By Maidhc Ó Cathail
January 9, 2012
Launched in 1995, Antiwar.com describes itself as a site “devoted to the cause of non-interventionism” whose “initial project was to fight against intervention in the Balkans under the Clinton presidency.” Explaining their “key role” in the battle for public opinion during that seminal “humanitarian intervention,” the editors write:
Our goal was not only to inform but also to mobilize informed citizens in concerted action to stop the war. The war at home was an information war: an attempt by the government to both limit and shape the information that Americans had. It was, above all, a propaganda war, one in which the American government and its allies in the media were bombing and strafing their own people with hi-tech lies.
Back in the early days of the internet, Antiwar.com did indeed do a very good job of countering the interventionist narrative. Writers such as John Laughland, Chad Nagle, Justin Raimondo, Christine Stone, and George Szamuely showed readers what was really going on in the Balkans and elsewhere, helping many to understand the imperative of non-interventionism. Today, only Raimondo still writes for Antiwar.com.
By 2011, the information war had shifted from the former Yugoslavia to the Middle East and North Africa, as country after country was being destabilized by a wave of supposedly “spontaneous” uprisings against the region’s dictators — not unlike the one that toppled Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic in 2000 — dubbed an “Arab Spring” by some dubious cheerleaders (the term was originally used by Israel partisans such as Charles Krauthammer to refer to an “initial flourishing of democracy” in 2005) and an “Arab Awakening” by others. But while the people were still being bombed and strafed by the interventionists’ lies, Antiwar.com appeared to be either missing in action or even to have gone over to the other side.
As the media focus quickly shifted from a “liberated” but devastated Libya to a besieged Syria, there was disturbingly little to distinguish between mainstream reports and those in Antiwar.com. Apparently having forgotten the interventionists’ need to “limit and shape the information” getting to the public, Antiwar.com managed to limit and shape it even further by providing a largely uncritical daily synopsis of mainstream reporting of suspect opposition claims, without even the mainstream’s caveat that “the opposition claims could not be independently verified.”
Its reliance on the interventionists’ “allies in the media” for its “news” on Syria can be gauged from examining its research editor’s choice of sources. In a survey of 10 news reports on Syria between December 14 and December 27, Jason Ditz linked to a total of 24 outside sources, 16 of which were from mainstream media such as the BBC, New York Times and Haaretz; two were from Voice of America, the official external broadcast institution of the US government and a key instrument of its regime change agenda; two from Monsters and Critics, a web-only entertainment/celebrity news and review publication with political commentary and news; and one was from Human Rights Watch, to which billionaire hedge fund manager and prominent “pro-democracy” advocate George Soros (astutely described in an excellent February 2001 Antiwar column as a “False Prophet-At-Large”) pledged $100 million last year, enabling it “to deepen its research presence on countries of concern.” The remaining three were taken from SANA, the Syrian Arab News Agency, whose claims were briefly mentioned only to be dismissed with a cynicism clearly absent in the credulous treatment of opposition sources.
The almost exclusive reliance on mainstream sources was clearly reflected in the content of the news reports. By far the most popular phrase appears to have been “At least … killed,” which appeared in at least 36 separate headlines on Syria in 2011, such as “Good Friday Massacre: At Least 88 Protesters Killed in Syria Crackdown” (April 22), “At Least 60 Killed as Protests Grow in Syria” (June 3), “Hama Massacre: At Least 140 Killed in Syrian Tank Offensive” (July 31), “Syrian Navy Attacks Latakia, At Least 31 Killed” (August 14), “At Least 16 Killed as Syrian Troops Launch New Crackdowns” (August 25), “At Least 17 Killed in Syria Protest Crackdown” (September 2), “At Least 40 Killed as Syria Protesters Call for ‘No-Fly Zone’” (October 28), “At Least 65 Killed in Two Days Since Syria Announced Arab League Deal” (November 3), “At Least 57 Killed in Two Days as Syrian Opposition Express Fear of New Massacre” (December 10) and “At Least 30 Killed as Syrian Forces Shell Homs” (December 26). A September 4 report typically entitled “At Least 24 Killed as Syria Crackdown Continues” encapsulates Jason Ditz’s tendentious analysis of the situation:
The violence marks continued public protests against the Assad regime and months of security forces attacking the demonstrators under the assumption that the attacks will eventually end the nationwide rallies.
Massive Negative Reader Feedback
Throughout the crisis in Syria, dismayed readers have pointed out Antiwar’s complicity in the propaganda war, despite the clear parallels with previous interventions, particularly the most recent one in Libya. In response to that September 4 report entitled “At Least 24 Killed As Syria Crackdown Continues,” someone called “keltrava” commented:
Let me get this wrapped around my head.
The article says as a matter of fact 24 “more” people killed. Yet when it comes to Syrian troops killed it is qualified as “reported by state media”. Why is it written in stone that 24 people [were] killed[?] What are the sources? This is typical of the reporting from Syria and Libya.
Even one of Antiwar’s top columnists was prompted to point out the obvious flaws in Jason Ditz’s reporting. Commenting on the July 31 “Hama Massacre” report, Phil Giraldi wrote:
Any story that is unsourced or is sourced to the rebels or to any of their supporters, as this story is, should be considered suspect. I don’t know what is happening in Syria but nor does any antiwar editor or any source that has a stake in what is going on and is probably writing his account from a hotel in Beirut. The US has clearly sided with the rebels and is doing everything in its power to advance their cause, including easing the passage of their propaganda into international media.
In stark contrast to the readers’ concerns about another Libya-style intervention, Ditz displayed what might most charitably be described as wishful thinking. In an October 25 report predictably entitled “At Least 24 Killed as Syrian Protestors Mass Nationwide,” he averred:
Enthusiasm has tended to grow in protest cities when other regimes fall, and while the situation in Syria isn’t the same as the one in Libya, the causes are largely the same. The protesters are hoping the end result will be too, though ideally without the multi-month civil war and the post-dictator mess Libya is facing.
Despite what another reader accurately described as “massive negative reader feedback,” Jason Ditz appears neither to have responded directly to the criticism nor to have let it in any way moderate his subsequent reports. Antiwar’s response to its readers’ (including at least two of its own writers’) concerns appears to have been mainly in the form of a moderator’s snide remarks attached to some of the more persistent critics’ comments. On December 29, an exasperated Gordon Arnaut exclaimed:
Even as readers have been pointing out the gaping holes in your so-called coverage…you have done NOTHING to address these problems…
You are a WASTE OF TIME…for anyone who is truly interested in truth about current events…
His criticism elicited this response from Thomas L. Knapp:
[Moderator's Note: Mr. Arnaut, if you consider Antiwar.com a waste of time, why do you waste so much time here? Pull down your hem, dear, your agenda is showing - TLK]
Yes I have an agenda…it’s called THE TRUTH…
Yes I waste time here because I can’t stand FAKE NEWS…
On other occasions, Knapp did attempt to make a slightly more reasonable defence of Antiwar’s coverage. For example, in response to this writer’s question as to how its uncritical reporting of claims coming from Western-based and -backed opposition sources has differed from the pro-war propaganda in the mainstream media, Knapp replied:
If I could snap my fingers and cause Antiwar.com to be able to afford to send its own correspondent to Syria and environs to get the real scoop, I’d snap them immediately. Since I can’t, I try to be understanding of the fact that Mr. Ditz et. al have to rely on outside sources and try to squeeze the truth from the information they can get, a process that’s obviously vulnerable to error.
But as David Daniels had commented on a rather belated “Obama Secretly Preparing for Syria Intervention” on December 28:
And instead of leading the fight with facts and hard research against the lies that stimulate the R2P instinct, this website has once again fallen for all of the lies that led NATO into Libya and the various overt and covert interventions (like the lie of the “Green Movement”).
This is important and all readers should take note: Antiwar.com has repeatedly pushed the lies that lead NATO to attack. Draw your own conclusions. The “moderators” here will say that they just don’t have enough information and any mistakes are not theirs. Do you believe that, readers? Are you that gullible, or did you first come here as I did to see behind the bull**** of the mainstream propaganda machine?
If Antiwar.com had tried a little harder “to squeeze the truth from the information they can get” (or even paid better attention to the information that all too infrequently appeared on its own site) they would find that the reality in Syria (see a more recent and comprehensive analysis here) was quite different from what their research editor would have its readers believe. Moreover, it wasn’t as difficult as some seem to have have found it to see who was pushing hardest (as they had done in Libya and in previous interventions) to get America to take the “humanitarian” road to Damascus.
While most readers were perplexed by Jason Ditz’s blatant bias in favour of the Syrian opposition, a look at some of his earlier writings provides an explanation. In a March 3, 2008 post on the Antiwar Blog entitled “In Defense of Non-Violence,” Ditz opined:
Rather, we know precisely what strategy the Israeli military employs in response to non-violence, because it is the only strategy available to it. Indeed it is the only strategy militaries ever employ in response to non-violence, and we saw it clearly this weekend.
Seeing the path of non-violence to its necessary conclusion is not easy for precisely this reason: that every act of non-violence [sic] defiance is met with an act of increasingly disproportionate violence in the hopes of realizing a violent response and vindicating the claim that the posture of non-violence is an insincere one.
The people of the Gaza Strip must hold firm in their resolve for non-violence. They must make it clear to the Israeli military that they will not be swayed, nor will they respond violently. They must leave the Israeli government with only two choices: acquiescence or committing genocide. And despite what Israel’s Deputy Defense Minister or anyone else may say, they must remain confident that Israel cannot choose the latter.
This weekend may have been a setback for non-violence, but it is nothing resembling failure. Non-violence remains not just an option for the Palestinians in the face of occupation, but at the end of the day, the only one.
In March 2005, Ditz was the first to respond to a message on an Anti-State.com discussion forum entitled “Ideas for How Somalis can defend themselves” in which someone called “chemical_ali” notified participants of the Albert Einstein Institute’s release of Robert Helvey’s On Strategic Nonviolent Conflict as a free PDF. Describing “chemical_ali” – a rather odd choice of pseudonym for an advocate of nonviolence – as “probably my favorite new poster in the past year,” Ditz didn’t raise any questions (nor did anyone else in the discussion) about why Gene Sharp’s nice-sounding “nonviolent resistance thinktank” might be offering a book on strategic nonviolent conflict for free by the former military attaché at the US Embassy in Rangoon.
As luck would have it, Antiwar.com soon provided an answer. In his column on April 16, editorial director Justin Raimondo noted the collaboration between a key sponsor of nonviolent revolution (who later told the Wall Street Journal that he had given a sum in the “low eight figures” to the Albert Einstein Institute) with one of the more notorious proponents of violent regime change:
“Say You Want a Revolution,” is the title of a piece by neoconservative Michael “Faster Please” Ledeen, a tireless advocate of the U.S. waging endless wars of “liberation,” and Peter Ackerman, chairman of the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC). Its theme: more U.S. tax dollars to fund “revolutionaries” in a new model of “regime change” – as in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan. According to these two, Iran, Lebanon, and Syria are next. Now, before you say anything, it’s just a coincidence that all these countries are in the Middle East and just happen to be Israel’s worst enemies – stop being such a killjoy! Besides, the “revolutionaries” are ready to roll, but they can’t do it without U.S. tax dollars and other assistance.
Observing that Ackerman’s ICNC had been “at the center of machinations that have felled regimes from Belgrade to Bishkek and back,” Raimondo traced the business ties of its founding vice-chairman, Berel Rodal, to then Defense Policy Board member Richard Perle, whose short-lived controversial venture capital company, Trireme Partners LLP, invested in technology, goods, and services related to Homeland Security. Pointing out that “[t]he little stormtroopers of the ‘democratic’ revolutions are in most cases unwitting foot-soldiers of War Profits, Inc.,” Raimondo concluded that the seemingly idealistic advocates of nonviolent resistance and the most extreme warmongering ideologues were little more than two sides of the same deceptive coin:
Chameleon-like, they readily assume “left” and “right“-wing forms, appropriating the language of whatever audience they’re trying to manipulate: they speak the harsh language of nationalism and super-patriotism as well as the more polite PC lingo of “humanitarian intervention” and “human rights” internationalism. Ledeen invokes Mussolini’s ghost, while the ICNC channels Martin Luther King and Gandhi.
Interestingly, it was reported in an April 2005 profile of Ackerman in The New Republic, aptly entitled “Regime Change, Inc.,” that he had sent a trainer to Palestine “to spend twelve days creating a nonviolent vanguard to challenge Hamas” – three years before Antiwar’s Jason Ditz opined that nonviolence was the Palestinians’ only option.
Platform for Regime Change, Inc.
Yet despite Raimondo’s exposure of the nonviolent revolutionaries, the chameleon-like channelers of King and Gandhi continued to be given a platform at Antiwar.com. On February 28, 2011, its Viewpoints section featured a link to an interview with Gene Sharp entitled “Teaching People Power,” just as, in the words of Reason Magazine’s Jesse Walker, “the revolutionary fire lit in Tunisia in December was burning across the Middle East and Africa.” On December 5, as that Regime Change, Inc.-kindled fire was being directed against Damascus, Antiwar’s Viewpoints featured Gene Sharp’s “Choices for Defecting Syrian Soldiers,” in which “The 83 Year Old Who Toppled Egypt” offered strategic advice to the few who had already defected, suggesting that they “help the regime’s other soldiers also to defect from the Assad regime.”
While Regime Change, Inc.’s aging intellectual guru appears to have at least one or two fans at Antiwar.com, its “publicist within the progressive community,” Stephen Zunes, is even more popular there. During the so-called “Green Revolution” in Iran, they reprinted his “Iran’s Do-It-Yourself Revolution,” in which the well-paid chair of the academic advisory committee of Peter Ackerman’s International Center on Nonviolent Conflict attempted to deny the democracy-meddling establishment’s self-confessed role in that and other “colour revolutions.”
On one of the rare occasions that Regime Change, Inc.’s role in the so-called “Arab Spring” was actually acknowledged at Antiwar.com, Zunes appeared semi-anonymously in the comments section to pooh-pooh the very idea. In a June 24 column entitled “Invasion of the Mind Snatchers,” Nebosja Malic reviewed “The Revolution Business,” a documentary that shows veterans of Otpor, the Sharp/Helvey/Ackerman-linked Serbian youth group that toppled Milosevic, training the activists who directed the not-so-spontaneous-after-all “Arab Spring.” Touting one of the Serbian trainer’s “anti-imperial” credentials, “StephenZ” commented:
And does Malic really think that a handful of Serbs can get millions of peoples out on the streets? Does he really think that Arabs are simply sheep that a few white Europeans lead to a popular insurrection against entrenched US-backed dictatorships? Get real!
StephenZ did not respond to my comment inquiring whether this was part of his responsibilities as chair of the academic advisory committee for the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.
More recently, “the great Stephen Zunes” was interviewed by Scott Horton on Antiwar Radio in which he argued that the Arab Spring was “the culmination of decades of peaceful rebellion against tyrannical governments.” Despite his collaboration with Otpor alumni in training activists in Egypt and elsewhere in nonviolent conflict (an important fact that was deftly obscured during the interview, unless we count Zunes’ oblique reference to having “met” Syrian activists), the ICNC’s academic advisor claimed that the US had “very little” to do with these “really exciting” developments.
But as Professor William I. Robinson, the author of the seminal critique of the “democracy promotion” establishment, Promoting Polyarchy: Globalization, US Intervention, and Hegemony, has written of the man who funds Zunes’ work:
That Ackerman is a part of the U.S. foreign policy elite and integral to the new modalities of intervention under the rubric of “democracy promotion,” etc., is beyond question. There is nothing controversial about that and anyone who believes otherwise is clearly seriously misinformed or just ignorant.
When it comes to Antiwar.com, however, one certainly cannot rule out the possibility of ignorance. Asked by Russia Today’s Adam Kokesh in early August “to help put what’s going on in Syria into the broader context of modern history in the Arab world,” Antiwar Radio producer Angela Keaton offered this astounding explanation of the mainstream media’s supposed “reluctance” to report the Syrian government’s alleged atrocities:
I mean, you know, [inaudible], Assad’s a US puppet.
Change We Can Believe In?
While there had been a few exceptions to Antiwar’s biased coverage of Syria throughout 2011, most notably from Justin Raimondo, Philip Giraldi, Eric Margolis, and Pepe Escobar, the prevailing impression one got from reading it was a simplistic narrative of peaceful protestors being killed by a tyrannical regime. However, in his January 2, 2012 column, Justin Raimondo wrote:
The last bastion of Ba’athist secular rule in the region has been rocked by anti-government riots, with groups of well-armed men taking on the Syrian military and hundreds killed and wounded in violent street demonstrations. What’s interesting is that we hear much about the latter in the Western media, while the former is downplayed or not reported at all.
As the intensity of the anti-Syrian propaganda war picks up in the “mainstream” media – which focuses on alleged atrocities committed by government forces while maintaining a soft focus on the violence of armed rebel groups – the news that the Obama administration is making plans to intervene comes as no surprise. Indeed, the Americans are already intervening behind the scenes: the question is, will they come out in the open and call for “regime change”?
Considering that Jason Ditz’s reporting on Syria has been marked by the exact same bias, Raimondo’s criticism of the mainstream media seems disingenuous to say the least. Ironically, Raimondo’s link to “alleged atrocities” takes the reader to VOA News, one of his colleague’s most trusted sources, regularly cited as evidence of Assad’s alleged violent crackdown on peaceful demonstrators.
In a recent op-ed piece not published on Antiwar.com, Professor James Petras warns against the “anti-imperialism of the fools”:
The long history of imperialist manipulation of “anti-imperialist” narratives has found virulent expression in the present day. The New Cold War launched by Obama against China and Russia, the hot war brewing in the Gulf over Iran’s alleged military threat, the interventionist threat against Venezuela’s “drug-networks”, and Syria’s “bloodbath” are part and parcel of the use and abuse of “anti-imperialism” to prop up a declining empire. Hopefully, the progressive and leftist writers and scribes will learn from the ideological pitfalls of the past and resist the temptation to access the mass media by providing a ‘progressive cover’ to imperial dubbed “rebels”. It is time to distinguish between genuine anti-imperialism and pro-democracy movements and those promoted by Washington, NATO and the mass media. (emphasis added)
If Antiwar.com wants its claim to be “the central locus of opposition to a new imperialism that masks its ambitions in the rhetoric of ‘human rights,’ ‘humanitarianism,’ ‘freedom from terror,’ and ‘global democracy’ to be taken seriously, they will need to heed that warning.
However, if it is to regain the trust of its readers, Antiwar.com will also need to address the serious concerns raised in this report. An important first step would be to undertake an internal review of its reporting of last year’s tumultuous events in the Middle East and North Africa. For it to be worthwhile, it should provide its many disillusioned readers with satisfactory answers to the following questions:
1. Are all members of staff qualified to comment on foreign policy? Have some staff members allowed their ideological biases to adversely affect their analysis of complex foreign policy issues?
2. Why has well-documented information provided by readers that challenge its interpretation of events either been ignored or treated with contempt? Why do critical comments by certain readers either get deleted or have to be approved by the site admins before they appear publicly, while comments by others are banned altogether?
3. Why does it provide a platform for those who are “integral to the new modalities of intervention” while ignoring the work of others who could have provided a genuinely non-interventionist perspective on last year’s events? Among those overlooked by Antiwar.com in 2011 were Prof. Mark Almond, Ibrahim al-Amin, Michael Barker, M K Bhadrakumar, Jeffrey Blankfort, Alistair Crooke, Sibel Edmonds (banned from even posting comments on the site), Belén Fernández, Jeff Gates, Prof. David N. Gibbs, Diana Johnstone, Dr. Franklin Lamb, Prof. Joshua Landis (apart from a couple of references in articles by others), John Laughland, Dr. Rania Masri, Cynthia McKinney, Mahdi Darius Nazemroaya, Maidhc Ó Cathail (despite the submission of articles published in mainstream media), Gearóid Ó Colmáin, Dr. Adrienne Pine, Prof. William I. Robinson, Prof. Jeremy Salt, Soraya Sepahpour-Ulrich, Dr. Stephen J. Sniegoski, Julien Teil, and Amjad Yamein.
4. How can readers be assured that one or more of its “generous” but anonymous “angels” do not have an interest in interventionism?
Maidhc Ó Cathail is an anti-war journalist and Middle East analyst.