Max Blumenthal’s Management of Savagery Savaged by Fact-Checking

al-Hamra
7 min readSep 23, 2019

By Lydia Wilson, published by The Times Literary Supplement

It is easy to blame the United States for many of the world’s ills: easy because of the availability of evidence. It is also easy to overstate your case, with misleading or one-sided examples — the trap that Max Blumenthal falls into in The Management of Savagery. Fortunately, what many will see as propaganda, sketching the role of the US in the recent wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria, tips sufficiently and with enough regularity into full-scale conspiracy to allow any careful reader to dismiss it. A spot of fact-checking quickly furthers the case against it. Less happily, this book raises serious questions about the reputation of its publisher, Verso. Did no one care to send the manuscript out for checking?

Detailed analysis of all the errors would require a short book in itself, so a small sample will have to suffice. Charles Lister is a researcher of Syrian opposition groups; he is seemingly targeted in these pages, and the following mistakes all occur over just four pages dedicated to him. The Amnesty report Blumenthal quotes, “revealing” Lister’s apparent knowledge in 2015 of an extremist sheikh’s actions, is from 2016 and not 2014 (ie he didn’t know). Blumenthal claims David Cameron relied on an article written by Lister in the Spectator (in November 2015), despite the fact the article came out after Cameron’s speech. There is a mistake in the order of events between the US sending anti-tank weapons to opponents of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and the US Democrats asking Congress for money to do so. The money was actually authorized for training, not weapons. There is the author’s reporting of an argument Lister made for supplying weapons to groups “like Zinki” — though Zinki had been removed from the approved list by Lister by this point. Blumenthal uncritically reports the claims by a Pentagon spokesman that Aleppo had been held by Jabhat al-Nusra, despite the fact this was corrected later by CENTCOM (US Central Command). There is the claim, made twice, that Lister did his research in Riyadh (he is at one point described as being at “a luxury hotel in Riyadh”): in fact the first and only time Lister went to Saudi Arabia was in 2017, many years after the research detailed by Blumenthal.

Then there is the author’s treatment of opinions he disagrees with, his tendency to attack the person rather than the content of what they are saying. At one point he refers to the “vehemently anti-Russian Washington Post correspondent, Anne Applebaum” — surely in order to impugn the credibility of Applebaum’s husband (Radosław Sikorski). He appears less demanding of his own sources, by contrast, neglecting, for example, to mention that Kevork Almasian, who claims that the rural protests in Syria were from the beginning dominated by Islamists, works for the far-right party AfD in Germany and for the Kremlin-backed think tank Katehon, created by the fascist ideologue Aleksandr Dugin; in fact, Almasian’s name is buried in footnotes, as are many others who agree with Blumenthal. They do not receive the same level of scrutiny in the text.

Blumenthal’s portrayal of the notorious chemical attack on East Ghouta in Syria in 2013 uses long-debunked myths — emanating from both the Syrian regime and Russia — to claim that Assad did not carry out the attack; the author apparently ignores all the evidence amassed to counter his claim. When he does praise the US, it is for the wrong reasons. He calls President Obama’s response to East Ghouta, brokered by Russia, of backing down from military intervention in return for Assad’s promise to dispose of Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons, a “rare example of de-escalation in a war zone”. This ignores the fact that killings by Assad’s regime went up when it became clear that the US was wary of intervention, not even in the face of war crimes and Obama’s own “red line”. Blumenthal’s take on the chemical attack on Khan Shaykhun in 2017, which prompted a rare intervention by Western powers, assumes a different line: he simply sketches a conspiracy almost by innuendo, referring airily to “an unusual procedure for the treatment of sarin victims” (“splashing water on writhing children … White Helmets treating victims without gloves”), rather than directly meeting the challenge of refuting the abundant evidence of the attack.

Perhaps the most absurd position Blumenthal forces himself into is his vilification of those seeking to intervene for humanitarian reasons, a standpoint “enabling them to mask imperial designs behind a patina of ‘genocide prevention’”. How terrible it must be to be the kind of person who wants to prevent genocide, or, in the case of Syria, the “crime of extermination” according to the UN (because genocide is against one specific group of people and Assad was found guilty — by the Human Rights Council — of targeting a whole country). Blumenthal continues: “With this neat tactic, they [the interventionists] effectively neutralized progressive anti-war elements and tarred those who dared to protest their wars as dictator apologists”. This description extends to the late Labour MP Jo Cox, a “self-proclaimed feminist”, in Blumenthal’s description, who, with this position of “military humanism”, fuelled the civil war and thus the refugee crisis and thus the far right, which, the author almost seems to imply, gave rise to her own murder. What we should say about dictators is an awkward question for Blumenthal, who, in his lengthy analysis of Syria, neglects to analyse Assad’s role in the carnage (over 90 per cent of civilian deaths in Syria over the past eight years have been attributed to the Syrian president’s forces and his allies). Further, he omits to discuss the champions of this dictator: there is barely a mention of Russia’s and Iran’s bolstering of the brutal regime, let alone their direct participation in the civil war, despite Syria occupying the majority of The Management of Savagery (a rare example comes when Russia is praised for “rolling back jihadist insurgents” — Assad’s own excuse for the interminable violence). For Blumenthal, it would seem, intervention is only bad when conducted by the US and its allies; the US alone destabilized the Middle East, and no one else bears any responsibility at all.

A major weak point in the argument, even on Blumenthal’s own terms, is the lack of coherent explanation for this thirst for foreign invasion. Why does the endless parade of Americans in this book, from across the political spectrum, hunger so insatiably for war? The confusion partly arises out of the author’s failure to define the blanket terms he uses: “imperialist” and “neoconservative” (even “neocon democrat”) ambitions are bandied around as if these in themselves were powerful enough concepts to explain everything.

Another mistake Blumenthal falls into in every aspect of his analysis is more common to Western commentaries on the Middle East: denying any agency to the people on the ground. There is no credence given to the fact that Syrians themselves protested and took up arms against Assad for their own reasons, and not just to fulfill America’s foreign policy agenda (Blumenthal takes care to refer to the “Western-backed opposition to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad”). Similarly, in his analysis of Libya, Blumenthal’s denial of the rebels’ stated aims of gaining basic democratic rights leads him to rely on evidence from the Gaddafi family to depict the apparent stability and harmony of the country before Western arrogance took a hand. He seems blind to the motivations of the millions of Arabs desperate to see the back of the Libyan dictator.

Publishers, especially those with illustrious histories, have a responsibility for what they put their stamp on, and with this book Verso has torn a hole in its reputation. The overarching argument shoehorns history into unrecognizable shapes; the fact-checking has clearly not been as it should; even the copy-editing seems to have been skimped on, judging by the number of typos. But even more worrying than these basic failures in publishing a meaty, non-fiction book is the apparent lack of concern about the controversy surrounding the author himself. As the NYRB Daily noted last year (October 16, 2018), Blumenthal’s views on Syria “completely flipped” in 2015. Having previously been critical of Assad’s Russia-sponsored regime, he seemed to have performed a volte-face. Blumenthal now regularly retweets pro-Kremlin sources. Targets of his Twitter comments include an eight-year-old girl (Bana Alabed) living in rebel-held Aleppo, who ran an account of the siege with her mother. According to Blumenthal: “Alabed & the White Helmets [were building] on a grand tradition of pro-war psy-ops” in their first-hand reports.

A comprehensive list of rebuttals to an earlier article of Blumenthal’s with similar views was collected at the blog Hummus for Thought (October 5, 2016). It began with an impassioned plea from the Syrian Marcell Shehwara for readers to start listening to Syrians themselves, rather than dismissing them as stooges, as Blumenthal does. There are many similar take-downs of Blumenthal’s work online. It doesn’t take much digging to realize how many people question the author’s work.

Verso’s choice to continue to publish Max Blumenthal (see also the Verso-published The 51 Day War: Resistance and ruin in Gaza, 2015) therefore seems perverse, casting doubt on the entire stable of authors in this field. There are also the moral implications of this book: there is the danger that such arguments can be used by others to legitimize violence against secular and humanitarian actors in a number of theatres of conflict, thus fuelling the conflicts themselves.

  • This piece was amended on September 23. In the original version, we misspelled Radosław Sikorski’s first name as “Rudosław”. We also incorrectly listed the date of Charles Lister’s Spectator article as November 2017 instead of November 2015. The point about it being printed after David Cameron’s speech remains.

--

--