Media, politics and culture.
Tom Friedman (Charles Haynes/Flickr)
Syria has brought out the worst in New York Times columnists. I’ve already chronicled the missteps by Bill Keller and Nick Kristof (Bruni was okay but let’s not even mention Douthat and Dowd), and now today we hit a kind of laughable peak, or trough.
There have been a lot of classic ledes (that is, opening paragraphs) for Thomas Friedman over the years, often featuring cab drivers in foreign hots spots, but today’s may take the cake—or the Swiss chocolate in this case. At least he didn’t ask the cashier for her woman-in-the-street opinion on a big subject, his usual angle. Here we go:
I was at a conference in Bern, Switzerland, last week and struggling with my column. News of Russia’s proposal for Syria to surrender its poison gas was just breaking and changing every hour, forcing me to rewrite my column every hour. To clear my head, I went for a walk along the Aare River, on Schifflaube Street. Along the way, I found a small grocery shop and stopped to buy some nectarines. As I went to pay, I was looking down, fishing for my Swiss francs, and when I looked up at the cashier, I was taken aback: He had pink hair. A huge shock of neon pink hair—very Euro-punk from the ’90s. While he was ringing me up, a young woman walked by, and he blew her a kiss through the window—not a care in the world.
Observing all this joie de vivre, I thought to myself: “Wow, wouldn’t it be nice to be a Swiss? Maybe even to sport some pink hair?” Though I can’t say for sure, I got the feeling that the man with pink hair was not agonizing over the proper use of force against Bashar al-Assad. Not his fault; his is a tiny country. I guess worrying about Syria is the tax you pay for being an American or an American president—and coming from the world’s strongest power that still believes, blessedly in my view, that it has to protect the global commons. Barack Obama once had black hair. But his is gray now, not pink. That’s also the tax you pay for thinking about the Middle East too much: It leads to either gray hair or no hair, but not pink hair.
Then he’s off into ruminations on Syria. Remember: Unlike Keller and Kristof, he was “dovish” on a US attack. Will that change in the space of six months—one Friedman Unit?
Anyway, here’s how he wraps it up:
I agree with Obama on this: no matter how we got here, we’re in a potentially better place. So let’s press it. Let’s really test how far Putin will go with us. I’m skeptical, but it’s worth a try. Otherwise, Obama’s hair will not just be turned gray by the Middle East these next three years, he’ll go bald.
Since 1982, it’s possible that I have written more words about nuclear dangers, past and present, than anyone, in several hundred articles, two books and (in recent years) dozens of blog posts. I was also the editor of Nuclear Times magazine for four years. So I’ve observed, and charted, the rise and fall of American concern about nuclear weapons and their use for over three decades—or more, as I’ve been interested in this subject going back to ducking-and-covering back in my 1950s school days.
Unfortunately, after the heyday of the antinuclear movement of the early 1980s, public protest and political agitation for drastic cuts in nuclear arsenals, or even abolition, have faded. This has happened even though Ronald Reagan, of all people, called for abolition nearly thirty years ago, and now President Obama has done the same.
Yes, the United States and Russia have reduced their arsenals—largely by getting rid of outmoded weaponry and delivery systems—but as I noted last week (and this may surprise you), we still have 7700 nuclear warheads and maintaining that posture costs us $60 billion a year.
Also: we still have a “first-use” policy. That is, we retain the “right” to use our weapons first in a conflict, not just in retaliation.
That’s the key reason that so much of my writing has explored the atomic bombings of Japan in 1945, and the “cover-up” in the US afterward (see my book Atomic Cover-up). Although our presidents, top officials, policymakers and pundits all proclaim “never again,” they inevitably turn around and defend the two times these weapons have already been used against people (killing more than 200,000, mainly women and children). In other words: they attest to the usefulness of the weapons in certain extreme cases. That means they have drawn a “red line”—in the sand, where it can easily disappear.
Anyway: Some help may be on the way in turning the tide of inaction and knee-jerk, often uninformed, opinion.
Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation and other books, is out today with his much-awaited Command and Control, filled with scary stories about nuclear accidents and near-accidents in the US, with special focus on a 1980 missile silo crisis. As it happens, two years before that, in 1978, I assigned for Crawdaddy a piece by novelist Tim O’Brien on the threat of just such an accident.
Hopefully, getting scared about a nuke accident here at home might do what the Cold War “doomsday” scenarios, the mega-popular TV movie The Day After and the threat posed by modern-day terrorists with “suitcase bombs” have not—get Americans talking again about getting rid of these weapons, or at least reducing down to near-zero.
I’ll return this week with more on Schlosser and his book (you can read its first chapter now here), but I see, in an interview with Rolling Stone today, that he agrees with me about steep reductions, now. As he says:
I don’t think it’s going to happen overnight, but the first step would be for the major nuclear powers to meet and begin greatly reducing the sizes of their arsenals. The fewer weapons there are, the less likely there is to be a catastrophic accident. I mean, that’s just the law of probability. Realistically, you have an alternative: You can abolish nuclear weapons or you can accept that one day they’re going to be used. It’s just almost unimaginable what that would mean.
Greg Mitchell observes the anniversary of the “Atomic Plague” cover-up.
Believe it or not, the often admirable Nicholas Kristof in new column today at the New York Times is still calling for bombing Syria.
In today’s column (in a separate note he reveals it was written as the deal to get rid of Assad’s chemical arsenal was just about wrapped up), Kristof makes this weak argument, among other weak ones: “A missile strike on Syrian military targets would result in no supplemental budget, so money would come from the existing military pot. In any case, the cost of 100 missiles would be about $70 million—far less than the $1 billion annual rate that we’re now spending on humanitarian aid for Syrians displaced by worsening war and by gas attacks.
“If a $70 million strike deters further gas attacks and reduces the ability of President Bashar al-Assad to bomb civilians, that might actually save us money in humanitarian spending.”
Also notice how he is charging Assad with “presiding over” deaths of 100,000, even though most counts claim the rebels have slain up to half that number. Artful. And he admits “some” of the rebels “are vile.” Maybe three or four, you know.
Finally, he dishonestly ignores the fact that if Obama had followed his call last week (and that of his colleague, Bill Keller) and started firing cruise missiles, we would have already no doubt killed an untold number of innocent Syrians. Also we would not have the current agreement to get rid of all of Syria’s chemical agents (gained without bloodshed)—which our bombing would not have come close to accomplishing.
Also, this agreement will, if carried out, eliminate the chance of those weapons falling into Al Qaeda hands. In addition, there will now be no Assad retaliatory strikes and our bombs will not inflame much of the rest of the Muslim world against us. Apparently these are rather small matters, in Kristof's view.
In a tweet on Friday, Kristof crowed that the “threat” of bombing that he backed was working and this produced the Syria/Russia offer. Fair enough, except if Obama had actually gone ahead with the bombing already, as Kristof wished, there would have been no such offer.
Kristof argues that we simply must oppose "mass atrocities" and crossing red lines in the use of inhumane weapons—yet in an earlier column he supported the use of atomic bombs against Japan, killing at least 120,000 women and children and 70,000 others (and see on that subject my book here). Kristof’s hero Nelson Mandela famously pointed out how the US still suffers—around the world—from the stain of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Most of the rest of the world remembers that, even if most Americans ignore it, or support the crime.
By the way, Bill Keller in his latest hawkish column declared that he'd eat his hat if the current agreement on chemical weapons also led to serious talks on cooling down the civil war in Syria. I've got the salt and pepper or hot sauce ready.
Bruce Springsteen paid tribute last night in Santiago to the famed Chilean political folk singer Victor Jara, who died forty years ago in the US-backed coup. Bruce sang “Manifesto,” reportedly the last song Jara wrote before he was tortured, in Spanish after his intro, also in Spanish. The crowd roared and applauded.
See my recent Jara post here. In 1974, I edited and published the first major mainstream piece about the death of Jara in the United States, at Crawdaddy. In it, Stew Albert recounted his visit to Chile, with Phil Ochs and Jerry Rubin, when they met Jara. Springsteen, then one of my friends, first read about Jara in that 1974 opus.
Lyrics from “Manifesto”:
I don’t sing for love of singing
or to show off my voice
but for the statements
made by my honest guitar
for its heart is of the earth
and like the dove it goes flying….
Yes, my guitar is a worker
shining and smelling of spring
my guitar is not for killers
greedy for money and power
but for the people who labor
so that the future may flower.
For a song takes on a meaning
when its own heart beat is strong
sung by a man who will die singing
truthfully singing his song.
I don’t care for adulation
or so that strangers may weep.
I sing for a far strip of country
narrow but endlessly deep.
A member of a rebel group called the Martyr Al-Abbas throws a handmade weapon in Aleppo on June 11, 2013. (Reuters/Muzaffar Salman)
The saga of Elizabeth O’Bagy reached a kind of climax last night—for now—when CNN’s Jake Tapper linked her to one of my favorite movies of recent years, Wag the Dog. Read the whole, improbable piece online, but this stands out:
It’s all part of the weird world of Washington—a doctor who is not a doctor writes an op-ed testifying for the rebels, without disclosing that she is paid for by a rebel advocacy group, and her words are seized as evidence by experts—Kerry and McCain.
O’Bagy, you may recall, wrote an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal recently, IDed as simply an expert with the “non-partisan” Institute for the Study of War. Her piece was allegedly based on up-close research, contending that the rebels in Syria were far more touchy-feely and moderate than their reputation as largely jihadists who like to meet atrocity with atrocity. In his first push for war, Secretary of State John Kerry cited her piece, then so did Senator John McCain and numerous other hawks.
Suddenly a media star, O’Bagy appeared on TV shows, referred to as “Dr. O’Bagy.” Few pointed out that the Institute was a typical hawkish neocon outfit that would be fully expected to produce pieces such as the one O’Bagy penned.
Then it all fell apart.
First, it turned out that part of her work had been paid for by groups supporting the Syrian rebels.
Then the depth of her experience in Syria and general expertise were called into question by journalists who had spent a great deal of time in the region. Reuters produced a piece challenging her views on the “moderate” rebels.
Yesterday, the Institute fired the “Dr.” for lying about having a PhD.
Tapper’s Wag the Dog column was the final nail in the coffin. But will Willie Nelson, as in the movie, write a theme song for her?
The Wall Street Journal finally did acknowledge her link to the Syrian rebels—but as Frank Rich tweeted last night, will they probe their failure to mention this when her piece ran, and will they now apologize? Also, will we hear from Kerry and McCain on this matter?
My book on how the media gave us Iraq, So Wrong for So Long, now out in a new edition, and as e-book for first time.
George Zornick critiques the Senate’s new bill on Syria.
The former New York Times chief editor, Bill Keller, now a weak weekly columnist there, has polluted the Internet with a rare blog post—apparently inspired by a crying jag after it became apparent yesterday Obama would fail to bomb the hell out of Syria this week.
This is the same Keller who proudly proclaimed himself a “reluctant hawk” over our invasion of Iraq, only apologized half-heartedly (and it seems to be a small heart to start with) in a famous “mini-culpa”, and stood behind Judy Miller far longer than seemingly morally possible. And now he’s throwing a tantrum because Obama is not bombing Syria by sundown.
A few months back Keller begged us all to “get over” Iraq—clearly, he had—and confront Syria.
I like this comment from a Keller reader in Maine:
This is not about a conflict between Obama (US) and Putin (Russia).
It’s about trying to get rid of chemical weapons in Syria or disarm then or something. If that can be done without further bloodshed that’s a win-win.
Yes, the Syrian conflict will continue, but we’ve decided that it’s too complicated and too opaque for us, or anyone, to intervene.
Come on Keller. The Cold War is over! If Putin (Russia) can accomplish what Obama said he wanted that’s great.
Then there’s a William Verek from California:
Dang. We were all led to believe that the need for a strike on Syria was to make it unlikely to use chemical weapons again because they are, you know, different in kind from conventional weapons like land mines, cluster munitions and white phosphorous (all of which are used by the U.S. and the ally it is most faithful to, Israel).
So now we may have accomplished what Obama said we were trying to accomplish and may have done so without blood being shed by the U.S. Why do you sound disappointed?
How could accomplishing our stated goals without war be a defeat? Either the stated motives weren’t the real motives or some people just want war.
Given all the hoopla about chemical weapons as the reason the U.S. had to attack, and the discounting of other motivations, such as to bring a quick end to what could be a horrific unending civil war that may put Al Qaeda in the drivers seat of a country with unlimited advanced shoulder-launched surface to air missiles, If Assad follows through in getting rid of his chemical weapons, it will be immeasurably more difficult to drum up a new excuse for intervening on the Israeli- and Saudi-supported side in the Syrian civil war.
Which could prove yet another painful lesson on the drawbacks of trying to lie the country into (yet another) war.
And from a Kevin Rothstein:
Mr. Keller sounds downright angry that we may not go to war after all.
Isn’t it a pity, Bill, how we try and try to get other people to kill for us, and don’t always succeed?
Keller was wrong on Iraq; he is danger of being two for two.
The Times, no doubt, will give the neoliberal war hawk a raise and promotion.
Greg Mitchell delves into public opinion on Syria.
My book on how Keller and others in the media gave us Iraq, So Wrong for So Long, now out in a new edition, and as e-book for first time.
Antiwar demonstrators in Washington protest against possible US military action in Syria in front of the White House. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
Near the beginning of the current crisis over the chemical attack in Syria, polls showed Americans only somewhat opposed to the US’s responding militarily. Administration sources and pro-strike pundits predicted that would surely shift to support when more learned of the chemical attack, Assad’s guilty, and that US bombing would be “limited.”
Whoops. Turns out the more President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry talked about it—and liberal pundits like Bill Keller and Nick Kristof promoted it—the more people hated the idea. Polls turned more firmly against the bombing a few days ago, and now four new polls show opposition is overwhelming—even though most now agree that (1) chemicals were used and (2) the Assad side used them. Of course, the tide of negative views on the proposed US bombing is reflected in the current mood in Congress as the planned vote on the strike nears.
No wonder President Obama, to the surprise of many, yesterday greeted the Russian plan for defusing the crisis with at least half-open arms. Presidents in the past, notably Geroge W. Bush, would have derided the plan for international control of the stockpiles of chemical weapons, leading to destruction, as just a gimmick, a stalling tactic, that would not lead to any real changes. Remember Saddam allowing all those UN inspectors to search for missing WMD, which Bush ignored?
In any case, it looks like public opposition and agitation and phone calls, which pushed Congress, may indeed lead to a breakthrough, with Syria accepting the proposal today and the UN jumping in. On the other hand, AIPAC and other forces that want to strike—partly to “send a message to Iran”—will no doubt pressure Obama all day leading up to his speech tonight.
Now the polls:
A new poll from McClatchy-Marist: 56 percent oppose striking Syria. AP-Ipsos: 61 percent want Obama’s request to Congress turned down. ABC/Wash Post: 64 percent oppose a strike. A new poll from Pew shows widening opposition, now 28 percent for a strike, 63 percent against. The New York Times is just out with its new poll showing three in four feel Obama has not clearly explained why he wants to hit Syria. And:
Overall, 56 percent disapprove of the president’s handling of the Syrian crisis so far, and 33 percent approve. There are sharp partisan differences on the president’s performance: 52 percent of Democrats approve of how he is dealing with Syria, while 77 percent of Republicans and 63 percent of independents disapprove.
Protesters, holding up their red-painted hands, stand behind Secretary of State John Kerry on Capitol Hill in Washington, September 4, 2013. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
President Obama held a press conference in St. Petersburg this morning—see my full account here—which turned into another dismal, at times half-hearted, performance in spinning the need for an attack on Syria. Richard Wolffe of MSNBC quickly labeled it “embarrassing.” The problem for the president remains: he and his secretary of state, John Kerry, have relied on half-truths and, let’s say it, lies, in promoting the war—and as one reporter pointed out at the presser, they actually lose the backing of the public and the Congress the more they say.
That’s because, with the belated help of some in the media, it is all too easy to see through the spin.
Let us count just some of the (un)truths and lies. We won’t even get into Kerry’s repeated claim that he opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003 when the truth is completely the opposite (he came to oppose it later).
1) Yesterday I unpacked the claims of precisely 1,429 killed in the chemical attack, noting that all other sources put it much lower—in some cases at only one-fourth that number. I won’t repeat what I wrote but note that the White House still has given no source for this. At the presser today, Obama mentioned 1,400 “gassed”—not “killed.” I presume just a slip but wish a reporter had followed up.
2) Kerry and backers in Congress—notably Senator John McCain—have claimed for the past week that the rebels in Syria are actually, in the main, “moderate” (not jihadists) and their ranks are growing daily. Yesterday The New York Times carried a front-piece disputing this along with a photo of an execution in progress carried out by those “moderate” rebels. They also had a video of it picked up widely by cable news.
Bad enough but then today we learn that a prime source for the “moderate” claim cited by Kerry and McCain—a recent Wall Street Journal piece—was written by a woman who has been paid by…the Syrian rebels. Reuters has also produced a key piece disputing the “moderate” claim.
3) Obama and Kerry have both declared over and over that his would be a very limited strike. Multiple reports at top news outlets now reveal that the target list is actually expanding and jets as well as missiles will be used. Obama call this “inaccurate” at the presser today but he has been under pressure from hawks to step up the destruction to aid the rebels in the fight.
Also at the presser, Obama denied reports that skeptical Congress members are coming out of intel briefings more, not less, skeptical about an attack. Reporters immediately disputed this.
4) Finally (for now) there’s this: Obama, Kerry and their supporters in Congress and on TV have argued that Assad has “killed 100,000” (maybe more) of his own people. This is rarely corrected by the media or in interviews. The truth is bad enough, surely, but it’s not 100,000. But that figure, so many others others, is being used as spin to induce people to back the war against Syria.
The facts, from more than one group but this leading one here, is that at least 40,000 of that total is Assad forces or militias supporting him. Militia fighting him—and non-combatants (killed by both sides)—make up the rest. In fact, not a single report or count, even by the Assad opponents and groups friendly to him, endorse the Assad-killed-100,000 figure.
But don’t let the facts get in the way of the first airstrike. Assad is bad enough, but the propaganda—from Kerry to certain MSNBC folks—just shows the weakness in their case.
Greg Mitchell chronicled Bush and media lies re: Iraq in his book "So Wrong for So Long."
Secretary of State John Kerry. (AP Images)
Days later and we still have no idea where Secretary of State John Kerry got that amazingly precise number of 1,429 killed in the alleged Syria chemical agent attack. He hasn’t cited full sourcing for it or taken questions on that. He merely claims he can’t say because it would “compromise” intelligence, which sounds like utter bull. President Obama also cited the death toll as fact in public statements beating the drums for war.
And all other sources put the number a little or a lot lower. Why does this matter in the current debate? Obviously the higher number, particularly with the also unproven claim of more than 400 dead kids, is meant to sell a US military attack to the American people—and that’s why it’s a key claim. That 1,400 number makes the latest attack seem so much worse than earlier alleged Assad chem attacks, which we did not find horrible enough to claim they crossed the “red line.”
Despite all that, most in US media for days still cited the number with little qualifying or probing. It was often said that Kerry “revealed” the number of deaths, not “claimed.”
That’s starting to change, finally, although few in the media are charging Kerry with a deliberate lie. In the midst of a major AP story (on the US’s missing signs of the chemical attack) last night the reporter notes: “The administration says 1,429 died in the attack. Casualty estimates by other groups are far lower.” A September 3 New York Times piece referred to the “stunningly higher” US death figure.
Mark Seibel, a top McClatchy editor, was on Democracy Now! Wednesday taking up that issue, among others, and see full transcript here. McClatchy had published a piece the day before analyzing the questions about the high figure. It quoted Anthony Cordesman, a former senior defense official who’s now with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, who criticized Kerry as being “sandbagged into using an absurdly over-precise number” of 1,429.
A Los Angeles Times piece late yesterday took a very tough look at it, citing the lower figures from the Brits and French. And this:
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, generally regarded as one of the most reliable sources of information on casualty figures in Syria, says it has confirmed 502 deaths, including 80 children and 137 women. Rami Abdul-Rahman, a Syrian expatriate who runs the organization from his home in Britain, said he was shocked by the White House’s count.
“I don’t know where this number came from,” Abdul-Rahman said in a phone interview. He said some Syrian opposition groups disseminate propaganda and exaggerated death tolls in an attempt to sway American politicians. “The U.S. took this high number from one part of the Syrian opposition that is supported by the U.S. government,” Abdul-Rahman said. “We don’t trust them.”
A former CIA official tells the LA Times: “I would suspect most of that information would be on the high side initially. You’ll have sources who want to influence you, so they’ll give higher figures.” Also see an in-depth Marcy Wheeler post here which explores the US sourcing, as far as it goes. (And see my book, So Wrong for So Long, on how the media helped give us the Iraq war, and keep us there.)
Greg Mitchell questions why AIPAC’s role in this debate is being censored.
After a summer abroad directing his first film (with John Oliver a surprisingly fine fill-in), Jon Stewart returned to The Daily Show last night, after cutting his beard at the start.
After a goofy opening, he offered a hard-hitting if fun look at the drive to strike Syria, leaving no doubt where he stood. Watch it, with appearances by Dubya, Paul Bremer, Rumsfeld and more. Also includes: “The ‘red line’ is just a dick-measuring ribbon.” But may lead to “Operation Just-the-Tip.”
Then he brought on the United Nations official in charge of the massive Syria refugee problem in Jordan and elswhere in the region.
Go here for results of two polls finding Americans much opposed to attack on Syria. I will modestly suggest that as war nears again, certain people ought to read or reread my book on the media and Iraq, So Wrong for So Long.
Katrina vanden Heuvel urges congress to think carefully before intervening in Syra.