Post-9/11’s Self-Inflicted Wounds

The damage done to U.S. foreign policy in the wake of the 9/11 attacks was largely self-inflicted, a case of wildly overreacting to Al Qaeda’s bloody provocation, writes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

In thinking about the significance and consequences, a decade and a half later, of the terrorist attacks known as 9/11, it is best to begin with what the attacks did not mean — despite what voluminous commentary ever since the event might lead one to believe.

The attacks did not mark a major change in security threats faced by the United States or anyone else. Americans were not suddenly more in danger on Sept. 12, 2001 than they had been on Sept. 10, even though the reactions of many Americans would suggest that they were.

Nor was one spectacular, lethal and lucky shot to be equated with a larger threat that can be thought of in strategic terms, or with sudden revelation of such a threat. Those whose job was to assess such things, including those in U.S. officialdom, had communicated prior to 9/11 their clear understanding of the strategic threat represented by Bin Laden’s variety of international terrorism.

September 2001 did not mark the advent of a substantially greater vulnerability of the U.S. homeland, and certainly not an existential one. The techniques involved were not at all comparable in that regard to the introduction of the long-range bomber and the intercontinental ballistic missile.

Nor did September 2001 mark the beginning of serious counterterrorist efforts by the United States, notwithstanding the larger amount of resources thrown at the problem in the wake of 9/11. There was a lot of counterterrorism going on before, especially in the 1980s and continuing into the 1990s.

The available tools and elements of counterterrorism have remained essentially unchanged from those earlier periods, apart from a few technological developments such as those involving unmanned aerial vehicles.

The biggest changes brought about by 9/11 instead involved public perceptions and emotions, and consequently the political treatment of subjects that those perceptions and emotions involved. The politics riding on public fears have been far more consequential than any external reality about what terrorist groups are up to. And much of the public perceptions have been inaccurate, as indicated by the way those perceptions about terrorist threats changed from Sept. 10 to Sept. 12.

Even the public perceptions about terrorism have not been a one-way progression. There has been some of the same swinging of the pendulum of public preferences as seen after previous major terrorist incidents. Although the swing after 9/11 was substantially higher than usual, we have already seen some of the pendulum’s return in the opposite direction.

Criminal Behavior

Some measures taken and quietly accepted by Congressional overseers in the name of counterterrorism in the earliest years after 9/11, including bulk collection of electronic data by government agencies and torture of captives, later became subjects of controversy or condemnation.

The shock effect of 9/11 suddenly made the American public much more militant and more willing than before to assume costs and take risks in the name of national security. This was an emotional response, little diverted or contained by more sober calculation of what really would enhance national security, and with little attention to how some could exploit the emotions for other purposes.

The single most consequential result of all of this was the launching in 2003 of the war in Iraq. Although Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11, the surge in public militancy made it politically possible for the first time for neoconservatives to implement this longstanding item on their agenda.

The damage, including to matters related to U.S. national security, has been vast, including trillions in expenditures, the igniting of a continuing civil war in a major Middle Eastern state, the stoking of region-wide sectarian conflict, and — as far as terrorism is concerned — giving birth to the group now known as ISIS.

U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan was another legacy of 9/11, of course. Unlike Iraq, it was related to 9/11 with regard to Al Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan under the Taliban. But years ago, the intervention morphed from a counterterrorism operation into more of a nation-building operation. And now it has become America’s longest war.

Concepts offered by the intelligentsia, and not just emotions felt by the public, have been substantially affected by 9/11. After much groping since the end of the Cold War for ways to characterize, in a satisfyingly simple manner, both an era and a global U.S. mission, the fight against terrorism finally seemed to fill the bill.

The unfortunate “war on terror” metaphor much affected policy discourse and thus policy itself. Counterterrorism came to be thought of in chiefly military terms, and conceiving of a war against a tactic meant a war without either geographic or temporal limits.

The aforementioned responses and effects will have more lasting consequences than the enhanced investigative powers, such as those in the Patriot Act, that have received much attention. There is natural resistance in American tradition and habits of thought to such enhancement. There is not comparable resistance to fighting endlessly a foreign menace, even a menace defined as a tactic.

The main legacy of 9/11 has been less anything that terrorists have done to us than what we have done to ourselves, and to others, in response. On balance the legacy has not been beneficial.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is author most recently of Why America Misunderstands the World. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)




The Bogus ‘Humanitarian’ War on Serbia

NATO’s war on Serbia in 1999 was the template for other “humanitarian” wars – in Iraq, Libya and now Syria – but it wasn’t “news” when the Serbian leader was cleared, notes John Pilger.

By John Pilger

The exoneration of a man accused of the worst of crimes, genocide, made no headlines. Neither the BBC nor CNN covered it. The Guardian allowed a brief commentary. Such a rare official admission was buried or suppressed, understandably. It would explain too much about how the rulers of the world rule.

The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague has quietly cleared the late Serbian president, Slobodan Milosevic, of war crimes committed during the 1992-95 Bosnian war, including the massacre at Srebrenica.

Far from conspiring with the convicted Bosnian-Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, Milosevic actually condemned ethnic cleansing,” opposed Karadzic and tried to stop the war that dismembered Yugoslavia. Buried near the end of a 2,590-page judgment on Karadzic last February, this truth further demolishes the propaganda that justified NATO’s illegal onslaught on Serbia in 1999.

Milosevic died of a heart attack in 2006, alone in his cell in The Hague, during what amounted to a bogus trial by an American-invented international tribunal.” Denied heart surgery that might have saved his life, his condition worsened and was monitored and kept secret by U.S. officials, as WikiLeaks has since revealed.

Milosevic was the victim of war propaganda that today runs like a torrent across our screens and newspapers and beckons great danger for us all. He was the prototype demon, vilified by the Western media as the butcher of the Balkans” who was responsible for genocide,” especially in the secessionist Yugoslav province of Kosovo. Prime Minister Tony Blair said so, invoked the Holocaust and demanded action against this new Hitler.”

Exaggerating the Death Toll

David Scheffer, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for war crimes, declared that as many as 225,000 ethnic Albanian men aged between 14 and 59” may have been murdered by Milocevic’s forces.

This was the justification for NATO’s bombing, led by Bill Clinton and Blair, that killed hundreds of civilians in hospitals, schools, churches, parks and television studios and destroyed Serbia’s economic infrastructure.

It was blatantly ideological; at a notorious peace conference” in Rambouillet in France, Milosevic was confronted by Madeleine Albright, the U.S. Secretary of State, who was to achieve infamy with her remark that the deaths of half a million Iraqi children were worth it.”

Albright delivered an offer” to Milosevic that no national leader could accept. Unless he agreed to the foreign military occupation of his country, with the occupying forces outside the legal process,” and to the imposition of a neo-liberal free market,” Serbia would be bombed.

This was contained in an “Appendix B,” which the media failed to read or suppressed. The aim was to crush Europe’s last independent “socialist” state.

Once NATO began bombing, there was a stampede of Kosovar refugees fleeing a holocaust.” When it was over, international police teams descended on Kosovo to exhume the victims.

The FBI failed to find a single mass grave and went home. The Spanish forensic team did the same, its leader angrily denouncing a semantic pirouette by the war propaganda machines.”

The final count of the dead in Kosovo was 2,788. This included combatants on both sides and Serbs and Roma murdered by the pro-NATO Kosovo Liberation Front. There was no genocide. The NATO attack was both a fraud and a war crime.

All but a fraction of America’s vaunted precision guided” missiles hit not military but civilian targets, including the news studios of Radio Television Serbia in Belgrade. Sixteen people were killed, including cameramen, producers and a make-up artist. Blair described the dead, profanely, as part of Serbia’s command and control.”

In 2008, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, Carla Del Ponte, revealed that she had been pressured not to investigate NATO’s crimes.

A Model for More Wars

This was the model for Washington’s subsequent invasions of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and, by stealth, Syria. All qualify as paramount crimes” under the Nuremberg standard; all depended on media propaganda.

While tabloid journalism played its traditional part, it was serious, credible, often liberal journalism that was the most effective – the evangelical promotion of Blair and his wars by the Guardian, the incessant lies about Saddam Hussein’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction in the Observer and the New York Times, and the unerring drumbeat of government propaganda by the BBC in the silence of its omissions.

At the height of the bombing, the BBC’s Kirsty Wark interviewed General Wesley Clark, the NATO commander. The Serbian city of Nis had just been sprayed with American cluster bombs, killing women, old people and children in an open market and a hospital. Wark asked not a single question about this, or about any other civilian deaths.

Others were more brazen. In February 2003, the day after Blair and Bush had set fire to Iraq, the BBC’s political editor, Andrew Marr, stood in Downing Street and made what amounted to a victory speech. He excitedly told his viewers that Blair had said they would be able to take Baghdad without a bloodbath, and that in the end the Iraqis would be celebrating. And on both of those points he has been proved conclusively right.”

Today, with a million dead and a society in ruins, Marr’s BBC interviews are recommended by the U.S. Embassy in London.

Marr’s colleagues lined up to pronounce Blair vindicated.” The BBC’s Washington correspondent, Matt Frei, said, There’s no doubt that the desire to bring good, to bring American values to the rest of the world, and especially to the Middle East … is now increasingly tied up with military power.”

Obeisance to Power

This obeisance to the United States and its collaborators as a benign force bringing good” runs deep in Western establishment journalism. It ensures that the present-day catastrophe in Syria is blamed exclusively on Bashar al-Assad, whom the West and Israel have long conspired to overthrow, not for any humanitarian concerns, but to consolidate Israel’s aggressive power in the region.

The jihadist forces unleashed and armed by the U.S., Britain, France, Turkey and their “coalition” proxies serve this end. It is they who dispense the propaganda and videos that becomes news in the U.S. and Europe, and provide access to journalists and guarantee a one-sided coverage” of Syria.

The city of Aleppo is in the news. Most readers and viewers will be unaware that the majority of the population of Aleppo lives in the government-controlled western part of the city. That they suffer daily artillery bombardment from Western-sponsored Al Qaeda is not news. On 21 July, French and American bombers attacked a government village in Aleppo province, killing up to 125 civilians. This was reported on page 22 of the Guardian; there were no photographs.

Having created and underwritten jihadism in Afghanistan in the 1980s as Operation Cyclone – a weapon to destroy the Soviet Union – the U.S. is doing something similar in Syria. Like the Afghan Mujahedeen, the Syrian rebels” are America’s and Britain’s foot soldiers. Many fight for Al Qaeda and its variants; some, like the Nusra Front, have rebranded themselves to comply with American sensitivities over 9/11. The CIA runs them, with difficulty, as it runs jihadists all over the world.

The immediate aim is to destroy the government in Damascus, which, according to the most credible poll (YouGov Siraj), the majority of Syrians support, or at least look to for protection, regardless of the barbarism in its shadows. The long-term aim is to deny Russia a key Middle Eastern ally as part of a NATO war of attrition against the Russian Federation that eventually destroys it.

Nuclear Risk

The nuclear risk is obvious, though suppressed by the media across the free world”. The editorial writers of the Washington Post, having promoted the fiction of WMD in Iraq, demand that Obama attack Syria. Hillary Clinton, who publicly rejoiced at her executioner’s role during the destruction of Libya, has repeatedly indicated that, as president, she will go further” than Obama.

Gareth Porter, a journalist reporting from Washington, recently revealed the names of those likely to make up a Clinton cabinet who plan an attack on Syria. All have belligerent Cold War histories; the former CIA director, Leon Panetta, says that the next president is gonna have to consider adding additional special forces on the ground.”

What is most remarkable about the war propaganda now in flood tide is its patent absurdity and familiarity. I have been looking through archive film from Washington in the 1950s when diplomats, civil servants and journalists were witch-hunted and ruined by Sen. Joe McCarthy for challenging the lies and paranoia about the Soviet Union and China. Like a resurgent tumor, the anti-Russia cult has returned.

In Britain, the Guardian’s Luke Harding leads his newspaper’s Russia-haters in a stream of journalistic parodies that assign to Vladimir Putin every earthly iniquity. When the Panama Papers leak was published, the front page said Putin, and there was a picture of Putin; never mind that Putin was not mentioned anywhere in the leaks.

Like Milosevic, Putin is Demon Number One. It was Putin who shot down a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine. Headline: As far as I’m concerned, Putin killed my son.” No evidence required.

It was Putin who was responsible for Washington’s documented (and paid for) overthrow of the elected government in Kiev in 2014. The subsequent terror campaign by fascist militias against the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine was the result of Putin’s aggression.” Preventing Crimea from becoming a NATO missile base and protecting the mostly Russian population who had voted in a referendum to rejoin Russia – from which Crimea had been annexed – were more examples of Putin’s aggression”.

A Warmongering Media

Smear by media inevitably becomes war by media. If war with Russia breaks out, by design or by accident, journalists will bear much of the responsibility.

In the U.S., the anti-Russia campaign has been elevated to virtual reality. The New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, an economist with a Nobel Prize, has called Donald Trump the Siberian Candidate” because Trump is Putin’s man, he says.

Trump had dared to suggest, in a rare lucid moment, that war with Russia might be a bad idea. In fact, he has gone further and removed American arms shipments to Ukraine from the Republican platform. Wouldn’t it be great if we got along with Russia,” he said.

This is why America’s warmongering liberal establishment hates him. Trump’s racism and ranting demagoguery have nothing to do with it. Bill and Hillary Clinton’s record of racism and extremism can out-trump Trump’s any day. (This week is the 20th anniversary of the Clinton welfare “reform” that launched a war on African-Americans). As for Obama: while American police gun down his fellow African-Americans the great hope in the White House has done nothing to protect them, nothing to relieve their impoverishment, while running four rapacious wars and an assassination campaign without precedent.

The CIA has demanded Trump is not elected. Pentagon generals have demanded he is not elected. The pro-war New York Times – taking a breather from its relentless low-rent Putin smears – demands that he is not elected. Something is up.

These tribunes of perpetual war” are terrified that the multi-billion-dollar business of war by which the United States maintains its dominance will be undermined if Trump does a deal with Putin, then with China’s Xi Jinping. Their panic at the possibility of the world’s great power talking peace – however unlikely – would be the blackest farce were the issues not so dire.

Trump would have loved Stalin!” bellowed Vice-President Joe Biden at a rally for Hillary Clinton. With Clinton nodding, he shouted, We never bow. We never bend. We never kneel. We never yield. We own the finish line. That’s who we are. We are America!”

Britain’s War Party

In Britain, Jeremy Corbyn has also excited hysteria from the war-makers in the Labour Party and from a media devoted to trashing him. Lord West, a former admiral and Labour minister, put it well. Corbyn was taking an outrageous” anti-war position because it gets the unthinking masses to vote for him.”

In a debate with leadership challenger Owen Smith, Corbyn was asked by the moderator: How would you act on a violation by Vladimir Putin of a fellow NATO state?”

Corbyn replied: You would want to avoid that happening in the first place. You would build up a good dialogue with Russia … We would try to introduce a de-militarization of the borders between Russia, the Ukraine and the other countries on the border between Russia and Eastern Europe. What we cannot allow is a series of calamitous build-ups of troops on both sides which can only lead to great danger.”

Pressed to say if he would authorize war against Russia if you had to,” Corbyn replied: I don’t wish to go to war – what I want to do is achieve a world that we don’t need to go to war.”

The line of questioning owes much to the rise of Britain’s liberal war-makers. The Labour Party and the media have long offered them career opportunities.

For a while the moral tsunami of the great crime of Iraq left them floundering, their inversions of the truth a temporary embarrassment. Regardless of Chilcot and the mountain of incriminating facts, Blair remains their inspiration, because he was a winner.”

Dissenting journalism and scholarship have since been systematically banished or appropriated, and democratic ideas emptied and refilled with identity politics” that confuse gender with feminism and public angst with liberation and willfully ignore the state violence and weapons profiteering that destroys countless lives in faraway places, like Yemen and Syria, and beckon nuclear war in Europe and across the world.

The stirring of people of all ages around the spectacular rise of Jeremy Corbyn counters this to some extent. His life has been spent illuminating the horror of war. The problem for Corbyn and his supporters is the Labour Party.

In America, the problem for the thousands of followers of Bernie Sanders was the Democratic Party, not to mention their ultimate betrayal by their great white hope.

In the U.S., home of the great civil rights and anti-war movements, it is Black Lives Matter and the likes of Codepink that lay the roots of a modern version.

For only a movement that swells into every street and across borders and does not give up can stop the warmongers. Next year, it will be a century since Wilfred Owen wrote the following. Every journalist should read it and remember it.

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.

John Pilger is an Australian-British journalist based in London. Pilger’s Web site is: www.johnpilger.com




A Cheap Shot at Bernie Sanders’ Summer Home

Exclusive: Charles Lane and other Washington Post editorialists defend neocon and neoliberal orthodoxies by demonizing foreign leaders who step out of line and now by making fun of Bernie Sanders for buying a summer home, writes Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

Though the competition is stiff, the gold medal for the creepiest Washington Post columnist could go to Charles Lane, who this week mocked Sen. Bernie Sanders and his wife for buying a $575,000 vacation home on Vermont’s Lake Champlain – and cited this modest luxury as proof that capitalism is superior to socialism.

“To go with places they already own in Washington and their home town of Burlington, Vt., the Sanders family has purchased a vacation home on an island in Lake Champlain,” Lane wrote, adding: “As a slogan for the political revolution, ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his need for lakefront property’ doesn’t really cut it.” Ha-ha! Very funny!

Sanders’s wife Jane explained that the house was a replacement for a vacation home that her family had long owned in Maine. But the 74-year-old Sanders and his wife really need no defense for buying a rather modestly priced (certainly by Washington’s standards) lakefront property.

Lane’s column was also a cheap shot because a U.S. senator has little choice but to have domiciles in both Washington and his home state. So, to cite those two properties as further evidence of Sanders’s living a life of hypocritical extravagance is simply unfair.

But Lane is a good example of how a moderately talented journalist can build a prosperous career in Official Washington by sucking up to the powers-that-be and dumping on anyone who even mildly challenges those interests.

I first got to know Lane in 1987 when we both worked at Newsweek. Before Lane arrived at the magazine, Newsweek had distinguished itself with some quality reporting that belied the Reagan administration’s propaganda themes in Central America.

That, however, upset Newsweek’s executive editor Maynard Parker, who was a strong supporter of U.S. interventionism and sympathized with President Ronald Reagan’s aggressive policies in Central America. So, a shake-up was ordered of Newsweek’s Central America staff.

To give Parker the more supportive coverage he wanted, Lane was brought onboard and dispatched to replace experienced reporters in Central America. Lane soon began getting Newsweek’s field coverage in line with Reagan’s propaganda themes.

But I kept messing up the desired harmony by contesting those stories from Washington. This dynamic was unusual since it’s more typical for reporters in the field to challenge the U.S. government’s propaganda while journalists tied to the insular world of Washington tend to be seduced by access and to endorse the official line.

But the situation at Newsweek was reversed. Lane pushed the propaganda themes that he was fed from the U.S. embassies in Central America and I challenged them with my reporting in Washington. The situation led Lane to seek me out during one of his visits to Washington.

We had lunch at Scholl’s cafeteria near Newsweek’s Washington office on Pennsylvania Avenue. As we sat down, Lane turned to me and, rather defensively, accused me of viewing him as “an embassy boy,” i.e. someone who carried propaganda water for the U.S. embassies.

I was a bit nonplussed since I had never exactly put it that way, but it wasn’t far from what I actually thought. I responded by trying to avoid any pejorative phrasing but stressing my concern that we shouldn’t let the Reagan administration get away with misleading the American people and Newsweek’s readers.

As it turned out, however, I was on the losing side of that debate. Lane had the support of executive editor Parker, who favored an aggressive application of U.S. power abroad and didn’t like his reporters undermining those efforts. Like some other young journalists of that era, Lane either shared that world view or knew what was needed to build his career.

Lane did succeed in making a profitable career for himself. He scored high-profile gigs as the editor of the neocon New Republic (though his tenure was tarnished by the Stephen Glass fabrication scandal) and as a regular guest on Fox News. He’s also found steady employment as an editorialist for The Washington Post.

A Neocon to Count On

At the Post, Lane has been a reliable voice for reiterating whatever the neocon “group think” is. For instance, in 2013, when the Obama administration signed the preliminary agreement with Iran to restrain its nuclear program, Lane joined the chorus of naysayers who favored heightened confrontation with Iran in line with neocon hopes for more regional “regime change.”

Lane rhetorically waved the bloody shirt of Neda Agha Soltan, who was killed in 2009 apparently from a stray bullet during violent protests against the outcome of Iran’s presidential election, which was won by then-incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

“Not that long ago, it seemed the world would never forget Neda Agha Soltan,” Lane wrote. “On June 20, 2009, a government thug fired a bullet through the 26-year-old’s heart as she stood watching protests against the blatant election fraud that had secured victory for a presidential candidate backed by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

“Video of her dying moments went viral, and Neda became a global symbol of the Green Revolution, as the Iranian people called their movement to topple a regime capable of such bloody deeds.”

But nearly everything that Lane asserted as fact was not fact. Iran’s 2009 elections were clearly won by Ahmadinejad, who may have lost among middle-class voters of Tehran but strongly carried the poor and working-class areas of Iran.

The Iranian opposition was unable to prove any significant fraud and the election results were in line with opinion polls conducted both before and after the election, from inside and outside Iran. None of the polls showed the Green movement candidate coming anywhere close to a plurality.

“These findings do not prove that there were no irregularities in the election process,” said Steven Kull, director of the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes. “But they do not support the belief that a majority rejected Ahmadinejad.” [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Ahmadinejad Won, Get Over It!”]

Nevertheless, the mainstream U.S. news media, led by neocon outlets like The Washington Post, promoted the myth of a stolen election, all the better to rev up American public support for another “regime change” project against one more of Israel’s adversaries.

In 2013, however, Lane’s propagandistic sophistry had a more immediate goal. He was suggesting that the tragic but apparently accidental shooting death of a young woman in 2009 should prevent the international community from reaching an agreement with Iran on restricting its nuclear program.

Lane wrote: “Iran is once again in the headlines but not because Neda’s murderers are about to be held accountable. Nor has there been fundamental change in the regime that jailed and killed many rank-and-file members of the Green Revolution and continues to confine the movement’s leaders.

“No, we’re talking about the nuclear deal that the world’s great powers, led by the United States, signed … with Khamenei’s representatives amid much smiling and backslapping. No one’s talking about Neda. Maybe we should be.”

No Accountability on Iraq

But the last thing that a Washington Post editorial writer should call for is accountability, since the Post’s editorial pages served as a bulletin board for the many bogus assertions about Iraq’s WMD and thus cleared the way for the aggressive and disastrous war on Iraq.

Lane, not surprisingly, didn’t do much recounting of that human catastrophe, the one that his bosses — the likes of editorial-page editor Fred Hiatt and deputy editor Jackson Diehl — helped inflict on the people of Iraq by cheering on President George W. Bush and his neocon warmongers.

For instance, there was the case at the start of the Iraq War when Bush mistakenly thought Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein might be eating at a Baghdad restaurant so U.S. warplanes leveled it, killing more than a dozen civilians, including children and a young woman whose headless body was recovered by her mother.

“When the broken body of the 20-year-old woman was brought out torso first, then her head,” the Associated Press reported, “her mother started crying uncontrollably, then collapsed.” The London Independent cited this restaurant attack as one that represented “a clear breach” of the Geneva Conventions ban on bombing civilian targets.

But such civilian deaths were of little interest to The Washington Post’s editorial page and most of the mainstream U.S. media. “American talking heads … never seemed to give the issue any thought,” wrote Eric Boehlert in a report on the U.S. war coverage for Salon.com. “Certainly they did not linger on images of the hellacious human carnage left in the aftermath.”

Thousands of other civilian deaths were equally horrific. Saad Abbas, 34, was wounded in an American bombing raid, but his family sought to shield him from the greater horror. The bombing had killed his three daughters Marwa, 11; Tabarek, 8; and Safia, 5 who had been the center of his life. “It wasn’t just ordinary love,” his wife said. “He was crazy about them. It wasn’t like other fathers.” [NYT, April 14, 2003]

The horror of the Iraq War was captured, too, in the fate of 12-year-old Ali Ismaeel Abbas, who lost his two arms when a U.S. missile struck his Baghdad home. Ali’s father, his pregnant mother and his siblings were all killed. As the armless Ali was evacuated to a Kuwaiti hospital, becoming a symbol of U.S. compassion for injured Iraqi civilians, the boy said he would rather die than live without his hands.

Yet, Ali Ismaeel Abbas and the many other innocent Iraqis who died as a result of the illegal war that Bush and his neocons launched and that The Washington Post’s editorial page cheered have been largely forgotten (at least by the mainstream U.S. media). Meanwhile, the American perpetrators of these war crimes and their apologists have faced virtually no accountability.

By 2013, there were new presidents in both the United States and Iran, Barack Obama and Hassan Rouhani, respectively, and they were willing to overcome the difficult history between the two countries, which included the CIA-orchestrated overthrow of Iranian democracy in 1953, followed by a brutal U.S-backed dictatorship for the next quarter century.

But Charles Lane apparently wanted to keep the hostilities going, all the better to set the stage for the neocon desire to bomb-bomb-bomb Iran and orchestrate another violent “regime change,” a process that surely would have left many more Iranians maimed and killed.

Lane’s column, however, failed to dissuade Obama and Rouhani from pursuing a permanent nuclear agreement, which was signed in 2015 and which experts say has succeeded in dialing back Iran’s nuclear program.

The Bash-Putin ‘Group Think’

Lane also has joined in Official Washington’s “group think” demonizing Russian President Vladimir Putin and everything he does, which has included his key role in helping Obama achieve that signature foreign policy success with the Iran nuclear deal.

In 2014, when Putin gave a speech critical of U.S. foreign policy, Lane and a solid phalanx of other Washington Post columnists denounced the Russian president as a madman. In his column, Lane not only denied the reality of modern American interventionism but accused Putin of doing what Lane was actually doing, twisting the truth.

“Putin presented a legal and historical argument so tendentious and so logically tangled so unappealing to anyone but Russian nationalists such as those who packed the Kremlin to applaud him that it seemed intended less to refute contrary arguments than to bury them under a rhetorical avalanche,” Lane wrote.

Lane then suggested that Putin must be delusional. “The biggest problem with this cover story is that Putin may actually believe it,” Lane wrote.

Lane also was offended that when Putin later spoke to a crowd in Red Square, he concluded his remarks by saying “Long live Russia!” But why that is so objectionable coming from a Russian politician is hard to fathom. President Obama and other U.S. politicians routinely close their remarks with the words, “God bless the United States of America!”

Yet, Putin’s speech was really rather insightful, explaining Russia’s not unreasonable view of recent history, recognizing the actual U.S. approach to the world not the fairy-tale one favored by Lane and the Post.

Putin said: “After the dissolution of bipolarity on the planet [i.e. the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991], we no longer have stability. Key international institutions are not getting any stronger; on the contrary, in many cases, they are sadly degrading. Our Western partners, led by the United States of America, prefer not to be guided by international law in their practical policies, but by the rule of the gun. They have come to believe in their exclusivity and exceptionalism, that they can decide the destinies of the world, that only they can ever be right.

“They act as they please: here and there, they use force against sovereign states, building coalitions based on the principle ‘If you are not with us, you are against us.’ To make this aggression look legitimate, they force the necessary resolutions from international organizations, and if for some reason this does not work, they simply ignore the UN Security Council and the UN overall.”

Nothing in that key passage of Putin’s speech is crazy. He is stating the reality of the current era, though one could argue that this U.S. aggressive behavior was occurring during the Cold War as well. Since World War II, Washington has been in the business of routinely subverting troublesome governments (including overthrowing democratically elected leaders) and invading countries (that for some reason got in Washington’s way).

It is a challenge to list all the examples of U.S. interventions abroad, both in America’s “backyard” (Guatemala, Cuba, Chile, Nicaragua, Grenada, Haiti, Venezuela, Honduras, etc.) and in far-flung parts of the world (Iran, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Congo, Lebanon, Serbia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, etc.). These actions — usually outside international law and often in violation of those nations’ sovereignty — have continued into this century to the present day.

It’s also true that the United States has behaved harshly toward Russia during much of the post-Cold War era, reneging on an understanding with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev that his concessions to President George H.W. Bush regarding German reunification and Eastern Europe would not be exploited by the U.S. government.

Yet, the U.S. government and corporate America moved aggressively against Russia in the post-Soviet era, helping to plunder Russia’s resources and pushing the frontlines of NATO right up to Russia’s borders. For all his autocratic faults, Putin has moved to put a stop to these encroachments against Russian national interests.

Putin also has acted as a valuable partner to Obama on some sensitive issues, helping to extricate the U.S. president from dangerous situations in Syria (by getting President Bashar al-Assad to surrender his chemical weapons in 2013) and in Iran (by facilitating the disposal of much of Iran’s processed nuclear fuel). In both cases, the neocons and The Washington Post’s editorialists were pounding the drums for more confrontation and war.

And, therein may lie the chief problem for Putin. He has become a major impediment to the grand neocon vision of “regime change” across the Middle East in any country considered hostile to Israel. That vision was disrupted by the disastrous outcome of the Iraq War, but the goal remains.

Putin also is an obstacle to the even grander vision of global “full-spectrum dominance,” a concept developed by neocons in the two Bush administrations, the theory that the United States should prevent any geopolitical rival from ever emerging again. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Bush’s Grim Vision.”]

To demonize Putin and ensure that few Americans will actually examine what he’s said about U.S.-Russian relations, the likes of Lane portray Putin as unstable and delusional.

Now, Lane also appears to view Bernie Sanders and his call for a political “revolution“ along “democratic socialist” lines as a grave threat to the neocon (and neoliberal) status quo. So, Sanders has to be taken down a peg or two for the grievous crime of buying a summer home.

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).




America’s Journalistic Hypocrites

Exclusive: The U.S. news media flip-flops on whether international law is inviolate or can be brushed aside at America’s whim – and similarly whether killing civilians is justified or not depending on who’s doing the killing, says Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

Over the past few decades, the U.S. mainstream media has failed the American people in a historic fashion by spinning false or misleading narratives on virtually every important global issue, continuing to this day to guide the nation into destructive and unnecessary conflicts.

To me, a major turning point came with the failure of the major news organizations to get anywhere near the bottom of the Iran-Contra scandal, including its origins in illicit contacts between Republicans and Iranians during the 1980 campaign and the Reagan administration’s collaboration with drug traffickers to support the Contra war in Nicaragua. (Instead, the major U.S. media disparaged reporting on these very real scandals.)

If these unsavory stories had been fully explained to the American people, their impression of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush would be far less favorable and the rise of Reagan’s neocon underlings might well have been halted. Instead the neocons consolidated their dominance over Official Washington’s foreign policy establishment and Bush’s inept son was allowed to take the White House in 2001.

Then, one might have thought that the disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003 – justified by a legion of lies – would have finally doomed the neocons but, by then, they had deeply penetrated the national news media and major think tanks, with their influence reaching not only across the Republican Party but deeply into the Democratic Party as well.

So, despite the Iraq catastrophe, almost nothing changed. The neocons and their liberal interventionist chums continued to fabricate narratives that have led the United States into one mess after another, seeking more and more “regime change” and brushing aside recommendations for peaceful resolution of international crises.

Cognitive Dissonance

As part of this phenomenon, there is profound cognitive dissonance as the rationales shift depending on the neocons’ tactical needs. From one case to the next, there is no logical or moral consistency, and the major U.S. news organizations go along, failing again and again to expose these blatant hypocrisies.

The U.S. government can stand for a “rules-based” world when that serves its interests but then freely violate international law when it’s decided that “humanitarian warfare” trumps national sovereignty and the United Nations Charter. The latter is particularly easy after a foreign leader has been demonized in the American press, but sovereignty becomes inviolate in other circumstances when Washington is on the side of the killing regimes.

George W. Bush’s administration and the mainstream media justified invading Iraq, in part, by accusing Saddam Hussein of human rights violations. The obvious illegality of the invasion was ignored or dismissed as so much caviling by “Saddam apologists.” Similarly, the Obama administration and media rationalized invading Libya in 2011 under the propagandistic charge that Muammar Gaddafi was planning a mass slaughter of civilians (though he said he was only after Islamic terrorists).

But the same media looks the other way or make excuses when the slaughter of civilians is being done by “allies,” such as Israel against Palestinians or Saudi Arabia against Yemenis. Then the U.S. government even rushes more military supplies so the bombings can continue.

The view of terrorism is selective, too. Israel, Saudi Arabia and other U.S. “allies” in the Persian Gulf have aided and abetted terrorist groups, including Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front, in the war against the largely secular government of Syria. That support for violent subversion followed the U.S. media’s demonization of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Thus, trying to avoid another Iraq-style morass, President Obama faces heavy criticism from neocon-dominated Washington for not doing more to force “regime change” in Syria, although he actually has authorized shipments of sophisticated U.S. weaponry to the supposedly “moderate” opposition, which often operates under Nusra’s command structure.

In other words, it’s okay to intervene overtly and covertly when Official Washington wants to do so, regardless of international law and even if that involves complicity with terrorists. But it’s different when the shoe is on the other foot.

In the case of Ukraine, any Russian assistance to ethnic Russian rebels under assault from a Ukrainian military that includes neo-Nazi battalions, such as the Azov brigade, is impermissible. International law and a “rules-based” structure must be defended by punishing Russia.

The U.S. news media failed its readers again with its one-sided coverage of the 2014 coup that overthrew elected President Viktor Yanukovych, who had undergone another demonization process from U.S. officials and the mainstream press. So, the major U.S. news outlets cheered the coup and saw nothing wrong when the new U.S.-backed regime announced an “Anti-Terrorism Operation” – or ATO – against ethnic Russian Ukrainians who had voted for Yanukovych and considered the coup regime illegitimate.

In the Western media, the “white-hatted” coup regime in Kiev could do no wrong even when its neo-Nazi storm troopers burned scores of ethnic Russians alive in Odessa and spearheaded the ATO in the east. Everything was Russia’s fault, even though there was no evidence that President Vladimir Putin had any pre-coup role in destabilizing the political situation in Ukraine.

Indeed, the evidence was clear that the U.S. government was the one seeking “regime change.” For instance, Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland was caught on an intercepted phone call conspiring with U.S. Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt regarding who should take power – “Yats is the guy,” she said about Arseniy Yatsenyuk – and discussing how to “midwife” and “glue this thing.” The coup followed a few weeks later, with Yatsenyuk emerging as the new prime minister.

U.S. Exceptionalism

The U.S. news media acts as if it is the unquestionable right of the U.S. government to intervene in the internal affairs of countries all over the world – whether through subversion or military invasion – but the U.S. media then gets outraged if anyone dares to resist Washington’s edicts or tries to behave in any way similar to how the U.S. government does.

So, regarding Ukraine, when neighboring Russia intervened to prevent massacres in the east and to let the people of Crimea vote in a referendum on seceding from the new regime in Kiev, the U.S. government and media accused Putin of violating international law. National borders, even in the context of a violent coup carried out in part by neo-Nazis, had to be respected, Official Washington piously announced. Even the 96 percent will of Crimea’s voters to rejoin Russia had to be set aside in support of the principle of state sovereignty.

In other words, if Putin shielded these ethnic Russians from violent repression by Ukrainian ultra-nationalists, he was guilty of “aggression” and his country needed to be punished with harsh sanctions. U.S. neocons soon began dreaming of destabilizing Russia and pulling off another “regime change,” in Moscow.

Meanwhile, the U.S.-backed Ukrainian regime prosecuted its ATO, bringing heavy armaments to bear against the eastern Ukrainian dissidents in a conflict that has claimed some 10,000 lives including many civilians. The Ukrainian conflict is one of the worst bloodlettings in Europe since World War II, yet the calls from neocons and their liberal-hawk pals is to arm up the Ukrainian military so it can – once and for all – crush the resistance.

Early in the crisis, New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof, who has cultivated a reputation as a caring humanitarian, was eager to send more weapons to the Kiev regime and to western Ukrainians (who include his father’s relatives) so they could kill their ethnic Russian neighbors in the east – or “go bear-hunting,” as Kristof put it. By calling Russians “bears,” Kristof was likening their slaughter to the killing of animals.

Yet, in a recent column, Kristof takes a very different posture regarding Syria, where he wants the U.S. military to invade and create so-called “safe zones” and “no-fly zones” to prevent the Syrian army and air force from operating against rebel positions.

Sovereignty means one thing in Ukraine, even following a coup that removed the elected president. There, national borders must be respected (at least after a pro-U.S. regime had been installed) and the regime has every right kill dissenters to assert its authority. After all, it’s just like hunting animals.

But sovereignty means something else in Syria where the U.S. government is called on to intervene on one side in a brutal civil war to prevent the government from regaining control of the country or to obviate the need for a negotiated settlement of the conflict. In Syria, “regime change” trumps all.

Selective Outrage

In the column, Kristof noted other conflicts where the United States supposedly should have done more, calling the failure to invade Syria “a stain on all of us, analogous … to the eyes averted from Bosnia and Rwanda in the 1990s, to Darfur in the 2000s.”

Note again the selectivity of Kristof’s moral outrage. He doesn’t call for a U.S. invasion of Israel/Palestine to protect the Palestinians from Israel’s periodic “mowing the grass” operations. Nor does he suggest bombing the Saudi airfields to prevent the kingdom’s continued bombing of Yemenis. And, he doesn’t protest the U.S.-instigated slaughter in Iraq where hundreds of thousands of people perished, nor does he cite the seemingly endless U.S. war in Afghanistan.

Like many other mainstream pundits, Kristof tailors his humanitarianism to the cause of U.S. global dominance. After all, how long do you think Kristof would last as a well-paid columnist if he advocated a “no-fly zone” inside Israel or a military intervention against Saudi Arabia?

Put differently, how much professional courage does it take to pile on against “black-hatted” U.S. “enemies” after they’ve been demonized? Yet, it was just such a “group think” that cleared the way for the U.S. invasion of Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein, a decision embraced by “liberal hawks” as well as neoconservatives and touching off mass suffering across the Mideast and now into Europe. Some estimates put the Iraqi dead at over one million.

So, it’s worth remembering how The New Yorker, The New York Times and other supposedly “liberal” publications hopped on George W. Bush’s Iraq War bandwagon. They became what Kristof’s former boss, Bill Keller, dubbed “the I-Can’t-Believe-I‘m-a-Hawk Club.” (Keller, by the way, was named the Times executive editor after the Iraq WMD claims had been debunked. Like many of his fellow hawks, there was no accountability for their gullibility or careerism.)

Kristof did not join the club at that time but signed up later, urging a massive bombing campaign in Syria after the Obama administration made now largely discredited claims accusing Bashar al-Assad’s government of launching a sarin gas attack outside Damascus on Aug. 21, 2013.

We now know that President Obama pulled back from those bombing plans, in part, because he was told by U.S. intelligence analysts that they doubted Assad was responsible. The preponderance of evidence now points to a provocation by Al Qaeda-connected rebels to trick the United States into intervening in the civil war on their side, but the mainstream U.S. media continues to report as “flat fact” that Obama failed to enforce his “red line” against Assad using chemical weapons.

Though the Kristof-endorsed bombing campaign in 2013 might well have played into Al Qaeda’s hands (or those of the Islamic State) and thus unleashed even a worse tragedy on the Syrian people, the columnist is still advocating a U.S. invasion of Syria, albeit dressed up in pretty “humanitarian” language. But it should be clear that nice-sounding words like “safe zones” are just euphemisms for “regime change,” as we saw in Libya in 2011.

Forgetting Reality

The U.S. news media also often “forgets” that Obama has authorized the training and arming of so-called “moderate” Syrian rebels with many of them absorbed into the military command of Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front and with sophisticated U.S. weapons, such as TOW anti-tank missiles, showing up in the arsenals of Nusra and its jihadist allies.

In other words, beyond the selective outrage about morality and international law, we see selective reporting. Indeed, across American journalism, there has been a nearly complete abandonment of objectivity when it comes to reporting on U.S. foreign policy. Even liberal and leftist publications now bash anyone who doesn’t join the latest version of “the I-Can’t-Believe-I’m-a-Hawk Club.”

That means that as the neocon-dominated foreign policy establishment continues to push the world toward ever greater catastrophes, now including plans to destabilize nuclear-armed Russia (gee, how could that go wrong?), the U.S. news media is denying the American people the objective information needed to rein in the excesses.

Virtually nothing has been learned from the Iraq War disaster when the U.S. government cast aside negotiations and inspections (along with any appreciation of the complex reality on the ground) in favor of tough-guy/gal posturing. With very few exceptions, the U.S. media simply went along.

Today, the pro-war posturing has spread deeply within the Democratic Party and even among some hawkish leftists who join in the fun of insulting the few anti-war dissenters with the McCarthyite approach of accusing anyone challenging the “group think” on Syria or Russia of being an “Assad apologist” or a “Putin stooge.”

At the Democratic National Convention, some of Hillary Clinton’s delegates even chanted “USA, USA” to drown out the cries of Bernie Sanders’s delegates, who pleaded for “no more war.” On a larger scale, the mainstream U.S. news media has essentially ignored or silenced anyone who deviates from the neocon-dominated conventional wisdom.

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).




Simplistic Second-Guessing on ISIS

Official Washington’s neocons, the mainstream U.S. media and Donald Trump are on the same page at least in blaming President Obama for ISIS, a case of all three parties being wrong, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar explains.

By Paul R. Pillar

A recurring feature in criticism of President Obama’s foreign policy, particularly in referring to strife-torn Syria and Iraq, is the notion that if only the United States had followed some different course, bad things in such overseas places would not be happening.

The dominant variant of such criticism asserts that if only the United States had somehow used more military force in those lands, then somehow the strife there would be less than it is. This variant gets repeated so often that it is already acquiring the status of conventional wisdom.

Even the usually sensible Nicholas Kristof, for example, in a recent column writes that “allowing [sic] Syria’s civil war and suffering to drag on unchallenged” has been Mr. Obama’s “worst mistake”.

Kristof acknowledges that “we don’t know whether the more assertive approaches favored by Hillary Clinton, Gen. David Petraeus and many others would have been more effective” — an admission that should vacate the judgment he had just made about a presidential mistake.

After all, how can we assess whether any given course of action is a mistake if we do not weigh it against the available alternatives? What we are seeing here is a difference between policy-makers who have to come up with real policy that works, and critics who don’t have to come up with anything but criticism.

To the extent that alternatives get assessed at all, a major asymmetry usually makes those assessments faulty. The real policy, warts and all, is put up against reality, with all of the policy’s limitations exposed for us to see. But the hypothetical alternatives are not similarly exposed; whoever suggests an alternative can just assume that the alternative would have worked the way it was intended to work.

Moreover, when facing a genuinely bad situation — such as the deadly imbroglios in Syria and Iraq — there is a natural tendency to think that different courses of action would have yielded a less bad situation. Such a tendency is a psychological frame-of-reference effect, not a product of hard analysis of how specific alternatives would have worked.

Most commentary that tosses up hypothetical alternatives — and sometimes proposes such alternatives as something that could yet be undertaken, not just as an opportunity missed in the past — deals in general concepts and spares us the details. But many devils reside in the details, and may make the proffered alternative worse than the policy it would replace.

We often hear, for example, the concepts of “safe zones” or no-fly zones. We hear hardly at all about the details necessarily associated with any such zones: of who does the fighting to maintain a desired state of control on the ground, the size of the required U.S. force commitment, the prospects for further escalation of the conflict, and so forth.

One Dimensional

Similarly, the suggester of a hypothetical alternative can focus on just a single dimension on which the alternative could reasonably be expected to have worked while leaving unstated all the other dimensions involving costs, risks, and deleterious side-effects. The equivalent approach as applied to an actual policy is what we hear from die-hard defenders of the 2003 invasion of Iraq when they ask, “Is the world better off with or without Saddam Hussein?”

Well, if that were the only question and the question really were that simple, then the answer would be that we are better off without him. But it was all those other costs, risks, and deleterious side-effects that made the policy disastrously bad.

Underlying the defective and asymmetry-laden analysis is the strongly held American exceptionalist tendency to look at problems around the world as America’s problems, to think that the United States ought to be able to solve them, and thus to see any persistence of a problem overseas as due to faulty U.S. policy.

This tendency imposes an unrealistic standard on real policy, because the United States is not actually capable of solving many of those problems overseas. By keeping the hypothetical alternatives vague and uni-dimensional, the alternatives are not held up to the same unrealistic standard.

Regarding Syria, Juan Cole provides a useful corrective to the flawed coulda shoulda criticism with a discussion of what he calls the “top seven reasons the US could not have forestalled the Syrian civil war”. It is even clearer that the Obama administration could not have forestalled the violent conflict we all abhor in Iraq.

The coulda shoulda criticism applied to the administration’s policies on Iraq have always had a strange quality given that the main thing the critics are knocking the administration for is the implementation of a troop withdrawal agreement that had been negotiated by the previous administration. If, as has been charged, the Obama administration did not “try hard enough” to modify that agreement, then this must mean that the Bush administration did not “try hard enough” to get a different agreement in the first place.

The biggest historical fact that is ignored by those who like to fire historical hypotheticals at the Obama administration is that a much more muscular military approach has already been tried in Iraq and failed. U.S. military strength in Iraq peaked at 166,000 troops in October 2007, 4½ years after the initial invasion. If a U.S. force of this size failed to provide lasting security in Iraq, to create an environment in which contending Iraqi factions would reconcile their differences, or to destroy the group we now know as ISIS — and it failed to accomplish any of these things — then why should we expect anything more from the smaller force that is talked about by those who criticize Mr. Obama for implementing the troop withdrawal?

The Maliki Factor

One variant on the line of criticism involved is the idea that former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose authoritarian ways had a lot to do with instability and rancor in Iraqi politics, somehow could have been turned into a different sort of political animal if U.S. troops had been in the vicinity. How exactly was this supposed to work? That GIs would march into his office and give him an ultimatum to be a nicer and more conciliatory guy? Is that the way it worked when we had the 166,000 troops there? No, the problem is rooted in Iraqi political culture and political demography, not the location of U.S. troops.

Other variants focus more on ISIS. Here the central historical fact that too often is left unsaid is that the group came into existence as a direct result of the conflict and disorder that the 2003 invasion ignited and that the group has had, under different names, a continuous existence — including through the U.S. troop “surge” — ever since.

Some military action has hurt ISIS but other military action has had the opposite effect. When group leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed in 2006, this made possible the emergence of the more capable Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, under whom the group would make its most dramatic territorial gains.

The criticism that keeps trying to tell us that things in that part of the world would have been better if only President Obama had followed a different course says much less about any mistakes by Mr. Obama than about the badly flawed mode of analysis the critics are using.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is author most recently of Why America Misunderstands the World. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)




US War Crimes or ‘Normalized Deviance’

The U.S. foreign policy establishment and its mainstream media operate with a pervasive set of hypocritical standards that justify war crimes — or what might be called a “normalization of deviance,” writes Nicolas J S Davies.

By Nicolas J S Davies

Sociologist Diane Vaughan coined the term “normalization of deviance as she was investigating the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle in 1986. She used it to describe how the social culture at NASA fostered a disregard for rigorous, physics-based safety standards, effectively creating new, lower de facto standards that came to govern actual NASA operations and led to catastrophic and deadly failures.

Vaughan published her findings in her prize-winning book, The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture and Deviance at NASA, which, in her words, “shows how mistake, mishap, and disaster are socially organized and systematically produced by social structures” and “shifts our attention from individual causal explanations to the structure of power and the power of structure and culture – factors that are difficult to identify and untangle yet have great impact on decision making in organizations.”

When the same pattern of organizational culture and behavior at NASA persisted until the loss of a second shuttle in 2003, Diane Vaughan was appointed to NASA’s accident investigation board, which belatedly embraced her conclusion that the “normalization of deviance” was a critical factor in these catastrophic failures.

The normalization of deviance has since been cited in a wide range of corporate crimes and institutional failures, from Volkswagen’s rigging of emissions tests to deadly medical mistakes in hospitals.  In fact, the normalization of deviance is an ever-present danger in most of the complex institutions that govern the world we live in today, not least in the bureaucracy that formulates and conducts U.S. foreign policy.

The normalization of deviance from the rules and standards that formally govern U.S. foreign policy has been quite radical.  And yet, as in other cases, this has gradually been accepted as a normal state of affairs, first within the corridors of power, then by the corporate media and eventually by much of the public at large.

Once deviance has been culturally normalized, as Vaughan found in the shuttle program at NASA, there is no longer any effective check on actions that deviate radically from formal or established standards – in the case of U.S. foreign policy, that would refer to the rules and customs of international law, the checks and balances of our constitutional political system and the experience and evolving practice of generations of statesmen and diplomats.

Normalizing the Abnormal

It is in the nature of complex institutions infected by the normalization of deviance that insiders are incentivized to downplay potential problems and to avoid precipitating a reassessment based on previously established standards.  Once rules have been breached, decision-makers face a cognitive and ethical conundrum whenever the same issue arises again: they can no longer admit that an action will violate responsible standards without admitting that they have already violated them in the past.

This is not just a matter of avoiding public embarrassment and political or criminal accountability, but a real instance of collective cognitive dissonance among people who have genuinely, although often self-servingly, embraced a deviant culture.  Diane Vaughan has compared the normalization of deviance to an elastic waistband that keeps on stretching.

Within the high priesthood that now manages U.S. foreign policy, advancement and success are based on conformity with this elastic culture of normalized deviance.  Whistle-blowers are punished or even prosecuted, and people who question the prevailing deviant culture are routinely and efficiently marginalized, not promoted to decision-making positions.

For example, once U.S. officials had accepted the Orwellian “doublethink” that “targeted killings,” or “manhunts” as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called them, do not violate long-standing prohibitions against assassination, even a new administration could not walk that decision back without forcing a deviant culture to confront the wrong-headedness and illegality of its original decision.

Then, once the Obama administration had massively escalated the CIA’s drone program as an alternative to kidnapping and indefinite detention at Guantanamo, it became even harder to acknowledge that this is a policy of cold-blooded murder that provokes widespread anger and hostility and is counter-productive to legitimate counterterrorism goals – or to admit that it violates the U.N. Charter’s prohibition on the use of force, as U.N. special rapporteurs on extrajudicial killings have warned.

Underlying such decisions is the role of U.S. government lawyers who provide legal cover for them, but who are themselves shielded from accountability by U.S. non-recognition of international courts and the extraordinary deference of U.S. courts to the Executive Branch on matters of “national security.” These lawyers enjoy a privilege that is unique in their profession, issuing legal opinions that they will never have to defend before impartial courts to provide legal fig-leaves for war crimes.

The deviant U.S. foreign policy bureaucracy has branded the formal rules that are supposed to govern our country’s international behavior as “obsolete” and “quaint”, as a White House lawyer wrote in 2004.  And yet these are the very rules that past U.S. leaders deemed so vital that they enshrined them in constitutionally binding international treaties and U.S. law.

Let’s take a brief look at how the normalization of deviance undermines two of the most critical standards that formally define and legitimize U.S. foreign policy: the U.N. Charter and the Geneva Conventions.

The United Nations Charter

In 1945, after two world wars killed 100 million people and left much of the world in ruins, the world’s governments were shocked into a moment of sanity in which they agreed to settle future international disputes peacefully.  The U.N. Charter therefore prohibits the threat or use of force in international relations.

As President Franklin Roosevelt told a joint session of Congress on his return from the Yalta conference, this new “permanent structure of peace … should spell the end of the system of unilateral action, the exclusive alliances, the spheres of influence, the balance of power, and all the other expedients that have been tried for centuries – and have always failed.”

The U.N. Charter’s prohibition against the threat or use of force codifies the long-standing prohibition of aggression in English common law and customary international law, and reinforces the renunciation of war as an instrument of national policy in the 1928 Kellogg Briand Pact. The judges at Nuremberg ruled that, even before the U.N. Charter came into effect, aggression was already the “supreme international crime.”

No U.S. leader has proposed abolishing or amending the U.N. Charter to permit aggression by the U.S. or any other country.  And yet the U.S. is currently conducting ground operations, air strikes or drone strikes in at least seven countries: Afghanistan; Pakistan; Iraq; Syria; Yemen; Somalia; and Libya. U.S. “special operations forces” conduct secret operations in a hundred more. U.S. leaders still openly threaten Iran, despite a diplomatic breakthrough that was supposed to peacefully settle bilateral differences.

President-in-waiting Hillary Clinton still believes in backing U.S. demands on other countries with illegal threats of force, even though every threat she has backed in the past has only served to create a pretext for war, from Yugoslavia to Iraq to Libya. But the U.N. Charter prohibits the threat as well as the use of force precisely because the one so regularly leads to the other.

The only justifications for the use of force permitted under the U.N. Charter are proportionate and necessary self-defense or an emergency request by the U.N. Security Council for military action “to restore peace and security.”  But no other country has attacked the United States, nor has the Security Council asked the U.S. to bomb or invade any of the countries where we are now at war.

The wars we have launched since 2001 have killed about 2 million people, of whom nearly all were completely innocent of involvement in the crimes of 9/11. Instead of “restoring peace and security,” U.S. wars have only plunged country after country into unending violence and chaos.

Like the specifications ignored by the engineers at NASA, the U.N. Charter is still in force, in black and white, for anyone in the world to read. But the normalization of deviance has replaced its nominally binding rules with looser, vaguer ones that the world’s governments and people have neither debated, negotiated nor agreed to.

In this case, the formal rules being ignored are the ones that were designed to provide a viable framework for the survival of human civilization in the face of the existential threat of modern weapons and warfare – surely the last rules on Earth that should have been quietly swept under a rug in the State Department basement.

The Geneva Conventions

Courts martial and investigations by officials and human rights groups have exposed “rules of engagement” issued to U.S. forces that flagrantly violate the Geneva Conventions and the protections they provide to wounded combatants, prisoners of war and civilians in war-torn countries:

–The Command’s Responsibility report by Human Rights First examined 98 deaths in U.S. custody in Iraq and Afghanistan. It revealed a deviant culture in which senior officials abused their authority to block investigations and guarantee their own impunity for murders and torture deaths that U.S. law defines as capital crimes.

Although torture was authorized from the very top of the chain of command, the most senior officer charged with a crime was a Major and the harshest sentence handed down was a five-month prison sentence.

–U.S. rules of engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan have included: systematic, theater-wide use of torture; orders to “dead-check” or kill wounded enemy combatants; orders to “kill all military-age males” during certain operations; and “weapons-free” zones that mirror Vietnam-era “free-fire” zones.

A U.S. Marine corporal told a court martial that “Marines consider all Iraqi men part of the insurgency”, nullifying the critical distinction between combatants and civilians that is the very basis of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

When junior officers or enlisted troops have been charged with war crimes, they have been exonerated or given light sentences because courts have found that they were acting on orders from more senior officers. But the senior officers implicated in these crimes have been allowed to testify in secret or not to appear in court at all, and no senior officer has been convicted of a war crime.

–For the past year, U.S. forces bombing Iraq and Syria have operated under loosened rules of engagement that allow the in-theater commander General McFarland to approve bomb- and missile-strikes that are expected to kill up to 10 civilians each.

But Kate Clark of the Afghanistan Analysts Network has documented that U.S. rules of engagement already permit routine targeting of civilians based only on cell-phone records or “guilt by proximity” to other people targeted for assassination. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has determined that only 4 percent of thousands of drone victims in Pakistan have been positively identified as Al Qaeda members, the nominal targets of the CIA’s drone campaign.

–Amnesty International’s 2014 report Left In The Dark documented a complete lack of accountability for the killing of civilians by U.S. forces in Afghanistan since President Obama’s escalation of the war in 2009 unleashed thousands more air strikes and special forces night raids.

Nobody was charged over the Ghazi Khan raid in Kunar province on Dec. 26, 2009, in which U.S. special forces summarily executed at least seven children, including four who were only 11 or 12 years old.

More recently, U.S. forces attacked a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, killing 42 doctors, staff and patients, but this flagrant violation of Article 18 of the Fourth Geneva Convention did not lead to criminal charges either.

Although the U.S. government would not dare to formally renounce the Geneva Conventions, the normalization of deviance has effectively replaced them with elastic standards of behavior and accountability whose main purpose is to shield senior U.S. military officers and civilian officials from accountability for war crimes.

The Cold War and Its Aftermath

The normalization of deviance in U.S. foreign policy is a byproduct of the disproportionate economic, diplomatic and military power of the United States since 1945. No other country could have got away with such flagrant and systematic violations of international law.

But in the early days of the Cold War, America’s World War II leaders rejected calls to exploit their new-found power and temporary monopoly on nuclear weapons to unleash an aggressive war against the U.S.S.R.

General Dwight Eisenhower gave a speech in St. Louis in 1947 in which he warned, “Those who measure security solely in terms of offensive capacity distort its meaning and mislead those who pay them heed. No modern nation has ever equaled the crushing offensive power attained by the German war machine in 1939. No modern nation was broken and smashed as was Germany six years later.”

But, as Eisenhower later warned, the Cold War soon gave rise to a “military-industrial complex” that may be the case par excellence of a highly complex tangle of institutions whose social culture is supremely prone to the normalization of deviance. Privately, Eisenhower lamented, “God help this country when someone sits in this chair who doesn’t know the military as well as I do.”

That describes everyone who has sat in that chair and tried to manage the U.S. military-industrial complex since 1961, involving critical decisions on war and peace and an ever-growing military budget. Advising the President on these matters are the Vice President, the Secretaries of State and Defense, the Director of National Intelligence, several generals and admirals and the chairs of powerful Congressional committees. Nearly all these officials’ careers represent some version of the “revolving door” between the military and “intelligence” bureaucracy, the executive and legislative branches of government, and top jobs with military contractors and lobbying firms.

Each of the close advisers who have the President’s ear on these most critical issues is in turn advised by others who are just as deeply embedded in the military-industrial complex, from think-tanks funded by weapons manufacturers to Members of Congress with military bases or missile plants in their districts to journalists and commentators who market fear, war and militarism to the public.

With the rise of sanctions and financial warfare as a tool of U.S. power, Wall Street and the Treasury and Commerce Departments are also increasingly entangled in this web of military-industrial interests.

The incentives driving the creeping, gradual normalization of deviance throughout the ever-growing U.S. military-industrial complex have been powerful and mutually reinforcing for over 70 years, exactly as Eisenhower warned.

Richard Barnet explored the deviant culture of Vietnam-era U.S. war leaders in his 1972 book Roots Of War. But there are particular reasons why the normalization of deviance in U.S. foreign policy has become even more dangerous since the end of the Cold War.

In the aftermath of World War II, the U.S. and U.K. installed allied governments in Western and Southern Europe, restored Western colonies in Asia and militarily occupied South Korea. The divisions of Korea and Vietnam into north and south were justified as temporary, but the governments in the south were U.S. creations imposed to prevent reunification under governments allied with the U.S.S.R. or China. U.S. wars in Korea and Vietnam were then justified, legally and politically, as military assistance to allied governments fighting wars of self-defense.

The U.S. role in anti-democratic coups in Iran, Guatemala, the Congo, Brazil, Indonesia, Ghana, Chile and other countries was veiled behind thick layers of secrecy and propaganda. A veneer of legitimacy was still considered vital to U.S. policy, even as a culture of deviance was being normalized and institutionalized beneath the surface.

The Reagan Years

It was not until the 1980s that the U.S. ran seriously afoul of the post-1945 international legal framework it had helped to build. When the U.S. set out to destroy the revolutionary Sandinista government of Nicaragua by mining its harbors and dispatching a mercenary army to terrorize its people, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) convicted the U.S. of aggression and ordered it to pay war reparations.

The U.S. response revealed how far the normalization of deviance had already taken hold of its foreign policy. Instead of accepting and complying with the court’s ruling, the U.S. announced its withdrawal from the binding jurisdiction of the ICJ.

When Nicaragua asked the U.N. Security Council to enforce the payment of reparations ordered by the court, the U.S. abused its position as a Permanent Member of the Security Council to veto the resolution. Since the 1980s, the U.S. has vetoed twice as many Security Council resolutions as the other Permanent Members combined, and the U.N. General Assembly passed resolutions condemning the U.S. invasions of Grenada (by 108 to 9) and Panama (by 75 to 20), calling the latter “a flagrant violation of international law.”

President George H.W. Bush and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher obtained U.N. authorization for the First Gulf War and resisted calls to launch a war of regime change against Iraq in violation of their U.N. mandate. Their forces massacred Iraqi forces fleeing Kuwait, and a U.N. report described how the “near apocalyptic” U.S.-led bombardment of Iraq reduced what “had been until January a rather highly urbanized and mechanized society” to “a pre-industrial age nation.”

But new voices began to ask why the U.S. should not exploit its unchallenged post-Cold War military superiority to use force with even less restraint. During the Bush-Clinton transition, Madeleine Albright confronted General Colin Powell over his “Powell doctrine” of limited war, protesting, “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”

Public hopes for a “peace dividend” were ultimately trumped by a “power dividend” sought by military-industrial interests. The neoconservatives of the Project for the New American Century led the push for war on Iraq, while “humanitarian interventionists” now use the “soft power” of propaganda to selectively identify and demonize targets for U.S.-led regime change and then justify war under the “responsibility to protect” or other pretexts. U.S. allies (NATO, Israel, the Arab monarchies et al) are exempt from such campaigns, safe within what Amnesty International has labeled an “accountability-free zone.”

Madeleine Albright and her colleagues branded Slobodan Milosevic a “new Hitler” for trying to hold Yugoslavia together, even as they ratcheted up their own genocidal sanctions against Iraq. Ten years after Milosevic died in prison at the Hague, he was posthumously exonerated by an international court.

In 1999, when U.K. Foreign Secretary Robin Cook told Secretary of State Albright the British government was having trouble “with its lawyers” over NATO plans to attack Yugoslavia without U.N. authorization, Albright told him he should “get new lawyers.”

By the time mass murder struck New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, the normalization of deviance was so firmly rooted in the corridors of power that voices of peace and reason were utterly marginalized.

Former Nuremberg prosecutor Ben Ferencz told NPR eight days later, “It is never a legitimate response to punish people who are not responsible for the wrong done. …  We must make a distinction between punishing the guilty and punishing others.  If you simply retaliate en masse by bombing Afghanistan, let us say, or the Taliban, you will kill many people who don’t approve of what has happened.”

But from the day of the crime, the war machine was in motion, targeting Iraq as well as Afghanistan.

The normalization of deviance that promoted war and marginalized reason at that moment of national crisis was not limited to Dick Cheney and his torture-happy acolytes, and so the global war they unleashed in 2001 is still spinning out of control.

When President Obama was elected in 2008 and awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, few people understood how many of the people and interests shaping his policies were the same people and interests who had shaped President George W. Bush’s, nor how deeply they were all steeped in the same deviant culture that had unleashed war, systematic war crimes and intractable violence and chaos upon the world.

A Sociopathic Culture

Until the American public, our political representatives and our neighbors around the world can come to grips with the normalization of deviance that is corrupting the conduct of U.S. foreign policy, the existential threats of nuclear war and escalating conventional war will persist and spread.

This deviant culture is sociopathic in its disregard for the value of human life and for the survival of human life on Earth. The only thing “normal” about it is that it pervades the powerful, entangled institutions that control U.S. foreign policy, rendering them impervious to reason, public accountability or even catastrophic failure.

The normalization of deviance in U.S. foreign policy is driving a self-fulfilling reduction of our miraculous multicultural world to a “battlefield” or testing-ground for the latest U.S. weapons and geopolitical strategies. There is not yet any countervailing movement powerful or united enough to restore reason, humanity or the rule of law, domestically or internationally, although new political movements in many countries offer viable alternatives to the path we are on.

As the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists warned when it advanced the hands of the Doomsday Clock to 3 minutes to midnight in 2015, we are living at one of the most dangerous times in human history. The normalization of deviance in U.S. foreign policy lies at the very heart of our predicament.

Nicolas J S Davies is the author of Blood On Our Hands: the American Invasion and Destruction of Iraq.  He also wrote the chapters on “Obama at War” in Grading the 44th President: a Report Card on Barack Obama’s First Term as a Progressive Leader.




The Fragility of American Democracy

A top neocon excuse for invading other countries is to spread American-style “democracy,” but – amid all that carnage – there has been a steady erosion of U.S. democratic values, observes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

Efforts to export American-style liberal democracy to foreign lands have bumped up against the fact that the successful working of such democracy depends on habits and attitudes that are rarer than most Americans think and that take a long time to develop. That is a reality encountered in places such as Iraq. The relevant attitudes are not only hard to develop but also easy to lose. And that is a reality we must face at home in the United States.

Prime among the habits and attitudes that make representative democracy work is the willingness to respect even the most disappointing electoral result and to yield power peacefully and willingly to one’s political opponents if that is what the tally of votes calls for. Such willingness is a recognition that the nation as a whole and the democratic process itself are more important than for any one party, ideology, or set of policy preferences to prevail.

Look around the world and one finds numerous examples of ostensible democracies where such willingness is lacking. It is all too common for losers not to accept the tally of votes. They don’t just yield power smoothly and move into the role of a loyal opposition.

The end result may be a negotiated power-sharing arrangement that works somewhat (Kenya, Afghanistan) or doesn’t work at all (Zimbabwe). Or the refusal to recognize the legitimacy of the other side makes the political system so dysfunctional that the military steps in (Bangladesh). Or the refusal is so intense that civil war breaks out and foreign military intervention is required (Cote d’Ivoire).

The acceptance of the outcome of elections by losers in the United States, both Democratic and Republican, has been a refreshing contrast to those foreign experiences. Look, for example, to John McCain’s graceful concession speech in 2008 for a model of how to accept a losing outcome.

Or look to the example in 2000 of Al Gore, who — having won the nationwide popular vote but having lost the presidency amid the hanging chad of Florida — probably had more reason than any candidate since Samuel Tilden in 1876 to believe that he was denied the office that should have been his.

Now, among the nearly daily output of outrageous comments that we have come to expect from the mouth of Donald Trump, is one that some commentators such as Dana Milbank of the Washington Post have rightly singled out as even more disturbing than most. This is Trump’s suggestion that if he loses in November it will be because the election was “rigged.” Such a comment raises the specter of an election aftermath that will begin to look less like the United States and more like Kenya or Bangladesh.

If such an aftermath ensues, it will be a matter of sore losing rather than of any rigging. It is not as if the separate courts that have been ruling in several states against voter suppression laws as discriminatory are part of a vast left-wing conspiracy. The sort of voter impersonation fraud that such laws ostensibly are intended to prevent has been so rare as to be trivial.

The actual deficiencies and unfairness in U.S. elections are of a much different sort: the effective denial of legitimate voters’ right to vote because of inadequate polling places in some neighborhoods, or burdensome and partisan-motivated registration and identification requirements, or (as in Florida) stupidly designed ballots that leave voters’ intentions unclear.

The Trump Phenomenon

As with several other pathological aspects of the Donald Trump phenomenon, this possibility of denying the legitimacy of an election victory by the other side is rooted in patterns of thought and rhetoric that go well beyond Trump himself. The roots are seen in other ways in the party of which Trump is now the presidential nominee.

The roots become visible when one remembers that the fundamental issue is not something specific like alleged voter fraud but rather a larger set of priorities in which, just as in the aforementioned Third World countries, so much importance is placed on one leader, party, policy, or ideology prevailing over another that the prevailing is treated as more important than the interests and values of the nation as a whole.

We saw this when Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell declared near the beginning of Barack Obama’s presidency that his number one priority was to deny Obama a second term. Bringing down the administration of the opposing party, in other words, was given higher priority than anything involving the American people as a whole and the health and strength of their republic — whether this involves the state of the U.S. economy, the protection of U.S. interests abroad, or anything else.

Obama in particular has seemed to have been the target of such perverted priorities (some would say racial prejudice is involved — it is impossible to conclude with certainty whether it is), leading to such diversions as the “birther” nonsense in which Trump has directly indulged as well as opposition-for-opposition’s-sake which has had serious consequences for public policy, both foreign and domestic.

But the pathological attitudes will not go away when Barack Obama leaves office. The uglier manifestations are seen today in the shouts at Trump rallies of “kill her” and “Trump that bitch.”

We can come full circle back to the connection between domestic politics and foreign policy by referring to what Walter Russell Mead describes as the Jeffersonian tradition of foreign policy thinking. Jeffersonians believe, in Mead’s words, that “the specific cultural, social, and political heritage of the United States is a precious treasure to be conserved, defended, and passed on to future generations.” They recognize that this heritage is not only precious but “rare.”

In foreign policy, the Jeffersonian perspective stresses that whatever the United States does overseas ought not to endanger that heritage. This has led to a Jeffersonian emphasis on restraint in undertaking any foreign operations or commitments, an emphasis that is as pertinent today as it ever was.

But the underlying Jeffersonian realization concerns how fragile and easily endangered is the rare, precious, liberal democracy that Americans enjoy. It can be endangered by what misguided Americans do at home as well as abroad.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is author most recently of Why America Misunderstands the World. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)




The NYT’s Out-of-Control Bias

The New York Times has shown a blatant bias against Russia and Vladimir Putin for years but it is now merging that animus with its contempt for Donald Trump, a stunningly unprofessional performance, notes John V. Walsh.

By John V. Walsh

An astonishing piece appeared in the New York Times recently. It reported a fierce bias in the Times’s coverage of politics and current affairs, most notably when it comes to Donald Trump. The bias turns up not just in the opinion pages but in the News, reports Liz Spayd, the new “public editor,” a position once called the ombudsman.

But the surprise does not end there. Spayd’s report is based on letters from liberal readers, which are filling her inbox to overflowing. Here are some examples that she cites:

“You’ve lost a subscriber because of your relentless bias against Trump — and I’m not even a Republican,” writes an Arizonan.

“I never thought I’d see the day when I, as a liberal, would start getting so frustrated with the one-sided reporting that I would start hopping over to the Fox News webpage to read an article and get the rest of the story that the NYT refused to publish,” writes a woman from California.

“The NY Times is alienating its independent and open-minded readers, and in doing so, limiting the reach of their message and its possible influence,” writes a Manhattanite.

Since these examples are all letters from liberals, the public editor comments: “You can imagine what the letters from actual conservatives sound like…. Emails like these stream into this office every day. A perception that the Times is biased prompts some of the most frequent complaints from readers. Only they arrive so frequently, and have for so long, that the objections no longer land with much heft.”

Of course this is nothing new for the Times. The bias in favor of the latest project of the American Imperium has been true for my entire lifetime. But it used to be subtler, and it used to include some real information, albeit buried away somewhere deep within an article. Noam Chomsky was once fond of reminding us that it was better to read the Times articles backwards, because some truth was buried in the last couple paragraphs.

Getting Even Worse

But in the last few decades since the end of the Cold War and the rise of NATO Expansion and American Exceptionalism during the 1990s in the Clinton “co-presidency,” the situation has grown much worse.  The age of American Triumphalism has caused more rot in the mainstream media. Not only with the Times but with other major outlets like the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and National Public Radio.

A striking example occurred when the Times lent its front page to a fabricated and now thoroughly discredited story by Judith Miller and Michael R. Gordon in September 2002 claiming that Iraq had secured aluminum tubes to build nuclear centrifuges. That was just weeks before Congress took a vote to “authorize” George W. Bush to launch an invasion of Iraq.

I still recall the day I looked at that article and thought it was fact free and source free and that any decent editor would turn it back. It was clear at that moment that the fix was in and that we were on our way to a war which our Elite had decided upon. (Judith Miller eventually was the sacrificial lamb when that story and its origins in Dick Cheney’s office became known. But the co-author, Michael Gordon, continues as the “chief military correspondent” for the Times, and the editors in charge have never been punished.)

It seems that the situation has gotten worse with the rise of Trump who endangers the Imperium’s quest for world domination by seeking to “get along” with Russia and China. Once Trump took that stance, the vitriol and vituperation became a daily feature in the Times.

Indeed their columnist Timothy Egan seems to write about little else these days. Only Maureen Dowd provides occasional timid relief, daring to point out that Trump “talks to the press,” a dig at Hillary who rarely does. (Clinton held a limited news conference – her first of the year – this past week.)

I know that many Times readers now seek out Fox, just like the letter writer quoted above. And many also turn to Breitbart and the Drudge Report as well as RT and China Daily. Even when the Times reports some actual facts, it reports only selected ones (a half truth is a full lie) or buries them in a narrative that neutralizes them.

More Times readers should recognize that they are being taken for a ride. And they should stop being so damned cocksure and snooty about their “knowledge.” They often look more foolish than they might think.

John V. Walsh is a frequent contributor to CounterPunch.com, Antiwar.com, LewRockwell.com and DissidentVoice.org. He is a founding member of “Come Home America.” Until recently he was Professor of Physiology and Neuroscience at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.  He can be reached at john.endwar@gmail.com. [This article first appeared at Counterpunch.]




Promises of Peace, Realities of War

Some anti-war Americans see hope in Donald Trump’s aversion to neocon interventionism but the peace mantras of campaigns often turn into war policies in office, observes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

A common observation about the role of foreign policy in the current presidential race is that Donald Trump’s candidacy is profiting from a lack of appetite among much of the electorate for continued heavy and costly U.S. involvement in overseas conflict.

With Trump having made some remarks that sound critical of that involvement, support for Trump gets interpreted as a rejection of establishment thinking on foreign involvement and of Hillary Clinton’s hawkishness (insofar as foreign policy rather than domestic issues might be shaping any voters’ sentiments).

Some intelligent proponents of a more restrained U.S. foreign policy see hopeful signs in Trump’s comments; Ivan Eland does, for example, and just wishes that Trump would “fill in some of the details on his strategic vision for a proper American role in the world.”

There is no denying that Hillary Clinton epitomizes whatever can be described as establishment thinking on foreign policy. There also is no denying her hawkishness, including when comparing her to the incumbent president. Those hoping for more restraint in U.S. foreign policy have reason to be concerned about that and to look for hopeful signs elsewhere. But to look to Trump in this way is a set-up for unpleasant surprises.

Consider some modern history that is relevant to how the pronouncements and postures of American presidential candidates do or do not relate to their policies on war and peace once in office. A winning campaign slogan of Woodrow Wilson in 1916 was “he kept us out of war.” Five months later Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany.

In the 1940 election campaign Franklin Roosevelt promised that he would “not send American boys into any foreign wars.” Thirteen months after winning the election, Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war on Japan. Roosevelt had not been especially regarded as a peace candidate, but it is worth noting that Republican nominee Wendell Willkie criticized Roosevelt for not adequately preparing the country for war and had been more strongly in favor of supporting Britain in the European war that was already under way than were other GOP presidential hopefuls such as Robert Taft and Thomas Dewey.

A central theme of the 1964 presidential campaign was that Barry Goldwater was the warmonger in the race. The Lyndon Johnson campaign’s effective use of tactics that scared people about the prospect of Goldwater’s finger on the nuclear trigger helped to produce Johnson’s landslide victory. Less than a year after the election, Johnson began the escalation in Vietnam that would lead to 58,000 American deaths.

In the 2000 election, George W. Bush disavowed large nation-building exercises and gave no hint of any inclination that he would take the United States into another war. A couple of years later he launched the first major U.S. offensive war in over a century.

Stuff Happens

Several reasons account for the glaring discrepancies between the campaign postures and the later decisions about going to war. One is that stuff happens. Some stuff (unrestricted German submarine warfare; a Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor) can reasonably call for an armed response. Other stuff (9/11) might be used in a more contrived way to build public support for an unrelated agenda.

Presidential neuroses and responses based on gut feelings and emotions can have a larger impact on presidential policies than anything involving statements made during a campaign. Much of Wilson’s policies, concerning his handling of the peace at least as much as taking the country to war, can be explained in terms of Wilson’s neuroses. And George W. Bush’s need to match or exceed the impact in foreign affairs of his father, who had presided over a successful end to the Cold War, is not just pop psychology.

Other reasons have to do with how most of the electorate responds, often primitively and from the gut, to what the public thinks a candidate represents, rather than taking a more carefully reasoned approach toward what policies a particular candidate is most likely to follow when in office.

Votes cast as an expression of dissatisfaction with the status quo are counterproductive when they lead to policies that only make the sources of dissatisfaction even worse. This happens all the time on domestic policy, with unhappy voters dissatisfied with stagnant wages and a sluggish economy voting for legislators who oppose the very sort of demand-stimulating measures that would be needed to energize the economy.

We should not be surprised when something similar happens on foreign policy. Campaigns waged in terms of slogans and slurs rather than in terms of strategy and specifics only encourage such non-thinking responses by the electorate.

With Donald Trump, and with the political habits that engendered his gaining the Republican nomination, these reasons for discrepancy between campaign hopes and in-office performance are present in abundance. Trump illustrates splendidly the clinical definition of the personality disorder known as narcissism.

The most persuasive future explanations of the foreign policies of a Trump presidency, including decisions on war and peace, probably would be based in large part on presidential neuroses. Hillary Clinton’s speechwriters have a valid point when noting, in their candidate’s convention acceptance speech, that giving “a man you can bait with a tweet” the powers of the presidency has grim implications for the conduct of foreign and security policy.

Trump’s Incoherence

The nonspecific, ever-changing, and often self-contradictory pronouncements by Trump give little basis for a voter to reason out what a President Trump’s foreign and security policies would be even if the voter wanted to apply such a careful process to his or her decision and tried hard to apply such a process.

To speak of “Donald Trump” and “strategic vision” in the same sentence is oxymoronic. Even when Trump has stuck to a teleprompter and a script in talking about foreign policy, the product has been a largely vision-free string of slogans.

The sources of — not to put too fine a point on it — the dumb way a substantial portion of the electorate is currently approaching issues of war and peace and what this implies regarding how they should cast their votes go well beyond Donald Trump.

Max Boot speaks directly and bluntly to this subject in an op-ed in which he discusses how the Republican Party has become the “stupid party” in fact and not just as an act to appeal to the poorly educated whom Donald Trump has said he loves. Boot correctly observes, “Mr. Trump is as much a symptom as a cause of the party’s anti-intellectual drift.”

Boot is one of those neoconservatives who has been tearing his hair out over Trump’s rise because of the hints Trump has dropped that he might actually favor some restraint in foreign policy and because his nomination marks at least a partial loss of the lock that neocons have had in recent years on Republican Party foreign policy.

Obviously Boot believes that making the anti-intellectual party more intellectual would mean hewing to the intellectual line of, to quote from his piece, “conservative think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation and publications like The Wall Street Journal editorial page and Commentary.”

But Republican anti-intellectualism is at least as much a rejection of sound and distinctly non-neocon reasoning regarding the need for a more restrained U.S. foreign and security policy. It is even more a rejection of that reasoning rather than of neocon thinking, given the conclusions that should follow from careful consideration of what has and hasn’t worked in U.S. foreign policy in recent decades.

Mention of the neocons leads to a final observation about the way in which dissatisfied American voters are reacting to the Trump phenomenon. The inexcusable failure to plan better for what would follow in Iraq after the forceful overthrow of Saddam Hussein reflects how that neoconservative endeavor was based on the Jerry Rubin strategy of tearing things down and grooving on the rubble.

So confident were the neocons in the power and appeal of the democratic and free-market values they were attempting to inject into the Middle East that they were sure whatever fell into place after Saddam’s overthrow was bound to be better than what was there before.

Today the people — including those on the anti-interventionist left and the libertarian right — who would like to tear down a militarist “establishment” or “blob” that has dominated American foreign-policy thinking and who see Trump as a vehicle for such destruction risk making a similar mistake.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is author most recently of Why America Misunderstands the World. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.) 




The Fallacy of ‘Regime Change’ Strategies

“Regime change” or destabilizing sanctions are Official Washington’s policy options of choice in dealing with disfavored nations, but these aggressive strategies have proved harmful and counterproductive, says ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

Many variables are involved in the messy predicaments in the Middle East, but one way of framing the history and issues of U.S. policy toward the region is in terms of the approaches that have been taken toward so-called rogue regimes. That term, one should hasten to add, obscures more than it enlightens. But it has been in general use for a long time. Take it as shorthand to refer to regimes that have come to be considered especially troublesome and are subjected to some degree of ostracism and punishment.

Three basic approaches are available in formulating policy toward such a regime: (1) keep ostracizing and punishing it in perpetuity; (2) try to change the regime; or (3) negotiate and do business with it, to constrain it and to influence its actions. There are some contradictions between the approaches. Any regime that is led to believe that it is going to be overturned anyway, or that it will be perpetually punished anyway, lacks incentive to make concessions in a negotiation.

The approaches that outside powers, especially Western powers and above all the United States, have taken toward Middle Eastern regimes that have come to be considered rogue have varied — not only from one state to another but also over time in the policy toward any one state.

Iraq was subject to punishment for a long time, with the prevailing outlook not involving urgency to try different things. The perspective, as voiced by Secretary of State Colin Powell, was that Saddam Hussein was “in his box.”

Then suddenly the policy became one of forceful regime change, stimulated by nothing other than such a project has been on the neoconservative agenda and that the surge in militancy in the American public mood after the 9/11 terrorist attack, even though Iraq had nothing to do with that event, finally made realization of that agenda item politically possible.

Libya under Muammar Gaddafi was subject to years of punishment and ostracism. As far as international sanctions were concerned, this did have a specific declared objective: involving the turning over of named suspects in the bombing of Pan Am 103 in 1988. Once Qaddafi surrendered the suspects, real negotiation ensued. It resulted in an agreement that ended (while opening up to international inspection) Libya’s unconventional weapons programs and confirmed the Libyan regime’s exit from international terrorism.

Then, after an internal insurrection broke out in Libya, the idea took root — first in Western European capitals, although Washington would go along — that the situation should be exploited to intervene on behalf of the rebels and to help overthrow the regime. Regime change supplanted negotiation.

Policy toward Syria has been a mixed bag all along. There has been lots of punishment, but without some of the isolation to which other regimes have been subjected; the United States kept diplomatic relations with Syria even after placing it on the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Once an internal revolt broke out in Syria, a situation similar to Libya arose, in that some outsiders (principally Gulf Arab states and Turkey) wanted to take advantage of the situation to topple the Assad regime. With Russian and Iranian help, and also for internal reasons, the regime has managed to hang on.

But “Assad must go” became a slogan elsewhere, and many in the West took regime change to be an objective. There was negotiation leading to the surrender and disposal of Syrian chemical weapons, but some, including in the United States, did not like that approach.

While there has been some backing away from the idea that Assad must go, others outside Syria say that still should be an objective. In short, there has been conflict and controversy, even within the United States let alone in any larger coalition, over just what the objective should be.

Iran has been subject to much punishment in the form of sanctions. Then after Hassan Rouhani’s election in 2013 there was real negotiation on an important issue. This led to the conclusion and implementation of a multilateral agreement that places limits on, and subjects to international scrutiny, Iran’s nuclear program.

A Balance Sheet

Before turning to a balance sheet regarding the results of these different approaches, some observations are in order about what has too often been overlooked with two of the approaches. The sustained use of punishment in the form of sanctions often has been accompanied by confusion about exactly what the objectives are — if that objective is to be anything besides punishment for punishment’s sake, which does not advance anyone’s interests.

An objective might be to make it directly harder for the targeted regime to do certain things, such as to procure advanced military technology. Or it might be to try to provoke an internal revolt, although this rarely works, for several reasons including where the blame for the pain usually falls.

Often the rationale for the sanctions is that it is an inducement to get the targeted regime to change its policies. But this does not work unless there is a positive alternative to the negative one of punishment and sanctions, and unless there is a firm expectation that the sanctions will end if the regime chooses a different, specific, identifiable course. And that is what has often been overlooked and missing.

This explains the years of failure of imposing sanctions on Iran without providing any positive alternative. If such an alternative had been offered, a nuclear agreement could have been reached years earlier, when Iran’s nuclear program was much smaller.

As for regime change, one needs to reflect first of all on just how irregular and extreme is the notion that if we don’t like someone else’s government, forcefully overthrowing it is to be considered as just another policy option. Such a notion is contrary to tenets of international law and international order than have been in effect since the Peace of Westphalia in the Seventeenth Century.

Also overlooked when regime change is turned to is how other people may have different ideas from our own about what rulers are legitimate and who should get their support — a factor in considering the status of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Overlooked all too often as well is what comes after the ruler we don’t like is gone. A simple faith that something better is bound to fall into place has led to the problems we have seen in spades in Iraq and Libya.

Now for the balance sheet. The results of regime change in Iraq have been too glaringly bad to need a full recounting. They include a civil war that has never ended and has claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands, has disrupted the Iraqi economy, and has created enormous flows of refugees and displaced persons. These include the birth of a major terrorist group that we now know as ISIS. And for those who don’t like to see Iranian influence anywhere, the war that toppled Saddam resulted in the single biggest increase in Iranian influence in the region in at least the last couple of decades.

Libya has seen prolonged chaos since the removal of Gaddafi. Contending governments based in different parts of the country have competed for power, with only tentative and fragile progress made recently toward a reconciliation. The economy, despite the oil resources, is in shambles. Instability has been exported from Libya in the form of both men and materiel, and ISIS established in Libya its biggest presence outside of Iraq and Syria.

In Syria, the closest thing to successes have come from the bits of negotiation and diplomacy that have come into play: those involving the Assad regime’s surrender of chemical weapons and some partial and temporary cease-fires. The war in Syria — the war itself, not any particular political outcome in Damascus — has been a major breeder of extremism and the threat of instability spilling over borders.

Actions against the regime have brought counteractions not only from external supporters of the regime but also internal players who see the alternatives as worse for them. Moreover, it would be difficult to escape a similar conclusion from the point of view of our own interests — that is, that the most feasible alternatives to the current Syrian regime would not be those hoped-for moderate forces the building up of which always seems to fill short, but instead radical extremists.

The brightest spot in this regional picture is found in the one place where the policy move by the United States, in cooperation with international partners, has been in the direction of negotiation. That involves Iran, and the big result so far has been the agreement to restrict Iran’s nuclear program, which certainly is one of the most significant steps in recent years on behalf of nuclear nonproliferation.

It is just one issue, but an important one. And lest we forget, it was the issue about which anti-Iran activists had for so long been crying most loudly. What comes later in dealings with the Iranian regime will depend in large part on the continued attempts of hardliners in more than one capital, but especially in Washington, to sabotage the nuclear agreement.

But at least there has been an unshackling of diplomacy in the Middle East in the sense of establishing, even in the absence of full diplomatic relations, something closer than before to a businesslike dialogue with one of the most significant states about issues of mutual concern (including countering ISIS, an issue on which U.S. and Iranian interests run parallel).

It should have been apparent, on an a priori basis alone, that overthrowing foreign government we don’t happen to like is not to be considered as just another foreign policy option, even for a superpower. And it should have been apparent that punishment for the sake of punishment doesn’t do anyone any good, beyond registering our dislikes.

When we take into account the actual record of results from the different approaches that have been taken toward regimes we choose to call rogue, these conclusions should be all the more obvious.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is author most recently of Why America Misunderstands the World. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)