Members of the Baathist amen corner
Back in 1979, just having dropped out of the SWP after 11 years and resolving to put politics behind me, I found myself like an old Dalmatian responding to the sound of the firehouse bell. Where was the fire? It was in Central America.
Picking up the Village Voice on a weekly basis that year started out mostly as an exercise in finding out which novelist was breaking new ground but by 1980 I began turning first to Alexander Cockburn’s Press Clips column for its debunking of articles by pro-Reagan NY Times reporters like Stephen Kinzer.
I also began to rely heavily on the investigative journalism of Seymour Hersh and others who had made their reputation reporting about Vietnam. When he broke the story of the My Lai massacre, antiwar activists like myself were relieved that our work became a lot easier because of the horrors he revealed.
The role of investigative journalists in that period was inextricably linked to the Cold War. While most of us from either a Trotskyist or New Left background felt little identification with the Kremlin, our main focus was on Washington and its imperialist designs on El Salvador, Angola, and other places that fit neatly into the USSR versus USA scheme of things. There were some who went so far as to back Soviet intervention even when it was problematic at best. For example, both the Spartacist League and Alexander Cockburn supported the Soviet military in Afghanistan.
Fast forwarding to 2016, we find a most curious realignment. Stephen Kinzer, who wrote filthy propaganda about how the Sandinistas were responsible for a toy shortage in Nicaragua, is now one of Bashar al-Assad’s top propagandists in the USA while Seymour Hersh writes articles accusing the Syrian rebels for carrying out a My Lai-like massacre in East Ghouta just to provoke an American intervention.
When you have a convergence between one of the early 1980s top journalistic villains and heroes, something very odd is going on. I would suggest that it can be explained by the Spartacist/Cockburn line on Afghanistan except that it is being advanced on behalf of a Russia that has no connection to the Cold War except for those on the left for whom time stood still. Maybe because Putin was in the CP once upon a time, this means that he should be given critical support. Who knows?
After five years of Baathist state terrorism, the failure of the heroes of the 1980s, including Noam Chomsky who swears by Patrick Cockburn, is unprecedented. You would have to go back to the Moscow Trials, when the Nation Magazine and the NY Times were defending Stalin, to see such a failure of both intellect and ethics.
If you monitor the left press both online and in print for the Baathist amen corner’s latest output, you can feel swamped. I suppose I am a bit of a masochist to wade through this material but maybe it is the lasting influence of Alexander Cockburn’s Press Clips column that keeps me at it. If only he could have been willing to see the Kremlin with as much alacrity as he saw Washington and wrote on that basis, the Syrians would have far more friends on the left than enemies today.
Speaking of enemies, three articles appeared on my radar screen recently that epitomize the treachery of the left on Syria. Two of them appear on Consortium News, a website launched by Robert Parry in 1995. Parry was a hero in the 1980s, exposing the Nicaraguan contra cocaine traffic in the USA. Now his website is devoted to spewing lies about Syria even if most of the reporting on American subversion in places like Brazil or Venezuela is reliable.
The other article appeared on Truthout, a website that like Consortium is generally reliable except on Syria. I have it bookmarked and check it every day for items that are well-researched and well-written but when it comes to Syria, all bets are off.
On March 31, an article by Daniel Lazare titled “How US-Backed War on Syria Helped ISIS” appeared on Consortium. Lazare was a member of the Workers League in the early 70s (the predecessor to WSWS.org) and obviously retains some of its ideological baggage. I say that as someone who was a great admirer of Lazare for a number of years. I just checked the Marxmail archives and discovered my crossposting of a number of his articles.
The article takes issue with the report that the Syrian army allowed ISIS to take over Palmyra, the city that it has retaken with an intense Russian air attack. Consistent with the belief that outside powers have the right to bomb Syria with impunity, Lazare faults the USA for not joining Russia in its air attack on the jihadists: “So the U.S. and its allies helped Islamic State by tying down Assad’s forces in the north so that it could punch through in the center. But that’s not all the U.S. did. It also helped by suspending bombing as the Islamic State neared Palmyra.” He adds, “The U.S. thus incentivized ISIS to press forward” because it had not bombed ISIS forces “while they were traversing miles of open desert roads” as the NY Times put it. Apparently Lazare would have liked to see the USA engaging in the same kind of turkey shoot that its bombers engaged in as Saddam’s defeated army was straggling home to Iraq back in 1991.
It is so bizarre to see an anti-imperialist like Lazare get worked up over the USA being insufficiently bellicose in Syria. Apparently, when it comes to bombing ISIS, imperialism can play a progressive role.
Turning to the immigrant crisis in Europe, Lazare writes:
But as much everyone would like to blame it all on Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen and others of that ilk, none of this is really their fault. To the contrary, the West’s disastrous Syria policy is entirely the creation of nice-guy liberals like Barack Obama. Desperate to appease both Israel and the Sunni oil sheiks, all of whom for various reasons wanted Assad to go, he signed on to a massive Sunni jihad that has turned Syria into a charnel house.
With death estimates now running as high as 470,000, which is to say one person in nine [the idea that Syria had a population of less than five million is as big a joke of everything else in Lazare’s article], the idea that massive violence like this could remain confined to a single country was absurd to begin with. Yet Obama went along regardless.
Like everybody else in the Baathist amen corner, Lazare’s circumlocution on the Syrian bloodbath refuses to put the blame on Bashar al-Assad. The Independent, a newspaper that features the pro-Assad columns of Robert Fisk and Patrick Cockburn and that can not possibly be mistaken for the Washington Post or the NY Times, reported on October 7, 2015 that Assad has killed seven times as many civilians as ISIS so if Lazare is upset over Syria turning into a charnel house, he might want to direct his polemical ire against the man whose cause he has so squalidly taken up.
On April 20, another rotten Consortium article cropped up, this time by Jonathan Marshall who like Parry had a distinguished investigative journalism career before his brain turned to rot over Syria. He wrote a book on the drug trade in Lebanon that was published by Stanford University Press, a prestigious academic press. But his article “How The New Yorker Mis-Reports Syria” is a sleazy bid to bolster a blood-soaked dictatorship that has the same relationship to Assad that Christopher Hitchens had to the Shiite sectarian regime that George W. Bush installed in Iraq: blatantly apologetic.
Adopting a herculean task, Marshall attempts to defend Bashar al-Assad’s March 30, 2011 speech that states:
And I am sure you all know that Syria is facing a great conspiracy whose tentacles extend to some nearby countries and far-away countries, with some inside the country. This conspiracy depends, in its timing not in its form, on what is happening in other Arab countries.
While there is ample evidence that the USA had supported anti-Baathist forces inside Syria during the Bush administration, Marshall has little to say about the policy of the Obama White House. As has been graphically illustrated in the Jeffrey Goldberg article based on interviews with Obama, there was a rejection of “regime change” after he took office.
Furthermore, despite citing a Wikileaks cable that pointed to anti-Baathist efforts prior to Obama’s presidency, Marshall failed to refer to one that highlighted relations between Syria and Saudi Arabia, its supposed arch-enemy once he took office. This was dated October 1, 2009 when supposedly the USA was preparing a proxy war on Syria, with Saudi Arabia as its most reliable ally:
Thu Oct 01 00:00:00 +0200 2009
Syrian President Bashar Al-Asad’s unexpected attendance at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) opening, and his lengthy meeting with King Abdullah on the margins, has encouraged speculation about further Saudi-Syrian rapprochement and its potential regional implications. Post contacts describe media reports of the meeting as largely accurate, noting that Lebanese government formation, Palestinian reconciliation, and Asad’s invitation to King Abdullah to visit Damascus dominated the agenda.
The cable is borne out by a NY Times article titled “With Isolation Over, Syria Is Happy to Talk” dated March 26, 2009. It is the kind of article that people such as Jonathan Marshall deftly sidestep.
Only a year ago, this country’s government was being vilified as a dangerous pariah. The United States and its Arab allies mounted a vigorous campaign to isolate Syria, which they accused of sowing chaos and violence throughout the region through its support for militant groups like Hezbollah and Hamas.
Today, Syria seems to be coming in from the cold. A flurry of diplomatic openings with the West and Arab neighbors has raised hopes of a chastened and newly flexible Syrian leadership that could help stabilize the region. But Syria has its own priorities, and a series of upheavals here — including Israel’s recent war in Gaza — make it difficult to say where this new dialogue will lead.
It is not just a matter of the Obama administration’s new policy of engagement. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France led the way with a visit here last September. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who was said to be furious at the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, welcomed him warmly in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, this month. Photographs of the two men smiling and shaking hands have been on the front pages of all the major Arab newspapers, along with frequent headlines about the “Arab reconciliation.”
You can read a slew of articles like this between 2009 and 2010. They coincide with the now suppressed Vogue puff piece on the reformer Bashar al-Assad and his glamorous wife. It was only when the Syrian people had the impudence to demand social justice and an end to repression that “the conspiracy” was revealed. Apparently when people began protesting peacefully in the streets of Syria, it was all a plot to remove a wise and benign president who had after all received 99 percent of the votes in the last election.
To bolster his case that Assad was not all that bad, Marshall cites Joshua Landis who retweeted the reference. Landis wrote just after Assad gave the March 30, 2011 speech that “For those who continue to believe in the possibility of reform and not regime-change, this speech was reassuring.” Mind you, this is the same Joshua Landis who wrote in a 2005 NY Times op-ed: “For Mr. Assad to help the United States, he must have sufficient backing from Washington to put greater restrictions and pressure on the Sunni majority.”
It is utterly beyond the purview of someone like Jonathan Marshall to cite an Arab leftist such as Bassam Haddad. The Baathist amen corner consists almost exclusively of Western commentators whose Orientalism is palpable.
Turning to the final entry in the rogue’s gallery, there is a very long article in Truthout by John Hanrahan titled “As in Libya, Avaaz Campaigned for Syria No-Fly Zone That Even Top Generals Opposed” that is directed against a campaign mounted by a group launched by Moveon.org in 2007. I personally have problems with no-fly zones but recognize that it is understandable why people being bombed mercilessly might ask for help wherever they can get it, even if the USA never had any attention to implement one as was indicated in the Jeffrey Goldberg article. In fact, if there was simply an across-the-board non-intervention policy by the USA, Assad would have been overthrown long ago. When the USA intervened to block the shipment of MANPAD’s into Syria early on, it meant that the Syrian air force would have free reign.
After 3500 words on Avaaz’s past campaigns, Hanrahan follows the same path as many pro-Assad “investigative reporters”, both professional and amateur, have trod. In a section titled “Avaaz Has Long Favored No-Fly Zone in Syria, Based in Part on the Dodgy Sarin Gas Story”, he cites arch-propagandist Robert Parry of the abovementioned Consortium and an outfit called Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) that was founded by ex-CIA agent Ray McGovern. I dealt with the VIPS report not long after the sarin gas attack:
The sources for VIPS’ [a group led by Ray McGovern] most sensational claims, it turns out, are Canadian eccentric Michel Chossudovsky’s conspiracy site Global Research and far-right shock-jock Alex Jones’s Infowars. The specific article that Giraldi references carries the intriguing headline “Did the White House Help Plan the Syrian Chemical Attack?” (His answer, in case you wondered, is yes.) The author is one Yossef Bodansky—an Israeli-American supporter of Assad’s uncle Rifaat, who led the 1982 massacre in Hama. Bodansky’s theory was widely circulated after an endorsement from Rush Limbaugh. A whole paragraph from Bodansky’s article makes it into the VIPS letter intact, with only a flourish added at the end.
That’s some kind of investigative journalism going on there, just the kind of thing they probably teach to RT.com reporters before they start their job.
Hanrahan also cites Charles Glass, another charter member of the Baathist amen corner, as well as Adam Johnson, FAIR’s resident Assadist, and Patrick Cockburn who is definitely for a no-fly zone but only for the Kurds. All these people plagiarize each other, making the same bogus arguments based on faulty data over and over and over again. If they are supposed to be telling the truth about Syria, god help us.
Like Parry, Hersh, Cockburn, Salon’s Patrick L. Smith, Charles Glass, Kinzer and other Baathist fan boys, John Hanrahan has been a reporter for the bourgeois press—in his case the Washington Post. Whatever they learned in journalism school obviously gave them the skills they need to turn out bullshit in the “alternative” media.
Hanrahan’s credits are listed beneath the article, including this: “He has written extensively for NiemanWatchdog.org, a project of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University.” Among its fellows has been Dexter Filkins, Hodding Carter, and Anthony Lewis. So the sleazy Ivy League school knew what they were doing when they lined up Hanrahan to write for them.
Probably the most depressing thing about Hanrahan is his involvement with ExposeFacts, a website that includes Barbara Ehrenreich on its editorial board. Does she have an idea of the crap that is coming out in the name of a website she is associated with? My guess, probably not. I had a momentary urge to see what she has written about Syria but did not want to feel any more disgusted than I am right now.