You open the newspaper on any day and you can be sure to find at least one front-page article related to the Middle East. It will be something ugly or depressing, something implicating the United States directly or indirectly — Israel and Palestine, the Iraq war, the standoff with Iran, the war in Afghanistan, the prisoner torture cases in Iraq and Afghanistan, the rendition of terror suspects to third countries, etc. And you wonder how much of the story is true, how much is distorted, and how much is omitted outright. It is not just for lack of space. My sample of newspaper articles is somewhat random, by necessity, but also appropriate enough to make a few essential points. By its nature, propaganda is dishonest and meant to deceive. Nothing is singularly new in this. Every empire, past and present, relies on deceitful manipulation or suppression of information. Today, it is most dangerously used in the service of US-led Western domination. It is most dangerous because of the global interests it serves and because of the unprecedented and far-reaching means it can enlist.
===== 1 =====
The Iraq war, the most destructive conflict directly involving American troops since the Vietnam war, is not over and yet already half-forgotten. Who remembers Falluja? Or what does the mass media allow us to remember? On November 8, 2004, American troops started their offensive against Falluja by occupying the main city hospital. According to the embedded New York Times reporter on the scene, soldiers “eagerly” kicked in the doors of Falluja General Hospital, and patients and hospital employees were forced to lie on the floor while troops tied their hands behind their backs. Lost on the Times reporter was that turning a medical facility into a theatre of combat was a war crime. Two days earlier, another hospital in the city center had been razed to the ground by massive US air raids, another war crime not called by its only rightful name. What followed was an orgy of killing and destruction, pitting warplanes and tanks against insurgents armed with Kalashnikov rifles. Even when embedded reporters reveled in the killing efficiency of the US military, they still described the scene for what it was — a “sliver of apocalypse,” in the words of the Times‘ reporters. Terrified civilians trying to flee the city were pushed back, to face almost-certain death. After one week of its offensive, the US military had swept through most of the city, leaving behind a landscape of total devastation — shelled buildings, bullet-riddled cars and rotting corpses. Falluja was not the only scene of war crimes in Iraq. Some were covered by the mainstream media, others were left out or conveniently displaced from public attention. Who reminds us now of the grotesque torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib? Just a blip in an otherwise benign occupation? Be it racism or crass insensitivity, even when the press reported the horror stories, it was rarely from the Iraqis’ vantage point. The Geneva Conventions forbid the targeting of civilian installations, whether state-owned or not. In the second week of the invasion in March 2003, the Iraqi TV offices were destroyed by a US missile strike. During the preceding week, a chorus of media commentators had been clamoring for their destruction, because “allowing Iraqi TV to stay on the air gives Saddam a strong tool to help keep his regime intact.” After the facility was destroyed, the New York Times chief military correspondent Michael Gordon justified the attack by saying “when we’re trying to send the exact opposite [of Saddam’s] message, I think, [Iraqi television] was an appropriate target.” In effect: Iraqis have to receive our message and only ours, Saddam’s or any other contradicting ours must be suppressed, that journalists will be killed in the facility is of no consequence. The Geneva Conventions be damned, cheerleading and hacking for empire is the media’s function! The cumulative effect is numbing and breeds indifference to those at the receiving end of the violence, the better to minimize any public outcry. The chasm is widest between perception (or non-perception, literally, in this case) and reality when bombs are rained down from warplanes, from a safe distance where mangled corpses and body parts cannot be seen. Here is a sample of short reports, from the earlier years of the occupation, as detached as those of a lab technician experimenting with mice:
- Baqubah: “Some 30 insurgents were stationed in buildings near the stadium in eastern Baqubah, apparently to obstruct US forces from reaching downtown. Rather than clear the buildings — two vacant schools and a swimming pool — Colonel Pittard decided to demolish them with four 500-lb. bombs.” (Christian Science Monitor, July 21, 2004)
- Tall Afar: “Soldiers from the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, also known as the Stryker Brigade, launched a fierce attack on Tall Afar on Thursday … The fighting, which included three airstrikes involving AC-130 gunships and F-16 fighter jets, killed 67 insurgents, according to the U.S. military.” (Washington Post, September 12, 2004)
- Sadr City, Baghdad: “Hospital officials in Sadr City, a vast slum in northeast Baghdad that is overwhelmingly hostile to the American occupation, said one person had been killed in an overnight airstrike by the Americans. For weeks, the military has been deploying an AC-130 gunship and fighter jets over the area to try to rout the Mahdi Army, a militia loyal to the firebrand Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr.” (New York Times, October 6, 2004)
There are hundreds of other such reports — from Najaf, Basra, Ramadi, Mosul, and other Iraqi cities — arousing as much compassion (that of an icicle) as the preceding excerpts, not even mentioning the ugly euphemism of “collateral damage” or else equating the dead by the dozens with “insurgents,” and eliciting no comment and no denunciation whatsoever, on or off the editorial pages. On August 15, 2009, an article in the New York Times gave its readers a glimpse of the devastation that had befallen Iraqis, without mentioning anything of the background that led to it. The article described the current catastrophic deterioration of the Iraqi economy: “As recently as the 1980’s, Iraq was self-sufficient in producing wheat, rice, fruits, vegetables, and sheep and poultry products. Its industrial sector exported textiles and leather goods, including purses and shoes, as well as steel and cement. But wars and sanctions … have left each industry a shadow of its former self. “ Not stated, but correctly assumed, is that Saddam Hussein was criminally implicated in all these wars since the 1980’s. But so was the United States implicated in all these wars, whether it armed Saddam Hussein and egged him on in confronting Iran in the 1980’s, or whether it smashed the same wayward Saddam Hussein who had invaded Kuwait in 1990 (foolishly without US consent). Long before the 1980’s, in fact, the US had already been implicated in Iraq’s descent into darkness: In 1963, the CIA played a role in ushering the Baath party into power, which then led to the long benighted years of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. Iraq — the one country in the Middle East which, as recently as 50 years ago, held the potential of a truly varied and affluent economy, with an abundance of natural resources (water, agriculture, industry, oil and other minerals, mountains and desert), in addition to being the repository of great ancient and medieval civilizations — has been systematically destroyed and turned into a land of unspeakable misery. No one is held accountable for this. Reading the mainstream press, it may as well be the result of many tsunamis or other natural disasters of unprecedented proportions that have hit Iraq, disasters unrelated to policies pursued by the US over many decades.
===== 2 =====
How is it that the Iraq catastrophe can be consigned to oblivion with no reckoning for its perpetrators and no public outcry to bring them to justice? We should first point the finger at The New York Times which, as much as any other newspaper, has been hard at work to make war crimes appear natural and routine. The Times is the “newspaper of record” in the US, the standard to emulate for other dailies. Under a cultivated image of objectivity and dispassionate reporting, the Times is in fact a champion of American exceptionalism and a chief promoter of America’s presumed benevolent and selfless involvement with the rest of the world. When it comes to the Middle East, in particular, we have to be on guard to see through misstatements, half-truths and outright falsehoods. These are not always innocent and they fulfill a purpose. Sometimes it is easy to get to the truth because there are accessible sources of alternative information, online or in specialized publications. Sometimes it is difficult and it takes the effort of a research paper. The Times has 8 twice-weekly columnists and 3 once-weekly columnists. Among the twice-weekly columnists, the specialists on foreign affairs are Roger Cohen, Thomas L. Friedman and Nicholas D. Kristof. Among the once-weekly, Frank Rich is the most likely to address US policies abroad. These four columnists have accumulated multiple journalistic prizes — awarded or nominated for the Pulitzer and other prizes several times — and are among the most influential pundits in the US. It is instructive to examine how these four columnists mention (or do not mention) the Middle East, and how they all shift their focus and tone as America’s fortunes wax and wane. What they write in the Times approximately defines the scope of respectable opinion on foreign affairs. Their views span the political spectrum within relatively narrow limits, from progressive liberal to liberal hawk, but always upholding America’s presumed mission to the world. “Liberal” or “hawk” does not mean consistently so, across all issues and at all times; in fact, under close scrutiny, double standards and expediency are commonplace in the Times‘ coverage of foreign affairs. Frank Rich does not shy away from issues related to US foreign policy in the wider Middle East, but he is singularly reluctant if they implicate Israel. Since August 1, 2006 — to take an arbitrary cut-off date — Rich has written more than 100 columns dealing with the war in Iraq, and more than 25 columns related to the war in Afghanistan or to the standoff with Iran or to both. In his more recent writings, he has been implacable in his opposition to former President George W. Bush’s crude and secretive policies, the war in Iraq, and the current escalation in Afghanistan championed by President Obama. Over the same 3-year period since August 1, 2006, however, Rich has never addressed issues related to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands, let alone how these are directly abetted by US policies. There are occasional references to Hamas, Hezbollah, and the situation in Lebanon, but these are all incidental to whatever matter he discusses. To take but one example, Rich has written a total of 7 articles where “Hamas” comes up, over his entire tenure as a Times op-ed columnist since 1994. In each of these 7 references, he brandishes Hamas as a group deserving to be targeted in the “war on terror” or else views a presumed association with Hamas as evidence of fanaticism and evil intentions, betraying a highly skewed perception of what Hamas is about or realistically capable of doing. Nicholas Kristof is as reticent as Frank Rich when it comes to Israel, the Palestinians, and other Arabs nearby. His sympathies for the victims of political repression are easily aroused if these victims are in China or Darfur, but not if they are in Israel or in any of the nearby autocratic regimes allied with the US (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan). The full scope of Kristof’s writing can be grasped by reading his blog, where he expands on his twice-weekly columns, adding thoughts he cannot always squeeze into an 800-word text. There is a “tag list” in the main page of the blog, which tallies the number of times he has written about a particular topic. By my last check (August 31, 2009), “Darfur” tops his list (with a count of 111), followed by “Africa” (with 79), and then “China” (with 68). “Iraq” is about two-third down the list (with a count of 21), and “Israel” is the very last entry (with 14). These numbers reflect Kristof’s priorities, or else his ability to write without intimidation and self-censorship. Of the 14 entries about Israel, about half are on the situation in Gaza and several of the remaining half are fending off attacks by irate readers for his presumed anti-Israel bias — attacks that are far more virulent and numerous, proportionally, than others Kristof receives because of his writing on other topics — which is also revealing about the audience Kristof attracts and caters to. Kristof opens a recent article (co-authored with Sheryl WuDunn) with a resounding paragraph: “In the 19th century, the paramount moral challenge was slavery. In the 20th century, it was totalitarianism. In this century, it is the brutality inflicted on so many women and girls around the globe: sex trafficking, acid attacks, bride burnings and mass rape.” No doubt, Kristof refers to the challenges which the US is presumed to have heroically taken on and defeated in the 19th century (the Civil War) and in the 20th century (fascism and, probably in Kristof’s mind, communism assimilated to Stalinism in its various incarnations). But what happened to these other scourges of the last two centuries — colonialism and imperialism — that have equaled if not far surpassed the ravages of the “paramount moral challenges” cited by Kristof? Totally omitted: In Kristof’s blinkered history, these are not worthy of mention. Of course, to do otherwise would disturb America’s self-image as a fundamentally benevolent, friendly and heroic superpower — despite its occasional excesses. This is beyond the limits the Times will tolerate, implicitly or not, because the US and its Western allies are now imperialism’s chief protagonists. The less said about imperialism, the better to absolve its crimes. One of Thomas Friedman’s famous titles is: “The World Is Flat,” probably what he thought would be a witty title to get people to pay attention to his arrogant screeds. Some do — witness the three Pulitzers he has won — and they are in good company: President Obama is reported to be a serious reader of Friedman’s books. Among Times columnists, Friedman is the most prone to write about Israel, Arab countries, and the Middle East in general. Other careful readers have closely followed his writings and documented his outlandish biases. No need to rehash these here. These are not just differences in writing style or political philosophy. True, he likes to pepper his columns with provocative and disdainful puns, often reflecting crude racism and unabashed cheering for empire. But just as reprehensible is his brazen carelessness with facts — to put it straight, he is a dishonest apologist. Friedman can switch, without any introspection or hint of remorse, from one position to its opposite depending on America’s changing fortunes. Below are quotations from four of Friedman’s columns, at four different dates since the invasion of Iraq — from strident gung-ho support for the war to unapologetic rejection of the resentful and ungrateful Iraqis — the titles are as noteworthy as the quoted sentences:
- Under the title “Come the Revolution,” April 2, 2003: “While they may not be able to describe it, many Arabs intuit that this US invasion of Iraq is something they’ve never seen before — the revolutionary side of US power.” (Note the racism.)
- Under the title “It’s No Vietnam”, October 30, 2003: “US power is not being used in Iraq for oil, or imperialism, or to shore up a corrupt status quo … [The March 2003 invasion] is the most radical-liberal revolutionary war the US has ever launched — a war of choice to install some democracy in the heart of the Arab-Muslim world.” (Not much different from what the British invaders claimed after World War I.)
- Under the title “The Central Truth,” September 8, 2006: “It truly, truly baffles me why [President Bush] who bet so much of his legacy on this project, [building a democratizing society in the heart of the Arab-Muslim world,] never gave it his best shot and tolerated so much incompetence. He summoned us to D-Day and gave us the moral equivalent of the invasion of Panama.” (My translation: Let’s blame the Iraq debacle on incompetence; the poorly applied and insufficient means denied us the glorious and noble end.)
- Under the title “Goodbye Iraq, and Good Luck,” July 14, 2009: “[Iraqis] still have not figured out whom [sic] they want to be as a country. They are exhausted from years of civil strife and really don’t want to go there again. Yet on the big unresolved issues … the different ethnic communities still don’t want to compromise much either.” (My translation: Cut and run, we owe the Iraqis nothing for destroying their country and all the atrocities we committed, it was a civil war all along and all of their doing.)
Friedman can also blithely manufacture facts to suit his ideological preferences. Nothing seems contrived in the long trail of half-truths, misleading statements, and plain falsehoods he produces. They come to him naturally. These are not differences of interpretation, but flat lies, though not always immediately apparent to the reader. I pick some from two recent columns, on June 9 and August 8 of this year. In his column of June 9, two days after the Lebanese national elections, Friedman wrote: “A solid majority of all Lebanese — Muslims, Christians and Druse — voted for the [US-supported] March 14 coalition.” In the rest of the column he is gushing with praise for the “solid majority of Lebanese” who vindicated President Obama’s vision to “preserve Lebanon’s sovereignty and independence from any regional power.” Let’s leave aside the claim that President Obama and his policies in the Middle East promote a truly sovereign and independent Lebanon — maybe this is a matter of opinion. What cannot be attributed to opinion is the fiction that a “solid majority of all Lebanese” voted for the March 14 coalition. This is a plain falsehood. According to figures available from the website of the Lebanese Ministry of Interior, about 54% of eligible voters cast a ballot. Of these 54%, the popular vote was approximately 25% for the March 14 coalition and 29% for the opposition; that is, among voters who did not sit out an election of little interest to about half of them, a majority voted against the March 14 coalition. How was that possible? Indeed the March 14 coalition lost the popular vote, but still won a majority of the parliamentary seats, because of a very skewed apportioning of Lebanese voters by districts — a form of extreme gerrymandering, Lebanese style. Something surely known to Friedman, who prides himself on being a student of Middle Eastern history. These percentages and the skewed apportioning by districts were openly discussed in the Lebanese press at the time of the elections. None of that appeared anywhere in the mainstream media in the US. But no matter the hard facts. Editorials and op-eds in major US newspapers could not hold back their enthusiastic celebration of the June 7 elections, repeatedly held up as a testimony to the Lebanese people’s preference for democracy — in turn repeatedly equated with support for President Obama and US policies. In his column of August 8, Friedman rhapsodized from Ramallah about the newly formed Palestinian National Security Forces: “For the first time, I’ve heard top Israeli military officers say these new Palestinian troops are professional and for real.” No wonder: The new Palestinian N.S.F. are trained under a program headed by an American officer, Gen. Keith Dayton, residing in Tel Aviv. Friedman does not mention Keith Dayton, nor does he find it pertinent to comment on the fact that an American general is responsible for training the elite Palestinian forces protecting Mahmoud Abbas and his Palestinian Authority. Probably this is of no relevance to Friedman, who further writes that the Israeli army has been so pleased by the performance of the new Palestinian N.S.F. that it “has backed that up by taking down roughly two-thirds of the 41 manned checkpoints Israel set up around the West Bank.” Only 41 manned checkpoints? Down by “roughly two-thirds,” i.e., now down to 13 or 14? The information from B’tselem, the Israeli human rights organization, is quite different and gives a far gloomier picture of the Palestinians’ lot. As of June 30, 2009, there were:
- 60 permanent checkpoints inside the West Bank.
- 39 permanent checkpoints that are last control points between the West Bank and Israel proper. Most of these checkpoints are located well inside the West Bank, up to several kilometers from the Green Line.
- 63 gates in the so-called Separation Barrier. Only about half of these are open to Palestinian use and for only part of the day, provided those wanting to cross have a permit.
- Between 65 and 85 “surprise” or “flying” checkpoints, on average per week, inside the West Bank over the last two years. These are not permanent checkpoints and their locations vary from week to week.
In addition to the checkpoints, B’tselem reports that “the army has erected hundreds of physical obstructions (dirt piles, concrete blocks, boulders, trenches, fences, and iron gates) to block access to main roads and channel Palestinian traffic to checkpoints.” In recent years, the number of these obstructions has gradually risen. In March 2009, there were 541 obstructions inside the West Bank. Summing up the B’tselem information, as of June 30, 2009, there were between 227 and 247 manned checkpoints or gates, and at least 541 unmanned road obstacles, to control Palestinians’ movement in the West Bank. These numbers are generally consistent with those reported by other sources, in particular by the United Nations. So, how did Friedman come up with the figure of “41” manned checkpoints? Another way of belittling the hardships faced by the beleaguered Palestinians? There was a very limited removal of checkpoints, perhaps the “roughly two-thirds of 41,” but the larger picture is missing from Friedman’s account. A cosmetic removal could take place because the racist system of Israeli-only bypass highways — no Palestinians in sight — had been largely completed. After Thomas Friedman’s brazen dishonesty and hubris, Roger Cohen’s columns should be a relief — almost anything would be — but to what extent? Cohen is a strong proponent of the Oslo process started in 1993-95, notwithstanding its degeneration into the opposite of what it promised 15 years ago. This process gave Israel a free hand to pursue its policy of settlements and expropriation of the Palestinians. Among Cohen’s heroes is the late Yitzhak Rabin, one of this policy’s early architects, whom he elevates to sainthood. At the time of the Gaza war in January 2009, without abandoning any of his deep pro-Israel biases, Cohen expressed an unprecedented thought among Times editorialists and regular columnists: “What [Israel] does not have the right to do is delude its people into thinking that peace is achievable without coming to terms with the deeply entrenched Middle Eastern realities that are Hamas and Hezbollah.” And referring to the assault on Gaza, he added: “Those realities have been strengthened by Olmert’s last fling, the reckless foray of a failed leader.” Two months later, Cohen went a step further in welcoming Britain’s overtures to Hezbollah and recommending that the US do the same: “The United States should follow the British example. It should initiate diplomatic contacts with the political wing of Hezbollah. The Obama administration should also look carefully at how to reach moderate Hamas elements and engineer a Hamas-Fatah reconciliation.” There is an element of wishful thinking that the Obama administration can “engineer” a Hamas-Fatah rapprochement; but whatever it may try in this direction, if ever, it will be quite a departure from the current unflinching US-Israeli policy to blackball or destroy Hamas and Hezbollah — a policy consistently encouraged by the Times editors in past years. Is Cohen bringing some lucidity into the myopic views of Hamas and Hezbollah that are so prevalent in US ruling circles? More recently, Cohen’s columns on Iran have been salutary. No matter that they also reflect his own biases, in particular his zeal to champion one side within the Iranian theocracy against the other. His columns have introduced a measure of sobriety in the mainstream debates, the latter typically laced with apocalyptic scenarios involving mushroom clouds over Jerusalem and Tel Aviv — or worse. Among columnists, Cohen has been perhaps the most consistent in shunning the demonization of Iranians as fanatics and repeatedly warning that a military strike against Iran’s nuclear installations would be an absolute disaster for the entire region, from the Mediterranean to India, and far beyond. Is Cohen drifting to the left? How much will the Times let him? Cohen is still a firm believer in American exceptionalism: “America was born as an idea, and so it has to carry that idea forward,” he recently wrote, before extolling President Obama who “believes in American exceptionalism, albeit one based more on values than power.” And in this, Cohen is also as much part of the claque for Obama as the Times’ editors and other columnists. But this is a time of turmoil and great uncertainty for the United States, now and for many years into the future. There is a deep economic crisis at home, overstretched resources abroad, and shrinking means to bring to heel many unyielding opponents in the Middle East and elsewhere. So, this is perhaps also a time when the Times is being forced — and with it the rest of the mainstream press — to restrain its impulses to cheer for empire and give a small opening to alternative views on foreign affairs.
===== 3 =====
Not only are the Times‘ editorials and regular columns influential in shaping public opinion, they also strictly define the bounds of the paper’s internal contents, namely, that of the articles appearing elsewhere in its pages. Whatever editorializing journalists and guest columnists are allowed, they rarely transgress the lines set by the editors, even when an article title suggests otherwise. Here is a telling example from the Times op-ed pages. On August 10, 2009, the Times ran a guest column entitled “The Two-State Solution Doesn’t Solve Anything” and written by two veteran commentators on Middle East affairs, Hussein Agha and Robert Malley. What is the point of printing an op-ed that seems to put in doubt the idea of a two-state solution? At least this is the impression conveyed by the title, which seems to contradict the Times’ repeated editorials in favor of Two-State as well as attacks on One-State. The authors of the August 10 op-ed, Agha and Malley, are regular contributors to the New York Review of Books. Both have been staunch supporters of Two-State. The Review is perhaps the most prestigious forum of left-liberal intellectuals in the US. It is also a prominent forum where One-State versus Two-State has been debated, off and on since October 2003, when another of its regular contributors, Tony Judt, first broached the idea of a one-state solution — at least thirty years too late, one may add, but that’s another chronicle (of confused priorities) worthy of examination. Have Agha and Malley given up their earlier support of Two-State and now joined the One-State camp, along with Judt and others? Nothing of the sort. Agha and Malley are not questioning the wisdom of Two-State in their Times op-ed in any way. The thrust of their argument is that Two-State is indeed the solution and, if it stands a chance at all, then it must include a defined end result in a defined time frame. In this, the Agha-Malley article fits squarely within an on-going debate between groups inside the American political establishment. This is the debate regarding the extent to which the US should pressure Israel to cease its settlement activities and whether final-status issues should be a priority in negotiation. But that is not all. There are other aspects in the Agha-Malley op-ed, which have nothing to do with the intra-establishment debate and which reinforce misrepresentations shared by all sides of the political elite in Washington. The two opening sentences of the op-ed are: “The two-state solution has welcomed two converts. In recent weeks, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, and Khaled Meshal, the head of Hamas’s political bureau, have indicated they now accept what they had long rejected.” That Meshal has just embraced Two-State is a falsehood. Meshal has been on record for several years, in English as well as in Arabic, for supporting an end to resistance and armed struggle against Israel if Israel withdrew to its pre-1967 borders. That is, Meshal is for Two-State — not the Two-State Netanyahu wants or on Netanyahu’s conditions, to be sure, but still a Two-State. But there is far more important in the Agha-Malley op-ed that needs rectification. In an essay slightly over 1000 words, there are exactly two short references to the United States. Specifically, these are references to President Obama’s presumed role in inducing both Netanyahu and Meshal to moderate their positions and finally accept a two-state solution. The distortion here is not only about Obama’s professed good intentions, which deserve close examination to determine how well they match the reality of US actions (they don’t). The most serious distortion is explicit omission of the historical context and the key role the US has played in prolonging the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This context is totally absent and perpetuates the fiction that the US has been an “honest broker” between Israel and the Palestinians — in perfect harmony with the Times’ editorial position.
===== 4 =====
Covering for junior partners who guard the empire’s outer defenses is very much part of the media’s function, which it does by failing to report on their misdeeds or whitewashing them. The Times does it routinely, just as well as the other major dailies. Israel, as chief enforcer in the Middle East, gets the most lenient treatment. Here is a recent example. According to Israel’s President Shimon Peres, “There was not in the past nor is there now any reason for Lebanon to be Israel’s enemy or for Israel to be Lebanon’s enemy.” He made this declaration on August 13, 2009, at a ceremony in Kiryat Shmona, within shouting distance from Lebanese villages that had been repeatedly bombarded and destroyed by the Israeli military over the years. Peres went on to explain that the only problem with Lebanon is Hezbollah’s presence, whose “entire ideology is war and destruction … an organization thirsty for blood in a land yearning for peace. The land of the cedars is cursed by Hezbollah.” Peres’ speech was not covered by the Times or any of the major dailies in the US. Perhaps it seemed innocuous, as Peres only repeated what is taken as common wisdom about Lebanon in respectable circles. Only a few of the wire services, as well as some of the Israeli newspapers, carried the story. In nearby Beirut right to the north, on the other hand, all major newspapers across the political spectrum reported Peres’ speech. From long direct experience, Lebanese of all political tendencies have learned to take Israeli official pronouncements with deadly seriousness, as they know they will take the brunt of Israeli blows. Israel’s threats against its neighbors on trumped-up charges and falsifications of the record have often been the background preceding military actions. The most blatant falsification in Peres’ speech is that, if it were not for Hezbollah’s presence, Israel would have no reason to attack Lebanon. The fact is that Israel attacked and terrorized Lebanon for years before Hezbollah even appeared on the scene. Hezbollah was only established after the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon which killed some 20,000 Lebanese and Palestinians and devastated the southern half of the country. Hezbollah emerged in the mid-1980’s in direct response to the 1982 invasion. In the period between 1948 and 1982, dozens of Lebanese villages along the Israeli border were either occupied or raided, and thousands of civilians were killed. Before 1982, the UN Security Council had already issued nine resolutions condemning Israel’s acts of aggression against Lebanon. Right across the border from Kiryat Shmona where Peres gave his speech, less than three miles away, the village of Houla is best known locally as the scene of a massacre of some 50 unarmed Lebanese farmers by Israeli forces in 1948. Were it not for the subsequent testimony of a courageous Israeli officer, Dov Yermiya, that ugly episode would have been confined to local lore — something to be dismissed as naked anti-Israel propaganda. Up until the 1970’s Israel justified its actions by the necessity to root out Palestinian “saboteurs” and “terrorists” from the refugee camps north of its border, no matter that scores of Lebanese were “collateral damage” as a result. In the 1970’s and later, that necessity now extended to also include elimination of the Lebanese “terrorists” who had harbored Palestinian “terrorists” and who had resorted to armed resistance themselves as a result of Israel’s earlier actions. That this historical context is never mentioned in the US media goes a long way to explain the half-truths and outright frauds that pass for objective commentaries on Lebanon and its relation to Israel. For a random example, consider Ethan Bronner’s article in the Times of this past August 12. Israel is said to have serious concerns about Hezbollah’s violations of UN resolutions, in turn echoed by officials in Washington, particularly about “the group’s continuing military buildup, now reaching 40,000 rockets.” Nothing in the article suggests anything about the background for this buildup, reinforcing the perception of a fanatical, gratuitously violent, anti-Israel group. Nothing is said about the huge discrepancy between the 40,000 rockets and Israel’s mighty military, the most powerful and the only one with a nuclear option in the Middle East. Nothing is said about Israel’s far more frequent and serious violations of UN resolutions — the near-daily warplane incursions into Lebanese airspace, the abductions of Lebanese farmers and shepherds along the border, the uncharted minefields which Israeli troops left behind after their withdrawal in August 2006. If readers cannot check the facts elsewhere, they are left with the impression that Hezbollah is an evil band of blood-thirsty thugs — precisely the “curse” the Israeli president describes. The truth is simpler: The problem with Hezbollah is the problem of a scrappy and repeatedly bloodied little guy who is not cowed and refuses to submit to the dictates of the bully on the block.
===== 5 =====
Change is coming. We all know that the countries of South America (except for Colombia) have broken loose and that China, India, and other countries in East Asia are rising. These are all welcome changes towards a multipolar and, hopefully, less dangerous world. Change is also coming to the world of information gathering and dissemination, which is also becoming multipolar and more difficult to censor. Less than two decades ago there was no Internet and no Web. Satellite television stations have proliferated and gained worldwide audiences in the last ten years. Online news outlets have grown exponentially and are able to attract an ever-wider range of publics. There are now multiple ways of getting alternative or unfiltered news that mainstream media will not transmit. Al-Jazeera is perhaps the most famous satellite channel. It was founded in 1996 and gained international recognition after September 11, 2001, when it was the only channel to cover the war on Afghanistan live from Kabul. After the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, Al-Jazeera became a bugaboo for US officials, who routinely blamed it for the failed occupation; President Bush was even reported to have considered bombing the station’s headquarters in Qatar, because it was “nothing more than a mouthpiece for anti-American sentiments.” May Al-Jazeera never be muzzled. Better still, for the purpose of writing an article such as this one, are the large archives stored online and the powerful search engines to mine them (not only Google). Online “data mining” — an area of ongoing research in computer science — is increasingly reliable and efficient, and has forever made manual archival research obsolete. Our ability to break the mainstream media’s stranglehold on information is all for the better and foretells the day when we will be able to more effectively challenge the powers that be and the hacks serving them.
1. Richard A. Oppel Jr., “Early Target of Offensive is a Hospital,” New York Times, November 8, 2004.
2. BBC News, “US strikes raze Falluja hospital,” November 6, 2004.
3. Dexter Filkins & Robert F. Worth, “Will Meets Resistance in Deadly Logic of War,” NY Times, November 14, 2004.
4. Michael Janofsky, “Rights Lawyers See Possibility of a War Crime,” NY Times, November 13, 2004. Edward Wong, “Breaking a City in Order to Fix It,” NY Times, November 14, 2004. It takes effort to reconstruct some of the events, relying mostly on un-embedded journalists. In English, Dahr Jamail’s dispatches were invaluable.
5. Thomas Friedman writes: “We left some shameful legacies [in Iraq] of torture and Abu Ghraib, but we also left a million acts of kindness and a profound example of how much people of different backgrounds can accomplish when they work together,” in “Goodbye Iraq, and Good Luck,” NY Times, July 14, 2009.
6. Notable exceptions in the US: Anthony Shadid and Dahr Jamail, and in the UK: Patrick Cockburn.
7. That shameful record is reviewed in a detailed report by FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting), “MEDIA ADVISORY: U.S. Media Applaud Bombing of Iraqi TV,” March 27, 2003.
8. A far longer list is given in “Tomgram: Icarus (Armed with Vipers) Over Iraq,” December 4, 2004.
9. Timothy Williams, “Idle Iraqi Date Farms Show Decline of Economy,” NY Times, August 15, 2009.
10. Among others, see the essay by Richard Sale, pp 192-195, and the essay by Roger Morris, pp 195-197, in R. Falk, I. Gendzier and R. J. Lifton, Crimes of War: Iraq, Nation Books, 2006. Even before the 1963 coup, spearheaded by the Baath party with CIA collusion, Saddam Hussein had been a twenty-two-year-old hired-gun for the CIA, involved in a 1959 botched-up assassination attempt on Iraq’s prime minister.
11. Political news and foreign affairs are mostly covered in Section 1 of the Times, its daily op-ed pages, and its Week in Review on Sunday. My comments do not apply to other parts of the paper, which are at some distance from politics, less biased and often very informative. Among the latter are its Tuesday Science section and its Thursday Home section. Or they can be entertaining, such as its daily Arts section. All the more reason to be alert when we turn back to Section 1.
12. By my last count of the Times archives on the web (August 31, 2009).
13. Frank Rich’s first reference ever to Hamas is in his column of November 23, 2002 (“Do We Have to Call You Al?”). He criticizes Democratic politicians for not being serious on matters of security, but exempts one, Senator Bob Graham of Florida, from his criticism. He mentions Graham approvingly, because Graham “warns that Hezbollah and Hamas are at least as threatening as Al Qaeda to Americans both at home and abroad” and because Graham “calls for the war on terror to be extended without further delay, whether by diplomacy or force, to Hezbollah training camps in Iran, Syria and the Syrian-controlled areas of Lebanon.” Note the snide (and false) portrayal of Hezbollah and Hamas as groups in al-Qaeda’s fanatical mold. Just as bad is Rich’s war-mongering, in full display here by agreeing with Senator Graham’s position, something at odds with Rich’s later opposition to the Iraq war. In his column of July 30, 2006 (“The Peculiar Disappearance of the War in Iraq”), Rich mentions Moqtada al-Sadr’s solidarity with Hamas and Hezbollah as evidence that he is the “most dangerous” person in Iraq: “The most dangerous figure in Iraq, the home-grown radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, is an acolyte of neither Osama bin Laden nor Saddam but an ally of Iran who has sworn solidarity to both Hezbollah and Hamas.” Rich betrays the same ignorance of the Sadrist movement and its place in Iraqi politics in his column of January 7, 2007 (“The Timely Death of Gerald Ford”), where he writes: “Our principal achievement in Iraq over four years has been to empower a jihadist mini-Saddam in place of the secular original. The radical cleric Moktada al-Sadr, an ally of Hezbollah and Hamas, is a thug responsible for the deaths of untold Iraqis and Americans alike.” Rich’s overkill of calumnies (jihadist, mini-Saddam, radical cleric, thug) may be entertaining for the Sunday Times reader, but they also hide the fact that the Sadrist movement is the main political party in the shantytowns of Baghdad and the cities in the southern half of Iraq and that its popularity is mostly derived from the vast network of charities and social services it runs for the poor. Rich has written 4 other columns where “Hamas” appears. In his columns of March 11, 2008, and June 1, 2008, Rich lambasts Senator John McCain for his smear tactics during the presidential campaign, by trying “to portray Mr. Obama as the man from Hamas” or as “the Hamas candidate.” Rich is right to censure McCain, but wrong in making of Hamas the bugaboo it isn’t. In two further columns on January 4, 2009, and August 23, 2009, Rich makes a passing reference to Hamas as a terrorist organization and rebukes those who would allow “domestic fund-raising by foreign terrorist organizations like Hamas.”
14. Nicholas D. Kristof, On the Ground. Google provides the following self-description: “Nicholas D. Kristof blogs about human rights and the effects of globalization, focusing on third-world countries.”
15. Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, “The Women’s Crusade,” The NY Times Magazine, August 17, 2009. I quote the opening paragraph of the article in full.
16. In popular culture, the Civil War ended slavery in the US, but the history is far murkier. This is taken up in a recent book: Douglas A. Blackmon, Slavery by Another Name, Doubleday, 2008. Blackmon, a Wall Street Journal editor, retraces phases in the history of black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. While the Civil War ended slavery for the ten years of Reconstruction, slavery was later re-introduced by other means. Black life was effectively criminalized, yielding a huge slave labor force that had a primary role in the industrial revolution; in some respects, it was worse than slavery because this was capitalist slavery: The enslaved workers were not capital, so there was no need to care for them and more were always available. As Blackmon shows, this process of re-enslavement went on until World War II, when “free labor” was needed for war production. That the US heroically defeated fascism is also part of the official mythology. Much has been written about the relative contributions of the US, the UK, and the Soviet Union to the war effort against Nazi Germany, most recently by the military historian Max Hastings. See Hastings’ book Finest Years, Harper Collins, 2009, where he carefully reviews the evidence showing that Hitler’s army was defeated by the Soviet Union, with the US and the UK mostly staying in the background until the time to pick up some of the spoils. See also his article, “Man of War,” Financial Times Weekend Supplement, September 5, 2009.
17. Here are other revealing statistics. As of August 31, 2009, the NY Times website posts a total of 4,937 columns by F. Rich, N. Kristof, T. Friedman and R. Cohen. In 524 of these 4,937 columns, there is a reference to a “communist” state, a “totalitarian” state, or to both, typically to censure or deplore some action by a state that is so qualified. In just 45 of these 4,937 columns, the word “imperialist” or “imperialism” occurs, where the intention is invariably either (1) to reject the claim that the US is an imperialist power or (2) to level the charge of imperialism to other states (not allied with the US) — the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe, Syria in Lebanon, Iraq in Kuwait. In one column, T. Friedman dismisses the idea that corporate globalization is a new form of imperialism (“The Other Invasion,” December 8, 1997).
18. This is the title of one of Friedman’s books where he preaches the virtues of globalization.
19. Most recently, Obama was said to be reading and approvingly quoting from Friedman’s book, Hot, Flat and Crowded, where Friedman exposes his prescriptions for globalization and the environment. See Jennifer Fermino, “Savoring That Book,” New York Post, August 26, 2009. If true, an embarrassing testament to what passes for serious and meaningful commentary in the prevailing political culture.
20. Among others: Edward Herman, “The NYT’s Thomas Friedman: The Geraldo Rivera of the NYT,” Z Magazine, November 2003. Matt Taibbi, “Flathead: The peculiar genius of Thomas L. Friedman,” New York Press, April 26, 2005. Media Advisory, “Tom Friedman’s Flexible Deadlines Iraq’s ‘decisive’ six months have lasted two and a half years,” FAIR, May 16, 2006.
21. Thomas Friedman, “Ballots Over Bullets,” NY Times, June 9, 2009.
22. Friedman is never averse to dropping names. He mentions Professor Albert Hourani of Oxford among his important academic influences, and also Professor Kemal Salibi of the American University of Beirut. “I sat down for coffee on Hamra Street in Beirut last week with my 80-year-old friend and mentor, Kemal Salibi …” (“Winds of Change?” June 13, 2009). Both Salibi and the late Hourani are highly influential professors of Middle Eastern history.
23. This is not the end of the story. On August 2, less than two months after the election, there was a new development that almost undid the majority in the Lebanese parliament, no doubt to Friedman’s knowledge and chagrin. One of the most prominent members of the March 14 coalition, Walid Jumblatt, announced he was no longer in it, which in turn led to the defection of about 10 other parliamentarians allied with him; they are now all part of a centrist bloc in parliament. Other members of parliament, nominally independent but considered close to the March 14 coalition at the time of the elections, such as Najib Mikati, have since stressed their own independence from the two major blocs. What was a solid 71-to-57 majority for the March 14 coalition in June now looks more like a precarious 60-to-57 or perhaps 59-to-57 majority, with the remaining parliamentarians declaring their centrist position (wasatiyyah). There are 128 members in the Lebanese parliament. As a result, the formation of a new government has been far more complicated — none yet formed as of this writing (August 31, 2009). The US media has not reported any of the preceding developments and, compared to the many articles before and shortly after the June 7 election, Lebanon has conspicuously disappeared from the news since the exuberant June celebrations of Lebanese democracy.
24. Thomas Friedman, “Green Shoots in Palestine II,” NY Times, August 8, 2009.
25. Gen. Keith Dayton’s official designation is “U.S. Security Coordinator for the Israel-Palestinian Authority.” He works “in close coordination with the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv and the Consulate General in Jerusalem,” according to Dayton’s presentation to the House Foreign Affairs Middle East and South Asia Sub-Committee, May 23, 2007. Dayton’s program is described as having successfully turned the Palestinian Presidential Guard around, into one closely cooperating with the Israeli military — see Ethan Bronner, “US Helps Palestinians Build Force for Security,” NY Times, February 26, 2009. That these Palestinian soldiers are being set up just like the sepoy soldiers in the British Raj and the harki soldiers in French Algeria, and may suffer the same ultimate ignominious fate, is totally lost on Bronner.
26. B‘tselem. All the statistics on this website are worth pondering, a very graphic and succinct description of the Palestinians’ abominable situation. For restrictions on movement, see in particular the statistics under the headings “Separation Barrier” and “Restrictions on movement.”
27. At the end of 2007, for example, the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) was reported to have counted “as many as 573 permanent barriers and checkpoints around the West Bank at the end of last year, as well as an additional 69 `flying’ checkpoints on an average week.” See Joshua Mitnick, “How many West Bank barriers will Israel forgo?” Christian Science Monitor, April 16, 2008. Also, Associated Press, “UN: Number of checkpoints in West Bank up 40% in past year,” Haaretz, December 10, 2006.
28. In fact, activists of Machsom-Watch, an anti-occupation Israeli group, have reported that Israel’s practice has been to remove a few checkpoints and then reinstate a few others. Some of the details are in Philip Weiss, “Israel relaxes some checkpoints. But some are removed, then reinstated,” Mondoweiss, June 28, 2009. Significantly, none of this is reported anywhere in the mainstream media.
29. Roger Cohen, “Her Jewish State,” New York Times Magazine, July 8, 2007. The article is about the former Israeli foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, but also shows Cohen’s strong pro-Israel and pro-Rabin sympathies. At the end, he recounts his visit to Rabin Square in Tel Aviv after interviewing Livni: “In one corner is a small shrine to Rabin at the spot where he was murdered on Nov. 4, 1995. An inscription says that here Yitzhak Rabin was murdered ‘in the struggle for peace.’ Another says, ‘Peace shall be his legacy.’ Alongside these words is a photograph, seemingly from a faraway era, of Rabin shaking Arafat’s hand beneath the sunny gaze of President Bill Clinton. I found myself fighting back tears: how much had been lost since then and how close Israelis and Palestinians had come.” In the face of the evidence, Cohen shows an extraordinary faith in its opposite, also trumping his objectivity on other Israel-related matters.
30. Roger Cohen, “The Dominion of the Dead,” NY Times, January 7, 2009.
31. Roger Cohen, “Middle East Reality Check,” NY Times, March 8, 2009.
32. The Times editorial of January 27, 2006, “In the Mideast, a Giant Step Back,” deplored Hamas’ winning a parliamentary majority in January 2006 and looked forward to its demise and elimination: “Hamas has a choice between governing and terror. Is the party more interested in making sure that the electricity and water stay on …? Or is it more interested in continuing its campaign to destroy Israel? If Hamas chooses the latter, it’s more than likely that it will not be around for long, and rightly so.” The Times editorial of March 4, 2006, “Underwriting Hamas,” supported the tightening of the Gaza siege: “The United States would make a resounding diplomatic and moral point by cutting off aid [to a Hamas-led Palestinian Authority]. It would demonstrate in the clearest possible terms that the American people are not prepared to support governments, elected or unelected, that proclaim the annihilation of other nations as their goal and embrace terrorism as an acceptable tactic for achieving it.” The Times editorial of January 20, 2009, “The (Now Silent) Guns of January,” portrayed Gaza as an armed fortress not a besieged prison of 1.5 million people: “Hamas used the last cease-fire to restock its arsenals with rockets and other weapons. That must not happen again. That means the United States, Europe, Egypt and other Arab nations must work quickly to place monitors along the Gaza-Egypt border to end the smuggling via hundreds of tunnels.”
33. Here is a particularly shrill example: Jeffrey Goldberg, “Michael Oren at Aspen: Iran’s Threat to Israel,” The Atlantic, August 5, 2009. Goldberg reproduces the Israeli ambassador’s unreason as thoughtful commentary: “The Iranians will have sufficient, highly enriched materials to create a bomb that could literally wipe Israel off the map in a matter of seconds, that they could accomplish, in a matter of seconds what they deny Hitler did, and kill 6 million Jews, literally. We have that clock. We are anxious also that Iran, in the course of this engagement, shows a change of policy in the region, in its support of terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas that are also trying to wipe Israel off the map.” Note the conflation of Hitler, Nazis and the Holocaust with Iranians, the bomb, Hezbollah and Hamas.
34. This has earned Cohen heaps of calumnies from pro-Israel apologists. One writer attributes Cohen’s perfidy to “the worst of journalistic impulses: cynical attention-seeking” — see James Kirchick, “The Contradictions of Roger Cohen,” Commentary Magazine, August 10, 2009. Another writer scathingly attacks Cohen as a mediocre journalist — see J.J. Goldberg, “Roger Cohen Digs Himself Deeper,” Forward, August 14, 2009.
35. Roger Cohen, “America Unmasked,” NY Times Sunday Book Review, April 24, 2009. This is a review of a new book, The Myth of American Exceptionalism, by British journalist Geoffrey Hodgson.
36. In this respect, the Times is noticeably more consistent and homogeneous in its politics than other major dailies, such as The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and others. While editorials in the Post and the Journal are often far more hawkish than in the Times, news articles and op-ed articles in the Post and the Journal are also more likely to include facts and opinions disagreeing with their own editorials’ position.
37. The Times has repeatedly issued its warning, the first time I can trace dates back to October 2003: “An insidious argument is gaining ground that the historic moment for the two-state solution has passed. … This is code for the end of Israel and must be strenuously opposed,” New York Times Editorial, October 31, 2003.
38. I have done this elsewhere. See Assaf Kfoury, “‘One-State or Two-State?’ — A Sterile Debate on False Alternatives,” CounterPunch, March 13, 2008, and also Assaf Kfoury, “Overcoming Zionism Without Getting Bogged Down in an Idle Debate,” ZNet, April 2, 2008.
39. It is interesting that some readers went beyond the text of the article, and concluded that Agha and Malley are supporters of One-State, explicitly or by implication. Three out of seven letters, which the Times published on August 13 from readers reacting to the Agha-Malley op-ed, understood it as an argument for One-State.
40. One end of the spectrum in this debate is represented by several top officials of previous administrations, who advocate immediate negotiations on final-status issues and a complete cessation of settlement activities. Among others, these include Jimmy Carter, James A. Baker, Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski — see, for example, New Hope for Peace: What America Must Do To End The Israel-Palestine Conflict, DVD produced and presented by Landrum Bolling, August 2009, Foundation for Middle East Peace, Washington, D.C. The other end of the spectrum are the 77 US senators (out of 100) who agreed to send a letter to President Obama urging him to “press Arab leaders” to initiate “confidence-building measures” and upfront peace overtures towards Israel. For the latter group, the onus is on Arab governments; discussion of settlement activities should wait until confidence-building measures bear fruit.
41. Many critics have already pointed out the discrepancy. See, for example among many others, Noam Chomsky, “Turning Point?” ZNet, June 8, 2009.
42. Among wire services reporting the event: “Israel no enemy of Lebanon,” United Press International, August 14, 2009. Among English language newspapers: “Peres: We’ve no quarrel with Lebanon,” Jerusalem Post, August 13, 2009.
43. An account of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon is in Noam Chomsky, The Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel, and the Palestinians, Second Updated Edition, South End Press, 1999.
44. A fairly detailed account of this episode made it as a separate entry into Wikipedia, Hula Massacre. It is interesting to follow the history of this Wikipedia article, first entered as a short paragraph in 2003, then repeatedly edited and counter-edited by sometimes very pro-Zionist contributors, but the basic facts remain and cannot be hidden, however sanitized. This little known episode is also discussed in Noam Chomsky, Towards A New Cold War, New Press, 2003, p. 333 and the footnote p. 463. The officer in charge of the massacre, Shmuel Lahis, later became Secretary-General of the Jewish Agency. Chomsky points out that “it is hardly possible to imagine that the history of this man, or the significance of the fact that he was appointed to the highest executive position in the [Jewish Agency], would be discussed in the American press or in the massive literature devoted to the country which is the prime recipient of US military and economic aid” (footnote 39, page 463).
45. Ethan Bronner, “Israel Is Wary Of Calm Days That May End In Turmoil,” NY Times, August 12, 2009.
46. On August 12-14, 2006, “Israeli warplanes carpeted the south with cluster bombs, munitions designed to spread indiscriminate damage over a wide area. In three days, it is thought that Lebanese soil was showered with up to four million bomblets. Although each bomblet became armed the moment its housing shell disintegrated, up to 40 percent didn’t explode on contact with the ground. Some were buried in the fertile soil, becoming de facto landmines. Others nestled in the scorched shrubbery, making any passage through the scrubland a potentially deadly pursuit” — from Patrick Galey’s report, “Three years on, Israeli cluster bombs keep killing and maiming,” Daily Star, August 15, 2009. Since August 2006, mines and unexploded cluster bombs killed 50 Lebanese farmers and seriously injured another 350. Overflights by Israeli warplanes, at low altitude and repeatedly breaking the sound barrier, are a frequent occurrence over southern Lebanon. These terrifying maneuvers are hardly reported in the US media. They deliberately terrorize the civilian population and are in direct violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701 that brought the war of July-August 2006 to an end. See, for example, “Israel warplanes break sound barrier over Lebanon,” Agence France Press, September 3, 2008.
47. NBC News and news services, “UK charges official with leaking Blair memo: Document allegedly says PM dissuaded Bush push for attack on Al-Jazeera,” November. 22, 2005.
Assaf Kfoury is an Arab-American political activist and Professor of Computer Science at Boston University. This article polishes and expands the notes for a talk given on August 25, 2009, at the World Fellowship Center, Albany, New Hampshire.