US vs. Russia in Syria: A Battle to Control the Truth

There is a dangerous leader heading an irrational state who is deploying forces to Syria he insists are fighting terrorists. His decisions have led to numerous civilian casualties and the threatening of nuclear confrontation with his nation’s ideological foe. Domestically, his administration has jailed journalists and silenced critics in government, and since WWII, his country’s intelligence services have meddled in the elections of dozens of countries and are now contemplating a cyberattack on its hegemonic rival. His administration maintains alliances with corrupt juntas and religious fundamentalists while championing domestic and foreign policies that have done little to rein in the country’s violent nationalism, intolerant nativism, police brutality and enriching of the few at the expense of the many.

His name is Barack Obama. One could certainly be forgiven in thinking it was Vladimir Putin, since his justifications for Russian policy are strikingly similar.

While the US corporate media frantically reports on Russia’s actions in Ukraine and Syria, it appears content with the havoc wreaked by its Nobel Peace Prize president in sundry countries across three continents. For well-established reasons rooted in exceptionalism and indoctrination, the US mainstream media cannot refer to Obama and his administration in the same terms used to describe Putin.

Whereas The New Yorker can run a headline that states, “Putin, Syria, and Why Moscow Has Gone War Crazy,” it is unfathomable to think of the US press referring to the Obama administration’s policies in similar language. In fact, the article’s author, Joshua Jaffe, appears bewildered with Russia’s policies in the Middle East and Europe, especially the Russian Defence Ministry’s announcement on October 8 that it had deployed nuclear warheads to Kaliningrad. The fact that Kaliningrad is part of Russia aside, Jaffe writes that, “Projecting a half-lunatic readiness to blow up the world is, in essence, a cover operation: a way to make a lot of noise while the Kremlin goes about creating a lot of new facts on the ground, whether in Syria or the Baltics.”

If this Russian move is irrational, wouldn’t Obama’s actions — supporting ill-defined rebel groups in Syria, signature strikes in Pakistan and indiscriminate Saudi bombing in Yemen — be irrational as well? And in any state where the press was doing its job, wouldn’t a look at US nuclear policy — by sheer quantity of warheads, one that could be categorized as “readiness to blow up the world” — and its citizens’ attitudes toward weapons of mass destruction be prudent? It is unlikely that such a critical look will come anytime soon from the submissive US mainstream media, however. Though much has been written about Putin’s clampdown and control of the Russian press, corporate US media outlets are hamstrung by the monopoly that six corporations have on the American “marketplace of ideas.”

This is not to exonerate or extoll Putin. On the contrary, Putin is an opportunist bent on increasing his power and influence. But so is Obama and any other (future) US president, be it Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. One can only dream that the same measures that the US press takes in detailing Russian atrocities in Syria could be applied to US atrocities there, and also in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen and Somalia. But the US corporate media and populace seem to believe that Russia’s intentions are malicious, while the United States’ intentions are benevolent. This why US bombings of civilians in Syria are described as “mistakes,” whereas the aim of Russian bombing can only be “terror.” For example, the bombing of a UN convoy in September that Russia says was accompanied by terrorist elements was reported in the US press as a targeted strike against civilians.

Russia may very well target civilians. The tragedy of Aleppo is well-documented. The point here is not to justify Russian actions. It is to question why the US mainstream media accept the Obama administration’s assertions that Russia’s bombs are aimed at civilians, while US bombs are not. One could argue that both Russia and the US are guilty of civilian bombings, since distinctions between rebel, terrorist and civilian are blurred in civil war. But this would challenge the notion of benevolent intentions that are at the core of American exceptionalism. Interestingly, those who have bothered to look into Obama’s abovementioned signature strikes will find that tolerance of civilian casualties is at the heart of that policy. And if a Martian — bereft of any understanding of nationalism or exceptionalism, but well-versed in international Human Rights Law — were to take a cursory look at the last 50 years of US foreign policy, he might conclude that the US does, in fact, target civilians.

A cynic would claim that the truth here does not matter. It is what people believe to be the truth that reigns supreme. To this end, both the American and Russian mainstream media and governments are presenting a one-sided version of atrocities that aims to vilify the other.

To address this dangerous trend, I presented a paper at Penza University in southern Russia on October 12, examining the language the Western media use to castigate and dehumanize Putin. The paper, “Language as a Weapon: How Western Journalists Portray Russian Policy,”was given at a conference titled, “Language. Law. Society.” After completing my talk, I fielded a question from a Russian academic regarding the role of the US as a world police force. This is a common question in the former Soviet Union and is trumpeted in the Russian press. My answer was that the US would never be a world police force, as it intervenes only in those areas where its vital economic interests are at stake. The main point being that the US corporate media do not accurately describe these interventions as power moves that waste large amounts of civilian life. Instead, the corporate media too often act as a public relations firm for the US government, repeating hollow rhetoric about freedom, liberty, democracy and the open market. The man responded that I should move to Russia, since the Russian press also make similar hollow claims in support of Putin.

Nobody would argue that Putin does not control the Russian media, and that his distorted version of the truth prevails. But one should question why, in a “free” society like the US, Obama’s distorted version does, too.