America 'Trapped' by False Narratives
On a state visit to Chile on Monday, President Barack Obama deflected questions about U.S. support for the late Augusto Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship by warning against the risks of becoming “trapped by our history.” But a clear and present danger to the United States is that it is being trapped instead by false and misleading narratives.
Contrary to Obama's repeated advice to look forward not backwards, there is today a critical need to understand the past in order to develop wiser policies for the future, both domestically and internationally.
Indeed, there may be no more important mission for U.S. democracy than for the American people to demand that the government bring to the surface its secret history, which has burrowed deeper and deeper underground since the end of World War II.
Examples of why a truthful history is so important can be found in the hottest issues of today, from the war in Libya to the resurrection of “free-market” extremism just 2 ½ years after it helped collapse the world’s financial system and cost millions of Americans their jobs.
Regarding Libya, the major U.S. news media already is repeating many of the journalistic errors made in the early phases of previous conflicts against regimes led by U.S.-designated villains.
For instance, NBC spent much of Monday touting a story from “intelligence sources” about a supposed intercept of a Libyan government communiqué ordering bodies from the morgue to be scattered near sites of U.S. aerial bombings. When reporters found no evidence that this tactic was actually being used, NBC correspondents gave themselves credit for heading it off.
No attention was given to the other possibility – that U.S. propaganda experts or the Libyan opposition had planted the intercept story as a tactic to whip up more animosity toward the Libyan government and to deflect criticism of the U.S. bombings if they did kill large numbers of civilians.
Remember during the early days of the Persian Gulf War in 1990, the first Bush administration collaborated with Kuwaitis in exile to float a propaganda tale about Iraqi soldiers tearing newborn babies from hospital incubators. The ugly image rallied the American people behind a brutal aerial bombing campaign that slaughtered many Iraqi women and children.
In 2003, heading toward another war with Iraq, Secretary of State Colin Powell claimed that a U.S. communications intercept caught an Iraqi official plotting to hide weapons of mass destruction from United Nations inspectors. It turned out that Powell had invented the most incriminating words and simply inserted them into his presentation to the U.N.
During that same war hysteria, the major U.S. news media, including the New York Times, hyped other propaganda about Iraq’s WMD, including lies from the Iraqi opposition, thus paving the way to the U.S. invasion.
Now, the Times is justifying a new regime-change war in a Muslim country by citing, as flat fact, that Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was behind the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988. However, there remains substantial doubt that Libya had anything to do with that attack. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Through the US Media Lens Darkly.”]
Still, the Times’ lead editorial on Tuesday used Gaddafi’s supposed role in the Pan Am 103 bombing as its only cited example of a crime that justified treating the Libyan dictator differently than other tyrants in the Middle East who also have resorted to violence to put down popular uprisings.
The Times’ editors wrote, “There is no perfect formula for military intervention. It must be used sparingly – not in Bahrain or Yemen, even though we condemn the violence against protesters in both countries. Libya is a special case: Muammar el-Qaddafi is erratic, widely reviled, armed with mustard gas and has a history of supporting terrorism.”
It is hard not to conclude that the Times is simply applying the old formula that Muslim countries led by U.S.-designated villains can be freely attacked, while those led by “moderate Arabs” – i.e. dictators who are not viewed as threats to U.S. or Israeli interests – should be free to be as oppressive as they choose.
That old double standard, dating back at least to 1953 and the ouster of Iran's democratically elected but nationalist Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, is one of the top reasons for the anti-Americanism that pervades much of the Muslim world.
If the American people understood this real history of U.S. relations toward the Middle East – rather than simply swallowing the latest propaganda morsels – they might have a much deeper awareness of “why they hate us” and be less susceptible to silly answers, like George W. Bush’s “they hate our freedoms.”
But that would require stripping away decades of lies and cover-ups, a process that would be profoundly painful – and potentially very troublesome – for America’s ruling elite. The American people might even learn how they have often been the real targets of propaganda that ostensibly was directed against some Middle Eastern despot. [See, for example, Consortiumnews.com’s “Kicking the Vietnam Syndrome.”]
It’s much easier for the powers-that-be to urge Americans to forget the past and look to the future. That way, inconvenient truths can be buried while useful bits of out-of-context history (or historical disinformation) can be dug up as needed to justify a desired “regime-change” policy.
The imbalance of the U.S. news media is another key factor in this endless manufacturing of consent.
Since the U.S.-led bombing campaign against Libya got underway over the weekend, the Times has not only editorialized in support of the selective use of military violence against Libya, but published two op-eds that further muddied the history of recent interventionism.
Conservative columnist Ross Douthat offered up a “history” lesson that presented President Bush’s way of unilateralist war-making as preferable to Obama’s reliance on a multilateral approach.
“There are major problems with this [multilateral] approach to war,” Douthat wrote. “Because liberal wars depend on constant consensus-building within the (so-called) international community, they tend to be fought by committee, at a glacial pace, and with a caution that shades into tactical incompetence.
“And because their connection to the national interest is often tangential at best, they’re often fought with one hand behind our back and an eye on the exits, rather than with the full commitment that victory can require.”
Wow, how soon they forget! Whatever the shortcomings of this more cautious approach to war with “an eye on the exits,” they pale compared to the dangers from rashly rushing into war with no exit plan, as President Bush demonstrated in Afghanistan and Iraq just last decade.
But the neoconservatives seem to have already rewritten those narratives into classic examples of the wonders of unilateralism. [See, for example, Consortiumnews.com’s “WPost Still Talking Tough on Iran.”]
On Tuesday, the New York Times also published an op-ed by neocon interventionist Max Boot (an e-mail buddy of Gen. David Petraeus). While celebrating the Libyan bombing campaign (which he had recommended), Boot urged the operation go much further, not only ousting Gaddafi but expanding into a military occupation.
“Post-Qaddafi Libya will most likely need an international peacekeeping force,” Boot wrote. “This should be organized under the auspices of the United Nations, NATO and the Arab League — a step that will require amending the Security Council resolution, which forbids a ‘foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory.’”
Americans, it seems, are doomed not only to ignore history but to learn false history. Despite the bloody misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, neocons are still so highly regarded that they’re given prime op-ed space to guide the nation down more paths of war against designated Muslim enemies.
The War at Home
On the U.S. economic front, the Right is winning a similar war against reality.
One of the Times’ few remaining worthwhile columnists, economist Paul Krugman, has marveled at this other selective rendering of history, how quickly the story of the Wall Street collapse of 2008 has been spun into promoting exactly the “free-market” dogma that was the crash’s principal cause.
In commenting on the Republican demonizing of consumer advocate Elizabeth Warren, Krugman noted this larger picture:
“When the 2008 financial crisis struck, many observers — myself included — thought that it would force opponents of financial regulation to rethink their position. After all, conservatives hailed the debt boom of the Bush years as a triumph of free-market finance right up to the moment it turned into a disastrous bust.
“But we underestimated the speed and determination with which opponents of regulation would rewrite history. Almost instantly, that free-market boom was retroactively reinterpreted; it became a disaster brought on by, you guessed it, excessive government intervention.”
Krugman also criticized President Obama for failing to fight harder for a truthful account of how “free-market” extremism devastated the economy.
“In retrospect, the financial crisis of 2008 was a missed opportunity," Krugman wrote. "Yes, the White House succeeded in passing significant new financial regulation. But for whatever reason, it failed to change the terms of debate: bankers and the disaster they wrought have faded from view, and Republicans are back to denouncing the evils of regulation as if the crisis never happened.”
Though Krugman is clearly right – another example of Obama not wanting to be “trapped” by history – the problem cannot be left entirely at Obama’s Oval Office door. The more difficult truth is that the U.S. political/media system is now dominated by the Right’s propagandists, often aided and abetted by careerists in the mainstream press.
As remarkable as it may be that the “free-market” radicals who contributed to the Crash of 2008 have already reestablished themselves as the leading voices for U.S. economic policy, it is equally extraordinary that the neocons have so quickly rebounded from the military disasters of the Bush years.
The underlying reason is that the Right has invested billions and billions of dollars in media and think tanks over several decades. That has created a ballast, which steadies the ship when it encounters a storm.
Meanwhile, corporate media floats along with the most powerful current, which almost always flows to the right. So, you have CNBC’s “free-market” extremism on domestic affairs, and the New York Times/Washington Post neocon-tilted judgments on foreign policy.
Progressives generally treat media as a second thought, hoping against hope that Comcast/General Electric won’t do a Keith Olbermann on the few progressive voices remaining at MSNBC, or that the New York Times won’t replace liberal columnist Frank Rich, who has moved to New York magazine, with some clever neocon.
Yet, as long as this political-media dynamic continues, Americans can expect to be herded like confused sheep toward the slaughterhouse, with the powers-that-be picking which wars to fight and selecting an economic strategy that concentrates wealth at the top.
[For other examples of how narratives are shaped, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Inside America’s ‘Adjustment Bureau.’”]
[For more on these topics, see Robert Parry’s Lost History and Secrecy & Privilege, which are now available with Neck Deep, in a three-book set for the discount price of only $29. For details, click here.]
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there.
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