Max Blumenthal is nothing if not provocative. When the independent journalist was scheduled to give a book talk earlier this month at Politics and Prose, Washington’s premier book chain, the prospect of a public discussion of his relentless new book, The Management of Savagery, provoked the Syrian-American Council to protest so vociferously that the event was postponed and moved to a different venue.
The Council called Blumenthal an “Assad supporter” and “genocide denier,” epithets often applied to anybody in Washington who has questioned the need for U.S. intervention in Syria over the past seven years.
While Blumenthal gives Assad’s government the benefit of the doubt about a 2014 chemical attack that it does not deserve, his book is no defense of the Assad dictatorship or its brutal war tactics. Blumenthal’s politics would be more accurately described as “anti-anti-Assad.”
The Management of Savagery provokes unusual anger in ever-polite Washington because Blumenthal hammers on a single inconvenient truth avoided by most the political establishment—although not by Donald Trump.
The Syrian civil war began in 2011 during the Arab spring. As Assad cracked down on civilian protesters, Sunni fundamentalists took up arms against Assad’s secular dictatorship, which is dominated by the Alawite sect regarded by the fundamentalists as heretical.
U.S. policymakers, with support from Democrats and Republicans alike, began funneling arms to Syrian militias, allied to al-Qaeda and its offshoots, the same jihadist network that attacked New York and Washington on September 11.
The bankruptcy of this policy, Blumenthal argues with cogent fury and considerable evidence, helped power Trump to the White House.
U.S. support for jihadists in Syria is neither a conspiracy theory nor a “pro-Assad” talking point. Vice President Joe Biden once acknowledged the reality. While talking about Syria at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government in October 2014, Biden said, “Our biggest problem is our allies,” namely Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
“They were so determined to take down Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni–Shia war; what did they do?” Biden asked. “They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad. Except that the people who were being supplied were Al-Nusra and Al Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world.”
Biden had to apologize for his “gaffe,” but no independent observer disputes that America’s allies, led by Saudi Arabia, armed anti-American jihadists in service of overthrowing Assad. In attempting to sell this policy to Congress and the public, U.S. policymakers talked up “the Syrian moderates,” a group that simply did not exist, at least not on the battlefield.
The story barely reached the American public because the CIA’s Syrian supply operation, known as Timber Sycamore, was and is shrouded in official secrecy.
I submitted a FOIA request for Timber Sycamore records earlier this year. The agency replied that it would neither confirm nor deny the existence of the $1 billion operation, whose demise was described in detail by the New York Times in August 2017.
Osama and the CIA
Blumenthal embeds his argument about Syria in the larger context of U.S. intervention in the Muslim world over the past four decades. Ever since the United States and the CIA gave guns and money to the mujahideen fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, it has secretly collaborated with the very terrorists whom Americans fear.
Blumenthal buttresses his case with interviews and revealing quotes from credible sources.
CIA official Vince Cannistraro admitted to Blumenthal that the agency employed Osama bin Laden in its Afghan operations in the 1980s. When the agency needed to complete a crash construction job, Cannistraro turned to bin Laden, who brought in his family’s earthmoving equipment.
“My job was to raise the alarm and if there was an opportunity to do it and I failed to do it, it would be my ‘failure,’ Cannistraro said. “And none of us knew who bin Laden was at the time.”
Yet even when U.S. officials knew full well who bin Laden was, they expressed no regrets. When former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski was asked in a documentary film if he had any second thoughts about U.S support for the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, he waxed indignant.
“Can you imagine what the world would be like today if there was still a Soviet Union?” he asked. “So yes, compared to the Soviet Union, and to its collapse, the Taliban were unimportant.”
In other words, the geopolitical ends justified using jihadist means.
As Blumenthal shows in revealing footnoted vignettes, U.S secret agencies have relied on this modus operandi for decades with consistently disastrous results.
In the 1980s, Blumenthal says, the CIA paid to send Omar Abdel-Rahman, the so-called “Blind Sheikh,” from Egypt to Pakistan. There he became a recruiter for a CIA funded warlord. Blumenthal quotes press reports noting that Abdel-Rahman was allowed to travel to and from the United States multiple times despite having been on a U.S. terrorist watch list.
In 1993, Abdel Rahman and his followers planted a bomb in the parking garage of the World Trade Center tower in New York, killing five people. When he was arrested and brought to trial, his connections with the CIA were kept out of the public record. The sheikh, convicted of plotting the attack, died in prison in 2017.
Blumenthal has many such stories. Salman Abedi, the suicide bomber who killed 22 people at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester England in April 2017 had travelled to Libya, with his jihadist father, courtesy of Britain’s MI5. In the uprising against Col Muammar Qadaffi, the British wanted to put fighters on the battlefield. Salman returned with military skills and brought the war to a pop concert.
Then there’s Iraq. Blumenthal makes the familiar but necessary point that U.S. destruction of Saddam Hussein’s secular dictatorship was a gift to the jihadists.
“Wahhabism is going to spread in the Arab nation and probably faster than anyone expects,” Saddam told a CIA interrogator. “And the reason why is that people view Wahhabism as an idea and a struggle. Iraq will be a battlefield for anyone who wants to carry arms against America. And now there is an actual battlefield for face-to-face confrontation.”
Saddam was all too prescient. Over the next decade, that battlefield spread faster than anyone expected across Iraq into neighboring Syria.
When Al-Qaeda and its Syrian chapter, Al-Nusra turned their guns on Assad’s dictatorship in 2012, the CIA launched Timber Sycamore to funnel weapons to the rebels.
While President Obama resisted intervention, a bipartisan alliance of his own liberal aides supported by the neoconservatives responsible for the Iraq fiasco, pressured him to support the operation, despite its illusory rationale. As CIA director David Petraeus later admitted, “There were no moderates.”
Timber Sycamore was only plausible to a Washington elite invested in the national security consensus that united the doctrines of liberal humanitarianism to neoconservative regime change. For most people without security clearances and think tank positions, the idea of U.S. going to war in another Middle East country seemed crazy, especially when no even pretended there was any vital U.S. interest at stake in Syria.
For Donald Trump, Syria provided a welcome opportunity to distinguish himself from the Washington establishment.
When Jeb Bush boasted of his support for intervention in Syria on behalf of “moderate Islamists” in a November 2015 presidential debate, Trump pounced:
“Assad is a bad guy, but we have no idea about the rebels,” he barked. “I read about the rebels, the moderate rebels, nobody even knows who they are.” Summarizing a conversation with an anonymous military official on the Syrian rebels, Trump said, “We’re giving hundreds of millions of dollars in equipment to these people—we have no idea who they are! … They may be far worse than Assad. Look at Libya, look at Iraq, look at the mess we have after spending trillions of dollars, thousands of lives, wounded warriors all over the place, who I love, all over, we have nothing!”
Three months later, at a February 2016 debate, Trump renewed the attacks. When Jeb Bush charged that Trump was siding with Russia while it was “attacking our team” in Syria, the reality TV star scoffed. “We’re supporting troops and we don’t even know who they are! We have no idea who they are!”
Trump, the bumptious racist, happened to be right. Few Americans knew the U.S and the CIA were supporting Saudi-funded extremists allied with al-Qaeda. The Washington pundits predicted Trump had gone too far. They were wrong. Trump clinched the nomination within a few days.
Blumenthal’s conclusion is hard to dispute.
“The political class had underestimated the depth of antiwar sentiment across middle America, and the depth of visceral hatred average Americans held for the political establishment. After a series of mind-bogglingly pointless interventions that had made legless, armless and otherwise combat-singed veterans a common sight across the country, even the Republican base that had once rallied around Bush’s wars was demonstrating its willingness to take a chance on Trump.”
Of course, Trump’s position was opportunistic. Once in power, he has pursued any policy that suits his whims.
When Syria apparently mounted a chemical weapons attacks against the rebels in April 2017, Trump came under pressure from the national security agencies to retaliate. (Blumenthal suggests the attack was staged by Assad’s opponents, a claim that cannot be confirmed or refuted by the limited evidence.) Trump obliged with a meaningless cruise missile attack. He gained some respect from his generals and reaped a rare round of applause from his critics in the media.
Former intelligence chiefs like John Brennan, Michael Hayden, and James Clapper are understandably disturbed by Trump’s proud ignorance and contempt for the policymaking process, not to mention his dalliances with Russian state agents.
But these national security mandarins have never addressed the issue of whether that the manifest failures of U.S. policies they implemented after 9/11 might have contributed to Trump’s success, lest they undermine their own aspirations for power.
As a result, Trump now has free rein.
In December 2018, the president made good on his campaign promises by ordering the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria. At the same time he stepped up belligerent campaigns of regime change in Iran and Venezuela. In accepting the resignation of his relatively restrained Defense Secretary James Mattis, he turned his foreign policy over to neoconservatives Bolton and Pompeo.
It is no surprise that Trump’s policies are incoherent. But is the president any more incoherent than the CIA officials who did business with Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, failed to prevent 9/11, invaded Iraq on a false pretense, and armed al-Qaeda’s allies in Syria?
Blumenthal’s angry book provokes anger, as well it should. He makes a convincing case that the cynical and failed policies of America’s secretive military-intelligence apparatus helped deliver Trump into the Oval Office.