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The Return of the Dangerous ‘Obama Did Nothing’ Narrative on Syria

Washington D.C. (FAIR) – One of great ironies of our over-saturated media environment is that, often, the biggest falsehoods and most transparent acts of political theater enjoy the most widespread acceptance and demonstrate the most stubborn popularity. No matter how improbable, or how much obvious evidence exists to the contrary, once a media narrative becomes embedded into elite conventional wisdom, it can be nearly impossible to dislodge.

Nowhere is there greater potential for a disconnect between what is true and what the press tells us is true than in its coverage of US foreign policy. This week ably demonstrated the fateful consequences of such a disconnect via one of the most dangerous and negligent of these media myths. For years, the press has convinced itself—and, by extension, much of the public—that President Barack Obama refused to intervene in Syria after a ghastly sarin nerve agent attack in 2013 violated his “red line” warning about chemical weapons use to Syrian President Bashar Assad. Slowly but surely, an elaborate alternate universe has been constructed—bolstered by disingenuous Republican rhetoric—that minimized, if not outright disappeared, example after example of Obama actually doing something about the Syrian conflict. But despite the reality, the false conventional wisdom among Beltway politicians, pundits and the press remained: Obama “did nothing.”

Previously, FAIR (9/5/15) documented how this narrative was mere “fantasy” and that, in fact, “the US has been ‘intervening’ in the Syrian civil war, in measurable and significant ways, since at least 2012—most notably by arming, funding and training anti-Assad forces.” The Washington Post (6/12/15) reported that the CIA was spending $1 billion a year, or about 1/15th of the agency’s budget, on efforts to train Syrian rebels; the Pentagon had a separate program that spent another half billion dollars on an almost completely useless rebel-training effort that a Foreign Policy analysis (3/18/16) bluntly called money “wasted.”

Obama’s pillorying by the DC elite was certainly on President Donald Trump’s mind this week when he was likewise confronted with a horrific deadly sarin nerve agent attack on innocent civilians in Idlib, Syria. The US government attributed the attack to the Syrian government, but in Trump’s initial statement about the attack, he made sure to blame his predecessor, explicitly saying Obama “did nothing” about Syria.

Perhaps not surprisingly, resurrecting this zombie lie worked remarkably well among the press. One after another, news organizations swallowed Trump’s obviously untrue spin whole and then regurgitated it back, mostly unchecked, to their audiences. In a typical example, NBC News (4/4/17) simply parroted Trump’s Obama claim with no correction or additional context. Similarly, CNN senior international correspondent Arwa Damon (4/5/17) indulged in this groupthink to fuel her outrage during one segment on the Syrian war. In it, she complained about “the complete inability or lack of desire of any nation to actually do something about it.” Linking to Damon’s reporting, CNN anchor Jake Tapper followed up on Twitter (4/5/17) by asking: “What will it take for the world to intervene in Syria?”

It fell to numerous members of the public and the non-elite media to point out to Tapper the truth that keeps getting lost: that several countries—among them the US, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and Russia—have already been intervening in Syria for years, with untold numbers of military staff and materiel to the tune of billions of dollars. Before last night, the US and its allies—not to mention Russia—had dropped thousands of pounds of military ordnance in Syria to fight ISIS and other extremist groups, far more than the 59 cruise missiles Trump just lobbed at one Syrian Army airfield in one night.

And by the end of the month, the US troop levels in Syria are expected to double—to 2,000—from where it stood when Obama left office. In fact, one could make a very good argument that even before Trump’s missile strike, the Syrian civil war was suffering from far too much foreign intervention, rather than not enough.

That debate, however, seemingly can’t overcome our corporate media’s preference for personality-driven coverage over deeper policy analysis. Rather than detail all this very real intervention in Syria, many US media outlets spent their time this week chasing Trump’s Twitter hypocrisy. Back in 2013, as the debate over striking Syria reached its fever pitch, he sent a series of tweets urging Obama to follow a course of nonintervention—the same course of action that he was now bashing Obama for having followed, and which he himself just ignored.

More distressingly, this lazy hunt for Trump’s hypocrisy (and clicks) became the primary prism for the press’s coverage. It served to crowd out any real examination of how little Trump grasped about the recent history or on-the-ground reality in Syria.

As previously shown, the US was already acting in Syria by then, and would significantly ramp up its funding and training rebel groups soon after. But NPR—along with nearly other news organization—also flushed down the memory hole another key piece of contradictory evidence: the Syrian chemical weapons eradication program that Obama negotiated—with Russian assistance, no less—as a direct result of the Damascus “red line” attack.For example, a New York Times “factcheck” (4/5/17) a day after the Idlib attack spent more than 800 words exclusively focused on this former vs. current president drama, never once checking the actual facts of Trump’s claim that Obama “did nothing” after the first chemical weapons attack in 2013. And once the post-attack analysis pieces began in earnest, this zombie lie only grew stronger. In a story particularly deferential to Trump, NPR (4/5/17) shamefully misled its readers with this unattributed statement (emphasis added): “Obama’s declining to act when Syrian President Assad crossed the ‘red line’ was arguably the low point of Obama’s presidency when it came to his handling of foreign policy.” Again, this is simply not true.

In a way, this isn’t surprising. The corporate media had already developed a sort of collective amnesia even as this program was underway in 2014. When the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) announced in June of that year that 1,300 metric tons of Syria’s chemical weapons had been destroyed—all in the midst of an ongoing civil war—the corporate media here in the US mostly yawned and buried the news (The Nation, 6/25/14).

To be sure, the 2017 Idlib sarin attacks strongly suggest the OPCW campaign didn’t fulfill its promise of ridding Syria of chemical weapons. But this is only a criticism of the program’s overall efficacy, not its actual existence. And while it’s impossible to defend a hypothetical, it is worth pondering what greater atrocities the Syrian people might have suffered with 1,300 metric tons more chemical weapons remaining in the country—to either be used by the government, or captured by the transnational terror groups like ISIS or Al Qaeda that are part of the Syrian battlefield. These important policy implications and questions are instead ignored, because they don’t fit the media’s broader narrative.

A Washington Post op-ed by Jessica Ashooh (4/6/17) presents Obama’s refraining from bombing the Syrian government in 2013 as a cautionary tale about “the human consequences of what happens when the American Atlas shrugs.”

Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of this media myth, however, is how its gross distortion of US intervention in Syria continues to favor unbridled executive power and military action over congressional oversight and diplomacy. Note how this Washington Post story (4/5/17) framed the decision to not strike Syria militarily in 2013:

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, Trump seemed to be sticking to that instinct. His first impulse was to focus blame for the attack on President Barack Obama for threatening, but not executing, military strikes when Assad killed hundreds in a 2013 chemical attack.

Again, no mention of the US’s years-long effort to fund anti-Assad rebels. Or the chemical weapons-eradication program. Or, for that matter, the persistent diplomatic efforts by Obama’s Secretary of State John Kerry to finalize a nationwide ceasefire in Syria last year. But most importantly, the Post not-so-subtly whitewashes how the push to bomb Assad after the 2013 chemical gas attack actually played out.

In the Post’s telling, a feckless Obama unilaterally threatened action, but then quickly lost his nerve. Nowhere is there any mention that Obama first sought authorization for a US military response to Syria from Congress, which by all estimates would have strongly voted to block the military strikes. The emergence of the OPCW chemical weapons deal eventually deflated Congress’s interest in having a public vote.

The Post’s framing betrays how thoroughly the media has normalized an executive-first-and-only approach to US foreign policy. This timid, deferential stance among the press no doubt also emboldened Trump to summarily launch an attack on Syria with zero public debate and the barest of forewarning to Congress, much less seeking the latter’s legislative blessing. (To be fair, Congress’ undue deference to presidential war-making remains an ongoing, bipartisan flaw.)

CNN (4/5/17), too, portrayed Obama as a wishy-washy president who “retreat[ed] from threats of military action,” with no mention of how the branch of government constitutionally authorized to declare war had, for once, basically refused the president permission to do so. To back up the misleading narrative, the CNN story naturally threw in an “Obama did nothing” quote from perpetual war hawk, Sen. John McCain.

Perhaps the most chilling example of the press’s Syria misinformation cocktail came from the Associated Press (4/5/17). Its story, while briefly nodding at the existence of the OPCW program, betrayed a default logic stunningly dismissive of diplomacy in general and anything short of all-out war (emphasis added):

Four years ago, after warning Assad that a chemical attack would cross a red line and trigger US action, Obama failed to follow through. Rather than authorizing military action against Assad in response to a sarin gas attack that killed hundreds outside Damascus, Obama opted instead for a Russia-backed agreement to remove Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles.

That was seen internationally as a major blow to US credibility and, for Obama’s critics, a prime example of weak leadership. Syrian chemical weapons attacks continued after the deal.

To reiterate, according to the AP, Obama “failed” to respond to the 2013 Syrian chemical weapons attack because he took “action” that negotiated a deal to destroy all of said weapons in Syria. This literally makes no sense—unless, of course, your narrative of US foreign policy credibility is mostly invested in a president never having second thoughts, or being second-guessed, about belligerent threats and military bombing that would both end up killing innocent civilians and making it all but impossible to solve the problem at hand. In other words, the corporate media have been trained to comprehend only one kind of “intervention,” the kind where the “military” part is silent but very much implied.

This willful self-delusion among the press is corrosive to our democracy, however. It dilutes the power of both Congress and the public to act as a brake on the president’s power to lead us into war. For a president who monitors his own media portrayals more closely than his national security briefings, the “did nothing” savaging in the press Obama faced was clearly a mistake he was determined not to repeat. So, Trump would “do something,” no matter what it was. And that he did.

The apparent Kabuki show that was Trump’s cruise missile attack on a mostly evacuated Syrian airfield is a perfect example of a dangerous first step down the same slippery slope that eventually led the US into invading another Middle Eastern country under false pretenses. After all, if the press can’t be trusted to honestly report what our past president did not—or, in fact, did—do in Syria, there’s little hope for the press helping the public figure out what our current president should—or should not—do there going forward.


Reed Richardson is a media critic and writer whose work has appeared in The Nation, AlterNet, Harvard University’s Nieman Reports and the textbook Media Ethics (Current Controversies). You can follow him on Twitter at: @reedfrich. This post originally ran on FAIR.org