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Groupthink, the war in Yemen and the strange popularity of Alistair Burt

The former Foreign Office minister drew praise from politicians and journalists alike as a ‘genuinely decent’ man after resigning. IAN SINCLAIR isn’t sure he deserves it

“I’VE never encountered any group more driven by group-think and rank-closing cohesion than British journalists,” US writer Glenn Greenwald tweeted in September 2015.

In addition to the media, the recent response to Alistair Burt MP resigning from his position as minister of state for the Middle East over the government’s handling of Brexit shows this herd-like behaviour also infects sections of civil society and apparently progressive politicians.

“Many disagree with UK policy in the Middle East but he has a reputation for even handedness,” tweeted the Guardian’s diplomatic editor Patrick Wintour. “Big blow to FCO [Foreign and Commonwealth Office].” Laura Kuenssberg, the BBC’s political editor echoed these thoughts, noting Burt was a “well respected foreign office minister.” 

Minutes later Scottish National Party MP Alison Thewliss tweeted her own tribute: “Alistair Burt attended pretty well every debate on Yemen and helped as much as he could.” 

Tom Copley, Labour Party London Assembly member chipped in: “I’ve heard nothing but good things about Alistair Burt.” 

A communications staffer in the Labour Party, Tom Hinchcliffe, tweeted that though he disagreed with their politics “ministers like Alistair Burt are genuinely decent people. They believe what they say and they’re in it for the right reasons.”

“Sad to hear that @AlistairBurtUK has resigned… a loss to Middle East diplomacy,” tweeted James Denselow, the head of conflict team at Save The Children UK.

As Morning Star readers will know, Burt, as the Middle East minister from 2017-19, has played a central and very public role in British policy on Yemen, a nation engulfed in war after the Saudi-led coalition started bombing it in March 2015 in support of deposed President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

Two years later, in March 2017, the United Nations office for the co-ordination of humanitarian affairs announced that Yemen was “the largest humanitarian crisis in the world.”

Out of a population of 29.3 million, nearly 17.8 million people were food insecure and 8.4 million were on the brink of famine, according to a September 2018 report by the Office of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR): “Since April 2017, a cholera epidemic has swept through Yemen at an unprecedented scale.”

The crisis is fundamentally man-made, with the Saudi-led coalition implementing a brutal blockade of Yemen, stopping vital essential goods entering the country. 

“These delays are killing children,” Grant Pritchard, interim country director for Save the Children in Yemen, said in March 2017. 

“Our teams are dealing with outbreaks of cholera, and children suffering from diarrhoea, measles, malaria and malnutrition. With the right medicines these are all completely treatable — but the Saudi-led coalition is stopping them getting in. They are turning aid and commercial supplies into weapons of war.”

Indeed, in November 2018 Save the Children estimated approximately 85,000 children under five may have died from extreme hunger or disease in Yemen since March 2015.

According to the OHCHR report, the Saudi-led coalition air strikes “have been and continue to be the leading direct cause of civilian deaths and destruction of civilian infrastructure in the conflict.” 

This fits with the 2016 findings of the Yemen Data Project — that one third of Saudi-led air raids had hit civilian sites such as school buildings, hospitals, markets and mosques. 

By October 2018 the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project was estimating 56,000 people had been killed between January 2016 and October 2018.

What has been Britain’s role in this mass slaughter? 

“We’ll support the Saudis in every practical way short of engaging in combat,” then British foreign secretary Philip Hammond said in April 2015. “Political support, of course, logistical and technical support.” 

Unusually in foreign affairs, the Westminster government has kept its word. Asked: “What do you think the UK can do more in the realm of helping the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen?” Burt told Majella magazine in 2018: “At the moment it’s difficult to see what more we can do.”

In terms of armaments, in February the House of Lords select committee on international relations noted that Britain has licensed £4.7 billion of arms exports to Saudi Arabia since March 2015. 

Britain’s seemingly bottomless support for the absolute monarchy even went as far as the Foreign Secretary recently lobbying Germany to resume its arms sales to the kingdom following a ban after the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Speaking to the House of Lords select committee, Burt said he wanted to make it “very clear” that Britain was “not a party to the military conflict as part of the coalition.” 

However, last month the Mail on Sunday revealed British Special Forces had been wounded in combat fighting against Houthi rebels. 

The report notes: “The SBS [Special Boat Service] mentoring teams inside Yemen include … forward air controllers (FACs), whose job is to request air support from the Saudis.”

Britain’s rapacious role in Yemen is quite simply “the worst thing that the British government is doing today,” Dr David Wearing, a teaching fellow in international relations at Royal Holloway, University of London, argued in a 2017 Novara Media video. 

“Make no mistake: the British role here is not trivial. If the considerable assistance that our government is providing to the Saudis was to be removed it would seriously impede the Saudi war effort.”

Burt, then, as Britain’s minister of state for the Middle East, was up to his neck in the blood of tens of thousands of Yemeni men, women and children. 

Not according to Laura Kuenssberg though, who called him a “well-respected Foreign Office minister,” or Save The Children’s James Denselow, who shockingly called Burt’s resignation “a loss to Middle East diplomacy.” 

Never has Mark Curtis’s concept of “Unpeople” been so apt: “the modern equivalent of the ‘savages’ of colonial days, who could be mown down by British guns in virtual secrecy, or else in circumstances where the perpetrators were hailed as the upholders of civilisation.”

As the US historian Howard Zinn once noted: “The truth is so often the reverse of what has been told us by our culture that we cannot turn our heads far enough around to see it.”

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

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