The mystifying ways of the Obama administration's foreign policy makers are matched by the mystifying failure of the nation's political class to pay attention to how our aberrant Middle East policies have given impetus to al-Qaeda/al-Nusra and other terrorist groups. The stark reality is that American policies over the past year have substantially strengthened al-Qaeda. Some of the Obama administration's actions in Syria have materially increased its operational capability.
This al-Qaeda is no different from the al-Qaeda of 9/11, of Osama bin-Laden, of the Global War On Terror. We have done the same for Ahrar al-Sham and the Army of Islam whose leaders laud bin-Laden, collaborate with al-Qaeda, and denounce the United States. Moreover, we have withdrawn the label of "terrorist organization" from all three in reference to the Syrian conflict. As to ISIL, we have turned a blind eye to the critical financial support it receives from Turkey and Saudi Arabia while pulling our punches in the air campaign that Obama has proclaimed as the key element in our strategy to eliminate them.
It is not unreasonable to suggest that these actions constitute "aiding and abetting" declared enemies of the United States. If a private American citizen were to engage in analogous activities, he would be prosecuted -- or, at least, placed on various "No 'X' lists. In fact, people have been imprisoned for lesser "crimes." These alleged crimes pale when placed alongside the nefarious consequences of what the Obama administration has done in enabling Al-Qaeda/al-Nusra and Assoc. in Syria and Yemen -- and in attenuating their campaign against ISIL. One could fairly say that this should be the story of the century -- despite its being sublimated by nearly the entire political class.
These actions of the Obama White House raise the most serious questions about the damage they are doing to American national security. Neither the President nor his senior officials have made any attempt to explain why they are following a course that puts us at risk while jeopardizing our influence and standing in the Middle East. Yet, this deeply troubling conduct evokes not a peep from the presidential candidates. There is not a single public figure of note who has fixed our attention on the anomaly of doing things that manifestly further al-Qaeda, ISIL, et al even as we beat our breasts in unison with calls for a redoubling of the "war on terror." Analysts at the richly funded think tanks have bought into the Obama narrative almost unanimously. Moreover, the media too remain mute. They obediently accept the White House's pinning the "moderate" label on al-Qaeda/al-Nusra et al. They denounce Putin for attacking those "moderates." They ignore the utter failure of Washington to confront the KSA, Qatar and Turkey for their support of those groups and for ISIL as well. They make only oblique mention of how our policies are turning parts of Yemen into bastions for AQAP and ISIL.
MSM journalists can be audacious in their contempt for the factual truth. Here is The New York Times' senior Washington correspondent David E. Sanger: "the administration has [..] been sharply critical of the Saudi intervention in Yemen." This is an outright falsehood -- diametrically opposite to reality. (Jan 5, 2016) In short, on these matters they behave more like the 'kept' press of some autocratic regime that the vaunted "Fourth Estate" in the American Republic.
Two questions. First, do members of the political class (politicians, editors, analysts) know so little about the Middle East, and about foreign policy-making in Washington, that they cannot be expected to interpret accurately the phenomena noted above? Second, do they consciously aim to keep themselves uninformed?
Undoubtedly, well-informed understanding of developments there and decisions here is thin. Certainly, it is far more superficial and partial that one might reasonably expect given the saliency of developments associated with the region over the past fifteen years. Let's bear in mind as well the so-called "information revolution" that places at our fingertips vast amounts of data and a rich array of ideas as to what is going on. We might further note that international affairs as an academic subject taught in universities attracts hundreds of thousands of undergraduates and graduates tens of thousands of majors, including PhDs. The yield from all that investment of time and resources is scant -- as evinced by what we hear, see and read in public discourse.
As far as the media are concerned, nowadays newspapers rely on a limited number of syndicated sources as bureaus are closed down without compensatory hiring of reporters who are prepared to exploit the great array of electronic sources theoretically available to them. So it is stories from AP, The New York Times and the Washington Post that service even local papers. It is there that we should search for answers to the question of how knowledgeable journalists, editors and op ed writers are. The results of any such investigation are discouraging.
The Times' reportage suffers from other kinds of liabilities. Not a single one of its several people who writes on the Middle East knows Arabic. (After 13 years, a couple of Afghans now report from Kabul). They evince a strong inclination to accept as given the credibility of official sources who have proven their dishonesty and untrustworthiness time after time. They almost never seek the opinion of experts who do not toe the line laid down by the Washington establishment. They also are obedient to editorial guidelines whose existence is manifest in the universal acceptance of distorted terms and twisted narratives that are repeated in editorials and news stories. The most glaring example, is the unqualified reference to al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham as "rebels," or "the opposition" or as "moderate" Islamists while studiously avoiding any use of the name al-Qaeda, their common roots in violent jihadist movements or that their ideologies are nearly identical. Editorial bias also is seen in the systematic underplaying (or outright denial) of certain discomforting realities. Hence, Russia's military role is virtually ignored.8 Turkey's full role in supporting both al-Nusra et al and ISIL has escaped their attention until this day. Only when Vladimir Putin shamed Obama with concrete photographic evidence of the massive oil commerce between ISIl and Turkey (prompting a one-day American air operation against time -- since stopped), did the topic break into print - however fleetingly. The crucial role of Saudi Arabia and the Gulfies in financing those jihadi groups has received only slightly more attention -- and never explored in depth.
In the pervasive contest between integrity and careerism, integrity routinely loses in contemporary American society. That common truth is so obvious that it hardly needs restatement. More important, it increasingly taken to be not only the norm but natural -- so that it goes largely unquestioned. It means keeping on the good side of officials who offer you access, occasional exclusives and the sense of self-esteem that comes with being "in-the-know" and in the inner sanctum of power. All of that means taking no risks and going with the flow of the prevailing consensus however illogical and out of sync with reality it is. Limiting themselves to a few, predictable sources makes a mockery of the notion that there is a surfeit of information in this "age of communication." Careerism, broadly conceived, has had equally pernicious effects on the think tanks and those who trail in their intellectual wake. Indeed, the effects make be properly judged as more pernicious since their very reason for being is to strive for understanding in an honest, transparent manner through the acquisition of factual knowledge and its rigorous analysis. By these standards, they clearly have fallen down on the job. Widespread acceptance of the Obama administration's contrived narrative of what is happening in the Middle East, of American actions, and of its dealings with supposedly allies who work at cross-purposes to America's declared aims speaks to an abdication of intellectual responsibility and a betrayal of their pledge to serve by telling truth to power. This is a harsh judgment. Sadly, the facts permit none other.
The simplest answer to our questions, at least insofar as the MSM are concerned, is to posit White House pressure on editors and journalists. This is an obscure realm, though, about which we have only fragmentary information. Those who bend to such pressure do not advertise it. Those who resist it are few. More independent persons, for their part, are less likely to be targeted. There are some things we do know that indicate that such pressured are exerted with considerable success in shaping news coverage.
For one thing, off-the-record briefings have become commonplace. They go beyond the traditional anonymous sourcing of an official to a privileged reporter that is a long-standing feature of Washington journalism. Today, these arrangements often carry the mutual understanding that the subject at hand will be treated in a manner sympathetic to the source.
This was the method by which the Bush people used The Washington Post and The New York Times and others to disseminate its lies and falsifications which were the foundation stones for its case in support of the Iraq invasion. The practice of taking direction from the White House remains widespread. Indeed, the Obama White House has refined methods for controlling the presentation of "news" through secret meetings with select groups of journalists. There, they are plied with scripted versions of administration policy in exchange for pledges not to reveal sources or even that such a meeting was attended. Published criticism of the received material will result in shunning. At times, the journalists are forced to agree in advance to give the officials involved an opportunity to review and to edit any quotations.
Television news is especially susceptible to pressures of this kind. There are credible reports from multiple sources that officials in the President's office, in the Intelligence agencies, in the Pentagon and in the State Department routinely communicate with news executives to complain about coverage or to persuade them to treat a story in a particular way -- or to ignore it altogether.
Political pressures have increased as politicos in power become more audacious in their efforts to control the flow of information -- and, more important, perceptions of reality. But we also must look at the other side of the exchange. Media figures, think tank prima donnas, and the commentariat generally have become more receptive to guidance from the powers-that-be.
Independence is less highly valued. Participating in the narrative somehow is now more gratifying than being an honest critic. Solidarity in the cause carried the weight of civic duty. What is "the cause?" The obvious answer is the "war on terror." Objectively speaking, the threat of Islamic terrorism is far eclipsed by the intensity and extent of our deeply troubled reaction to it -- at home as well as in the Middle East.
The United States nowadays is a society of false bravery. Things that happen to unexceptional nations are not supposed to happen to America -- an America born under a lucky star. For many, the Star of Bethlehem. When mishaps do happen, they sow disquiet, incomprehension and a search for scapegoats. The planets are out of alignment. That is frightening. Fear and dread are among the most unhelpful emotions for assaying truth. That has been evident in America's inability to cope with the implications of 9/11 and the ensuing 'war on terror.'
By nature, all societies prize their strength and competence; they dread hints of decline and its intimations of extinction. This is especially so in the United States where for many the individual and the collective are inseparable. Consequently, it is doubtful that we the public will ever know the full story of our equivocal policies toward al-Qaeda and ISIL -- the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. For we really do not want to know it.