The Apologist's Apologist—A Reply to Robert Wright

The Apologist's Apologist—A Reply to Robert Wright

Matt Johnson
Matt Johnson
6 min read

In his most recent Nonzero Newsletter, Bloggingheads co-founder Robert Wright celebrates the “death” of the Intellectual Dark Web. Observing with some satisfaction that Google searches for “Intellectual Dark Web” have declined over the past couple of years, he points to what he describes as the IDW’s main “public relations problem”—its members aren’t as committed to the “vigorous and open exchange of ideas” as they insist. To substantiate this charge, Wright complains that a Twitter search returns no IDW objections to Trump’s recent executive order targeting antisemitism on U.S. college campuses. This alleged “inconsistency in the attitude of some in the IDW toward thought policing,” Wright says, was on his mind following publication of an article I wrote about Max Blumenthal for Quillette in October entitled “Tyranny’s Mouthpiece.”

Blumenthal had just appeared on Wright’s Bloggingheads show, which he spent doing what he always does—blaming the United States for as much chaos and bloodshed in the Middle East as possible. Blumenthal was fresh off a trip to Damascus, where he had attended a regime-sponsored “international trade union forum,” so he was eager to discuss the evils of U.S. sanctions, the crimes of U.S.-backed rebels, and Bashar al-Assad’s defiance of the “rabid regime change hyenas” in Washington.

According to Wright, vociferous critics of U.S. foreign policy in Syria “encounter a particular form of thought policing: attempts to stigmatize them by calling them ‘Assad sympathizers’ or ‘Assad apologists.’” He then turns to my Quillette article, about which he has this to say:

A sample sentence: “Blumenthal constantly emphasizes the atrocities of jihadist groups like Jaish al-Islam and al-Nusra because they give him moral and political cover for defending Assad, who has committed atrocities on a far greater scale.” I’ve added those italics to highlight the part of the sentence that is sheer speculation about Blumenthal’s motives—comparable to social justice warriors trying to silence, say, critics of affirmative action by calling them racist. In both cases, alternative motives are of course possible. But in Blumenthal’s case the unofficial magazine of the IDW seems oblivious to this fact.

Sure, alternative motives are possible. But just as some opponents of Affirmative Action are racist, some critics of American foreign policy are, in fact, habitual apologists for dictators—a determination that requires an assessment of what they’ve actually written and said. Instead of defending Blumenthal’s views on Syria, Wright plucks a sentence out of my article but doesn’t engage with a single argument I made in support of it.

It’s no surprise that Blumenthal was made welcome in Damascus—his commentary on the Syrian Civil War is largely indistinguishable from the Assad regime’s propaganda. Just watch his reports from Damascus and Bloudan:

His core message, which he restates over and over again, is that the regime is the victim in the civil war and not its most vicious perpetrator. Blumenthal claims that the United States is imposing sanctions on Syria because Assad’s forces recaptured territory from its proxies, but he doesn’t bother to mention another more plausible reason—that the regime is responsible for a vastly disproportionate share of deaths and casualties in the civil war, which began when regime forces opened fire on peaceful protesters across the country.

In his final report from Damascus, Blumenthal explains that the sanctions are in place for one simple reason: Assad’s forces “defeated a ruthless dirty war imposed on them by the West and their Gulf Israeli allies.” That’s it—not a word about human rights, the use of chemical weapons, or the joint Syrian/Russian airstrikes that have obliterated thousands of civilians. Blumenthal ignores the gravest crimes committed in Syria because they don’t fit his narrative—the country is under assault and Assad is its rightful ruler, regardless of how many people he kills. If that doesn’t make him an apologist for the Assad regime, what would?

Throughout the interview on Bloggingheads, Wright consistently fails to challenge even Blumenthal’s most brazen distortions. For example, at the 45-minute mark, Blumenthal says, “Russia is actually using diplomacy in the Middle East. The U.S. doesn’t use diplomacy, it uses military power.” Wright nods in agreement, despite the fact that Russian bombs continue to pulverize hospitals, schools, and entire city blocks while the U.S. has a comparatively limited military presence. Blumenthal then observes that Russia is “not really choosing sides the way the U.S. does”—another flabbergasting claim that Wright doesn’t bother to contest.

Blumenthal argues that Russian and Syrian forces have “liberated”—a word he always uses to describe territory recaptured by a dictator whose family has ruled Syria for half a century —cities like Palmyra to save civilians and defeat terrorists, and that the “only reason U.S. troops were there … was to perpetuate the fragmentation of Syria and the economic war. It had very little to do with anti-ISIS operations.” In Blumenthal’s world, the United States is always the first, second, and last threat, even when other countries are committing far more egregious crimes and causing far more bloodshed.

Wright shares Blumenthal’s habit of inflating the United States’ role in disasters like the Syrian Civil War, as well as its culpability for every peripheral effect. For example, in his newsletter he says the decision to arm and equip Syrian rebels “led to … a long civil war that brought hundreds of thousands of deaths and millions of refugees, with uncounted atrocities committed by the Assad regime and also by some of the rebels we backed” [italics added]. Say what you want about the arm-and-equip program, but it’s hardly the determinative factor in the civil war. Had the United States just stayed out of Syria, Blumenthal contends, “there wouldn’t have been a migration crisis. I think the politics in the West would be completely different.” Wright responds: “Totally. Brexit probably wouldn’t have passed. Trump might not be president.” When you think the United States is the “most destabilizing force on the planet,” as Wright does, it must be difficult to imagine that the most destabilizing conflict on the planet is largely someone else’s fault.

Blumenthal adds that the United States is “the biggest dictator on the planet.” When he talks about the United States, he starts using words like “dictatorship” and “authoritarian” promiscuously: “It’s just so absurd for me to see this liberal imperialist freakout, from people like the appropriately-named Anne-Marie Slaughter, about the Syrian government controlling its own territory. That is a dictatorial and authoritarian mentality … it is very much like a global dictatorship.” Meanwhile, Blumenthal says, countries like Syria and China have been “demonized for geopolitical purposes,” while the “consent for those governments has to be erased in the mind of the American media consumer to justify our imperial policies, whether it’s the recolonization of Hong Kong, which is what our support for these violent protests is really about or the destruction of Syria.” Whenever there’s an uprising against an actual dictatorship, you can count on Blumenthal to support the dictator.

As Blumenthal traveled around Syria, his central message was always the same: despite the “war of terror waged on Syria,” Assad’s forces have liberated millions of Syrians and life is returning to normal—if only the United States’ “disgusting program” of “crushing sanctions” could be halted. He’s telling a story of resistance to American imperialism, which is why he shares inspiring details like this one with Wright: “The First Lady of Syria, Asma al-Assad, made a point of being treated for her breast cancer in Syria as a kind of a statement of resistance against sanctions. To say: ‘We can do this.’ And, you know, it really did resonate with a lot of Syrians who are facing this situation.” Of course, Blumenthal isn’t going to come right out and say “I support the Assad regime,” but he doesn’t need to.

According to Wright, “Blumenthal is a particularly tempting target” for the “thought police”: “In addition to being rhetorically provocative by nature, he recently went to Syria, reported that many Syrians prefer living under the Assad regime to living under the control of Western-backed jihadist rebels, and argued for ending economic sanctions on Syria. So the stage is set for anyone who wants to misleadingly accuse him of ‘defending Assad.’” But Blumenthal doesn’t deserve criticism because he’s “provocative” or because he wants the United States to lift its sanctions on Syria. He deserves criticism because his “reporting” on Syria has been an unbroken stream of disinformation and propaganda about how Bashar al-Assad is fighting to save his country—with a little “diplomatic” help from his Russian friends in the form of cluster bombs—from the evil United States, which wants to destroy Syria and plunder its resources.

Blumenthal’s politics are morally repellent and intellectually dishonest and should be exposed as such. Does this mean I want him to be silenced? Absolutely not, and Wright can’t point to a single line in my article or elsewhere that suggests otherwise. He uses the term “thought police” again and again, but never explains how an article that challenges Blumenthal (whose platform is much larger than mine, by the way) is an attempt to “police” what he’s saying.

At the end of his piece, Wright speculates about whether it’s possible to develop an “idealized version of the Intellectual Dark Web … a network of people who disagree intensely over the great issues of our day yet feel a deep mutual affinity out of a common commitment to free speech and intellectual fair play.” He continues: “Maybe the best we can do is try hard (harder than Quillette, I’d say) to avoid cheap attacks on people and to address their arguments on the merits.” Considering the fact that Wright’s entire piece is itself a cheap attack that didn’t address a single argument I made on the merits, he might take a moment to reflect on his own contribution to this project.

recentRegressive LeftWorld Affairs

Matt Johnson

Matt Johnson has written for many outlets and is the author of the forthcoming book, How Hitchens Can Save the Left: Rediscovering Fearless Liberalism in an Age of Counter-Enlightenment (Fall 2022)