The media war against the democratically elected government of Venezuela kicked into high gear recently.
It is no coincidence that over the past few weeks a series of damning articles have come out touting the allegedly imminent collapse of the Venezuelan government.
These come on the heels of a recent editorial by the Washington Post that resorted to outright lies to justify its effort to promote regime change in Venezuela.
Meanwhile certain heads-of-government, such as Spain’s Mariano Rajoy and Paraguay’s Horacio Cartes who both have strong ties to Washington, have made provocative statements meant to try to isolate Venezuela in the international community.
There is stratagem afoot. Venezuela is passing through a difficult moment and the enemies of the Bolivarian Revolution smell blood.
Those old enough to remember the lead up to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq know that these kinds of campaigns always predate foreign intervention.
For those quick to level the charge of conspiracy, one need only look to Brazil where analysts and pundits warned for months that the impeachment of Brazil was actually a Machiavellian coup plot to oust the president.
Many expressed doubt but the coup allegations turned out to be irrefutably true after a leaked conversation by one of the coup-plotters spelled out the plan explicitly.
teleSUR takes a look at three of the worst examples of anti-Venezuelan propaganda masquerading as journalism.
1. The Guardian’s Nick Cohen Equates Solidarity with Sex Tourism
Cohen’s piece literally opens with the line, “Radical tourism is no different from sex tourism.”
He then equates those who seek to learn from the class struggle throughout the world with those who pay for sex in foreign countries.
Cohen then cherry picks information from questionable sources to disparage a government that has consistently won elections and always acknowledged the times they lost.
Cohen talks about Venezuela as if he lived there, when of course he hasn’t. He seeks out Venezuelans like Thor Halvorssen who agree with him and back-up his claims that the true champions of the oppressed are the right-wing politicians who ignored the poor for decades, before the arrival of Hugo Chavez in 1999.
But how much credibility can a man like Cohen — who backed the invasion of Iraq — have when he calls important thinkers such as Noam Chomsky and John Pilger “half-baked pseudo-left intellectual(s)”?
2. Venezuelans Long For Days of Elite Semi-Democracy… in the NY Times
The New York Times, which recently ran an editorial calling for a return of the days when Latin America was considered the “back yard” of the United States, is one of the loudest voices pushing for the ouster of Maduro.
It has featured article after article with one-sided stories that try to paint Venezuela as a failed state. It recently ran an op-ed by Emiliana Duarte, an upper class Venezuelan living in Caracas, which claimed Venezuelans are going hungry.
Duarte writes for the notoriously anti-government Caracas Chronicles, which the Times describes simply as a website for Venezuelan news.
She seems nostalgic for the pre-Chavez Venezuela, saying the country was once “the most stable democracy in South America.” What she doesn’t mention is that so-called stability came as a result of an elite pact between the leading political parties at the time, the Social Christians and Democratic Action.
This pact deliberately excluded leftist parties from having the opportunity to govern and led the elite semi-democracy known as the Fourth Republic. She laments the loss of the Fourth Republic’s institutions, yet fails to recognize that the failure of these same institutions are partly responsible for the rise of the Bolivarian Revolution.
Duarte also talks about how she has to “fill a suitcase with bags of rice and other grains” whenever she travels, leaving out the fact that regular international air travel is a privilege reserved only for the wealthy.
The suggestion that runs throughout is that Venezuelans are suffering through a hunger crisis, when the facts suggest otherwise as Venezuela remains well above the FAO’s minimum food security level.
3. BBC Commits Journalistic Crimes to Make its Case
The BBC’s Wyre Davies dedicated an entire article to downplaying the very real threat of a foreign military intervention in Venezuela, claiming it is nothing but a “spectre.”
It wasn’t that long ago that official U.S. policy was to install dictatorships throughout the region to do the bidding of elites. While Washington now talks about its respect for democracy, it backed recent coups in Haiti, Paraguay, Honduras and Brazil, not to mention the attempted 2002 coup to oust Hugo Chavez — in Venezuela, of course.
But Davies thinks a foreign intervention is a virtual impossibility.
He belittles the recent military exercises conducted by the Venezuelan Armed Forces. He puts scare quotes around the notion of spy planes, when two alleged U.S. planes were recently caught violating Venezuelan air space.
Davies suggests the military exercises are just a cover “to divert attention from what is really happening.”
To back up his assertion, he points to nameless experts, not once but twice. First he says that “many commentators” agree with his claims without quoting a single one.
Then he says the “real reason” behind the exercises is “to create the emergency conditions that would enable the armed forces to deal with internal dissent.”
Once again he attributes the idea to “observers” but doesn’t bother to name any.
Davies also asserts that President Maduro has “vowed to use (the Armed Forces) against opposition protesters.”
This is patently false. Maduro has never said such a thing.
In fact, opposition leader Henrique Capriles is the only one making open calls to the military to act against the people and rebel against Maduro.
Beyond that, the Venezuelan people and their Armed Forces have a special relationship. It was the military that rescued Venezuelan democracy after the short-lived, U.S.-sanctioned coup briefly ousted President Chavez from power in 2002 in the kind of foreign intervention Davies thinks is a mere specter.
Recent political developments across the region have prompted celebratory proclamations in the mainstream Western press that Latin America’s decades-long dominance by left-leaning governments is reaching its terminal stages. The landslide victory of the Venezuelan opposition in last December’s legislative elections, the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff in Brazil, and the triumph of center-right candidate Mauricio Macri in Argentina’s presidential election do indeed seem to point to a region-wide decline in the fortunes of the parties of the Pink Tide. But as is so often the case in the mainstream media, commentators have been too quick to make current events fit neatly into overarching seismic shifts. The cursory and often incomplete news reports on which they are based simply do not provide sufficient support for such catchall explanations. While scholars have naturally initiated a more nuanced and detailed debate to consider whether the region is indeed witnessing the end of a progressive cycle, press analyses have struck a premature and in many cases triumphalist tone by declaring the collapse of the Latin American left both imminent and beyond serious doubt.
In reality, it is the exact opposite that is beyond serious doubt: it is far too early to write off the future of the left in Latin America. Moreover, more research is needed to understand the dynamics of these movements and how things might play out in the coming months and years. But what is most disconcerting about these knee-jerk press responses is that the people making them seem to not even have a strong grasp of the basic facts surrounding the political developments on which they base their claims, let alone of the nuance needed to develop a sophisticated analysis. In a survey of the media declarations of the purportedly imminent collapse of the Latin American left, COHA has found a shocking collection of glaring and demonstrably false statements over basic matters of fact that reveal the profoundly slipshod nature of their research.
The salience of these findings can hardly be overstated: if journalists in the mainstream media cannot even get basic facts correct, they can hardly be trusted to provide a meaningful analysis of the larger picture.
As predictable as the jeers from the DC commentariat were, perhaps the one figure within the Beltway punditry class who could have been most counted on to react gloatingly to the recent setbacks of leftist governments in Latin America was The Washington Post’s deputy editorial page editor Jackson Diehl. Having been a reliable war hawk and right-wing militarist at the Post’s op-ed section since the late 1970s, Diehl was quick to turn his wrath on Pink Tide leaders and their supposedly grave threat to U.S. national security interests. In 2010 he repeated American Enterprise Institute scholar Roger Noriega’s accusation that then-President of Venezuela Hugo Chavez was collaborating with Iran in the development of nuclear capabilities. In 2013 he accused the governments of Venezuela, Nicaragua and Ecuador of “gutting democratic institutions in their countries,” and described Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa as “Latin America’s chief caudillo and Yanqui-baiter.”
His characterization of the latest political developments, inexplicably posted at the Charleston-based Post and Courier rather than his home publication, fits seamlessly with this record of hysterical hyperbole and dubious accuracy. In the article’s first sentence he triumphantly announces: “The encouraging news from Latin America is that the leftist populists who for 15 years undermined the region’s democratic institutions and wrecked its economies are being pushed out — not by coups and juntas, but by democratic and constitutional means.” From this outrageously loaded misrepresentation he quickly moves on to outright falsehoods by claiming that Argentina’s Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was “vanquished in a presidential election.” From a simple Google search one can learn that she was in fact not even a candidate in last year’s presidential election. Apparently Diehl cannot even get past his article’s second sentence without revealing his stupefying ignorance of the most basic of facts.
Aside from blatant inaccuracies, he also makes the remarkable claim that “most of the Western hemisphere is studiously ignoring this meltdown,” despite the fact that Secretary-General of the Organization of American States (OAS), Luis Almagro, has been calling for months to invoke the OAS Democratic Charter against Venezuela. If he is referring not to the OAS but rather to the leaders of the region’s governments, then he is simply confusing their indifference for Washington’s isolation in its condemnations of the Maduro government. Just as the United States was completely isolated in its refusal to recognize Maduro’s election victory in 2013, so it has been alone in calling for sanctions, for which it has lobbied on the basis of largely spurious allegations of human rights violations.
To round out his diatribe, Diehl then describes the “obstacles” to getting a recall referendum to remove President Maduro as “comically steep,” despite the fact that all of the figures he cites regarding the required numbers of petition signatures (which opposition activists need to gather to trigger the recall vote) are calculated from terms set out in Venezuela’s Constitution. By representing the recall referendum as offering the “slim remaining hopes for a democratic solution,” he implies that some sort of extra-democratic methods might be necessary, and presumably also justified. Keep in mind that the provision for a recall referendum to remove a sitting president is a democratic mechanism that scarcely exists in any constitution besides Venezuela’s.
Rafael Ruiz Velasco
In an article published at the PanAm Post, Rafael Ruiz Velasco is just as hasty in his passage of judgment on the fate of Latin America’s left. He announces confidently that “the results are clear: the bet on socialism in Latin America has failed.” But like Diehl, Velasco makes at least one glaring factual error that undermines his already highly suspect piece. He says of Brazil: “The Olympics will be held with a politically defeated Dilma Rousseff out of office, as she faces impeachment on corruption charges.” The truth of the matter is that Rousseff is in fact one of the few leading Brazilian politicians not to be facing corruption charges. Her impeachment was rather premised on vague accusations of fiscal mismanagement and budgetary irregularities—hardly the high crimes that under normal circumstances would merit removal from office. Her replacement Michel Temer, on the other hand, does presently stand accused of corruption, and not over minor allegations either. In addition to being implicated in the country’s ongoing Petrobras scandal, he also stands accused of illegal financing during the 2014 elections; the exact kinds of things, ironically, that would normally be legitimate grounds for impeachment.
Either Velasco is conveniently ignoring these facts, or else just has a very weak understanding of the details of what is taking place in Brazilian politics. Indeed, much else in his article makes one wonder whether he is engaging in willful misrepresentation or is just plain clueless. To give just one example, Velasco describes Rousseff and her predecessor, Luiz Ignácio da Silva, as Brazil’s “figureheads of failure,” in spite of the four electoral victories they have won between them. Leveling this smear against da Silva, whose widespread popularity led to him being affectionately known as Lula, is particularly absurd given that he won both of his presidential election victories with over 60 percent of the vote and left office with 80 percent approval ratings.
In an article for Foreign Policy magazine, provocatively titled “How Brazil’s Left Destroyed Itself,” Antonio Sampaio pulls no punches in his characterization of Rousseff’s impeachment, claiming that it “marks the final fall from grace not only of the president but also of her ruling Workers’ Party, which has run the country for 13 years.” But one can only feel confounded when Sampaio concedes further down the article that “supporters of the government are right to point out that Rousseff herself is one of the few high-profile political figures who has not been accused of abusing her office for personal enrichment. (Her impeachment is related to alleged manipulation of public accounts to disguise a deficit).” This stands in blatant contradiction to how he begins the article, with the claim that “the biggest corruption scandal in national history is revealing the extent to which Rousseff and her allies actively contributed to the rot of Brazil’s democratic institutions.” It is simply unfathomable how he can lay the blame for the damage done to Brazil’s institutions by this scandal at the feet of Dilma Rousseff when he concedes in the same article that her impeachment has nothing to do with corruption. But in the world of Western press coverage of Latin America, this kind Orwellian doublethink does not seem to matter even when such contradictory statements are being made in the very same article.
Chicago Tribune/Orlando Sentinel
In a “Guest Editorial” in the Orlando Sentinel, the editors of the Chicago Tribune (I’m confused too) argue that the next U.S. president “will need to engage Latin America with a lot more purpose and resolve,” or else “Russia, Iran and China will.” To their credit, they do concede that the recent setbacks of leftist leaders “do not necessarily mean a complete, sweeping repudiation of leftist populism,” since “the gap between the impoverished masses and the few wealthy elite still defines life for much if not all of the continent.” But rather than providing legitimate justifications for progressive policies, this grinding poverty and gross inequality apparently makes these countries “susceptible” to what they term “leftist agendas.”
But in addition to this patronizing jeer, the Tribune editors also make the exact same factual error as Jackson Diehl by claiming that Cristina Fernández de Kirchner “lost her re-election bid to Argentine center-right leader Mauricio Macri last fall.” At the risk of repeating it ad nauseam, Kirchner did not stand in the election, and, moreover, was not even able to since the Argentine Constitution sets a limit of two consecutive presidential terms. Granted, her ruling Justicialist Party lost control of the executive to Macri’s rival Republican Proposal party, but the candidate for the Justicialists was Daniel Scioli (a former vice-president during the administration of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s husband and predecessor Nestor Kirchner). To those who might try to dismiss this correction as mere nitpicking, imagine what people in the United States would have thought if a foreign newspaper had reported in November 2008 that U.S. President George W. Bush had lost his re-election bid to Barack Obama. Such shoddy journalism would have surely delivered an instantly fatal blow to the publication’s credibility. But when a U.S. publication demonstrates an exactly analogous ignorance of basic facts about Latin America, its unfounded pronouncements and flimsy arguments still get taken seriously.
Further revealing their risible political illiteracy, the Tribune editors claim that the setbacks for the Latin American left have “all happened with virtually no coddling or stoking from the U.S.” Either the authors have never read anything about the United States’ covert funding of Venezuelan opposition candidates and its threats of sanctions against the Maduro government, the meetings between major regional right-wing figures and allies in the U.S. Congress, and the United States’ use of international organizations to weaken left-leaning governments, or else they are being deliberately duplicitous (and presumably take their readers for a bunch of idiots to boot). The Tribune editors conclude with the unbelievably sweeping statement that the region’s populations are “fed up with failed leftist policies.”
This last statement neatly sums up the central message that these articles wish to communicate: that any policies that don’t fit the Anglo-American model of unfettered neoliberal capitalism “don’t work” and that though people might at first naively support them, they end up getting disillusioned and begrudgingly come to the realization that neoliberalism is the only viable economic system after all. Though they might not spell it out quite so obligingly, the message is essentially a repetition of Margaret Thatcher’s infamous claim that “there is no alternative” to free markets, free trade, and capitalist globalization. The presentation of the recent setbacks of Latin American left governments as confirmation of this seems to be a deliberate jibe directed at the many people the world over who hold up Latin America as humanity’s beacon of hope for providing a more just, generous, and sustainable way of life.
But though these setbacks of the Pink Tide should not be reflexively explained away and the diminishment in popular support for its parties should not be discounted, there are important distinctions and qualifiers that cast doubt on such a rash declaration of victory for neoliberal orthodoxy. Lest we forget, it was less than a decade ago that an economic crash plunged world economies into disarray and prompted no less a figure than Alan Greenspan to admit that free market ideology is flawed.
First, it is important to make the distinction between a decline in support for the Pink Tide’s parties and support for their policies. Research has suggested that voting publics in Latin America have not become any less supportive of such policies, but rather are becoming disaffected with how they are being administered by those in charge. A poll by Poliarquía in the run up to the 2015 Argentine presidential election, for instance, found that 50 percent of respondents were in favor not of a return to the policies of the pre-Kirchner years, but rather “continuity with change.” As Raanan Rein, a professor of Latin American and Spanish history at Tel Aviv University, put it: “The left lost more than the right won.” He added: “It wasn’t that Macri became so popular, it was simply that his predecessors, the Kirchners, destroyed Peronism.” In other words, what is needed is not a relapse back to tooth and nail neoliberalism, but rather a new and more effective leadership to build on the alternatives that were first attempted by the leftist old guard. The many achievements that resulted from these policies include: expanded access to public services such as healthcare and education; radically reduced poverty and child malnutrition; widespread construction of new homes for those in need; and a significant pushback against the brutal realities of income and wealth inequality that have long plagued the region. Many of these policies’ merits have been recognized by international organizations including the United Nations, the Carter Center, and even the World Bank. Perhaps the most revolutionary of all the changes implemented by the Pink Tide governments were the drafting of new constitutions that guarantee social, political and economic rights to all citizens, and also include unprecedented protections for marginalized groups such as women and indigenous people, and even for nature.
To be sure, legitimate feelings of betrayal exist throughout the region and it is important to hold progressive governments accountable for their share of errors in confronting the economic downturn or failing to prepare for a rainy day. But though many voters might express their anger at the governing Pink Tide parties for their mistakes and lack of foresight by abstaining or even casting a protest vote for the right-wing opposition, this does not indicate a wholehearted endorsement of these parties’ proposals, far less a desire for a return to neoliberalism and the structural adjustment era of the 1980s and 1990s.
Of course, there is also the natural and universal tendency in all societies for people to gradually tire of their governments (regardless of success or failure), to take for granted the gains that were made, and to forget the bad aspects of what came before. All governments, like all human enterprises generally, are deeply imperfect and are not, in Latin America least of all, immune from risks of corruption and other malign influences. But these negative factors are hardly unique to governments of the left. After all, plenty of governments of the right throughout the region have been not just corrupt, but in some cases even murderous. From the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in Chile in which thousands of people were “disappeared” to the torture and extrajudicial executions that took place during Venezuela’s Andres Perez administration, such governments hardly compare favorably to those of the Pink Tide.
Secondly, it is important to make a distinction between left-leaning governments and the social movements and popular sectors that thrust them into power. The continued energy of these movements demonstrates that their drive to resist neoliberalism and fight for social change is as fierce as ever. Indeed, one of the most basic mistakes of these shallow op-ed columns is their failure to consider, let alone grasp, the workings of the internal dynamics of these movements and their relationships with their national governments. If anything, the fall in support for Chavismo in Venezuela among some of its traditional base has more to do with the failure of the Maduro government to maintain its engagement with the popular sectors rather than a newfound enthusiasm on their part for a return to neoliberalism and a repeat of so-called structural adjustment.
Thirdly, it is important to remember that the parties that have opposed the Pink Tide governments have been pressed to the left and have, at least publicly, adopted much of the language and ideas of their political adversaries. During the 2012 and 2013 presidential elections in Venezuela, for instance, opposition candidate Henrique Caprilles Radonski presented himself as a social democrat and the standard-bearer of the moderate left ideas of Brazilian President Luiz Ignácio da Silva (who incidentally endorsed the Chavista candidate in both cases). His campaign also used some of the enduring symbols of Chavismo, calling itself the “Bolivarian Command” and promising to not discontinue the social missions, but rather make them more efficient and less ideological. Though leaked documents subsequently revealed his plan was to make a swift about-face after the election and impose a brutal neoliberal agenda once in office, Caprilles at least understood that the immense popularity of then-President Chavez’s policies meant that he had to publicly present himself as a center-left progressive in order to stand a chance of winning. The Venezuelan opposition has also moved to the left on social issues and even fielded three LGBT candidates in the 2015 December legislative elections. Likewise, Mauricio Macri presented himself during the presidential campaign in Argentina as a pragmatist and moderate technocrat rather than a free market absolutist. As was the case with Caprilles, there is good reason to think such pronouncements were insincere (he has already rekindled Argentina’s relationship with Wall Street and filled his cabinet with bankers), but it at least demonstrates that the political center of gravity amongst Latin American publics is way to the left of the traditional forces of the right.
Fourth, we should not forget that circumstantial factors have created problems for left-leaning governments that are not of their own making. Global drops in commodity prices have made life difficult for all leaders in a region that has long been heavily based on extractivism. Whether it be oil in Venezuela, copper and zinc in Bolivia, or soybeans in Argentina, global downturns have caused problems for these governments which would have been just as pronounced had their right-wing rivals been in power instead. Dependence on exports of raw materials long predates the Pink Tide and moving out of this legacy would have been a challenge for any government.
Fifth, there is a tendency to characterize the policies of Pink Tide governments as “unsustainable.” The unsustainability argument appeals to basic intuition but is based on a false analogy—that a country’s financial situation is akin to a household budget. One could just as easily point out that with the resource wealth and technological sophistication of today’s world, there is clearly the means to provide for every person on planet earth many times over. That we are not doing so is not a failure of the left, but rather of capitalism and explicable largely in terms of the lasting legacy of colonialism and its lingering power structures. These pressures bear particularly heavily on Latin America given its long history of colonial oppression, not to mention its proximity to the major force in the world that has worked to maintain this status quo and long treated the region as its “backyard.”
Finally, therefore, it is important to consider the superpower’s lasting impact on the region. Meddling by the region’s hegemon and its internal allies has consistently caused damage to Pink Tide governments and their efforts at social reform. The United States’ aggressive stance against them is understandable given the threat they pose to its hemispheric dominance and the preeminence of its favored international organizations. Pink Tide governments have established new international bodies to realize the vision of the decades-long struggle for regional integration and provide a buffer against U.S. imperialism. The Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) are attempts to transcend Washington’s “free” trade orthodoxies and forge an alternative to the Organization of American States (OAS). The Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) was founded to mediate regional conflicts and could in the future provide a framework for military cooperation or freedom of movement for citizens of member nations. The monetary fund BancoSur, though still in its nascent stages, is hoped to provide an alternative source of lending free from the dictates of the IMF and the World Bank. Taken together, these organizations have provided a hope that international relations can in the future be based more on international cooperation, rather than competition, and mutual, rather than solely national, interests. This phenomenon is essentially the expression in the international realm of what Roger Harris of the Taskforce on the Americas has described as “the threat of a good example.”
Though it does not completely explain away the failures on the part of progressive governments, there has nonetheless been a clear pattern in terms of the treatment they have received from United States: the more successful Pink Tide governments have become at helping their citizenry and providing an alternative to Anglo-American neoliberalism, the greater the incentive has grown to crush this threat. When the sabotage is successful it provides a double benefit for the United States and its internal allies: in addition to making a different path unviable it also makes these policies appear as intrinsically unworkable, and thereby “proving” that the neoliberal status quo is the only way forward.
Clearly this ghost of Thatcher haunts the minds of mainstream media commentators, explaining both their lazy treatment of the facts and dogmatic commitment to making all news events fit the neoliberal agenda. What is truly important, therefore, is not so much the immediate electoral fortunes of the Pink Tide governments, but rather the efforts to defend the spirit of the movements on which they are based and the intellectual legacy of their principles. A heavy burden lies on those of us who strive to counter the new neoliberal offensive and the mendacity of its propaganda foot soldiers.
 Jackson Diehl, “Is Hugo Chavez a real threat to the U.S.?,” The Washington Post, September 27, 2010. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/09/26/AR2010092603334.html
 Jackson Diehl, “Jackson Diehl: Will the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights be gutted?,” The Washington Post, March 3, 2013. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/jackson-diehl-will-the-inter-american-commission-on-human-rights-be-gutted/2013/03/03/c018f9a6-81d0-11e2-b99e-6baf4ebe42df_story.html
 Jackson Diehl, “Stop ignoring the implosion in Venezuela,” The Post and Courier, May 4, 2016. http://www.postandcourier.com/20160504/160509752/stop-ignoring-the-implosion-in-venezuela
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 Roger Harris, “Venezuela: Supporting A Once and Future Revolution,” Counterpunch, June 26, 2013. http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/07/26/venezuela-supporting-a-once-and-future-revolution/
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Does any intelligent person look at a New York Times article about Russia or Vladimir Putin these days and expect to read an objective, balanced account? Or will it be laced with a predictable blend of contempt and ridicule? And is it any different at The Washington Post, NPR, MSNBC, CNN or almost any mainstream U.S. news outlet?
And it’s not just Russia. The same trend holds true for Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Nicaragua and other countries and movements that have fallen onto the U.S. government’s “enemies list.” We saw the same pattern with Saddam Hussein and Iraq before the 2003 U.S. invasion; with Muammar Gaddafi and Libya before the U.S.-orchestrated bombing campaign in 2011; and with President Viktor Yanukovych and Ukraine before the U.S.-backed coup in 2014.
That is not to say that these countries and leaders don’t deserve criticism; they do. But the proper role of the press corps – at least as I was taught during my early years at The Associated Press – was to treat all evidence objectively and all sides fairly. Just because you might not like someone doesn’t mean your feelings should show through or the facts should be forced through a prism of bias.
In those “old days,” that sort of behavior was deemed unprofessional and you would expect a senior editor to come down hard on you. Now, however, it seems that you’d only get punished if you quoted some dissident or allowed such a person onto an op-ed page or a talk show, someone who didn’t share Official Washington’s “group think” about the “enemy.” Deviation from “group think” has become the real disqualifier.
Yet, this conformity should be shocking and unacceptable in a country that prides itself on freedom of thought and speech. Indeed, much of the criticism of “enemy” states is that they supposedly practice various forms of censorship and permit only regime-friendly propaganda to reach the public.
But when was the last time you heard anyone in the U.S. mainstream say anything positive or even nuanced about Russian President Putin. He can only be portrayed as some shirtless buffoon or the devil incarnate. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton got widespread praise in 2014 when she likened him to Hitler.
Or when has anyone in the U.S. media been allowed to suggest that Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad and his supporters might actually have reason to fear what the U.S. press lovingly calls the “moderate” rebels – though they often operate under the military command of Sunni extremist groups, such as Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Obama’s ‘Moderate’ Syrian Deception.”]
For the first three years of the Syrian civil war, the only permissible U.S. narrative was how the brutal Assad was slaughtering peaceful “moderates,” even though Defense Intelligence Agency analysts and other insiders had long been warning about the involvement of violent jihadists in the movement from the uprising’s beginning in 2011.
But that story was kept from the American people until the Islamic State started chopping off the heads of Western hostages in 2014 – and since then, the mainstream U.S. media has only reported the fuller story in a half-hearted and garbled way. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Hidden Origins of Syria’s Civil War.” ]
Reason for Conformity
The reason for this conformity among journalists is simple: If you repeat the conventional wisdom, you might find yourself with a lucrative gig as a big-shot foreign correspondent, a regular TV talking head, or a “visiting scholar” at a major think tank. However, if you don’t say what’s expected, your career prospects aren’t very bright.
If you somehow were to find yourself in a mainstream setting and even mildly challenged the “group think,” you should expect to be denounced as a fill-in-the-blank “apologist” or “stooge.” A well-paid avatar of the conventional wisdom might even accuse you of being on the payroll of the despised leader. And, you wouldn’t likely get invited back.
But the West’s demonization of foreign “enemies” is not only an affront to free speech and meaningful democracy, it is also dangerous because it empowers unscrupulous American and European leaders to undertake violent and ill-considered actions that get lots of people killed and that spread hatred against the West.
The most obvious recent example was the Iraq War, which was justified by a barrage of false and misleading claims about Iraq which were mostly swallowed whole by a passive and complicit Western press corps.
Key to that disaster was the demonization of Saddam Hussein, who was subjected to such unrelenting propaganda that almost no one dared question the baseless charges hurled at him about hiding WMD and collaborating with Al Qaeda. To do so would have made you a “Saddam apologist” or worse.
The few who did dare raise their voices faced accusations of treason or were subjected to character assassination. Yet, even after their skepticism was vindicated as the pre-invasion accusations collapsed, there was very little reappraisal. Most of the skeptics remained marginalized and virtually everyone who got the WMD story wrong escaped accountability.
For instance, Washington Post editorial-page editor Fred Hiatt, who repeatedly reported Iraq’s WMD as “flat fact,” suffered not a whit and remains in the same prestigious job, still enforcing one-sided “group thinks” about “enemies.”
An example of how Hiatt and the Post continue to play the same role as neocon propagandists was on display last year in an editorial condemning Putin’s government for shutting down Russian activities of the U.S.-funded National Endowment for Democracy and requiring foreign-funded groups seeking to influence Russian politics to register as foreign agents.
In the Post’s editorial and a companion op-ed by NED President Carl Gershman, you were led to believe that Putin was delusional, paranoid and “power mad” in his concern that outside money funneled into non-governmental organizations was a threat to Russian sovereignty.
However, the Post and Gershman left out a few salient facts, such as the fact that NED is funded by the U.S. government and was the brainchild of Ronald Reagan’s CIA Director William J. Casey in 1983 to partially replace the CIA’s historic role in creating propaganda and political fronts inside targeted nations.
Also missing was the fact that Gershman himself announced in another Post op-ed that he saw Ukraine, prior to the 2014 coup, as “the biggest prize” and a steppingstone toward achieving Putin’s ouster in Russia. The Post also forgot to mention that the Russian law about “foreign agents” was modeled after a U.S. statute entitled the Foreign Agent Registration Act. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Why Russia Shut Down NED Fronts.”]
All those points would have given the Post’s readers a fuller and fairer understanding of why Putin and Russia acted as they did, but that would have messed up the desired propaganda narrative seeking to demonize Putin. The goal was not to inform the American people but to manipulate them into a new Cold War hostility toward Russia.
We’ve seen a similar pattern with the U.S. government’s “information warfare” around high-profile incidents. In the “old days’ – at least when I arrived in Washington in the late 1970s – there was much more skepticism among journalists about the official line from the White House or State Department. Indeed, it was a point of pride among journalists not to simply accept whatever the spokesmen or officials were saying, but to check it out.
There was plenty of enough evidence – from the Tonkin Gulf lies to the Watergate cover-up – to justify a critical examination of government claims. But that tradition has been lost, too. Despite the costly deceptions before the Iraq War, the Times, the Post and other mainstream outlets simply accept whatever accusations the U.S. government hurls against “enemies.” Beyond the gullibility, there is even hostility toward those of us who insist on seeing real evidence.
Examples of this continuing pattern include the acceptance of the U.S. government line on the sarin gas attack outside Damascus, Syria, on Aug. 21, 2013, and the shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014. The first was blamed on Syria’s Assad and the second on Russia’s Putin – quite convenient even though U.S. officials refused to present any solid evidence to support their claims.
Reasons for Doubt
In both cases, there were obvious reasons to doubt the Official Story. Assad had just invited United Nations inspectors in to examine what he claimed were rebel chemical attacks, so why would he pick that time to launch a sarin attack just miles from where the inspectors were staying? Putin was trying to maintain a low profile for Russian support to Ukrainians resisting the U.S.-backed coup, but provision of a large, sophisticated and powerful anti-aircraft battery lumbering around eastern Ukraine would just have invited detection.
Further, in both cases, there was dissent among U.S. intelligence analysts, some of whom objected at least to the rushes to judgment and offered different explanations for the incidents, pointing the blame in other possible directions. The dissent caused the Obama administration to resort to a new concoction called a “Government Assessment” – essentially a propaganda document – rather than a classic “Intelligence Assessment,” which would express the consensus views of the 16 intelligence agencies and include areas of disagreement.
So, there were plenty of reasons for Washington journalists to smell a rat or at least insist upon hard evidence to make the case against Assad and Putin. Instead, given the demonized views of Assad and Putin, mainstream journalists unanimously fell in line behind the Official Story. They even ignored or buried evidence that undermined the government’s tales.
Regarding the Syrian case, there was little interest in the scientific discovery that the one sarin-laden rocket (recovered by the U.N.) had a range of only about two kilometers (destroying Washington’s claims about the Syrian government firing many rockets from eight or nine kilometers away). [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Was Turkey Behind Syria-Sarin Attack?”]
Regarding the MH-17 case, a blind eye was turned to a Dutch intelligence report that concluded that there were several operational Buk anti-aircraft missile batteries in eastern Ukraine but they were all under the control of the Ukrainian military and that the rebels had no weapon that could reach the 33,000-foot altitude where MH-17 was flying. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Ever-Curiouser MH-17 Case.”]
Though both those cases remain open and one cannot rule out new evidence emerging that bolsters the U.S. government’s version of events, the fact that there are substantive reasons to doubt the Official Story should be reflected in how the mainstream Western media deals with these two sensitive issues, but the inconvenient facts are instead brushed aside or ignored (much as happened with Iraq’s WMD).
In short, there has been a system-wide collapse of the Western news media as a professional entity in dealing with foreign crises. So, as the world plunges deeper into crises inside Syria and on Russia’s border, the West’s citizens are going in almost blind without the eyes and ears of independent journalists on the ground and with major news outlets delivering incessant propaganda from Washington and other capitals.
Instead of facts, the West’s mainstream media traffics in demonization.
Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his latest book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com).
America resembles a banana republic. Its sham political process has no legitimacy, democracy in name only, voters with no say whatever.
Democrat party bosses intend nominating Clinton at their July convention – rigging primaries to assure it, perhaps the tainted NY one the latest example.
Republican counterparts want anyone but Trump, despite overwhelming GOP voter support he enjoys.
America’s political process is rigged, too debauched to fix, a vital issue media scoundrels ignore. Instead they pretend US elections show democracy works – for the privileged few alone, excluding most others.
A same day article asked if Clinton stole the NY primary, explaining it was rife with irregularities, including disenfranchising over 125,000 NYC voters and various other disturbing practices.
Media scoundrels airbrushed Tuesday electoral irregularities from their reports. The New York Times headlined “A Homecoming, and a Triumph, for Hillary Clinton in New York” – instead of explaining electoral irregularities too serious to ignore, tainting Democrat primary results, questioning their legitimacy.
The Times suppressed dirty politics, diverting attention from what’s most important, saying Clinton “danced the merengue in Washington Heights.”
“She slammed down a mean game of dominoes in East Harlem (and) d(ug) into an ice cream concoction named the Victory.”
The entire article was an unabashed Clinton commercial. Times editors endorsed her earlier, shill for her repeatedly, outrageously call her “the most broadly and deeply qualified (aspirant) in modern history.”
They ignore her pure evil, the greatest threat to world peace among all the deplorable candidates – none worthy of any public office, let alone the nation’s highest.
The neocon Washington Post was no better, highlighting Clinton saying “(t)here’s no place like home,” the Democrat party nomination “nearly within her grasp…”
WaPo quoted her hawkishness, risking possible global war if elected, saying “at a time when terrorists are plotting new attacks and countries like Russia, China and Iran are making aggressive moves, protecting America’s national security cannot be an afterthought.”
“Our next president has to be just as passionate about defending our country as she is about fixing our economy.”
No WaPo explanation about America facing no threats except ones it invents. Nothing about Clinton’s ties to Wall Street, war-profiteers and other corporate favorites.
Not a word about likely NY primary electoral rigging, voter rolls purged, other disturbing irregularities, or explaining America’s sham political process.
The Wall Street Journal highlighted Clinton, saying “(t)he race for the Democratic (sic) nomination is in the home stretch, and victory is in sight.”
The fix is in to hand it to her, the nation’s highest office likely following after November elections.
She represents monied interests, not popular ones, supports endless wars of aggression, not world peace and stability.
She’s the greatest threat to humanity’s survival, more than any other presidential aspirant in US history. If elected in November, WW III may follow.
Media scoundrels ignore what’s most vital to hammer home to readers and viewers without letup. Instead they support what demands condemnation.
Stephen Lendman can be reached at email@example.com.
His new book as editor and contributor is titled “Flashpoint in Ukraine: US Drive for Hegemony Risks WW III.”
(*What Anne Applebaum really meant but couldn’t say in her Washington Post column.)
The Washington Post’s foreign affairs columnist seems to believe that Dutch people are stupid and, as a result, they shouldn’t be allowed to vote. Of course, she can’t write it directly. So, instead, she blames RT, and other Russian media, for a democratic choice that delivered a result she doesn’t like.
In the legendary 1976 movie, Network, Peter Finch, as Howard Beale, famously bellowed: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” The film was loaded with preachy rants and self-righteous contempt for ordinary folk watching the television channel in question.
Anne Applebaum is a pro-establishment Howard Beale. Given to similar hubris from her various soapboxes. Yet, her visceral hatred of Russia helps makes her position even more entrenched than the fictional anti-hero. As a result, Applebaum seems incapable of reviewing a situation without seeing Russia’s hand somewhere.
Take last week’s Dutch Referendum on the proposed association agreement between Ukraine and the EU.
Numerous analysts, actual EU officials, the Dutch Prime Minister and voters themselves, have given reasons why the scheme was rejected. They have, most prominently, cited anger with the EU’s lack of transparency, Ukrainian corruption, fear of eventual EU membership for another large, poor eastern state and internal Dutch disillusion with the country’s elite.
Over in Kiev, locals have blamed “their (own) political leaders for not doing enough to tackle corruption and improve the country’s image,” according to Reuters correspondents on the ground. Here’s a sample reaction: “People there in Europe understand the level of corruption, that the authorities are now simply incapable of doing anything better for their own citizens,” said Ilya Zhyzhyyan, a 29-year-old Kiev resident. “So the Dutch probably think – why do they need a country that can’t do any good for its own people?”
The head of the Ukrainian parliament’s own committee on European integration MP, Iryna Herashchenko, blasted the fallout from the Panama Papers. The massive data leak contained information that Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko was probably evading taxes while his impoverished country endured a brutal civil war.
As you can see, people directly affected by the Netherlands ballot are capable of offering reasonable explanations for the negative verdict. They make grown up, measured arguments. Yet, Applebaum can only see Russia, Russia, Russia!
In her latest Washington Post column, her primary argument is that “the Dutch just showed the world how Russia influences Western European elections.” You can translate that to mean that Applebaum refuses to accept any other reason for failure aside from dastardly Russian meddling. This is utterly bizarre.
She takes issue with 59 percent of Dutch ‘no’ voters stating that Ukrainian corruption motivated their unfavorable ballots. Applebaum derides their, quite understandable, worries as “hardly a rational argument.” Yet, two years ago, she wrote: “The West has let Russian corruption destabilize Europe. It’s time to stop it.” It’s beyond reasonable logic that anybody could believe that Russian corruption is a grave threat to Europe, but extortion in Ukraine is totally harmless.
Even Ukrainians admit that bribery in their nation is endemic. In fact, Transparency International reports that it’s the “most corrupt country in Europe.” Indeed, many experts believe that graft has actually worsened since the Maidan coup in 2014. Even the Wall Street Journal has acknowledged the fact. Without question, this situation is depressing, considering that corruption was ostensibly the motivation for the initial, peaceful, marches against Viktor Yanukovich’s government. Nevertheless, remaining in denial about it isn’t going to help matters.
A European Dream
She also argues that Dutch voters are wrong to blame Ukraine for the MH17 disaster. However, families of the victims are suing Kiev for not closing its airspace during a time of war. Even if, as investigators believe, the Donbass rebels were responsible, they didn’t have control of civilian aviation.
Applebaum further rails against the belief “that the treaty would (eventually) guarantee Ukraine’s membership in the European Union.” The problem is that it’s not Russians scaring people with this notion. It’s Ukrainians. President Poroshenko has stated that Ukraine will be “ready to join the EU in five years.” Meanwhile, outgoing Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk recently said that he is “sure that Ukraine will become a European Union member state despite all the challenges and hardships.”
Applebaum has written extensively about her support for democracy. Indeed, she’s warned that we “shouldn’t take it for granted.” Now, because of a verdict she objects to, she backtracks. “A treaty already approved by 27 countries can’t be renegotiated from scratch,” our hero writes.
The problem here is that these countries didn’t vote on the Ukrainian question. Their governments merely nodded through the agreement, as is the norm on EU issues. Yet, when one country actually let the people decide, the verdict was an overwhelming ‘no.’ Now, Applebaum, a self-styled champion of democracy, suggests we ignore that choice. This is amazing hypocrisy.
Applebaum is blinkered by her association with a Eurocrat elite, who are doing their best to suppress suffrage within the EU. Despite platitudes about “liberation” and “freedom,” these people are vigorously anti-populist and are determined to deny people the right to choose their own fate. It’s revealing that Carl Bildt, a close political ally of Applebaum’s husband Radoslaw Sikorski, expressed almost identical sentiments on Twitter after the results became known.
Utterly convinced that their Atlanticist, neoliberal outlook is the only possible future for Europe, they are unwilling to accept their own inadequacies or admit their own failures. Thus, whenever something puts a brake on their plans, they need to blame a third-party. Russia, as the only major European nation outside the EU/NATO blocs, is their favorite whipping boy.
If something doesn’t go the way Brussels/Washington establishments want, the Kremlin is always behind it. This denies ordinary EU citizens any kind of respect for their own concerns and interests.
Nobody, with any grip on reality, could honestly believe that 2.5 million Dutch voters rejected closer cooperation with Ukraine because Russia, and its media services, told them to. So why does the Washington Post’s star foreign affairs columnist, and, presumably, the editorial board who appointed her, think people will swallow this nonsense?
The noted Brazilian political scientist and theologian Frei Betto recently said that “the Yankees will do everything so that our continent will go back to being their backyard.”
Despite the rhetoric about democratic values that emanates from Washington, the U.S. government has always been willing to use any means necessary to impose their will on Latin America. This has often translated into foreign intervention.
But the U.S. public has grown weary of their government’s imperialist adventures, which as of late have ended in utter disaster. Washington elites know they must first fool the public into believing that intervention is a necessity.
To accomplish this they turn to private media outlets and their editorial boards, who help drum up support for U.S. intervention in foreign countries.
Enter the latest example: a recent editorial by the Washington Post entitled: “Venezuela is in desperate need of a political intervention.”
This from the same paper that was once vilified by U.S. conservatives for its supposed leftist tilt.
The use of the word intervention is deliberate, the Post knows that the Bolivarian Revolution – started by Hugo Chavez and continued by his successor Nicolas Maduro – still commands enormous support. The Venezuelan people will not simply hand the state back over to the very same politicians that abused the working class for decades.
An intervention done in the name of the Organization of American States, as the editorial calls for, is still imperialist. And it’s not just Venezuelans who know it but the whole region, which has seen the OAS used time and again to legitimize the imperialist fancies of the U.S. in the region.
The Post also knows that deceiving their audience sometimes requires outright lies.
Like the New York Times editorial on Venezuela that proceeded the Post’s, the editorial team claims that lack of cooperation between the Maduro government and the opposition-controlled National Assembly is entirely the fault of Maduro.
The Post claimed that he “pursued scorched-earth warfare with the National Assembly,” while the Times claimed that it opposition only reluctantly settled on ousting the democratically-elected Maduro from power.
Lies. All of it.
From the moment they were declared the winners of the parliamentary election, the opposition said their goal was ousting Maduro from power.
There was never an opportunity for cooperation between the Venezuelan government and the opposition and the blame for that lies with the opposition. On the day the new parliament was sworn in, Henry Ramos Allup, a leading figure in the opposition, literally ran his finger across his throat to indicate his feelings about the government and its supporters.
Does that sound like a politician interested in dialogue? Hardly unsurprising that the Post would chose to leave that detail out.
But lying through omission isn’t enough for the Post editorial board. They fancy themselves legal experts, able to pass judgment on Venezuela’s division of powers and the decisions of its Supreme Court.
The Post took issue with the court’s decision to rule a highly controversial “amnesty” bill as unconstitutional. This bill doesn’t promote amnesty for so-called political prisoners, it affords impunity for people directly responsible for the deaths of dozens.
The objective of the opposition’s impunity bill was the release of politicians involved in efforts to oust Maduro by force, politicians like Leopoldo Lopez who was found guilty of inciting the violent protests that led to the deaths of 43 people.
Of course the truth doesn’t fit their narrative, so the Post brazenly claims that state security forces were largely responsible for the deaths during the 2014 protests. The truth is the vast majority of those killed were either innocent bystanders, government supporters, or state security officials.
It wasn’t the state that set up violent blockades, it wasn’t the state that strung up barbed wire so that passing motorists would be decapitated, it was Lopez’s supporters.
Venezuela is confronting a major economic crisis, that much is true, but the Post doesn’t bother with an investigation as to why. No, instead it blames everything on Maduro, including the drought that is affecting Venezuela’s ability to produce electricity. The same drought that is causing similar problems in neighboring Colombia. Is that too the fault of Maduro?
Seems as if the Post’s editorial board is also gifted with the power of premonition, predicting that the opposition’s efforts to prematurely end Maduro’s mandate would be declared void.
Media outlets made the same sort of predictions ahead of the 2015 parliamentary elections, claiming that the government would not recognize the results. Of course Maduro immediately recognized the results.
The opposition is free to pursue a recall referendum against Maduro, as they did with Chavez, which they lost. All that Venezuela’s electoral authority asks is that they follow the rules, something they seem unable to do.
As for an effort to pass a law to shorten Maduro’s term, well even the Post’s friends at the Times understands that “it would be hard to justify carrying out that change retroactively when Mr. Maduro was elected for a six-year term.”
Any foreign intervention, even one under the auspices of the OAS, would indeed result the kind of intense scenes the Post describes, but it would come as a result of millions of Venezuelans hitting the streets to reject it.
Venezuelans, and more broadly speaking Latin Americans, have lived through an era where the shackles of imperialism have been shed. They will not allow the region to become the backyard of the United States ever again.
Several weeks ago, I received a phone call from legendary investigative reporter Seymour Hersh who had seen one of my recent stories about Syria and wanted to commiserate over the state of modern journalism. Hersh’s primary question regarding reporters and editors at major news outlets these days was: “Do they care what the facts are?”
Hersh noted that in the past – in the 1970s when he worked at The New York Times – even executive editor Abe Rosenthal, who was a hard-line cold warrior with strong ideological biases, still wanted to know what was really going on.
My experience was similar at The Associated Press. Among the older editors, there was still a pride in getting the facts right – and not getting misled by some politician or spun by some government flack.
That journalistic code, however, no longer exists – at least not on foreign policy and national security issues. The major newspapers and TV networks are staffed largely by careerists who uncritically accept what they are fed by U.S. government officials or what they get from think-tank experts who are essentially in the pay of special interests.
For a variety of reasons – from the draconian staff cuts among foreign correspondents to the career fear of challenging some widely held “group think” – many journalists have simply become stenographers, taking down what the Important People say is true, not necessarily what is true.
It’s especially easy to go with the flow when writing about some demonized foreign leader. Then, no editor apparently expects anything approaching balance or objectivity, supposedly key principles of journalism. Indeed, if a reporter gave one of these hated figures a fair shake, there might be grumblings about whether the reporter was a “fill-in-the-blank apologist.” The safe play is to pile on.
This dishonesty – or lack of any commitment to the truth – is even worse among editorialists and columnists. Having discovered that there was virtually no cost for being catastrophically wrong about the facts leading into the Iraq invasion in 2003, these writers must feel so immune from accountability that they can safely ignore reality.
But – for some of us old-timers – it’s still unnerving to read the work of these “highly respected” journalists who simply don’t care what the facts are.
For instance, the establishment media has been striking back ferociously against President Barack Obama’s apostasy in a series of interviews published in The Atlantic, in which he defends his decision not to bomb the Syrian government in reaction to a mysterious sarin gas attack outside Damascus on Aug. 21, 2013.
Though The Atlantic article was posted a month ago, the media fury is still resonating and reverberating around Official Washington, with Washington Post editorial-page editor Fred Hiatt penning the latest condemnation of Obama’s supposed fecklessness for not enforcing his “red line” on chemical-weapon use in Syria by bombing the Syrian military.
Remember that in 2002-03, Hiatt penned Post editorials that reported, as “flat fact,” that Iraq possessed hidden stockpiles of WMD – and he suffered not a whit for being horribly wrong. More than a dozen years later, Hiatt is still the Post’s editorial-page editor – one of the most influential jobs in American journalism.
On Thursday, Hiatt reported as flat fact that Syria’s “dictator, Bashar al-Assad, killed 1,400 or more people in a chemical gas attack,” a reference to the 2013 sarin atrocity. Hiatt then lashed out at President Obama for not punishing Assad and – even worse – for showing satisfaction over that restraint.
Citing The Atlantic interviews, Hiatt wrote that Obama “said he had been criticized because he refused to follow the ‘playbook that comes out of the foreign-policy establishment,’ which would have counseled greater U.S. intervention.” Hiatt was clearly disgusted with Obama’s pusillanimous choice.
The No ‘Slam Dunk’ Warning
But what Hiatt and other neocon columnists consistently ignore from The Atlantic article is the disclosure that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper informed Obama that U.S. intelligence analysts doubted that Assad was responsible for the sarin attack.
Clapper even used the phrase “slam dunk,” which is associated with the infamous 2002 pledge from then-CIA Director George Tenet to President George W. Bush about how “slam dunk” easy it would be to make the case that Iraq was hiding WMD. More than a decade later, brandishing that disgraced phrase, Clapper told Obama that it was not a “slam dunk” that Assad was responsible for the sarin attack.
In other words, Obama’s decision not to bomb Assad’s military was driven, in part, by the intelligence community’s advice that he might end up bombing the wrong people. Since then, evidence has built up that radical jihadists opposed to Assad staged the sarin attack as a provocation to trick the U.S. military into entering the war on their side.
But those facts clearly are not convenient to Hiatt’s neocon goal – i.e., how to get the United States into another Mideast “regime change” war – so he simply expunges the “slam dunk” exchange between Clapper and Obama and inserts instead a made-up “fact,” the flat-fact certainty of Assad’s guilt.
Hiatt’s assertion of the death toll – as “1,400 or more people” – is also dubious. Doctors on the ground in Damascus placed the number of dead at several hundred. The 1,400 figure was essentially manufactured by the U.S. government using a dubious methodology of counting bodies shown on “social media,” failing to take into account the question of whether the victims died as a result of the Aug. 21, 2013 incident.
Relying on “social media” for evidence is a notoriously unreliable practice, since pretty much anyone can post anything on the Internet. And, in the case of Syria, there are plenty of interest groups that have a motive to misidentify or even fabricate images for the purpose of influencing public opinion and policy. There is also the Internet’s vulnerability as a devil’s playground for professional intelligence services.
But Hiatt is far from alone in lambasting Obama for failing to do what All the Smart People of Washington knew he should do: bomb, bomb, bomb Assad’s forces in Syria – even if that might have led to the collapse of the army and the takeover of Damascus by Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front and/or the Islamic State.
Nationally syndicated columnist Richard Cohen, another Iraq War cheerleader who suffered not at all for that catastrophe, accused Obama of “hubris” for taking pride in his decision not to bomb Syria in 2013 and then supposedly basing his foreign policy on that inaction.
“In an odd way, Obama’s failure to intervene in Syria or to enforce his stated ‘red line’ there has become the rationale for an entire foreign policy doctrine – one based more on hubris than success,” wrote Cohen in a column on Tuesday.
Note how Cohen – like Hiatt – fails to mention the relevant fact that DNI Clapper warned the President that the intelligence community was unsure who had unleashed the sarin attack or whether Assad had, in fact, crossed the “red line.”
Cohen also embraces the conventional wisdom that Obama was mistaken not to have intervened in Syria, ignoring the fact that Obama did, in violation of international law, authorize arming and training of thousands of Syrian rebels to violently overthrow the Syrian government, with many of those weapons (and recruits) falling into the hands of terror groups, such as Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Climbing into Bed with Al Qaeda.”]
So, it appears that these well-regarded geniuses don’t appreciate the idea of ascertaining the facts before charging off to war. And there’s a reason for that: many are neocon ideologues who reached their conclusion about what needs to be done in the Middle East – eliminate governments that are troublesome to Israel – and thus they view information as just something to be manipulated to manipulate the public.
This thinking stems from the 1990s when neocons combined their recognition of America’s unmatched military capabilities – as displayed in the Persian Gulf War in 1990-91 and made even more unchallengeable with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991– with Israel’s annoyance over inconclusive negotiations with the Palestinians and security concerns over Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia.
The new solution to Israel’s political and security problems would be “regime change” in countries seen as aiding and abetting Israel’s enemies. The strategy came together among prominent U.S. neocons working on Benjamin Netanyahu’s 1996 campaign for Israeli prime minister.
Rather than continuing those annoying negotiations with the Palestinians, Netanyahu’s neocon advisers — including Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, David Wurmser and Mevray Wurmser — advocated a new approach, called “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm.”
The “clean break” sought “regime change” in countries supporting Israel’s close-in enemies, whether Iraq under Saddam Hussein, Syria under the Assad dynasty or Iran, a leading benefactor of Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas.
Two years later, in 1998, the neocon Project for the New American Century called for a U.S. invasion of Iraq. PNAC was founded by neocon luminaries William Kristol and Robert Kagan. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Mysterious Why of the Iraq War.”]
After George W. Bush became president and the 9/11 attacks left the American people lusting for revenge, the pathway was cleared for implementing the “regime change” agenda, with Iraq still at the top of the list although it had nothing to do with 9/11. Again, the last thing the neocons wanted was to inform the American people of the real facts about Iraq because that might have sunk the plans for this war of choice.
Thus, the American public was consistently misled by both the Bush administration and the neocon-dominated mainstream media. The Post’s Hiatt, for instance, was out there regularly reporting Iraq’s WMD threat as “flat fact.”
After the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003 and months of fruitless searching for the promised WMD caches, Hiatt finally acknowledged that the Post should have been more circumspect in its confident claims about the WMD. “If you look at the editorials we write running up [to the war], we state as flat fact that he [Saddam Hussein] has weapons of mass destruction,” Hiatt said in an interview with the Columbia Journalism Review. “If that’s not true, it would have been better not to say it.” [CJR, March/April 2004]
Yet, Hiatt’s supposed remorse didn’t stop him and the Post editorial page from continuing its single-minded support for the Iraq War — and heaping abuse on war critics, such as former U.S. Ambassador Joe Wilson who challenged President Bush’s claims about Iraq seeking yellowcake uranium from Niger.
The degree to which the neocons continue to dominate the major news outlets, such as The Washington Post and The New York Times, is demonstrated by the lack of virtually any accountability on the journalists who misinformed their readers about an issue as consequential as the war in Iraq.
And, despite the disaster in Iraq, the neocons never cast aside their “clean break” playbook. After Iraq, the “regime change” strategy listed Syria next and then Iran. Although the neocons suffered a setback in 2008 with the election of Iraq War opponent Barack Obama, they never gave up their dreams.
The neocons worked through Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other Iraq War supporters who managed to survive and even move up through the government ranks despite Obama’s distaste for their military solutions.
While in office, Clinton sabotaged chances to get Iran to surrender much of its nuclear material – all the better to keep the “regime change” option in play – and she lobbied for a covert military intervention to oust Syria’s Assad. (She also tipped the balance in favor of another “regime change” war in Libya that has created one more failed state in the volatile region.)
But the most disturbing fact is that these war promoters – both in politics and the press – continue to be rewarded for their warmongering. Hiatt retains his gilded perch as the Post’s editorial-page editor (setting Official Washington’s agenda); Cohen remains one of America’s leading national columnists; and Hillary Clinton is favored to become the next President.
So, the answer to Sy Hersh’s question – “Do they care what the facts are?” – is, it appears, no. There is just too much money and power involved in influencing and controlling Washington and – through those levers of finance, diplomacy and war – controlling the world. When that’s at stake, real facts can become troublesome things. For the people who wield this influence and control, it is better for them to manufacture their own.
Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his latest book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com).
“The problem with this response is that man-made climate change is real and happening now. The detonation of a nuclear bomb is a hypothetical.”
From the WaPo :
Reading Dennis Ross and David Ignatius is a good reminder that the neocons live in a different world than the rest of us. They do not conform their analysis to reality, but rather they conform reality to their view of the world. Where most people would be encouraged to read that Aleppo in Syria was about to be liberated from its 3.5 year occupation by al-Qaeda’s Syrian franchise, the neocons see a disaster.
On the brink of al-Qaeda’s defeat in Aleppo, the Washington Post’s Ignatius is furious that, “President Obama won’t approve military tactics that could actually shift the balance.” Yes, he wants to shift the balance toward al-Qaeda because like the other neocons he is so invested in the idea of regime change in Syria that he would even prefer turning the country into another Libya than to see government forces defeat his jihadist insurgents. Failing to “shift the balance” toward al-Qaeda fighters in Aleppo only brings “greater misery for the Syrian people,” in the world of Ignatius.
Ignatius’s Washington Post, which has never seen a potential war it did not want to see turned into an actual war, thinks it a tragedy that the Syrian army’s advance on al-Qaeda occupied Aleppo has “cut off all vital routes of supply from Turkey to the rebel-held areas of the city.” Those would be Turkish supplies in support of al-Qaeda and ISIS rebels, but the Post is too deceptive to mention that fact.
It is as dishonest an inversion of reality as anything printed in Pravda of old.
In the same vein as Ignatius, former Bush/Clinton/Obama Administration Middle East “expert” Dennis Ross writes to tell us, “what Putin is really up to in Syria.” In the above-linked article, The Los Angeles Times does not reveal that Ross is hardly an objective observer of the situation. As one of the founders of AIPAC‘s Washington Institute for Near East Policy — and a current counselor to that organization — Ross strongly supports AIPAC’s position in favor of regime change in Syria and Israel’s active role in assisting jihadist rebels from al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front in their efforts to overthrow the Assad government.
So what does regime change neocon Dennis Ross want us to believe is happening in Syria? The Russians, he asserts, are playing a dirty game by stepping up their bombing campaign against ISIS, al-Qaeda, and affiliated rebels instead of pushing for a ceasefire. How funny that when the US/Turk/Saudi/Israeli-back jihadists were on the verge of taking over all of Syria not that long ago there was no talk from neocon quarters about a ceasefire or a negotiated political solution. Only now that al-Qaeda’s stronghold in Aleppo is on the verge of liberation by government forces are the neocons screaming that diplomacy should be given a chance.
Russian operations are “designed to strengthen the Assad regime and weaken the non-Islamic State Sunni opposition in different parts of the country,” writes Ross. He doesn’t mention that particularly when it comes to Aleppo, the “non-Islamic State Sunni opposition” means al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front and affiliated forces.
By relentlessly bombing Islamic State and other jihadist groups seeking to introduce Sharia law into secular Syria, “Putin is… undercutting our aim of isolating Islamic State and having Sunnis lead the fight against it.” Read that again. By attacking ISIS he is preventing the US from isolating ISIS. Doublespeak.
What is Putin really up to in the world of Dennis Ross? He is not sincere about defeating Islamist extremism in Syria or even helping Assad’s forces win the war. No, Putin “aims to demonstrate that Russia, and not America, is the main power broker in the region and increasingly elsewhere.” Ah yes, the old argument about Russian expansionism. Baltic invasion, restoration of the USSR. All the neocon tripe.
Ah but here is where Ross plants his seed, whispers in the Administration’s neocon power brokers’ ears:
“Certainly, were Russia’s costs to increase, Putin might look for a way out.”
Hmm, now we see what he’s getting at:
… it is time we make it clear to the Russians that unless they impose a cease-fire on Assad and Hezbollah and insist that humanitarian corridors are open, we will have no choice but to act with our partners to create a haven in Syria — for refugees and for the organization of the Syrian opposition.
In other words, tell Russia if you do not stop fighting al-Qaeda and its affiliates in Syria we will face-off in a WWIII-threatening stance to establish a “jihadistan” in part of Syria from where the hundredth or so version of a rebel fighting force can be re-assembled.
Ross’s plan is not for the weak of heart. “[W]e cannot threaten to create a haven without following through if Putin refused to alter his course,” he writes. Meaning of course that we must be willing to actually go through with WWIII if Putin does not blink, back down, and pull out of Syria just as Russia’s intervention is meeting its objective. Surrender when on the verge of victory in Syria or face a nuclear war with the United States.
No one ever accused the neocons of thinking small. But with much of the Middle East a smoldering ruin due to the disastrous interventions they lied us into, no one should count out even their most insane-sounding plan being seriously considered somewhere in Washington.
After nearly 15 years of Mideast war – with those conflicts growing ever grimmer – you might expect that peace would be a major topic of the 2016 presidential race. Instead, there has been a mix of warmongering bluster from most candidates and some confused mutterings against endless war from a few.
No one, it seems, wants to risk offending Official Washington’s neocon-dominated foreign policy establishment that is ready to castigate any candidate who suggests that there are other strategies – besides more and more “regime changes” – that might extricate the United States from the Middle East quicksand.
Late in Thursday’s Democratic debate – when the topic of war finally came up – former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton continued toeing the neocon line, calling Iran the chief sponsor of terrorism in the world, when that title might objectively go to U.S. “allies,” such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, all of whom have been aiding Sunni jihadists fighting to overthrow Syria’s secular regime.
Israel also has provided help to Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front, which has been battling Syrian troops and Lebanese Hezbollah fighters near the Golan Heights – and Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians has played a key role in stirring up hatred and violence in the Middle East.
But Clinton has fully bought into the neocon narrative, not especially a surprise since she voted for the Iraq War, pushed the disastrous Libyan “regime change” and has sought a limited U.S. military invasion of Syria (to prevent the Syrian army from securing its border with Turkey and reclaiming territory from jihadists and other rebels).
In Thursday’s debate – coming off her razor-thin victory in the Iowa caucuses – Clinton painted Iran as the big regional threat, putting herself fully in line with the neocon position.
“We have to figure out how to deal with Iran as the principal state sponsor of terrorism in the world,” Clinton said. “They are destabilizing governments in the region. They continue to support Hezbollah and Hamas in Lebanon against Israel. …
“If we were to normalize relations right now [with Iran], we would remove one of the biggest pieces of leverage we have to try to influence and change Iranian behavior. … I believe we have to take this step by step to try to rein in Iranian aggression, their support for terrorism and the other bad behavior that can come back and haunt us.”
Iran, of course, has been a longtime neocon target for “regime change” along with Syria (and before that Iraq). Many neocons were disappointed when President Barack Obama negotiated an agreement to ensure that Iran’s nuclear program remained peaceful (an accord reached after John Kerry replaced Clinton as Secretary of State). The neocons had been hoping that the U.S. military would join Israel in an air war to “bomb-bomb-bomb Iran” — as Sen. John McCain once famously declared.
Yet, there were other distortions in Clinton’s statement. While it’s true that Iran has aided Hezbollah and Hamas in their resistance to Israel, Clinton ignored other factors, such as Israeli acts of aggression against both Lebanon, where Hezbollah emerged as resistance to an Israeli invasion and occupation in the 1980s, and the Palestinians who have faced Israeli oppression for generations.
Silence on the ‘Allies’
In the debate, Clinton also avoided criticism of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey for their military and financial assistance to radical jihadists, including Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front and Al Qaeda’s spinoff, the Islamic State. At the urging of Clinton, the Obama administration also approved military shipments to Syrian rebels who then either turned over or sold U.S. weapons to the extremists.
Iran’s role in Syria has been to help support the internationally recognized government of Bashar al-Assad, whose military remains the principal bulwark protecting Syria’s Christian, Alawite, Shiite and other minorities from possible genocide if Al Qaeda-connected jihadists prevailed.
Clinton also ignored her own role in creating a haven for these terror groups across the Middle East because of her support for the Iraq War and her instigation of the 2011 “regime change” in Libya which created another failed state where Islamic State and various extremists have found a home and started chopping of the heads of “infidels.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who battled Clinton to a virtual tie in Iowa, took a somewhat less belligerent position at Thursday’s debate, repeating his rather naïve idea of having Sunni states lead the fight against Sunni jihadists. On the more reasonable side, he indicated a willingness to work with Russia and other world powers in support of an anti-jihadist coalition.
“It must be Muslim troops on the ground that will destroy ISIS, with the support of a coalition of major powers — U.S., U.K., France, Germany and Russia,” Sanders said. “So our job is to provide them the military equipment that they need; the air support they need; special forces when appropriate. But at the end of the day for a dozen different reasons … the combat on the ground must be done by Muslim troops with our support. We must not get involved in perpetual warfare in the Middle East.”
Sanders continued, “We cannot be the policeman of the world. We are now spending more I believe than the next eight countries on defense. We have got to work in strong coalition with the major powers of the world and with those Muslim countries that are prepared to stand up and take on terrorism. So I would say that the key doctrine of the Sanders administration would be no, we cannot continue to do it alone; we need to work in coalition.”
Sounding Less Hawkish
While Sanders clearly sought to sound less hawkish than Clinton – and did not repeat his earlier talking point about the Saudis and others “getting their hands dirty” – he did not address the reality that many of the Sunni countries that he hopes to enlist in the fight against the jihadists are already engaged – on the side of the jihadists.
Clinton, as she seeks to cut into Sanders’s lead in New Hampshire polls, has been stressing her “progressive” credentials, but many progressive Democrats suspect that Clinton could become a neocon Trojan Horse.
Arch-neocon Robert Kagan, a co-founder of the Project for the New American Century, has praised Clinton’s aggressive foreign policy.
Kagan, who was made an adviser to Clinton’s State Department (while his wife Victoria Nuland received big promotions under Clinton), said in 2014: “If she pursues a policy which we think she will pursue … it’s something that might have been called neocon, but clearly her supporters are not going to call it that; they are going to call it something else.” [For more, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Is Hillary Clinton a Neocon-Lite?”]
Not only did Clinton vote for the Iraq War – and support it until it became a political liability during Campaign 2008 – but she rejoined the neocon/liberal-hawk ranks as President Barack Obama’s Secretary of State. She routinely sided with neocon holdovers, such as Gen. David Petraeus, regarding Mideast wars and Israel’s hardline regime in its hostilities toward the Palestinians and Iran.
In 2011, Clinton pushed for “regime change” in Libya, chortling over Muammar Gaddafi’s torture-murder in October 2011, “We came. We saw. He died.” Since then, Libya has descended into a failed state with the Islamic State and other jihadists claiming more and more territory.
Clinton also favored an outright (though limited) U.S. military invasion of Syria, setting up a “safe zone” or “no-fly zone” that would protect militants fighting to overthrow the secular Assad government. Over and over again, she has adopted positions virtually identical to what the neocons prescribe.
But Sanders, although he opposed the Iraq War, has hesitated to challenge Clinton too directly on foreign policy, apparently fearing to distract from his focus on income inequality and domestic concerns. He apparently has chosen fuzziness on foreign policy as the better part of political valor.
GOP Neocons Score
On the Republican side, the first week of the presidential delegate-selection process saw two candidates who mildly questioned the neocon conventional wisdom face reversals. Billionaire Donald Trump was upset in the Iowa caucuses and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul shut down his flailing campaign.
Trump has noted his opposition to the Iraq War and his willingness to cooperate with Russia in the fight against jihadist terror, while Paul pushed a libertarian-style approach that questioned neocon interventionism but not as aggressively as his father did, apparently hoping to avoid Ron Paul’s marginalization as “an isolationist.”
While Trump and Paul stumbled this week, neocon favorite Marco Rubio surged to a strong third-place finish, catapulting past other establishment candidates who – while largely me-too-ing the neocon orthodoxy on foreign policy – are not as identified with pure neoconservatism as the youthful Florida senator is.
However, even the non-neocons have opted for visceral warmongering. Tea Party favorite and winner of the Republican Iowa caucuses, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, has vowed to “carpet bomb” Islamic State strongholds and promised to see “if sand can glow in the dark,” as he told a Tea Party rally in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The phrase “glow in the dark” popularly refers to the aftermath of a nuclear bomb detonation.
However, as hardline as Cruz is, he still received a tongue-lashing from the neocon-flagship Washington Post for not doing a “full-neocon” when he suggested that the United States should not focus on “regime change” in Syria. Cruz has worried that overthrowing Assad’s government might pave the way for a victory by the Islamic State and other Sunni jihadist terrorists.
In a Dec. 31, 2015 editorial, the Post’s editors instead hailed neocon favorite Rubio for arguing “forcefully” for Assad’s removal and castigated Cruz for saying Assad’s ouster was “a distraction at best – and might even empower the jihadist.”
A Beloved ‘Group Think’
It is one of Official Washington’s most beloved “group thinks” that Syrian “regime change” – a neocon goal dating back to the 1990s – must take precedence over the possible creation of a military vacuum that could bring the Islamic State and/or Al Qaeda to power.
After all, it won’t be the sons and daughters of well-connected neocons who are sent to invade and occupy Syria to reverse the capture of Damascus by the Islamic State and/or Al Qaeda. So, the Post’s editors, who in 2002-03 told the American people as flat fact that Iraq’s Saddam Hussein was hiding WMD, engaged in similar exaggerations and lies about Assad in demonizing Cruz for his apostasy.
“Mr. Cruz is arguing for a stridently anti-American and nakedly genocidal dictator who sponsored terrorism against U.S. troops in Iraq and serves as a willing puppet of Iran,” the Post wrote.
That is typical of what a politician can expect if he or she deviates from the neocon line, even if you’re someone as belligerent as Cruz. Any apostasy from neocon orthodoxy is treated most harshly.
There is, by the way, no evidence that Assad is “nakedly genocidal” – his largely secular regime has never targeted any specific ethnic or religious group, indeed his government is the principal protector of Christians, Alawites, Shiites and other minorities that have been targeted by Sunni extremists for death.
Nor did Assad sponsor “terrorism against U.S. troops in Iraq.” By definition, terrorism is political violence against civilians, not against a military occupation force. Assad also sought to collaborate with the Bush-43 administration in its “war on terror,” to the point of handling torture assignments from Washington.
But distortions and falsehoods are now the way of the modern Washington Post. The newspaper will say anything, no matter how dishonest or unfair, to advance the neocon cause.
But the most dangerous outcome from these pressures is that they prevent a serious debate about a most serious topic: what the next president must do to bring the costly, bloody and endless wars to an end.
Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his latest book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com).
Delusions on Syria prevail in official Washington
Tulsi Gabbard is one brave Congresswoman. She has challenged her party and the president saying that it’s time for Washington to halt its “illegal, counter-productive war to overthrow the Syrian government of Assad. I don’t think Assad should be removed. If Assad is removed and overthrown, ISIS, al Qaeda, Al Nustra, these Islamic extremist groups will walk straight in and take over all of Syria … they will be even stronger.”
Indeed, Washington’s senseless policy in Syria has been hanging out there like overripe fruit for quite some time with the mainstream media instead marching at lockstep to the tune being whistled by a large disengaged and unaccountable White House. Gabbard might go one step further to ask why Syria is the way it is in the first place since that would question Administration priorities under Democrats as well as Republicans, both of which have emphasized eliminating al-Assad for no conceivable reason that has anything to do with actual American interests.
Much has been made of Washington groupthink, which is the concept that when a meeting of senior staffers is held everyone will veer towards a point of view that is being espoused by whoever called the meeting, be they the president or one of the cabinet secretaries. It is also reflected in the output of foundations and think tanks, which rely on government access as well as funding from beneficiaries of the war economy. Current groupthink, rejected by Gabbard, is that removing al-Assad is somehow an essential precondition for any settlement of Syria’s torment.
Another prevalent groupthink that is sometimes linked to the Syria issue is that Russia’s Vladimir Putin is somehow a reincarnation of Josef Stalin and that today’s Russia is actually the Soviet Union, ready, willing and able to expand into Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Though considerable opposition to those two viewpoints can be noted in the alternative media it is not listened to in the White House.
Yet another kind of groupthink prevails within the government bureaucracies themselves, compounding the problem. From my own experience, analysts at CIA very often were scrupulous in their judgements on developments overseas but a funny thing would happen at Agency headquarters as information made its way from the ground floor up to the seventh floor where the political appointee mandarins would preside. It would become politicized and any viewpoints diametrically opposed to what prevailed at the consumer level in Congress and in the White House would be mitigated or even excised. Such is the nature of bureaucracy, which exists to support the status quo and inter alia requires a satisfied audience to prosper.
And the press fails to do its part to correct the listing ship. The rubbish that appears in the mainstream media under the rubric of “informed opinion” bears a large part of the blame because it continues to create a mythical magical kingdom in which Americans all wear white hats and go about slaying dragons because it is good for the whole wide world, even if those heathens don’t appreciate it. That is what Americans like to think about themselves apparently, all contrary evidence notwithstanding.
A piece on Syria that appeared in the Washington Post before Christmas exemplifies precisely what is wrong with the punditry that shapes the narrative that appears to drive the national consensus on what to do about terrorism and related issues. It is “Obama and Kerry’s wishful thinking on Syria,” by Frederic C. Hof, currently a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center. Hof was an army officer who had extensive service in the Middle East. He is, somewhat uncharacteristically, an actual expert on the Arab world and speaks Arabic. He joined the State Department in 2009 after an interlude in the private sector as the President and CEO of AALC, limited company, an international business consulting and project finance firm formerly known as Armitage Associates LC. In 2012 Hof served as President Barack Obama’s Special Adviser for Transition in Syria.
Hof is a bright and highly competent guy whose professional life has been closely linked to the U.S. government version of reality, a reality in which Washington calls the shots and is empowered to “draw red lines.” Relative to the U.S., all other governments are either client states or adversaries who can be disregarded or bullied into compliance. In October he wrote: “With regard to ISIL, a professional ground combat component provided by regional powers is desperately needed to work with coalition aircraft to sweep this abomination from Syria and permit a governmental alternative to the Assad regime to take root inside Syria. With central and eastern Syria free of both the regime and ISIL, an all-Syrian national stabilization force can be built. Western desires for a negotiated end to the Syrian crisis would be based, under these circumstances, on more than a wish and a hope. The United States should neither seek nor shy away from confrontation with Russian forces in Syria. Moscow will not like it if its client’s ability to perform mass murder is impeded. Russia will not be pleased if ISIL, its false pretext for military intervention in Syria, is swept from the table. Ideally, Russia will not elect to escort regime aircraft on their mass homicide missions. And it would be difficult for even Russian President Vladimir Putin to articulate outrage if ISIL is crushed militarily. But if Russia seeks out armed confrontation with the United States in Syria, it would be a mistake for Washington to back down. People like Putin will push until they hit steel. And he will not stop in Syria.”
The op-ed is saying several things, which most likely reflect the Washington consensus on foreign policy. First, it advocates a U.S. leading role in Syria in support of a currently non-existent and unlikely to exist regional force to fight ISIS thereby creating an alternative government enabling the removal of al-Assad from power and winding up with a “Western desired” democracy. Second, it characterizes Russia as supporting “mass homicide” in Syria and urges the U.S. to confront it militarily if necessary as Moscow is intent on expansion. That means that Syria somehow has become a vital American interest, important enough to go to war with Russia.
Hof’s more recent foray in the Post makes a number of similar points. First, that the Syrian civil war cannot end as long as al-Assad remains in power is described as an “objective truth” that adversaries like Russia and Iran refuse to accept. Al-Assad is described as a “barrel bomber in chief.” Iran, in particular, should “grasp the chance to become a normal state.” Hof likens the Syrian, Iranian and Russian leadership to Hitler thirty years ago in that they are being given a pass by the West and avers that they “know that Assad is the single greatest obstacle to a united front against Islamic State.” Iran is motivated by propping up a client state while Russia is into the game desirous of “humiliating the United States by preserving Assad.” The op-ed goes on to claim that delaying action for thousands of Syrians will mean “people slaughtered, maimed, stampeded, starved, tortured and raped by Assad’s people” and reiterates the call for “professional ground forces… under U.S. command” to deal simultaneously with both al-Assad and ISIS.
Given all of the above, it is no wonder that many of us find American foreign and national security policy incomprehensible. First of all, by what Act of God does the United States have a Special Adviser for Transition in Syria? Why does that position even exist? How would the White House react if the Chinese or Russians were to create a similar bureaucracy tasked with subverting the manifestly corrupt U.S. institutions and even arming “rebels” to do the job?
One suspects that antagonism towards Damascus is rooted in the fact that the United States government have been working hard in a neoconservative driven effort supported by Israel to subvert the Syrian regime ever since President George W. Bush signed the Syria Accountability Act in 2004. Al-Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons on his own people is frequently cited as a justification for armed intervention, but there is considerable controversy over the incident at Ghouta in 2013, with many observers believing that the attack was staged “false flag” by the rebels possibly aided by the Turkish intelligence service to implicate the Syrian government. And it is easy to forget that before Syria under al-Assad became an enemy it was considered friendly, having participated in the U.S. led coalition that ousted Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1991 and also having supported Washington’s counter-terrorism “rendition” program post-9/11.
It is simplistic to see everything as a problem created by the Syrian government, Russia and Iran, all of whom have been described as “adversaries” of the United States even though they are actively fighting ISIS. That label would be comforting if one were a reader of the Rupert Murdoch media but Tehran’s and Moscow’s desire to stabilize the Syrian government position as a prelude to negotiations for a settlement is not exactly wrongheaded, as Congresswoman Gabbard has noted. And any narrative’s thrust more-or-less depends on where one starts. To my mind the blame for the mess in Syria and Iraq coupled with the rise of ISIS should be put squarely where it belongs: at the White House under our two most recent presidents and their advisers. The rot began in 2003 when Iraq was invaded. At that time both Baghdad and Damascus were quiet, stable and terrorist free even if they were not democracies. Neither threatened the United States and neither threatens the U.S. to this day, which makes one wonder at why al-Assad has been elevated to enemy-in-chief status by the White House and media.
The inside the beltway dismissal of Iran and Russia is classic Washington groupthink. Iran may indeed not be a “normal” nation, but that just might be due to threats against it emanating from the United States and Israel since the foundation of the Islamic Republic in 1978. We are currently witnessing the U.S. Congress and Israel cranking up the pressure to defeat implementation of the nuclear program agreement recently signed with Tehran, an effort that suggests that no matter what it does or doesn’t do Iran will never be seen as normal or even acceptable by most of the power-brokers in Washington.
And the denigration of Russia is another given, complete with the often heard but ridiculous claim that Moscow is out to “humiliate” the U.S., which often comes coupled with a reference to Hitler. Russia may have a government that is not to our liking but it has a serious and legitimate interest in preventing the spillover of Islamic insurgency into its own heavily Muslim southern federated states. Creating a cartoon image of Vladimir Putin as someone who has to be taught a lesson even though he has in fact been a largely realistic, restrained and rational player in his foreign policy, is not a serious argument. Stating that Russia is only interested in propping up a client and enabling mass murder is both sloppy and does not allow for other considerations that might actually be both sensible and legitimate while a willingness to confront major power Russia militarily over unimportant Syria is something closely akin to madness. And attributing all the mayhem in Syria to its government is similarly myopic in that it ignores the other players on the ground, to include groups supported by America’s nominal Arab and Turkish allies that the United States calls “terrorist.”
The apparent willingness among policy makers to put U.S. troops on the ground in Syria against both its government and ISIS flies against all reason given the poor track record of White House initiated military interventions over the past fifteen years. The creation of a “stabilization force” without any current Syrian government participation is laughable as even President Obama has conceded that the identification and deployment of “moderate rebels” is a bit of a fantasy. And Syria is not taking place in a vacuum. Afghanistan is rapidly sliding back under Taliban control, Iraq is chaotic and its closest friend is Iran while Libya is anarchical. Another intervention? No thanks.
The British government, whose foreign policy is overtly hostile to their Russian counterpart, declared last week that their investigation into the killing of a former Russian intelligence agent in London nearly a decade ago concluded there is a “strong probability” the Russian FSB security agency was responsible for poisoning Alexander Litivenko with plutonium. They further declared that Russian President Vladimir Putin “probably approved” of the act. The British investigation, which was likely politically motivated, seemingly raised more questions than it answered. But American corporate media were quick to use the accusations against Putin to demonize him, casting him as a pariah brazenly flaunting his disregard for international conventions.
The Washington Post (1/23/16) editorial board wrote that “Robert Owen, a retired British judge, has carefully and comprehensively documented what can only be called an assassination… Mr. Owen found (Andrei) Lugovoi was acting ‘under the direction’ of the FSB in an operation to kill Mr. Litivenko – one that was ‘probably approved’ by the director of the FSB and by Mr. Putin.”
Actually, Owen did not find that former KGB operative Lugovoi was acting under the direction of the FSB to kill Litivenko. He found there was a “strong probability” this was the case. This means that even in Owens’s view, there is not near certainty, which would meet the legal standard of reasonable doubt that would preclude a guilty judgement. There is even more doubt that even if it were the case the FSB ordered the murder, they did so on Putin’s orders.
The New York Times editorial board (1/21/16) finds the investigation’s results “shocking.” For the Times, this confirms a pattern of Putin’s rogue behavior. They claim Putin’s “deserved reputation as an autocrat willing to flirt with lawlessness in his global ventures has taken on a startling new aspect.”
Both of the prestigious and influential American newspapers argue that the British findings impugn Putin’s respectability in international affairs. The Times says:
Mr. Putin has built a sordid record on justice and human rights, which naturally reinforces suspicion that he could easily have been involved in the murder. At the very least, the London inquiry, however much it is denied at the Kremlin, should serve as a caution to the Russian leader to repair his reputation for notorious intrigues abroad.
The more hawkish Post says: “This raises a serious question for President Obama and other world leaders whose governments do not traffic in contract murder. Should they continue to meet with Mr. Putin as if he is just another head of state?”
Putin’s alleged “sordid record on justice and human rights,” which is taken for granted without providing any examples, is seen as bolstering the case for his guilt in the case of the poisoning death of Litivenko. This, in turn, adds to his “notorious” reputation as a violator of human rights.
The Post draws a line between the lawless Putin and the respectable Western heads of state, such as Obama. Though they frame their call to treat Putin as an outcast as a question, it is clearly intended as a rhetorical question.
It is curious that The Post draws a contrast between Putin and Obama, whose government is supposedly above such criminality. The newspaper does not mention the U.S. government’s drone assassination program, which as of last year had killed nearly 2,500 people in at least three countries outside of declared military battlefields. Estimates have shown that at least 90 percent of those killed were not intended targets. None of those killed have been charged with any crimes. And at least two – Anwar al-Awlaki and his 16-year-old son Abdul Rahman – were Americans.
Obama himself is personally responsible for those killed by missiles launched from unmanned aircraft over the skies of sovereign countries. Several news reports have indicated that Obama is presented in meetings each week by military and national security officials with a list of potential targets for assassination. Obama must personally approve each target, at which point they are added to the state-sanctioned “kill list.”
The British government has also assumed for itself the power to assassinate its own citizens outside a declared battlefield. Last fall, Prime Minister David Cameron ordered the deaths of two British citizens in Syria, who were subsequently disposed of in a lethal drone strike.
The Washington Post editorial board (3/24/12) claimed that Obama was justified in carrying out lethal drone strokes that kill American citizens “to protect the country against attack.” Their lone criticism was that “an extra level of review of some sort is warranted.”
After it was revealed that an American hostage was inadvertently killed in a drone strike in Pakistan, The Post (5/1/15) said that the issue of whether the American government continues to conduct drone strikes should not be up for debate. “(T)here is little question that drones are the least costly means of eliminating militants whose first aim is to kill Americans,” they wrote.
While they tacitly accept the legal rationale for Obama’s assassination program, the New York Times editorial board at least demonstrated some skepticism. In “A Thin Rationale for Drone Killings” (6/23/14), they called the memo “a slapdash pastiche of legal theories – some based on obscure interpretations of British and Israeli law – that was clearly tailored to the desired result.” They say that “the rationale provides little confidence that the lethal action was taken with real care.”
Yet they do not chastise Obama for his “intrigues abroad” nor do they condemn this as an example of his “sordid record on justice and human rights,” language they used for Putin. The idea that relying on what are transparently inadequate legal justifications for killing an American citizen without due process would merit prosecution is clearly beyond the limits of discussion for the Times.
Recently Faheem Qureshi, a victim of the first drone strike ordered by Obama in 2009 (three days after his induction as President), who lost multiple family members and his own eye, told The Guardian that Obama’s actions in his native lands are “an act of tyranny. If there is a list of tyrants in the world, to me, Obama will be put on that list by his drone program.”
Surely both The New York Times and Washington Post disagree with Qureshi, because they believe the U.S. government is inherently benevolent and its motives are beyond reproach. But based on their editorials about the British investigation of the Litivenko poisoning, if Putin was responsible and was described by Qureshi in the same way, they would wholeheartedly agree.
The U.S. government and its allies in NATO, like Great Britain, have a clear agenda in vilifying Russia and its President. The US-NATO alliance supported the government that came to power in Ukraine in 2014 through a coup. After provinces in Eastern Ukraine – the vast majority of whose population is ethnically Russian and Russian-speaking – refused to recognize the NATO-backed coup government in Kiev, the Russian government supported them.
It should be easy to see how, from Russia’s perspective, the Ukranian conflict can be understood as an extension of NATO encroachment towards Russia’s borders that has continued unabated since James Baker told Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991 NATO would move “not an inch east.”
“We’re in a new Cold War,” Stephen Cohen, professor of Russian studies and politics, told Salon. “The epicenter is not in Berlin this time but in Ukraine, on Russia’s borders, within its own civilization: That’s dangerous. Over the 40-year history of the old Cold War, rules of behavior and recognition of red lines, in addition to the red hotline, were worked out. Now there are no rules.”
Additionally, Russia’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad since 2011 throughout that country’s civil war, and more recently its direct military intervention in the conflict that has turned the tide against US-backed rebels, has strongly rankled Washington.
The language used by top government officials to describe Russia has been astoundingly combative. Defense Secretary Ash Carter, the man in charge of the entire US military, claimed Russia is responsible for aggression and is “endangering world order.”
The U.S. government’s hyping of the Russian “threat” has been used to justify massive spending on the U.S. space program and other military expenditures, such as the $1 trillion to upgrade nuclear weapons,
One could even argue that the narrative of an aggressive and belligerent Russia is the principal justification for the continued existence of the NATO itself, two and a half decades after the breakup of the Soviet Union. The alliance allows the US military to be stationed in hundreds of bases throughout Europe under the guise of a purely defensive organization.
The U.S.’s most prominent media organizations should demonstrate the strongest skepticism towards the policies and actions of their own government. At the very least, they should hold their own country’s leaders to the same standards as they do others. But time and again, the media choose to act as a mouthpiece to echo and amplify Washington’s propaganda. They do the government’s bidding, creating an enemy and rallying the public towards a confrontation they would otherwise have no interest in, while allowing the government to avoid accountability for its own misdeeds.