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The McCarthyite meltdown
An on-air freakout from a progressive media outlet captures the power of Russiagate and Syria dirty war propaganda.
On a recent episode of The Young Turks, the self-described "Home of Progressives", hosts Cenk Uygur and Ana Kasparian disparaged me in a McCarthyite rant. The apparent trigger was a mocking comment that I had tweeted at Uygur, in which I described a recent post of his about Israel-Palestine as "the worst tweet of all time." (I'm standing by that.)
That elicited this exchange:
Cenk Uygur: They said Aaron Maté yelled at me.
Ana Kasparian: Oh Aaron Maté... oh everyone cares what Aaron Maté has to say. Right, the guy who denies that Syrian children were killed with chemical attacks. Yeah. Fuck Aaron Maté.
Cenk Uygur: And gets paid by the—
Ana Kasparian: Yeah, fuck you. [gives middle finger gesture]
Cenk Uygur: And gets paid by the Russians.
Ana Kasparian: Anyway let's move on. Let's end the freaking— I can't, I can't.
Cenk Uygur: See that's what happens.
Ana Kasparian: I can't stand— I can't stand that guy. And I can't stand the very intentional disinformation they put out there in regard to disgusting dictators around the world— the very people they seem to be working for, to be quite honest with you. Let's move on.
Cenk Uygur: Alright, we're done.
Ana Kasparian: Disgusting. Absolutely disgusting.
Cenk Uygur: If Aaron Maté feels very warm in his Russian blanket — he's like, 'oh but the Russian government favors me!' – he should be super proud of that. Way to go Aaron, you did it.
Anyone who's watched the clip will see that their behavior and tone speaks for itself. As for the substance of their claims about me, all are lies. I have never been paid by (or worked for) the Russian government, much less "the Russians", who total 140 million. Kasparian's smear in the form of a conjecture—that I "seem to be working for" dictators, "to be quite honest with you"—is maliciously dishonest.
If Kasparian and Uygur were really to be "quite honest with you" and with themselves, they'd come clean about my real crime, in their eyes: being a journalist who does my job. One of the tasks that entails is questioning official narratives put forth by the intelligence agencies and foreign-policy wonks that keep US empire running, and examining evidence on its merits, regardless of partisan or careerist utility. Apparently, TYT has made it a policy to perform neither of these tasks, and, far worse, to slander someone who does.
Their screed went to air while I was on the ground in Syria, committing wanton acts of actual journalism. Specifically, I was continuing my reporting on a major coverup at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, involving a major atrocity in the city of Douma. I was also there to see first-hand the effects of years of dirty war and the brutal US sanctions still strangling that country's economy and citizenry. This was the context in which Kasparian described me as someone who "denies that Syrian children were killed with chemical attacks."
Let's briefly review the facts to see who's denying what. In April 2018, the US, UK and France bombed Syria after accusing the government of committing a chemical attack in Douma that same month. But OPCW inspectors who visited the scene days later found no evidence of a chemical weapons attack in Douma. A trove of leaked documents, including the team's suppressed initial report, show that their findings were doctored and kept from the public.
After this censorship was protested internally, a group of US officials visited the Hague and, in a highly irregular move, tried to convince the team that chlorine gas was used. The inspectors were then removed from the case and replaced by a group that, with few exceptions, never set foot in Syria. The OPCW's final report, released in March 2019, aligned with the US narrative in claiming that a chlorine attack likely occurred, distorting or outright omitting the countervailing evidence gathered by the original inspectors.
To Kasparian, my choosing to report on this scandal, including a trip to Douma to see it up close, apparently amounts to an act of "denial." The opposite is true— worse than the opposite, in fact. The prevailing refusal by US media outlets to cover the OPCW story is one of the most egregious cases of willful blindness and journalistic self-censorship since the lead-up to the Iraq war. They are not only running cover for the warmongering of the Trump administration they claim to loathe, but also abandoning the brave OPCW whistleblowers who challenged the cover-up at great personal risk. Worse, they are denying justice to the Douma victims, whose actual cause of death remains unknown.
I have no training in psychology, but one doesn't need it to detect a high degree of projection behind Uygur and Kasparian's fabrications. A quick look at TYT's journalistic output, and who finances it, is instructive. While falsely suggesting that I work for "disgusting dictators," Kasparian's resumé includes a promotional gig at the Munich Security Conference, an annual gathering sponsored by NATO governments and the weapons manufacturers that profit off their perpetual war-mongering. Kasparian, in her own defense, has claimed that she merely "covered a conference." But her coverage consisted entirely of cheery PR videos on topics such as "the role of NATO in attempting to keep peace internationally." (The NATO "peace" zone of post-2011 Libya did not garner a mention in the 18-minute segment.)
Kasparian also conducted a friendly sit-down with Madeleine Albright, the former US Secretary of State. Somehow, Kasparian's self-proclaimed disgust with those who launder the killing of children didn't impel her to even raise Albright's infamous declaration that killing hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children was, in her view, "worth it." In fact, Kasparian went so far as to declare that she was "delighted" and saw it as "an honor" to interview the admitted child murderer.
As for Uygur, his through-the-teeth lie that I am "paid by the Russians" is even more risible given his own funding sources. In 2017, DNC mega-donor and Hollywood mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg led a round of investments in TYT worth $20 million. Thus, after this purportedly progressive outlet took boatloads of money from the neoliberal Democratic Party elite, it is also now parroting their favorite McCarthyite smear tactic: dissenters and political foes must be "paid by the Russians."
I have my guesses as to where Uygur is coming from. Inwardly uncomfortable with the awkward position he's put himself in—maintaining his image as a Bernie Sanders progressive while wrapping himself in the DNC cozy quilt—he has to place the shame somewhere. A journalist that eschews an establishment security blanket, and thus has the liberty to stay true to principles, is as good a target as any.
TYT's meltdown, immature though it was, wasn't just a case of two individuals going off-hinge to slander a perceived foe. Uygur and Kasparian's rank McCarthyism falls squarely in line with the chauvinist, militaristic Russiagate-driven worldview that has virally laid waste to intellects throughout left-liberal media in recent years.
Driving this ideological plague has been an elaborate propaganda campaign aimed at Western audiences, with the specific goal of demonizing the two states invoked in the TYT rant, Russia and Syria. Following the same playbook used for Iraq, Libya, and any other target of US hegemony, this campaign reduces entire states and their populations to a cartoonish portrayal of their leaders, while justifying antipathy or outright aggression against them with cynical appeals to human rights and democracy. What sets the Russia and Syria cases apart is the extent to which this disinformation effort has succeeded in winning over the progressive wing of its target demographic.
In the case of Syria, the dominant narrative sold to the world, a genocidal dictator crushing a peaceful national uprising, was so persuasive that I was once swayed by elements of it. In reality, Syria has been subjected to one of the most expensive, destructive, and murderous dirty wars in history.
The Dirty War on Syria has nothing to do with the Syrian protesters who rallied for democratic and anti-corruption reforms under an authoritarian government at the outset of the Arab Spring. Those demonstrations were co-opted and exploited by outside powers—the US, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, the UK, and Israel—who simultaneously launched a criminal, likely pre-planned war aimed at collapsing a disobedient "resistance axis" state. The facts are now readily available to anyone willing to absorb them, from the most mainstream of sources and the admissions, public and private, of the principals involved.
As the official story goes, weapons funneled by the US to Syria under the CIA's Timber Sycamore program were supposedly intended for "vetted," so-called "moderate" militias fighting to bring freedom and democracy to Syria. No one has debunked this myth more succinctly than the current Oval Office occupant. In a characteristically off-script remark to a Harvard audience in 2014, Joe Biden acknowledged that there was "no moderate middle" in Syria. Instead, Biden said, US "allies" in Syria had "poured hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad. Except that the people who were being supplied were Al-Nusra, and Al-Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world." This, Biden explained, is why "our allies in the region were our largest problem in Syria."
Biden soon apologized for offending his Gulf and Turkish allies. But his only error, aside from failing to name-check Qatar, was omitting the fact that the US was their willing partner, continuing the working relationship of prior Dirty Wars in Nicaragua and Afghanistan.
The Syrian government, backed by Russia, Iran, and the Lebanese resistance group Hezbollah, was ultimately able to defeat the US-backed sectarian contras and regain control of about 70% of the country. But the damage was incalculable: hundreds of thousands of dead, millions displaced, industrial and agricultural capacity decimated. A state that once enjoyed some of the highest medical, educational, and food production levels in the Middle East was left divided, hungry, and impoverished.
Since their military defeat, the US and its allies have imposed another of their interventionist pet policies: strangling the Syrian population with economic warfare. As Syria now faces a famine and tries to rebuild, the US military is occupying one-third of Syria, depriving it of access to a resource-rich region containing vital oil reserves and wheat, as US officials openly boast. In the summer of 2020, the Trump administration imposed a new round of crippling sanctions under the bipartisan Caesar Act. These sanctions explicitly target reconstruction, and have, in the proud words of Trump envoy James Jeffrey, "crushed the country’s economy."
Rather than challenge their own governments' decade-long military and ongoing economic terror campaign in Syria, a coterie of Western academics, media personalities, and journalists have emerged to champion it, and to dismiss any heretics as dictator-loving "Assadists." In the name of defending "the Syrian revolution," these voices promote Western chauvinism and whitewashing its catastrophic consequences for the Syrian people. The claim of democracy promotion is cruelly absurd: no Syrian voted for the NATO states and Gulf autocracies who, acting as a global dictatorship, arrogate to themselves the right to decimate a foreign country by funding, arming, and training a vast army of jihadist proxy militias.
To obscure this reality, "leftist" Western apologists for the Syria Dirty War have gone to great lengths to erase the critical US role. Scolding what he called "The Anti-Imperialism of Fools," the London-based academic Gilbert Achcar recently declared in The Nation that "Washington kept a low profile in the Syrian war." In Achcar's rendering, the US began "stepping up its involvement only after the so-called Islamic State surged and crossed the border into Iraq," after which it began "restricting its direct intervention to the fight against ISIS."
Achcar's account of Washington's "low profile" would be news to its policymakers, who targeted Syria with "one of the costliest covert action programs in the history of the C.I.A" (New York Times), drawing on "a budget approaching $1 billion a year" (Washington Post). Citing a "knowledgeable US official," David Ignatius of the Washington Post reported in 2017, the "many dozens of militia groups" given "many hundreds of millions of dollars" by the CIA "may have killed or wounded 100,000 Syrian soldiers and their allies over the past four years."
While it is true that the Obama administration bombed ISIS-held areas in Syria, it is also true that the US deliberately leveraged ISIS' advance for its regime change goals. This was privately conceded in 2016 by then-Secretary of State John Kerry, who told a group of Syrian opposition activists that the US sat on its heels as "Daesh [ISIS] was growing in strength" and even "threatening the possibility of going to Damascus," the Syrian capital. "We were watching," Kerry explained. "We saw that Daesh was growing in strength, and we thought Assad was threatened." US indifference to the threat of an ISIS takeover, Kerry added, is "why Russia went in" to Syria in 2015, "because they didn’t want a Daesh government."
If there is anything low-profile about this costly, covert, ISIS-leveraging, and murderous CIA-led dirty war, it is only how basic facts were kept from the Western public that funded it, thanks in no small part to propagandists like Achcar who continue to give it progressive cover. Achcar's downplaying of Washington's role is perfectly in character: along with whitewashing the Dirty War on Syria, he had previously urged leftists to fall in line behind the NATO destruction of Libya.
The fact that an unrepentant apologist for two of the most murderous Western interventions in recent memory can feel entitled to lecture those who did not go along —let alone be published in a prominent publication—shows the extent to which the Syria propaganda campaign has normalized Western chauvinism and invisibilized its destructive consequences on the targeted population.
Among the campaign's successes is the fact that now, with the US squeezing the Syrian people with the world's harshest sanctions, there is no major organized US campaign to stop it, nor even any major progressive outlet willing to cover it. Democracy Now!, which so heroically covered the devastating US sanctions on Iraq in the 1990s, has been as silent on the US sanctions on Syria as it has on the OPCW scandal. The same with The Intercept, which has yet to acknowledge the OPCW whistleblowers' existence, and last covered the Caesar sanctions (while mocking its critics in Code Pink) more than two years ago, when they were first proposed.
The manufacturing of consent for the Dirty War on Syria set the stage for, and undoubtedly directly influenced, the Russiagate mania that consumed US politics beginning in 2016. Already before then, Russia under Vladimir Putin was reinstated, in Western eyes, from a potential client state to, in Mitt Romney's words, "our number one geopolitical foe." Democrats mocked Romney for this at the time, but his decree has since become liberal orthodoxy. (Fittingly, Ana Kasparian's aforementioned interview with the ex-Secretary of State is titled: "Madeleine Albright: 'We owe an apology to Mitt Romney'".)
As the late scholar Stephen F. Cohen tirelessly documented, the reasons for Western hostility toward Putin all trace back to his insubordination to US-led hegemony: curbing US ownership in Russia's oil industry; rebuking US militarism at the 2007 Munich conference, to the outrage of front-row audience member John McCain; easily defeating Georgia in a 2008 military conflict and humiliating neoconservatives like McCain who had egged it on; resisting the US-backed Maidan coup and seizing Crimea, thereby weakening neoconservative designs for a NATO state on Russia's borders; and just as egregiously, intervening in Syria on the side of the government to help defeat the US-backed Wahabi death squads because, as John Kerry admitted privately, Russia "didn’t want a Daesh [ISIS] government."
This background set the stage for the demonization of Russia that went into overdrive in 2016, when Russia allegedly waged a "sweeping and systematic" influence campaign to install Trump in the White House.
The motives for Russiagate are by now easily discernible: blaming Russia and a fictional collusion plot recused Democratic neoliberal elites from having to soul-search following their humiliating defeat to Trump. They thus evaded any disruption to their cherished power and privilege within the same dysfunctional political system that made his improbable win possible.
Meanwhile, Democrats' partisan self-interest converged with that of powerful national security state who saw the loudmouth Trump as an unseemly steward of the global US war machine. These officials also sought to stigmatize the appeal of Trump's 2016 campaign's anti-interventionist messaging, as disingenuous as that rhetoric was. Trump's frank admission that the US dirty war on Syria had empowered Al Qaeda, and his call for cooperating with Russia, were acts of heresy to a bipartisan foreign policy establishment fervently devoted to a Dirty War in the Levant and a New Cold War everywhere else.
For its part, a US media machine that had given candidate Trump hundreds of millions of dollars worth of free advertising was more than happy to blame Russian bots and hackers for the candidate they had helped elevate to power. The prolonged ratings bonanza ensuing from the bad spy thriller that was Russiagate was an irrestible bonus. As a final perk, all of these centers of power were more than happy to focus endlessly on Russian oligarchs, as opposed to the US oligarchs who run both political parties; the media networks; the major corporations; and Congress.
As with the Syria dirty war, the Russiagate disinformation campaigns have produced an endless line of progressive adherents falling over themselves to promote the official doctrine and even scold the heretics who fail to toe the line.
The result was a disaster for the left. Russiagate massively expanded the liberal embrace of the CIA and US national security state. Under the guise of resisting Trump, intelligence officials were heralded as heroes, and their imperial world view elevated as sacrosanct. The nation's major progressive outlets—The Intercept, Democracy Now!, Mother Jones, The Young Turks—covered themselves in ingloriousness by parroting the evidence-free claims of US intelligence officials and chasing the plot twists peddled by unhinged Trump-Russia conspiracy theorists down their myriad rabbit holes.
Donald Trump and the Republicans were thus handed the massive gift of a "Resistance" drunk on moronic collusion fantasies; distracted from challenging the GOP's actual policies; and humiliated when the Russia conspiracy theory ultimately collapsed. The sapping of liberal political energies in the Russiagate era is perhaps best exemplified by the fact that more people turned out to protest Trump's firing of Attorney General Jeff Sessions – a perceived threat to Mueller -- than showed up to challenge the Trump-Republican tax bill, a mammoth upward transfer of wealth.
Not only did Russiagate undermine a genuine resistance to Trump and prop up the neoliberal wing that he had humiliated , but it was even wielded to undermine progressives' best hope. After tacitly endorsing the Russophobic hysteria of his 2016 neoliberal nemeses (by never challenging and catering to its core premises), Bernie Sanders was rewarded by having Russiagate deployed to help sabotage his campaign in the 2020 primary.
On a personal note, it was frustrating to see longtime colleagues and friends fall either silent or even get duped by the Russiagate disinformation campaign. On the other hand, I was more than happy – honored, in fact – to be one of the handful willing to challenge such a transparently moronic and dangerous scam.
I can't muster even a grim sense of smugness when it comes to Syria, though. Having just returned from a brief trip there, the relentless propaganda only compounds my outrage. Visiting Damascus and surrounding towns, I was able to glimpse first-hand the destruction and sadism that's been unleashed on this beautiful, ancient country and its besieged civilian population, including the odious and ongoing sanctions regime. (I'll have more to say on Syria in this space soon). The damage to Syria from the US-backed dirty war is incalculable, making its continued whitewashing and the calumnies spewed at those who dare call it out all the more despicable.
The fact that self-described progressive outlets can still cling to Syria-Russiagate propaganda that was not only destructive, but explicitly used to undermine causes that they claim to champion, also speaks to the power of the US propaganda system and the malleability of opportunistic media personalities seeking to advance within its confines. In this context, while the hostility of Cenk Uygur and Ana Kasparian toward a dissenting journalist may be unpleasant to watch, it is very easy to understand.