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The ‘Washington Post’ Op-Ed Page Wants More War (Again) | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

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

The ‘Washington Post’ Op-Ed Page Wants More War (Again)

ISIS

An ISIS guard in Syria (Reuters/Stringer)

Click here to jump directly to Reed Richardson.

Alter-reviews:

Arcade Fire and Television live at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn
Summerstage’s Charlie Parker Jazz Festival

What a show:  I missed the unicorns, but luckily arrived just in time for Television. I didn't know Richard Lloyd wasn't in the band anymore until I saw them on stage.  I looked it up during the show and found this, which explained it. I’ve seen the band three or four times in the past three decades and I can’t see that much has been lost. They were terrific Sunday night, playing in one of the biggest halls. I imagine, they’ve ever been in. Terrific guitar work by Tom Verlaine and his new, non-Lloydish friend and a slightly deeper, but no less mournful romanticism in Tom’s voice.  But I think the curtain was brought down on them as they were about to encore with "Elevation" which they inexplicably did not play. That was done not Arcade Fire, but for the really annoying dj so it was a real loss.

TAF were just wonderful The opening night of TAF, they had Buster P as a guest in the encore slot. Also this guy in a tux, showing the rest of us up yet again.  On Sunday night they were joined for an encore by David Byrne dressed up for Tim Burton movie Overall, it was a thoughtful, exciting, party band. What more could one want. All those masks and cannons filled with glitter and an audience all dressed up in formal wear, and costumes and face-paint and making rock n roll look like the utopian dream it once was. (I did not know that crowds dressed up for their shows since I had only seen them at the NOLA jazz fest. What a fun crowd. Also what great restaurants. I was feeling a little Brooklyn envy all night for the first time ever. Here is a “real” review  by the Times’ Nate Chinen; pretty heady stuff for a daily review. Anyway, see both of these bands if you can.

Saturday, I came back to the city for Summerstage’s wonderful “Charlie Parker Jazz Festival” up in Harlem and got to see some great music amongst a really diverse and appreciative crowd. The highlight, unavoidably, was Wallace Roney’s nineteen piece orchestra  playing of unrecorded Wayne Shorter pieces that were intended for Miles Davis but never recorded. Read all about it here. Thanks to Summerstage for this and so many great shows in the city’s parks this, and every summer.  The second day’s lineup, in the East Village, was also really impressive but I had a date in Brooklyn.

And now, here (finally) is Reed:

The Washington Post Op-Ed Page Wants More War (Again)
by Reed Richardson

To read the Washington Post’s op-ed page at the end of this summer is to have a distinct sense of déjà vu. Just like this time last year, Post pundits gnash their teeth and warn us that Obama’s foreign policy is broken and the U.S.’s reputation around the world is shot, but that the best way to definitely fix both is for our country to start bombing Syria.

Of course, in 2013, the target of our Tomahawks was to be elements of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s regime. After Assad’s use of chemical weapons last August, in the midst of that country’s intractable civil war, the Post’s editorial board and plethora of its op-ed columnists—both liberal and conservative—came out strongly in favor of a military strike as a response. When Obama took a “go slow” approach that rejected airstrikes and instead focused on a diplomatic effort to rid Assad of his WMDs, the paper was unsparing in its criticism. The Post—along with much of the Beltway—bemoaned that Obama’s “credibility”—along with our country’s—was sunk.

That the Post’s op-ed page would prove a friendly redoubt for war hawks aggressively pushing for US military action around the world is no surprise. After all, the paper’s editorial board was a big cheerleader, and then staunch defender of, the US invasion of Iraq. (As far as contrite apologizer for, not so much.) It’s safe to say that it channels the neocon proclivities of the Beltway conventional wisdom like no other publication. If there’s a “serious” case for war to be made, in other words, the Post will take up the challenge.

Sadly, few recent presidents have proven themselves up to the challenge of resisting the cri de couer of the neocons. So, when Obama—with an assist from a reluctant Congress—decided to forego military action last year, it was almost like Washington had entered a parallel universe when it comes to foreign policy. There’s one big advantage of this alternative reality. It offers us a chance to review the Post’s arguments in retrospect as the path not chosen and compare them to the same arguments the paper is making today. Tellingly, the specious logic and lousy predictive power of the Post’s hawks from a year ago don’t wear well.

Take, for instance, the paper’s response to the rise of the Islamic State, one that amounts to stubbornly doubling down on its war stance from last year. In fact, two weeks ago, the Post editorial board breezily expanded US ambitions to now include the bombing of two different parties in the Syrian civil war: “[T]he United States should focus on weakening and eventually eliminating the toxic entities that are destroying the region and threatening vital U.S. interests: the Islamic State and the Assad regime.” Earlier this week, the Post’s editorial board followed up with an unabashed column whose headline says it all: “The Obama administration must put boots on the ground to stop the Islamic State.” It stopped short of calling for an "invasion," but perhaps just because it's saving that column for September.

Speaking of which, what did the Post have to say last September about the role of the Al-Qaeda offshoot ISIS in the Syrian civil war? Back when the paper was calling for the US to decapitate Assad? In a Sept. 7, 2013 column entitled “Syria’s al-Qaeda Threat” the Post pretty much shrugs its shoulders at the Sunni extremists:

“The strength of the al-Qaeda forces has been exaggerated. …Elizabeth O’Bagy, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War who has travelled extensively inside Syria, reports that al-Qaeda and mainstream rebel forces are largely separated from each other and control different pieces of territory. She says that the jihadists are less interested in defeating Mr. Assad than in establishing a safe haven. […]

“Many who have joined the al-Qaeda groups did so not because of their ideology, but because they were better funded and supplied. The Islamic State of Iraq depends heavily on foreign fighters.”

(Side note: You might remember the 26-year-old O’Bagy from subsequent news reports last fall. That’s when she was being fired from that analyst job for lying about having a PhD and failing to disclose she was being paid by one of those “mainstream” Syrian rebel groups to lobby on its behalf. This is the kind of objective expert the Post was relying on to help make its case for war.)

Over the past few months in Iraq, of course, we’ve seen the devastating results of what happens when a Sunni extremist force bolstered by an influx of émigré soldiers faces only token in-country military resistance. As a result, the Post has quickly changed its tune about the strategic threat posed by this group.

“Now the Islamic State is well-funded, with steady revenue from oil fields it has captured and, as we’ve learned recently, ransom payments; it is well-armed, including with captured U.S. weaponry; and it is highly ambitious.”

About those foreign fighters, which the Post all but scoffed at a year ago? Well, now…

“They are training hundreds of foreign terrorists, including from Europe and the United States, who could easily slip back into their home countries with malign intent.”

And note: not one pundit at the Post has pondered the gains ISIS might have made in the past year had the US intervened last fall and significantly degraded the Assad regime’s capabilities. Without the Syrian army acting as a bulwark, what threats might we be facing now? How much worse might the conflict in Syria have gotten? These are a fundamental questions that, obviously, we can never answer for sure. But if our recent history in Iraq is any guide, the results would not have been better than what we're facing today.

Certainly don’t look to Post columnist Charles Krauthammer for these answers. Last September, he called for a “sustained campaign,” one that would lay waste to the entire Syrian air and air defense forces and shift the balance of the civil war. Shift it to what, exactly, he never goes into much detail about, and his emphasis on having a “strategic plan” in case of “blowback” includes no mention of potentially leaving a power vacuum to be filled by radical Sunni extremist groups like Islamic State.

No great shock, really. Last year, Krauthammer also took great pains to condescendingly dismiss the chemical weapons deal Obama got Assad to agree to. He repeatedly ridiculed it, saying it had “about zero chance” of working. Ahem. Then, two weeks ago, Krauthammer churned out an intellectually dishonest column that tried to completely invert the president’s resounding success ridding Syria of chemical weapons: “To this day, Obama seems not to understand the damage he did to American credibility everywhere by slinking away from his own self-proclaimed red line on Syrian use of chemical weapons.”

This, too, is another important point that has all but disappeared from the Post’s saber-rattling Syria discourse. By removing chemical weapons from the country, Obama also removed the threat of WMDs accidentally falling into the hands of jihadists like Islamic State. Had the US resorted to a massive air campaign like Krauthammer wanted, there’s virtually no chance the strikes could have successfully eliminated Assad's chemical weapons stockpile. The upshot of that course of action, then: a weaker Assad, a stronger ISIS, and WMDs spread around the countryside, at greater risk of falling into terrorists' hands.  

But wait, there’s even more disingenuousness. One of the other major arguments for intervening last year centered on the helping moderate rebels take power. And right on cue, Post columnist David Ignatius conveniently trotted out the now perennial “moderate Syrian rebels are at a turning point” column during the height of the last year’s debate about bombing Assad. (Here’s the latest iteration from earlier this summer.) If only the U.S. would unleash airstrikes and arm the moderates, Ignatius told us, the good guys in Syria could capture Damascus, win converts within the Syrian Army, and execute an orderly transition. Again, left unsaid was any real plan to deal with other rebel groups like Al-Nusra or ISIS, who also oppose the moderate rebels and might exploit the resulting turmoil for their own purposes.

One year later, Ignatius is now devoting his rhetorical energies to warning of the rise of the Islamic State (he hasn’t mentioned Assad’s name in a column since early June). Also of note, he’s now taken to describing the Free Syrian Army—those same moderate rebels he touted as on the verge of victory last year—as a “haphazard” ally.

To point out the moderate rebels’ ongoing difficulties is to be met with another common meme. If only the dithering Obama had acted earlier, if only he’d armed the FSA at the outset, then, then, we’d have wrapped up this war and installed with a moderate, pro-Western government capable of defeating ISIS years ago. But this too is neocon fallacy, one that rests upon a overly simplistic view of the region's politics.

As George Washington University political science professor Marc Lynch pointed out earlier this month, the Syrian civil war is a hornet’s nest of competing factions who are constantly forming and dissolving loose alliances. “The idea that these rebel groups could be vetted for moderation and entrusted with advanced weaponry made absolutely no sense given the realities of the conflict in Syria,” he noted—ironically—on the Post’s Monkey Cage blog. In fact, Lynch characterized the Syrian civil war as having “the worst profile possible for effective external support.” But no, folks like Ignatius would have you believe in the fantasy that shipping an arsenal of ultimately unsecured weapons to an undisciplined fighting force would have solved all our problems. Just like that worked out so well in Iraq

And then there’s Jennifer Rubin, who rarely fails to turn the crackpot punditry up to 11. A year ago, Rubin practically had flecks of spittle coming off her Post opinion pieces devoted to Syria. In one particularly notable rant, she demanded the Assad regime be destroyed and harangued Obama as a spineless leader who has “no stomach for complex military situations.” Keep in mind, her nuanced solution to Assad’s chemical weapons attack was to bomb another country altogether. In between insults, Rubin went on in that same post to say: “Moreover, one of the prime concerns — jihadists getting chemical weapons — would be alleviated if we destroyed the chemical weapons caches.”

Curious as to her opinion a year later, when all of those caches have been destroyed and “one of the prime concerns” about jihadists has been resolved? Well, if you’re looking for her to give the president credit, then you don’t know Jennifer Rubin. In a recent column, she conveniently ignored that the threat from WMDs has been eliminated and instead castigated Obama, saying his “lackadaisical attitude toward the growing jihadist threat is reminiscent of the pre-9/11 days.” In a subsequent critique of Obama’s Syria policy, Rubin—a big fan of George W. Bush— uncorked a sentence that should immediately be inducted into the conservative chutzpah hall of fame: “It would be as if we knew the chances of a 9/11 were real and growing, but insisted we do nothing to head it off.” Indeed, that would be gross incompetence, wouldn’t it?

That Rubin’s over-the-top diatribes aren’t really taken seriously is beside the point. By giving her an op-ed platform, the Post lets her play an outsized role in defining the Overton window of respectable discourse, pushing it ever rightward. This allows the editorial board’s seemingly less strident war advocacy to come across as more restrained, downright sensible, when, in fact, the actual policies differ very little.

Even worse, wrapping the Post’s hawkishnewss in a veneer of moderation enables it to avoid any real accountability for past op-ed prognostications. But excuses like “everybody thought Saddam had WMDs” simply aren’t acceptable if your paper is the one leading the charge for war. And lest we forget, the whole reason President Obama now has to confront an Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is because its forerunner—Al Qaeda in Iraq—flocked to the region to fight a disastrous, falsely justified US intervention there.

The Post's tragic legacy in abetting the Iraqi invasion doesn’t get brought up in polite Beltway debate anymore, however. Similarly, the Post’s pundits find no need to address the flawed reasoning and obvious contradictions inherent in this year’s case for military intervention in Syria versus last year’s. It’s telling that now that Obama has allowed a very circumscribed military mission in Iraq (and soon, possibly in Syria), the newspaper’s hawks still aren’t satisfied. Never mind that his caution has been vindicated nearly as often as their militaristic zeal has been proven wrong. That the Post’s op-ed page will almost always figure out a way to endorse more war is no mystery anymore, but why anybody really listens to it anymore is.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.

I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.

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