Putin Conspiracies, Obama Nonintervention Blamed for Brexit By Adam Johnson

24 June 2016 — FAIR 

Is Vladimir Putin Orchestrating Russian Football Hooliganism to Push Britain out of the EU?No theory for the success of Brexit was too far-fetched–as long as the right people were blamed. (Telegraph, 6/21/16)

The referendum results in favor of Britain leaving the European Union seemed to have caught most Western media off guard. Betting markets and the pundit class had heavily favored a vote to keep the UK in the EU, but at around midnight on the US East Coast, it became increasingly clear Britain would be supporting “Brexit” by a roughly 52–48 percent margin. Per usual, the more cynical writers and pundits—no matter how contrived the task would be — would take the opportunity to take a story about a nationalistic British response to a pro-austerity EU, and make it about Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin.

First up was the idea that Brexit resulted from Obama not adequately invading and bombing Syria, namely having not overthrown the “Assad regime” in 2013. The Washington Post‘s Josh Rogin insisted that Obama’s “neglect” of Syria had prolonged the conflict, which thus caused more refugees and thereby provoked more racist backlash:

Obama neglected Syria, allowed the crisis to spill over, driving migrants to Europe, pushing #Brexit over the edge.

— Josh Rogin (@joshrogin) June 24, 2016

If you’re counting at home, that’s four causal links needed to blame Obama for the UK leaving the EU, despite the fact that Obama had actively lobbied for it. To say nothing of the fact that Obama has done anything but “neglect” Syria, having armed and funded anti-Assad and anti-ISIS forces for years, as well as assisting the Saudis, Turks and Qataris in doing the same.

This sentiment was repeated by Ruth Sherlock, US editor for the Daily Telegraph:

Globalised world: If #UK #US hadn’t paid lip service to removing #Assad in Syria, the fostered subsistence war; no refugees: no #Brexit?

— Ruth Sherlock (@Rsherlock) June 24, 2016

On Andrea Mitchell Reports (6/24/16), Chuck Todd echoed this canard as well. Note that this claim is based on the assumption that not bombing and invading countries is what causes violence—putting aside the assertion that arming and funding proxy wars for almost four years is equivalent to “neglect.”

But blaming Obama is never enough. One has to contrive a reason to somehow use the Brexit to further demagogue against Russia—another favorite pastime of Western media. The most popular way of doing this was to insinuate that Putin was pro-Brexit based only on vague notions of aligned interest, rather than citing any statements by Putin himself:

  • Russia Says Brexit Opens Door for New UK Relations but US Blasts Vote as ‘Putin’s Victory’ (Express, 6/24/16)
  • Brexit: Few Will Be Happier Than Vladimir Putin (Sky News, 6/24/16)
  • Putin Will Be Rubbing His Hands at the Prospect of Brexit (Guardian, 6/5/16)

Consistent Russia critic Daily Beast (6/8/16) published a 1,400–word piece suggesting Russia was secretly pushing Brexit, without an ounce of primary source evidence—only a smattering of secondhand assumptions and hearsay.

The day after Thursday’s referendum, Putin would blame the exit on the “arrogance” of British leadership, but the Kremlin, much to the disappointment of professional cold war pundits, still had yet to make a value claim either way.

Indeed, last week Putin was confused why the UK held the vote at all, and expressly withheld sharing an opinion on the matter (Reuters,6/17/16):

“If it’s such a problem, why did he initiate this, if he is against it himself?” Putin said of Cameron at a meeting on the sidelines of the St Petersburg International Economic Forum.

Putin said that he had a view on whether Britain should leave the EU but that it was not appropriate for him to voice it because it was Britain’s internal affair.

The Telegraph (yes, the same Telegraph whose editor blamed Obama not invading Syria for Brexit) would take this tactic one step further, writing what has to be one of the goofiest headlines in the history of Russia panic, two days before the vote (6/21/16):

Is Vladimir Putin Orchestrating Russian Football Hooligans to Push Britain out of the EU?

So Putin’s elaborate soccer-hooligan psyop was designed to push Britain out of the EU? The causes of Brexit are complex and will be dissected over the coming weeks, but it’s fair to say Putin’s sinister “hybrid warfare” — or even Putin’s alleged support — had little to do with it.

“Never let a serious crisis go to waste,” Rahm Emanuel once said. The same is true for large global shakeups like the exiting of Britain from the EU. Those who already dislike Obama or want to criticize Russia will shoehorn in a breaking story like Brexit to suit their own tangential agenda. By blaming Obama’s lack of a direct Syrian invasion and Russia’s lack of express support, these pundits are letting Britain’s own homegrown demagogues, nationalists and xenophobes off the hook—not to mention the EU’s own anti-democratic structures and pro-austerity policies that made staying with Europe a less appealing prospect.

But attributing Brexit on British rightists and European neoliberals calls into question corporate media’s leading ideologies. Better to put the blame on two individual leaders who had little or nothing to do with it.

Adam Johnson is a contributing analyst for FAIR.org. Follow him on Twitter at  @AdamJohnsonNYC.

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