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Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Shame of Iraq

The close of the Second World War saw the rise of Arab nationalism, a movement that promised to unite much of the Middle East around independence and social advancement. The imposition of a Jewish theocratic state in the midst of Arab homelands no doubt accelerated this movement, as did later imperialist meddling such as the Suez intervention of 1956.
Both Nasserism and the Ba'ath Party were early vehicles of a growing nationalism centered on an Arab identity. Nasser's engagement with non-alignment in the Cold War, his secularism, his advocacy of land reform and Egyptian socialism resonated with the Arab masses. Similarly, the pan-Arab Ba'ath Party organized around unity, independence, and socialism-- all with a decidedly secular tone. Islam, rather than the basis for identity, was second to ethic national identities that proudly offered Islam to the world as a gift from the Middle Eastern peoples. This secular trend grew rapidly, resulting in a unified United Arab Republic in 1958, a development that was soon terminated by a coup in Syria.
Of course there were counter trends, reactionary trends in the Arab world that worked against the progressive, secular movement. Centered on the oil-driven dynasties, these forces, frightened by Arab nationalism, aligned themselves with the imperialists, and were vigorously anti-socialist. They offered an ideology counter posing rigid Islamic fundamentalism to secular nationalism. Of course their Western partners shared their hostility and were eager to exploit their influence and resources against Arab nationalism.
The opportunities were forthcoming with the humiliating defeats of Arab military power by the Israeli armed forces. Tarnished by these defeats, afflicted with corruption, and covertly impaired by Western and Israeli security services, the leaders of Arab nationalism began to lose support among the Arab masses.
Israel and its Western imperialist friends contrived a strategy of encouraging fundamentalism and religious sectarianism as an alternative to the Middle Eastern Enlightenment. Once the lightening rod for Arab unity and secular progressivism, the Palestinian Liberation Organization fell victim to this strategy when the Israelis disparaged the leadership of Yasir Arafat, rebuffing his concessions and mocking his weaknesses. At the same time, they sought to vitalize the influence of the religious-based Hamas among Palestinians. This strategy, like so many similar strategies, backfired when Hamas launched the Intifada that struck back effectively against the Israeli occupiers. Envisioned as a classic divide-and-conquer maneuver, the courtship of Islamic fundamentalism underestimated the deeply ingrained hostility to imperial intrigue. It was one thing to undermine Arab unity and secularism, but quite another to scorn Arab independence.
The US embraced the same tactics in its support for Islamic fundamentalism in Afghanistan. As an answer to the assumption of power by a secular, anti-imperialist, socialist movement and its support by the Soviet Union, the US, along with its Gulf allies, raised, armed, and assisted a merciless, sectarian fundamentalist insurgency openly contemptuous of the human rights that the West pretends to cherish.
The backfire-- or “blowback” as some have dubbed it-- came quickly and often, culminating in the deadly coordinated attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in September of 2001. Thousands of innocent civilians in the US died because US policy makers, through ignorance and irresponsibility, sponsored religious zealots against the tide of democratic, secular, and progressive movements in the Middle East. While the tactic succeeded in turning back the tide of secularism in the Middle East, the tacticians failed to understand that their erstwhile Islamist allies deplored imperial manipulation as much as they hated secularism. In other words, they weren't the dupes that their “masters” wanted them to be. As the divide-and-conquer strategy collapsed, generating anti-Western violence, the Western puppeteers could only react in panic: “Terrorists!” The liberal apologists for this dangerous game offered their own term of derogation: “Islamo-fascists!”
And nothing was learned from the unholy alliance.
Once again, policy makers thought they could ride the tiger of religious sectarian intolerance and create a loyal satrapy to US interests. The US fabricated outlandish excuses to invade Iraq in 2003, though not so outlandish as to nonetheless seduce nearly the entire US intelligentsia, as Frank Rich recently recounted in a nastily angry, bitter article in New York magazine (The Stink of Baghdad, June 2-8, 2014). Rich reminds us of the hysterical reaction to absurd claims about the dangers supposedly latent in the regime of Saddam Hussein.
Cobbled together by League of Nations mandate, the British had established the country as a semi-colonial kingdom that lasted until its independence in 1958. Its brief life as a republic was afflicted with internal ethnic, religious, and political divisions. Through brutal repression of these many divisions, Hussein was able to establish a reasonably stable country, a country to be counted as one of the most outwardly secular in the Middle East at the time of the US's unprovoked massive invasion.
With the senseless slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, the shearing of a fragile social fabric, and the wholesale destruction of the country's infrastructure, the US invaders and their compliant allies succeeded in sowing chaos and instability never before seen in a land once celebrated as the cradle of civilization. Quite an accomplishment for the twenty-first century super power heralding itself as the paragon of democracy and human rights!
The vandals could not leave without creating a mock democracy to accompany a massive military and security apparatus constructed to hold the bloody mess together. In 2006, the US vetted potential leaders and permitted the Iraqi parliament to “choose” the hand-picked prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. In the last week, President Obama now wants to fire him; rather, he wants the parliament to fire him and select another hand-picked prime minister. This process passes for democracy, with the scribes populating the major media in the US.
In the last month, the massive military/security apparatus has crumbled in the face of a well coordinated offensive by a ruthless, dedicated band of zealots seemingly more welcome in some parts of Iraq than the former invaders. The only thing that the warring factions in a once stable country can agree upon is their animosity towards those who pretended to liberate them from the Saddam Hussein regime.
It is a supreme-- but cruel-- irony that a country with a tenuous hold on nationhood, a country still barely beyond the legacy of colonialism, a country enjoying a rare period of secular culture and stability, was pushed back into barbarism and destructive sectarianism by a supposedly enlightened, advanced country flexing its muscles under the absurd banner of a “War on Terror.”
There is not a Hall of Shame large enough to accommodate the talk-show propagandists, witless syndicated columnists, and mindless news anchors who cheer-leaded the Iraqi debacle; but surely Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist, deserves a seat near the front row. His enthusiasm and repeated mistaken projections of final victory are well documented. One of his most recent columns tells us that our attention should shift from the bloody confrontation currently bringing death and displacement to Iraq to the conflict of “the extremists vs. the environmentalists in the Middle East” (The Real War of Ideas, NYT, 6-10-14). Demonstrating his ignorance again and again, he announces that he has uncovered the environmentalists' secret: “The environmentalists think of this region [the Middle East] without borders...” He seems to overlook the important fact that all of the existing borders are largely irrational products of colonial governance, borders designed to exploit tribal and religious animosities to the benefit of colonial masters. For Friedman, history and context are nothing weighed against his latest conversation in a whirlwind tour of a region.
For another journalistic scoundrel deeply implicated in the Iraq debacle, we can turn to John Burns. In the words of Michael Munk: “As chief of the NYTimes Baghdad bureau during much of the war, [John] Burns was a notorious cheerleader for the invasion and occupation. He now blames his failure to understand how 'deeply fractured' Iraqi society was. I guess you failed to notice, John, that it wasn’t fractured before the invasion, and as Naureckas observers, 'Is it typical for countries to respond to unprovoked military invasions by becoming strong, stable democracies?'”
Burns, without a hint of contrition, now says: “I think the mistake we made was–I'm talking here about myself as well as some of my colleagues, not just at the New York Times but many publications–was not to understand how deeply fractured that society was, how strongly held those animosities were, and how they would not likely relent under any amount of American tutelage and encouragement.” (quoted by Naureckas above)
This is exactly the wrong conclusion to draw, a conclusion exposing both dishonesty and servility to US government policy. Iraq was not, as Munk reminds us, a fractured society until the US fractured it.
Moreover, Libya was not a fractured society, nor was Syria a fractured society, until the US joined with others in fracturing them. It was no coincidence that, like Iraq, both were among the most secular countries in the Middle East with relatively high standards of living, high educational levels, and developed social safety nets. Today, Libya is largely ungoverned and ungovernable, a failed state. And Syria is in the throes of an ugly civil war stoked by the US, EU, and the Gulf states.
Put simply and clearly, Iraq is not an honest mistake, as Burns would have it, but an instance of a systematic, aggressive foreign policy designed to divide and conquer the Middle East, a policy designed to use religious fundamentalism and tribalism, formerly on the wane, as an instrument against independence, nationalism, and social progress. It is the foreign policy of imperialism.
It is not only the policy of Bush, as Democratic Party stalwarts want us to believe. It is not only the incompetence of Obama, as the Right shouts. It is not the over-reach of super patriots or chicken hawks. It is not only an arrogant, unrestrained military, as many pretend. It is the willful, unwavering program of a US ruling class determined to shape the Middle East to meet the interests of elites and corporations in the US and with its allies.
The failure to face this truth guarantees that the Iraqi debacle and many more like it will bring shame to the self-styled democracies and the hypocritical bastions of human rights.
Zoltan Zigedy

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Boot-licking Journalism

Growing up at the high-water marks of Cold War hysteria in the US led me to a heightened skepticism of the independence and objectivity of the media. We were made to believe myths that Communist government ownership constituted a denial of freedom of the press while diverse private ownership of the sources of information in the West guaranteed access to the truth. Few of us reflected on the fact that the UK government media monopoly, the BBC, seemed to present a more nuanced, tolerant, even sane picture of current events than did our US lap-dog “free” press. At the same time, the sharp move towards theocracy in the US-- “In God we Trust” on currency and “Under God” affixed to the Inquisition-like pledge of allegiance-- was met by a docile, compliant media.
Any doubts that were voiced-- and few were at the time-- about the biases of the press and electronic media were radically amplified when the Cold War began to recede, a measure of sanity returned, and revelations exposed the corruption and opportunism of most of the media's journalistic stars and watchdogs. Truly, it was one the most embarrassing chapters in the fable of US press freedom. Of course the myth remained intact thanks to the major media's concerted effort to restrict the truth to the marginal footnotes of historical research and the fringe media.
Some liberal commentators concede the horrors of the past, but insist that press freedom rebounded, especially after the end of the Cold War. Nothing could be further from the truth. Today's media is as servile to government and capital as at any time in US history. The concentration of media corporations coupled with the centrality of profitability and the narrow band of dissent offered by the two-party system result in a uniformity and conformity in the media that would be the envy of any banana republic.
We can thank media critics like Extra!-- the magazine of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting-- for serious disclosure of the most egregious abuses of independence and objectivity (At one time, the same could be said for the Columbia Journalism Review-- not so today). And, yes, there are numerous media critics on the internet and with the small circulation media. But they often overlook the commonplace banality of media's slavish conformity to the government line and corporate dictate. While we all enjoy reading about the big lies, it is the everyday boot-licking that holds the US myth together.
Sleight of Hand
On May 29, the Los Angeles Times published a news story reporting Edward Snowden's NBC News interview. The author, Richard Serrano casually writes that “The disclosures have sparked outrage in some countries...” Have they? Where? And why? Serrano relies on the readers gullibility to slip in what appears to be a reasonable assumption, but an assumption nonetheless. While the reader will likely find the claim believable, no reason is actually given to believe the claim. Could it be that Serrano means that US officials are outraged?
In the same article, Serrano reports accurately that Snowden claimed he was a “spy” for US security agencies, using aliases and working undercover. Serrano adds: “Those agencies routinely issue aliases for Americans working overseas, and his work for them [CIA, NSA] was previously known.” Serrano is dismissive of the revelations because they were “previously known.” Once again, by whom? How is the fact that someone unnamed knew about Snowden's previous clandestine work relevant to reporting on the interview? Serrano's claim about the “routine” use of aliases leaves the interesting, newsworthy question of who works for the agencies and why and when do they need aliases unanswered. There is not a hint of distrust of US security agencies’ motives. He only injects the comment in order to minimize the importance of Snowden's interview and not to share any newsworthy information.
Serrano cannot resist stirring antipathy towards Snowden. His editors can't either.
In an Associated Press dispatch the same day, Peter Leonard writes dateline Donetsk, Ukraine that “While there is no immediate indication that the Kremlin is enabling or supporting combatants from Russia...Moscow may have to dispel suspicions that it is waging a proxy war...” Why does Moscow need to dispel suspicions when there is admittedly no evidence for those suspicions?
Following good journalistic practices, Leonard seeks to locate the Ukrainian crisis in a context, in recent events. Unfortunately, he slants that context to coincide with the US/EU interpretation of those events. He notes the “election” of a billionaire candy mogul to the Ukraine's presidency without mentioning that Eastern Ukraine strongly opposed the election and rejects Popochenko's legitimacy. Instead, he innocuously states: “He replaced the pro-Moscow leader who was driven from office in February.”
[D]riven from office? By referendum? By the Supreme Court? By Parliament?
Or, as the historical record would confirm, by violent street actions that physically threatened the former president. Demonstrations richly endowed with Western funding. Actions encouraged by the West and betraying a recent agreement brokered with the EU. But to cast doubt on the legitimacy of what could justifiably be called a coup would cast the so-called “pro-Moscow insurgency” in a different light.
Leonard goes on to explain the sequence of events: “That ouster led to Russia's annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in southern Ukraine, which triggered the sanctions, and a violent pro-Moscow insurgency in the east.” Describing Ukrainian events in this deceptive way is akin to describing the US Revolutionary War as a violent pro-French insurgency spawned by the defiance of Parliament's trade policies. Interpretation is posing as reportage.
Surely it is notable that the previous violence in Kiev's Maidan Square-- Molotov cocktails, street fighting, baiting security forces-- are characterized blandly (“driven from office,” “ousted”) while defensive acts on the part of anti-Kiev activists resisting the military and police in Eastern Ukraine are characterized as participating in a “violent...insurgency.”
Like the entire Western media, Leonard characterizes the opposition in Eastern Ukraine as “pro-Russian” (a recent picture in the Wall Street Journal characterized two armed men in fatigues pausing for a smoke as “pro-Russian,” as though the caption writer could read that allegiance from their faces). The truth is that the May 11 referendum, which, whether the West likes it or not, appeared to express a strong sentiment for the establishment of independent, peoples' republics, counts as the best available indicator of the most current views of the Eastern populace. Without contrary evidence, responsible journalism would designate the opposition as “anti-Kiev” or “pro-independence” rather than in the fashion of US State Department handouts. Not surprisingly, Western journalists have resisted the tendency of consistently calling the actions and actors on the other side as “pro-US.” To do so would betray their sanctimonious posture as serving only the interests of the Ukrainian people.
Leonard paints a lurid picture of the leader of the Chechen region of Russia. Amid reports that some wounded fighters in the Eastern Ukraine were from Chechnya, Leonard describes the Chechen leader as “ruthless” and linked to “extrajudicial killings, torture and other abuses.” While some may find this an appropriate description for Bush and Obama, we would be surprised and shocked to find these charges in a news article with no evidence proffered.
Wounded Chechen nationals do not make a conspiracy... except in the writing of Mr. Leonard: “Mr. Kadyrov [the leader in Chechnya] has derided allegations that he dispatched militias to Ukraine, but undermined his claim with veiled threats.” So we are to understand that an agent’s implied threat subverts a claim of innocence. With this twisted logic, a threat of self-defense would be tantamount to an admission of aggression. Of course if a media slavishly subservient to the official line of the US State Department leaves readers disposed to mistrust any and every statement emanating from the East, then such a leap would appear warranted.
By the profoundly low standards of US journalism, a Washington Post article datelined May 29 from Yarze, Lebanon established a new low. The aptly named Liz Sly twists events prior to the Syrian election beyond recognition. The reigning assumption held by Western reporters portrayed Syrian refugees as fleeing the evil Bashar Assad. Thus, it came as a shock when refugees in Lebanon flocked in overwhelming numbers and with enthusiastic Assad partisanship to the Syrian embassies in order to vote ahead of the domestic elections. Despite police thuggery and long lines, Syrians spent long hours to cast votes. Most observers conceded that it took on the appearance of an Assad election rally. As Sly affirms: “...desperate people fought to gain admission to the embassy grounds... Roads were clogged for miles by people arriving in buses, in cars and on foot... Many voters were diehard Assad supporters who showed up in convoys, honking horns, waving the president's picture and shouting slogans.”
Undeterred by what appeared to contradict the State Department line on the sentiments of Syrian refugees, Ms. Sly wrote: “Syrians thronged their embassy in Lebanon on Wednesday to cast ballots for President Bashar Assad, offering a forceful affirmation of his tightening grip on power after three years of conflict.” Never mind that Sly never explains how she determined the refugees' vote prior to the vote tally. But how does the refugees' enthusiasm for Assad --while presumably residing safely in a separate country-- affirm “his tightening grip on power”? What power does he have over them in Lebanon?
But there is more... a “rumor” serves to address the question: “The large turnout was spurred in part by a widespread rumor that those who do not vote will not be allowed to return home...” So we must believe that those who do not show up will not be able to return to Syria, but those who do and choose to vote for one of the two other candidates will not be similarly punished by Assad. This is indeed a strange twist. Moreover, if the refugees are really anti-Assad, but intimidated by his “tightening grip,” why would they want to improve his electoral fortunes by voting for him?
Sly concedes that “Syrians did not say this would be the case, but with all voters having to submit their identity papers to the embassy for registration, it is feasible that the government will know who voted and who did not.” But this is absurd. Certainly the government could know who voted if they simply record the names that are on identity documents, but how could they possibly know who didn't vote from an amorphous community of refugees? And surely it makes sense to ask for identity papers to keep Lebanese citizens (and US and Israeli agents!) from voting in a Syrian election. Sly witnessed a common sense procedure and not a conspiracy.
Astoundingly, Sly contradicts herself twelve paragraphs further: “The rules for voting were lax, with many people casting multiple ballots.” Casting multiple ballots? Lax rules? Would that not make it impossible for Syrian officials to determine who will be allowed to repatriate and who will not? Does consistency matter to Liz Sly?
Should we be surprised at Liz Sly's sly attempt to swap a demonization of Syria's Assad for an inconvenient truth?
Not really. Liz Sly was the Washington Post writer who brought to world attention the plight of the unfortunate gay woman in Damascus who was supposedly brutally oppressed by the Assad regime. On June 7, 2011 she wrote 'Gay Girl in Damascus' Blogger Detained, a news article that merged claims from a blog post with what appeared to be independently gathered facts in a way that suggested that youthful, attractive Syrian-American, Amina Arraf, was grabbed off the street along with 10,000 other Damascus citizens by the evil Assad forces. On June 8, the Washington Post retracted the story and on June 10, a 40-year-old US citizen confessed that the person, the story, and the blog were a hoax that he concocted. The damage had been done-- liberals recoiled from Assad's brutality-- few saw the retraction.
One might think that such an egregious flouting of journalistic ethics would cost her credibility dearly, but not while she serves US officialdom so loyally.
Just Another Day of US Journalism
May 29 was little different from any other day in the hustle of news in the Western media-- no better, no worse. It is important that we do not minimize these sins by laying them only at the authors' doorsteps. Editors and management accept and encourage this servility to the US government line, endorsing biased articles that belong on the op-ed pages and not in the news section. It is the institutional acquiescence that makes a mockery of a free, independent, and objective media.
It is the nuances-- the word play-- that infect nearly every news article in our press: the lost subjects (“It is believed that...” It is thought that...” By whom?), the anonymous sources (“Many believe...”, “Some say...”), the stealth use of the passive voice (“hundreds were killed in the confrontation” Who killed them?), the simple, slanted labels (“pro-Russian,” “anti-American,” “insurgents,” “militants,” “opposition”), the speculative leaps, and the tortured logic.
Mindful that these sins are castigated in high school journalism classes, their ubiquitous commission in the monopoly mass media signals an unprincipled, opportunistic obedience to power and wealth, a calculated fealty to the seats of power matching the worst days of the Cold War.

Zoltan Zigedy