Samantha Power's brazen hypocrisy: Media swallows propaganda, but here's the truth about Ukraine

The media swallows U.S. propaganda whole. Here's the truth about Ukraine -- and what it shows about American power

Published May 7, 2014 11:00PM (EDT)

  (AP/Chris Usher/Reuters/Kevin Lamarque/Reuters/Eduardo Munoz/Salon)
(AP/Chris Usher/Reuters/Kevin Lamarque/Reuters/Eduardo Munoz/Salon)

Ukraine comes full circle. In six months, a troubled but intact nation is now pulled to pieces. Vasyl Krutov, the general in charge of what the provisional government in Kiev insists on calling its “anti-terror” military campaign in the east and south, acknowledged over the weekend that the country is “essentially at war.”

Ukraine’s elected president, Viktor Yanukovych, had to go in February because of the violence that had erupted in Independence Square, scene of demonstrations since the previous November. We still do not know who was responsible for the shootings used to justify the Yankuovych coup, but we know this: The provos who took his place are now doing the shooting — killing their countrymen, reclassified as terrorists, by the score.

Samantha Power, the most tendentious hypocrite in the Obama administration (and the competition is keen), defends these murderers thusly: “Their response is reasonable, it is proportional, and frankly it is what any one of our countries would have done in the face of this threat,” Power said in the Security Council at the weekend.

Does this remind you of anything? It should. Is this not a replay of the Egyptian catastrophe? An elected leader trying to hold a nation together on its own terms is deposed, what follows is magnitudes worse than anything the deposed leader ever dreamed of, and the army is turned loose on those it is supposed to defend. The Americans, having backed the putschists from the shadows, tell you, “No, that was not a putsch you just watched. It only looked like one. The elected guy was replaced violently by the unelected in the service of a democratic restoration. And there will be another election, under the auspices of the unelected, to confirm all this as best.”

For its speed and sheer wastage, Ukraine’s arriving fate is astonishing. It is a spectacle.

And this is the one good thing about the Ukraine calamity: The anatomy of it is all there, spectacularly. I cannot recall a moment so revelatory. Very little is hidden, even as much was meant to be. Precisely the effort to hide things is in plain sight. Pay attention and there are some things to learn, primarily about ourselves.

I am encouraged in this connection. So far as I can make out, a quite considerable proportion of the paying-attention public now adopts a posture of resistance in the face of official narratives. It suggests an important passage in the late-afternoon hours of America in its (long) phase of imperial pretension.

True, the orthodoxy has rarely been more forcefully or universally pressed than in the Ukraine case. The official line is reproduced incessantly with no deviation moving the needle even a couple of ticks either side of zero. Vladimir Putin has intervened (and never mind that he has demonstrably acted with restraint). Kiev stands for all Ukrainians (a falsehood not even debatable). Those opposed to Kiev are separatists (even as Kiev proposes to separate Ukraine from swaths of its past).

It is everywhere, never more so maybe, but has it ever been flimsier? And beneath the surface, where interesting things always begin, the orthodoxy seems not to play all that persuasively even in Peoria.

It is the clarity of our moment, even amid all the blur, that I am trying to get at. And two things emerge more clearly than any other. Let us look briefly at each.

One is the intent and operation of American policy in the post-Cold War, post-George W. era. This is now nakedly before us, and it is our shared responsibility to see it for what it is.

Here Ukraine takes its place as one thread in a weave. For all the talk of 21st century diplomacy and an adjusted place in a more complex world, Washington remains in the business of eliminating national leaders who decline conformity within the neoliberal order.

I mentioned Ukraine and Egypt. And the comparison holds with regard to the two presidents shoved aside. Yanukovych and Mohammed Morsi had one thing in common. They were both trying to run their nations to reflect the identities of their people. This was their sin. This is what Washington has not yet learned to tolerate.

It is against the rules to recall this, but Yanukovych was a man of the Russian-influenced east trying to negotiate a relationship with Western Europe that would accommodate the complex tendencies evident among Ukraine’s 46 million people. He failed, for reasons previously explored in this space (if not in our media), but his project was the right one.

As to Morsi, same thing. His project was to develop a democratic model in the context of an Islamic-majority nation. The lines between religion and politics are drawn differently in Islamic civilization. So? Again, the endeavor was the right one for Egypt — and therefore the wrong one for the Americans.

One example in the Morsi case. Recall, among his more egregious faults was his effort to clean out the Mubarak-era judiciary. Prima facie evidence of his anti-democratic intentions, we all read. Now, as the old judges sentence 600 to death at a time, we can understand, if we try to. Morsi was right: These guys are savages, anti-democratic by any measure.

As has been so for more than a century, there is near unanimity, across all aisles, on the ambition of American policy abroad. You have liberal Democrats every bit as aggressive as militarist Republicans such as John McCain. Their differences are merely to do with method.

Again, Ukraine is an especially contentious case of what goes on in numerous places. We know there has been CIA involvement in the Yanukovych coup — director John Brennan confirmed this when he visited Kiev a few weeks ago (another failed effort to get it done secretly). But we do not any longer “negotiate with extreme prejudice,” as the spooks used to call assassination plots. (Remember this wonderful euphemism?)

Subversion is cleaner now. Diplomats do a lot of the work. We use NGOs, civil society groups and agencies such as the National Endowment for Democracy. There is more apple pie in it. We invest in social media projects, and who can stand against social media?

For context here, see Venezuela, where the nation-building set has been outed three times in the past year. Or the social-media program in Cuba — not covert, says the State Department (which funded it), but “discreet.” Or similar projects in Afghanistan and Pakistan, two others among the many not so far revealed. Two years ago Putin was condemned when he insisted NGOs funded from abroad register as foreign agents. Remember? When the State Department voiced “deep concern,” he condemned the Americans for “gross interference.” Now you know what he meant.

This is American foreign policy Version 2014: Often disrespectful, often unlawful, purposefully destructive of order, possessing no idea of limits. There is no more Saddam Hussein, and it takes some doing to bring him in for reconsideration, no more Gadhafi, no Morsi, no Yanukovych, there would be no more Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela if Washington had its way. You have to climb over a mountain of prejudice and misinformation to consider what Washington has done wrong in these cases, but it is wrong. The quality of these leaders has nothing to do with it.

“The first casualty of war is truth.” Most journalists, at least of my cohort, know this sentence from the Philip Knightley book "The First Casualty," a history of war correspondents that begins, ironically, in mid-19th century Crimea. Maybe we should be talking about the State Department’s war, not its policy, because the reporting of it has been near to fatally awful.

This is my other point of clarity. The media entered the post-Cold War era in bad shape, having surrendered almost all ground that separates them from power (political, corporate, financial by way of the stock market). But they are now not short of craven.

There have been red-handed cases to match the WMD-in-Iraq bit Judith Miller made infamous: Washington’s role in the Egyptian coup, the gas attack last August in Syria, now the State Department’s provocative manipulations in Ukraine. But beyond these, you find a day-to-day effort to slant and mislead, a grinding, relentless use of vocabulary, juxtaposition, innuendo and other such devices that poisons the news columns.

Again, we have our saving grace. I harbor no illusions: Millions of people read and watch these Washington-generated narratives and believe them. But the forward edge of the phenomenon is how many people no longer do or never have.

We enter a new space, it seems to me — gradually maybe, but we are unmistakably leaving Kansas behind. You cannot conduct a foreign policy indefinitely without a domestic consensus, and 1) there is none now, even in the fearful age of “terror,” and 2) more important, there seems little prospect of one in formation. I take the dissent to be seen and heard around us as a memo from the future.

Neither can you run media successfully when your problem is far greater than the technological change journalists focus upon: the problem that increasing numbers of people do not believe what you say. Media in this phase are by definition on a slide. A great newspaper remains great when, in some little or large way, it builds upon its greatness in every edition. To live on past greatness, consuming it but adding nothing — this is called decline.

Being an exquisitely balanced columnist, I end with mention of a remarkable piece that appeared in the New York Times last Sunday. The big boys and girls running things must have liked it, for they splashed it across four columns, above the fold on “1,” and with a huge photograph. Take a look.

In “Behind the Masks in Ukraine, Many Faces of Rebellion,” C.J. Chivers and Noah Sneider did some superb reporting. They spent many days with anti-Kiev fighters in Slovyansk, the eastern city they now control. They went to the barricades, the checkpoints, the backyard barracks. They sat at the table where Tanya, mother of one of them, gives them dinner. You can practically smell the gun oil these guys clean their weapons with.

But here is the truly remarkable thing. Chivers and Sneider took on the freighted question of just who these fighters are. And they reported back honestly. No Russians among the so-called green men, we now know. They are “ordinary Ukrainians,” to take the two correspondents’ term for the leader. The propaganda term “separatists,” which appears by the blizzard in typical news reports, comes once — when a fighter refutes it as a preposterous description of their intent.

“The rebels of the 12th Company appear to be Ukrainians but, like many in the region, have deep ties to and affinity for Russia,” Chivers and Sneider tell us. “They are veterans of the Soviet, Ukrainian or Russian Armies, and some have families on the other side of the border. Theirs is a tangled mix of identities and loyalties.”

What do these Timesmen describe here? Nothing less than people walking around in their history, nothing more than people who do not want to be ripped from their past like summer weeds at the hands of provos in Kiev manipulated by Americans with agendas (of which the people of Slovyansk appear to be entirely aware).

The piece goes straight against almost all other Times reporting from Ukraine, but sometimes these things happen. The sea of compromised coverage has since flowed back over this story as if Chivers and Sneider had never written it, and this happens more than sometimes.

First editions of "The Book of Laughter and Forgetting" for these two, if ever they come my way. “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting,” Kundera famously wrote in that masterpiece. That is what you heard in Slovyansk, guys.

By Patrick L. Smith

Patrick Smith is Salon’s foreign affairs columnist. A longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, he is also an essayist, critic and editor. His most recent books are “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century” (Yale, 2013) and Somebody Else’s Century: East and West in a Post-Western World (Pantheon, 2010). Follow him @thefloutist. His web site is

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