That great historian Robert Conquest once told Christopher Hitchens that it was no longer useful to distinguish between left and right in politics because “fools and knaves [I’m quoting Hitchens’ paraphrase here] of all kinds needed to be opposed and that what was really needed was a ‘United Front Against Bullshit.’”
Conquest’s lifelong quarry has been the Western intelligentsia that embraced totalitarianism, particularly Stalinism, and little about the style or substance of that quarry has changed since he took up his pen. Neo-Nazis in Europe are today joined with holy imperialists in Russia in a violent international campaign to defeat what they earnestly describe as a “fascist junta” in Ukraine – and are cheered by anti-imperialist socialists in Britain. So while ideologies and fronts may come and go (Populaire, National, Islamic), Conquest’s barricades must never be dismantled because bullshit has true staying power. It also has wider application than by the tyrannical or the fellow traveling.
Consider the following example: an American ambassador to a war-ravaged Middle Eastern country is widely known to be keeping two sets of books on what he thinks the United States can and must do about that country. In private, those who know him will attest, he understands that the president’s failure to intervene earlier has re-legitimized and emboldened a dictator, as well as that dictator’s allies, and therefore led to more death, dispossession, and carnage. But publicly, the ambassador goes well beyond apologizing for the president: he becomes an accomplice in scapegoating the victims of humanitarian catastrophe.
In March of this year, Robert Ford offered three reasons for why rescuing Syria was hopeless. The first, he said, was that the opposition to Bashar al-Assad was in a state of chauvinistic disarray. “First and foremost,” Ford told the New York Times, the rebels have “been very unsuccessful at explaining an agenda that would not threaten the communities that are the pillars of support for the regime, first and foremost the Alawite community.” (The repetition here of that wan expression “first and foremost” hinted at either pre-scripting or a nervous disposition, that of someone trying too hard.) True, Russia and Iran have helped (this was reason number two), but it was the opposition’s failure to offer up a multicultural “agenda” to the Alawites, Ford maintained, that allowed the regime (here came number three) a “certain unity and coherence, which is lacking on the opposition side.” First and foremost.
The Obama administration does not have a foreign policy. It has a public relations policy. And so perhaps it was to be expected that a senior administration official would submit that the poor quality of dissidents’ “strategic communications” was the main explanation for why a mass murderer who deployed weapons of mass destruction in a capital city was still alive, much less campaigning for “re-election.” At the time of this expert enlistment of bullshit, Fred Hof ably demonstrated how the first reason in Ford’s trio was in fact factually untrue because the Syrian opposition had more than once affirmed its vision for a pluralistic state and society in which ethnic and religious minorities would be protected. But Hof also noted how this misdiagnosis was prima facie silly. Would Alawites forming the “pillars of support” for the regime believe what a Sunni-majority opposition said they could expect in a post-Assad Syria? They wouldn’t be very good pillars if they were that easily swayed.
Apparatchik thinking, as Conquest showed, is the easiest causeway to intellectual and moral stupidity. Still, it’s somewhat cruel to be too hard on a man just following, and trying to account for, the party line. “In fairness to Robert Ford,” Hof wrote of his former State Department colleague, “he is not yet free to speak his mind. He is still on the government payroll and is therefore required to adhere to official policy and related talking points when speaking publicly.”
I’d pay good money to avoid ever being defended like that. But now, Robert Ford isn’t on the government payroll. Guess what’s happened?
In his first public, post-retirement interview with CNN’s Christine Amanpour, he said that he left his job as America’s envoy to Syria because “I was no longer in a position where I felt I could defend the American policy. We have been unable to address either the root causes of the conflict in terms of the fighting on the ground and the balance on the ground, and we have a growing extremism threat.” Among the root causes of the conflict, the anti-Alawite sectarianism of the opposition no longer factored.
Contra his earlier self, Ford said that there were in fact good options for helping the opposition, which isn’t all that screwed up and certainly not to blame for Assad’s longevity. Actually, rebels we could work with are quite well known to the US government, which simply chooses to ignore them. “We’ve identified them quite well now,” Ford said. “Some people say, well, we don't know them well enough; we can’t depend on them. We know them quite well. We've worked with them for years.” Years!
In his second big interview, this one with PBS Newshour’s Margaret Warner, Ford went even further than declaring an intimacy with these rebels. He stated flat-out that they were on America’s side, that their “agenda is compatible with our national security interests” but that we’ve betrayed them “because they don’t have the same resources that either Assad does or the Al-Qaeda groups in Syria do.”
Evidently very free indeed to speak his mind, Ford told both Amanpour and Warner something that has been an open secret in Washington for quite a while – namely, that the US State Department, from its current secretary on down to its lowliest Mideast analyst, believes Barack Obama is not only wrong about Syria but supremely disingenuous in arguing for why he is right. And yet, the reign of bullshit continues.
In a State Department press briefing held yesterday, spokesperson Marie Harf was asked about Ford’s embarrassing volte-face, and then went on what one journalist acquaintance of mine who was in the room described as a “tangent.” That tangent included a series of familiar but no less remarkable observations.
1. Syria was not a problem that the United States can or should solve “on its own.” So much for the “Friends of Syria,” then.
2. A diplomatic solution featuring bilateral accommodation with Russia was still the way forward. Therefore it doesn’t matter that Russian government officials, oligarchs, and institutions are now under US sanctions or that Moscow continues to veto UN Security Council resolutions on Syria while also sending more and better-grade military equipment to the regime.
3. “Some institutions” need to be “maintained” in order to avoid anarchy. Leaving aside the fact that there is no such thing in Syria as an “institution,” Harf declined to delineate the ones she thought worth hanging onto. But they very likely include the mukhabarat, the Syrian army, and Iranian-trained and -financed proxies such as Hezbollah and the National Defense Forces. She went on to mouth the White House catechism that there is no military solution to this conflict because who would take over (except for the foregoing institutions, of course) if the regime collapsed? The extremists, that’s who. Harf did not add that these extremists are now engaged in mortal combat with the rebels the United States has known and been working with – but insufficiently supporting – for years.
4. Judging by this gem of an on-the-record statement, I’d wager that Harf is in a far worse state of tortured conscience than Ford was in March. CNN and PBS, take note: “We don’t think it’s in our national security interests to send American troops all over the world, putting boots on the ground everywhere trying to affect outcomes in other countries… And we’ve been very clear that that’s not in our national interest to send 18-year-old kids from Ohio to Damascus to try to promote regime change there.”
This poor woman, still on the payroll, did not, because she could not, point to anyone in the Syrian opposition, other Western governments, or the multinational class of interventionist policy analysts and commentators who has ever suggested putting boots on the ground or sending 18-year-old kids from Ohio to Damascus.
“Don’t do stupid shit” is being boasted about as the new witless mantra of the professional bullshit artists when really it’s just the latest embodiment of how full of it they all are.