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The New (Old) War

Chuck Todd, Syria, and the “Objective” View of U.S. Foreign Policy

by JUSTIN DOOLITTLE

Chuck Todd is NBC News’s political director and White House correspondent. He is presented as a straight reporter and analyst, not a commentator with opinions, even though he explicitly opposed prosecuting the torturers and killers of the Bush administration and openly professed to be “outraged” by the IRS “scandal” earlier this year. On Sunday, Todd appeared on The Chris Matthews Show (TCMS) – a truly amazing spectacle of the most trite Beltway chatter imaginable – and the first topic of discussion was the Syrian civil war and the Obama administration’s decision to send arms to rebel forces. What this “objective” correspondent said about the issue was quite revealing.

TCMS is (mercifully) ending its run this summer and its website does not appear to be regularly updated anymore; transcripts and video have not been posted for any episodes since May 19 (if for some reason either becomes available, I will update this post). Fortunately, Jason Linkins of the Huff Post live-blogged all of the Sunday shows, including TCMS, and he did capture the gist of what Todd said, after the latter started off by rightly mentioning that polling clearly indicates that the American public strongly opposes U.S. military involvement in Syria:

“There are a lot of reasons to be involved in Syria,” says Todd, whose involvement in Syria will be occasionally talking about it with dumb pundits between the “White House Soup Of The Day” segment and the pundit discussion on “What the White House soups tell us about the president’s messaging strategy.” Some of those reasons: we are lone superpower, humanitarian stuff, we are the world, cheeseburgers, flags.

“Assad could win,” says Chuck Todd, as if the most likely result of a civil war in Syria should somehow shock us into pantslessness.

Todd immediately throws his pro-war cards on the table, confidently declaring that “there are a lot of reasons to be involved in Syria.” He did not follow this by adding “and there are a lot of reasons not to be involved in Syria.” Viewers can reasonably conclude right off the bat, then, that Todd is, for all intents and purposes, supportive of U.S. military involvement in Syria – after all, he thinks there are “a lot of reasons” for it – and that he has, at least temporarily, dropped his “objective” correspondent shtick in order to convey his apparently pro-intervention views.

Todd then started rambling a bit and tried listing some of the “reasons” to which he referred – I won’t quote him directly until and unless a video or transcript becomes available, but Linkins is correct that he did specifically mention the terms “superpower” and “humanitarian” as representing just two of the whole “lot of reasons” that the U.S. military ought to intervene in a foreign country’s civil war. As Linkins writes, Todd wrapped up his elevator pitch for war by breathlessly warning us that “Assad could win.” Yeah, what’s wrong with everyone, all hesitant about jumping into a civil war in the Middle East and shipping arms to people we know virtually nothing about? Don’t they realize that ASSAD COULD WIN?

What is of interest here is not just that the ostensibly neutral Todd essentially came out in support for military invention, but his stated reasoning. The essence of his admittedly incoherent case was that the U.S. is the “lone superpower” in the world and, as such, it has a responsibility to intervene in Syria on “humanitarian” grounds.

This is a journalist, remember. A journalist who covers the White House. Typically, a journalist who covers the White House would want to spend most of his time questioning the White House and expressing skepticism at virtually everything the White House says that is not directly supported by evidence. Chuck Todd has a different conception of journalism, though. Chuck Todd evidently thinks covering the White House involves implicitly helping the White House make its case for military intervention by agreeing to, and promoting, several crucial premises on which the “humanitarian”/”superpower” case for war must rest.

First of all, no journalist should ever accept or agree to the manifestly dubious proposition that the U.S. government makes military decisions based on “humanitarian” concerns. Not only has that notion been redundantly discredited by history, but virtually every power in modern history has justified every military intervention on the grounds that it was for purely selfless, humanitarian reasons. It is entirely predictable, and thus effectively meaningless. The U.S. government, like all governments, is an amoral actor, and journalists should be the last people to accept the ludicrous notion that the highest officials and planners in the most powerful government on Earth are making decisions based not on perceived self-interest, but rather on the suffering of impoverished people on the other side of the world. This fatally undermines the skeptical, adversarial culture on which all serious journalism must depend. A skeptical approach does not, of course, preclude accepting that U.S. government policies, even military interventions, can theoretically have beneficial humanitarian effects, only that, just as a corporation makes decisions based on maximizing profit, the U.S. government makes decisions based on what aligns with U.S. government interests.

There is a second, rather weird premise that Chuck Todd evidently accepts a priori, namely, that U.S. military involvement (no matter the level) in Syria will, by definition, reduce the violence and alleviate this “humanitarian” crisis. This is an amazingly glib view on what exactly will happen if a Western superpower, despised in the Arab world, with a disastrous military record in the region, intervenes in Syria’s civil war on behalf of an opposition that includes elements the U.S. doesn’t even portend to know or understand (and which might include some genuinely dangerous elements). One need not be a pessimist by nature to understand the very clear and obvious risk that military intervention might, in fact, make the situation even worse.

No one with even a cursory knowledge of the history of allegedly humanitarian interventions would fail to consider the enormous possibility that, instead of facilitating peace, it could cause the situation to spiral even further out of control. Unfortunately, most of the people who can be found discussing this in the corporate media do not appear to have any interest in the messy details of these interventions or what happens after the intervening powers leave (see, for example, the lack of coverage in what has happened in Libya in the wake of Western intervention there), and are usually far more intrigued by “red lines” and other such fatuous nonsense.

One final imperial premise that Chuck Todd has evidently accepted lock, stock, and barrel: the idea that, out of all the countries in the world, the United States is the ideal candidate to intervene in Syria. In all the endless discussion about Syria and whether or not the United States should intervene in some fashion, what never arises is the question of why, exactly, out of all the countries in the world, the U.S. is the only serious candidate for intervention. Indeed, the question of whether or not an intervention is required is seemingly indistinguishable from the question of whether or not the United States should intervene. This is bizarre, considering that the United States is not in the same region (and virtually all of the populations in the region oppose U.S. involvement), possesses little or no understanding about Syrian history or culture, and is intensely disliked by substantial elements of the Syrian population.

Chuck Todd reasons that intervention must be carried out by the U.S. because its the “superpower” – an irrational platitude and non-sequitur that doesn’t even make any sense as anything other than shameless state propaganda. Actually, the U.S. might very well be the worst choice to carry out any kind of an intervention; American involvement in that region will always be toxic and will always produce blowback and unanticipated consequences on a unique scale. However, among the courtier press, the imperial mindset runs so deep that these questions usually don’t even arise. No one in polite circles dares to suggest that, yes, an intervention might be necessary, but that it should not be carried out by the U.S., and – gasp – the ideal choice might not be some beloved U.S. ally, either. That’s because it’s our world. Everyone else is just living in it.

It’s always interesting when an “objective” Beltway journalist reveals, intentionally or unintentionally, his or her political ideology or position on a high-profile issue, as Chuck Todd has done in expressing his support for military intervention in Syria. But what is often more interesting is the reasoning given. Chuck Todd just swallows whole the imperial assumptions that have formed the framework of what passes for foreign policy “debate” in this country for decades: we have the unique right to intervene anywhere in the world; we’re always the ideal choice to intervene; when we do intervene it’s invariably for selfless and humanitarian reasons; the fact that we’re the most powerful state, by some logic, means that we should always be the ones to intervene; and so on. There are many words to describe this kind of worldview, but “objective” is not among them. And there are many words to describe what Chuck Todd is doing, but “journalism” is not among them.

Justin Doolittle writes a political blog called Crimethink. He has an M.A. in public policy from Stony Brook University and a B.A. in political science from Coastal Carolina University.