Ken Pollack: Al Qaeda is a great "catch-all" term

John McCain's sloppy and misleading use of "Al Qaeda" prompts bizarre justifications from Serious Middle East experts.

By Glenn Greenwald

Published April 19, 2008 1:34PM (EDT)

The New York Times today examines John McCain's very Bush-like propensity to run around slapping the "Al Qaeda" label on everyone we're fighting in Iraq, even though . . . it's completely false to describe them that way. The article, needless to say, asks war cheerleader and Extremely Serious Middle East Expert Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution what he thinks about that and he replies with one of the most striking statements in a while:

Some other analysts do not object to Mr. McCain's portraying the insurgency (or multiple insurgencies) in Iraq as that of Al Qaeda. They say he is using a "perfectly reasonable catchall phrase" that, although it may be out of place in an academic setting, is acceptable on the campaign trail, a place that "does not lend itself to long-winded explanations of what we really are facing," said Kenneth M. Pollack, research director at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

Absolutely. Poor John McCain can't be expected to be accurate in describing the identities and goals of all our Enemies while on the campaign trail. That's far too complex to bother the shallow American voter with. So it's "perfectly reasonable" -- that's really the phrase Pollack used -- to just call them all "Al Qaeda," because it's not as though that term packs any sort of emotional punch or is likely to mislead people in thinking about whether we should withdraw. It's just convenient shorthand for "Arabs who think that we shouldn't be occupying Muslim countries" and, notwithstanding the fact that it's completely false, there is no reason whatsoever to object to McCain's efforts to mislead Americans into thinking that Iraqi insurgents are the same people who attacked us on 9/11. They're all just Al Qaeda - so sayeth our Great Middle East scholar Kenneth Pollack.

I'm hesitant to criticize the article because it at least examines McCain's increasingly reckless and exploitative use of the term "Al Qaeda" when defending the war in Iraq. And it also notes that McCain did the same thing with Iran, previously and repeatedly linking the Iranians to "Al Qaeda" only to retract the claim. So that's progress, at least.

Despite those positives, though, the article then minimizes the Iran-Al Qaeda episodes by generously charactering that as McCain's merely being "tripped up" when he "mistakenly said several times that the Iranians were training Qaeda operatives in Iran and sending them back to Iraq." It's unclear how anyone -- particularly given McCain's sloppy, manipulative use of the term "Al Qaeda" when discussing Iraq generally -- could have ruled out that McCain was being purposely misleading in trying to exaggerate the "Iranian threat," a centerpiece of his campaign, by actively linking them to "Al Qaeda." Of course, it's worth noting that NYT Public Editor, Clark Hoyt, previously lambasted the NYT's own Iraq reporters for their indiscriminate, uncritical use of the term "Al Qaeda" when describing various factions in Iraq as well.

Moreover, the article, to its credit, does quote, for once, a genuine war critic: Professor Juan Cole. Cole, however, is identified as a "fierce critic of the war" -- that sounds radical -- while the other two "experts" the article consults (Pollack and Reuel Marc Gerecht of the American Enterprise Institute) are simply identified as think tank experts, even though those two think tanks are the most pro-war, stridently neoconservative organs in the country (as well as being, not coincidentally, two of the top 3 most frequently cited think tanks by our very-liberal-media). Here is the mission statement from Pollack's boss and chief funder at the "Saban Center for Middle East Policy," billionaire Haim Saban:

"I'm a one-issue guy and my issue is Israel". . . . While Mr. Saban is a vocal opponent of President Bush -- "I think Bush is just messing it up every day more" -- he supports some of Mr. Bush's policies. "On the issues of security and terrorism I am a total hawk."

Is it really any wonder that Saban's Ken Pollack thinks it's "perfectly reasonable" to call various sundry Middle East groups -- including Iraqis defending their own country from foreign occupation -- "Al Qaeda" terrorists? To do that is actually called "lying" -- of exactly the type that led us into Iraq in the first place. It's extremely revealing that John McCain does it and Ken Pollack thinks it's a "perfectly reasonable" thing to do.

* * * * *

Several quick book notes: I'll be at the FDL Book Salon today at 5:00 p.m. EST to discuss Great American Hypocrites online. Also, the book event I did earlier this week at Olsson's Bookstore will be broadcast on C-SPAN's Book TV some time within the next few days. I'll post the date and time when it's confirmed. This blogger attended the event and reviewed it here.

And this week, published an excerpt from Great American Hypocrites from the chapter entitled "Tough Guise," which examines our nation's war cheerleaders and the media's twisted equation of war advocacy with "strength" and war opposition with "weakness."

Glenn Greenwald

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