Historical Amnesia

QuagmireLast Friday, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes had the job of announcing that the Obama administration had decided to officially begin arming the Sunni Islamist insurgents attempting to overthrow the Syrian government. All that lobbying by the war party in Washington and its ‘friends in the Gulf’ is finally paying off. You would think that the problem was explaining why to a skeptical news media. Not so.

Rhodes began the press conference by offering an intelligence estimate that the Syrian military had used Sarin nerve gas on a small scale to kill 100 to 150 people, thereby crossing a ‘red line.’ “Our intelligence community has high confidence given the multiple independent streams of information associated with their reporting,” he added. Reporters at the press briefing might have challenged that substitute for fact with the obvious. Just how much faith should be placed in multiple accounts generated by the foreign correspondents determined to further their careers by reporting yet another big war in the Middle East, the activist/bloggers who serve as the propaganda machine for a Sunni Islamist insurgency, and intelligence agents working for the British and French governments that want U.S. military intervention in Syria?

Rather than asking the obvious, however, the reporters focused their questions on the execution of the new policy. Unmistakably impatient with the scope and pace of the U.S. intervention, they wanted more detail about the kinds of assistance and whether it would be delivered with sufficient urgency. Was this new assistance or was it already in the pipeline? How could the effectiveness of the insurgents be enhanced?

As if obeying a script, the reporters consistently described the insurgency as ‘the opposition’ and the insurgents as ‘the rebels.’ Anywhere else on the planet and Sunni Islamists, some affiliated with al-Qaeda, and financed by reactionary Persian Gulf monarchies would be described as insurgents or terrorists. That includes neighboring Iraq. When they cross the border into Syria it seems they undergo a mysterious rechristening.

The reporters also consistently referred to the government of Syria as the ‘regime.’ That word properly describes any set of political institutions, but American journalists now use it in the Syria news story, and only the Syria news story, in the retro Cold War sense of “dictatorship the audience should think is illegitimate.” They would not have dared to refer to the authoritarian Sunni monarchies of the Persian Gulf like Saudi Arabia or Bahrain as regimes.

One of the absurd consequences of that naming convention is that Rhodes met with no objection when he talked about “the end of Bashar al Assad’s reign” and a few moments later talked about “working with Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar.” Only monarchs may be said to ‘reign’ and the only leaders in the Middle East who actually reign are U.S. clients.

Mind you, Bashar al-Assad did inherit his position as president from his father, Hafez al-Assad, but as part of an informal political dynasty in a republic. That phenomenon occurs around the world and without much complaint from the U.S. government. No one in official Washington is denouncing the kleptocratic police states operated by the Nguema-Obiang family in oil rich Equatorial Guinea, the dos Santos family in oil rich Angola, and the Bongo family in oil rich Gabon, to name but a few of the many.

Beyond the obviously Orwellian language, the reporters avoided asking questions about the wisdom of a yet another U.S. military intervention in the Middle East. There was no mention of the disastrous consequences of our military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq or Libya. Of what use to the rest of us is a Washington press corps that acts like it suffers from historical amnesia?

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Image: U.S. soldiers are stuck in sand in southern Afghanistan - work of a U.S. military or Department of Defense employee, taken or made as part of that person's official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain - Wikimedia Commons.
John Hickman

John Hickman

John Hickman is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Government and International Studies at Berry College in Rome, Georgia, where he teaches courses on war crimes, comparative politics, and research methods. He holds both a PH.D. in political science from the University of Iowa and a J.D. from Washington University, St. Louis. Hickman is the author of the 2013 Florida University Press book Selling Guantanamo.