It’s hard to keep the American people engaged with foreign affairs: notoriously "isolationist," we just can’t stay interested in the various overseas "threats" our rulers would have us in a panic over. While Al Qaeda was Washington’s biggest "success" in this regard – the 9/11 attacks really got everyone’s attention and managed to keep Americans focused on the absolute necessity of gutting our Constitution and rampaging over half the earth – that was some thirteen year ago. The assassination of Osama bin Laden, and two drawn-out and absolutely disastrous wars – both ending in what looks dismayingly like defeat – have pretty much exhausted everyone’s patience. The "war on terrorism" launched by George W. Bush with such dramatic fanfare was in danger of petering out, ending not with a bang – or a victory – but without even any acknowledgment on the part of our wise rulers that it was a) over, and b) a horrific failure.
Yet the blowback from our obtusely wrongheaded policies continues to play havoc with the international landscape, destabilizing governments throughout the Middle East and putting Americans and American interests at risk around the globe. The political class is united in the belief that Washington has to Do Something – after all, our National Prestige is at stake!
Having deliberately and viciously destroyed the Iraqi state, we stood looking at our handiwork aghast – why, the whole country was in utter chaos! The Iranians were practically in charge, the Kurds were rebelling, and those bothersome Sunnis were up in arms again. What to do?
The Washington policy wonks and the Big Donors who pour millions into their thinktanks knew exactly what to do: start another war, this time in Syria. That way we could always cross the border into Iraq, as necessary – and kill two birds with one stone, while injuring the biggest bird of them all, Iran. We could knock off Bashar al-Assad – the last secular despot left standing in the region – and tame the Sunnis in preparation for the Big One, i.e. the assault on Tehran.
All was made ready: a propaganda campaign on behalf of the Syrian rebels was deployed. Cries of "He’s killing his own people!" were heard from our "humanitarian" liberals, and the Nicholas Kristoff Brigade, a crack division of America’s famous laptop bombardiers, was off and running. On the right, Bill Kristol’s Legion of Teddy Roosevelt Impersonators went into their all-too-familiar act, but it was the liberals and the "national security Democrats" who gave the campaign real heft. Kristol and his gang were already so discredited that anything they said in favor of bombing Syria would probably have a boomerang effect, and so it was left to the ready-for-Hillary crowd to do the heavy lifting – which, in the end, proved too much for them to handle.
The War Party thought they had it in the bag, but they forgot about one key factor: the American people, famously "isolationist," and sick unto death of endless overseas conflicts.
In spite of years of war propaganda, which portrayed the Syrian rebels as little Islamic angels and Assad as the Devil Himself, the American people weren’t swallowing it. Ignoring the conventional wisdom of the political class, which smugly informs us we don’t care about foreign policy, ordinary citizens overwhelmed congressional switchboards with a veritable tsunami of calls protesting yet another war to be launched in their name.
Another factor the War Party forgot about: the President of these here United States, who plainly didn’t want his final years in office to be dominated by yet another unwinnable war. No, they weren’t going to pass this hot potato off to the only black guy in the room: Obama, after a long walk in the Rose Garden with his chief advisor, suddenly announced he was throwing the steaming potato back – to Congress.
The highlight of this year so far was watching formerly bellicose members of Congress – Democratic hawks and fence-sitters alike, as well as Republican big mouths like Ted Cruz – back down, one by one, as the prospect of voting for another war loomed ever closer.
Oh well, let’s call the whole thing off … but not quite.
The Kristoff Brigade and their Kristolian allies on the right were rebuffed, but not defeated. They simply bided their time. After all, things were looking pretty ugly in Iraq, and it wasn’t long before they got ugly enough to spawn the creature known as ISIS – the Islamic State in al Sham [the Levant]. A few beheadings conveniently tweeted by the media-savvy jihadists, a flurry of panicked news reports predicting the imminent fall of Baghdad, a "humanitarian disaster" that in retrospect proved to be greatly exaggerated, and – voila! – another "crisis" erupted, which the War Party was quick to take advantage of.
Yet still the propaganda campaign failed to achieve the desired result. For while the panic level of the American public had risen considerably, it hadn’t risen enough to persuade them to send US troops back to the graveyard of George W. Bush’s dreams, the now largely nonexistent nation of Iraq. Nor did they want to see US troops in Syria – or anywhere else, for that matter. All those old poll numbers showing Americans want Washington to mind its own business internationally, which were supposedly non-operational, came roaring back, full-throated, saying "No boots on the ground!"
The problem, it seems, is that ISIS wasn’t scary enough. Oh sure, those beheadings were pretty awful, but they took place in Syria, after all, and you know how the average American is – if it isn’t occurring here, then it isn’t really happening at all, or, if it is, it hardly matters. Yes, those people in Flyover Country really are that provincial, my dear, but what can one do?
Well, one can scare them sufficiently so that they believe in the Imminent Threat – that is, an immediate threat to them personally.
And so it was back to the drawing board, and quickly – because timing is everything in these matters. You can’t get a good war hysteria going and then just let it run out of steam. Oh no. You have to keep beating those war drums harder and harder, no matter how many drumsticks you break in the process, until you get the desired result – the consent of the citizenry, however passive and ultimately fickle it may turn out to be.
They had to come up with something fast, and so – like their predecessors – they simply started to make up stuff. This was the modus operandi of the Bush crowd, and it worked for them, at least temporarily – how many people still believe Saddam Hussein was behind the 9/11 attacks? And, yes, there are still conservative cargo-cultists who think Saddam’s "weapons of mass destruction" are somewhere out there, waiting to be found. I’m sure Laurie Mylroie still has her fan club, which used to include top Bush administration officials.
In short: lying works, and so administration officials simply invented a new enemy, one more fearsome – and, simultaneously, more familiar – to Americans than ISIS. They dubbed it "Khorasan," which, as far as anyone knows, is a former province of Iran, now divided into three separate provinces also named Khorasan. We are told their ostensible leader – whom we have just now supposedly killed in air strikes – was once head of "Al Qaeda in Iran," a shadowy group that has never pulled off a single action or engaged in any propagandistic activities, and for all we know never really existed at all. Those evil Iranian mullahs, the "experts" aver, have been sheltering a radical Sunni terrorist group – one that considers them heretics deserving of death – for their own malign purposes. No convincing evidence of this unlikely alliance is ever offered, however, and it seems about as credible as the Al Qaeda-Saddam Hussein connection Bush and his crew broadcast far and wide.
What’s so fearsome about "Khorasan"? Well, they couldn’t care less about establishing a Caliphate, because, you know, that’s so 632, and as for overthrowing Assad, the Khorasanians won’t stoop to conquer. No, nothing less than an attack on America, preferably using an airliner as a weapon of choice, will do. What they lack in originality they more than make up for when it comes to the all-important Imminence Factor. We are told the Khorasan Group – sounds like an investment bank, doesn’t it? – is planning an attack on an unnamed Western target and that they have assembled a cadre of Western fighters who could just hop on a plane and ignite themselves in midair.
And, oh yes, they have special clothing that ignites spontaneously and other tricks of the terrorism trade which no one has ever seen or heard of before.
No one had ever heard of a group named "Khorasan" before: it simply appeared spontaneously, like Minerva from the head of Zeus – or from the head of some war propagandist somewhere in the bowels of the Pentagon. We are told the very name of this mysterious group was "classified," at least according to the dubious Rep. Peter King (R-IRA), but as Glenn Greenwald points out here a great number of anonymous government officials were glad to drop this hot stuff into the eager hands of those court stenographers otherwise known as "mainstream journalists," who dutifully "reported" it as the gospel truth.
Greenwald goes on to write: "Even more remarkable, it turns out the very existence of an actual ‘Khorasan Group’ was to some degree an invention of the American government." My question is: to what degree isn’t "Khorasan" an invention of the American government? There is absolutely zero evidence that such a group has ever existed: no documents, no testimony, no public "intelligence" of any kind. Such descriptions of its history and character as we do have – the hurried and often contradictory explanations of anonymous US officials – all point to "Khorasan" as being a simple re-branding of an old enemy: Al Qaeda.
"Khorasan" is a marketing ploy, and the target is the American people. We’re used to hearing that the Al Qaeda bogeyman is under the bed, which is why we supposedly have to give the government carte blanche to spy on us and, while they’re at it, the whole world. This is the great problem Washington faces: it just isn’t having the same effect anymore. So a new brand name for terror had to be conjured, with new imagery – beheadings instead of falling buildings – to overwhelm our reason and let us forget the history of the past decade or so.
It took them a while, but the Obama administration has now taken on all the worst characteristics of the neocons during the Bush years. This "Khorasan" ploy is far less believable than even the most extravagant effusions of the Weekly Standard crowd during the neocons’ heyday: remember that Prague meeting between Mohammed Atta and Iraqi intelligence that never took place? Do you recall the Niger uranium forgeries – a series of obviously invented-out-of-whole-cloth "documents" that were cited by George W. Bush in a major wartime speech? And then there were those Iraqi drones, also cited by Bush, that were primed to rain hellfire down on America’s cities.
All lies – and all far more credible, at least at the time of their initial utterance, than this phony baloney "Khorasan" concoction.
As Halloween approaches – my Sunday paper had an advertising insert for the local hardware store featuring scary plastic witches and goblins for the yard – our war propagandists are running wild, stretching their imaginative abilities to the limit in order to frighten Americans into submission. My guess is they’re wasting their energy, because the American people are by this time so inured to this kind of thing that they view the whole spectacle as something of a circus, with the ringmasters in Washington running out of ways to bring in the paying crowds.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.