Dangerous Punditry on Syria

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen has built a long record of getting nearly every major issue wrong over many decades but still eagerly dispenses the latest conventional wisdom emerging from Official Washington’s misguided “group thinks,” as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar noticed regarding Syria.

By Paul R. Pillar

Ill-fated U.S. military adventures abroad have had various fathers, even though some of those fathers have tried to disavow paternity once the problems became apparent. Neoconservatives figure prominently in this story, especially given that one of the most costly misadventures in recent times, the invasion of Iraq in 2003, was a distinctly neocon project.

But even with that project, the neocon promoters of the war had to manufacture a rationale that tapped into another strain of sentiment that has helped to lead to such misadventures: the fear of terrorist or other attacks against the United States itself.

Yet another paternal line is liberal interventionism, which distinguishes itself from both the terrorism-related fears and the neocon objective of spreading democracy and free market values by focusing on the humanitarian objective of saving foreign lives overseas.

All three of these dimensions, democratization, counterterrorism and humanitarianism, are figuring prominently in current rhetoric about use of U.S. military force in the Middle East and especially Syria. Collectively all three dimensions have been creating substantial political pressure in favor of use of more such force than the Obama administration has used to date.

A representative of the liberal interventionist school, and of some of the worst errors of that school, is Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen. Although questions certainly can be raised about whether Cohen merits the label of liberal and whether the Post is justified in considering him a “left-leaning” columnist, Cohen himself endeavors to distinguish himself from schools of thought more associated with the political right, whether such distinctions are justified or not.

Lately Cohen has been lashing out at President Obama regarding the use, or non-use, of military force in Syria. Cohen repeatedly insists that the United States needs “to do more” there militarily. He seems to have less concern about exactly what form more military action should take or how such action would work, except to try to dispel any perception that whatever he has in mind is anything like the previous administration’s costly misadventure in Iraq.

In a column earlier this month, Cohen wrote, “George W. Bush’s war was a lesson to us all. But from the start of the Syrian crisis, no one sane was proposing to do it all over again. Instead, the proposal was to intervene early and attempt to avoid the bloodbath and humanitarian calamity that have resulted.”

The column refers again later to “the proposal,” but the reader is left to guess what “the proposal” consists of, other than that it somehow means “to do more” than what the United States is doing militarily now.

In a column three weeks later, Cohen said “nobody of consequence ever publicly proposed putting substantial numbers of U.S. service members in the Middle East.” In doing so he had to exclude explicitly former Republican presidential nominee and current Senate Armed Services Committee chairman John McCain, as well as Senator Lindsey Graham (and Cohen really should have mentioned others as well) from his assertions about what sane and consequential people have or have not been proposing.

Finally in the same column we learn what “the proposal” is: according to Cohen, it consists of “establishing a no-fly zone to ground Assad’s gunships and maybe taking a shot or two at a key government installation.”

The concept of a no-fly zone, or rather, just the term “no-fly zone”, has become a popular way to call for more use of military force while not arguing in favor of a new ground war and also making it sound as if the caller has a specific and well-conceived proposal even if he doesn’t. Like many others who have flown the term “no fly-zone,” Cohen offers no details about what such an operation would entail, and he gives no indication that he has ever bothered to think about such details.

Despite the salience of barrel bombs that Syrian regime forces have dropped from helicopters, most of the bloodshed the regime has caused has come from ground operations, including the pummeling of urban neighborhoods with ground-based artillery. A no-fly zone can be a useful way to help protect a well-established and friendly force on the ground from attacks by a hostile air force, as has been true in the past in Iraqi Kurdistan, but that is not the situation in Syria at all.

Who would control the ground below a no-fly zone in Syria? If it isn’t the Syrian regime’s army, or a substantial Western ground force, who is it? One of those ghost-like forces of armed Syrian “moderates”? Or maybe the Al-Nusra Front? Or worst of all, maybe ISIS, which does not have an air force and which Cohen, astoundingly, does not even mention in his column, apart from a passing reference to past activity in Iraq. Such an omission represents an incredibly myopic way for anyone to address any question of security policy in Syria today.

Cohen indulges in another favorite tactic of those who want to fulminate about current policy toward Syria without having to offer any effective alternative: to assert that if only a different policy had been pursued earlier, vast problems would have been avoided. Cohen writes that if his “proposal” had been adopted “early on,” then “upward of 300,000 Syrian deaths” and the displacement of millions of refugees might have been avoided.

But like many others who have pushed this counterfactual hypothesis, he offers no reason to believe that the factors that have made the Syrian war a bloody mess would have been any less relevant and less consequential a couple of years ago than they are now. There would have been the same differences and distrust between the Syria regime and the majority of the Syrian population, the same sectarian divisions, the same weaknesses and disadvantages of “moderates” in an environment of civil warfare, the same multiple and intersecting lines of conflict, and the same political culture that underlies the entire mess.

The counterfactual has become a screen that hides a lack of analysis. And it is comically absurd to suggest that “maybe taking a shot or two at a government installation” would have helped to save lives numbering in the hundreds of thousands.

For liberal interventionists, a big black mark that somehow needs to be explained away is the Western intervention in Libya, a case where the liberal/humanitarian interventionist viewpoint did, at least for a moment, drive policy of the Obama administration. Post-intervention Libya has been sustained chaos in which many lives have been lost and threatened not only directly in a continued civil war but also through spillover effects of the chaos.

Men and materiel from post-Gaddafi Libya have been factors in terrorism and violence across much of North Africa and the Middle East, and Libya is the place outside Iraq and Syria where ISIS today can most plausibly claim an organizational presence and not just an inspirational one. And all this is in addition to the awful message that was sent to other rogue regimes when Western governments seized an opportunity to overthrow a leader who, through a peaceful negotiated agreement, had given up his unconventional weapons programs and his involvement in international terrorism.

Cohen repeats the oft-voiced claim that the intervention precluded what would have been certain genocide in eastern Libya. No matter how often this claim gets repeated, there still is not reason to believe it. Muammar Gaddafi certainly made clear he wanted to deal harshly with those who had taken up arms against his regime, but there is nothing else in what he said, and more importantly in what he did, to suggest that a broader genocide was imminent.

Gaddafi had been in power four decades, and he had plenty of opportunity to perpetrate genocide if he had wanted to, including in earlier stages of the revolt that was in progress at the time of the intervention.

Regarding Libya, Cohen takes pains to explain that we should not confuse his point of view with that of regime-changing neocons. Regime change and democratization were not the purpose of the intervention in Libya, he says. Well, that’s right in terms of what the Obama administration and other Western governments publicly declared as their purpose, but what else besides regime change, practically and logically, could have been the end game of this operation?

If Gaddafi really was, in Cohen’s words, a “psychopath” and “madman” who was bent on genocide, how could things end just by stopping a regime advance on one battle front west of Benghazi? How could the story end and the West even begin to claim success for its operation unless it meant, thanks to the Western air attacks on regime forces, the collapsing of the regime’s position until someone shot the dictator in a ditch?

On the Libya issue, Cohen endeavors to defend Hillary Clinton against criticisms from her primary opponent Bernie Sanders. The defense is centered on the notion of how the intervention was supposedly about preventing genocide and not about regime change, but Cohen also strangely likens Sanders to, of all people, Ted Cruz.

In the Cohen version, the positions of Sanders and Cruz on Libya, and of both of them as well as Barack Obama on Syria, consist of a “do nothing” approach that pays insufficient attention to the lives of non-Americans. One wonders on what planet Cohen has been residing while all the rhetoric about Syria has been filling American airwaves in recent months, given that Cruz’s most distinctive proposal about military force in Syria has been to call for “carpet bombing.” That certainly doesn’t sound like Bernie Sanders, or like Barack Obama for that matter, even if Cruz was talking about targeting ISIS rather than the Assad regime.

Cohen has an inconsistent way of weighing the lives of Americans and non-Americans, depending on what argument he is trying to make. In some places he takes off his international humanitarian hat and seems to place a much higher value on American lives, as when he notes that “no Americans died in the Libyan bombing campaign” while saying nothing about the deadly post-intervention chaos. Or when he writes, with Syria particularly and unrealistically in mind, of the need to intervene to “at little or no cost to us in American lives.”

But elsewhere in the same columns he seems to put that hat back on and not give any preferred consideration to American lives. He knocks Mr. Obama for the estimates the President gave in a recent meeting with journalists about likely American casualties that would result from expanded ground operations in the Middle East. He even knocks the President for talking about his visits at Walter Reed Hospital with maimed veterans who have lost limbs and of how the prospect of ordering troops into battle and leading to more such casualties has to weigh heavily on the decisions of any incumbent president.

Cohen’s comment about this is, “Life presents mean choices. Limbs were lost in Paris, too.”

That last comment suggests a comparison between casualties from international terrorism and those from military operations that have been conducted in the name of combating terrorism, although if Cohen did the math he might not like the result. (Then again, maybe he wouldn’t care, given how his recent writing on Syria has been as narrowly focused on combating the Assad regime, to the exclusion of any concern with ISIS or terrorism, as the most narrow-minded Sunni Gulf Arab.)

Even the death toll of the granddaddy of all international terrorist incidents, 9/11, was surpassed by American deaths in the Iraq War, which post-9/11 public alarm about terrorism had made politically possible.

One last observation about the Iraq War and Cohen. Despite his striving to distinguish himself from neocons, and despite his distancing-himself reference to “George W. Bush’s Iraq war,” Cohen clearly has not learned lessons from that war.

Cohen supported the invasion of Iraq. Later after the war went sour, he like many others who had supported the invasion used an “if only I had known” excuse to try to explain away that support. But like many of those others, including many Congressional Democrats who had voted in favor of the war resolution, getting bamboozled by the Bush administration’s public rationale for the war was not the reason they supported it.

In Cohen’s case, he explicitly recognized before the war how flimsy that rationale was, but nonetheless still supported launching the war. His pre-war position directly contradicted his later effort to make excuses.

In a column shortly before the invasion in March 2003, Cohen wrote, “I grant you that in the run-up to this war, the Bush administration has slipped, stumbled and fallen on its face. It has advanced untenable, unproven arguments. It has oscillated from disarmament to regime change to bringing democracy to the Arab world. It has linked Hussein with al Qaeda when no such link has been established. It has warned of an imminent Iraqi nuclear program when, it seems, that’s not the case.” And yet, said Cohen, war was necessary because “sometimes peace is no better.”

Underlying this position was one of the worst attributes of liberal interventionism, which is a compulsion to make big gestures, including very costly and destructive gestures, basically because while seeing bad things going on in the world it gives one a warm feeling in the tummy to make such gestures against the bad things, regardless of how sound or unsound is the logical case for doing so and regardless of how costly or ineffective the results may be.

To the extent Barack Obama is receiving brickbats from the likes of Richard Cohen for not falling into this line of thinking, or rather of emoting, he is serving the country well.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)




Is WP’s Cohen Dumbest Columnist?

From the Archive: Official Washington operates with a reverse “meritocracy,” the more clueless the pundits are the more esteem they seem to get  as long as they conform to the latest “group think.” Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen is a prime example, Robert Parry noted in 2007.

By Robert Parry (Originally published on June 19, 2007)

Granted it would be quite a competition, but is Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen the dumbest columnist ever?

For instance, in his June 19, 2007 op-ed, Cohen joined the neoconservative media riot over the 30-month jail sentence facing former White House aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby.

From reading the column, it does appear that Cohen has the skills at least to master and recite the litany of talking points that the neocons have compiled to make their case about the injustice of Libby going into the slammer for committing perjury and obstruction of justice.

Cohen accuses special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald of violating longstanding Justice Department guidelines on when to bring a case; he denounces the trial over Libby’s lying about his role in unmasking covert CIA officer Valerie Plame as “a mountain out of a molehill”; he asserts that there was no “underlying crime”; he even pokes fun at Americans who thought the invasion of Iraq might have been a bad idea.

“They thought if ‘thought’ can be used in this context that if the thread was pulled on who had leaked the identity of Valerie Plame to Robert D. Novak, the effort to snooker an entire nation into war would unravel and this would show . . . who knows? Something,” Cohen wrote.

Yet, beyond a talent for reprising the conventional wisdom from Washington dinner parties, it is hard to tell what justifies Cohen’s long career as a political columnist. On nearly every major development over the past couple of decades, Cohen has missed the point or gotten it dead wrong.

For example, during the Florida recount battle in 2000, Cohen cared less about whom the voters wanted in the White House than the Washington insiders’ certainty that George W. Bush would be a uniter, not a divider.

“The nation will be in dire need of a conciliator, a likable guy who will make things better and not worse,” Cohen wrote. “That man is not Al Gore. That man is George W. Bush.”

Cohen also joined the Washington herd in the disastrous stampede for invading Iraq. After Secretary of State Colin Powell’s deceptive Iraq War speech to the United Nations on Feb. 5, 2003, Cohen mocked anyone who still dared doubt that Saddam Hussein possessed hidden WMD stockpiles.

“The evidence he [Powell] presented to the United Nations some of it circumstantial, some of it absolutely bone-chilling in its detail had to prove to anyone that Iraq not only hasn’t accounted for its weapons of mass destruction but without a doubt still retains them,” Cohen wrote. “Only a fool or possibly a Frenchman could conclude otherwise.”

Misplaced Enthusiasm

It took Cohen another three years before he recognized that his enthusiasm for the war had been misplaced.

On April 4, 2006, as the U.S. death toll reached into the thousands and the Iraqi death toll soared into the tens of thousands, Cohen wrote, “those of us who once advocated this war are humbled. It’s not just that we grossly underestimated the enemy. We vastly overestimated the Bush administration.”

In normal work settings, incompetence especially when it is chronic and has devastating consequences justifies dismissal or at least demotion, maybe a desk in Storage Room B where Cohen could sit with his red stapler, but without access to a word processor.

Yet, in the strange world of Washington punditry, success is measured not in being right but in keeping one’s opinion within the parameters of the capital’s respectable opinions, even if those judgments are atrociously wrong.

As for the Plame case, Cohen seems to be living in the propaganda dreamscape of the still-influential neocons, not in the real world where the disclosure of Plame’s identity caused actual damage, destroying her undercover career as a CIA officer and putting in jeopardy the lives of foreigners who worked with her investigating weapons proliferation.

Plus, the motive behind the leaking of Plame’s identity was not “gossip,” as Cohen asserts, but a White House-orchestrated campaign to punish her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, for telling the truth about his 2002 fact-finding mission to Africa. Wilson’s findings helped the U.S. intelligence community debunk false claims about Iraq attempting to buy yellowcake uranium from Africa.

Despite warnings from the CIA, however, President George W. Bush cited Iraq’s supposed uranium shopping during his 2003 State of the Union Address, making it a key part of the case to invade Iraq.

When Wilson went public with his story in July 2003, the Bush administration sought to discredit him by suggesting that his Africa trip was just a junket arranged by his CIA wife. One White House official told a reporter from the Washington Post that the administration had informed at least six reporters about Plame.

The official said the disclosure was “purely and simply out of revenge.” That was a revelation that special prosecutor Fitzgerald corroborated in his investigation.

Libby’s Role

Also, contrary to Cohen’s column, Libby, as Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, was a central figure in this anti-Wilson smear campaign. Libby briefed two reporters Judith Miller and Matthew Cooper about Plame’s identity and brought press secretary Ari Fleischer into the leak operation.

Though it turned out that other senior administration officials, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and his friend, White House political adviser Karl Rove, were the successful ones in getting a journalist, Robert Novak, to publish Plame’s identity, it wasn’t for the lack of Libby trying to get Plame’s identity into the press.

Nor is it accurate to say that there was no underlying crime. It is illegal to willfully disclose the identity of a covert CIA officer and the administration officials involved were well aware that her identity was classified. Leaking classified material also can be and often is treated as a crime. …

Rather than a wild-eyed prosecutor on a rampage, Fitzgerald actually appears to have been a very cautious prosecutor who chose not to pursue what would have been a deserving but politically disruptive case against Bush, Cheney and other government conspirators implicated in both leaking classified material and participating in a cover-up.

But all this is missed by Cohen. In his June 19, 2007 column, he does reiterate his current position that the Iraq War was a mistake. He also acknowledges that lying under oath is a bad thing to do. But blinded by the pervasive neocon talking points he refuses to see the larger scandal.

“I have come to hate the war and I cannot approve of lying under oath not by Scooter, not by Bill Clinton, not by anybody,” Cohen wrote. “But the underlying crime is absent, the sentence is excessive and the investigation should not have been conducted in the first place. This is a mess. Should Libby be pardoned? Maybe. Should his sentence be commuted? Definitely.” [As it turned out, President Bush did commute Libby’s sentence so he avoided jail time.]

Cohen took a similarly tolerant view of lies told by Reagan administration officials in the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s and its successful cover-up by President George H.W. Bush in the early 1990s when special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh was pressing for long-withheld answers.

When Bush sabotaged Walsh’s probe by issuing six Iran-Contra pardons on Christmas Eve 1992, prominent U.S. journalists, including Cohen, praised Bush’s actions and brushed aside Walsh’s complaint that the move was the final act in a long-running cover-up that protected a secret history of criminal behavior and Bush’s personal role.

Cohen spoke for many of his colleagues when he defended Bush’s fatal blow against the Iran-Contra investigation. Cohen especially liked Bush’s pardon of former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, who had been indicted for obstruction of justice but was popular around Washington.

In a Dec. 30, 1992 column, Cohen said his view was colored by how impressed he was when he would see Weinberger in the Georgetown Safeway store, pushing his own shopping cart.

“Based on my Safeway encounters, I came to think of Weinberger as a basic sort of guy, candid and no nonsense which is the way much of official Washington saw him,” Cohen wrote. “Cap, my Safeway buddy, walks, and that’s all right with me.”

There was a time when The Washington Post aggressively pursued cover-ups of government wrongdoing, such as Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal. Even during the Clinton administration, a favorite pearl of Washington wisdom was: “It’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up.”

But that was then and this is now. Today, the Post editorial page and its prized columnists, like Cohen, eagerly join in cover-ups and happily bash anyone who won’t go with the Washington flow.

So, the question remains, is Cohen just a clueless incompetent when he berates Fitzgerald for the “train wreck” of the Libby conviction or is this columnist really a clever guy who is very skilled at knowing how to stay on the gravy train of modern Washington journalism?

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).




The Misinformation Mess

Exclusive: As Americans approach Election Year 2016, the crisis of misinformation is growing more and more dangerous. On issues from foreign policy to the economy, almost none of the candidates in the race appears to be addressing the real world, writes Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman marvels at the right-wing extremism prevalent in the Republican presidential race not just from the “outsider” candidates but from the “establishment” favorites as well, doubling down on President George W. Bush’s economic prescriptions and foreign policies despite their record of disaster.

The media’s obsession with Donald Trump’s off-the-cuff candidacy “has in one way worked to the G.O.P. establishment’s advantage: it has distracted pundits and the press from the hard right turn even conventional Republican candidates have taken, a turn whose radicalism would have seemed implausible not long ago,” Krugman wrote on Monday.

From escalating U.S. military involvement in the Middle East to slashing taxes again for the rich, the supposedly “mainstream” Republicans, such as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, are acting as if the catastrophes under Bush-43 never happened.

It would be fair to say that the Democrats are suffering from a similar disconnect from the lessons of the last quarter century, with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton bristling with hawkish rhetoric toward Syria and Russia while sending fawning salutations to Israel despite its contribution to the Mideast crisis by repressing the Palestinian people.

Even Clinton’s chief rival, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, can’t formulate a rational policy toward the Middle East, although to his credit he did oppose Bush’s bogus case for invading Iraq and favors prioritizing cooperation with Russia in defeating the Islamic State over demanding another “regime change” in Syria.

But Sanders simply wants to postpone the U.S. removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and he encourages Saudi Arabia to throw its military weight around more across the region, not noticing that the Saudis are backing many of the Sunni jihadists who have helped turn the Middle East into a killing field. Nor does Sanders explain why one would expect the Saudis to turn away from their obsession with fighting Shiites as they are currently doing in pulverizing Yemen because a Shiite rebel group, the Houthis, gained power in that impoverished nation.

In a rational world, Saudi Arabia would be viewed as a major part of the problem, not part of any solution.

On domestic policy, Sanders like Trump does seem to have touched a populist political nerve in their recognition that neo-liberalism (as preached since Bill Clinton’s presidency) has failed to protect America’s middle class. Though Sanders’s and Trump’s brands of populism offer sharply divergent remedies, they both speak to Main Street’s fear that it is being left behind by the high-tech globalized world that has diverted vast wealth to Wall Street and Silicon Valley.

The more traditional candidates whether Hillary Clinton or the establishment Republicans don’t address the heart of this problem. Instead, they choose to play it safe on the edges while embracing the “free market” orthodoxies that created the crisis.

A Propagandized People

But is it really possible to expect that the American people (as propagandized and misinformed as they are) could effect significant change through the electoral process, which is itself deeply compromised by vast sums of dark money from American oligarchs, while other super-rich Americans own the major media companies.

So, while there may be some logical responses to this combination of crises, the media/political system prevents them from being considered in any coherent way.

For instance, a rational approach to the Middle East would shift American alliances away from the reactionary Persian Gulf monarchies and Turkey and toward a more balanced approach that would invite greater involvement of Shiite-ruled Iran, which the Sunni-led monarchies view as their chief regional rival. There is little reason for the United States to take one side of a sectarian split within Islam that dates back to the Seventh Century.

By shedding its current pro-Saudi bias, the United States could finally get serious about resolving the Syrian crisis by shutting down the money and weapons going from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey to the extremists not just in the Islamic State but also in Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front and its various jihadist allies.

Since summer 2014, President Barack Obama and his “coalition” have been fighting a half-hearted war that has failed to face down the U.S. “allies” aiding the Sunni jihadists in Syria. Only when shamed by Russia in fall 2015 did the U.S. coalition join in bombing trucks carrying the Islamic State’s oil from Syria through Turkey’s open borders for resale in the black market. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “A Blind Eye Toward Turkey’s Crimes.”]

As for Syria’s political future, a reasonable approach would be to leave the selection of national leaders up to the Syrian people through internationally organized democratic elections. The voters would be the ones to decide Assad’s fate, not outsiders.

Yet, Official Washington finds itself in the crazy position of extending the bloody Syrian war and the resulting chaos across the region and into Europe because Obama and other Important People said “Assad must go!” and don’t want to lose face by dropping that demand. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Neocons Object to Syrian Democracy.“]

A realistic approach to the Middle East also requires finally standing up to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, rather than letting him dance U.S. political leaders around the world stage like puppets on a marionette’s string. A balanced approach to the Middle East would allow for collaborating with Russia and Iran to apply pressure on the parties in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to make the necessary concessions for a peace deal, imperfect though it would surely be.

The need to work with Russian President Vladimir Putin would also require rethinking the aggressive U.S. strategy regarding NATO and Ukraine. Instead of insisting that everything is “Putin’s fault,” the U.S. government could acknowledge its hand in exacerbating the political crisis in Ukraine in 2013-14 and admit that the U.S.-backed putsch on Feb. 22, 2014, was not the simple story of “our good guys vs. their bad guys” that was sold to the American public.

As part of all this reassessment, there needs to be a coming-clean with the American people regarding what U.S. intelligence knows about a variety of key events, including but not limited to the Aug. 21, 2013 sarin attack outside Damascus, Syria; the Feb. 20, 2014 sniper attack in Kiev, Ukraine, which set the stage for the coup; and the July 17, 2014 shoot-down of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine.

The fact that such events have been exploited for propaganda reasons to blame U.S. “adversaries” while the detailed knowledge of the U.S. intelligence agencies is hidden from the American people has deprived the public of an ability to make rational assessments about the larger policies. U.S. positions are driven by false or faulty perceptions, not reality.

The Disappearing Middle Class

Along with bringing rationality and reason back to U.S. foreign policy, a similar process of truth-telling could take place domestically. The core problem of America’s disappearing middle class is not just technology and globalization; it is that the super-profits from those developments have gone overwhelmingly to the extremely rich, rather than equitably shared with the population.

Thus, we see the rapid shrinking of the Great American Middle Class, a development that is destructive and dangerous because a prosperous middle class serves as ballast for an economy, preventing it from suddenly capsizing.

Plus, if most people can’t afford to buy the products that technology produces, then eventually the investment in that technology becomes unprofitable, a lesson well known since the days of Henry Ford who wanted his workers to earn enough to afford to buy his cars.

There is the trick question about what is the value of all the properties and hotels in “Monopoly” once one player has won by bankrupting all the other players. The answer is zero because no one has any money to visit the properties or stay at the hotels. They thus have no monetary value. A similar reality holds true in the real-world economy. Over-concentration of wealth is a threat.

The answer to this conundrum is also clear: since it is impossible to stop technological advancement and risky to start trade wars, the alternative is to tax the super-profits of the rich and recycle the money in the form of jobs to build infrastructure, educate the young, protect the environment, research ways to improve health, etc.

There is nothing wrong with having machines do more of the drudgery and give humans more time to enjoy life. The problem comes when the benefits accrue to a tiny minority and the rest of us are forced to work harder or face declining living standards.

But what prevents us from making the sensible move i.e., dramatically increase taxes on the rich and put that money to use putting people to work on worthy projects is Ronald Reagan’s propaganda message that “government is the problem.” The Right has built onto that theme the idea that government promoting the common good is against the U.S. Constitution.

Thus, you have extremists such as Texas Sen. Ted Cruz posing as “constitutionalists” as they ignore the fact that the chief authors of the Constitution the Federalists inserted a clear mandate for the U.S. government to “provide for the general Welfare.” That authority was cited in both the Preamble and Article I, Section 8, which enumerates the government’s powers. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Right’s Made-up Constitution.”]

In other words, the “originalist” meaning of the U.S. Constitution was in favor of a robust and activist federal government. But few Americans know and understand that history. They have been sold on a false rendition that serves the interests of the rich who understandably don’t want the government to use its taxing powers on behalf of the broader population.

The Heart of the Matter

Which get us to the heart of the matter: Why is the American political debate so ill-informed and misinformed? Why was there virtually no accountability in the mainstream U.S. news media when nearly every important foreign-policy journalist and pundit bought into the WMD lies that justified the Iraq War? Why are the same kinds of “group thinks” continuing to prevail, with U.S. government propaganda accepted rather than questioned?

The answer to that conundrum is that Official Washington is dominated on foreign policy by neoconservatives and their liberal-interventionist sidekicks and on domestic policy by neo-liberals and government-hating conservatives. The old days when there were foreign policy “realists” who acted more from a perspective of American interests and politicians who remembered the Great Depression and the New Deal are gone.

The neoconservatives, who emerged as pro-Vietnam War Democrats in the 1970s and switched over to Reagan Republicans in the 1980s, have proved to be a formidable and effective force for a propaganda-driven foreign policy that sees American interests as indistinguishable from Israel’s and treats the American people like cattle to be herded.

That is why real information is as dangerous to neocons as water was to the Wicked Witch of the West. It is also why they have concentrated so much on getting control of the flow of news to the American people. If all the public gets is propaganda and if honest journalists and scholars are marginalized and silenced then the people will either support the latest neocon/liberal-hawk cause or end up in confused disarray, not sure what to believe.

The truth is that the neocons and their liberal-hawk allies now control virtually the entire mainstream news media, from The New York Times and The Washington Post to NPR and the major networks to Fox News and most of right-wing talk radio. Even esteemed journalist Seymour Hersh now must go overseas to the London Review of Books to get his important reporting published when it challenges the “group think” on Syria and other topics.

‘Free Market’ Capitalism

A similar situation exists regarding “free market” capitalism that is embraced by both neo-liberals and right-wing economists. For decades, in the major U.S. news media, it has been hard to hear a discouraging word about “free trade” deals even though labor leaders and some populist politicians warned presciently that these deals would cost millions of middle-class factory jobs.

Today, there is more skepticism about “free trade” as the social and economic impact has become undeniable but, again, there was no accountability for the misleading advocates of these agreements nor a serious effort to rewrite the deals. Renegotiation of the trade deals has been one of Donald Trump’s major proposals and applause lines.

But most Republican candidates favor more of the same: more unrestrained capitalism and less taxation on the wealthy. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton positions herself as a centrist, promising no “middle class” tax increases on people making $250,000 or less, a redefinition of the “middle class” to include families making about five times the median income.

Despite their other shortcomings, Trump and Sanders are the only candidates seriously addressing some of these key economic issues. For his part, Sanders advocates much higher taxes especially on the wealthy and the stock speculators to fund a broad range of social programs, such as Medicare for all, and to finance massive infrastructure rebuilding.

Yet, the central challenge for a possible political transformation in America rests on reliable information getting to the people, especially given all the sources of misinformation and the many barriers to the truth. That battle restoring the life-blood of democracy, an informed electorate remains the challenge of our time.

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).




The Obsessive Putin-Bashing

Official Washington says it welcomes freedom of thought, but there is a startling absence of diverse opinions especially on key foreign-policy topics, such as Russia’s President Putin. In those cases, shallow “group think” prevails and belligerent “information warfare” rules, as Gilbert Doctorow observes.

By Gilbert Doctorow

The U.S. establishment writers on Russia are one and all “presstitutes” and when you put their writings together, back to back, in 40 pages or so as Johnson’s Russia List has so kindly done in its Christmas Eve issue, the result is an astounding propaganda barrage.

For those of you in the general public who are, likely as not, unfamiliar with this Internet resource, Johnson’s Russia List (www.russialist.org) is an Internet digest published roughly six days a week year round and focused on Russia, now with a separate section on Ukraine.

The JRL is a project domiciled at the Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University and operated by Richard Johnson who founded it something like 20 years ago. Its banner tells us that it receives partial funding from the George Soros’s Open Society Foundation, partly from the Carnegie Corporation, New York, neither of which may be considered neutral in matters concerning Russia, quite the contrary.

But further funding comes from the voluntary contributions of subscribers, of whom there are perhaps 6,000, mostly American academics and university centers having an interest in Russian affairs. Appearing in JRL is an ambition of a great many wannabe experts and authorities in the field, mostly but not exclusively political scientists and journalists.

As an institution seeking to be fair-handed in purveying news and opinion about Russia, the JRL has been in the cross-hairs of activists on both sides of the highly divisive pro- and anti-Putin camps. About a year ago one of the most outspoken Russia-bashers, liberal economist Anders Aslund, publicly broke with JRL for what he saw as going easy on Putin in its selection of material. Alternative media commentators like Michael Averko have hit out at JRL for the opposite alleged abuse. In Johnson’s defense, one might argue he chooses selon le marché, i.e., from what is being published.

Undeniably, U.S. and U.K. scholars and pundits are lopsided in their bias against Putin and Russia. Nevertheless, even within the scope of this allowance for what there is to choose from and the presumed desire to run his shop straight down the middle, the Dec. 24 issue of the Johnson’s Russia List was a doozy. The count was 14 articles or transcripts of video events slamming Russia and Putin to zero articles holding any other view.

And among the publishers or hosts of the 14 entries being republished in JRL are not just heavy guns in the media wars but also would-be temples of learning: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the European Council on Foreign Relations, Foreign Policy magazine, the Center for European Policy Analysis, the American Council on Foreign Relations, The Moscow Times, the Kennan Institute, The National Review, Forbes.com and Home Box Office.

Putin’s personality figures large in nearly all of these essays and discussions as the sole explanation for all the turns in Russian foreign and domestic policy. This is entirely in keeping with the ad hominem argumentation that has become the norm in political discussions generally in the U.S.

Joseph Stalin, with his no man, no issue philosophy of governance must be chuckling, wherever he is, over how this view has caught on in what passes today for polite society.

The phenomenon is something I felt acutely this past spring in its McCarthy-ite form when I appeared as one of three participants in the Euronews hosted talk show The Network. The subject of the day was the assassination of Kremlin critic and opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, who was shot down within proximity of the Kremlin walls a few days earlier.

We were discussing media coverage of that event and who was to blame for politically motivated crimes in Russia, when a fellow panelist, Elmar Brok, the chairman of the European Parliament’s committee on foreign relations, who was irritated by my insistence that Russian media gave a great many different takes on the news and was anything but monolithic, said in an aside to me that was picked up by the microphones and later went on air: “How much is the Kremlin paying you?”

Not being a hardened politician like Brok, stunned by the way a senior official of the E.U. could stoop to such low-life viciousness, and naively believing that Europe’s most watched news station would not broadcast crude libel, I said nothing in response and the talk moved on.

Having just come back a week ago from Moscow, where my stay was picked up by a Kremlin-funded institution, I now can give a fairly precise answer to MEP Brok’s impertinent and malicious question: for three years of occasional guest appearances as interviewee and panelist on the Cross Talk program of Russia Today, I have been paid three nights in a five-star hotel in downtown Moscow, lavish buffet breakfasts, a tour of the Kremlin and a seat at the banquet dinner celebration of Russia Today’s 10 years on air where Vladimir Putin was the keynote speaker.

For this token of respect by my hosts at RT, I am duly grateful. Yet, I know full well that it is not to be compared with the lavish hospitality bestowed on attendees at the annual Kremlin-organized gatherings of the Valdai Discussion Club to which many senior U.S. academics, Angela Stent, of Georgetown University, to name one, Robert Legvold of Columbia and Tufts, to name another, have been invited regularly notwithstanding the fact that most are hostile, at best agnostic to the “Putin regime” in their public writings and appearances.

Now that I have “come clean” about Kremlin blandishments that have come my way, I turn to my political opponents who have a monopoly on Thursday’s JRL and ask how much they are benefiting in terms of grants, professional promotions and access to the high and mighty in Washington for publicly supporting the propaganda lines of State Department handouts. I wouldn’t dream of accusing them of being on the CIA payroll…

Put another way and avoiding rhetorical questions, I assert plainly that the Establishment writers on Russia are one and all “presstitutes” and when you put their writings together, back to back, in 40 pages or so as JRL has so kindly done in the Christmas Eve issue, the result is an astounding propaganda barrage.

From these collected rants by some very well known “authorities,” I have chosen the one piece which presents itself as sort of scholarly. In this it stands apart from the slapstick humor of Richard Haass and Kimberley Marten in the transcript of an HBO airing and from the rehash of analyses of the fatal weaknesses in the Putin regime that constitute the bulk of the writings of other essayists.

Unlike the others, Kirk Bennett’s article would appear to break new ground. In “Russia and the West. The Myth of Russia’s Containment: Has the West always had it in for Russia? Hardly,” we are treated to an historical analysis intended to debunk what the author identifies as a key Kremlin propaganda line. It tries to refute Vladimir Putin’s assertions in several speeches that the West has always been an opponent of Russia, whether out of envy or fear.

This victimization narrative of the Kremlin, in the view of the author, and of the great majority of U.S. international relations experts, is used to whip up patriotic fervor in the broad Russian population and underpin a regime that is undergoing great strain from economic hardships and stagnation, as well as from the international isolation that followed its annexation of Crimea.

The author starts out in paragraph two citing the Russian poet Fyodor Tyutchev to show us he is no carpetbagging political scientist, that Russian studies are in his blood. Indeed, as we see through his text to the end, he has read his Russian and European history.

That is his strong point, compared to many of the other loudmouths in the articles republished by Johnson’s Russia List. It is also his weak point: he has read Russian history but he has not researched or written it. This is not an accusation, but a mere statement of the facts.

Bennett is introduced to us as a “former U.S. Foreign Service officer who spent most of his career working on post-Soviet issues.” For an historical overview like the article in question that goes back almost 300 years, he is clearly something of a lightweight.

Bennett’s article appeared originally in The American Interest, the publication founded and run by the key popularizer of neoconservative philosophy, Francis Fukuyama. Bennett otherwise has recently published in the online platform of The American Center for a European Ukraine, which should explain where he is coming from politically and to whom he is reaching out.

In effect, Bennett is just one more American thinker who presumes that he understands Russian history and Russian national interest vastly better than the Russians themselves do. In this regard, my best advice to him and to his followers is to sit down with a couple of books written by Dominic Lieven, a scion of one of the great families in the Russian Baltics who is presently a visiting professor at Yale University and who spent more than 25 years as professor of Russian history at the London School of Economics.

The two books in question are Russia Against Napoleon (2012) and The End of Tsarist Russia (2015). Both present the history of momentous periods from a novel perspective, Russia’s own, based on extensive work in the Russian historical archives. Together they sweep into the dust bin most of the simplistic remarks of Bennett about the nature of Russian-European relations since the Eighteenth Century up to 1917.

For example, Lieven explains at length the competing imperialisms, European and Russian of the Nineteenth Century, which were underpinned not only by Russia’s Panslavism, but by Pan-Germanism and by myths to justify Anglo-Saxon world hegemony, which put the powers at odds and which spread widely the denigration of Russia that survives to our day in the West.

From Lieven’s archival research and detailed attention to the advice the Russian rulers received from their senior advisers, both in 1812-1815 and in 1906-1917, both from generals and civilians, it is clear that the Putin narrative on Russian history which Bennett tries to shoot down had far wider acceptance among serious, well-educated Russians and far more subtlety to it than Bennett can imagine.

But Bennett’s problem is not just his average-level consumer’s as opposed to scholar’s knowledge of Russian history. It extends to current events. Bennett distorts present realities. Yes, he is right that Vladimir Putin from time to time plays the “victimization” card, just as from time to time, more generally, the Russian President invokes nationalism.

The simple fact is that in Russia, just as in most Western countries including the United States, nationalism has broad resonance and popular understanding, playing as it does to the heartstrings, whereas Realpolitik, which is the dominant approach to policy behind Putin’s thinking, is seen as cold and unfeeling by the public, too cerebral, so is held back from the addresses to the nation that Bennett cites.

It would be more appropriate to describe Vladimir Putin’s characterization of Russia’s talking partners on the international stage as “Frenemies.” Anyone paying close attention to his major speeches knows that he is never excited, least of all does he engage in “tirades” over the conduct of this or that country in its relations to Russia because the underlying expectation of Putin is that all countries are in permanent competition for their own advantage and only alignment of interests can ensure genuine meeting of minds and common action. Personalities as such count for almost nothing.

Contrary to the facile generalization of Bennett, Vladimir Putin has always followed a foreign policy that had a plan A, of joining NATO or otherwise entering into a shared security platform with the West, and a default position plan B of going it alone, as we now see today after the sharp confrontation over Ukraine.

It will be interesting to see in the days ahead if David Johnson has the courage of his convictions and publishes my indictment of his latest harvest of anti-Russian invective.

Gilbert Doctorow is the European Coordinator of the American Committee for East West Accord. His most recent book, Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2015. It is available in paperback and e-book from Amazon.com and affiliated websites. For donations to support the European activities of ACEWA, write to eastwestaccord@gmail.com

© Gilbert Doctorow, 2015




The Grimmer Story Behind ‘Trumbo’

Exclusive: After World War II, the Red Scare built the careers of redbaiters like Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon while undermining the legacy of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and stifling prospects for progressive politics in America, a tale touched on by the movie, “Trumbo,” writes James DiEugenio.

By James DiEugenio

The post-World War II years could have shaped America into a very different country by building on the foundations the New Deal and moving more along the lines of European allies with publicly financed health care and other social protections.

Instead, reactionary forces that never made peace with President Franklin Roosevelt’s Depression-era reforms generated a new Red Scare, wildly exaggerating the threat from a small number of mild-mannered communists and leftists in Hollywood to steer the nation in a right-wing direction favored by big business.

A new movie, Trumbo, recounts one early chapter in that saga, the persecution of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo and other leftists in the movie industry who became known as the Hollywood Ten, subjected to jail and “blacklisting” for their political views.

The film tells Trumbo’s personal story as a victim of ambitious congressmen, a zealous columnist and intimidated movie executives, but also how this talented screenwriter ultimately prevailed with the help of actor Kirk Douglas and a few other Hollywood luminaries who appreciated Trumbo’s skills and saw the blacklisting as a hysterical witch hunt.

But what the movie fails to explain is how the scars from the Red Scare permanently changed America, making it a place of fearful conformity with a relatively narrow band of acceptable political thought. The era killed off a vibrant Left that could have challenged the Right’s hostility to government social programs fulfilling the constitutional mandate to “provide for the general Welfare.”

Yet, as a tale of one man’s struggle against a fearsome combination of government pressure and industry complicity to control his freedom of thought, Trumbo is a worthy and even rare historical drama.

An Exceptional Talent

Dalton Trumbo was one of the most colorful, fascinating and prolific writers that the Hollywood film colony ever produced. Trumbo wrote, or co-wrote, well over 50 produced screenplays. In addition, he wrote numerous plays, novels and non-fiction books. Some of his most famous scripts were A Bill of Divorcement, A Guy Named Joe and Kitty Foyle.

Unfortunately for Trumbo, he was never allowed to walk up on stage to receive an Academy Award. Not because he did not win any. He actually won two: one for The Brave One and one for Roman Holiday. But at the time he won those Oscars, in the 1950s, he was on what became known as the Hollywood blacklist.

This was an unofficial assemblage of the names of persons working in the motion picture industry who were not allowed to be employed by any of the major studios or television networks. Therefore, when Trumbo won those two awards, his Oscars were given to people who either did not actually exist or who worked as a “front” for Trumbo.

A “front” was someone who had an acceptable name to the studios and who was deemed employable. This person did either little or no work on the completed script, but was allowed a percentage of the fees accrued for the screenplay. Trumbo was finally given his Oscar for The Brave One in 1975, the year before he died. It was not until 2011 that his name was restored to prints of Roman Holiday.

Trumbo was born in Colorado in 1905. He began writing in high school for his local newspaper. When he attended college at the University of Colorado, he worked as a reporter for the Boulder Daily Camera. After working for a number of years at a bakery and after years of having his stories and novels rejected, he finally began to have some success when his essays were accepted in some major magazines. He then became a script reader for Warner Brothers.

From about 1937 to 1947, Dalton Trumbo was one of the highest-paid writers in Hollywood. Some sources state that he was the highest paid writer in the film colony. Trumbo had two qualities that producers craved: he was versatile and he was fast. He could write in a variety of film genres, from comedy to fantasy to personal drama to the epic structure. And since he was a workaholic, he could produce completed screenplays and rewrites at a rate that was exceptional.

Actor Kirk Douglas was astonished at how fast Trumbo wrote the script for Spartacus. In Douglas’s book, I am Spartacus, the actor said Trumbo worked at least twice as fast as any writer with whom he worked. Those qualities, plus a gift for finding a story arc and creating credible characters and dialogue, helped Trumbo ascend to the highest peak of Hollywood success before the age of 40.

Hunting ‘Subversives’

Trumbo’s career all but collapsed when he ran headlong into the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). This infamous committee first became prominent under Texas Congressman Martin Dies in 1938 when it was initially supposed to investigate Nazi espionage in America. But since it was largely composed of Republicans and conservative Democrats (like Dies), it quickly turned to inquiring into one of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, the Federal Theater Project. (Robert F. Vaughn, Only Victims, p. 36)

The Federal Theater Project was a part of the Works Progress Administration, which became the largest single employment program of the New Deal. The Federal Theater Project was meant to employ out-of-work actors, directors and stage managers in federally funded stage productions; both in New York and several regional outlets.

It was a smashing success in that it produced nearly 1,000 plays in four years. These were seen by hundreds of thousands of spectators. Some of the plays were directed by Orson Welles and have become legendary in stage history, e.g., The Cradle Will Rock.

HUAC did not like the spectacular success of this program. Dies once said that the WPA was the greatest boon the communists ever had in the United States. (ibid) Dies called several people to testify about supposed communist influences in certain productions. The committee was so unsophisticated in its understanding that it criticized the director of the project for going to Russia to see new experimental plays by theater innovators like Konstantin Stanislavsky. (ibid, p. 61)

Congressman Joe Starnes famously asked project director Hallie Flanigan if playwright Christopher Marlowe was a communist, though Marlowe had died in 1593. Yet, these clownish blunderings became popular with newspapers and magazines. And, at first, HUAC gained a large amount of public support. Dies unsuccessfully called for the resignation of New Deal officers such as Harry Hopkins and Harold Ickes. (ibid, p. 70). But Dies did kill the Federal Theater Project.

After World War II, HUAC became a standing committee and under new chairman Parnell Thomas the panel decided to hold hearings into the Hollywood film industry. The committee investigators, led by Harry Stripling, assembled dossiers which were largely created from information delivered by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. HUAC then held open hearings, calling a series of prominent players in the entertainment field.

Contempt of Congress

The first panel consisted of “friendly witnesses” who essentially agreed with the committee’s judgments and aims that Hollywood was filled with communist agents who were assembling works of propaganda in order to weaken the foundations of American life. Then, HUAC called “unfriendly witnesses” who did not agree with these judgments, refused to cooperate with the committee and were then indicted for contempt of Congress.

The “friendly witnesses” included three heads of major studios: Jack Warner, Louis B. Mayer and Walt Disney, all extremely powerful, wealthy and politically connected. Warner volunteered the names of suspected communists, e.g. writers Alvah Bessie, Howard Koch and Ring Lardner Jr. (Vaughn, p. 81)

Disney testified that a strike his studio endured a year before was caused by communist infiltration of trade unions, and he named union leader Herbert K. Sorrell as a communist agent. Disney also named an animator at his studio, David Hilberman, as a communist. (ibid, p. 85)

Mayer testified that HUAC should write legislation that would regulate the employment of communists in private industry.

With Republicans in control of the committee, it enlisted novelist Ayn Rand as a witness who watched the film Song of Russia and evaluated whether or not it was propaganda. Rand declared that since the film did not depict normal life in Russia as a gulag, it was propaganda.

As author Victor Navasky has written, the parading of these friendly witnesses was little more than the scaffolding for a sideshow. Famous actors such as Robert Taylor, Adolphe Menjou, Robert Montgomery, Gary Cooper and Ronald Reagan joined the studio executives. (Reagan continued defending HUAC into the 1970s even after it was formally disbanded.)

There was a tactical aim in all of this. By presenting these witnesses first and urging them to deliver speeches and name suspected subversives, the 10 “unfriendly witnesses” who followed were set up in the public eye as being antagonistic toward the earlier star-spangled cavalcade.

Trumbo was in this second group. He had been a member of the Communist Party from about 1943, an isolationist and anti-war, an attitude conveyed by his famous novel Johnny Got His Gun, published in 1939. In the rapidly ascending spiral of Cold War demagoguery, these qualities made him a perfect target of HUAC and one of its ambitious young members, Richard Nixon.

Pleading the First

Trumbo and his group of fellow writers Albert Maltz, Ring Lardner Jr., Lester Cole, Alvah Bessie, Herbert Biberman, John H. Lawson, Sam Ornitz, Adrian Scott and Edward Dmytryk (who was a writer-director) decided to do battle with HUAC. They knew that the question the committee would ask was, if they were now or had ever been a member of the Communist Party, which would not be officially outlawed until 1954.

But the witnesses knew that if they admitted this, the next question would be: Who else do you know who is or was a member? Or the committee would ask, did you attend any meetings, and if so who did you see there?

Since they had already seen what men like Mayer, Warner and Disney did in getting rid of suspected leftists, the witnesses knew that not only would their careers be endangered but anyone else they named would be put at risk.

Therefore, Trumbo and other witnesses decided not to plead the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination but instead refused to directly answer the committee’s questions, citing their First Amendment rights of choice and privacy. For their stance, Trumbo and nine other witnesses, who became known as the Hollywood Ten, were prosecuted for contempt of Congress.

Their main attorney, Bartley Crum advised them that the Supreme Court would not uphold such a conviction. But after Trumbo was convicted in the lower court, the Supreme Court refused to hear his case. Trumbo went to prison for about 11 months in Ashland, Kentucky.

Besides prison terms, the Hollywood Ten case led to a blacklist by movie executives who “deplored the action of the 10 Hollywood men who have been cited for contempt by the House of Representatives.” All business ties and contracts with them were “suspended without compensation” and none would be re-employed until they were acquitted or purged themselves of contempt and declared under oath he is not a communist.

As the Red Scare spread, about 300 workers in the entertainment industry were blacklisted. Some, like actor Philip Loeb, were pushed to the edge. As Douglas notes in his book, Loeb could not care for his emotionally troubled son and committed suicide, a particularly painful experience for Douglas who knew Loeb when they were both up-and-coming actors in New York.

Eking Out a Living

When Trumbo emerged from prison, he first moved to Mexico for a couple of years. He tried to eke out a living writing scripts, but the man who once commanded $75,000 per screenplay could make only a fraction of that sum. So, he moved back to Los Angeles where he lived in a small house in Highland Park. For the next several years, he employed phony names and hired fronts to produce his scripts, even when he was dealing with small, independent production companies like the King Brothers.

Even though Trumbo was making much less money and working much harder and longer, he could not claim credit for his work. As Jay Roach’s Trumbo shows, this put a tremendous strain on Trumbo’s home life.

Beyond the movie executives, other powerful Hollywood figures piled on the Hollywood Ten and went after their support group, the Committee for the First Amendment. Actor John Wayne and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper formed the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservations of American Ideals.

When a performer or writer wanted to recant and purge himself, he got in contact with this group. As Reagan said in an interview for the film Hollywood on Trial, they would tell this person that the Alliance really could not help you unless you decided to help yourself. Once the person did so, he would get permission from studio executives to work again.

Roach’s film shows actor Edward G. Robinson, who had supported Trumbo with monetary contributions and didn’t work for a year, going through this penance under the approving eye of Wayne.

Some Hollywood Ten defendants, like director Edward Dmytryk, could not handle the pressures and made arrangements with the powers that be to recant and name names. As result, actress Lee Grant was added to the blacklist while the rehabilitated Dmytryk went on to direct films, including The Caine Mutiny, shot in 1954 at the high tide of the blacklist.

As the film shows, however, there were some brave souls who finally cracked the blacklist.

When Kirk Douglas came to Hollywood in 1945, he was hired to work on a film called The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. There was a strike going on, the one which Disney referred to in his testimony before HUAC. The striking union, largely representing set dressers, had asked the Screen Actor’s Guild to honor their picket line.

Under the influence of Guild leaders — such as George Murphy, Ronald Reagan and George Montgomery — SAG refused to do so. But the writer and the director of Douglas’s film, respectively Robert Rossen and Lewis Milestone, did support the strikers. They would not cross the picket line. Fearing a lockout, producer Hal Wallis had the actor sleep in his dressing room.

As Douglas related in his book, two years later, both Milestone and Rossen were called before HUAC. Milestone escaped to France. Rossen admitted membership in the Communist Party. Both men were blacklisted.

Another Douglas friend and colleague, Carl Foreman, producer of the film High Noon, was called to testify but fled to England. Foreman was targeted because some took High Noon as an allegory for what HUAC was doing to America.

A Disgusted Douglas

All this shocked Douglas, who knew that none of these men posed any threat to the security of the United States. He realized how absurd the practices of the HUAC actually were.

For instance, the committee called baseball player Jackie Robinson to testify against actor Paul Robeson, but Robinson could offer little or no information about the actor. Douglas concluded that the only reason Robinson was called was because, like Robeson, he was a famous African-American.

Douglas was also distressed by the fact that six of the Hollywood Ten were Jewish as was he and as were many of the executives who capitulated so completely before HUAC. Douglas could not understand why people of the Jewish faith, who fully understood the price and pain of being persecuted, would go along with the HUAC circus, led by a clown like Thomas.

As Douglas wrote and as the film shows, much of this stemmed from fear. Men such as Warner, Mayer and Harry Cohn were “terrified their great power would be taken away from them if their loyalty to America was called into question.”

Roach’s film shows a scene with columnist Hedda Hopper going into Mayer’s office, calling him a kike, and threatening to vilify him in her columns unless he cooperated with the committee.

But Douglas rejected such pressure, agreeing with actor Fredric March who said: “They’re after more than Hollywood. This reaches into every American city and town.”

Ironically, HUAC’s aggressive witch hunt against leftists in Hollywood contributed, indirectly, to the undoing of Trumbo’s isolation. In 1950, author Howard Fast was called before HUAC and grilled about his colleagues in a group opposing Spain’s fascist dictator Francisco Franco. When Fast refused to answer, he also was imprisoned.

In prison, Fast used the library to research the life of Spartacus, a slave who turned gladiator and finally became a rebel leader against Imperial Rome. After getting released from prison, Fast wrote a historical novel about the man who almost undid the Roman Empire.

But Fast’s life was not the same as it had been before. He was banned from speaking on college campuses. He was under surveillance by the FBI. And he was denied a passport, which deprived him of his right to do research on Spartacus in Europe.

When Fast finished his book, he tried to sell it to his old publisher, Little, Brown and Company, but was turned down after the FBI visited the publisher. Six other publishing houses also turned it down. With no other alternative, Fast published it himself. In four months, it sold 48,000 copies with Fast and his wife shipping out copies from their basement.

Finding Spartacus

By the 1950s, Kirk Douglas had built a very successful career as an actor. He also despised the fact that MGM made him sign a loyalty oath to play painter Vincent Van Gogh in Lust for Life. So, Douglas created his own production company with partner Ed Lewis, who dropped off a copy of Fast’s Spartacus on Douglas’s desk.

Douglas loved the book and decided to produce the film (and star in it). Fast insisted on writing the first draft of the script but it was quite poor, prompting Douglas to enlist Trumbo to do the re-write. But Douglas told Universal Studio chiefs Ed Muhl and Lew Wasserman that Lewis was writing the script.

About halfway through the film’s production, Trumbo stopped working, complaining that he had written about 250,000 words on the project so far and did not want to do that much work if his name was not on the film.

Douglas drove to Trumbo’s house and told him that when the film was finished, he would insist that Trumbo get screen credit, which is what Douglas wanted to do all along. Douglas invited Trumbo to a meeting at the Universal commissary with himself and director Stanley Kubrick, something Trumbo had not done for almost 13 years.

After columnist Hedda Hopper exposed the fact that Trumbo was secretly writing Spartacus, producer-director Otto Preminger approached Trumbo to write a movie from the Leon Uris book Exodus. Preminger announced this in the movie trade papers, joining Douglas in helping Trumbo crack the blacklist.

After Douglas and Preminger made their announcements, singer/actor Frank Sinatra also decided to employ a blacklisted writer, Albert Maltz, except Sinatra wanted to make this into a big event. But Trumbo advised Douglas to tell Sinatra to drop his crusade, since it would probably hurt Sen. John Kennedy in his presidential race against former HUAC member Richard Nixon. Joseph Kennedy, the candidate’s father, also advised Sinatra not to go that route.

A President Weighs In

But after Kennedy got elected in 1960, he and longtime friend, Paul Fay, attended a public screening of Spartacus. The American Legion was picketing and Kennedy could have asked for a private screening of the film. Wasserman and Muhl would have been glad to oblige.

But on the advice of his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, the President made the deliberate public appearance.

Roach closes the film with a nice strophe. Hopper is in her living room watching television when a segment depicting Kennedy’s attendance at the film comes on the screen. The camera rotates around her face slowly, as she begins to realize that her reign of terror is now ending.

The scene dissolves to black. Out of the darkness, we see Trumbo in the wings about to go on stage in 1970 to collect his Laurel Award, the annual distinguished career award given out by the Writers’ Guild of America. Eloquently, Trumbo addresses the issue of the whole blacklist period and the film closes.

Director Jay Roach began his career in comedy, directing Michael Myers in the Austin Powers films. He also directed the Robert DeNiro comedy Meet the Parents before going to the small screen to direct works closer to his heart. For HBO, he directed the political dramas Recount about the Republican heist of the 2000 presidential election in Florida, and Game Change about Sen. John McCain’s decision to pick Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his vice presidential running mate in 2008.

Roach has now made Trumbo, a political drama for the large screen. Overall, he does fairly well. Dalton Trumbo did several interviews that were captured on film and can be seen by almost anyone. Actor Bryan Cranston has obviously watched them at length as he does a nice job portraying Trumbo’s feisty character.

The English actress Helen Mirren plays Hedda Hopper. From the first time I saw Mirren in The Long Good Friday, I was struck by her intelligence, subtlety and technical proficiency. She furthers that tradition here with a nicely understated performance. In an easy part, John Goodman is strong and vivid as low-budget producer John King.

Roach likes to begin a scene low key and then build it to a powerful explosion or aria. For example, he does this with Goodman wielding a baseball bat at a representative of the producers’ alliance sent to intimidate him from employing blacklisted writers.

The one disappointment in the cast is Diane Lane as Trumbo’s wife Cleo. Either she could not find the center of her character, or Roach could not help her. It’s a completely blasé performance in a major role.

A Bigger Picture

In my opinion, some of the film’s shortcomings originate in the script by John McNamara. The film tries to make the opening of Spartacus into a crowning historical moment, which is not true. Because of the power of Douglas, Wasserman and Muhl, this achievement ended the blacklist for Trumbo but not for many others who did not have that kind of torque behind them. For them, it lingered on into the mid-1960s.

Another problem with the script is that it misses the core motivation for HUAC and the careers of some of its members, like Dies, Thomas and Nixon. For political reasons, they bitterly resented the scope and the goals of Roosevelt’s New Deal. They did not want government to be the solution to the Great Depression. So, they decided to poison the New Deal’s legacy with the taint of communism.

To a degree, they were successful. HUAC managed to drastically limit the American political spectrum by attacking, smearing, prosecuting and demonizing any political orientation left of the Democratic Party.

HUAC, Joe McCarthy and the Red Scare tilted the politics of the country decidedly to the right, meaning that unlike many European industrialized countries there is no serious left-leaning American political party.

Though HUAC Chairman Thomas went to prison on fraud charges, Sen. Joe McCarthy took up the anti-communist cause, expanding the Red Scare into the U.S. government and other aspects of American life. As with HUAC, FBI Director Hoover supplied information to McCarthy.

When Robert Kennedy became Attorney General, he looked at the information that Hoover had. There were maybe 50,000 members of the Communist Party in the United States and many of them were FBI informants. In other words, there was no real communist threat to fear. It was more a creation of men like Hoover who recognized that an exaggerated fear of communism was an effective weapon for gaining political advantage and personal power.

It was this subterranean agenda that the American public was never made to understand. Therefore the consequences went unabated.

Even today, prominent right-wingers decry government programs to create jobs or alleviate suffering including President Barack Obama’s private-insurance-based health care program as “socialism” or “communism.”

The value of scaring the American people has not been lost. Today, we live with another excessive threat, the War on Terror, which has led to the Patriot Act, torture, drone strikes and racial profiling.

The ability of Americans to resist these current excesses is crippled by the failure of politicians, the courts and the media to stop the Red Scare that started in Hollywood in 1947.

Trumbo is a decent enough picture. And Roach should be praised for his good intentions in filming it. There are few directors and producers making politically relevant films in America today.

But in my opinion, this subject would have been better served if Roach had made a mini-series on the subject. That would have given him the opportunity to depict a much wider American canvas and a much larger subject.

Dalton Trumbo was part of an epic struggle. In the end, he personally won, but the country lost.

James DiEugenio is a researcher and writer on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and other mysteries of that era. His most recent book is Reclaiming Parkland.




A Christmas Message of Peace

Despite the commercialism of Christmas, some positive messages break through, often in movie classics, such as Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” and Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol.” But another entry should be “Joyeux Noel,” a movie about the soldiers’ Christmas truce in 1914, writes Gary G. Kohls.

By Gary G. Kohls

On Christmas Eve, 101 years ago, one of the most unusual aberrations in the bloody history of the organized mass slaughter that we call war occurred. It was so profound and so disturbing to the professional war-makers that it was never to be repeated again.

“Christian” Europe was in the fifth month of the so-called Great War that would grind on for another four years of what amounted to mutual suicide, ending with all the original participants financially, spiritually and morally bankrupted.

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British, Scottish, French, Belgian, Australian, New Zealand, Canadian, German, Austrian, Hungarian, Serbian and Russian clergymen from church pulpits in those overwhelmingly Christian nations were doing their part in fomenting the un-Christ-like patriotic fervor that would result in a holocaust that destroyed four empires, killed upwards of 20 million soldiers and civilians, and resulted in the psychological and physical decimation of an entire generation of young men in France, Britain, Germany and Russia.

Christianity, it needs to be noted, began as a highly ethical religion because of the teachings and actions of the nonviolent Jesus of Nazareth (and his pacifist apostles and followers). Tragically, the nations that profess Christianity as their state religion have, for the past 1,700 years, never nurtured their churches to be truly peacemaking churches.

And, contrary to the ethical teachings of Jesus, modern Christian churches have not been, by and large, actively resisting their particular nation’s imperial aspirations, their aggressive wars or their country’s war-makers and war profiteers. Instead, the churches have become a bloody instrument for whatever warmongers and corporations that have achieved political and economic power.

So, it wasn’t much of a surprise to see that the religious leaders that were involved in World War I were convinced that God was on their particular side and therefore not on the side of those followers of Jesus that had been fingered as enemies on the other side. The obvious contradiction (that both sides were worshipping and praying to the same god) escaped the vast majority of combatants and their spiritual counselors.

Pulpits and pews all over Europe with few exceptions reverberated with flag-waving fervor, sending clear messages to their doomed warrior-sons that it was their Christian duty to march off to kill the equally doomed Christian soldiers on the other side of the line. And for the civilians back home, it was their Christian duty to “support the boots on the ground” who were destined to return home dead or among many of the survivors wounded, psychologically and spiritually broken, disillusioned and faithless.

A mere five months into this frustratingly stalemated war (newly featuring trench warfare, artillery, machine guns, tanks, aerial bombardment and poison gas), the first Christmas of the war on the Western Front seemed to offer a respite to the exhausted, freezing and demoralized troops.

Christmas was the holiest of Christian holidays for all sides, and in this time of death, hunger, thirst, frostbitten limbs, sleep deprivation, shell shock, suicidality, traumatic brain injuries, mortal wounds and homesickness, Christmas 1914 had a very special meaning.

Christmas reminded the soldiers of the good food, safety, warm homes and beloved families that they had left behind and which – they now suspected – they might never see again. They did not yet know that even if they survived physically, they would never be the same again.

The soldiers in the trenches desperately sought some respite from the misery of the water-logged, putrid, rat- and lice-infested, corpse-ridden and increasingly frozen trenches.

Trench Warfare in 1914

By this time, the frontline soldiers on both sides were wondering how they could possibly have fallen for the propaganda campaigns that had convinced them that their side was pre-destined to be victorious and that they would be “home before Christmas” where they would be celebrated as conquering heroes.

Instead, each frontline soldier was at the end of his emotional rope because of the unrelenting artillery barrages against which they were defenseless. If they weren’t killed or physically maimed by the artillery shells and bombs, they would eventually be emotionally destroyed by “shell-shock” (now known as posttraumatic stress disorder – PTSD), suffering horrifying nightmares, flashbacks (usually misdiagnosed as a sign of mental illness), blindness, sleep deprivation, suicidality, depression, hyper-alertness and any number of other mental and neurological abnormalities, including traumatic brain injury.

Among the other common “killers of the soul” were the perpetual hunger, malnutrition, infections (such as typhus and dysentery), louse infestations, trench foot, frostbite and gangrenous toes and fingers. None of these survivors would truly appreciate being lauded as a military hero in future parades staged in their honor.

Poison gas attacks from both sides, albeit begun by scientifically-superior Germany, began early in 1915, and Allied tank warfare which was a humiliating disaster for the British innovators of the tank – wouldn’t be operational until the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

One of the most stressful realities for the frontline soldiers was the suicidal, misbegotten, “over the top” infantry assaults against the opposition’s machine gun nests. Such assaults were complicated by the shell holes and the rows of coiled barbed wire that sometimes made them sitting ducks. Artillery barrages from both sides commonly resulted in tens of thousands of casualties in a single day.

The over-the-top infantry assaults that sacrificed hundreds of thousands of obedient soldiers were stupidly (and repeatedly) ordered by senior officers such as Sir John French and his replacement as British Commander-in-Chief, Sir Douglas Haig. Most of the old-time generals of a century ago had trouble admitting that their out-dated horse and saber cavalry charges across the muck of No-Man’s Land were both hopeless and suicidal).

The general staff planners of their disastrous attempts to end the war quickly (or at least end the stalemate) were safely out of the range of enemy artillery barrages. The general staff war planners were always comfortably back at their warm and dry headquarters, eating well, being dressed by their orderlies, and drinking their tea – none of them at any risk of suffering the lethality of war.

The continuous digging with their entrenching tools in order to improve the safety of the trenches was frequently interrupted by preparations for attack. Screams of pain often came from the wounded soldiers who were helplessly hanging on the barbed wire or trapped and/or bleeding to death in the bomb craters. Often their deaths would linger for days, and the effect on the troops in the trenches, who had to listen to the desperate, unanswerable cries for help was psychologically devastating.

By the time Christmas came and winter hit, troop morale on both sides of No Man’s Land had hit rock bottom.

Christmas in the Trenches

So on Dec. 24, 1914, the exhausted troops settled down to Christmas with gifts from home, special food, special liquor, chocolate bars and the hope for peace, even for only one night.

A magnanimous (and deluded) Kaiser Wilhelm had ordered 100,000 Christmas trees with millions of ornamental candles to be sent up to the front, expecting that such an act would boost German troop morale. Using the supply lines for such militarily unnecessary items was ridiculed by the most hardened officers, but nobody suspected that the Kaiser’s Christmas tree idea would backfire and instead be a catalyst for an unplanned-for cease-fire, a singular event previously unheard of in the history of warfare and one that was ultimately censored out of mainstream history books for most of the next century.

The Christmas Truce of 1914 was a spontaneous event that happened at a multitude of locations all along the 600 miles of trenches that stretched across Belgium and France, and it was an event that would never again be duplicated. An attempt at a Christmas Truce in 1915, orchestrated by the boots on the ground, was quickly put down by senior officers.

Ten years ago, the movie “Joyeux Noel” (French for “Merry Christmas”) received an Academy Award nomination for best foreign film of 2005. It tells the moving tale that was adapted from the many surviving stories that had been told in letters from soldiers who had participated in the truce.

As told in the movie, some young German started singing “Stille Nacht.” Soon the British, French and Scots on the other side of No Man’s Land joined in with their versions of “Silent Night.” Before long, the spirit of the Prince of Peace and “goodwill towards men” prevailed over the demonic spirit of war, and the troops on both sides began to sense their common humanity.

The natural human aversion to killing other humans broke through to consciousness and overcame the fear, patriotic fervor and pro-war brainwashing to which they had all been indoctrinated.

Soldiers on both sides gradually dropped their weapons and came out of their trenches to meet their former foes face-to-face. They had to step around shell holes and over frozen corpses (which were later to be given respectful burials during an extension of the truce, with soldiers from both sides helping one another with the gruesome task).

The spirit of retaliation had been replaced by a spirit of reconciliation – and the desire for peace on earth. New friends shared chocolate bars, cigarettes, wine, schnapps, soccer games and pictures from home. Addresses were exchanged, photos were taken and every soldier who genuinely experienced the emotional drama was forever changed.

And the generals and the politicians were appalled.

An Act of Treason

Fraternization with the enemy (as well as refusing to obey orders in time of war) is regarded by military commanders as an act of treason and is severely punishable. In the “Great War,” such crimes were dealt with by firing squad.

In the case of the Christmas Truce of 1914, most officers feared mutiny and did not want to draw public attention to the potentially contagious incidents by using such penalties. War correspondents were forbidden to report the unauthorized truce to their papers. Some commanding officers threatened courts martial if fraternization persisted (getting to know your supposed enemy was obviously bad for the killing spirit).

There were still lighter punishments to be invoked. Many of the Allied troops were re-assigned to different and less desirable regiments. Many German troops were sent to the Eastern Front under much harsher conditions, to fight and die in the equally suicidal battles against their Russian Orthodox Christian co-religionists.

If humanity is truly concerned with the barbaric nature of militarism, and if our modern-era wars of empire are to be effectively derailed, the story of the Christmas Truce needs to be retold again and again. These futile, unaffordable and very contagious modern wars are being fought by vulnerable, thoroughly indoctrinated Call of Duty or Halo first-person shooter gamers who, unbeknownst to them, are at high risk of having their lives negatively and permanently altered by the physical, mental and spiritual damage that always comes from participating in actual violence.

Combat war can easily doom its participants to a life overwhelmed by the wounds of war (PTSD, sociopathic personality disorder, suicidality, homicidality, loss of religious faith, traumatic brain injury, neurotoxic, addictive drug use, either legal or illegal) all of which, it must be pointed out, are totally preventable.

It seems to me that it would be helpful if moral leadership in America, especially its Christian leaders, would discharge their duty to warn the children and adolescents that are in their spheres of influence about all of the serious consequences that being in the killing professions can have on their souls and psyches.

War planners do whatever it takes to keep soldiers from recognizing the humanity of their enemies, whether they are Syrians, Iranians, Iraqis, Afghanis, Pakistanis, Yemenis, Vietnamese, Chinese or North Koreans. I have been told by many military veterans that military chaplains, who are supposed to be nurturers of the souls of the soldiers that are in their “care,” never bring up, in their counseling sessions, the Golden Rule, Jesus’s clear “love your enemies” commandment and his other ethical teachings in the Sermon on the Mount.

Military chaplains seem to just be another cog in the apparatus of making war maximally effective for their military, economic, political and corporate overlords. Christian chaplains, who are very well paid, seem to not pay much attention to the Ten Commandments either, especially the one that says “thou shalt not kill.”

In their defense, I suppose, military chaplains, similar to their colleagues from divinity school, may have never been schooled adequately (beginning in their Sunday School upbringings) in the profoundly important gospel truths about humility, mercy, non-violence, non-domination, non-retaliation, unconditional love and the rejection of enmity.

Theological Blind Spots of War

These theological blind spots are nicely illustrated near the end of the “Joyeux Noel” movie in a powerful scene depicting a confrontation between the Christ-like, altruistic, antiwar Scottish chaplain and his Calvinist bishop.

As the chaplain was mercifully administering the “last rites” to a dying soldier, he was approached by the bishop, who had come to chastise the chaplain for fraternizing with the enemy during the Christmas Truce. The bishop summarily relieved the simple pastor of his chaplaincy duties because of his “treasonous and shameful” behavior on the battlefield.

The authoritarian bishop refused to listen to the chaplain’s story about his having performed “the most important mass of my life” (with German troops participating in the celebration) or the fact that he wished to stay with the soldiers that needed him because they were losing their faith in God. The bishop angrily denied the chaplain’s request to remain with his men.

The bishop then delivered a rousing pro-war, jingoistic sermon (which was taken word-for-word from a homily that had actually been delivered by an Anglican bishop later in the war). The sermon was addressed to the fresh troops who had to be brought in to replace the veteran soldiers who, because their consciences had been awakened, had suddenly become averse to killing and were refusing to fire their rifles.

The image of the dramatic but subtle response of the chaplain to his sacking should be a clarion call to the Christian church leadership of our militarized, so-called “Christian” nation – both clergy and lay. This good man of God hung up his cross and walked out of the door of the field hospital.

“Joyeux Noel” is an important film that deserves to be annual holiday fare. It has ethical lessons even more powerful than “It’s A Wonderful Life” or “A Christmas Carol.”

One of the lessons of the story is summarized in the concluding verse of John McCutcheon’s famous song about the event. It is title “Christmas in the Trenches”:

“My name is Francis Tolliver, in Liverpool I dwell.

Each Christmas come since World War One, I’ve learned its lessons well: That the ones who call the shots won’t be among the dead and lame And on each end of the rifle we’re the same.”

A critical scene from the movie is at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pPk9-AD7h3M

Additional scenes from the move, with the narration of a letter from one of the soldiers involved can be viewed at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ehFjkS7UBUU

Dr Kohls is a retired physician from Duluth, Minnesota. He writes a weekly column for the Reader, Duluth’s alternative newsweekly magazine. Many of his columns are archived at http://duluthreader.com/articles/categories/200_Duty_to_Warn




A Brief Moment of Christmas Peace

The impromptu Christmas truce of 1914 was a rare moment when human solidarity overrode the demands of hatred and war, when the guns fell silent over the Western Front of World War I and enemies became briefly friends, as Michael Winship recalls.

By Michael Winship

Last Friday night, I went to a small off-Broadway theater to see an engaging, poignant one-man show about the Christmas Truce of 1914. The title was Our Friends, the Enemy, written and performed by a young British actor named Alex Gwyther.

I felt bad for him; the theater was only about a third full that evening, probably because of the approaching holiday, but perhaps also because we Americans simply are too often indifferent to a century-old fight that scorched the European continent.

You would scarcely know it here in the United States, but since last year, the British, French, Germans and others of our Western allies have been commemorating the 100th anniversary of World War I, a conflict of extreme foolishness and colossal consequences, like almost every other.

Maybe our interest in this centennial has seemed lacking so far because we didn’t enter The Great War until 1917. Or maybe it’s because others’ losses were so much more devastating than our own we lost more than 53,000 lives but half of all Frenchmen who were between the ages of 20 and 32 died, and more than 35 percent of German men ages 19 to 22.

Some 723,000 British were killed, more than would die during World War II. No wonder, as Benjamin Schwarz wrote in The Atlantic back in 1999, “The war is Britain’s national trauma, and British and Commonwealth historians compulsively revisit it in the way that American historians revisit the Civil War.”

So I felt bad for the actor and sad that more people weren’t in the theater to hear an important story ingrained in British memory so profoundly that last Christmas a UK supermarket chain even used a highly romanticized version of the events as the basis of a wildly popular and sentimental TV commercial.

In December 1914, World War I had been raging in Europe for some five months; British, French and Belgian troops fighting against Germany and Austria. Along the western front, trench warfare rapidly became the norm, soldiers on both sides deeply dug in, stuck in mud, filth and pestilence with a no-man’s land sometimes just a few dozen yards wide running between the lines. This stalemate was steadily punctuated with rifle and cannon fire, death and anguished cries from the wounded.

On Dec. 7 that year, Pope Benedict XV called for a Christmas Eve truce, “that the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang.” His plea was rejected.

Few if any of the foot soldiers may have known about that papal imploration, but many of them took it upon themselves to make their own peace, however brief. On Christmas Eve, German troops along the line raised across the trench tops small Christmas trees lit by candles. The two sides sang carols to one another, their voices drifting warily across no man’s land.

With daylight on Christmas morning, on each side, men cautiously peered from their trenches and a few ventured out to shake hands with their foes and exchange holiday greetings, followed by more and more. Artillery fire stopped.

James Boyce, the soldier played by Alex Gwyther in Our Friends, the Enemy, tells the tale:

“Grey and khaki begin to blend into one. Order of military rank and the barriers of language vanish, as they shake hands and introduce themselves in a mix of broken English and silent gestures. They offer small gifts of friendship, drinks, cigarettes, buttons, badges, sketches they’ve drawn and in the warm absurdity of their Christmas morning, some exchange addresses to meet up after the war.”

There are stories of impromptu soccer games or simple kick rounds with an actual ball or something vaguely spherical improvised from tin cans or straw-stuffed sandbags, nothing as organized as the match that supermarket ad suggests. More organized were burial details that the momentary peace allowed to retrieve the dead.

“We worked with the enemy,” the character James Boyce recalls, “collecting the men whom we had killed together and attempted to clean up the mess of this war. It slowly dawned on us all war was still upon us. A strange orange slithered over the dead, and two armies placed their heads in their hands.”

That Christmas of 1914, the peace lasted in some places longer than others; and in still others it never happened at all. Afterwards, word came from on high that such behavior, insubordination!, would never again be permitted. One German infantryman in the trenches also thought it was a disgrace.

“Such a thing should not happen in wartime,” he declared. His name was Adolf Hitler.

In Our Friends, the Enemy, James Boyce recalls, “Tucked away from the war in a quiet corner of France, sheltered by trees and covered in frost, thick twigs tied together to form small crucifixes lunge out from the fluffy snow. A worn helmet rests under each cross.

“An old tree, built with a thick body stands over the small cemetery, its long branches watching over the small bumps in the snow. In its trunk, words have been carved using the bayonet of a rifle:

“‘Death unites us all, and we all rest on the same side.’”

They called it “the war to end all wars.” Pause for sardonic laughter, fast forward to today. Once again, politicians and others run around ferociously beating the war drums, pandering to our fears and baser instincts. In the end, while there are really very few differences among us, there will always be those who seek to turn those small differences into monsters. Do not let that happen.

We all rest on the same side. See you next year.

Michael Winship is the Emmy Award-winning senior writer of Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, and a former senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos. Follow him on Twitter at @MichaelWinship. [This story first appeared at http://billmoyers.com/story/the-christmas-day-that-peace-broke-out/]




America’s Dying Democracy

Democracy, as a noble principle of self-governance, is fading away in big ways and small, with special interests seizing control of both media and politicians and with the people increasingly manipulated and misinformed. In this impassioned appeal, Bill Moyers calls it “the fight of our lives.”

By Bill Moyers

In the fall of 2001, in the aftermath of 9/11, as families grieved and the nation mourned, Washington swarmed with locusts of the human kind: wartime opportunists, lobbyists, lawyers, ex-members of Congress, bagmen for big donors: all of them determined to grab what they could for their corporate clients and rich donors while no one was looking.

Across the land, the faces of Americans of every stripe were stained with tears. Here in New York, we still were attending memorial services for our firemen and police. But in the nation’s capital, within sight of a smoldering Pentagon that had been struck by one of the hijacked planes, the predator class was hard at work pursuing private plunder at public expense, gold-diggers in the ashes of tragedy exploiting our fear, sorrow, and loss.

What did they want? The usual: tax cuts for the wealthy and big breaks for corporations. They even made an effort to repeal the alternative minimum tax that for 15 years had prevented companies from taking so many credits and deductions that they owed little if any taxes. And it wasn’t only repeal the mercenaries sought; they wanted those corporations to get back all the minimum tax they had ever been assessed.

They sought a special tax break for mighty General Electric, although you would never have heard about it if you were watching GE’s news divisions, NBC News, CNBC, or MSNBC, all made sure to look the other way. They wanted to give coal producers more freedom to pollute, open the Alaskan wilderness to drilling, empower the president to keep trade favors for corporations a secret while enabling many of those same corporations to run roughshod over local communities trying the protect the environment and their citizens’ health.

It was a disgusting bipartisan spectacle. With words reminding us of Harry Truman’s description of the GOP as “guardians of privilege,” the Republican majority leader of the House dared to declare that “it wouldn’t be commensurate with the American spirit” to provide unemployment and other benefits to laid-off airline workers. As for post 9/11 Democrats, their national committee used the crisis to call for widening the soft-money loophole in our election laws.

America had just endured a sneak attack that killed thousands of our citizens, was about to go to war against terror, and would soon send an invading army to the Middle East. If ever there was a moment for shared sacrifice, for putting patriotism over profits, this was it. But that fall, operating deep within the shadows of Washington’s Beltway, American business and political mercenaries wrapped themselves in red, white and blue and went about ripping off a country in crisis.

H.L. Mencken got it right: “Whenever you hear a man speak of his love for his country, it is a sign that he expects to be paid for it.”

Fourteen years later, we can see more clearly the implications. After three decades of engineering a winner-take-all economy, and buying the political power to consummate their hold on the wealth created by the system they had rigged in their favor, they were taking the final and irrevocable step of separating themselves permanently from the common course of American life. They would occupy a gated stratosphere far above the madding crowd while their political hirelings below look after their earthly interests.

The $1.15 trillion spending bill passed by Congress last Friday and quickly signed by President Obama is just the latest triumph in the plutocratic management of politics that has accelerated since 9/11. As Michael Winship and I described here last Thursday, the bill is a bonanza for the donor class that powerful combine of corporate executives and super-rich individuals whose money drives our electoral process.

Within minutes of its passage, congressional leaders of both parties and the President rushed to the television cameras to praise each other for a bipartisan bill that they claimed signaled the end of dysfunction; proof that Washington can work.

Mainstream media (including public television and radio), especially the networks and cable channels owned and operated by the conglomerates, didn’t stop to ask: “Yes, but work for whom?” Instead, the anchors acted as amplifiers for official spin, repeating the mantra-of-the-hour that while this is not “a perfect bill,” it does a lot of good things. “But for whom? At what price?” went unasked.

Now we’re learning. Like the drip-drip-drip of a faucet, over the weekend other provisions in the more than 2,000-page bill began to leak. Many of the bad ones we mentioned on Thursday are there, those extended tax breaks for big business, more gratuities to the fossil fuel industry, the provision to forbid the Securities & Exchange Commission from requiring corporations to disclose their political spending, even to their own shareholders.

That one’s a slap in the face even to Anthony Kennedy, the justice who wrote the Supreme Court’s majority opinion in Citizens United. He said: “With the advent of the Internet, prompt disclosure of expenditures can provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable for their positions.”

Over our dead body, Congress declared last Friday, proclaiming instead: Secrecy today. Secrecy tomorrow. Secrecy forever. They are determined that we not know who owns them.

The horrors mount. As Eric Lipton and Liz Moyer reported for The New York Times on Sunday, in the last days before the bill’s passage “lobbyists swooped in” to save, at least for now, a loophole worth more than $1 billion to Wall Street investors and the hotel, restaurant and gambling industries. Lobbyists even helped draft crucial language that the Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid furtively inserted into the bill.

Lipton and Moyer wrote that, “The small changes, and the enormous windfall they generated, show the power of connected corporate lobbyists to alter a huge bill that is being put together with little time for lawmakers to consider. Throughout the legislation, there were thousands of other add-ons and hard to decipher tax changes.”

No surprise to read that “some executives at companies with the most at stake are also big campaign donors.” The Times reports that “the family of David Bonderman, a co-founder of TPG Capital, has donated $1.2 million since 2014 to the Senate Majority PAC, a campaign fund with close ties to Mr. Reid and other Senate Democrats.” Senator Reid, lest we forget, is from Nevada. As he approaches retirement at the end of 2016, perhaps he’s hedging his bets at taxpayer expense.

Consider just two other provisions: One, insisted upon by Republican Sen. Thad Cochran, directs the Coast Guard to build a $640 million National Security Cutter in Cochran’s home state of Mississippi, a ship that the Coast Guard says it does not need. The other: A demand by Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins for an extra $1 billion for a Navy destroyer that probably will be built at her state’s Bath Iron Works again, a vessel our military says is unnecessary.

So it goes: The selling off of the Republic, piece by piece. What was it Mark Twain said? There is “no distinctive native American criminal class except Congress.”

Can we at least face the truth? The plutocrats and oligarchs are winning. The vast inequality they are creating is a death sentence for government by consent of the people at large. Did any voter in any district or state in the last Congressional election vote to give that billion-dollar loophole to a handful of billionaires? To allow corporations to hide their political contributions? To add $1.4 trillion to the national debt? Of course not.

It is now the game: Candidates ask citizens for their votes, then go to Washington to do the bidding of their donors. And since one expectation is that they will cut the taxes of those donors, we now have a permanent class that is afforded representation without taxation.

A plutocracy, says my old friend, the historian Bernard Weisberger, “has a natural instinct to perpetuate and enlarge its own powers and by doing so slams the door of opportunity to challengers and reduces elections to theatrical duels between politicians who are marionettes worked by invisible strings.” Where does it end?

By coincidence, this past weekend I watched the final episode of the British television series Secret State, a 2012 remake of an earlier version based on the popular novel A Very British Coup. This is white-knuckle political drama. Gabriel Byrne plays an accidental prime minister thrust into office by the death of the incumbent, only to discover himself facing something he never imagined: a shadowy coalition of forces, some within his own government, working against him.

With some of his own ministers secretly in the service of powerful corporations and bankers, his own party falling away from him, press lords daily maligning him, the opposition emboldened, and a public confused by misinformation, deceit, and vicious political rhetoric, the prime minister is told by Parliament to immediately invade Iran (on unproven, even false premises) or resign.

In the climactic scene, he defies the “Secret State” that is manipulating all this and confronts Parliament with this challenge: “Let’s forget party allegiance, forget vested interests, forget votes of confidence. Let each and every one of us think only of this: Is this war justified? Is it what the people of this country want? Is it going to achieve what we want it to achieve? And if not, then what next?

 “Well, I tell you what I think we should do. We should represent the people of this country. Not the lobby companies that wine and dine us. Or the banks and the big businesses that tell us how the world goes ‘round. Or the trade unions that try and call the shots. Not the civil servants nor the war-mongering generals or the security chiefs. Not the press magnates and multibillion dollar donors [We must return] democracy to this House and the country it represents.”

Do they? The movie doesn’t tell us. We are left to imagine how the crisis, the struggle for democracy, will end.

As we are reminded by this season, there is more to life than politics. There are families, friends, music, worship, sports, the arts, reading, conversation, laughter, celebrations of love and fellowship and partridges in pear trees. But without healthy democratic politics serving a moral order, all these are imperiled by the ferocious appetites of private power and greed.

So enjoy the holidays, including Star Wars. Then come back after New Year’s and find a place for yourself, at whatever level, wherever you are, in the struggle for democracy. This is the fight of our lives and how it ends is up to us.

 Bill Moyers is the managing editor of Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com.




The Myth of ‘Taking Out’ ISIS

“Tough-guy-gal-ism” remains the dominant rhetoric of Official Washington as politicians and pundits compete to outdo each other in advocating bloody remedies for “taking out” the Islamic State. But the armchair warriors misunderstand the problem and offer no solution, writes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

The perceptions and the politics in the United States regarding the use of military force against the so-called Islamic State or ISIS are now clear and well-established. The issue has become a classic case of those without the responsibilities of office seizing on a matter of public fear and concern and lambasting those with such responsibilities for not doing more, with the lambasters enjoying the luxury of not having to develop specific and well-thought-out measures and not having to consider the costs, risks, effectiveness and consequences of any such measures.

Thus we hear the Republican presidential candidates making a huge deal of what they describe as a grievous threat from ISIS and using bombastic language to let us believe that most of them would make quicker and more extensive use of military force against this group than is the supposedly reticent and weak-kneed incumbent in the White House.

But despite the volume and intensity of such rhetoric we hear very little about exactly how they would use force differently and even less about how any different measures should be expected to work. Even systematic efforts to catalog what candidates have said on the subject yield mostly spotty and vaguely phrased results.

The public mood being exploited is clear enough. A recent Monmouth University poll showed 78 percent of respondents believing ISIS to be “a major threat to U.S. security” and 68 percent saying that the U.S. Government is “not doing enough to defeat ISIS.” When asked whether ISIS can be stopped without U.S. troops, can be stopped only with U.S. troops, or cannot be stopped, a plurality (47 percent) said only with U.S. troops.

President Obama has felt it necessary to join in some of the public chorus on this topic. After a televised address from the Oval Office did not receive good enough reviews, the President a week later spoke from the Pentagon about the military side of anti-ISIS efforts, citing numbers of bombing sorties as if that were a good gauge of making progress on counterterrorism. Then a couple of days later he made another publicly covered appearance, with additional talk about the ISIS problem, at the National Counterterrorism Center.

When we see a strong association between politicians’ rhetoric and a pattern of public concern reflected in opinion polls, we need to be careful about what is cause and what is effect. Politicians exploit public beliefs, but segments of the public form many of their beliefs based on cues they get from political leaders whom they most support and political parties with which they most identify.

An event such a high-profile terrorist incident can trigger a shift in mood, but then the political rhetoric and exploitation have a snowball effect. If political leaders of both parties had been making public statements much more consistent with the actual interests of the nation and what threatens those interests most severely, poll results on questions about ISIS would have been significantly different.

Perhaps the single formulation in the presidential candidates’ rhetoric on this subject that has gotten most attention is Ted Cruz’s recommendation to use “carpet bombing.” As Major General Robert Scales, a military historian and former commandant of the Army War College, comments, carpet bombing “is just another one of those phrases that people with no military experience throw around.”

When Cruz is pressed on the subject, it becomes clear he does not know what he is talking about in his use of the terminology and doesn’t actually have a plan for use of air power that looks different from what the current administration is doing.

Max Boot, in a piece that gives Cruz far too much credit for having a serious proposal for use of air power rather than merely using carpet bombing as a term that sounds tough, gives good reasons why simply bombing ISIS will not defeat it.

Boot, who is a serious analyst in his own right but is identified in this article as a foreign policy adviser to Marco Rubio, ends up with a vaguely stated conclusion that U.S. ground troops will have to be sent against ISIS. Rubio’s own statements on this subject also have been vague, with some references to a need for using more special operations forces.

It has been left to also-ran candidates to be at all specific about numbers of U.S. ground troops they would favor using. Sen. Lindsey Graham has used the figure of 10,000 troops; Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum have talked about 10,000 or more.

But as experience in other wars indicates and as analysis by Stephen Biddle and Jacob Shapiro concludes, one would need to add a zero and then some to get results on the ground that would be anything like what these politicians claim could be gotten through application of U.S. military force. Biddle and Shapiro write that “well over 100,000” troops would be needed in such a mission.

Meanwhile, back at the Oval Office, where the buck stops and where costs, risks, effectiveness and consequences do need to be seriously considered, President Obama, notwithstanding his felt need to join in some of the rhetorical highlighting of ISIS and of the role military force plays in dealing with it, has shown that he has a better grasp of the realities involved than the candidates who are trying to ride the issue into the White House.

The President laid out some of his thinking earlier this week in a discussion with some opinion writers that was supposed to be off the record but had much of its substance come out in a column by David Ignatius and through other participants. A fundamental basis of the President’s policy is the correct judgment that ISIS, though posing a significant security problem in several respects, is not an existential threat to the United States or anything close to it, as much of the American rhetoric about the group would suggest.

It thus is not worth the costs that a significantly expanded military campaign in the Middle East would entail. The President mentioned monthly costs to the United States, hypothetical but certainly plausible, of 100 dead, 500 injured, and $10 billion in expenditures.

One fundamental reason an expanded military campaign against ISIS therefore is not warranted is that to get any meaningful result it would entail far greater costs than what the politicians agitating for doing more are suggesting, and than what the American people would consider after the fact to have been a worthwhile expenditure.

But even if the American people were knowingly willing to assume such a burden, another fundamental reason such a campaign would not be warranted is that it still would not, despite the heavy costs, solve the main problems, involving terrorism and instability, it would be intended to solve. In important respects it would be counterproductive. President Obama has only touched on some aspects of this latter reason, lest he be seen to go too far from what has become the rhetorical mainstream about threats from ISIS and the need to confront it militarily.

Advocacy of larger and more direct use of U.S. military force against the group rests on a notion of ISIS as a discrete set of people, places and institutions that could be “taken out” with a concerted attack by the powerful U.S. military.

Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who has mentioned the same figure of 10,000 troops as his friend Lindsey Graham, uses the “take out” concept. This is an incorrect image of ISIS. ISIS is not some discrete set of people; it is gaining and losing both leaders and recruits all the time. It is not some one place where we can play a game of capture the flag; it moves around and has been gaining and losing (more recently, mostly losing) territory throughout its history.

One of the biggest chapters of that history was its move out of Iraq and into Syria when it was able to take advantage of the disorder of a growing civil war there. If a U.S. or U.S.-led military campaign captured and held Raqqa and all other cities that ISIS now controls, that would not mark the end of the campaign but only its move into a new phase. A large insurgency, or several insurgencies, would continue.

“Taking out” ISIS with the capturing of cities and the occupation of territory and the driving of ISIS leaders out of whatever is their current domicile would no doubt give rise to the temptation to declare “mission accomplished” and to make celebratory flights to aircraft carriers, just as such an event once did after the invasion of Iraq. And the grounds for the celebration would be no stronger than they were in that earlier instance in Iraq.

U.S. or Western troops, even assuming the willingness of their publics to sustain the large costs of an indefinite occupation, will never be able to provide stability in the parts of Syria and Iraq they occupy. Only the locals, with suitable political will, can do that.

A huge unanswered question about notions of taking out ISIS with military force is what fills the void once it has been taken out, what, that is, other than an indefinite and costly foreign occupation. That question will have a satisfying answer only when peace-making diplomacy and political reconciliation have made much more progress than they have so far. Until that happens, the place of a taken-out ISIS will be taken by more of the conflict and chaos that violent extremists, whether they bear the ISIS name or some other label, are best able to exploit.

Even just limiting our purview to ISIS itself, there is nothing unique about the territory that it happens to control at the moment in Iraq and Syria. The group already is repeating some of the same pattern of decentralization as Al Qaeda, with pieces on the periphery possibly being more threatening than the original core. Libya, where there is much well-founded doubt about the impact of the recently announced agreement between the rival regimes there, is a prime place where we might wake up to find the most viable part of ISIS. Taking out the group in Iraq and Syria would be only a stage in more campaigns and occupations elsewhere in the Middle East.

As for the type of threat that most concerns Americans, terrorism inside the United States, the taking out of ISIS positions in Iraq and Syria simply does not translate into the removal of such a threat. Such terrorism, time and again, has not depended on some group’s control of real estate in the Middle East or South Asia.

The San Bernardino shootings certainly did not depend on it. Many incidents outside the Middle East have been described with some accuracy as “inspired” by ISIS. The state of the ISIS enclave in the Middle East, and whether it is advancing or shrinking, does have something to do with how much would-be terrorists elsewhere are inspired by it. But you cannot take out an inspiration. And people have long been inspired, some of them inspired to do very destructive things, by what is dead as well as what is living.

A major U.S. or U.S.-led military campaign in Syria and Iraq would play into the hands of ISIS in terms of ideology and messaging, which have at least as much to do with inspiration as control of real estate does. Such a campaign would be seen by many as confirming the ISIS narrative of this group standing up for Muslims against the attacks of the non-Muslim West.

More specifically it would be seen as confirming the group’s apocalyptic prophecy about armed confrontation between itself and the infidels. A substantially enlarged U.S. military campaign would be counterproductive partly by adding to the group’s credibility in this respect and thus to its power to inspire. It also would be counterproductive insofar as it added to the collateral damage, which there will be even without carpet bombing, that produces anger and resentment that in turn inspires still more anti-U.S. terrorism.

The exploitation of the ISIS issue in American politics no doubt will continue and continue loudly, but we should hope that its infection of U.S. policy will be kept to a minimum.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)




A Call for Proof on Syria-Sarin Attack

One reason why Official Washington continues to insist that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “must go” is that he supposedly “gassed his own people” with sarin on Aug. 21, 2013, but the truth of that allegation has never been established and is in growing doubt, U.S. intelligence veterans point out. [Updated on Dec. 23 with new signers.]

MEMORANDUM FOR: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, and Foreign Minister of Russia Sergey Lavrov

FROM: Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS)

SUBJECT: Sarin Attack at Ghouta on Aug. 21, 2013

In a Memorandum of Oct. 1, 2013, we asked each of you to make public the intelligence upon which you based your differing conclusions on who was responsible for the sarin chemical attack at Ghouta, outside Damascus on Aug. 21, 2013. On Dec. 10, 2015, Eren Erdem, a member of parliament in Turkey, citing official documents, blamed Turkey for facilitating the delivery of sarin to rebels in Syria.

Mr. Kerry, you had blamed the Syrian government. Mr. Lavrov, you had described the sarin as “homemade” and suggested anti-government rebels were responsible. Each of you claimed to have persuasive evidence to support your conclusion.

Neither of you responded directly to our appeal to make such evidence available to the public, although, Mr. Lavrov, you came close to doing so. In a speech

at the UN on Sept. 26, 2013, you made reference to the views we presented in our VIPS Memorandum, Is Syria a Trap?, sent to President Obama three weeks earlier.

Pointing to strong doubt among chemical weapons experts regarding the evidence adduced to blame the government of Syria for the sarin attack, you also referred to the “open letter sent to President Obama by former operatives of the CIA and the Pentagon,” in which we expressed similar doubt.

Mr. Kerry, on Aug. 30, 2013, you blamed the Syrian government, publicly and repeatedly, for the sarin attack. But you failed to produce the kind of “Intelligence Assessment” customarily used to back up such claims.

We believe that this odd lack of a formal “Intelligence Assessment” is explained by the fact that our former colleagues did not believe the evidence justified your charges and that, accordingly, they resisted pressure to “fix the intelligence around the policy,” as was done to “justify” the attack on Iraq.

Intelligence analysts were telling us privately (and we told the President in our Memorandum of Sept. 6, 2013) that, contrary to what you claimed, “the most reliable intelligence shows that Bashar al-Assad was not responsible for the chemical incident that killed and injured Syrian civilians on August 21.”

This principled dissent from these analysts apparently led the White House to create a new art form, a “Government Assessment,” to convey claims that the government in Damascus was behind the sarin attack. It was equally odd that the newly minted genre of report offered not one item of verifiable evidence.

(We note that you used this new art form “Government (not Intelligence) Assessment” a second time again apparently to circumvent intelligence analysts’ objections. On July 22, 2014, just five days after the shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, after the media asked you to come up with evidence supporting the charges you leveled against “pro-Russian separatists” on the July 20 Sunday talk shows, you came up with the second, of only two, “Government Assessment.” Like the one on the chemical attack in Syria, the assessment provided meager fare when it comes to verifiable evidence.)

Claims and Counterclaims

Speaking to the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 24, 2013, President Obama asserted: “It’s an insult to human reason and to the legitimacy of this institution to suggest that anyone other than the [Syrian] regime carried out this attack [at Ghouta].”

Mr. Lavrov, that same day you publicly complained that U.S. officials kept claiming “’the Syrian regime,’ as they call it, is guilty of the use of chemical weapons, without providing comprehensive proof.” Two days later you told the U.N. General Assembly you had given Mr. Kerry “the latest compilation of evidence, which was an analysis of publicly available information.” You also told the Washington Post, “This evidence is not something revolutionary. It’s available on the Internet.”

On the Internet? Mr. Kerry, if your staff avoided calling your attention to Internet reports about Turkish complicity in the sarin attack of Aug. 21, 2013, because they lacked confirmation, we believe you can now consider them largely confirmed.

Documentary Evidence

Addressing fellow members of parliament on Dec. 10, 2015, Turkish MP Eren Erdem from the Republican People’s Party (a reasonably responsible opposition group) confronted the Turkish government on this key issue. Waving a copy of “Criminal Case Number 2013/120,” Erdem referred to official reports and electronic evidence documenting a smuggling operation with Turkish government complicity.

In an interview with RT four days later, Erdem said Turkish authorities had acquired evidence of sarin gas shipments to anti-government rebels in Syria, and did nothing to stop them.

The General Prosecutor in the Turkish city of Adana opened a criminal case, and an indictment stated “chemical weapons components” from Europe “were to be seamlessly shipped via a designated route through Turkey to militant labs in Syria.” Erdem cited evidence implicating the Turkish Minister of Justice and the Turkish Mechanical and Chemical Industry Corporation in the smuggling of sarin.

The Operation

According to Erdem, the 13 suspects arrested in raids carried out against the plotters were released just a week after they were indicted, and the case was closed — shut down by higher authority. Erdem told RT that the sarin attack at Ghouta took place shortly after the criminal case was closed and that the attack probably was carried out by jihadists with sarin gas smuggled through Turkey.

Small wonder President Erdogan has accused Erdem of “treason.” It was not Erdem’s first “offense.” Earlier, he exposed corruption by Erdogan family members, for which a government newspaper branded him an “American puppet, Israeli agent, a supporter of the terrorist PKK and the instigator of a coup.”

In our Sept. 6, 2013 Memorandum for the President, we reported that coordination meetings had taken place just weeks before the sarin attack at a Turkish military garrison in Antakya just 15 miles from the Syrian border with Syria and 55 miles from its largest city, Aleppo.

In Antakya, senior Turkish, Qatari and U.S. intelligence officials were said to be coordinating plans with Western-sponsored rebels, who were told to expect an imminent escalation in the fighting due to “a war-changing development.” This, in turn, would lead to a U.S.-led bombing of Syria, and rebel commanders were ordered to prepare their forces quickly to exploit the bombing, march into Damascus, and remove the Assad government.

A year before, the New York Times reported that the Antakya area had become a “magnet for foreign jihadis, who are flocking into Turkey to fight holy war in Syria.” The Times quoted a Syrian opposition member based in Antakya, saying the Turkish police were patrolling this border area “with their eyes closed.”

And, Mr. Lavrov, while the account given by Eren Erdem before the Turkish Parliament puts his charges on the official record, a simple Google search including “Antakya” shows that you were correct in stating the Internet contains a wealth of contemporaneous detail supporting Erdem’s disclosures.

Mr. Kerry, while in Moscow on Dec. 15, you said to a Russian interviewer that Syrian President Assad “has gassed his people I mean, gas hasn’t been used in warfare formally for years for and gas is outlawed, but Assad used it.”

Three days later The Washington Post dutifully repeated the charge about Assad’s supposed killing “his own people with chemical weapons.” U.S. media have made this the conventional wisdom. The American people are not fully informed. There has been no mainstream media reporting on Turkish MP Erdem’s disclosures.

Renewed Appeal

We ask you again, Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov, to set the record straight on this important issue. The two of you have demonstrated an ability to work together on important matters the Iran nuclear deal, for example and have acknowledged a shared interest in defeating ISIS, which clearly is not Turkish President Erdogan’s highest priority. Indeed, his aims are at cross-purposes to those wishing to tamp down the violence in Syria.

After the shoot-down of Russia’s bomber on Nov. 24, President Vladimir Putin put Russian forces in position to retaliate the next time, and told top defense officials, “Any targets threatening our [military] group or land infrastructure must be immediately destroyed.” We believe that warning should be taken seriously. What matters, though, is what Erdogan believes.

There is a good chance Erdogan will be dismissive of Putin’s warning, as long as the Turkish president believes he can depend on NATO always to react in the supportive way it did after the shoot-down.

One concrete way to disabuse him of the notion that he has carte blanche to create incidents that could put not only Turkey, but also the U.S., on the verge of armed conflict with Russia, would be for the U.S. Secretary of State and the Russian Foreign Minister to coordinate a statement on what we believe was a classic false-flag chemical attack on Aug. 21, 2013, facilitated by the Turks and aimed at mousetrapping President Obama into a major attack on Syria.

One of our colleagues, a seasoned analyst of Turkish affairs, put it this way: “Erdogan is even more dangerous if he thinks that he now has NATO license to bait Russia, as he did with the shoot-down. I don’t think NATO is willing to give him that broader license, but he is a loose cannon.”

FOR THE STEERING GROUP, VETERAN INTELLIGENCE PROFESSIONALS FOR SANITY

Graham E. Fuller, Vice-Chair, National Intelligence Council (ret.)

Philip Giraldi, CIA, Operations Officer (ret.)

Larry Johnson, CIA & State Department (ret.)

John Kiriakou, Former CIA Counterterrorism Officer

Edward Loomis, NSA, Cryptologic Computer Scientist (ret.)

David MacMichael, National Intelligence Council (ret.)

Ray McGovern, former US Army infantry/intelligence officer & CIA analyst (ret.)

Elizabeth Murray, Deputy National Intelligence Officer for the Near East, National Intelligence Council (ret)

Todd E. Pierce, MAJ, US Army Judge Advocate (Ret.)

Scott Ritter, former Maj., USMC, former UN Weapon Inspector, Iraq

Coleen Rowley, FBI Special Agent and former Minneapolis Division Legal Counsel (ret.)

Robert David Steele, former CIA Operations Officer

Peter Van Buren, U.S. Department of State, Foreign Service Officer (ret.) (associate VIPS)

Kirk Wiebe, former Senior Analyst, SIGINT Automation Research Center, NSA

Ann Wright, Col., US Army (ret.); Foreign Service Officer (resigned)