It turns out that Benito Mussolini, inventor of fascism and promulgator of vast atrocities in Ethiopia and elsewhere, had his sinister career kick-started with dollops of secret cash from -- where else? -- the intelligence service of one of the great and good world-leading democracies of his day.
The Guardian reports that Britain's MI5 reached out and touched young Mussolini when he was still a Fox News-style "journalist" railing against peaceniks opposed to Italy's involvement in the pointless slaughter of World War I. The British security organs were afraid that reason and human fellow-feeling would run rampant in Italy if the dirty hippies weren't crushed, so they began pumping a great deal of scratch to Mussolini -- who did not confine himself to Beckian media rants, but also marshaled various thugs to beat up war opponents:
Archived documents have revealed that Mussolini got his start in politics in 1917 with the help of a £100 weekly wage from MI5.
For the British intelligence agency, it must have seemed like a good investment. Mussolini, then a 34-year-old journalist, was not just willing to ensure Italy continued to fight alongside the allies in the first world war by publishing propaganda in his paper. He was also willing to send in the boys to "persuade'' peace protesters to stay at home.
Cambridge historian Peter Martland, who discovered details of the deal struck with the future dictator, said: "Britain's least reliable ally in the war at the time was Italy after revolutionary Russia's pullout from the conflict. Mussolini was paid £100 a week from the autumn of 1917 for at least a year to keep up the pro-war campaigning – equivalent to about £6,000 a week today."
British aid and comfort to Il Putze didn't stop with the war-goosing dosh, of course. Mussolini was widely admired by many of the elite in Britain (and elsewhere), who admired his strongman rule, which swept aside all that silly nonsense about law and democracy. Winston Churchill was a big fan, declaring that Mussolini -- "the Roman genius," as he called him -- was "the greatest lawgiver among men." He also lauded the violent and corrupt fascist dictatorship for "render[ing] a service to the whole world" by demonstrating how to crack down on "subversive forces."
Later, of course, thousands of British soldiers died fighting against the forces of the great lawgiver after he threw in with his pupil (and later master), Adolf Hitler. But what can you do? You live by the strongman, you die by the strongman. (Or rather, the cannon fodder you command dies by the strongman.) At least Winnie and Bennie had many years of fond mutual regard before that little falling-out at the end.
Meanwhile, Mussolini's corrupt, undemocratic influence lives on, in diluted (so far) form under Silvio Berlusconi, the egomaniacal media oligarch whose ruling coalition includes a party which openly boasts of its direct lineage to Mussolini's thuggish faction.
The legacy of this ugly episode also lives on in the never-ending replication of the MI5-Mussolini hook-up by our "leading democracies," whose chief foreign policy seems to be the fostering of violent thugs and "strongmen" to keep a lid on "recalcitrant tribes" (another evocative phrase of that Nobelist litterateur, Churchill) -- and to stoke any wars the great and good get going.
Saddam Hussein is of course a prime example. As everyone (except 97 percent of the US population) knows, Saddam was hired by the CIA when he was a mere stripling as part of a hit team to take down a once-favored Iraqi strongman who had, as so often happens, gotten above his raising. As Richard Sale explains:
[Saddam's] first contacts with U.S. officials date back to 1959, when he was part of a CIA-authorized six-man squad tasked with assassinating then Iraqi Prime Minister Gen. Abd al-Karim Qasim. In July 1958, Qasim had overthrown the Iraqi monarchy in what one former U.S. diplomat, who asked not to be identified, described as "a horrible orgy of bloodshed."
According to current and former U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, Iraq was then regarded as a key buffer and strategic asset in the Cold War with the Soviet Union. For example, in the mid-1950s, Iraq was quick to join the anti-Soviet Baghdad Pact which was to defend the region and whose members included Turkey, Britain, Iran and Pakistan.
Little attention was paid to Qasim's bloody and conspiratorial regime until his sudden decision to withdraw from the pact in 1959, an act that "freaked everybody out" according to a former senior U.S. State Department official.
You can kill, jail and torture who you like -- as long as you play on our team, and do what we say. If not, why then, you are a rogue, an outlaw, a new Hitler, an urgent and imminent danger to the world.
In the event, Saddam -- like many intelligence "assets" (and bosses) over the years -- botched the job completely. But he had shown he was a team player, so the Americans kept the cash flowing to him, while also backing the Baath Party's later, successful coup, giving the faction the usual assistance (as in Indonesia a couple of years later) with tracking down and slaughtering "leftists". As historian Roger Morris noted in the New York Times:
According to Western scholars, as well as Iraqi refugees and a British human rights organization, the 1963 coup was accompanied by a bloodbath. Using lists of suspected Communists and other leftists provided by the C.I.A., the Baathists systematically murdered untold numbers of Iraq's educated elite -- killings in which Saddam Hussein himself is said to have participated. No one knows the exact toll, but accounts agree that the victims included hundreds of doctors, teachers, technicians, lawyers and other professionals as well as military and political figures. [As happened yet again years later, in the latest American-assisted "regime change in Iraq -- CF.]
Later, after their boy Saddam had risen through the ranks to become one of their very own -- head of the Party's secret intelligence service -- the American security organs helped his family faction outgun their party rivals to take sole control. The rest, as we know, is history: the famous "tilt" toward Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War (which included supplying Saddam with U.S. military intelligence to direct bombing raids on Iranian cities and chemical attacks on Iranian forces); the big grip-and-grin with Ronnie Reagan's "special envoy," Don Rumsfeld; George Bush Senior's eager arming and funding of Saddam after the war (and after the gassing of the Kurds), Bush's secret directives to government agencies to cut sweetheart deals with Saddam, Bush's sale of "dual-use" technology to Saddam; the inevitable falling-out when Saddam attacked the Bush Family's long-time business partners in Kuwait; the glorious Gulf War, with its "Turkey Shoots" and massive bombing; the years of bipartisan "sanctions" which enriched Saddam and many Western interests but killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children; and of course, the American-launched war in 2003, which has now killed well over a million innocent people, and is still going on. [For more background on the Saddam's relationship with Washington, see "Prelude to a Quagmire."]
This kind of blowback is endemic to the policy of buying thugs and supporting tyrants to do the dirty work for coddled imperial elites. You buy them, you build them up, you support them, and then, when they go off the reservation -- or when the horrific suffering, death and repression they've inflicted with your help blows up in their faces (as with the Shah of Iran) -- you have to step in and slaughter even more people, either directly (Iraq 2003, Panama 1989, etc.), or indirectly (the Iran-Iraq War, the Reagan-backed genocidal repressions in Latin America, the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia, etc.).
And on and on it goes. For example, many of the justifications offered for Barack Obama's Nobel Prize centered largely on one thing: the fact that he went to Cairo and made a speech about America's good intentions toward the Muslim world -- a speech nearly identical to many that George W. Bush had made in the Middle East. Yet where did Obama choose to make this world-changing clarion call? In the heart of one of the most undemocratic regimes in the region, a corrupt, brutally repressive regime heavily sustained by the United States for decades -- and now embraced by the Continuer-in-Chief. As the Washington Post reports:
Since the speech, Egyptian security forces have launched a fresh campaign against the banned Muslim Brotherhood, an influential Islamist opposition group, arbitrarily arresting hundreds of members, from young bloggers to senior leaders. The government has prevented a centrist opposition movement from legally becoming a political party. In this Nile Delta industrial city, the epicenter of recent worker strikes, the government has appeared unresponsive to labor concerns -- or is cracking down.
"We are very disgruntled with President Obama," said Kamal al-Fayoumi, a labor leader who was jailed by the government for launching a major strike last year. "He has given the regime the green light to do what it wants with the Egyptian people."
[Although the facts are solid and revelatory, As'ad AbuKhalil points out one glaring absurdity in the story: its construction around the false premise that George W. Bush had "pressured" Egypt to enact democratic reforms. As AbuKhalil says: "The notion that people in Egypt credit Bush for promotion of democracy -- which he never undertook -- is rather laughable."]
Obama has also given the ritual green light to Saudi Arabia to continue its long-running religious tyranny with ever-eager American support. The ultimate blowback from the cynical meddling in Egypt and Saudi Arabia could well dwarf the monstrous results in Iraq. (Where, of course, the same policy is continuing, with the American-installed regime of "strongman" Nouri al-Maliki taking on the Saddam/Mubarak/Shah role.)
From Mussolini to Mubarak -- there is nothing new under the sun, as the Preacher saith. Nothing new, that is, except for the fresh graves of the unique, unrepeatable, individual lives snuffed out by the venality and inhumanity of our ruling elites.
This column is republished here with the permission of the author.
Republication or redistribution of Baltimore Chronicle content is expressly prohibited without their prior written consent.
Baltimore News Network, Inc., sponsor of this web site, is a nonprofit organization and does not make political endorsements. The opinions expressed in stories posted on this web site are the authors' own.
This story was published in the Baltimore Chronicle on October 15, 2009.