Purging Inconvenient Facts in Coverage of Biden’s ‘First’ Air Attacks

5 March 2021 — FAIR

NBC: Biden orders airstrikes in Syria, retaliating against Iran-backed militias

NBC‘s headline (2/26/21) is more confident than the article it accompanies, which says that “Iranian-backed militias were most likely behind the attack the US said it was “retaliating against.”

When the Biden administration bombed Syria on February 25, the attack killed “at least 22,” most of them members of Iraqi militias, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based monitoring organization opposed to the Syrian government. The US said the bombing was retaliation for three rocket attacks on US bases in Iraq that it claims were carried out by groups allied with Iran (NBC2/25/21). In one of the attacks, rockets fired at Erbil airport killed a military contractor and an Iraqi civilian.

The US does not say that its airstrike on Syria was aimed at the group that carried out the Erbil attack, which, as the New York Times (2/26/21) reported:

was claimed by a previously unknown armed group calling itself the Guardians of the Blood. United States officials said it appeared to be affiliated with one or more of Iraq’s better-known militias, and Thursday’s strikes in Syria targeted facilities belonging to them.

Furthermore, the site that the US bombed in Syria “was not specifically tied to the rocket attacks” (CNN2/25/21).

New York Times (2/25/21) report from Helene Cooper and Eric Schmitt ran with the headline, “US Airstrikes in Syria Target Iran-Backed Militias That Rocketed American Troops in Iraq.” However, the 11th paragraph of the article said that “little is known about” Guardians of the Blood, “including whether it is backed by Iran or related to the organizations that used the facilities the American airstrikes targeted on Thursday.”

Manufactured amnesia

The less clear the US population is about the frequency and scale of murderous violence its government carries out, the easier it is for the US ruling class to go about its wars. Fortunately for the US state, corporate media help manufacture collective amnesia by expunging US aggression from the record.

CNN’s Barbara Starr, Oren Liebermann and Nicole Gaouette (2/25/21) said the February 25 airstrikes “mark the US military’s first known action under President Joe Biden,” while their colleague Fareed Zakaria (GPS, 2/28/21) had a segment about them called “Biden’s First Military Action.” Christian Science Monitor (3/2/21) ran an editorial called “Biden’s First Use of Force Overseas.”

NYT: U.S. Airstrike Kills Top ISIS Leader in Iraq

This New York Times story (1/29/21), less than a month old, was completely forgotten by Pentagon reporters who called the February 25 Syria strike “the US military’s first known action under President Joe Biden” (CNN2/25/21).

Yet not even a month before Biden bombed Syria, the US carried out an airstrike in Iraq that it said killed ISIS commander Jabbar Salman Ali Farhan al-Issawi and nine other ISIS fighters (New York Times1/29/21). Furthermore, Airwars, a nonprofit monitoring group affiliated with the University of London, suspects the US of carrying out or helping to carry out four bombings in Somalia in the period between Biden’s inauguration and the attack on Syria, killing 2–4 people in one case and 6–12 on two other occasions. The US military stopped disclosing its airstrikes in Afghanistan last year, but it is unlikely that military operations in the US’s longest overseas war came to a halt when Biden took office.

Purging inconvenient facts is another way of producing mass forgetfulness and confusion.

Times article (2/26/21) by Ben Hubbard and Jane Arraf said that the US “targeted members of the Iran-backed militia Kataib Hezbollah and an affiliated group, the Guardians of the Blood,” and that Kataib Hezbollah has “repeated calls for the Iraqi government to expel US forces.” Based on this phrasing, readers could be forgiven for concluding that Kataib Hezbollah is the sole source of the demand that the US leave the country, and at no point do the authors mention that the Iraqi parliament voted to oust US forces more than a year ago (NPR1/6/20). Evidently Cooper and Schmitt decided that the presence of US troops in Iraq against the express will of the Iraqi legislature is not relevant context for understanding events that include rocket fire at those troops’ bases.

Flying colors

WaPo: Biden actually has a strategy for the Middle East, not just a Twitter account

Max Boot (Washington Post2/26/21): “So far [Biden] is passing his early tests with flying colors.”

To praise Biden’s killings, corporate media pretended the US was fighting back against a bully. Max Boot of the Washington Post (2/26/21), writing that Biden “is passing his early tests with flying colors” and “is off to an excellent start,” claimed that “if Biden did nothing in response to the latest Iranian provocations, he would have risked sending a message of weakness that would have further emboldened Tehran.” In Boot’s opinion,  “Biden ordered the right response: an airstrike on a Syrian base used by Iranian-backed militias.” He praised Biden for negotiating with Iran while simultaneously “engaging in a policy of active containment and deterrence to curb Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region,” which he characterized as “regional aggression.” (The Times‘ February 26 piece used similar language, writing that the prospect of a new nuclear deal with Iran is overshadowed by “the issue of Iran’s destabilizing activities across the Middle East.”)

Forget for a moment that no evidence has been provided that Iran was actually behind the relevant rocket attacks: Boot apparently doesn’t think he even has to say what “Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region” are, nor where its “regional aggression” takes place, let alone offer any proof for these claims. The US murdered an Iranian general who was revered in his country (FAIR.org, 1/21/20), invaded Iraq and causing the death of upward of 1 million people (Jacobin, 6/19/14), resupplied Israel with weaponry (Al Jazeera7/31/14) as it slaughtered more than 2,000 Palestinians in Gaza, played a central role in a war that has made Yemen home to the world’s worst humanitarian crisis (Middle East Eye11/17/17): For Boot, evidently, nothing on this nonexhaustive list of recent US crimes in the Middle East constitutes “regional aggression” or “destabilizing activities in the region” that need “active containment and deterrence.”

Boot was hardly the only journalist who rationalized the American bombing by portraying the US as acting defensively. The Post‘s Jennifer Rubin (2/28/21) said Biden had “responded forcefully” to “Iranian proxy attacks,” and thereby sent an “important…signal to Iran that the new administration will not look the other way on Tehran’s regional conduct simply to encourage discussion about” Iran’s nuclear power program.

Cooper and Schmitt (New York Times2/25/21) noted that the US dropped “seven 500-pound bombs” on Syria, and described this as Biden taking “a more measured response to the rocket fusillade in Erbil than Mr. Trump’s pitched campaign against Iran and past actions of its proxies in Iraq.”

Set aside the absurdity of calling dropping nearly two tons of bombs “measured”; set aside the lack of evidence of Iranian responsibility for the deaths at Erbil; set aside that the US doesn’t claim that it bombed the parties that fired the rockets that killed the contractor and the Iraqi civilian in Erbil, and assume for the sake of argument that Iran is behind those acts.

If that’s the case, Rubin, Cooper and Schmitt leave readers guessing as to how many people in the United States, or an allied country, the authors believe Iran is permitted to kill as part of a “measured response” to send an “important…signal” to the US that it must lift sanctions on Iran that are “targeting basic foodstuffs [and] lifesaving medicines” (Jadaliyya12/3/19) and killing cancer patients  (Foreign Policy8/14/19). Rubin, Cooper and Schmitt are equally unclear as to what body count Iran may inflict, and how many thousands of pounds of bombs it may use, in a “measured response” to send an “important . . signal” to the American government that it has to stop its Israeli proxy from killing people who are seen as “national hero[es]” in Iran, as Israel did three months ago when it murdered Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh (New York Times11/29/20).

The pretense that the US defended itself by carrying out last week’s airstrikes also necessitates glossing over the fact that the country Washington actually bombed, Syria, is accused of neither sponsoring nor carrying out the rocket attacks on American bases in Iraq that should not be there in the first place. The articles I’ve examined all acknowledge that the US airstrikes hit Syria, but it’s remarkable how little attention they pay to the country, especially considering that the bombing was aimed at groups allied with the Syrian government in that country’s war, so the attack amounts to an intervention on behalf of anti-government forces there. Had the coverage paid more notice to how Biden’s bombing was carried out against a country that the US has helped to decimate (FAIR.org, 3/7/18Electronic Intifada3/16/17), despite Syria not attacking or threatening to attack the US, the narrative that Biden was merely conducting a “response” to bad actors would have been that much more obviously threadbare.

Securing consent for running a lethal, worldwide empire requires unremitting propaganda: Redacting the historical record and playing the victim are two useful strategies.

Gregory Shupak

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