There is the case of Seymour Hersh, the great investigative reporter whose work vaults across the years from the My Lai massacre to the dirty war in Syria. Sy published at The New York Times until he reported and wrote too honestly, too pithily, too–in short–close to the truth. That is Sy’s calling card, writing what he sees and digs up, never mind what editors may think is “fit to print.” The man has sources the rest of the press corps can but dream of.
When he proved too much for our friends on Eighth Avenue, Sy moved to The New Yorker. When he proved too much for The New Yorker, it was professional exile. The London Review of Books published Sy’s stuff for a while—until he proved too much for them. His last big piece, exposing the false-flag gas attack in Syria in April 2017, came out in Welt am Sonntag, the big Berlin Sunday paper. If you wanted to read it in English, you had to get the translation back from German.
“A prophet is not without honor, except in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house,” the Good Shepherd observed two millennia ago. That is from Mark; Luke and John had variant versions of the moment. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Now we have the case of John Mearsheimer, another seer who sees too much for his own people to manage. Mearsheimer does a lot of his talking to the Europeans these days. Last week L’Express, the Paris weekly, published a long interview with him. It is full of insights you will never read this side of the Atlantic, regrettably.
Can you get any more distinguished than the University of Chicago professor and acknowledged dean of the realist school of American foreign policy—“the pope,” as L’Express puts it? Mearsheimer is conservative in temperament but not always in outlook, having favored Bernie Sanders as the Democratic candidate for the 2020 election. But, again, he prefers to tell it like it is rather than telling it like the mavens of orthodoxy insist it is—a different thing, almost always.
The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (Norton, 2001) and Why Leaders Lie: The Truth About Lying in International Politics (Oxford, 2011) are classics in the international relations game. The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (FSG, 2007), co-authored with Stephen Walt, was predictably controversial, as any book on this topic is bound to be in America, but among the level-headed it is considered a tour de force.
Then came the U.S.–cultivated coup in Ukraine on February 21, 2014. You knew there was going to be trouble when the fog machine immediately began insisting Washington had nothing to do with it, great hills of evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. Mearsheimer doesn’t do fog. That autumn he published in Foreign Af airs, “Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault: The Liberal Delusions That Provoked Putin.” The piece turned many heads, mine included—for what it said and where it appeared.
So did Professor Mearsheimer set out on the long trans–Atlantic voyage to the pages of L’Express.
You can still find his name in the mainstream dailies and magazines—but rarely as a byline. It almost always appears in pieces intent on taking him down. Here is Ross Douthat, the Times columnist who often seems to me to spread himself too thin to be of any interest, attempting, shortly after the Russian intervention in Ukraine, to discredit Mearsheimer’s analysis of who bears responsibility:
“But now that Ukraine is, in fact, being wrecked by a Russian invasion, there’s a widespread view that his realist worldview lies in ruins too—that Mearsheimer has ‘lost his reputation and credibility’ (to quote the Portuguese thinker Bruno Maçães) and that the realist conception of nations as ‘pieces in a game of Risk’ with ‘eternal interests or permanent geopolitical orientations, fixed motivations or predictable goals’ (to quote Anne Applebaum of The Atlantic) should be discarded on the evidence of Vladimir Putin’s invasion and the Ukrainian response.”
What codswallop, as the Brits put it. Anyone who quotes the unbalanced Applebaum on any topic having to do with Russia loses my trust straight off the top. Know this, readers, for what it is: This is a stealth attempt to remove politics and history from our understanding of events in favor of the Biden regime’s “democrats vs. authoritarians” ideological binary. As to that widespread view of Mearsheimer’s downfall, it is wishful thinking and no more among the Russophobic orthodox who propose airbrushing NATO expansion out of the Ukraine picture.
Here are snippets from the interview in L’Express. I have here and there touched up a machine translation:
“Mearsheimer: According to the established view in Western countries, this war was provoked by the imperialist ambitions of Vladimir Putin…. But there is no solid argument to support this thesis. On the other hand, there is no lack of evidence that what started this war was the West’s desire to make Ukraine a bulwark on the Russian border. Russia perceived this as an existential threat, which therefore had to be eliminated.
“The Western strategy was based on three elements: first, to make this country a liberal democracy… second, to incorporate Ukraine into the European Union, and finally, and this is the most serious from Moscow`s point of view, to include Ukraine in NATO. This accession is absolutely unacceptable to the Russians. They did everything to reach an agreement excluding this possibility. But the United States refused to negotiate with Russia. The result is that Putin opted for war in order to solve this problem.
“L’Express: But don’t the Ukrainians, who are part of a sovereign state, have the right to choose their own destiny, by wanting to be a liberal democracy?
“Mearsheimer: This desire is of course justified. The problem is that Ukraine does not simply want to become a liberal democracy, but a pro–Western democracy destined to be integrated into the European Union and into NATO. In Russia`s eyes, that makes her an adversary. Without promises of membership in NATO and the European Union, a democratic Ukraine would not have been a problem for Putin.
“L’Express: Your theory assumes that Russia is acting rationally. According to you, any Russian president, in a similar situation, would have acted in the same way. But hasn’t Putin, over the past few months, fallen into irrationality?
“Mearsheimer: Putin is rational. The decision to invade Ukraine on February 24 was rational. Arguably, this was a bad decision, and that Putin should have pursued diplomacy rather than resorting to force. But he decided that military force was the solution. Time will tell if he was right to do so.”
A corollary point here. L’Express is as centrist as it gets in French journalism. Running Mearsheimer at this length suggests compellingly that his perspective on the Ukraine crisis, and his advocacy for a diplomatic settlement, enjoy far more support in Europe than the American press is inclined to report.
I do not accept John Mearsheimer’s views on all foreign policy questions. He has China all wrong, in my view. But it is the clarity and balance evident in the above passages that are tragically missing from American discourse. Tragically: It is because thinkers such as Mearsheimer (and reporters such as Sy Hersh) are to be heard abroad but not at home that Americans are left in a state of near-darkness as to what is going on in the world and America’s true role in events.
We cannot afford this. We cannot afford a delinquent press. Ignorance never works out to advantage.
The Math in the Moon
Carlotta Gall, The Times’s Istanbul bureau chief and now reporting from Ukraine, had a revealing piece over the weekend datelined Chasiv Yar. Chasiv Yar is a village in Donetsk province, the new front in the Russian intervention. Gall reported it suffered the deadliest of many attacks in the region, most of which seemed “random and without purpose.” To be noted straightaway: Senseless Russian attacks on civilians is the running theme in the major American dailies these days.
“At least 15 people were reported dead,” Gall reported from the scene of an apartment complex that Russian rockets hit. Read this sentence again. Now you know why I never trust the passive voice. Who reported this, if we may know?
Further into Gall’s piece, we read that roughly 10 civilians were in the building, most of them older women. There was one woman whose grandson tried to persuade her to leave but she refused and appeared to be among the fatalities.
Now it gets interesting. Apart from the 10 civilians, “members of the military had come to lodge there two days earlier,” Gall reported. As Gall’s piece went into The Times’s “Live Update” mode, the number of retrieved dead came to 24; two dozen people were still missing and eight had been rescued.
Lots of numbers. What do they tell us?
The Moon of Alabama, a prize-winning website published in Germany (and named after a famous Brecht song) that has excellent sources and a 15-year record of sound analyses of these kinds of things, did the math for us, and deserves full credit for it. “That makes for a total of 56 people hit by the strike of which possibly 10 were the resident pensioners,” MoA writes. “The other 46, then, were ‘members of the military [who] had come to lodge there two days earlier.’”
On Monday, good old Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty upped the casualty count at the Chasiv Yar apartment block to 31. The minimum of 46 Ukrainian troops reported dead over the weekend now goes to a minimum of 53.
What happened, then, at the apartment block in Chasiv Yar?
By Gall’s account, some soldiers moved in. This appears a radical understatement, to the point it misleads us, for two reasons. One, the grandson must have had a good reason to urge Grandma out of her home—not something I ever asked my grandma to do. Two, by simple arithmetic, there were a minimum of 50 or so soldiers in the building at the time of the rocket attack, with 24 still missing and eight rescued. “Military vests and rucksacks and a broken rifle covered with dust lay on the ground under the trees,” Gall writes in a telling detail.
Let me suggest what happened since Ms. Carlotta Gall is not inclined to tell us directly. These soldiers were not, I will say with brash confidence, visiting their grandmothers.
Ukrainian forces appear to have occupied the building and cleared it of all but the most recalcitrant residents. They made it, in short, a base of operations. This no longer looks like a random, purposeless attack on civilians, does it? For its part, the Russian Defense Ministry reported that it deployed high-precision rockets against the “temporary deployment point of 118th Brigade of Territorial Defence of AFU.” AFU is the armed forces of Ukraine.
There are wider implications here. If the above reckoning is correct, the Chasiv Yar incident matches rather precisely the accounts of correspondents elsewhere in Ukraine who are not reliant on Ukrainian sources for their reporting. The maternity hospital in Mariupol, the theater elsewhere in the city, the nursing home: These are among the locations marked down as Russian atrocities in Western news reports. Alternative accounts, rendered well before the Chasiv Yar incident, described Ukrainian troops forcing people out of these institutions, or in some cases holding them captive for use as shields, as they occupy these buildings as none other than “temporary deployment points.”
Carlotta Gall ought to know better, given her bloodlines. She is the daughter of Sandy Gall, one of those gritty British correspondents who came of age covering World War II and went on to Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and various other conflicts. But she doesn’t seem to. I do not single out Gall’s piece as an exceptional case but as altogether typical of the delinquencies we find in the Western media’s daily reports from Ukraine.
There appears to have been no authentically independent correspondents on the scene in Chasiv Yar. In other cases, those who keep official Ukrainian accounts of events in their proper place go to the locations of these events, interview and photograph victimized civilians, and come away with accounts very often perpendicular to Western press reports of Russian savagery. Alas, there are too few correspondents of this kind on the ground, leaving careful readers to chicken-scratch for the truth as I have done here.
There is one other aspect of Gall’s report that deserves scrutiny. The Washington Post also filed from Chasiv Yar. So did wire-service reporters from Reuters and The Associated Press. This suggests these correspondents are on officially conducted tours—in essence embedded—and seeing only what Ukrainian officials want them to see. This is the sort of thing that happens when the North Koreans let correspondents in on restricted visas.
There are two ways at this for the correspondent of integrity. Either you state prominently in your file the nature of the ruse and do the best you can, or you decline to participate. Let me add a third, actually: You break the rules whenever this alternative becomes available and see what you are not supposed to see.
Nobody reporting Ukraine for the Western press is breaking any rules—either as they report or in what they file. It absolutely galls me, if you will excuse the expression, that we must read The Times and the other major dailies in this manner. You can wring the truth out of them with effort, though often this is impossible. And the truth here is they are not telling us the truth as they purport to report Ukraine.
Patrick Lawrence, a correspondent abroad for many years, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune, is a media critic, essayist, author and lecturer. His most recent book is Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century. Follow him on Twitter @thefloutist. His web site is Patrick Lawrence. Support his work via his Patreon site. AUTHOR SITE
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