Ep. 56: How The Media Learned to Worry About War Without Ever Opposing It
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Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.
Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Thank you everyone for listening this week. You can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed and you can financially support the show, which is always so appreciated and very necessary for us to keep it going, through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with me — Nima Shirazi — and Adam Johnson. Thank you so much for your support thus far. We hope it keeps going. Being listener supported is very, very important to us, so please do join up if you haven’t already.
Adam: It’s, you know, it’s an important part of keeping the show sustainable. It actually does require a lot of work, so we appreciate any help you can give us.
Nima: Oh yeah. Today we’re going to be talking about something that we see all the time, surprise, surprise in the media: ‘The Bush administration didn’t send enough troops to Iraq.’ ‘Trump needs authorization from Congress before launching a war.’ ‘Israeli settlement expansion in the occupied Palestinian territories aren’t an impediment to peace, but there’s still just not very helpful.’ We hear these liberal objections to war and occupation all the time. They seem like they’re standing up to injustice and in a limited way they kind of are, but what if what they’re really doing is taking up space, sucking up the oxygen that could be better used by substantive existential critiques? Their function primarily in this kind of pseudo-opposition is to give the appearance of descent where actually none exists.
Adam: In spycraft, “limited hangout” is defined as quote a “public relations or propaganda technique that involves the release of previously hidden information in order to prevent a greater exposure of more important detail.” Just the same, the limited opposition to war or what we’ll call pseudo-opposition serves as a way of superficially opposing war or imperialism or military occupation without the mess of actually having to do so on substance.
Nima: From Iraq to Israel to the perma-war on terror, this pseudo-opposition has taken many forms over the years. This week we’re going to talk about the sophisticated nature of this technique. How one can differentiate between good faith nuance and concern trolling and how discrediting pseudo-opposition can help open space for real conversations about the true consequences of empire. Later in the show, we’ll be joined by Nora Barrows-Friedman, associate editor at The Electronic Intifada.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: I feel like when it comes to Palestine and how people give Israel always the benefit of the doubt and Israel always has, you know those New York Times columnists also are like, you know, well, ‘Israel is doing this for security.’ I mean that’s the same reason that they were giving the US to go ahead and invade other countries, ‘well we’re doing it for our security,’ ‘we’re doing it for our freedom.’ That can never be questioned and if you question that, then you’re a crazy ass radical who deserves to be punched in the figurative and probably literal sense.
Adam: On the show today we’re going to discuss four types of pseudo-objections. The first one is what we call The Rules Follower where the morality of invasion or bombing is not really discussed it’s simply a question of legality, constitutionality or United Nations formalism.
Nima: The second is The Quagmire, so you know, this war isn’t really a choice, a policy, a decision made by the most powerful military and government on the planet in the history of the world, but rather this mysterious force that somehow we just can’t get ourselves out of.
Adam: The third is The Middle Manager. The war is not necessarily bad, it’s just being done incompetently. This generally manifests as what we call strategy trolling. ‘We need a better strategy.’ ‘War crimes aren’t necessarily immoral, they’re just super hard to effectively pull off well.’
Nima: And then number four is one that we’ve discussed on the show before and we’ll discuss it again with our guest, which is The Asymptomatic Peace Process. We see this most notably in Israel-Palestine, this never ending and ill-defined process that is designed to never end, that we should focus on that as opposed to issues concerning justice, let alone decolonization.
Adam: So let’s begin with The Rules Follower, which is generally objections based on the legality, constitutionality, process critiques. I want to start by talking about the war in Iraq. Something we, um, we’ve touched on before but haven’t really quite got into that much. The war in Iraq was sort of the peak of pseudo-opposition. There was a study done by FAIR in April of 2003, which I want to sort of start with because I think it’ll help kind of lay the table, in which FAIR found that in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq in March of 2003, they did a survey of television nightly news. They did ABC World News, CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News and PBS NewsHour. And they found that of the 393 sources that were used on air, only three of them identified as antiwar activists. And of the 267 American sources that were identified only one came from a group that was actually an antiwar group. So less than one percent were explicitly antiwar. But in this, I think there’s, there’s a more interesting question which is where are the other five to six percent who were skeptical of the war but not overtly opposed to it? So even within antiwar voices, Nima, only 10 percent identified as antiwar, 90 percent of quote unquote “antiwar” voices, uh, we’re not even opposed to the war per se. They were just opposed to the war for sort of legal, technical grounds. And this generally manifested as calls to give the inspectors more time.
Nima: Right, right. They weren’t opposed to the idea of the United States invading, overthrowing and occupying a foreign country. That was kind of a given. It was just let’s make sure that we’ve laid out everything we need to do first, whether it’s getting, you know, certain international support, whether it’s getting the media on board, whether it is making sure that Saddam Hussein is, you know, as evil as we’re supposed to think he is because then we can justify this stuff. It’s all laying these pieces in place before doing the thing that you have already decided is actually totally fine to do. You just want to feel better about doing it.
Adam: Yeah. A good example of this was in 2003 Time magazine. There was a feature they had, it was a whole spread where they had pro and antiwar voices side by side. The dovish piece was quote unquote an “antiwar” piece by Wesley Clark, the former NATO General and its headline was quote, “Let’s Wait to Attack.” And this was contrasted with one from Kenneth Adelman which said, quote, “No, Let’s Not Waste Any Time.” Unquote.
Adam: So here, here are the options you have. It’s not: ‘Is attacking good?’ ‘Is it moral?’ It’s: ‘When do we do it?’ ‘Do we attack now or do we do attack later?’
Nima: Right. And let me just remind our listeners that Wesley Clark was a retired general, so I mean the opposition to war voice they decided would be best coming from someone who really has no problem with war.
Adam: Around that time, around 2002-2003, it was very common for people who are ostensibly opposed to the war in Iraq to position themselves as sort of the good opposition. Limiting the options, right? Not just sort of saying the war is immoral or it’s wrong, but what’s the best way we can facilitate the inspectors? There was this idea that we have to wait for the inspectors. This was the extent that anyone who lived through those times remembers, this was the extent you could really oppose the war for the most part. For 99 percent of the time it was just, it wasn’t that it was per se wrong or that it was per se immoral to invade another country. Uh, it was, we all agree Saddam’s evil, we all agree he is trying to build chemical weapons, we all agree that, you know, he’s, he’s, he’s flagrantly violating UN law. The question becomes, ‘What’s the best way to sort of manage this?’ But now we’ve run the propaganda ball justifying the invasion Iraq in 99 yards and then we stop at the one yard line and we say, ‘Actually, no, no, no, we’re opposed to the war but it’s super important that we figure out the timing of this and that.’ This was basically the extent of the opposition at that time.
Adam: Yeah. So even sort of extensively left-wing magazines like Dissent magazine had a lot of their editors write several different editorials. One by Mitchell Cohen in February of 2003 that was very pro war. Uh, that was actually for the war and he said at the time that, uh, that we should get behind Bush’s invasion. And this is again Dissent magazine, something that’s considered a left-wing magazine.
Nima: Yeah, Dissent. The word. “Dissent” magazine: let’s bomb Iraq.
Adam: Um, and a couple other editors, uh, were, were opposed to the war, but in a very sort of qualified tortured way. One editor in particular, Michael Walzer, who’s a founder of Dissent, sorta did the perfect version of pseudo-opposition where he ran this propaganda ball to the 99.9999 yard line, stopped and said, ‘Oh, actually, you know what? Bush isn’t necessarily the right guy.’
Nima: Yeah, he basically was arguing for war, but pretending that he was arguing against war. And this gets right to the heart of when we talk about procedural opposition, which is barely opposition and so Michael Walzer wrote a piece that was published in the New York Review of Books on March 13th, 2003, that is five days before shock and awe started in Baghdad. And the piece is titled “The Right Way.” It is also illustrated by a caricature of Saddam Hussein with kind of like a towel-ly turban around his head riding a camel. So that’s real. That actually happened and it was published. And so he goes into this piece saying, quote, “There are two ways of opposing a war with Iraq. The first way is simple and wrong; the second way is right but difficult.”
Adam: So basically the right way to oppose the war in his mind, he said, quote, “The right way to oppose the war is to argue for the present system of containment and control is working and that it can be made to work better.” I’m not sure what that means.
Adam: “This means that we should acknowledge the awfulness of the Iraqi regime, and the dangers it poses, and then aim to deal with those dangers through coercive measures short of war.” Coercive measures I suppose is a very anti-imperialist thing. I’m not sure when exactly that happened, but this policy he argues is not easy to defend. So basically what he’s doing is he is sort of staking out a leftist argument for American sanctions in Iraq, which killed, killed thousands of people.
Nima: And no-fly zones and embargo. Yeah, exactly.
Adam: Yeah. Because of some nebulous liberal world order. It’s not clear what right the US has to do this, I guess this, I guess it’s kind of an ad hoc moral authority and this is very common. This was very common in these sort of extensively left-wing circles and that it’s super important that we distance ourselves from the bad way and the people know that we’re the right way to oppose the war.
Nima: “The wrong way,” Michael Walzer writes, is quote “to deny that the Iraqi regime is particularly ugly, that it lies somewhere outside the range of ordinary states, or to argue that however ugly it is, it doesn’t pose any significant threat to its neighbors or to world peace.” And Walzer goes on to basically say that if you are coming from this from a point of view that Iraq should not be threatened, attacked, sanctioned, embargoed, perhaps bombed here and there like the Clinton administration did throughout the nineties, that if your argument is maybe we should not be attacking and destroying other countries, if that’s your starting point, Walzer says that is the wrong way to oppose this war. That is not actually opposing this war the right way.
Adam: Yeah. And then this was right after he wrote an op-ed in December of 2002, which, um, which didn’t age very well. It’s called, “Can There Be a Decent Left?” Unquote. Uh, this is from Michael Walzer, the editor at Dissent magazine. He’s been, he’s been doing this shit for 30 years, which is sort of the anti-imperialist left is somehow misguided and loves dictators, but he’s, you know, he’s the, he’s the last rational man and the fact that this, uh, this rationalism is kind of sober realism that he kind of presents ends up more or less just being cut and paste from the US State Department doesn’t really seem to bother him or he doesn’t really find that odd or particular. Um, so he says at the beginning of this article, he says, uh, and again, this is a co-editor of Dissent magazine in the summer of 2002, he says, quote, “Leftist opposition to the war in Afghanistan faded in November and December of last year, not only because of the success of the war but also because of the enthusiasm with which so many Afghans greeted that success. The pictures of women showing their smiling faces to the world, of men shaving their beards, of girls in school, of boys playing soccer in shorts: all this was no doubt a slap in the face to leftist theories of American imperialism, but also politically disarming.” So, uh, what we have here is someone who kind of declared victory in Afghanistan in the summer of 2002, um, and kind of created the ideological lubrication to need to justify the invasion of Iraq, right? If Afghanistan went so well, hell, why can’t we do it there? Uh, we can just keep overthrowing regimes, these quote unquote “regimes” and do it all over again and it’s a lot of ideological water carrying, but he sort of, again, is presenting himself as someone who seems opposed to the war, that he’s not opposed to Iraq for any particular moral reason and of course these are sort of basically just process critiques. He’s not opposed to the war because we have no right to wage it or because it’s, you know, violent or destructive or arbitrary and has no international sanction or god forbid that America may have, I don’t know, cynical motives, this never seems to occur to him. It’s just not the right mechanism to quote unquote “coerce” Iraq and then now in retrospect, we know that Afghanistan and Iraq went very badly and that lots of people died and that they’re still going badly for us 16, 17 years later. And this sort of gets to what we’re talking about, which is that, you know, this guy runs a left-wing magazine. This is, this is Dissent magazine. He has credibility in the left within certain circles, taking up a lot of space and making sure he’s part of the good opposition, that he’s part of the loyal opposition, the opposition that agrees that America has an innate right to go around and bullying countries and that we’re not, god forbid, pro-dictator or pro-regime or whatever. And this is, again, this is sort of how you get into the New York Review of Books, right? This is, this is where he wrote a lot of these articles. You’re not going to get into the New York Review of Books saying that, you know, the US has no right to do any of this. The US is an arrogant, imperialist power. And I think that there’s this entire industry of presenting oneself as leftist in a way that in retrospect, you know, it doesn’t really age well. It’s sort of, it’s all about respectability politics.
Nima: Well, right? And so I would add to this, the arguments made that as long as there is UN Security Council approval that the invasion of Iraq or you could take that to any of the, of the multiple war fronts that the US has embarked on since, uh, and even before of course, but that with that approval, international approval is what was needed. The kind of signing of the document and then all is well and good and this could be supported wholeheartedly. And then what made people making those arguments so frustrated is when the Bush administration declared that even without approval it would invade Iraq. And so then you could justly oppose this act even if you didn’t really oppose it on ideological grounds or moral or ethical grounds. You could oppose it because, well, it wasn’t done the right way. It didn’t have the stamp of approval from the UN. And so this is also, I think, related to what we saw in the run-up where Bill Keller, the head editor of The New York Times basically needed to hide behind neocon Ken Pollack’s book The Threatening Storm to justify his interest in bombing Iraq. And so there was a lot of opposition leading up to it and then you have Colin Powell’s presentation before the UN, and people look to that, right? And Bill Keller followed suit with Ken Pollack’s book. So Pollack’s book, which The Times reviewed as being thoughtful and balanced, timely and important and quote, “the best case possible for an invasion of Iraq.” Keller himself, Bill Keller, who now runs The Marshall Project, he himself deemed it quote, “intellectual cover for every liberal who finds himself inclining toward war but uneasy about Mr. Bush.” End quote. And the article that he wrote, that was headlined, “The I-Can’t-Believe-I’m-a-Hawk-Club,” and it came out on February 8th, 2003, just a little bit more than a month before the invasion began.
Adam: Another thing was the process critique of sort of, you know, we need to give the sanctions more time. Uh, this kind of a legal argument in that it’s something and it’s something a lot of people relied on. It’s something that, you know, maybe I relied on which is that Iraq, the Iraq war was illegal.
Nima: Yeah, absolutely.
Adam: Here’s why it’s illegal in a lot of, a lot of antiwar protesters at the time that were involved in the antiwar movement hated this argument because it, it, it implicitly meant that the Afghanistan war was legal and of course there were massive protests over the war in Afghanistan. Uh, so that’s why you get headlines like in October of 2001 when there was a huge anti war protest against the invasion of Afghanistan, The New York Times ran a headline that said, quote, “Marchers Oppose Waging War Against the Terrorists.”
Nima: (Laughs.) Yeah. Well there it is.
Adam: Which has to be one of the all time great sort of dystopian headlines. Those god damn hippies are opposed to terrorists, this not at all loaded term “terrorist.” It wasn’t the Afghanistan civilians they were concerned with or the humiliation of the foreign country occupying them. They’re actually just super pro-terrorist.
Nima: Pro-terrorist protesters.
Adam: Yeah. And so when you had the buildup to Iraq, you had this idea that it’s not that it’s bad, it’s just, it needs to have proper legal sanction. That Iraq would have been okay if France and Germany bought into it. Now I’m not sure to what extent one could think the war in Iraq was bad, but somehow becomes not bad when two other white majority countries support it. It’s, it’s, it’s a super low bar. Right?
Adam: Um, and so you saw this with Samantha Power. Samantha Power in 2002 had just got off winning the Pulitzer Prize for her nonfiction book called A Problem From Hell, which was basically the ideological groundwork of American intervention post-Cold War, uh, discussing that in Rwanda Clinton had sat by and did nothing which provided a kind of moral framework for American intervention based on humanitarian reasons.
Nima: Exactly. It’s the responsibility to protect argument.
Adam: Right. Which of course is just sort of imperialism 2.0. And so, so now she’s in a bit of a jam here because, uh, she was an academic at the time and was sort of beloved in liberal circles. And so, um, but her book came out during the buildup to the war in Iraq. Uh, so she was pressured to sorta support the war. Uh, she nominally did not support it, but reading her words, it’s very difficult to tell she doesn’t.
Adam: So she’s presented as antiwar. Uh, she went on MSNBC, Chris Matthews’ show on March 10th of 2003 to debate, uh, The New Republic’s Jonathan Chait, who was very for the war. He had just written an article actually called quote, “Give War a Chance.” So here’s, here’s the ultimate pseudo-opposition.
Nima: Here is what Samantha Power said to Chris Matthews, quote, “An American intervention likely will improve the live of the Iraqis. Their lives could not get worse, I think it’s quite safe to say. The issue, though, is whether the United States can be, in a sense, the unilateral guardian of human rights and whether the intervention itself won’t have destabilizing consequences, both in terms of our security, the very security in whose name we’re really launching this intervention, and in the name of international principles like human rights, international justice, international stability.” End quote.
Adam: So she says an American and intervention likely would improve the lives of Iraqis. Well, that’s kind of the entire moral gambit, right? Then what are we really arguing here? Oh, we’re arguing that we don’t have the sort of unilateral authority to do it. Uh, this is a very common refrain. This was popular amongst a lot of people like Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden, Clinton and Biden of course, went on to vote for the war itself. And there was this kind of rush, right?
Adam: There was this call in the next ten minutes, a call in the next ten minutes or it’s off.
Nima: And the idea that unforeseen consequences, right? Destabilizing consequences could follow. So, you know, be aware of that. Like while we’re, while we’re pretending to oppose the war, but actually encouraging the war, we’re going to throw that out there so that when it inevitably is a terrible thing that happened, it can be like, yeah, see I told you like there were going to be maybe destabilizing consequences.
Adam: And so then Chris Matthews kind of gets to the core of it, which is actually good. This is one of the Chris Matthews rare good moments because he’s kind of confused by this where she says that the Iraq war will be a net benefit, but somehow she’s opposed to it. And so he kind of tries to cut out the bullshit, you know, he asked, do you think the war is just or not? So we’re going to do this a little bit of play acting here where you can find, because we can’t find the NBC MSNBC clips, unfortunately, uh, they kind of fell into a memory all. Uh, so this is, this is from a FAIR report at the time. This is a transcript of the interview. So I’m going to be Chris Matthews —
Nima: And I’ll stay with Samantha Power.
Adam (as Chris Matthews): “Is this a just war, Samantha?”
Nima (as Samantha Power): “It will have a just result locally and probably a very unjust result…”
Adam (as Chris Matthews): “Is it a just war?”
Nima (as Samantha Power): “I don’t think we can be the guardians of justice…”
Adam (as Chris Matthews): “No, I–so it’s not a just war?”
Nima (as Samantha Power): “We haven’t fought it yet, Chris. I mean, you know, you can’t say whether…”
Adam (as Chris Matthews): “Well, you have to decide about a war before you start it, not afterwards. Is this a just war…”
Nima (as Samantha Power): “No, you can’t weigh in on proportionality, on discrimination, on whether we actually follow through and actually look out for the rights of the Iraqis… after the war. We don’t know that now.”
Adam (as Chris Matthews): “But in its outset, is it a just war?”
Nima (as Samantha Power): “It’s not being fought for human rights reasons. I don’t know who–why–I mean, it would be great if human rights were a necessary condition.”
Adam: Right so she wouldn’t say if this was a just war or not because if you took her own logic to its ends, which is the idea that America needs to promote human rights, then of course it would be because Saddam Hussein makes everyone else look like child’s play, right? Saddam HUssein’s human rights violations were pretty well documented. Uh, then it becomes an issue of efficacy of can we impose our order on the world in an efficient or effective manner really becomes the question and of course fundamental questions of imperial arrogance or whether or not we have a right to do any of this or what does this, you know, nebulous, mysterious, liberal world order look like, who decides what informs this world order are never really discussed. There’s an iteration of this that’s very popular amongst people in Congress right now and in the Senate, which is something we’ve touched on briefly in our editorial episode with The New York Times and Washington Post editorial boards with Jim and Janine from, from fair.org.
Adam: Which is the idea that, um, we have to call on Congress for a vote.
Nima: We need a vote. Yeah.
Adam: Whether it’s ISIS or bombing of the Syrian government. It’s, it’s very common for everyone from Bernie Sanders to Tim Kaine to say, ‘I demand a vote. We need to get a vote.’ This is a process criticism, right? You’re not saying if the war is good or bad, you’re saying if it’s Constitutional or if it’s being sanctioned correctly. Okay. That’s fine. And I agree that that should be something that we, that we discuss, but it doesn’t really mean a lot.
Nima: We saw this with Kavanaugh, incidentally.
Nima: It’s the same gambit. It’s that, ‘No, no, no, no. We need to vote on this. We need to hear it out.’ But the mind is already made up like it’s not, it’s all process critique.
Adam: Yeah. And so Tim Kaine, a couple days after Trump’s airstrike in Syria in 2018 tweeted out quote, “Assad should face consequences for his atrocities, but Trump is a president, not a king — he needs to come to Congress if he wants to initiate military action. If he strikes Syria without our approval, what’s to stop him from bombing North Korea or Iran?” You know, this is kind of a superficially interesting point that Trump doesn’t have the authority. So I tweeted out, you know, this is a very common trope of ‘I support Trump’s airstrikes but he needs to check the box with Congress despite the fact that I — [Tim Kaine] and virtually every other Democrat’ support the airstrikes. Clinton supported the airstrikes. Democrats supported the airstrikes, but they couldn’t look like they supported the airstrikes because they had to look anti-Trump. So all they had left was process criticism that he didn’t go to Congress.
Nima: Yeah, bring it to us so we can approve it. (Laughs.) Right.
Adam: But if you’re going to vote for it anyway, what difference does it make? If it has no material effect that it’s just pure formulism. So then his press secretary, Tim Kaine’s press secretary Ian Sams jumped on my Twitter feed and said, quote, “your abject cynicism is ridiculous and only plays to benefit someone like Trump.” They love this line that any kind of criticism to Democrats somehow helps Trump, which I guess is a good way to incubate yourself from any criticism.
Nima: (Laughing) Right exactly. You’re helping Trump by talking about anything rational. You’re helping Trump.
Adam: Right. And I said, well, “Your dumb deflection aside can you answer a simple question: If there was a vote in Congress on whether to bomb the Assad government, would Tim Kaine support or oppose it?” And he said, quote, “you’re arguing it’s ‘pointless’ for leaders to even argue there should be a vote. so have a great day, Adam.” He wouldn’t answer the question. I asked him twice more. I said, “Would Tim Kaine vote to support the bombing?” And he wouldn’t answer it. And the reason he wouldn’t because Tim Kaine does support the bombing. So here you have the quintessential pseudo-opposition. Tim Kaine supports Trump’s bombing of Syria, as do most Democrats, as did Hillary Clinton, who twice praised the bombings, uh, but he can’t come out and say, you know, ‘good job Trump’ without a way to keep him accountable. So he does this process criticism, which is ‘next time you do this thing that I think is really awesome, can you please ask me first?’ Uh, you know, that’d be great. But what’s the fucking point if you support it anyway, it doesn’t make any sense. Now I want to differentiate though, I want to differentiate because the people who are trying to stop the war in Yemen are calling for a war authorization. People like Mike Lee, Chris Murphy, Bernie Sanders. Now they’re very clear that if there actually was a vote, that they would oppose the war, that, that the call to a vote for a war is a step to end the war. It is not a kind of meta criticism for war you support incidentally. And so it’s not this kind of limited hangout we’re discussing, but it’s actually a mechanism to stop the war in Yemen. So there, there, there is a situation where people say, ‘oh, Congress should call for a vote’ when they actually want to vote against the war, but when it comes to bombing ISIS or bombing the Syrian government that’s never the case. They want to bomb these things anyway. So the whole thing is sort of just filling up space. It’s a way of looking busy. It’s a way of looking like you oppose Trump and oppose war without, without actually having to do so.
Nima: So the next pseudo-opposition trope that we want to explore is The Quagmire. The we are getting roped into something that is beyond our control, if not already in it, if not already sunken in the quicksand of international insanity where we, the most powerful country in the, in the world, cannot extract or extricate itself from this thing that we somehow somehow mysteriously are involved in.
Adam: Yeah. This is something we see a lot with Afghanistan that I don’t have concerns about the morality or the ethics or the justness of the war, but it’s sort of a quagmire. That my objection is that it’s a quagmire, that there’s sort of these mysterious forces that are keeping us there. Uh, and we see this all the time.
[Begin Clip Montage]
Man #1: We’re facing a quagmire in Iraq, just as we faced a quagmire in a, in Vietnam.
Man #2: It’s the nature of the quagmire that Bush has got us into, like so many other quagmires. The deficit, Iraq.
Woman: They’re saying not just is there no chance of sustained fire, ongoing, ongoing hostilities, almost the quagmire that became Vietnam and Korea.
Man #3: This is a never ending quagmire.
Man #4: I think anytime you deal with an issue like this in the Middle East, it’s a quagmire.
Man #5: Clearly Afghanistan became a quagmire. Iraq became a quagmire.
Man #6: We’re getting pulled into a quagmire.
Man #7: This could be another quagmire like Vietnam.
Man #8: The quagmire of Afghanistan seems as though it’s turning around.
[End Clip Montage]
Nima: Yeah, on TV and in print you see this endlessly, uh, “Afghanistan Is an Infinite Quagmire,” The New Republic put out in 2016. “America is Getting Sucked Into Another Middle East Quagmire” The National Interest headline read in 2017. I mean, we could go on and on with this.
Adam: Yeah, it’s so, it’s not that it’s wrong or that we’re occupying militarily in an unjust war or that were humiliating a population. There’s no sort of moral properties to these criticisms. Uh, we’re just sort of stuck in quicksand and, and we’re just, we can’t get out. So many of the pseudo-oppositions are really about making people feel good about themselves, right? Yeah. There’s a national mythology of US benevolence and pundits, and I want to be clear here that I don’t think everyone who uses these criticisms is operating in bad faith. I want to sort of be fair. And then I, I think that a lot of them, I don’t think all of them are concern trolls. I think there were people, especially in the buildup to Iraq, who really thought this was the kind of shortest path. The shorter shortcut was flattering national ego to stave off the invasion. So I think there’s some people who do this kind of thing in good faith, but what they’re really doing is they’re finding the shortest, the shortcut right? To flatter national ego by saying, I’m not going to question America’s fundamental goodness, I’m not going to question the fundamental moral enterprise of American empire, but-
Nima: The intentions overall are noble and just —
Nima: But —
Adam: And this leads to the third one, which is my, which is my personal favorite, which is The Middle Manager, uh, which is, that war is not bad, it’s just done incompetently. You saw this a lot after Trump’s bombing in Syria and also with the war against ISIS, where you see this a lot with the US supporting the war in Yemen, which is not that the war is per se wrong, it’s that it’s, that it’s a fiasco or that it’s bumbling or that it needs better management.
Nima: So this is actually used as a, as a constant attack on Trump. So it’s not that Trump has bad ideas and does things that are bad because he’s a bad person and I don’t mean bad in like a silly, like ‘you’re a meany,’ but like has bad ideas about America’s role in the world and about the, the extent to which, uh, the United States and he himself as the commander in chief now, which is unbelievable, can kind of execute those actions without any fear of repercussion with, with complete impunity because simply we are who we are. And so the attack becomes:
[Begin Clip Montage]
Man #1: The Trump administration has no coherent strategy or no strategy at all, coherent or otherwise.
Woman #1: Do you see a strategy from this White House? A Syria strategy?
Man #2: Half a million Syrians having died in this conflict is what is our strategy towards Syria?
Man #3: There is still no Syria strategy from this administration.
Man #4: That the administration still does not have a Syria strategy.
Man #5: Do you see a strategy here?
Man #6: The key questions at this moment, what is the US strategy on Syria going forward?
Man #7: Airstrikes do not equal a strategy.
Man #8: New questions about what if any larger strategy had served?
Man #9: More concern is what is the strategy?
Woman #2: But the question is what’s the strategy now? And it doesn’t really seem that there is a strategy for moving forward.
[End Clip Montage]
Adam: Yeah. And you saw this with Iraq, with the idea that we’re squandering money. This was sort of the big criticism, the most popular criticism around 2006, 2005, uh, for liberals who supported the war, like John Kerry, for example, who at the time and around that time was running for president, wasn’t that the war was wrong because he couldn’t say my vote was wrong. It’s that Bush wasn’t the right guy for the job. Uh, this was a managerial problem that the war in Iraq would have been hunky dory if it wasn’t just done badly.
Nima: Even actually before the war started, uh, so this is February 25th, 2003 General Shinseki who became this, noted a soothsayer or you know, sort of like, ‘oh, if we’d only listened to Shinseki before the invasion, then everything would have been fucking great’ you know, laid down the line of it’s going to take hundreds and hundreds of thousands of troops to pacify Iraq and like do what needs to be done. And then Rumsfeld was like, ‘I don’t think that’s true.’ And so it became this thing where Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of State under Bush, was seen as being a bad manager of these war crimes. So you have in April of 2006, The New York Times quoting General Swannack saying, “We need to continue to fight the global war on terror and keep it off our shores. But I do not believe Secretary Rumsfeld is the right person to fight that war based on his absolute failures in managing the war against Saddam in Iraq.” And so then you have Chuck Hagel, a senator at the time in 2006 writing an Op-Ed in the Washington Post saying that, “The time for more U.S. troops in Iraq has passed. We do not have more troops to send and, even if we did, they would not bring a resolution to Iraq. Militaries are built to fight and win wars, not bind together failing nations. We are once again learning a very hard lesson in foreign affairs: America cannot impose a democracy on any nation — regardless of our noble purpose.” Something that would’ve been good to mention before the fucking invasion. Anyway, Hagel continues, “We have misunderstood, misread, misplanned and mismanaged our honorable intentions in Iraq with an arrogant self-delusion reminiscent of Vietnam. Honorable intentions are not policies and plans. Iraq belongs to the 25 million Iraqis who live there. They will decide their fate and form of government.”
Adam: Um, and this manifests specifically with the idea that we were not sending enough troops, that we needed more troops and John Kerry in 2005 when the war was going completely to shit, this was, this was this big criticism, uh, that, that the big mistake was, it’s not that we should withdraw, its that we were initially didn’t send enough troops. So that we needed more protected protection for our Humvees. Now, you know, I, I get that you want to make sure that Americans aren’t coming home dead. Uh, that seems like a perfectly fine suggestion, but it was the entire scope of the debate and anyone who lived through that time, it was like being in a Twilight Zone episode where —
Nima: “The troops need more body armor!”
Adam: Where that was all there was, there was this, that was the scope of left-wing dissent. It was not that we could, you know, pull out of Iraq. It was how do we best management and people really didn’t start talking about pulling out of Iraq until about 2006 when it really went to shit. And then there was this mass antiwar movement in this country that had really took off. Of course it had been there the whole time, but it really kind of brought it to the surface. It became impossible for Democrats to ignore and frankly it became possible for Republicans to ignore. But the entire time before that, the entire time before these mass movements swelled up, uh, the debate was simply managerial legal critiques our number one and number three. This was the entire scope of debate. And you even see this with some of the revisions of Iraq with Zack Beauchamp, the world’s dullest man who writes for Vox. He does kind of State Department write ups for Vox about foreign policy. He wrote this revisionist take on Iraq where he said quote, “The group [Al Qaeda] only established its large foothold after many Iraqis had turned against the American occupation, which alienated Iraqis with its mismanagement of the country.
Nima: (Chuckles.) Right.
Adam:Uh, so, so the Iraqis didn’t turn against the Americans because of the occupation itself.
Nima: Right. Because their country was invaded, a lot of people were, were murdered by foreign troops.
Adam: Yeah. They turned on Americans because of mismanagement, like there was like we should have hired McKinsey & Company instead of this, this other firm. That we went with the wrong guy.
Nima: (Laughs.) Exactly.
Adam: And it’s all part of this national mythmaking this is, this is the thing, right? You have to go back to the idea that our motives are pure, that the fundamental imperial project is not morally wrong. It’s simply a matter of management. Um, and that Iraq was such a massive moral fuck up the only way you could really reconcile that is to maintain this idea that the problem was a big managerial whoopsie. That we just sent the wrong guy. We didn’t send enough guys. That if only we had sent the right managing firm or the right leader, uh, it actually would have been completely fine.
Nima: Right and that the pretext in general is never questioned. Like, don’t invade other countries.
Adam: The fourth form of pseudo-opposition, which is something we, uh, we see profoundly in discussions of Israel and Palestine is this idea that we need to work towards some nebulous peace process which really skirts fundamental issues of colonialism and injustice for this sort of constantly out of reach peace process. You, you know, that dream you have when you’re trying to reach for something and no matter what you do, you can’t quite get it? It’s sort of like that but over 70, 80, 90, 500 years that there’s this nebulous peace process, um, and you can, you can support a peace process, but you can’t really support notions of justice or decolonization, uh, when it comes to the topic of Israel. And that’s something our guest today is going to talk about.
Nima: So we are going to be joined in just a moment by Nora Barrows-Friedman, associate editor and longtime writer at The Electronic Intifada. Stay with us.
Nima: We are joined now by Nora Barrows-Friedman. Thanks so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: Thank you so much. It’s good to be here.
Adam: So one of the things we’re exploring in this episode is the ways in which activists who’ve dealt in this space in trying to oppose occupation and war and how it can be kind of frustrating how quote unquote “opposition” to war manifests as as things that are not really opposition in any substantive way and sort of crowds out the real substantive objections to war. One example we gave at the beginning of the show was a FAIR study in 2003 that observed that on air appearances of ABC Nightly News, CBS, NBC Nightly News and PBS contributors that of these sources only three of them were actually identified as antiwar activists. Of the 267 American sources, only one was, was associated with an antiwar activist organization. Can you talk about this phenomenon of being crowded out constantly by the Wesley Clarks and Samantha Powers of the world?
Nora Barrows-Friedman: God. Yeah. Um, I mean, that’s kind of, you know, as someone who’s been doing independent, scrappy journalism for, god, almost 16 years now, um, I’ve seen sometimes one of our own is able to kind of penetrate the mainstream corporate shroud a little bit and is able to get on a major prime time, you know, like a Fox round table or something and debate some of the Wesley Clarks or Samantha Power. It’s really rare and usually they use one of our antiwar or independent journalists trying to amplify the voices of the people who are silenced as someone to ridicule, someone to be able to point to and say, ‘See these crazy left-wing radicals are just so pie in the sky. They’re so irrational. This is why we shouldn’t listen to them.’ And you know, and then they get to pile on that way. As someone who has never been invited to one of those shows, I mean, I’ve, you know, the majorist quasi mainstream I’ve ever been able to get on is like an Al Jazeera news show. Um, I was able to debate someone who I just think is officious. Um, and that was really, that was fun for me, but also wasn’t-
Adam: Who was it? Who was it? Tell us.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: (Chuckles) Kenneth Marcus. Um, I don’t know if you know who Kenneth Marcus is, he’s a Israel lawfare strategist. He ran the Louis Brandeis Center for Human Rights, which is a funny misnomer. It’s like the, um, the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
Adam: Are you suggesting that human rights can be weaponized by people who are imperialist?
Nora Barrows-Friedman: It’s weird, but yes, it can be and it has been. And especially someone like Kenneth Marcus who was the lead architect in trying to criminalize Palestine solidarity organizing on US campuses. He came up with the strategy of filing complaints to the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights alleging that Palestinian students violate the civil rights and discriminate against Jewish students by simply advocating for Palestinian rights. And luckily during the Obama administration, those, which is the only time I’ve ever, I’m ever going to say that, those complaints were thrown out by the Department of Education because they had no evidence to back them up. Kenneth Marcus, if you Google him right now, he is now the head of the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Education.
Adam: God bless America.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: It’s one of the most nightmarish Kafkaesque, Orwellian whatever cliche you want to bring now that is determining how our lives are being led right now. It, it is just, he is the fox in the hen house when it comes to, um, what Palestine solidarity activists and students on US campuses are facing now. So before he was the head of the Office for Civil Rights, I debated him on Al Jazeera about the merit of using this kind of litigation against students to try and silence their organizing. And that was great. And it was, it was fun for me. I also, like, I, I felt like I had to take like twelve Xanax before and after it happened. I was a complete, you know, just nervous wreck. But that was about the, you know, the highest realm of mainstream I’ve been on.
Adam: You touched on this in your response and it’s something that’s a feature we talked about earlier and that’s something we’ve talked about before, which is the idea to establish oneself as Serious Opposition, capital ‘S,’ capital ‘O,’of a kind of loyal opposition. The first thing you do is punch left. And we saw this with Michelle Goldberg in 2002. Uh, she’s now of course a columnist for The New York Times because that’s how you become a columnist for The New York Times. She wrote a bunch of hand wringing articles in Salon about how it’s, it’s really bad that the antiwar movement was being run by the IAC. And I guess at the time that would’ve been Workers World I think, although I think the IAC is now PSL affiliated, but whatever, you know, in fairness, these are sort of hard line Marxist, Leninist organizations that can be divisive. But you know, they were joined by other groups, uh, liberals, other socialists, anarchists. And they were the ones that put on the protests who were actually putting on the protests in 2002. And Goldberg wrote this piece called “Peace kooks,” where she wrote that quote, the “antiwar movement is in danger of being hijacked by bizarre extremist groups.” Uh, that’s because the politics of the group behind it, which in this case is the International Action Center, the IAC, are, uh, are, as she said, “anathema to most Americans — including the vast majority of Americans who oppose a war on Iraq. IAC opposes any action against Saddam [Hussein] including containment.” Containment as a euphemism for sanctions, which of course killed hundreds of thousands of kids, but whatever. Um, so then she goes on to sort of say the same thing that David Corn says, David Corn who wrote at the time for LA Weekly, he’s now works at Mother Jones. He’s a big Russiagate guy. He went to a bunch of antiwar protests and did the same shtick where he talked about Palestine and fighting Israel and freeing Mumia.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: Right.
Adam: Uh, and then of course there are historical reasons why people bring those up at protests because in many ways they’re obviously interconnected.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: That’s right.
Adam: So can we talk about this? Can we talk about the kind of need to left punch, to hippy punch to go out of one’s way to say, ‘I’m not one of those wacky people. I’m serious. Uh, I think the problem with Iraq is that it’s ill advised or costs too much money.’
Nora Barrows-Friedman: Right. Yeah. Not, not for any of those like lefty or radical reasons, you know, that, that those other people are calling for, which is like, you know, stop murdering children and stop taking other people’s resources and um, you know, just like basic common sense. I mean, it’s historic gaslighting which has always happened to the left and to the antiwar movements in this country. We are unreasonable. We are too radical. How dare we connect the prison industrial complex to war and occupation. The reasons that the liberals and those who have aspirations to become New York Times columnists do that is precisely that. It’s tough to separate themselves from, from the reasonable, you know, maybe wars aren’t so good because it makes us look bad. Sort of tactic from the wars are inherently terrible things and should always be stopped and we have a responsibility, as you know, the number one superpower in the world to not be involved and to not kill other people and to not make, you know, people from here killed those people. I mean it’s just, I feel like when it comes to Palestine and how people give Israel always the benefit of the doubt and Israel always has, you know, I mean those New York Times columnists also are like, you know, ‘well Israel is doing this for security.’ I mean, that’s the same reason that they were giving the US to go ahead and invade other countries. ‘Well we’re doing it for our security. We’re doing it for our freedom.’ That can never be questioned. And if you question that, then you’re a crazy ass radical who deserves to be punched in the figurative and probably literal sense.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: So yeah, I mean it’s just terrifying that we’re still here. But, you know, I, I feel like it’s been that sentiment, those attempts to rationalize the punching down on the left has been coddled by the corporate media, by New York Times and NPR, you know, which purports to be in a more liberal, progressive, even, um, publications but are really just, I mean, they use the best euphemisms for being as right-wing as possible and that’s how they sell all these other wars and occupations.
Nima: Yeah, no, absolutely. Um, I, I think actually you hit on something that we were talking about earlier in the show, which is kind of the idea of who is always centered in these discussions. So notably, um, last month in mid October, uh, there was an article in the Daily Beast that actually Adam pointed out on Twitter and how the article itself, which is about Gaza and the serious water crisis that is going on there, the article is actually a good bit of writing. But the way that this is framed in the headline is this. So this is Daily Beast from October 13th of this year, “Gaza’s Dying of Thirst, and Its Water Crisis Will Become a Threat to Israel.”
Nora Barrows-Friedman: Oh wow. (Laughs.) Wow. Israel created it and now it’s become, right. I mean it’s, and that, that sort of like the acrobatics that is needed to constantly frame Israel as never the aggressor, always the victim. Even when a water crisis that if you do one, you know, tiny second of Googling, you can understand that it is because Israel has completely cut off Gaza from all of its resources and has occupied and ghettoized Gaza into a concentration camp for the last eleven years. I mean it’s mind numbing and it’s so frustrating and to see this, I mean the Daily Beast, right? Like I mean our liberal parents go and read the Daily Beast because they think it’s good information and it’s not Fox News and it’s not MSNBC either. So it’s such a disservice. It’s more than a disservice. It’s criminal, it’s criminal that this type of framing is allowed and that editors aren’t doing basic fact checking and that headline writers are allowed to put that kind of just like appalling, that’s appalling, I’m so glad I didn’t see that because I probably would have blown a gasket.
Nima: Well, apologies for bringing it up then. (Laughs.)
Adam: Well, there’s, there’s a sort of soft racism to this line and you see it a lot with Israel and Palestine, which is the idea that like, I mean, it effectively treats Palestinians like they are a kind of caged animal that we should be nice to them only insofar that they don’t get super mad and try to attack us. Right?
Nora Barrows-Friedman: That’s right.
Adam: And one’s good sort of counter to this is by saying, well, okay, that’s the only way you’ll get Western audiences to give a shit about Palestinians by centering Israel.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: That’s right.
Adam: I don’t know this, this seems pretty myopic to me on the issue of Israel/Palestine. Uh, I want to get into the way in which, and we talked about this offline, this concept of moating or building a series of rhetorical moats, which is where you build up these barriers with pseudo-arguments. Uh, so it’s much more difficult to get to the core of, you know, the main castle, the main, the main substantive argument. So you have to go through all these moats of liberal pseudo-opposition, uh, before you can get to really what you were talking about. And I think this is probably true more than anywhere in how we discuss Israel/Palestine. And this is something, by the way, I think Electronic Intifada does a good job of not doing, the kind of skip all these niceties and get to the core of what it is. And I know in the nineties and two thousands it was worse than it is today, but you kind of have to go through all these liberal Zionist arguments of the two-state solution. What about fighting terror? These kinds of cliches. And then you have to have a sort of pat answers for them before you can move on.
Nima: They’re in the dangerous neighborhood.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: That’s right.
Adam: Yeah. Which is not at all a racist glib comment.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: Oh, never. No.
Adam: But you have to go through all this kind of pseudo-arguments to get to the core of it. And as someone who again has dealt in this space for awhile, I’m curious specifically how much pseudo-opposition and how much you know, this, this, this debate will be between this debate between the far-right and liberals that’s really a debate, uh, you know, and often times they’ll have a token Muslim, they don’t even care if he’s Palestinian, who’s kind of the soft Zionist tool who will ind of take up the oxygen, take up the space of criticism of Israel.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: Right.
Adam: And as someone who’s dealt in this space for several years, I guess I’m curious how annoying it is to have to deal with, with this constant moating, this kind of constant, a pseudo-opposition?
Nora Barrows-Friedman: Oh God. I mean, again, it’s just like, it’s gaslighting. You know publications like The Electronic Intifada, Palestinian publications in Palestine in English language, um, who, uh, you know, which have been documenting Israel’s war crimes and violations of whatever, you know, dozens of international laws, they’re never ever cited. We get pretty proud when we’re cited in a mainstream organization. Of course, sometimes, you know, The New York Times likes to call us a, a pro-Palestinian blog. Um, sometimes, but we break news and sometimes the mainstream corporate media have to actually cite us for things. And I’m sure they’re doing it begrudgingly. Um, but, but yeah, no, that’s, that’s the, you know, sometimes they’ll have Peter Beinart, for example, a staunch liberal Zionist on to be the, you know, the voice of so-called progressivism or you know, someone who he could debate someone like Mark Regev for example, an Israeli ambassador, you know, some, something like that. So, so you’ll have the staunch heartland Zionist, and then you’ll have the lake more palatable liberal Zionist. They both have the same ideology of Zionism, which is that Palestinians do not deserve to be on the land that they are from. And, and Israel is the state that cannot be questioned about its existence as a, a Jewish only state. Um, so, so really what they’re debating is just kind of like, it’s tactics.
Nima: Right. It’s like, do we like, strangle them with our hands or just shoot them from far away?
Nora Barrows-Friedman: That’s absolutely correct.
Adam: Yeah it’s very similar to the debate on Iran, which is how much do we sanction them, make sure that their hospitals don’t have x-ray machines or do we bomb them? That’s the range of the debate as we discussed earlier.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: Right, right. Which is also the same conversation about, about Palestine too. It’s like, well, do we let in, you know, X amount of antibiotics to the Gaza Strip or do we just like let them suffer worse? And so far, you know, I mean Gaza is that almost zero stock for medications right now. They do not have chemotherapy medications, they don’t have dialysis machines. It’s really dire. And that is because Israel has made the conscious decision to not allow medications in.
Nima: It’s basically because non-sick Palestinians are rapidly becoming a threat to Israel.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: That’s right. That’s right.
Nima: It really comes back to the basic issue of if there are people who are alive in Palestine who are Palestinian, that is going to be a threat to Israel.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: That’s the basic premise.
Nima: Yeah, no, exactly right? I mean, settlements are a obstacle to peace, but it’s not a peace that has anything to do with justice for Palestine or Palestinians.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: Well, it just makes Israel look bad. I mean, we’ll still keep giving them, you know, hundreds of billions of dollars and we will still, you know, prop up their industrial complex and we’ll have, you know, our police forces go and train with Israeli police forces in so-called counterterrorism strategy. You know, that’s fine. Um, it just, you know, the, the settlements, maybe don’t do it so much? If you want to, that’s fine, but I’m just saying, you know, I mean that’s, that’s been our foreign policy, which, you know, as someone pointed out recently on the podcast that I produce, The Electronic Intifada podcast, Israel has always been a domestic policy. It’s not foreign policy. It is exactly as we want it to be, you know. And so, so the, the, yeah, the whole settlements as an obstacle to peace or the two state solution is the only way forward, even though it’s been completely dead in the water for at least, I don’t know ever these so called starting points to begin discussions when, you know, when anybody is talking about Palestine, they are completely, those discussions, they should be looked at through the lens of Israel always being centered. And what happens when we center Palestinians, what happens when we center human rights, what happens when we center international law and the obligations that our country has to, as a partner, um, as an ally to people, not to governments that are inflicting genocide and apartheid on people. But what is the role and response? What should be the role and responsibility? Um, when we look at, uh, you know, the, the situation in Palestine through those lenses completely flips. You know, you can’t talk about international law without talking about how Israel violates it every single day. You can’t talk about the two-state solution when, you know, if you’re not also talking about continued entrenched separation, segregation and apartheid, because that’s essentially what the two-state solution would be. I mean, if you look at the tenants of what the to the so-called two-state solution would be, it would be that Israel gets rewarded for its land grabs that, uh, you know, they’ve said explicitly that they would want to push all the Palestinian citizens of Israel, which is 20 percent of their population now, into what would then become, you know, the state of Palestine and that Palestinians who have been struggling for 70 years to return back to their lands, homes and properties would be completely stripped of those rights.So if we talk about is two-state solution, we’re talking about an actual legalized entrenched apartheid state. And of course that’s what we have now. We have an entrenched legalized apartheid state, um, that Palestinians are suffering under the thumb of and are being brutalized everyday. And, and those, you know, those marches now for the last six months, every Friday, hundreds of people have been killed, including paramedics, children, uh, journalists at the boundary. They are, they’re only ask, well, several asks. One is stop killing us, two is stop the siege and three is allow us to return back to our homes, we are guaranteed that right under the United Nations Resolution 194, uh, that was passed in 1949. So I mean the, when, when you see how Gaza is being portrayed and discussed and written about in mainstream media, they say, you know, ‘there were clashes at the Gaza border’ as though there’s an international border between Gaza and, and present day Israel. There isn’t, it’s a boundary for one. There’s no ‘clashes.’ Gaza doesn’t have a military force. They sent balloons yesterday, you know, and, and the Israeli air force shot them down with missiles or something like that. Israel has these sniping positions stationed along the boundary fence and they are comfortably, you know, shooting into crowds of unarmed demonstrators and nowhere in that Times reporting, do I ever see that Gaza has been under siege for eleven years. That the requests, the demands of the protesters, every Friday are to have Israel stop that siege and that the basic premise that they’re protesting under is that they demand to be returning to those lands that they can even see with their naked eye across the boundary fence because Israel stole that land from them 70 years ago and they are yearning to go back. Never do I see that contextualized in, in any New York Times article.
Adam: One of the ways pseudo-opposition manifests itself, and this is very much popular in the Israel/Palestine debate, is the idea that imperialism or US military presence or whatever you want to call it, you know, 600, 800 military bases, depending how you define it, 8, 9, 10 ongoing hot wars depending on you define them, dozens more soft and clandestine wars that go on at any given time, uh, that this is somehow a machine and this machine can’t really be stopped. It could just sort of be managed. And this is how you sort of rise to the top of the pundit world by talking about politics. Uh, as if it’s not a series of moral choices, but it’s just this thing that sort of exists like gravity or the tides and there’s nothing we can really do about it.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: It’s job creation too. I mean, come on.
Adam: Yeah, it’s about job creation. It’s about sort of what are you going to do with this mess? Let’s talk about process, right?
Nora Barrows-Friedman: Right.
Adam: Um, and this is my opinion, is the most popular way that the left gets crowded out, that the process discussions are the entire scope of the debate, you see this a lot with Israel where the sort of fringe left in the debate is, liberal Zionist questions about what’s in Israel’s best interest. And you saw this when John Kerry pulled out of, um, abstained from the UN vote in December of 2016 over settlement growth. Or when they did the embassy move in Jerusalem, Trump did the embassy move in Jerusalem, uh, last summer, which is the entire scope of the debate was, is this good for Israel? Uh, what, you know, is this something that’s going to help Israel as opposed to the fundamental question as to whether or not it’s ethical to, I don’t know, ethnically cleansed entire population? What is the legal and moral right to do that? That’s something we never discuss.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: Yeah. And then you have people like John Kerry who once they get out of office, they’re like, ‘Oh man, I wish I could’ve done more.’
Nima: (Laughs.) Right.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: It’s like, what the hell? Like we’ve been banging on your door for eight years trying to get you to do one thing. Just one, one thing. You know that the abstaining from a UN settlement vote? Oh, you should get the Nobel prize for that. I mean it just-
Nima: Yeah, no, it’s so cynical, right? That when you’re in a position of power, you are the one who is kind of hamstrung by process and these, and these questions of, well we need to say that this is bad because optically in Europe this is seen as bad. So like we have to say that that’s bad, but we don’t do anything to stop it. Right? We don’t do anything to stop, whether it’s jets firing into hospitals in Gaza or the, you know, expansion of colonies in the West Bank, like, that’s never gonna change, just like the US is never not going to be the world’s police officer. And so the issue is not how we, a collective like imperial “we,” are gonna take action against, you know, X, Y, Z official enemies of the US or Israel, but how best to do it so that, you know, not only we can win, but also so that we can then maintain control at the end of the egregious, illegal war criminal action that we are going to commit.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: That’s it. I mean, we’ve been investing in this war crime for 70 years, right? And, and now, you know, I’m just really glad that Jared Kushner is the guy for the job now. Um, I just —
Nima: (Chuckles.) We’re all in good hands.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: We’re all in great hands. The Palestinians are in great hands with Jared Kushner. Um, you know, Jared Kushner, who is a family friend of Benjamin Netanyahu. I mean, just like, you can’t make this shit up.
Adam: He funded some more of the right-wing Zionist groups in the West Bank, which is a totally normal thing to do to fund terrorist groups in a, in another country.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: It’s super normal. It’s not just normal it’s like what you do and you know, being asked to challenge that is again, like crazy left-wing fanaticism. And so there’s no silver linings, there’s never a silver lining when it comes to, to what Israel is doing in Palestine. But, um, but at least right now, you know, the mask is off. This has always been US policy towards Palestinians. This has always been US propping up of Israel and you know, we’ve had, you know, through the Obama years and I mean, and administrations before him, it was always touted as this like, ‘We’re going to be the arbiters of peace. Finally we’re going to do, you know, we’re really gonna do this two-state solution thing now guys.’ And you know, Obama was really good at saying, tsking, you know, and waving his, his finger at, at Israel for expanding the settlements. But then also like, you know, with his other hand handing them a huge blank check, at least now we know that the system is, is laid bare and I don’t know how much good that does, but at least it’s impossible to pretend that this hasn’t been US policy all along and I think maybe that can be galvanizing for organizers and for students and you know, campus activists to finally say like, look, this is what’s happening with our tax dollars. This is what’s happening with our so-called diplomacy machine. The just egregious, you know, performance of Nikki Haley at the UN. Um, you know, trying to get every single country she could onboard with a, you know, a resolution against more genocide in Gaza.
Nima: And that was her, like, farewell concert.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: That was, it really was and she was just, I mean it was a performance, it was a complete performance, but at least we can see now where the US’s priorities lie and it’s not couched in this very liberal like ‘we have to keep fighting for the two-state solution. We’re going to do everything we can, we’re going to send our best to the UN,’ um, to once again block any resolution that, that dares to criticize Israel and you know, not filling up to its obligations in terms of international law or the resolutions that the United Nations has passed.
Nima: In this time where the kind of, the veil has fallen away, the curtain is lifted and now we see, those who’ve been paying attention for a long time are like, ‘yeah, now all of you can see that that was, you know, Marvel behind the curtain, not the wizard, like we’ve known that, but you didn’t know that.’ But with that, do you see this as being a time where there are better opportunities for activists opposing this stuff, but also what are the groups right now that you’re seeing that are centering maybe audiences that they need to appeal to but are but are also not being kind of closed off to larger issues? Like, is there anyone doing really good work that you can point us and our listeners to, to kind of be paying attention to beyond obviously the amazing Electronic Intifada?
Nora Barrows-Friedman: Aw, thank you. Um, yeah, I think that there are really great opportunities for people to use the information that they can get from The Electronic Intifada, um, or you know, other activist organizations and bring that to their local city councils. For example, I mean now we have, I mentioned the training programs between US police forces and Israeli police and so-called counter-terrorism units and you know, how the US police forces bring that training back to further militarize domestic policing here in the US and we have activist groups in local cities all over the country who are appealing to their city councils, their local leadership to stop these training programs. We saw in Durham, North Carolina of all places, I believe earlier this year successfully barred, prohibited training programs between US and they said foreign police units including Israel. So that’s very positive and I believe that, you know, that is due to the work of some incredible organizations connecting the issues of policing in the US, police brutality, police violence, racism with uh, how Israel is treating Palestinians. And that’s, you know, groups like Black Lives Matter and the Movement for Black Lives has put that actually in their policy platform that they are supporting the global movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions called for by Palestinians because of the way that those connections have been made. Uh, it’s, it’s pretty incredible to see that. And then there’s also the Dream Defenders, which works of course, closely with Movement for Black Lives and they have been working with activist groups trying to pass similar resolutions in their city councils. And then, you know, of course I’m always because I’m really interested and very curious about student movements, um, I wrote a book about how students are organizing for Palestinian rights. And so right now on college campuses, I mentioned Kenneth Marcus is now at the head of the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Education. So he’s going to be adjudicating the kinds of complaints that he himself brought to the Department of Education, which is really terrifying for students right now who are putting their, their reputations on the line because they advocate for Palestinians. So I, you know, I always tell people to go find their local Students for Justice in Palestine chapter at whatever university is closest to them and give them support. Normally they don’t have any budgets at all. They hold bake sales to have events on campus. Um, and they are fighting, they’re up against some major, uh, Israel lobby organizations on campus that are funded by some of the most right-wing, Sheldon Adelson, um, it is one of the funders. So, so, you know, these bake sales against these, like, you know, hundreds of millions of dollars being poured into these right-wing, ultra Zionist campaigns. So support them and um, yeah, support your local independent media too. It’s so important. And we exist, you know, because of, of support from readers and listeners and, and people who hate being gaslighted, gaslit, I guess, in the corporate mainstream.
Adam: Well, thank you so much for coming on. That was a, that was fantastic. That was, that was great.
Nima: Yeah. Nora Barrows-Friedman, associate editor, longtime writer at The Electronic Intifada, and as you mentioned, the author of In Our Power: US Students Organized For Justice in Palestine, which was published by Just World Books in 2014. Nora thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: Thank you.
Adam: Yeah, so it’s interesting to hear people who’ve been in this space for a long time talk about how they have basically been silenced and how we’re left with the kind of Wesley Clarks and Samantha Powers —
Nima: And Jon Chaits and Walzers, yeah. So before we sign off for the week, I did want to mention how some of this is manifest in wars that are being hoped for and hopefully will, will never occur, but we’re seeing a renewed, I don’t love this term, but I’ll say it, this renewed drumbeat toward war with Iran, which is really not about war. It’s about regime change. No one, honestly, I think, believes that a military attack on Iran would go well for the US regardless of those motives. But um, so what we see in the kind of opposition space to a potential attack on Iran, which has been written about in the press for decades now, there’s always an attack just around the corner that just almost is about to happen and how do we feel about it? We don’t really know. But then it never actually happens. And so we see this again and again. We’re seeing it now. How this manifests a lot of the time are articles that do a little war game, do a little, we’re going to give this sort of idea of what it would look like if the United States or Israel attacked Iran and it’s all these articles are kind of set up as playing out the different scenarios. So you get headlines like this from Vox in July of 2018, “What Trump’s threatened war with Iran would actually look like.” You have articles from 2017 in The National Interest with almost the identical headline, one from July, “What a War Between Iran and America Would Look Like” and one from October, “What a War Between Iran and America Would Actually Look Like.” You have an article from Vice, uh, “What Would Happen in the Hours and Minutes After the US Bombed Iran?” You have an article from 2008 in Wired, “War With Iran: What Would it Look Like?” And then later Wired wrote an article in 2012 headlined, “US Attack on Iran Would Take Hundreds of Planes, Ships and Missiles.” There have been analyses in the BBC, “Analysis: How Israel Might Strike at Iran” with all these kinds of maps showing the different flight plans and bombing roots. And so you get this idea that if you play it out, this is somehow opposing it by saying-
Adam: Okay, yeah.
Nima: Right. like it’s not, it’s, it’s not taking, it’s not taking any sort of moral stance on the issue. It’s saying well, you know, this is hard with refueling-
Adam: It would be bad right? But it’s like, you know, we don’t role play other, other crimes. Like we don’t talk about what a genocide against the gypsies would look like. That’s not something sort of morally we think is a good idea. But for some reason that’s okay with war.
Nima: And if you headlined a piece like that, you would rightly be assumed to be a sociopath.
Adam: Right. But people love to role-play bombing and invading other countries. And so it’s sort of, it’s, it’s sort of presented as an antiwar argument, but it’s kind of dark and perverse in many ways to sort of air ballooning the public’s perception of US wars. You see this all the time with sort of speculating a war against Korea. Uh, they never discuss it in terms of how many North Koreans it will kill. And if you’re lucky, if you’re lucky, they’ll mention how many South Koreans, but usually it’s just American troops. If we bombed North Korea, you know, how many Americans, 30,000 troops would be harmed.
Nima: Our troops are in harm’s way. That’s the same thing you see with, with Iran, which is why Iran’s missile program, which is, you know, has nothing to do with its nuclear program because it doesn’t have a militarized nuclear program. But that’s why the missile threat from Iran is always this kind of propaganda talking point because it puts US troops in harm’s way. Right? It’s a way of pseudo-opposing it without opposing the actual concept. You get, you know, David Sanger writing back in 2010, uh, in The New York Times imagining an Israeli strike on Iran. Yeah. And you just wouldn’t, you wouldn’t get that kind of imagining the kind of ‘let’s play out this fantasy, this war crime fantasy.’ You see that with no one else other than the official enemies of the United States and the, and the takeaways from those are, ‘well, it’ll strengthen Iran if you do that’ or ‘it’ll put Israel in a more precarious position with Hezbollah.’ It’s never about the actual act itself.
Adam: Yeah. Well, on that note, I think we’ll wrap it up. I think we made our point.
Nima: Yeah, I think so.
Adam: You know, if you’re a producer, editor, or writer, try to open up spaces for people who are actually subversive who are actually resisting and not just the least opposition-y of the opposition. That way we can have at least substantive critiques. That’s my, that’s my prescriptive advice.
Nima: So with that we will end this episode of Citations Needed. Thank you everyone for listening. You can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, help us out through Patreon. Support the show Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. And an extra special shout out as always goes to our critic level supporters through Patreon. Thank you for listening everyone again and again and again. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Our production consultant is Josh Kross. Research assistant is Sophia Steinert-Evoy. Our production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan and the music is by Grandaddy. Thanks for listening one last time. We’ll catch you next week.
This episode of Citations Needed was released on Wednesday, November 7, 2018.
Transcription by Morgan McAslan.