Syrian President Bashar al-Assad recently appeared on Russian television to discuss the current crisis in his country. He reiterated what he has held for months as the primary impetus behind his harsh crackdown on protesters: outside interference is fomenting the unrest and arming Syrians to conduct terrorist acts against the Syrian state. He said that “the Syrian people reject foreign interference and oppose anything which come from outside the country” and that his administration has “information about people leading these operations [protests] outside Syria and in several countries.” He said after looking at the intelligence, “it became irrefutably clear that weapons were being smuggled across the Syrian borders from neighboring countries and funds are being sent from people abroad.”
As Ken Roth of Human Rights Watch sarcastically and succinctly tweeted: “Assad tells Russian TV why it’s ok to kill protesters–it’s all about stopping foreign interference, of course.” Indeed. Looking at it from the outside, Assad’s explanation of the protests and of his unspeakably violent response to them (over 3,000 people killed so far) is easy to identify as propaganda.
Interestingly, though, the Obama administration uses similar commentary as propaganda to justify horrible policies. As Glenn Greenwald rightly pointed out, Sunday’s New York Times article explaining why the Obama administration was surging occupation forces and security cooperation throughout the Middle East as a result of having to pull out of Iraq is “a masterpiece” of “American propaganda about the Middle East.” There are all sorts of linguistic twists, turns, and contortions the Times piece goes through to make official policy not sound utterly ridiculous. At the crux of our interventionist policies toward the region, as Secretary of State Hilary Clinton put it, is the belief that Iraq “should be freed from outside interference to continue on a pathway to democracy.” There it is, popping up again.
This propagandistic excuse is apparently a popular justification for authoritarian policies of the state, of any state. It provides a rather superb rhetorical escape. What it does is it allows the rulers to ascribe some evil monster abroad to any legitimate opposition they face. It allows the sincere wishes of the people to be sunk and lost in a rally against an aggressive and interfering other. In Assad’s case, he can justify using savage violence on thousands of peaceful Arab Spring protesters because the protests are actually more like international terrorism, or possibly outside interference from another government. In America’s case, political elites can justify propping up brutal dictatorships that oppress and torture their populations because, in reality, those tyrannical regimes need our help deterring outside interference which could derail the pathway to democracy (never mind the fact that the people in these countries want nothing more than to be free from the political oppression imposed on them from the United States).
And, of course, as Greenwald points out, and as has been pointed out on this blog innumerable times, the notion of US officials warning against outside interference in the Middle East without recognizing the single most prevalent outside intruder (America) is laughable. As I wrote: “Iraq qualifies as our land because, after all, it’s here on planet Earth. Since we own the world, our jurisdiction extends throughout the globe and anywhere we see unwelcome feet it’s the equivalent of unwelcome feet on the Texas borderland or traversing Cape Cod. Of course, nobody sees the 50,000 U.S. military troops, down from 170,000 at one point, (not to mention contractors) as foreign troops. Our army is always indigenous, because we own the world.”
It’s important to point out just how effective this propaganda is. As Paul Pillar pointed out last month, US propaganda in the lead up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq was staggeringly outlandish but so successful that large portions of the public still believe it. He wrote:
The manufactured issue of an “alliance” between Saddam Hussein’s regime and al-Qaeda demonstrated the manipulative potential involved. Unlike the sales campaign’s companion issue of weapons of mass destruction, there was no logical or historical basis for believing that such an alliance existed. The postulation of such an alliance also contradicted judgments of the U.S. intelligence community and other experts inside and outside government. Getting many members of the public to believe that such an alliance nonetheless existed was partly a matter of touting phony evidence such as a nonexistent meeting in Prague and of making highly tendentious interpretations of other reporting. But promoting this belief was at least as much a matter of rhetorical themes as of manipulated evidence. The belief was cultivated by repeatedly uttering “Iraq,” “9/11” and “war on terror” in the same breath. The cultivation was so successful that by the peak of the war-promoters’ sales campaign in late 2002 a majority of Americans believed that Saddam Hussein not only was allied with al-Qaeda but also had been directly involved in the 9/11 attack.
Now there is evidence of how long-lasting such assiduously promoted falsehoods can be. Majorities may no longer believe in such untruths, but large minorities still do. In a new poll directed by Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland, 38 percent of Americans polled said that the United States had “found clear evidence in Iraq that Saddam Hussein was working closely with the al-Qaeda terrorist organization.” In a somewhat differently formulated question, 15 percent said that “Iraq was directly involved in carrying out the September 11th attacks” and another 31 percent—for a total of 46 percent—believed that Iraq was not involved in 9/11 but had given “substantial support” to al-Qaeda.
Despite the learnedness of the readers of this site and other Americans who make an actual effort to understand the world and US foreign policy, most Americans don’t understand the United States as the primary source of support to authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. Most Americans don’t have any idea that the US supported supreme despot and torturer of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, and that the initial Arab Spring protests there were met with American-made and donated weapons, killing over 900 people. Most Americans don’t actually know that the people of Bahrain were also murdered savagely by such American gifts to the Bahraini regime while peacefully demonstrating on the streets for their rights. I could go on, but I won’t. But this is partly because of how successful the propaganda efforts of the state and the media are, as exemplified by the New York Times piece on Sunday. Another part of it, to give criticism where it is due, is that Americans by and large make no effort to educate themselves about their own government, instead paying exactly zero attention for four years and then going to the polls to vote themselves other people’s money.
Assad’s propaganda is not different from the US’s. What needs to happen is that the United States government needs to start being seen as as much of an other as Assad. Only then will their lies be equally transparent.