Its back cover features encomia from Reza Aslan, Andrew Cockburn, and Oliver Stone, and its jacket copy promises that readers will find in its pages “the real story behind America’s dealings with the world” and proof that “the extremist forces that now threaten peace across the globe are the inevitable flowering of American imperial design.” The book is The Management of Savagery: How America’s National Security State Fueled the Rise of Al Qaeda, ISIS, and Donald Trump, and its author is Max Blumenthal, the son of longtime Clinton associate Sidney Blumenthal. How the son of a member of the Clinton inner circle came to write a book that is, in large part, an indictment of both Bill’s presidency and Hillary’s tenure as secretary of state—as well as, not incidentally, an apologia for some of the most brutal tyrants and terrorist groups on the planet—is quite a story.
It begins decades ago, when Sidney, now 70, left a career in Beltway journalism to become an adviser in the Clinton White House. Ever since, he has been a major satellite in the Clinton orbit—writing a flattering book about Bill’s presidency, taking a leading role in Hillary’s 2008 campaign, working for several years thereafter at the Clinton Foundation, and serving, to this day, not only as an official consultant to a Clinton super PAC and the Clinton-linked Media Matters for America but also as an informal Clinton confidant, counselor, and (as some would put it) courtier.
At first it looked as if Max, born in 1977, did not fall far from the tree. After studying history at the University of Pennsylvania, he set out on a career as a left-leaning political journalist for publications such as the Nation and Salon. From the beginning, he was, like his father, nakedly partisan, focusing on targets such as Fox News, the Heritage Foundation, and various GOP politicians. Rarely if ever did he treat his ideological opposites as honest brokers with whom he merely had a difference of opinion; no, almost invariably he sought to discredit them, to tar them with guilt by association, to paint them (however decent, independent, and mainstream they might be) as extremists, bigots, and tools of nefarious interests, and, not infrequently, to mount extremely personal assaults, complete with unfounded rumors and even outright lies. In all this, he was his father’s son, for Sidney Blumenthal has long been known to go very far indeed in service to the Clinton cause.
In his now woefully dated first book, Republican Gomorrah (2009), Max Blumenthal depicted a GOP controlled by evangelical Christians and obsessed with abortion and homosexuality, and he purported to psychoanalyze the party’s leaders using methods employed by Erich Fromm in his 1941 study of the Nazi mind, Escape from Freedom. It was one of countless anti-Republican jeremiads by loyal sons of the left, and one that many of his fellow Democrats could therefore applaud without hesitation.
It was his second book, Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel (2013), published by Nation Books, that marked Max Blumenthal as a genuine outlier. In describing the Israeli–Palestinian situation, he could hardly have been more extreme: He blamed the tensions between those two parties almost entirely on Israelis’ purported love of violence and hatred for Muslims, and he excused jihadist terror as the understandable response by innocent victims to Nazi-like oppressors. Though presented as a work of reportage, the book was in fact a grotesquely slanted polemic; Max Blumenthal emphasized and exaggerated everything that might make the Israel Defense Forces, and Israelis generally, look like the most reprehensibly amoral of human beings, while suppressing facts that showed Hamas terrorists and other Palestinians in a less than favorable light.
Even his comrades on the hard left couldn’t give Goliath a thumbs-up. In a column for the Nation headlined “The ‘I-Hate-Israel’ Handbook,” Eric Alterman, himself a frequent and severe critic of the Jewish state, wrote that the book would “likely alienate anyone but the most fanatical anti-Zionist extremists.” Goliath “could have been published by the Hamas Book-of-the-Month Club,” Alterman said, while declaring that Max Blumenthal “shames all of us with his presence in our magazine.” Nina Burleigh, another Clinton partisan, so dedicated that she once said she would perform a sex act on the president as a reward for his pro-abortion stance, described Blumenthal in the New York Observer as having “staked out a spot on the Venn diagram of Middle East commentators where anti-Israel meets pro-Islamist.” Nothing in Goliath, she lamented, indicated that Blumenthal was “much troubled by rebels who dream of the once and future caliphate and imposing Shariah law.”
Extreme though Goliath was, after it came out, Blumenthal continued his pilgrimage away from the establishment left. “Blumenthal’s anti-Israel screeds,” reported the Times of Israel in 2014, “have become progressively more outlandish.” In that same year, Blumenthal publicized a new hashtag: #JSIL, short for “Jewish State in the Levant”—the point of which was to draw an explicit moral equivalence between Israel and ISIS. The next year saw the publication of his third book, The 51 Day War: Ruin and Resistance in Gaza. It was marketed, like Goliath, as a piece of reportage—in this case, a comprehensive on-the-ground account of the six-week 2014 Israel–Gaza conflict. But as it turned out, again like Goliath, this new book was a work of pure propaganda, its assertions undergirded by a miasma of facts, quasi-facts, and non-facts. Notwithstanding Blumenthal’s claims, it emerged soon after the book’s release that he had personally witnessed less than two weeks of the war (during most of it, he had been back home in the United States). Not that he really needed to be in Israel and Gaza at all, the book’s conclusions having plainly been formed before he stepped off the plane at Ben Gurion Airport: Once more, the IDF were the bad guys, barely distinguishable from the SS, while Hamas was a knight in shining armor.
During the period when he was writing these first three books, one step taken by Blumenthal stood out as being, just possibly, an act of principle. In 2011, he became a staff writer for the English-language online edition of the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar. But the following year, he resigned, denouncing the newspaper’s editors as apologists for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Much of the journalism he produced during the next couple of years conveyed a strongly anti-Assad message. In 2013, he reported for the Nation from a refugee camp in Jordan, where, he wrote, every single Syrian he interviewed supported a U.S. military strike on their homeland.
But then something happened. We don’t know exactly what it was. All we know for certain is that in December 2015, Blumenthal traveled to Moscow—all expenses paid by the Kremlin—to attend a gala dinner, hosted by Vladimir Putin himself, to celebrate the 10th anniversary of RT, the international TV network owned by the Russian government. When he returned to the U.S., his position on Assad—and on U.S. intervention in Syria—had turned around completely. Only a month after the RT bash, Blumenthal founded something called “The Grayzone Project,” which describes itself as “a news and politics website dedicated to original investigative journalism and analysis on war and empire.” Basically, however, Grayzone (thegrayzone.com) is a one-stop propaganda shop, devoted largely to pushing a pro-Assad line on Syria, a pro-regime line on Venezuela, a pro-Putin line on Russia, and a pro-Hamas line on Israel and Palestine. Earlier in his career, Blumenthal had considered Muslim theocracies preferable to secular autocracies and had treated criticism of sharia law and Islamic governments, however reasonable and fact-based that criticism might be, as proof of anti-Muslim hatred. Now, however, by way of propping up the Assad dictatorship, he did not hesitate to malign Assad’s Syrian opponents, many of whom were Christians, Jews, and secular Muslims, as fanatical jihadists or allies thereof.
Among those whom he now maligned were the White Helmets, a group of volunteers who conduct search-and-rescue operations, carry out medical and civilian evacuations, and deliver essential goods and services in Syrian danger zones. The group has saved more than 100,000 lives; more than 200 of its members have lost their lives; it has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. But none of this kept him from joining lustily in the Assad regime’s campaign to discredit it. In his attacks on the White Helmets, notably in an article that appeared on October 2, 2016, as well as in a number of other articles and tweets, Blumenthal pointed out that the group took money from USAID and accused it of being a creation of “Western governments, professional activists, and public relations specialists” that were drawing attention to Syrian atrocities solely as a means of bolstering the argument for American intervention. He even charged the group with having al-Qaeda links and repeated the baseless calumny, spread by Assad loyalists, that some members of the White Helmets had been “implicated in atrocities carried out by jihadist rebel groups.”
Blumenthal isn’t alone at Grayzone—which, after a two-year-long association with the left-wing Alternet website, went independent when Max was fired from it. The principal contributor to Grayzone is Ben Norton, a former Salon staffer who became pro-Assad around the same time (perhaps, indeed, at exactly the same time) that Blumenthal did; after his conversion, Norton even took care to remove his old anti-Assad writings from the Internet. In addition to providing content for Grayzone, Norton and Blumenthal co-host a “podcast and video show” entitled “Moderate Rebels” (moderaterebels.com). On recent episodes they have presented the “real story” about Venezuela as told by chavista scholars and mocked Univision journalist Jorge Ramos for telling Nicolás Maduro in an interview that he was widely considered a dictator. Implicit in pretty much every item at the website is that it’s impossible to be an opponent of Putin or Assad or Nicolás Maduro without having nefarious motives—either you’re working for the CIA or Mossad, or you’re tied up with some terrorist group, or you’ve taken dirty money under the table, or you have business interests (probably shady) that would benefit from regime change.
Even as Blumenthal is a reliable content provider for Grayzone, he continues to comment elsewhere on a wide range of topics. He remains a staunch champion of Islam, routinely responding to explicit acts of jihadist terror by denying their Islamic roots. After the June 2016 massacre at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando, which took 49 lives and wounded 53, he denied that perpetrator Omar Mateen—who told a 9-1-1 operator that he was a “mujahideen” and “Islamic soldier” and that he owed his allegiance to ISIS head Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi—was a jihadist. After the May 2017 bombing at the Arianna Grande concert in Manchester, which killed 22 and injured 139, Blumenthal attributed it to “blowback from interventionist policies” by the West. In an 2016 article, he denied the incontrovertible fact that antigay prejudice is intrinsic to Islam, calling the idea a product of “talking points…first honed by the Israeli government and its international network of supporters.”
That’s not all. Blumenthal has also denied that Jeremy Corbyn is an anti-Semite. (Those who say otherwise, Blumenthal maintained, are actually irked not over Corbyn’s Jew-hatred but over his “anti-imperialist” sentiments.) While quick to stand up for Corbyn, Blumenthal was equally quick to deride Elie Wiesel after the latter’s death in July 2016, accusing the Auschwitz survivor and Nobel Peace Prize laureate of “inciting hatred, defending apartheid & palling around with fascists.” Blumenthal has written, moreover, about “anticommunism” as if it were a psychiatric affliction and has dismissed the Victims of Communism Foundation as a “neoconservative initiative.” He’s labeled Leopoldo López, the Venezuelan freedom activist and longtime political prisoner under Maduro, a “putsch leader”; he’s charged former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley with pursuing a “vendetta against virtually the entire world”; and he’s called Clarissa Ward, CNN’s chief international correspondent and the host of the Peabody Award–winning 2016 documentary Undercover in Syria, an al-Qaeda stooge. He even accused President Obama’s UN ambassador, Samantha Power—whom precious few observers would categorize as pro-Israel—of being an anti-Palestinian Israeli tool.
Some of Blumenthal’s smears are near-epic in scale. In a June 2012 piece for the Nation, he took on the philanthropist Nina Rosenwald, head of the Gatestone Institute, for funding Israel-friendly groups as well as “a Who’s Who of anti-Muslim outfits” and thereby “fuel[ing] a rapidly emerging alliance between the pro-Israel mainstream and the Islamophobic fringe” that “serves to sanitize and legitimize professional anti-Muslim bigots.” Among these “bigots” were Irshad Manji and Zuhdi Jasser. Oh? Manji and Jasser are themselves Muslims—but their support for Israel and U.S. counterterrorism measures and their acknowledgment of Islam’s need for democratic reform places them, in Blumenthal’s view, beyond the pale. Blumenthal also brought up the Norwegian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik’s references in his manifesto to certain beneficiaries of Rosenwald’s largesse—which, for Blumenthal, were enough to consider her tainted. He also tarred Rosenwald for funding the invaluable Middle East Monitoring and Research Institute (MEMRI), whose subtitled online postings of Arabic-language TV programs provide abundant evidence of the hatred of the West, Jews, gays, and independent-minded females disseminated daily around the Middle East.
No smear job by Max Blumenthal would be complete without an unfounded personal attack, so in his piece on Rosenwald, one was able to read this bit of gossip: According to an “acquaintance” of his, “Rosenwald has a penchant for launching into anti-Arab anti-Palestinian tirades at public forums, leaping up like ‘a jack in the box’ to denounce the evildoers.” As it happens, I have been present over the past two decades at a great many public forums attended by Rosenwald, and I have never observed any behavior on her part that would remotely fit this description. I’ve also spoken with other people whose paths have crossed Rosenwald’s frequently, and none of them has ever experienced such conduct either, or heard of it from anyone else. In short, another dose of pure calumny.
In 2013, writing at the Electronic Intifada website, Blumenthal sought to take down Thor Halvorssen, founder of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), the Human Rights Foundation (HRF), and the Oslo Freedom Forum (OFF). The piece provided a splendid example of his six-degrees-of-separation approach to guilt by association. Halvorssen, Blumenthal explained, was a bad person because his organizations had received “significant funding from the same financiers”—such as the Sarah Scaife Foundation and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation—“who support the Islamophobes” (read, mainstream conservative critics of Islam) “who inspired anti-Muslim Norwegian mass killer Anders Behring Breivik.” Yes, Breivik again. Note that Blumenthal doesn’t hesitate to blame one lunatic’s massacre on critics of Islam who have never called for violence, but he refuses to acknowledge that innumerable jihadists have, in fact, as they themselves proudly declare, murdered countless innocents in obedience to what they regard as the divine commands set down in the Koran.
Blumenthal’s piece on Halvorssen also displayed his taste for selective quotation and the cherry-picking of evidence. The half-truths and smears in the article are too numerous to mention. As a student at the University of Pennsylvania, Halvorssen had noted in an op-ed for the college paper that “it may be deadly to live in West Philadelphia.” Blumenthal presented the op-ed as evidence of racism, since that neighborhood is largely African American. In fact, Halvorssen’s op-ed was motivated by the murder in West Philadelphia of his friend Al-Moez Iqbal Alimohamed, a Pakistani Muslim teaching assistant who had been shot in a robbery. Similarly, Blumenthal called FIRE a “right-wing group” because it had “defend[ed] evangelical students against charges of anti-gay discrimination and combating hate crimes legislation.” Unmentioned was the fact that FIRE under Halvorssen’s leadership had also defended radical leftist Ward Churchill, PETA members, and innumerable gays and Muslims, including Sami Al-Arian, a Palestinian professor arrested on terrorism charges.
Another lengthy smear appeared in 2017 at Alternet. This time Blumenthal’s target was Daily Beast editor and fresh CNN hire Michael Weiss, co-author of the New York Times bestseller ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror. Under the headline “CNN Analyst Michael Weiss Hosted Anti-Muslim Rally with Far-Right Hate Queen Pamela Geller,” Blumenthal upbraided Weiss for the crime of having helped Geller put together a protest against plans for a so-called Ground Zero mosque in lower Manhattan. This was false; Weiss had had nothing to do with that event. Weiss was also scorned for having organized a New York rally in solidarity with the Muhammad cartoonists in Denmark. This was true; among the participants was the Danish consul general. In his effort to blacken Weiss’s name, Blumenthal reached back to Weiss’s undergraduate days at Dartmouth, when one of the comic strips that Weiss contributed to the student paper showed a gay frat pledge involuntarily becoming sexually aroused during a hazing ritual. Again, leave it to a man who has whitewashed Islamic regimes’ execution of gay people to point to a harmless cartoon as an indication of vicious homophobia.
But Weiss’s major offense, in Blumenthal’s eyes, was opposing Assad and Putin. Weiss, complained Blumenthal, dared to write about Russia even though he “speaks little or no Russian”—this from a man who had written books on Israel and the Palestinians without being fluent in either Hebrew or Arabic. In another characteristic move, Blumenthal noted that a website run by Weiss had been funded by former billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whose eight years as a prisoner of conscience in Putin’s Russia Blumenthal omitted to mention but whose allegedly corrupt business practices prior to his incarceration he banged away about at length. Blumenthal treated other associates of Weiss in a similar fashion, in addition to targeting drive-by smears at other writers whose politics diverge from his own. The gay Spectator contributor Douglas Murray, wrote Blumenthal, was “xenophobic” and a “hardcore Islamophobe,” while Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the heroic Muslim apostate and critic of Islam who has to live with around-the-clock bodyguards because of jihadist death threats, was a “Dutch anti-Muslim activist and serial fabricator.”
In an article for Medium in December 2018, foreign correspondent Sulome Anderson announced that she was suing Blumenthal and his colleague Ben Norton. As part of their “dangerous campaign of disinformation against people whose work threatens Russian and Syrian interests,” she charged, they’d accused her of being “an agent of the U.S. or Israeli governments.” Anderson speaks Arabic, has reported from the Middle East for such outlets as the Atlantic, NBC News, the Daily Beast, and Newsweek, and is the daughter of the AP reporter Terry Anderson, who was held captive by Hezbollah for six years between 1985 and 1991. Sulome Anderson made it clear that while she was extremely reluctant to challenge anyone’s free-speech rights, she felt compelled to file the lawsuit because the steady drumbeat of lies about her from Blumenthal and Norton has compromised her and her sources’ personal safety when she’s working in danger zones. They need to understand, she wrote, that “there are consequences” for putting reporters like her “in harm’s way.”
A few months after Anderson’s announcement came the publication of Blumenthal’s The Management of Savagery. It is a critique of the enthusiasm of many American officials, including politicians in both major parties, for international military intervention. This enthusiasm, the author argues, led the U.S. government to fund terrorist groups during the Cold War that would later become its enemies, and also led America to get mired in Iraq. This unnecessary foreign adventurism helped elect Donald Trump, and that election, in turn, caused the D.C. establishment to push the argument that Putin had played a pivotal role in Trump’s victory.
Many Americans across the political spectrum will concur with Blumenthal about much if not all of the above. While many reasonable readers might share his view that, say, the U.S. invasion of Iraq wasn’t a good idea, they would likely balk at his claim that the negative image of Saddam Hussein in the U.S. was the product of dishonest propaganda. (Iraq, claims Blumenthal, was “stable” before the U.S. invasion. Well, that’s one way to put it.) Then there’s Blumenthal’s distinction between the U.S. and Soviet invasions of Afghanistan. The former, he maintains, was a hostile act of imperialism, period, whereas the 1979 incursion by the USSR was motivated by an admirable desire to stabilize an anarchic society, and it had the effect of introducing a socialist government that had benign consequences for Afghanis.
What about 9/11? During a nearly two-hour-long presentation at his book launch, which can be viewed on YouTube, Blumenthal mentioned 9/11 only to deplore the immediate response of some Americans to that monstrous atrocity and to call them Islamophobes; the attitudes toward infidels that actually drove those Muslims to commit that act of mass murder went unremarked. For him, the salient fact about 9/11 is that the U.S., since that day, has been awash in “Islamophobia,” which he describes as “the language of a wounded empire.” (The implication here, of course, is that 9/11 was a “wound” that the “empire” amply deserves.) Blumenthal savages post-9/11 counterterrorism efforts in New York City and elsewhere as the work of bigots, but he drops own the memory hole the innumerable post-9/11 acts of Islamic terror in the U.S. and Europe. He is far kinder to the “Blind Sheikh,” Omar Abdel-Rahman, who masterminded the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, than to the late Chris Kyle, the Navy SEAL whose life became the subject of Clint Eastwood’s movie American Sniper.
So it goes. According to Blumenthal, those who believe that there are terrorist cells in the U.S. or that some American Muslims cheered the fall of the Twin Towers on 9/11 have fallen for a “folk myth.” The only people who celebrated 9/11, he said at his book launch, were “a mysterious group of Israelis.” He also mocks the idea of “creeping sharia”—as exemplified by, for instance, the arrest, harassment, and prosecution of critics of Islam in many Western countries and the increasing recognition by Western governments of Islamic marriage laws. On the subject of jihad, Blumenthal is inconsistent. In some cases, he seems to recognize it as rooted in religion, but more often he treats it as if it’s always blowback against Western imperialism. He has no doubt, however, that the idea that jihadists “hate us because we’re free” is a “crude mantra.”
One striking feature of The Management of Savagery is Max Blumenthal’s bluntness about the Clintons, Sidney’s personal cause for decades. The Clinton Foundation, Max writes, accepted tens of millions from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and other sources even as some of these donors “were propping up ISIS and al-Qaeda in Syria.” Blumenthal doesn’t shrink from blaming Hillary for pushing the Russiagate story, which he describes as a “national security state narrative,” or from blaming Bill for ignoring the threat of al-Qaeda during his presidency. At his book launch, Blumenthal stated quite bluntly that, owing to their actions in Libya, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton “helped bring slavery back to Africa.”
Some of the arguments made by Blumenthal in this book have been made before by respected writers on both the left and the right who oppose what they see as reflexive and counterproductive U.S. interventions abroad—and, as with portions of his previous work, many readers with mainstream views will find those arguments congenial. But one cannot imagine that many readers with functioning moral compasses will respond with anything but disgust to the passages in which he defends the Assad regime, maintains that people in the West have a “blinkered view” of Assad, and denounces what he describes as the “Western media’s tendency to paint the Syrian conflict as a one-sided war between a maniacal dictator and his defenseless subjects.” In his attempt to sugarcoat Assad, Blumenthal reminds us that in 1971, Assad’s father “sparked massive Muslim Brotherhood demonstrations by issuing a stringently secular constitution.”
Again and again, in The Management of Savagery, Blumenthal insists that Assad’s enemies in Syria are at least as bad as he is; that those enemies have been funded and abetted by the West; that other tyrants in the region are, likewise, no better than Assad; and that Assad and his circle have long been the targets of “armed Sunni Islamist groups,” presumably because Assad does not share their backward theocratic views. It is interesting to observe that whereas Blumenthal, prior to his Moscow trip, almost invariably stood up for Islamic theocracies, he now sees things the other way around and is willing to speak critically about “Islamists.” He is willing to do this, that is, so long as he can cast them as the tools or allies of the U.S., or the West generally, against Assad and Putin. The one constant in his view of these matters is that he has always been more critical of the U.S. and other Western liberal democracies than of any tyrannical Middle Eastern regime, whether theocratic or secular.
More than any other American writer who has reached his level of notoriety, Blumenthal has proven consistently to be too hard-left even for some of the banner names of the hard left. “Pro-Assad, pro-Maduro, pro-Putin—literally nothing redeemable about this fellow and his moronic second-campism,” tweeted the British writer James Bloodworth, an old Trotskyite and longtime Guardian contributor, on June 9. The good news is that more and more respectable members of the journalistic profession have woken up to the fact that Blumenthal’s work is simply not to be trusted—that he is not a legitimate reporter but a propagandist. The bad news is that he is still able to get his books published and still has readers who, heaven help them, take his writings seriously.
Perhaps even more striking to contemplate are the emails released by WikiLeaks in which Sidney Blumenthal proudly shared his son’s writings with Hillary Clinton, who responded by praising them and even passing some of them around to her State Department colleagues. This included the epilogue to his Israel-bashing Gomorrah. “I loved the epilogue but it stopped abruptly and I can’t pull up the rest so I’m anxiously awaiting for the rest,” Hillary Clinton wrote to Sidney. “Pls congratulate Max for another impressive piece. He’s so good.”
How sharper than a serpent’s tooth is a Max Blumenthal!