Suppose some world leader who the US establishment considers “evil”—Vladimir Putin for example—held a closed door meeting with a group of prominent Russian journalists before his invasion of the Ukraine. And imagine in this meeting he informed this group of Russian journalists about his goals in this illegal invasion, which was then circulated in Russian newspapers as Vladimir Putin, The Reluctant Warrior Intervenes in the Ukraine. What would we think of such a display? Without carrying this thought experiment any further, we can safely assume that this would be condemned as an outrageous attack on principles of a “free press” and another sign of “Kremlin” authoritarianism. Well, this scenario doesn’t have to be imagined because it actually happened, but not in Russia or any other “enemy” state. It happened in the United States.
It has now been reported that the Obama administration held a closed door meeting with a group of high profile journalists prior to his speech on how he would “degrade and destroy” ISIS through aerial bombing. While many details of this secret meeting are unknown, the mere fact that this can occur in a purportedly free society should be alarming to anyone with a genuine concern for democracy and adversarial journalism. Furthermore, a thorough review of the reports published by the journalists in attendance at this meeting reveals commentary effusive in praise for Obama’s “caution”, “reluctance”, and “sensible” decision-making skills. None of these characterizations hold up under the most minimal level of scrutiny.
Take for example, New York Times columnist David Brooks. In an embarrassing exhibition of absolute subordination, (the kind of servility that would make Kim Il-sung blush) Brooks compares Obama to leaders from his Holy Book:
“The Bible is filled with reluctant leaders, people who did not choose power but were chosen for it — from David to Paul. The Bible makes it clear that leadership is unpredictable: That the most powerful people often don’t get to choose what they themselves will do. Circumstances thrust certain responsibilities upon them, and they have no choice but to take up their assignment. History is full of reluctant leaders, too. President Obama is the most recent.”
Since Brooks is white and he is defending the violence of a military superpower (and not a “terrorist” organization), he can be spared accusations of being indoctrinated into a “fundamentalist” ideology with an “end of days strategic vision.” One can imagine a different response in the US if he were brown and was making references to the Quran.
And this is only a sample. Other attendees made sure to add their voice to this chorus of apologetics. Washington Post journalist, Ruth Marcus—a reporter who Glenn Greenwald accurately described as someone who “exemplifies everything that’s horrible about the DC media”—observed “However you assess the blame for the menacing disaster that is the Islamic State, Obama’s plan is the most sensible one under the difficult circumstances.”
So “sensible” is the Obama administration’s strategy that he has sought neither Congressional nor UN authorization for his bombing campaign. Incidentally, the question of international law does not arise in a single article among the many attendees at this closed door meeting. This suggests a faith in executive power that, if not interrogated, can lead to disastrous consequences. The possibility that aerial bombing could escalate terrorism has been pointed out by a number of analysts yet this very real danger goes unacknowledged in these reports. In fact, the justification for the war is presumed to be so transparently beneficent that all criticism is confined to how efficacious, and not how legal, the assault will be.
This position was best summed up by New Yorker journalist Steve Coll, who stated rather straightforwardly “the question about President Obama’s resumption of war in Iraq is not whether it can be justified but where it will lead.” Eugene Robinson echoes this pragmatic stance in his article headlined What If This Doesn’t Work Against the Islamic State? Meanwhile, Daily Beast journalist Mike Tomasky goes beyond mere dismissal of any discussion about the justness of Obama’s war, and derides as “ridiculous” those who compare Obama’s use of military force to that of George W. Bush:
“So, another war in Iraq. On this superficial basis, some are saying that Barack Obama is somehow becoming George W. Bush, or that Bush is somehow vindicated. In a town where one frequently hears ridiculous things, I’ve rarely heard anything more ridiculous than this. What Obama laid out in his Oval Office address Wednesday is, within the context of war-waging, pretty much the polar opposite of what Bush did, the antithesis of shock and awe.”
Unmentioned in this criticism is the verifiable fact that the Obama administration is basing his decision to bomb Iraq on farcical legal doctrines concocted by George W. Bush’s lawyer (and author of the infamous Torture Memos) John Yoo. Tomasky’s remarks are designed to draw a sharp distinction between the “bellicose” foreign policies of Bush and the “reluctant” policies of Obama when, in actuality, such distinctions are tactical at best.
As FAIR reported in a recent article which thoroughly debunked this myth, “One clear message from corporate media has been that Barack Obama is unusually reticent about using military force.” David Ignatius of the Washington Post offers perhaps the most unambiguous example of this myth, describing Obama as a “reluctant warrior” whose “innate cautiousness” assures us that “he’ll fight this war sensibly, partnering with allies in the region in a way that doesn’t needlessly exacerbate the United States problems with the Muslim world.”
That Obama’s “innate caution” can be seriously called into question by the fact that he has totally sidestepped the perfectly cautious action of seeking UN (or Congressional) authorization for his latest bombing campaign simply doesn’t occur to Ignatius nor does the fact that Obama greatly “exacerbated the United States problems with the Muslim world” when he resorted to diplomatic sabotage to prolong the civil war in Syria. But documentary evidence is of little relevance to these courtiers of power. What’s more important is that “it would not be tenable for the US and its allies to allow a group rejected by al-Qaeda as too extreme to control large swaths of territory in the heart of the Middle East,” and “our reluctant … president understands this.” (Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic).
Indeed, “our reluctant president” does “understand this.” He also understands that when he wants to carry out blatantly illegal policies in order to secure American hegemony in the Middle East he can rely on the loyal reporters at the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Atlantic to parrot the necessary myths to ensure the American public embraces them uncritically. Although there’s no proof that this was a coordinated attempt on the part of the commissar class to mold public opinion, the linguistic precision and ideological uniformity of the messaging certainly rivals the output of some of the most sophisticated propaganda agencies. As journalist Matt Apuzzo stated in response to news of this meeting: “Let’s call it what it is: Using the power of the presidency to influence news coverage without the public ever knowing about it.” Unless these obvious truths are confronted and combated aggressively, the dangerous policies of the Obama administration will continue to inflict untold suffering on people across the world. An energetic and adversarial journalistic culture is needed to undermine these structures of domination, a culture without which all crimes will remain in the dark except as topics of discussion between “reluctant” imperialists and their servants behind closed doors.
UPDATE: In the hypothetical in the first paragraph I refer to Russian President Vladimir Putin meeting with a group of Russian journalists “before his invasion of the Ukraine.” This phrase—“invasion of the Ukraine”—is problematic because according to the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity “accusations of a major Russian ‘invasion’ of Ukraine appear not to be supported by reliable intelligence.” In simply referring to Putin’s “invasion”, but not this report or others like it which point out the “invasion” did not happen, I was swallowing propaganda.
Here is a link to the VIPS report: