Handmaiden of the state: Role of media in the age of empire
Does the media have an obligation to tell the truth? In discussing my topic with Joe Varada – who was kind enough to ask me here to speak to you – this question immediately came up, and it set me off on a whole train of thought, helping clarify my own view of exactly what is happening in this country – and why I find it so frightening.
I have to start out by saying that the media as a truth-teller, as the guardian of the public interest, and even as a kind of teacher, is an old-fashioned idea of the sort that doesn’t get much traction these days. After all, with the rise of the Internet, and the concept of the self-informed reader who is quite capable of finding out the truth for himself – every American anautodidact! – this idea is charmingly quaint, even if somewhat patronizing. I think the most we can expect, these days, is that the media won’t lie to us.
But, then again, that may be expecting too much.
What is truth, what is a lie, what is fact, and what is supposition? These are the questions that I must deal with on a daily basis in my capacity as editorial director of Antiwar.com, and I can tell you it is far from easy. To take one recent example; this past Friday, a story from United Press International came out that claimed the U.S. government’s version of how and when Saddam Hussein was captured was not true. According to this report, a former U.S. Marine who took part in the operation said that the public version of Saddam’s capture was “fabricated.” Ex-Sgt. Nadim Abou Rabeh was cited as the source of the story, which originally ran in the Saudi daily al-Medina. According to this report, Mr. Rabeh claims that Saddam was caught on Dec. 12, 2003, a day before the official story has it. Not only that, but Rabeh – who claims to have been part of a 20-man unit charged with finding the Iraqi dictator – says:
“We found him in a modest home in a small village and not in a hole as announced. We captured him after fierce resistance during which a Marine of Sudanese origin was killed.”
According to UPI, Rabeh claims Saddam “fired at them from the window of a room on the second story,” but eventually surrendered when the Marines somehow convinced him that resistance was futile. The UPI story ends on a truly bizarre note, citing Rabeh as the source of the following quote:
“Later on, a military production team fabricated the film of Saddam’s capture in a hole, which was in fact a deserted well.”
Now this story is disturbing on several levels at once.
To begin with, the reader is left stunned by the implications of that last sentence: the military production team did what? Here is a vision straight out of Wag the Dog, a movie in which a fake war is created on film for purely political purposes – produced, in effect, by the governmental equivalent of Hollywood (a “military production team”).
It boggles the mind. Is life imitating art?
But that’s not all. Only slightly less disturbing than the possibility that this story could be true is the alternative explanation: that it isn’t true. Because then why is it being broadcast all over the world, picked up by Matt Drudge and several local television stations – and who is behind it? The day after this story came out, a weblog maintained by the World Editors’ Forum ran the following note from UPI’s Pamela Hess:
“I’m the UPI Pentagon correspondent. This is actually not a true story. It was written in a Saudi paper, and picked up by our Arabic-speaking desk in Lebanon. However, I’ve not been able to find any evidence that this guy exists, much less that he was in the Marine Corps. The story was not run by me before it was published, and we have since pointed out the errors in the piece. Any questions, please contact me.
Pamela Hess, UPI.”
Let’s stop, for a moment, and underscore the key phrase in that missive:
“This is actually not a true story.”
I am waiting for the journalistic division of the Consumer Protection Agency to come up with a new regulation mandating the inclusion of this warning label at the end of each news story that fails to meet a certain standard. But then again, such a warning label could well have been affixed to the vast majority of news stories about Saddam Hussein’s “weapons of mass destruction” that ran in the major media in the run-up to war. That’s what makes this story all too believable: the idea that the U.S. government would fabricate the story of Saddam’s capture to emphasize his cowardice and ultimate humiliation is not at all far-fetched. After all, they lied us into war – why wouldn’t they lie in order to secure the peace?
The story of how the U.S. government “cherry-picked” raw intelligence reports – and, perhaps, fabricated others – in order to make the case for the invasion and conquest of Iraq is a subject that could take up several hours, in part because the deception was so comprehensive: the U.S. government may have succeeded not only in fooling the American public, but also in fooling itself. I have little doubt that U.S. policymakers sincerely believed they would find these weapons of mass destruction when U.S. troops were in a position to conduct a systematic search. That they didn’t have direct evidence – beyond a number of documents that turned out to be forgeries, which we’ll get to in a minute – didn’t bother them in the least. Such old-fashioned concepts as evidence and objective reality have been dispensed with by our modern princes and policymakers.
This mentality – a key element of what I call the imperialistic personality – was on display in a piece by Ron Suskind in the New York Times magazine that reported a conversation he had with a top White House aide:
“The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.'”
The new way of thinking is the epistemological equivalent of the preemption doctrine in foreign policy. Just as the United States claims the right to attack a country before it is a credible threat to us – just on the basis of a suspicion – so our policymakers preemptively assumed that Saddam was guilty as charged. And because the moral crusade to impose democracy at gunpoint overrode all the usual methods employing physical evidence and other proofs to build a case, these assumptions led the U.S. government to come up with “talking points” that turned out to have only the most tenuous connection to the truth.
An entire sub-agency of the Pentagon, known as the Office of Special Plans, was engaged in the manufacture of these talking points – half-truths, and, yes, outright lies – all of which were packaged and disseminated at U.S. taxpayers’ expense.
To take just one example: aluminum tubes that were touted as definitive evidence of Iraq’s nuclear program were later discovered to be completely inadequate for those purposes. You’ll remember that in the months leading up to the war, there was a debate carried out in the media between pro- and anti-war factions of the U.S. intelligence community, with the former located in the top civilian ranks of the Pentagon and the latter concentrated in the Central Intelligence Agency. CIA agents, at that time, were cited as saying the Office of Special Plans went to the National Security Council with the aluminum tubes story, then leaked it to the New York Times. Both the president and then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice then cited this story as “proof” that Iraq was threatening its neighbors and had to be stopped. Voices from the scientific community – who said from the very beginning that the tubes were useless for the sinister purposes imputed by the administration – were drowned out in the storm of propaganda.
Also drowned out – by a chorus of jeers – was Scott Ritter, the former UN weapons inspector, who was smeared by the War Party as an agent of Saddam for saying, from the start, what U.S. and UN officials wound up officially concluding: that Iraq had destroyed its major weapons stockpiles right after the 1991 Gulf war.
As described by Jim Lobe in a series of articles on Antiwar.com, and also by Seymour Hersh at the New Yorker, Julian Borger of the Guardian, and Robert Dreyfuss and Jason Vest in Mother Jones, the Office of Special Plans was, as Lobe puts it, “part of a broader network of neoconservative ideologues and activists who worked with other Bush political appointees scattered around the national-security bureaucracy to move the country to war.”
The main thrust of this campaign – in addition to “proving” the existence of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction – was to make the connection between Iraq and al-Qaeda – thus justifying the president’s constant theme of “we’re fighting the enemy in Iraq so we don’t have to fight them in the streets of Chicago.” It was only after the invasion was a fait accomplithat we found out these alleged links were without any basis. The 9/11 commission contradicted this constantly reiterated theme of Iraqi responsibility for the worst terrorist attack in American history by bluntly stating there is “no credible evidence” that Saddam Hussein helped al-Qaeda target the United States.
The mysterious Ansar al-Islam group, supposedly a front for Iraqi intelligence, was said to have operated a terrorist training camp at which the 9/11 hijackings were rehearsed: the “camp,” however, was located in the midst of Kurdish-held territory, separated from the rest of Iraq by the no-fly-zone and territory controlled by the Kurdish peshmerga. When overrun by U.S. troops, the “weapons of mass destruction” located therein turned out to be rat poison and other commonly available substances: no deadly ricin, as previously advertised. And as a lesson in the efficient use of propaganda, we see that, now Saddam is safely shut away in an American jail, Ansar is being used as alleged proof of Iranian perfidy, and, as I pointed out in a column published last year, “has even undergone a name-change to suit the War Party’s convenience.” Kurdish officials are now telling us that
“Ansar’s members have reconstituted as a new group, Ansar al-Sunni, or have joined Zarqawi. U.S. officials have made the same claim. … ‘Iran continues its relationship with Ansar,’ [said one official]. ‘They are training them how to use explosive ordnance for terrorist attacks in the south of Iraq.'”
As I pointed out: “Just change the names and a few of the actors, but give your audience the same tired old formula fiction: that is what a hack will do every time.”
Where was the media while all this energetic lying was going on? They were hailing Colin Powell as having hit a “home run” when he devoted a thousand words of his speech to the UN to the Ansar al-Islam fairy tale. They were acting as a transmission belt for the Office of Special Plans, which fed “intelligence” gathered by Ahmed Chalabi‘s Iraqi National Congress to the New York Times. That ‘s how the tall tales told by Iraqi exiles with a vested interest in a U.S. invasion were passed off as fact. Times reporter Judith Miller passed on stories from several Iraqi “defectors” that later turned out to be completely bogus, including:
- The claims of one Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri, a civil engineer, who told American officials that biological and chemical weapons labs were located underneath Iraqi hospitals and hidden deep inside Saddam’s presidential palaces. These never turned up.
- A story about Nelja N. Maltseva, a former Soviet scientist who was supposed to have handed over an especially virulent strain of smallpox to Iraq’s military, failed to pan out when so sign of such a program was found in the wake of the invasion.
- A detailed story by Miller on the allegations of an anonymous informant – given the pseudonym of Ahmed al-Shemri – claimed Iraq possessed large quantities of VX in liquid and solid form. Miller reported his assertion that “All of Iraq is one large storage facility” for WMD deadly chemical agents. This one didn’t pan out, either.
- Way back in 1998, Miller was peddling the same bogus bill of goods, citing Khidhir Abdul Abas Hamza, an Iraqi nuclear scientist who defected in 1994. Hamza teamed up with Chalabi – and Miller – and it wasn’t too long before readers of the New York Times were being regaled with stories of a so-called “quick start” nuclear program kept hidden by Saddam, which would have enabled Iraq to develop and deploy nuclear weapons without too many preliminaries. Like all the other allegations, this one turned out to be without substance, as no such program has been uncovered to date.
Working in tandem with the Iraqi National Congress and its allies in the U.S. government, Miller did a lot to help plant the conventional wisdom about Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction.” The U.S. government and much of the American public were certain that these weapons existed, and that certitude eventually blossomed into war and a prolonged occupation – with over 1,500 Americans dead and as many as 100,000 Iraqis killed, most of them civilians.
One could make the case that this wasn’t a campaign of deliberate deception, that it was all a big mistake, and that the U.S. government fooled itself as well as the public, but that theory doesn’t hold too much water when we examine the curious case of the Niger uranium forgeries. In his 2003 State of the Union address, the president uttered 16 by-now-infamous words: “”The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”
Those words won’t be easily forgotten because they were the capstone of a deliberately misleading series of statements by prominent members of this administration that had gonewell over the top by the time Bush delivered his speech. Bush’s surprising announcement was based on documents that turned out to be crude forgeries. It took the International Atomic Energy Agency less than a day to figure out that these documents were completely bogus. Only a few minutes of Googling – that is, using the Google search engine – would have been enough to entirely debunk them, and yet – somehow – this “intelligence” made its way into the White House and into the president’s speech.
Who forged these documents – and, more interesting, from a legal and political point of view, how did they go unchecked until well after the president’s 2003 State of the Union speech?
The U.S. government is mighty interested in finding out the answer to this question: word has it that the prosecutors under U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald, assigned to look into the “outing” of Valerie Plame – a CIA agent, whose husband debunked the Niger uranium claim in a New York Times op-ed piece – has also been put onto this case: a grand jury investigation is currently underway. But you’d never know it from the mainstream media, which reported on every cock-and-bull story handed out by this administration, but which has so far failed to follow through by covering this particular investigation. We hear only hints of it, dropped here and there in news stories on the Plame investigation and other matters.
The English-speaking media were complicit in the campaign that dragged us into war in two ways: as in the case of Judith Miller, they repeated the “talking points” of U.S. government officials as if they were facts, but also by their silence, in what they didn’t report – such as the details of the Niger uranium forgeries, which were so crude and so obviously bogus that one wonders how they could have made it into the U.S. intelligence stream and landed on the president’s desk – except as some kind of covert operation carried out by those with a vested interest in getting the U.S. into a war.
The Iraq war is only the most obvious case of a U.S. government propaganda blitz that utilized the “free” press to validate and legitimize a not-so-hidden agenda. The coverage ofrecent events in Ukraine is another example of the same phenomenon.
The vast public relations effort that went into building up the so-called “Orange Revolution” as a paragon of the pro-Western, pro-democracy movement supposedly breaking out all over the world won’t be known for years, but we do know that a great deal of it was funded by U.S. tax dollars. As congressman Ron Paul (R-Texas), put it:
“We do not know exactly how many millions – or tens of millions – of dollars the United States government spent on the presidential election in Ukraine. We do know that much of that money was targeted to assist one particular candidate, and that through a series of cut-out non-governmental organizations (NGOs) – both American and Ukrainian – millions of dollars ended up in support of the presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko.”
Through such organizations as Freedom House, U.S. tax dollars were poured into Ukrainian NGOs, all of which were fervently pro-Yushchenko. As if out of nowhere, the facilities and resources for what amounted to a giant rock concert-style perpetual rally were set up in the middle of Kiev’s main square, complete with giant television screens, ostensibly by heretofore impoverished opposition groups mostly made up of students.
As in the case of the Iraq war, the American-led effort to promote the Orange Revolution came with a unique narrative, one that was reported uncritically by the mainstream media and repeated endlessly until it became incontrovertible fact. The storyline went something like this: the youthful “Orange revolutionaries,” led by the charismatic Yushchenko, were up against the old oligarchy left over from the days of Soviet domination. According to the conventional wisdom, Yushchenko’s opponent, Viktor Yanukovich, was a dark demonic figure, linked to Russia and Ukraine’s oligarchs based in the eastern part of the country. He was painted as a semi-criminal type, who served two jail terms on account of some small-time youthful indiscretions – apparently only slightly more rambunctious in nature than the shenanigans of George W. Bush’s misspent youth.
But Yushchenko’s indiscretions – which we never heard much about – were not confined to his youth, and involved many millions of dollars. These were never acknowledged by the candidate, nor were they so much as mentioned in most of the Western media. A youthful Yanukovich may have held up a Ukrainian gas station or two, but Yushchenko was a key figure in a conspiracy to defraud the West of over $600 million.
Far from being an outsider, Yushchenko has for years been a key figure in the system of “crony capitalism” that rose up in the ex-Soviet bloc nations after the fall of Communism. As head of the central bank in the 1990s and as prime minister under the corrupt regime of Leonard Kuchma, he presided over one of the worst financial scandals to plague his country: the falsification of the country’s credit ledger – essentially lying to the International Monetary Fund about the quantity of Ukrainian cash reserves. As the Financial Times reports:
“Under his control, the bank was involved in a damaging row with the International Monetary Fund over the use of IMF loans to falsify the country’s credit position – allowing some politicians, but not Mr. Yushchenko, to benefit personally. He survived the ensuing scandal.”
“By giving a misleading impression of the size of Ukraine’s reserves, the NBU’s reserve management practices may have allowed Ukraine to receive as many as three disbursements under the stand-by arrangement in effect at that time that it might not otherwise have been able to obtain. … The three disbursements in question that would have been affected by the transactions examined in the PwC report were based on October, November, and December 1997 figures. They total SDR 145 million (about US$200 million).”
What happened to all that money is that the oligarchs – former Communist officials who seized control of major industries in the wake of the phony “privatizations” that took place under their control – spirited it out of the country. According to Pavel Lazarenko – a former prime minister and a key figure in the oligarchy – $613 million of the IMF’s money was stolen and then laundered through Western banks in December of 1997. State funds stashed in Western bank accounts were siphoned off to buy up the old state-owned companies, handing over the Ukrainian infrastructure to a few well-placed individuals for a song. Aside from Lazarenko – convicted in a U.S. court last year of money laundering, fraud and extortion – one of the main beneficiaries of this spectacular act of grand larceny was Yulia Timoshenko, a patron of Lazarenko’s, who took control of the United Energy Systems of the Ukraine (UESU), and reaped fantastic profits. But, as an article in Alexander’s Gas & Oil Connections explains, far from being an exemplar of Western-style capitalism, Ms. Timoshenko and her fellow oligarchs
“Could realize these profits only with the help of state support. … The amount of money involved has been highlighted by the Lazarenko affair. According to a report by the Financial Times, Pavlo Lazarenko, who was Ukraine’s prime minister in 1996-97, received at least $72 mm in bribe money from gas importer UESU. In return, Lazarenko helped UESU to become one of Ukraine’s leading companies with an annual turnover of $10 billion.
“When Lazarenko was sacked as prime minister, his successor Valery Pustovoitenko started a comprehensive investigation into the business of UESU, which led to the first accusations. In December of 1998, Lazarenko was arrested in Switzerland on charges of money laundering. He fled to the United States, where he was again arrested and charged with the laundering of $ 114 mm received as bribe money during his time in office.
“This June, while still being held in the United States, Lazarenko was sentenced for money-laundering in Switzerland. Yulia Timoshenko, who was president of UESU when Lazarenko was prime minister, has so far avoided criminal prosecution. In 1997, she left the company and went into politics.”
It is no wonder that Lazarenko is now appealing to Yushchenko and his newly appointed prime minister – Timoshenko – to “clear” his name.
This brings us to another important sense in which the “Orange Revolution” narrative was and is profoundly misleading, and that is as it concerns the political character of these alleged “revolutionaries.” The official story is that these are pro-free-market types who want to bring Western-style liberalism to Ukraine and free up the post-Soviet social system that still carries the mark of the old Soviet influence. The reality is that the struggle in Ukraine pitted two factions of the oligarchy against each other, with their chief differences being over what attitude to take toward their Russian big brother. Caught between the rising power of the European Union and the NATO countries, on the one hand, and the consolidation of the Soviet remnants by Russian President Vladimir Putin, on the other, the country was being pulled in two directions – and, for a moment there, looked to be coming apart at the seams.
This was, then, a question of foreign policy, and was not about any significant differences in domestic ideology. The question was and is: will Ukraine turn toward the EU, join NATO, and threaten the Russians with NATO troops and armaments stationed just a few minutes from Moscow? Or would it maintain its traditional partnership with Russia and become, in effect, a part of the Russian-led commonwealth of former Soviet republics that Putin is fashioning in the East?
The elevation of Ms. Timoshenko, the most militantly anti-Russian element of the “Orange Revolution” coalition, to the office of prime minister signals trouble on the horizon. Timoshenko once vowed to bring her orange legions right to the gates of Moscow. With NATO troops pointed like a dagger at Putin’s throat, the new cold war that some neoconservatives – such as Anne Applebaum and the signers of the “letter of 100” addressed to President Putin – have recently proclaimed seems may well become a reality before we reach the end of Bush’s second term. It’s only a matter of time before we have the Russian president taking off his shoe and pounding it on the podium, Khrushchev-style. And our children will be conducting “duck and cover” drills in school.
The most dramatic aspect of the Yushchenko narrative employed by our policymakers was without a doubt the poisoning of the man who had become the symbol of the Ukrainian people’s democratic aspirations: a more symbolic (and soap opera-ish) development could hardly be imagined. But there were several problems with this story, as presented by U.S. government officials and their Ukrainian proxies, not the least of which was the tremendous pressure brought to bear on the clinic in which Yushchenko was treated to come up with the “right” diagnosis of what ailed him. While headlines blared, a medical clinic in Austria had tested Yushchenko, and the results – we were told – somehow “proved” he had been poisoned by his political enemies. But these news accounts omitted certain details. Only the European media gave any space to the testimony of Dr. Lothar Wicke, the former chief medical doctor of the Rudolfinerhaus medical clinic where the Ukrainian leader sought treatment. I say “former,” because Dr. Wicke was forced to resign “for reasons of health” after calling attention to certain discrepancies in the official story.
Dr. Wicke was unwise enough to point out, at a news conference held just after Yushchenko’s first visit to the Rudolfinerhaus clinic, that the headlines did not reflect the medical reality, and he accused certain individuals at the clinic of spreading “medically falsified diagnoses concerning the condition of Mr. Yushchenko.” He also remarked on the lack of any evidence – at that point – that Yushchenko had been poisoned, either deliberately or otherwise. The Yushchenko crowd muttered darkly, and soon made their move. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), a leading German newspaper, and reporter Emil Bobi, of the Austrian magazine Profil, both reported that Dr. Wicke received death threats from the Yushchenko clan. As the FAZ reports [Warning: if you’re going to click this link, you’d better be able to read German, and be prepared to pay]:
“Thereafter Yushchenko’s people made clear to Wicke that he should not say anything more concerning the affair, since otherwise [as Wicke puts it] ‘one would resort to other means against me and the hospital.’ Dr. Wicke is also supposed to have received death threats at the time.”
Le Figaro, a leading French daily, reported in its Dec. 10 issue the thuggish atmosphere hanging over Yushchenko’s visits to Rudolfinerhaus, describing the outbreak of violent scuffles at one October news conference involving “a strange security force with Slavic accents.” Austrian cops had to be sent to the clinic to secure Yushchenko’s medical files, andProfil reports they “practically came to blows with Yushchenko’s entourage.”
According to Le Figaro, Wicke says Yushchenko angrily berated him for “perhaps having made [Yushchenko] lose the presidential elections.” As I pointed out in my column of Dec. 15:
“The heat was on, and Dr. Wicke apparently began to wilt: after all, he explained to Le Figaro, ‘I have a child, you understand.’ An armed guard was assigned to protect Dr. Wicke by order of the Viennese authorities. But in the end, Wicke didn’t wilt: he refused to give in to demands that he retract his statements. Dr. Zimpfer’s response: ‘Dr. Yushchenko’s people will not be happy and will take other measures.’ Dr. Wicke, rather than face those ‘other measures,’ simply resigned. One can hardly blame him.”
As for what ails Viktor Yushchenko, and how he came to be poisoned, and by whom, the cloud of murk is hanging so heavily over this case that I fail to see how any real facts are going to be permitted to come out, or, if they do, when this will occur. What we know so far is that Yushchenko somehow managed to ingest a fair amount of the chemical dioxin – not exactly a favored instrument of death in the poisoner’s toolbox. Not a single person has ever died from dioxin poisoning, and it certainly seems an odd choice of toxins if the idea was to simply assassinate him. Poisoning Yushchenko just enough so that the pustulent stigmata would erupt on his face, it seems to me, would provoke sympathy for his cause, especially for a presidential candidate up against a regime not known for its gentleness with opponents. If the idea was to derail his candidacy and ensure the victory of the old guard, the dioxin-poisoning of Yushchenko makes no sense.
The attribution of the poisoning to the Ukrainian secret services, which were allied with their bosses in the old guard, was based on the story of the infamous dinner attended by Yushchenko at the intelligence chieftain’s house: immediately after that, or so the story goes, the candidate fell ill and had to be rushed to a hospital. But dioxin never acts that quickly: it takes a minimum of weeks, if not months, for the poison to have its effect. Yet Yushchenko broke out in an unsightly display of lesions and carbuncles soon afterward – which would logically have to mean that he ingested the dioxin well before that supposedly fateful dinner with his political enemies.
In any case, it speaks volumes that we have heard very little about the supposedly ongoing investigation into the poisoning, except for rumors and innuendo coming out of the victorious Yushchenko camp, none of it accompanied by a lick of hard evidence. Either the whole thing will be quietly dropped, or else a case against Moscow will be created out of whole cloth – and you can be sure that it will receive the same degree of critical scrutiny this story has gotten from day one – which is zero, zilch, nada.
The mainstream media ate this all up: it was too good a story to criticize or subject to any but the most perfunctory analysis. It was Good Guys versus Bad Guys – orange good, blue bad – and Yushchenko’s status as a martyr to democracy was never questioned, not even for a moment, at least in this country.
Does the media have an obligation to tell the truth? Well, not quite: since that assumes that we always know the truth, or can know the truth. But what it must refrain from is precisely what happened in the case of the events in Ukraine, in which it acted as a transmission belt for the official government-approved story line by withholding important information from the mix.
The motives of the U.S. government in this matter are clear enough: the worldwide push on behalf of pro-American “democratic” movements, aimed, at this instance, at Russia, which is said to be backsliding into authoritarianism, comes before any abstract devotion to the truth. But what about the motivation of those in the media – especially those who know better? What have they to gain from going along with this simplistic narrative of Good Guys versus Bad? I don’t have the answer to that question, I merely pose it – and point out that Ukraine is hardly the only place where this kind of willful gullibility has taken hold.
Recent events in Lebanon have replicated the Ukrainian template, not only on the ground in Beirut, where yet another color-coded “revolution” is unfolding, but also in the Anglo-American media’s response. Indeed, the parallels between what happened in Ukraine and the much-touted “Cedar Revolution” in Lebanon are striking: once more we have a perpetual rally-cum-rock-concert going on in the capital city of a country targeted for “regime change” – and the specter of a mysterious assassination, in which the symbol of Lebanon’s democratic hopes – Rafik Hariri, a businessman-turned-politician – was singled out by the forces of darkness (in this case, the democratically elected government of Lebanon, and the Syrian dictator Bashar Assad). Only this time, instead of poisoning him with a substance that merely led to facial deformation, they killed him outright.
Or so the story goes.
Like the Ukraine scenario, the Lebanon story line has two tracks: the assassination (or attempted assassination) of the leader, and the false characterization of the cause he is supposed to be leading. Let’s look at both, albeit briefly, and see what sort of “truth” we’re being spoon-fed by our government and our media (or do I repeat myself?).
Practically every newspaper and television station in the English-speaking world reported the assassination of Hariri in the same breath as they voiced suspicions that Syria was the culprit. Yet there was not a single iota of evidence to support the contention that Damascus was behind the death – and today, weeks later, there still isn’t. Indeed, all the evidence points elsewhere.
To begin with, the investigators have already concluded that the explosion that killed Hariri and several others was the result of a car bomb – that is, a suicide bomber, a method favored by terrorist groups, not state intelligence agencies. Lebanese authorities say the evidence proving it was a car bomb comes from images of the incident recorded by a security camera at a nearby bank.
And yet even before the dust of the blast had settled, the Lebanese opposition had already constructed an elaborate theory of what had happened – how it must have happened.According to them, a bomb had been planted underneath the street by means of a secret tunnel that ran from underneath the nearby St. George Hotel and Yacht Club. Since Syria is in control of everything that goes on in Lebanon, the reasoning is that Damascus could not have been ignorant of the preparations for the attack: they must have permitted it, if not directly facilitated it. Walid Jumblatt and his followers in the opposition have insisted on this theory, and demanded from the baffled owners of the St. George Hotel that they own up to the existence of the tunnel: the hotel owners, on the other hand, vehemently deny that any such secret tunnel exists, and point to the alleged maps of the tunnel as merely plans for one, which were never approved by the local government in Beirut – the maps were filed, but the underground structure was never built.
Such is the persistence of ideology over mere facts that the opposition will not give way on this point: the tunnel has to be there because they want it to be. Obviously, the owners of the St. George are members of what that White House aide called “the reality-based community.”
Another unfortunate turn of events in this case – unfortunate, that is, from the point of view of the “blame Syria first” crowd – is that the remains of the suicide bomber have been found and identified by DNA testing. He is Ahmed Tayseer Abu Adas, a 24-year-old Palestinian refugee who mysteriously disappeared around Jan. 15 and showed up in a video broadcast by al-Jazeera claiming responsibility for the murder of Hariri on behalf of a previously unknown outfit, the Group for Advocacy and Holy War in the Levant.
It’s interesting how the English-speaking outlets, and much of the rest of the world media, all discounted the existence of this video, and the claim of responsibility made by Abu Adas, as necessarily bogus – a distraction from the “real” killers, who had to be in the employ of the Syrians. Where a country that the U.S. has targeted for “regime change” is concerned, such old-fashioned concepts as evidence, logic, and a fair trial simply do not apply: in the kangaroo court of American (and British) public opinion, Syria was the designated culprit, and there just wasn’t going to be any argument about it.
The main problem with the simplistic good guys of the “Cedar Revolution” versus the bad guys of the Syrian-backed government scenario is that Lebanese politics is far more complex than that: indeed, with its Byzantine mosaic of ethnic, confessional, and political allegiances and rapidly shifting alliances, the Lebanese political scene is such a bewildering tangle of interest groups – all fighting each other tooth and nail since long before the nation of Lebanon was founded – that it could never be truly characterized as a two-sided Manichaean struggle of good against evil. Moral ambiguity and political complexity are built into the situation, and don’t easily conform to the formula fiction employed by Americanpropagandists.
In the case of Ukraine, there was also the question of a stolen election and the theme of a disfranchised majority cheated out of power by attempted election fraud. The chief evidence for this was the huge majorities run up by the pro-government forces in the eastern part of the country: majorities of 90-plus percent. But the opposition ran up similar marginsof victory in the western districts, and yet these were never thought to be due to cheating by the local authorities, who were just as pro-Yushchenko as the eastern localities were against him.
In any case, Lebanon is an entirely different problem for U.S. officials and their amen corner in the media, who started out trying to replicate this theme of the disenfranchised majority by playing up the anti-Syrian demonstrations for all they were worth and giving them the glamorous aura of the perpetual rock concerts that catapulted Yushchenko to power in Kiev.
This illusion of overwhelming numbers, and of the increasing isolation of the Lebanese government as well as the Syrians, was shattered when Hezbollah – the largest political party in Lebanon – answered the Cedar revolutionaries’ demand of “Syria out!” with a demonstration of their own. Half a million strong turned out in Beirut to tell the U.S., the Europeans, and the Israelis to stay out, and to thank their Syrian brothers for keeping order in the days of chaos that followed the Lebanese civil war.
Syria, I would remind you, was invited in by the Lebanese government as a result of the so-called Taif Agreement, in which Syria agreed to take on the tremendous responsibility of cleaning up the mess left by the Israeli invaders. Invaders, I might add, who had reduced Beirut to rubble, and whose support for their Lebanese sock puppets – the Christian Phalangists, who openly emulate fascist ideology and traditions – culminated in a heinous communal massacre of Palestinians at Sabra and Shatila.
A major reason for the widespread support enjoyed by Hezbollah – deemed by the U.S. and Israel to be a “terrorist” organization – is their success in driving the Israelis out of Lebanon and helping to maintain some kind of order in a chaotic part of the world. In an interview given to the BBC shortly after 9/11, the sainted Hariri himself defends Hezbollah under the rapid-fire interrogation of a very persistent British reporter, who insists that he must condemn Hezbollah, as well as al-Qaeda, as a “terrorist” outfit. But Hariri steadfastly refused, pointing out that Hezbollah is a legal political party within Lebanon, with representatives sitting in Parliament and a brace of social-service agencies tending to the needs of its Shi’ite Muslim constituency – which constitutes over 50 percent of the population. Hezbollah drove out the Israelis – and that, said Hariri, was a good thing.
This stance is entirely contrary to the declared aims and intentions of the U.S. government in Lebanon. In utilizing Hariri’s death to pursue its policy objectives in the region, Washington is playing a cynical game of power politics – with the ultimate aim of disarming and destroying Hezbollah and neutralizing if not toppling their Syrian and Iranian protectors and sponsors. The possibility of a UN “peacekeeping” force installed in Beirut, including not only French but American soldiers, is just now beginning to be broached – a form of foreign intervention that is not supposed to be on the same moral plane as the Syrian “occupation.”
Our guys are “peacekeepers,” you see, but the Syrians are “occupiers.”
Bush declares that no election can be held under conditions of fairness and freedom in the shadow of an occupying army: that’s why the Syrians have to be out by May, when Lebanon is scheduled to hold elections. But if we apply the same standard to occupied Iraq, then the recent elections held there – and touted by our president and his media minions as a triumph of the democratic will – were neither free nor fair.
One standard for the Americans, another standard for the Syrians – is this how we’re going to win “hearts and minds” in the Middle East?
Applied to Lebanon, the American-style white hats/black hats narrative makes no sense. Just to give you a sense of what we’re dealing with, here’s a short summary of the history of that nation’s civil war, from about 1983 or so, starting with the appointment of Michael Aoun, the commander of the army – and a Christian Phalangist leader – as prime minister by outgoing president Amine Geymayel.
This was an unconstitutional act on the part of Geymayel: the office of prime minister is reserved for a Muslim, according to the dictates of the “consociational” constitution. Aoun, from his seat of power in east Beirut, had the support of less than half the army, the Christian fascist party, the Israelis – and he also enjoyed the full backing of Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. A rival government was set up in west Beirut, with Selim al-Hoss as the prime minister, backed by Syria. As the online encyclopedia Wikipedia puts it in their account of Aoun’s career:
“Support from France and Iraq emboldened Aoun to declare war on Syria on March 14, 1989. Over the next few months, Aoun’s army and the Syrians exchanged artillery fire in Beirut until only 100,000 people remained from the original 1 million, the rest having fled. During this period, Aoun became critical of American support for Syria and moved closer to Iraq, accepting arms supplies from Saddam Hussein.”
The Taif accord, brokered by the Arab League in tandem with the U.S. and the other Western powers, inaugurated the Syrian “occupation” and put an end to the chaos in the region. General Aoun fled to France, where he continued to direct and inspire his Phalangist movement. Today, Aoun and his fellow Phalangists are hailed as “freedom fighters” by an administration that has forgotten its history – and hopes that everyone else has forgotten it, too. Except the Lebanese people haven’t forgotten: they know that yesterday’s good guys are today’s villains, and vice versa, according to the needs to the moment and the changing moods of the Americans.
Which leads us to ask: who do we think we’re fooling?
In these three examples of a manufactured – and contrafactual – narrative of white hats versus black hats – which always boils down to “pro-American” versus “anti-American” – the native people knew too much about the local peculiarities of the conflict to be entirely taken in. The Iraqis are cynical about the U.S. presence, and, according to polls – and their elected leaders – they want the Americans out sooner rather than later. In the case of the Ukrainians, while the majority are no doubt glad to see the old regime go, an even more overwhelming majority not limited to the western sections of the country no doubt have a healthy cynicism when it comes to politics and politicians – what else could result from decades of Soviet rule? As for Lebanon, we have just begin to see the popular rejection of Western propaganda in that massive display of power pulled off by Hezbollah the other day.
So we aren’t fooling the Iraqis, the peoples of the former Soviet republics, or the long-suffering citizens of Lebanon. The real object of this vast propaganda campaign isn’t the alleged foreign beneficiaries of our efforts to “liberate” the rest of the world – it’s our own population, right here at home, that is the real target of this massive propaganda campaign. The aim is to convince them that a foreign policy of global intervention is both just and practical– or, at least, to steel them to the inevitability of it.
Over 1,500 American soldiers killed in Iraq, and over 20,000 wounded – in many cases, horribly wounded – not to speak of over 100,000 dead Iraqis, most of them innocent civilians. Our government is involved in a long-term campaign to convince us that this is all worth it. Because if our foreign policy continues along the same path – intervention everywhere, in the same of an explicitly imperial policy of preemption – there are going to be a lot more casualties by the time we’re through. If we are ever through, that is.
And so alongside the gritty reality of mass murder and senseless destuction, the War Party has to construct a counternarrative, in effect an alternate reality of “good news” from the front, which is invisible to those of us who live in the “reality-based community,” but clear as day to those ideologues of global Democracy – who don’t even blink at the prospect of so many human sacrifices on the altar of the war god.
This is the key role played by the media – which once boasted of its duty to tell the “truth.” But the shameful reality is as far from that old-fashioned ideal as it is possible to get: instead of the guardian of truth, the English-speaking media is, in large part, the handmaiden of Empire – and that is a tragedy that will yet be our undoing.