Steering from the Abyss

Exclusive: The world seems on a headlong rush toward the abyss, with American neocons eager to escalate their “clash of civilizations” and religious fundamentalists of various stripes insisting their own ancient texts must be accepted as political prescriptions for the modern era, a crisis addressed by Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

When thousands of people including women and children die in Syria amid what amounts to a sectarian civil war, the Syrian government is condemned and “regime change” is demanded. The West debates military intervention and feeble peace efforts by the United Nations are mocked.

By contrast, when President George W. Bush invaded Iraq under false pretenses touching off a conflagration that killed hundreds of thousands or when President Barack Obama authorizes drone strikes inside Yemen, such as his first known one in the al-Majala region on Dec. 17, 2009, killing dozens, including 14 women and 21 children, most Americans just shrug. The international community stays mostly silent.

One of the many versions of "coexist" bumper stickers.

It is such double standards – outrage when “their bad guys” do something and excuses when “our good guys” do – that have become the recipe for what looks to be a poisonous future of endless warfare for the world. Mix in religious fundamentalism, especially the mythologies and grievances of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, and the brew becomes even more toxic. And don’t forget the foul seasoning one gets by sprinkling in propaganda from supposedly “objective” and “professional” news outlets.

Indeed, it is hard now even to conceive how the world will push back from this table filled with hate, self-righteousness and recriminations. In the United States, anyone who dares to honestly address the nation’s checkered history is accused of “apologizing for America,” a charge that Mitt Romney has leveled repeatedly at President Obama for making the mildest of accurate observations.

In the U.S., we have seen this ugly pattern for decades. In the 1970s, there was a brief period of self-reflection regarding the Vietnam War, but a new revisionism took hold in the 1980s as President Ronald Reagan hailed the Indochina bloodbath as “a noble cause” and his UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick tongue-lashed those who would “blame America first.”

Ever since then, nearly all U.S. politicians and many journalists have fallen over themselves to avoid anything that even looks like criticism. So, when President George W. Bush flattened the Iraqi city of Fallujah in 2004, there was scant regard for the wanton slaughter and the mass graves. It was all “necessary,” with blame for the civilian deaths falling on the city’s defenders for hiding in populated areas.

The same has been true when Israel launched punishing assaults against its Arab neighbors, from the initial ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in the late 1940s through the “preemptive” Six-Day War in 1967 and the invasion of Lebanon in 1982 to more recent attacks on Lebanon in 2006 and on Gaza in 2008-09. Some U.S. pundits, like the Washington Post’s Charles Krauthammer, even praise the disproportionate nature of those slaughters as necessary to teach the Muslims a lesson and to protect Israel.

Yet, while such bloody messages may be acceptable to many Christians and Jews, they represent a harder sell to Muslims, who then nurse their own grudges and even feel sympathy toward al-Qaeda terrorists when they inflict unconscionable bloodshed on innocents in the United States and elsewhere.

All the sides are toting up their grudges while ignoring those of others. No one, it seems, wants to – or has the courage to – acknowledge that all sides are at fault. No one in authority dares take the first meaningful step toward peace. At this dark moment, it may not even be politically practical to try.

Role of Religion

As a Washington-based investigative journalist for the past three decades, I have tended to focus on provable facts and pay little heed to religious beliefs and doctrines. As someone who respects the U.S. Constitution, I also believe that everyone has the right to hold the religious creed of his or her choosing. I never thought it was my business to judge that.

Yet, as the years have progressed – and the world has regressed – I have concluded that religion is not something that can be ignored. It is not just some innocent force that gives people comfort and a sense of community. It has become a key part of the crisis as competing orthodoxies countenance less and less tolerance and justify more and more atrocities.

That’s true whether it’s Islamists who insist that everyone should live under Shariah law and that pluralistic democracy is just the latest trick of Western imperialism; or whether it’s Christians believing that the Bible is the unchallengeable word of God and that the United States must be a “Christian nation”; or whether it’s Zionists insisting that God granted the Jews dominion over wide swaths of the Middle East, thus giving them the right to drive the Palestinians from the land through force and coercion.

Besides religion, there are other factors compounding the problem, like the self-centered view of Americans that they have a right to the oil resources of the Middle East – called “protecting our way of life” – as well as a guarantee of perfect security against the possibility that others in the world might get angry and strike back.

Not to mention the career ambitions of politicians and journalists who know that they could find themselves out on the street if they don’t toe the line of whatever the prevailing patriotic sentiment is. After all, Americans don’t like negative observations about America: “USA! USA!”

In the 1980s, the Reagan administration played a key role in whipping the post-Watergate press corps back into line, in part, by organizing and dispatching special “public diplomacy” teams to lobby news executives to get rid of or at least silence troublesome reporters.[See Robert Parry’s Lost History for details.]

But the collapse of an independent press in the United States reached a new low during the run-up to war in Iraq under President George W. Bush. When Bush launched an aggressive war against Iraq in 2003, not a single major national news organization spoke out consistently against what the Nuremberg Tribunals had labeled “the supreme international crime” because aggression allows the unpacking of all the other crimes of war.

Instead, the New York Times and the Washington Post served as little more than propaganda delivery devices, while the TV channels competed to see who could wave the flag most vigorously. Fox News and MSNBC even superimposed electronic American flags over scenes of Iraq, and CNN wasn’t much better, adopting the military’s code name “Operation: Iraqi Freedom” and supplying jingoistic domestic programming for Americans while offering more professional coverage on its international channels. [See Neck Deep.]

One might have thought that the humiliation of getting snookered over Iraq’s non-existent WMD would have taught the U.S. news media some painful lessons and that the implicated news executives would have been held sternly accountable. But nothing much happened besides a few mumbled admissions that mistakes were made.

Pretty much the same cast of characters was around to hail war for “regime change” in Libya (by citing dubious claims about Libyan guilt in the Lockerbie bombing of 1988). Today, much of the press is posturing as tough guys regarding Iran’s nuclear program and the civil war in Syria. Neocons dominate not only Washington’s think tanks but much of the national news media.

If you truly are a person seeking objective information about crises in the Middle East, I really wouldn’t recommend that you read or watch the major U.S. news media. The truth is the journalists all know where their bread is buttered and are acting accordingly. A reporter would have to be a masochist or someone inviting career suicide to write or say anything against the “tough-guy” conventional wisdom.

The same goes double for most politicians and officials. There has been some resistance to another Middle East war from some military veterans and a few policymakers. This handful – especially those in the military who watched the Afghan and Iraq debacles up close – are sounding notes of caution.

However, the loudest and the most influential voices are still the neocon hawks who have little first-hand experience with war but remain determined to crush Israel’s Muslim enemies with whatever force is necessary. There also are those Americans who believe the United States has the right to dictate geopolitical outcomes around the world and have guaranteed access to oil.

Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, has made clear that if elected he would put the neocons firmly back in the saddle of U.S. foreign policy. Meanwhile, President Obama has tried to straddle the differences, looking for low-cost ways to strike at America’s “enemies” – mostly using unmanned drones – while drawing down U.S. troops in Iraq and soon in Afghanistan.

Retail Slaughter

Though Obama’s approach is quantitatively less violent than Bush’s – i.e. the slaughter now is less wholesale and more retail – it is having a similar qualitative effect, i.e. it is angering the world’s Muslims who are coming to view al-Qaeda victims as heroes rather than monsters.

In Yemen, for instance, the collateral damage from drone strikes has radicalized more of the population and discredited the pro-U.S. government. Correspondent Sudarsan Raghavan reported for the Washington Post on Wednesday that “across the vast, rugged terrain of southern Yemen, an escalating campaign of U.S. drone strikes is stirring sympathy for al-Qaeda-linked militants and driving tribesmen to join a network linked to terrorist plots against the United States.”

Citing estimates from Yemeni officials and tribal leaders, Raghavan wrote that the number of al-Qaeda members has more than doubled since President Obama escalated the drone attacks in Yemen in 2009, with al-Qaeda ranks swelling from about 300 to 700 or more.

A Yemeni soldier, Abu Baker Aidaroos, said he quit his unit after an American drone strike killed al-Qaeda leader Fahd al-Quso as he was greeting Aidaroos’s nephew, 19-year-old Nasser Salim, who was tending his farm at the time. “He was torn to pieces,” Aidaroos said of Salim. “He was not part of al-Qaeda. But by America’s standards, just because he knew Fahd al-Quso, he deserved to die with him.”

Though drone strikes and other counterterrorism attacks have decimated al-Qaeda’s leadership, including the U.S. Special Forces raid into Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011, Obama’s offensive against lower-ranking or replacement operatives has had the effect of spreading anti-Americanism.

Indeed, one reason the Obama administration has been hesitant to arm the Syrian opposition is the fact that some – and maybe many – of the anti-government fighters are Islamic militants, including hardened veterans of the battles against the American forces in Iraq over the last decade.

But how to unwind the snarled narratives of the various belligerents? The neocons would tell you that there is no backing away from the “clash of civilizations,” that the West is simply at war with militant Islam, a “Long War”  that amounts to a religious/cultural death match that will bleed generations for decades.

In the shorter term, the neocon goal is the same as it was under George W. Bush, to force “regime change” in countries deemed hostile to U.S. and Israeli interests. That is why the Washington Post’s neocon editors are so eager for talks with Iran over its nuclear program to fail, all the better to get to the main event, a military assault ostensibly to destroy nuclear facilities but with the hope and prayer that a new pro-Western, pro-Israeli government might emerge.

A May 26 Post editorial, entitled “Iran’s intransigence: The West should not bargain away sanctions for faux concessions,” essentially demanded Iran’s capitulation over its right to enrich uranium for energy and other peaceful purposes, a humiliation that Iranian leaders are unlikely to accept despite escalating sanctions and threats of military attack.

Iran has shown a willingness to surrender its higher-refined uranium and tolerate additional United Nations inspections, but it wants some rollback of economic sanctions in return. However, the neocon rejectionist camp in the United States has made clear that any give-and-take negotiations will be denounced as appeasement while the tensions continue to escalate toward another war.

The Post’s editors pretend that they want to avoid that war but then adopt an our-way-or-the-highway approach that makes war almost inevitable. They wrote: ‘“While an interim bargain that arrests what has looked like a slide toward war remains desirable, Iran cannot be granted much more time to build and install centrifuges.”

The U.S. press corps also routinely describes the crisis over Iran’s nuclear program without mentioning that U.S. and other intelligence services have concluded that Iran is not building a nuclear bomb. Nor is it common to see a mention that Israel itself has a large and undeclared nuclear arsenal. Arguably, Israel is the world’s preeminent rogue nuclear power, but that point is never made in the American news media.

This persistent Western double standard regarding nuclear weapons – it’s okay for “our” side to have them but not “yours” – only feeds the resentment in the Muslim world. Al-Qaeda documents captured in the bin Laden raid reveal that the terrorist group is well aware that its propaganda trump cards remain the Israeli mistreatment of Palestinians and the West’s hypocrisy on issues like human rights and nuclear weapons. [See Consortiumnews.com “How al-Qaeda Exploits Palestine Cause.”]

What to Do?

One might conclude that the best way to counter al-Qaeda’s propaganda themes is to show they’re wrong, but that remains politically undoable in the United States and in Israel. So, there is core truth to the propaganda: the Israelis have mistreated the Palestinians and the West does operate with double standards.

So what to do to steer the world away from the looming abyss? There may be no short-term solution to the animosities fueling the “Long War.” But if it is to be cut short at all, several changes must occur:

–People of goodwill must develop the means of explaining the complex and ambiguous reality to their own audiences. A truly independent and honest news media must take shape and resist pressures to take sides in this “clash of civilizations.”

Journalists should take their commitment to objectivity seriously, i.e. leaving cultural and other biases at the door. Drop the “black hat, white hat” dichotomy and deal with the grays of the real world. If you mention Israel’s condemnation of Iran’s non-weaponized nuclear program, you should include the context including the fact that Israel has an actual nuclear arsenal.

When you do this kind of professional journalism, don’t be intimidated by phony accusations that you are “blaming America” or are “anti-Israel.” Such taunts should be treated as the ugly lies they are and not be allowed to silence the truth.

–Religious mythologies – whether Christian, Jewish or Islamic – must be rejected, even if that offends some religious true-believers. The Torah, the Bible and the Koran are religious texts from ancient times reflecting cultural attitudes and political interests from their respective eras. They must not be prescriptions for how to behave in the 21st Century.

God did not give the Jews the “promised land”; God did not send Jesus to earth to guarantee eternal life for Christians; God did not dictate to Mohammed laws to govern mankind. These are all myths, no more real than stories about thunder gods. Religious believers may find some wisdom or solace in these texts, but these “holy books” must be set aside by modern society before they get millions of more people killed.

The American Founders had the right idea. Influenced by the Baptists and their demands for religious freedom tracing back to their founder Roger Williams, James Madison and other authors of the Bill of Rights separated church and state. The erosion of that separation in recent years – mostly by the demands of Christian fundamentalists – has contributed to the irrationality now infecting U.S. politics.

–Political leaders must find the courage to explain the dangers of the world’s current path. Granted, the current media environment – polluted with superficiality and propaganda – doesn’t make it easy. And it is unrealistic to insist on perfection. But progress toward the restoration of sanity must be made a high priority.

Political sophisticates also must resist the vanity of perfectionism – that is, adopting the self-absorbed view that it is more important to stake out a “perfect” position than it is to do something practical to help save the planet. Change may be frustratingly incremental. So, a large measure of persistence would come in handy, too.

In the end, a combination of factors – including an informed electorate, acceptance of rational thinking and commitment to pragmatic progress – will be needed to stop the world’s headlong rush to disaster.

[To read more of Robert Parry’s writings, you can now order his last two books, Secrecy & Privilege and Neck Deep, at the discount price of only $16 for both. For details on the special offer, click here.]  

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & ‘Project Truth’ are also available there.

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12 comments on “Steering from the Abyss

  1. Cory Hinman on said:

    “God did not send Jesus to earth to guarantee eternal life for Christians”
    In fact, He did.

    • Roger Lafontaine on said:

      Maybe you’re confusing fact with belief ?

    • Hillary on said:

      “In fact, He did.”

      And you have just one “fact” to prove this claim ?

    • Hillary on said:

      “wants desperately to justify something that doesn’t exist in the first place.”

      Good comment — alas its being “going on” for a long time.

      i.e.

      Do not think that I have come to abolish the Torah or the Prophets;
      I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.
      - Matthew 5:17

  2. F. G. Sanford on said:

    Thank-you for having the courage to say what so desperately needs to be said in a public forum. Richard Leakey has recently announced that within a few years, the reality of human evolution will be impossible to refute based on the weight of accumulated evidence. This is a flawed assessment of humanity’s collective capacity to understand. There was enough scientific evidence to categorically refute creationism when Darwin published, “On the Origin of Species”. By then, the geological evidence and fossil record had already compiled what should have been enough evidence to expose “antediluvian” mythology for the fraud that it is.

    The “black swan” event that determines the next stage of natural selection in human evolution may very well be nuclear holocaust. But I doubt it. It will come from what semanticist Alfred Korzybski identified as a unique human ability to confuse abstractions with reality. One such abstraction is the notion of a supernatural “creator”. If people can really believe Moses raised his cane and parted the Red Sea, or ignore that Adam and Eve must have encouraged their children to have incestuous relationships, or subscribe to the idea that Noah somehow forgot to load the dinosaurs onto the ark, then how can you expect them to deal intelligently with nuclear energy, climate change or potential global war? These are people who, as some comedian put it, “Think that the Flintstones is a documentary”.

    For years, the psychiatric community regarded homosexuality as a mental illness. Whether it is or isn’t is hardly relevant, as long as no one is harmed. But religion harms all of us. There is no way to rationalize any aspect of it as anything other than an abstract fairytale. I’m wondering when the psychiatric community will come to its senses and change its position on religion. Religion is to the human psyche what a computer virus is to software: an insidious disease that slowly corrupts the entire mechanism, and does so with no outwardly visible evidence of decay…except for the flawed behavior of the mechanism itself.

    Though well meaning, it seems that many authors here and elsewhere are hopelessly stuck on a treadmill which pursues tedious analyses of philosophical, historical and religious points of view in order to somehow square religious sentiment with morality. They seem to think that religion is fundamentally moral, but the human interpretation is flawed. This reversal of what Korzybski would call “orders of abstraction” wants desperately to justify something that doesn’t exist in the first place. Morality is a uniquely human trait, and religion almost always perverts it. The morality came first, not the other way around. Religion, like many of these misguided philosophical misadventures, is nothing more than a collection of abstractions built with words which purport themselves to be explanations of things that don’t exist in the first place. As Nora Neale Huston put it, “Organized creeds are collections of words around a wish”. The next step in human evolution will either be acknowledgment of this human flaw, or extinction. It matters little whether the specific mechanism is nuclear or conventional.

  3. Jada Thacker on said:

    “In the end, a combination of factors – including an informed electorate, acceptance of rational thinking and commitment to pragmatic progress – will be needed to stop the world’s headlong rush to disaster.”

    Bob Parry’s conclusion is inescapable.

    But until the electorate becomes truly informed, and until rationality supplants myth and superstition, humanity can hardly be expected to agree upon what “progress” may mean — pragmatic or otherwise.

    Given that the average American is said to watch TV 28 hours per week and that the vast majority claims to believe in one or more supernatural beings, the realization of an educated, rational electorate seems to be a very long shot, indeed.

    Thus I take it the mission of Consortium News writers and readers alike is to continue to sally forth boldly, lance couched firmly underarm, with the wind mills fixed firmly in sight dead ahead. No doubt “results will vary.”

    Will it be enough “to stop the world’s headlong rush to disaster?” Maybe not. But perhaps I am not alone in taking a measure of perverse satisfaction in understanding, and perhaps in helping others to understand, the folly that looks to overtake us all?

    Again, Parry’s conclusion is inescapable. That’s the problem.

  4. “Ours is a world of nuclear gaints and ethical infants. We know about war than we know about peace, more about killing than we about living,” – General Omar Nelson Bradely, US Joint Chief of Staff during 1949-53 (d. April 8, 1981).

    One can also learn the definition of the West’s “just wars” from the famous Muslim-hater, Dr. Samuel Huntington, who in his book ‘Clash of Civilizations’, wrote: “The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion, but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact; non-Westerners never do.”

    The Judo-Christian colonial leaders learn their sense of superiority from the texts of their holy books. For example: “We know that we are of God and that the whole world lies in the power of the evil one (John 5:19)”. Or “The gentiles are outside the protection of the law and God has “exposed their money to Israel (Talmud, Baba Kamma 37b)”.

    http://rehmat1.com/2009/12/14/obamas-just-wars/

  5. Gregory Lynn Kruse on said:

    It’s a little hard to steer away from the abyss when the vehicle is driven by an 800 lb. abyssinian, and you are not even in the car.

  6. Morton Kurzweil on said:

    The assumption that humanity has the ability to climb from this abyss does not account for the fact that Homo sapiens are not able to make mature decisions because their somatic development is limited to the emotional state of childhood.
    Humans retain the retarded physical traits of a larger head and brain, slight build and large eyes of primate children. The also retain the emotional fixation to herd, family, or tribal leadership. They easily commit to the decisions of society, accepting beliefs as certainty, something no mature animal would do.
    The terms are paedomorphism; retarded adult traits and neotony, the prolonged or limited development of mature body type. The Imagination and tool making ability we accept as intelligence convinces most of us that certainty is a matter of social agreement. Individuality is a rare trait among children, even old children who continue to dominate the beliefs of every culture.

  7. Jay Diamond on said:

    Hi Bob,

    And about Fallujah, it should never be forgotten that the initial American assault on Fallujah was commenced in April 2004, and after thousands in the city were murdered by the American assault, Bush called it off after 4 days because the American troops were taking major casualties….far more than anticipated, and Fallujah was becoming an embarrassment to Bush in advance of the 2004 election.

    At the time, it was General Conway I believe who openly criticized Bush for having abandoned the attack for political reasons after so many American troops had been sacrificed for nothing. Hopefully Conway also regretted the thousands of civilians sacrificed to this cosmetic atttack.

    Then for six months there was no mention of Fallujah by Bush or any American commander, or media.

    The day after the election in 2004, Bush commenced the bloodbath again.

    For this alone, Bush should be on trial at the Hague, and unfortunately this perfidy is completely forgotten.

  8. Pgathome on said:

    The US needs to stop sang ” we are an honest broker in the Middle East”. ntil this statement is refunded there will not be any peace in the Middle East. As far as Israel is concerned, Irael has to look at themselves and the Middle East and Understand that they are the accressors in the Middle East. UNtil they take an honest view of themselves do not expect pease. The coutry of Israel is a nuclear power, probably a top five military power, and pseudo-democracy. these issues need to be addressed.