Have you noticed the distressing pattern in the media these days? Hawkish voices are dominating the discussion of U.S. policy vis-a-vis Russia, Iran and Syria. As everyone who’s anybody gets ready for the inevitable Clinton administration, these experts are being given a platform that allows them to shout down both the Obama administration’s officials who are guiding our policy in Syria and also all the non-hawkish experts who disagree with them. And the greasiest part of this is, Some of these hawks are using that platform to audition for jobs under Clinton.
Syria is a problem that we can’t claim to solve. One thing we are sure of, though, is that the American people have a right to a wide-open discussion of that policy. Just 14 years after a similar chorus of no-doubters got the country into Iraq, shattering the Middle East, why is National Public Radio opening its doors to folks like Dennis Ross? Ross has gotten a microphone twice in the last two weeks.
In that vein, yesterday National Public Radio interviewed retired Admiral James Stavridis, who has been spoken of as a top foreign policy aide if Hillary Clinton becomes president, and Stavridis made the case for intervention in Syria with a lot of familiar talking points.
He and host David Greene agreed that President Obama’s policy in Syria had failed then lamented Russia’s use of an Iranian air base to conduct strikes in Syria. Stavridis described the Russians as bad actors across Eastern Europe, and deprecated the likelihood of a political solution in Syria, saying a solution would have to be imposed from the outside.
Dennis Ross is also surely auditioning for a role in the Clinton administration (and trying to live down the fact that in June he called on American Jews to be advocates for Israel, in what he thought was a private audience at a New York temple). His first appearance on NPR was August 6, when he explained to weekend host Scott Simon why he’d co-authored an op-ed in the Times calling for bombing Syria, regime change by another name:
I understand the fear [of getting into war]. There’s good reason for that. We have effectively been at war, in one way or the other, since 2001 in the Middle East, and none of those conflicts have come out very well . . . What I’m suggesting is think about how you use the threat of force as a lever to try to get a political process. Because right now, that political process isn’t working.
Then just a couple days ago, Ross got a callback from host Ari Shapiro, and he said the Russians don’t want a political solution.
[T]he Russians are focused right now not on attacking ISIS. They’re focused right now on carrying out strikes against the opposition, the Syrian opposition in the Aleppo area. If in fact the agreement with us is supposed to change what’s going on in Syria, reduce the level of violence in Syria and produce a political process in Syria, strengthening Assad’s hold, choking off the opposition in the Aleppo area is actually sending a signal that suggests that the Russians are more interested in cementing Assad’s hold than they are in reducing the level of violence in Syria . . . I don’t see how it can get us closer to that. Assad has produced so much blood in Syria that the idea that he would be the one who remains in power and you could put together some kind of political settlement in Syria I think is a complete illusion.
NPR is surely reflecting the establishment consensus, which anticipates a Clinton administration and seems to want a revival of the cold war. Former CIA chief Mike Morell, for instance, called for killing Russians in Syria even as he endorsed Clinton. Nicholas Kristof has repeatedly called for military intervention in Syria in the Times, and in his latest used the word “genocide” or “genocidal” seven times in one article.
We are not knowledgeable enough about Syria to confidently offer comprehensive solutions of our own, other than the anti-interventionist instinct that less violence is preferable to more violence and that Obama’s restraint has been wise. What concerns us is the unanimity of these predictably interventionist voices. It is also troubling that these experts, eager to ramp up the Clinton administration in waiting, are seeking to undermine Obama administration efforts to talk to the Russians and work out a deal in Syria. Every night on MSNBC, commentators say that Donald Trump or his aides are bought and paid for by the Russians. Do they really want to have dogfights between US and Russian warplanes over Damascus? That’s no answer.
Right on time, today NPR has another piece on Russia treating it as a fait accompli, but without offering any hard evidence, that Russia hacked the Democratic National Committee emails, in order to influence our election.
What might Russia hope to gain from influencing the American vote?
[Investigative journalist Andrei] Soldatov says President Vladimir Putin believes Clinton is a Russia-hater who was behind anti-government demonstrations that took place in Russia in 2011 and 2012.
American readers, and influential American ones at that, are being fed a line without any counter-narrative. And the pity is that a counter-narrative is available, from leftists, realists, and libertarians, but the mainstream media is indifferent as it warms the beds for Clintonite hawks.
Why isn’t the Times running pieces by Stephen F. Cohen, who is publishing at the Nation? He describes the “factional” war inside the administration over Syrian policy in an audio piece The Nation summarizes:
Factional politics were even clearer regarding Syria, where Obama had proposed military cooperation with Russia against the Islamic State — in effect, finally accepting Putin’s longstanding proposal — along with important agreements that would reduce the danger of nuclear war. The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post had reported strong factional opposition to both of Obama’s initiatives — in effect, a kind of détente with Russia — and both have been halted, though whether temporarily or permanently is unclear.
Cohen thinks we will soon know, because Putin needs a decision by Obama now as the crucial battle for Aleppo intensifies. Under his own pressure at home, Putin seems resolved to end the Islamic State’s occupation of Syria, Aleppo being a strategic site, without or with US cooperation, which he would prefer to have.
Cohen, a distinguished historian who is the top expert on Russia in the United States, goes further in saying that the New York Times is running a McCarthyite campaign against Trump-Putin, almost out of whole cloth:
[The Times is] discarding its own longstanding journalistic standards in the service of US policy in the new Cold War and now on behalf of the Clinton presidential campaign, which is trying to run against “Trump-Putin.” In the latter connection, the Times had already published what can only be viewed as a number of neo-McCarthyite articles against Trump and his associates, labeling them Putin’s “agents.”
Why doesn’t the mainstream also listen to Charles Glass, an accomplished journalist with decades of experience in the Middle East, who has reported on the ground from Syria in recent years? His recent, short, and valuable book, Syria Burning, makes a number of essential points, including arguing that the anti-Assad rebels may have been misled into turning to armed uprising in 2011 by the Western intervention in Libya.
The rebels calculated that, as in Libya, NATO would ensure their swift victory. The US decided that the regime was so unpopular that the rebels would overthrow it without NATO help. Both were wrong.
(At the time, we both [cautiously and not] supported the West’s intervention in Libya, but Glass’s argument about its impact in Syria is one more reminder about the danger of unintended consequences.)
Juan Cole offers a similar, realist analysis of why Russia is doing what it’s doing on his site; Russia and Iran are combining to take on ISIS in eastern Syria and to counter Israel’s saber-rattling.
From an Iranian point of view, closer military relations with the Russian Federation at this juncture have advantages. They are some protection from the belligerence toward Tehran of Binyamin Netanyahu’s far-right, expansionist Israeli government, and of the new and reckless Saudi government, which is bombing Yemen, supporting Salafi extremists in Syria, and rattling sabers at Iran.
Asked about the Russian basing, Ali Shamkhani, the head of Iran’s National Security Council, said that it was a matter of strategic cooperation against terrorism – given the importance of defeating ISIL.
A. Trevor Thrall at Cato Institute says that overall the Obama administration’s efforts have reflected a clear-headed reading of the situation. And not “Obama’s worst mistake,” as Kristof contends:
Kristof joins a bipartisan choir in accusing Obama of wrongly believing there is nothing the United States can do to make things better in Syria. Among his suggestions: implementing a no-fly zone, creating safe zones for civilians, and grounding the Syrian government’s air force. . .
On a practical level, American intervention would be dangerous on multiple levels. Thanks to Russia’s support for Assad, trying to enforce no-fly zones and humanitarian corridors would increase tensions with Russia and risk confrontation between U.S. and Russian aircraft. Beyond that the United States would need ground troops to manage humanitarian corridors and the safe movement of civilians, raising the likelihood of American casualties.
Dogfights over Damascus. And no end in sight.
Most fundamentally, the political interests of those engaged in the civil war far outweigh America’s humanitarian interests in Syria. Calling Syria ‘Obama’s mistake’ both misdirects moral responsibility for the conflict and obscures the fact that the combatants are far more motivated than the United States. Both the Assad regime and the rebels have suffered incredible losses; all sides are clearly in it for the long haul.
Against such motivation the United States can certainly bring overwhelming military force. But as we saw in Afghanistan and Iraq, military superiority does not always translate to peace and stability.
Christopher Preble and Emma Ashford of Cato attack Clinton’s interventionist ideas:
She continues to call for the creation of a “safe space” or no-fly zone inside Syria, a decision that could escalate into imposing regime change, as it did in Libya, or even bring U.S. forces into direct conflict with Russia. More broadly, she advocates more intervention around the world when the American people want to focus on problems closer to home.
Clinton’s approach — the idea that America must meddle in every global dispute — has already been tried and has proven costly, dangerous, and unnecessary.
These voices ought to be in the New York Times and on National Public Radio. We knock the establishment all the time on this site; and this pattern of inclusion and exclusion shows why we are right. “Too much of the media seems hot for turf & favor in an ever more plausible & unashamed American public-private state-steered press,” Walter Kirn says. With their keen sense for who is in and who is out, establishment media have unified around a group of leading experts who appear likely to have high position in a few months’ time. When they ought to reflect on the lessons of Iraq, and let some air into the room.
P.S. Ari Shapiro told listeners on NPR that Dennis Ross’s latest book is titled Doomed to Succeed, thereby leaving out the subtitle, “The U.S. Israel Relationship from Truman to Obama.” An omission similar to Scott Simon’s, when he left out the fact that Ross and his co-author of that Bomb Syria Now piece are fellows at a spinoff of the Israel lobby group, AIPAC — the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Here are the rules: It’s absolutely fine for the media to talk up Russia’s supposed influence in American politics. But no one can say a word about Israel’s demonstrable presence.