How two activist journalists became the new faces of left-wing anti-Americanism.
On August 18, security officers at London’s Heathrow Airport detained a Brazilian named David Miranda. They did so under the United Kingdom’s Terrorism Act, which allows authorities to hold an individual for up to nine hours if they believe him to be in possession of “information which he knows or believes might be of material assistance” to terrorists. The officers seized Miranda’s cellphone, camera, laptop, encrypted memory sticks, and external hard drive.
Miranda is the partner of Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, who, since June, has broken a series of stories about programs conducted by the National Security Agency and other Western intelligence services, all based upon leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. One such program, Prism, enables the NSA to gather data from Internet companies; Greenwald also revealed the existence of a top-secret court order that gave the agency access to telephone record logs, or “metadata,” from Verizon. Greenwald and others portrayed these legal programs in Orwellian terms, writing cryptically of sinister “mass surveillance,” as if every human being’s phone calls and emails were being overheard and read by analysts.
Miranda had been traveling from Berlin—where he had met with Laura Poitras, an American documentary filmmaker collaborating with Greenwald and Snowden—to Rio de Janeiro, where he lives with Greenwald. Even as the detention was ongoing, Greenwald was furiously depicting it as the workings of an authoritarian state bent on silencing its critics. “This was obviously designed to send a message of intimidation to those of us working journalistically on reporting on the NSA and its British counterpart,” he fumed in a blog post published the following day. Greenwald then went on to compare the British government’s “simply despotic” behavior unfavorably to the Mob, writing that “even the Mafia had ethical rules against targeting the family members of people they felt threatened by. But the UK puppets and their owners in the U.S. national-security state obviously are unconstrained by even those minimal scruples.”
Many other journalists and activists were quick to accept the line that Miranda had been targeted merely by dint of his relationship to Greenwald. Amnesty International released this statement: “There is simply no basis for believing that David Michael Miranda presents any threat whatsoever to the UK government. The only possible intent behind this detention was to harass him and his partner, Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, for his role in analyzing the data released by Edward Snowden.”
Not so, according to Oliver Robbins, Britain’s deputy national-security adviser, who told a court two weeks later that Miranda had been in possession of roughly 58,000 “highly classified UK intelligence documents,” a “large proportion” of which are “either secret or top secret.” The “disclosure of the material could put the lives of British intelligence agents or their families at risk,” Robbins wrote, and “the general public could also be endangered if details about intelligence operations or methods fell into the wrong hands.”
Even if Greenwald and the Guardian had no intention of publishing this information, it is almost a certainty that it has already fallen into the wrong hands. Snowden initially fled to Hong Kong (where he publicly divulged details about Washington’s spying on China), before gaining temporary asylum in Russia; it is reasonable to assume that both Moscow and Beijing are in possession of everything he stole while working for Booz Allen Hamilton, the NSA contractor that employed him for all of three months. Writing in the National Interest, John R. Schindler, a professor of national-security affairs at the Naval War College and a former NSA intelligence analyst, surmised that “it could take many millions, perhaps billions, of dollars to repair the harm done, and some losses may be irreparable at any cost.”
That Miranda was carrying information about the identities and whereabouts of British undercover agents was nowhere to be found in Greenwald’s angry blog posts and interviews, nor in the distressed complaint issued by Amnesty International. Nor was it mentioned in any of the outraged statements by those media critics and journalists who, ever since the Pentagon Papers case, have developed a theory of “press freedom” that only pays lip service to governmental claims of needing to protect national-security secrets. While the Pentagon Papers dispute set an important precedent in solidifying America’s unparalleled tradition of freedom of the press, it has also left an unfortunate legacy in perpetuating a belief that the government always exaggerates the need for secrecy and that journalists who expose government secrets are never wrong to do so.
Upon the revelation that Miranda was trafficking in stolen secrets, the story peddled by Greenwald, his employer, and his partner began to change. Immediately after having been detained, Miranda told the press: “I don’t look at documents. I don’t even know if it was documents that I was carrying.” Miranda’s lawyers now say that “Mr. Miranda does not accept the assertions [UK authorities] have made,” implying that he did have knowledge of what sort of information he was ferrying. Greenwald tried to mitigate the damage by claiming that no information thus far released has harmed American or British national-security interests. That assertion has been contradicted by the British government, which claims it has redeployed personnel due to Greenwald’s disclosures. Hinting at what motivated his disclosures, Greenwald boasted that “the only thing that has been harmed are the political interests and reputations of UK and U.S. officials around the world.”
In 1975, former Central Intelligence Agency officer Philip Agee published his Inside the Company: CIA Diary, which exposed the identities of some 250 American intelligence assets; he would ultimately reveal the names of more than 2,000. Due to his revelations, several American and British agents were killed. Agee worked closely with the Soviet KGB and Cuban security services, and, as a result of his American passport being revoked, he embarked on a long sojourn through the Communist world, finally ending up in Havana, where he died in 2008.
There is a word for men like Agee and Snowden—men who betray their country, their country’s allies, their comrades, and defect to a hostile state. It is an ancient one: traitor. As Democratic Senate Majority leader Harry Reid described Snowden to the Reno Gazette-Journal: “I think Snowden is a traitor, and I think he has hurt our country, and I hope someday he is brought to justice.” Supporters of Snowden and Bradley Manning (the former Army private who released more than a quarter million classified diplomatic cables to the anarchist web collective WikiLeaks and who was recently sentenced to 35 years in prison after being found guilty of violating the Espionage Act) claim that the men are “whistleblowers.” Far from betraying their country, both men’s backers say, they in fact served it by revealing egregious wrongdoing.
That explanation would have some weight if either man had been discriminating in his leaks, or gone through legal channels to divulge the information, instead of sharing it with less-than-salubrious figures such as Julian Assange and Vladimir Putin. “He has taken an oath,” Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein said in June on CBS’s Face the Nation with respect to Snowden. “These oaths mean something. If you can’t keep the oath, get out. And then do something about it in a legal way.” Snowden did not begin working at Booz Allen Hamilton until March 2013. It was a job he took with the explicit goal of pilfering sensitive national-security information.
After he sought asylum in Russia, the image of Snowden in the minds of most Americans shifted from that of whistleblower to unsavory character. But Greenwald, who argued that Snowden had no choice but to seek asylum because of America’s totalitarian judicial system, was not among the majority. Were Snowden to return to the United States, Greenwald told NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, he would face “the standard whistleblower treatment that the United States government gives to people, which is to put them in a cage for decades and render them incommunicado.” Greenwald repeated this accusation on ABC’s This Week: “Whistleblowers in the United States are put into prison for decades and basically ‘disappeared.’” Greenwald never bothered to specify which “whistleblowers” have “disappeared” or been rendered “incommunicado,” words that evoke Latin American dictatorships throwing people out of helicopters into the ocean. Only one government employee has received jail time under the Obama administration for revealing classified information, and the punishment has been 30 months.
The word traitor may not apply legally to Greenwald, but his role as the privileged publisher rather than thief of such classified information (indeed, Snowden never communicates on his own, but always through an intermediary such as Greenwald, Poitras, or WikiLeaks) does not absolve him of culpability in harming the national-security interests of the United States. Greenwald and other publicizers of Snowden, Manning, and WikiLeaks are engaged in a sinister enterprise that, while purporting to forward a benign agenda of promoting “transparency,” is singularly aimed at exposing the national-security secrets of the United States and its closest allies, all with a view to embarrassing Western governments by portraying them as authoritarian states that have grievously betrayed their purported ideals. They are not traitors themselves, but they serve as public-relations coordinators of treasonous actors. They are working to make traitorous actions seem valiant. Call it “treason chic.”
Writing of Communist fellow travelers in The New Meaning of Treason (1964), British essayist and novelist Rebecca West observed: “Of the other virtues, patriotism, it is to be remarked, was the first to get its dismissal. It was naive for a man to feel any conviction that his own country was the best, or even as good as any other country; just as it was naive to believe that the soldiers of any foreign army committed atrocities or to doubt that any English soldier or sailor or colonial administrator failed to do so.” Such a description perfectly describes Greenwald and other journalists of his ilk, who endlessly bemoan the (highly exaggerated) wrongdoings of the Western democracies, all while ignoring the crimes of their authoritarian adversaries. If patriotism has become passé, “the last refuge of scoundrels” in our post-national, wired world, then treason has become the sign of the truly independent and “brave” thinker who is beholden to no state.
Such figures are, instead, anti-beholden—to the United States. Examine the way, for instance, that Greenwald selectively views the disclosure of classified information, particularly the identities of undercover agents. It was not long ago that Greenwald and many of the same people now praising Snowden as a “whistleblower” were calling for the heads of those individuals they believed had revealed the name of an undercover CIA officer: Valerie Plame. “In disclosing to reporters the classified information of Plame’s CIA employment, what [former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney “Scooter”] Libby did was wrong and almost certainly illegal,” Greenwald wrote in 2005. Ironically, it was Agee’s exposés—cheered wildly at the time by left-wing critics of American foreign policy, Greenwald’s political progenitors—that led Congress to pass the 1982 Intelligence Identities Protection Act. This was the very law invoked to justify a special prosecutor’s investigation into the leaking of Plame’s identity, an investigation Greenwald lustily applauded.
Contrast Greenwald’s contempt for those who leaked the identity of Plame with his reaction to the plight of Raymond Davis, the CIA contractor who sparked a diplomatic crisis with Pakistan in 2011 after shooting two men dead in Lahore. Davis claimed the men had tried to attack him, and that he had acted in self-defense. Washington insisted that Davis was a State Department employee and thus protected by diplomatic immunity, a claim it would later have to retract after the Guardian irresponsibly revealed his true identity. Upon learning that the New York Times had initially heeded a U.S. government request not to disclose the details of Davis’s employment for fear of his safety, Greenwald sneered that the paper was “an active enabler of government propaganda.” Greenwald’s blatant inconsistency on the matter of covert identities suggests that he supports the divulgence of America’s clandestine activities when it can be used to slander his country and endanger its personnel, and opposes it only when it fits his own political agenda.
Another prominent journalist who criticized the American government’s reaction to the Davis episode was Jeremy Scahill, a contributor to the Nation and the radio program “Democracy Now!” Scahill essentially took the side of Pakistan, faulting the United States for deigning to send covert agents there without first informing the Pakistani government, carrying out drone attacks on Pakistani soil (which Davis was presumably aiding through his intelligence work), and for even operating clandestinely in the country at all. “The case highlights the fact that the U.S. is engaged in a covert war in Pakistan—a country it has not declared war against,” he complained to Al Jazeera, thus conflating American attempts to root out terrorists in a country that has been reluctant to do so itself, with waging war “against” the Pakistani state. The U.S. government’s claim that Davis was not a spy, and its attempt to free him from the Pakistani mob, Scahill wrote dismissively, was a “show” with an “ending” that “was carefully choreographed by both governments” (as if American officials should have blown the cover of one of their own spies, in what is perhaps the most anti-American country on earth). In killing Osama bin Laden on Pakistani soil without giving Pakistani authorities prior warning, Barack Obama did precisely what he promised to do in a 2008 presidential debate with John McCain. But in the eyes of Scahill, with the use of “drones, cruise missiles, and Special Ops raids, the United States has embarked on a mission to kill its way to victory.”
In the past several years, Scahill has emerged as one of the most outspoken and oft-quoted national-security reporters in the country. Beginning his journalism career as a writer and producer for a variety of hard-left publications and media programs, he has gone on to publish two bestselling books while appearing frequently on popular television and radio programs. The publication of his latest book, Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield, was accompanied by the release of an expensively produced documentary film by the same name. The book and movie establish Scahill as one of the most vocal left-wing critics of the Obama administration’s counterterrorism strategy.
And yet, despite his newfound mainstream acceptance, Scahill has barely disguised the ideologies that have always underpinned his work: a fundamental hostility toward capitalism, the United States, and its democratic allies. It is these passions that, in turn, spawned a career devoted to undermining America’s foreign policy and intelligence operations.
Born in 1974 in suburban Milwaukee, Scahill dropped out of the University of Wisconsin in 1995 because “I thought my time would be better spent by entering the struggle for justice in this country.” That year, he met Philip Berrigan, the radical former priest who was a member of the pacifist trifecta: the Baltimore 4 (whose members poured their own blood over draft records), the Catonsville 9 (which burned draft cards in homemade napalm), and the Harrisburg 7 (charged with attempting to kidnap then–Secretary of State Henry Kissinger). Scahill moved into Berrigan’s Baltimore commune, Jonah House, dedicated to the principles of “nonviolence, resistance, and community.” In 1996, foreshadowing his later work as a champion of Snowden, Scahill joined an attempted break-in of the NSA, the “brains of the military death machine,” as Berrigan described it. That same year, Scahill was arrested (alongside former Chicago 7 member David Dellinger and the son of Abbie Hoffman) for the attempted occupation of a Chicago federal building in support of Native American activist Leonard Peltier, who murdered two FBI agents in 1975. In 1998, Scahill was arrested once again, this time at Andrews Air Force Base, accompanying protesters who poured blood on a B-52.
During that period, Scahill moved into journalism, working as a producer for “Democracy Now!” Though the line of work might have seemed different than “peace” activism, the mission was the same. “I think that being alive in the times that we live in means to be a resister,” he said in 2007. “For me, media is a nonviolent weapon in that struggle.” In 1998, he and host Amy Goodman won a series of journalism prizes for a program alleging that Chevron was responsible for the deaths of two environmental activists who had occupied an oil platform in the Niger Delta. In 2008, an American jury unanimously exonerated Chevron of all charges in the case.
Following a brief stint as a producer on Michael Moore’s short-lived television show, The Awful Truth, Scahill trekked to the Balkans to cover the tail end of Yugoslavia’s bloody break-up for “Democracy Now!” and a variety of socialist magazines and websites. And here he displayed a propensity for siding with whomever the United States opposed, no matter how evil.
In Kosovo, still a province of Serbia, the majority ethnic Albanian population bore the brunt of violent Serb nationalism at the hands of President Slobodan Milosevic. Serb militias regularly carried out massacres of civilians, and by the end of 1998 they had driven some 300,000 Albanians from their homes. When Serbian negotiators refused a demand from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to remove most of their troops from Kosovo and grant the province autonomy, NATO, led by the United States and Great Britain, launched a 78-day bombing campaign.
While Kosovo Albanians no doubt committed offenses against Serbs, particularly after the NATO bombing run left them as victors, what lay at the heart of the Kosovo conflict were the same factors that sparked the Bosnian war years earlier: Serb ethnic chauvinism and territorial expansionism. Yet Scahill saw the situation differently. In addition to frequent condemnations of NATO and Western leaders such as President Bill Clinton, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and U.S. General Wesley Clark, Scahill’s work during the period was focused almost exclusively on isolated incidents of violence committed by ethnic Albanians—to the exclusion of the vast, methodical ethnic-cleansing campaign carried out by the Serbs, whom he portrayed as the true victims.
Scahill’s overriding thesis of the Kosovo conflict is that it was the United States that was the guilty party. “Under his rule, the nation of Yugoslavia was destroyed, dismantled, and chopped into ethnically pure para-states,” Scahill wrote—of Clinton, not Milosevic. What really irked Scahill was not the impending mass genocide of ethnic Albanians, but that NATO had acted without a UN Security Council resolution. Kosovo was “Clinton’s Iraq,” Scahill fumed in 2008. “He bombed Yugoslavia for 78 days with no United Nations mandate.”
During the war itself, Scahill reported from Belgrade, the Serb capital, where he reliably provided the Serb narrative that they were the victims of Western, imperialist aggression. The Rambouillet Agreement, which Serbia rejected (thereby triggering the NATO bombing), was akin to “one of Don Corleone’s famous offers.” While he filed dispatch after sympathetic dispatch from an enemy capital in wartime, Scahill did not report from Kosovo until after the conflict had ended and Albanian reprisals against Serbs began. The province, he wrote in 2000, “has become a living hell for Serbs, Roma people (Gypsies), Slavic Muslims, and other minorities….Washington is giving ethnic cleansing a green light.”
It was curious that, of all the events that took place in the Balkans in the 1990s, it was the postwar expulsion of Serbs from Kosovo that Scahill would label “ethnic cleansing.” During the Kosovo war itself, the Serbs launched Operation Horseshoe, in which they drove out almost the entire Albanian population. The expulsion of 1.3 million people amounted to, in the words of future U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power, author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, “the single largest European exodus in a half a century.” Serb militias separated women and children from men, thousands of whom were slaughtered and whose bodies were dumped into mass graves or incinerated. The Serbs’ behavior in Kosovo prompted President Clinton to accuse them of “deliberate, systemic efforts at genocide.” Scahill, meanwhile, dismissed war supporters’ “exaggerations” of Serb atrocities. He is far less judicious when it comes to the United States and Israel. American policy in Iraq “from 1990 to the present,” Scahill claimed, constitutes “one of the greatest mass slaughters in history.” In 2010, during a debate on MSNBC, Scahill accused Israel of perpetrating “extermination campaigns” against Palestinians.
Long after the conflict had ended, Scahill continued to display his sympathies for the Serbian aggressors. Milosevic’s death in 2006 meant the loss of “the only man in the unique position of being able to expose and detail the full extent of the U.S. role in the bloody disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 1990s….Sadly, with Milosevic will likely die the last hope the victims of these crimes in Yugoslavia had of getting their day (if it could even be called that) in court—a tragic and unjust reality to begin with that speaks volumes about the twisted state of international justice.” Note here that Scahill was expressing sorrow for the victims of American “crimes,” not Milosevic’s.
Scahill’s big break would come in 2007 thanks to the emerging notoriety of Blackwater, the private security contractor hired to protect American diplomats in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other dangerous locales. That year, Scahill published Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, a breathless exposé of the company and its alleged misdeeds. The firm was a perfect target for Scahill because it married the two things most hated by the left: capitalism and war. Scahill’s thesis was a barely concealed rehash of the old Marxist dictum that the latter is an inevitable result of the former. Blackwater, he wrote, “operates in a demand-based industry where corporate profits are intimately linked to an escalation of violence.”
Not long after the book was published, a firefight involving Blackwater guards erupted at a square in Baghdad in which 17 Iraqis died. The Iraqi government said the guards fired indiscriminately; Blackwater claimed its men had been ambushed. The event, soon dubbed the Nisour Square Massacre by Blackwater critics, led to congressional hearings, a slew of lawsuits against the company, and Scahill’s propulsion into journalistic stardom. The paperback version of Blackwater, which became a bestseller, was blurbed by film star Scarlett Johansson. “It should be mandatory reading,” she gushed. “It’s very interesting—and scary.”
To Scahill, Blackwater was a “mercenary army,” whose founder, former Navy SEAL Erik Prince, is a “committed ideologue.” The protection of American diplomats in hostile environments overseas was just a cover for Blackwater’s true aim: to serve as a “Christian supremacist fighting force” in a grand plot to “eliminate Muslims and destroy Islam globally.” According to Scahill, “the outsourcing of U.S. military operations in Muslim countries and in secular societies to such neo-crusaders reinforces the greatest fears of many in the Arab world and other opponents of the administration’s wars.” Scahill’s evidence of the company’s “neo-crusader” ethos was, to be charitable, thin; he cited the membership of one former Blackwater executive in the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, a lay Catholic service organization, to claim that “some Blackwater executives even boast of their membership” in the group.
Throughout his writings on Blackwater, Scahill ascribed powers to the company it did not have. He refers to Blackwater repeatedly as a “private army” and writes as if the firm’s guards participated regularly in combat operations alongside American soldiers. “If foreign governments are not on board,” Scahill writes, “foreign soldiers—many of whose home countries oppose the U.S. wars—can still be enlisted, at a price.” But the prospect of a private army marching off to fight undeclared, illegal wars at the behest of warmongers in Washington is the stuff of fiction. Neither Blackwater, nor any other contractor, has been hired for combat operations—that is, deploying alongside American or allied soldiers to engage the enemy in the theater of war. (From 2004 to 2009, Blackwater was contracted by the CIA to assist in its campaign of targeting terrorists. The assistance was limited to tasks such as providing security for CIA officers and loading Hellfire missiles.) Private contractors have, of course, found themselves involved in combat, but in the course of protecting diplomats and facilities in war zones.
On the whole, Blackwater guards performed heroically, as in 2004 when a team of eight held off a group of gunmen loyal to Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr while defending a Coalition Provisional Authority building in Najaf. In 2007, Blackwater guards saved the Polish ambassador to Iraq after a roadside bomb struck his convoy. Scahill failed to note that the company had a 100 percent success record in keeping American diplomats safe, a stunning accomplishment considering the daily death toll in Iraq at the height of its insurgency. “Blackwater is getting a bad rap,” complained Barack Obama, who was protected by Blackwater guards, when he was a senator in 2008.
In order to exaggerate the extent of private military contractors operating in war zones, Scahill has frequently presented erroneous—and inconsistent—data. The contractor corps, he claimed in a 2009 appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher, “constitutes more than half of the fighting force in Afghanistan.” In a 2007 Salon article he referred to “the second largest force in Iraq” as the “estimated 126,000 private military ‘contractors.’” In another article published that same year he wrote: “The 145,000 active-duty U.S. forces are nearly matched” in numbers by employees of “companies like Blackwater USA and the former Halliburton subsidiary KBR.” In Blackwater, he referred to “tens of thousands of mercenaries” in Iraq. About the four Blackwater employees lynched in Fallujah by an Iraqi mob in March 2004, Scahill wrote: “Those men who died at Fallujah were members of Washington’s largest partner in the coalition of the willing in Iraq—bigger than Britain’s total deployment,” which, at the time, was some 9,000 soldiers.
But not according to a Congressional Budget Office report published in 2008. “As of late 2007,” the report read, “about 40 percent of the approximately 6,700 contractor personnel working for [the Department of State] in Iraq were providing security.” In other words, fewer than 3,000 men working for all “private military contractors” were under arms. That is a far cry from the “tens of thousands” or over 100,000 Scahill would regularly claim. In Afghanistan, while it’s true that, at the time of his statement, there were more contractors there than American soldiers, it is preposterous to allege that a significant number or even a majority of them were part of any “fighting force.” As for Blackwater itself, then–House Oversight Committee Chairman Henry Waxman said in 2007 that “122 Blackwater employees, one-seventh of the company’s current work force in Iraq, have been terminated for improper conduct.” This would mean there were no more than 850 Blackwater employees in Iraq at the time. Indeed, Scahill contradicts himself in his own book, writing that Blackwater has a mere “2,300 private soldiers deployed in nine countries.”
There are legitimate concerns presented by the use of private military contractors, namely relating to oversight of their behavior in war zones (unlike soldiers, they are not bound by the Uniform Code of Military Justice). But Scahill does not concern himself primarily with such questions. Posing as a defender of the prerogatives of the U.S. military in the face of creeping privatization, Scahill seeks to weaken what he sees as a core element of American foreign policy. “Both Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker made clear that without Blackwater and its ilk, the occupation [of Iraq] would not be tenable,” Scahill writes. In other words: no Blackwater, no American presence in Iraq. “It helped keep a draft, which would make the continuation of the war politically untenable, off the table,” he writes. The government just “rented an occupation force” with soldiers who “were used as cheap cannon fodder.” If the government were to punish the “mercenary firms with indictments for war crimes or murder or human rights violations,” it “would make wars like the one in Iraq far more difficult and arguably impossible.” And so Scahill sets out to discredit and disparage Blackwater, evidence be damned.
Not long after Blackwater appeared, the American justice system provided a coda to Scahill’s years-long campaign of hyperbole, innuendo, and fact-free defamation against the company. In 2009, a federal judge threw out the indictment of five Blackwater guards involved in the Nisour Square incident. In 2011, a district judge dismissed Blackwater’s founder, Prince, from a civil lawsuit alleging that he had defrauded the U.S. government. And in February, a three-year federal prosecution of five separate ex-Blackwater officials for a variety of offenses, including weapons violations and making false statements, resulted in charges against three of the men being dismissed and the remaining two pleading guilty to barely related misdemeanors with no jail time.
With the scalp of Blackwater in hand, Scahill moved on to a bigger, juicier target: the Obama administration’s counterterrorism policies. The fruit of this effort is Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield. It mounts what is essentially a 700-page rationalization of Islamist terrorism twinned with a fiery condemnation of American foreign policy right down to its title, a deliberate invocation of the Argentinian military junta’s campaign of repression, torture, and murder against political dissidents in the 1970s.
On 9/11, Scahill argues, the Bush administration grasped its chance to upturn the traditional rules of conflict by converting the entire globe into a theater of combat and anyone it didn’t like into an enemy combatant. “The world is a battlefield and we are at war,” Scahill writes. “Therefore the military can go wherever they please and do whatever it is that they want to do, in order to achieve the national-security objectives of whichever administration happens to be in power.”
Scahill is less wild in tone here than in Blackwater, yet he still manages to slip into hyperbole. For instance, writing about Abu Ghraib, he concedes that the facility was a “prison and torture chamber” under the rule of Saddam Hussein but that America made it worse and turned it into a “gulag.” (Scahill has also written that “the U.S. still runs that gulag in Guantanamo, which one could argue represents the area in Cuba where the most heinous human rights abuses have been perpetrated in recent years.”)
He also continues his theme that the United States is involved in a war against Islam, echoing the propaganda of al-Qaeda. Whereas earlier this “crusade” was attributable mainly to the “Christian Supremacist” Knights of Blackwater, now, in Scahill’s telling, it reaches up to the highest ranks of the American military. Despite the concerted efforts of General Stanley McChrystal, the former commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, to reduce civilian casualties, Scahill alleges that McChrystal “shared the political view that the United States was indeed in a war against Islam.” His source for this grave allegation is “a retired military officer” who tells Scahill that McChrystal was one of several U.S. military figures constituting a group of “fellow travelers in the great crusade against Islam.” (Another source Scahill cites as an expert on American foreign policy is Gareth Porter, a notorious defender of the Khmer Rouge who alleged that the Cambodian genocide was “a myth fostered primarily by the authors of a Readers’ Digest book.”)
Reading Dirty Wars and listening to Scahill speak reveals that he is essentially opposed to the use of force by the United States or its allies. “I found it quite disgusting to see people chanting, like it was some sort of sporting event, outside of the White House,” he said on “Democracy Now!” following the death of Osama bin Laden. “This is a somber day where we should be remembering all of the victims, the 3,000 people that died in the United States and then the hundreds of thousands that died afterwards as a result of a U.S. response to this that should have been a law enforcement response and instead was to declare war on the world,” he said, thus connecting those murdered on 9/11 with those civilians who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Indeed, Scahill seems to have a problem with even the most benign expressions of American patriotism. “I hate when people chant U-S-A. #FalseNationalistCrap,” he opined on Twitter during the 2010 World Cup.)
For all his anger about American declarations of “war on the world,” Scahill never seems to generate any ire over violence perpetrated by non-Westerners. In a section of the book about terrorism in the horn of Africa, he outright defends the rampant piracy that has resulted in several deadly hostage situations on the high seas. To Scahill, it was not the pirates who were villains, but private business. “International corporations and nation-states had taken advantage of the permanent state of instability in Somalia, treating the Somali coast as their private, for-profit fishery, while others polluted it with illegal waste dumping,” he writes in Dirty Wars. In light of this rapacious, capitalist nightmare, “piracy was at times a response to these actions and some pirates viewed themselves as a sort of Somali coast guard.” (If only Scahill were so charitable to Dick Cheney.) He describes the Islamic Courts Union, Somalia’s short-lived version of the Taliban, as a motley coalition of “liberals, moderates, and extremists” united by a desire to “stabiliz[e] the country through Sharia law.” In the brief period that the group ruled much of Somalia, it shut down movie theater and co-ed events and declared jihad on neighboring Ethiopia.
To personalize the cost of America’s “dirty wars,” Scahill chose a curious subject: Anwar al-Awlaki. The firebrand Islamic preacher, who was born in New Mexico, gained notoriety as the first American citizen since the Civil War to be declared a wartime enemy and deliberately killed without trial by the United States government (via drone attack). Over the course of just a few years, Awlaki inspired a dozen terrorist plots. Some (such as the 2009 Christmas Day “underwear bomber”) failed, while others (such as the killing of 13 soldiers at Fort Hood by Nidal Malik Hasan) were monstrously successful. Through the saga of Awlaki and his targeted killing in Yemen, Scahill hopes, we can appreciate not only the wantonness of America’s “dirty wars” abroad, but the “blowback” effect they produce at home.
From the outset, Scahill seeks to humanize the man who declared jihad against his homeland. “In many ways, Awlaki’s story was a classic tale of people from a faraway land seeking a better life in America,” he writes at the outset of Dirty Wars. Awlaki, we learn, was merely a pious Muslim driven to justifiable rage by America’s wicked foreign policy and its post-9/11 backlash against domestic Muslim communities. To be sure, it was not just Scahill who believed that Awlaki was a moderate Muslim who later transformed into something else. In the late 1990s, he had emerged as one of the most prominent imams in the United States, leading a prayer service for congressional staffers and speaking at the Pentagon. But, according to Scahill, “between the global crackdown that followed 9/11 and the U.S. government’s campaign to hunt him down, something in Awlaki shifted, and he was no longer torn between allegiance to the country of his birth and his religion.”
Yet the alleged “shift,” if it can even be labeled as such, is not so easy to decipher. The good reputation Awlaki had earned among credulous non-Muslims was more a testament to their inability to recognize duplicity than it was of his genuine moderation. According to an in-depth New York Times profile, in which two dozen of his former friends and associates were interviewed, Awlaki was awakened to jihad upon visiting Afghanistan at around the time the Soviet-backed government there fell to Islamist forces; in other words, at least a decade before 9/11. Upon returning to the United States, he would “quote Abdullah Azzam, a prominent Palestinian scholar who provided theological justification for the Afghan jihad and was later known as a mentor to Osama bin Laden,” the Times reported. Several years later, ensconced at the Denver Islamic Society, he encouraged a Saudi student to travel to Chechnya and join the jihad against Russia.
Prior to the 9/11 attacks, Awlaki ministered to three of the hijackers, developing a “close relationship” with two of them, according to the 9/11 Commission Report. And although the FBI ultimately decided not to pursue a full-scale investigation of Awlaki after the attacks, the decision was controversial within the agency, with one detective telling the 9/11 Commission that he believed Awlaki “was at the center of the 9/11 story.” Days after the attacks, Awlaki publicly disputed Muslim involvement, writing that the FBI merely blamed passengers with Muslim names. In a sermon the following week, Awlaki read a condolence note from Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who has endorsed the practice of female genital mutilation and capital punishment for homosexuals, has referred to suicide bombings as “heroic martyrdom operations,” and has called for Islam to “conquer” America and Europe. Scahill, who never lacks for colorful adjectives when describing people like Erik Prince (“Christian Supremacist”) or Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld (“key leaders of a militant movement”), referred to Qaradawi merely as “the famous, controversial Egyptian theologian.”
But even as the mainstream media was continuing to court him as a “moderate” Islamic voice, Awlaki was showing clear signs of further radicalization. A week after 9/11, he said that the attacks were not “an attack on American freedom, on the American way of life,” but “an attack on U.S. foreign policy.” In words that can be read, at best, as a morally equivocating call for pacifism as a response to 9/11, Awlaki declared: “The fact that the U.S. has administered the death and homicide of over one million civilians in Iraq, the fact that the U.S. is supporting the deaths and killing of thousands of Palestinians doesn’t justify the killing of one U.S. civilian in New York City or Washington D.C. And the deaths of 6,000 civilians in New York and Washington D.C., does not justify the death of one civilian in Afghanistan.” (After his killing, Scahill told NPR’s Terry Gross that Awlaki “actually was saying things that many secular anti-war activists were saying about the sameness of violence.”)
According to Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, “a close analysis of the corpus of Awlaki’s sermons and articles shows a surprising level of consistency throughout,” and “the only significant change has been in the prescriptions for solving the perceived problems faced by the ummah (global Muslim community).” That is, Awlaki was always a radical, but would only explicitly embrace violence against Westerners after 9/11, when he was living in Yemen.
In the wake of 9/11, Awlaki fueled claims that Muslims across America were falling victim to a violent nationwide “backlash,” a slanderous picture of the remarkably restrained American response that Scahill accepts at face value. Soon, Awlaki was spouting the sort of anti-corporate hyperbole popularized by Canadian author (and Scahill’s Nation colleague) Naomi Klein. “Either accept McDonald’s, otherwise McDonnell Douglas will send their F-15s above your head,” Awlaki said in a 2003 London sermon. In one particularly popular Internet diatribe, Awlaki implored his listeners, “Whenever you see the word terrorist, replace it with the word mujahid. Whenever you see the word terrorism, replace it with the word jihad.” In 2005, six months after listening to this sermon on a laptop computer, a group of 18 Muslim men were arrested in Canada’s largest post-9/11 terrorism investigation after attempting to blow up downtown Toronto and various military installations.
According to Scahill, Awlaki never said or did anything that ought to have alarmed the U.S. government, and whatever might have alarmed them was their own fault. “You could make a reasonable case that Anwar Awlaki was a product of U.S. policy,” he told the Kremlin-funded propaganda cable station RT. Citing a 2008 Awlaki blog post, in which the cleric furiously issues a “challenge” for the U.S. to “come up with one such lecture where I encourage ‘terrorist attacks,’” Scahill opines, “But, in the eyes of the U.S. government, Awlaki’s calls for jihad amounted to encouraging such attacks,” as if “calls for jihad” amount to anything but “encouraging” violence.
If Awlaki’s sermons were not yet explicit enough to warrant the accusation that he was “encouraging” terrorism, he would soon discard any subtlety with the release in 2010 of Inspire, al-Qaeda’s English-language magazine, which he co-founded and co-edited. Its premier issue included a “hit list” of artists who had caricatured the prophet Muhammad and an accompanying piece by Awlaki urging Muslims to assassinate them. Scahill brushes the magazine aside, saying that it “played into the U.S. propaganda campaign aimed at presenting AQAP as a grave threat.” His nonchalance about the effect of such propaganda tools on young, disillusioned Muslim minds could not have been more unfortunately timed; the May issue of Inspire devoted nearly all its 40 pages to the “BBB,” or “Blessed Boston bombings,” carried out by two young men who were “inspired by INSPIRE,” as the magazine bragged. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who along with his brother Tamerlan killed three people with a bomb attack at this year’s Boston Marathon, has told investigators that he and his sibling discovered how to build their pressure-cooker bombs from the magazine and were motivated to launch their deadly attack after listening to Awlaki’s sermons.
To be sure, hateful sermons—even those that encourage violence—are not the same thing as violence itself. “There was no hard evidence presented that Awlaki had done anything that was not protected speech under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, or that would not require a major court battle to prove it was unconstitutional,” Scahill writes, employing a strange defense for a man who openly rejected the American Constitution and justice system. Elsewhere in his defense of Awlaki, Scahill claims that “words are not actions.”
Definitive proof of Awlaki’s “operational,” as opposed to simply “inspirational,” role in terrorism came in two court filings released in February. In 2009, a Nigerian graduate student named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab failed to detonate explosive materials sewn into his undergarments while on an Amsterdam jet bound for Detroit. Abdulmutallab, who eventually plead guilty, told investigators that after absorbing Awlaki’s sermons for years, he traveled to Yemen in 2009 to find the preacher and spent three days at Awlaki’s home discussing jihad. Awlaki then sent the young Nigerian to an al-Qaeda bomb-maker, gave his blessing to an attack, and specifically told his disciple to detonate the bomb over U.S. soil, thus ensuring the highest number of possible casualties (unlike a failed 2006 attempt in which the plotters had planned to explode American-bound planes leaving from Britain over the Atlantic Ocean). Directed by Awlaki, Abdulmutallab trained for two weeks at an al-Qaeda camp in Yemen.
And what is Scahill’s analysis of this damning indictment from the attempted underwear bomber himself? He does not even mention it. Granted, this confession did not emerge publicly until 2012, months after Awlaki had been killed. But it appeared over a year before Scahill’s book was released. Instead, Scahill denies the Obama administration’s earlier, fuzzier claims of Awlaki’s involvement in the Christmas Day plot by quoting unnamed “tribal sources” in Yemen who told him that “Awlaki was not involved in the plot.” And Scahill accepts, at face value, Awlaki’s own denial of issuing any “fatwa,” though the cleric stated, after the attempt failed, “I support what Umar Farouk has done.”
Scahill’s main source for his narrative on Awlaki is the late cleric’s father, Nasser, an American-educated agricultural expert. In the acknowledgements to Dirty Wars, Scahill writes of how he stands “in awe” of the Awlaki family’s “quest for justice.” Scahill publishes a 2010 letter the elder Awlaki wrote to Obama, in which he characterized his son’s post-9/11 radicalization as “learning and preaching his religion and nothing else.” The senior Awlaki then pleaded with the president. “I would like to inform you Mr. President Obama that my son is innocent, has nothing to do with violence, and he is only a scholar of Islam.” That Scahill, the supposedly dogged investigative journalist, would convey this fable about Awlaki verbatim without any critical reflection whatsoever reveals where his sympathies lay.
Scahill’s criticism of the blowback allegedly caused by drones would be more credible if he expressed support for some other method of combatting America’s enemies. But unlike some critics, who argue against drones because they believe them to be inefficient and instead favor other methods, Scahill’s opposition is foundational. In his eyes, the U.S. lacks all legitimacy for using force, because the death of one civilian is too much. “Those whose loved ones were killed in drone strikes or cruise missile attacks or night raids will have a legitimate score to settle,” he writes, essentially arguing that relatives of civilians who die unintentionally as a result of U.S. counterterrorism actions ought to wage terrorist attacks in turn.
One of Scahill’s prime targets in Dirty Wars is the Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC, the military’s most elite fighting force responsible for, among other accomplishments, the assassination of Osama bin Laden. Initially a hostage rescue team formed in the wake of the seizure of the American embassy in Tehran, JSOC transformed over the past three decades into a top-secret counterterrorism force heavily favored by President Obama, who has been averse to large-scale military deployments. JSOC often operates in areas where the United States has not declared war (such as Pakistan or Yemen) and has become a vital element in the American war on terror. Whereas most Americans probably view JSOC with admiration, Scahill sees something nefarious. It is a “global killing machine,” Obama’s embrace of which indicates that he has “doubled down on the Bush-era policy of targeted assassination as a staple of U.S. foreign policy.” As with drone strikes, Scahill’s criticism of JSOC rests on its very existence; he proposes no alternative to dealing with armed radicals who seek to sow destruction against the United States and its allies.
Scahill was bidding to be the most important voice on the far left until Greenwald zoomed past him this summer with the Snowden leaks. Like Scahill, Greenwald ascended rapidly from the precincts of the far left to mainstream acceptance. In the past six years, he has written four books, three of which have been New York Times bestsellers. And also like Scahill, he brings a pugnacious personality and Manichaean worldview to his work. Greenwald grew up near Fort Lauderdale, and his homosexuality appears to have played some role in fomenting his anti-American attitudes. “When you grow up gay, you are not part of the system, it forces you to evaluate: ‘Is it me, or is the system bad?’” he told the New York Times earlier this year. It is understandable how Greenwald, who, until the Supreme Court decided the case of Windsor v. United States earlier this year, would have been unable to bring Miranda to live with him in his native land, might have resented his country for it. Yet America has the capacity to change, as it has in quite a remarkably short period of time on the issue of homosexuality. Moreover, however disagreeable Greenwald might have found his country’s attitudes toward his sexual orientation, it can hardly justify his advocacy on behalf of some of the world’s most repulsive homophobes.
Briefly a litigator for the high-powered firm Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz before hanging out his own shingle, Greenwald stopped practicing law to take up political writing in 2005. Greenwald claims to have been radicalized by the Bush administration, which he believed had plunged the country into an unprecedented moral darkness. “Over the past five years, a creeping extremism has taken hold of our federal government, and it is threatening to radically alter our system of government and who we are as a nation,” he wrote in the preface to his 2006 book, How Would a Patriot Act?
While Greenwald repudiates any political classification other than that of a committed civil libertarian, he has repeatedly spoken at international socialist conferences, including one this year where he joined Scahill for an “urgent discussion about the attack on civil liberties, U.S. imperialism, and how we can fight back,” in the words of the organizers. “As someone who speaks at all sorts of political gatherings every year, I can say with certainty that no event assembles more passionate activism, genuine expertise, and provocative insights than the Socialism Conference,” Greenwald has said. “This will be my third straight year attending, and what keeps me coming back is how invigorating and inspiring it is to be in the midst of such diverse and impressive activists.”
In 2005, Greenwald started a blog, Unclaimed Territory, which was originally focused on the Valerie Plame case. He soon branched out into covering a variety of topics related to civil liberties and foreign policy, in a manner highly critical of the Bush administration and its defenders in the media, to put it gently. His vituperative writing style (“odious,” to designate someone or something he doesn’t agree with, and “smear,” to describe any criticism, no matter how mild, of something he does agree with, being two of his choice words) mixed with the detailed obsessiveness of a trained litigator, proved popular with a steadily growing number of readers in the left-wing blogosphere. He quickly rose to become one of the country’s most widely read bloggers, repeatedly earning himself a place on lists of the most influential or popular pundits in the United States. In 2007, his blog was picked up by the website Salon, and in 2012, Greenwald catapulted into international stardom when he was hired by the Guardian as a full-time blogger and reporter.
Like Scahill, Greenwald subscribes to a modernized version of the old trope attributing all that is wrong in the world to the behavior of the United States. They maintain that anything unfortunate to befall America is a result of its own behavior, or, in the parlance of left- and right-wing isolationists, blowback. Greenwald never comes out explicitly in favor of terrorist attacks. His defenses of jihad are always couched in language that seeks to justify terrorism as a logical and understandable response to Western imperialism. “As strange as it is, they actually seem to dislike it when foreign militaries bomb, invade, and occupy their countries and kill hundreds of thousands of Muslim children,” Greenwald sarcastically wrote of Muslim terrorism suspects in 2010.
“Terrorism,” Greenwald has written, is “a term of propaganda, a means of justifying one’s own state violence.” Greenwald acknowledges no distinction between the strict rules of engagement followed by Western militaries and the deliberate murder of civilians perpetrated by Islamists. “Anti-American Terrorists,” he writes (sarcastic capitalization being a Greenwaldian trademark meant to impugn his intellectual adversaries as fearmongering, self-important cretins), are motivated by “severe anger over the violence and interference the U.S. brings to their part of the world.” Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani-American who was arrested in 2010 for attempting to set off a car bomb in Times Square, had told investigators he wanted to take revenge on America in response to the drone strikes it had launched in his native country’s ungoverned tribal areas. While we in America might view the blowing up of a car bomb in Times Square to be an utterly inappropriate response to such a policy, Greenwald reminded his readers that “a desire to exact vengeance for foreign killings on your soil is hardly a unique attribute of Pashtun culture.” On the contrary, “It’s fairly universal,” Greenwald wrote. “See, for instance, the furious American response to the one-day attack on 9/11—still going strong even after 9 years.” And so the American response to the murder of nearly 3,000 of its citizens (a mere “one-day attack”) is akin to blowing up a Nissan Pathfinder in the country’s busiest commercial plaza.
In addition to justifying the horrific violence regularly perpetrated by Islamists (most often against their fellow Muslims) as perfectly understandable reactions to American behavior, Greenwald portrays attempted terrorists as luckless victims of entrapment by the American government. The series of terrorist attacks thwarted in the United States in the dozen years since 9/11, Greenwald argues, were largely orchestrated by law-enforcement authorities to scare the American people and thereby mentally bludgeon them into supporting tougher and tougher counterterrorism measures and invasions into their privacy. In November 2010, officers from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Portland police arrested 19-year-old Mohamed Osman Mohamud, a Somali-American student, on charges of attempting to detonate a car bomb at a Christmas tree lighting, an attack that would have killed scores of people. Undercover agents approached Mohamud, pretending to be members of an international terrorist organization, and provided him with the fake bomb. “The FBI successfully thwarts its own terrorist plot,” sneered Greenwald on his blog.
Entrapment, of which Greenwald accused the government, hinges on intent. And in each and every one of the post-9/11 terrorism cases, the accused individual demonstrated a clear willingness and desire to kill innocent people; in not one of these cases has a court found a defendant not guilty by reason of entrapment. Throughout the Portland investigation, for instance, according to the government’s affidavit, undercover agents repeatedly told Mohamud that the attack would lead to the death and injury of many people and offered him opportunities to back out of the plan. At every point, Mohamud acknowledged his willingness to kill people and resisted attempts to dissuade his participation. While defending Mohamud as a hapless kid targeted by unscrupulous government officials, Greenwald made time to once again play lawyer for the terrorist’s defense. Citing a video Mohamud made before the attempted attack in which he announced, “Did you think that you could invade a Muslim land, and we would not invade you,” Greenwald wrote that “accused Terrorists” repeatedly explain that “they are attempting to carry out plots in retaliation for past and ongoing American violence against Muslim civilians and deter such future acts” (emphasis in original).
Though Greenwald had already gained a loyal following in the United States, his joining the Guardian—the closest thing to a Bible for the global left—elevated him to new heights. And it was less than a year into working for the London-based paper that he would break what would become the biggest story of 2013: revelations about the extent of spying programs conducted by the National Security Agency. In his original story about the Prism program, Greenwald alleged that the NSA is able “to obtain targeted communications without having to request them from the service providers and without having to obtain individual court orders” and that it can “directly and unilaterally seize the communications off the companies’ servers.” In reality, however, the NSA does not have anything approaching such wide and uninhibited access to the data compiled by Internet companies. Rather, as the Guardian later acknowledged, the agency obtains the information it needs via “drop boxes”—secure computer servers—established by the companies themselves. There, companies can safely deposit legally requested information. The drop boxes are simply a method of complying with subpoenas, which, like any American citizen or business concern, Internet companies are legally obliged to do. This reality is a far cry from the government having access to any and every bit of data compiled by Internet companies.
In his coverage of the NSA programs, Greenwald’s status as an unapologetic polemicist has collided with what ought to have been the news judgment of the Guardian. In his writing and frequent television appearances, he has vastly exaggerated, and at times outright lied about, the programs. For instance, in describing the Prism program on CNN, Greenwald detailed an Orwellian world in which the American government has “only one goal, and that is to destroy privacy and anonymity, not just in the United States but around the world. That is not hyperbole. That is their objective.” On MSNBC, he said that “the objective of this is to enable the NSA to monitor every single conversation and every single form of human behavior.” According to Greenwald, the problem with the NSA’s programs is not that they represent an overzealous approach to combating terrorism, for in his view the NSA actually has no interest in combating terrorism. No, the “only one goal” of the NSA is to spy on innocent American citizens. Here Greenwald did what he always does, which is to impute sinister motives to actors—in this case, the shadowy and amorphous American national-security state—he cannot substantiate with evidence. In publishing wildly sensational stories about the NSA, Greenwald is himself guilty of the very type of fearmongering that he accuses the government of perpetrating against American citizens. And it appears to be working. A July poll conducted by Pew found that 63 percent of Americans believe the government is “gathering information about the content of communications,” and a full 27 percent of Americans believe that the government has “listened to or read their phone calls and emails.”
While actively supporting (in words and materially) the work of American traitors, Greenwald simultaneously accuses American friends of Israel of putting the interests of the Jewish state before their own. “Not even our Constitution’s First Amendment has been a match for the endless exploitation of American policy, law, and resources [by the Israel lobby] to target and punish Israel’s enemies,” he wrote in 2009. Pro-Israel activists and writers, he alleged, exercise a “suffocating control over American debates and American policy.” If one does not “pledge your loyalty to our policies toward Israel and to Israel,” he once wrote, you will “be demonized and have your career ended,” an odd remark coming from a man whose career has gone from strength to strength the more outrageous his attacks on Israel have become.
Greenwald is not just content to slander Israel’s American supporters; he is a full-throated supporter of those who seek its destruction. Following the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident—in which Israeli commandos raided a Turkish flotilla, attempting to break Israel’s blockade of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip—Greenwald published a series of strongly worded posts condemning the Jewish State and praising those who took part in the flotilla. “It hardly seemed possible, for Israel—after its brutal devastation of Gaza and its ongoing blockade—to engage in more heinous and repugnant crimes,” he wrote, with characteristically overwrought language. Greenwald, who trades on his history as a corporate litigator to pose as an expert in international law, asserted that the Israeli blockade of Hamas is “illegal,” despite a ruling by the United Nations to the contrary. He alleged, moreover, that “the initial act of aggression was the Israeli seizing of a ship in international waters which was doing nothing hostile,” choosing here to ignore the stated, pro-Hamas sympathies of those behind the flotilla. Nor did Greenwald ever bother to retract his assertions after a United Nations inspection into the incident found that the Israeli commandos who boarded the main Turkish ship were met with “organized and violent resistance from a group of passengers.”
The most telling aspect of Greenwald’s writings about the flotilla incident, which applies to his oeuvre on Israel more generally, is that he hardly ever mentions Hamas, never mind its racism or genocidal intentions. Grappling with the nature of Hamas would complicate Greenwald’s black-and-white portrayal of the Middle East, so he ignores it completely. And then he went a step further. Noting that the Mavi Marmara incident occurred on Memorial Day, “when the meaning of ‘heroism’ is often discussed,” Greenwald wanted his readers to know that the members of the Mavi Marmara were “pure, unadulterated heroes.”
Greenwald’s temperament is never reasonable, and his writing style borders on the outlandish in its vituperation and tendency to characterize anyone who disagrees with him, even on the slightest point, as evil. He can sometimes veer off into unintentional self-parody, like the time he wrote an entire post endorsing the repeal of “Godwin’s Law,” the assertion made by journalist Mike Godwin that, “as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.” Devised in 1990, “Godwin’s Law,” seems to have been presciently created just for Greenwald. In 2010, after ridiculing the notion that there had been any positive outcome from the invasion of Iraq, Greenwald received a public invitation from the prime minister of Iraqi Kurdistan to visit the region. Greenwald scoffed at the offer, writing, “It’s difficult to find an invasion in history that wasn’t supported by at least some faction of the invaded population and where that same self-justifying script wasn’t used.” He then went on to compare the war in Iraq to the Nazi “invasion” of Austria and the Sudetenland, with the Kurds, in this sickening comparison, akin to Nazi sympathizers.
In his capacity as a legally minded pontificator of the far left, Greenwald might be called the Leonard Boudin of the interactive age. Boudin was the go-to lawyer for America’s most prominent Communists, left-wing radicals, and terrorists, not to mention the post-revolutionary Cuban government of Fidel Castro. Like Boudin, Greenwald can always be relied upon to provide a defense for those who wish to do America and its allies harm. Greenwald has ranked his perverse sense of “anti-imperialism” ahead of any and all other considerations, including what many would expect to be his own self-interest. After all, how else could a gay Jew become the world’s most verbose Western apologist for homophobic, anti-Semitic fanatics and murderers?
In their critiques of the Obama administration, Greenwald and Scahill are right about one important thing, which is the general continuity in counterterrorism policies between the Bush and Obama administrations and the blatant hypocrisy of the latter in claiming it would restore the reputation of an America “tarnished” by the actions of the former. Unlike many on the left, who vigorously defend Obama policies they would surely condemn as war crimes if a Republican were pursuing them, Greenwald and Scahill are at least intellectually consistent in their broad renunciation of American foreign policy. The Obama administration had propagated “the fantasy of a clean war,” Scahill writes, the implication being that all wars are inherently “dirty,” and thus America should disarm and withdraw from the world.
While this righteous condemnation of American liberal hypocrisy is a welcome tonic, one must remember that it originates from a deep and abiding belief that America plays a fundamentally evil role in the world. It is a view that Greenwald and Scahill have repeatedly expressed. “So I say that we call for an end to the death penalty in this country, and we call for an end to the collective death penalty being meted out on the rest of the world by this criminal government,” Scahill pronounced at the Socialism 2007 conference. Raising a similar alarm about the foundational corruption of the American political system, Greenwald declares that “the worst and most tyrannical government actions in Washington are equally supported on a fully bipartisan basis.”
“All men should have a drop of treason in their veins,” Rebecca West wrote in 1964. By this she meant that no citizen should accept everything his political leaders say without question; he should be ready to acknowledge that his government, like anything created by man, is capable of error. This sentiment has been popularized in the less eloquent and more simplistic maxim “dissent is patriotic.” The American practitioners of Treason Chic like to see themselves as dissenters, which they are in the sense that they diverge from the mainstream. But in so doing, they have taken the principle to an unholy extreme. Striking a pose as concerned patriots, far more than a drop of treason courses through their veins.
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Their coming-and-going polka—now you see ’im, now you don’t—consumed the first 10 days of March. One week Cohn was in the driver’s seat of U.S. economic policy, steering his boss into a comprehensive overhaul of the tax code and preparing him for a huge disgorgement of taxpayer money to repair some nebulous entity called “our crumbling infrastructure.” The next week Cohn had disappeared and in his place at the president’s side Navarro suddenly materialized. With Navarro’s encouragement, the president unexpectedly announced hefty, world-wobbling tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. At first the financial markets tumbled, and nobody in Washington, including the president’s friends, seemed happy. Nobody, that is, except Navarro, whose Cheshire-cat grin quickly became unavoidable on the alphabet-soup channels of cable news. It’s the perfect place for him, front and center, trying to disentangle the conflicting strands of the president’s economic policy. Far more than Cohn, the president’s newest and most powerful economic adviser is a suitable poster boy for Trumpism, whatever that might be.
So where, the capital wondered, did this Navarro fellow come from? (The question So where did this Cohn guy go? barely lasted a news cycle.) Insiders and political obsessives dimly remembered Navarro from Trump’s presidential campaign. With Wilbur Ross, now the secretary of commerce, Navarro wrote the most articulate brief for the Trump economic plan in the months before the election, which by my reckoning occurred roughly 277 years ago. (Ross is also Navarro’s co-conspirator in pushing the steel tariffs. They’re an Odd Couple indeed: Navarro is well-coiffed and tidy and as smooth as a California anchorman, while Ross is what Barney Fife might have looked like if he’d given up his job as Mayberry’s deputy sheriff and gotten a degree in mortuary science.) The Navarro-Ross paper drew predictable skepticism from mainstream economists and their proxies in the press, particularly its eye-popping claim that Trump’s “trade policy reforms” would generate an additional $1.7 trillion in government revenue over the next 10 years.
Navarro is nominally a professor at University of California, Irvine. His ideological pedigree, like the president’s, is that of a mongrel. After a decade securing tenure by writing academic papers (“A Critical Comparison of Utility-type Ratemaking Methodologies in Oil Pipeline Regulation”), he set his attention on politics. In the 1990s, he earned the distinction of losing four political races in six years, all in San Diego or its surrounding suburbs—one for mayor, another for county supervisor, another for city council. He was a Democrat in those days, as Trump was; he campaigned against sprawl and for heavy environmental regulation. In 1996, he ran for Congress as “The Democrat Newt Gingrich Fears Most.” The TV actor Ed Asner filmed a commercial for him. This proved less helpful than hoped when his Republican opponent reminded voters that a few years earlier, Asner had been a chief fundraiser for the Communist guerrillas in El Salvador.
After that defeat, Navarro got the message and retired from politics. He returned to teaching, became an off-and-on-again Republican, and set about writing financial potboilers, mostly on investment strategies for a world increasingly unreceptive to American leadership. One of them, Death by China (2011), purported to describe the slow but inexorable sapping of American wealth and spirit through Chinese devilry. As it happened, this was Donald Trump’s favorite theme as well. From the beginning of his 40-year public career, Trump has stuck to his insistence that someone, in geo-economic terms, is bullying this great country of his. The identity of the bully has varied over time: In the 1980s, it was the Soviets who, following their cataclysmic implosion, gave way to Japan, which was replaced, after its own economic collapse, by America’s neighbors to the north and south, who have been joined, since the end of the last decade, by China. In Death by China, the man, the moment, and the message came together with perfect timing. Trump loved it.
It’s not clear that he read it, however. Trump is a visual learner, as the educational theorists used to say. He will retain more from Fox and Friends as he constructs his hair in the morning than from a half day buried in a stack of white papers from the Department of Labor. When Navarro decided to make a movie of the book, directed by himself, Trump attended a screening and lustily endorsed it. You can see why. Navarro’s use of animation is spare but compelling; the most vivid image shows a dagger of Asiatic design plunging (up to the hilt and beyond!) into the heart of a two-dimensional map of the U.S., causing the country’s blood to spray wildly across the screen, then seep in rivulets around the world. It’s Wes Cravenomics.
Most of the movie, however, is taken up by talking heads. Nearly everyone of these heads is attached to a left-wing Democrat, a socialist, or, in a couple of instances, an anarchist from the Occupy movement. Watched today, Death by China is a reminder of how lonely—how marginal—the anti-China obsession has been. This is not to its discredit; yesterday’s fringe often becomes today’s mainstream, just as today’s consensus is often disproved by the events of tomorrow. Not so long ago, for instance, the establishment catechism declared that economic liberalization and the prosperity it created led inexorably to political liberalization; from free markets, we were told, came free societies. In the last generation, China has put this fantasy to rest. Only the willfully ignorant would deny that the behavior of the Chinese government, at home and abroad, is the work of swine. Even so, the past three presidents have seen China only as a subject for scolding, never retaliation.
And this brings us to another mystery of Trumpism, as Navarro embodies it. Retaliation against China and its bullying trade practices is exactly what Trump has promised as both candidate and president. More than a year into his presidency, with his tariffs on steel and aluminum, he has struck against the bullies at last, just as he vowed to do. And the bullies, we discover, are mostly our friends—Germans, Brazilians, South Koreans, and other partners who sell us their aluminum and steel for less than we can make it ourselves. Accounting for 2 percent of U.S. steel imports, the Chinese are barely scratched in the president’s first great foray in protectionism.
In announcing the tariffs, Trump cited Chinese “dumping,” as if out of habit. Yet Navarro himself seems at a loss to explain why he and his boss have chosen to go after our friends instead of our preeminent adversary in world trade. “China is in many ways the root of the problem for all countries of the world in aluminum and steel,” he told CNN the day after the tariffs were announced. Really? How’s that? “The bigger picture is, China has tremendous overcapacity in both aluminum and steel. So what they do is, they flood the world market, and this trickles down to our shores, and to other countries.”
If that wasn’t confusing enough, we had only to wait three days. By then Navarro was telling other interviewers, “This has nothing to do with China, directly or indirectly.”
This is not the first time Trumpism has shown signs of incoherence. With Peter Navarro at the president’s side, and with Gary Cohn a fading memory, it is unlikely to be the last.
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Review of 'Political Tribes' By Amy Chua
Amy Chua has an explanation for what ails us at home and abroad: Elites keep ignoring the primacy of tribalism both in the United States and elsewhere and so are blindsided every time people act in accordance with their group instinct. In Political Tribes, she offers a survey of tribal dynamics around the globe and renders judgments about the ways in which the United States has serially misread us-and-them conflicts. In the book’s final chapters, Chua, a Yale University law professor best known for her parenting polemic Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, focuses on the clashing group instincts that now threaten to sunder the American body politic.
As Chua sees it, “our blindness to political tribalism abroad reflects America at both its best and worst.” Because the United States is a nation made up of diverse immigrant populations—a “supergroup”—Americans can sometimes underestimate how hard it is for people in other countries to set aside their religious or ethnic ties and find common national purpose. That’s American ignorance in its most optimistic and benevolent form. But then there’s the more noxious variety: “In some cases, like Vietnam,” she writes, “ethnically blind racism has been part of our obliviousness.”
During the Vietnam War, Chua notes, the United States failed to distinguish between the ethnically homogeneous Vietnamese majority and the Chinese minority who were targets of mass resentment. In Vietnam, national identity was built largely on historical accounts of the courageous heroes who had been repelling Chinese invaders since 111 b.c.e., when China first conquered its neighbor to the south. This defining antipathy toward the Chinese was exacerbated by the fact that Vietnam’s Chinese minority was on average far wealthier and more politically powerful than the ethnic Vietnamese masses. “Yet astonishingly,” writes Chua, “U.S. foreign policy makers during the Cold War were so oblivious to Vietnamese history that they thought Vietnam was China’s pawn—merely ‘a stalking horse for Beijing in Southeast Asia.’”
Throughout the book, Chua captures tribal conflicts in clear and engrossing prose. But as a guide to foreign policy, one gets the sense that her emphasis on tribal ties might not be able to do all the work she expects of it. The first hint comes in her Vietnam analysis. If American ignorance of Chinese–Vietnam tensions is to blame for our having fought and lost the war, what would a better understanding of such things have yielded? She gets to that, sort of. “Could we have supported Ho [Chi Minh] against the French, capitalizing on Vietnam’s historical hostility toward China to keep the Vietnamese within our sphere of influence?” Chua asks. “We’ll never know. Somehow we never saw or took seriously the enmity between Vietnam and China.” It’s hard to see the U.S.’s backing a mass-murdering Communist against a putatively democratic ally as anything but a surreal thought experiment, let alone a lost opportunity.
On Afghanistan, Chua is correct about a number of things. There are indeed long-simmering tensions between Pashtuns, Punjabs, and other tribes in the region. The U.S. did pay insufficient attention to Afghanistan in the decade leading up to 9/11. The Taliban did play on Pashtun aspirations to fuel their rise. But how, exactly, are we to understand our failures in Afghanistan as resulting from ignorance of tribal relations? The Taliban went on to forge a protective agreement with al-Qaeda that had little if anything to do with tribal ties. And it was that relationship that had tragic consequences for the United States.
Not only was Osama bin Laden not Pashtun; he was an Arab millionaire, and his terrorist organization was made up of jihadists from all around the world. If anything, it was Bin Laden’s trans-tribal movement that the U.S. should have been focused on. The Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance was based on pooling resources against perceived common threats, compatible (but not identical) religious notions, and large cash payments from Bin Laden. No American understanding of tribal relations could have interfered with that.
And while an ambitious tribe-savvy counterinsurgency strategy might have gone a long way in helping the U.S.’s war effort, there has never been broad public support for such a commitment. Ultimately, our problems in Afghanistan have less to do with neglecting tribal politics and more to do with general neglect.
In Chua’s chapter on the Iraq War, however, her paradigm aligns more closely with the facts. “Could we have done better if we hadn’t been so blind to tribal politics in Iraq?” she asks. “There’s very good evidence that the answer is yes.” Here Chua offers a concise account of the U.S.’s successful 2007 troop surge. “While the additional U.S. soldiers—sent primarily to Baghdad and Al Anbar Province—were of course a critical factor,” she writes, “the surge succeeded only because it was accompanied by a 180-degree shift in our approach to the local population.”
Chua goes into colorful detail about then colonel H.R. McMaster’s efforts to educate American troops in local Iraqi customs and his decision to position them among the local population in Tal Afar. This won the trust of Iraqis who were forthcoming with critical intelligence. She also covers the work of Col. Sean MacFarland who forged relationships with Sunni sheikhs. Those sheikhs, in turn, convinced their tribespeople to work with U.S. forces and function as a local police force. Finally, Chua explains how Gen. David Petraeus combined the work of McMaster and MacFarland and achieved the miraculous in pacifying Baghdad. In spite of U.S. gains—and the successful navigation of tribes—there was little American popular will to keep Iraq on course and, over the next few years, the country inevitably unraveled.I n writing about life in the United States, Chua is on firmer ground altogether, and her diagnostic powers are impressive. “It turns out that in America, there’s a chasm between the tribal identities of the country’s haves and have-nots,” she writes, “a chasm of the same kind wreaking political havoc in many developing and non-Western countries.” In the U.S., however, there’s a crucial difference to this dynamic, and Chua puts her finger right on it: “In America, it’s the progressive elites who have taken it upon themselves to expose the American Dream as false. This is their form of tribalism.”
She backs up this contention with statistics. Some of the most interesting revelations have to do with the Occupy movement. In actual fact, those who gathered in cities across the country to protest systemic inequality in 2012 were “disproportionately affluent.” In fact, “more than half had incomes of $75,000 or more.” Occupy faded away, as she notes, because it “attracted so few members from the many disadvantaged groups it purported to be fighting for.” Chua puts things in perspective: “Imagine if the suffragette movement hadn’t included large numbers of women, or if the civil-rights movement included very few African Americans, or if the gay-rights movement included very few gays.” America’s poorer classes, for their part, are “deeply patriotic, even if they feel they’re losing the country to distant elites who know nothing about them.”
Chua is perceptive on both the inhabitants of Trump Country and the elites who disdain them. She takes American attitudes toward professional wrestling as emblematic of the split between those who support Donald Trump and those who detest him. Trump is a bona fide hero in the world of pro wrestling; he has participated in “bouts” and was actually inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2013. What WWE fans get from watching wrestling they also get from watching Trump—“showmanship and symbols,” a world held together by enticing false storylines, and, ultimately, “something playfully spectacular.” Those on the academic left, on the other hand, “are fascinated, even obsessed in a horrified way, with the ‘phenomenology’ of watching professional wrestling.” In the book’s most arresting line, Chua writes that “there is now so little interaction, commonality, and intermarriage between rural/heartland/working-class whites and urban/coastal whites that the difference between them is practically what social scientists would consider an ‘ethnic difference.’”
Of course, there’s much today dividing America along racial lines as well. While Americans of color still contend with the legacy of institutional intolerance, “it is simply a fact that ‘diversity’ policies at the most select American universities and in some sectors of the economy have had a disparate adverse impact on whites.” So, both blacks and whites (and most everyone else) feel threatened to some degree. This has sharpened the edge of identity politics on the left and right. In Chua’s reading, these tribal differences will not actually break the country apart. But, she believes, they could fundamentally and irreversibly change “who we are.”
Political Tribes, however, is no doomsday prediction. Despite our clannish resentments, Chua sees, in her daily interactions, people’s willingness to form bonds beyond those of their in-group and a relaxing of tribal ties. What’s needed is for haves and have-nots, whites and blacks, liberals and conservatives to enjoy more meaningful exposure to one another. This pat prescription would come across as criminally sappy if not for the genuinely loving and patriotic way in which Chua writes about our responsibilities as a “supergroup.” “It’s not enough that we view one another as fellow human beings,” she says, “we need to view one another as fellow Americans.” Americans as a higher ontological category than human beings—there’s poetry in that. And a healthy bit of tribalism, too.
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Then again, you know what happens when you assume.
“Here is my prediction,” Kristof wrote. “The new paramount leader, Xi Jinping, will spearhead a resurgence of economic reform, and probably some political easing as well. Mao’s body will be hauled out of Tiananmen Square on his watch, and Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize–winning writer, will be released from prison.”
True, Kristof conceded, “I may be wrong entirely.” But, he went on, “my hunch on this return to China, my old home, is that change is coming.”
Five years later, the Chinese economy, while large, is saddled with debt. Analysts and government officials are worried about its real-estate bubble. Despite harsh controls, capital continues to flee China. Nor has there been “some political easing.” On the contrary, repression has worsened. The Great Firewall blocks freedom of speech and inquiry, human-rights advocates are jailed, and the provinces resemble surveillance states out of a Philip K. Dick novel. Mao rests comfortably in his mausoleum. Not only did Liu Xiaobo remain a prisoner, he was also denied medical treatment when he contracted cancer, and he died in captivity in 2017.
As for Xi Jinping, he turned out not to be a reformer but a dictator. Steadily, under the guise of anti-corruption campaigns, Xi decimated alternative centers of power within the Communist Party. He built up a cult of personality around “Xi Jinping thought” and his “Chinese dream” of economic, cultural, and military strength. His preeminence was highlighted in October 2017 when the Politburo declined to name his successor. Then, in March of this year, the Chinese abolished the term limits that have guaranteed rotation in office since the death of Mao. Xi reigns supreme.
Bizarrely, this latest development seems to have come as a surprise to the American press. The headline of Emily Rauhala’s Washington Post article read: “China proposes removal of two-term limit, potentially paving way for President Xi Jinping to stay on.” Potentially? Xi’s accession to emperor-like status, wrote Julie Bogen of Vox, “could destabilize decades of progress toward democracy and instead move China even further toward authoritarianism.” Could? Bogen did not specify which “decades of progress toward democracy” she was talking about, but that is probably because, since 1989, there haven’t been any.
Xi’s assumption of dictatorial powers should not have shocked anyone who has paid the slightest bit of attention to recent Chinese history. The Chinese government, until last month a collective dictatorship, has exercised despotic control over its people since the very founding of the state in 1949. And yet the insatiable desire among media to incorporate news events into a preestablished storyline led reporters to cover the party announcement as a sudden reversal. Why? Because only then would the latest decision of an increasingly embattled and belligerent Chinese leadership fit into the prefabricated narrative that says we are living in an authoritarian moment.
For example, one article in the February 26, 2018, New York Times was headlined, “With Xi’s Power Grab, China Joins New Era of Strongmen.” CNN’s James Griffiths wrote, “While Chinese politics is not remotely democratic in the traditional sense, there are certain checks and balances within the Party system itself, with reformers and conservatives seeing their power and influence waxing and waning over time.” Checks and balances, reformers and conservatives—why, they are just like us, only within the context of a one-party state that ruthlessly brooks no dissent.
Now, we do happen to live in an era when democracy and autocracy are at odds. But China is not joining the “authoritarian trend.” It helped create and promote the trend. Next year, China’s “era of strongmen” will enter its seventh decade. The fundamental nature of the Communist regime in Beijing has not changed during this time.
My suspicion is that journalists were taken aback by Xi’s revelation of his true nature because they, like most Western elites, have bought into the myth of China’s “peaceful rise.” For decades, Americans have been told that China’s economic development and participation in international organizations and markets would lead inevitably to its political liberalization. What James Mann calls “the China fantasy” manifested itself in the leadership of both major political parties and in the pronouncements of the chattering class across the ideological spectrum.
Indeed, not only was the soothing scenario of China as a “responsible stakeholder” on the glide path to democracy widespread, but media figures also admonished Americans for not living up to Chinese standards. “One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks,” Tom Friedman conceded in an infamous 2009 column. “But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages.” For instance, Friedman went on, “it is not an accident that China is committed to overtaking us in electric cars, solar power, energy efficiency, batteries, nuclear power, and wind power.” The following year, during an episode of Meet the Press, Friedman admitted, “I have fantasized—don’t get me wrong—but what if we could just be China for a day?” Just think of all the electric cars the government could force us to buy.
This attitude toward Chinese Communism as a public-policy exemplar became still more pronounced after Donald Trump was elected president on an “America First” agenda. China’s theft of intellectual property, industrial espionage, harassment and exploitation of Western companies, currency manipulation, mercantilist subsidies and tariffs, chronic pollution, military buildup, and interference in democratic politics and university life did not prevent it from proclaiming itself the defender of globalization and environmentalism.
When Xi visited the Davos World Economic Forum last year, the Economist noted the “fawning reception” that greeted him. The speech he delivered, pledging to uphold the international order that had facilitated his nation’s rise as well as his own, received excellent reviews. On January 15, 2017, Fareed Zakaria said, “In an America-first world, China is filling the vacuum.” A few days later, Charlie Rose told his CBS audience, “It’s almost like China is saying, ‘we are the champions of globalization, not the United States.’” And on January 30, 2017, the New York Times quoted a “Berlin-based private equity fund manager,” who said, “We heard a Chinese president becoming leader of the free world.”
The chorus of praise for China grew louder last spring when Trump announced American withdrawal from an international climate accord. In April 2017, Rick Stengel said on cable television that China is becoming “the global leader on the environment.” On June 8, a CBS reporter said that Xi is “now viewed as the world’s leader on climate change.” On June 19, 2017, on Bloomberg news, Dana Hull said, “China is the leader on climate change, especially when it comes to autos.” Also that month, one NBC anchor asked Senator Mike Lee of Utah, “Are you concerned at all that China may be seen as sort of the global leader when it comes to bringing countries together, more so than the United States?”
Last I checked, Xi Jinping’s China has not excelled at “bringing countries together,” unless—like Australia, Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam—those countries are allying with the United States to balance against China. What instead should concern Senator Lee, and all of us, is an American media filled with people suckered by foreign propaganda that happens to coincide with their political preferences, and who are unable to make elementary distinctions between tyrannical governments and consensual ones.
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Marx didn’t supplant old ideas about money and commerce; he intensified them
rom the time of antiquity until the Enlightenment, trade and the pursuit of wealth were considered sinful. “In the city that is most finely governed,” Aristotle wrote, “the citizens should not live a vulgar or a merchant’s way of life, for this sort of way of life is ignoble and contrary to virtue.”1 In Plato’s vision of an ideal society (the Republic) the ruling “guardians” would own no property to avoid tearing “the city in pieces by differing about ‘mine’ and ‘not mine.’” He added that “all that relates to retail trade, and merchandise, and the keeping of taverns, is denounced and numbered among dishonourable things.” Only noncitizens would be allowed to indulge in commerce. A citizen who defies the natural order and becomes a merchant should be thrown in jail for “shaming his family.”
At his website humanprogress.org, Marian L. Tupy quotes D.C. Earl of the University of Leeds, who wrote that in Ancient Rome, “all trade was stigmatized as undignified … the word mercator [merchant] appears as almost a term of abuse.” Cicero noted in the first century b.c.e. that retail commerce is sordidus (vile) because merchants “would not make any profit unless they lied constantly.”
Early Christianity expanded this point of view. Jesus himself was clearly hostile to the pursuit of riches. “For where your treasure is,” he proclaimed in his Sermon on the Mount, “there will your heart be also.” And of course he insisted that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
The Catholic Church incorporated this view into its teachings for centuries, holding that economics was zero-sum. “The Fathers of the Church adhered to the classical assumption that since the material wealth of humanity was more or less fixed, the gain of some could only come at a loss to others,” the economic historian Jerry Muller explains in his book The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Western Thought. As St. Augustine put it, “Si unus non perdit, alter non acquirit”—“If one does not lose, the other does not gain.”
The most evil form of wealth accumulation was the use of money to make money—usury. Lending money at interest was unnatural, in this view, and therefore invidious. “While expertise in exchange is justly blamed since it is not according to nature but involves taking from others,” Aristotle insisted, “usury is most reasonably hated because one’s possessions derive from money itself and not from that for which it was supplied.” In the Christian tradition, the only noble labor was physical labor, and so earning wealth from the manipulation of money was seen as inherently ignoble.
In the somewhat more prosperous and market-driven medieval period, Thomas Aquinas helped make private property and commerce more acceptable, but he did not fundamentally break with the Aristotelian view that trade was suspect and the pursuit of wealth was sinful. The merchant’s life was in conflict with the teachings of Christianity if it led to pride or avarice. “Echoing Aristotle,” Muller writes, “Aquinas reasserted that justice in the distribution of material goods was fulfilled when someone received in proportion to his status, office, and function within the institutions of an existing, structured community. Hence Aquinas decried as covetousness the accumulation of wealth to improve one’s place in the social order.”
In the medieval mind, Jews were seen as a kind of stand-in for mercantile and usurious sinfulness. Living outside the Christian community, but within the borders of Christendom, they were allowed to commit the sin of usury on the grounds that their souls were already forfeit. Pope Nicholas V insisted that it is much better that “this people should perpetrate usury than that Christians should engage in it with one another.”2 The Jews were used as a commercial caste the way the untouchables of India were used as a sanitation caste. As Montesquieu would later observe in the 16th century, “whenever one prohibits a thing that is naturally permitted or necessary, the people who engage in it are regarded as dishonest.” Thus, as Muller has argued, anti-Semitism has its roots in a kind of primitive anti-capitalism.
Early Protestantism did not reject these views. It amplified them.3 Martin Luther despised commerce. “There is on earth no greater enemy of man, after the Devil, than a gripe-money and usurer, for he wants to be God over all men…. Usury is a great, huge monster, like a werewolf …. And since we break on the wheel and behead highwaymen, murderers, and housebreakers, how much more ought we to break on the wheel and kill … hunt down, curse, and behead all usurers!”4
It should therefore come as no surprise that Luther’s views of Jews, the living manifestation of usury in the medieval mind, were just as immodest. In his 1543 treatise On the Jews and Their Lies, he offers a seven-point plan on how to deal with them:
- “First, to set fire to their synagogues or schools .…This is to be done in honor of our Lord and of Christendom, so that God might see that we are Christians …”
- “Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed.”
- “Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them.”
- “Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb… ”
- “Fifth, I advise that safe-conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews. For they have no business in the countryside … ”
- “Sixth, I advise that usury be prohibited to them, and that all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them … ”
- “Seventh, I recommend putting a flail, an ax, a hoe, a spade, a distaff, or a spindle into the hands of young, strong Jews and Jewesses and letting them earn their bread in the sweat of their brow.… But if we are afraid that they might harm us or our wives, children, servants, cattle, etc., … then let us emulate the common sense of other nations such as France, Spain, Bohemia, etc., … then eject them forever from the country … ”
Luther agitated against the Jews throughout Europe, condemning local officials for insufficient anti-Semitism (a word that did not exist at the time and a sentiment that was not necessarily linked to more modern biological racism). His demonization of the Jews was derived from more than anti-capitalism. But his belief that the Jewish spirit of commerce was corrupting of Christianity was nonetheless central to his indictment. He sermonized again and again that it must be cleansed from Christendom, either through conversion, annihilation, or expulsion.
Three centuries later, Karl Marx would blend these ideas together in a noxious stew.
The idea at the center of virtually all of Marx’s economic writing is the labor theory of value. It holds that all of the value of any product can be determined by the number of hours it took for a laborer or laborers to produce it. From the viewpoint of conventional economics—and elementary logic—this is ludicrous. For example, ingenuity, which may not be time-consuming, is nonetheless a major source of value. Surely it cannot be true that someone who works intelligently, and therefore efficiently, provides less value than someone who works stupidly and slowly. (Marx anticipates some of these kinds of critiques with a lot of verbiage about the costs of training and skills.) But the more relevant point is simply this: The determinant of value in an economic sense is not the labor that went into a product but the price the consumer is willing to pay for it. Whether it took an hour or a week to build a mousetrap, the value of the two products is the same to the consumer if the quality is the same.
Marx had philosophical, metaphysical, and tactical reasons for holding fast to the labor theory of value. It was essential to his argument that capitalism—or what we would now call “commerce” plain and simple—was exploitative by its very nature. In Marx, the term “exploitation” takes a number of forms. It is not merely evocative of child laborers working in horrid conditions; it covers virtually all profits. If all value is captured by labor, any “surplus value” collected by the owners of capital is by definition exploitative. The businessman who risks his own money to build and staff an innovative factory is not adding value; rather, he is subtracting value from the workers. Indeed, the money he used to buy the land and the materials is really just “dead labor.” For Marx, there was an essentially fixed amount of “labor-power” in society, and extracting profit from it was akin to strip-mining a natural resource. Slavery and wage-labor were different forms of the same exploitation because both involved extracting the common resource. In fact, while Marx despised slavery, he thought wage-labor was only a tiny improvement because wage-labor reduced costs for capitalists in that they were not required to feed or clothe wage laborers.
Because Marx preached revolution, we are inclined to consider him a revolutionary. He was not. None of this was a radical step forward in economic or political thinking. It was, rather, a reaffirmation of the disdain of commerce that starts with Plato and Aristotle and found new footing in Christianity. As Jerry Muller (to whom I am obviously very indebted) writes:
To a degree rarely appreciated, [Marx] merely recast the traditional Christian stigmatization of moneymaking into a new vocabulary and reiterated the ancient suspicion against those who used money to make money. In his concept of capitalism as “exploitation” Marx returned to the very old idea that money is fundamentally unproductive, that only those who live by the sweat of their brow truly produce, and that therefore not only interest, but profit itself, is always ill-gotten.
In his book Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life, Jonathan Sperber suggests that “Marx is more usefully understood as a backward-looking figure, who took the circumstances of the first half of the nineteenth century and projected them into the future, than as a surefooted and foresighted interpreter of historical trends.”5
Marx was a classic bohemian who resented the fact that he spent his whole life living off the generosity of, first, his parents and then his collaborator Friedrich Engels. He loathed the way “the system” required selling out to the demands of the market and a career. The frustrated poet turned to the embryonic language of social science to express his angry barbaric yawp at The Man. “His critique of the stultifying effects of labor in a capitalist society,” Muller writes, “is a direct continuation of the Romantic conception of the self and its place in society.”
In other words, Marx was a romantic, not a scientist. Romanticism emerged as a rebellion against the Enlightenment, taking many forms—from romantic poetry to romantic nationalism. But central to all its forms was the belief that modern, commercial, rational life is inauthentic and alienating, and cuts us off from our true natures.
As Rousseau, widely seen as the first romantic, explained in his Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences, modernity—specifically the culture of commerce and science—was oppressive. The baubles of the Enlightenment were mere “garlands of flowers” that concealed “the chains which weigh [men] down” and led people to “love their own slavery.”
This is a better context for understanding Marx’s and Engels’s hatred of the division of labor and the division of rights and duties. Their baseline assumption, like Rousseau’s, is that primitive man lived a freer and more authentic life before the rise of private property and capitalism. “Within the tribe there is as yet no difference between rights and duties,” Engels writes in Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State. “The question whether participation in public affairs, in blood revenge or atonement, is a right or a duty, does not exist for the Indian; it would seem to him just as absurd as the question whether it was a right or a duty to sleep, eat, or hunt. A division of the tribe or of the gens into different classes was equally impossible.”
For Marx, then, the Jew might as well be the real culprit who told Eve to bite the apple. For the triumph of the Jew and the triumph of money led to the alienation of man. And in truth, the term “alienation” is little more than modern-sounding shorthand for exile from Eden. The division of labor encourages individuality, alienates us from the collective, fosters specialization and egoism, and dethrones the sanctity of the tribe. “Money is the jealous god of Israel, in face of which no other god may exist,” Marx writes. “Money degrades all the gods of man—and turns them into commodities. Money is the universal self-established value of all things. It has, therefore, robbed the whole world—both the world of men and nature—of its specific value. Money is the estranged essence of man’s work and man’s existence, and this alien essence dominates him, and he worships it.”
Marx’s muse was not analytical reason, but resentment. That is what fueled his false consciousness. To understand this fully, we should look at how that most ancient and eternal resentment—Jew-hatred—informed his worldview.
The atheist son of a Jewish convert to Lutheranism and the grandson of a rabbi, Karl Marx hated capitalism in no small part because he hated Jews. According to Marx and Engels, Jewish values placed the acquisition of money above everything else. Marx writes in his infamous essay “On the Jewish Question”:
Let us consider the actual, worldly Jew—not the Sabbath Jew … but the everyday Jew.
Let us not look for the secret of the Jew in his religion, but let us look for the secret of his religion in the real Jew.
What is the secular basis of Judaism? Practical need, self-interest. What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money [Emphasis in original]
The spread of capitalism, therefore, represented a kind of conquest for Jewish values. The Jew—at least the one who set up shop in Marx’s head—makes his money from money. He adds no value. Worse, the Jews considered themselves to be outside the organic social order, Marx complained, but then again that is what capitalism encourages—individual independence from the body politic and the selfish (in Marx’s mind) pursuit of individual success or happiness. For Marx, individualism was a kind of heresy because it meant violating the sacred bond of the community. Private property empowered individuals to live as individuals “without regard to other men,” as Marx put it.
This is the essence of Marx’s view of alienation. Marx believed that people were free, creative beings but were chained to their role as laborers in the industrial machine. The division of labor inherent to capitalist society was alienating and inauthentic, pulling us out of the communitarian natural General Will. The Jew was both an emblem of this alienation and a primary author of it:
The Jew has emancipated himself in a Jewish manner, not only because he has acquired financial power, but also because, through him and also apart from him, money has become a world power and the practical Jewish spirit has become the practical spirit of the Christian nations. The Jews have emancipated themselves insofar as the Christians have become Jews. [Emphasis in original]
He adds, “The god of the Jews has become secularized and has become the god of the world. The bill of exchange is the real god of the Jew. His god is only an illusory bill of exchange.” And he concludes: “In the final analysis, the emancipation of the Jews is the emancipation of mankind from Judaism.” [Emphasis in original]
In The Holy Family, written with Engels, he argues that the most pressing imperative is to transcend “the Jewishness of bourgeois society, the inhumanity of present existence, which finds its highest embodiment in the system of money.” [Emphasis in original]
In his “Theories of Surplus Value,” he praises Luther’s indictment of usury. Luther “has really caught the character of old-fashioned usury, and that of capital as a whole.” Marx and Engels insist that the capitalist ruling classes, whether or not they claim to be Jewish, are nonetheless Jewish in spirit. “In their description of the confrontation of capital and labor, Marx and Engels resurrected the traditional critique of usury,” Muller observes. Or, as Deirdre McCloskey notes, “the history that Marx thought he perceived went with his erroneous logic that capitalism—drawing on an anticommercial theme as old as commerce—just is the same thing as greed.”6 Paul Johnson is pithier: Marx’s “explanation of what was wrong with the world was a combination of student-café anti-Semitism and Rousseau.”7
For Marx, capital and the Jew are different faces of the same monster: “The capitalist knows that all commodities—however shabby they may look or bad they may smell—are in faith and in fact money, internally circumcised Jews, and in addition magical means by which to make more money out of money.”
Marx’s writing, particularly on surplus value, is drenched with references to capital as parasitic and vampiric: “Capital is dead labor which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks. The time during which the worker works is the time during which the capitalist consumes the labor-power he has bought from him.” The constant allusions to the eternal wickedness of the Jew combined with his constant references to blood make it hard to avoid concluding that Marx had simply updated the blood libel and applied it to his own atheistic doctrine. His writing is replete with references to the “bloodsucking” nature of capitalism. He likens both Jews and capitalists (the same thing in his mind) to life-draining exploiters of the proletariat.
Marx writes how the extension of the workday into the night “only slightly quenches the vampire thirst for the living blood of labor,” resulting in the fact that “the vampire will not let go ‘while there remains a single muscle, sinew or drop of blood to be exploited.’” As Mark Neocleous of Brunel University documents in his brilliant essay, “The Political Economy of the Dead: Marx’s Vampires,” the images of blood and bloodsucking capital in Das Kapital are even more prominent motifs: “Capital ‘sucks up the worker’s value-creating power’ and is dripping with blood. Lacemaking institutions exploiting children are described as ‘blood-sucking,’ while U.S. capital is said to be financed by the ‘capitalized blood of children.’ The appropriation of labor is described as the ‘life-blood of capitalism,’ while the state is said to have here and there interposed itself ‘as a barrier to the transformation of children’s blood into capital.’”
Marx’s vision of exploitative, Jewish, bloodsucking capital was an expression of romantic superstition and tribal hatred. Borrowing from the medieval tradition of both Catholics as well as Luther himself, not to mention a certain folkloric poetic tradition, Marx invented a modern-sounding “scientific” theory that was in fact reactionary in every sense of the word. “If Marx’s vision was forward-looking, its premises were curiously archaic,” Muller writes. “As in the civic republican and Christian traditions, self-interest is the enemy of social cohesion and of morality. In that sense, Marx’s thought is a reversion to the time before Hegel, Smith, or Voltaire.”
In fairness to Marx, he does not claim that he wants to return to a feudal society marked by inherited social status and aristocracy. He is more reactionary than that. The Marxist final fantasy holds that at the end of history, when the state “withers away,” man is liberated from all exploitation and returns to the tribal state in which there is no division of labor, no dichotomy of rights and duties.
Marx’s “social science” was swept into history’s dustbin long ago. What endured was the romantic appeal of Marxism, because that appeal speaks to our tribal minds in ways we struggle to recognize, even though it never stops whispering in our ears.
It is an old conservative habit—one I’ve been guilty of myself—of looking around society and politics, finding things we don’t like or disagree with, and then running through an old trunk of Marxist bric-a-brac to spruce up our objections. It is undeniably true that the influence of Marx, particularly in the academy, remains staggering. Moreover, his indirect influence is as hard to measure as it is extensive. How many novels, plays, and movies have been shaped by Marx or informed by people shaped by Marx? It’s unknowable.
And yet, this is overdone. The truth is that Marx’s ideas were sticky for several reasons. First, they conformed to older, traditional ways of seeing the world—far more than Marxist zealots have ever realized. The idea that there are malevolent forces above and around us, manipulating our lives and exploiting the fruits of our labors, was hardly invented by him. In a sense, it wasn’t invented by anybody. Conspiracy theories are as old as mankind, stretching back to prehistory.
There’s ample reason—with ample research to back it up—to believe that there is a natural and universal human appetite for conspiracy theories. It is a by-product of our adapted ability to detect patterns, particularly patterns that may help us anticipate a threat—and, as Mark van Vugt has written, “the biggest threat facing humans throughout history has been other people, particularly when they teamed up against you.”8
To a very large extent, this is what Marxism is —an extravagant conspiracy theory in which the ruling classes, the industrialists, and/or the Jews arrange affairs for their own benefit and against the interests of the masses. Marx himself was an avid conspiracy theorist, as so many brilliant bohemian misfits tend to be, believing that the English deliberately orchestrated the Irish potato famine to “carry out the agricultural revolution and to thin the population of Ireland down to the proportion satisfactory to the landlords.” He even argued that the Crimean War was a kind of false-flag operation to hide the true nature of Russian-English collusion.
Contemporary political figures on the left and the right routinely employ the language of exploitation and conspiracy. They do so not because they’ve internalized Marx, but because of their own internal psychological architecture. In Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi, the talented left-wing writer, describes Goldman Sachs (the subject of quite a few conspiracy theories) thus:
The first thing you need to know about Goldman Sachs is that it’s everywhere. The world’s most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money. In fact, the history of the recent financial crisis, which doubles as a history of the rapid decline and fall of the suddenly swindled dry American empire, reads like a Who’s Who of Goldman Sachs graduates.
Marx would be jealous that he didn’t think of the phrase “the great vampire squid.”
Meanwhile, Donald Trump has occasionally traded in the same kind of language, even evoking some ancient anti-Semitic tropes. “Hillary Clinton meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial powers, her special-interest friends, and her donors,” Trump said in one campaign speech. “This election will determine if we are a free nation or whether we have only the illusion of democracy, but are in fact controlled by a small handful of global special interests rigging the system, and our system is rigged.” He added: “Our corrupt political establishment, that is the greatest power behind the efforts at radical globalization and the disenfranchisement of working people. Their financial resources are virtually unlimited, their political resources are unlimited, their media resources are unmatched.”
A second reason Marxism is so successful at fixing itself to the human mind is that it offers—to some—a palatable substitute for the lost certainty of religious faith. Marxism helped to restore certainty and meaning for huge numbers of people who, having lost traditional religion, had not lost their religious instinct. One can see evidence of this in the rhetoric used by Marxist and other socialist revolutionaries who promised to deliver a “Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.”
The 20th-century philosopher Eric Voegelin argued that Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire had stripped the transcendent from its central place in human affairs. God had been dethroned and “We the People”—and our things—had taken His place. “When God is invisible behind the world,” Voegelin writes, “the contents of the world will become new gods; when the symbols of transcendent religiosity are banned, new symbols develop from the inner-worldly language of science to take their place.”9
The religious views of the Romantic writers and artists Marx was raised on (and whom he had once hoped to emulate) ran the gamut from atheism to heartfelt devotion, but they shared an anger and frustration with the way the new order had banished the richness of faith from the land. “Now we have got the freedom of believing in public nothing but what can be rationally demonstrated,” the writer Johann Heinrich Merck complained. “They have deprived religion of all its sensuous elements, that is, of all its relish. They have carved it up into its parts and reduced it to a skeleton without color and light…. And now it’s put in a jar and nobody wants to taste it.”10
When God became sidelined as the source of ultimate meaning, “the people” became both the new deity and the new messianic force of the new order. In other words, instead of worshipping some unseen force residing in Heaven, people started worshipping themselves. This is what gave nationalism its spiritual power, as the volksgeist, people’s spirit, replaced the Holy Spirit. The tribal instinct to belong to a sacralized group took over. In this light, we can see how romantic nationalism and “globalist” Marxism are closely related. They are both “re-enchantment creeds,” as the philosopher-historian Ernest Gellner put it. They fill up the holes in our souls and give us a sense of belonging and meaning.
For Marx, the inevitable victory of Communism would arrive when the people, collectively, seized their rightful place on the Throne of History.11 The cult of unity found a new home in countless ideologies, each of which determined, in accord with their own dogma, to, in Voegelin’s words, “build the corpus mysticum of the collectivity and bind the members to form the oneness of the body.” Or, to borrow a phrase from Barack Obama, “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”
In practice, Marxist doctrine is more alienating and dehumanizing than capitalism will ever be. But in theory, it conforms to the way our minds wish to see the world. There’s a reason why so many populist movements have been so easily herded into Marxism. It’s not that the mobs in Venezuela or Cuba started reading The Eighteenth Brumaire and suddenly became Marxists. The peasants of North Vietnam did not need to read the Critique of the Gotha Program to become convinced that they were being exploited. The angry populace is always already convinced. The people have usually reached the conclusion long ago. They have the faith; what they need is the dogma. They need experts and authority figures—priests!—with ready-made theories about why the masses’ gut feelings were right all along. They don’t need Marx or anybody else to tell them they feel ripped off, disrespected, exploited. They know that already. The story Marxists tell doesn’t have to be true. It has to be affirming. And it has to have a villain. The villain, then and now, is the Jew.
1 Muller, Jerry Z.. The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Western Thought (p. 5). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
2 Muller, Jerry Z. Capitalism and the Jews (pp. 23-24). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
3 Luther’s economic thought, reflected in his “Long Sermon on Usury of 1520” and his tract On Trade and Usury of 1524, was hostile to commerce in general and to international trade in particular, and stricter than the canonists in its condemnation of moneylending. Muller, Jerry Z.. Capitalism and the Jews (p. 26). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
4 Quoted approvingly in Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich. “Capitalist Production.” Capital: Critical Analysis of Production, Volume II. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling, trans. London: Swan Sonnenschein, Lowrey, & Co. 1887. p. 604
5 Sperber, Jonathan. “Introduction.” Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life. New York: Liverwright Publishing Corporation. 2013. xiii.
6 McCloskey, Deirdre. Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 142
7 Johnson, Paul. Intellectuals (Kindle Locations 1325-1326). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
8 See also: Sunstain, Cass R. and Vermeule, Adrian. “Syposium on Conspiracy Theories: Causes and Cures.” The Journal of Political Philosophy: Volume 17, Number 2, 2009, pp. 202-227. http://www.ask-force.org/web/Discourse/Sunstein-Conspiracy-Theories-2009.pdf
9 Think of the story of the Golden Calf. Moses departs for Mt. Sinai to talk with God and receive the Ten Commandments. No sooner had he left did the Israelites switch their allegiance to false idol, the Golden Calf, treating a worldly inanimate object as their deity. So it is with modern man. Hence, Voegelin’s quip that for the Marxist “Christ the Redeemer is replaced by the steam engine as the promise of the realm to come.”
10 Blanning, Tim. The Romantic Revolution: A History (Modern Library Chronicles Series Book 34) (Kindle Locations 445-450). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
11 Marx: “Along with the constant decrease in the number of capitalist magnates, who usurp and monopolize all the advantages of this process of transformation, the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation and exploitation grows; but with this there also grows the revolt of the working class, a class constantly increasing in numbers, and trained, united and organized by the very mechanism of the capitalist process of production.”
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Review of 'Realism and Democracy' By Elliott Abrams
Then, in 1966, Syrian Baathists—believers in a different transnational unite-all-the-Arabs ideology—overthrew the government in Damascus and lent their support to Palestinian guerrillas in the Jordanian-controlled West Bank to attack Israel. Later that year, a Jordanian-linked counter-coup in Syria failed, and the key figures behind it fled to Jordan. Then, on the eve of the Six-Day War in May 1967, Jordan’s King Hussein signed a mutual-defense pact with Egypt, agreeing to deploy Iraqi troops on Jordanian soil and effectively giving Nasser command and control over Jordan’s own armed forces.
This is just a snapshot of the havoc wreaked on the Middle East by the conceit of pan-Arabism. This history is worth recalling when reading Elliott Abrams’s idealistic yet clearheaded Realism and Democracy: American Foreign Policy After the Arab Spring. One of the book’s key insights is the importance of legitimacy for regimes that rule “not nation-states” but rather “Sykes-Picot states”—the colonial heirlooms of Britain and France created in the wake of the two world wars. At times, these states barely seem to acknowledge, let alone respect, their own sovereignty.
When the spirit of revolution hit the Arab world in 2010, the states with external legitimacy—monarchies such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco, Kuwait—survived. Regimes that ruled merely by brute force—Egypt, Yemen, Libya—didn’t. The Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria has only held on thanks to the intervention of Iran and Russia, and it is difficult to argue that there is any such thing as “Syria” anymore. What this all proved was that the “stability” of Arab dictatorships, a central conceit of U.S. foreign policy, was in many cases an illusion.
That is the first hard lesson in pan-Arabism from Abrams, now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. The second is this: The extremists who filled the power vacuums in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and other countries led Western analysts to believe that there was an “Islamic exceptionalism” at play that demonstrated Islam’s incompatibility with democracy. Abrams effectively debunks this by showing that the real culprit stymieing the spread of liberty in the Middle East was not Islam but pan-Arabism, which stems from secular roots. He notes one study showing that, in the 30 years between 1973 and 2003, “a non-Arab Muslim-majority country was almost 20 times more likely to be ‘electorally competitive’ than an Arab-majority Muslim country.”
Abrams is thus an optimist on the subject of Islam and democracy—which is heartening, considering his experience and expertise. He worked for legendary cold-warrior Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson and served as an assistant secretary of state for human rights under Ronald Reagan and later as George W. Bush’s deputy national-security adviser for global democracy strategy. Realism and Democracy is about U.S. policy and the Arab world—but it is also about the nature of participatory politics itself. Its theme is: Ideas have consequences. And what sets Abrams’s book apart is its concrete policy recommendations to put flesh on the bones of those ideas, and bring them to life.
The dreary disintegration of the Arab Spring saw Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt replaced by the Muslim Brotherhood, which after a year was displaced in a military coup. Syria’s civil war has seen about 400,000 killed and millions displaced. Into the vacuum stepped numerous Islamist terror groups. The fall of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya has resulted in total state collapse. Yemen’s civil war bleeds on.
Stability in authoritarian states with little or no legitimacy is a fiction. Communist police states were likely to fall, and the longer they took to do so, the longer the opposition sat in a balled-up rage. That, Abrams notes, is precisely what happened in Egypt. Mubarak’s repression gave the Muslim Brotherhood an advantage once the playing field opened up: The group had decades of organizing under its belt, a coherent raison d’être, and a track record of providing health and education services where the state lagged. No other parties or opposition groups had anything resembling this kind of coordination.
Abrams trenchantly concludes from this that “tyranny in the Arab world is dangerous and should itself be viewed as a form of political extremism that is likely to feed other forms.” Yet even this extremism can be tempered by power, he suggests. In a democracy, Islamist parties will have to compromise and moderate or be voted out. In Tunisia, electorally successful Islamists chose the former, and it stands as a rare success story.
Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood took a different path in Egypt, with parlous results. Its government began pulling up the ladder behind it, closing avenues of political resistance and civic participation. Hamas did the same after winning Palestinian elections in 2006. Abrams thinks that the odds of such a bait-and-switch can be reduced. He quotes the academic Stephen R. Grand, who calls for all political parties “to take an oath of allegiance to the state, to respect the outcome of democratic elections, to abide by the rules of the constitution, and to forswear violence.” If they keep their word, they will open up the political space for non-Islamist parties to get in the game. If they don’t—well, let the Egyptian coup stand as a warning.
Abrams, to his credit, does not avoid the Mesopotamian elephant in the room. The Iraq War has become Exhibit A in the dangers of democracy promotion. This is understandable, but it is misguided. The Bush administration made the decision to decapitate the regime of Saddam Hussein based on national-security calculations, mainly the fear of weapons of mass destruction. Once the decapitation had occurred, the administration could hardly have been expected to replace Saddam with another strongman whose depravities would this time be on America’s conscience. Critics of the war reverse the order here and paint a false portrait.
Here is where Abrams’s book stands out: He provides, in the last two chapters, an accounting of the weaknesses in U.S. policy, including mistakes made by the administration he served, and a series of concrete proposals to show that democracy promotion can be effective without the use of force.
One mistake, according to Abrams, is America’s favoring of civil-society groups over political parties. These groups do much good, generally have strong English-language skills, and are less likely to be tied to the government or ancien régime. But those are also strikes against them. Abrams relates a story told by former U.S. diplomat Princeton Lyman about Nelson Mandela. Nigerian activists asked the South African freedom fighter to support an oil embargo against their own government. Mandela declined because, Lyman says, there was as yet no serious, organized political opposition party: “What Mandela was saying to the Nigerian activists is that, in the absence of political movements dedicated not just to democracy but also to governing when the opportunity arises, social, civic, and economic pressures against tyranny will not suffice.” Without properly focused democracy promotion, other tools to punish repressive regimes will be off the table.
Egypt offers a good example of another principle: Backsliding must be punished. The Bush administration’s pressure on Mubarak over his treatment of opposition figures changed regime behavior in 2005. Yet by the end of Bush’s second term, the pressure had let up and Mubarak’s misbehavior continued, with no consequences from either Bush or his successor, Barack Obama, until it was too late.
That, in turn, leads to another of Abrams’s recommendations: “American diplomacy can be effective only when it is clear that the president and secretary of state are behind whatever diplomatic moves or statements an official in Washington or a U.S. ambassador is making.” This is good advice for the current Oval Office occupant and his advisers. President Trump’s supporters advise critics of his dismissive attitude toward human-rights violations to focus on what the president does, not what he says. But Trump’s refusal to take a hard line against Vladimir Putin and his recent praise of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s move to become president for life undermine lower-level officials’ attempts to encourage reform.
There won’t be democracy without democrats. Pro-democracy education, Abrams advises, can teach freedom-seekers to speak the ennobling language of liberty, which is the crucial first step toward building a culture that prizes it. And in the process, we might do some ennobling ourselves.