Recent tensions in the West Bank and East Jerusalem have brought the long-standing Israeli occupation of Palestine back into the news. Discussion of a third Intifada and a “wave of violence” have John Kerryrushing to the region to “calm things down” and pundits scrambling to lay blame. Missing from recent news is an important piece of context: Palestine is still reeling from the Israeli assault on Gaza last summer that left11,000 wounded and over 2,200 dead, 70% of them children.
Pulitzer Prize-winner Chris Hedges and AlterNet’s Max Blumenthal recently sat down to discuss the situation on Hedges’ new teleSUR show, “Days of Revolt,” a series that focuses on people around the world fighting injustice.
“The homes [in Gaza] are three to four stories high,” Blumenthal said, “and each floor represents a generation, so when it gets hit by a missile, you see a family liquidated.” His words play over video of explosions destroying apartment complexes and sometimes entire city blocks. The UN estimates that over 20,000 homes were destroyed and over 500,000 Gazans displaced during last summer’s Operation Protective Edge.
The two men also discuss a chilling economic angle on the carnage. A major sector of Israel’s economy is the design, manufacturing and exporting of weapons and weapons systems.
“These horrific weapons they are testing,” Hedges said. “I mean, they’re using the people of Gaza like guinea pigs.” The weapons in question, so-called DIME bombs (or dense inert metal explosives), are, according to Blumenthal, “tungsten-based and attack human tissue over a matter of days… [they have] a very small entry wound and result in the massive burning of the organs.” The use of these weapons, Hedges notes, creates a perverse incentive to test new, brutal weapons that can later be exported.
As the false symmetry of “tit for tat” framing plays out in our media, their discussion is a useful reminder that over the past few years, what’s happened in Palestine is anything but symmetrical.
Watch the video:
Adam Johnson is an associate editor at AlterNet. Follow him on Twitter at@adamjohnsonnyc.
In an extraordinary interview Sunday evening on CBS News’ “60 Minutes” program, President Barack Obama sought to defend his policy in Syria against a mounting chorus of detractors within the foreign policy and military/intelligence establishment who are demanding an even more massive and reckless military escalation than that which he has authorized.
Under aggressive, bordering on belligerent, questioning from “60 Minutes” moderator Steve Kroft, Obama was unable to present a coherent explanation of either the purpose of the war in Syria or the reasons for the fiasco thus far of Washington’s four-year drive to topple the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The interview was broadcast a week after Russia launched a military intervention to prop up the Assad regime against the US-backed Islamist militias. These militias form the backbone of the so-called “rebels” carrying out the war for regime-change on the ground.
Conducted at the White House on October 6, the interview was aired just two days after Obama announced that he was ending the Pentagon’s disastrous yearlong attempt to recruit and train a “moderate” force to fight both Assad and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS or ISIL), and was instead increasing US arms and air support for existing “rebel” militias. What Obama did not say was that these forces are dominated by Al Qaeda-affiliated groups such as the al-Nusra Front, which the US State Department lists as a foreign terrorist organization.
Obama’s announcement, far from a military retreat, marked an escalation of the American intervention in Syria, one that threatens to trigger a direct conflict with Russia, the possessor of the world’s second biggest nuclear arsenal after the US.
These steps, however, are deemed woefully inadequate within broad sections of the state and political establishment, including layers of the Democratic Party. What the “60 Minutes” interview revealed is the disarray and crisis of US policy and the existence of bitter divisions within the ruling elite. Powerful factions are pushing for the deployment of thousands of US troops to take out Assad, regardless the risks of war with Russia and the possibility of a Third World War.
One expression of the depths of the political crisis over Washington’s debacle in Syria and the broader Middle East was the inquisitorial posture adopted by Kroft. He repeatedly interrupted Obama and bluntly listed the failures of his policy.
Within the first minute of the interview, Kroft declared, “I mean, if you look at the situation and you’re looking for progress, it’s not easy to find. You could make the argument that the only thing that’s changed is the death toll, which has continued to escalate, and the number of refugees fleeing Syria into Europe.”
When Obama attempted to answer a question, he interjected, “I mean, what’s going on right now is not working. I mean, they [ISIS] are still occupying big chunks of Iraq. They’re still occupying a good chunk of Syria. Who’s going to get rid of them?”
On the Pentagon’s failed program to create a “moderate” anti-ISIS and anti-Assad militia, Croft said, “You have been talking about the moderate opposition in Syria. It seems very hard to identify… You got a half a billion dollars from Congress to train and equip 5,000, and at the end, according to the commander of CENTCOM, you got 50 people, most of whom are dead or deserted. He said four or five left?”
In response, Obama made the astonishing admission that he did not believe in the program from the beginning. The following exchange took place:
Obama: “Steve, this is why I’ve been skeptical from the get go about the notion that we were going to effectively create this proxy army inside of Syria. My goal has been to try to test the proposition, can we be able to train and equip a moderate opposition that’s willing to fight ISIL? And what we’ve learned is that as long as Assad remains in power, it is very difficult to get those folks to focus their attention on ISIL.”
Kroft: “If you were skeptical of the program to find and identify, train and equip moderate Syrians, why did you go through the program?”
Obama: “Well, because part of what we have to do here, Steve, is to try different things…”
Aside from the virtual acknowledgment that his policy lacked any coherence, Obama’s attempt at an explanation for the failure of the Pentagon plan amounted to an admission that his administration’s claims of the existence of a “moderate” anti-Assad military force were fraudulent. The only significant forces fighting to overthrow Assad are and always have been Islamist elements linked to Al Qaeda.
Kroft was careful not to press this point because it shatters the pretense that the bloody wars waged by Washington and its regional allies in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen—which have taken well over a million lives and destroyed entire societies—were carried out to fight terrorism.
On Russia’s intervention in Syria, Kroft was no less adversarial. Here is an excerpt from the interview:
Kroft: “Mr. Putin seems to be challenging [American] leadership.”
Obama: “In what way?”
Kroft: “Well, he’s moved troops into Syria, for one. He’s got people on the ground. Two, the Russians are conducting military operations in the Middle East for the first time since World War II, bombing the people that we are supporting…
“He’s challenging your leadership, Mr. President. He’s challenging your leadership…
“There is a perception in the Middle East among our adversaries, certainly and even among some of our allies that the United States is in retreat, that we pulled our troops out of Iraq and ISIS has moved in and taken over much of that territory. The situation in Afghanistan is very precarious and the Taliban is on the march again. And ISIS controls a large part of Syria.”
Obama’s response to this accurate description of the present situation in the Middle East was both highly revealing and ominous. After a half-hearted attempt to argue for a political settlement to transition Assad out of power—this supposedly being the only basis for defeating ISIS—he focused on the alternative being advanced within the ruling class to his reluctance to deploy large number of US troops.
Obama: “I guarantee you that there are factions inside of the Middle East, and I guess factions inside the Republican Party, who think that we should send endless numbers of troops into the Middle East, that the only measure of strength is sending back several hundred thousands troops, that we are going to impose a peace, police the region, and—that the fact that we might have more deaths of US troops, thousands of troops killed, thousands of troops injured, spending another trillion dollars, they would have no problem with that. There are people who would like to see us do that…
“And if, in fact, the only measure is for us to send another 100,000 or 200,000 troops into Syria or back into Iraq, or perhaps into Libya, or perhaps into Yemen, and our goal somehow is that we are now going to be, not just the police, but the governors of the region, that would be a bad strategy, Steve.”
These words should be taken as a warning by working people and youth in the US and internationally. Here Obama blurted out what is being intensively discussed and planned in the offices of the CIA, the Pentagon and various corporate boardrooms.
These plans for greater conquest and empire cannot be carried out by the forces available in a volunteer army, especially when American imperialism is preparing for even greater wars against rivals such as Russia, China and, eventually, potential challengers to US supremacy such as Germany and Japan. They require the reintroduction of the draft, to dragoon untold thousands of youth to serve as cannon fodder in the American ruling class’s manic pursuit of global domination.
These words describe a policy of all-out war that, opposed for the present by Obama on the basis of tactical considerations, is nevertheless the inevitable and logical outcome of the entire foreign policy of US imperialism, particularly since the dissolution of the Soviet Union nearly 25 years ago.
From the first Gulf War launched in 1991 by George H.W. Bush under the banner of America’s “New World Order,” to the Balkan wars of the 1990s, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the wars for regime-change in Libya and Syria and the latest war in Yemen, American imperialism has single-mindedly pursued a policy of world hegemony, seeking to utilize its military superiority to offset its economic decline.
This policy has produced one disaster after another, the Syrian debacle joining the creation of a regime in Iraq that aligns itself with Russia and Iran and the installation of a hated and despised puppet government in Afghanistan that cannot survive without the permanent presence of thousands of US troops.
American imperialism will not, however, accept its eclipse by one or another rival power. The crisis of US policy in Syria and the broader Middle East makes all the more urgent the building of a new antiwar movement based on the working class united internationally in the struggle against capitalism.
On September 2, the United States’ support for the Iran nuclear deal was secured. President Barack Obama’s team negotiated the deal along with other countries of the P5+1 (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, the U.S. and Germany). The Republicans in the U.S. Congress had threatened to pass a resolution that would block Obama’s signature on such a deal. Obama had said he would veto any Bill that constrained his hand to sign that deal. He needed 34 Senators to back him in order to secure his veto. When Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland said she would support the President, the deal was safe.
Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C., told me that Barbara Mikulski’s vote was “a big relief”. She said that the Iran deal was “a huge victory for diplomacy over the real threat of war with Iran”. Trita Parsi and Reza Marashi of the National Iranian American Council agreed. Obama, they said, “has proven to the U.S. that security is better achieved through diplomacy than through militarism”. Emad Kiyaei of the American Iranian Council told me just after Barbara Mikulski’s announcement: “There is no ‘better’ deal and the opposition has not introduced a viable alternative, except more coercive policies that to date have not slowed—rather accelerated—Iran’s nuclear programme.”
In late August, Obama suggested that those who agreed with him were “the crazies”. This suggested the strong push the White House had made to get the deal through. No wonder that the American Enterprise Institute’s Danielle Pletka told me that Obama was more belligerent with the Congress than the Iranian negotiators. “I only wish the President had brought the same tenacity and purpose to the Iran talks,” she told me, “than he brought to bludgeoning the representatives of the American people.”
To get the wider context of the Iranian deal, I spoke to Professor Noam Chomsky, who laid out the geopolitical and historical context for this important agreement. — Vijay Prashad
Professor Chomsky, how would you characterise the Republican Party’s reaction to the Iran nuclear deal?
The Republicans are almost unanimously opposed to the nuclear deal. The current Republican primaries illustrate the proclaimed reasons. Ted Cruz, considered one of the intellectuals of the group, warned that Iran may still be able to produce nuclear weapons, and it could use one to set off an electromagnetic pulse that “would take down the electrical grid of the entire eastern seaboard” of the U.S., killing “tens of millions of Americans”. The two most likely winners of the primary, Jeb Bush and Scott Walker, are battling over whether to bomb Iran immediately after being elected or after the first Cabinet meeting. The one candidate with some foreign policy experience, Lindsey Graham, described the deal as “a death sentence for the State of Israel,” which came as a surprise to Israeli intelligence and strategic analysts—and which Graham too knows to be utter nonsense, raising immediate questions about actual motives.
It is important to bear in mind that the Republicans have long abandoned the pretence of functioning as a normal parliamentary party. Rather, they have become a “radical insurgency” that scarcely seeks to participate in normal parliamentary politics, as observed by the respected conservative political commentator Norman Ornstein of the right-wing American Enterprise Institute. Since Ronald Reagan, the leadership has plunged so far into the pockets of the very rich and the corporate sector that they can attract votes only by mobilising sectors of the population that have not previously been an organised political force, among them extremist evangelical Christians, now probably the majority of Republican voters; remnants of the former slave-holding States; nativists who are terrified that “they” are taking our white Christian Anglo-Saxon country away from us; and others who turn the Republican primaries into spectacles remote from the mainstream of modern society—though not the mainstream of the most powerful country in world history.
The Republican suspicion of Iran seems to be shared across sections of the political spectrum, even among those who are for the deal. Could you address that suspicion of Iran?
Across the spectrum, there is general agreement with the “pragmatic” conclusion of General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that the Vienna deal “did not prevent the U.S. from striking Iranian facilities if officials decide that it is cheating on the agreement”, even though a unilateral military strike is “far less likely” if Iran behaves. Former Clinton and Obama Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross recommends that “Iran must have no doubt that if we see it moving towards a weapon, that would trigger the use of force” even after the termination of the deal, when Iran is free to do what it wants. In fact, the existence of a termination point 15 years hence is “the greatest single problem with the agreement,” he adds, recommending that the U.S. provide Israel with B-52 bombers to protect itself before that terrifying date arrives.
The underlying assumption here is that Iran is a serious threat, that it would attack Israel with nuclear weapons. How credible is that threat?
To be sure, Israel faces the “existential threat” of Iranian pronouncements: Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad famously threatened it with destruction. Except that they didn’t—and if they had, it would be of little moment. They predicted that “Under God’s grace [the Zionist regime] will be wiped off the map.” Another translation suggests that Ahmadinejad actually said that Israel “must vanish from the page of time”. This is a citation of a statement made by Ayatollah Khomeini, during a period when Iran and Israel were tacitly allied. In other words, they hope that regime change will someday take place. They do not say that they will attack Israel either now or later.
Ahmadinejad’s threats fall far short of regular U.S.-Israeli direct calls for regime change in Iran, not to speak of actions to implement regime change going back to the actual “regime change” of 1953, when the U.S. organised a military coup to overthrow the Iranian parliamentary regime and install the dictatorship of the Shah, who proceeded with one of the world’s worst human rights records. These crimes were known to readers of Amnesty International and other human rights organisations, but not to readers of the U.S. press, which has indeed devoted plenty of space to Iranian human rights violations, but only after 1979, when the U.S.-imposed regime was overthrown. The instructive facts are documented carefully in a study by Mansour Farhang and William Dorman.
None of this is a departure from the norm. The U.S., as is well known, holds the world championship in regime change, and Israel is no laggard either. The most destructive of Israel’s invasions of Lebanon, in 1982, was explicitly aimed at regime change, along with securing its hold on the Occupied Territories. The pretexts offered were very thin, and collapsed at once. That too is not unusual and pretty much independent of the nature of the society, from the laments in the Declaration of Independence about the “merciless Indian savages” to Hitler’s defence of Germany from the “wild terror” of the Poles.
No serious analyst believes that Iran would ever use, or even threaten to use, a nuclear weapon if it had one, thus facing instant destruction. There is, however, real concern that a nuclear weapon might fall into jehadi hands—not from Iran, where the threat is minuscule, but from the U.S. ally Pakistan, where it is very real.
In the journal of the (British) Royal Institute of International Affairs, two leading Pakistani nuclear scientists, Pervez Hoodbhoy and Zia Mian, write that increasing fears of “militants seizing nuclear weapons or materials and unleashing nuclear terrorism [have led to] the creation of a dedicated force of over 20,000 troops to guard nuclear facilities [though] there is no reason to assume, however, that this force would be immune to the problems associated with the units guarding regular military facilities,” which have frequently suffered attacks with “insider help”. In brief, the problem is real, but is displaced by fantasies concocted for other reasons.
Professor Chomsky, the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Power, has said that the problem is the “instability that Iran fuels beyond its nuclear programme”. She echoed U.S. Defence Secretary Ashton Carter, who went to Israel’s northern border and said, “We will continue to help Israel counter Iran’s malign influence” by supporting Hizbollah. The U.S., he intimated, reserved the right to use military force against Iran. Could you comment on this?
Power’s usage is standard: she defines “stabilisation” according to a peculiar logic. For instance, U.S. policy in Iraq is defined as stabilisation. What does that stabilisation look like? The U.S. invades a country, with hundreds of thousands killed and millions becoming refugees, along with barbarous torture and destruction that Iraqis compare to the Mongol invasions, leaving Iraq the unhappiest country in the world according to WIN/Gallup polls. It also ignited sectarian conflict that is tearing the region to shreds and laying the basis for the ISIS [Islamic State of Iraq and Syria] monstrosity along with its Saudi ally. That is stabilisation. The standard usage sometimes reaches levels that are almost surreal, as when liberal commentator James Chace, former editor of Foreign Affairs, explains that the U.S. sought to “destabilise a freely elected Marxist government in Chile” because “we were determined to seek stability” [under the Pinochet dictatorship].
Let us consider the case of Hizbollah and Hamas. Both emerged in resistance to U.S.-backed Israeli violence and aggression, which vastly exceeds anything attributed to these organisations. Whatever one thinks about them, or other beneficiaries of Iranian support, Iran hardly ranks high in support for terror worldwide, even within the Muslim world. Among Islamic states, Saudi Arabia is far in the lead as a sponsor of Islamic terror, not only by direct funding by wealthy Saudis and others in the Gulf but even more by the missionary zeal with which the Saudis promulgate their extremist Wahhabi-Salafi version of Islam through Quranic schools, mosques, clerics, and other means available to a religious dictatorship with enormous oil wealth. The ISIS is an extremist offshoot of Saudi religious extremism and its fanning of jehadi flames.
In generation of Islamic terror, however, nothing can compare with the U.S. “war on terror”, which has helped to spread the plague from a small tribal area in Afghanistan-Pakistan to a vast region from West Africa to South-East Asia. The invasion of Iraq alone escalated terror attacks by a factor of seven in the first year, well beyond even what had been predicted by intelligence agencies. Drone warfare against marginalised and oppressed tribal societies also elicits demands for revenge, as ample evidence indicates.
The two Iranian clients [Hizbollah and Hamas] also share the crime of winning the popular vote in the only free elections held in the Arab world. Hizbollah is guilty of the even more heinous crime of compelling Israel to withdraw from its occupation of southern Lebanon in violation of [U.N.] Security Council orders dating back decades, an illegal regime of terror punctuated with episodes of extreme violence, murder and destruction.
Iran’s “fuelling instability” is particularly dramatic in Iraq, where, among other crimes, it alone came at once to the aid of Kurds defending themselves from the ISIS invasion and it is building a $2.5 billion power plant to try to bring electrical power back to the level before the U.S. invasion.
The other argument made here is that Iran has a terrible human rights record. How can the U.S. cut a deal with such a state?
Leon Wieseltier, contributing editor of the venerable liberal journal The Atlantic, said that the U.S. should pursue “an American-sponsored alliance between Israel and the Sunni states”. This is in reaction to his and others’ outrage that the U.S. would make a deal with the “contemptible” regime in Iran. Wieseltier can barely conceal his visceral hatred for all things Iranian. With a straight face, this respected liberal intellectual recommends that Saudi Arabia, which makes Iran look like a virtual paradise in comparison, and Israel, with its vicious crimes in Gaza and elsewhere, should ally to teach Iran good behaviour. Perhaps the recommendation is not entirely unreasonable when we consider the human rights records of the regimes the U.S. has imposed and supported throughout the world. The Iranian government is no doubt a threat to its own people, though it regrettably breaks no records in this regard and does not descend to the level of favoured allies [of the U.S.]. But that cannot be the concern of the U.S., and surely not Israel and Saudi Arabia.
It might also be useful to recall —surely Iranians do—that not a day has passed since 1953 when the U.S. was not severely harming Iranians. As soon as Iranians overthrew the hated U.S.-imposed regime of the Shah in 1979, Washington at once turned to supporting Saddam Hussein’s murderous attack on Iran. Ronald Reagan went so far as to deny Saddam’s major crime, his chemical warfare assault on Iraq’s Kurdish population, which Reagan blamed on Iran. When Saddam was tried for crimes under U.S. auspices, this horrendous crime, and others in which the U.S. was complicit, were carefully excluded from the charges, restricted to one of his very minor crimes, the murder of 148 Shias in 1982, a footnote to his gruesome record.
Saddam was such a valued friend of Washington that he was even granted a privilege accorded otherwise only to Israel: to attack a U.S. naval vessel with impunity, killing 37 crewmen—the USS Stark, in 1987. Israel did the same in its 1967 attack on the USS Liberty. Iran pretty much conceded defeat shortly after when the U.S. launched Operation Praying Mantis against Iranian ships and oil platforms in Iranian territorial waters. The Operation culminated in the shooting down of an Iranian civilian airliner in Iranian airspace by USS Vincennes, under no credible threat, with 290 killed, and the subsequent granting of a Legion of Merit award to the Vincennes commander for “exceptionally meritorious conduct” and for maintaining a “calm and professional atmosphere” during the period when the attack on the airliner took place. “We can only stand in awe of such display of American exceptionalism!” Thill Raghu commented.
After the war, the U.S. continued to support Iran’s primary enemy, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. President Bush I, the statesman Bush, even invited Iraqi nuclear engineers to the U.S. for advanced training in weapons production, an extremely serious threat to Iran. Sanctions against Iran were intensified, including against foreign firms dealing with Iran, along with actions to bar Iran from the international financial system.
In recent years, the hostility has extended to sabotage, murder of nuclear scientists [presumably by Israel], and cyberwar, openly proclaimed with pride. The Pentagon regards cyberwar as an act of war, justifying a military response, with the accord of NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organisation], which affirmed in September 2014 that cyberattacks might trigger the collective defence obligations of the NATO powers. When we are the target that is, not the perpetrators.
It is only fair, however, to add that there have been breaks in the pattern. President Bush II provided several major gifts to Iran by destroying its major enemies, Saddam Hussein and the Taliban. He even placed Iran’s Iraqi enemy under Iranian influence after the U.S. defeat, which was so severe that the U.S. had to abandon its officially declared goals of establishing military bases and ensuring privileged access to Iraq’s vast oil resources for U.S. corporations.
There seems to be little evidence that the Iranians would ever use nuclear weapons. In 2005, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei delivered a fatwa (decree) against nuclear weapons. Why is there this belief that the Iranians are eager almost to use their non-existent nuclear weapons?
We can decide for ourselves how credible the denials from Iranian leaders are, but that they had such intentions in the past is beyond question, since it was asserted openly on the highest authority, which informed foreign journalists that Iran would develop nuclear weapons “certainly, and sooner than one thinks”. The father of Iran’s nuclear energy programme and former head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation was confident that the leadership’s plan “was to build a nuclear bomb”. A Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) report also had “no doubt” that Iran would develop nuclear weapons if neighbouring countries did [as they have].
All of this was under the Shah, the highest authority just quoted. That is, during the period when high U.S. officials—Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Henry Kissinger and others—were urging the Shah to proceed with nuclear programmes, and pressuring universities to accommodate these efforts. As part of these efforts, my own university, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), made a deal with the Shah to admit Iranian students to the nuclear engineering programme in return for grants from the Shah, over the very strong objections of the student body, but with comparably strong faculty support, in a meeting that older faculty will doubtless remember well. Asked later why he supported these programmmes under the Shah but opposed them now, Kissinger responded honestly that Iran was an ally then.
Putting aside absurdities, what is the real threat of Iran that inspires such fear and fury? A natural place to turn for an answer is, again, U.S. intelligence. Recall its analysis that Iran poses no military threat, that its strategic doctrines are defensive, and its nuclear programmmes [with no effort to produce bombs, as far as intelligence can determine] are “a central part of its deterrent strategy”.
Who, then, would be concerned by an Iranian deterrent? The answer is plain: the rogue states that rampage in the region and do not want to tolerate any impediment to their reliance on aggression and violence. Far in the lead in this regard are the U.S. and Israel, with Saudi Arabia trying its best to join the club with its invasion of Bahrain to support the crushing of the reform movement by the dictatorship and now its murderous assault on Yemen, accelerating the humanitarian catastrophe there.
Could you talk a bit more about these “rogue states”? After all, this is not the typical characterisation of rogue states, a term developed in 1994 by U.S. National Security Adviser Anthony Lake to refer to North Korea, Cuba, Iraq, Iran and Libya. Your list does not include these powers. It has the U.S., Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Fifteen years ago, the Professor of the Science of Government at Harvard, the prominent political analyst Samuel Huntington, warned in the major establishment journal, Foreign Affairs, that for much of the world the U.S. was “becoming the rogue superpower” considered “the single greatest external threat to their societies”. His words were echoed shortly after by the president of the American Political Science Association, Robert Jervis, who observed, “In the eyes of much of the world, in fact, the prime rogue state today is the U.S.”
Global opinion supports this judgment by a substantial margin. According to the leading Western polling agencies (WIN/Gallup), the greatest threat to world peace is the U.S. Far below in second place is Pakistan, its ranking probably inflated by the Indian vote. Iran is ranked below, along with Israel, North Korea and Afghanistan.
The U.S., by its own admission, is the gravest threat to world peace. That is the clear meaning of the insistence of the leadership and the political class, in media and commentary, that the U.S. reserves the right to resort to force if it determines, unilaterally, that Iran is violating some commitment. It is also a long-standing official stand of liberal democrats, for example the Clinton Doctrine, that the U.S. is entitled to resort to “unilateral use of military power” even for such purposes as to ensure “uninhibited access to key markets, energy supplies and strategic resources”, let alone alleged “security” or “humanitarian” concerns. And adherence to the doctrine is well confirmed in practice, as need hardly be discussed among people willing to look at the facts of current history.
Turning to the next obvious question, what in fact is the Iranian threat? Why, for example, are Israel and Saudi Arabia trembling in fear over the threat of Iran? Whatever the threat is, it can hardly be military. U.S. intelligence years ago informed Congress that Iran had very low military expenditures by the standards of the region and that its strategic doctrines are defensive, designed to deter aggression. Intelligence reports further confirmed that there was no evidence that Iran was pursuing a nuclear weapons programme, and that “Iran’s nuclear programme and its willingness to keep open the possibility of developing nuclear weapons is a central part of its deterrent strategy.”
The authoritative Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) review of global armament ranks the U.S., as usual, far in the lead in military expenditures, with China in second place at about one-third of U.S. expenditures. Far below are Russia and Saudi Arabia, well above any Western European state. Iran is scarcely mentioned. Full details are provided in an April study of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), which finds “a conclusive case that the Arab Gulf states have … an overwhelming advantage [over] Iran in both military spending and access to modern arms”. Iran’s military spending is a fraction of Saudi Arabia’s, and is far below even the spending of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Altogether, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states—Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE—outspend Iran on arms by a factor of eight, an imbalance that goes back decades. The CSIS observes further that “the Arab Gulf states have acquired and are acquiring some of the most advanced and effective weapons in the world [while] Iran has essentially been forced to live in the past, often relying on systems originally delivered at the time of the Shah”, which are virtually obsolete. The imbalance is, of course, even greater with Israel, which, along with the most advanced U.S. weaponry and its role as a virtual offshore military base of the global superpower, has a huge stock of nuclear weapons.
Finally, could you say a little on what you just mentioned—namely, on Israel’s stockpile of nuclear weapons?
Israel, of course, is one of the three nuclear powers, along with India and Pakistan, whose nuclear weapons programmes have been abetted by the U.S. and who refuse to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif welcomed the nuclear deal and said that it was now the turn of the “holdout”, namely Israel. The regular five-year NPT review conference ended in failure this April. One of the main reasons for the failure was that the U.S. once again blocked the efforts to move toward a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone in the Middle East [West Asia]. These efforts have been led by Egypt and other Arab states for 20 years. Two of the leading figures promoting them at the NPT and other U.N. agencies, and at the Pugwash conferences, Jayantha Dhanapala and Sergio Duarte, observe that “the successful adoption in 1995 of the resolution on the establishment of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East was the main element of a package that permitted the indefinite extension of the NPT”, the most important arms control treaty, which, were it adhered to, could end the scourge of nuclear weapons. Repeatedly, implementation of the resolution has been blocked by the U.S., most recently by Barack Obama in 2010 and again in 2015. Dhanapala and Duarte comment that the effort was again blocked “on behalf of a state that is not a party to the NPT and is widely believed to be the only one in the region possessing nuclear weapons”, a polite and understated reference to Israel. They “hope that this failure will not be the coup de grâce to the two longstanding NPT objectives of accelerated progress on nuclear disarmament and on establishing a Middle Eastern WMD-free zone”. Their article, in the journal of the Arms Control Association, is entitled: “Is There a Future for the NPT?”
A nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East is a straightforward way to address whatever threat Iran allegedly poses. And a great deal more is at stake in Washington’s continuing sabotage of the effort, protecting its Israeli client. This is not the only case when opportunities to end the alleged Iranian threat have been undermined by Washington, raising further questions about just what is actually at stake.
This interview originally appeared in Frontline (India).
Vijay Prashad, director of International Studies at Trinity College, is the editor of “Letters to Palestine” (Verso). He lives in Northampton.
The fundamental truth about American economic growth today is that while the work is done by many, the real rewards largely go to the few. The numbers are, at this point, woefully familiar: the top one percent of earners take home more than 20 percent of the income, and their share has more than doubled in the last thirty-five years. The gains for people in the top 0.1 percent, meanwhile, have been even greater. Yet over that same period, average wages and household incomes in the US have risen only slightly, and a number of demographic groups (like men with only a high school education) have actually seen their average wages decline.
Income inequality has become such an undeniable problem, in fact, that even Republican politicians have taken to decrying its effects. It’s not surprising that a Democrat like Barack Obama would call dealing with inequality “the defining challenge of our time.” But when Jeb Bush’s first big policy speech of 2015 spoke of the frustration that Americans feel at seeing “only a small portion of the population riding the economy’s up escalator,” it was a sign that inequality had simply become too obvious, and too harmful, to be ignored.
Something similar has happened in economics. Historically, inequality was not something that academic economists, at least in the dominant neoclassical tradition, worried much about. Economics was about production and allocation, and the efficient use of scarce resources. It was about increasing the size of the pie, not figuring out how it should be divided. Indeed, for many economists, discussions of equity were seen as perilous, because there was assumed to be a necessary “tradeoff” between efficiency and equity: tinkering with the way the market divided the pie would end up making the pie smaller. As the University of Chicago economist Robert Lucas put it, in an oft-cited quote: “Of the tendencies that are harmful to sound economics, the most seductive, and…the most poisonous, is to focus on questions of distribution.”
Today, the landscape of economic debate has changed. Inequality was at the heart of the most popular economics book in recent memory, the economist Thomas Piketty’s Capital. The work of Piketty and his colleague Emmanuel Saez has been instrumental in documenting the rise of income inequality, not just in the US but around the world. Major economic institutions, like the IMF and the OECD, have published studies arguing that inequality, far from enhancing economic growth, actually damages it. And it’s now easy to find discussions of the subject in academic journals.
All of which makes this an ideal moment for the Columbia economist Joseph Stiglitz. In the years since the financial crisis, Stiglitz has been among the loudest and most influential public intellectuals decrying the costs of inequality, and making the case for how we can use government policy to deal with it. In his 2012 book, The Price of Inequality, and in a series of articles and Op-Eds for Project Syndicate, Vanity Fair, and The New York Times, which have now been collected in The Great Divide, Stiglitz has made the case that the rise in inequality in the US, far from being the natural outcome of market forces, has been profoundly shaped by “our policies and our politics,” with disastrous effects on society and the economy as a whole. In a recent report for the Roosevelt Institute called Rewriting the Rules, Stiglitz has laid out a detailed list of reforms that he argues will make it possible to create “an economy that works for everyone.”
Stiglitz’s emergence as a prominent critic of the current economic order was no surprise. His original Ph.D. thesis was on inequality. And his entire career in academia has been devoted to showing how markets cannot always be counted on to produce ideal results. In a series of enormously important papers, for which he would eventually win the Nobel Prize, Stiglitz showed how imperfections and asymmetries of information regularly lead markets to results that do not maximize welfare. He also argued that this meant, at least in theory, that well-placed government interventions could help correct these market failures. Stiglitz’s work in this field has continued: he has just written (with Bruce Greenwald) Creating a Learning Society, a dense academic work on how government policy can help drive innovation in the age of the knowledge economy.
Stiglitz served as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers in the Clinton administration, and then was the chief economist at the World Bank during the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s. His experience there convinced him of the folly of much of the advice that Western economists had given developing countries, and in books like Globalization and Its Discontents (2002) he offered up a stinging critique of the way the US has tried to manage globalization, a critique that made him a cult hero in much of the developing world. In a similar vein, Stiglitz has been one of the fiercest critics of the way the Eurozone has handled the Greek debt crisis, arguing that the so-called troika’s ideological commitment to austerity and its opposition to serious debt relief have deepened Greece’s economic woes and raised the prospect that that country could face “depression without end.” For Stiglitz, the fight over Greece’s future isn’t just about the right policy. It’s also about “ideology and power.” That perspective has also been crucial to his work on inequality.
The Great Divide presents that work in Stiglitz’s most popular—and most populist—voice. While Piketty’s Capital is written in a cool, dispassionate tone, The Great Divideis clearly intended as a political intervention, and its tone is often impassioned and angry. As a collection of columns, The Great Divide is somewhat fragmented and repetitive, but it has a clear thesis, namely that inequality in the US is not an unfortunate by-product of a well-functioning economy. Instead, the enormous riches at the top of the income ladder are largely the result of the ability of the one percent to manipulate markets and the political process to their own benefit. (Thus, the title of his best-known Vanity Fair piece: “Of the 1 percent, by the 1 percent, for the 1 percent.”) Soaring inequality is a sign that American capitalism itself has gone woefully wrong. Indeed, Stiglitz argues, what we’re stuck with isn’t really capitalism at all, but rather an “ersatz” version of the system.
Inequality obviously has no single definition. As Stiglitz writes:
There are so many different parts to America’s inequality: the extremes of income and wealth at the top, the hollowing out of the middle, the increase of poverty at the bottom. Each has its own causes, and needs its own remedies.
But in The Great Divide, Stiglitz is mostly interested in one dimension of inequality: the gap between the people at the very top and everyone else. And his analysis of that gap concentrates on the question of why incomes at the top have risen so sharply, rather than why the incomes of everyone else have stagnated. While Stiglitz obviously recognizes the importance of the decline in union power, the impact of globalization on American workers, and the shrinking value of the minimum wage, his preoccupation here is primarily with why the rich today are so much richer than they used to be.
To answer that question, you have to start by recognizing that the rise of high-end incomes in the US is still largely about labor income rather than capital income. Piketty’s book is, as the title suggests, largely about capital: about the way the concentration of wealth tends to reproduce itself, leading to greater and greater inequality. And this is an increasing problem in the US, particularly at the highest reaches of the income spectrum. But the main reason people at the top are so much richer these days than they once were (and so much richer than everyone else) is not that they own so much more capital: it’s that they get paid much more for their work than they once did, while everyone else gets paid about the same, or less. CorporateCEOs, for instance, are paid far more today than they were in the 1970s, while assembly line workers aren’t. And while incomes at the top have risen in countries around the world, nowhere have they risen faster than in the US.
One oft-heard justification of this phenomenon is that the rich get paid so much more because they are creating so much more value than they once did. Globalization and technology have increased the size of the markets that successful companies and individuals (like pop singers or athletes) can reach, so that being a superstar is more valuable than ever. And as companies have gotten bigger, the potential value that CEOs can add has increased as well, driving their pay higher.
Stiglitz will have none of this. He sees the boom in the incomes of the one percent as largely the result of what economists call “rent-seeking.” Most of us think of rent as the payment a landlord gets in exchange for the use of his property. But economists use the word in a broader sense: it’s any excess payment a company or an individual receives because something is keeping competitive forces from driving returns down. So the extra profit a monopolist earns because he faces no competition is a rent. The extra profits that big banks earn because they have the implicit backing of the government, which will bail them out if things go wrong, are a rent. And the extra profits that pharmaceutical companies make because their products are protected by patents are rents as well.
Not all rents are terrible for the economy—in some cases they’re necessary evils. We have patents, for instance, because we think that the costs of granting a temporary monopoly are outweighed by the benefits of the increased innovation that patent protection is supposed to encourage. But rents make the economy less efficient, because they move it away from the ideal of perfect competition, and they make consumers worse off. So from the perspective of the economy as a whole, rent-seeking is a waste of time and energy. As Stiglitz puts it, the economy suffers when “more efforts go into ‘rent seeking’—getting a larger slice of the country’s economic pie—than into enlarging the size of the pie.”
Rents are nothing new—if you go back to the 1950s, many big American corporations faced little competition and enjoyed what amounted to oligopolies. But there’s a good case to be made that the sheer amount of rent-seeking in the US economy has expanded over the years. The number of patents is vastly greater than it once was. Copyright terms have gotten longer. Occupational licensing rules (which protect professionals from competition) are far more common. Tepid antitrust enforcement has led to reduced competition in many industries. Most importantly, the financial industry is now a much bigger part of the US economy than it was in the 1970s, and for Stiglitz, finance profits are, in large part, the result of what he calls “predatory rent-seeking activities,” including the exploitation of uninformed borrowers and investors, the gaming of regulatory schemes, and the taking of risks for which financial institutions don’t bear the full cost (because the government will bail them out if things go wrong).
All this rent-seeking, Stiglitz argues, leaves certain industries, like finance and pharmaceuticals, and certain companies within those industries, with an outsized share of the rewards. And within those companies, the rewards tend to be concentrated as well, thanks to what Stiglitz calls “abuses of corporate governance that lead CEOs to take a disproportionate share of corporate profits” (another form of rent-seeking). In Stiglitz’s view of the economy, then, the people at the top are making so much because they’re in effect collecting a huge stack of rents.
This isn’t just bad in some abstract sense, Stiglitz suggests. It also hurts society and the economy. It erodes America’s “sense of identity, in which fair play, equality of opportunity, and a sense of community are so important.” It alienates people from the system. And it makes the rich, who are obviously politically influential, less likely to support government investment in public goods (like education and infrastructure) because those goods have little impact on their lives. (The one percent are, in fact, more likely than the general public to support cutting spending on things like schools and highways.)
More interestingly (and more contentiously), Stiglitz argues that inequality does serious damage to economic growth: the more unequal a country becomes, the slower it’s likely to grow. He argues that inequality hurts demand, because rich people consume less of their incomes. It leads to excessive debt, because people feel the need to borrow to make up for their stagnant incomes and keep up with the Joneses. And it promotes financial instability, as central banks try to make up for stagnant incomes by inflating bubbles, which eventually burst. (Consider, for instance, the toleration, and even promotion, of the housing bubble by Alan Greenspan when he was chairman of the Fed.) So an unequal economy is less robust, productive, and stable than it otherwise would be. More equality, then, can actually lead to more efficiency, not less. As Stiglitz writes, “Looking out for the other guy isn’t just good for the soul—it’s good for business.”
This explanation of both the rise in inequality and its consequences is quite neat, if also bleak. But it’s also, it has to be said, oversimplified. Take the question, for instance, of whether inequality really is bad for economic growth. It certainly seems plausible that it would be, and there are a number of studies that suggest it is. Yet exactly why inequality is bad for growth turns out to be hard to pin down—different studies often point to different culprits. And when you look at cross-country comparisons, it turns out to be difficult to prove that there’s a direct connection between inequality and the particular negative factors that Stiglitz cites. Among developed countries, more unequal ones don’t, as a rule, have lower levels of consumption or higher levels of debt, and financial crises seem to afflict both unequal countries, like the US, and more egalitarian ones, like Sweden.
This doesn’t mean that, as conservative economists once insisted, inequality is good for economic growth. In fact, it’s clear that US-style inequality does not help economies grow faster, and that moving toward more equality will not do any damage. We just can’t yet say for certain that it will give the economy a big boost.
Similarly, Stiglitz’s relentless focus on rent-seeking as an explanation of just why the rich have gotten so much richer makes a messy, complicated problem simpler than it is. To some degree, he acknowledges this: in The Price of Inequality, he writes, “Of course, not all the inequality in our society is the result of rent seeking…. Markets matter, as do social forces….” Yet he doesn’t really say much about either of those inThe Great Divide. It’s unquestionably true that rent-seeking is an important part of the rise of the one percent. But it’s really only part of the story.
When we talk about the one percent, we’re talking about two groups of people above all: corporate executives and what are called “financial professionals” (these include people who work for banks and the like, but also money managers, financial advisers, and so on). These are the people that Piketty terms “supermanagers,” and he estimates that together they account for over half of the people in the one percent.
The emblematic figures here are corporate CEOs, whose pay rose 876 percent between 1978 and 2012, and hedge fund managers, some of whom now routinely earn billions of dollars a year. As one famous statistic has it, last year the top twenty-five hedge fund managers together earned more than all the kindergarten teachers in America did.
Stiglitz wants to attribute this extraordinary rise in CEO pay, and the absurd amounts of money that asset managers make, to the lack of good regulation. CEOs, in his account, are exploiting deficiencies in corporate governance—supine boards and powerless shareholders—to exploit shareholders and “appropriate for themselves firm revenues.” Money managers, meanwhile, are exploiting the ignorance of investors, reaping the benefits of what Stiglitz calls “uncompetitive and often undisclosed fees” to ensure that they get paid well even when they underperform.
The idea that high CEO pay is ultimately due to poor corporate governance is a commonplace, and certainly there are many companies where the relationship between the CEO and the board of directors (which in theory is supposed to be supervising him) is too cozy. Yet as an explanation for why CEOs get paid so much more today than they once did, Stiglitz’s argument is unsatisfying. After all, back in the 1960s and 1970s, when CEOs were paid much less, corporate governance was, by any measure, considerably worse than it is today, not better. As one recent study put it:
Corporate boards were predominately made up of insiders…or friends of theCEO from the “old boys’ network.” These directors had a largely advisory role, and would rarely overturn or even mount major challenges to CEO decisions.
Shareholders, meanwhile, had fewer rights and were less active. Since then, we’ve seen a host of reforms that have given shareholders more power and made boards more diverse and independent. If CEO compensation were primarily the result of bad corporate governance, these changes should have had at least some effect. They haven’t. In fact, CEO pay has continued to rise at a brisk rate.
It’s possible, of course, that further reform of corporate governance (like giving shareholders the ability to cast a binding vote on CEO pay packages) will change this dynamic, but it seems unlikely. After all, companies with private owners—who have total control over how much to pay their executives—pay their CEOs absurd salaries, too. And CEOs who come into a company from outside—meaning that they have no sway at all over the board—actually get paid more than inside candidates, not less. Since 2010, shareholders have been able to show their approval or disapproval of CEOpay packages by casting nonbinding “say on pay” votes. Almost all of those packages have been approved by large margins. (This year, for instance, these packages were supported, on average, by 95 percent of the votes cast.)
Similarly, while money managers do reap the benefits of opaque and overpriced fees for their advice and management of portfolios, particularly when dealing with ordinary investors (who sometimes don’t understand what they’re paying for), it’s hard to make the case that this is why they’re so much richer than they used to be. In the first place, opaque as they are, fees are actually easier to understand than they once were, and money managers face considerably more competition than before, particularly from low-cost index funds. And when it comes to hedge fund managers, their fee structure hasn’t changed much over the years, and their clients are typically reasonably sophisticated investors. It seems improbable that hedge fund managers have somehow gotten better at fooling their clients with “uncompetitive and often undisclosed fees.”
So what’s really going on? Something much simpler: asset managers are just managing much more money than they used to, because there’s much more capital in the markets than there once was. As recently as 1990, hedge funds managed a total of $38.9 billion. Today, it’s closer to $3 trillion. Mutual funds in the US had $1.6 trillion in assets in 1992. Today, it’s more than $16 trillion. And that means that an asset manager today can get paid far better than an asset manager was twenty years ago, even without doing a better job.
This doesn’t mean that asset managers or corporate executives “deserve” what they earn. In fact, there’s no convincing evidence that CEOs are any better, in relative terms, than they once were, and plenty of evidence that they are paid more than they need to be, in view of their performance. Similarly, asset managers haven’t gotten better at beating the market. The point, though, is that attributing the rise in their pay to corruption, or bad rules, doesn’t get us that far. More important, probably, has been the rise of ideological assumptions about the indispensability of CEOs, and changes in social norms that made it seem like executives should take whatever they could get. (Stiglitz alludes to these in The Price of Inequality, writing, “Norms of what was ‘fair’ changed, too.”) Discussions of shifts in norms often become what the economist Robert Solow once called a “blaze of amateur sociology.” But that doesn’t mean we can afford to ignore those shifts, either, since the rise of the one percent has been propelled by ideological changes as much as by economic or regulatory ones.
Complicating Stiglitz’s account of the rise of the one percent is not just an intellectual exercise. It actually has important consequences for thinking about how we can best deal with inequality. Strategies for reducing inequality can be generally put into two categories: those that try to improve the pretax distribution of income (this is sometimes called, clunkily, predistribution) and those that use taxes and transfers to change the post-tax distribution of income (this is what we usually think of as redistribution). Increasing the minimum wage is an example of predistribution. Medicaid is redistribution.
Stiglitz’s agenda for policy—which is sketched in The Great Divide, and laid out in comprehensive detail in Rewriting the Rules—relies on both kinds of strategies, but he has high hopes that better rules, designed to curb rent-seeking, will have a meaningful impact on the pretax distribution of income. Among other things, he wants much tighter regulation of the financial sector. He wants to loosen intellectual property restrictions (which will reduce the value of patents), and have the government aggressively enforce antitrust laws. He wants to reform corporate governance so CEOs have less influence over corporate boards and shareholders have more say over CEO pay. He wants to limit tax breaks that encourage the use of stock options. And he wants asset managers to “publicly disclose holdings, returns, and fee structures.” In addition to bringing down the income of the wealthiest Americans, he advocates measures like a higher minimum wage and laws encouraging stronger unions, to raise the income of ordinary Americans (though this is not the main focus of The Great Divide).
These are almost all excellent suggestions. And were they enacted, some—including above all tighter regulation of the financial industry—would have an impact on corporate rents and inequality. But it would be surprising if these rules did all that much to shrink the income of much of the one percent, precisely because improvements in corporate governance and asset managers’ transparency are likely to have a limited effect on CEO salaries and money managers’ compensation.
This is not a counsel of despair, though. In the first place, these rules would be good things for the economy as a whole, making it more efficient and competitive. More important, the second half of Stiglitz’s agenda—redistribution via taxes and transfers—remains a tremendously powerful tool for dealing with inequality. After all, while pretax inequality is a problem in its own right, what’s most destructive is soaring posttax inequality. And it’s posttax inequality that most distinguishes the US from other developed countries. As Stiglitz writes:
Some other countries have as much, or almost as much, before-tax and transfer inequality; but those countries that have allowed market forces to play out in this way then trim back the inequality through taxes and transfer and the provision of public services.
The redistributive policies Stiglitz advocates look pretty much like what you’d expect. On the tax front, he wants to raise taxes on the highest earners and on capital gains, institute a carbon tax and a financial transactions tax, and cut corporate subsidies. But dealing with inequality isn’t just about taxation. It’s also about investing. As he puts it, “If we spent more on education, health, and infrastructure, we would strengthen our economy, now and in the future.” So he wants more investment in schools, infrastructure, and basic research.
If you’re a free-market fundamentalist, this sounds disastrous—a recipe for taking money away from the job creators and giving it to government, which will just waste it on bridges to nowhere. But here is where Stiglitz’s academic work and his political perspective intersect most clearly. The core insight of Stiglitz’s research has been that, left on their own, markets are not perfect, and that smart policy can nudge them in better directions.
Indeed, Creating a Learning Society is dedicated to showing how developing countries can use government policy to become high-growth, knowledge- intensive economies, rather than remaining low-cost producers of commodities. What this means for the future of the US is only suggestive, but Stiglitz argues that it means the government should play a major role in the ongoing “structural transformation” of the economy.
Of course, the political challenge in doing any of this (let alone all of it) is immense, in part because inequality makes it harder to fix inequality. And even for progressives, the very familiarity of the tax-and-transfer agenda may make it seem less appealing. After all, the policies that Stiglitz is calling for are, in their essence, not much different from the policies that shaped the US in the postwar era: high marginal tax rates on the rich and meaningful investment in public infrastructure, education, and technology. Yet there’s a reason people have never stopped pushing for those policies: they worked. And as Stiglitz writes, “Just because you’ve heard it before doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try it again.”
Fourteen years later and do you even believe it? Did we actually live it? Are we still living it? And how improbable is that?
Fourteen years later, we don’t even grasp what we did.
Fourteen years later, the improbability of it all still staggers the imagination, starting with those vast shards of the World Trade Center in downtown Manhattan, the real-world equivalent of the Statue of Liberty sticking out of the sand in the original Planet of the Apes. With lower Manhattan still burning and the air acrid with destruction, they seemed like evidence of a culture that had undergone its own apocalyptic moment and come out the other side unrecognizably transformed. To believe the coverage of the time, Americans had experienced Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima combined. We were planet Earth’s ultimate victims and downtown New York was “Ground Zero,” a phrase previously reserved for places where nuclear explosions had occurred. We were instantly the world’s greatest victim and greatest survivor, and it was taken for granted that the world’s most fulfilling sense of revenge would be ours. 9/11 came to be seen as an assault on everything innocent and good and triumphant about us, the ultimate they-hate-our-freedoms moment and, Osama, it worked. You spooked this country into 14 years of giving any dumb or horrifying act or idea or law or intrusion into our lives or curtailment of our rights a get-out-of-jail-free pass. You loosed not just your dogs of war, but ours, which was exactly what you needed to bring chaos to the Muslim world.
Fourteen years later, let me remind you of just how totally improbable 9/11 was and how ragingly clueless we all were on that day. George W. Bush (and cohorts) couldn’t even take it in when, on August 6, 2001, the president was given a daily intelligence briefing titled “Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S.” The NSA, the CIA, and the FBI, which had many of the pieces of the bin Laden puzzle in their hands, still couldn’t imagine it. And believe me, even when it was happening, I could hardly grasp it. I was doing exercises in my bedroom with the TV going when I first heard the news of a plane hitting the World Trade Center and saw the initial shots of a smoking tower. And I remember my immediate thought: just like the B-25 that almost took out the Empire State Building back in 1945. Terrorists bringing down the World Trade Center? Please. Al-Qaeda? You must be kidding. Later, when two planes had struck in New York and another had taken out part of the Pentagon, and it was obvious that it wasn’t an accident, I had an even more ludicrous thought. It occurred to me that the unexpected vulnerability of Americans living in a land largely protected from the chaos so much of the world experiences might open us up to the pain of others in a new way. Dream on. All it opened us up to was bringing pain to others.
Fourteen years later, don’t you still find it improbable that George W. Bush and company used those murderous acts and the nearly 3,000 resulting deaths as an excuse to try to make the world theirs? It took them no time at all to decide to launch a “Global War on Terror” in up to 60 countries. It took them next to no time to begin dreaming of the establishment of a future Pax Americana in the Middle East, followed by the sort of global imperium that had previously been conjured up only by cackling bad guys in James Bond films. Don’t you find it strange, looking back, just how quickly 9/11 set their brains aflame? Don’t you find it curious that the Bush administration’s top officials were quite so infatuated by the US military? Doesn’t it still strike you as odd that they had such blind faith in that military’s supposedly limitless powers to do essentially anything and be “the greatest force for human liberation the world has ever known”? Don’t you still find it eerie that, amid the wreckage of the Pentagon, the initial orders our secretary of defense gave his aides were to come up with plans for striking Iraq, even though he was already convinced that Al Qaeda had launched the attack? (“‘Go massive,’ an aide’s notes quote him as saying. ‘Sweep it all up. Things related and not.’”) Don’t you think “and not” sums up the era to come? Don’t you find it curious that, in the rubble of those towers, plans not just to pay Osama bin Laden back, but to turn Afghanistan, Iraq, and possibly Iran—“Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran”—into American protectorates were already being imagined?
Fourteen years later, how probable was it that the country then universally considered the planet’s “sole superpower,” openly challenged only by tiny numbers of jihadist extremists, with a military better funded than the next 10to 13 forces combined (most of whom were allies anyway), and whose technological skills were, as they say, to die for would win no wars, defeat no enemies, and successfully complete no occupations? What were the odds? If, on September 12, 2001, someone had given you half-reasonable odds on a US military winning streak in the Greater Middle East, don’t tell me you wouldn’t have slapped some money on the table.
Fourteen years later, don’t you find it improbable that the US military has been unable to extricate itself from Iraq and Afghanistan, its two major wars of this century, despite having officially left one of those countries in 2011 (only tohead back again in the late summer of 2014) and having endlessly announced the conclusion of its operations in the other (only to ratchet them up again)?
Fourteen years later, don’t you find it improbable that Washington’s post-9/11 policies in the Middle East helped lead to the establishment of the Islamic State’s “caliphate” in parts of fractured Iraq and Syria and to a movement of almost unparalleled extremism that has successfully “franchised” itself out from Libya to Nigeria to Afghanistan? If, on September 12, 2001, you had predicted such a possibility, who wouldn’t have thought you mad?
Fourteen years later, don’t you find it improbable that the United States has gone into the business of robotic assassination big time; that (despite Watergate-era legal prohibitions on such acts), we are now the Terminators of Planet Earth, not its John Connors; that the president is openly and proudly anassassin-in-chief with his own global “kill list”; that we have endlessly targeted the backlands of the planet with our (Grim) Reaper and Predator (thank youHollywood!) drones armed with Hellfire missiles; and that Washington has regularly knocked off women and children while searching for militant leaders and their generic followers? And don’t you find it odd that all of this has been done in the name of wiping out the terrorists and their movements, despite the fact that wherever our drones strike, those movements seem to gain in strength and power?
Fourteen years later, don’t you find it improbable that our “war on terror” has so regularly devolved into a war of and for terror; that our methods, including the targeted killings of numerous leaders and “lieutenants” of militant groups have visibly promoted, not blunted, the spread of Islamic extremism; and that, despite this, Washington has generally not recalibrated its actions in any meaningful way?
Fourteen years later, isn’t it possible to think of 9/11 as a mass grave into which significant aspects of American life as we knew it have been shoveled? Of course, the changes that came, especially those reinforcing the most oppressive aspects of state power, didn’t arrive out of the blue like those hijacked planes. Who, after all, could dismiss the size and power of the national security state and the military-industrial complex before those 19 men with box cutters arrived on the scene? Who could deny that, packed into the Patriot Act (passed largely unread by Congress in October 2001) was a wish list of pre-9/11 law enforcementand right-wing hobbyhorses? Who could deny that the top officials of the Bush administration and their neocon supporters had long been thinkingabout how to leverage “U.S. military supremacy” into a Pax Americana–style new world order or that they had been dreaming of “a new Pearl Harbor” which might speed up the process? It was, however, only thanks to Osama bin Laden, that they—and we—were shuttled into the most improbable of all centuries, the 21st.
Fourteen years later, the 9/11 attacks and the thousands of innocents killed represent international criminality and immorality of the first order. On that, Americans are clear, but—most improbable of all—no one in Washington has yet taken the slightest responsibility for blowing a hole through the Middle East, loosing mayhem across significant swathes of the planet, or helping release the forces that would create the first true terrorist state of modern history; nor has anyone in any official capacity taken responsibility for creating the conditions that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands, possibly amillion or more people, turned many in the Greater Middle East into internal or external refugees, destroyed nations, and brought unbelievable pain to countless human beings. In these years, no act—not of torture, nor murder, nor the illegal offshore imprisonment of innocent people, nor death delivered from the air or the ground, nor the slaughter of wedding parties, nor the killing of children—has blunted the sense among Americans that we live in an “exceptional” and “indispensable” country of staggering goodness and innocence.
Who knew, when Bernie Sanders announced a run in the Democratic primary, that not only would he meet with hostility from his main opponent’s chief surrogates, but that the media would acquiesce and even collude to such a great degree?
When analyzing the quantity and content of the vast majority of what is said and written about Sanders, his campaign platform, and appearances, one finds a running theme across the so-called liberal media. The New York Times has been called out by more than one analyst, myself included, for its complete lack of serious coverage of Bernie Sanders.
Since joining the staff at the New York Times, Maggie Haberman has written about Sanders on fewer than a handful of occasions, while she has written about the other candidates in the race more often. While it is understandable that Hillary Clinton would be the subject of more numerous articles, it makes no sense for Martin O’Malley to have more articles written about him than Sanders, given the pecking order that emerged right from the start, yet that is what has transpired so far.
In articles that address various aspects of the Democratic side of the primary, Senator Sanders’ ability to succeed is always described in doubtful terms, even as Hillary Clinton’s troubles in the polls are being described. The New York Times has published fewer than a dozen pieces that are Sanders campaign-specific and each is problematic in the way he is portrayed. Most often, Sanders’ age and hair are highlighted, and the incorrect moniker “socialist” is applied. (Socialist and Democratic socialist are not interchangeable terms.)
While the age of a candidate might matter to some when thinking about a candidate’s experience or mental capacity, Bernie Sanders is 73, only six years older than Hillary Clinton. His mental capacity has never been a subject of contention. One can only conclude from the repetition of negative references, that writers are attempting to condition readers into thinking of Sanders as the “unkempt” elderly stereotype.
Most presidential candidates have been older than 60. Think of Ronald Reagan. The distance between 67 to 73, in human years, isn’t that significant from either the experiential or health standpoints. If anything, Sanders’ breakneck schedule, accounting for work in the Senate, crisscrossing the nation to hold rallies, and appearing on cable news shows demonstrates a high level of mental and physical energy.
The most harmful way anti-Sanders media bias has been manifested is by omission. In this respect, the New York Times is joined by the vast majority of the mainstream media in not typically reporting on Sanders, especially on policy. Overall there is a version of a “wall of silence” built by the media when it comes to serious reporting and analysis of his policies; or when analyzing or reporting on the policies of his opponents, a failure to mention Sanders’ in contrast, especially when his is the more progressive position. This behavior hasn’t gone unnoticed by readers. You can see numerous complaints from readers about the Times organization’s bias toward Sanders. You see it in the New York Times comments section, on the Facebook pages and comments sections of all the major publications, and just about everywhere else. Readers complain about the lack of substantive coverage as well as the bias in what little is published. The Times’ Jason Horowitz’ piece, “Bernie Sanders Draws Big Crowds to His ‘Political Revolution” drew over 1600 comments, double what the most popular columns usually fetch, with most in protest over the obvious bias of the piece and the Times’ egregious lack of coverage of Bernie Sanders news.
Bernie Sanders’ campaign has centered around economic justice and his plans to reform banking, taxation, trade, stimulate the economy, promote manufacturing at home, and institute jobs programs. I’ve yet to see side-by side comparisons of the top two Democratic candidates’ prescriptions for the US economy. Most economists and economic writers chose to publish pieces on the Clinton economic plan before she gave her speech. Few wrote about it after, and with reason: The speech didn’t deliver much in the way of specifics, and was vague about policies that the voting public expects. Sanders’ version of an economic plan has yet to garner serious analysis and discussion. Both Clinton and Sanders base their economic prescriptions on economist Joseph Stiglitz’ most recent work, Rewrite The Rules. Paul Krugman has, on three occasions, talked up Hillary Clinton’s economic platform, specifically on wages, without so much as mentioning Sanders. Clinton favors a minimum wage of $15 per hour in New York City, and $12 an hour nationally. Sanders has called for the minimum wage to be raised to $15 an hour for everyone. The Times had reported, in May, that Stiglitz’ work would likely greatly influence Clinton’s platform. If it has, one wouldn’t know it, judging by subsequent writings.
Plan for Racial Justice
While news outlets were reporting on the disruptions of Sanders by the Black Lives Matter movement, few followed up on the story as Sanders began to respond positively. Sanders gave a major speech to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference on July 27. It received very little attention from the press. And within a week, Sanders delivered his answer to Black Lives Matter, by way of a plan. The New York Times has yet to make mention of Sanders’plan for racial justice, link to the senator’s website, or publish it outright in an article. And the media has ignored the fact that the racial justice plan has received praise among a number of Black Lives Matter leaders, including activist Deray McKesson.
Clarence Page recently wrote about Sanders in an op-ed for the Chicago Tribune. He took a tack that many in the press now use: comparing and contrasting Sanders to Donald Trump. Given the kinds of controversy Trump has kicked up with his racial statements, and the treatment Sanders has received over his racial justice bona fides, it is no surprise that many of Sanders’ supporters are angry. Page begins his op-ed with: “The farther the left and right wings in politics move toward extremes, an old saying goes, the more they resemble each other.”
In any other context, that kind of contrast might have been fair, but not in a piece about Trump and Sanders. In his third paragraph, Page writes: “In recent days we have seen how both Trump, now a seasoned reality TV star, and Sanders, a self-described Democratic socialist, have faced sharp criticism within their separate political tribes for omitting or offending key constituencies.”
While it is true enough that Trump has been making racially offensive statements about all constituencies that aren’t key to his campaign, that same accusation does not apply to Bernie Sanders, who in stark contrast to his main opponent, has never, in 50 years of documented political activism and public office, uttered a racially offensive statement, or favored policies that are detrimental to minorities.
Page praises Sanders’ plan for racial justice, without any discussion of its points and then goes on to characterize the diversity of Sanders’ supporters: “But his impressively huge crowds have been even less diverse than his 95-percent-white home state of Vermont.” There’s not been a study or poll of the crowds at Sanders events. From what I could see of Sanders’ Los Angeles and New Orleans rallies, the crowds seemed to match the diversity of the locale. Of note is the fact that there hasn’t yet been a large-scale poll of the black community on its support of Sanders following the publication of his plan for racial justice.
Over a month after the publication of Sanders’ plan for racial justice, the media continues to portray him as someone who is racially wounded, when to begin with, that “problem” came into existence the day of the Netroots Nation disruption under the guise of eliciting needed policy from all candidates, even those who are considered friends. As the top Democratic candidate continues to owe such “needed policy,” Hillary Clinton continues to enjoy relative insulation from the perception of having any racial wounds, in spite of a record of promoting policies that have led to the very reasons for the birth of Black Lives Matter.
Over at Vox, coverage of Sanders by everyone but Ezra Klein has mostly been overtly negative. Dara Lind address a portion of the race issues in her interview of comedian Roderick Greer, who came up with the Twitter hashtag BernieSoBlack. But that piece contained much more than an explanation of some funny hashtag, and all of it was slanted in the direction of stripping Sanders of his civil rights achievements, even as the piece was titled to indicate Greer’s frustration at Sanders’ supporters. Attacking Sanders’ supporters and portraying them as racist or borderline racist has been a running theme in the press. Since his record on civil rights cannot be impeached and he has never committed a racial faux-pas, the only way to attack him on race is through his supporters, and that is how in piece after piece, Sanders’ record is being sullied.
The attacks on Sanders began with a curious refusal to give him any credit for taking part in the civil rights movement, and have been followed up by pieces designed to paint him as dispassionate about human rights and racial justice. Few are those who cite Sanders’ longstanding near-perfect rating by the NAACP and ACLU, or mention those, like Senator Cory Booker, who have spoken up in defense of Sanders’ lifelong record with the African-American community.
Since when don’t records matter?
Up until Bernie Sanders, a politician’s record has always been the measure by which evaluations are made. This is of particular import here because Sanders’ main opponent, Hillary Clinton, also has a very long record and it isn’t being scrutinized. When Clinton met with protesters in New Hampshire and she was confronted with policies of hers and Bill Clinton’s that have harmed the black community, little was made of it in the press. All chatter about Clinton’s behavior at that meeting has practically come to an end, and she has yet to publish her own policy proposals for racial justice.
Sanders has focused his tenure as a public official on economic justice. That doesn’t mean he paid no attention to racial justice. His stump speeches, with few exceptions, make mention of the racial disparities in our society. One example that comes to mind is Sanders’ appearance in front of the Council of La Raza, where he spent several minutes addressing racial disparities harming African Americans.
The characterization that Sanders’ position on solving the problems of racial injustice is through addressing economic inequality is patently false. Sanders has long been on record as saying that racial inequality is a separate problem that needs to be addressed in parallel. Almost to a voice, the U.S. mainstream press corps avoids any mention of that in order to cement the perception that Bernie Sanders isn’t serious about redressing America’s original sin.
At a time when economic and racial inequality are at their deepest, we are again at a similar moment in time as when the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was speaking out in favor of racial unity to fight poverty and inequality. In one of his last speeches, “The Three Evils of Society,” King described the conditions we find ourselves in today. His prescription came in the form of his Poor People’s Campaign, uniting the nation’s whites and blacks to fight for economic justice. It is painful to hear and read those who are intimately familiar with King’s speeches joining in the same behaviors as the rest of their colleagues in the media in praising Bernie Sanders and putting him down all at once, at times even using the very same Martin Luther King quotes included in Sanders’ plan for racial justice.
To Martin Luther King Jr., racial, educational and economic justice were always inexorably tied. To James Baldwin, racial, educational and economic justice were indivisible from each other. It takes a rare cynic who is well versed in the writings of Baldwin and King to use them as bludgeons against Sanders, all the while withholding salient facts from the public, so it can do its job as described in Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time:
“And here we are at the center of the arc, trapped in the gaudiest, most valuable, and most improbable water wheel the world has ever seen. Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise. If we—and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on or create, the consciousness of the others—do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, recreated from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!”
In the absence of fair media coverage, how do we create the consciousness of the others? How do we achieve our country? How do we avoid repeating history?
Rima Regas is a Southern California-based writer and commentator with a passion for progressive politics, and social and economic justice. Her career has included stints as a congressional staffer, graphic designer, technical writer and editor. Follow her on Twitter @Rima_Regas and Blog#42 atwww.rimaregas.com
The 15-year-old behind the Internet sensation “Deez Nuts”, Brady Olson, has given his first sit-down interview with a local affiliate KTIV’s Sam Curtiss and has some rather refreshing views for a teenage troll.
“Hopefully, [my joke] paved the way for more than a two party system,” Olson said earnestly. “In Canada they had a debate for the Prime Minister election and they used a four-party debate.” He supports voting rights in overseas territories and his position on immigration, while quite reactionary, is light-years more nuanced than any of the GOP field, especially hothead and proto-fascist Donald Trump.
Though he supports a “wall to keep out” undocumented workers he also supports creating a pathway to citizenship for the ones who are already here.
Why should we care about the political positions of a 15-year-old troll? We shouldn’t really, except that when a random practical joking kid from Iowa is making more sense than most of the GOP field, it should serve as a stark reminder of how far gone the party has become.
Watch the clip below:
Adam Johnson is an associate editor at AlterNet. Follow him on Twitter at@adamjohnsonnyc.