Political Asylum — October 19, 2012, 4:26 pm

Is the Media Walking Us Into Another War?

On September 20, just days after the American ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, and three other Americans had been murdered in a terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, a crowd of some 30,000 Libyans jammed the main square of that city to protest his death. They carried signs that read, “We want justice for Chris” and “The ambassador was Libya’s friend” and “Libya lost a friend.”

When members of the Ansar al-Sharia militia—an Islamist terrorist organization linked to al Qaeda—tried to hold a counter-demonstration, the crowd erupted into fury, chanting, “You terrorists, you cowards, go back to Afghanistan.” The newly free citizens of Libya then marched spontaneously on Ansar al-Sharia’s encampment, setting it on fire, and confiscating much of the group’s weaponry, even braving gunfire from the well-armed terrorists that left four dead. The crowd then went on to systematically destroy the camps of several other such militias, and hand their weapons over to the official Libyan military.

Surely, this was the biggest news story to come out of the Middle East over the last month. It should have been a huge story, potentially a watershed moment, a signal of some profound shifts taking place in the region. One might have expected extensive follow-up stories and intense speculation about just what it all means.

Instead, after the initial report of the demonstration, this remarkable story was dropped down the memory hole. Why? Because once again, a pliant mainstream media has been cowed into line by the right wing’s conspiracy machine, which backfired loudly the other night, when Mitt Romney took up the right’s party line without even a rudimentary fact check, and tried to insist during the second presidential debate that President Obama had not dared to call Stevens’s murder a terrorist attack for two weeks.

In fact, the president had condemned this “act of terror” at a Rose Garden press conference the day after it happened—something that debate moderator Candy Crowley quietly affirmed in the course of the debate. Ever since, outraged right-wing commentators have poured into the Fox News studios, condemning Ms. Crowley for having dared to “crush Mitt’s big moment” by, well, telling the truth.

President Obama began his Rose Garden statement by talking about the murder of the ambassador and the other Americans, and he closed with this paragraph:

No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for. Today we mourn four more Americans who represent the very best of the United States of America. We will not waver in our commitment to see that justice is done for this terrible act. And make no mistake, justice will be done.

But this was not good enough for longtime, right-wing columnist Mickey Kaus. Mr. Obama had also referred earlier to the original 9/11 attack, and so Kaus claimed he was befuddled, and maybe deceived: “The antecedent is confused, presumably intentionally so.”

Erik Wemple, a right-wing blogger for the Washington Post, insisted that President Obama’s “statement lacks any definitive, concrete reference points, providing grist for critics of Crowley and her extemporaneous fact-checking,” and that thus, “Crowley has no case when she slaps Romney back”—“slapping back” in this case being defined as quietly demurring when somebody tells a brazen lie.

American Crossroads, a Super PAC formed by Republican strategists Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie, charged in an instant memo that “The President clearly misled the American people with this claim, because if Obama’s Rose Garden speech was indeed the White House position, it did not inform any subsequent statement by the White House press office . . .”

So if the president makes a statement, in public, before news cameras and reporters, it’s still not an official presidential statement if various underlings don’t repeat it verbatim afterward?

Gillespie, quoted as “a senior adviser to Mr. Romney” in the New York Times, insisted that “It’s just not the case that he [Mr. Obama] condemned these attacks for what they are . . .”

How is that? Because “He did not say that the ambassador was assassinated by terrorists affiliated with Al Qaeda.” So now denouncing terrorists is not denouncing terrorists unless, apparently, you read out their entire dossier.

And of course, because today all right-wingers quote all fellow right-wingers—yet another right-wing, Washington Post pundit, Jennifer Rubin, railed at Ms. Crowley for having “egregiously sided with President Obama on his false remarks on Libya,” and denounced the president’s “attempts to wriggle free from his own words and actions on Libya . . .”

The above statements actually do lend credence to one of the right-wing’s most persistent claims: that the education system in this country is failing abominably. It must be, if even people who make their living with a laptop can no longer accurately comprehend and describe a simple statement.

Actually, President Obama was attempting to wriggle into his own words on Libya. And as for his actions, well, they have included leaving one of the world’s leading sponsors of terrorism, the tyrant Muammar Qaddafi, dead in the sand with a bullet in the back of his head.

Though even this has been condemned by many on the right. Because, you see, an anonymous administration staffer referred to the White House policy in Libya as “leading from behind”—an inglorious phrase to be sure, even if it meant that Libya was free, Qaddafi was dead, and tens of thousands of the country’s innocent citizens were saved from the massacre Qaddafi promised them, and all without the loss of a single American life in combat.

The strange idea that bloodless regime change in Libya was bad, while bloody, useless regime change in Iraq and everywhere else is good, has become a running trope on the right. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat went so far as to condemn “our Libyan intervention” altogether, suggesting that it “helped create a power vacuum in which terrorist groups can operate with impunity,” as evidenced “in nearby Mali, where the ripple effects from Muammar el-Qaddafi’s overthrow have helped empower a Qaeda affiliate.”

So now we’ve truly gone all the way through the looking glass. Round and round the right-wing wheel of the surreal goes, and where it will stop, nobody knows. The stench of mendacity on the right became so powerful that it provoked Rachel Maddow to an impassioned and brilliant commentary on MSNBC last night, in which she linked the formal withdrawal of Republicans from the reality-based community to Romney’s inclusion of Jerome Corsi, probably the most repugnant of all the “birther” conspirators, on the campaign plane—and then attributed it to Mr. Romney’s own debate stumble.

Yet I doubt if Romney really has any illusions about Mr. Corsi’s claims, or Benghazi. The goal here, as Ms. Rubin helpfully spells out, is “to dominate the headlines, soak up the political oxygen and make it increasingly difficult for Obama to recapture the momentum.”

And it’s working, thanks to mainstream journalists who, only a few years after the object lesson afforded by Judith Miller, are once again rolling over.

Glenn Kessler, a fact-checker on the Washington Post, agreed that Mr. Obama said that, “No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this nation,” but added: “But he did not say ‘terrorism’—and it took the administration days to concede that it was an ‘act of terrorism’ that appears unrelated to reports of anger at a video that defamed the prophet Mohammed.” Can anyone tell me how “acts of terror” are different from “terrorism”? Mike Allen, a fact-checker at Politico, and the anonymous buffoons at PolitiFact gave us similar, silly exercises in pedantry.

These might be attributed to the routine follies of a dying, once-great newspaper and a couple of second-rate blogs. But over at the New York Times, reporter Mark Landler—who has for weeks trotted eagerly after the prevailing right-wing narrative that Benghazi represents some kind of damning, Watergate-style, “what did he know and when did he know it” scandal—opined: “It says something about the murky nature of the Libyan attack, and its messy aftermath, that Mr. Romney appeared not to know that Mr. Obama had labeled it an ‘act of terror’ the day after it occurred.’ ”

Yes, it says that Mr. Romney was caught perpetuating an ugly lie. But Mr. Landler and most of his colleagues are either too naive or too intimidated to write it. The fact that the initial reports coming into Washington after the Benghazi attack were muddled and contradictory is not a scandal. (Had the administration refused to release them until everything was clear, no doubt that would be the scandal today.)

What’s more, no one on the right truly thinks it is. What Republicans are trying to do is exactly what they’ve done in so many elections of the past: create a construct that will undermine one of the Democratic candidate’s main selling points. Thus, John Kerry, a decorated war hero, was “Swift-boated” as a lying fake. Michael Dukakis, a dedicated environmentalist, was turned into the polluter of Boston Harbor. And now the right is trying to make President Barack Obama, the man who brought down Qaddafi, ordered the execution of Osama bin Laden, and has the U.S. military launching daily raids and drone strikes against al Qaeda and its allies, into some kind of terrorist-coddling appeaser.  It’s a classic Big Lie, and one that’s coupled to Mr. Romney and the right’s other Big Lies that Mr. Obama has betrayed Israel, and that the president’s strategy in the Middle East “is unraveling before our eyes.”

In fact, our position in the area has rarely been stronger. Grateful mobs of citizens are now marching in Libya to rout the terrorists who dared to attack our representative. Iran is isolated from the world, its economy collapsing, its mullahs staggered. Syria, their longtime cat’s paw, is now engulfed in a civil war, unable to do any more of its bloody mischief in the region for the time being.

But this isn’t enough for the right, which wants a president who will both press for war with Iran and stand behind not just Israel but Bibi Netanyahu’s strategy to hold on to the West Bank in perpetuity. Just ten years after swallowing whole the Bush Administration’s lie about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the mainstream media seems willing to ingest any number of new fantasies about the region, even if it means immersing us in quagmires that will make Iraq look like a walk in the park. It’s a betrayal of their trust, and a betrayal of their country—but one they’d apparently rather undertake than risk anyone on the right yelling at them.

Share
Single Page
is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine. His essay “Why Vote?” appeared in the October 2012 issue.

More from Kevin Baker:

From the July 2018 issue

The Death of a Once Great City

The fall of New York and the urban crisis of affluence

Context November 25, 2016, 11:26 am

A Fate Worse Than Bush

Rudolph Giuliani and the politics of personality

From the July 2014 issue

21st Century Limited

The lost glory of America’s railroads

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

August 2018

Combustion Engines

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

There Will Always Be Fires

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The End of Eden

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

How to Start a Nuclear War

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Combustion Engines·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On any given day last summer, the smoke-choked skies over Missoula, Montana, swarmed with an average of twenty-eight helicopters and eighteen fixed-wing craft, a blitz waged against Lolo Peak, Rice Ridge, and ninety-six other wildfires in the Lolo National Forest. On the ground, forty or fifty twenty-person handcrews were deployed, alongside hundreds of fire engines and bulldozers. In the battle against Rice Ridge alone, the Air Force, handcrews, loggers, dozers, parachutists, flacks, forecasters, and cooks amounted to some nine hundred people.

Rice Ridge was what is known as a mega-fire, a recently coined term for blazes that cover more than 100,000 acres. The West has always known forest fires, of course, but for much of the past century, they rarely got any bigger than 10,000 acres. No more. In 1988, a 250,000-acre anomaly, Canyon Creek, burned for months, roaring across a forty-mile stretch of Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness in a single night. A few decades on, that anomaly is becoming the norm. Rice Ridge, for its part, swept through 160,000 acres.

At this scale, the firefighting operation is run by an incident management team, a group of about thirty specialists drawn from a mix of state and federal agencies and trained in fields ranging from aviation to weather forecasting and accounting to public information. The management teams are ranked according to experience and ability, from type 3 (the least skilled) to type 1 (the most). The fiercest fires are assigned to type 1s. Teams take the name of their incident commander, the field general, and some of those names become recognizable, even illustrious, in the wildfire-fighting community. One such name is that of Greg Poncin, who is to fire commanders what Wyatt Earp was to federal marshals.

Smoke from the Lolo Peak fire (detail) © Laura Verhaeghe
Article
There Will Always Be Fires·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The pinhal interior, a wooded region of hills and narrow hollows in rural central Portugal, used to be farmland. Well into the latter half of the past century, the fields were worked by peasants from the old stone villages. Portugal was poor and isolated, and the pinhal interior particularly so; when they could, the peasants left. There is electricity and running water now, but most of the people have gone. The fields have been taken over by trees. Each year the forest encroaches farther, and each year the villages grow more lonely. There are remnants of the earlier life, though, and amid the trees the holdouts of the older generations still work a few small fields. The pinhal interior cannot yet be called wilderness, then, and that, in large part, is why it burns.

Thousands of fires burn in the region each summer, almost all of them started not by lightning or some other natural spark but by the remaining Portuguese. (The great majority of the blazes are started unintentionally, though not all.) The pinhal interior—the name means “interior pine forest,” though today there is at least as much eucalyptus as pine—stretches along a sort of climate border between the semiarid Iberian interior and the wet influence of the Atlantic; vegetation grows exceptionally well there, and in the summers fire conditions are ideal. Still, most of the burns are quickly contained, and although they have grown larger in recent years, residents have learned to pay them little mind. The creeping fire that began in the dry duff and twigs of an oak grove on June 17 of last year, in the district of Pe­drógão Grande, therefore occasioned no panic.

A local woman, Dora da Silva Co­sta, drove past the blaze in the midafternoon, by which time it had entered a stand of pines. Firefighters were on hand. “There were no people in the streets,” Costa told me. “It was just another fire.” She continued on her way. It was a Saturday, and she had brought her two young sons to visit their older cousin in Vila Facaia, the village of small farms in which she’d been raised.

Firefighters near Pedrógão Grande (detail) © Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images
Article
The End of Eden·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On a blistering morning in July 2017, Ghazi Luaibi rose before dawn and set out in a worn black sedan from his home in Zubair, a town of concrete low-rises in southern Iraq. He drove for a while along sandy roads strewn with plastic bags. On the horizon, he could see gas flares from the oil refineries, pillars of amber flame rising into the sky. As he approached Basra, the largest city in the province, desert scrub gave way to empty apartment blocks and rows of withered palms. Though the sun had barely risen, the temperature was already nearing 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The previous year, Basra had registered one of the highest temperatures ever reliably recorded on earth: about 129 degrees, hot enough to cause birds to drop from the sky.

Ghazi, a sixty-two-year-old with stooped shoulders, an ash-gray beard, and lively brown eyes, would have preferred to stay home and wait out the heat. But he hadn’t had much of a choice. He was the president of the local council of Mandaeans, members of a gnostic religion that appeared in Mesopotamia in the early centuries ad. Today marked the beginning of their new year, and Ghazi, who was born into the Mandaean priestly class, was responsible for making sure everything went smoothly: he needed to find a tent to shield worshippers from the sun and, most importantly, a location near flowing water where they could carry out the ceremony.

Mandaean holidays are celebrated with a mass baptism, a ritual that is deeply rooted in their scripture and theology. Mandaeans follow the teachings of Yahia Yuhana, known to Christians as John the Baptist. Water is central to their religion. They believe that all life originates in the World of Light, a spiritual realm that is the starting point for a great river known as Yardana, or Jordan. Outside the World of Light lie the lifeless, stagnant waters of the World of Darkness. According to one version of the Mandaean creation myth, a demiurge named Ptahil set out to shape a new world from the World of Darkness, which became the material world we inhabit today. Once the world was complete, Ptahil sculpted Adam, the first man, from the same dark waters as the earth, but his soul came from the World of Light. In Mandaean scripture, rivers are manifestations of the World of Light, coursing from the heavenly Jordan to the earth to purify it. To be baptized is to be immersed in this divine realm.

Basra General Hospital (detail) July 2017 © Alex Potter
Article
How to Start a Nuclear War·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

In fact, as Blair recounted to me recently, the system could be bypassed with remarkable ease. Safeguards made it difficult, though not impossible, for a two-man crew (of either captains or lieutenants, some straight out of college) in a single launch control center to fire a missile. But, said Blair, “it took only a small conspiracy”—of two people in two separate control centers—to launch the entire squadron of fifty missiles, “sixty megatons targeted at the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea.” (The scheme would first necessitate the “disabling” of the conspirators’ silo crewmates, unless, of course, they, too, were complicit in the operation.) Working in conjunction, the plotters could “jury-rig the system” to send a “vote” by turning keys in their separate launch centers. The three other launch centers might see what was happening, but they would not be able to override the two votes, and the missiles would begin their firing sequence. Even more alarmingly, Blair discovered that if one of the plotters was posted at the particular launch control center in overall command of the squadron, they could together format and transmit a “valid and authentic launch order” for general nuclear war that would immediately launch the entire US strategic nuclear missile force, including a thousand Minuteman and fifty-four Titan missiles, without the possibility of recall. As he put it, “that would get everyone’s attention, for sure.” A more pacifically inclined conspiracy, on the other hand, could effectively disarm the strategic force by formatting and transmitting messages invalidating the presidential launch codes.

When he quit the Air Force in 1974, Blair was haunted by the power that had been within his grasp, andhe resolved to do something about it. But when he started lobbying his former superiors, he was met with indifference and even active hostility. “I got in a fair scrap with the Air Force over it,” he recalled. As Blair well knew, there was supposed to be a system already in place to prevent that type of unilateral launch. The civilian leadership in the Pentagon took comfort in this, not knowing that the Strategic Air Command, which then controlled the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, had quietly neutralized it.

This reluctance to implement an obviously desirable precaution might seem extraordinary, but it is explicable in light of the dominant theme in the military’s nuclear weapons culture: the strategy known as “launch under attack.” Theoretically, the president has the option of waiting through an attack before deciding how to respond. But in practice, the system of command and control has been organized so as to leave a president facing reports of incoming missiles with little option but to launch. In the words of Lee Butler, who commanded all US nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War, the system the military designed was “structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack” if he or she believes there is “incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way.” Ensuring that all missiles and bombers would be en route before any enemy missiles actually landed meant that most of the targets in the strategic nuclear war plan would be destroyed—thereby justifying the purchase and deployment of the massive force required to execute such a strike.

Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

Minimum cost of a “pleasure palace” being built for Vladimir Putin:

$1,000,000,000

Israeli researchers claimed to have identified a ruthlessness gene.

Trump and Putin puzzle out cybersecurity in Helsinki, John Kelly didn't like his breakfast in Brussels, and a family of woodchucks ate the wiring in Paul Ryan's car

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today