Examples of political chameleons

In Monday’s post, I spoke about how we can expect to see the political chameleons of the one-party ruling class try to camouflage their past in order to blend in with their new political environment. Glenn Greenwald, easily one of the best political analysts around, sees right through this strategy. He reveals the truth about people like Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack, who use their home in the allegedly ‘liberal’ Brookings Institution to help pursue this goal.

To lavish themselves with credibility — as though they are war skeptics whom you can trust — they identify themselves at the beginning “as two analysts who have harshly criticized the Bush administration’s miserable handling of Iraq.” In reality, they were not only among the biggest cheerleaders for the war, but repeatedly praised the Pentagon’s strategy in Iraq and continuously assured Americans things were going well. They are among the primary authors and principal deceivers responsible for this disaster.

But as always, Tom Friedman provides the clearest example of such shameless self-serving revisionism. Greenwald points to what the so-called ‘liberal’ New York Times columnist was saying in 2003 justifying the invasion of Iraq on PBS’s Charlie Rose show:

We needed to go over there basically, and take out a very big stick, right in the heart of that world, and burst that bubble. . . .

And what they needed to see was American boys and girls going from house to house, from Basra to Baghdad, and basically saying: which part of this sentence do you understand? You don’t think we care about our open society? …

Well, Suck. On. This. That, Charlie, was what this war was about.

We could have hit Saudi Arabia. It was part of that bubble. Could have hit Pakistan. We hit Iraq because we could [my italics]. That’s the real truth.

And guess what? People there got the message, OK, in the neighborhood. This is a rough neighborhood, and sometimes it takes a 2-by-4 across the side of the head to get that message. But they got the message and the message was, “You will now be held accountable.”

What does Friedman say now (November 29, 2008) was the reason for the Iraq war?

It’s a reminder of the most important reason for the Iraq war: to try to collaborate with Iraqis to build progressive politics and rule of law in the heart of the Arab-Muslim world, a region that stands out for its lack of consensual politics and independent judiciaries.

Really? That is what you thought all along? He seems to have replaced those revenge-filled early words with pompous platitudes. Observe how he has conveniently forgotten the sordid past and his own role in it, switching from insane bellicosity (what he called ‘the real truth’) about teaching those dastardly Muslims a lesson by hitting Iraqis on the head with blunt objects (just because they are the most convenient target), to noble goals of collaborating to create a model civil society. He can make such a switch effortlessly because he has had so much practice at it.

Friedman, like many mainstream commentators both ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’, has no compunction about people in other countries getting killed in wars to satisfy his own lust for destruction or some weird private geopolitical theory. Here he is writing in 1999 (New York Times, April 23) about the need for heavier attacks on Serb civilians during the conflict over Kosovo:

Let’s at least have a real air war…. It should be lights out in Belgrade: Every power grid, water pipe, bridge, road, and war-related factory has to be targeted. Like it or not, we are at war with the Serbian nation (the Serbs certainly think so), and the stakes have to be very clear: Every week you ravage Kosovo is another decade we will set back your country back by pulverizing you. You want 1950? We can do 1950. You want 1389? We can do 1389 too.

Bill O’Reilly (whom most people would consider to be at the opposite end of the political spectrum from Friedman) said something very similar six days later, showing how united the pro-war one party ruling elite is.

I believe that we have to go in there and drop leaflets on Belgrade and other cities and say, ‘Listen, you guys have got to move because we’re now going to come in and we’re going to just level your country. The whole infrastructure is going.’… Any target is OK. I’d warn the people, just as we did with Japan, that it’s coming, you’ve got to get out of there, OK, but I would level that country so that there would be nothing moving—no cars, no trains, nothing.

Notice again the smug arrogance of power, writing with the confidence that no other country can make similar threats against their own country. Would they approve of their own neighborhoods being flattened by bombs because another country did not like some US policy? Do none of these people know or care that what they are advocating, the destruction of civilian infrastructure like water, electricity, and sewage systems that have no direct military value, is a war crime?

The Geneva Conventions (Protocol 1, Part IV, Chapter III, Article 54) says quite clearly:

It is prohibited to attack, destroy, remove or render useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as foodstuffs, agricultural areas for the production of foodstuffs, crops, livestock, drinking water installations and supplies and irrigation works, for the specific purpose of denying them for their sustenance value to the civilian population or to the adverse Party, whatever the motive, whether in order to starve out civilians, to cause them to move away, or for any other motive.

The examples I’ve given above can be multiplied. Chris Floyd chronicles Friedman’s relentless bloodlust while media critic Edward Herman similarly calls out ‘leftist’ Christopher Hitchens as another pro-war demagogue who vociferously supported the wars started by Clinton and Bush despite the heavy toll they inflicted on civilians, and even gleefully joked about Afghanistan being “the first country in history to be bombed out of the stone age.”

This is why the labels liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican, have such little value in most discussions. They are merely the veneer to disguise one party rule and the desire to impose American will and power on the rest of the world, whatever the cost on ordinary people.

POST SCRIPT: Media complicity with the one-party state

Why is it that members of the war party get so much air time in the media while anyone who critiques the policies of the one-party state gets shut out? Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman clearly laid out how it works in their classic 1988 book Manufacturing Consent. A documentary of the same name was made in 1992 that presents the key arguments in a very entertaining manner. It is well-worth viewing.

Here is a short clip from that documentary that explains how the very organizational structure of the programs on TV prevents any real discussion of important issues, to be replaced by the uttering of conventional wisdom platitudes.

This is why only extended commercial-free discussions that allow for in-depth analysis, such as Bill Moyers’s program Buying the War on PBS, are the only things worth watching on TV.


  1. Keith Comess says

    Regarding your comments on Kenneth M. Pollack:

    As I’m sure you know, one of the dangers of quoting from secondary sources is that they may not convey an accurate perspective. The person who chose that secondary source to illustrate a point, when he has no direct, personal familiarity with the subject under consideration, is at risk in so doing, as that approach reveals more about the person who quoted the secondary source than it does the thoughts or positions under consideration. In other words, it reflects a prejudiced perspective and intellectual laziness. I believe that is the case in your blog citation regarding Ken Pollack.

    I have carefully read all Pollack’s books and articles. I have personally discussed his positions on the Iraq War and the Bush Administration with him in private conversation. His positions are consistent and carefully thought out. Yes, he supported the invasion of Iraq (see, “The Gathering Storm”). However, he considered the ramifications of so doing in careful and studious detail (same reference). He began criticizing the Bush Administration only months after the invasion (see “Spies, Lies and Weapons: What Went Wrong” in “The Atlantic”, January, 2004) and again after the occupation had “settled in” (also in “The Atlantic”, “The Right Way, March, 2006). He has continued to criticize Bush Administration actions (see his most recent book, “A Path Out of the Desert”, 2008), including in the “Foreign Affairs” article you referenced in the secondary citation, along with Biddle (who compared and contrasted Iraq with Vietnam in an earlier “Foreign Affairs” article which was also critical of current management) and O’Hanlon. Since I do not watch television, I cannot comment on any remarks made in that medium, but Pollack’s written record is quite consistent and markedly at variance with your impression of it.

    In summary, I can understand your concern about the direction the United States has followed in Iraq. What I can’t understand is your obvious lack of familiarity with a subject that you still feel free to criticize.

  2. says


    But aren’t you conceding the point, which is that these people served the useful purpose of being ‘liberal’ supporters of the war at the time when the public were being panicked into supporting it with all kinds of dire alarmist rhetoric?

    Now they talk of themselves as being ‘war critics’. That does not absolve them of their responsibility for the severe human tragedy caused by the war. Either they thought that the war was immoral and illegal and waged under false pretenses or they did not, and burying that key fact under criticism of the management of the war now merely serves as a means of refurbishing their ‘liberal’ credentials, perhaps in time to support the next war of choice.

    My point is that the people who were totally wrong about the Iraq war are provided these opportunities to rebuild their image and still have access to the mass media because they serve a useful propagandist purpose as ‘liberal’ spokespersons for war. Meanwhile those who were right about the war are still barely heard. That is how the one party system works.

  3. Keith Comess says

    No, I don’t agree with your analysis. Regardless of the political usefulness of their support to the Bush Administration, there were and are cogent arguments in favor of the war and room for opinions that are simultaneously critical and supportive of the general concept of pre-emptive war.

    As I attempted to explain, the general consensus up to the time of the invasion was in favor of the conclusion that Saddam Hussein’s regime had a stockpile of WMD. By general consensus, I mean the intelligence agencies of not only the US, but Russia, France, Germany, Israel, the UK and a host of others. You can confirm the validity of that statement by a quick internet search. Worse, as I mentioned in my e-mail to you (not part of the reply quoted on your blog), Saddam’s actions up to and subsequent to the First Gulf War encouraged this belief, despite the obvious and dire ramifications of that course of action.

    Given that the preponderance of informed opinion was in favor of an Iraqi stockpile of WMD and given Saddam’s documented use of them (Iran/Iraq War, 1980-1988, the Al Anfal in which poison gas was used against the Kurds waged from 1986-1989), the invasion of Kuwait, the attempts to circumvent UN sanctions, the ongoing belligerent rhetoric from Saddam and his paladins; all this set the contemporary mindset in favor of “pro-active intervention”, an invasion, if you will.

    You confuse the concept of “war critics” with supporters of the war, in that these are overlapping sets, not exclusive or entirely inclusive groupings. One can criticize the conduct of the war whilst simultaneously supporting the general action. Take, for example, Truman vs. MacArthur during Korea. They obviously agreed on the need to fight the combined North Korean/Chinese forces, but disagreed on tactical and some specific strategic issues. That is more-or-less analogous to Iraqi war critics such as Pollack, who supported the war based on the best information available at the time, but who also issued warnings about the implications of both the invasion and the resulting civil unrest which would follow. Pollack explicitly stated the need for an international consensus commitment to rebuild Iraq prior to the invasion. Failure to act on this is the main basis of his early criticism. Failure to deal with the resulting insurgency by a comprehensive package of military and civil endeavors has also formed the critical foundation for other war critics, both of the “liberal” and “conservative” persuasions.

    As for the use of “…dire, alarmist rhetoric…”, most of that issued from the Bush Administration. It is the responsibility of the American public to be informed and a derilection of their civic responsibility to fall prey to it due to intellectual laziness. Allowing for the general gullibility of the average citizen and the tendency of the mass media to promote news items that “sell”, there were and are plenty of other news sources readily available on the internet. In short, those who were conned by “…dire, alarmist rhetoric…” are the same kinds of people who will fall prey to the next con, be it political or “get rich quick” in nature.

    I mentioned in my e-mail to you that not only Ken Pollack, but also Paul Pillar (author of the CIA National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq) were subject to Bush Administration political pressure. I provided an example from another news source in support of that. There are many, many other sources which state the same message. Thus, your criticism of Pollack, in specific, and others whom you accuse of “refurbishing their ‘liberal’ credentials” is unfair.

    Pollack and Pillar, in specific, were privy to the most confidential and comprehensive intelligence and formed their opinions based on available data. Much of it was subsequently proven wrong, but they could not have known that at the time: neither could you or anyone else. Pollack and Pillar have been quite consistent in their subsequent positions. Their conclusions, which were guarded and constrained in their support of the war stand outside the moral framework that you construct: this is not a binary issue at all. Its “realpolitik” and not morality, just as scientific advancements can have objective justification but can be applied for “immoral” purposes. Should the one be held hostage to the other? Could the result of the Iraq War have been different than it has been so far? Have more people suffered under the current civil and political system than they would have suffered under Saddam? Was this suffering justifiable when other possible outcomes (like Saddam using conventional or unconventional armaments to invade a neighboring country) are factored into consideration? Would loss of Middle Eastern oil have produced more suffering in more people (especially the Third World) than has occurred to date?

    Furthermore, your argument relies on a constellation of post hoc reasoning and a variety of value judgements. Remember my quote on the significance of the French Revolution made by Le Duc Tho (“Its too soon to tell”) made in 1973? I suspect that its presumptuous to claim an understanding of the long-term significance and impact of the Iraq War now: its implications might not be understood for a very, very long time.

    You are also ignoring the role of other countries in the region. A constellation of interests by vastly disparate groups (Iran, Shia Muslims, Sunni Arab neighbors such as Kuwait, the UAE, Saudi Arabia to name a few) also conspired and continue to conspire to influence events in Iraq.

    In conclusion, I do not agree that, “…the people who were totally wrong about the Iraq war are provided these opportunities to rebuild their image and still have access to the mass media because they serve a useful propagandist purpose as ‘liberal’ spokespersons for war. Meanwhile those who were right about the war are still barely heard.” There is insufficient time to judge the outcome of the Iraq invasion, it cannot be proven that the supporters of the war were, “totally wrong” and, at least in the case of Pillar and Pollack, they are not attempting to rebuild their liberal images. Frankly, they don’t need to do so and, should they really wish to establish “liberal credentials” for whatever reasons, they are quite clever enough to do so without engaging in the intellectual duplicity you accuse them of.

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