U.S. Enemies and Allies
Who Does the U.S. Really Support and Oppose Overseas?
Last November, American airstrikes killed two dozen Pakistani soldiers, and it wasn’t until earlier this month that Hillary Clinton said “sorry” on Washington’s behalf, prompting Pakistani officials to reopen NATO’s supply routes into Afghanistan. U.S. journalists found this development easy to interpret: it marked the end, they wrote, of “a bitter seven-month stalemate that threatened to jeopardize counterterrorism cooperation” (Eric Schmitt, New York Times), with “both sides…clearly relieved that the most visible evidence of the breach in their always-tense relationship—the miles of stalled U.S. military container trucks awaiting passage to Afghanistan—would soon disappear” (Karen DeYoung and Richard Leiby, Washington Post). At last these two allies had settled their dispute, and could continue fighting the War on Terror.
These statements appear to be straightforward, containing little in need of dispute. But in fact they reveal a great deal about the kinds of regimes the United States government supports overseas, to say nothing of the extent to which U.S. journalists are ensnared, and themselves helping to spin, Washington’s web of propaganda.
Consider first one major assumption of the Times and Post formulations above, namely that when the Pakistani government goes along with Washington’s policies, it’s an ally, and that when it doesn’t follow along, it’s an enemy. What Schmitt and the others are really saying here is that the Pakistani government has to obey the U.S. government, and not its own people. As Salman Masood pointed out in the Times last week—without drawing the obvious implications—a Pew Research Center report released in June indicates that 74% of Pakistanis surveyed consider the U.S. an enemy. In other words, until Hillary said “sorry,” and while the U.S.-Pakistan relationship was rocky, there was some evidence of conformity between Pakistan’s policy and public opinion; most Pakistanis don’t want a good relationship with Washington, and the government didn’t have a good relationship with Washington. Once relations improved, “both sides were clearly relieved,” in the Post version of events, which is another way of saying that Pakistan’s inability to function as a democracy is not only unproblematic, but in this case the precondition for sustained good relations with Washington.
Consider next another core assumption of the Times/Post interpretation, namely that Washington is a counterterrorist force. This notion is taken for granted among commentators privileged enough to research the issue deeply, powerful enough to make their opinion widely known via their access to major news outlets, and—one can assume—for the most part too well-educated to even consider approaching the idea with skepticism. Washington’s ostensible antiterrorism is taken to be a principled, not partisan, feature of its foreign policy, though of course it may be modified on tactical grounds. For example, Jo Becker and Scott Shane explain in their Times piece on Obama’s “kill list” that the current president rejected “the Bush-era concept of a global war on terrorism,” choosing instead “to narrow the American focus to Al Qaeda’s core.”
We have seen above the sense in which “Pakistan”—namely, that country’s autocratic regime, on the occasions it obeys Washington—can be considered a U.S. ally, so what can be said of Washington’s enemies? Does Obama’s focus on Al Qaeda reflect a principled effort to undermine the organization and to prevent it from operating? Not quite. As recent developments in Syria make clear, the U.S. only fights Al Qaeda when the two groups’ interests are opposed; when their interests coincide, Washington is perfectly to abandon its “War on Terror.”
The typical U.S. commentary on Syria is in line with, for example, Helene Cooper’s version of events in the Times, where she wrote recently that “the West” is outraged “over Mr. Assad’s bloody crackdown on protesters who support democracy.” Foreign reporters, whose work has been largely ignored in the U.S., tell a different story: as Peter Oborne (Daily Telegraph) and Nicholas Watt and Martin Chulov (The Guardian) have pointed out, both U.S. (Director of National Intelligence James Clapper) and British (Foreign Minister William Hague) officials believe Al Qaeda, that champion of democracy, is operating in Syria. And, as Frontline’s John Cherian points out, Al Qaeda is Washington’s ally there, given that it, too, is pushing for Assad’s downfall. For his part, Oborne thinks it appropriate to refer to Al Qaeda as “our latest collaborator in the war on terror,” indicating he doesn’t understand the full significance of his article. Clearly if one of the main targets of the “War on Terror” can transform into an ally as circumstances allow, then it seems reasonable to question the basis of Washington’s opposition to this group. Is the opposition principled? Or opportunist? And, if the latter, does it make sense to hold onto the assumption that there is such a thing as the “War on Terror,” which the New York Times’ Becker and Scott allege Obama is carrying out strictly against Al Qaeda?
But it should come as no surprise that the U.S. media cannot grasp these basic issues. In fact, the consistently biased reporting is easy to understand, provided we discard some common assumptions about the way U.S. news outlets supposedly operate. If reporters’ general aims were to report objectively on world events, then in the case of Syria they would certainly see it fit to mention that Washington’s supposedly greatest enemy is actually its ally there. But since this hasn’t happened, it’s reasonable to reject this common assumption, and instead to adopt another one that reliably predicts this reliable omission on the part of U.S. reporters. Namely, the function of mainstream U.S. reporting is not to report objectively on world affairs, but instead to provide propaganda for U.S. government aims. Washington wants Assad removed from power, and therefore it would only complicate matters if the press pointed out that we want the same thing Al Qaeda does in that country; better to focus on the myth of Assad’s crackdown on pro-democracy protesters.
Never mind that, say, last January Aisling Byrne wrote in Asia Times that top U.S. officials were explaining that the “end of the Assad regime would constitute Iran’s greatest setback in the region yet,” indicating Washington may be motivated by strategic, not pro-democracy, concerns; or that the establishment-friendly U.S. intelligence firm Stratfor, as Byrne explains, wrote in the conflict’s early stages that many of the Syrian “opposition’s more serious claims have turned out to be grossly exaggerated or simply untrue,” never prompting any skepticism from the U.S. media, whose contribution to “the deliberate construction of a largely false narrative that pits unarmed democracy demonstrators being killed in their hundreds and thousands as they protest peacefully against an oppressive, violent regime”—the Helene Cooper version, in other words—cannot be underestimated. Indeed, if the media’s general performance over the decades, not to mention its treatment of the “War on Terror” and recent developments in Pakistan, are any guide, then it seems safe to meet the presentation of events in Syria with extreme skepticism. We should also pay close attention to claims about which countries, governments, or organizations are our supposed allies and enemies, asking not only whether the U.S. government actually opposes what it claims it does, but whether that government is even acting to protect us, or in our interests—or those of democracy generally—at all.