New York Times war correspondent C.J. Chivers isn’t covering the War in Syria in the same way that he covered the War in Afghanistan. He is still writing fascinating accounts of the weapons and munitions improvised by Sunni Islamists. However now the words he uses to identify those Sunni Islamists are strikingly different.
Consider a May 20, 2009 article, “Arms Sent by U.S. May Be Ending Up in Taliban Hands,” in which Chivers details the evidence that ammunition given by the U.S. military to the Afghan military ended up in the hands of the enemy. Who are the enemy? Although he labels their equipment as “Taliban,” the combatants themselves are identified as “insurgents” 13 times. Indeed, “insurgents” is the first word in the piece. Then in an October 27, 2011 article, “Mao’s Rocket’s and the Eastern Afghan Border War, Part II,” Chivers identifies Sunni Islamists attacking American bases in Afghanistan with rockets as “guerrillas” 5 times, as “insurgents” 3 times, and as “jihadists” twice.
Compare those labels with the way Sunni Islamists are identified in the recent news stories Chivers has written about Syria. An August 20, 2012 article, “Life With Syria’s Rebels in an Cold and Cunning War,” describes operations by Sunni Islamists that includes an attack with a truck bomb. Who are they? He identifies them as “fighters” twice and once each as “men,” “armed men,” and “armed rebels.” An August 29, 2012 article, “Many Hands Patch Together Rebel Arsenal,” appearing above the fold, describes them as “rebels” 7 times and as “fighters” 3 times. He does not describe them as “insurgents” and most definitely not as “jihadists.” The closest that Chivers dares approach drawing the forbidden parallel is in writing that their weapons “resemble those seen in the insurgencies fought against Western forces by Iraqis, or against Israelis by Palestinians.” Apparently it is the responsibility of the reader to recall that said Iraqis and Palestinians were also Sunni Islamists.
Let’s recap. Sunni Islamists using improvised weapons and munitions to attack the government of Afghanistan are “insurgents,” “guerrillas” or “jihadists,” while the Sunni Islamists using improvised weapons and munitions to attack the government of Syria are “rebels” or “fighters.” Mind you Chivers is hardly alone in consistently assigning labels with different connotations to the same violent fanatics in one ongoing war than in another. Reporters for NPR, Fox News and everything in between appear to be obeying that same labeling norm, although few seem quite as fixated on things that go boom.
Although it is tempting to condemn reporters for using patently loaded language, it is important to remember that they work for U.S. news organizations busy competing with one another to produce news that is patriotic, at least in the dumbed down sense of that sentiment: support for U.S. foreign policy when it on the warpath. We could condemn U.S. news organizations for abandoning journalistic neutrality but we would benefit more by asking how it is that we arrived at this rather schizophrenic moment in U.S. foreign policy? How is it that we find ourselves defending the government of Afghanistan from Sunni Islamists but supporting them against the government of Syria?
Part of the answer is that geopolitics makes for strange bedfellows. Saudi Arabia and the other Arab monarchies are financing the Sunni Islamist movements across the region. Overthrowing the Baathist or secular Arab nationalist government of Syria, which draws much of its support from the country’s Shi’a, Druze and Christian minorities, would deprive Iran of an important ally in the region. Of course that leaves unanswered the question of why the U.S. treats Saudi Arabia as an ally and Iran as an enemy.
Another part of the answer is that the U.S. did not win the War in Iraq. If that sounds startling, recall that after the George W. Bush declared victory in Iraq prematurely, the U.S. military occupation dissolved into a ugly counter-insurgency that only ended with the U.S. cooptation of the Sunni Islamists in the western provinces of Iraq. In effect, we ended up having to pay them to stop attacking our troops. One of the dangers in such a strategy is that cooptation is a two way street. Patrons coopt clients but clients also coopt patrons. Today the U.S. finds itself doing the bidding of Sunni Islamists in Syria who bear an uncanny resemblance to the Sunni Islamists in Iraq who killed and wounded thousands of U.S. soldiers. We may have sacrificed something other than the lives of our soldiers in that war. Something important about America has been lost when we wage one optional war after another in a region that is no longer essential to our national security.