Originally published on TeleSur English, November 7, 2014.
One of the fundamental principles behind “mainstream” media coverage and commentary on United States foreign policy is that the criminal and imperial nature of Washington’s actions abroad can never be acknowledged. Also beyond the parameters of acceptable reporting and opinion in that media is the real depth and degree of the monumental harm the US empire causes in other nations and regions (and for that matter, in the “homeland”). There is some limited room for admitting that tactical and strategic “mistakes” may have been made by US planners and operatives abroad. Still, these errors must always be discussed as part of Uncle Sam’s supposedly and always benevolent purpose and essence, with the terrible consequences and transgressions minimized and toned down. As the brilliant left critic Michael Parenti noted seven years ago:
“Be it the Vietnam War, the invasions of Grenada and Panama, the intervention against Nicaragua, the Gulf War massacre, and subsequent invasions of Afghanistan, US military undertakings are portrayed [by ruling US media] as arising from noble if sometimes misplaced intentions. The media’s view is much the same as the view from the State Department and the Pentagon. The horrendous devastation wreaked upon the presumed beneficiaries of US power generally is downplayed – as are the massive human rights violations perpetrated by US-supported forces…”
To see those richly ideological boundaries in operation in the nation’s supposedly “objective” and “value-free” mass media, it is best to examine the “leftmost” outposts of establishment opinion. As Noam Chomsky has been saying for decades, it is at the “liberal” New York Times, the Washington Post, MSNBC, and the “Public” Broadcasting System where the most relevant boundaries of acceptable debate are set, not at more reliably and stridently reactionary venues like FOX News or the Wall Street Journal, or other “conservative” organs like the Weekly Standard.
Last week’s “P”BS Frontline report (I am writing on the morning of Wednesday, October 29, 2014) on The Rise of ISIS is a textbook case study in the rigid nationalistic and imperial boundaries set at the (not-so) portside extremities of dominant US media. It’s a sharp and professional production. It contains a wealth of information and footage on the brutality of ISIS, the sectarian policies of the Maliki regime, the ethnic and regional politics fueling the Islamic State’s emergence in Iraq, the critical role of the Syrian crisis in the remarkable success of formerly marginal jihadist forces, and more. Frontline posed stern questions about the Obama Administration’s real or alleged failure to properly gage the potency of the ISIS threat. It spoke to numerous current and former top military and intelligence officials on White House miscalculations and other “mistakes,” putting Obama’s National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes on camera to repeatedly deny charges of strategic oversight.
Consistent also with my longstanding sense that the “P” in “PBS” should be said to stand for “Pentagon” and/or “Presidential” (there’s a case to made also for “Petroleum”), however, the Frontline production’s main accomplishment was to bypass the single most significant point about the phenomenon it purported to explain. Frontline couldn’t bring itself to remotely discuss the important extent to which the murderous and medievalist Islamic State is a natural outcome of US imperial assault very much on the model of the genocidal Khmer Rouge’s rise to power in Cambodia in the wake of Washington’s giant South Asian bombing campaign in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The analogy was recently developed by John Pilger on TeleSur English, “According to [Khmer Rouge leader] Pol Pot, his movement had consisted of ‘fewer than 5,000 poorly armed guerrillas uncertain about their strategy, tactics, loyalty and leaders.’ Once Nixon’s and Kissinger’s B52 bombers had gone to work,…the west’s ultimate demon could not believe his luck….The Americans ….levelled village after village, returning to bomb the rubble and corpses. The craters left monstrous necklaces of carnage, still visible from the air. The terror was unimaginable…. completed. Under [US] bombs, the Khmer Rouge grew to a formidable army of 200,000.”
“ISIS has a similar past and present. By most scholarly measure, Bush and Blair’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 led to the deaths of some 700,000 people — in a country that had no history of jihadism. The Kurds had done territorial and political deals; Sunni and Shia had class and sectarian differences, but they were at peace; intermarriage was common. Three years before the invasion, I drove the length of Iraq without fear. On the way I met people proud, above all, to be Iraqis, the heirs of a civilization that seemed, for them, a presence.”
“[George W.] Bush and [Tony] Blair blew all this to bits. Iraq is now a nest of jihadism. Al-Qaeda — like Pol Pot’s ‘jihadists’ — seized the opportunity provided by the onslaught of Shock and Awe and the civil war that followed. ‘Rebel’ Syria offered even greater rewards, with CIA and Gulf state ratlines of weapons, logistics and money running through Turkey. The arrival of foreign recruits was inevitable. …ISIS is the progeny of those in Washington and London who, in destroying Iraq as both a state and a society, conspired to commit an epic crime against humanity. Like Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, ISIS are the mutations of a western state terror dispensed by a venal imperial elite undeterred by the consequences of actions taken at great remove in distance and culture. Their culpability is unmentionable in “our” societies.
“Let me ask you this,” the US comedian George Carlin queried his audience in 2005, adding that “this is a moral question, not rhetorical, I’m looking for the answer: what is the moral difference between cuttin’ off one guy’s head, or two, or three, or five, or ten – and dropping a big bomb on a hospital and killing a whole bunch of sick kids?” Carlin’s question applies to the conduct of the US-funded Israel Defense Forces in Gaza this past summer. It is relevant also to savage US assaults on the Iraqi city of Fallujah in the spring and fall of 2004 – massive attacks that targeted hospitals and used radioactive ordnance that left “a toxic legacy…worse than Hiroshima” (UK journalist Patrick Cockburn), plaguing the city with an epidemic of child leukemia and birth defects. (Predominantly Sunni Fallujah is now under ISIS control, along with most of the rest of Iraq’s Anbar Province.)
Thanks to such operations, Washington turned Iraq into “a disaster zone on a catastrophic scale hard to match in recent memory” (Tom Engelhardt, Tom Dispatch.com, January 17, 2008). According to the respected journalist Nir Rosen, in December 2007, “Iraq has been killed…the American occupation has been more disastrous than that of the Mongols who sacked Baghdad in the thirteenth century” (Current History, December 2007).
The US destruction of Iraq predates the 2003 invasion, of course. After encouraging Saddam Hussein to invade Kuwait in late 1990, the US slaughtered thousands of surrendered Iraqi conscripts withdrawing from that country on “The Highway of Death” in late February of 1991. The Lebanese-American journalist Joyce Chediac, testified that, “U.S. planes trapped the long convoys by disabling vehicles in the front, and at the rear, and then pounded the resulting traffic jams for hours. ‘It was like shooting fish in a barrel,’ said one U.S. pilot. On the sixty miles of coastal highway, Iraqi military units sit in gruesome repose, scorched skeletons of vehicles and men alike, black and awful under the sun…it was simply a one-sided massacre of tens of thousands of people who had no ability to fight back or defend.”
This great testament to “Western civilization” and U.S. benevolence was the culmination of “Operation Desert Storm,” on which Obama has sought to model his anti-ISIS air war.
After the one-sided imperial slaughter of Iraqis that is known in U.S. History texts as “The First Persian Gulf War,” US “economic sanctions” killed at least half a million Iraqi children. That’s the number of dead Iraqi minors that CBS’s Leslie Stahl famously asked US Secretary of State Madeline Albright about on national television in 1996. The Madame Secretary did not dispute the appalling number. She said “we think the price [the giant juvenile death toll in Iraq] is worth it” (for the advance of inherently noble US foreign policy goals). “Mainstream” US media offered no judgment on that remarkable statement. As Albright explained three years later, “The United States is good. We try to do our best everywhere.”
While Obama claims to care that ISIS kills Muslims as well as Christians and others in the Middle East, it is simply beyond the pale for a “mainstream” US reporter or commentator to note that nobody has killed and maimed more ordinary Muslim people in Iraq than Uncle Sam. All told, the number of unnatural deaths caused by U.S. attacks and sanctions in Iraq since 1990 certainly exceeds two million and may go as high as 3.3 million (including 750,000 children).
The deadly havoc wreaked by “good” Uncle Sam in Iraq since at least 1990 (a fuller account would include a US-backed Iraq coup in 1963 and US backing of Iraq in a bloody war with Iran during the 1980s) is difficult to fathom. The U.S. has murdered Iraqis indiscriminately, treating “collaterally” killed Iraqis as nothing more than “bug-splat” – a candid elite U.S. military term for civilians expected to die in the US invasion of Iraq.
None of this ugly, quasi-genocidal history can receive the slightest bit of serious attention in reigning US media, even and indeed especially on so-called public media. US culpability and its consequences are unmentionable in the dominant communications institutions. The doctrinal rules of US “mainstream” reporting and commentary require that US crimes and their toll (including the rise of vicious outfits like the Khmer Rouge and ISIS) be thrown down George Orwell’s totalitarian “memory hole” even as they occur.
So what if doing so means that the news’ producers and consumers miss the biggest part of the story in question? That’s the point, actually. US Corporate war and entertainment media doesn’t exist to tell us the truth about contemporary tragedies and crimes. Its mission is to sell goods and services to people with money and to advance a view and record of the world and current events that matches the interests and perspectives of its owners, advertisers, and other reigning authorities.
“The United States is good. We try to do our best everywhere.” These are venerable incantations internalized by every “mainstream” US newscaster, reporter, editor, and commentator who wants to keep their careers alive. It’s an ancient occupational requirement in imperial media, where nothing ever changes.
“We should not accuse [‘mainstream’ media personnel] of doing a poor or sloppy job of reporting,” Parenti reminds us. “If anything, with great skill they skirt around the most important points of a story” so as to “avoid offending those who wield politico-economic power while giving every appearance of judicious moderation and balance. It is enough to take your breath away.” They are masters in the “fine art of evasion.”
That’s a perfect description of “P”BS Frontline’s Rise of ISIS special, which artfully treats Washington as at worst a well-intentioned but ill-informed, befuddled, and insufficiently aggressive and interventionist power in the Middle East. If anything, indeed, the US culpability indicated in Frontline’s account is about Washington (under Obama) not projecting enough force and control and thereby “losing Iraq” (as if Iraq is US property). Never mind that mass-homicidal US-imperial force projection and control is the leading cause of the murderous mess that Mesopotamia has become, making it fertile ground for medieval butchers like ISIS, itself funded by numerous US “partners” (including arch-reactionary Saudi Arabia).
The monumental historical omissions are more than just coincidentally consistent with the US military- and security- industrial complex’s commitment to endless war. They are darkly reminiscent of the totalitarian state maxim in Nineteen Eighty Four: “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.”
Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy