|Number 563||October 2, 2014|
War. War. And more war. There are a million reasons why the United States perpetually pursues the path of war. This issue takes a close look at the war propaganda of the past couple of months, and the role played by the corporate media in building support for the latest counterproductive and criminal deployment of the world's most powerful military.
A superpower, like any other nation, will always justify its warmaking by invoking "self-defense" as the justification. The claim is more important in a nominal democracy, like the United States, than it is in an authoritarian state. Even a corrupted and money-driven "democracy" like the United States still presents the population with some options for directly affecting policy, after all, despite the fact those options are rarely exercised. Therefore, much energy goes into convincing the population to support the imperial project and its knee-jerk resorts to violence. The argument is always that it is self-defense: "We're protecting you!"
Being a superpower in a globalized economy, the U.S. can almost always claim to be defending its people—who are everywhere—or its "interests"—which are everywhere. And that's what we're seeing right now, as every high-ranking official from the President on down is telling us we have to defend ourselves against the "imminent" threat of somebody-or-other.
On September 10th the President attempted to justify sending the military back into Iraq because ISIL "poses a threat to... American citizens, personnel and facilities." What, exactly, those "citizens, personnel and facilities" are doing there we're never told. And why they don't just leave is another mystery question never answered, nor even posed by the media.
Ah, the media. All of the self-serving justifications for war would mean nothing if those claims were not endlessly and loudly amplified by a compliant media. This issue of Nygaard Notes takes a look at the latest propaganda crusade for war, war, and more war.
On September 18th, in a Page-14 story in the New York Times headlined "A Host of Possible Objections to Expanded Airstrikes," reporter Somini Sengupta listed a few of those objections:
"The White House has articulated no rationale for airstrikes on Syrian territory, nor has it sought a Security Council resolution to authorize going to war. Syria has not consented to strikes within its territory, and [UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon] has demurred on the question of whether a Security Council resolution authorizing them is necessary, saying only that he expects the 15-member body to take it up—and not without disagreement."
But here—Here!—is the "Quote" of the Week, wherein a "legal advisor" to the U.S. government complains about other governments being all hung up on the "obligation" to obey the law:
"Western diplomats here [at the United Nations] privately say that they confront a difficult dilemma over how to support American military action against the group's strongholds in Syria, while also obeying the law. 'Many European governments really are sticklers on international law rules on the use of force, particularly after the Iraq war,' said John B. Bellinger III, a former legal adviser in the Bush administration. 'This [i.e. bombing Syria] may look a lot more justifiable, but they nonetheless feel the obligation to have a legal basis.'"
That bit about "international law rules on the use of force" refers to the following, as spelled out in the legal blog IntLawGrrls: "Article 2(4) of the United Nations Charter bans states from using force against the territorial integrity and political independence of other states. The only legally recognized exceptions to this overall ban are instances where the Security Council authorizes the use of force or where the intervenor nation alleges self-defense pursuant to article 51 of the United Nations Charter."
As this entire issue of Nygaard Notes hopes to remind people, the United States has thus far produced no evidence that either Syria or any of the rebel forces in Syria justify a "self-defense" argument.
Example: Agent Smart to his enemy: "The entire New York City police force has this building surrounded." Enemy: "I don't believe you." Smart: "Would you believe... 100 police are waiting outside?" Enemy: "No." Smart: "How about Sgt. O'Malley and his hunting dog?" (Big laughs.)
The "Would you believe..." mentality is alive and well at the highest levels of government, as I think the following Timeline of Terror will illustrate.
Terror Timeline: Eight Key Dates
August 19: The Graphic Video from Syria
This was the date that the world saw a video that appeared to show the gruesome beheading of U.S. journalist James Foley by the Islamic State (IS, or ISIS, or ISIL). Exactly two weeks later journalist Steven Sotloff met a similar fate met, and two weeks after that it was British aid worker David Haines. Whether the journalists and the aid worker were actually beheaded or not (some suspect that the videos were staged), it seems clear that the intent on someone's part was to provoke a response from the United States. And so it has.
The day after the Foley video was released, a Pentagon briefing was held by U.S. Secretary of War Chuck Hagel and Army general Martin Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. Hagel said of ISIS that "They are an imminent threat to every interest we have, whether it's in Iraq or anywhere else." Standing beside Hagel, Dempsey told reporters that "It is possible to contain [ISIS]. They can be contained, but not in perpetuity. This is an organization that has an apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision which will eventually have to be defeated."
Note the use of the word "imminent;" that'll be important as we go along.
President Obama, in a prime-time televised address to the nation said that "ISIL poses a threat to the people of Iraq and Syria, and the broader Middle East—including American citizens, personnel and facilities. If left unchecked, these terrorists could pose a growing threat beyond that region, including to the United States." Said the President: "We will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy." What used to be called the Global War on Terror is now known as "a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy." Same thing, same prescription for eternal war.
The headline on the day following the President's Fear Speech was, "Struggling to Gauge Threat, Even as U.S. Prepares to Act." (In the halls of power, the word "Act" means "attack," as anything other than military force is seen by elites as "doing nothing.") I'll quote from the article extensively—Exhibits A through F—in order to show the depth of skepticism expressed by the Times. Recall that, given the position of the Times in the hierarchy of power, it is unlikely that it would express such skepticism unless there were significant disagreement among elites on the issue in question.
Exhibit A: "But as President Obama prepares to send the United States on what could be a yearslong military campaign against the militant group, American intelligence agencies have concluded that it poses no immediate threat to the United States. Some officials and terrorism experts believe that the actual danger posed by ISIS has been distorted in hours of television punditry and alarmist statements by politicians, and that there has been little substantive public debate about the unintended consequences of expanding American military action in the Middle East."
Exhibit B: "Daniel Benjamin, who served as the State Department's top counterterrorism adviser during Mr. Obama's first term, said the public discussion about the ISIS threat has been a 'farce,' with 'members of the cabinet and top military officers all over the place describing the threat in lurid terms that are not justified.'"
Exhibit C: "Some American officials warn of the potential danger of a prolonged military campaign in the Middle East, led by the United States, and say there are risks that escalating airstrikes could do the opposite of what they are intended to do and fan the threat of terrorism on American soil."
Exhibit D: "The concern is that jihadists with American or European passports will fight alongside ISIS or other terrorist groups in Syria, then return home trained to carry out an attack of their choosing. It is not clear that airstrikes against ISIS will, at least in the short term, diminish that threat."
Exhibit E: "If American airstrikes are seen as supporting the Iraqi government against the Sunnis, bombings could become ISIS recruiting tools."
Exhibit F: "'It's pretty clear that upping our involvement in Iraq and Syria makes it more likely that we will be targeted by the people we are attacking,' said Andrew Liepman, a former deputy director at the National Counterterrorism Center who is now a senior policy analyst at the RAND Corporation."
In every case above, the italics were added by Nygaard. Note that there's no quibbling here about the right of the United States to do whatever it wants. But this article reflects the fact that there's a split among the powerful about the wisdom of force, with many elites thinking the military approach is too risky, or won't work, or will backfire. In order to build consensus for war, the population needs to be terrified enough to unify officialdom around war. However, while the U.S. public is scared of ISIS, we're not terrified. Hmm... Better come up with something more frightening.
The Associated Press published a spectacular, if undocumented, report on something more frightening, under the headline: "Al-Qaida's Syrian Cell Alarms US." The article began, "While the Islamic State group is getting the most attention now, another band of extremists in Syria—a mix of hardened jihadis from Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria and Europe—poses a more direct and imminent threat to the United States, working with Yemeni bomb-makers to target U.S. aviation, American officials say. At the center is a cell known as the Khorasan group..."
Exhibit A: "The Khorasan militants did not go to Syria principally to fight the government of President Bashar Assad, U.S. officials say. Instead, they were sent by al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri to recruit Europeans and Americans whose passports allow them to board a U.S.-bound airliner with less scrutiny from security officials. In addition, according to classified U.S. intelligence assessments, the Khorasan militants have been working with bomb-makers from al-Qaida's Yemen affiliate to test new ways to slip explosives past airport security. The fear is that the Khorasan militants will provide these sophisticated explosives to their Western recruits who could sneak them onto U.S.-bound flights."
Exhibit B: "The Obama administration has said that the Islamic State group, the target of more than 150 U.S. airstrikes in recent weeks, does not pose an imminent threat to the continental U.S. The Khorasan group, which has not been subject to American military action, is considered the more immediate threat."
The headline above the online version of the CBS News story of September 18th was "Al Qaeda's Quiet Plan to Outdo ISIS and Hit U.S." And it started out, "The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) may be dominating the headlines and stealing attention with its prolific propaganda, but CBS News' Bob Orr reports, another group in Syria—one few have even heard of because information about it has been kept secret—is considered a more urgent concern. Sources tell CBS News that operatives and explosives experts from Osama bin Laden's old al Qaeda network may again present an immediate threat to the U.S. homeland."
One wonders: If it has been so secret, why is it suddenly not secret? Quite convenient for the warmongers, isn't it?
Headline: "U.S. Suspects More Direct Threats Beyond ISIS."
The "U.S." to which the Times refers here appears in the article to be "Some American officials and national security experts" and "American officials," and so on and so forth. That's what they mean by "U.S." The twelfth paragraph indicates that the Times is still skeptical—"It is difficult to assess the seriousness and scope of any terror plots that Khorasan, the Nusra Front or other groups in Syria might be planning," they report. But The Times is not skeptical enough to refuse to publish such unattributed fear-mongering. Or, rather, terror-mongering.
The article was about The Khorasan Group, with the Times pointing out that "The group's evolution from obscurity to infamy has been sudden: The first time President Obama publicly mentioned the group was on Tuesday, when he announced he had ordered an airstrike against it to disrupt what American officials said was a terror plot aimed at the West." And not just a plot, but an "imminent" plot. Listen: "Several of Mr. Obama's aides said Tuesday that the airstrikes against the Khorasan operatives were launched to thwart an 'imminent' terrorist attack, possibly using concealed explosives to blow up airplanes." Notice that it was only twelve days ago (see Exhibit B above) that ISIS "does not pose an imminent threat to the continental U.S." Now the threat—this time from Khorasan—is "imminent."
The Times is still skeptical, saying "But other American officials said that the plot was far from mature, and that there was no indication that Khorasan had settled on a time or location for the attack—or even on the exact method of carrying out the plot." The Times even admits that "The paucity of public information about the Khorasan Group makes it hard to draw firm conclusions about its ultimate goals." But who needs firm conclusions? This 1,200-word platform for administration hysteria was on the Times' front page!
And so it goes, with ever-new phantasms of terror being spotlighted, or perhaps invented, with the intent of instilling terror in the domestic population. If fear is the demagogue's good friend, then terror is the very best friend a demagogue can have. After all, fearful people can be counted on to accept things that would otherwise seem unnecessary or foolish. But fear is not enough to get people to accept dangerous or insane ideas; that requires terror. And spreading terror requires a compliant media. Bingo.
In the previous article I talked about the "Would you believe...?" routine. On the television satire Get Smart it was funny. But over the last couple of months the routine in the halls of power has been anything but funny. Here's how it's played out recently:
Powers that be: "ISIS is so dangerous we have to unleash the U.S. military!"
The difference is, instead of a punch line, the bombs began falling on Syria on September 23rd.
The question for the media is, at what point do justifications for war become believable and, thus, reportable? And when, in contrast, should the act of planting war propaganda itself become the story? Example Headline: "Administration Using Unverifiable Claims to Justify More War." But no. Despite the fact that the claims being used to once again justify sending U.S. bombers to attack a Muslim country are not believable, they nonetheless receive front-page coverage in the corporate media. Given that most wars are launched based in large part on lies—remember Iraq's "Weapons of Mass Destruction"?—the bar should be set pretty high for the media to publish what amount to justifications for yet another war. The following are two examples—one from the Associated Press and one from CBS News—that illustrate how low the bar has been set.
Terror-Mongering from The Associated Press
One way to check for propaganda is to notice the sources for a story. In the September 13th Associated Press story that was most people's introduction to the latest "imminent threat" to the U.S., The Khorasan Group, there were a total of 22 paragraphs. 19 of them mention one or more sources. Of those 19, only 3 sources (all official government sources) are named. Here's an list of the sources:
Paragraph #1: "American officials"
Another propaganda technique is the use of the passive voice, where some vague somebody is said to "believe" something, or a nameless "fear" is invoked, and so forth. Following the pattern, the AP reporter in this case did indeed utilize the passive voice, as in Paragraph #20, where an al Qaeda "master bomb-maker, Ibrahim al-Asiri, is believed to have built" something or other. Believed by whom? We aren't told. Or, Paragraph #4, when we are told that "The fear is that the Khorasan militants will" do something or other. Whose "fear" is this? We aren't told. And, Paragraph #7: The Khorasan Group's plotting with al-Qaida's Yemen affiliate shows that... the movement still can threaten the West." To whom does this "show" anything? We aren't told.
Terror-Mongering from CBS News
Our second example of anonymity and passive propaganda is a September 18th CBS News story—"Al Qaeda's Quiet Plan to Outdo ISIS and Hit U.S." This story included a number of mysterious "sources," as in "Sources tell CBS News," "Sources say," "Sources confirm," "Sources tell CBS News," and "Sources tell CBS News." "CIA chief John Brennan recently told [CBS News' Bob] Orr that U.S. officials were 'doing what we can.'"
This one may be my favorite: "In testimony Wednesday, the Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Matt Olsen—who warned that U.S. agencies are unable to effectively track Western jihadists inside Syria—seemed to make a vague reference to the threat." It's "vague," and he only "seemed to" make a reference... So let's report it!
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson was asked in a hearing "if there was anything about the threat he could reveal." His response: No, not really
And the passive voice again rears its head, as in the lead paragraph: "The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) may be dominating the headlines and stealing attention with its prolific propaganda, but CBS News' Bob Orr reports, another group in Syria—one few have even heard of because information about it has been kept secret—is considered a more urgent concern." Considered by whom? CBS adds, "Unlike ISIS, which is believed at present to be [something]..." Believed by whom? And how about this: "The fear is that U.S. and European passport holders could more easily smuggle explosives onto airplanes." Whose fear is this, exactly? No clue offered.
Here's the final paragraph, in which we are asked to forsake evidence in favor of a psychological assessment of "al Qaeda":
"At the moment, U.S. officials say there is no specific, credible threat to the homeland. But as information about Khorasan becomes available, it's clear that al Qaeda remains obsessed with bombs, airplanes, and attacking the United States."
I've already talked about the similarities between the U.S. propaganda dialogue and the satirical TV show from the Sixties, Get Smart. This final paragraph reminds me of an even older joke. This time it is Chico Marx, in the movie Duck Soup, who asked, "Who are you going to believe? Me? Or your own eyes?"
As the U.S. once again bombs various places in the Middle East, this time without authorization from either the U.S. Congress or any international body, the hope on the part of the warmakers is that the U.S. public will be sufficiently terrorized as to support Obama's "comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy," aka the Global War on Terror. The makers of propaganda, and the media that relies on them as sources, are hard at work trying to terrify as many voters as possible, so they'll support our continuing down the militaristic road. This road leads to security for no one, death for many, and a cycle of war that stretches as far into the future as the eye can see.