At War With ‘Obama at War’

Posted by Michael Getler on

On May 26, PBS’ flagship investigative series Frontline presented a one-hour program titled “Obama at War” in which, as Frontline describes it: “Veteran Frontline filmmaker Martin Smith goes inside the Obama administration's struggle to deal with ISIS and the deadly civil war in Syria. With interviews from key military and diplomatic leaders, Obama at War examines the hard choices facing the president as he tries to defeat the Islamic State without dragging America into a prolonged regional conflict.”

That’s a pretty good description of what the program set out to do and also a pretty good description of what, for a while now, seems like mission impossible for the administration.

I should state at the outset—as I have done many times before when writing about Frontline—that as a viewer and a journalist, and long before I took on this ombudsman’s position, I have been a fan of this program. I think it is consistently the best and most important investigative series on television, especially at a time when such programs are dwindling elsewhere.

On the other hand, Frontline stumbles from time to time and viewers, and I, have called critical attention to one thing or another, and I have written about such issues several times over the years. The hope is that challenging makes good programs better.

I’m writing about “Obama at War” because of some criticism that has surfaced that strikes me as worthy of recording and worthy of a response.

A Letter and an Article

Actually, I only received one letter about this program. It was from F. Johnston in Tucson, Ariz., and he wrote: “I was disappointed in the biased reporting on Frontline's Obama at War. You should have stated clearly that the three 'Syrian opposition' spokespersons [interviewed on the program] were in fact Americans working for the war hawks and defense department. Also, the claims of Assad using Sarin have long since been discredited. After the US destroyed Libya in their 'R2P' campaign [the Responsibility to Protect concept invoked at times by the UN], which you glossed over in this report, how can anyone take seriously this Administration's propaganda on protecting the Syrian people? It didn't work out so well for the Libyan people did it?”

This letter struck some of the same notes I had seen on a very lengthy and detailed critique of the program posted by CounterPunch. I sent the CounterPunch article to Frontline for their response. The article is nine pages long and so I have tried to summarize some of its points below, followed by a response from Frontline.

Let me also state at the outset that while I think the CounterPunch piece made some fair points, as a viewer and as someone who has sought to follow the news about this crisis closely, I felt this was a very well-done and important program that continued Frontline’s commitment to stay on top of the incredibly complex and tragic events in Iraq and Syria. It is well worth catching up to if you missed it.

Capturing the Intractable

This is a film that, indeed, focuses on the struggle within the Obama administration between a president with no good choices, who made some stumbles of his own, who was clearly reluctant to get America involved in another conflict with an uncertain outcome and an array of powerful voices within the administration opposing him on humanitarian and policy grounds. To me, the broadcast put a special burden on the viewer, which is a good thing as I see it, to sense the other side of every argument. What to do in Syria and about ISIS is an immense and seemingly intractable problem and I thought the film captured this very well.

The president’s missteps are reported and he essentially gets hammered—sometimes forcefully and sometimes politely—by an array of powerful voices including former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, former Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, some “Syrian opposition” leaders and others whose views are also recounted by many journalists on the program.

Yet there are telling, more quiet yet revealing moments such as when Frontline’s Smith is interviewing Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Armed Services Committee and an advocate of the U.S. leading “an international effort to protect key population centers in Syria…through air strikes on Assad’s forces.” When Smith asks: “If Bashar al Assad was to be toppled, who would replace him?” McCain says: “I think that would be a very difficult thing to sort out.”  

There are other moments when the downside of the dilemma for the president are captured much more directly and fully by outsiders, especially Joshua Landis, an associate professor in international studies at the University of Oklahoma who is a widely quoted specialist on the region but who is identified on the program only as “Editor, Syria Comment.” That refers to his blog but probably means nothing to the vast majority of viewers.

‘Syrian Opposition’

The matter of labeling of guests is the first thing that CounterPunch writer Rick Sterling labels among what he considers to be the “key failings” of the program. He doesn’t mention Landis, who I feel should have been much more fully identified because of his important role in the collection of views laid out in “Obama at War.”

Rather, Sterling says the program “promotes ‘Syrian Opposition’ that is more American than Syrian.” He says of the interviewees who are labeled on the screen as “Syrian Opposition” and who appear a dozen times, “in reality all of the three are U.S. Citizens; none of them has lived in Syria for many years or decades.

“Ouabi Shahbandar is the ‘Syrian Opposition’ member given prominent attention in the video,” he writes. “He came to the US at age 8. At Arizona State University in 2003 he was a young Republican neoconservative on the rampage, strongly supporting GW Bush and the invasion of Iraq, denouncing war protesters as “terrorists” and allying with far right figures such as David Horowitz. In the past decade he has worked for the US Dept of Defense.

“Murhaf Jouejati teaches at the National Defense University (US Dept of Defense). A third voice is from Amr Al Azm who is leader of the US funded ‘Day After Project’ intended to plan for development after regime change in Damascus. In short, all three ‘Syrian Opposition’ voices are aligned and committed to US not Syrian national interests,” according to Sterling’s article.

More Description All Around; Et Tu, Rick?

As a viewer, I was bothered by the minimalist labeling of guests and felt it introduced confusion into the program about where some quests were coming from; especially Shahbandar, who could have been the mayor of Peoria. One can recall that the administration of President George W. Bush suffered, in hindsight, from those labeled as "Iraqi opposition" who were based here and who were important voices calling for invasion.

I also felt that CounterPunch had a labeling problem because, as I said earlier, Sterling’s article is nine pages long and it is only at the end, if one gets there, that he is identified as “a founding member of Syria Solidarity Movement.”

Sterling goes on to say, as the second and related “failing,” that the program “excludes authentic Syrian voices.”

“Most viewers,” he writes, “will be completely unaware that polls have consistently shown the majority of Syrians supporting their government and opposing armed opposition attacks. As the widely respected British journalist Jonathan Steele wrote in 2012, “Most Syrians back President Assad but you’d never know from Western media.” In 2013, a NATO study concluded that Assad was winning the battle for Syrian hearts and minds and “After two years of civil war, support for the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad was said to have sharply increased.”

Sterling writes that there were positive aspects to the Frontline documentary. Among them: “It is a violation of international law to provide weapons to a non-state actor trying to overthrow a sovereign state. The overthrow of the Libyan government led to chaos and increased sectarianism and violence. There might not be any easy solutions; escalating US involvement as demanded by the “Syrian opposition” and interventionists might actually make things worse. The program shows the inner workings and debate process in the Obama administration.”

But that’s one paragraph, and that’s it. The rest of the article lays out what he sees as other failings. Sterling concludes that “Obama at War” “presents a biased and distorted view of the reality in Syria. The experience and perspective of the vast majority of Syrians is ignored. There is a pressing need for realistic reports which convey the perspectives and experiences of all people in the conflict, not just the ‘opposition’ and their supporters.”

Additional Points by Sterling

What follows are his additional points and some of what he says about them. Again, you can read his full critique by clicking on the link near the top of this column. Following this section is a response from Frontline. Here is a digest of Sterling’s points:

Gives biased and contradictory characterization of the conflict

“The Syrian conflict has been often characterized in Western media as ‘an Alawi regime dictatorship dominating the Sunni majority population.’ Although repeated countless times, it is essentially untrue. For example, the powerful Syrian Defense and Information Ministries are both led by Sunni Muslims; the Syrian Army is majority Sunni; the economy is dominated by Sunni businessmen. In reality, Syria is a mix of many religions and the government is predominately nationalist and secular, not religious.”

Excludes important background information about U.S. Ambassador and US Policy

“U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford is ever-present in the documentary. He appears 15 separate times and his perspective uses almost 10% of the entire video.  In the opening scenes, Ford talks about going to support a protest march in Hama. He says ‘We were not backing any particular set of demands that the protesters were putting forward; we were simply supporting their right to demonstrate peacefully.’ This is a nice platitude for those who believe in the tooth fairy, but how about the real world?...In fact, U.S. policy has been hostile toward Syria for many years. In 2003-4 the Syria Accountability Act imposed sanctions.  It’s widely known that the US and allies Israel and Saudi Arabia seek to break Syria’s alliance with Iran and the Lebanese resistance movement. Israel has attacked Syria numerous times. In 2007, Seymour Hersh wrote: The U.S. has also taken part in clandestine operations aimed at Iran and its ally Syria. A by-product of these activities has been the bolstering of Sunni extremist groups that espouse a militant vision of Islam and are hostile to America and sympathetic to Al Qaeda.”

Falsely claims the Syrian insurgency was predominately secular in 2012/2013

“One of the major arguments of Robert Ford and other interventionists is that the Syrian uprising was not sectarian; they claim the Obama Administration did not do enough to support the secular opposition and thereby ‘allowed’ it to be radicalized…This assertion is contradicted on multiple counts…just in the past few weeks, the August 2012 analysis of the Defense Information Agency has been released following a law suit connected to Congressional hearings around Benghazi.  That report states: ‘Internally, events are taking a clear sectarian direction. The Salafist, the Muslim Brotherhood, and AQI are the major force driving the insurgency in Syria.’”

Falsely suggests Obama Administration was preventing opposition forces from receiving weapons

Excludes Crucial Information including the Huge Number of Syrian Soldiers Killed

Falsely claims “clear proof” that Syrian government used Sarin in Spring 2013

Excludes key research on responsibility for Sarin Use in August 2013

… “ignores the critical debate and simply repeats the accusations which have been largely discredited.  Over the past 18 months some of the best US investigative journalists have researched what happened on August 21 in Ghouta.  Seymour Hersh wrote ‘The Red Line and the Rat Line’ pointing to Turkish and Nusra culpability. Robert Parry wrote ‘The Collapsing Syria-Sarin Case identifying the ‘junk heap of bad evidence’ used to blame the Syrian government. Two months before the gas attacks, Russ Baker predicted the drive toward another US intervention based on false premises.”

Repeats Dubious Accusations regarding Chlorine Gas Bombs

Promotes False History of the Expansion of ISIS and Nusra

“At this point the documentary does something very misleading: it presents the expansion of ISIS and Nusra as a consequence of the Obama decision not to attack Syria.  At 36:25 the documentary intones ‘Extremists exploited the decision not to attack.’  At 36:35 Shahbandar claims that extremists are telling Syrian civilians ‘Look you’ve been betrayed by the world ….’  At 36:55 Baker (NY Times) suggests that ISIS and Nusra are saying ‘We’re the only ones who can take down Assad and create a new order here.’ The documentary then claims that moderate rebels are joining extremists with ISIS emerging as the strongest. That is soon followed by video showing ISIS surging through Iraq and seizing Mosul. In reality, the extremists (Nusra, ISIS, etc) were the major armed opposition force long before the August 2013 situation.  That was confirmed in the August 2012 DIA report.  Nor was the surge of ISIS into Iraq a consequence of the Obama decision. The ISIS seizure of Mosul occurred in June of 2014, ten months after the Obama decision.

“…After four years of attacks by tens of thousands of heavily armed insurgents from all over the globe, the Syrian government and military is greatly weakened. That has allowed ISIS to control the lightly populated eastern part of the country. The Syrian army is bogged down fighting thousands of extremists in the major urban areas in the west, north and south which has allowed ISIS to continue in the east.”

Suggests that ISIS and Nusra are “helping” and “defending” Syrians

“…While there are some Syrians who want a sectarian wahabi state with strict sharia law, they are vastly outnumbered by Syrians who want to maintain a secular state and inclusive multi-faith society. The suggestion in this documentary that a significant number of Syrians seek ‘help’ from ISIS or Nusra is a grotesque falsehood.”

Frontline Responds

Rick Sterling has a number of problems with Obama at War – from who we interviewed to how we describe chemical attacks against Syrian civilians to his overall claim that the documentary was biased. The film was the latest in our ongoing coverage of many aspects of the conflict in Syria and Iraq and was widely cited for its tough but fair examination of the Obama administration’s role. 

Mr. Sterling comes to the subject as an advocate with an agenda; among other things, his writings have a distinctly pro-Assad slant; he’s critical of the Syrian opposition and the idea of regime change.  Our goal as journalists in presenting this documentary was straightforward:  to shed light on what informed the decisions of President Obama as the Syrian tragedy unfolded. What information did he have? What advice was he given? 

In the film, President Assad dismisses the Syrian opposition as “criminals,” but whether they are, or it is Assad who is the criminal, Obama said Assad had to go, and the film tracks what happened to this early Presidential judgment as facts on the ground changed.

Mr. Sterling attacks the credibility of three people in the film who expressed views related to the Syrian opposition, calling them more American than Syrian and asserting that we presented a distorted view of reality in Syria. We stand by the choices our producers made.  The interviewees were consistent with this film’s political focus; all have played significant roles in the Syrian opposition, two of them have had direct experience with the officially recognized Syrian National Coalition, the SNC.  One represented the moderate opposition in negotiations with the Assad regime.  As for our view of reality in Syria, Mr. Sterling has obviously not paid much attention to FRONTLINE’s body of reporting, much of it done from inside the country, showing the realities on the ground in vivid and unprecedented ways.

Perhaps Mr. Sterling’s most contentious argument is the suggestion that it was the opposition that launched the August 2013 sarin gas attack in Ghouta killing hundreds of men, women and children. While some commentators have made the case that it might have been a false flag operation to draw the U.S. into the war, there is a wide array of journalism and official intelligence reports to the contrary, as well as reports from the nonpartisan Arms Control Association and Human Rights Watch.

From the perspective of our film, however, whatever debate there is about the evidence, the key point is that, at the time, Obama clearly felt Assad’s forces had crossed his “red line.”  And our effort in this documentary was to look at what happened next, what Obama knew or thought he knew and what he did based on that knowledge.

Mr. Sterling lobs many other criticisms, most of which are loaded with innuendo and conspiratorial or partisan interpretations.  To be clear about two more of his points: we did not report that all Syrians or even a majority of Syrians support extremist groups, and we do not think his reading of Ambassador Ford’s comments suggests so; likewise when it comes to U.S aid to the rebels, our film did not address whether the Obama administration was trying to prevent regional players from aiding rebel groups. Our reporting focused on President Obama's resistance to directly aiding and training the Syrian opposition until April 2013.

The question of arms to the opposition is a good point with which to end this response to Mr. Sterling.  It is relevant to note that Mr. Sterling is a founding member of the Syria Solidarity Movement, whose stated mission is to “oppose all military intervention, whether by means of arms, military training, intelligence, personnel or equipment.” 

In his writings, he questions the legitimacy of the opposition to Assad, describing it as an “externally supported uprising” and referring to the “well publicized fanaticism of the most active rebels.”  He seems to feel that Assad has been unfairly demonized – “is the ‘brutal dictator’ really as bad as they say?” he wrote last year. Mr. Sterling is entitled to promote his point of view, of course, but anyone considering his critiques on our journalism should surely be well aware of it.

Posted on June 19, 2015 at 2:51 p.m.

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As ombudsman, Michael Getler serves as an independent internal critic within PBS. He reviews commentary and criticism from viewers and seeks to ensure that PBS upholds its own standards of editorial integrity. Read More >
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