articles proving that Saddam had WMD and was a threat to the world.”

Western governments also have a major influence on what stories don’t get published. For example, Cockburn notes that a visit of British clergy to Syria was labelled by the Foreign Office as  unhelpful “because it doesn’t help their war efforts if people know that Christians are under attack by rebels and prefer the continued protection of the Assad government.”

Overall, a useful book for those interested in journalism and the politics of the Middle East.



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