Six Reasons for Rejecting War with Iran
Accepting it would be ahistorical insanity
It is never not a good time to catalog the evils of war.
I started writing what follows during the 2016 presidential race when it seemed to me that either candidate, if elected, would probably eventually start bombing somebody. I never finished it because there are so many arguments to be made against war, and so much evidence to support them, that it’s hard to pick a stopping point. You start pulling at them and they come out and out and out at you, like a fucked-up magician’s handkerchief.
I’ve picked a stopping point now because now there’s a lot of belligerence in the air about Iran. Much of it stems from National Security Advisor John Bolton, who has been frothing to invade them for over a decade.
I won’t go into how Iran has complied with the nuclear deal and poses no existential threat to the United States (facts noted elsewhere, even by establishment foreign policy journals), nor into the essential-to-understanding-the-world-but-never-acknowledged fact that this — what’s happening now with Iran — is the reason North Korea is developing nuclear weapons: they, like every other country, pay attention as the United States demonstrates to them, again and again, that the only way to guarantee exemption from unprovoked invasion is to arm up.
I will say briefly that the US has already done more than enough to Iran. As ought to be common knowledge, in 1953 the CIA and Britain engineered a coup to overthrow Iran’s secular, democratically-elected prime minister, because he and the democratic parliament wouldn’t let British companies exploit Iran’s oil resources however they wanted. This led to a pro-Western authoritarian monarchy, then to the revolution in 1979, then to an anti-Western totalitarian theocracy, and finally, amazingly, to the question, “Why don’t some of them like us very much?”
This history is rarely mentioned by politicians discussing Iran, though Bernie Sanders did during the 2016 debates in a display of moral honesty and responsibility quite shocking for that forum, at least when Mike Gravel isn’t there.
The following examination of the effects of military violence wasn’t written specifically with regard to Iran, though Iran is discussed, and doesn’t apply only to Iran. It applies to every form of state violence and military adventurism waged not to protect against any existential threat, of which there are literally none except those made worse by war — climate change and nuclear holocaust — but to dominate markets and resources so as to preserve the enormous material advantage of privileged classes. War against Iran would most certainly be included in this category.
Here are the reasons for rejecting war, in no particular order. The sections focusing most heavily on the Iraq War, especially relevant to Iran, come in the second half.
1. Violence creates more enemies than it destroys.
This eternal truth is something war journalists, scholars, and military personnel will tell you until their mouths fall off. The gold standard illustration of this principle is our own “war on terror,” which, according to assessments by the Pentagon itself, has resulted in more, not less, violence against the United States. A report commissioned by the Pentagon under Donald Rumsfeld, who more than anyone had reason to show that US violence deters extremist behavior, determined instead that it elevates extremist behavior:
“Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom,’ but rather, they hate our policies. The overwhelming majority voice their objections to what they see as one-sided support for Israel and against Palestinian rights, and the longstanding, even increasing support for what Muslims collectively see as tyrannies, most notably in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Pakistan, and the Gulf states … American actions and the flow of events [including the invasion and occupation of Iraq] have elevated the authority of the Jihadi insurgents and tended to ratify their legitimacy among Muslims.”
The fact that Western violence reliably churns out enemies of the West is also appreciated by al-Qaeda and ISIS, whose texts Management of Savagery and The Extinction of the Grayzone call explicitly for provoking military responses from global superpowers in order to fuel further radicalization of Muslims (responses provided by the West and which have produced the desired results).
Here are some other examples of this principle in action:
In Somalia, “al-Qaeda’s foothold … has probably been facilitated by the involvement of Western powers and their allies,” according to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The Committee also recognized that US air strikes “have only increased popular support for [East African terrorist group] al-Shabaab.” (To fight al-Shabaab, the US armed, funded and trained thousands of African Union troops, who, in 2011, shelled civilian areas controlled by al-Shabaab and thereby drove clan leaders to support al-Shabaab. In 2012, al-Shabaab, with other militias including Boko Haram, responded to foreign aggression by uniting with al-Qaeda.)
In Yemen, US drones aid al-Qaeda by killing civilians, terrifying women and children day and night, preventing people from sleeping, and littering communities with unexploded cluster bombs, which sometimes blow up children (the US sidesteps the illegality of cluster bombs by refusing to sign the treaty which bans them). Cluster bombs also kill children when they explode correctly, and when we sell them to Saudi Arabia, which routinely bombs civilian targets with our unwavering (until very recently) support. Saudi/US violence in fact seems limitless in fostering ideal conditions for creating new terrorists. Even the non-nonviolent Michael Flynn, former National Security Advisor to Donald Trump, has admitted that drone strikes create more terrorists than they kill.
In Iraq, under the violence of the US occupation, the killing of US forces became more, not less, acceptable to the Iraqi population: 51% considered attacks on US troops acceptable in 2007, a steep climb from 17% in 2004 (although 94% still had an unfavorable opinion of al-Qaeda).
In Libya, the main beneficiaries of the 2011 NATO intervention were Islamic radicals and human traffickers. In this way, the war achieved the exact opposite of its supposed aim, an irony quite alone in the otherwise empty declaration that Gaddafi must go “without further violence and bloodshed.” Such interventions reliably exacerbate the destruction of civil societies, which leads to, among other crises, men forced to support their families by joining paying militias, where they become enemies of people about whom they may have no particular feeling at all.
In Afghanistan, US violence provoked Pashtun tribes, who were not in recent past US enemies, into allying with the Taliban and becoming one of the most dangerous threats in the world when they responded to air strikes by targeting Pakistani nuclear facilities.
Across several Muslim countries, there were more suicide attacks aimed at Americans and their allies each month in 2010 than there were in all years prior to 2001 combined.
Across several Muslim countries, the continual assassination of extremist leaders without addressing the underlying causes of extremism has created younger, better-adapted, more ruthless extremists. According to anthropologist Scott Atran, whose field research on ISIS and other terror groups is some of the most extensive in the world, the increased killing of senior Taliban following the Afghanistan surge led to the replacement of its leadership with younger members who were less educated, less open to negotiation, and less likely to see any possibility for peace outside total defeat of the United States, a possibility that was entertained by the older Taliban. Atran also found that young ISIS fighters are driven more by the violence around them (much of it Western) than by true religious fundamentalism. He told the UN Security Council:
“They [ISIS fighters he interviewed in Iraq] knew nothing of the Quran or Hadith, or of the early caliphs Omar and Othman, but had learned of Islam from al-Qaeda and ISIS propaganda, teaching that Muslims like them were targeted for elimination unless they first eliminated the impure. This isn’t an outlandish proposition in their lived circumstances: as they told of growing up after the fall of Saddam Hussein in a hellish world of constant guerrilla war, family deaths and dislocation, and of not being even able to go out of their homes or temporary shelters for months on end.”
In the United States, most terror plots are homegrown. The future extremists most dangerous to the US are not now recruits in Middle East training camps, but young men and boys in American homes on the internet. Government reliance on violence for conflict resolution nurtures the delusion that violence is the most effective way to address one’s grievances and thereby lends credibility to violent causes, whereas adopting nonviolent strategies diminishes that credibility. (Causes which they perceive as having no credibility are generally impotent in persuading young men to do much of anything.)
This simple truth is evident everywhere: enemies accrue to violence as surely as the living accrue to the dead. It is an observable and eternal phenomenon, the most morbidly poetic expression of which may be the peculiar fate of “American Sniper” Chris Kyle, who was killed with his own .45 by a PTSD-stricken vet whose trauma he’d tried to ease by taking him to a gun range.
2. Arms flows are impossible to control, and arms we inject into a conflict or liberate from an enemy often end up being used against us.
Whether arming one side of a conflict or entering it directly, military violence entails injecting massive amounts of weaponry into violence-stricken regions. It is totally impossible to ensure that those weapons will not end up being used against the US or its allies, and even when an intervention is successful, the weaponry of the deposed regime is often seized by terrorists. As stated in a UK House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee report on the Libya intervention:
“The United Nations Panel of Experts appointed to examine the impact of [the Libya intervention] identified the presence of ex-Libyan weapons in Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Gaza, Mali, Niger, Tunisia and Syria. The panel concluded that ‘arms originating from Libya have significantly reinforced the military capacity of terrorist groups operating in Algeria, Egypt, Mali and Tunisia.’ … The international community’s inability to secure weapons abandoned by the Gaddafi regime fueled instability in Libya and enabled and increased terrorism across North and West Africa and the Middle East.” (emphasis added)
The Pentagon sends weapons to US-backed forces in Iraq to fight ISIS, whose arsenals of tanks, armored personnel carriers, Humvees, mortars, artillery guns, man-portable air defense systems, anti-tank weapons, semi-automatic and automatic rifles, assault rifles, and machine guns were captured from other US-backed forces. ISIS does not restrict its use of US-supplied weaponry to violence against the United States and is also using it to massacre Syrian civilians. This places on the US some responsibility for the humanitarian crisis in Syria, in addition to the responsibility it bears for the creation of ISIS itself (in his book The Battle for Syria, scholar Christopher Phillips notes that it was the US presence in Iraq, and Bashar al-Assad’s perceived need to destabilize it, that drove the Syrian dictator’s early support for al-Qaeda in Iraq, which in 2006 merged with other jihadists to form Islamic State in Iraq (ISI). By 2010, the political instability caused by the occupation of Iraq, the US-imposed disbanding of the Iraqi military and de-Ba’athification of the civil service, and the Sunni resentment at the sectarianism of US-supported Shia Iraqi PM Nouri al-Maliki, fueled ISI’s rise and expansion into Syria, where it acquired sufficient territory to rename itself the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham).
Even attitudes among US soldiers early in the Iraq War attest to the impossibility of controlling arms flows. In his book The Occupation, Patrick Cockburn reports that despite their stated intention of building up Iraqi forces toward independence, US forces feared that any weapons handed over would eventually be used against them or sold to insurgents. This actually did happen in Somalia, where weapons supplied by the US (or anyone else) to the Somali National Army were frequently re-sold illegally, to the extent that 35–40% of rifles and small arms peddled in Mogadishu black markets came from the Somali government.
Running parallel to the problem of uncontrollable arms flows is the problem of proliferation. It requires a near miracle of selective reasoning to believe that countries who have spent decades watching their neighbors invaded and destroyed by a nuclear superpower seek nuclear weapons for purposes of aggression rather than deterrence. Even non-enemies are so incentivized, as when the 1991 Gulf War and the 1999 Kosovar War “hardened India’s determination to possess nuclear weapons.”
3. Militant groups and governments are impossible to control, and those we fund and train often end up perpetrating violence we oppose, including against us.
The Mujahideen in Afghanistan, funded by the US in the 1980s, were US enemies a mere two decades later. Guerilla fighter Jalaluddin Haqqani famously referred to as “goodness personified” by US Congressman Charlie Wilson, became a leader of the Taliban. Of the Mujahideen, the American writer William T. Vollmann, who in the ’80s went to live with them, recalled: “I would ask them what they needed and they would say, ‘We don’t need food, we don’t need medicine, we don’t care if we live or die. All we want is guns so we can kill the Russians.’ And I remember thinking, boy… I hope we never get on their bad side.”
The governments of Turkey and Saudi Arabia, to whom the US provides arms and military aid, have, according to Joe Biden, poured “hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad,” including “al-Nusra and al-Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world.” (Biden was later made to apologize for that observation.) Turkey, according to Syria scholar Christopher Phillips, also turned a blind eye to ISIS in order to undermine the PKK, the Kurdish group that has been fighting the Turkish state for equal rights and self-determination since 1984.
Nigerian security forces, to whom the US gave $3 million in law enforcement assistance, reportedly massacred so many civilians in 2013 that John Kerry expressed “deep concern” over “credible allegations” that they “are committing gross human rights violations, which, in turn, only escalate the violence and fuel extremism.”
Somali warlord Ahmed Madobe, who the US failed to assassinate in 2007 and later made an ally, was interviewed by journalist Jeremy Scahill and was describe in Scahill’s book Dirty Wars as apparently willing to shift alliances whenever expedient.
US-backed units in Yemen, also documented by Scahill, were “created and funded with the explicit intent to be used only for counterterrorism operations” but were “redeployed to Sana’a to protect the collapsing regime from its own people.” (Backing forces who are “protecting” a regime from its own people is exactly what we rightly condemn the Russian government for doing in Syria.)
Curtailing the Iranian government’s nuclear program is an ongoing challenge and hotbed of debate, but it might be considered progress that no one has suggested selling it $20 billion worth of weapons for a decade like we did in the ’70s. The weapons were so sophisticated the US also sent 10,000 people to provide technical assistance and training, bolstering the same military it now endeavors to constrain.
4. Arguments that non-defensive war is necessary to spread democracy or defend human rights are either misguided or disingenuous.
There are a few points that illustrate this.
a) The idea that the US government cares about spreading democracy is disproved by repeated US disregard for, or active undermining of, democracy in other countries. A glaring example of this behavior is the non-democratic administering of post-Hussein Iraq, in which: 1) the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority, not the people of Iraq, selected the 25 members of the Iraqi provisional government; 2) the US considered appointing local elites rather than elected Iraqis to draw up a constitution, prompting an Iranian cleric to issue a fatwa pressuring the US to ensure that those who drew up the new constitution be elected; 3) the ballot for the first election was comprised largely of unpopular parties, excluded many local leaders, and was “skewed towards producing a photocopy of the interim government” (a government composed mainly of Iraqis who were sympathetic to the US, had lived outside Iraq for decades, and had insulted many people by abruptly changing the country’s flag). The Coalition Provisional Authority also, a year after official combat ended, shut down an Iraqi newspaper for printing things it did not like, opened Iraq’s economy to foreign ownership, maintained authority over Iraq’s army even after the establishment of the interim Iraqi government, and exercised total control over the reconstruction of Iraq’s infrastructure, including its electricity, water, oil and communications sectors, as well as its courts and police. None of these things are hallmarks of democracy.
In 2008, the Iraqi government, following Iraqi public opinion, stripped American private security contractors of immunity from Iraqi law. That expression of democracy was celebrated by the New York Times with a story focusing on the plight of the security contractors, whose grievances included being “forced” to rely more on Iraqi employees and concerns that the Iraqi government would use its “new power” for “arbitrary arrests,” “corruption,” or leaving people “in … jail without recourse” (practices not incompatible with democracy under the US occupation, at least if you were Muslim). Buried in its final paragraphs, the story acknowledges that Iraq’s decision was prompted by the security firms murdering civilians: American firm Blackwater slaughtered 17 Iraqi civilians in September 2007, the Iraqi government responded by demanding the firm be expelled from the country and its guards be held accountable, and the US refused.
Maybe the most ridiculous instance of undemocratic democracy-spreading in post-Hussien Iraq was the suggestion that Rudy Giuliani, as ignorant of the Iraqi population as it was of him, be made mayor of Baghdad.
Other examples of indifference to democracy are the US legitimization of the 2009 ouster of democratically-elected Honduran president Manuel Zelaya (widely condemned as a coup in South America and by the UN and EU); US support for human rights-violating terrorist Contra groups in Nicaragua against the democratically popular Sandinista government, even when that support was illegal; the US role in the overthrow of democratically-elected Chilean President Salvador Allende and installation of human rights-violating dictator Augusto Pinochet; and US engineering of the overthrow of democratically-elected Guatemalan President Jacobo Árbenz and installation of human rights-violating dictator Carlos Castillo Armas.
b) The idea that the US intervenes anywhere because it cares about human rights is undermined by the fact that it routinely accepts or actively contributes to human rights violations when politically expedient. A few examples (aside from its own wars of aggression in Vietnam and Iraq and its covert violence in Cambodia, Laos, Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Lebanon, Libya, Syria and many other countries) are: Saudi Arabia violates Yemeni human rights, the US contributes with funding, weapons, intelligence, diplomatic support; Israel violates Palestinian human rights, the US contributes with funding, weapons, diplomatic support; Turkey violates the human rights of its Kurdish population and of Syrian refugees, the US accepts it; Egypt, Bahrian, Qatar commit multiple human rights abuses, the US accepts it; in 1988 Saddam Hussein gasses Iraqi Kurds (later ironically invoked as justification for invading Iraq), the US, having sold Hussein the materials to manufacture the gas, accepts it; in 1975 Indonesia invades and annexes East Timor and in 1999 violently suppresses the East Timorese vote for independence (concurrent with the US “humanitarian war” in Kosovo), the US accepts it; the US participates in violent, human rights-violating conflicts in direct opposition to public opinion in Nicaragua (1982–86), Angola (1975), Chile (1973), Brazil (1964), Guatemala (1954), Iran (1953), Haiti (1915–1934).
c) Rather than correlating with their observance of human rights, US policies toward foreign governments correlate with their obedience to US investment preferences and their value as strategic assets. In 1953 the US and Britain planned and executed the coup in Iran in response to the Iranian parliament’s vote to nationalize Iran’s oil industry and expel foreign corporate representatives from the country. In 1954 the US engineered the coup in Guatemala in response to President Árbenz’s defiance of the US-owned United Fruit Company, whose unused land he tried to re-appropriate for the benefit of dispossessed Guatemalan peasants. Today the US maintains close relations with Indonesia, where US firm Phillip Morris operates profitably, despite human rights violations against children (from which Phillip Morris profits directly). The US today gives billions to Israel despite Israel’s record of human rights violations because the aid subsidizes US defense companies and bolsters a strategic regional ally. The US exerts no meaningful pressure on strategic allies Turkey and Egypt to improve their atrocious human rights records, which bear no apparent relation to the amount of US aid they receive.
d) If the US is interested in improving human rights globally, we hardly need to go to war for it.
It is well within the power of the US government to regulate US-owned businesses to stop human rights violations. Regulating US-owned pesticide companies, to give one example, could curb the systematic human rights violations of which they have been found guilty. Similarly, the US is the largest shareholder and most influential member of the World Bank and might take more responsibility for that institution’s facilitation of human rights abuses. Such nonviolent efforts are less expensive than war and have the added advantage of not exacerbating the problems wars are supposedly waged to address. A lot of brain power goes into planning military violence. If as much were invested in planning diplomatic and humanitarian action, it would almost certainly achieve its ends (provided those ends are sincerely humanitarian) without becoming the very catastrophe it aims to relieve.
5. The US government and military make so many mistakes, say so many untrue things, and demonstrate so much incompetence that it is not reasonable to trust them to wage a responsible war.
It is beyond debate that the key allegations used to justify the Iraq war — which is widely acknowledged as a mistake of historic proportions whose consequences, in total, are virtually unfathomable — were either intelligence failures or lies. One study found that senior Bush administration officials made, in two years, at least 935 false statements about Iraq. Many untrue claims used to sell the war (most famously that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and ties to al-Qaeda) and many failed predictions of its outcome (that it would be a “cakewalk”) are familiar. The administration’s incompetence during the lead-up to the war was succinctly expressed in George W. Bush’s obliviousness of the fact that there is more than one sect of Islam. Failure to anticipate the effects of the invasion on local sectarianism — that it might spark a civil war — was a mistake that is impossible to overstate.
Once the war began, mistakes like killing innocent people were not uncommon. General Stanley McChrystal, describing US checkpoints in Afghanistan, said that in a period of over nine months,
“not a single case where we have engaged in an escalation of force incident and hurt someone has it turned out that the vehicle had a suicide bomb or weapons in it and, in many cases, had families in it. . . . We’ve shot an amazing number of people and killed a number and, to my knowledge, none has proven to have been a real threat to the force.”
After the fall of the regime, the Bush administration appointed as head of the Coalition Provisional Authority Paul Bremer, a man who had no experience dealing with a postwar country or with nation-building, had never been to Iraq, did not speak Arabic, and by many accounts did not know much about the Middle East. It is not a stretch to call Bremer’s appointment a mistake, and one of his first assessments upon starting his job, that Iraq was “not a country in anarchy,” was mistaken. His other mistakes have been well-documented, especially the de-Ba’athification of Iraqi society and the dismantling of the Iraqi national security apparatus, which were major causal factors in the rise of ISIS. His debilitating internal conflicts with General Ricardo Sanchez, the senior-most military official at the time, were well known, with communication between the two said to be “strained and often nonexistent,” which undermined the war effort.
To be fair, Paul Bremer was not the only person demonstrating incompetence and making mistakes at that time: several US generals downplayed the significance of the nascent anti-occupation insurgency that would eventually prolong the war another decade, weakening an effort already crippled by insufficient preparation which stemmed from mistaken optimism for a swift and easy victory. Some official assessments of the war’s progress are, in retrospect, amazing in their rosiness (“We are way ahead of schedule. The evolution of the country of Iraq is just amazing”); inaccuracy (“I expect that the detention of Saddam Hussein will be regarded as the beginning of reconciliation for the people of Iraq and as a sign of Iraq’s rebirth” / “the idea that what’s happening over there is a quagmire is so fundamentally inconsistent with the facts” / “in Iraq . . . you have an insurgency with no vision, no base”); and lack of self-awareness (“What I found is Iraqis do not like people from other countries fooling in Iraqi business”). As the insurgency grew, the US was quick to attribute to al-Qaeda an exaggerated share of the attacks on US soldiers, unwittingly bolstering al-Qaeda’s popularity among Iraqis who opposed the occupation.
The US government also lost — as in, does not know what happened to — billions of dollars in the first year after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime. The Pentagon spent six years trying to account for $6.6 billion. By 2011, between $31 and $60 billion were lost to wasteful and fraudulent private contractors. Millions were wasted on war profiteers like Custer Battles, a private security contractor who, in addition to shooting at Iraqi police officers and civilians, was characterized by the security director of the airport it was supposed to protect as “unresponsive, uncooperative, incompetent, deceitful, manipulative,” and whose bomb-sniffing-canine team appeared to the inspector general for the Army to be neither trained nor certified, but rather “a guy and his pet.” After being made aware of such failings, the Coalition Provisional Authority continued to award contracts to Custer Battles. KBR, a former subsidiary of Dick Cheney’s Halliburton, was paid at least $36.3 billion in Iraq while their mechanics worked an average of 43 minutes per month. They also neglected to repair wiring that eventually electrocuted US soldiers to death and participated in human trafficking (for which they were sued but escaped liability on jurisdictional grounds).
Widening out to US militarism in general, friendly-fire incidents — more mistakes that end lives — abound in modern wars. In April 1994, US pilots shot down two US Army Blackhawks over Iraq, killing all 26 people on board including 15 Americans. There were several friendly-fire deaths a decade later in Afghanistan and Iraq, including Pat Tillman’s (which gained notoriety after it was revealed that Army officers lied about the incident and had “destroyed evidence that would be considered critical in any criminal case” by burning Tillman’s uniform and body armor). More recently, near Fallujah, a US airstrike killed Iraqi allies fighting ISIS, which Ash Carter illuminatingly characterized as a “mistake that involved both sides” (either implying it was the victims’ fault too, or else that they were also present when they died) and that “these kinds of things happen when you’re fighting side by side,” a sentiment well-understood by Dick Cheney’s hunting buddies. Carter was equally insightful regarding the fall of Ramadi to ISIS in May 2015, when he chided Iraqi soldiers for lacking the will to defend their country. It apparently did not occur to him that having one’s country demolished and then occupied by a hostile foreign power for nearly a decade dampens one’s will to risk torture and death for it. General Lloyd Austin likewise conveniently delegated responsibility for fighting ISIS in Iraq to the Iraqi Army without ever acknowledging US responsibility for destroying Iraq or facilitating the rise of ISIS, details that are essential to acknowledge if you want to understand the situation and come close to learning from it.
Outside official war theaters, in Yemen in 2010, a carload of mediators on their way to persuade al-Qaeda members to surrender were killed in a botched US airstrike (which unsurprisingly led to a local uprising and more support for al-Qaeda). The Wall Street Journal later reported that US military officials believed they’d been manipulated by Yemeni officials into assassinating the victims of the strike, with one official stating, “It turned out you didn’t really know who was at all those [Yemeni] meetings,” and that the Joint Special Operations Command, one of the most elite units in existence, “frankly wasn’t as up to speed as they should have been.” In general, claims about the surgical precision of drone strikes are untrue.
Mistakes in strategy, like over-reliance on the assassination of so-called “High-Value Targets,” have been pointed out by military researchers and even the CIA. High-Value Targets Osama bin Laden, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Muammar Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, Mohammed Farrah Aidid, and Mullah Omar have all been killed, but because killing them did not address the root causes of radicalization, the US is farther from its stated objectives of peace and security than it was fifteen years ago.
Broader strategies to establish regional hegemony also backfire: three and a half decades of interventionism in Iraq and Iran began with US support for Iraq in an effort to limit Iranian power and contain the spread of Islamic fundamentalism and has since achieved the exact opposite of those objectives by eliminating Iraq, Iran’s key regional adversary, and fueling militant Islam. It’s especially sad that many regional conflicts in the Middle East which are exacerbated by imperial meddling were largely precipitated by imperial meddling when Britain and France drew post-Ottoman Empire borders with little regard for how they would affect local ethnic, political and cultural ties, trade routes, or access to resources.
6. The media cannot be trusted to accurately and honestly provide a factual basis on which the public might determine whether or not state violence is justified.
Of the many watershed moments represented by Donald Trump’s victory, the one least discussed by the major media has been the collapse of their own credibility. Their coverage of the campaign was so poor (in ways both new and familiar), their predictions so wrong, and the consequences of those failings so disastrous, that it is less rational than ever — which is saying a lot — to regard them as credible authorities. That they provided billions of dollars in free support to a deeply unpopular authoritarian whom they openly despised, while at the same time accusing him of being the useful idiot of another unpopular authoritarian, is an irony that demonstrates a lack of self-awareness as severe as their lack of willingness or ability to meet their most basic obligations to the public.
Major media outlets behave this way because they are owned by corporations governed by rules and incentive structures that are often in direct conflict with the public interest, and so often preclude serving that interest. This has been true for decades, and the dangers of such a system have been pointed out by scholars, philosophers, and artists for almost as long. It was even acknowledged by the media itself when the CEO of CBS said that the profit-generating “circus” of Donald Trump’s candidacy “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS, that’s all I got to say.” The situation is unlikely to improve.
In tandem to this, cable news stars and other elite media journalists respond to intense pressures incentivizing subservience and conformity to the very people they are supposed to report on and hold accountable: politicians and the very wealthy. Expecting these stars to sacrifice their wealth, elite social status, or the gratification of rubbing shoulders with the most powerful people in the world, in order to constrain the power of people they know personally for the benefit of a mass population with whom they rarely, if ever, come into contact, is unrealistic. That’s not to vilify them, and most of them are probably not evil. But they don’t deserve to be listened to.
A lot has been written about media consolidation and the fact that virtually all US media outlets are now controlled by a handful of corporate owners, much to the detriment of US democracy. With regard to state violence, consolidation can result in media outlets being owned by corporations that profit directly from military contracts and so are incentivized toward a pro-war bias, but such bias is not limited to those outlets. Most of the major media (including NPR) were repeatedly accused, with good reason, of pro-war bias both in the lead-up to and during the execution of the Iraq War. Forms of bias included giving far more airtime to guests and commentary that were pro-war than anti-war, firing commentators who were anti-war, uncritically repeating government claims without verifying them, treating speculation as fact, and omitting newsworthy information because it reflected poorly on the war effort or US foreign policy. The latter was exemplified in 1998 when the national media paid almost no attention to former UN assistant secretary-general and humanitarian coordinator Denis Halliday’s resignation in protest over UN sanctions “deliberately, knowingly killing thousands of Iraqi [civilians] each month,” nor when his successor Hans Von Sponeck resigned for the same reason, nor when UN World Food Program in Iraq chief Jutta Burghardt resigned for the same reason, nor when 70 congress reps sent a letter to Bill Clinton asking him to end the sanctions, citing UNICEF estimates that “one million civilians, mostly children, have died from malnutrition and disease as a result of the embargo.” These events were newsworthy when they happened, and they were newsworthy again in the lead-up to the Iraq War: they informed the question of whether a country decimated by sanctions was an imminent threat (it was sometimes argued that the sanctions strengthened Saddam Hussein, but they did so only relative to the Iraqi population, not relative to the US), and they informed the question of whether war advocates’ claims to want to help the Iraqi people were sincere (their positions on the sanctions would very quickly answer that question, in almost all cases in the negative).
Omitting information in the public interest similarly degraded the 2016 primary election when the major media made only 36% as many references to Bernie Sanders as to Donald Trump, despite comparable surges in polls (Sanders from 12.7% to 25% and Trump from 6% to 22% by July 2015), Sanders’ far higher favorability ratings, and the fact that Sanders defeated Trump (and every other Republican candidate) in polls by wider margins than did Hillary Clinton. By November 2015, the three major TV networks had devoted 234 minutes to Trump and 10 to Sanders (ABC’s ratio was the most egregious at 81:1, giving Trump 81 minutes and Sanders about 20 seconds total for the year, even though the two candidates’ support among primary voters stood at 1:1), and devoted 56 minutes, far more than was spent on Sanders, to Jeb Bush, despite his trailing in 5th place among Republicans, and to Joe Biden, despite his decision not to run for President. The pattern continued into 2016. These numbers matter because major media coverage is at least as formative as it is reflective of public opinion, and has enormous influence over which candidates voters come to regard as important. The most important candidates become presidents, and presidents are the most powerful arbiters of state violence. By any metric, Bernie Sanders was less likely to lead the US into needless, self-damaging violence than either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, and today’s media bears responsibility for increasing the likelihood of state violence even beyond what we have already come to expect.
Even when not explicitly pro-war, the major media are far more tolerant of non-defensive military violence than the public, who generally oppose it. This is partly due to reliance on access to government officials, which incentivizes reporting that is acceptable to those officials, who are themselves subservient to US-based transnational businesses which benefit from US domination of trade, environmental, labor, and other laws in various parts of the world. A shining example of the media’s tolerance to violence that most Americans find unacceptable was in the 2016 primary debates when Hillary Clinton boasted about her relationship with Henry Kissinger, a well-documented war criminal.
We will now pause for a few of Kissinger’s greatest hits:
“I read the briefing paper for this meeting and it was nothing but Human Rights. The State Department is made up of people who have a vocation for the ministry. Because there are not enough churches for them, they went into the Department of State.”
“It is an act of insanity and national humiliation to have a law prohibiting the President from ordering assassination.”
“Why should we flagellate ourselves for what the Cambodians did to each other?” (Commenting on the 1973 US bombing of Cambodia, which killed 750,000 defenseless peasants and precipitated Pol Pot’s rise to power and the subsequent massacre of an additional one and a half million people.)
The disparity between Kissinger’s worldview and that of most Americans was, in the eyes of the media, apparently not worthy of comment.
Sitting opposite sins of omission is what is now called “fake news,” or the practice of reporting things that aren’t true. The major media have been, as they should be, vocal in their opposition to fake news, but efforts like the Washington Post’s 11/24/16 story about fake news, which itself contained fake news (pointed out here, here, here, here, here, here, and here), do not inspire confidence. A few weeks later, the Post (along with CNN, NBC, Today, BBC and Daily Mail) published a fake story about a child dying in Santa’s arms, and then an error-ridden story about Russia hacking Vermont’s power grid, which it later had to retract, though not before the story had spread across the internet. The response of major media to this brand of fake news (inaccuracy or dishonesty in stories from “reputable” outlets) has been muted compared to the hysteria prompted by the same behavior from alternative outlets, despite the fact that both are equally rampant and pernicious. The sincerity of one of the major media’s biggest complaints against social media feeds — that users are delivered a stream of limited-viewpoint material — is undermined by the fact that the major media also place limits on viewpoints, like the anti-war or anti-sanctions viewpoints mentioned above. Their problem, then, with social media feeds is not that users are limited in their exposure to viewpoints, but rather that the limits are being set by someone else.
Finally, there is the cornucopia of euphemism employed by the media to disguise elite behavior which the population might find unacceptable. Using the term “signature strike” to denote assassination, “enhanced interrogation” to denote torture, “bulk collection” to denote mass surveillance, and “terrorism” to denote any violence perpetrated by Muslims against the West regardless of whether the target was military or civilian (and increasingly, any activity which threatens corporate interest), are all insidious examples. Even the term “Defense Department,” which in the past was more honestly called the War Department, is misleading. The media didn’t make that call, but they are pretty committed to the kind of euphemizing it embodies.
The United States is the richest country in the history of the world, with the most powerful military in the history of the world. We spend more money on our military than the next seven countries combined, and more than twice what the runner-up, China, spends. It is a testament to the insanity of our leadership and media that when Donald Trump or anyone else claims our military is insufficient, they are not laughed out of the room.
There is no country or terrorist organization on the planet that poses an existential threat to the United States. Claims to the contrary are designed to frighten the population into surrendering their civil liberties, accepting the allocation of their taxes to subsidize private defense contractors instead of badly needed health care, education and social services for working people, and otherwise ceding power to a minority of extremely wealthy individuals and corporations whose interests are in direct conflict with their own.
Having the most powerful military in the world may be fine. Using it to defend against actual threats in a proportional and reasonable fashion, without exacerbating those threats, is fine. Using it to violently coerce and dominate other cultures, claim their resources, or fanatically impose a Western political ideology on them is self-endangering. If the adversary in question is a nuclear power, it’s suicidal.
It may sound strange, but the greatest military threat to our safety in America is the war-making of our own government. Any rational person should prepare to vehemently resist any calls for war that are not accompanied by overwhelming empirical evidence that such action is absolutely necessary to deter an imminent direct threat. And that person should be aware that when state officials say “imminent,” they might not mean imminent, because
— somebody call George Orwell — a 2011 Justice Department white paper redefined the word to mean a condition that “does not require . . . clear evidence [of] a specific attack . . . in the immediate future.” Now is when you can hold your head in your hands and moan for a while.
This is the arbitrary stopping point.
No more war.
Not with Iran.
Not with North Korea.
Not with anyone.