The job of journalism and the media is to educate and inform the populace. Unfortunately, that is not the purpose the U.S. mainstream media serves. On the contrary, the media seems to try to do its best to keep Americans stupid about matters such as U.S. foreign policy. Take the recent article from the New York Times, “U.S. Is Preparing for a Long Siege of Arab Unrest”, which offers questions such as the following:
The upheaval over an anti-Islam video has suddenly become Mr. Obama’s most serious foreign policy crisis of the election season, and a range of analysts say it presents questions about central tenets of his Middle East policy: Did he do enough during the Arab Spring to help the transition to democracy from autocracy? Has he drawn a hard enough line against Islamic extremists?
Helping Arabs to transition to democracy from autocracy? Is that what the Obama administration was doing when it backed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak until it became obvious that his regime was coming to an and, when even after Mubarak was ousted, the U.S. continued to support the very same military establishment that had ruled under Mubarak, of whom Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had these fine words to say: “I really consider President and Mrs. Mubarak to be friends of my family”? Is that what the administration was doing when it gave Saudi Arabia the green light to send in its military to help the Bahraini regime crush peaceful protest movements?
And drawing a hard line against Islamic extremists? Is that what it is called when the Obama administration decided to support armed rebels in Libya whose ranks included Islamic extremists, including al-Qaeda? Is that what it is called when the administration decided to support armed rebels in Syria whose ranks include Islamic extremists, including al-Qaeda?
By posing such questions, the Times is able to propagate simply as an assumption, purely as a matter of faith, that U.S. policy has been supportive of democratic efforts and in pursuance of the goal of combating Islamic extremism, even though these claims are prima facie absurd and cannot withstand the slightest scrutiny.
The Times offers few details to support its assumptions:
Caught off guard by cascading revolutions in the Middle East, he eventually supported rebels who overthrew Egypt’s longtime president and ordered airstrikes that helped bring down Colonel Qaddafi, who was later killed.
The use of the word “rebels” to describe peaceful protesters in Egypt is inappropriate. Furthermore, notice the euphemistic use of the adverb “eventually”, meaning “not until it was obvious that the local strongman the administration was backing would not be able to remain in power”. As for the armed rebels in Libya, notice the total absence of any context, such as the presence of extremists among their ranks, the fact that the U.S./NATO intervention served to prolong the conflict and escalate the violence, resulting in tens of thousands of deaths and a humanitarian crisis with hundreds of thousands of refugees, entire towns ethnically cleansed by the U.S.-backed rebel forces, who committed some of the worst massacres during the conflict, NATO bombs directly killing scores of civilians, the collapse of the country into lawlessness, flooding of the region with arms, destabilizing neighboring countries, etc. No, so far as the Times is concerned, all you need to know about U.S. policy in Libya was that it was part of the Obama administration’s efforts to support democracy and combat Islamic extremism.
This is the closest the Times comes to educating its readers about any of the above facts:
But his administration has struggled to find a balance between supporting democracy and guarding national interests in the region as authoritarian governments have been replaced by popular Islamist parties much less tied to Washington.
Translation: The Obama administration struggled to maintain the façade that the U.S. supports democracy abroad while backing regional autocrats who keep their populations under control with U.S.-supplied arms (e.g., $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt; the use of tear gas against peaceful protesters marked “Made in U.S.A.”, etc.), given in exchange for their obedience to Washington.
To the extent that the United States supports greater democracy, it may not defuse anti-American rage in a region with no real history of popular rule, and with deep economic troubles.
Translation: While U.S. officials give lip-service to democracy, its rhetoric is undermined by its support for regional autocrats facing popular uprisings against their rule.
His citing of Libya as a model of transition now looks suspect, and the United States has been powerless to stop a bloody crackdown in Syria.
Translation: Libya was a disaster, and now the U.S. is similarly acting to prolong and escalate the violence in Syria that may just as well result in more blowback for U.S. foreign policy decided upon by policymakers in Washington who never seem to learn anything from the mistakes of history.
Then there’s this rich gem:
In his weekly address on Saturday, Mr. Obama referred to American anxieties about the unrest. “I know the images on our televisions are disturbing,” he said. “But let us never forget that for every angry mob, there are millions who yearn for the freedom and dignity and hope that our flag represents.”
Is that why Egyptians stormed the U.S. embassy in Cairo and burned the U.S. flag? Because it represents freedom and dignity to them? This is just a reiteration of George W. Bush’s explanation for the 9/11 attacks that the U.S. was attacked because “They hate our freedoms.” Gosh, could it maybe be that they hate being oppressed by dictators backed by the U.S.? Could it possibly be that people don’t like having their countries invaded, occupied, and bombed?
The Times offers some insight into those questions in another article, reporting on Afghan security forces killing six service members of the U.S./NATO forces there, bringing the number of troops killed in such attacks this year up past 50, more than the 35 killed in such attacks last year. The Times suggests that the latest attack “offered a window to the increasing resentment that many Afghans feel toward the massive foreign military presence here.” Gee, ya think? But then the Times doesn’t bother getting to what lesson might be learned until the bottom half of the article, where it observes, “One factor driving Afghan resentment toward the coalition is the increasing number of civilian deaths after more than a decade of war”, noting that “the latest civilian deaths came before dawn on Sunday”, when, according to local residents, U.S./NATO forces killed nine women and wounded seven more in an airstrike. Turns out that people don’t like being bombed and their loved ones killed after all, apparently.
But observe further how these latest civilian deaths were reported, under the headline “6 Coalition Members Killed in Afghanistan”. So when American or allied soldiers get killed, it’s headline news. But when an even greater number of Afghan civilians get killed by American or allied forces, it receives no headline, but is rather buried into the second half of the article reporting on the deaths of coalition troops. The death of coalition troops is the most important news, while the death of Afghan civilians is treated as a side story, almost a footnote. No headline reading “7 Women Killed by NATO Airstrike in Afghanistan” with the side story being that these kinds of killings are resulting in our own allied Afghan forces turning on American soldiers.
And, of course, returning to our first article, when Obama suggests that people in the region are upset with the U.S. it is because they aren’t among those “who yearn for the freedom and dignity and hope that our flag represents”, the Times just uncritically parrots it and doesn’t bother to point out lessons learned from other articles, such as that they’re upset with the U.S. because the really don’t like being bombed and killed.
The Times cites defenders of the Obama administration:
As for the broader debate, Mr. Obama’s defenders argue that the legacy of American support for Arab autocrats complicated the situation. “Obama did his best, in a very difficult situation, to get the United States on the right side of history,” said Martin S. Indyk, a former ambassador to Israel in the Clinton administration. “But we had a good 40 years of U.S. policy backing regimes that the people in the street overthrew.”
Ah, yes, the old “change of course” doctrine (h/t Noam Chomsky). Sure, we made mistakes in the past, like backing dictators for many decades, but now were are changing our ways. Only not really, because we are still backing the same military establishment in Egypt, still backing the Bahraini regime, the Saudi regime, etc. What is meant here by saying that Obama “did his best” to get the U.S. “on the right side of history” is that he finally and meaninglessly called for an “orderly transition of power” from the Mubarak-led military establishment to a non-Mubarak-led military establishment only once it became obvious to everyone paying even the slightest attention that he would not be able to cling to power, only after Mubarak himself had announced that he would be stepping down.
The nature of the criticism of the administration offered is also revealing. The Times reports:
Mr. Romney characterizes Mr. Obama’s approach to the Arab Spring as naïve and apologetic, and his campaign has criticized the president as not being supportive enough of Israel.
Oh, okay, so Obama isn’t supportive enough of Israel’s criminal policies and oppression of the Palestinians, isn’t supportive enough of its violations of international law, from its illegal settlements to its collective punishment of the civilian population in Gaza, to its ’08-’09 massacre in Gaza, to its murder of eight Turkish and one American peace activists aboard a civilian vessel in international waters in May ’10, etc. Apparently, continuing the $3 billion plus in aid to Israel and promising that it would continue even if the illegal colonization of Palestinian land continued wasn’t enough. The quashing of the report of the U.N. fact-finding mission on the Gaza conflict recommending that the U.N. request the International Court of Justice to take up the matter was not enough. The vetoing of a completely uncontroversial U.N. resolution condemning Israel for its continued illegal settlement activity was not enough. The blaming the victims of Israel’s deadly attack on the flotilla and protecting it against international censure for the attack and its illegal blockade of Gaza wasn’t enough. No, the criticism of Obama is that he must do more to help Israel get away with its crimes and oppress the Palestinian people. And then all the talking heads can set in their chairs and ask each other, “Why is there this anti-American sentiment? I just can’t imagine? Can you?” And they can answer each other, “Well, Bob, it’s like Obama said, they obviously just hate the freedom and hope that America stands for.”
The only other criticism of Obama’s policies offered in the Times article came from Dick Cheney:
In recent days, Republican critics like former Vice President Dick Cheney have opened up a new line of attack by accusing Mr. Obama of not paying enough attention to intelligence briefings. Mr. Obama receives the briefing in writing every day, but does not always sit down for an oral presentation, as President George W. Bush did.
Ha! Dick Cheney lecturing a president about not paying attention to intelligence briefings? The known liar who touted nonexistent “intelligence” about Iraqi WMD in order to start a war? Hey, Dick, why didn’t you pay attention to the nation’s top nuclear experts on uranium-enrichment centrifuges at the Department of Energy, who assessed that Iraq’s aluminum tubes could not be used for that purpose, but were for a conventional rocket program, and whose assessment the State Departments intelligence bureau concurred with? Why didn’t you pay attention to the nation’s top experts on aerial drones at the Air Force who assessed that Iraq’s UAVs were not intended to deliver a payload of chemical or biological weapons, but for surveillance?
Hypocrisy and tangent aside, the point is that these are the limits of debate as the Times frames it. These are the limits of the criticisms directed against the Obama administration for its policies that have resulted in this latest turmoil across north Africa, the Middle East, and central and south Asia. So you have those who support Obama’s policy of supposedly supporting democracy and combating Islamic extremism, and then you have those who criticize him for not doing enough to oppress Arab populations or not paying enough attention to intelligence briefings. That’s it. That is the spectrum. That is the range of debate.
Then you’ve got commentary like that from Ross Douthat in his latest column. The unrest across the Arab/Muslim world isn’t about the anti-Islamic video, he correctly observes (his headline is “It’s Not About the Video”). Ah, so what, then, is it about? I read it three times trying to find the answer to that question. He never actually comes out and tells us, but the does drops a few hints:
What we are witnessing, instead, is mostly an exercise in old-fashioned power politics….
This has happened many times before, and Westerners should be used to it by now….
Today’s wave of violence, likewise, owes much more to a bloody-minded realpolitik than to the madness of crowds. As The Washington Post’s David Ignatius was among the first to point out, both the Egyptian and Libyan assaults look like premeditated challenges to those countries’ ruling parties by more extreme Islamist factions: Salafist parties in Egypt and pro-Qaeda groups in Libya. (The fact that both attacks were timed to the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks should have been the first clue that this was something other than a spontaneous reaction to an offensive video.)
The choice of American targets wasn’t incidental, obviously. The embassy and consulate attacks were “about us” in the sense that anti-Americanism remains a potent rallying point for popular discontent in the Islamic world.
Ah, so the United States is just the “McGuffin”, as they might say in the film world. The discontent and attacks on U.S. diplomatic outposts isn’t really about the U.S.—it certainly couldn’t have anything to do with U.S. foreign policy—that’s just the excuse people throughout the Arab/Muslim world to stir discontent to further their own aims, which really has absolutely nothing at all to do with the U.S.—and certainly nothing to do with its foreign policies.
Oh, the irony that Ross would mention 9/11 in his explanation, bringing us back once again to Bush’s explanation that the attacks occurred because “They hate our freedom”. It couldn’t have been for the reasons Osama bin Laden actually gave. It couldn’t have been because of our military presence on their soil. It couldn’t have been because of our support for Israeli crimes against the Palestinians. It couldn’t have been because of our war against the people of Iraq and sanctions that killed over a million, including half a million children, a “price” Secretary of State Madelleine Albright said was “worth it”. Naw, none of these policies could possibly have had anything to do with the 9/11 attacks, because it just goes without saying that the American flag is recognized as a symbol of freedom and peace and democracy and justice and any other lofty sounding words you want to throw in there.
Here is the message from our mainstream media: “Don’t pay any attention to what your government is doing to other people in other countries. Go back to what you were doing. Stay stupid, America.”