Exclusive: President Obama said that just because the U.S. military is “the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail” – a wise observation – but he then confused his foreign policy speech by pandering to neocon narratives on crises in Ukraine and elsewhere, reports Robert Parry.
By Robert Parry
As American neocons continue to shape the narratives that define the permissible boundaries for U.S. foreign policy thinking, the failure to enforce any meaningful accountability on them for their role in the criminal and disastrous invasion of Iraq has become painfully clear.
In any vibrant democratic system, it would be unthinkable that the neocons and other war hawks who yahooed the United States into Iraq a little more than a decade ago would still be exercising control over how Americans perceive today’s events. Yet, many of the exact same pundits and pols who misled the American people then are still misleading them today.
Thus, we’re stuck reading the Washington Post’s deputy editorial page editor Jackson Diehl reinforce the myth that the Ukraine crisis was caused by “the aggression of Russian President Vladimir Putin,” when the reality is that it was the United States and the European Union that stirred up the unrest and set the stage for neo-Nazi militias to overthrow elected President Viktor Yanukovych and plunge the country into a nasty little civil war.
Yet, you’re not supposed to know that. Anyone who dares explain the actual narrative of what happened in Ukraine is immediately accused of spreading “Russian propaganda.” The preferred U.S. narrative of white-hat “pro-democracy” protesters victimized by black-hat villain Yanukovych with the help of the even more villainous Vladimir Putin is so much more fun. It lets Americans cheer as ethnic Russians in the east are burned alive by neo-Nazi mobs and mowed down by Ukrainian military aircraft.
Diehl and his boss, editorial page editor Fred Hiatt, are precisely the same neocon propagandists who told Americans in 2002 and early 2003 that Iraq was hiding weapons of mass destruction. Hiatt and Diehl didn’t write that as an allegation or a suspicion, but as flat fact. Yet, it turned out to be flatly untrue – and hundreds of thousands of people, including nearly 4,500 U.S. soldiers, died as a result of the war.
But don’t worry: the careers of Diehl and Hiatt didn’t suffer. They’re still in their same influential jobs a dozen years later, framing how we should understand Syria, Ukraine and the rest of the world.
And, if Hiatt and his editorial board had their way, American troops would still be patrolling Iraq. On Wednesday, the Post’s lead editorial condemned President Barack Obama for not maintaining permanent U.S. military forces in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan – and not getting deeper into the Syrian civil war.
“You can’t fault President Obama for inconsistency,” the Post’s editorial sneered. “After winning election in 2008, he reduced the U.S. military presence in Iraq to zero. After helping to topple Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi in 2011, he made sure no U.S. forces would remain. He has steadfastly stayed aloof, except rhetorically, from the conflict in Syria. And on Tuesday he promised to withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2016.
“The Afghan decision would be understandable had Mr. Obama’s previous choices proved out. But what’s remarkable is that the results also have been consistent — consistently bad.”
The neocons, including the Post’s editorialists, voice outrage when Obama paints them with a broad brush as obsessed with putting American boots on the ground. But how can one read that editorial and not recognize that what the neocons want is not just temporary U.S. boots on the ground but to have them cemented into these countries as permanent occupiers?
Then, over at the New York Times, you can read the wisdom of Thomas L. Friedman, another star promoter of the Iraq War who infamously kept telling Americans every six months that the grinding war would look better in six months but it never did.
Friedman, who may be the most overrated columnist in American history, is now asserting what he trusts will become the new conventional wisdom on Ukraine, that Putin lost the Ukraine crisis. On Wednesday, Friedman wrote “In the end, it was Putinism versus Obamaism, and I’d like to be the first on my block to declare that the ‘other fellow’ — Putin — ‘just blinked.’”
According to Friedman, the Ukraine crisis “may be the first case of post-post-Cold War brinkmanship, pitting the 21st century versus the 19th. It pits a Chinese/Russian worldview that says we can take advantage of 21st-century globalization whenever we want to enrich ourselves, and we can behave like 19th-century powers whenever we want to take a bite out of a neighbor — versus a view that says, no, sorry, the world of the 21st century is not just interconnected but interdependent and either you play by those rules or you pay a huge price.”
As with Hiatt and Diehl, one has to wonder how Friedman can be so disconnected from his own record as an eager imperialist when it came to U.S. desires for “regime change” in a variety of disliked countries. While it may be true that the United States hasn’t taken bites out of its immediate neighbors recently – although there were U.S.-backed coups in Honduras, Haiti and Venezuela in the 21st Century – the U.S. government has taken numerous bites out of other countries halfway around the world.
And, as for playing by the “rules,” Friedman’s “exceptional” America sets its own rules. [For more on how this style of propaganda relates to Ukraine, see Consortiumnews.com’s “NYT’s One-Sided Ukraine Narrative.”]
Friedman’s schoolyard taunt about Putin having “blinked” also is at best a superficial rendering of the recent developments in Ukraine and a failure to recognize the long-term harm that Official Washington’s tough-guy-ism over Ukraine has done to genuine U.S. national interests by shoving Russia and China closer together. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Premature US Victory-Dancing on Ukraine.”]
Even newspaper columnists are supposed to connect their writings to reality once in a while. But I guess since the likes of Hiatt, Diehl and Friedman advocated the gross violation of international law that was the Iraq War, got their facts wrong, and paid no career price for doing so, they have little reason to think that they should change their approach now.
During my four-decade-plus career in journalism, I have seen reporters take on tough stories and do so with high professional standards, yet still have their careers ruined because some influential people accused them of some minor misstep, the case of Gary Webb and his Contra-cocaine series being one tragic example. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Warning in Gary Webb’s Death.”]
In contrast, Hiatt, Diehl and Friedman can provide false propaganda to justify an illegal war that gets hundreds of thousands of people killed while squandering about $1 trillion in taxpayers’ money, yet they faced no consequences. So, today, they are still able to frame new trouble spots like Syria, Libya and Ukraine and cramp President Obama’s sense of how far he can go in charting a less violent foreign policy.
Obama’s Timid Speech
Even though Obama did oppose the Iraq invasion last decade, he has been sucked into the same barren rhetoric about American “exceptionalism”; he makes similar hyperbolic denunciations of American “enemies”; and he plays into new false narratives like those that paved the way to hell in Iraq.
On Wednesday in addressing the graduating class at West Point, Obama had what might be his last real chance to shatter this phony frame of propaganda, but instead he delivered a pedestrian speech that tried to talk tough about crises in Ukraine and Syria as a defense against neocon critics who will predictably accuse him of weakness.
In Obama’s speech, the United States is still “the one indispensable nation,” so “when a typhoon hits the Philippines, or schoolgirls are kidnapped in Nigeria, or masked men occupy a building in Ukraine, it is America that the world looks to for help.” By the way, his reference to the “masked men” occupying a building in Ukraine wasn’t a reference to the masked neo-Nazi militias who seized buildings during the Feb. 22 coup against Yanukovych, but rather a shot at eastern Ukrainians who have resisted the coup.
Again, staying safely within Official Washington’s “group think,” Obama also lamented “Russia’s aggression toward former Soviet states” and said that “unnerves capitals in Europe.” But he expressed no concern for the Russian alarm over NATO enveloping Russia’s western borders. Obama also took a slap at China.
Obama said, “Regional aggression that goes unchecked — whether in southern Ukraine or the South China Sea, or anywhere else in the world — will ultimately impact our allies and could draw in our military. We can’t ignore what happens beyond our boundaries.” (Is Obama really suggesting that the United States might go to war with nuclear-armed Russia and China over Ukraine and the South China Sea?)
The President also slid into familiar hyperbole about Russia’s agreement to accept Crimea back into the Russian federation after a post-coup referendum there found overwhelming support among Crimean voters to break away from the failed Ukrainian state. Instead of noting that popular will – and the reality that Russian troops were already in Crimea as part of a basing agreement for Sevastopol – Obama conjured up images of an old-style invasion.
“In Ukraine, Russia’s recent actions recall the days when Soviet tanks rolled into Eastern Europe,” Obama said, claiming that this latest “aggression” was countered with U.S. public diplomacy. “This mobilization of world opinion and international institutions served as a counterweight to Russian propaganda and Russian troops on the border and armed militias in ski masks,” he said.
Yet, while using this tough-guy rhetoric, Obama did reject endless warfare and endless occupations, saying:
“Since World War II, some of our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint, but from our willingness to rush into military adventures without thinking through the consequences — without building international support and legitimacy for our action; without leveling with the American people about the sacrifices required.
“Tough talk often draws headlines, but war rarely conforms to slogans. As General [Dwight] Eisenhower, someone with hard-earned knowledge on this subject, said at this ceremony in 1947: ‘War is mankind’s most tragic and stupid folly; to seek or advise its deliberate provocation is a black crime against all men.’”
And, in possibly the speech’s best line, Obama added: “Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.”
Yet, despite such reasonable observations, Obama kept sliding back into super-patriotic rhetoric, including assertions that sounded at best hypocritical if not ludicrous:
“I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being. But what makes us exceptional is not our ability to flout international norms and the rule of law; it is our willingness to affirm them through our actions. And that’s why I will continue to push to close Gitmo — because American values and legal traditions do not permit the indefinite detention of people beyond our borders. That’s why we’re putting in place new restrictions on how America collects and uses intelligence — because we will have fewer partners and be less effective if a perception takes hold that we’re conducting surveillance against ordinary citizens.
“America does not simply stand for stability or the absence of conflict, no matter what the cost. We stand for the more lasting peace that can only come through opportunity and freedom for people everywhere.”
The JFK Contrast
Many eyes must have been rolling while listening to Obama attempt to disassociate himself from scandalous behavior that had occurred during his five-plus years as president. And his stab at soaring rhetoric fell far short of the mark set by President John F. Kennedy when he gave possibly his greatest speech at American University on June 10, 1963, declaring:
“What kind of peace do I mean and what kind of a peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, and the kind that enables men and nations to grow, and to hope, and build a better life for their children — not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women, not merely peace in our time but peace in all time.”
Kennedy recognized that his appeal for this serious pursuit of peace would be dismissed by the cynics and the warmongers as unrealistic and even dangerous. The Cold War was near its peak when Kennedy spoke. But he was determined to change the frame of the foreign policy debate, away from the endless bravado of militarism:
“I speak of peace, therefore, as the necessary, rational end of rational men. I realize the pursuit of peace is not as dramatic as the pursuit of war, and frequently the words of the pursuers fall on deaf ears. But we have no more urgent task. …
“Too many of us think it is impossible. Too many think it is unreal. But that is a dangerous, defeatist belief. It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable, that mankind is doomed, that we are gripped by forces we cannot control. We need not accept that view. Our problems are manmade; therefore, they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings.”
And then, in arguably the most important words that he ever spoke, Kennedy said, “For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.”
In his day, Kennedy also faced powerful war hawks who sought to constrain his vision of an international system that recognized the legitimate interests of other nations and their peoples. But Kennedy still deployed his rhetoric bravely to smash the narrow framework of Cold War reductionism.
By contrast, Obama accepted the tiny frame as shaped by Official Washington’s still powerful neocons; he simply tried to maneuver for a little more elbow room.
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.