Exclusive: President Obama doesn’t take on Official Washington’s powerful neocons head-on, but he does drag his heels on some of their crazy schemes, which is better than America can expect from Hillary Clinton, writes Robert Parry.
By Robert Parry
From a “realist” perspective, there are plenty of reasons to criticize President Barack Obama’s foreign policy, particularly his timidity in facing down Official Washington’s dominant neoconservatives and liberal interventionists on Afghanistan, Libya, Ukraine and even Syria – but he also has done more to steer the country away from additional military disasters than other establishment politicians would have.
That is especially true as the Democratic Party prepares to nominate former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as its choice to replace Obama. Throughout her public life, Clinton has demonstrated a pedestrian understanding of foreign policy and has consistently bowed to neocon/liberal-hawk orthodoxy, seeming to learn nothing from the Iraq War and other failures of military interventions.
In a recent interview with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, Clinton scolded him for “conflating” her support for the catastrophic “regime change” war in Iraq with her insistence on the disastrous “regime change” war in Libya. In effect, she was saying that just because both decisions led to significant loss of life, failed states and terrorist control of large swaths of territory, the wars shouldn’t be viewed as her failure to apply the lessons of Iraq to a similar situation in Libya. No “conflating” allowed.
By contrast, at several key moments, Obama has risen to the occasion, challenging some of the most dangerous “group thinks” of the foreign policy establishment, such as when he resisted the rush to judgment blaming Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for the Aug. 21, 2013 sarin gas attack outside Damascus. Obama rejected neocon/liberal-hawk demands for a punitive military assault on Assad’s troops for supposedly crossing Obama’s “red line.”
Nearly all the Smart People of Washington wanted that bombing campaign even though the U.S. intelligence community did not have the evidence of Assad’s guilt. The “group think” was that even if it wasn’t clear that Assad and his military were responsible – even if the attack was a provocation by jihadist rebels trying to trick the United States into joining the war on their side – Obama should have hit Assad’s forces anyway to maintain U.S. “credibility.”
This know-nothingism of the Smart People – this disdain for empiricism and realism – was expressed on Friday by New York Times columnist Roger Cohen who castigated Obama for failing to launch U.S. airstrikes against the Syrian military in August 2013. Citing a series of interviews that Obama gave The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, Cohen suggested that nearly every bad thing since then can be blamed on Obama’s inaction in Syria:
“Above all, did his decision in August 2013 not to uphold with force his ‘red line’ on the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons sound the death knell of American credibility, consolidate President Bashar al-Assad and empower [Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin? ‘I’m very proud of this moment,’ Obama insists. Proud?
“It is possible to believe that the situation in Syria would be worse if Obama had followed through with punitive strikes. It is possible to believe that ISIS would have emerged, seized vast territory, beheaded Americans, rattled Paris and struck through sympathizers in San Bernardino anyway. It is possible to believe that Putin would have annexed Crimea anyway. It is possible to believe that Putin would have started a war in eastern Ukraine anyway. It is possible to believe that Assad would be stronger as a result of Russia’s military intervention anyway. It is possible to believe that Saudi ‘Obama-is-a-Shiite-in-the-pocket-of-Iran’ derangement syndrome and Saudi war in Yemen would have occurred anyway. It is possible to believe that more than a million Syrian refugees would have shaken Europe anyway.
“It is possible to believe the moon is a balloon.”
Ha-ha! “The moon is a balloon!” How clever! In other words, Cohen, someone so esteemed that he is awarded regular space on The New York Times op-ed page, someone who has suffered not one iota for supporting the Iraq War which arguably contributed much more to the world’s disorders than anything Obama has or hasn’t done, is pretending that all would have been set right if only Obama had ordered airstrikes on the Syrian military despite the lack of U.S. evidence that Assad and his forces were actually guilty.
Cohen must have missed – or ignored – the section of Goldberg’s article citing how Obama was told by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper that the U.S. intelligence community lacked “slam dunk” evidence confirming Assad’s guilt, with Clapper choosing the phrase “slam dunk” to remind Obama of CIA Director George Tenet’s “slam dunk” assurance to President George W. Bush that the intelligence community could back up his claims about Iraq’s WMD, which, of course, turned out not to exist.
In other words, Clapper told Obama that the U.S. intelligence community didn’t know who had carried out the sarin attack – and subsequent evidence has pointed to a “false-flag” operation by rebel jihadists – but the Smart People of Washington all wanted to launch a military strike anyway. It doesn’t even matter to them that we now know that Obama’s destruction of Assad’s military could have opened the gates of Damascus to the forces of Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front and/or the Islamic State.
And now that Obama says he is “proud” of his decision not to bomb first and get the facts later – or as the President put it, to break with the “Washington playbook” of always relying on military force – Cohen and other members of the foreign policy elite berate and ridicule him.
An Insane Asylum?
Based on their cavalier view that facts don’t matter even on life-and-death issues like war or peace, one might argue that people like Cohen should be dispatched to the International Criminal Court or committed to an insane asylum instead of being treated as “Wise Men” and “Wise Women” whose pearls of wisdom fill the pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post and other establishment publications – and are thus read by millions of Americans.
Has it reached the point that mainstream journalists and policymakers in Washington care not one hoot for the truth? Do they simply push propaganda to enforce public support for their ideological fantasies, the bloodier the better? Or do they actually believe their own propaganda and have crossed over into complete madness?
This disdain for empirical evidence has become a hallmark of the American political-media establishment, most notoriously displayed in the overwhelming support for the WMD lies that justified the invasion of Iraq but now present in almost every major international crisis, such as the unsupported charges that Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi planned genocide in 2011 and the wildly one-sided coverage of Ukraine, which ignores the U.S. hand in the 2014 coup that ousted an elected president.
Regarding Syria, Cohen is far from alone in reporting as flat fact that Assad crossed Obama’s “red line” against using chemical weapons and that the “feckless” Obama blinked – just as in 2002-03, many of the same Smart People reported as flat fact that Iraq was hiding stockpiles of WMD. In neither case are these brilliant know-nothings punished for getting the facts wrong, even if lots of people die.
In “the old days,” when I was working at The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1970s and 1980s, there was much more professional pride among journalists about getting the facts right, even if that meant challenging the spin coming from the White House and State Department.
Sure, back then, there were already signs of the profession’s decline but it was nothing like it is today when the most “esteemed” journalists and columnists are contemptuous of anyone who shows skepticism toward the official line or the conventional wisdom. Today’s goal for the Smart People is to establish your “credibility” by writing what Everyone Knows to Be True.
Goldberg’s opus is schizophrenic in its own right because it makes no effort to reconcile Clapper’s warning to Obama about the lack of evidence against Assad and Goldberg’s matter-of-fact acceptance of Assad’s guilt. Goldberg, a neocon himself who supported the Iraq War, simply can’t break from the “group think” even when it conflicts with his own reporting.
Shouldn’t Goldberg, Cohen and others first try to determine what the reality actually was or at least acknowledge the evidence raising doubts about the conventional wisdom? Since August 2013, there has been substantial investigative work showing that the sarin attack was most likely carried out by radical jihadists possibly with the support of Turkish intelligence, including reporting by legendary investigative journalist Seymour Hersh. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Was Turkey Behind Syrian Sarin Attack.”]
In addition, the only rocket that United Nations inspectors recovered, which was found to carry sarin, was a home-made contraption that aeronautical experts calculated could travel only about two kilometers, not the nine kilometers that the “bomb-bomb-bomb Assad” advocates were citing as the Syrian military’s launch point for the attack.
It also had made no sense for Assad to have launched the sarin attack outside Damascus just as U.N. inspectors were unpacking their bags at a Damascus hotel to begin investigating chemical attacks that Assad was blaming on the rebels. Assad would have known that a chemical attack would have diverted the inspectors (as it did) and would force President Obama to declare that his “red line” had been crossed, possibly prompting a massive U.S. retaliatory strike (as it almost did). [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Collapsing Syria-Sarin Case.”]
But facts and logic no longer matter to Official Washington’s foreign-policy elite. What matters is what the latest “group think” is and – since Assad has been so thoroughly demonized – virtually no one dares contradict the “group think” because to do so you would risk being deemed an “Assad apologist.”
However, to Obama’s credit, he pulled back at the last minute after hearing from the U.S. intelligence community that the case against Assad was dubious at best. Inside the U.S. foreign-policy establishment, Obama was almost alone in resisting demands for “action.”
As for Goldberg, he conveniently forgot what he had just reported about Clapper’s “no slam dunk” warning to Obama. Instead, Goldberg simply reverted to the “group think,” which holds that Assad did it and that Obama chickened out.
Goldberg wrote, “The moment Obama decided not to enforce his red line and bomb Syria, he broke with what he calls, derisively, ‘the Washington playbook.’ This was his liberation day.”
Goldberg’s cognitive dissonance can’t seem to reconcile that there was no reason “to enforce his red line and bomb Syria” if Assad’s forces didn’t cross the red line in the first place. You might think that a political leader who demands facts before going to war and killing lots of possibly innocent people would be praised, not treated like a coward and a pariah.
But that is the core contradiction within today’s Official Washington where truth has become fully subordinated to ideological goals of the neocons and their “liberal interventionist” sidekicks. “Facts” are only valued if they can be twisted into generating public support for the neocons’ “regime change” agendas.
To the neocons and liberal hawks, it really didn’t matter that Iraq didn’t possess WMD, nor that Iraq wasn’t sharing its non-existent WMD with Al Qaeda. What mattered was that all the Smart People of Washington had decided that these fantasies were true or at least were needed to scare the American people into line.
If you cared about your career, you ran with the stampeding herd, knowing that there really is safety in numbers. Since all the Smart People were wrong, that meant that almost no one would be punished. The ultimate price for the cowardly journalism about Iraq’s WMD would be paid by the people of Iraq and the U.S. soldiers dispatched to kill and be killed.
In Jeffrey Goldberg’s case, he even got rewarded with extraordinary access to President Obama and his inner circle. Roger Cohen, Thomas Friedman, David Ignatius, Fred Hiatt, Charles Krauthammer and a long list of other Iraq War cheerleaders got to pontificate on and on in elite publications as if nothing untoward had happened.
Although Obama deserves credit for resisting “the Washington playbook” on bombing Syria, he can fairly be criticized for ceding to other neocon/liberal-hawk schemes, such as escalating the Afghan War in 2009, recklessly supporting “regime change” in Libya in 2011, and turning another “regime change” in Ukraine in 2014 into the start of a new Cold War with Russia.
Obama also has allowed neocon/liberal-hawk disinformation to continue cycling and recycling through the American political belief system without challenge. For instance, even though he was told by U.S. intelligence analysts that the Syria-sarin case was weak or bogus, he didn’t share that information with the American people.
If he had, Obama could have underscored the dangerous delusions of the neocons and liberal hawks. Obama could have enlisted the American people on his side by arming them with facts. But there is something in Obama’s personality that prevents him from engaging in that kind of democratic populism.
As either an elitist himself or a guy who wants approval of the elites, Obama acts as if he must protect the secrets even when his own interests – as well as the public interest – would be served by sharing the facts with the people.
Similarly, Obama knows how distorted much of the case against Russia is regarding Ukraine. He knows the reality about the U.S.-backed coup overthrowing Ukraine’s elected government; he knows that the infamous sniper attacks on Feb. 20, 2014, leading to the putsch two days later were probably a provocation by extremist anti-government operatives; he knows that the Crimean referendum on leaving Ukraine and rejoining Russia was a legitimate expression of popular will, not the “sham” that his foreign policy officials still assert; he received intelligence briefings on who was really at fault for the shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014; and he knows about the pervasive corruption and the neo-Nazi taint inside the U.S.-backed post-coup regime.
But Obama won’t share those facts with the American people, either. Despite his early promises of running a transparent administration, he has instead operated one of the most opaque and propagandistic in modern times. What is particularly strange is that he does so often to his own disadvantage. By hiding the reality, he plays into the hands of neocons and liberal hawks who rely on propaganda to manipulate the public – as they make him appear “feckless.”
If the Smart People had had their way in Syria – and if Obama had ordered a severe bombing campaign against Assad’s military – it would have possibly and perhaps probably cleared the path for an Al Qaeda and/or Islamic State victory, since they represented the most effective elements of the Syrian rebel movement.
Similarly, if Obama had followed Official Washington’s “group think” about establishing the sweet-sounding “no-fly zones” or “safe zones” inside Syria, the U.S. military would have had to destroy Syria’s air force and air defenses, again creating a security vacuum that Al Qaeda and/or the Islamic State could have filled.
It should be noted that Hillary Clinton has been a top advocate for these neocon/liberal-hawk “regime change” schemes, as she was in pushing Obama into the military intervention in Libya in 2011, overthrowing Muammar Gaddafi’s regime and leaving behind a failed state where the Islamic State now operates, including its mass beheading of Coptic Christians.
But none of this ugly reality impacts the Smart People of Washington. Instead, the likes of Roger Cohen blame everything on Obama’s failure to bomb Assad.
Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his latest book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com).