Republicans have spent years expanding the popular base for Trump’s fascism

When a country is ripe for fascism, a fascist leader will emerge. The mistake we commonly make is to focus all our attention on such a leader, while being less critical of those who follow him — because they are uneducated, misinformed, and gullible. After all, it’s easier to express contempt for a man like Donald Trump than it is to criticize ones own neighbors.

As conservative politicians and commentators are becoming increasingly vocal in their criticisms of Trump — many are now openly calling him a fascist — the fact is, many of those critics have also long fanned the same bigotry around which Trump has built his presidential campaign, especially the Islamophobia that has been the backdrop of American politics for over a decade.

CNN reports: “Trump is a fascist. And that’s not a term I use loosely or often. But he’s earned it,” tweeted Max Boot, a conservative fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who is advising Marco Rubio.

“Forced federal registration of US citizens, based on religious identity, is fascism. Period. Nothing else to call it,” Jeb Bush national security adviser John Noonan wrote on Twitter.

Conservative Iowa radio host Steve Deace, who has endorsed Ted Cruz, also used the “F” word last week: “If Obama proposed the same religion registry as Trump every conservative in the country would call it what it is — creeping fascism.”

[Continue reading…]

Moreover, as Trump’s popularity is viewed in the context of contemporary American culture — the Tea Party, the polarizing effect of social media, fear of government, xenophobia, and isolationism — let’s not forget that as Hitler’s fascism rose in Germany, some of its most outspoken supporters could be found in the United States.


How the U.S. Congress and the GOP became friends of Assad and enemies of the Syrian people

Two years ago, Bashar al-Assad said this:

Some observers — especially those currently promoting fear of Syrian refugees — might think this was a prescient warning, but what Assad’s tweet actually expressed was the consistency with which he has stayed on message in his contrived “war on terrorism” and the fact that the flow of refugees would undermine the future of Syria.

Throughout the war, Assad has insisted that his adversaries are all “terrorists.” He wants the continuation of his rule to be perceived as a way of insuring that the threat of terrorism does not grow. Yet anyone who believes this propaganda is willfully ignoring the reality that far from combating the expansion of ISIS, Assad essentially provided an incubator in which it could grow. ISIS and Assad have a symbiotic relationship.

At the same time, as Syrians fled Assad’s barrel bombs, taking refuge in neighboring countries, the regime was prescient in this sense: once the regime’s own supporters lost faith in Syria’s future, taking advantage of their greater resources they would likely head for Europe with little likelihood of returning. As the New York Times reported in September, “Now those departing include more middle-class or wealthy people, more supporters of the government, and more residents of areas that were initially safe.”

Thus, even before the westward flow had begun, Assad wanted to sow fear in the minds of those who would likely offer refuge to people the regime can ill afford to lose. And what better way of exploiting European xenophobia than by referring to such fleeing Syrians as “illegal immigrants” — evidence, I might suggest, that Assad has his own Western media advisers.

(It shouldn’t need saying but I’ll say it anyway: Refugee status must never be made contingent on political affiliations. Syrians fleeing the war, deserve help — irrespective of their religion, sect, or ethnicity.)

The U.S. Congress and the GOP have now become megaphones of Islamophobic fear, portraying Syrian refugees as potential terrorists rather than what they really are — victims of tyranny and terrorism.

In conjunction with this deranged hysteria which across the U.S. is twisting perceptions of Syria, the argument that Assad is the “lesser evil” goes from strength to strength.

Just as Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed the 9/11 attacks, saying they were “very good” because they would unite the U.S. and Israel and “strengthen the bond between our two peoples,” Assad must have taken satisfaction in the slaughter in Paris, knowing that it would buttress his argument that he, his allies and the West face a common enemy.

Likewise, as The Guardian notes, the attacks strengthen Iran’s position in Syria:

Ali Alfoneh, senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defence of Democracies, said: “President François Hollande, who cannot count on Washington deploying ground forces in Syria, is now reaching out to Iran and Russia to form an alliance in the fight against Daesh [Isis].

“This in turn legitimises Iran’s military engagement in Syria, which Washington considers as one of the root causes of emergence of Daesh in that country. In that sense, the terrorist attacks in Paris came as manna from heaven for Tehran.”

So many commentators have joined in the chorus that warns against the risk of playing into the hands of ISIS, saying that we must avoid rising to provocation and giving the terrorists what they want, and yet at the same time, with barely any protest and plenty of nods of approval, we now move in the direction of giving Assad exactly what he wants.


New ISIS video threatening New York City uses stock images

The fact that a new ISIS video threatening New York City uses snippets from commercial videos available on YouTube, does not mean that the threat can be dismissed.

It does, nevertheless, indicate that the imagery in this video should not be taken at face value. This is not footage that was filmed on the ground by would-be attackers.

It’s reasonable to assume that ISIS produced the sections of the video showing a bomb being assembled, but they have then spliced these together with stock footage in a slick piece of editing that creates the appearance of a single production.

In one snippet of the ISIS video, we see a tracking shot showing taxis stopped at an intersection next to a Gap store:


This comes from a video made by “Fast tracking shot of crowded street in nyc.“:


The ISIS video shows a TGI Friday’s:


This comes from another video, “Panning shots of signs in Times Square New York City“:



Call fear of Syrian refugees for what it is: Islamophobia

There is a vile current of hostility that has existed in America throughout its history. It resulted in the extermination and internment of the indigenous population of this continent. It cradled the capture, enslavement, and oppression of many generations of Africans and their descendants.

Festering American fear and hatred has caught in its gaze, Irish, German, Chinese, and Latino immigrants, Catholics, Jews, Japanese Americans, homosexuals, Communists, and all people of color.

Nowadays it lingers in the last domain where animosity towards others can freely be expressed with relatively little risk of public censure: by voicing fear of Islam and Muslims.

Well-tutored by the codes of political correctness, the haters understand that their enmity must be delivered through ostensibly impersonal vehicles. Their critique is of the doctrine, not its adherents. A nod of respect is made towards America’s tradition of religious tolerance, but simultaneously dismissed by claiming that Islam is not a religion.


No one is a bigot in their own eyes and no ones bigotry gets dislodged simply by pointing out its offensiveness.

Hatred is born out of fear rooted in ignorance.

Let’s, for a moment, indulge the fears of those Americans who currently want to exclude Syrian refugees from entering this country and acknowledge that it is possible that in spite of the careful vetting process which all refugees must pass through, a few individuals with ties to ISIS could use this as a route for entering the U.S. and once here launch a terrorist attack. Even if candidates were further limited by only allowing Christians, it’s conceivable that a member of ISIS could claim to be a Christian. There is as far as I know, no blood test or scanning device that is able to differentiate between Christians and non-Christians.

So, would blocking the entry of all Syrian refugees significantly guard against this risk posed by ISIS?

No. Why?

Several reasons:

Although ISIS, with ridiculous ease, was able to dupe many in the West into imagining that the Paris attacks were tied to Syrian refugees — seriously, folks, consider for a few seconds what would motivate someone to take their passport on a suicide mission — we need to remember that ISIS is rooted in the Sunni provinces of Iraq.

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria was previously the Islamic State of Iraq and before that it was al-Qaeda in Iraq.

So, if the U.S. wants to implement a discriminatory refugee policy and pander to fears surrounding the risk of an ISIS attack, then blocking the entry of 10,000 Syrians would definitely be too little, too late.

In the three years prior to 2015, the U.S. has accepted 51,107 Iraqi refugees.

Still, let’s also not lose sight of the fact that ISIS has recruited fighters from many nations and its suicide attacks tend to be carried out by neither Iraqis nor Syrians.

If the U.S. wants to be systematic and comprehensive in formulating its anti-ISIS refugee policy, it will also need to prevent refugees entering this country from Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Libya, Pakistan, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Yemen.

But that won’t be enough. In ISIS’s ranks there are passport holders from Russia, Serbia, and Ukraine whose citizens can enter this country with a visa.

And then there are ISIS passport holders from Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Spain, Sweden, and the UK, all of whom can come here without a visa as tourists.

It looks like fortress America doesn’t just need a wall — it can’t even afford the risk of having any entry points.

Would that make America safe?

Not if the Paris attacks serve as a model for an ISIS attack in the U.S.

In such an event we will not be attacked by Frenchmen. Instead, ISIS will reveal its American face.

Does that mean we should now be afraid of an enemy within?

Robert F. Dees, a retired Army officer who describes himself as “an ambassador for the Lord Jesus Christ,” and who serves as a foreign policy adviser to GOP presidential hopeful, Ben Carson, says “we’ve been infiltrated.” He sees all Muslims inside and outside America — almost a quarter of the world’s population — as potential terrorists.

This is McCarthyism on steroids.

Those who foment these fears are not simply promoting irrational thinking but they are also playing a fundamentally divisive role in American society.


National traumas have healing power when they open opportunities for people to stand together and set aside their differences.

This doesn’t mean finding camaraderie through a shared hatred.

It means having the courage to show that love is more powerful than hate.

When English and French football supporters all sang La Marseillaise in Wembley stadium in London last night, this was more than an act of defiance — a refusal to give in to terrorism.

It was an opportunity for ordinary people to show they care about each other and know that life as precious.


ISIS, Syria and the end of the illusion of containment

When Bernie Sanders, in preparation for Saturday’s Democratic presidential debate, considered how he should field questions on ISIS in the wake of the Paris attacks, one point must have been obvious: he shouldn’t make President Obama’s blunder of talking about containment.

Instead, Sanders opted for a revised version of George Bush’s declaration right after 9/11: “My administration has a job to do and we’re going to do it. We will rid the world of the evil-doers.”

Replace “my administration” with America leading the world, and switch “evil-doers” for ISIS and you get from Sanders: “Together, leading the world, this country will rid our planet of this barbaric organization called ISIS.”

If after 9/11 many Americans were too traumatized to think straight and thus hesitated to dismiss Bush’s impossible promise, Sander’s audience already aware that he’s unlikely to win the Democratic nomination, let alone become president, couldn’t have been too surprised about being offered this kind of empty rhetoric.

After all, when it comes to his inability to present a credible policy on how to deal with ISIS, Sanders is far from alone.

Consider, for instance, the “expert” opinion of political scientist, Stephen Walt, less than six months ago:

Despite its bloodthirsty and gruesome tactics, the Islamic State is not, in fact, a powerful global actor. Its message attracts recruits among marginalized youth in other countries, but attracting perhaps 25,000 ill-trained followers from a global population of more than 7 billion is not that significant. It may even be a net gain if these people leave their countries of origin and then get to experience the harsh realities of jihadi rule. Some of them will realize that the Islamic State is brutal and unjust and a recipe for disaster; the rest will be isolated and contained in one spot instead of stirring up trouble at home.

That kind of assessment, along with overly optimistic reports from his own field commanders, led Obama — just hours before ISIS let loose mayhem across Paris — to assert:

From the start our goal has been first to contain, and we have contained them.

Clearly, the containment strategy isn’t working.

The fact that containment could even be presented as an option is indicative of the fact that too often, what is presented as strategy in Washington, is too often little more than branding.

By a process of what could be called rhetorical logic, a tried and tested solution — the Soviet Union was successfully contained — gets repackaged for ISIS, a much smaller power. Containment worked then, so it can work now — so goes the logic.

But for containment to work, the Soviet Union and ISIS would by nature if not size, need to be comparable entities — which obviously they are not.

ISIS is a shapeshifter. As a fledgling state it might be contained, but as an inspirational force it penetrates the globe.

Almost exactly a year ago, ISIS issued the following warning:

This is a message to all the enemies of Islam and specifically France…. As long as you keep bombing you will not find peace. You will even fear travelling to the market. I call my brothers in France who have not made Hijra, those who are unable to make Hijra, and those who do not possess the means to make Hijra. Know that Jihad in this time is fard-‘ayn (obligatory on all).

For those fixated on the malevolent force of Western power, the simple solution to the threat posed by ISIS is to comply with its request: stop bombing — as though Western meddling is the only fuel that sustains the organization’s existence.

What this perspective overlooks is the fact that many of ISIS’s enemies benefit from the group’s continuation.

As failed states, Syria and Iraq have both moved more closely within the orbit of Iranian power. The growth of ISIS has further empowered the generals who want to be seen as indispensable protectors of scattered Shia populations.

Likewise, Vladamir Putin — who wants to be seen as a defender of national sovereignty and a counterweight to Western intervention — is using ISIS as a pretext for buttressing the Assad regime.

Lastly, Assad himself needs ISIS to reinforce the argument that in Syria there are only two choices: stability or chaos.

In the West, what most narratives miss when portraying ISIS as a product of external forces is that it now has a life of its own.

ISIS can’t easily be contained. It can’t be bombed out of existence. In the battle on the ground to reclaim territory, city by city, the result so far has been that each city that gets liberated also gets destroyed. The idea that it can be strangled by cutting off external support, overestimates the size of that support and underestimates the degree to which ISIS is entangling itself in local communities.

What is clear, is that ISIS presents a problem that will not go away. And as it bombs passenger aircraft and sends out operatives to conduct massacres in capital cities, those who thought it posed little risk of “stirring up trouble at home,” have dramatically been proved wrong.

Stephen Walt now has nothing more to say about containment:

What made the invasion of Iraq especially foolish was the fact that it had nothing to do with al Qaeda nor were there any weapons of mass destruction.

What’s foolish now is to compare a few hundred fighters holed up in caves in Afghanistan with an army of tens of thousands ruling over a population of six million, whose home address is not in dispute.

The response to the Paris attacks must be “vigorous”?

The effort here has nothing to do with ISIS but instead that required by an analyst when spinning away from his recent advice that we could “patiently wait” for ISIS, through its excesses, to be undermined from within.

Indeed, in Walt’s vivid imagination, ISIS might even hang on to power long enough to secure a seat at the United Nations!

Assume the Islamic State is contained but not overthrown and that it eventually creates durable governing institutions. As befits a group built in part on the former Baathist thugocracy, it is already creating the administrative structures of statehood: levying taxes, monitoring its borders, building armed forces, co-opting local groups, etc. Some of its neighbors are tacitly acknowledging this reality by turning a blind eye to the smuggling that keeps the Islamic State in business. Should this continue, how long will it be before other countries begin to recognize the “Islamic State” as a legitimate government?

This might sound preposterous, but remember that the international community has often tried to ostracize revolutionary movements, only to grudgingly recognize them once their staying power was proven. The Western powers refused to recognize the Soviet Union for some years after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, and the United States did not do so until 1933. Similarly, the United States did not establish full diplomatic relations with the government of the world’s most populous country — the People’s Republic of China — until 1979, a full 30 years after the PRC was founded. Given these (and other) precedents, can we be certain that the Islamic State might not one day become a legitimate member of the international community, with a seat at the United Nations?

The illusion created by the term containment is not only that a strategy exists where there is none, but that the problem is located elsewhere while we remain safe at home.

But in Vienna yesterday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry correctly said: “The impact of this war bleeds into all nations.”

(That graphic and realistic observation was coupled with an improbable forecast: that elections will take place in Syria in 18 months.)

For the last four years, much of the West has chosen to look the other way, quietly taking comfort in the distance that separates our own homes from Syria’s misery.

And even now, as ISIS brings the violence home, for some, this will provide a justification to widen the divide, shut out refugees and reinforce an isolationist and xenophobic mentality.

But disengagement and retreat, as strongly as we might wish otherwise, will not make this problem go away.


‘One of the best speeches I have ever heard’ — minister commended during UK debate on the hedgehog

Britain’s House of Commons is well-known for its cantankerous debates — a refreshing spectacle in the eyes of those Americans who view the proceedings in Congress as a reliable remedy for insomnia. Parliament, on occasions, also exemplifies the fondness for eccentricity which helps the British reign in their proclivity for grandiosity.

But when Britain’s environment minister, Rory Stewart, rose to speak about hedgehogs on Tuesday — the first time the issue has been raised in that chamber since 1566 — he brought to his subject not only wit and passion, but also gave (with only fleeting glances to his notes) one of the most erudite speeches ever delivered by a politician.

Those unfamiliar with Stewart should understand that even though he represents a rural constituency, he was not elected on the strength of his expertise on hedgehogs.

Leaving aside the question of Britain’s need for a national species — or by what virtue it can continue being represented by a creature (the lion) that never freely roamed on this land — the fate of the hedgehog cannot be divorced from the future of the environment upon which it depends.

Those who live on islands are often subject to a false sense of security which derives from the natural defense provided by seas and oceans. The sense that outside threats can effectively be repelled, engenders complacency among those who feel safe at home. But those who neglect to care for the homes of hedgehogs are also failing to care for their own.


Senior U.S. intelligence official says escalation of Russian bombing in Syria ‘should be fun’

When journalists grant government sources anonymity, the proforma explanation for doing so is the following line (or one of its common variants): officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they’re not authorized to comment publicly.

That claim is almost always false. Authorization is besides the point. The primary reason for an official wanting anonymity is so that his or her remarks will have no return address. No one other than the journalist offering their source camouflage will be in a position to come back with a follow-up question. When there is no risk of any comeback, assertions can be made and opinions expressed in the knowledge that they will escape critical scrutiny. Likewise, propositions can be floated and later easily abandoned.

Another reason sources want anonymity is for the same reason that internet trolls conceal their identities: they don’t want to be held responsible for the language they use. They imagine that invisibility creates space for unvarnished honesty — even though the evidence more often shows that this kind of freedom from social inhibitions has a habit of releasing the inner jerk.

The Daily Beast reports: [S]ix U.S. intelligence and military officials told The Daily Beast that they hoped an ISIS attack on Russian civilians would force Putin to finally take the gloves off and attack the group, which the U.S. has been trying to dislodge from Iraq and Syria for more than a year, without success.

“Now maybe they will start attacking [ISIS],” one senior defense official smugly wondered last week. “And stop helping them,” referring to ISIS gains in Aleppo that came, in part, because the group took advantage of Russian strikes on other rebels and militant outfits.

Since the plane crashed, Russia has struck two ISIS-controlled areas in Syria: Raqqa and Palmyra.

“I suppose now he’ll really let ISIS have it. This should be fun,” one senior intelligence official told The Daily Beast. [Continue reading…]

Fun, perhaps, if you’re an intelligence analyst with a 9-5 job in Langley, Virginia, or the Pentagon. But although Raqqa and Palmyra are under the control of ISIS, they still have civilian populations. And bombing isn’t fun for anyone on the receiving end.

It is already clear that in its bombing operations in Syria, Russia is not greatly concerned about the precision of its targeting. It’s definition of inefficiency is for a jet to return to its base without releasing its bombs.

Those U.S. officials who now relish the prospect of Russia “finally take the gloves off” against ISIS are conjuring images of what are euphemistically described as “robust kinetic operations” — the type that ISIS apparently deserves. Implicit in this characterization is the assumption that restraint is an expression of timidity, the antidote to which is unrestrained force.

In reality, the effect of indiscriminate bombing will be to tell local populations that there are no outside forces working for their liberation.

If the enemies of ISIS pose a greater threat than ISIS itself, the logic for joining ISIS only becomes more compelling.


The third dimension: Why Amazon just opened a bookstore

In all honesty, I don’t know why Amazon just opened a physical bookstore in Seattle.

Maybe they want to drive the last remaining independent bookstores out of business by stealing their employees. Maybe it’s a memorial to commemorate the form of brick-and-mortar retail the online corporation has been so successful in destroying — a nostalgic return designed to remind customers of its own obsolesce.

On the other hand, this could be a semi-conscious token recognition that online is not in all ways expansive. It’s not just bigger, faster, cheaper, better.

The price of using a screen is that through its surface we step away from three-dimensional space.

Although the physical internet exists in three-dimensional space, we can only connect through a two-dimensional display.

Even though the tool for navigating through digital space has traditionally been called a browser, a screen marshals attention in ways that physical browsing does not.

Wandering around a bookstore, scanning titles along bookshelves and leafing through pages, are physical actions that can only take place in physical space. And that space has fuzzy boundaries.

When we examine a book in our hands, we can feel its weight, see the font style and size, the quality of the binding, open pages at random and engage with this physical object in a much richer and more complex way than through a digital window.

This physicality points to an even more basic disjunction between corporeal existence and digital activity.

However entwined our lives have become with electronic devices, we remain creatures confined at any one moment to one place in the universe.

Increasingly, however, our lives are disconnected from where we are. People come together and then their phones step between them.

We are forever being beckoned to be some place else.

The end of all our exploring may never come if we fail to return where we started.


Why did PBS let Martin Smith serve as a mouthpiece for the Assad regime?

The idea of an American journalist going inside Assad’s Syria might sound courageous. It presents the possibility for a much-needed counterbalance in a conflict that has overwhelmingly been reported from one side. After all, how is the outside observer to gauge how much genuine support the Assad regime really enjoys if our only interlocutors are its opponents?

This is how Martin Smith frames his decision to report on those part’s of Syria that remain under regime control:

“You will be killed.”

“Excuse me.”

“You’re going to be pilloried, lambasted. Yeah, you’re going to be unpopular.”

That was the conclusion of a colleague, someone with a lot of experience in the Middle East after watching just the opening minutes of my new FRONTLINE documentary, Inside Assad’s Syria.


“It’s the very idea of it — going into regime-held territory. Too many people have a view of Syria that this will inevitably challenge. This is an invitation for abuse.”

Another colleague told me before I left, “You will get the charm offensive. The regime’s best dog and pony show. Potemkin village.”

Of course I went anyway.

Was the end result, as predicted, just an invitation for abuse, or was it on the contrary a heroic piece of journalism?

After Smith’s report aired last week, some viewers were bubbling with praise:

Let’s be clear: No one would have taken this report seriously if it was demonstrably lacking in objectivity — if, for instance, regime insiders were presented as ordinary Syrians who freely support their government.

Yet this is exactly what happened as Smith misled PBS viewers.

As Syria became too dangerous for most foreign journalists to risk entering, citizen journalists uploading videos onto YouTube became one of the primary windows on the conflict. These images have been a cry for help from ordinary Syrians reaching out to an often indifferent world.

This medium of grassroots reporting is the iconic voice of an uprising that refuses to be crushed by the regime’s barrel bombs.

But what if the regime has its own grassroots supporters, taking the same risks. Wouldn’t that change the way the world perceives the regime?

In the figure of Thaer al-Ajlani, Smith seems to present just such an individual.

Ajlani is described as a “pro-regime journalist” who for the last four-and-a-half years “has chronicled the war.” Smith underlines that Ajlani is partisan: “He wants me to see things from the regime’s perspective.” And yet we are led to understand that this is because Ajlani supports the regime — not because he works for the regime.

There is no question that Smith views Ajlani as having a pivotal role in telling this story. As Inside Assad’s Syria aired, Smith live-tweeted his intense interest in Ajlani’s work:

Every brutal regime has support from ordinary people who align themselves with power because they are too fearful to do otherwise. Closer in comes the support of those who benefit from that power. And then there is the power structure itself — the regime in its many branches permeating the military, intelligence, security services, militias, government agencies, media outlets, and a variety of informal accessories.

To understand how or if Thaer al-Ajlani had an important story to convey, we would need to know what exactly was his relationship with the regime.

When Ajlani is killed, shortly after Smith’s arrival, the filmmaker is shocked and ready to leave:

Having lost his chosen guide, Smith is offered an alternative by the Syrian Ministry of Information but he declines:

Ostensibly, Ajlani was independent. He might speak in support of the regime, yet he did not speak for Assad. Or did he?

After the Syrian’s death, Smith says: “I wanted to get to know this man better and to understand his Syria. The next day, I attend the funeral. I had expected a quiet family affair, not this.”

This, is a large funeral parade. “As the procession makes it way across town, crowds build. It’s clear al-Ajlani is a regime hero.” Smith concludes: “The regime has lost a defender.”

But why would Smith say he expected a quiet family affair, when Ajlani was from no ordinary family?

Ajlani was employed by two pro-regime media outlets: Sham FM Radio and Al-Watan, a Syrian daily newspaper owned by one of Assad’s cousins, Rami Makhlouf.

Moreover, according to the Syrian American Council, Ajlani’s ties to the regime ran much deeper.

They report he was a regime official who headed military propaganda for the Damascus area and that he previously ran Assad’s parliamentary press office.

So why was Smith presenting him as a “hero” and a loyal citizen who gave his life for the regime?

Did Smith know enough about Ajlani to understand that as a filmmaker he was making himself complicit in a fabrication? Or had he become so over-invested in this particular source that he preferred not to vet him more thoroughly?


Parochialism and internationalism on the Left

Glenn Greenwald is an indomitable force. I can’t think of anyone else who seems capable of expending as much energy and writing at such length in his own defense.

When Sam Charles Hamad, in a column published on Wednesday, took Greenwald to task for his hypocritical stance on war crimes, a vociferous rebuttal was just hours away. Greenwald not only denies any form of hypocrisy — he claims his critics have deceitfully redefined the term:

“Hypocrisy” always meant “contradicting with words or actions one’s claimed principles and beliefs” (e.g., lecturing the world on freedom and human rights while arming and funding the world’s worst tyrannies). It is now being re-defined to mean: “one who denounces some terrible acts but not all.”

By that definition, someone could be accused of hypocrisy if they denounce war crimes while neglecting to denounce corporate crime.

As Greenwald reasonably argues, “a single individual with finite time and energy … capable of focusing only on a relatively small handful of injustices at once, [may choose] the ones where he thinks he can have the greatest impact, thus necessarily paying little to no attention to other grave injustices where he thinks he can have little or no effect.”

Fair enough — or seemingly so. Yet Greenwald, no stranger to deceitful lines of reasoning, knows full well that the accusation of hypocrisy in this case is focused squarely on his selective interest in war crimes (not the full panoply of global injustices) where the specific instances of the crime — military attacks on hospitals — are the same, the only difference being the perpetrator.

To denounce some instances of this action, while disregarding others, at the same time as expressing a principled opposition to war crimes, fits the generally accepted definition of hypocrisy. No new definition of hypocrisy is being contrived.

At this point, Greenwald’s pragmatic rejoinder kicks in, which is to say, he would argue that for him to denounce Russian war crimes in Syria would have little or no effect.

For authoritative guidance on this strand of ethical reasoning, Greenwald links to a statement made by Noam Chomsky:

My own concern is primarily the terror and violence carried out by my own state, for two reasons. For one thing, because it happens to be the larger component of international violence. But also for a much more important reason than that; namely, I can do something about it. So even if the U.S. was responsible for 2 percent of the violence in the world instead of the majority of it, it would be that 2 percent I would be primarily responsible for. And that is a simple ethical judgment. That is, the ethical value of one’s actions depends on their anticipated and predictable consequences [My emphasis]. It is very easy to denounce the atrocities of someone else. That has about as much ethical value as denouncing atrocities that took place in the 18th century.

So, Chomsky, Greenwald, and others like them, focus their ire on the crimes of the U.S. government because of the “anticipated and predictable consequences” of their denunciations.

But moral crusaders of this variety surely don’t measure the effectiveness of their political activism by the degree to which they influence the behavior of the U.S. military or the formulation of foreign policy in Washington.

On the contrary, having an impact has much more to do with having the capacity to stir up popular outrage and rally like-minded followers. By that measure, Chomsky’s impact has indeed been measurable and he has served America for decades by mobilizing dissent.

When it comes to events such as the attack on a hospital in Kunduz, I would venture that the protests coming from Médecins Sans Frontières may have had some impact in the corridors of power, while Greenwald’s probably had none.

Do voices of dissent such as his have much impact outside the ranks of America’s stalwart critics? Do predictable denunciations of America’s crimes actually have any effect in reducing this criminality?

I would argue that both Chomsky and Greenwald need to have some modesty about the scope of their influence. Their greatest impact, far outside Washington, is on people who hang on their every word.

When it comes to this audience they should really be asking whether they are in fact raising awareness and promoting critical thinking, or, on the contrary, shepherding a flock of believers who happily echo their thought-leaders?

Can these forms of dissent serve as catalysts of constructive change, or do they instead tend to reinforce an anti-imperialist form of conservatism which narrows thought and fosters parochialism?


PBS Frontline goes inside Syria and helps boost the Assad regime

“Inside Assad’s Syria,” Martin Smith’s latest documentary on the war in Syria, aired on PBS last night. The complete report can be viewed here.

As usual, Frontline’s signature narration comes in the introduction from Will Lyman, whose every utterance sounds like incontestable truth.

As a leading brand in documentary production and investigative journalism, Frontline presents itself — with varying degrees of success — as factual, unbiased, and free from the influence of the political agendas that distort a lot of news coverage. It caters to an audience that wants to understand the issues behind the headlines — viewers who are skeptical about official statements and partisan interpretations.

This is what makes Frontline influential — the level of trust it has won. But at the same time, Frontline’s credibility can on occasions be the very reason that a story, badly told, can be so harmful.

“Inside Assad’s Syria” is a case in point. The few comments that have already appeared on the Frontline website, demonstrate the film’s effect in shaping perceptions:

Maybe Assad should stay in power. — Helen Hodge Hesketh

It is truly the first program produced by a major American media outlet (that I am aware of) that has tried to present an honest and objective depiction of the ongoing tragedy in today’s Syria. — Brian Victoria

I’m just sick of the entire middle east. And I see -no- good guys. I no longer demonize Assad. — JC Harris

Undoubtedly the Assad government is far from the best, but do its deficiencies justify the destruction of Syrian society and the misery of the Syrian people? — surprisedmike

Shouldn’t US be embracing Assad instead of overthrowing his regime? — Irfan Haqqee

If, before broadcasting his film, Smith had invited the regime to vet his production, I suspect it would have received their unqualified approval. After all, the evidence suggests that PBS is more effective in boosting support for Assad than are many of his own media operatives.

Really, this is worse than Syrian state propaganda precisely because it has a veneer of objectivity. Smith delivers the regime’s message that it is the bulwark of stability and that its enemies are terrorists supported by foreign powers, but he does this by presenting himself as a passive witness — “I went, I saw…”

Having given the opposition no voice whatsoever — it merely looms in the background as a dark uncontrollable force outside the narrowing boundaries of state-sustained stability — towards the end of the film he finally seems to give the rebels a face and a voice in the form of Majd Heimoud, but not quite: This is a man who in 2011 defected from the Syrian army to the opposition, only to later rejoin the army.

“Someone in the president’s office wanted me to hear this story. It shows that there are some Free Syrian Army fighters willing to defect back to the regime side. How many is unclear. The great majority are still fighting Assad,” says the filmmaker.

This is Smith’s MO: His “honesty” derives from calling out those moments when he is transparently being used as an instrument of regime propaganda, as though this transparency means he no longer has that function.

It’s a subtle form of deception that simply makes the propaganda that much more effective. The message is of a rebellion leading to disenchantment, and a regime with the magnanimity to welcome back those it once lost. It hints at the faint promise of Assad, the peacemaker, while gliding over his responsibility in destroying his own country.

This is the core message in Smith’s portrayal of Syria: On one side we are shown images of stability and even prosperity and of a state much healthier than we had been led to imagine, and on the other side — shown mostly in clips from YouTube videos — is carnage, destruction, terrorism, and the influence of malevolent foreign powers. Smith points out that the regime and its supporters conflate all opposition groups by portraying them all as terrorists, but then, who does he call out by name more often than any other group? ISIS.

And in perhaps the most bizarre moment in the film, he even includes scenes from the trailer for a Syrian-made movie about Saudi Arabia which graphically shows a man’s hand being chopped off — an image that is not blurred because it’s a movie special effect — as the movie’s director says: “I believe that the swamp of terrorism and backwardness in the Arab world is Saudi Arabia, and if we want to get rid of ISIS and Nusra, we have to get rid of the Saudi regime.”

The bulk of PBS’s liberal-minded audience might not support yet another call for regime change and yet this portrayal of Saudi Arabia as the well-spring of all strife across the Middle East, is a notion that resonates widely across the West. It serves the Assad regime well, by reinforcing its image as an embattled enclave, defending secularism and pluralism. And it sanctions ruthless violence by positing the alternative as worse.


Glenn Greenwald: Support for Syrian rebels is legitimate in spite of Al Qaeda’s presence

Glenn Greenwald writes: I personally don’t view the presence of Al Qaeda “affiliated” fighters as a convincing argument against supporting Syrian rebels. It’s understandable that people fighting against an oppressive regime – one backed by powerful foreign factions – will align with anyone willing and capable of fighting with them. Moreover, the long-standing US/UK template of branding anyone they fight and kill as “terrorists” or “Al Qaeda” is no more persuasive or noble when used in Syria by Assad and the Russians, particularly when used to obscure civilian casualties. And regarding the anti-Assad forces as monolithically composed of religious extremists ignores the anti-tyranny sentiment among ordinary Syrians motivating much of the anti-regime protests, with its genesis in the Arab Spring. [Continue reading…]

This statement might confuse some of Greenwald’s readers — at least I’m sure it would have if he had made it the lead of his latest column. Instead, this recognition that alliances of convenience are inevitably formed during any attempt to overthrow a tyrannical regime, was more of an afterthought buried deeply within a diatribe aimed at the BBC.

Greenwald goes on to assert: “It’s not a stretch to say that the faction that provides the greatest material support to Al Qaeda at this point is the U.S. and its closest allies.”

He might not think it’s a stretch — many others would beg to differ.

The idea that Al Qaeda inside or outside Syria is backed by the U.S. government should be treated with the same amount of scorn as claims that 9/11 was an “inside job.”


American concerns about weapons falling into the wrong hands has and continues to be obsessive, as a Wall Street Journal report in January made clear.

It didn’t take long for rebel commanders in Syria who lined up to join a Central Intelligence Agency weapons and training program to start scratching their heads.

After the program was launched in mid-2013, CIA officers secretly analyzed cellphone calls and email messages of commanders to make sure they were really in charge of the men they claimed to lead. Commanders were then interviewed, sometimes for days.

Those who made the cut, earning the label “trusted commanders,” signed written agreements, submitted payroll information about their fighters and detailed their battlefield strategy. Only then did they get help, and it was far less than they were counting on.

Some weapons shipments were so small that commanders had to ration ammunition. One of the U.S.’s favorite trusted commanders got the equivalent of 16 bullets a month per fighter. Rebel leaders were told they had to hand over old antitank missile launchers to get new ones — and couldn’t get shells for captured tanks.

On those occasions where U.S. supplied weapons are known to have ended up in the hands of Al Qaeda, this has been a major embarrassment to the Obama administration.

Even now, after a month in which Russia has conducted more than 800 airstrikes in Syria, rebels have yet to be supplied with the most basic form of effective air defense — MANPADs, though this may soon change — and the flow and use of TOW anti-tank missiles remains tightly regulated.

What continues to get obscured by those who insist on pushing the narrative of rebels heavily armed by the U.S. and its allies, is the enduring imbalance of military power in this war: the fact that the Assad regime and its allies continue to maintain air dominance largely unchallenged.


Russia is playing the Western media like a fiddle

It’s easy to bemoan the influence of Twitter on how people digest the news these days. How can anything be reflected upon, contextualized, and rendered meaningful when reduced to 140-character bites?

The problem, however, is not new: It’s as old as print journalism. Just as impoverished as tweets — arguably even more so — are news headlines.

Headlines frame stories and much of the time, the news audience delves no deeper after having, in just a split second, registered the latest version of what’s happening.

What’s happening right now?

“Russia says wants Syria elections, ready to help Free Syrian Army,” says Reuters.

“Russia offers to coordinate with rebels and US in Syria,” says Al Jazeera English.

“Russia offers air cover for anti-Assad rebels, urges polls,” says AFP.

What next? Vladamir Putin wins the Nobel Peace Prize?

If he’s successful in ending the war in Syria, setting the country on a path to democracy, and leading an international coalition that eliminates ISIS, who could begrudge the often-maligned Russian president for winning huge praise for his achievements.

But what’s really happening right now?

Russian war planes are bombing the FSA in Syria even while Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is requesting the U.S. to provide intelligence on the locations of those very units.

The issue here is not the provision or withholding of intelligence. All the Russians are trying to do is highlight the nebulous ideological status of many of the Syrian opposition militias in order to buttress Russia and Assad’s narrative that they’re all terrorists.

Russia is promising to provide air cover to the forces it is currently bombing if they stop fighting against the Assad regime and instead start fighting alongside their enemy in a war exclusively against ISIS.

When the Obama administration began its Iraq first/ISIS first strategy, it opened the door to the move that Russia is now making: the argument that ISIS can only be defeated by supporting Assad. Washington has now been forced into a reactive corner where it lamely asserts its desire to eliminate ISIS while refusing to join Russia in its self-declared effort and even when Russia’s dedication to that effort is highly questionable.

Russia is promoting political reform in Syria while strengthening its support for the primary opponent of such reform: Bashar al-Assad.

That contradiction will remain obscured for as long as the Russians continue to control the media narrative. Ironically, their ability to do so derives in large part from the willingness of Western journalists to construct news headlines and reporting around statements from government officials even when such statements have little credibility.

Moreover, these distortions are further compounded by the fact that in much of the news audience, mistrust of Western governments and the Western mainstream media is coupled with a naive willingness to trust those who present themselves as a countervailing force to Western power — a force which, on the contrary, shows no evidence of being any more trustworthy or any less cynical than the much despised West.


American assassination

This week, The Intercept published a series of articles on U.S. drone warfare, “The Drone Papers” — a title clearly intended to evoke memories of “The Pentagon Papers,” leaked by Daniel Ellsberg in 1971.

Micah Zenko, a senior fellow with the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations, writes:

Having read probably every major reported story about U.S. counterterrorism operations for the past dozen years, I am consistently disappointed that journalists leave out essential context, history, or directly relevant previous reporting by other journalists. Often, what is promoted as an “exclusive” or “breaking” story can only be described this way by omission. Whether that omission is done unconsciously, due to a lack of knowledge of others’ work, or mandated by space constraints for print editions, it misleads readers about the uniqueness of the story reported. Thankfully, the Intercept has taken the time to put its stories into context and explicitly name and link to the work of other journalists and even academics. This is a model that all national security journalists should emulate.

Nevertheless, Zenko reaches this conclusion:

as impressive and important as “The Drone Papers” are, I am sadly certain that this balanced reporting and its eye-opening disclosures will not compel any new concerns or investigations in Washington. Nor should we ever expect them under this president and this Congress.

For researchers and human rights activists, reporting of this kind is bound to be welcomed, yet it’s debatable whether it contains any significant eye-opening disclosures. Indeed, I have my doubts about whether any major piece of investigative journalism can be based on Powerpoint presentations.

Only 15 copies of the Pentagon Papers were officially made. How many analysts, contractors, and other officials have had access to the so-called Drone Papers? If we knew that, we would probably be able to infer more about the position of the source and likewise assess whether the documents contain any closely guarded secrets.

Even though the Obama administration has been seriously lacking in transparency when it comes to the mechanics and legal rationales it has applied during a period in which it has succeeded in normalizing assassination, the fact that most Americans support drone warfare does not seem to be the result of a lack of information.

The American public is famously ignorant — especially when it comes to foreign affairs — yet I don’t believe that those Americans who support drone strikes do so because they don’t know enough about how the government decides who can justifiably be assassinated.

If the target is a man with a dark skin, an Arabic name, he wears a beard and baggy clothing, he has been deemed dangerous enough to be called a terrorist and is located in Pakistan, Yemen, or Somalia, that in many Americans’ eyes is sufficient “due process” to incinerate him with a Hellfire missile.

The bureaucratic process leading up to such a missile strike is a legal and political structure built upon a broad social foundation.

That social foundation is what allowed President Obama to joke about drone strikes and what gave him the confidence to pursue a policy of assassination.

Prudence required the construction of necessary legal protections so that no one in the chain of command might later face prosecution, and yet what must have convinced Obama that he was entitled to claim the authority to sign death warrants was his well-founded belief that he was in alignment with the mood and values of the American public.

The permissive atmosphere that facilitated the implementation and expansion of drone warfare has always hinged on the assumptions that it takes place in parts of the world so forbidding that no American would want to be sent there and that those whose lives get snuffed out would never be welcome on these shores.

These are not political or legal considerations, but rather visceral sentiments about what it means to be an American and how little value is attached to the rest of the world and its inhabitants.

Moreover, drone warfare has been deemed acceptable not only because of who it targets and where it takes place, but also because it embodies the most popular conception of American justice.

The only so-called advanced nation on this planet that still applies the death penalty is one in which justice is primarily conceived in terms of retribution.

The legal process, rather than being seen as the method for administering justice, is just as often viewed as an impediment to the application of justice. From this perspective, drone warfare far from undermining the rule of law has instead, in the eyes of many Americans, made it more efficient.

Those American observers who choose to characterize drone warfare as an expression of the national security state gone wild, are also conveniently ignoring the culpability of fellow Americans. Blame the government and then everyone else remains innocent.

In reality, Obama was only able to sign off on drone strikes because he was getting a quiet nod from most Americans.


Syrian political dissident: The Western left ‘simply do not see us’

In an interview* late last year, Yassin Al Haj Saleh, one of Syria’s leading political dissidents, was asked: What do you think the Western left could best do to express its solidarity with the Syrian revolution?

He responded:

I am afraid that it is too late for the leftists in the West to express any solidarity with the Syrians in their extremely hard struggle. What I always found astonishing in this regard is that mainstream Western leftists know almost nothing about Syria, its society, its regime, its people, its political economy, its contemporary history. Rarely have I found a useful piece of information or a genuinely creative idea in their analyses. My impression about this curious situation is that they simply do not see us; it is not about us at all. Syria is only an additional occasion for their old anti-imperialist tirades, never the living subject of the debate. So they do not really need to know about us.

David Bromwich, a professor of English Literature at Yale and stalwart of the American antiwar left, exemplifies the trend which Saleh describes.

For him, Syria is a nest of bloodthirsty Islamists fighting a religious war at the behest of foreign powers. The opponents of Assad that Western governments hoped would be the instruments of regime change are a ragtag mob entrusted with a fantasy. The only thing we really need to know about Syria, apparently, is that we should stay out.

Perhaps like Patrick Cockburn, Bromwich welcomes Russia’s direct intervention in the war. He seems to believe that Russia, by virtue of its closer proximity, has a genuine interest in the fate of Syria, yet the fate of Syrians is another question.

In an exercise in textual criticism, Bromwich’s current concern is Washington and the media’s resuscitation of the term moderate — a term around which, he says, the West has long contrived its fantasies.

The fact that the professor makes a living from analyzing language might explain why he has more interest in the words used by New York Times reporters than he has in the lives of Syrians.

But as a leftist, how did he forget what it means to be a humanitarian? How can he show so little interest in the lives of the Syrian people?

In his latest commentary, the refugee crisis doesn’t get a single mention.

Turkey is now warning that Russia and Iran’s escalating intervention in the war may lead to millions more refugees fleeing the country.

In that event, don’t expect Russia to assume any responsibility.

On September 9, while the refugee crisis in Europe dominated the Western media, Russia’s state-funded reported:

The head of the Federal Migration Service, Konstantin Romodanovsky, told TASS on Wednesday that Russia is ready to accept refugees from Syria on condition that they violate no laws.

He added that Russian authorities were studying asylum applications from Syrian citizens and rendered help to these people, but noted that “historically European countries are more appropriate as refuge for Syrians than the Russian Federation.”

The report offered no explanation of what makes European countries more appropriate. Maybe it’s simply the fact that they have more liberal immigration policies than Russia.

After Samar Kriker sought refuge in Russia, having been rescued in the Mediterranean by a Russia-bound tanker, he was then confined in a detention center cell for 23 hours a day. After his asylum application was rejected, he was expected to be deported back to Damascus.

For those whose cause is resistance to American imperialism, stories such as that might look like mere distractions, promulgated to stir unreasoned sentiment. If we keep our gaze high enough, there will be no risk of seeing the people below.

*Charles Davis’ article, “Anti-imperialism 2.0: Selective sympathies, dubious friends,” drew my attention to this interview.