Is Seumas Milne An ‘Apologist For Fascism’? No.

by richardhutton

‘So Mr Corbyn, what made you appoint fascism-apologist Seumas Milne?’: so asks Kate Godfrey – a former parliamentary candidate for the Labour Party; quoted at length in an article published by the Telegraph.

Milne has just been appointed to a key position within Labour, as the party’s new head of strategy and communications; so clearly it would be a matter of significant concern if Milne does hold problematic political views. Therefore, they warrant evaluation.

Godfrey’s piece attributes several dubious-sounding statements to Milne; but without providing any sources to his original articles. The Telegraph follows suit. So, let’s look at each one, and compare them to the comments Milne makes in his articles.

According to Godfrey, the following are “some of the things that Seumas Milne knows”:

“He knows that the West shouldn’t ‘demonise’ Putin — while Russian jets are scrambled by Assad, and responsibility for six of every seven deaths in Syria lies with the Russian-backed regime.”

“He knows that Assad had ‘no rational motivation’ for the worst chemical attacks since the Iran-Iraq war, and so that they probably didn’t take place.”

“He knows that the Iraqis who worked with the US in Iraq were ‘quislings,’ and that the right of it was with the ‘armed resistance.’”

“He knows that Lee Rigby fought in Afghanistan, and so that his murder ‘wasn’t terrorism in the normal sense.’”

These are clearly some pretty strong charges. So, how accurate are they?

The first of these comments is a reference to an article Milne had written in March 2015; entitled ‘The demonisation of Russia risks paving the way for war – Politicians and the media are using Vladimir Putin and Ukraine to justify military expansionism. It’s dangerous folly’. So, even without reading the article itself, it’s immediately clear that the ‘demonisation’ in question does not relate to Syria – but to the conflict in the Ukraine. However, at no point in the body of the article itself does Milne make any allusion to Vladimir Putin being somehow unfairly demonised. What he does refer to is the way that British politicians were exploiting the threat posed by Putin’s military, to justify their own escalation of military involvement in Ukraine’s conflict:

“the campaign is personal. It’s all about Putin. The Russian president is an expansionist dictator who has launched a “shameless aggression”. He is the epitome of “political depravity”, “carving up” his neighbours as he crushes dissent at home, and routinely is compared to Hitler. Putin has now become a cartoon villain and Russia the target of almost uniformly belligerent propaganda across the western media”

As Milne then goes on to say:

“it’s certainly grist to the mill of those pushing military confrontation with Russia. Hundreds of US troops are arriving in Ukraine this week to bolster the Kiev regime’s war with Russian-backed rebels in the east. Not to be outdone, Britain is sending 75 military advisers of its own.”

Irrespective of anybody’s opinion on the conflict in Ukraine, that is the subject of Milne’s article, not Syria. It was also written in March – Russia did not begin its airstrikes in Syria until September. To imply that Milne defends Putin’s support for Assad’s government herein is therefore wide of the mark. His concern in this article was not with Russia in its own right, but with the war-efforts of Britain, undertaken in Ukraine. Has Milne defended Russia’s involvement in Syria elsewhere, however? Apparently not. He has seemingly published only one article relating to the Syrian conflict from September 2015 to the present – on the 9th September. Russia began its airstrikes on September 30th. It would be fair to point out that what Milne writes in this article should apply to Russia, as much as it does to Nato; but it would be a bit unreasonable to fault somebody for not taking issue with something which had not actually happened at the time of writing.

Godfrey’s claim that Milne “knows that Assad had ‘no rational motivation’ for the worst chemical attacks since the Iran-Iraq war, and so that they probably didn’t take place” also fails to withstand any real scrutiny. The relevant article was entitled ‘An attack on Syria will only spread the war and killing – Instead of removing the chemical weapon threat, another western assault on the Arab world risks escalation and backlash’, published in August 2013, in the wake of the horrific attack on Ghouta. However, Milne does not actually suggest that Assad had “no rational motivation” for deploying chemical weapons. What he writes instead is quite different:

“so far no reliable evidence whatever has been produced to confirm even what chemical might have been used, let alone who delivered it. The western powers and their allies, including the Syrian rebels, insist the Syrian army was responsible. The Damascus government and its international backers, Russia and Iran, blame the rebels.

The regime, which has large stockpiles of chemical weapons, undoubtedly has the capability and the ruthlessness. But it’s hard to see a rational motivation. Its forces have been gaining ground in recent months and the US has repeatedly stated that chemical weapons use is a “red line” for escalation”.

Was Milne’s scepticism justified at this juncture? Obviously both parties to the conflict had a vested interest in blaming their counterpart; while no UN investigation into the incident had been concluded until September 2013. Amidst the various counter-claims being made, there was evidently some cause for ambivalence. Nonetheless, it is clear that Milne does not deny or doubt that the chemical attack had taken place. Moreover, his actual concern herein had little to do with Syria’s government; and was instead focused on the the prospect of America and Britain using this episode as a justification for further military involvement in Syria’s murky civil war:

“that won’t hold back the western powers from the chance to increase their leverage in Syria’s grisly struggle for power”.

The point can be left aside, really. As of August 2013, there was sufficient cause for doubting the motives behind the responses of Britain and America’s government to this incident. Given the events of the two years which have elapsed in the mean-time, Milne was justified in his overall viewpoint. The international community has still done nothing effective to end the Syrian conflict – Britain and America have now turned their attentions away from Assad’s government, to its equally odious counterpart, Isis. Western governments continue to do as little as possible about the humanitarian catastrophe which has arisen, and responded inadequately to the current refugee crisis. More to the point, the allegation that Milne somehow offered a defence for Assad’s crimes is untenable: he was taking issue with the way it was being used by politicians to justify British warfare.

Moving on, then, how true is it to suggest that Milne “knows that the Iraqis who worked with the US in Iraq were ‘quislings,’ and that the right of it was with the ‘armed resistance”? Is this a fair reflection of what Milne had written? To some extent it is. Milne’s article was somewhat questionably entitled ‘The resistance campaign is Iraq’s real war of liberation’; and published in July 2004. It’s subject was the hand-over of power from the occupying forces of America (and Britain), to Iraqis. The relevant quotes appear in two paragraphs. In the first case:

“The much-vaunted handover, when it came, was a secret hole-in-the-corner affair. There were no celebrations as the US proconsul Paul Bremer signed over technical authority to his green zone government of Iraqi quislings two days early to beat the expected resistance onslaught”.

And secondly:

“Faced with the record of over 1,200 civilians killed in Iraq in the last three months, more than 1,000 Iraqi policemen in the past year and nearly 1,000 occupying troops over the same period, Colin Powell pleaded last week that the US had “underestimated” the scale of the insurgency. The Bush solution is to put a new face on the occupation, while maintaining a strategic grip on the country from more than a dozen bases – hence the handover to a puppet administration, brought forward by a year by the intensity of the armed resistance”.

In other words, the occupation of Iraq would continue; but by proxy, as a response to the insurgency which was in its initial stages at this point. It would continue until 2006, and eventually claim approximately 100,000 lives.

However, there is a problematic element to Milne’s article which does warrant criticism. After discussing the charade of America’s government supposedly relinquishing control of Iraq, Milne goes on to adduce that:

“The anti-occupation guerrillas are routinely damned as terrorists, Ba’athist remnants, Islamist fanatics or mindless insurgents without a political programme. In a recantation of his support for the war this week, the liberal writer Michael Ignatieff called them “hateful”. it has become ever clearer that they are in fact a classic resistance movement with widespread support waging an increasingly successful guerrilla war against the occupying armies.”

With the benefit of hindsight this is obviously not accurate. Is it justified to suggest this was apologism at the time? To some degree it arguably was. Milne was evidently more sympathetic to the nascent insurgents than to the occupation forces. As he says:

“The resistance war can of course be cruel, but the innocent deaths it has been responsible for pale next to the toll inflicted by the occupiers”.

While this – at the time – was true enough, it is still a gallingly glib statement. Criticising Milne’s sentiment on this for being wishy-washy would be fair. Contending that it makes him an apologist for fascism, however, is evidently not. This is made plain by more recent articles Milne has written on the subject. In 2013, Milne published a piece which discussed the sectarian war, that erupted in the wake of the insurgency; and while it attributes responsibility for the circumstances behind this to the invasion forces, it nonetheless makes perfectly plain how shockingly violent those involved in it actually are.

Arguably the most egregious attribution, however, is Godfrey’s suggestion that Milne “knows that Lee Rigby fought in Afghanistan, and so that his murder ‘wasn’t terrorism in the normal sense”. This refers to an article Milne penned in response to the ghastly Woolwich murder of Lee Rigby, in December 2013, entitled ‘Woolwich attack: If the whole world’s a battlefield, that holds in Woolwich as well as Waziristan – Denying a link between western wars in the Muslim world and the backlash on our streets only fuels Islamophobia and bloodshed’.

Let’s look at what Milne actually says herein, because it contains several words which have been omitted by Godfrey – who is hardly alone in that respect:

“The videoed butchery of Fusilier Lee Rigby outside Woolwich barracks last May was a horrific act and his killers’ murder conviction a foregone conclusion. Rigby was a British soldier who had taken part in multiple combat operations in Afghanistan. So the attack wasn’t terrorism in the normal sense of an indiscriminate attack on civilians.

The killing of an unarmed man far from the conflict, however, by self-appointed individuals with non-violent political alternatives, isn’t condoned by any significant political or religious tradition. Quite apart from morality, the impact was violently counter-productive for the Muslims that Rigby’s killers claimed to be defending, as Islamophobic attacks spiked across Britain”.

No further comment is really necessary here. To suggest that Milne in any way was ambivalent, let alone condoning, of this murder is simply false. The actual theme of Milne’s article was that the wars being waged in the middle east are a causal factor behind this type of violence; and that the political rhetoric, focusing on Islam as the cause, would generate hostility towards Muslims as a whole, and make matters worse. It is perhaps open to question whether this overview is actually the case – but it is not even close to being excusatory to suggest that it might be.

There are contentious elements to Milne’s various commentaries – some of which undoubtedly will divide opinion; but he is a journalist who specialises in writing about highly complex and emotive subjects. It is difficult to see how he could avoid being controversial. This does not make him an irresponsible journalist, however; less still an apologist for fascism.