• Sun
  • Dec 28, 2014
  • Updated: 2:54am
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 August, 2013, 5:24am

The mystery of the West's missing backbone

Philip Bowring says its over-the-top pursuit of Edward Snowden and silence on the violence in Egypt all point to insecurities about its own liberal traditions and even-handedness


Philip Bowring has been based in Asia for 39 years writing on regional financial and political issues. He has been a columnist for the South China Morning Post since the mid-1990s and for the International Herald Tribune from 1992 to 2011. He also contributes regularly to the Wall Street Journal, www.asiasentinel.com, a website of which he is a founder, and elsewhere. Prior to 1992 he was with the weekly Far Eastern Economic Review, latterly as editor.

The West has become afraid of its own shadow. The past few days have seen events which at first sight appear unconnected but are linked, both to fear of the unknown and lack of commitment to publicly espoused principles.

There was the lack of reaction to the Egyptian army's bloody suppression of mostly peaceful demonstrators protesting at the overthrow of President Mohammed Mursi and his elected Muslim Brotherhood government. In practice, therefore, the US and many of its allies have put themselves in the same position as the more overt supporters of the military intervention, Saudi Arabia and Israel.

The massacres were on a vast scale compared with those perpetrated by the Burmese military which refused to give up power following the 1990 election. This was followed by two decades of isolation and economic sanctions. Comparison with Tiananmen 1989 is also appropriate.

Meanwhile, in London, the government yet again abuses the monstrous powers it has been given in the name of state security, this time by detaining at Heathrow Airport David Miranda - the Brazilian partner of a journalist from The Guardian who worked with Edward Snowden - on cooked-up anti-terrorism grounds, and seizing his electronic data. This thuggish behaviour, sanctioned by the prime minister, seems at least in part to reflect the bond between US and British spy agencies.

The theory that governments have a right to collect every one of our electronic exchanges on the off chance that somehow they are going to thwart some terrorist is so arrogant and impractical as to justify real anger. One supposedly intelligent US Democrat insisted to me that I was "ignorant and stupid" not to have realised that this went on, and was good for security. Well, clearly the revelations from Snowden and Bradley Manning about the extent of surveillance have come as a shock even to journalists working at the centre of US power in Washington. There is a big difference between knowing one could be spied on if an agency so desired and accepting blanket collection and storage.

The Miranda detention is a minor example of abuse. Part of the anger at Snowden and Manning is that they did indeed reveal to American citizens just how vulnerable they are to eventual abuse of information which has no connection with terrorism.

What is especially stunning is that these intrusions run counter to the traditions of both the US and Britain. The US, in particular, was founded on the principle of suspicion of government, hence its division of powers and decentralised system. At its apogee, Britain was the liberal home of many exiles, not least Karl Marx who wrote Das Kapital in the British Museum and wrote radical reports from London for the New-York Daily Tribune.

The time was at least as much an era of revolution, of plots and assassinations, as today. Now, these societies are so lacking in self-confidence they seem to believe they can be destroyed by a few terrorists, which then provides supposed justification for wholesale snooping.

Making matters worse now is the unholy alliance between spy agencies and the handful of masters of the internet such as Google. They have a commercial interest in co-operating with America's National Security Agency, yet at the same time they - or at least their thousands of employees - are in a position to misuse information through blackmail, theft of commercial secrets and a host of other illegal activities, as well as the sale of personal data, which should be illegal. The hypocrisy in attacking China for doing just that is stunning. For sure, a one-party state is more likely to abuse information for political purposes - but not necessarily for commercial ones.

The thread linking back to Egypt and beyond is Western fear of Muslim hostility. That may seem a justified fear. But the West has been instrumental in feeding that with a series of appallingly judged interventions in the Middle East. The overthrow of the popular Mohammad Mossadeq government in Iran in 1953 to put the Shah back on the throne fired up a whole generation's anti-US sentiment, of which the current Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is an example. The next generation's anti-Western sentiment was fuelled by Western support for Saddam Hussein's invasion of Iran in 1980, which cost a million lives, indirectly led to Saddam's invasion of Kuwait and then to all the turmoil that followed the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. It is a sorry tale of interventions that backfired.

It is impossible to forecast how events will unfold in Egypt. The army has always had status in the country and the Brotherhood grossly mismanaged its brief period in power. Neither party is committed to democracy other than on its own terms. But there is always a price to be paid for such brutality as events in Iran and in Turkey in 1960 - when the military deposed and later executed prime minister Adnan Menderes - showed.

The West cannot dictate events and should not begin to try, whether in Egypt or Syria. But, for its own good and future relations with whoever wins these conflicts, it does need to show some principles and try to apply them evenly - not least also to Saudi Arabia and Israel, as well as Egypt under military rule, and to Syria.

Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator


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This article is now closed to comments

Mr. Bowring, we don't live in a perfect world. The west is correct to support the Egyptian military. The chance of real democracy following the military coup may be small, but the chance of democracy continuing after Muslim Brotherhood rule would be zero. For the Brotherhood democracy was always one man, one vote, one time. The Egyptian military acted while they still had time.
Goodness, it is the job of government to tell the governed what to do and what not to do, and never is everyone happy with those laws or dictates. Please, submit an example of just one national government that does or ever did successfully function without the support of its military, providing said country had a military. Regrettably, Mr. Bowring once again demonstrates his inability to do more than clutter a page with partial truths and random thoughts. Or should that be random truths and partial thoughts?
As usual, you misquote Horodotus. What's in your genes, Pierce Lam, except ignorance and narrow racist bigotry? Were you bitten by a "****" when you were young so you seek to take out your nasty, petty revenge on all Westerners? Grow up and get over it.
China's ruling system has NEVER had any respect for law, the rights of citizens or common humanity and they almost never were able to rule well, especially over subject nations where they are universally hated by the native inhabitants. Brutality has been the normal means of the exercise of power ever since China had kingdoms and the mentality still pertains today that the purpose of government is to benefit the rulers, not the ruled. A single, honest senior official in China goes down in history as a famous paragon of virtue, while for the Westerners honesty and absence of corruption in the civil service is an accepted norm. Why is that? Is it because thousands of years of Western culture and tradition has deeply embedded notions of freedom and the rule of law in its governments, not rape. That is civilisation. Is what China developed civilised?
Whatever its faults, and it has many, at least the Western system is capable of recognising its own shortcomings. It will always have a better system of government and respect for its own citizens than anything China can ever devise. The ideological struggle will never be won by China because the free world will never succumb to a racist, self centred, conceited tyranny.
"Now, these societies are so lacking in self-confidence they seem to believe they can be destroyed by a few terrorists" so Bowring supports the hypothesis that Snowden has been helping terrorism?
Because it's just a few terrorists, should they be ignored?
This sentence of Bowring's underlines the problems of sharing 'rants'. We don't know whether the writer has a valid opinion or not because their supporting arguments appear contradictory.
Wiki suffices for your education, Cactus:
The Histories (also known as The History) of Herodotus
is now considered as the founding work of history
The Histories serves as a record of the ancient traditions,
politics, geography, and clashes of various cultures
that were known around the Mediterranean
Book I (Clio)
The rapes of Io, Europa, and Medea,
which motivated Paris to abduct Helen.
The subsequent Trojan War is marked
as a precursor to later conflicts between peoples
Of course, rape can't be an act of godly people
pleasure giving: I confess enthralled
by the ecstasy of Bernini’s Saint Teresa
In any case thanks for singing your favorite refrain
It’s well understood that you’re Confucian
and you're convicted that Allah is great
I’ve much respect for the power of your knowledge
so meager yet so capable of supporting opinions
so ethnocentro-megalomaniac
Eisenhower warned against the military industrial complex and it came true in the era of the supremely stupid and ignorant Ronald Reagan, following the lead of the cleverer, but misguided petit bourgeouis Margaret Thatcher. It can be reversed because the tradition of freedom is well entrenched, as long as the citizens continue to care about such matters more than the next and sexier consumer product. The Chinese are on the same path but, being supremely materialistic, are more susceptible to such temptations and to corruption. The citizens of the West, especially in the USA, need another revolution to take back control of their own governments. They have the means, the institutions and machinery to do it.
Nothing’s new. It’s in the gene.
According to Horodotus, the father of History
western civilization began with rape – brutality
SNP in the west shrouded behind deceiving ideals
1 [brutality] -> insecurity -> militarization -> domestic order -> foreign aggression
2 [insecurity + militarization] -> domestic order -> foreign aggression -> regional order
3 [militarization + domestic order] -> regional order -> global order (hegemony)
When militarization is inadequate to push domestic / regional order forward
the west has to retreat,
The world is in a fuzz as the West pulled by different forces
is triangulated among 1,2 and 3
Only fools would take deceptions about rights and liberties for real
Horodotus, as the learnt know, is also the father of Lies
In the West, history = lies
A preview of my theory of western history
4 R’s
Thanks for speaking up. We are indeed ruled by dictatorial regimes in many countries today. Whoever have the most military might gain supremacy.


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