Trump’s Syrian Dog-Wag Earns Only Light Applause From Right

Last week, an increasingly bizarre series of scandals involving Trump’s guilt-suppurating lawyer, a porn star, payoffs, and Prague was followed by an airstrike in Syria; whether this was Trump’s pivot or his patriotic duty I leave to the reader’s judgment.

Some conservatives followed their traditional pattern of cheering any Republican president’s acts of war no matter how questionable their motivation or effectiveness. But the weird thing was that, this time, many dissented — or were querulous or shady on the subject, as if they knew they had to play along but their hearts weren’t in it.

Part of their reticence may come from the specter of Obama. You may recall that back in August 2013, President Obama asked Congress for authorization to bomb Syria for chemical-weapon offenses uncannily similar to Trump’s casus belli. Since it was Obama, the Republican Congress never voted on it. Conservatives denounced the then-president, either for warmongering or for not warmongering the right way, i.e., like a Republican would.

Now it was Trump’s turn to bomb, and a surprising number of conservatives actually opposed their president’s bombing, sometimes on the touching grounds that Trump was breaking a promise to his voters not to monger war. It wasn’t just drama queens Michael Savage (“Sad warmongers hijacking our nation”) and Alex Jones (“bawwww snuk snuk”), either, but lofty types like National Review’s Andrew C. McCarthy, normally among Trump’s best friends at the conservative magazine, who declared the raid “in violation of the Constitution.” Even the reliably right-wing Daily Caller felt sufficient oats to run a list of “The Times Trump Warned Against Getting Involved In Syria” — like they were BuzzFeed or something! — while rabid Trumpkin sites such as Newsmax were forced to report, “Trump’s Staunchest Supporters Raging Over Syria Airstrikes.”

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Many of those who did not dissent seemed to wish they could. True, the more jingoistic rightbloggers beat the drums they’d been given by the administration with great enthusiasm (“Nikki Haley to Russia on Future Gas Attacks in Syria: ‘The United States Is Locked and Loaded,’ ” howled Breitbart). But when less down-market conservatives voiced support, it was softcore or sideways, as if they were hoping to be taken for supporters of some abstract principle Trump’s bombing represented rather than the bombing or the man himself.

At RedState, for example, Caleb Howe offered various defenses — “all of these other nations are involved,” “our Generals and Sec. Mattis aren’t bald-faced liars,” etc. — that will sound remarkably familiar to anyone who was around in 2003 just before we went to war with Saddam Hussein. As if he knew that he wasn’t going to convince anyone, Howe focused instead on the eternal conservative plan B (and occasional plan A), attacking the press: “MSNBC has spent an incredible amount of time talking about a movie,” Howe fumed.

Howe was talking about Wag the Dog — a movie whose very title now suggests war waged merely to distract the public from peccadillos, an assessment that in this case many of us would find understandable and even fair, given that Trump is not considered particularly honest or patriotic even by fellow conservatives such as, oh, Caleb Howe (“He has immediately destroyed his every core principle that isn’t related to immigration…. It’s called softening the target. It’s what salesmen do. And man, did you Trumpers get sold”).

Nonetheless, Howe speculated darkly that Lawrence O’Donnell, Rachel Maddow, and Chris Matthews “seem fully bought in” to the Wag the Dog comparison, and that “there’s reason to suspect network execs are pushing the topic” to hypnotize citizens into mistrusting their commander in chief. Maybe the saps will buy bombing to own the libs, if for no other reason.

Ben Marquis of Conservative Tribune agreed, complaining “Rachel Maddow Makes Wild Accusation About Trump’s Syria Strike” and declaring “much of the civilized world supported the military action,” offering as evidence just a single link — to a story about the thumbs-up Trump received from, get this, Chuck Schumer.

At National Review, Dan McLaughlin drew the short straw. He called Trump’s TV address on the strikes “fairly conventional” — meaning, it would seem, that it contained no childish nicknames or slurs, unlike other presidential communications. McLaughlin admitted, “I do not place any great faith in Trump’s motives for this action,” but reminded readers Bill Clinton was also untrustworthy, and blamed Trump’s “shortage of good options” on “President Obama’s preference for courting Iran over backing the non-ISIS opposition to Assad.” Spirited defense, huh?

“Is [the raid] actually the right thing?” McLaughlin asked. “Time will tell.… But at a minimum, tonight’s announcement illustrates that the enduring imperatives of American foreign policy prevail over the ideological illusions and personal impulses of Obama and Trump.” One imagines National Review editor Rich Lowry patting McLaughlin’s ass as the columnist slinks dejectedly off the mound toward the showers.

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A quick tour of right-wing sites shows a similar half-heartedness: As of this writing, the Federalist had but one tough-talking column on the subject, in which Paul Bonicelli wrote about “spanking a rogue regime” (though he cautiously added, “Don’t expect U.S. rhetoric to match exactly what I am putting forth here” — this is Trump we’re talking about, after all). National Review had relatively few references, including Michael Brendan Dougherty’s “Let’s Not Celebrate Trump’s Renewed Interest in Syria.” Even Breitbart wasn’t bannering America’s latest Republican bombing as much as you’d expect, with a podcast summary called “How Does President Trump Sell the Syria Strikes to Deplorables?” in which one guest claimed that despite the raid Trump was “not a neocon, or anything like that. He still has the bones of being much more restrained” — which, if it means anything, means don’t stop believing, hold on to the feeling.

Ironically — or maybe, now that I think of it, not so ironically — Trump’s bombing was treated more like presidential business as usual by the mainstream media than by our usual subjects, with CNN offering war porn graphics and human-interest angles like “Syrian chemical attack survivor to Trump: I want to ‘buy you a beer.’ Chuck Todd hauled former CIA director and frequently scorching Trump critic John Brennan onto Meet the Press to tell America “the way [Trump] handled this was exactly right.” Big-boy NeverTrumpers like the New York TimesBret Stephens announced, “President Trump has done the right thing and I salute him for it.” And the Washington Post reported with a straight face that “ ‘Horrible’ pictures of suffering moved Trump to action on Syria.”

And in fact it is business as usual: Everyone may know what “wag the dog” means, and quietly entertain that suspicion with regard to the amoral Trump, but when cameras roll it’s time to stand with the president or, at most, gently demur — in the words of NPR, “Debates ensue,” rather than, “Are you fucking kidding me.” The big boys know viewers will welcome this show of viciousness against foreigners as a diversion from the viciousness Americans show one another every day. And, unlike conservative pundits, they know with certainty what their audiences will accept, and they don’t feel the need to explain themselves.


“City of Ghosts” Lays Bare the Terror in Syria — And the Courage of Its Citizen Journalists

What might be most horrific about the horrors exposed in Matthew Heineman’s overwhelming City of Ghosts is their familiarity. The film documents the efforts of citizen journalists to alert the world to ISIS’s ravaging of Raqqa, their Syrian hometown, which Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his extremist followers seized four years ago. With cellphones, video cameras, and spotty Wi-Fi, the courageous young men of Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently revealed the bloody truth of ISIS’s perversion of Islam. Here are public executions: bodies chucked from buildings, kneeling hostages shot on camera, men and women publicly flayed, heads spiked on a fence while the bodies rot below. It’s terrible to behold, but it, of course, is no surprise. It’s what any reasonably informed American knows is going on but likely chooses not to think about. City of Ghosts and Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently demand that you contemplate it — that you find within yourself the capacity for outrage.

Unsurprising or not, that footage has outraged ISIS, which has endeavored to cut Raqqa off from the rest of the world and to exterminate the citizen journalists. When that fails, the bastards will kill the truth-tellers’ families. Much of the original RBSS crew long ago fled Raqqa and Syria for Europe, where, from safe houses, they post to the internet reports from courageous citizens back home. “They executed our brother and father so that we’d stop,” says a young man named Hassan, “but we’re going to continue.” Late in the film, RBSS members watch an ISIS propaganda video aimed directly at them: “And don’t think that your presence in Europe will protect you,” a narrator snarls. “A sharp knife or a bullet in the head will be your fate.” The men study the corpses on their screen. One says, with sickening matter-of-factness, “That’s Naji, and on the right is Ibrahim.”

ISIS has vowed to kill these men for having revealed, among other things, ISIS’s murders. Throughout the film, we glimpse ISIS’s own videos, painstakingly slick depictions of the same kind of brutality that RBSS leaks. ISIS’s media team convincingly apes the techniques of Hollywood action flicks and first-person-shooter video games, selling something worse than terror as they cut back and forth, using film-school angles, between an executioner and his helpless victim. They’re promising that enacting holy vengeance is a thrill, that killing is a cinematic blast, that young men without prospects could always make their mark on this world with headshots. That’s another horrible familiarity: Young men here are sold the same fatal lie.

Heineman’s own footage is strong, too. He shows us his expat heroes making new lives, cheered and somewhat discomfited by Berlin’s libertine openness. They field calls from Raqqans, type up firsthand news reports, wince at photographs of air strikes. They wait to hear who has died. They’re rewarded, at times, by the West: In Manhattan, spokesman Abdalaziz Alhamza is feted by David Remnick and the Committee to Protect Journalists. In Berlin, though, several RBSS survivors behold an anti-immigrant protest where the fearful shout, “Deport them!” Again, Heineman’s film urges us not to take any horrors for granted. It is invaluable, as both moral instruction and documented history.


City of Ghosts

Directed by Matthew Heineman

Amazon Studios and IFC Films

Opens July 7, Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and IFC Center


Netflix Doc E-Team Showcases Human Rights Workers Fighting in the Field

Well-known both for its political activities and for its long-running film festival, Human Rights Watch becomes the subject of a documentary itself in E-Team. Katy Chevigny and Ross Kauffman’s film isn’t a broad portrait of the organization.

Instead, it focuses on four Europe-based case workers on the HRW emergency team: Anna Neistat; her husband, Ole Solvang; Peter Bouckaert; and Fred Abrahams. Starting in 2011, they investigated human rights abuses in Syria and Libya. Initially, these are presented almost as if E-Team were a fictional adventure film and Neistat a female Indiana Jones.

The emphasis on the team’s daring amid mass chaos seems a bit off: This threatens to become yet another film about white Americans and Europeans telling the stories of Third World people. But the rest of the film does much to redeem that dubious trope: E-Team is ultimately about activists trying to summarize the crimes of Syria’s Assad regime in a way that will inspire the world’s media and governments to take action.

The results are sometimes maddening: A Moscow press conference leads to accusations of HRW being part of an American conspiracy. Abrahams points to his experiences in Kosovo in the late ’90s and the eventual prosecution of Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic as success stories for the organization. However, it’s much harder to put an upbeat face on three years of slaughter in Syria, all documented by the E-Team. You sense them struggling to remain positive, even as the very existence of this film suggests that many people care deeply about the work of Human Rights Watch.


Omar Souleyman

You may not know his name, but Omar Souleyman is, by far, the coolest man alive. The musician hails from Ra’s al-‘Ayn, Syria, and with his 2013 record Wenu Wenu, he broke out of his standard audience and into the worlds of those who subscribe to The Fader. On stage, he floats around stoically, sporting sunglasses and a smile. He claps along to his songs, of which he’ll play roughly four or five for an entire set given the typical length of around 15 minutes. The music, despite being a bit different for those of us used to listening to guitar rock, is bouncy and strange and bizarrely infectious and positive. Omar makes everyone experiencing Omar feel great—so you need to experience Omar yourself.

Wed., Aug. 6, 8:30 p.m., 2014


Don’t Miss the $22 Cypriot Tasting Menu at Kopiaste Taverna

Sweep up the stairs and into the spacious dining room to begin your tasting menu of short plates from Cyprus.

Astoria newcomer Kopiaste (“Come in and sit down”) Taverna presents the Greek cooking of the island of Cyprus, which is much closer to Turkey and Syria than to the other Greek islands. You won’t be surprised to hear that the cuisine has all sorts of Turkish and Middle Eastern elements, making it one of the most interesting in the Mediterranean. The best way to experience it is with Cyprus Meze, a tasting menu that presents 17 dishes for the incredible price of $22 per person, along with toasted pitas and French bread. Here is the selection on a recent evening–you won’t go away hungry.

Read the entire Counter Culture review of Kopiaste Taverna here.

First to arrive was Pantzaria, a marinated beet salad.

Next, Salata Kipriaki, a chopped cabbage salad flavored with lemon and cilantro

Accompanied by plenty of warm toasted pitas, a trio of dips: hummus, tzatziki (with mint!), and taramosalata

The dishes are piling up! Next to arrive is a bowl of firm Green Olives drenched in olive oil.

Lountza, smoked pork loin

Contrary to type, the stuffed grape leaves called Koupepia are stuffed mainly with ground pork.

Usually served grilled or fried, halloumi is a Crypriot goat’s milk cheese.


Afelia is a pork stew marinated in red wine and powdered coriander.

Pourgouri is a salad of cracked wheat, vermicelli, and tomatoes.

Cypriot meatballs called Keftedes

Sheftalia: grilled pork sausages flavored with onions and parsley

Chicken kebab (Souvlaki Kotopoulo)

Heaped with chopped onions and parsley, the pork kebab (Soulvaki Hirino)

Loukanika, a wine-laced beef sausage

Finally, a pair of desserts, Baklava and a semolina pudding called Kalo Prama


Omary Souleyman+Prince Rama

Fresh off a trio of surreal Björk remixes and live album Haflat Gharbia (The Western Concerts)<.i>, the charismatically effete Middle Eastern star returns with his hard, fast, loud, and thrillingly distorted version of Syria’s dabke dance music. Opening is Prince Rama, whose Taraka and Nimai Larson once upon a time abandoned a Florida Hare Krishna community for a Boston art school. Their six albums explore ritual and transcendence through percussion, keyboards, dance, and eye-popping costumes.

Thu., Nov. 3, 7 p.m., 2011


Omar Souleyman+Deakin

A TSA goon’s worst nightmare in in his proudly ubiquitous aviator shades, red-checkered keffiyeh headdress, and trim yet fulsome ‘stache, Omar Souleyman plays a hard, fast, loud, and thrillingly distorted version of Syria’s dabke dance music, punctuated with plaintive ataba dirges. He stalks the stage accompanied by keyboardist Rizan Sa’id, who provides the crazy-loud beats and simulated traditional instruments. Animal Collective’s Deakin opens with his one-man drone show.

Tue., Nov. 2, 8:30 p.m., 2010


Getting Your Phreak On at Gazala Place

If you’re accustomed to thinking of Middle Eastern food as a bland
collection of bread dips and kebabs, you haven’t been to Gazala Place.
The whole fried orata ($22.95) is a magnificent sight as it swims to
the table on a long platter. The sleek sustainable fish (a farmed
Mediterranean species) is nicely browned, with a crispy skin that would
do a suckling pig proud—but what are those gleaming white
swatches melded to the skin? One bite, and your mouth catches fire:
Though the swatches resemble melted mozzarella, they’re really shards
of pickled garlic. Eat Gazala’s orata, and you won’t feel like kissing
anyone for a week.

Gazala Place claims to be the country’s only Druze restaurant.
Incorporating mystical Greek Gnostic principles, and revering Jethro,
the father-in-law of Moses, the Druze faith is an offshoot of Islam
often regarded as a separate religion. Its clannish followers currently
dwell in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Israel, where the family of chef
Gazala Habibi comes from. As with any dispersed population, Druze
cuisine reflects a rich multiplicity of sources.

Besides the orata, the Turkish salad ($4.50) is also an unexpectedly
spicy dish. The chunky scarlet purée is more dip than salad, and
the chile heat is kicked up with sharp white vinegar. A pool of olive
oil rests on top. To scoop it up, grab one of the restaurant’s pitas
from the basket. These speckled flatbreads are not of the cardboard
pocket variety you’ve come to dread in Middle Eastern restaurants, and
are made with whole-wheat flour and are as thin as a pocket
handkerchief. They’re created on the domed grill that sits in the front
window of the restaurant, and you’ll be eating lots of them before your
meal is through.

These pitas are indispensable in excavating the many scoopable
substances. As in other Levantine cuisines, beans and eggplant are
important staples, mainly incorporated into bread dips. An entire menu
section, in fact, is devoted to fava beans, hummus, and their mutual
interactions ($5.50 each): You can have plain favas stewed with garlic,
mashed favas topped with whole favas, favas planted in hummus, or
hummus shot with chickpeas. Listed in the appetizer section, the lemony
babaganoush is above average, while the hummus by itself is bland and
lacking in salt—that’s because it functions as a foil for so many
other dishes.

Reflecting the chef’s family origins, there are a few dishes
identified as Israeli. Chak choka is one: a cast-iron skillet bubbling
with a chunky tomato gravy. A pair of poached eggs float like eyes in
the fluid, which looks like the work of television murderer Dexter. In
The Book of Jewish Food, Claudia Roden identifies this dish as
originating from the Jews of Tunisia, but it’s now commonly included on
Israeli menus in New York and Tel Aviv.

Another amazing dish is the freaky-sounding frekasai ($14.95). The
entrée is based on green wheat grains (usually transliterated
“phreak”), which are smoked before being boiled. At Gazala Place, the
chef turns it into a composed salad, surrounded by tomato slices like
an edible picket fence. The domed heap is accompanied by a bowl of cold
and garlicky cucumber soup, and the pair is beyond refreshing. In fact,
frekasai is destined to be one of my favorite summer foods.

The menu offers the standard Middle Eastern grilled meats, of which
the best is surely kafta (sandwich, $5.50; platter, $13.95), a
hamburger-shaped kebab composed of lamb and beef ground together and
flavored with parsley and onions. Plenty of fat gets into the mixture,
causing the patties to absorb the smoky flavors of the fire. Flattened
like a pancake, the chicken breast is unexpectedly moist, and the lamb
kebabs are some of the best in Hell’s Kitchen. If you can’t decide,
pick the moshakal ($17.95), an entrée that deposits all three on
a dome of excellent rice and sides it with a tossed salad.

Savory pastries make up another large part of the menu. Seductively
positioned by the front door on a counter lie all manner of
bourekas—individual phyllo pies that originated in Turkey, but
have spread all over the Balkans, Russia, and much of the Middle East.
Their tops dotted with black sesame seeds, these turnovers come stuffed
with feta, feta and spinach, or feta and sun-dried tomatoes, the latter
a fusioney whim of the chef. By contrast, zaatar and the other pies
that look like small pizzas should be avoided like the swine flu: The
crust turns out tough, dull, and unlovable. Stick with the bourekas,
and you won’t be disappointed.


Hello Mutha, Hello Fatteh

In 1542, Ottoman ruler Süleyman the Magnificent built the Damascus Gate, the most splendid entrance to Jerusalem’s old city. An opening right above the gate was used to pour boiling oil on attackers. Luckily, you don’t have to dodge boiling oil when you step inside Brooklyn’s Damascus Gate, the newest addition to a burgeoning Middle Eastern restaurant scene along Fifth Avenue in Bay Ridge. The corner café makes a fetish of the gate, reproducing it on sweatshirts, business cards, and pennants. And while most Middle Eastern restaurants soft-pedal their national origins, offering a crowd-pleasing but predictable roster of pan-regional delicacies like falafel, shish kebab, and baba ghanoush, Damascus Gate enthusiastically features Syria’s special cuisine. Eggplant-wise, in addition to a thick and creamy baba, there’s mtabbal ($4.49), a tahini-free puree whomped with raw garlic, which would set your mouth on fire even without the red Aleppo pepper it contains. More unusual is makdous ($5.99), a very sour pickle of baby eggplants delicately stuffed with walnuts.

Can you fall in love with a cuisine at first bite? I did, when my spoon dipped into fatteh bil lahmeh ($8.99), a thick yogurt porridge served in a giant white bowl, swimming with crunchy toasted pita and tendrils of lamb whacked off the shawarma cylinder. A cloudburst of roasted pignoli that sit on top and slowly sink into the snowy whiteness provides a culinary coup de grâce. This dish is as homestyle as can be, and the cook came out of the kitchen one evening to bring us the porridge herself, maybe curious about the table of eager non-Syrian diners, spoons at the ready, who had ordered it. Three alternate fattehs are offered, the first utilizing chicken instead of lamb and not quite as good. Of the two vegetarian versions, one boasts a finishing ladle of margarine—the ingredient is proudly noted on the menu—ramping up the richness.

The national dish of Syria is kibbeh, familiar to frequenters of Levantine restaurants as a dryish, ocarina-shaped shell of cracked wheat filled with ground meat. But Syrians entertain multiple variations; find them lined up in the glass refrigerator case at Damascus Gate. Sounding like the name of an insurance salesman, kibbeh bil sayniyeh is shaped like a big pie cut into wedges. Best of all is another that doesn’t appear on the menu: kibbeh meshwi ($3.50 each). It’s thrust onto the grill and charred on both sides. When you cut into this beveled hockey puck, out spills an irresistible heap of ground lamb, pine nuts, and onions, subtly inflected with tomato paste.

The menu offers a few fish selections, but the only choice available on our three visits was tilapia kafta kebab, fashioned into an undulating column along a sword. It seemed bland compared to the much tastier ground-lamb kafta, incorporating onions, garlic, peppers, and parsley, served as a pita sandwich ($4.49) or on a platter ($10.99) accompanied by rice ramified with vermicelli, Rice-A-Roni’s undoubted prototype. The accompanying salad, though, was sadly limp from having been dressed earlier in the day.

Always examine the refrigerator cases, where you can find such delicacies as quail, beef tartare, and vegetables stuffed with ground meat. The combination of low prices and amazing food means it’s impossible to leave without being overstuffed. Still, remember to duck your head when you exit to avoid the boiling oil.


Missing Ink

Last week, the United States ended its search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the leading rationale for a war that has now killed at least 1,300 Americans, wounded 10,000 more, and led to the deaths of—by a conservative estimate—thousands of Iraqis. The New York Times mentioned this on page A10 and in a second-day editorial, Newsday on A6, the Daily News in the middle of another story, and the Post not at all. The Sun relegated it to the editorial page, where it said the material may have been “secreted out to Syria.” Meanwhile, The Washington Post slapped it on A1.