Alexander Mercouris, one of the co-founders of news website TheDuran.com, joins us today to discuss mainstream media’s use of “fake news” accusations to “attempt to delegitimize alternatives to the orthodoxy,” as well as his thoughts on recent developments in Greece and Syria.
GREECE — “Fake news” is a phrase that has quickly become a mainstay in the contemporary political and journalistic lexicon. Claims of “fake news” reporting have been levied against sites as varied as MintPress News and TheDuran.com, while mainstream media outlets have exempted themselves from such accusations, despite years of peddling government and corporate propaganda.
In an interview for MintPress News that originally aired on Dialogos Radio earlier this month, analyst Alexander Mercouris, a frequent television panelist and co-founder of TheDuran.com, shared his insights on a wide range of topics, including Trump’s proposals for a radical increase to the United States’ military budget, developments in the Ukraine and the breakaway Donbass Republic, developments on the ground in Syria following the liberation of Palmyra, the potential significance of upcoming elections in France and Germany and Greece’s ability to sustain even further austerity measures and cuts.
MintPress News (MPN): Recently, U.S. President Donald Trump gave his first speech before a joint session of Congress. Despite the intense negativity on the part of much of the mainstream media towards Trump and his administration, this speech received many positive reviews from these same journalists and commentators. What are your impressions of Trump’s speech and the reaction to it? Do you believe it signifies a change in the stance of the media towards Trump, or does it perhaps signify a change in the direction of the Trump administration itself?
Alexander Mercouris (AM): I don’t believe either is the case, actually. I believe that the media is as relentlessly hostile to Mr. Trump as it’s always been, and I also think that there’s been no substantial change in the direction of the Trump administration either. If you analyze the speech carefully, you will see that on both his domestic policies and his foreign policies, he didn’t actually give an inch.
However, the reason why it was received more favorably than some of his other speeches is because on this occasion he was very careful to put his case in a measured way that is conventional to an American political audience. He said many of the things that the American political elite expects a president to say. He talked about the United States as the country of freedom, he spoke about democracy, he spoke about the role of the United States in ways that an American political elite audience expects and which he has not done previously.
And I think the reason he did that was because he needs the support of the members of his own party in the Congress to carry through his very controversial and radical program, and I think during his speech he made a very big step towards getting it.
MPN: The Trump administration is seeking a 54-billion-dollar increase for the U.S. defense budget. Do you believe that this proposed increase in defense spending contradicts Trump’s rhetoric in favor of better relations with Russia and against regime change globally, or do you believe that it is an effort on the part of the Trump administration to get the armed forces on its side?
AM I think the second is actually the truth. I don’t think Mr. Trump actually intends this military buildup to pressure, or is in contradiction to his policies either towards Russia or in his general opposition to regime change. However, the U.S. military—and we’re talking about a very large organization here, millions of people if one includes the families of the people who serve in the armed forces—was a major electoral constituency for Donald Trump in the recent election.
And the U.S. military has been feeling like it is under a great deal of pressure in recent years, as it has been asked to do perhaps too many things. So he has agreed to increase defense spending, much of which I suspect will go into improving conditions for U.S. servicemen and their families. And of course, it’s also won him the support of the many senior military officers that he is bringing into his administration. This is an important political constituency for him, and it is one he is winning over.
The danger of this policy is that although I don’t think he intends it to be aggressive towards other countries, [those] other countries may not see it that way. They may see this buildup and they may say “what is the United States about? It already has this huge military. It’s now adding even more military on top of that. What is its purpose? What is the intention of all this extra firepower? Are we really looking at a more peaceful administration?”
And I’m afraid I think that is something that President Trump needs to think about and possibly explain when he contacts other foreign leaders, assuming that my analysis of his intentions is correct.
MPN: You’ve written in a recent article that the real story regarding the U.S. presidential election is the wiretapping that the Obama administration reportedly engaged in and that the anti-Russia hysteria is meant to serve as a cover-up for this story. Could you elaborate on this?
AMI think that there is no doubt at all that over the last year we have seen a relentless surveillance campaign carried out on Mr. Trump, on his associates, on all sorts of people involved in the Trump campaign. We’ve also seen an orchestrated campaign against them in the media, on the part of the media that was allied during the election to Mr. Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton. And of course, we’ve also seen the Democratic Party in Congress and elsewhere support this campaign, and we’ve also seen members of the U.S. security services, which are part of this campaign, also vocally speaking up about it.
This is sustained interference by the previous administration and its political allies and by sections of the security services in the conduct of the U.S. election. Nothing like that has ever happened on anything of this scale before. And if it is exposed and to what extent it has been happening, it will inevitably provoke many questions and perhaps also legal questions, because one has to ask whether it is appropriate during an election to subject people who are not guilty of any wrongdoing to this kind of surveillance. In order to do that, we have seen a huge campaign alleging that these people were placed under surveillance because they had some kind of contacts with Russia, though it is important to say that no evidence of that has ever been produced. So that is why I feel that the Russia part of the campaign is the smokescreen, the surveillance is the actual scandal.
MPN: In another recent piece of yours, you’ve written that the new Attorney General of the United States, Jeff Sessions, was correct in recusing himself from any investigations against Russia. Why do you feel that this is the case?
AMI should make it very clear that I don’t think that Mr. Sessions did anything wrong at all. The accusation against him is that he met the Russian Ambassador on two occasions. Both of these occasions took place in a perfectly public setting. One was at a conference involving the Heritage Foundation, to which many ambassadors were invited and where the meeting took place only briefly. The second meeting was in his office in Capitol Hill with possibly three and definitely two aides present, both of those aides being U.S. Army colonels. It seems to me that there was certainly not any possibility that either of these meetings was in any way suspicious or that any sort of conspiracy was going on.
Having said this, the fact remains that Mr. Sessions had some connection to the Trump campaign. It is also the case, whether one likes it or not, that there are allegations swirling around how the Trump campaign had contacts with Russia. In light of this, one cannot avoid, it seems to me, a situation where he has to recuse himself to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest. So that is all that has happened. It is by no means unusual in these situations. No one should assume from this that there is anything wrong or suspicious in what Mr. Sessions did. I think he made the right decisions and I think that it will be seen over time that the decision he made was the right one. I am confident that when this process is completed, his stand will be completely vindicated.
“We’re talking of a battle between globalists, people who believe in the West as a kind of universal civilization, about the United States as a kind of exceptional state that is at the forefront of that civilization and is acting as the crusader around the world for that civilization.”
MPN: Well-known analyst and commentator Paul Craig Roberts has described what he sees as a battle that is brewing between the globalist neoliberal faction in Washington and the old foreign policy establishment. More recently, French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen stated that there is a battle between the globalists and the patriots, as she described them. Do you believe that we have been witnessing this battle unfold publicly in recent months?
AMI think there is a great deal of truth to this. I would make one particular modification: I think that one has to speak of the globalist establishment as the establishment. The people who Dr. Roberts referred to as the “old establishment” are not the establishment any more. They are the outsiders. They are the people of the past who are still finding certain people in the present who are listening to them and who are now gaining influence again.
So yes, we are talking of a battle, we’re talking of a battle between globalists, people who believe in the West as a kind of universal civilization, about the United States as a kind of exceptional state that is at the forefront of that civilization and is acting as the crusader around the world for that civilization, and we’re also talking against them, of more and more people who adhere to more traditional and conventional foreign policy positions, which say that foreign policy is about defending national interests, not about defending universalist values, and that a country should model its foreign policy around its own interests and be realistic about those. So we are seeing this huge battle under way. It is under way to a huge degree in the United States, it is starting to spill over into Europe and I believe this battle will grow.
MPN: Having mentioned the establishment, you have described the media’s behavior in recent months, particularly following the Brexit referendum result and the electoral victory of Donald Trump in the U.S., as a campaign against free speech, with accusations of so-called “fake news” and “alternative facts” being thrown about. What do you believe the media’s end game is in all of this, and do you believe that the mainstream media has helped or hurt its own credibility with its actions? Do you believe that people are still buying what the mainstream media have to say?
AM Several questions here. The first thing to say is that I have no doubt at all that the agenda here is to make the views of the globalist establishment—we can use Dr. Roberts’ language—to make those the unchallengeable orthodoxy. In other words, to close down discussion so that the universalist, exceptionalist and globalist views that have become the establishment and which have been accepted by the media establishment—which we must always remember is part of the foreign policy and political establishment in the West now—to make those views unchallengeable and to make them the only ones that are acceptable. And what we see in this campaign about “alternative facts” and “fake news” is an attempt to delegitimize alternatives to the orthodoxy. This orthodoxy which, at the moment, is being so powerfully challenged. It is, in effect, a defensive reaction by the media and the establishment against a challenge that it never expected but which it is now encountering.
To answer your last question, I think it damages the credibility of the media extremely, because it makes the media a part of a partisan conflict within, if you like, the two different establishments. It makes it appear more a propaganda instrument than an accurate reporter of the news.
MPN: Looking towards the east now, we’ve seen the nationalization of Ukrainian businesses in the Donbass and Lubansk Republics, and the recognition, on the part of Russia and Russian President Vladimir Putin, of passports and official documents from these republics. Do you believe that we are seeing decisive steps being taken towards the full independence of these two republics?
AMI think a particular tipping point has been reached. The situation is that we have an agreement, the Minsk Agreement, which was negotiated with great difficulty in February 2015. It was supposed to provide a roadmap towards a settlement of the Ukrainian conflict. The present Ukrainian government is not interested in pursuing this roadmap because that would create a kind of Ukraine which is different from the sort of Ukraine that the government wants. So the result is that we have an impasse that has been created. And as a result of that impasse, we are now seeing a movement away from the attempt by the Russians and by people in the Donbass to work towards the Minsk Agreement. [An attempt to work] towards perhaps what is the more natural outcome, which is a separation of the Donbass from the Ukraine, which will become increasingly more effective. I’m afraid I think the tipping point has been reached and I don’t think that momentum is stoppable anymore.
MPN: Ukraine seems to find itself facing more difficulties, including the possibility of being cut off from energy sources in the Donbass, increasing political instability and what seems to be lukewarm support from the Trump administration so far. Some commentators have even questioned the very survival of the Ukrainian state or have described it as a failed state. What’s your take on Ukraine and what is currently happening there, as well as the future of the state?
AMI think that Ukraine’s situation is becoming increasingly problematic. The reason for this is that we have in Ukraine a political movement and a government which, to an extreme degree, are putting their ideological goals above the practical realities that they face. It is sacrificing the economy of Ukraine and the society of Ukraine to achieve ideological goals that are unachievable. When you have that kind of situation where there is a flight from reality on the part of a government and a political movement that is in power, it is very difficult to speak with any confidence about a viable future.
Although I think there is still some space politically for Ukraine to pull its act together, I’m afraid that space is fast running out. Unless certain serious decisions are made very soon, both in Ukraine itself and by its Western sponsors, I’m afraid we may very soon reach the point of no return for Ukraine.
MPN: We recently saw the full liberation of the Syrian city of Palmyra. What is the current status of the conflict in Syria, what was the role played by Russian and Iranian forces, and where has the battle against Daesh now shifted?
AMI think the intervention of Russia and Iran, but especially of Russia, has been decisive. If we go back to 2015, before the Russians intervened, it was very clear that the Syrian government and the Syrian army was on the backfoot. They had lost control of most of central and eastern Syria, they had lost control of the critical northwestern province of Idlib, they were under pressure in all directions. Since Russia intervened so decisively, and Iran perhaps to a certain degree that we perhaps are not fully informed about, that situation has completely reversed. The Syrian government is now in control of all the major urban centers in Syria, it has regained full control of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, it is in full control of all its major economic areas. It is on the offensive against ISIS in the eastern part of the country, with the capture of Palmyra being a sign of that, and it is increasingly taking the offensive in areas to the west of the country, where other jihadi rebel groups have been fighting against it.
It increasingly looks like an unstoppable momentum is being created around an eventual victory for the Syrian government and the Syrian army. Having said this, there are still many external players in Syria. There is Turkey in the north of Syria, which has its troops there. There’s the United States, which is heavily involved in Syria, and to a lesser extent now, I think there are the Gulf Arab states, which have previously supported and which continue to support sections of the opposition. I think what we will see is a concerted effort by the Russians, and to some extent the Iranians, to capitalize on the successes they have achieved, to achieve some kind of constitutional settlement in Syria that will end the conflict there but that will essentially leave the present political and governmental structure in Syria intact, as suits their interests.
MPN: We’ve witnessed a game of political ping-pong between the House of Commons and the House of Lords in Great Britain regarding Brexit. British Prime Minister Theresa May has nevertheless maintained that Article 50 will be invoked by the end of March. Do you believe that May will keep this pledge and that Brexit will proceed, and do you believe that any Brexit legislation that is ultimately passed will be watered down in any way?
AMI am confident that Theresa May will in fact move for Article 50 at some point this month. She has put at stake, to a very great degree, her political prestige on this, and I think she will be extremely anxious not to delay that deadline. Moreover, I do not think that these latest decisions in the House of Lords, which I regard as reversible, are going to put pressure on her to delay that.
As to what happens in the future, it remains to be seen. My own personal view is that the direction towards Brexit that Britain is now taking will not be significantly diluted. I think we will see what is called in Britain a “hard Brexit,” which involves Britain not only leaving the EU’s political institutions, but its economic institutions and its single market as well. I expect Britain also to reimpose controls on its borders and, in effect, to sever itself from the EU completely. I think that the political momentum behind this is unstoppable, and I don’t think that all the various political and legal barriers that some are still trying to create in Britain to that outcome can succeed.
MPN: This does seem like it will be a year of significant political developments throughout Europe. We may see major political shockwaves emerging from the upcoming elections in countries such as France and Germany, where Eurosceptic parties and candidates are making significant gains. What would, for instance, a Le Pen victory in France or an Alternative for Germany (AfD) victory in Germany mean for the future of the European Union and the Eurozone?
AM: I think that we have to look at these three outcomes separately. First of all, I don’t personally think that there is any real possibility of an AfD victory in Germany. I think if we look at the polls, the AfD has grown remarkably over the last few years, but it is polling around 10 to 15 percent of the vote. I cannot imagine it winning an election there outright. Whoever wins in Germany, it will still be, I think, one of the establishment, mainstream, pro-European parties.
AMHowever if we look elsewhere, there are more possibilities. If Marine Le Pen wins in France, then I will be frank, I think that is an existential crisis for the EU and the Eurozone. Not just because of what Le Pen has said about the EU and about the Eurozone, in particular that she wants to leave the Eurozone, but because of what has been said about her. It is inconceivable to my mind that the political leaders of Germany or of other countries, who have called Marine Le Pen a fascist and even worse things, could successfully politically collaborate with her. So we will be looking at a crisis within the EU the likes of which we have never seen before. It is very difficult in that kind of situation for me to see the already very fragile Eurozone surviving that sort of outcome.
I must say that I think because it will be such an existential crisis for the European Union, all the stops are going to be pulled out to stop it from happening. So we’re going to see an extremely fierce election campaign in France, with everything being done to prevent Marine Le Pen winning, and I have to say that, on balance, I don’t think she will.
MPN: The SYRIZA-led government in Greece recently congratulated itself on an agreement that it reached with the troika of European and international creditors, in which it claims that, beginning in 2019, no new austerity measures will be implemented as a result of so-called “equivalent measures” and with the caveat that Greece will meet all of its strict fiscal targets from now until 2019. What are conditions like on the ground in Greece, in your view, and do you believe that the country can handle at least two more years of austerity and continued membership in the Eurozone?
AMThere’s three things to say here. Firstly, I have recently ben in Greece, I saw the situation there, and my own personal view is that the situation on the ground is going from bad to worse. I found the hardships the people in Greece are suffering to be, frankly, off the scale, and I think that anybody who believes that the situation in Greece is improving is engaging in complete delusion. I would also say that there has recently been a spate of articles in the international media, including some very interesting articles in the Financial Times in Britain, which have been saying the same thing, and that also seems to increasingly be the view of people within the International Monetary Fund. So that’s my view about the situation in Greece.
The second thing is, I think extending this situation for a further two years would be disastrous even if it ended in two years. I don’t think it is going to end in two years. We heard claims before about how there is light at the end of this tunnel, at the time of the bailout agreement in 2015 there was some talk that there was going to be relaxation of repayment conditions, which never happened. I don’t believe there will be any significant end to austerity in two years’ time.
I’m afraid I think the reality is that Greece is trapped in this permanent austerity tunnel. I think the sooner people in Greece understand this the better. I think that people in SYRIZA and in other parties who are pretending otherwise are not being honest with the Greek people. And I think the sooner we have honesty about this issue the better, because the lack of honesty is making it difficult to make the decisions that need to be made.
MPN: You are, of course, one of the co-founders of TheDuran.com, which is a new initiative founded less than a year ago. During this short period of time, it has been accused by some of publishing so-called “fake news” and of being a Putin puppet or even a Trump puppet. How do you respond to these claims and how do you believe The Duran differentiates itself from mainstream news and analysis sites?
AMI don’t think we are any kind of “fake news” site. What I do think we do is that we do publish news, or shall we say, opinions that are different from the ones that mainstream media publishes. And sometimes, we publish news that the mainstream, or shall we say the establishment media, does not publish.
I will give an example of this. If we look carefully at the situation in Syria, last autumn there was—I don’t think there’s any question about this, it’s been confirmed both by American officials and by Russian officials—a very dangerous confrontation between the Americans and the Russians in Syria, which could have very easily ended in a military conflict between the two militaries of those two countries. The establishment media has barely reported that fact, though it is a matter of public knowledge. We reported it.
I have to go back to the points that I made previously, that what we are facing in the establishment media is an attempt to impose a single truth, which is the globalist, exceptionalist truth, as the only truth. We challenge that. We report things the mainstream doesn’t report, we analyze things which mainstream media does not analyze. We do not make things up, but the fact that we analyze things they don’t analyze and that we report things that they don’t report, puts us, if you will, in the crosshairs.
Coming back to an earlier question, what we do fulfills an important function. We think that it is a free speech function, and trying to silence sites like ours, which report news and analyze facts that others do not report and do not analyze, is an attack on our freedom to speak out these things, and denies people the benefit of that freedom.