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PBS “Frontline”: Missing Major Points on Obama, ISIS

Here are three major points PBS Frontline’s Tuesday, May 26 airing of “Obama at War” seemed to miss, or ignore:

  1. The pervading attitude of American Exceptionalism deriving from both the Obama Administration as well as the New York Times reporters interviewed during the broadcast.

President Barack Obama

Throughout the hour-long production, administration officials like former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford and NYT’s Peter Baker and Mark Mazzetti seemed to simply accept the idea that the United States must go to war against brutal dictators – in this case Bashar al-Assad of Syria – if the world is going to be made right.

None of the administration, those press members, nor did Frontline producer/writer Martin Smith seem to consider that other options might exist such as (a) taking the brutal Syrian civil war atrocities to the United Nations or (b) the U.S. going to Syria’s major supporters, cited as Russia and Iran, to try and negotiate with Assad through them. NYT’s Baker even referred to Russia and Iran’s leaders as “the guys we trust the least”. It’s dangerous anytime a journalist unites himself with a government and says “we”.

But guess what: President Obama painted himself in a corner by publicly saying if Assad used chemical weapons, that would be crossing the line, meaning the U.S. would use a military response. But when the public learned Assad had used sarin gas on Syrians, including women and children, Obama began looking for a way out. He got it. Russia and its guy “we trust the least” got Assad to agree to remove his chemical weapons. And, although the Frontline report didn’t mention who removed them, the filmed scene of them leaving showed they were carried in trucks marked “UN”. Yep, the United Nations.

  1. In talking about Obama deliberating how to avoid a Syrian invasion, NYT’s Baker said Obama circled the White House rose garden several times with his chief of staff and “came up with an idea”: he’d go to Congress and ask to invade.

What a concept! The president actually thought of following the U.S. Constitution and seeking permission from the only body with the Constitutional power to declare war. Only Baker didn’t mention that. He made it sound like a novel idea, adding that Obama’s staff was appalled at the suggestion because it would damage his political power.

  1. The report basically stated that the U.S. lack of action in invading Syria led to ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) taking its place as the major opponent to Assad. Frontline’s Smith made the point early in the program that ISIS was able to grow and become a force due to funding from rich Sunnis in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar.

What Smith didn’t educate the viewers to: ISIS military leaders are former Ba’athist officers who served Saddam Hussein when he controlled Iraq. They are Sunnis who the Shia-led Iraqi government has tried to quell, but hasn’t been able to. In other words, they are products of the U.S. failed invasion of Iraq.

Finally, near the end of the Frontline broadcast, we hear the view from a former military officer and author who basically says we haven’t learned from our constant invasions in the Middle East. The reality is, we DO seem to be exceptional there. The common phrase for this: To repeat the same actions over and over and expect different results is insanity.

The report also made three other points, as the president likes to say, “very clear”:


General Martin Dempsey

First, Syria has been torn apart, with hundreds of thousands of citizens dying and thousands fleeing as refugees; and the Assad regime has constantly bombarded and destroyed its own country’s cities with planes, artillery, and the alleged continued use of chemical weapons, this time chlorine.

Second, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey has continually gone about doing his duty, preparing the military for whatever force the Administration might order. But, when asked, he admitted that the U.S. was surprised and had no contingency plan to deal with ISIS in 2013 when it took Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. Dempsey, of course, didn’t say it (nor did the report), but he’s in an untenable situation: he’s tried to prepare the military if it must go to war, while dealing with an unsure administration and a public opposed to wasting more American lives and money in wars they cannot win.

Third, the U.S. neocons seem to be continuing to spread the Middle East quagmire that President George H.W. Bush feared stumbling into in 1991. That made him avoid invading Baghdad, even after he had chased Saddam out of the Kuwait oilfields and stopped inside southern Iraq at the Euphrates River. An obviously wise move on his part, seeing what happened when his son decided to invade.

You can view the Frontline report here.

Roger Armbrust

Roger Armbrust's articles and columns have covered labor and management, Congressional legislation, and federal court cases, including appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court. He formerly served as national news editor of Back Stage in New York City, where he also taught a professional writing course at New York University. His recent book of sonnets -- oh, touch me there: Love Sonnets -- is available from Amazon and other book sites. He is an associate curator of The Clyde Fitch Report. He is also co-founder and co-curator of reality: a world of views.

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1 Response

  1. Carole A. says:

    at last, finally a political analysis I can agree with.

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