Rewarding ‘Group Think’ on Syria

Exclusive: “Group think” is alive and well in Official Washington, with virtually all the important pundits marching in lock-step with the Obama administration’s accusations against the Syrian government and everyone fuming over an Op-Ed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, observes Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

There is something troubling – even a bit scary – to watch the mainstream U.S. media in a full stampede as we’re now seeing over the issue of the Syrian civil war and against Russian attempts to find a diplomatic way to steer the American pack from rushing over the cliff into another U.S. military intervention.

Nearly every U.S. pundit and politician – from neocon to liberal – is charging off in the same direction, accepting undocumented U.S. government claims about Syria’s alleged chemical attack on Aug. 21 as undeniably true and deriding Russian President Vladimir Putin for a New York Times Op-Ed that had the audacity to defend the Nuremberg principles against aggressive war.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry at a joint press conference regarding the Syrian crisis with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. (State Department photo)

“Under current international law, force is permitted only in self-defense or by the decision of the Security Council,” Putin wrote, making an obvious and incontrovertible point. “Anything else is unacceptable under the United Nations Charter and would constitute an act of aggression.”

Putin then added: “It is alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States. Is it in America’s long-term interest? I doubt it. Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force, cobbling coalitions together under the slogan ‘you’re either with us or against us.’”

Again, what Putin is saying here is clearly true, really not even debatable. U.S. presidents and pundits love to talk about America as the “indispensable nation,” a reference to its recurring role as a military interventionist around the world, supposedly to protect the interests of the “Free World” and “Civilization.”

But Putin really got under the skin of the U.S. establishment when he disagreed with President Barack Obama’s defense of “American exceptionalism.” Putin wrote, “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”

Yet, for making these rather banal points, Putin was inundated with insults across Official Washington. Politicians said they were sickened by his affront, one even to the point of vomiting. Liberal Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson, usually a thoughtful writer, mocked the Russian president in highly personal terms.

“As I read Vladimir Putin’s sanctimonious op-ed about U.S. policy in Syria, I imagined the Russian president sitting at the keyboard in a lovely pink negligee,” Robinson wrote in a column entitled “Exceptional? You bet.”

Buying the Official Story

Beyond reflecting the conventional wisdom’s contempt for Putin, Robinson, like nearly every major U.S. opinion-leader, has accepted the U.S. government’s version of events regarding the alleged chemical attack on a Damascus suburb on Aug. 21.

Though the Obama administration has not released a single piece of verifiable evidence to support its “Government Assessment” fingering the regime of Bashar al-Assad, Robinson and his colleagues now report those assertions as flat fact, including the strange calculation that precisely “1,429” people died from poison gas. Other estimates have cited several hundred deaths, and the U.S. government has not explained the provenance of its number.

Yet, the U.S. tally of the dead and other claims are good enough for the American pundit class, evidence not required.

“When we see more than 1,400 men, women and children killed with poison gas, it is not our nature to look the other way,” Robinson wrote. “The moral case for a strike against the Assad regime is predicated on the fact that if the United States doesn’t do something, nobody will.”

But Robinson was far from alone in his contempt for Putin and acceptance of the U.S. rendition of the murky events of Aug. 21 half a world away. Up and down the opinion pages of American newspapers, there was mouth-open-wide credulity. Beyond the opinion pages and TV chat shows, I’ve heard the same conformity of opinion from usually thoughtful think-tank “experts.” It’s clear that any skepticism now, even just calling for public release of the U.S. evidence, is a threat to one’s career.

You might have hoped that one thing that the U.S. mainstream press and pundits would have learned from the Iraq War – not to mention other misguided “group think” going back to the Tonkin Gulf resolution and beyond – is that the U.S. government is not always right in its assessments. Skepticism should not be equated with conspiracism.

Yet, over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been hearing a derisive and condescending tone slip into the words of the “respectable” opinion shapers toward any suggestion that the Obama administration should release recordings of intercepts, satellite photos of troop movements and other supposed proof to back up its accusations.

As I have noted before – in various contexts – just because a bunch of people think something is true doesn’t make it so. There was a time when most people were sure the earth was flat, but that didn’t make it flat. On Feb. 5, 2003, virtually every prominent American columnist agreed that Secretary of State Colin Powell had told the truth to the United Nations, but he didn’t. (If you doubt me, you should look at the Washington Post editorial pages for Feb. 6, 2003.)

Of course, in the specific case of the Syrian chemical attack, the U.S. government may have it right; U.S. intelligence agencies may have jumped to the correct conclusion based on questionable evidence; sometimes hastily reached judgments are correct. Maybe, U.S. officials withheld their information because they knew it could be picked apart, though they truly believed it was on target.

The Obama administration may have concluded that it was smarter, P.R.-wise, to simply assert the findings with a feigned certitude while hiding the unconvincing evidence so a credible threat of war could be mounted against the Assad regime.

However, concealing shaky evidence to induce a public consensus is not ideally how a democracy should work, especially on a question as weighty as war or peace. And it is not how an independent press corps is supposed to work, accepting evidence-free assertions from the government as fact, rather than joining in demands for the maximum possible exposure of the evidence.

If, as some expect, the United Nations inspectors next week side with the U.S. government in pointing the finger at the Assad regime for the Aug. 21 attack, more and more ridicule will be heaped on those of us who pointed out that the Obama administration was withholding its proof.

Indeed, the chest-thumping by those who clambered onto the bandwagon for war has already begun. They might be called the “See-We-Were-Right-to-Be-Credulous” contingent. But some of us will still want to see whatever evidence the UN inspectors and the U.S. intelligence agencies have collected.

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com). For a limited time, you also can order Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush Family and its connections to various right-wing operatives for only $34. The trilogy includes America’s Stolen Narrative. For details on this offer, click here.

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17 comments on “Rewarding ‘Group Think’ on Syria

  1. F. G. Sanford on said:

    I imagined the Russian president sitting at the keyboard in a lovely pink negligee,” Robinson wrote in a column entitled “Exceptional? You bet.”

    I used to have a lot of admiration for Robinson, but a couple of his recent articles convince me that far from being independent, he’s on the proverbial “payroll”. I wonder how he would feel if, in a vein similar to his negligee comment, he were accused of “drinking the kool-aid, but only if it’s grape”.

  2. incontinent reader on said:

    When I read Putin’s Op-Ed, I thought he was channelling or influenced by Dr. King and JFK.

    • Frances in California on said:

      Dear i.c.: Putin is a consumate politician. He’s held power for a long time. He knows what to say; he knows what to do. Is our President up to this match?

  3. Jerry D Riley on said:

    In this age of spy satellites and total world wide eavesdropping on everything,
    if there is any real evidence why withhold it?

    • Snake Arbusto on said:

      Good point. One way of seeing the Snowden revelations – assuming for a moment that they might have been programmed, as Naomi Wolf suggested – is as conditioning. Now we’re expected to believe that everything is known. The Obama régime must know – after all, they have precise numbers -, but is withholding the evidence for national security reasons.

  4. Boiled Frog on said:

    I cannot recall ever, jumped conclusions ending up correct. Especially in questions of war, and when so many face the consequences of an incorrect beginning, Obama could end up making other historical figures look like pikers.

  5. That Putin used theology against us must have really irked our leaders. I mean, hey, we have the exclusive right to twist theology to our use. The press, as we all know, is controlled by an oligarchy that is trying to get the public to simmer down and stop telling our representatives that we are against military intervention.

  6. rosemerry on said:

    The exceptional thing about Mercans is their inability to consider themselves normal humans with plenty of faults, in a country without decent health services for all its people, without reasonable pay for all workers, or holidays, or sick leave. A country with a large number of incarcerated citizens including youth for petty crimes; a country with draconian maws against drug use, a country where sexual peccadilloes weigh heavily against public figures but mass murder is acceptable;a nation that spies on its citizens and prosecutes those who happen to be Muslims (or whatever is the latest danger eg communists, mexicans, japanese in the past).
    This sort of exceptionalism is nothing to be proud of.

  7. Mark Thomason on said:

    I also noticed that Kerry was openly rude to his counterpart Lavrov at their press conference. He both went on talking at length in opposition to Lavrov, and then openly derided him as not yet deserving any trust.

    Nobody in our group think media seems to have noticed. That is undiplomatic, unconstructive, and simply childish.

    Nor has anyone commented that the Russians in contrast are being polite to Kerry in this, despite last week Putin calling him a “liar who knows he is lying”, and so very hard to work with.

  8. D. Schultz on said:

    What a very bizarre way to imagine Putin. I suppose this is the flip side to Maureen Dowd’s “Obambi” bullshit. Whenever a ‘pundit’ reaches for a denigrating description nowadays, it seems it has to be a feminizing one. Unless you’re an actual woman, of course, and then you’re either butch or a bitch.

    When I read Putin’s NYT op-ed, I was amazed at how well he’d honed in on the things that make different segments of Americans so uneasy over this proposed ‘intervention’. And I thought that last paragraph was gold. Of course, it’s a bit complicated for pundits to follow, so perhaps that helps explain why they have such a harsh reaction to it; it exposes their inability to think.

    Sure, Putin is political and manipulative and concerned with retaining and enlarging his hold on power. But he wasn’t the guy who said we have to drop bombs on people because we need to keep up our image in the world as defenders of democracy and humanitarian principles. Oh excuse me — not drop bombs; send in targeted missiles that won’t get any Americans killed and will only wipe out the chemical weapons and the bad people who want to use them. Right. The people who say that sort of crap are the ones who should be imagined in fairy costumes waving magic wands.

  9. john dordan on said:

    actually there are two men with the pink negligees: obama and robinson. obama gets rolled by everybody–netanyahu, putin, etc. robinson is like barry a whore to his paymaster: israeli lobby, various corporate interest groups.
    it’s personal man!

  10. When was the last time our government told us the full, un-filtered and un-spun truth about anything?

    I can’t recall such an event. It seems to me that the gov lies about everything, whether it has anything to hide or not.

    This government is no longer legitimate : Congress does not represent Constituents and the Executive no longer executes within the Constitution. That was true even before Executive elements rewrote the Constitution in secret, a coup however you look at it.

    We should be filing IRS withholding forms to have them witholding nothing. Then next spring, we can decide whether to pay our income taxes or not based upon whether the gov has moved toward Constitutional government or not.

    I see no other source of power that would allow us citizens to assert our sovereignty. Certainly voting is useless, given the oligarchy’s control of campaign finances.

  11. Jim Hannan on said:

    I have finally figured out where the US fatality figure of 1,429 Syrians came from. Someone in the US intelligence community watched all of the youtube and other videos of dead bodies and counted them all. I am not kidding about this. This is how they came up with such an exact number. It is amazing to think that our government operates this childishly.
    The true number is probably about 400, based upon an aggregation of all the other estimates, including the Doctors without Borders number in the 300′s.
    Youtube videos. Wow!

  12. Shirley Bliley on said:

    Think Iran in 1953 and Guatemala in 1954. Same old same old.

  13. Dr. bischara Ali EGAL on said:

    It is very sad indeed that nowadays American leaders have become slaves of foreign influenced and funded PAC’s i.e., Israeli(AIPAC) instead of American citizens and voters.

    At least NOW ,Mr. Putin is on the right side of international Law and Opinion. My country , Somalia was one of the 7 countries that Gen. Wes CLARK(Rt.) mentioned in 2005 for Regime change and utter internal destruction via Proxies (Al-Shabab fully created, operated, +Funded by CIA). What we got was not DEMOCRACY AND RULE OF LAW ., Thanks to the American taxpayer and American “Exceptional-ism” that they can do to others what they want and Got Away with it scoot -free!!!!

    • This is such nonsense. Let’s not forget iranian influence w/money, weapons funding hizbollah terrorists, a nonstop neo nazi type antisemitic propaganda in most Arab media including indoctrination of school children to hate Jews.

  14. It’s critical to apply the group think analysis to 9-11