Deleting Crimes at the New York Times: Airbrushing History at the Paper of Record

I never cease to be fascinated by the breathtaking ease with which the “liberal” New York Times and other major U.S. media outlets airbrush out of history the disastrous and criminal role Uncle Sam has played and continues to play in the world.

Take last Wednesday’s Times. On the first page and above the fold there appears a story that notes with understated horror the recent state-building successes of Islamic State (IS). The IS, Times reporter Tim Arango writes, “uses terror to force obedience and frighten enemies.” It is “transforming into a functioning state that uses extreme violence – terror – as a tool.” It is “providing relative stability in a region troubled by war and chaos while filling a vacuum left by failing and corrupt government that also employed violence – arrest, torture, and detention.” And, Arango learned from “a small but growing group of experts” who are “challenging the conventional notion [holding that the IS’s] evil ensures it eventual destruction.” One of these “experts” is John McLaughlin, deputy director of George W. Bush’s Central Intelligence Agency from 2000 to 2004. “Evil,” McLaughlin told Arango, “isn’t always defeated.”

Two pages later and below the fold Times readers learn that a Chilean judge has recently ordered the arrest of seven former Chilean military officers in the savagely horrific 1986 killing of a 19-year old U.S. student named Rodrigo Rojas. In early July of that year, Rojas and an engineering student, Carmen Gloria Quintana, were captured by a military patrol while photographing a national strike against Chile’s then ruling right wing military dictatorship. Chilean soldiers beat Rojas and Quintana badly, doused them with gasoline, and then set them on fire. The students’ charred bodies were dumped in a ditch on the outskirts of Santiago, Chile’s capital. Quintana survived, badly disfigured. Rojas died. According to the Times, “The killing strained relations with the Reagan administration, at a time when it was beginning to press the [Chilean] regime for democratization.”

Notice the complete absence of any attention to the U.S. role in creating both of these stories. As no Times news article would ever acknowledge, the abominable fundamentalist Sunni-Salafist IS – with its horrifying snuff films, its genocidal practices towards Shiite Muslims, Christians, and “polytheists,” and its arch-reactionary social codes imposed through whippings, limb-chopping, beheadings, stoning, eye-gouging, the shooting of children for minor infractions, and its sexual enslavement of women – is, among other things, a predictable “blowback” consequence of the brazenly criminal, mass-murderous United States invasion and occupation of Iraq between March of 2003 and 2011. “Had the United States and its satellites not initiated their war of aggression in Iraq in 2003,” John Pilger has noted, “almost a million people would be alive today; and Islamic State, or ISIS, would not have us in thrall to its savagery.”

Quite so. The IS, a spin off and mutation of al Qaeda, is very much “the child of war.” As the brilliant British foreign correspondent Patrick Cockburn notes, “the movement’s toxic but potent mix of extreme religious beliefs and military skill is the outcome of the war in Iraq since the U.S. invasion of 2003 and the war in Syria since 2011.” The first war collapsed Iraq state authority and took the lid off the nation’s fierce ethno-religious and sectarian divisions. The US fueled those divisions and Sunni uprisings against the corrupt and sectarian Shia government it set up in Baghdad. It produced droves of martyrs killed by US “Crusaders” in places like Fallujah, a Sunni city the US Marines targeted for near destruction (replete with the bombing of hospitals and the use of radioactive ordnance that created an epidemic of child cancer and leukemia) in 2004 – a town IS took over last year.

But just as the sectarian war that fed IS’s emergence was retreating in Iraq, it was reignited when al Qaeda in Iraq, the predecessor to IS, found new soil in which to blossom in neighboring Syria. The US, Europe, and their Middle Eastern allies (Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates) kept a vicious civil war going against Syria’s Assad regime going though it was clear from 2012 on that Assad was not going to fall anytime soon. The US-sponsored war in Syria became the fertile, blood-soaked breeding ground for IS’s expansion on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border, something the crooked and incompetent US-backed government in Baghdad was powerless to prevent.

Other recent US policies have fed the extraordinary growth of extreme jihadism modeled on al Qaeda and IS. The US-led NATO bombing of Libya in 2011 helped turn that country into a breeding ground for IS and related jihadist movements. Thanks in no small part to Obama’s deadly drone, bomb, and other attacks around the Muslim world (the recipient of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize has bombed at least seven Muslim countries so far), the US has helped advance civil war and Sunni, al Qaeda- and IS-inspired jihad across the Middle East and North Africa. Washington has generated an expansion of Salafist terror and extremism beyond the wildest dreams of Osama bin-Laden, who was irrelevantly killed by Obama’s beloved Special Forces in May of 2011.

In reality, though, the United States’ complicity (along with its fellow state-terrorist satellites and allies) in the rise of IS, goes back at least to the late Cold War era. As Cockburn notes in his indispensable book The Rise of the Islamic State; ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution (Verso, 2015), the key moment for the rise of political Sunni jihad was 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and the Iranian revolution turned Iran into a Shia theocracy. In the summer of 1979, the Jimmy Carter White House secretly granted massive military support to fundamentalist tribal groups known as the mujahidin, direct forebears of al-Qaeda and ISIS.  During the 1980s, a critical and remarkably durable partnership was formed between the United States, Wahhabist Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan’s military and intelligence services. This alliance has been a leading prop of US power in the Middle East. It has also “provided a seed plot for jihadist movements, out of which Osama bin-Laden’s al-Qaeda was originally only one strain” (Cockburn, The Rise, p. 100).

Among the many fundamentalist Sunnis recruited to fight in Afghanistan by the CIA and Pakistan’s intelligence agency (the ISI) was none other than bin-Laden. A son of the Saudi elite, bin-Laden was the architect of the 9/11/2001 jetliner attacks, a predictable “blowback” from the United States’ longstanding mass-murderous actions and presence (Google up “Highway of Death” and “Iraqi children killed by US economic sanctions”) in the Arab and Muslim worlds. The al Qaeda attacks on the US “homeland” gave the George W. Bush administration cover and false pretext for the invasion that ironically brought jihadist Sunni rebellion and ultimately IS to Iraq (where al Qaeda had no real presence under Saddam). By Cockburn’s expert account, “The shock of 9/11provided a Pearl Harbor moment in the U.S. when public revulsion and fear could be manipulated to implement a preexisting neoconservative agenda by targeting Saddam Hussein and invading Iraq. A reason for waterboarding al Qaeda suspects was to extract confessions implicating Iraq rather than Saudi Arabia in the attacks” (“bad information” was precisely the point of the torture).

The full history of the United States’ role in the creation of IS goes back further. Since the dawn of the Cold War, the United States has lent its considerable power to the defeat of left and secular nationalism across the Middle East.  As Left Middle East expert Gilbert Achcar noted nine years ago, “when Arab nationalism, Nasserism and similar trends began to crumble [under US pressure] in the 1970s, most governments used Islamic fundamentalism [with US encouragement and assistance] as a tool to counter whatever remnants there were of the left or of secular nationalism.” Along with this came “the neoliberal turn of the last quarter century” – the spread of alienating capitalist and commercial forces and values. “Neoliberal globalization,” Achcar explained, “has brought about the disintegration of the social fabric and of social safety nets.”  This led to widespread social disarray and anxiety, fueling “violent assertions of ‘identity,’ extremism or fanaticism….religious [and/] or political…”

It was an example of what Achcar rightly called “the classic tale of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” Washington “let some kind of genie out of the bottle, but they can’t control it and, after a while, it turns against them.” Further: “The combination of their own repression of progressive or secular ideologies and the subjective failure – the bankruptcy of these ideologies, aggravated by the collapse of the Soviet Union – left the ground open to the only the ideological channel of anti-Western protest available, which was Islamic fundamentalism” – itself long “tolerated and even used and encouraged by the local regimes and by the United States.”

None of this significant history makes it into the “mainstream” US media and politics culture. That makes it impossible for anyone who relies on that culture for information on world events to respond to the rise of IS with anything but clueless surprise and astonished horror of the kind that supports yet more of the very imperial US policy that has done so much to create the terrible mess.

As for the second story in last Wednesday’s Times, the reporter failed to note that the vicious Pinochet dictatorship took power in a US.-supported and US-assisted coup nearly thirteen years before some of its henchmen beat and burned Rodrigo Rojas and Carmen Gloria Quintana. The fascist Pinochet regime killed many thousands of Chileans with the active support of Washington, which backed, trained, and funded the right-wing murder and repression of students, workers, peasants, and intellectuals across Latin America during the 1970s and 1980s as during earlier decades. The killing started on September 11, 1973 – Latin America’s 9/11 – when the Chilean military murdered the nation’s democratically elected and moderately Marxist president Salvador Allende and initiated a long campaign of mass torture and execution that continued well into the Reagan years. Among the Pinochet regime’s many atrocities, one even in occurred in the U.S. national capital. In 1976 a Chilean hit squad assassinated exiled diplomat Orlando Letelier in Washington.

The beatings and burnings of Rojas and Quintana may (or may not) have “strained [Chile’s] relations with the Reagan administration.” But more than a year after the atrocity, the U.S. delegation to the United Nations General Assembly voted alongside Chile, Paraguay, Indonesia and Lebanon against a resolution condemning Chile’s violations of human rights. Ninety-four nations voted in favor of the resolution, including every one of Washington’s allies and all the democracies of Latin America. The co-sponsors included Mexico, Italy, France, Spain, Denmark and the Netherlands. The United Kingdom spoke on behalf of the European Community in favor of the resolution. Still, the US defied this wide consensus and voted with Pinochet.

Last year, the Guardian reported that the Reagan administration was so worried that leftwing protests against Pinochet in 1986 (the year Rojas was killed) would overthrow the regime that it considered offering asylum to the Chilean dictator. “Documents recently discovered in US archives,” the Guardian noted, “reveal that a mission headed by US army general John Galvin went to Chile in 1986 to assess the growing street protest and guerrilla efforts to upend the unpopular Pinochet regime…As the US began to understand the depth and passion of the opposition, fears of civil war forced Reagan officials to look for alternatives including, as one document stated, ‘An honorable departure for President [Pinochet], who would be received as a guest of our [US] government.’”

This is all precisely the kind of difficult, criminal, and imperial historical context that you can count on not being considered part of “all the news that’s fit to print” in the United States “national newspaper of record,” the New York Times.

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).