Washington’s demonization of Foes jumps Shark with Sean Spicer on Hitler

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

White House spokesman Sean Spicer is as ill-suited for his job as his boss Donald Trump is ill-suited for his own. The most astonishing things routinely slip from the lips of both.

But Spicer’s belligerent malapropisms soared to new heights of WTF on Tuesday with his comments about Hitler not gassing his own people.

When Mitt Romney dissed nearly half of Americans (including Vets, retirees and students) as freeloaders addicted to government handouts stolen from the deserving rich like himself, Bill Clinton observed, in words to the effect of “He seems like a nice man and he’s done well in business, but he ought not to be speaking in front of people.”

Spicer and Trump exemplify that principle in the nth degree.

Spicer meant to say that even the German army under the Nationalist Socialists did not use poison gas in its battles at the front. Nazi Germany had gas stockpiles and did use them on its Jewish, Romany, gay and other Nazi-despised populations (its “own people”). Some 6 million Jews alone were gassed. Several reasons have been suggested for the avoidance by the Nazis of gas at the war front; the most plausible is that it was MAD– they thought the Allies also had this weapon in quantities, along with perhaps an advanced biological weapons capability.

These remarks were ineptitude, not “white nationalism” (he is from the mainstream Republican Reince Priebus side of the administration). His father was an insurance agent and his mother administers an East Asian studies Department at Brown. He has an MA in security studies and served in the Naval Reserve as a publicity officer.

Much worse was what Trump himself has said:

But Spicer’s problem was not in misspeaking. He got himself into trouble because he just did what Washington does. He demonized the enemy du jour. And when Washington demonizes, it can’t do it half-heartedly. If the enemy isn’t Genghis Khan building towers of skulls, you might as well go home.

Now Bashar al-Assad is certainly a war criminal. He has used indiscriminate violence against the rebels, killing tens of thousands of civilians. He has also tried to starve resisting populations out. And he has murdered some 10,000 prisoners in their jail cells under torture.

But al-Assad is not Adolf Hitler and the ramshackle remnants of the Baath Party are not Nazism. Al-Assad, a spoiled optometrist with a weak chin who likes Phil Collins songs, had the misfortune to be in power when a revolution broke out against him and his regime. His uncles would have smothered him in his bed with his own lacy pillow had he shown any flexibility, since the al-Assad clan knows exactly what would happen to them in a democratic society. So he had his brother Maher draw up tanks, artillery, and snipers and attack the largely peaceful protesters, driving them to civil war.

It is legitimate to denounce al-Assad for his war crimes. But those tagged as enemies by the US always get the Big Demon treatment, and our fawning corporate media is happy to go along. Al-Assad has to be Hitler himself.

Saudi King Salman doesn’t get compared to Hitler even though his society is a brutal dictatorship and his air force has been bombing Yemeni civilian cities and crucial infrastructure indiscriminately, waging a total war from the air on those living under domination of the North Yemen government (a condominium of Ali Abdullah Saleh’s nationalists and Houthi tribal rebels from the Zaydi sect of Shi’ism). Saudi Arabia’s war has turned Yemen into the world’s second worst humanitarian disaster after Syria itself.

Or there was that time America’s good friend President Sukarno Suharto of Indonesia had about a million leftists genocided in the mid-1960s, with nary a word of condemnation from the Johnson administration. Quite the opposite, Washington was positively delighted and had encouraged some of the carnage. Sukarno has been so non-demonized in American culture that no one knows who he is here. But he was responsible for substantially more loss of innocent noncombatant life than al-Assad has been.

Or from 1950 in South Korea, we have this revelation:

“Grave by mass grave, South Korea is unearthing the skeletons and buried truths of a cold-blooded slaughter from early in the Korean War, when this nation’s U.S.-backed regime killed untold thousands of leftists and hapless peasants in a summer of terror in 1950.

With U.S. military officers sometimes present, and as North Korean invaders pushed down the peninsula, the southern army and police emptied South Korean prisons, lined up detainees and shot them in the head, dumping the bodies into hastily dug trenches. Others were thrown into abandoned mines or into the sea. Women and children were among those killed. Many victims never faced charges or trial.”

The leftists executed on this industrial scale came to at least 100,000 and very possibly 200,000, in the latter case probably about the same number of combined combatants and noncombatants that al-Assad has killed (and the size of the populations, Korea in 1950 and Syria today is about the same). Yet President Rhee Syng-man, not to mention President Truman– not demonized.

In American Propagandaland Ho Chi Minh was not a leftist champion of independence for the long-suffering Vietnamese from a rapacious French imperialism that dominated and looted them for decades. Col. Edward Lansdale, head of covert operations in the U.S. Saigon Military Mission in the early 1950s, tried to scare Vietnamese Catholics by having posters pasted around Hanoi “depicting communists closing a cathedral and forcing people to pray under a picture of Ho Chi Minh.” Ho was not a nationalist. He was a false god seeking to displace the Son of God.

Or there were the Nixon-Kissinger CIA “spoiling operations” against Salvador Allende in Chile in 1970, including funding right wing media in Santiago to smear him.

America’s right wing dictator and monarchical friends are never scrutinized, much less demonized, in the pliant American corporate media, even if they have killed lots and lots of people and even if they have (like Saddam Hussein in the 1980s) used poison gas. But when the US elite has it in for another leader, then they are given horns and a devil’s tail.

It should be possible to be honest about America’s own human rights failings in war abroad. . You understand why the White House spokesman plays these propaganda games. But in a free society, journalists shouldn’t have to go along with them. And we’ll never get a just world unless there is a single rule of law for all, rich states and poor states, powerful states and weak states, us and them.

Bashar al-Assad is just a run of the mill global south war criminal. The US probably can’t do much about him given Russian and Iranian support for him. It may therefore be a little unwise to choose him as the poster boy for regime change, since such propaganda campaigns take on a life of their own.

By the same token, Donald J. Trump is not an angel, and the unilateral military action of one man is incompatible with a rule of law. Trump’s executive orders aimed at massively increasing carbon and other pollution will certainly kill millions. We have a lot of war crimes of our own to investigate and apologize for.


Related video:

The Young Turks: “Sean Spicer: Even Hitler Didn’t Use Chemical Weapons”

18 Responses

  1. A typically on-target and entertainingly written post. Only one correction- Suharto -not Sukarno, the president deposed by the former- carried out the genocide against leftists.

  2. “And we’ll never get a just world unless there is a single rule of law for all, rich states and poor states, powerful states and weak states, us and them.”

    This is cannot be stressed enough. We have eroded international law to such a degree that it matters so little now. Yet, if it were equally and justly enforced on all authorities and states that commit war crimes, the world would be far better than the current anarchy of us deciding arbitrarily which dictators need to go and which dictators we like.

    “Bashar al-Assad is just a run of the mill global south war criminal. The US probably can’t do much about him given Russian and Iranian support for him.”

    I have yet to hear a cogent explanation of how we and our allies would stabilize Syria post-regime change. We bombed Libya to enable the rebels to depose Qaddafi, another war criminal. It did not go well there: what makes us think that regime change will go any better in Syria? Bashar al-Assad is a war criminal, but further eroding international law through bombing the Syrian military is not the solution, but trying him under the auspices of international law is a plausible solution.

    After six plus years of strife, in which Syria has had a quarter of it’s civilian population turn into refugees and another quarter turn into internally displaced persons, that the international community just cannot agree on viable mechanisms to stabilize Syria is immoral. Syrians will continue to suffer as long as we don’t work with the Russians and Iranians to arrive at a diplomatic solution of the ongoing strife in Syria.

    Thank you for this post.

    • Astute observations on Prof. Cole’s superb essay. I get the impression that the US does not much care about the vacuums it leaves in its wake — it just likes breaking nations seen as opponents into tiny pieces of powerlessness and in-fighting. The weaker perceived American enemies are, the more powerful Americans feel. It’s not a sustainable foreign policy, let alone a moral one, but the Pentagon and State dept. are not exactly channeling the better angels of our nature.

  3. Juan, thanks for your comment. It demonstrates by clear-cut, timely example how important to our lives is the academic discipline of history. In the Old Days (2 months ago) it was imperative for the President himself, and certainly people around him, most especially at State,
    to be familiar with basic world and US history, and to
    bring that perspective to their present-day decisions. Now we have the willfully ignorant leading the blind.

    My only quibble would be to call Assad “weak-chinned”- that’s unnecessary. The “frilled pillow” and reference to his brother makes the point. In interviews he is soft-spoken but
    has quiet strength and calmness, seeming undeterred by all the challenges. He may be a psychopath, or more complicated. The family influence on him, and the situation he is caught in, is fascinating: we need to know more about that. He has always seemed a reluctant strong-man.

    • Might be fanciful but I think of Bashar as Michael Corleone. Planning a quiet life but having to take over the family business after the death of an older favored brother and gradually finding out just how ruthless one has to be to keep your clan on top in a world where extortion and murder is commonplace.
      The Godfather to me has always been the transformation of Michael Corleone to a monster and the consequent destruction of his family.

      • It’s interesting how, between very different cultures, The Godfather films resonate. In the US I think we’ve often become socially atomized, and we tend to ignore or minimize the power and absolute necessity of primordial relationships elsewhere.

        In addition to your observations, I’d also note the underlying competence of Michael and how he assumed the responsibility and weight for doing what had to be done, at least by his own lights. We have to question whether Assad is doing what ‘must’ be done, or whether he has (inadvertently?) become a monster, as per Diane Keeton’s indictment of Michael.

        At that point in the film Michael told her he’s just a powerful, responsible guy, like a Senator or Governor; Diane riposted that Senators and Governors don’t have people killed; his retort was to ask who was being naive, which is a fundamental question for us all.

        But as to Syria, was it ever anything other than a family business?

  4. I think his point was that Hitler never used gas warfare on the battlefield, as he conceivably could have, as had been used by both sides in WW I and by Saddam Hussein and Bashir al Assad since. In other words, Hitler did respect some constraints, at least in battle.

    I think that is a valid point.

    • Hydrogen cyanide gas was used in WWI by France, Italy and the United States. Although obsolete militarily, it is listed under Schedule 3 of the Chemical Weapons Convention as a potential weapon which has large-scale industrial uses. IG Farben’s hydrogen cyanide pesticide (brand name Zyklon B) was used in the gas chambers of Nazi death camps.

      Tabun (Ethyl dimethylphosphoramidocyanidate), the first nerve gas, was discovered in 1936 by IG Farben chemist Gerhard Schrader while researching new insecticides. In 1937, Schrader’s Tabun research and IG Farben’s patent application were classified, and the German Army’s Weapons Office (WaA) built a lab to study Tabun and other nerve gases. In 1940, a WaA plant began stockpiling Tabun artillery shells; mass production was ordered for Schrader’s improved Sarin nerve gas, but only pilot production was achieved by war’s end.

      In May 1943, Hitler considered using Tabun on the Russian front in Operation Citadel. He queried Albert Speer on possible Allied retaliation, and was advised by Speer’s Tabun expert Otto Ambros that organophosphate insecticides were no secret to science, and that the Allies had the knowledge and resosurces to greatly outproduce Germany. At this point, according to Ambros, Hitler abruptly left their meeting.

  5. We have a lot of war crimes of our own to investigate and apologize for.

    But won’t because the plutocracy and their puppets in politics and the military-industrial complex believe might makes right and they and the nation are above the law and the rabble supports them.

  6. Juan–I’m surprised that you didn’t include in your article the two Israeli attacks on Gaza. Not only was white phosphorus used but the deaths of thousands of people and the widespread devastation of buildings was carried out with American complicity. In all this comparison-rich Spicer-era commentary, I have not seen mention of the deeply traumatized people of Gaza. No wonder they feel they’ve been forgotten.
    Please consider correcting this imbalance.

  7. You could have added Guatemala to the list of genocidal actions overlooked by the US. Also, the US Army School of the Americas did a good job of turning out officers from Latin American countries into coup leaders and dictators who oppressed their people. Finally, I read this a number of decades ago and I think it was in one of the volumes of S.E. Morrison’s history of the US Navy during WWII. This account showed that the US did have poison gas to use in case the Nazis used it. My recollection is that during one of the invasions of Italy, maybe Anzio, Morrison mentioned that a US supply ship carrying poison gas was hit by fire and poison gas was released as a result.

    • It was at Bari, on 2 December 1943, when a German air raid hit the Liberty ship John Harvey, which had a secret cargo of mustard gas. Details in Wikipedia entry on “Bari”.

  8. When nations develop and produce nuclear, biological and chemical weapons they are ready to use them. Why else would they have these weapons? Our leaders have told us and the world over and over again that everything is on the table, including nuclear weapons to be used against non nuclear nations if needed.
    More civilians are being killed than terrorists and soldiers combined . In Gaza the IDF lost less than 10 soldiers and killed hundreds of Palestinian children and not one word of sorrow from all our leaders, including Hillary and Obama. All I remember is the outrage against Palestinian firing some home made fire crackers which landed in some Israeli fields.
    As a citizen I feel insulted by our so called journalists playing the propaganda game on us together with the lying elected officials.

    We had embedded journalists in Iraq, no journalists on the ground in Falludja, Mosul, Aleppo. I am convinced that most of the casualties are civilians, men, women and children, mostly children and young adults considering how young the populations are. If someone would say 80% or more of the casualties are civilians I would believe it .
    If some 300 000 people have been killed in Syria they would have to be mostly civilian, how many ISIS fighters are there and how many Syrian soldiers? Our military is waging war by air with bombs and missiles, soldiers on computers sitting in FL in charge of drones with hell fire missiles thousands of miles away are doing the killing, mostly civilians including innocent beautiful children, there are no units of thousands of ISIS fighters, they are relative small groups. Not many soldiers, boots on the ground, either. Most likely more refugees drowned at sea than soldiers and terrorists were killed.
    Maybe some day we will find out what really happened when we took the Arab Spring to the ME.

  9. Godwin’s law strikes again. It is why people are always saying that their enemies are worse than Hitler or are literally Hitler or something in this vein. It’s stupid, useless, and pointless as calling people Hitler doesn’t really do anything productive beyond name calling for name calling sake.

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