Manufacturing consent is essential for the projects of imperialism. When the military-industrial complex can’t make the public ignore the wars that go on (as has been accomplished with the largely invisible drone wars and foreign occupations of recent years) there always has to be a propaganda campaign that creates support for the latest invasion.
These campaigns can’t be directed at only one ideological segment of the population, because this would limit the war support that can be created. So war propagandists use cunning tactics to win over not just the stereotypically war-loving crowd of conservatives, but also liberals, progressives, and even self-described anti-capitalist radicals.
During the two times when President Trump struck Syria in response to chemical incidents that Assad was supposedly behind, it was simple to get at least most of Trump’s base to support these actions; the president they were loyal to was behind the strikes, so Trump supporters could easily see the strikes as the right move. But the nature of the war propaganda was different when it was directed at those who didn’t support Trump. According to the neocon “Never Trump” Republicans and the pro-war Democratic Party leaders, the strikes were good decisions that should be supported despite the odiousness of the man who ordered them.
Of course, both of these narratives around the strikes were absurd. Trump had attacked a country without provocation, an act which constitutes a war crime. And there’s still no evidence that Assad had committed the gas attacks he was accused of. But many Democrats were persuaded to meet Trump’s Syria strikes with support instead of condemnation, because the strikes were portrayed up against the backdrop of Russiagate.
The consensus among many pro-war Democrats was that Trump had struck Syria in spite of Trump’s being a puppet of Putin. For example, after the strike during April of last year, the notoriously hawkish “liberal” pundit Bill Maher suggested that Trump had struck Syria to cover up Russia collusion. This made it easy for liberals to conclude that the strikes were essentially a correct move, since they went against the interests of the designated villains Putin and Assad. As a result, a Politico/Morning Consult poll from last April showed that a plurality of 49% of Democrats supported the Syria strike.
This popular liberal view of Syria intervention is unsurprisingly in line with the statements about the issue from the most notorious pro-war Democrat Hillary Clinton, who called for bombing Assad’s air fields hours before the 2017 Syria strike. And it was recently reflected on during the Democratic backlash against Trump’s decision to partially pull out of Syria, a decision which Clinton has denounced.
This strategy for getting Democrats to support intervention in Syria has centered around two very strong propaganda techniques: the manufacturing of an enemy and the pressure to trust the figures behind the propaganda. Putin and his ally Assad are seen as enemies. Hillary Clinton and other Democratic leaders, as well as pro-war “liberal” media outlets like MSNBC and The New York Times, are seen as trustworthy. So perpetuating America’s involvement in Syria, however illegal and deadly this involvement is, can be viewed as good by many liberals.
As the journalist Caitlin Johnstone has observed, the transition towards a pro-war culture within the Democratic Party has been long in the making:
The anti-war Democrat, after Barack Obama was elected on a pro-peace platform in 2008, went into an eight-year hibernation during which they gaslit themselves into ignoring or forgiving their president’s expansion of George W Bush’s wars, aided by a corporate media which marginalized, justified, and often outright ignored Obama’s horrifying military expansionism. Then in 2016 they were forced to gaslight themselves even further to justify their support for a fiendishly hawkish candidate who spearheaded the destruction of Libya, who facilitated the Iraq invasion, who was shockingly hawkish toward Russia, and who cited Henry Kissinger as a personal role model for foreign policy. I recall many online debates with Clinton fans in the lead up to the 2016 election who found themselves arguing that the Iraq invasion wasn’t that bad in order to justify their position.
These dynamics of political loyalty and demonized foreign leaders has been behind the bipartisan rationalizations for all of America’s other recent war efforts, from Obama and Clinton’s “humanitarian” 2011 invasion of Libya to Obama’s “necessary” drone wars to America’s recent campaign of military and economic warfare against Russia. And the lies that our country uses to justify its wars can sway even the most otherwise radical thinkers. As Tom Hall of the World Socialist Website wrote during last April’s debate about Syria, many socialists have recently sided with the U.S. empire’s Syria regime change goal:
In April 2017, when allegations of a chemical weapons attack were used to justify airstrikes against Syria by the Trump administration, the pseudo-left responded first with silence (during the propaganda campaign) and then, following the bombing, with statements promoting the lies of the imperialist powers as good coin and criticizing the Trump administration for not really seeking regime change. Socialist Worker’s Ashley Smith bemoaned that “The U.S. only attacked the one base and didn’t even blow up its runway” and complained that it is “hard to take Trump’s humanitarian pretenses seriously” because until recently “Trump supported some kind of rapprochement with Assad and Russia.”
Hall was drawing attention to a larger trend among ostensibly socialist publications and organizations, from Jacobin to Socialist Alternative to the International Socialist Organization, wherein these self-described socialists insist that the West’s war against Assad is a legitimate “progressive” people’s rebellion and that Assad is guilty of the chemical attacks he’s accused of. Their position comes from sympathy for the “democratic revolution” that Syria’s war supposedly originates from, which they believe is their duty to stand in solidarity with. This has ironically lead to them defending, often very aggressively, the imperialist narratives and operations which ultimately undermine the socialist cause.
The masters of mass manipulation in the CIA, the State Department, and the other factions of the deep state are eager to exploit these kinds of sympathetic feelings towards advancing their toxic narratives. It’s sympathy, in fact, that makes every person vulnerable to war propaganda. As the Caitlin Johnstone has assessed about how propaganda works, particularly the pro-war propaganda around Syria:
The social engineers who manufacture the narratives which are dispensed to the mass media and repeated as fact to unsuspecting audiences rely heavily on the tactic of generating sympathy. Sympathy opens people up and allows narratives to be imbued with the power of belief in a way that bypasses skepticism and critical thinking.
This war propaganda tactic of appealing to sympathy was shown during the fraudulent testimony about murdered babies which was used to start the Persian Gulf War, during the false claims in 2011 about Qaddafi having ordered mass tapes, and most recently during the effort to create support for attacking Syria by showing us pictures of children who’ve been supposedly poisoned by Assad. It’s a very powerful manipulation strategy. And combined with the psychological factors of trusted authority figures and demonized enemies, it gets many people to consent to war.
The ideological flexibility of war propaganda was shown this month, when a Politico/Morning Consult poll found that only 29% of Democrats somewhat or strongly support the recent Syria withdrawal, while 73% of Republicans hold the same view. On the question of whether they support the recent troop reduction in Afghanistan, only 40% of Democrats said that they supported the action while 76% of Republicans say the same. This proves that at least in terms of these issues, Democratic and Republican voters have done a reversal on how they view foreign intervention.
As Glenn Greenwald has observed, these survey results follow two years of Democratic elites making open alliances with neocons, “liberal” outlets like MSNBC being filled with intelligence operatives and former Bush/Cheney officials, and narratives being spread which attack Trump as weak or “treasonous” for not being sufficiently belligerent towards Russia. The outcome, assesses Greenwald, is not surprising:
All of this has resulted in a new generation of Democrats, politically engaged for the first time as a result of fears over Trump, being inculcated with values of militarism and imperialism, trained to view once-discredited, war-loving neocons such as Bill Kristol, Max Boot, and David Frum, and former CIA and FBI leaders as noble experts and trusted voices of conscience. It’s inevitable that all of these trends would produce a party that is increasingly pro-war and militaristic, and polling data now leaves little doubt that this transformation — which will endure long after Trump is gone — is well under way.
Thankfully, this poll shows that among the overall American population, a large plurality of 49% support the Syria pullout compared to the 33% who oppose it. Trust in the mainstream media is also at an all time low. And not even the onslaught of war propaganda in these last two years has gotten vast numbers of Americans to cease their anger about our paradigm of endless war.
In fact, the frequent dishonesty and generally phony aura of this campaign has made many people more aware of the workings of the war propaganda machine. To grow this anti-war section of the population in the coming years, we’ll need to work to keep exposing the lies of the U.S./NATO empire.