Even before President Barack Obama put his plans to strike the Syrian regime on hold, he was losing the battle of public opinion about military intervention. Part of the credit, no doubt, goes to a successful media blitz by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and its supporters. In an interview aired on Monday night, Assad himself advanced his government’s case to Charlie Rose, saying that the United States had not presented “a single shred of evidence” proving the Syrian military had used chemical weapons.
Assad has always been able to skillfully parry Western journalists’ criticisms of his regime — and, at times, it has won him positive international coverage. Before the uprising, the U.S. media often described the Assad family as Westernized leaders who were trying to bring their country into the 21st century. The most infamous example was Vogue’s profile of Asma al-Assad, which described Syria’s first lady as “a thin, long-limbed beauty with a trained analytic mind … [with] a killer IQ.” But even experts in the field went along: Middle East historian David Lesch wrote a biography of Bashar describing the president as a modernizer, before changing his mind during the uprising.
The carnage over the past two and a half years put an end to much of this praise — but now pro-Assad media outlets have found a new way to influence the American debate. Assad supporters’ claims have repeatedly been republished unquestioningly by right-wing commentators in the United States, who share their hostility toward both Sunni Islamists and the Obama administration. It’s a strange alliance between American conservatives and a regime that was one of America’s first designated state sponsors of terror, and continues to work closely with Iran and Hezbollah.
“There is evidence — mounting evidence — that the rebels in Syria did indeed frame Assad for the chemical attack,” conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh told his audience on Sept. 3. “But not only that, but Obama, the regime, may have been complicit in it. Mounting evidence that the White House knew and possibly helped plan the Syrian chemical weapon attack by the opposition!”
Limbaugh’s cited an article by Yossef Bodansky on Global Research, a conspiracy website that has advanced a pro-Assad message during the current crisis. “How can the Obama administration continue to support and seek to empower the opposition which had just intentionally killed some 1,300 innocent civilians?” Bodansky asked.
Bodansky is an ally of Bashar’s uncle, Rifaat al-Assad — he pushed him as a potential leader of Syria in 2005. Rifaat is the black sheep of the Assad family: He spearheaded the Syrian regime’s brutal crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in the early 1980s, but then was forced into exile after he tried to seize power from his brother, President Hafez al-Assad, in 1983. Despite his ouster, however, Rifaat is just as hostile to a Sunni Islamist takeover as other members of the Assad family — a position Bodansky appears to share. Ending Alawite rule in Syria, Bodansky wrote on another pro-Assad website, “will cause cataclysmic upheaval throughout the greater Middle East.”
Pro-Assad voices have also helped shape the debate in Europe. The British organization Stop the War, which was instrumental in convincing Parliament to reject a strike on Syria, is not just made up of opponents of intervention — it includes staunch supporters of the Syrian regime. The organization’s vice president is a Stalinist who praised Assad for “a long history of resisting imperialism,” and warned that his defeat “will pave the way for a pro-Western and pro-U.S. regime.” Other top officials in the organization have also spoken publicly about the benefits of keeping Assad in power.
One of the most common ways for pro-Assad propaganda to find its way into reputable newspapers is through Christian news outlets. Arab Christians have many legitimate fears of how Islamist takeovers in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East could affect them — but nonetheless, some of the outlets that cover their plight regularly trade fact for fiction.
The official Vatican news agency, Agenzia Fides, for example, was caught reproducing word-for-word a report on the alleged mass killing of Christians in the city of Homs from Syria Truth, a virulently pro-Assad website. The Agenzia Fides report was eventually picked up by the Los Angeles Times — with no mention, of course, of the original source.
It’s not only the LA Times that has been duped in this way. USA Today ran an article earlier this year saying Saudi Arabia had sent 1,200 inmates on death row to fight in Syria, sourcing the claim to the Assyrian International News Agency (AINA). The document, however, appears to be a hoax, and had been passed around frequently by pro-Hezbollah websites prior to appearing on AINA. In addition to relying on pro-Assad sources, AINA also looks to U.S. conservatives for inspiration — it republished an article titled “The Myth of the Moderate Syrian Rebels” that first appeared in the far-right FrontPage Magazine.
One of the most prolific defenders of the Assad regime is Mother Agnes-Mariam de la Croix, who says she is a Carmelite nun born in Lebanon who converted to Christianity when she was 19. The National Review uncritically cited her claim last year that Syrian rebels had gathered Christian and Alawite hostages together in a building in the city of Homs, and proceeded to destroy the building with dynamite, killing them all. More recently, she has argued that the video evidence of the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack were fabricated, writing that it was “staged and prepared in advance with the goal of framing the Syrian government as the perpetrator.”
But right-wing Americans partisans have not been shy about simply copy-and-pasting claims made in pro-Assad media outlets when it suits their interests, no matter the source. For example, the website Jihad Watch, which is run by leading Islamophobe Robert Spencer, repeated a claim by the Arabic-language al-Hadath that Syrian rebels attacking the Syrian town of Maaloula “terrorized the Christians, threatening to be avenged on them after the triumph of the revolution.”
It doesn’t take much time reading al-Hadath to realize that this is a site staunchly loyal to the Syrian regime and its allies — and therefore inclined to dramatize stories of rebel crimes. The website contains an editorial by the editor-in-chief lauding Hezbollah, and another article reports that a kidnapped European writer said that the rebels launched the Aug. 21 chemical attack (the writer has denied making such claims).
Other stories in such publications, of course, would never see the light of day in the U.S. media. Al-Hadath, for example, features a section dedicated to news about Israel titled “Know Your Enemy” — a strange match for the American right-wing, to say the least.
By: David Kenner, Foreign Policy, September 10, 2013
The more Russian President Vladimir Putin cracked down on gay rights, the more U.S. conservatives discovered a fondness for the Russian autocrat. Indeed, support for Putin among social conservatives and leaders of the religious right movement only seems to be growing.
But in recent weeks, the right’s embrace of Putin seems to have expanded well beyond social conservatives and anti-gay activists. Eric Boehlert reported on Friday on Republican media figures backing Putin with growing enthusiasm as U.S. tensions with Syria escalate.
Note that late last month, just hours before Obama addressed the nation regarding Syria, Matt Drudge bizarrely tweeted that “Putin is the leader of the free world.”
More recently, the Putin admiration society has been on full display all across the right-wing media landscape. On his radio show, Rush Limbaugh also seemed to side with Putin…. Limbaugh appeared to be impressed by the fact Russia had compiled a 100-page report blaming Syrian rebels for the chemical weapons attack, not Russia’s longtime ally, President Bashar al-Assad. Limbaugh told his listeners: “Now, I don’t know about you, but what does it feel like to have to agree with a former KGB agent?”
RedState published a piece late last week arguing, “We’ve reached a sad state of affairs when the Russian president has more credibility than [sic] the American president but that is where we are.” Pat Buchanan defended Putin after the Russian leader prosecuted a rock band that played songs Putin didn’t like.
The Washington Times‘ Ralph Peters told Fox viewers last week, “I don’t like Putin, but I respect that guy. He is tough. He delivers what he says he’ll deliver. He knows his people. He presents himself as a real He-Man.”
How far has the right’s wild-eyed contempt for President Obama gone? Far enough that conservatives can barely contain their increasingly creepy crush on the former KGB official with an authoritarian streak.
By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, September 9, 2013
“An Unexpected Turn”: Missouri Develops Strategy To Prevent A Repeat Ghastly Rush Limbaugh Bronze Bust Statue Debacle
Last year, both Steve and I wrote posts discussing the induction of Rush Limbaugh into Missouri’s Hall of Fame. At the time, there seemed little of redeeming value to this tale but now, it has taken an unexpected, and even encouraging, turn.
Just to recap: inside the grand rotunda of the state capitol in Jefferson City sits the Hall of Famous Missourians, a stately array of bronze busts celebrating such notables as Mark Twain, Harry Truman, and as of May 14, 2012, a broadcaster from Cape Girardeau named Rush Hudson Limbaugh III. Tellingly, the Hall’s latest inductee failed to meet with universal acclaim. According to Politico:
News of the impending ceremony broke shortly after he called Georgetown Law School student Sandra Fluke a “prostitute” and a “slut,” inspiring a “Flush Rush!” campaign against Republican House Speaker Steven Tilley, who selected Limbaugh for the honor. In the past couple of months, protesters reportedly have delivered hundreds of rolls of toilet paper to Tilley’s office and presented him with approximately 35,000 petition signatures.
Republican leaders of the Missouri House kept the induction event secret until 25 minutes beforehand, hoping to keep protesters away from the unveiling of Limbaugh’s bronze bust. The Kansas City Star reported that the doors were locked and guarded by armed members of the Missouri Highway Patrol while the ceremony took place. Behind those locked doors, the honoree took this solemn occasion to say, “Our so-called ‘friends’ on the other side of the aisle are deranged.”
So that went well.
Selection into the hall traditionally has been at the discretion of the Speaker of the House. However, current House Speaker Tim Jones has empowered the people of Missouri to decide the next outstanding Missourians to be honored by induction into the hall. Please use the forms below to provide your suggestion for the next inductee into the Hall of Famous Missourians. Also include your reasoning for why your selection makes the ideal candidate to join the likes of Walt Disney, Ginger Rogers and Stan Musial. Speaker Jones will accept nominations until September 13, 2013 and will formulate a “Top 10” list of candidates based on the results and other important criteria as recommended by nonpartisan staff of the Missouri House. Visitors will then have the opportunity to cast their votes for the final 10 nominees with the two candidates who receive the highest number of votes selected for induction into the Hall of Famous Missourians. Voting will conclude October 13, 2013.
So they’re going to let Missourians decide who gets to be in the Hall of Famous Missourians? Sounds suspiciously like democracy to me.
By: Kent Jones, The Maddow Blog, August 26, 2013
After half a century, the March on Washington has moved into the historical record as a courageous but hardly radical event. It is widely remembered for Martin Luther King’s brilliant extemporaneous riffs on “I Have a Dream.” But even a peaceful assembly by “Negroes,” as black Americans were then known, was a dangerous idea in a volatile era.
President John F. Kennedy was dead-set against it, and protest planners were careful about choosing their allies for fear of informants to the Kennedy administration and his Federal Bureau of Investigation. Civil rights leaders formally demoted their best strategist, Bayard Rustin — though he continued to do most of the work — because he was openly gay and a one-time Communist, either of which would have been ammunition for those who wanted to derail the civil rights movement.
The march succeeded, though, perhaps beyond its organizers’ wildest dreams. A solemn demonstration of the power of black Americans’ simple plea for full citizenship, it proved to be one of the pivotal episodes of the civil rights movement. Its success in setting the stage for the Voting Rights Act shaped politics for the next 50 years, helping to propel President Barack Obama into office.
In the current political climate, it’s easy enough to minimize the remarkable progress toward full equality that the nation has made since 1963. It’s true that racism lives on, re-energized by pandering politicians and media demagogues. The criminal justice system is replete with discriminatory practices. Pernicious stereotypes still shadow the lives of black Americans.
Most damning, black workers have come no closer to closing the economic gap than they had in 1963. The Washington Post recently cited figures from the Economic Policy Institute showing that the unemployment rate was 5 percent for whites and 10.9 percent for blacks 50 years ago. The yawning gap remains today, with unemployment at 6.6 percent for whites and 12.6 percent for blacks, according to the Post. Furthermore, over the past 30 years, the average white family has gone from having five times as much wealth as the average black family to 6 1/2 times, the Post said.
Still, it’s disrespectful to those hardy and brave souls who stood on the Mall 50 years ago to suggest that little has changed. The nation has undergone a remarkable transformation in five decades, as the two elections of a black president attest.
Black men and women now hold positions of influence and authority throughout academia, business and the professions. They lead the U.S. armed forces. They are cultural icons, some so popular they are known simply by their first names.
The everyday interactions of Americans from different racial and ethnic groups have changed, as well. Interracial marriage is broadly accepted, and biracial children are a growing part of the population. Schools may not be as well-integrated as King had dreamed, but they are much more diverse than they were 50 years ago. So are churches and civic clubs.
Even the angry backlash by Tea Partiers and other sectors of the far right is a sign of changing times. Much of the hysteria that is lathered up by right-wing talk show hosts such as Rush Limbaugh is a last surge of protest by an aging demographic: older whites who resent or fear the changes fostered by the civil rights movement. The country is growing browner, and by mid-century, whites will no longer constitute a majority of the population. As a voting bloc and cultural influence, their power is waning. And they know it.
The good news is that younger whites are much more likely to embrace diversity, to accept cultural change, and to support the nation’s civic creed of full equality for all, regardless of race, religion or sexual orientation. Polling data show they diverge from the views of their parents and grandparents on many social issues.
Of course, younger Americans will have their struggles, too — their bitter disagreements and their political challenges. And they will have to tackle the economic injustices around which King planned his last crusade.
But they seem less likely to forge a future cleaved by color, and that’s worth celebrating.
By: Cynthia Tucker, The National Memo, August 24, 2013
The last time Sen. Tom Coburn spoke warmly but candidly to his Oklahoma constituents about his “friend” Barack Obama, it was to reassure them that the president doesn’t want to “destroy America.” Instead, Coburn said two years ago, “his intent is to create dependency because it worked so well for him.” He went on: “As an African-American male,” Obama received “tremendous advantage from a lot of these programs.” That’s what friends do, in Coburn’s world: They indulge in delusional racial stereotyping to defend their “friend” from detractors.
Also? Apparently they claim their “friend” is “perilously close” to “high crimes and misdemeanors” – the standard for impeaching a president – and promise they won’t let their friendship stand in the way of impeaching the “lawless” president.
Coburn is just the latest Republican to humor his crackpot constituents in August town halls by suggesting the president can and/or should be impeached. By the standards of the modern GOP, he may be the most surprising, since every once in a while he has an outbreak of sanity and refuses to go along with his party’s nihilism caucus. Most recently he said Sen. Mike Lee’s drive to shut down the government to repeal Obamacare amounts to “destroying the Republican Party.”
To make up for that breach with the base, Coburn told constituents in Muskogee that the administration is “lawless” and “getting perilously close” to the constitutional standard for impeachment. He one-upped Lee by joining crackpot Mark Levin’s call for a new constitutional convention. “The constitutional republic that we have is at risk,” he told the crowd. When asked directly about impeachment, he said, “I think those are serious things, but we’re in serious times. And I don’t have the legal background to know if that rises to ‘high crimes and misdemeanors,’ but I think you’re getting perilously close.”
To be fair, Coburn also defended his “friend” Obama by allowing that the first black president just might not be very good at his job. “I think there’s some intended violation of law in this administration, but I also think there’s a ton of incompetence,” he said. Glad to have that out there.
Though Coburn’s impeachment remarks have triggered a lot of coverage, he’s gotten less attention for another wild assertion to the Muskogee crowd: that a better strategy for repealing Obamacare than shutting down the government is to use the debt ceiling deadline.
“If you wanna do it,” he told an angry constituent, “do it on the debt limit, don’t do it on shutting down the government, because the economy’s so precarious right now, and shutting down the government won’t stop Obamacare one iota.” If the economy is too “precarious” for a government shutdown, imagine what a debt-ceiling meltdown would do. Nobody in the crowd asked Coburn to explain.
Coburn’s impeachment rambling comes on the heels of similar musings by other congressional Republicans at their August town halls. Just Monday, when asked why not impeach the president, Sen. Ted Cruz genially replied: “It’s a good question. And I’ll tell you the simplest answer: To successfully impeach a president you need the votes in the U.S. Senate.” Actually, the supposedly brilliant Cruz ought to know that to impeach a president, you need the votes in the House – the Senate then votes on whether to “convict” him.
But you know, maybe Cruz is getting ahead of himself because he believes his fellow Texan Rep. Blake Farenhold, who recently told his constituents that Republicans have the votes in the House to impeach Obama. “If we were to impeach the president tomorrow, you could probably get the votes in the House of Representatives to do it,” he said. “But it would go to the Senate and he wouldn’t be convicted.”
Of course, reindeer farmer Kerry Bentivoglio thinks impeaching Obama would be “a dream come true,” but he sounded more skeptical than Coburn about the chances of doing it – though he admitted consulting lawyers about possible grounds. “Until we have the evidence, you’re going to become a laughingstock if you’ve submitted a bill to impeach the president, because number one, you’ve got to convince the press,” he said.
So let’s recap: Coburn, one of the Republicans the Beltway media regularly use as an example of someone willing to work with Obama, sounds more convinced the president might be impeachable than a former reindeer farmer who resides on the party’s wingnut fringe. Reporters have to stop covering the supposed attempt of the GOP to heal itself, because it’s not happening. Real change in the party will require Republican leaders leveling with their base. That means standing up to nuts like Mark Levin and Rush Limbaugh and the delusional extremists organizing “Overpasses for Obama’s impeachment” (yes, that’s a thing) and showing up to rant at town halls.
Tom Coburn doesn’t have the guts to do that, so he can’t be counted among the last few reasonable Republicans. Let’s hope Time magazine leaves him off its annual list of 100 “influential” luminaries next year. Or at least let’s hope Obama declines to write the tribute to his GOP “friend” next time around.
By: Joan Walsh, Editor at Large, Salon, August 23, 2013