Aleppo And The Election: The Astonishing Arrogance Of The Pro-War Media
In a fairly insignificant moment Thursday morning, Libertarian Presidential candidate Gary Johnson was on MSNBC, banking on his recent surge of popularity (and SuperPAC funding) to promote himself as an alternative to the two historically unpopular (and profoundly malignant) frontrunners. Former New Mexico Governor Johnson was asked by Bank of America mouthpiece Mike Barnicle, “What would you do, if you were elected, about Aleppo?”
Taken aback, Johnson asked “What is Aleppo?”
“You’re kidding” sneered Barnicle, before clarifying that Aleppo is “the epicenter of the [Syrian] refugee crisis.” Embarrassed, Johnson rushed to explain his plan to join Russia in bilateral diplomacy to de-escalate the Syrian civil war, lamenting the “mess” that American foreign policy has created in the country by arming competing militant factions, and coming to the conclusion that the longstanding US policy of forced regime change “has led to a less safe world.” This response was ignored by the MSNBC panel, who were quick to criticize both his inability to identify the largest city in Syria and his suggestion that we end the latest revival of the Cold War by cooperating with the largest country on Earth.
It was a gaffe on Johnson’s part. Possibly a substantial one, though it could hardly be on the level of Hillary Clinton forgetting the preventable deaths of tens of thousands of Americans due to Reagan’s AIDS policy, or Donald Trump’s bizarre and dangerous claim that 81% of white homicide victims are killed by black people. The media chased it with a saboteur’s fervor that evades their reporting on Clinton and only feeds the sensationalized husk of Trump. The media’s presentation of Johnson’s ignorance ends up revealing much more about themselves than it does about him, or, more importantly, about Aleppo.
Just to clarify, I have no love for the corporatist austerity nut Gary Johnson, whose Darwinist vision of libertarianism would leave millions deprived of basic support structures even libertarian godfather Adam Smith called most reasonable. Nor do I believe he could possibly challenge Clinton or Trump in the face of media manipulation and a culture that has accepted the anti-democratic global abnormality of a two party state. American electoral politics are a farce, designed to manufacture consent for an unsustainable and globally destructive status quo that could not survive a true democracy. Gary Johnson is at best an anti-imperialist opportunity to protest a suicidally toxic system (though again I would recommend Jill Stein to those who wish to cast a vote with integrity) and at worst a reactionary distraction from the unavoidable rumblings of true structural change.
But regardless of what happens to Johnson and his campaign, the militaristic corporate media will remain in their position of terrifying authoritarian power, and therefore their reaction to the Johnson gaffe does merit analysis.
MSNBC wasted no time in finding an expert to make Johnson look ridiculous. They called on Christopher Hill, President Obama’s former ambassador to Iraq. Hill told viewers that Aleppo is “the capital of ISIS.” Just a few hours later, the celebrated New York Times published a piece criticizing Johnson that identified Aleppo as “the de facto capital of the Islamic State,” then edited it to refer to “a stronghold of the Islamic State,” then, after public outcry, published three more edits, calling Aleppo “the Syrian capital,” before acknowledging that ISIS is actually based in the western city Raqqa and the Syrian capital remains, as it has been for thirteen hundred years, Damascus. Other pundits similarly skewered Johnson, referencing his ignorance of the Islamic State in relation to the recently infamous city.
But, as the Intercept recently pointed out, mass media is meeting Johnson’s ignorance with something worse: inaccuracy. The notorious Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has no presence whatsoever in or around Aleppo. The truly sickening bombing and chemical attack on Aleppo that has been brought to international attention through recent images of wounded and killed children has nothing to do with ISIS. As the former economic hub of the devastated country, Aleppo is seen by the Assad government and by many rebel factions as a key to winning the country’s complex civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and dislocated millions. For years, the city has been a battleground between several armies:
- The weakened forces of Syria’s President Bashar Al-Assad, who are conducting air strikes with the help of Russia. The United States fears Russian influence in the oil-rich region and therefore fears Assad.
- Various ethnic Kurdish militias, who have long faced brutality under Assad, and are armed by the US.
- The Turkish military, using weapons and aid provided by the US to fight Assad, but also to kill the Kurds. Turkey’s President Erdogan is currently waging a war against Kurdish rebels (and civilians) in his own country, and fears that Kurdish troops in Syria will send weapons to Turkish Kurds.
- Various radical Islamist rebel militias, including Jabhat Fath al-Sham, an al-Qaeda affiliate, all directly armed by the US to fight Assad’s regime.
ISIS remains in Syria’s western countryside, where they are, as they have been for years, only one of several groups struggling for power in the ashes of Assad’s brutal reign. They have killed an order of magnitude fewer Syrians than Assad, and certainly fewer than the US-backed al-Qaeda branches in the country. They remain notable only for their graphic and widely circulated execution videos, which allegedly inspire militant Islamists around the world. The three attacks on Western nations ever confirmed to have any connection to ISIS killed a total of 179 people, the battle in Aleppo has killed tens of thousands.
The Obama administration has been leading an international coalition with the stated goal of stopping ISIS, launching a deadly bombing campaign across Iraq and Syria that has further radicalized their populace. There is no potential for peace in this policy; even if ISIS was the target, it would be replaced only by equally abhorrent branches of al-Qaeda using US funds. The conflict with ISIS is clearly a front to allow the administration to support anti-Russian factions in Syria in an international game of chess that runs along extremely dangerous lines of precedent. The proxy war in Syria mirrors Obama’s perhaps more alarming decision to reverse the US’s policy of nuclear disarmament, spending a trillion dollars modernizing our nuclear arsenal. Clearly, the Obama administration sees any expansion of Russian power in the face of US hegemony as far less acceptable than the brutal deaths of thousands of children.
The media are not attacking Gary Johnson to call out his geographic ignorance. They are attacking him so that the suggestion of a non-violent resolution to the Syrian conflict sounds ridiculous and ignorant. They are attacking him because his blunder gave them to opportunity to re-assert ISIS, the ultimate Muslim boogeyman, in the minds of the American people on top of unrelated images of children being brutally murdered. They are attacking him so that the American people forget that the blood of Omar Daqneesh and thousands of children like him is on our hands, not ISIS’s. They are attacking him so that the next president, Clinton or Trump, can rally the American people against ISIS the next time we need an illegal war to protect our global hegemony. They are attacking him so that even in this historic moment of national outrage, those in power can make sure the empire returns to business as usual.
Americans would be stunned to discover that the decade’s worst humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding simply so that our country can engage in a sparring match with Putin’s Russia. Many would be outraged to hear that America is doing at most one fifteenth of what it could to shelter the refugees of this catastrophe. Finding out that our entire reported reason for intervention is practically unrelated to the crisis itself would completely change public opinion on the conflict, as it ultimately did in Iraq. This national transformation means life or death for the millions of people still left in Syria, and it relies entirely on resistance against the media’s propaganda machine and the government it allows to survive. It does not rely on the snarkiness of Mike Barnicle.