Exclusive: Columnist Nicholas D. Kristof has cultivated a reputation as a caring humanitarian who abhors violence, but he has now joined the ranks of liberal war hawks eager to bomb Syria, a choice that also has led him to enlist in the propaganda campaign to deceive the American people, writes Robert Parry.
By Robert Parry
In urging the bombing of Syria, New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof is the latest liberal opinion leader to join the ranks of warmongers, what his former boss, Bill Keller, dubbed “the I-Can’t-Believe-I‘m-a-Hawk Club” in 2003 when this aristocracy of liberal writers was lining up behind President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq.
Kristof, who did not join the club at that time, has sent in his membership card now in support of the Obama administration’s evidence-challenged indictment of the Syrian government for an apparent chemical weapons attack on Aug. 21 outside Damascus.
In doing so, Kristof is following the well-worn path of pundits who preceded him by slanting the facts and misleading his readers. For instance, in swatting away alternative strategies for ending the Syrian bloodshed, he pretends that it is President Bashar al-Assad who won’t go to peace talks when it is really Kristof’s beloved rebels.
On Sunday, Kristof wrote, “Skeptics are right about the drawbacks of getting involved, including the risk of retaliation. Yet let’s acknowledge that the alternative is, in effect, to acquiesce as the slaughter in Syria reaches perhaps the hundreds of thousands or more. But what about the United Nations? How about a multilateral solution involving the Arab League? How about peace talks? What about an International Criminal Court prosecution?
“All this sounds fine in theory, but Russia blocks progress in the United Nations. We’ve tried multilateral approaches, and Syrian leaders won’t negotiate a peace deal as long as they feel they’re winning on the ground. One risk of bringing in the International Criminal Court is that President Bashar al-Assad would be more wary of stepping down.”
From reading that passage, you are led to believe that Assad has refused to participate in negotiations aimed at a ceasefire and a new political structure for Syria, one that would include more equitable power-sharing among the various sectarian groups, especially giving the majority Sunnis more of a say.
But Assad has agreed to send negotiators to U.S.-Russian-sponsored peace talks in Geneva. It is the fractious rebels who have consistently found excuses not to attend. It is the rebels who want to prevail on the battlefield or who more likely have been angling to get the U.S. military involved on their side to oust Assad.
The Actual Facts
Kristof, of course, doesn’t have to believe me. But you would think he would be aware of what has been reported in the New York Times. From May to July, the U.S. news media, including the Times, reported that Assad had agreed to participate in the Geneva peace talks but that the opposition was refusing to attend.
On July 31, for example, Ben Hubbard of the New York Times reported that “the new conditions, made by the president of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, Ahmad al-Jarba, reflected a significant hardening of his position. He said that the opposition would not negotiate with President Bashar al-Assad or ‘his clique’ and that talks could begin only when the military situation in Syria was positive for rebel forces.”
The opposition has spelled out other preconditions, including the need for the United States to supply the rebels with more sophisticated weapons and a demand that Assad’s Lebanese Hezbollah allies withdraw from Syria. The most recent excuse for the rebels not going to Geneva is the dispute over Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons.
In other words, Kristof is supporting a U.S. bombing campaign in violation of international law that will target the side that has agreed to attend peace talks with the implicit goal of strengthening the side that has refused to talk peace. To put it mildly, this is the reverse of normal logic.
If the hope is to start peace talks which President Barack Obama agrees is the only solution to the bloody civil war then the usual strategy would be to bomb the side that is balking at peace talks as an incentive to change that thinking, not the side that is already willing to go. I can’t think of another example in history when someone thought they were advancing peace talks by bombing the people ready to talk as a reward to the people unwilling to talk.
It would make more sense if you follow the logic of military force to bomb Saudi Arabia, which has been arming the most radical Sunni jihadists who are the most resistant to a political solution, favoring instead the slaughter of Assad’s chief supporters, the Alawites (a branch of Shia Islam) and Syria’s Christians.
By bombing the Saudis or otherwise convincing the Saudis to cut off military supplies to these al-Qaeda wannabees the prospects for peace might actually be brightened, rather than the Obama-Kristof plan for emboldening the jihadists by punishing the Assad regime which has already agreed to talk peace.
The Obama administration insists that the anti-Assad bombing campaign will be calibrated to punish the government for the apparent chemical attack and only “degrade” Assad’s forces (not so much as to cause “regime change”), but there is an undeniable risk that the U.S. intervention could collapse the Assad government and lead to a victory by jihadists allied with al-Qaeda.
Given the craziness of this approach, you can understand why Kristof and other Syria war hawks have had to fabricate a new narrative which pretends that Assad needs to be bombed to the bargaining table.
The Propaganda War
Still, what would drive Kristof to deceive his readers? Perhaps he is letting his personal anger at the brutal Assad dynasty overwhelm his responsibility to deal honestly with the facts. Since the truth presents an obstacle to his desired outcome seeing U.S. bombs rain down on the Syrian military he feels he has no choice but to change those facts.
The American public experienced a similar pattern of deception from prominent opinion leaders in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. Then, many liberal and even leftist pundits held such visceral hatred toward Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein that they embraced Bush’s false case for war and clambered onboard his war bandwagon.
Many of those “liberal war hawks” also surely recognized the career advantage in joining the rush toward war against Iraq, despite the clear violation of international law. By adopting a belligerent and “patriotic” pose, they could position themselves for future advancement within the top echelons of journalism and avoid being ghetto-ized as “peaceniks” at low-paying jobs on the Internet.
And, it worked out very well for nearly all of those liberal war hawks, though less well for the Iraqi people who suffered and died and for the U.S. soldiers who had to fight the war. Almost all of the pro-war pundits, including the neocons, retained their places on the most prestigious op-ed pages or got jobs as top news executives.
Indeed, after supporting the invasion of Iraq, Bill Keller won a promotion to arguably the pinnacle of American news, executive editor of the New York Times. Only much later did he join other liberal writers in offering mealy-mouthed apologies for supporting the Iraq War.
In 2011 and after stepping down as executive editor and into a columnist slot Keller penned his mild mea culpa in an article entitled “My Unfinished 9/11 Business.” It was filled with rationalizations about his post-9/11 feelings and those of other pro-Iraq-War pundits as an excuse for joining the “I-Can’t-Believe-I’m-a-Hawk Club” in 2003.
Keller’s article on the tenth anniversary of 9/11 offered excuses for his Iraq War support ranging from his desire to protect his daughter who was born “almost exactly nine months after the attacks” on 9/11 to his accompaniment in his pro-war propaganda by “a large and estimable” group of fellow liberal hawks.
His list included “among others, Thomas Friedman of The Times; Fareed Zakaria, of Newsweek; George Packer and Jeffrey Goldberg of The New Yorker; Richard Cohen of The Washington Post; the blogger Andrew Sullivan; Paul Berman of Dissent; Christopher Hitchens of just about everywhere; and Kenneth Pollack, the former C.I.A. analyst whose book, The Threatening Storm, became the liberal manual on the Iraqi threat.”
These “club” members expressed various caveats and concerns about their hawkishness, but their broad support for invading Iraq provided a powerful argument for the Bush administration which, as Keller noted, “was clearly pleased to cite the liberal hawks as evidence that invading Iraq was not just the impetuous act of cowboy neocons.”
Indeed, this “liberal-hawk” consensus further marginalized the few skeptics who tried to warn the American people that the WMD evidence was thin to non-existent and that occupying a hostile Arab nation was a fool’s errand that would start a new cycle of violence.
As the Iraq invasion was unleashed in March 2003 with all its “shock and awe” and the killing of young Iraqi soldiers and many civilians, Keller recalled his satisfaction in having taken the side of American military might. When Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was driven from power three weeks later, Keller said he and nearly all other “club” members were “a little drugged by testosterone. And maybe a little too pleased with ourselves for standing up to evil and defying the caricature of liberals as, to borrow a phrase from those days, brie-eating surrender monkeys.”
Keller did allow that he and his “club” under-estimated the difficulties of installing “democracy” in Iraq and over-estimated the competence of Bush’s team. In retrospect, given the costs in blood and treasure among Americans and Iraqis, he acknowledged that “Operation Iraqi Freedom was a monumental blunder.”
But Keller behaved as if his engagement in self-aggrandizing self-criticism was punishment enough, not only for him but for his fellow “liberal hawks.” Indeed, I can’t think of any of these disgraced Iraq War enthusiasts who voluntarily left the stage of public punditry and consigned themselves to well-earned seats of ignominy.
Many are now reprising their opinion-leading roles in support of attacking Syria, a proposition that has what appears to be near universal support among the roster of star pundits. Earlier this year, Keller re-upped his membership in the liberal-hawk club in regards to another round of war against Syria, albeit after more handwringing and regret, much like what we have seen in the past week from Kristof.
Today, one has to look outside the mainstream news media to find serious questions being raised about the skimpy U.S. intelligence that is undergirding President Obama’s case for bombing Syria. You certainly won’t find much of it in the opinion columns from the star pundits at the New York Times and the Washington Post.
In justifying the U.S. claim that the Assad regime must be punished for a chemical weapons attack on Aug. 21, the Obama administration has released only a four-page white paper that is filled with “assessments” but lacks any verifiable evidence. It turns out that Congress has been given very little additional evidence, a 12-page version of the same dodgy dossier. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Congress Denied Syrian Facts, Too.”]
Prejudicing the Case
Rather than presenting verifiable evidence of the Assad regime’s guilt, the Obama administration has been staging “intelligence briefings” for Congress that feature videos of people convulsing and twitching from apparent exposure to chemical agents. In the legal profession, this strategy is known as prejudicing a jury, i.e. showing graphic pictures of a grisly crime knowing that the normal human reaction is to want to punish someone even if it turns out to be the wrong person.
In a healthy democracy, the counterweight to such government propaganda is supposed to be an independent news media that asks the tough questions and demands accountability for government deceptions. But that is again not what we have seen from the U.S. news media, as journalists again jump on the juggernaut to war.
Like the U.S. government’s propaganda, the mainstream media’s punditry, including Kristof’s columns, focuses on the emotional tug of the human suffering from the Aug. 21 chemical attack (and on the political stakes for Obama if he loses the congressional vote) rather than on the evidence proving who’s responsible (and on the most rational way toward peace).
Among the many facts that are still hidden from the American people is the U.S. military’s classified estimate of how many civilians will be killed as “collateral damage” from the expected American missile strikes. When Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made reference to the Pentagon’s estimate during testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week, he said the figures could only be presented in closed session.
One might think that the “humanitarian” Nick Kristof might want to know that fact before endorsing a plan to bomb, bomb Syria. He also might want to reflect on his duty as a journalist to inform rather than disinform his readers.
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.