2 October 2019 — Grayzone
Lydia Wilson, a researcher at a US Department of Defense-backed outfit, has taken to the Times Literary Supplement to publish a malicious attack on “The Management of Savagery.” The review is a hyper-ideological defense of US empire filled with distortions and bone-headed errors.
By Max Blumenthal
Entitled, “The Blame Game,” the screed is an unsheathed, hyper-ideological defense of Western empire that treats my critical history of foreign policy elites and the disastrous interventions they’ve orchestrated in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria – and even my sympathy for besieged Palestinians in the Gaza Strip – as an unacceptable transgression that should result in my professional blacklisting.
The author of this rant is a research fellow at a Pentagon-funded think tank named Lydia Wilson.
Wilson’s review begins with the following line: “It is easy to blame the United States for the world’s ills – easy because of the availability of evidence.” It’s also easy because it’s true, and Wilson could have stopped there. Instead, she went on to present one of the clumsiest, most deceptive defenses of the worst ills committed by the US in recent decades.
Though readers won’t know if from her review, Wilson is not merely a scholar of the Middle East. She is, in fact, a national security state apparatchik whose engagement with the region is heavily influenced by the imperatives of US empire, and whose employer is partially funded by the US Department of Defense.
In her desperate attempt to clear the reputations of the managers of savagery she clearly identifies with, Wilson wound up doing everything she wrongly accused me of, from engaging in gratuitous smearing to committing bone-headed factual errors.
Saving Charles Lister from his own record
Wilson opened her attack on me and my book with a long-winded defense of the DC-based think tanker Charles Lister, whom I profiled in critical detail in the pages of “The Management of Savagery.” A former intern for the British Conservative Party who briefly visited Syria only once, Lister has used his position at the Gulf-funded Middle East Institute (MEI) to market various bands of Wahhabi militants to Western governments as “moderate rebels.”
At a January 2018, MEI panel, for instance, Lister helped shop Mustafa Sejari, a blood-stained Islamist militant who pledged to “start an Islamic state” in Syria, as a prime candidate for rearmament by the US government. During a 2017 Capitol Hill presentation, Lister chirped that “Al Qaeda has really got it right,” and recently touted its local Syrian affiliate as “intelligent and mature.”
Charles Lister is promoting the leader of al-Qaeda in Syria as Che Guevara-like in an effort to have Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s (rebranded AQ) designation as a terrorist organization lifted.
Who in 2001 could’ve imagined that al-Qaeda would have a lobbyist in Washington DC in 2019? pic.twitter.com/GetXm6EmKQ
— Dan Cohen (@dancohen3000) August 7, 2019
More recently, Lister joined a campaign by the pro-war Syrian American Council to pressure venues into canceling my appearances during my recent book tour. Then, this September, he promoted a crudely forged email libeling journalist Rania Khalek with the false claim that she was secretly paid by a sanctioned Syrian businessman.
This reign of error continued throughout Wilson’s review, as she accused me of an array of mistakes while committing a series of mistakes mixed with innuendo and wild distortions that revealed her lack of familiarity with the subject matter.
Her first screw-up came when challenging my treatment of an article by Lister which I criticized, asserting that I got the date of its publication wrong. Wilson claimed the piece was published in November 2017. In fact, the article appeared in November 2015.
She made this unforced error in the course of accusing me of unfairly blaming Lister for influencing then-Prime Minister David Cameron’s risible claim that 70,000 moderate anti-Assad fighters existed in Syria, which even the British Ministry of Defense called “misleading.” But Wilson neglected to mention that Lister’s article was a fervent defense of Cameron’s widely ridiculed data, with detailed breakdowns of each group of supposed moderates. In other words, it was a defense of Lister’s own bunk research.
Lister’s bio at the end of the article boasted that he “spent the past two years coordinating an intensive process of face-to-face engagement with the leaderships of over 100 Syrian armed opposition groups, as one component of a multinationally-backed Track II process.” Indeed, he was intimately involved in the one of the most dastardly regime change scams in recent history, helping justify the shipment of thousands of anti-tank missiles to what Century Foundation fellow Sam Heller described as “battlefield auxiliaries and weapons farms for larger Islamist and jihadist factions, including Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate.” And he did so on behalf of his employers he listed at the time: the Qatari-backed Brookings Doha Center and the Shaikh Group, run by a former advisor to the Qatari royal court named Salman Shaikh.
Tacitly admitting that Lister produced lists of vetted “moderate rebels” for Western governments, Wilson claimed that the extremist Nour al-Din al-Zinki militia – whose fighters filmed themselves sawing the head off of a captured Palestinian teen – “had been removed from the approved list by Lister” when the CIA made the decision to arm them. Yet the criminal band appeared prominently among the insurgent groups Lister approved as “moderate” in his November 2015 article. Lister went on to co-author an op-ed in the Washington Post urging the US to “escalate the conflict” by shipping more heavy weaponry to Wahhabi gangs like Zinki. He did not publicly criticize Zinki until January 2017, when I confronted him about its blood-stained record during a panel discussion at the Atlantic Council.
Wilson insisted that Lister “didn’t know” that Zinki was comprised of brutal extremists when he listed it as a “moderate rebel” faction. Yet as I detailed in “The Management of Savagery,” ample evidence was available well before 2015 of the group’s penchant for criminal behavior and extremism. In October 2015, media across the West reported that Zinki had been paid $11 million Euros by the government of Italy as ransom for two Italian aid workers, Greta Ramelli and Vanessa Marzullo, that the group abducted in July 2014. Zinki was described in Italian media at the time as “part of the al-Nusra Front, Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate.” Shockingly, just one month after this high profile hostage release, Lister listed Zinki as “moderate.”
If the self-serious Syria expert had simply followed the news out of Syria, which was easily available to anyone capable of using Google, he would have been spared some serious embarrassment. And if he had bothered to research the background of the founder of Zinki, Tawfiq Shahabuddin, a Wahhabi preacher who personally orchestrated the kidnapping of the Italians [see p. 193 of my book and corresponding footnote], he might have had to think twice about green-lighting the group for US training and heavy weaponry.
It’s almost as though Lister is blinded to glaring facts that interfere with the imperatives of empire.
A reviewer’s reign of error
Wilson’s unforced errors and deceptive claims piled up as she plowed ahead:
- According to Wilson, US CENTCOM “corrected” a statement I quoted by its spokesman about the prolific presence of Al Qaeda’s local affiliate in opposition-held areas of Aleppo. I’m not aware of any “correction” by CENTCOM, nor do I know of any serious observer of the Syrian conflict who today disputes the presence of Al Qaeda among the “rebels” once entrenched in Aleppo. The brutal exploits of these jihadists in the city was documented in detail by mainstream outlets including Vice and the New York Times – not exactly “Assadist” publications. More recently, Brett McGurk, the US presidential special envoy to the fight against ISIS, described Idlib, where fighters from Aleppo were transferred after their defeat in 2016, as “the largest Al Qaeda safe haven since 9/11.”
- Wilson spelled the name of Radoslaw Sikorski, the Polish politician and husband of neoconservative Washington Post, as “Rudoslaw.” (Tellingly, Wilson left out the section in the “The Management of Savagery” where Sikorski appears as an aspiring young journalist who saw fit to pick up an AK-47 and participate in a mujahedin raid on Soviet barracks in Afghanistan. Later, he claimed he “only succeeded in hitting the outer wall.”)
- Wilson claimed that Verso was the initial and sole publisher of my book, The 51 Day War, and calls the company’s decision to publish it “perverse,” apparently because my narrative was sympathetic to the tormented Palestinian civilians I met while covering the war from inside the besieged Gaza Strip. In fact, The 51 Day War was edited and published by Nation Books, and was only republished in the UK by Verso after it ran in the US.
- Wilson zeroed in on a footnote [p. 160] that cited Kevork Almassian, a Syrian government loyalist and online analyst living in Germany. (She misspelled his name as “Almasian.”) She took issue with the citation not because it was false, but because Almassian has been affiliated with the right-wing German AfD Party. Yet I did not quote any political commentary by him; I merely footnoted a video he posted of opposition supporters in the town of Baniyas in 2011 chanting for the ethnic cleansing of Syrian Alawites. (The video was not shot by Almassian, but by a local participant in the disturbing rally). Nowhere did Wilson dispute the veracity of the shocking video, which upends the narrative of regime changers like her who branded the Syrian revolt of 2011 as a purely democratic uprising. In my footnotes, I corroborated the events in Baniyas by citing a documentary produced by the US State Department-funded Syria Untold outlet. For some reason, Wilson chose to ignore this additional footnote. And in her absurd insinuation that I sympathize with AfD, Wilson overlooked the sharply critical history of the German party that appeared on page 231 of “The Management of Savagery,” as well as Denijal Jegic’s blistering survey of the rise of AfD and German far-right, which I published at The Grayzone in 2018.
- Wilson claimed that “over 90 percent of civilian deaths of Syrian civilians have been attributed to the Syrian government and its allies,” but she provided no citation to back up her wild assertion. I can only assume she was referencing bogus data from the Syrian Network for Human Rights, a shadowy NGO that I exposed as a Qatar-based front for the Syrian opposition-in-exile – not exactly a credible conflict monitor. Once again, Wilson got it badly wrong: another pro-opposition monitor called the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) has placed the number deaths on the Syrian government side nearly on par with those of the opposition. The UN, meanwhile, stopped counting conflict deaths back in 2014. “Assad is routinely accused of murdering 250,000 of his own people,” Foreign Policy’s Colum Lynch wrote in 2016. “The only problem is that there’s no proof he did.”
Announcing the launch of the Times Twitter Review Supplement
Halfway through her tirade, Wilson discarded my book and launched into a review of my Twitter account.
The counter-terror researcher was outraged that I once described Bana Alabed as a “pro-war psy-op.” Referring to Alabed simply as an innocent “8-year-old girl living in rebel-held Aleppo,” Wilson forgot to mention a few salient facts about the overnight child celebrity.
Alabed gained international renown by publishing video messages and pleas for Western military intervention on her own Twitter account (“it’s better to start 3rd world war,” read one of her tweets). The child’s mother and a collection of international helpers appeared to be writing her tweets and scripting her video soliloquies.
After eastern Aleppo was liberated from Salafi-jihadi militias, Alabed was evacuated through Al Qaeda-controlled Idlib and into Turkey, where she became a centerpiece of state propaganda. She was made a citizen following a bizarre photo-op with Turkish President Tayyip Recep Erdogan and the former child star Lindsay Lohan, who spoke in a put-on Arabic accent. After she was exploited for a photo-op by the leader who jails more journalists than any government in the world, Simon and Schuster granted the little girl a major book contract following dealings with the literary agency of J.K. Rowling, who had helped create the child as a global celebrity.
During the 2018 Grammys, Alabed materialized on stage beside the rapper, Common, and the singer, Andra Day, for a performance of their “Stand Up For Something.”
If this child’s strange and meteoric rise to celebrity was not the result of an elaborately constructed interventionist public relations operation, then I am a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Continuing with her review of my Twitter account, Wilson rapped me on the knuckles for “regularly retweet[ing] pro-Kremlin sources.” It’s not clear which sources she was referring to, or what it means to be “pro-Kremlin” in the mind of someone who has never met a NATO war they didn’t like.
According to Wilson, my un-American Twitter tendencies came about because my views on Syria “‘completely flipped’ in 2015.” But how did she know what my views were in 2015? Between September 2013 and October 2016, I wrote a grand total of zero articles on Syria and did no media appearances specifically related to the subject. And at no point was I subjected to any fMRI brain scans by Wilson’s employers at Artis either. In fact, one of the few pieces on Syria that I published in 2013 was a critical investigation of the US-based Syrian regime change lobby and its ties to right-wing Cuban exile groups and the pro-Israel lobby. Once again, Wilson was caught substituting innuendo for evidence, revealing her own intellectual laziness and the dereliction of her editors.
Whitewashing a pro-war professional regime change operative
Towards the end of her tirade against “The Management of Savagery,” Wilson simply gave up on arguments and directed her readers to another online attack on me by someone named Marcell Shehwaro. (The bumbling reviewer spelled Shehwaro’s name as “Shehwara.”)
As she did with Bana Alabed, and with her own bio, Wilson omitted critical context that might have raised serious questions in her readers’ minds about Shehwaro’s ulterior agenda, identifying her simply as “a Syrian.” But Shehwaro was not just some random Syrian with an axe to grind; she was a frontline Western-funded regime change lobbyist who has been based on the Turkey-Syrian border for years, working hand-in-glove with the opposition.
Shehwaro appears in leaked audio during a 2016 meeting she and fellow opposition figures held with then-Secretary of State John Kerry. She can be heard badgering Kerry for his failure to authorize a US military assault on Syria, and rejecting his call for an internationally-monitored election in the country.
“So you think the only solution is for someone to come in and get rid of Assad?” a clearly stunned Kerry asked Shehwaro.
“Yes,” she replied. “Yes!”
“Who’s that gonna be? Who’s gonna do that?”
“Three years ago, I would say, you,” Shehwaro told the US Secretary of State. “But right now, I don’t know.”
Wilson’s willful omission of the real identity of an influential regime change operative was just a small part of what I consider to be one of the sloppiest, most poorly researched, deceptive and malicious attempts by a mainstream pundit to discredit my factual journalism. And anyone familiar with the relentless attacks on my work and daily attempts to personally denigrate me knows that this intern for empire has strong competition.
So who is Lydia Wilson, and what does she do for a living?
Death row interrogation sessions of captives, brain scans for Islamists
When not pumping out manifestos against writers who challenge the Western foreign policy establishment, Wilson works as a senior fellow for an outfit called Artis International.
“We hope to find out how to persuade people to abandon violent pathways, though I am fast losing faith in that possibility in this part of the world,” Wilson wrote about her research at Artis, apparently blind to the irony in conducting her work alongside the violent architects of the US invasion and occupation of Iraq.
One of Wilson’s most novel research projects took her to a police station in Kirkuk, Iraq in 2015, to conduct “interviews” with ISIS fighters captured by Kurdish pershmerga. Inside a tiny room Wilson described as “cloudy with cigarette smoke and lit by fluorescent strip lighting,” she met her first interview subject: “a boy” with a mask over his face. The youngster was “facing the death penalty,” Wilson acknowledged, and was in the custody of a US proxy known for “summary executions.”
Wilson was joined in the small, smoky room by Scott Atran, a cultural anthropologist who co-founded Artis, and Doug Stone, who Wilson described simply as “a retired American general who spent over two years in Iraq during the US occupation, interviewing prisoners on a daily basis.”
In fact, Stone was personally in command of all detainee operations at Iraq’s Camp Ashraf, the home of the People’s MEK cult, a US regime change proxy, as well as Camp Cropper and Camp Bucca – both centers of abuse and torture that became breeding grounds for ISIS. “[Stone] revolutionized the way we perform detainee operations in Iraq,” former US Centcom Chief Gen. David Petraeus remarked. (See p. 169 in The Management of Savagery for more on Camp Bucca’s role in spawning ISIS).
Wilson’s omission of this critical background is simply stunning, and raises serious questions about the true nature of her work.
Wilson and Atran were accompanied during one of these experiments by Tom Bartlett, a journalist for The Chronicle of Higher Education. After witnessing one of their unusual interviews with a captured ISIS fighter, Bartlett raised some salient questions about the ethics (or lack thereof) of the US researchers: “What does [the captive] know about them? He can see there are four people, three of whom are white. Are they journalists? Do they work for the CIA? Is this an interrogation? It’s not as if he spotted a flier tacked to a bulletin board and decided to give it a go. He didn’t fill out a form agreeing to participate in a survey. Not only was his consent not informed, but in the parlance of human-subject ethics guidelines, it wasn’t even consent.”
Wilson left the experiment with some profound insights: “You can go away with the feeling that everyone hates each other and humans suck as a species,” the budding researcher reflected to Barlett.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Wilson’s employer is partially funded by a Pentagon cut-out called the Minerva Research Initiative that develops “operational tools” to enhance the effectiveness of US counter-insurgency warfare. Artis CEO Richard Davis happens to be the former director of President George W. Bush’s terrorism prevention policy – an enviable title for any post 9/11 counter-terror hustler. He is also the former executive of an energy consulting firm, Davis Energy Inc., that was acquired by Artis.
Davis recently participated in another strange Artis research project, this time conducting fMRI neuroimaging, or brain scans, on members of an Islamist extremist group. The seemingly novel experiment was actually the latest in a line of attempts to decontextualize and depoliticize analysis of violent radicalism, recalling efforts by tough-on-crime zealots in the Richard Nixon administration to predict criminality among junior high schoolers by mandating psychological tests.
The Artis brain scans seemed custom tailored to generate convenient results for a US national security state that has fueled the rise of violent Islamist extremism by covertly training and arming Salafi-jihadist proxies, destabilizing large swaths of the Middle East through regime change wars, and subsidizing Israel’s project of apartheid. In sharp contrast to peer-reviewed academics like Robert Pape, whose research demonstrated the role of military occupation in fueling the destructive impulses of suicide bombers, Artis relied on high-tech phrenology to brand Islamist extremists as a bunch of mentally deficient lunatics. In the process, they helped exonerate the war hawks of Washington.
Wilson’s background makes her a perfect specimen of the foreign policy elites I examined in “The Management of Savagery.” Her work at Artis and elsewhere is dependent on the persistence of an ill-defined “war on terror” that allows the US and its allies to occupy, invade, sanction and bomb the hell out of any global evildoer it sees fit. At the same time, she defends the West’s semi-covert support for right-wing Islamist death squads in Syria and Libya and their “civil society” ancillaries, whitewashing their direct, intimate collaboration with the organization responsible for killing over 3000 Americans on September 11, 2001.
National security state functionaries like her do not care about national security in any genuine sense. For them, the advancement of Western empire is paramount, and they will throw their weight behind virtually any band of contras that can turn up the heat on the “Axis of Evil,” whether they are Wahhabite gunmen in Syria or neo-Nazi stormtroopers in Ukraine.
Wilson is so committed to Western empire, in fact, that her writing has verged into defenses of the long-dead white supremacists that carved up the Arab world during the high colonial Great Game. “To blame the colonialists,” she complained in an attack on journalist Charles Glass’s acclaimed history of the Syrian conflict, “Burning Syria”, “is ultimately to deny responsibility to the people of the Middle East for their own affairs. It is old-fashioned orientalism dressed up in mea culpa garb.”
By Wilson’s logic, any attempt to address the defects of contemporary Arab states in the context of the colonial project that subjugated, exploited, and massacred their populations is, in fact, a classic case of Orientalism. If only Edward Said could return from the grave to assure the world that Sykes and Picot did nothing wrong!
Oddly, the editors of the Times Literary Supplement provided no biographical information about Wilson in the body of the review, leaving readers to assume that she was just some deeply concerned academic expert. This was a case of editorial dereliction of the highest degree.
Indeed, the Times’ decision to assign someone so personally and professionally invested in US empire to review “The Management of Savagery” was the ethical equivalent of renting out the services of an oil industry lobbyist to run a takedown of a book about the perils of climate change.
Every writer makes mistakes, and I’ve labored to correct mine, however cosmetic they might be. Yet when Wilson’s peers in the US and UK national security state reduce once-proud, independent nation-states to ruins, spawning catastrophic refugee outflows, giving rise to literal slave auctions, and inflaming civil conflict that destabilizes entire regions, their failures are almost always rewarded.
Take Samantha Power, one of the central architects of the Libyan disaster and an icon of military humanism who came in for critical treatment in my book. Today, the former US ambassador to the UN is junketing from one elite venue to the next to promote her best-selling memoir about the “education of an idealist.” A rare critic who attempted to confront Power over her disastrous record at one such event was surrounded by security guards and escorted off the premises.
I went to @SamanthaJPower‘s book signing to ask about her justification for the destruction of Libya: “We could hardly expect to have a crystal ball when it came to accurately predicting outcomes”
They called security when I asked if she’d gotten hold of a crystal ball for Syria pic.twitter.com/9sD7RsMCsU
— Wyatt Reed (@wyattreed13) September 14, 2019
This November, Power’s successor at the UN, Nikki Haley, will appear at Politics and Prose, a bookstore in Washington that was pressured by the Syrian regime change lobby into suspending my discussion of The Management of Savagery, ultimately forcing it to host the event at another location due to “security concerns.” Revealingly, those who attempted to censor me have made no attempt to confront the owners of Politics and Prose over their hosting of Haley, even though she personally oversaw one of the world’s worst manmade humanitarian catastrophes in Yemen.
From Washington to London, the mandarins of the national security state rotate between think tanks and halls of power without ever having to grapple with the pain they have inflicted across the globe through their regime change wars. A complaisant corporate media ensures that their sense of inviolability is scarcely ever punctured, and that their most forceful critics are subjected to coordinated smear campaigns branding them as “pro-Kremlin,” Nazis, and drug addicts. And when the wars come home in form of figures like Manchester bomber Salman Abedi – a British jihadist who was dispatched by the MI6 to fight in the Libyan and Syrian proxy wars, then “rescued” by the British Royal Navy before carrying out one of the worst terror attacks in history on British soil – the blowback is neatly swept under the rug.
Like Lydia Wilson, the managers of savagery are bungling failures, but they always fail upwards.
Wilson ended her tirade by claiming that my “arguments can be used by others to legitimize violence against secular and humanitarian actors in a number of theaters of conflict, thus fueling the conflicts themselves.” The allegation would have been laughable if it had not been couched in a full-throated defense of some of the grisliest dirty wars the West has ever waged.
While defending the record of the foreign policy elites who smashed the modern Middle East like a piñata, dooming untold millions in the name of liberal-sounding crusades for democracy promotion and genocide prevention, and carrying out her own research from behind the barrel of a US gun, Wilson still had the gall to accuse me of “legitimiz[ing] violence.”
How can anyone arrive at such an obviously hypocritical conclusion and still take themselves seriously? Perhaps a brain scan is in order.
Pick up a copy of “The Management of Savagery” here and read the book the regime change lobby wants to censor.
Max Blumenthal is an award-winning journalist and the author of several books, including best-selling Republican Gomorrah, Goliath, The Fifty One Day War, and The Management of Savagery. He has produced print articles for an array of publications, many video reports, and several documentaries, including Killing Gaza. Blumenthal founded The Grayzone in 2015 to shine a journalistic light on America’s state of perpetual war and its dangerous domestic repercussions.