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The Media’s Disappearing of Syria’s Chemical Weapons Program and Why It Matters | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

The Media’s Disappearing of Syria’s Chemical Weapons Program and Why It Matters

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Click here to jump directly to Reed Richardson.

My most recent Nation column is about punditry and Bill de Blasio’s fiscal stewardship of the city and is called “Can a Liberal Mayor Be Financially Responsible?

I also did a piece about the current (horrific) state of Iraq punditry for Billmoyers.com and it’s called “Eric Alterman Warns: Pundits and Partisans Are Up to Old Tricks in Iraq.

And I wrote a letter to the NYTBR about the Allman Brothers Band, no really, I did.

Also, there were three letters about me in The Nation this week. I suck according to one of them, but am cool according to the other two. They are printed below.

Alter-reviews:
1) Carlene Carter live at the Cutting Room and on cd
2) Hot Tuna and Leon Russell at the Capitol Theater in Port Chester
3) Elvis Costello at Carnegie Hall
4) Led Zeppelin I-III remastered.

* Carlene Carter has had quite the life. Daughter of Carl Smith and June Carter, step-daughter to the Man in Black and a singer with The Carter Family, while at the same time, becoming pregnant and married at 15 (and now boasting seven grandchildren), she’s kind of a country song without even opening up her mouth.

I saw her sing in Montreux with her then-husband Nick Lowe and Rockpile (in a bill with Mink Deville and Elvis Costello) and she was quite something back then and her mouth made her persona non-grata in Nashville. Today she is quite something else (as is Nashville, come to think of it). A pretty orthodox country singer, she is embracing her heritage and her extended family’s honored place in the music. Supported by her husband Joe Breen on vocals and another guy who she said was also her roadie, she gave a charming performance at the Cutting Room, a short while back in support of her fine album, “Carter Girl,” which naturally features her stepdad’s old friends, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, and the excellent Elizabeth Cook, produced by Don Was. It’s old and new at the same time and almost always in good ways. (And I got to go with the beautiful and talented Tammy Faye Starlite [playing her charming self].)

* I also made it out to Port Chester, where promoter Peter Shapiro has remade (and re-imagined) the rock hall of my misspent youth, the Capitol Theater. It’s gorgeous now and the sound is spectacular. Leon Russell did a decent set of mostly rock standards with a few Leon Russell songs thrown in, before Jack and Jorma came on just before ten. Barry Mitterhoff was oddly absent—to me he has been just as much a part of the band as those guys for the past decade (at least)—but Larry Clark and his wife Teresa were on hand and the band sounded nice and full on the pretty songs like “I See the Light,” and “Sugaree,” which is becoming a standard among jam bands. They sounded noisy as hell on their power trio stuff like “Rock Me, Baby.” (I lack the words to say how much I prefer former, but I appear to be in a minority of Tuna fans in that regard.) They did not do any Airplane songs, but it’s a marvelous thing if you live in the burbs, to be able to drop by so beautiful a hall and see a show like that. I’m not sure they deserve it. But anyway, Jack and Jorma have a new website with lots of HD recordings for sale, among other things, and you can find that here. If you want to see the impressive schedule a the Capitol, or just ogle the hall, you can do that here.

* Elvis Costello played Carnegie Hall debut as a headliner for the first time this week. I saw him Tuesday night. (I say “as a headliner” because he did join Spinal Tap there in 2001, "Gimme Some Money.”)

It was, in many respects, a pretty remarkable performance. Elvis surrounded on the big, formal stage by six guitars and a keyboard, Elvis played song after song after song, alone on stage for over two hours. He ran the gamut of his forty-or-so year songwriting career and the audience proved enormously appreciative even from way up in the cheap seats. Dressed in a black suit and black shirt with a white fedora, Elvis told stories and sang his heart out (so to speak) and you wouldn’t think his voice has the range it does--at least emotionally, but he certainly took his material seriously. Old fart that I am, I enjoyed the oldest material the best--scorching versions of “Watching the Detectives” and “I Want You” and a lovely “Allison.” The only cover—“You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away”—sounded like old, angry Elvis rather than avuncular, dad-of-twins Elvis of today.

* What is there to be said about Led Zep after all this time. They invented a genre, revolutionized stadium shows, sold 300 million records, behaved really badly especially with fish and groupies around if legend is to be believed. My friends at Rhino have just released deluxe editions of their first three albums remastered by Jimmy Page in various versions that include:

-Single CD - Remastered album packaged in a gatefold card wallet.
-Deluxe Edition (2CD) - Remastered album, plus a second disc of unreleased companion audio.
-Single LP - Remastered album on 180-gram vinyl, packaged in a sleeve that replicates the LP's first pressing in exacting detail. (For example, III will feature the original wheel and die cut holes.)
-Deluxe Edition Vinyl - Remastered album and unreleased companion audio on 180-gram vinyl.
-Digital Download - Remastered album and companion audio will both be available.
-Super Deluxe Boxed Set - This collection includes:
—Remastered album on CD in vinyl replica sleeve.
—Companion audio on CD in card wallet.
—Remastered album on 180-gram vinyl in a sleeve replicating first pressing.
—Companion audio on 180-gram vinyl.
—High-def audio download card of all content at 96kHz/24 bit. (Live tracks are 48kHz/24 bit).
—Hard bound, 70+ page book filled with rare and previously unseen photos and memorabilia.
—High quality print of the original album cover, the first 30,000 of which will be individually numbered.
—Led Zeppelin will also include a replica of the band's original Atlantic press kit.

I got the deluxe cd versions. How do they sound today? Well, pretty great, though I did not a/b them with the old versions, and anyway, I imagine it’s impossible to recreate the shock of 1969 when they were blowing up speakers in everybody’s basement rec room. The first album comes with a hitherto unreleased 1969 show from Paris with a15-minute version of "Dazed And Confused,” and a much too long “Moby Dick.” (Though to be fair, all versions of “Moby Dick” are much too long.)

The other two cds have alternate mixes and backing tracks but just a smidgen of unreleased songs and no new live performances. Even so, if you’re a fan of the band, you’ll find these irresistible and if you’re not, well, it’s right place to start and see if you still feel that way. For my money “Immigrant Song” is one of the half dozen great riffs of all time, just a notch below “Layla,” “Satisfaction,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” and “Born to Run,” (and I also love “Drive My Car,” but that may be a bit more subjective). Anyway, you get two versions here.

Here are those Nation letters I mentioned above:

Outstanding
Thank you for this outstanding issue, featuring Edward Snowden, Elizabeth Warren, Robert Reich and Eric Alterman. Yes, “there’s no place like Washington,” as Alterman says in “Obama’s Pundit Problem”; but there is, thankfully, also no publication like The Nation—and no one like Alterman to speak truth to power and to those of us without power who long for the truth. He’s the only journalist I trust; he takes up and articulates my causes—always something I believe in, know to be true, and care about, but am too… impotent to take on. I depend on him and on The Nation.
ANN BENTON

Kudos to Eric Alterman for speaking truth to pundits like Maureen Dowd. Her use of the president’s first name from his youth, as in the cited headline (Is Barry Whiffing?), has always struck me as belittling, meanspirited and unbecoming in a supposedly serious writer. It was overdue that Alterman, a professional colleague, spoke out. He reminded us as well about how complex a president’s tasks are, carried out in the face of unending Republican recalcitrance (and/or racism). Thank you, Mr. Alterman.
CHARLES B. GREENBERG, MURRYSVILLE, PA.

Too bad that the writings of Eric Alterman on the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement [“Letters,” May 26] and the FLAME ads that often appear in the magazine are nearly indistinguishable. Eric has been so helpful on so many other subjects; it is a real pity to see him so wrong on BDS. It reminds me of the defenders of South Africa and the “constructive engagement” of Reagan.
MICHAEL KOIVULA, SPRINGFIELD, ORE.

And now, here (finally) is Reed:

The Media’s Disappearing of Syria’s Chemical Weapons Program and Why It Matters
by Reed Richardson

In Syria, the Obama administration just achieved an unprecedented foreign policy success in WMD nonproliferation, but you likely didn't hear about it. Nine months after entering into joint negotiation with the Russians and Syria’s tyrannical President Bashar al-Assad, the last of that country’s 1,300 tons of declared chemical weapons began a journey to a chemical weapons-eating ship in the Mediterranean for destruction by the US. This follows the rapid destruction of all of Syria’s chemical munitions last fall. And while a dozen chemical weapon facilities inside Syria still remain to be destroyed, Ahmet Üzümcü, Director-General of teh Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), was uncharacteristically upbeat about what the US-brokered deal had just accomplished in the middle of the Syrian civil war: 

The mission to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons programme has been a major undertaking marked by an extraordinary international cooperation. Never before has an entire arsenal of a category of weapons of mass destruction been removed from a country experiencing a state of internal armed conflict. And this has been accomplished within very demanding and tight timeframes.

This successful dismantling of Syria’s chemical weapons program by the US has been matched by an almost as successful disappearing of the news of it by the Beltway media, however. What there was of so-called straight news coverage felt strangely perfunctory. While the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and New York Times did run their own articles about the final handoff of Syrian chemical weapons, they hardly gave it front-page treatment. The LA Times’ story ran on page A3 on Tuesday; the Post and the NY Times stories ran on Monday, on pages A6 and A8, respectively. But that looked like flooding the zone compared to cable news coverage. A search of Fox News and CNN archives turns up no on-air discussion of the news and only a single online story each (Fox News merely ran the AP wire story). MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow did do a short, smart segment on the implications of this diplomatic triumph on Monday, but, notably, all three nightly news broadcasts simply ignored the news that same evening.

To be fair, foreign bureaus of U.S. news organizations are routinely stretched thin, especially right now thanks to the concurrent rise of the violent ISIS uprising in Iraq, which has consumed most of the overseas media oxygen. But there’s little doubt that this disinterest is also fueled by a broader narrative bias that has captured the DC conventional wisdom of late—the portrayal of the Obama foreign policy as weak and incompetent. Indeed, it’s telling that the Obama administration’s striking, nonproliferation success in Syria has been met with such a deafening silence by so many of the same Beltway pundits and politicians who loudly scoffed at Obama’s plan last September.

Case in point: Senate Republican hawks like Bob Corker, John McCain, and Lindsey Graham. The ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Corker called the deal a “complete failure” as recently as three months ago. As for the Bomb-sey twins McCain and Graham, in their never-ending pursuit of applying US military materiel to every problem overseas, they blasted the administration’s chemical weapons deal as “provocative weakness” and a “diplomatic blind alley” before the ink was dry. “We cannot imagine a worse signal to send to Iran as it continues its push for a nuclear weapon,” the pair boldly declared in a press release last September. Now that Assad has signed onto the Chemical Weapons Convention and handed over his chemical weapons to a strong multi-lateral alliance, has anyone from the press bothered to ask McCain or Graham if they still feel the deal sends the wrong message to Iran? But you know the answer to this already.

Linking Iran to Syria has been a frequent tactic among opponents of the deal, and no one has done so with quite the white-hot vigor as the Washington Post’s resident Iranophobe, Jennifer Rubin. “Gone is the demonstration of resolve meant to signal seriousness about chemical weapons,” Rubin wrote at the time of the deal. “Gone is any deterrent effect to Iran.” In May, when the removal of Syria’s chemical weapons hit a temporary snag, she leapt to the conclusion that: “Assad has demonstrated for the world, and especially for his overlords in Tehran, that you can use WMDs, stay in power, promise to give them up and then keep some.”

So what, pray tell, was Rubin’s response to the good news from this past weekend? Close to panic, especially since Syria’s WMD capitulation inconveniently arrived just weeks before the final deadline of the P5+1 negotiations over Iran’s nuclear enrichment program. In a ridiculous column titled “Who is the Nonproliferation President?”, Rubin skates right by the success in Syria, instead making the Orwellian claim that Obama has actually “lost ground” when it comes to nonproliferation and that Iran will benefit from his supposed callousness.

Incredibly, she chooses to do this by contrasting Obama’s record with that of his predecessor, in a ham-fisted attempt to rehabilitate President George W. Bush’s foreign policy reputation. You remember Bush, the guy who helped ignite a Sunni-Shia sectarian civil war and introduce the precursor of ISIS into Iraq when he invaded it based on phony intelligence about anon-existent WMD program. As opposed to the current president, who wisely did not insert US troops into the midst of a Sunni-Shia sectarian civil war in Syria and yet who still managed to end that country’s very real WMD program.

This is patently silly, which is why Rubin must resort to some breathtaking leaps in logic. First and foremost, she commits a giant sin of omission, having the gall to tout Bush’s nonproliferation record without ever mentioning a little country called North Korea, the negligent handling of which ranks as perhaps the biggest nonproliferation foreign policy mistake in a generation. (Even neocon Fred Kaplan called Bush’s failed North Korea policy “Rolling Blunder.”) Then there’s her consistent ability to obfuscate historical facts to misinform her readers. For example, she characterizes Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s decision to voluntarily give up WMDs as vindication of Bush’s decision to invade Iraq. In truth, the real trigger behind Gadhafi’s decision was the seizure of physical evidence of his WMD program by British and US intelligence as part of an international nonproliferation initiative. One not dissimilar to the cooperative effort that just got Syria to give up their WMD program as well. Funny, that.

This deception matters because Rubin, along with most of the other Beltway critics of Obama’s Mideast foreign policy, have always hedged their bets on the Syria deal, never doubting it would not work, but dismissing it as pointless, just in case. This group, I’d note, does not include Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whom Rubin typically defends against all comers. On Meet the Press this past Sunday, Netanyahu said Obama struck a “good deal” in negotiating the demise of Syria’s chemical weapons. (I’d love to read Rubin’s denunciation of Bibi’s dangerous naiveté, but I’m not holding my breath.) Instead, she and others argue that the deal does little to achieve the ouster of Assad and ameliorate the humanitarian crisis of the war. Furthermore, they note that, as an alternative, the regime has simply turned to weaponizing industrial chemicals like chlorine gas—which are not banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention—in “barrel bomb” attacks on rebels and civilians. These are valid points, but here too, they demonstrate a startling narrow view of foreign policy strategy.

For one, these critics never acknowledge that Assad’s use of chlorine gas in this crude manner, while horrible, is much less effective than deploying military-grade chemical weapons and, as defense experts have noted, smacks of desperation. Nor do these same hawks consider the potential value of OPCW inspectors—who are still on the ground in Syria—collecting contemporaneous proof of Assad’s war crimes. Gathering this kind of evidence could present an opportunity to charge Assad in international court and/or exert further diplomatic pressure on Russia and Iran to push their client-state into a ceasefire.

The preferred neoconservative alternative of US-led airstrikes, though satisfying the Beltway’s empty, knee-jerk need for “leadership,” would have been no guarantee of success, either. In fact, that was a point repeatedly made by the U.S. military’s top officer last summer. Indeed, it likely would have only hardened the resolve of Russia and Iran, exacerbated the potential for collateral carnage by the US, and no doubt slammed shut the chance for an orderly removal of WMDs. Why is this last point particularly important? Because the successful removal of all of Syria’s chemical weapons stores and munitions has now eliminated a nightmare scenario where extremist groups like ISIS capture them, either by chance or through a full-on successful coup of Assad.

If that seems unlikely, consider that the former scenario almost happened last week, when ISIS insurgents gained control over one of Saddam Hussein’s old chemical weapons complexes at Muthanna in southern Iraq. Fortunately, post-Desert Storm inspections carried out by UNSCOM—a kind of prototype for the OPCW—had rendered all of these weapons useless years ago, long before Bush invaded. (Of course, this story still led some of the dimmer bulbs among the right-wing media to mistakenly declare that ISIS had just proved Bush’s claims about Iraqi WMDs were right all along.)

Tragically, this powerful lesson from Iraq, and now from Syria—that diplomatic efforts can often accomplish what a military attack never could—still hasn't sunk in among the armchair generals of the Beltway. Thanks to an admixture of institutional and ideological biases, our foreign policy debate remains dangerously out of whack in the press. Diplomatic triumphs rarely make the front page or get discussed on air, yet war cheerleaders can write endless op-eds and enjoy a lifetime pass to cable news green rooms. It’s no great shock, then, that many of the same pundits who disastrously predicted an easy triumph in Iraq more than a decade ago are still around. Even less surprising, that they were once again proven wrong by Obama’s chemical weapons triumph in Syria this past week.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com. I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.

 

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